flame-lords of jupiter

by
Robert gibson and zendexor

The hopes of Earth rest in the courage of a construct who dares to face the frightful overlords of the giant planet!

[To follow on from the Zendexor-Dylan collaborations Peril on Pallas and Mission to the Tenth Planet, here is an offering from another duo, in which each chapter is more of a joint effort - since the taking of turns to write alternate chapters, as in the double-stranded Mission to the Tenth Planet, would be less appropriate for this more uni-linear tale.]


1

Resken 905 scowled with longing, hunched at the window of the orbiting fortress.  As his gaze scanned and roved, his stomach churned in almost human fashion with the weight of news.  During the past few minutes his situation had changed more than in the previous six thousand years, and a whisper now emerged, from his more-than-mortal brain, telling him that his age-long vigil might be about to end. 

       He stared as though the space around Jupiter were a labyrinth that would yield to scrutiny: he had become able, seriously able to believe, that his naked eyes might tell him what the fort’s detectors refused to reveal.  This made it likely that the hour at last had come, for which he had been created.

       Previous false alarms, strewn over centuries, had provided exercise for his intellect, but his android body had lacked action – had in fact never known any life other than that which he had always lived, in a cathedral-sized metal shell hurtling twenty thousand miles above the cloud-tops of the giant planet. 

       Yet he was as fit and muscular as the day his Terran masters had perfected him.  The cells that made up his Herculean frame drew their power from the restless virtual foam of space itself.  Physically as well as mentally, he was to all intents and purposes a minor god – which he needed to be, if his testing time was at hand.

       A buzzer sounded and a glow-bulb flashed, announcing a transphotic communication from Earth.  (Overwhelmed by a sense of history, Resken 905 glanced at the wall clock before pressing the stud to receive the call.  It was 05:11, Greenwich Mean Time, on 19th May, A.D. 8323.  He had been over sixty-two centuries in the Fortress.)

       “Resken?” said the voice from Earth, and simultaneously a caped figure appeared on the communic.

       “Yes, Mever, it is I.  I happen to be at home at the moment.”

       The object of his sarcasm smiled from the screen, crinkling a lined face.  “As always, I admire how you maintain the repartee…”

       “Seven minutes ago,” Resken cut in, “the space around me went red.”

       Meven’s face puckered and bleared.  The man’s mouth firmed in an effort to normalise, to dismiss the news: “It’s good, of course, that they constructed you with a sense of madcap fun, but – ”

       “Forgive me – I must stop you there.  You know, Meven, that there is one thing I never joke about.”  It was vital to convince the old Capcom dynast, one of the few remaining Terrans who still bothered to listen, that what was about to follow was no gag, no mere ploy to while away the years. 

       “Do you mean to tell me,” sighed the face on screen, “that you actually have something to report about the… you know… the – ”

       “I saw the vacuum outside my window acquire colour.  It turned a dull red.  The flicker was repeated twice.”

       “You realize what you are saying is impossible?”

       “A ranging shot, I’d guess.  From below.  And not impossible, merely unimaginable.” 

       Meven’s face was now a blotchy grey as he mumbled, “What do you think it means?”

       Resken had had tough-mindedness manufactured into him, yet could still spare some compassion for the frailer human.  Nevertheless the Terran had better pull himself together, because the answer could not be broken gently.

       “The Second Jovian War is about to begin.”

       “No.  No…”

       If only, thought the android, if only I could throw a bucket of cold water at that croaky time-wasting face.  “You can’t take it, but you must take it.  Or else Earth may be finished.”

       “They shouldn’t want it.  They wouldn’t dare.  Wouldn’t ever dare,” bleated the man.  “We thrashed them, last time.”

       “Then why did your ancestors build this fortress?  Why build me?”  He paused, and then, though he had never played cards, added:  “You always knew this was on the cards.”  Meven had no answer, and Resken continued, with a sense of an angler playing his fish, though he had never angled, never seen a stream, never seen a fish: “But you’re partly right, insofar as they wouldn’t risk it a second time with that kind of purely psychological warfare in which we worsted them so thoroughly.  Therefore, mark my words, they’re preparing a physical battle.”

       He watched those words sink in, watched their effect on the Terran’s features, and braced himself to ride out one last futile wave of rejection.  Sure enough the man scoffed – but feebly –

       “Jovian spaceships?”

       Resken scoffed in turn, “Come now – what’s so improbable about that?  Are you about to give me the silly old argument that Jupiter’s huge escape velocity makes us safe from them?  Ignoring that their resources are likely to be as exceptional as their world’s gravity, and that the one will compensate for the other?  It’s time to bestir yourself, Meven.  Alert your authorities; wake them up from their dabblings – because I’m going to need reinforcements!  Unless it’s already too late.”

       Meven, however, sadly began to shake his head.

       Here, then, realized Resken, was failure, clear from the body language: utter failure to rise to the occasion.  What next?  What could he do with such a person?  Continue to bawl him out: no other option presented itself.  From a vast tonal range, Resken picked a voice which cut like a blowtorch:  “Don’t tell me you have forgotten what this fortress is for.”

       Wistful came the Earthman’s reply: “It has given my life meaning…”

       “Ah,” said Resken in bitter understanding.  His loud-voiced approach having failed, he switched to irony.  “Ah.  Just ‘meaning’-therapy.  Including all your years of contact with me.  It’s all about feeling good.  Nothing more.”

       “I’m afraid that’s true,” muttered the screen-voice from between drooping shoulders.

       The admission did not greatly surprise Resken.  He had always been plentifully supplied with news from the home world of mankind.  ‘Meaning’ indeed was the only currency of value on an Earth long given to unlimited material wealth, ever since the invention of the matter-duplicator in 2330 had wiped out old-style economics overnight.  Only one age-old struggle remained – the quest for purpose. 

