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Ariel’s Inferno

by Zachary Ash

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

With rapture and awe I reeled. Watching surf glitter in sunlight, I knew then I wanted to sail on those rolling waves forever. I wanted to be alone on a ship on the sea before me and on the dark sea beyond — the sea of space. I smelled the kelp and their wondrous Time Mist. Even then my soul craved solitude and grandeur, a life on the cold deep currents out past the shore. A wayfarer’s life.

The next day my parents enrolled me in Ilyisha’s Space Academy. Years later, on graduation, I was a pilot. Transfiguration. Lost was my mortal self, a young woman’s body, and gained was my glory and fate on the ocean of stars, endless in distance and endless in days. In this trade I rejoice. It’s an austere joy known only to an interstellar captain.

A summer’s day to a summer’s day. Innocence to extinction. In the long centuries I’ve piloted the Ariel I’ve traveled far and seen much and wondered at it all; but on this last journey to the stars’ abyss, a memory haunts me. The memory of Sandfar.

In three days Ilyisha fell. Days of madness and fear. In three days a civilization half as old as the Galactic Order cracked and crumbled, its cities left in ashes, its technology reduced to rubble, its people drowned in anarchy, pain and blood.

In the long weeks before the Shriekers’ onslaught — and the last days after — our haphazard fleet evacuated what they could of Ilyisha’s population. We had no warships. In trading vessels they fled, in pleasure craft and salvage hulls, in experimental probes, in wind skimmers, in one-man scouts and million-berth arks, in research ships, in leaking scows and rusted destroyers and jerry-rigged tankers, in red-shift catamarans, in tachyon cutters, in dust trawlers, one after another, night and day they rocketed to the stars, their fast-departing plumes eclipsing for a time our world’s two suns, five moons, and one hundred constellations shimmering in the Ilyishan night sky.

It wasn’t enough. Many left; many more were left behind. Millions. And as the Doom Shriekers ransacked our world, howling and feasting, these millions converged on a remote desert outpost and the last ship left standing. They came to Sandfar.

Here on the morning of the last day, I sat in the Ariel’s cockpit, inside her bullet nose, as it stood in a blast pit ready to launch. Ilyisha’s one hope. I had volunteered for the fleet’s worst duty: to wait until the end and rescue a few hundred survivors. Who were they? Sandfar’s last dreamworkers: Artists. Merchants. Teachers. Four hundred who drew a lottery ticket winning them passage on the last ship off a besieged and ruined world.

The first wave of evacuation ships took our leaders, bards, scholars, divas, balladeers — and children. On Ilyisha we cherished most — beyond gold, beyond truth — our children. So when the invasion came, scathing us like a demonic solar flare from deepest space, our rockets fled with our best minds and our best hope. Somewhere in the galaxy, we gambled, a new Ilyisha would rise.

In a wind-swept, derelict spaceport on the last day I ran through numbers and switches, scrambling to make lift-off, and saw — as I stared blindly into a sensor grid — chaos and suffering without end. I saw the apocalypse. In untold numbers from across our world survivors and refugees had thronged to Sandfar hoping to claim a ticket on this last rocket. But I had no tickets.

In desperation, then, they swarmed the Ariel’s blast pit; a mob soon surrounded us like a vortex of ash-dusted crumbs swirling madly down a drain. And behind them in time came the Shriekers, flying and feasting, a typhoon of madness. In dread I looked out on the badlands.

Ilyisha burned. Ash and embers darkened the land, ash drifting in the air from a hundred mountains, a thousand cities, a million souls on fire. A world on fire. Ash — the ash of a nuclear winter — stained the sands of this last unconquered spot.

Once Sandfar was lovely. In the days before the invasion it was home to a cactus garden, a writers’ colony, a music school. Here children sang. Now it was a wasteland of wreckage and ash. A wasteland the color of a leper’s sores.

On the desert floor I saw hovercraft fallen from the sky, mule elephants whimpering and gasping, jet packs on fire, hounds baying for corpses, wandering prophets, madmen, gleeful zealots, baggage carts wrecked and abandoned, chattering vultures, books, coins, paintbrushes, smashed monorail lines, twisted sandrovers, bones. Everywhere the Doom Shriekers’ cries had brought down our world’s flying craft. Blasted its power grid. Cracked its masonry. So survivors took to foot, abandoning their homes, and in panic and pain trudged to Sandfar. Here I witnessed the end.

Like thirst-mad beasts driven by fire and drought to a dying land’s one pond the millions lurched in a broken stampede to the spaceport. Here they gathered outside its gates. Around the spaceport ran a trench, dividing the launch site from Sandfar’s endless dunes, and past the trench ran a fence crackling with galvanic current, and inside past the fence ran a gauntlet of land mines.

Here stood the Ariel’s final defense — a battery of outdated robotic sentries. These meager shields were all we had to hold back refugees and invaders. And they went into battle on my command.

Outside on the trench’s crumbling edge thronged Ilyisha’s last citizens. On their faces most wore masks or bandanas to filter the stench of smoke, rotting meat, and bile that smothered us in the final days as a world burned. Many had gone deaf or mad as the Doom Shriekers’ wails rocked the planet. Others bled, eardrums lanced by fingers in an effort to silence the din of Armageddon. Some held signs. Words traced in blood or feces on charred boards found on the sand spelled out pleas and threats, prayers and oaths, poems and farewells, last words and gibberish.

