Seyyal and her brother had been walking for nine days when they came within sight of the Mormo Plain, glimpsed occasionally from high ground beyond the ancient forest. It was four days now since they had left behind the last of the occupied Outland villages, a scorched and desolate place ringed by the characteristic inverted crucifixions, thorn-tree barricades and sewage-filled trenches.
They had left the tiny settlement of Rafirah – the closest thing they had to a home – on what was to be a routine odyssey. They swept through the desert, giving a wide berth to those areas which bore signs of human habitation, instead preferring their own company and what food and water could be gleaned from the land. They did not see another human soul for five days, until they came upon this last, rather larger, village. Guards stood on the roofs of houses behind the fences, watching the passage of the two walkers with something between fear and hatred. The village had a name now known only to those who sheltered within its macabre borders; another world-within-a-world washed up on the stochastic landscape of Levantium.
Villages, especially this close to Dis, were not welcoming to strangers.
They picked up the trail of another lone walker as it meandered its way haltingly through the desert and away from the village. For two days they followed the tracks, hoping that maybe it would lead to someone of value, but it did not. They came across the man, dehydrated to a husk and foaming his dying breaths into the ash. He looked at them with a mixture of ecstatic wonder and desperation, but he was beyond saving. He would have been better submitting to the crucifixion than making this futile bid for survival, but the human spirit never learns.
They pressed on for another two days, intending to reach the forest, then make camp for the remaining cold weeks of winter in Labek, a village which still retained a handful of usable buildings, but which was free of people due to its close proximity to Mormo. They had no intention of crossing the plain. It was a mystical place, the outermost sphere of influence of Dis, the huge, black, capital city that still throbbed and hummed beyond the mountains. As spring came they would turn south towards the great sea that lay beyond another almost impassable barrier of shifting sand. There were other survivors there, enough, at least, to make the journey worthwhile.
For years Seyyal and Namir had scoured the Outlands, claiming the bounties to be had on fit, healthy humans. The Cerberites and their overlords would pay handsomely for specimens they could use as fodder for the ever-hungry city now that the waves of willing migrants had dwindled. Migration had all but stopped in recent years as the villages closed ranks and hunkered down against the outside world. It was more than a century since the end of the war and humanity was reaching its lowest ebb.
Seyyal had been born seventy years – three generations – after Firestorm. This ravaged land was all she knew. Her family had scratched out a living from the ashy, parched lands way to the east of here, watching their few remaining animals die and praying for a rain that hung in the sky but rarely came.
At fourteen, Seyyal had headed out into the desert, returning to Rafirah only once or twice a year. She walked. She moved from settlement to settlement, sometimes taking two months or more to find other bands of survivors. In these early days it was still possible to find refuge in the villages, but as the stories gradually leaked out from Dis, the villagers closed ranks. Long fearful of the twin spectres of disease and famine, they now had other things to fear too. Life was precarious, and outsiders were treated with a suspicion that bordered on, or sometimes went way beyond, paranoia.
The Division War had been and gone from memory, its rolling waves of fire taking with it nine hundred million people as it spread to the farthest corners of the continent. Only its mythology remained. Stories of fires that burned for months, years, taking with them almost every living thing on earth and filling the sky with smoke and ash for decades. Rivers boiled into the black sky and were blown away. Rain, when it fell at all, fell like dark acid on the hot land. Even as the fires still smouldered, those not killed directly soon succumbed to starvation or plague, or turned on each other in the frantic struggle to make sense of this new world.
The three Foils that made up the super-continent of Levantium, from the Atlantic in the west to the Pacific in the east, from the Arctic to the great Southern Oceans, were laid waste. Fewer than one million people remained alive ten years after the war.
At the centre of the three Foils lay the Republic of Dis – a city state theoretically independent of Levantium, but integral to the running of the wider continent. It was the seat of government, home to the lawmakers. It existed here both because of the area’s strategic importance, and because of great reserves of minerals under the ground, minerals that fuelled limitless power for the super-continent. It was also the place to which the original Traveller had come more than six hundred years earlier, and that made it Ground Zero for the world that grew up in his wake.
