“It has now been a year since the arrival of these enigmatic objects...” said the Brigadier, reading aloud for Malone’s benefit, “and we are no closer to understanding what they are, who sent them or why. They appear to be totally inert and have ignored every attempt to communicate with them.” He scanned ahead through the text, flipping through the pages of translated notes. Every so often he returned to the original magazine, turning the fragile pages carefully. Almost every page had pictures on it showing images of the fallen civilisation in impossible clarity, as if he were looking through a window at a moment frozen in time, and a part of him wondered what lost technology was responsible for it, while the rest of him insisted he not be sidetracked. “It speaks of several of the objects being attacked and destroyed,” he said. “Not even that provoked a reaction from the others.”
“I’ve never seen anything like them,” said Malone. “They’re clearly Radiant in nature, but they don’t make things like that now.”
The Brigadier nodded distractedly. “The author speculates on whether the objects are connected with the something crisis. There's a word that doesn't translate, but Parcellius’ assistant put in a footnote saying that, from other pieces of text elsewhere, it seems to refer to the loss of their ability to procreate.”
“They couldn't adopt? Couldn't form parent bonds with animals?”
“He would have said so if it was that. I think it refers to their original way of procreating themselves. Something to do with their different anatomy.” He turned the pages of the original magazine until he found a picture of a crowd of people. Some of them were small, less than half the height of the others. “They didn't adopt animals. Somehow, they produced small humans that grew, but then they lost the ability to do so.” He leafed through the pages of translated notes. “Not just them but all animals. Every form of life was separate, with no adoption between species.”
“But the coming of those things stopped that somehow.”
“So it would seem. The timing cannot be a coincidence, it says. Is this an attack on our world, or an unintended side effect of their presence? There are articles here, discussions between different experts. One arguing one side of the debate, one arguing the other. One thing they seem to agree on is their low opinion of the visitors, though. Either they’re hostile, incompetent or simply uncaring. They may not be the product of intelligent beings at all, this chap says. They may be the cosmic equivalent of seed pods, spread by mindless organisms operating solely on instinct. In whichever case, he says, this is not what we expect from a mature, responsible civilisation.”
The merchant, meanwhile, was staring at the pictures in the magazine. “This is the civilisation of the Hetin folk?” He said. “Is that a ship? Gods, look at the size of it!”
The Brigadier ignored him. “Here’s something. They speak of a new form of life they’ve found. Small creatures made of jelly that eat dead organic matter.”
“Globs!” exclaimed Malone. “So there were no globs before that?”
“It says they multiply by...” He squinted at the unfamiliar words. “Binary fission. Hmm. Never heard those words before, but they’re written as if they're nortine words so they must mean something. We know that globs split in half, forming two new creatures, when they get big enough. Binary, yes, that fits. The author of this article describes it as if it’s something strange and unusual, though.”
“I bet those things...” Malone tapped the image of the huge, fruit like objects on the front cover. “... brought the globs! That’s why they don’t care if they’re destroyed, because they’ve already done what they were sent to do. They’re like discarded pods that have scattered their seeds. I bet the Radiants themselves came later, after the civilisation fell and there was no-one left to fight them.”
“I believe you may be right,” said the Brigadier. “The author of this article seems to agree with you too. He says he believes it to be a colonisation, although whether by a hostile civilisation or mindless, cosmic vegetables he doesn't know.”
“By the Radiants!” said Malone. “They came later, after the Hetin civilisation had fallen, when there was no chance of organised resistance. They changed the world to suit themselves! Destroyed a civilisation so they could move in!”
“This speaks of efforts to wipe out the globs,” continued the Brigadier, still reading. “They searched them out, collected them up and incinerated them, but they were everywhere. In every damp corner. All over the world. They tried creating new diseases to kill them...”
“They could create new diseases?” cried Malone. The merchant also looked up at that. Most of what his two guests were talking about made very little sense to him, but that caught his attention.
“Apparently. It speaks here of being hopeful of creating a glob plague to wipe them all out. They hoped that, once they were all gone, they would be able to procreate again. That, apparently, turned out to be a false hope.”
