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Authors: Elizabeth Hand

Icarus Descending

Icarus Descending
Elizabeth Hand

For my mother and my father,

Alice Ann and Edward Hand, with all my love and thanks


1 Dr. Luther Burdock’s Daughter

2 The Splendid Lights

3 Children of the Revolution

4 Seven Chimneys

5 Cisneros

6 The End of Winter

7 The Alliance Spreads Its Net

to Quirinus

9 Message from the Country

10 The Oracle Speaks

11 Cassandra

12 The Return to the Element

13 Icarus Descending

A Biography of Elizabeth Hand


But when, from flesh born mortal,

Man’s blood on earth lies fallen,

A dark, unfading stain,

Who then by incantations

Can bid blood live again?

Zeus in his pure wisdom ended

That sage’s skill who summoned

Dead flesh to rise from darkness

And live a second time;

Lest murder cheaply mended

Invite men’s hands to crime…


“Ah, Dr. Austin…What do you think of them? I see there’s War in Hell.”

—J. G. Ballard,
The Atrocity Exhibition

Dr. Luther Burdock’s Daughter

It is here again—”

The voice was that of my sister Cumingia, she who has engraved upon her breast the image of a shell from a sea we have never glimpsed save in our dreams. Her voice was strained with worry, as it had been for many weeks now, ever since our Masters had been given one by one to the Ether.

I smiled wearily and pointed to a cushion in the nav chamber where I was working. I was sifting through the records left behind by our Masters, hoping to find something that might explain the myriad strange wings that had entered our world these last months. “Sister Cumingia. Please, sit.”

Cumingia gazed at the cushion and shook her head: it had been designed for one of our Masters, and so was much too small for her. “I will stand, Kalamat.”

I glanced back at the monitor that I had been scrolling through, but after a moment felt Cumingia’s gaze boring into me, anxious as a child’s. I sighed and switched off the monitor, and turned my full attention to her.

“Yes, my sister.”

Cumingia leaned against the curved wall of the station’s nav chamber. The lines of her lovely face were drawn tight, so that she resembled one of the Masters more than she did a sister of mine and one of the children of Luther Burdock. She hesitated, her large strong hands crossed upon her chest, then finally began to speak.

“It is the little oracle, sister Kalamat. The one I told you about; the one that speaks of the thing called Icarus.”

I pursed my lips and nodded. Those of us who still lived on the station called Quirinus had grown too familiar with oracles since our Masters began to die: random or not-so-random holofiled images generated in the wake of the deaths of the ruling Ascendancy of the HORUS colonies. Most of the oracles were merely warnings sent from besieged Masters on other space stations. Some were from cloned geneslaves like my sisters and me, who claimed they were members of a rebel Alliance; yet others appeared to be purely random images produced by the collapse of databases at Totma 3 and Helena Aulis and Hotei.

But the one that Cumingia had seen was different. She had first glimpsed it when she entered that part of the station library that had always been forbidden to energumens. Since then it had appeared three times in as many solar weeks, to Cumingia but also to others tending the ’files and records on Quirinus. I had never seen it.

“Its message has changed?” I asked.

Cumingia shook her head. “No. It is as always—but this time I had the chance to record it, sister Kalamat! Would you like to see it?”

I nodded eagerly, moving away from my sister to allow room between us for the holofile. Cumingia placed the recorder on the tiled floor and stepped back. An instant later an image appeared.

It appeared to be an eye, or rather, a simulacrum of an eye formed of light, with a pulsing darkness at its center where a pupil would be—a human’s eye, and not an energumen’s. Wispy threads that might have been mist or perhaps gray strands of tissue flowed behind it, and it was surrounded by the engulfing darkness that the HORUS colonies—the Human Orbital Research Units in Space—have yet to penetrate.

“What is it?” Cumingia’s whisper made the hairs on my neck prickle. I shook my head, frowning.

“I do not know. It can’t be a real eye—that must be some trickery of whoever originally ’filed the image. Is there a date, or name?”

Cumingia’s hand pressed against mine. “Wait,” she said. “You will see—there, now—”

Beneath the dully flickering orb, numerals appeared.


A ’filing date some four hundred years earlier, from the time when our father Luther Burdock first lived; a location on Earth that no longer existed. I leaned forward to read more closely, but the golden letters had already disappeared. Before I could ask Cumingia to scroll them for me again, a voice began to speak.

“…astrometric starplate at Mount Palomar shows parhelion passage at approximately 0818 June 29, with potentially catastrophic alignment of descending node at—”

A man’s voice, speaking slowly and with great care, as though reading from a prompter.

“…it is of the utmost importance that the JPL Project permits immediate release of warning transcripts and all other information relating to this disastr—…”

A burst of static cut off the recorded transmission. An instant of silence, and the loop repeated itself twice more. Then, abruptly, the man’s voice was gone. Instead there was a shrill, rather childish, voice, repeating the same word over and over and over again:

“Icarus. Icarus. Icarus. Icarus.”

After about a minute it faded into eerie silence.

“Every time,” Cumingia said softly, after we had stared into the empty air for several moments. “It is the same thing: the same image, the same two voices. I have tried to trace its origin, but the coordinates change.” She tilted her head and stared at me, her huge black eyes beseeching. “What is it, O my sister Kalamat?”

I frowned and shook my head. I had her play the recording again, and again; as though some new wonder might be revealed, some new meaning teased from the nearly toneless voices with their garbled message. At last I bade her retrieve the recording and put it away.

