The burning of the world was over for another year. As before, as always, it had left the land blackened, cracked and desolate, like the bottom of a cooling smelter. And yet...already there was early sign of renewal. Little slips of green poking up in random patches, wriggling out of the ground and questing for air and light.
Now a strong south wind was blowing, stirring up great drifts of ash which threatened to bury those impetuous shoots. The man’s nose flared as he drew the hot air – the breath of the sleeping demons it was said – deep into his lungs. Despite the nasal filter of finely woven dog hair, he still caught the scent of that wind, and he was certain it carried more than just the wild odours of the plains, more than the dust and dung of returning herds, the acridness of charred landscapes, the ozone tang of the coming rains. There were also tantalising, elusive things.
The rich fragrance of civilisation.
South, beyond the far horizon but not the broad bounds of his imagination, a realm of endless promise awaited.
But now he turned, forced by exigency to put away his dreaming and consider more immediate matters. He was a hunter, and a good one. That was his calling. Those who knew him well hailed him a paragon in the skill. Rarely did he go short of meat or praise, and a place by the fire was always his to demand. Doubtless his victims saw things a bit differently, had their own names like ‘murderer’ and ‘brigand’. Maybe they even thought of him as a creature supernatural, a demon that swept out of the wastelands like a tornado. He did not particularly care what they said, or believed, provided they paid their due.
He saw to the latest sorry lot now. The captain and crew had already been dealt with, and had faced their end with the surly fatalism common to their kind. They, like he, knew very well the hard realities of travelling the great emptiness. The man holding the purse strings, though, the one paying for the charter, was of a different ilk. A liverless merchant, a city man, he had fallen apart like a fresh turd. Instead of standing for his clan’s honour he pissed his britches in fear, pleading and gibbering, “Please, take all my jewels. I have Central Bank currency too, and letters of credit...in the ship’s safe. Just spare me, for the love of the totems. I have family!”
To which the hunter impassively replied, “We all have family. And how can you give to me what is already mine?”
They were always like this, he reminded himself...these people of the Girdle: ignorant, weak, devoid of any shred of warrior valour, sprouting weevil-words and flourishing legal documents that had absolutely no bearing here. Trying to buy or negotiated for their lives. But he was not one of them and his contempt for their ways easily matched the volume of stale prattle issuing from their mouths, and with that thought cemented in his mind he drove a knife through the merchant’s heart. A common butchering knife, nothing noble, for this one did not deserve the kiss of any of his special blades.
The man arched back, shuddering, his eyes popping. The hunter held him upright a moment, an arm curled behind his back as though they were locked in an intimate dance. He savoured the moment when he thought he felt the man’s spirit pull away, be snatched up by the south wind and twirled into the sky. After that he let go and watched the lifeless corpse drop. At once the geenhounds began their excited yowls, but these were well-trained dogs and they made no move until he gave the command – then they sated their hunger in their usual frenzy.
Returning to the ship, he saw his men were already setting it alight, having stripped it of anything of worth. On the vast sweep of the plains, it made a grand bonfire, and they stood basking in the fierce heat. There was a cascading wave of rainbow light when the flames reached the totem at the ship’s core and the gravity-bind that made the contraption fly unravelled explosively – Girdle sorcery they did not like nor trusted, and it forced them to take a few wary steps back.
“I’m tired of these measly pickings,” he eventually announced to the world, once more thinking of his dreams and casting a jaded eye over a paltry collection of copper wafers and other bits of loot. When they had caught the ship in their cloud nets, in their minds it had held potential for astonishing riches, but yet again, like all the others, it proved a sour disappointment. Wealthy Girdle clans were never foolish enough to come this far north. The big fat trading ships he longed for shied away from these parts, knowing their reputation for disappearances. That just left the occasional scientific survey vessel or, like this one, the hired deepship of a small-time business factor. Whether it had been dragged off course by the fierce polar gyres, or had gone adrift due to some trigonometric error, he was unsure, for he had never gotten the whole story as it was not pertinent. Kicking the crispy ground under his feet, he growled, “When will our luck change?”
“Have patience,” the woman advised.
The hunter swung to her. At forty, he was still a relatively young man, but he could not tell her age through the veil, although he suspected, by the timbre of her voice, that she was not long past her second decade, still a maid. But there was something intense and concentrated about her that belied her tender youth, as though she were honed from adamantine or distilled from the essence of all that was bitter and ancient in the world.
As far as he was aware, she had started appearing amongst his people a few years ago, seemingly manifesting out of nowhere, from the very wind and dust like a harpy it seemed. It was always at this time of year, within the first weeks of the clan’s migration. She stayed barely a month but managed to be everywhere, finding even the most remote camps such as his, moving about with secret intent and occasionally taking away a girl-child. To the hunter her purpose remained unclear; he knew her only as an outsider, and a witch.
“What do you know of patience?” he snarled. “You have not lived here in this hell-zone all these generations as we have done. Our people cry for more, deserve more. We want what the blackskins have. Their wealth. Their easy existence.”
“And you shall get it all,” she reassured smoothly.
“Some more years still have to pass.”
“Some more years,” he echoed scornfully. “You’ve said that before!” The hunter was now venting all his pent up frustrations, suddenly finding himself tipping over a dangerous precipice. “How do I know you’re not just saying that to string us along, dig yourself deeper within the confidence of the Warlord? Keep yourself in wine and dog meat?” He stared around and many of the men were nodding slightly. Even the machinist, an odd-ball brainy type who tended the flying devices that had carried them here, pricked up his ears at the accusation riding in the huntsman’s voice.
If the witch was affronted by the outburst, she did not show it, simply said with cool disdain, “Why would I need to do that? You delude yourself if you think your clan has anything material I require or desire. I have wealth and power beyond what you can imagine.”
The hunter’s eyes were instantly drawn to the glint of jewellery hidden amongst her robes – ancient titanium, incredibly expensive, metal bequeathed from long-dead gods – and he plunged on, careless of what dire magics the woman might chose to cast at him if insulted too greatly. Behind his beard his lips pressed thin. “Then why have you come amongst us? To flaunt yourself and mock our poverty?”
“Of course not,” she scoffed. “Don’t be an idiot. What is the value or sense in that? What the Warlord and I have struck is a partnership. A bargain. When our plans come to fruition, we will both benefit in different ways. Yes, I know I have cautioned against rashness, and have spoken of the long years of building. And all that is absolutely necessary. But do not chafe and fret like your dogs under leash, mighty hunter, for your son shall see the fruits in his lifetime.”
The man stilled, controlling the sudden electric burst of excitement that he felt. He was a march-thane, in essence a minor lord whose family had long held dominion over this particular scour. These hunting tracks across sky and land, followed over generations by his people, were jealously guarded by the various keeper families, but a new unity was emerging within the clan under the Warlord, and as reward for his own loyalty he had been gifted a wife from the harem. He was no longer confined to screwing camp whores or the junior men who offered themselves up in ingbau. He had his own woman now; she was high-bred, knew all the tricks to pleasuring a man, and had turned heavy with child. The auspices said it was a boy. “He will survive to adulthood?”
“Better than that. He will be the one to lead your people to glory. I have read his soul and seen it is worthy, and laid a bond upon him. This child born of your seed will be the captain who unleashes the Warlord’s fury upon the world. That is the task that awaits him.”
The hunter watched the last sections of the burning ship peel away and crumble, then glanced at the machinist who was starting to melt the copper wafers in a portable forge to make new electrical wiring for the skydarts. He was reminded that his people had been stealing, scavenging and mining tiny amounts of metal from the environment for many years, painstakingly gathering up this so scarce and precious resource until there was enough to build functional drive cores. Each of these flimsy, fume-belching aircraft carried a sizzling hot cord of Aja's fire within, but they were still only precursors for greater technologies to come, with plans for the mighty skybreakers on the horizon of the Warlord’s engineering program.
With certain bitterness he regretted this wondrous destiny of which the witch spoke, and what the machines represented, was not to be his, for the Great Scour, the final migration that would lead his people south to the centre of the world, had been promised and talked about all his adult years. It was foundation of all his dreams of longing. And yet –
He also savoured the satisfaction. The exaltation. For the witch said it would be his own bloodline that would bring upon that moment of triumph, his own son who would deliver his people’s future, and that was a prize worth all the gold in the world. What was personal ambition anyway when his family would be raised amongst the greatest lineages of the clan, reap honours and wealth beyond imagining? Especially since he knew he already carried the bite in his belly; he figured he only had a handful of good years left in this world. Exposure to the invisible poison left by the fire-storms was a risk every huntsman took, a gamble he had lost. But that was inconsequential now.
