EXCERPT FROM ‘SAVING PALUDIS’
Stefan and Serpentine
Unscaleable cliffs the colour of the inside of an Earth apple rose on both sides of the canyon. Upon the scarred and ancient walls, russet stains lay in patches as if the canyon had once been exposed to the ravages of a more voracious atmosphere. Between the monumental walls ran a vibrant river, sparkling in the early morning sunlight, and in this ribbon of silver stood a horse with a traveller upon its back. The beast snorted and shook its head, slowly treading the icy water beneath restless hooves. It was still a little light-headed, recovering from the drugs which had recently released their hold upon its earthly, equine brain.
Stefan Lattanzis leant forward and rubbed his hand up and down his mount’s sweeping mane, endeavouring to massage some life back into its musclebound neck. Shielding his eyes against the rising sun he peered eastward, against the flow of the northern river. Challenging his gaze was the snow-capped peak known as Trenkesh-Naisom, which, translated from Muskan, meant mountain of no breathing. It stood ten kilometres high and had never been climbed, at least by humankind.
Man and horse were almost four hundred kilometres west of the peninsular barrier. A thousand kilometres to their west was the city of Lakeside, which stood at the southern edge of the great expanse of Northlake. It was from this remote and wild northern outpost that Stefan had hired his mount and vehicle, gently drugging the passive beast inside the wagon’s trailer. After making the animal as comfortable as possible, he had taken the controls of his caterpillar and set off eastwards for the foothills of Trenkesh-Naisom.
Now, with the terrain becoming even more rigorous, trailer and vehicle were abandoned by the river bank. Stefan waited only for the horse to fully recover before continuing his journey. Strapped to the saddle were a bulky saddlebag and an inflatable tent, while his location finder, wallet and torch hung loosely from his belt.
Although the location finder covered his area of interest, and the locality of his quarry was programmed therein, Stefan still found himself filled with trepidation as he heeled the horse forward. The beast whinnied and splashed, glad to be able to move again, then responding to a light pull on the reins, it left the river and scrambled up to a narrow ledge a metre above the water’s flow. They moved along this rocky path until, after a few minutes of awkward travel, Stefan saw the split in the cliff that he was expecting. He paused at the entrance and suddenly shivered. No more than two metres wide, the rift held little sunlight at this time of day and ran away, with a gentle upward slope, to a deep and unwelcoming gloom. Into this darkness, Stefan coaxed his mount and wondered, not for the first time on this impulsive mission, whether he was losing his sanity.
As the blackness closed in, thoughts of Clare drifted through his mind, and he recalled their single-sided conversation of two weeks ago. She and Pas were to visit Saltzburg – would probably have been there by now. It was a long shot, but at least they were doing something. They were, meaning he was, getting nowhere. He had excused himself and left the room, catching Clare’s eye as he went. She disturbed him somehow, and had looked hurt at his abrupt departure, but there was nothing more to say.
He dug his heels in hard and loose stones scattered behind the flaying feet of his steed. The noise of the river was gone now, the only sounds being hooves upon dirt, the breathing of the beast, and the staccato words of encouragement from his own lips. The walls of the fissure intermittently leapt to life as small lizards, white and green, scampered across its shaded surface. As the small creatures entered the darkest zones, they glowed incandescently from some hidden power within. Stefan stopped to undertake a curiosity sparked study of this natural phenomenon. There was so much of this planet that remained a mystery. Even after four hundred years, man’s ignorance prevailed, energies having been directed to plundering the soil and now, of course, the sea.
He rode on, alone in the alien wilderness of dark and moving light, ascending as time moved inexorably onward. The cleft was almost twenty kilometres long, rose nine hundred metres and led, according to his map, to a high altitude plateau across which his quarry lay. As noon approached, the sun showed itself above him, though indeed the walls of the rift had grown higher. Stefan hauled on the reins and raised his face, eyes closed, to soak up the welcome warmth. Within an hour, he would reach the plateau, and there he would feast to celebrate the end of the beginning of his journey.
The plateau was barren. It stretched outwards to the peak of Trenkesh-Naisom, bathed by a strong sun that shone from a characterless blue heaven. The snow on the mountain-top was a vivid contrast to the deep blue sky, and the jagged lower crags were purple in the midday light.
