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Ariel’s Inferno

by Zachary Ash

Part 2, Part 3
appear in this issue.
part 1 of 3

We race toward fire. A star burning in obscurity on the farthest edge of the galaxy’s spiral is our destination. Uncharted, unnamed, it is no more than a dot of incandescence shimmering and flaring in the dark like a long forgotten lighthouse; beyond it lies the endless sea of space. And to it we race, our rockets thrumming, in hope of atonement we do not deserve. It is our journey’s end.

“Captain, are you sure?” asks a voice, intimate and cold. A voice inside me.

“Trust me,” I say. “This star’s the answer.”

Our ship, the Ariel, is an old and inelegant freighter, one of the last of the atomic space-farers, and I — Maya Deuce — am her captain. I have no crew. Driven by fusion’s hell-fire, the Ariel is slow. We can’t jump to light speed, burrow into a worm hole, or slip pass dimensional folds; instead we plow on inexorably to dust and stars and darkness.

On board are others. Passing through time like pharaohs in a tomb, locked in cryonic ice, these passengers rest in crystal berths, mindless and still, refugees from a world that was once our home. Ilyisha — a world of rubble and ash. These four hundred are the last; no more will follow. We are children of apocalypse. Relics.

Our world’s last day I witnessed, long ago, in flames on the dunes of a soot-gilded waste called Sandfar. This is my story. Listen.

“Let the time-ice thaw,” I say. “Shift all power to the core reactor.”

“Core reactor set.” The words are wordless, metallic and low. Sorrowful.

Other ships left our world first, uncounted thousands, an armada of the lucky and the elect rocketing on separate paths to separate stars in a gamble that somewhere in what’s left of the Galactic Order our race will find a home.

The odds are bad. The terror that found us in the end, found other worlds first; I fear it found them all. Yet we had to try. So like an old Earth porcupine, cornered and hurt, we launched our ships — wave upon wave of needles into the sky.

The star ahead, the one we sail to — its chromosphere blazing red and gold, its corona snapping arabesques of white twisted flame — looms larger each day. A day? That’s a relic of Ilyisha, too, one I cling to despite its illogic in this blistering darkness. I have piloted our ship in this nothingness for one hundred years. A year — one more relic. The Ariel is a wind-fast silo of relics. We take with us then our world’s past. We cart the dead.

The burden of memory, though, is mine alone.

Forever I will remember Ilyisha’s end. An inferno of innocents. Sandfar. On the day Ilyisha died I witnessed a frenzy of slaughter and feeding, pillage and torture. I witnessed a whirlwind of devils. And I witnessed worse. I did worse. In the cold of space, a hundred years on, the memory burns. I want to forget. Forever.

“Maya, let it go. We’re free.”

“Just stay on course. Keep those rockets hot,” I say. “And Ariel — stop monitoring my daydreams.”

“That is impossible, captain.” The ship’s voice murmurs. “We dream together.”

Consciousness without rest — this is a captain’s lonely charge. In my mind I plot our way moment by moment, harnessing all the ship’s power, into eternity. How? The Ariel and I are one. Flesh and steel, organic and engineered, born on a world I watched die and forged from elements mined in its bowels, we — Maya and Ariel — are one thing made of two: woman and machine. Call me a cyborg.

Ariel, the gravity well is near. Prime rockets.”

“Yes, Maya.”

A space pilot’s job is harrowing splendor. As I steer us to a star, sitting here in the command chair, my pale head is clamped back and my skull is gone. So are my eyes. Out of my brain, washed in nutrients, snake neural plugs, optic cables, and cyber cords, linking pilot to ship, and with this nexus all I know molds all the Ariel is into a stout, atom-churning ark.

I whisper like a lover infinite intimacies — requests, doubts, conundrums. A whirling exchange of byte and synapse. This interrogation is endless and ecstatic. Between the holes in my face where I once had eyes and the Ariel’s databank pulses a laser beam dense with information that synchronizes — fast as starlight — a woman’s intellect and a spacecraft’s dynamics. It sings.

On this glittering beam sensors feed me constellations of data on our speed, navigation, and safety. It encompasses the full spectrum of light and energy: ultraviolet and infrared, x-ray and radio waves, quark shimmers and dark matter chimes. Eyeless, I see infinities.

“Shoot into the Oort cloud, Ariel,” I say, “and then surf the solar wind.”

In my mind are star charts, quantum equations, fuel algorithms; calculations without end hurl us onward. On the Ariel’s keyboard my fingers dance like ten manic divas in a ballet of thought and decree. The bodysuit I wear, a net of sleek bio-digital polymer, translates every shrug and twitch I make into precise coordinates of second and degree, yaw and pitch, rotation and attitude. I am the Ariel’s cortex: It is my conscience. And together on this last desperate voyage to the galaxy’s edge a memory haunts us.

A memory of fire.

* * *

On a summer’s morning came the invasion. City by city, continent by continent, the invaders ransacked our world, killing and feeding, a whirlwind of horns and claws and wings. They hit Ilyisha in one fast strike, a century ago, like a dragon hawk spearing a hare, and while we had heard reports of their butchery on other worlds and knew in time they would fall on us, in the end nothing we learned from research or imagined in brainsick dreams could gird us for the fury of the Doom Shriekers. I alone had seen them.

