When the ice-barrier broke, the barbarian hordes would
pour through, and everything he knew would be engulfed
in flame and destroyed. So why was he bothering
to rescue the alien stranger…?
The ice was melting across the narrow strait of Hell’s Mouth. Much as had been anticipated, only the rapidity of the thaw exceeded expectations. That was alarming. It was too soon. Too soon. Va’seer reigned his beast-mount and vaulted down from the Kaddish’s high saddle, he enjoyed the rough sensuality of worn beaten leather, but was glad of the opportunity to leave it. The ground beneath his feet was spongy with moisture. Only hoar frost and light snow remained in patterns, lapping at formations of moss and fern. The Kaddish’s sour breath condensed in silver eruptions before dissolving into the brittle windless air. Va’seer paused to gaze across the inland sea. At its hidden inlets and rocky fjords blurring into smudges of mist. At the steady phalanx of huge mushroom-trees erupting from the occasional ruins of forgotten cities stretching down and into the lower slopes of its shores. Finally, at its periphery of treacherous ice prohibiting navigation for a further month – would that be long enough? Fear told him no, it wouldn’t.
From his vantage point on the rocky outcrop Va’seer could watch for long uninterrupted moments. Far above and ahead of him towered the broken vertical face of the unassailable mountain Range Of Dreadful Hands, and higher even than them the ragged shabby sky-islands, buoyed up on their helium bladders, admitting sharply angled shafts of aquarium-green light like columns to support the entire wildness of sky. It would be temptingly easy to forget this was a military assignment. That, as soon as it became navigable, the narrow neck of Hell’s Mouth connecting the inland sea to the great ocean beyond, would provide the access-point for barbarian longships carrying savage hordes who would just as surely smash the civilisation that had despatched him on this surveillance mission. And everything he knew and cared for would be engulfed in flame and destroyed. The long winter had provided a wall of ice against further hostile encroachment, but had not lasted long enough. And all the while the enemy waited, impatiently. Vessalia was crowded out with refugees in a ring of shanty-town encampments, it was still neither adequately fortified nor militarily prepared to withstand the imminent waves of invaders. It would take months yet, at least. Months it did not have. Surely Vessalia must fall, as had the cities that fell the previous year. Then the entire northern crescent of cities, of which only Vessalia remained, would be lost in violent and bloody extinction. This premature ice-breaking makes it unavoidable.
Va’seer was reluctant to undertake the return journey. He’d taken the readings. Done the calculations. Now he delayed, for as long as he dared. He sat still, overlooking the sparkling expanse of water as his beast cropped restlessly at tundra, and the crystal sphere absorbed light on the nearby cairn of shingle, grumbling to itself – ‘the sky is melting, the sea is breaking, I am water, eroding time’. Despite its confused commentary, he enjoyed the stillness and solitude. Enjoyed the short-lived sense of freedom and adventure. It was his first real assignment away from Vessalia, the farthest he’d ever ventured alone beyond the ramparts of the city of his birth, although as a child he’d once sailed the inland sea with his father in merchant trading vessels with full tattooed sails of rich maroon. The sea-lanes had still been open then, with free cities and welcoming harbours beyond the straits. Those days were no more. Those cities were gone.
It was only as he rose from such introspection that he became aware of the sound of struggle. At first he took it for voices from the crystal. He tasted the sound critically, attempting to extract as much meaning from it as possible. He was lightly armoured, a crossbow and quiver slung across his back, a set of jewelled blades of varying widths and lengths suspended from his belt. His visor was carved into baroque animal-shapes with intricate encrustations. The rituals of drill and briefing were well-instilled. His was a survey mission – nothing more, journey to the Hell’s Mouth strait, determine the stage reached in the disintegration of the ice barrier, and transmit reports. Do not exceed those orders. Don’t get involved. But the harsh jagged sound of struggle was tantalising.
Va’seer was methodical. He moved towards the cairn. As he did so a sky-island shifted by gradual meandering degrees to eclipse the diffused light of the suns – three bright small suns, two dull red giants, nudging the whole scene closer to the green end of the spectrum. The crystal sphere, as he reached it, was a murky vortex of hues of white. When first deposited there barely hours ago, taken from the depths of his beast’s panniers, it had been blacker than darkest ebon. Since then it had gradually absorbed every detail of the panorama, feeding it back to the Sleepers of Vessalia, who in turn would translate the visual information into detailed military topography. The sphere had deepened and complexified in proportion to the light it drank until, sated, it became uniform white. With exaggerated care, Va’seer picked it up, covered it, even as it grumbled protest ‘the ice is freezing, the light is thawing, I am blind, without taste’, and returned it to the safety of his baggage.
