The Last Of All Suns
By John C Wright
1. WE ARE LOST
We are lost in endless and titanic halls of windowless metal. Some of the things pursuing us are so large that, to them, even these halls are cramped, and the miters of the crawling sphinxes scrape flakes of debris from unseen expanse of black plate so high above.
I say we are aboard a ship. The other men resurrected from the Archive disagree. Some think we are in hell, or in a fairy-mound, or suffering the hallucinations imposed by the thinking-machines of futuristic science.
Of all of us, the man from the latest period of humanity hails from AD 29,000,000; some twenty-nine million years after my death. He came from an age long after the sun had died, a terror-haunted world of eternal darkness. His home was a titanic fortress called the Last Redoubt, a structure armored against the infinite cold of a sunless sky, nursing its life on the last few embers of dying geothermal and geomagnetic heat. His name is Ydmos of Utter-Tower. Ydmos thinks this vessel is a redoubt like his, one long ago captured by the enemy, and that we are all buried far underground.
Even his era is uncountable years lost, compare to this present one. Earth was murdered more than fifteen billion years ago; the Milky Way, star by star, was consumed by darkness five billion years ago, and the Greater and Lesser Magellanic Clouds as well. The great galaxy in Andromeda, her satellite galaxies M32 and M110, and Triagulum Galaxy in M33, are also gone: the spiral galaxies in Ursa Minor, Sculptor, Draco, Carina, Fornax: over the slow millennia, all are destroyed and vanished.
All the stars known to the astronomers of history are gone: the galaxies have tumbled together into a vast and central fire, the Last Of All Suns. At the core of this sun is one infinitely heavy point of nothingness where nine-tenths of the mass and energy of the universe are compressed.
Of the remaining tenth part of the substance of the universe, some lingers yet in the form of matter, including a remnant of red-dwarf galaxies, their cores absorbed into black holes, their arms choked with exhausted nebulae that will never collapse against to form fresh stars. The dying galaxies are streaming toward the central fire, and, from our position in time and space, seem, to us, not yet to have been consumed. Perhaps that event has happened: the light from it has not reached us. Some of the remaining universal mass is in the form of energy: the residue of the universe has dropped to a uniform background radiation just above absolute zero.
And one infinitely small residuum of the dying cosmos is matter and energy lingering yet in the form of living creatures and their works: there is one ship left, with us aboard.
There is something else aboard as well, something horribly alien to our continuum, to life, to time and space and order. The ship is theirs: we are as rats in the hold.
2. THE SHOT
It was dark. A few fitful lanterns, perhaps a quarter mile up off the deck, perhaps fifteen billion years old, emitted sickly glints of greenish-yellow light. The pounding of numberless claws on the metal deck-plates was like drumming rain.
The looming creature Ydmos called a Night Hound came running ahead of a galloping pack of malformed hobgoblins. This breed of Night Hound is a hard-skinned albino monster larger than a dray-horse, with a face like a hairless wolf and teeth like an alligator.
Ydmos raised his odd-looking weapon: it was a poleaxe tipped with a sharpened disk. The disk spun like a buzz saw, and a flare like lightning came from it, and a low roar like a lion’s roar. The weapon was dazzling bright in his hands, and his fluttering shadow pivoted about his wide-placed feet as he swung. The creature saved itself from a mortal blow to its thick neck by raising its forepaw into the blazing path of the weapon. The stroke chopped through scale and hide and muscle to part the monster's flesh from wrist to elbow. A fan of black and stinking blood flew up from the wound, and the creature screamed even more loudly than the lightning-roaring weapon.
The Night-Hound reared up on his hindquarters, one huge fore-limb hanging limply, and slashed down with its other. Its palm was wide as a dinner-plate, its nails longer than dirks. Ydmos fell.
The wheel of lightning shed by the weapon was quenched, and the little pocket of light surrounding Ydmos winked out. In sudden gloom and silence, small noise of his pole-arm clashing to the deck was audible.
I lifted my trusty Holland & Holland elephant gun to my shoulder -or the dream thing, whatever it was, that pretended to be my fine old beauty of the gunsmith’s craft-and squeezed the trigger. The trigger had pull; the heft of the weapon was right. It felt heavy in my hands, trusted and familiar.
The rifle was solid. I could feel the grain of the wood against my cheek as I brought it to my shoulder, I could see the tiny scratches and irregularities in the polished barrel. The sites cast a very tiny shadow on the curved surface of the barrel. It was real. I had faith in it.
I fire a 900-grain slug at nearly four tons of muzzle-energy. The slug is thicker than my thumb, and you can knock over a tree with it, at short ranges. The familiar smell of cordite, cotton soaked in nitro, rose to my nostrils.
(For a moment, a terrible moment, I was convinced this was all a dream, and that I would wake up again in the Veldt, the hot sun throwing a zebra-striped pattern of shadows from the long grass against my tent walls, and Lisa outside, looking pretty in her jodhpurs and pith helmet, calling me a slow-poke and telling me the game was getting away. For a moment.)
Fortunately, the matter-wizard Abraxander-the-Threshold (from Tau Ceti, circa AD 30,000) had also been able to materialize a heavy jacket with a padded shoulder. Even with this padding, the kick jarred my shoulder painfully. Either my imagination had over-charged the shells with powder, or I was weaker now than I had been when I was alive.
