Viriconium, page 31
“Let me kill them,” said Fulthor.
“They may not remain here for long.”
He was right. After a while they left their barren exercises and crawled away deeper into the gloom of the reefs, following the glittering veins of mineral.
“They were trying to remember how to fly.”
The spectre of Benedict Paucemanly seemed cowed by the city. A corrupt whitish colour when it was visible at all, it wallowed through the upper galleries, losing definition like a piece of wet soap. There seemed to be taking place a dissolution not only of its image but of its personality. This grew more marked the deeper it penetrated the city’s confusion. Index finger raised to its lips (or where they would have been), it peered furtively over the sagging balustrades, edging shyly away if an insect appeared in a distant plaza or stood vibrating like a delicate engine at the end of some dark alley. It feared an inevitable meeting.
Nevertheless it would allow them no respite. Fulthor trembled on the edge of his old madness, his armour changing colour eerily, taking on the ribbed greys and greens of the wasteland grasshopper. Hornwrack reeled along beside him, dizzy and vomiting. (His flesh was itching on the bone. He could feel it yearning to grow into new and extravagant shapes.) Soon they were dragging the madwoman along by her armpits. Waves of distortion emanating from the chaos ahead had flung her into a rigor from which she woke only to bite her tongue or make meaningless noises with her slack lips. Her heels furrowed the ground behind, which was now compacted sand, now the sodden peat of the continental sumps. Brown water leaked slowly into the furrows. Was the city there at all? At the peak of each wave the earth tolled and boomed; the buildings deliquesced, revealing for an instant the disfigured waiting towers of Viriconium (which, a thousand miles away, was trying to become a city of dried wasps’ nests); and blue particles swirled out of air like luminous rain. The world was being rhythmically eroded; underneath could be discerned the bony grin of nothingness, the Neant of Fat Mam Etteilla’s grubby pack.
Paucemanly’s ghost slipped like a tadpole between the collapsing columns, a blob of mucus propelling itself through this architecture of melting wax by small energetic movements of its finny hands.
Evening came, and with it a purple gloom through which darted curious flames.
Out of this, wreathed in a glutinous yellow fog, some clumsy insects dragged themselves. There were three or four of them. Alstath Fulthor put his hands to his head and fell down. “Oh oh oh,” he cried. “Oh, oh,” whispered the insects. They approached with a peculiar reluctance, dipping their great masks. Their grey wing cases and armoured yellow underparts were crosshatched with self-inflicted wounds. From these wounds were growing like buds a variety of pink new half-human limbs, joined to the pricked and rotting carapaces by a transitional substance, membranous, neither flesh nor chitin. There were clumps of little hands with mobile, perfect fingers, each one having a tiny fingernail like mother-of-pearl. There were the faces of very young children with closed eyes. There were eyes alone (as indeed there were legs and torsos and internal organs), gummy with postnatal sleep, and of a very distinct blue like enamelling on an old brooch. Some of the faces murmured drowsily.
Whether these insects were ambassadors or soldiers was not clear. They had recognised Hornwrack’s party as human, and been attracted by the magistral lustre of the Reborn Man’s scarlet armour. (When they approached him their own insignia flared up along their sides, orange and emerald.) They could not speak, though, and he could not help them. They remained immobile, at once heraldic and debased. It was the madwoman who sat up suddenly to speak on their behalf.
“We did not ask to come here,” she said. She watched Hornwrack, who in his turn licked his lips and stared at the travesty of a baby’s head.
“What?” he said.
“Go away and wait,” she begged. “Leave us to be finished here. We cannot live here much.” She opened her mouth and blood trickled from her lacerated tongue. “Give us in peace,” she whispered, holding her head on one side in a listening attitude, her mouth full of crushed flowers. “Oh!”
At the end of this speech she was standing with her back to the insects, her eyes bright with a horrifying intelligence. Their own great faceted orbs observed Hornwrack calmly over her shoulders. They were motionless. Hornwrack began to back away, laughing. “No more of this!” he heard himself exclaim. He held up his hands. “I don’t want to hear any more.” He looked round for guidance, but Fulthor was grunting on the floor, and the spectre of the ancient airman had inconveniently vanished. Suddenly a kind of fake anger overcame his fright. He dragged the sword of tegeus-Cromis from his belt, shoved the woman aside, and waded into them with it. But it was only steel, and quickly broke in half. The ambassadors fell back without resisting him, rustling, bearing their dreadful human buds. (One of the heads woke up. “Leave us alone,” it whispered, looking directly at him.) Then another wave of disintegration surged out of the core of the city, which was now very close. Hornwrack staggered. The ambassadors writhed and thrashed, their joints gouting fluid. Fay Glass screamed.
“Leave us alone! We will soon die here!”
