Viriconium, p.12

Viriconium, page 12

 

Viriconium
 



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  In two days, they came to Thing Fifty. It was a humbled city, ten square miles of broken towers, sinking into the soft earth.

  Squares and plazas, submerged beneath fathoms of filthy water, had become stagnant, stinking lakes, their surfaces thickly coated with dead brown leaves. Black ivy clutched the enduring metals of the Afternoon Cultures, laid its own meandering inscriptions over bas-reliefs that echoed the geometries of the Pastel City and the diagrams that shifted across the robe of Cellur.

  And everywhere, the trees, the fireweed, the pale hemlock: Thing Fifty had met a vegetable death with thick, fibrous, thousand-year roots.

  Between the collapsed towers moved the megatheria, denizens of the dead metropolis. They lived in sunken rooms, moved ponderously through the choked streets by night and day, as if for millennia they had been trying to discover the purpose of their inheritance.

  Tomb the Dwarf led the party through the tumbled concentric circles of the city.

  “At the very centre,” he said, “a tower stands alone in an oval plaza.” He cocked his head, as if listening to a lecture in his skull. “To descend into the caverns beneath the plaza, we must enter that. Certain defences may still be operating. But I have the trick of those, I hope.”

  The ground sloped steeply down as they went, as if Thing Fifty had been built in the bowl of a tremendous amphitheatre. They were forced to cross pools and unpleasant moats. Running water became common, springs bubbling from the cracked paving.

  “I had not counted on this. The bunkers may be waterlogged. Runoff from the foothills of the Monadliath has done this. Help for the trees, but not us.”

  He was near the mark, but how near, he could not have imagined: and when they reached the plaza, none of his new skills were of any use.

  For at the hub of the city of Thing Fifty lay a perfectly oval tarn of clear water.

  At its centre, like the stub of one of Tomb’s own broken teeth, rose the last few feet of a tall tower. In its depths, they could see luxuriant water plants rooted in the thick black silt that had covered and blocked the entrance to the bunkers.

  Into their stunned silence, Birkin Grif murmured, “We are finished here before we begin. It is drowned.”

  Methvet Nian looked at Tomb. “What shall we do?”

  “Do?” He laughed bitterly. “Throw ourselves in. Do what you like. I can accomplish nothing here.”

  He stalked off a little way and sat down. He threw lumps of dead wood and stone into the water that mocked him.

  “We cannot get down there,” said Cromis. “We will sleep in a drier part of the city tonight, and in the morning move on.

  “Cellur told us that the siting of the artificial brain was uncertain. We had warning of that. We will try our second goal, in the Lesser Rust Desert.

  “If that fails, we can come back here-”

  Tomb the Dwarf sniggered.

  “And dive like ducks? You are a fool. We have lost the game.”

  Cromis fondled the hilt of his sword. “We lost the game a long time since, in the Great Brown Waste,” he said, “but we still live. It is all we can do.”

  “Oh, yes indeed,” said a soft, ironical voice from close behind him. “It is your place to lose, I think.”

  Cromis turned, horror blooming in his skull, his sword sliding from its leather scabbard.

  Norvin Trinor stood before him.

  Twenty Northmen were at his back, forceblades spitting and hissing in their hands.

  “You should have killed me when you had the chance, my lord,” he said. He shook his head theatrically and sighed. “Still, perhaps it was not meant to be that way.”

  He looked from Cromis to Grif. The scar left by Thorisman Carlemaker’s knife immobilised one side of his face, so that when he smiled only one eye and half his mouth responded. He still wore the cloak and mail Cromis had last seen on the battlefield. Like the leather garments of the Northmen, they were stained with blood and wine.

  “Hello, Grif,” he said.

  Birkin Grif exposed his teeth.

  “Arselicker,” he said, “your lads will not save you, even though they kill me after I have gutted you.” He showed Trinor a few inches of his broadsword. He spat on the floor. He took a step forward. “I will have your bowels out on the floor,” he promised.

  Cromis put a hand on his shoulder.

  “No, Grif, no.”

  Trinor laughed. He swept back his cloak and slid his own blade back into its sheath.

