In this raucous, steampunk tale a sacred order of scientist nuns battle against vicious Invaders from Mars and their murderous machines in an ongoing conflict that has lasted centuries.
The novice saw it first, but within a few seconds of her call, an augmented eye was turned toward the heavens, confirming that what Maralinda had first seen as a fire streaking across the sky was in fact some kind of craft, a ship designed to cross the void between the planets.
“They have come back,” said Sister Thromgood. Her right eye, blue and as natural as the day she was born, blinked rapidly with sudden emotion, and her fingers fumbled with the focus ring on the crystal lens of her reconstructed left eye.
“You are sure?” asked Scientist Superior Smith, who didn’t really need to ask. She had designed Sister Thromgood’s eye and knew its qualities. The crystal lens was capable of discerning the gossamer integuments of a dragonfly’s wings a mile distant.
“A characteristic flattened ovoid with the hump of the central control cabin,” said Thromgood. “I saw it clear. Definitely the Lurch. They have landed two or three miles nor’-nor’-west of Tideford Cross, I judge.”
“Telegraph list one authorities at once,” said Smith in an aside to her aide, who rushed to the speaking tube to call orders down to the scriptorium, her voice a low litany of telegraph addresses and alerts as Smith continued to talk to the others. “The local militia will not be able to crack a lander on their own and with the railway viaducts at Forder and Wivelscombe still under repair following the storm, the Cannon-Train from Plymouth cannot reach the site, nor anything horse-drawn, not before the lander spawns.”
“Does that mean we will intervene?” asked Maralinda, clapping her hands. The sound of flesh meeting flesh was something rarely heard there. Unlike the other nuns, she had not yet taken the final vow, which would dedicate her to a life of dangerous experimentation, and so did not always wear the cunningly jointed gauntlets or the armoured habit of a full sister.
“Our vow requires it,” said Smith. “But that does not mean you will be going, Novice Maralinda. You may run and tell Sister Martial McDougall she is to take command of Ravelin Two—raise steam and deploy fast wheels. The usual crew plus sixteen sisters-at-arms. She is to select them from those on the fallow roster.”
“Yes, Scientist,” said Maralinda demurely. She bobbed her head, turned about like a whirlwind and ran down the command chapel steps to the perimeter walkway, pausing for just a moment to gaze at the ravelin that thrust out from the wall fifty yards away. It looked simply a part of the fortifications of the Abbey of Saint Nicola of the Almost Perpetual Motion, one of the great houses of the Sisterhood of Scientific Investigation. But the ravelin was not a thing of stone at all. It was made of wrought iron, crafted to resemble masonry. The whole great triangular construction was a massive armoured vehicle, propelled by two gaum-enhanced triple-expansion steam engines. These drove twenty-seven huge wheels, though not all at the same time. Different sets of wheels could be deployed depending upon the required use and the terrain, ranging from the fast pneumatically inflated rubber driving wheels used on good surfaces to the toothed wheels of solid metal known among the crew as the joint-shakers, which were set to control recoil when the ravelin’s penetrator cannon was to be fired.
Maralinda knew better than to pause for more than a few seconds. When Scientist Superior Smith gave an order, she would brook no delay. The novice continued along the perimeter wall to the interior stairs and went down them three at a time, raced along the covered way and burst into the Chapel of Preparedness, where Sister McDougall was on duty, overseeing the half dozen nuns who watched the dials and tell-tales that spoke of the status of various engines, experiments, and instruments within the Abbey, and the mechanical observers that guarded the near approaches.
“Scientist Superior’s compliments, Sister,” gasped Maralinda. “The Lurch have landed near Tideford Cross, you are to ready Ravelin Two with fast wheels and usual crew and sixteen sisters-at-arms from the fallow list.”
“Very good, Maralinda,” said McDougall.
She rose unhurriedly from the rocking chair, one of the Abbey’s treasured relics that had reputedly belonged to Saint Nicola, took her lightning pistol from the rack behind her and strapped it on over her armoured habit, its lamellar iron plates clanking as she fastened the belt buckle.
“Sister Bezan, you will take charge. Sister Nadiran, sound ‘Ready Ravelin’.”
Sister Nadiran reached up above her bank of dials and indicators, selected two of the six hanging chains, and pulled them both down, hard. It took only three seconds for that movement to be passed by a series of mechanical relays to the main engine room deep beneath the Abbey, and only five seconds more before the great steam trumpets in the central tower high above blared out the melodic fragment of the hymn “Scourge of Lightning Be My Friend” calling the garrison of the ready ravelin to their posts.
“Maralinda, your duty is to assist in the Armoury, is it not?” asked McDougall.
“Yes, Sister,” said Maralinda obediently, trying not to show the disappointment that was washing through her every cell.
“Go there and draw armour and weapons,” said McDougall. “You will join the ravelin party. Do not disappoint me.”
Maralinda suppressed a sudden urge to hug McDougall, leap in the air and sing the first verse of “Wind the Clockwork till the Spring Sings”, instead somehow containing all her sudden joy in a single obedient bob of her head.