Hornwrack could bear no more of it. He was used to a less equivocal violence. Retching, he stumbled over to Fulthor’s inert body and got the powered broadsword from its ceramic sheath. He had never used one before. He went back and cut inexpertly at the flailing forelimbs and compound eyes of the ambassadors. This time they made a halfhearted fight of it as they backed into the purple gloom. But their odd, gnarled weapons only sputtered feebly in the damp air, gave up strings of pale light, and failed utterly. They tumbled onto their sides as he chopped off their legs. They whirred round in circles, pushing the earth up into irregular mounds. Soon they were all dead. He stared at them in astonishment; at the artefact fizzing in his hand; at Fay Glass. At the last moment they had tried to direct his attention away from the hulk of Benedict Paucemanly’s airboat, the Heavy Star.
The hull of this ship loomed over him, crawling with the enigmatic corrosions of its hundred-year sojourn in the moon. It was embedded in a tall bulwark of compacted sand, which curved away right and left like the shell of some huge stadium. Hornwrack walked round it, awed, exultant. That famous machine! Lights were dimly visible through its fissured outer skin; pulpy vines enwrapped it; a few flakes of black and silver paint adhered to its stern-the colours of the House of Methven, set there at the height of the air siege of Mingulay.
“ ‘Fear death from the air!’ ” shouted Hornwrack. He laughed. He took hold of the madwoman’s wrist in his enthusiasm and pulled her along after him. “ ‘Fear death from the air!’ ” He thought of Fat Mam Etteilla, and the Bistro Californium with its clientele of perverts and poseurs. He thought of the dwarf who had beaten him up in the palace and then abandoned him in the shadow of the Agdon Roches. He thought of the High City, which had wooed him merely to betray him. He thought of the Low City, of the boy in the Rue Sepile, the drifts of sodden chestnut leaves in the late-afternoon light of November, the women laughing in the upstairs rooms. He thought of the candle at night, a cat sneaking into the room, the smell of geraniums-one dawn following another until they made eighty years of wounds and fevers. None of it meant anything. It was as if he had been relieved of these things, only to have them changed somehow and given back to him merely as memories. “If I can rip her loose we’ll fight our way out of this madhouse!” he said. He would fly down to the Pastel City in the last airboat left in the kingdom. There he would speak with the dwarf, perhaps even the Queen. There he’d state his terms. “She’ll never take to space again,” he said, rubbing his thumb over the thin, whitish, lichen-like growths, the network of tiny cracks that dulled the crystal skin. Even this slight contact made him shiver with excitement. He kicked at a door in the stern to see if it would open, and was rewarded by a hollow boom. “But her motors still work. Look!”
He dropped the High City sword suddenly, grasped the girl by her upper arms. She stared blankly at him. “O
Alstath Fulthor came up behind him on all fours and picked up the discarded baan. Some nightmare of the past had him by the head. He sniggered.
“I’ll suffer nothing at the hands of those beautiful philosophers,” he said. “I’ll promenade no more in their metallic gardens!”
He jumped to his feet, whirling the blade in sputtering arcs round his head. Sparks showered from it into the dead wet air. Discovering no other enemy he advanced on Hornwrack, who produced defensively his steel knife, shouting, “Fulthor, no more grudges! Stop!”
Fulthor could not stop. Hornwrack allowed him to get in close; ducked the baan as it swung in towards his collarbone; and slashed out at Fulthor’s hand, taking off two fingers and severing all the major tendons. Fulthor dropped the power-blade. He studied his hand in wonder.
“That hand will never annoy me again,” he said.
Before they could stop him he had run off into the gloom, singing.
Hornwrack said, “I did not mean to do that. This knife has betrayed me.” He threw it down and stepped on it, but the blade would not break despite its flaw, and after a moment he forgot it. He retrieved the baan and set about chopping his way into the Heavy Star through the stern door. His blows set up a resonant groaning in the crystal hull. He pulled the madwoman in after him. She stared back over her shoulder.
The boat was abandoned and empty. Its motors sent up slow violet motes through a rift in the deck: small worms of light that clung to the metal surfaces, fastened on Hornwrack’s mail shirt, and clustered round the steel fillet which bound back his hair. Further in, navigation instruments ticked and sang; he could hear them. It was thick with dust in there. He moved about quietly, touching the things with which he was familiar. He shivered a little. In the command bridge was a light like sunshine filtered through bottle-green glass. “Go and sit down,” he told Fay Glass. (An insect had entered through the damaged hatch; he could hear it moving about in the hold.) The bow of the boat projected right through the wall of the “stadium” he had seen outside, but nothing was visible through the portholes, which seemed to be covered by some gelatinous medium like agar. Aft, the insect scratched its way across the hold; paused. Its wings whirred faintly. It departed. Hornwrack let out his breath.
“Sit still,” he told the woman.
He tried to remember what to do.
Under his clumsy hands the vessel groaned and shook. (It was old. In the moon something vital had gone out of it; some millennial reservoir had been emptied.) Down below, its motors pulsed, leaking light and generating a rapid percussive shudder. This continued for some minutes and, transmitted to the outer hull, split it open with a high ringing sound. Splinters of dark glass flew about the bridge; a fissure twenty inches wide appeared in the wall beside Hornwrack’s shoulder, admitting foetid gases; Fay Glass was picked up and flung against a bulkhead, and thereafter lay on the deck like a discarded towel, her thin bruised legs drawn up under her chin. The boat lifted an inch or two and was stationary again. Gelatinous fluids streamed off the forward portholes and slopped into the bridge, where, mixed with the sand from the wall outside, they formed a foul and slimy secretion. Hornwrack clung to his seat.