Only then did he leave the huge shambling beast, to leap down a narrow scree of glacial detrition in the direction of the conflict. The air was freezing, unmoving, carrying each sound perfectly. He used outcrops of rock, eroded curiously by ice and pitted by weather, and the inevitable ruins of ancient masonry – true-form or Elder, as cover, hoping to sneak a glimpse of the struggle without the necessity of getting involved in it. Nevertheless, he drew a wide curved blade and balanced it loosely before him. A barbarian foraging party already? Raiders in advance of the main horde? Unlikely, but not impossible. Below the slope was a narrow, richly overgrown cleft, running the length of a water-course that would eventually empty into the bay. The fast stream swollen with melting snow from the peaks. He used the foliage and undergrowth to his advantage, circling the point from which the sound emanated, carefully avoiding shoals of multi-coloured air-fish weaving languidly in and out of the denser tangles of plants, and around the thick rubbery trunks of many-layered fungoid trees where a myriad luminous jewel-green spider-eyes twinkled in the deeper shadows. The scores of air-fish were harmless, but if startled their sudden activity would betray his presence to the as-yet unseen combatants.
Eventually Va’seer skirted a low wall of crumbling sandstone to where he could peer down the defile. The stream twisted hurriedly to form an enclose dell, Va’seer’s eyes rapidly adapting to the deep green shadows until he could discern the odd shapes of the protagonists. The first he recognised as a Crawlker, a slow-moving land-octopus. Although a massive formidable assailant it was scarcely difficult to avoid or out-distance once its habits were known. Its victim then, must be a stranger to the area, and indeed Va’seer found it difficult to identify the struggling animal. Unlike Va’seer it had only four limbs, and was covered in some form of shell of silvery armour. The Vessalian scout watched the struggle absently, his interest already waning. The climax was predetermined, four-limbs was as good as dead, its bulky body entwined inescapably in tentacles, all but one of its limbs encircled and captive.
No concern of his. Yet Va’seer watched. Until the complexity of the victim’s shell snagged his attention. It seemed artificial. Didn’t its oddness indicate evidence of sentience? Without any clearly defined reason for doing so he unsheathed his crossbow, notched a quarrel into its breach, and levelled the weapon. Before his first bolt impaled the Crawlker’s eye a second was on its way, and a third. The octopoid recoiled, its tentacles thrashing the air impotently. The attack was precise and economical, the third missile killing the monster. His aim was true. As he knew it would be. Va’seer waited full minutes as the air-fish settles, as the giant tentacles ceased their muscular spasms, and he was sure of death. Only then did he move warily into the dell to retrieve his quarrels, cutting them free from the monstrous corpse with a blade selected from his belt.
At intervals he stole a glance at the armoured creature whose life he’d saved. It sprawled among the long dew-damp grass. It, in turn, was regarding him. It seemed either damaged, or in shock. There were no signs of respiration, and no sound. Though Va’seer was unsure how much of that was due to the muffling effect of its seamless shell. With the bolts safely returned to his quiver and the crossbow slung over his back Va’seer hesitated. Already land-crabs were scuttling about the immense corpse, in minutes the entire dell would be crawling with carrion. Va’seer had saved a life, he owed it nothing more.
He turned to go, then the creature spoke. Its words were slurred, strangely enunciated, and in some foreign tongue, but it was definitely talking. Va’seer shrugged to indicate his non-comprehension. The stranger was following him. Va’seer turned irritably, its movements were gracelessly ungainly. Beyond its shoulder he could see the dead Crawlker infested with scurrying flesh-tearing carrion, shoals of air-fish weaving and bobbing about them curiously. The figure tried another tongue, one Va’seer recognised as the gutteral speech of the barbarian. Suspiciously he groped for his duelling blade. The stranger didn’t resemble any invader he’d ever heard of, but the horde was made up of numberless tribes. It was even rumoured there were mercenaries of the Elder clans from beyond the Rim, bearing terror-weapons from ancient days. Then the figure began to speak haltingly in the Vessalian dialect, ‘thank you, you saved my life’. Va’seer listened. The phrasing and pronunciation was odd, much of the meaning was garbled and lost, until bits of coherency began to emerge.
They reached the crest of the scree overlooking the inland sea and the Hell’s Mouth strait, the Kaddish-beast still cropping contentedly at ferns. Overhead the drifting sky-islands shafted the scene with velvet-green pillars of fading dusk-light, basking manta-rays gliding on the ebb and flow of thermals as the bright suns were gradually eclipsed by the red giants. Va’seer detached the crystal sphere from the panniers and set it on the cairn. For a moment he watched the regurgitation of dreams within its confined horizon as it absorbed and sifted the miasma of the Vessalian Sleepers. Clouds of vermilion moths swarmed and clustered across the fish-eye perspective, splintering and separating out into spectral patterns at either end of its curvature. All the while he was aware of the stranger watching him. Watching the sphere. It would take a while for the crystal to absorb the creature’s appearance, for the Sleepers to sift and order the visual information and to return coherent instructions for Va’seer to follow. In the meantime he sat back, relaxed, and watched the stranger beyond the gathering dusk.
‘My name is Lester Gomez, I’m from the Second Terran Federation, and I guess I owe you thanks for my life’ it was saying. ‘I’m part of the re-exploration programme from what you’d probably call the dark worlds of space. Our station’s been orbiting here for about three years, recording the ebb and flow of proto-civilisations, observing through the sky-islands and insect belts, but so far we’ve avoided direct contact. I guess that’s all over now. I suppose that phase ended the moment you fired that weapon and rescued me from the monster.’
