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...
Scott drifted behind Uba Kemala, watching over her shoulder as she operated the exploration drone remotely.
They’d been in the Persephone system a few days, and everything was going smoothly: they’d been thawed out, checked their orbit, made a report and waited patiently for a reply - and when they’d finally received the go-ahead from Ganymede, released the first exploration drone. The Sun barely touched the tenth planet, and the machine’s headlamps illuminated a cracked, frozen surface.
“No atmosphere, no surface liquid. Pretty inhospitable, by any standard,” Captain Gurey Hodan mumbled, still shaking off the effects of their long sleep. “Hard to imagine a civilization here. Abha’s going to be disappointed.”
Scott had to agree. First thing after waking up, he’d rushed to the observation deck, only to be struck with a feeling of persistent dread. From where the feeling came he couldn’t imagine, but looking at that dark, silent globe had provided little of the wonder he had anticipated. Instead it made him want to run off with his tail between his legs. He chalked it up to a chemical imbalance born of hibernation.
“Well, hold on,” said Margaret Baker, the exuberant xenobiologist on the expedition. “We just got here! Let’s not make any assumptions.”
The captain nodded, turning to Kemala. “In the meantime, see if you can find us a good place to put down the shuttle. I could use a walk,” he said, stretching.
The drone technician seemed unusually tense as she flew the machine up above the cratered plain. A great dark shape loomed against the unchallenged stars, the silhouette of a stupendous solitary peak. Kemala switched the view from visual to radar.
“Look at that,” Hodan said, himself a geologist. “That volcano is at least as big as any of the Tharsis mountains, maybe bigger! Incredible!”
“How do you know it’s a volcano?” asked Scott, who technically ought to be in the pilot’s chair, but couldn’t bring himself to miss the first views of an alien world.
Hodan furrowed his brow. “Well, it’s not part of a chain. It’s all alone, see? And aside from that, it’s got a faintly dangerous look. Sort of.”
Scott had to admit, he knew what the man meant. Looking at the mountain made him inexplicably anxious.
Baker leaned in. “If there’s geothermal activity, that’s a good sign for critters. Any chance we can find out if it’s still active?”
“Well... “ Kemala hesitated, “infrared doesn’t bring anything up, but I can do a full three-sixty around it, with the captain’s permission?”
“No,” said the captain, “focus on finding a place for the shuttle-”
That was when the screen had gone blank.
“...What happened?” The biologist wondered.
The technician stared at the empty screen, wide-eyed. “I have no idea.”
“Solar interference?” Scott suggested.
Hodan raised an eyebrow. “This far out, Hernandez?”
Scott shrugged. “Wear and tear? It was in storage for fifteen years.”
“And it was old equipment to begin with,” Baker put in.
“Could be…” Kemala murmured, focused on recovering her drone. She flipped through the radio channels systematically, trying to revive the connection. Finally she gave up. “I have no idea what happened to it,” she said, baffled. “It’s like it shut down completely.”
The Captain came to a decision. “Hernandez, Kemala, launch the secondary drone. Identify a good landing spot, then go looking for the first drone. Let’s see if we can recover it.”
They nodded, Scott pulled himself into the Pilot’s chair. A moment later the second drone was away.
This one was successful in identifying a safe place to land, at the southern foot of the mountain, before vanishing itself.
“Okay,” Kemala said, “that’s weird.”
“Alright, pack it in. I’ve seen enough,” the Captain ordered.
“What?” Baker said. “You mean, we’re going back to Ganymede?”
“Yes. Whether it’s an unknown alien intelligence or something else, I’m not risking the ship.”
“But we came all this way!” Baker exclaimed. Ordinarily, Scott would be inclined to agree, but he was surprised to find he felt relief.
“And we’ll go all the way back. The Institute will get a more up-to-date ship, something shielded, and we’ll try again. We’re not going to end up like the first Martian expedition.”
