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The Harvest

 

He woke up in his sail; he stretched and yawned before he glanced around. He could see the Fields expanding in every direction. It was almost dusk. The star was creeping low, shedding blue and orange light as it slowly dissappeared below the horizon.

I must’ve been asleep for hours to drift so far dawnwards.

The wind was blowing from starboard; before he had a chance to realise it, he was already jibbing the boom to tack port. He saw the green and violet grass around him bending tall against the breeze, white grass buds tumbling in the air. It brought a smile to his face.

What a glorious sight.

It was harvest season; the windcombs would be plowing on somewhere nearby, reaping, threshing and winnowing, until they were full.

Penthesileia must be worried sick.

He looked at the compass briefly beforing he turned the groundship in another direction. He couldn’t tell exactly where he was; he couldn’t see any settlements he’d been before; he couldn’t see any settlements at all for that matter.

He searched for the Pydna mines in the distance. The lengthy line of hills wasn’t there. He noticed that all around the Fields, it was as if a sort of thin hazy fog had come down.

Just how far dawnwards am I?

The wind was strong but steady; he was making good speed. He set the sail trim and sat down for a moment to enjoy the view. That was why he took the sail out on such trips; the few things he could enjoy in life was groundsailing and his family. Strangely enough though, the vista seemed peculiar; it was oddly devoid of life, of other sails and settlements.

That and a few other things made him uneasy. He noticed the grassy stalks had an even, uncannily perfect look. And the star seemed to take forever to set. It was like daytime had grown longer suddenly. And the wind above all, the wind felt too kind; instead of changing like it was prone to in the Fields, buffeting and stalling at a whim, it blew steadily, as if the sail had caught on a one-of-a-kind stream.

Small matter; with any luck I’ll be home by nightfall.

Then, from the corner of his eye he saw a couple of shadowy shapes outlined in the distance. He looked at them with curious intent, only to realise they were edging closer.

At first, it seemed to Philetus like he’d happened upon some larger sails, hurrying to reach their haven before night, just like himself. But then he noticed the shadows growing larger and larger with every passing moment.

The large shapes pierced the haze and he could see them much more clearly defined; they were large, bulky things. Something ticked inside of him; he felt wary for no apparent reason. He jibbed the sail again and caught the wind broad, skimming above the grass faster than before.

He took notice of their sails; three huge masts on a square-rigged groundship, its sheer bulk impossible to take in at first glance. He could see wide metal heads plowing through the wheat effortlessly. They were immense; he had never seen anything like them before. He couldn’t even believe it was possible to build such monsters, much less groundsail them.

Windcombs.

He didn’t know what to make of them except for the fact that for some reason, they seemed to be getting closer and closer; they would not be going their separate ways. It was as if they were chasing him.

He looked on with dread as he saw them sail onwards, chugging huge tracts of wheat in moments. They were voracious metal behemoths, something that nature had never dared spawn. They were speeding impossibly fast, closing in with the sure, calculated steps of a predator. Like birds of prey right before a lethal, final swoop.

Maybe they haven’t seen me.

He opened a box compartment and pulled out a flare gun; illumination, thermal, radio. He shot one in the air. It went white hot in the flick of an eye, a bright yellow flashing beacon alight in its tip. As it arched behind him, he saw the windcombs gaining even more ground. He shot another flare and then another one. They weren’t slowing down; they weren’t changing course.

He knew they had seen him; it was impossible not to by now.

They want to kill me.

Slipstreaming right above the sea of grass they were now close enough for him to see their riveted joints and their hull plates, the huge wires on their booms and masts. He could hear the whirring noise of their blades growing stronger, their sound even more threatening as it reverberated through their girded cage.

I’ll be damned. They’ll kill me for sure.

He looked behind him and saw the windcombs a few hundred yards apart, blotting out the rays of the star that held on to dusk like a man hanging over a cliff from the root of a saggy tree. He couldn’t outrun them, not with that steady powerful wind; that much was certain. As the windcombs started to close the gap behind them, converging on his tiny sail, he thought of Penthesileia. She was always worried sick for no reason when he went sailing.

There’s reason enough now.

He jibbed the boom violently; the small groundship lurched around almost tipping over and spilling him onto the ground right in the path of the blades. As it did so, he steadied the ship right against the flow of the wind, in irons. Instead of slowing down to a halt, the groundship went on and sped ahead, an undercurrent of wind lofting it above the grass and buffeting its sail from behind.

