Ventus – Day 28 of 135

Armiger decided to avoid a full neurophysiological exam for now. He just wasn’t psychologically strong enough to take an objective look at how much intelligence, memory and will he had lost with 3340. He could treat his body dispassionately, however, so he started with that.

His resources were painfully low. The gossamer nanotech that made up his real body had unfurled from its usual position at the spine, and spread throughout this human form, right to its extremities. Nearly all his energy was devoted to shoring up the body’s ravaged immune system. He had manufactured nano to move in and repair the dead cells of his own corpse, and until a day or so ago he had been warm and breathing only because the nano had replaced normal cell processes with their own harsh metabolism. Now the nano were easing out of revived cells and were being reabsorbed into his filamentary body. His strength was growing, but very slowly. At this rate it would be many months before he recovered fully.

He regretted having been so profligate with his power when he arrived. To think he had detached parts of his own gossamer and implanted them in humans, just to use them as remote eyes and ears…

Armiger opened his eyes. He had completely forgotten about the remotes. It wasn’t surprising, with everything that had happened; they had always been a minor part of his plans, the mental equivalent of posting picket sentries around a camp. They did contain valuable nano, however. He could considerably speed up his recovery if he recovered some of that.

If it hadn’t been too badly damaged by the catastrophe, he should still have links to each remote. They operated on superluminal resonances, undetectable on the electromagnetic spectrum; he had set up the links this way to prevent the Winds from homing in on his position. It was still possible to trace the signal back from one of the remotes, but that would require an understanding of human physiology and psychology that he knew the Winds didn’t possess. Superluminal links were always two way–what affected one station affected the other. Armiger knew of no Wind capable of exploiting the fact to turn one of his remotes into a receiver, so he had felt safe in making them.

Shutting his eyes, he called up their perspectives. The system was weak from damage and disuse, but after a few seconds the remotes began to respond.

There should have been twelve. By the time the system was fully up, Armiger could see through only six pairs of eyes.

Even that was nearly overwhelming. Somewhere in the catastrophe he had lost the ability to process multiple sensory inputs. What came to him now was a chaos of sensations: blue cloth waving near a fire, water down a horse’s flank, the feel of stone on his bare back, a warm hand on his belly–

–Pounding heart and ragged breaths gulped into a tight and painful chest.

He recoiled in pain. It was too much to take all at once. After opening his eyes and breathing quietly for a minute, he resumed, this time singling out one remote’s perspective.

This other’s hands smoothed the chestnut flank of his horse one last time, then turned away. Armiger saw he stood in a small stable, the sort attached to country inns all across Ravenon. This perspective belonged to an engineer who travelled the country repairing and updating the heliographs in royal signal towers. He saw a lot of the country in his travels, and more than once Armiger had used his perspective to gather intelligence.

Tonight he was idle, walking slowly out of the stable, through a light drizzle to the door of a thatch-roofed inn. Armiger stayed with him only long enough to see him slide aside the curtain to a private closet; a candle already burned next the small cot there.

Armiger turned his attention to the next perspective. This man was in bed already, but not alone. Several people sat on hard wooden chairs next to the bed in his small plaster-walled bedroom. Armiger’s remote was talking to them.

“…Came at me like that out of nowhere. Why? What did I do to deserve this?” He gestured at his leg, which lay exposed above the bedding. It was thickly wrapped in bloody bandages.

“How many did you say there were?” asked a man wearing the crimson ribbons of a priest.

“Five, six. I don’t know! It all happened so fast.”

“Well, you must have done something to offend them.”

“Not necessarily,” said another man. “Maybe someone else did. Matthew was passing by. He was a handy target.”

“I don’t understand,” whined the man in the bed. “How am I going to work now?”

“Don’t worry. We’ll help you.”

Armiger left this perspective for the next.

Still on her back. Cold stone and pebbles ground against her hips. Her legs were wrapped around the broad torso of the man who moved against her. Past his shoulder, Armiger could see bright stars.

He moved to the next remote.

Stumbling in the blackness, he went down on all fours. His own breath was a rasping rattle in his ears. This man stood, staggering now from a broad scrape down his leg, and ran.

