Month: March 2016

Dawn Roared Over the Horizon..

‘WAYFARER’ by Gareth Jack Sansom

[Harlia, the Outer Claw]

Dawn roared over the horizon like a violet storm as the first sun rose over Harlia, instantly chasing a dry, bitter chill from the landscape and leaving in its place a wet and almost suffocating heat. Gundar let out a guttural grunt and spluttered through his yellowed tusks as he stirred beside the dying embers at the heart of the encampment, eventually conceding as the night’s thick mists began to billow skyward that it was time to wake up and get moving.

Invigorated by the sudden warmth, the rest of his squadron joined him in rising awkwardly up on their hind legs and shook themselves about in such a way as to dislodge their rigid front and rear shells, which had a habit of locking up to preserve body heat while they slept. One by one, he and the other officers in the company extinguished completely the smouldering remains of fires now entirely unnecessary and began barking the morning’s orders at the rest of their number, who were already lining up by rank to receive them.

Heir to the First System and acting commander of the Holy Legions of the Veil, Gundar had been elected on merit to head a special tactical operation whereby he and his hand-picked crew were to deliver a payload to the homeworld of an enemy with which his people, the Threa had been warring for decades. They were to deploy the final state of a top-secret weapon, a biological Doomsday Bomb developed by the best and brightest scientific minds of his order to a dark region of deep space called the Rua’Maat, wherein their arch enemy and the greatest ongoing threat to order and security in the civilised galaxy dwelt; the Skrell.

Instead, the small fleet that had been assigned to protect them had been ambushed at the edge of mapped space, perhaps (he suspected) due to a tip-off from a traitor in their midst, and his own crew left for dead in a crippled ship hurtling towards the strange world on which they now found themselves, demoralised and completely unable to return home under their own power.

The world itself was positioned in a distant binary system between a close but relatively benign red giant and a farther flung but incredibly intense violet star. Any visitors to the surface of the planet could expect to face long days that grew gradually more hot and humid as greater volumes of its stagnant, shallow oceans were allowed to sublimate, and short frosty nights at intervals of only half of what we on Earth might be used to.

The dense, wet atmosphere also had a curious effect on the thick, low vegetation which grew in patches everywhere on the planet’s surface, causing many varieties to sprout scores of tendril-like streamers high into the air by day as a means of extracting moisture from the atmosphere, and to snake those same weird tendrils haphazardly across the ground at night, forming a thick carpet to absorb dew and condensation from the topsoil. Several varieties of scrub had actually adapted to the extreme environment by becoming almost entirely lighter than air, taking root in thick pockets of mist and moisture and floated about the landscape like giant, bilious tumbleweeds. It was a strange world indeed, and stranger still that a well-armed contingent of the Veil had found themselves stranded here, frustrated and anxious to return to the ongoing conflict that had caused their vessel to crash-land several days earlier.

As soon as all of their weaponry and gear had been accounted for and their battalion assembled in formation, Urm, Gundar’s second in command gave the order to continue the long march that they had started-out on the previous day. They were headed towards a towering band of white, glistening mountains that their scouts had discovered lay to the north and in which they hoped to find the necessary ore and mineral deposits needed to repair their battered ship’s engines so that they might resume their course and complete their offensive.

The Skrell, for a visual reference could have best been described as a race of monstrous insects. Bugs in stature almost comparable in size to the Threa (but nowhere near as solid) that had somehow developed a devious cunning and almost collective intellect with which they too had mastered the science of flight and the ability to travel between worlds. So long as he drew breath, Gundar would never abandon his directive and remained driven to eradicating the hated enemy of the Threa at all costs and with a frenzied, almost religious determination. They marched as one, hooves pounding the flailing foliage back into the earth as they went and resolved to cover as much ground as they could before the next nightfall, some fourteen Threan hours away by their reckoning.

They had only walked an hour or so when without warning, and just as the second sun finally crowned the horizon behind them, the haze was split by a chillingly familiar sound and all hell broke loose. From somewhere up ahead, the unmistakeable buzz of a thousand Skrell taking flight filled the air as a massive dark cloud of wasp-like bodies rose skyward in a whirling plume and bore down on the Threa like a swarm of monstrous hornets. Urm quickly cocked his snout back to address the Threa behind him and snorted, “Draw your weapons, three deep and angle high – set full charges and watch your flanks..!” as the cloud bore down and within seconds, the air was ablaze with blasts of high-energy plasma and the deadly barbs and talons of the descending Skrell who were hell-bent on killing as many of the invading force as swiftly as they could.

The battle raged for over an hour, with neither side claiming a clear foothold from the other but both felling more of the opposing force than either could afford. “By the stars – what are they doing here..?” thought Gundar as his troops fought furiously to keep them at bay, “When our ship was attacked, our defenders drew their legions away from us. We weren’t followed to the planet’s surface – how did they know we were here..?” He was now convinced that they had been betrayed, but as more and more of the enemy closed in took up arms with the rest of the group and allowed his instinct and training take over, firing precision blasts at the attackers in a desperate attempt to break their ranks.

Just as the insurrection was complete and the fighting at its most ferocious, from somewhere deep behind enemy lines a heavy tactical spore was loosed which whistled as it flew through a break in their lines before it ricochet off of the side of Gundar’s skull and exploded into a group of Threa several yards behind him. As he lost consciousness, he became aware of the strangest sensation, as though his spirit was somehow ripped violently from his body and hurtled across the entire expanse of the galaxy at the speed of light before darkness finally took him, and he was gone.

[Freehold Hospital, Saturday Morning]

Shortly before midday there came a knock on the door to Monitoring Room 14 of the Freehold Hospital’s Cancer Wing. The noise woke Alex from a long sleep and strange, alien dream and he slowly and painfully lifted his torso up onto his elbows, calling out, “Come in, I was just getting up.” As the door creaked open, he quickly shot a glance at the alarm clock beside his bed. “Shit,” he exclaimed aloud. It was already twelve thirty – he had slept in again and missed his morning check-in down the hall.

Ever since he had been admitted for round the clock observation he’d found himself sleeping longer and longer, something he was warned might happen as his system struggled to adjust to the chemotherapy and the degenerative nature of the cancer which riddled his body. His nurse entered with a trademark frown followed closely by his assigned physician, Dr. Holzer who himself only gazed intensely at a clipboard which held his evaluations of Alex’s condition to date. Alex immediately wondered what sort of information it could have been that had held his interest so.

Thirty-eight years old, Alex had never managed to save any remarkable amount of money, living paycheck to paycheck for the better part of his life, had never married and really lived his life as though he was either just killing time until his ship came in, or that he’d somehow make a windfall winning a lottery he’d never bothered to enter. He had been essentially lazy, coasting from job to job, place to place and moving between cliques until he found himself ultimately broke, miserable and unable to really consider anyone who remained in his life as anything more than just a colleague or a casual acquaintance. He had slowly become the poster-boy for what he saw as a transformed and largely atomised society, and had long since given up on the idea of reinventing himself.

Despite so much encouragement from his parents who had years ago conceded that their only son might never truly find his feet, his diagnosis some six months earlier had all but guaranteed that his mark on the world would stand to be little more than a cautionary tale of wasted potential. A life of excess and bad ideas, cigarettes and heavy drinking had taken its toll, and while he had made what he considered to be many special memories along the way, his legacy was nothing near what he might in his youth have predicted it to become.

