Babel Series Part One
By Tom Crask
Those who have never laid eyes on the Watchmen, standing tall and proud in the desert twenty five miles due North West of Babel, whether at sunset, silhouetted against the rapidly darkening sky, or on a summer’s morning as dust devils kick up their distinctive brand of chaos, would find it hard to claim that they truly understood how much of a rare and exquisite thing we lost when the era of the Construct finally came to its spectacular close.
There are six of them in total, one hundred and fifty foot tall totemic spires of Growth Bone, Calcine, and Blossom Glass, bedecked on all sides with terraces, platforms and loggias, sun-bleached and standing to attention like nine pins spilt upon the desert or deep sea hydro-thermal vents rising from unfathomed depths. They are a culmination of sorts, a denouement of what the Life Programmes, of what the Construct era itself set out to accomplish, a proud proclamation of what the Bio-tects thought themselves capable of.
These days they are said to retain only a fraction of the cognisance that they once possessed. That they were alive at all now seems somehow unlikely. That they were once aware, in their own strange way, of the world that they inhabited seems almost implausible, but then I only work for Bill Hatton’s governorship. I have never pretended to fully understand the Construct phenomenon, that period of life creation, in all of its bizarre and richly imagined guises. Even in these post-Taint days, the Meat Salons and Biology Houses still seem to me to possess a certain dreamlike quality, an air of unreality, as though such things never existed at all and were only ever a figment of our collective imagination, a story dreamt up by tellers of tall tales.
It is easy to forget that we are a culled society. With a global population barely one third of what it was in those pre-Taint days, it is easy to forget that such things were once accomplished easily. Today the Construct programmes seem more like a form of arcane magic than anything approaching an exact science.
If the Taint could be said to have bequeathed the world anything, it was a deeper shift away from the old ways than the food riots and anti-Constuct demonstrations at first suggested. Perhaps in those early days of strife the first signs were there. The way whole towns would seal themselves off from the outside world, or the way in which the old religions gradually gave way to more diverse varieties of fanaticism. The Taint instigated a universal shift of attitudes. The Union movement represented a schism, a split in society that occurred almost equally down the middle. There were those of us who, as the Unions would say, carried on living in the ruins of our past, who tried to rebuild by embracing older, tried and tested ideas. Then there were those of us who chose to jettison those ways and forge a new path, a path who’s foundations were built upon even older, more tribal ways of living, a theocracy based around a religious belief that the deserts and wastelands that had sprung up across our globe were theirs for the taking.
Ours is an age that is all too often defined by what has gone before, an age fascinated by the concept of death as much as it is with the creation of life. So much has been lost since the Taint. When the U.V light poured down, turning the land to desert, forcing us to the coasts, the Construct was not the only species to suffer. In our time, nostalgia is almost an industry. Effectively, we have become a two state society, each jealously guarding its reins of power.
The Watchmen represent one of those reins, standing guard over four distinct headlands, four wide and heat-scoured piazzas that slope gently upward towards a central bluff. Visitors are rare. The Unions own the shores by claim, and access is jealously controlled. Their boundaries extend several miles in every direction.
There are those who chose to evade Union satellite surveillance and take the dreadful risk of going anyway. There are those who ignore the warnings, the patterns of stones laid out in vast shimmering mosaics, the singing wind-wires, the lines of suspended sun mirrors, designed to dazzle, and the flags that bedeck the ridges, hoisted on masts that bend and snap in the wind as if to berate and admonish those who venture too close. The consequences can be severe, but those who would violate Union law are almost never the sort to worry about upshots and outcomes. A Construct, even one that is closer to death than life, can be a powerful lure.
Leon Ferris lowered the binoculars and walked back over to where Beth Sammond and I rested beneath the high outer wall of the Union tech station. The shade afforded by the concrete bastion was a welcome relief from the day’s heat, but I could tell by the way the old biologist sat that even this little luxury was something that he found difficult to relish. He was too used to the classrooms and laboratories of the university where he worked to ever truly take pleasure from the desert. The Sourlands were far outside of his comfort zone. It wasn’t the heat that irritated him. It was the silence.
It was easy to forget that the deserts could be grave and soundless places. Not even the Old District was this unnaturally quiet. Even out amongst the empty villas there was always the accompanying hum of insect life, or the wind chimes of various water posts.
