Skip Nav

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

Across the Night Wall (Part 6)


To Across the Night Wall (Part 1)

To Across the Night Wall (Part 5)

I’d lost track of the days that had passed since we fled the main bridge. Only the abiding gravity told me we had not left the periphery of the inner habitat. The Eternity was built to a staggering scale. The ship was basically cylindrical in shape. Two hundred kilometres separated the tip of the forward collectors from the main engine exhausts, and at the widest point — the outer habitat — it was over eighty kilometres across. The inner habitat turned within the outer, creating an artificial sky, and was itself over fifty kilometres in width. Within its shell was a warren of unimaginable complexity.

For the most part Sara led — she knew the ship better than I did. But the tenacity of our pursuers remained constant, regardless of how convoluted the routes we took to try and shake them. It was as if they were tracking us by scent, like a pack of hounds. No hiding place remained secure and before long we were running again. The sentinels did their best to waylay the enemy but their numbers were dwindling.

“I still don’t like the idea of detonating nukes on the ship,” said Sara. She threw a glance across the deserted access ring. An unsealed hatch was approaching. Sentinels had cleared the area and squatted in strategic positions.

With our options run out, Sara had at last agreed to my plan and for some time now we’d been struggling along with our burdens, while our enemies closed in. Even in e.c. suits, and using gravity coils, the task was arduous. We were both exhausted to the point of collapse.

“If they’re set correctly, the blast will be directed downwards,” I stated with absolute certainty. I’d witnessed these bombs being used many times. They could blast a hole two kilometres down into the solid crust of a planet. “Just be sure that when they go off, we’re back on our way up again. The sudden decompression on that scale will be a disaster. As long as those creatures follow us down we should get them all.”

She pointed out that, so far, their pursuit had been relentless.

Before replacing her helmet, Sara leaned forward to kiss me. “I love you,” she said, her lips brushing mine.

I grinned. “Until the end of time, sweetheart.”

We had brought two of the charges with us, just to be certain. The bombs themselves were no bigger than a small handbag. It was the complex apparatus used to generate the powerful directional field that proved cumbersome, even with suspension rigs. Manhandling the containers, we set out across the access ring towards the approaching shaft. There was devastation all about us from the assault. Bodies and parts of creatures were everywhere, the stink of their rout almost visible in the air. I imagined that I could smell it despite being isolated inside my suit.

At the lip of the shaft we paused to assess the descent. I started over to join Sara at the edge when she turned and charged at me. Taken utterly by surprise I had no time to defend myself and was knocked sideways as she battered me out of the way. Her strength, enhanced by the suit’s servos, was phenomenal: I was sent flying by the jarring impact. I sprawled across the floor and looked up, in shock, and saw at once what had happened.

What I’d thought to be a dead giant had reared up behind where I’d just been standing. The grotesque apparition had suffered terrible injuries and had been lying there all this time waiting to die. But our sudden appearance must have injected one last spurt of life into its ruined body. Rising on mangled legs, spilling its entrails from a cavernous wound, it had swung its massive fist at me.

Sara had seen it just in time. However, in trying to save me, she had put herself in the path of that devastating blow. I saw her dodge to avoid the fist, but the suit hampered her movement. The impact was glancing, but it lifted her clear of her feet. I heard her gasp over the suit’s comm. Then the giant was on her and she was screaming.

The sound of her distress nearly drove me over the edge of hysteria. Her name burst from my lungs in screeches. I couldn’t even see her beneath that mountain of thrashing flesh. A huge arm came up, foot-long claws on splayed fingers, ready to be thrust downwards again. There would be nothing left but a smear.

My rifle was still across my back, but I was lying on it. All I had was the small laser built into the forearm of my suit. I aimed at the hand and fired. I was no marksman, but I’d had sufficient practice in recent days. And the target was big. I hit it just above the wrist. The creature flinched. It turned its massive head to snarl at me and I fired again. I was trying to hit the empty socket of its ruined eye, hoping to penetrate into the brain, but instead, through sheer luck, the needle of searing light lanced through the remaining good one.

Total blindness hurled the giant into mindless frenzy. It clawed at its face, trying to rip away the veil of darkness that was suddenly thrown over it. Those nails that had nearly torn Sara to pieces were now carving its own face from the front of its skull. While it raged, I was able to secure my main weapon. I continued to fire into the lifeless body long after it had stopped moving.

Myself almost blinded by my tears, I rushed over to where Sara lay unmoving. Information transmitted between our suits told me that she was still alive — just. But her injuries were severe, beyond the suit’s capacity to sustain her for too long. I had to get her to the infirmary or she would die. I didn’t know if she could hear me — she seemed to drift just below the surface of consciousness, sometimes breaking through to moan unintelligibly. Nevertheless, I continued to talk to her as I worked to fix the suspension rig to her suit in order to carry her without causing any more damage.

