C O S M O S
THE SOLAR SYSTEM UNITED
by Ville V. Kokko
AUTHOR OF: ʻTHE DEVIL’S CELLAR’, ʻTRUSTWORTHY’, ETC.
with thanks to Edmond Hamilton
Awarded Second Prize in the 2020 Cosmos Prize
A lone spaceship was hurtling toward the Earth fleet. It was of strange design, small compared to their warships, and it was facing backwards, with its atomic rockets firing enormously to decelerate.
Alan Martin and Ferdinand Stone watched it on their visiplate aboard the Washington.
“That craft seems to be coming from the direction of Earth,” Stone said. “Better order our beamers to stand ready to blast it. It may be another trick of the Automatons.”
“No, wait,” Martin said, peering keenly into the instrument. “I’ve seen that ship before.” “It’s Dos-Tev’s ship!” he exclaimed a moment later. “I saw it when we attended the Copernicus conference.”
He turned swiftly to Captain Malcolm. “Something’s wrong. We’ve got to contact that craft at once.”
The grizzled veteran instantly barked orders into the communication-phones, and the great Washington rapidly changed its course and speed in space to allow the smaller craft to come alongside.
Ferdinand Stone, meanwhile, had been watching the craft’s progress in the visiplate, and now breathed an exclamation of wonder.
“Great heavens, they’re using at least six gravities deceleration! They must all be dead long ago from the terrific effects.”
Within a few minutes the little cigar-shaped ship of Dos-Tev and the huge dirigible-like bulk of the Washington were driving side by side in space. Attractive beams stabbed out from the Earth ship’s side and drew the strange craft quickly to it.
Down in the airlocks of the boat-deck, Martin, Ferdinand Stone and Captain Malcolm waited tensely as their crew sought to enter the smaller craft that was now attached hermetically to the great ship.
A sweating junior officer emerged from the knot of men and saluted to Alan Martin. “We can’t open its space-door from outside, sir. And they must all be dead inside, for no one has tried to open it from within.”
“It’s opening now!” came a sharp cry from one of the men.
Martin and the others sprang forward. The round door of the little ship was turning, with infinite slowness. Inch by inch its rim went round, protruding further out each turn.
Then suddenly the screwing stopped, and the door was slowly swung open on its hinges, by a shaking hand. The watching earthmen were as tho frozen as they saw a quivering, swaying shape rise painfully inside the door, and crawl out into the airlock.
His body racked, crushed and broken by the terrific effect of the unusual deceleration, Dos- Tev’s face was a mask of appalling agony thru which his eyes glittered with unearthly, superhuman determination.
Not one of the earthmen could have spoken in that moment had their lives depended on it. Then Dos-Tev’s voice sounded. A high, shrill, pain-taut rasp, his words came as tho by more than human effort, his eye’s holding Alan Martin’s.
“Ay-Artz – nearing edge of solar system now! Will come in past Pluto–”
The awful rasp faltered, as the racked body swayed, then more words came: “Ay-Artz has – has mightier weapons – than you think. Destroy him utterly, or he will – he will destroy your system. Mea-Quin – made a plan…”
For a moment, Dos-Tev seemed about to pass out, but then a strange change came into his agonized voice. Pride and triumph flamed in it, beating back the pain. Slowly, stiffly, incredibly, that crushed body raised itself erect before the eyes of the watchers. For a breathless moment Dos- Tev stood at full height. His eyes distended, his face flaming, he shook his clenched fist out toward the enemy he could not see, and spoke in his native language.
“Do you hear me, Ay-Artz? Dos-Tev still rules!”
He crashed to the floor like a fallen tree and lay still.
Released from the spell that had bound them, Martin and the others sprang forward.
“Dead!” exclaimed Ferdinand Stone. “God in heaven, the man must have been all will to live like that long enough to give us his word.”
Dos-Tev’s companions, Mea-Quin and Bullo, were found dead inside the ship as well.
Before the earthmen could even move the bodies away, another officer hurried to Martin. “Sir! Another small ship is approaching on a course from Earth!”
Martin and Stone exchanged a look.
“I hope you are not planning to shoot at this ship. It is mine, not sent by the Automatons.” They turned around at the sound of the cool voice, in perfect yet accented English. Behind them, in the middle of thin air, an oval doorway seemed to stand open to a completely different space. From it stepped a tall man in a silvery robe who regarded them with eyes that seemed to look thru them, only half deigning to see.
“What the blazes!” Martin exclaimed. “Who are you? Are you from Earth?” “Yes. I think you have heard of me. My name is Narodny.”
“The Russian who destroyed the Automatons! How did you get here? What are you doing here?”
“I detected more activity from the entity you call the Wrongness of Space, and I have been following the events unfolding in the solar system since then. Much as I dislike it, I see that I need to intervene again.
“The Lemnisian Dos-Tev and his companions destroyed the entity before coming here. However, the fleet of this tyrant Ay-Artz still approaches, and it doesn’t look assured that you can defeat him by yourselves before he takes over Earth as well. I’m afraid that if he does, he may prove to be much more of a bother to me than the Automatons ever were.”
“So you’re here to help us?” Martin asked. “Yes.”
“How are you doing this,” Stone put in, “opening a door thru space from your ship to ours? I have never seen anything like it before.”
“Never mind it. I’m not interested in explaining my craft to common men.”
“No, tell me. This could be important to us. How have you achieved teleportation?”
Narodny sighed. “Very well. Imagine a world that has only two dimensions, a plane. Now, to a creature living on this plane…”
“I am the greatest physicist of Earth. You don’t need to use the Flatlander analogy for me. I take it you were going to say you open a path thru the fourth spatial dimension?”
The two scientists stared at each other coolly.
“All right, enough of this,” Martin put in. “We have to get moving to act against Ay-Artz.
What is it that you plan to do to help us, Narodny?”
“From my observations, it’s obvious that the Lemnisians staying on the moon must have had a plan to defeat their compatriots. They knew what we would be up against. But now they are dead.”
“Dos-Tev did say something about a plan, designed by the scientist, Mea-Quin.”
“Just as I thought. I will find out this plan. You shouldn’t go blindly into battle against an unknown enemy. Mea-Quin’s tools will work better for this purpose than yours, or even mine.”
“How do you propose to find it out? What if they never wrote it down?”
“Don’t concern yourself. I will do it. You will grant me and my companions access to the Lemnisian ship.”
Without waiting for a reply, Narody gestured at the doorway behind him and stepped aside. A group of men and a few women stepped thru in single file – Narodny’s companions, the only people whose company he tolerated. They took a number of boxes and instruments towards Dos- Tev’s ship, tho rather than carrying them, they guided them on floating platforms. Behind them came something that made both Martin and Stone start: a metallic man with no head and several arms attached to its barrel-like torso.
“An Automaton!” Martin exclaimed.
Narodny looked at him coolly over his shoulder. “Yes, and no. Unlike the Automatons mankind so foolishly built over the last millennium, this machine has no will or intellect of its own. It cannot make decisions or think, only perform menial tasks I saw it necessary to have handled.”
“Mathematical labor. Your fleet employs hundreds of computers aboard the ships to calculate your course, and even so, you couldn’t see the course you were given would lead to your doom. Instead of all that, I used a mechanical computer that can do calculations a thousand times as fast as a man. At the same time, it can’t think by itself. Even your intelligent Automatons were strangers to art and creativity; mine is incapable of doing anything but what it’s told to do.”
“This is how we should have made the Automatons in the first place,” Stone said. Narodny had already turned his back, walking towards the entrance of the Lemnisian ship.
Martin and the others were unsure of what to think about Narodny’s presence, but they left him to his own devices and moved to make conference elsewhere.
“So, Ay-Artz’s fleet is approaching Pluto,” Martin said. “What would they want there?” “Probably nothing. It’s just a distant, dead rock,” Stone replied. “They’re probably headed for Neptune. At this point in its orbit, it happens to be lined up with Pluto, if you are coming from Alpha Centauri.”
“Then it’s all the more important that we should get in touch with the Neptunians,” Alan Martin said.
“What are our orders?”
“Orders, sir? You are in charge.”
Alan Martin looked at Captain Malcolm in surprise.
“General Trivers perished when the Tokyo fell behind near the Sun,” the captain explained. “What about Colonel Sindh?”
“Also dead, sir. And Colonel Schwarzschild was aboard the Dresden.” “I see.”
Alan Martin realized it was true. He was next in the line of command, and that meant he was now, unexpectedly, the Commander of the Earth fleet. He had already been giving orders for a while without realizing that he was the only one.
He took a deep breath and looked around at the faces looking at him in expectation. “In that case, I want a full report on the status of our remaining ships and their crew. Cancel the course to Earth; we head towards Neptune at maximum possible speed. You, get Narodny and tell him to dock his ship onto the Washington now, before we head out. And you, tell Communications to get in touch with all our allies and tell them to rendezvous at Neptune.”
The officers saluted and hurried to carry out Martin’s orders. Martin himself stalked up to the command bridge, trailed by Ferdinand Stone.
The bridge was a large, rounded balcony overlooking the front of the ship. Some of the more important personnel charged with running the ship were up there, most of them bent over the screens of their various equipment. Most of the rest could be seen below, lined along the front in a semi-circle, facing away from him: the computers, the navigators, and the radar, communication and weapons specialists.
Ahead and around him opened the huge windows at the front of the ship, tens of meters high and more across each. The flawlessly transparent glassteel gave the illusion of nothing between him and the blackness of space with its innumerable stars. There were so many more of them seen from here than in the light-polluted city where Martin had grown up: not mere scattered dots but a dusting of powdered crystal upon the blackness, with the majestic arch of the Milky Way ruling above it all.
