By: Michael C. Lea
Read by: Jason Adams of Indie Squid Kid
First appeared in The Book Of Exodi
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All stories by Michael C. Lea
All stories read by Jason Adams
Rated PG: For violence
- Feedback for Episode 259: The Lady or the Tiger?
- Next week… Weather: wild, and planned.
by Michael C. Lea
Galthas Talisar stepped out from the buzzing chaos of the transportal and onto lush greenery. This world was alien, to be sure, but the patterns were almost familiar. The ship’s oracles had chosen well.
Behind him, the transportal hummed again. An armored leg emerged and carefully found its footing on the blue-green ferns carpeting the jungle floor. More than twenty thousand miles above, the leg’s owner shifted his weight and stepped fully through an identical transportal, instantly emerging on the planet’s surface below.
That cautious step belonged to Urjik, who could be called cautious in few other ways. In fact, his reputation had left him few other options for a willing partner on this mission. Urjik did not care. He and Galthas had fought together against the worst the Zayeen had to offer. He trusted Galthas implicitly, despite his disdain for the other scrawny ascetics from Signet Battalion.
Urjik’s greenish skin and jutting lower canines marked him as a charuk, his bloodline tainted by nether influences. Despite this stigma, and despite his temper, he had risen quickly in Rampart Battalion. Even the most burdensome battlesuit did not slow him, and no one was a truer shot with an inferno cannon or a hex-impelled railgun.
Galthas, by contrast, had the pale skin and slight build of the feytouched. Unarmored and with no visible arms, he was nowhere near as physically imposing as Urjik. Those who had seen Signet Battalion in action, however, knew that his bulky cold-iron armbands were weapons as formidable as any firearm or battleaxe, and far more versatile.
“Air’s a little thick,” Urjik said, “but it breathes.”
“I could have told you that,” Galthas replied softly, “since you insisted I go first.”
Urjik flashed a tusky grin. “I thought that was protocol,” he said. “I always follow protocol.”
Galthas frowned back over his shoulder at the armored charuk, but said nothing. His companion was irrepressible, but Galthas had not quite recovered the use of his sense of humor yet. It was one more thing the Zayeen had taken. Perhaps here, on this world, they could find themselves again.
The transportal winked out behind them, the thaumaturgic sigil in its keystone deactivated from the other side. No one else would be coming through. For such a vital mission there would ordinarily be at least a full squadron, with clockwork or golems for logistical support. Here, as on dozens of other mission sites, there were only resources for a two-man team.
“Which way is it?” Urjik asked, looking around warily. The air was warm and humid, and buzzed with strange insects like fat blue bees.
“We should be within twenty meters,” Galthas said. “This way, I think.”
They moved through the brush, Galthas sliding quietly, Urjik with the subtlety of a tank. His armor’s servos whined as he plowed through flora and fauna alike. The cluster of large multicolored crystals jutting from the center of the armor’s back glowed as the suit drew power from them.
The undergrowth thinned. A clearing lay just beyond. They could feel a vibration in the air¸ an indefinable high-energy presence, like a gathering thunderstorm.
Galthas turned back. “Ready?” he asked. “Either this is it, or this is something very bad.”
Urjik hefted his high-powered Vindocladian inferno cannon to his shoulder and aimed its sigil-carved barrel into the clearing. Inside the bulky rifle’s main housing, a nether imp was caged, writhing in immortal fury but jacketed securely in heavy-duty curse-proofed lead.
“One of these days that thing’s going to backfire,” Galthas said, “and all your kids will end up with tentacles.”
Urjik shrugged. “They’re already gonna have tusks.”
Galthas silently parted the foliage and advanced into the clearing. The source of the disturbance in the air was immediately apparent. In the center of a small field of yellow-orange flowers, a geyser of light fountained six meters into the air, too bright to look at. Galthas looked down at his armbands. The fey glyphs carved into them were shining with power. Behind him, Urjik struggled with his rifle as if fighting recoil; the angry imp inside was soaking up energy. His armor’s fuel-crystals grew brighter, their flaws and occlusions shining like stars.
“Bespeak the ship,” Galthas said, his voice heavy with emotion. “Tell them the oracles were correct. Tell them we’ve found a sourcewell.” Tell them the lights will stay on and the ships will not starve. Tell them our world is dying, but our people may yet survive.
