The Scrutiny of Gods

Chapter Seventeen
by Shannon Magrane

Awarded Honorable Mention in the 2020 Cosmos Prize

There is a realm existing beyond planets, beyond galaxies, beyond dimensions. It is unreachably distant from even the farthest star, and yet encompasses all. Its inhabitants, equally distant and indescribable, do not favor any beings enough to directly interfere in their fates, as certain royals of a certain star system so passionately believe that they do. (They aren’t certain whether they can or not; they’ve never cared enough to try.)

They prefer to simply observe and, when their observations are completed, to stew in them, to take a step back, as it were, and consider them. The conclusions that they draw from these reflections are of the utmost importance to these beings, though whatever purpose they might serve is unknown. Perhaps that aspect of it is insignificant, the destination far less important than the journey.

“Do you find it at all puzzling?” Tor rumbles. He slowly shakes his great head, with its upward-curling horns and unblinking, white-fire eyes. His body is crafted of solar winds and star-streams. “The way they’ve cobbled this…alliance of sorts together.”

Krauz’s laughter is the howling vacuum of space, and it storms around Tor’s head as she snakes energetically around him. She is fluidly formed, of the icy darkness of space, with eyes and mouth of black holes. “Puzzling? Why should I? I am proud of our Lemnisian offspring. The line we forged millenia upon millenia ago has resulted in a prince without fear or hesitation. Do you remember the first Tev, so cautious and retiring? Can you believe it?”

“I hardly remember. The past is in the past, and it has no bearing here.”

“Oh, Tor. Don’t tell me you truly believe that? Please tell me instead that you’re just trying to wave me off, so you can pay closer attention to those goings-on down there?”

Tor snorts. “Very well then, I will. Fly off, leave me in peace. You know I prefer my reflections done with no interruption from you.”

His Lemnisian sons have proven stronger and more courageous than he had given them credit for. All of Lxyfa had been a chance, experimental creation of Krauz’s eons ago, a hobby that she had long forgotten, and she had danced with joy about the nebulae when the solar system had been hit by the first waves of the Wrongness of Space.

Now I remember what the purpose must have been in developing them, she had said, what a perfect test for this dimension’s young breed!

Perhaps that was what Krauz considered a proper test. But as far as Tor is concerned, it had been far too easy. Dos-Tev rules for a reason. What the young prince and his retainers lack in brute power and warping abilities, they more than make up for in cleverness, quick thinking, and bravery. No…not quite bravery. Tor senses that it is something deeper than that. He has seen it before, he knows, it is on the tip of his tongue…

And Krauz’s tongue won’t stop wagging. (In a manner of speaking.) “Unfortunately for you, I like to watch you as much as I like to watch them. And I know you can’t mind my company that much, else I would have been chased away long before now. It is sweeter, anyway, to have some intelligent conversation to go with a show.”

“One might think you didn’t care about the main event as much as you care about hearing yourself talk, Krauz.”

“Oh, certainly I care. Watch them, they reunite now…”

Tor had been watching, he internally gripes. He sees Dos-Tev collapsing onto the cold metal floors of an Earthen ship: weathered, sweat-soaked, black hair struck white and eyes red with burst blood vessels, but still clinging to precious life. Mea-Quin and Bullo had felt no choice but to accept the end of their part in the fight, and are hooked up to rejuvenating life support machines, limp and supine on the narrow slats they’ve been strapped to for safety. But the prince had refused to bow out. He hangs on the shoulders of Ferdinand Stone and Alan Martin, struggling to keep his head from lolling, to focus his eyesight, to force hoarse words from his throat.

A king will make himself followed, first and foremost. But making himself heard is just as important a quality. Tor can understand how badly he must want to sink a blade into the heart of Ay-Artz personally; many of his previous sons have reveled in the heat of such a close enemy’s blood spurting onto his hand. But he knows that Dos-Tev, in turn, understands that he has something better — no, something greater than a mere dagger at his command.

