Scott Hernandez paused in his work, as he did at the end of every long
day, to watch Jupiter set and the sky transform from its usual light
orange to brief crimson, and then deep, starry black. It was this
magnificent display he was waiting for; the luminous river of the milky
way, the dancing aurora caused by Jupiter’s colossal magnetic field, the
constellations brilliant in the thin Ganymedean sky. He looked for the
roving stars that would be Amalthea, Pasiphae, bright Callisto, or any
of a myriad of sister worldlets orbiting their shared primary. He
imagined, as he always did, what it would have been like to be one of
the early explorers he had idolized as a child, Natasha Hin or Viron
Zuff, and be the first to set foot on one of those spinning orbs.
But he had missed his chance. He had come home from Occator Flight Academy on Ceres, a certified astrogator, to discover his mother was sick and his brother Bradley had barely been keeping the farm together on his own. He was furious with them for keeping their troubles from him, but his dream of boarding an exploratory rocket and blasting off for the frontier was well known to them. His brother told him they would sooner have lost the farm than call him back from school. It was that very selflessness that made him realize he had to stay, that he couldn't let them lose the farm.
It wasn’t that he was too old to make a spacer, he was only forty, and astrogators were welcome everywhere, from the oldest ice hauler to the most advanced government vessel. It was that he felt too old. Rocketry had evolved since his days at Occator, and he suspected his skills, already rusty from disuse, would be utterly useless on a modern vessel.
Bradley sometimes half-heartedly suggested he look for a job on one of the “Grand Tour” cruise ships that luxuriously floated between Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus. He would argue that they would provide a suitably low pressure environment for Scott to bring his abilities up to date. But they both knew that wouldn’t be enough for him. Flying several thousand tons of rocket for the entertainment of the rich wasn’t the same as penetrating the unknown.
Besides, Scott had learned to be content on the farm. He spent his time trouble-shooting the harvester drones and going down to New Memphis, the nearby capital, for drinks with his friends. Sometimes, when his friends had gone home, he would find his way to the Mary Down Docks and watch the sleek, silver rockets push their way to the sky.
“Scott!” Bradley called from the house, pulling Scott from his reverie. “Finish packing up that drone so we can go to sleep!”
Inside the house, Scott removed his muddy boots and farmer’s jumpsuit and sat at the kitchen table for his evening glass of whiskey. This time, unusually, Bradley joined him.
“You know, you ought to try this Sergir, it’s Venusian, but it’s good.” he said, holding the dark red bottle before him and pouring himself a glass. Scott shook his head.
“Every time you drink that stuff, you don’t stop until you’ve passed out.”
Bradley sat facing hid brother quietly. He took a few tentative sips before finally setting the glass down.
“Not thirsty after all?”
“I've arranged an interview for you tomorrow.”
The sudden change in subject left Scott baffled.
“What, like a job?”
“Yeah, at the Ganymede Institute of Astronomy.”
“Like a teaching job? I'm happy here!” Scott insisted.
Bradley shook his head. “You and I both know you aren’t. You want to see distant moons and strange new worlds.”
“And how will teaching astrogation take me to strange new worlds?”
“It won’t. It's not a teaching job. It's a rocket job.”
There was silence as Scott absorbed this.
“GIA has a rocket?”
Bradley shrugged. “Dunno. Old Uranian Orbiter, I'd guess. They need pilots taught how to run ships from that generation, and I put your name in. Been working on the application for weeks, while you were sleeping.”
Scott was dumbfounded.
“You shouldn't have! What about the farm?”
“It's no problem, we have farmhands now. To be honest, we don't need you, old man,” Bradley said wryly.
“A mission to Neptune, I assume? I can't believe it. Is the GIA trying to beat Earth out there? They haven't sent anything but probes, maybe they want to send the first manned mission.” Scott was lost in reverie again. Bradley leaned forward and grinned.
“I've not even told you the best part. It's not Neptune.”
Bradley’s smile widened.
The rocks cringed before Zutelix 1-Radd, who sprawled upon his mountain of frozen slush.
The maladroit rocks who dared to obscure his view were not, of course, as alive as he. They were not, in fact, alive at all, by the standards of the Inner Worlds; but out here on Yuzmur, Home of the Highest, even the dross of existence could be sufficiently sentient to need lessons in behaviour.
Zutelix 1-Radd, high upon his frowning eminence, rumbled and shifted his weight, not enough to set off an eruption of liquescent nitrogen under his bulk, merely enough to send tremors rippling outward through the vicinity of his mountain. This caused yet more wincing tension in surrounding portions of the planet’s crust, but he gave scant thought to the scene’s potential for havoc. Ah, if he could move now as he would later be able to! If he could borrow some of that future power and use it immediately! But no, he must wait. His time would come, as surely as the revolution of Yuzmur around that extra-bright star which shone amid the faintly luminous dust-band of the ecliptic...
