Sunday, July 31, 2016

Book 5, 36: A Long Time Dreaming

On the ancient ramparts of the last city of a dying species on a dying planet, the last boy walks, and wonders. It's a great setup, although I'm not sure how you deliver on it.

And from the soundtrack of The Martian. . . 

Book 5, 36: A Long Time Dreaming

This was more like it, Charlotte thought. If you went to Mars to see ruins, you expected to see ruins, and stones in ditches were not ruins. Giant ramparts, towering twelve stories above the Martian desert, made of gigantic bricks of fused, red, Martian glass? That was a ruin! And here they were, on the top of the wall, looking down through those sawtooth thingies that castles had, at the desert far below. Or, alternatively, up at the slender towers that reached even higher up, or at the great, crystal dome in the middle, lit a sullen red by the Martian sun. 

The only annoying part was that there were no stairs. (Or elevators, or ladders or wheelchair ramps, or anything, and Charlotte had had to be carried up here by Dora like she was a baby.)

The ancient Empyrean, Deloss the Wanderer, was still talking to Twelve, or whatever it was that you called it when two telepaths were off at one edge of the broad pavement, beaming their brains at each other while trying not to let anyone see their faces or whatever. Because they were arguing like a parent and a teenager, because that was mostly what they were.

“That won’t go well,” Rose said.

“Why do you say that?” Charlotte asked.

“Because Twelve’s trying to sell an argument about how a hidden Empyrean city powered by ancient Progenitor machines is actually expropriated from the labouring masses.”

“To the extent I even understand that sentence, that sounds dumb.”

Rose shrugged. It was a good idea to use body language when you had to have conversations over the short-distance radio link. “It’s a weak argument, and Twelve shouldn’t be pushing it, because he doesn’t really get the labour theory of value at all.” 

Whatever that meant. Charlotte couldn’t help noticing how sad Rose sounded sad. It was good for Rose to have two really smart team-mates that she could talk to about this sort of stuff, but when it came to arguing with them, it just reminded Rose of how alone she was.

Mars was no place to be alone, with its dim and red sky, and its empty, gravel views.

Twelve put up his hands in that way you do when you’re trying to make the other guy see your argument. Deloss the Wanderer did the throwing-his-hands-up-in-exasperation reply. 

“I hate it when Mom and Dad fight,” Charlotte said.

“Do you?” Rose asked. “Oh, I’m sorry, Char-Char. I didn’t mean to sound like little Ms. Meddlepants. Yeah, I hate it, too. I wish Twelve wouldn’t piss him off. He’s the dreamiest hundred-thousand-year-old-guy that I have ever ever.”

“Hundred thousand, one thousand, young guy of a hundred, he’s a hunk,” Charlotte agreed. “Now that I think about it, all the guys we met in Arcadia were hunks. I wish I’d paid more attention to that, and less to how scared I was.”

“You were scared in Arcadia? You didn’t act like it, the way you were up in N0atar’s grill like that.”

Charlotte shrugged. “I get scared, I charge. It’s a paladin thing. ‘Come every cavalier who loves honour and me/And follow the bonnets of Bonnie Dundee.’” Charlotte stopped, embarrassed, remembering her grandfather singing that old old Scottish song in the kitchen, his cleaver thudding to the beat. “Besides, he makes me so mad, the way he treats his daughter.”

Rose put her hand on Charlotte’s shoulder. “I know, I know. Oh. I expected you to be more tense. You should sing more often, Char-Char.”

“I get embarrassed. Oh, argument’s over, here they come. I’m going to see if I can smooth things over and find out what was going on down on the desert there.” Charlotte gestured over the high, glassy ramparts of the old Sirian fortress, at the gravel plain and archaeological excavation far below, where Iron Horse was directing a Tiger Squad security detail as they rounded up Yin Wu’s men and herded them into the Chinese scientist-hero’s spaceship. 

Charlotte walked in front of Deloss, doing her best not to grab her bun as she did so, because not only was that a total tell of how nervous you were, both about Deloss and the hideous mess that was her hair today, but also because it was pointless, because of the helmet she was wearing over it. For which she should be grateful. It might not be the baseball cap that Charlotte would prefer to be wearing right now (she had a retro-Vancouver Canucks one that really suited her complexion), but at least everyone else had to wear a stupid bubble hat, too. 

Well, except for Deloss and Twelve. And probably Dora, too, Charlotte was reminded by seeing Dora intercept her boyfriend and pull his head down to touch her helmet. She wore one, but Charlotte figured that that was so as not to stick out. Or because the Maid of Gold sometimes didn’t come when it was called, and that could be embarrassing on Mars, on account of needing air to live. 