In truth, he’d always yearned to become a writer, devouring volumes of Science Fiction and Fantasy throughout his childhood and had always anticipated that he’d one day find the time to tell a story of his own. Unfortunately though as he continued to get in his own way, and in spite of a few promising starts, he had never found it in him to see it through.

“Dr. Holzer,” he began sheepishly, “I’m so sorry – I must have slept through my alarm. The treatments have left me extremely tired lately. If I can reschedule, I’ll make sure to get up and about tomorrow.” The doctor hardly moved, barely acknowledging Alex as he continued to flick through the notes on his clipboard and his nurse walked to the other side of his bed, proceeding to decant a fresh glass of water before removing a tray of scraps from the night before and a bunch of flowers that had wilted at his bedside.

His mother would still bring flowers and gifts at every weekly visit, insisting that hospital wards were ‘cold and unfriendly places, needing as much brightening up as they could get.’ Alex twiddled his thumbs and stared expectantly at Dr. Holzer, nervously waiting for him to speak. Finally, the other man dropped the clipboard down to his side and regarded Alex with a deep sigh and a look which caused him no small amount of distress.

“Mr. Agnew,” he began, “I’ve just been taking a look at the most recent set of results from your treatment, and thought I should come by directly and speak with you in person.” Still nervous, but also a little relieved that the doctor had not stopped by in person just to chastise him for missing his earlier appointment, Alex grunted as if to suggest he continue. “I’m afraid there’s really no easy way to say this, and it pains me to be the one to have to do so. But I didn’t think it was fair to make you wait.”

Alex began to sweat. He glanced at his nurse, who had taken up a position beside Dr. Holzer, and noticed with surprise that her typically hard features had all of a sudden softened into a look of concern. Her eyes would not meet his, instead darting almost nervously around the room as she rolled back on her ankles, clasped her hands together and did her best to otherwise remain perfectly still. “Doctor, what is it..? Is there something wrong with my dosage – will I need to increase the number of sessions we’re taking..?” He was concerned now, and more than anything just wanted him to spit it out already.

“Alex, I’m afraid that the treatment hasn’t taken. Despite having reached you at a relatively early stage in your cancer’s development, it appears that the chemotherapy has had little to no effect in halting the growth of the existing tumours in your chest and lungs. In addition to this..” he started, trailing-off as he considered the best way to share the remainder of his findings with him and Alex, who could wait no longer stammered, “Come on, doctor, what is it – I need to know.”

He continued, “Very well. Our latest scan has revealed a third tumour that we were either previously unaware of, or that has developed extremely quickly in the most recent weeks you’ve spent here with us. To be clear, it’s very large as standards go, and unfortunately in this case extremely malignant. Unlike those we’ve been working so far to neutralise, this third tumour appears to be located directly at the base of your occipital lobe, and given its proximity to vital blood flow to the spinal region is.. completely inoperable. I’m so sorry.”

“The occipital lobe, my.. brain..? I have a brain tumour..?” Alex asked, incredulous that no-one had managed to pick up on such a thing earlier. “Jesus, and you can’t operate, you can’t increase my dosage to treat it now before it gets any worse..?” He asked. “I’m afraid that as your treatment to date has had no effect on those tumours in your chest, any attempt to increase your dosage would prove ineffective at best, and at worst could risk further damage to the surrounding tissue.” His doctor continued, “In spite of anything we might otherwise be able to do for you, we estimate that you have between one to two weeks at most before this third growth reaches a terminal size, and even then it might unfortunately be sooner.”

“We’ve been able to confirm that this is more than likely also the cause for both your unusual sleeping patterns, and for the migraines and visual hallucinations you’ve described to our staff over the past couple of weeks. Due to the location of the growth and the energy that your body will expend coping with it, it’s likely you’ll continue to need longer and longer periods of rest until eventually.. again, I’m so, so sorry. Yesterday’s tests were the first to show, and we’d never have even thought to scan for it if not for the headaches. We’ll do our very best to ensure you’re as comfortable as possible until that time.”

Alex felt as though he’d been kicked in the stomach. All of a sudden he couldn’t breathe and fell back into his pillow, just staring at the ceiling. “Terminal..!” he thought to himself. “Thirty eight years old, and that’s it – poof. It’s all over. Terminal.. terminal.” The word bounced around in his head a hundred times before he had the wits to reply, still staring at the ceiling, “Thank you, doctor. I’m going to need a few moments to get my head around it. I’m not sure,” He began, and Dr. Holzer cut him off, “We have the absolute very best grief counsellors here at Freehold who can help you come to terms with your situation, and I’ll be back to check-in again with you later this afternoon. We still have a number of evaluations we’d like to run, and of course to provide you with more information regarding your condition. If there’s anything at all we can do for you, Nurse Piper here,” he motioned to the nurse beside him, still wearing her best mask of empathy, “will be assigned to answer any calls that come through from you. I’d best get back to my rounds and to let this all sink in. I’m sorry, Alex – we’ve given it everything we’ve got.” He forced a last compassionate smile before turning and leaving the room, his nurse close behind with Alex’s tray and once again, he was alone.

Still staring at the ceiling, Alex sighed the deepest sigh of resignation and closed his eyes once more. “Terminal..” the word kept flashing in his mind. “How will I tell Mum and Dad – this will kill them. There’s so much I’ve never done, so much I thought I’d do.” He began to think about the friends he’d let slip away, the opportunities in his life that he’d let pass him by and all of the little things he’d planned to do but for some reason had never started. “I’ll never write that novel, or take that round-the-world trip. I’ll never see the Northern Lights or stand atop the Grand Canyon. I’ll never get to hold my own child, or the hand of the woman I love. I’ll die instead at thirty eight, riddled with cancer, alone, bedridden and forgotten. What a waste,” he sighed again, finding that the shock had completely tired him out, “what an absolute waste.” He decided in spite of Dr. Holzer’s prediction that the day was now more or less ruined and within minutes had once again drifted off into a deep sleep.

[Harlia, the Next Day]

Gundar slowly opened his eye, and as he did a searing pain coursed down the length of the right side of his body. Disorientated by the blow and the residual effects of the spore, he slowly rose to his full height, clutching his bloody head as he did and turned to reorientate himself with his surrounds. He had been instantly knocked unconscious as the weapon exploded and Urm, seeing his commander felled had immediately cut a swath through the enemy horde, thrown his limp and lifeless body over one shoulder and bounded to the rear of the company to deposit Gundar safely behind a hillock before returning to the fray, firing all the while at the swarm of Skrell that were still thick in the air.

The fighting had grown into a frenzy in the minutes that followed, as the Threa became incensed at seeing their leader fall in battle. Within a short time, their bloodlust had driven them to break the enemy lines, and what few Skrell remained after most of their power cells were depleted had soared high into the planet’s atmosphere and scattered in all directions, leaving them to count their dead and set a perimeter as the leaderless group debated what to do next.

