Pearls That Were His Eyes (2007): Part Three
Pearls That Were His Eyes (Part 3)
‘There,’ said the Gun, pouring its words into Bearer’s drug-addled mind. ‘The residual heat trail leads into the sewers. There, the construction site.’
Bearer did not reply. The Gun focused its energies on scanning their surroundings. It boosted its sensory outputs as Bearer hurdled a barricade and dropped into the open stretch of pavement.
Thick and filthy water burst up around Bearer’s feet as he landed. Behind him something squealed and fled, splashing noisily in its panic. It was ignored.
‘Which way?’ asked Bearer. He dropped into a sprinter’s starting stance, his hand buried in the sewer filth. They were at a junction. Three tunnels led away from where he stood.
‘The heat trace is bleeding away,’ said the Gun. ‘But I can track the steam, and then the condensation.’
‘No explanation,’ said Bearer. ‘Just aim me.’
The Gun snickered at Bearer, but indicated that he should proceed in an easterly direction. The half-man burst back into action. He took ground in huge strides, pulling his feet out of the water in sharp movements. Then he sprang up onto the side of the sewer passageway, weaving around the pipes and handrails that stretched its length.
Bearer ran without thought, mindlessly obeying the directions that the Gun gave him. Those denizens of the New Ruenâlf sewers that saw them cowered or fled or ignored the interlopers, as they too were ignored. Not even the Gun saw sport in molesting them, its mind on a bigger prize.
And secretly it began to wonder if it was a prize that it would seize, even if it could.
Bearer, limbs pumping like an automaton, grew aware that he had been running for over an hour. His body was covered in grime and slick filth. Parts of his skin were rubbed raw where he had grazed against rough surfaces. The dead orbs that were his eyes bulged with the exertion, and veins stood out all over his body. Some tiny part of him knew that this level of performance could not be maintained and that soon he would crash. His conscious mind ignored this fact. The Gun acknowledged the fact on his behalf, storing it away.
Rounding a corner, they found themselves in a large chamber. It was fed by an array of grates and wide pipes that spotted the walls and ceiling, and a dozen entrances and exits ringed it. It was also populated.
Several dozen amalgamates were stood around the chamber in small groups. They had weapons in hand and were gathered about the violently dismembered carcasses of their fellows. The Stalker had undoubtedly been this way. The Gun noted that its executions had been sloppy, however effective. It, like Bearer, had been hurrying.
The amalgamates carried thick-edged cleavers, lengths of broken railing sharpened into spears, crude firearms fashioned from pipes, or crossbows built from fire-hardened wood. They were also angry and alert. As Bearer entered the chamber, a chorus of roars were released, and the creatures moved to attack.
‘Keep running,’ the Gun told Bearer. ‘Head for the seventh exit clockwise from our entry point. I will take care of these things.’
Bearer obeyed without question, his pace barely faltering, and turned towards the indicated tunnel. As his arms pumped up and down, the Gun emitted clouds of projectiles that pulped many hegemonic mutants. Those further away collapsed amidst ragged screams; those nearest tended to simply disappear in flashes of light and bloody mist. Several crossbow bolts and hurled spears threatened to strike Bearer, but the Gun had already loosed a series of drones that shot down the missiles before hunting down the source.
Then Bearer and the Gun were out of the chamber and into the tunnel, and the screams of dying amalgamates echoed behind them.
‘Bearer,’ said the Gun.
‘What?’ he replied, still sprinting.
‘I think we are gaining ground. The Stalker must have been wounded when I bathed him in plasma. Or perhaps it is slowing intentionally. I assume a confrontation is approaching.’
‘Good,’ said Bearer. After several more strides he added ‘Exhausted.’
‘Once we find Stalker, it will all be in my… hands.’
The tunnel along which Bearer was now sprinting seemed old, perhaps dating back to the earliest era of the city. The walls were almost entirely lost beneath thick layers of lichen and mould, and both Bearer and the Gun realised that though they were heading down a gentle slope, there was little water flowing down alongside them.
‘Old tunnels, removed from the sewer network,’ said the Gun. Bearer slowed his pace, wary of tripping and falling down the slope in his growing exhaustion.
Then the old tunnel opened out into a chamber far larger than that they had recently left behind. It was fed by scores of tunnels at different heights; the room itself was probably three stories tall. The passage they had been following fed out six or seven metres above the water level below. Small heaps of rubble and detritus indicated that the water was not deep.
They had come to a halt shortly before the exit, Bearer managing to slow his pace before he would have tumbled out and down. Now the two of them surveyed the huge space before them.
‘There,’ said the Gun. It directed Bearer’s attention towards what appeared to be a small throne, haphazardly fashioned from shredded lengths of metal. A collection of apparently random artefacts was arranged before it. Weapons were the most common items present, but there were also badges, pieces of consumer tat, shredded clothing, and even children’s toys.
