Dreaming of Babel

12

January 3, 1946:

Through his goggles, the world is an icy kaleidoscope at the edges, the bicycle beneath him a shifting, twitching mass of tubes and rust. Everything has narrowed, tightened into the yellow cone of his headlamp. Far, far above him, a haze of blue-white glow filters down the length of the ruined tower- unmistakably Antarctic daylight.

The tower echoes to the sound of increasingly distant gunfire, a few dull explosions knocking cold dust off the shuddering beams. He can still feel the screaming- it's not audible, but the sawing drone in his ears, tearing at the edge of his awareness, tells him they're coming.

The generator on the back of the bike whirrs and complains with each turn of the pedals. He glances down at the dial strapped to his wrist, having to exaggerate the movement of his head to see the numbers clearly. Enough charge in the capacitors for 10, maybe 11 seconds of continuous discharge from the rheotron. Better, but not good enough. On paper it's a Flash Gordon ray gun, melting Howlers with plumes of deadly radiation. In practice it's a barely-functional piece of repurposed lab equipment.

The gunfire peters out, and there is one final, conclusive explosion. His unit is gone.

A flicker on the edge of his fragmented vision- he yelps a curse and throws the bicycle to one side, narrowly avoiding an outcropping of ice that is slowly pushing its way through the wall of the leaning, canted building. Under any other circumstances he would tear the goggles off his face- they're front-heavy and uncomfortable, and the twisted chunks of distorted world at the edge of his vision make him dizzy. But he won't. He's seen what happens to the poor fools who don't take the warnings seriously.


Piretti hadn't listened. He'd pulled off his goggles not long after the cave-in.

'No Howler here- if I get out, I need to see.', he'd proclaimed in broken French.

The rest of their broken squad of polyglots- the dregs the Authority had recruited from the armies of a dozen countries- had muttered, but not followed his example. No one had moved to stop him, either. He was new to Antarctica. He didn't understand- still full of that excited naivete that marked the end of so many new recruits, men who were veterans of wars that had not prepared them for this.

He'd stepped out of the big antigravity ship that had dropped them off with childlike excitement- mostly because of its name. He'd gestured to the big block letters printed on its gunmetal flank.

'AV Giuseppe Garibaldi! A ship that fly without wing- and name for my countryman!'

A few hours later they'd rounded a corner and seen a Howler, waiting for them atop a pile of frozen rubble, and then Piretti was dead. He'd made a sort of coughing noise, then dropped limply to the ground, twitching and convulsing as froth burst through his clenched teeth.

They'd killed the Howler of course. She died shrieking. They were tough, Howlers- but even they could burn. The glowing radium paint on the bullets was the nail in the coffin.

There had been a moment of sublime, crystalline stillness before he and the rest of the squad had pulled the trigger. In that instant of preserved clarity, he had seen the Howler, her silhouette distorted just enough by the goggles to keep from searing his nervous system.


He stands on the pedals to force the bike over a particularly rough patch of floor, and ponders them. The reason he came all the way from the past-its-prime dance hall in the Yukon to the other side of the planet.

He is no great appreciator of beauty, but he knows the Howlers are beautiful, in their own nightmarishly surreal way. The bicycle thumps back on to somewhat level ground, the generator rattling and letting off a crackle of static. The tower is only one of dozens in this frozen hellscape, but its drunkenly broken top reaches the ice- and there is light there.


She was posed like a Greek sculpture in perfect contrapposto- the word came to him from half-remembered school days- most of her weight on one leg, knee slightly bent, poised serenely with her whole body- perfectly naked, skin like marble- turned slightly away from them. One hand rested lightly on one hip, the other held a lump of frozen dirt as if it were some beautiful object to be contemplated. She was thin to the point of wiriness and seemed totally unaffected by the cold. It was only when you looked at her neck- slightly too thin, too long, and that impossibly wide mouth, almost serpentine, that the beauty turned alien.

'Feuer frei!', Gustloff had screamed, and a burst from his Madsen gun stitched across her. The first bullets seemed to pass around or even through her, as if they were not quite there anymore- like a half-ignored daydream. And then the bullets ignited, and the weight of fire from the rest of the squad cut her down. Her burning corpse looked no less alien for its near-human proportions.


The rear wheel collapses, and he is thrown sideways, slamming into the frozen tower floor with enough force to drive the air from his lungs. The generator falls free, narrowly missing his ankle as it smashes into the surface beside him. He feels one of his ribs snap under the weight of the rheotron and rifle slung over his back.

For a moment, he does nothing but gasp for breath. Finally, painfully, it comes to him, and he staggers back to his feet, groaning as the loose rib shifts inside him. It takes him long, painstaking minutes to slowly unsling his rifle and the rheotron, pull out a roll of bandages, drop his parka to the floor and messily wrap his chest over his uniform shirt. It's not his first broken rib, but the timing could not be worse. At least the bike- he'd found it in a ruined house, with furniture that could have been from any suburban residence back home- has held up this long.

