By Scott Shank
A new star appeared between the moons of Szent Amnesztia. It flared, magnesium-bright, so brilliantly that for an instant it drew aside the veils that darkened the lunar plains. Those who witnessed it were left to ponder the image fading from their retinas. In high orbit, klaxons blared.
Erna tumbled into the cockpit, thumbing thruster dials reflexively, her consciousness still catching up to the adrenal conditioning that had sprung her from her cradle. She slipped into a billowing silk robe and silenced the alarm.
“Go ahead,” she said.
The ship did not respond.
She slunk into her harness and placed an anti-nausea tablet beneath her tongue. She approved the intercept course and settled her feet into their gel contacts. She slid on her ceremonial headdress and batted aside its drifting tassels. She checked the clock.
Forty seconds since the gate had disgorged the new arrival. In eight years, it had never taken the ship this long to issue its Gate Event Summary Report.
The ship engines erupted. She ignored the pleas of her compressed organs and switched the projection to optical output so she could study the newcomer’s vessel. A three-meter-wide glass marble with a human ribbon at its center. Someone was in there, suspended, a quadrillion kilometers from home. The last of the exotic matter that sheathed the surface flamed out of existence and the vessel became invisible in the planet’s shadow.
“The analysis will be completed imminently,” the ship said.
“What’s the delay?”
“Irregular chemical and quantum signatures.”
“Where’s it coming from? ”
“Indeterminate. Analysis complete. Gate Event Summary Report—.” Erna muted the interface. She read the text superimposed across the star field.
>>Vessel class: Single-use vitrified lifepod.
>>Manifest: Human (1)
>>Analysis: Emissary 0.03%; Prophet/monk 1.0%; Refugee 68.43%; Scholar 0.05%; Other 30.49%.
She stared so hard at this last figure that the ship automatically highlighted the digits in violet.
“Run that report again,” she said.
The report refreshed. The Other score rose to 30.51%.
Of the dozens of vessels Erna had received over her interceptorship, she had never seen an Other score higher than 0.0067%. A genuine Other event had not been recorded in almost two hundred years, not since the Inimicus had sent a plague vector through the gate that nearly wiped out the entire northern hemisphere.
For the first time in months, she checked the status of the ship’s emergency systems. All clear.
Winches whined. The scoop lowered from the ship’s belly. She watched the newcomer’s lifepod, now visible on the projection only as a mandala of data points, grow as her ship swooped in.
She checked the calendar while the marble moved into the safe zone beyond the gate’s halo. The Feast of Szent Dialektus. They had moved her father yesterday. She had meant to call. There was a message from her sister. She didn’t need to read it to know Ágota was pissed.
Her ship caught the vessel and the scoop retracted. Once they had settled into a stable orbit, Erna kicked out of her harness and floated down to the observatory. On the display she watched the marble roll into the reception hall.
Beneath the devitrification lamps, the honey-colored lifepod sublimated like a ball of dry ice. The preservation glass steamed away, its radius shrinking until at last she could distinguish the newcomer beneath the thinning medium. The toes appeared, the top of a head. Erna’s gut clenched. Whoever had crossed the galaxy to secluded Szent Amnesztia was tiny. Childlike.
The protocols made no special exception for children. An obligatory one-year quarantine in the empty cities of the western moon. At the height of the Thousand-Year Rain, when twenty thousand refugees came spinning through the gate every day and the sky strobed with their arrival, those cities were the largest in the system. But now, to be a child there, all alone…
Let it be a child, she thought.
The mists dissipated. It was a girl—the shoulders, so narrow, the arms, so thin. But bracketing the mouth, deep lines. Upon the chest, a woman’s bosom.
“Is Orbit Control getting this?”
“What do they say?”
“They say to proceed per standard protocol.”
Exiles always spoke about the grotesque aesthetics that proliferated in those regions of the Orbes Antiqui that had submitted to the Inimicus. The domain of the so-called new humans.
“Do they think she suffers some developmental disorder or has her growth been stunted?”
“Indeterminate,” the ship said.
The stranger’s eyes were open.
“Can she hear me?” Erna asked.
The newcomer raised her chin to better let her eyes roam the reception hall. She fixed on the sensor beads. On the vents, which sucked out the last wisps of the sublimated glass and cycled in fresh air.
