Darien is no longer a lost outpost of humanity, but the prize in an intergalactic struggle. Hegemony forces control the planet, while Earth merely observes, rendered impotent by galactic politics. Yet Earth's ambassador to Darien will become a player in a greater conflict as there is more at stake than a turf war on a newly discovered world.
An ancient temple hides access to a hyperspace prison, housing the greatest threat sentient life has never known. Millennia ago, malignant intelligences were caged there following an apocalyptic struggle, and their servants work on their release. Now a new war is coming.
About the Author
His previous books include the Shadowkings dark fantasy trilogy and Iron Mosaic, a short story collection. Seeds of Earth, The Orphaned Worlds, and The Ascendant Stars, books one, two and three of the Humanity's Fire sequence, were his first full-length forays into space opera.
Read an Excerpt
The Orphaned Worlds
By Michael Cobley
OrbitCopyright © 2012 Michael Cobley
All right reserved.
DARIEN INSTITUTE: HYPERION DATA RECOVERY PROJECT
Cluster Location–Main Hardmem Substrate (Tertiary Backups)
Decryption Status–24th pass, 3 video files recovered
File 3–Implant Variant 6 (mute) Combat Proving [Subject identified as Andrei Vychkov]
Veracity–Unmodified Live Recording
Original Time Log–18:23:14, 30 October 2127
Introduction–Dr Yelena Dobrunov
Afterword–Dr James Kelvin
Commentary I: The events that took place after the emergency landing of the Hyperion 150 years ago have had a profound effect on the development of our colony. The drastic technical shortfall endured by the founders in the subsequent decades meant that only written accounts and a few printed images were passed down as a record of that grim struggle. Oral storytelling traditions amongst the First Families also helped to keep the names of Captain Olsson, Keri McAllister, and Andrei Vychkov alive down the generations. Everyone knows the story of Vychkov’s Map.
Recent innovations in data decryption, however, have allowed Institute researchers to at last extract coherent records from the Hyperion’s memory nodes. Among them were three videofiles made by the ship’s AI and showing progressively more effective methods of coercing its captives into obedience. The colonists it awoke from cryosleep were implanted with neural devices designed to deliver jolts of pain, thus forcing them to carry out attacks on the ship’s crew who had established an encampment several miles away.
The first videofile is entitled Biounit Tolerance Test’ and shows one of the woken male colonists strapped to a couch and being subjected to increasing amounts of pain until death ensued. The second, ‘Implant Variant 3 Field Test’, shows a female colonist being directed to venture outside the Hyperion to recover an unconscious crew member, injured during an attempt by some of the crew to gain entry to the ship. Pain, or more accurately the memory of pain, is enough to make the colonist obey, even when the crewman regains consciousness and unsuccessfully tries to escape. Those two recordings depict horrific and distressing scenes of, in effect, torture and coercion and the Institute’s management board has decided to accord them a ‘restricted access’ status.
However, the third videofile involves Andrei Vychkov, whose tragi-heroic tale is known to all, and shows actual events as they unfolded. The Institute’s board believes that the historical value outweighs Vychkov’s personal suffering and has, with the Vychkov family’s consent, released it for public viewing by an adult audience.
In time, we hope to be able to unlock the machine mind’s OS hub, the most heavily encrypted file area, and thus lay bare whatever imperatives or directives that turned it against the very people it was supposed to safeguard. In the meantime, students and other viewers should closely watch the following recording and never forget the kind of servitude that was planned for us all–Y.D.
By night, moving through foliage, dark shapes barely visible in darkness. There is the hissing of rain, patter of droplets falling on undergrowth, the rush of wind high in the sky, and the sound of someone breathing. From the unsteady viewpoint it seems that the camera is positioned on someone’s upper body, at the chest or shoulder. Then abruptly the picture switches to somewhere high and looking down, only now the trees and bushes are quite visible in the bleached blue-grey of image enhancement while the body-heat-bright figure of a man advances through the forest. The airborne cam tracks him for a moment then pulls back and swings up to point across the treetops to where a rocky outcrop shoulders up out of the pale, leafy expanse, a dark blue mass fringed with spectral bushes. The cam zooms in on the heat signatures of two sentries on the outcrop, restless bright silhouettes.
‘Approach location A and anchor the first charge,’ says the AI. ‘Confirm.’
The picture switches to show the man’s face, seen from his right shoulder. It is Andrei Vychkov, eyes covered by nightvision goggles. He opens his mouth as if to respond but utters no sound, instead grimacing, an expression of frustration. The picture changes, a left side view. He nods and resumes moving through the trees. In the imaging scope, the rain is like fine black threads, falling. Minutes later, Vychkov reaches the guarded outcrop, keeping to cover as he bears left. The lens of the hovering camera stalks him as he finds an unseen way to a point at the base of the outcrop’s sheer rock face where he affixes a fist-sized device. Silently, he retreats to leafy cover.
‘Approach location B and anchor the second charge.’
The second charge goes round to the left of the rocky shoulder, beneath a large overhang. The third is positioned very near to where a rough path from the lookout descends a series of natural steps in the rock. The path leads along an irregular ridge to a bushy hillside where three armed men guard the entrance to a cave. The fourth and final charge has to go in the slope above the cave and is the most difficult to achieve, even with the rainfall there to mask small sounds. Once it is bedded firmly in the soil, Vychkov begins to retrace his steps, creeping down through darkness.
‘You have performed well,’ the AI says. ‘You will be rewarded.’
Vychkov shows no reaction as he moves behind dripping greenery, descending quietly to dense tree cover downslope from the cave.
‘I have activated the charge timers,’ the AI says as he squats down in the shelter of a spreading bush, looking uphill. ‘In thirty seconds charge one will detonate followed by charge two three seconds later. After another five seconds, the three guards will have moved towards the lookout point while others will have emerged from the cave. Charges three and four will then detonate and if hostile elements have been disabled or eliminated, you will then advance to secure the cave…’
A loud thud comes from not far away. Vychkov looks to his left and the picture cuts to the left shoulder view. A bleak smile crosses his features and as he rises the second charge goes off.
‘Return to the lower profile. You will reveal yourself to hostile elements.’
Vychkov tugs off the goggles and gives a sidelong glance at the shoulder camera, his eyes dark and piercing, shakes his head and raises his left hand which is holding one of the hemispherical shaped charges. A swift overarm movement and it is arcing away into the dark, rain-wet forest.
‘You have disrupted the mission plan. You will be punished. Return to the ship…’
Another explosion, a flash from the rocky ridge coupled with a simultaneous one from the forest that sends burning foliage flying. But nothing from the cave mouth where figures holding torches are emerging. Vychkov sees them and starts climbing the hill. He takes three strides then doubles over in agony, sinking to his knees, slumping over on one side. The shoulder camera shows his face contorted in a rictus of pain, mouth gaping as if to cry out but no sound comes, just long gasps and shuddering breaths.
‘Comply. Return to the ship or you will be severed.’
Silently snarling against the pain, Vychkov shakes his head and begins to crawl slowly up the grassy slope. The picture switches to the camera on the airborne remote, now hovering over the edge of the forest with its lens angled down at the glowing figure sprawled on the hillside. Heat from the explosions blooms bright blue at the edge of the frame and the voices of people are audible, along with someone screaming for help. As the hovering camera zooms in on Vychkov, a target-acquisition overlay appears and a red triangle settles over the back of his head where it locks. A second later the camera jerks to the side as if from recoil. When it returns, Vychkov’s form is still, unmoving.
End of videofile.
Commentary II: We know from the written accounts of Olsson and the others that shortly after the Hyperion’s emergency landing the ship AI began flooding some decks with sleep gas. And in the weeks prior to the landing, certain low-level systems began behaving erratically or failed altogether. Then, as the videofile shows, the AI used neural implants to control wakened colonists in its strategy against those who escaped into the forest.
Taken together, this does not strike me as the meticulous master plan of a machine intellect hell-bent on enslaving everyone on board the Hyperion. Why tip its hand during the preceding weeks? Why gas only parts of the ship, not all–in fact, why not gas everyone even before making orbit about Darien? And why undertake a programme of forced cyborgisation when it would have made more sense to use the Hyperion’s workshops to turn out legions of anti-personnel drones for deployment by air or ground? Also, why was its shipboard security so poor that Vychkov was able to take a dummy charge on the mission? And above all, how was Vychkov able to get away with inking a map of the ship’s weak points into the skin of his chest?
The truth is that this behaviour looks more like a disjointed series of responses and blind spots created by dysfunctional programming, not some malign plan introduced by an unknown agency. The AIs placed in charge of the Hyperion and her sister ships came from the cutting edge of research at that time. During those dark days of the Swarm War, resources were short, procedures were rushed and corners were cut. It is very likely that flaws in the care-and-protection heuristics were not caught, resulting in the terrible consequences that blighted the early decades of the colony with malnutrition, illness and despair.
They have also blighted our scientific development. The collective memory of the fight against the ship AI, and its unwilling thralls, has come down to us embroidered with an anthropomorphism and demonisation so strong that AI research was and remains forbidden. Therefore it is my recommendation that any viewer should look upon this recording not as an illustration of the purposeful strategy of a demonic entity, but as an exposure of the consequences of flawed programming, nothing more.–J.K.
The lohig that tirelessly hauled their hide cart was an odd insectoid creature some seven feet long, its coppery carapace patterned with blue diamonds and stars. At first, he and Kao Chih had been worried that the creature might suffer from their untutored care but the lohig breeder’s instructions had proved invaluable, keeping them from starving or mistreating it. In fact, Kao Chih had taken a liking to the beast, feeding it sprigs of leaves while talking to it in soft Mandarin Chinese, and had even gone to the point of giving it a name, T’ien Kou, which meant Heavenly Dog. Greg was tempted to call the lohig ‘Rover’ but held back.
They had been three days on the trail to Belskirnir, a trapper camp deep in the Forest of Arawn, a vast and dense expanse of greenery that spread north and east of the Kentigerns, covering over a thousand square miles of hinterland. For the last day and a half they had been passing through lush glades and humid dales beneath an endless interwoven canopy, home to the innumerable flying, leaping and crawling creatures of Darien. But now evening was drawing in as they steered the lohig along a dale strewn with mossy boulders, and thoughts of making camp were surfacing.
‘I don’t think we’re that far from Belskirnir,’ Greg said, ‘but we’ll no’ get there before nightfall.’ He pointed to a large tree further ahead, its bole twisted around a big boulder, its lower branches creating a kind of natural shelter. ‘That would be a good place to make camp. What d’ye think?’
Kao Chih peered at it. ‘It certainly appears comfortable, Gregory, but there is still plenty of light–should we not keep moving, to make the good time tomorrow?’
Greg shrugged and was about to reply when, without warning, shots came from off in the dense wood. Automatic fire crackled, splinters flew from the cart, leaves and twigs spun from intervening bushes. Panic-stricken, Greg had dived off the path, scrambling for cover behind a huge, tilted rock, fumbling for his own weapon, the 35-calibre that Rory had doggedly taught him to use. He returned fire, a few unaimed shots before realising that he didn’t know where Kao Chih was, whether he had gone into the bushes on the other side or had fled along the path. Greg was about to call out his name in a stage whisper when there were shouts and the sound of running feet drawing near from left and right.
Fear assailed him as the hunters’ footsteps slowed and an eerie silence fell over the dale. Seconds ticked by with neither sight nor sound of Kao Chih, but Greg did catch a glimpse of one of his pursuers, a burly, bearded woodsman with hard, flinty eyes beneath a battered bush hat. Convinced that the ones he couldn’t see were even closer, he decided it was time to get the hell out of there.
Behind the big, tilted rock, clumps of tangled undergrowth concealed an incline leading up to a ridge beyond which lay a drop which he remembered from their earlier progress along the track. Keeping low, he crept up to the edge and over to see a steep, leafy slope broken by isolated bushes and protruding rocks, leading down to a wide, densely wooded gorge which ran southwards, back the way he and Kao Chih had come two days before. Greg crouched on a jutting rock, unsure of his next move, staring across the leafy treetops, darkening as the sun dipped towards the horizon. Then a shout came from off to the right–one of the ambushers was standing on the ridge about a hundred yards away, calling out to the others as he raised a rifle and took aim.
