Duel in the Magnetic Night



Version (abridged, spelling corrected) definitive 29/10/ 2004


A handful of men roaming in the cosmos discover Alterra, a world astoundingly welcoming. They settle in the most favourable part of a unique continent.
So as not to put the biologic balance of Alterra in peril it is forbidden colonize the other territories. However as the population grows clandestine emigrants, who ignore this ruling, increase numerously. The borders are finally closed by the military.


Vena, a young noble woman, must leave the heedless world of youth in order to fight at the border. Inexperienced and in the hostile solitude of the mountain agitated by dangerous volcanic phenomena, she confronts the Lone One, an infallible and determined enemy.

Chapter 1

   The multicoloured ball bounced in the grass, then rolled just to Vena’s feet. She was a gracious young woman, with a lithe, agile body and the rosy smile of the youth. She had just emerged from childhood.
   Her hair, a glossy luxuriant brown, reaches to her shoulders. It framed a multi-race face of regular features around whose perpetually moving mouth a smile played.
   She was ‘Daughter of the Miracle’, descended directly from one of the first colonists to arrive on Alterra. She was married to a quiet young man from the house of Feir that she had known forever, and whom she thought she loved.
   For the moment, she was watching over a group of young children in the park. On the night-blue cloth of her dress, lively dragonflies, flashing scarabs, swirling butterflies pirouetting like the dreams of teenagers, all embroidered with fine metallic threads. The sun speckled the garden through the antlers of the cedars in brassy bursts, and into this ephemeral Eden of laughing children, like thunder, the Duty landed.


   The deadening howl of a flying motorcycle in approach could be heard, ridden by a Drovak covered in greasy stains. The mechanical humanoid adroitly operated the contraption. He finishes his descent stabilizing a short second some feet above the ground, the powerful jet of the thrusters tearing clods of earth up and charring the grass. Then agilely he landed on the ground, to the strident background noise of a turbine under maximum power.
   The Drovak stank of cordite and the sulphurous atmosphere of the border. On his chest he carried the red triangle indicating his adherence to the forces of the Alpha base, which was situated in the big central massif of Alterra.
   With rapid strides the Drovak approached her. He had been sent to guard her and expressed himself in a characteristic monotone.
   ‘Drovak G-131 of-the-section-Emerald-of-the-Alpha-base. Hello-to-you, oh-Daughter-of-the-Miracle, Vena-of-the-house-of-Ur. Hear-by-my-voice-the-death-of-Nal, of-the-house-of-Feir, your-spouse. Receive, in-these-tragic-circumstances, the-sincere-pain-and-the-complete-support-of-his-companions, who-are-now-yours.’
   Vena neither moved, nor said a word. A strange wave ran through her, and for a brief instant, every sprig of tender grass transformed into cutting bayonets, bloodied with excrement.
  Nal would never leave those cursed mountains? …And by the Law of the Sons: being the nearest relative of the deceased she must replace him, and immediately. She had been hurriedly, militarily, trained with a view to this improbability, and the Drovak was there, who waited for her.


   ‘I await you, oh Vena,’ continued the machine after the protocol.
   ‘Give me ten minutes,’ she answered. ‘I will change and make my goodbyes.’
   Floating in an unhealthy drunkenness she crossed the garden and reached her room. Her blue dress like the slippery night of her being was abandoned dead on the carpet.
   Never would she have believed that she would be putting her hand so quickly again on her coarse, dark pilot combination … she was ready in the twinkle of an eye. Of all her jewellery she kept only the "Canopic Wings of Fire" around her neck, her talisman.
   Her parents were absent occupied with their business. The housekeeper waited for her on the threshold of the room. She threw herself into the arm of the old man.
    ‘Tell my father. … my mother …’, but the words didn't come.
    ‘Do not fear, I will find some appropriate goodbyes to transmit to them. We wait your return.’
   After a moment, she turned her back and moved away, with second sight she knew with certainty that all had already changed.


   ‘Children! Move away! Don't touch the contraption!’ a nurse gesticulated as she shouted.
   Vena opened the saddlebag to the rear of the flying machine, seized a helmet and pulled it on. She mounted behind the Drovak.
   ‘Let’s go!’ Vena said in an authoritative tone.
   Everybody was now a good distance away and Drovak G-131 started the engine. The spectators all moved further back in a confused rush all the while plugging their ears. Vena clamped herself firmly to the rugged size of the android. The machine rose gently from the ground. The enormity of noise bored into the skulls.
   The machine found its course and, gently, acquired altitude. Vena had time to see a little of the beautiful city from on high, with its irrigation channels, markets gardens, and acres of pale yellow roofs. A band of flaming roses disturbed by their passage shaved the glimmering water.
   Three minutes later the machine reached the track occupied by the Silbertina. The dirigible joined together the far-flung cities of the First Country. It was stretched out, immobile, blazing like a silver bubble temporarily attached to the surface of the earth.
   The Drovak brought the bike down close to it.
   ‘Here-is-your-order-of-Mission,’ he said passing a small rigid card to Vena.
   ‘Received,’ she answered in the language that was now hers for the months to come.
Grasping her meagre kit bag she settled down in the Silbertina.
   When the hour of departure arrived, the shuttle rose in a breath of helium. Then it set off in the blue-tinted air its hull caressing the fluid exterior. In the whispering, windy altitudes Vena fell asleep.