Erna telescoped the seraphic rods of her office and motioned for her image to be projected within. She crossed the angel-tipped scepters above her head and opened her arms as though in embrace. “Welcome, traveler. You have arrived at the Commonwealth of Szent Amnesztia, known elsewhere as Adpersean Termen 46B7Y. I am Interceptrix Erna Merkúr and it is my privilege to escort you to the salutarium.”
She paused as the newcomer flexed her fingers, then retracted her arm as though to test her strength. Most newcomers were slack-mouthed sacks of drool at this point in their resuscitation.
“It is my sincere hope,” Erna continued, “that your days will be glad and tranquil in this refuge.” Now came the delicate part. The newcomer trained her attention away from the projection, to the sensor beads. “I trust you know that our gate is unidirectional. Your travels end here.”
A small smile. Not childlike at all.
“I will now conduct you to the salutarium. If you have the strength, please indicate you understand.”
The stranger closed her eyes. The smile remained.
Erna gestured for privacy. “Did she understand me?” Erna asked.
“I believe so,” the ship answered.
“Provide a translation anyway.”
The ship replayed the greeting in the four most common tongues of the Orbes Antiqui. The ship projected a perfect re-creation, mimicking her own pitch and diction.
The newcomer reached for the tether but was too weak to grasp it. When she tried to speak, she wheezed as through a noose. The syllables lapped one into another, every vowel indistinct.
“She still needs to warm up,” the ship said.
“Sleep if you can,” Erna addressed the newcomer. “When you have recovered, speak to the ship to summon me.”
Perhaps the spasm that crossed the newcomer’s face was a byproduct of renervation, but for a moment Erna could have sworn the woman sneered.
Erna conferred with Control. They cautioned her to remain in orbit until the research automata had completed their analysis of the unfamiliar signatures. They had determined that the orb’s preservation glass was the source. Already the automata were running two models that, excitingly, might also link these signatures to subtle shifts in the gate’s fields over the last decades.
She skimmed articles on the Inimicus. Szent Amnesztia was isolated on the edge of populated space. Her planet’s knowledge of the Inimicus came from the refugees that still traversed the wormhole to escape its cruelty. These reports varied, but all agreed the distant enemy was gluttonous for war.
She read the new message from her sister. Their father had been successfully moved to the guest house at the local abbey. Ágota said he was comfortable and that he had asked for her. The terminal prognosis had been revised downward from one month to two weeks.
Erna stared at Ágota’s sign-off. Sis. If things went badly up here, if Orbit Control decided this was a genuine Other event, that Erna’s ship was contaminated. If she wound up in quarantine…
“She’s awake,” the ship said. “She has not responded to my queries, but she has begun to knock on the walls.”
Erna drifted down the ship’s neck to the observatory. The newcomer was tapping the bulkhead near one of the vents. Erna had expected to find her pounding in frustration—panic was a common side effect of devitrification. But the newcomer’s rapping was rhythmic, sequenced in an almost-familiar pattern.
“Perhaps she is mute and using a knock code to speak,” the ship said.
“Can you decipher it?” Erna asked.
“Let’s try this again. Put me through.” Erna withdrew her batons and parted them in welcome as her projection re-appeared within the reception hall. “I trust you are feeling better,” she said.
The newcomer stopped tapping to stare.
“If you are able to speak, we will continue your processing. Please state your name.” She added privately to the ship, “Better translate that.” The newcomer returned to tapping.
Once again the ship interpreted, replaying and subtly altering Erna’s projection so that the words appeared to be shaped by her mouth.
The newcomer turned. There was no mistaking her glare. “You let this machine assume your voice?” she croaked.
Erna did not let her smile slip. “Has your society placed interdicts on such technologies?”
“I would allow no machine to speak for me.”
“Please state your name,”
The newcomer stretched forward, doubling up like a cliff diver. Then she reversed the pose, arching backwards like a bracelet, back so far she clasped her toes.
“Your name,” Erna said. Still the newcomer did not respond. “Do you understand you will never leave this system? The gate is unidirectional. There is no going back.”
The newcomer stretched her legs at boneless angles.
“Who are you? Have you come to seek asylum?”
In Erna’s periphery, the ship refreshed the Gate Event Summary Report.
“Are you a scholar, then?”
“What has light to learn from shadow?”
Erna studied the newcomer’s face. Her elfin cheeks and chin. Her deep sea eyes. Orbit Control was monitoring the conversation. Any moment now, she expected them to issue new orders. To take over the interview, even. Until then, all she had was protocol.
“I invite you to state your credentials.”