With sentinels securing the way ahead, we made it there unchallenged. But most of the equipment had been smashed long ago. She could be sustained for a while, with the remaining equipment, but not repaired. Eventually, the auto-diagnostic explained, the injuries would kill her, unless she underwent a prolonged period in cryo-sleep.

“How long?”

“Six months.”

I’d never be able to hold off the monsters for that long.

“Can you bring her around?” I asked it, then hastily added, “without causing her further distress?”

“Pain is manageable,” the machine responded. Its voice was laced with sympathy.

I watched her through the glass, through the fluid in which she was suspended, and slowly her eyelids quivered open.

“Hello, lover,” she said. The tank transmitted her voice. “Are you okay?”

She’d almost been killed saving my life and now she was more concerned about how I was. I pressed my hand over my mouth to smoother the involuntary sob. Her hand moved to touch the glass, and I pressed mine against it.

“I’m fine. You just think about resting.”

“I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“I messed up your plan.”

Another wave of sorrow made me choke. “It wouldn’t have worked anyway.” I shrugged.

Sara smiled. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I told her so.

“So what now?” she said, after a while.

“You rest. I’ll think of something.”

“Don’t leave me,” she whispered.

“I won’t,” I assured her.

Despite the immediate problem of keeping alive the person I valued more than anything in the world, there were still other matters to consider. With just me left, my original plan would be impossible to carry out. But the ship had to be stopped, somehow, in order to prevent it from passing on its contagion. Perhaps it would be futile in the end, but the woman I loved now lay dying, so I could no longer allow myself the luxury of inaction.

I mulled over these two factors while Sara drifted back and forth across the border of consciousness, and was surprised at how quickly I came up with a solution. I told her about my new plan.

“You said you wouldn’t leave me,” she said, clearly agitated. The machine monitoring her condition immediately administered a dose of sedatives. Her eyelids fluttered, but she fought unconsciousness. “Please don’t leave me alone.” Then she was out.

I stared at her through the glass. In sleep her expression was pained. “I’m not leaving you,” I muttered. “I’m sending you home.”

When she came around, she wanted to know where she was.

“Med bay, on base ship twenty four.” I told her. “Nearly time to get you into the freezer.”

“Don’t do this,” she pleaded.

“I have to. The timers on the bombs are set. I’ll give your ship a week to get clear before I detonate.”

“You can do it remotely.” It was true that I could. But what if the devices were sabotaged? No. Someone had to remain here in order to make sure that the bombs I’d planted around the singularity’s contaminant generator went off as planned.

“Then let me stay,” Sara insisted, her cheeks as wet with tears as mine. “I’ll do it, I’m the soldier. You’re not.”

At that moment I doubted if she was even capable of lifting a gun. “Yes, you are,” I agreed.

She argued with me all the way to the cryo-tank. As I lowered her in she reached around me and hugged with what strength she could muster, and told me she was afraid.

I enfolded her gently. “Close your eyes, you’ll be home soon.”

“I’ll be alone without you.”

“I’ll be there, when you wake up,” I promised.

The vessel lay against the lee of the chasm wall. Despite its size, the derelict was dwarfed by the up-thrust of sheer rock reaching hundreds of miles into the airless dark. Its back had been broken, collapsed under the megatons of its own weight. The rear section of the superstructure had lost its integrity over time and come apart. Engine components spilled from the disintegrated hull and lay scattered over the rocky ground. Most of the forward portions of the spaceship looked to be relatively intact. It rested vertically against the cliff, almost at right angles to the stern. The metal of the skin was pitted with corrosion so that nothing of its original colours remained. It was as grey and mottled as the surrounding rock.

From this initial view, Mythic estimated the ship to be approximately half a mile long. The helmet cam recording juddered as the Long Patrol drew closer. This footage was from their first approach, but most of the logs brought back had already been deciphered, so he knew what he was seeing. This was one of the base ships that the Residents had used to bring them down to the colony planets. There had been many on board the Eternity.

The technology was archaic, which, in Mythic’s estimation, made the endeavours of the men and women who had set out across the stars even more extraordinary. What trials and hardships they had endured! What wonders they had witnessed! He wished that he could have had an opportunity to see the generation-ship itself. Until now the Redoubt had been the largest manmade structure in recorded history. But against the dimensions of the Spirit, the entirety of the Great Pyramid would have stood in the outer habitat. And it had flown in space. It had travelled beyond the rim of the galaxy, taking its crew further from home than anyone had gone before or since.

But it was late, well into the sleep time. His apprentices had left hours ago, and he was alone in his workshop. He had meant to retire himself, but had been captivated by the recording device. But by the time the Long Patrol’s report had fallen silent he knew that he could not wait until the tomorrow to view the helm recordings.