“When will my people know this day of reckoning?” he barely dared to asked.
The woman turned her veiled face skywards and raised her arms in a sweeping, encompassing gesture. Up there, thick bands of ash pumped into the atmosphere by the fire-storms not long vanished still swirled through the suffusing radiance of Skyvast, casting snaking shadows across the land. That dirty sky was the colour of old, hammered gold, or the morning’s first piss, as the old saying went. Many long months still had to pass before it would begin to take on fiery intensity, ignited by the energies of the sun as it circled back in its endless quest to devour the world.
“The heavens will give us the sign,” the witch announced in a loud, carrying voice. “When the sky is cleaved by the orphaned star, this will be our time to arise.”
By some trick of the light, or magic, the streaming clouds seemed to twirl obediently around her fingers, and the hunter sank to his knees in awe, his ears ringing with the music of prophecy.
A voice echoed in the dark.
“Wake up,” it said.
The response that came was obdurate silence.
After a while, as the silence continued, the voice tried again, a bit more insistent. “I said wake up.”
The silence still drifted on unperturbed.
The speaker breathed out. “Hmm...”
It was a woman. Her voice carried a certain no-nonsense and impatient tone. Through the fog of his thoughts the man slowly registered that he should say something, reassure her that he was listening as best he could, but it was just not that simple. The fact of the matter being that he was, by any reasonable measure, dead. Quite and very dead. What he had been reduced to could not communicate nor focus its thoughts. He felt nothing, no cold, no warmth, no sensations at all. He was just organic residue smeared across eternity. For him there was just the darkness, the oblivion as he thought of it, and it was total and without end.
The voice started again. Nipping at him more sharply this time, like a wasp. “Wake. Up. Come through to me. Are you there? Give me a sign. I need to know if you’ve returned complete. If you don’t respond soon you’re going to really piss me off and then I’ll have to do something drastic. I can assure you, you wouldn’t want that.”
Her warning delivered, the woman seemed to sink back into the enveloping dark, muttering to herself. “I hate it when they go so deep. Why do they? Oh, yes, that’s right...original humans can’t survive a Crossing unless entombed. They’re to be pitied.” She heaved a pained sigh. “Well it’s time this caveman came back from the grave. His resurrection is at hand.”
Finally something that was said speared the man’s fractured awareness, caused it to knot itself together a little. Entombed. In a sudden burst he understood what was happening to him: he was being decrypted from the Clay. Yes...that was what the substrate was called, the insanely complex stuff that would preserve him as a fossil imprint forever if need be.
As he focused on this remarkable discovery, there was a snap of pressure or invisible energy in the dark, and the decryption process accelerated. It might have taken minutes, hours or days, for there was no time sense in this void, but relentlessly the rebuilding of his flesh went on. When the moment came he gave a mental scream as all his senses became alive in a wild, terrifying rush. He was whole, mind and body.
His eyes flicked open.
Initially there was still nothing to see, just the lightless internality of the Clay. Then glowing red letters emerged out of the dark. They strung themselves together, formed words.
Atmospheric braking commences. Refer to the Pilot.
He struggled to comprehend their meaning. In truth, he did not like this new reality. He wanted only to sink back to where he had been before. In that realm of adventure he had walked more than a score of worlds – worlds of ice, desert, jungle, ocean and vacuum. But as he tried to reach for them, he felt them slipping away, leaving him with nothing to clasp. Panic threatened. Where was he? What was happening?
In response to his rising terror, the woman said, “Just be calm. You’re transitioning out of stasis. I’m decoupling your consciousness from the flight-dream. It’s a delicate procedure, but you are doing fine. All is well, beloved one. Knowledge of everything will come to you.”
He tried to move his restored body but the Clay was like a vice.
“Freedom will return as well,” the woman assured.
Some embedded instinct told him he could trust her, and so reluctantly he ceased his struggle and settled his mind, and in doing so he remembered: I’m aboard a starship. The next memory to cascade into place was his name.
Hamman...Hamman Tarkus Octavian Ariyaramnes Median.
A long, cumbersome, pretentious name, and he recalled that he had never particularly liked it. But it was one redolent of past greatness, and he was stuck with it.
The Clay suddenly began to shift; it was melting away like wax and finally releasing its hold on him. Lights came on all around and his vision swam for a moment as he fought the sensory overload, then he found himself floating in a zero-gravity cavern and taking his first breath of cold, sterile air. At one end a willowy female figure came into focus. She was naked just like he was, and he guessed she was the owner of the voice. Although obviously human, she possessed an unsettling resemblance to a spider or mantis with her impossibly elongated limbs and flesh as translucent as milk-glass. His first instinct was to recoil in horror, wondering if she were really some ogre come to devour him.
More memories trickled into his mind.
The ship’s Pilot, the goddess of my journey, they told him.
She floated smoothly forward. Her sinuous fingers closed about his warming skin like tentacles, checking the state of his body in the most intimate ways. Like a new-born babe he lay helpless as she turned him about, pinching and prodding, slapping his face, flexing his arms, sticking those long fingers down his throat and up his arse to prize apart delicate membranes. It was all very uncomfortable and deeply humiliating; he felt like a new toy being roughly unwrapped by a thoughtless child. Finally she concluded her inspection and let him go, but not before giving one nipple a hard yank, causing a flowering of pain.
“Ow!” he cried and instantly coughed up a wad of mucus.
“Ah, that was good. You should be about right now,” she clucked with evident satisfaction and just a little bit of wicked humour. “Nerve responses functioning. Tubing's all back where it should be. Everything in order, I would say. Now...according to resurrection protocol, I must inform you of any medical interventions the ship may have performed. Not many. You were a specimen of perfect health when you went into stasis. But you did have twenty grams of partially digested chicken dinner and a similar quantity of faecal matter in your system; that’s been removed and added to the ship’s biomass, thank you. The ship’s adjusted your skeleto-muscular system to account for your mission conditions and also repaired all accumulated chromosomal damage and other lifestyle-related deterioration clocked up over your thirty years of biological existence. So, in effect, all squeaky clean, shiny and better than new. I must warn you, though, that you’ve retained a family predisposition towards type-two diabetes and late onset cardiac disease, but this was assessed as being within mission tolerances.” As her words echoed within the chamber, her lips remained firmly fixed together like a statue’s, and so it was clear that her voice was generated by some computer program. “Dear one, the Crossing was successful – you survived the voyage.”
“Where am I?” Hamman simmered, working a tongue that felt like an unresponsive mass of rubber.
“Why your mission destination, of course. More particular, the fo'c'sle that has been arranged for your comfort.”
The trickle of memories was becoming a flow. “What about the ship…is it okay?” Even as he uttered the question, the schematics of the great starship flowered in his head: a sphere of almost solid Clay sheathed in a syper envelope that extended thousands of kilometres/seconds out into space-time, providing various sensor and propulsion systems.
“We’re in reasonable condition, given the circumstances,” the Pilot reported. “It’s been a difficult, trying voyage. Thankfully, Leichhardt has obtained a favourable approach trajectory. We’re coming in fast with a clear path ahead.”
There was, at that moment, a sad note to the woman’s voice, and Hamman understood why. This had always been planned as a one-way trip. He was aboard a Heavensman, one of the deep-space clippers born in a distant age and no longer completely understood. Priceless and irreplaceable, the ship had taken its final journey.
“How long have we been out?”
“Four hundred and nineteen years, two months, six days, three hours. I probably don’t need to tell you the minutes or seconds.”
The shock hit him like a tidal wave. Although he’d been warned, he had never truly believed the voyage would take that long. Generations had passed on Earth and none of the people he knew would be alive. The culture itself would have changed in unknown ways. Not that this really mattered, for he, like the Pilot, would never see Earth again.
Once more the Pilot sensed his distress and she tried to sooth him. Her hands stroked his body softly as though she were petting a cat. “I’m sorry, beloved one. Even following the most efficient routes, this was the best I could do. There were more ruptures in the Waystream than we thought. Entire chasms in space-time that we had to bridge the hard way.”