The generator's axle refuses to turn- the connection between it and the rheotron broke cleanly, but he won't be getting any more power out of it. He checks the dial. Sixteen seconds of sustained fire. Sixteen bursts, if the capacitors aren't too cold. He's painfully shrugging his parka back on, already feeling the biting cold against his neck and sweat-drenched back, when he sees a flicker of movement from the level of the tower below him. The building is hollow in the center, an air-shaft lined with wide balconies connected by a spiraling ramp.

That's not one of his people down there.


A quick probing mission, they'd been told. Clean-up after the success of the last search-and-destroy through the area. The crew on the Garibaldi had been confident, unworried- "The worst you'll have to deal with is a few damaged noocraft, and you'll not need to engage them- call in your position and we'll bring the big guns."

They'd trooped out of the cramped antigravity vessel, then marched across the ice, bitter wind in their faces, for nearly 45 minutes before it took off again. Standing orders- running a null gravity engine too close to ground forces could cook them in seconds. One moment the huge lozenge-shaped craft had been squatting on the horizon, the next it was soaring overhead in surreal silence, rising until it was lost in the glitter of blowing snow.


He moves by muscle memory, snapping off a shot with his rifle cradled awkwardly at his hip. The Howler below ducks back into cover. They will be moving up- if one of them has seen him, all of them have. He knows their tactics. They do not use weapons, but they don't need to- they're fast, tough, quiet. They will encircle him, try to get behind him, then swarm it all at once. If he fails to get out in time… he knows he will die with pale, feminine fingers tearing into his flesh. If he fails.


It was a peculiar mix of men, but then again so were all the bastardized combat units the Authority had recruited for their Antarctic operations. Mercenaries, radicals, deserters, patriots, idealists, Fascists, Communists, pacifists- the Antarctic Containment Unit spoke three dozen languages and worshipped twice that many creeds.

Pipponen, the squad leader, a Finn. Dead. He was the only proper member of the Authority. They'd found him at the bottom of the crevasse, his chest caved in. He coughed up bloody mucus, moaning a prayer in garbled Finnish as his limbs went cold.

Bergmann, the radio operator, a German. Dead. He'd vanished when the ice fell out from under them. No calling for help now. He hadn't been popular- the Germans had unleashed the Howlers in the first place, it was said.

Piretti, Italian. Dead. He'd hinted at some kind of background in the Mob. A naive child.

Billy Angulalik and Tom Adams, Eskimos. Dead. They'd come with him from the Yukon- he'd known them for years. Tom had slipped when they'd been climbing up that collapsed temple, gone in an instant into the cold darkness. Last he'd seen of Billy he'd been propped against a pile of rubble with his rifle. "Go on. Get help. Go on."

The three Chinese. Dead. No one could ever pronounce their names. If they minded being called Larry, Moe and Curly, they'd never said anything about it. They came from Manchuria, wherever that was. Last he'd seen of them they'd gone down under a pile of writhing, shrieking monstrosities during the first Howler attack. Their screams had become wet and gurgling at the end.

Thompson, American. Dead. A Kiddie. He claimed that stupid hat of his let him see perfectly in the dark and make himself invisible. A chunk of ice had taken his head off during the cave-in. They never found his hat.

Casey, American. Dead. College boy. Loud-mouth, but he'd studied physics so they gave him the rheotron. He'd uncovered the bodies of the dead Chinese. "Not supposed to be like this", he'd whimpered, then stuck the barrel of his pistol in his mouth.

Gustloff, Swiss. Dead. The machine-gun operator. He'd stayed behind with Billy, bleeding from a dozen deep rents across his face and chest. He and the Eskimo would buy time for him to get to the surface. Flag down the Garibaldi. They would burn the Howlers out of this place with fire and radium.


He is only a few floors away from the pinnacle of the tower. It leans further and further to one side as it climbs, its peak pressed hard against the ice ceiling of the buried city. The glow of sunlight illuminates its upper floors. But there is another light, rising from below. The colour of the universe changes. It takes nearly five minutes of agonized, panting running before he notices. There is a sudden vividness of tone, a richness of texture- a perfect, beautiful light that illuminates but also somehow makes everything around it look flimsy, insubstantial. Noocraft. A Howler's dream made manifest- or so they say.

He's only seen them up close once before, at Mount Vinson in '43. A rearguard action. No two noocraft are alike, but all are… are… he blinks and forces himself to look away. They are sublime. They are wondrous. They are perfect, and even thinking so causes his eyes, despite himself, to begin to turn back towards the glowing, brilliant… thing. He fights to keep it only at the edge of his vision, pressing on his rib as he runs so the pain will distract him. Its soft, crystalline light, the sweet odour it emits- so pure- brightens colours, but sucks the life out of everything around it.

