Story: Michael DiBaggio | Cover Art: Paul Roth
Captain Sheldrake’s great round face thrust out from the doorway, his eyes darting, his red cheeks quivering. An impatient gust from his lungs set his push-broom mustache billowing. “Hurry, God damn you!”
But Professor Addison Lang couldn’t possibly hurry any more than he already was. He had lost his shoe and now his right foot left a trail of blood on the glass-strewn cobblestones. Out of breath and beyond hope, he dragged himself to the stone arch with what seemed to him to be dreamlike slowness. Indeed, the world itself seemed to be an opium delirium, a nightmare from which he desperately hoped to wake. He collapsed panting against the wall, and by turns the panting became weeping. Lang became aware of a distant whistling, increasingly shrill in pitch, rising over his sobs, but to this fact he assigned no importance.
Sheldrake surged at him, his face contorted in a furious rage. The old cavalryman’s huge hands caught him by the collar and yanked him off his feet. Lang only bawled the more at the assault. Couldn’t Sheldrake allow him this moment to grieve, or had the Afghan caves and the hills of the Punjab eaten his last shred of compassion?
Lang flew through the air, struck flat with his shoulders against the wet brick wall of the inner chamber. His head rang like a bell, and he tasted blood in his mouth. As he slowly regained his senses, he saw Sheldrake through a cloud of brown dust, coughing violently and swaying on his knees as he tried to stand. Lang’s own pants and coat were run through with holes and his heavy satchel was shredded; his books and all else of importance in his life that could be saved littered the floor. Only belatedly did Lang realize that Sheldrake was not assaulting him, but trying to pull him to safety. His stunned brain laboriously arrived at the conclusion that an errant artillery shell had landed in the lane outside.
‘So we’re finally fighting back,’ he thought. He was not bitter that the trifling effort at defiance nearly resulted in his death. At least the shock had stopped his sobbing.
He moved over to help up Captain Sheldrake, but the rotund old soldier shoved him out of the way. Sheldrake’s lips moved but it was impossible to hear him. Mechanically, Lang walked back to his pile of belongings and gathered them up: Newton’s Principia, volumes of Milton and Chaucer, his family’s ancient King James, and a copy of Dante, stained from the bottle of laudanum that had just been smashed on it. This last loss elicited a sharp curse. While the professor gathered up his possessions, Sheldrake lumbered over to the circular vault door and pulled on its great brass wheel. Lang heard the ratcheting of the locks as thin clicks through his buzzing ear drums. A draft of cold air with a vague antiseptic scent flowed out of the opening portal. He glanced up at plaque on the side of the door.
“NO ADMITTANCE. PRIVATE PASSAGE FOR GRAND LODGE MEMBERS ONLY.”
Lang’s stomach rolled at the thought of stepping through the portal, and what it meant for that door to close and the walls of a whole universe to close with it. At first, he had thought the building of the redoubts was eccentricity, then lunacy, and finally hard-headed prudence, though he never dreamed that he would have to flee to one himself.
Sheldrake waved him through. Lang limped to the door, giving the blue skies and green hills of earth one final look. His fingers brushed the engraved plaque, and he thought they ought to have added to it the phrase: “Abandon all hope.”
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It was two hours later when the physician treated his wounds and dispensed a new bottle of laudanum. That is to say two hours had passed by the count of his timepiece; Lang recalled Sir Dunstan Penrose’s presentation to the committee about how the passage of time may not be constant across all that horrifying kaleidoscope of invisible worlds the Exploratory Corps called the Empyrean. How everyone howled at the suggestion! But now the possibility made Lang’s skin crawl.
“Which one,” Lang began, pursing his flustered lips and gesticulating to replace the words he could not say. Finally, he managed to ask: “Where are we?”
The orderly raised his eyes from the process of bandaging Lang’s foot. “Which redoubt? Is that what you mean, sir?”
“Fortress Tintagel, sir.”
“And where is Fortress Tintagel?”
The orderly’s brow creased in thought. “I don’t know that I can rightly answer that, sir. Perhaps the Lord Marshall can better explain it to you, sir. At the gathering this cycling.”
“Cycling?” Lang growled. “What the hell is a cycling?”
“Your pardon, sir. There’s no night or day here, properly called. We mark time according to the cycle of the color of the astral vapor, from Amber to Azure to Violet. The period is perfectly regular. Right now it is Azure, sir.”
A strained and fretful smile passed across Lang’s face, and then he bit his lip lest it turn into delirious laughter. He felt a very tenuous hold on his sanity, and feared that at any moment it might slip away.