Stefan checked his location and his direction. He now wore goggles and a jacket over his green police uniform. The horse walked on, the only obstacles to linear progress being infrequent broad bushes decorated by scarlet leaves, and smooth round boulders which lay, like lost giant marbles, scattered around the plain.
Many times, as Stefan crossed the plateau, he saw large lizards sunning themselves on top of the largest boulders. On each occasion, he diverted the horse away from the creatures, in case they took exception to the stranger in their midst. They shone a dark yellow in the sunlight and lay, mouths agape, tails draped to match the contour of their rock, golden crests erect on their great reptilian heads. Stefan estimated the length of the largest at four metres. Not to be tangled with.
Shadows grew longer as the trek proceeded and Stefan knew, as the sun descended, that he would soon have to make camp for the night. He paused, stood in the stirrups, and surveyed the terrain. Unfortunately, as he approached the foothills, the boulders were becoming more numerous, like sentinels guarding the mountain approaches. Unmistakable silhouettes surmounted many and, as the agent drew up his hood, he dropped a hand to nervously finger the pistol at his side.
He had never felt more alone, never more forlorn, never more afraid. A cold sweat clung to his face making him shiver in the dusk air.
The light dimmed and the plain turned red. Strange hissing noises began to invade the air and dark shapes on top of boulders began to move. Heads raised and tongues stretched, claws scraped against rock. Stefan was caught in two minds – whether to ride like the wind or to pitch down for the night. Yet if he rode on in darkness, he would undoubtedly fall foul of the huge reptiles.
Initially, his eyes sought the widest open space away from the boulders with the intent of making camp as far from the lizards as possible. But in that situation, he reasoned, he would be open to attack from all sides. Better if he found an empty boulder and put his back to it. This he did with all haste as the surrounding panorama deepened to scarlet, wedging his tent beneath the overhang of an uninhabited rock. He then tethered his horse, and watched the finale of the sunset with his head poking out of the tent entrance, one hand resting on his firearm. He was part of a huge, shadowy stage of black and purple; a performer among still and moving pre-historic actors playing their parts under dimming floodlights and against velvet curtains.
His steed stirred nervously; Stefan knew there would be little sleep that night. Pulling a blanket across his back he heard the hissings and roarings of the lizards fill the air as more of them became active. A small rivulet of sweat ran between his eyebrows and down his nose. The twilight grew colder.
Despite all efforts to remain conscious, Stefan eventually fell asleep and dozed fitfully for eight hours. He awoke with a start as the first tenuous fingers of daylight invaded his shelter. Stretching awkwardly, he emerged from his cocoon.
A rubicund moon hung low on the horizon and a star scribed across the heavens. Somewhat fearfully, he looked to where he had tethered his horse and a wave of relief swept over him as he saw the mare’s ears flicker against the gathering clouds of the rising dawn. Suddenly he felt wide awake and stretched his hands high to the sky.
The silence was overwhelming, as pure as any he had ever known. The cacophony of the previous evening seemed forever lost in time, somehow absorbed by the collective mass of the rocks. The lizards had apparently vanished and he could continue his quest in safety.
Stefan took his breakfast under the splendour and warmth of the rising sun and gave the mare her concentrated rations. He then searched the immediate vicinity for signs of the huge reptiles but, save for a few scrapings in the earth, found nothing. They would be around somewhere, he mused, perhaps hidden in the shadows of the larger boulders. But now was no time to disturb them. Within minutes he was packed and saddled and on his way.
The foothills soared high around him, some hunchbacked, some craggy and sharp, but all dominated by the huge massif of Trenkesh-Naisom, where snow sparkled under a hazy noon sun. Stefan dismounted and clambered up a rock to scan westward over the plain he had just crossed. He checked his location finder for the direction of the rift on the other side, breathing a barely audible Yes! as the green arrow flashed in the required direction. His fingers typed in the word seer and the arrow turned red and swung to point over his shoulder. Dismounting the rock, Stefan consulted his maps and estimated the retreat of Serpentine to be no more than two hours’ ride away. He would be there by mid-afternoon.
Serpentine squatted on top of his favourite rock and stared down the hillside at the approach of the rider. The seer wore long lizard-skin trousers and a buttoned tunic tied at the waist with matted rope. With his high, wide forehead tapering down to a small weak chin, currently supported by his long-fingered hands, and long legs bent to support his crouching body, he resembled a human-sized mantis about to spring. He was completely bald and his head reflected the high sun as he rose to stretch his tall frame skywards. Far below, the tread of the stranger’s horse was resolute and the seer tried to force some joy into his soul at the prospect of company, but it was of little avail.
