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A red sky over a cobblestone road that leads past alien plants toward a land of lava.

Salvage (Part 7)


To Salvage (Part 1)

To Salvage (Part 6)

The demand for a sacrifice was none too subtly reiterated. This time, a formally written document was delivered by armed proctors. Anarchy must be cauterised with justice, they declared. It was no matter that the crime saved the city, because now it remained stranded in darkness and it must be demonstrated that despite there being an even so, the law would maintain itself. It was obvious that in these lightless times they were the enemy, and thus the real target for this lesson.

"What are we to do?" asked Medeis in closed conference. "Surely we cannot surrender her."

The Puppet Master man pinched the bridge of his nose. "I think, I think that there is a necessary turning point here. Timing is of the essence..."

"What do you mean?"

He shook his head, refusing to answer. Clearly he was troubled. He removed his wand from his sleeve and fidgeted with it, twisting its segments. Apparently it was a calculating device of some sort, among other things. When he spoke again, it was in the manner of someone trying to explain something to convince himself rather than his audience. "There is a risk ... in the long run, it is more theirs than ours. Talk to them. First stall and then demand haste. We should find a place..." He waved the wand about, frowning at the beads of light that ran up and down its length until he found a combination of measures and colours that seemed to satisfy him. Then he frowned some more. "Yes, the remnants of their Tower of Observation."

"Their Palatine Tower? It's ruined, torn clean away. Only the lower chamber survives."

"Yes, there," he insisted. "No sooner than a dekahora, no later than ... a diphaos."

"Very well," conceded Medeis. "However, I could not comprehend why you—"

"And with full ceremony and armed guards in formal ranks. Show that you know that this is a symbolic event to forge an understanding."

"Theatre, then."

"Yes," he admitted with a shrug. "But it is also an excuse for me to be present, albeit in a hood, and it will likewise allow my Companion to be there in armour. I swear, you will need us both and ... " He looked directly at Io. "Her, of course."

In the best of circumstances, the Theatre of Illumination and Penitence was, as custom demanded, in near darkness save for the one bright shaft of light that shone down on the accused. Now in the indefinite Hiatus, there was not even a thin trickle of sunset light. In darkness, the Heliomancers often said, there is no justice — and therefore, Medeis countered, Io should not have to stand trial. The response to that was to hang a lantern, powered, ironically enough, by the Earth Current.

And so Io stood exposed, shackled to a bronze disc a yard across with her breath coming in short gasps and too dazzled to see more than vague silhouettes about her while the advocates made their competing bids in the auction of her fate before the Judge-major.

Even before the end of the final arguments, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. "Although her action was ultimately a boon, there must be a display of execration, a display so terrible that it becomes legendary," the Judge-major declared. "The punishment will be re-enacted in blank ritual for thousands of generations, the identity of the saboteur and any possibility of sympathy for them shall be buried beneath layers of sanguinary instruction."

"But why, if the primary aim is instruction, is her suffering essential?" Medeis argued. "Can you not issue a pardon with the terms explicitly framed? You yourself admit that she saved Aeiphanes. Allow her this one small mercy."

The Judge-major spread his hands. "Justice is equally a matter of popular confidence as it is of scrupulous practice. The very point of this prosecution is to ensure that people know that it remains secure in these trying times. The sentence must be carried out in full."

Behind her, Io heard the Puppet Master mutter to himself, "About now, I would think." Something in his vicinity hummed and crackled faintly.

Then she smelled the scent and it was almost a relief. Please, she thought, let it last through—

But it was not a memory of her past life; it was the present. Shadows flickered and writhed like flames in the chamber. It spread and smeared itself in the thick air of the Theatre, parts of it crumbling as fast as they propagated. It could not live long here in the light of the Earth Current. It burned, screaming — but still it grew.

A tendril leapt across space like the shadow of lightning. It touched the first figure — perhaps the Judge-major himself, she could not tell — and his body was suddenly rigid. He might have been dead in an instant, but he did not fall. His head turned slowly and with almost infinite effort, as if the muscles of his neck were bending steel. Something looked out of his eyes, something that looking out of eyes for the very first time. It saw the light, screamed, and raised its fists to grind them out of their orbits. He staggered, but did not fall. Blood began to leak from behind his hands and run down his wrists.

