speculative visionscience fiction and fantasy

The Crimson Tower

Share your genre short stories with our readers and get feedback on your work.

Moderators: Bmat, Qray

    Bookmark and Share
 

The Crimson Tower

Postby melkior » Thu Jan 18, 2007 12:25 pm

Hi, I'm new to this and this is the first thing that I've written that I would dare to post. Quite long (too long?). It is a story with a message which I hope does not come across too laboured...

THE CRIMSON TOWER (Lord Limbold Builds a Machine)

#1

Up the winding stair went the manservant. At intervals, lamps in deep niches gave out a steady glow but the tower was windowless and the light insufficient to do more than throw his black and monstrous shadow high up the curving inner wall. At length the stair finished at an opaque crystal door studded with brass. He paused, breathing hard, heavy hands clutching at coarse-aproned thighs. Then straightening his spine and squaring his shoulders through long habit, he knocked. There was no reply and he waited. When the echoes had faded down the stairwell he knocked again.
“Come!” spoke a voice this time, muffled by the thickness of glass. The manservant pressed a panel and as the door slid aside he stepped through into the weirdly lit space beyond.
The master’s observatory was the highest chamber in the crimson tower. Above only the roof arose twisting to a needlepoint far above the dust of the city. Darkness was falling outside though the hour was not long past noon. Through the tower’s great window the manservant glimpsed the sun spitting its final, feeble rays through lowering skies.
“Well?” the master turned to him, scowling from deep shadow beneath the cobalt lamp that was bound to his forehead. Another burned from a retort above the master’s head; the hard bluish light revealing some details of the machine upon which he was working.
The manservant lifted a hand, needing to shade his eyes after the gloom of the stair. He rarely had excuse to enter there; his master’s most private sanctuary and curiosity made him pause. Though the cobalt lamps were bright, they were designed for close work and the light did not carry. The remainder of the room was dim but the glow of the setting sun revealed something of what it held; the polished chequers of the floor, the long benches crowded with paraphernalia of all kinds and, upon a dais in the centre of the floor the vast, gleaming bulk of the machine.
“Speak man, for pity’s sake!” the master demanded. “God help me that I should be waited upon by idiots in my dotage. Why we cannot breed servants as well as soldiers I cannot begin to imagine.”
“Count Voormidrath, Warlord of Tyre and Keeper of the Seven Keys awaits in the visiting hall,” said the manservant evenly.
“Voormidrath, here!” the master exclaimed. “Confound it all! Do we have a tryst? I can think of none. Bah! Am I now losing my wits as well as control over my appendages!” He threw down his instruments in disgust and tore the lamp from his brow. “Why can’t they leave me be, Haggai?” he asked rubbing at his eyes. “God knows it’s hard enough to make progress without these constant interruptions.”
“I understand, Lord,” said the other. Though long retired from active service, Haggai was an infantryman to the core and as such he often had cause to wonder, in private of course, at the vagaries of the military elite. What he did not understand however was the weapons master’s increasingly erratic behaviour. Day after day he shut himself away in the high tower. He withdrew from his duties, refusing food and shunning sleep as he became ever more involved in his work. He had missed Victory Day and Hero Day celebrations. When the city had come out to commemorate the Sack of Haran and the Beth-el Martyrs, Lord Limbold had again been absent from the rolls and, Haggai knew, his name had circulated on a ripple of disapproval that had reached exalted ears as well as the ordinary.
“Count Voormidrath refers you to a despatch of ten days since, my Lord. A convening of the council I believe?” Haggai watched as hopeless realisation dawned in his master’s face. It was a fine face – a noble face with an unusually high forehead above the beetling brows. Lord Limbold was also possessed of a long bony nose; an atavistic trait viewed as a weakness in a race bred for war.
“Of course, of course,” sighed the weapons master. He covered his face with his long-fingered hands for a moment before pushing back his shock of bone-white hair and turning upon his servant a gaze that was both wild and despairing. “I’d better not keep the good count waiting. Now where did I...” muttering, he strode over to a high table, heaped with parchment and drawing instruments.
“I have your things ready downstairs,” Haggai said. “Blue cloak, epaulets and brocade. The vice-chancellor will be there.”
“The vice-chancellor?” Lord Limbold snatched up a scroll, thought for a moment and then set it down again, selecting another. “This will do!” he said. “Come now!” He waved it at his aide as he crossed to the door. Then more to himself than to his manservant he whispered: “They won’t know. How would they? More than likely read it upside down anyway!” Brushing past the huge servant, Lord Limbold was through the door and descending the stair without a backward glance. Haggai raised his hand to the sensor and clicked his fingers, plunging the room into shadow. His eyes lingered for a moment on the machine, silhouetted like some monstrous arachnid against the sunset glow beyond the glass. Carefully he closed the door and followed his master down the long staircase.
Haggai caught up with him in the dressing room where Lord Limbold was struggling into his exoderm. He had climbed the trestle and stepped into the boots and leggings and now he was fighting with the atmosphere suit’s bulky, armoured shoulders. Haggai went to assist. He removed the suit’s stand which was getting in the way and took the weight, gritting his teeth with the effort whilst Lord Limbold worked his arms through the sleeves. The manservant activated the automatic fastenings and helped his master with the manual ones. Then he went to fetch cloak, and weapons belts as the older man drew on the gauntlets. With the cloak in place, Haggai stepped back and ran a critical, parade ground eye over the whole. Deftly he adjusted a strap here, a buckle there, straightened the epaulets and nodded.