Martin took a deep breath and stared out into space. The battle they had been preparing for, for all the past year, would soon be upon them, and suddenly he was in charge of the Earth fleet. If they failed now, all might be lost. If they won, they would have saved themselves and their loved ones and would be free.
Martin felt the weight of the responsibility on his shoulders, but his back didn’t bend, instead straightened up with new strength. After all that time, he found he was glad to be in charge, excited to be where he could make a difference. Everything since he received that message on his ultra-short wave receiver in New York City over a year ago had been leading up to this. Whether they would win, he didn’t know, but at the very least, they would go down fighting.
Freed of the Automatons, the human race now stood on its own feet to meet its greatest challenge.
The efforts to contact the other fleets soon bore fruit, and one by one, all but one replied – and even that one was accounted for by one of the other replies.
The Venusians were the first to make contact. They reported that they had narrowly avoided the trap laid for them in the form of a false course thanks to the warning from the Earth fleet. After receiving the warning, they had slowed down and checked the space ahead of them for anything dangerous using their visibeams. They had almost missed it, but they noticed something very subtle up ahead – small, blank areas where their visibeams could not penetrate. Inferring these to be enemy ships lying in ambush, hidden by some kind of screen, they maneuvered behind them and surprised them instead.
The enemy ships were clearly of Venusian make themselves. There were only five of them against their fifty, but had they been able to strike from ambush, they would no doubt have inflicted great damage. As it was, the fleet had the complete upper hand thanks to their numbers and the element of surprise, and they tore the enemy ships apart in moments. Even so, the five ships managed to completely obliterate five of theirs in their last few seconds. It happened too quickly for anyone to even know how. In any case, it was obvious that combining that destructive power with the element of surprise would have had a devastating effect.
Communicating with the main planet, the Venusian fleet had been able to infer that the rogue ships had been constructed in secret by Tandor, the ruler of the machine men of Doravia, cementing the already all but certain suspicions that he was working with Ay-Artz. The ability to move their egos to new artificial bodies when the old ones were destroyed had emboldened the Doravians to make their suicidal attack in space, and their mysterious destructive weapons and the shield that hid them from visibeams must have come from Ay-Artz himself.
Something good had come of the attack, it seemed, back on Venus itself. The planet’s greatest leader, Emperor Zinlo of Olba, who also led the fleet, had been working on winning the common people of Doravia to his side, using the threat to the solar system to raise feelings of solidarity, and this clear proof of their leaders’ selling out to the vicious conqueror had been the final straw. The large majority of the people had risen in rebellion and quickly overwhelmed the small, treacherous elite. Tandor and his lackeys had been seized and imprisoned along with all their spare bodies, and Venus now stood united.
Only one of the traitors was unaccounted for. One of the known thirteen bodies of Xunia, Tandor’s sister, was nowhere to be found, and the others were inert, so evidently her soul now resided in that one.
The Martians made contact immediately after the Venusians and reported that they had reversed their course easily with their gravity manipulation when they got word that it was false. They had simply been instructed to head out beyond Pluto and wait there. The most likely explanation was that they, too, had been set up for an ambush of sorts. If they had waited by Pluto, they would have faced Ay-Artz’s fleet alone and no doubt been destroyed easily. Since their ships moved by adjusting gravity itself at will, there was no chance of trapping them on a course like the one that nearly pulled the Earth fleet into the sun.
Soon, the Callistoans also sent word that they were coming. Apparently, the departure of their fleet had been delayed, and they had never even set out on the false course before they received word about the correct one.
The strangest story of all was heard from the Saturnians. Martin gathered that they had been attacked by a being from another dimension who claimed to be their mythical god Elo Hava, but they had driven him away and stolen his ship, large enough to hold their entire fleet inside it, and capable of teleporting with all its contents thru the fifth dimension. Then they had used it to save the Neptunians, who had been led to a false course near Jupiter and nearly died.
Martin was half incredulous, but he would see the truth once his fleet arrived at the rendezvous point. Fo-Peta, leader of the Saturnians, promised to teleport the ship of Elo Hava along with the ships inside it to Neptune and wait there.
The rest of the fleets also indicated that they were on their way to the rendezvous point. The first ship that the fleet encountered, however, came into view before they had reached Neptune.
“Yet another strange ship. See if you can recognize this one as well, Martin,” Stone said with a hint of irony.
Martin looked at the visiplate. The small ship was shaped like a cylinder, and it was powered by rays of pure force. He soon realized he had seen it, too, in the same place as Dos-Tev’s ship.
“That’s the Callistoans’ ship. The one they sent to the conference on Luna.”
“We received a transmission from the ship, sir. He’s speaking Callistoan, and says he’s Parcele. He asks permission to come aboard, and to be granted asylum.”
“Asylum? What does he mean by that? Bring him aboard quickly.”
The Callistoans’ first spaceship lacked the necessary features to dock onto the unofficial Earth flagship, so they arranged for it to come inside thru an airlock into a small hangar.
Martin walked out to meet the ship. Parcele stepped out and stretched like a lion. He was an impressive figure, with a mane of black hair, and broad chest and strong and lithe limbs evident even under his robe.
Martin recalled what he had gathered of him from the sporadic communicatíons with Callisto during the past year: nine hundred years old, the inventor of the lightning device that powered his ship and the main architect of the new fleet, as well as the father to a significant portion of every seventh generation of Callistoans. A man who had gained a tenuous position of power on a world ruled and almost entirely populated by women who wished they could do away with men altogether.
Parcele stood tall and erect, his legs confidently apart, and looked Martin boldly in the eye. “I want to talk to your leader.”
“You are. I’m Alan Martin, Commander of the fleet.”
Parcele looked him up and down and smiled in a way he didn’t understand. “Good. I have come to ask for asylum aboard your ship, and then on your planet. I am unjustly pursued by the ungrateful women of my homeworld.”
“Pursued – why?”
“Only for the crime of being a man who won’t submit to them. As you have probably heard, I was in charge of building the fleet that will soon join you to fight Ay-Artz. It’s unheard of for a man on Callisto to hold any power at all, but I managed to make myself indispensable. Nobody else could oversee the building of this fleet that would save us from being conquered.
“Nevertheless, the queens of the planet, Cala, Hanse and Purna, have been looking for a chance to get rid of me for my impertinence. I knew that they would be looking to kill me as soon as the fleet was finished, so I prepared my escape well in advance. I want to start over on your world, where I won’t be treated like on mine.”
“I see. I understand that. I want to help you, but will this lead into a confrontation with the Callistoan fleet when they get here? Won’t they demand us to hand you over?”
“Never fear that. They have no idea I raced here ahead of them. I might still be back on Callisto for all they know.”
“In that case, very well. You are clearly unfairly persecuted. We will take you aboard and, if we win this battle, take you back to Earth with us. We won’t say a word to… your people.”
“Good. Thank you.” Parcele kept smiling that strange smile; Martin reflected this may have been because of the experience of talking to another man, who was in charge. “And now, I want to ask for more.”
“I don’t just want asylum. I want your word that I can be someone influential on your planet.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m tired of being a subordinate – for hundreds and hundreds of years. I want a life where I can have power. What can you offer me that would make me a–” he savored the next words, oxymoronic in Callistoan “–powerful man?”
Martin shrugged while eyeing him critically. “I’m not sure… a great deal of money, perhaps.
“Yes, that sounds good. Promise to make me a rich man on Earth. If you do, I will give you something in return right now.” “And what is that?”
“I will help you become the leader of the fleet of the solar system. Without me, you will never unite them, and this war will be a disaster.”
When the Earth fleet finally arrived at the rendezvous point near Neptune, they found the story about the ship of Elo Hava was indeed true, for they saw the metal sphere for themselves. Here in the middle of empty space, its true size was hard to see, and it didn’t become evident until they noticed the tiny dots floating near it: the Saturnian fleet of spherical ships, together with the single cigar-shaped Neptunian one. The realization of how easily these would all fit within Elo Hava’s vessel made it look almost more like a celestial body than a ship.
With the Earth fleet having come such a long way, all the others save the Callistoans were also there waiting for it, and they arrived soon as well. Each of the other fleets, staying apart to avoid any risk of collision, was barely visible as a cluster of tiny dots to the naked eye, but Martin made use of the visibeam to see their true variety.
The numerous shiny ships of the Venusians were spherical or oval-shaped and looked like drops of mercury from a distance. They had no visible means of propulsion, but when they moved, it was in delicate skips that suggested complete control.
The Martian ships were a swarm of dark metal objects the shape of regular fourteen-sided tetrakaidecahedrons, led by an enormous flagship of very roughly spherical shape but with a highly complex, almost fractal surface. They, too, moved without any sign of rocket propulsion.
When the Callistoans arrived, they were shown to have cylindrical ships closely following Mea-Quin’s original design but smaller than the ones from Earth.
“That’s all of them accounted for,” Stone said. “About two hundred and fifty ships all together.”
“Good. Any word on Ay-Artz’s fleet?”
A communication officer stepped forward, having been waiting to deliver news about just
“We have located the enemy, sir, but cannot see him. He has some kind of force-screens out that make his position just a blank in space as far as our visibeams are concerned. Of course, we still know his position. He has recently passed Pluto and is headed towards us.”
“Good. We need to convene with the leaders of the other fleets while we still have time.” “What about Parcele?” Stone asked.