The wind came off the plain like a rebellion moving against anyone who dared spoil that impossible boundary between sand and sky, that point where the raw limits of the Earth finally failed. A summer breeze, dry as the breath from a mummy, blew the dust into great shimmering ghosts. The sound was that of an expectant crowd, the protracted breathing in and out of an immense sleeping giant. The promontory was an eclipse, sun conquered and naked, wide and steep, defined only by the shortcomings of the desert. In the centre, perhaps six hundreds metres from where we had set up our makeshift headquarters, stood the Watchmen, large and impressive, the almost, but not quite, fossilised remnants of another age, impossibly white against the deep blue, inverted dome of that sky.
“You’d think that they would have built a visitor’s centre by now?” Leon muttered, indicating the concrete carbuncle behind us.
Next to the refined and elegant shapes of the Watchmen the flat roofed, slab sided tech station looked like an afterthought, which was probably what it was. Dumped upon the desert, half submerged by sand, it reminded me of an old world war two fortification.
“How long have we got here?”
In a way his question could only have been a rhetorical one. Despite receiving Union permission, entering the Watchmen reserve was always going to be a fraught affair. We were almost certainly being observed and there was always the possibility that some slight or offence would be taken and permission withdrawn at any moment.
I scanned the headland, looking for monitoring devices left in the sand, Sneaking Sentries, Tremor Scribes, saw nothing immediately obvious. Either they were playing this one covertly or they were relying on Satellite imaging and whatever information they could read from our comp systems.
For Ferris, this trip represented a chance to study his subjects in the flesh. He had spent two years writing a thesis on the reserve and its conservational systems but had never been granted access, either physically or remotely. He had been forced to make do instead with out-of-date computer models constructed from technical specifications stored in the university’s archive. Despite his distaste for the Sourlands, this was a chance that he wasn’t about to pass up.
His younger assistant, Beth Sammond, was here for similar reasons. This would be the first opportunity of her professional career to get close to one of the larger Constructs varieties. Her primary focus was the study of the smaller Construct varieties, the Ornamentals, the Renovate species, the various Vassal organisms. Now she was literally moving on to bigger things.
I didn’t need to remind them that the real reason for our visit had little to do with research or articles for the university archive, or even the towers themselves. A man had died. It hardly mattered that he had been a Union life technician. What mattered was that the case had so puzzled the tribes that they had actually requested Government involvement. In a rare show of cooperation they had granted us three hours of unfettered access to the reserve.
I knew from Hatton’s satellite survey that the Unions had been busy constructing their various tribal warnings. They had stopped short of actually erecting Totems around the periphery of the headland, but the effect was the same. To the East were the first of the flag lines, arranged half way up the approaching shore. The usual tribal snappers were there, but to these they had added orange warning streamers, twenty-foot long displays of colour that writhed like water snakes, languid, almost sensual in the wind.
The area to the West was also covered by a similar obstruction, a field of sun mirrors, designed to spin and catch the light in order to dazzle and disorientate anyone who approached. What I couldn’t tell from the photos was whether or not they had added Accenture Lenses. We had enough to worry about with the threat of sand traps and pitfalls without the added danger of focussed sunlight burns.
While Leon began the daunting task of trawling through the comp systems at the station, I decided to spend the first hour wandering amongst the towers, if only to convince myself that the strange and marvellous forms were still alive. Beth accompanied me. It wasn’t long before conversation turned to the reason that we were here.
“So what was his name?” she said. She was already taking measurements, comparing the technical specifications owned by the university with the readings that was taking now. The opportunity to do so was simply too valuable to pass up and the tribes would never find out unless she started transmitting the data.
“Miguel Tarssas. He was a life technician, here maintaining the station. That’s the line the tribe is taking anyway.”
“They found him outside the Old Man.” I indicated the central tower, standing at a slight angle to the others, an effect of the desert winds eroding the sand from around it. “He wouldn’t have even had a cause to approach the towers.”
“Withheld as a matter of course. All we got were preliminaries. That’s all the tribe would release. If they had anything definitive we wouldn’t have been called in.”
“So what did they say?”
“No external marks. No wounds, scratches, bleeding or bruising. In short, nothing external. Whatever killed him, killed him from the inside.”