Fear took over and Greg dived forward, rolling downslope a short distance before regaining his feet and continuing his descent at a striding, plunging run. Just as he passed into the shadows of the tree line, he slipped on a muddy patch. His feet flew out, a jumble of rocks loomed and he flailed madly, luckily catching hold of the stems of a sturdy bush which slowed his plummet. His back and side were soaked with dew and plastered with mud but with his pursuers coming down after him he ignored the mess and headed deeper into the trees.
For the next ten hours or more, Greg dodged and hid, crept and climbed, skulked and lay low. It was a strange, fitful hunt which continued on past evening and into the night. It was never completely dark in a Darien forest–ulby roots, a common species of parasitic tuber, shed a pale yellow-green radiance, while ineka beetles had carapaces that gave off a soft blue glow. Together, their emanations gave the glades of Darien a curiously spectral ambience, a kind of peaceful hush as if the entire forest were holding its breath. Tonight, though, the patchy glows conspired with Greg’s fugitive state of mind to concoct an eerie, slightly foreboding atmosphere.
Dawn was cold and misty, the first moments of sunrise spreading like a watery gleam through the undergrowth. Greg straightened from the hillside notch where he’d been resting and peered out through a veil of blackleaf vine. From the gorge he had gradually worked his way via gullies and footprint-masking streams back round to the route that he and Kao Chih had been following. The notch gave him a view of densely wooded ground sloping down towards the track. South was to his left and a mile or so back that way was where they’d been ambushed. Northwards, the trees thinned a little and the rutted track wound through them to a hillside, curving round it and out of sight. Somewhere among those low forest hills was Belskirnir, where Greg was supposed to meet a go-between sent by Alexandr Vashutkin, the last surviving member of Sundstrom’s cabinet, still holding out in Trond…
As the minutes passed the day brightened and a few creature-calls sounded from the canopy and branches overhead, peeps, whistles and scraping squawks, as if to greet the sky’s telltale pearly glow, sure sign that bright sunlight would soon be burning away the mists. Greg peered into the trees, scanning the distance, studying the undergrowth for movement. It was a couple of hours since he last sighted one of his pursuers, a lean, bearded man with a rifle who emerged from a thicket to the north and stalked along parallel to the track before disappearing off to the south.
Greg nodded, resolved that it was time to go and find Kao Chih.
He climbed out of the notch and crouched in a nearby clump of beadberry bushes for a moment, plotting in his head a route across the wooded slope. Then he crept forward, heading towards the closest tree, and was four paces away when he was grabbed from behind and thrust to the ground. Gasping in fear, he struggled against the weight on his back and fought with one hand through garment layers for the pistol sitting in an inside pocket. Amid all this effort, he almost failed to hear his assailant hoarsely repeating his name.
‘Greg… Greg!–it’s me, Alexei…!’
Suddenly hearing and recognising the voice, he ceased moving and the weight shifted off his back. Breathing heavily, he half sat up as a grinning Alexei Firmanov sprawled down on the grass next to him. He was a lanky, dark-haired Rus with prominent cheekbones and a narrow chin, and was garbed in a green forest coat over dark grey hunter fatigues.
‘What… the hell… are you doing here?’ Greg said.
‘They’ve got lookouts posted all along the trail to Belskirnir, my friend,’ Alexei said. ‘They would have had you like that.’
‘I see,’ Greg said, glancing round at the bushy slope. ‘Any idea who they are?’
‘Thugs and nattjegers from the Eastern Towns, we reckoned. Just after you left Taloway, a carrier pinbeak arrived from High Lochiel with word that a local Brolturan lackey was hiring toughs for a journey into the wilds. Later that same day, one of Chel’s high-crag watchers spotted a dirij coming in from the Crystal River boundary quite far off and heading for these hills. Less than half an hour later it was aloft and swinging back towards the coast. Rory and Chel assumed that the worst might happen…’
‘And here ye are.’
‘Nikolai is here, too,’ Alexei said. ‘He went after the ones who dragged Kao Chih away. He’s safe, by the way.’
Greg breathed a sigh of relief. ‘Thank God.’
‘Or whoever’s in charge, da? Well, there were only two captors–for Nikolai this is no problem. But we have many problems, sitting out there, waiting for us, so we must go the scenic route, yes?’
‘How scenic?’ said Greg. ‘D’ye mean doubling back around they hills?’
‘I mean go over them.’ Alexei grinned. ‘Is not so bad, and quicker too.’
Greg frowned. The hills to the south might be comparatively low but they were steep and craggy. Scaling them would be demanding and risky.
‘Okay then, aye,’ he said. ‘But we’ll have to keep an eye out for any scissortails–a bite from one of those wee buggers and you’ll never play the balalaika again.’
After a stealthy, wary progress back through the forest, following the upward slope, it took well over an hour to climb to the hill’s rocky summit. By then the sun was out and they were sweating as they stopped to rest on a hot stone ledge facing north. Alexei produced a small battered wooden telescope and surveyed the woods they’d left behind. After a few moments he gave a satisfied grunt and turned to look north. Greg sat in the sun’s warmth, thinking about his mother and brothers, now safely ensconced in a mountain camp south of the Eastern Towns. His mother had been angry at being sent away from danger, even though she knew it was a rational move. His brothers, Ian and Ned, were likewise unhappy but resigned–Ian intended to get together a company of former Darien Volunteer Force troopers and Ned knew that his medical skills would be fully occupied.
I still wish you were all with me, he thought, staring out at the dark, dense expanse of the Forest of Arawn. But we know what happens when you put all your eggs in one basket…
Alexei handed him the long glass and he raised it to survey the land. The treetop canopy was an unbroken sea of verdant green that swept onwards and away, swathing every dip and rise of the land before fetching up against the Utgard Barricades, two hundred miles of imposing sheer cliffs which were just visible as a dark grey line on the horizon. Beyond, the peaks of an immense mountain range faded away into purple opacity.
Gazing over the forest he suddenly realised that you could lose entire armies beneath its foliage, battalions, regiments, legions, hordes, completely hidden from the eye, their movements a mystery, their tactics clandestine, their strategy covert.
Now all we need is an army.
Alexei pointed to a nearer landmark, a flat-topped hill protruding from the forest a couple of miles to the north, one of a group of hills.
‘There is Osip’s Hat–under it is Belskirnir. Nikolai said to meet him at the top of a waterfall near the eastern slope.’ He looked at Greg. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Well, I’ve no’ had much sleep and nothing to eat but we’re kind of short on choices so… aye, let’s go.’
Alexei laughed and gave his shoulder a comradely punch. ‘You will be fine–Rory says you are tough and I believe him.’
‘Must have a word with him when we get back,’ Greg said as he clambered after his companion, heading down the other side of the craggy hill. As they approached the tree line, a flock of fowics came down to investigate, landing heavily on thin upper branches and scrambling along on all fours. Fowics were like flying squirrels back on Earth, except that their forelimb wings were more fully adapted for flying rather than gliding, and their heads, ears and snouts had a distinctly feline appearance. Alexei dug some hard tack out of a waist pouch and held out a few fragments. One of them calmly sauntered down its branch, tiny beady eyes fixed on the prize, snatched it with its teeth then leapt and wriggled up into the leafy shadows.
Greg laughed. ‘If they can get any sustenance out of that stuff, they’re probably evolving faster than we are!’
Not all forest denizens were as harmless. During the two-hour trudge through an increasingly swampy forest, they saw a tree nest of pepper-wasps, around which they detoured, and more than once hurried past yellow sniperviles, bulge-eyed lizards that could spit poison lethal to Humans. By the time they crossed a brook to dry, rising terrain, Greg felt edgy and twitchy and was longing to return to the high valleys of the Kentigerns.
‘This had better be worth it,’ he muttered, following Alexei over a fallen tree. ‘When we walk in there, Vashutkin’s guy better have, I don’t know, a vial of babble dust made especially for Kuros, or plans for that compound they’re building at Port Gagarin, or… well, something.’
Alexei was puzzled. ‘You don’t know what this meeting is for?’
‘No idea, just that Vashutkin said it was so vital that I had to be there in person.’
‘Ah!–I know, is a surprise birthday party, perhaps!’
Greg smiled and shook his head. ‘Not for another four months, but nice try.’
At the crest of the slope they suddenly heard a rushing sound above the breeze that rustled through the trees. The ground ahead rose in large rocky steps, mossy stairs for a giant. Overhead, the dense canopy of the Forest of Arawn continued unbroken in all directions as Alexei led the way around a steep bluff, pointing out the rippervine which hung down it from above. Pushing through a tangle of bushes, they emerged near the rocky bank of a stream, several dozen yards from where it poured over a cliff edge, a waterfall plunging to the forest below. Then two figures stepped out of the vegetation on the other side and minutes later Greg was shaking hands with a grinning Kao Chih while Nikolai Firmanov explained.
‘What a pair of daruki,’ he said. ‘Some of them know their way through woods, but those two must be coastal boys. But Kao Chih?–there is more here than the eye sees.’
‘I was… fortunate,’ Kao Chih said. ‘I knock out one with my skull’–he mimed with a backward jerk of the head–‘get free, take his gun and knock out the other, then I think I will rescue you and I put on the guns and knives, then I tie up those kwai, then… Nikolai arrives and we go spying.’
Nikolai, the older but shorter of the Firmanov brothers, smiled and patted Kao Chih on the shoulder. ‘Steady nerves, this one. All ready to go to war. So I told him that my brother had gone to fetch you and meet later by waterfall but on way here we get close to main gate to Belskirnir, at night.’ He shook his head. ‘Not good, Greg–they are watching gate, around clock. Only other way in is through one of Van Krieger’s private doors.’
Peter Van Krieger’s father was one of the original founders of Belskirnir and the son had maintained and increased that position of authority by buying out the descendants of the other two founders. Rory had told Greg that Van Krieger was now an ageing, piratical figure who relied on lieutenants to run the camp, having no offspring of his own.
‘Will that be a problem?’ Greg said.
Nikolai gave an amused half-shrug. ‘Diehards have had dealings with him in past–should be okay.’
‘Should?’ Greg said.
‘Will be okay,’ said Nikolai. ‘Van Krieger makes a point of being even-handed, and makes sure his men are too.’
Greg remained unconvinced but when they reached the bushy summit of Osip’s Hill after a two-hour forest trek, the welcome they received from the three guards there seemed to bear out Nikolai’s words. All wore similar medleys of camouflage, leather and hessian, and carried ageing breech-loaders sporting this or that modification. The eldest, a bald man with a tattooed scalp, greeted the Firmanovs with sardonic familiarity and after hearing Nikolai’s brief hints at some kind of trouble with bandits out in the forest, he beckoned them all to follow as he opened the door into the hill.
The way led through a maze of passages, split-levels and side tunnels. Greg had never been to Belskirnir before and initially tried to memorise their route, giving up when it became clear that their guide was taking turnings meant to confuse. Stretches of the cold passages were lit by tallow lamps and quite soon Greg began to hear singing. Moments later they emerged onto a hewn ledge overlooking a wide cavern resounding with a barrage of voices and noises from the hundreds of men and women occupying the stools and tables spread across the floor of what was essentially one big tavern. The next thing he noticed was the warm fug of body odour, weed smoke, stale beer and cooked food, at which his stomach rumbled. Then he saw the market stalls around the walls, some of which were grilling or boiling or frying a variety of frontier dishes.
‘I have to eat,’ he told Alexei. ‘I’m just about ready to munch my own toenails!’
Alexei nodded. ‘Sure, of course–where are we to meet this guy again?’
‘Some place called the Lifeboat.’
‘Ah yes–it’s over there.’
Greg followed his outstretched hand to see a long gallery on the opposite wall crowded with revellers who seemed to be singing several different songs at once. Nikolai nodded and relayed this to their guide, who wished them well and left them to it.
The walls of the cavern had many hollows, some containing little shops or sleep spaces while others had odd, lopsided huts jutting from them. As they drew near to the Lifeboat, those within began singing a new song in fairly ordered unison, and to Greg’s surprise he recognised it as ‘Regin the Blacksmith’. Uncle Theo used to sing it for Greg when he was younger, when his mother and father took him to see Theo in his cottage on New Kelso. Those visits came back to him as one voice led each verse with everyone else bellowing along for the chorus. The song told the tale of Regin, a blacksmith and swordmaker, who helped the hero Siegfried to slay the dragon Fafnir but who then planned to kill Siegfried; the hero discovered this and dealt with the blacksmith in a direct and final manner.