Less than ten minutes later, Maralinda stood in the command chapel of Ravelin Two, to be a runner for Sister Martial McDougall in case of battle damage to the voice pipes or telegraph system. She wore full armour for the first time in earnest, though it was familiar to her from years of drills and practice. Her helmet was on, though the faceplate was open and the breathing apparatus not yet activated. The thin crown of blue fabric around the helmet rim—a nod to the wimple of a ceremonial, unarmoured habit—indicated she was a novice; the full sisters wore scarlet and the scientist superiors a sombre, light-absorbing black.
Steam trumpets blared a discordant warning. The huge vehicle shook the earth as it undocked from the wall and crossed the swing bridge that had been extended over the perimeter ditch. The bridge was itself a massive construction: the swinging section massed more than sixty tons of wrought, riveted iron. In addition to serving as a bridge for the ravelin, it could also be swung out like a massive ram to crush Lurch Trivet swarms which might attempt to cross the thirty-yard-wide ditch.
The military road the ravelin drove onto was not a construction designed or made by the Sisters, but an artifact of the initial Lurch invasion of the century before. A fifty-foot-wide ribbon of a giving but resilient material that still defied analysis or reproduction, it had been laid down for the use of the resource collection wagons of the alien enemy, “resource” in the context of the Lurch meaning living biological material of any kind, including humans.
The steam trumpets blared again as the ravelin slowly accelerated towards its full, frightening speed of eighteen miles an hour. The military road was open to all travellers and often busy with carts, hay wains, and coaches, but such vehicles as the Sisters’ ravelin had the utmost priority and were also indemnified from any accidental crushing. This, combined with even the slightest amount of common sense, invariably cleared the road ahead for miles. Which was as well, given the ravelin took a quarter of a mile to come to a complete stop from full speed.
Sister Martial McDougall consulted the map she had laid on the chart table by the binnacle. A pencilled mark indicated the landing spot of the Lurch lander, triangulated by their own observation and telegraphed reports collated by the combined Naval and Army headquarters at Plymouth from the constabulary and concerned citizens in the villages near the site.
“We can take the military road as far as Nobbin by Nabbin,” she said, indicating a village to the helm-sister. “Then we shall proceed across country—it is predominantly farmland; we must remember to provide administrative assistance to the owners to apply for the compensation afterwards—to this ridge. We will be above the landing site and can engage the Lurch vessel with plunging fire. Once the craft’s shell is broken, Sister Martial Gorronwy will lead a party to first prevent any surviving War Globules from spawning and then to board. Once all opposition has been eradicated, we will secure the craft.”
Though she did not say so, everyone in the command chapel knew “secure the craft” meant claim all its contents for the Sisterhood. The Lurch vessels were propelled by gaum, the incredibly powerful transformative substance that was so necessary to modern civilization in general, and to the Sisters in particular, for experiments and to use as a fuel in their machines and armaments. Unfortunately, gaum was not native to Earth; it could only be found in occasional meteorites or taken from the Lurch. Great stocks of the stuff had been captured when the Lurch were first expelled, and while very little was needed to do a lot, supplies were running low.
The Great Interplanetary Launcher Cannon, still under construction at Greenwich after a decade, was the first phase of a long plan to assemble an expeditionary force to go to the red planet, home of the Lurch, and wrest new stores of gaum from them, among other objectives. But the Cannon had yet to launch a single ship, though more than fifty had already been constructed and bobbed along the Thames waiting for the chance to move from the medium of water to space. The Sisters of Saint Nicola of the Almost Perpetual Motion had made two such ships, and trained the crews for them, but it was still expected to be more than a year before they would be launched, the necessary computations for the long journey yet to be completed, despite the use of the new clockwork reckoners.
It was Novice Maralinda’s dearest wish to be among the crew of one of these voidships, as they were called by the newspapers. But she did not think of that now, on the bridge of the rolling ravelin, setting out to engage the Lurch. This was happiness enough.
One of the voice pipes whistled, followed immediately by a swift report.
“Stern lookout. Forest on the move, green eighty, range sixteen fifty.”
Everyone in the command chapel save the helm-sister turned to the right to look out through the high arched windows. Sure enough, a vast mass of thick greenery was moving across the farmland, a whole forest, on a parallel course about a mile behind the ravelin. Looking more closely, Maralinda perceived the outer, more open fringes were a skirmish line of striding-oaks, each ridden by a sole druid. Behind these scouts and outriders came the larger battle-beeches, with massive canopies that might hide a dozen druids or more; behind them, moving more slowly and falling behind, were three awesome siege-oaks, taller and broader even than the ravelin of the sisters. These ancient trees already held massive, aerodynamically shaped menhirs in their huge branches, missiles of rough-hewn sarsen they could throw a mile or more. Behind them came more battle-beeches and striding-oaks, a rear guard to protect the field maples, hazel trees, and willows, who while as nimble as the young oaks were here made to move more slowly, serving as field hospitals, and to carry stores of food, drink and medicine.