The Brigadier fell into a horrified silence as he imagined what the last days of their civilisation must have been like. With no way to procreate themselves, they faced extinction. There would have been the total collapse of their social order as their population fell, the oldest people dying without new people to replace them. The cessation of agriculture would have soon followed, and then famine, with rival factions fighting over the remaining resources. It would have been a global nightmare, a seemingly eternal nightmare from which the only escapes would have been starvation or being killed by their enemies. He knew from first hand experience what that was like. Many times during his career as a soldier, he’d seen civilians living in miserable squalor after their land had been torn apart with war. Nowadays, there were usually nearby regions unaffected by war that could take in refugees and send aid, but if the whole world was falling into chaos...
He looked again at the images of their civilisation at its height. How proud and noble they looked, he thought. The procreation crisis had already been worrying them, apparently, but he could see the hope and optimism in their faces. This was a problem that would be solved, they thought. Their scientists and wise men would find an answer and their civilisation would survive to reach even greater heights. At what point had the truth finally dawned on them, he wondered? What had it done to them when that confidence and optimism had finally been crushed? The shock, the unbelieving astonishment... It touched his soul in a way that few things ever had before, and he felt a great wave of pity for those poor, doomed people.
“They didn’t just destroy a civilisation,” he said. “They wiped out all the higher life forms of this world. Everything and everyone today grew from globs. You, me, the birds in the air, the fish in the sea. We are not descended from survivors of the Hetin civilisation, as we thought. We are descended from the invaders.”
“Is there anything in there about the globs becoming adopted by worms and insects?” asked Malone.
“Not that I've found so far, but there's a lot in here. It would take hours to read it all. I'm guessing that this edition was published before any adoption took place, or at least before anyone noticed. Eventually, though, the shorter lived creatures, those that only live for a year or so, would have died out entirely, replaced by identical creatures that were, in fact, transformed globs. Gradually they moved up the rungs of life until they became human. I wonder how many of the original humans were left by then. And they would all have been old, nearing the end of their lives. It might have been a close thing. If it had taken the globs longer to climb the rungs of life, the last humans would have died before there were any glob horses, glob dogs, glob goats and so on for them to adopt.”
“And then, when all the original humans had been replaced by glob humans, the Radiants would finally have moved in,” guessed Malone. “They take us to become new Radiants. They destroyed a world to make a Radiant farm, and we’re the crop.”
“They killed millions, maybe hundreds of millions,” said the Brigadier. “They're capable of a callousness and brutality we’ve never suspected before. That's what they didn't want us to find out, and if they think we're a threat, they’ll wipe our civilisation out the same way. Keep just a few humans as breeding stock so they’ll still have people to adopt.”
“So we can’t tell anyone?”
“The King and his ministers will have to know, but no-one else. If it becomes widely known, the Radiants will fear a reaction from us, They’ll fear that we'll attack them. To protect themselves, they'll destroy our civilisation with storms and earthquakes.” He rose from his chair and paced across the room. “The reason the Radiants are afraid of us is that there's a way we can hurt them. We have to find it. Find their weakness, the place where they’re vulnerable. Then, when we're able to fight back, we can work out some kind of relationship with them. Make them treat us with respect. I see no reason why we can't share this world in peace, once we show them that we have the power to defend ourselves. We have to show them that what they did to Tollbine cannot, and will not, be tolerated.”
As promised, the staret allowed them to load up a pair of packhorses with a selection of Hetin artefacts before leaving. The Brigadier mainly chose books, including the ones Parcellius' assistant had translated, but he also took a few nude statuettes showing the anatomical differences possessed by the Hetin folk and a few of the inexplicable objects whose purpose they couldn't begin to guess, in case they used technologies that their scientists might be able to unlock one day.
Outside, they saw that the whole town had gathered for the sacrifice lottery. An elderly woman, flanked by two large, strong men, was turning a large wooden drum into which another woman would occasionally reach to take out a folded piece of paper. They watched in silent horror as the second woman read out the name on the paper, after which a man in the crowd walked meekly forward to take his place among the others already chosen. “Isn't he going to protest or something?” asked Malone.
