Where the Gods Went

J. Drake

Floating in the ocean of space, rising from the depths of suspended sleep, Blackwolf hovered on the edge of a familiar dream — eyes gray as granite, face stern as elemental iron, ice-opals glittering from her skullcap. He let go his weapons and her face softened, smiling eyes suffusing with violet, fire diamonds gleaming in streams from her cap. He reached out… and awoke to unknown stars.

He stared up at the glimmering star map projected on the faceplate of his capsule. An arrow marked the Star Dancer, a gleaming silver needle with furled sails slipping through normal space-time. This was not a dream of suspended sleep. Where were they?   He studied the screen as the med-comp filtered the last of the hy-sul from his blood, increased oxygen, raised temperature, electro-stimulated muscle tissues, injected stimulants, and rechecked his vital signs. As soon as the comp cleared him, prime alarms sounded and his capsule opened. Adrenaline not yet flowing, he clambered stiffly out and punched the button on the auto chair, knowing it wouldn’t work. Dragging oneself along had proved the fastest way to regain the operating levels needed to face emergencies. He punched another button to formally notify the Ibs he was on his way to Control, although they already knew of course. They knew almost everything that went on in the ship they kept running.

On the bio-photonic crystal walls of the dark corridors ahead plasmas phosphoresced into patterns at his approach, then formed deep 3-D sights and sounds of temperate Earth woodlands. A soft voice asked, “If a tree falls on you in the forest, and you don’t believe in trees, do you still die?”

“No wake-up banter.”

Before him and to each side emergency holographic diagrams and images glimmered on and kept pace, replacing themselves as he called for different read-outs and views.

He stopped at his entrance to Control. Captains were always wakened first, yet there was his first mate urgently working five panels. She looked over her shoulder at him. The adrenaline began to flow.

“Malfunctions in multiple systems. No familiar star patterns. Fuels almost gone.”

“And no indications of damage?”

“No, but reactor vessels are depressurized, and the conduits from the collectors have been shunting hydrogen back out into space.”

“Closest possible fuel source?”

“The system we’re in – ALL BPEUVgB.”

He checked his screens. “And how is it we entered a system with the crew in stasis?” One mistake and the dense stellar currents would tear apart the wings of an interstellar vessel like a hurricane would a moth.

O’Malley shook her head. “The Ibs must have managed it — sails and collectors are all safely furled. We’re approaching ALL BPEUVgB P2 now. It has all raw materials needed… “

“But?”

“Off limits up to clearance 1A. Even approach is a breech of regulations and programming.”

Central’s regulations had never concerned this veteran of missions from routine to hair-raising, but Blackwolf noted a flicker in those always level gray eyes. He couldn’t tell if it was the aftereffect of suspended sleep. She was difficult to read anyway — her mix included genes from excavations of Ireland’s neolithic burial mounds – the ‘fairy’ mounds; most such individuals were even less capable than O’Malley of living in ‘normal’ society. Her skullcap now was plain, gray-blue metal but even the elaborately beautiful ones effectively prevented any form of brain scan. It was her right of course.

“So security programs are also malfunctioning.”

For a second O‘Malley’s face lit up at the thought, then hardened.   “There are five planets in the system. Scans of the third and fourth strongly indicate fuel sources.”

Blackwolf checked his screens: all wakened crew had responded, and the walls along their way to Control were apprising them of the situation. He sent a message of acknowledgement to the Ibs, saying he would confer with them shortly, studied the ship’s logs, and put the star system image and information on the large holoscreen. The arriving crew stared. An unstable image showed only four planets orbiting bright blue, closely bound binary stars. P2, their destination, was conspicuously missing.   And the star’s designation was ALL BPEUVgB Pn5 GC xxxxxxx.x+xxxxxx.x.

“Captain…” Navigator Valdez said softly, “The coordinates are deleted.”

One young sys-compist ran up to the holoscreen. “Where the hell are we? Where’s the planet?   Wha..”

O’Malley’s voice cracked out. “Sit down and man your panel. Everyone! Captain, security programming is screening out P2’s coordinates and image, but within the system we can still specify destinations. Captain?”

Blackwolf was attempting to override the security block from his panel: it was densely protected and in code formation at least 400 years old. He could not call up any data. He turned to the site analyst.

“Vostok, scan P3 and 4. Confirm fuel sources and check surface conditions.”

He looked at the holoscreen. The image was increasingly disrupted. He set a systems analyst to check for malfunctions but Vostok spoke up.

“Sir, I don’t think it’s equipment. There’s powerful EMR from the binaries and a great deal from P2. It’s interfering with scanning, and the closer we get the worse it will become. At this point I can’t confirm fuel sources or determine conditions on P3 and 4.”

Blackwolf turned to the navigator. “Valdez, do we have enough fuel to reach P3 and 4 and return here?”

O’Malley cut in. “Yes sir. Already calculated.” She flashed the figures to both their screens.

“Cutting it close,” Valdez snapped.

“But making it,” she snapped back.

“You’ve assumed too great a gravity sling.”

“You’ve assumed insufficient planetary velocity.  And P3 and 4 are close and aligned.”

She must have dug that out before he’d arrived. Trust O’Malley to break security for the ship’s sake. Yet there was the strangest undertone in her voice.

“Set course for P3.”