In the visiting hall they found Count Voormidrath. The hall was dimly lit and the count was standing by the window following the progress of a large, black beetle across the glass. Encased in armour from head to foot, the Count was resplendent in scarlet cloak and the red and gold insignia of his family and rank. Through the window they spied the undulating luminescence of the Phosphor Sea, eerily pale in the darkness. Haggai stood to attention. Lord Limbold said:
“They say that those will outlast all of us.”
“Eh?” said the count, without turning.
“Insects. Even when the sun is spent and night finally descends a few of them will survive. It’s incredible, really. We should respect them.”
“Respect them?” the Count extended a thumb, squashed the insect to the glass then wiped his gauntleted thumb on the wall. He turned around then. “That is what I respect, weapons master. Strength and force of arms!”
Lord Limbold shook his head. “And you can take off that hat, Voormidrath!” He said testily. “There’s nothing wrong with my filters. The air in here is as clean as any.”
Laughter, muffled and mechanised wheezed from the Count’s transmitter but with the gentle whirr of servo-assists, the great, armoured hands lifted. There was a click, a diode winked and with the hiss of in-rushing air the gleaming helmet separated at the neck seal. Within, flushed and sweating, the count dispensed with humour and fixed his host with unsmiling eyes.
“I see that you’ve dressed properly for once. I suppose we must be grateful for that at least!” he said, tucking the helmet under one arm and bearing down on the weapons master. His other hand rested carelessly on the butt of the blaster that hung from his hip. Despite himself, Lord Limbold paled. The warlord knew his own power and he knew men. He knew how to command and how to intimidate. He knew how to organise and drive men on and he knew how to destroy and take them apart. He was precisely what he appeared to be. A perfect soldier and a peerless fighter: A warrior born of a thousand generations of warriors.
“I don’t know how you spend so much of your time locked into these,” said the weapons master indicating his own suit. “I find them so unwieldy!”
“You get used to it,” the count said with a shrug of his massive shoulders. This and indeed every movement that both men made was accompanied by the sound of the servo-motors that powered the suits and enabled four hundred pounds of rigid plates, flexible connectors, life support and weapons systems to move as though it were a second skin.
“I rarely take mine off these days. Good discipline in my view. Practice for campaigning - for combat! And think on - you never need worry about finding a place to take a squat, eh?” His alloy teeth flashed. Haggai allowed his lips to twitch in appreciation of his superior’s wit whilst keeping his eyes fixed rigidly in front.
Lord Limbold looked pained. “No doubt,” he said, “but my work is more delicate than yours. These won’t wield a 0.7 gauge socket.” He raised his gauntlets and regarded the fingers ruefully.
“Perhaps not,” Voormidrath replied, scowling as if such work was unseemly. “But as long as I can work a safety and squeeze a trigger, that’s all that concerns me! Enough now, let’s be off! I won’t be the cause of any delay and it’s something of a trip yet to the rendezvous. We’re in the desert west of the city. Sensible, I suppose. The air vice-marshall, Field Marshall Kulne and General Udin will be there as well as the vice-chancellor. A bit risky to meet here with all the recent activity.” As if to lend support to the count’s words a muffled boom sounded from somewhere across the city and the tower shook. Lord Limbold glanced to the window, tensing for a further impact. Neither of the other two men gave outward sign that they had heard the explosion.
“You can leave your man here,” Voormidrath instructed with the slightest nod to the manservant. “I have a driver outside. Come on now!” The count was already replacing his helmet and reaching for the outer door. Hurriedly, the weapons master took his own from the stand. He was still settling it in place when Voormidrath’s armoured fist punched the wall panel. The door slid back and a freezing, noxious cloud of dust and sand gusted through. Lord Limbold activated the suit’s life systems and followed the count outside.

