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

Red Giant's Race


"It is a truism that species tend towards evolutionary stasis. Six million years of stability for Homo sapiens provides ample support for this thesis. What is often forgotten, however, is that lurking at the edge of our world is immense potential for unpredictable, and possibly dangerous change. It is in the niches we do not, cannot, or dare not look that the hammers and anvils of evolution do their blind work. None dare predict the outcomes."

The cold sun painted the world with broad cinnabar brushstrokes. Moira stared hard, trying to see any patterns on its moiling surface. After thirty heartbeats, she turned her head away. Blurry afterimages danced across her eyes, sending vermilion sparkles splashing across the russet landscape. She stood up and pulled the collar of her vulpfur coat close against the chill wind. For several marches, old Madge had been clucking over her quicksilver tubes, warning that a storm was coming from cityward. It seemed that she was going to be proved right.

Someone tapped Moira on the shoulder. She spun round to see a grinning Thaddeus.

"Where have you been?" He signed to her, then gestured towards the collection of tents in the valley below. "Great Tom is ringing. We will strike camp in less than a tenthmarch."

"I've just been here, I don't need any bell to tell me what time of march it is," Moira signed back.

"Anyway, you lied to me."

Thaddeus held his hands wide apart. "I did?"

"There are no fairy castles on the sun. It's just big and old and sick."

Thaddeus closed one eye and tapped the brow above it. "You didn't look hard enough, you have to use your imagination."

Moira made a rude sign and walked away before he could reply.

The nerve of the boy! Moira thought, Thaddeus might be seventy-three marches older and three hand spans taller than me, but he'd better not think that I'm going let him get away with this.

Plotting a dark revenge involving ratworms and his tentbag, Moira trotted back to join the rest of her tribe.

The first flakes of snow were falling as the tribe was getting ready to continue its march. Brushing snowflakes from her eyebrows, Moira ran pell-mell through the crowd. Adults gestured impatiently at her as she charged past them. Her family had been packed and ready to move since soon after breakfast. She ignored the nagging voice inside her, suggesting that she might like to help some of the laggards, and went looking for a more interesting way to pass the time.

Near the centre of the caravan, Mother Madge was holding court from inside her palanquin. The wise woman's head was bowed forward and Moira could not see her mouth – that suited her, she hated having to read Madge's toothless, bacca-stained lips.

Moira began to edge away, the last thing she wanted was another run in with Madge. Thirty marches or so back – it seemed both like half a lifetime and just yestermarch to her – Moira had been summoned to Madge's tent. That was not an experience she wanted to repeat. Despite the cold, her hands suddenly felt sweaty, and her coarse woolen jumper began to itch against her skin.

Leaving the wise woman and her congregation behind, Moira went looking for a family to help. She soon found one. Not surprisingly, it was one of the beekeeper families. Most people avoided the hives, but Moira didn't mind them. She couldn't understand why people were sacred of bees — they never stung her. In any case, the sudden cold snap had quietened them, and the insects were hiding in the warm recesses of their hives. Occasionally, a bee would poke its head out of the circular door at the hive, nod its head, twirl its antenna groggily, and head off back into the hive. Moira imagined the bee scuttling along labyrinthine waxy pathways, bumping into its friends, and maybe getting to tell its queen that it was still too cold outside.

Wondering how bees talk to each other, she pitched in to help the 'keepers, but, in truth, there was little for her to do. She settled for not getting under the bee keeper's feet while they suspended the hives in their travelling frames. She watched the hives swing from side to side — it was funny; although the hives had started swinging at different speeds, within in a few dozen heartbeats they were all swinging at the same rate. Moira rocked from side to side in time with their swaying rhythm. She thought about asking someone why the hives were acting so oddly but, since few of the 'keepers understood signing, that would probably be a waste of time. In any case, the 'keepers knowledge, like so much of the lore of the walking tribes, was founded on practical matters – knowing why hives swung together, or how bees talked to each other was not important.