   The feet of Rel, the childish feet of a ten year old, shuffled on the loose chippings of the road, weighted with tiredness.
   In the heavens unhealthy smells from the innards of the planet swirled. The snow, dirty from volcanic dust, was the result of an abrupt change of temperature. Vaporous stratums, part solid, part gaseous, appeared here and there obscuring the horizons, mixing solar clarity with the fluorescent gases.
   In this ambiance, neither day nor night, the family walked: mother, father, Rel, and his elder sister. In front a guide headed the march. It started to rain. A burning rain filled with the breath of hell: a shell of rain. With the strength of meteors, pellets of steel hailed down on Rel and his family. Every impact on the ground was a cataclysm. Waves of terrifying shock completely compressed the space and the instant after loosened, torn apart.
   Rel woke up sweating, his face stiff with fear, stomach hard like a fist. Ten years after the tragedy the same nightmare still gnawed at his nights.


   Seated on his berth, Rel breathed noisily. His painful eyes fixed upon the temporal window of the dream, open before him, mixing two realities during long seconds. The scene receded and became again the past. That day only the guide and himself had survived. The deaths had nothing to do with the hostility of nature, rather the border guards, those cursed Sons and their atrocious dogma…
   The Cult of the Virginity Of Alterra – what crap! As if this immense world was not able to welcome further population... These people were slaves to the memory of Earth, where large, wild spaces no longer existed. They carried this great need inside them, and hoped to impose it here, on Alterra.
   Those territories situated beyond the mountains, the Sons had declared them sacred, to be preserved from all consequent human occupation. But he, Rel, had explored them. He didn’t imagine that one day they could be completely covered with humanity, they were so vast… yes, immensely vast.
   The ban they established there, he felt it was a pretext by the Sons to control everything. They already occupied the First Country, the most beautiful and the most clement of all. What more did they need?
   Then, around him, it became calm: the familiar hideout, skilfully arranged in a crevice, served as a temporary shelter for the emigrants. At the base a hot water spring maintained the temperature between acceptable and tepid.
   It filled a small basin carved with furore in the rock. Everything from bathtub, fountain, or toilet it made the place favourable for rest and recuperation following the perilous journey. These days you only found a couple of emigrants and their guide.
Rel’s walker, some provisions, munitions and a change of clothes, occupied the remainder of the underground cave. The walker permitted them to traverse difficult terrain where classic wheeled vehicles were immobilized. Measuring about six meters high its long legs were, in all simplicity, the shape of inferior human limbs.
   The cerebral thorax at the top, representing both head and chest, sheltered the pilot’s cabin. On either side of the cabin, at shoulder level, were two mounting brackets. One was equipped with a manoeuvrable, versatile, mechanical arm; the other held a 37mm automatic cannon.
   The First Country of the Sons alone had the means to produce these machines. But it is classical to turn the enemy’s own weapons against them and Rel had at his disposal, a prize of war, an entirely rebuild walker. Not only rebuilt, but improved, some systems rethought. Because the Foresters, discreetly established beyond the massif, deserved their reputation of ingenuity. Their social structure produced a few small groups, very specialized, capable of producing of superior material, albeit only sparingly.
   The light filtered by the thick cloth of the door indicated to Rel that the time had come for a hunting party. He shook his still sleeping young second. Soon it would be necessary to prepare the walker.
   Rel descended from his converted corner, suspended against the rock face at the height of the armoured cabin of the machine. Below, he shared a burning brew with the other occupants of the shelter.
   They questioned him.
   ‘What is the best route to take? What do you counsel?’
   Rel went outside to smell the air. He observed the cloud formations and the suspended dusts.
   'Good, check your map; the weather will be clear, with ground activity unlikely, at least in this sector. I will cover your march during the daytime by closing these ways to the patrols of the Cursed.’ He took out a pencil and completed by hand a makeshift document.
   ‘Take this route and before nightfall you will be almost there, at the underground cave of Tantalus.’
   The guide, a doubt in his voice, asked, ‘In ten hours of marching?’
   ‘Eight maximum,’ said Rel clearly. ‘You will be travelling light, pointless to carry weapons since I will block the accesses.’
   Instantaneously all were relieved. The weapons, after several hours, weighed very heavily. But luck smiled on them. They could well see the first Wood of the day after tomorrow, by evening. The guide closed his eyes for a short instant at the sweetness of the picture…
   Rel however would not be returning there for a long time yet. The mountains held him prisoner by an invisible tie that he didn't try anymore to undo.
   With his young aide he prepared the walker with provisions for several days. Then settled into the cockpit and started it up. Without hesitation he clutched the supple handle of the thick mechanical arm and left alone for the hunt.


