Billions of years ago, humans abandoned their cradle and are now scattered across the galaxies. But the legends speak of a time when the sun threatened to burn away the inner worlds of the solar system when it became a red giant, and a remnant of mankind returned to Earth from the farthest stars to install a machine to move humanity’s cradle out of danger.
Since then, the remnant communities built settlements in the cracked and broken slopes of the old continental plates, exposed to the elements when the Earth was moved. Now nestled in the outer reaches of the solar system, Earth faces a new challenge—the sun has begun to collapse into a white dwarf. As the sun grows smaller and the world gets colder, the quest for the mythical machine that can move the planet closer to the fading sun becomes a race to save the planet from final extinction.
“Blending steampunk, fantasy, and science fiction concepts, Of Machines & Magics is a riveting read that is hard to put down.” — The Midwest Book Review, April 2012 Small Press Bookwatch
“It is rare to come across a novel combining technology with magic; the majority of magic novels are set in olden times, and technology-based novels are generally science-fiction. Of Machines & Magics is an inventive, enjoyable debut novel from Adele Abbot.” — Iota Ratings
“An engrossing Steampunk quest to save our dying future planet. Fresh off selection as a finalist in the “Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now” 2011 contest, Adele Abbot is a writer to watch!” — David B. Coles, author, The Last Free Men
“Adele Abbot has a new take on past and future history alike. A fascinating and refreshing view which has a great filmic quality to it. Echoes of Terry Pratchett perhaps?” — Jack Everett, author, 1/1: Jihad-Britain and The Faces of Immortality
The Concourse separated the City from the Lake. It was a broad swath of transparent and diamond-hard Lucite stretching for seven furlongs along the water’s edge providing its boulevardiers with astounding views of the denizens of Lake Mal-a-Merrion. Cafes and restaurants abounded along its length; shops, bazaars, emporia lined its city-side flank. A light breeze, a zephyr, flickered the flames in the table lamps, here and there a tendril of smoke curled away as though recoiling from the salty odors of the water. The so-called noon chime had sounded from Barto’s tower and the cafes were filled with patrons eating alfresco. Calistrope the Mage sat at one of the many tables, seemingly relaxed; but through hooded, knowing eyes watched the activities of a thief.
“Look,” said Calistrope, pointing. Ponderos turned and looked where Calistrope pointed. A young fellow, dressed in a tattered yellow shirt and too-small breeches, dipped his fingers in to the pocket of a passer-by. A moment after, the hand reappeared, a glint of bright copper was visible for an instant and the boy had disappeared into the crowd.
“A child and already a petty thief,” Calistrope sighed.
“And a thief of some skill,” Ponderos observed and turned back to his wine. “Though I would keep my voice low if I were you.”
“What do you mean?”
“He might consider petty thief to be derogatory.”
“Sachavesku allows too many criminals to flourish.”
“Too many,” Ponderos nodded, his expression grave. “It would be more agreeable if just a few were allowed, just the more picaresque of course. Um, a cultural activity.”
Calistrope looked at his friend, trying to decide between indignation and drollery. Humor won the day. He chuckled. “Crime…” he began and stopped as he felt furtive fingers searching for a way into the purse at his belt.
Ponderos looked up at the pause but warned by Calistrope’s expression, looked away again. It took a few seconds for Calistrope to remember the cant he needed but then…
To the young cutpurse who had chosen to thieve from the Mage, it seemed that the little bag—no bigger than a pair of fists—opened itself. Two rows of pointed teeth lined the opening; the bag had eyes as well… little red ones. When the teeth snapped shut on the boy’s hand, the eyes looked up at him and one of them winked. The illusion was entirely visual but Roli could not imagine teeth sinking into his flesh without hurt, thus, he felt pain which was no less real for being imaginary. Men and women sitting at tables round about turned and looked at him but since what the thief saw was visible only to himself, they frowned and returned to their refreshment with shrugs.
Calistrope turned in his chair and grinned, a great wolfish grin. To Ponderos, he said “Crime is far too prevalent here on the concourse.” The Mage looked down at the boy in the grip of those illusory teeth. He tut-tutted. “I’m afraid it’s the Justiciary for you my boy. We’ll take you along presently, as soon as we’re finished here, then the Deemster can think up an unpleasant punishment for you.”
“But Sir…” wailed Roli looking from Calistrope to the vengeful bag of teeth and back again. “ I…” and paused.
“You?” Calistrope prompted.