The gallery was busy to the point of standing room only. While the Firmanovs made for the bar, Greg and Kao Chih had held back, with Kao Chih’s face below the eyes covered with a plaid scarf and the brim of his cap dipped over his brow. In the meantime, Greg took in the surrounding press, surreptitiously studying faces and heads, looking for someone who might be Vashutkin’s go-between. ‘Regin the Blacksmith’ was nearly finished, with scores of Dariens, male and female, roaring out the chorus, led by a broad-shouldered, black-haired man in a short-sleeved leather jerkin who banged an empty tankard on the table in time with the beat. Alexei reappeared with two bowls of savoury meat and vegetables which Greg and Kao Chih accepted gratefully and began to devour.
‘So what does this messenger look like?’
Greg shrugged. ‘The message said that the go-between and his bodyguard would be here today and tomorrow between sunup and midnight.’ He paused to chew another mouthful. ‘So we’re… looking for at least two people. Dinna have a clue about them otherwise.’
Nikolai frowned a moment, then smiled. ‘I have it–we just wait and see who stays around later then go and say hello.’
‘I think it’s more straightforward than that,’ Greg said, staring past him. The main table had finished singing and the brawny, black-haired man was muttering with a grey-haired woman in hunter’s garb. As they conversed, she glanced across the busy room directly at Greg and the big man looked round too, revealing the face of Vashutkin’s go-between.
It was Vashutkin himself.
‘Is that…?’ Alexei said.
‘Huh. Hardly recognised him without moustache.’
Then Nikolai appeared next to Vashutkin and his companion, exchanged a few words then looked up at Greg and Alexei and indicated the exit. They nodded and made for the door, Greg hurriedly wolfing down the rest of his food, then a moment later Vashutkin came out, smiled tightly and without a word beckoned them to follow. Minutes later they were descending a curve of rough-cut stone steps to a long, low storeroom lined with barrels and crates and lit by a few oil lamps. A tall man with a ponytail and a long coat got up from a crude trestle table and muttered something in Vashutkin’s ear before shaking his hand and heading for the exit.
‘That was Trask,’ Alexei said in a low voice. ‘Van Krieger’s deputy and a brute. Looks as if he’s being helpful. Wonder how much he is getting paid.’
The former minister went and sat at the table and the grey-haired huntress moved to stand behind him, watching the rest with hard eyes. A slender hooded man stepped out from behind a stack of crates and sat on a chair further back, face hidden in shadow. Greg frowned and was about to ask Alexei about the newcomer when Vashutkin spoke.
‘Mr Cameron,’ he said, getting to his feet, hand outstretched. ‘It is an honour to finally meet you, although I wish it were under less cramped conditions.’
‘An honour for me too, Mr Vashutkin,’ Greg said, shaking the man’s hand and sitting down opposite him. ‘I’m a great admirer of your radio speeches. They’re quite, eh, energetic.’
Vashutkin chuckled. ‘I only gave a handful over the air before Trond Council asked me to stop as it was offending someone’s wife. I am glad that you enjoyed them.’
‘It’s not just me–I have it on good authority that in the towns, certain disrespectful youths gather in secret and recite from transcripts of your speeches, as well as the usual drinking and smoking. I’m told that the bits where you’re comparing President Kirkland to various species of mudworm are especially popular.’
After the deaths of President Sundstrom and his ministers, the Darien Assembly chose Kirkland, leader of the consolidation party, to be president of a government of national unity. Since taking office, however, Kirkland had proved increasingly compliant towards the Brolturans’ security plans.
‘Good, good! That proves how despised the snake is, and I’m sure that he knows.’ He shook his head. ‘Kirkland wasn’t so bad before all this, but he has not the kind of soul that would resist corruption, so he has been eaten by it.’ He paused to glance over his shoulder. ‘Are we secure?’
The woman leaned forward a little and spoke in a Norj accent.
‘He says that there is a single pickup in the ceiling but it is now cancelled.’
The Rus politician seemed to relax a little, then glanced at Greg and smiled at his unconcealed curiosity.
‘My companions are a little… uncustomary, da? A mystery for later–now, let us sit and speak of resistance.’
Greg loosened his heavy outer garment, feeling warm suddenly.
‘Well, we have been focusing our attention on information gathering,’ he said. ‘Also keeping the escape routes and safe houses secure, and trying to keep essential knowledge restricted to cells. So far we’ve been getting folk away from most of the inland towns and some of Hammergard’s outlying districts but we hope to expand that, maybe even tackle one o’ their detention centres.’
‘I understand why you wish to do this, my friend, truly I do. But the hard truth is that you will have to cut back on these activities, not increase them.’
Dismayed, Greg sat back. ‘Why’s that?’
‘For two reasons. First, if they escape into the mountains and the forests, the number of dissidents making life difficult for the occupiers goes down. Second, some of these escapers are bringing families and relatives which again pleases the Brolturans because caring for such non-combatants drains your resources, dulls your military edge and reduces your flexibility.’
‘We can’t refuse to help people who’ve suffered at the hands of the Brolturans,’ Greg said levelly. ‘If somebody’s been singled out for harsh treatment, then I’ll do all I can to get them to safety. That’s not gonnae change.’
‘Of course you would, Mr Cameron, and I would too, except that I am recognising the realities of the conflict, the brutal realities, while your methods just make the occupation easier for those stinking off-worlders. Change will have to come if we are to work together.’
Greg stared at him, dismay turning to irritation and dislike. He could almost hear a possible response at the back of his thoughts: Aye, Mr Vashutkin, now that you mention it I can see those realities so how about this–instead of helping folk escape, we’ll give ’em guns and explosives, ye know, kids and grannies too, along with a list of targets we want dealt with. And for those far gone in despair there’s always the suicide bomb option, just the thing tae unnerve the occupying forces. What d’ye say?
But at the back of his thoughts was where the sarcasm remained. The situation was too grave for anything but a framework of courtesy, even a flimsy one. He took a deep breath and leaned forward, hands clasped on the table.
‘Could you tell me what you mean by “working together”?’
Vashutkin spread his hands. ‘Unfortunately, I have worn out my welcome in Trond–the council has been coming under a great deal of pressure from the townspeople, the dependent planters and stock farmers because of the embargo imposed by Kirkland’s puppet government. In the next few days the council will cave in to Hammergard then tell me and my supporters to get the hell out of their town, but I want to be gone before then. Luckily, you already have a base of operations, this Tayowal, so we can join forces, pool our skills and do some real planning, eh?’
Vashutkin’s grin was wide and enthusiastic and Greg felt like laughing in his face, but gave an answering smile.
‘Please, call me Alexander.’
‘Alexander, you have to realise that Tayowal is not a Human settlement but a place that the Uvovo use for ceremonies. They offered it to us as a place of shelter, and we’ve been helping Uvovo evade the Brolturan sweeps, sending them to hideouts in the south and bringing them to Tayowal. I’m not really in charge of the Human community, as such, and I wouldn’t presume to start giving out orders…’ Even though I’m the one who organises food for the cooks, the sentry rotas, dispute arbitration, oh aye, I hardly do anything! ‘If my uncle, Theo Karlsson, were here he is someone who would certainly be in charge, but his Diehards seem to have elected me as his stand-in, either that or a mascot, I’ve no’ quite figured it out yet.’
Off to the side, Nikolai Firmanov was smiling as he leaned against the wall, hands in his pockets, saying nothing.
‘You seem to see this as a problem, yet if I were to offer clear leadership perhaps this would not be seen as a problem in these times, perhaps?’ Vashutkin frowned. ‘Informal arrangements work against planning, but we can deal with that at a big-table consultation once we are all together.’
‘I am sorry, Alexander, but without an invite from the Uvovo Listeners, you should not come to Tayowal. I will ask them if you and your men can join us but it’s unlikely they’ll agree. And if you came anyway and set up camp, they’ll just up sticks and vanish into the forest, leaving us in serious barodritt, since we depend on them for eighty per cent of our provisions, as well as the help they give us in a dozen other ways.’ Greg decided to omit the fact that the Listeners saw him as an honorary scholar and the Human spokesman.
Vashutkin gave him a considering look. ‘You have come to rely on them a lot, I see.’
‘It is their world,’ Greg said. ‘Which they’ve decided to share with us.’
‘I understand. My apologies if I seemed… impatient.’
‘Not to worry, Alexander. Look, the ancient Uvovo built quite a few habitats all across this region, dug down into the ground or tunnelled into the sides of hills and mountains. There’s one worked into the caves of the Utgard Barricades north of the forest, and not far from Belskirnir, and it’s pretty extensive too. I’m sure that the Listeners would have no problem with you taking it over.’
Vashutkin seemed mollified. ‘My thanks, Gregory, for your advice and your candour–I shall seek more information about these caves. However, I must still urge you to rethink your arrangements. The situation is going to change for the worse and we have to be ready.’
‘Ready for what?’ Greg said. ‘Are the Brolturans bringing in more troops? Or are the Hegemony?’
‘In a manner of speaking, Mr Cameron,’ said another voice.
Greg looked up. It was the hooded man who had spoken. Vashutkin laughed and without turning made a beckoning gesture.
‘Gregory, may I introduce you to my very good friend Baltazar Silveira, who has come all the long way from Earth to speak with us today.’
Half amazed, half puzzled, Greg rose and reached out to shake the man’s hand. Silveira had a slender build and a narrow face, cropped black hair and dark, slightly sad eyes. His smile was faint but his grip was firm. Greg wondered if he was from the Earthsphere ship, Heracles.
‘Mr Cameron, I am very pleased to meet you and your companions,’ he said, his Noranglic carrying an accent that Greg could not place. ‘First, you must understand that my presence on your world has to be kept secret for the simple reason that I am a covert agent for Earthsphere Intelligence. If the Brolturan military or the Hegemony were to learn of me, it would be extremely embarrassing for my superiors, who would force me to leave Darien. And if other powers such as the Imisil Mergence got wind of it, the resulting complications would not be at all helpful.’
‘You have our word, Mr Silveira,’ Greg said, his calm concealing a growing excitement. ‘Outside the four of us, there’ll be no discussion of yourself or your purpose.’ He looked at the Firmanovs and Kao Chih, still wearing cap and muffler, and got nods of agreement. ‘So, the Brolturans are getting reinforcements, you say. Well, after a month of complaints and arguments from Russians, Scandinavians and Scots, it’s no’ surprising, really. What will it be–a regiment of veteran entertainers? A battalion of crack cooks sent in to whip up enough Brolturan delicacies to sweeten our rough natures? Or is it just more troops?’
Vashutkin’s amusement was plain, if stifled. Silveira’s smile was wintry.
‘Brolturan civilisation may be an offshoot from the Sendrukan Hegemony,’ he said, ‘but militarily it should be considered as an adjunct to Hegemony power. This gives them access to a stunning array of cutting-edge battlefield hardware, yet there are a few weapon systems which their patrons keep to themselves, like the Namul-Ashaph. Translated from Sendrukala it literally means “mind that makes”; we would describe it as an AI-autofac, a mobile, nanosourced production unit capable of turning out between four and eight combat mechs a day, depending on their configuration. Our intel shorthand for it is tektor…’
‘Short name, big trouble,’ Vashutkin said to Greg. ‘This is why we have to be ready.’
‘Indeed, yes,’ said Silveira. ‘Part of my assignment is to advise you on what to expect and how to counter Hegemony mech tactics with fortifications and traps.’
As he listened, Greg’s trepidation and dismay deepened. Most of Tayowal consisted of sheltering chambers cut into the sloping sides of a cuplike depression in the Kentigerns’ north foothills; in the event of an attack it would be difficult to defend and would provide poor cover from bombardment. He then recalled that his Uvovo friend Chel the Seer was off in the mountains with the Voth pilot, Yash, and Gorol9, the Construct droid, investigating various old Uvovo ruins with an eye for their defensibility. He mentioned this to Silveira, who nodded.
‘Natural features make the best strongholds,’ he said. ‘With the disadvantage that tunnel complexes can count against you.’
‘So when can we expect the arrival of this factory of death?’
‘It is due to arrive on board a Hegemony freighter sometime in the next couple of days,’ Silveira said. ‘Beyond that I cannot be more specific.’
