by John C Wright
I was overcome with awe, and fell to my face when I saw the Chronomancer walking slowly toward me along the balcony.
To my right, the thought-amplifying spyglasses looked out from the great embrasure upon the darkness and strange fires of the Night Lands, and I could see the shining eyes of the Great Watching Thing of the Southeast looking at me. The Thing was as mighty as a mountain, and about its forepaws, which had not moved in a million years or more, was encamped an army of Blind Ones, of Ogres, and of shaggy subhumans, of which more than half had stirred from the six thousand year paralysis, and had been stirring since the days of my grandfather's youth, and the reddish haze of severe space-distortion was all about them.
To my right, above me and below me were the other balconies, the windows and lamps of the Home of Man, and the Tower of the Monstruwacans, the monster-watchers, rose another mile above the topmost embrasures of the highest balconies. No other humans were near me, not for miles: the cities of this level, and the ones below and above, had been deserted for half a million years. The cities were silent except for the whisper of the perfect machinery built by an ancestral people, and were empty of thought-action, except for those paeans known to hinder powers of the outside, soul-vibrations taken from the thought-records of departed sages of greatest spiritual power and wisdom. He and I were alone.
Once, when I was but a youth, I dreamed of the days of light. A hollow vessel of wood, like a long and narrow dish, but great enough to hold many men, was shattered on the sea: the crew was treading water, and with loud voices they called to each other, each man telling the other as he sobbed to remain strong and hopeful, and await the dawn.
In the dream this seemed no wonder, though I later would regret I had not slept long enough to see this marvel of the ancient world.
My father was in my hands, and he was weary and cold, and I gripped him, calling out his name, although the bitter sea wave entered my mouth whenever I spoke.
There were sharks in the waters, drawn by blood, and, one by one by one, the men to my left and right were yanked below the surface. The inconstant moon appeared and disappeared between silver-edged black clouds: and sometimes I would see the silhouette of some mate or well-liked crewman bobbing on the heaving waves. But then the water would rise and fall between us, and I could not see, or the moon would hide. Then, a moment later, there was fitful light again, and whoever I sought was gone. They made no screams as the jaws pulled them under, for they were too weary.
I remember the salt-sea and the deadly cold. I remember trying to pull the wizened body of my father up onto my back, as if I could somehow lift him away from the sea. All I did was to push my own face below the dark waters.
When I woke, the dreaming glass registered a time-tension of over twenty-five million years, farther by three aeons than any accurate records reached, farther than previous paleochronopathy had recovered though thought-echoes. Even the master academicians, dwelling in the egg-shaped crystal thought-chambers of their guild, their minds augmented by surgery and magnified coherent streamers of by Earth-Current, could not penetrate the spirals and angles of time so deeply as I, when merely an untrained boy, unaided, had done.
I knew then that my life was marked: if foretellers had not foreseen someone of my power, after-tellers, those who walk through the memories of their ancestors, would return from the future to seek me.
I was not entirely surprised. In a sense, I had been long awaiting this visitation.
Did I say I was alone, fallen prone before the stranger from another aeon? Not alone. None within this Last Redoubt can be alone. Our enemies are ever with us, unsleeping, tireless, horrid.
The Final Siege of Man has been since eight and a half million years ago, or so run the estimates of Paleochroniclers, who study those books written by earlier versions of the human race.
Uncounted millions of years before that, a great lamp stood in the upper darkness, called Sun. So long ago that only the time-dreams of the strongest mystics can confirm it, this lamp was quenched to an ember, removing all the light from the outer lands. Then came the hosts of Dark, seen and unseen. Between upper and nether and surrounding darkness, the terrors are encamped against us, patient beyond the limits of eternity.
The Great Redoubt stands seven miles and more, a mighty pyramid hulled in imperishable metal lit with a million lamps, above the haunted cold waste of the Night Land; and from our balconies, by the flares from fire-pits or by the smolder of volcano-flows, we see the beings move, those that can be seen to move, or loom in the darkness, large as living hills, motionless and watching, those that cannot. Beings from the far side of the life spectrum move also, but at so glacial a rate, that tens of thousands of years span the slowness of their approach against the walls of this last fortress of mankind.
On the low hill to the North stands the august and terrible House of Silence. Through the millions of years since the Watching Things have encamped against us to beleaguer our mountain-overtopping fortress, this small House of Silence has issued no sound, and not even the most sensitive of long-range microphones have detected a whisper. There are lights seen in the casement, and yet these never move nor flicker, not in all of eternity. The main doors stand open. It is known that men lost in the darkness of the Night Lands will walk as if asleep into those open doors, and never speak or make a sound: those who enter do not emerge. The instruments of the Monstruwacans detect that this House is the center of the fields of influence that trouble the aether for many miles across the Night Lands, and most scholars agree is it the center of all the forces arrayed against us.