Hamman shut away his emotions, schooling them as he was trained to do. He knew he could not dwell on what had been. He had to look to the present. That was critical for survival. “I have other questions.”
“Of course. Speak them and I shall answer. I carry all the knowledge of my sister line.”
By ‘sister line’ Hamman knew she referred to the sequence of Pilots that had helped guide this vessel. She was one of the Shipborn, beings bio-engineered to live solely in space. “Where are we?”
“I’ve already told you. Your mission destination.”
“Yes, but where’s that? I don’t remember it.”
“The planet Tabulain.”
“I don’t know that name. No wait. There is...there is another name.”
“You are correct. History knows this place as Har’mautan.”
“That’s it. That’s the old name, the correct name. Why is there the other one?”
“Because time changes all things, even worlds.”
“Then what is the planet like?”
“Outwardly, much as the bardsongs have portrayed. It is majestic, it is savage.”
“I think I remember...the storms...”
“Yes, here is the Har’mautan of myth. The world of storm and fire.”
Hamman gazed at the glowing alert still hovering near him. It was a holographic data-field, he now knew, and as he stared into it the text dissolved and was replaced by a golden orb. At first he thought it was this system’s sun, so intensely bright was it. But the accompanying readouts told him it was actually the planet he was headed for. It was impossible to tell the true scale of it, but he guessed it to be huge. The ship’s optic filters adjusted the image until he began to discern swirling shapes. These were bands of cloud covering the planet’s face and reflecting much of the sun’s radiation back out into space. As he watched, whirlpools in those bands hinted at violent forces at work.
“The devil’s cauldron,” the Pilot murmured.
The bird soared in the glowing midday sky. Akaon ran two fingers down his veil, the touch increasing the polarisation of the reactive fabric, cutting back the golden glare so he could watch better as Tershian traced a broad arc, her wings beating defiantly in the wind. When in flight, a fully grown remhawk was always a glorious thing. Something to truly marvel at. It was said that the spirit world flew with these birds, that their paths through the sky traced the tracks of the Nithe Dragons themselves, and at that moment, as Tershian’s wings seemed to gather up sheaves of wind and light, Akaon could believe that.
Reluctantly, though, the youth dragged his attention back to his surroundings. Only fools or the suicidal failed to watch for the ever-present dangers of the deep. For that reason most sensible people refused to venture down here. Hungry ghosts were said to roam across the Sweeps, hunting out the souls of the living. Fatal spore or dust clouds could engulf the unwary at any moment. And of course there were plenty of predators swarming across the plains, human or otherwise, taking advantage of the largess that winter brought.
Perhaps the worst of these dangers, at least in the boy’s mind, were the Sygians. Akaon maintained a fearful fascination of the faerie hunters of the grasslands, although he had yet to actually place eyes upon any, which was a blessing as it was told that anyone who did were never seen again. The accepted wisdom was that Sygians crawled out of the ground at dusk, taking many phantom forms. But right now it was not them he was particularly worried about, as Skyvast still shone bright, with many hours until darkness fell. He was more concerned about a far more mundane peril.
Skyvast grew restless. Began to surge and roil, its light becoming more intense. Dramatic alterations in the atmosphere were happening, and the veneer of life below was preparing its response. Fierce squalls could appear on the grasslands with little warning, and so much that only a week ago had been lush and fecund was dying or disappearing. But he noted with a slight relaxing of his muscles that everything out here still seemed reasonably quiet for the present. Just a few plume-like topsies, the clouds rising benignly into the brighter belly of Skyvast. There was line of giant spongeforms running to the horizon, venting their gas in a clear sign they were at the end of their life cycles, but he was far enough away should any choose to explode. All threats therefore checked and deemed minimal.
His mind began to wander with the buzz of cicadas in the grass.
So little was really known of this underworld, he reflected, of the host of plants and animals which constituted the ecology clinging to the planet’s surface. But of this particular patch of it, his clan’s foraging ground, he was proud to say he knew more than most, having visited regularly since old enough to learn to ride, a rather unprincely sport but which had enabled him to explore a great deal. He knew where potable water bubbled up from the fibrous tangle of the whipgrass rhizomes, where yams and edible thread-orchids could be dug. He had encountered, hunted, watched and filed notes on several score of prey species, from the darting, birdlike ornipods to the noble zelbeast.
Right now he was travelling through wick, the shorter type of whipgrass which only reached as far as the attan’s chest and released a spicy scent when stomped on. It was always wise to stay in the wick, where the way ahead was clear to see and fewer things could hide in ambush. He was aware, though, that to the north and east lay tracts of skarse, deepgrass, which grew so tall it obscured the sky and the only way through it was to follow meandering tunnels formed by the trampling movements of animals.
Regardless of the variety, the whipgrass formed a seemingly endless belt of subtle colour: soft greens, russets, dusty browns and yellows. The way the wind played over it all, carving broad, undulating patterns, made him think him of some great banquet cloth being unfurled for a feast day.
A flash of wing brought him instantly back to the moment. He looked up at his bird, just in time to see her bank sharply and descend. For a second she blurred against the brilliance of Skyvast before disappearing amidst the writhing whipgrass. Akaon stood in his saddle, straining to see where she had landed. He could see nothing.
Damn! I mustn’t loose trace ‒
Suddenly there was a new burst of motion; Tershian exploded out of the grass, clasping a limp form in her talons. She disappeared from view a second time behind a termite mound.
This was the vital moment, Akaon reminded himself, as he spurred his mount forward. This was the deciding test, when months of training could be forgotten in a carnivorous frenzy. If Tershian chose, she could gorge herself on her prey and lift into the windstreams, to be free of human hands at last. If she did not, then she was truly his. He was soon to know what it was to be.
As the attan’s hoofs crashed through the vegetation, he heard a remhawk’s challenge up ahead. His beast carried him past the termite nest and broke through to a blackened clearing. He automatically tightened his veil against a choking swirl of ash. This time of year, as the grasses dried beneath the growing heat of Skyvast, fires began to consume huge tracks of land. One must have passed this way only a week or so ago.
He looked about and spied Tershian huddled a little distance away. She fixed him with a wild look as she guarded her prey. Dropping to the ground, he approached cautiously, his boots crunching on burnt corms and roots. She’d remembered her training and had not fed, and his smile was one of pure joy as he pulled out his hunting knife. Peeling back a glove, he made a small incision in his wrist and smeared the blood on the bird’s plumage while softly chanted the trancode. Tershian stilled as she listened. She seemed to understand the story, or sense its power. The totem was summoned. The tralt-weld was forged in blood in the time-honoured ways of his people.
“Come, my lovely girl,” he coaxed with affection and immeasurable pride, and gathered the bird up in his arms. She nipped at his fingers, still a little charged by her kill. But already he could feel the kinship, just a wisp of the closeness of mind that would only grow and grow with time.
Once Tershian was settled on his saddle, Akaon returned to the catch. It was a rel, one of the bipedal lizards which infested the clan’s ancestral hunting grounds. They made their nests deep down amongst the whipgrass rhizome. After rummaging through his kit to retrieve a bag of preserving spices, he began to dress the carcass. The meat had to be shared with the clan of course, as was custom, but the hide was his and he would fashion himself a new saddle bag. His old one was worn and frayed and would not serve him for too much longer.
Within half an hour the task was done and he was on the move once more. He took a leisurely pace, enjoying the sights and sounds of the grasslands, letting his toes brush the feathery blades of the whipgrasses as they floated and danced in the wind. Soon, however, powerful gusts were blowing from the west and he leaned down low in the saddle. In the air was an acridness which told of distant fires and changing seasons. It said his free days were almost at an end. Abruptly his buoyant mood vanished, replaced by melancholy. He loathed the thought of returning to the city. How he longed to remain hunting and hawking out here on the Sweeps. To stay here forever in the wilderness.
“The great plains,” the Pilot announced, her body floating gracefully like some giant sea star in front of the data-field. The swarm of little robot drones the ship had released had just penetrated the thick blanket of cloud obscuring the planet, and were beginning to transmit their images. What they revealed was a monotonously flat surface. “Storm activity scours away geological complexity. In almost every way conditions are incredibly hostile down there. Perfidious. Relentless. Life exists, though. In fact, it is abundant. The dominant form, at least from what we can see, seems to be a kind vegetative matrix which covers the surface. Looks like grass; can’t quite tell for sure. Huge amount of gas exchange going on there, whatever it is.”
