Old man Munt was gazing up at the darkening sky when the gunship rose above the western crest of the basin, spewing dirty yellow fumes from its guts and hovering awkwardly, like an ailing cindric looking for a place to die, its engines roaring as it battled the thermal eliax that rose in musty spiral columns from the bowels of the mountains. He watched as it listed to one side, and then as it swooped down towards the basin floor, where he momentarily lost sight of it in the last, blood-golden light of the Jone sun, sinking behind the mountainous peaks. The gunship’s boosters cracked like eliax thunder and it angled down towards the basin’s far wall, beyond the old man’s punta plantation and the tall trees that shielded his crop from the high winds and the storms that gathered without warning and spilled their toxic rain on the very peaks from which the yellow gas escaped. The old man coughed, then coughed again—an irritated and rattling, wet cough that he knew was killing him; the cost of breathing in those poisonous vapours, which weakened his lungs and stained his skin. But the cough was more than that; it was also fear. There was no reason for a gunship to be so high in the mountains; nor any reason for it to land within Munt’s basin. And yet, he’d known that it would come. Somehow, he’d known for days.
Where are you now? I lost you in the light of the suns, and the noxious smell of battle, and the sounds of screams that filled the Night of the Long Arm.
I am far away, gazing at the sun, holding the songs in my heart, unlocking memories that were never mine.
Munt stood wielding his hoe like a staff as the soldier emerged from the wall of punta stalks holding his shoulder with one hand, and with the other stemming the flow of blood from a wound in his side where his body armour had been breached. When he saw Munt he stopped and then swayed as if intoxicated. The black, plexi armour was from off-world and was scarred from battle. It was branded with three quarter-suns arranged to represent an ear, eyes, and a mouth; Jone, the god who listens; Jara, the god who sees; Joao, the god who speaks. But the gods did not concern Munt. They had brought him neither balance nor chaos; so he paid them no mind. He asked for nothing, and got nothing in return. This soldier, however—Munt knew that his arrival could mean either of those things: chaos, or balance. Munt would not leave that choice to the gods.
‘There is nothing here,’ he said, and coughed, again. He could see a hand weapon fixed to the soldier’s hip.
He squinted at Munt, trying to focus in the failing light. At Munt’s back, torches flickered in the draught of night air that swept around the basin, and their light cast the old man’s face in shadow. The soldier looked upwards, towards the same darkening sky that Munt himself had gazed upon—not to the eliax columns or the wispy bands of cloud they formed high above them, but beyond, to the vast inverted sphere of darkness and light that was Yodh, the pulsing heart of their galaxy.
‘Ota,’ the soldier said, feebly. Just the one word, nothing else.
‘Don’t speak that name,’ Munt said, suddenly anxious. He looked beyond the soldier to the punta stalks as if there might be someone else hidden there, listening, waiting. There was no sound other than the small mechanoids that Munt had put to work in the plantation, stripping the cane of its flowers. But still …
‘Who is with you?’ Munt said, waving his hoe in a way that he intended to be intimidating or even threatening, but which he suspected was neither.
The soldier heard him and squinted again to see Munt’s face. He winced from a sudden pain in his side and shook his head. There was no one else.
‘Ota,’ he said again.
‘Silence,’ the old man cried out. Munt snatched a glance over his own shoulder, into the hut, and to the glow of eliax light from the stone hearth at its centre, as if suddenly remembering that something was hidden there. ‘They’ll have both our heads.’
The soldier sank to the ground and moaned. He was in no state to care whether he lost his head or not. But Munt would be damned before he let himself be executed for that reviled name which even his own profane mouth had never uttered.
‘I have water,’ he said. ‘And some food. Then you go.’
The soldier moaned again, clutching his side. Munt moved to him, his hoe held out as if fending off a mountain baabda. The wound in the soldier’s side was deep—Munt could see as much even in the hastening darkness. He would need more than water. He laid down the hoe and pulled at the soldier’s arm to get him to stand.