“A full fighting forest,” remarked Sister Martial McDougall with a slight smile Maralinda didn’t recall ever having seen on the nun before. “Hoke’s Wood, I think?”
Sister Rismir, the ravelin’s second-in-command, was already flicking through the pages of the recognition book. She stopped at one entry, which depicted the notable trees, and nodded.
“Hoke’s Wood. Grand Druid Thrisby, most senior. The largest siege-oak in the middle is definitely Hoke itself.”
“I know no other tree which can throw six menhirs at once,” said McDougall. She smiled slightly again. “Trust Thrisby to have foreseen the landing. They must have started out yesterday. Give me a speed estimate on those outriders, please, and let’s go to emergency road speed.”
“Emergency road speed,” repeated the helm-sister, working the engine telegraph, which chimed and a second later chimed again as the second indicator moved in response to the engine room’s acknowledgment of the order. The tempo of the muffled thumping of massive pistons accelerated and the vibration throughout the ravelin increased.
Maralinda frowned in puzzlement. Emergency road speed was incredibly profligate of fuel, burning gaum at one part to every ten of coal for full efficiency, as opposed to the one in fifty for the usual top speed. She had never been in a ravelin that needed to go so fast. Why did they now?
Sister McDougall noticed the slight twitch of the novice’s mouth, and as she often did, chose a moment for instruction.
“You know the druids as our allies, friends, and occasional lovers, Novice Maralinda. But right now we are rivals to some small degree, in that whoever first enters the hull of the Lurch vessel is the salvor, and has the rights to the gaum. The druids have the advantage in their foreseeing. They have seen this craft in their reflective pools some days ago, and set the forest in motion. But we are faster on the road, and that may be enough.”
Sister Rismir was at the map table with calipers and pencil.
“It will be close, Sister Martial,” she said. “We will reach the ridge twenty minutes plus or minus a minute before the siege-oaks, but I am sure they will push their striding-oaks forward ready to take advantage of our shattering the lander, and they will be faster over the fields than any armoured sister.”
“Hmmm,” replied McDougall. “There is the glider. Launched on the first cracking, we can have a force at the lander within minutes.”
“The glider can only carry four sisters,” said Rismir, her voice cool and even. “Four against however many Lurch survive the cracking. The rest of the boarding party would take upwards of a half hour to reach them, more if the fields are particularly muddy. There has been heavy rain within the last few days.”
“But the druids would reinforce us quickly,” mused McDougall. “Within a few minutes.”
“Us, Sister Martial?” asked Rismir, still passionless, but her point was clear. McDougall was in command of the ravelin and was not permitted to lead any such forlorn hope as the suggested glider party.
“Hmph,” grunted McDougall, in unhappy acknowledgment of this fact. “Nevertheless, I think the risk must be taken. We will let the Saint decide who flies, from whoever volunteers. Presuming we have volunteers—”
A cacophony of voices from every pipe and a sudden eruption of raised hands in the command chapel indicated everyone wanted to volunteer for this extremely hazardous and risky mission.
“Silence!” ordered Rismir.
“The Saint will decide,” said McDougall. “We have about twenty minutes until we reach the firing position, plenty of time for you to take the casket around, Number One.”
“Yes, sister,” replied Rismir. She raised her voice, “Eyes on your dials and scopes, everyone! Anyone distracted from duty loses their chance.”
Maralinda made sure she stood at attention behind Sister Martial, ready to respond in an instant if she was called upon to carry a message or anything else. She didn’t dare turn to watch Rismir open the shrine behind her, though she heard her low-voiced prayer, unintelligible over the sound of the engines and road noise, but instantly recognizable to all the sisters, and bent her head as the casket was opened and the scent of broom filled the air.
She could almost see the first offering from the corner of her eye, but still didn’t dare turn even an inch to look properly. After a minute, the signal sister turned back to her voice pipe, evidently not favoured, and then Rismir was standing in front of the novice, the golden casket open to reveal the ebonized, skeletal hand of Saint Nicola, vivid black bones resting in velvet plush. It was her right hand, the one she had used to wrest the repository of liquid gaum from a Lurch Supreme Ganglion, ending both their lives and turning the tide at the Third Battle of Tewkesbury.
Maralinda knelt, her heart in her mouth lest her poleyns squeaked, as they sometimes did, no matter how she tinkered with the knee armour. But they did not, and no other parts of her equipage squealed or rasped.
“Do you seek the Saint’s blessing to take the first fight to the Lurch?” asked Rismir.
“I do,” said Maralinda. She reached out and rested her gauntleted index and second fingers on the edge of the casket. Nothing happened, and choking disappointment began to rise in her throat, instantly dispelled as the hand suddenly flexed and a violet spark shot out from it, leaping from gauntlet to arm to spread all over her, limning the novice with Saint Nicola’s Fire.
“The Saint has chosen the first,” intoned Rismir.
“It is rare for a novice to be so chosen, Maralinda,” said McDougall, effortlessly bending her knees to maintain balance as the ravelin lurched and juddered over something on the road. Her poleyns never squeaked. “I trust you will deserve the honour. Report to the catapult head, equipped for glider-borne assault.”