“Disease? Heart attack?”
“Without the full results there’s no way to tell. Hatton managed to dig up his medical file, logged with an obscure medical centre in Jamenta. There was nothing physically wrong with him. He was reasonably young at fifty-seven and in full health. Physically fit, no long term conditions.”
“It can happen out of the blue.”
“I know, only there’s something about this that doesn’t add up.”
“You think we’re looking at a mystery death?”
“It would explain why the tribe invited us. What I don’t understand is why he left the tech station at all. What made him come over here, to the towers?”
“Could it have been an intruder?”
“Nobody else up here. The tribes make sure of that. Their surveillance here is something to be believed. They’re probably watching us now. Something made him leave the tech station and wander over to the Old Man.”
We moved between two of the towers and I stopped whilst Beth inspected the Victual Chests, the series of internal reservoirs arranged around the base of each tower like petals. The strange, organic cisterns normally contained the various nutrients and other chemicals that the bio-form either extracted from deep below ground or generated for itself using a complex system of photosynthesis and solar distilling. Now, however, they were empty.
“That’s strange.” Beth remarked, “The last set of observations reported healthy Victual Chests.”
“How old is that report?” I said.
“Just under a year.”
I gazed up at the empty platforms and balconies that protruded from the towers at regular intervals like an arrangement leaves along a stem. Most were simple solar traps, sun snares, a means by which the tower collected energy to power its slow but steady perambulations throughout the year. One or two however, gave hints of internal access. There were apertures up there, openings, tantalisingly out of reach, through which one might have viewed the inner workings perhaps. Birds played around the strange angles and inclines, gliding on the thermals thrown up by the architecture of the place.
I took the Middleman from my bag.
As part of my job I always carried a Middleman. In a way, it was a form of Construct itself. Derived as an offshoot from the Biology Houses, it had been an early attempt at providing an interface through which humans could communicate with some of the larger life projects, the Ornamentals, the Objet d’Art, or the Watchmen. It contained more tech than anything bio-cultured, although at its heart it was basically a two-pound brain of cultured plastic. As a communications device, the Middleman had been something of a spectacular failure, as so many of the life projects were. However, it did have one rather useful side effect that the Bio-tects hadn’t foreseen. Instead of communicating directly with Constructs, it was able to read life signs, determine levels of awareness. In that role, it was a vital piece of equipment, and since reliable units were hard to come by, a valuable one too.
I ran my fingers along the grooves that activated the machine. The object shuddered in my hands. Operational LEDs winked into life. The familiar high-pitched whine came from within, the sound of the organic mechanism spinning in its magnetic cradle, life of a sort.
I extended the set of antennae from the bottom of the device and attached the sucker-like tips to the nearest tower. Then I took a step back, waiting for it to do its work.
I realised then that I was holding my breath. Laying eyes on these marvellous creations again, these extraordinary, highly improbable bio-forms, some small yet vital spark had taken root inside me. Since arriving on the reserve at first light, I had been experiencing a strange optimism, an impossible lightness, a hope that the towers had retained whatever vestiges of sentience they had been clinging to when the previous survey had reported their findings. It was hard to regard the towers as the living entities they were. The cultivation protocols had given rise to something far more unique and ornate than the Bio-tects had originally envisaged. The Calcine super-structure looked as though it would endure for centuries, and yet it was the unquantifiable essence that flowed within, the fabric rather than the form, that made each tower the individual that it was.
The Middleman powered down. I took one look at the readout and my heart sank.
Beth was the first to give a voice to my thoughts.
She was as speechless as I was. At first I thought that perhaps the Middleman was wrong, that the little device had somehow developed a malfunction. After inspecting it carefully and running the evaluation cycle again, there was no doubt about it. The results were exactly the same. The reading was negative. The tower was quite dead, no longer host to whatever strange and intricate elixirs it had once contained.
“What about the others?” Beth said, again giving voice to my concerns.
I repeated the procedure on two of the nearest towers, each time with the same dispiriting result, a negative reading, an unresponsive tower. With the naive confidence of the morning now fast fading to despair, I began to counter the possibility that the entire group had died, that the entire Watchman reserve was now only a strange and empty mausoleum, a monument to what once was.