Most people on Ashter had heard of the Zayeen before they came roaring out of hyperspace bent on genocide, but few thought much about them. They were frequent trading partners, but casual visits in either direction were rare. Their world Zayid was rich in certain rare earths and metals, but the people themselves were generally regarded as physically repugnant and culturally backward.
The Zayeen were fanatical servants of a harsh and exacting deity, while the Ashterites practiced a genial animism whose very formlessness offended their rigid neighbors. In order to secure a vital trade route, the Ashterite military had established a base on Zayid, inadvertently trespassing on one of many holy lands and thus sowing the seeds of their own eventual ruin.
Resentment on Zayid built over generations, until a swift and bloody coup left the Crusader faction in charge. The first wave of the Holy Zayeen Crusade departed for Ashter within weeks of the coup. In terms of technology, they were completely outmatched by the Ashterite military, but they brought with them a secret weapon that the Ashterites could never have anticipated.
The Zayeen Crusaders had roused their dark god from its slumber. It flew alongside them, ringing with righteous fury, eager to descend upon the sinning Ashterites.
The sourcewell, of course, came with its own complications. It seemed as if nothing would come easy, ever again.
Galthas and Urjik found out about the aliens immediately after bespeaking the good news back to their ship. This close to the sourcewell, the bifurcated mimic-daemon in Urjik’s thaumaturgic squawkbox transmitted powerfully and received clearly. The mimics were bred to produce conjoined twins, and separated soon after birth. Whatever one perceived, the other repeated, no matter the distance between them. Although the little daemons lived their entire lives separated, Galthas occasionally wondered if they ever longed for their missing halves.
While Urjik contacted the ship, Galthas sat and meditated on the sourcewell, feeling the fey energies dancing in his armbands. He sat at the very edge of the grassy clearing, and came no closer to the well itself. Any sentient being who strayed too close would be entranced, drawn irresistibly into the Source to be annihilated. The sourcewells were vital, they were the stuff of life itself; but they were also deadly.
Urjik’s heavy tread had announced his presence long before he spoke. “We’ve got company,” he said. “Maybe half a klick away.”
Galthas reluctantly left meditation behind. “Zayeen?” he asked, eyes still closed.
“No,” Urjik said. “Something else.”
Before they left, Galthas decided to conceal the sourcewell. There was no way of knowing how the interlopers might react to it, or try to exploit it.
Galthas fell into a stance, spreading his feet wide. He flexed his knees, and felt the earth below hold him in its grasp. He flattened his palms, swung his arms into the ready position, and prepared to carve his will into reality.
His hands moved, weaving glyphs in the air, leaving a shimmering trail hanging in the empty space behind. Inside the bracers clasped around his forearms, captive fey wildlings shone brightly in response to his will. Their power flowed through a web of microtubules of cold iron, spinning through complex circuits until it emerged, shaped into signs transcribed from Galthas’ mind onto the face of creation.
Galthas drew a point, a line, a curve, suggesting the sweep of a clock’s hand.
cen(x,y,z):=-45.0892, 207.6823, 32.3342
Next, an oval circumscribed by a circle:
set perc:=from perc1 to perc5
for all perc from cen(x,y,z) to arc(cen,rad,360)
Finally, a Moebius-like closed loop, curving back upon itself, to establish the simple recursion:
The glyphs hung in midair, shimmering. Galthas waved them together. They joined, overlapping, connecting in the proper places to allow power to flow through the newly-defined system.
Galthas thrust his hands into the glyph, vertically aligned, right over left. Power crackled through his armbands as they intersected the potent symbol. He then rotated his arms, as if turning a wheel, until his hands were horizontal. The glyph rotated with them a full quarter-turn, locking into place with an impact he could feel in the pit of his stomach. Reality’s tumblers clicked over one another, and the world was changed.
The sourcewell and its clearing vanished instantly, replaced by more jungle. Anyone looking in the well’s direction would not only fail to see it; their steps would be guided subtly around it. It would be safe from tampering or exploitation.
“Now,” Galthas said, “let’s go meet our visitors.”
When the astronomers first spotted it, they thought it was a mistake. It flew alongside the Zayeen fleet, gliding in and out of conventional space, radioactive auroras trailing in its wake in sinister serpentine waves. When it was too consistent to be labeled a mistake, they thought it was a massive ship, a dreadnought on a scale heretofore never seen. Even that would have been much better than the truth.
The truth, which they saw once the Zayeen fleet breached visual range, was that it was a Vulcalisk gargantua.
