by Philip Armstrong
Part 1 and Part 3|
appear in this issue.
|part 2 of 3|
Without speaking, Loki and his guide, Chimera Ness, agree to pause for a moment. The air has cooled as they approach the high plateau that dominates the southern hinterland of Gondwana, but they are both panting all the same and their clothes are soaked in sweat. All afternoon they have been climbing a long succession of terraces, the sun beating on their backs. Now they see before them a line of rolling hills, steep but not rocky, sculpted like sand dunes.
In fact the slopes are covered by waist-high grasses, as they discover upon entering a valley between two summits. Mingling with the last light of the sun, the clumps of tussock soften the ridges and dips, so the hills appear blurred, like piles of dissolving powder. Wending through these, Loki and Mera get even hotter. Their packs stick to their shoulders in the heavy air. Even the movements of Lupe, Mera’s tracking dog, seem sluggish.
They follow the valley through the hills, turning around shoulders of raised land. At last their way is blocked by a steep ridge. Lupe, with a brief glance backwards, begins to climb in strenuous leaps. The others grasp at the tussock and haul their bodies upwards.
Reaching the top, they are blinded and nearly knocked backwards by a gust of icy wind, full of leaves and dirt. When they half-open their stinging eyes, they see before them a landscape so different that they might as well be standing on a cliff above the ocean.
The plateau begins at the foot of a short downward slope that lies immediately before them. The sun has set, so the ground appears dim and featureless all the way to a luminous horizon. In contrast the clouds are an inverted badland of ravines and crags, thrown into gothic relief by the long southern dusk.
But harsher and more substantial than earth or sky is the wind that forces them apart. On Galvanic Plateau, the high, wide centre of Gondwana, the wind is endless, and endlessly varied. It has its own architecture of whirling stairwells and swift passages, in which many different species make their homes.
On the long journey to get to this place, Loki questioned Mera closely about the fauna of the plateau. She told him about the largest creature native to the region, the Plains Condor, which possesses a vast wingspan and such atrophied feet that if it ever lands beyond the plateau it usually dies, unable to take off without a gale force wind. It hunts, sleeps and mates on the wing.
The female lays one egg only, which she catches and clasps in her otherwise useless feet, holding it against her body till it hatches. Once the chick emerges and the shell falls away, the male takes over. The mother bird drops the hatchling onto its father’s back, where it burrows into the thick plumage between his wings. He feeds it by spitting part-digested food over his shoulder, carrying the fledgling until it is ready to fly solo.
Mera also described for Loki the smallest local avian species, the Fanbird. Too tiny to master the winds, it spends its brief days thrown from one blast to the next. The Fanbird’s wings and tail take the form of rigid but flexible semicircles, slightly concave, designed to catch conflicting currents. As the bird is flung about, it snaps at any insect that happens to be caught in the same gust, for the winds above the plateau, Mera went on to explain, are full of invertebrate life too.
There are spiders that float in the quieter air above the hurricane-level gusts, clinging to parachute-shaped webs. Further down live a hundred different species of moth and butterfly, even more delicate than the Fanbird but following the same unpredictable trajectories. And of course, as Mera warned, no-one visiting the Plateau should forget the Silver Bullet-Beetle, which gains from the prairie winds the momentum of a musket ball and therefore — since its carapace is so well-armored against collisions — has been known to pierce the ribcages or skulls of humans and horses, leaving an exit wound the size of a fist on the opposite side.
Loki asks whether the region has never been settled, and Mera shakes her head. Its ecology is so hostile to humans that it has not even been fully explored, she explains, although the colonists say that small bands of Gondwano shamans sometimes cross the Plateau to conduct some unknown rite amidst the poor shelter of the scrub.
But this belief shows only that colonists know nothing about the dangers of the area’s climate, she remarks with scorn — nor about the one geological feature that does, in fact, allow it to be traversed: namely, that the Plateau is crisscrossed with channels worn by rain flowing from the mountains at its edges, which build into streams flowing into Galvanic River.
These channels are the only safe conduits across the plains, since their walls offer shelter from the bruising wind, with its lethal freight of stones and Bullet-Beetles. The trenches can be four yards deep, but never more than two wide. And since the tussock grows over their edges, from ground level they are invisible to anyone not already aware of their existence.
Chimera Ness, of course, does know about the channels. She also knows a route through them.
Impending darkness makes it urgent that they reach shelter below ground as soon as possible. Mera leads Lupe and Loki down the slope, and they struggle through the scrub until a dark opening appears at their feet. Gratefully abandoning the effort of keeping their balance in the shifting currents, they tumble into it. Inside the channel it feels like a cocoon of warmth and silence, although the gale still blusters noisily overhead.
