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It seemed that every inch of the place was jerking, churning, jittering, making it all but impossible for the eye to find a secure purchase.
Several pieces of glass were embedded in his forehead.
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The Emperor
by Lucius Shepard

"… That melancholy hole which is the place
All the other rocks converge and thrust their weight…"

Dante, Canto XXXI, The Inferno

Bless the moon, McGlowrie said to himself. Under bitter smokes and clouds of poison, here we are forbidden the lights of heaven, but lack especially the moon …

He spun the wheel of the rover, sending forty-five tons of armor-plated steel lurching to the right, nearly scraping the pit wall, all so as to avoid crushing a spiderlike machine that had scooted into his path.

—Go thou into the earth, he said, affecting the grandiose effusiveness of a drunk. The fact that he was drunk did not alter the depth of his pretense. Since taking charge of the mine and its many machines, he had become increasingly distant in personal situations and had discovered that exaggerating certain of his natural propensities helped to strengthen his humanity, to fix it as an artist might fix a painting, by sealing its surface with a glaze; and yet, for purposes of efficiency, he also nourished his unemotional side. It made for an odd balancing act, this tipping back and forth between calm rationality and what his friend, Terry Saddler, characterized as the oft-buggered macho of an aging barroom bully; and the very artificiality of this balancing act half-persuaded McGlowrie that he had already failed at it, that he had grown more machine than man in his responses. Nevertheless, he continued to strive to perfect his human imperfections.

Seated in the chair beside McGlowrie, Robert Eads Bromley. Vainglorious boy. Blond beard razored with finicky precision, nary a strand out of ranks; a crisp new baseball cap, adorned with the Emperor's logo (a crowned man on a barbarous throne, aping the Tarot trump) and hiding a prematurely receding hairline. In a tone that reeked of an expensive education got in hallowed halls where the graduation ceremony consisted of having a stick rammed up your butt, he suggested that another ill-considered maneuver like McGlowerie's last might serve to uncouple the factory units linked behind the rover. He further suggested that McGlowerie lay off the drink.

—The Emperor's one of the last places on earth where a man can drive drunk with impunity, said McGlowerie. Allow me my small pleasures.

—If the company gets wind of your pleasures, said Bromley, they'll put your ass in a sling.

—And who's going to tell them? A trainee?

Bromley looked away from McGlowrie's stare; the older man made a sardonic noise and, annoyed, too much so to return to his tipsy poetics, he beat out a rhythm on the command console and sang:

—All the women in Boston
sing their white rose song.
Ah, Santa Katerina,
she's my icon …

—Did you like that? McGlowrie asked. I wrote it myself. Last time we replaced the command-control unit, while driving through the pit, I got to thinking about women, you know. Their variety, their essence …

Bromley muttered something that sounded resentful, gazing out through rain-streaked glass at the ghastly inhuman vista of the pit, at countless machines toiling, scuttling, lumbering, darting, and gliding over the broken ground.

—Beg pardon? said McGlowrie.

—The machine you swerved to avoid. It was a spider from the leaching ponds. There must be millions of them.

—You said all that? I could have sworn you were more succinct. McGlowrie chuckled. You're correct. It was only a spider. And most likely a damaged one, or else it wouldn't have strayed from the ponds. The hunter-killers will be at it soon, so you wonder, quite rightfully, why I bothered. Was it a whim? An inebriated twitch? Did it have philosophical implications, life being life in whatever guise? Was that the thrust of your inquiry?

—More or less.

McGlowrie nodded, as if he were considering the question, and said, Perhaps you'll like the second verse better.

—All the women in Moscow
with their stiletto heels.
with their Type O lipstick
and black market deals …

He cocked an eye toward his audience, awaiting a response, and, when Bromley failed to muster one, he continued.

—All the women in Chelsea
with their tiger smiles,
with their secret histories
and their serpent Niles …

Bromley picked himself up and started for the hatch.

—Sit, said McGlowrie.

Reluctantly, sullenly, Bromley sat.

—I take it you're not a music lover, said McGlowrie.

Bromley responded with a sideways glance.

—That's all right. It's not a requirement. McGlowerie steered around some unidentifiable wreckage that the recyclers had deemed unworthy of collection. What is required of anyone working here is that they cut their fellow employees a little slack. Otherwise …

—I didn't sign on to cut anyone slack.

—Otherwise, McGlowerie went on, your fellow employees will cut you none.

—I don't need it.

McGlowerie drove in silence for a time, drumming his fingers on the wheel, and then said, I assume you've been lectured on the psychological toll taken by the job. I also assume that after being here three weeks—three whole weeks—you've concluded that you're immune to the pressure. And perhaps you are. Anything's possible. But let's suppose you're cast of ordinary clay, that you fall a bit short of superhero status.

—Let's suppose you're a tiresome old drunk.

McGlowerie reflected on this comment and the assurance with which it had been delivered. I know Daddy's a big stockholder, he said. And I imagine he's willing to indulge his baby boy, to let you play at being a contributor to society. To pass through your grub stage, as it were, before you weary of it and evolve into a full-blown parasite. That's fine. Just don't make the mistake of thinking I'm easy. I've been fighting corporate battles for long years, and I don't fight fair.