Valdez bit his lip as he complied. Then another prime alarm sounded and the sys-compist nearly screamed, “The Stiss are coming out of deep freeze! Power’s diverting from the freeze units. Wait, wait, it’s…”

O’Malley called, “Stabilized… “

“Unfurl the rest of it,” Blackwolf said.

“Above critical. They’ll thaw unless we stop the diversion or redirect power from elsewhere – perhaps the miners’ suspension units — just keep their capsules locked ’til after refueling and put them under again.”

Blackwolf looked over at his security officer. Dillon smiled. “They’re not miners anymore, they’re mutineers. Do you want hundreds of cut-throats restrained only by capsule locks? Better just shut off their support.”

“Oh yes,” hissed O’Malley. “They served their purpose. Let them die.”

“You helped capture them. You knew they were slated for execution,” said Dillon.

O’Malley looked darkly at him. “No, for a chance to speak at a fair trial.”

Dillon cleared his throat and shrugged. “Well, with the interference I can’t sweep for threats – I can’t recommend diversion from shields.”

Blackwolf turned to the site analyst. “Vostok?”

She shook her head. “We can’t lower screening. This star is putting out tremendous radiation –- ultraviolet and magnetic fields especially. So if we orbit – “

“- we’d maximize for solar shading.” Valdez put in.

“And height,” Vostok said. “Security won’t let me analyze the surface but what’s reaching us indicates huge stationary areas of powerful electrical storms. In low unscreened orbit, positrons from the gamma flashes could fry us.”

“We can orbit to avoid storm areas.”

“Flashes can ride up magnetic fields from halfway across a planet.”

“So,” said Blackwolf, “they could hit a fueler if we sent one down. Anything else?”

“The planet has an extremely powerful magnetosphere and since we’d orbit mostly nightside, the plasma and electric currents…”

“Would disrupt ship functions.” O’Malley said flatly.

“Might,” Valdez said, “but then we could generate strong supplementary thrust from slightly opened magnetic sails. We could skip this pass for slingshot to P3 and divert power from the engines.”

“Mag-sails open in this system? And,” said O’Malley severely, “if there are further malfunctions, damage from the tail currents – perhaps to the fusion reactors on magnetic confinement…”

An uneasy stir moved through Control. The security comps would not allow refueling here, and it was risky anyway. Ship functions compromised, surface unknown. And O’Malley desperate to get away.

“Maintain course Valdez. Swanson, fuel conservation protocols. Lower levels on mutineer and crew suspension units, maintain screening, shields on standby. And send out an  SOS. Just in case there’s anyone to hear us.”

The lighting grew very bright, flickered, softened. And then came the vibrating singing of the ship’s metal as the shields went on standby. At present speed there would be no danger.

Blackwolf had security personnel wakened and sent to the Stiss and the mutineers. Something else… these ‘malfunctions’… he set the sys-compists to backtracking them and heading them off.

“Captain?”

Everyone turned instinctively toward that lean voice. The doctor loomed in the entrance, his milk-white hair brushing the doortop. He was an intellectually ferocious and rarely successful combination of Cro-Magnon gene replication and neural pathway manipulation, whose primitive wolf grin could freeze one’s gut.

As he walked to the captain his ice-chip blue eyes flicked over O’Malley in a high speed evaluation and neither of them looked pleased. He spoke softly. “O’Malley left her capsule before the med-comp cleared her.”

Blackwolf paused. A suspended sleep delusion would be a very bad explanation for her behavior.

“I;ve been monitoring Control but I wanted to see her first-hand. She’s not normal, not that she ever is, but I can’t tell why yet.”

“Ten minutes to critical,” Valdez intoned.

“Captain there’s a new drain on the freeze units.”

He had enough of an emergency now to override the portion of the block relevant to refueling on the planet. The comp spit up one sentence. He and the doctor read: “Close orbit is extremely dangerous and conditions on the planet’s surface make refueling a suicidal proposition.” But this was ancient. He could send down an armored, automated ISR fueler, if the security comps would allow it.

“Captain, another power drain from the freeze units.”

“Five minutes to critical. If we don’t take this pass, we’ll have time to think.”

“While we wait to die,” said O’Malley.

The captain thought, the soft clicks, beeps, buzzes of the panels, the high singing of ship’s metal like the brain cells firing off in his head. How could he judge the risk with O’Malley’s possibly delusional desperate insistence to go on. And these malfunctions were somehow… directional. He could maintain a distant orbit, send down an auto-fueler, and his ship and crew would remain safe.

But no one on board, not his whole ship put together, rated 1A. However…

Blackwolf went to the support array. The Ibs accepted panel communication but they enjoyed his presence at their support tubes, and their movements and color-pattern changes as they ‘spoke’ conveyed more than transmissions alone could. In acknowledgement of the emergency they had risen into the visible portions of their tubes without request.

He stood before the central coordinating tube while acknowledging the 30 that ranged off to each side. He began with the shortest preamble possible.

“Is your space sufficiently bounded?’

He always wanted to ask, “Wouldn’t you like more space? A chance to stretch? A large common gathering area?” Deadly insults all. The visible portions of the tubes the Corps provided them with were no more than five feet high and one foot thick, the central tube seven feet high, and they ran into unseen and sheltered areas inaccessible to humans. The Ibs, curled in them like writhing octopi and with barely room to turn, happily oversaw the running of the vast ship in ways the Corps was more comfortable with than if it all rested in the control of Alliance security comps. A grudgingly made Alliance concession.