#2

They climbed aboard the waiting transport, which disembarked with a sucking roar of induction engines. Lord Limbold and the count settled themselves in the spacious rear of the craft. The cabin lights dimmed. LED’s winked into life, flickering on bulkhead and dashboard and in the dark visor of the pilot- a huge, silent marine. Through the portholes, Lord Limbold watched the lights of the city fall away as the transport climbed and banked around the crimson tower – black now against the purple evening sky. He looked aft and there, spreading away beneath like a ghostly fog was the Phosphor Sea whose listless, lifeless tides fouled the city’s wharves. It was a cesspool; a stinking, chemical soup, awash with toxins and adrift with archipelago of luminescent scum. Rising from its margins and writhing around the curve of the bay he saw the tubes and spheres of the treatment works; kiloms of desalination and detoxification plant that kept the city supplied with clean water. Or at least, what the military allowed to pass for clean water though bowel disease and infant abnormality rates spiralling upward year-upon-year said otherwise to many among the populace. But what matter, he thought bitterly. What value a life upon a fading world, caught in the final throes of a failing sun? He had learned the answer. He knew now just how much value they placed upon such things.
A flash silvered the sky to starboard. Voormidrath rapped the glass with a knuckle and his transmitter wheezed into life above the sound of the engines.
“They’re hardly trying now, the filth! Saving their strength for the big push. But we’ll be waiting for them eh, Limbold? We’ll kick their hides back to the hills burning their filthy nests as we go!”
Lord Limbold turned his attention back through the portholes glad, for once, of the imposing, blacked-out helms that meant he did not have to meet the warlord’s eye.
But the veteran marine commander was right. The bombardment had slowed to trickle. The Hattooshans were gathering their resources for the coming land and air assault that they hoped would wipe the city of Beth-el from the face of the earth. Most of the population had already fled of course. What point intelligence if it is not acted upon - and swiftly? The only ones who had remained were those, including the weapons master himself, who were charged with the city’s defence.
The craft banked again steeply, showing them a dismal panorama of darkened buildings and silent factories. What was there that he would save? Nothing: not the barrack-like rows of dwellings; the huge munitions factories; the grim academies where infants learned to fight and die. Not the towering silos or the huge atmosphere plant that churned day and night, removing ammonia, methane, sulphurous oxides and other toxic fallout from a thousand centuries of war. There is nothing here! He brooded on the terrible irony. There was nothing left worth living for, yet countless lives had been lost and more would follow trying to save it. But not he! His death was earmarked for another cause.
“There is a green hill far away...”
“What’s that, Limbold?” the count grated.
The weapons master started, not realising he had spoken aloud. “It’s nothing,” he replied. He lapsed into silence, sensing the other’s disdain even from beyond the opaque visor.
As the last of the factories and outhouses vanished in the darkness a change in the pitch of the engines warned him that they were coming in to land. Dust obliterated any view of the last stages of the descent and so he watched the pilot, going through his procedures, silent and deliberate like an automaton as he made fine adjustments for wind and ground conditions.
They touched down. The hatches opened and the desert blew in. Lord Limbold followed the count down the gangplank and over the sand. A sentry loomed. He saluted and pointed to a gap ahead and then they were within the temporary camp and following a path between low, hooded lights. Upon either side, pressure tents billowed and trembled as they were buffeted by air currents inside and out. One, larger than the rest and emblazoned with seven stars upon the door seal, appeared from darkness in front of them. Another sentry snapped to attention. He gave the salute; right fist upon left breast and left hand with fingers straight in front of the genitals, signifying loyalty to the protection of the race – the soldier’s oath that bound them all in service to the death. Stooping quickly, the sentry peeled the door flap open and stood aside to let them enter. Stepping over the high threshold, the count simultaneously bent down and swivelled his body sideways in the difficult manoeuvre that best allowed a body encumbered by battle dress through such a narrow opening. Lord Limbold, lacking the count’s campaign experience, blundered into the hole, tripping and snagging the membrane until the sentry from without and the count from within pushed and hauled him inside.
“For pity’s sake Limbold!” Voormidrath’s pink and tiny head scolded as the helmet came away. “You’ve let the blasted air in!” Lord Limbold removed his own headgear to the sound of coughing and the whine of the filter pump, complaining as it sought to re-establish positive equilibrium with the outside.
“Come in, please.” Field Marshall Kulne greeted them. It was his men who were stationed outside. “Take some refreshment,” he said, leading them to a long table set against the side-wall where bowls and decanters were in evidence, “and then come and join us.” To the weapons master he said: “Have you met the vice-chancellor?”
“No,” Lord Limbold replied sullenly, peering beyond the field marshall to where three figures stood about a central table spread with maps.
With the stiff mannerisms of one more used to having wine served for him, the field marshall poured from a decanter into two alloy goblets. Voormidrath lifted his, gulped, smacked his lips and ignoring the food, he strode immediately to the table. Lord Limbold took his and sniffed at it with the air of a man checking for poison. It was an improbable purplish colour from, he knew, a dye they employed to make it appear more palatable. He tasted it. The flavour was sharp, artificial and unsubtle but he had tasted far worse. Still, he grimaced for the host’s benefit and eyed the food. There was fruit! The weapons master snatched a platter and, ignoring the tray of greyish biscuits daubed with some indeterminate paste proffered by the field marshall, he loaded it with berries, dripping slices and fleshy corms ripened under lamps in the silent space of some subterranean farm.
Field Marshall Kulne was not an indulgent man. Heavily boned like all of them, his eyes were virtually invisible beneath thick brow ridges but his narrow mouth pressed into a tiny white line and his moustaches bristled. He turned his back and joined the rest. Lord Limbold drained his glass and helped himself to another before taking platter and goblet to the council table.
It was Count Voormidrath who introduced him to the vice-chancellor; a dark, cunning-faced man in an ultra-lightweight exoderm. By marking him out as a non-combatant the gleaming suit underlined his exalted rank but it also made of him a pygmy among giants. In appreciation of this someone had procured a chair for him and now the council was officially joined, he seated himself. He regarded each of them in turn before turning to the field marshall
“What are we all doing here, Kulne” he said.
“We’re here to agree actions in relation to the defence of Beth-el, vice-chancellor,” the field marshall replied. “This is in response to intelligence we have from a captive taken near Mount Hermon some weeks ago. There are some notable gaps but some things seem certain.”
“Intelligence from a captive?” The politician’s eyes widened. “Since when did we start taking prisoners? I wasn’t aware we had anyone who understands their filthy tongue!”
Kulne smiled sardonically as he continued: “There have been recent developments in the north. We have made an important discovery – or, rather General Udin and his command have. General?” Kulne motioned to his comrade.
General Udin was a grim veteran of decades of bitter frontier war. His unadorned battle dress was scarred and blackened from a lifetime of firefights, massacres, routs, retreats and desperate ambushes. The head that regarded them from the huge, armour-plated chest and shoulders was grey and weathered as if the general himself were carved from the rock of the northern hills.
“It was after the battle of Kahraman,” said the general. “We had inflicted a heavy defeat upon the enemy and forced them back into the mountains. But we had pushed far and fast! My armoured divisions were stretched and we were not without casualties ourselves, so we did not pursue them. We had re-taken the fortifications at Maras, in enemy hands since the early days of the front. Deep in the bowels we found the machine. It must’ve been there since the keep was abandoned by the allied eastern armies at the end of the third age.”
The general paused to take a mouthful of wine. The vice-chancellor leaned forward. Like all of them, he knew the stories; the legends of a great scientific age that had lasted for a hundred thousand years. A time of technological wonders, now gone and long buried in the ashes of the nuclear fires.
“Well, I set my boffins to it,” General Udin continued. “But it was a little the worse for wear and the manuals and ops programmes were U/S. We knew it was an Interrogator but we couldn’t get it to work! Anyway, I took the decision to bag it and move it down to Tyre when we fell back. I thought maybe Voormidrath here would take a look at it!”
“Indeed,” the count nodded. “Like the general, I was intrigued. Any fool could see the value of the thing but getting it working seemed to be another issue entirely. I bent some ears, made some enquiries and they led me to Lord Limbold.”
All eyes came to rest upon the weapons master, who was cramming fruit into his mouth and dribbling a good deal down his unshaven chin.
The scarlet and gold-trimmed warlord felt obliged to justify his nomination. “Ah, Lord Limbold of Beth-el is a weapons master of high renown,” he informed them. “He is one of our foremost scientists. His work on guidance and delivery systems has been crucial in our recent successes in the north and the east. Once we had secured his co-operation, I arranged for the Interrogator to be moved to his laboratories, here in Beth-el. And so it was to Beth-el that the captive was bought for evaluation.”
“And you managed to get the contraption working,” the vice-chancellor prompted Lord Limbold from behind steepled fingers. Irritated by the weapons master’s poor grace, he wanted to hear what the scientist had to say.
The weapons master swallowed. “Yes” said he, “though not without some difficulties - as no doubt you might expect with so little of the builder’s knowledge and after such a period of disuse. It is a wondrous thing, a complex machine. They knew much... ah, the things they knew! So much is lost, so much...”
“Yet you managed to get it working...” said the vice-chancellor with icy impatience.
“We did, we did. In the end the damage to the systems was not extensive. It was the knowledge gap that caused me the greatest problems. But I researched. I found some old texts, some inventories that led to certain files in the Academy’s central records library in Varushalem. If there is one thing that we are good at, it is the keeping of records – military records of course! We are good at that, oh yes, very thorough! Mostly stuff that nobody is the least bit interested in, but every now and then it yields up a pearl! Cataloguing... and killing, of course. In both these areas we excel!”
“What did we learn, damn it!” the politician’s fist thumped onto the chair arm.
Glaring at the weapons master, it was Count Voormidrath who stepped in again. “The enemy are planning a major offensive against the cities of the south including the capital. They are establishing supply lines and logistics and gathering strength as we speak. We believe that they will attack within the month, probably Beth-el will be first and then they will turn west.” He paused and drew a breath. “The attack will come from the air, in several waves and then they will follow with ground troops.”
“From the air? Preposterous!” Air Vice-Marshall Dhorvush, who had not yet addressed the council, interjected. Dhorvush was bald and darkly bearded. Slighter than the count or the giant general, he was still an imposing warrior with much of his face and skull bound together by surgical steel mesh.
“Wait!” the warlord held up his hands. “There is more. Before he died, the creature – through Limbold’s endeavours – revealed that they have developed a new type of fuel cell. With this technology they can vastly extend the reach of their gun ships. Where we’ve had to defend only against the odd whistler, now we will have to contend with battle cruisers, armed to the teeth with blast bombs, shredders and photon cannon! They’ll be dropping marines on the bloody rooftops in Varushalem before the month is out!”
The tent erupted in response to Voormidrath’s words. The vice-chancellor was on his feet, firing questions at all of them. Dhorvush was complaining bitterly and trying to refute the evidence on technicalities. Field Marshall Kulne railed at the warlord about countermanding directives and troop re-deployments. General Udin, with a naked blaster in his fist, bellowed his hatred of the alien, pledging his life and those of his command in defence of the seven cities – to the very last man. Only the weapons master remained silent. He watched them rage and bluster for a moment then he turned away. He walked over to the side and poured himself another brimming goblet of wine.
“Limbold, come here, for God’s sake!” The voice of the warlord rose above the general clamour. “This is why you are here! This is why I’ve brought you - not so as you can drink yourself insensible. Now, tell the council what else you’ve been up to in that tower, damn you!” Lowering his voice to address the vice-chancellor and the air vice-marshall he said: “All is not yet lost! Other things were revealed by the Interrogator, some other fragments of damnable lore that we prised from the Hattooshan scum. I’ve had Limbold working on how best these can be made to serve us! So come, Limbold,” he took the old scientist firmly by the elbow, simultaneously steering him back into the gathering whilst preventing him from taking another gulp of wine, “tell us of our new weapon! What progress has been made these last days?”
“Well, I...” at the Count’s urging, Lord Limbold set his drinking vessel upon the field table and producing the scroll that he had bought, he unrolled it before them, weighting the corners with wine cups.
“This is my machine!” he announced. His eyes glittered in the lamplight. Silence descended over the council. In a voice that was little more than a whisper he continued: “Night and day I have toiled and now it nears completion. It is a slender and desperate hope, but it is all I have now. I pray that it will work as I have intended – as should you all, for there can be no other salvation!”

