Orphaned Worlds, 1st Draft, 2nd Excerpt
This next bit is the opening section from chapter 3, which involves Robert Horst and his companions.
Shivering, Robert Horst pulled up the hood of his padded jacket before tugging open the D-shaped hatch leading outside the Artisans’ Deck. Hinges creaked and a gust of snow flew in as he edged out into the freezing blast, then slammed the hatch behind him. The walkway had a flimsy canopy but was open at the side to the swirling winds which drove particles of ice and snow against the ancient, pitted hull of Malgovastek City. Robert hurried along the exposed gantry and up a flight of iron steps to a circular, sheltered platform. A covey of stick-legged Hodralog were buying whirlyglows from an emaciated female Henkayan who waved a handful at Robert the moment he came into view.
When he came here the first time, three weeks ago with Rosa and the droid Reski Emantes, he had made the mistake of going over to see. Whereupon the Henkayan vendor had stuffed whirlyglows in his pockets, hands and partly-open jacket, then demanded payment. Luckily Reski Emantes had intervened and paid up with what looked marbles containing different numbers of brassy beads. After that, every time he passed through he did as he was doing now, keeping his distance as he hurried to another set of steps leading up.
Above was a similar circular chamber with a low roof and louvered metal shutters which kept out the snow but let in icy draughts. Breathing out foggy clouds, he crossed to one of the exits and out onto a railed gantry bare to the elements, along which he dashed to the observatory, a small boxy building on pillars that rose from the deck below.
For once he was early and his Gomedran contact, Ku-Baar, was late. And since there was no-one else about he had the full run of all the viewing niches. He quickly ascended the wooden stairways to the highest catwalk and went straight to the nice that faced the great penduline city of Malgovastek. Winds moaned around the observatory as Robert trained the heavy scope on the upper levels, the Supervisors Deck and the Proprietors Deck, names dating back to the city’s founding nearly two millennia ago, according to Reski Emantes.
Such names had apparently hung on out of common usage, and now bore no relation to the current power arrangement which was an oligarchy of corrupt clans and guilds. Looking through the scope at the Supervisors Deck he could see light-globes and strings of lamps decorating the porticos, extensions and balconies built onto the original residential sections by successive clan bosses. The Proprietors Deck was more ostentatious, with glass towers, turrets and facetted, glowing domes denoting privilege and wealth, as well as the ruthless violence needed to maintain it. The rushing swirls of snow made the heights grey and hazy but Robert could still make out the Elavescent Hawsers, five mighty cables that soared up through a mile or more of ice storms and gloom to the underside of a colossal stone ledge where the ancient engineers had embedded anchors deep within the rock.
Malgovastek was not the only city suspended from that landmass-scale shelf, nor was that the only such shelf in the bizarre hyperspace tier known as the Shylgandic Lacuna. Robert still vividly remembered their arrival as the Construct tiership Plausible Response plummeted down into the Lacuna’s dizzying abyss, past jutting immensities of icebound rock, past other cities hanging in the murk like encrusted clumps of corroded regalia, some lit with lamps like dying embers, others looking grey-black and dead. Even as he relived those sights his mind reeled and he experienced a moment of vertigo when he thoughts of the limitless depths gaping directly below.
Holding on to the scope mounting he recalled the Construct’s last words to him before the tiership departed: ‘Robert Horst, keep in mind that no matter how grotesque and frightening the sights you behold, local conditions often vary wildly from one tier to the next. Do not forget that you are travelling through the cadavers of expired universes, the remains of their remains, the sepulchral ashes of eternity. You are not required to involve yourself in the survivors’ tribulations, only to fulfill your task – find your way to the Godhead and speak with it on the matters I mentioned’.
As he stopped to gaze through the scope again, he heard footsteps enter below then hasten up the steps. A moment later he turned to greet Ku-Baar, former captain to Mirapesh, deceased tooth-father of the Redbarb Clan. Ku-Baar was tall for a Gomedran and less bristly than those Robert had previously encountered during his years as a diplomat. He also spoke in a much more cultured, expressive version of the Gomedran tongue and held himself with a composed demeanor.
“Good day, Captain Ku-Baar.”
“To you also, Seeker Horst, but sadly that is all the beneficence I can convey to you this day.”
Robert’s heart sank. “No contact, then.”
“Once again the mystic Sunflow Oscillant has not deigned to reply to my communication.”
