It’s a machine world, Thaeron. Beyond even the extent the natives know it. From the killing mass of the artillery disks to the intricacies of the machines inside every soldier’s blood, it’s machines that rule the day. Thaeron’s inhabitants thought that it was some metaphorical quality of birth that allowed them to wake Profusionist technology. Still do. But of course the answer is far more literal and wondrous than that.
A cocktail of symbiotic machines transmits to the nanotechnology that composes every ancient artifice. Because not all the original colonists of this world were soldiers, those symbiotes were passed down through generations, reaching suitable combinations utterly at random. So, one child was able to wake communications technology, another repair a wall, and still another pick up a quicksword. Many were able to do nothing whatsoever. On this simple fact rested the entirety of Thaeronian culture. And they never knew it.
Still less do they understand, even now, the basics of the world in which they live. The Nogilian soil so treasured on both continents for its purity, antiquity and fecundity? Almost certainly transplanted from the motherworld, with nanotechnological compounds. The exotic flora and fauna we had been traipsing through and occasionally confronting? Genetically engineered, to be sure, but that work done by courses upon courses of machines too small to see or taste or touch. Thaeron’s ubiquitous, diverse latticework of nanites is what the White Swarm had been overthrowing, rewriting, consuming to adapt.
So it didn’t take much to figure out that what Ki said about the bloodfish could not in a literal sense be true. Oh, no doubt there were creatures in the sea larger than leviathan. But the thing is: size wouldn’t matter in the first place, not if the smaller swarms of bloodfish in the swamps fought even leviathans to a draw. No, it had to be something else. Something different that kept their teeming multitudes from overwhelming the ocean realm. Nature requires balance, and clearly bloodfish are not natural. It takes specific chemistry to influence a human mind.
What then could be more different from nature than machine? Something had once changed the oceans of this world to be more amenable to supporting human life. Something made them that much warmer or cooler, put that much more oxygen or nitrogen in the waves. Something performed, in the absence of whatever ecology might once have been, the functions of scavenge and composting on the ocean floor, where much detritus fell. Just as something kept the bloodfish in check. Something at least as numerous and dangerous as them.
We’d been down to the sea, of course, when we took the port city Sepira. That had been a while ago, time enough perhaps. Time for the White Swarm to reach down, and down, and out. I don’t think it would have been powerful enough to do much, away across or beneath the waves. Near as I can tell, we humans are its centers of coordination. It always hangs pretty close. So whatever happened down there probably was not conversion, purely. But Profusionist machines talk to each other. In fact, they never stop talking. And if the warlord Jerem Cozak construed his relationship with the Swarm as one of agreement, would other accords not be possible?
So up, up, and up now came the machines of the deep. I had blamed the fog initially on warm air from the tropics. But thing is, the air hadn’t changed at all. What happened was the water got colder, coming up from places sunlight never reached. Machines from the ocean depths, machines from all the nearby waters. Coming to do the bidding of the White Swarm. I don’t think even the Swarm knew what that would be, precisely. Like I said, centers of coordination. But the Swarm would want what I wanted. It would help me complete my mission. And what I wanted right then was to be upheld.
My leap from the ramparts was for effect. I could have gone the long way around and down some grassy embankment. But I was in a mood. I was going to ask a lot more people to die for me. I needed to believe: in the Swarm, in Jerem Cozak, in my position in the universe. And I needed the greater flood of chemistry that the risk of death entailed. So I roared as I went, forty meters down. I had known, from all my time looking over the edge, what parts of the sea to aim for, all the deepest pools.
The valkyrie went in nose first. It did not explode. The surface gave way and the world erupted in stinging sprays of water. But neither did we sink entirely. Three or four meters down the water changed. It felt thicker, almost like a gel, clinging to my skin. My valkyrie and I slowed rapidly, stopped. I opened my eyes unto a shiny haze of silver and bronze. Mechanical algae? Some bronze metallic thing the length of my arm sped by through the murk, articulated and flapping like a fish. I felt myself buoyed up. A sphere rose even faster, just ahead of the valkyrie’s nose. It was about the size of my head, covered by about a zillion eyes, and emitted an eerie golden light. It sank away quickly as the light near the surface grew brighter. Just before breaking through, I looked down and saw vast shapes, darker against the depths, hundreds of meters long, broad fins spiraling over and over in the darkness.
