Fifth Song of the Ninth Epoch, 103rd Verse
Kalaar stared into the painful brilliance of the two suns above the southwest horizon and defied the tears that the Twins brought to his eyes. At this holy hour, their light struck the planet’s icy rings at such an angle that the atmosphere always erupted with pulsating bands of crimson and violet. During other evenings, this dazzling exhibition of nature would have overwhelmed the Xrel to worship the divinities for creating such an auspicious display. However, tonight’s radiance seemed weaker to Kalaar, muted of full color, instilling a gray dread like an ominous fog clouding the faithful minds of those Xrel not yet dead . . . because the shimmering colors flaring in the thermosphere only accentuated the swarm of black missiles raining down upon the Xrelmara landscape.
Over the southern horizon, a pulsating explosion bubbled skyward and burned the tall clouds away. Another strategic air defense site destroyed. One more confirmation that time on Xrelmara was short.
Kalaar stood quietly on the observation deck of his palace, a superstructure of crystal and steel that sat on a mighty plug of solidified lava, which had once filled the throat of a mighty volcano long since eroded away. He finally succumbed to the stellar light streaming into his eyes and turned away, tears meandering down his toothy snout.
The encroaching rumble of interstellar war mocked him, shouting assurances of his species’ demise with every explosion, every blinding light over the mountains. Kalaar had been the commanding general of the Clan of Defense, but the great military strategist relinquished his leadership in disgrace days ago. The Citizens scorned him and his useless battlecruisers and allegiance soldiers because they could do nothing to repel the Vorvon invaders now pummeling the planet’s strategic defense sites from their orbital perches.
Kalaar heard the tiny holoture sphere chime in his pocket. He withdrew the device and let it hover in front of him. In its place, a hologram of his appointed bodyguard materialized. Teerlik’s pebbled skin looked much grayer than normal, the pink of his eyes gone. Despair’s effect on the mind and body.
Have you finished your prayers? came Teerlik’s soothing mindspeak.
I have completed the ship’s pre-flight procedures. When you finish with the rites, it will be ready for your launch codes. Teerlik fluttered his three eyes in the hem’il pattern——his clan’s customary gesture denoting impatience and irritability. We have little time left. Vorvon forces have landed in the forest nearby. You must launch the cargo drone soon.
My prayers will not take time, Teerlik of the Yivin Clan.
Kalaar sensed that Teerlik desired to say more, to plead perhaps, but the bodyguard cut-off his end of the transmission, and the hologram promptly faded away. He tucked the holoture sphere back into his tunic.
He looked skyward again, this time to the north, toward the Eye as he chewed on the sweet, spicy pulp of his chatik root plucked from his greenhouse moments ago. Sweeping his gaze across the darkening sky, he picked out stars belonging to the holy constellation of the tromal-beast emerging from the fading light of the Twins. Its tail was always the first to appear, then its head and six legs, followed last by the beast’s single eye, Xrelmara’s polestar. It was classified as a small yellow-white sun some forty-thousand serpean breaths away——a great distance even to Xrel standards. A voyage to that star, such a holy place to the Xrel, had once been planned but that seemed like eons ago.
A herd of spooked wirbals trotted in from the open plains into the purple forest which surrounded Kalaar’s palace. They, too, felt the approaching thunder of the invader’s orbital strikes many distances away and scrambled for cover.
He watched the last animal take shelter in the trees and returned to the beast materializing in the sky above him. The Scrolls of T’ursea said that the gods staked their realm within the life bearing radiance of the Eye, which was believed to have planets but never confirmed. Holy decrees prohibited telescopic observation of the Eye.
A squadron of Xrel fighters pulsed overhead, the scream of their ion-wave drives reverberating through the tall trees, and disappeared over the northwest mountains. Seconds later, the air pulsated with a thermonuclear wildfire above the invader’s foothold, a last resort and ghastly effect brought to the Xrel surface. Kalaar watched the super-heated mushroom——horrifically beautiful——balloon across the sky. Only primitive weapons remain, he thought. Soon we will be using wooden spears. When defenders begin to scar their own soil, defeat is never far behind.
The invaders had appeared from the direction of the Vorvon constellation, fittingly named for the Third Prophet of Revenge, and with no other appropriate epithet in which to identify them, the aliens were branded as so. It appeared the Third Prophet had unleashed his revenge as predicted in the Scrolls for sins unknown. What atrocity had the Citizens committed to warrant such devastating retribution from the gods?