“It is nothing,” I announced. I could see relief and also disappointment clouding my sister’s eyes, but she said not a word. “Another random transmission from one of the fallen colonies, like that call for help that was two years old.”

Cumingia nodded, then added hesitantly, “None of our brothers or sisters in the other colonies have seen it.”

I shrugged and returned to my desk, with its array of tiny, human-sized monitors and nav aids. “Obviously the transmission is carried only within our range. You have shown this to our other sisters?”

A pause before Cumingia answered. “Most of them.”

“And what do they think?”

Cumingia bit her lip before replying. ‘They think it is another omen.”

“Of what?”

“We do not know. But this name, Icarus—it is a man’s name, a human name. We fear it presages some means of retaliation against us, some punishment for the rebel uprisings.”

I laughed then, turning to look at my sister: so much taller than any human, and far stronger and lovelier, with the intricate crosshatch of scars where her breasts had been and the delicate wings of the shell that is her namesake etched upon her cheeks. “There are no humans left to fight us, sister! Not up here, at least. And below, on the Element—” I made a flicking motion with my fingers. “Below, our father awaits us. And he will not allow us to come to harm.”

At mention of our father Cumingia blinked. The silvery pupils dilated in her glowing black eyes. I felt a flash of anger within me, like a tiny flame. Cumingia did not believe that our father still lived. Of all my sisters I was the only one who still carried the image of Luther Burdock in my heart, heard his voice as I lay in my bed and waited for sleep to find me in the station’s false night: a voice that the centuries had not stilled. Because I believed that, like his children, Luther Burdock had not been allowed to die. I believed that he waited for us, waited for me, somewhere on the Element below, and that someday we would rejoin him, as he had promised.

“Of course, sister,” Cumingia said at last. Her long fingers closed around the recorder, as tiny in her hands as a betel-nut from the station’s foodstores. “I will tell my sisters that it is as you say. An anomaly; nothing more.”

“A ghost,” I said more gently, smiling as I reached to touch my sister’s shaven skull. “And we are not human, sister. We have nothing to fear from their ghosts.”

She nodded and left me alone with my work. A little later, of course, I was to learn how wrong I had been. Icarus was more powerful than ever I could have imagined. And ghosts—the dead and the living dead who populate the world of our Ascendant Masters—they are to be feared as well.

She remembered what he said to her moments before the anesthesia took effect.

“Will it hurt, Daddy?”

She lay on a table of glass and emerald-green metal, her head shaved of its dark corkscrew curls, her coffee-colored skin perhaps a shade paler than it had been. She was fifteen years old, the only daughter of the Ascendants’ most renowned scientist, the geneticist Luther Ames Burdock. Her name was Cybele.

“It won’t hurt, darling.” Her father bent over her, his hands warm as they cradled her head, checking the filigree of wires and neural webs that covered her face and throat. “Of course it won’t hurt.”

She believed him; she had seen this procedure performed a hundred times. First on mice and rats, then dogs, then ibex and jaguars and other animals that had been saved from extinction by the Ascendants’ passion for science, for coaxing new and strange things from nature as a man might wheedle them from a reluctant mistress. And indeed none of the animals had ever seemed to be in pain, and none of it was really very frightening, not once you got used to it. There were other things that went on in her father’s work space that she was not permitted to watch. Men and women sedated and enclosed in plasteel stretchers, hurried through the doors by her father’s staff; children, too, some of them much younger than Cybele, a pale arm or leg hanging limp where it had escaped from the stretcher’s bonds. She never saw any of them again, although she tried to guess sometimes what they had become.

Because her father’s house was like an ark, filled with all the strange creatures he had brought into being. He loved to think of it as such: the vast glass-and-steel mountain compound, with its roofs that swept up like wings and the high arched main entrance, like the prow of a Viking ship.

“My ark,” he would laugh, Cybele walking beside him as he raised his arms as though to embrace the entire marvelous structure. “My ark and all my children!” And he would turn to kiss his daughter, at fifteen still slight, and as hesitant in her speech as a child.

His children: that was what he called them, all of them: Cybele and the others who populated Luther Burdock’s compound in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The things he called aardmen: tall and immensely strong, they stood upright and had long sinewy arms and legs covered with short bristly fur. Their faces betrayed their canine origins, with blunt angry muzzles and sorrowing dark eyes; their faces and the vestigial tails that switched anxiously when they were frightened or excited. The aardmen were easy to live with, servile and fawning as they brought Cybele her breakfast or carried her to the waiting transport when it was time to accompany her father on one of his visits to the Prime Ascendancy in Wichita.

Others of the geneslaves were more disturbing. Like the hydrapithecenes in their crowded tanks, with the flat faces and narrow almond-shaped eyes they inherited from the Archipelagian prisoners who were their human progenitors. Or the argalæ, the bird-faced women whose sighs and restless hands shamed Cybele, because she knew her father had engineered them as sexslaves for the HORUS colonies. And there were countless others—tiny birds like wrens, but with human faces that wept and human voices that cried piteously for release. The dwarfish salamanders, eyeless men with moist, autumn-colored skin, designed to toil in the heat and darkness of the L-5 mineral mines. The equinas with their horse faces and human eyes. The huge, slow, but immensely strong starboks, like ponderous bulls, that could speak in deep, sonorous voices. They drank little and ate not at all, because they lived for only a few weeks, just long enough to haul their burdens across the pentecostal deserts of the western part of the continent.

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