The Night Hound went down as if felled by a hammer, half-severed at its horny collarbones, its chest blown open. I could see ribs, sliding chest-muscles, pumping lung tissue. Black blood streamed from its shattered neck and chest, and flooded across the deck. The stench was terrible. Even dead, its jaws continued to snap, and its legs continued to kick, and the barbs in its tail went in and out like the stringer in a dead wasp does.
You would think the creatures from hell, or from outer-space, would be used to loud noises. It seemed not. All the monsters quailed at the report, shocked. A terrible silence hung in the corridor for a long, strange moment. The echoes of the shot reverberated through the ship, farther and farther, echo answering echo.
The monsters ran away.
3. THE LAUGHTER
Uj, the shaggy man, gripped the bone he used as a truncheon in his teeth, dropped to all fours, and scampered doglike across the deck toward Ydmos, and his wolfskin pelt flapped on his hairy back as he ran. If I am right, Uj is a Neanderthal, or some other pre-human homonid, the earliest of us, even as Ydmos was the latest. The method the Blue Man uses to discover our dates returns no reading from the Neanderthal, or so he says. (The Blue Man claims he is measuring of the regular decay of certain particles in our bodies-but how can these be our original bodies?) Uj may be from the future, after an age of degeneration, rather than from the past.
"It is too late!" I called, "Leave him!"
But I was wrong. The Neanderthal saw or sensed something I did not. The fingers of the gauntlet of Ydmos flexed slightly. His pole-arm was laying a foot or so to his right, its heavy disk-shaped ax-blade dark, not spinning. But when his hand trembled, the weapon slid across the deck, as if pulled by an invisible thread, into his grasp, and the blade lit up with terrible energy again.
Even as the main body of the monsters fled from us, there came a sound like a laugh both very near at hand, and from very many miles away, perhaps on another deck. It was one sound, coming from two different points in space. It was a large laugh, larger than an elephant’s lungs could have made. It was as if a hillside laughed, or a world, and we felt it in our bones.
The light from the weapon of Ydmos was snuffed out. Perhaps Ydmos had merely doused his weapon as a precaution, when The Thing That Laughs uttered its hideous noise: but at that moment, it looked more to me as if that laugh had blown it like a candle.
That laugh made us flee in panic, despite our temporary victory. We ran from the monsters who were running from us, both sides fleeing the other. This is more common in irregular skirmishes than you might imagine: officers rarely report it when it happens, for no one can explain, later, why you run from someone who you’ve routed. Panic happens in war.
Ahead of us was a place where a lantern had fallen, making a 100-yard wide crater in the deckplates. Even panicked, we were wise enough to give the thing wide berth as we circled the crater: radiations leaking from the damaged glass were deadly. But the light was brighter here because of it, giving us a glimpse of what lay ahead: before us, we saw the whole tremendous width of the corridor was filled with an encroaching black mist, and the lanterns overhead were winking out, one by one. In the depth of the mist could be glimpsed pale and quivering mounds of flesh, the bodies of enormous slugs, large as freight-trains, crawling blindly toward us, quite without noise.
To my left, I saw a wide hatch swing quietly open. This section of bulkhead was between two buttresses, half-hidden in the dim light. I saw, through the open hatch, a set of metal stairs, going down and down.
The Neanderthal pointed toward the valve with his bone truncheon, beckoning us, and he gave a soft hoot. He did not wait to see if we followed, but, with Ydmos still across his back, the shaggy man was away, scooting on all fours down the stairs.
I hissed softly, afraid to raise my voice, but Uj did not answer. Gloom swallowed him.
Two more of our small band, Mneseus, the sorcerer-king from Atlantis, and Enoch the antediluvian, both sprinted toward the stairs. A third, the Blue Man, who was calling himself Crystals-of-Incandescent-Bliss today, never does anything in a hurry, and so he strolled in a leisurely saunter after them. The Cave-Man or Redskin or whatever he was named He-Sings-Death, came and stood near me, his spear in its spear-thrower held lightly at his shoulder, his eyes turned intently toward the approaching wall of mist, the silent masses of blind slug-flesh. He bounced on his toes in an agony of impatience: he obviously wanted to flee down the stair, and escape this wide expanse of open corridor, but did not want to abandon gray-haired Abraxander, the fifth of our group, or me.
I mistrusted the stairs: I felt we were being herded. But in a small company of eight men, leaderless, whoever is the most rash will lead, and the rest must follow or allow the company to be scattered.
I trudged down the stairs into the gloom, rifle ready, Abraxander-the-Threshold on slippered feet, coming in a silken rustle of robes behind me. He-Sings-Death, silent as a cat, came after, watching backwards for signs of pursuit, his spear-hand at his shoulder, elbow high, tense and ready to cast.
We all flinched when the valve came quietly shut behind us, cutting off the lamplight from the corridor.
4. THE RIFLE I HAD DREAMED
I must explain how I held a weapon from a world, and a solar system, and a galaxy, long ago dissolved.
Four sleeps ago (and our sleeps were of no even length: the hours were unknown; no sun shined, no churchbell rang, in this coffin of black steel larger than worlds), another member of our dwindling company, a matter-wizard named Abraxander-the-Threshold, had somehow materialized this weapon from my past. “Fleshed it from Dreaming” so he said: that I had known and loved it in life allowed him (somehow) to find it or recreate it from out of the abyss of years.
