'Whatever happens, stick to the paths you know,' my father used to say.
If only he could see just how far I've strayed, the places my wanderlust has taken me.
That was so long ago. I can't remember now whether he meant literal paths, if he was worried for my safety in the forests I grew up in, or whether he meant in life. Maybe it was both, I didn't write everything down in those days, I thought my memories would hold true forever.
I could tell him I became a historian, and he would be happy. It's a safe, boring, tangible job. It's true too, in a way, but it's as true to call me book-keeper, librarian, geographer, cartographer, time-traveller, space-man, alien - to some. I journey and I watch, I measure, I record: everywhere, everywhen, whether I know the path or not.
I have studied empires spreading over islands, over planets, over galaxies. Nothing is ignored, no matter the size. Scale is noted, but everything happens and so everything is important, and is documented.
I have witnessed beginnings, so many of them. Births in every sense you can imagine, and an almost infinite amount you can't.
I have charted the idea of Apocalypse moving through the universal undermind. Seen, in actuality, a thousand apocalypses ravage and destroy civilisations. The Horsemen - as my people called them so long ago, before they visited my homeworld in turn - are real enough, psychic entities feeding on mass devastation. But I have chronicled the new worlds that rise in their wake too, a thousand glorious re-births.
I have seen the past, and visited so many futures, and yet I failed to foresee my own. For so long an existence I had missed out on the greatest treasure, that thing that so many artists and poets have tried to capture, to pin down, but never quite succeeded; that sought me out, struck when I was unaware, pinned me down.
I always thought exploration would be my only true passion. Forever I have observed, never interracted, known that to be my place. A lonely eternity maybe, but necessarily so; I have never begrudged my solitude, that I should be anything other than alone has never crossed my mind. But now...
And I always thought this great work, the greatest work, would be my only child, born to me and mother universe. I thought this map, so full of the life of others, yet none of its own, would be my only legacy. But now...
"Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."
-Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
As a child I would let the sun go down and walk for hours into the country. I took comfort in lying down beneath the far off stars. In finding myself erased, by distance and heat, and power. Now I am older. I know the scale of things, and how to weigh them. I know the simple numbers of contraction and flame. I am erased again by elegance and grace. That there is a wave and a particle, that gives life, casts shadow, makes maps, that shows god moving over the face of the water. That there is a spin, of an azure body round a burning star, and a limit to how far even our gods could reach in the period of an orbit.
The knowledge leaves me where there is no distance, no heat. No power to burn the fabric of all things to light. Where there is a scale of miniscule proportion. A weight that vanishes in definition beyond me. I exist within an ugly and furious confusion among the vanishing small.
As I age though, I spend more time in the afternoon sun. I soak in heat as deserts might a titan's tear. I relax into my place. Slowly, the mass that is mine disappears completely. I accept it with peace, because even stars and gods have their limits... and I?
Without weight, without distance, with only thought, I possess a grasp that far exceeds my reach.
It had begun as a moment of epiphany, a vision of the truth sent from above. It had changed his life forever.
It had changed his world. No, that wasn't it... it was the same world, but now he saw how much of it had been a lie.
He was chosen because he was a victim, because he understood, first-hand, the reality of these beings. When his world had been full of confusion he was granted understanding. He had been stripped of his being, his money, his will, his friends, his life. And for what, a moment's beauty and mesmerisation? How could one human cause such suffering to another?
He had been shown. She wasn't human. She was Succubi.
The history of their infection of our world was laid out before him, demons, evil in woman-form, invaders from the place of flame and hate. He had been granted the sight to see the infected, to see the tentacles and harm wrapped about the beauty, the truth invisible to human eyes.
And he had been shown how to excise them from the world, ways to purge them from mortal existance. He had been charged with a mission, to save the poor unknowing children of man, to protect them from his fate.
So why then these white, padded walls? The burly male nurses? These buckles and straps?
He had a second vision the other day, his holy mission expanded. He had proved his worth, he was shown new demons, new perversions, ones that will nest in any person and imprison them within themselves, use their power to imprison others. He was shown how the very system he was empowered to protect had been infiltrated, how holy servants like himself were being hunted and contained, their insights called illness, the truth covered up and named insanity.
|» Sleeping wolf|
Chaxie is waiting for Kmyre to wake up. Chaxie is waiting for his throbbing flesh to heal: just so he can hit his comatose friend again. Right now that's all that's on Chaxie's mind. Chaxie is determined like that. Chaxie is focussed on that one thing. Even though his chitin is broken where he hit him last time, Chaxie is waiting. Chaxie will wait all night long if he has to.|
Passed out on the rubble, Kmyre is nothing much of anything. Kmyre is floating on the edges of concussion, bruises pressing down on his eyes. He has nothing dreams, lying at the bottom of the dark and looking up through the blues and greens that swim in his out-cold vision. His lungs tell him that everything hurts, that everything is swollen to injured proportion, but the message isn't getting through. The signal looks around bewildered at the absence of its master.