Illumination within the tent was poor and the vice-chancellor seized a lamp and brought it closer as the lords bent over the table. Brows were furrowed and glances were exchanged as they sought to make sense of the riot of geometry that was inked upon the yellowed parchment. It appeared to show, in elevation, a structure; squatly spherical and constructed of gracefully curving rib-like struts. Bisecting the sphere somehow were other ribs, or perhaps they were rails. Surrounding the whole were more struts and cables like so many legs; anchoring or supporting the machine lending the appearance of some hideous, android insect paused for flight. Around and over the diagram, symbols and equations were scrawled in a crabbed, italic hand.
A gust of wind shook the tent. The noise of the pumps modulated and then settled again into a steady, susurrant whine.
“Brilliant, I’m sure!” commented Air Vice-Marshall Dhorvush at length. “But what does it do for us?”
“Quite so,” said the vice-chancellor. He had stood to inspect the drawing and now he sat once again, leaning back in his chair, regarding the weapons master from deep shadow.
“It is, essentially, an accelerator,” said the scientist, slowly. “It harnesses energy and uses it to accelerate particles to enormous speeds, in a very short time-span. Its power is beyond imagining. Nothing like it has been seen upon this planet for millennia!” His sinewy hands kneaded the air and his bloodshot eyes raked the gathering.
“What does it do, man!” Dhorvush was becoming exasperated. He was not alone.
“It is a powerful weapon,” Count Voormidrath prompted the weapons master. Have a care Limbold! he thought. Though the inventor seemed oblivious, even Voormidrath could feel the atmosphere changing. The temperature was falling. Indulgence and ambivalence toward the Weapons Master was crystallising into something else.
“Yes, yes indeed! A powerful weapon, and particularly against attack from the air,” said Lord Limbold hurriedly, realising finally, something of the danger. These were serious men, powerful men. Keepers of the Seven Keys, Lord Protectors of the cities of mankind, they wore their responsibilities like they wore the seven-starred badges and insignia of office – gravely and without humour. They were not men to be goaded or fenced-with over the wine cups. “Yes, particularly effective against air-craft. It is in the targeting, you see. The great acceleration that I mentioned, coupled with an ability to lock on to the target will enable the weapon to identify, locate and activate and then move on to the next target with split-second efficiency and accuracy. Imagine a powerful cannon, sensitive to movement and fully automatic that can aim and fire then swivel and fire again in eye-blink! This is what we are talking about, here.”
Grunts and murmurs arose from the council. Eyes returned to the drawing. Minds turned; picturing the metal sphere rolling and pitching and spitting lethal rays at incoming alien craft.
“Is it photon powered?” asked Udin.
“It has a 50 gauge laser cannon, yes!” Lord Limbold replied.
“Range?” probed Dhorvush.
“A little under 2 kiloms,” said the inventor.
“Will it stop a gunship?” the air vice-marshall wanted to know.
“It will stop a battle cruiser!” Lord Limbold assured them.
“Who will operate it?” The vice-chancellor stood again, addressing the council as a whole. His dismissive attitude toward the weapons master spoke clearly of the way his thoughts were running. But he reckoned without Lord Limbold’s wine emboldened conviction.
“It is my machine! I and no other will wield it!” said the inventor, drawing himself up before the politician.
“That is a decision for the council,” replied the other, coldly.
“No!” stormed the weapons master, his eyes ablaze with bitter fires. “It is mine! I built it. I have laboured without food or rest in this godforsaken hole after all others have fled. It will be me who takes the controls!”
Rigid with anger, the vice-chancellor met the inventor’s wild stare for a long minute and then, slowly, he turned toward Count Voormidrath. The warlord shook his head and lowered his gaze. The politician pursed his lips and put his anger to one side.
“I merely thought to relieve you of such a burden, weapons master,” he said in a conciliatory tone. “You have worked long and hard. You say you are weary and we understand this, of course we do. Moreover, you have a keen mind. You are a valuable asset to the war. Perhaps this is a task for one more... martial? You can withdraw from the city. Take your family...”
“I have none,” snapped the weapons master. “My son was slain on the eastern front. My wife died long ago. You cannot hurt or manipulate me. I will operate the machine.” He drained his wine, banged the goblet down upon the table and began rolling up the drawing. In the sudden silence the vice-chancellor glanced briefly around the room then gave a small, philosophical shrug and went to pour himself more wine. Dhorvush followed and then General Udin. Count Voormidrath stared at the weapons master briefly and then joined the council at the food table where talk turned to troop movement, logistics and finer points of strategy.
With a deep sigh, the old man sagged into the vacated chair. His hands lay useless upon his armoured thighs as his chin fell upon his chest. In his mind an image played: a small boy splashed happily in the basin of fountain. Soapy water sculpted his tawny hair into wild shapes. A blond-haired woman, with a gentle face and smiling eyes looked on. Light shimmered from water and polished stone and the boy’s laughter arose in bubbling echoes. The light became harsh as the image faded in a stinging fog of tears.