  “tegeus-Cromis sees it,” he said. “Heroism is useless against a strategist: Methven taught us all that many years ago.”

  “You learnt quickest of all,” said Cromis dryly. “Grif, we could kill him four times over: but when we have finished, we will face twenty baans. Even Tomb could not stand against them.

  “However well we fight, the Queen will die.”

  Norvin Trinor made a sweeping bow in the Young Queen’s direction.

  “Quite. A splendid exposition, my lord. However, there is a way out of this for you. You see, I need your dwarf.

  “Let me explain. I am on the same quest as yourselves. I am able in fact to tell you that you are wasting your time here in Thing Fifty unless your interest is purely archaeological.

  “For some time now, we have been a little worried about our allies. During certain researches in our good queen’s library”-he bowed again-“in the Pastel City, I discovered what an unreliable weapon the chemosit are. Quite like myself, you understand: they serve only themselves. (Hold still a moment, Lord Grif. It will not hurt you to listen.) You have learnt this, of course. I should like very much to know where, by the way.

  “I came also upon part of the answer to the problem: the exact whereabouts of the machine which will… turn them off, so to speak.

  “Now, I gather from your conversation here that the dwarf has been given information I was unable to obtain. In short, I need him to do the business for me. I could not take him from you without killing him. Persuade him that it is in the best interests of all of us that he work for me in this matter, and I spare you. The Queen, too.”

  Throughout this monologue, Tomb had remained sitting on the edge of the tarn. Now, he unlimbered his axe and got to his feet. Norvin Trinor’s wolves stirred uneasily. Their blades flickered. The dwarf stretched to the full eleven feet his armour lent him and stood towering over the traitor.

  He raised the axe.

  He said: “I was born in a back alley, Trinor. If I had suspected at the battle for Mingulay that you would do this to three men who fought alongside you, I would have put a baan between your ribs while you slept. I will do your job for you because it is the job I came to do. Afterwards, I will cut off your knackers and stitch them into your mouth.

  “Meanwhile, Methvet Nian remains unharmed.”

  And he let the axe fall to his side.

  “Very well. We declare a truce, then: precarious, but it should not stain your finer feelings too much. I will allow you to keep your weapons.” He smiled at Cromis’s start of surprise. “But a man of mine stays by the Queen at all times.

  “I have an airboat parked on the southern edge of the city. We will leave immediately.”

  Later, as they entered the black ship, its hatch opening directly beneath the crude, cruel sigil of the wolf’s head, Cromis asked:

  “How did you discover us? You could not have followed us through the forest, or even through the barrens without being seen-”

  Trinor looked puzzled. Then he gave his crippled smile.

  “Had you not realised? It was pure luck: we were here before you entered the city. That’s the beauty of it. We had stopped for fresh meat. At that time, I anticipated a long sojourn in the desert.”

  And he pointed to the great heap of carcasses that lay beside the launch, their white pelts stained with gore, their myopic eyes glazed in death. Crewmen were preparing to haul them into the cargo hold, with chains.

  Cromis looked out at the tangled landscape of Thing Fifty.

 
You are an animal,” he said.

  Norvin Trinor laughed. He clapped Cromis on the shoulder. “When you forget you are an animal, my lord, you begin to lose.”

  11

  Brown, featureless desert slipped beneath the keel of the drifting airboat: the Lesser Waste, in all respects similar to the great dead region north of Duirinish, the spoliated remnants of an industrial hinterland once administrated from Thing Fifty. tegeus-Cromis, Birkin Grif, and Tomb the Dwarf, locked in the cargo hold with the dead megatheria, paced restlessly the throbbing crystal deck. With a power-blade at the neck of Methvet Nian, Norvin Trinor had forced the dwarf to give up his armour, although he had allowed him to keep his axe. He looked like an ancient, twisted child.

  “A chance may come when I breach the defences of the organic brain,” he said. He fondled the axe. He shrugged. “Indeed, I may slip, and kill us all.”

  The boat lurched in an updraught: white carcasses slid about the hold. Cromis stared from the single porthole down at the desert. Unknown to him, his fingers plucked at the hilt of the nameless sword.