       To be appointed to the Observatory staff, to be trusted to maintain contact with the Fortress at Jupiter, was a prize keenly sought, an honour and a boon to the life of any decent, intelligent Terran.

       “Well,” shrugged Resken, “it’s a pity but you’re going to find out, you’re about to learn, Man, that a long distinguished record of fine gestures will not suffice to meet the Jovians’ attack.”

       Meven gave a weak farewell smile.  “Listen, friend.  We did do what was needed, long ago.”

       “You mean…”

       “We made you.”

       “That,” said Resken, “is the oldest, most useless argument of all.” 

       But he was speaking to a blank screen.  That was when he understood that he was absolutely alone; that no help would come from Earth; that all available hope had been so conveniently pinned on him.

2

A couple of minutes later, space flashed red again, as though the void could be stained by cherry juice.  The craziness of this apparent violation of natural law shouted its message of Jovian power.  Flash, flash, the stains shone brighter, enveloping the fortress.

       During this build-up Resken did his best to parry the inner thrusts of despair, by clinging to the knowledge that the Jovians had lost the First War.  Beaten once, they could be beaten again. 

       If so, it would have to be done differently this time.  History never repeated.  In the previous bout, the war’s psychological character had nullified the Jovians’ advantage of size – since no one could match Terrans for ruthless mental cunning.  But this next contest threatened to be an altogether cruder affair.  And neither the Earth nor the rest of the System could hope to withstand the hordes of the giant planet if they broke out into space. 

       An android is like a man, in that he has to have hope.  Resken therefore reminded himself that, after all, no enemy armada was visible yet.  Space-flashes, whatever they were, weren’t space-ships.  That final doom was not yet in evidence.

       As if on cue to that thought, the flashes re-appeared.  A quality without mass, without detectable radiation, stained the outside vacuum with a deep red that came and went in staccato bursts, stronger by far than the previous manifestations; strong enough, this time, that Resken’s queasiness swelled and popped as a burst of insight:

       THEY WON’T LEAP – THEY’LL PULL.  To them, their immense planet is the universe.  That’s why they’re not yet leaving it.  The very concept of going “off-world” is one they don’t yet understand.  Thank goodness.  That will be what saves us, if we do survive.  Yet the consequence may be grave for me personally.  I feel it in my steel bones, that since they don’t leap, they’ll pull – they’ll drag me down to them – ah, look now –

       In an elastic moment the outside redness brightened into pink.  Embracing the fortress, prongs of radiation scanned what was in it and then –

       One might as well say, the Jovians “pulled”.

       Resken’s awareness froze as he was “translated”. 

       The giant world’s gravity took hold of him.  Weight enough to crush a mere man, triggered in him a long-planned response: his musculature underwent that cellular adjustment for which it had been designed, with this moment in view, millennia before. 

       So he was able to throw off the effects of the change.  Presently, as his thoughts thawed into a stream of awareness, of new weight and motion, he looked about him.

       He was standing in a roomy monocar.    

       Except for ribs of metal, its hull was transparent, allowing him to see all around, far over cloud-tops below, and upwards to a billowy ceiling above.  Thus sandwiched between two levels of the Jovian atmosphere, the silent car ran frictionlessly atop a rail which appeared to float in mid-air.  Resken simply absorbed the stunning scene; he accepted it all: the mighty vehicle, the scarcely believable rail apparently unsupported in the midst of sky, and the sky itself, with its continent-sized clouds, diffusely lit vaporous mountains floating in a creamy twilight of beige, pink and orange… 

       This must be the Girdle.  I’m actually travelling on that equatorial planet-spanning structure which we divined in the First War.  According to Terran calculations it had twelve stations, each of which beamed its own nightmare at Earth.  We’re immune to it now.  They can’t be trying to use it again.  Not in the same way, at any rate.  There’d be no point.  So… they’re using it for something else.  As a transport system?  Yes – and as a stopover for me. 

       Guesswork was vital for Resken.  He must continue to believe in using his wits, ridiculous though it must seem to pit the said wits against the most colossal world in the System.

       Cling to hope, or give up and die; that was his choice, and because his makers had imparted to him their own irrational will to live, he hoped in his guesses.  “I’m going to be fetched from here,” he thought, and gained hefty satisfaction when, sure enough, he saw a grey round-ended cylinder soar towards him out of the lower clouds. 

       Not another “translation”, no.  So close to the surface, something more basic, something cruder is needed.

       As the rising shape approached to rendezvous with the monocar, the thing revealed its roughened texture, unpleasantly reminiscent of a bug with legs folded against its body: its design had nothing in common with the monocar’s austere beauty.  Resken did not even try to stop his mind from constructing empty theories.  The supreme Jovian lords most likely were aided by lesser minions, bug-like nasties who shared their evil but lacked their dignity.

       The crude grey airship clanged against the monocar.  In no time a circular section of wall flapped down to allow passage between the docked vehicles. 

       In through the gap came a clicking horde of spherical creatures on stubby retractable legs.  “Here come the Minions”, nodded Resken to himself.  They were about four feet high, with grotesquely wide mouths that opened and closed apparently out of smooth flesh, without lips or even a line to show (when the jaws were shut) where the openings had been.  Clack, clack, they surged in and poured around him.