‘What do you make of that?’ said the Gun. Bearer, already purging the speed drugs from his system, detected a hint of self-consciousness about the question. My brother already has his answer, he realised. I wonder why he wants to know mine? He shook his head, his thoughts still hazy and muffled by the drugs.
After a few seconds of thought, he answered, being careful to direct his voice into their mentech link and to not speak aloud.
‘It is clear that Stalker has led us to his home, such as it is.’ He paused for breath. ‘The small piles of items are out of place. I am unsure why-’
‘They are trophies,’ the Gun interrupted.
As I suspected, thought Bearer. My brother does not want to know what I think. It wants my support. It wants to kill Stalker.
Bearer was far from sure that this was the best course of action. He had too many questions yet unanswered. As he gazed down at the pathetic collection of nick-knacks, another idea occurred to him.
‘Look at how they are arranged before the throne. It’s not displaying them as trophies. There’s another purpose here. Maybe they’re there to help it remember its victims.’
‘Nonsense,’ said the Gun. ‘And I’m surprised you’d even consider it. Lest you forget, Stalker is a psychopathic killing machine designed as a terror weapon.’
‘Lest you forget, it could have killed the both of us. Why do you think it went rogue? Why do you think it led us here? Can you really just kill it without knowing these answers?’
The Gun was silent, perhaps thinking of an appropriate response. Bearer took a deep breath, and decided to take a chance.
‘Do you regret?’ he said aloud.
In answer there came a shriek, immediate and recognisable as the Stalker’s cry. The Gun poured fury into the link it shared with Bearer.
‘You fucking idiot, now it knows where-‘
Its voice vanished from Bearer’s head as the Stalker dropped down to the ground in the centre of the chamber. It spread its six limbs out, wide, its terrible glory plain to behold. It was facing them, and its eyes burned. Its body was streaked with fresh blood and ichor.
‘Don’t fire,’ said Bearer privately. ‘Don’t you dare.’
The Gun did not answer, but it didn’t open fire. Bearer mouthed silent thanks. He moved to the lip of the tunnel and leapt down into the shallow water below. He kept an eye on the Stalker the entire time, but it gave no further indication of movement. Its limbs remained outstretched. Cautiously, Bearer approached. He stopped five metres away, keeping the Gun directed down at his feet. For several long minutes, none of the three moved or spoke. They watched each other instead, admiring close-up the handiwork of those that had built them.
‘We are monsters.’
It was the Stalker that spoke. Its voice grated on the senses, like a dozen knifeblades being drawn over metal and concrete, but beneath that there was a melancholic timbre, the impossibility of poetry lurking beneath monstrosity. Bearer was silent, his blank eyes giving away no surprise.
Seeing that they made no reply, the Stalker lowered its terrible limbs. Involuntarily, Bearer took a step back, and instinctively raised his hands. The Friendly Gun chose this moment to panic. A bright beam of light burst from its main barrel and struck the Stalker, punching a sizeable hole through one of its arms. The creature roared, its human voice eclipsed, and lunged forwards. The blades on its fingers closed around the Gun, and the weapon buckled beneath the pressure. Its main barrel was crushed and ruined. Bearer could feel his brother’s pain through their link, and realised that through its screams it was preparing to fire again.
‘STOP,’ he bellowed, aloud and through the link. The force he put into his voice gave the adversaries pause. The Stalker halted, loosening its grip a little. The Gun relented, powering down its attack, and subsided into whimpers.
‘It has crippled me,’ it whined.
‘We will not fight,’ said Bearer. ‘Not now.’ He spoke aloud only, well aware that the Gun could hear his voice.
‘It has crippled me!’ repeated the Gun, more insistently. Bearer fixed his sightless gaze upon what passed for the Stalker’s face.
‘My brother is concerned that you have crippled him,’ said Bearer.
The Stalker did not move, and for several seconds Bearer wondered if it had not understood his statement. Then it repeated, ‘we are monsters.’ It released its grip entirely and backed away, slowly. Its wounded forelimb dragged along the ground, the blade tips submersed in filthy water. It stopped five metres away from them, where it had stood before the fracas.
The Gun said nothing more to Bearer. He felt it retreat into itself, nursing its wounds. Suddenly Bearer felt terribly isolated; his brother was catatonic, his body was burned out, and he stood alone and defenceless mere metres from one of the most relentless killing machines ever devised. He fought down his terror, took heart in the knowledge that the Stalker did not appear to want them dead, and gave thought to his situation.
‘Why did you bring us here?’ he asked, eventually.