They are God’s nightmare. The carnage these things bring to the worlds they strike leaves in its wake, like a corpse-tumbling wall of lava, only ruins and smoke and bones. Nothing survives. And always, first, the Doom Shriekers come for the children: To sacrifice, enslave, eat. On Ilyisha we held as sacred our duty to safeguard the young. We failed.

These beasts — cruel, ugly, and ravenous — laid to waste half the galaxy in the years before they turned on Ilyisha, a campaign of unutterable evil that began when the Doom Shriekers rose like bile out of a hole they clawed in a quantum cage that holds a lost dimension our scholars call Hell. They feed on the dead.

The day these devils spewed into our realm — a legion of foul, gluttonous bats — and launched a cosmic war I was there. I witnessed their incursion. I am responsible.

It was a renegade mission, one unsanctioned by Ilyishia’s fleet, a mission condemned throughout the Galactic Order by all the captains on all the ships on all the worlds. Reckless, they called it. But I had faith and volunteered. How could I have known what horrors I’d unleash?

Looking back, though, it seems inevitable. What was the mission? I took a mad poet to the wellspring of time and space to chant his odes in a desperate bid to end all evil.

We went to Zoroaster’s Clock. Here in this forbidden zone — the first singularity — a hundred billion years ago the universe came into being and the eternal binaries arose. Time and space. Matter and energy. Good and evil. Here, long ago in the dark swirling dust, something made everything from nothing. The Big Bang.

We came to fix forever what had always been wrong. We came to end evil. We hoped that day to sail to the chokepoint where it all began — Zoroaster’s Clock — and sing across the Moebius strip that binds one dimension to its opposite and then with beauty slay ugliness. Our weapon was art. We came here sure in our mission and armed with Ilyishia’s one strength: music. The poet sang.

Hell erupted. How I don’t know, but his song — written on Ilyishia — lured the Doom Shriekers from their cage and led them to our realm where they learned fast they could howl and rampage and gorge on an infinity of stars. Their hunger is grotesque. They fed first on the poet. In the Clock’s dust in a float pod outside the Ariel, he died screaming his verses.

I left him. I saw the hellish things, lost my nerve, and ran. This is my shame. I ran with rockets blazing all the way to the Order’s far rim and my world. Here, I knew, in time we would make our stand. So I ran to my fate. And when Ilyishia fell, years later, I had a chance — my last — to reclaim lost honor. On the dunes of Sandfar.

Space-faring beasts, the Shriekers go from world to world on wings of leather, scathing lands and devouring races, breeding in darkness and spitting out chaos. They can’t be stopped; they can’t be killed. I think they are death itself. Gore-splattered griffins.

A blood-hungry shriek told of their coming, long ago, as these things winged their way in the dark to Ilyisha. In the vacuum of space one can hear their malevolent howl, a cry of madness and rage that echoes still on countless dead worlds. It shreds the laws of nature. Sound, I know, doesn’t travel in a vacuum. Wings don’t flap, bat-like and fast, in interstellar space. And yet we heard both as the invasion came: It hit us with a howling of devils.

This cry led to a thousand ships launching to a thousand stars — an exodus of chaos and shame. We fled in disgrace. And the Ariel — slow, obsolete, crewless — was the last to go. On the day we launched, infamy reigned. The day Ilyishia died. A hundred years later in the cold of space, the monstrous sins the Shriekers committed — and made others commit — flame in my memory still like an arsonist’s torch guttering in the wind. Its embers drift far and burn.

To our world on a summer’s day came devils.

And yet, as I steer the Ariel onward in the interstellar dark, one summer’s day brings to mind another. On one, my world ended; on another — eons before — my fate began. And on both days I looked out upon Ilyishia’s cool black sands.

I was seven. Ilyishia was then a world of beauty, rich and languorous, known throughout the galaxy for its spas, its grottos, and its songs. Here always harps chimed and flutes piped. In Ilyishia’s holy caves organs bellowed. Hymns. Cantatas. Fugues.

And like a fugue, endless and inscrutable, history repeats. Once, in the unimaginable past, after its Fifth World War, what was left of Earth— a few hundred survivors — took to ships, rocketed to the stars, and came at last to this world. On a lush, empty rock they vowed to learn from their mistakes and start again. To make a new Eden. With care, then, they built a world of art and wisdom and song.

In time, though, the serpent found us. Once more we fell. Our song ended.

Ilyishia’s music was our gift to the stars. Sometimes I still hear the melodies; sometimes I hear instead the ravenous howls the melodies awoke and led siren-like one summer to our world and our destruction. Our gift killed us. But the year I was seven this nightmare lay far in the future; in our innocence we could not imagine such a sin. We knew only harmony.

One summer’s day, then, I joined a party of friends led by a teacher to hear the old grave songs of the roundelay woods. Here trees sang. With tender ears I took in the wise and ageless chorus. I was not always a cyborg; once I was a girl. But always I have been a wanderer and seeker. And on that day, alone, I found my fate in the far untold worlds beyond our world.

As the ancient trees sang I drifted away from my party in the grove and found a path that led past troubadour oaks and hymn willow, lilt aspens and calypso pine, a path that tumbled down a hillside thick with wildflowers and rolled on to a glistening arc of sand — crow’s feather black — where I saw, for the first time, the sea.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2007 by Zachary Ash

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