When they noticed him stumbling about, half-blind and splashed with the deep blue stains of his own blood, several Threa immediately rushed to support their commander by propping up both of his arms and guided him carefully to the center of the group. Gundar’s hearts sank when they passed a pile of several dozen of his best soldiers’ corpses – friends and comrades he had known from his youth that had been recovered and heaped roughly atop three stout pyres formed from piles of the driest vegetation they could find, and immediately he felt compelled to address the company.

After a quick briefing as to the extent of their losses and the assurance that no further Skrell had been sighted following the attack, he motioned to those beside him to let him stand with a sweep of his right foreclaw and called-out to the rest for their undivided attention.

“My brothers,” he began, “today we have been taken for fools by the enemy, and by our own lack of vigilance have allowed many of our number (he gestured toward the pyres), TOO many of our number to be lost. How they were allowed to take us by surprise I am uncertain, though I fear that their anticipation of our movements in this wasteland and indeed the initial ambush that caused us to be stranded here were too precise, too calculated to have been a mere matter of luck.” The assertion that their part in the mission to the Rua’Maat had been betrayed to the enemy was clear, and caused the group to murmer of treason and treachery loudly amongst themselves.

Gundar went on, “Know this; we have been trusted by the keepers of the Veil with the holiest of charges. Fractured though we are my comrades, we are far from broken.” He pointed to a large metallic urn among their stores which contained the concentrated payload that had been salvaged from their vessel after it crashed into the planet’s surface, and which they had brought with them for fear of losing it to the enemy, “As long as the weapon remains safe and can still be deployed, deployed it must be. Our mission was simple; arrive at that system the Skrell call their home, and deliver the payload to their homeworld. They say that this will turn the tides of war, and lead us to victory in the Great Conflict, and I believe this with every fibre of my being. As long as there is breath in my body, I will see this done. For the Veil,” he barked, “and for the Threa – we carry on..!”

The small force stood stoic, listening intently to the words of their leader and grunted loudly in unison as he completed his dialogue. Without further discussion, the group divided their equipment and weapons and, pausing only to fire the pyres which held the bodies of their fallen, set off once more in the direction the glistening mountains to the north. This time however, recon parties were also sent in all directions to raise alarm should anything even remotely resembling enemy scouts be seen flocking at the horizon. They would not be caught-out twice.

The long Harlian day was reaching its zenith by the time they finally arrived at the foot of the mountain range, which dazzlingly reflected the intense violet light of the system’s primary star. In spite of the fact that the Threan home world was itself stifling from constant volcanism and that they much preferred the heavy humidity over the freezing alien night, the fierceness of the two combined suns above them and their painstakingly slow crawl across the sky caused many of their number to become quickly fatigued.

With near unslakable thirsts they persevered, several of their weapons discharging randomly as they went as their components expanded and triggered in the awful heat. Urm instructed the group to direct their barrels skyward or at the ground to avoid any unwanted accidents, and as they finally entered the shadow of the mountain they stopped to take stock of their arsenal and to erect makeshift humidifiers with which to catch and replenish their water supplies from the muggy atmosphere of the planet.

Gundar commanded several small groups to explore the nearest outcrop in the hopes of finding sufficient ore and the correct deposits of certain elements; particularly organic solids and any endemic silicates and while they waited, requested Urm, his weapons expert Thrang and a security detail join him in ascending the nearest peak of the curious range in the hopes of seeing what might lie beyond its summit. While he was reluctant to spend any longer on that godforsaken planet than absolutely necessary, Gundar felt that given the recent skirmish he couldn’t be too careful in knowing exactly what might lay in wait for them beyond their line of sight. The group took a stock of a small provision of water and extra power cells for their weapons before allowing those that remained to rest and recover while they turned and made their way up the mountain.

The rock itself was covered with a thick, sticky layer of a strange, translucent fungus which seemed to ooze from higher elevations in the range like a slowly melting glaze. It became clear that this was what gave the mountain its highly reflective quality that had beckoned them from a distance. The contingent found scaling the rock face slow going, and in several places at one time or another they all managed to lose their footing, almost plummeting back down to the base of the climb before catching themselves at the final desperate moment.

After several hours, one of their security detail who had managed to pass beyond the others and scout ahead had finally reached the summit where he could get a glimpse of the lands beyond the peaks, and removed a telescope from his belt to get a better look at what lay ahead. Seeing this from below, Urm called up to him jokingly, asking “What do you see, soldier..? Fresh water – a whorehouse in abundant shade, perhaps..?” Immediately the lieutenant dropped to his stomach, and called back lowly, “Shh..! Don’t say a word. By all that’s holy, Urm – you must be absolutely silent. Get up here, right now..!”

The rest of the group exchanged worried glances from their own footholds, and immediately scrambled as quickly and as quietly as possible to join their comrade at the summit, careful too to keep as low as practical and fumbled with their own telescopes to see what it was that had rattled him so. From their vantage point, they followed his gaze across the valley that opened out from the other side of the outcrop, and quietly gasped in shock as they focussed on the crooked spires of what appeared to be an unknown and obviously highly secret Skrell facility, complete with its own bustling hive and several brand new star cruisers armed to the teeth. It was clearly a new spaceport and weapons development facility, one that had only recently been put into commission and that did not appear in any of their previous intel. “My friends,” whispered Gundar with a crooked smile, “It appears we’ve struck the mother lode.”

The facility was several leagues away from where their battalion had stopped to rest beneath them, and the air around it was thick with swarms of Skrell from several castes that were actively engaged both in crude construction and combat exercises beneath the midday heat. Gundar immediately began to formulate a plan with which to approach this new situation, and propped himself up slightly to better examine the sprawling mountain range which separated his force from their foe. A short journey to the east he noticed a wide pass between two peaks in the range that might provide ample cover and minimal duress by which they could move through the mountains with their equipment unnoticed.

Through a long band of thick vegetation they could, if they were extremely careful, reach the edge of the Skrell compound virtually undetected. He mused on his plan of attack for several moments, before deciding that if they might commandeer one of the enemy’s own vessels, if they could apply their knowledge of the enemy’s technology toward utilising their own ship as a means of sneaking into the Rua’Maat unchallenged that they might yet be able to complete their mission after all. There could be no room for error. But neither could they pass up such an incredible opportunity.

He quickly called the others to follow him in returning down the range to rejoin their company, and hearts racing explained to them his plan. “This, commander, is why you lead.” replied Thrang as he gripped Gundar’s shoulder while the others merely grinned and nodded in agreement. Their descent took several hours, and required much greater care in navigating the slick fungus which had nearly caused them to come unstuck before, but eventually they rejoined their comrades below and Gundar shared with them their findings, to similar nods and grunts from the company. He implored them to remain silent and vigilant, insisting that no fires be lit that night and that they bide their time until the first light of the next morning to launch their attack.

Rations were quickly divided and a discreet camp set-up at the southern mouth of the pass as they prepared, charging weapons and settling on a small diversion west of the facility as a means of drawing the bulk of enemy fire from their own number. Volunteers for the honour of participating in such a crucial but high-risk operation were, as always with the Threa, far more than what was needed. Gundar was pleased, and never prouder to call himself a Soldier of the Veil. Once preparations were complete, the company settled-in at dusk for a long and much needed rest ahead of the carnage that was to follow, the air positively electric with anticipation for the promised bloodshed.