Bromley coughed … or it might have been a laugh. You think I'm after your job?

—I don't give a damn what you want. Whatever it is, I'm telling you straight-up, if it's not in accord with my wishes, you won't get a sniff of it. I know the Emperor better than anyone. That makes me the one person the company doesn't want to lose.

Bromley refused to look at McGlowrie, but he did not appear particularly shaken.

— There's not much to do here, God knows. If things were in good order, they wouldn't need me. But things aren't in good order. Things are fucked. I'm sure you must have noticed that half our equipment is outdated, and the other half's hung together with paper clips. McGlowrie reached down beside the chair, groped for his bottle, failed to snag it. That said, the pressure doesn't arise from living on the doorstep of hell. It arises from knowing the job's irrelevant. The mine runs itself. Our function is to observe, to file reports that will doubtless be misfiled, to do some repairs, to make suggestions that will be ignored, and to perform a few simple tasks … like the one we're performing today.

—Replacing the command-control's a simple task? I'd call it our central task.

McGlowrie shrugged. Call it what you like, all we do is tow the bitch out and reposition her. Every so often the old AI decides it doesn't want to be shut down. When that happens, some of us die. But it inevitably shuts down. It can't escape its programming and commits suicide. The loss of human life, now. That's not a major complication. And there's the real source of the pressure. Out in the world you hear people saying that mankind's in a state of peril. We've become an impediment to the planet's survival. Here, you feel the full weight of that pronouncement. You realize all we're doing as a species is busy work. Waiting for the final collapse in whatever form it comes. Maybe prolonging things a little. So try a shot of that every day for a year, then get back to me about my drinking. If you last that long.

Bromley appeared to be bursting to speak, but he restrained himself. After a passage of ten or fifteen seconds, he said, Is that all? Can I go?

—Oh yeah, said McGlowrie. I've had my fill.

· · · · · 

In all the grunt and swagger of his life, days weeks months wadded up and pitched away like grease rags into a bin of years, McGlowerie had not found much use for any pastime that did not have at its heart a spirit of raw functionality. He had climbed a steep slope up from the slums of the Northeastern Corridor (an urban area extending from Boston south to DC and west to Pittsburgh), achieving a rare upward mobility for someone of his class, and thus he was by nature diligent and arrogant. By profession, he was a tender of machines—machines that had grown increasingly complex as he progressed from youth into his fiftieth year—and he believed a man should dedicate himself to his trade, toil at it until he dropped, a principle given objective form by his father, who had keeled over at the age of eighty-four while repairing a toaster. Like his father, he measured happiness by the amount of work there was for him, and, when given charge over pit operations at the Emperor, ten thousand square miles carved from the Alaskan wilderness, a vast strip mine filled with machines of every shape, capacity, and dimension, it seemed he had happened upon his Shangri-la. Looking down each day into the bleak heart of work, the endless labors of the machines had opened him to abstraction and exposed a slim vein of poetry in his soul.

His initial tour of the mine horrified him. He was appalled by the sight of the twisted trees and cancerous grasses that sprouted along the rim of the pit, struggling to process metals from the poisoned soil. He was repelled by the greasy rain that fell from a constant cover of noxious, bilious-looking clouds, and even more repelled when he understood the damage it could do to one's skin. The pit was an expanding canyon system with five-hundred-foot-high walls that slumped into hills of talus. Scattered about were beaches of blue and red and green oxides, and banks of sulphur, their colors dimmed by the dense particulate haze that muddied the air. Here and there were silvery lakes of mercury and tungsten, edged with black foam, from which robotic spiders—skittering on mesh feet that barely disturbed the surface—extracted rare metals and then excreted squirts of indium, osmium, and such along the shore, there to be collected by larger machines. In every quarter of the mine, foundering amid piles of debris, were gutted, rusted hulks that had been cannibalized for parts, their exoskeletons left to corrode and collapse, serving as monuments to the Emperor's infernal system. The environment was thronged with machines, many with replacement parts and improvements grafted onto them. It seemed that every inch of the place was jerking, churning, jittering, making it all but impossible for the eye to find a secure purchase. Crushers, spreaders, smelters; mammoth excavators and reclaimers dating from the last century, when machines had been operated by men; recyclers, ore carriers, HKs (hunter-killers), sniffers, and countless more that ranged in size from that of a housepet to the microscopic. The stationary units, such as the command-control AI and the factory units they were towing—fifty feet high and three times as long—were shrouded in thick gray dust, except when they were engaged in fabricating the machines that populated the pit; and various of the mobile units were so bizarre in design, they brought to mind the nightmarish fantasies of Hieronymous Bosch, an artist unfamiliar to McGlowrie when he had arrived, but whom he had since come to appreciate.

Among the many varieties of carriers were flat metal beds to which six or more double-jointed legs were attached, each leg terminating in a claw hand capable of squeezing projections and gripping cracks. They would emerge from the murk with a sofa-sized lump of gold, say, clamped to their backs by steel bands, and climb the pit wall toward railheads near the rim; sometimes these carriers traveled together, and you might see what appeared to be a herd of aluminum or silver or uranium loping along in close order. When one of them fell, as frequently they did, hunter-killers—wolf-sized predator machines with jointed bodies and flexible treads, plasma torches in their bellies, and powerful robotic arms capable of pinning their victim—would descend upon the cripple and neatly cut it into pieces. It was after witnessing a slaughter of this sort, during a time when he had been stranded out in the pit, himself exposed to its savagery, that McGlowerie's attitude toward the mine underwent a sea change. From perceiving himself to be the overlord of some hellish region, he came to view the Emperor as a machine Serengeti over which he had been appointed warden.

