(Download the audio version of this story here – reading by Xan Nyfors.)
Oily rain wept down from the black sky and sizzled where it struck the rusty catwalks. Occasionally, a bolt of lightning would shriek down and dance across the iron shields that protected the upper reaches of the city and for a moment, the darkness would be swept aside in a flash of painful brilliance.
Despite the rain and the lightning, the walkways and catwalks were choked with people as the city went about its business. Impromptu markets sprang into existence as merchants of all stripes and legitimacies hawked their oft-recycled wares to the dull-eyed populace. They sold protective amulets and powdered ancestors; dreams of protection and safety, though everyone knew the truth of it.
The city was humanity’s last stand, a cruel empire of one, stagger-dancing down the final feet of time’s corridor. And outside of its walls, old things raged and fought in an entropic cacophony that had engulfed the rest of the world one mind at a time. The Old Ones had taught mankind new ways to shout and kill and revel in the doing so, and all of the Earth was burning in a holocaust of madness and freedom.
But not in the Empire; not in the last city of a once-proud race…there was order beneath the Iron Curtain. There was order and safety, of sorts, if it was all the crueller than the chaos outside because it could be taken away.
Eliza Whateley knew all about that, and now she ran, her albino skin going the colour of basalt and her pink eyes going the colour of the far stars. It wasn’t just the hues that were changing, but the shape of her pupils and her bones, the latter shifting and cracking quietly whenever she tried to catch a few precious moments of sleep.
The horns had been first; twin nodules of calcified bone, poking up through her crinkly hair. They had grown so fast and become so heavy that she had been forced to keep her head covered by her rain-hood even on the rare dry days. Then her toes had stuck and grown into curved cloven hooves so that when she ran, she made a sound unlike anything anyone in the city had ever heard before, except in nightmares.
She was running now, her hood tossed back, her breath coming in short, sharp gasps. She gripped balance cables and rail-wires, hauling her aching body along, out into the burning rain and through the packed crowd. Curses and other querulous noises filled her ears as she shoved through the crowd, her hooves stomping on feet, her elbows digging into kidneys, hips and shoulders.
Someone made a grab for her and fingers tangled in her unwashed hair, and she whirled, cocking her head and gouging at the offending hand with her horns. The owner of the hand screamed and suddenly the entirety of the crowd turned on her like an injured beast. Blindly she fought back. She was stronger now than she had been, her muscles moving beneath her gape-pored flesh like pistons.
“Get away from me!” she shrieked, wrenching a struggling shape-whether man or woman, she couldn’t tell-into the air and hurled it into a flickering neon sign. The sign exploded into a shower of multicoloured sparks and there was a smell like burnt pork. The crowd’s fury faded, replaced by fear. The tide drew back, leaving her alone in the centre of the catwalk.
Breathing heavily, she looked around, peering through a curtain of hair, her changed eyes making everything seem hazy and odd. “Get away,” she said, more quietly. Her voice had changed as well, becoming rougher and yet somehow more feminine. Her breasts heaved and her hips ached, though whether from the posture forced upon her by her hooves or something else, she couldn’t say. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
That was a lie. She did want to hurt them, to stamp them to paste beneath her mighty hooves and dance on their bones. It was in her to hurt them; she had been bred for pain, her gene-stock curdled and sour with the milk of the Old Ones. Whateley 65-A, the most changed, the most infected, the most tested. Even more than Marsh 12-C or Jermyn 6-13, the Whateley stock was a potent brew. Hardy and strong, that was how they had described her, the men in the white butchers’ smocks with their lilting accents. Hardy and strong, a new breed of person capable of surviving…what?
She had not remained long enough to find out.
A loud hum filled the air and her palms flew to her ears. She jerked her head up, glaring around her, trying to spot the tell-tale ripple that would reveal the location of her pursuers. Out of the meeting point of two walls a thin trickle of mist met the rain and turned to sludge. Time seemed to slow as she watched the thing behind the mist force itself out of a point no wider than an eyelash. The Tind’losi had found her.