Distantly, Io heard her chains being neatly severed by the diskos and the woman's gauntlet was hard on her shoulder. "Forward", she whispered. "Toward the thing. Kill it." The weapon was thrust into her hand and reflex closed her fingers about its grip. It vibrated with its pent-up energy and she tried to raise it. Activated, it writhed like a live snake, spitting its actinic light about. She yelped and almost dropped it.

The Heliomancer, or the thing that steered him sensed her somehow and spun to face her. It let his fists drop to reveal the ruins of his eyes and his cheeks slick with his own gore. It sniffed the air and took a step, pointing its glistening finger at her.

She tried to wield the spinning blade, but she could not control it or herself.

The armoured woman cursed and snatched it from her. The diskos roared in her hands and the once-man fell in two halves that splashed their corrupted fluids across her greaves and ankles.

Io was aware that someone was shrieking. It was herself. The screams poured out of her but they seemed to come from somewhere else, from out of the wind, from far away, from everywhere. She could not stop them until they become wracking coughs. It was the man who held her now, his arms tight about her. Her legs thrashed, but he lifted her up until she subsided. "You will do this, you will act, you will destroy this abomination," he hissed in her ear. "Your terror becomes power, your cries drive your arm. You, you will reach out and kill this thing." Once more the diskos was thrust into her hand and this time she gripped it tightly.

Already frost was spreading through the blood, making feathery garnet coloured growths. They begin to advance once more, gathering into a shape vaguely resembling a crinoid sculpted in broken glass.

Io took a step forward, holding the diskos like a torch before her. Strangely beautiful shards of refracted light scattered from it, beams of blue and red and green that cast bright moiré patterns across the walls. The unreal colours made the cringing courtiers look like a grotesque animated relief. She did not notice them, did not count how many were entangled in the thing's limbs.

She took another step, pulling hard with her finger on the trigger and sending forth a still brighter glare.

The Eater made a sound that might have been a chuckle. It was as huge as an azhdarcho now, spreading wings that were not so much membranes as undulating fractures in the air. "Sentence," it said. "Lesson. Out."

"No." Something happened; the odour was in her nostrils, she realised that this moment was truly an echo of another. Somewhere, great machines were spinning, driving the energies of the Castle and something flung her forward. "Eeeeh!" she screeched and her spindly body erupted into a weird spinning dance. Helices of lightning surrounded her. The diskos sliced metal that offered no more resistance than water, ozone was sharp in her nostrils and then the battle enveloped her.

The experience was strange. One half of her watched as if detached in some way, too serene and passive to order her actions; the other half of her acted and did not need to think ... She heard the man chanting somewhere on the edge of her awareness, the syllables of his words cueing the vector and rhythm of her moves. The dance, she realised, was the dance that she performed as a Lighter time and again between the stars. Who was Io? Io was a puppet that she jerked this way and that at the end of her strings. The torn metal about her dissolved to reveal a vista of dimmed stars while she flew about the shining bracelet of the Castle. A shell of armour surrounded her, driven by the blaze of annihilated matter. Bolts of plasma coursed from her fingertips along the arcs of the Castle's intake field, she threw spears of coherent light through the black hearts of the vast but fragile dragons. He described her axes and she inscribed her lines of lightning and the Eaters were seared into the merest ash.

When she came to, her clothes were sticky with perspiration. She had bitten the side of her cheek and her mouth was filled with the sweet copper taste of blood. Her joints felt as if she had been bound upon a rack. She panted and lurched upright and the diskos fell with a scrape and a clatter.

"Clumsy and unfitted to your frame, but effective in the end," the Puppet Master observed.

Io spat a red pearl. "Curse you," she hissed. "You knew."

He folded his arms and nodded, unrepentant, though Io could see now that his affected composure was a mask. "I never doubted," he lied.

She screamed and launched herself at him, but her fingers and teeth found only air. He caught her wrist from an unexpected angle, gripping so tight that her bones ground together and she gasped with the pain.

"Those who survived were those that could — and it was they who left the descendents who were my ancestors," he hissed in her ear. "You are only the first generation."

The Companion placed her gauntlets on her shoulders and began to massage them. She must have been discharging some of the Earth Current through them, because the tension faded almost immediately. "He knows who you are," she told Io. "He knows too well how important you are."