I shot head and shoulders above the waves, such as they were. The ocean remained preternaturally calm, disturbed only by the ripples of myself and the machines beneath. When my valkyrie cleared the waters I felt its levitating field hum to life again. It rose still more, and I found myself looking down on the sea’s glassy surface from one and a half meters up, the customary riding elevation. The waters teemed with whatever machines composed that bronze and silver gel, which was spreading out now as far as I could see. They reacted to the energies the valkyrie emitted, tensing in the shadow of its hull.
I whooped in delight. I looked up to see the silhouettes of Nogilian and Ash upon the cliff. I spun circles upon the sea. I made a dash for the horizon and could not outpace the mechanistic multitude. The gel and the machines supporting it comprised a swarm of sufficient size that its edges could always respond long before you got there. And these things were all fast, designed for patrolling distances larger than the continents.
By the time I drew up upon the shore, I was all business. Nogilian and Ash had come down to greet me. I do think if I had looked their way earlier, I might have seen Nogilian run down that grassy embankment. All their eyes were wide.
“Guardian!” said Nogilian. “Such a thing has not been done!” Ash was too astounded to speak.
I nodded. “It’s happening now. How long to reach the Profuse Stair?”
He shook his head, frowning. “Three days, by the fastest greatship. But if you mean by valkyrie...”
“How long, Nogilian?”
He grabbed his chin, considering. “A day and a night, no more.” He could not hide his smile. He had been pleased to learn the simple Earth technique of towing artillery with valkyries. That discovery alone would have changed the entire nature of warfare on Thaeron. It had never occurred to them to try.
“Excellent. We break camp by dusk. Full gear. Don’t tell them why. But I want an overnight rest there before we assail the Stair.” I intended to make full tactical use of the fact that the cliffs faced east.
Ash had finally gained the wherewithal to talk. “But how, Guardian? How is this even possible?”
“Wonders of the world, lieutenant. The wonders of your world. Have you ever wondered why the White Swarm would be found here on Thaeron, of all places? Why not on Earth?”
He had no answer.
“You both have your orders. Ki should know. We’ll meet in my tent.” I went inside, abhorred the smell. But a strategy was needed. Time was running out. Soon enough I had my maps unfurled. It wasn’t long until Nogilian and Ash and Ki trooped in. They bore the ease of lieutenants doing things together comfortably on their own. I winced, so far had my command fallen. But I did not dwell.
Tactically, the situation was dire but possible. The Shuni wielded unusual weaponry we were not trained to fight. Together with the fact that we had very few spearmen, this meant that the most conventional assault would fail. Valkyries couldn’t scale the artificial cliffs, and the heights would be otherwise unreachable. I suggested a plan contingent on our few advantages. Nogilian approved. So did Ki and Ash.
We left at nightfall. It’s a trick riding a valkyrie in darkness. The White Swarm helped, of course, making us more visible to one another. And the gel of machines beneath us phosphoresced after sunset, showing us the blue, green and golden way.
My army of the dead did not even hesitate. Ki had not been as obstinately idle as I had been. She had built esprit de corps, or perhaps the White Swarm had. No more division between veteran soldier and long-time civilian. No friction between sergeant and platoon. We wove across the water like a flock of fifty thousand birds.
Watches rolled on. The seas remained so calm. I wondered if the powers of the machines beneath us reached far above these waves. The settled worlds would have once needed climate alteration, too. The sun swelled upwards into a cloudless sky. We followed the gel south and east. Once, in the distance far off to the right, I saw a few humped shapes on the horizon.
I looked at Nogilian, who rode beside me, and he nodded. “The islands between the lands,” he said, loudly enough to be heard over the whines of our machines. I raised an eyebrow.
He shook his head. “Augers would not be interested. No wells or citadels. No weapons or Profusionist machinery. No humans, ever.”
“And animals?” I asked, remembering chameleonic apes.
He shrugged. No one had ever looked. Or whoever did never came back. I wondered about the basic lack of curiosity on this world. But we did not stop at the islands.
We rode through the afternoon. Travel kit meant, among other things, rations consumable without dismounting. Ki had had everyone empty bladders beforehand, and the White Swarm was by this time controlling metabolism anyway. Normally, the greatest danger of a journey of this could would have been riders falling asleep and engendering collision. But neither Ki nor Ash nor I felt sleepy. The Swarm helped with measures beyond counting.
