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by Ian McDonald

There’s an old saying about politics making strange bedfellows. But, as the bizarre and pyrotechnic story that follows will demonstrate, war can make ever stranger ones . . .

British author Ian McDonald is an ambitious and daring writer with a wide range and an impressive amount of talent. His first story was published in 1982, and since then he has appeared with some frequency in Interzone, Asimov’s Science Fiction, New Worlds, Zenith, Other Edens, Amazing, and elsewhere. He was nominated for the John W. Campbell Award in 1985, and in 1989 he won the Locus Best First Novel Award for his novel Desolation Road. He won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1992 for his novel King of Morning, Queen of Day. His other books include the novels Out On Blue Six and Hearts, Hands and Voices, and the acclaimed Evolution’s Shore; and two collections of his short fiction, Empire Dreams and Speaking in Tongues. His most recent books include the new novels Terminal Cafe and Sacrifice of Fools. Born in Manchester, England, in 1960, McDonald has spent most of his life in Northern Ireland, and now lives and works in Belfast.

* * *

And there in a wood, a Piggy-wig stood . . .

Edward Lear: The Owl and the Pussy-cat

On the third, day beyond the womb we come to the cool cool river. Peeg and Porcospino and Ceefer and papavator and I. We stand among the trees that come down to the edge and watch the river flow. The sun is high above us; light shines and gleams from the moving water. Peeg is fascinated. He has never seen true water. Only the dream water when he was a seed high in heaven. He goes down over the stones to touch his trunk to the flowing river.

“Alive!” he says. “Alive.”

It is only water, I tell him but Peeg cannot accept this. There cannot be enough water in the world for all this flowing: no, it must be some great coiling creature, flowing across the earth, up into heaven and back to earth again. A circle of never-ending movement. For a creature of no hands and very little words, Peeg has much opinion about the hardworld. Opinions should be left to beings like me who have much words, and clever hands. Why, he does not even know his own true name. He calls himself Peeg because that is the name he found on his tongue when he woke in the womb of mamavator. I tell him, You are not a pig, a boar, you are a tapir. A tapir, that is what you are. See, you have a trunk, a snout, pigs do not have trunks or snouts. He will not be told. Peeg is his name, Peeg is what he is. Creatures with few words should not toy with powerful things like names.

Ceefer flexes her claws, cleans between her toes.

“What it is is not important,” she says. “How we get across it is.” She is a law to herself, Ceefer. She has as many words as I; this I know because she has the smart look in the back of her eyes. You cannot hide that look. But she keeps her words much to herself. If she has a name, one she found on her tongue in mamavator, she keeps that also to herself. So I have my own name for her. Ceefer. Ceefer Cat.

We follow the river to a place where the smooth shining water breaks over rocks and stones into white spray.

“Here we will cross,” I say. “Ceefer will go first to make sure there are no traps or snares.” She grimaces at the white water; she loves to fish but hates to get her fur wet. In a few bounds she is across, sitting on the far side shaking water from her feet. We follow: Porcospino, then Peeg, then papavator, then me. The Team Leader must be last so he can watch over his team. I can see that Peeg’s small feet are far from safe on the slippery rocks.

“Peeg!” I say. “Be careful careful careful.” But the glitter and shimmer of the running water have dazzled him. His small feet lose their balance. In he goes. Screaming. Splashing. Feet clawing, kicking, but there is nowhere for them to catch hold.

And the current has hold of him, is sweeping him towards a gap in the rocks to wedge him, drag him down, drown him.

Flash blue silver: papavator steps over me, straddles his long, thin metal legs to form a good steady base, unfolds an arm. Down goes the arm, in go the fingers locking in the mass of hair and circuitry at the back of Peeg’s neck, up comes Peeg thrashing and squealing. In three strides papavator is on the far bank. Peeg is a dismal, dripping huddle on the shore.

“Up, up,” I say. “Move move. We must go on. We have far to go this day to get to our Destination.” But Peeg will not move. He stands shivering, saying over and over and over again these words: Bit me bit me bad being bad being bit me bit me bad being bad being. The river being that seemed so wonderful, so friendly to him has turned evil and hostile. I go to talk to him, I stroke the coils of circuitry around his head, stroke the bulge on his side that covers the lance. He will not be consoled by my words and my touching. He is beginning to upset the others. I cannot allow that. We shall have to wait until Peeg is ready before we go on. I signal for papavator to unfold the arm with the needleful of dreams on it. Great dreams there are in the needle. Perhaps the flying dream. That is the one Peeg loves best: that he is back in heaven, flying, laughing and crying and pissing himself with happiness as the angels look down upon him and smile at their Peeg. He lifts his trunk to touch the needle. Dream good, Peeg.

Papavator settles on his metal legs, opens his belly. Time to feed. Porcospino and I suck greedily from the titties. Ceefer flares her nostrils in displeasure. She prefers the taste of gut and bone and blood. Tonight, she will hunt by the light of the moon and the shine of her eyes. She will kill. She will swallow down blood and bones and guts and all. Disgusting creature. Not a being at all.

Ceefer. Peeg. Porcospino. Papavator. Me, Coon-ass. One more in our team to make it the full one-hand’s-worth-and-one. Here she comes now, down the beams of light that slant into the shadows among the trees of the river’s edge: she does not need dreams to fly in. Only Peeg and I have the gift of colour-seeing, and Peeg is rolling and grunting in his needle-dream. The others cannot see as I do how the colours flow from blue to green across her wings and back, the cap of brilliant red, the beak and feet of brightest yellow. This, I think, is the world called beautiful. She settles on papavator’s outstretched arm. No pulp, no pap for her. She feeds on pellets from the hand of papavator himself. But for all her colours, she has only one word; that is the trade the angels made: one word, two syllables that she sings over and over and over. Bir-dee. Bir-dee. Bir-dee.