This transition involved some considerable philosophical adjustment. Though a relative handful of crackpots still adhered to the cause, environmentalism had run its course as a viable political stance; nonetheless, there was a human reflex that went contrary to places like the Emperor, and, more to the point, there was a general fear of machine evolution, one fueled by media representations of demonic machines dedicated to the destruction of humanity. McGlowerie was not immune to those fears, but after several years of duty on the front lines of the conflict, he was convinced that mankind was capable of blasting, bombing, or otherwise subduing any machine threat should the need arise. And if he were wrong, if some cybernetic mastermind were to devil its way into a crucial system and bring down what was left of civilization … well, he might take it personally as regarded his life and those of his friends, but he was not about to get all species-ist about it. With a population of ten billion, the vast majority of them impoverished, a considerable number of those enduring life-threatening poverty dwelling in the ICUs (Inter-City Urban areas), slums that would have made Charles Dickens gasp, lawless but for the feeble infrastructures maintained by gangs and street churches, and a wealthy minority satisfied to cling to their creature comforts in the face of global warming, famine, pestilence, and whatever terror-of-the-day came to the fore—you didn't get a lot of talk anymore about the nobility of the human spirit and the destiny of mankind. The basic conversation had been reduced to: how much longer we can hang on? McGlowrie had learned to focus on his work, to be passionate about it, and thus achieved a simple resolution to an old and complicated question: You did what you had to, you loved what you did, and you didn't permit yourself to get involved with existential stupidities that caused you doubt.

· · · · · 

At mid-afternoon, a storm swept in from the mountains to the west, clouds fuming black as battlesmoke among the snow peaks, and by dusk it had completely shrouded the Emperor. Lightning twigged the sky, striking down into the pit, flashes illuminating machines that moved beyond the range of the rover's headlights. McGlowerie knocked the electrical systems offline and dropped into his chair to watch the show, staring out through the grizzled ghost of his reflection, made ghoulish by red emergency lights. Warning buzzers sounded as the factory units behind the rover shut down, settling on their treads; the intercom squawked and Saddler, who was down in the galley, asked, Hey, Mac! What's going on?

—We'll be sitting for a while. Too much electrical activity, said McGlowerie. Everything okay down there?

A burst of static issued from the com, which McGlowerie took for an affirmation.

—The others asleep? he asked.

—Denise is. I think Bromley's watching a porno.

—He's a growing boy, said McGlowerie.

Thirty yards ahead, the eerie blue-green radiance of St. Elmo's Fire sketched the carcass of a gutted ore crusher, a dinosaur of a machine with crude stitchings of bolts across its massive steel plates.

—How far to the site? Saddler asked.

—Once the storm passes, about a hour.

A pattering on the glass.

Several dozen fliers had attached themselves to the window. Storms often drove the smaller machines to seek shelter in the lee of the biggest, but McGlowrie had never before seen fliers like these. Reddish brown splinters about a centimeter long, with a vibrating wire protruding from each.

—Want me to bring you up a sandwich? asked Saddler.

—I'm not hungry,

—You need something to soak up the alcohol. I got turkey, cranberry relish, lettuce …

—All right. Thanks. No mayo, huh?

McGlowerie dialed the magnification of the glass higher, so that the image of a single flier dominated the windshield. He studied it, stored the image in the computer, made a note, and returned the glass to normal. When Saddler, a tall, melancholy Brit with a stubbly scalp, brought the sandwich, he noticed the fliers—there were more of them now—and asked what they were.

—A new type of diagnostic unit, maybe, McGlowerie said. I don't know.

—They look more like sniffers to me, said Saddler after brief study. That wire could be a bonded strip of nano-machinery.

—Persons'll figure it out when we get back to base.

—Didn't you do a scan?

—Not yet. McGlowrie lifted top of his sandwich and inspected the fixings. Fuck! I told you no mayo.

—Did I put mayo on it? Saddler grinned.

—You fucking slathered it on. Jesus! It's inedible. Fix me another.

—Fix it yourself, you rude bastard!

McGlowrie stared at him through lowered brows and Saddler said, Holy Christ! It's the look! When might I expect my brain to start frying?

—Ah hell, said McGlowrie. I want to check in with Denise, anyway. Cover for me awhile, okay?

—How long?

—Twenty, thirty minutes. McGlowrie winked. Significantly less if she's too sleepy.

Saddler said, No problem.

McGlowrie winced as he stood, an old back injury tweaked, and more of the fliers struck the glass, making a sound like hail. They were distributed so thickly across the windshield, in Escheresque profusion, they almost obscured the view.

—Shouldn't you clear them away? asked Saddler, peering more closely at the fliers.

—Zap 'em if you want. They'll just return once they recover. They're more frightened of the lightning than anything we can do. McGlowerie opened the hatch and stepped through. If I'm not back in … let's say, forty minutes, give me a buzz.