“I told Lieutenant Cecil to take care of him. We must not reveal his presence here.”
The worlds of the solar system had been in some communication during the year in which they built their fleets, but they had not been able to create any coordination between themselves beyond the agreement to fight Ay-Artz together. Their discourse had met with some cultural differences not even the translation device provided by James Tarvish could bridge, and with the hurried schedule to create their fleets, there hadn’t been much time to spend on communicating.
It was evident, then, that a meeting to agree about strategy was in order. All the leaders of the fleets were in agreement about this, but it proved surprisingly difficult to arrange in practice.
Back at the crater of Copernicus, Dos-Tev and Mea-Quin had built a structure with separate compartments that could offer each of the inhabitants of the various worlds an environment they could stay in comfortably. Here, there was little else available but two-way communication thru their screens, which was far from ideal. Further, not all of the fleets possessed the translation device, which had originally been designed by the Automatons on Earth, tho the Martians and the Venusians had both developed one of their own, and the ship of Elo Hava had come with some similar device.
Narodny emerged from his unfathomable studies to offer a solution. He placed a strange device in the middle of the command bridge of the Washington and, with what looked like little more than a contemptuous wave of his hands, opened windows in the air that showed the insides of the command ships of each of the allied fleets. Soon, Martin was standing in a circle together with the visages of the leaders of the other planets’ fleets. They each saw the same thing aboard their own ships, a circle of windows showing each of the others. Tho they stood thousands of miles apart, it was as if they were all in the same conference room.
Now that all the parties were connected thru the Earth ship, the translation device removed the remaining obstacle of the language barrier. It translated even the language of the Neptunians, which was based entirely on changing colors, into what appeared as speech to the others. The Neptunians, for their part, had the illusion that they could see the alien bodies of their allies light up with intelligible hues of communication.
As the meeting began, Martin looked around at the assembled leaders and realized that he was the only one here who was merely the Commander of his fleet. Each of the others was also a sovereign ruler back on their own world.
To Martin’s left floated the image of Tranda, emperor of the spherical, gas-filled beings of Neptune. Next to him was Zinlo, Togorro of Olba on Venus, a bold man with a strangely designed sword on his side, and after him came the hairy, long-armed being called Zoy Kera, the supreme ruler of all Mars. The hard thing for the humans present was not to stare at Kera’s nostrils, very large and filled with hair to filter out the dust in the Martian air. To the Neptunian and the Saturnian, of course, he presumably looked no stranger than the humans themselves did.
The leader of the Callistoan fleet was Cala, one of their three equal rulers. She stood out among the assembled leaders, a very tall and powerful yet femininely proportioned and startlingly beautiful woman with the haughty look of a true queen. Finally, the strange tentacled beings from Saturn were represented by Fo-Peta, a former rebel whose successful revolution had led him to become the de facto leader of Saturn’s moons and part of its surface, even tho it had never been his goal to gain power for himself.
Yet it was Martin, empowered by a strong sense of purpose, who took the lead.
“Welcome, honorable leaders. I am Alan Martin, Commander of the Earth fleet. I already met some of you in the conference at Copernicus one Earth year ago. It has taken a great deal of effort to get to this point, but I’m glad to see we’ve all made it here.
“Here is our situation. Ay-Artz’s fleet has passed Pluto and is headed towards Neptune as we speak. We are on our own against it: Dos-Tev and his companions are dead, but they destroyed the Wrongness of Space on Luna before they died. Ay-Artz has but twenty-one ships, so we far outnumber them, but these ships are very powerful and have dangerous weapons whose nature we don’t yet know. According to Dos-Tev, it will take all our combined fleets to fight them.
“A year ago on Luna, our planets’ delegates all signed the pact to fight Ay-Artz together. Now the time has come to fulfill it. We must defeat the invaders here, for who knows what destruction they will visit upon our worlds otherwise. If we play our cards right, we can end this with one battle.”
“Martin of Terra is right,” Zinlo said. “We of Venus observed Ay-Artz’s conquest of Lemnis via remote viewing. He took over what started out as a genuine people’s revolution, and at first, some of us even admired him, but he became more insane with each victory. We didn’t know his name then, so we called him the butcher. I can assure you there’s no risk we can take to stop him that would be worse than letting him have his way.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. I’m sure you can all agree that we need to be well organized against such a threat. I motion that we vote forthwith to choose an overall commander for our combined fleet so as to enable us to coordinate a unified strategy. We can start the vote from my left and proceed clockwise.”
Tranda of Neptune was silent for a few seconds in what may have been uncertainty, tho it was hard for any of the others to tell since they could not read his emotional coloring. Finally he spoke: “I vote for Alan Martin, Commander of the Earth fleet. I can see that he has the situation under control so far.”
Zinlo spoke up confidently. “I agree! I’m sure Alan Martin can lead us to victory against Ay-Artz.”
Zoy Kera was next in line, and he had just human enough features behind his enormous nostrils that Martin could see he was not too pleased. “Well, I vote for Zoy Kera, Supreme Dictator and Warlord of Mars! He who, you should all know, is also the conqueror of Kenzra, the three-time defeater of the Kumi of Deimos, the builder of Yl-Azor, the winner of the year 3184 Grel Poetry Prize…”
Kera spoke for several minutes, listing achievements that he thought would convince the others to vote for him, even tho the list of alien names was meaningless to any of them. Finally, he finished and turned to look expectantly at Cala of Callisto on his left.
Cala looked distastefully at Kera’s nostrils, and then at the circle of four other men of different species around her. “I abstain from voting.”
“Then I will seal the vote by voting for Alan Martin of Earth,” Fo-Peta of Saturn said. “We all need to stand together, and I’m sure Alan Martin will lead us well.”
Kera snorted, but as the translator rendered the sound to the others, it wasn’t entirely unfriendly. “Very well! I agreed to this vote, so I will agree to its decision. I will follow your direction for this battle, Acting Commander of the solar system fleet, so long as it is in good sense.” Martin bowed. “Thank you, Supreme Dictator. I understand my place here. I’m just a soldier, and I will be coordinating the fleet merely to serve the peoples of the solar system, not with any presumption of authority above anyone here.”
He turned to address Cala and bowed even deeper. “Queen Cala, I hope that this arrangement will be acceptable to you as well. It would be my honor to serve.”
Cala looked at Martin with new eyes, clearly considering more than just his competence to lead the fleet. The look sent shivers down his spine, but not all of them were good. There was a hidden contemptuous, objectifying quality in her eyes even behind her enticing smile. Martin was suddenly glad that he was happily married to an Earth woman who treated him as an equal – and, also, that he did the same to her.
“Yes,” Cala said. “You may serve me in this way. Just remember your place, now and afterwards. If you prove yourself enough to the rulers of Callisto, you may yet receive a reward beyond your wildest dreams.”
Martin bowed again, carefully hiding his emotions.
The windows closed and the meeting ended.
“That went well,” Ferdinand Stone remarked. “Congratulations, Commander of the solar system fleet.”
“I’m impressed that you convinced all the other leaders to follow you.” “I did get some advice beforehand.”
Parcele had exaggerated when he said he’d offer information that would make the difference between Martin’s becoming the leader of the fleet and utter disaster. However, he had been quite right that getting Queen Cala to work with a group of men leaders, let alone follow one, had required a careful touch.
Parcele’s advice had been very helpful, but that was not to say it had been very good. It was hard for a man of Earth to even understand the perspective of a man of Callisto. Parcele had shown what seemed to Martin like a stubborn obsession with getting the upper hand combined with an awareness of being considered inferior and needing to tread carefully. This combination had led his advice to seem bewildering and incoherent, as well as making Martin shudder at the position of the men of Callisto.
However, Martin had understood that the women of Callisto despised their own men and hated Parcele’s insubordination in particular. At the same time, they looked hopefully to other planets’ men for replacements. After Martin learnt all this, it had been relatively easy for him to ignore Parcele’s advice on how to assert superiority over someone who would hate the very idea, and instead win Cala over by showing disarming humility after demonstrating his competence. The fact that the same strategy had worked to appease the grandiose Martian emperor was a stroke of luck.
Alan Martin now had the combined fleet of the solar system at his command, and not long to organize them against the invading fleet of Ay-Artz, who would soon be arriving to the vicinity of Neptune. He gave hurried orders to start preparations, and told Ferdinand Stone to compose a report of all the various ships and fleets from different worlds, and their capabilities. Stone delivered the report after two hours.
“I will start with our best assets and move on towards our least.”
“Firstly, there are our own remaining ninety ships. We have the most powerful weapons and shields and the greatest number of ships, but our propulsion methods are primitive compared to some of our allies.
“That brings us to the Venusian fleet. Their ships are flimsy compared to ours, but there are also a good number of them: forty-five in total. The best thing, tho, is their speed and maneuverability. Their method of propulsion, which they call telekinetic, is beyond anything I even thought possible. Within tactical range, their mobility is almost unlimited, and they can easily flank any other craft. We should certainly make use of this in the coming battle.”
“I’m sure we will,” Alan Martin said.
“The Venusian ships would also be the best choice for travelling longer distances quickly.
They can accelerate even to the speed of light and beyond within minutes.”
“How is that possible? The passengers, even the ship itself, would be crushed by the force of the acceleration.”
“The telekinetic method of propulsion bypasses this problem. There’s no crushing force accompanying the acceleration because the telekinetic forces moving the ship affect everything inside it equally, unlike a normal ship, where the acceleration of the passengers’ bodies is accomplished by the force of the ship pushing against them. Every molecule inside the ship and its passengers is accelerated in the same way at the same time, and thus there’s no risk of their becoming disarranged.”
