by Davin Ireland

 

From Issue 14 (Oct 2011)

I

The desert here is pink and rocky and shrouded in darkness for much of the day. The excavation site is slashed with grey spills of rubble that could be collapsed towers or random seams of granite. To the east, great clouds of mortar dust boil across the plains, scouring the arid landscape, depriving it of fresh growth. Only the Idrl remain. Oblivious to the wind, seemingly blind to the desolation, they drift through the emptying topography like azure phantoms, the robes that stain their hides a deep, lustrous blue snapping petulantly in the breeze. They refuse to talk to us or communicate in any way, for they consider our troops to be an army of occupation.

Our generals are therefore left to draw their own conclusions about what went on before mankind arrived on Serpia Dornem.

Grue says he knows. After listening to his story, I am inclined to agree with him. The Idrl did not build these ruined cities. Nor did they occupy them. They are instead a separate nomad species, periodically emerging from hibernation to roam the land and take whatever sustenance their dying world has to offer. The mysterious Constructor Race, however, strove for greater things.

II

A transport carrier arrived unannounced this morning. Its harried crew whisked us away to a salt flat fifteen hundred clicks east of base camp, and dumped us there to await further instruction. None came, and when the adverse weather conditions disrupted our communications equipment, some of the younger men grew visibly anxious. Grue himself appeared towards the end of afternoon, tiny reconnaissance craft bobbing and groaning against increasingly heavy turbulence. The perpetual scream of mortar dust had whipped itself into a sandstorm of vicious proportions, yet the latest intelligence took precedence over all.

“We depart at eighteen-hundred hours,” the corporal announced, and took shelter on the leeward side of the craft. He would say no more and prohibited further discussion between the men. Forty minutes later we took to the skies.

“Right beneath us,” Grue cried above the shriek of the engines. We had been in the air for maybe a half hour at the time. “Tell me what you make of that.”

I looked down. The pink and grey shelf of desert that followed us everywhere we went had suddenly vanished, only to be replaced by what turned out to be forty-thousand square kilometres of unfettered parking space – an asphalted lot of such grotesque proportions that it extended all the way to the horizon in three different directions. And not a motor vehicle in sight.

Who were the Constructor Race, I ask myself. What made them do this? Precious little evidence remains beyond the cities themselves, and these have been stripped, razed, and abandoned in a way that suggests the destruction was thorough and wholly intentional. By the look of it, the only exception is a parking facility identical in character and composition to anything one might have found outside a conventional strip mall circa 2010. With the exception of size, of course. This thing dwarfs anything Earth had to offer by several orders of magnitude.

Tomorrow we will learn more. For the remainder of this evening, we’ll kick our heels and wait for the survey team to complete its remote sweep from orbit. Naturally, the Idrl sense that moves are afoot. They have ceased roaming the sterile plains and watch us cautiously from a distance. The calm dignity these beings exude stands in stark contrast to their magnificent trailing robes, which ripple and flutter incessantly on the gritty air currents. A displaced show of emotion, perhaps? We may never know. Meanwhile, certain members of the unit already exhibit the first signs of battle fatigue, though we have fought no war.

III

Tang and Spritzwater, two of my best men, are refusing to go on. They shed their laser carbines shortly after dawn this morning, and now stand with their backs to the spent orb that is this system’s sun, shadows trailing before them like tired ghosts. They say there is something wrong with Serpia Dornem. They say the planet is haunted. I am beginning to believe them. When we performed a perimeter sweep at 2300 hours last night, rocks, pinkish sand, and lazily flipping dust devils were about the extent of it. As the false dawn coloured the sky, a monstrous city loomed in the east.

My men blame the natives. Even those of us who retain a degree of objectivity are becoming unnerved by their austere presence, which grows by the hour. During breakfast I counted eleven Idrl gathered about a cluster of the spiny-leaved plants that cling in the cracks between the parched rocks. By first inspection their number had swollen to seventeen. They filter down from the arid hills to the south – gaunt, weary faces expressionless, yet eloquent as pantomime masks. This is not uncommon for a race subjected to prolonged oppression. A spectacle is unfolding here, and the spectacle is us. We have found the one city the Constructor Race overlooked – or perhaps it has found us – and now we must investigate.

Later.

The nearer we get, the greater the extent of the challenge. In the swirling wastelands between base camp and city, we spied a dead tree. It stood naked and branchless in the wind, sand-blasted for what may have been centuries on end, the very last of its kind. Oloman was dispatched to investigate, and returned minutes later in a state of high agitation.

“You have to look at this,” he said, tugging at my sleeve. “You have to see this right away.”