The only doubt which occasionally disturbed him, concerned those cursed obstructing rocks and what they might conceal. He had reason to believe that the despised form of his enemy Gtilx, a puny creature, infinitesimal in size, but unfortunately a creature that was able adequately to move, might even now be lurking out of sight in that direction.
And as this reminder churned anew in Zutelix 1-Radd’s magnetic-spongy brain, currents of energy surged this way and that through the mineral veins of his body, forces which clashed and almost choked before control was restored by the icy pressure of his will. Not a moment too soon did he quell the heat of his fury. The ice-membranes on his flanks had just received evidence of movement, half way to the horizon, somewhere out among the boulders and crags which delimited his sensory range.
There it was – the cursed thing, Gtilx! And even more obscene, another thing with it, a smaller version of it: its spawn!
The two shapes detected by Zutelix 1-Radd would, to a human observer, have looked almost exactly like ladders walking. The sides and the rungs were quite rigid, their motion by human standards a clumsy waddle in which the entire body had to twist first one way and then the other, for the creatures were without jointed legs.
But to the monster on the mountain the sight was one of appalling agility.
They were retreating, the miscreants – retreating towards safety after having spied upon their overlord!
Zutelix 1-Radd marshalled his resources, and his rage and indignation gave way to a sense of impending triumph. The spawny offence to Onehood had underestimated him. He called upon his deepest inner resources: the blackness-rays, the shafts of anti-light. Totally non-reflecting rods of extremest blackness, the positive radiation of true darkness, extruded suddenly in a negative halo from his vast summit.
The rods lengthened, then bent like wind-blown hair to aim all at once at the two distant retreating ladder-shaped forms... Now! The Overlord of the Tenth Planet willed the strike.
His power obeyed his will. Distance was annihilated in a burst of contra-photic energy.
Zutelix 1-Radd’s only regret was that the Gtilx thing must not have known what hit it. No time had been vouchsafed whereby it might have seen the blob of blackness flung across the miles. That blob hurled itself upon the retreating ladder-shape and flung itself round the thing’s body like a bolas, all in an instant of time. The rods of anti-light had become instantaneous ropes that strangled all being and made it nothing. The monster on the mountain imagined he heard the cut-off scream, though he knew that must be wishful thinking on his part.
Next he must gather his forces for a second stroke. Otherwise the smaller being, the spawn, who still lived and was retreating momently, might succeed where its parent failed, and get out of range. It was going to be a close thing. Zutelix 1-Radd heaved at his own might – this is how the preparatory action seemed to him – heaved within himself like a mountaineous lung drawing breath for further effort.
But even the supreme lords of creation must, alas, subordinate themselves to the limitations of matter. Time went too fast, or else he went too slow. He intuited the dire moment: there, defeat! – the spawn was now beyond reach.
And then worst of all, the creature turned and mocked him. It signalled with its upper orbs, using the electromagnetic fluctuations of Common Speech with a photic voice of rising intensity:
Spewer of darkness, your doom is imminent. Gtilx had arranged it; you destroyed him too late - THE WORLDS OF LIGHT SHALL KNOW OF YOU; THEIR EMISSARIES SHALL AVENGE US -
“Astrogators are in high demand, Mr. Hernandez.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Ma’am.”
Scott had driven out to the GIA campus that morning in his only suit, carrying with him his meager resumé and Occator diploma. Before long he was in the office of Abha Patel, Director of Exploratory Projects and President of the Ganymedean Planetary Society. She had looked over his papers quickly and efficiently, then set them down.
“If I may say so without being rude, your work history is rather… open. Why didn’t you seek extraplanetary work after college?”
Scott grunted uncomfortably. “My, uh, family needed me on the farm.” he explained.
Abha nodded. “Too bad.”
“I know my rocketry is a little out of date.” Scott said nervously. “I’m a quick learner, if that’s a problem.”
“Oh no, your rocketry is exactly what we need. You’ve probably heard that we acquired a vessel produced back during the first Uranian missions. It’s designed to rely largely on analog mechanisms, with very simple onboard computers, and all systems can be controlled manually if need be. The whole ship is meant to be self sufficient in a crisis.”
“Oh,” said Scott.
“Modern Rockets are not like that at all. It’s true that forgoing emergency manual systems altogether is illegal on most planets. Despite this, many modern spacers would, I think, be lost without automation. When I saw that you were trained for ships of an older make, I was quite pleased.”
“Um, good. I’m glad to have what you’re looking for!”
