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The center of the Milky Way, as seen by the Spitzer infrared space telescope, in red.

Across the Night Wall (Part 3)


To Across the Night Wall (Part 1)

To Across the Night Wall (Part 2)

We began encountering similar worlds: infrequently at first, then, as millennia rolled by, with increasing regularity. Decimated races, on dead planets, circling dying suns.

On some worlds we found no trace of their passing at all, save their homes haunted by emptiness. Perhaps they fled the ravagers of their worlds, or maybe all that was left were ghosts. And in some cases evidence concluded that they’d chosen to destroy themselves, rather than face whatever it was that had threatened them.

Gradually, the number of dead worlds increased in number. I knew I couldn’t keep it to myself any longer.

Two hundred thousand years had passed (a great percentage of that time spent in hibernation) and Sara and I had found each other again.

But change was inevitable. Internally the Eternity bore little resemblance to the archaic vessel that set out from Earth so long ago. Back then, the processes that now provided the ship with power and propulsion had not even been imagined. By now, the sensorium was established, and though still in its infancy, I could no longer conceive how we’d managed to tolerated our longevity without it. Despite being immortal, we were still human, and, as such, subject to human frailties and fallibilities. Mentally, we Custodians had begun to suffer from our sustained existence.

Emotional individuality was becoming confinement.

If there was a detriment to the sensorium, it was that it set us even further apart from the Residents. In the outer habitat, change had not been for the better. Brain size was slowly shrinking. They were reverting to a tribal mentality.

Our ethics forbade us to interfere unless the Residents endangered the ship. But as they regressed, so their technological development diminished, along with their threat.

Nevertheless, I could not shake my growing unease. It was as though what was going on in the Universe outside had somehow found a way in. And the dreams I was having seemed suddenly too relevant to ignore. I’d already told Sara about them, captivating her with the stories of the Night Land: the daring deeds of those pale-skinned warriors that defended the Redoubt from the beasts prowling in the darkness. But that’s all I’d implied that they were: stories. Fantasies conjured up by my subconscious mind when slowed to a virtual cessation of function.

Sara and I were in our quarters, tangled in the sheets and still afloat on the swell of our lovemaking. The nerve chargers in the material had subsided to give us both a chance to recover. My mind was clogged with the residue of our emotion shared across the sensorium link. When it had first been established, we’d been eager to experiment. We’d nearly burned out our minds with pleasure. After that, we proceeded with caution until we were familiar with the emotional protocols.

I had a habit of talking ceaselessly after sex, dribbling inanities and vacuous trivia; it was a method I used to filter out the debilitating effects of the enhanced orgasms. It made her laugh and sometimes rekindled her desire.

Now I lay on my back, my body still tingling all over, my mind occasionally sparking from the effect of over-stimulated neurons. Sara had wrapped herself around me, gazing dreamily at my face and gently pushing her pelvis against my thigh in the hope of rousing me again. But, unable to bring myself out of the speculative mood I’d fallen into, I did not respond and continued to stare at the ceiling, searching for the words to tell her what I suspected without sounding like I’d just fried my brain.

Eventually, seeing the futility of her efforts, she gave up trying, propped her head on one arm and asked me what was wrong. “I felt it again, stronger than it’s been before. What are you afraid of? Speak to me.”

I didn’t answer at first. She continued to scrutinise my expression, looking for clues.

I still hesitated; I was almost afraid of her, of what she would think: that I was succumbing to some form of delusional psychosis. I saw a lengthy period of evaluation therapy stretching before me.

“Do you believe in reincarnation?” I asked, trying to sound indifferent.

She laughed. “What a ridiculous concept for an immortal.” Then she must have seen my expression change, because hers was suddenly serious. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I didn’t mean that to be flippant. Is dying something you’re worried about?”

“No, of course not,” I said hurriedly.

Her hands touched my face; they were soft and clammy with a residue of sweat. She stroked my cheek.

“Do you,” she said, “believe in reincarnation?”