Two days ago, a terrified voice from the research base on one of the gas giant moons had screamed over the deep-space com lines, It’s hideous! Communications had abruptly stopped. Patrols were dispatched. Emergency meetings immediately convened in the Assembly Chamber. No one understood what the terrified transmission meant until a few hours later, a monstrous apparition appeared above Xrelmara and fearlessly challenged the planet’s orbital and surface defenses with astonishing power and impudence.
Aerospace bases, surface-to-orbit batteries and strategic defense sites were decimated quickly. The Vorvons’ strength was bitterly evident, and they attacked with a swiftness that stunned Xrelmara’s military commanders. The gargantuan invader ships would simply skip through the upper atmosphere like hungry fish and fire their beamed energy projectors unchallenged. Nothing survived these murderous fusillades.
A hot lance of brilliant red light pierced the sky for just the length of a heartbeat and touched the surface hundreds of myno breaths away, the laser burning the afterimage into Kalaar’s retinas. The ground under the beam erupted into a mountain of heat and rock. He clutched the railings quickly with apprehension, and seconds later the shockwave slammed into his observatory. The tall crystal windows rattled in their frames. Kalaar grimaced from the pain scorching his sensitive hearing tendrils.
He turned and ran for the magnetic lift. Another blast shook the palace, and Kalaar gasped in surprise. The explosions were closer, stronger. In between curses, he wondered if the volcanic upthrust of rock which supported his beloved observatory could withstand another blast. Too many questions to ask in such little time.
He knew one thing for certain——he was the cause for this apocalypse. His great military was crumbling around him, the people were dying, and the gods seemed pleased. Once proud and always brash, Kalaar now felt himself reduced to an insecure child. Nothing but guilt and its accompanying daggers stirred his actions now. His final decision in this life had been made.
The lift platform whooshed to a halt on the bottom level, and he stepped into the cavernous chamber where his huge telescope sat on its revolving deck. The observatory was not the object of his attention, though. An enormous vessel sat on the boost grid next to the telescope, waiting for the insertion of launch codes from the computer-pilot nav banks. The cargo drone was an outdated freighter, so old it possessed a primitive warp capability that could hardly be called warp, but it had recently been modified with an advanced AI cognition guidance. No living beings would pilot the ship on this final flight.
Experimental technologies had been stored within the holds as offerings, his deliverance from guilt and shame. He did not view this alm as a form of divine appeasement——he was far beyond amnesty——but only as a means of forgiving himself. Certainly, there would be others out in the deep reaches of space now in danger from Vorvon aggressions. Kalaar’s gifts might offer a lesser race a fighting chance . . . unlike now, when their overdue deployment in battle would be just a futile, rebellious strike from a dying combatant. Perhaps the gods would absolve him for such an empathetic act . . . or perhaps not. Kalaar’s eyes became saturated with amber tears from pain brought about by unattainable answers.
In that moment, in a state of weakness, he suddenly raged against the gods. Curses rolled off his tongues like worms dripping from a rotting corpse. On the boost grid before his cargo drone, he fell to his knees and cried out. His clawed hands tried to tear into the metal boost grid, and the thunder of distant war faded under his screams of blasphemy. He was nothing more than a foolish old man who believed in nonexistent immortals created in the minds of superstitious ancestors. The pain and realization tore out of him in waves. No gods! No——no, surely not——no gods! Now he was mumbling things that made no sense, his mind gone. No more——Ryli’se, gone, not real! Xllric——Hevrin. Saliva dripped from his snout. Slowly, he wobbled to his feet and staggered toward the launch console at the edge of the boost grid.
No gods, no forgiveness, but Kalaar would save himself, save others. Only way out. When he reached the launch control panel, his shaking fingers slowly found the coordination to push several buttons in coded sequence. He gripped the edge of the computer console with a free hand to steady himself, warm tears dripping off his flesh to cool on the metal control board.
With a fist he struck the LAUNCH button in a surge of defiance, and the mighty cargo drone erupted with a winding roar. The thunder of fusion drives displaced the low din of approaching war as the vessel began to ascend. The top of Kalaar’s crystal-steel palace opened into a mountainous glass flower, revealing a rich ocean of twinkling stars above.
Gravity overpowered Kalaar’s trembling legs, and he fell to his knees while the ship continued to rise from the womb of his palace. Lights throughout the complex dimmed when power surged into the boost grid projectors in the floor to give the ship a final push. The freighter rose faster, fusion exhaust fading to a pinpoint until Kalaar could no longer see its fiery light. The sounds of battle returned.
He sprawled across the cold floor, whimpering, mumbling. No more gods——yes, they are quite gone.