For a time he continued to watch the derelict grow bigger as the Long Patrol made their way across the stony terrain towards it. He half-listened to their nervous chatter. There were snippets of description, but on the whole, the men were more concerned about the threat of ambush. These parts were mostly uncharted, and none underestimated the danger that lurked unseen. All about, the Night Land was watching. With a growing sense of impatience, Mythic fast-forwarded.

Going quickly now, the Long Patrol started up the incline of ancient debris towards one of the rents in the ruptured underbelly. Once inside the going became difficult. Corridors and chambers had been crushed; bulkhead doors sealed by corrosion. They sifted through detritus searching for items of interest. Tests on the salvage had estimated that the ship had lain there for at least two million years, so there was not much to be found inside, other than dust.

In one chamber a row of sarcophagus-like containers jutted from the right hand wall. In the top of each was an oblong of glass, all dark but for one near the far end. A pale blue light cast an eerily illuminating over the immediate area. The Watchman making the recording went over to it. His gauntleted hand scraped ice crystals away from the small transparent inset.

Her features, in sleep, were tranquil, the corners of her mouth turned up in the slightest smile.

Mythic paused the recording and started fixedly at the static image. For so long he’d closed his mind to her, sure that she was lost to him in this life. Now, suddenly, after all these years, he could hear her again. Her voice was still a whisper, but now it was clear as though her lips were at his ear. She was afraid of the dark and the cold, the eternal night of her long sleep. Creatures that had stalked her in her waking life now haunted her dreams. She called out to the voice that had once answered her in the Night Land, but that had fallen silent. She knew him as her lover, the man who had given his life to save her.

The Master Monstruwacan regarded Mythic sadly, and knew that the old Scholar would not be dissuaded. The Master Monstruwacan had already offered to send others to bring back the woman found in the derelict. The first Long Patrol had left her there, fearing that if they tampered with the device that contained her, she would die. And even if they had managed to bring her out alive, without a night suit she would not have survived the journey home.

Had anyone else come to him demanding to go Out, he would have refused without a moment's consideration. But once, when the Master Monstruwacan had been young, this man had saved his life — not only his, but the lives of his men. It was a debt he’d never forgotten, and always regretted how much that bravery had cost the young Watchman.

“Why do you have to do this alone?” he asked. “It must be thirty years since you last held a Diskos.”

So Mythic told him what he’d never spoken of to another soul. “...I stopped listening and forgot about her. I left her out there. How can I ask others to risk their souls for something I should have done years ago?” He turned away to gaze from the embrasure out across the Night Land. “Once I was a Watchman, and we both know what that means. This is my responsibility, and I alone must set it right.”

In the long silence that followed he heard the Master Monstruwacan come to stand beside him.

“And to answer your question,” said Mythic without looking at him, “This morning. I practice the Diskos every day. Ask those young upstarts of yours that I’m always sending to the infirmary.”

Mythic marched down the Great Causeway, clad in his night suit, the visor of his helm open. His Diskos sat in the sheath at his hip and the supplies he would need to sustain him on his long journey were in a pack strapped to his back. On either side as he walked, stood the men of the Full Watch in their ranks. As he passed, each gave a silent salute to honour him.

In front of him the huge door was sealed. Before it was opened, the lights of the Causeway would be dimmed to allow him to slip out into the Land unnoticed by the unseen eyes that kept a constant vigil on the Redoubt. As he advanced on the huge slabs of piston-encrusted metal, he remembered the last time he’d walked this way. Back then, he’d been a young man, strong and fit, and the Night Land had terrified him. He realised that that fear had never left him, and he was suddenly filled with doubt. He almost faltered, but forced himself onwards, willing his shaking legs to carry him.

The Great Doors loomed, but remained shut. He wondered why the lights had not yet dimmed.

From the end of the line of Watchmen on his right, he noticed a figure step forward and come towards him. It was clad in a night suit that was different from the others. It took him a moment to realise that it was of the type worn by the Monstruwacans.

Mythic came to a halt and waited.

The Master Monstruwacan’s expression was solemn as he stood before Mythic. “I’ve come to plead with you one last time not to go through with this foolishness.” The Master Monstruwacan spoke in a low voice, so that no one else overheard.

Mythic didn’t answer but simply pursed his lips regretfully.

The Master Monstruwacan sighed. With that, he moved aside. Almost at once the light started to fade. From somewhere came a deep metallic groan that shook the ground. The Great Door split apart and the two halves rolled aside. A mile distant, the Earth Current lit the night.

Mythic turned his head.

“Thank you.”

The other man nodded.

Then Mythic strode out into the darkness.

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