At first, the firearm had been a thing of gossamer, a ripple that I could only see from the corner of my eye. When I was nodding into restless asleep in a hidden closet of steel where we cowered, only then could I feel the weight in my hand.
Three sleeps ago, I woke from a dream about my rifle to find its shadow in my hand. At that time, the stock was a mere line of cigarette smoke, with a translucent smudge for a lock, a blurred cloud for a barrel. We fled from trolls who came from the darkness toward us, and I did not attempt to shoot.
When I slept and woke again, the weapon was made of colored glass that faded in and out of view. The Sound we think heralds the coming of the Thing-That-Spins passed near us, and half the company did not answer when we counted off in the pitch dark. There was no target then, nor later when hissing, chuckling shapes made of luminous vapor overtook the slower runners.
I think the raid on the pantry was that evening. Or had that been earlier? We needed water, and we found creatures enough like humans to have a supply. The near-humans seemed to be made of flesh, and time passed for them as it did for us. They bowed before a Shape like a pale mask that hung in the midst of a gray cloud above the deck, and when tendrils of cloud plucked up two of the near-humans, they screamed in voices like ours, and the blood they shed was red. We waited in silence, hidden, till the manifestation of the Pallid Mask had withdrawn, leaving only mortal and three-dimensional enemies in the chamber.
We rushed against them: Crooked-armed near-humans who wielded glassy knives, giants armed with maces and flails, and dripping monsters who looked like disease-crusted boars were our foes. Here also was one iron-faced Hag the size of an open-air butcher’s shop I saw once in Ivory Coast, and a smell not less putrid.
The Giants panted and hooted and grinned at us, and we lost ten men for every one of them we toppled with grapnel and line. The Hag crouched behind the Giants and snatched any of our fallen she could reach with her ever-lengthening worm-arms, and tossed them lightly into her stew-pot: it was Ydmos who cleaved her in two, though her left half, which lived on, swatted him with her claw-foot, and sent him tumbling with a blow that would have killed a smaller man. Others of our band held her hopping foot at bay with spears and lengths of pipe until Ydmos found his feet again, and ran back with this weapon held high in both hands, its blade blazing like a St. Catherine’s wheel. My rifle still was too soft and dreamlike to be of any use: I fought with a machete.
Today, as I woke, my rifle had been like a colored painting, very authentic to the eye, but oddly slick and buoyant in my grip. It cast no shadow on the ground. It had no odor to it, and when I flicked a fingernail against the barrel, or worked the bolt, there was no noise. But when the time came to fire it, it fired.
5. THE MEN OF MANY AEONS
I had been resurrected in the Archive earlier than most of the others. It was never clear what the faceless creatures wanted with us: we could not communicate with them. They were not alive.
As the Archive burned, the tall silent shapes on the far side of the chamber raised their thin hands and motioned for a horde of lantern-eyed things to gather us in. The humans ran, scattered.
There may have been as many as a million of us at first. How many hours we were hunted through the lightless halls and corridors, each army of us rushing in a different direction, down corridors taller than the nave of a cathedral, through darkened chambers vaster than caverns, I cannot number.
After hours of panicked flight, some eight hundred of us, cut off from the others, found ourselves in a storage bay. Here, thankfully, there was no huge Watching Beast, larger than a mountain, waiting without noise or motion or any sign of life for human souls to enter in.
We held an assembly, a strange one, during which we debated our fate. We came from periods so far scattered in time, that only a few of us knew the names of the lands or the ages of the others. Something like dread crept over me, when I realized that, of all the men of my future, none of them knew of the outcome of the Great War, or recalled the names of the nations involved. Only two of the men there knew what the Roman Church had been, or the Roman Empire: one man knew of England (as I might have known of Mohenjodaro or Angkor-Wat), but no one knew of New England. Even those ages, far past my own, that had some record of flying machines, could not name the brothers who had invented it, or the country from which they had come, any more than I could name the name and country of the inventor of the wheel, or the lever, or the bow.
It was equally strange to see how few of that gathering joined in the debate. Many of the men there came from ages where slavery and servitude were unquestioned, and they obviously felt their rank too humble to speak up while their betters decided their fate for them. Most of these were men both courageous and strong, who had done wondrous deeds during the riot and the escape: but they came from ages where the Agora of Athens, the Magna Charter, the American Revolution, and the Bill of Rights, were as unknown as the flying machine.
During the assembly, I convinced the others to seek out passages leading down, not up. From the way the chains and hanging corpses we had passed were swinging, from the Coriolis irregularities in the pendulum-motion, and also from how our footfalls seemed heavier was we descended, I was convinced this world was a cylinder, being spun for gravity: though only the men of the times future to me understood me. I thought our hope lay in finding the bottom deck, which would be the outermost, the hull.
During the exodus, many had heard noises from above: the rustling and chuckling of hooded figures passing from balcony to balcony, and the weird, slow, unearthly echoes from the Voice That Calls Out. Many who feared to meet the source of those noises, cast their votes with me, even as they smiled at my notion of an inside-out world. Two or three of the men from Ydmos' time, as I recall, voted for the measure, because they imagined the Earth-Current would grow stronger the closer we approached the core of the planet.
Bal Nergal of Shinar, who had upended and shattered the nine-headed thing, was selected to lead the eight hundred.
