Viriconium, p.10

Viriconium, page 10

 

Viriconium
 



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  It was Cellur of Lendalfoot who stood there, the Birdmaker.

  The Lord of the Birds was so old that he seemed to have outstripped the mere physical symptoms of his age and passed into a Timelessness, a state of exaltation.

  His long, domed skull was fleshless, but his skin was smooth and taut and unwrinkled, so fine and tight as to be almost translucent. His bones shone through it, like thin and delicate jade. It had a faint, yellow tint, in no way unhealthy, but strange.

  His eyes were green, clear, and amused; his lips were thin.

  He wore a loose, unbelted black robe-quilted in grouped arrangements of lozenges-which was embroidered in gold wire patterns resembling certain geometries cut into the towers of the Pastel City: those queer and uneasy signs that might equally have been the visual art or the language or the mathematics of Time itself.

  They had this property: that, when he moved, they seemed to shift and flow of their own accord, divorced entirely from the motions of the cloth of which they were a part.

  “Hold your weapon, my lord,” he murmured, as the point of the nameless sword hovered indecisively at his old throat. He eyed the dead lammergeyer dangling from Cromis’s belt.

  “I see by my bird that you are tegeus-Cromis. You have already left your visit too long. It would be a pity if you were to compound the error by killing the one you came to see.”

  He laughed.

  “Come. We will go in-” He indicated his tower. “You must introduce me to your energetic friend with the power-axe. He would like to kill me, I feel, but he must save that pleasure. No dwarf likes to be made a butt. Ah well.”

  Stubborn Grif, however, would have none of it. When Cromis put up his sword, he showed no sign of following. He confronted the old man.

  “You are either fool or malefactor,” he said, “to risk death, as you have just done, for such a silly trick. In coming here, we have killed more men than you have eaten hot meals, and many for less than that practical joke.

  “I should like proof that you are the former, senile but well-meaning, before I enter your house.

  “How, for instance, would any of us know that you are Cellur of Lendalfoot, and not some reproduction as cunningly fashioned as the bird?”

  The old man nodded. He smiled.

  “You would know by this, perhaps-”

  He raised his arms and tipped back his head until he was gazing up into the darkening spaces where the fish eagles flew. The diagrams on his robe appeared to fluoresce and writhe. From his throat he forced a wild, loud cry, a shriek compounded of desolation and salt beaches, of wind and sea-the call of a seabird.

  Immediately, the eagles halted their aimless gyring about the summit of the tower. One by one, they folded their great ragged wings, and, returning the cry, fell out of the sky, the wind humming past them.

  For a moment, the air about the Birdmaster was full of sound and motion. He vanished in a storm of wings: and when he reappeared, it was with an eagle perched on each of his outspread arms and ten more on the earth before him.

  “They have been constructed, you see,” he said, “to respond to a vocal code. They are very quick.”

  Birkin Grif sheathed his weapon. “I apologise,” he said.

  From the shadows by the door, Tomb the Dwarf sniggered quietly. He shifted his flickering axe to one shoulder, and came forward, his armour clanking dismally. He held out one huge metal hand to the old man.

  “Fool or no, that is a trick I should like to learn.” He studied the perfect iridium plumage of the birds. “We will make a pact, old man. Teach me to build such things, and I will forget that I am a sensitive and evil-minded dwarf. I am sorry I threatened to mutilate your door.”

  Cellur inclined his head gravely.

  “I regret that it would have been impossible anyway. You shall learn, my friend. It is necessary that one of you be taught… certain operations. Come.”

  He led them into the tower.

  It was an ancient place, full of the same undersea gloaming that haunted the airboats of the Afternoon Cultures. There were ten floors, each one a single pentagonal room.

  Three of these were given over to personal space, couched and carpeted; the remainder housed equipment of an equivocal nature, like the sculptures unearthed from the waste. Light curtains hung and drifted; there were captured electrical voices whose function was obscure “Green,” they whispered. “Ten green. Counting.”