“It is a great honour to be selected,” replied the merchant. “His parents and siblings will be greatly respected after this.”
“What if he’s got an adopted animal, only half raised?”
“Townspeople with half raised animals are exempt from the lottery. As are people too important in society, people the town can't function without.”
“Which would be the rich and powerful, I expect!”
“Malone!” warned the Brigadier. “We are guests here. We must respect their customs.” He turned to the merchant. “How will they be executed?”
“Quickly and painlessly. We are not barbarians. They eat a few yama berries, after which they fall into a peaceful sleep. Then we open their veins and leave their bodies for the scavengers.”
“You don't put them into a glubularium? Let them go back into the earth?”
“If we did, if there was a chance they might be human again one day, then it wouldn’t be a proper sacrifice. We have to show the Gods that we are genuinely sorry for the damage we are doing to the natural world.”
“Yes, of course. Well, thank you for all your help. We will be sure to tell King Leothan all that you've done for us.”
“It was my pleasure. Have a safe journey back home.”
As they rode their horses through the town gates and out into the forest, Malone looked back one last time. The lottery was over, and the chosen ones were being bedecked with garlands of flowers while family and loved ones said their last goodbyes. None of the chosen ones looked particularly unhappy, he noticed. Some of them looked a little put out, a little resentful, as if they were to suffer nothing more than an unexpected interruption to their busy day, but the rest were glowing with pride and happiness. “It’s as if they don't know they’re going to die,” he said.
“They know,” replied the Brigadier. “They've just been conditioned to think of it as something positive, rather than a bad thing. Their whole society has conditioned itself. This may be a good thing, though. It may save them. So long as they think that the volcano was made to erupt by their Gods, and not by the Radiants, so long as they think that the goat girl was deluded, the Radiants have no reason to harm them. Now listen, Malone. This is very important. We must tell no-one what we’ve found out. No-one except the King. No trying to convince everyone we meet. Do you understand?”
“Good. Now forget about those poor people back there and think about what you're going to make us for supper tonight.”
“Rider!” cried Malone, pointing ahead of them. “Coming in our direction!”
Three days had passed since their departure from Tollawen and they had almost reached the border of that strange, nature loving country. The Brigadier had spent every rest stop reading through the translations of the Hetin books, reading them aloud for Malone’s benefit, and they had learned many new and astonishing things about the vanished civilisation, but nothing to equal what they'd found out that first day. Much of it was deeply puzzling, though. Many of the words couldn't be translated, and even where they could be, the author assumed that the reader shared a common cultural context with him and was familiar with concepts and institutions that Malone and the Brigadier knew nothing about and so left them unexplained. Even the pictures that almost completely filled some pages were no help. What were they to make of a group of happy people, one with unusually dark skin, enjoying drinks around a table while a clock hovered menacingly overhead, for instance? Or a line of birds sitting on a wire while a large, angry ape wearing some kind of military uniform stared up at them from below?
The Brigadier had found the pictures of happy, laughing people heartbreakingly poignant. They had lived in a time of wonders, a world of miracles, and had had no idea that their way of life was about to end, to be replaced by an age of violence, misery and death. They could only see their world continuing forever, with ever greater miracles to replace the old ones as they grew jaded and familiar. Is there a lesson there for us? he had wondered. Could our world end just as abruptly? Not just Helberion, but the entire human world? The lesson was to be vigilant, he thought. To be forever on guard against anything that might be a threat, and to gather as much information as possible so that they would know how to counter the threat when it appeared. And the threat that he saw now was the Radiants and their callous disregard for human life.
He looked up at the sound of Malone’s voice and followed his pointing finger with his eyes. Yes, a rider. A man on horseback. A man wearing the uniform of the Helberion Ranger Corps.
“Those Above!” he said. “It's Cotton! What's he doing back here?”
As he drew closer, they saw that there was damage to his uniform that he’d done his best to repair with needle and thread and that he was sitting stiffly, as if his side was paining him. When he saw them he geed his horse into a gallop and turned to come directly towards them. “Brigadier!” he gasped as he reined his horse alongside theirs. “Thank Those Above! I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find you! This damned forest, no roads...”
“What happened?” asked the Brigadier.