The head of the 'keeper family nodded his thanks to her, and pressed a dock leaf-wrapped honeycomb into her hand. She signed her thanks back, and slipped the little treat into the otherwise empty purse hanging from her belt.

Wrapped in her winter coat and her cocoon of silence, Moira wandered around the camp, watching the final preparations for the march. She looked back along their path towards the distant city. Its road, cut over unknown generations, ran like an arrow from east to west. The city was like a black hand chopping into the road and down to the planet's tortured crust.

For as long as Moira could remember, the tribe's track had run parallel to the road. The elders claimed to have seen times when the city changed its path to avoid some obstacle, but Moira found that hard to believe; surely nothing could stop the city?

The past half-thousand marches had been over easy terrain, and the tribe had drawn maybe a hundred marches ahead of the lumbering leviathan and fifty marches south of it. The north-south distance varied when their path changed to avoid difficult terrain or to exploit natural resources. Generally, though Moira's tribe tried to keep to their allotted path so avoiding conflict with other tribes.

She had only been a baby the last time the tribe had been close to the city. She was sure she could remember though – her mind's eye held a vivid picture of a great black cliff rising until it was lost in the starless sky, and of glittering people bathed in a golden glow. When Moira told her that, Mother Madge had pulled her close, so close she could smell her stale old breath.

"Do say you have the sight, child?"

Moira had run from her grasp, and Madge had demanded that her father beat her for her lies. Fortunately, he refused.

Looking again at the city, Moira knew, with absolute conviction, that she would see it all again.

In the city's high, bright levels, people said that the never-ending torment of shredding, grating, tearing metal on naked rock kilometres below was like music. They sipped sparkling rosé wine and claimed that the endless wail of hurt, only discernible to them as a faint rumble, had movements and themes; and if you pressed your hand against the bare metal of the city's structure, you could embrace the random symphony.

Jhono had never been to the bright levels, nor did he know what music was. His hearing had been destroyed, while he was still in the womb, by the endless cacophony that filled the city's lower levels. Nonetheless, he found beauty in his world; a world of giant engines, and the immense tearing, tracked wheels. When the city moved easily, through soft sandstone perhaps, his bones sang with harmonies torn from grated, crushed rock. Even when the going was tough, such as when a sin-hard granite intrusion had to be worn down particle by obdurate particle, and the vibrations turned thin and sour, he took pleasure in a hard job well done.

The caravan had halted on the brow of a large, but gently sloping hill. Tufts of fast-growing red-veined grass sprouted through the cold-cracked ground. In a hundred marches, the slowly turning world would hide the sun, and life here would be locked in ice, waiting out the centuries for another brief chance to flourish. That was one survival strategy, and another was to follow the sun. The two tribes of men did this, one walking endlessly under the sun's unblinking gaze, the other hidden away in immense metal cities. Eons ago the two tribes had lost their knowledge of each other and of the events that led to the sundering of mankind. Now all that connected them was their perpetual westward journey.

Animals and birds walked or flew with the walkers, but the old people claimed there were fewer of them than when they were young. Moira's tribe had no written records, and their plainsong sagas didn't cast any light on the question. During sleeping times, when the tribe hid from the sun under thick blankets, strange noises could be heard. Watches were doubled, but nothing unusual was seen. Occasionally lone watchers disappeared, but there was never any evidence why; they just seemed to vanish. A few people blamed the nearby tribes and demanded retribution, but there hadn't been any conflict with them for generations. Here, in the mid-northern latitudes, the pace of life was sedate. It was often stated as plain fact that the walking tribes in the middle latitudes were in a state of constant war but, as there had been no contact with them since the sagas were composed, that was clearly guesswork.

But the disappearances continued. Embassies were sent to their neighbours, who also reported mysterious losses. Mutual reassurances were given, and the westward walk continued.

Until now.

The view from the hill was panoramic. A great plain stretched to the horizon. Mostly, it was covered with knee-high grass; each stalk weighted down with seeds. The tribe should have been rejoicing at this abundance of food. But no one was celebrating. Perhaps twenty marches ahead, the swaying fields were cut by a jagged red scar. Lava had bubbled up and spilled out creating a swathe of blackened, burning land. The scar ran as far as the eye could see to both the north and the south. The east wind carried faint sulphurous smells.