#3

Alone, in the transport on the return to the crimson tower the weapons master dozed. He dreamed of the interrogation as he had so many times since that night in the basement of the crimson tower.
In his dream, lamplight shimmered among the tubes and wires of the Interrogator and gleamed from the uniforms of the marines that lined the walls. Upon a table, the captive lay prone. Clad entirely in the alien exoderm with its strange curves and protrusions and its long, chitinous helm it looked like nothing more than a giant insect, grounded and crushed.
Voormidrath's face, puffy and wrathful as ever, hove into view and then the marine with the cutting gear stepped forward. A razorlite hummed into life throwing insane shadows over the stark walls. It sizzled and smoked as the plates of the helmet came away revealing parts of the head and then, finally, the face of the thing within. He and Voormidrath leaned over for a first glimpse of the enemy. With his dreamer’s perspective the two of them, huge in black armour, hunched like carrion creatures above a broken cadaver.
At first it appeared monstrous: The pallid flesh, blackened and scorched in places from the razorlite, the mechanised eye swivelling wildly whilst the other blinked helplessly up at them, the mouth twisting in an awful rictus of fear and pain. He tried to avert his gaze as he attached the electrodes to its peculiarly sprouting skull. He sought to divert his thoughts by wrangling bitterly with the count until the man withdrew, cursing beyond the lamps and out of the weapons master’s way.
Now he was seated before the Interrogator itself, intent within the weird radiance cast by the viewer. Above the hood, encased in wires and glowing softly was the strange blue stone that was the unfathomable heart of the machine. Slowly at first he began to manipulate the dials and switches on the console. He felt again the awful paranoia of that episode; the crushing sensation of every pair of eyes in the room following his slightest move or pause. But as he began to develop a sense, a feel for the machine he grew bolder and as the viewer gradually came to life, he forgot everything but the images that formed and faded in front of him. Happenings, moments, things, places, emotions all wheeled, sparkled and vanished as he stared captivated into the depths of the captive’s mind.
Through the viewer came an impression, clearer and stronger than the others. He saw a cave’s mouth looming in a mountain wall at sunset. There were sounds of celebration. Strange music played, it was a joyous time – a homecoming! In haste, he entered the cave. He was searching, trembling with excitement. He looked down. There on the stone floor an infant- a boy was playing. The boy’s back was turned, all his attention bent upon the toy soldiers; little figurines of glass and alloy that leapt and tumbled beneath the arc lights. Slowly the captive, whose perspective he shared, knelt; the armoured skirts of the alien battle-dress spreading around him. Reaching out he spoke softly, two strange syllables – a name! The infant paused and the toy soldiers froze mid-combat as though a sudden truce opened beneath the tiny hands. The boy turned and the weapons master saw his face through the surging joy and sudden tears of the captive’s memory.
“Daniel?”
The hair was not the same but darker, braided and beaded in an unfamiliar style. The skin tone was different also – textured like his father’s by the legacy of some tarnished gene and overlaid with the pallor of the northern hills. But otherwise the likeness was plain. The Hattooshan child was no alien. He was a small boy, just like any other, just like the weapons master’s own son...