The two men could see Roli’s mind working: thinking as he spoke and considering how his own interests might best be served by the truth—not all of the truth, of course. “My family is very poor. There is often no food to put on the table.”
Calistrope’s expression softened. “In that case, we must attend the Public Works office. We shall find work suited to your skills, my friend and I will recommend you.”
“Work?” Roli’s expression was one of horror. “Employment? But that will take up all my time, when shall I find time to enjoy myself?”
“You don’t find the idea appealing?”
Roli did not answer.
“Very well. I myself shall find something for you to do. I need a serv… an assistant.” A little shocked at his sudden whim, Calistrope paused to reconsider, then… “Yes, yes,” he stood up and snapped his fingers. The bag, which still held very fast—so it seemed—to Roli’s hand, pulled on the lad’s arm. “Well, what do you think Ponderos?”
“Excellent idea,” he got to his feet. “If you’re sure about this?”
“Oh, I think so, I think so,” he looked down at the boy again. “Apprentice.”
The two sorcerers walked off and the bag trailed after, like a woolly balloon. Roli, still in thrall to the delusion stumbled along in their wake with arm outstretched and fist covered in a small and unremarkable bag.
“Sirs,” he called. “Please.”
Calistrope stopped. “Wouldn’t you like to be a sorcerer’s apprentice? It’s a chance that is not given to many.”
“Sorcerer?” Roli took a step back. “Sorcerer! Now that’s the way the cricket jumps!” A blinding light seemed to suddenly ignite behind his eyes, his expression turned to one of horror. “Sorcerer? I tried to pick the purse of a sorcerer?” he fell silent.
“Quite right. You tried.”
Roli looked up at the tall spare figure with the dark blue eyes and face as thin as a hatchet blade then to the other with his gleaming bronze skin and muscled like a genie. Ponderos seemed a force of nature.
“You are a Sorcerer, too?”
Ponderos nodded. “Of the fourth grade.”
The boy could think of nothing to say. The circumstances were so bizarre that he could not grasp the situation, even when the magic bag let go of his hand and returned to Calistrope’s belt, he was hardly aware of his freedom. “A sorcerer’s apprentice?”
“Give it half an old year; we’ll see how we get on. We should go to see your parents of course, we should obtain their permission.”
“My parents forbade me to return home the third time the Constables came for me.”
“So you have been to see the Deemster already?”
“No. Oh no, they couldn’t catch me.”
* * *
High above the valley floor, the Bumanda tree lifted gnarled and massive branches to the sky. Its trunk, as wide at its base as three men were tall, sprang from a tangle of twisted roots anchored in the lower slopes of the massif. Higher, the trunk swelled to even greater proportions and the sun’s orange light glittered from the colored glass of widows set into the trunk and the more substantial limbs. Matt black leaves cast trembling shadows across the enclosed walkways and staircases which sprang from branch to branch. Calistrope the Mage had hollowed his manse into the Bumanda tree when it was but a fraction of its present age, when the ether was still rich and the sun still marked out days.
* * *
Roli had lived with Calistrope now for several months. The boy’s working life was split between domestic duties and starting the long path of learning. Calistrope had taken pains to explain the nature of the apprenticeship. He pointed out that there was but a single initial goal: to learn to live long enough to learn the arts of wizardry. Progression from novitiate to master was a task spanning several generations of ephemeral humankind.
They had walked the deserted shores of Mal-a-Merrion with Calistrope introducing Roli to nuts and roots, plums and apples. Foods which grew wild and ready for the gathering was a concept both new and novel to one whose short life had been spent on the infertile streets of Sachavescu and in its manicured pleasure parks.
They sat now in a small glen where a cold breeze had frosted the trees and grasses. Roli listened; his expression that of a skeptic while Calistrope explained the nature of magic.
“There is no such thing,” he said and Roli smiled lopsidedly as the Mage denied his profession. “Magic is the name given to effects we no longer understand.”
“In that case,” replied Roli, “of what use are seven hundred and thirty two Magicians who sit in the College Tower debating the efficacy of magic?”
“You may well ask. I have also wondered at this, but then I am an eccentric and often a thorn in the sides of my fellows. Still, I tell you there is no such thing. The old arts of science and engineering were used in ages past to create and change the world about us; these skills were of many different kinds. But if I was asked to comment I’d say steam power was the most ubiquitous of these.”
* * *
An ocular dangled from a twig, its single great eye rotating within the transparent globe of fluid until it could watch as Calistrope held up a fist and extended a finger: “Mechanics.” Another: “Mentation.” One by one, he extended fingers. “Galvanism. Numerics. Nanotics.” Coming to the end of his fingers and what he could conveniently remember, he finished off, “and many more.”