[Freehold Hospital, Sunday Morning]

Alex awoke heart-pounding, short of breath and in a cold sweat. The realisation that his most recent visit from Dr. Holzer had in fact been real was only a secondary thought in his mind compared with the vivid, fantastic dream that he had just experienced. In truth, his dreams had taken a recurring theme of late, and as he found himself sleeping longer and deeper as his condition deteriorated, they had become all the more lucid, linear and lifelike. He had mentioned the dreams earlier to Dr. Holzer and even his parents, all of whom simply dismissed it as a probable side effect of the medications that he was taking, and nothing to be alarmed about.

For Alex though, the almost nightly fantasies that he had been engaged in, the strange worlds and creatures that reappeared night after night had begun to really frighten and, in a way, excite him. They had always started the same, and in each of them he seemed to play the same role; some sort of figurehead in a weird, quasi-military culture. He would feel acutely that he somehow belonged to this strange and alien race, and where he had become weak and listless in reality as the sickness took hold, in his dreams he felt robust, healthy – almost completely indestructible.

He slapped himself awake, shook his head quickly from side to side and took a deep breath as he looked around his room. “Still here,” was all he could manage to say to himself as the gravity of his situation slowly edged-out the residual adrenaline left by the dream. He carefully dropped his legs out from underneath the sheets and gingerly set his feet upon the floor. Somehow he had managed this time to sleep right through the afternoon and most of the night, waking up just as first light of the following morning crept around the thick hospital curtains of his ward. He yawned and shuffled his way to the bathroom to shower and shave, brush his teeth and change out of his usual hospital garb and into something more presentable.

It was a Sunday, and as always his parents would be stopping by to bring him a hot breakfast from the cafe down the street (a welcome respite from the usual hospital fare, which he hated) and catch him up on news from the rest of the family. On any other occasion, he might have taken more of a blasé approach to preparing for this, however as he would have to break the news of recent developments to them today, he decided to look and feel as best he was able. In actual fact, he knew that it would be just about the most difficult thing a man could ever have to impart to his parents; the knowledge that their only son was dying and would pass before either of them. Alex loved his parents deeply, and he was seriously dreading the conversation that had to come.

They arrived at the hospital a little after 9am, and after checking-in and getting the usual greetings out of the way, Alex proceeded to sit them both down, wasting no time in breaking the news of his condition. As careful as he was, the moment the finality of his situation sank in it was all that his dear mother could do to stop herself from breaking down completely. Before he knew it, the three of them were in each other’s embrace at his bedside, his parents shaking uncontrollably and his father only able to ask over and over again, “Is that it..? Is there nothing at all that they can do..?” To which he would reply, “Just keep me comfortable, Dad. There’s nothing more to it – it’s just my time.”

He went on at length to convince them that in spite of everything, he’d led a good life, if not a little unexciting and that “While it’s a horrible, terrible situation, we can only make the most of the time we have.” Dr. Holzer joined them after a short while to run Mr. and Mrs Agnew through exactly why things had turned out as they had, and suggested that the three of them speak with the hospital counsellor before they go anywhere as “Awful as this truly, truly is, there are arrangements that the three of you should endeavour to make together, for when the time comes.”

They thanked the doctor as he left, and spent most of the remainder of the day talking. They laughed together, cried and reminisced on just about everything from more recent times in his life right back to his childhood, which Alex had always felt were his best years. So much had simply not come together for him as he got older, but during those early years and on into his teens, he’d truly felt as if he could accomplish anything. He was thankful that they stayed as long as they did, eventually conceding as the evening wore on into the night that they should be getting home to make arrangements and to contact his other relatives that might also want to see him before the time came.

He embraced them two, three times before they did, and they promised to again visit him the next day, when they might be able to stay longer. His mother couldn’t keep from crying as she waved goodbye from the doorway, while his father did his best to put on a brave face. “My son,” he said softly, locking eyes for several moments before turning to leave and reluctantly closing the door to Alex’s room.

As he lay there in bed, alone once more, his thoughts turned again to the life he was leaving behind. He was himself in terrible debt and living alone in a one bedroom apartment outside of town, before his health had really deteriorated. Prior to that he had been working long hours at a job he hated for less than he’d felt he deserved before his diagnosis, spending most of his free time watching television, or otherwise entertaining a black and white cat he’d bought together with an ex-girlfriend that he had planned to move in with several years before. That among other things had never panned out, and so his only real motivation for getting out of bed in the morning had become a need to show his parents that he was capable, independent and to provide some hope that he might still one day get it together.

Now, he didn’t know what to think. He was tired again, and so set about preparing for another long, restful sleep. As he lay awake, and before he eventually drifted off he noticed a strange tingling sensation gnawing at the base of his skull, where the back of his head met his spine. His legs had also begun to grow heavy, as though all feeling was beginning to numb and even as he finally lost consciousness he couldn’t for the life of him stop both of his feet from twitching.

[Harlia, the Morning of the Attack]

The Threa slept soundly through the short Harlian night save for a few that shared the watch, and as the ominous glow of daybreak began to paint the horizon a threatening shade of blue and violet once more, they woke and began to prepare for the short, quick march north to the Skrell facility. The tension in the cool morning air was palpable as they crouched in the undergrowth and snaked their way toward the enemy hive, careful not to so much as snap a single branch or twig underfoot.

The plan was simple; they were to reach a series of shallow hollows at the eastern edge of their base and lay low, and as soon as those charged with their diversion were able to detonate a series of small portable explosives in several key locations across the other side of the valley, they would make for the nearest alien craft with extreme haste. With no small amount of luck, they should be able to overpower any resistance left guarding the facility, and after loading the weapon on board would allow their comrades just enough time to double back and join them before firing up its engines and making for the skies before they could give chase. It seemed like the perfect plan, but nonetheless Gundar was explicit in demanding the utmost caution and care as they approached their destination.

When their battalion had finally crossed the valley and were within yards of the hollows however, their worst fears were suddenly realised as one of their own number broke free of the hollow and ran directly toward the central hive of the enemy, screaming at the top of his lungs and firing wildly into the air as he went. “The informant..!” Gundar bellowed, immediately realising what was happening and cursing himself for not weeding him out sooner. “They’re here..!” The rogue soldier yelled, “Open the gates and let me in – we have a deal..!” He only managed a few dozen yards before Urm commanded a volley be loosed at the traitor, frying his upper body and quickly freeing him from the dishonour of his actions.

The company held their breaths as his body hit the dirt, time standing still as they strained to hear any sign of motion from the compound. Sure enough, within seconds the familiar buzz of thousands of insect-like wings could be heard starting up, as hundreds of vivid yellow Skrell funnelled up and out of the upper entrance to their hive and fanned-out in a thick swarm above the facility, searching in every direction for the source of the commotion.

Just as the last of their number took to the air and they began breaking out in all directions including that of Gundar and his soldiers near the hollows, several massive explosions rang out across the valley from the diversion team on the far edge. “Fools..!” cursed Gundar under his breath, “Did they not see that we’d been given away..? With all of those Skrell already in the air, they’ll be seen and overrun in seconds..!” There was nothing for it if he was to provide his subordinates across the valley with any sort of fighting chance, and so he took to his full height, beckoning the rest to follow and charged in the direction of the Skrell compound with a roar.