The Ibs captain held central pseudopod to the wall of the tube in the pattern of greeting, offered first, as team captain to ship captain.   Blackwolf held his fingers in the precise pattern of greeting between captains, then changed the configuration to a silent request for direct communication. The Ibs pseudopod shone configured agreement and slid up to forehead height. The tube grew cloudy where the pseudopod extruded sub-microscopically fine feelers through the tube’s thickness to form a shimmer on its outer surface. Blackwolf touched his forehead to the shimmer and communication was carried on through direct electrical and vibratory exchanges which could not be intercepted.

…TC Trautr, you see our present difficulty…

…SC Blackwolf, we have ameliorated the situation to the extent possible… the voice hissed through Blackwolf’s brain.

…The factors might need re-rating…

…Bringing in the mutineers is only a minor example of Alliance ‘justice’. There is, at present, minimal need for such lessons…

At present.   Reminder of Trautr’s assurance that a coming ‘adjustment’ within Central Alliance would create fundamental improvement to policies and operations. To put it diplomatically.

…Yes, but, bringing in live Stiss?…

The Ibs captain warmed to the subject and his pseudopods curled. …A capture worthy of epic retelling — the search, the hard-won knowledge, the skill, courage…

…berserker fighting and sheer luck…   and an image of O’Malley flicked through Blackwolf’s mind.

Trautr caught it and glowed with warm admiration. The Ibs had a special fondness for O’Malley, something about the old, early days of Corps-Ib association.

Trautr writhed thoughtfully.   …A team assessment might re-rate the importance of Stiss capture. Given live specimens, Central’s isolation labs might find a way to end their decimation of the Ranneker colonies …

…But loss from the Stiss is within Alliance accepted limits, boundaries are secured…

The Ibs captain smiled. No, he didn’t; it just seemed so.   …Aah, but, the Ranneker system is very resource rich, very. And without colonists to work it, how would the Alliance ever receive its bounty? HHmmh, and perhaps, we judge the limits improperly calculated and boundaries insufficiently secured. And, based on most recent data, Stiss morphic abilities greater than previously realized…

Blackwolf shuddered. Then smiled thinly.   …I think you may be right…

They ended contact, and the sounds of Control returned to his ears. With math systems of their own invention the Ib team worked rapidly through a series of evaluations.   Blackwolf paced between screens, then back to his panels, where the Doctor and Dillon stood waiting for him.

“Captain,” Dillon began softly, “I think this is sabotage.”

“If so, it’s quite well done” said the Doctor, “I don’t see it as being within the capability of anyone on board. Aside from myself.”

Dillon looked sourly at him. The doctor shrugged slightly.

Blackwolf nodded. “But I fail to see who would benefit.”

Then Valdez flashed the latest projected course and fuel requirements to Blackwolf’s screen and intoned, “One minute to critical.”

The Ib captain sent a message to his screen, requesting his permission to upgrade ship priority to 1A and open relevant security information for him. He keyed back acceptance. Blackwolf raised his head and saw everyone waiting expectantly.

He felt the doctor’s analyzing gaze on him as he looked across and locked eyes with O’Malley and canceled course for P3. She went deadly pale.   He designated code 1A, ordered surface conditions analyzed and the fueler made ready. The comps accepted it all.

The whites showed around O’Malley’s eyes.   She turned almost contemptuously and hit her forehead against her screen.

God O’Malley, I’m sorry. But the crew was unnerved at the sight of their rock-steady first mate apparently intent on bashing her brains out. He rapped out a caustic, “I know you don’t care for technology O’Malley, but your skull will give out before the alloy does.” The tension broke and there was a soft derisive snort from Dillon. She ceased, head bowed against the screen.

Blackwolf turned to the doctor. He nodded toward O’Malley. “Take her to Health Bay.”

His screen flashed a silent request from the probe analyst for his presence. He ordered the Control crew their first breakfast in eight months and during the ensuing activity paced over to the probe screens.

Ensall spoke softly. “I thought you should see this first sir.” He added defensively, “Instruments are clean. I’m not sure what we’re getting back. It seems certain probe frequencies are causing atmospheric echoes and distortions, with complex and chaotic transformations. But they’re not necessarily repeating or following any established mathematical progressions or laws of chaos… or anything.”

In one holographic display Mandelbrot monsters grew and curled. A screen showed ELF-EMR surging suddenly up into tremendous magnetic arches.

“I’ve been running a check to determine if any frequencies are not distorted.” Gesturing to another screen, he added with some pride, “At least we’ve got the geography under it all clear.” Suddenly the landscape dissolved into fractal skeletons and metamorphized into Escher-like nightmares. The crack analyst hunched his shoulders and bit his lip.

“Ensall.”

“Yes sir?”

“Send a list of disrupted frequencies to my panels. Work with Vostok. See if the probes are picking up existing phenomena or causing them.”

“Yes sir,” he whispered.

Blackwolf went silently to his panels, called over the engineer and showed him the list. “Will the autofueler work with these frequencies disrupted?”

The engineer bent over the list. His forehead wrinkled and he looked up at Blackwolf. “No sir.”

“You’re sure?”