       Jostled by these animated medicine balls, he was borne back with them as they returned to their airship, and as the connecting passage re-closed, and the ship un-docked and began its descent, he actually felt nostalgic for the quiet and splendid vehicle which doubtless continued as ever to glide round the great Girdle of the planet.  He allowed such small pieces of emotional guesswork free play within himself.  He’d been built, he now realized, to house the hunches and prejudices which churned within him, and to act inspired by the mettlesome spirit they now gave him.  Quite likely his designers had fully known, that in constructing him to last so long, they had caused something unique to brew… for how could the petty old boxes called “thought”, “logic”, or “emotion” still pigeonhole his input after so many thousands of years?  All must be boiled down into a super-intuition, so he trusted, so he hoped, as with a crazy glint in his eyes he prepared to wager the fate of his world, pitting himself against Jupiter.

       The snapping Minions allowed him to shove his way through them as he sought the window.  They let him stare as the airship descended into the lower cloud layer. 

       After perhaps half a minute the creamy blankness outside thinned away and through its last wisps Resken beheld the panorama which he had waited out his millennia to see.

       No human eyes would have been able to judge its distance or its scale, but Resken’s hard orbs, with their inbuilt equivalent of radar, ascertained that the planet lay spread out fifty miles below him.  He was permitted to gaze his fill – which made good sense, for why not let him see everything, since his likelihood of return to Earth was zero?

       Jupiter’s surface, diffusely bathed in its orange glow, undulated with enormous but shallow gradients, mottled with grey-hazed patches which he guessed (setting his gaze to highest magnification) to be jungle.  Five or six locations showed higher topography, with what resembled steeper volcanoes at the summits of lazier cones, as if Earth’s Mount Fuji had been placed atop Mars’ Olympus Mons.  Valleys and swales were streaked with phosphorescent orange rivers (or roads?) which must supply some of the illumination, while the rest of the available light either spilled up from molten vents or filtered down through the clouds, or both.  Resten wondered whether the darkness of night ever came to the surface of this world.  Perhaps some areas knew blackness, but this one might be a sleepless capital district.  “Guess on, guess on,” he encouraged himself; “there’s naught else to do.”

       Sudden blows to his shoulders jerked his attention away from the landscape.   Jostled again by the Minions, he was forced away from the window, hustled across the floor, down through a trapdoor and into a windowless pod in the underbelly of the airship. 

       He guessed again, rightly –

       It happened: a jolt of separation; a queasy weightless drop…

       Then deceleration and a swinging motion.  And lastly, the pod’s walls began to dissolve, actually dissolve like wax. 

       He wasn’t going to be granted a soft landing.  Contemptuously the lords of this world were making their point.  The method of dumping is the message.  It’s what you do with rubbish. 

       He fell a couple of yards onto the Jovian surface. 

       The drop was the equivalent of a five-yard fall on Earth, but his springy synthetic muscles were equal to the shock.  He landed in a crouch like that of an athlete who awaits the starting gun.  Simultaneously, eyes strained wide, he made sure that he did not lose a split second in his grasp of the scene around him.  People!  Human shapes!  A crowd of brightly clothed forms, mouths agape!  He heard them piping with amazement as they shuffled.  They were backing off, to take position at a respectful ten-yard distance from the alien construct who had been tipped onto their patch.    

3

Resken, naturally, understood nothing of their gabble, but their movements and poses told him enough.  These folk, though genetically unrelated to Terrans, were obviously human, and the recordings he had watched during his long, long life had taught him plenty about human body-language on any planet. 

       He wasn’t even shocked to see men and women on Jupiter.  STIM (solar teleological irradiative morphogenesis) or, in popular parlance, the “Barsoom Principle”, asserted that all the worlds of the System had a tendency to evolve native human minorities; hence he could read the emotion of this crowd.

       They were grateful, humbly grateful and overjoyed.  It was such an honour to receive a crumb from the table of their overlords!  He, Resken 905, was that “crumb” – a kind of throwaway gift from the Powers that must rule this giant planet, and whose rubbish was treasure to lesser beings.

       A tall bearded man robed in brown detached himself from the crowd.  Eyes cast down in a pose of reverent submission, the Jovian villager approached the android and sank onto one knee.  A tense silence fell upon all.

       “Jull,” said the man, thumping his breast.

       “Resken,” said the android with a similar gesture.  Smiling, he gestured for the man to rise.  The tension went out of the air. 

       Jull turned to issue orders; dozens of figures snapped into action.  The android, swivelling on his heel, noted a cluster of squat frame houses built of red branches and woven leathery leaves.  Towards this area trotted the task-force, who within minutes were erecting a greater structure: a superior lodging for their new guest. 

       It was not hard for Resken to gauge the comfortable trap he was in.  Well, why not simply accept the inevitable?  His conscience was clear.  Struggle merely for the sake of struggle was pointless… 

       It was fatally easy for him to take this line, especially when Lerin, the chief’s beautiful daughter, was assigned, surprise surprise, to teach him the language. 

       Her willowy form – so different from the squat Jovian build of standard predictions – melted his heart, even as the pattern of events spoke more cynically to his mind with the message, Here’s your role prepared.  Wryly, resignedly, he could imagine himself already labelled in Fate’s display case as the easy hero, the champion of Lerin’s people (the Haop, the humans of this world were called), soon to be their leader against the Jovian High Powers, and yet all the time merely serving the purpose of those very Powers.

       Half of each ten-hour Jovian day, Lerin coached him.  The smiling young woman pointed to one object after another, named each one and used the relation of nouns to build his understanding of verbs and adjectives, all the while domesticating him with her hopeful regard, weaving her spell of love and community purpose.  The circumstances brought intellectual dividends too.  Soon, the all-important dichotomy in Jovian life became apparent to him: namely, “short and squat” versus “slim and tall”.  For example, Lerin would indicate truffle-like plants and thick-boled stumpy trees and say “ummb”; then she would aim her finger at slender trees and spindly creatures stalking amongst them, and say “emmb”.  Ummb – emmb, one of those contrasts, as basic as plant/animal, red/blue, yin/yang… 

       “I understand,” said Resken on the second day.  “Two phyla on Buruz/Hemberaz.”

