Art Pact 235 - Ascending

At first tentative, the great device began to pull free of the ground, drawing up the leg-like structures that had seemed to anchor it so firmly in place. Clods of earth tumbled from metal feet, and the thing itself lurched from side to side as its motors struggled to free it. There was a grinding noise from within, overlaid with a high-pitched whine that might have been motors, and an odd rattling sound like many thousands of marbles tumbling through a waste pipe. At the first motion, too, a cloud of starlings had leapt into the air from their roosting places on the support structures, and now they wheeled and tumbled overhead in their great cloud-like murmuration, a flock of dark fish in the light afternoon sky, circling and twisting and constantly reforming themselves in a strange vortex. They seemed alternately to be mobbing the device and calling it upwards, like parents teaching a fledgling to take the first flaps of its wings.

There were seven legs on the machine, three along each side and one at the front with no matching support at the rear. First the right-side legs freed themselves from their confinement, then the left, and finally it was bucked forward as though it were a mosquito and the nose leg instead a proboscis with which it was drinking the life-blood of the earth. With a great effort it swung its weight backward, stretching its front legs and relaxing its rear legs so as to make a lever around its "shoulder", and after a few heaves it finally released the front leg. As each leg came free large flat plates folded out from it, spreading out the weight and preventing it from sinking into the earth again. When all the legs were out the machine shook itself slowly and then methodically lifted each leg up - one at a time - shaking them free of clinging mud.

When all the legs were as clean as they might be under the circumstances, it began to hum louder and louder. The bulk of the machine began to seem lighter and lighter, the legs stretching as though pushing against the ground. But it was not the legs that were pushing, instead it was the sky pulling. The legs reached their longest extent and then - again, one by one - they began to fold gently at the knee, the feet leaving the ground and travelling up perhaps half a meter. The process was far from flawless, and there were reversals. As the middle right leg lifted up the machine lurched alarmingly in that direction, the foot crashing down onto the ground again and the right front leg extending in a seeming panic to brace the device from toppling over completely. The catch must have been successful, though, because the fall was halted and after a few minutes of louder humming the machine righted itself again, then lifted up its front right leg, then - slowly - the middle right leg again. This time the leg rose without incident, and a few minutes later all of the legs were up, the device hovering with its main body maybe ten meters up, the legs dangling down and almost - but not quite - touching the ground. It hovered implausibly, too great a bulk to just be hanging in the air, but with each second seeming more and more anchored. At first it had shifted and wobbled, but the longer it waited there the more unmoving and unmovable it seemed, until it was as solid as the landscape beneath it.

Starlings were not the only living creatures that had made their nest on, in, or around the great machine. As it lifted free of gravity's bonds the ripped shreds of ground beneath shifted and moved, and the sleek red snouts of foxes poked out of their dens. Most of them had dug beneath the machine's body rather than around its feet and so they had survived the upheaval with nothing more than a mild scare, but now that they saw the thing above them some part of their brains understood that they were not dealing with the natural order - that this was no simple man-made device built and then abandoned. They scurried out of their burrows as fast as they could, little white wisps at the ends of their tails chasing them across the field until they reached the safety of the woods and stopped to stare back, mesmerised by the machine's slow ascent.

For it had begun to climb now - not straight up, but at an angle. Its body was still level with the ground, but it rose to the west at the same time as it rose up, and it began to yaw in a slow clockwise circle as if turning to look for something. It rose above the trees, and those foxes that had run to the west scattered to the north and south as the dark shadow grew over them. It rose to the level of the swarming starlings, which flocked first around it and then away, disappearing into the north accompanied by their strange cries. When it reached perhaps a couple of hundred meters up it halted both its ascent and its strange helical turning - suddenly, not as though it had come to a natural halt, but more as if it were doing a double-take. A red light flashed on the nose of the machine, and the vast verdigris plates on its back rose up like petals or vanes to reveal polished copper undersides and intricate dark patterns of wires or pipes or things that were a mixture of the two. Here it halted for a long time, as the glare of the now slowly descending sun flashed off those bright surfaces. It was motionless, a fixed star hanging in the heavens in a way that no earthly machine should, and for two hours it did nothing more as the light around it began to change colour and the sun crept towards the horizon.

Then, far in the distance, a brilliant red flash answered.


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