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Terra Incognita
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ISBN-10: 1-77115-393-8
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 457 Pages
Published: January 2018

From inside the flap

On a world where the horizon moves and parallel realities grind together, the Bad Time is coming. A boy named Nemed, a stern Detective named Malone, and a reformed terrorist named Larmenihar each come from a different Scape, and each will confront unpleasant discoveries and the legacy of bleak, violent history, a history that is sometimes bizarre and sometimes darkly familiar.

Mere men with guns and wits must content with crystalline post-humans of incredible technology and strength, themselves overshadowed by stranger and more horrible beings of weaponized insanity. Knowledge of the mysterious phenomenon which created the moving Horizons overhead would be a powerful asset for any side … but the legends of the Bad Time warn against such curiosity. Under the thick glaciers of the Larch Scape a discovery is about to be made, one that is drawing the multiverse’s more advanced peoples to Nemed’s cold homeland and bringing them closer to war.

Terra Incognita (Excerpt)

Chapter 1: Ardoch

Nine months before the Bad Time the men and women were kept apart at opposite ends of the village. In the north and to the west, outside a degraded boundary wall of chipped castle stone made centuries before, an empty barn was occupied for the demarcated fortnight by the village's men and boys. The period of superstitious waiting was masked as a time for drinking, gambling, and telling the jokes and tall tales that aren't told in the presence of women; in the barn the males passed hours in one giant room with a great fire pit sunken in the middle, always aglow against the murk of the large barn's circling shadows, made on top of an old well filled with rubble. The children enjoyed a reprieve from their bedtimes as everyone watched everyone even in the earliest hours of the morning, arguing and drinking and playing and mumbling stories but never all going quiet, never relaxing the informal watch. Chores were largely suspended, and the children complained little about the break in their schooling.

A few of the older women could probably have found the barn if absolutely required, but it was recessed deep in the thick larch woods at the end of a path that branched many times, with trails snaking away to sudden dead ends and to other old and forgotten places, ruins left to go feral as the village of Ardoch had shrunk to its modern remnant. Derelict shacks and sheds were the established haunts of the braver boys when the sun was high, but there were still older places crumbling in the rising tide of gnarled wood that had crept from the north over the generations; it twisted and chewed through brick foundations and plaster and sometimes even advanced suddenly with the occasional flood that turned large patches of forest undergrowth into hungry quicksand, swallowing landmarks and wilting trees into crisscrossed webs of grey trunks, growing after their mangling to become impassable and hiding areas unknown to any men, or the suns above. Ancient wells were marked by warning signs also grown old and fallen into the rubble or blown away in storms, prompting stories of deep tunnels and lairs for undead horrors, and sometimes bones were found by the young adventurers as the floods burst forgotten crypts and brought a slow surge of relics to the edge of the wild treeline in the swampier areas.

Five centuries ago a castle had dominated this county, with an inner keep on a high pingo inside the main walls, where what was left of Ardoch still remained, looking over a once open land of wheat and cows now colder and hoary with warped branches under the changing suns of countless Skies. The castle had been dynamited, the rubble scattered and recycled to make walls and huts all over the conquered countryside, when Ardoch had been a town and not a small nest of hovels; now, so many years after the Detectives had brought an end to the kingdom, the old stones were finally pulled into the black greenery and under the earth with their original craftsmen.

Among the stories told to the young boys to pass the time during the contraceptive fortnight were half-truths imported by travelers from all directions. North was the dreadful land for a child's dreams when the local ruins seemed boring and more empty than haunted, and the old men would speak of a wall of ice birthed from mountains many horizons away, ice that slowly melted and released strange wrecks and ruins and even bodies of colossal age, things from under the ice slab that might come alive like the hibernating toads from their dens waiting for the thaw. Trapped in the ice might be doors to ancient cities in the mountainous karsts where blue corpses stirred, mirroring the legends of the other, Austral pole and the people there. When the boys became brave and bored of that story there were tales of great serpents in the black lakes of Mazinaw and Calabog, creatures with no eyes and rings of rasping teeth questing blindly for flesh. Strange patterns of footprints in the frost and snow would be discussed at length, with adults insisting that many trails started or ended in the middle of empty fields, leading naturally to tales of flying things in the night that would snatch children sneaking about. Stories of small skulls and shoes found in nests on high cliffs were declared as fact.

