As I have in every year since it began, I hereby participate in Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Wretch Day.
The following short story (or, perhaps, excerpt from a novel not yet written but only implied by the excerpt) was originally written in response to a contention (on the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.written) that one could not write a true science-fiction story featuring a basilisk or gorgon or other thing that turned people to stone with a glance. Whether I actually SUCCEEDED in doing so is a matter of debate -- some said yes, some said not even close -- but I felt the result was actually a better story than I had first thought. So I've cleaned it up a bit, tweaked some material, and hereby present it for your viewing pleasure.
To Duel the Gorgon
We moved forward, slowly, slowly, Dricyn in front, I in back, watching.our rear. This is desperation, I thought. We have no choice. But so many have failed before… I gripped my spear Steelsunder, forged with alchemy and hope, praying that I would have a chance to use it.
Dricyn held up a hand behind him, made three signs. The Gorgon's ahead. Back turned. Ready in three, two, one--
"Have at you, mon--"
Dricyn froze suddenly; I averted my gaze at the last moment.
"Foolish," the Gorgon said. "True, my back was turned, yet announcing your attack? Enough time for me to turn my head, Dricyn. Your companion, now, she at least knew enough to hesitate. Milandas, isn't it? Yes, I remember."
Sound of movement; I ducked into the corridor, holding the spear behind me. The mirror in my hand shook, showing the metallic-skinned monster, eyes pulsing with strange light, blocking out most of the view of the metal-jewelled column at the center of its lair. How does it SEE with light in its eyes? I wondered.
"You always were the smartest of opponents, Milandas; wondering and thinking about that which others did not." it said calmly. "Because," the creature said, and with a chill I realized it was answering my unspoken thoughts, "I see with light, as well as by light. Thus can I travel corridors darkened to your human sight."
"And your magic has turned Dricyn to stone." I said, bitterly. Dricyn had never been the brightest, but he had been loyal and kind.
"Magic?" The Gorgon gave a soft laugh. "A word for those who do not understand."
"What other word IS there for a being whose gaze turns one to stone? What word for one who sees into another's very mind?" I spoke, trying to maneuver using the mirror. If I could keep it talking... but then, it read my thoughts. What chance could I have?
The Gorgon sighed, a metallic chiming sound like a thousand bells the size of dustmotes. "Science, my poor primitive adversary. I will explain, though I doubt you can understand. But perhaps you will surprise me."
"Science? The philosophy of the engineers, that tells them whether their engines work?" I thought about that. "If you mean that... then you speak of science as they might know it centuries from now."
There was a tone of respect in the creature's voice when it answered. "I was correct to count you the most dangerous of your party, Milandas. Indeed, I do.
"Imagine, if you would, one of the great clockwork engines your friend Calladan constructs, with all its ability to be designed to act, react, and so on through its complex mechanisms. Then imagine that entire construct, shrinking, reducing, dropping in size until the entire massive creation is no larger than a mote of dust."
As it spoke, I circled around through the labyrinthine corridors, concentrating on its ideas. Perhaps concentrating on one thing would allow, somehow, an underlayer of thought to be protected. "All right, I suppose I can imagine that."
"Excellent. Then imagine that you, yourself, are small enough to see it again, towering above you. Allow it to reduce, once more, to a dustmote's dust-mote." A flicker of movement in the mirror; I turned. "You have of course felt the warmth of the sun falling upon you?"
I was confused by the change in topic. "Of course. But what --"
"You can also imagine, then, a swarm of insects battering into you in a solid stream?"
I'm sure the monster has a point, I thought, but I certainly can't see it yet. "I can." The corridor turned here and would lead back to the central area.
"Then understand this: light is itself composed of particles in a way. Particles so small that even the dustmote's dustmote is only just entering the realm in which that matters greatly. In a very simple way, what you feel as heat is the battering pressure and energy of the streaming particles hammering your flesh."
"Light... particles? You speak nonsense. Why then does it not pool around us after hitting us, liquid sunshine for the taking?"
