hoo-sha-ha: hoo-sha-ha…

Zy was warm enough. The night continued still, with virtually no breeze – and it was usually the breeze that brought the more violent cold.

Gradually, the noise grew louder: Lord Berensota was right about the direction – they were moving towards the source of the sound.

They’d crossed the footbridge, and trudged through rougher and deeper snow, less compacted, in the empty area between perimeter fence and the main part of the outskirts of BerKur. There were some isolated buildings, but they seemed to have been abandoned by the town, and let stray out there in the darkness. There was no one about.

hoo-sha-ha: hoo-sha-ha… hoo-sha-ha: hoo-sha-ha… click! Zrrrrr! Click! hoo-sha-ha: hoo-sha-ha…

The lord had also been right: it was a machine making the noise – it could be nothing else. As they walked through the tranquil night, with the uninhabited darkness of the Endless Plains out on their right, and the town on their left, its centre giving off a soft aura from the many lanterns, its outlying streets and buildings black and silhouetted, the machine could be heard uttering a repeated sequence of sounds: on this day of wonders, a new, alien wonder was waiting for Zy.

Zrrrrr! Click! hoo-sha-ha: hoo-sha-ha…

Zyso began to tremble: he had never heard anything like this before. Or… Well: he had grown up among the sounds of a working SharDo – the low hums and clicks of a tower whose tanks were operative; and the almost inaudible tickings of Ancient mechanisms, the mechanical sighs of pumps, the purr of filters, had served he and Zysa for lullabies, almost for a mother – but those sounds weren’t, somehow, the utterances of machines; they were what home sounded like; they were natural; they were the only world he knew.

But this sequence of sounds…

hoo-sha-ha: hoo-sha-ha… hoo-sha-ha: hoo-sha-ha… click! Zrrrrr! Click! hoo-sha-ha: hoo-sha-ha…

He could see smoke – a number of fires were burning, on the outer edge of the town, although Zy’s view was obstructed by some straggling buildings. The riders worked their way round the wasteground, and approached another bridge – and there was another one further ahead, as well – which was covered in snow, though only by a thin frozen paste. The ground was more uneven here, with softly swelling, shallow dome-like mounds; and it was from a depression beyond one of these mounds that both the smoke and the repetitive noises of the machine were coming.

Under the clear sky that hung above them, the stars and the rising moon visible through a giant, motionless hole in the surrounding grey cloud, the air was very still and pure, and the machine’s noise was penetrating rather than loud. Its sound travelled not only through the air, but seemed to be communicated through the earth as well: the sound possessed Gur – “weight”. Indeed, even before he saw the machine, Zy felt the heaviness of its being, its presence – it seemed to be the sound of weight, of massivity, of bulk: of metal.

They clunked across the bridge, and began to follow a path that led round and through the swelling mounds.

Zy’s heart was like a flower, tensed and opening before the light of the sun.

Trembling: a trembling inside Zy, where his heart was; and a trembling in the air; and a trembling through the ground.

hoo-sha-ha: hoo-sha-ha… hoo-sha-ha: HOO-SHA-HA: HOO-SHA-HA… CLICK! ZRRRR! CLICK! HOO-SHA-HA: HOO-SHA-HA…

Still, the sound wasn’t loud – if the riders had spoken (but they didn’t speak), their natural voices would have been perfectly audible above the sound of the machine – but there was something profoundly convincing about the solidity and denseness of the noise.

Zy sensed an animal patience about the throbbing, humming, buzzing, clicking thing: it was curiously bestial – passive, ponderous, unmoving. It was the sound of waiting. For a few moments, just before he saw the machine, Zy associated it with the Chun trekking ponies the riders had used to cross the dusty eastern provinces of the Endless Plains; if they had been metal, this was the sound the ponies would have made as they stood, motionless, at the command of their human riders, during a halt in the ride.

The two riders entered a surprisingly large bowl-shaped dell. There were about ten fires, burned down low, arranged in a wide ring: they were embering now, and the blackened wood was cooling and smoking in parts, and only in the hearts of these small bonfires was the timber glowing and shimmering and sparkling in its own heat.

HOO-SHA-HA: HOO-SHA-HA… CLICK! ZRRRR! CLICK! HOO-SHA-HA: HOO-SHA-HA…

In the centre of the ring of fires, it stood: a vast machine. Before he’d seen it, Zy had felt its sound was the sound of weight: now, once the two riders had entered the dell, and gained an uninterrupted view of the machine, Zy knew he was hearing the sound of power.

He was shivering, not with cold but with excitement: his whole being was fanning open, responding to the deep, bowel-rippling sound – even this close, not particularly loud (you could still hold a conversation in your normal speaking voice, and easily hear each other) – emanating from the machine. This was sound you could feel: it was physical, it made the air shudder and, from within the foundations of the air itself, the sound throbbed out, hitting you in gravid waves.

Zysoshin was thrilled: he felt as if the sounds were making his nerves quiver in awesome sympathy.