Eight hundred men! There were no women, no children, among us, and only a few graybeard men. We were sound of limb. None of us had come back from the dead in ill health. One would think we would have stood some sort of chance.
Our numbers dwindled so rapidly. There was no time for funerals or prayers.
The hunger-things came up the stairs at us, and we escaped only when so many our dead and dying choked the stairwell landing that the Things could not gnaw through.
Later, as we fought our way past the vast valve leading from what I thought might be the engineering deck, a shining tetrahedron killed a hundred men merely by hovering over them quietly.
Later still, a many-angled arm, pale as ice, reached through was seemed to be a hole or rip hanging in mid-air, and plucked up dozens of us at a swipe: I saw the eyes of the man right next to me as the hand closed on him.
Not long after, the gray-robed shapes drifted into view, and slew us at a distance, with some invisible, quiet power that froze the heart. Men to either side of me clutched their chests and fell: I know not why I was spared.
Snow killed other men, silent and white, which gathered on the deckplates as they slept, leaving those of us not two yards away unharmed. Other men poisoned themselves when they lapped up this snow, hoping despite the smell that it might be made of frozen water.
Then, as we fled from the sound of a screaming whistle in the dark, a glass door fell down that severed the company in half, and our lost men beat against the transparent panels with blood gushing from their nostrils, lips, and eyes.
After that, during the raid on the pantry deck, we fell beneath clubs and knives of the Giants and ape-things, and the dripping nails of the Hag.
We died and we died.
One hundred hours later, there were only eight of us left.
6. THE UPRISING
I am not sure what originally had caused the revolt in the Archive chamber. The manifestation of the Slowly-Turning Oblong had folded itself back into nothingness, as if it were preoccupied by other business.
Once it was gone, the seventeen ponderous behemoths that looked like headless elephants with massive crab-claws jutting from their neck-holes, who had been arrayed in a vast circle around the Oblong, opened their horrid claw-faces, and gathered darkness around them like scarves, and either turned invisible or dematerialized.
The attendants who had been cleaning the scaly flesh of the Behemoths were horrible, trembling, thin shapes that looked like eyeless albino insects or strange and leafless trees of flesh: they had put down their hooks and long scalpels and skittered away on their shivering toe-blades not long after.
The gargoyle thralls tending the resurrection machinery were not human, perhaps not members of the animal kingdom, but they were made of matter and existed in three dimensions: they died whenever their bone helmets were dashed in by a heavy crow-bar or impaling pole snatched up from the wreckage of the ancient machines littering the torture-yard floor.
Some accident had caused the coffins to open all at once, more than the thralls could manage, and hundreds of thousands of men from previous ages, screaming, bewildered, puking up cryogenic fluid, came shaking and staggering into existence.
During the confusion, a gigantic man, fierce as a bull-elephant, had made a prodigious leap to the upper deck-space where the hunched statutes of the Overseers crouched. It turned out that the large nine-headed Overseer (who we all thought was obviously the master of the others) was not made of stone at all, but of some strange form of frozen flesh; but flesh that broke and shattered and bled gray ink when the huge man toppled it from its pedestal down onto the iron floor-plates of the archive.
The giant's name was Bal Nergal of Shinar. He ruled and died circa 2250 BC. He is of the race Enoch calls the Nephilim, who ruled the Earth in antediluvian times.
The cry of triumph from the Nephilim echoed from the vast black walls, balcony upon balcony of empty coffins. Before the echoes died, the answering cry from countless tens of thousands of men rang out, a cry of rage and fear and rebellion. In the few moments of pandemonium, the gargoyles were slain, the guardian-machines were smashed, and the immense rugose cones of the Librarian-fungi were torn tendril from tendril.
From behind the banks of rusted black machines rose flames. The Archive was burning. In the light of the leaping flames, we saw, very tall and far away, against a distant wall, silhouettes of creatures that had been silently watching our rebellion, their massive heads hanging over the forty-story tall banks of ancient machinery, their narrow eyes without expression.
A million men broke and fled.
7. IN THE VIEWING TABLE CHAMBER
Following the shaggy man, we few fled down the stair. At the bottom, there was but one gate open, leading into cabin larger than the largest building of any city I had known in life. Like most of the cabins aboard this nameless ship, there was no guessing its original purpose. An amphitheater, perhaps?
In that place, the eight of us, the last survivors, hid, not speaking.
We took positions behind some of the tables and machines bolted to the wall opposite the valve were we had entered, and waited there in silence for a time, panting. Every man’s bloodshot eye was wide; every hand was tight on the weapons, archaic or futuristic, that trembled in our grip.
The air was foul, as if a fire had been here, once. In the center of the chamber was a sunken area: concentric rows of seats, each row lower than the last, descended a slope to surrounded a square floor of glass. The glass floor was an acre wide. Light shined upwards from this floor, smoky beams in the dust and fog of the cabin, and sent a trembling circle of light against the ceiling. We did not approach the light, for it seemed strange, and our experiences with strange lights in his haunted ship made us wary. We were not near enough the glass to see what was below it, shedding the light.
Ydmos was the first to recover his composure. He doffed his helmet, and, made a gesture to the Blue Man. The Blue Man holstered the little glass tube he uses as his pistol, and wound a bandage around Ydmos' head, stanching the blood-flow with purplish drips of sweat from his blue palms. I was amazed that Ydmos lived; but he soon stood and spoke as if no pain reached him. The men of the farthest future were made of stern stuff indeed.