All of this had transparent purpose to a boy who paid even slight attention, a boy like Nemed Caust. At eight years old he already knew the conspiracy to keep the children afraid and indoors, a constant plot by the parents asserted aggressively now, nine months before the Bad Time. He was old enough to know the basics of sex, and he had already put enough half-truths together to start asking uncomfortable questions of his parents and the other adults. Nemed was the particular bane of Ardoch's Detective and Schoolmaster, a stern man named Malone, who tried to smother the boy's curiosity with thick textbooks of incomprehensible mathematics and astronomical speculations. These heavy burdens, expected to dull the attention and patience of most children, were instead digested eagerly by Nemed, who would sometimes steal paper and pencils greedily from the school's locked closet to scribble out his own questions and imitations of arcane thoughts. This involved the development of the boy's precocious skills at picking locks so that he could break into both the stationery closet and a library cabinet with the rarer books whenever his curiosity struck at an inconvenient hour. Malone's displeased smirk when a new question struck closer to unpleasant or mature truth was a clue to the boy, a sign that he was being more than just annoying.

"If you were older I would be charging you for my time," the Schoolmaster had grumbled at him, after the children had first been told about the Bad Time and the separation that was being organized between the genders in the next year. The voice that might frighten other students into obedience no longer affected Nemed, who sat across Malone's desk in the school's small office without even asking. The shadowy space, with a single dim lamp casting light reserved only for the immediate writing space, making the ordinary phone and the Black Phone both black, had an apex of darkness giving Malone an obscure throne from which to terrify a troublemaker, but it had become too comfortable for this one.

"I will have you empty your pockets before you leave," Malone added, but even this didn't crush the determined curiosity in the boy's face. Nemed was clever enough to not keep his lock-picking tools on his person during school hours; he was already wary of Malone transitioning from an educator to his other job.

"I found a new word I don't know," Nemed said. Malone groaned, leaning back in his chair and looking to the darkening horizon over the distant pingos through the office's barred window, wondering how much stew would be left over for him at Ardoch's trough. "After you told us about the Bad Time I remembered reading about it before. I remembered a story about the men and women having to stay apart to keep monsters from being born at a particular, uh, alignment."

Malone's scowl concealed the slight bit of unease he felt at hearing that accurate, adult word from the child. Superstition had not had much chance to grip Nemed's mind. He was speaking of alignments in the Sky, knowledge likely gained from illicitly reading the school's near-modern edition of the Picatrix, and soon he would be thinking and speaking of another adult thing, if Malone dared give the child another obscure definition.

"The Krummholz, yes. That's-"

"No, I … yes, I guess, you could tell me more about that." Nemed's surprise was still happy; he was swinging his legs and kicking the Schoolmaster's guest chair with his ankles in his careless energy, in defiance of the room's mood or the quiet disapproval of its occupant. "I already read about that but it's still a bit strange, the book is so old … I also don't know what this other thing is. 'Vesica piscis', I think. What's that, after the Krummholz?"

"The vesica piscis is just the shape of the Krummholz," Malone sighed, reaching for paper and pencil, sketching out the basics of the geography around Ardoch in the patch of light before him on the desk. "It's an unnecessary old name - just call it a lens. The Krummholz will appear in a bit more than a year's time as a narrow lens across the map, similar to an eclipse, covering Ardoch and extending to the northeast. One tip will reach far into the glaciers past the Calabog, but there are virtually no people there to worry about. The other tip terminates far off south into the Laurentian Sea, where there are other villages and towns making their own precautions. It will open upon our land very much like an eye, grow to about ninety-four horizons at the widest, and then shut, all over the course of about two days. The odds of any children being born inside during the Krummholz are of course quite low for a place like Ardoch, or the other small towns. The precautions we take are quite ceremonial. It is more necessary and difficult to organize in larger places like Coxvale, but down there the Krummholz will be narrower."

"So people can just move away if they are pregnant?" Nemed asked, scrunching his face at the drawing.

"Yes, many of them will. Many people worry about a pregnancy in the path of the Krummholz, even if the child is born long after, but down there it is easier to travel by boat or train. Superstition," Malone said dismissively.

"But during the Krummholz, inside it, it is bad to be born?"

"Of course, boy," Malone grumbled, retreating to his darkness and folding his arms.

"Oh. I kind of thought it was just another superstition." Nemed seemed disappointed with himself, and leaned backward with a frown on his face.