Children,” Deloss said, his voice somehow projecting through the thin Marian air and into her helmet in a normal-but-angry conversational tone that reminded Charlotte of her Mom talking about Chris, back when she was healthy, or Auntie Ma going on about May.

‘He means well,” Charlotte said. “He’s actually got a lot of interesting things to say about the way the world is today, even if I don’t understand half of it, what with the inflation and the growth of wealth and the expropriation of labour.” And it was true. Twelve really did have a way of making it all make sense.

“Really, you think that our City of Silence is somehow stealing from the people of Earth?” 

Charlotte shook her head. “No, that part I don’t get. I think he’s confused about what he wants from the older Empyreans, and that’s why he picks fights.”

“Fair enough,” Deloss said. “Please, come walk with me, Redeeming Fist.”

Charlotte blushed. She needed to get a shorter codename. “You can call me Charlotte, sir.”

“I shall. And you needn’t call me ‘sir.’ I wouldn’t want to get the young man any more worked up than he already is. You forget what it is like, to deal with the young. Did you know that the youngest Empyrean after Twelve is 157? And we call her young!”

“He’s not the only Empyrean Telios has produced,” Charlotte said.

“He’s the only one we count as Empyrean.” Deloss paused, gestured with both hands to the horizons. “Tell me, Charlotte, what do you see?”

Charlotte looked around. “A giant Lego fortress. Well, you can’t make the central dome with Lego, and the towers are awfully thin, but the rest of it. . . “ She stopped. What would an immortal know about Lego?

But Deloss looked at her and smiled. “Just because we do not have Empyrean children, does not mean that we do not reproduce, young lady. My brother spent most of the 1960s raising two children after their mother died in an automobile accident. I know perfectly well what Lego is, and the simile is not inapt.”

“You see, the Sirians were not greatly taken with wheels. I am not sure why, but their war machines were walking tripods, and their machinery all ran on cogs. They did not need ramps, and, with the length of the tripod legs, they did not really need stairs, either.”

“Were?” Charlotte asked.

“They’re gone now. Or almost so. The whole reason they invaded Earth back in 1938 was that their home world was undergoing an ecological collapse, and things went worse for them after that.” Deloss stopped. “It’s no small irony that the last of them is an abandoned fortress on a deserted world. I think about them; because my question was not about the Sirians. It was about me. Do you know why I am here, Charlotte? I, who call myself the Wanderer?”

“I guess you’re guarding the base in case some Sirians come back and fire off their doomsday device?”

“Guarding. Yes, I am that. But not from the Sirians. From something much older. A demon out of dead Martian dreams is bound to a shrine in the basement of this place, and only my presence here keeps it still.”

“A Martian demon?” Charlotte asked. “I didn’t even know they had those. Captain Chronos’ history didn’t mention anything about that!” Of course, Captain Chronos’s history also said that the Martians had a high tech civilisation, and there was no sign of it on the ground, so who knew whether to trust him. 

“A dream demon. Another irony, that it would be an Empyrean, of all the beings in this universe of ours to be bound to it.”

“Oh.” Charlotte looked at Deloss. This was getting even sadder. These days, most Empyreans were in an eternal sleep in the great Hall of Silence in Arcadia, dreaming some great dream in the far reaches of the dimensions of sleep. Apparently, once you were a hundred thousand years old, everything about the world was boring except your dreams. And Deloss was here, alone.

“Do you think I would be on my bier in the Great Hall were I not here, girl? No! Shaderon’s boon is not for me, and, what is worse, it has taken Eidolon from me. I could bear to be without the man I love if I could only wander the far reaches of the boundless cosmos once more, but that, too, is taken from me.”

Deloss stopped, then started again. “This is exile. This is what it means to be Empyrean. The Progenitors gave us vast power, but no purpose; and I, like many of us, have found purpose, and discovered that it is a very sad thing, indeed. many of us have found purpose in sadness.”

“Wow. This is a lot to take in. Do you know anything about Li Chun the Destroyer? The demon we fought on the desert?”

Deloss turned to face Charlotte, and nodded. “Iron Horse tells me that he is a demon out of the Yama realms who possessed a Daoist monk named Li Chun six hundred years ago, and now is under the control of Yin Wu.”

Charlotte shuddered. “I don’t know if controlled is the right word, but, yeah. It all reminds me of what you were saying.”

“Indeed. I should go check on the shrine. I assume that Yin Wu wouldn’t have gone to the trouble to send an army here to besiege my fortress if Li Chun can just walk right in, but it would be a good idea to be sure.”

“Can we come?” Charlotte asked.

