|The Gate, Part Thirty
||[Sep. 9th, 2015|04:16 am]
(I apologise for the delay. Here is a link to all the chapters so far:|
The demon Hubal’s earliest memory was of eating his father.
His father’s serene expression as his children took their first, tentative steps, and then devoured him, tearing open his distended belly in a paroxysm of violence, birth facilitated by death. Milky blue blood mingled with the falling rain as Hubal’s older sisters watched from a balcony overlooking the cobblestone courtyard, the spitting image of their mother.
The doula wiped blood from the children’s eyes.
Later, after the funeral, alone on the terracotta tiled roof, braced against the wind, Hubal studied the titian sky. Overhead a flock of fliers Broadcast birdsong. He closed his eyes and Listened. It was nonsense. It didn’t sound anything like Speech, it lacked the reassuring cadence of his parents’ Voices from the womb. In that moment he felt a profound loss that he would never get a chance to know his father.
Life in the crèche was an adjustment. Sterile, white, clinical. Upon arrival he was separated from his brothers and sisters. The children were divided into different classrooms each according to gender; male, female, and parthenogenetic. Studies were largely self-directed and they were given access to the planetary network, the sum of all surviving knowledge.
A disconcerting chimera of carbon-fibre-reinforced polymer and Cyclopean masonry, like a black snowflake, the crèche resided in the heart of the old financial district, rising out of glassed ruins.
While the other boys snuck out to spy on the parthenogenetic sisters, the dormitory became his home, a refuge, where, nestled in his bunk, he escaped into books borrowed from the athenaeum.
The crèche was built on top of one of the most complete libraries in the world. Pressed into sheets of copper, texts which had survived multiple cataclysms were loaded onto carts and delivered to his room. Ancient papyrus scrolls too fragile to survive the decontamination process were off limits to students, stored in lead lined vaults, but facsimiles were available.
The exhilaration he felt holding those ancient tomes, flipping through the pages. He imagined a pre-atomic scholar reading by torchlight the same passages. He loved the idea of preserving knowledge.
Seasons came and went.
The hurricanes of the rainy seasons gave way to the blizzards of winter.
Behind thick stone walls Hubal developed a passion for space. He learned about the planets, brown dwarfs and Lagrange points, neutron stars and Roche limits. His astonishment when he learned that not all planets were tidally locked, nor did they all orbit red dwarf stars. On some worlds it would even be necessary to make a distinction between days and years! He read about the discovery of the Ingress, and how it changed the course history, more significant than the invention of the atom bomb.
With a child’s wonder he watched workers unload cargo ships at the nearby spaceport. From his dorm room window he watched as the falling snow melted on the tarmac. He could barely make out a dim speck of light in the dusk sky, a captured asteroid, the counterweight for an unfinished space elevator abandoned by a bankrupt zaibatsu during the last recession.
What kind of man was his father? It was a question that dogged him well into adulthood.
Hubal graduated from the crèche, went home to visit his mother, and immediately enrolled in a seminary, the only male in his family to do so.
The seminary was part of a complex of inverted onyx pyramids of various sizes. Of the civilization that built them little was known, the records consumed in a great conflagration. Re-purposed long ago, they now served as a campus.
During long shifts working in the musty basement of the seminary’s archive Hubal sifted through old news articles.
An account of a fire that had swept through an entire district, razing to the ground hundreds of buildings and multiple arcologies, leaving millions homeless.
His father was working at a scriptorium when it happened, transcribing onto deoxyribonucleic acid ancient texts that had survived the most recent war. He assisted in the evacuation of an apartment building, saving dozens of lives. He even managed to salvage a handful of first editions before the scriptorium was consumed.
And for the first time Hubal felt a sort of kinship with his father; the shared experience of being a scribe.
Hubal’s time at the seminary was spent buried in books on orbital mechanics and organic chemistry.
Outside its walls a decade of relative peace gradually gave way to rising tensions. The squabbling polities of the southern continent had coalesced into a confederacy comprising a loose coalition of economists, artists, and exiled politicians, including what were widely considered some of the best military strategists in a generation.
Markets fluctuated, commodities became scarce as bomb shelters were restocked.
Hubal’s stipend ensured that he was insulated from the worst of it while he completed his education, but it was always there, in the back of his mind.
A month before graduation, while others were desperately pouring over their notes, he decided he needed a break.
Passing through the rusted gates, he ventured beyond the walls of the complex for the first time since he arrived.
Down a series of narrow streets, past vendors and artisans, he wandered. The sights and scents of the bazaar.
An artificial canyon of glass and steel eclipsed the sun, modern arcologies juxtaposed with ancient stone structures. A soothing double siren sonata filtered down from a private penthouse, reminding him of his days at the crèche. Nostalgia enveloped him as he thought about how his life was about to change.