Whatever argument the biologist was about to make was cut off by sudden darkness, followed by the dim red glow of the emergency lights.
“Power’s out,” Kemala whispered.
A grey curtain had dropped over the crew, to cover their senses and their minds. And out of that mental fog a vast personality reached for them, gloating with power, muscled with terror. Transcending mere sound, its torrential voice blared directly into their brains: It’s too late. I have you all. It’s too late. You cannot get away –
As if to emphasize, to an even further degree, the untrammelled supremacy of the main voice, a futile dissidents’ bleat was simultaneously heard, dwindling with each word of belated warning uttered by the far less powerful group of beings who, it seemed, wanted to save the humans from enslavement or annihilation: Flee, strangers! You can do nothing here! THE MOUNTAIN IS THE ENEMY and it cannot be destroyed! Anything you use against it will be turned round and used against you! Flee before it is too late!
It was, however, too late. In that respect the giant gloater was right and those who issued the warning were wrong. However, amid the smothering despair which reigned in the ship’s control cabin, a third voice began to make itself heard. The Captain wondered at it for several seconds before he recognized the voice as his own, rapping out commands with a certainty which rivalled that of the enemy. The responses of his crew as they obeyed his orders likewise admitted of no doubt. It seemed that his instinct and theirs were united in the belief that retreat was not an option. Viscerally, they all recognized that they had encountered a nightmare monster which (they instantly saw) must be fought to the death.
Scott looked to the empty pilot’s chair. The switches and mechanisms were familiar to him, of the sort he’d trained with at Occator, and he knew many of the primary systems would function on minimal power. He was an astrogator, true, but he felt confident he could fly the ship. Or at least, he could release the nuclear bombs which propelled it through space. Scientific expedition? Regretfully, not now. And we do have missiles. We do have missiles.
Swimming, it seemed to him, through that mental darkness, he strapped himself into the pilot’s chair and and went to work. The computer responded sluggishly, being drained even as it processed, but finally Scott was presented with the option to launch a nuclear device.
He caressed the joystick, urging the analog mechanisms to life as the entire vessel was repositioned, its rearward section now directed at the hellish mountain.
He said a prayer and pressed the release.
Somehow, their weak friends down below on the planet’s surface must have guessed that the warheads had been fired, for the voices squeaked in utter dismay, telling the Terrans that they were now surely doomed, that they had now gifted the enemy with all the energy he could ever want, and that no hope remained against the living darkness.
A delicious awareness clanged awake in Zutelix: a ravenous anticipation blossomed. For the visitors had fired their gift at him. Straight at him they'd launched their parcelled cornucopia of soon-to-be-kinetic energy, their lovely gulpable bomb!
The micro-seconds oozed by. The monster’s enhanced time-sense stretched out the savour of the impending triumph. His mountainous sides quaked with joy; their surfaces ran with cryogenic slaver in prospect of the approaching feast. Truly, it was as if he already tasted the millions upon millions of ergs that would soon burgeon inside him to multiply his strength and his capacity to absorb the entire remainder of his planet into himself.
Yes, it was as if he already had it all. The actual swallowing of the nuclear fission-reaction now seemed hardly more than a mere formality, which had promised to occupy a pre-determined future a mere fraction of a second away.
In response to such imminent victory, the already formidable intellect of Zutelix 1-Radd dilated into new visions of the supreme One-ness. He could revel in the ALL that was, or ought to be, and at any rate soon would be, himself. That meant he could shortly put an end, once and for all, to the obscenity of speciation. The horrid practice by which Nature caused Life to branch and diverge from itself – that obscenity, that offence to Oneness, would be dealt with in no uncertain terms once he had achieved the utter supremacy that would accrue from having quaffed the draught of energy from the visitors’ bomb –
How kind of those fools! How ironical that their ingenuity should so redound to his benefit and their ruin –
A gentle flake-fall of doubt?
