Viriconium, p.30

Viriconium, page 30

 

Viriconium
 



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  “What must we do, then?” he asked, a little impatiently.

  Paucemanly gave a loud belch. His image swam, retreated, and was replaced by something quite new: great dragonflies, jewelled and crippled, dragged themselves across the shivering panes while behind them the landscape heaved and humped itself into shapes nascent and organic. “They mutate and die in the new vapours of earth: but their breeding cells are full.” Wingless and melting, the insects were swallowed by the curious hills about them. These in turn folded back to reveal a face, brown and bony-looking like the stripped and varnished skull of a horse into which had been inserted two half-pomegranates for eyes. It stared into the throne room. “Oops,” it said. “Green, brown, testing. Hello?” Paucemanly reappeared in a glutinous yellow fog, looking puzzled. “Whatever emerges from them,” he went on, “will wrest the world to its own purposes… testing?. .. Septemfasciata…” A high fluting sound came out of the windows. One of them shattered. Glass fell into the room. Nothing was revealed except a dusty hole which later proved to contain only some gold filaments and a few small bones. (Cellur, though, winced away as if he expected some alien limb to reach out of it.)

  In the remaining panes a tarry smoke obscured intermittently the greenish image of the airman. A clump of fat sinister fingers-his ownappeared, feeling their way over his face as if trying to remember it from some previous encounter. They rested thoughtfully on the mask, then with a quick, predatory motion clutched it by the straps and tugged it off. Vomit sprayed from the defaced features beneath. Paucemanly vanished instantly.

  “Is the world ending, then?” asked Cellur.

  “I want only death,” came the answer, a distant whisper clogged with self-pity and guilt. “A hundred years in the moon! Only death.”

  In the windows appeared a series of faded pictures of ordinary insects, the dry husks of wasps crushed underfoot in an attic long ago, and hawk moths like flower pressings in an old book. A wind stirred them. They darkened one by one until there was nothing left at all. Cellur stood for a long time in the gloom, thinking of nothing. He could not make himself say anything to the Queen.

  The dwarf came in with his axe in one hand and a bundle of thin shiny steel rods in the other. He was out of breath and there was blood in his hair. He drank his lukewarm chamomile with a grimace. When he noticed the dark windows and broken glass he nodded grimly. “They had the signal to pass the gates half an hour ago,” he said. “We’re done for in here.”

  He dropped the steel rods on the floor and, with a packet of tools he took from under his jerkin, set about assembling them. It was quick work. Soon he had in front of him a half-human skeleton ten or eleven feet tall- his famous “mechanical wife,” grubbed up long ago from some frigid desert in the far North. It was quiet in the room as he coupled its metal bones. Nevertheless he paused every so often to tilt his head on one side and listen; and at one point said casually: “Someone will have to bolt the doors. I can’t reach them, and the lads out there won’t last much longer.” (Cellur did not answer. Little motes of blue light like luminous beetles had begun to spill from the shattered window. They fell faster and faster, like rain. They filled the room with a queer glow which lit the white cheek of Methvet Nian as she sat staring silently at nothing.)

  A distant shout filtered through from the beleaguered outer corridors. The whole palace seemed to shudder. The dwarf scratched his head. After a long life his understanding of such situations was preternatural. Steel scraped on steel, on stone, as he hurriedly spread the mechanical wife on the floor so that its legs stuck straight out and its arms were set close to its sides. He did something to it until it hummed and sent up motes of its own. Then he lowered himself down so that he lay limb for limb on its cold bones. A harness fastened his upper body into its flaring rib cage; its jawless skull he hinged forward to fit over his head like a helmet. “It is my cold companion, that I thought I would never embrace again,” he murmured. Certain levers enabled him to control it, but for the moment he lay still in the curious blue light, performing some act of memory. Ozone, and a low buzzing, filled the air. The skeleton snapped its fingers inadroitly. It shivered and stretched, and of its own accord made grasping motions; but when he moved the levers at last, it failed to respond.

  Something threw itself with a crash against the throne room doors.