Ydmos broke the silence, saying in a cool and dispassionate voice: “Treason is here. They were led to us; but then they pulled back when we were in their power, as if by signal. One among us talks with them. I heard it with the Night-Hearing.”
You would think a time like this, when one is accusing someone in the company of being a traitor, that this would be a time when a man would hold his weapon tightly. But, instead, Ydmos put the wheel-bladed pole-axe he carried to one side of him.
Unnaturally, the pole-arm stood upright by itself, like a flag-pole, with no hand to help it balance. There was still a shimmer lingering on the edge of the disk-blade, and where the shimmer passed, the bloodstains were absorbed into the substance of the metal and vanished. I could not put aside the impression that the weapon of Ydmos was a living thing, a loyal boar-hound licking its chops.
I said, “Sir, if you heard it with your brain, if you heard a telepathic message, the traitor must be one of the three mind-readers in our group.”
He made a curt, cutting gesture with the side of his hand, which I assume meant the same thing a shake of the head would mean. “The disturbance in the aether came from us, but was not one of us. It came from the dark, the under-thought.”
Ydmos spoke in his odd language, but the hypnosis or telepathy or whatever it had been (which he and Bal Nergal the Nephilim earlier had performed), allowed us to understand his words.
The language was called the Outer Tongue, for it was only spoken when outside the Last Redoubt, his home. His people had a different language spoken when inside the walls. Since his home, his world, and everything he knew was as far lost in the past as everything any of us had known of our homes, he would never speak the Inner Tongue again.
The Outer Tongue is soft, meant to be spoken only in a whisper, and has many flexible terms for enemy movements and emergency responses in a very few syllables. There are different word-endings for the degree and type of danger: physical, mental, or spiritual, and one-syllable modifiers to indicate if the attack is microscopic, fourth-dimensional, technological, or supernatural.
He-Sings-Death, the Cave-Man with the painted face, spoke, “He is like a horse being ridden, this one of us? He does not know what he is carrying? Possessed, but the shade is quiet?”
Ydmos said: “In the Mighty Home of Man, evolution weeded out those souls vulnerable to aetheric dominion over countless generations: you come from millennia before that evolution began. One of my people could not be possessed unawares, without an act of invitation, corruption, surrender. They know the nerve-energy discipline, they could sense of vibration of alien thought. But you are not of my people: I do not know your strengths.”
His cool and colorless eyes passed across the seven of us. “One here, knowingly or unknowingly, has bowed to the House of Silence, and only thinks he is a man. Will any of us confess?” he used the special word-form to indicate a moral danger to the group.
Odd. Apparently he did not think the traitor (if traitor there was) would physically harm us. Was the moral danger he feared the danger his own words put us in, the danger of suspicion, disunity?
8. THE SQUIRE OF THE LAST REDOUBT
If all human history, from the first cave-men to the Last Child, were compressed into a single year, then Ydmos came from thirty minutes to midnight, December 31st. On that scale, Christ was born an hour past noon of January 1st. I come from an hour and forty minutes later, during the Great War in Europe; and Abraxander, from the year AD 30000, was born two hours before midnight of the same day.
On that scale, the agrarian revolution, the rise and fall of the Empire of Rome, the rise and fall of three separate spacefaring civilizations over thirty millennia, all were over before January 2nd: and months of sunlessness covered all the million-year-long hours from later February to the end of December.
Ydmos was dressed a mottled blue-gray-black armor, blotched with irregular camouflage, as if meant to blend into a landscape of ash and dirty ice. His armor was not metal, not wood, not any substance I recognized: bulky as it was, it made no noise at all when he moved, nor did his boot-soles ring against the deck.
A wide mantle of gray fabric rippled from his shoulder-plates. Even from a pace or two away, I could feel the heat radiating from it, as if from a stove. It was made for a clime colder than the arctic.
His helmet was also blue-gray, with cheek-plates, crown, and the skirt around the back to protect the neck, were all one featureless curving surface of dull hue. His people put no decoration on their helmets: no plumes, no brave crests. There was neither beaver nor visor, but he must have had some method of opening and shutting the Y-shaped gap in the front, where his large eyes and solemn mouth were sometimes visible. I never saw it change, but sometimes the opening seemed covered over with transparent metal, sometimes it seemed merely an empty opening. In battle, the opening vanished, and the face of the helm was blind and blank, and I do not know how he saw his target.
There were no visible joints anywhere in the armor, though it was bulky and hard. If you were looking right at his elbow when he swung his ponderous weapon, sometimes the light would ripple slightly at the joint-surface, as if the metal itself were changing shape, or made of something both finer and harder than mere matter. I wondered if the armor was alive, as the disk-weapon was.
I had seen the stinger-tail of a Mantachore bounce off that breastplate: I doubted my shell could penetrate it. I also have a machete that Abraxander dreamed into matter for me: but there was no way my one-handed blade could parry the forty or fifty pounds of spinning, electrically-charged buzz-saw battle-axe thing that Ydmos swung with his mighty arms.
I concluded that if Ydmos thought I was the traitor, I would not live long. Since I had seen his pole-arm, as if by magnetic pull, jump into his hand when needed, I was not comforted by his pretending to place it beyond his reach.