“It was Crane! He betrayed us...”
“What?” gasped Malone.
“We were camped for the night, he was on guard. A noise woke me up and I saw him killing Spencer. In his sleep! He had a hand over his mouth, stuck him between the ribs with a knife! I jumped up, grabbed my weapons, yelled for everyone to wake up! Only Quill woke up. Everyone else was already dead. He'd killed them one by one without waking the rest of us up! How could he do that? What kind of man...”
“Never mind that now,” said the Brigadier, his face grim. “What happened?”
“Me and Quill fought him. I couldn't have taken him on my own. He had fighting skills I never knew he had! He must have had training. Some kind of Carrow assassin, deep undercover...”
“We can speculate later. You and Quill killed him?”
Cotton nodded. “Took a knife to my gut, but we got him in the end. We killed him together. Quill said I had to come back, to warn you, in case Carrow‘s planning to attack you as well.”
“Are the toadstools safe?”
“Yes, Sir. Quill’s taking them back to the palace.”
“You should have gone with him. Making sure those toadstools get to the Princess is the top priority.”
Cotton had known he would say that, and had struggled to think of a plausible reason for returning to the Brigadier, but the fact was that there wasn't one. “You're right, Sir,” he said therefore. “We weren't thinking straight. The shock of losing the others...” He made a good show of being overcome with emotion. Acting lessons had been a big part of his training as a deep cover agent. He trembled and looked away, raised a hand to wipe away a tear.
“I'm sure the Brigadier understands,” said Malone, pale faced with shock. “Just hearing about it... I can't imagine what it must have been like to have actually been there. What it would have done to me.”
The Brigadier gave him a sharp look but said nothing. “The Carrowmen have no way of knowing where we are,” he said. “They don't know we separated from the rest of you. We were in no danger. Not from them, anyway.”
“Yes, Sir. As I said, we weren’t thinking straight.”
“Well, you're here now. We can discuss what you should have done later. Our job now is to get back to Marboll as quickly as possible.”
As they rode, Cotton repeated his story in more detail, adding various elaboration he'd thought of during the journey. He was careful not to make himself sound heroic, knowing that telling of mistakes he'd made and deficiencies in his fighting skills would make his story more believable. He gave Quill most of the glory, therefore, even though the wizard had been far from the best fighter among them. He'd risen to the occasion like a spirit of vengeance, he said, therefore. The desperation of our situation gave him an energy and a fury that had him fighting like a madman! Malone listened with wide eyed astonishment, but the Brigadier remained stony faced throughout. He gave no indication what he thought of the story.
“Quill should have made his way back to Marboll by now,” said Malone. “He might already have gives the toadstools to the Princess! She might be getting better already!”
“If he made it back safely,” replied the Brigadier.
Cotton thought of the pistol in its holster on his belt. He could draw it right now, shoot the Brigadier before he had time to react... He put the idea out of his mind. The Brigadier was the most formidable fighter he knew, with lightning fast reflexes. He knew that for a fact, having seen him in action many times. If he suddenly pulled a gun on him, there was every chance the Brigadier would be able to draw his own weapon and shoot him down before he could pull the trigger, and even if he couldn’t, there was Malone go consider. The batman was no warrior, at least not when compared to the seasoned, veteran rangers, but Cotton couldn't discount the possibility that he might be able to shoot him down before be could turn his gun on him. No, he wouldn't risk it, he decided. He would wait until they stopped for the night, then kill them in their sleep, just the way he had before. It was the safest way.
His mind made up, he chatted with Malone as they rode through the trackless forest, while the Brigadier, riding a few paces behind, watched them, his face expressionless.
While there had only been the two of them, Malone and the Brigadier hadn't bothered to set a watch at night, but now that there were three of them they went back to established Ranger practice. The Brigadier took first watch, but Cotton didn't get much sleep while he was standing guard over them. He was too busy planning how he was going to kill the formidable man, the man that the whole of Helberion stood in awe of, the man whose adventures and accomplishments were legendary even in Carrow. He would have to be fast, he knew. Even waiting until he was fast asleep, he'd seen in the past how fast be could wake up, how terrifyingly quickly he could go from being deep in dreams to being alert and on his feet with a weapon in his hand. He fretted and worried, therefore, while pretending to be asleep, and he could feel the Brigadier’s eyes on him the whole time. He didn't fully believe his story, he knew. That would make it more difficult. Still he had to try. It was his duty as an agent of Carrow.