“This was once a gas world,” Hamman remembered.
“So the legends say. Before it was transformed into an Earth-type planet to sustain human life. But it remains a colossus, certainly the largest that has ever felt the tread of humanity. Almost the size of Neptune back in Sol system. Some legends say it is not a true world at all but an artefact, a testament to human engineering and arrogance. Others state it was made by God as an embodiment of divine whimsy. Whatever the truth, it is far from a gentle place. For a period each year immense storms blast its surface, build pressure cells so great they pulverise and rip matter apart, and leave the planet bathed in radiation. The ship has observed a number of such cycles during our approach. They are spectacular.”
“Doesn’t that kind of stuff only happen in stars or black holes? I mean...going nuclear? How is that possible?”
“We aren’t certain. Yes, this is a big world, but not that big. Something else besides gravity generates those kinds of reactions. Amazing to think that once it was not like this at all. Once it was a sanctuary for humankind.”
“What’s that?” Hamman asked suddenly. One of the drones flashed a glimpse of dark, broken terrain.
“I’m not certain,” the Pilot confessed. “Might be an ancient mountain system that still survives. I’ll direct the scud in for a closer look.” But in that instant the image winked out. “No, the winds in that region are too unstable. Sorry. The drone is lost.”
“I can’t see cities or settlements anywhere. Maybe the people have left or died out.”
“They’re still here, be assured. We’re picking up a lot of chatter. Radio communication mostly.”
“How advanced are they?”
“Difficult to tell. This is a regressed world like so many which arose after the great days of empire, but I would hesitate to call it totally primitive.”
“How do they survive down there?”
“That, dear one, is a fundamental riddle yet to be solved. The planet is not particularly dense, which explains why the gravity field is relatively benign ‒ only one eighth stronger than Earth’s, and you’ve been restored with stronger bones to cope with that. But everything else down there...well, you’ll have to find out yourself. Maybe they’re all living underground. That would make sense.”
Abruptly a small voice stole into the chamber, droning like an insect. “Your agent is calling,” the Pilot said. At Hamman’s confused look she added, “I found her when we entered this system and integrated her into the final stages of your flight-dream. You will have forgotten that dream now, for its purpose was solely to protect your mind and maintain your mission programming during your long hibernation. The worlds you traversed were virtual environments based on planets known or reported to us from other missions. The woman has taught you her native tongue. Now she awaits you in the safe haven she has prepared.”
Hamman reached into his mind and to his amazement found an alien language which, in the instant he became aware of it, seemed as familiar to him as his own.
“Your contact styles herself as a witch,” the Pilot continued. “It appears sorcery is practised on the planet, but what guise it takes I do not know. What it might mean for you I cannot see. You must find the truth. This world is at the centre of many questions and it is your goal to insert yourself into it and understand it completely.”
Hamman heard the sudden iron in the Pilot’s voice, the harsh directive. “How is this possible?” he asked. He was one man and before him was an entire planet. It would take a team of analysts a hundred lifetimes to explore and study it all.
“Your kind has its methods.”
“My kind…what is my kind? I still don’t understand...why am I here?”
“You still have no inkling? Then it is time you were fully activated. Here is the maxim: ‘Little things beget big things – no power is inviolate.’ What are you?”
Hamman was seized. An invisible hand hit his mind and drove an answer to his lips. “I am the worm to consume the power!” he gasped. “I am a Reaver!”
“And whom do you serve?”
“I serve the Chamber of Cuckoos.”
“For what purpose?”
“To reclaim the far territories of humankind.”
Hamman felt himself tossed free, total remembrance finally exploding like a star in his head.
“You are a fine Reaver. You will do well on this mission. Now, no more discussion please. We must prepare for landfall.”
Through a lingering mental connection with the Clay, Hamman felt a massive tremor pass through the ship. His look of astonishment brought a distracted response from the Pilot as she interfaced the ship’s mind. “I’ve strengthened our core, a precautionary measure, and reconfigured the outer skin to dissipate the heat of atmospheric entry. But this is still going to be tricky, rough. We still may not make it. Hold on.”
He was aware that the Clay was neither solid nor liquid, but had properties of both. The fo'c'sle was just a temporary air bubble to sustain his life now he was out of stasis, and could be expanded, contracted or reshaped at will. Right now a spur of Clay extruded from the ceiling like a stalactite or giant teat. Hamman wrapped himself around it and shut his eyes, sensing an entity unfurling at the back of his mind. This was the purge-imp, a guardian grafted by the Chamber onto his self. It snatched up his thoughts and its voice rolled over him as a warning growl:
Be watchful here on this planet. Remember... failure is forbidden.
The ship’s braking fields activated with a strident whine and Hamman felt the force bear down upon him. At the same moment he heard a thin wail from the Pilot. His eyes snapped back open and he saw that the jolt had thrown her against one of the walls. “Get up...hold onto something too!” he cried in alarm.
“No good,” came her distressed whimper. Her delicate bones seemed to be crumbling before his eyes and ominous stains were spreading like nebulae across her flesh. “I haven’t your robustness.”
“But what can I do? How can I save you?”
“There is no saving for me, Reaver. I must end just like this ship. That too is the price the Chamber was willing to pay for this world. In times gone there would be docking structures and shuttle boats to received us, but they are no more. We have to attempt a surface landing, and that is something this vessel, and I, were never designed to do.”
With all her failing strength, she managed to face him. “Now prepare yourself,” she instructed with grim determination. “My turn to serve the mission ends while yours begins. Hamman…Son of Har…that is what your name means, and though countless generations have passed since your blood walked this world, you hold all the skills to complete the task. In time others will join you but you are the probe. The last shield burns and we near the landing point. The agent will be waiting somewhere close. Find and use her wisely. Eliminate her if she proves a danger. Good-bye, Reaver.”
Hamman re-affixed his gaze on the holo-projection, strong emotions coursing through him. Then the purge-imp stirred once more and those feelings were clawed away. Fear, sorrow and doubt...these were not permitted. For over four thousand years this world had been lost: now it was time it returned to the fold.
“I am the cuckoo,” he whispered. “And here is my nest.”
The attan bellowed and tossed her head in agitation. Akaon lifted in the saddle, scanned the distance, instantly alert. Along the western horizon a shadow crept. It muttered with a voice of belligerence, thunder.
Searstorm, he thought in alarm, realising he’d been wandering the plains aimlessly for the best part of the afternoon, had squandered hours in idle reverie and was now many leagues from his camp under the bohkey tree. That might prove a fatal error, for the squall was coming his way fast; he could see the shimmer of its blast front; it was about half an hour away. His heart began to beat wildly, and he weighed up his options. Although the searstorm did not have the full power of a true kwa-storm, it was still no ordinary gale he might see out by lying low in the grass, but a pre-cursor of the greater energies that were awakening, and it would kill the unprotected within seconds. He knew he would have to make a run for the shelter of the camp...and hope he had the speed, the time. But just as he began to swing his mount, a horn sounded in the distance. Looking quickly south, he spotted other riders and fumbled for his occulathe. Through the lenses he made out a caravan of destrier attans. By their pennant colours he realised these were Tatallion hunters, his people. The demons of good fortune were on his side ‒ there would be safety with the convoy. They would have a ship, or at the very least, an emergency shelter.
Another peel of thunder hammered the insides of his ears and he swore. This storm was the Wind Demon’s sending, he knew, a bald reminder that the days of calm skies were dying. Hural was ending. Kwa Sul approached. Everything out here was either completing its life cycle and dying, or leaving. The great migrating herds of attans and zelbeast were moving south to wherever they mysteriously went to escape the onslaught. The lizards, serpents, ornipods and rodents burrowed deep amongst the whipgrass roots. Even the plagues of midges were disappearing. Humans, then, must heed these signs and depart too.
Akaon kicked his steed’s flanks and cried, “Go, Tricker, go!” This was not its true name, as only the beast handlers knew that, and they never shared their guild secrets, but he had given it a nickname − one to match the creature’s ill-nature, for it was want to try to throw its rider without warning. Now it flew forwards with an angry bellow and he tucked his legs up beneath the saddle wings, his hands slashing with the crop. The attan snorted out streamers of foam while great knots of muscles bunched and flexed. Its antelope genetics carried them both fleetly across the grasslands, but Akaon knew this was a dangerous game. Beneath the seeming uniformity of the grasslands, long vanished spring rains had left the ground riddled with sinkholes and gulches ready to swallow an unwary attan and its rider, yet the creature’s instincts were good and it avoided hazards with sudden, soaring leaps.