Irony… He’d said to himself, irony… and that was a rare mode of thought for Zutelix.
One which caused other trains of thought to pause.
Exactly what was this peculiar clatter, this jostle of one idea against another?
Surely he need apprehend no difficulty in connection with absorbing the power of the bomb?
No, it should work fine. He had the process figured to a nicety. Nothing could go wrong. Like a triumphal train running on rails of invincibility, the microseconds must flow towards the moment of fulfilled desire –
But wait, an obstruction loomed, a boulder on the track. Some issue to do with Oneness and the feast of energy that his stupid adversaries were about to give him.
Fools they were – yet, after all, their culture was clever enough to make the bomb. Clever enough to launch it. Clever enough to be in a position to have launched it, after having come all this way from their own sunward world.
Lucky Zutelix, to benefit from such fools.
Derailment of the joy-train!
Owing was not acceptable!
A wash of agony flooded Zutelix as his mind grasped and reared and tried to clutch at disbelief. He bent all his will to limit the sudden catastrophe brought on by ironic awareness.
How can the One owe anything to another intelligence?
To accept this munificent bomb-gift was also to accept that it must have come from somewhere, in which case he must then admit that he was about to be indebted to the existence of Another for his greatest victory. What ‘victory’, under terms like those?
He must bat the bomb back! He must refuse it! Furthermore he must forget that the problem had ever existed!
Desperate to ease his psychic pain, he first of all wiped his memory of the problem.
No sooner had he carried out this stage of defence than he thereby resumed his desire for the gift of energy, without seeing any reason why he should not have it.
Then came irony once more to scupper the plan. Back and forth the decisions flew… and amidst the dithering, the bomb came.
It penetrated the defences of a confused, unready mountain, and so, rather than being absorbed, the fission-process was free to let rip. Following its exponential course, the explosion was left to wreak its full havoc.
In his last moment, curtained with deadly light, and with all his yearnings turned back on themselves in a futile circle, Zutelix cowered as destruction presented him with the prospect not of Oneness but of Nullity.
An old man sat on his porch, watching Jupiter paint the sky scarlet. The drones were all packed away, the hands sent home, a fresh glass of sergir poured out, and now he’d finish this day as he had every other for the past thirty years: just him and the twirling moons.
He was nearly asleep when he was alerted to the sound of footfalls on the gravel road before him.
“That you, Bradley? Or are you dad, come back to life?”
The old man looked up.
“Hey, Bradley,” Scott dropped a duffle bag onto the dusty ground, mounting the steps to his younger brother. Bradley was speechless as they embraced.
“Scott, I didn’t - I -”
“I brought you something.”
Scott went back to his bag, unzipping it and removing a chunk of glassy obsidian. He handed it to his brother. “It’s a piece of Yazmur, which we call Persephone, given to me by the Several to celebrate our defeat of the Monster Mountain. That-” he gestured to the fragment - “is all you can find of him, now.”
Bradley held the stone in his hands. It glinted lifelessly in the fading light.“Now that you’re back, are you going to stay?”
The older brother shifted his weight uncomfortably.“For a while,” he finally said. “They want me to serve as an emissary to the Several, on behalf of Ganymede. But I have a few months before we leave.”
Bradley nodded, silently handing the rock back over.“It’s for you,” Scott insisted. He took it and set it beside the sergir glass.
“I got the paperwork worked out, a few months back,” Bradley said. “The Farm’ll be yours, forever, even when you’re a million miles away.”Scott frowned, “I might not go. I’ve gotten to miss this place. I might just settle down, now that I got my one trip.”
“You can, if you want to. But I think you’ll be stargazing again before long.”“Do you need help? Is everything still running smooth?”
Bradley smiled. “Sure. We don’t need you, old man.”Pulling up a chair, Scott collapsed beside his aged sibling.
“So,” Bradley said after a while, “Monster... Mountain?”Scott laughed as the sanguine sky retreated to reveal a river of stars.