Five minutes later, a breathless Maralinda stood atop the ravelin, the wind whisking past her as the massive vehicle continued to speed along the military road at some unprecedented velocity, perhaps even twenty-five miles per hour. Soon it would have to slow down, deploy the more rugged cross-country wheels, and head across farmland.
The glider sat on a steam-powered catapult rail that ran the full length of the ravelin. A small aircraft in body, its wings were very long, and hinged. Usually folded and tied down for travel, they were now fully extended, the wing tips shivering far out to either side.
The novice was still lit by Saint Nicola’s fire, as were her three companions. Sister Kobyros, a second propulsion engineer, was senior; Sisters O’Mazzini and Smithie were ordinary sisters-at-arms, yet to gain any technical posts. All four wore their armoured habits, but due to weight requirements imposed by the glider’s lift capacity, had not fastened on additional ablative armour or taken up the seven-foot-long energetic glaives they would usually fight with; instead they wore ordinary clipper swords and holstered lightning pistols.
“I will fly the craft, with O’Mazzini behind,” said Kobyros. “Novice Maralinda, you will tether under the port wing; Smithie, the starboard.”
“Aye, sister,” replied Maralinda. She carefully walked a dozen paces over to the left-hand side of the roof, where a harness was trailed ready about a third of the way along the portside wing. There was a launch position there, no more than a waist-high railing she could lean back into so as not to fall off. Maralinda positioned herself against it, glanced very briefly over the side at the ground far below, and picked up the harness the flight crew had made ready.
She began to strap herself in, checking each buckle carefully, trying not to think about falling off now, falling off during the launch, or falling off at some later point. In flight Maralinda would dangle a dozen feet below the glider. But as well as making sure she didn’t fall, the harness also had to open easily, because they would be flying straight into a fight.
Tight enough to not fall. Loose enough to get out of quickly. It was a conundrum, and Maralinda almost started a frenzy of tightening and loosening and fiddling before her training took over. She checked everything once and left it alone.
Smithie was checking her harness from the dangler launch station on the other side, though only her top half was visible, because the low fuselage of the glider was in the way. Farther ahead, in front of the wings, Kobyros and O’Mazzini were climbing into the cockpit. It was safer there, in some ways, but harder to get out of, in case of emergency.
Maralinda was glad she had been chosen to dangle, even though it was absolutely terrifying on takeoff, when the steam catapult fired the craft into the air and the wing-danglers were dragged ferociously after it. If the glider didn’t ascend properly, they would be smashed to pieces on the mighty prow of the ravelin.
Suddenly, the ravelin lurched to one side, throwing Maralinda about like a ball on a string. It then righted, but with considerably more jarring and thumping. They had left the military road and were grinding across farmland. She had been so intent on her straps she hadn’t noticed the brief slow down as the road wheels were raised and the cross-country set were lowered.
The hatch behind Maralinda clanged open and Rismir climbed out. She dogged it shut before hurrying over to check that Maralinda’s harness was secure, her sword’s safety strap was fastened, pistol holster buttoned down, and power gauntlets fully wound and set to safe.
“I expect we’ll need two or three shots to crack the lander, and you will be launched the instant we have positive cracking. Close up with the others as soon as you land,” Rismir advised. “You may need to fight back-to-back before the first wave of druids arrives.”
“They will be quick to support us, won’t they?” asked Maralinda. She didn’t want to sound anxious, but couldn’t help asking.
“Definitely,” replied Rismir. She hesitated, then added, “I would have no doubt anyway— the druids are good fellows, for fighting or feasting—but in this case they will be even more eager because the Grand Druid Thrisby is Sister Martial McDougall’s holiday husband.”
“Ah,” replied Maralinda. That explained McDougall’s curious smile. “I see.”
While the sisters devoted their lives to scientific pursuits in the service of Saint Nicola, the order was not a celibate one. Saint Nicola herself was known to have had several lovers, and a number of the order’s holy days gave the sisters deliberate license to pursue sexual relationships within or beyond the convent. Some of these led to permanent, if part-time, relationships. Hence “holiday husbands” and “Wednesday wives”. Most such holy days fell on a Wednesday, the day on which Saint Nicola was martyred.
“The Saint be with you,” concluded Rismir formally.
“And with you,” responded Maralinda.
Rismir slapped her on the shoulder and went forward to talk to Kobyros and O’Mazzini.
Maralinda checked her straps again. This was the worst time, waiting to go into battle. She had been in some small skirmishes with bandits and the like, and many, many training sessions. But she had never gone up against the real enemy.
She went over the different types of Lurch, reminding herself of their strengths and weaknesses.
War Globule. These were more of a deployment system than an enemy as such, though they could still be dangerous. Gelid sacs of a resilient, shock-absorbent material, thousands of them would be fired out of the lander when it was ready to spawn, to a distance of fifty or sixty yards. They were intensely cold and if they hit unprotected flesh caused both impact and freezing wounds, but they warmed quickly once they hit the ground, emitting clouds of camouflaging steam. Shortly thereafter they opened to disgorge the main form of fighting Lurch.