The caravan drew close. Faint cries, shouts and whistles reached his ears. A shadow slid over him and he glanced up at a deepship falling from the clouds, its pectoral sails retracting. Tricker leapt one more gully and then they were engulfed by a chaotic throng of men and beasts.
Akaon heard shouts of surprise as well as the distinctive whine of tensioned springs and hydraulics of weaponry. “Ahoy!” he cried breathlessly, throwing up a hand to give the clan-sign that would identify him.
“A son of the Blood!” the hunt-leader yelled, frantically signalling to his party. “Stand down, curse you all!” When the helices were lowered, he flung away the tow line of his sled and rode swiftly up to Akaon. Under his flapping vermilion cloak he wore, like Akaon, riding leathers. His head-cloth and veil whipped about frenetically in the wind. “Idiot! Dolt! You could have been killed by any one of us, the Demon damn you,” he berated fiercely.
Akaon reeled back at the force of the man’s wrath and found himself momentarily lost for words; no one had ever spoken to him like this before. He felt his cheeks colouring with anger of his own. “How dare you,” he managed to splutter. “Do you know who I –”
“I know exactly who you are,” the man spat. “A cushion-soft Tatallion princeling by the insignia on your veil. You must be the one I’ve heard about...the boy who runs the Sweeps for a bit of play. Well it’s no game here, lad, and I’m surprised you’ve managed to live this long, seeing as you act so dimly.”
The truth in the man’s harsh criticism suddenly quashed Akaon’s indignation. He knew perfectly well that he’d acted foolishly. The protocols for approach out on the Sweeps were very clear: signal early, show clan colours, move in steadily from an open position. Yes, he had been a complete dolt, and taking a breath, squaring his shoulders, said with as much contriteness as he could muster, “Sir, I beg your forgiveness. I do know the rules, but acted totally without thought. I am sorry.”
The man grunted, hearing the earnestness of the apology and letting his own anger fade. He waved the incident away, obviously impatient for the ship to finish its landing. “Yes...well, no real harm done, I suppose. It’s just we’re all a bit trigger happy, that’s all. Trouble can and has come from any direction, my young sire.”
The hunter now seemed eager to move off, but Akaon held him back with a question. “What’s your name, sir?”
“Chiec, my young sire. Of Oromladie, as are the rest of my crew.”
Oromladie was a city three days by quickship to the east. These people were all bound to Tatallion by contract not blood, he realised. He should have known the man was a foreigner by his voice – he spoke Martan with distinct accent. Also one of the Rhumari, by the shortness of his stature, one of the closely related kinlines famed throughout history for hunting prowess.
Akaon now understood the root of the huntsman’s agitation. The position of hirelings and outsiders was ever fragile, and clan prejudice could go heavily against them if there was any strife. If a bullet had struck Akaon’s body, every man here might have been executed, no matter who was to blame.
Despite the approaching storm Akaon hazarded another question. “So, Chiec of Oromladie, where have you been this Hural?” Huntsmen and their exploits always enthralled him. They were a tough breed and he had learned much from watching their ways and listening to their stories.
“We followed the herds far, far south,” the man replied. “To the shores of the Ephemeral Sea and back.”
Akaon was instantly captivated as he’d heard many fanciful tales about that place. The home of strange enchantments it was told. And, of late, raiders, which of course was the main reason why these men were so edgy. “Have you seen any of them, the Scourers I mean?”
That name had an instant effect. Heads turned sharply towards him and Chiec gave the ward sign against evil before muttering, “They’ve been about, especially around the Ephemeral Sea where I think they’ve been setting their main camps. But they also range far and have even set foot within His Excellency’s own domain. Luckily we’ve managed to stay out of trouble. Only a day ago we spied the smoke of a camp a few leagues north-west from here. We sent a horn salute but received no response. We kept away.”
“But you’ve come across them before?”
“Of course. You ride the plains as we...so you must know the stories – there’s a growing lawless out here. Packs of bandits are spreading across the deeps of Skyvast. No-one knows where they come from, but they seem to grow bolder and nastier with every passing season.”
“Do you think they’re fey as some people say? A new type of Sygian?”
“Well, it’s said they’re born of fire, walk naked with skins and hair spun from the sun’s flames, bathe in human blood, and kill with the tongues of serpents. But what’s said around the campfire isn’t always what’s true. Still, these rogues are a blight on our peace and it is best you be careful, my young lord. Don’t go investigating any smoke on the horizon and turn tail as soon as a stranger nears.”
Chiec folded his gloved hands over the stock of the helice resting in his lap. A subtle positioning of his fingers – hunter sign – declared he did not wish to discuss the subject further. The matter was settled; the Scourers were a touchy issue among the hunting folk.
Just then Tershian issued a shrill screech and the huntsman clicked his tongue in response. “Ah, your fine friend grows restless with the storm and tells us we must hurry from here. A wise creature, indeed. A Kalaxan hawk by the look. It should be flown soon.”
“She’s already blooded. Today, in fact.”
“A fitting jewel for His Excellency’s mews, then.”
“She’s not for the hawk squads. This one’s mine.”
The man’s surprise was readable through the veiling and he shook his head. Every hunter had their animal guide through which they augmented their sensory awareness of the wilderness, a companion they formed a weld with and that served as scout and sentinel. These hunters themselves were coursing with a menagerie of birds, attans and dogs. But it was clear from Chiec’s suddenly stiff bearing that he thought a remhawk was strictly taboo. “It is not advisable to lay a claim on such creatures,” he said. “Leave that to expert handlers and clanlords, those with the strength to manage their idiosyncrasies and savage minds. Remhawks aren’t normal birds. Paranormal they say. Minions of the Fire Eagle, in fact, the trickster who pays court to both the Sun and Wind Demon, who is of both and yet neither. They cannot be trusted. Surely a simple gerfalc or darter would make a better pet?”
“Tershian’s no pet,” Akaon argued defensively and tugged open his vest to reveal a series of scars fanning out in the shape of a pair of wings upon his breast. “See? The Bureau of Rituals has named my totem of manhood, put its mark upon me. The Fire Eagle is my protector and I know its trancodes. I don’t fear that demon’s nature. And with it I claim this remhawk in tralt.”
The huntsman flashed another ward sign in the air and hissed, “Guard your tongue, my prince! Keep your totem close or fear the Wejeri.”
Akaon’s cheeks flushed once more. Again he’d been a lackwit, he realised, and surely this Chiec now considered him a complete wanker. Pulling rank, showing off and now...Everyone knew that speaking your totem’s name aloud invited dire mischief. The wild spirits were forever listening for knowledge with which to deceive or entrap the living.
Hastily he refastened his vest, but just as he fumbled with the last strings a mighty sound engulfed him. It was like a thousand thunderclaps condensed into one, and it struck with the force of a physical blow. His attan screamed and reared. For a second he thought the searstorm was upon them, but then caught sight of a burning spear tearing down through the clouds. It was as bright as the sun and swiftly dropped behind the horizon, which was lit up by a brief, actinic flash. The world fell strangely still a moment, as though drawing in a pensive breath, then a roaring fury was released. The sonic shock-wave hit first, then the wall of wind and dust, and Akaon felt Tricker being thrown violently sideways. He flung himself free of the saddle and landed hard, his chin ploughing into the earth with a crack and an explosion of pain in his skull. And there he lay dazed while the monstrous sound slowly ebbed away.
When, finally, the world’s trembling had ceased, he struggled to his feet and gazed around. Men and animals were strewn in all directions, and in the distance a dark column of debris was rising.
Chiec, standing unsteadily behind him, whispered in fear, “What has come? A serpent from Outer Hell? A Nithe Dragon?”
Akaon swallowed but held his own thoughts at bay. The dark cloud was assuming huge proportions. He agreed that something had stamped down from the void of outer space, but what it was he was not yet prepared to say.
“Look!” Chiec cried and stabbed a finger skywards. “Look! Your bird, sire, she sees what has fallen!”