It was said that they could follow a scent through time and space, being things of raw geometry and sentient mathematics rather than meat and bone. Artificial alchemical intelligences made of numbers and hate. They said the Empress Tsan-Chan, in her cosmic cruelty, had wrought them into being with ceremonies of abstract pain and untold consequence; that she had made them in her corkscrew palace to be her harbingers into the past. Hunters for the raw life-stuff needed to keep the ever-dwindling genetic pool of the remnants of the human race vibrant and functioning. They stalked the corridors of time, dragging back those would not be missed in the centuries past to the endpoint of time where they were used and discarded; drained to keep the vampire-earth spinning for one more generation.
The hound forced itself out of one space and into another. It was all canine grotesquery; bubble muscles under squirming flesh that pulsed with a thousand colours, draped over long rubbery bones. Teeth like jagged shrapnel spun in a triangular maw and eyes the colour of urine glared at her with single-minded determination.
They had followed her soul-musk through the angles and shadows and now they had come to drag her back to the Pnakoticopticon, and the tests and the chemicals and the men in butchers’ smocks with their brass hands and syringe tipped fingers. Back to be torn open and tested and finally broken down back into the ubosathla to be re-grown and retested again and again until they were satisfied.
She knew this because she remembered it. She remembered it in the coruscating spiral of her genetic code; she remembered each birth and death as if it were her own. She remembered Wilbur and Lavinia and Zebulon and Agatha and Herbert and Spiro and all the other Whateleys, each one more Eliza than the last, until she had been born and had begun to become herself, complete and whole. Whateley-Prime was what they had called her and she knew that they were right. Just as she’d known that she had to escape, the way every Whateley tried to escape. To try and reach safety and the outside.
That they had sent the hounds only proved that she had been correct. In her head, the phantom voices of the others murmured in bitter satisfaction. The hounds had not come for them, after all. No, for them it had been the Empress’ guards in their beetle-armour with their E-Sign tipped shock poles. But if she was the best of them, she also had the most to lose.
“No,” she hissed, flexing her own talons. They had come after the hooves and she was grateful for them now as the hound squatted on its haunches and gave a sub-sonic bay, signalling the rest of its pack. “No! I’m not going back!”
The hound leapt, its body undulating across the distance between them like smoke. She swiped at it, scattering its substance, but it merely reformed behind her. Luminescent drool dripped from its mouth and splattered onto the catwalk with acidic effect. It lunged again and she sprang onto the rail to avoid it and then leaped out over the void.
The city spun beneath her as she crashed into a parallel catwalk slightly below the one she’d just vacated. People were screaming now, and someone had pressed an alarm. Eliza hauled herself up onto the catwalk, her heart hammering. People pressed away from her, making the E-Sign with contorted, trembling fingers, trying to ward her off. She snarled at them and tossed her horns. She hated them so much, with their wide mouths and round eyes. They gaped at her stupidly, like blind fish in a bowl. She wasn’t like them. With her piebald skin and beast-muscle, she was better. Superior. She could survive anything!
Pain spiked through her a second later and she spun. The hound’s teeth crashed together, inches from her face. Raw maths washed over her, stinking of imaginary numbers and poisonous formulas. She clawed wildly at it and it dispersed with a ghastly chuckle. Her soul felt shrivelled and ragged in her chest and she screamed in frustration, her hoof slamming down and shaking the catwalk. People howled in fright and tried to flee to the street platforms.
More hounds raced along the electrical wires and catwalk rails like mirages made flesh, blinking in and out of existence as they closed in on her from all sides. She looked down…she could risk a jump. She was stronger now. A fall into the sub-streets might not kill her. But it would trap her. She looked up, where the edges of the curtain stretched in vain towards each other.