When it was finally his turn to stand guard, he waited a full two hours before making his move. It was an hour past midnight and the moon was high overhead, it’s pale silvery glow filtering through the overhead forest canopy. He watched the Brigadier carefully. He watched Malone as well, just to be sure, but it was the Brigadier he was really scared of. Yes, scared, he admitted to himself. The man was fully asleep, he was sure of it. He'd seen men who were only pretending to be asleep and he could tell the difference. He was genuinely asleep and yet he was still scared to do anything. If he even moved his hand towards his gun, the man would be awake instantly, with his own pistol in his hand, with full knowledge of how he had murdered his other men. For a while he actually considered not trying to kill him. He could just go with him back to Marboll, act the loyal soldier the whole way. When he found that Quill hadn't gotten back ahead of them, he'd think that something had happened to him after parting with Cotton. He could tell his handler that the opportunity to kill the Brigadier had simply never come...
He cursed himself as a coward. He was an agent of Carrow, trusted and respected by his true masters. The Brigadier was just a man, and he was asleep. He moved his hand to his pistol, carefully undid the clip without making a noise, pulled it slowly and carefully from its holster. The Brigadier made no move, continued to breathe gently and evenly, his back to the Carrow agent. He aimed the gun at the middle of the Brigadier’s back...
“Put it down,” said Malone. Cotton gave a start of surprise, spun around to see the batman aiming his gun at him. “I was just...” he began.
“It was you who killed the others,” said the Brigadier who, true to his reputation, was suddenly facing him, with his own gun in his hand. “You were going to kill us too.”
“I was just checking my gun. I did it quietly so as not to wake you!” The game was up, though, he knew. He could see the certainty in their eyes.
“I asked Malone to remain awake while you were on guard,” the Brigadier explained. “I didn’t know for sure, not until this moment. Quill’s dead, isn’t he?”
“Yes,” admitted Cotton. “It was easy, childsplay. I killed them one at a time...” He moved suddenly, hoping to catch the Brigadier off guard while he was listening to his confession. He brought his gun back up, pulled the trigger...
The Brigadier’s gun spoke once, the bullet striking Cotton right between the eyes. Cotton's own bullet went wide, and then he fell back, killed instantly, hitting the ground with a heavy thump. The horses reared back at the noise, pulling against their tethers, and the trees shuddered as sleeping birds and animals were jerked awake and fled in alarm.
Malone stared at the dead man in astonishment and horror. “I didn't believe it!” he admitted. “It was a sensible precaution, but I didn't think it could possibly be true!”
“It was either him or Crane,” replied the Brigadier, still covering the dead man with his gun. “Either way, someone we trusted was a traitor. Logically, the fact that it was Cotton is no more shocking than if it had been Crane.”
“But if it had been Crane...” Malone couldn’t finish. He just stared at the dead man as if thinking he might get back to his feet, as if he and the Brigadier might say they'd just been playing a joke on him.
“If it had been Crane,” said the Brigadier with uncharacteristic gentleness, “the act of betrayal would have happened hundreds of miles away, not right in front of you. You've seen dead men before, but this was someone you counted as a friend. Someone you joked with, cooked meals for. What you're feeling is perfectly normal.” He put his gun back in its holster, then knelt and examined the dead man more closely, making sure he really was dead. “We'll carry him into the trees for now,” he said. “Give him a proper burial in the morning. In his own way, he was as loyal to his true masters as we are to ours.”
“Do you think he gave the others proper burials?”
“No, but it's about the kind of people we are, not the kind of person he is.”
“He destroyed the toadstools, didn’t he?”
“I expect so, yes. Either that or just left them with the bodies. Either way, we need to get more. We're only a few days travel from Tollawen, chances are that the toadstools grow around here as well. If they don't, we’ll have to go back for some. Now, take his ankles.”