“For the Veil, for Threa and by the Highest State of Being – for the eternal glory of valiant death..!” he cried loudly. The rest of the battalion joined him in charging the facility as the huge, dense cloud of Skrell split into two distinct formations; one that immediately swarmed in the direction of the explosions and a second, far larger group that descended on the invading Threa to instigate what would be heralded as perhaps the greatest single firefight against insurmountable odds since the beginning of the Great Conflict.

The carnage that followed could not easily be described. It seemed as though the plume of Skrell that erupted from the hive was endless, and the ceaseless gunfire from the Threa illuminated the pale morning haze like so many thousand brilliant red fireworks bursting into the sky all at once. Somehow in spite of their err, they had still managed to catch their enemy almost completely unprepared, and while many of their number were simply torn to pieces once the swarm reached striking distance, for every Threa that perished, a hundred of the insectoid army were felled from the skies and ground underfoot as Gundar, Urm and their forces continued to advance with the frenzied determination of madmen.

The Threa had soon cut such a heavy swath through their ranks that a clear passage to the enemy fleet suddenly presented itself, and with a final shout of determination they charged toward it as fast as their powerful legs allowed them to bound across the length of the compound. Within moments, Gundar had reached the gangway to the largest vessel, and when two Skrell launched themselves at him from out of the doorway he immediately dropped his weapon, instead wrapping two monstrously clawed hands around what might have been their necks and squeezed with such power his assailants shrieked an ear-splitting shriek and broke clean in two.

They stormed the entrance to the ship and with heavy cover fire, made for the helm without a second’s delay. Urm motioned for Thrang to take the throttle, as he was the one among them most familiar with the enemy’s technology and in no time at all, a loud hum filled the cockpit as the strange vessel gradually woke from its slumber. Before they closed the gangway, Gundar ordered the rest of their number to hold rank outside on the off-chance that at least some among the diversion team might make it back to them.

Seconds felt like minutes as the hail of charred Skrell continued to rain down around them, and then minutes like hours as they waited, squinting into the undergrowth behind them. Sure enough, just as they were about to abandon all hope, plasma fire burst from the treeline, and a dozen Threa, beaten, bruised and bloody sprinted across the facility, the air now thick with fire and Skrell and they too charged the gangway. The door was quickly sealed and the vessel’s engines burst into life, sending their craft hurtling into the planet’s atmosphere and vaporising hundreds of pursuing Skrell in the process.

As soon as they cleared orbit and could finally engage the ship’s hyperdrive, the Threa let out a resounding cheer. They had done it – HE had done it..! Gundar was hoisted ceremoniously onto his comrades’ shoulders as the magnitude of their most daring escape finally struck them. The payload was on board, they were back in space – their mission could finally be completed. Never in his life had Gundar felt such a sense of accomplishment, of pride as he felt at that very moment. He had taken the ultimate risk, seizing the opportunity that had presented itself and had won.

He thanked each and every Threa on board individually for their valour, and prayed fealty to the Highest State of Being for providing guidance and protection during the insurrection, as well as for the souls of those that did not survive. Battered, bloody and still in shock, he dropped down beside a pylon in the ship’s control room, and closed his eye – “Onward to the Rua’Maat, Gundar, onward to victory..!” This was his final self-satisfied thought as he succumbed to exhaustion, and a well needed rest.

[Freehold Hospital, Monday Morning]

It was only the next morning when Alex finally lost all sensation in both legs, and found that he could no longer move them at all, let alone leave his bed. Against his doctor’s generous prediction, the tumour in the back of his skull had quickly reached a critical mass and had begun not only to crush several key areas of his brain that controlled major parts of his body but was now also restricting the flow of oxygen to it. His final dream had been so much more vivid than the first.. the firefight, the Skrell and his own part in it all.

His hallucinations had begun to spill over into his waking thoughts, and within a few short hours he found himself flitting in and out of consciousness involuntarily. It was all happening so fast, and when his parents eventually arrived escorted by his doctor, they just couldn’t understand how he had one day been so lucid, so much like the Alex that they knew and loved and the next, could only stay focussed for mere minutes at a time.

“Mr. and Mrs. Agnew,” Dr. Holzer started, “I know it doesn’t make much sense. When we described to Alex the window of time that was left, we could only be so general. His condition is far advanced, and there is simply no way of providing an absolutely clear evaluation of how quickly his other functions might be affected, nor how soon.. it appears that the pressure that the tumour is exerting on his brain has reached a critical point, whereby there’s very little chance of real lucidity from here on in.”

His mother was beside herself, and once again Mr. Agnew asked of him, “There’s nothing that can be done..? Just what the hell are we supposed to do now..?” Dr. Holzer’s expression fell, and he replied, “As drastic as it seems, at this stage I would strongly recommend placing your son in an induced coma, wherein we might buy time to continue to evaluate the progression of his condition in a stable state and at least he might then, when the time comes, find peace in a dignified end. Once again, I’m very sorry and of course, the call is entirely yours,” he turned and pointed to the doorway, “I’ll be out in the hall while you talk it through.”

He shook Mr. Agnew’s hand and left, and for a long time Alex lay there in his bed, eyes flitting as he mumbled more and more incoherently, for brief moments showing recognition, but for the most part only muttering a great deal about somebody called ‘Gundar,’ a secret mission, and a great ship in outer space. “My beautiful boy,” Mrs Agnew said softly, as she stroked a wave of hair from his forehead. “So young – so much potential. It’s just not fair.”

The two stayed by his bedside for hours, discussing which action to take as Alex drifted farther and farther from coherence and eventually slipped into an almost catatonic state in which no part of him moved but for a constant flicker of both eyelids. Finally, after much deliberation they both agreed that he would want to sleep now, rather than slowly fall to pieces in his final days and gave Dr. Holzer the authority he needed to induce a coma, sending their only son to his rest for the last time.

That afternoon, as they watched from his bedside, the necessary steps were taken, and Alexander Agnew slipped forever from consciousness, into dream and everything beyond.

[Deep Space, Exact Location: Classified]

Like a shot, Gundar’s great eye flew open and he sprang to his feet. He was all of a sudden strangely energised, feeling more focussed and alert than he had ever felt before and he scanned the room in which he found himself as memories of the past few days’ events came flooding back. He was on the bridge of the Skrell battlecruiser, the ship they had commandeered from under the very noses of their enemy. His battalion, comrades that had stuck with him through thick and thin were at their stations, some carefully instructing others how to operate the complex and alien controls of the vessel and many more taking a well earned rest as Thrang and his team plotted a clear course for the Rua’Maat. He smiled as two of them passed him by, bowing their heads in a gesture of respect and moved across the bridge to speak with Urm, his oldest and greatest friend.

“Urm, my right hand,” he began, “what is our bearing..? How long have I slumbered..?” Urm replied, “A full night’s rest, Commander – and well-earned I might say. We have long cleared the Harlian System and bear onward to the Rua’Maat. Thrang suspects we might disengage the vessel’s hyperdrive in a matter of hours. Everything else is on schedule, and perhaps before the day is through we might finally taste the wine of victory for which we have so longed, the Higher State permitting.