"Be careful with the word," Malone told him. "Consistent stories must come from somewhere. To the east is a lake said to be full of tiny fish that will eat ships and people in the water. This is not true. However, the lake can sometimes become acidic because of a volcanic fissure below it. This last happened before I was born, so by now the story is of tiny fish eating the boats, similar to southern fish called piranha-"

"I've read about those!" Nemed cried. Malone grimaced, and tried to deliver whatever facts the boy wanted as quickly as possible.

"The Krummholz is thought to be an intersection between the Scapes of our World," he said gravely. "When you were younger I showed you a map of the world we know, the world we can travel by walking or riding in a car or sailing on a ship, which is our own Scape. I showed it to you on paper but I told you that it was really round, that it was a ball that spins. This was true, and this was enough for a while, but then I believe we had the Sky change rather dramatically during one of our outings to the southern farm … I understand that from a clear day you were suddenly trapped in complete darkness, yes?"

Nemed remembered, now masking his own discomfort. He had been only five years old, and he had panicked with the other children, grabbing at each other and the legs of the outnumbered adults trying to calm the herd. They had looked into the Sky and seen a new Horizon hatching over the normal one defined by land and Sky, and the second Sky had swept over the first one from the southeast in an arc across the zenith and onwards, as if they were insects suddenly covered by a dark bowl. The first Sky had had a sun at the position of noon; the new Sky swinging into alignment over Nemed's Scape had had its sun in a different position, on the other side of that Scape's sphere, and so noon had become midnight, and the children had howled into the marching wall of darkness, startled also by the roar of winds that accompanied the sudden drop in temperature caused by the loss of the sun. The Sky changed regularly above their heads, but that transition had been particularly memorable.

"And so I finally had to talk to you about the other maps," Malone reminded him. "You had already asked me if I had shown you all of the World on the first map, and I think I told you no. I called it our personal Scape, known by many as the Larch Scape, and I said there were others. Young children probably think of them as other planets, especially when you are told that you can travel from one Scape to another through space. After that frightful day I had to teach the more advanced lesson early to dull your fears that the sun would go out. I think that was your big worry."

The boy scowled, thinking it unfair to be linked to childish fears that seemed a lifetime passed to him, after three years. "You showed us the, uh, armillary," Nemed said, recalling the word. "The circles on a sphere."

"Exactly," Malone said. "And I told you that the total World is an armillary with spheres inside a hypersphere."

"And it turns … in ways we can't point, you said."

"In other dimensions, yes. In the armillary planets can move so as to come into various alignments with each other or stars from our perspective. The Krummholz is an alignment of the Scapes as the World turns in hyperspace. Two Scapes in a temporary misch that makes things quite confusing on the ground."

"And why does the World turn like this?" Nemed asked. "The other planets just turn one way, or maybe some of them can turn two ways or three ways, but no more. Why does our World turn … seven ways?"

The complete World, as far as Detective Malone knew, turned in at least twelve extra dimensions beyond the conventional spinning that brought day and night on an ordinary planet, but he considered this higher number superficial to the lesson. The youth had finally cornered him without the distraction of the other students and other topics to teach in class, cornered him into admitting ignorance.

"I believe these words appear in the Third Testament's first book," he replied after a pause. "'When God left the universe, He needed something to push off from.'"

Nemed frowned, very still in his chair. "Superstition," he said. Malone waited, now familiar with the signs of additional processes at work in the young mind. Rejection was simply the first step. Finally, Nemed added, "But the story comes from somewhere. So … there was a disaster. Some explosion long ago, when people were smarter … and it was so big that the World was moved …"

"It was not necessarily an explosion," Malone said. "But it would have been some sort of energetic event, much more powerful than a storm or volcanic eruption or an asteroid. Our World was Loosed," he told the boy, leaning forward to bring half his face into the light. "Before, all things were bound in 3-space, as they generally call it in those texts I gave you. Like a brick in a wall, like a brick in the castle made here long ago, and then blown up. It turned in new ways, and it is still spinning oddly to this day. On its surface we are carried from one Sky to another, and the other Sky was once above a separate Scape that was also set turning, which may roll under our own Sky, and we may all roll under yet further Skies once overlooking yet more Scapes, which chase after us round and round, threatening to align as the Krummholz. Have you ever looked at the maps of the Scapes all together?"