“Absolutely not! It could be dangerous. You are welcome to stay and have a look around the fortress, but I gather that you are here for an educational experience with the Mandaarian archaeologists, and that might be a better use of your time.” Deloss turned and lifted off, flying straight at the central dome. As soon as he reached it, a door –well, rotated open, was the best Charlotte could describe it, as the smooth, glassy surface melted into a bewildering array of gears on gears that spun and turned and moved so that a door opened up in the wall of the dome. Deloss disappeared through. 

Twelve, Brian, Bruce, Rose and Dora came up around Charlotte. “Where’s he going?” Bruce asked. “To check to see whether Yin Wu got to his valuables?”

“Which are?” Dora asked.

“Some kind of ancient cursed altar, only Martian style. A demon is trying to get through, and only Deloss can protect us.”

“Hunh,” Bruce said. “I really, really want to see this Martian shrine.”

“Because you think it might be similar to the temple at Vale, on the Old World?”

“No, because I have a thing for church architecture.” 

Charlotte couldn’t help showing her shock at the way whatever it was, was bugging Bruce? Could it be her? She felt like super conceited just thinking that, but she also couldn’t stop thinking it.

And, sure enough, Bruce’s face softened in response to Charlotte’s expression. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to get sarcastic, just—“

The long pause suggested that Bruce had no idea what to say next. Fortunately, before it got all awkward and stuff, the situation was saved by a muffled boom from below. Before they could react, the weird gears turned again, and the door on the dome opened.

Deloss did not come out, however, and neither did Li Chun –only a huge puff of smoke, the kind of thing you get when there’s a big explosion.

“Well, so much for staying safe,” Charlotte said, running for the door, before it could close again.

But the door showed no inclination to close, and a moment later, Charlotte was through.

And sort of pedalling her hands in mid air as she tried not to go over into the great hollow of the dome, which was uninterrupted all the way down to the ground, with no guard rails or anything.

“Same architect as Vale, anyway,” Charlotte said. “Still trying to cure fear of heights by overexposure.”

When she was finally not-falling enough to take the situation in, Charlotte saw, probably even more than twelve stories below, Li Chun fighting with Deloss. 

“That’s not going to go well for him,” Charlotte said. “Dora, Twelve, Brian fly down. Rose, hold up a second, I don’t want you going into action alone. You can’t, like, run in a spiral so that it’ll take you as long to run down the wall as the flyers take to fly, can you?”

“I could, but I could also just wait and hang” Rose looked at Charlotte, and Charlotte could swear that her eyes went mock-wide. “Spiral it is!”

Now it was just her and Bruce. “So, Bruce. That was a mighty effective crossbow bolt you shot at Li Chun earlier.”

Bruce shrugged. “Handmade salt in the head of the bolt, wrapped with a parchment inscribed with a tantric mantra. Got it from Gossamer Storm the last time Tatammy played the Tiger Squad.”

“So you were prepared to fight Li Chun, you’re saying. It’s almost like you’d fought him before.”

Bruce shrugged. “I haven’t, but Scout has. With you, as a matter of fact. He told me all about it, just so I would be prepared to take Li Chun on, if he showed up again.”

Scout told you about our date.”

Bruce shrugged. “Sounds like you guys had a lot of fun. You know, before the blue demon in the monk’s body showed up and ruined it. But, yeah. You’re not the only one around here who talks to Scout, you know.”

“You’re not jealous, or anything, are you?”

“No, why should I be?” Bruce answered.

“Oh, reasons,” Charlotte said. “Okay, so I’m Lynn Collins, and you can stand in for Taylor Kitsch.”

“We’re going to jump? Okay, but no take-backs on promoting me to Taylor Kitsch! It’s good for my green-eye-itis!” 

What the heck was he trying to say? Charlotte had a good idea of what she wanted Bruce to be saying, though, and couldn’t help giving Bruce a smile and a wink as she went over the edge. 

Movies about John Carter, Warlord of Mars aside, jumping off a twelve story building on Mars was as dangerous as jumping off one on Earth. It took Martian gravity longer to get you up to speed, El Professore said, but twelve stories was more than enough to turn a falling person into a big smush on the ground at the bottom. 

Unless they happened to be really good at kung fu breakfalls, and had an Eight Spirit Dragon qi field to protect and strengthen them, and had gyrostablised, shock-absorbing boots from Babylon to take the impact. If they had all that, they were fine.

Charlotte hoped. She really, really hoped. Otherwise, she was going to have to eat her smug words to Rose and use her healing powers on herself right there in the middle of the fight, and it would serve her right, with extras on dessert. 

In the mean time, Charlotte drew her sword and yelled, as one did in these situations, “Geronimo!”

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