“...Daniel!” Lord Limbold awoke. He sat upright in fear and confusion. He was not in the transport but back in his bedchamber. Around him the white expanse of the bed glowed in the darkness. His nightshirt was soaked with sweat. His head ached with every tiny movement and his mouth was as parched as the desert. He shivered. The door opened and Haggai appeared, attired for sleep with a lamp in one hand and a drinking cup in the other.
“What hour is it?” the weapons master asked his manservant reaching for the cup. “Last I knew I was boarding the transport, hither from the council. Gods! That wine...” He took the water and drank gratefully.
“It is nearly sunrise,” said Haggai. “You were conscious when you got home, but barely. I put you to bed.” The servant took back the empty cup and regarded his master with concern; a frail figure among the huge shadows of the chamber. A frightened old man dwarfed upon the voluminous pillow.
“Were there tidings at the council that unsettled you, my Lord?” Haggai asked.
“No, Haggai. There is nothing they can say that makes the slightest difference to me now. Everything is done. Everything is finished! Except the machine. Oh yes,” a trembling finger lifted from the counterpane. “Except that, of course. But soon, today it will be!” He patted the bed beside him. The manservant hesitated and then, stiffly, he sat.
“Listen Haggai. There is something that I must tell. It is something that I can keep within no longer for fear of losing my mind - and that must not happen, not ere my work is completed! But the dreams, they plague me so! You have no idea. It is not just the desire to finish the machine that has kept me from my bed these nights.”
“This has to do with the evening they brought the Hattooshan here?” Haggai knew his master. He had seen the changes steal upon him.
“Aye,” Lord Limbold nodded. “The knowledge of that night has denied me peace of mind ever since. You may not believe what I will tell, but you must try. You must at least hear me out - for you are the last, old friend. The last person that I care for and I would have you know the truth – whatever becomes of us.
They are coming. The end is coming. It is the least of what I have learned but it something we can be sure of. They will come with their gunships and missiles and machines of war and there is so little time... ”
“I know master,” said Haggai. “I feel it. Here!” the old warrior rubbed at his thigh where an old wound lay beneath the gown. “It troubles me little as a rule, but lately it has begun to throb and tonight its nagging wakened me – before you did! It tells me that they will be here ere long. But we will fight them as we always have. Perhaps we will win. If no, then some of us will remain to build again.”
“But who are they, Haggai?” To the manservant’s alarm he felt the master’s hand grasp his shoulder as the old man hauled himself up, out of the bedclothes. “Who are they? And why do we fight – on and on destroying everything, killing, spoiling, poisoning the very air we breathe? Why must we bequeath a legacy of death and misery for our children and their children for ever!”
“They are aliens,” Haggai spread his hands, “Hattooshans, enemies. It is war. It is our duty to destroy them. It is the pledge we take as soldiers, as defenders of the seven cities of the earth. They have blighted our planet for a thousand years and for a thousand years we have warred. And we will for a thousand more, if necessary, until the scum are finally defeated. After all, they will not rest until we are destroyed. What option do we have? What else is there, what else...”
“What else, Haggai?” the weapons master fixed him with a haunted stare. “Just so! What if they weren’t alien, separate, monstrous. What if they were just like us?”
Silence. Lord Limbold watched as strange emotions made strange territory of the bluff, familiar face.
“I don’t understand, my Lord. How do you mean, ‘just like us’? They are alien... unnatural. They are entirely... different. What do you mean?
“I mean, Haggai what do you really know of them? You have killed many – maybe dozens but have you ever spoken to one? Of course not, I know it is not possible but wait, have you even seen a Hattooshan without armour? One that hasn’t been lifeless upon the battlefield, blown to pieces by a blaster, or carved unrecognisable by a razorlite? Think, man! What do you actually know?”
Haggai shook his head. His hands pressed against his bulbous temples as the cogs of his mind sought to turn against the flow of tradition, of generation upon generation of received wisdom.
“Listen whilst I tell you of our enemy,” Lord Limbold continued, his voice low as though other ears lurked unseen within the chamber. “ I will tell you what I know and may God have mercy upon us all!
That evening, they brought him here and he lay dying upon a table in the basement of this very tower. Voormidrath was there, aye and others. For they would not allow uncontrolled information to leak from that shuttered room, not likely! They watched me as I stepped up to the viewer. I was afraid – they expected me to fail, I have no doubt of that. But I had researched long and diligently and I knew how to make the Interrogator serve me. I have no detailed knowledge of how it works, don’t misunderstand me! I have no grasp of the physics or even the electro-mechanics that could animate such a device but I understood the concepts and I realised where the power that animates it lay.
It is an Interrogator after all! A machine designed by our forebears to plumb the depths of a man’s mind, and heart. Yes, Haggai a man’s! And that is what I saw! The captive’s cares, his fears, his sorrows were the same as my own. God help me, but I saw the face of his dead son and it was like looking at my Daniel! I felt his pain, his loss,” the weapons master clutched again at the manservant and Haggai knew his grip on sanity was every bit as desperate. “I tell you, for this is the truth! They are just like us. They are human!”
Haggai was silent as the old man’s tears fell upon his shoulder. He watched the cold, first light growing through the cloud and dust that swirled outside the window. He could not doubt his master but it was so contrary, so at odds with all that he had been told. Presently he said: “Can it truly be as you say, my Lord? Do they not look different to us? Did they not come here from another planet?”
Lord Limbold shook his head. “Nay, Haggai, the books are clear. There are no hospitable worlds within a lifetime’s journey of this rock. It is a myth – a lie! It is another deceit to prolong the hatred. As for how they look, well he seemed abhorrent at first. There were scars, the thickness and pallor of his skin. He had a prosthetic eye that was frightening to behold but no less horrific than that brute Dhorvush with his head in a wire bag! As soon as the Interrogator began to work I knew. I knew that he was a man. A man like me - a man to whose destruction you and I and the hundreds of generations of our ancestors have dedicated their lives.”
“But why...” said the manservant, bewildered
“Why? Maybe instead you should ask when. When did it become our purpose to destroy them? Did it start before the Great Migration or the War of the First Republic? Perhaps it pre-dates the closure of the middle-sea or even the Great Impact. Perhaps the conflict has its ultimate roots in the Plague Wars or the Holocaust that finally brought the third age to an end. Who can say? History does not. For war is all consuming and history itself has been destroyed; its lessons usurped as all human endeavour is twisted to serve the twin tyrants of survival and the destruction of that which threatens it.
All I can say for certain is that, for whatever reason and at whatever far-off point in time, we became separated from the Hattooshan. By distance probably, then tradition and custom and then language and then, gradually even our appearances began to diverge. At some point mistrust was born - a mistake, a misunderstanding in the mists of time? Yes, then came anger, retaliation – retribution. Maybe an atrocity to trigger an endless cycle of outrage and revenge. And so it goes on down the ages until nobody remembers or cares to. Until we find ourselves here at the eventide of our civilisation, the veritable end of time and still we are at war! And why, because there is nothing else! Our history, our world, our humanity is all gone. There is nothing else!”
Lord Limbold slumped, exhausted upon the pillow. The manservant breathed a heavy sigh, stood and crossed to the window.
“What now, my Lord?”
“What now indeed.” The weapons master regarded him; weariness and sorrow etched deeply in his face. Sorrow but also determination. “I have a plan,” he said.
“That is well then,” replied the other. “For I hear the sound of engines in the dawn.”

#4

They watched the first wave of attack craft pass over the city, bound for Varushalem, contrary to expectations aired at the council. They made their preparations, ever mindful of the distant pounding that spelled the capital’s destruction.
“What would you have me do, master?” It was the first thing that Haggai asked of him as the sky reverberated with the howl of Hattooshan gunships.
“You must go at once to the basement. There you will find the Interrogator. You will need the following tools...” The weapons master gave the manservant clear, clipped instruction as he belted a richly embroidered robe over the soiled night-shirt. “Hasten now,” he finished, “I will be in the high chamber. Join me there as soon as you can!”
They parted, the light from Lord Limbold’s lantern receding up the winding stair whilst the manservant descended into the bowels of the tower.
In his observatory the weapons master wasted no time. He lit the lamps and crossed at once to the machine, seizing sockets and encoders from where they lay upon the dais and set to work.