Ceefer Cat looks up from her eternal cleaning, cleaning, cleaning, sudden, sniffing. In the backs of her eyes are the red moving shapes that are her gift from the angels. She stiffens, bares her teeth, just a little. That is enough. One of the things that goes with having hands and colours, and much, much words, is more fear than others: the fear that looks at what might be and shivers. Anxiety, that is the name for it.

Danger. Bir-dee leaps up into the air again, darting and many-coloured, brilliant, dashing through the air, and then I can see her no longer through the canopy of treetops. But I do not fear that she will fly away out of all seeing and never come back, she is keyed to my scent, she will always come back to me, however far she flies.

Ceefer is waiting in the shadows beneath the trees, Porcospino is ruffling and rattling his quills, papavator has closed himself up and is lurching on to his silly thin legs. But Peeg sleeps on. He grumbles and mumbles and drools in his dream. It must be a very good dream that papavator has in his needle. “Peeg, Peeg, danger coming, danger coming! Awake! Awake! The others have reached the dark of the deep forest, they are looking back; why do we not come?”

I do not have the senses of Ceefer, but I can feel the thing she feels; huge and heavy, moving through the forest on the other side of the river.

There are secrets that mamavator gave only to me, to be shared with none other; secrets whispered to me in the warmth of the womb, in the dream-forest that is so like, and so unlike, this hard-forest. The middle finger of my left hand is one of the secrets told to none but I. It is made from the same almost-living stuff as the emplants that trail almost to the ground from the sockets behind my ears, from the skulls of all my team.

Quick. Quick. Out comes the emplant in the back of Peeg’s head.

Quick. Quick. In goes the middle finger of my left hand.

Up, I think. Up. Peeg twitches in his sleep, a great heaving twitch. Up. He staggers to his feet. Forward, I think and the thought pours out of my finger into his head and as he moves forward, still dreaming his needle-dream, I hop up on his back, ride him with my finger. Move. Move. Run. Run. Fear. He wails in his dreams, breaks into a trot, a canter. I lash him into a gallop. We fly over the dark, dark earth. Porcospino and Ceefer run at my side, papavator covers the ground with his long, clicking strides. The trees rise up all around us, taller and darker and huger than any dreaming of them. Run Peeg run. The dream of the needle is beginning to wear thin, the hardworld is pouring in through the tears and cracks in the dream, but I do not release him from my mind. From far behind comes a tremendous crashing, as if the dark, huge trees are being torn up and thrown into heaven; and the sound of mighty explosions. We run until all running is run out of us. Full of fear, we stop, listening, waiting. Presently, there is the smell of burning. The red shapes in the backs of Ceefer’s eyes flicker and shift: she is scanning. She sits to clean herself.

“Whatever it is, is gone now,” is all she will say. She licks her crotch.

We sit, we pant, we wait. The rain begins, dripping in fat drops from the forest canopy. Soon the smell of burning is gone. As I sit with the rain running down my fur, Bir-dee comes to me, perches on my hand, singing her glad two-note song. I stroke her neck, ruffle her feathers, smooth down her glossy blue wings. Only when the others are asleep with the rain from high high above falling heavily upon them, do I extract the reconnaissance chip from her head and plug it into the socket beside my right eye.

Flight. Soaring. Trees and clouds and sun, the bright shine and coil of a river, the curved edge of the world: all crazy, all turned on end. Then, something huge as the moon: huger even than mamavator when we saw her for the first time, steaming in the forest clearing where we were born: something earthbound and stamping, stamping out of the forest, into the river, standing with the water flowing around its feet while it fires and fires and fires, explosion after explosion after explosion tearing apart the trees and rocks of the river bank where we rested. Before it stamps away down the river it sets the smashed trees alight with flames from its chest.

I blank the chip with a thought, extrude it, give it back to Bir-dee. To have hands, and colour, and much, much words, to know; this is the worst punishment of the angels.

The bravest animals in the land

Are Captain Beaky and his band.

Captain Beaky

Who made you?

The angels made me from a seed.

The angels planted a seed in the womb of mamavator and nurtured it, and grew it. Flesh of the flesh of mamavator. She suckled and fed us.

What are you?

The servants of the angels, the agents of their work upon this world.

Two natures of service, two natures of servant have the angels; the soft and the hard; those of the inorganic and those of the organic. The service of the inorganic is not greater than the service of the organic, the service of the soft is not greater than the service of the hard; both were created in the likeness of the angels to complement each other in their weakness.

Recite the weaknesses of the organic.

Pain. Hunger. Tiredness. Sleep. Emotion. Defecation. Death.

Recite the weaknesses of the inorganic.

Noise. Expense. Energy. Breakdown. Vulnerability. Stupidity.

Why have the angels, themselves perfect, created such imperfection?

Because the angels alone are perfect.

Because no created thing, no thing of the hands, may assume to the perfection of the angels, that is the great sin. What is the name of the greatest sin?


How may we purge ourselves of the sin of pride?

By the faithful service of the angels. By the humble obedience of their will. By the execution of their assignments.

To the letter.

To the letter.

I have always wondered what that final part of the Litany means. To the letter. I think that it has something to do with the dark marks on papavator’s skin; those regular, orderly marks; and they have something to do with words, but the understanding of it is not a gift the angels have chosen to give this Coon-ass. Perhaps they are the prayers of the inorganic: papavator himself takes no part in our nightly recitations; his own hard, inorganic devotions he makes well apart from us; long, thin legs folded up under him, arms and antennae drawn in. It is not sleep, the inorganic do not sleep, not as we sleep. Strange, the lives of the inorganics. How marvelous, the will of the angels, that has made us so different, so weak in ourselves, yet so strong together to their service.