‘I make you punta drink,’ Munt said. ‘Make you forget. Make a paste for your wound.’
The soldier’s brow glistened in the torchlight. His eyes were grey and heavy, but he raised them to look upon Munt’s face now that he could finally see it.
‘Ota,’ he whispered, but this time Munt ignored him. He had made his decision. He would keep him alive and ensure the soldier’s chaos became Munt’s balance—regardless of what the gods had in mind when they brought him here from another world.
Where did you go? How did they find you? When did you slip through my fingers? How did you disappear from my side?
I never knew you. I was already found. I was never at your side. I was always in the clutches of another.
Munt was waiting when the soldier eventually opened his eyes. He watched as they opened slowly, wary of the brightness of the late morning light streaming down upon him through the open shutter. Munt stood in the shadows with the fire pit between him and the stranger. The combustible eliax coals still glowed from the day before, while a pot sitting on the rack over the pit quietly simmered. The soldier felt his side and looked quickly around the hut, before a panic seemed to strike him, making him sit up quickly and feel for his weapon.
‘There’s no one here,’ Munt said. He held the soldier’s weapon in his hands. ‘No woman. Not anymore. My son is in the city. In Mamoum, like everyone else. His woman too. They all go to Mamoum. To build the gunships, the battleships, the transport ships. The weapons too. But nothing like this.’
The soldier’s weapon was a hand cannon, though crudely made, with parts that did not seem to belong—even Munt could see that, and he knew nothing of weaponry. The handle extended beyond the palm of his hand to a long, serrated blade. The fuel cell was made of a metal he had never seen.
Munt felt the soldier’s eyes upon him as he examined the weapon’s inelegant build.
‘I have a picture book somewhere,’ Munt said, stepping out of the shadows. The memories were faint. Possibly someone else’s. ‘If it was known, they would have my head.’ A pause and a sigh. Images colliding and merging, folding back on themselves. Punta dreams. Fevered and fragmented. ‘A book of adventures. The Damned Planet—that was its name. The planet’s true name is outlawed. You know this. But you say it, ceaselessly, even in your dreams.’
The soldier was confused. He looked downwards, as if trying to recall memories that were no longer there—or had been locked away. He checked his side again—where the wound was inflamed and weeping, but sealed by the punta paste.
‘Those memories are gone,’ Munt said, seeing the soldier’s struggle. ‘My punta. Healed your wound, and your mind.’
He stayed on the far side of the fire pit from the solider, who had risen to his feet. Munt coughed, heavily, and for a moment his gaze left the soldier. But the soldier didn’t notice, or didn’t care.
‘Your name?’ Munt said, recovering, drawing in breath. Then again, when the soldier said nothing.
‘P’thon,’ said the soldier. His voice was brittle, hoarse from the punta brew.
‘Your Concordat name,’ Munt demanded, suddenly frustrated.
‘P’thon,’ the soldier said again.
‘No one uses the aspirated tongue here,’ Munt blustered, waving the weapon. The soldier watched it, with wide eyes. ‘Python. I name you Python.’
Munt placed the weapon on the stone wall of the pit so that he could wrap a cloth around his hand and lift the pot from the grate.
‘Punta,’ he said, seeing Python’s quizzical look. ‘Outlawed in your world. No one tells me why.’
‘I have no currency,’ said the soldier, in Munt’s tongue. ‘Some weapons on the ship—but no boon.’
‘The Concordat’s laws of transaction aren’t abided on Mazz,’ Munt responded. ‘Not in that way. I don’t require your boon—or your weapons.’
‘I am on Mazz?’ said the soldier.
Munt laughed, but without humour. The Concordat forbade it.
‘The gods did guide you,’ he said.
Munt filled a small clay bowl with punta brew.
‘Drink,’ he said, placing the bowl on the wall of the fire pit closer to the soldier. ‘It will calm you. More healing. Clean your mind. Like your Concordat demands.’
‘What will you have me do for you?’ said Python, wearily. ‘As currency?’