An exploding missile boomed from the far side of the tower. Lord Limbold looked up and swore. Through the great western window the dirty glow of the Phosphor Sea wavered in the hazy light. He checked the great clock on the wall and swore again.
“Thankfully there is not much left to do,” he muttered under his breath. “Just another few lines of code here and then we must install the stone. Where is Haggai...”
With a hiss the door opened and not one but two figures burst into the room.
“Forgive me, Lord,” blurted the manservant. “Count Voormidrath would not wait downstairs, he insisted on coming up immediately. I asked that he at least...”
“Never mind that, soldier!” said the count, pulling off his dented helm and casting it to one side. “Limbold, we are out of time!”
Count Voormidrath had come directly from the battle. His exoderm was scorched and smoking. He shook sweat from his eyes and braced his legs wide to steady himself upon the chequered floor.
“No matter Haggai,” the weapons master reassured his aide, ignoring the snorting warlord. “Did you bring the component?”
“I have it,” Haggai said, producing a large, elliptical object from beneath his apron. It was smooth and polished and it lustred with a bluish radiance. The weapons master took it, carefully and turned back to the dais.
“Did you hear me Limbold?” hissed the count. “We are out of time! Varushalem’s a smoking ruin. The battle is lost and the Hattooshan fleet is turning the western desert to glass on its way here. Udin and Kulne are dead, Dhorvush has fled south with what remains of his force. So prepare now, for I would witness this wonder weapon. I want to see death rain upon them, as it has upon the garrison of Varushalem. I would see the terror strike them, before I die!”
With a resounding click as of a latch falling securely into place, the weapons master stepped back from the machine, wiping his hands upon the hem of his robe. He turned upon the count, his eyes glittering strangely from the shadows of the stand lamps.
“I am finished,” he said. It was almost like a sigh, like the blessed release that comes with sleep after much toil. From outside came a sharp whistle and then the thud of a shell detonating somewhere in the city. A siren began to wail above the sound of more shells falling.
“How do we prime it?” said Count Voormidrath, striding to the dais. His gaze darted from the machine to the extremities of the chamber as if he expected walls and ceiling to suddenly fall away and the platform to rotate, bringing the contraption to bear on the western sky - already swarming with the ships of the enemy fleet.
“Simple,” said the weapons master standing aside. “You can do it. On the panel, there - the green button...”
With a snarl, the count tore the gauntlet from his right hand and reached for the console. His silver teeth were bared in a grimace of triumph, his eyes were like splinters of glass in a leathery mask. There was a soft click. Diodes awakened over the machine and the great, metallic ball began to turn.
“What now?” said the count.
“Now? We hope,” the weapons master replied with a strange smile. “It is all we can do.”
“Hope?” the warlord’s anger spilled over. “What are you talking about, idiot! What about the weapon? How do we use it, aim it? How do we fire the damn thing!” Behind him the machine was suddenly alive with light and motion. The sphere was a blur now and around it other parts of the machine were starting to turn and rotate within the confines of the sprawling frame.
More explosions shook the tower and the deep thrumming of engines grew above the drone of the sirens and the crackle of flames. The weapons master, a crazed figure in his night robe with his white hair streaming began to laugh.
“It is no weapon, fool!” he mocked. “Or not of the kind you think! It is far greater than that. It is an accelerator, as I told those other supreme fools at the council, but more powerful than you could imagine!
It began as a weapons project, of course. In my youth I too was ignorant and blinded by prejudice. I had no aspirations beyond the struggle that has greedily consumed us all. But all that changed with the Interrogator and I thank God that it did, for otherwise who can guess the magnitude of destruction my work might have unleashed!
Yes, with the knowledge I gleaned from the Interrogator, I realised the end to which my machine must be put. It was not such a leap. After all, if one accelerated matter enough, if velocities beyond light speed could be attained well, I guessed what effect that might have upon space and time – the very fabric of the universe!”
“You have sought to travel in time?” Count Voormidrath breathed.
“Nay, not I,” laughed the other. “Quickly, I realised that the energies released would be more than animate matter could hope to withstand. It became more a question of what, rather than whom, might be transported and to what end.”
“So what have I just...” the count turned to the machine and staggered back, hands lifting before his face. It was now a blazing ball pierced with shafts of dazzling colour. It seemed to suck the light from the room as it gathered more and yet more energy to it. Apparently immured to the brightness, Lord Limbold stared avidly into its whirling, furnace-like heart.
“It is my legacy - a gift from the end, from the very edge of despair! It is my hope, in a world beyond hope. It is a dream of life while there is still time left for dreaming.” He transfixed the count with wide, unseeing eyes.
“The Interrogator was the key! Its power lies in the stone, fashioned with unimaginable skill by the scientists of the third age. It is the stone that lifts the veil upon a man’s innermost thoughts. The rest of the Interrogator, for all its novelty, is little more than a slide-projector! If we had but found the stone earlier in our history who knows how things may have turned out. With it I seek to turn the tide, to heal, to mend - to end the war that has blighted our lives. With it our brother need never become our enemy...”
“What? You are insane, old man!” Voormidrath recoiled.
“Undoubtedly so, but I speak the truth and it is the truth that damns us all! You knew it - all of you. Lord Protectors, but not of humanity - of a terrible secret! A secret that has stripped us of humanity and made of us a race of monsters, killers genetically engineered to destroy. Well I will re-engineer! We, in this age, are beyond help but if I can reach our ancestors, before the rift, before the rot set in, there may be a chance. If the blue-stone can show a man another’s thoughts, then how can they become separated? A man possessing such a stone must recognise kinship, regardless of difference. This is my hope! By sending the blue-stone back to the beginning it can spark a new beginning and maybe a different end for us all!”
“Traitor!” The giant warlord clutched at his empty holster then leapt at the weapons master.
There was a flash and the crackling report of a blaster. The count was hurled spinning across the floor. Haggai, forgotten by the door, followed him with side-arm raised, firing again and again, each livid bolt from the black muzzle smashing into the count’s armoured chest and torso, making him leap like a broken doll. After half a dozen rounds Haggai paused. Standing over the body he looked down critically and discharged twice more before finally turning away.
“Haggai! The window...” Lord Limbold yelled from the floor where he had fallen beneath the count’s onslaught. Haggai turned to see the sleek shape of the gunship looming beyond the glass. He threw himself down as the Hattooshan pilot opened fire and the window exploded into the room.