The cliffs reared up away south and west just before the dusk, true to Nogilian’s word – and mountains behind them, piles upon piles silhouetted against the sunset. Word was, the peaks called the Spine of the World were considerably higher even than the Gidwinn Mountains I’d seen around Ariel. They certainly loomed large enough as we grew near. The rugged nature of the southern continent had had the historical effect of isolating its lands from one another. Custom only possible by sea.
But there did appear a gap wide enough for our purposes, a sheer flat line atop the broadest cliffs that by the time we reached it would extend from horizon to horizon. The Shuni Plateau. The land we were to conquer.
And leading to it, the Shuni Stair, dropping down from the middle of that unnatural plain. I got so daunted looking at it silver ramparts that we were almost upon the sandy spit before I saw it. Frantically, I waved everyone down to half-pace. No use being all chameleonic if our wakes alerted everyone to our presence anyway. I wanted us sleeping on the beach with sentries only, no entrenchments, so as to effect the most surprising approach at dawn.
Which was something we were going to need. The Stairs were an assailing officer’s nightmare. A stack of eighty-one perfectly smooth tiers, each of them three hundred meters across. So every last bit of them capable of mutually supporting enfilade. The tiers themselves fifteen unbroken meters high, a distance that could not be jumped or argued or reasoned with. It needed climbing with quickswords, a slow and precarious process that leaves soldiers exposed along the way and exhausted upon arrival. The only thing that made it potentially accessible was the great ramp, fifty meters wide, that ran right down the middle at a perfect forty-five degrees, the steepest pitch valkyries could negotiate. Naturally, it would vanish or close off at the first sign of assault.
“The control is at the top,” said Nogilian. We had by now all of us reached the soft white sand.
“Yeah,” I said. I dismounted. I looked around, nodded at my scouts, who were the first to dismount beside us. I gave my orders. Darkness would be their time. They sped away, silent as snakes. They didn’t even kick up sand. I had long suspected that some of mine started out as thieves in Ariel. I wished them well.
I let Ki sort out the bivouac, cold rations, no digging but the latrine on the north side, bedrolls only because of the white sand. The Swarm would cover them. Sentries posted along the beach with orders to let by and quietly execute. Whoever came this way could not get back.
I circulated among my dead. There would be no brave speech at dawn. Instead I walked here and there, offering reassurance, now and then a touch. I massaged some poor soldier’s thigh, cramped from the long hours riding. I told them we were going to do a grand thing tomorrow, something not done since the wars between the cities, a time for them of mythical heroism and tyranny. I didn’t promise them a new Ariel, exactly, but I certainly let them think it. Most seemed encouraged. I suspected the play of the Swarm there, too.
When I got back Ash was waiting with the intelligence report. My lead scouts had returned.
“They’re definitely manned,” he said. “Three thousand just on the first tier, with artillery interspersed, and plenty looking down from above, far as the eye can see. Spearmen, mostly. They have sentries posted and alert. They watch both the sea and the beach.”
“Yeah,” I said. Damn and absolute damn. How had they known?
Not that it changed anything. I thanked and dismissed everyone, laid down, rolled over to see the stars. It was what most everyone was doing. I could hear the low talking, not quite close enough to listen to. The strange weather of our crossing had persisted into a night of preternatural stillness and clarity. The stars fairly sizzled in their beauty. Fool that I was, I thought about Earth, five light years gone. It wasn’t the right time of year to even see old Sol from here. This sky was alien to me. A one-way ticket, I’d told Nogilian. True enough to count. I considered molesting Ash, thought better of it. Twice would be a correlation I did not want.
Soon enough he bothered me instead, a gentle shaking of my shoulder. I opened my eyes. There was a subtle tincture in the east. Ah. I’d had one of those dreams that leaves one with an impending sense of doom. I cracked myself awake, shook sand from my hair because no one has ever figured out how to sleep with a helmet on. We crouched together, waited for Nogilian and Ki to arrive. Confab time. Nothing had changed. The enemy – opposition – patrols of the night had not strayed more than a few paces from the Stair. They were playing it close. Our plan could not be improved. I wondered, for about the umpteenth time, how the docks of the wharf at the base of the Stair could possibly be empty.