Down the middle of the channel floor runs a deep groove through which a trickle of water runs. Mera points out that the greatest danger is that of a flash flood, adding comfortingly that such an event would be rare in this weather. Nevertheless they must keep listening for rain. Also, before they settle for the night, they should move as high up the side of the trench as they can manage, while still remaining under its edge to gain protection from the wind.
Moments after she says this, Mera falls into exhausted sleep, unaware that her two companions have beaten her to it.
In the morning Loki struggles to wake up. When he does he feels groggy and exhausted. His teeth ache. Slowly he stands, stretching and yawning. He shakes his head and goes looking for Chimera and Lupe, who as usual are up well before him.
He finds them both soon enough, just around the curve in the trench, crouched together eating breakfast. Lupe looks up and waves her tail briefly before resuming her meal and Mera greets Loki with her usual appraising look. Wordlessly he hunkers down and accepts some of the bread and fruit she offers him, along with a cup of coffee brewed on their little tallowstove. Above their heads, the wind wallops the tussock as it has all night. “Take a look,” says Mera, gesturing upwards. “It’s worth it.”
Inexpertly, Loki climbs the wall of the trench and raises the top half of his head above the edge. As the first gust slaps his face he sees an astonishing thing. Directly before him stand the monumental figures that give the area its name and uncanny reputation amongst the colonists.
Ranks of steel pylons a hundred yards high straddle the plateau to the edge of his sight. Some have not stood up to the passage of centuries and lie in twisted ruins, half covered in tussock. A few stand crippled and vulnerable, having lost their cross struts. One has even been bisected: the two sides have peeled apart symmetrically, curving down nearly to the ground. But most remain intact and upright, like headless colossi hunching their shoulders against the onslaught of the wind.
The closest plunges one of its four massive legs into the scrub a stone’s throw from Loki’s vantage point. He can’t believe they were invisible as he stood looking down at the darkened plain the night before: it’s easier to imagine they have marched across the plain and taken up their positions during the night, waiting for him to awaken.
Then he realises that these are the source of the vibrant bass he has been hearing half-consciously throughout the night, humming below the whine and flap of the gale. Now, as the wind picks up again and the sun breaks over the horizon, the metal titans begin to sing and shine in concert.
Dismayed by this unearthly performance, Loki ducks his head and slithers down to the bottom of the trench. “Let’s get going,” he says grimly.
As they struggle on through the trenches, it is Loki’s turn to answer Mera’s questions. She wants to know what he has learnt about the species they are pursuing. Her people have their own stories about it; but what do the scientists in Luxor say?
Of all the faunae of Gondwana, Loki tells her, the Scamels of the Galvanic Plateau are the least known to natural historians. No specimens have ever been obtained, no scientific documentation assembled. Nor, despite the testimonies of colonial zoologists who claim to have encountered the creatures in years gone by, and regardless of the native legends that surround them, is there any reliable extant description of the Scamels’ appearance.
This is because Scamels (if they exist) are never found alone. This, Loki explains, is also the reason they are never referred to in the singular: it makes no more sense to speak of a Scamel than to speak of a trouser or a scissor. The species’ ethology is that of the pack, carried to an extreme. Scamels act in unison, combining with a variable number of their fellows to form a large animate mass which, no matter how many component animals are involved, operates with the coordination and agility of a single organism.
Moreover, owing to an exceptionally versatile physiology — the zoologists hypothesize a flexible skeleton, overlaid with a supple but powerful musculature and a chromatically adjustable epidermis — these creatures can mould, colour and texture their bodies to almost any form. Hence a pack of Scamels, or a congress as it is called, always appears in the guise of some other animal, usually a familiar species.
On the other hand it has also been suggested that the freaks and monsters which lumber through the stories told by visitors to Gondwana might be explained by morphological improvisation on the part of Scamels. At any rate, the only chance of telling a congress of Scamels apart from the animal it simulates occurs when the creature in question is put in a situation to which it proves unequal — at which point the Scamels will rapidly separate and reform into a more effective configuration.
“But the thing that most fascinates us,” Loki adds, “the thing that I am here to try and learn more about, is the Scamels’ capacity for collective decision-making and intention. No current Luxoran theory of psychology, human or animal, can explain this.”
Loki stops short of telling Mera some of the uses to which this endlessly adaptable species might be put by those of the Pharmakon’s project leaders who have shown most interest in it — for instance those working on development of new military and management technologies.