—Is this a crack? Saddler poked the windshield with his index finger at the exact instant it exploded inward.

McGlowrie ducked, wrangling the hatch door shut, and had a dervish glimpse of Saddler beginning to fall in a storm of fliers and flying glass, his head engulfed in a red mist; he caught a whiff of burning metal and heard the sound of the pit—clangs and grinding noises embedded in a background roar, loud as a rock concert. The emergency alarm began to bleat. He punched the intercom in the corridor and, knowing it was useless, called out to Saddler. A deranged crackling issued from the speaker. He swung down the narrow stairway to the living quarters. Denise, a lean, buzzcut brunette in panties and an old T-shirt, her fey good looks starting to display the erosions of age, stood halfway out her door, shock written on her face.

—Get your armor on! McGlowrie told her. And clean out the galley. All the food you can find. I'll take care of the water.

—You're bleeding, she said in a dazed voice, and made to touch his forehead. He pushed her hand away, restated his order in a shout, and shouldered open the door to Bromley's cabin. Bromley, too, registered shock, but he was already wearing his protective suit, all except the helmet.

—Directly ahead of the rover, about a hundred feet, McGlowrie said, there's an old wreck. An ore crusher. You and Denise wait for me there.

—What're you going to do?

—Boot up the AI in command-control. Wait for me as long as you feel safe. Take your cues from Denise.

—I'll go with you.

Furious, McGlowrie grabbed the collar ring of Bromley's armor and hauled him face-to-face. This is not subject to debate. Get your helmet on and do what I say. All right?

Bromley nodded.

—Once we're outside, if you even hesitate to follow orders, you become a liability. You understand?


—Then put on your fucking helmet!

In his cabin, as he threw on his gear, McGlowrie was plagued by the thought that he shared in the responsibility for Saddler's death, that if he hadn't been so casual in his response to the fliers, if he had done a scan or transmitted an image back to base, if he'd taken normal precautions … but he was too busy to indulge in guilt. He hitched a pack of micro-tools to his belt, slipped a sidearm and extra clips of ammunition into a vented pocket at his thigh. Collecting his helmet, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror above the sink. Several pieces of glass were embedded in his forehead. The blood trickled down both sides of his nose, followed the tracks of the deeply scored lines bracketing his mouth, painting the semblance of a savage mask. He hadn't felt them, but now they began to sting. He managed to remove one of the glass fragments, but the process was taking too long. He turned toward the door and found it blocked by Bromley, still helmetless, aiming a gun at his head.

—For the Earth! shouted Bromley, and McGlowrie, stunned, did not at first comprehend what the words signified. Bromley tensed, his jaw muscles bunched as he prepared to fire. His determined expression gave way to one of concern. The repetitive buzz of the emergency alarm emphasized the silence that stretched between the men.

—The average survival time out in the pit is slightly less than an hour, McGlowrie said. I've survived it for more than three days.

—Shut up!

—I had to drink the iodine milkshake afterward to flush out the poisons, but I made it. I'm good with machines. What's more, I'm lucky with them. You don't want to kill me.

—I said shut up! Bromley's voice was almost a scream.

—You can take your choice. Arsenic poisoning … there's a fun death. Or maybe you'll contract one of those exotic infections that affect the central nervous system. Maybe you'll simply go mad from the metals accumulating in your brain. That's, of course, assuming the HKs don't rip you apart. Which is a very large assumption.

Bromley's gun arm straightened, then relaxed. The barrel of his weapon drifted to the side.

—Phil Tatapu, said McGlowrie. Big old Samoan kid. He went outside to inspect the treads on the factory units. Two HKs hit him at once. We had the cameras on him, naturally. It was a hell of a thing. They pulled his arms off, like you'd tear off a drumstick, and waved them about. They couldn't understand why they'd come off so easily. Phil's suit had sealed around the wounds and he wasn't conscious, but he was still alive. When they began cutting into him, it woke him right up.

—I … I … let me think, said Bromley, and then his eyes rolled up and he sagged to the floor. Denise stood at his back, just beyond the door, dressed in her armor, holding a fire extinguisher in both hands.

—Earth, my ass! McGlowrie kicked Bromley in the side.

—What's he … crazy? Denise asked.

—I think he's Green. Same fucking difference.

Kneeling beside Bromley, McGlowrie felt for a pulse. Still thumping away. He typed an instruction on the forearm keypad of Bromley's suit—the flexible plastic of the suit hardened into an exoskeleton.

—Here, he said. Help me get him up.

Denise grabbed Bromley under one arm and together they wrestled him to his feet and propped him against a wall. The back of his head was bloody.

McGlowrie unclipped a remote from Bromley's breast pocket and passed it to Denise. I ought to leave him, but I want to hear what he has to say. Can you walk him out?

—If I have to. She touched a switch on the remote; Bromley's arm lifted, then lowered. This was sabotage?

—Maybe … Probably.

Bromley moaned.

—There's a wrecked crusher up ahead, said McGlowrie. Wait for me there. If you run into any trouble, don't put yourself at worse risk. Lose him.

—Where's Saddler?

McGlowrie shook his head and said, No.

