The Half-Made World - By Felix Gilman




~ 1878 ~

The General lay flat on his back, arms outflung, watching the stars.

A rock pressed into the base of his spine. He’d hit his head and turned his ankle when he fell, but the rock was the worst of his pain. Other sensations were leaving him, but the rock, obstinately, persisted; yet he was powerless to move. He was powerless to will himself to move. Between his will and his body, there was the noise.

A dark cloud passed before the stars, and their light was shadowed, then returned, cold as ever. He watched the night sky over the mountains burn and wheel, hiss and dance, shudder and fall.

The General was losing his mind.

There were no trees—no pines. He lay in a bare hollow, a high flat stony clearing. The General and his last most loyal twenty-two men had been caught in their desperate flight between the Line behind them and the cliff’s edge before them.

If the General could only have mustered the will to turn his head, he would have seen the mountain’s peak. It was dark, and forked like a gesture of benediction. It had been his destination, before this—this unfortunate interruption. It would have been better, he thought, to have died watching the mountain than the stars, which were meaningless.

In the end, no shots had been fired. No words exchanged or warnings given. The Linesmen’s awful weapon had simply come whistling out of the night sky, fallen like a stone at Lieutenant Deerfield’s feet, and poor young Deerfield had gone pale, eyes wide, turning to the General for last words; then the noise had begun, the mad awful noise, and Deerfield’s wide eyes had filled with fear and blood, and he’d toppled one way and the General had toppled the other, and now they both lay where they fell.

The weapon had quickly burned through its fuel and gone silent, but the terrible noise still echoed in the General’s mind. The noise split his mind in two, then in four, then into scattered pieces. The echoes ground him to finer and finer dust. The process was frightening and painful.

The General was a man of extraordinary character. He’d built the Red Valley Republic out of nothing—hadn’t he? He’d preserved it against all enemies and all odds, he’d taken the mere words of politicians and philosophers and he’d beaten the world into their mold. As the noise crashed rhythmlessly back and forth across his mind, he held tightly to his pride—which maybe slowed the process of disintegration but could not stop it.

For twenty years the Republic had flourished, and it had been the finest moment in the history of the West; indeed, the finest of all possible moments, for the Republic had been constructed in accordance with the best possible theories of political virtue. Gun and Line and their endless war had been banished—the Republic had been an island of peace and sanity. It was gone now, ten years gone, undermined by the spies and blackmailers of Gun, crushed by the wheels of the Line, never to return. But it had lasted long enough to raise a generation of young men and women in its mold, and it was for those young persons that the General wished he could somehow utter, and have recorded, some noble and inspiring last words; but all that now came to his shattered mind were fragments of old fairy tales, curse words, obscenities, babble. He thought he might be weeping. He couldn’t tell.

He was vaguely aware of the Linesmen going through the bodies around him. He could see them out of the corner of his eye. Squat little men in their grays and blacks stepping dismissively over the bodies of heroes! They stopped sometimes and knelt down to use their dull-bladed boot-knives to silence murmuring throats. They went like busy doctors from patient to patient. The General’s men lay helplessly. A bad way to end. A bad way for it all to end.

Would the Linesmen notice the General, still breathing? Maybe, maybe not. There was nothing he could do to stop it.

One more section of the architecture of his mind crumbled to dust, and for a moment he entirely forgot who he was, and he became preoccupied with his memories. He’d been a leader of some kind? He’d had some great final duty, which had brought him up into these damned cold ugly mountains; he forgot what it was. For some reason, he remembered instead a fairy tale his nursemaid had