This article is part of the The Reificant series.
There are hundreds of the pale men crawling towards the piston. Each moment that passes another ten hurl themselves into its machinery. Their gore smears the walls of the engine and the gusting steam is fouled with their cooked stench. I join the arachnid machine, diving in a practiced maneuver and raking my forelimbs across the backs of as many as I can reach. Limbs detach and bodies fall away. Whether up or down I cannot be certain.
Another pass and another rain of bodies. The arachnid machine pulls away, its weapon pods glowing white-hot from firing repeatedly. I cannot make up for it alone. They overwhelm me with their numbers, ignoring my swooping attacks, more and more dying in the piston. The machine grinds, the piston shakes, descends, and then stops. The steam device bursts, catching the nearest arachnid machine in a ruinous storm of shrapnel.
The hexagonal blue energy disappears. The spectral red serpents vanish from their galleries. Only the faint green glow and the lamps attached to the arachnids remain to illuminate the vast chamber. Freed of its confines, the water falls in every direction at once, flooding the galleries in a great wave, swamping the arachnids and destroying them. A single shape remains, rotating slowly like a planet in the center of the chamber, an irregular sphere of white material.
I can feel its presence, a disorienting pressure within my head. It was beneath the water. It knows me. It knows I am here. The galleries themselves are disintegrating, leaving behind drifting pieces of gold shielding. The pale men are trying to lift up their crossed beam symbols, but the center of gravity is changing from one moment to the next. Each shift of the axis of gravity and more pale men are loosed from the walls and plummet away, to break apart against the crumbling spire or to fall into the water. Those that fall towards the sphere seem to rupture into a cloud of curling smoke.
I do not know why, but it permits me to live, at least for a time. I do not sense a voice or a message. It is mindless, heartless and thoughtless, but it is filled with urges, compelled by what resides within it. It is a vessel. And we have filled it.
The spire without a home is destroyed and we are in the cold black, far from any planet or star. In this deep void even the water cannot last. It is becoming slow and cold as it surrounds me in a vast bubble. The sphere is pulling me towards it. Reminding me that I am only a thing now. Only a memory contained within it. Only a storm of electricity and intent. I cannot breathe. I am alive, but I cannot breathe. I am cold. I am close to its surface and I become smoke.
I travel many places. I become many things. I do not succumb to the will of the water, to the will of this unnatural Mother. I continue, determined.
I am reificant.
I am crystalline, one in a chiming field that moves by mineral expansion, communicating by tone. As old as any living thing, but with fleeting memories. I cannot stop the water. I cannot stop the crashing sea that reduces me to nothing.
I dwell in the sky, in a coven of my kind, red-crested and brilliant. Spiraling, chattering, through phosphorescent clouds and above undulating fields of scarlet bacteria. This language is difficult. I am slow to learn. I tell my coven but it is too late. The earth is cracking, the mountains exposing their marrow of fire. I can only witness an ending.
Again and again. I will not be stopped. I am aeroplankton, cohering mind of a moment. I am a starving beast of the muck. Hate-filled until the water drowns me. I climb the continent tree. I can only watch as it is consumed by fire.
I cling to my memories. I retain my will. I am reificant. I will not be stopped.
A crack opens in the lid. The water is exposed once more.
I take the shape of a four-legged mammal, covered in hair, with a long snout and prick-ears. I know this thing. I know this place. A cave lit by shafts of crystalline light. I tear away my cowl with my teeth and emerge in the empty village of River Stone's people.
How can this be? Much time has passed. Dust has gathered on my shell. The wood that once made the ladders has fallen to ruin. There are prints in the dust. Feet like those I wear now, belonging to the animal-things of the men. Their companions. My fur is black. My tongue dangles from powerful jaws.
There is a booming sound beyond the canyon. I long to take to the sky, to soar above this place and find its source, but instead I trot on clawed feet. I cross from the black rock into the white desert, over humpbacked hills and barchan dunes. The booms repeat and I recall the piston. Have the serpents built their piston here as well?
No. Smoke curls into the blue sky. Figures, familiar, but different, labor beneath the heat of the sun. Men in a great number are lifting lengths of iron and heavy blocks of wood. They wear cloth upon their flesh and some are dark and some are pale, but they are not as the men I remember. They have large animals to pull their wheeled machines laden with material. They are building something.
There is another explosion and a great shower of stones falls from the mountainside. They are cleaving the mountain itself and laying iron where they have blasted. It is still early. The water has not yet taken hold here. I can warn them. I can...
There is a growl behind me. While I watched the laboring men I was approached by undetected enemies. There are five of them. They inhabit bodies like mine, but their fur is white and their eyes are a familiar, piercing blue. They lower their heads, their fleshy lips curling back from rows of white, curving teeth.
They leap at my throat. There are five of them. I am fierce and strong. I will not be stopped. I am reificant. I am a champion of a dead Queen. Hero of a lost people.
There are five sets of snapping jaws. Five pairs of hateful blue eyes. Five snarling voices.
I silence four.
Lymph pours out, spilling between the throat-clamped jaws of my foe. I am hurtled away from this place. I am defeated. Cast across the darkness by force of malevolence.
I cannot be stopped. I will thwart the water. I will find my way back.
I am reificant.
Ma'am, what if I told you I have the miracle of a lifetime right here in this briefcase?
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