Night's engines nl-2, страница 1часть #2 серии Nightbound land
( Nightbound land - 2 )
THE UNCONQUERED METROPOLIS OF McMAHON, TEN YEARS AGO EDGE OF THE ROIL
“Victory is certain.”
The words crackled and spat, springing from loudspeakers all along the front line and from loudhailers built into the shining bellies of the military class airships or clutched in the jagged-toothed fighting flagella of the Aerokin that floated, stately and predatory, above.
General Bowen's voice possessed such conviction that, for a moment, it was true and not a single soldier could doubt it.
Behind them the grand city of McMahon emptied. Its great bridges and northern roads strained with refugees — all fleeing, now that this last battle for their city was to begin. Smoke blackened McMahon’s sky, and everything stank of it, there had been riots that morning and into the afternoon. But as the Roil’s approach quickened, they’d quietened down. New laws (the Peace and Order Precepts, or as they were more popularly known, the Laws of Knife) were coming aggressively into play, as the dark curtain closed. Still, riots continued in some quarters, perhaps a final expression of denial or rage at what was being lost to them.
When the battle was won, those who had rioted would be dealt with by Verger’s knife or hurled into prison to rot and consider their folly. But now sixty thousand soldiers, two thousand ice cannons, eighty battle Aerokin, and two hundred airships, the wondrous weaponry of the new age, were perched at the abyss of battle. All of that military force intent upon a single goal: the obliteration of the Roil.
“Victory is certain. We cannot fail. For if we fail here, we fail humanity and Shale itself. And enter that great darkness and become shivering meat for Quarg Hound and Endym, Flute and Floataotons. We will not fall as Tate fell, nor Chinoy or Carver. This time we are ready. This time we drive back the dark.”
Surely Bowen was right, after all the Roil was a big dumb mass. It could not overwhelm this gleaming technology and the miles of soldiery arrayed against it, nor could it devour the grandest metropolis ever built. Yet, all it took was a turn of the head and the soaring terrible presence of the Roil and such arrogance was torn of its potency.
“Victory is certain,” General Bowen said once more, and his voice echoed like a thunder-crack into the sky and faded just as quickly.
“Victory is bloody certain all right,” Beaksley mumbled, checking his ice rifle for the umpteenth time, always checking his rifle, always. “Just not fer us.”
Sergeant Harper smacked her palm hard against his head, enjoying the rather satisfying thwack! She realised that she and Beaksley were the only two not looking up at the armada in the sky, and flashed him a dark grin. “Keep such sentiments to yourself, or you'll feel a knife in your spine. That is if you have one.” She said it with some fondness.
“I’ve spine enough — standing here ain’t I?”
No arguing with that.
The Roil was almost upon them, it had moved swiftly that day, as though anxious to meet them in battle. Harper shared that desire. She wanted this done. She wanted to go home.
Two minutes, no more, and the Roil would be in range, drowning out the sun with its great obsidian-like curtain, though it was already dark enough, a rank and bitter night. The air fleet overhead, made up of military class and converted merchant craft as well as Aerokin, hid the day almost as effectively as the Roil. Harper turned her attention a moment upon that drifting industry, the various ships' banners flapping in the wind.
There was strategy at work. They were here to deal with any creatures of the Roil that approached. The airships themselves were to attack the Roil airspace itself with endothermic jets and cannon. They would drive a wedge in the dark, as a series of moats were filled with ice, and coolant pipes running the perimeter of the city would be activated.
There was a furious signalling of flags across the sky; most of the airships were not fitted with the new radio technology. Endothermic weaponry had taken precedence over everything else; cannon protruded from the ships' bows and Aerokin's brain sections like the bristles of a Cuttleman. The guns made Harper feel uncomfortable, she didn't like this close fighting, didn't like the idea of all those munitions suspended above her head.
Harper spied a couple of Mirrlees dirigibles, the grey teardrop painted upon their cabins; she yearned for the River Weep.