9. A HUNTER OF THE GREAT HUNT
He-Sings-Death is tall and thin, dark-skinned with lank, dark hair, which he braids and decorates with bones and beads and feathers. His face is stained with woad, and his jacket is uncured leather from a red deer. His dirk is dark flint, and hangs from a lanyard and thong about his neck; his javelins are tipped with flint as well. I thought it odd that he asked for paint and feathers from Abraxander-the-Threshold when the matter-wizard was trying to materialize our gear for us: I suppose he thought it odd that I asked for a shaving-razor.
He throws his spear with a lever called an atlatl or woomera. It is about two feet long, with a handgrip at one end and a spur at the other. I have seen him hit a monster square in the eye at 150 yards with a javelin launched from it.
The Blue Man says He-Sings-Death hails from 14,500 BC.
Once, when we were encamped in a dark box near an empty stairwell, He-Sings-Death used his remaining woad dye to paint the walls with beautiful pictures of an Irish Elk in flight. With only three colors, chalk-white, indigo and dull red, He-Sings-Death made the majestic antlers, the shining coats, the bunched muscles of the fleet-footed Elk come alive. It was a painting by someone who saw and hunted and admired the beast. The last of them vanished 11,000 years before my time. He-Sings-Death "signed" the painting by leaving a blue handprint.
On the opposite wall, he painted a hulking shape of the kiln giants that had been following us, and he used this for target practice: "so that the tooth of the spear will come to know the taste of him, and yearn to strike true!" he said, and laughed. He laughs the way a child might, tossing his hair and throwing his head back.
He spoke to the flint spear-points of his weapons, praising them when they struck, and chiding them when they did not. Perhaps it was a voodoo he believed in earnest; perhaps it was target-practice; perhaps it was merely his sense of humor.
He laughed now. "Ydmos, he says there is one here. One here who follows the Smothering Man, He-Chokes-Song. But Ydmos, he hears in the night. He knows. He sees hearts. So, then! So, then! Who can he not hear? Who has a hidden heart?"
I knew from previous talks with him, that the Devil of his tribal lore was called He-Chokes-Song. This was a spirit of darkness, born of the waste left over after the Creator made the world on the pottery wheel of the rotating heavens. The left-over spirit stuff could find no place in the world for itself, and so bent itself to the task of tormenting and destroying the happy men who did have a place in the world. It was the not-unreasonable conclusion of He-Sings-Death that we were in a cave where this devil and his servants, corrupted from once-wholesome creatures, dwelled.
Ydmos did have some sort of telepathy he called "Night-Hearing" that the men of the far future used to sense the shape and nature of the menaces from the Night Lands around their Last Redoubt. He-Sings-Death was asking a rather clever question: which one of us could block the Night-Hearing, the telepathy, of Ydmos?
He-Sings-Death now made a shuffling dance with his doe-skin-clad feet, turning this and that. He held his spear in hand, in its thrower, at his shoulder, so that the long shaft slanted down his back. He chanted in a high, thin, funny-sounding voice "Who can it be? Who can it be?" and bent his head as if to stare in surprise at his own feet in their rapid slithering patter. I do not know if he meant this to work a magic, but he was smiling as he danced, a smile I have seen on him when he makes a joke.
Now he stood in the middle of our rough circle. We were all staring at him. His back was to me. He straightened up.
He-Sings-Death said, "Not Captain Powell. His heart is bright: he has the eye of the hunting-dog when he hunts; he holds the iron thunder. Did you not see the black beasts flee when the thunder spoke?"
Ydmos said, "Do not praise his noisy weapon: the creatures of the Night Lands are drawn to loud reports, and fire-arms tempt men to slay monsters afar-off, instead of close at hand. Such weapons anger what should be left quiet."
I thought this a cold thing to say, considering that I had just saved his life with my fire-arm. But I decided that a polite reply was best. "No matter the temptation, sir, I will only be tempted five more times to slay a monster far-off. I have but six shells left, and I am saving the last one for myself. Unless Mr. Threshold can make more?” (Casually, I looked toward Abraxander) “Can you, sir? Or can any of you make us better arms, or restore our supplies? Some of you are warlocks and who-knows-what. Mr. Bliss the Blue Man seems to be able to create tools out of his fluid.” (Casually, I pointed my barrel toward the Blue Man) “Or perhaps master Uj the Shaggy Man (if man he be) he could teach us to make clubs from bone.”
I raised my voice (for the shaggy man was squatting on the top of some oblong metal casket, gazing toward the center of the room). “What are you anyway? A Neanderthal? Or something from the end of the world?”
The Blue Man and Abraxander-the-Threshold turned to look at Uj, as if expecting a reply.
10. THE SHAGGY MAN
Uj, the Shaggy Man, did not answer. He did not seem overly concerned at the idea of a traitor in our midst. He was a squat fellow, but so thick through the shoulders and chest as to look almost hunch-backed. He sniffed the air with his monkey-nose.
When I spoke, a long moment passed before he cocked his head at me.
I think Uj is one of the three members of the group who reads minds, but I cannot decipher his expressions. His eyes are as green as jade, and they shine from between the hairs of his unkempt brow like the eyes of a tiger crouched in the tall grass of Rhodesia.