        Her face lit up.  “Yes!  Yes!  One world, two names.  ‘Hemberaz’ to us; ‘Buruz’ to the Flame-Lords.”

       ‘Buruz’, as Resken now knew, meant “all”.  He nodded to himself, piecing together his more successful guesses.  He had no precise idea, as yet, of what the Flame-Lords might look like.  Nevertheless he could safely assume that they were the ultimate pinnacle of evolution of the “ummb” phylum – the stoutly-built creatures of this giant world.  They, and their rotund Minions, had no choice but to be squat, fully subject as they were to Jovian gravity and hence designed to live heavy.

       Somewhere along the line of Jupiter’s history there must have been a useful mutation to escape this fate.  The “emmb” phylum consisted of creatures who were partially immune to gravitational pull.  Doubtless it had begun with a single cell, containing some nullifying ingredient for which any terrestrial physicist would give his right arm.  Ages must then have passed while the new type of cell divided and spread and incorporated itself into the tissues of an entire new category of living beings.  These were creatures whose body-plans need not be squat, who could stand tall and thin, and who could climb and jump and generally knock about like the fauna of Earth or Venus.

       Need there be conflict between squat “ummb” and slim “emmb”?  Not in the forest, at any rate.  He stood close to the edge of one patch of tall, wavy vegetation, while part of his attention remained on Lerin as she went on with her pointing and her commentary.  He eyed the round shapes that groped through the undergrowth, causing the thinner higher stalks to tremble like jelly.  Raggy mop-bodied birds, whenever their perches shook too roughly, fluttered squawking from branch to branch.  Only a few times did he hear louder bellows and feel the tremors of bestial combat vibrate the ground.  This seemed a mostly peaceful world, as far as his eyes could detect, his gaze lifting past the near forest to the vista of the next huge hill and beyond its hazy mottlings, further out to the vague undulations on the far-stretched horizon: all seemed immensely quiet and still.

       He knew better than to trust these impressions.

       He would trust his intuition instead.  Only an infinitesimal fraction of the Jovian scene would ever get covered by his eyes, whereas his mind could hug the lot… might, at any rate, try.

       “And make it a good try,” he told himself.  “To get it wrong, now, would be most expensive.” 

       Meanwhile, he would continue to go native.

       Fifty short Jovian days after his arrival at the village of Deyet, came the great gathering summoned by the chief, Jull, from the dozens of Haop settlements on the slopes of Gmezul.

       Resken 905 was a married android by this time.

       He and his new spouse stood beside Jull, in the same clearing that had been the scene of the android’s arrival from the sky.  He now felt the pressure of thousands of eyes upon him, the expectations of an entire people.  He was only an artificial man, but he was inescapably a man, he now knew, and the adoration bestowed on him by Lerin was a bond and a snare of destiny.

       It also cancelled out much old logic.  He could no longer assume that these people’s fear of the Flame-Lords would continue to restrain them.

       The ceremonial speeches had all been made and a hush fell.  It was his turn to speak.  He adjusted his voice-box to crowd volume.

       “People of Gmezul,” he cried, “I admit the rumours are true, that I am not of this world; that I am of the third planet – ”

       That phrase destroyed the united hush that had lain on the crowd.  A multitude of yelling throats hurled the iconic name:  “Earth!”  “Earth!”

       Resken raised and lowered his arms.  “Very well!  I am of Earth!”

       “Sent!  Sent!  Sent from Earth!”

       “All ri-i-i-ight!” he yelled back.  “You can say I’ve been sent from Earth; but listen, will you?”

       “Lead us!  Lead us against the Flame-Lords!”

       Resken gave in.  With gestures and promises he pacified the crowd.  Then he turned to Jull and asked quietly, “Why are they so determined on this rebellion?  Your lives are not hard.  Your land is rich; you live in reasonable comfort.  Why risk all this, in revolt against your superiors?”

       The elderly chief did not hesitate.

       “Because,” said Jull, “they are our superiors.”

       Oho, so that was it.  Resken did not change expression.  He understood more widely by the second, that the motive of pride was knit together with the legends undoubtedly filtered down from the First Jovian War.  Somehow the folk of this corner of Jupiter knew that Earth had, once upon a time, defeated the Flame-Lords. 

       That knowledge, and the arrival of a real live “Earthling”, was enough to drive them crazy.

       But did he have to be crazy too?

       He asked himself this question one last time, prompted by the exalted expression on the face of his spouse, Lerin.

       Was he really prepared, for the sake of this present moment – for the sun-spread of joy upon a pretty face – was he prepared to risk the annihilation of himself and all these people, pitted against beings who could snuff them out in one breath?

       Ah, but “risk” and “pitted” were the wrong words, he knew. 

       They were all playing the Flame-Lords’ game. 

       Resken 905, snatched down from orbit, was an adhesive.  Fly-paper, that’s what he was.  Shoved among the people of Gmezul, to collect the trouble-makers.   

       What to do?  Resist?  No - this was the game, and he must play.  He listened to himself say to Jull, “Very well – let’s get started.”  If one could change the rules, one might still win.

4

He expected the chief to begin discussing practicalities, logistics…  Instead, with a hand-wave, Jull signalled for a banner to be hoisted.  Immediately this was answered by a more distant flutter of blue and red and orange: birds streaked upwards, in tight formation of colour-groups, a quarter mile beyond the edge of the gathering.  Visible from afar, they formed the unstoppable signal for the march to start as another flight soared, further off, and then another, the flocks irrevocably alerting the communities of Gmezul like a lit chain of beacon fires strung in a line for scores of miles around that immense Jovian hill - a sequence which could not be countermanded. 