Nemed nodded. "They all are … almost the same. The two continents up and down on the left, and the bigger two or three over on the right …"

"We don't know them all," Malone admitted. "We only know the ones that appear regularly, where it is possible to go up in a spaceship and land down on them before they are turned away. In some directions the World may turn very slowly, and so there are Skies and Scapes that will not appear very often, maybe once every few centuries. A few Scapes have only ever been visited once, and those who landed on them never came back. So there are many other maps, but all maps known to us have the resemblance. Where I was born there is another Mazinaw, another lake like the one you call Calabog, and the essential mountains and hills and other bodies of water as well. The place that is Ardoch here is abandoned there, but a town of a similar name once stood. These are parallel universes, smashed together when the World was Loosed. Like parallel lines on a page merged by crumpling the page."

"But there are no larches anywhere where you were born?"

"No trees resembling that particular group of species. There is a natural larch, but the trees here were engineered. Normal trees are green, not black. The black trees are sort of like dogs changed from wolves, made by a dead people many ice age cycles ago. That's why this is called the Larch Scape by most outsiders. Locals will just call their home 'the world' if you let them, will call themselves 'the people' if you let them, so we all get named properly by foreigners."

"This next Krummholz is between our Scape and … what's the other one?"

"The Fortean Scape," Malone said quietly. It was a word in a more advanced horror story. While children and superstitious adults feared zombies from the swamps or various graveyard ghouls and blood-drinkers, or other forms of corrupted human - wendigo starving in the barren stretches of dead trees, fomori creeping up the pebble shores at night from the Calabog, waheela stalking between the tumbled grey monoliths marooned by the glaciers long ago - the educated men and women told stories of the Vulkaz-wrami from the Austral Scape, of the Inrisus from the Filth Scape, and of less certain things from the Fortean Scape and the other uncharted Scapes lumped together as Terra Incognita. Beyond the Detectives and the forces they commanded Larch commoners didn't need to know about these things; let them be naοve enough to fear the Noir Scape, where the Detectives had come from; let them be and remain innocent enough to only respect and fear men with big guns in dark coats with hidden faces, to only fear their protectors, when they grew to stop fearing the trivial monsters of childhood.

"I can't find any pictures of the Forteans," Nemed said crossly. "What do they look like?"

Malone tried to remember his earlier annoyance with the boy, though he had invisible sympathy for a young mind careening into unpleasant things too early out of curiosity. "That hardly matters. They are as diverse as the people here - there are surely some of them more similar in appearance to us than many of your Larch neighbours. Don't let the Austral and Filth peoples trick you into thinking that we all come colour-coded per Scape." He grunted as he got to his feet, prompting Nemed to leave his chair as well. "And now, boy, I'm afraid I am late again because of you." He reached into his desk, and was irritated that the child still found some fascination in what he took out. The hat was just a hat, nothing like the badge or stripes defining other officers of law, but everyone in Ardoch knew where it came from.

Nemed had a late thought just as Schoolmaster Malone became Detective Malone, and he half-turned as if to hurry away. A strict and formal voice stopped him at once; the man across the desk pointed accusingly down at him. "As promised, Mr. Nemed Caust of Ardoch, of Clarendon, you will empty your pockets. I have a lockpick to catch, and when I corner that scamp I might just be in the mood to teach him how to not get caught next time."

Few Detectives knew when their training had begun. Nemed swallowed, suddenly thinking about calluses on his fingers earned from hours of experimentation with his improvised bits of metal, calluses that might not look like the work of honest writing to the skilled eye. He also thought about staples that would be missing from his legitimate notebook. He was thinking about the right things, but there was so much more declaring his guilt. A bit of scrap he had used as a bookmark was from paper too fresh to be from the pile sacrificed to the younger children, with gridded lines reserved for the older students. The pencil in his case was also too new. Malone also showed him the special lamp that made his hands glow, proving that he had touched the doorknob given the invisible paint.

"Gloves are a first thought," the Detective added, showing Nemed his own fingerprints. "And your tools will scratch out the inside of the lock, an obvious clue. A softer metal would be better."

The next time, Nemed was still caught, of course. But it took a little bit longer to prove it.

The year of this extra learning had vanished like his careless clues, though scratched locks here and there in Ardoch spoke of experimentation. In the barn full of men and boys Nemed now kept awake even in the early hours of the morning, reading his stories of the earlier Bad Times and the night's beasts and wondering where Malone had gone, trying to think like the man himself. No adult could tell him anything useful, and he was confident that he could tell the difference between them shrugging off an irritating child's questions and truly not knowing, or truly thinking falsely. Everyone thought Malone was on patrol duty with the other trusted officials, marching the wider paths with a lantern or pacing down main street under searing orange streetlights, or circling the garage where all the vehicles had been impounded. In the event of an inconvenient emergency a victim could be rushed off, and this was the main thought behind violating the strict gender separation. The children whispered that some kid had died years ago, in Plevna or Burke or Coxvale, choking to death or falling out of a tree or starting a fire or something impossible to specify, to explain why some people could leave. The oldest men and women, of course, would just say 'tradition' and look at you with confusion if you still had questions.