Robert nodded, weary of the waiting. When the Construct despatched them on this mission, they were told they would have to go through a series of intermediaries. The first one was quite straightforward, an abstract-dealer living on Zilumer, a crumbling, honeycombed world on the 41st tier of hyperspace: all he required in exchange for the name and location of the next gatekeeper was a hefty sum, which Reski Emantes swiftly paid. But when they came to Malgovastek on Tier 65 in search of the Bargalil mystic, Sunflow Oscillant, difficulties became apparent. They discovered that until recently the Bargalil had enjoyed the protection of the Redbarb Clan chief, Mirapesh, who, unfortunately, was fed into a bioshredder by one of his cousins. While blood relatives vied for the leadership, Mirapesh’s former officers sought new posts and the mystic sank out of sight, hiding in the warren-like undertanks of the city. Enquiries had led Robert and the others to a scrimmer workshop part-owned by Ku-Baar who agreed to help.
“Perhaps we should venture down into the undertanks,” Robert said. “I recall that you have previously advised against such action, captain, but our time grows short. Would not a well-armed escort guarantee our safety down there?”
“I fear not, Seeker,” Ku-Baar said. “For topsiders, a mere show of strength provokes retaliation. Please, allow me to pursue other channels – I have not yet fully exhausted all possibilities. There are a few undertank disbursers I might be able to reach on the eye-way. Indeed, I shall send out notes today.”
“I appreciate your efforts on our behalf and look forward to a swift and positive outcome.”
“I am please to be of assistance. Tell me, Seeker, where is your charming daughter and that amusing servitor machine?”
“I left them near the entrance to the Swaydrome – they expressed interest in exploring the stalls there.”
“The ones along the top balcony?” Ku-Baar said with an anxious tilt of the head.
“That is correct.”
The Gomedran seemed relieved. “The Swaydrome is a risky place at the best of times but on swaydays, like today, they hold pit-tourneys for organics and machines and anyone who strays onto the lowest seating level automatically becomes a contender and can be challenged by anyone or indeed anything.”
“I’m sure that my companions will take all necessary precautions,” Horst said, pausing to peer through the scope at one of the Elavescent Hawsers for a moment. “Captain, I’ve a question which I hope you will not find insulting, and it is this – how often do cities fail and fall?”
“Your question does indeed encompass a subject that many Malgovastins consider taboo, though not myself. To answer, I can say that we learn of such calamities about once every few years, either from rumours passed on by aerotraders or from the first-hand accounts of fleeing refugees, or – more rarely – from an actual visible sighting. I myself bore witness to one when I was a knife-cub. I remember standing out on one of the springwalks, and it was between the bells so it was late, and I was staring out into the ice-storm veils, watching them sweep and rush into dark vortices then uncoil again. Then something made me look up, maybe a sound or some change in the air, but when I did I saw a pale grey object no larger than an ishi bean drawing near, falling towards Malgovastek. The moments passed, the object grew steadily bigger and darker and I could tell that it would fall past our city rather than strike it. Larger it became, taking on regular details, the lines and corners of a city’s decks, blocks and towers. At one point it looked as if great red and gold banners were streaming out above it until I realised that the city was burning as it fell.
“I remember watching it plunge past less than half a mile away, with the hawsers trailing in its smoky wake and the veils of snow swirling and eddying in the force of its passing. Ever since I have been aware at all times what our lives hang from.” The Gomedran grinned. “I was an anxious cub who became an anxious adult. But insufficient time remains to those who tarry, Seeker Horst – I must return to my shop to make further eye-way enquiries after our wayward Bargalil.”
Bows were exchanged and after Ku-Baar left the observatory Robert waited a minute or two before his own steps back to the Artisans’ Deck, closing the D-shaped hatch on the icy winds. Inside it was cold and dim. This level of Malgovastek consisted of six main floors and innumerable refurbished and retailored subsections, silos and chambers. Lighting was intermittent, bioglobes and battery strips mainly, and the air had a dank, fetid quality. A busy stairwell led up to a curved passage of entrances leading into the top balcony of the Swaydrome. There were a few locals about, mostly Keklir, a bipedal race with short, powerful limbs and faces dominated by a wide, tapering snout with two mouthlike openings. Other species included Gomedrans, a few Hodralog, and the occasional Pozu.
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