Every night, when Ceefer has sniffed out a place free from traps and poisons for us, we gather in a circle in the forest for the Litany. I lead, they respond as best they can. Bir-dee has only two words, yet no matter how far she is flying, however high, she always returns to sit with the others, shifting from foot to foot because she is not made to stand on the ground, cocking her head from side to side as if the wonder of the words is being communicated to her by some spiritual channel I do not understand. And Peeg loves the Litany, would have me say the words over and over and over because though I know that he does not understand what he is saying—they are just sounds he was born with in his skull—inside the words he can see the angels reaching down to lift him up into heaven and set him flying among the stars.

I have said that papavator does not take part in our worship. There is another, sad to say. Ceefer says that she does not believe. There are no angels, there is no heaven, she says. They are comfortable words we have invented because we know that we all must die and the knowing frightens us. She thinks that is brave. I think it foolish. It is certain that we must die, and that is frightening, but would she say it is wrong to comfort ourselves with dreams, like the dreams papavator keeps in his needle? I have tried to steer her right but she will not believe. She is a stubborn animal. Our arguing upsets Peeg; he has a great faith but the light shines through it, like sun through the leaf canopy, easily stirred by the wind. I would order Ceefer to believe, but she would laugh that dreadful cat-laugh at me; so every night when we recite she sits and cleans herself, licking licking licking. That licking, it is as bad as any laughter.

At the end, after Porcospino has scraped a hole in the leaf-litter and one after the other we shit into it, Peeg asks for a bible story.

“What story would you like to hear?” I ask.

“Angels. War,” says Peeg. “Lights. Flying.”

Ceefer growls. She stalks away. She thinks it is a stupid story. She thinks all the bible stories she was taught by mamavator are stupid. I must admit there is much in them that does not make sense to me, but Peeg would have them told over and over and over again, every night if he could. He rolls on to his side, his safe side, closes his eyes. The tip of the lance slides out of the fold of skin on his side, like a metal penis. He seems to have forgotten all about the river. He does not have the circuits for long memory. Fortunate Peeg.

“In the days of days,” I say, “there were only angels and animals. The animals looked like us, and smelled like us, but they were only animals, not beings. They were called animals by the angels because all they possessed was an anima, a livingness, but no words or spirit. The angels and the animals had existed together in the world for always so that no one could remember which had made the other, or whether they had both been made by something different altogether.

“In those days of days, as in these days of days, animals served angels, but the angels, being as they were mighty creatures, with moods and feelings that are not to be judged by beings, grew tired of the animals and their limitations and created new servants to be better than the animals. They created servants stronger than you, Peeg”—he hears my voice in his near-sleep, the high-pressure lance slides out to almost its full length—“that could see better and farther than you, Ceefer”—though she is out, patrolling in the darkness, it is part of the story—“that could fly higher and carry more than you, Bir-dee, that were smarter and could remember better and think faster than me, an old raccoon; and that could kill better and more than you, Porcospino.

“So excellent were the new servants that the angels were able to fly up into heaven itself, where they have been flying ever since with their hands held out at their sides.

“Now I have said that the wisdom of the angels is greater than the wisdom of beings, and if the angels turn to war among themselves, as they did, not once, but many times in the days of days, what are we to question them? But there was war, a great and terrible war, fought by the terrible servants they had made for themselves; servants that could knock flat whole forests, that could set fire to the sky and turn the sea to piss. A war so terrible that it was fought not just upon the hard world, but in heaven also. So mighty a war that the angels in the end called upon their old servants, the animals, to aid them, and from those wordless, spiritless creatures created, by the shaping of their hands, beings like us.

“Though lowly and lesser and stained by the sin of our failure to serve the angels as they wished to be served, we were permitted to redeem ourselves by aiding the angels in their war. Thus we were given wonderful weapons, mighty enough to destroy the works of angels, both organic and inorganic; mighty enough”—and here I always draw my words into a hushed whisper—“to destroy the angels themselves.”

As they gaze into my words and in them see the angels smiling and holding out their hands to them, I go to them in turn, as I have every night since we came into the hardworld, and touch the third finger of my left hand to the sockets between their eyes, the finger that sends them down down into holy sleep.

Unseen, unheard, black as the night herself, Ceefer returns from her patrol as I end my story.

“Stupid,” she says. “What kind of a god is it that can be killed by beings?”

“I do not know,” I say. “That is what faith is for. So we can believe what we cannot know.”

“I hope it is a big faith you have,” says Ceefer, extending her hard inorganic claws to lick off the forest dirt, carefully, carefully. “Big enough for another to sit on the back of it. I will have need of your faith tomorrow.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

She blinks her round round eyes at heaven, flares her nostrils. Sensing.

“It will be a hard day, tomorrow,” she says, and, refusing any further words with me, stalks away to find a comfortable nest among the root buttresses of the great great trees.

“Bonedigger, bonedigger, dogs in the moonlight . . .”

Paul Simon: Call Me Al.

I have these pictures in my head. I suppose they must be the vision of angels, for I can see the forest spread out below me, from sea to shining sea, all its hills and valleys and rivers and lakes laid out before me. But it is more than just as if seeing from on high; it is as if I can see through the canopy of the trees; see through the trees themselves. I can see with a detail surely not possible from so great a height: I can see the place where mamavator left us before returning to the sky in lights and fire; that is a ball of blueness. I can see us, the Team, five yellow dots with a sixth moving some way ahead of us. And I can see the place where we are to go. Our Destination. The shape of that is a black, pulsing star.

The six yellow points are now closer to the black pulsing star than they are to the blue ball.