Moira eased little Justin off her back and lowered him onto the rocky ground. He woke up and cried a little. That was understandable; he was only fifteen-hundred marches old and not yet hardened to the perpetual walk. The last few months had been tough on him; especially the loss of their parents. Of course she had been devastated by their inexplicable deaths, but she had to be the brave one, she had to grow up quickly. When his grief had first subsided, he had lashed out at her, as if blaming her for the tragedy, or perhaps because she had been so good at hiding her own pain.

Moira looked down at her brother. His eyes glittered like rubies. He looked up smiling, his tears forgotten in joy at this new wonder. His lips moved excitedly, and Moira shook her head. Justin thought for a moment, then spread his hands. Moira smiled and shrugged her shoulders.

"I don't know what it is, but don't worry," she signed back.

There's nothing to worry about, little one.

Bright yellow light bathed Jhono. He slackened his power torque's grip, and looked up to see Derry waving at him from a crosswalk ten metres above.

Jhono's fingers ran over the talking box strapped to his left arm, sending a thin beam of light through the murky air.

"What is it? I'm busy. I've got this leaking moly tube to fix."

"Big meet. All called. Drop everything. Ten minutes," Derry flickered back.

Jhono was about to send a sarcastic reply, but his friend had already sprinted away. Typical of Derry, always in too much of a rush to talk slowly. White chevrons were pulsing across the distant chamber roof, calling the workers to the meeting. Whatever it is, it must be big.

Hefting his tool bag on his shoulder, Jhono joined the trickle of workers heading for the upper levels. He glimpsed a few desultory conversations, but most people kept their talking boxes dark. Workers in the deep parts of the city weren't given to frivolous chatter. The work needed to keep the great, hundred man-high diamond-toothed wheels turning was endless and hard, and it was very repetitive. Everyone knew his job – and everyone else's, for that matter. Jhono liked working alone, but he was a popular choice whenever a team was needed, because he seemed to be able to sense what his team mates wanted almost before they did themselves. Derry once joked that he must be able to read their minds, but Jhono had shut him up with a bunched fist, the last thing he wanted to do was attract attention — that always led to trouble.

He stopped off in the locker room on level sixteen, and sloughed his overalls off. They were so encrusted with moly oil and pulverised rock fines that they stood up by themselves. He pulled his breather off and took in a lung full of flinty air.

There's nothing to worry about, little one.

"Who said that?" Jhono flashed as he spun around, looking at the other workers in the cramped locker room. The others looked strangely at him, shrugged denials and turned away. Embarrassed at his outburst, Jhono pulled a day suit on. The rough paper suit smelt of soap and was too tight across the shoulders. The voice, like his own thoughts but somehow different, resonated in his mind. Cursing himself for a fool, Jhono strode out of the locker room.

The lift up to level three was packed with workers. Jhono looked around, trying to catch snatches of conversation. No one seemed to know – what's going on? – no idea – must be big.

The lift came to a creaking stop. The wire mesh door opened a little then stuck. Cursing, a couple of the passengers wrenched the door open. The assembly level was quickly filling up. Jhono looked for familiar faces, but didn't find any. That wasn't very surprising, he had few real friends among the several thousand engineers.

Squadrons of red chevrons chased each other across the white wall, drawing the eye to the speaker's dais where Supervisor Pyard and a white-robed woman were standing. Tall and pale-skinned – she was clearly a higher-up from the bright levels.

After a minute or so, Pyard began to talk. The wall behind him split into two halves, one relaying his words in phonetic symbols, the other in written words. Jhono's attention jumped from one language to the other. Few engineers knew the literal form of their language, but, since Jhono had learned that a certain young woman was fluent in it, he had taken an interest. Contrary to Derry's sneers, he had picked up a smattering fairly quickly, enough to follow the address without having to look back at the other side of the screen too often. Sadly, for Jhono, the young woman in question had married a man from one of the three hundred engine rooms, and he never had the chance to show his fluency.