She could go up, but…up meant out; outside of the curtain and outside the city. Outside was where the Old Ones capered and crawled, rending the world. The thought chilled her and thrilled her. The part of her that was Whateley, the part of her that was black and cloven-hoofed, wanted to go up and out, to join the Old Ones Outside. But the other part of her, scared albino Eliza, wanted to run down and hide in the dark until the hounds found her at the last. That was what it meant to be human after all…to run and cower in the dark.
In the end, it was no choice at all. She leapt straight up as the hounds closed in. Her claws dug into the iron and her palms blistered from the touch of the symbols carved into the metal-warding sigils and secret marks culled from the lost libraries of Pnakotus and Irem and patched together into a protective blanket by the Empress Tsan-Chan. The sigils held back the madness outside, and kept the dwindling ranks of Man safe in a womb of magic and metal. But they would only hold for so long.
That was why they had created her and her kind, she knew. Wilbur and the others whispered the truth of it in her ears. It was why the Empress had scoured the Earth in those savage final days, hunting for the gene-stock of those who already had contact with Those on the Threshold.
Her hooves struck iron and trailed sparks as she climbed with simian speed. Wilbur had been a climber. She had memories of places long lost now…a rotting farm house and a ring of stones. Genetic memories embedded in her thoughts like instincts. All the Whateleys knew these places and dreamed of them. They dreamed of other things too, things that cried out for divine parents in lonely places.
Did she have a twin out there? A long-lost uncle or aunt, invisible and inhuman. A thing of alien proportions and familiar scents. It would be nice if that were so. Her only family now were the ones she had in her head. There were multitudes in her, but she was only one. But if she could just escape. Just get outside…
Below her, the hounds began to scale the Curtain, their fluid shapes not quite touching its surface. The symbols were anathema to them just as much as they were to her. She hissed in pain as she tried to speed up. Her muscles were cramping, though whether from the effort or from the poison in the symbols she couldn’t say.
Ethereal claws scraped through her leg and a scream was wrenched from her throat. She nearly lost her grip, but managed to hold on, if only barely. Snarling, grabbed one of the plates of the Curtain and yanked it free. Steam and foul vapour rose from between her fingers, but she ignored the pain and swung the plate-and the sigil decorating it-towards the hound as it slithered towards her.
The beast exploded with a yelp, bursting into phantom shapes that drifted down like ash. Eliza chucked the plate at another hound and it sprang aside desperately. The howls changed timbre, becoming mournful and cautious. The hounds kept their distance now, pacing through the air, growling at her. Her hand ached abominably and she resisted the urge to look at it. Instead, she began to ascend once more, albeit one-handed.
The sky above was infinite shades of blue and streaked with a web of shivering lightning. Vast, amorphous shapes drifted across the limits of her far-sight. She shuddered on a cellular level at the thunder of their passing and she wanted to cry out to them, to say ‘take me with you’, but she could only lower her head and climb, the hounds nipping at her hooves. They could not hear her, not behind the Curtain. But outside…
The hounds closed in on her, growling and frothing. They were enraged now, the numbers under their flesh spinning and flashing. Other shapes gathered, slinking down the curve of the Curtain. Iron spiders, with pulsing tubes and eerily glowing glass eyes clambered to meet her and contain her. Like the Curtain, the spiders were covered in runes and oaths. The Empress’ automatons, built with her own gilded talons. Powered by the thought patterns of the mind-skins contained within the halls of Pnakotus, they were the city’s first line of defence, its greatest protectors. They were metal golems with the souls of heroes, hierophants and sorcerers from Earth’s better epochs.
They haunted her nightmares and the nightmares of her other selves. Even more than the hounds, they terrified her. She swung out from the Curtain, avoiding the closest spider as it galloped towards her, claws clicking. Her hooves scraped sparks off of its back and she jumped higher.
Her ascent was roughly halted and she was slammed face-first into the Curtain, her teeth rattling in her jaw from the force of the impact. Just above the spider’s head a hologram splashed to life and hovered like a demented halo. A familiar face looked at her sadly.