The man released her, though the pain still held. She rubbed her wrist and glared at him. For once, he actually appeared guilty. "Forgive me," he said. "My life hangs by the thread of your life; my life and hers. For all our sakes you must learn how to live in this new world."

Io fell into the soft darkness of honest exhaustion.

Io woke once again in the Monstruwacan infirmary with a sense of resignation her only grasp on familiarity. Her consciousness had been cast among so many personae, she had no idea of who or where or when she was in reality, or even if reality meant anything. How could any one of these places — Aeiphanes, the Castle Lachesis, the Lighter-capsule, the shadowy arena with the Eater — be more real than any other?

Someone gave her a bundle of soft fabric and she reflexively clutched it tightly. It was her old entekora. She peeled her eyes open and squinted, trying to assemble the pale blur above into a face. It was the Companion.

She remembered again that neither of the two strangers had ever revealed their names. "Who are you?" she asked. "Now, surely, you must be able to tell me." Her voice was barely a croak.

The woman shrugged and picked up the doll, playing with it for a while. Various faces came and went: waif, queen, warrior, idol, seer. "No," she said simply. "I can't."

Io sighed. "Will you answer any other questions?"

"Maybe. It depends on the question."

That was as obscure an evasion as any. "Will you answer this then? Did you really summon the Eater to the court?"

The woman looked as if she was going to remain tight-lipped, but she did answer: "One was going to break in eventually, somewhere. We decided to choose the time and place."

"People died, how can you be so—"

"I am not." She leaned over and stroked Io's forehead. "Please do not think that either of us are callous. We grieve for the dead, but we are happy that the Eater did not destroy all of them eternally. Remember that you yourself fought them when you were a Lighter; that is why you fought in the court here. Part of you remembers that."

Io closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the same broad, white-braided head still hovered over her. "I used to hope that I could be cured, then I hoped that the ... memories were just dreams, then I hoped that they were true after all because there were, under all the dread, marvels to be seen, then I hoped ... I've hoped for so many things. I suddenly feel as if I'm a thousand orbits old and ... I'm tired and I don't know what I should have to know ... I don't know anything for sure."

The Companion put the doll back in Io's hands and closed her fingers about it. "I suppose that it will wear out eventually, but try, as long as you live, to remember that it's like you: many faces, one self. As long as you think, feel, ask questions, then you are sane and ... and as whole as you can be."

Io managed a grin at the woman's last hesitation. "As whole as I can be?"

"Should I call you a jewel, shaped with many facets?"

She chuckled. "No, that will have to do, I suppose ... What will happen to me now? Simple me in this scrawny little body here?"

"I imagine that a legend will accrue about you: Io who destroyed the terrible black Eater-of-Light."

"I mean the trial, the verdict? Will they still try to execute me?"

The woman took a deep breath. "No," she said quietly. "They insisted on their pride, but the Monstruwacans diverted them."

There was something strange and terrible veiled by her words. "What diversion?" Io asked, ready to stop her ears at the answer.

"We presented them with a substitute and they have staged the pretence that they have dispensed justice and displayed the body, your former body, as if their sentence has been carried out. As for you, I expect that some new lie will be contrived — you will be determined to be the daughter or suchlike or someone or other, a symbol of new hopes after the sins of the older generation have been expiated." Her offhand manner communicated enough about her own intense contempt for the trial.

Despite all reason, Io felt hot tears spring from her eyes. Rationally, she knew that the body was already dead, with only the most basic biological functions maintained artificially, but the fact was that she had believed it to be the actual, salvageable body of her own natural mother. Or maybe she cried for her previous incarnation, or her ignorance, or the end of the old world. There was so much to grieve.

"Now, after all that blood, I would have thought—" she wailed. "I would have—"

The Companion nodded sadly. "One would think that in the most desperate circumstances, people would become more ... if not rational, at least pragmatic. My ... colleague always understood the importance of theatre better than myself. Once an issue is made a matter of face, the actors will compete to fulfill their roles most visibly. The trick is to write the roles in a certain way."

"I do not think that he likes himself," Io observed, sniffing. "If he has to play games with people."

The Companion gave her an appreciative look. "You are right. And therefore he does his best to make sure that people dislike him too — but I am his principle failure."

"You love him?"