Tershian had taken wing and she was circling high over the plains, drawing towards the plume. Her excited cries echoed across the sky. Through the newly forged weld with the bird, Akaon shared that excitement and sensed a little of what she saw. Thus he knew the huntsman was right. Something alien and fantastic had descended, and was now out there in the wilderness.
The approaching storm finally broke the spell. Akaon and the others were swept by a wave of hot air that surged over them like a volcanic exhalation. Saddle instruments bleeped in alarm.
“My lord, we must evacuate now!” Chiec yelled just as the deepship settled.
Akaon knew they only had a few minutes before the killer heart of the searstorm arrived, but still he hesitated, searching the horizon.
Abruptly Akaon turned, whistling Tershian back to him. Then he began running with the others to the opening hatchway.
He lay in his crypt as a desiccated husk. He was the Communer. That was what those who were aware of his existence, other witches, called him. His immediate world was a lightless pit, at the bottom of which his body lay trapped like a fly in treacle, fixed in organic residues and sinking slowly over centuries towards total incorporation. Into the well-of-selves. And with this gradual death his consciousness was freed to travel far. He reached into other realms of existence to gather the ghosts of generations. As he did so, he drew in power to sustain the city and keep the spirits of the clan’s dead safe from the consuming storms.
Today, as he sent out his thoughts he felt greatly troubled. He had not experienced this emotion since his bright years of youth, before he was given to the ancestors. He recalled it as a thing visceral, primitive. Fear. Although his eyes were sightless points in the emaciated structure of his skull, still he possessed vision of sorts, a vision of the mind, and with this he beheld the alien machine with its human cargo hurtling towards his world. And a premonition of what was to unfold came to him. It spread across his inner vision like an evil shadow and his soul trembled.
He realised he had to contact his colleagues in the coven and warn them all. But how? There were others such as he, entombed guardians, but not to them could he turn, for they were too scattered and distant even for his great mind to reach. Instead he sought the other witch in this city.
He called but she was not there.
He summoned the witch again. Still there was nothing, just the ever-present voices of the dead ancestors. Those ghosts wailed faintly as his fear became a storm that scattered them like leaves.
Woman, where are you?
He gathered his strength for a final try. With a great summoning of will he sent a pulse of energy racing out of his useless body. It struck the portal of his tomb and for a moment the barrier seemed to waver. Then something lying on the other side came alive. Too late the Communer sensed the insidious working of sorcery as it slammed the door shut again. In horror he recoiled, knowing now he was both trapped and betrayed.
Akaon tugged away his veil. It was no longer the thick cloth needed for surface expeditions but gossamer silk, an item of fashion more than anything else, although still useful for keeping his lungs free of the pestilential dirt that, despite all the airlocks, always managed to invade the city with arriving vessels, as well as the ever-wafting drift of chalk dust from the sunshield above. He had also exchanged his snug riding leathers for loose-fitting breeches, shirt and embroidered surcoat. Somehow the fine attire seemed so much more smothering, at least on his soul, for he was sucked back to where he didn’t want to be. The city.
He stared disconsolately out the mycoglass window, up at the bulging plates to where they fused with the sunshield, and off beyond into the starry abyss of space. All his life he had been taught to dread the outerness. Yet today he leaned towards it with a kind of desperation. In his mind the image of a flaming juggernaut still burned. From somewhere out there it had come!
But where was it now?
He shifted his gaze to the world lying many leagues below, to the clouds of Skyvast flushing vivid pink and purple with the sunset, and searched for some hint of the crash site. Of course there was none. The lower atmosphere was impervious to the prying of his feeble human eyes. What he did see, though, was a flotilla rising towards the city. Hundreds of docking hydra tentacles dropped to catch the boats and haul them up into the near-vacuum where the city existed.
As a child Akaon had always loved this spectacle. When the first trawlers were sighted, it meant the end of the harvest season. Now, as a young man of seventeen, he was watching the fleet return once more. Using billowing curtains of sticky thread, these ships harvested the depths of Skyvast for the biotic riches that fed the people. Most times they came back safely, sometimes they did not, and their adventures were worked into the rich lore of the city. This evening, though, he couldn’t stir even a glimmer of his old excitement, even when he told himself this was all wrong, that the ships were coming in weeks early. The last remnants of his boyhood had been shed today. Now he stood with adult questions burning inside his brain.
“What is this place, for instance?” he wondered out loud in his clan dialect.
“Why, an old observation gallery, my lord,” announced a gentle, cultured voice from behind. It had spoken Martan, the trade language of the confederacy.
Akaon turned and regarded a luminous, angelic face. He switched to Martan too. “No, I was referring to the city as a whole.”
“Why Tatallion is our kin-house and refuge against the storms of course.”
“Yes, yes, but there’s much more to it than that.”
“Ah...you invoke the deeper questions of government.” An eager expression lit the seraph’s finely modelled features. Debating politics was one of its passions.
“No, I mean Tatallion is also a place of imprisonment.”
“Prison!” Escale cried scandalised, the smile instantly gone. “That is a ridiculous assertion, young man. Withdraw it immediately.”
“Because it’s true.”
“Then you have little understanding of our systems of governance and I despair.”
“Always my mentor, hey Escale?” Akaon scowled.
The seraph gave a deep, mocking bow. “His Excellency, your grand and noble father, employs me as such. And I do not shirk my responsibilities.”
Akaon looked away. He knew very well he should be up in the counting rooms working with the scribes instead of loafing about here. But since returning to the city he had been unable to settle. “I’m sorry Escale, but to me this city is death.”
“How can you say such things?” Escale asked in clear distress. “You’re so close to tasting the fruits of adulthood. The skies hold much scope for a young prince such as yourself and I’ve equipped you with all the skills to prosper and bring honour to your house.”
Indeed you have, Akaon thought sardonically. The seraph had been relentless in educating him. At the age of five he had been apprenticed in the work chambers of the palace; at seven, the maze of counting rooms and emporia. But what was all this schooling for, he wondered bitterly, when the real careers were barred to him?
“Bah! I’m no real prince,” he stated in disgust. “Too much royal Tatallion blood flows in my veins for me to take to the wandering life of a ship’s captain or a clan envoy, but there isn’t quite enough to open the doors of real power. I’m to be a little beetle scuttling always around the fringes of my own father’s court. A member of the literati, I suppose, a bureaucrat. All because one night His Excellency slipped his dick into a pretty courtesan instead of one of his wives.”
“Hold your crude and wicked tongue. Take pride in your special heritage, my sire,” the seraph implored. “You’re a very precious seed.”
“Yes, of bastardry.”
The seraph wrung its hands in anguish, but it was not entirely surprised by this outburst, having noticed Akaon’s rebelliousness growing all this year. He is not like the other children, Escale thought. This fascination he has with the Sweeps: it signals his dissent. The Bureau of Rituals has read signs of unusually strong spirit power in him, a legacy of his mother I think.
Escale remembered her well. How she blazed against the ladies of the ruling blood. Yes, that was what a Mokorian courtesan was all about – bewitchment and rebellion. A will-o’-the-wisp that cut across the grand and frozen lattices of clan ancestry and power.
But that life of freedom could not be for her son.
“Your mother was Mokori,” Escale stated in a careful, measured tone. “Her behaviour was sanctioned…celebrated in fact. The gate cities of Mokori and Motom have always produced wild types. It’s the bloodline. She came here for a time and then flew on, as was her role. But you were born and raised in Tatallion. You are Tatallion. And so you must put aside your fantasies. The traditions of the Ganchain must be upheld, otherwise we are nothing, we are barbarians.”
“No, I don’t accept that. I will not!” Akaon declared intractably.
“But you must observe the custom of tralt soon. It is the way…it is the only way.”
Akaon pointed to Tershian who sat sleeping on a stand nearby. “But I have. I welded with my hawk yesterday.”
“Gathering birds as familiars doesn’t really count. You’re of age and it’s expected that you accept your duty. Time is fast running out for these childish pursuits. Forget these reckless forays out on the Sweeps. Nor should you frequent the dockyards and animal houses as you do. Your friends there are servants and commoners, not the sorts a prince should be mixing with. Remember the precepts of the Ganchain: kinship, obedience. Find yourself a well-connected patron and you will prosper.”
“But who will it be?”
“Sulalie?” Escale suggested. “The thane of family Hesperin has expressed an interest in your development.”