“You bitch,” he said. “You old bitch.”
Outside, sand could be seen fountaining up against a purple sky. With a despairing groan Heavy Star pulled free of the retaining wall and hurled itself into the mad airs above. Hornwrack sobbed with relief. Around him, instruments were demanding his attention in hysterical whispers, but he had forgotten what most of them were for. The smell of the stuff in the cabin was making him feel sick. He leaned forward to look out of the portholes. The boat was wallowing above an elliptical walled pit about a hundred yards long. This was filled with a grey, viscous, partly organic substance which was now leaking from the breached wall like the white of an egg. As the level of this putrid stuff fell, it revealed by stages a colossal human figure stretched out in the pit.
A monstrous and corrupt flowering of his flesh had taken place in all those white years on the moon. Constrained by a thick rubber suit in case he burst, studded with new sensory organs, whorls and ropes of flesh which reported only mutation and pain, he lay there prostrate. He had tried to become something else and failed. His arms were by his sides and his vast corpulent legs apart. It was from here that he had broadcast his despairing spectre, to Viriconium and beyond. “I want only death.” Teetering between two realities, he could perceive neither of them except as an agonizing dream-and yet here he was half a god, a demiurge or source, out from which spread like the ripples on a stagnant pond all the new nightmares of earth: he had become, unwillingly enough, the amplifier of the swarm’s Umwelt, as he had once been an ear that listened to the stars. He had lain like this for ten years, groaning and whimpering and vomiting into the mask which had long ago been forced over his bloated head so that he could see something of the world surrounding him. Worse: through his great corroded bulk burrowed the parasitic larvae of the swarm, deposited there when gravity first sucked them down and mortalized them. A thousand miles away, in the false windows of the throne room at Viriconium, his other image was telling Cellur: “The breeding cells are full. Whatever emerges will wrest the earth to its own purposes.”
He was the breeding cell. It was a strange end for a legendary man.
A gust of wind caught the airboat, causing it to spin slowly through a few degrees of arc. A smell came up. Hornwrack shuddered. The enormous half-corpse swung beneath him, displaying its fermented sores, the cratered flesh that bulged between the straps. The larvae forced themselves in and out. How long had it sought him, before it came upon him in Methven’s hall? What psychic bond now linked them? As he stared down, the spectre formed again behind him, attempting to attract his attention by snapping its fingers and coughing softly. He knew it was there. He didn’t dare look back.
“Bugger me, lad,” it said, “but we’ve seen some queer berths, you and I.”
He turned against his will to face it. It was bobbing about under the ceiling, making embarrassed washing motions with its fat hands.
“Now you’ve seen me as I am, lad, would you do me a favour?”
“Go away. Why have you brought me here?”
“Pork!” it choked. “ Porcit me te bonan… Death!… There’s only the jungle out there, son. The water barrel’s contaminated and the captain’s got the clap…”
“What are you saying? Leave me alone!”
“… hung up there raw-blind in the ratlines like the corpse of a dog.” The spectre quivered suddenly, sniffed, as if scenting something new in the air. “The lee shore!” it screamed. “The lee shore!” Then, quieter: “And only we two left aboard, matey.”
It put its head intelligently to one side.
“Christ, listen to those parrots!” it said in a hoarse whisper.
(While down in the pit, trapped among these metaphors and invented languages, Paucemanly strove to overcome his madness and communicate. His colossal limbs, partly submerged in milky grey slime, kicked and waved. Behind the eyepieces of his mask-which, like the panes of an aquarium abandoned in some dusty room, were occluded by a green deposit-his weak blue eyes rolled and bulged. The wind stank of delirium, gangrene, and false compass bearings. A tear of self-pity trickled down his cheek. He was adrift between universes.)
“Kill me,” the spectre implored at last. “Kill me, lad. You can do it.”
Hornwrack advanced on it with flailing arms. It shied away from him, belching morosely.
“Is that why you led me here?” he asked it.
It faded abruptly and he never saw it again. He bit his lip and went back to the controls.
“I’m commandeering this boat,” he said.
He sent the Heavy Star lumbering away from that city and out into the
A single erratic line of footprints crossed the waste. Along it at intervals were strewn items of plate armour which lay like shards of scarlet porcelain amid the blowing dust, glowing faintly as if by their own light. It was night now, or the end of the world. The sky, drained of its aching purples except where the enigmatic city festered on the horizon, was of a green so dark as to be almost black; it had the shine of a newly cracked flint. Beneath this pall, files of insects entered the city from all directions, accompanied by occasional enormous mirages and flashes of rose-coloured light. The silence of the caesura was over everything; judgement in abeyance. Hornwrack, remote and unimpassioned, allowed the vessel to drift along at walking pace above the footprints while the madwoman, recovered from her latest malaise, pressed her face to the portholes and sang in a small bruised voice,
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