“Could Tarssas have known?” Beth said, “Is that why he came out here?”
“I’ve no idea. He wouldn’t have been carrying a Middleman. The tribal report stated that he only had his coolant suit and water flask.”
Beth walked over to the nearest tower, ran her hands over the smooth, white surface as if a touch was all it took to determine life status, to inject sentience back into those things that I could now only regard as fossilised relics.
“What could have killed them?” she whispered.
I was surprised by her choice of words. There was no evidence that an act of violence had occurred here, and yet for her this had already become just that, an outside influence coming to bear.
I didn’t need to answer her question, didn’t need to tell her that without the complete reading patterns given by the tribal studies of this place, such a question was always, and would remain, unanswerable.
It was with a heavy heart that I made my way back to the tech station. Sunlight dazzled and danced along the headlands, maddening us all the way. In such heat, beneath such a clear, faultless sky, I couldn’t quite accept the enormity of our discovery. I too was starting to succumb to Beth’s way of thinking, of wondering who could have caused such a thing, as if it had been a deliberate act. I began to suspect Miguel Tarssas himself, then I realised that only a man with a death wish would have despoiled a place the tribes regarded as sacred.
Perhaps that was what had happened. Perhaps Tarssas had damaged the towers in some way, and had been murdered for his troubles. It wouldn’t have been impossible for a Mimic team to get into the reserve unnoticed. Perhaps Tarssas knew that what he was doing would bring retribution. Perhaps we were looking at an overly stylised form of suicide.
Such a hypothesis failed to answer why the Union had requested Government involvement. If murder had been on their minds, Tarssas would have simply vanished. Nothing would have been said, nobody would have been told, and Government would most definitely not have been drawn in.
I felt certain that murder was not the cause of the man’s death. Despite the terrible discoveries of the morning, we were still no nearer to solving the mystery.
Leon was waiting for us on the wide, flat roof of the tech station as we approached. I saw the small, fold away receiver dish in his hand and realised that he was attempting to get a lock on any satellites that were currently stationed over the reserve. His desert clothes flapped in the wind giving him the appearance of an ancient captain, standing at the prow of his ship perhaps, or an amateur radio ham, eager for a signal.
I climbed the short flight of concrete stairs to join him in looking out over the dunes. The desert beyond rose in wide, shallow gradients to meet the sweltering headland of the reserve itself. To the East, the line of Union flags flailed, languorous and indolent in the wind.
He tapped away at his comm, occasionally cursing under his breath as the device gave him negative readouts, indications that even the identity of the orbiting assets had been encrypted. He didn’t need to ask me of our discovery. He had been using the station’s comp system to monitor my Middleman, in the same way that the Union had probably been doing all morning.
“I don’t understand what’s going on here.” he said.
I said nothing, leaving my silence as some sort of agreement.
“They’ve deployed an orbital to watch us. So far it’s refusing all attempts at communication. Something’s really spooked them.”
“My guess is that Tarssas’ death rattled them. They can’t work out why a supposedly healthy man would just keel over and die like that.”
“Do you think they suspect the towers?”
I had heard of Constructs being able to exert suggestive influences on their surroundings before. In the old days, it was said that some species had been able to provoke emotional responses in humans, change moods, even alter low-level behavioural responses. I had no idea how it had worked, electromagnetism perhaps, certain low frequency sound waves, a way of communicating that had passed us by completely. Needless to say, I had never heard of a species that had been able to stop a man dead in his tracks. There would undoubtedly have been a market for it if there had been.
“The towers are dead.” I said.
“But does the tribe know that?”
“I can’t believe that they don’t. On the other hand if they do know, they wouldn’t have asked us up here. They would have expected us to find out. This place would have been sealed.”
“Such a development makes any claim on the reserve worthless, doesn’t it?”
I nodded. “From now on we keep one eye on the desert. If they want us out of here, they’ll waste no time. They may even be here already.”
We went inside, taking the central stairwell down through the roof, to where the thickness of the concrete preserved a kind of coolness, a cavern-like darkness that provided a respite from the relentless heat.