The stillness of space is distorted, like the glassy surface of a lake tossed and battered by a hailstorm. The ships of Ay-Artz the usurper — the fluke, Krauz likes to call him, a tiny fleck of dust with a galaxy-sized ego jumping for heights he he wasn’t meant for; Risbo was the test of Lemnisian might, not the entire system  — are considerable and heavily gunned, but the patchwork fleets of the rest of the solar system are scrappy and fast, and they bring a medley of pilots, warriors, and weapons to bear against the would-be conqueror. Some, Tor must admit, he is more interested in than others.

Krauz might purr over them all, but Tor has never been terribly interested in races that can think of nothing but blood feuds. He much prefers to watch the growth and strength of civilizations that reach for the stars, instead of running about on the ground constantly, endlessly squabbling amongst each other, as if there were nothing in all the universe more important. But now he wonders whether perhaps he should have paid them more attention after all.

There is still nothing but wrath in their hearts for their fellow beings. On these planets, life is flesh against machine, man against woman, kin against kin. Agreement is a stark impossibility. And yet, it had taken very little to convince them to forgo fighting amongst themselves and leap headfirst into an even bigger war. Was the only thing that could entice them away from their feuds the promise of greater bloodshed?

“You know that that’s not true.”

“What? I said nothing.”

“Your face is inscrutable to all but me, Tor. I’m simply returning to the start of our conversation. You claim to love and honor the noble warriors, the thinkers and risk-takers, anyone who shows courage and strength. It is what the Lemnisians, and all who worship you by a different name, adore you and crave your blessing for. And yet when thousands of beings band together, when they exemplify the spirit of what you wish for, you are confused. Do you find it too complex?”

Tor gives his head another shake, more emphatic this time. “Not at all. They are simple creatures. But they are self-serving ones too, as they seem to go out of their way to show off. I am merely trying to discern why not a single one of them is taking advantage of your chaos, Krauz.”

“My chaos? Oh, my, my, my, Tor, you really ought to know better than that. Those poor things exaggerate when it comes to the both of us. What would they do a thing like that for, in the midst of a crisis like this? It would only get them killed.”

Tor knows that plenty of his sons and daughters are the virtuous sorts. Of course his honorable Lemnisians, but then there are the Earthens, small but hardy, and the Neptunians, noble and self-effacing. Despite the conflicts and power struggles amongst themselves, he would never expect any of them to risk the lives of entire planets just so they could get a leg up for themselves. However, they are not the only pieces in play here.

He looks with far more disdainful eyes on beings like Zinlo, only one of many steel-hearted and bloodthirsty Venusian war wolves; the whole of Saturn and its moons, where jackbooted cruelty is the rule and compassion the exception; the sharp-fanged and hubristic Martians, who would eat the solar system alive just as easily as they would eat each other; both sexes of the Callistons, choking on their sheer hatred for each other and doomed to extinction sooner or later. They could not even look on those they shared a homeland with, their own kin, without intent to subjugate, mangle, and kill.

Certainly, Tor had thought, at least one of them would not wish to stop with just one victory, that reaped no reward but survival. Their thirsts would not be slaked, and they would stab their brother-in-arms in the back in a bid to claim the supremacy that they had just fought to deny Ay-Artz. Moreover, they would surely take the opportunity that chaos and war presented to stomp out their homeworld enemies.

Tor was the all-powerful and omniscient, and such petty things as the thoughts and feelings of creatures of flesh could not be hidden from him. He did not even need to peel back their mental walls to discover them, he simply knew, by looking. If there was murder or treachery in their intent, then he would see it plain as day.

And yet he saw none of it.

The bonds between comrades — of all planets, genders, species — held shockingly strong, bright and pure and honest as fire. Their personal grudges, hatreds, and prejudices are still there, trickling like a toxic undercurrent beneath it. But they’ve all been forgotten in the ferocious struggle, forgotten for the lives of all.

Zinlo, Torrogo of Olba, leads a Venusian boarding party onto a disabled ship of Ay-Artz, and without hesitation knocks a rebel projectile away from the machine Xunia. “In the name of the Alliance!” he bellows, charging fearlessly forward.

The small, sleek dogfighting ships dart about in space, taking aim at the cannons of Ay-Artz’s command ships. One such ship was piloted by brave young Fo-Peta, his feelers more or less suitable for the controls, wrapping around them like a human would wrap its fingers. The one directly behind had Mere-Mer’s feels on the blaster triggers, but no matter how hard Tor looks, he can find no thoughts in the Saturnian’s head to turn his fire on his personal enemy instead of the common one.

