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chapter zero in which a city's gates are breached
The skirmish at Timoch's gate is little recorded by conventional historya minor engagement of Silver and Yellow and Stealth Gray, lost in the shuffle of much larger events. But a great deal of subsequent chaos turns on it, as an avalanche is said to turn on a single pebble. Regard it, then, as a moment of critical change which makes all the rest of it possible. It begins like this:
In the two hundred and first decade of the death of the Queendom of Sol, an ancient man finds himself trudging across the plains of a strange world. His escorthalf a dozen armed men nearly as ancient as hehave already led him from the base of a bluff called Aden very nearly to the walls of a city called Timoch. And although the man has been to this world beforehas lived here, wept here, bled and sweated herehe's never seen either of these places. Indeed, he's not even sure they existed when last his bootheels trod this gray, powdery soil, for he has spent a great many years . . . away. Asleep. Ensorcelled.
The world's name is Lune, although it was once called Luna. The man's name is Bruno de Towaji; he was once called "King." See him now in your mind's eye: a body incapable of frailty, wrapped round an ancient soul. His frayed, yellow-white hair extends to his shoulders in a kind of fan shapevery thin on top. His teeth are chalky nubs in a jaw as sturdy as ever. His skinliver-spotted and yet still flushed with youthis not so much wrinkled as creased. As if he's been folded up in a drawer somewhere.
Which is not far from the truth. Not nearly as far as Bruno would like.
"In decades past, the oldest towers were still enlivened. Programmablefaced with wellstone," says Bruno's primary companion, Conrad Mursk, pointing at the city with young-old fingers as the group crests a hill and looks down upon it. "They had diamond cores and deep foundations. Survivors of the Shattering, yes, very old and very grand. But twenty years ago there were some strange malfunctions, and Imbrians can be painfully superstitious about things like that. So, in the Year of the Lamb the buildings were torn down at great cost. The high towers which remain are of poured concrete over an iron latticea technique dating back to the Old Moderns of pre-Queendom Earth."
And that seems a strange thing to say, for Mursk is no architect. Hasn't been for a long, long time. Instead, he has passed himself down through the ages as a kind of soldier. Indeed, the guards accompanying the twofive men-at-arms as frizzed and ancient as Mursk and Bruno themselvescall him "General Radmer" when they call him anything at all.
"Let's not tarry here, shall we?" says one of them.
The men are angry, for this old leader of theirswhom they clearly adorehas dragged them through one battle already, and is urging them now to Timoch, where they were onceand perhaps still areconsidered criminals.
"Too much metal down there," says Sidney Lyman, the nominal leader of this ancient band. His tone is disapproving as he glowers down at the city. "How can the glints resist? There aren't soldiers enoughnor walls, nor glueto hold them at bay forever."
Ah, and that's the other problem: this war of theirs. Not of these menthese Oldersin particular, but a war belonging to the entire world of Lune. And it's going badly, and as near as Bruno can determine, this places the entire human race at risk.
He glances up at the Murdered Earth, visible as a puckered distortion in the evening sky. The sun has set behind the mountains here, but the sky is still bright, alive with clouds of fierce orange and yellow. And behind them, the tortured rainbow of sunlight refracting around the centimeter-wide fleck of hypercondensed matter that was once the worldthe one and only worldof human beings. It is, in truth, a tragically beautiful sight.
There is a Murdered Venus as well, and a Murdered Marscrushed into black holes virtually indistinguishable from Earth'sand Bruno has no reason to suspect the other planets, especially the gas giants, have been spared in the years of his exile. That leaves only the moons and asteroids and planettes, many of which had still been thriving in the Iridium Daysthe last days Bruno can still remember. But given the tendency of economic depressions to isolate vacuum habitats, slowly choking off the energies and machineries of their air supply, it's doubtful any could have survived this long. That leaves only the planettes, which of course have problems of their own, and cannot retain atmosphere indefinitely without maintenance. Surely a great many of them have failed already.
And that leaves only Lune, that greatest of planettes, that living world squozen from the lifeless mass of Earth's primordial moon. Squozen by Conrad Mursk, in fact, at the command of Bruno de Towaji.
