I've said it before, and will carry on saying it until the stars go out: this is the greatest Night Land story ever written.
By John C Wright.
1. WE ARE LOST
We are lost in endless and titanic halls of windowless metal. Some of the things pursuing us are so large that, to them, even these halls are cramped, and the miters of the crawling sphinxes scrape flakes of debris from unseen expanse of black plate so high above.
I say we are aboard a ship. The other men resurrected from the Archive disagree. Some think we are in hell, or in a fairy-mound, or suffering the hallucinations imposed by the thinking-machines of futuristic science.
Of all of us, the man from the latest period of humanity hails from AD 29,000,000; some twenty-nine million years after my death. He came from an age long after the sun had died, a terror-haunted world of eternal darkness. His home was a titanic fortress called the Last Redoubt, a structure armored against the infinite cold of a sunless sky, nursing its life on the last few embers of dying geothermal and geomagnetic heat. His name is Ydmos of Utter-Tower. Ydmos thinks this vessel is a redoubt like his, one long ago captured by the enemy, and that we are all buried far underground.
Even his era is uncountable years lost, compare to this present one. Earth was murdered more than fifteen billion years ago; the Milky Way, star by star, was consumed by darkness five billion years ago, and the Greater and Lesser Magellanic Clouds as well. The great galaxy in Andromeda, her satellite galaxies M32 and M110, and Triagulum Galaxy in M33, are also gone: the spiral galaxies in Ursa Minor, Sculptor, Draco, Carina, Fornax: over the slow millennia, all are destroyed and vanished.
All the stars known to the astronomers of history are gone: the galaxies have tumbled together into a vast and central fire, the Last Of All Suns. At the core of this sun is one infinitely heavy point of nothingness where nine-tenths of the mass and energy of the universe are compressed.
Of the remaining tenth part of the substance of the universe, some lingers yet in the form of matter, including a remnant of red-dwarf galaxies, their cores absorbed into black holes, their arms choked with exhausted nebulae that will never collapse against to form fresh stars. The dying galaxies are streaming toward the central fire, and, from our position in time and space, seem, to us, not yet to have been consumed. Perhaps that event has happened: the light from it has not reached us. Some of the remaining universal mass is in the form of energy: the residue of the universe has dropped to a uniform background radiation just above absolute zero.
And one infinitely small residuum of the dying cosmos is matter and energy lingering yet in the form of living creatures and their works: there is one ship left, with us aboard.
There is something else aboard as well, something horribly alien to our continuum, to life, to time and space and order. The ship is theirs: we are as rats in the hold.
2. THE SHOT
It was dark. A few fitful lanterns, perhaps a quarter mile up off the deck, perhaps fifteen billion years old, emitted sickly glints of greenish-yellow light. The pounding of numberless claws on the metal deck-plates was like drumming rain.
The looming creature Ydmos called a Night Hound came running ahead of a galloping pack of malformed hobgoblins. This breed of Night Hound is a hard-skinned albino monster larger than a dray-horse, with a face like a hairless wolf and teeth like an alligator.
Ydmos raised his odd-looking weapon: it was a poleaxe tipped with a sharpened disk. The disk spun like a buzz saw, and a flare like lightning came from it, and a low roar like a lion’s roar. The weapon was dazzling bright in his hands, and his fluttering shadow pivoted about his wide-placed feet as he swung. The creature saved itself from a mortal blow to its thick neck by raising its forepaw into the blazing path of the weapon. The stroke chopped through scale and hide and muscle to part the monster's flesh from wrist to elbow. A fan of black and stinking blood flew up from the wound, and the creature screamed even more loudly than the lightning-roaring weapon.
The Night-Hound reared up on his hindquarters, one huge fore-limb hanging limply, and slashed down with its other. Its palm was wide as a dinner-plate, its nails longer than dirks. Ydmos fell.
The wheel of lightning shed by the weapon was quenched, and the little pocket of light surrounding Ydmos winked out. In sudden gloom and silence, small noise of his pole-arm clashing to the deck was audible.
I lifted my trusty Holland & Holland elephant gun to my shoulder -or the dream thing, whatever it was, that pretended to be my fine old beauty of the gunsmith’s craft-and squeezed the trigger. The trigger had pull; the heft of the weapon was right. It felt heavy in my hands, trusted and familiar.
The rifle was solid. I could feel the grain of the wood against my cheek as I brought it to my shoulder, I could see the tiny scratches and irregularities in the polished barrel. The sites cast a very tiny shadow on the curved surface of the barrel. It was real. I had faith in it.
I fire a 900-grain slug at nearly four tons of muzzle-energy. The slug is thicker than my thumb, and you can knock over a tree with it, at short ranges. The familiar smell of cordite, cotton soaked in nitro, rose to my nostrils.
(For a moment, a terrible moment, I was convinced this was all a dream, and that I would wake up again in the Veldt, the hot sun throwing a zebra-striped pattern of shadows from the long grass against my tent walls, and Lisa outside, looking pretty in her jodhpurs and pith helmet, calling me a slow-poke and telling me the game was getting away. For a moment.)