His brow is heavy and cragged like the brow of an ape, so that his eyes are always in shadow, wolf-green staring out from dark pits. His face is wide at the cheek-bones, and through the tangled black beard, ribs of muscle surrounded a wide, dog-fanged mouth. His jaw was like a blunt anvil. His weapon was the thighbone of an antelope: he dressed in shaggy wolf hide. I would swear he was hominid of some other species than our own, save that I have seen sailors on packet-boats out of Istanbul or Macao as thick-featured, hard-faced, wild and dark as he.
He spoke in his language of coughs and clicks. Once again, the spiritualistic or animal-magnetic process of whatever-it-was that Ydmos and Nergal had done before translated the words for us.
The shaggy man was saying: “What is that light? What is that light?”
He came up onto his hind legs, and raised his bone truncheon and pointed, he said, "It is the light of the last sun. All-of-all now dies. Night-of-night now falls. There will be no dawn. In the hunting-band, the virgins carry a coal from fire to fire, that when one fire dies, another will be born. Where is the coal for the new dawn? Who will make the new all-of-all?”
He coughed (a laugh? Or a sound of sorrow?) and concluded: “Why these people? Why this place? The path, it leads through dark brush, dark and tangled, but there is sun in the glade beyond. My mate, Magigi, waits. We dance then. Then, the light. Not now, the light: the dark is now.
"Who carries the coal to bring back the fire of the world? For the path is full of thorns.”
This was the most he had spoken since he pulled me from my library coffin. I wondered at his words. His mate?
And, when no one answered him, he turned his face from us with a snort of disgust, and stared back toward the shimmering light. He muttered, as if to himself, "You are forgetting people, after-people, wrong-head-looking people. The coal is here with us. Do not look for the serpent among us: you can no more pluck out your own heart than pluck out the serpent who nests there."
He-Sings-Death laughed again and stamped his feet on the deck, making a dull drum-boom. We all looked back toward him.
He-Sings-Death was saying, "Uj, I name him He-Speaks-Like-Man. He is crooked-hearted, but his heart is plain. His heart is wet with tears. Can He-Chokes-Song cry human tears? Not him! Not him! Why do you look at him?"
I took this to mean that He-Sings-Death was vouching for Uj as well. But I wondered who among us would vouch for He-Sings-Death? Of all the company, he was my closest comrade, but he could not truly know that I was not infected by the enemy, possessed, ghost-ridden, no more than I could know it of him.
He-Sings-Death spoke in a deeper voice, harshly. "But here is one whose heart is hidden and dark. He hears voices, and he obeys. Is this not a way of the Smothering Man? Let him show himself to be clean! Speak!"
He was facing Mneseus, the Sorcerer-King from Atlantis.
He-Sings-Death drew back his spear-hand and raised his weapon to smite.
11. KING OF THE DROWNED LAND
Mneseus of Atlantis had not spoken since the battle. He sat, his unstrung bowstaff in hand, on the edge of a machine housing, but his head was bowed, and his left hand covered his face.
Slowly, he raised his face. His eyes were wet and red.
Mneseus said: “I shall speak. Noble sirs, ghosts of the future, my descendants, hear me: it is seen that there were neither bride nor child among those stirred again to life in the dark coffins. Is it not strange, that men only were brought to life, and no sister, no daughter, no mother of our race, glancing-eyed, dark-haired, with shining limbs?
“Once, I stood beneath the bright sun all-seeing, beside the wine-dark sea. The Sybil of the Serpent-Shrine at Dolphins, she said that there is a land beyond the fields of Asphodel: Father Time, Chronos, would perish, and the Eternal Universe, Ouranos, will halt the turning of the years. The grate of Hades would be stove in, and the shades made flesh again. All lovers would be reunited.”
Mneseus was a very dignified-looking fellow, polite and grim in the way soldiers who have seen too much combat often have. Even jolly little Huc-huc Pounce (back before the dire-worms took him) had not been able to make Mneseus laugh. He dated from somewhere older than 4000 B.C.
Abraxander-the-Threshold had conjured him a voluminous white mantle, which he wore draped over his chest and arms like you might see in classical sculpture.
His shirt was linen and his leather skirt was hemmed with gold pebbles. Shields or plates of bronze and oxhide hung over his chest and back: there were shining greaves on his calves, and he wore a leather sleeve on his right arm to protect it from the bowstring.
His helm was of a design that looked strangely modern to me: it looked like a flat pie-plate of bronze, tied in a complex tangle with two ribbons under and around his chin. Atop the helmet was a coronet of white poplar leaves, tied with purple ribbon. He had insisted Abraxander create for him a flask of oil, with which he anointed his limbs, so that they shone: he seemed to think this more important than his tunic or mantle or skirt.
A small cylindrical quiver of metal hung over one shoulder, and his arrows clashed when he ran. He was the swiftest afoot of all of us, fleeter even than Sings-Death.
The bow shot silvery arrows tipped with ampoules of glass and metal. There was some sort of magic or forgotten science to arrowheads, for he had to prepare them or charge them with an amber rod he wore at his belt. When the arrows were charged, there was a smell like summer lighting in the air. When he shot a monster with an arrow, even the smallest wound would make the monster dance and leap, limbs jerking, and drop dead.
Was it an electrical charge of some sort? I kept expecting a flash of lighting or a thunderclap to come from the flying shafts of the wizard from Atlantis, but it never came. When he strung his bow, there was just a silent sense of pressure in the air, like you feel before a thunderstorm.
Mneseus held the bow unstrung now, and he was seated on the edge of a machine casing, but his posture was kingly, and the bowstaff in his hand seemed a scepter.