       Resken was aghast; then he smiled. 

       He hadn’t been looking forward to all the organizational work.  Now it was suddenly obvious, there was none to do. 

       With the clothes they stood up in, with the supplies on their backs, the inhabitants of Deyet, and doubtless of every other village on the Hill, were moving up the slope towards the fastness of the Flame-Lord of Gmezul.

       It’s not my fault at all, thought Resken.  They’re fulfilling some deep need of their own…

       He was tugged by Lerin, her arm linked with his.  She was pulling him towards the hoisted banner.  Beside it, as it whipped in the breeze, stood a plump woman whose fingers sparkled with ornate rings.  Lerin whispered, “Take the word, Resken.”

       “From her?  What word?”

       “She is Valooma Lakkas.  You remember – I told you.”

       “You told me many things.”  Resken came to a stop and looked into the eyes of the soothsayer. 

       Cynically, he expected some bet-hedging statement, such as, “A great power is about to fall”.  This must be part of the instinctive set-up.  A number of the village elders had stopped to listen – as Lerin put it, to “take the word”.

       The oracle was brief.  “Live in the moment,” said the plump woman, “for only the moment is alive.”

       “Thank you for that,” murmured Resken.  “I would sure rather live in the moment than think about what will happen afterwards.”  Sardonically said - and yet, he reflected as he walked on, why not?  Why demote any bunch of moments?  Why despise any time as mere ‘transition time’?  These days of advance should be appreciated for their own sake

       To travel hopefully was the thing. 

       But hang on – suppose there is no hope?

       “Lerin!” he cried. 

       She was gone!  No – there she was, she had merely stepped aside to spread Valooma’s message to followers who were waiting to hear.  She came back to him, took his arm again… He relapsed into contentment.

       He, she and all the other folk of Deyet took the upward-slanting route between two forests, which led them eventually to their first stop, in a higher clearing, by the last hour of the short Jovian day. By this time Resken’s reasoning faculties had been quite shunted away into some dusty store-compartment of his mind. 

       The horde camped for the ten hours of darkness.  They chatted in low voices, ate and slept, and at the vague cloud-glow that was sunup they resumed their climb.  Subdued merely by the importance of the occasion, no one seemed a prey to fear.  Upon every face had descended a solemnity which left little room for any twitch of doubt. 

       By the following day Resken had thoroughly developed a similar ability not to think, not to worry, and instead to put his trust in the prevailing mood of the uphill flow, as if he and his followers formed a gravity-defying river.  Doubts largely ceased for him, as for them.  This was necessary in order that his steps might continue to plod, one after the other, up towards the summit cone.

       No such vast climb would have been available on Earth.  If it had been, Resken knew from his long studies, it would have taken them into freezing cold.  Here, the planet was so vast, a climb of five or ten miles made little difference climatically.  The types of vegetation, as of terrain, remained fairly constant.  Altitude did make some difference to the view, however.  The horizon swelled by a factor of two or three.  But after that, it ceased to grow, since the density of atmosphere put a limit of a few hundred miles on how far sight could penetrate; thus the skyline presently appeared to halt its retreat, thereafter persisting as a constant vast circle of haze.

       Within that circle, however, perspectives shifted as the days went by.  It became possible to see the tops of some of the other major hills, as Gmezul progressively revealed its eminence to be huger than they.

       From his millennial studies of Earth, Resken drew an analogy with undulating sea-swells frozen in a snapshot taken from tall ship’s deck - only the scale was vastly wrong, and these hills, of course, were solid and still.  Yet the idea of their movement haunted him.  He became more mentally “jumpy”; his muscles tensed as if in anticipation of a sudden attack.  Well, why not?  Was that not a reasonable notion?  Wasn’t he leading a war party? 

       The faces and moods of his army of followers had turned even quieter and more watchful than before, suggesting that their hunches might be not dissimilar to his.  Though they weren’t yet directing looks of inquiry at him, yet an alarm bell rang in his mind, to awaken him from his previous optimistic trance.  To his trusting people he had better at least appear to know what he was doing.

       Therefore he kept his firm stride, not daring to break it even after he became aware that a grey hump atop the upper skyline was no mere protruberance in the flank of Gmezul but an actual sight of the final summit cone, peeping at last over the main slope’s shallower gradient.  The face of doom, it was; yet at all costs, he commanded himself, he must maintain the same calm pace as before while his catlike alertness intensified and his sidelong glances monitored more closely the mien of his closest companions.  Groping in mental darkness, he must at least stay in instant touch with whatever stirred the others, so that his hackles would rise the same as theirs... though when the precise nature of the doom chose to reveal itself he would have to do more than shudder in unison with his adopted people: he would have to show them leadership.  Whatever loomed, whatever settlement of accounts with that summit cone, he, Resken 905, must stand the trial as figurehead of the rebellion.  This certainty was a racking dream-torture, held at bay, so far, by sheer guts or ego – 

       Then at last came the wakeful, open, long-foreseen sounds of fear. 

       His ears were assailed by: “Muxxt!” “Muxxt!” – an outcry in the form of a word that was new to him.  Nevertheless he instantly guessed where to look, without needing the craned necks all around him to indicate the distant summit cone.  From that loftiest peak a cloudy smudge, hardly more than an out-of-focus speck, now rose.  This was what was inspiring the echoes of “Muxxt!” “Muxxt!” from mouth to mouth, as folk halted their march.  They can’t have been sure themselves, thought Resken quietly – but they’re not surprised.