“Most circuits are shielded, and so are the main MPDs, but we have the old type — the external mag-coils have minimal shielding and if Ensall’s readings are right, this electro-magnetic stew will send it off on random corkscrews or shake it to pieces.”

“Can you shield them?”

“Not in the time we have sir.”

“What about the manned fueler?”

The engineer studied the list again. “It should be fine, but it’s an even older lithium powered model, and it’s got some surfaces so covered with condensate that…”

“Take whoever you need and go clean it up. Now!”

Blackwolf turned back to his panels and did a search for anyone on board who could actually pilot the old fueler. He wondered if sending crew down was equal to a death sentence. Only O’Malley’s name came up.

He set Vostok to running whatever surface analyses were possible, had Dillon check for feasibility of getting the Stiss to cargo bay and storing them EV before they could thaw, left Valdez in charge, and walked out of Control. He went to Conference Room C, designated code 1A, and began to go through what was in store for them.

The 400 year-old summary indicated a colony ship in distress had landed, and soon after began sending out increasingly frantic, garbled, and insane SOS signals.   Two rescue ships responded, then a light cruiser, each repeating the pattern of the colony ship. The nearest full warship was sent. It kept a distant orbit and sent down a heavily armed battle pod. A lone battle pod sergeant returned, retrieving nothing more than ships’ logs out of five vessels and over 2000 people.

He turned to the logs. Essential mid-range audio and visual frequencies had not been affected and ships’ logs had recorded everything in excruciating detail.   He skipped through hours of incomprehensible nightmare, soon flinching in anticipation at every starting point, until, almost vomiting, he switched the screen off.

But the images continued to flash before his open eyes. Huge, vague forms moving in the distance, figures of bright, hellish radiance, chilling faces which never formed fully before the screen went every color in the spectrum and then blinding white. And the human and even less comprehensible scenes… the woman screaming her throat raw staring with bloody eyes at what looked from behind like a small white rabbit. A note of panic clicked in him. The man who, eyes bulging out in utmost horror, teeth grinding, stretched out his arm to be chewed and sucked tiny bit by bit by a quivering little thing that repeatedly bowed and whined to him. Brilliant white flashes leaving what looked like radiation burns in their aftermath. There was something like an old court jester with a rattle, but dark, and… flat… He shook his head against the mash of images while the urge to panic rolled dangerously around in the back of his mind.

He read through the testimony of the sole survivor, who was eventually discharged from a mental health facility and returned to active service, coherent on any subject excluding that planet. He went to the final result of thousands of hours of investigation and deliberation — ‘Incomprehensible Subject. Planet Permanently Off Limits. There is NO Need To Know Basis.’ –. He noticed old military codes again; perhaps they had left it off limits intending to go back and find a military ‘benefiit’  for this horror. The planet was named after the lone survivor — O’Malley’s World.

There had been a request for entry. He had not noticed. O’Malley and the doctor. He granted access. She looked at his face and knew what he’d been doing.

“You’re that O’Malley?”
    

“Yes. I recognized the star pattern. That’s why I didn’t wait for a med-comp check.”

For a moment he could only look at her. But it was too long a look. He turned away. “How did you survive past everyone else?”

“I didn’t.”

“What do you mean?”
    

“I didn’t come back alone.”

“What?”

“It’s a very old secret now. There were high Alliance officials on board. At that time it didn’t suit them to let out they rated ships above lives. And that there was something they couldn’t analyze and control.”

She’d filled the pod with colonists and soldiers in various states of physical injury and mental breakdown, and brought them back to a blanket quarantine, her with them, with no assistance.

“No medical care?’

“There were volunteers, of course, but the officials on board wouldn’t allow it – ‘against regulations’, but they were only afraid for their own skins. There was almost mutiny. In later years they realized it was more profitable to let healthy people in quarantine. Just to see what happened to them…”

Blackwolf paused slightly. “How long were you in quarantine?’

“For as long as it took.”

“For what?”

“For everyone to die of injuries I couldn’t properly treat. Not just from the planet. Some had lost it, tore themselves and each other apart.   Or went irretrievably insane. Unfit for duty. And it wasn’t 2,000, more than 6,000 lost.”

But, for the reputation of the Alliance which forced such procedures on the Star Corps, the story had been simplified a bit –- five ships, 2000 people, one survivor. Zero explanations.

The captain paused again. He looked at his fingertips resting on the desk.

“And I left people behind. I said I’d be back, but I was just shoved into quarantine.” Four hundred years later and her voice still held torment.

Blackwolf’s lip curled. The Alliance had forced the Corps to leave their own soldiers behind. “You mean there are people down there?”

“If any survived and left descendants. But no one survives heaven and hell.”

“What do you mean? What’s down there O’Malley?”

“The Gods. It’s where they went, when they were driven out of every place else. They make anyone who lands pay for that.”

The doctor moved impatiently.

“Talk sense,” Blackwolf said. “Our lives depend on it.”

“Alright. Captain.” She said it so softly. “It’s a planet where any nightmare you could imagine appears out of nowhere and, can’t, be, stopped. Anyone you send down is going to die a hideous death. Then we’ll run out of fuel and burn up in the atmosphere.”