No one chafes at following the orders of Dos-Tev. Not only has every last soldier placed their absolute trust in a man that they have only just met, but not a single leader or royal tries to push ahead and grab command from the young prince in his weakened state. Tor cannot sense a shred of resentment or argument at all.

And so on and so forth, again and again: this mind-boggling unity from all faces.

Krauz is still cavorting with ecstasy; the closer the battle climbs to its peak, the more delighted she is. “Oh, you see it, you see it, I know you do. Can you name it yet? Tell me you can!”

“It is…familiar. I believe I have felt it before.”

“Shall I put it another way? What is this feeling trying to tell you? What do you think is going to happen when Ay-Artz is dead, when the last shots have been fired?”

Tor turns the question over and over in his head. “I sense…a sort of clarity. Something like peace. At the very least…I am hopeful that this solar system will not descend into full-scale war like this again after this.”

“Yes! That’s it!”  Krauz’s serpentine body loops and spins around his own. “There is hope here, Tor. That is the thing drawing your interest, the force great and powerful as gravity. Hope for life and love and kinship, and the will, the iron knot of desire, in their hearts for a better existence.”

“One they must fight for, Krauz? What if they see no choice but to shed blood again?”

“But they have been shown another choice, Tor. Battle for battle’s sake was not their goal. Unity was. Protection of home and kin was. Life was. If they could fight side by side with their enemies to destroy a common threat, just to preserve their lives as they are  — ”

“ — then perhaps they will be able to reflect on what they did this day,” Tor finishes. “And what it proves them capable of in the future.”

“Exactly, Tor.” Krauz’s features pinwheel and swell with satisfaction. “We may have just witnessed the pivotal moment of one or all of these planets. How many of these beings do you think could go home today, and consider that if they could join hands with strangers in trust and friendship, perhaps it wouldn’t be so galling to do the same with their own kin?”

“Hmph. Do you really think it’s that easy?”

“Not easy, not at all. But possible.” If Tor were human, he would shiver when Krauz laid herself over his mountainous shoulders, cold as the darkest depths of space. “It may take decades, centuries. Eternities for them, the blink of an eye for us…as they would put it. See, the battle is near its finish now. We will soon have no further reason to stay here. But when we return, it may be to an entirely different solar system. I do so look forward to it, the creations of chaos are the most unpredictable of all, are they not?”

Tor does not look after Krauz as she drifts away from him, form fading into the endless distance of spaces and dimensions. He must see how it ends, where his sons and daughters will be left in the wake of war.

The shots and explosions have gone quiet, and the wreckage of ships float like drowned men in the void of space; somewhere in the cosmic dust are the unidentifiable remains of Ay-Artz. What dead are recoverable are held tight in the arms of the living. Torrogo Zinlo’s face and arms run with blood from the disfiguring gashes he’s suffered, and his weapon is broken, but he clasps hands with Doravians and Olbans alike as he roars his victory. The women of Callisto show no further contempt for the dead; they carefully remove the shrapnel from the lungs and heart of Parlece and proceed to give him the same dues to the dead that they would give each other. The Earthens continue to hold the faint and exhausted Dos-Tev up, praising him and promising their continued friendship.

His eyes linger the longest on the young prince. He has not the stamina to scream glory and victory like his troops do. But his joy and relief cannot be stopped up, so it has burst out into uncontrollable heaving sobs, leaving him limp and shaking in the arms of his allies. There is a wide-mouthed attempt at a smile on his face. As unraveled and undignified as he looks, Tor knows that soon enough, he will be regal and proud again, seated on the straight-backed golden throne of Lemnis as easily and happily as if it were a chaise lounge. He will bring progress and prosperity to his empire, sure as the suns will rise.

Will the solar system follow him in that, as well?

Tor is not sure that the metamorphosis that Krauz proposes will come to pass. Linear progressions are the majority of what he can see coming. But she has surprised him before. Their offspring have surprised him before. Perhaps they will again.

Tor vanishes from this plane of existence as well, hoping to find it a place of unity when the pair return.