“Excellent,” Gundar replied. “Hold steady, see to it that our wounded are administered to and if you haven’t already, send a team to try to find food, water.. whatever these vermin might be hoarding to replenish morale.” He clasped the other Threa’s shoulder before turning to leave the bridge himself. “As you will, Gundar,” Urm replied with a low bow, addressing his own subordinate to relay his commander’s instruction.

“And General,” Gundar called over his shoulder as he started down the corridor. “Yes, Commander..?” came Urm’s reply.

“From now on – have the men call me Alex.”

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Here is a Fourth Excerpt from Alluvion

04. A Grand Decree

“My brothers, my sisters and my dear friends,” He-Xur began, with his trademark flair for the dramatic, “people.. of Nevalı Çori. I bid you all a good morning, and trust that in the absence of your fearless leader your needs have been well met, and your bellies filled. I thank you,” he turned to face Skara, and with his right hand outstretched bowed his head slightly at the other man, “and I salute you, who would rise to his duty and preserve order and balance to our home in my absence.” Skara, still confused but honoured nonetheless at the mention returned a bow of his own head, offering fealty once more to He-Xur amidst cheers and applause from the rest of the village.

“Though pleased as you are no doubt to see me,” he continued, “I am sure some of you question, ‘Why has our leader returned now, when two more Moons were promised first to pass’..?” He stepped down from the elevation and slowly moved closer before the crowd, whose excitement was clearly beginning to build. “Why has He-Xur (he would frequently refer to himself in third-person, an idiosyncrasy that had often perplexed Skara) come back to the Valley before his time..? I will answer you this, though it might surprise many of you to hear of what it is I have come to know from those learned and esteemed leaders of the capital,” Several villagers called out, “Tell us..!” and, “What of He-Tauhasa..?”

“People of Nevalı Çori,” he wasted no time then in cutting straight to the chase, raising his voice beyond a reasonable volume and bellowing with a fierce and resounding roar: “war is upon us..!” His eyes bulged from his head and the veins on either side of his neck swelled as he delivered his proclamation. Immediately, audible gasps, moans and murmurs erupted from the crowd. Several small children began to cry only to be hushed by their mothers, and voices could be heard exclaiming, “War..? War with who..? Who would declare war on us..?” The people of the valley had not been faced with any sort of conflict for generations, enjoying a remarkably long and prosperous season and none among them could have expected this now.

The chieftain went on: “I have met with our Divine King He-Tauhasa Ihreikas himself, and he has told me of the visions of the Seers of Çatalhöyük.” More murmurs, because if they were being honest, the townsfolk themselves were somewhat divided as to the true intent of those Seers, members of an order who claimed to be the divine interpreters of their Godhead. An order so many leagues to the west as to almost seem fantastic to those who had never made the journey.

“The Seers,” he roared on, desperate to retain control of the crowd, “have witnessed, as we all have that the Cygnet among the stars bleeds and has bled for a full Moon. They have seen the signs and warn us that an invasion comes from the west..!” This sent the crowd into a frenzy. Every man and woman of the valley and indeed the entire population of the Southern lands had been raised from birth to hate on instinct those that dwelt to the west. A barbaric, incestuous foreign tribe of murderers and usurpers, they were told, who in their godless lust for war were always plotting the downfall of the Eastern tribes. He-Xur knew this well, understanding that it would be all too easy to incite his people to rally behind him, should a war with the West be his banner. He knew now that to bring his people completely on-side, he need only offer them glory and security as reward for such a risk as an ingress into enemy territory.

“Brothers and sisters, the Seers have decreed that we of the East would be victorious against these marauders from beyond the lowly wastes,” he began to pace up and down in front of the crowd, their eyes following him as he went, “if we would strike first this serpent that threatens our kin, and cut off its head. The Gods favour us my friends, but more importantly, the Gods favour our honour, our power and our loyalty to those we call our own. Today I have returned to you to ask that you honour your king, and not just if it pleases you, for you honour your family, your kin and yourselves if you will follow me in this glorious campaign.” The crowd by this time had swollen to include almost every single man, woman and child in the village, their faces now reflecting soberly not only on what would be left behind should they follow He-Xur to the capital and to war, but what they might risk losing if they did not.

“If we do not strike at the serpent, the serpent strikes at us. Now is the time for us to make haste to the capital to meet our king, and to defend our homes and our lands, before it is too late. The Seers have foreseen our victory – the blood of the West must be spilled, their forces broken, their women raped and their villages plundered. It is the only way. Who will join us in this glorious fight..? Who among you would follow me now, your blood lord into battle and would see their oldest enemies crushed into the earth, once and for all..?” His voice rose with every sentence, the intensity in his speech and in his eyes increasing with every syllable as he paced before the crowd, staring piercingly into the sea of faces as if weighing the value of their very souls. The people of Nevalı Çori were not soldiers, nor were they warriors. They were not marauders nor killers – they were hunters, they were fathers and they were simple men of the East. But they had made up their mind.

With a thunderous roar that shook the ground, the villagers as one shouted for their lord, proclaiming their support for the coming war and giving praise to the Gods for the chance to honour them. It would otherwise have been an inspiring moment for Skara, to see his kin raise their fists and weapons high above their heads, clasping their brothers and sisters beside them were he not so recently made aware that the entire premise for the war for which they cheered had been a false one. He-Xur stood proud and defiant before them, returning their fealty with both arms outstretched and basked in the wave of support from his people. ‘His people’, he as all rulers through time had grown to believe this, never pausing to consider that there might be those among them less eager to follow their blood leader into the carnage that was promised. Skara turned and locked-eyes with the other as he tried unconvincingly to calm the throng about him, and he knew then that he must make a stand.

He knew only too well the price of disobeying his king, and until this time had sworn only complete and utter loyalty to He-Xur. Skara had known him since they were both children, and as far back as he could remember he had been entranced by the showmanship and passion the line of Xur had commanded, and the hold that it had had over his kin. He had also seen many a great man fall, stripped of titles, wealth and most often eventually executed in that very same plaza for daring to defy the one the Gods had appointed. It was with no small measure of faith in those same Gods that he stepped forward, and addressed his lord and the people of his village. Sura’s face dropped as he did, not trusting that her husband knew exactly what it was he was doing, and knowing the consequences that might inevitably follow if he failed to present a sound and acceptable argument.

“My friends,” he began, turning to He-Xur, “my lord.. I wished not yet to bring to you tidings from our most recent journey into the wilderness, at least not like this and I honour our blood-ruler for the wisdom he returns to us from the capital. However I feel I must speak now of those events that have transpired at that grassy plateau to the north which I have come to call Uru-Mah.” The crowd went silent as he stepped forward to speak, and now also seemed confused at the name assigned to what they knew to be a rather innocuous area of land, and hardly becoming of the label, the ‘Magnificent High’. He went on: “While we camped at the foothills to the south of the plateau, and as I stood watch over my brothers in the dead of the night I was visited by one of the order who call themselves the Watchers,” more murmurs and gasps from the women and children as he continued, “who bade me to speak with them at their council beneath the high-hills, in the city that is theirs. I have no doubts, as you might that these were indeed the Watchers of old, as he did reveal to me his face, and by his stature alone appeared as no man I have ever seen.”