  Tomb the Dwarf walked among them, his expression benign and silly. Suddenly, he said, “I have wasted forty years. I should have been here, not picking over the detritus of deserts-”

  Incomplete carcasses of metal birds lay on the workbenches: there were eagle owls, and martial eagles, and a black-shouldered kite complete but inert, awaiting some powering-up ritual that would put life into its small and savage eye.

  And in the last room, at the summit of the tower, there were five false windows, most precise duplicates of those that lined the throne room at Viriconium and showed landscapes to be found nowhere in the Empire…

  There, after they had refreshed themselves, Cellur the Birdmaker told them in his dry manner of the geteit chemosit, and his own strange life:

  I have (he said) waited for some time for your arrival. You must understand that there is very little time left. I must have your cooperation if my intervention in this affair is to become concrete and positive. I should have had it earlier. Never mind.

  Now: you are aware of the threat posed to Viriconium by Canna Moidart. You are not, however, aware of the more basic threat implicit in her use of what the Northmen-from their trough of ignorance and superstition- have called geteit chemosit, that is to say, “the brain stealers.”

  This threat I must make clear: to do that-and, simultaneously, to set your minds at rest about my own position-I must tell you a little about myself and my queer abode. Please, sir, do not interrupt. It will speed things if you save your questions until I have outlined the broad picture.

  Well.

  Firstly, I want to make it clear that my involvement in this war is in no way political: the victory of Viriconium is as unimportant to me as the victory of the Northmen, except in one particular-please, Lord Grif, sit down and listen-with which I shall deal presently.

  What concerns me is the preservation of the human race on earth, by which I mean, on this continent, for they are one and the same thing.

  Certainly, you may ask who I am, my lord It is my tragedy that I do not know. I have forgotten. I do not know when I came to this tower, only that I have been here for at least a millennium.

  I have no doubt that I was here during the collapse of what you would call the Afternoon Cultures-that, at that time, I had already been here for at least a century. But I cannot remember if I actually belonged to that rather mysterious race. They are lost to me, as they are to you.

  I have no doubt also that I am either immortal or cursed with an extreme longevity: but the secret of that is lost in Time. Whether it was a disease that struck me, or a punishment that was conferred upon me, I do not know. My memory extends reliably for perhaps two hundred years into the past. No further.

  That is the curse of the thing, you see: the memory does not last. There is little enough space in one skull for a lifetime’s memories. And no room at all for those of a millennium.

  I do not even remember if I am a man.

  Many races came-or were brought despite themselves-to earth in the prime of the Departed Cultures. Some stayed, marooned by the swift collapse of the environment that gave rise to the Rust Deserts, caught when the global economy could no longer support a technology and the big ships ceased to fly.

  At least two of them survived that collapse, and have since successfully adapted to our conditions.

  It may be that I represent a third.

  However.

  That is secondary to our purpose here. If you will consider the screens that face you, I will attempt to give you some idea of what we may expect from the mechanical servants of
the Old Queen.

  Yes, madam, the “windows,” as you call them, have been here at least as long as myself. I may have constructed them, I cannot remember. Until I discovered certain properties of light and sound, they, too, showed only fixed views of places not to be found in the kingdom. Now, each one is connected-by a principle of which I have recently gained a little understanding-to the eyes of one of my birds.

  Thus, wherever they fly, I see.

  Now. We will operate the first screen. As you can see, Canna Moidart had little trouble in taking Duirinish The huge metal doors are buckled: they swing to and fro in a wind that cannot be heard. Beneath the overhanging walls, a mountain of dead, Northmen and Viriconese inextricably mixed. The battlements are deserted. Moving into the city, a patrol of scavengers, dressed in looted furs. Fire has blackened the squat armouries of the city. On the edge of Replica Square, the Blue Metal Discovery lies in ruins. A dog sniffs at the still, huddled, headless figure in the centre of the square. It is a dead merchant…

