Ahead, the pylon glittered. “Aren’t you up yet?” No reply. Yushua slapped the drop-ship’s roof, producing a groan from inside. “We’ve landed. The sun’s just come out. You don’t want to miss it.” He lit a cigarette, the end of which flared up before smouldering. He was filled with the strangest sense of déjà vu, as if he had a cigarette on the go already. Yoliam joined him a few moments later. “You always start off smoking, don’t you?” Yushua wasn’t sure what he meant. “It preps me for the run. You’ve got rituals too.” Yoliam gave nothing away.
The desert spread before them, bright red soil, sand, red boulders. Along the horizon a line of red crags. A pale red sky, a dull red sun. The pylon shimmering a mile away. Yushua turned his cigarette on its side to blot the thin structure out, briefly obscuring its summit with a smouldering cherry. Yoliam shut the lid of the drop-ship and stood next to him. The drop-ship was a small black beetle-like craft that worked very hard to deposit its human cargo a mile or so away from their next target, enough for a stealthy approach, but ended up killing itself in the process. The ship looked sad with the front all smashed in. Didn’t the front look like a face?
“Just like the others,” said Yoliam as he trained a pair of binoculars on the pylon.
“Can you see any movement?”
“No, nothing. It looks quiet. You know, I am glad we’ve got this front. I am glad we’re taking pieces off the board like this.”
“I’d prefer a straight fight.”
“You start off saying that. Just wait till we’re into the thick of it.” Yushua felt more comfortable on a battlefield, a space with edges and an end in sight, where he could charge and bellow all day long if he wanted. None of this skulking around, none of this killing weak men. Half a cigarette left, the cherry diminishing.
He had the strangest dream on the flight over. It was only brief but he could remember it in detail. He was stuck to the floor of a house with a single room. The room had a sofa, lampshades, windows with curtains, kitchen equipment, a desk, a book-case, basically all the household objects his brain could conjure up but crammed without order in to a single room. For some reason he was stuck to the floor. At one point it was his whole body, then just his feet, then as if his brain had remembered the beginning of the dream out of sequence it was his whole body again. A part of him wanted to mention it to Yoliam.
“How does the pylon look?”
“Normal. Quiet. Spinning the world up. Doing its thing.” They both shared a kind of reverence for the pylons, these matter-makers. “Unsuspecting.” “Yes, unsuspecting – actually hold on. No, look. I think – I think there’s a little fritz at the edge – ”
“Pass the binoculars.” Yushua could see it, far off, a thin line where the clean red sand ruckled like the scab around a wound. He tightened the focus. There – yes, Yoliam was right. Part of the world where the pylon stopped working, where the world slipped through its silver fingers until matter began to fray like a carpet, to collapse into pure raw chaos. If he narrowed his eyes he could see it change from one thing to the next without rhyme or reason, from red sand to red glass, from red glass to green beetles, from green beetles to gold coins, shifting molecular composition every few seconds like the skin of a mad chameleon. “It’s fritz. But not much.”
“The pylon is still working, then.”
He nodded and kicked the desert. “They’ve not thought to deploy troops. They don’t suspect a thing. You know where they are? Sat at home. Sleeping. I bet they haven’t even bothered to check what pylon is generating what landscape, what parts of the world is still theirs and what is ours. You know what, if I was anyone else I’d say the way they let us take their world from them was cowardly.”
“You’re really itching for a fight.”
“If I were them, I would shut the pylon down and send in a crack team to clear us up.” But Yoliam wouldn’t have it. “They can’t shut the pylon down. Besides, you know what would happen if they cleared us out with a crack team. We’d send another lot in. Circle of life.”
Yushua fell silent. He flicked the cigarette into the air. He didn’t even want a fight, not really. Something about the dream, the frustration of it, the way he was stuck to the floor, maybe, was coming out in his head somehow, bubbling up from the deep. He didn’t want to kill people. He wanted to be a good person. He wanted hide himself at home and sleep too. But that wasn’t an option with the pylons. Machines that refashioned the world deserved their attention. No options offered.