Roli was bored and watched the progress of a wanderlust beetle as it trundled from one patch of gravel to another. “All ancient sciences, all long forgotten even though they were practiced for hundreds of millennia. We but enjoy the results of long ago labors. Magic is those few bright shadows left behind by the forgotten dazzle of science.”
“Why are insects very small or very large?” asked Roli, watching the iridescent beetle bigger than a man’s head which left a trail of singed and burnt grasses behind it.
Calistrope paused to assess the non sequitur. “The wanderlust beetle,” he said, “Searches out particles of radium and other unstable elements among the rocks. The creature’s alimentary processes pack each iota away in a stomach sac lined with lead where their decay has been designed to generate a great deal of heat. The heat accelerates the beetle’s metabolism.”
Calistrope had taken care not to answer the direct question yet a clue had been given to his apprentice.
“Why are insects very small or very large?” Roli repeated. “The water skater stands half as high as you do and is twice as long. It makes a loud buzzing noise which often breaks into screeches and clicks. The parlor fireflies that ladies keep in cages in their bedrooms are quite silent.”
“And when were you in the bed chamber of a lady?”
Roli pressed his lips together and ignored the question.
“The water skater’s tracheal bellows are not very efficient. The firefly breathes by absorption only.”
The Mage climbed to his feet and the ocular, alarmed by the sudden movement, assimilated its suspension thread, climbing speedily back to its branch.
Roli was silent for the twenty minutes it took to return to the Manse. Then, outside, he stopped, a frown of concentration on his brow. “Large insects grow large because they breathe more efficiently?”
“That is the case with waterskaters though not with wanderlust beetles,” he looked up at the Gargoyle which guarded the doorway. “Have there been any visitors?”
“Visitors? I saw no visitors.”
“Still, the waterskater—its forebears I mean—did not always breathe in this way nor did the wanderlust beetle always snuffle up hot dust?”
“No. In an earlier epoch, a mage saw how to improve the ways in which insects functioned. He experimented over the millennia and bioengineered his designs into several species of insects. The insects grew larger, and some became intelligent; others, just more efficient. What did the Gargoyle say?”
“It said, ‘No visitors.’ None.” Roli continued his questions, “Intelligent like the ants?”
They entered, climbed the stairs. Roli took the basket of fruit and vegetables to the kitchen, Calistrope continued on to his study.
A moment later he stopped and stood, rooted to the spot, aghast at what he saw. For many minutes he stood silently.
The house waited.
“Roli,” he whispered at length, staring at the empty cases and the open doors. “Roli.” Even his whispers stirred long blue and purple sparks from the air. Quivering phantasms hung about him and winced with each new imprecation; outside, above the front door, the Gargoyle thrust stony fingers into its ears and cowered.
Roli heard the whispers and came running.
“Larceny,” he hissed, his voice low and hard. “Roli, you are the authority in these matters. Tell me, who would rob the manse of a Master Sorcerer?”
“Master! Who would dare? Surely no one but another sorcerer.” The air carried the odor of lightning, Roli sneezed.
“Of course,” Calistrope nodded slowly, “who else?” he paced his study and dust wheelers scattered before his feet, scurried for safety in the wainscoting. “None but another,” he repeated. “Look there,” he grasped Roli’s shoulder and pointed at a bare expanse of wall. “There was a tapestry there. Each stitch was a microscopic knot tied by manikins from my vats, an old century in the weaving and not done yet. Oh, I shall have revenge for this! Bring me food—food to stoke my wrath.”
Calistrope looked from one empty place to another. My marionettes, he bemoaned and wrung his hands, each with its own personality and volition. My liqueurs, a thousand years in the amassing. He flicked his fingers. Gone in an eye blink.
“Roli, food. I grow faint with hunger.”
“Here Master, right here.”
“What’s this?” Calistrope poked at the dish, sniffed at the carafe. “Pickled fish? Green wine?” Calistrope shook his head and then paused, his mind going on to other matters. “Roli. What did the Gargoyle say? Exactly?”
“It said…” Roli screwed up his face in concentration, “Near as I can remember, ‘Visitors? I saw no visitors.’”
“Well now, that’s near enough. The Gargoyle has been interfered with, compromised. The thing prevaricated. Hmm. I’ll have anchovies on a bed of samphire. Leave the wine.”