"Well, it's really no problem of ours," adds Sidney Lyman. He points an elbow in Bruno's direction, forcefully enough that Bruno half expects a Palace Guard to materialize from the ether to restrain him. But the Guards are dust now, like the Queendom of Sol itself, and Lyman goes on. "We'll get this Ako'i fellow back inside yonder walls, then scurry like hell to reach the veils of Echo Valley in time for sunset."
Which isn't saying much, Bruno muses, considering that sunsetjudging from the angle of the sun and the shadows of the treesis still a good thirty-five hours away. The days are long here.
"He's not going 'back' to Timoch," says Conrad Mursk. General Radmer, Bruno reminds himself. Not Mursk. They call him General Emeritus Radmer. And I am Ako'i. "He's going to it."
"Ah! A first-timer. A virgin in the hallowed ancient halls of that mausoleum of a city. Come now, Ako'i, one cannot dwell this long on Lune" A thought seemed to strike him, then. "Oh, but you've been on Varna! Marooned, cast away. For that long? Since before there was a Timoch? Since the Shattering itself?"
"Possibly," Bruno grumbles, hoping to leave it at that. Tellingly, Lyman and his men have not recognized the husk of their old king. They don't know his name, his crimes, his many failures, and he prefers it that way. "Ako'i" isn't a name at all, but a Tongan epithet, something like calling a man "perfesser" or "genius" or . . . or "de Towaji," yes. Perhaps they would forgive him if they knew, but what matter? Perhaps Bruno might have forgiven himself, had he been himself these many, many centuries. But that doesn't matter, either. He is here as a figure out of history, to correct a historical mistake. Or to try, anyway.
They pass through a field of grazing, bleating sheep with gold-colored wool and curiously oversized heads. Then there are rock walls topped by wooden fences, leading down into a broad expanse of fresh-mown corn stubble. Soon, they find themselves on an actual road, paved with a smooth, continuous sheet of what looks like diamond or zirconium or some allotrope of silicon carbide. The surface is flawless, but to Bruno's eye something about it conveys a sense of tremendous age. On one particularly sharp curve, a mound of dirt has spread from the roadside to cover part of the road itself.
Bruno first mistakes the pile for a construction project, and then a termite mound of the sort that had once been common on the savannahs of Africa. But on closer inspection there is something almost crystalline about it: straight lines and flat surfaces. And the "termites" themselves are large and of curious design, with angular body parts of clear and superabsorber black and translucent, glassine blue.
"What are these?" he asks, pointing.
"Termites," Lyman answers, with no detectable irony.
"They're a bit . . . modified, yes?"
"No more than anything else around here. It ain't a natural world."
As the city draws near, Bruno can see that the walls surrounding it are at least as recent as the termite mounds out on the plains. They're flawlessnot in the manner of wellstone or diamond but in the manner of freshly poured concrete which hasn't had a chance to weather. For all he can tell, they might have been poured yesterday.
"Those damned walls," Radmer is saying. "My goodness. They may indeed protect the city for a time, though not in the intended manner. The iron over which the cement was poured will be . . . tempting. The enemy may find it easier to dismantle the wall than to breach it and sally through. Every gram of it makes them stronger, while the people inside grow hungry. Not exactly the delay the City Mothers might wish for, but they're hardly in a position to choose."
Radmer's manner of speech does not much resemble Conrad Mursk's. Nor, really, does his face. A lot of time has passed here.
"Bloody valets," one of the soldiers says, making a heartfelt curse of it. "Bloody glints."
And Bruno doesn't know whether to laugh or weep at this, for the armies of doom are quite ridiculous, and the swelling of their ranks can probably, if indirectly, be blamed on himself. Who set this stage, if not the king of all that preceded it?
Damn and blast. If dying were easy he'd've done it long ago. He had tried. But there had been nothing on the planette Varna capable of extinguishing this robust carriage of his, and to die of hunger or thirst required more concentration than he'd been able to muster. Every time his attention wandered, he would find his belly full of turnips and spring water. And in the aching solitude there, his attention did nothing but wander.
Finally, they arrive at the gates of the city, and Bruno sees the gate and wall are much smaller than they'd looked from a distance. Not more than four meters high, possibly as little as three. The men upon the walls, with their burnished iron helmets, their rifles and bayonets, are quite a bit shorter than the grizzled old men who've escorted him here.
"Ho there," Radmer calls up to them. "We require an audience with the Furies."