The inside of the station was based around one large room. The place smelled of oil and ancient machinery. It reminded me of the inside of a pumping house or a Martello tower, resembling more of a fortress than a centre for scientific study. The corners were littered with items discarded in redundancy, spare parts, pieces of equipment that had been brought up here and simply abandoned after the need for them had passed. A bank of computer stations wrapped itself around the far side of the room, flat panels, adorned with lights and animated graphics giving the impression that the station had somehow taken on a life of its own.
“Did you find anything in the systems?” I said.
“Possibly. Most of the files are protected as you might expect. I’ve been running into tribal code barriers all morning. All I managed to decode was a scrap of video, a section of surveillance footage.” Leon walked over to the station he had been working from and clicked a file open. Immediately the screen was lit with static. The view was that of the reserve, skewed at an odd angle by the camera. The towers stood in the distance. I recognised the Old Man, standing proudly, yet at an obvious angle, amongst its progeny. Presently, the outline of a shape appeared to the left of the screen, a figure darkened beneath sand clothes and a dust mask, seeming to stumble across the sand, moving slowly towards the camera. I didn’t need to ask who it was. The figure staggered, fell to his knees.
Then regaining himself once more, continued towards us.
“Tarssas!” I whispered, “What’s he doing out there?”
“It appears that he was coming back from South Spire.”
“But that’s way over the other side of the reserve.” I said, “What was he doing out there?”
The figure stumbled onward, drawing close to the Old Man. I didn’t need to see this. Hatton’s files had given me as complete a picture as I was ever going to get. I knew what happened next.
The image ceased abruptly, dissolving into static.
“That’s all we have?” I said.
Leon nodded, “I’m afraid so.”
“So the Old Man was simply the death site. Is it possible that Tarssas was injured elsewhere?”
“That’s not all.”
“I found a communiqué. Tarssas was out at South Spire for a reason. Don’t ask me what that reason was, but somebody told him told to go out there.”
“Who gave the order?”
“Station’s orders. Standard Union encryption pattern.”
“So it came from the top.”
“Wasn’t Tarssas only a technician?” Beth inquired.
“Beth’s got a point,” Leon said, “He was only supposed to be here for two days. I’ve seen his clearance. He wasn’t qualified to examine the Towers. He didn’t even hold the relevant pass to approach them.”
“Nevertheless, somebody ordered him out there, on his own, in the middle of the day.” I took a moment to think. This was developing too fast. There was too much new information to take in.
“If the Union had ordered someone with Tarssas’ credentials out to South Spire, then there must have been something out there worth breaking Union protocol for. He was sent simply because he was already on site.”
“Do you think it might have been a Claim attempt?” Beth said.
“There’s only one way to find out,” I said, “I’ll have to go out there and take a look for myself.”
“Something made them send him out there. Something made them order a low ranking technician across the reserve, a sacred reserve, a space that not even the tribal elders can visit without committee representation. I want to know what it was.”
“We don’t have much time.” Beth said, “The tribal representatives will be here in an hour, probably less.”
“Then we’ll play for time. If a call comes in, don’t answer. We’ll claim interference, electromagnetic distortion, anything to get us a few more hours.”
“They’ll see through it.” Beth warned.
“That’s too bad.” I said, “They can think what they like. It won’t change anything.”
At 14:00 I set out alone across the reserve for South Spire. The tower was over a mile from the tech station, slightly taller than the others and separated from the main group like an outcast, a rogue form, a dissenter.
The headland afforded fine views of the surrounding desert. The sun had become a burning circle amidst a sea of turquoise, and heat hazes pranced along the horizon, carnivals of air that taunted with hints and effigies of water. I gave thanks to Leon’s coolant suit, listening to the chatter of the refrigerating thump unit in the small of my back as it synchronised itself with my heartbeat. This journey would have been unbearable without it. I wondered how Tarssas had managed with only his robes.
I passed the first line of Sun Mirrors, strung from wires that sung and hissed like cornered cats. I avoided looking at them directly. There didn’t appear to be any Accenture Lenses strung amongst them, as I had feared, but it was still good practise to be cautious.
South Spire, at over one hundred and fifty years old, was the oldest tower on the reserve, the patriarch, the progenitor form. It alone had conceived at least half of the others, its productivity outdone only by the Old Man. Now the very tops of its parapets and ramparts were ragged, frayed into ever finer stalagmites where the Calcine and Growth Bone had put out new shoots, new extensions to grasp at the impossible sky. Despite its great age, time had done nothing to dull that brilliant exterior. The tower blazed in the sun, a pillar of light, shards of it streaming from that coral-like surface to play amongst the dunes. The sands for yards around swam with photonics, scintillations, reflection and refraction.