Denise's chin quivered.

—We'll be okay, said McGlowrie. You've got my luck working for you. And there's always Plan B, right?

She crooked an arm around his neck, drew him down so their heads were together, her mouth by his ear, and held him like that for a few ticks. She kissed him on the mouth, not a gentle kiss, but one with plenty of tongue that slowed everything down and stirred his cock. When she broke from the kiss, she stepped to Bromley's bunk and retrieved his helmet. She stood a moment, staring down at the helmet. In that pose, she looked almost childlike. Sprite With Plastic Jug. She turned to him. Her smile seemed jerked into shape, but she managed to pull off a cheerful face.

—See you later, she said.

· · · · · 

This was McGlowrie's second excursion on foot into the pit, and he doubted he would survive it—that he had survived the one previous verged on the miraculous. Three days, of which he had spent nearly a day unconscious. He had used his skills to good effect, but he knew he had been lucky, and he did not expect his luck to hold. The first leg of the excursion—straight back to the command-control unit, a boxcar-sized unit sandwiched between the gargantuan factory units, went without incident, as did springing the hatch and wriggling into the crawlspace between the outer wall and the AI's mainframe. The second leg, however, would be trickier. Denise and Bromley should be able to make it to the ore crusher with no trouble, but hunter-killers would soon be swarming about the rover, hurrying from every part of the mine, alerted to the distress of a large machine. Emergencies triggered a signal back to base, but they had neither the necessary personnel nor resources to mount a rescue. As for help from the company, it might or might not be sent; if it were, it would take two or three days to arrive. They were on their own.

He located the panel he was seeking and popped it. Once activated, the replacement AI would take control of the mine within minutes and transmit an irresistible signal encouraging the old AI to do the right thing and shut itself down. He wished he had some discretion in the activation process, that he could, for instance, send the hunter-killers away from their location. But if the company had been of a mind to give him such discretion, they would have gone the extra mile and reprogrammed the hunter-killers to differentiate between machines and mine personnel wearing protective gear. They didn't give a damn about the safety of their employees at the Emperor; they did the bare minimum to sustain production—more would not be cost effective. The workers had no leverage; they were glad to have the work, and, though they were in line for pensions and decent retirement packages, one misstep and they would be transported to Happy Face or Chemo City or Little Egypt or whatever cesspool they hailed from. It had not escaped McGlowerie's notice that everyone who worked in the Emperor was a slumdweller who had clawed their way out of some disastrous environment to achieve their station and thus was psychologically as well as economically indentured to the company. For that reason alone, McGlowrie thought, he should have realized that something was wrong about Bromley.

Braced against the wall, his helmet light the sole illumination, he punched in the activation codes and thought about Denise, her specific variation on their common sad tale. One of four children born to a woman whose name she either could not or did not wish to recall; two siblings dead in infancy of birth defects and one simply vanished; running loose in the streets of Sonyland, effectively a slum of the LA-San Diego corridor, its name derived from the old Sony maquiladora in Tijuana; abducted and turned out as a child prostitute by the time she was eight. It made his own upbringing in the ganglands of the Northeast seem pastoral by contrast. They had gone on vacation in Baja a few years back, and their helicopter had overflown a portion of Sonyland. Streets that ran between canyons of smoldering garbage; a battle fought with automatic weapons and machetes in the streets; multiple fires engulfing a neighborhood or a hovel—from the air they had looked to be islands of smoke and flame in an ocean of tinder.

The interior lights came on, confirming that the AI had recognized his suit code and was now operational. He replaced the panel, rested his head against the wall. His adrenaline rush had subsided, and he felt weak, trembling with stress, inadequate to what lay ahead. Every second wasted decreased his chances of living, but he wasted ten of them before crawling out into the pit.

· · · · · 

The worst of the storm had passed into another quarter of the Emperor, but it was slow going nonetheless. For years, McGlowerie had begged the company for improved protective gear, but his requisitions were always denied. Now they were stuck with antiquated helmets with untrustworthy computer imaging and a night-vision function incorporated into their faceplates, displaying the Emperor, on average, as dark indistinct objects against fields of blurry, solarized green. The faceplates were all, to one degree or another, in need of replacement, and McGlowrie's—though he had tinkered with it for hours, improving it vastly over its previous condition—offered an impression of the mine that was dangerous for its falsity. Black patches might be phantom walls or something else entirely; sheets of brightness on the ground might be tailing ponds or nothing at all. Depending on their metallic constituency, the clouds above the mine were a confusion of sooty blobs and puffs of glittering particles and irregular shapes that had the flat, bright aspect of fresh green paint. Once his night vision was employed, the Emperor became an abstract video—as a consequence, one was forced to go cautiously. Adding to the confusion were swarms of fliers that moved with the fluid unity of schools of fish, particulate currents in the air, the rain streaking his faceplate, and the noise … though noise could work to his advantage. The machines perceived one another by means of motion detection, heat signature, and echo reflection; they did not attempt to progress silently; thus a hunter-killer, when sneaking up on a damaged yet still mobile machine, shifted its robotic arms through a sequence of attitudes, in effect trying to disguise itself, to present an attitude that would confound its prey—in doing so, it created a racket that a man with his audio set to filter out distant sounds might recognize.