“She’ll probably have to resign her position at the Office of Banquets. Her family has fallen from grace since miscalculating on the Amphinostros contract.”
Escale grimaced and nodded. “True, I suspect. Well then. Thane Barbis?”
Akaon snorted in disdain. “A dullard. His idea of entertainment is to watch his pet crickets. I would go insane shackled to someone like him.”
“The Master of Rites? I’ve noticed his eye on you on more than one occasion.”
“I’m completely certain of that for Granjeon’s lechery is legend. I’ve heard the corridor talk if you have not. What is amazing is that he is interested in me at all, for I am surely already too old. He prefers slightly younger flesh. No, Escale, when I give myself in tralt, I want it to be to a great and noble lord…one raised high above all others.”
The seraph’s bright gold eyes widened in shock. “Do you speak of your own father, then? That’s impossible. His Excellency will not weld with his own son. It is forbidden! A perversion. His children”‒ Escale jabbed a delicate finger into Akaon’s breast –“are the coin with which he pays the thanes for their loyalty.”
Everything his mentor said was perfectly true, Akaon knew. The thanes, those heads of the clan’s other noble families, were always competing for connection to the primary bloodline. But still he fought the hateful, dismal reality. “Then I’ll seek a master outside the clan,” he declared stubbornly. “Another magnate. Surely there are some eager for closer alliance with mighty Clan Tatallion?”
“I think you’ve smoked something illegal,” the seraph declared. “Your mind’s completely and utterly crazed today. The law forbids leaving the clan. And if you try you’ll be forced to renounce your Blood, turn renegade. You’ll not enjoy that life, mark my words. It won’t take long for you to hanker for your home, but that door will be closed to you forever…forever I say! Leave Tatallion and you can never return. You’ll be nothing and nobody. So take heed. Consider that road carefully.”
This harsh warning sliced through Akaon’s wilfulness like a butcher’s knife. He had rarely heard the seraph’s voice infused with such vehemence and it killed the defiance in him. “So I’m caught in the web,” he muttered, defeated and miserable.
“As are we all. His Excellency must weave our lives into the life of the clan. He guides us wisely and with shrewd thought. More than ever the kinlines must be protected. There have been signs of uncertainty within the Ganchain.”
“The growing lawlessness, you mean? The Scourers?”
Akaon recalled his conversation with the hunter, Chiec. But in his present frame of mind the subject of pirates and raiders was no longer of much interest. “Then why doesn’t the confederation just throw the law at them?”
“Because the situation is not that simple. These bandits, it is believed, come from outside the Ganchain, from zones that are wild and unknown. Down the ages there have been reports of rogue clans living by savage ways. Fian Dari, as you would know if you read the chapter I assigned you, made mention of them hundreds of years ago when she undertook her great voyage of discovery.”
For a moment Akaon speculated on the possibility of tribes living out in remote, uncharted skies. It seemed a little unreal and vaguely horrifying to him, for that was not the freedom he desired. Then his despondency gripped him once more.
Escale rested a hand lightly on his shoulder. “What is it?” the seraph questioned gently. “What really eats so deeply within you today? I sense something else troubling you.”
Before Akaon could check them, the words tumbled out: “I saw it, Escale. A miracle of our age. I saw the star…the dragon!”
Escale’s fingers bit involuntarily a little into Akaon’s flesh. “If you are referring to the reputed meteorite strike, this has not yet been confirmed. His Excellency has dispatched search vessels and is still awaiting their findings.”
“Oh come on, don’t play the politician with me. I saw the whole thing with my own eyes. My remhawk too. We were both there when it crashed into the plains. A thing fell down from the heavens on wings of flame, and it was no simple meteorite. It was alive.”
Before Escale could summon a response, Akaon wriggled from the seraph’s grasp and set to pacing before the window, his young, handsome face animated like a stormy sky. “You must tell me the truth about this so-called civic emergency that’s been called. Please, Escale, tell me what’s going on. You’re a seraph, after all. All our roving staff have been recalled, the entire city is drawing up its shields and my father has summoned his key ministers. First there was rumour of a systems failure, then talk of an outbreak of white fever, but it’s none of these. Come on, Escale, I’m no fool. It’s the star. We’ve found what lies at the crash site.”
The seraph stepped back trembling. No, I have never considered you a fool, my friend, it thought. Akaon had deduced the truth and it became clear at that moment everything should now be spoken. Akaon deserved that. What constituted the truth very few in the city knew, but as the boy said, Escale was a seraph, and such beings gained access to the highest councils.
So Escale gave a signal to the little group of retainers who had accompanied their young prince to this dreary chamber in the lower levels of the palace. The senior man nodded and immediately hustled the others over to the far wall and out of ear shot. Only the gzinte animation remained where it was, its protective vigil ceaseless and its mind incapable of storing secrets.
“You are right, sire, there is a link between what has happened out on the Ashfoali Sweep and our current situation,” the seraph revealed. “One of our scout ships has retrieved a sentience.”
The strange emphasis the seraph placed on its last word made Akaon pause, then ask, “What sort of sentience?”
“An impossible one.”
“It is a being from the gulfs of Outer Hell.”
“There’s been no mistake, I gather?”
“None at all. This visitor has fallen from space, and it is being brought to the city as we speak.”
A peculiar, satisfied expression spread across Akaon’s face, and he ceased pacing. “Good. Very good. An excellent course of action. Then I’ll be meeting this fabulous being quite soon, I should imagine.”
Escale blinked, its mouth forming an astonished gape. “What? No! Don’t be absurd. You shall meet nothing. This is a situation in which neither you nor I have any part to play. Greater people are turning their minds to it.”
“But Escale that’s where you’re wrong. Quite wrong, in fact. You see, this being has already called me. And in doing so has changed me. It has told me to move through the world with wings of my own.”
“Please, my lord, do not believe this, do not say this! Don’t speak so or doom yourself before the priests. This visitation shatters the very basis of our cosmology and I fear what the guardians of faith might do. Long have they persecuted heresy.”
“I don’t fear them. This coming is greater than their dusty scriptures.”
At that moment the remhawk came awake with a shrill cry. Her eyes flashed in the direction of the window. Escale jumped with fright and gazed out through the glass to where night had finally fallen. On the far horizon a plankton mass glimmered with green bio-luminescence, but closer to home, within the glow of the city’s sodium flares, a small, unmarked scout ship was hurrying.
“It is here,” gasped the seraph. And the remhawk is aware!it thought. Is there really arcane power at work here as the lad says? Great Demon, but could this really be a child of God?
These last thoughts froze the seraph’s heart. It reminded itself that for such thinking people, even seraphs, were condemned.
A high vaulted space rose over Taban Tatallion. The walls and ceiling were painted with a scene of stylised clouds and sun rays. This was the presence-chamber, the heart of the city in all ways. Tradition was ingrained here as deeply as the aromatic oils preserving the valuable woods and trapping settling dust. Here centuries of decision-making had been conducted, and the symbolism of autocracy breathed with a vitality close to life. It was not a place to tolerate weakness in any person.
Even in him.
Taban closed his eyes. He leaned back and listened to the rustling movements of his high servants as they positioned themselves; to Samwan, his favourite remhawk, moving atop the standard that towered at the rear of the room. Behind these immediate noises he also discerned the faint but omnipresent lifeflow of the city itself: the ducting of air and heat; the creaking of the outer shields as they cooled in the night now the sun’s deadly radiation had been withdrawn; the dull murmur of ten thousand human beings going about their routine lives.
The clanlord’s moment of escape evaporated and his eyes snapped open, for he knew there could be no retreat into non-thought. He stared down at his countenance mirrored in the crystal surface of his table, an arid smile coming to his lips. Here was a visage hardened by many political crises.
He focused beyond the reflection and into the translucent depths of the table. The smoky crystal seemed to be pulsing with unusual strength this evening. More than ever before, Taban was aware that here was no ordinary piece of furniture but an artefact thrown up out of the days of myth. Strange runes capered like imps within, words of a language long forgotten or perhaps never known.
An uneasy clearing of a throat drew Taban back. Four people knelt before him, faces plastered white with talc. Banished from the diah was the customary press of wives, sanyens and thanes; there were only these others, for what needed to be discussed was not yet, if ever, for the clan entire. Three were adepts of the Chaim Schools, the other a product of the Jaru tradition. It was to the latter the lord of the city turned first. Ormandry the lawspeaker. Taban searched her face but found it perfectly composed, with no clue as to what emotions circulated within.