“The next morning, while hunting the lands surrounding the plateau, my brother and I did venture north over the rise and into the flatlands beyond, where I took council with the Watchers, who told to me of the true meaning of this signal in the sky.” He-Xur scoffed loudly, interrupting Skara in the middle of his speech and roaring above him, “The Watchers, he says..!” Turning to address the crowd, “No-one has seen their kind in an age, and nobody would dare break the forbidding that I and the rulers of the East have put upon that place beneath the hills, a land forsaken by the Gods themselves..!” He then spat at the earth and pointed aggressively at Skara, “What right have you, Skara Tau to venture into those lands forbidden by your forebears, where no other has strayed, and pray tell us what your Watchers,” he sneered as he rolled the name distastefully on his tongue, “those freaks of nature, if that is who they really were, have told you of those signs, truthfully read and deciphered by our own Seers..? Come now, entertain us..!” Some in the crowd laughed, others muttered uneasily amongst themselves, knowing that the next words to come out of Skara’s mouth might well seal his fate. Skara went on:

“The council of the Watchers too have seen the sign, and in their wisdom have revealed a greater catastrophe that will take place than your supposed invasion from the west. The signs speak not of war, but of a great dragon which will fall from the sky, and burn the valley and indeed all of the Eastern lands to ashes. Those of the council have told me that in two weeks hence, if we are not safely within the high walls of their city, we will all be destroyed by this weapon which comes, and comes quickly.” More gasps, and the sound of several villagers booing could be heard from the crowd as he paused, but he went on. “Your war is a lie, the Seers have falsely interpreted the signs and would have our people spread far from safety where they would be destroyed by the dragon of seven tails. Listen to me brothers and sisters, my Lord you have been deceived..! We cannot march West, you must not listen to this madness..”

He-Xur roared, “Enough..!” His face had turned bright red at the assertion that he, the highest among them had been taken for a fool by the learned men of the capital. He moved towards Skara and proceeded to make an example of the huntsman, who now felt as though his legs would turn to jelly:

“To think that I should ever live to see such insolence, such wanton treason from you, Skara Tau. How dare you, a mere huntsman from the valley speak such heresy, such slander of the Seers, who are by divine decree the very voice of the Gods. And to defy me, your lord..! I will hear no more of your Watchers and their talk of dragons and other such nonsense – rescind those words that you have spoken, promising no further talk of those abominations to the north and by and only by the loyalty you have shown me until this day will I spare your life.”

Skara went white, knowing too that there would be no turning back, no second chances if he continued by Yamnaya’s directive. He looked down at his children, cowering by their mother’s legs and then at Sura, who herself did not completely understand what her husband was saying. Her features dropped as she looked deep into his eyes and saw in them the path he would take. Skara glanced too at his brother, Andar who gritted his teeth from across the plaza as if to say “Idiot – stop this madness before you get yourself killed..!” Skara however had made up his mind, and shouted once more to the crowd and his lord:

“I will not – the words of the Seers are false, the dragon arrives and the Watchers offer us salvation. I will not follow you, He-Xur into this war of your master’s making, and I would not condone the slaughter of our kinsman where such actions are unnecessary. I am sorry.”

The crowd erupted then, incensed by the tone of defiance in his voice and responded by pointing toward, shouting at and taunting the other man. He-Xur arched his back and threw his muscular arms wide, declaring, “So be it..! Skara Tau, this day you have defied your Lord and will be punished accordingly.” He wasted no time as the crowd swelled around them, threatening to stone him there and then. Several rocks flew at the huntsman as his lord barked his order; “Take him and tie him in the Northeast quarter. We will march at sunset for the capital so as to meet our King two mornings hence, and will take the prisoner to his divine court for judgement..!” Skara gulped, for he knew just what this meant. Justice in the valley was and had always been dealt swiftly and with mercy, however from the capital he had heard a great many tales of the maiming and execution of traitors in the public arena, purely for the sport and entertainment of its citizens as spectators.

Skara was stripped of any blades he carried, seized sharply by both arms by two of the more burly soldiers that had returned with He-Xur and as his children screamed and cried for their father, was led away to be imprisoned until the men of the village were prepared to march. Sura wept, and screamed clemency for Skara who could only look back at her for a brief moment with wide-eyes concerned and filled with fear before he was taken for his fate. She dropped to her knees in defeat, unable to believe how quickly her joy had turned to despair.

All Skara could think as he was led away to face his fate was whether he would have enough time and indeed be given the opportunity to convince his King of the folly of the Seers before it was too late. This, and of the small and mysterious vial provided to him by Yamnaya, which he had managed somehow to carefully keep concealed within his robes.

Skara was led away and bundled roughly into a small wooden enclosure that had been erected at the rear of the Lord’s quarters to house prisoners awaiting punishment. No family or friends were permitted to see the captured man, and as the hours wore on before his transport west he began to reflect on the events that had brought him to this point. He cursed himself for not waiting until a more opportune moment to come clean about his visit to the plateau, and for allowing Sura and the children to see him captured and taken away before the rest of the village. He could only imagine the worry that his wife had felt in the hours since he was imprisoned, and hoped dearly that Andar had intervened to ensure that they too came to no harm.

As the sun set through an opening in the rear of the enclosure, he heard footsteps outside the gate and a voice which called to him, “Come forth, Skara – it is time.” The latch was opened and he was removed from the chamber, and made to join a large group outside the Western edge of the village. Sura and the children were nowhere to be seen.

Before the group departed, He-Xur approached him at the rear of the party under heavy guard, and spoke in confidence to him; “I would have never taken you for a fool, Skara Tau. Not until this day. What events have truly taken place that would bring you to such an act of suicide as slandering the words of your lord and king I do not know. But know this; where I have a softness within me for you and your family, the Seers of He-Tauhasa have only the divine law, and for your actions this day I do not expect you will be let-off lightly.”

Skara raised his head to address the other man, but he had already left his side and taken up position at the head of the group. He-Xur surveyed the force of several hundred behind him – every able-bodied man and boy of age that could handle a weapon had been taken from the village and surrounds to join the soldiers of the capital, and only a handful of hunters including his brother Andar were allowed to remain with the women and children, promised to keep them from harm and hunger until their fathers and husbands would return victorious. He raised his right-arm to them palm lowered and hand outstretched in a gesture of solidarity and with a mighty yell, commanded, “People of the valley, we march west for Çatalhöyük..!”

The group moved, slowly at first and then finding a rhythm in their step began the long and arduous journey to the capital. The road ahead was better-made and less treacherous than others surrounding the village, and the journey would take no more than two night’s passage. As they left sight of their homes and loved-ones, the group took up another song, to fire their resolve and prepare them for the dark days that were to come:

“You cut them down in the fray of battle
With your fierce wings, O God of War
You tear and hack their throats like cattle
Disguised, a dark and raging storm
Growl and roar..! O hurricane
And yell as a tempest boldly yells
Thunder, rage, roar, and rain
Expel thy winds from seven hells..!

Your feet are anxious as they tread
Your lyre it wails and moans
We hear your loud dirge scream and cry
O monster, sing that we may go home

As thunder, you growl across the skies..!
All trees and creatures bow before you..!