   Someone shook Vena firmly by the shoulder. ‘Madam, we have arrived,’ the cabin boy told her. ‘Outside, the difference in temperature will make itself felt. Please closes your collar and button the jacket.’
   Here began the domain of the scree. Between the clouds, some faraway heights could be seen, illuminated by the moons, the white of the snow speckled by the dust of the different eruptions recently experienced.
   But for Vena, the major preoccupation was elsewhere. A few hundred meters distant the Caterpillar waited it. This armoured train, made up of multiple sections, brought to mind a gigantic centipede. The Caterpillar assured the connection with Alpha base, situated well forward in the mountain range.
   Several walkers moved leisurely about, obviously piloted by experienced Sons. With the aide of their mechanical arms, they loaded and unloaded the heaviest objects.
   An officer must have recognized Vena, because he stared at her from afar. There were few deaths at the frontier and the loss of Nal was something of an exception. The characteristic of exception, however, was reduced these last months. From simple police patrols the operations attained, little by little, a military level.
   The force of the landscape gently penetrated Vena. She felt it like an ally. She advanced a step toward the officer.
   ‘Vena of Ur,’ she announced.
She saluted in the required manner, left hand on the heart, the other palm facing her counterpart. The officer returned the salute and answered, ‘Oles of Feir; receive my support and my friendship; take a place in ring 17, we leave immediately.’
   She found herself a place in the ring in question and soon it departed. Quickly the caterpillar turned an impressive speed, swallowing obstacles with a disconcerting easiness. An undulating phenomenon animated its feet with increasing frequency, raising them successively and bringing them down some meters further along.
   The day unwound without incident. It was pleasant all the same as the weather was fine and the evolution of landscape remarkable.


   Until this journey, Vena had not left the hospitable zone of the continent. A zone that covered the west quarter of the continent, certainly from afar it was the most favourable part. A region with a mild and stable climate, partly flat partly hilly, crisscrossed by a multitude of streams and rivers that came from the immense volcanic mountains. The First Country…
   There began the colonization, in times past... And it was decided that it should not spread to the entire continent. Trying to avoid the bad contributions of terrestrial origin. They would have dramatic consequences on the biologic balance of Alterra.
   In short, such was the teaching of Cult of the Virginity.


   Finally, they arrived at the base Alpha. During the disembarkation a light, but appreciable, nervousness made itself felt; heavily armed walkers occupied various vantage points. The temperature was low; gloves and a covered head were de rigueur.
   Vena was the only Girl newly arrived. According to the law, only nobles were supposed to risk their life in this business: the rest of the men present never participated in the offensives or evidently dangerous operations. Fortunately, the Drovaks compensated for the reduced number of Sons. The Caterpillar penetrated a large tunnel dug in the mountain.
   ‘Vena!’ Oles of Feir called out in a voice that betrayed a little weariness after the long journey, ‘Drovak 65 will accompany you to the briefing room. The centurion Delno waits for you there.’
   Delno of Ur was a distant uncle, strange to be meeting him again here… When Vena knocked on the open door, he was bowed over the maps, visibly very absorbed. He raised the head, his beautiful worried face brightened with a smile and appeared almost relieved, while at the same time a little moved.
   ‘Vena!’ He saluted her in the customary way, then walked toward her and took her in his arms.
   ‘My you have grown. I am so sorry about Nal, there was nothing we could have done.’ He moved away from her, a little uneasy, and with a gesture invited her to approach the map table.
   ‘The Lone One got him, a formidable character. He alone has blocked five hundred kilometres of track and already killed several of our men.’  He became edgy; his hand trembled over the map, tracing symbols helpless in the space.
    ‘It must be necessary for him to lie low; we won’t catch him if he moves without stopping.’ Vena said nothing, waiting for him to continue.
   ‘But let’s leave it there.’ There was a pent-up sadness in his voice. ‘65!’  (The head of the Drovak pivoted instantaneously and precisely toward him.) ‘Accompany Vena to the room of Nal.’ He turned toward her, and said softly, confidentially.
   ‘Don’t let it upset you too much; we are but small things and in a flash our souls leave for judgement. I am so happy to see you again, in spite of the circumstances… Take a shower; rest yourself. 65 will guide you where you will. See the mechanics they will provide you with a walker. The briefing, don't miss it, is tomorrow at six o'clock, here.’
   She thanked him politely, smiling slightly. When she had left the room, her velvety charm remained with Delno for a long time.


   Vena met the two mechanics that were occupied with preparing a new walker in replacement of Nal’s. She would have much to learn from them, as they knew the machine inside out.
   A Drovak, even more scrap-metal looking than any she had ever seen, assisted them. She felt distinctly that the good times were behind her. The mechanics appeared extraordinarily sympathetic. Or more correctly, what they expressed was beyond sympathy, rather fraternity. Vena installed herself in the cockpit and they instructed her comprehensively on the weapon systems.
   She didn't feel very at ease. Based on the evidence she didn’t have the necessary weight to face an enemy incomparably more experienced, and besides, one in command of modified walkers. And with a different motivation...
   After two hours passed reviewing the operating procedures she ate a meal with the team, then retired to her room. She was situated right above the walker, separated from it by a simple floor, and reached it via a creaky ladder. It was a very low ceiling room where you could only stand up in the centre of the dome. The mechanics slept in the work bay, where they had arranged some bunks.
   She lay down on her mattress, the same that had welcomed Nal. An unexpected spasm contracted her chest violently. She breathed slowly and deeply in order to chase the cockroach that came to suck the marrow from her bones and mind. She closed her eyes shutting out the ceiling of greyish rock, and started to swim in a strange blue, gloomy sleep.
   She dreamed that she was seated on an unknown beach watching reflections of the full moons on the sea. Minuscule dolphins of ice came out of the dark sand, transparent and brilliant. They dived and disappeared immediately.


