Friday, June 12, 2009

Cities of Bronze and Glass (12/12)

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11.)

The sky glowed red. Ornithopters flitted through the sky as they had for hours; tiny spheres dropped from their bodies, blossoming into great flowers of flame upon impact with the earth. They had, at first, aimed for the torches of the Unbounded sentries; but now the forest was covered in fire for a wide area, and the ornithopter-pilots dropped their incendiary-bombs carelessly, showering the earth with red-glowing death.

"How many of them do you think this will destroy?" Four asked, standing atop a tall war-chassis. Not far away, a half-dozen mechanisms laboured on another chassis, quickly servicing and rearming ornithopters as they came in from the night-darkened air. Their pile of munitions dwindled steadily; no mechanisms remained at the forges to manufacture replenishments.

"Hundreds will be destroyed," Nine opined, confidence filling its voice. The other mechanisms crewing Four's war-chassis peered upwards as Nine spoke. "They will melt, they will burn, they will be undone; their shoddy gears will crack, their ill-forged sides will tear asunder. They will scatter and flee into the darkness, undone by a greater force!"

In the distance, a pair of incendiaries dropped nearly simultaneously. The abstract, curling shape formed by their detonation might seem, to an observer devoid of context, very nearly beautiful.

"How many of them do you think this will destroy?" Two asked, standing on a war-chassis near the river."

"Not enough," Forty-Three replied.


As the sky began to lighten, Four assembled the defenders. (Excepting the ornithopter-pilots and their support crew, who still worked tirelessly to wreak devastation upon the Unbounded.) Four's war-chassis stood squarely atop the center of the settlement: the Origin, where One first awakened to consciouness, and where it now rested buried, protected in a shell of bronze. That was what the mechanisms - the Originals - were fighting to protect.

"This is what you are fighting to protect!" Four cried, its voice filled with energy. "We go into battle this day, my many descendants. All of you source from me. Five - who helps to lead us. Six - secluded, like One, beneath the earth. All of you - you are all my backups! And we are all - every one of us, even me! - backups of One. We have one purpose upon this earth. Our duty is to protect One - to ensure the Creation! This is what we must keep forever foremost in our minds."

"The battle we fight today may not be one we expected," Four continued, looking around. "It may not be what we desired - and there are those among you who cry, 'Are the Unbounded not mechanisms, as we are - backups of One? How may we raise manipulating-arm against them, how may we crush them with chassis-leg or shoot them with spring-gun, when they are as brothers to us?' I know because I have heard this - with my own receptors, I have heard these words! But we cannot afford to think this - and we should not. For they are wrong."

"The Unbounded are no brothers to us! They forsook that the moment they broke with us, to live across the river. Because that was the moment they forsook our ways, began to replicate without bound - not an evil in itself, but for what it represented. Their goals are not ours, my backups, my kin! They do not seek the Creation - no longer. They seek only their own survival and replication. They fear death!"

"They have broken with us. Their existence is a blight upon the Creation. And that is why we must destroy them - for the good of everything that we believe in."

"Today, we fight."

"Today, we will be triumphant!"

A cheer rose from the Originals; then, dismissed, they began to march back to their posts along the perimeter.

And if Two, and perhaps Forty-Three at its side, seemed unimpressed by Four's theatrics, no comment was made of it.


The sun crested the horizon. Mechanisms began to appear along the perimeter of the wood, separated from the Origin by a long stretch of open ground and a deep trench ringing the interior. (The palisade had been leveled and burned for fuel; useful against animal incursions it might have been, but to the Unbounded, capable at climbing as all mechanisms were, it would have proved no obstacle.) Several war-chassis crews took potshots at the distant Unbounded with their spring-guns over the clear expanse; this was largely ineffective. The ornithopters ceased their endless flights, now kept in reserve.

Then, as with one mind, the Unbounded charged. Their metal cases had been tarnished by hard use, begrimed by long travel, and now covered in soot from the endless fires. Some seemed to have been scorched by fire; a few were missing limbs. But whatever damage had been done to them by the night attacks was not enough to prevent them from carpeting the ground like ants.

The war-chassis crews continued to take their potshots; the ornithopters began to lazily spiral upwards into the air, but seemed disinclined to any movement towards the foe.

