Tim Lebbon: Echo city

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Tim Lebbon Echo city
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    Echo city
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Tim Lebbon

Echo city

As it left the city, the thing did not once look back. It walked with heavy steps, looked forward with rheumy eyes, and its misted breath soon dispersed in the air. It did not look back, because its purpose was ahead, and large though this thing was, its brain was small and simple, its reason for being very precise. It moved away from the world and out into the Bonelands, and it would never return.

Darkness concealed the start of its journey. It was aware of people in the buildings and ruins around it, but Skulk Canton was a place whose residents would keep to themselves. If they did not, its maker had instructed it to force their attention away. In its rudimentary mind, the idea of violence was little different from the process of placing one foot in front of the other, or breathing, or blinking its eyes to clear them of sand.

For a while as it started across the desert, the ground still bore signs of Echo City. Rubble from tumbled walls marred its path, and it had to step aside or climb over. One spread of land was scarred with the evidence of digging, the reason and results long since lost to time. And here and there it saw the remains of a body.

The moon's pale crescent lit its way. Beyond the moon, countless stars speckled the clear, cold night. The thing had no concept of what moon and stars were, because they bore no connection to its purpose. But it looked up at them with curiosity nonetheless. Its maker had granted it that, at least.

Soon it was away from the outer limits of the city. It walked as it had been instructed, avoiding places where the sands looked thin and loose and keeping to harder, easier surfaces. No plants existed out here, and no animals-nothing but sand and rock and the dry, heavy air it breathed. Sometimes a gentle breeze whispered a skein of sand across its path, and it held its breath as it passed through the brief, scouring cloud.

Its body was clothed in heavy leathers. It had watched its maker constructing this suit, stitching together the garments of many normal people to create something expansive enough to cover its huge torso. The suit was tied around its bulky thighs, upper arms, and neck, and the exposed surfaces of its arms and legs had been sprayed with a thick dark lotion to ward off the desert's inimical influence. Woven into the layers of leather were fluid sacs, in a network of narrow tubes that merged eventually beneath a thin, hollow bone straw protruding beneath its chin. It took frequent sips of water, and it was not long before the sips were tainted by the salty taste of its own perspiration.

Its shoes were tied leather folded many times, spiked with iron studs to give grip. It carried no weapons. It bore no pack. The prints it left behind were wide, long, and deep, and they would command awe were they noticed in the days following. But by then the thing would be dead, and it would never hear the myths of its passing.

As dawn set the eastern desert aflame, the thing marched on. It glanced to its left only once, experiencing a brief flare of wonder and awe. Somewhere deep down basked shadows of memories that were not its own, in which the view of such sunrises was interrupted by the silhouettes of spires and walls, towers and roofs. Such a natural, unhindered view as this was something all but unique, but the giant creature was not here to pontificate. It was here only to walk.

The desert stretched before it. To the south, a low range of hills buckled the horizon. They were perhaps a day's journey distant, though distance here was difficult to judge, and there were no maps of the Bonelands. It focused on the hills as it walked. By the time the sun had passed its zenith and begun its fall to the west, the hills seemed no closer, and it had to reassess its estimate of the time it would take to reach them. Beyond the hills, so every story said, there was only more poisoned desert. They were a meaningless marker at best. It might reach them… but probably not. Already it could feel the rot.

It paused to eat. Sitting on its huge haunches, the reduced weight of Echo City now many miles to the rear, it felt the rumbling, gnawing processes inside. There was a little pain, but it could compare the sensation only to the shimmering heat haze hanging above the desert far to the west-an insubstantial thing that would vanish as soon as it closed its eyes.

It closed its eyes, and the pain was warmth.

When it stood and started walking again, it looked down at its bare, sprayed legs. The skin was peeling, revealing a dark red rawness beneath. Its feet were blistered and swollen, and several of the tight leather straps had burst. It kicked off one of the folded leather shoes, and it flapped on the desert floor as tight folds unwrapped. And then the shoe was still, and there it would stay forever.

A while later the creature removed the other shoe, because wearing only one had been swinging it slowly around in a great arc across the sands. It corrected its direction of travel and set off once more.

It had passed several bodies on its walk, but just as the sun touched the western horizon it came across the first of the ruined transports. It was a rusted, rotten hulk, its wheels skeletons of metal wrapped in the brittle remains of parched wood. The creature walked close and touched one of the wheels, curiosity lighting a small flame in its limited mind. The wood came apart under its clumsy stroke, drifting to the ground in a cloud of dust and splinters. A gentle breeze that the creature had not even felt carried some of the wooden shards away, and they added themselves to the desert.

Before the ruined vehicle lay two great skeletons of the things that had pulled it this far. Pelts were draped across their bones in places, and within the stark confines of rib cages were the scattered remains of insides not yet burned to nothing by the relentless sun. Their horns were long and graceful, pitted now from the effects of the desert air.

Here and there it saw the mummified remains of human beings. They had been riding the wagon, and perhaps when their beasts succumbed to the desert's toxic influence, they had walked on until they all lay down together to die. The creature did not like to look at them. Though its maker had made it unique, somehow they reminded it of itself.

So it walked on and stared at that undulating horizon, and sometimes the texture of the ground beneath it changed. But it did not look down.

When dusk began to fall, it guessed that Echo City would now be out of sight behind it. But still it did not look back. The future lay before it-too far away to see, beyond its ability to feel-and as it considered what might come, the thing it carried inside seemed excited at the prospect.

It walked through the freezing night. Its motion kept it warm, but all the while it felt itself sickening. The desert's lethal, toxic influence was making itself felt upon the creature's flesh and bones, its blood and fluids, and though built strong it was now becoming weak. Darkness was its friend, though under the silvery sheen of moonlight it could still witness some of its flesh's demise. It was not worried, because it had not been made that way. But it did pause and stare up at the moon, and it realized that come dawn it would never see this sight again.

Sad, unsure what sadness was, it walked on.

When dawn broke on that second day, the creature realized just where the Markoshi Desert had gained its more common name.

The hills were still distant, and speckling the surface of the desert before them lay thousands of bones. There were skulls, some still bearing the leathery remnants of scalp and hair, and a few wearing the wrinkled skin of their hopeful, desperate owners. Beneath and around the skulls lay the skeletons. Older remains were all but buried by drifts, but more-recent escapees from Echo City lay atop the sand. Many of them were still clothed in the outfits they had believed would protect them from the desert's terrible actions, and beneath these, leathered skin was scarred with the rot. Most remains were whole, because not even carrion creatures could survive the Bonelands' poisons. Some had been scattered, however, and here and there the creature saw evidence of violence having been wrought. It knew that the only living things out here to perpetrate such acts would have been other people.

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