As far as the scientists on Ashter knew, no one had ever seen one alive before. The only known specimen had been discovered near Zayid, by the Ashterite military garrison placed there. A subsequent joint expedition had fully explored the site in all its awful grandeur. The beast lay coiled around a shattered planetoid, with the crumbling remains of a world smeared around it as an asteroid belt. The planetoid was scarred, obviously by the creature’s external assault, but it seemed to have been shot through with a network of fine holes as well.
There was nothing left of the planet-sized monster but bones.
They had considered it an anomaly, a unique aberration, but they had named the species nonetheless. It held the popular imagination on Ashter for some time; reconstructions, artistic speculations on what it had looked like alive, and even fictional entertainment featuring the gargantua as destroyer or savior were all eagerly devoured by a captivated public.
But the Zayeen – the Zayeen had insisted it was a god. They even had their own name for it, terrifying and unpronounceable. They were rapturous at its discovery and thought the Ashterites’ whimsical fascination filthy and disrespectful. The Ashterites, for their part, thought the talk of god-bones laughable, but never snickered too loudly or in mixed company.
When the Zayeen emerged from hyperspace with their scaly god behind them, sculling the solar winds with its massive crocodilian tail, the Astherites stopped laughing. They knew the Zayeen worshipped the beast, but never imagined that the fanatics could find or clone a live one, much less tame it.
The Vulcalisk gargantua tore through their defenses and blotted out the sun, hungry for the hot marrow of Ashter.
The aliens were “something else” indeed.
Their scanners revealed that the ship was like a coffin; a lifeless box of metal, hollowed out, with stubby wings that imitated flying things but were not animated by any sort of life-force. To Galthas and Urjik, it was like seeing a rock or a corpse that flew.
A door in the ship’s belly hissed open, powered by some motive force that was not immediately apparent. The thing that waddled out was tripartite; three arms, three legs, no head to speak of, a ring of watery green eyes around its midsection and a central mouth where its neck should be. Its flesh was gray and rubbery, with irregular patchy tufts of reddish hair. It was draped in metallic ornaments, many of which seemed permanently attached.
Galthas and Urjik stood their ground, ready for anything. Urjik had relegated his cannon to a shoulder mount and now held a telescoping battleaxe that he had unfolded from its housing in his armor. Galthas’ bracers had sprouted shimmering bucklers and stubby blades of fey energy. Both stood ready for battle at any sign of aggression. They had been caught unawares by the Zayeen. Never again.
Then the tripod-thing spoke, and a box on its chest echoed its words. Galthas and Urjik both started; they were quite certain that no creature or spirit nested within the box, and a talking cube of metal was unheard of. Unfortunately, both the tripod and the box spoke gibberish.
The rubbery creature pointed to the box, then to its own mouth, then to Galthas. When there was no response, it said something unintelligible and repeated the gesture.
“You think it wants us to talk?” Urjik asked.
“I think so,” Galthas responded.
So they talked. They spoke of the war. Urjik talked of the gargantua, of how it wrapped itself around their world and sunk its teeth, with tips as broad as cities, deep into Ashter’s hide. He talked of the destruction, or claws that rent continents asunder, of the flight into their great voidfaring ships, living creatures like gigantic levitating horseshoe crabs.
Galthas talked of the desperate fight to slay the gargantua, of witnessing the deaths of hundreds of thaumaturges of Mirror Battalion who died affixing talismans to one of the impossibly huge creature’s eye-sockets. He talked of Rampart Battalion’s heroism as its fighters, Urjik among them, wielded weapons bearing talismans mated to those affixed to the gargantua. They had fired bolt after bolt of imp-spawned hellfire, projectile after projectile, until their power crystals had all dimmed and their ammunition was exhausted. Every shot from a thaumaturgically-marked weapon curved in its path and unerringly sought its companion talisman affixed to the gargantua.
They spoke of the evacuation, of how the transportals had burned until the sourcewells sputtered out. Until the soul of Ashter perished in one final paroxysm as the gargantua spewed the planet’s lifeblood out into the void.
Urjik spoke fiercely of the gargantua’s death-throes, of how it locked onto Asher with its tail and all six legs as it perished, curling around their world just as the ancient skeleton had been found curled around a shattered, dead planetoid. Galthas spoke softly of the decision to flee, of the main fleet leaving Ashter to seek out another homeland, while their still battle-ready companions stayed to try to repulse the remains of the Zayeen fleet.