Lately, he seemed possessed by a sombreness the like of which he had never known before: something abstract and untenable was casting a dark shadow over his sensitive soul. He could feel it even now as the stranger started to ascend towards his lair.
The police had used him before and always rewarded well, so the videophone call of six days’ past had been no surprise. And the man below was on time, though that was of scant importance to him. He lived in isolation to erase the effects of an existence dominated by time and held no desire to be part of what he labelled the temporal and mechanical clime of man.
On Earth, Serpentine would have undoubtedly been called a freak, even withstanding the genetic variations that the human species had undergone since leaving the mother planet. He was amazingly tall, almost two and a half metres, his beanpole body topped by a triangular head with a small nose and mouth and large, soulful brown eyes. His eyes, he thought, were what gave him his power, but in truth it was more likely the circumstances of his birth.
Serpentine was, in fact, the only human to be born on Suffek, that planet of smoke and steam and human distress. At the time of his birth an electrical storm of such savagery had been raging that all power had been cut and his mother had undertaken the very rare event of delivery by completely natural means. Her screams had torn the impenetrable darkness, to disperse among the hung-over, dust-laden Suffek atmosphere and thence to the corners of the universe, the only sounds of their kind for hundreds of years. The intense ionisation of the outside air had permeated the room, filling the black space with a strong ozonic stench, and the first thing that the germinal senses of Serpentine had reacted to was the flash of white lightning that had sped through the skylight, and momentarily lit his place of birth. It was there, and then it was gone, highlighting his mother’s sweat and his own spidery frame.
Serpentine’s mother was from Centurion and, dispirited with that environment’s militant lifestyle, and finding herself pregnant from a single liaison with a stringy, yellow-eyed Cassiopeian, she had left for the welcome solitude of Suffek. There, unlike most humans, she had found some peace and stayed. She worked there for five years, raising Serpentine with love but little social interaction until, with his education in mind, they had migrated to Paludis.
The psychic abilities of young Serpentine became apparent by the time he was ten years old, but far from making him a celebrity, the rest of society, suspicious and rife with prejudice, made him an outcast.
However, by the time he was fifteen and already two metres tall he had helped the police on several occasions, enjoying the momentary plaudits and cocking a snook at those who feared him. Mostly he used his psychometric powers to locate missing people, usually students. Parallel to his psychic endowments, Serpentine developed a strong interest in the fauna and flora of Paludis and would often spend days on his own in the wilderness areas, far away from the cities.
Following the death of his mother when he was eighteen, and in the grip of terrible grieving, Serpentine made the biggest decision of his short life. He hated the city with its tall ring of buildings, the people and their mundane bigotry, the entire corrupt system and its pandering to the dictates of Earth. He perceived himself as a gifted human, ignored by society until his special gifts were required; and as a child of the Muskan Paludis, rather than of the planet his own race had forged. Thus, two months after his mother’s death, he left his old life behind and sought the peace of the wilderness.
Now, five years later, he lived in the foothills of Trenkesh-Naisom, comfortably domiciled and financially supported by occasional police work, supplemented by rare but lucrative private commissions. Totally self-sufficient in his simple nutritional requirements, he was content, other than for the recent dark shadow he saw in the Paludis sky and the sense of foreboding that accompanied it.
Serpentine dropped off the rock, walking with long strides up a stony slope towards his home. On his left lay a cultivated field, ripe with the efforts of his horticultural planning, and to the right of the path several trees bore maturing fruit. This was his land, his territory. Looking upwards, he saw his phone aerial rising incongruously to the heavens and, next to it, a large solar panel tracking the Paludis sun as it traversed the sky. He was lord here, he was master. He was powerful. It was beautiful country; a land of contrasting seasons, intense sunsets, of clean fresh natural air and pure mountain streams. It was part of him.
As he approached the entrance to his cave, his horse, loose nearby, whinnied a greeting, its tail thrashing the air. It was a huge shire beast, bred for work not for speed, and was accustomed to moving among the lizards of the plain and lower slopes. Serpentine ran his hand along its muscular flank and swung onto its back. He grasped the mane lightly and, clicking his tongue, turned the magnificent animal down the slope and towards his visitor.