The period of time called Azure passed without descent into hysteria, and the first bell of Violet brought him limping on crutches to the cavernous auditorium along with Sheldrake and three score other strangers, most looking as tattered and bedraggled as he was.
Lang was astonished to see dozens of women and children in the crowd. Even with the outlandish charters adopted by some of the order’s foreign lodges, the rolls of the Wise Knights of the Enlightenment were only open to men, and then only those of an age that would admit some measure of distinction and accomplishment. It took him some time to puzzle out this mystery, though the answer should have immediately presented itself: these were the wives and children of his fellow knights. The realization was disconcerting.
Was this not the purpose of the redoubts? Of course he knew that, knew it before the foundation stones of the first Void Fortress were laid, but only now did he comprehend the gravity of that fact. For the first time he fully understood that their removal to this impossible place was for an unlimited duration. The Wise Knights had abandoned the earth; he would not see it again in his lifetime.
On an elevated lectern stood the Lord Marshall in full regalia of the order. Encircling him were a half dozen others, crisply dressed in the uniform of the Exploratory Corps or the military cohorts. They were young and old, but all very dour.
Without preface, the Lord Marshall spoke: “Wise Knights, this is the hour we have dreaded. For seven hundred years, we have awaited the prophesied Age of Enlightenment. The dawn broke but now has passed. The lights are going out.”
The declaration provoked a lot of murmuring and more than one angry outburst. In the midst of the commotion, Lang squinted, trying to make out the face of the Lord Marshall in the purple-tinged light that filtered through the great crystalline canopy above. His eyes widened in recognition. “My God! It’s Penrose!”
Annoyed, Sheldrake hushed him.
“I assumed he was dead,” Lang said.
“You assumed incorrectly,” was Sheldrake’s curt reply.
“He looks just as he did when last I saw him. That was a quarter-century ago,” Lang intoned. Penrose had been right about the differential in the passage of time. Lang’s forehead beaded with sweat and his mouth dried up at the thought of how many ages would pass in the outside world while he hid in Tintagel.
A strident American voice rose above the clamor, interrupting his thought: “We must counter-attack! Haven’t we the means, after all this time?”
Another with a Russian accent concurred: “Let us strike before they can gain a lodgment on the earth! Why wait until they gather their strength?”
“The enemy is already too strong, and we are too few!” declaimed the Lord Marshall. “What we protect here – your lives, our knowledge – is too precious to be wasted on vainglory. The entire future of our race hinges on our weathering this storm. For now, the gates of Tintagel are shut.”
“This is surrender!”
Lang was surprised to discover that it was he who cried out. A dozen other voices cheered his courage, but in truth it was a vent of maddened desperation. Lang lacked the mettle for war; he would avail the Wise Knights nothing in battle, but the thought of never seeing the sunrise, of never hearing the waves crash or the sky thunder was too much to bear.
One of the knights clad in military vestments raised his voice above the commotion. “Wise Knights, earth is lost! The redoubts are our home now!”
The Lord Marshall nodded. “These are our walled abbeys on the fringe of the wilderness, and we are the cloistered monks guarding the last flame of civilization until such time as we may carry it back to what remnant of our race perseveres, if any. Wise Knights, this is the new dark age. The flame gutters, but it has not yet gone out. We will keep it burning if we may, but our order must be reforged for the task.
“Even to the days of our forefathers, we have been scholars and bookworms: librarians, physicians, taxonomists, alchemists, and astronomers. We have been scribblers, calculators, and spell casters. Scholarship and inquiry has served us well. It has brought us this far, but it will bring us no farther.”
At this remark, silence descended on the whole assembly. Outside, the stars – or whatever queer orbs kindled the heavens in this uncanny place – flared brilliantly, casting a grave shadow across the face of Lord Marshall Penrose. In that alien light he looked lordly and terrible indeed.
“Our place at the summit of creation was a maiden aunt’s fancy. The universe is hostile; we were fools to think it could ever be tamed by intellect alone. But long ago we were knights in more than just name. We were lions before we were sheep! If we endure, then we must become lions again!
“If we had been more martial and valorous, as inclined to strength in arms as to strength in mind, we might not now be hiding in the Empyrean while the spiderish hordes of Mars sack our world. I pray God that we may one day return the favor, but that mighty task must be left to our children and our children’s children. For the rest of us, the dream of the golden dawn is dead; only our posterity will be fit to take it up again.
“Yesterday, we were knights of Enlightenment. Today we are naught but knights of the cold void. Yet knights we remain! Let us not forget it.”
The story you’ve just read is an excerpt from Population of Loss, the first volume in the Martian War Chronicles. Buy the book online or learn about the other ways you can support us.