Hardly had Roli gone when there came an insistent tapping at the window. Outside, a silver sphere with iridescent highlights bobbed and floated, a bubble of quicksilver. Calistrope was not in the mood to listen to messages; in high dudgeon he crossed to the casement and opened it, the sphere drifted in, rising and falling in the air currents left by the Sorcerer’s recent rantings. It came to rest, or nearly so, in front of Calistrope; he reached out and touched a fingertip to its cool surface. The film coruscated, broke, vaporized.
“This,” spoke a sibilant voice, “is Voss.”
“Who else would it be?” Calistrope muttered. “The Despondent One. Still, he is one who has grown in wisdom since he suckled at his mother’s breast.”
“A meeting is called for the twelfth hour. I have selected you, Calistrope, to be honored in a quite extraordinary way.”
The message sphere reproduced the words, the precise timbre of Voss’ voice. Calistrope’s imagination supplied the gloomy features, the compelling eyes, the thin lips and narrow nose.
“I look forward to your attending.” And the silence drifted slowly back as Calistrope connected thefts and invitation.
“Your meal master,” Roli stood in the doorway, bearing a wooden tray.
Calistrope looked at the food and shook his head. “My appetite has gone, I’m afraid.” And his mind turned over the injustices done him. Who had been paramount in advocating those experiments that he had castigated?
Voss the Mirthless.
Who had watched as each boulder was ignited to burn with an eternal flame or to glow with a self perpetuating heat?
Voss the Somber.
And who had been the most irritated at Calistrope’s remarks?
Voss of the Thin Smile.
“Voss,” Roli. It was Voss who came here while we were away. Voss the Despondent. Who else would dare to enter the manse of a fellow mage?”
Calistrope had been right in his criticism of course. No man-made fire could replace the sun’s waning energy, not a thousand, not a million. But the Mage was guilty of being tactless, worse—of expressing his doubts in front of others and worse of all, Calistrope had been right. Voss, he had no doubt at all, was taking his revenge.
The Mage left the room and took the winding staircase within the north branch; he crossed an aerial walkway to his sleeping chamber and passed through to the dressing room. Here he glanced from the window, the weather—as almost always—was calm and chill.
He chose garments from his wardrobe: a pair of grey leather breeches tooled with convoluted patterns, a pair of boots of similar color with blue inlay and a matching tunic with blue enameled plates of insect chitin on the epaulettes.
He glanced in the mirror. The effects of his choice of garment were as he expected. They signified aloofness, reserved judgment, dignity.
* * *
The College had been constructed with the successful intention of making it the most impressive building in the City. It was a single slender shining column of fused basalt rising over a thousand spans in height which to the citizenry was Sachavesku: the City without its spire, the College without its jewel-like setting could not be imagined. The interior of the column was separated into two hundred and seventy seven lecture theatres and laboratories and in its heyday—when the sun still blazed a golden orange, every level was occupied. The lower floors thronged with students, while the middle and upper floors became steadily less crowded until only savants, mages and archmages were left from the lengthy climb to knowledge.
Calistrope entered the ground floor, a vast circular space with floors decorated with tiled tessellation; tall windows behind each dark wood lectern illuminated the manuscripts from which masters once lectured the novitiates in the elements of their selected profession. Entrants were few in these latter days, few enough for instruction to be carried out on an individual basis so that vast areas of the College were empty, dark and dusty places visited only by echoes.
There were ten portals spaced evenly around the walls, stairs led from floor to floor as far as the seventh level, beyond that, there were only smooth bare shafts. It was considered that anyone aspiring to rise beyond the seventh level must be able to do so by their own efforts entirely.
Calistrope entered the nearest portal and exerting a minor effort, levitated himself to the highest floor. Here, the meager rays of the latter-day sun shone through sloping casements decorated with richly colored designs and pictures of ancient events.
The Great Hall of Assembly exerted a curious influence on many who gathered there. Most were content to contribute nothing more than an occasional Hear, hear or an Aha to the debate, to utter a discrete cough or a telling shake of the head. However, those who addressed their fellow Mages were often afflicted with an excess of gravity. Gestures grew slow and ponderous, words were burdened with portent, speech became pompous and grandiloquent.
The Mage was aware of this bizarre effect. When called upon to speak, he acceded with reluctance; he took pains to be brief, eschewed sarcasm, avoided malice. Though each of his fellows professed the same self-control, Calistrope considered himself to be the only true master of the terse remark, the concise exposition.