The clean, bright seclusion of Conference Room C reassured him for a moment, as if, if her words couldn’t get out they wouldn’t be true. But she was too reliable to ignore. And she was a survivor, mind intact, from the days when they were still gleefully wormholing it around the galaxy, thinking the ride was free until enough brains and bodies disintegrated to teach them otherwise. A survivor, mind intact, of so many deep-sleep missions and repeated, inevitable new-age shocks that she had lived to see more than one new millennium. Survivor, mind intact?, of O’Malley’s world.

“Where the Gods went. And every devil in hell.”

Something dark fluttered in the back of his throat and the back of his head.

The doctor looked at O’Malley, with a tight-lipped smile and hard, white points of sane light in his eyes. ‘Above us hangs no heaven, Below us boils no hell, The Gods they dwell within us, Where devils swarm as well’.”

“Quote your logicians’ scriptures when you’re down there doctor.”

“He won’t be going.”

“Who will?”

“You.”

“I’d rather just burn up in the atmosphere.”

“Only you have piloted the manned fueler. And I’ll go.”

“No!”

Why did that response please him? He added, “And seven mutineers.”

Her lip curled. “Of course. They’re the most expendable.”

“They were miners. They’ve done fuel retrieval. And you knew them better, so I’ll want recommendations on who to use. Now, how did you survive?”

“I don’t know.”

“Was everyone suited and on tanked air?”

“Suited. Ultraviolet was high and there were rapidly cycling temperature variations. The first ship had deemed the atmosphere thin but breathable, though I could smell ozone. We wore helmets anyway but they didn’t make any difference, and we had to take them off to communicate – the coms were pouring out static – and it got hard to breath.”

“How did you defend yourself?”
    

“I didn’t.”

“So if we don’t react… “

“They sometimes weren’t attracted to anyone focused on their job…”

“”They”?” the doctor queried.

She ignored the interruption. “…but no one could stay focused.”

“And you?”

“Trying like mad to gather survivors.” She paused. Her voice cracked. “But I couldn’t get more help sent down and all I brought back were broken, crazed wrecks… and records of how they died. I said I’d be back. I said… I saw… I saw… ” She looked up and clasped her hands and almost fell to her knees. She turned her head away. “…but I helped them instead… …so He struck, vibrated deep in my chest, pulled, pushed me along a dazzling blinding line of light that carried me back, back to… I rode a roaring laser’s edge of freezing flame and one fractional misstep meant instant annihilation.”  

 

After O’Malley left, a silent moment passed.  Blackwolf realized the Doctor’s analytical gaze was on him. “Yes?”

“Captain, the ship needs you more than the landing party does. I’d be glad to go.”

“Hoping to find gods and prove them smoke and mirrors?”

“Hoping to find smoke and mirrors and believe them gods?”

“No Doctor, just hoping to find fuel and bring it back.”

 

Blackwolf went through the mutineers profiles, their gene mixes, and training. Their early careers were loaded with reports of loyalty and dedication. The Alliance hadn’t dealt decently with them once they were no longer needed. But according to Alliance reports they’d turned ferociously, shockingly violent. Of course, those reports only started after they’d also claimed a resource-rich system for themselves. And now they’d be used for a suicide mission. Blackwolf hung his head and thought; if this was sabotage they’d be the natural suspects, but there wasn’t much in these malfunctions to their advantage. They’d been brought to semi-waking but kept in their capsules; it did them no good. He took a deep breath, chose the seven most level-headed and expert and ordered them wakened.

He conferenced with Control. He set systems analysts to backtracking the flight log, in coordination with the Ibs, to determine their actual location. Time permitting, engineers would check fuel levels and engines directly.   He had Dillon check for weapons compatible with surface conditions. Probes still returned garbled readings, but Vostok’s spectroscopy and statistical analysis suggested numerous easily accessible ore deposits.

“Looks like about 1.28 Egrav, surface temperature and stellar radiation high but within acceptable short-term parameters. Atmosphere short-term breathable but sub-par — oxygen to pressure ratio too high. CO2, ozone, higher than I’d like to see, trace inert gases… I suggest full suits and helmets.”

“Not with com frequencies blocked. Have helmets include detachable half-masks.   I want us breathing and talking. Biosignatures?”

“Well, the atmosphere’s out of chemical equilibrium, but N2O and water vapor are low, and it looks like the oxygen might be from an electro-chemical process.   May be enough hydrogen to make gathering worthwhile. And I see fluctuating weather-like patterns that seem to be composed of, well, multi-layer current-bearing plasmas. It’s like the planet is alive with plasma.”

Lastly he had a panel conference with just the Ibs, although Control would know it involved the protocols in case of refueling failure.   If the Stiss couldn’t be jettisoned, Control and suspension units would be flooded with zeltane and life-support would shut down. Better that than Stiss thawing and reaching Control or those in the helpless immobility of capsules.

Then Blackwolf just sat for a moment in the empty conference room. All he had to do was bring back fuel from a death-trap of a planet and induce seven cut-throats to help save the captors hauling them in to judicial death while keeping an eye on a possibly insane first mate who would pilot an ancient rust-bucket of a fueler, guide them through nightmare land, and why did she always have to have the expertise that forced him to order her to the front line?

 

They touched down with unexpected softness. Filtration units automatically began gathering hydrogen. As they filed toward the airlock, Blackwolf spoke.

“Again, masks on unless you need to speak. The 1.28 Egrav will slow us down, but just focus on the job. This is an old fueler.   The rig is worked from outside. Shaft set-up is manual.”