We deviated from our game plan just long enough to verify the lieutenant’s claims, which were irrational in the extreme but perfectly justified. The tree was not a tree at all, but a roadsign: a rusting iron pole pointing the way to a city with an eerily prophetic name. Venice Falls. The words were still legible despite the corrosive effects of the wind. There could be no mistake. Out here in a region of the galaxy visited by no human, there exists an urban settlement large enough to accommodate the entire population of New York City.

And it has an English name.

The Idrl appear unmoved by our discovery. They form a serene gathering in contrast to our wind-choked huddle, steadfastly refusing any attempt at dialogue, even though the surreal possibility exists that we may actually speak the same language. Nye has tried to tempt them with extra clothing and with food, but all is ignored. Even when an older female, badly undernourished and clearly hypothermic, allowed her eye to wander in the direction of the rehydration kit, her fellow tribal members closed ranks about her. We have not seen her since.

IV

Much as I suspected but dared not mention for fear of spooking the men further, this metropolis is a full-scale reproduction of an Earth city circa 2010, faithful in every detail except one: there are no people here. None except us, that is. We wander the empty streets in aimless fascination, weapons drawn but pointed at the ground. Sand dunes clog the intersections, erosion blights the shop fronts; but any wear and tear is incidental, a tawdry gift of the elements. I stare at the red-brick apartment buildings that line the sprawling avenues, at the reproduction brownstones with their salt-stained walls, at the magnificent steel and glass towers that pierce the gloomy sky – and wonder again who the Constructor Race were and why they should have built this place.

Were they intending to populate it with immigrants from our own planet? To forcibly humanise the Idrl for their own ends? To create a holiday resort? Such notions strike me as absurd. The dying sun, the alkaline soil – a bleaker aspect is difficult to imagine. And yet they must have had a reason for such folly. Acquiring enough knowledge to make a balanced judgement on the subject would take decades of investigation, and we only have weeks at best. In the meantime, the men are determined to make a start. Without my consent, Oloman used the butt of his carbine to smash a movie theatre window and thus gain access to the sealed lobby. Inside, our torches revealed plush red carpets, a ticket booth, even a hot dog stand advertising various brands of popcorn and ice cream. None of the food offered was actually available, but that didn’t detract from the authenticity of the moment. It seemed so real that I half expected an usher in a velvet suit to emerge from a side door and escort us to our seats.

But not everyone shared my enthusiasm.

“It doesn’t smell right,” Oloman complained, “like fresh paint and new carpets shut in for thirty thousand years.”

“And no movies,” agreed Nye. “Look at the poster frames – they’re all empty.”

It was a pattern that was to be repeated throughout the city. Bars with no liquor, trash barrels without garbage, corporations bereft of employees. And beneath it all, lurking at the very edges of perception, the unshakeable conviction that we were being watched.

“Of course we are,” I declared in exasperation. “The Idrl are everywhere. The fact that they choose not to show themselves doesn’t mean they’re not around.”

But my words failed to allay the unit’s increasing sense of unease, and in the end we retreated with weapons raised and hearts aflutter. Venice Falls was an unsettling place.

V

Tang and Spritzwater are gone. We arrived back at base camp an hour ago to discover the radio damaged beyond repair and half our stock of rations missing. This is not the work of the Idrl. If the men are to believe that, however, we must locate and capture the deserters before the spiral of suspicion and paranoia becomes too great. Already some of them are starting to question my authority.

The search begins immediately.

Ranging through the powdery foothills beyond the city, we encounter the entrance to one of the stately Idrl burrows. The rock-lined tunnel leading down into the ground is high enough for a man to stand upright during his descent, yet from just a few feet away it appears no more conspicuous than a natural fissure in a seam of granite. We enter, calling out the names of the missing as we navigate these labyrinthine corridors. Occasionally we find signs of occupation but no living occupants. These people have nothing. The few oxen-like beasts that survive on this desiccated globe are reared and worked to exhaustion underground, never to see the light of the pale sun. The lapis lazuli the Idrl mine for their personal use – the one commodity this barren place has left to offer – we would gladly take off their hands in exchange for food, water, and crops engineered to survive the inhospitable conditions. But that would be dishonourable, it seems. So instead they survive on a diet of insects and the coarse spiny plants that thrive out here in the desert, taking hope from the knowledge that, quite incredibly, they are almost there. The Constructor Race is gone; we could very well be next. Freedom, at any price, is almost within their grasp.

I wonder what the Idrl will be left with once we return to space?

An answer of sorts has arrived from an unexpected source. The search for the missing men having proved fruitless, we withdrew to the surface in pairs, myself and a private called Gosling bringing up the rear. Just prior to breaking the surface, Gosling angled his flashlight at the ceiling. The scalding white torch beam revealed a long niche carved into the rock along the top of the cavern walls, and here, stowed like so much excess firewood, lay the mummified remains of countless generations of deceased Idrl. Intrigued by the discovery, we retraced our steps, following the dusty seam of corpses to its source. The oldest, driest specimens were stored at the heart of the burrow, nearest the fire pit, which is where the Idrl sleep, cook and keep warm. It made sense for their carbon store to begin here, nearest the flames, where the dead could do their bit to sustain the living. No wonder we never found a burial site.