Greg smiled sharply. ‘Y’know, you must forgive me if I seem a wee bit sour and disgruntled, but in the face of this artificial intelligence dedicated to our destruction would it not have made sense for your superiors to send along, as well as your good self, a crate or two of top-notch weaponry, just to even the scales a little?’
‘Most particle weapons give off distinctive energy signatures,’ Silveira said. ‘If the Brolturans detected such a thing on Darien they would immediately realise that Earthsphere was supporting indigenous insurgents against them, and when the Hegemony learned of it there would be various kinds of hell to pay. Non-Earthsphere armour-piercing guns are being sourced but by the time they arrived the conflict would be well under way.’
‘So we have to make do with a few hunting rifles and small arms, is what you’re saying.’
‘Your situation could actually be worse,’ Silveira said. ‘The tektor you’ll be facing is a class-B unit; the class-A is twice as big and can produce at least twelve mechs a day. There is a world once called Karagal, away at the edge of the Hegemony’s rimward tracts. After a century of protests over the burdens of colonial rule its people rebelled in unison, thinking this would prove their fitness for autonomy. The Hegemony’s response was to send in forty class-A tektors and in a month no one was left alive, a population of a billion and a half wiped out. Because class-As can build class-Bs in addition to a range of mechs.’
Greg exchanged a look with Vashutkin, who raised a sardonic eyebrow.
‘Somehow,’ Greg said, ‘that’s no’ very assuring.’
‘But you are not in that kind of danger here on Darien,’ the agent went on. ‘The Brolturans are going to considerable lengths to portray themselves as benevolent overseers, taking care of security matters while the Human colonists get on with their lives, grateful for that protection. Such propaganda has been pouring out to the subspace newsfeeds almost from the day after Sundstrom’s assassination, and finding out the truth of the occupation is the other part of my assignment.’
‘Information gathering,’ Greg said, thinking of Kao Chih.
‘That is so. There are several unanswered questions which I was tasked with addressing–Mr Vashutkin was kind enough to furnish me with some background on Captain Barbour, the pilot who shot down two Brolturan interceptors with an Earthsphere shuttle.’
‘You know about that?’ Greg said.
Silveira nodded. ‘Indeed–Barbour is something of an underground hero on Earth, and an openly celebrated one on the Vox Humana colonies. Did you know him?’
‘No, but my uncle was with him aboard that shuttle.’
Vashutkin leaned forward, suddenly animated. ‘Black Theo, yes? Major Karlsson, Viktor Ingram’s right-hand man!’ He uttered a low whistle. ‘Was he killed too?’
‘Not entirely sure,’ Greg said, trying to ignore the hollowness in his chest. ‘There was a report from Pilipoint Station that a lifepod ejected from the shuttle before it engaged the interceptors. Maybe he was in it, I don’t know.’
‘What about the moon Nivyesta?’ Silveira said. ‘What do you think is happening up there?’
Up there. Over the last few weeks Greg had largely succeeded in avoiding any brooding over the fate of those closest to him. Catriona and Uncle Theo were missing, that’s all, and no presumptions of mortality were going to take root in his thoughts.
‘The Brolturans cut all communication with Nivyesta, so we’ve no’ had any direct contact with the folk there,’ he said. ‘There’s plenty of rumours, though–Alexander has probably told you a few–but without another source that’s all they are.’
Silveira nodded. ‘And what about Earthsphere Ambassador Robert Horst? Our politivores have been riding endless waves of speculation since he supposedly vanished on the very day that the Hegemony envoy accused him of being behind the assassination of Reskothyr the first Brolturan ambassador. Mr Vashutkin says he wouldn’t be surprised if he had been responsible–what do you say?’
Greg ran his fingers through his hair and rubbed at an ache in his neck. More like what should I not say? Och well, half a truth is better than nae truth at all!
‘Horst had nothing to do with that assassination,’ he said. ‘I’ve seen a cam-vid that proves that it was Ezgara commandos who were responsible, and they take their orders from the Hegemony envoy, Utavess Kuros. As for Horst’s whereabouts, that is a mystery.’ He sighed. ‘What I’m about to tell you is gonnae sound far-fetched but hear me out. My uncle, Theo Karlsson, knew that airborne Brolturan guards were coming to get Ambassador Horst, who was visiting Gangradur Falls at the time. He got the ambassador away by zeplin to Giant’s Shoulder where I was working…’ He went on to relate how they had taken refuge in a hidden chamber within the promontory while Brolturan troops swept the area. He made no mention of the warpwell or its true function. Instead he told them that their presence had triggered an ancient, automated matter transporter which by chance snatched the ambassador away to… well, to somewhere else.
Silveira was frowning, while Vashutkin had chuckled at first and was now leaning back, watching him closely.
‘I do not recall any reports of such discoveries on Giant’s Shoulder,’ Vashutkin said.
‘It only came to light in the days before the crisis,’ Greg said. ‘I realise that you only have my word for this… well, mine and that of my companions here.’ He indicated the Firmanov brothers.
Vashutkin sat straighter and stared over at Nikolai. ‘Is this true? Is that what you saw?’
Nikolai was unruffled. ‘Yes, sir. It happened just as Mr Cameron described.’
‘Exactly as he said,’ added Alexei.
Greg smiled. ‘In fact, that ancient device is probably the reason for the Hegemony’s interest in Darien–why d’ye think they dug a big access tunnel into the core of Giant’s Shoulder?’
Now Silveira looked uncertain, half-convinced. ‘As a technology, matter transportation has never worked consistently but you say that this device accomplished it.’
‘There’s no knowing that Ambassador Horst survived the process,’ Greg added.
Silveira frowned, directing his gaze over Greg’s shoulder. ‘What about your other companion, the one who has said nothing?’
Greg smiled–this was the opening he’d been waiting for.
‘He has plenty to say, Mr Silveira, but first would ye clarify something for me? Might it be possible that your superiors would offer us direct support, depending on what your report contains?’
‘That is a possibility,’ Silveira said guardedly.
‘If you discovered something of shattering importance, for instance?’
‘It would certainly have to have significant impact.’
Greg half-turned and beckoned Kao Chih forward. ‘Reveal yourself, my friend, and tell these gentlemen who you are.’
Greg saw the surprise in the others’ faces as Kao Chih discarded his cap and muffler and bowed politely to Vashutkin and Silveira in turn.
‘Greetings, gentlemen. My name is Kao Chih, son of Kao Hsien. I have travelled to this beautiful world from a star system near the furthest borders of the Hegemony, although my family previously lived on a world called Pyre. My great-great-great-grandfather was born there but his parents came from China, from Earth, aboard a ship called the Tenebrosa…’
As Kao Chih began to relate Pyre’s tragic story Vashutkin was visibly moved while Silveira looked thunderstruck.
If we can just get him on our side, Greg thought. Maybe the Pyre revelation will be enough, if it feeds into his motivations. We could fight against the Brolturans and this mechanoid factory, but without outside help we’ll lose. And if we lose, Dariens will end up as serfs for our Sendrukan masters, just another subservient cog in the mighty Hegemonic machine. We can’t let that happen.
And he recalled his temporary but horrific enslavement by the Hegemony nanodust, and shuddered.
I won’t let that happen again.
He was enslaved by pain. Drifting in space on the outer edge of a backwater system, he was a prisoner of his cyborg form’s worn-out components, while unable to deny the requirement of duty. His allegiance was an iron compulsion that sprang from that first premise, the initiating moments of his machine-life, the principles and purpose of convergence. Throughout his cross-reticulated physicality, damaged nerve endings sang a song of torment which after days then weeks the autorepair subsystem had dulled, though not yet enough to lessen the heat of his fury at enemies past and present and at the weakened, failing parts of his own body.
There was a grim irony to it. <Metals and alloys erode and energy nodes become enfeebled, yet the well-springs of my fealty survive undimmed, irrefutable proof of its worth>
The departure from Yndyesi Tetro, from that deep, watery sepulchre, had been triumphant. The surge of power unleashed from his reaction drive was an ecstatic roar across his senses as he boiled the sea and drove up into the sky on a column of plasma energy. Strengthened substructures had held firm, repaired hull plates maintained carapace integrity and the improvised sensor spicules had performed adequately. Even the transit to hyperspace had been smooth, the eyeblink succession of resonant fields boring perfectly through subspace to hyperspace and then dragging the Legion Knight in after them. The macroguidance subsystem was following course coordinates provided by one of his Scions and all had been proceeding well until ten hours in when his systems reported warnings from the hyperdrive power couplings. Before he could initiate a crash-shutdown, multiple subsystem failures tore across the receptors in his neural weave, and moments later he had dropped back into normal space, drifting without power, racked with pain.
His few remaining autorepair remotes had scurried out to the damaged areas, beginning with the worst. And since his meagre external sensors were also incapacitated–apart from a small carapace lens–he was effectively blind and deaf. Thus encaged, his awareness spiralled inwards, exploring forgotten byways of memory, the vast nova-igniting campaigns against the Forerunners, the devastating battlefronts that sprawled across dozens of light years and left a smouldering wreckage of worlds in their wake. Then there were the bold acts of demolition that the Legion inflicted on Forerunner allies down in the dissolute tiers of hyperspace.
In its long and glorious history, the Legion of Avatars had fought and defeated many enemies both honourable and treacherous. The worthiest was the last adversary in the dying universe from which they had fled an age ago. The Izalla were a species whose control over organic life was so encompassing and profound that inorganic mechanisms were never required. After aeons of expansion from galaxy to galaxy the Izalla encountered the Legion of Avatars, whose own empire was an embodiment of the principles of convergence, the melding of flesh and metal, of machine and mind.
The Legion had never met an enemy like the Izalla, but the Izalla had previously encountered a machine race and utterly defeated them. And for a time that experience seemed to aid them against the Legion. But the Legion held to its eternal principles: they possessed the intuitive adaptability of organic thought as well as the might of the machine and soon the tide of conflict turned in their favour. After several centuries of bitter, savage war the Izalla found themselves facing complete obliteration, inexorable, inevitable. With no hope of survival, their leaders triggered a string of black continuum fissures that tore through their universe, devouring galaxies whole.
The Legion Knight’s memories dated from that period, when thousands of converged civilisations had already perished and the Legion of Avatars was assembling an armada of armadas in readiness for the time when they would have to flee to another universe. Like all his most important data, these memories were stored in the most secure, best shielded of his biocrystal chines and as he reviewed their denotators he noticed something attached to the oldest recollections, sequence markers linking back to data clusters… in his organic cortex. Uneasy, he paused–the old blood-fed cortex might be the seat of his awareness but the biocrystal augmentation supported the transcendent level of his essence, the crucible of thoughts and actions faster by far than those permitted by organic neural synapses. Thus he had long ago copied all relevant data into biocrystal storage and used the organic memory as a backup for essential schemators…
One of those old memories showed images of his cyborg form post-convergence, so he followed the sequence marker back to a particular highly compressed multicluster in his cortical storage. He hesitated a moment then flowed it into his awareness…
Motion… he was in motion but not from the use of drives or attitude thrusters… he had limbs, long, stiff… four? Six?… with grasping, fleshy digits at their extremities… he was moving through, walking, stalking through a high-ceilinged series of hazy chambers… plants grew from the wall, tiny lights moving among them… another long-limbed creature like himself emerged from an adjacent room and came up close… slender tentacles tipped with sensitive palps reached to touch and stroke his skin… Stay, she said, we love you, we need you with us, go not to join with the cold… others entered the room, proclaiming the same song, but he shook off the intrusive touches… what did they know of convergence, of the wonders that awaited him?… in haste he rushed towards the exit while they called out to him in grief, called out his name…
Abruptly, he broke away from the memory flow, thoughts gripped by panic and a primal fear. Why had that memory been left intact? There were others in the cortical storage, records sequentially tagged to the early one in biocrystal–did they also contain memories from before his transformation? Clearly he had cached them in the organic cortex shortly after the convergence with his new cyborg self, but had also provided links to post-convergence recall data, links that only came to light in the wake of serious power failures. Had his younger self thought to make these memories of his original life available in the event of imminent death?
<I am not dead! I have endured an abyss of time, survived while numberless civilisations rose and fell! I do not need…>
And he felt the curiosity in him, a yearning, a need to know what those ancient memories might show, a wealth of experience and existence, the raw stuff of the unaugmented, organic life.