“Oh, manual fueler set-up. Don’t know the drill.”

That was Shank. The others snorted appreciatively.

“It’s in the records you do. It’s why you were chosen. Again, the more cooperation, the more chance for leniency.”

They laughed derisively. And bitterly.

Blackwolf closed the inner air lock while O’Malley went to the control panel on the hull wall, keeping the bulky old blaster at her hip conspicuously in view; it was loud and far from pin-point in accuracy, but it was the only weapon Dillon could find to suit conditions. They were in very close quarters now. Blackwolf’s eyes swept the rough, weather-beaten men as he continued. “Repeat every step to yourself and keep repeating until we’re back on the Star Dancer.   Set-up, check, drilling, leaching, breakdown.”

“What about recovery time?” Murata asked.

“What?”

“Unsanctioned high speed nano-leach with no recovery of nanos, on a PHW?”

“I already know it isn’t habitable,” O’Malley snarled.

“And no extraction?” That was Groschnow, with an unexpected grin.

“We want to get off-planet as soon as possible,” said Blackwolf. “Extraction and separation when we get back.”

“Makes a mess in the hanger. Or does cleanup get us more ‘leniency’?”

There were more snorts of derision. They stood with arms crossed, sizing up their captors. Blackwolf became inwardly very still, his hand resting lightly on his blaster. They seemed ridiculously unconcerned with the situation. Because it was what they had planned for? Or had so much happened to them that they were past fear? His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the outer air lock opening.

Everyone paused as they left the fueler. They stood at the edge of an expanse of powdery silver-gray plains and rocky outcroppings covered by low-lying haze. Two bright white stars blazed in a sky of intense blue. Large pale violet cloudlike forms zigzagged erratically through the sky, and wherever they cast shade the haze thinned and the surface beneath glistened with low vegetation, thin, wiry stalks raising thick flattened disks with darkened surfaces in flaming reds, oranges, and yellows, waving like an ocean in a gently undulating and sparkling dance as if from a breeze, but shot through with occasional long softly sizzling convulsions that left the odor of ozone in their wake. On distant pale hills scattered taller forms with spherical canopies in metallic blues rose up above the haze.

In a wide glowing swathe past the western edge of the horizon, brilliant flashes traveled between ground and sky, continuously disappearing into an ultraviolet stratosphere and streaming back down again. Occasionally a giant arc would travel to another swathe further to the east, then through the ground, and in their chests they could feel the distant rumbles from the discharges.

To the dusky north, barely perceptible threads of light wound silently upward against a darkening twilight sky, widening into shafts, brightening into shining greens topped with glowing reds, and joining into wide, rippling curtains of light. After a moment they shimmered into violet, flickered, disappeared, then began again.

Blackwolf pulled them out of their rapt contemplation. “This isn’t a sight-seeing trip.”

Everyone shook themselves. Murata opened his mask and gestured flippantly at the vegetation. “Looks habitable to me.”

O’Malley scowled and flipped open her mask. “I missed that on my last lovely trip.”

Murata looked around. “Smells fresh…” He took a deep breath but halfway through struggled to get air into his lungs.

“Put your mask on!” she rapped out. “If you need to speak, take a deep breath before you open your mask. Remember, this planet kills people. Now get at that rig!”

She spoke from sure knowledge and her tone hit home. Their careless manner changed abruptly. They went at the rig with intent and expert concentration.   They had gone over the equipment before departure and now the work went quickly. When set-up was complete they tightened, jaws clamped, as the system check got under way.   They felt the atmosphere thicken around them. Like a silent ghost O’Malley paced through the swirling haze at the landing blast perimeter and scanned the horizon. Blackwolf repeated the timetable, again. The check finished. They initiated drilling, and stood back at the sudden roar. They monitored progress as the concentrated beam in the central shaft of the drill ground through and pulverized rock while the outer shaft suctioned up the detritus and siphoned it off, continuously sampling for the required elements. When they reached deposits the converter primed itself, and the pumps waited for a screen check on shaft alignment. The check ran quickly. The leaching began.

Minutes passed. The rig thrummed softly. Nothing happened. The hard edge of focus softened.

“Keep monitoring,” Balckwolf ordered. “Keep repeating every step.”

Blackwolf sent a prayer to Usen, wondering as always how far the protection of that hypothetical Great Spirit of distant Earth extended. Through obscuring mist he glimpsed mountainous shapes scans had given no indication of; dark gray vapors swept over them, pouring down silvery drops.

Suddenly Shank laughed harshly. “You boneless wonders. There’s not even life on this planet and you’re shaking like jelly.”

“Shank.”

“Captain?” The shaven-headed, scar-faced man stared at him. This man was just demanding something to fight like hell against, the circumstances only spicing it for him. This hadn’t been in his profile.

Blackwolf repeated his instructions. And the possibility of leniency.

Malden spoke without lifting his eyes from monitoring the gauges. “Yeah, maybe they’ll commute your sentence to a second turn in the ‘jelly-fish’ forests on Mawri.”

Shank stiffened.

“Silence all. Masks back on and keep them on. Keep your eyes on the readouts. Keep adjusting as needed. Six minutes and gathering’s done.”

But Shank’s teeth were bared now and the whites of his eyes showed. The atmosphere sharpened, and then there was a soft crackling pop and flash of light. Blackwolf felt a faint all-over hair-on-end tingling as in a static charge.