It was awhile before he heard the mad clomping of footsteps. He sat up, not sure from which direction the sounds came. He spun his head around as he tried to locate the source, but only the walls carried the baffling echoes. Was he dreaming? The footsteps sounded closer now, and then a squad of his palace guards appeared from the outer corridors, tired eyes full of ceaseless battle. Kalaar stood.
Teerlik appeared from their ranks. Minister Kalaar, the Vorvons are here! We must evacuate! Please, there is no time!
Kalaar could only stand in a daze. Yes, he must be dreaming this. He would soon awake near his light-harp, lulled to sleep by its soft melodies. It would all be over then. Just an overactive imagination brought on by too much gheva juice.
Suddenly, a deafening explosion disintegrated the far wall. An eruption of swirling crystal and metal came at him, and Kalaar stumbled to the floor, dust gagging him, shrapnel knifing into his flesh, madness filling his heart. Then he beheld a ghastly image. Swarms of
spindly bipedal beings were pouring in through the breach, all of them war screaming, slashing at the air with sharpened bone-blades which curved out of their forearms, tentacles tipped with stingers darting to and fro. Two of his palace guards opened fire with their heavy pulse cannons and swept the forward area with wide fields of fire, methodically reducing the first few lines of alien attackers down to ragged chunks of flying body parts. Still, the invaders continued to press their assault deeper. Four more palace guards appeared from a side entrance and threw themselves into the struggle.
An enormous Vorvon automaton suddenly entered the chamber through the gaping hole on a cushion of antigravity and let loose swarms of flying insect-machines into the room. One of them attached itself to the head of one of the troopers and pumped a surge of angry electricity into his brain, killing him instantly. Another fighter, distracted by the flying little robots, received a bone blade through the abdomen and out his back, the alien attacker gasping in satisfaction with a hideous wheeze and toothy smile.
A deep, bass tone emanated from the tank-like machine, and the steel floor vibrated. Kalaar turned to flee, heard more flying spiders buzzing and soldiers screaming. We are being slaughtered for some unknown godless insanity, he thought.
The sounds of soldiers and useless gunfire, so deafening moments before, fell silent. Kalaar stole a glance over his shoulder to see that every guard had been butchered, his dear friend Teerlik included——decapitated. The machine had now turned its attention on him, quickly rumbling across the vibrating floor, flying spiders circling above it.
He tripped over the boost grid converter cables and fell to his face. Lights flashed in his eyes, and he howled in pain. The monstrous thing was almost on him, and he could smell its hot circuitry, hear the drone of machinery inside. As he got to his knees, Kalaar remembered the tiny pulse gun concealed in his tunic. Drawing his weapon, he faced the monstrosity looming near him and noticed that new apparitions had appeared among the horde of rabid tentacle creatures——dark-skinned, leathery giants with armor plating across their body, their yellow eyes reflecting the dim chamber lights. He heard their alien mindspeak, murmurs of slithery death, a dialect he could not understand.
Why are you——? But the question died in Kalaar’s mind when a more lucid idea came to him. He put the tiny gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.
During its long and silent voyage, the ship had encountered several star systems, occasionally tuning into faded, static-filled transmissions from civilizations wondering about their place in the universe, but the ship ignored them. Its goal was the Eye.
After carefully navigating through the cloud of icy bodies surrounding the star system, the ship swept its sensors across the Eye’s ecliptic, probing for any planets that might be there. Altogether, it cataloged a family of nine: four inner rocky worlds, four gas giants with satellites, and a lonely planetoid drifting on the fringes.
The ship slid into a low orbit around the third world and scanned the surface. It detected a multitude of indigenous heterotrophic life forms——no foreign DNA present——but one species in particular it monitored closely. The creatures were bipedal beings with large craniums, opposable digits and broad teeth. They lived in humble, mud-brick dwellings and farmed simple grains with domesticated livestock, while others resided in mighty constructions of stone and lived off the offerings brought to them by the lower castes. Their level of metallurgical knowledge had yet to comprehend the complexities of iron or steel production . . . instead they used bronze as the metal of choice for weapons and tools. They were extremely aggressive, a predestined indication that more advanced descendants would mobilize and conduct warfare on a grander, more technological scale.
Several hundred years of massive acceleration had finally brought the ship to the Gods.
The beings were intelligent, but only within the known realm of their tiny universe. Their levels of a broader sentience did not satisfy the computer . . . they were incapable of utilizing the advanced payloads to protect themselves if the Vorvon horde charged into their star system.
Time would have to solve that. The ship landed in a crater on the planet’s single moon to wait——and to listen for danger roaming outside the solar system.