Calistrope took his seat precisely as the tall pendulum clock struck the twelfth hour on its thick glass bell. Voss the Despondent, who had been at the head of the table for some minutes, struck the small iron gong and called the meeting to order. His long lugubrious face was occasionally known to smile briefly but there was no trace of such an expression now.
“I and two of my fellow Archmages have completed a new task. As a result, I have decided on a new undertaking,” he told them somberly, without preamble. “This is the only possibility we have found which may ensure the survival of the human race.”
A murmur ran the length of the immense table, Voss waited patiently for the sound to subside. “Our present power is insufficient to rejuvenate the sun or to find alternatives to its heat and light which dwindle as we talk.”
Calistrope considered clearing his throat but decided that silence was the more pointed comment.
Voss raised his eyebrows a fraction, surprised that Calistrope should waste the opportunity of making a remark.
“We have made a new search of the archives; we have a new course of action,” Voss sat back and flicked dust from his sleeve. “Since arcane powers are no longer enough, we must restart the engines at the heart of the world. As the sun shrinks, the Earth must be made to follow it.”
A shocked silence followed his words, a silence which stretched on and on before being gradually filled with the sounds of breathing, of murmured comments, scraps of conversation.
“Move the world?” said someone, disbelief writ large in the tone.
Voss lifted his voice somewhat. “Accordingly, we have conferred with those who have a more exact record of history. The Ants.”
Pandemonium broke out. Arguments, comments, oaths, counter arguments… all of which dwindled to a most unusual silence. In ones and twos, in groups, the gathering became aware of the new presence at the head of the table—polished chitin, spiky red whiskers, black faceted eyes, trembling antennae.
“May I introduce Micca, the Ant? I have requested engineer Micca join us and address us.”
The magicians gazed at the ant. She stood as high as an average man, her chitin armor shining dully with ruddy highlights, there was a faint susurration—the sound of her tracheal bellows. She raised her antennae and a hum filled the air as they vibrated. After a few seconds, the tone became modulated and the insect essayed an imitation of human speech.
“Venerations,” she greeted and tilted her head in a series of small jerks as her glittering black eyes were brought to bear on each of the sorcerers in turn. “At the request of the Archmage Voss, we have made an examination of the Nest’s records; we have established several unquestionable facts.” The insect moved two of its legs, they made a metallic scraping sound on the floor and as she shifted, the sunlight struck a series of green iridescences from her thorax. The ant’s exhalations imparted a faint acid quality to the air in the chamber.
“The Earth’s orbit was once inside that of the cinder world, Mars. Humans constructed engines which moved the Earth from there to its present position, beyond the reach of the sun which was expanding into its red giant stage.”
Impassively, the ant waited as a new round of conversation swelled. A sorcerer at the table’s far end signaled for silence, the murmurous dissonance diminished. Sarra Rivera looked along the stretch of ebony wood with its shell and scarab wing inlay; he held Micca’s attention with his cold, silver gaze. “This notion is a myth, a story the Ephemerals tell each other for comfort. The movement of a whole world at the bidding of a human being is ludicrous.”
“Yet it happened,” said Micca. “I have seen the memories stored in our records. The journey had already been under way for half a million old years when my species recorded the helium flash.”
“The possibility is discounted by the Sorceress Almatirra’s Principle of Equivalent Mass,” Rivera continued, hardly listening to what the ant had said.
The ant nodded, a peculiarly human gesture which seemed at variance with the insect’s anatomy. “Your objection is perfectly valid—according to the tenets of your science.”
Voss nodded and spoke to Rivera. “The universe is stranger than you imagine, Sir, stranger than you can imagine.”
“Quite so,” added Micca. “The ancient science of physics places no such restrictions upon the possible—fortunately. The sun is now shrinking to its dwarf stage and the Nest agrees the Earth must be returned to a narrower orbit.”
“And how,” asked Issla the Inquisitive, “is this to be done?”
“The mechanisms which control the engines are in the eternal City of Schune,” Voss interjected. “Oh yes,” he said as he saw expressions of disbelief about him, the City exists.”
Issla continued with her doubts. “The Ants have never been interested in helping the Human Race before, why should we believe what she says?” She gestured dismissively at Micca. “Can she persuade us of her goodwill?”
Voss was at a loss but Micca, to whom rancor was an alien concept answered without acrimony. “The Nest draws its power from the remnant heat of the world’s core. It will last us many millions of years, far longer than either of your species. However, the sun will last us longer if we follow it.”
“Either species?” Queried Calistrope.