O’Malley softly touched his arm. Blackwolf turned to look at her then followed her gaze to the distant horizon. It was darkening rapidly. Then he caught an odd movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see a small, pale, spindly, rubbery thing leaning lightly against Shank’s leg and staring up at him with bulging eyes and open, lipless mouth.

Blackwolf made a logical guess. “Shank, is that a Mawri jellyfish?”

Shank shook his head. So much for that theory.

Then a voice called out and heads snapped around.   She was there, in a tenuous haze, smiling and soft and clothed in a sheer fabric that coiled around her and trailed behind her.   She stood before a gray, circular cave. Blank-eyed, LaGrange was already running toward her, mouth open, unzipping his suit.

O’Malley took in the scene and leveled her blaster. But LaGrange was already too close. “Back off LaGrange!”

The creature grasped his hand and pulled him in through the cave entrance. She looked back and smiled, and her mouth formed a circular hole, teeth showing. Pointed teeth. Showing all the way round the circle. And moving. In fact, in line down her torso were seven gaping, gnashing holes.

They disappeared into the cave. There was silence, then a gurgling scream. Then LaGrange was rolling and twisting at the entrance in death throes, seven spaces chewed out of him, and the creature, bathed in his blood, stepping back smiling from his body. With LaGrange’s last groan, and a shot from O’Malley’s blaster, she and the cave dissolved into the air.

Malden was making gagging noises and Shank was moaning. The rest were spouting expletives. O’Malley fired a roaring blast in the air and shouted at them.

But now a pale creature stared up at Shank from each of his legs as a third stared up from his chest and a fourth clung to his shoulder, lidless eyes hovering close to his face and tentacle tips slowly approaching his nose, mouth, and ears.

Blackwolf shouted, “Murata, Malden, Groschnow, Thibeau, Quentin, breakdown!” There was enough fuel. Blackwolf and O’Malley ran to Shank and pulled furiously at the creatures, but even the tiniest tentacle tips barely wavered under all their efforts. They shot their blasters through each of the creatures’ heads, but new heads swelled up out of their bodies, and each time Shank screamed, struggled for air, and grrew weaker and softer.

One pale tentacle tip just touched his lip. Shank stretched out a tightly trembling hand and between ragged breaths rasped, “Give… the… blaster.” Blackwolf looked him in the eye and quietly handed it over. With gratitude Shank raised it to his head and blasted.

They backed off, staring, then ran to assist the breakdown. Malden was off to one side, vomiting uncontrollably.  Murata was staring at the controls, unmoving. Something was slowly covering him or he was stiffening, angling off, folding layer after layer in on himself, fearful, proper, rigid, formulizing himself into non-existence.

They assisted Groschnow, Thibeau, and Quentin as best they could.   Then Blackwolf turned to gather Malden and Murata. He stopped. Malden was retching even more violently while surges of crackling light swept up and within him and with every heave a little more of him disappeared, from the bottom up. The insane idea presented itself that Malden was vomiting himself up.

Then Blackwolf heard a jolly, roaring laugh from Groschnow. He spun around to see him walking off to greet a giant, bear-like, smiling bearded man. They clapped each other heartily on the back and walked off, oblivious to Blackwolf’s order to return.

And Quentin. Silent Quentin staring off with large dark eyes at a lizard. A small lizard. With large eyes. Eyes growing larger. Or Quentin was growing smaller. To fit into the pupil of the lizard’s eye. And his four limbs stretched out, pinned with nails of fire to a burning wheel of fire that wheeled off into a black engulfing landscape.

Thibeau’s life’s blood and energy were being pressed and twisted out of him by an angry indistinct group. His weakening protestations were alternately guilty and angry. They shrilled at him, and as they closed in from every direction and shook him with demands they proclaimed their disgust over his inadequacy. They scattered as Blackwolf fired, but Thibeau lay like a dried, twisted husk.

O’Malley hadn’t put this nightmare strongly enough.   No, he hadn’t believed her, in spite of the logs. Where was O’Malley?

She had moved past the edge of the landing blast circle and was looking out over the horizon again. Dark clouds were advancing with frightening speed, an obscure, gigantic figure at a leading edge that curved like a huge, heavy cloak. An arm swept back the clouds and clear darkness swept in, eating up light in swirls of deep blues and purples and streams of silver-white stars. Above the distant mountains, above the plains, above gray-clad O’Malley, towering up to where thinning atmosphere met the empty cold of space, shone a white-skinned God of Night, the heavy black silk of his hair trailing far behind him, a shining disc between the white horns rising from his head, and eyes of silver burning frost bent down upon O’Malley, and she fell gasping to her knees and clasped her hands and looked up with expectant joy.

A chill wind pulled the warmth from the air and ice crystals dusted the ground. The God’s left arm swept upward and sent whirling spheres off into the night sky. He looked down more intently at O’Malley and the night grew colder. He was silently calling her to him.

“No!” Blackwolf shouted. The God of Night noticed not at all.