A silence filled the Night Land now. I could see the eyes of the Southeast Watching Thing scrutinizing the two of us. The yammering of the kiln giants was diminished, the pounding of their machinery which heats their buried dormitories; the Things Which Peer ceased to stir atop their half-unlit headland, and their hooting was quiet. The baying of the Night Hounds ceased. A great hush seemed to fill the night. The lopsided ear of the Watching Thing to the Northwest could be seen, huge and motionless, against the dreary glow of the fire-pits beyond it. Surely our words did not escape that terrible, watchful malice.
Perhaps he and I could have removed to the center of the pyramid, or to the spot one hundred miles below our feet, where the deepest of our many buried acres of farms and gardenlands rest. It would have made no difference. The influence of the House of Silence was not impeded by mere solid objects.
"Exulted, how is it that I feel fear?" I spoke without raising my eyes, wondering at myself. "The passion is one we left behind long ago, once mankind achieved the icy purity of perfection."
The man from the future stood still when I addressed him, and I saw the hem of his shining robes and the gleam of his boots on the metal deck. He said only, "You know the answer."
I did. The emotion was meant for me. Even in the sober mind-discipline my race had practiced for these last two million years, it was known that mere detachment held particular dangers.
Hatred forever battered the energized sheathe surrounding the Last Redoubt, in endless tides of malefic will pouring in from remote inhuman sources, from alien spheres in distant space and from other configurations of the time-structure, and to this was added tides of something more bitter than hatred crossing the abyss from dimensions ulterior altogether to time and space. Intellectual serenity was not the best defense.
Long ago the secret of the Night Hearing had been accomplished, so that every child of the race was trained in its use, on conscious and subconscious levels, and the thinking machines that organized our webs and tapestries of thought were designed to impress upon us only those emotions and only in the degrees thought wisest and best for the mental health of our diminishing community. We still retained individual minds, for too intimate a unity had dangers of its own: but our souls were so often visitors within the thoughts and memories of others; even as often as friends visit the houses of friends, we entered each other's beautiful thoughts: and our love and understanding was so deep, that it was as if each of us had many mansions of personality in our minds. We were not one soul, but we shared much that men of earlier eons never could share.
The Mind Song determined that I should feel fear, that most ancient sensation of life. I said, " It is fitting and proper that a man should quail at a ghost."
Perhaps I was the only man left who could feel fear. Of all the retromancers, I of all my generation had passed furthest back down the slope of evolution, into even prehuman forms, and pre-animal, far back into the past life of the cells and viruses in the human body, and I had achieved even unto the simple soul of the first amoeba, that primal thing of ooze, smaller than a pinpoint, born in a flare of sky-lightning, whose origins even the sages cannot fully explain. The first ancestral cell knew nothing but light by day and darkness at night: but even before the development of the most primitive nervous system, the chemical contractions of the night produced the sensation higher animals experience as fear. Fear of the dark is the oldest of things.
"I am not a ghost," he said, "but a man, like you; Aeneas. Rise!"
"Not like me," I said.
"Rise, in any case."
Slowly I stood. I looked him in the eye, but his eyes were strange.
"How can you be here?" I asked him.
"But you know that answer as well," he said sadly. The shape he occupied was healthy and of good limb and proportion as the cellular science could make us, hale and strong even after decades of life. His eyes were not like ours, for the Mind Song did not pulse in him: he was in communion, perhaps, with his people, our remote descendants, across the abyss of time. Perhaps they watched now through his eyes.
I knew his face. The countless millions who once occupied the seven-mile-tall structure of the Last Redoubt were, in these times, reduced to a few hundred thousand, and each knew each. Heliogabalus had been a prognosticator of my class and aspect, though he walked in his dream to find the future, not the past. He sought too well, and when he woke, one of our descendents woke with him.
"You are a possessor," I said, "This is very near the arts of the Enemy,"
"Not so, for the Watching Things and the Powers who set them to Watch consume the soul and destroy the inmost self: whereas I am come consume only my own being, that those of this time may have extra years, a different fate. Heliogabalus is my host and landlord, not my victim."
I said, "You are like me. A student of retromancy."
"Not like you," he said with a small smile. "Your fame lasts even through legend to my day. Our word for one who is unsurpassed in the mystic sciences is your name."
"Yet this present is your past. Do we seem grand to you? Or diminished? Have you come to admire arts lost to your time, or to smile at simplicities you have overtopped? Is there nothing but darkness ahead? Is there hope?"
His eyes shined with the Mind Song of another time, another race of man.
"There is no hope known to me."
I was of the Seventeenth Men, the penultimate race of mankind. He was of the Eighteenth and the Last, in spirit if not in form.