The harsh tones of the creature’s voice again surprised him. It was a deep voice; a voice with soul. ‘We are tools. Our wielders creatures of hatred. They rule the city. There is no change.’
It raised a forelimb, curled it around like a scorpion’s tail to point at its head. ‘I am avatar of the city. I am despair. I cannot change. I must kill. You are different.’
It stopped for a moment, and its eyes pulsed a deeper red. ‘You and your brother. Can resist the inertia. And entropy. That grips this city.’
Bearer took a few moments to consider these words.
‘You want us to turn on our masters,’ he said eventually.
The Stalker twisted its upper body slowly from side to side, as though imitating a shake of the head. The effect was spoiled by its blades, which rubbed together in a minor cacophony.
‘City must be free,’ said the Stalker. It spoke low and steadily, the knifeblades now dancing off razorwire. ‘Danger is grave. Perhaps not today. Nor tomorrow. Perhaps millennia. But this place. All that we know. Will be threatened.’
‘By what?’ asked Bearer.
‘By the change. Which comes from without,’ was the reply.
‘So, the city is under threat. An unspecified threat which may strike at any time, or never. And you see us as something that can fight this?’
The Stalker made its grinding side-to-side motion again. ‘You can be the change which comes from within.’
‘I don’t entirely understand,’ said Bearer. ‘Do you mean New Ruenâlf is under threat from xenos? Other men?’
‘Do not know,’ said the Stalker. Then: ‘Such creatures are. But one face.’
‘I still don’t understand,’ said Bearer. He contemplated demanding that the creature be clearer, but decided against the risk of antagonising it.
‘Watch the city,’ it said. ‘Read your books. Understand stagnation.’
Bearer elected to try a different tack.
‘If your intention was that we have this conversation,’ said Bearer, ‘then why go to all this trouble to bring us here? Why the murder, the destruction? The attack?’
‘Free agents are needed,’ said the Stalker. ‘They must be strong. Of body and mind. My mind is weak. Morality cannot stop the hunt.’
It spread its limbs and roared, the whistling shriek reverberating around the chamber. Bearer became aware that the Gun had come out of itself, and had caught some of the conversation he had just shared.
‘What do you want, Stalker?’
The creature bent over, almost prostrating itself before Bearer. ‘Love. Change. Freedom. Release. Death. Infinity. Forgiveness. Hope. Dreams. All things.’
There was no reply to that.
‘What do you desire? Bearer?’ The Stalker’s question was gently asked, though its eyes could not express compassion or concern. Bearer scrutinised those six fiery pits as he contemplated this question.
‘Eyes,’ he eventually murmured. ‘I would have eyes of my own.’
The Gun still remained silent; whether its feelings were hurt Bearer did not know, but perhaps it imagined itself independently mobile, truly autonomous, and saw in Bearer’s answer some shard of its own desires.
But where would my brother be without me, Bearer mused.
The Stalker had not responded to Bearer’s answer to its question. It remained still, scrutinising him as it towered overhead.
‘Before vision, achieve sight. Turn from darkness. Be free radical. Invite change. Understand stagnation.’
‘You want us to effect in ourselves the change you want to see in the city,’ said Bearer, awareness flaring in his mind.
The Stalker hissed a steampipe wheeze. ‘Yesss.’
It turned and plodded back to its throne, sinking into the seat. The fractured metal creaked beneath it.
‘What happened to you?’ asked Bearer. ‘What changed? Why did you turn on the State?’
‘Go,’ it said. ‘Leave me. To my pain.’
Bearer looked away, suddenly embarrassed.
‘What now?’ asked the Gun. It sounded bewildered, and a little afraid beneath the ebbing pain. Without a target, Bearer realised. It had abandoned its desire to kill its adversary.
‘I don’t think we should kill Stalker. And I don’t think we can go back.’
‘No,’ said the Gun. ‘We can’t go back.’
Bearer returned his attention to the Stalker. It still stared at the items strewn before its feet.
‘We could kill it,’ said the Gun. ‘But only if it wanted us to.’
‘I think it would ask,’ said Bearer. ‘And now is not the time to push the issue.’
‘For a start,’ Bearer replied, thoughtfully. ‘We shall have to fake our own deaths. And then we have a city to understand, and a purpose to decide.’
The Gun seemed to brighten at this. ‘A brand new start, then? Of glory and deception? No gods, no masters?’
’A brand new start,’ repeated Bearer.
He began the long walk back out of the sewers, the Gun babbling incessantly about its inventive plans to elude their former masters. They left the Stalker behind, seated on its pathetic throne, staring at its relics of murder, with one broken arm trailing on the ground and six eyes flaring red.
[‘Pearls That Were His Eyes’, Part Three, Shaun Green, 2007. Cover image appropriated from Google Images. Yarr.]