  There, she left the small holding force we have just seen returning to Alves after a foraging expedition, and moved on to Viriconium The Pastel City. Five thousand Northmen march the length of Proton Circuit, their faces flushed with triumph. A tavern in the Artists’ Quarter: spilt wine, sawdust, vomit. A line of refugees. The Pastel Towers, scarred in the final battle, when the last ship of the Queen’s Flight detonated the power-source of the last remaining energy cannon in the empire, in a vain attempt to repeat Benedict Paucemanly’s relief of the seige of Mingulay…

  She was quick to move south. Here, we see the geteit chemosit in action against a group of guerillas, survivors of the Soubridge massacre That terrifying black skirmish line, moving up a steep hillside, energy blades swinging, in unison. The dead, sprawled about in agonised attitudes. A sudden close-up of a black, featureless face, three yellow eyes set in an isosceles triangle, unreadable, alien, deadly…

  Mark that. That is the real enemy of Viriconium. I am sorry, Lord Cromis: I did not intend to cause Her Majesty so much distress. We will dispense with the fourth screen, my lady, and move on to the most important. This is taking place now, in Lendalfoot, the town you have just left Night. The unsteady flare and flicker of torches in the main street of the town. Their light outlines a group of fishermen, bending over something laid out on the cobbles. The scene jerks. An overhead view; a white, shocked face; tears; a woman in a shawl. There on the cobbles, a child, dead, the top of its head cut neatly away, its skull empty…

  Finally, let us examine the history of what you know as the chemosit, and discuss my purpose in inviting you here. No, Lord Grif, I will be finished shortly. Please hear me out.

  During a period of severe internal strife towards the end of the Middle Period, the last of the Afternoon Cultures developed a technique whereby a soldier, however hurt or physically damaged his corpse be, could be resurrected- as long as his brain remained intact.

  Immersed in a tank of nutrient, his cortex could be used as a seed from which to “grow” a new body. How this was done, I have no idea. It seems monstrous to me.

  The geteit chemosit were a result of escalation. They were built not only to kill, but also to prevent resurrection of the victim by destroying his brain tissue. As you remark, it is horrifying. But not a bad dream, those are not words I would use: it is a reality with which, a millennium later, we have to deal.

  It is evident that Canna Moidart discovered a regiment of these automata in the north of the Great Brown Waste, dormant in some subterranean barracks. I became aware of this some years ago, when certain elements of my equipment detected their awakening. (At that time, I was unsure precisely what it was that the detectors were registering-a decade passed before I solved the problem; by that time, the war was inevitable.)

  Now, Lord Cromis.

  My tower’s records are clear on one point, and that is this: once awakened, those automata have only one in-built directive To kill.

  Should Canna Moidart be unable to shut them down at the end of her campaign, they will continue to kill, regardless of the political alignment of their victims.

  The Old Queen may very well find herself in full possession of the Empire of Viriconium.

  But as soon as that happens, as soon as the last pocket of resistance is finished, and the geteit chemosit run out of wars to fight, they will turn on her. All weapons are two-edged: it is the nature of weapons to be deadly to both user and victim-but these were the final weapon, the absolute product of a technology dedicated to exploitation of its environment and violent solution of political problems. They hate life. That is the way they were built.

  9

  Silence reigned in the tower room. The five false windows continued to flicker through the green twilight, dumbly repeating their messages of distant atrocity and pain. The Birdmaker’s ancient yellow face was expressionless; his hands trembled; he seemed to be drained by his own prophecy.

  “That is a black picture-” Tomb the Dwarf drank wine and smacked his lips. He was the least affected of them. “But I would guess that you have a solution. Old man, you would not have brought us here otherwise.”

  Cellur smiled thinly.

  “That is true,” he said.

  Tomb made a chopping gesture with one hand.

  “Let’s get to the meat of it then. I feel like killing something.”

  Cellur winced.

  “My tower has a long memory; much information is stored there. Deciphering it, I discover that the geteit chemosit are controlled by a single artificial brain, a complex the size of a small town.