  The dwarf was stuck in the harness. He writhed about. “Bolt the doors, one of you, or it’s the end of us!” He got free and addressed himself feverishly to the machine. Sparks came up from it; it gave up slow yellow fireflies to join the flow of blue light from the broken window. A smell like burnt horsehair filled the air. As for Cellur and the Queen: neither of them seemed to be able to move. Their faces were waxy with despair, their eyes like lemurs’. For Tomb it was only a physical disaster, it was only another war; for them it was a disaster of meaning. They murmured in low, slurred voices to one another, like old intelligent animals-“Saint Elmo Buffin”; “a fatal chance.” Tomb broke his nails on the ancient machinery. He was a dwarf, not a philosopher; it was just another war: and he thought he still had time to win it…

  He strapped himself back into the harness. The mechanical wife lifted itself from the flagstones with a groan and an ungainly lurch, like an overloaded camel. It was worn out, like all the other machinery in Viriconium. No one knew what it had been used for all those centuries ago in the doomed Afternoon Kingdoms. It flailed clumsily about, smashing pieces of furniture in its efforts to stay upright. It fumbled on the floor until it came up with the dwarf’s power-axe, which it proceeded to swing in dangerous, humming arcs. “Ha ha,” laughed the dwarf. He pulled the skull piece down over his head. His old eyes blinked redly. He felt alive. He only had to stamp his feet and the walls shook. He moved his levers. Trailing creamy white motes like cabbage moths, the mechanical wife shambled over to the doors, one enormous hand reaching triumphantly for the upper bolts.. ..

  Outside in a victorious gloom, the remnants of the palace guard bubbling to death at their feet, were gathered the devotees of the Sign. Since the murder on the Pleasure Canal they had lost touch with their ruling echelon in the fluorescing windy mazes of the Artists’ Quarter; their ideological priorities had become unfathomable, even to themselves; and their very flesh had suffered violent and useless evolutions. In their endless quartering of the Low City they had uprooted railings, constructed wooden clubs studded with bits of broken glass, helped themselves to butchers’ cleavers and old kitchen knives black with corrosion, gathering an army fit for the mutated, the motivationally bankrupt, and the burst. The pain of their transformation had caused them to loosen or unwind the bandages which had previously disguised their humps and tumours, and these now flapped about them in crusty strips as they hopped and sprang erratically along the palace corridors on their strong, bent legs.

  Their eyes were puzzled and full of agony. They could not become insects. The flesh, ultimately, resists: there is a conservatism of cell and marrow. But they would never again be human From wounds like women’s lips had bloomed a fantastic, irrelevant anatomy: drooping feathery antennae, trembling multi-jointed legs, a thousand mosaic eyes, vibrating palps, and purposeless plates of chitin. Where these new deformed organs merged into the original flesh was a transitional substance, pinkish grey, weeping like an unsuccessful graft. None of them were in the right place. From a mutilated torso sprang six thin legs, rattling like dry sticks in a wind. (They seemed to be beckoning. The man from whom they had grown screamed involuntarily whenever he caught sight of himself.) Here rubbery, saw-edged mandibles had burst from flower-like lesions at knee or nape and were now speaking unknown languages in reedy, creaking voices; there a gristly membrane flapped like a mantle, dotted with the abortive stumps of wings. For the genitals of a magistrate from Alves had been substituted a coiled moth-like tongue which poked out uncontrollably at intervals. Some of them leapt and sprang about unpredictably, like grasshoppers on a sunny day; others had lost completely the power of upright locomotion and
dragged themselves round in circles like crippled blowflies. This degradation was not wholly their own: behind the desperate murmurs that escaped them could be sensed the rustling whisper of some crippled demiurge, the pain of the Idea striving to clothe itself.

  Propelled by a black horror of their own state, dimly but bitterly aware of the humanity they had willingly discarded, they broke down the doors and bore the mechanical wife of Tomb the Dwarf back across the throne room, beating at it with their old shovels and broken swords. Hung up there among its gleaming limbs he swung his axe; tottered; retreated. While behind him Cellur the Birdmaker woke from a dream of dissolution and found it to be real.