The machine was about three times as high as the tall Lord Berensota, and about ten horselengths long – about twenty dedaziles. In terms of width, it was around seven or eight dedaziles. It was basically oblong – a stretched block of metal. The block was curved and smoothed, however, so that the sides didn’t form sharp right-angles with the top of the machine, but flowed gracefully over into it. The front and back of the machine – if it could be said to possess a front or back – were identical: here too there were no straight angles, but at both ends the oblong resolved itself into a high, basically semi-circular forehead, which then descended and pushed outwards to form a massive snout.

HOO-SHA-HA: HOO-SHA-HA… CLICK! ZRRRR! CLICK! HOO-SHA-HA: HOO-SHA-HA…

Zy’s initial impression was of sleekness and of enormous weight. The machine appeared seamless – cast from a single block of sculpted zuth – a metal of rich, glowing, silver-like sheen. There was no snow on it: although Zy could see no vent, the machine was steaming with a very fine, almost invisible pale vapour. The air around the machine rippled faintly with exuded heat. The ground seemed to be throbbing and trembling in time to the rhythm of the machine.

After standing for a few moments, contemplating the wall-like bulk of the machine’s sides, which flowed down and then flanged out to form a kind of armoured skirt at the base, the two riders walked along a little way towards one end of the machine, where the mighty, snub nose gleamed in the firelight. Here, near where the forehead began, Zy now made out a metal ladder, which seemed not so much fixed to the main frame, but to grow out from it. The ladder looked at first very dainty – against the mass of the machine, it had a rather slender delicacy – but seen close up, the ladder itself had a moulded, chunky weight to it. Glancing upwards, Zy could just make out faint seams in the metal, which appeared to indicate a door or at least a break in the flawless surfaces.

About a third of the way from the ground, the machine’s snout emitted two large, short, horn-like prongs, which ended in flattened discs of shining metal – if the machine had arms and hands, then these stubby protuberances were its arms and the discs its hands, the palms held up and outwards. These were towards the sides of the snout: from the centre, a hooked extension was sited not far from the base of the machine.

HOO-SHA-HA: HOO-SHA-HA… CLICK! ZRRRR! CLICK! HOO-SHA-HA: HOO-SHA-HA…

At first, Zy had thought the machine was standing on perfectly flat, level ground: now, though, he could see that one end was slightly higher above the earth than the other, and that the machine was also tilted over a bit to one side – the more Zy stared, the more definite was his impression that the machine had sunk into the ground and subsided a little as well.

The broad swerving snub nose – so smooth, it seemed to have been drawn from an immaculate, gigantic mould; and so shining that it appeared as if someone must come every day and polish the metal (but the machine was so big, a single person would take hours and hours to do that) – held a square plate that didn’t seem fastened on, but an integral part of the fundamental structure of the machine; and within the square, bone-like struts of metal formed an unusual Gonfic cluster. This cluster wasn’t like any Zy had seen before – it was more sophisticated than any LateAncient cluster, and yet it didn’t possess the dizzying complexities and asymmetries of truly Ancient hypergrams; and Zy was able to interpret it only very tentatively, and only in part – although of a rather alien configuration, the boy reckoned he could make out, at the centre of the dense array, in a large, bold cluster: AmAm Trai – “No. 3”.

Walking right the way round it now, Zy had a quite swooning sense of this gigantic machine. His earliest intuitions about it were confirmed: weight, power, patience; mass, strength, weight.

HOO-SHA-HA: HOO-SHA-HA… CLICK! ZRRRR! CLICK! HOO-SHA-HA: HOO-SHA-HA…

It seemed to be breathing. Breathing, not like a person of course, but like a machine. That hoo-sha-ha sound, repeated over and over again in what felt like an utterly regular and ceaseless circuit – it was the sound of metallic lungs. From somewhere within that sleek cladding, there must be moving parts – the innards of such a machine were unimaginable, but Zy had the sense of giant but beautifully organised elements working through a very limited sequence of actions, over and over again. The metal breath of this No. 3 machine was like a kind of panting, only, paradoxically, Zy didn’t feel the machine was exerting itself, or had exerted itself – it was simply there, breathing, waiting, prepared.

He became conscious again of the sounds that were rippling through his flesh, it felt, and moving up through the ground, and the thick soles of his boots, passing into his bones and treeing off through his whole nervous system. The clicks the machinery uttered were profoundly interior, but, like the exterior, sculpted, precise, integral. The zrrrrr!, a buzzing, toothed noise, seemed to indicate movement, as if, under the burnished cladding, one part of the machine was being passed along, then halting, then being passed back again in an endless shuttling cycle.

Zy felt flushed with the heat from the fires. The two riders moved slowly on, coming to the end of the machine, the one that was slightly sunken into the ground, but which otherwise appeared a perfect replica of the end they’d already walked round: there was the same forehead and snub nose, the ladder, the door-like seams, the moulded protuberances. Seen now from every angle, the machine – bigger than many single-storey peasant houses – stirred Zy’s imagination and his senses: the machine was brutally beautiful, it seemed a thing of dense, almost tragic power – though why tragic, Zy couldn’t have said. As big as a house, and like a house, in some ways – a house for power, a place power sheltered. It was staggering.

Yes – staggering. But what did it do?


Excerpt from Mask [iv], Volume 12 of Dustless

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Dustless | Volume 1

 

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