It was Dis that drew the survivors in the early days. For half a century people gathered there, drawn by hope. Upwards of two hundred thousand people had made the journey. But rumours took hold of something dark beyond the walls of Dis, something from which not one of those thousands of people ever escaped. Get too close, cross the invisible event horizon, and all was lost.
Seyyal’s grandfather, a man who lived to be just shy of one hundred years old, remembered the war. His had been a farming family, out in the fertile valley around Rafirah. He told of great wealth: groves of oranges, limes and olives; fields of sheep and ducks and chickens and cattle; of vegetables so clean and fresh they were eaten straight from the kitchen garden. And he told of the technology of that old world, of things so fantastic they were mythological, things both revered and feared in the new world.
Saul had never left their village in all his hundred years, but his father had. Kane had been a brilliant scientist who had travelled to Dis, leaving his wife and family, and returning to Rafirah for just four months each year. He had worked on the robotics project and become a wealthy man. He had seen how machines could be formed in man’s own image to take what little unpleasantness remained away from those of flesh and blood. He had also seen first-hand the growth of the factions that ultimately led to war.
Like Kane before her, Seyyal now made the journey across the vast expanses of land between Rafirah and Dis. It was impossible to imagine now that all this had been settled land, rich and peaceful, sustaining of its human inhabitants. The land was now the enemy, turned black by what had come from Dis…
That old world, for all its fabulous technology, peace and ease, was not born organically from human endeavour. A Great Secret had been delivered. Saul told his grand-daughter of the Traveller, centuries ago, who had come to bring a new message. Out of his legacy everything grew. He had brought the word of technology, details of machines and methods which would have taken centuries to produce without that kick-start. He had paved the way for mankind to live as masters of their own destiny. They could control energy, power, disease, food, work and leisure, pleasure and pain.
Saul never spoke of Firestorm or the reasons for the Division War. That was dead history. His family had been fortunate. Their well had been a sanctuary. Three generations had lived in the catacombs beneath the well-head for nineteen months, eking out their dwindling supplies of food until the water became too polluted to sustain them. His mother and two brothers had died down there in the dark. Only his grandmother and he had finally emerged into the sooty light of the new world when they had no other choice. His father had died in Dis.
Seyyal’s grandfather had talked of many things. But of all his stories, the one that fascinated her the most, the one she kept making him retell in the dying light of the night fires until she had every nuance, every detail committed to memory, was the Prophesy.
The Prophesy told of another Traveller. In their world’s darkest days he would come, and he would bring the one thing the Great Secret had not delivered – the thing that came to obsess the rulers of Dis.
They could not master time. They knew it could be done, for the original Traveller was proof, but the Book gave no clue as to how he had made the journey, or from where he had come.
Whoever could find this last piece of the puzzle could master the universe and everything in it.
From her earliest memories, Seyyal knew that she had to find the Traveller before the rulers left in Dis did, and this was what motivated Seyyal through her journeys. She scoured the lands, learned how to survive out there in the wilderness, became skilled in hunting the scarce prey, tracking, watching, waiting. When the time came, she would be ready.
By the time Namir was ten he had joined his sister on these treks. They became searchers, making their living trading humans, but always looking for that one human they would never trade. And now, after years in the wilderness, their search was about to bear fruit.
They came across the man among the ruins of Labek. They had selected a shack which lay in a deep hollow below the main village, one which the fires had rolled over leaving enough of its structure intact to provide refuge.
But Isaac had got there first.
* * *
Isaac had lived on the fertile coast of what had been Soufoil Levantium for most of his thirty-odd years. Life there had been relatively easy as wells were easy to come by and crops could be persuaded to grow here and there in places away from the main fire-centres of the war. He too knew of the Prophesy, and it had fascinated him since his mother had told him of it with the rapturous hush of a creation-myth when he was barely four years old. That a Traveller had been responsible for a world of peace and ease was intoxicating; that another may be coming to bring something even more powerful was beyond imagination. He held onto this story as he grew, with nothing to dispossess him of its power.
Aged just twenty, and with the new millennium on the horizon, Isaac had made his first and, until recently, only journey from his home village. He stole a small fishing craft and sailed along the coast towards the rising sun. For three weeks he sailed, drawn by the tales of a huge city over the horizon… a city he was sure would hold the key to the Prophesy.