  10

  ALL THE WOUNDS OF THE EARTH

  Galen Hornwrack came down into the mysterious city like some legendary failed conquistador. (Fever and magic have defeated his skills. The waste-lands he set out to cross in his youth have shown him no enemy but his own ambition. All wells were poisoned; sand has swallowed his troops and his hopes. He lurches back alone into the country of his birth only to find that it too had become shifting, unreliable, changed forever…) The scars left by his fight with the metal bird, an encounter which he recalled only dimly, had diverted and hardened the characteristic lines of his face, so that a strange asceticism now modified his habitual expression of petulance and self-involvement. His nose was running. The sword of tegeus-Cromis he carried in his left hand, having lost its scabbard somewhere in the rotting landscapes behind him. His torn cloak revealed the mail the Queen had given him, now rusty. His eyes were empty and his gaze appallingly direct, as if, tiring of the attempt to winnow the real from the unreal, he now assigned exactly the same value to every object entering his visual field: as if he had suspended judgement on events, and now merely lived through them.

  His desire to see the city had kept him from sleep.

  Alstath Fulthor followed him, supporting the woman and her endless prophecies. A radiance, colourless in itself, issuing no doubt from his horned and lobed crustaceal armour, appeared to fill both their bodies, illuminating from beneath the things they wore, crimson and blue, as in some old painting. The alien presence of the city, its equivocal contract with “reality,” had lent new energy to their madness. “In my youth,” sang the woman, “I made my small contribution. Blackpool and Chicago become as nothing; their receding colonnades echo to the sound of vanished orchestras.” At this they stopped to regard one another half in delight, half in horror, their cropped spiky hair and long restless hands giving them the air of children caught in some game of conspiracy. (It was only that they hoped to manipulate Time, as we know: believing that by combination and recombination of a few common images-which are themselves only the symbols rather than the actual memories of acts peculiar to the Afternoon Cultures-they might obtain the “code” which would liberate them from the Evening. Thus Mam Etteilla, shuffling her pasteboard cards…)

  They dawdled, and Hornwrack sat tiredly in the mud to wait for them.

  “That’s enough of that!” he said sharply. He treated them for the most part with a gruff indulgence, but tried to prevent their odd and embarrassing sexual encounters, chasing the woman away with the flat of his sword while being careful to keep his eye on Fulthor’s own great weapon.

  “That’s enough!” they mimicked. “That’s enough!”

  He did not know why he was here, heading into the world’s deep wound. Bankrupt of purpose when they had fetched him that morning from the rooms in the Rue Sepile, he had maintained himself on the energy of old betrayals and resentments, none of which had survived the journey through the Deep Wastes. He shrugged. He was a husk. Above him hung the torpid and corrupt manifestation of Benedict Paucemanly, which was his only hope. Since dawn it had been undergoing a crisis of will, dissolving sporadically into a mass of greyish curds and losing the power of speech. It would reassemble itself slowly after such a bout, beckon Hornwrack on toward the city, belch tragically. “I want only death,” it would explain. And Hornwrack with a sigh would lead his mad proteges a little closer.

  This city had appeared on the plain with the descent of the insects a decade before, growing from the worn stone nubs, tilted columns, and submerged pavements of an ancient Afternoon site. They had not so much built it as expected it. It was not so much a city as a response of ordinary matter to their instinctive metaphysical demands, the warping pressures of their “new reality.” Originally it had consisted of a number of large but flimsy structures arranged without apparent thought on and around a low mound. The biggest of these were perhaps a hundred feet tall. They were like dry wasps’ nests, and of the same papery, cellular construction. They rustled in the wind. The insects went leaping among them on curiously aimless pathways, along the sides of which had been built up over the years peculiar crystalline accretions, hanging reefs and tottering spires, galleries composed of crumbling metallic oxides veined with serpentines and alien glasses. Smaller structures had eventually grown up in the shadows of this development: partly roofed eccentric hexagons formed of impacted sand mixed with certain bodily secretions of their inhabitants, who forced themselves in and out of small openings in the walls.

  But if the insects had first begun to change the earth at this spot, so it had begun to change them; and matter’s accommodating plasticity had turned suddenly into a trap.

  Gravity had imprisoned them: here they had first felt its pull, and lost the power of extra-atmospheric flight. It had suddenly become necessary for them to breathe, yet they could not breathe air, and must invent some substitute: here they had built the chugging machinery to disseminate it. (It never worked very well.) Fluids had been unknown to them during their frigid millennial migration through the barren spaces: here they had first filled their tissues with them as a buffer against the poisons of earth. Here they had put on their breathing masks and built their weapons, seeing themselves as beleaguered, unwilling colonists, victims of a cosmic accident: which they were. Here the human Umwelt had first penetrated their strange nervous systems, working a madness on them so that they could not understand what they saw or felt, and began to die of a new disease.