"Superstitious rubes," Malone had sighed quietly into the Black Phone, just days before the fortnight had begun. Nemed had heard little more after that, as the Schoolmaster's voice had fallen in a strange way, beneath mumbling. Did Detective Malone know about the rusted phone in the library's back closet? An older boy had once said that you could sometimes hear other people talking when you picked up the phones, sometimes very clearly, something barely, but Nemed had checked dozens of Ardoch's phones in the past year without hearing anything and not believed it. The old phone in the library was in a dusty closet that had once held something with a lot of pipes, and there were marks on the slanted and cracked floor to suggest a chair had once been screwed in beside the phone. Ardoch's library was the oldest part of the school building, at least two hundred years old, set on the flat mesa that had once held a castle's keep centuries before, so the little space had probably been many things. The phone was still there, and it could make noises, and curiosity had discovered Malone's voice coming out one day about two months before nine months before Bad Time, saying something into the Black Phone on the other side of the building.

"… not likely … could be just … stop … there … someone's listening."

Nemed had panicked and fled the closet, each step feeling painfully slow, cursing himself (in his limited mental vocabulary) for breathing so loudly into the receiver. By then he had known enough about fingerprints and other clues, and he knew that he should have raced back with a cloth … but if Malone saw the dust wiped away he would know that the eavesdropper was someone who knew about fingerprints. There was no way to put the dust right, and he probably had left maybe just one hair that could somehow be traced back to him, and maybe Malone would look at his shoes, or …

But Malone never went near that old phone, or mentioned the phones at all to Nemed when they talked. Two days after the first incident Nemed saw an electrician changing phones in a neighbour's house, and he heard that all the phones in Ardoch were being checked over for some obscure reason. It had taken more than a week for Nemed to return to the old library phone, sure that Malone would be patient enough to arrange a 'sting' and trap him like a common arsonist circling the scene. But nothing seemed different. The old metal dish still crackled with vague electronic echoes and distortions when he put his ear to the microphone, covering his mouth this time. His listening post had not been discovered.

The Black Phone only received calls, and no one seemed to know exactly who used it to talk to Malone. Interception was pure luck, Nemed had thought, but Malone himself had taught him to refuse luck. Luck was a lazy answer to the Schoolmaster and the Detective. There were times when Malone would accept no visitors in his office, when the secretary's schedule on the bulletin had him teaching no classes nor conducting any meetings: windows of greater probability.

"… Mazinaw site would be best, but don't let … damn it, don't let Lar tell you … sure, fine, but if I see a blue pilot I'm not getting in the chopper … of course … twenty-four of them, all locals … they can handle a few horny teens … he's still under evaluation, the parents haven't … could tell … I'll be there … they all stay in the barn or the millhouse … not a wandering problem, they've all been told … keep the kids under a close eye … superstitious rubes …"

Nemed's old phone had failed him then - he was pretty sure that it was something in the phone connection and not Malone's voice that made things incomprehensible after that. The blurbs of sound coming out after that could have been anything, said by anyone. He could recognize Malone's voice quickly by now, and a few other neighbourly voices that would float in at odd times, but whenever Malone spoke into the Black Phone there were pauses and hisses in reply. Nemed had never heard whoever it was the Detective was talking to.

Mazinaw was a place on the map Nemed knew from the stories trying to keep him inside now. There was a deep lake with those blind serpents hungering for a careless swimmer patrolling the bottom, and a high and long wall of rock on one side of the lake with caves full of nasty fomori and their petrified victims, eroded but still recognizable as screaming humans. He didn't know of any town nearby, so the Mazinaw site had to be in the middle of nowhere. Malone would go there, for some reason, and it sounded like he wouldn't be patrolling Ardoch with the other volunteers for some part of the fortnight. He'd marched by to talk to the adults for the first few days, but this afternoon it had been a deputy making the rounds, one of his father's friends. So that meant Malone was probably gone right now, as the boys waited in their barn. If everyone assumed he was out patrolling the paths through the woods then Nemed might be one of the few people to know that Malone had stepped away.