Haggai lurched to his feet in a shower of glass shards. Pain lanced upward through his leg. He glanced down, wincing at what he saw and then he peered around the room. Most of the eastern section of wall was gone. Smoke billowed as a chill wind blew in off the Phosphor Sea, stinging his unprotected face and throat. He staggered over to where the weapons master lay, moaning slightly among the debris.
“Master, are you hurt?” He saw the blood, thick and dark in his master’s white hair.
“Haggai, my machine...” the weapons master murmured.
Haggai looked over at the twisted, blackened remains of the time machine. “It took a hit, my Lord.”
“Open it! Take the key from my pocket. Open the door and tell me what you see!” Lord Limbold coughed and blood foamed upon his lips.
Haggai did as he was asked. The door was buckled and almost too hot to touch, but it opened with a heave. Inside there was nothing apart from a few fragments of bluish dust in the bottom of the sphere. He told the weapons master what he had found.
“Good, good. The stone has gone. Perhaps it broke apart first. My calculations suggested that it might, but it is of no matter. It will still serve!” Lord Limbold lay back in the dust.
“No!” said Haggai, trying to raise him up. “We must get out now!”
“No Haggai,” the weapons master’s eyes closed and he sank down again. “I must rest, it is no good, I must sleep...”
The manservant struggled for a moment but the poisonous air took its toll and he had to stop. Briefly he contemplated the task of carrying the master down the long winding stair, nursing an injured leg only to face whatever it was they would have to face at the bottom. He swallowed hard and clearing a little space at the base of the dais he sat, making himself as comfortable as he could on the floor. Gently, he drew the weapons master over and cradled the bleeding head upon his lap.
The sounds of battle seemed to fade. Thick orange light filtered through the dust and smoke, dappling the walls of the chamber and reflecting from the twisted wreck of the machine. To Haggai, time truly did seem to stand poised.
“There is a green hill far away, without a city wall...”intoned the weapons master, softly.
“What is that?” Haggai asked.
“It is a fragment of an old rhyme. It was in the captive’s thoughts just before he died. I don’t believe he knew where it came from. Its meaning is lost, like so much else. He never knew a green hill - any more than we, but I think it was a comfort to him at he end.”
“I like the sound of it, Lord,” said Haggai, leaning his head back. A vast shadow fell over the crimson tower as the battle cruiser lowered from the yellow sky.
“Yes,” sighed the weapons master. “It has a calming quality. It... settles me to think of it.” His eyes closed and his breathing grew shallow. “Perhaps I will go there now...”
Above them, the great cannon came to bear.

The weapons master opened his eyes. Green grass rolled away beneath a sky of endless blue. He felt a small hand in his and he looked down. The little boy smiled up at him with the warm breeze ruffling his tawny hair.
“Look Papa, look! Pieces of the sky,” he pointed above.
Following his finger the weapons master saw the splinters of stone; blue and shining - spinning down toward the earth.



---------------*****-------------
melkior
Just Registered
Just Registered
 
Posts: 2
Joined: Mon Jan 15, 2007 11:10 am
Location: Woking
 

 

Postby Bmat » Thu Jan 18, 2007 1:39 pm

There are a number of places where compound sentences need to be separated by a comma or colon. Correct punctuation is important for smooth reading. I'd suggest more spaces between lines of speech and paragraphs to make reading easier.


Above only the roof arose twisting to a needlepoint far above the dust of the city. is not a complete sentence.

"Speak, man, for pity's sake!" would be correct.

I only had time to read the first part, it is a rather long excerpt. I do find the story intriguing. There may be a small over-use of adverbs in the opening few sentences, but you develop your atmosphere well, and I don't know what would be able to be removed.

I like it a lot, and if I get more time I'll finish reading it. It grabs the reader from the beginning with the atmospheric setting and the moodiness. I'd say that you should be pleased with what you have written.
Last edited by Bmat on Sun Jan 21, 2007 7:19 am, edited 1 time in total.
User avatar
Bmat
Super Moderator
Super Moderator
 
Posts: 5794
Joined: Tue Apr 05, 2005 5:31 pm
Location: East coast US
Blog: View Blog (10)
 

 

Postby clknaps » Sun Jan 21, 2007 2:28 am

Hi there, welcome to the forum! Very well written and enticing, I haven't had a chance to finish it all yet, so my comments are only for chapter one.
Very rich and interesting word usage I actually had to run to my dictionary a few times - fun! I love learning new words. I agree with Bmat's comments, it does get a bit wordy but you draw out the scenes so well I don't know what I would suggest you remove. Also the spaces between paragraphs and beginning new paragraphs will make it much easier to read.



The master’s observatory was the highest chamber in the crimson tower. Above it was only the roof, that arose twisting to a needlepoint far above the dust of the city.
The remainder of the room was dim but the glow of the setting sun revealed something of what it held; the polished chequers (checkers, unless this is a British spelling of the word) of the floor, the long benches crowded with paraphernalia of all kinds and, upon a dais in the centre of the floor the vast, gleaming bulk of the machine.

“Speak, man, for pity’s sake!” the master demanded.

“Count Voormidrath refers you to a despatch (dispatch unless you intended the alternate spelling) of ten days since, my Lord. A convening of the council I believe?” Haggai watched as hopeless realisation dawned in his master’s face. It was a fine face – a noble face with an unusually high forehead above the beetling (insect-like eyebrows are hard to picture) brows.

Then more to himself than to his manservant he whispered, “They won’t know. How would they? More than likely read it upside down anyway!”

Lord Limbold said, “They say that those will outlast all of us.”

Laughter, muffled and mechanised wheezed from the Count’s transmitter but with the gentle whirr (whir, one r i believe) of servo-assists, the great, armoured hands lifted.

And think on - you never need worry about finding a place to take a squat, eh?” His alloy (meaning his teeth were actually made of metal, or that they appeared to be that way?) teeth flashed.

Very well done, you should be happy with what you have so far. I would read more. Your choice to use the British spellings of words may throw off some American readers, if that is your eventual audience.
You painted a fully believable world that incorporates both fantasy and sci-fi elements, nicely done. Thank you for sharing this. CLK
She sells seashells by the seashore.
Rubber baby buggy bumpers.
I shot the city sheriff.
User avatar
clknaps
Site Regular
Site Regular
 
Posts: 235
Joined: Tue Jan 24, 2006 7:59 am
Location: A different place every day
 


Return to SF/F Short Stories and Novel Excerpts

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest

cron