“Then there’s the Martian fleet. They also use a method of propulsion I have never seen, altho at least I knew of its theoretical possibility. Their gravity manipulation allows them to alter their course rapidly, making them more maneuverable than us, but they still have to overcome inertia normally, so they can’t be compared to the Venusians. If anything, that makes their flagship inferior to the other ships in some ways, since its considerable mass is much slower to steer. There are forty-nine of the smaller ships in addition to the flagship, and they all have decent armor and weapons that rival ours. They are a great asset.
“Next, we come to the Saturnians. Their twenty ships use rocket propulsion and have mediocre weapons and shields. You can’t expect as much of them as some of the others. However, the real asset they bring us is this gigantic ship of Elo Hava, as they call it. They have been studying its properties and found that it has enormous firepower, and its sheer size alone will make it difficult for the enemy to destroy. With its ability to teleport thru the fifth dimension, it could be used to make a devastating surprise attack.”
“This Elo Hava really gave us a tremendous gift without intending it.”
“I agree. So then we have the Callistoan fleet. The ships are mediocre in every respect, but at least there are thirty of them. They use a combination of rocket propulsion and Parcele’s electric device. Don’t expect them to perform too well. The Callistoans clearly had forgotten everything they once knew about spacecraft – as they must have since they originally came from Earth – before they were contacted by Dos-Tev.”
“I’m sure they’ll be helpful. I just won’t deploy them in the most demanding positions.” “So, last and least, we come to the Neptunians. They reported that they originally had three
ships, but only one has survived thanks to the trap of the Wrongness of Space and betrayal in their own ranks. All the ship’s functions are powered by an unknown substance I have named Tridentium. Clearly, this substance has enormous potential to produce and transmit energy, but the Neptunians don’t have the technology to fully realize this potential. It’s just another ship for you to throw at our enemy, tho I would like you to save me some Tridentium to study afterwards if we survive this.”
“The Neptunians have never travelled in space before either, and they made great sacrifices to make it this far,” Alan Martin said. “They deserve our thanks, not disdain.”
“However, my task is to evaluate their contribution to our fight against Ay-Artz, so I will speak accordingly.”
Alan Martin shook his head with a frown. “Ferdinand, you are as cold as Narodny sometimes.”
“I learned to think as the Automatons do in order to defeat them. Even so, I’m not sure what to think of that comparison.”
“Maybe it’s a little too harsh. Narodny chills me every time I see him. What’s he doing in the Lemnisian ship anyway?”
“He seems determined that he can still find out Mea-Quin’s plan for defeating Ay-Artz. I think it’s waste of time, of course. Obviously he has searched the ship by now, so logically, there’s nothing more to be done.”
“I certainly won’t give him any more of my men to assist him,” Martin said hotly. “I lent him three volunteers earlier, and we had to send them all to the sick bay. They were in incoherent shock, and Narodny flat-out refused to tell me anything about what he had done to them. I had half a mind to have him detained.”
Stone shook his head. “The thin line between insanity and genius… But I advice you to leave him alone for now. I can’t deny that he is a genius, and he may yet be a great asset to us.”
They both turned to the sound of running feet. A communications officer rushed in and saluted Martin.
“Sir! We’re receiving a contact from an unknown source – a powerful signal that’s almost pushing itself to our visiplates by force!”
“Show it on my screen, but be ready to cut it off in case it’s some kind of attack!”
The screen flickered for a second, but then a crystal-clear image forced its way onto its surface. They saw a man seated upon a throne, a very tall, powerfully built man, who looked down on them with eyes filled in equal measure with fierce intelligence and vicious savagery. At his feet reclined a beautiful, dark-haired woman with a slender yet shapely body and finely chiseled facial features.
The throne itself was no less savage than the man. It had a strangely primitive, tribal look compared to the insides of a spaceship that could be seen behind it, tho at the same time, the loathsome beauty of its composition suggested the work of an enslaved master artist. It was made up of various disparate shapes cast together in some unknown metal. The arm rests were the large pipes of two unknown, deadly weapons, and the back was also formed of weapons of all shapes molded together. The large dais under the throne and beneath the man’s feet was made up of the twisted, squashed shapes of what had once been priceless cultural artifacts: statues of people and unknown animals, abstract works of now broken beauty, decorations that had adorned soaring, slender structures on a free planet. Some of the statues were so lifelike in their agony that they might have been real people cast into metal while still alive.
Even before he spoke, they knew this could only be one man. The one Dos-Tev had described as the arch-tyrant.
“Greetings, fleet of the solar system. Your new lord and master, Ay-Artz, salutes you.”
Martin had to steel himself to stare back unflinchingly into those burning eyes. “You speak too soon, Ay-Artz. All the solar system has joined together to stop you, and we would die sooner than be your servants.”
Ay-Artz suddenly boomed laughter, a sound so powerful and malicious Martin felt like it might knock him off his feet. “Bold words! We’ll soon see how many of you really choose that!”
The tyrant leaned down towards the woman at his feet. “You have lost your chance to serve willingly, like Xunia here.”
Xunia of Venus. Not a real woman, then, but a cunningly constructed mechanical body hosting the soul of the traitor to the Venusian people. Ay-Artz was clearly not bothered by this distinction as he caressed her hair and cheek.
Xunia forced a smile, but one look at her face showed she didn’t want to be where she was. Perhaps she would even have preferred to move to one of her bodies apprehended on Venus, if only she dared defy the tyrant.
“Yes, Xunia will be rewarded for her loyalty,” Ay-Artz went on. “Of course, she was not able to offer much help in my conquest in the end, but it’s not as if I need it. Now, she will be one my many queens instead. It was always clear from the way she talked to me that she had something else to give besides tactical aid.”
Ay-Artz’s eyes sparked with evil intelligence and humor. He knew very well that Xunia had been using her charms on him because she lusted after power, not him. She would have loved to be a real queen, but he had made her a powerless concubine, and made her position very clear. Better a will bent to his own forcefully than one that served of its own accord.
That was the way he wanted things: he was the tyrant, and he took what he wanted by force.
One day, her mechanical body might literally be one of the ornaments on the base of his throne. “But by all means, dash your pathetic fleet against mine!” Ay-Artz continued. “There was a
time when I enjoyed a challenge, an equal battle. These days, I can find no such thing, but my tastes have changed. What I relish now is demonstrating absolute superiority. You will see your only options are to bow down or be crushed!”
The visiplates went blank.
“Sir! Enemy fleet within tactical range in fifteen minutes!”
C O S M O S
SYMPHONY OF ARMAGEDDON
by Ville V. Kokko
AUTHOR OF: ʻTHE DEVIL’S CELLAR’, ʻTRUSTWORTHY’, ETC.
with thanks to Edmond Hamilton
The defenders of the solar system maneuvered hurriedly into formation at Commander Alan Martin’s direction as the fleet of Ay-Artz rushed thru space towards them.
“They’re open to our visibeams now, Commander!” an officer announced.
Martin looked at the visiplate showing the enemy ships: twenty-one colossal, silvery objects of cylindrical shape. Other instruments confirmed the impression of their size: each was equal to the Martian flagship, and thus dwarfed all the rest of the solar system craft save for the vast sphere of Elo Hava.
“They’re knowingly letting us see them. I wonder if that’s a trick of some sort,” he mused aloud.
“I see two options,” Ferdinand Stone said. “Either the screens they used to hide themselves interfere with their own operation in combat or take up too much precious generator power – or they are showing themselves because they want us to come close and engage them.”
“The first sounds plausible, but so does the second. Remember Ay-Artz’s boasting. If only we knew what those weapons are that Dos-Tev mentioned.”
“We have a small chance to find out. We can try to get into one of his ships with a visibeam and get some idea.”
“All right, try it, but be quick! In a few minutes we’ll be meeting them.”
The Washington aimed a visibeam at one of the foremost approaching cylinders, but even with the enemy’s screens turned off, and even when all the power of the ship’s mighty generators was momentarily engaged to power the beam, it failed to penetrate the outer, silver-like skin of the cylinder itself.
“It’s no use,” Stone said. “He’s got a skin on his ships absolutely proof to any visibeam we can project.”
“We’ll just have to take our chances. We will advance slowly so that we don’t have too much forward momentum in case we need to retreat. We’ll also save our best tricks for when we need them. The ship of Elo Hava already moved to the other side of Neptune; it’s ready to teleport
to the battlefield when needed, but we’ll keep it as a surprise for now. Ay-Artz may well have spied it with his visibeams already, but he won’t know what it can do.
“The Venusian ships will also refrain from using their great speed until I tell them to. The enemy will know about them from the Doravians, but we can still gain a moment of surprise if they wait for the right instant.
“The Martians will also hold back their greater maneuverability until the time is right. For now, we all advance at the same pace.”
The solar system fleet was arranged in five columns, the middle three made up of a mix of Earth and Martian ships and the single Neptunian one, the ones to their left of Callistoans and Saturnians, and the rightmost one made up of the Venusian fleet.
“The enemy is almost within firing range of our beams!” an officer cried out. “Engage as soon as they come within range!”
The ships of the space fleets were very large, measured in many hundreds of yards and even miles, but they were tiny compared to the distances that were necessary in space warfare. Even ships in the same fleet tended to stay a hundred miles apart to avoid any risk of collision as they hurtled ahead at high speeds, and coming to close quarters with the enemy likewise usually meant hundreds of miles.