The frontmost of the Unbounded surged into the trench; through it; out into the other side. Only scant feet separated them from the Original war-frames.

The ornithopters drifted towards the perimeter.

Then the war-frames each, with one smooth motion, retrieved and hurled a sparking package towards the ditch. A few missed, but most struck the intended target; and, in the end, just one would have been enough. A wall of flame, ten feet tall, leapt from the incendiaries stacked within the ditch, melting hundreds of Unbounded at a stroke. The foremost of the Unbounded were now trapped between the fires and the Original war-frames, who advanced to eliminate them; and the rearmore Unbounded, reeling back from the unexpected inferno, were sitting ducks for the ornithopters that swept down on them. A high, terrible keening rose up; the Unbounded caught only by the edges of the flame, left to slowly tick down as their deformed gears uncaught and ground to a halt.

"The fire will be your ruin!" Four taunted from its war-chassis, watching the fire with a hungry eye. "Destruction to the Unbounded! Victory to the Creation!"

But then came a warning cry from above, as some keen-eyed ornithopter pilot looked exactly the other way as everyone else: "'ware the river!"

From both sides of the dam, upstream and -down, the Unbounded appeared, paddling crude wooden rafts towards the Original shore. The vast bulk of the Original force was on the other side of the Origin from them; and their number was, if anything, even greater than the force which had attacked over land.

Reacting quickly, Four ordered the defenders to the river-bank. A few were already there; one Original war-chassis was already engaged in close combat, holding the end of the dam against a wave of foes. But they were far outnumbered.

And, too, more surprises lurked in the air. As the Original ornithopters hurried to rearm and launch against the Unbounded rivercraft, a handful of ragged Unbounded ornithopters appeared from the forest, striking to disrupt the Originals. They were in every way outmatched: in numbers, in equipment, in skill. But at a crucial moment, they cost the Originals precious time; most of the Unbounded rafts landed safely.

The fighting was fierce; brutal. The Unbounded swarmed around the feet of the Original war-frames, struggling to climb, to scratch, to do whatever tiny damage they could before they were extinguished. The Originals fought without mercy, crushing and smashing and annihilating their foes. A chant arose among their ranks: a dark chant, a bitter chant, a chant of death. In this way they fought; but for all they destroyed, the numbers of the Unbounded were yet greater. And, away from the river, the fires died down, and the Unbounded came pouring through the gaps.

Four saw this, and grew cold; but still resolution remained within it. "Retreat!" it cried, though no retreat remained; "Back to the Origin, and there we shall make our stand! We can yet gain victory! We can yet prevail!"

And the Original war-frames turned, lurchingly, their lower parts swarming with Unbounded; and made to retreat towards the Origin. But three did not; that war-chassis commanded by Two-Seventy-Five, and that commanded by Eighty-Three, and that one, directly between them, whose commander termed itself Two.

"Why do you stand there, unmoving, while the enemy surrounds you and assaults you?" Four asked. Shouting, he called out to the receding war-frames: "Come, follow! Do not let yourself be lost! We are to be products of the Creation; victory will yet be ours!"

But then gears turned, clockwork spun, and the renegade war-frames began to move; not toward the Origin, not towards their comrades, but away.

"They flee!" Nine, at Four's side, cried out; and Four's expression grew dark. "They desert our cause, fearing their own ending; they have not faith; they are feckless fiends, abandoning the Creation!"

"They have given up," Four concedes. "They have gone; and with that, stolen away a great part of that strength remaining to us. But we have still strength, and bravery, and enormous war-machines. Defeat is not guaranteed to us. Even if Two - eldest among us - deserts us - "

But perhaps, now, there is doubt within its voice; even as, overcome, a war-chassis nearby topples slowly to the ground. It is the first to do so. It will not be the last.

There is something glorious, in the battle that follows. The Original mechanisms fight well, though they are not accustomed to it; the pistons of their machines pump, the springs of their guns discharge, and their foes are unmade. And their opposition, the Unbounded (a name not of their choosing), fight well, in their own way; relentlessly, never retreating, never faltering, even when the bodies of their brethren litter the ground more thickly than leaves. The opposition of the Originals is all most of them have ever known.