       The tiny distant cloud ceased to rise and began to swell.  Or rather it came closer, at a speed which Resken’s eye and brain could judge from Doppler calculation.  The object, he guessed, would be upon him within minutes.  Its bearing did not alter by the smallest deviation from its line-of-sight approach at a rate of about two hundred miles per hour.  Within the next minute he began to resolve it into a swarm of dots.  The minute after that, his eyesight could magnify each dot into a mighty flying creature, an ovoid considerably larger than a man, and bristling with wings, beaks, claws…

       Please – breathed the android’s inner self – since “this is it”, let my arrogance serve a larger purpose.  Let a merciful regard be turned upon the up-blundering folk whom I have led to this juncture – please, there has to be a compensation for their belief in me; their fond illusion that I know what I am doing –

       That word Muxxt meanwhile kept smiting his ears.  Belatedly he snatched the sense of it by means of his recently acquired Jovian vocabulary: Muxxt was not so much a name, as a named number.  Muxx would be Sixty whereas Muxxt with the extra “t” sound was Sixty-One.  Here and now, this was a number with some peculiarly personal element: expressed with dire brevity the prickly-prime “61” hovered one wing-beat ahead of his mental grasp, teasing him with foreboding of some act of will.  And now the ovoid creatures themselves had arrived overhead, to bulk above him with their eerie gulping hums; bizarre winged eggs fanning into inverted cup formation, flapping loftily in preparation for a swoop –

       But wait – belatedly shrieked the android’s mind (while eye and brain ran a superfast register of the objects above him) – they are not 61; they are 60; one is missing; and that one creates a ravenous vacancy –  

       A slot waiting to receive me.  It pulls like the hungry gap in an ionized atom’s outer electron shell.  So, is that the idea?  I am to be wedged into the role of that final particle? 

       The subdued multitudes around him watched meanwhile with fear-battered faces.  He sensed their grim effort.  They were desperately trying to clutch the hope he embodied for them – the hope that he could do something, something right now, to counter the humming overhead things.  All very well for you to pin all that expectation on me.  He was tempted to shout at them, Stop hoping at me, will you –  He closed his eyes at the edge of despair.  But from deeper inside him came the sudden grin of a manic idea.  Actually there was one possible “something” in which he might put his hopes…

       He therefore opted not to struggle.  As the big gulp began, he stood still, allowing the  sixty ovoids to descend and buzz closer around him.  Their threatening bulk and sinister crescendo must, he realized, seem nightmarish to his followers, who were scattering back in terror.  But he hoped that his upright and unflinching stance might at least hint to them that all was not yet lost.  If the Sixty swallow me, that means, does it not, that I’ll be in, and if I’m in, I’m in, and then we’ll see; perhaps it will turn out that they have made a mistake.  That’s all I crave: that they please make just one game-changing mistake.

       His view became fully clogged with the hovering ovoids.  Their wings fanned his face, and the noise almost deafened him, but that was as nothing compared to the first brush of mental contact.  It was the prickly stroke of a consciousness so much larger than his, that it threatened to bite off and swallow his own.  Larger - yes, much larger - but maybe not stronger.

       He remained patient and docile while they pulled him into their collective.  He did not tremble bodily nor assert his will.  Nor did he allow his ego so much as a single prideful flinch of resistance, while his personality dissolved into the group.  For – he sensed with gathering joy – he didn’t need to.  He must have had a right hunch here; must have guessed what was going to happen.  His small tincture of personality was able well to outweigh their huge Sixty; he sensed his ego overflow theirs, felt them feebly realize, too late, that they had blundered and blundered good!  They’d had no idea of the power his Terran designers had given to his mind and personality.  Indeed, how could they have known?  They’d have had to have been familiar with the history of ancient Terran space programs to understand how engineers made a fetish of redundancy, and habitually constructed their wares many times stronger and more reliable than the planned mission required; with the result that when plans were upset and the mission changed, the product remained ready. 

       You never had a chance, gloated Resken’s mind at the sixty newly-trapped shadows cowering in a corner of his brain. 

       With both arms he made a palm-pushing upward gesture.  At the same time, he spoke the mental command, Rise ten yards.  Hover till I call you.

       They obeyed – and his people saw, and wondered – and he beckoned the edge of the crowds forward, whereupon their foremost elements scrambled upright, followed by others, and began to approach, gingerly at first, then with amazed alacrity, as they sensed that he was truly in command of the Muxxt.

        Lerin was the first to reach his side; she took his arm and gazed into his face as if her eyes would scour him - "You are really you?"

       “Authentically me,” he smiled.

       Warily she mused, with an upward glance, “And now you seem to be master of them…”

       “I tricked them, I think,” he nodded.  “Not sure yet how far.  But now I’ll have to go.”

       She shuddered.  “With them – up to the top?”

       “Yes.  Before I lose the advantage of surprise.  Sorry about this,” he said.  “Will you explain that for me, to our people?”

       Her face had turned haggard, but she bowed her head in acquiescence, and, not daring a farewell hug, she sadly drew back to leave him free.  He wasted no more time.  Shooting a mental summons to the Sixty, he bade two of them descend, fetch and lift him.

       So a pair of ovoids closed around him, one on each side of him, while the rest hovered lower, and then the full Muxxt including and commanded by Resken soared as a full group of Sixty-One into the sky.  Silently the ascent was witnessed by all the folk who had followed him so far, and who now stood hemmed in by forebodings and desperate hopes, their eyes tracking the flying formation as it wheeled and angled to set their leader’s course towards the summit cone of Gmezul. 

5

Tentacular limbs supporting him under each shoulder, Resken was borne through the air by two of the ovoid flyers.  Wedged in this way between them, he was deprived of sight where the creatures’ bulk obstructed his view, but ahead and below he did have some narrow view of the land over which they sped.  It looked momently more barren and at the same time more garish.  Purple rocks increasingly littered the slope in dribblings of scree which suggested gouts of dried volcanic blood.