“My message is not for you, gatekeeper.”
The newcomer showed no discomfort with the lengthy pause that followed. “You do not come in friendship?” Erna asked.
The tips of Erna’s rods dipped. “What then?”
“You know who I am.”
“I would not presume to say.”
“I am the Sun come to dry up all the Rain.”
When Erna finally found her voice again, it was whisper quiet. “What do you mean by that?”
“Even the Thousand-Year Rain must come to an end.”
Erna’s projection winked out.
“She can no longer hear you,” the ship said.
In the reception hall, the newcomer somersaulted. Erna’s gaze drifted down to the triple-winged angels that adorned the tips of her batons. One held a sword aloft. The other a shield.
This is really happening, Erna thought. They’ve finally come.
Every exile community carried stories of the Purgatio Mundi. The World Purge. The four horizons quick with flames, cinder plumes rising to the edge of space.
She remembered footage from their last contact with the Inimicus two centuries earlier. How temples had become pest houses, their thresholds slick with pus.
If there was any mercy in the universe, her father would be spared. Her sister, though… She imagined Ágota afforded no death bed. Thrown moaning into the back of an automated refuse cart.
Her mind raced. “She said Thousand-Year Rain.”
“She did,” the ship agreed.
Her eye traced a rod’s filigree. It made no sense. It defied an elementary, observable fact of nature, like the planet’s rotation.
“That expression was coined on Szent Amnesztia.”
“The cyclopedia attributes it to the poet Zelóta Nektár,” the ship said. “The incipit of his poem Si Vis Pacem. Written in the year 623, at the height of the exodus.”
“Then the cyclopedia is wrong. No information can pass through from our side.”
“It cannot. Perhaps the term was carried by an exile from the Orbes Antiqui. Perhaps Nektár was a plagiarist.”
“Or perhaps,” came the woman’s voice from the reception hall, “we’ve been listening all along.”
The woman no longer stared at the sensors, but at the wall, behind which Erna watched.
“I told you to mute me,” Erna barked.
“You are muted,” the ship said.
The newcomer retreated to the far side of the reception hall then threw herself again at the wall, shoulder first.
“What you say is impossible.”
“You who dwell in this stagnant pond presume to dictate what is possible?” the woman laughed. “You are the dregs of the Great Society. The unfit and outcast. We re-engineered this wormhole while your people were tinkering with monsoon cycles.”
The woman threw herself at the wall a second time.
“Kill the display,” Erna said. The image disappeared.
She kicked her way back to the cockpit. Her anti-nausea pill was already wearing off. “Put me through to Control.”
Twenty seconds passed. She could hear the newcomer’s thumping echo through the ship. Aggressive. Disquietingly rhythmic.
“What’s the holdup? Get me Orbit Control.”
“I am running a diagnostic on my radio array. It has ceased functioning.”
“You choose now to break down?”
“I am getting unusual readings below deck. Subsector H9.”
H9 was mostly plumbing. Waste pipes. Life support. Communication conduits that fed the radio array.
The ship brought up twelve panels of scrolling data and views of interstitial dead space, crowded by tubes, thick cable bundles and narrow reservoirs. She was no technician and had never poked her head down there, but she spotted the problem right away. “That tank is bulging.”
She could only watch as the metal grew shiny from interior stress. It ruptured, tearing a gash along the tank’s length. She winced, but no liquefied gasses geysered through the tear. Instead, glassy tendrils sprouted from the breach and fanned out like a hydroponic root system getting its footing.
“What the hell is that?”
“The preservation medium,” the ship said.
“It has self-organized.”
The tendrils anchored themselves onto the tank’s outer surface and a glistening mass heaved itself out.
“It’s breaking free!”
Despite the analogies that came to mind—reaching anemone beds, lungs inverted to reveal greedy, grasping bronchioles—there was nothing animal or vegetable about this seething heap of glass. This was Inimical technology at work.
One word resounded through her head. Contaminated.
The preservation glass flattened like a thousand-armed starfish. Polyps rose across the mottled surface. She noticed these just as they exploded in a flurry of vitreous whips. All views of H9 went black.
“Flush it,” she said. “Blow the service hatches, I don’t care. That thing can’t be allowed to roam your guts.”
“I cannot. The medium has knocked out sensory couplings E17 through H231. I am receiving no inputs from Sector H… Interceptrix, I feel strange.”