Every time Bir-dee returns with her pictures for me, my heavenly sight becomes clearer. I see now the war machine that destroyed the river bank where Peeg dreamed as a red triangle moving off to our left, along the river we crossed. It has lost interest in us. Between us and the black star is an area of open ground. When I look at it in my head, the words “lumpy ground” come to me. It is little more than a morning’s walk for us to the lumpy ground.

On the lumpy ground we will decide what we are to do when we reach the Destination. So our orders go.

Between the lumpy ground and the black star the picture looks as if ten, twenty, many many red stars have fallen out of heaven on to the earth.

The outer defences.

Ceefer leads us through the dark beneath the great trees towards the Destination, sensing for any traps and nets and snares that might await us. Now it is we who must ride on her back. We must have faith that she can see and hear and smell what we cannot, we must trust her to see what cannot be known, for to know, to see, to taste and touch, would be to die. I have learned a new word today. Ceefer’s words of the night before have made it come bubbling up out of my head like deep deep water. Foreboding. Such a duty, the angels have laid upon us. But would they have given us a task they knew we could not perform?

Ceefer’s screech sends my angel-pictures whirling away in many many torn pieces. The wail dies slowly into a growl: Ceefer crouches, eyes wide, whiskers and ears folded flat, staring at the thing she has found in the dark underforest.

It has been dead a long long time. The smell of it has been dissolved away into the smell of forest: guts and eyes pecked out by pecking pecking birds and insects, skin pulled away from teeth bared in the final snap at death. Pelt a dried tatter of fur and leather. The metal spike of the spring trap is driven out through the back of its neck. Some kind of possum, or small, biting marsupial: I cannot tell, it is so old and dead.

There are bright metal sockets beneath its ears, and torn strands of circuitry. Nestled among its bare ribs are long, thin, steel somethings.

Cat-cool recovered, Ceefer brushes past, moves on. Porcospino pauses to sniff at the dried corpse, papavator steps past on his metal legs. He is a machine, he does not have the weakness of feeling. But Peeg is terrified. Peeg will not go past it. Peeg cowers away from it; it is a bad sign, he says, bad sign, bad sign, bad sign.

“It cannot harm you,” I say. “Its duty is done. Its soul flies in heaven with the angels. You too have a duty, given you by the angels, that you must do.”

I do not want to have to use the circuits in my finger again. Wide-eyed with terror, Peeg approaches. Any moment he will break and run, I think. I have circuits in my hand for that possibility, too. Keeping as far as he can from the dead impaled thing, Peeg edges past. Ceefer waits, head turned, eyes shining red, tail lashing impatiently.

But Peeg is right. It is a bad sign.

We enter a clearing. Ceefer is suspicious, looking to the sky, sniffing all around her. Nothing registers on her sensors but she is not happy. If Ceefer is not happy, I am not happy. Porcospino, too, is uncomfortable; blinking his tiny eyes in the light. He is a creature of the forests, of the darkness of the forests; he is naked in open terrain. Naked sky frightens him. Peeg looks across the clearing to the great great trees.

“Look at the trees, Coon-ass,” he says, pointing with his trunk. “Dead dead trees, with leaves on them.”

I look where he is pointing. And I am afraid. For the great trees are dead, bare, blasted wood, killed by black air and war, but the branches are hung with black leaves.

“Quick, quick!” I cry. “This is a trap!”

And the leaves rise from the branches of the dead trees and we understand. They are not leaves at all. They are bats, rising up in a cloud of beating, roaring wings so dark they shut out the sun.

Those red dots in my inner vision as many as the stars in heaven . . .

“Quick! Quick!” I try to watch the sky as we run across the clearing beneath the wheeling, chittering mass of bats. They swoop down upon us: I can see the shine of circuitry in their fur. I can see the shine of weapons clutched between their feet.

“Quick! Quick!”

The ground rises up in front of me in a burst of noise and earth: the explosion sends me reeling backwards. I plunge onward, blindly, guided by older, baser, truer instincts. The bats release their bombs and flap away. Explosions to the right of me, explosions to the left of me, explosions before me, explosions behind me. We run on; the sky is gone. There are only bats, wheeling, croaking, screaming. The edge of the forest is close, the cover of the trees. So many bats could not safely fly there. Not day-bats, as these are. I look back, see papavator lurching unsteadily across the clearing. Then the bright bombs fall, there is an explosion, flying metal and machine juices. Arms and legs wave, flail, fall dead.

When I am sure I can no longer hear the beating of wings or the sound of bat-voices, I call a halt. We have lost more with papavator than needle-dreams, I say. Without his picking and purging and preparing digested pap for us to suck from his titties, we must take the time to forage and find our own food. This is a dangerous thing for us to do: we cannot be certain that food we find is not enemy food, or tainted with the black air poisons that papavator’s stomach removed, and there are always the traps and snares and nets.

“Hungry now,” says Peeg. “Hungry now.”

“We all must feed ourselves,” I say. “There is no more papavator.”

For me to grub and dig for food is a fearful, animal thing; the fat maggots and wild honey I dig with my hands, my fine, clever hands, from the hollow of a dead tree and share with Peeg and Porcospino are crude and disgusting compared to the milk of papavator. For Ceefer to hunt, to bring some small forest thing back dripping in her jaws, is a joy. Her sensor eyes glow red as the tears the small thing she has killed with her steel claws. She offers me a piece of hairy flesh gently grasped in her teeth.

“You are a raccoon,” she says, setting it down before me in the way of a wicked joke. “You are an omnivore. You can eat anything.” I would sooner eat my own shit. Clever clever Ceefer with your smart, clever words, and your smart eyes that can see things no one else can, and your sharp little claws, and your confident belief in disbelief.