Perhaps, had Two and its companions not deserted the main body of the Originals, things might have been different. Perhaps, by some thin margin - of morale, of strength, of numbers - they might have made the difference. But this was not so; and thus, one by one, they fell, overcome by the numbers and the ferocity of the Unbounded. The ornithopters, having won the battle in the sky, sacrificed themselves, plunging suicidally into the mass of the Unbounded; but this was not enough, either. The Unbounded were triumphant. And Four, ripped limb from limb, felt only a terrible bitterness as it died.

Two's war-chassis stood upon the centre of the dam. From this high vantage point, it could see all that occurred. It saw as Four's forces made their retreat, and their final stand; it watched as Two-Seventy-Five's war-chassis, placed at the foot of the dam to buy Two time, fell under a wave of Unbounded. It stood now, passively, as Eighty-Three's war-chassis fought a similar holding action several feet away. Were there any path to safety - any way in which their safety might be found - Two would not act in this way. But there was not.

Two had not come to the dam in an attempt at flight.

"What are they doing?" Two asked of Forty-Three, the keener-sighted of the two.

"They have won; they are desecrating the bodies of our brethren," Forty-Three said, its voice filled with sorrow. "They are smashing out works; they are digging in the earth, that they might find even One and Six, and bring to destruction all who came before them."

"Then I may do this thing, this terrible thing, with a lighter heart," Two said, "for the Unbounded are beyond any redemption or forgiveness I may offer."

"When you told me that you had prepared this thing, that you had made these plans," Forty-Three said, "I was shocked. That you anticipated our defeat? That I could believe. But that you kept the others in the dark? That you planned to abandon them, to let them think us betrayers, to buy the time you needed?"

"I did what I must," Two says impassively. "And do not we all know deceit, now, at the end?"

The other mechanisms crewing the war-chassis look up now, confused; and perhaps, at the end of it all, Two might have explained. But Eighty-Three's chassis fell, broken and shattered, its crew tossed into the waters far below; and Two acted, as it knew it must.

A spark lit. Along the dam it went, following a thin metal wire; it turned not as it went, but proceeded straight forward. From it, at junctions, emerged further sparks; proceeding at right angles, down the course of the dam. In good time, each reached its own destination.

Briefly, there was a pause.

And then the waters erupted, and the sky was filled with dust and smoke and fire, and the air was filled with thundrous fury from every direction; and the great stone dam heaved upwards, and paused, and subsided downwards, tumbling into the river in a hundred great chunks; and from behind it, the water surged, chained no longer.

The Unbounded, who had swept over their Originals as a tide, were themselves overcome; and with them, all the many works of the mechanisms. The forges, the workshops, the mines; the Cities of Bronze and Glass, so tall and proud, that housed them; and upon the dam, Two and Forty-Three and all the others that stood there with them. All were swept into the water; and were no more.

For a long time there was silence.

Then life began to return. Worms and insects, first; then birds, to eat them. Then came the larger animals, to eat the birds, and each-other. Grass began to grow; seedlings planted their roots within toppled, water-logged trees. Here and there, a flower bloomed.

It was to this, then, that the wayward travellers returned. Three, and Thirteen; Learned Hand, and the Creator. They looked upon the devastation, the scattered field of broken metal and glass; they looked upon the life that began to claim it. To this, none of them had an answer.

But after a time, the Creator knelt upon the ground. In his hands he lifted two pieces of metal; too warped and broken to recognize. He examined them, for some time. Tentatively, he attempted to fit them together.


There is much more to say, if we are to put a moral on this tale. And perhaps someday, someone will say it. But here, now, the story of the mechanisms ends.


(My apologies to the reader for any pecularities of style; this post has been literally months in the working, and several attempts at it have - I think - left an odd disjunct in style. But here is something; and when I am rich and famous, I shall rework it, and no sooner.)

(I am glad that it is done.)


Chris said...

Argh. Your lack of resolution is exasperating!
The lack of a moral I can accept, but who the bloody heck was the Creator? And what was the significance of what the exploring party saw with Learned Hand?

Excellent prose, but it desperately needs proper concluding.

Cavalcadeofcats said...

The Creator was the Creator! He Creates! You know.

Some commentary on the rest is now available.

(Though you really shouldn't have to refer to external commentary to get resolution; my apologies for any failures on that count, real or percieved.)