‘The same that I have done for you,’ said Munt, deliberately cryptic. ‘You will bring me balance.’
Where did they bury you? When I dream of you, I see you in the dirt. I see dust in your hair. I see cracks in your lips.
I was born in the dirt. I was raised in the dust. I will die in the sand. The pit is all I have known. It is all I have ever seen.
Munt waited in the doorway for Python to open his eyes for the second time. The Jone sun had passed its zenith, where its light is fierce and white and makes steam rise from the mountains alongside the pillars of eliax vapours. Now the air was filled with the blood-red hue of its rays as they pierced the columns spiralling up from the mountain basins.
‘Come,’ said Munt, standing in the doorway of the hut. ‘Walk.’ He coughed again, but stepped down from the hut anyway. This would not wait.
Still wielding the soldier’s weapon, Munt led Python into the plantation—a narrow, cleared pathway weaving back towards where Munt had seen the soldier land the gunship. Ahead of them, somewhere deep among the punta stalks, the mechanoids were at work. The sound of their constant labour was all that could be heard in the basin, day or night, apart from the odd howl of a baabda beyond the ridge or the calling squawk of a cindric. Sometimes, when his mechanoids were silent, Munt could hear the giant mechanoids at work on the sand plain, and deep underground in the super pits of Taz Zin, extracting the eliax that powers the galaxy. But not today.
Clunking, grinding, puffing, shearing. Eliax steam rose up from the plantation where the mechanoids cut down the cane and stripped the stalks of their flowers and harvested them into baskets wired to their backs. Munt knew as little of mechanoids as he did of weaponry—but he knew how to put them to work, and which traders to harry when they broke down.
Munt led the soldier towards the noise, but then followed a path that veered away and trailed down towards the southern wall of the basin, through the thick stalks and out towards the trees. Behind the trees loomed the sheer rock face, and at its foot and shielded by the trees, a pool of water as black and bottomless as the heart of Yodh in the sky above them.
‘Come,’ Munt wheezed, gesturing again with the weapon. ‘I show you this.’
He followed the trail around the rock pool to the basin wall, checking behind repeatedly to make sure Python was following. Through the trees and beyond the pool, the trail broadened out into an underground cavern, stretching beneath the crown of the basin wall and opening out again into a larger hollow beyond.
‘See, see,’ said Munt, breathless and excited. ‘Up there.’
On the dark rock wall of the cavern were a series of markings—what looked like three quarter-suns not unlike those on Python’s body armour. Hence Munt’s excitement. There were figures too—tall and lithe, like the Bol Rhakis of childhood myth, or wispy shadows cast by firelight. There were moons and half moons and a sphere that was neither here nor there—Bol Rhak? And at the centre of it all—the great mass of darkness and light that holds the galaxy in balance and constrains its chaos: Yodh.
‘The gods,’ said Munt, allowing himself a cough. He spat on the ground—a mass of yellow phlegm and blood. ‘See? The Contented. The Curious. The Watchful. The gods did these. Outlawed, everywhere, markings like these. Not here. No one sees these. If they did …’ Munt dragged a finger across his neck to demonstrate the beheading he would receive if the markings were known. He tapped the barrel of the weapon against the three quarter-suns on Python’s breast plate.
‘But you won’t tell,’ Munt said. He smiled, but not to reassure. ‘I know what you are.’
Munt walked on, towards the hollow beyond the cavern.
‘Follow,’ he said again. ‘You help me now.’
They walked through dense vegetation, wild and pungent, and a bank of tall, skeletal uika trees, to a small clearing. At the rear of the clearing was a hut—no bigger than a baabda cage. But there were no baabda inside. Munt held open the door so that Python could see what was there—see the thin, young child, no older than 20 years, tied to a stake in the ground. She was lying on her side on the dirt. Her clothing was ragged—from neglect rather than violence. Covered in filth, her hair was matted; her bare legs scratched, bloodied and bruised. Her hands were bound behind her back and a rope fastened to the stake was tied around her waist. When she saw Munt she struggled to her knees and began to edge forward, but was pulled back by the restraint.