Va’seer half-enjoyed the fantasies. He knew nothing of the stars, or the worlds of space the alien spoke of. He knew the legacy of vague myths from the world’s earlier ages. But oldsters always talk. And who listens to oldster tales? He was always more concerned with creating his own epic stories, riding out to Hell’s Mouth and beyond. Now, all that must end. All that’s left is war, and defeat. ‘The oldsters talk of such worlds of darkness’ he argued back. ‘All I know is that if you go down into the deepest caves you find darkness. But how can there be worlds of darkness when all is filled with so much light? It contradicts reason.’ Va’seer traded information warily. He spoke in a deliberately guarded fashion about his mission, still not entirely sure what it was safe to confide, speaking in vague terms about the peril about to engulf Vessalia, the massing barbarian hordes soon to spew through the ice-fringed waters of Hell’s Mouth.
Gomez stood up, strode back and forth in the clumsy dwarfish manner Va’seer found so amusing. ‘Yes, we’ve monitored the re-emergence of culture here. Don’t think for a moment we’ve not noted the crescent of cities. And we’ve watched the barbarian encroachment with some dismay. Only Vessalia remains? We would have helped you but always felt it more important to remain uninvolved. So that you don’t discover the secret of our return to your system. But I’m in your debt, my strange friend. You saved my life, and so our futures must be interrelated from now on.’ He hunched down before the crystal, in a squat ugly way. ‘We are now involved in the destiny of your city. I’ve got to return to the station, Va’seer, but watch as I leave. Watch me Va’seer.’
The Vessalian scout watched with half-interest as the lumbering strangeling disappeared into the twilight. The vortexing crystal washed the stone bank and its surrounds with pure white light casting clear-cut shadows of beast and Vessalian. Highlighting the overlap of each chitinous scale on Va’seer’s near-spherical body and limning the moist sheen of exhalation droplets on each of his ten triple-jointed limbs spaced evenly around his circumference. The crystal was grumbling, amplifying information from the Sleepers, the collective memory banks, seers, and biological computers of the threatened city. Beyond, across the twilight that was the closest the world ever came to night, there were more lights. Then the hum of generators.
‘Kill the stranger, kill him’ came the voice of the crystal. ‘Better we die at a barbarian’s hand than theirs. For a thousand years we were wealthy, lavish with cities from pole to pole.’ He listened, its thoughts had condensed, it was rational now. ‘This is not myth nor legend, but memories from the archives. The human companies came, the plague from beyond the sky-islands. They came from beyond the atmospheric insect-belts in the guise of trade, benevolence, and the gift of superior technology. We extended hospitality, welcomed their rival corporations on our continents, until they’d insinuated themselves into our entire economic structure, and we became addicted to their ‘benevolence’. They exploited our people, our resources, and our culture, for a century…’
Across the inland sea, a pattern of vivid lights were mounting the sky, hovering and hissing at the gathering gloom. The thought occurred dully to Va’seer that Gomez, the sentient being he’d saved from the Crawlker – the human, was caught in the act of climbing into the sky. But was hesitating.
‘For a century our people were virtually enslaved, dependent on their gifts. Then, in their rival rapaciousness, the human corporations broke into squabbling and warring factions. The war became – according to their diseased terminology, galactic, and before it ended everything was ruined. They destroyed each other, and in turn, they abandoned us and fled, retracting back to their own accursed home-world.’
Va’seer watched the lights hovering over the still vastness of the inland sea. It was fixed there, unmoving, in its transfixing brilliance. He turned the stranger’s parting words over in his head. Watch. And we watched the beam of blue-white light from the craft extend like a jagged finger, poking and probing across the fjords and inlets until it located the narrow strait of Hell’s Mouth through which the barbarian longships must pass to plunder and sack Vessalia. The sound was strangely high-pitched as, in the light of the alien energy-beam, he watched the broken mountain faces of the Range Of Dreadful Hands shudder, saw the vertical cliff-faces tremble and implode, saw rocks and debris collapse into the boiling sea, sealing off the waterway. Gomez had created landslides on both sides of the channel, making it permanently unnavigable. Sealing the horde forever beyond. Its task accomplished the finger of energy retracted, and winked out. The formation of lights barely trembled, before ascending into the eternally starless sky. Vaseer watched until he could watch no more. It was gone.
The crystal blurred and fell silent. Va’seer could feel nothing. In his numbness he realised Vessalia was safe from the barbarians. He had done that. It was his epic story. He’d unwittingly been instrumental in saving the city. But in doing so, what of the plague from beyond the sky-islands? He’d also re-introduced that to the world. What use were crossbows against weaponry that could move mountains? The strange equilibrium between euphoric joy, and terrible dread was too difficult to resolve.
Va’seer folded his limbs beneath him, hooded his thousand eyes, and slept.
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
Published in its original short form as
‘In The Time Of Melting Ice: Sometimes Like Isadora Duncan’ in:
‘CROM no.6’ (UK – October 1977)
‘CROM no.6’ (UK – October 1977)
and in a later form in 'IMAGINE no.11' (UK - February 1984)