<I am not dead, but that old life is. Memory would only reveal the weakness of the flesh, the flawed nature of the unconverged>
Just to look, just to see what that life had been like, it would be so easy, needing only to connect with the organic cortex, to let the memories flow… An alert broke into his reverie, a notifier from his autorepair remotes that one of the external sensors was functioning again, and that he had minimal control over two of the attitude jets.
<My metal skin is cold and the pitiless, unforgiving vacuum of space presses in upon me. My old alloy bones bend and crack, my flexar veins degrade and constrict, my neural network burns with damage and pain. But I am not dead! Convergence is strength, convergence is the only path. All else is weakness>
Resolved, he made the only possible choice and erased the linked memories from the organic cortex. As the disturbing images were wiped from active awareness he turned his attention to the data stream now coming from the solitary external sensor. From stellar telltales the positional schemator placed him near an isolated star system in one of the sparser regions of the Indroma Solidarity. Scans showed four worlds, comprising two minor inner planetoids, a blue-gas ice-bound outer, and one habitable with three small moons, all of which had emanation profiles indicating the presence of extensive installations. The habitable world had small, scattered Bargalil populations and vast areas of land dedicated to agriculture.
The latest assessment of the hyperdrive damage confirmed that he had insufficient materials to effect repairs–and there was only one place that he might find resources. He started the attitude jets and was reminded by the piloting schemator of their operational tolerances as he set a course for the Bargalil farm planet. It was likely that the main plasma reaction drive would be operational in a few days so it would still take the better part of a week to reach one of those moons. It might mean that he could finally arrive at the Darien system to find that the warpwell had been sealed, trapping the Legion of Avatars down in hyperspace for ever.
<But I am not dead and I will not die! I am of the Legion and even if the warpwell is closed I shall keep the creed of convergence alive!>
Shivering, Robert Horst pulled up the hood of his padded jacket before tugging open the D-shaped hatch leading outside the Artisans Deck. Hinges creaked and a gust of snow flew in as he edged out into the freezing blast, then slammed the hatch behind him. The walkway had a flimsy canopy but was open at the side to the swirling winds which drove particles of ice and snow against the ancient, pitted hull of Malgovastek City. Robert hurried along the exposed gantry and up a flight of iron steps to a circular, sheltered platform. A covey of stick-legged Hodralog were buying whirly-glows from an emaciated female Henkayan who waved a handful at Robert the moment he came into view.
When he came here the first time, three weeks ago with Rosa and the droid Reski Emantes, he had made the mistake of going over to see. Whereupon the Henkayan vendor had stuffed whirlyglows in his pockets, hands and partly open jacket, then demanded payment. Luckily Reski Emantes had intervened and paid up with what looked like marbles containing different numbers of brassy beads. After that, every time he passed through he did as he was doing now, keeping his distance as he hurried to another set of steps leading up.
Above was a similar circular chamber with a low roof and louvred metal shutters which kept out the snow but let in icy draughts. Breathing out foggy clouds, he crossed to one of the exits and out onto a railed gantry bare to the elements, along which he dashed to the observatory, a small boxy building on pillars that rose from the deck below.
For once he was early and his Gomedran contact, Ku-Baar, was late. And since there was no one else about he had the full run of all the viewing niches. He quickly ascended the wooden stairways to the highest catwalk and went straight to the niche that faced the great penduline city of Malgovastek. Winds moaned around the observatory as Robert trained the heavy scope on the upper levels, the Supervisors Deck and the Proprietors Deck, names dating back to the city’s founding nearly two millennia ago, according to Reski Emantes.
Such names had apparently hung on out of common usage, bearing no relation to the current power arrangement which was an oligarchy of corrupt clans and guilds. Looking through the scope at the Supervisors Deck he could see light-globes and strings of lamps decorating the porticos, extensions and balconies built onto the original residential sections by successive clan bosses. The Proprietors Deck was more ostentatious, with glass towers, turrets and faceted, glowing domes denoting privilege and wealth, as well as the ruthless violence needed to maintain it. The rushing swirls of snow made the heights grey and hazy but Robert could still make out the Elavescent Hawsers, five mighty cables that soared up through a mile or more of ice storms and gloom to the underside of a colossal stone ledge where the ancient engineers had embedded anchors deep within the rock.
Malgovastek was not the only city suspended from that landmass-scale shelf, nor was that the only such shelf in the bizarre hyperspace tier known as the Shylgandic Lacuna. Robert still vividly remembered their arrival as the Construct tiership Plausible Response plummeted down into the Lacuna’s dizzying abyss, past jutting immensities of icebound rock, past other cities hanging in the murk like encrusted clumps of corroded regalia, some lit with lamps like dying embers, others looking grey-black and dead. Even as he relived those sights his mind reeled and he experienced a moment of vertigo when he thought of the limitless depths gaping directly below.
Holding on to the scope mounting he recalled the Construct’s last words to him before the tiership departed the Garden of the Machines:
‘Robert Horst, keep in mind that no matter how grotesque and frightening the sights you behold, local conditions often vary wildly from one tier to the next. Do not forget that you are travelling through the cadavers of expired universes, the remains of their remains, the sepulchral ashes of eternity. You are not required to involve yourself in the survivors’ tribulations, only to fulfill your task–find your way to the Godhead and speak with it on the matters I mentioned.’
Of course, Robert knew that the Construct was far more than merely the ruler of the Garden of the Machines, that it was an ancient mech-sentience and one-time ally of the Forerunners themselves. When the Construct spoke of ages past, it was with the authenticity of direct experience.
As he stopped to gaze through the scope again, he heard footsteps enter below then hasten up. A moment later he turned to greet Ku-Baar, former captain to Mirapesh, deceased tooth-father of the Redbard Clan. Ku-Baar was tall for a Gomedran and less bristly than those Robert had previously encountered during his years as a diplomat. These Gomedrans, however, derived from an earlier, less predatory branch of the species which had gone off to explore the upper levels of hyperspace. He also spoke in a much more cultured, expressive version of the Gomedran tongue and held himself with a composed demeanour.
‘Good day, Captain Ku-Baar.’
‘To you also, Seeker Horst, but sadly that is all the beneficence I can convey to you this day.’
Robert’s heart sank. ‘No contact, then.’
‘Once again the mystic Sunflow Oscillant has not deigned to reply to my communication.’
Robert nodded, weary of the waiting. When the Construct dispatched them on this mission, they were told they would have to go through a series of intermediaries. The first one was quite straightforward, an abstract-dealer living on Zilumer, a crumbling, honeycombed world on the 41st tier of hyperspace: all he required in exchange for the name and location of the next gatekeeper was a hefty sum, which Reski Emantes swiftly paid. But when they came to Malgovastek on Tier 65 in search of the Bargalil mystic Sunflow Oscillant, difficulties became apparent. They discovered that until recently the Bargalil had enjoyed the protection of the Redbarb Clan chief, Mirapesh, who, unfortunately, was fed into a bioshredder by one of his cousins. While blood relatives vied for the leadership, Mirapesh’s former officers sought new posts and the mystic sank out of sight, hiding in the warrenlike undertanks of the city. Enquiries had led Robert and the others to a scrimmer workshop part-owned by Ku-Baar, who agreed to help.
‘Perhaps we should venture down into the undertanks,’ Robert said. ‘I recall that you have previously advised against such action, Captain, but our time grows short. Would not a well-armed escort guarantee our safety down there?’
‘I fear not, Seeker,’ Ku-Baar said. ‘For topsiders, a mere show of strength provokes retaliation. Please, allow me to pursue other channels–I have not yet fully exhausted all possibilities. There are a few undertank disbursers I might be able to reach on the eye-way. Indeed, I shall send out notes today.’
‘I appreciate your efforts on our behalf and look forward to a swift and positive outcome.’
‘I am pleased to be of assistance. Tell me, Seeker, where is your charming daughter and that amusing servitor machine?’
‘I left them near the entrance to the Swaydrome–they expressed interest in exploring the stalls there.’
‘The ones along the top balcony?’ Ku-Baar said with an anxious tilt of the head.
‘That is correct.’
The Gomedran seemed relieved. ‘The Swaydrome is a risky place at the best of times but on swaydays, like today, they hold pit-tourneys for organics and machines and anyone who strays onto the lowest seating level automatically becomes a contender and can be challenged by anyone or indeed anything.’
‘I’m sure that my companions will take all necessary precautions,’ Horst said, pausing to peer through the scope at one of the Elavescent Hawsers for a moment. ‘Captain, I’ve a question which I hope you will not find insulting, and it is this–how often do cities fail and fall?’
‘Your question does indeed encompass a subject that many Malgovastins consider taboo, though not myself. To answer, I can say that we learn of such calamities about once every few years, either from rumours passed on by aerotraders or from the first-hand accounts of fleeing refugees, or–more rarely–from an actual visible sighting. I myself bore witness to one when I was a knife-cub. I remember standing out on one of the springwalks, and it was between the bells so it was late, and I was staring out into the ice-storm veils, watching them sweep and rush into dark vortices then uncoil again. Then something made me look up, maybe a sound or some change in the air, but when I did I saw a pale grey object no larger than an ishi bean drawing near, falling towards Malgovastek. The moments passed, the object grew steadily bigger and darker and I could tell that it would fall past our city rather than strike it. Larger it became, taking on regular details, the lines and corners of a city’s decks, blocks and towers. At one point it looked as if great red and gold banners were streaming out above it until I realised that the city was burning as it fell.
‘I remember watching it plunge past less than half a mile away, with the hawsers trailing in its smoky wake and the veils of snow swirling and eddying in the force of its passing. Ever since I have been aware at all times what our lives hang from.’ The Gomedran grinned. ‘I was an anxious cub who became an anxious adult. But a surfeit of time passes for those who tarry, Seeker Horst–I must return to my shop to make further eye-way enquiries after our wayward Bargalil.’
Bows were exchanged and after Ku-Baar left the observatory Robert waited a minute or two before retracing his own steps back to the Artisans Deck, closing the D-shaped hatch on the icy winds. Inside it was cold and dim. This level of Malgovastek consisted of six main floors and innumerable refurbished and retailored subsections, silos and chambers. Lighting was intermittent, bioglobes and battery strips mainly, and the air had a dank, fetid quality. A busy stairwell led up to a curved passage of entrances leading into the top balcony of the Swaydrome. There were a few locals about, mostly Keklir, a bipedal race with short, powerful limbs and faces dominated by a wide, tapering snout with two mouthlike openings. Other species included Gomedrans, a few Hodralog, and the occasional Pozu.
Pushing through heavy curtains, he entered the deafening cacophony of the Swaydrome, a full-throated roar that surged along in time to a heavy, metallic hammering coming from down on the drome floor. The upper balcony was a U-shape of seating carrels, then rows of ordinary benches and bucketchairs, then crowded shadows dotted with the lamps of gaming tables and the amber glows of the kiosks and stalls that lined the back wall. Out of curiosity Robert sidled through to the front of the balcony and peered down through the bowed layers of netting. A large, tracked mech was holding down a spindly droid with one articulated claw while pounding its armoured midsection with the other. Bright spotbeams picked out the two combatants while spectators chanted and howled. Just as the underdog’s plating gave way in a burst of sparks, Robert felt a touch on his shoulder, and a voice.
It was Rosa, his daughter, or as good as. His wife had sent him a holosim projector of their dead daughter before he came to Darien as Earthsphere’s special ambassador. But when intrigue, deadly peril and chance encounters led him down into hyperspace, to a strange citadel called the Garden of the Machines, he could not have predicted what was to come. His daughter returned to life as a simulant based on the holosim’s data, and his own physical form rejuvenated by decades. But the Construct, the AI ruler of the Garden of the Machines, had also removed Harry, his AI implant, then given it free imperatives before releasing it into the tiernet, the omnipresent interstellar infoweb. Amazed and gratified by Rosa’s new existence, he had agreed to help the Construct establish contact with the Godhead, hence the necessity to meet the intermediary known as Sunflow Oscillant.
‘Where’s Reski Emantes?’ he said loudly, above the crowd noise. ‘I would have thought it would be interested.’
‘It says that if it wanted to see dumb objects hitting each other, it could go and watch an autoforge stamp out cutlery for half an hour.’
Robert nodded. ‘Understandable.’
By now they were away from the mass of spectators and gamblers, strolling along the line of stalls from which he caught an occasional appetising whiff. Then Rosa stopped him, hand on his arm.
‘You’re not exactly bursting with news so I guess that good old Ku-Baar had nothing to report.’