Munt held out the weapon for Python to take.
‘My granddaughter,’ he said. ‘I haven’t been able.’
Python looked at Munt, and then at the girl. He didn’t take the weapon.
‘This is how you repay me,’ Munt said, pressing the weapon against the soldier’s chest. ‘For healing your wound. This will be the balance you give me.’
Who is the child by your side? What pain has he seen? What songs does he know? Will he slip from your grasp as you did from mine?
He is my child and not my child. He has seen everyone’s pain and learnt all the songs. He slipped from the grasp the moment he was made.
The child is the one.
The child is the one.
‘Help me,’ the girl said. Her appeal was to Python; her voice feeble, afraid. She was weak and malnourished. The filth on her face had run like river dirt in a storm. But her eyes were resolute.
Munt stepped across and blocked the girl’s view of the soldier.
‘I know what you are,’ Munt said to Python again. ‘Committee K. The death squads. The Concordat would have us know nothing. But we know. Everyone knows. You wipe out vermin on the Planet of the Damned. We all know.’
Python winced and shook his head. At a flash of memory, or the truth?
‘Its name,’ said Munt. ‘When you arrived. It’s all you spoke. What’s one more child?’
‘Help me,’ the girl called again.
Munt ignored her.
‘Why?’ Python said. Not to the girl, but to Munt.
‘She’s the daughter of my son,’ Munt said, his breath suddenly quick and shallow. ‘Left behind when they went to Mamoum. Her and her brother … who is still out there, in the mountains. They’re bandits, all of them. All the left behind. Living in caves and abandoned settlements. They come to raid us. Watch for the traders and wait till they leave. They will come again soon. You will see them. They will have watched your ship. They come to rob me. Steal my boon. Threaten my life. Yours too.’
Munt thrust the weapon towards Python again, but Python remained motionless.
‘I hang her carcass for them to see,’ said Munt. ‘Scare them away.’
Python winced again. Munt pressed the hand cannon to his chest.
‘Chaos threatens balance but the balance holds—it is the way of Yodh.’
Python relented and took the hand cannon. But he didn’t raise it.
There was hardly time.
Munt heard the whistle on the mountain air before he knew what it was. Just a fraction of a moment, but a moment that seemed to hover in the red-golden breeze, like the sound itself. It came from the cavern, from behind him, and grew in volume before he realised it was the sound of a projectile hurtling towards him. It was so fast he felt the pain of it before he knew the sound had stopped. The whistle rang in his ears as the breath left his chest. It was ringing as he fell to his knees, the shaft piercing his body from one side to the other. He could still hear it as he fell to his back—a fall that was more out of convenience than necessity.
He saw Python wielding the weapon. Heard the onrush of feet and caught a glimpse of the misfits and bandits and marauders he had known would come—the left-behind; the children of the mountain. He would have laughed—scoffed at the soldier for his lack of foresight—had the spear not pierced his chest so that the air rushed from his lungs like the eliax gas from the mountain vents.
‘I told you,’ he managed to say as the air escaped him. ‘You would do well to clear the mountains of them, Committee K.’
Then Munt saw the girl—untied from the stake and standing above him, blade in hand. His granddaughter. Most likely. He held no memories of her, truth be told. For memory was banished, and years of punta had made it so.
‘He says he’s your grandfather,’ Munt heard Python say. ‘Would you kill your past?’
Munt saw the girl turn and look Python in the face. Did she see what Munt, only now at the last, was finally seeing? Anguish. Desperation. Chaos?
‘The past is gone,’ she said. She turned and raised the blade.
Munt might have closed his eyes, to spare himself that, at least. Instead he left them open, but looked beyond the girl, to the columns of yellow eliax vapours spiralling upwards towards the darkening sky, as the red-golden light of the Jone sun dipped for one last time behind the crest of the mountain, while the bottomless mass of Yodh looked down upon it all.