Out in the waking world, the hulking crustacean glares at his friend and idly cleans his mouth parts. Chaxie is huge by anyone's standards. He is big even for a captain of the Night Brigade. He is big, and mean, and most importantly of all, he is patient. Chaxie will stand here, switching weight in the manner of his change, flexing soft and pale flesh inside his armour. Wind-chime piercings moaning in the breeze, aching round his articulated fists for another chance to knock Kmyre into the dark. Resisting the urge to just clip off a limb. Chaxie's hearing is unnaturally poor, but it doesn't matter, her name is almost ambient. Her absence, unavoidable. Every broken surface is a sound mirror for the whispered syllable, directing and amplifying it to a point that swells and lulls around the two. When Chaxie stares at Kmyre, it's through the distortion that the word provides, wavering the air between them. Chaxie doesn't really care about Kmyre's fever, or babbling, or the marshlight in the back of his gaze. Chaxie doesn't care that he's alone save the suddenly maddened creature before him, and corpses. All Chaxie thinks about is how she's dead. How Kmyre's fangs are still damp with her. All Chaxie sees are bared teeth, feral fury, and a face not commanded by it's own.
As the child gasps, reaches a hand to his face and comes upright, Chaxie is suddenly upon him. Kmyre hurriedly screams out words bent by lisping, 'The Wolf is coming! The Wolf!' But even as he snarls and twists out of shape, Chaxie has already punched Kmyre senseless. Chaxie is in his element, little more than the element of surprise, and Kmyre is gone into the deep again. Chaxie will pound Kmyre over and over again if need be. Kmyre will live passed out on the rubble, concussed and ugly, his guardian focussed on solitude beneath the hunting moon.
Sooner or later the Night Brigade will find them. The Sideways Magi will come droning, the boy will have his mind torn from him, and the Wolf will pay their charge. Then, and only then, will Chaxie kill Kmyre.
|» Plague of Angels|
I was there when they fell from the sky, not many as can say that. It began slow enough. I remember the first of them land on old Mrs. Higgins in that motorised cart of hers, the one she used to terrorise toddlers and pigeons with.|
Killed her stone dead.
Others'll tell you the first one hit Mr. Pettilo's cadillac, or the fountain in Gold Square, but the way I remember it, it was old Mrs. Higgins in her cart. Twisted metal and cracked paving, blood and guts.
We got inside pretty darn quick after that, I can tell you, and soon they was falling faster than Fast Sally's knickers on a Friday night; heaping up and down the streets, over buildings and cars.
You've seen the photos I don't doubt, the white wings blinding in the sun, golden halos on their heads, togas and sandles and little stringed things. But you just don't get the smell.
Yeah, the government was pretty quick to come in and tidy up the halos, and a few of the bodies, but they were slower about the rest.
Now, I don't know if you've ever experienced a few hundred dead folk left lying around in the sun, angels or no. Well, I suppose you ain't, but that is not a pleasant thing. No, sir.
The halls move in on him like sharks, crowding and coming in from obscure angles. The whole house is a predator. Up on the moor, it swallows what it can, and spits out the broken remains. The villagers sometimes find the victims, before they die of exposure. Knocked down by the wind and cradled by heather. |
The doors opened up before him, locked behind, and now there are long spars of woodwork beneath his ragged nails. He can feel them all. Aching heralds of a terror that pours into him and pushes everything else aside, out into the clouds of dust that creep like fog. All the light has turned sepia in reflection from woodwork and brass. All he can smell is rot, and murk, and the corpses of long dead flies. He was scared that his heart would fail, or that he would starve, or drop from exhaustion, but now he realises that he won't be here that long. The house has already taken his name and made it just another echo.
Up on the moor, the heather whispers to itself, and waits for another falling child.
|» Joan de l'Arche|
The chapel was draped in shadows of brown, ochre and silence; a rustic-looking womb of carved wood and cut stone; a suitable place to meditate on her rebirth, her purpose. A single shaft of light appeared through the eastern window, cutting into the low light, washing over where she knelt and down the aisle, illuminating hanging motes of dust that glittered like a vast galaxy in miniature, suddenly revealed.|
She knew the priest waited outside with her new captains, Jaq and Diddier, but in here she was alone, almost. She considered the weight of the sword in her hands, and what lay before her. She considered what lay within her, the dissenting voices that tried to cast doubt through her, and the deepest voice, the brightest, her Lord, who would not have led her people's long crusade here were it not his will that this system be cleansed. One-by-one the other voices departed, mute, muzzled.
Her people did not know she wrestled with such demons every time they woke her, every time they called on her to lead them. They did not know how she was constantly tested, how every being in other realms could speak to her, not just Him. That burden was hers alone to bear.
Her mind now cleared of the fog that always came with cryo-sleep she stood up, resolved now, focussed. She slid her crystalline sword into its sheath and held her hand to the light, watching her armour's active camoflage mottle and shift as it adjusted to the alien sunlight shining through the chapel's stained glass. She reconnected to the mainframe and her iris display informed her the dropships were boarded and waiting her command. She watched as the survey and analysis of this new system unwound across her mind, tactics and strategies blossoming.
To her it seemed barely a day since the last campaign was won, not the generations that had actually passed in interstellar flight. Hers was a holy war without end, but it was a burden she was willing to bear.
