Ventus – Day 123 of 135


Armiger felt a trembling in the electric fields that interpenetrated the mountains. He looked up. The vagabond moons were rising again. Sheet lightning played over their vast curved sides.

“How do you feel?” he asked Galas. She nodded, and levered herself to her feet. He had spent some minutes preparing a concoction of complex molecules and nanotech, and now he handed her the pills he had distilled it down to. She looked at them doubtfully, but when he pointed to the rising moons, she dutifully tossed them back and swallowed. Then she began to slowly climb the stairs, swinging her legs wide with every step.

He looked back at the foothills. It was some testament to how exhausted Galas was that she had not spent any time looking at the view. The vagabond moons rose to fully half the height of the Titans’ Gates when on the ground; although the nearest one was at least eight kilometers away it eclipsed a good twenty degrees of the sky. The sun was getting low on the horizon, and the shadow of the Gates fell across the moon, dividing it into two halves, grey below and rose colored above. Beyond it and the two companions that had landed, nine more moons clustered high in the stratosphere, where they shone in full sunlight.

The stairs that they had to climb were also in shadow. This wasn’t much of a problem for Armiger, who could see in the dark, but Galas was going to have difficulty. “We must hurry,” he said.

He could sense his mecha growing in the valley below. The Winds could probably perceive it by now too, and he had no doubt they would react violently to his decoys. An assault by the Winds on the valley could buy them valuable time.

“Look.” Galas pointed above them. Lights burned in windows high on the mountainside, and another pinprick glow was waving back and forth slowly at the top of the stairs. “They’ve seen us,” she said.

“Good.” They climbed together for a few minutes, and her steps became more sure as the medicine he had given her took hold. She didn’t speak, and it was just as well because he was brooding about what to do next. His plans had once been precise and confident, but his deterioration into humanity seemed to have clouded his reasoning. He should have abandoned Galas at the foot of the stairs, but he found he could not. She was a dangerous drag on him at this point; left to himself he could have run all the way to the top of the mountains by now, and launched himself into one of the pits that led to the desal highway. Deep underwater in the roots of the mountain, he would have been safe and could have propagated his mecha without fear of interruption.

If only Jordan Mason were here. The boy held the key to the command language of the Winds, and Armiger was sure he could extract it, though he might have to take Mason apart molecule by molecule to find it. Yet the boy was meandering through the valley below with no apparent destination. It was infuriating.

Maybe he could contact the boy through his mecha. He did retain a com link to all of it, after all, in much the same way that the Winds remained connected to all life on Ventus. He could reprogram the genes of his mecha from afar. Maybe he could give some a voice.

He directed his thoughts to the largest of the mechal cacti growing in the valley. It was a good twenty meters high now, and had slowly turned black. In his mind’s eye it appeared as a coal-black jumble of saucer-shaped leaves joined together without stems. Its roots ran straight into bedrock and heat radiated off it as from an oven. Armiger hadn’t anticipated that effect of its metabolism–it might well start a forest fire if he wasn’t careful. That would certainly raise the ire of the Winds, which was good, but it might also threaten Mason.

This cactus was of a design older than Armiger himself. It was a product of 3340’s imagination, not his. It had the potential to bud all manner of other mechal life forms off its round leaves, and he had never had time to explore the complete catalog of possibilities. He asked it now to provide him with a list of forms able to speak that it could grow rapidly.

Wait… it said in an eerily familiar voice.

Armiger stopped climbing.

“What’s wrong?” asked Galas. She touched his arm. He realized he had been glaring down into the valley, his hands balled into fists.

“Nothing,” he said. “Let’s keep going.”

I can produce any of these, said the mechal tree in 3340’s voice.

Armiger gasped, but he did not stop climbing. The tree unrolled a series of images in his mind of mechal animals, some disturbingly human-shaped. Armiger barely paid attention–it was the touch of the tree’s mind that held his attention. It had a certain signature to it–his own, of course, but also something more. Were he asked to describe it, the best he could have done would have been to say that the thing’s mind smelled like 3340.

“Thank you,” he told it. “Do nothing. Sleep now.”

I cannot sleep now, it said.

Armiger swore.

“Tell me,” said Galas between gasping breaths.

“I may have made a mistake,” he said. “We have to hurry.”

“I can go no faster,” she said. “I’m ready to collapse.”

“Then I’ll carry you.”

She made no protest this time as he gathered her up in his arms, and began bounding up the steps.


Jordan’s first sighting of Axel was as the man half-fell out of the forest shouting, “They’re right on my heels!” Axel was dressed in tough black clothing, and had a belt festooned with odd devices around his waist, very like the woman who was not Calandria May. The third woman, who had introduced herself as Marya Mounce, was wearing some kind of close-fitting camouflage that made it hard to see her from the neck down. She seemed keyed up, and kept looking around herself and flaring her nostrils.

A few of Jordan’s animals straggled out of the woods after them. The rest were fighting a rear-guard action, but the basts had decimated them.

Axel clasped Jordan’s forearm in an almost painful grip. “Good to see you, kid! You’re looking great.”

“Thanks.” Jordan was bursting with questions, but there was no time for them now. He could sense some of the cat-beasts that had chased Armiger and the queen approaching through the woods. They were very stealthy animals, but to him they shone like beacons through the translucent tree trunks. Several hesitant humans with guns followed them.

“Let’s get back to the ship,” said Axel. Jordan shook his head.

“They’re between us and it,” he said. “And I think the swans have figured out that it’s not one of theirs. I don’t think they’re going to let it leave.”

“It’s our only option,” argued Axel. “We need to get out of here.”

“I agree,” he said. “And we will. That’s why we have to go this way.” He pointed.

“He may be right, Axel,” said the woman who was not Calandria May. “I can hear a lot of traffic from the swans suddenly.”

It was cold, and getting dark rapidly. The swans should be turning on their midnight sun soon, but until then the forest would be impassible to these people. “I’m going to make a little light,” said Jordan. “You follow it and don’t let it out of your sight. We have to move quickly if we’re to keep ahead of the cats.”

He started walking; Tamsin fell into stride beside him. As he raised his hands to create a ghost-light on the shoulders of his jacket, he heard Axel and the others rushing to catch up.

“Well, what are those cat-things, anyway?” asked Axel. “One of them knew my name. Damn near killed me.”

“I’d never seen one until the other day. I think they’re a new kind of animal that the swans brought,” said Jordan. “They can talk, I know that much, and they seem to be leading the army that’s following us.”


Jordan glanced back, resisting the urge to laugh. “A lot’s happening right now. How did you find us, anyway?”

“Looking for Calandria. We found her signal, followed it down. At least, I thought it was her signal…” He fell silent.

One of the cat things had broken away from the others and was trailing them very closely now. It was almost completely dark now, so Jordan had to rely on his Vision to see where they were going. Axel, who seemed to be aware of the cat too somehow, sauntered easily beside him.

Of course, Jordan should have remembered that Axel Chan could see in the dark as well as Calandria had.

The cat seemed to be keeping a discreet distance, so Jordan said, “Tell me all about it–where you’ve been, what you’ve done. Then I’ll tell you what’s happened to me.”

Axel laughed. “Best offer I’ve had all day.”

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