“The Ephemerals and ourselves,” Voss explained.
Calistrope raised an eyebrow and tapped a front tooth with a fingernail. “Why then,” he asked, “why does the Nest not organize an expedition to Schune. Why come to us?”
“Higher castes cannot travel so far,” Micca told him, “our intellect resides within the Nest.”
“In the Nest?” Calistrope stroked his chin. “A communal intelligence?”
“That is the case.”
“And naturally.” The Mage stepped forward, nodding. “The intelligence fades with distance?”
“Over several of your leagues,” Micca told him.
“Thus, our goals are yours.”
“For the present,” agreed the ant.
“In short,” Voss broke in, “the Ants will teach a sorcerer to revitalize the engines.”
“Oh come now, Voss.”
“Calistrope, you try my patience.”
“If this confederate is expressing doubts, Archmage, then it is correct.”
“There is no possibility of reclaiming skills lost as long as these, Archmage. No. Neither is it necessary. Whoever goes to Schune has merely to contact the guardians.”
Voss’ forehead wrinkled. “And these guardians will revitalize the engines? Will they still be there after such an age?”
Calistrope inspected a nail on his left hand. “Suppose there is a community at Schune, Voss and suppose we call them engineers rather than guardians and say restart rather than revitalize; the scheme begins to seem a little more practical,” Calistrope caught a fleeting smile on Voss’ face and cursed himself for a fool.
“Exactly. You show me the proper interpretation Calistrope and I am in your debt. Now, let us be practical by all means. The Nest can provide maps, an adventurous fellow will discover the way to Schune without … with only minor difficulty. Someone like your…”
“I received a message,” Calistrope said, his tone a grim one. “It mentioned an honor. If this is the honor referred to, “he looked back at the fingernail which had caused him concern before, “my attitude to travel beyond the valley of Mal-a-Merrion is well known. My reluctance to tread upon unfamiliar pathways is proverbial.”
His comments received a variety of responses both pro and con. Voss stretched his face into an unaccustomed smile. “All is taken into account, my friend. It is understandable that you are overcome by the honor but a moment’s reflection will convince you that you are the natural, the best and only choice.
Calistrope was disconcerted. With hindsight, it became obvious how he had been manipulated, right from the moment his treasures had been pilfered from the manse.
“Naturally, a great deal of prestige attaches to the venture, the status of Archmage becomes a formality.”
This is the carrot, thought Calistrope; without doubt the whip will be the return of my possessions. He inquired, “A posthumous formality?”
“Ha ha. Such wit, I am overwhelmed.” Such was clearly not the case and Voss hastily turned to other matters before announcing arrangements for a celebratory banquet. He was visibly relieved as the delegates left the hall without Calistrope precipitating a confrontation. Nevertheless, as Calistrope rose to leave, Voss signaled that he wished to speak privately with him.
When all but Voss, Micca and Calistrope were left, the Mage went to the head of the table; he drew a chair out and seated himself. “Well?”
“Well? Well,” Voss assumed a reasonable tone of voice, “I am certain that you now see things in different light.”
“No,” Calistrope replied.
“I am certain that you look forward to this excellent adventure.”
“No,” Calistrope shook his head. “The title of Archmage seems to me to be poor recompense for the discomforts and dangers of such a journey,” he tapped a fingernail against a tooth. “Perhaps I lack a proper perspective but I must refuse this offer,” Calistrope invoked the similitude of aged infirmity. “I am tired; I am victim to some disease which drains my vigor.” His cheeks became sunken, creases furrowed his brow.
“Ha, ha,” Voss countered with an injunction to eternal health. “I sympathize with your condition, my friend, you need to get out more, to see the world. Out there,” he flung his arms out and Calistrope’s face filled out with plump flesh, his eyes brightened; a smile came unwillingly to his lips. “Out there, you will find yourself. See? Just the thought has made you feel better. However, one moment.”
Voss rummaged through the capacious pockets of his gown. “Aha!” A fat tube stoppered at both ends with wooden bungs. He placed it on the table and felt again in his pockets. “Ah,” he said and placed a long flat case upon the table beside the cylinder. He opened the case. “Now. Here, stored for safety while you are off on your travels,”
“Bless me, my collection of miniature succubus,” Calistrope brought out a pair of magnifying spectacles and peered closely. “It is. Each one fashioned after a notorious courtesan,” he looked up. “I knew it was you, Voss. Voss the Vile, the Thief.”