Now it was my turn to look at her. Searching. Once she had been Mission Commander Sara Reed. She still was, if in name only. By now, with the passing of so much time, very little of any of us remained unchanged from those original pioneers who had set out from Earth.

She’d kept these enhancements now for several shifts, but her appearance still unsettled me. She was near two metres tall, and at first glance starvation thin. However, a more intimate examination of her white-skinned frame brought to mind a woman of muscular build who’d been stretched. She looked like she was made of porcelain, but carried herself with a crane’s grace and no hint of fragility.

To my eyes, Sara was disturbingly captivating. Long black hair poured over her pale shoulders and down her long back, framing elegant features inset with black jewels for eyes. When we were alone together she refused to wear a scrap of clothing. The contrasting vivid pinkness of her sex and mouth against that powdery flesh would make me shudder with desire. She had taken to the stories I told her, of the people in my dreams that existed in the land of utter darkness, and had maintained this form longer than any before. I was getting used to her interpretation of my description, yet remained quietly relieved that it wasn’t quite accurate.

I couldn’t tell her that I believed it was real.

“I love you; you know that,” I said instead.

“I feel it.” She grinned and kissed me. The kiss became an embrace and then there was no more opportunity for talking for a while.

Perhaps if I had said something then, trusted her faith in me, then something could have been done to prevent what would happen.

A quarter million years and five thousand parsecs from Earth, the Night Wall yawned before us. During our meandering voyage we had spread our seed throughout a hundred star systems. Now a further five hundred thousand years of sleep awaited the Custodians while the Eternity coursed the starless void between the spiral arms. A skeleton crew would operate in shifts, maintaining a vigil over the ship and its mortal passengers.

The sensorium would ensure that we would not be alone during the long night. So I, older than any human had any right to be, set aside my unanswered questions, closed my eyes and descended into the still, icy waters of sleep.

“Where do the ab-humans come from?” Mythic asked his Captain.

It was a question he’d mulled over for a while now, ever since the first time he’d faced down those monstrous creatures and recognised something almost human in them. Lit by the fire of his Diskos, the tiny eyes were shards of pure hatred, but in them he had seen something else, buried so deep that he suspected the creature no longer felt it on a conscious level.

“Who knows?” said the Captain, who was not one for lengthy discourse at the best of times — which this certainly was not. A Long Patrol of a hundred souls had set out into the Land and now the remaining twenty-three were heading home. Mythic’s squad was stationed at the Circle, on hand to welcome them in. But, an hour ago, he had felt a closing danger impinging upon his Night Hearing, even before the Tower of Observation had spotted the ab-human horde moving with a pack of Night Hounds, drawing closer. His sense told him that the Beasts were not yet aware of the twenty-three Monstruwacans. The migration would carry them less than two hundred yards from the Circle, directly into the path of the homecoming patrol. The message had gone to the summit of the Pyramid; from there the Master Word went out into the Night Land. The Long Patrol had gone to ground.

In time, the horde passed into the light of the Earth Current: a heaving mass of mottled grey-skinned forms, ambling on two legs, sometimes hunched over on four. Tatters of matted brownish-red hair sprouted from armpits, shoulders and groins, tusks jutted from prognathous jaws. Under the eaves of heavy brows, splinters of crystal glinted in the dark hollows of eye sockets whenever they turned their low-slung heads towards the Circle. In the midst of the ab-humans, Night Hounds snapped and growled, grinning savagely at the watchers behind the barrier.

Mythic studied them from his place of safety, and once more felt the unwholesomeness radiating from them. There was in it that familiarity again, something he recognised — like the rotten corpse of a man that was still determinable as once having been human. In them, as with the giants of the Kilns and the myriad mannish corruptions out there, the Ur Word had become defiled by the influence that the darkness had over the Land. Was it the same with those Night Hounds, and the other non-humanoid creatures that inhabited the Night Land? Where had they come from? And what was it that had changed them so drastically, when the people of the Redoubt were able to cling to their humanity?

Then suddenly there was no more time for speculation. Mythic sensed the escalation of aggression from the horde. He turned to his Captain.