"Oh wonder! It's a band 'f Olders," one of the guards calls down contemptuously. "We'n't seen y'r like here since th' troubles begun."
"There ha'e al'ys been troubles," Radmer calls back, with a rising contempt of his own. "My name is Radmer, and you will open this gate."
"Y'all c'n have audience with my arse, Mr. Radmer."
"E'en if your arse were a magistrate, m'boy, I would have to decline. I will see no guard, no City Mother, not even a senator. I'm here to speak with the Furies."
Bruno finds it difficult to follow this exchange, for accent and inflection so clot the guard's voice that his might almost be another language entirely. This "Radmer" has spoken Queendom-standard, Tongan-inflected English up to this point, but with the city guard he speaks in the city dialect. Flawlessly, as near as Bruno can detect.
"He doesn't know you," Lyman says to Radmer, in Queendom-standard tones of quiet indignation. Then, to the man on the wall, "Groveling in the dust is where you should be, maggot. This is General Emeritus Radmer, who turned back the armies of Red Antonio and saved this pathetic city of yours, when your grandparents' grandparents could not. More than that, you glob of phlegm, he carved the very world upon which you now stand, whose air you now stink up with your putrid excuses."
The man is not impressed. "Y'all Olders 're all Gross High Mucky-Muck of someorother, close as I can figure. And 'f this man built the world, then he be a god, and should need no 'sistance o' mine."
"Good point," Lyman says, sounding approving for the first time this day. "You have wit enough to call us Olders. Have wit enough, then, to realize we request your help for the sake of decorum. And we'll open the gate, if you will not."
Radmer holds up a hand at waist levela gesture which commands silence. And Lymanreluctantlyobeys.
"We dare not tarry out here," Radmer says to the guards. "I bring with me an item of great strategic value, and the Glimmer King's scouts have found us once already. You do know they're here, yes? Soon the hills will be lousy with them. If you turn us away, O morbid child, I daresay you won't last the week."
Glimmer King. Is that what they're calling Bruno's son these days? His only child, his greatest error? If indeed Bascal Edward de Towaji Lutui is (a) alive, and (b) responsible for all this mad sufferingBruno has heard only Radmer's suspicions on the subject. But those were enough to draw him here, to this unreal place. A father's disappointmentand atonementrun as deep as his love.
"If he turns us away he won't last the minute," Lyman says, drawing his sword. And a sense washes over Bruno yet again, that he is living in some hell of his own creation, for the sword in Lyman's hand could well be a figment of fevered dreams. Ancient, yes. Sharpened and sealed with a film of epitaxial diamond. The weapon has a wicked point, and a basket hilt to protect the wielder's hand, and in between there is . . . nothing at all. Nothing to parry, to grasp, to see flashing in a deadly arc. In showing it off to him, Lyman had called it an "air foil," and had declined to estimate the number of deaths it had inflicted at his hand, and the hands of other soldiers before him.
Ploughshares into swords, alas. That wasn't what mass-stabilized wormholes were for.
But Bruno's musings are cut short when someone up on the wall cries "Bandits!" and hurls down a wooden spear tipped with barbs of iron. Of course it bounces harmlessly off the marble-gray cloak of one of the OldersBrian, his name iswho picks it up quietly, examines it for a moment, and then breaks it calmly over his knee.
And suddenly everyone is fighting.
"Inviz" was mainly a fashion statement in Bruno's day, one of many geostat patterns that seemed to hold stationary while your clothes and body swirled around them. In set theory terms, inviz was the special case of geostat in which the display pattern matched the background pattern. But in the hands of an artful dresser it became something more, something beautiful. A complement to the other nonspectral colorssuperblack and superreflector, wellwood and glowhoo, animorphic and animimetic and the ever-popular c0unt rs ns . How he misses those! How he misses the fops and dandies who strutted around in them, with hardly a care!
But on the wellcloth cloaks of Sydney Lyman's band, stealth inviz is just another instrument of murder. The Olders lift their hoods and vanish, or nearly vanish, leaving only smudges in the air and dancing shadows on the ground. They must be wearing speed boots and wall-hugging gecko gloves as well, for in what seems no time at all, the air is shimmering on top of the wall itself, and the guards there are dropping their weapons, dropping their helmets, staggering and falling in disarray. Struggling vainly with unseen assailants.