Fortunately, the matter-wizard Abraxander-the-Threshold (from Tau Ceti, circa AD 30,000) had also been able to materialize a heavy jacket with a padded shoulder. Even with this padding, the kick jarred my shoulder painfully. Either my imagination had over-charged the shells with powder, or I was weaker now than I had been when I was alive.
The Night Hound went down as if felled by a hammer, half-severed at its horny collarbones, its chest blown open. I could see ribs, sliding chest-muscles, pumping lung tissue. Black blood streamed from its shattered neck and chest, and flooded across the deck. The stench was terrible. Even dead, its jaws continued to snap, and its legs continued to kick, and the barbs in its tail went in and out like the stringer in a dead wasp does.
You would think the creatures from hell, or from outer-space, would be used to loud noises. It seemed not. All the monsters quailed at the report, shocked. A terrible silence hung in the corridor for a long, strange moment. The echoes of the shot reverberated through the ship, farther and farther, echo answering echo.
The monsters ran away.
3. THE LAUGHTER
Uj, the shaggy man, gripped the bone he used as a truncheon in his teeth, dropped to all fours, and scampered doglike across the deck toward Ydmos, and his wolfskin pelt flapped on his hairy back as he ran. If I am right, Uj is a Neanderthal, or some other pre-human homonid, the earliest of us, even as Ydmos was the latest. The method the Blue Man uses to discover our dates returns no reading from the Neanderthal, or so he says. (The Blue Man claims he is measuring of the regular decay of certain particles in our bodies-but how can these be our original bodies?) Uj may be from the future, after an age of degeneration, rather than from the past.
"It is too late!" I called, "Leave him!"
But I was wrong. The Neanderthal saw or sensed something I did not. The fingers of the gauntlet of Ydmos flexed slightly. His pole-arm was laying a foot or so to his right, its heavy disk-shaped ax-blade dark, not spinning. But when his hand trembled, the weapon slid across the deck, as if pulled by an invisible thread, into his grasp, and the blade lit up with terrible energy again.
Even as the main body of the monsters fled from us, there came a sound like a laugh both very near at hand, and from very many miles away, perhaps on another deck. It was one sound, coming from two different points in space. It was a large laugh, larger than an elephant’s lungs could have made. It was as if a hillside laughed, or a world, and we felt it in our bones.
The light from the weapon of Ydmos was snuffed out. Perhaps Ydmos had merely doused his weapon as a precaution, when The Thing That Laughs uttered its hideous noise: but at that moment, it looked more to me as if that laugh had blown it like a candle.
That laugh made us flee in panic, despite our temporary victory. We ran from the monsters who were running from us, both sides fleeing the other. This is more common in irregular skirmishes than you might imagine: officers rarely report it when it happens, for no one can explain, later, why you run from someone who you’ve routed. Panic happens in war.
Ahead of us was a place where a lantern had fallen, making a 100-yard wide crater in the deckplates. Even panicked, we were wise enough to give the thing wide berth as we circled the crater: radiations leaking from the damaged glass were deadly. But the light was brighter here because of it, giving us a glimpse of what lay ahead: before us, we saw the whole tremendous width of the corridor was filled with an encroaching black mist, and the lanterns overhead were winking out, one by one. In the depth of the mist could be glimpsed pale and quivering mounds of flesh, the bodies of enormous slugs, large as freight-trains, crawling blindly toward us, quite without noise.
To my left, I saw a wide hatch swing quietly open. This section of bulkhead was between two buttresses, half-hidden in the dim light. I saw, through the open hatch, a set of metal stairs, going down and down.
The Neanderthal pointed toward the valve with his bone truncheon, beckoning us, and he gave a soft hoot. He did not wait to see if we followed, but, with Ydmos still across his back, the shaggy man was away, scooting on all fours down the stairs.
I hissed softly, afraid to raise my voice, but Uj did not answer. Gloom swallowed him.
Two more of our small band, Mneseus, the sorcerer-king from Atlantis, and Enoch the antediluvian, both sprinted toward the stairs. A third, the Blue Man, who was calling himself Crystals-of-Incandescent-Bliss today, never does anything in a hurry, and so he strolled in a leisurely saunter after them. The Cave-Man or Redskin or whatever he was named He-Sings-Death, came and stood near me, his spear in its spear-thrower held lightly at his shoulder, his eyes turned intently toward the approaching wall of mist, the silent masses of blind slug-flesh. He bounced on his toes in an agony of impatience: he obviously wanted to flee down the stair, and escape this wide expanse of open corridor, but did not want to abandon gray-haired Abraxander, the fifth of our group, or me.
I mistrusted the stairs: I felt we were being herded. But in a small company of eight men, leaderless, whoever is the most rash will lead, and the rest must follow or allow the company to be scattered.
I trudged down the stairs into the gloom, rifle ready, Abraxander-the-Threshold on slippered feet, coming in a silken rustle of robes behind me. He-Sings-Death, silent as a cat, came after, watching backwards for signs of pursuit, his spear-hand at his shoulder, elbow high, tense and ready to cast.
We all flinched when the valve came quietly shut behind us, cutting off the lamplight from the corridor.
4. THE RIFLE I HAD DREAMED
I must explain how I held a weapon from a world, and a solar system, and a galaxy, long ago dissolved.
CONTINUE READING AT THE NIGHT LANDS SITE