“They mean to storm the Circle,” he whispered. The helm hid the other’s expression, and Mythic was unsure if the Captain had heard him. “Can they break through?” he ventured.

“Doubtful,” the Captain said. “But the flares will draw other things, worse things, out from the shadows — then our comrades are bound to be discovered.”

“What can we do for them?”

The helm bent towards him. “We’ll have to create a path. A way home.”

“But there must be hundreds of ab-humans, and those Hounds...”

The Night Hounds were huge, standing shoulder to shoulder with a man. Sinuous muscle and sabre claws, rows of silver daggers dripped venomous ichor over black gums. Mythic felt a quaking fear creep up into his bowels.

The old warrior rested a gauntlet on the young man’s shoulder. “Had it not been for your warning, those twenty-three would now be pitched in hopeless battle. Many may still die today, but the ones that make it home will owe their lives to you. All men fight afraid that they’ll lose, but today you have an advantage over all of us. In saving those lives you have already won, and so you can fight without fear of defeat.”

Somehow, that didn’t make Mythic feel any better, but he held his tongue and waited.

Without seeming to move, the Captain’s Diskos slipped into his hand, shaft extended, the razor disk spinning in its yoke. Out on the stony plane the horde churned about itself as if it were a single entity. Enraged shrieks and howls pierced the darkness. Mythic unhooked his own weapon from its place at his thigh, feeling its power scintillate in every nerve along his arm. He shot glances at his fellow Watchmen. Every face was hidden behind a visor, but from their posture he read their eagerness.

The Captain gave the order. As one body they leapt across the Circle, passing unharmed through the Air Clog. The creatures at the front of the horde saw them at once and charged. Simultaneously, the Master Word went out to the waiting Long Patrol, instructing them to engage the horde from the rear.

Mythic’s squad slammed into the night-creatures. Earth Fire erupted from their weapons. They were surrounded at once, and immediately formed themselves into a tight circle. Clawed hands on muscle-banded arms tore at their armour. Crushing jaws snapped, heavy bodies hurled themselves forward at them. Discs sang in the air, rending flesh, searing with blinding lances of white light. In seconds, a mound of bodies and steaming viscera surrounded the warriors. Somewhere out there twenty-three allies rushed to their aid, but they were still a half-mile out.

And beyond, in the Night Land, other far more terrible things had begun to stir.

In a moment of carelessness, the man beside Mythic was grasped by an ab-human. The abominable creature found purchase about his wrist and yanked. Reacting in an instant, Mythic was able to split the beast from shoulder to buttock, but not before his comrade was thrown flailing out over the heads of the front ranks. He came down in their midst and was ripped to pieces before he hit the ground. A Night Hound killed another man, and a third was dragged from the formation and disappeared beneath thrashing limbs. Then several more died in quick succession. Now there were only three Watchmen left: Mythic, the Captain, and Traigh, a veteran. They formed a tight triangle and continued to fight, each man certain he would be next to die.

The twenty-three crashed through the horde, their momentum never faltering. As they cleaved their way to the centre of the already diminished mass of creatures, they swept up the three survivors and continued to push through. The twenty-three became twenty-six. Mythic suddenly found himself in the open again. The Circle was less than a hundred yards away. He started to run, joining his fellows in a last sprint to safety. At their heels the horde gave chase. They were fast, much faster than a man. Several, including Traigh and the Watch Captain, went down before they could make it to safety. Mythic was rapidly closing on the Circle when something hit him hard along his left flank. The shock of the impact penetrated his armour and seemed to travel right through his body. Though he stumbled, he remained on his feet. He couldn’t feel his legs anymore, but the nightsuit ran for him, carrying him towards the barrier.