       Resken 905 felt light-headedly close to death, the eeriness of his fantastic situation accentuated by the captive shadow minds of the Muxxt tumbling inside his head.  One fixed spike rose clear of the maelstrom of mystery: the moral landmark variously termed honour, duty, loyalty… tinged with pride.  Do your best and don’t expect to survive.  The great thing is to impress the enemy.  They’re sure to test you to destruction.  Do your best.  Do your best.

       Because of this moral imperative, there was no turning back, even though he might have been able to control his flight by the ascendancy he had won over the ovoid creatures; he was as certain to continue towards his doom, as if the Muxxt really had captured him, instead of he them.  That thing called honour / duty / loyalty ensured that he could not deviate.  Resignedly, he could only watch as his bearers lifted him past a grey belt of discontinuous rock.  They had now attained the altitude of the steeper, summit cone; henceforth, with a more tilted gradient, the terrain over which they flew acquired a more sinister aspect.  The slope up here was more extremely grooved with fissures and pocked with caves.  Wider yawned the rents in the ground, and more chaotic, as they neared the ultimate top.

      He was into his last minutes of life – and he did not understand himself.  Surely he ought to be able to answer the question: what did he hope to achieve, in this rush towards doom? 

       Not being a fool, Resken possessed a fair degree of self-knowledge.  He knew (without being able to do anything about it) that he had been designed with various unattractive but vigorous human qualities such as arrogance and selfish ambition, while at the same time he was also aware that he had been provided with an equal helping of courage and idealism.  Those traits were copied from mankind; his super-human qualities on the other hand were mainly physical, not moral – with one exception: his stupendous patience: a patience that had enabled him to wait out thousands of years of isolation in an orbiting capsule, in preparation for the doomed mission in which he was now engaged. 

       Now, close to the end, that super-patience was at last wearing thin.

       Because he was not a fool, he could question the obvious surface flaws in his designers’ strategy, and deduce that some secret must underlie them, enabling the strategy to make sense.  Otherwise he’d have to conclude that his Terran backers were idiots.  What was the point of an agent placed to undertake a mission from which he could not return?  An agent who could not possibly harm the enemy in any way – what conceivable use could he be to the Terran war effort?  No, there must be more to it all than this; and the truth was finally seeping through to the surface of his consciousness.  His makers had thought to prevent him from accessing it directly, but he could not forever be denied, especially now he possessed the extra processing power of the Muxxt brains, and life's tangles were at last unravelling, allowing common sense to shine out as never before, in the simplified vista of approaching extinction.

       Those Muxxt – he certainly had turned the tables on them!  They had thought to absorb him; he instead had absorbed them; and the combined gestalt could be compared to a state which, in theory only, was a federation, and in practice was dominated by one country far larger than the rest.  Resken’s brain thus now held sway as the Russia of the Muxxt’s USSR.  This coup had won him a few minutes’ reprieve from enemy control.  However, it was ludicrous to hope that he might repeat the performance with the actual Flame Lord of Gmezul.

       So, what good had it done him?  Think!  To win these extra few minutes, had been good for - what?  What might he yet achieve, to set against the disaster which loomed as the imminent reward for his pig-headed persistence?  From somewhere inside him, he found an inexplicable trust in himself.  But could he trust this feeling of trust?

       Intuition, blah – he needed answers; and not only, he realized, answers concerning this senseless Second Jovian War, but also about the First.  The two wars, grasped in unison –

       He made a snap decision as he was carried up past a cave-opening wide enough to accommodate all of his swarm of Muxxt.  Though it glowed like the mouth of an orange hell, the gaping dry-vent gave off no more heat than the rest of this jumbled landscape, and so, as far as temperature was concerned, they’d be able to swerve and fly right into it, and that, under his mental command, is what they immediately did – to find that the space inside opened out into a roughly spherical cavern about fifty yards wide.  Resken brought his subject swarm to a hovering halt at the centre of the enclosed space.  He took hurried note of the shape and the sounds and texture of the interior.  The yellow-orange walls blazed with a translucent glow, pulsing in time with a kind of sloshing rumble, like the respiration of a stertorous giant.  Gliding forward to peer over the rim of a downward tunnel entrance he then caught sight of a brilliant blue stream.  His brain named it “lava” but his emotions conceived of as “the blood of Gmezul”.  Had he really entered a living body?  The idea slithered forward...  Caution at this point might be the worst madness of all.  Move forward, inward!  It was a powerful hunch.  He obeyed it.  Further into the labyrinthine network of caves and caverns he and his swarm of ovoid flyers glided, deeper into the warm dazzle of translucent throbbing radiance, the vast eerie mutter and hiss of concealed flows. 

       The geometric awareness grew in him, of how much the entire volcanic cone was perforated by tunnels and caverns.  The summit of Gmezul was almost one quarter air, as opposed to a mere three quarters mountain.  Spongy metaphors crowded in on his imagination.  He thought of lung passages, and of the aerated rock called pumice which he had never seen but with which he was quite familiar through his encyclopaedic store of Earth science.  Organic or inorganic sponginess – which was it?  Of the two, the organic continued to gain in conviction.  The rhythmic throbs of sound and light, and the glistening of the pathways, blended in an experience which was like travelling through a giant body.  The idea presently force-fed him the awful truth, that the Flame Lord of Gmezul was no mere colossal energy creature inhabiting the volcano; it was the volcano. 

       Straightaway the Muxxt, the recent extensions of his mind, who had been waiting like demure servants, now flooded his central awareness with a gleeful “Yes!”