We come to the lumpy ground as the day is growing old. It is a strange terrain indeed; full of hummocks and mounds and hollows and dark pits. As if something huge and unshapely had died long ago and let the forest grow over it. Scattered across the open space are stranger spires and pillars of heaped earth. There is a smell to this place I cannot identify but which stirs the hairs along my spine; a smell, and a sound, a deep, deep humming, everywhere and nowhere.

There is a dark shape moving among the shadows and hollows: a creature. A peccary, rooting. I order Porcospino forward. He raises his quills, growls in his throat.

“Tell him to put his spines down,” says Ceefer. “It is not a being. It is just an animal. Come, Peeg, with your lance. That is our evening meal, out there.” Off she goes, a black shadow flowing across the lumpy ground. Poor, silly Peeg trots after her. The peccary looks up, bolts for the forest edge. The vague troubling noise has become a definite sound, a buzzing, a droning.

Streams of black vapour pour from the strange earth pillars.

“Ceefer! Peeg! Come back at once!” I say. They need no warning from me, they are already flying back across the lumpy ground. The dark vapour forms a cloud around the peccary. The frantic animals tries to flee but the swarm follows it. The peccary twists, turns, plunges; and falls. And I understand. It is not black air, as I had feared. It is much worse. It is insects. Flying, stinging insects. Millions upon millions of insects. They swarm up from the dead peccary, a dark, droning tower looming above the lumpy ground, leaning over us.

What is this Coon-ass to do if he is to obey the will of the angels? I stare, mesmerized, at the whirlwind of insects, moving slowly across the open ground towards me. We cannot fight. We cannot run. We cannot escape. Then I hear Porcospino’s voice.

“In. Now.”

Has the fear overloaded his circuitry? What is he talking about? He is scratching at a dark hole at the foot of an oddly shaped green mound.

“Others already in. You. Now.”

“Bir-dee,” I say. “What about Bir-dee?”

“If she is out there, already too late,” says Porcospino. “In. In.”

I scuttle into the hole as the storm of insects breaks. Porcospino works with his strong feet, kicking at the dirt to seal up the tunnel. A few insects have crawled inside, I strike at them with my hands and feet, crush them into the earth.

“Come. Come. Fast. Fast,” says Porcospino as he leads me down, down, downward. To me, a being of the light, with hands and much much words, this is a foreboding of death; dark, pressing close all around, fear, down down downward into the gnawing earth. To Porcospino this is his place of places, underground, grubbing, sniffing.

When I was a seed in the womb of mamavator, adrift in highest heaven, I had a dream in which I was shown the shape of the world. In this dream the world was a bubble of light and air and life surrounded by earth and soil and stone that went on and on and on beyond all counting, for always. In the dream, a voice told me that somewhere lost in this neverendingness of earth and soil were other worlds like our own, of light and air and life.

Of course, it is the foolish imagining of a raccoon, but when I find myself in light and air and space after so long in the dark I think that we have dug our way through the bottom of the world and emerged in some other earth.

It is a very small world, this bubble of air and light, barely big enough for Ceefer and Peeg and Porcospino and Coon-ass. The air is stale, dead, and tastes of old, used-up poison. The light is strange, dim, blue, coming not from one sun, but from flat squares above us. It is a square world altogether, this world, square-sided, everything sharp-edged. It has the smell of a work of angels.

Peeg is looking as if he is going to cry with confusion.

“I think this must be an old defensive position,” I say, I hope that he will trust my words and knowledge. “It must come from the very very early time of the war, so long ago the forest grew over it and forgot it. Look: see?” I point at more flat, square things fixed to the sides of the world. They are covered in tiny red and yellow lights, like the shapes in the pictures in my head. “Machine servants. This is a place made by angels.”

“More than machine servants,” says Ceefer. “Come. See.”

She leads us through an opening, along a tunnel into another blue-lit square-cut chamber. There are more inorganics on the walls with their red and yellow stars. On the floor are the bodies of organics.

The dead possum-thing we encountered on the forest path was frightening because it still retained a memory of life. These things are so long dead that they are not even memories. Beyond fearing, they are merely curious.

“What beings these?” asks Porcospino. I cannot answer, I have never seen creatures like these before. Very tall they are, very thin. Long long legs, very big and fine hands at the ends of their forelegs. Fur only on the tops of their heads. Double-skinned: that is the only way I can describe them. Over the middle of their bodies and their legs they wear a second skin, very soft and fine, though ill-fitting. When I touch it, it falls into dust.

“I will tell you what manner of beings are these,” says Ceefer. “They are angels. That is what they are. Dead angels.”

Peeg whimpers.

“No,” I say. “That cannot be. The angels are all in heaven.”

“The stories say that the angels fought upon earth and heaven,” says Ceefer. “And this is a very old place. And the stories say that the angels can die. Can be destroyed by beings.”

“No,” I say, though fears and doubts rise up around me like stinging insects. “No. No. They are monkeys. That is what they are. See the skull, the jaw? Monkeys, created and shaped to the will of the angels, but no more than monkeys.”

Ceefer sniffs at the body, delicately bares her teeth and picks up a bone. She coughs, spits it out.

“Piss and dust, that is how angel-meat tastes,” she says.

Sit Ubu, sit. Good dog.

American TV sit-com production company sound-byte.

Peeg will destroy.


Peeg will know.

How will Peeg know?

You will give Peeg the knowledge.

Knowledge that I do not myself know?

Strange indeed, and wonderful, are the ways of the angels.

Peeg slept a black sleep last night, down in the square chamber among the strange bodies. There was no papavator with his needleful of dreams to send him flying through the night. I listened to him crying and whimpering, under the blue square lights. The world is too much for him.