He landed on an island which lay some two miles off the coast, from which he could see the vast black edifice of the city. He spent a week there, planning and trying to imagine how his life would be transformed by what he was about to do. Food was plentiful and Isaac strengthened his body and his resolve to make the final journey to Dis to confront his destiny.
On his sixth night there he saw them. Black, leather-clad machines with faceless skulls came across the island following packs of dogs straining at their chains. Behind them they dragged the eviscerated corpses of two, maybe three, humans on blood-blackened sledges. Isaac cowered in a shallow cave as the machines drew closer, sure that at any moment they would find him and add him to their bounty. The island he had chosen to use as his resting up point was, he now realised with cold horror, the very worst place on earth he could have chosen; the place from which no human ever escaped. Like so many things that have assumed an iconic, mythological aura, the Isle of Fortunates was somewhere Isaac had heard of but never really believed existed.
He believed in it now.
The machines drew closer and he could smell the power, the raw animal energy of the hounds… and the blood of their latest victims. He almost ran towards the inevitable, to die a warrior’s death (if only to make it quick), but he didn’t. He cowered in his cave among the lush vegetation and watched his fate approach.
The hounds strained at their chains and barked as they drew level with his hiding place. The machines did not even look in his direction. They dragged the dogs onwards along the beach without even breaking the rhythm of their long, even strides. The machine at the back, one of the sledge-pullers, did paused to look in his direction, its polished visor reflecting an image of his frightened face, but it did not stay. It simply moved on and left him, drenched in icy sweat and barely able to breath.
It was this chance encounter which quelled any doubts that Isaac might still have about his quest. The machines could only have been sent from Dis, and the fact that they had not apprehended him (or worse) was evidence enough that his quest was meant to succeed. He did not know that the Cerberites dealt in absolutes: they had not been instructed to deal with the human they saw behind the beach, so they did not deal with him. He had no more meaning to them than the trees and bushes in which he cowered.
Without delay, Isaac took to sea again and sailed right at the cliffs below the city. From there, he climbed to the outer walls, vast iron-clad fortifications that stretched for some five miles from coast to coast around the peninsula, hemming in Dis and all that it contained. It took a good deal of ingenuity (and luck) to get into the thick walls of the city, unwilling as he was to merely present himself at the main gates and hope for the best. An armoured plate, its rivets rusted by the assault from the sea below, yielded eventually to his tenacious efforts. He had no idea where this tiny opening would lead, but as he crawled with bloodied fingers into the dark space beyond he felt himself being drawn ever deeper towards glory.
Even at this stage, his plans were ill-formed. If he had a plan at all it was to get as deep into the city as he could before demanding to see the highest official he could in the government. From there he would reveal his divinely-inspired purpose to be the one to find the Traveller and fulfil the Prophesy, and would take what instructions he was issued.
Hiding out in the labyrinthine world within the walls, making plans to get into the city unnoticed, he stumbled across an ancient chamber. At the end of one corridor was a room, painted pure white and without apparent purpose. It was not a store-room nor a prison; it was not used as a spy-chamber (although its one tiny window did look out across the river and into Exdis beyond), but it had been occupied.
Beneath a plank bed tucked under the sloping eaves of this room Isaac found a file of papers.
Paper anywhere was rare. Possession of printed material without specific legal imperative was a serious crime. Serious enough that the Council no longer bothered with deportation to the Penal Colony in the west, but had found a variety of new and novel ways of putting the prisoner to death. But it was not this fact that kept Isaac barricaded in that room until he had committed every word of that file to memory. It was the name on the front cover.
Fulgar had been one of the leading lights in the Robotics Project before the war. His part in the escalation of hostilities between the Government and G4, hostilities which led directly to the Division War, was the stuff of legend. He was variously a freedom fighter, a political agitator, a spy, an insurgent or a fool… but above all he was a man on the inside. John Fulgar knew stuff… and what he knew was dynamite. He had been sent to the Isle of Fortunates for execution shortly after the war but not, apparently, before he had spent some time in this white cell.
Isaac read and reread every page of the slim file that this man had left behind almost a hundred before. It confirmed everything he suspected of the Prophesy, and by the time he had committed it to memory and burned the pages before anyone else could see them, he had no doubt whatever as to why Fulgar had been executed.