I inspected the Victual Chest, found it almost full of the strange and foul smelling liquor that the tower sustained itself on. I felt a rush of excitement, then calmed myself, told myself to carry out checks and procedures in a recognised manner. My time here was short as it was. Already, the Union was probably gearing up to have us escorted from the reserve.
I attached the Middleman in the usual way, stood back to let it do its work, and gasped.
It had to be impossible. I checked the Middleman again for fear of malfunction or misread, convinced that the strange set of circumstances that had brought us here had somehow affected the device too.
There could be no denying the results. The life reading was off the scale. South Spire was alive. Against the better part of chance, amidst so much death, it was not only alive, but apparently thriving.
I checked the reading a third time, just to be certain in myself, just to be sure that I hadn’t succumbed to enthusiasm or heat stroke or one of the other hundred or so things that can cause a man to loose his mind in the Sourlands.
I was puzzled. Past surveys of the reserve had discovered South Spire to be dwindling, barely cognisant. Now, apparently, it was back to full strength, beyond full strength. I couldn’t explain it. I checked the previous results on my comm, ran a sequence that added them together, compared the total with the reading from my Middleman. The result only mystified me further. The two readings were identical. South Spire now contained a life reading that, allowing for periodic degradation, was virtually equal to the life readings of all the others towers in the reserve put together.
My mind raced. The possibilities were intoxicating: something under the sand perhaps, a network connecting all of the towers with one another; or a transmission, a message, sent and received, a way for the towers to send out their individual consciousnesses into the void. There were so many possibilities and only one that made any sort of sense. The other towers had somehow migrated into South Spire. Even that answer failed dismally at scratching the surface. I had no way to determine the exact mechanism of what had taken place here, not without further surveys, extra time, all things that were highly unlikely given the political climate. The joy of discovery gave way to frustration as I realised that a definitive answer would be as unattainable as the galaxies in the night sky.
I turned my mind to purpose. There had to be reasoning, no matter how alien or inconceivable. If the old adage of safety in numbers was true, it was especially true for Constructs. The reserve was only a finite arrangement at best, a way for the Unions to deny Government access. This kind of behaviour was simply not viable. Perhaps the Union was after the same thing. Was this what they had sent Tarssas half way across the reserve to find out?
I had to remind myself that, despite the relative peace of the scene, despite the sunlight that cast the tower in its burning glaze, a man had died. It was quite possible that this tower, this bio-form had been responsible for his death. This was where the blow had been struck. Aside from this, nothing else had changed. I was still no closer to answering the question of what had actually happened.
Tarssas must have found something. He hadn’t been equipped with a Middleman so he could not possibly have made the same discoveries as I had. It had to have been something else.
I began a slow, methodical circumference of the tower, paying particular attention to the folds and pleats that hung like solidified curtains, checking each new and unrecorded protuberance that had sprung up around the base like melted wax dripped down the side of a wine bottle.
Then I saw it.
The entrance was no larger than four feet high. It was little more than a cleft really, a gap between two organic buttresses, just large enough to admit a man. I checked my records. Nothing like this had been recorded during the previous surveys. The towers had been closed forms, sealed. Indeed, it had always been a mystery as to what they actually contained.
I approached carefully, mindful of the fact that Tarssas must have made the same discovery, must have walked my exact footsteps. I came to the threshold and leaned inside, waiting for my eyes to become accustomed to the sudden darkness before proceeding.
The floor was a little below the level of the entrance. The desert had encroached upon even this space, coating the floor in a flat pan of sand. The interior walls rose like those of a great chimney, gleaming dully like Cowry shell, or alabaster as thinner patches let through a diffuse form of sunlight and cast the place in amber. The effect was like standing inside a gigantic termite mound. There were no further features, no staircases that led to higher areas, to those mystifying sun platforms. I had to keep reassuring myself that the tiny entrance behind me would not suddenly slam shut and trap me within. Although capable of photoreceptive movement, it took months for a tower to achieve a new position. A gradual following of the sun throughout the year was about the best that they could achieve.