To avoid the hunter-killers that (so McGlowerie assumed) were milling around the front of the rover, engaged in a feeding frenzy, he struck off in the opposite direction, planning to circle around and come at the wrecked ore crusher from behind. In his pack was all the bottled water he'd had time to collect. He carried his weapon in his right hand; in his left was a metal wand that could project a pulse capable of shutting down any cybernetic device within range—but its range was short, its effect temporary, and it was unreliable when used against the larger machines. Another cost-effective decision by the company. Every couple of minutes he scanned his armor to make certain it was free of diagnostic units that might have attached themselves and would, reading him as an anomaly, signal his presence to a hunter-killer. It took him longer than he had planned—nearly half an hour—to reach a point about twenty-five yards behind the crusher, close to the pit wall. He crouched beneath a projecting ledge, waiting for a recycler to lumber past: a machine the size of a small elephant, its shape vaguely resembling that of a rhinoceros with its horn lowered—the "horn" actually a scoop with which it collected parts left by the hunter-killers and deposited them in the hollow of its back, where they would be sorted by diminutive robots that spent their entire existence at this work, like enslaved imps. It was a tired old thing. Patches of bright dust on its sides. Grinding along on treads that, judging by the sound, were badly in need of replacement. Soon it would be prey for the HKs. Watching it pass, McGlowrie felt a momentary empathy with this monstrosity, but long before it vanished against the backdrop of shifting greens and blacks, his anxiety had returned.

The ore crusher was two stories tall, longer than it was high, segmented into three well-like compartments (Denise had left a bottle of water beside the central one to mark where she and Bromley had taken shelter). The iron bulge that protected its brain and guts had been torched open and emptied. It lay tipped onto its side, its rear end elevated by a hill of rubble. In its attitude and bulk, it reminded McGlowrie of NASA video transmitted from Titan thirty years before, showing an artificial object that had either been erected or crashed upon the moon during, it was estimated, the late Cretaceous, upthrust against a less complicated sky than that of the Emperor yet seeming equally mysterious. The video had bred an irrational hope in people, the anticipation that this unexpected alien event might be an omen of something unforeseen in their own futures. Two days afterward, the transmissions ceased, the link was never reestablished, and it faded from the public mind, becoming fodder for psychics who claimed to be receiving messages from Titan. It came to nothing, but it had been a nice moment, a bit of vacation from the crush of reality.

The ground that lay between McGlowrie and the crusher was flat beneath a covering of dust as fine as pumice but was broken and humped on the left and right. Flashes of brightness issued from behind one of the mounds, but they were too erratic to be anything other than flaws in his visual field. He could find no reason not to go forward. He was about thirty feet from the crusher when he spotted a hunter-killer advancing from his left, farther away than the crusher but not by much. There was no use in running. It would be on him before he'd gone five feet. He knew his heart must be pounding, but he couldn't feel his chest. The HK crept closer, shifting its robotic arms through a variety of postures, like the dance of a mechanical spider, eerie movements that half-hypnotized McGlowrie. He gathered himself, preparing to fire at its treads. The HK closed the distance another five or six feet, near enough that he could hear the rapid snapped-twig sounds as its arms worked through their changes. For an instant, its body flared a blazing green and the arms darkened to burnt, crooked matchsticks, an effect that—albeit illusory—caused it to appear even more menacing, more surreal. Then it paused in its dance, a full-stop, and darted off to the east. Some richer target acquired. Faint with relief, he forced himself to go forward and, seconds later, climbed inside the central compartment of the crusher, a pitch-dark chamber more spacious than most one-bedroom apartments. The floor—the side wall, actually—was littered with chunks of ore, tilted downward at a steep angle. It clanged at his step. He switched off his night vision, switched on his helmet lamp. Denise crouched against the rear wall. The light from his lamp glazed her faceplate as he came up, making any hint of expression impossible to read. Bromley was stretched out beside her.

—Did you have any problems? McGlowerie asked, touching his helmet to hers.

—Just with him, she said. He wouldn't shut up, so I cut off his radio. How about you?

—I had a face-to-face with an HK, but then it found something it liked better.

—Your fucking luck, she said, sounding almost aggrieved.

—Don't knock it. We may need it. We should try to get clear of the area. I know of a tunnel not far from here.

—A tunnel?

—Yeah. About seventy years ago the company started building a second base, but then I guess they needed the money somewhere else. They'd already set-up temporary living quarters in the tunnel for the crew when they pulled the plug. They might still be functional.

—Right. Though her voice was diminished by his earpiece, Denise's sarcasm was evident.

—That's the best I've got. If you have a better idea, say.

—How far to the tunnel?

—Best case, twenty minutes. But you know how it goes. It could take an hour, hour and a half.

Denise absorbed the bad news. Then what? Plan B?

—If we can hole up in the tunnel for a day or so, I think we can expect the company to send someone.

—Maybe they won't.

—They'll want to learn what we've seen … if we found anything new. It's not an urgent thing, but as long as they've stirred off their asses to come up here, they'll get us. I suppose they'll want to collect Bromley as well. Last time I was stuck out here, they dropped in an urban control vehicle to pick me up.


—Yeah. Then they flew me to Seattle for debriefing. Very luxurious. You'll like Seattle.