The file told of three events – events the Government had tried to keep secret and of which Isaac and his kind had been all but ignorant.
A false prophet had come in the year 1851. This was the first time in almost half a millennium that anything had come across time to them. The machine had arrived in the Penal Colony, and was taken unopened to the laboratories in Dis for examination. There was no Traveller, just a frog, but the machine itself yielded many secrets. They stripped it and examined it in minute detail.
They discovered from its on-board navigation system when and where it had come from. The only thing they never discovered was exactly how.
The machine was returned to the colony. Having learned all they could from it, it was thought increasingly dangerous to keep it in a place far removed from where it had arrived. There were enough people in the government of Dis who believed that the appearance of the machine was a portent of things to come. So it was sent back to the prison where for eight years it became a shrine (complete with the skeletal effigy of their own vision of the ‘Traveller’) until it mysteriously vanished without ceremony or warning.
There was nothing for thirty years, then another machine came. It too came to the colony.
This time the machine brought a dog. No one doubted that it was a sign; a sign that the machine was undergoing some kind of test – maybe of the technology, maybe of the world into which it was being sent.
Again the machine was taken to Dis, where the little dog was adopted by the ruling council as some kind of talisman. Little more had been learned about how the machine worked before it vanished again, this time before they had a chance to return it to the colony. Fortunately, the dog had been sleeping in the machine at the time.
These two events, while not exactly common knowledge, were certainly things that Fulgar and many who worked for the Government would have known. Although these stories were of great interest to Isaac, they did not advance his quest very much. What did advance his quest was what was written in the final section of the file.
On the eve of war in 1899 a human Traveller had come, and he had come directly to Dis. With war looming and the Robotics Labs in chaos, no tests had been done on the machine. Fulgar wrote of his time with the Traveller, but curiously nothing of the reaction of either the Government or of G4. Had Fulgar somehow managed to keep this visit to himself? The file also ended abruptly with no mention of the Traveller ever having left, only that he had last been seen in the ruined town of Orbis.
So had he lived the rest of his life amongst them? Or was he maybe still here, more than a century later, laying plans for another, final visit? A final visit that was already scheduled, according to Fulgar’s notes.
Isaac needed to think. He slipped out of the cell by its tiny window and descended the rocks to the coast below. In the stolen fishing boat he headed home.
For almost ten years he waited. Ten years of having to keep a secret, of tilling the land, of the endless cycles of sun and nature. Ten years when he could not breath a word of what he had found in the walls of Dis. He could not even tell his closest family that he had been to Dis, so fearful was he that they might wheedle out of him the truth. Worse, it was possible – probable – that there were spies in his village, listening to his every utterance.
Isaac allowed himself a year to make the return journey to the capital. He dared not go by sea this time as it would mean passing dangerously close to Dis before he was ready. He dared not even take a horse or camel for the arduous desert journey as such large animals would be too easy to follow should his enemies pick up his trail.
So he walked. For nine months he walked, mostly by night, stealing food from fields where he could, or scavenging sticks and roots and trapping rats and cockroaches where there were no crops.
By the time he reached Labek, just weeks before the date he had been dreaming of for years, Isaac was close to starvation and even closer to madness.
It was in this hide-out in the ruins of Labek that Seyyal found him. By then Isaac had been camped for almost a month with only his own thoughts for company. What he had read in John Fulgar’s file had set him on a new path all right, but not the one he had envisaged. As surely as if the file had been infused with a slow-acting poison, Isaac was dying. By now he had slipped into the role of prophet himself – the role of a man who stood at the entrance to their world, ready to welcome the Traveller and accompany him into the heart of Dis. He had been chosen. He would be blessed by the Keeper and feted for all eternity.
Unfortunately, the truth was rather more mundane. So exhausted was he by the long years of keeping his secret even from his own family, that his already weak mind conspired with his long starvation diet to drive him into a state of near delirium. He was too weak now to find food; his bones stood out from his grey skin and his eyes were clouded with death. By the time Seyyal stood in the doorway with the setting sun behind her and glowing through her braided hair, Isaac was just about ready for a visit from an angel.