Eventually, without realizing it, Hubal found himself in the shadow of the Grand Central Terminal. He boarded a random vactrain and soon he was falling through the crust of the planet at several times the speed of sound. There were no view ports so he slept. The two hour journey spanned nearly 10 000 kilometers.
Klaxons roused him from his torpid state. The pressure difference was noticeable as he disembarked, carefully navigating the platform gap. The City, the capital of an interstellar empire, smelled different. Thick. Saturated. Eighteen billion inhabitants squeezed into a thousand kilometer-wide strip of unbroken skyscrapers, arcologies, and tunnels that girdled the planet, hugging the terminator, the line that seperated day from night.
From the Twilit Sea in the west to the colossal desert in the East, with only a narrow channel separating it from the archipelago of the volatile southern polities, The City had long since annexed all neighbouring municipalities. Hubal found the true scale of the ecumenopolis difficult to comprehend. His head swam.
When he Listened the noise was deafening and he had to stop almost immediately. He wondered how anyone could possibly communicate through the din. Coming from a small town of only a million where it was still possible to Hear the lightning of passing storms in the distance he felt conspicuous, naive.
He checked his device for ideas.
The Bath House was the obvious choice.
An obsidian monolith six storeys tall, it had survived multiple dynasties, countless wars, at the edge of the blast radius of a primitive uranium-gun fission bomb dropped centuries ago, it was nonetheless still standing, still in use. Busy, even, despite the recent uncertainty.
The crowds were unlike anything he’d ever seen. He stood, dumbfounded. Like a fluid they navigated around him, a rock in a stream. The economy of movement was fascinating.
He would never forget the sound of her voice in that moment, how it caught him completely off guard, the beautiful, liquid syllables of her City accent.
The happiest day of his life was the day he was selected. To his astonishment his mother attended the ceremony, Broadcasting a dimly-recalled lullaby from the second row. It was the first time he’d seen her in nearly eight years. She hadn’t changed at all, though her increased stature was apparent; she was now the regional governor of their home province, flanked by personal security in the rain. She left without speaking to him.
Upon returning to his room he found she had left him a box containing some of his father’s belongings.
The following day there was a limited nuclear exchange claiming only a few thousand lives and he was on a shuttle bound for interplanetary space. Hubal would spend the next decade as a technician maintaining a solar shade, the only male on board. The sisters largely kept to themselves, which afforded him plenty of time to continue his genealogical research.
The box contained, among other items, a brass telescope with a cracked lens.
His father, it turned out, had seen the Night sky with his own eyes, had seen the stars through that very telescope. From the deck of a titanic icebreaker he had watched as dry-ice-bergs the size of cities calved into the Twilit Sea kicking up waves that threatened to capsize the ship.
A hand blown quartz bottle containing sand. Hubal’s father had also journeyed to the furthest extent of the endless eastern deserts of the Day, to the sub-stellar point, an vast wasteland where water boiled.
He’d written sonnets and Sung in a choir where he met Hubal’s mother at a recital. The box contained a program from the recital.
Hubal adapted to life on board the station. His reflexes still betrayed him occasionally; centrifugal gravity was subtly different, and microgravity was completely unintuitive. The food was adequate but the recycled air left something to be desired. It was too still. He missed the sound of the wind whistling through cracks in the window sill. Now his window was a view port made from fused silica and borosilicate glass five centimeters thick with nothing but hard vacuum on the other side.
The planet below was an infernal realm of sulfuric acid rain shrouded in a thick atmosphere, more like a sea of supercritical carbon dioxide, hot enough to melt lead. Lightning flashed in the shadow of the newly-completed solar shade, a tissue-thin megastructure 50 000 kilometers in diameter resting in the planet’s L1 point, blotting out the sun.
Planetary engineering was surprisingly simple.
The shade would block the sun. The planet would cool and after sixty years the atmosphere would begin to condense into carbon dioxide rain. Gradually it would drain into the lowlands and form shallow seas. The seas would freeze over as the pressure dropped and the remaining carbon dioxide would fall as snow.
The sea-floors would slowly sink into the molten interior of the planet as the weight of a hundred billion billion tons of atmosphere settled on top of them, forcing the continents upwards, triggering earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Eventually it would calm down. Only then could they begin carbon capture on a planetary scale.
It would take several centuries to terraform the hellish world, but biologically immortal species could afford to be patient.
And somewhere down there, he thought, were alien artifacts, just out of reach. An aerostat city revealed in radar, floating amongst cloud banks of vitriolic vapour, discovered decades before construction of the solar shade began. No idea who built it. Every expedition had ended in disaster.
He was going to change that.
He longed to see the Day.