       At the same instant the long-brewed Terran plan came likewise at last into full and explicit focus in his brain, so that he could not help blabbing it, as it bled from his thoughts via his links with the Muxxt – could not help, therefore, being crushingly aware of having, in that moment, betrayed his whole purpose in coming here.

       Then, when at last he would have fled, out of the corners of his eyes he saw other flying groups draw up behind him, to occupy all cavern corners and the entrances to the tunnels at his back, blocking his retreat.  Their names filtered into his mind via the awareness of the Muxxt; not Sixty-One but other related prime gestalts – the Trexxt, the Zaddst, the Noxxt, the Bluxxt: the 23, 37, 53, 89…  enough to obstruct the way back like a wall.

       Finally, in their plural voice, in mingled sounds and thought-forms, the forces who had trapped him addressed him, with the cold laughter of history.

6

Listen, Earthman, said the voice with stupendous gentleness, - for Earthman we call you, construct though you are... construct or ‘natural’, as with organic or inorganic, or our own ‘ummb’ versus ‘emmb’, it is all one to us, infinitely beneath our concern, since we, the gathered Flame Lords, are features of the planet itself.  As you hear the rumblings around you, Earthman, you hear not only the throat of Gmezul, but also what we relay to you of the throats of all Emorion uttering their balance of energies in the ultimate language of power - of topographic life.  Thus we do you some honour, little Man.  You have served our purpose well.  Henceforth, thanks partly to you, Emorion is the name for what your people know as Jupiter, and what the Haop knew as Hemberaz, and Gmezul knew as Buruz –

       All now engulfed in the true name, with your unwitting aid.  And we can repay you with knowledge, since your barriers are down, your infinitesimally puny mind open to what we pour in…

       Understand, then, the different kinds of life.  In addition to organic life such as can be found on most worlds, and the rarer inorganic life such as you people have found on the Darkside of Mercury and in grottoes on your Moon, there is what you might call positional life.  This - the cause of topographic beings like us - is born of the endless patterned interplay between what flows and what the flows flow past.  Thus we, the living volcanic cones of Emorion, came into existence.  But at first, for long ages, we did not know that Emorion was a planet.  To us it was Buruz – the Universe.  “Emorion” was just a word for “ground” as opposed to “sky”.

       An understandable mistake, we’re sure you will agree, if you consider the size of our world.

       Then came irritations.  Inexplicable pokings from above.  They began with what you call the Galileo entry probe, at the beginning of your race’s Space Age.  Multitudes of other “probes” followed.  We did not understand or care for these strange objects that rained down through our atmosphere.  Disturbed by their artificial origin, we falsely assumed that a weird civilization must exist somewhere in the higher cloud layers of Buruz.

       But though we did not understand and could not suspect the true location of the race that built them, it was easy for us to retaliate. 

       We hit back by means of what we will call Influence-Track Reversal – but which lesser intellects have inaccurately termed Reverse Causation.  That is, we took hold of the influences, the emotional disturbances, which we received from your probes, and reflected the whole lot, with embellishments of our own, accurately back upon the senders.

       This process, though we did not know it at the time, was what you call the First Jovian War. 

       Your race did well to survive these counter-measures of ours.  You even managed, in the end, to reverse our “reverse causation” back on us, and thus evolve a defence which led to cessation of hostilities.  In fact, under the circumstances, we don’t mind allowing you to call the result a “win” for Earth.  However, we might add that it was lucky for you that you didn't push your luck - that you stopped bothering us with your probes after that.

       After the War, both sides “took stock”.

       Increasing numbers of us began to re-think our assumption that our enemy inhabited the upper atmosphere of ‘Buruz’.  The difficulties, the improbabilities of the theory became more and more evident to us.  One by one, we grasped that the ground and the cloudy sky we know, tremendous though they are, are not the Universe. 

       As for you Earthmen – well, you tried to think ahead, it seems.  We’ve just now learned from the store in your own mind, Resken, about how your people reacted to the great event.

       Understandably, you wanted to make sure of your victory.  You wanted to make the peace permanent.  So you sought for a way to deter any future aggression from our giant planet.

       But before many centuries had passed, your world became incapable of much joint effort, for your Ages of Freedom dawned – the end of all economic struggles, the end of all your old-style disciplined States.

       So you opted for defence on the cheap. 

       Bluff!

       Yes, Resken, your people tried to bluff us!  What you hear now is real laughter, the laughter of volcanoes; of mountains shaking their shoulders with mirth.  But we understand, too…

       You based your plans on an idea from an ancient science-fiction story, “Victory Unintentional” by one Isaac Asimov. 

       A mightily strong and capable construct would represent Earth, and the stupid Jovians would take it for an average Earthman, and be impressed.

       It’s not your fault that you had no idea what you were dealing with.  We forgive your presumption.

       We forgive it the more readily, as you have done us a favour...

       You have converted Gmezul.

       The last of us Flame Lords to accept a true picture of the Universe is Gmezul, in whose innards you are floating at this very moment.  He is one of the greatest of us, but he held out longest against the truth.  He is a dreamer, a nostalgic lover of old ideas, and has created beautiful mounds of echo-crystal-poems around his false visions of Emorion-as-Buruz, but we need his mighty mind to direct itself outward, to appreciate and study the real Universe.

       He is now convinced at last.  Thank you!  We could not do it, but the presence of a real Earth construct, actually radiating its character inside Gmezul, has proved sufficient to effect the desired cure.  We are now one people.  Nothing henceforth can stop us, Earthman, from the achievement of our full potential, which is to know all things, and thus at need to control all things. 

       Welcome to Emorion, tiny creature from Earth.   You may make your home in Deyet village with the Haop girl and never fear a Second Jovian War.