The laugh belled out again. "Because it is not nearly so simple. I am trying to explain in words that will make sense to you, not ones for which your language will have no equivalents for a thousand years. I assure you it is all science, all solidity and truth of engineers and numbers, but I fear I can only give a casual impression of the truth behind it to you. This is not to insult you, understand; you have a tremendous quickness of mind and will that could have made you as brilliant a scientist as you are an alchemist and sorcerer -- by the words of your people."
A streak of motion, a blade thrown from darkness that nearly took my head. "You seek to explain while trying to kill me, Gorgon?"
"Do you not do the same? Keep me talking, fog your mind against my readings with divergent foci of attention? We have a serious game, one which may save your friend and all the people for whom you have come, or reduce you to one more statue in my collection. Nonetheless there is no reason for me not to enjoy such conversation. Rarely have I had such since I was placed here."
A chiming sigh. "Yes. Another story. Perhaps one I shall never tell, I am afraid. Where were we? Oh, yes. Your alchemical lenses -- they have taken advantage of your discovery, of light that cannot be seen, yes?"
"Then understand that there is a vast spectrum of energies like light, both higher and lower in order than that which can be seen. You use light of a lower order, infra-red, for your darkvision. Below this are waves which can penetrate much matter without injuring it, or be used to heat without flame; above the violet lie energies capable of penetrating lead as though it were water. The lower-order waves can be used also for communication, just as waves of sound through air allow you and I to speak. Can you understand? Can you grasp what I say?"
A vast and wide cosmos seemed to be opening before me. The darklight was but a tiny fraction of the truth? Incredible... yet I was sure the Gorgon spoke truly. "I... I think so."
A glimpse of the Gorgon in the mirror, shaking its head in a very human fashion. "Amazing. I see that you do, in a way. Good." It vanished in a side passage. "Then understand that machines can be made to both be directed by such waves, and even to gain their power from them, if they be small enough and designed just so.
"Throughout this labyrinth -- and now, after so many centuries, throughout the world -- are such machines. Machines that can build more of themselves, or have more of them built by other such tiny machines, through the direction of their construction and the power through the waves of not-light."
I was astounded. The next turn... take it... "You mean this is true? There are such machines?"
"There are, and more of them than you could count in a lifetime of lifetimes, as you could never count the motes of dust that fill the air of the world. They are within you, and me, and Dricyn, and all others. These machines are vastly more complex even than the great clockworks of which we spoke; within limits they, too, can perceive, can make simple decisions, can act. They draw their power from a subtle, yet nigh-limitless source distributed about the entire world. No one device can use much power, it is true, yet together they can accomplish much."
"But who MADE these machines? You, Gorgon?"
The bell-laugh was tinged with undisguised bitterness. "I? Oh, no, not I. Those who placed me here did all this. I understand the machines, but I am bound by them, too.
"Perhaps you have already guessed, Milandas. Why, after all, must it be so that those who meet my gaze are turned to stone, while you, who have looked straight into my eyes with a mirror, are undaunted? Because that is the decree and program laid upon the way in which I function. I am... not entirely a machine, but not entirely a living being as are you, and I follow -- MUST follow -- certain directives."
I moved on, as quietly and cautiously as I could, but I was fascinated by the Gorgon's revelations, and it seemed to be lost in its own thoughts. "And so we come to your original question, and I believe you may already begin to see how it may be that a gaze turns a man into stone. You have worked in alchemy and chemistry, you know how much of a man is, indeed, no different in its essence than wood or stone or other beasts.
"When I meet the gaze of a victim, those billions upon billions of minute machines are triggered into action, action predicated upon my existence, mediated by those invisible waves of not-light, radio waves as my creators called them. These machines are so designed that they can actually affect the construction of a creature or any object, manipulate the basic particles, the molecules, of which they are made."
"By the Patterned Matrix! You mean the Philosopher's Stone? They can turn man into stone, lead into gold?"
The laugh again, closer now as I'd expected. I remembered the glittering column in the center of the room, the heart of this entire labyrinth -- careful, careful! "Not quite, no; to turn lead to gold may seem the same to you as turning wine to water, but they are entirely different orders of things.