There is nothing else for it: Loki, Mera and Lupe will have to make a dash from the shallow end of the channel they have followed into the shelter of the rocks. After taking some time to gather their breath and their courage, Mera and Loki, with a nod of agreement, leap out of the trench and hurl themselves toward the rocks. It is only about a half-mile, but all the way, they hear the whistle of debris flung past their ears and the ricochet of Bullet-Beetles hitting the stony ground.
By the time they throw themselves behind a turret of rock, Loki’s pack has been pierced twice and one of Mera’s fingers is stinging from a glancing blow. As she clutches her hand to staunch the bleeding, they hear a desperate yelping and Lupe tumbles into their shelter. Finding herself safe she wags her whole body with delight, exposing her front teeth in a grin of pleasure and licking Mera’s face and even Loki’s.
Looking around, they discover they are crouched behind a low escarpment created by an imperfect join between two layers of rock. Since this overlap runs across the formation as far as they can see, they will be able to use it as shelter on their way across the stone fields. But for now, their ears are ringing, and they are so exhausted that they agree to rest for a while. Mera lies down with her belly against the dog’s warm back, and Loki curls himself up a little further on. Unexpectedly they all fall into deep slumber.
Loki is awoken, he doesn’t know how much later, by a noise. Although it is not loud, and although his ears are still full of the blustering and rattling of the wind, he senses something odd in the quality or rhythm of this new sound. Turning his head to listen he sees that Lupe is sitting up, ears pricked.
When the sound comes again — an irregular pattering not quite in character with the usual dialogue between wind and rock — Mera and Lupe scramble to their feet. Looking above him, Loki sees the face of a large animal leaning over the rock wall above them, two black eyes observing him carefully, a black nose working hard. Moving backwards he can see more of the creature, which looks like a mustelid of some kind but larger than any species he knows. As he watches it rises onto its hind legs, swaying slightly from side to side, its eyes glittering.
Mera sees it too, but recovers from her surprise just too late to prevent Lupe leaping forward into the hunt. The strange animal, moving very rapidly but with such grace it appears to be in slow motion, throws its head and shoulders backwards and, completing a fluid reverse somersault, skims along the stony parapet.
Mera and Loki have to decide quickly what to do. They agree to follow Lupe in case the unidentified creature proves to be a significant find. Upon climbing the escarpment they are temporarily blinded and deafened by exposure to the unabated wind, and it is a while before they can locate the source of the faint barks coming from a rocky outcrop not far off.
They stagger in this direction and as they approach they see Lupe’s hindquarters and tail protruding from a narrow channel in the rock. Trapped at the dead end of this cleft is her quarry, its mouth open in a snarl. Seeing them approach, Lupe falls silent and drops behind Mera, evidently quite pleased to relinquish her leading role in the hunt.
After a hurried consultation Loki and Mera set up nets at the entrance to the channel and above it, hampered by the bullying of the wind. Then Mera perches on the rock directly above the creature while Loki advances towards it. As he comes closer, the animal’s snarl disappears and it drops to all fours, lowering its head. Uncertain what this change in posture signifies, Loki glances up at Mera, but her eyes, still fixed on their quarry, appear to be bulging from their sockets. Looking back down Loki observes the cause of this reaction.
The animal is dissolving as they watch, its body riddled with blurred contortions, like raindrops running down a window or a shoal of mullet breaking and reforming. Straining to see the individual components at work, Loki finds they elude him; it is only when he glances back at Mera that his peripheral vision catches the impression of many bodies made only of swarming limbs, or the digits of a thousand hands clenching and unclenching.
By the time he looks back the effect has ceased. But in place of the strange animal two dogs stand before her. They are identical: a pair of asymmetrical canine stars with short red-brown coats and white-tipped points: muzzles, ears, feet, tails. In fact, they are exact replicas of Lupe. Loki spins around, but there is Lupe behind him too, glancing back and forth between Loki and her two doppelgangers. A moment later the two new Lupes, exploiting Loki’s astonishment, burst past and scramble off over the stony ground. The real Lupe sets off in pursuit. Loki’s eyes meet Mera’s, and they realize simultaneously what they have encountered. A moment later, shouting and cursing, they hurriedly gather their nets and follow the three dogs.
For the next few hours they chase Lupe and her twins across the rock and through the gusts of wind, which is like running through a maze of invisible walls that keep changing places. Eventually they find the dogs have each other bailed up in a kind of bay in the rock, across which Loki and Mera quickly string their nets.
The three Lupes are in stalemate, confronting each other with upper lips drawn back. Since they cannot tell which is which, Loki and Mera agree there is only one course of action to take. Communicating with exaggerated facial movements they take a net each and, at the same moment, hurl themselves on the whole pack.
Copyright © 2007 by Philip Armstrong