   ‘Hey! Of Ur? It’s 5 h 30 get up!’ Elio, the oldest of the mechanics woke Vena up, shaking her by the shoulder. She emerged. She would not forget quickly this vault carved in the rock...
   Some moments later, she took a seat in the briefing room. A tired Delno appeared at the appointed hour and the brouhaha ceased. He saluted.
   ‘Hello to all. Firstly, permit me to present to you Vena of Ur, who replaces Nal.’ He gestured towards her with his arm; she rose. There was a few seconds of deep sticky silence, and then Delno attacked the weather report.
    ‘Warm and very clear weather today, which signifies that a lot of clandestines will tempt their luck. The Lone One risks it giving him heart, also I have modified the composition of the patrols. Henceforth the walkers will travel in pairs. They will be preceded by two Drovak equipped with movement localisers and dorsal flight devices.’
Continuing with the plan of the trails, Delno then indicated the pairing of pilots and the trails they must take.
   Vena would team with Ryul of Adesh, on the route called "Young Stones." She moved over to the corresponding wall map and found Ryul there. He must have been twice her age, and it was his fifteenth tour of duty at Alpha base...


   The intense, blue sky irradiated the mineral desolation of massif with a blinding light. Rel walked by instinct, no certain plan. He followed the trails, often leaving in order to take a short cut or to gain a better point of view. He and his machine were microscopic in the scale of landscape.
   The practiced eyes of Rel, in the first hours of day, had already marked several miniscule human columns progressing laboriously, in the distance, toward a new destiny.
   But it was not there, that which he searched for. For him them were decoys, which would finish by attracting the game that he coveted. Pulling a walker onto civilians exhausted by hours of marching was easy, but the wheel turned – as did Rel – in the most unforeseen ways.
   Such was the big Movement: an inherent balance taking all from on high low, and everything that was low on high. Like a fatal boomerang, he would sooner or later be on their track, trained ahead of them. Then, before they were able to realize anything at all, they would find themselves in the beyond, contemplating their death.
   And the sky continued to envelop this world without a quivering for the death of his creatures.


   They made the last preparations with slow gestures. Their minds wandered, contemplating the task that waited just there, at the door of Alpha base. The checklists completed in a steady tone and their litany seemed as a prayer, intended for the light of outside.
   Finally the shutters moved apart. They breathed the cool air. A soft air that appeared almost fragrant after the confined atmosphere of the base. One after another the patrols cleared the door.


   It took a few minutes for the eyes to get used to the change of brightness. It contrasted violently with the weaker lighting of the base’s interior.
   The particularly clear morning air afforded a distant view, a rather rare thing in this part of mountains. Out there, at the limit of the horizon, you could distinguish the chain of big volcanoes that smoked quietly. Like a gang of old men, pipe in the corner of the mouth, seated on a bench of another dimension, just before cataclysmically shooting off their mouths off.
   The cockpit open, head in the air, it could nearly have been a touristy jaunt. You only had to rock the helmet and earphones in order to feel the wind in the hair, while piloting these big mechanical beasts.
   At every crossing of the trails, the patrols separated. Soon, each was alone. In front walked the Drovaks, scouting. Vena followed, then Ryul. The order was not by chance:  at the back came the most “precious” element, as being last increased his odds of survival in the case of ambush…


   Hour after hour, the patrol progressed. The path they browsed grew longer. Always keeping the person in view. Delno had chosen this trail of the Young Stones because he calculated it held little danger. Situated to the south, it had been used so frequently that not one emigrant would take it in clear weather.
   Beyond began the Forbidden Territories, places consecrated, preserved from the human proliferation. Such was the doctrine, which regularly cost the life of audacious miscreants. And which also began to cost the Son dear: little by little their military advantage declined.
   So progressed the small team of mechanical bipeds, in the solitude of an ocean of stones. There, where the waves had been fossilized at a stroke by the brusque folly of a former god…
   They kept radio silence. Vena had the sensation that after this march of eternity, she would reach the tip of the world. Then she would topple into the emptiness.


   Ryul very carefully chose a position for the rest.
   As a precaution, at least one of the two would be immediately close by to a cockpit to make any eventual riposte. The two walkers settled down in a rocky crevice, with a clear view and an escape route planned. Ryul signalled to Vena to move her turret opposite him. Then he shouted to her:
   ‘You can get out; I will mount guard from here, nothing can arrive from your side; I’ve placed a Drovak on sentry.’
   Vena was not unhappy to stretch her legs; all those hours sitting had hammered the hide of her buttocks.
   She walked cautiously up the crevice to reach the height of Ryul, who would not leave his cockpit. He contented himself with rising from the seat to sit on the edge of the cabin. He scanned around the landscape with slow circular looks, searching for reflections, movements. Unconsciously, he drew his head slightly into his shoulders.
   ‘I don't see how a gunman could reach us where we are,’ ventured Vena carefully.
   ‘Don’t be mistaken! Even if it’s unlikely, it’s not impossible. The Lone One is capable of waiting several days for the moment to strike; he could even have been following us since the base!’
   Vena had never gone so far. It seemed to her that her mind relaxed just until borders of mountains.
   They kept silent for long minutes, ears cocked, waiting for the signal of a movement detector that the Drovak relayed into the cockpit.
   But nothing happened.