Philetus aimed his sail straight in the space between the two huge windcombs. The blades seemed like they would miss it for a few yards. He then saw the sails on the windcombs change their line ferociously, as if someone had thrown a switch, trembling as the blasts of the wind caught on to them. The windcombs’ enormous hulls tried to cope with the sudden strain; they turned about in anguish, their bulks careening like wild elephants of old. Still, they missed Philetus’s ship.

But they met each other; their blades clashed into each other’s prow, eating away at themselves and the ships, sparks flying wildly. They ground at each other with logic-defying stubborness, as if somehow they could part away from their last embrace. Instead, their blades soon died down after having turned both windcombs into a drifting, horrible hulk of mangled metal.

Philetus breathed deeply and allowed himself a moment to calm down. He sat down on the deck, watching the skyline turn a shade darker. The hazy fog lifted suddenly; he could now see the Tower in the distance. It was strange how close to home everything had transpired; if it wasn’t for the fog someone might have already seen what happened. The thought made him frown pensively.

The machines. The machines want me dead. They know.

Perspiration formed on his head. He was really worried now; because if the machines knew what he had in mind for them and their benevolent planning for mankind, that meant they knew about Heraclea.

He felt the wind change; he jibbed the sail immediately and came abeam. He knew of no better way to reach home as fast as possible.

I must make it in time. If they so much as touch her..

He’d claw his way into the Tower if he had to. He’d stop at nothing, that much was certain in his mind. They would probably kill him easily, but living on would be pointless without Hera in any case. Without her smile, her kisses and her laughter.

I’ll kill myself if they don’t first. But please, let her be home.

He saw then from afar the line of birches he’d planted himself; right next to them, the small orchard, the trees laden with fruit. The small-domed house with the aetrium and the flower garden; that was home. Out there, outside the city proper they had enjoyed peace, quiet and solitude. Heraclea was born in that house.

He skimmed the last few meters and tacked hard against the wind suddenly. The sail rocked, bobbed and turned before he pressed the panel and shut down the antigravity field. The sail came down hard on the ground and skidded for a few moments, throwing up billows of dirt in its wake.

Before it had come to a stop, Philetus was already dashing to the door.

It will be alright. They’ll be fine. They’re fine.

He saw Penthesileia then. She was standing outside, looking at the star set with a vacant stare, her form stuck as if waiting for someone. She saw Philetus then and turned to him; she took no step closer. She waited, her hands clasped together solemnly. Her face was pale, her mouth half-open as if she had no words for what she meant to say. Philetus saw her and somehow knew.

No. No. It’s not true.

He stood in front of her, his face reddened, flush from the anguish and the exertion. He told her out of breath:

“Where is Hera?”

Penthesileia shook her head without saying a word. She looked at him morosely, her stare a deathly gaze, sombre and foreboding.

“No.”

She broke down in tears suddenly and threw her body against his, her knees weak.

“They came. They knew,” she managed to croak amidst sobs and cries.

“She’s in the Tower then,” said Philetus, shooting the imposing tower behind him a desperate look.

“Philetus, there’s no hope. We need to leave while we still can.”

Her words stung him like an electric shock. He stared at her with the eyes of a blind man seeing the light of day for the first time in his life.

“Leave?”

It sounded as if he had never heard the word before, his mouth contorting as he spoke the word.

Penthesileia took his hands in hers affectionately, craned her neck and looked at him lovingly. A film of tears in her eyes reflected the first rays of starlight as the night settled in.

“There’s just us now, Philetus. We can always try again, someplace far away. Vanish.”

“Leave her? Leave Heraclea to them? Are you insane?” shouted Philetus flinging her arms away from his violently. Anger overtook him. She took a hesitant step back. Her brow was furrowed, her face drawn out, taut.

“It was your fault, not mine,” she said bitterly.

Philetus was stunned for a moment; he opened his mouth, tried to retort but couldn’t find the words. Penthesileia went on.

“It was your fault from the beginning. Your wild ideas, your strange beliefs. Why couldn’t we have a normal life? Why did we have to be outcasts? Did I have to give birth to an unlawful child only to lose her a few years later? What kind of sacrifice did you ask of me, Philetus?”

His eyes stared at her vacantly for a moment. He tried to think clearly but he felt his blood boiling, his heart pumping wildly.

“I asked of you to love me. Me and our child. I’d let them slave me, space me, turn me into fertilizer before they could have her! Why didn’t you?”

“What use would that have been? Don’t be stupid, Philetus! She’s gone, why can’t you understand that?”