They set off towards the pylon. Yoliam walked with a slight limp. “Your leg,” said Yushua. “Is it bad?” “No, no. It’s nothing. The drop-ship wasn’t particularly kind to me this time, metal tore at the muscle a bit. But no, I’m fine. I’ve fixed it fine. You’d be impressed with the splint. Lowly is the splinted man.”
“Those words are Scripture, aren’t they?” said Yushua. “I recognise them. The third sermon of St. Behaizer. The one that talks about the man who walks with the splint?”
“Not St. Behaizer. St. Savoy. In his edicts.”
“I’m sure I remember reading it in St. Behaizer. The long sermon that no-one finishes. It goes something like there was a man with a splint, and he was wounded and he limped, and the priest passed him by, then the king passed him by, then the greengrocer passed him by, then the young soldier – yeah isn’t it one of the grim ones where the young soldier tries to help him and then he gets himself shot somehow?”
“No,” said Yoliam, crunching the red desert unevenly underneath his wounded leg.
“It’s St. Savoy. It’s an edict about humility.”
Little puffs of red sand flew up behind them. They fell silent.
“Funny,” said Yushua, ten minutes later, unable to let it go. “I always thought of Behaizer when I heard the splint one. I have a good memory for this sort of thing. Its like – the guy has a gammy leg and then the young soldier makes him a splint but uses some wood that he then needs later on, which means he gets shot by someone else. I’m sure it’s one of those types. Where everything gets worse and worse.”
The pylon grew close. A metal tower reaching up into the sky, covered in scales, thousands of small dishes that flicked the light here and there as they worked some deep science on the world around them. Yushua and Yoliam could re-programme the pylon. The structure came with a simple interface which turned the editing of matter into a digital exercise. But neither could fathom how the pylon broke molecules down and reassembled them right up again. Chicanery of the highest order, quantum voodoo, who knew.
Yushua continued. “I’m sure it’s a parable of St. Behaizer. The man with the splint is a wounded warrior, someone society can’t use, an old spy, something like that. So they throw him out. The young soldier becomes seduced by the idea of helping someone in need, so he helps him and gets killed.”
“So it’s about seduction now.”
“Who, the man with a splint?” Yushua looked at Yoliam. “No. The young soldier is seduced by the idea of being a hero. Isn’t that it? The moral is: don’t stick your head above the parapet. Do your duty. Sacrifice yourself for the higher cause.”
“St. Behaizer’s a load of old shite.”
Yushua nodded. On that point they could both agree.
They reached the pylon. A tower which spun reality into red desert and red sky. Once they plugged in a stolen code the door opened with a whoosh. Yushua was glad to be inside. “Are you going to be alright up the stairs?” Yoliam nodded. The splint would hold. They began to climb towards the summit.
The door to the summit room opened with a hiss. Two men stood by the controls. Yushua sprung at the first man. He looked like a technician. Yushua and the first man squared off. The second bulkier man came at Yoliam, a man more like a guard or a thug, with brutish fists. Yoliam slunk back, weak on his feet. He caught the thug with one hand, grappled him with another.
Yushua landed a blow on the technicians face, a second in his gut, a third on his jaw. He ducked the man’s parry and then landed a forth blow in his gut to match the first. The technician began whirling his arms around, lashing at Yushua’s movements like an animal, before charging right at him with a yell. In a single movement Yushua tripped the technician up and brought a boot down on his windpipe. He stomped until he was sure he was dead. He heard a cry from the doorway. Neither Yoliam nor the thug could be seen.
Panting, Yushua stood by the door. Somehow the struggle had brought both Yoliam and his assailant to the top of the stairs, whereupon they promptly fell down the central stairwell. Their bodies lay right at the bottom. Although the fall seemed clean it left a complicated mess. The thug was dead, of that Yushua was sure. His body had been folded on the ground in an awkward, unnatural angle. But only when Yushua reached the bottom could he confirm the status of his companion. Yoliam survived, barely. He landed his back onto the harsh edge of a step. Something was broken near his solar plexus and made his breathing shallow. A patch of blood spread across the fabric covering his chest. Yushua narrowed his eyes, knelt down beside his friend and checked his pulse. He wasn’t going to make it. Yushua reached for the dogtags around his neck.
