Image Credit: Adapted from Tunaolger (Pixabay, Pixabay License)
Image Description: Maren’s Vein does its work
By Matthew Kilburn
Sister Peren had thought sticking a needle into her arm in front of her elders, and their patient, was a sign of acceptance of and dedication to their cause. Centuries later, she recalled the gesture as one might the foolhardiness of one’s adolescent self – and for a sister of Karn, adolescences were many and protracted.
“Not to the same extent as suffered by our sisters and brothers of Gallifrey, Sister Peren.” Daughter Elsiyan was sitting on the stone floor at Peren’s feet, her knees drawn up under her chin and her arms wrapped around her shins; wide eyes betraying a little too much self-satisfaction.
“Total physical transformation lays out the renewed soul as if on a bier, naked before all, so they can contemplate its flaws. Our paths in the Sisterhood appear to be set smooth and unchanging, but hidden currents can leave potholes in what seemed the most solid of roads.”
Elsiyan smiled softly, as if she didn’t need to reflect – only to display a modicum of awe at the sister’s wisdom. She raised a thimble in her left fingers and drank a very small amount of liquid from it. Too much of the Elixir of Life, too soon, could leave the barely initiated in a catatonic state for centuries. Elsiyan enjoyed being conscious too much for that.
“On the subject of physical transformation ‒”
“Yes. The Warrior.”
Peren’s preparation had taken weeks, but that was a brief space in the lives of the Sisterhood of Karn. She had undertaken prescribed periods of solitary meditation between episodes of collective ritual dance in which she was sometimes a participant and sometimes the focus of the chants of others. Telepathic signals echoed from her unconscious into her conscious thoughts, deconstructing her motives, and forcing her to compose and recompose her sense of self. All the sisters would participate in the physical and psychological recreation of the Warrior.
Peren was fed, too. There were river weeds rich in proteins which fried well with a cheese made from the milk of a common arbivore which was rich in fatty acids. A beverage distilled from plentiful mosses and a choice grain was pungent and intoxicating, but would, perhaps unexpectedly, enhance her liver and kidney functions beyond the point where the Elixir of Life would normally have maintained them. Some fruits grown in orchards watered from springs in the range which was home to the Elixir had properties which encouraged cell division in animals. Peren ate more of these than would have been usual. She exercised rigorously to avoid a gain in weight. The diet would continue in an amended form in the coming ordeal; this regime was to acclimatize her body.
While she rested, prayed, ran and fed and lifted weights and dined, she also made visits to the Warrior. She watched as holes were drilled in his carapace and new chemicals introduced into his circulatory system. A natural compound in a cereal which grew freely in the tropics of Karn proved adept at mimicking the artificial nucleic acid which bound the Warrior’s organic and pseudo-organic cells, while at the same time sabotaging them in the interests of the cell cultures nurtured using Peren’s tissues. As the Warrior’s cells renewed themselves, they should eliminate the Cybermen’s biotechnology and replace it with human DNA. Such was the theory.
She and the Warrior also talked.
Often he was close to insensible. Electronic tones issued from his mouth. She was not sure whether she discerned or imagined a battle between harsh flat growls and gentler, reflective hums. She talked of seeing soldiers as a girl, of the lands from which they’d returned, and once received a few notes of ‘God save the Queen’ in reply. Other times he might drift into a disquisition on algebra, gently complain about his daughter’s school fees, or talk about the existential threat caused to the Earth by one adversary in particular, and how he wished they had not escaped imprisonment.
Day by day, the Warrior’s shell became more fragile. Sections would crack and be assessed by specialist sisters. Others would arrive with tools and remove panels, then prod with instruments. There might be a fountain of blue-green liquid, and its source would be tied and padded. Increasingly, though, there would be trickles of dark red blood. Eventually, Peren joined an inspection of a particularly resistant wound.
Sister Eteda was the senior surgeon. She showed Peren the new arteries and veins growing through the flesh which filled the spaces between minerals and polymers, and where the new circulatory system was haemorrhaging, badly. Deterioration elsewhere showed that the Cyberman haemolymphatic network was failing earlier than anticipated.
The lecture concluded with Eteda looking at Peren. It was time. So Peren left and prayed for an hour in her cell.
When Peren returned, she found even more panels had been removed from the Warrior’s shell. Gauze, some of which was stained in ambivalent pinks and yellows, protected the otherwise vulnerable interior. Fibres ran from apertures in the Warrior’s body, climbing from his bier onto a complex frame of thin wood which spread around and beyond him in three dimensions, converging on a fleshy mass hanging at the edge of the scaffolding. Further threads ran from the mass towards a bier placed parallel to but about three feet from the Warrior’s.