“My daughter is in that Tower, damn you!” he said, and strolled off back towards his sail.

“Where are you going?”

“I can’t believe you’re asking me that question,” replied Philetus without stopping, his back rigidly facing Penthesileia.

Father, he heard a voice in his mind. He recognised it; it was the strained voice of Heraclea. He hesitated, paused in his stride

“No, you will not,” said Penthesileia and unfolded a small gun from her robes.

Father, watch out!

The voice urged him; it was as if a divine breath of wind had whispered in his ear. He knew his daughter was alive then; his body moved almost of its own accord and the first shot missed him only barely.

He then ducked as if the sail’s boom was going to hit him in the head; the second shot missed his head by a few inches.

And then he dived towards Penthesileia with all his might. He could see her face frozen in disbelief and worry; he couldn’t see his own, the flustered face of a maniac baring his teeth with an angry scream like a howl.

Philetus dropped her on the ground and another shot went flying wildly into the air. He fell on top of her, placing his weight against her. It was a familiar face on that woman, and a familiar scene to Philetus; but this wasn’t about lovemaking.

He bit her arm hard, his teeth sinking in her flesh with some effort. She screamed and the gun left her hand. She tried to force him off her, but simply couldn’t. Philetus saw her face closely then, he saw the malevolence that tormented it. He saw her anger, her hate. He knew for certain then; nothing remained of his wife in that woman.

She spat him in the face and her mouth twitched into an impossibly wide grin. Philetus placed his hands around her throat with sympathy, as if doing her a favor.

“You just had to have it your way,” she said with derision.

He blinked, nodded and pressed hard. Her breathing became a shallow whisper soon. She fought reflexively, trying to take his hands off her throat, but it was futile.

Philetus pressed on with all his might; he felt her windpipe crumble. He saw her eyes roll back; nothing but the white in them. She twitched slightly and a mute roar left her. She was dead.

I killed her. I killed Penthesileia.

That’s not mother, said the voice of Heraclea in his head.

“I know love. I fear it wouldn’t make a difference,” said Philetus and stifled a sob before he added with some effort, “I’m coming, Hera. Hang on love.”

The house then dissolved in rainbow-coloured flashing blocks that quickly dissappeared, leaving nothing but a black void in their place. The same thing happened to everything around him, the effect spreading like wildfire. The ground, the sky, the horizon; everything around him flashed into oblivion; the Tower was the last one to go.

A moment of nothingness ensued. He felt a moment of panic; he had to make sure he could think.

Am I alive yet?

He felt the opening of his eyes, but saw abrupt blackness. In a jarring moment of waking terror he felt his lungs ache from the breathing and his heart racing at an exploding pace.

He threw himself upwards, as if trying to leap into flight without a pair of wings, sheer willpower driving him. He felt a series of sharp pains running down his spine as he sat almost upright. A terrible headache assaulted him, like hammers pounding away at his brain with every heartbeat.

He glanced around, blinking his eyes wildly; his vision soon adjusted to the dim ambient light of indicator panel arrays, front and behind. There were naked people all around him, lying down on their backs in a bed much like his own, seemingly sleeping comfortably. People of all ages and gender, carefully arrayed, almost crammed together. Cables ran down from the beds and disappeared in a snake-like fashion into crevices and shafts built along the floor.

Slaved, all of them.

He felt a trickle running down his backside; he put a hand there and felt something warm. He saw blood smeared in his hand; he looked at the bed were he was lying. There was a series of thin spikes that protruded a couple of inches from the bed, where his spine would have rested.

I was slaved. In the tower.

He backtracked his thoughts for a moment; he remembered killing Penthesileia, escaping the windcombs. He remembered Sustar and the machine on board the Hyperion. And he remembered Hera, talking to him in that living nightmare.

Then he heard her voice again and shivered:

Father, hurry. They know. They’re coming.

 

 

 

The Tower

 

 

 

It was Hera. He couldn’t understand how she had spoken to him in his mind, but she had. It was her and he hoped with all the might of his soul that it wasn’t another dream that would turn into a nightmare; he had no real way of knowing though. He simply believed with his very being that what was happening was real; as real as it mattered to him anyway.

A small elevated gangway seemed to vanish into a curve in front of him. The multicoloured feckles of light from the indicator panels gave the chamber an eerily playful visage.

She must be somewhere around here.

He started at an easy pace, walking amidst the arrays of beds and slaved people; he wished he could help them at that time, but Hera came first. One by one, he checked the beds as far as he could see in the abysmal lighting. Not a sign of her.