I stood in that space and looked up. The point of the tower was lost to shadow, many feet above. The melted wax buttresses were hidden in darkness. It was unnerving in a strange way. In the indefinable space where the twists and turns of the tower’s internal geometry was swallowed by darkness, I was suddenly no longer sure that the tower stopped, that it did not simply continue off into darkness. I shrugged the notion off as the remnants of a heat prank, and looked again. This time it was clear. Like the startling recognition of an image inside a three-dimensional puzzle, a certain element of that darkness had grown deeper, more pronounced, revealing an explicit distance.
I heard it first, a sound like the sea trapped within a seashell, like a vague memory, a deep sigh washing over me, fashioned and channelled by the interior anatomy of the tower. Then I saw it, a point of light unravelling the darkness far above my head. I felt it pierce the space behind my eyes like a dog whistle, like the sound that people swear they sometimes hear when a meteor flashes overhead. It was a Dawn Chorus, something transmitted, a sensation of electricity in the bones, something that bypassed the optic nerves altogether and went straight for the brain. I stumbled, blinded by the intensity of the signal. Almost immediately, the image faded, allowing me to regain my sight. It was as if someone had turned down the brightness on a television set. I saw it clearly then, a star in the darkness, growing until it resembled a magnolia flower, a mandala. I saw a circle divide itself into three, a representation of Pi perhaps, an indication of infinity, or something else, something beyond my understanding.
For a fleeting moment I was aware of all of them, all the lonely and hunted forms of life, the AIs, the Meatkin, the Renovate species, lost to the deserts, hiding in the old towns, slipping between ocean currents, in far flung places and places closer to home. Then I heard the voices, the many voices of the towers, no more than whispers really, a spluttering hornet swarm of sound, a calling out to one another, a communication package composed in complex mathematical code, in patterns of overlapping ultrasound and biologically generated magnetism. It was a lament, an expression of grief for their former selves, for the husks of their empty bodies, and yet there was joy in there too, the thrill of making contact with other life. It was a communication, a need to share in the sheer joy of living, in the apprehension that they felt in their life ebbing away, a pronouncement of anxiety about the future. They were afraid to die, afraid of no longer existing, afraid that the knowledge that had been locked inside of them, knowledge that they had held for generations, would be lost forever.
I could feel something at work. I could feel the tower wheedling its way into my mind, feel it entering me like a thorn or a cat’s claw, or a worm wrapping itself around all the wrong nerves. The tower was leaving something inside of me, making subtle changes. I knew then what it was doing. It was passing on a message, like a relative passes on some object of sentimental importance. My head swam with colour and shape. I tried to focus on something, draw meaning into the chaos, but the impressions were slippery and fled from my mind’s grasp, leaving only vague impressions of what had passed.
The riot ceased abruptly. I stumbled, suddenly unable to control my legs. I staggered outside where the sun hit me like a bat. Heat passed over me in waves. I felt nauseous. My vision swam, clouded over, and the world went out like a light.
The first thing I saw when I came to was Beth’s face. She leaned over me. Slowly, I realised that I was back in the Tech station.
“I saw you on the monitor,” she said, “It was lucky Leon decided to follow you.”
I sat up and felt a hammer blow inside my skull.
“Lay down,” she said, “You’re dehydrated. You’re suffering from heat stroke. The coolant suit saved you.”
“Are they here yet?” I whispered.
Beth nodded. They’re outside, three of them, although the station comp has picked up residual heat traces of two more, probably wearing Chameleon suits.”
Beth nodded. “They haven’t tried to enter yet. They’re probably giving us time to comply. They’ve been there for an hour but we’ve had no communication from the tribe.”
“We won’t. The situation is untenable. They know that. Better to leave now, before we cause a diplomatic incident.”
“What will they do?”
“I’ve no idea. You were reading my Middleman?”
“As a matter of course. Why do you think the towers migrated?”
“I’ve no idea. What matters now is what the Union believes.”
I wanted to add something there, wanted desperately to ask whether Beth had read anything else, something passing between South Spire and myself, any trace of that message. I bit my tongue, only too aware that everything we said was being listen to by the third party stationed outside, and quite possibly by those who had already infiltrated inside. The station suddenly seemed very alien. I saw it then for what it was, a crude attempt at forcing reason and purpose onto those things that possessed neither, that simply were, to understand those things for which understanding was an alien concept. No wonder we had been called up here. The Union understood no more about the Towers than we did.