The engineers generally regarded Pyard with derision. He never got his hands dirty, let alone risked life and limb in the forests of churning metal and stone. However, his tale of lakes of molten rock, and vapours that burned skin and lungs, held everyone's attention. In Jhono's time the city had crossed numerous small fire lakes, but nothing on this scale. According to Pyard it would take at least twenty days to cross the burning expanse, during which the lowest levels would have to be completely evacuated. Afterwards there would be the immense task of repairing the inevitable damage, from lava, fire and corrosive gases. Every one of the six hundred wheels would have to be raised – a job that took a full squad of six hundred and twenty men a week under normal circumstances – and scraped clean, who could guess how long that would take?

Jhono grinned; this was a challenge he could get his teeth into!

Get out of my head!

Derry grabbed his friend by the shoulders and held him down. Jhono was thrashing against the pallet, his eyes wild and his body a knot of straining muscles. Unconsciously his fingers raced across his speaking pad, beaming nonsense syllables around the room. Suddenly, Jhono woke with a start that sent his friend sprawling.

"Her again?" Derry asked in tight-banded flickers.

"Yes," Jhono replied, also in intimate mode.

"That's six nights in a row, my friend."

Jhono sat up and knuckled his forehead. "I need to get her out of my head. I can't stand it."

"I thought you said she was beautiful?"

"She is. She comes to me in soft russets, and with amazement at the colours she sees in my mind's eye."

"Um, yes," Derry said, after a long pause.

Moira was a good long walk from the base of the city, but she still had to lean back to see its topmost parts. Apart from a thin ring of bright light near the top, it was almost featureless; a black cliff rising from the Earth. The bottom of the city was hidden behind billowing clouds of dust and spumes of pulverised rock. Its passage had thrown up a wake of huge, smashed pieces of granite. Fathomless cracks, wider than five men lain head-to-head, radiated away from the city and filigreed into countless, increasingly smaller fractures. The ground under Moira's feet was laced with tiny cracks, and she could feel its constant trembling. Thaddeus had described the appalling noise, the endless concussions, but she already knew; she didn't need hearing to know the Earth was screaming.

She looked up again, towards the bright band of light that necklaced the high, front part of the city. Little dark shapes flittered behind the bright girdle. She didn't know the word for the colour of the bright band, the only pure colour she knew was the red of the sun, and that tinged everything in her world. Sometimes, when she reached for the man in the city, her mind glimpsed flashes of pure, impossible colours. It was almost like things in the city had their own shades, and didn't rely on the sun to define them.

For the last twenty marches, since the revelation of their doom, the tribe had headed north, towards the city. They had little choice; the way to the south was barred by packs of strange, savage creatures. A tenmarch ago a horde of them had attacked the caravan, killing two-dozen people, including Mother Madge and several elders. Running for her life, Moira had glimpsed one of the attackers: it was sinuous and dark, with more legs than were natural, and a face that had haunted her dreams since.

After the attack, the tribe had drawn close together and maintained a well-armed guard. Although barely past boyhood, Thaddeus had sprouted recently and was deemed strong enough to join the guards. In his pride at his sudden elevation to manhood he had asked her if she would be his wife. At first she had lashed him with a blur of acid fingers, but seeing the hurt, and fear, and love, in his eyes she had relented. She had known for as far back as she could remember, and long before she really understood, that they would marry. She didn't love him, at least not in the way he loved her, but she liked him, he was kind and would have made a good father for her children.

To the west, the broad ribbon of fire mocked their little plans. Unless a miracle happened, the tribe would be stranded here, and the only question left would be whether the beasts or the cold dark would take them.

I will wed him, Moira decided. If it is to end here, so be it, we will make what we can of the time left.