As the fleets of Ay-Artz and the solar system engaged in combat for the first time, the distance was even greater. Their beamers used precise telescopes and visibeams to aim their fire at the distant targets, though at this range, they still missed a part of the time. Seen with the naked eye, perspective made it seem as tho the whole broad front of the ships of the solar system was firing their rays at a single point in space ahead of them, and from that point spread out an equal torrent of rays to strike back.
Yet closer inspection of both fleets would reveal that the rays were being aimed at specific enemy ships. A dozen solar system ships would concentrate on a single enemy cylinder, who fired back at them in equal measure, or sometimes, the paths of the beams criss-crossed as a ship fired back at a ship other than the ones that were attacking itself. Space flashed with a continuous stream of destructive energy headed both ways.
The solar system fleet was still partly arranged in columns, but spread out at the front to allow more of its ships to shoot at the enemy and absorb the incoming fire. Nevertheless, much of the fleet was still hanging back, thanks to Martin’s worry that Ay-Artz was waiting to unleash some unknown true weapon.
The fleets approached each other with relative slowness, but both sides soon veered to the side to avoid a head-on collision. They would soon be within range for space-torpedoes. Meanwhile, the bombardment of rays was already taking its toll. One ship, then another had its shields fail under the pressure and was consumed under the onslaught of rays.
“We’ve lost some ships from each fleet already, but we haven’t managed to take down any of the enemy ships,” Captain Malcolm reported. “Isn’t it time to stop holding back and give them all we’ve got? They’ll pick us off a few at a time at this rate.”
“No, we’ll wait for some more time,” Martin said decisively. “I have a strong gut feeling we’ll be running into a trap if we expose all our ships. Concentrate your fire more!”
The rival fleets were getting close in space combat terms. Torpedoes were fired both ways; the ones form the solar system fleet were deflected by the screens of the cylinders, but the ones coming back at them downed another Martian ship.
Zoy Kera appeared on Martin’s visiplate.
“This has gone on for long enough,” the Martian emperor said. “Alan Martin, I agreed to follow your direction as long as it makes good sense. My superior good sense dictates that we must take more direct action now. My fleet will move in for an all-out attack.”
“I’m sure you’re a fine soldier, Alan Martin of Earth, but I am the Warlord of Mars. Don’t imagine yourself on my level. Your other fleets will support us, but we will be the ones earning the glory today.”
The screen went off and, sure enough, Martin could see all of the Martian ships start to accelerate to a greater speed towards the enemy, weapons blazing.
“The Martians have broken rank! Earth ships, keep firing at the enemy, but make sure we don’t hit our allies! Dive downwards if you can’t get a clear shot otherwise!”
“Will we go all out now, sir?” Captain Malcolm asked.
“Be ready for it, but hold on just a moment until we see what happens when the Martians do.”
The Martian fleet detached itself from the columns it shared with Earth and accelerated forward boldly, heading straight towards the enemy and instantly drawing much of its fire. One more ship went down, but the armor on the rest of them held. The smaller tetrakaidecahedronal ships gathered around their flagship and fired their weapons at full efficiency.
The flagship itself more than matched Ay-Artz’s ships for firepower; its volume was about the same, but thanks to its spherical shape, its front face was considerably larger, and all of that surface was studded with weapons.
“It’s working! Look!”
The fire from the Martian ships had brought down one of the cylinders, its shields failing under the intense onslaught. Gouts of flame burst out, and soon the monstrous ship fell apart into a cloud of debris.
Cheers rang out at and below the command bridge of the Washington.
Then, suddenly, the front row of Martian ships were gone, enveloped in a series of brilliant explosions that left nothing behind.
“That must be the weapon the rogue Venusians used!” Stone exclaimed.
“We can’t stand against weapons like that for long! We have to overwhelm them with our numbers now, before the Martian ships are all destroyed!
“Earth fleet, attack from the front and give them everything we’ve got! Saturnians and Callistoans, move to attack their left flank to surround them!
“And Venusians – use your speed now! Move halfway along their right flank and take them by surprise. Concentrate all your fire on a few ships at a time and blow them apart before they can react!”
The ships of Earth, Saturn and Callisto began to accelerate towards the enemy, but they seemed ponderous next to the Venusian ones. Zinlo’s fleet moved so fast that it seemed to vanish in the blink of an eye only to reappear far away next to the enemy’s flank. Both the acceleration and the deceleration would have flattened the ships’ crews instantly had they used normal propulsion.
Then the forty-five ships started to concentrate their fire on just four Lemnisian ones. The little drops of mercury swarmed around the larger ships like a group of hoverflies, deftly zipping this way and that at will in little, effortless leaps. While hoverflies don’t sting, however, these ships were whipping their enemies with a shower of rays.
It took a while for the surprised enemies to even begin firing back, and even once they did, the quick Venusian ships made for hard to hit targets. They hardly took any losses, but it didn’t take long for their ceaseless bombardment from all directions to get thru their enemies’ shields. One cylinder went down, then another, before the other allied fleets had even properly engaged the enemy.
“Yes! Push forward! We can take them!” Martin shouted enthusiastically. Then he blinked and stared, his mouth left open.
As it started to lose ships, the tyrant’s fleet was done holding back, and made full use of its true weapon. The visiplates following the Martian and Venusian fleets showed it first: the nearest cylinders shot out pale, ghostly beams so dim as to be hardly visible. The ghostly fingers passed thru the defensive screens of the Martian and Venusian ships as tho they didn’t exist. Instantly those ships puffed into blinding flares of light – and vanished. And where other ships were close to them, they too were caught by the flare, and puffed out in dazzling flashes.
Aboard the Martian flaship, Zoy Kera shouted furious orders to fight back as ship after ship vanished around him.
“Excuse me, Supreme Dictator?”
“What?” he snapped, turning around to see the scientist Fax Gatola.
“While I still can, I just wanted to say that this was a supremely stupid idea.”
Gatola had just time to see Kera’s satisfying expression before everything became blinding light and then unending darkness.
The entire remaining fleet of Mars was wiped out within seconds, in a series of spreading flashes like a terrifying firework, the great flagship fueling a particularly large explosion that took several others with it. The Venusians lost a dozen ships immediately, then another dozen before they could catch their bearings.
And the cylinders began firing their ghostly beams at the other fleets as well. The Earth fleet, Callistoans and Saturnians instantly suffered great losses.
“By God! Retreat! Retreat!”
Ships scattered frantically, trying to make their way directly away from Ay-Artz’s fleet. The remaining twenty-odd Venusian craft vanished into the distance; the Earth fleet, which had been headed almost straight towards the enemy, dived down desperately but lost many more ships before they could get away; the Callistoans sped ahead and to their left, trailed by the Saturnians.
Less than half of the solar system fleet made it away.
Ay-Artz’s ships didn’t make pursuit. He had demonstrated his superiority, and his enemies had demonstrated that they weren’t willing to die rather than serve him just yet.
Instead, the remaining eighteen ships regrouped their formation and turned their course toward Neptune.
“Great heavens, what was that!” cried Captain Malcolm. “It was like no beam ever heard of – simply whiffed ships out of existence in a flash.”
“I knew Ay-Artz was trying to trap us!” Martin cried. “Remember Dos-Tev’s dying words.”
Ferdinand Stone said excitedly, “Martin, that ghostly beam he uses must be one that transmutes the atoms of whatever matter it touches into pure force. You know, an atom is simply confined force, and that pale beam releases it.”
“However it works, it’s been fatal to us,” Martin told them. “Look, they’re simply disregarding us now.”
“Headed for Neptune. Are they planning to make it their base?” Stone said. “I have a bad feeling about this. Get them on the visiplate!”
Martin’s bad feeling proved more than warranted. All the solar system fleet could do was watch helplessly as the nineteen cylinders approached Neptune. Four of them stayed behind as guards, floating lazily high above the planet.
The rest of the fleet descended upon the capital of Tridentia and rained down destruction on its slender glassite buildings with their ordinary vibratory beams. A few ships rose to meet them, spark-guns tried to fire back from the roofs, but it was like a lone ant trying to bite a bear. Each invading ship had enough armor and firepower to overcome the city’s defences alone, and over a dozen ships together quickly ground it to dust. Buildings fell and stattered into showers of shards, and the inhabitants died by the thousands before they could flee.
Ay-Artz was indeed intent on making Neptune his base, but he was not interested in taking prisoners.
The leaders of the solar system fleet, now one fewer than before, gathered hastily for another remote meeting. If they had looked grim before, they looked haunted now.
The meeting started out with a note of restrained panic. The main point of agreement seemed to be that they didn’t know what to do.
“What about the ship of Elo Hava we brought here?” Fo-Peta said. “Altho we can’t steer it, it can teleport anywhere at will, and it can surely outgun even Ay-Artz’s ships. It’s also too large to be destroyed with just a few hits, no matter what weapon the enemy uses.”
“That ship is one of our best assets,” Martin said. “However, if we don’t deploy it carefully, I’m afraid it will be of little help.”
“How do you mean?”
“I’ve been given to understand the dematerializing beams would destroy it in one hit, in spite of its size.”
“How can a single beam carry so much energy?”
“It’s not about the energy of the beam. The beam causes matter to turn into an explosion of pure energy. Any matter caught in that explosion will also be transformed. Thus, the reaction feeds itself, and an object of any size will be consumed by its own energy, just from one hit.”
Fo-Peta was silent. He seemed to deflate.
“This truly is the devil’s technology,” Zinlo said. “Even we have not seen anything like it before. It’s hard to know what we can do to oppose it. Yet, we must fight.”