“No, no, no,” Voss was not even ruffled by the epithets. “You misunderstand. At your manse, they are unprotected. When you are away, any vagabond might chance by and take what he fancied. Here they are secure,” Voss leaned down and opened a chest at his feet. He took out a roll of fabric, held it up. “See; is this not your tapestry?” he let it fall open, a cloth of such fine weave it seemed like soft vellum, “the one you are so proud of?”
“Voss. This is pillage. No other word suffices unless … unless it is blackmail. My manse is sealed against all except the most adept,” Calistrope placed a finger on the artwork. “This tapestry you handle with such carelessness has been a thousand years in the making, a hundred tiny manikins have worked upon it diligently all that time and you filch it to serve your own selfish ends.”
The Archmage seemed unrepentant. “Selfish? I think not, Calistrope but there is more,” he went on. “Do you not want to know the whole of it? Here for example,” he pulled a cedar wood casket from beneath the table; he laid back the lid, “your pandect on Hypnotism, your unrivalled collection of aphrodisiacal spells. Hmm? What do you say to that? We shall keep them all here safely against your return.” His chuckle was dry and humorless.
Calistrope was silent for some considerable time. Although suspected, Voss’ admitted duplicity had come as a shock. “How did you gain admittance to my home?” he enquired at last. “How did you pass the Guardian and what of the curse of Overburdening Guilt?
Voss smiled briefly. “Do not trouble yourself about my safety and health. I came and went without disturbing your excellent precautions against thievery. Now, it is time to speak of more practical matters, Calistrope,” he became brisk, businesslike. “It is a long way to Schune and there is much to be done before you leave. Micca—” he paused abrubtly and stared. “Calistrope, does something ail you?”
Calistrope had turned very pale, his eyes bulged, slowly he brought up his hand and extended a trembling finger, he pointed. “A memory vault.”
All of the Sorcerers kept a memory vault. For those who lived so long, there was just too much to recall, too much for a single brain to organize and so every few centuries, older and less useful memories were removed and committed to the memory vaults.
Voss turned to look where the other pointed. A slim cylinder with a metallic hue, perhaps a span in length, rested upon the tray set in to the top of Voss’ chest. “Why, so it is,” he closed the lid. “So it is.”
“It is mine, Voss. I recognize it; there is no other like it. Let me describe it to you. A silver ceramic container, there is a thumb print seal on one end and if I place my right thumb against it, a small spot illuminates to show the print is recognized,” Calistrope held out his hand. “Let me have it and I can prove it is mine.”
Voss’ shoulders slumped. “There is no need, Sir,” he mumbled guiltily, suddenly humbled. “I admit that it is your memory vault. It was taken…” he paused, searching for words,” taken on a whim and it should not have been. Still,” he looked up with a brighter expression, “it should still be stored here, where it will be safe. You owe this to the College; your memories are a valuable asset, not to be risked. You owe them to humankind.”
“Well, I suppose so.” With the complement, Calistrope’s rigor eased somewhat and his complexion began to look more healthy. “The vault should be brought up to date, however.”
“You are correct,” Voss hurried to agree. “Oh, absolutely. Let it be done after this business with the Ants, though.”
Calistrope raised his eyebrows, a silent inquiry.
Voss gestured toward the ant which had been standing motionless during the altercation. “Micca has made arrangements for you to go to the Nest to be instructed as to the matter of charts and maps, perhaps to hear details of these ingenious engines.”
Anger suffused his features once more. “The Nest?” Calistrope brought his fist down on the table top with such a force that a million tiny fragments of inlay leapt into the air, a glittering cloud of greens and blues, of pinks and mauves hovering above the surface. “Do I have no say at all in my own destiny?”
“Beautiful,” breathed Voss as he watched the haze of dust sink back to the table’s surface again. “Enchanting. Calistrope, do that again.”
* * *
Voss had, of course been quite certain of securing Calistrope’s agreement or, at least, his capitulation. To some extent, his violation of a fellow sorcerer’s manse troubled his conscience. Still, he told himself, it had been necessary. All would become apparent to Calistrope should he prove successful. So much rested on the undertaking, it would not be untrue to say the future of mankind was in the balance.
History would surely vindicate his actions.
A day or more later, when Calistrope’s anger had cooled to a smolder, he took himself along the road to the south, a distance of several leagues where, among lumpy hills, the Nest was situated. Two of the ants’ specially bred soldiers guarded the entrance. A little larger than Micca and protected by considerably thicker chitin, they were a darker color and conveyed a sense of menace.