And then the alien spoke in their language – or at least, its box did. “Thanks be you for to discuss words,” the box buzzed out. “This one Prime Speaker, Loban Fleet.”
Galthas and Urjik looked at each other. The box was a piece of dead metal that learned languages. They had met other spacefaring races, but this was truly alien.
“I am Galthas, and this is Urjik,” Galthas said. “Of . . . of Ashter.”
“Pleased are we of Loban to know you,” the Prime Speaker said.
“And we . . . you,” Galthas replied.
“For how long are you staying this orb?” the alien asked bluntly.
“We are refugees,” Galthas said. “Our home . . . can no longer support us.”
The Loban Prime Speaker paused. His large green eyes blinked several times in succession. Finally, he said, “We welcome you as competitors in spirit of fair play.”
Urjik frowned. Galthas held up a hand to keep him silent and said, “We hope that, in this time of loss and tragedy, we can count on the assistance and cooperation of the Loban people.”
“We welcome all competitors who wish to contend freely,” the Prime Speaker said quickly. “We seek a resource. Spotted from high-altitude scan. Strange light-fountain, high energy, very unusual. Was here, but now is not. Seen this resource, have you?”
He’s talking about the sourcewell, Galthas realized. Was it possible that these Lobans had advanced all the way to interstellar travel without ever encountering a sourcewell?
Whatever the answer, he knew that he could not risk being cut off from the well. His entire civilization would collapse without a usable energy source. This was all they had.
“We have been traveling long,” Galthas said. “We are very tired. We must return and convey your greetings to our leaders.”
The Loban blinked several eyes. Maybe it was the equivalent of a nod. Then it abruptly turned and marched back into its ship.
That night, they watched Ashter die. They established visual communication with the ship, intending to report on their encounter with the Loban ship. But they were confronted instead with their Section Commander, red-faced and puffy-eyed.
“I’m sorry to have to be the one to show you,” he said. “I’m sorry you have to see it down there alone. But we all have to see it. We all have to watch.”
“What’s going on?” Urjik asked, although on some level, they both knew already.
Fresh tears coursed down the Section Commander’s cheeks. Neither Galthas nor Urjik had ever seen the man so emotional. He angrily wiped his face with his forearm.
“The damn thing was hermaphroditic, or asexual, or the gods only know what,” he said. “We had everyone evacuated, we had the damn Zayeen lizard-troopers on the run, we were on the verge of implementing a plan to pull their big lizard off. Someday we might have been able to go back.”
The Section Commander reached for something unseen, and the image hovering above the squawkbox changed to a view of Ashter, wounded but whole. The corpse of the reptilian gargantua was still twined about the planet.
“The science boys say the eggs must’ve been encased in something super-dense, like neutronium,” the Commander’s voice said. “They can’t figure out how any egg inside would survive that. But we know there were two of them, and they passed right through the planet’s crust like it was water. When they sank all the way to the core they fused, and . . .”
The voice broke off. The image of the damaged planet spun quietly.
“When we realized what was happening, there were volunteers. Hundreds. They took all the golems and elementals and all the burrowing clockwork they could scrape together and they went back in to try to stop it. We weren’t even sure Ashter would ever be habitable again, but they still went back in.”
They could hear the Section Commander sobbing. On the image, something strange was happening to Ashter. Volcanoes were erupting, so many and so violently that they were visible even when viewing the whole planet. Chunks of rock, of the planet’s crust, spewed out into orbit and beyond. But some of the chunks kept moving.
Some of them . . . were something else.
Creatures were bursting free of the planet’s crust, miniature versions of the giant lizard whose corpse draped Ashter. Tiny in comparison to the globe itself, they still must have been as large as cities or larger. At first just a few, then hundreds, then thousands burrowed free, bursting Ashter from within. They swooped and dove through the planet’s remains, swimming through the solar currents and breathing in the quantum fog, devouring promising possibilities and exhaling death.
The planet collapsed, spreading into a bloody arc. Galthas and Urjik watched as all that was left of their world, everything they had ever known, every place they had ever lived, everything they had ever hoped or longed for or wondered about, every mystery unsolved and every story untold, everything that had ever defined home to them bled out into the vacuum.
As the fragments cooled, the tiny gargantua abandoned them and turned on the corpse of their mother.
“Always wondered what could have picked that thing down to its bones,” Urjik said, his voice thick. Galthas turned to rebuke him, but held his tongue when he saw his burly companion’s face. The charuk, too, was weeping openly.