Trivet. These hard-carapaced, three-legged, crab-like soldiers were the most common and well-known type of Lurch, the name derived from their odd movement. Their three legs were uneven, so they lurched across the ground, though with surprising speed, in bursts equal to a cantering horse. To attack, they planted their longest leg, reared backwards and extended dozens of thorn-like hooks from the other two legs, using these limbs to pull their foe into the rotating jaws underneath their central body. Flesh, bone and armour were shredded equally, and stored in quickly spun-up sacs, pallid or dark depending on the content, which were hung around their central torso, to be taken back to the lander once all opposition was defeated.
Flingers. These seemed to be derived from Trivets. They had the same central carapace with the rotating jaws beneath, but their three legs were much shorter and used differently. Their legs were akin to springs. A Flinger would compress itself almost flat, then spring forward across the battlefield, always aiming for the head. When it hit, as it nearly always did unless prevented from doing so, the little legs would latch on and the jaws would go to work.
Supreme Ganglions. These were the ultimate weapon of the Lurch. For a long time, it had not been clear how they came into being, as they did not emerge whole from the landers, nor were they propelled out contained in extra-large War Globules or the like. However, at the Battle of Southwark the secret was revealed. A fortuitously situated natural philosopher aboard her ducal yacht in the Thames observed one being “born” or made. First, a swarm of Trivets formed up in three concentric rings, very close together. Then they planted themselves, and extended their lesser limbs to join their neighbours’, a pattern made so swiftly that Duchess Bentinck was unable to sketch it at the time and later had difficulty reproducing the form. Then dozens of Flingers would spring upon this conjoined monstrosity and merge themselves, building it up higher, eventually resulting in an immobile thing closely resembling a monstrous, thick-skinned blancmange forty feet high and thirty feet in diameter, veined in pulsating conduits of gaum, joined to a central repository of the stuff deep inside the creature, in a sheep-sized organ something like a heart.
Once a Supreme Ganglion was fully formed, it would exert its strange mental powers upon the Lurch’s human enemies. At the Battle of Southwark, the newly formed Ganglion had immobilised every human within a mile, to be easily dispatched by marauding Trivets and Flingers. Only the accidental conjunction of an incendiary bomb fired by a mortar emplaced in the inner bailey of the Tower of London and the massive brandy store in the cellars below The Tabard coaching inn saved the day, the Supreme Ganglion being immolated in the resulting firestorm.
A very few people appeared to be naturally impervious to the mental commands of a Supreme Ganglion. Saint Nicola had been one such person, fighting on when everyone else was frozen or demented at Tewkesbury, and when her sword broke on the Trivet armor plates that formed the Ganglion’s hide she had continued to rip her way through to the gaum reservoir using only her power-gauntleted hands, driven by the prototype clockwork that had been so much advanced over the following two centuries by the sisterhood.
A shrill piping brought Maralinda’s mind back from Saint Nicola’s deed of martyrdom to the present. The steam trumpets were sounding “Prepare Cannon” and the ravelin was slowing as it reached the top of the ridge, the rumble underneath indicating that the cross-country wheels were coming up and the joint-shaker gripping wheels lowered.
Maralinda stepped up on the catapult cradle so she could see clearly past the glider, being careful to keep her suspension ropes untangled.
The ravelin had halted just over the crest of a ridge, so it was tilted slightly forward. In the valley below, the Lurch lander was obvious, because it was a massive thing of bright metal and the locals were milling about it uselessly firing their muskets, fowling pieces, and pistols, some enterprising farmers even hewing at the impervious metal with billhooks and axes.
The steam trumpets sounded again, followed by the voice of Sister Martial McDougall booming out across the valley, crackling and hissing as the steam bellows of the sound reinforcement system massively amplified her words.
“Move away from the lander as quickly as you can! We will commence firing upon it in three minutes. If you are anywhere nearby, you will be killed! Move away from the lander now!”
Her warning was punctuated by the brief screech of the joint-shaker wheels grinding down the stony dirt as the ravelin rocked backwards and forwards to settle in before firing the massive cannon. This was as long as the vehicle itself and a central part of its construction. In fact, the ravelin had been built around the cannon, which occupied the entire middle two levels of the enormous vehicle and the ravelin’s most important function was to transport the sixty-foot-long breech-loading penetrator weapon to a firing position.
The smoke from the rear funnels suddenly increased, great billows of it blowing up into the sky, turning from its more usual dirty gray to a strange bright vermilion, indication of profligate use of gaum. The thump of the expansion engines also became louder and faster, no longer driving road wheels but charging the batteries for the electromagnetic accelerator rails in the cannon. When fully charged, the weapon could fire four times, each shot sending a spear of gaum-hardened steel towards the chosen target at a velocity of close to two thousand yards a second.
The steam trumpets sounded again, a short melody followed by four particularly loud, quick blasts. The first was “Prepare Glider Launch” and the second a warning that the cannon was about to fire.