Peren shed her outer robe and let her fellow-sisters carry it away. She took her place on the empty bier, clad only in a grey shift of sturdy fabric which left her arms bare.
The grafts began on her arms. Maren’s Vein was a domesticated entity, neither plant nor animal nor fungus in earthly terms, but selectively cultivated to enable the transfusion of bodily fluids. It was a tame parasite whose branches could mimic the biology of its host. Its fleshy body digested a proportion of what was circulated through it, the unevacuated waste, and sent purified blood back into the host’s system. It recognised the genetic code of its host. Here, Peren would act as a point of comparison, a pattern by which the Vein would recognise what was human and what was not; and Peren, for all her extended lifespan and mutated genes, was still more human than anyone else on Karn.
As fibres – branches, stems, roots, mycelia, call them what one might – clung to Peren’s body and mingled with her arterioles and capillaries, other sisters extended the lattice over several days until it formed two thirds of a sphere, sheltering Peren and the Warrior as the Vein spread across it and between the two. Behind them a vast circular device of cogs and wheels turned. This was the regulator, ensuring that the heart of Maren’s Vein beat in time.
Blood fed into blood. Sisters visited Peren regularly andfed her, cleaned her, changed her, wrapped and unwrapped what they could of her body; all the while avoiding the strands which fed and fed from her arms and neck and upper torso and thighs. Always, though, the sisters sang; chants of ancient springs and green shoots, of trees that would never die and mountains that would never fall.
Peren sang with her mind and those of the other sisters; and she dreamed. She was a little girl amidst the smoke and dirt again; but now and then she caught glimpses of a clean, well-dressed boy, clearly wealthier than anyone in her street could be. She tried to follow him, but he disappeared behind walls which rose from nowhere, or under carts which he shouldn’t have been able to fit beneath. Suddenly, they were alone in a back street.
“Aaright, lad?” she asked by way of greeting. “I’m Sal.” She held out her hand, but the boy did nothing. Then, she saw that his face was made from polished steel.
Then she was in a void where there was nothing but alarm and fear, just like she remembered from distant childhood dreams. It was still ringing in her chest when the darkness opened into a roomful of boys; they were all wearing silver armour. She was a boy too; and a man stood over her grasping a cane tightly. He let it swing towards her, and just as it was going to hit –
– she was in a dark room, walls covered with red cloth, comforting but dangerous scents of fine tobacco and spirits in the air.
“Jock! Jock –“ the second name’s many syllables were muffled by blankets over her dream-ears. She went towards the voice. A tall, broad-shouldered young man in a dust-green jacket was trying to get her attention. Except she was also a man.
“Jock, my fine fellow. Chap here wants to meet you. Says he’s come with orders.” The young army officer brought his brandy to his lips, and another figure at the bar turned to face Peren –
– it was a Cyberman.
“You will be like us.”
Peren doubled forward in pain, but a gun was in her hand and she fell only to somersault over the gun – long, heavy, loaded – and turn behind it to lift it and fire away at, well, three or four very large dogs, on their hind legs, with very heavy shaggy and matted coats. They reminded her of dogs she’d befriended at home, before work and phossy jaw and the sisters. Why should she want to kill them? But every soldier around her whom a dog reached and licked, fell.
“Bad dog,” she said; but it was a man’s voice, a posh feller’s who spent all his time in London on business. I’ll tell me mam that later, she thought detachedly. How did she get to sound like that?
The largest dog reached her and rolled over. She rubbed its tummy, but its eyes became bright lights and it roared a sound like skin and fat and muscle caught in a factory machine –
– and she was in church. Or the Warrior was. They were the same; and were the only human in a congregation of gargoyles. She’d seen gargoyles at church. Father John had been given money by an admirer to repair one of the walls and the builder had added gargoyles at the top of each drain. They weren’t very frightening – twee, if she’d known the word then. So she wasn’t disturbed at all.
Then she noticed that all the gargoyles were made of metal. They stood and turned and marched towards her as a priestess implored her congregation to say something nice. Perhaps ‘woman priest’ was more accurate. The Church of England didn’t have women priests in her time, but she’d gathered from reconnaissance intelligence that they did at some point in the Warrior’s.
She raised her gun. Five rounds rapid, she thought; a comforting phrase, familiar, though it was new to her. They were the Warrior’s words.