Thirty months ago her number had come up. Conscripted, she had seen a year in the north, stabilizing what the Council of Engineers called a “rupture of treaty” with the Cuttlemen. It had felt like war to her.
Through luck and a particular aptitude for survival, she'd lived and kept on living, rising in the ranks to sergeant, this motley crew hers to bawl commands at: glad to be in the company of someone who had the knack of not dying. But she could take no comfort that she had helped forge a peace in the north, because before it had come to a conclusion her troops had been transferred down to McMahon, and this new endeavour, one that made little sense to her. How could an army face off the dark?
“Soon enough dead, I reckon,” Beaksley mumbled.
Harper was damned if she were going to let an idiot like Beaksley put an end to her chances now. She cracked him another blow to the back of his helmet.
The fool stared south, his jaw wide open. He pointed and Sergeant Harper’s gaze followed his shaking hands. The Roil raced towards them, not all of it, just the lower strata: a shelf of darkness some forty feet high. She could hear it, a snapping, clicking, the friction of chitin against chitin, barbed and wild. A fierce and boiling wind rushed from the south ahead of it, so strong that she had to lean forward. Guns and armour creaked; the wind tugged at her gear. Sergeants swore, or bawled out orders. Harper blinked away dust and smoke, her eyes stung; she opened her mouth to speak and the sky exploded.
Rolling detonations thundered in the heavens. At first she thought it was the airships firing their cannon — too soon, they were doing it too soon — until she realised it was the airships themselves, rupturing, being torn apart by… she didn’t know, couldn’t quite comprehend its quick bulk, pale howling flesh, wings that beat hummingbird fast. Flaming remnants of craft, red-hot fragments of the rigid ships's skeletons, and flailing and screaming air troopers rained down upon the soldiers around her, killing those they struck.
The Roil hit them, washed over the chaos, with a deadening darkness.
All was quiet, a soft intake of breath, a widening of pupils or the dripping of sweat. More thrashing bodies fell, but it was as though all the sound had gone from the world. It didn't last.
She breathed out, pumped the action on her gun and fired.
“Fight, you fools,” she shouted in the smothering dark. “Fight or die.”
There was a third option. A mass of darkness struck her eyes and her mouth.
Darkness that burned.
General Bowen calmly called the retreat from the deck of the Daunted Spur. Everything was madness about him, but he kept his head, and considered his terrible failure.
The army was gone. Sixty thousand soldiers swept up in darkness as though they had never been, and the Roil rolled on like a storm front, if a storm could possess such dreadful silent majesty. On the edge of the Roil, chaos bloomed everywhere, behind it only the quiet of the dark.
In the air, over half his ships were down, torn from the sky by the savagery of the two attacking Vermatisaurs, their many heads pale and serpentine, snapping and striking — ruining Aerokin and airship alike.
But Bowen knew that, while showy, they were by no means the most of their problems. Endyms and smaller things, Hideous Garment Flutes amongst them, crowded so thickly upon neighbouring ships's hulls that th
Aerokin struggled and screamed too, overcome by the biting weight of all that dark. Flagella thrashed at the air and did not miss — Roil-things shattering almost at a touch — but there were always more to fill the spaces they made in the sky.
Already thousands of creatures raced towards the Daunted Spur. Gunners fired endothermic bursts at the beasts. Unlike the crowded front, his craft had room to shower the Roilings with cold; they fell away in a black rain.
His pilot, a Drifter, brought the ship hard right. Alarms rang out, and died down. The ship's control centre — built around a large diagram of the Daunted Spur — lit up, warning of engines overheating.
“Steady,” Bowen hissed. “Steady or you'll burn out the engines.” “I've a lot of tailwind. The air's uncertain,” the pilot said, between clenched teeth, and mumbled beneath her breath something about Aerokin, and the uselessness of dumb machines. Drifters dislike like being told what to do. Still she brought the engines back down.