Maralinda took up her launch position, ten feet back from the wing, knees bent, leaning backwards to keep the tension on the ropes. She sealed her helmet, the hiss of the air system not quite managing to drown out the thudding of her heart, which seemed to echo throughout the armour.
Suddenly, she lost her balance and fell on to one knee, as the whole ravelin bounded and bucked rearwards. A moment later the boom of the cannon struck her. It was almost deafening, even muffled by her helmet. Then she heard the titanic clang as the projectile hit the lander, and hoped to hear what she had been told was the instantly recognizable sound of the craft’s hull cracking.
“It’s a beauteous sound,” Scientist Superior Smith had told the class. “A very high, quavering C6, followed by a calamitous clattering, as if every suit of our armour fell off the stands in the armoury at once, magnified a hundred times.”
Maralinda did not hear that sound, only the steam trumpets calling “Reload! Reload!” and the deep thump of the engines, and steam screaming from some safety valve behind her, and always the snare beat of her own heart, impossibly close and rapid.
The cannon, reloaded by the ingenious clockwork mechanism that fed a new missile from the magazine above, fired again. Maralinda, still down on one knee, kept her balance this time. As the ravelin settled, she heard the sound she’d been hoping for, and delighted in it every much as Scientist Smith had in the telling of it to the attentive classroom. The high note was higher than she’d expected, and it went on for longer, but the clattering at the end was as dramatic as she’d been told.
Yet even before it had faded, the steam trumpets blared again. Maralinda stood hurriedly and braced herself, because it was the launch warning. There was a great eruption of steam all about the catapult and it sprang forward, throwing the glider and the dangling sisters off the top of the ravelin and over the edge of the ridge into open air at a velocity hopefully sufficient for them to catch the breeze and fly away.
For the first two or three hundred yards Maralinda was behind the glider and even higher than it, looking down at its tail as the craft plunged towards the ground, before Sister Kobyros pulled back on the stick and they began a circling climb to the right. As the craft slowed and rose, Maralinda fell, until she was hanging below and behind the glider, still being pulled along, but now with a minute or two of leisure to survey the ground beneath.
The Lurch lander was broken in half, shards of bright metal strewn about the break point like strange, glittering hailstones. Maralinda couldn’t see any Lurch moving about, but a thick cloud of steam obscured the break, presumably from War Globules exposed to the air before they were launched. That meant some Trivets would be emerging soon, though with any luck many would have been killed when the lander cracked.
There were some dead people a little way beyond the blanket of broken shards, some of the locals who had not retreated far enough.
The glider started down, losing speed, Sister Kobyros expertly keeping it from a stall. She was clearly planning to land about fifty yards from the Lurch vessel, on a parallel line.
Maralinda carefully checked the quick release on the harness and flexed her knees, making sure the poleyns moved smoothly. If they locked up, she’d break a leg.
The ground was approaching swiftly now, very swiftly. Maralinda saw movement in the steam, Trivets beginning to lumber around. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the druid vanguard, striding-oaks galloping across the field, still some distance away.
She hit the ground running and just managed to hit the quick release and break free before she would have fallen over and been dragged along behind the glider, which was still sliding to a stop, spraying freshly ploughed dirt everywhere.
Maralinda unsheathed her clipper sword, holding it ready in her right hand as she drew her lightning pistol with her left. She was only just in time as Trivets charged out of the steam, stomping towards her in their ungainly manner. The novice shot the first four, the violet flash of the electric discharge from her pistol brilliant even through her helmet visor, the crackling forks of lightning burning through the Trivets’ carapaces to cook them instantly.
Pistol battery exhausted, she threw it aside and wielded the clipper sword two-handed, activating the clockwork mechanism that vibrated the two outer sawtooth blades against the central fuller. The sword shrieked high and then growled horribly as she swung it across a Trivet’s legs, sending the carapace toppling.
More came behind, but she had a second to look around. Smithie was running towards her, also wielding her clipper sword, several dead or dying Trivets behind her. Kobyros and O’Mazzini were fighting back-to-back twenty yards away near the glider, surrounded by Trivets. Maralinda didn’t have time to look behind to see how close the druids were, as she had to suddenly step back and slice a Flinger in half as it dive-bombed towards her head. Then there were more Trivets, and more behind that. Smithie came up and they stood together, but the swarm of Trivets had no end, and the clockwork in her sword ran down so it was little better than a piece of steel.
She fought on, crushing rather than cutting. Once she was caught, gripped by a Trivet’s spiky limbs and brought close to its jaws, but she did a backflip and fired the flares in her heels into its grotesque, serving platter–sized mouth. It dropped her at once and she rolled away, managing to regain her feet just in time to bring her sword down hard enough to shatter the carapace and put that Trivet down for good.
For a moment, no more enemy were close. She looked swiftly around. Smithie was dead. A single armoured leg was nearby, the rest of her chewed up. A pile of hewn-apart Trivets in a circle around that leg indicated that Smithie had not died easily.