  “Whatever is done, it must not involve a fight. You understand that, Grif? I want no fighting unless we can be sure the Queen will remain unharmed.”

  Grif nodded sulkily.

  “In other words, do nothing,” he said.

  As he spoke, the bulkhead door opened. Norwin Trinor stepped through, two of his wolves flanking him. He pulled at his drooping moustache.

  “A commendable plan,” he said. “Most wise.” He looked at Grif for some moments, then turned to Tomb. “Dwarf, we have arrived. Look down there and tell me if this place was mentioned in your information.”

  Tomb moved to the porthole.

  “It is a desert. Deserts were indeed mentioned to me.” He showed his rotting teeth. “Trinor, you are displaying a traditional foolishness. I can tell nothing for sure until we land.”

  The traitor nodded curtly, and left. A few moments later, the airboat began to descend, bucking a little as it entered a low level of wind.

  Trinor’s pilot settled the ship on a bare shield of black rock like an island in the rolling limbo of the dunes. The engines ceased to pulse, and a soft, intermittent hissing sound commenced beyond the hull. Time is erosion: an icy wind blew streams of dust across the surface of the rock. It had been blowing for a millennium.

  They stood in the lee of the vehicle, eddies of wind wrapping their cloaks about them. Dust in their eyes and mouths, Cromis looked at the thin, hunched shoulders of the Queen. We are nothing but eroded men, he thought, wind clothing our eyes with white ice. Benedict Paucemanly flew to the earth. It is we who live on the barren moon.. ..

  “Well?” said Trinor.

  A hundred yards away reared the curving flank of a dune. From it poked the ends of broken and melted load girders, like a grove of buckled steel trees. They were bright, polished, and eroded. Cromis, eyeing the desolation silently, became aware that beneath the muted cry of the archaic wind was a low humming: the rock beneath his feet was vibrating faintly.

  Tomb the Dwarf walked about. He bent down and put his ear to the rock. He got up again and dusted his leather leggings.

  “This is the place,” he said. “Begin digging at the base of the dune.” He grinned cockily at Cromis. “The wolves become moles,” he said loudly. “This would have taken us weeks without them. Perhaps we should thank Lord Traitor.” He strutted off to examine the girder forest, his long white hair knotting in the wind.

  With surly grunts, the Northmen were set to work, and by noon of the following day, their labours had exposed a rectangular doorway in the flank of the dune: a long low slit sealed with a slab of the same resistant obsidian stuff as had been used to construct the Birdmaker’s tower.

  The maker of the door had cut deep ideographs in it. Time and the desert had been unable to equal him in this respect: the slab was as smooth and the ciphers as precise as if they had been made the day before. It seemed a pity that no one could read them.

  Trinor was jubilant.

  “We have a door,” he said, pulling at his moustache. “Now let us see if our dwarf can provide a key.” He slapped Tomb jovially on the shoulder.

  “You forget yourself,” murmured the dwarf.

  He stood before the door, his lips moving silently. Perhaps he was recalling his apprenticeship on the fifth floor. He knelt. He passed his hands over a row of ideographs. A red glow sprang up and followed them. He murmured something, repeated it.

  “NEEDS YOU,” intoned the door abruptly, in a precise, hollow voice: “NEEDS YOU. BAA, BAA. BAA. OURO-BUN-DOS-”

  The gathered Northmen dropped their spades. Many of them made religious signs with their fingers. Eyes round, they clutched their weapons, breathing though their open mouths.

  “DOG MOON, DOG YEARS,” moaned the door. “BAA, BAA, BAA.”

  And to each ritualistic syllable, Tomb made a suitable reply. Their dialogue lasted for some minutes before silence descended and he began again the process of moving his hands across the ancient script.

  “GOLEBOG!” screamed the door.

  A brief, intense flare of white light obscured the dwarf. He staggered out of it, beating at his clothes. He chuckled. His hair reeked, his leggings smouldered. He blew on his fingers.

  “The door mechanism has become insane over the years,” he said. “It”-here, he said a word that no one knew-“me, but I misled it. Look.”