Many times over the millennia, mankind has reached the pinnacle of evolution, a harmony of spirit sustained by beneficent etheric and astral sciences, while our neural systems were tinkered over generations to perfection by neuropsychiatry and abnegatory disciplines: in each period of history the pattern was repeated. At first, our ancestors conquered insanity, and then they slowly learned to dwell without immorality, and all slavery and theft and coercion was left behind, childhood sickness; and then, seeking higher perfections still, the race would achieve the mystic union of the earth-energies, the balance of forces of past and future.
Some of these golden ages lingered but a thousand years; some, multiples of millions.
Yet the machinations of the Enemy, or some inner weakness of the human frame, or mere ambition, or a disturbance in the cycles of incarnation and reincarnation, sooner or later would disrupt the delicate checks and balances of our neural-moral laws and impulses. One such age was ended when a freakish storm in the aether stirred up madness and abomination in our ancestral nerve cells. Another failed due to a diminishment of power from the Earth-Current.
Many were halted more gracefully, when a messenger from the future came to warn the generations that their current stage of evolution was complete. So it was when the Sixteenth Men gave way to the Seventeenth, and, earlier, so it was when the Neanderthals, the Second Men, without war gave way to Homo Sapiens, the Third race of Man.
In our case, some forty thousand years of dark ages passed before the lost perfection was found again: in the case of the Third Men, far longer, for they killed the prophets sent to them from the future.
When Heliogabalus spoke, I understood the dark impulse of the Third Men of long ago.
He spoke: "There is no hope known to me. For all of time mankind have known how the final siege would end. The rate of the diminishment of the Earth-Current has been calculated to within an erg-second since the time of the Fifteenth Men, and even the Fourth Men, those strange, cold thinkers composed entirely of brain, estimated within nine hundred years the date of the extinction of man."
"Then why are you here now, ghost of the Things To Come?"
"I am come that my times shall not come. I speak, and this alters the past, and I destroy myself and all my people, every generation back to this point in time."
I listened with growing horror. I wondered if I cast myself from the balcony even at this moment, and dashed myself to death against the armored walls, before another word were spoken, if it would keep future history on its destined path, and save the next generations of man, our children, from the unimaginable condition of never-having-had-been.
His words were like the solemn toll of a bell. "We have consulted with the dead, who are not anchored in time as living men are. They grow ever fewer, for the after-life condition is not immune from the assaults of the Final Siege, and it loses integrity when living men diminish. Nonetheless, the parliament of the departed have arranged a set of signals to commune with us, and they believe the alternate which will come into being when I slay my people will ensure an additional five thousand years of human life and sanity upon this long-dead world."
"How can the dead speak to the living?" I asked. "How can you meddle with your past? If these events are changed from fate's decree, you will not have and never will have had come to be: therefore your acts, your speaking to me here, is paradox."
"Eternity is sick and trembling as a man with palsy. The boundaries of aether decay, the fabric of space-time unravels as the Enemy reaches a final condition, to compress our spacetime within their greater congruence, one where no life nor logic is possible. Past and future slip with greater ease into each other; doors long shut are opened; cause and effect becomes dreamlike. In earlier ages, paradox would have stopped me. Not now. The end of all things is nigh: even subatomic interactions lose coherence."
"We were promised that there would be a light beyond this darkness, a time when all true lovers would be reunited!"
"That report is known to us as well, but when we send a Foreteller to walk the fourth dimension of time, from that direction comes nothing but a dreadful silence, and those who turn their thoughts toward it are lost and do not return. There is nothing after the end of man."
"How will Man end?"
He said, "The prophecies you know are roughly true. The Great Southern Watching thing over the next fifty thousand years will continue forward, half an inch a year, extinguish the Electric Circle, shatter the Air-Clog to allow the influences of the Night into our windows. The Lanterns of Darkness of the Seven Towers to the West will be lit, and their beams will fall across the Western face of the Last Redoubt. A single blow from the Paw of the Thing will rend the gate and the surrounding walls, and nine great spirits of uttermost darkness from the dead stars beyond Arcturus will descend, escorted by the Lifeless Tree, and enter into the empty cities of our ground level, and take possession. Year by year they will climb the stairs, overcoming every barrier and ward and emplacement the ever-dwindling race of man shall erect against them. Those trapped in the upper citadel of the Redoubt and those trapped below in the buried gardens will diverge into two distinct human species. The boundaries of aether will diminish further; dreams will walk the balconies of the shattered citadel, solid beneath the failing lamps. The cisterns will grow dry, and men will gnaw their tongues for thirst. The ghosts of past ages will grow ever thicker, and the number of the living diminish, and the loss of memory which protects the current generation will fail. Every man will be possessed as I am possessed, but by many legions, not my one. The Last Child will be born, the most perfect of beings, who will attempt to open the Doors of Time and allow us to escape into the past: and even though the effort is doomed to fail, he must attempt it, and must fail. The Hounds of Tindalos who enter through the angles of Time will enter, and the laws of geometry will become non-Euclidean; the laws of morality become no longer suited to our condition of being. The final tribe of men will do all fashion of corruption and abomination to their childrens minds and bodies, thinking it wise and right. The Thing Which Laughs will come forth from the Country of the Great Laughter, and his visage will blind ten thousand, who will go forth dancing and rejoicing and enter that cold and steadfast light which has without noise since eternity poured out through the ever-gaping Doors of the House of Silence. The Night Hounds will learn the Master Word and enter the upper citadel, and slay the Last Child. The Silent Ones will doff their robes and be seen in their true shape, and will enter the Tower of the Monstruwacans to dwell there, and extinguish all the lamps there, and shatter the Great Glass. The greater servants of darkness will feast on the lesser ones, and all the abhumans be slain and consumed by monstrosities, and these in turn will be drained by their dark masters.