   They took to the trail once more. Thick cumulus now arrived from the north, dimming the brightness. The small group descended, leaving the "Young Stones" trail in order to rejoin a plateau covered with layers of hardened lava. Here and there chimneys exited from the ground distilling a burning, almost transparent, smoke.
   A very peculiar phenomenon must have produced this place because a thin ceiling, but very present, was suspended a few hundred of meters above their heads. Ryul approached Vena and signalled to her to check the gas detectors, but not one reached the graduation "danger." Hence the cockpits remained open.
   Non-identifiable noises could be heard; hissing, suppressed gurglings. Beneath the feet of the walkers fluid movement could be sensed. The further they advanced onto the plateau the ceiling became more opaque. It was hard to say if it was only localized or if the weather covered in again, the cumulus could reach in an hour dizzying proportions.
   Sometimes whispers were heard, suggestive of human origin. It seemed to Vena that she could distinguished some words; long songs and monochords intersecting, lengthy sighs pushed out by creatures hidden at the bottom of the chimneys.
   She turned around toward Ryul and by gestures caught his attention. He made her to understand that for him it was an effect, more or less, due to the surrounding poisonous gases. Vena doubted this was the sole explanation, but as he asked, she closed the insulated cockpit door and started the air filtration system. Enclosed now in the armour, her angles of view were very much reduced. Ryul, maybe because habit permitted him to better support it, remained with his head uncovered to preserve the best possible observation of the situation.
   In the Base, she had heard talk of the Voices. They were attributed to the altitude, to the winds in the rocks, considered to be the psychedelic effects of the effusive gas combined with the mildews found where there was water and heat.
   At the bottom of the cabin, earphones on, Vena still discerned the strange voices and she distinguished them more distinctly…
   The plateau inclined now and climbed slightly. The solidified lava contoured thick blocks of granite, which seemed to float on the puffed up surface. Though she felt limited by the heavier atmosphere and weaker brightness the visibility remained good.
   In several places the lava floor was broken and underneath tunnels, some of which could have contained the caterpillar, could be seen. These tunnels were formed when the surface of the magma had begun to cool in contact with the air, while that underneath continued to flow. And it probably continued to flow in certain invisible ducts.
   The water from rains or melted snows, mixed to mud, must also circulate in these networks with steam as a result.
   A wind loaded with suspicious smells pushed at their backs. The gaseous current rose up the slope and, straight ahead, cleared a small pass where it whirled before passing to the other side.
   Ryul lengthened his stride, in an attempt to escape quicker from this strangely poisoned atmosphere. He arrived almost at the same level as Vena, who was forced to up her pace a little in order to maintain an acceptable distance of security between them. This meant she was brought closer to the Drovaks that headed the march.
   They cleared the pass via a narrow passage between two blocks of granite. Ryul was last to exit the gully.


   The shoulders of his walker had just passed when he heard a characteristic "PAK", dull and faint. Impact would be in less than a second. Through reflex, he threw himself to the side to escape the shots, but was hindered by the rock face. At the same time, he unleashed smoke grenades.
   The carbide shell pierced the top of his walker at six hundred meters per second and he was killed in a stroke. Incandescent metal debris and some charred organic fragments embedded themselves in the rock behind the cabin. A few feet away, the smoke grenades had not yet fallen to the ground.
   Rel had already shot a second round, trained on the walker of Vena, who had just started an evasive manoeuvre. In the time it took for the shell to cover the distance that separated them she had moved two feet, one less than the shooter had anticipated. The second shell ricocheted off the receding armour of turret’s side.
   In the interior, the terrifying "DONG" stunned Vena for a second, a bodily reflex made her mouth drop open to expel the ravaging wave of shock. Her eardrums didn't explode thanks to the protection of the earphones, and the walker continued the movement that had been initiated.
   She vaguely regained her senses, and abruptly bent her knees, while a third shell passed just over her head. She just had time to get behind a providential boulder, squatting down to a maximum so that nothing could reach her. She screamed into the microphone:
   ‘Pilote2 to Drovaks! Give position of hostile gunman!’
   ‘Drovak1 to Pilote2: Position hostile gunman: azimuth: 220; distance: 1750; elevation…’ A brief impact noise punctuated the end of the transmission.
   Drovak2 instantly gave the last coordinate; Vena manoeuvred the turret as she entered the coordinates into the shooting console. Her gestures were not those of an expert, but they were sufficiently precise to avoid a dramatic shambles.
   Always covered by the boulder, she sent a salvo of rockets in a shooting curve toward the position of Rel, who heard their departure. The rockets went high up in the sky, puncturing the gaseous ceiling. They would take several seconds before coming back down to earth and Rel benefited from this short instant to get as far away as possible from the future point of impact.
   Covering his head, he threw himself to the ground just before the explosion. Their incendiary loads ignited. A burning ball of white, glaring gas expanded and its periphery licked Rel’s walker to which some sparks angrily clung.
   Smelling of burning metal and rubber, but seemingly without real damage, the walker remained immobile.
   Vena profited from this short respite to retreat from the rocky gully and her meagre rocky protection. She moved, all the while keeping an eye out for the other walker, which she hoped was momentarily blinded by the phosphorous fire. But she didn't have visual contact.
   She gained a better-sheltered position.
   ‘Pilote2 to Drovak2: move to Pilote1; report state of Pilote1!’
   ‘Drovak2 to Pilote2: moving to Pilot.’ Then some seconds later, ‘State of Pilote1: death confirmed.’
   Vena then asked it to try to locate the gunman. Eyes glued to the firing sight she had covered the movements of the android. She hoped that the Lone One would appear in order to shoot at the Drovak.
   He didn't commit this mistake.