Ceefer’s eyes, which see in any darkness, lead us through many chambers under the earth full of the strange dead beings before finding a scratchway up into the real world again. It is little more than a scrape; bulging with weapons, Peeg can barely fit through. For one moment we think he has jammed good. He screams and screams and screams in terror as Porcospino digs around him to widen the tunnel. I can understand the fear of the earth closing in all around, I have been learning much about fear.

We emerge into the morning. The sun is high above us. The ground is covered in dead insects, like black dust. They are too dangerous for their angels to allow them to live long. From the lumpy ground we pass into forest again. We scavenge. We scratch. We shit.

From the forest we pass into the smouldering land.

The line between the two is as sharp as the edge of a claw. From the cover of the root buttresses, we survey a land burned clean of life: trees, creepers, ferns, fungi, every living thing, every creature, swept away, stripped down to the sick, shit-coloured earth. A dusting of white ash covers the earth, the smell of burning is strong; here, there the charred stump of a tree has resisted the burning.

There is a shadow on the land. A giant shadow. Before us, above us, on the edge of the burnt land that smoulders further than my eyes can see, stands the hulk of a huge war machine. Some terrible weapon has blown away the upper half of its body, the ground is littered with its torn metal flesh. The wind from across the ashlands moans over the jagged, ripped shell.

“The outer defences,” I say, quietly. Porcospino rattles his quills. Peeg whimpers in dread. Ceefer hisses. No one need ask, What could have done this? There are forces here that can shatter even mamavator: that is why we were set down on earth so far from the Destination, to trek through dread and danger and death. Yet we beings, in all our sinful imperfection, may slip through to work the will of the angels where the mighty machines fail.

We pass between the feet of the destroyed war machine. The wind-blown ash stings my eyes. In the picture in my head, the Destination has grown huge, throbbing like a black heart, filling all my inner vision with its beating, throbbing. The ground is warm beneath my hands and feet. Ceefer quests ahead of us, sniffing a path through the soft white ash.

One scream. One warning. That is all we get. That is all Ceefer is allowed before the dogs, bursting up from under the ground, are upon her. Black hurtling dogs, many many many of them; in an instant she is snatched up, tossed into the air. I see her little steel claws flex, her teeth bare in rage, then the waiting jaws catch her, shake her, tear her in two, shake out her guts and blood and bones and scatter her across the burning earth.

Peeg squeals, lowers her stupid head. The tip of the metal lance slides from its housing on his side.

“No Peeg, no. Let Porcospino!” I say.

The dogs hurl themselves upon us. Porcospino hisses, raises his spines. He flicks loose a flight of quills. The lead dogs go down, kicking their paws and writhing and twisting until their backs snap from the pain of the poisons the angels have put on Porcospino’s quills. The second wave of dogs comes bounding on, over the bodies of their brothers. They have red eyes and silver metal jaws. Emplants stud the backs of their necks. Again Porcospino throws his neurotoxic spines and they go down on the right and on the left. A black dog leaps: I see his metal jaws open in my face, smell the stinking steam of his breath. Porcospino raises his tail but Peeg catches the dog in the belly with his high-pressure lance. Intestines bursting from its open mouth, blood spraying from its eyes, it goes spinning away to fall among the bodies of its littermates.

And the third wave is on us. They have ferocity, but no conception of strategy. All they know is to run, and to leap, and to savage. Squealing with excitement, Peeg thrusts with his lance, again, and again, and again: the black evil dogs go down, shattered, smashed, impaled and spasming, stuck full of Porcospino’s needles.

Then there are no more for they all lie dead on the soft white ash beneath the war machine. All the dead dogs. And the sun is low on the edge of the world, red and huge behind the thin smoke that rises from the smouldering land.

“Come,” I order.

“Ceefer . . .” says Peeg. Soon it will hit him, and I have no dreams to stop him crying.

“She is gone. The angels hold her in their hands. Believe me.”

But I am no longer sure I believe what I am telling them they must believe. Where do the faithless go? Is there a lonely place, dark and sad, for those who deny the angels? Or is death death? Nothing? Nothing? As we pick our slow and careful way through the ashlands under the rising moon, I find myself drawn to this thought, over and over and over. Nothing. It is a terrible thought. I cannot imagine it. Yet over and over and over, I am drawn to it.

Peeg snuffles out a hollow between the burned roots of a tree stump, digs a small scrape where we lie together.

“Hungry,” says Peeg.

“We are all hungry,” I say. “There is nothing here for us. We will have to be hungry a little longer.”

I lie in the scrape. The moon stands over me. A little lower than the moon, strange lights cross the sky, moving fast, fast, from horizon to horizon in a breath. I cannot sleep. I dare not sleep. If I sleep, I will see Ceefer broken apart and all her words and knowledge and strange unbelief that, in truth, was a kind of belief, spilled out and lost.

In the night, Peeg wakes.



“Give me.”

“Give you what?”

“Give me knowledge.”

“I do not know how. I do not know what this knowledge is.”

“Peeg know. Mamavator give Peeg words. Mamavator say: ‘Say Coon-ass: Load File B13 echelon 7’.”

And it is as if those words, which Peeg could not possibly know unless he had, indeed, been given them by mamavator, gather all my beingness and roll it up like clay in a hand, push it away away to the very back of my head so that I may watch but am helpless to act as I feel my hands reach round to the back of my neck and pull out an emplant. And I see those hands that look like my hands reach out and slide the emplant into an empty socket beneath Peeg’s ear. And the ears that hear like my ears hear Peeg sigh, and gasp, and say, in a voice I have never heard Peeg speak in before:

“Reset normal sentience simulation parameters.”

I shake my head, try to shake my Coon-ass back into every corner of my being. I am frightened: clever, proud, wise Coon-ass, mastered and ridden like a . . . like an animal. I lie and watch the lights crossing the sky, feeling small, small, smaller than the smallest thing I can imagine. Nothing.