‘Same as before, my sweet, no sign of our mysterious mystic, although Ku-Baar insists that he still has other enquiries to make.’
‘Perhaps we should engage the services of someone else from Mirapesh’s coterie, assuming there’s any still alive,’ said the droid Reski Emantes, which floated into view with a netbag of packages slung beneath it. The droid resembled an inverted isosceles pyramid, narrow and elongated, less than a metre high with spheroid studs at each vertex and a small trigonal dome on its upper surface. ‘Or hire some fists and go searching for the mystic ourselves. He is a Bargalil, after all; a large, six-legged, barrel-chested sophont would be difficult to conceal, I should think.’
‘The undertanks are a risky territory,’ Robert said. ‘Ku-Baar promised that he would vigorously query his other contacts, so we give him another day and a half, after which we shall consider our options. In the meantime, how goes the shopping?’
‘Ah yes,’ said Reski Emantes. ‘I found an itinerant Pozu selling urmig eggs, and then chanced upon some tubers that may suit your Human palate…’
The mech was interrupted by another mass-roar from the arena followed by rhythmic shouting and stamping.
‘Another hapless bot reduced to scrap?’ said Robert.
‘Worse, it’s the Force Fate event,’ the droid said. ‘The drome organisers select a mech from the bottom level to go up against their resident armoured thug, probably some oversized, rock-chewing rustbucket with the hardmem substrate of a floor polisher. The unfortunate dupe should appear on the monitors…’
‘Yes, there it is,’ Rosa began, then paused and pointed at a wallscreen several metres away. ‘Reski, it’s you… I mean, at first it was another droid, for a second, then it switched to you!’
The wallscreen showed them standing near Reski Emantes, staring off to the side, while the surrounding crowd guffawed and hooted. Robert looked around to where the sneak-cam had to be but could see nothing in the dark texture of the ceiling.
‘You’re right, I’ve just rerun it!’ Reski Emantes said. ‘I’ve got to see the judges…’
But the eager onlookers were hemming them in as they started for the exit. Then the mob parted and two Keklir in red stewards’ uniforms rushed straight at Reski Emantes and tossed a shining loop over it.
‘I’m not finding this in the least bit amusing,’ the droid said. ‘Get your idio-idio-idio-idididididi…’
The loop sprang into a taut circle and a pulsing blue field flickered on, rendering Reski Emantes motionless. Before Robert could react, one of the Keklir produced an oval-snouted sidearm and made discouraging motions with it while his companion steered the immobilised droid over to the front of the balcony and pitched it over the side. The roar of the crowd was thunderous.
Robert and Rosa reached the balcony edge in time to see the helpless droid land on the arena floor and rebound, cushioned by the blue field. Another Keklir dashed over, affixed a small object to Reski Emantes’s plating, then hastily jumped into an open hatch at ringside, which slammed shut. Then, in a cupola-pulpit overlooking the arena, a ridged cowl began folding back into the wall, revealing a gleaming, golden insectoid creature with three mandibles, jutting limbs and three pairs of black faceted eyes along the length of its narrow head, which reminded Robert of a horse skull.
Then the golden master of ceremonies extended one spiny forelimb and pointed at the floating, unresponsive Reski. A harsh, amplified syllable cut through the crowd noise and a moment later the blue restraint field winked out, allowing the droid freedom of movement.
‘This is an outrage!’ it began. ‘How dare…’
The insectoid master of ceremonies drowned out Reski Emantes with its grating, booming speech for a brief moment before a much more familiar voice filled the arena: ‘… probably some oversized, rock-chewing rustbucket with the hardmem substrate of a floor-polisher…’
Spotbeams swept the crowded tiers and angry shouts broke out as translations filtered around the drome. As the fury stoked itself, the golden insectoid raised its gleaming forelimbs.
‘Words to the designated challenger–projectile and energy weapons are forbidden, also anti-cognitory fields are forbidden. The attached inhibitor enforces. What words from the designated challenger?’
For a moment there was a cessation of the clamour, and Robert hoped that Reski Emantes would opt for a response with a decent courtesy content. It was a forlorn hope.
‘Your louts broke my urmig eggs, you preposterous bug!…’
In its pulpit the master of ceremonies made a dipping motion with one limb. Directly below, an arched metal door slammed aside and a large, dark green spidery mech emerged. Its torso was a flattened spheroid roughly five metres across with four articulated, armoured legs spaced around the midline. Faceted sensors were dotted over its battered cowling, which bore innumerable dents and scratches, the legacy of past bouts.
Without warning, Reski Emantes suddenly launched itself at the big mech, ducking a parrying limb and striking the top of one of the legs where its armoured joint emerged from the plating. There was an immense clang and sparks flew as Reski rebounded from the impact and tumbled away. The large mech turned and sprang after it.
‘What kind of machine is that?’ Robert murmured.
‘A dock drone of some kind, Daddy,’ Rosa said unexpectedly. ‘A midrange assembler, possibly a positioner.’ She met his gaze. ‘I learned a lot from the Construct’s archives before we left.’
Interesting, Robert thought, his fond smile fading a little as he regarded the fight below.
Reski Emantes now seemed to be getting the worst of it. His narrow, pyramidal torso was bent and two of its corner studs were missing. The big mech had it pinned to the floor with a clamp effector while all around the crowd’s roaring approval came in waves.
‘Reski can’t survive this much longer,’ Robert said. ‘We should go down and protest…’
‘Don’t worry, Daddy. Just watch.’
A moment later Reski had somehow managed to slide his wide upper section a short way out from under the clamp. Before the mech could reposition its effector, Reski Emantes thrust upwards, levered itself free and shot away, looking somewhat wobbly in flight. Robert thought it was going to stay at a safe distance but instead it swooped in again… and was sideswiped by another of those armoured yet lithe articulated legs, whipping up to swat it like a fly.
But instead of spinning away, Reski was clinging to the armoured limb’s lower section with thin, cable extensors. The big mech tried to shake it off but Reski doggedly held on and made its way up to the segmented shoulder junction. Robert could just see Reski wrapping its cable extensors tightly around the top of the articulated leg. The droid gave a sharp tug, then another, and the leg came away.
The big machine quickly shifted one leg forward to compensate but Reski had already hopped to the next shoulder junction. A moment later the second leg was wrenched off, and the mech crashed to the floor. With contemptuous ease, Reski Emantes dodged the two remaining limbs as it darted in to finish the job. The Swaydrome crowd stared in stunned silence as the last heavy armoured leg landed on the big mech’s hull with a clang.
‘Calculator,’ the droid Reski Emantes said to its opponent.
In its cupola-pulpit, the golden insectoid sapient raised one angular limb and pointed its spiny tip at the Construct droid.
‘Force-Fate bout… to the challenger!’ And at once the inhibitor device detached from Reski’s cowling and fell to the arena floor.
This provoked a mass chorus of hisses, clacking, hooting and less than complimentary (not to say improbable) observations as to Reski Emantes’s origins, as well as surreal suggestions on what to do with a variety of power tools.
‘Thank you, thank you, dearest of all my fans,’ Reski said as it slowly rose towards the top balcony. ‘Your incoherent, hate-filled grunts say more than real words ever could.’ Below, attendants were dragging off pieces of the dismembered mech.
Robert and Rosa stood back as the Construct droid floated up and over the balcony netting. The crowd of onlookers and patrons offered only glowering, unfriendly looks as they moved away, so Robert decided that a burst of applause might be unwise.
‘You don’t look too bad,’ said Rosa.
Up close, Robert could see the damage in detail, a disconcerting collection of dents, scuffs, gouges and cracks, as well as the bend two-thirds of the way down its tapered carapace. All four corner studs were missing, too.
‘You look terrible,’ said Robert.
‘Looks can be deceiving, Robert Horst,’ the droid said. ‘Some repairs are already under way and will accelerate once my internal builders replace the micromolbots I used to deal with that cretin’s legs.’
Robert stared. ‘Was that… cheating?’
‘You heard the list of forbidden tactics,’ Reski Emantes said. ‘Micromolecular toolbots weren’t mentioned.’
‘It may be advisable to return to the ship,’ Rosa said. ‘We still don’t know why the challenger image switched from that other droid to you.’
‘It may be nothing more than picking on the stranger,’ the droid said. ‘But before we go, I want to buy some more urmig eggs…’
Just then, Robert felt a tap on his elbow and turned to see the Gomedran, Ku-Baar, standing there.
‘Captain Ku-Baar–a pleasant surprise meeting you here. Did you happen to see the last bout?’
‘Indeed I did, Seeker Horst.’ The Gomedran gave a polite tilt of the head towards the Construct droid. ‘Congratulations on your victory, Seeker Reski, a notable event that I suspect may be connected to the reason for my presence here.’
‘Which is?’ Robert said, feeling a prickle of anticipation.
‘A short while ago, I was contacted by the mystic Sunflow Oscillant, directly, by voiceline.’ The Gomedran regarded their expectant faces. ‘He has agreed to meet with you.’
Robert and Rosa exchanged smiles.
‘When and where, Captain?’ Robert said.
‘Tomorrow, at the outset of the Bright Bell, at your vessel. He said that all of you must await him on the bridge, else your quest will be at an end.’
In the middle of their first night’s sleep inside Tusk Mountain, Cheluvahar, scholar and seer, awoke suddenly, senses quivering with the certainty that something was watching them. Ever since yesterday, while his three Artificer scholars and Pilot Yash were clearing the rubble from the entrance, his husked senses gave him the distinct feeling that the ancient Uvovo sanctuary held some other presence. A brief survey of the mountainside entrance and the surrounding rock turned up nothing, however, so the debris clearance had continued.
Chel and Yash and the others had come to Tusk Mountain with the permission of the elder Listeners, to search for an old Uvovo bastion long rumoured to be buried somewhere on its shattered, boulder-strewn slopes. Chel’s new eyes, piercing the veil of likelihoods and past echoes, found it in a matter of hours. And going by the good condition of the interior, it would make a formidable new home for the Human-Uvovo resistance.
Now, Cheluvahar, scholar and seer, lay back down with all of his eyes tightly shut. Lying here on the chamber’s chilling stone floor, enclosed by stone, it was an effort to remind himself that the Uvovo of ancient times had been as skilled in the shaping of stone, and even metal, as their descendants were in the care of Segrana. Ten thousand years ago, the Segrana-That-Was had encompassed both planet and moon, suffused with a might and a purpose that made it the mainstay in the War of the Long Night, a struggle against destroyer machines called the Dreamless. It took the decimation of ancient allies, the Ghost Gods, and the sacrifice of Segrana’s greater strength to defeat those pitiless machine minds. But still the world Umara suffered partial incineration, all the splendour of its vast and teeming forests consumed by fire, their smoke filling the skies, ashes choking the rivers. Chel had witnessed it all in the vivid, unforgettable visions of a husking ceremony. But rather than transforming him into a Listener, the taller, gaunter form of Uvovo, the ritual gave him four new eyes which, when opened in certain combinations, could reveal things from the past as well as possible futures.
Now, in the darkness, he sighed and sat up again and brooded. Umara, cradle of Segrana-That-Was, had become Darien, home to a colony of fractious, flawed, fascinating Humans who seemed to draw in enemies and adversity the way sun-fermented emels attracted insects. Yet if Humans had not come to settle here, the Uvovo would never have been able to cross from the moon to their ancient home and there would have been no resistance to the Hegemony and possibly no knowledge of Umara’s existence spread among the stars.
And little real good have the Humans brought about, responded his inner arguer. Half the stars in the sky seem to know of our plight yet none come to our aid. Knowledge is clearly of little value to them.
We cannot see all that is happening so we cannot know what will happen, he countered. Bare ground hides many seeds.
But his arguer was not done. So how long will you wait for your forest to grow out of that dry, dusty soil?
Chel smiled and gazed around him at the dimness, broken only by a Human oil lantern set to give off a feeble amber glow. The unseen watcher was still there, he was sure. He raised one hand to the cloth strip covering his Seer eyes and was on the verge of opening the outer pair when one of the prone shapes nearby stirred and sat up.
‘So–can’t sleep?’ muttered a voice in accented Noranglic.
‘It’s the stone, Pilot Yash,’ he whispered back. ‘I find I cannot fully relax here.’
‘What about them cave recesses back at Tayowal? They’re cut into rock but you didn’t have trouble sleeping there.’