“If you can’t isolate H, flush Sectors D through G. Forget life support. I’ll roll myself up in my cradle and let Control handle the cleanup. And sedate the newcomer!”
The lighting dropped by a thousand lumens.
In the sudden dimness, Erna recalled the void through which she sailed.
The glow from system and environmental reports, normally subdued, seemed to blaze above her head. They stuttered with a campfire flicker. None of the values were fluctuating like they should.
“Talk to me. What’s going on down there?”
A shudder passed through the ship. From somewhere, she heard the hiss of escaping gasses. Then a hush. The ship had never been so quiet.
“Tell me that was you,” Erna said. “If you’ve lost your verbal interface, give me a sign.”
Another thump. Louder, more of a bang. Down in the observatory, as if the newcomer had gotten her hands on a battering ram.
Erna flipped open a cabinet and began twisting levers for manual override.
A never-used 3-D navscreen dropped from the ceiling on hinged arms. A rudder stock studded with stiff mechanical buttons bobbed up from a compartment in the floor. She set her feet in the gel contacts and took hold of the stock with both hands.
The crunch of rending synthetics. The whistle of failed hermetic seals. Her ears popped. She turned as a noxious, acidic stench raked her nostrils. Down at the bottom of the ship’s throat, sinuous and glistening in the emergency light, she saw the preservation glass massing, a mound of heaving snakes. Buried in its center, like a demon trapped in ice, the woman leered.
Erna pulled down on a switch above her head. Spring-loaded blast doors snapped shut behind her.
She sat, panting, her thumb hovering above ignition.
—Burn up in the planet’s atmosphere.
The ship would disintegrate, but what about the alien glass designed for the crushing forces of wormhole travel?
The blast doors trembled under impact. Even expecting its follow up, the next blow was so strong that Erna almost leapt from her seat. She nudged the rudder stock and sent the ship into a lazy spin.
—Crash into a moon.
The blast doors were twenty centimeters thick, but she had no faith they would hold until she reached one of them. It was too easy to envision glassy drills boring through the titanium. Too easy to imagine the medium crashing over her like pitiless amber and the newcomer taking hold of the rudderstock.
Another impact. The newcomer’s voice.
“We have been listening, Interceptrix.”
“We even know all about you. We know what music forms delight you. We know your heart rate. We know about that jaundiced, sliver-thin father of yours. You should have visited him when you had the chance.”
Erna stared at the system reports. Frozen data. Pitch and yaw: erroneous.
“Your frailties have amused us.”
Oxygen levels: already out of date.
“And endeared you to us, for you are human—though of a very primitive sort.”
Gate field state: inaccurate. And counterfeit.
The looping field lines, which one must never fly too near lest the gate’s repulsive forces fling one aside like shrapnel, could not be accurate. They depicted a one-way gate.
“Take heart, Dear Erna. Even those born into sin can be reformed.”
—Cast the enemy into the pit.
Erna entered the coordinates and dialed the engine to full thrust. She kicked her way into her cradle as the blast doors shook.
“We have a place for even you, Interceptrix.”
Erna telescoped a rod to full length and jammed the angel’s sword-point into the ignition switch. She was thrown back into her bed when the engines roared. She heard a crash and oaths spit in an unknown tongue.
She punched a little red window to expose a knuckle switch. She cranked it so hard she broke its cap off.
The door to her cradle slammed shut.
She punched a little blue window to expose a metal ring. She remembered to hail all the saints when she yanked the pin.
The shock of the immobilizing foam that enveloped her almost distracted her from the sudden drop. Blood rushed to her head.
When she could unclench her teeth, she said, “Cradle, do I have voice command?”
“Did I make it?”
“Your distance is 17.1 kilometers and counting from mothership.”
“Give me a visual.”
She watched her ship retreat at full burn. She watched as a great, rope-like arm punched out of an exhaust valve and flailed about, with nothing to grab onto. She watched as the ship’s engines sputtered out.
Its momentum did not wane. Nor was it flung away from the gate, like every textbook said it must. It only sped up.
She watched as a dark star appeared between the moons of Szent Amnesztia. It gaped, extinction black, and swallowed the ship and for an instant the light from the blessed crescents.
She closed her eyes but there was no forgetting.
“Broadcast distress call. Say, ‘Our seclusion is ended.'”
On the planet’s surface, every siren wailed.
Constellary Tales Issue No. 2, February 2019
Scott Shank’s work has appeared in AE, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, and Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth. He lives in Toronto and online @scoshank.