Once again, she turned toward the city. There were people in there; some said there were millions riding inside the leviathan. Moira didn't know about that, the word 'millions' meant nothing to her. Since discovery of the firewall, she had often dreamed that she was talking to one of the city people – a great, noble man, high in the councils of his tribe. For a time, the eyes of the beast had scarred her dreams, and the city man had been lost to her, but, during the past few marches, her mind's eye had turned back towards him.

Do you exist outside my head? Are you just a comforting story woven from hope and fear?

He felt real to her. She could sense his love of his beautiful city, his passion for his life, and his hopes for the future. Closing her eyes, and washing disbelief from her mind, she knelt on the trembling ground and reached out to him.

Astonished, Jhono knelt down and touched the floor. For the first time in his life, the world was motionless. He looked at his hand; it was shaking – in fact, his whole body was trembling. Many of his people were touching the floor and walls or looking at their own shaking limbs.

In the middle of the room a gaggle of supervisors were deep in discussion with their guides — tall, pale men and women whose sharp eyes flickered this way and that, never settling for a moment, and always watching the people of the deep.

When their supervisors had told them they were to be evacuated to a place a kilometre above the engine rooms, few had believed it. They had mustered at the topmost place in their world and, wonder of wonders, a series of hidden doors had opened before them. At first there was some reluctance to enter the small, empty rooms that, their guides said, would whisk them away to a safer place. Jhono was one of the first to risk this new adventure, but it had been a disappointment; the doors of the small room had closed and, a moment later, opened onto a bright, new place. Apart from the change of scenery, it seemed that he had hardly moved at all.

The walls and floor and roof were white and clean. On the far side of the room there were white tables and chairs. Behind them, doors opened onto other rooms – dormitories, washrooms, and entertainments – according to the symbols above them. Everything was beautiful, but in his heart Jhono thought it a sterile beauty. He longed to return to his real home and his purpose for living. Impatiently, he paced the bright, clean floor, oblivious of the anger of people who had to step smartly out of his path. Though his body was confined, like some mythical animal in a cage, his mind roamed widely, always searching for her. But she was nowhere to be found. All he perceived was a feeling of loss, but he could not be sure if that was from her or himself.

Eventually, and for no reason he knew of, he stopped walking. Blinking, he saw Pyard and two men from the bright levels standing in front of him. One of the men was holding a box covered with bright-coloured, flashing jewels.

"These are Lords of the Monist Council, Jhono, they desire speech with you."

An hour before her wedding, Moira sat alone on a high place and looked around her world. The sun was as low in the sky as she had ever seen it, in a few dozen marchtimes it would be gone forever. No, not forever, she corrected herself. The world's great march would go on, and, in the distant future, the place of their defeat would again stand under its ruddy gaze. I wonder if anyone will stand here then, maybe wondering about the neat rows of graves?

A sudden eruption of flame drew her attention to the city. Cherry-red flames from erupting gas splashed up the black city walls, illuminating the dark surface for a few heartbeats. Lower down, continuous hissing, boiling flames spat from the city's underside, and sheets of seething lava spewed high into the air where they cooled to black for an instant, before crashing back into the fire lake.

The city was almost a third of the way across now. It hadn't even paused for a moment at the edge of the sea of molten rock, but had boldly rolled into the pools of fire.

Many of the people had hoped for rescue from the city, but Moira had realised that was a false hope; the city people cared nothing for the walker tribes, and her bright, strong man was a figment of her imagination. The strange, vivid colours he showed her were fading from her memory now, taking hope with them.

At the centre of the camp, coloured poles decked with bright ribbons were being erected. The smell of cooking rose to meet her, and she could almost hear the happy, defiant laughter of her friends. More than six dozen marriages would be made; most of them were among the young people, but there were more than few among the older people too. Informal arrangements, which had lasted for many a thousand marches among what her mother used waspishly to call 'fancy men and women', were being formalised.

Later, as she lay beside her sleeping husband, Moira reached out with her mind, searching for the strong voice one last time.

There was only silence. She snuggled up to Thaddeus. His skin felt cool and his chest barely moved as he breathed.

© 2002 by Nigel Atkinson.
Image © 2015 by Kate Coady.