   During long minutes, Vena swept the upper crest of rocks in her line of sight where she thought Rel hid. She waited for him to emerge, the cannon almost perfectly aligned in his direction, the stinking muzzle of the gun planted in her viewfinder.
   She had the advantage over him of already being in position. She held the controls, extremely tense, hands stiff like stone, ready to reply instantaneously.
   At the end of a long moment, she relaxed a little, and her body started to tremble all over. Her concentration was such that she had stopped breathing. A stitch bored into her side, and a painful bar cut her chest at diaphragm height. Without relinquishing the eyepiece, she attempted to join the base by radio, but she could only make contact with a relay that announced sinisterly:
   ‘Contact with the base momentarily interrupted due to climatic reasons ... crrrr… crrrr…’
   The weather continued to degrade and night approached. The air current, made turbulent by the pass, always swept along its share of gas, which now mixed with the clouds of water vapour that remained stuck between the high points.
   There was always no sign of life from the Other. Vena doubted that her volley of rockets had been mortal and more probably the Lone One was very near.
   She tried to calm herself, flexing the nape of her neck and shoulders to soften them. She didn't let go of the controls, or interrupt her surveillance, for one second. From time to time she moved herself a little way along the crest, then arrived at the conclusion that the Lone One would either wait, or move by an invisible route to where she was.
   After at least an hour, she sought shelter and withdrew completely behind the protection of the rocks. She consulted her map to obtain a global view of the sector.
   The weather was distinctly overcast; a low and opaque ceiling was developing. Her compass indicated values incompatible with the environs and the map carried the note "magnetic fluctuations". She opened the cabin. The air had become sticky and greasy, more and more malodorous. She looked attentively around her. It was a mineral chaos. Everywhere, boulders of all sizes littered the ground. She noticed then the metallic fragments in some. What a journey they had made, leaving the core of Alterra, to emerge in this wasteland to disrupt instruments...
   She decided to move from this place where even the stones were traitors. She couldn’t do anything there and no doctrine would be able to convince her to come back. She noted a narrow passage on her map a few hundred meters to the north. It would allow her to leave this valley when nightfall had diminished the visibility again.


   Under cover of the gradually reducing cloud of phosphorous fire, a few minutes of marching and Rel had retreated into a crevice very sheltered from view. The place also offered the advantage of being healthy, being without the poisonous gas. Rel opened the cabin and got out to repair any perceptible damage. He carefully observed the sky and the surrounding terrain. The temperature was tepid, the weather heavy and overcast.
   To be more at ease he removed the top of his suit and tied it around the waist. His back was entirely covered in tattoos, though his hands and his face were plain, contrary to the current ways of First Country. Multiple scars, frightening, ran the length of his body; the traces of sharpnel dating from his young adolescence…
   Rel verified every join, every articulation, every electrical protection or hydraulic junction with a maniac carefulness.
   His radio frequency was plugged into that of Vena, he listened to it, impassive. Intermittently he looked at the sky, as well as at precise points on the ground, following the evolution of time and the earth activity. Several times, he searched for Vena, just as she did him, but couldn’t catch sight of her. When he had finished his maintenance, he sat down and rolled a cigar, which he smoked quietly.
   He heard the voices. Of those that were not disjointed he could not discern the language. But he doubted that they were useful, he didn't believe their viability. Night fell, a great magnetic night, especially in this sector, where the strong metallic magma circulated underground. The light would be intermittent and difficult, but it permitted the hunt to continue…


   The magnetic night settled in. The principal sun of Altera now illuminated the other side of this world; the unexplored ocean there regularly swept by typhoons.
   The solar light was far from being absent: it reflected off the moons and always insinuated itself in the atmosphere.
   The masses of gas mixed by the will of the currents; cold, hot, humid or saturated with carbon dioxide, were raw on the outside of limbs.
Strata of different densities rose in tires, all the while mysteriously displacing themselves slowly. In this foggy and cloudy mixture, the shapes attained a suggestiveness such as Vena had never seen. She believed that she was in the mountain sector, well noted on the map, but her instinct, her perceptions, spoke to her in another language: that of the Voices.
   The Voices that moved easily in the fluid, leaving this sulphurous language in order gain one a little more phosphorous and then, accompanying the change of electric load, a brief luminous stain appeared. And another appeared elsewhere, rebounded softly here or there and disappeared in turn.
   Vena remembered a game that she had previously played with Nal; they fixed their eyes on the clouds and attempted to dissolve them through concentration and the will of their minds. The results could not be interpreted because, of course, the dissolution could be due to another possible reason; it had had at least the interest to amuse them for an hour or two…