—I bet. She gestured at Bromley. What about him?

—Turn on your overhead … and give me the control.

She passed him the remote, switched on her helmet lamp. McGlowrie switched his off, able now to see through Bromley's faceplate in the indirect light. He shifted himself over and kneeled beside him. Bromley glared at him, but his defiance was a veneer and when McGlowrie laid a hand on his chest, he flinched and started talking, his voice all but inaudible through the helmet.

McGlowrie said, I've given you back your receiver, but not your transmitter. So just nod or shake your head. Okay?

Bromley's head jerked, as with a muscle spasm, and McGlowrie called it a nod.

—You know where you are now, don't you? he said. And now you've seen things for yourself, you know what we're up against.

Bromley nodded vigorously.

—Some friends were in on this with you. Right?

A less vigorous nod.

—Where are they? Out in the pit?

Bromley blinked, shut his eyes.

McGlowrie slapped the side of his helmet. Wake up!

The eyes popped open.

—How'd they get in? McGlowrie asked. Did they stow away in one of the freight cars? When they got to the railhead, they were going to rappel down the pit walls?

A nod.

—So you were the inside man … yeah? You were going to help them. But you realize now, don't you, they're beyond help?

A pause, then Bromley nodded.

—I'm going to give you back your voice. No fuss, okay? Just listen and respond.

With the transmitter on, he could hear Bromley breathing.

—We've got a walk ahead of us, McGlowrie said. It'd be handy to have another set of eyes and ears, but if you do anything out of line …

—Let me up, Bromley said.

—You see. That right there, that'll get you dead. Don't talk unless I tell you. I'll let you up in a minute, but first I want to discuss tactics.

—Give me a weapon, said Bromley. I don't stand a chance if I don't have a weapon.

McGlowrie switched off Bromley's radio.

—We can't afford to drag this asshole along, Denise said. You know he'll do something stupid.

Bromley's shouts were like shouts from an apartment down the hall.

—Kill him … or leave him, she said. Either way works for me.

—I won't leave him.

—Then kill him. If you can't handle it, I'll do it. Denise stared at him, resolute.

Bromley's muffled shouts grew louder; his suit trembled violently, reflecting his struggle to escape.

From without, a scraping noise that sent a chill washing through McGlowrie's groin. Please, he said to himself, knowing that his generic prayer would not be answered. And then the hatch cover was thrust aside by two spindly, rust-sheathed arms. A hunter-killer appeared in the opening, visible in the beams of their helmet lamp, its body flipped so its treads were on top, allowing it to use its arms for climbing. It must have been damaged in some way—it was having difficulty gaining a purchase, attempting to haul itself over the lip of the hatch. Before McGlowrie could draw his sidearm, Denise fired off two rounds. The first tore away one of its legs, the second hit the torso dead center, blowing a ragged hole. They both fired at the HK, scoring multiple hits, yet still it clung to the hatch, its engine whining like an enormous dental drill. With a clatter, it toppled into the compartment, sliding two-thirds of the way down the incline before coming to rest against some chunks of ore. They kept firing until it stopped trying to roll over onto its treads. Lying there, a lacework of rust fettering its metal surfaces, arms twitching feebly, it resembled a spider more than ever. Thin smokes drifted from holes in its casing.

Fighting off panic, assuming that more HKs would be coming, McGlowrie grabbed Denise by the arm, pushed her ahead of him up the incline, then thought of Bromley and turned, aiming his sidearm. Denise screamed. One of the HK's arms had caught her by the ankle and snatched her upside down. McGlowrie put three rounds into its torso, a fourth into the housing at the base of the arm—it relaxed its grip and dropped Denise. She screamed again and reached for her ankle but seemed afraid to touch it. He scrambled up beside her. The suit had sealed about the wound, but there was a lot of blood. Can you walk? he asked.


She gritted her teeth, closed her eyes, but the tension began to drain from her face and by that he knew her suit's medical pack had given her an injection. There was no injection, however, to counter the metallic poisons working their way through her bloodstream.

—Goddammit! she said.

—How're you feeling?

She breathed deeply. It's better.

—Still think you can't walk?

She nodded, wetted her lips. Looks like your luck doesn't extend to me. Her words were slurring.

McGlowrie was having trouble keeping it together, wanting to console her, knowing they had to get moving, realizing that it didn't make much difference what he did.

Denise touched his hand. Mac? It's okay. Whatever you have to do, it's okay.

—Fuck that, said McGlowrie.

—No, it's okay.

—No, fuck that!

She blinked, closed her eyes again, and murmured something that was too liquid a sound to make out. She rebounded a little and said, You know how much I want to try Plan B.

—It's not crazy, he said. We can make it.

She laughed weakly. You get us out of this, I'll give you a blow job that lasts for a week.

Then she passed out.

He scooted back down beside Bromley, restored flexibility to his suit, and switched on his radio.

—You were going to leave me! said Bromley as he came to his feet. He might have said more, but McGlowrie jammed the sidearm into his stomach and told him to carry Denise. He jabbed Bromley again to get him moving. Denise moaned when Bromley lifted her, but said nothing.

—Easy with her, McGlowrie said.