“But what can we do? Surely you have some solution, Alan Martin,” Cala demanded.
“We may need to acknowledge Ay-Artz’s rule of the solar system for now and bide our time,” Fo-Peta said. “There will be a time and opportunity to strike back later.”
“If we do that, there will be little left for us to save,” Zinlo said. “The butcher of Alpha Centauri loves to rule over ashes. We’re seeing how he’s devastating Neptune right now. Back on Lemnis, there were entire cities that no longer are, and the scale here is much larger. The unnecessary damage he would do to the whole solar system before finishing his conquest and settling down to rule would be incalculable. He’s not like the tyrants of your homeworld, Fo-Peta.”
“And every minute we wait means more dead Neptunians!” Tranda said. “I implore you to hurry, whatever you do. We will do anything in our power to help, but it’s beyond us to do this ourselves.”
“We will do all we can, I promise,” Martin said. “It’s the dematerializing beam that gives Ay-Artz an unshakeable advantage. Without it, our fleet is equal in power to his. Is there any possibility of our devicing a shield against the beam, or replicating it for our own use?”
He addressed these last words to Ferdinand Stone to his side. Stone stepped into view to address everyone.
“This technology is completely unknown to us. I can’t imagine how we could build a shield against it, and the only slim chance we have of replicating it would be if we could spy on its internal construction.
“We’ve already seen that we can’t breach the hulls of those ships with our visibeams. The only chance we have of doing it is if we could literally breach one with our weapons.”
“But Ay-Artz will no doubt make use of the dematerializing beam if we approach him again…” Martin mused aloud. Then he turned to Fo-Peta. “I think this is where we could use the ship of Elo Hava.”
For want of any better plan, they all agreed on this one. While the others started to work out the details, Ferdinand Stone left quietly. He had an idea where a better plan might be found.
Narodny, the scientist-poet, was inside the laboratory in his ship, sitting down in slumped concentration, his brow furrowed. Next to him was a tank of liquid, vertical and open at the top, with Mea-Quin’s battered body floating inside. The old scientist’s floating beard spread eery tendrils around his slightly open mouth, contrasting with the dignity of his closed eyes. Various wires went in and out of the tank and lay around on the floor together with smaller containers of liquids and instruments of strange design. Narodny’s mindless robot stood next to him silently and unmoving, several of its hands holding more wires, vials or instruments.
Narodny heard the sounds of someone approaching, but he only looked up when Ferdinand Stone stepped into the room and called his name.
“Narodny! Whatever you’re doing, if you’re going to help us, the time is now! Ay-Artz’s fleet is invincible, and it is currently laying waste to Neptune’s surface!”
“What are you doing here anyway? Obviously, that old man is dead.”
“Of course.” Narodny got up slowly and turned to face Stone with a sardonic grin. “And I suppose that you have won, physicist.”
“I have been trying to bring back a semblance of life to this body to communicate with him one last time, to learn his plan.”
“Surely, you cannot–”
“That’s right, I can’t.” For the first time, Narodny’s cool voice betrayed a trace of frustration. “And that’s why I say you, the physicist, have won. For the first time, I’m unable to bend the laws of physics.”
“But life is based on chemistry, not physics.”
“You of all people should know: everything is physics. Chemistry is physics. And I have been beaten by thermodynamics.”
“Oh. I begin to understand.”
“Thermodynamics tells us that entropy always increases, meaning that things always move towards greater disorder. When this body died, it immediately began to decay towards greater entropy.”
“But order may increase locally with the input of energy from an external source, such as the radiation of the sun on Earth,” Stone said. “That’s how life is able to be born and maintain itself in the first place.”
“Yes, but this can only work to maintain existing structures, or slowly construct new complex forms from more simple ones, such as a child growing up, or the evolution of biological life. Energy can’t recreate a complex system that once existed, such as Mea-Quin’s mind, because the original information has been lost.
“This is why the universe appears to have a single direction of time, even tho laws of physics outside thermodynamics are time-reversible. Forward in time is different from backwards in time because of the increase of entropy. There are so many more ways for a system to be disordered than to be ordered in a specific way. You can scramble an egg, and you can even use the scrambled egg’s energy to increase order in your own body by eating it, but you can never unscramble that same egg.”
Stone was nodding and scratching his chin thoughtfully. “And this is why you can’t reconstruct Mea-Quin’s mind? You have come close otherwise?”
“Yes. My skills are even greater than you think. But I cannot reverse the arrow of time.”
Stone smiled wryly. “Then perhaps this will help you. It’s something I have proven in one of my unpublished studies. The arrow of time created by thermodynamics is only an illusion of our limited minds. In reality, disorder does not increase in the universe as a whole. The increase of entropy is only well defined in the sort of systems originally studied at the inception of thermodynamics – the limited case of the interaction of two previously isolated systems, such as when two containers of different gases are connected and their contents become mixed. In that case, the entropy of the combination can be shown to be greater than the entropy of the isolated systems. Outside of this perspective, the amount of order is constant, even if it does not appear so to us.”
“Think about it. The supposedly more disordered state that follows when an ordered system begins to decay – this state is really just as ordered, because it is one of the rare special states which, if its dynamics were reversed in time, would lead inexorably back to that exact previous state. In a simple example, if each of the molecules of gas was to exactly reverse their direction of motion, they would indeed sort themselves back into their original containers. There’s a cryptic order that remains, and further, that order carries all the information from the previous states. The scrambled egg still remembers the egg.”
Stone looked at Narodny’s expression. “It seems I may have been of some help. Good luck. I’m going back to look into other ways of saving us.”
Stone smiled as he left Narodny’s ship. There were no words for how satisfying it had been when Narodny stared back at him with an open mouth.
Stone returned to Martin, who was currently at his screen talking to a Saturnian. Tho these creatures looked completely alien, with their jells, teebas and feelers, Stone thought that he could see the difference: this was not Fo-Peta but someone else.
“Before you go, you need to prepare the means to teleport back away from the enemy ships as soon as you’ve reached your goal. You may only have seconds to save yourself, the crew and the ship.” Martin paused. “I also want you to understand this is still likely to be a suicide mission.”
“I understand that,” the old star-gazer Kama-Loo said. “I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve just seen the liberation of my own world, only to have it threatened by this new enemy. If I will be the last one to die from their weapon before we turn it against its maker, I will do so gladly.”
Stone contemplated telling the Saturnian to wait, to see whether Narodny could offer another solution instead, but in the end, he said nothing. Every moment’s delay was also costing lives.
Stone’s words had indeed set something in motion in Narodny’s mind. He could finally see the shape of an answer to his problem of how to bring back enough of Mea-Quin’s mind to communicate with him. Yet, the task was still too much for even his intellect to accomplish quickly – unless, that is, he could amplify his thoughts.
Soon after Stone left, Narodny conjured up an window into another room in his ship, where some of his companions were waiting, seated around an illusionary grove lit by an artificial sun.
“Lao, attend me,” he said. “I’m going to use the Lemnisian device.”
Lao, the Chinese, nodded and left the room. Narodny closed the window and picked up the device he had found – a thought amplifier no doubt designed by Mea-Quin. It was an inconspicuous-looking thing, a cap that resembled a head of gray hair. However, Narodny had determined that the material it was made of reflected thought-waves. It had come with a device attaching to the spine to amplify the user’s bodily strength as well, but Narodny had removed that as spurious and risky.
Lao came in. Narodny nodded at him and sat down on a chair. He came to stand behind him. “You know what to do. Take it away if I go too far. But give me a moment first.”
Narodny knew well that this devide was dangerous to use. It would amplify the user’s own thougths, but at the same time, isolate him from the thought-waves of the rest of the universe. This would lead to a horrible sense of derealization and could easily drive the user mad. He had asked for outsider volunteers to help him earlier to have them test it, and their minds might never recover from the experience. What he cared about was the data for the experiment that had given him an idea of just what the device did and what effect it could have on an unsuspecting mind.
Now, on the verge of the great discovery, he was ready to use the device himself. If he could only focus on a single thought, the problem he needed solved, he should be able to avoid the ill effects, and instead have that thought amplified over and over again until he could produce solutions not even his mind had previously been equal to. Fortunately, he knew himself possessed of nearly superhuman powers of self-control and focus.
Narodny brought the question into focus in his mind: How to reverse the decay of Mea- Quin’s brain enough to bring his mind back, given the insight Stone had given him about entropy?
Then he lowered the cap on his head.
He immediately felt the rest of the universe start to vanish around him, Lao behind him and then everything else draining of color and meaning. He ignored this and dived into his question. The one thought exploded around him and grew to replace the universe. He was immersed in it, swam in it, breathed it, relished in it, for it all became clear now. Soon, he knew how to bring back a dead mind.
Narodny had his answer now, and he could have removed the device to mentally return to his laboratory safely. His intense focus on the task at hand had saved him from the ill effects of being isolated from all other minds in the universe.
Yet he did not return. He found that he wanted to experience that isolation. He let his focus disperse and opened himself to the sensation.
He was alone. Space stretched around him to eternity, full of things yet empty, but it was all in the inside of his own mind. Stars circled, galaxies spinned, sad little things that thought they were alive and even sapient scampered and squabbled along the sides of planets. All the people in the universe were a minor unpleasant thought, a strain of anxiety, the beginnings of a headache. But they were unreal, and he wished them away. They were gone.
Just he and the universe.
