The Asclepius Pact poured over the hills, arriving amid a clamor of drums and trumpets. The air trembled with the beating wings of many strange flying species. Brightly colored exotic birds, winged reptiles and winged monkeys careened in grand procession. The flying creatures were followed by trailing vines, fluttering in the wind, festooned with purple flowers. A pale parade of hounds loped behind. There were swaying red lanterns, and burning censors of honeyed incense. Wagons trundled over the shell craters. Photos of heroic surgeries adorned the sides of the wagons, along with souvenirs of many amputations– limbs preserved with taxidermy, femurs and scapulas polished and carved, and brown severed human ears sun-dried to leather. The wagons were manned by warped individuals, deformed survivors of horrific wounds, alive, but disconnected from themselves, like ghosts imprisoned in flesh. Harnessed teams of racing lizards, swift as cheetahs, pulled the wagons over the battlefield. The lizards had tough skin which seemed impervious to the surrounding coils of barbed wire. Here and there, they would bound over the places where the wire had been piled too high, pulling their wagons through the air to land with a jolting thud.
I’m here because I followed you. I want to join up.”
“You wish to become part of the Pact?”
There was an outburst of uproarious laughter.
He wanted to hold their attention, so he started to brag about his abilities and accomplishments, getting bolder and bolder in his boasts without regard to where it might lead. Every boast was greeted with all the more boisterous laughing. Abruptly Wootin blurted out, “I can out-fly and out-fight any one of you. I can best any one of you in a dogfight using blanks.”
The laughter stopped suddenly.
The tall bald Aescalapian fighter-pilot with the monkey on his back said, “You use blanks and I use live ammunition—is that what you mean?”
“That’s not exactly what I meant. It doesn’t sound like a very life embracing sort of contest when you put it that way—but what the hell. Even if it’s not what I originally meant, I can still best you even with me shooting the blanks.”
“It seems a fine way to end the evening, killing a drunken fool.” The Aescalapian fighter-pilot shot Wootin a condescending glance, his eyes utterly devoid of fear and mercy.
“But I thought… never mind.”
“If you want to join us, make no mistake. We are not above killing for sport. It gives meaning to life. Silly notion, yet if you truly venerate life, then you venerate all the contradiction and foolishness that comes with it.”
She threw back her head and laughed, tears or serum drooling from her bandaged eyes. “You’re wise, sir. And deep. But you have much to learn, still. You’ve seen perfect beauty, but yet you don’t understand what an awful thing beauty can be.” She shuddered briefly and then shook off what had been a deep revulsion, obviously recalling some by-gone personal tragedy involving beauty and its consequences. Wootin could only imagine. She seized upon a tangled heap of necklaces and hung them around Wootin’s neck, adorning him with shattered opals and tarnished empty silver sconces. Adjusting the golden chains and knotted strands like a hangman tightening a noose, she slid her clenched fist toward Wootin’s neck. “Let me give you a lesson in magic, sir. Imagine these treasures as they once were, glittering pinnacles of the jeweler’s art, perfection itself rendered through gold, pearls, and diamonds. Suppose I were to tell you that I removed these very items from a corpse that had died of the plague. They would still be just a beautiful, yes? Nothing in your immediate experience would have changed, but you’d be terrified none the less.”
The large ships were circling, following one another’s wakes, swishing foamy horse tails.
The action became shrouded by fog and smoke. Hot hellish respirations resounded over the decks of the embattled fleets. Various arrays of naval duels were reduced to bare silhouettes shadowed against the sulfurous clouds. The shriek of shells stabbed upon the ear. Turreted cannons were erupting with smoke and flame.
The bombardment raised geysers out of the surrounding sea. The smell of fish and plankton scattered upon the winds as the waters burst with explosions. Turbulent volumes of blasted waves yet brimmed with life and its half-dissolved aftermath.
Bullitzheim viewed the battle in clinical terms. The ruptured, bloated boats might be taken into account as if they were a patient’s complaints, the crying out in pain, or silent symptoms of shock, or blood loss. The pressure of human anxiety was as discernable as any sphygmometer reading. He might plume the depths by deploying his destroyers, each with a dozen torpedo tubes. Surgically, he would explore. He would peel away the Queen’s protective layers, removing greasy obstructions like subcutaneous fats. He would take advantage of the burning gasoline that had leaked into the surface of the operative theater, finding it analogous to a liberal use of disinfectant.
Due east of Kamchatka, the weightless isles had originally been settled by a sect of hermetic monks. The monks consecrated the islands by erecting cathedrals of healing. Somehow the enterprise had given birth to the Pact.
The region was draped with shimmering mercurial mists, which would rise in clouds, or sheets, or droplets, making the air as reflective as polished chrome. The wandering silver mists could pass through solid surfaces like ephemeral phantoms, and emerge as translucent mirrors. He had often seen his own face suddenly appear, distort momentarily, then dissolve, then reappear, then shimmer away into brightness.
He would have found one compelling reason after another to abide on the stony shoals that defied gravity, misted islands floating unnaturally above the sea, ascending plateaus adorned with jungle flora, gradually rising like a series of gigantic steps into what seemed like heaven itself– if you discounted the gigantic meat eating plants that caught animals and bugs and even whole planes in their sticky maws, or the hordes of pestilential flying monkeys. Or even if you did consider the flesh-eating plants and the obnoxious simians, the place still seemed like heaven due to the effects of Ttii. Or maybe it seemed like Heaven because it was life enduring on the boundaries of death.
Wootin again saw the bright planet Mercury, rising above the turquoise waves long before its appointed time. Again, the entire night sky was off-kilter. The star had beckoned when Wootin departed the hermetic isles, and now it was calling him back. Wootin felt as if he were caught in the gravity of its eccentric orbit that had so recently undone the dependable laws of Newtonian physics.
The air was thick, cold, and heavy with banks of fog.
The seven planes circled the isles, which were lifting out of the embroiling haze. The suspended aerial rocks seemed to have been misplaced during creation and absentmindedly left upon invisible shelves by mistake. Here and there the mysterious force that had lifted the rocks affected the water as well, grabbing the high vaulting waves and spreading their peacock plumed iridescence. Scintillating silver braids were unwinding into the chiffon mists. Mosquitoes hovered hungrily, thick and daring. In the sharp, humid, icy dank, swarms of roaches took to wing, followed by predator flying reptiles.
At first the approach was slow and cautious. Wootin wished there were a way to drop the roar of the engines to a whisper and tip-toe across the air. The planes careened around murderous mountain ridges cloaked in cloud, then they swooped in for a closer look, dodging rope-bridges and ladders that loosely connected the levels.