Numbly, they made their report and received their orders. Urjik wanted to attack the Loban ship right away, probably because he felt a deep need to strike back at something. But he had a point; the sourcewell had to be defended.
Command wanted information, however. They had quietly tagged the ship thaumaturgically, so it could be monitored from a nearby squawkbox. Scouts had encountered several derelict ships on the outskirts of the system. If they were Loban ships, the Lobans might be grateful for information about them.
In the end, they were told to continue negotiating, and find out as much as possible without giving away vital information about their forces. The Ashterites no longer had the resources to squander potential allies. And while the temptation to inflict pain to still their own disquiet was there, High Command was determined that the remaining people of Ashter would not become like the Zayeen. They would trust until given a reason to distrust, and seek the good in all beings.
We trusted the Zayeen, Galthas thought, and see where it got us. But he accepted his orders and prepared for a long, sleepless night.
The next day the Loban Prime Speaker asked them bluntly about their technology. The Lobans had been monitoring them, it seemed, and regarded their equipment as strange or somehow sorcerous in nature.
Galthas pretended to not understand. “Our devices are based on life, on binding simple spirits to do our will,” he said.
The Prime Speaker blinked its eyes and fluttered its mouth a bit.
“Are there . . . more of you coming to this world?” Galthas asked, and immediately winced.
“Subtle,” Urjik muttered behind him.
“Of course not,” the Prime Speaker replied. “As we said, we seek resources. This is done in competition, as it should be. Our location is secret of much seriousness.”
“So the dead ships our scouts have spotted at the edge of this system are not yours?”
The Loban waved an arm dismissively. “No, no. Not Loban. Some other race whose name we do not recall. They were seeking resources also, quite urgently. But they did not know this orb was present. They tried to turn back, make for another system. Apparently they failed.”
Galthas felt something cold worm its way through his gut. “You knew they were in urgent need of resources?”
The Loban blinked. “Yes, yes. We communicated with them briefly. It yielded nothing. It was of little importance.”
“Why didn’t you direct them to this planet?” Galthas asked.
The Loban seemed taken aback; it blinked all of its eyes at once, three times. “We seek resources,” it said. “This is done in competition. All must compete for themselves alone, or the competition is impure. These creatures were not Loban. This orb was ours, found first by us. Why would we want more competitors?” After a pause, it added, “Of course, now that you are here, we anticipate striving for resources with you in the spirit of fairness.”
“Of course,” Galthas said. He turned to Urjik and said, “Go back to our camp. Tell Command the ships they found were not Loban.”
Urjik looked hesitant. “Go,” Galthas told him, and he did.
Galthas contemplated the strange tripod-like alien. Based on their brief interaction, he could not say that they might become bloodthirsty fanatics, like the Zayeen. But they were incredibly indifferent, which might be just as bad. The Loban’s lack of compassion for the beings it had allowed to freeze to death was chilling.
He turned back to the Loban Speaker. “We accept your generous offer to compete for resources,” he said. “And in return for your magnanimity, I wish to offer you the secret of our technology.”
When Galthas returned to camp, Urjik was nearly beside himself. “The Lobans!” he said. “I pulled ’em up on the box – they got back in their ship and took off!”
“Did they, now?” Galthas asked.
Urjik pointed to the squawkbox. An image of the Loban ship flying over the countryside hovered over it.
“They’re headed right for the sourcewell!” Urjik said. “But how did they find it again?”
“Probably because I turned the ward off,” Galthas said.
“Why would you . . .” Urjik began. But then he began to put it together, and fell silent.
As they watched, the Loban ship hovered closer and closer to the sourcewell. They crossed the edge of the clearing, and kept going, edging closer and closer. The nose of their shuttle clipped the edge of the column of blazing light.
The sourcewell flared, and instantly engulfed the Loban ship. It burned blue-green for a moment, and then returned to white, all impurities consumed. There was no sign the Loban ship had ever existed.
“Apparently they have somehow advanced this far with absolutely no knowledge of the dangers of sourcewells,” Galthas said. “Who could have imagined?”
Urjik stared at him, wearing a look of dawning horror. He had been in favor of attacking them openly, but not this.
“Bespeak the ship,” Galthas said wearily. “Tell them the Loban expedition has met a tragic end. Tell them there are no survivors.” Tell them that from now on, nothing comes easy. Tell them that out here it’s every man for himself.
Tell them this is our world now. Why would we want more competitors?
Planetfall by Michael C. Lea is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at escapepod.org.