Narodny had always used his machines to play symphonies from the stars, to turn moonlight into sonatas. Now he saw that it was he who played the stars into existence. He had painted the nebulae with his mind, he had composed the galaxies from the sparks of his ideas. All of space was his canvas, and he could wipe it clean any time he liked.
And he did want to wipe it all out. It was cold, icy, black and meaningless. It was beautiful but hateful. And yet, as he turned the planets into dust and then nothing, as the stars faded away in his mind, as the galaxies drained away as whirlpools, it only became darker and more terrible, and he was caught in a nightmare vortex of inner emptiness…
Lao pulled the cap from Narodny’s head, and he bent forward, gasping for breath.
The universe came back, he could sense all other beings again in a way he hadn’t ever fully realized, and he also realized he had been deeply wrong about something.
He had thought he would have liked to be truly alone.
Regardless of what else happened, Narodny had seen the answer to bringing back Mea- Quin’s mind. He got to work right away, working with strange chemicals and energy fields, composing science with brilliance that would have impressed Mea-Quin himself. Occasionally, he consulted his mindless robot to make the most difficult calculations.
As Narodny’s work began to near its completion, he stopped and placed a metal circlet on his head. It was of his own make, and it was made of a material similar to the one used in Mea- Quin’s thought amplifier, but with the opposite properties – it amplified his mind’s connection to the outside, allowing his Earth human’s brain to use telepathy, as he knew Mea-Quin had been able to.
Thus, Narodny knew his work was finished when he suddenly sensed Mea-Quin’s mind thru his own.
Narodny stopped what he had been doing, closed his eyes and concentrated. He could sense Mea-Quin’s mind as if he was seeing it right in front of him. The old scientist was not really alive, not quite fully conscious either, but there was enough activity in his brain for his mind to be contacted.
“Mea-Quin. Can you perceive my thoughts?” “Yes. Yes… I was dead, but now I can hear you.”
“Good. We don’t have much time. You want to stop Ay-Artz’s invasion of the solar system.” “Yes. Yes, I want that very much.”
“So do I. You had a plan for stopping him. Give it to me so we can use it.”
“Yes. Yes, I will. Yes… Ay-Artz… He has the weapon, stolen from Risbo… Ay-Artz… Yes…”
The old scientist’s thoughts rambled on for a while, getting more and more muddled, but just as Narodny began to worry, something else came, sharp and distinct. The mental, mathematical form of Mea-Quin’s plan, completely precise. Narodny began to write down and sketch it on paper. He barely noticed when Mea-Quin’s mind gradually faded again back into full death – Narodny had heard enough, and so, he just went on working.
Finally, he had the whole plan in front of him, sketched out in an immensely complex diagram on a large sheet of paper, convoluted lines mapping out the movement of ships in three- dimensional space and time. Only now did he pause to take it all in.
This plan of Mea-Quin was a thing of beauty, as much a symphony as anything he had ever composed. Even the diagram Narodny had drawn was an astonishing, fractal piece of art. At the same time, the plan was cold and mathematically precise. It detailed a course of events in which Ay- Artz would inevitably lose.
Narodny was naturally familiar with the idea of game theory, which had been developed on Earth a millennium ago but, thanks to its universal nature, was known on Lemnis as well. It was the mathematical theory of how rational agents acting in competition could achieve the best results against an opponent trying to do the same in the ever-changing situation of the game.
Mea-Quin’s strategy was built entirely on game theory. He had never had much understanding of the motives of men, but he had been the greatest scientist on Lemnis and beyond. There was no use of psychology or deception in his plan, only hard, inevitable logic. He would force the enemy fleet to do as he wished, move by move, and if they refused to make any one of those moves, they would only be destroyed faster.
The plan of attack started with the ships of the solar system approaching in a three- dimensional, forked formation with precisely calculated angles. No matter what formation Ay- Artz’s fleet had before the attack, it would be forced to take certain maneuvers or take heavy losses before it could even use its powerful weapons. However, these maneuvers would subtly take the ships into unfavorable positions that the fleet of the solar system could exploit with exactly timed courses.
Ay-Artz’s ships would be forced into a position where all of them would either be blocked from shooting by the bulks of each other, could not shoot back with their dematerializing beams because the enemies would be too close, or could only take shots that were likely to miss even with the precise control they had over those beams. The fleet of the defenders would take some unavoidable losses, but they would inflict much more in return. By rotating these positions carefully, the forces of the solar system could eventually dwindle down their opponents to just three ships, at which point they would converge from all sides and take down these last ships with their superior numbers before even the dematerializing beams could stop them.
Narodny knelt by the sheet of paper and stared down at it. He could see it all clearly now, and he had seldom been so impressed by any work of man. The plan was a work of true genius, and the chances of it failing were astronomically small. In spite of this precision, indeed further affirming its genius, it didn’t require exact knowledge of the composition of the solar system’s fleet; only that there were enough large ships.
The minimum number of ships required was one hundred and ninety-nine. The solar system fleet had started with two hundred and thirty-seven ships, all combined, before losing one hundred and twenty-eight of them.
The exhaustion of many hours of intellectual work fell upon Narodny. His body slumped.
For the first time since his childhood, the poet wept.
Kama-Loo and a small crew of equally brave volunteers were ready to set out on Elo Hava’s ship. They had prepared the metal plate with coordinates that would enable them to appear next to Ay-Artz’s four patrolling ships, and they had another ready that they could use to escape as soon as their allies had had a chance to use their visibeams on a damaged enemy ship.
“Is everything ready?” Martin asked. “Right, it’s time! Go, Kama-Loo! Good luck.”
A visiplate showed the four ships floating complacently in orbit, forming a line. Suddenly, Elo Hava’s ship appeared into existence next to them, near the one at one end of the line. For once, it was Ay-Artz’s ships that were dwarfed.
The sphere was also too close to the closest ship for it to use its dematerializing beams without being caught in the explosion. The other three, however, were at a safe distance.
“Concentrate all fire on the ship in front of you and prepare to retreat!” Martin said.
“Yes, sir!” answered Kama-Loo’s translated voice. In one second, the front of the enormous ship flared into a multicolored inferno of different weapons, all firing at the closest enemy ship.
“That’s incredible,” breathed Captain Malcolm. “It’s like all our ships firing at once.” “Look!” said Ferdinand Stone.
They all looked, and they could barely believe it, but it had just happened. It had only been three seconds, but the ship targeted by Kama-Loo was already disintegrating. Even its large bulk and powerful shields had been helpless against the full might of the weapons of Elo Hava.
“We did it!” came Kama-Loo’s voice. “There’s much more firepower than I thought! With this ship, we could win against the rest–”
“No!” Martin shouted. “Remember the dematerializing beams! Divide your firepower between the two closest ships, and be ready to teleport back! Don’t destroy them! And everyone, get your visibeams on both of those two ships!”
The blindingly bright fires of Elo-Hava’s weapons now divided into two smaller flames pointing in different directions, punching thru the shields of two of the remaining ships still trying to maneuver into position to shoot back. The intensity of the attacks was much less now, but it was immediately evident even on the visiplate that damage was still being inflicted. Beneath the command bridge of the Washington, as well as other ships, technicians worked furiously to get thru with their visibeams.
“Sir, we have it!”
“Look closely now, Ferdinand!”
Stone stared at the image coalescing on the screen, becoming clearer every fraction of a second, showing the insides of the ship, soaring thru it – showing metal, machines, and then something he had never seen before…
It lasted for a few slow seconds before a cry of alarm and sadness rang all around him. He looked up at the other visiplate and saw the last moment of Elo Hava’s ship.
When one of Ay-Artz’s ships finally managed to shoot back with its dematerializing beams, mere seconds after the battle started, the vast spherical ship was so large that it didn’t vanish immediately. There was a brief glimpse of the blinding fire spreading along its surface before it turned in an immense blue flash that expanded to fill much of the screen and devoured the three Lemnisian ships as well.
“What… I thought the ships were too far apart to be affected by the same explosion,” Martin said.
“Of course, we failed to account for the greater mass of the ship of Elo Hava,” Stone said.
“The energy released was greater in proportion to its size, spreading farther out to space than from a smaller ship.”
“Well, this means we’re not getting any better view from the insides of the ships than what we just recorded,” Martin said. “We used up our best surprise attack, and Kama-Loo sacrificed his life. It will be impossible to get so close to Ay-Artz’s ships now. Ferdinand, did you see enough? Could you build a generator of dematerializing beams, like that one?”
Stone hesitated for a second. “Yes… yes, I must, because what other hope do we have? Yes, I can do it. The generator and its projector, it was evident, were not made of matter at all, since the beam generated would have destroyed them, but of captive forces resembling matter to the eye. I can replicate this.”
Martin put a hand on his shoulder. “Good. Get to work right away. This may be our only hope.”
Stone nodded resolutely and headed out to his workshop, but he felt less confident than he looked. Maybe he could do it, but would that really save them? With one generator, what chance would they have against those fifteen huge cylinders and their equipment?
Martin was standing at the command bridge again, staring thoughtfully into space. He turned around as Captain Malcolm approached and saluted.
“Any more orders, sir?”
“Not yet, captain. Dr. Stone is working on the dematerializing beam generator, and our other scientists are also busy trying to find solutions. I even asked Parcele to contribute. I haven’t heard from Narodny, even tho Stone told me he might be coming up with something.
“From a purely tactical perspective, there’s nothing we can do. Ay-Artz has the complete upper hand.”
“I hope we can do something soon. Neptune is being ravaged as we speak.”
“I know, I know, captain. I don’t like sitting around waiting any more than you do.”