Looking back, the Roil appeared perfectly still, but Bowen knew that it was not. That it washed over the city of McMahon as it had washed over Tate before it, and Carver.
As he watched, the Roil came bubbling out of Magritte Gorge. Rising up and crashing down over those who were trying to flee, clawing up into the air and striking down more of his air fleet. Bowen brought a hand to his mouth. He wanted to scream, but he forced that need deep. He wiped at his eyes and turned. His men stared at him.
“What do we do now?” his pilot asked.
“Signal retreat. Get as many ships out of there as we can.” Though it appeared that those who could had followed the Daunted Spur ’s example. Bowen noted it was Aerokin, mostly; they were faster, their allegiance to the Great Cities slighter.
“What about the troops on the front?”
Bowen jabbed a hand towards the south, at the darkness crashing over everything.
“There are no troops,” he said. “There is no front.”
The pain had fled, but with its passing had come the command.
Harper's eyes opened. The darkness was no longer that, she could sense everything, and it was a glorious beautiful power. All around her, soldiers were getting up. Those who had been ruined by the falling airships, their muscles and bones destroyed, stayed still. The Witmoths that had entered them, lifted and found residence elsewhere.
Rising in the light, eyes blinking, each man or woman that stood up broadened her mind and each mind echoed with a dry old voice. South, south, you must come where the furnaces burn, where the air is thick. She wanted to share this with those that she loved, the brilliance, the joy, the complete unification of will and action. But the voice was insistent.
The Beaksley smiled. “There are dreaming cities down there, all the way to the Breaching Spire, and heat.”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Yes. They slumber, but they’re soon to wake.”
Slowly they stumbled south, caressed and cajoled by the Roil, knowing and not knowing that ten years of preparations lay before them. Ten years of transformation, in cities fast asleep, but dreaming — furiously dreaming.
“Victory is certain,” the Beaksley/Harper said.
All along the line the words were taken up, silently and whispered.
“Victory is certain.”
When Bowen reached the city of Chapman, Stade's Vergers waited for him. How Bowen hated the mayor's knife men. Their faces revealed nothing, which ultimately said everything he needed to know. Even old Sheff — Stade’s right hand killer — wasn't grinning, how could a habit so maddening become by its absence the very essence of terror?
They led Bowen from the landing field, away from his men — all of them were too shattered to offer any resistance, and perhaps they blamed him for what had happened — swiftly across the empty field, which, just two days before, had been crowded with airships. From what Bowen had gathered, amongst the garble of radio transmissions from the command craft, maybe six of the two hundred craft would be coming home. The vast hangars of the landing fields would remain empty. No fleet as grand as his had ever been gathered before, nor was one likely to exist again — who would pilot them? Who could afford to finance such a thing now?
That deserted landing field made it seem real in a way that the flight from the battlefield had not. As their boots rang out on the scarred asphalt, Bowen's defeat rose in him like a fever; his face burned, he wanted to be sick. He turned his head and looked back at the Daunted Spur, its banners being torn down, the crew dragging it into the hangar. Vergers walked with them as well.
Bowen turned back to his crew, and a hand gripped his shoulder forcefully. “I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” Mr Sheff said.
Victory had been certain and they had lost. He had seen the end of the world. Whatever came next, whatever the following years held, it would be a pointless prelude to the end, to the darkness that was coming.
Stade stood in the hangar, by the offices at its far end, his face haggard, the bags beneath his eyes were dark, though lit with a callous humour. The mayor had been smoking a cigar, the remnants of which lay on the ground; puddles of ash that made Bowen think of his fleet, of the burning ships falling onto the troops.
Five days ago Stade had won the election in nearby Mirrlees. As Bowen's soldiers had formed a front along McMahon, Stade and his cronies had gained nearly as many seats as the Council possessed when it had been the only party. In one single election their rivals, the Confluents, had been gutted. The people of Mirrlees had given Stade almost absolute power.