Suddenly whiteness burned his eyeballs, exploding all around him. Nearly blind, he felt the heat of cooking flesh, and tasted its acrid fumes despite the nightsuit’s filters. He ran on through the lightning storm, untouched by its searing fingers while all around, monsters burst apart, splashing their steaming innards over the cold stony ground. The Circle was less than ten feet away. He launched himself bodily, passing horizontally through the Air Clog, then came down hard. His breath knocked from him, he gasped and struggled to sit up. When he tried to stand he found he couldn’t. In his hand, the Diskos had retracted and the disc was slowing. Men stood looking back, their shoulders rising and falling as they panted.

Out beyond the Circle, a vaporous mess of body parts littered the plane — all that was left of the horde. And further out, barely discernible in the darkness, massive shapes could be seen, reluctant to draw near now that the promise of the kill had been denied them.

“What is your name, Watchman?” said the leader of the Long Patrol, who suddenly stood over him.

Mythic answered shakily.

“Your name will be honoured throughout the Redoubt, that I promise you.” He hung his head. “And I am sorry for the loss of your comrades.”

“Thank you,” Mythic replied. He could think of nothing else to say. It hadn’t quite sunk in yet that he was the only surviving member of his squad. Monstruwacans from the Long Patrol were coming up to him and raising their weapons in salute as they passed. Some offered words of gratitude. He was still trembling, and didn’t feel at all like a hero.

The Leader said: “Now to the infirmary with you,” and gestured to a point below Mythic’s chest, “before the cold freezes you from the inside out.”

He looked down at himself, saw the wound for the first time. There was a gash in his armour, slanting across his lower ribs, over his belly and around his side. Beneath, the flesh had been parted in a jagged tear. White bone was visible, with only strands of muscle holding his guts in. Suddenly the pain was excruciating. He fell backwards, but there were sufficient people close by to carry him.

He was lowered into a surgical tank where his ruined innards were rebuilt. The claws of a Night Hound had torn him open, sheared through his liver, shredded his intestines, completely removed one kidney. His spine was badly damaged and the lower portion had to be replaced. The Medics worked on him diligently, before giving his immobilised form over to the Hospitallers for care. After a further week of convalescence he was given leave to depart the infirmary. He was healed, but felt the memory of his injuries throughout his body. He would carry the scars on his white flesh for the rest of his life.

The subsequent fatigue seemed to linger indefinitely. It was a weariness felt in his bones — like, he imagined, it felt to be old and near the end of life. Medics examined and probed; after lengthy consultation they discovered that he had received a taint. Despite their abilities, it remained the single affliction that could not be cured. He would carry it with him for the rest of his life, or it could fade with time. Either way, it signified the end of his service with the Watch.

In the following months he wallowed in the murk of depression and regret. For a while it seemed the blackness in his soul, whether born of the Night Land or simple self-pity, would consume him. But he was strong-willed, and at last came to terms with what had happened.

To dispel the emptiness that filled his days, Mythic studied the creatures of the Night Land. Perhaps it was the taint, acting as some kind of conduit, because his Night Hearing had grown more acute than ever. He would take himself up onto one of the high embrasures and listen long to the whispering Night. And while the indomitable presence of the Watchers and the House of Silence remained an utter mystery, he began to gain insight into the nature of those beasts that were, he quickly discovered, nothing more than slaves to the darkness.

More than all the others, however, it was that one solitary voice that he listened to. Now he could discern the direction from which it originated. It was somewhere to the south, and so very far away. There were faint thoughts, human thought still uncorrupted by the darkness, but barely more than undercurrents of awareness in the deep, crawling waters of an unending coma. But she dreamed — because now he was certain that the thoughts originated from a female — or maybe she remembered, and sometimes when he was able to concentrate enough to separate her from the background voices, he caught fragments of those memories. Through her he saw the Universe as it had once been, many millions of years ago, when the sky was filled with countless points of light that could be nothing else but the stars that were written about in legends and old stories.

So it must be true? Mythic wondered. A sun once burned in the sky, giving life to this dead world. But something had gone badly wrong.

Suddenly he was resolved. He would learn what he could and if possible figure a way to bring her into the Redoubt.

To Across the Night Wall (Part 4)

© 2006 by Martin Isitt.
Spitzer infrared space telescope image of the Milky Way by NASA.