Beth gathered the remains of my things and I forced myself to my feet, unsteady but eager now to leave the reserve.
The Tribal representatives were waiting for us, just as Beth had said, three big men, dressed in fighting suits and carrying the various weapons of their profession. I saw a sand rifle hidden beneath the cloak of the nearest man and knew then that it would be some time before anyone from Government would be coming back here. What the tribe would do, I had no idea. I imagine that Leon had his suspicions, but on the way out of the reserve he was keeping them to himself, mindful that any expressed opinion could very quickly become more than a suggestion. As we passed the mirror lines I thought of the star, my star, that residual image left like a footprint in my mind, of the message imparted to me. I called forth that mandala in the darkness and saw it split into three once more.
I did not see the first strike, only heard it as a crack of thunder, a snap as the air was rendered and parted by the tiniest of threads, then slammed shut once more against the vacuum that had been left. Leon would later swear blind that he had seen it, witnessed that terrible moment when the Concussion Lance sliced into the reserve like a divine spear, when the deadly observer that had been monitoring us all morning enacted its decisive wrath.
I felt the reverberation shake me from the inside, turned in time to see the results of that terrifying onslaught. A great cloud of ash and dust was rising from the headland. I could see South Spire, still standing despite the incredible trauma that it had just suffered. Two of the outer Watchmen had fallen.
The first strike could only have been followed by a second. This time I saw the bright pink thread, appearing like lightning from out of a clear sky, connecting with the ground for an infinitesimal fraction of a second. The effect lasted longer than the act of destruction itself. South Spire swayed drunkenly, groaning against gravity. Then, along with its remaining compatriots, it crumbled, toppling like the columns of Pompey and Herculaneum, collapsing in great swells of shattered Calcine and Blossom Glass.
I could not be sure then, but I heard something at that moment, an inaudible scream like a bat call, a high frequency shout from the top of that hill, a final proclamation of life, transmitted out to whoever was able to listen.
I watched the clouds of dust as they settled around the hill to reveal the low mounds of rubble that had once been something more, saw them rolling down the surface of those headlands to engulf the flags and sun mirrors, heard the sound of glass, cracking in the heat. Finally I could stand no more. I turned away, swallowing against nausea suddenly present, aware that the only thing left was the image I now carried with me.
A report was filed, as they usually are. Its conclusions were nothing surprising. The tribe stopped short of issuing Complaint about my unapproved trip over to South Spire, and Hatton, despite the better judgment of his fifty-seven years, decided not to press the issue of the destruction of the Towers. The primary reason lodged by the union was one of safety. The towers were old, they said, prone to failure, structurally weak, a danger to anyone studying them. I didn’t have to remind Hatton that this was a useful distraction from the fact that the towers had changed, evolved, moved on in new and exciting ways, not least in their new found ability to communicate.
I didn’t mention the message that the collective consciousness of South Spire had imparted upon me. Some things are best left out of official explanations and preserved only for quiet evenings, when the heat of the day has died, when the flutter of a candle’s flame allows a certain amount of sincerity.
We both knew that it had been that first unsuccessful attempt at communication that had killed Tarssas, overloading his brain as surely as any electric shock. Whether the Union had sent him out there deliberately in order to trigger such a response, we will never know. It seems unlikely, although once the man had died, the fate of the towers had been virtually assured. It seems more likely that they had suspected. A death on the reserve would have made the perfect pretext for that final denial of the towers from Government.
And what of that final transmission, that last shout out from the crown of that hill? Perhaps the towers had known. Perhaps a final migration had been in the plans all along. Despite the sheer otherness of their consciousness, I find it hard to believe that they hadn’t planned on a contingency, hadn’t worked out an exit strategy. Perhaps the act of communication had been instinctive, an act that they felt forced to carry out, a nervous reflex, irrepressible and automatic. I like to think not.
Perhaps, somewhere out there, amongst the heat-baked labyrinths of dunes, where the air literally shimmers with expectation, there remains a strange and alien form of life, host to new minds now, new voices, the many voices of the desert.