I sent Nogilian and Ki to line the beach with infantry. Ash to take his artillery to where they would be most effective. Which meant that I mounted up with five thousand valkyries to sit on my ass and wait. The glories of the strategic reserve, ready to help whoever got in trouble. At the insistence of Nogilian and Ki combined, who would gladly insert themselves in fighting. Yet they had a point. The cavalry had been my best officering to date. And no matter what I wanted, I was the moral linchpin of this army.
The sun edged the eastern horizon. Ash began the barrage. I imagined what it would look like, a line of suns screaming toward the Stair from absolutely open sea. From greatships that were not there. As sieges go, the form of it had to be an unexpected one. I took up my oculars.
Everything hit around that first level, energy blossoming all along the first or second wall and among the garrison and the artillery there. Good. And there went the stair, the ramps between the tiers falling away in slow succession, with slams that rippled the waters at my feet, far out on the sandy spit. I would have worried more if they hadn’t. I counted off the time it took.
Came the next barrage, and a third. Finally, the artillery of the stair responded. Artillery disks do make wakes, even against the backdrop of the sun. But the bombardment was their few dozen against our five hundred. And counter-attack was mostly just the signal that sent Nogilian and Ki in motion. If it was going to take a lot to get sixty thousand men up on those first tiers, it certainly was going to take a hell of a lot of distraction to get them up there unnoticed. I was trusting a lot to panic ensuing when our chameleoned forces started cutting their infantry down.
Ash increased intensity, focusing on the eastern stretch of wall, where our men weren’t. Because of the Swarm, I could see the ranks of Nogilian’s vanguard clearing the top of the first tier, tiny ghosts streaming up a giant step. Most of the Augers were dug in at the rear of the level, avoiding the bombardment. One could hardly blame them. This was not their battle. They didn’t have anything to shoot at yet.
But they were thus well positioned for a slaughter. When Nogilian’s vanguard drew swords and started hacking, you could see the panic spreading among the Auger ranks, men trying to turn and climb away from the invisible, mostly silent force that cut down their comrades in sprays of blood. Those that ran the other way did so right into the vanguard of Ki’s forces, just now reaching the center of the first stair, flanking. I imagined they died wondering where the high-pitched ringing of quickswords came from.
Ash’s artillery fell silent as it moved in closer. The first tier was ours in all but name. Nogilian needed cover on the second and third.
“’Ware ships!” came the cry. My head shot around, vision through the oculars blurry with the movement. Three hulls to the southeast, greatships coming from around the horn of the mountains. I understood. Hide in a cove until the invasion happens, swing round to pin your opponents against the base of the Stair. But three? That was all?
“Valkyries!” I shouted, to be heard up and down along the sand. “To sea! Scuttle! Repeat: do not board! Damage and destroy.” This was going to be fun. No navy really prepares for a cavalry attack.
We sped. The machine gel was already spread before us, to support the artillery that even now was aligning for another barrage.
“Three columns!” I shouted over the sea. “Split off by squad! Line assault!”
We accomplished the maneuver just before we reached them, files of chameleoned valkyries streaming toward each greatship. I led the center line, dwarfed by the mass of the hull, reaching as far above the waters as any of the tiers Nogilian was climbing. I neared, slowed, drew my quicksword, dropped the tip. I let it bite the hull just below the waterline, eased forward. The thing about Profusionist metal is that its healing abilities are limited. My slice alone, it could have mended. But it could not recover faster than the hundreds of blades that deepened the cuts as we rode forward.
I’ll never know if the machines from the deep helped or not. But I suspect they did. That first hull keeled over pretty quickly. And the water churned furiously beneath us. The spearmen atop had just realized what must be happening and started to fire at the waves when the whole ship listed. I backed off, saw the other greatships tilting too. I ordered everyone out and away, sped back toward the spit. Mission accomplished.
Something strange, though. No more artillery barrage. Ash had his disks hitched to valkyries and everyone heading toward the beach. I swerved to inquire.
Ash was pallid when I arrived. “Five, six tiers up when it happened,” he said. “Nogilian a few higher. They had to break. I couldn’t...they’re all mixed –”
“What?” I asked. “What’s happening, Ash?”
“They see us, Guardian! Chameleon doesn’t work anymore. They see right through it, like somebody flipped a switch. Everyone’s stretched out. Taking fire from all directions, especially the tiers above. Ki’s fighting man to man, Nogilian’s pinned down. Their heatwhips – our men don’t know how to fight them. They just get tied up. They’re getting torn apart up there.”