He was later to realize that, if he had switched on his night vision before poking his head through the hatch, he might have mistaken the man for a machine and shot him. As it was, he nearly shot him; he meant to shoot him, stopping in mid-act, the trigger partially depressed. The man was standing on the ground below the hatch. He was slight, incredibly thin, his dark skin given complex articulation by the bones and muscles beneath. He looked to be wearing a loincloth or a pair of ragged undershorts. There was something funny about his hair, which hung in dreadlocks, but McGlowrie didn't linger over it, his attention commanded by three HKs ranged in a loose semicircle about the crusher, not five yards distant from the man … and yet the man seemed calm, unhurried.

Behind him, inside the compartment, Bromley asked, What's wrong?

—Quiet, said McGlowrie, wondering why the HKs didn't attack.

—What is it?


The man beckoned—an oddly rickety gesture. McGlowrie pointed to the HKs and spread his hands in a display of perplexity. The man beckoned again.

It made no sense to believe that the man was controlling the HKs, but nothing about him made sense—it was impossible for anyone to survive in the Emperor unprotected, yet there he was. McGlowrie couldn't think of an alternative explanation. Bottom line, if the man wasn't exerting some control over the HKs, then they were finished, no matter what course of action they took. He told Bromley to come out and clambered down the side of the crusher. Up close, the man was even more bizarre-looking. The dreadlocks were silvery-gray and, as the light of McGlowrie's lamp played over them, displayed a rippling iridescence—so, to a lesser degree, did his skin. His face, partially obscured behind twists of hair, had a shriveled, witchy look, a match to his emaciated body. Goggles shielded his eyes. A tattered bookbag with a faded logo was draped over his shoulder—it was stuffed with a variety of the weeds that, against all odds, grew throughout the pit.

—Shit! Bromley said.

McGlowerie told him to bring Denise down.

—HKs. You see them? Bromley's voice trembled.

McGlowerie said, Yeah, I see them. Get her down here.

The man reached out his hand toward McGlowrie's shoulder—such a laborious movement, McGlowrie didn't flinch—and plucked something from his back. A gray flier that had the approximate size and evil aspect of a dragonfly designed by H.R. Giger. Diagnostic unit. So much for the value of scans, McGlowrie thought. He'd led the HKs straight to the crusher.

—What now? he said, and gave an exaggerated shrug, signaling his helplessness, his willingness to be led.

The man averted his eyes.

The tumult of the mine came at McGlowrie from every side, yet if the Emperor were a storm, it seemed they were standing in its eye, a bubble of comparative tranquility. The HKs had not changed their position. He switched on his night vision so he could see them more clearly, then looked at the man and caught his breath. The man had become a creature of light, a solarized angel. Apparently, there was a considerable amount of metal in his skin and hair. The embers of McGlowrie's childhood religious training were briefly fanned into a flame. Miracles, he thought. What the hell!

The man took two backward steps and beckoned. Again, that rickety motion, as if his joints were dry. He took another backward step and repeated the gesture.

—Okay. McGlowrie glanced at Bromley, a few paces behind him. We're going to stick real close to this guy. Can you keep up?

Bromley breathed through his mouth, staring at the man as if mesmerized. Yeah, he said. But …

—Either we're going to make it or we're not, said McGlowrie. Best not to calculate the odds.

Keeping up did not prove a problem. The man walked with terrible deliberateness—terrible, because it took so long to move past the hunter-killers, McGlowrie thought he would lose his nerve and run. He expected every step to be his last and set himself to accept the bone-crushing, organ-pulping shock that an HK could deliver. He had the impression that the man was not sure-footed, that his balance was poor, his limbs weak, and he was stepping carefully so as to avoid falling. A black oblong shape on his back appeared to be a patch of some sort, positioned above his liver. Occasionally he would stop and drink from a plastic bottle and, in the process, shuffling his feet, would make a complete turn to see how they were doing; then he would go forward again at the same stiff-legged pace, his brittle precision reminding McGlowrie of a mantis picking its way along a branch.

They were five yards beyond the hunter-killers (which, all the while, had remained motionless), when the HKs abruptly broke formation and sped off in different directions, responding to signals of machine distress in various sections of the mine. McGlowrie felt like shouting but kept his exultation to himself, not wanting to give Bromley an excuse to get sloppy. Yet as they trudged through the roaring black-and-green turmoil of the Emperor, their footsteps dredging up squirts of dust, McGlowrie let himself get sloppy, permitting his mind to unclench from the mental fist that he had—for the most part—maintained since Saddler's death, and considered the glowing figure of the man who led them. Walking with that peculiar stiff gait. Head too large for his body, a disparity exaggerated by the snakes' cauldron of hair that nearly trebled its apparent size. McGlowrie made a biblical assessment of their situation: And lo, in the midst of the wasteland, friendless and surrounded by beasts, I came upon a hermit, his hair wreathed in light, and he was the wings of my liberty and the proof of my salvation.

He was jumping the gun a bit. It was a longer walk to salvation than the one they were taking, and liberty … liberty was light-years away. Yet it suited the moment.

And I did cleave unto him, McGlowerie said to himself. And he yielded unto me the keys of Paradise.

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© 2005 by Lucius Shepard and SCIFI.COM