How many here had been scholars once? Philosophers? Sky pipers? But that was ages ago — days ago — when truth and beauty still mattered. When honor mattered. Now on Ilyisha’s last morning a wall of soot-dirt bodies lined the trench, pleading and screaming, driven to the edge by others behind them ten-thousand deep. Still they kept coming. And on the horizon, just as dawn broke, came flying to this last unconquered spot the invaders.

In the blast pit the Ariel’s rockets hissed. Inside the cockpit, priming the ship for launch, I rolled here and there in my command chair, looping on a Byzantine nest of rails, flicking switches, reading gauges, turning dials, and hoped our rockets would fire before the chaos outside broke through. We had only one chance. And then, my retina beam locked on a monitor, I saw the Doom Shriekers close fast upon us and the mob shatter. Chaos broke.

It is a moment I’ll never forget — the moment hope ended, and with it a world. I witnessed Ilyisha’s ruin. And in the end I witnessed my own.

I saw a man fly. In a cannonball’s arc he flew across a trench, legs pumping and arms flung wide, hit the port’s galvanic fence, and burned. In a burst of wailing feedback and glittering sparks his screams died. For a moment his charred, smoking flesh clung to the wire, then slid spread-eagle to the sands, and fell, at last, like a starfish roasted in Ilyisha’s twin noontime suns into the pit. He was the first.

Soon others jumped, vaulting over the trench and igniting on the wire, as the Shriekers swooped down on Sandfar, one or two, then handfuls, then scattered dozens, hundreds, thousands, more Ilyishans than I could see or count, a panic-fueled banzai charge.

Why they jumped I understood. To die in flames, trying to reach their world’s last rocket and escape, they knew, was better than to die in pain in the gullet of monsters. I understood. And still I pumped more and more voltage from the Ariel’s atomic reactor to the killing wires. I feared them.

In a noble frenzy they flew. Crashed. Incinerated. All the while the Shriekers dove to this badlands, howling. And inside the Ariel, gazing down, I held my breath, clutched the command chair, and saw what I feared most. The fence fell.

In rage and exultation the mob rushed the spaceport. The madness here unfolded in seconds. As the mob surged across the sands, making for the breach, and clambered onto the fence’s heap of tangled, hissing wires, its last electric bite — like a trampled thorn snake — killed many.

More ran — to the minefield. Watching them, I timed and coordinated the blasts, hoping shock would halt their incursion and throw them back onto the dunes. It didn’t. Hundreds died in blooms of dirt and shrapnel and blood. Yet thousands more kept coming. In horror I watched Ilyishans fall; in horror I wished more would fall.

All I wanted was escape. Trust me, cyborgs know fear. How long till the rockets were ready?, I asked myself. The Shriekers, racing and bellowing and wheeling in a sea-green sky, insane with the smell of blood, were almost here. I needed time.

I had none. And then — with no margin left — I ordered and aimed the artillery: Robotic sentries opened fire. Swiveling as one, spitting flame, these half-human cannons raked the mob with lasers and pounded them with stun waves. A wild, thunderous fusillade.

In unthinking pain the mob turned and fled. They ran to the dunes like apes gone mad, stampeding in all directions. Refugees no longer, they were simply animals running in the sun, scared, insane. Prey, then carrion. The Doom Shriekers found them. And then for many long minutes I watched a massacre on the sands. An orgy of slaughter and feasting. Soon all was red — bodies, fangs, wings. And I was thankful. It gave us time.

In those awful minutes I remembered tales I had heard as a cadet in the Academy. Tales of ruin and catastrophe — the history of old Earth. Last stands on a world long gone. I had never given them much thought. But now as the last days of resistance, bedlam, and retreat on Ilyisha collapsed into a few final minutes, those grim tales unfolded once more on a remote outpost in the desert. At Sandfar history ended. Through the Ariel’s scanners, I watched Rome fall; the Allies abandon Dunkirk; the last chopper lift from an embassy in Saigon. I saw civilization die.

But there was no time for reflection. I had a job to do. I needed to get those passengers on board and my freighter into space. There was a chance I could still salvage one small scrap of honor. I remembered Zoroaster’s Clock — the poet I left to die — and knew here on Sandfar I had a second chance. This was my ambition. Our retreat, I vowed, would be matchless and by the book. After all I was Ilyisha’s last captain. I swore, then, on the Ariel’s launch I would not disgrace my world, my service, my tradition. I swore I would not.

Who will believe me?

The retreat was my last mission. In the blast pit in Sandfar, as I worked to get the Ariel ready for lift-off and the four hundred passengers on board, past missions drifted through my mind like long dead phantoms.

Countless times in my career I have steered the Ariel to other stars, other planets, other moons. In its time this freighter has hauled ore from the prison mines of Za-Thorn. Smuggled jewels, drugs, and clone slaves to the Outback Nebula. Delivered coffins to the Red Fever colonies.

All these missions I remember. But the one I remember best is my first: A children’s voyage. Just out of the academy, I was hired by Ilyisha’s top music school — Bells Hall — to take its students on a holiday jaunt around the solar system.

Where was that school? I had forgotten.

Proceed to part 3...

Copyright © 2007 by Zachary Ash

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