  At the time Galen Hornwrack met his end here, all order and sense of purpose had vanished from the place. The buildings, alien to begin with, had begun to subside like hot glass, as if searching for a new centre of gravity. A partly transparent architecture of nightmarish balconies and overhanging walls that had formed as matter, struggling to find a compromise between human and insect demands, began to teeter and grope toward verticals and horizontals that satisfied neither. Streets laid down under no wholesome plan ended in pits, or in staircases which themselves petered out after a turn or two up the sides of some enormous windowless cylinder. The towers shuddered and quaked, vibrating between human and alien states, then slumped and dissolved like jelly. A languorous buzzing sound accompanied this process, and beneath that the clangour of enormous bells, as if matter were trying to toll itself apart. Appalling winds howled down the changing thoroughfares. Streams of tiny blue motes tumbled from the higher cornices; out in the open squares (through which, as in a dream, could be discerned the equivalent plazas of Viriconium-opposite pole, node of nightmares, sister city) struggled the changed individuals of the swarm; while among the alleys of this disintegrating province proliferated the thick, yellow stems of some mutated plant.

  Above, vast clouds of the insects hung in the throbbing purple sky, making adventive, meaningless patterns as they attempted to replicate or restart the endless spatial pilgrimage. They hurled themselves into huge pits dug in the desert. They invented useless vehicles which rolled like mouldy grapefruit between the dunes, rising a few feet above the ground to emit foul gases. (“Regretfully,” whispered the madwoman, “it is part of a scheme you cannot understand.”) Into this chaos Galen Hornwrack was persuaded to lead his party, unaware that circumstances were about to return to him a fragment or two of his distant-indeed by now almost imaginary-adolescence.

  Under a sky like a glass man
tle, at an intersection in the disintegrating ground plan of the city, two insects performed a dance in the suicidal light. Disease had maimed them, their eyes were like rotting melons yet vivid heraldic insignia flared along their blue and green flanks like the lights of deep-sea fishes. Stiff and quivering, with curled abdomens and spread wings, moving one damaged limb at a time, they had the air of being painted on one of Elmo Buffin’s sails, or tattoed in glowing inks on an upper arm. Clouds of coloured vapour streamed through the galleries which curled over them in a flaking mineral wave. Balancing on their rear legs they curled themselves backwards into the annular symbols of some organic alphabet; they dragged themselves between the bone-like pillars of the colonnades, following the veins of serpentine and obsidian as if they were cooling streams; they tore with their forelimbs at the masks they wore-perhaps to obtain relief, for part of the function of these was to enable them to perceive the world they found themselves marooned in.

  “Let me kill them,” advised Alstath Fulthor.

  His periods of sanity, rare since the departure from Iron Chine, were now characterised by a dreamy, idle cruelty, an echo, Hornwrack believed, of the unimaginable and stylized sadisms of the Afternoon Cultures.

  “No.”

  Galen Hornwrack, living in two worlds: he was hopping and whirling despite himself down the million fractured perspectives of the mosaic universe, the thin stridulous hymn of the swarm filling the waste spaces about him. Suns baked him. The void froze him. Infinity drew him on like a promise. Sad stony planets spun beneath him, their cisterns barren. He understood none of it… Simultaneously he was aware of Fulthor coughing and choking at his side, hollow face underlit by the eerie, transfiguring flicker of the powered sword. They stood in the shadow of a huge dead locust, or perhaps it was a mantis. Its forelimbs were folded hieratically above them, clutching something they couldn’t see. Leathery curtains of dried mucus hung down from its ventral joints and openings. Its fading telepathies trickled through Hornwrack’s skull in a reedy counterpoint to the perceptual disorganisation that swelled over him like triumphant organ music from the city’s living inhabitants. His eyes were watering in the lemon fog from the exploding atmospheric distilleries; his nose was running. A tarry fungus flourishing in the shade of the great corpse had begun to corrode the soles of his boots.

 

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