"But the machines CAN do much with all of what makes up a human being. First they act upon the nerves, freezing the man in place, unable to move, in the exact pose in which he first met my gaze; perhaps he falls, perhaps not. I can always restore their pose later. The machines slow the breath, reduce the function to the barest whisper of life. Then the transformation begins. Carbon from the air and the body, oxygen and hydrogen and nitrogen, calcium from bone, silicon from the rock and dust... these are exchanged and combined, to make of first the skin and eventually the rest of the body a stone, a concrete of oddly organic composition, yet to any ordinary human perception a stone indeed."
I shivered as I understood, however vaguely, this description. "At least they are dead; you paralyze them so completely, death must follow."
"Oh, far from it." The laugh this time chilled my blood. "The machines maintain blood flow until the brain's patterns can be learned, sealed in equivalent stone and crystal. Break the statues, yes, they die. But Dricyn was conscious for some moments after the process begin, felt the cold rigidity of stone claiming him from extremities to heart. By now, of course, his exterior is already changing, gray, carrying heat from within but no longer alive, and it will be some time before all of him is solid and hard, but in time so shall he be -- just as with a casting of concrete."
I felt sick, my feet taking their own path. But something the creature had said... "The brain's patterns are learned? Why?"
"Did you think your legends would be so true in one way, and yet lie in another? Here am I, the Gorgon, the terrible beauty that turns men to stone, this is true. And so is it true that any who can pierce to my true heart and slay me will free all my victims. The machines hear my presence. They can hear my absence. If I am slain, the process is reversed, as slow and cautious and precise as a release as was the entombment in stone." It sighed. "Yet a hundred champions and more have come, and I still am --"
I stepped from the passageway, spear poised, and the Gorgon whirled, inhumanly fast, realizing in that moment that I had allowed the wonder to fog my purpose, and let my fighting instincts (Thank you, Dricyn, for all those months of training) lead me here.
I could never have cast that spear true if I had looked upon the Gorgon. If it spoke true, machines smaller than the dust of a dream would have frozen me in that moment and turned me to stone in a slow, cold death.
But it was not there that I cast my spear, forged of sorcery and alchemy -- more dust-machine tricks? How? Why? I had more questions than the stars, and no time to ask them.
No; Steelsunder I flung not at the bright-eyed Gorgon but at the gem-blazed silver column, the very heart of this labyrinth, the labyrinth the Gorgon could never leave, that legend said it was bound to. For what, I thought, could provide that invisible light, that penetrated stone and called to machines the size of an insect's thoughts? What powered and directed things, what was the "true heart" of the Gorgon? I guessed, and I threw, and I prayed.
Steelsunder plunged into the great column like a dagger into a heart, and the Gorgon SHRIEKED. But was I mad, I thought, to hear triumph and relief in that agonized scream?
"No..." the Gorgon's voice said quietly. "Your ears heard truly, Milandas. Bound here for centuries, time out of mind, unable to leave... think you that a pleasant existence? I was bound to be the monster, so I could not leave but the tiniest opening, the smallest chance; otherwise, I must defend myself. But always I had hoped..." the voice weakened, faded. It spoke again, this time just above a whisper. "Look on me, Milandas. Please. My gaze will harm none ever again. You have found my heart and pierced it well."
I looked upon it. A woman of steel and gold, a statue that lived, with hair that moved like serpents but glittered like treasure. Fallen, now, breath slowing. "I ... don't understand. The spear didn't touch you..."
"But it broke that which kept me alive." She smiled at me sadly. "Broke it, and awakened the final machines, to undo that which was done. I was too long alive, I grew far beyond that simple character they made me. Now... I wish a way had been that I could have lived, seen this world through eyes other than distant gazing machines. But still I thank you, for this end. This release.
It was a moment of victory. And as Dricyn drew a tormented breath, I knew I would soon hear cries of joy and thankfulness.
But for a few moments, I would mourn the Gorgon.
I think I would, as well. I'm tempted to write more in the implied world; a lot of background is sitting there waiting to be explored.