Back at the entrance to the burrow, we made another discovery. Huddled next to the freshest addition to the line of shrivelled corpses crouched a juvenile female — shivering, barely alive, no larger in my estimation than a six-year-old girl. Hunger had collapsed her face, preternaturally enlarging the eyes. But already she had learned her people’s way. When I offered my coat, her gaze drifted to the rock wall opposite and she was lost to me. Almost. But then an idea struck me. The chocolate bar was freeze-dried, vacuum packed, and perfectly fresh. When I broke the foil package and waved it beneath her nose, the child’s nostrils quivered spasmodically, and a tremor of anguish seemed to travel through that pitifully slight form. For a moment, just a microscopic sliver of a moment, her eyes betrayed all of the misery and the suffering and the longing in her tiny heart. Then all of the fight, all of the emotion, seemed to bleed out of her, and she was lost to me once more.

“Move out,” I whispered to Gosling, and we broke the surface together in uncomfortable silence. But at least I had confirmation of that which I had suspected all along: the Idrl are not the empty vessels they pretend to be. They feel, just as we do. They hurt; they hope.

VI

Tang and Spritzwater are now officially missing. I reported their disappearance this morning when a second transport carrier dropped by with news, supplies and a fresh radio. After consulting the high command, it was decided we would make one last sweep and then return to headquarters for the final assessment – the one that will decide the fate of our mission entire. Already, Serpia Dornem is being discussed in terms of a washout, and that suits the men just fine. I myself retain mixed feelings on the subject.

I think I understand the nature of the problem now. I honestly believe I am starting to comprehend the size of the dilemma the Idrl face. They are a dying species on a world that will soon expireThey have spent the last thirty-thousand years subjugated and occupied by a race who were at best indifferent to their existence, and who at worst may have enslaved them. Perhaps they no longer understand the meaning of compassion. Their lives are brief and cruel and filled with all the bitter harshness of winter, even in the warmest of months. Perhaps they need someone to show them that not all visitors to this place are hostile, and not all outsiders are to be viewed with distrust.

All I need is a chance.

We continue to follow the winding pathways through the foothills to the south, but few believe the deserters – if deserters they truly be – would seek refuge in exposed outlands when the corrupt monolith of Venice Falls squats so predominantly to the east. They are much more likely to be drawn by the prospect of shelter and the comforts of home, no matter how strong their initial reluctance. Still, we must be thorough and we must be sure. And the search has not proved a complete waste of time. Bit by bit, the land is giving up its secrets. We discovered a deep quarry veined with countless fractures and many millions of the tough, spiny plants upon which our hosts depend. We also discovered a broken loom near a deep, natural well. Attached to the loom was a cup filled with powdered lapis lazuli. So now the picture is somewhat complete. The Idrl eat this plant, feed it to their livestock, weave its sinewy fibres into robes that are subsequently stained blue with the crushed lapis. If you add in the not unreasonable amounts of geothermal energy generated beneath the surface, you have an entire ecosystem right there.

Returning to the city at noon, the men are somewhat cheered by the knowledge that the approaching storm will not hit until we have completed our projected sweep, and are on the way back to base for our final pickup. As we draw nearer, Oloman’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic. So great is his distraction, in fact, that word of it filters up the column to me, and I am forced to drop back and confront him. The last thing I need right now is another Tang or Spritzwater.

“What the hell is going on?” I demand. “Your attitude is making the men restless.”

In lieu of an answer, Oloman turns on his heel so that he faces back the way we came, finger jabbing in the direction of our dusty tracks. The dry soil here is heavy with iron oxide, and our footprints describe a pinkish-red arc that trails all the way back to base camp. He then flats a hand in the direction of the old signpost that marks the way to Venice Falls. It stands perpendicular to our position, about a mile distant, and I can just make it out through the murk of late morning.

“We’ve got company,” Oloman informs me, and then narrows his eyes. “But not Idrl.”

Another species, perhaps? My field glasses are useless against the membranous skeins of dust that drift lazily across the intervening plain. I therefore make a decision based on instinct. Oloman may have his weaknesses, but foolishness is not one of them. “Collect Gosling and Nye and follow in my wake,” I tell him. “Send the rest of the men on into the city.”

We reach the signpost just as the last of the forward party melts into a decaying business district on the edge of town. The little girl is no more forthcoming than on the previous occasion we met, though her whole body betrays the incredible risk she has taken in coming here. A pronounced pulse-beat bangs at her throat, and her overly large eyes dart frantically to and fro in their sockets. Not another species, then: just a smaller version of same. Now, at least, I can begin the process of redressing the balance, of showing a little kindness where before cruelty reigned supreme. Dropping my carbine in the dust, I produce the uneaten chocolate bar from my flak jacket and offer it to the girl. There is no hesitation this time: she snatches the confectionary from my hand, consumes it in six diminutive bites – chewing, swallowing, unable to disguise the terrible need that lives inside of her.