She fired; and the metal gargoyles froze. The priestess flew up from the altar, screaming, and bore down on Peren, who ducked and fell downwards –
‒ and now she felt the identity of the Warrior weighing on her more than ever. Heavy in spirit and form, haunted by the frailty of a physical body from which he had become detached, seated in a long white room at a long white desk. On the other side, in her short jacket and billowing skirt, was the priestess, smiling over a sheaf of paper.
“You were so very unusual, I thought I’d deal with your case myself.” The priestess spoke in a sharply sing-song accent, which reminded her of light-voiced sailors hailing from a large port a couple of hundred miles north of her home city.
“I hope you have better luck than I did when dealing with yours,” the Warrior retorted. His was a deep voice rounded with the assurances of years of command and a knowledge of just how oats, peas, beans and barley grow, and how to eat and (where possible) drink them.
The priestess looked for a brief moment as though she had indigestion. Then, with the discontinuity of dreams, she did not. Her smile was the sweetest, her voice tart. “My, you are a very clever old soldier boy, aren’t you?” She left her chair to half-climb on the table, one knee resting on its edge, two hands bearing her weight, eyes above the Warrior who avoided staring at her chest, just.
“It’s not difficult. This afterlife is a touch too theatrical for me. Better to be greeted to the hereafter by someone more practical. You aren’t expecting” – pause, emphasis – “him for a while, I take it?”
The priestess purred. “Our mutual friend.” This, then, was the Adversary, about whom Peren had been warned. A being of many faces, like all the Time Lords. The Warrior had not met this face before, but still he knew her. “No. I thought I’d keep all this ‒“ she fell back and gestured grandly around her “‒ just between ourselves.” Peren had the fleeting impression of being surrounded by the densest black, a gloom broken by minuscule flashes of light as if a million matches were being struck not quite at once, and then she was the Warrior again, sitting before the Adversary.
The Adversary was making an offer. “Haven’t you felt… left behind for so much of your life? Especially once…?” She batted her eyelashes in mock flirtation. “He doesn’t really care about your planet of little pets, you know. I’ll teach him that eventually.”
“I’m sorry to disappoint you,” the Warrior replied blithely. “I have felt entirely on board with the many journeys I’ve taken in life.”
“But what about death? I am offering you an all expenses paid… upgrade, I think the young people say these days. Back to life in an exciting new and invulnerable form.”
“Who are you doing business with these days? The Daleks? The Cybermen? I don’t think invulnerable matches either of them in my experience. Difficult to kill, certainly, but not impossible. And besides, I have been prepared for death for a long time. This scenario is a surprising and unwelcome diversion. So I’ll decline.”
This all had the character of compressed memory rather than dream. Peren felt fear, dislike, a little attraction, but a surprising amount of compassion for the Adversary.
“What a pity. I thought I’d give him a little treat. His old faithful pal” – she made a little growl – “in a tin box.”
“My instructions were for a wicker coffin. More environmentally sound.”
“Pathetic. He really did remake you in his own image, didn’t he?” Pause. A sideways glance, flicker of the finger beneath her chin. “Just one more thing.” The Adversary lunged forward again and spoke with measured force while staring intently into the Warrior’s – Peren’s – eyes. “I am” – dream-deafness muffled for a moment what the Adversary actually called herself – “and you will obey me! Obey me! Obey – “ and she stopped. “Oh, that really doesn’t work, does it?”
“Still, nothing ventured.”
The Warrior sighed. “I’m calling an end to this briefing. I thought I’d endured all the tedium of unwanted lectures at Sandhurst, but evidently not. Oblivion is welcome.”
“Suit yourself.” The Adversary stood up, made a show of brushing dust from her dress, and brandished a bulky hand-held device. “Time to go. Say something – no, hold on. It’d be more fun to have you around. I intend to humiliate you-know-who every so often by reintroducing him to his little friends in their new shiny suits. I’ll just put you to sleep, and wake you when it’s time. You’ve done a lot of blowing things up, haven’t you? Your future won’t disappoint. It involves a great big – but why don’t you jump straight there? Bye!” She tapped the device.
The Warrior was suddenly wet and cold in the dark, flying above the clouds, surrounded by Cybermen. He tried to fly away, but there were more and more of them. There was a silver about the clouds, he realised, and then it struck him – they were Cybermen too. All the stars above him, Cybermen. He thrust his arms forward – the arms of Cybermen. With this realisation a great shout rocked his skull, trying to crush his thought – a pulse of obsession; of uniformity; of a machine population in untroubled harmony; cold in feeling and purpose. This was not who he was. Something soared in his chest and exploded. The great cry faded into a distant wail, and was gone.