The top of the Tower, father.

Her voice again; she was guiding him, as if she knew. As if she could see through his own eyes.

She’s reading my mind.

He stood dumbfounded for a moment when he heard her clear as day answer in his mind:

I am, father. Now please, hurry!

He tarried not a moment longer; he followed the curved gangway at a jogging pace. He could feel the metal grid press hard against his naked feet, but it didn’t slow him down at all. He simply went on and soon he was running.

The metal gangway led him slowly upwards as it rose in a helix overlooking the chamber of slaved people. He could barely see in front of him; the only source of illumination were the panels from below.

The gangway went on, thinning and widening seemingly at random. Around him darkness seemed to wane a little; he looked up and saw a pale light shimmering from above. He ventured a glance down and hadn’t realised he’d ran this fast this far up; around a hundred feet or more. A drop would surely kill him.

Are you scared, father?

Hera’s question had a tint of playful, happier times in it. He remembered how much she loved groundsailing and smiled as he ran onwards, further up.

No, Hera. Neither should you be.

Mother said that too but she’s dead now.

The bastards killed her.

You did, father. I saw it.

No, no, Hera that was just a dream. Only a dream, dear.

Like this one then?

What?

The Tower and everything around him folded into a thin line of blackness in front of him; pure white engulfed him everywhere he looked. The gangway in the shape of a helix stretched, unfolded into the shape of a ladder. He was floating in a space that had no certain depth, no valid, certain number of dimensions.

What is this? Hera?

He heard his thoughts aloud. He was thinking, but he heard his own voice. But he wasn’t speaking, he wasn’t moving his mouth. He instinctively reached for his mouth with his palms. He saw his hands; they clearly belonged to someone else.

This is just another dream of mine, father. Isn’t it fun?

The gangway changed into a rope ladder with flower buds springing from every knot. The white space around him whirled into nothingness and then back into a syrupy sea the color of white. Philetus thought he could taste strawberries.

Fun? What is this? What’s going on?

He tried to pear through a multitude of veils that suddenly covered him like warm blankets. He tossed and turned, with every drifting veil a flash of wonderful starscapes flying past. He suddenly sensed he was falling from somewhere high above; he landed on top of a giant flower bed, submerged in what appeared to be pollen. He started sinking into thick, honey-like mud, his mind bogging down in the process.

I’m dreaming father. I’m dreaming of the future.

Her voice was carried along a tune, a melody he had never heard before. It assaulted his mind, fading in from an unknown background into a blasting torrent of sound.

Choose father, you have to choose.

He saw the star as it had been when the tower was built. Hotter, brighter, younger; a lot younger. He saw the men who had built the tower and laughed thinking that they were ordinary men and women, just like him. Only they seemed happier; they smiled a lot. They were celebrating something and the Tower was lit with thousands, no, millions of lights shining upon it. He saw a foetus; for a moment it looked strange, mysterious. He then heard cries. It was a birth.

It was Hera’s birth.

Am I still slaved? Hera?

Penthesileia was standing right by him. She had a cup of steaming tea in one hand and was looking worried.

“Is something wrong?” she said, and looked at him intently.

Philetus turned around and saw the house he had been living in. Only it was another time and place entirely. His love, Penthesileia, wasn’t the woman he had known all along. He knew he’d known her and loved her half of his living days, but he could swear it was the first time he was seeing her face. And the star, the star was all wrong. It was too yellow, too hot; it was too warm for comfort.

Hera? Am I still slaved? Hera?

I’ll show you, father.

He saw a past he’d carried along with him all the time; he saw suddenly the truth of it all. He saw the desperation in their eyes, he saw the bloodletting and a beautiful blue and green planet dying, all in one terrible moment, all drawn on a child’s face somewhere in a lush, water-rich desert. He saw his race dying, slowly but surely. Just as he believed the machines had forced them to.

He understood. He blamed the machines no more. They would have done the same. He would have done the same.

What more could they do? But look at me now! I can do anything, father! I’m one of them!

A flash of memory shook him to the core.

Remember whom you love the most.

He saw himself open his eyes from outside his body; he was inside a large conical room, a huge amorphous crystal spike protruding from the center, reaching up well beyond what seemed to be the very top of the Tower. Hera was sitting on an elaborate sort of chair, her eyes closed as if she were sleeping. Thousands of needles stuck out of her body, leading into a mass of delicately woven wires, cables and fibres. They were connected by a myriad of ways with two separate stacks of huge blueish cubes, radiating some sort of pulsating light. Those were in turn connected to the crystal spike through a series of machines completely unknown to Philetus.