‘True, but the scholars there have enfolded their refuge with plants and flowers and umisk nests, all the tendrils of life.’
‘Hmmph.’ Yash scratched one of his ears. ‘Or you could be wondering if we’re being watched.’
Chel smiled. ‘How did you know?’
‘Places like this, they always have a bit of…’
He paused as one of the scholars muttered in her sleep and turned over. Both of them were still and silent for a moment, then Chel, in the faintest of whispers, said, ‘Talk outside…’
They stood and carefully tiptoed to the door, then by the light of a handtorch moved along the corridor a few paces.
‘You were about to say something about old places like this, Pilot Yash,’ Chel said in a low voice.
The short-bodied, long-armed Voth, wrapped in a bulky quilted coat, gestured at the stonework all around.
‘Your ancestors built this place for a serious reason, and it’s big enough for plenty of them and whatever they were about, yes?’
Chel nodded, and Yash spread his hands.
‘Right, well among my people we know that all old buildings, especially ones made for war or captivity, carry residual imprints of past inhabitants and their activities. I overheard that them new eyes of yours let you see the past–have you seen anything here?’
‘I have not used my other eyes here,’ Chel said.
‘Aren’t you curious?’ said the Voth. ‘Jelk, if it were me I’d want to know what my predecessors were up to!’
Chel smiled. Of course he was curious, but he was also cautious and not a little bit afraid of what he might see. But I’ll have to take forward steps sometime, and it would be worth seeing if this seer sight reveals who or what is watching us.
‘Very well, Pilot Yash, I shall take a brief look. But be aware that these eyes sometimes show me more than just the past…’
He pushed the cloth strip up into his fine, dense hair and for a moment just stood, regarding his dim surroundings, grey surfaces in the torch’s meagre light. Then he hesitantly parted the eyelids of the outer pair of new eyes. At first, same as his own original eyes, except that there was an extra sense of solidity to objects, conferred by a four-way ocularity, illuminated by the pale halo of Yash’s torch from which tenuous shadows spread. There was stillness, the sound of Yash’s breathing, the faint pulse of his own heartbeat which seemed to slow, then slow further, the beat low and languid, slowing down…
Then leaped back to normal again, as the walls suddenly flickered with shifting strands and clusters of glowing threads, and the air shimmered with glimmering outlines of shapes in motion, moving together or through one another, lines writhing across the walls and ceiling, tangled meshes, quivering webs hurrying to and fro…
He gasped, closing his eyes tightly. It was too much, too overwhelming–Focus on the now, the here, and the vital, sift out the discord–yet he steadied himself, breathed deeply and opened his eyes again. And saw ghosts.
Saw a group of nebulous forms made of those same fine outlines, which he now realised were the residue of past occupants, just as Yash said. The forms grew more detailed, became three Uvovo bent to the task of pushing a loaded cart along the corridor towards where Chel and Yash stood.
‘What do you see?’ Yash murmured.
Chel held up a silencing finger, keeping his eyes on the approaching trio, standing aside as they drew near and passed by. On the cart was a large device of some kind, its details vague apart from hints of flanges, spikes and what looked like twisted limbs. The faces of the Uvovo were indistinct but there was a certain urgency to their posture as they faded into the dark end of the corridor.
What am I seeing and why? It must be important for it to be still playing out after so many centuries, but why?
‘Looks as if we may have woken someone,’ Yash muttered beside him. ‘Now what’s that he’s got… no, wait, stop!…’
Chel turned and for a moment saw one of his Artificer scholars standing next to the chamber door with a crowbar wedged behind one of the stone pillar uprights. The scholar’s face was blank as he put his full weight behind the crowbar and wrenched at the pillar. There was a grinding sound, then the lintel and the wall and ceiling above caved in with a roaring rumble, falling rubble throwing up clouds of dust.
Yash dragged him back, shouting about a weakened ceiling, and Chel complied while in his mind’s eye he saw again the scholar, this time with a violet nimbus about him. Then Yash ignored his own advice and advanced through the dusty haze, coughing as he shone his narrow torch beam on the collapse. Chel was still looking through his outer new eyes and could see gleams and splinters of amber light slipping past gaps in the rubble that blocked the chamber entrance.
‘I can hear their voices, Chel!’ cried the Voth.
But Chel’s senses, alerted by his enhanced vision, quivered in warning as he saw it–a shimmering outline flowing across the shadowy wall away from the fallen masonry. He concentrated his awareness on it, letting his perceptions draw the vision into his mind, as the outline took on hazy details, took on an odd, flattened form. A figure that dipped in and out of the wall as if it were no more solid than a barrier of smoke. Could this be the watcher?
‘Help me, Chel!–we can dig them out!’
But the shimmering figure was heading along towards the big hall down from the mountainside entrance, from where several passages branched out.
‘I have to follow it, Yash–it’s the watcher!’
Chel shook his head and hurried after the apparition, ignoring the Voth’s increasingly angry shouts. As he strode off into the darkness his new eyes laid bare a scattering of details, motes, nuances, an opaque rendering of his surroundings in which the mysterious figure shone like a temple carving brought to life. He followed it round the corner and down the hall to where the open archways of two tall corridors gaped darkly. Earlier, Chel and the others had explored them briefly before retiring for the night; one led to a stairway that spiralled up to a small level of connected rooms full of stone channels and conduits that once would have guided numerous vital roots back when vast forests had towered over even the mountain ranges of Umara, in the age of Segrana-That-Was.
The other led down a short flight of steps to a pair of heavy stone doors which they’d found to be solidly jammed shut. Predictably, this was where the bright outline figure went, gliding from wall to door, undulating across stained surfaces, sinking in and fading from view. Chel sighed as he stopped before the doors, studied the beautifully intricate carvings of entwining vegetation, then slipped his hands into the angled gripping slots and pulled. Nothing, not the slightest hint of any give. Frustrated, he gave them another sharp tug–and heard a faint crack.
Frowning, he stared at the door, clearer now that his eyes, original and seer, had adjusted to both the darkness and the underlying residual images of the past, fleeting glimpses of other hands pushing the doors open, other forms coming and going. He focused. The right-hand door no longer seemed so flush against the other, and Chel could just detect the thready glow of energy at the hinge pintles, floor and ceiling. This time he grasped the finger slot with both hand and hauled on it with all his force, felt movement, paused for breath and pulled again.
With a scraping, grating sound the door gradually came open, a finger’s width, then a hand’s width, then finally a gap sufficient to allow him to squeeze through. On the other side he leaned against the wall, smelling a musty dankness amid the darkness, gazing at the stairs that wound down into the dark heart of the mountain. He felt the sheer weight of all the rock that lay above him, that great, cold downward-pressing mass, and for a moment he wavered. But he gathered his resolve, pushed the unease aside, and continued, following the stairs down.
His footsteps kicked up dust and he could feel fine grit through his hide boots. Through the crumbly erosion of the walls his fingers could make out deeper grooves, not the details of ancient Uvovo depictions and bas-relief decorations, but something else. Then in a leap of conjecture he was sure that they had once acted as guides for creeper plants, a web of them trained throughout the Uvovo stronghold, bringing living greenery to its every corner. Perhaps even light, too, from ineka beetles and ulby roots.
The stairs came out in a small room off a curving corridor. It was pitch black down here but his Seer eyes revealed the cracked walls, the regular chamber openings along the outer wall, the occasional pile of rubble, the dried-up corpses of insects with a few live ones scuttling away from his feet. But of the strange wall ghost there was no sign. At last he came to where a fall-in was serious enough to block the way, a mound of rock and earth that had spilled into the passageway quite some time ago going by the encrustations of dust and delicate, desiccated remains of plants. A big wedge of ceiling masonry had punched a hole in the floor through which Chel could see an empty room devoid of life.
The curved corridor ran in a wide circle, and the inner wall had only two openings, intriguing recesses with steps leading down to square double doors. Resembling ceremonial entrances, they were set diametrically opposite each other but were blocked by boulders and large pieces of broken stonework which had been piled into the recesses. Standing before one of them, Chel frowned as he wondered who had done this and why, and what lay behind the doors. Then he retraced his steps back to the big rockfall and the hole in the floor which might just be wide enough to get through…
As the great mound of dust-caked rock and soil came into view, he quickened his pace–a familiar glimmering radiance clung to the edges of the hole, fading as it sank. Moments later Chel was squatting down to lower his legs in, then, grasping a solid section of the edge, he swung down, hung there a second before dropping the last few feet.
Landing in a crouch, he barely had time to draw breath before he was engulfed in whorls of radiance surging up from the stone floor underfoot. The glittering light flowed in skeins of amber about him, a slow enfolding luminescence beyond which strands of dust and desiccated motes floated.
The radiance swirled and pressed and probed, seeking access, a weakness, a gap in the defences. Chel did not yield.
‘Not I,’ he said.
‘Defiler!… Outrager!…’ When it spoke it was like a shriek pared down to the level of a whisper. ‘… Bringer of empty sleep!… Name thyself…’
‘Cheluvahar of the Warrior Uvovo, scholar and seer…’
‘Liar!… Despoiler of truths!… You lie–all the Seers died at the Isle of Colloquy when the Enemy fell upon them from the sky… the sky… they came with silent death…’
‘I am a new seer,’ he said, resisting the stabbing grasp. ‘Segrana remade me from what I was!’
‘… you lie… YOU LIE!… she who enfolds, she is gone, dead, expired… burnt and dead… great Segrana of endless memory… you lie, just like the Cold Walker…’ The voice lost its ferocity and the shimmering nimbus receded. ‘… It comes here with a great cargo of lies, vast and cruel… it tests me and I tire… it tries to make me believe cruel things but I will not forget… what I am…’
‘Who are you?’ Chel said. ‘What are you?’
‘… seed and root, leaf and branch…’ The voice sounded mournful. ‘… droplets of sun, droplets of time…’
Chel was astonished. The couplets were familiar, a childhood refrain, a youngling’s rhyme whose words came easily to mind.
‘… the feathered ones, the scaled ones… the digging ones, the chewing ones… the buzzing ones, the singing ones… the swimming ones, the resting ones… all kept safe, all kept well… by the lonely keeper… the Keeper of Segrana…’
The voice fell silent and a pale amorphous luminosity flowed away towards a carving-covered wall, up to a long horizontal crack into which it vanished.
What kind of being is that? he wondered. It knew of the Keeper, but it tried to possess me just as it did with my scholar.
According to the song-cycles of the War of the Long Night, the Keeper of Segrana was the wisest of the wise, the most capable of all the Pathmasters chosen by Segrana herself to carry out a vital wardenship. The Pathmasters were closely attuned to the thoughts, the moods, and the currents of Segrana but only the Keeper was able to share them, by virtue of bonds laid out in the underdomain of reality, by way of intertwined consciousnesses. If this was true, how could a spectral remnant survive all these centuries? Could Yash be right, that past events full of the most intense emotions could imprint themselves in the solid surroundings of their locations?
He looked about him. It was a long room with shallow recesses to either side, each with several concave ducts running across the back, connected to the others. These had to be root guides similar to those he’d found in the underground root chamber a few weeks ago. Through the gloom of the room he saw a shadowy door at the far end and made towards it. Beyond was a circular passage with another nine root chambers leading off, and a small central room with small, narrow steps leading up. He climbed up through a rectangular gap and found himself at the bottom of a high, circular hall dimly lit by a few opaque, glassy panels dotted here and there, giving off a wan radiance.
The hall was about a hundred paces wide and the tall encircling wall seemed to be decorated with horizontal bands of friezes. To Chel’s immediate right was a circular stone platform supported by four equidistant head-height plinths. He could see that once there had been four of these platforms, but the one to his left was slumped, charred and melted as if it had been subjected to tremendous heat. The one directly across had been smashed apart, and seared chunks of stone lay scattered over half the floor. The fourth seemed as undamaged as the one Chel stood near but when he looked at it closely, just with his ordinary eyes, he could discern a hazy, tenuous aura and faint silvery gleams in the grooves of the patterns incised into its surface.
With a shock he realised what he was looking at. The motifs and symbols that covered the still intact platforms looked very similar to those on the face of the warpwell back at Giant’s Shoulder. When he approached the one with the aura he immediately felt a sense of presence, of connections to things beyond the mountain, as if it were almost alive. He ascended a small set of stone steps up to the rounded lip and stepped onto the glimmering patterns.