My daughter. Where is my daughter? There were too many Cybermen between him and the ground. Where was she? Was he too late? He began to fly downwards, feeling the pull of the Earth’s gravity, but he couldn’t see the world itself, just metal people layered upon metal people arranged in formation; united for a purpose from which he was excluded. They went on forever, treating him as irrelevant, rejected, falling as tinfoil is thrown into a rubbish bin, falling…
Peren awoke screaming and gasping for air, turning her head. Next to her the core tuber of Maren’s Vein was heavy; black; swelling too quickly. She focused on filigree patterns emerging within it. They were white and green and red and silver.
“This ends now.” It was Sister Mehila.
“For now,” choked Peren. The sisters swarmed around her, tearing off fronds turned metallic; pouring unguents on Peren’s flesh; kneading hurriedly through gathered-up robes. Peren breathed rapidly and then slowly, steadily. There was a chilling metallic taste on her dry lips.
“Drink.” A sister thrust a bowl at her lips. “Pray this kills them.”
The Cyber-particles present in the Warrior had evolved, Peren knew from sharing her sisters’ thoughts. She gulped down the liquid – surprisingly pleasant, a tea that tasted of strawberries – and forced herself up, to look beyond the core tuber, past the latticework creaking under the swollen rotting Vein, across to the Warrior. There was confused motion. Sisters shouting, falling, as a mass of blackened armour and raw flesh groaned its way past them and stumbled out into a dark night.
“I’ll find him,” Peren determined. The metallic taste had already cleared from her mouth.
“You’ll do no such thing. We’ll hunt him down together.”
“Sister Mehila,” a low voice said. It was a small but persistent sister, Sister Iligaba. “I request that we follow the full execution ritual, as undertaken at the fall of Morbius.”
A chant began, as if from deep within the mountain, full of resolve and blood.
“No!” Mother Ohila appeared from the direction in which the Warrior had disappeared. There was a murmur from the sisters. Her outer robes were gone, and she wore only a thin undergarment. “He is not a criminal.”
Sisters began to disrobe, to clothe their leader, but Ohila dismissed them with a glance.
Mehila expressed their shared fear, though she and her sisters already knew the shape of Ohila’s answer. “He brings technology to Karn that endangers our sisterhood. That technology has already tried to control ours once. It will do so again.”
“A false assumption. The Warrior is not a Cyberman. We have made his body inhospitable for Cyber-technology. It could only renew itself in another living thing, and that way has been closed by our rapid action.” She still held her staff, and tapped it on the chamber’s rock floor. “I have robed him as our brother.”
The sisters gasped, some more than others. Shared minds did not mean uniformity of thought.
Ohila tapped again. “He must decide where his own path will lead him. Sister Peren can help him, but she must find him. That is her quest, and hers alone among the Sisterhood. I forbid her the use of telekinesis. Our brother must be met on his own terms.”
Peren rose to her feet. Her sisters wrapped her in blankets and a ceremonial cowl.
“The briefest of renewal ceremonies,” prescribed Ohila. “Then it will be dawn, and we will send her into the day. May the light guide her.”
“Perhaps the Warrior will already be dead?” Sister Iligaba had not given up hope.
Peren stood barefoot in the purged remnants of the Vein, a sweet smell rising from the polluted fibres. “No,” replied Peren, her face fixed. “He won’t be. I know.” And with that she let herself be guided to the great baths.
“Did anyone learn anything from that episode?” Elsyian had evidently decided the answer.
Peren sometimes regretted a youth so arrogant had been admitted as a sister.
Elsyian offered an observation. “I don’t expect that experiment has been tried again. I suppose you were sent on a long walk as a penance, collected the Warrior’s remains and sold the metal bits for scrap.”
Peren shared her mind with Elsyian, who cried out, trembled, and began to sob. “I’m sorry,” the daughter ventured a little later.
“A little empathy goes a long way.”
Elsyian bit her lip, her eyes closed, her voice trembling but defiant. “I thought I had the time to learn lessons.”
“We don’t know that we have yet, do we?”
“Decide for yourself. And he wasn’t dead.”
“But that is for another time.”
Elsyian stood to go, but she disappeared before she could say another word. Sister Elinen was an impatient dance teacher with the minds of a class at her command.
Peren contemplated a shelf in her cell. Next to a spinning top and the model of a sailing ship, was an empty wine glass.
“Sauvignon Blanc, 2011.”
Next: The Doubtful Guest
Tides 47 is, at time of publication, available to buy through this link