Mneseus looked up at He-Sings-Death, and stared him eye to eye, and called out in a ringing voice: “Now is the time, is it not? Now is the hour when Ouranos, who created Cosmos from Chaos, returns from exile to claim his kingdom, and end the tyranny of Time, his wicked son. And--? And--?”
He lowered his bow staff and waved it left and right, pointing to one side of the chamber, and the other. I looked. The were tall square shapes, like abandoned machines, things that looked like dull tall mirrors, and, in the center of the room, the very wide sunken amphitheatre of chairs, all facing the floor of glass. There was that mysterious light shining from the sunken glass floor in the center of the chamber.
“I see her not,” He said at last, dropping his hand.
I said, “Pardon me, Your Majesty, but who would you be looking for?”
He looked at me. His eyes were tilted, like the eyes of a Chinaman, but the pupils were silvery, a color I had never seen in a human before.
He said softly, “My queen, the witch Parthenope. She repented of her crimes, freed the maidens of her tower, and consented to age and die as other women do. She threw her bowl where she mixed poisons into the sea, though the hag-goddess of the dark of the moon was angered at her for her ingratitude. My queen used her wisdom thereafter to heal the sick, and to calm the storms at sea. When she perished, a pine tree grew up upon her grave. The augurs told me this was a sign of everlasting life. A halcyon nested in the branches.
“Where is she?” Mneseus continued. “All lovers are to be reunited at the end of time. Now is the Eschaton. Where is my wife?”
The voice of Mneseus was heavy with grief.
He-Sings-Death still menaced him with his javelin.
I said to Sings-Death, "Mr. Singer, you told us the devil cannot weep, but His Majesty clearly has been. Put down the weapon, and let us use our wits to find the traitor here."
Mneseus looked at him with contempt. "Strike, then, barbarian, and rid this iron hell of one more grieving soul. What care I for your suspicions? None are worthy to stand in judgment over me. Strike! And piece my heart: it is pained with weeping, and no more to be called a man's heart. Where, O Hercules! Where is my virtue gone?"
All at once he stood, put his sandal to his bow, bent and strung it. In one smooth motion he snatched an arrow from his quiver, touched it to the amber at his belt, fit it to the string, and raised the bow and drew the string back to his ear. The room throbbed with an unseen power: I smelled lighting in the air.
He pointed the arrow at He-Sings-Death. "You stood idle while my shining hands strung my death-bestowing bow, which slays men. Why did you allow me? That was folly."
He-Sings-Death smiled, but his voice shook. He had seen what the arrows of Mneseus could do.
The painted Cave Man said, "Three spirits made the world: He-Knows-All, He-Gives-Gifts, He-Spares-Men. He-Spares-Men has told us that it is wrong to kill a brother. But I do not know what you are! Are you a man who eats flesh cooked with fire, as other men do? Or are you the serpent hidden with us? If you are not the serpent hidden with us, why did you say poison words into my ear about Captain Powell, He-Holds-Thunder?"
Because of the strain of holding the bowstring taut, Mneseus could only speak through clenched teeth. "Hah! Is mine eye the only open eye here? None other has seen it. Enough! I am not your tutor, barbarian. I am armed, and you have taken weapons up against me. Will you strike now? Or else I let fly!"
I said, “Your Majesty, you seem to know things, even what a person is thinking before he speaks. Are you a mind-reader? Is there someone among us who is not thinking like a human being?”
Mneseus said, “My daemon speaks to me. Why were you spared? I saw the Cold Hand pluck men up from your left and right. I saw the Pyramid pass over you. I saw the envenomed snow fall softly on the faces of the men. But not on your face. Always, always, men die to the side left of you, and to the right, and before you and behind, but you are spared. They do not smite you. Have you taken their coin?"
I said, "Ydmos said the traitor might be possessed without the traitor himself knowing it. Might it be me?"
Mneseus now swung to turn the bow toward me. I smelled ozone.
He said through clenched teeth. "A cold hand touches my neck. There is a ker among us, sleeping, perhaps, like a dragon coiled in the bottom of the belly. From time to time, it stirs, but it does not wake. It is near: perhaps it is in me. Or you! Do you understand me? You yourself, Pwyll, said it might be you, but unknown to you. So it might be of any of us. There is one solution. The door is open.”
“Door? What door?”
The muscles in his arm were trembling, but the arrow-head was steady, and he did not relax his draw. Mneseus hissed: "The door through which we were pulled to come from there to here. The door the fifty-headed hound must guard.”
Ydmos said softly, “He means the Capsule.”
The words did not mean much to me, but something in his tone made a shiver go up my spine.
I said, "With three mind-readers here, we cannot figure out which one of us is inhabited by this - this thing?"
Mneseus said sharply, "This is no riddle for us to puzzle over and solve! There is no solving of this, only ending! It lives in one of us. When we all slay ourselves, it dies, and whatever it had hoped or planned for us to do, whatever dark purpose moved this impious thing to break us from our deadly graves, that hope is dashed, that purpose is no more."
The arrow-head was less than two yards from me. The bow-string creaked under the tension.
Without haste, I raised my rifle to my shoulder, but I did not point at away from my previous target. I did not want to shoot from the hip a weapon that had so much kick.
It was not Mneseus I aimed at.
to Part 2 . . .
© John C Wright 1 Nov 2003
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