He looked next to Sarudyne, a lanky man sheathed like a snake in a glistening skin of active-polymer feeding him low-level data currents from the city’s sapient net. And just like a serpent, there was always a sense of underlying readiness about him. At this moment his right hand, the one wearing the synaptic glove, was in contact with the microsystems directly under the surface of the diah. He awarded Taban a barely perceptible nod as their eyes met. Embodied in this man was the Voychait, the ancient society of engineers, and he signalled that his fabricators had done their work. The last of the city’s gates were locked.
Taban now focussed on the Bashait witch. As always Seer Belome was swathed in cloth of darkest green, the gown meticulously cut and severely elegant in the Bashait style, her face shining palely behind her gauzy veil, the silvery tongre dangling low on its chain about her neck. If Sarudyne was a serpent, then Belome was a condor, a spectre of death and circling watchfulness. These witches lived very long lives, a consequence of their intimacy with sorcery, and he thought she must be at least seventy years old, given the length of time she had been resident in this city, although the face before him, with its impeccable makeup and haughty beauty, looked more like that of a woman of thirty or forty.
Finally Taban turned to Thombosy of the Chait Savattaria. He came dressed and plumed in his full regalia. Behind that impressive array of robes and jewels, though, lurked an officious but malleable individual. The least of the servants gathered.
So here they all are, the principal limbs of my city, Taban reflected. And in quiet shock he realised that for the first time in his life they were of absolutely no comfort to him, for he was facing a crisis never before encountered in history and their council seemed almost pointless. Yet seek it he must, for it was tradition. The ritual keepers had read the auspices. The meeting must proceed.
“Well, you’ve all studied Captain Tangren’s report,” he began. “The Celestial has been secured. What are we to do with it?”
“Celestial? Is that the alien’s code name?” Belome asked.
“For the time being. Until we can assign a better classification.”
“Excellency, do not hold this thing,” Thombosy cautioned. “It must be eradicated without delay. Get rid of it now.”
The witch swooped in. “That would be rash and foolish,” Belome countered sharply. “To destroy it without proper analysis would be a tragedy. Much we might learn from it. Besides, the High Court –” she flicked a gesture at Ormandry “– would look most grimly upon the unjustified murder of a sentient creature. It would be a breach of the clauses that protect all intelligent beings.”
“You need not lecture me about procedure, dark sister,” the healer retorted heatedly. “Nor the sanctity of intelligent life, which is the Savattaria’s province, not the Bashait’s, I might remind you. Keep to your ghosts and golems, to your morgues and dissecting tables, and let us deal with the living realm. The Savattaria doesn’t hesitate to cull a defective bloodline when it is necessary. It is the overall scheme that is important and this intruder, I fear, is an abomination in the natural order. Excise it now before it is too late!”
“It may already be so,” Taban interceded. “Our scouts found little remaining of the alien craft. Most of it detonated during entry while the rest blasted out a huge crater in the Ashfoali Sweep. But ours was not the only tracking system to detect the collision, and the impact created an enormous metal-rich drift our neighbouring clans are already rushing to reclaim. The event, alas, has not gone unnoticed. We haven’t much time before others reach the crash site.”
“Can’t we exclude them?” the healer asked. “That’s Tatallion sovereign territory.”
“Only as it applies to exacting customary tithe. Freedom of forage is a common right.”
Thombosy shook his head, refusing to be deflected. Too many times in the past, in his opinion, his sage advice had been overlooked by this committee. But not today, he told himself firmly, for he saw very clearly what must be done. “Then we must declare the...ah...Celestial. We make it known to the Ganchain and so defuse the immediate crisis. But then we make sure the creature disappears. An accident perhaps…or a poison. Yes, a poison. I could devise one very easily. Publicly the death would seem like a natural intolerance to some aspect of our environment.”
“Perhaps it would,” Taban considered. “And yet there would be those who would demand an inquiry, an inquiry which might dredge up the truth. I thank you Thombosy, but a child could poke a stick through that plan. The situation isn’t at all simple. This intruder could herald incalculable ruin to all which we know. There is extreme danger here, and what is needed is subtlety, and if it is to be destroyed it must be done so within the law.”
Ormandry now spoke. Her voice was resonant with the thick Jaru brogue. “I concur. But exactly what kind of danger do you see, Excellency?”
Taban sensed the diah moving imperceptibly on its cords, buffeted by the drafts circulating in the room, but for a moment it was as though the world was collapsing beneath him. Slowly he said, “The danger we face is of the Celestial shattering the power balance. Of snapping the connections between clans and Chaim Schools. The Dealing itself may be at risk.”
“But the Ganchain holds all,” the lawspeaker stated in a way that gently implied the clanlord had missed an essential point.
“Since ancient times our confederation has endured,” Taban agreed. “But there have always been tensions and contradictions. We’re all aware of them. There has always been that damnable prophecy, for instance.”
Although they nodded, no one in the room wished to put a name to the foretelling now centred in their minds. For so long it had been suppressed and bleached from living memory it now bordered on childish fairy-tale. Ormandry simply inclined her head, accepting her lord’s insight. She was the city’s expert on law, but Taban Tatallion was the clanlord. He was a creature of politics, a proven master of the Dealing.
With a thoughtful hum, Sarudyne slid into the dialogue. “Pardon, but it seems to me Doctor Thombosy is correct in a sense…we do have to buy some time. And I also agree with our seer − it is imperative we study this intruder before any decision as to its fate is made. We must define its nature. I place no stock in stories of falling angels come to restore the glories of old – but I do accept this visitor’s potential as a weapon in the hands of the ambitious or demented. And I fear also the designs the creature may have itself, what powers it holds.”
“What do you suggest, then?” Taban asked carefully. “How do we maintain the veil?”
“The quarantine regulations. Instate a level-one containment zone.”
“What?” Thombosy spluttered. “You suggest we maintain that fiction? We’ve no basis for any prolonged lockdown. That initial declaration of an outbreak of White Fever was a ruse. It cannot hold.”
“On the contrary, healer, we have a potential contagion of the highest order,” Sarudyne decreed. “We know nothing of what off-world diseases the Celestial may be harbouring. Some virulence may already be spreading amongst the crews of the rescue ship. The city must be isolated while our investigations are conducted. Lawspeaker, your opinion?”
“It could work,” Ormandry announced uneasily, clearly uncomfortable with what the engineer suggested. “For a while, at least.”
Watching them all, Taban permitted himself to relax a little. This meeting had not been a waste of time after all, he reflected. The engineer’s scheme, of course, was nothing original; Taban had in fact been entertaining this course of action for several hours and certain preliminary steps had already been taken. It was good, though, to have found support...and of course identify scapegoats should the plan fail.
“Seer, prepare to transmit the signal throughout the Ganchain,” he said. “Ormandry, the Magistrate’s Court and the Bureau of Rituals will need to be advised.”
Public fear of contagion would spread like wildfire. Plague was something the hive-like cities of the Ganchain were susceptible to, and over the centuries many terrible outbreaks had occurred, at times emptying cities and wiping out whole lineages. Memory of these events ran deep. Thombosy was right again in one respect, though; a containment order could not be maintained indefinitely.
“Ormandry, how long can we maintain our exclusion zone?” he asked.
“Well in a way the timing of this arrival is fortunate. The Dealing is almost over for this year and the shipping lanes are closing. We have privacy until the trade season resumes.”
Some breathing space, Taban thought. Although it still meant some weeks of navigable conditions left during which spies might discover something. He looked into the faces of his servants and declared, “The public path is closed to us, for it is too treacherous. We will keep the Celestial here in secret until we can decide whether it should be destroyed or released to the world. And all the while we will strengthen our barriers, preparing ourselves in case agents attempt to infiltrate the city. Is this understood?”
Each of them nodded their acceptance.
“And what of the Chaim Schools?” Taban asked. He was acutely aware of how far he could press these people. They would not countenance anything that might embroil their precious guilds in scandal.
It was Belome who answered for them all. “This path is acceptable, Excellency. You are, after all, following established protocol.” At least it suited everyone’s purpose to believe this was so.
“Then we prepare.” Taban Tatallion struck a small gong to summon the ritual keepers to close the meeting.