The black, beating star beat-beats all night, so huge and close it has spilled out of the place in my head where the pictures are to fill everything with its beating.

All together now, all together now, all together now.

In No Man’s Land.

The Farm.

In the morning my eyes and hands are raw sore with the white ash that covers the burned lands. We are all very hungry but we know among ourselves it is better not to speak about such things. Peeg offers to let me ride on his back. I am glad to accept. With Porcospino trotting beside us, we enter the inner defences. The borderline is clearly marked. A metal arm jutting from the ash bars our path. Clenched in its steel grip is a rodentlike being, furious even in death. The steel fingers crush the rodent’s neck, the rodent’s teeth are sunk into the arm’s brightly coloured wiring. Both are long, long dead.

It is both warning and welcome.

Much occupied with our own thoughts, whatever kind of thoughts the angels have given us to think, we pass into a landscape of terrible, terrible destruction. As far as we can see, the ash is littered with bodies of beings organic and inorganic, locked together in embraces that seem to this Coon-ass almost tender. Paws clawing for the light; mouths open to snap bright teeth one last time at the sun. Torn and twisted metal; gnaw-bones, jawbones. Hanks of hair and wind-dried hide. Dead birds, pulled out of the sky, skywise wings splayed out, feathers rustling in the wind, beaks and eyeless eyesockets silted up with drifting ash. Standing guard over them, half-clogged to the waist in ash and mud, the machines: shattered, crushed, twisted apart by ancient explosions, smashed metal limbs swinging, creaking, red sensor eyes dull dead dark.

A cat hanging from a wire noose.

A bird shot through with a metal spike.

Three bloated dogs floating in a crater full of rainwater.

Porcospino lets out a cry. It is the first sound to break the silence of the ashlands. He has seen the body of a brother porcupine, lying close by in a hollow in the ash, surrounded by the skin-draped skeletons of dogs.

“Leave it, leave it,” I say. “You can do nothing here. It is dead, it has been dead for time beyond counting.”

But Porcospino will not listen; it is as if this rattle of dead, dry quills and spines is a comrade to him, a comfort in the dreadfulness all around him. A lost littermate he never had. He nuzzles the dead thing, pushes it with his nose, as if he might push life back into it, push it into movement and joy. He pulls at its pelt with his teeth; clumps of emplants come away in his teeth.

“Leave it leave it leave it!” I say. “There is too much danger here!”

The ash hears me. The ash stirs. The ash moves. The ash opens. Like a flower blooming, the machine unfolds from beneath the earth. Its head quests; back, forth, back, forth. Red machine eyes open, staring.

“Run run run!” I say, but the weaving head on the long flexing neck has fascinated Porcospino, like the snake I once saw in my mamavator dreams, which could dazzle you with its dancing, weaving, flexing. The huge red sensor eyes fasten on Porcospino. He gazes up into the huge red eyes.

The machine spews out a sheet of fire. Porcospino goes up in a shriek of burning. He tries to beat at the flames with his tiny useless hands, rolls on to his back to roll them out. The fire roars up and eats him.

The head on its long neck wavers, collapses into the ash. Its red sensor eyes go black. Its work is done. I curl my fingers into the circuitry on Peeg’s neck, urge him onward.

“To the Destination,” I say. “The Destination.”

A thin trail of smoke goes up behind us; the wind changes direction and bends it low over us as we pick our way across the battlefield. As Peeg carries me along, he tells me about what the chip has told him about the Destination he is to destroy. It is a strategic manufacturing installation, he says. His words are large and strange, not Peeg words. It builds machines and grows beings, this strategic manufacturing installation.

“Like mamavator?” I ask.

“Like mamavator,” says Peeg, “but this one does not fly in heaven. This one is buried deep under the ground. Deep deep, way down deep. It is very old. Very very old. The angels have been trying to destroy it for long long years. Attack after attack after attack they have sent, from heaven first, and then by machine, and then by beings. Attack after attack after attack. After so many attacks, it must be tired now, old. It cannot have much energy left. That is how we will be able to reach the Destination.”

“How will we know when we reach the Destination?” I ask.

“We will know,” says Peeg. “That is what the chip tells me.”

“And then you will destroy it?”

“And then Peeg will destroy it.”


Peeg does not know. But Peeg trusts that the angels, in their great wisdom, having told him much already, will tell him that also when he needs to know.

Angels, in their great wisdom. Peeg would have cried, once. Peeg would have cried for Porcospino. Peeg would have cried for each one of those many many beings, more than many many hands can count, that died so that Peeg and Coon-ass can reach their Destination. What did the angels take away to make room for their great wisdom?

We will know, the angel voices in the chip said. Why must they be so very very true in everything they say? We will know, I will know, I have known, since I stumbled, blinking from the warm wet womb into the forest morning. The Destination is the great black star in the picture in my head taken out and pressed into the earth; real, actual. Huge. The black star is bigger than I can cover with both hands spread out in front of my eyes. Many many hours walk across. Heat shimmers and dances over the star: I cannot see its further edge. Now that the shock is passing, I see that it is not the same as that other star, my inner star. It is not as sharp-edged, as definite; it has many many rays, the shiny black of it is streaked and stained with colours, its surface is crazed and cracked, like something that has fallen from heaven to earth.

Fallen, or cast down? We stand at the edge of the great black star, a raccoon riding on the back of a tapir.

“You must get down now,” says Peeg. “I am to go on my own.”

“Where?” I touch the blackness with my hand, it is smooth, slippery, warm to the touch.

Peeg points with his trunk out across the black. “I hear voices,” he says in that voice, with those words, which are not his own. “Voices, coming from big bright lights. Wonderful wonderful lights.”