At once light bloomed from the high walls, from symbols that appeared amid the carvings whose polished mosaic style gave off bright reflections. Other glassy panels lit up, providing ample illumination.
AT LAST YOU HAVE COME, SEER CHELUVAHAR.
A shining silver veil rose around half the platform’s rim, its folds of light brightening and rippling as the speaker spoke.
‘Greetings, Sentinel,’ Chel said. ‘Have I been expected?’
I REASONED THAT THE NEED FOR A ROBUST REFUGE WOULD LEAD YOU TO UOK-HAKAUR, ALTHOUGH NOT SO DELAYED. TIME GROWS SHORT.
Time grows short, Chel thought. It hadn’t taken long for the cryptic utterances to emerge.
‘Sentinel, may I ask how you are able to speak with me here when you reside beneath the Waonwir?’
THE GREATER PART OF ME IS INTEGRAL TO THE WAONWIR–THAT IS ITS STRENGTH AND MY WEAKNESS. HOWEVER, MY ABILITY TO DIVERT PART OF MY COGNITIVE SELF ALONG THE WORLDPATHS REMAINS UNDIMINISHED.
‘What are the worldpaths?’ Chel said.
WAYS LAID DOWN IN THE UNDERDOMAIN BY THE FORERUNNERS TO DRAW TOGETHER ALL THE CITADEL WORLDS IN PREPARATION FOR THE INVASION OF THE LEGION OF AVATARS. UNFORTUNATELY, FEW WORLD-PATHS REMAIN INTACT, AT LEAST AMONG THOSE THAT CONVERGED AT UMARA.
Possibilities tumbled through Chel’s thoughts. ‘Sentinel, are these worldpaths only for communication, or can we travel along them?’
TRAVEL BETWEEN THE CITADEL WORLDS WAS COMMONPLACE AND COMMUNICATION WAS PART OF DAY-TO-DAY EXISTENCE. NOW, MY ENERGY SOURCES ARE WEAK AND UNRELIABLE; I AM CAPABLE OF OBSERVING AND COMMUNICATING ALONG THOSE WORLDPATHS STILL OPEN TO ME, BUT SENDING A LIVING BEING WOULD BE DEMANDING AND PROBLEMATIC.
‘Yet you transported the Earthsphere ambassador away, and later sent the visitor Kao Chih and his companions to safety after the defeat of the Legion machine.’
WHEN THE CONSTRUCT MADE ITS REQUEST FOR A HUMAN OR UVOVO GUEST, IT ALSO SENT AN ISOSHELL OF COHERENT ENERGIES WITH WHICH TO EFFECT THE TRANSFER. A SMALL AMOUNT WAS LEFT OVER, ENOUGH TO REMOVE THE THREE DEFENDERS TO A SAFE PLACE.
Chel frowned and turned, his attention distracted by a now-familiar presence, and there, flickering across the foot of the wall was the shimmering entity that called itself the Keeper.
HAVE YOU ENCOUNTERED THIS LURKER SINCE YOUR ARRIVAL, SEER?
‘Yes,’ said Chel, gaze following the pale radiant outline until it disappeared behind the rubble of the smashed platform. ‘It took control of one of my companions and caused a cave-in that trapped them in a chamber up near the entrance, then when I came down here it tried to possess me but failed. Is it really the Keeper?’
THE POSSIBILITY EXISTS. THE LAST KEEPER OF SEGRANA WAS FIGHTING AGAINST THE DREAMLESS TO THE VERY END–HIS MIND WAS STRETCHED ACROSS THE FULL BREADTH OF UMARA, FROM THE HEIGHTS TO THE DEPTHS AND THROUGHOUT STRONGHOLDS LIKE UOK-HAKAUR. IN COMMON WITH THE WAONWIR AND MOST OF THE ANCIENT UVOVO BUILDINGS, THE STONES HERE WERE REFASHIONED TO BECOME LIKE DEVICES, SOME WITH SPECIFIC PROPERTIES, SOME WITH MANY, ALL WORKING TOGETHER TO PROVIDE SANCTUARY, CONTINUITY AND MEMORY FOR THE UVOVO.
‘But the war broke that continuity,’ Chel said.
THE WAR ENDED MANY THINGS. WHEN SEGRANA-THAT-WAS SACRIFICED HER GREATER STRENGTH, THE DREAMLESS SENT THEIR MACHINE SERVANTS AGAINST HER, BURNING THE FORESTS, BURNING THE LAND, BURNING UMARA. THE UVOVO DIED, AS DID THE PATHMASTERS AND THE KEEPER.
Chel remembered something. ‘After I resisted its assault, it spoke of someone else it had met, the Cold Walker–is that you, Sentinel?’
YES, THAT IS ITS NAME FOR ME.
‘So, it is possible that the stones of this place absorbed some remnant of the original Keeper,’ Chel said. ‘But could this vestige present a threat?’
AGAIN, THE POSSIBILITY EXISTS. IF THE KEEPER’S ESSENCE WAS ABSORBED THEN THE PATTERN OF IT MUST RESIDE IN A PARTICULAR PLACE. SUCH A PATTERN CAN BE DISRUPTED SHOULD THIS KEEPER PROVE TO BE MORE THAN A NUISANCE.
‘If we had a Keeper now,’ Chel said, ‘it might strengthen our situation.’
THE NEW KEEPER WAS INTENDED TO BE YOU, BUT SEGRANA PICKED ANOTHER.
Chel paused on hearing this, so surprised that he went over what the Sentinel had just said. Understanding was followed by astonishment.
‘I was intended to be… the Keeper of Segrana?’
YOU WERE SELECTED BY THE LISTENERS WHO GUIDED YOU TO THE FIRST STAGE, A LISTENER HUSKING. INSTEAD YOU EMERGED AS A SEER WHILE SEGRANA CHOSE ANOTHER AS KEEPER, THE HUMAN FEMALE CATRIONA MACREADIE.
Astonishment sharpened–a non-Uvovo as the Keeper! He could imagine the outrage that this would provoke in strict traditionalists, like his old teacher, Listener Faldri, yet he himself felt no anger or resentment. Segrana, he deduced, must have had compelling reasons for her decision–Catriona had once been an Enhanced, which perhaps conferred on her qualities that Segrana saw as unique and invaluable.
‘She must have found it daunting,’ Chel said.
HER TASK IS JUST AS VITAL AND DEMANDING AS YOURS, AND NO LESS PRESSING. YOU AND YOUR COMPANIONS MUST RETURN TO TAYOWAL AND PERSUADE GREGORY CAMERON AND THE OTHER LEADERS TO BRING THEIR PEOPLE HERE, TO UOK-HAKAUR, WHERE THEY CAN BE PROTECTED.
‘Protected from what, Sentinel?’
IN THE CHAMBER BENEATH WAONWIR I OVERHEAR MUCH THAT IS SAID BY THESE HEGEMONY SCIENTISTS, BETWEEN THEM AND THE DREAMLESS PARASITES THEY THINK TO BE SERVANTS. I HAVE LEARNED THAT THEIR MASTER HERE ON UMARA, ONE NAMED KUROS, WILL SOON HAVE A NEW WEAPON AT HIS DISPOSAL. IN SENDRUKAN IT IS CALLED THE NAMUL-ASHAPH, A MOBILE FACTORY FOR PRODUCING WAR MACHINES, SEMI-AUTONOMOUS COMBAT MECHS. WHEN IT ARRIVES IT WILL BE FLOWN UNDER COVER OF DARKNESS TO A SECLUDED SITE SOMEWHERE IN THE FOREST OF ARAWN. THIS FACTORY HAS A DIRECTING MIND AND AFTER IT HAS LOCATED SETTLEMENTS OF REBEL HUMANS IT WILL EAT THE GROUND, SOIL AND ROCK, AND START TO BUILD ITS HORDE.
Chel listened in horror. ‘How can we fight such a thing? The Humans have their weapons but—’
YOU HAVE UOK-HAKAUR! IT IS A STRONGHOLD BUILT TO STAND AGAINST THE DREAMLESS OF OLD–IT WILL PROTECT YOU AGAINST THIS NAMUL-ASHAPH AND ITS DEVICE-CREATURES.
‘But what of Nivyesta?’ Chel said. ‘Are they going to send one of these factories into the forests of Segrana?’ Terrible visions flitted through his thoughts: fire, blood, and immense trees toppling.
SEGRANA HAS ANCIENT STRENGTHS AND RESOURCES, SEER, AND IS MORE THAN CAPABLE OF DEALING WITH SUCH ATTACKERS. BUT I HAVE HEARD NOTHING TO MAKE ME SUSPECT THAT ANOTHER OF THESE MAKER MACHINES IS TO BE SENT THERE.
Chel frowned. ‘So how will we survive, Sentinel? If Greg’s people and the Uvovo are safe within this mountain, what happens then? While these war machines roam the forests, slaying any who oppose them, how long before the Hegemony scientists find out how to unweave your defences and make the warpwell do their bidding?’
YOU SURMISE CORRECTLY. THE HEGEMONY SCIENTISTS ARE CREATIVE AND PERSISTENT, AND IT IS ONLY A MATTER OF TIME BEFORE THEY DEVISE A WAY TO BYPASS MY RAMPARTS. BEYOND OUR DEFENSIVE TACTICS THERE IS A STRATEGY, WHICH DEPENDS ON ROBERT HORST.
‘The ambassador who was dispatched into the care of this machine ally, the Construct?’ Chel recalled that moment in the warpwell chamber when Horst was swallowed by dazzling light. ‘So he was to be more than a guest.’
THE CONSTRUCT NEEDED SOMEONE RELIABLE WHOM IT COULD SEND AS AN ENVOY TO NEGOTIATE WITH A VERY OLD, VERY POWERFUL BEING CALLED THE GODHEAD. IF ROBERT HORST CAN SECURE AN AGREEMENT OR TREATY WITH THIS BEING, THEN THE CONSTRUCT WILL COMMIT A PORTION OF HIS OWN FORCES TO THE DEFENCE OF THIS WORLD AND TO GUARANTEE ITS SECURITY, WHILE ENSURING THAT THE WARPWELL IS RENDERED USELESS.
A thud came from a tall recess that Chel realised was the inner part of one of the blocked entrances.
YOUR COMPANIONS ARE CLEARING AWAY THE OBSTRUCTION–SOON YOU WILL BE ABLE TO DEPART. SEER CHELUVAHAR, RETURN TO TAYOWAL AND EXPLAIN TO THE HUMANS AND THE UVOVO WHAT I HAVE SAID. WHEN YOU ARE STANDING HERE WITH GREGORY CAMERON AND WHICHEVER LISTENERS ATTEND, WE WILL SPEAK AGAIN.
The silvery veil dulled and faded, and the glowing wall glyphs and panels likewise dimmed, leaving the platform hall in gloom. Chel descended the steps and was halfway to the entrance when there were several thumps and the doors scraped open. Grit cascaded, and dust spread in clouds through which wavering torch beams groped. A short coughing figure stumbled across the threshold, followed by a couple of taller ones.
The Voth pilot peered through the haze and grinned when he saw Chel.
‘I knew it! It was that jelking hole in the floor, wasn’t it?’
‘Indeed so, friend Yash. I’m glad you cleared the doorway as we now have to leave.’
‘Leave? But we just…’
‘Yes, leave, straight away. We have an urgent message to carry back to Tayowal, a crucial message.’ He saw the disappointment in the scholars’ faces, one of whom he recognised as the Keeper’s victim. ‘Are you well, Sylgoru? Have you recovered?’
The scholar’s face was a picture of misery. ‘I am so very ashamed, Seer, to have put my seed brothers in such peril. I was weak…’
‘You were unprepared, Syl,’ Chel said. ‘As were we all. But we now have a new ally, and a new refuge, so let us be away without delay. We must get to Tayowal before dusk and tell them what is coming.’
As he led them from the high gloomy hall, he related the essential details of what he had learned from the Sentinel. The three Uvovo scholars grew anxious and wide-eyed but Pilot Yash looked thoughtful.
‘So your Sentinel thinks this place will keep us safe until help arrives?’
‘I hope so, Yash. I’m looking forward to seeing you spend all the money that Gorol9 promised you. I’ll even let you buy us some gifts, if that will please you.’
Excerpted from The Orphaned Worlds by Michael Cobley Copyright © 2012 by Michael Cobley. Excerpted by permission.
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