“Rations,” I mutter, and four packs hit the dirt. There is no longer any point in offering, I merely load the pockets of the girl’s robe with food, and pat her gently on the head — all too aware, as are we all, that it is at such moments history is made.

Recalling the notion that the Idrl may actually understand something of English, I call to the girl as we depart. “Tell your family we are their friends,” I cry. “Tell you tribe we mean them no harm. We are not here to hurt you, we can help. Tell them soon.”

My words are lost in the rising moan of the wind. Perhaps it is for the best. Perhaps the gesture alone should speak for us. As long as we march towards the city, the little one remains in place — watching, waiting, possibly savouring the taste of our friendship and the notion that not all strangers are aggressors. One can only hope.

VII

The storm is almost upon us. Angry thunderheads roll in from the horizon, purple-white lightning veins the clouds. We do not have much time. Sensing that the end is near, we fan out through the streets, the names of the missing echoing back at us from abandoned buildings.

I cannot stop thinking about that little girl. With one simple gesture, one overt act of kindness, the relationship between Human and Idrl may have changed forever. If they come to us for more, we will accommodate them as best we can; if this entire people requires refugee status, we will provide it. The hardy crops and other supplies initially offered as trade items will be granted as gifts, part of a larger goodwill package that will grow in size until the Idrl can no longer deny the sincerity of our motives. We will not rest until freedom and democracy are established in this barren arm of the galaxy.

I am already dreaming of petitioning generals and world statesmen on the Idrl’s behalf, when a call goes up from the next block. The cries are eerily faint against the overwhelming groan of the wind, but reverberate hollowly among the glass-fronted towers. I race down the sand-clogged avenue, past homely little Italian restaurants with generic-sounding names, past lofty investment houses with grandly-furnished reception areas, past diners and hardware stores, supermarkets and coffee shops – all of them empty, none of them dead because they were never alive. They are stillborn, unborn, aborted.

Tang and Spritzwater are cowering in a walkdown when we find them. They claim to have fled into endless blank acres of parking lot after we left them yesterday morning, only to awaken hours later in the very heart of the city with no memory of how they got there. They have been trying to find their way out ever since. The story sounds contrived, I admit, but their fear is only too real. No matter. I drag them up to the sidewalk by the hair and shove them in the direction of base camp, my anger at their behaviour tempered only by the knowledge that our time here is coming to an end.

IIX

Trudging back through the gloom and the gathering winds, we find ourselves veering inexorably in the direction of the signpost that marks the way to Venice Falls. Is it curiosity that draws us on, or a deeper need to confirm, one final time, that this is not some vast illusion? The men are excited. Certain of them discuss the snaps they will take of themselves with the city in the background; others express a wish to take the sign home with them as a souvenir. The mood is upbeat and euphoric, and remains so despite the knowledge that we are under scrutiny from the south. For at the summit of each foothill stands a lone Idrl, robes swirling, posture unreadable. The sky has turned the colour of an old bruise, and the resulting light tinges the ground beneath their feet an ominous purple. Lightning flickers at our backs, illuminating those austere figures but revealing nothing of what resides in their hearts.

We encounter the girl one last time. She is still in the same place. The pockets of her robe still bulge with untouched ration packs, a brown smear of chocolate still decorates that delicate mouth. As ever, the blue stain of her garments flutters endlessly on the strengthening breeze. One of the men – I think it Gosling, but it could just as easily be me – allows a horrified moan to escape his throat. It appears the natives have found yet another use for the spiny plant they rely on so much. Its platted fibres creak gently back and forth as the little girl twists in the wind, the weight of the ration packs grossly elongating her already slender neck. Once and for all, the Idrl have answered our gesture of kindness with an unequivocal statement of intent.

Only now am I beginning to comprehend our predecessors’ motives for leaving this place after investing so much in it for so very long. Victory is not a question of superior firepower, it seems. It is not even a matter of right and wrong. It is simply a matter of conviction, and of belief – and who would dispute that the Idrl’s is far, far greater than ours could ever be.

Image© 2006 by Pierre Smit
Copyright © 2011 by Davin Ireland

Davin Ireland

Davin Ireland was born and bred in the south of England, but currently resides in the Netherlands. His fiction credits include stories published in over fifty print magazines and anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic, including Aeon, Underworlds, The Horror Express, Zahir, Neo-Opsis, Rogue Worlds, Storyteller Magazine and Albedo One.

You can visit his site at http://members.ziggo.nl/d.ireland/

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