Kulmer kneed his steed through the shallow stream, churning spray. They were leaving a forest thronged with killer apes baring razor fangs. Thunder-lizards wink with faceted eyes from the foliage, flitting after him on gauzy wings, messaging his position back to the predatory apes. So, in that sense, he was glad to be free of its deep maroon shadows that lap and shiver around their trail. Yet the single mountain peak ahead glitters with the silver shrapnel of city fragments. And the itchy expectation causes a small icy wind to blow through his bones.
‘The Sun is exploding’ the oldster had said.
‘The Sun has been exploding for a million years’ Kulmer had replied. ‘Nothing can change that.’
‘No. Nothing can change what is to come. That is fixed. But we are not. We are not fixed in time. We travel through time, with a forward momentum. What we can do is reverse the flow of that travel. We simply about-face, instead of travelling through time with a forward momentum, we travel in the reverse direction. We, as a culture, as a people, contained within our valley. We can do this.’
‘This is possible?’ Kulmer queried doubtfully. ‘Would we know? Would we be aware of this temporal-reversal?’
‘It would be an objective readjustment. But subjectively no, life would go on as normal. Isn’t the valley important to you?’
Put like that, what could he say?
The oldster’s disconcertingly direct gaze allows for no dissent. ‘Listen, I will tell you what must be done…’
He reigned in Javance, his mount, smoothed its flanks in a soothing reassurance he did not feel. Short, running to fat, a humorous twirl to his nostrils, he’s more designed for home comforts than heroic exploit. There are swarms of luminous dragonflies coiling in a series of loops. As though communicating some kind of coded warning.
While, in the high towers far above, automatic devices infinitesimally adjust directive aerials. Beings who are not quite this and not quite that. Who had once been, but were no more. They were there, but not exactly there. A presence. A watching, thinking consciousness. But not one that could be seen, or detected by any but the most supernatural of means. They hover on the air, on the light, on the breeze. Or not at all.
A sense of nervous awe lies strong upon him. As though he were in the presence of a living entity. It was never quite dark, although there are stars. He watches them shimmer. Some of them are fireflies that move as he watches. Others are stars, which do not. Occasionally, there’s a falling star, which has attributes of both. He unsaddles Javance, tethers the horse to a tree where it crops grass contentedly, and he sets up camp, using his tinder-bulb to ignite a warming glow and using the saddle to rest his head. Is it old Earth that tilts and dances in its path, or is it the huge boated sun that pulses day into night? he can’t remember. But the flame-rim of the sun is always visible just above the horizon, where rippling curtains of vast light flicker and fluctuate around it, a rain of electro-magnetic particles seeding the thin atmosphere with spectacle.
He dozed fitfully. His mind pecking on other things with scant regard for the priorities of his journey.
The valley was home. A full-bodied jug of wine in a welcoming tavern. The promise of an equally full-bodied woman. The valley had always been home, and always would be. There are stories of those who had journeyed beyond. Although he considered a tad of romantic exaggeration was at play in their tales of oceans and jungles, ice-fields and magical cities. Yet he was now part of just such a story. Others will tell his tale in days to come. Although, if he succeeds and time were to be reversed, and the valley was progressing forward into the past, he was unsure how exactly his part in the process would figure. Whether his journey would have happened in their distant past, or in their days-to-come future? Not that it matters. Tales are for the telling. That is the nature of fiction. And all would soon become fiction, when the Sun flexed and gobbled up its obedient retinue of child-worlds. Then, there would be nothing but smashed stories floating in scorched nothingness.
He woke to the rasping of insects. A column of them wending their way down towards the stream. They’re navigating wheeled carts laden with seed down to a jetty so small he’d failed to notice it. A flotilla of tiny boats resembling curled-up leaves wait on the swift-following current. He watches for a moment in wonderment. They ignore his presence.
A breeze frisks through the trees. Javance snuffles restlessly, to and fro. He mounts and they canter out onto the vermilion plain towards the needle peak. The plain ripples away, red and brown and orange. There are signs of submerged structures beneath the sward. From some great height above they’d probably be comprehensible as a network of streets, or fortifications. There had obviously been a city here, either long-abandoned, or destroyed in cataclysmic war. Now partly-glimpsed sections of crumbling walls slumber into the slow extinction of erosion. Javance picks his way warily, there are pothole traps, snags of glazed black rock and treacherous slithers.
While, in the high towers far above, automatic defences infinitesimally adjust, monitoring his approach. No-one has approached in ten-thousand years. Hostilities never ceased. Incursion is to be eradicated. He pauses at midday. Sits on the vast thigh of a toppled statue, and munches bread and cheese from the saddle-panniers. Javance waits patiently, snorting and stomping the soft earth. Their final moments, although neither realize.
The sun is a huge dome from horizon to horizon. The towering peak divides it neatly into two vast hemispheres, black against the raging vortex of sky. Its immensity becomes more evident as the distance shrinks, as the ant must have felt looking up at the man. He mouths a half-admiring obscenity, caught in the difference between being soberly awed, and utterly scared. They approach. Towards the defence perimeter. With eerie precision the unseen finger traces its target, focusing hair-fine, then – in faithful mimicry, the laser-burst beam of concentrated fire takes them in less than a moment. Splattering horse and rider to a messy smear of body-parts.
The beings who are not quite this and not quite that, wail in their distress. They were part of the city. It was they who’d ignited the retaliation to repulse an extinct foe. Then forgotten about it. Detached from form, to drift on the breeze, backwards and forwards in time on a whim. Drawing inexhaustible power from the very pulse of stars. They gather the fragments. The healing biotechnology is still there, cellular fusion, in the empty city. It delivered death, now it reassembles the parts, as best it can, and reactivates the stilled lives. Ancient devices in high spires.
Kulmer awakes in a place he doesn’t know. He can smell the cleanliness in the air. Hear the ticking of unseen things he doesn’t understand, behind seamless jade walls. He glances this way and that. There is no dust. The light is softly white. There must always be dust, and light was never white. He rears up, snorts at it all, and gallops through a faint veil into the freshness outside. A broad white avenue spirals down towards the vermilion plain. He knew where he had to go.
The centaur that had been Kulmer and Javance canters down the steep incline. The sheer physicality of speed is intoxicating, the blood surging in his veins. He could always return to the valley later, next week, some time, but first, he felt he could gallop to the rim of the world…
BY ANDREW DARLINGTON
From an idea suggested by Kenneth Bulmer