"I don't think that I love anyone," Io muttered. Her self-pity seemed utterly trivial under the circumstances, but she held onto it for that very reason. It was small, easy to understand.

The Companion was not going away to leave Io wallowing, however. She continued to watch her. "I suppose that I should pay you what little I can ... " she said, and laid her palm on Io's forehead once more. "Sleep, and tell me what you see ... "

It came to her then, another fit, but instead of the sickness, she felt the weight of a colossal weariness descend upon her, and instead of falling, she almost seemed to slide obliquely into her alternative awareness.

She was standing in the cove of an embrasure with her eyes to the lenses of a strange spyglass. Fine reticulations quartered the vista as she tracked back and forth. Here and there, some form of censor blocked the sight of things that must not be seen. In all, there were five of these lacunae; and they were huge, and close. Between these unknowns, she was able to mark the recognisable and the strange. While she could not herself ascribe meaning to them, she knew that someone had carefully charted every one of them in perfect detail. She turned a wheel, and even though she stood in a fixed position, the outer eye of her device swept in a complete circle. From her vantage, she could tell that she was at a great height — two leagues at least — above the landscape.

Westward was a darkened heath, traced here and there with wandering strands of green mist. To the North-West, seven lights; to the North, a circular house with battlements that were like the stilled flickering of flames. Its door was open and on the threshold there stood a figure in grey staring back at her across the plain as if were the narrowest of thresholds. She started and her hand jerked at the wheel.

When she recovered from her momentary shock, she continued her scan. Eastward was a city of tiny, unmoving lights and before it a meandering road and beyond it a plain of ice. Southeast, there was a dark fortification larger than any city she had known. It seemed to radiate an intense chill. To the South, there was the largest of the lacunae and sighting that zone of blindness, she forgot that she could see or even that she had a hand to turn the wheel. There was something in the shadow watching her, something vast in magnitude and still greater in age that had waited and watched for aeons and would wait and watch until its sight had absorbed everything in existence ...

A hand fell on her shoulder and gently turned her away from the spyglass.

She blinked, remembering that she could see and before her was the white-haired man in embroidered purple.

"Not yet," he said. "The Watchers, those masks of the Ulterior, have not passed the outer circle of the Redoubt yet, Lyreia. We have had so much time and there is still time to come. I have found the last of all suns, the portal to the crossroads of time ... " He smiled wistfully, lovingly. "I promise you that we will yet stand in the light of new stars. From there, we will ... " He went on to explain how light waves propagated both forwards and backwards in time, and how his experiments suggested a practical application in the transport of living bodies across the ages, once he had access to that nexus. He smiled, blinking back ill-concealed tears of joy. "Should we be worthy of access, who knows what history will be then? Will it be because we make it so, or will it be our duty to ensure that what is written actually occurred? In either case, it must be what leads to that end ... "

She nodded, agreeing and not understanding the temporal geometry that he exploited, just knowing that he was sure in his intent. He took her in his arms and she rested her head on his shoulder.

"I told you my love," he whispered in her air, his breath the gentlest of caresses. "I will guard you through all time and in every age."

"I know," she said. "Always."

It was easy enough to find him; she simply walked where her legs led her.

The man stood at the balcony, his hands clasped behind his back. He did not turn as she approached, but something in his stance indicated that he was aware of her.

"You never told me your name," she said.

"No, I did not," he replied. "And I will not."


He turned then. "It does not matter. There has to be a legend, and that legend must be founded on your name. There may be a man and a woman — strangers — but there must be you first and foremost."

She nodded, thinking for a while. "You seemed simpler to me then, when I was a child. Kinder."

He nodded, giving a wry smile. "I am too much the martyr oftentimes, too ready to take the burden of ignominy for the sake of the greater good. Thank you for reminding me that I have done it too well."

"Medeis shares your sense of humour — such as it is."

"I see something of myself in him," he admitted. He paused then, thinking, and then put his hand on her shoulder, leant and kissed her forehead. "I know that you won't hate me in this life, Io, and I'm glad for that. You will be a legend, as much as that is worth anything to you. Better, perhaps, you will live, and your line will lead to my generation and my own true love in a more profound manner than you can imagine."