They make me to look this way, but it's just an after-effect. It's been forever since colonists birthed natural young. The patterntwitching prevents culture shock, for our neighbours, and ourselves. It holds back multiplicity... nothing is mine, everything is someone elses. All my identity is statistical error. My ankles come from the 23rd century, a thousand runners between my toes and my calves... and mostly they're Kenyan. Eyes took longer, they're 24th: a Nordic bluegreen that holds focus through age.|
No one here is fat. No one is thin. There is no such thing as colour or creed beyond random chance, we simply vary within tolerance- the Chimera 100. Even genetic diversity is programmed to prevent plague. I'm technically perfect. The most perfect human there can be. We all are. I can run a mile in a minute holding my breath. Out here, lightyears from our species, we will never catch cold. All we have to fear is cancer and eventual old age. Age, and a cold wave in my gut that rises unprogrammed. When our neighbours look at us like monsters, and our parents look at us like marvels.
|» Legacy of Steam|
Striding, leaping in pursuit of my prey; these wet crags and treacherous, broken rocks were not meant for a mech like mine, of brass and steam, and yet it is here I have followed Alexandra, my Princess, and her kidnappers. Ivan's sacrifice has led me here, and if I was not so inexorably driven by my own quest then I would continue still in honour of his memory; I would have to.|
My control of this hulk has become instinctual now, as if it is no more than a natural extension of my own self. I pull and throw levers with barely a thought, dropping to the right, thrusting a hand down and digging into the rock to grip and pivot, launching myself, my mech, out and round, dropping to the next path down, feeling the suspension jolt and almost give; but my faith in this machine is with reason and she holds firm as I power on.
This is the lowest path now and it leads me to a dead end, a high cliff of jaggedness. For a moment I am lost. Then part of the cliff face steps forward, out and away from the shadows and stone. Steam gushes from between great plates of steel and a modern titan stands before me, towering three times over me and my mech. I could tremble, but I remember my mother, I remember the England she was queen of and how it once took the world.
I take the telescopic lance from its sheath, Ivan's final gift of engineering, and listen to the satisfying slide and clunk as each section locks into place. Levers fly beneath my hands, cogs mesh and grind and I feel bronze twist and crouch around me, pressure building, the lance pulled in tight, ready.
Our pale horses are breakers upon the waves of grass that sweep across this open land. Pennants snap above us like handclaps to our hunting song and the clouds skid through the sky. These days are ours. After years of war, these lands are Xiao lands. All trace of resistance has melted away before the rumble of hooves.|
We stop at a small Shan province camp for the night, exhausted but triumphant. The locals and their daughters are pliant. They bring us food, and pleasure, and we refrain from slaughter. Even when the wise woman comes late in the evening to tell us we will all die by the whim of water, we refrain. Our Captain cuts out her tongue and removes her hands at the forearm. As we leave with the setting moon the seer's twin spits at us and fades away like a vengeful ghost made whole.
The further we ride into Shan the more the local aquiescence feels like pity. There is no rebellion, but the night is quietly hostile and the same faces appear again and again... all the locals look the same, it is an easy mistake. Regardless, unease blossoms within us. In Karolei we are greeted by a muttering old man who sits on his porch, blowing smoke rings from a pipe. There is a trick to it such that the rings twist into animal shapes.
When we reach Ragolan the farmers are singing horribly out of time in their fields. When pressed the stoney faced barkeep tells us it is a weather-charm such that they may prosper. we laugh at him, laugh at the farmers and their ugly plea. We laugh at the whole of hopeless little Shan and ride on.
The next day, heads held high and horses gleaming, we come across a travelling artisan in the fields between Bashomet and Vethia. We are still smiling at Ragolan bad fortune. The sky has turned grey and come down to meet the ground. Everything is swaddled in mist and there is a distant thunder to match our own. We can smell the coming rain. She will not move for our horses and we laugh. She is tall, but she is unarmed, and she travels alone.
'You are not even sport!' Our Captain cries, 'yield to us!' But she will not move. She stands, feet shoulders width apart, all Shan tranquility. And she will not move. We note her whispering beneath her breath. 'What do you say?' The Captain shouts, 'Do you mock us?' Even when our Captain sighs, and gestures at an archer to shoot her down, she fails to react.
Only when the bolt is in midair, does she move.
A subtle gesture, a flex of fingers, and the arrow's path shifts. Instead of flying straight and true it arcs toward the earth as if slowed, outweighed. Aghast, the archer knocks another, but he is too stunned to draw it. Something in the air is moving. The woman before us curls her fingers to it, bends her arms, and coaxes it to life. Within her grasp the mist is become fog, the fog something more solid still. Boiling out of nothing it spirals at her touch to form a spar. Before our man can recover his senses she holds her spear of cloud, hefts it, and throws it hard and fast. He is lifeless long before he hits the ground. And already another spins to her hand.
Every blow we begin is deadened as if made underwater.
Every time she strikes, another man falls blasted and breathless.
Lying here, drowning on icy drizzle at her behest, I think of hopeless little Shan, of a patience that looks like pity, and I try to laugh.