The interviewer smiled. “Is there anything you’d like to ask me about the mission?”
Scott thought for a moment. He hadn’t considered that the interviewer might ask him for his questions, he had been so nervous about hers. “Well… what model rocket is it, exactly?”
“It’s a Caelus Deep Space Explorer Mark Three. It’s designed, as its name implies, for long journeys, with a nuclear pulse drive, remote controlled exploration drones, and a hibernation chamber we’ve been busy bringing up to date for health reasons.”
“Nuclear pulse? Not a fusion drive?”
Abha nodded. “Remember, it’s an old ship. Being pushed along by a series of nuclear explosions isn’t the most savory way to travel, but it is fast. You should reach Persephone in about fifteen years.”
Scott gasped. “Fifteen years? I knew Persephone was far, but I didn’t imagine more than ten.”
“It’s enormously far, more than eighteen billion miles from the Sun. Thus the updated hibernation chamber.”
“But it’s so far,” Scott insisted, “Why not go to Neptune first, or the Kuiper Belt?”
“For the same reason you signed a nondisclosure agreement when you sat down. A GIA probe orbiting Makemake was outfitted with a gravity wave detector, and a few months ago it detected waves on a repeating pattern coming from Persephone. We don’t know what’s causing it, but… given the proliferation of alien life in the Solar System, we think it’s possible a civilization exists there that’s trying to send a signal. Even if it’s a natural phenomenon, it’s a damn strange one, and could put our names in the history books forever. So far, no one else seems to have noticed the pattern, so it’s possible we’re the only ones who know about it, but I count that as highly unlikely. We’ve got to get a ship out there, right now, before someone else beats us to it and steals our discovery. There’s no time to go to Neptune first. This will be what we are remembered for.”
Scott could hardly take it all in. Fifteen years in hibernation… his brother would be older than he was when he got home. If he got home. Eighteen billion miles was as distant as it got in the Solar System, out beyond Neptune, the Kuiper Belt, Pluto, Sedna, Eris… farther than anyone had ever gone before.
He could go farther than anyone had ever gone before.
“I would be extremely interested in making that journey, if you’ll have me.”
Abha smiled and extended her hand. “Mr. Hernandez, we would be extremely interested in having you make it.”
Seven years later, the central computer woke a crew member from hibernation for a routine maintenance check. It was Scott’s turn, and he climbed from his stasis pod stiffly, all sore muscles and cracking joints, to float his way down to the engine room. As he went he passed through the observation deck, and the spectacle without made him double back.
Neptune was a great dark orb of churning indigo dominating the viewport. Moons made their rounds just as they did back home, but they were alien moons, never before directly observed by human eyes. Colossal aurorae crowned the planet, dancing at each pole with electric intensity. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, and although the automatic cameras and sensors would collect a treasure trove of data, he felt sorry that they wouldn’t have time for more than a flyby of the glorious Neptunian System.
After a few hours, the computer reminded him that he was required to do a maintenance check. He finally pulled himself away from the viewport and on to the engine room.
A dusky crater floor, purposefully unnamed, undistinguished among the creviced glooms of the Tenth world... became disturbed, all of a sudden, by furtive signs of life.
In the depths of a scraped hollow, nestled among drifts of frozen gas, wan lights dared to wink.
Ctenda 218 thus exchanged greetings with the fourteen other members of the Several.
No bleaker tryst could be imagined as a meeting of the Planetary Council of Yazmur. No human eye, had there been one to see, would even have discerned that such a conference was taking place, nor any human mind have believed that one could take place amid such frozen desolation.
Bleak and drear it was, even to the Yazmurans themselves. Though evolved to these conditions, the Haop – “The Species” as they called themselves – remained at the best of times uneasily aware that their existence shivered on the outer edge of practicality. Their bodily processes a miracle of cryonic energy-capture, their every waddling motion a miracle of entropic defiance, they hung on to life, and to a kind of civilization...
And yet our culture - reflected Ctenda 218 as he welcomed his confreres to the dark dell – might have continued even to some degree flourishing, had not the door to the Species’ future been slammed by the One.
Zutelix 1-Radd, bane of all other living things, was not even distantly related to the Haop, nor was he a member of any species. He was a monstrous single entity, steadily expanding his remote churning influences, so that one after another the cultivated crystal arrays which dotted the planet, and which were the cities, laboratories and factories of the Several, were becoming fused into dead plaque, their energies sucked into Zutelix’s store.
Only out in the most barren wilderness was it still reasonably safe for the Several to meet...
Ctenda’s beam of awareness panned like a muted searchlight across the row of his gathered companions.
Then, with ceremonious sadness, he flickered out his greeting:
“I as Speaker welcome you to our final secure conclave. I trust it is as plain to you as it is to me, that in order to be true to our natures, our values and our history, we have one last duty to perform...”