It took Maralinda, still in furious battle focus, another few seconds to comprehend the reason for the lull in the fighting. Trivets were no longer advancing out of the broken lander. Rather, they were forming up in the crater between the broken halves of the spacecraft. Making a circle, more and more of them rushing to join it, and Flingers were starting to land on top.
A Supreme Ganglion was forming.
Maralinda looked around again. Her helmet was dented, the inside fogged up despite the constant stream of cool air across it from her breathing system, unable to counter the sweat of intense combat. She moved her head from side to side, hoping to see reinforcements.
But there was no one. Kobyros and O’Mazzini must also be dead. Maralinda looked at the nascent Ganglion. The outer ring already had dozens of Trivets locked together; there was no way she could break through.
A flash of movement made her swing around and lift her sword. But it was not the Lurch. A striding oak, fastest and foremost of the druid’s vanguard, planted its mighty trunk-feet near her. A druid—a young, devilishly bearded man with bright golden eyes—leaned down from the driving position in the crotch where the trunk bifurcated into two massive branches. His hands remained deep under the bark, pulling on the glutamate reins. The tree skidded to a stop, and swung a mighty upper branch to smack a Flinger aiming for Maralinda’s head into pulp.
A plan flashed into Maralinda’s mind, fully formed.
The great oaks and their throwing stones.
The Ganglion, too strong for a frontal assault.
“Throw me into the middle of the Ganglion!” she shouted, her voice booming from the suit’s resonator. She didn’t wait for a reply but turned to face the enemy, raised her arms, and flexed her gauntlets to activate the clockwork talons.
The trailing end of a branch wrapped around her middle, hefted her a little, then slithered farther around for a better grip with the thickening limb. It lifted her six inches off the ground to gauge her weight, then she was pulled up and behind the tree, and flung forward as if from a trebuchet, straight at the Ganglion!
She hit it smack-bang in the top, expecting a hard impact and broken limbs. But she sank completely into the jelly-like mound, the stuff closing in over her head. The Trivet armour was all lower down—there was none on the top. Instantly, Maralinda began to slash with her power gauntlets, the snickering razor-sharp talons slicing through the strange flesh. For good measure she kicked as well, violently. She couldn’t see anything at first, until suddenly her talons hit something much harder and sparks flew and she redoubled her efforts and broke through the outer wall of Trivet carapaces, still hacking and kicking, and emerged into sunshine, the sun above oblivious to the death and destruction all around.
Maralinda turned to go back in, to slash her way to the central repository of gaum as Saint Nicola had done. But her clockwork talons had run down, her pistol was long gone, her sword likewise. Her left leg wouldn’t bend at the knee and she almost fell trying to charge, her own movement now a parody of a Trivet’s lurching motion. Still, she flung herself forward, only to be suddenly arrested and dragged back, gripped from behind, doubtless to be fed into the sawing jaws of a—
She was restrained by the same tree that had thrown her earlier. Maralinda continued to struggle, before the words the druid in the oak was shouting at her finally made sense.
“You’ve done it! It’s collapsing! We have to stay back!”
The partially formed Supreme Ganglion was falling in on itself. Trivets which had been absorbed and repurposed were now dropping off like rotten fruit, squishing as they hit the ground. Unfinished veins were unrolling like ropes dropped by drunken sailors, gaum slowly drooling from the open ends into viscous puddles.
There were no active fighting Lurch anywhere. Only the deflated Ganglion, which now resembled the horrid aftermath of a lightning storm Maralinda and the sisters had helped clean up after the year before, when more than a hundred sheep had lost their minds and run terrified into a sinkhole, creating a hideous mound of dead and dying animals. Up until today, it had been the most horrible scene the novice had ever witnessed.
Maralinda drooped in the branch’s hold, suddenly exhausted and limp. The druid took his hands out from under the bark, drew a conker crossbow from a holster strapped to the trunk and jumped down.
The double-barrelled crossbow was spanned and ready to fire. For a moment Maralinda thought he might be about to shoot her, so he could go and claim the lander and its load of gaum for the druids. But then the branch released her and she slid to the ground, barely managing to stay on her feet with a painful hopping movement, as her left leg stayed completely stiff.
“You were splendid,” muttered the druid. He seemed rather shy. “Name’s Woodbine.”
“Maralinda,” replied the novice automatically.
A single, apparently unharmed Trivet emerged from the ruin of the Ganglion, trailing festoons of partially remade Lurch flesh. It began to move erratically towards them, as if confused. Maralinda watched it with a strange paralysis, all the fight gone from her, used up. She half-heartedly looked for a rock or anything she could use as a weapon, but before she could get her body to move Woodbine raised his crossbow and shot the Trivet. Two mystically aged and hardened horse chestnuts smacked into its carapace, splitting it much as the ravelin’s penetrator cannon had broken the lander. The Trivet fell, its legs flailing for a few seconds before it became still.
Woodbine reached into the bag of loose conkers on his belt, quickly inspected each glossy seed ball, rejected one which he flicked away, and reloaded the crossbow.
“Doubt there’s any more Lurch now,” he said. “But best to be careful.”