   Rel’s map was basically a relief sketch, but in the course of time he had enriched it with numerous manual annotations that testified to his large knowledge of the terrain. The one of Vena, very different, approximated a colour satellite photograph. After studying his and taken the measure of the partial twilight Rel moved.
   He moved quickly into a narrow gorge, when suddenly he found himself nose to nose with the walker of Vena. The very faded light and the anguished relief meant that they saw each other at the last moment.
   They fired simultaneously without having had the time to aim. In the confusion, neither knew if they had hit home.
   Vena lengthened her stride, in a forward flight reflex activated by the fear, and collided violently with the other walker.
   Rel had time to bend his knees and unbalanced himself backwards, leaning against the nearly vertical rocky wall that stopped his fall. The walker of Vena fell heavily to the ground. It wouldn’t rise again.
   Rel attempted to draw back, to adjust for a better shot, but the relief hindered him. It gave Vena the time to extract herself hurriedly from her machine: She pulled with all her strength at the handles of the emergency hatch and the door of the cabin split in two, leaving its runners.
   Then Rel charged forward and attempted to crush it with his monstrous feet. He hammered the ground wildly, as rapidly, and as strongly, as he was permitted by the capacity of his machine. Vena threw herself to the ground to avoid him, and stood up quickly to change position from where he thought that she had rebounded on the rocks.
   There was no rational in her movements. She functioned automatically; like a bug plugged into a photoelectric cell that ordered her to avoid the shade of crushing steel weights. The transmission delay of the hydraulic controls of Rel’s walker saved her life.
   It was good that she couldn't feel anything; her body was cut deeply all over by the fragments of volcanic glass and the violent shocks. Her hands and knees left thick red traces on the ground.
   Rel was not able to see her well because she was at the lower limit of his deadly angle. She stood up once again, bounded between the legs of walker, and fled downstream in the current like one possessed.
    By the time he turned around, she had got her Borchard Plasma out and armed it; she couldn’t see Rel who was protected behind the armour. She waited a half second while the principal optic presented itself in her line of sight, meanwhile Rel finished his U turn. Her bloodied finger tapped the firing button, without panic, and the shot rang out.
    The projectile crashed against its target, breaking the glass with an eruption that was projected into the interior, lightly cutting Rel about the face. In a protective reflex action he closed his eyes, allowing Vena the necessary second in which to fire another shot, this one well into the firing display. Partially blinded he continued to stomp, enraged, in front of him.
   But Vena had already turned around and descended the gorge as quickly as she could, the Borchard in hand, her mouth wide open and mute with fright.  She fell several times and wounded herself again with the contact of sharp stones. She knocked her head violently against a rock and said goodbye to her helmet, which was ripped off by the impact. She lost her weapon but by a miracle her hand, sticky with blood, fell on it. Picking it up it, she jumped up and ran terrified as far as possible from this shining place of death.


   After donning an oxygen mask, Rel opened the trap of his walker. He left the gorge and settled higher up to get a clearer view. In the magnetic night a luminous cloud was raised by the passage of Vena, like dust, and Rel saw it. He fired manually because his firing sight was unusable.
   The shell fell several meters from Vena who threw herself to the ground. Before Rel could correct his range, she gained shelter behind a boulder, two feet high and the same wide. She was in a bad was; a sprained ankle, cuts on her knees, elbows and hands because of her falls in the rocks, and now shrapnel in the thigh.
   Rel calmly aligned a shot on the rock that protected Vena. The wave of shock slapped violently into it and she lost consciousness. She toppled to the ground and her head jutted out from the rock, very visible from Rel’s position.
   She couldn’t see anymore the frightening spectacle that surrounded her. Bluish lightning scratched the ground and crawled along it like luminous lizards. They jumped from magnetic blocks to pyrite crystals, joining the layers of electrified dusts raised by the gaseous flux. They flowed in the clouds and the mists, then returned and embedded themselves under the surface to follow the underground rivers beds of magma.
   Vena floated now in unhealthy realms, far from colours and the fragments of tender light. She flowed in desolation and forgetfulness. Soon she would board the stream of darkness that separated this world from an eternally silent frontier.
   In the other world, Rel refined his deathblow, meticulously adjusting the target sight on the inert and pathetic head that jutted out from the rock, a few hundred of meters lower down.
   Around him, two Voices called reciprocally, as if playing hide-and-seek:
   - Venaaaa... Veeenaaaa... Naaaall...
   With a quick, practiced, glance he verified the loading mechanism of the weapon. Then gently, meticulously, he lowered his foot on the shooting pedal. At that instant a violent electric shock seized his leg. There was a sizzling followed by small luminous flashes in the cabin then a strong odour of ozone. His leg lay inert, incapable of the least little bit of movement, but he sensed it was temporary.
   Already, the pain dimmed and sensation returned. He heard the laughter of children, the clarity of timbre that emerged from ambiance sounded as though it surrounded him, disperse and cloying. They sang a bit of a nursery rhyme in challenge to one another.
   Finally, Rel recovered the use of his leg, focused again anew on the head jutting out from the rock, and this time he firmly lowered his foot on the pedal.


   At that moment lightning enveloped his walker and for a short instant they both were transformed into a blue torch. A pain totally seized Rel, so intolerable that in order for him not to disintegrate completely, a part of HIM was projected elsewhere, while another part of HIM stayed firmly in the walker.
   He found himself in a vortex and, against the dimensionless rock walls of the swirling cone, they were all there: his parents, all those that he had known, as well as others. They were fluid giants, grimacing and howling, grotesque and terrifying.
   Rel saw a brilliant place, white, vivid with energy, coming from the bottom of the whirlwind, from the narrowest part of the vortex. He was attached to the walker, which he distinguished faraway, seen from above and minuscule, on its sombre rock.
   He made a gesture and it crouched down. Around him, the monsters insulted and hit him. At the beginning he attempted to protect himself from their strikes. But realised that he felt nothing. He wasn’t hurt bodily, but the infernal howlings of the creatures transfixed his mind. Their feet held the walker, and their shapes rose toward the rim of the cone, towards the other aperture. They came from Down BELOW.
   Rel didn't know if he had died, if he was dying, or was caught up in a sudden magnetic phenomenon. There was no explanation for this brilliant place. All the time the whirlwind inhaled him towards the other aperture. In no way could he see. He didn't know what it was, or where it would carry him.
   All around, his monsters repulsed him most of all. Then he let go of the cord.