Remember whom you love the most.

Is it time yet?

A cruel metallic voice.

Father, I’m scared.

Hera, his daughter.

Remember whom you love the most. Me, my voice, my mind. I must remember.

Soon, the alignment will be finalised. We’ll then be able to transmit.

The voice of a thinking, lifeless machine.

What of the humans now?

That metallic voice again, an almost grinding noise.

Father, I want to go home.

It’s Hera. It’s not her fault, he knows that. It’s his own fault. It always really was his own.

Indifferent. Our new hosts will provide us with immortality. When we meet again, we will be Gods indeed.

That absolutely soulless voice bore through his soul like chiseled ice.

Father, please.

He thought he could hear her crying out with all her might; but there wasn’t any other sound than the voices of the machines.

What of the traitor?

They were having a discussion while all the while, time had essentially stopped and he was caught in a bubble of still time.

Merely a failure. A cognitive disorder. An amusing term, ‘traitor’. As irreverent as the humans he came to love.

And he could listen in. Somehow, he knew their thoughts. And the pain, the anguish. It was Hera.

Please, father.

Her voice became a faint echo. She was drifting away into oblivion.

What about the child’s father now?

He felt unseen eyes peek at his soul, invisible hands touch the fabric of his being. He felt his mind was being pried open.

Nothing. Useless.

A voice came from within his own mind, a voice filled with a memory and desire, a hatred and a passion that burned deeply:

Remember whom you love the most.

Philetus remembered and that snapped him out of his body’s stupor; he flexed his muscles and felt his breath. He knew everything that he needed to at once. Hera had told him. He knew he had to stop them.

He remembered he loved Hera the most.

He was indeed on top of the Tower. He didn’t know how he had gotten there through all the telepathic crossover between them and Hera. They abused her like another one of their devices. No more.

Father, please. They’re coming, hurry.

He hesitated for a moment; that only brought a tear to his eyes because it only made his choice so much more difficult because there was little precious time. Because this was his daughter, Hera.

Please, no. There has to be some other way, he thought to himself but he knew better.

He shook his head and took a few more steps closer to Hera. He wiped his palms against the hair on his legs and started crying. He only then noticed there was no other sound than a low humming noise and the shallow breathing of Hera.

He placed his hands against Hera’s slender throat and squeezed.

He wasn’t looking at her. He couldn’t bare look at her. A health panel lit up and voiced a warning.

Philetus pressed harder, his knuckles going white. He felt Hera tense and wake up suddenly. Her hand searched for his cheek, but he turned it away. He felt her eyes, tiny sparkles of gentle light upon him but he couldn’t help looking at his daughter.

He started whimpering uncontrollably while the health panel flashed red and sounded an alarm. At the same moment a flurry of activity around him went unnoticed. A piercing alarm began to wail. Automatic controls and screens lit up suddenly; they started displaying innumerous messages, containing something about a large incoming orbital body on a direct collision course.

The defense systems had failed to come online, and Hera had stopped trying to breathe; she had a knowing look on her face and tears running down her cheeks, dripping on her fathers hands still tightly clutched around her throat.

He had trouble breathing; he screamed with all his might until his voice died out. He saw the red emergency panels flashing flat vital signs, and looked at the thousands of messages scrolling down the screens around him through blurry, hurt eyes. His mind couldn’t cope with it all, and gave up. All the screens became garbled with static before they turned white and black again. A simple “REST NOW” in huge flashing letters began to endlessly scroll down on every screen. Beyond the screens, through the slim viewport, one could see the Hyperion was already falling through the atmosphere, whole miles of metal burning up beyond their limits; a bright, shiny star like never before. It was headed straight for the Tower.

He remembered he loved his daughter, Heraclea. Amidst all the buzzing cacophony of alarms and warnings, he pulled out the needles from Hera’s body, slowly at first, then faster and faster until none remained. He took her on his arms and trembling set her down on the cold indifferent floor.

He kissed her gently on the forehead, feeling his dried tears on her still warm body. His thoughts drifted back when Hera was still a toddler, when she had first seen a groundship; their groundship.

His mouth tried to form a smile when he thought about that day. He’d asked her to tell her what the name of the ship was, and she’d blurted with hands thrown up in the air and a smile brighter than a million stars:

“Agro!”

Penthesileia had laughed her heart out before she took her in her arms and told her like only a mother can:

“Argo, silly! Argo!”


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