But in back of O’Malley, something like a tall gray rock slowly twisted, twirling dark interlacing spirals spreading out over its surface and growing into a long enfolding cape.   It was a lean figure turning from looking over O’Malley’s left shoulder, turning a gaunt, pale, high-cheek-boned face upon him. And oh god that she hadn’t. She was tall, much taller than he. The spidery gauze of her green gown ruffled as she took one step toward him and he saw that what he’d taken for a cape was hair, thick, deep red, hanging and coiling to the ground and trailing about her bare feet. Her green-flecked gray eyes, colder than the ashes of a long-dead star, fixed upon him. She took another step and he could not stop himself from stepping back. Her eyes widened. He backed up again, then braced himself, legs shaking. Her eyes widened further, impossibly large, looming in on him; just before they blocked out sight of all else he saw her bloodless lips part and emit a high, thin scream, sharper than ship’s metal, piercing and freezing. He tried to shout back at her but her shriek rose and as ringing darkness descended he felt she was reaching down his throat, twisting and yanking out everything in his gut to scatter it across freezing space. As his mind expanded out into oblivion, he heard O’Malley’s distant voice commanding “No, no, no!”

 

Nightmares and darkness and grinding agony and finally he woke peacefully to the soft lights of Health Bay. He felt raw and tender inside and out, and it was difficult to draw a deep breath. But his head was clear. The doctor was sitting beside his bed, sorting and vaporizing records. Blackwolf detected a slight, pleased, smile on his lips.

“Ship’s status?”

“All systems stabilized. Refueled, on course. Shank, LaGrange, Malden, Murata, Thibeau, Quentin, lost in action. Groschnow MIA, presumed dead.

“O’Malley?”

“Almost frozen but she finished breakdown and brought you back. More herself than ever. You’ll soon be your self again, at which time I’ll let you know what condition you arrived in. And there are some security questions. The Ib team allowed your reentry without quarantine, without clearing it with comps.”

“I’ll speak with them. And the investigation?”

“Uncovered a brilliant sabotage.” He raised an eyebrow. “TC Trautr classified the details ‘Captain’s Eyes Only’. Here is the printed summary.”

Blackwolf pressed his hand to the envelope and it unsealed.   Those named within faced a death sentence or at best life in the worst hellhole possible of a penal colony planet. 

“By the way,” the doctor said with some satisfaction, “about that planet… “

“O’Malley was right. It is full of gods and demons.”  He pulled a page from the envelope. Were all the mutineers involved? How many would he be required to execute?

“Hardly, captain. A partially successful analysis of the planet’s anomalous response to various frequencies of the electro-magnetic spectrum suggests a far more interesting cause based purely on physical laws.” The Doctor’s eyes flicked questioningly between the page and Blackwolf’s face but could divine nothing.

Blaclwolf looked up slowly. “Yes?”

“In short, the planet’s ‘atmosphere’, while functioning as a breathable gas, is a low-density, thixotropic, highly conductive plasma sustained by the ultraviolet emissions of its stars and the planet’s nickel/iron/copper core. A very efficient source of energy, highly reactive to certain bands of radiant spectra, including the extremely weak frequencies produced by the human brain and the coherent biophotons of the human body. The plasma atmosphere propagates and intensifies those patterns. The gods and devils of that planet are nothing more than crystallized energetic echoes of signals picked up from the primitive portion of the brain and body imprinted with inherited patterns, ‘primal images’, and instinctual urges built up over millions of years of recurring experiences.”

Blackwolf looked down at the page again.  “A comforting idea doctor. But gods defined down to inherited psychological patterns lose none of their power and devils exorcised into weak brain waves retain all their horror.”

“The crucial difference is that they are not independent entities. They have no autonomous reality on that planet or physical existence off it. ‘Above us hangs no heaven, Below us boils no hell’. They are our power and horror. They can be controlled.”

“They already are. By countless millennia we know nothing about. Extrapolate Doctor. What caused the ‘recurring experiences’ that shaped those horrors? What primal realities bring the nightmares of sleep and the visions of waking revelations?”

“Whether we ever learn the rational answers to that, those answers do exist.” With assurance the doctor leaned back.

“If they do, they are unlikely to take into account what either of us believes.”

The doctor straightened, even flushed slightly. “Indeed captain.” He spoke with respect, but his smile was tight as he went off to attend other duties.

Doc confidently judged beasts he had never confronted. Blackwolf’s eyes returned to the printout in his hands and all the sane, bright words dimmed further. The paper’s contents looked an impossibility, lit by the comforting glow of the Health Bay lights.

He stared at the name of the only saboteur. No Doc, not all unknown is knowable and rational. We cannot ‘know’ the heat of a star or the absolute zero of space. There is no explaining trembling in awe before great mystery or loving past all reason.

But no, O’Malley, that planet was not where the gods went. We carried them there with us; we carry them everywhere. And their invisible power drives us from star to star, to fall on our knees in breath-wrenching ecstasy before dark shining gods, or pulls us down long dark dead-end corridors, grinning and shuddering with horror, to our doom.

And yet, and yet, one might still rise up off bended knee and turn from them, and rescue a fellow human being.

He vaporized the paper with O’Malley’s name on it.

“Where the Gods Went” © J. Drake,  published July 29, 2018
J. Drake lives in a highly mobile castle in the sky which occasionally lands in isolated areas good for communing with nature or in more populated places so that various activities nefarious and otherwise can be carried out.

Illustration by Fran Eisemann, Images courtesy of NASA’ Image Gallery, the International Space Station program, and the JSC Earth Science & Remote Sensing Unit, ARES Division, Exploration Integration Science Directorate.

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