A ripple of assent had begun to flash to and fro before him, even before his sentence had ended; flashes that expressed a harmony of thought which flowed along the inevitable tributaries of despair. For the Several were One at least in this: that each of them would opt for a dignified physical suicide, rather than be devoured in hideous soul-death. In such a spirit of solidarity with their spokesbeing, the brilliant and passionate Plandtix 408 coruscated to second the Speaker’s intention:
“Several is the name we proudly bear in contradistinction to the unutterable One, yet, if we continue in our pride of existence, our identities will be swallowed, sooner or later, in the Monster’s unstoppable expansion, and therefore I, of like mind with Ctenda 218, urge that we arrange our dignified exit from Life while we retain the will to do so.”
“True and right!” played the impulsive warm lights of Fwalkap 579. “It will be too late when Zutelix 1-Radd has become not only the Monster Mountain but the Monster World.”
No dissenting voice was heard. There was no gainsaying, that the deed must be done while there was still time. No choice would remain, after their adversary had absorbed all the tissues of the planet into his own ravenous and insatiable being. And that future appeared quite certain. Every kind of resistance had been shown to be futile: even nuclear explosions were converted by the One into augmentations of his selfhood. Thus it must ever be, since a fluke of Fate had, in the person of Zutelix, let loose the freak power of counter-nature upon the Tenth World.
Thus the momentous decision was made. Nothing remained for the meeting to do, except to disperse. Its members would carry the recommendation to the sparse population of the Species, some hundreds of beings dwelling in nooks scattered around the globe. The process would take time, but nothing could reverse it once the dispersal had begun, and perhaps it was this fact that it could not be countermanded, that prompted the Several to linger. Not hesitation due to any doubt, but rather the weight of the occasion, the curtain run down upon the saga of their race, held them for a few moments in stillness. Then with a profound inner sigh they turned to go their ways, though even as they receded, they looked back twice or thrice at the Speaker, Ctenda 218, who stood propped against a frozen spike, answering their protracted farewell signals.
Suddenly the Speaker’s responses altered in frequency.
The Several halted their dispersal. What was this? Whither was the Speaker now shunting their attention?
A broken shape was approaching. A thing that flopped and swayed. Frantic and enfeebled but in desperate haste, it pertinaciously dragged its undeveloped form towards its elders. An injured cub; what could it want here?
Its signals pleaded, “Hear me, O Several!”
The Speaker addressed it gravely: “Little lurcher Ptudd, how did you know where we were?”
“Gtilx... he told me...”
“And what might have happened to him, that he sends you in his stead?” demanded Ctenda while the rest gathered round. Yet even as he put the question, the Speaker guessed the answer. Gtilx-4296 had been known for his recklessly close observations of the common enemy.
“Zutelix blasted him with dark-stab, O Speaker,” glimmered the cub. “But our vengeance is at hand!” And the little one began to babble of ridiculous hopes. Oh no, not again, thought Ctenda and the other elders; not another burbling spate of naive optimism! They sighed with their listening minds. Long and bitter experience had acquainted them with the myriad blind alleys of wishful thinking.
Then, as the excited cub continued to expound the late Gtilx’s plan, so that its outline became clearer, the Several’s bitter-sweet irritation became perturbed into a more profound dismay.
They weren’t surprised to hear that Gtilx had managed to aim gravitational waves at the inner solar system. It was a neat trick, but as a technical feat it was hardly more than child’s play to a species whose low-energy evolution naturally gifted them with an instinct to handle Nature’s weakest and most ghostly forces; only, it faced them now with a moral crisis –
“So that’s why that ship is coming!” flashed Plandtix 408.
They all knew of the recently detected space-projectile, which had crossed the orbits of the eighth and ninth planets, and which had been viewed as a mildly interesting phenomenon, no more – up till now.
Fwalkap 579, lights muted with awe, mused: “No mere curious probe – it’s an expedition. And one of our species is responsible.”
“Which means, in effect,” the Speaker declared, “that those beings will arrive here on our account, if we let them. And if they do arrive they are doomed, no matter what powers they may possess; indeed the greater their power, the greater their fall will be – the Monster will see to that. Can we go down to nothingness with this on our conscience? No, we cannot.”
Ctenda then performed the mental equivalent of drawing deep breath, or a squaring of shoulders.
“So,” the Speaker concluded, “we shall have to postpone our final act.”
The Several agreed. Having “nerved” themselves to suicide, they were now forced to delay. Such a nuisance, and so tiring to morale! Particularly as, deep down in their souls, it caused some exasperating flutter of gladness...
TO BE CONTINUED