  “The records are ambiguous when discussing its whereabouts, but I have narrowed its location down to two points south of the Monadliath Mountains. It remains for someone to go there-”

  “And?”

  “And perform certain simple operations that I will teach him.”

  Cellur stepped into a drifting column of magenta light, passed his palms over a convoluted mechanism. One by one, the false windows died, taking their agony with them. He turned to tegeus-Cromis.

  “I am asking one or all of you to do that. My origin and queer life aside, I am an old man. I would not survive out there now that she has passed beyond the Pastel City.”

  Numbed by what he had witnessed, Cromis nodded his head. He gazed at the empty windows, obsessed by the face of the dead Lendalfoot child.

  “We will go,” he said. “I had expected nothing like this. Tomb will learn faster than Grif or I; you had better teach him.

  “How much grace have we?”

  “A week, perhaps. The South resists, but she will have no trouble. You must be ready to leave before the week is out.”

  During the Birdmaker’s monologue, Methvet Nian had wept openly. Now, she rose to her feet and said:

  “This horror. We have always regarded the Afternoon Cultures as a high point in the history of mankind. Theirs was a state to be striven for, despite the mistakes that marred it.

  “How could they have constructed such things? Why, when they had the stars beneath their hands?”

  The Birdmaker shrugged. The geometries of his robe shifted and stretched like restless alien animals.

  “Are you bidding me remember, madam? I fear I cannot.”

  “They were stupid,” said Birkin Grif, his fat, honest face puzzled and hurt. It was his way to feel things personally. “They were fools.”

  “They were insane towards the end,” said Cellur. “That I know.”

  Lord tegeus-Cromis wandered the Birdmaker’s tower alone, filled his time by staring out of upper windows at the rain and the estuary, making sad and shabby verses out of the continual wild crying of the fish eagles and the creaking of the dead white pines. His hand never left the hilt of the nameless sword, but it brought him no comfort.

  Tomb the Dwarf was exclusively occupied by machinery-he and Cellur rarely left the workshop on the fifth floor. They took their meals there, if at all. Birkin Grif became sullen and silent, and experienced a resurgence of
pain from his damaged leg. Methvet Nian stayed in the room set aside for her, mourning her people and attempting to forgive the monstrousness to which she was heiress.

  Inaction bored the soldier; moroseness overcame the poet; a wholly misplaced sense of responsibility possessed the Queen: in their separate ways they tried to meet and overcome the feeling of impotence instilled in them by what they had learned from the Lord of the Birds, and by the enigma he represented.

  To a certain extent, each one succeeded: but Cellur ended all that when he called them to the topmost room of the tower on the afternoon of the fifth day since their coming.

  They arrived separately, Cromis last.

  “I wanted you to see this,” Cellur was saying as he entered the room.

  The old man was tired; the skin was stretched tight across the bones of his face like oiled paper over a lamp; his eyes were hooded. Abruptly, he seemed less human, and Cromis came to accept the fact that, at some time in the remote past, he might have crossed immense voids to reach the earth.

  How much sympathy could he feel for purely human problems, if that were so? He might involve himself, but he would never understand. Cromis thought of the monitor lizard he had seen in the waste, and its fascination with the fire.

  “We are all here then,” murmured the Birdmaker.

  Birkin Grif scowled and grunted.

  “Where is Tomb? I don’t see him.”

  “The dwarf must work. In five days, he has absorbed the governing principles of an entire technology. He is amazing. But I would prefer him to continue working. He knows of this already.”

  “Show us your moving pictures,” said Grif.

  Ancient hands moved in a column of light. Cellur bent his head, and the windows flickered behind him.

  “A vulture flew over Viriconium this morning,” he said. “Watch.”

  A street scene in the Artists’ Quarter: Thing Alley, or Soft Lane perhaps. The tottering houses closed tight against a noiseless wind. A length of cloth looping down the gutter; a cat with an eye like a crooked pin flattens itself on the paving, slips out its tongue and devours a morsel of rancid butter. Otherwise, nothing moves.

 

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