“Peeg, you cannot go, I must go too, you need me.”

“On my own,” Peeg says, looking far into the heat haze. “I will destroy it on my own. Then I will come back to you.”

“You will come back to me?”


“Do you promise?”

“I do not understand what that means.”

“It means that when you say that you will come back, you will come back, that nothing will stop you coming back.”


“Then I will do as you say.”

“It is the will of the angels,” says Peeg, and walks out on his little, neat feet, out across the black glass star, until the heathaze swallows him and I can see him no more. I sit. I wait. The sun moves across the sky, I watch it reflected in the blackness before me. In the reflection I can see where the wars of the angels have left their marks even there. The face of the sun is scarred with dark pockmarks. Craters. Black starbursts. The heathaze runs over the black, melted land like water. In the shiver and the shimmer I am no longer certain what is true, what is false. For in the silver shining I see a distant dark figure standing. Then the heathaze flows and runs and I see clearly: it is Peeg out there in the black lands.

“Peeg!” I shout, “Peeg!” But he cannot hear me. He is looking into the sky, questing up with his trunk, like one who has been given a vision of angels.

“Peeg!” I call again, and start to run to him, across the black glass star. “You have come back!” I run and run and run; the soles of my feet and hands blister on the burning black glass, but however hard I run, however much I call, I never seem to come any closer. Peeg remains a tiny, wavering dark figure in the huge silver shimmer of the heathaze.

“Peeg!” I call one final time. And Peeg looks round.

And the sky turns white with a light so bright that it burns through my closed eyelids as if they were not there, burns through my hands that I clamp over my eyes, a burning burning light as if the sun has burst and died. Belly, hands, face are seared by the light, the fur shrivels and crisps away in an instant.

And after the light, is darkness. And after the darkness is a thunder like the sound of heaven falling, so loud that it becomes more than sound, it becomes a voice, a cry of angels.

And after the thunder is a rushing mighty wind; a screaming, scorching wind that does not seem like a thing of air, but a thing of earth, a solid, material thing that strikes like a fist, strikes the breath from me, sends me hurling, tumbling backward in the tearing whirl of ash and dust and roaring air, away away away from Peeg’s Destination, into the ashlands.

And after the rushing mighty wind is darkness again, beautiful darkness, and in the beautiful darkness; silence.

. . . and dance by the light of the moon.

“Thirtysomething”: Production company sound-byte.

Am forgetting. Am losing. Words. Rememberings. Knowings. Feel with fingers, for darkness still in eyes; feel the chips, feel the emplants; they feel not right, they feel melted, burned. The blast must have damaged my circuitry. Words come, words go, sentences, memories. Words from deep deep in the chips. Words that I once knew. Words that I have forgotten. Words I was meant to forget. Words I now remember, stirred up like silt in a river by the explosion. Words like implanted nanotok warhead. Words like containment field generator. Words like mass/energy conversion. I take the words in these clever hands of mine and understand. Everything. I understand what has been done to me, to Porcospino and Ceefer and Bir-dee, and every other creature trapped and impaled and dismembered and burned to nothing out there in the ashlands. Most of all I understand what has been done to Peeg.

Enough intelligence to carry out the mission, but not to understand. Never to understand, merely to obey.

Blind, burning, I crossed the ashlands. Nothing harmed me, nothing knew of my existence. Dead. All dead now. In my blindness I pushed down down down into my memories, down into the deep deep river of remembering, down beyond our birth from the womb of mamavator into this hardworld, down past the dreamforest in which we ran and played and swam while we were yet seeds in the metal womb. And there I found words. Words like programmed neural simulation, and pre-natal environmental conditioning, like shadows in a heathaze.

I came to the forest. The trees were tumbled and fallen, brought down by the blast. I felt my way over the trees, picked out fat grubs and beetles with my fingers, crunched them down with my small teeth. Anima. The spirit of livingness. When I felt coolness and shade on my pelt, and smelled dampness, and growing, I knew I had passed under the canopy of the living forest.

Grubbing. Sniffing. Feeling. When will seeing be again? When will hearing be again? When this hissing, ringing no more?

There. Do I hear? Look up in darkness, turning turning, under cool cool trees, again, do I hear, a whisper, a whistle, a call? Two notes. Two tones. Hi-lo. Hi-lo. Hi-lo. Hush, you whistling, chirping, rustling things, in my head or in the world. Coon-ass must listen. Hi-lo. Hi-lo. Hi-lo. Two words.

Blind, I hold up my hand into the warmth of a beam of sunlight. And, light as light, she comes to rest on my fingers, singing her two-word name. Bir-dee. Bir-dee. Bir-dee.

Colours gone. Sweet flashing darting movement, up through leaves, branches, into heaven: gone.

“Bir-dee.” Name remains. “Bir-dee.” She sings her two-note song. I feel her bobbing, impatient, on my finger. Chip. Chip. Pull chip. See pictures. See pictures.

No, Bir-dee, no. Gently gently, I bring her in front of my face, gently gently move close until my lips touch the back of her head. No fear. Trust. I press my lips to her blue blue feathers, then, one by one, pull the chips and emplants from their sockets and drop them, one by one, to the ground. When they are all gone, I lift Bir-dee high, high as my arm will reach, into the warmth of the sun.

“Go, Bir-dee, go. Be animal again. Be full of joy. Fly!” I cast her up into the light. Wings beat, I imagine bright darting colours rising up, rising up, above the forest, into light. I look up into the light: do I see shapes, movings, loomings, like motion of angels? I touch long, trailing coils of circuits and chips, trace them back to the metal sockets in my skull.

Then one by one, I pull them out and let them fall.

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