Closer, he saw other differences between the breeds of soldier and thinker. The guards’ eyes were protected by great horny plates, the joints of their limbs by overlapping scales. Their mouth parts too, were different to those of their nest mates. Careful breeding had extended the soldiers’ mandibles into a double spike, visible within were ducts which led toxins from a multiplicity of poison glands at the base to the razor sharp tip.
How should I gain entrance? The soldiers ignored him, there was neither herald nor messenger. While he was still wondering what to do, Micca—or one closely resembling that ant—appeared behind the guards. An invisible signal from Micca instructed the guards to stand apart and Calistrope, at a twitch of the ant’s antennae, walked under the roughly shaped archway of the Nest’s main entrance. He followed the other downward and the tunnel sloped more and more steeply and seemed to wander at random from side to side as they proceeded.
They met ants and other insects traveling in both directions, many were grotesquely shaped and Calistrope guessed they had been bred to perform specialized tasks. Lower, they passed by terraces where green foliage was grown in the light from luminous beetles which crawled about the ceilings. A long, long millipede raced by on its way to the surface, a score of worker ants clung to the scales on its back.
Calistrope shivered. Everywhere were signs of altered form, nature bent to the will of the Nest—in Micca’s fellow ants, in other insects and grubs. Even the shape and path of the tunnels were undeniably… organic. The environment was a disturbing one.
Micca took him to a long unevenly cut tunnel where ants came and went on incomprehensible errands. His guide signaled to a passing worker, a swift conversation of hums and clicks and touching of feelers took place. The little faded pink worker hurried off and returned very quickly with a roll of parchment clutched in the secondary claw of a forefoot, almost an opposable digit.
“These are charts,” said Micca. “You are familiar with geographical representations?”
“Certainly,” Calistrope replied.
The charts were unrolled on a flat but rough surface. “This is our present location.” One of Micca’s antennae drooped, bent, and touched the map. The worker—or perhaps, insect clerk—used a stylus to make a dark smudge at the indicated spot. Calistrope saw the edge of what he assumed to be the Lake; the mark represented Sachavesku, or perhaps the nearby Nest. “The water you call Mal-a-Merrion lies along the western edge of a high massif. It narrows here, do you see?”
Calistrope nodded. The ant was indicating a long peninsular which hung down past the equator from a broad continent. “From here, there is a rift which has been eroded into a wide valley. Even at its highest point, the air is thick enough to breathe and it cuts all the way through to the east side of the massif.”
“Is this a river?” asked Calistrope. “It must be a thousand leagues long if I have grasped the scale properly.”
“Men call it the Long River or the Golden River, depending on the vicinity. It runs to the Last Ocean where Schune is situated.”
“Schune again. The stuff of legend.”
“To the contrary,” Micca told him. “As real as Sachavesku which in parts of the Earth is also believed to be no more than a myth. Schune is to be found on this mountain. Again, the clerk used its stylus to make an annotation. Note its shape, easily recognizable. Fumes are vented near the top, an almost permanent emission. It may be volcanic and what is seen is smoke. However, equally likely; it may be one of the old core-heated steam powered atmosphere plants which recirculate the water and measure out new air, and that which we see is steam.”
“Forty of your old days. Longer if you experience difficulties.”
“What difficulties? What sort of difficulties?”
How could the insect shrug? Nevertheless, Micca gave such an impression.
“The places you will be traveling have been visited only by human hunters, little is known. There will be wild insects, insular human communities; we will send an escort of soldier ants with you to protect you.”
“And what will we do when we get there? How can we start engines and turn the Earth back towards the sun?”
“All that is necessary is for you to find those who are there. Inform them. I told you this at your convocation.”
“Indeed you did but it sounds as fantastic now as it did then. People who know how to work the controls even after all this time?”
“That is so. It is fact. Beyond that, however and at this distance, we can tell you nothing more.”
“It seems flimsy evidence.”
“There is no flimsiness whatever.”
Calistrope remained silent but unconvinced.
“Those you will find there may need waking.”
“They are asleep?”
“So the records say,” Micca took something from the worker ant which stood patiently by them. She handed it to Calistrope.
Calistrope felt his eyebrows climb upward. “How did you get this…” he applied his thumb to the end of it, nothing happened. “This isn’t mine. It is identical but not mine.”
“I did not say it was. It is a human memory vault though. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Calistrope turned the ceramo-metallic cylinder over and over. There were no identifying marks of any kind. “An old one, a very old one—like my own.”
“It was owned by a human who came this way once, from the place you now seek; Schune.”