From his position near the top of the tower he can fire down along the air shaft, raking the layers of balconies and keeping the Howlers from climbing. They know this, and they've sent their heavy weapons up to root him out.


The whole nightmare had only started a few hours ago, but it felt like a thousand years. The city was a labyrinth in three dimensions- endless broken corridors, tiers upon tiers of piled, tumbled architecture under a dome of vivid blue-black ice. A single gigantic pillar of construction, with broken sub-towers sprouting off it like gangrenous limbs, some of them extending to the ice. The whole structure stood in a yawning sea of icy darkness, reaching down, down into cold nothingness. And in that darkness- lights. Movement. The hint of fires, of electrical power. Distant howling and chattering sounds on the wind. A rising breeze of unusual and impossible scents, dominated by the tinny stink of ancient, frozen decay.

There was no way the place belonged to the Howlers. It was too old, too messy. The battered, bruised ruins of his squad, and the immaculate, inhuman ice-women- they were all just parasites, squirming and crawling through the rotting corpse of the city-pillar.


He's hit the pinnacle of the tower. The building is so tilted up here that it is almost horizontal. He can reach out and touch the ceiling of ice. Just over the edge of the building is the winding gap that can only be the bottom of a crevasse. The glow of sunlight is almost blinding. He assesses the climb with a seasoned eye. The ice looks solid enough, but he's worried about his footing on the tower. It's grown more and more unsteady as he's climbed, held against the ceiling by little more than pressure and rotted concrete. He has crampons and a good ice-pick- once he gets in the crevasse he should be able to shimmy his way up.

Wasting no time, he snaps his crampons to his boots, and shuffles to the edge of the tower. There's a rickety railing- it wobbles but holds his weight. He plunges his pick into the edge of the crevasse with all his strength, rib protesting. It holds. He pulls and kicks upwards, hauling himself over the edge. For a brief moment he's upside-down, feet against the ceiling, whole body hanging over the abyss. The cold darkness at his back beckons. An agonized grunt of effort, a moment of exertion, and he's in the crevasse, back against one side, feet against the other. He wrenches the pick free, dislodging a shower of splinters. Something deep in the ice around him creaks. Maybe it's not as secure as he'd thought.

He's in daylight now. He can taste the fresh air, feel the rising, shining, delicious radiance of-

The noocraft hovers below him, blindingly bright. It's calling to him. It wants him to let himself fall, into its blooming, petal-like heart of perfection. He grits his teeth and throws the ice pick at it. It seems unphased.

Screwing his eyes shut, he twists a series of dials on the rheotron up to their maximum setting, tilts the muzzle of the device downwards, and jams on the activation toggle. There is an electrical thump followed by a rising whine. The air begins to reek of warm ozone, the rheotron growing uncomfortably hot in his hands. He can feel the dull ache of radiation burns setting in on his hands- or maybe he's just imagining it.

The noocraft lets out an unearthly shriek of pain, a broken sound like a wounded animal. He feels the rush of air as it writhes and twitches beneath him, and then the concussion as it hits the ceiling near the edge of the crevasse. Something in the ice moans, creaks, and lets go. He scrambles for a moment in animal panic as tons of ice, and most of the top of the tower, plummet towards the waiting darkness.

He falls in what seems like perfect silence, stomach in his throat, mindless terror screaming in his ears. He passes the noocraft- it is not so beautiful now, but it reaches out to him nonetheless, then falls away from him, impaled by chunks of the edge of the crevasse. He falls past the tower, watching as its upper floors seem to fold in on themselves, spraying rotted, frozen stone and wood in a foul-smelling cloud. The lower levels are full of dozens, hundreds of Howlers. They watch him fall, expressions Sphinx-like. One of them makes eye contact, and he detects a note of- is that approval in her gaze? She recedes upwards past him. He spins and tumbles in horrified wonder.

With glacier-like inevitability, the ruins of Babel rise up to meet him, frozen and terrible.

HE DIED NOBLY.
HE DIED A FOOL.
CAN ONE ASCRIBE NOBILITY TO A FIGMENT OF AN UNREAL UNIVERSE?
REGARDLESS, OUR POSITION IS SECURE. THEY DID NOT MAKE CONTACT.
DO OUR ORDERS STILL STAND?
YES. THE GATE IS CLOSED. WE HAVE LOST.
FOR THE MOMENT.

A wail of anguish and rage from more than three hundred near-human throats echoes across the upper tiers of the frozen city.

WE WILL WAIT, THEN.
BUT WHAT SHALL WE DREAM OF?
THEY WILL FIND THIS PLACE AGAIN SOMEDAY. AND THEN WE WILL WAKE?
AND UNLEASH A TERRIBLE VENGEANCE, YES.
LET US DREAM OF VICTORY.

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