And Seyyal was more than happy to give him what his mind so craved. She listened to his stories, soothed him, unburdened him. She took away the pain and fear.
At first Seyyal had been skeptical. Isaac’s story was too fabulous to be credible and he had been too willing to share his bounteous knowledge for her to trust him entirely. But what he told them did tally with the stories that Saul had spun around the camp fires of her childhood.
Little by little Seyyal was drawn into the madness of Isaac’s quasi-religious ramblings, and little by little she teased out the strands that could be of use to her and her brother.
The final piece of the puzzle had been harder to come by. Isaac’s dying mind still knew that this last fact was the ace in his hand, and that without it he was nothing. He held out for four days. Four days during which Seyyal drugged him with a mixture of herbs which would heighten his senses and spin his mind up to fever pitch. Isaac did not sleep, he neither drank nor ate. Eventually his ace was laid on the table with a flourish of triumph and relief.
The scientists in Dis had data-mined the navigational computers on the Frog machine and the Dog machine, as they became known. What they discovered was a ticking bomb. It proved that there was organised, deliberate thought behind these seemingly random visitations, and that these early visits were almost certainly leading to something bigger.
Both these machines had come from almost exactly the same time. Although they had arrived thirty years apart, they had travelled from just days apart.
And Isaac knew on what days those experiments had taken place.
It was a beetle-black night, long past midnight, and the camp fire had dwindled almost to nothing. Isaac sat on a rock outside their shelter staring out into the desert, as he so often did, as Seyyal walked up behind him. There was no need for stealth. What little remained of the man’s mind was lost in the swirling chaos of his plans and dreams.
They could still have revived him. They could have taken him where they were going. They could have let his life have the meaning he so desperately craved.
But Isaac had been insistent that he would deliver the Traveller to Dis and claim his reward, and that was not a vision of the future that Seyyal shared. She had other plans, and they did not include allowing the Traveller anywhere near the evil that lay within the city.
Seyyal cupped her hand under Isaac’s chin and before he could react she slid the blade of her knife across his throat. She was thorough. A second pass cut so deep the blade caught on the bones of his neck.
She let him slump forward into the dust. There was no way of knowing who else this man might have told his stories to. She hoped no one, but she was satisfied of one thing: Isaac would not be talking to anyone now. The stories stopped here, and Seyyal had them all locked away in her mind, to be mulled over and sorted as she and her brother made their way with renewed purpose towards Dis.
The little white dog had come from the very day Seyyal and her brother now crossed the Mormo line and skirted along the coast towards Orbis. In a few hours they would be in the town, ready, waiting, hoping. The legends might mean nothing of course, but something – maybe faith – told her otherwise. The Prophecy was about to come true. Whoever this final Traveller was, whatever he wanted with this blasted world, if he was coming at all, it would be today.
The two hunters made their way into town by a path along the foot of the mountains. It was still dark. They had very little time left to study the layout of the town, scout escape routes, grease their plans until they ran like clockwork. Only once did Seyyal think she caught a glimpse of someone among the ruins. Humans did still exist here, but for one to be out in the open was rare. It marked him out as an outsider like themselves. Locals usually only ventured out into the streets to die. The dark figure disappeared quickly into another of the buildings nearer the centre before Seyyal really knew what she was seeing. It was probably nothing, but it made her more alert, kept her in constant look-out for hiding places, tunnels and buildings where they could melt away.
Dawn rose on their day of reckoning.
From the Aabas Gate on the borders of Mormo, they watched in horror as two Cerberites moved swiftly across the plain towards the forest. Even the machines rarely went through Mormo without good reason, and seeing these two figures crossing the barren plain, daring the wrath of the guardians of that hellish place, gave Seyyal a moment’s pause. Were they too late? Had their visitor already been caught, and the drones were now being sent out to clean up the evidence?
There was no way of knowing. They could only wait.
Seyyal and her brother slipped quietly from the house on the edge of town and moved further towards the centre. From the taller buildings there they would be afforded a better vantage point to watch for the drones’ return. The shadow man, if he existed, would have to be watched too. They needed to find out why he was here… and just how much he knew.
These were dangerous times.
The Traveller was coming.