"I don't know what you mean," Io said, not knowing why this was certainly a lie. "I don't understand at all. Why have you done this? I have been watching you and I can see that this was not just a duty, there was something in your eyes when you look at me ... "

He looked thoughtful for a moment. "Haven't you seen just a little more?" he asked. "Haven't you seen how I regard my Companion, haven't you seen how I regard you?"

"I, I thought, guessed ... I don't know."

He picked her up, this almost-giant, and held her close to him, looking straight into her green eyes with his own hard black orbs. "I love her," he whispered. "I have always loved her, for all the ages of all our lives. Without you and your survival, I could never have had her — because she is you."

He put her down then, leaving her standing stunned, and turned back to the dark vista to become one with the shadows and then ... he was not.

It took the detonation of the Aeiphanes' last ploughshares to break the new mountains that barred the best route to the floor of the Valley, and the sight at the end of that projected path was hardly one that seemed to justify the expenditure. Thick black smoke filled it like a polluted sea. It would be generations before they could even contemplate a descent, but they would nonetheless station themselves here for as long as needs be. Rather than building hippochalkoi, the clans would compete to construct roads down the slope to convey whatever remained of the human race to redoubts on the cooling Valley floor where the Earth Current was close and strong.

Io did not care how long it would take. As she aged as naturally as she could, she learned a little patience that was bolstered by her memory of the longer life of her soul. She still read the books of the Monstruwacans' library as she had when she was young. Once they were fancies, seeding great trees of imagination in her mind. Now they were ... what? Opening a book that explicitly described the past both unfolded wonders and marked the final closure of an impenetrable door.

There was, she read, a world that had once been a titan and was still a giant. It had wandered close to its star and the searing radiation had stripped away the thick atmosphere that had formerly shrouded it, leaving behind a core of almost pure metal that was a dozen times heavier than the earth. There, things like flattened crabs crawled out of yellow-stained oceans and inscribed incomprehensible diagrams across the rusted continents.

One great world was an icy blue globe where storms of diamonds rained down through a thick methane sea.

In the clouds of another still vaster giant, things like enormous medusae fought arrowhead predators with lightning bolts.

Elsewhere, there was a world that was swaddled with an ocean that was a hundred leagues deep and had no land anywhere. Storms brewed and raged for a thousand years while in the depths, beasts larger than cities glided through clouds of luminescent plankton and lived and died without ever knowing of either surface or seabed. Their lowing songs circled the globe and overlapped so that they were immersed in sound as thoroughly as they were in water.

On a sibling of earth itself, there stood an extinct volcano as wide as a continent and so tall that its peak surpassed the atmosphere and stood exposed to space.

Close to the face of a hot sun, there was a world that was on the near half naked magma and on the other, ice.

And far away, in oceans under a sun that was slowly being destroyed by its dense companion, communities of diverse creatures gathered about the stuttering heat of volcanic vents, sealed themselves up in silver membranes and made a new type of gestalt mind together.

All of these places lay pinned on the pages of the books that Io read. Neither she nor any of her descendents would ever see them; each one of them would die in darkness, just as the earth would.

But they would be remembered, salvaged.

Like herself. She was a soul salvaged from a ruin, a ruin now obliterated. She held her hand before her face, examined it, spread her fingers and pressed them against her own forehead. She pinched and pulled at her lips, bit her knuckles.

Aeiphanes, for all its corruption and the terrible near-ruin that it had suffered, had gained an enormous bounty, she realised, in its library. It was now the most famous and powerful city amongst all of the communities that had survived the impact, and under the tutelage of the Monbstruwacans it was, she thought, a truly benign and essential force now. It was a champion — as she was supposed to be. It was an odd feeling to identify with the city, but the Companion had been right about the entekora; even though it was just a toy, thinking about it explained much. She had flown and fought with the Castle, been turned inside-out to be reborn as Io ... and the Castle, landed and stripped, had emerged in the substance and body of Aeiphanes and flown through the new battle ... and the fae-folk had told her that it would fly again, using the same protection applied on earth to journey through time in its incarnation as the Last Redoubt.

That was fanciful, but it was true in substance. A little substance would persist, to be assimilated with the far-future, ancient fortress-ship of the Night Land. As would she. And he.

She pulled her robe tight about her for warmth. It was grey, shot with fire.

© 2006 by Brett Davidson.
Image © 2015 by Kate Coady.