"Know that the technology to preserve and revive ghosts, that magnetic echo of human life where our interior self is carried, will be perfected by this time, and even the death of all men will not destroy the preservation crystals where the psychic force of centuries is kept. For five hundred thousand years after the last death in the flesh of mankind, the surface of the Great Redoubt will retain some part of the charge of the aetheric force that sustains life, and all the ghosts of the slain will remain in suspension here, walking the corridors, unaware that they are dead. Then a great voice will come from the House of Silence, and speak that word which is the opposite of the Master-Word, and the ghosts of the lordly dead will enter a condition of being utter unlike and infinitely worse than if they had merely been annihilated."
I was speechless with dread for a full minute, oppressed by the vision of destruction.
"These things must come to pass?"
"Soon or late. Because I speak, I hope to add thousands of years, not centuries, to the lifespan of mankind, and delay this death by an aeon."
My next works crackled with anger, "And are all your people slain by your act? All your ancestors back through countless years?"
He was solemn. His eyes seemed not to see me. "Every man and woman and child ever born across the fifty thousand years of aborted time has been consulted, directly or by proxy, and all consent. Our race is weaker than your own, lesser in number by an order of magnitude, and yet we are not as weak as ancient men once were. No one lives in this pyramid, the mighty home of Man, who does not stand ready to sacrifice himself that others may live, or to slay their loved ones, that others may die wholesome deaths, and escape destruction."
"What is this terrible message from the future?" I asked him, and once again the awe and fear of the Mind Song was upon me. The machines in the base of the pyramid, six miles or more below my feet, throbbed and beat through the air silently, and I detected their action with my brain elements. In their swift and automatic fashion, they had linked the minds of the many souls in the pyramid together, waking and sleeping alike, men and women, and determined what emotion was right and sane for me to feel. Nothing but terror and awe was fitting, to hear a race of man, a span of eternity, condemned.
"The message has already been spoken," he said. "The clue that it is possible is enough. Only in your heart is love enough, a son's love for his lost father, to pull you from the safe serenity of this last living fortress, and down into the darkness, death, and silence of the Night Land."
And I heard the great sigh, both in my mind, and with my ears, coming from the million windows of our nearly empty pyramid.
The collected minds of all the human race could grasp in an instant what would have taken an equal number of men scattered over generations centuries to see. The machinery needed to capture the essential substance of the dead was not, after all, so different from the air-clog that surrounded the Last Redoubt, and kept the thought-forms of the Abhorrent Ones at bay. The engineers, philosophers, spiritualists and pnuematicists from many scattered cells and chambers in the great pyramid had combined their genius with the racial mind, and sketched out a rough design. The instrument would be no larger than a lantern: a man could hold it in one hand, and the housing made of aetherically-neutral metal, to dampen out thought-vibrations. A ghost-cell.
"My father is dead!" I shouted at him. I was too astonished to notice that the Mind Song selected anger, an emotion so old that only one of my order could know of it. "He fell in the Place Where the Silent Ones Kill! There has been no whisper of mind speech from him these many years! No one can survive so long in the outer darkness!"
But the future man, now of an extinguished race, was gone. The Mind Song in him was no longer that of the Eighteenth Men. He straightened; his eyes met mine; and it was Heliogabalus again, and his thoughts were shared with my thoughts, peaceful, sane, endlessly calm.
The anger was gone in a moment, and for many weeks I wondered why the machines in their wisdom had selected that particular emotion for that time: joy and hope was what should have been in my heart. I love my father, and would do anything, even venture into the Outer Darkness, to recover him. The hint that his immaterial essence, his mind and thoughts and inner self might still be in existence, uncorrupted, not suffering Destruction was hope beyond hope: as if, long after the coffin was sealed and the tomb was shut, a voice came to tell you to open it again. Why had I not felt gratitude?
© John C Wright
21 May 2007
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