  Slowly, and with no sound, the obsidian slab had hinged downwards until it rested like the lower lip of a slack mechanical mouth on the dust, compacting it; and behind it stretched a sloping corridor lit by a pale, shifting pastel glow.

  “Your door is open,” he told Trinor. “The defences are down.”

  Trinor rubbed the scar on his cheek.

  “One hopes that they are,” he said. “tegeus-Cromis enters first. If there should be a misunderstanding between him and the door, the Queen will follow.”

  There were no accidents.

  As Cromis entered the bunker, the door whispered malevolently to him, but it left him alone. The light shifted frequency several times as he stood there staring at the vanishing point of the gently sloping passage. Vague, unidentifiable musical sounds were all around him. Growing from the walls were clumps of crystal that reminded him of the Metal-Salt Marsh; they pulsed regularly.

  He felt no fear.

  “Remain where you are, Lord Cromis.” Trinor’s voice seemed muffled, distant, as though affected by passage through the open door. “I shall expect to find you when I come through-”

  He entered with sword drawn. He grinned.

  “Just in case you had planned… Well, of course, I’m sure you hadn’t.” He raised his voice. “Bring the Queen through first.”

  When they had assembled, the Northmen sullen and silent, keeping their eyes fixed on the floor and mishearing their orders, he made Tomb take the lead. “Any… defences… you should disarm. Remember where the knife is held, dwarf, and who holds it.”

  That corridor stretched for two miles into the earth. Shortly after they had begun to walk, they found that the incline had levelled off. The nature of the walls changed: the clumps of crystal were replaced by yard-square windows, arranged at four-foot intervals. Nothing could be clearly discerned through them, but they were filled with a milky light in which were suspended vague but menacing organic shapes.

  There were no turnings. Their footfalls echoed.

  There were no junctions or side passages. They did not speak.

  They came eventually to a great circular chamber, in the centre of which columns of light and great rods of shadow wove patterns impossible to understand, like spectral dancers at the end of Time. Its roof and walls, all of green diamond, made a perfect half-globe. Twelve corridors, including their own, led off it from twelve vaulting arches. Otherwise, it was totally featureless.

  Those columns and cylinders of light and darkness flickered, intertwined, exchanged their substance, reversed their directions of motion. M
otes of brighter light appeared suddenly among them, hovered like insects, and vanished. A single musical chord filled the place, a high cathedral resonance.

  Cromis saw nothing he recognised as a machine.

  “You had better begin,” said Trinor to the dwarf, looking uneasily about. His voice was taken by the diamond walls and flung about. As if in response, the visual display of the brain increased its activity. “It is aware of us. I would like to leave here as soon as possible. Well?”

  For a moment, the dwarf ignored him. His ugly features had softened, there was a gleam in his knowing eye. He was enraptured. He sniggered suddenly, swivelled slowly on his heel to face the traitor.

  “My lord,” he said satirically, “you ask too much. It will take a century to understand this.” He shrugged. “Ah yes, you hold the knife, I remember.” He shook his head sadly. “I can shut it down in a week-perhaps a little more. It is a matter of finding the right… combination. A week: no less.”

  Trinor fingered his scar.

  For the next few days, Cromis saw nothing of Tomb or the Queen: they were kept in the central chamber of the complex, constantly under the eyes and swords of the reluctant Northmen, while he and Grif were limited to the cargo hold of the airboat, and lived out a dreary captivity among the dead sloths.

  Each day, a Northman brought them food.

  Cromis’s in-turning nature enabled him to come to terms with this-he made verses while gazing from the porthole at the unchanging waste-but it betrayed him also in the end, in that it kept him unaware of Birkin Grif’s shift of mood.

  Confinement chafed the big Methven. He grew irritable and posed questions without answer. “How long do you suppose we will live after the shutdown? Tell me that.” And: “The dwarf cares only for his machines. Are we to rot here?”

  He took to sharpening his broadsword twice a day.

  Later, he lay morose and withdrawn on a pile of bloody pelts, humming songs of defiance. He tapped his fingers dangerously.

  Each day, a Northman brought them food.

  On the sixth day after the discovery of the central chamber, Birkin Grif stood behind the door of the hold, honing his sword.

 

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