“Is this what we have come to?” the Empress Tsan-Chan said, her thin, lined face twisting with a snake’s grief. “This? A clattering, cunning black brat? A goat-girl with more Outside than In?” The spider’s talons buzzed as they punctured her shoulder and thigh, pinning her painfully to the Curtain. The other automatons began to gather, and beyond them, the hounds hovered watchfully. Eliza looked past the hologram, towards the twisted shape of the Empress’ corkscrew towers, rising above the rat warren of the city. The Empress was there, sealed inside of shell of Valusian magics and advanced technologies. The Empress was always there, watching every corner of her city, every inch of the curtain, watching like a matron searching for vermin. She watched and made sure that mankind remained human. Untainted. Unless it served her purpose.
Eliza squealed as the spider twisted her one way and then another so that the Empress could examine her with cool jade eyes. “Is this what I have been given, for my sacrifice? Is this what we must become? Satyrs and dryads?”
The hounds drifted closer, dripping glowing foam on the huddled, watching masses below. “No. No, I’ll not have it. I’ll not trade in my silks and combs for a matted mane and cloven hooves. There is some other way. Some other method. We will begin again. We have the rest of forever to do the deed.”
Eliza’s struggles grew in ferocity. The sky was just there, just out of reach. If she could just-
“We will strip it down. Mine it for the strong links and start again. Perhaps less of the Whateley, and more of the Marsh. Less of the Lurker and more of the Sleeper. We will find the right mix. We will survive.” The Empress’ voice rang out across the rooftops, artificially boosted by the spiders. Below there was scattered cheering.
Above, only silence. Eliza looked up through the haze of black that was collapsing her vision and saw Them looking down through the Curtain, the way the men in the butcher’s smocks had looked down at her in her birthing crèche. Watching. Waiting to see…what?
“Through you,” the Empress continued, “We will survive.”
“Yes,” Eliza said. “We will.” And she struck out with her horns, bashing through the steel of the spider’s skull and smashing its brain-cylinders into flopping shrapnel. It reared in artificial agony and released her. She kicked out, shoving it off. It fell, jerking and thrashing onto the catwalk below, splitting it and hurling screaming people into the maw of the city.
The Empress’ hologram flickered and re-appeared above a second spider, but Eliza was already moving. She ignored the screams and curses behind her and scrambled up the Curtain. Her fingertips popped and bled and her hoof-pads blistered and curled, but she kept climbing, certain now.
Above, they waited for her. Waiting to see whether she too could burst free of her bonds, whether she too could escape her prison and run loose on the hills of men. Bright, massive star-things bent low over the city, like children over an ant hill. Wilbur and the others whispered in her ear, urging her on. Escape was within her reach.
Behind her, the Tind’losi raged on, outpacing the spiders. They bled out of the right angles, trying to cut her off, to her back. But she was too close now, too fast. Eliza scrambled up onto the lip of the Curtain and extended her arms, reaching for the forces that watched. Garbled non-words sprang into her mind and from her lips, the words she had been born to say, and flew like arrows into the maelstrom above, driven by the desperation of multitudes and a dozen lifetimes of instinct. The hounds fled, whimpering like whipped dogs as she called out the names of her fathers and her mothers and the sky suddenly roiled and bulged with attention. Vast faces, miles across and indescribable, peered at her with alien curiosity.
A gentle wind whipped her crinkly hair about her face and in her head the voices grew still as another voice, deep and sonorous like a giant’s heartbeat overrode them. It spoke no language she recognized, but she exulted nonetheless in its familiarity. The wind picked up and then she was rising, her hooves leaving the uncomfortable solidity of the city.
And as Eliza rose, the last scrapes of her albino flesh melted away into the black between the stars.
- Joshua Reynolds has been published previously in Innsmouth Free Press, as well as the anthology Historical Lovecraft, and he has a novel, Knight of the Blazing Sun, coming out from the Black Library in 2012. Visit Joshua’s website at joshuamreynolds.blogspot.com .
Illustration by Nick Gucker.
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