You are blood rushing down a mountain
Spirit of hate, greed and anger
Dominator of heaven and earth
Your smoke, it hides our black banner
Riding-forth on a beast of war
With indomitable commands
You decide all fates to come
And triumph over our enemy’s lands

Who can explain why you go on so..
Nergal keep guide of our axes, sling and bow”

Skara recognised many items of weaponry borne by his kinsmen as they walked, battle-axes and barbed spears that had become little more than heirlooms displayed in the homes of his neighbours who had no use of such things until now. He shook his head and lamented the outcome of their participation in a full-frontal campaign against their enemies, who were by all accounts far better equipped and much less green on the battlefield. As the trip wore on into the night, he took note that the rolling hills of the valley lands had changed into a long and gradual descent, the landscape flattening out as they reached the lower ground which would eventually lead them to the tributaries and then the estuary which marked the entrance to the port-capital. They marched on through the night, finding their road with little difficulty and made great progress on the back of high-spirits and enthusiasm for what would be for many among them the first time they had visited the heart of their empire.

They group camped once by a riverbed in the early hours of the following morning, allowing for several hours’ sleep before they carried-on with their journey. Skara was tied to a heavy stake that had been hammered into the earth at the outskirts of one of many small fires lit to warm their numbers and his hands freed from thick leather straps so that he might feed himself. The group had brought with them much of a store of cured meats, roots and vegetables gathered at the village before departing, and had sent several small groups forth as they marched to hunt ahead, so that they might also enjoy fresh meat. As they ate, some members of the group had taken pity on Skara, bringing him cuts of game to supplement the bland vegetables that he had been rationed, and of this group three had stayed with him in spite of command and their better judgement to enquire as to his well-being. The three were in fact Gidri, Gizzal and a craftsman from the Eastern quarter who was called Bacchi, son of Stol. After they had eaten, he was the first to speak, asking Skara:

“You do know what they’re planning for you, at the capital, don’t you..?” He began, “He’s not commanded that we bring you with us to see you slapped on the hand for defying his decree, you know. What manner of madness possessed you, anyway..? Have you no regard for your own life, or the livelihood of your family..?” He shook his head in resign. “We all love you like a brother, and you’ve always done the best by us in return. Why did you take opposition to He-Xur in an open forum..? Surely you knew that this would happen.”

He spoke both as if he were chastising the other man, but also with a tone of genuine concern which softened Skara. He replied quietly, careful not to raise the attention of the soldiers closer by the fire, “Brothers, those words that I have spoken before are the truth. I have told no lies of the Watchers, and what they have shown to me calls for no delay in sharing it with you. Trust me when I say that the threat these signs have shown comes not from the West, but from the skies. You might well think me mad, but what I have done I have done for my family, and for the rest of you. Take heed that the words of the Seers are not entirely selfless, and that what they say may only be said for the benefit of their order.” He turned to the fire and gazed at the flames for a moment, before adding, “You will see when the time comes, and I pray to all the Gods that you come to your senses before all is lost.”

The three looked at each other and shook their heads, before gently patting Skara on the shoulder and moving back to join the rest of the group. Skara stroked his thick black beard, and thought at length of the hopelessness of his situation before violently casting aside the food he had been given, the taste of which had turned bitter in his mouth.

At mid-morning the group set off again, passing through the many green glades and grasslands now lush with the spring climate and by late afternoon began their final descent towards the lowlands. As the sun set on their second day of travel, the landscape had begun to change dramatically, and the dark silhouettes of isolated dwellings had begun to intermittently jut-out from the horizon either side of the road on which they travelled, signifying that they were at last leaving the wilderness between the two settlements and were nearing the more densely occupied lands surrounding Çatalhöyük. Above them, the Spring skies were blood-red and striking around the enormous descending solar disc and the heralds of He-Xur ordered the party to pause for a quick prayer to Anu, the head of their pantheon and of whom such skies were a blessing before they continued.

The throng carried-on through the evening, electing to make one final camp beside a copse of oak trees just east of the city before arriving at first light. Again Skara’s bonds were loosened so that he might feed himself, however He-Xur’s soldiers kept a closer watch this time. Word had travelled quickly through the group that some of his fellow valley-men had confided in him the previous night, and their leader was determined that his treasonous ideas would not be spread amongst his friends and neighbours, with whom he knew the prisoner had a greater rapport than he himself. Skara ate his fill, famished from the long and arduous trek that the group had made swiftly to make time and prayed a silent prayer of his own to the pantheon that he might find wisdom among his accusers when brought to trial. If indeed a trial was to be arranged, for he knew that those elders of the city had not endured for so long by entertaining dissident voices.

He slept warily through that night, ever watchful for those soldiers that might exact their own justice on the King’s behalf and at daybreak was yanked sharply to his feet by two of their number eager to press on and rejoin their brethren at the capital. The party marched a dozen men wide to the entrance of Çatalhöyük to meet the city watch, and Skara was awed by the great arch which surrounded the large wooden gates of the city. Massive oaken doors finished the road from the east, grand gates which stood almost twenty cubits tall and around the arch above it was carved the city’s grandiose claim, in great black symbols which read:

“HERE LIES THE GLORIOUS SPLENDOUR THAT IS ÇATALHÖYÜK; THE VIBRANT BEATING HEART OF SILUR-MAH WHERE EVER REIGN ANU’S DIVINE BLOOD-REPRESENTATIVES ON EARTH.”

After a quick exchange, the gates creaked open and the group were permitted entry into the city beyond. The capital itself was a vast collective of halls and dwellings built from an assortment of wood, stone and stretched animal skins, some carefully erected by artisans to the wishes of the more affluent and respected elders of the settlement and others resembling more the modest wooden huts of Nevalı Çori and the lesser villages to the east.

The city was criss-crossed with made and unmade roads, and plumes of smoke rose from many corners and hearths and clouded the sky above in a thick haze which choked Skara and others among them not used to such an atmosphere. They had been warned of this, and told that they would get used to it but Skara could not believe that he would ever come to prefer the smog of city life above the crisp, clean air of the valley. As the small army moved through the streets in the direction of the center of the settlement and towards the largest of its halls where dwelt the ruling family of Çatalhöyük, a herald from amongst them sounded two long and sharp blasts from his horn, intended to catch the attention of the household of He-Tauhasa Ihreikas.

The blasts prompted emissaries of the King to immediately march forth and confront the group, sharing a quick word with He-Xur before escorting them past a growing throng of onlookers, curious to see who had been welcomed into their city. Several dozen yards from the city square, the more distinguished among the group, including He-Xur, Skara and his minders were led into the massive Hall of Kings, and brought into a long space at the rear of the building. Skara was taken then before a large wooden throne draped with vibrant red cloth and decorated finery, where sat the king of the Southern lands, who was himself bare from the waist up save for several brightly coloured arm bands and other assorted adornments, and surrounded by handmaidens holding food, wine and other luxuries reserved for the ruler of their world. Skara was forced immediately to kneel in submission to the throne by a swift kick to the back of one knee, and He-Xur bowed his head in a gesture of respect before once more addressing his ruler for the first time since leaving the capital.