Bowen did not like the man Stade. He was too much the chameleon. Too much of what people seemed to want. Stade's persona did not possess nearly enough substance.
But he would see the substance now. Clarity has come to him at last. The mayor cleared his throat. “So we failed,” Stade said. “Well, you failed. No matter, I had little faith in all that wondrous weaponry, clever though it might have been. Tate is different from McMahon, and this idea was the grandest of folly.” He folded his hands in front of him. “But you did your best. I truly believe that.
“There are dark days ahead, my friend. And for those dark days our people need a hero, a martyr. But what they do not need is a coward.” Stade led Bowen into the nearest office. “When people hear that you fled, rather than stayed and fought, what do you think that will do for this city's morale? And more important, how do you think our allies in Drift will feel? After all, their Aerokin died. Screaming, I believe. You’ve simplified things for me.” Stade allowed himself a smile. “And I must say it’s nice to be rid of those progressive Councillors from McMahon: apologists and Confluents one and all.”
“What are you talking about?” Bowen asked. “Flight was the only option.”
Stade patted him on the back and the general fought the desire to flinch. “Bowen, my friend, and I'd like to think you are my friend, you never made it back. In fact you died most heroically, I will give you that, on another airship.” He looked at his notes. “The Raised Admire, I believe, which crashed — all her great guns firing until she struck the ground. It was a defeat, but a grand defeat.”
Stade drove a blade into the general's neck, and tugged it back out, ripping and tearing as he went. The knife's passage hurt in its awful taking of his thoughts and breath. Its blade was cold, a thing of ice. All that was hot and thinking and urgent gushed from him.
Bowen dropped, blinking, to the floor, fingers clenched around the wound in his throat. On his belly, dying, all he could see were Stade's shoes — scuffed old boots coated in ash — and his blood gliding towards them, as the Roil glided over Shale. The boots shuffled backwards and the mayor sighed.
“Now, Mr Sheff, clean this mess up, if you will,” Stade said.
My fingers stiffen. The wind howls. The past is broken.
All those victories and ruins, those scattered fleeting dreams. Shale is a world undone. Ten metropolises devoured; only two remained. One way or another, this is a Nightbound Land.
Let me write now of David Milde of the metropolis of Mirrlees-on-Weep. He was a Carnival addict, a drug whose comforts were popular in those last days. It cocooned him through the horrors of a city crashing towards oblivion, but not enough that he could stand and wait to be murdered by the Council Vergers that assassinated his father. He fled from his father's house — from murder to murderer, as it was Cadell, the Old Man that found him.
Cadell, what there is to know of him, a hundred volumes could but contain the merest whispers. Old Men are old as the world of Shale is old, the Old Men ruled, the Old Men fought the Roil once (perhaps more than once) and won and lost — cursed and blessed with near endless life. Cadell was an Old Man freed, a titan, and a fool.
Out of obligation (to Medicine Paul, a political ally of David's father) or cunning, Cadell took young David with him to the city of Chapman, on the storm front of that great monster-bearing cloud, the Roil.
In that city, David met the warrior Margaret Penn, sole survivor of the Roildevoured city of Tate. And there he discovered that Cadell meant to destroy the Roil using a weapon of last resort — the Engine of the World.
When Chapman fell, they were forced to flee (again, always fleeing — be it Verger, Roil or politics), this time by air on the Aerokin the Roslyn Dawn. And, in that flight, Cadell was fatally wounded in a battle with an iron ship. But the Old Man had one last trick up his sleeve. With a ring known as the Orbis, and a bite, he infected David with his purpose and found a sort of resurrection within the young man's blood.
And just in time, for more iron ships came, and David struck them down. Safe in the far northern metropolis of Hardacre, with Cadell's allies Buchan and Whig, they sought to negotiate a journey into the Deep North to the Engine of the World. Of course, they were never safe: stern Margaret, cursed David. The Roil hunted them. Old Men freed at last, and raging, hunted them, and the Engine, that madness in the north, waited like death.