“Hey. Hey –” said Yoliam. “Listen. Stay a moment.”
“You’re in pain. I need to end this. To get the next programme started.”
“It can wait. Do you see any backup coming? The pylon is ours. No rush.”
“Jesus, Yoliam. You’re bleeding out. I’m just going to sit and watch you bleed out?”
“You wanted a fight. Besides, I remember the splint sermon.”
“St. Savoy. The sermon. I remember it. Just now. Just as I was falling.”
“I need your code, Yoliam. I need to get you up and running again.”
“The man with the splint is limping on the streets when he sees the young soldier. Hey – listen. It’s important.”
Yushua nodded and knelt back down beside him. “Okay.”
“The young soldier’s fresh out of the barracks, fresh as a daisy. And the man with the splint looks at the young soldier and tries to warn him. He limps up to him. He says ‘hey kid, look at me. Don’t wind up like me. Don’t go to war.’ Something like that –” Yoliam coughed. The spread of blood at his side increased. “- and the young soldier looks at the man with the splint and thinks it’s a test. Well, in fact he doesn’t know how to interpret it. He just thinks it must be some plainclothes officer trying to weed out dissidence or something. And in fact its funny thinks the kid because just this morning he was going to quit the army before the next draft and maybe open a bakery or I don’t know something ridiculous like that.”
Yoliam stopped talking for a moment and closed his eyes. A few minutes of silence. Yushua guessed he had gone. The code he needed was contained on a piece of plastic hanging around his neck on a chain that looked like it was made of lots of tiny metal beads. A simple piece of code, relatively speaking, not as grandiose as a mountain range nor as complicated as the ecosystem of a desert. The base pairs and neural config to generate a person. Yushua reached his hand out.
“Jesus. I’m still here. Not yet, I’m here. Let me finish. Stay with me a minute.”
Yoliam came back around. “Where was I? Okay – I remember. So there’s a big offensive coming up. St. Savoy was writing when war had just begun, before we’d even thought up the pylons, all the rest. When we had to make battle glorious. And the young soldier, the kid – ” he coughed again, “the kid is desperate to prove that he has the stuff. The guy with the splint has got him thinking. What kind of man is he? You know the drill. He wants to stop feeling indecisive. So instead of running back home like the man with the splint said, he goes right back to the barracks and signs up for the first round of fighting. I don’t remember what offensive St. Savoy starts off with but it turns into one of those long passages of scripture just filled with bloodshed, like he’ll list thirty friends getting on, bonding, sharing secrets and loves-back-home and so on, and then have them killed one after another until there’s no-one left. And then Dunial died. And then Yuhn died. And then Putur died. One after the other. Then he’ll do it again with a whole new bunch of people. Somun died. Yomes died. Sumuel died.”
Yushua looked at his friend’s face. He stroked his hair. The blood spread way out from his body now, running in thick little rivulets past his feet and around Yushua’s knees, marking the fabric of his trousers with wet brown-red circles.
“And so the young soldier sees the war, and throughout the whole time you think he’s going to die in some glorious way with his friends, like what you’d think if you were reading St. Behaizer,” and Yoliam laughed the way sick people laugh, wincing, full of phlegm, “but he doesn’t die at all and in fact is commended for his bravery by his superiors and receives a medal, I think. Then it gets to the end of the first offensive. The remaining few are victorious. Who knows which side wins. The young soldier, he’s not young any more, comes home and finds the man with the splint – by this point his leg is completely fucked up, by the way, like totally rotten off – and says to him I’m sorry, I understand, and shoots him right in the head. To put him out of his misery. Then the young soldier takes up the splint and straps it to his own leg, and stands outside the barracks as the next lot of recruits come out into the world fresh as a daisy. Each one fresh as a daisy. And you can guess what he says.”
“Don’t go to war.”
Yoliam nodded. “That’s St. Savoy’s point, you see. It’s sort of an anti-war story. There’s got to be someone to warn the next generation. It’s only ethical that way,” Yoliam’s voice had reduced to a whisper. “But then it’s funny, you see, because the warning turns out to be the cause.”
Yushua didn’t say anything. Yoliam seemed to smile, although it was hard to tell, before dying finally a few minutes later.