   In front of Vena, grounded at their base in a ground of dark cold mud, ancient unsteady uranium sarcophaguses reared up. Across an imperfectly sealed eyelid, a thin golden thread filtered. Then light flooded all and she regained consciousness.
   The magnetic agitation had passed and the nocturnal temperature had become glacial. It was snowing. Her body trembled all over, covered with wounds and blotches both dried and frozen. A powerful pain, all down one side of the skull, ate at her and blood had escaped from her ear before coagulating with the dust and hair.
   Completely frozen, she gathered her courage and the strength of her youthfulness. In spite of the stiffness of her muscles, she laboriously succeeded to raise herself a little off the ground, her head burning with fevers, her breathing difficult and heart beating weakly.
   She glimpsed the shining sinister sentry, the arms hanging loosely, a sign that the hydraulic system was no more under pressure. She immediately retired to the shelter of a boulder dragging herself along like an over-excited worm. She verified the Borchard and then she waited.
   The cold weather and her physical state sorely tested her patience. She stuck her head out again and again – one side then the other – and attentively observed as much as her damaged skull and the weak brightness permitted.
   Seen from where she was, the walker seemed to be completely out of order. Its cabin was open to the winds, but she could distinguish nothing of the interior. She noticed that the snow didn't lie on the engine cover of the machine meaning it was not completely cold and therefore had stopped functioning within the last hour.
   She tried to move to a better vantage point but her painful body immobilized her. Her leg bore a nasty wound that she inspected. Part of the external surface of the thigh was deeply cut, but it didn't look like the shrapnel was still in her flesh. The haemorrhage had ceased when she had lost consciousness, resting all her weight on the injury and thus compressing it.
   But with her movements it had reopened, a wave of pain accompanied the dangerous reddish oozing… With a lot of difficulty, she tore a strip off her clothes and made a summary bandage of it.
   She crawled towards the walker, pulling herself along with one hand, armed with the Borchard in the other. The first meter was tortuous as were the next. But at length she managed to advance, forgetting a little the pain of the start. She found a way to edge forward that caused the least suffering and, after a long while, she reached the dead machine.


   She opened a panel in the metal leg and manipulated a hydraulic vane. The walker, with a deflating noise, knelt down little by little. She watched the interior of the cabin.
   Rel had lost his oxygen mask. His face, frozen in death, was no more that which it had been. It was rejuvenated; his features were at rest, the slight semblance of a smile floated about his mouth. His livid eyes defined a huge emptiness.
   She removed the charger from the Borchard, ejected and recovered the projectile that was in the barrel, and cut plasma power. Then she put the weapon away, barely relieved.
   Vena noted that nearly all the walker and his equipment had burned internally and was unusable. The cockpit, however, had not suffered too much.
   She discovered a thermos bottle, still hot, and drank frenetically the sugary liquid. She also ate some dry cookies and felt a little energy radiate again under her skin. She recovered Rel’s maps, almost fully intact to read by the light of the moons of Alterra, and looked at them with an amazed interest. One of the genuine maps was still in her leg pocket, largely soiled with blood.
   She also found a notebook full of notes and the sketch covered in interspersed information. She scoured the horizon and marked his position in the feeble light of the night.
   Next she unhooked the pickaxe from its support on the walker and separated the wooden pole from the metallic head to use as a stick to aid her walking. She quickly reached her own walker. It had taken a shell in the hydraulic distributor and couldn’t move again. All the same she entered into the cockpit and put the heating on.
   Ah! She was extremely cold, she thought to herself and she would never complain of being too warm in her life ever again. Her rhythm of thoughts suddenly changed to reflection and she asked herself if henceforth she would ever in her life complain of anything again....
   The cabin was sealed with the reserve cover from her seat. She had raised it as much as her small size would allow. The heat recharged her body and mind, better, oh so much better…
Installed as well as possible in the upside down cabin, enveloped by a soft and marvellous temperature, she attended to herself and cleaned her cuts. 
   It was still not possible to make contact the base. Her walker was bedded in a gorge that discouraged transmissions... She had however contact with the Drovak resting near to the body of Ryul.
   A brief sickening feeling invaded all of a sudden, like a traitor, and tightened her throat to the limit of the suffocation.


   While waiting for radio contact to be restored she read Rel’s documents, which lasted some hours. The maps from Rel were based on an on-the-ground knowledge and not on satellites scans like hers.
   After a moment she began to better understand the handwritten annotations. Some concerned the trails habitually taken by the Voices, others, gorges that served as shelters, or sources of hot water of diverse virtue. In the sketchbook Rel had also drawn the daily life the Foresters and Mountain people.
   Vena discovered thus, with fascination, the tangible reality of other nations, formed clandestinely in the Forbidden Territories.


   The newborn sun began to disengage from the rocky horizon, illuminating the sky, scattered with a few cloudy traces. The stones finally warmed up with the contact of this powerful radiation. Vena had regained part of her strength. She caught a radio message that was destined for her, informing her of the arrival of a rescue patrol within some hours. She hesitated to answer then finally abstained. In the silence, the Drovak tried to connect with the base, but Vena cut the connection.


   She wrote a brief note, intended for the rescue party, which she stuck between two switches of the chart console, in plain view. Then she left the cabin. The weather had greatly improved. She fixed on the horizon, facing the sun, facing East, turned toward the forbidden territories. She called the Drovak to her and clung to the machine to relieve her wounded leg.

   Then they started to walk towards the newborn light.


October 29 2004; Renaud
corrected by Co

abridged version/

translated by MGC