Maralinda nodded wearily. It was hard to believe she had survived. Looking around, her eyes slid over the torn and broken remnants of her sisters, and fixed on the reinforcements coming across the field. The rest of the druid vanguard of striding-oaks were approaching, but they were still a few minutes away. Quite some distance behind them, she saw the bright armour of her sisters, double-timing across the field.
“How did you get so far ahead?” she asked wonderingly. Only the arrival of the druid had saved her, and the battle. If not for that throw, the Supreme Ganglion would have formed and dominated everyone. Maralinda did not think she would have been immune. Saint Nicola had been the only one in her century, and there had only been two others known since then.
“Nelly’s the fastest tree in the forest, a hundred and seventy years running,” said Woodbine proudly, slapping the trunk of the oak. “A good jumper too. Glad I got here in time. What do you say we claim the lander together, for convent and forest, fifty-fifty? Not too presumptuous, I hope?”
“No,” said Maralinda. “That . . . that sounds fair.”
She slowly lowered herself to one knee, slapping the recalcitrant left poleyn until she could slowly bend it, with a great deal of squeaking and screeching. She slid back her visor, hoping for fresh air, only to gag and nearly retch as she caught the reek of the deliquescent Ganglion instead, a stench so powerful it overrode all others. She ignored it, not without great difficulty, and put her hands together to offer a prayer to Saint Nicola, thanking her for the victory, for her life, and in remembrance of her dead sisters.
“Never smelt anything quite so horrible,” commented Woodbine as Maralinda stood up again. A moment later a cloud of aromatic smoke wafted across the novice’s face. Surprised, she turned to see the druid had lit a large, bark-wrapped spliff and was puffing away on it.
“Ceremonial herb,” he said hoarsely, offering it to her.
Maralinda shook her head, took the hip flask from her belt, and swallowed the largest gulp of apple brandy she’d ever taken.
“Ceremonial drink,” she gasped. It wasn’t even the best apple brandy the Sisters distilled; it was the ordinary issue. But right then it seemed to have been transformed into something rare and special.
She took another swig, then swapped with Woodbine to inhale the ceremonial herb while he took a drink. It seemed only sensible to sit down after that, Maralinda with her back against the oak, which had put its roots down and might have been there forever. Woodbine sat cross-legged beside her. They watched the shimmering pools of gaum spilt from the Ganglion, and didn’t bother to get up when a great cavalry of striding-oaks surged past them and scores of druids leaped down and hurried about, and time passed surprisingly swiftly and the armoured sisters arrived as well, and there was a little bit of good-natured arguing back and forth until the ranking druid and Sister Rismir came over and found out about the agreement to split the claim to the lander and its contents.
“When I get back I am going to invent some better ways to fight the Lurch,” said Maralinda. “From a distance.”
She thought she’d said it to herself, but it must have been aloud, because Woodbine answered.
“Got to get up close to get the gaum, not risk the reservoirs being broken,” he said slowly. “Otherwise we’d simply throw menhir after menhir at them, and you’d use all your cannons and lightnings and so on. That’s how it is. All about the gaum.”
“We’ll learn how to get our own gaum one day,” said Maralinda fiercely. “Go to Mars and wrest the secret from them.”
“Or work out how to produce it ourselves here,” said Woodbine. “We’re making some progress on that, in fact.”
They were silent for a while, passing the burned-out spliff and the empty hip flask between them, neither realizing they were finished.
“Bound to be a feast tomorrow,” said Woodbine, after a while. “Expect I’ll see you there, what? Dance to celebrate being alive, that sort of thing? What do you say?”
Maralinda didn’t say anything. She had passed from plans for incredible new weapons to unconsciousness in an instant, and she did not wake even when the ravelin came grinding and rumbling and hissing over the fields and four sisters carried her off, to be stripped of armour and bathed and reclothed in the robes of a full sister, earned upon the field of battle.
“Why is it Saint Nicola of the Almost Perpetual Motion?” Woodbine asked the Grand Druid Thrisby as they watched Maralinda being taken away. The Grand Druid happened to be Woodbine’s uncle, which made it easier to ask him questions.
“They’re scientists,” said Thrisby. He was puffing on his pipe, sending large smoke rings into orbit around his own head to help keep the stench of dead Lurch at bay. “Very rigorous in their descriptions. Perpetual motion is impossible, but you can get close, hence the ‘almost’. Good folk to be fighting with against the Lurch, none better.”
“The Sisters of Saint Nicola of the Almost Perpetual Motion versus the Lurch,” muttered Woodbine dreamily. “Maralinda.”
“Indeed,” said Thrisby, though not ungenerously. He had also given some thought to a feast with the sisters, and particularly to Sister Martial McDougall. “Now go grab a ladle and start scooping up that puddle of gaum before it gets in the groundwater and begins to transmogrify the moles.
“The Sisters of Saint Nicola of The Almost Perpetual Motion vs the Lurch” copyright © 2022 by Garth Nix
Art copyright © 2022 Dani Pendergast