Through leaves and dancing branches he ran–down a hillside, recklessly, barely keeping to his feet above prancing stones–and into an orchard. The limbs of the well-tended trees stretched skyward like supplicants’ arms to heaven. He barely glanced up at them. After weaving his way down an alley between the trees, he allowed himself to slow, then to pause, and look behind him.

Nothing pursued him in the darkness. He looked up.

The night here was overcast, making the darkness near total. But past the crest of the hill he had just come down, above the clouds, light shone as though men with lanterns rode some causeway there. The lights were coming closer, with apparent slowness.

He gave a cry that was more a painful gasp, and turned to run again. A cottage was visible now at the end of the rows of trees. Low, stone, with a goat-pen attached, it glowed with internal firelight, warm and inviting. He renewed his run, breathing harshly.

Armiger felt the boards under him dip as Megan came out onto the porch. She said something. He raised one hand to still her.

The runner had reached the cottage. “Lena!” he cried, then flung himself to hang on the fence around the goatpen. He shuddered.

“Perce?” A young woman appeared in the cottage’s doorway–uncannily silhouetted as Megan had been earlier. “Perce! What’s wrong?”

“They’re coming! Just like the old man said they were.”

“No. That can’t be. He’s crazy, we all know it–”

“Look!” He reeled around, and pointed at the glowing sky.

She screamed.

“What’s going on here?” An older man and woman appeared behind the girl.

“Perce!” She ran to him. Perce reached over the fence as she threw her arms around him. “What’s going to happen?”

“The old man said they wanted to take me away.” Perce laughed giddily. “We never believed he really spoke to them, remember? All those years… He said they’ll take me. And I’ll never see you again.”

She buried her face in his neck, crying. He could see her parents standing in awkward confusion nearby. They were staring at the sky.

“I came to say goodbye.”

“No,” she said, muffled. “You can hide here. We’ll take care of you. They’ll go away.”

“I tried hiding,” he said. “They found me–started to pull the stables down around me! I ran to the river–dove in and let the rapids take me awhile. That’s the only way I got as far ahead as I did. If I stay they’ll kill you to get at me. But I couldn’t go without saying goodbye.”

She shook her head.

“There’s so much I want to say,” he mumbled. “Something–I wanted to say something to let you know how much you mean to me.”

He pulled away, leaving her reaching for him over the fence. “All I could think of was when we were twelve. Remember when we played hide-and-seek in the orchard? That day? I dream about it all the time. Have, ever since.”

Turning away to face the darkness, he said, “That’s all–I remember that day. Goodbye, Lena.”

She screamed after him but he ran with renewed energy. Armiger deduced he wanted to get as far from the cottage as he could before whatever was coming found him.

Perce ran around the goat pen and down a laneway that led between more orchards. Low fieldstone walls lined the laneway, and in the darkness they closed in claustrophobically. Perce’s eyes stayed down though; he seemed to know what in the dark he was afraid of, and it was nothing that might lurk behind those walls.

He had gone perhaps half a kilometer, and was beginning to stagger desperately, when he heard a ripping sound overhead. It was a sound almost like a flag in the wind, almost like the blurred noise of a sword on the downstroke, but it went on and on, rising to a deafening crescendo. Dust leapt from the laneway around Perce, and he coughed, and stopped helplessly.

Giant claws crushed him. He shouted blood as they spun him around and pulled him into the sky.

Perce saw his hands reaching down to the receding lines of the laneway, then he saw the jewel-box perfection of Lena’s cottage glowing below him. It was intact. Drops of blood trailed off his fingertips and fell toward it.

Darkness fell over him like a cloak.

Armiger cursed, and opened his eyes. Megan stood above him, her expression quizzical.

Something had severed his link to the remote.

“What is going on here?” he asked himself.

Megan laughed lightly. “I was about to ask you that myself. What are you doing?”

He shook his head, scowling into the night. Suddenly the shadows Diadem cast across the clearing didn’t look so benign.

I have to leave, he thought. But, looking up at Megan, he found he didn’t want to say that to her. In its own way, that was as disturbing as the vision he had just had.

He pushed the heel of one hand against his forehead, a gesture one of his lieutenants had favored.

“You’re a mess,” Megan said sympathetically.

Armiger thought about it. Then he squinted up at her. “Dear lady,” he said, “I believe you are right.”

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