“Sir… I heard another city has been levelled to the ground. And they’re chasing down the refugees now.”
“It’s just… The Neptunian Teena has been contacting us, many times, pleading for us to save her people.”
“I know she looks like just a gas balloon, sir, but the translator is rendering her speech in the tearful, pleading voice of a young woman. I can’t bear to listen to it.”
Martin sighed and turned to look at the panorama of stars in front of him again. In truth, he could barely see any chance of victory for them. With Narodny silent, the only hope they had of coming up with something that could help was with Ferdinand Stone managing to copy the beam generator.
And even if he did, what then? What real tactical options did that open? It was obvious they couldn’t construct many of them, and it was doubtful they could control them with the precision Ay- Artz’s fleet had.
One option occurred to him, a nagging thought he had been suppressing for a while. It was too terrible to contemplate…
But then again, so was Ay-Artz’s victory.
Ferdinand Stone, the physicist, was sitting inside a workshop on the Washington, staring down at the plans he had drawn. Many more discarded versions lay all around him, along with various pieces of materials and instruments. Several workmen stood idly, awaiting for further instructions.
In front of Stone stood what looked like a large metal box, only it was revealed not to be material, as now and then it wavered and seemed to disintegrate before solidifying again.
Stone rumbled up and threw away his latest design. What had he been thinking? How was he supposed to copy an alien device of whose design he only had a brief visiplate recording? He couldn’t even stabilize the forces that were supposed to form the device’s structure, let alone turn them into the beam generator.
Stone turned around to see Narodny approaching, carrying some small object in his hands. “Yes! I am! Don’t–”
“Don’t take your frustration out on me, I’m here to help. I want to return your favor.” “My favor…? Did you succeed in bringing Mea-Quin back?”
“I did.” Narodny looked thoughtful for a moment. “I would like to tell you how, but there’s no time. I found out that he had planned a mathematical winning strategy, but we don’t have enough ships left to execute it. Thus, our hope lies with you, and this will help you complete your task.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a thought amplifier made by Mea-Quin. I see you have been partially successful in replicating the generator. If you use this, you will be able to finish it. You will see much more sense in everything you saw inside the enemy ship.”
Stone took the cap and looked at it a little doubtfully. Then he looked back up at Narodny. “Thank you. I hope you’re right. But then again, you probably are. And yes, if you have time after all this, I would like to hear how you were able to bring a mind back from death.”
“I have news,” Martin told the assembled leaders of the solar system. “Dr. Stone has completed his version of the dematerializing beam generator. Meanwhile, Ay-Artz continues to ravage Neptune and shows no sign of stopping before he has destroyed the inhabitants utterly.
“We now have to formulate a strategy. Even with one beam generator, it isn’t obvious what we can do.”
“Wrong. The solution is obvious, if you’ll only admit it.”
They turned around to see Narodny approaching. He was still calm and collected as ever, but he looked haggard under it all. The window he had opened from the Earth fleet expanded sideways to show him as well to the assembled leaders.
“What do you mean?” Stone asked.
“There’s just one thing you can do with the beam generator: turn it on Neptune, destroy the planet while Ay-Artz’s fleet is still on it. You will win in one stroke.”
There was stunned silence.
“You cannot mean–” Stone started.
“I don’t make crude jokes. The trade-off would be acceptable to save the other planets regardless, but there’s little left to sacrifice now. Ay-Artz has been ravaging the planet for hours with terrible efficiency, and what little intelligent life there’s still left down there won’t last for long.”
Stone turned to Martin. “We can’t–”
But Martin was shaking his head sadly. “He’s right, Ferdinand. We’re out of options, and we can’t save Neptune anyway.”
“Listen to your Commander,” Cala said. “In every war, there must be sacrifices.” “It’s painful to even contemplate,” Zinlo said. “But this man does have a point…”
“No! This is madness!” Fo-Peta said. “We can’t give up on a whole planet, let alone destroy it ourselves! There are bound to be some survivors we’d be dooming!”
Alan Martin cut the argument short with a powerful, commanding voice. “We should hear what the Neptunians themselves think.”
All turned to the Neptunian window, where there were now three spherical figures instead of just one. Tranda was flanked by his sister, Princess Teena, and her husband, Prince Steepa. Some communication had clearly been passing between them that the translator hadn’t translated to speech. Tranda turned his eye-stem to each of the others, and the onlookers got the impression that both nodded in some Neptunian manner.
“We agree with you,” Tranda said. “There’s nothing left of our people and our civilization on Neptune. We have already said our goodbyes. All we can hope for now is to take vengeange on Ay-Artz, and help the rest of the solar system as you tried to help us.
“It’s obvious that the ship that shoots the beam must also be destroyed in the explosion. I will be the one guiding that ship. It is my order as the last emperor of Neptune that no-one else may end the planet.”
“It is more than your right to do that, Your Majesty,” Martin said, and bowed deeply. The others also bowed before Tranda, even Cala, even Narodny.
“And we will come with you,” Teena said. “There’s nothing left for us.” Tranda turned to her.
“No. You two must stay, along with others, to secure a future for our people. I won’t let our race go out.”
“Future? What future can we have?”
“Somewhere, among the stars, or in one of these other dimensions, there’s another world that our kind can inhabit. You must find it and make it our new home.” Tranda raised a gentle feeler-tube to touch the tiny bud on Teena’s surface that would become her and Steepa’s son. “We will have a future because you will build it.”
When the meeting was done, Martin turned to Ferdinand Stone.
“I’m surprised you didn’t suggest this yourself. After all, you admit it’s the logical course.” Stone sighed. “I have been trying to learn to think more like a man and less like an Automaton now that we have defeated them. But I suppose it was necessary to think like them one more time.”
“No, Ferdinand, it was not. This is different. The Automatons would have come to this conclusion because they didn’t care; they treasured nothing in life. We came to this conclusion because we do care. We care enough to make the right choices, no matter how hard, to protect that which we love.”
Stone looked him in the eye and smiled sadly. Martin hadn’t yet seem him look so open before.
“Thank you, Alan. You make a good teacher in humanity.”
Narodny had already been walking away, but he had stopped within earshot, listening in. He looked pensive as he resumed walking.
The crew of the various ships worked frantically to prepare a ship for Tranda’s last voyage. They used one of the two smaller Neptunian ships aboard the remaining larger one; it was a little too small for the purpose, but they could not use the main ship, because after this was done, it would be the only habitat left where the remaining Neptunians could stay.
Within hours, they were done, producing a ship that was little more than a carrier for the large generator, with just enough space for Tranda and a handful of Neptunian companions who chose to share his fate.
Some of Ay-Artz’s ships were still laying waste to the planet even now, but others had already settled down, clearly intent on using the ravaged planet as their base. Most of the ships were relatively close to each other, within hundreds of miles. Tranda would approach the planet from a different side. He might well be spotted, but the numerically small fleet couldn’t cover the whole huge planet, nor were they trying to. Tranda would have plenty of time to fire the beam before they could stop him.
The rest of the fleet would make sure to be at least half the way to the orbit of Uranus by then. The explosion would obviously extend nowhere near that far, but they could have been caught in a tidal wave of unhealthy radiation if they stayed too close.
Aboard Narodny’s ship, there was a room holding the instruments that he used in his true art, to weave music from the rays of the celestial objects. There he stood when he played, on a conductor’s perch, but alone, with no orchestra save his collection of mechanical instruments, no audience save space itself behind the large window in front of him.
There he stood now, watching the space in the direction of far-off Neptune, eyes fixed on its individual glimmer that looked no different from the stars around it.
For the moment, there was another person in there. Lao was helping him prepare the instruments while Narodny himself stared ahead in contemplation.
“Everything is ready,” Lao eventually said. “The event will happen soon.”
“Good. Stay ready to send out image and sound. Make sure every ship in the fleet receives the transmission. It is of supreme importance.”
“You want to make your work public? You never did before.”
“I believe this piece can elevate even the masses from their brutal mediocrity.” “Really?”
“Yes. For, this time, I feel for them.”
Lao bowed. “Then this will be the greatest work of art the solar system has ever witnessed.”
Without further words, Lao turned and walked to the door. He turned around one last time before stepping out. “It has been an honor knowing you, Narodny.”
Teena stayed in contact with her brother to the last, but as the distance between the solar system fleet and Tranda’s ship increased by the minute, the delays between transmissions grew more and more unbearably long.
She sent out one last message, not knowing whether he would have time to see it.
“I don’t know how I can go on. Without you, without everyone back home, without home itself. I just don’t know…”
The final reply came minutes later.
“You can do it. You are braver than you know, Teena. You were willing to die for the sake of our race. I only ask that you live for it instead.
“Goodbye, my sister. I love you.”
She took the message to heart, but she also contracted in great sorrow, for she knew that hearing this message now meant that it had already happened.
Teena turned around and entwined herself deeply in Steepa’s waiting tubes, their auras joining in an infinitely deep blue of mourning.
“Your Supremacy, something… is happening on the other side of the planet.”
Ay-Artz glared down at the officer. His fear was not only fear of Ay-Artz himself; his countenance told that something was very wrong. Ay-Artz could now sense it too, a tremendous and growing disturbance sending psychic shockwaves across the whole planet.
“What is it!”
“We… we don’t know…”
“It’s your end, Ay-Artz.”
This new voice was not spoken but telepathic.
“What!” Ay-Artz shouted aloud, jumping up from his throne.
The messenger cowered in abject terror, but the tyrant ignored him. He searched for the source of the mental voice. It seemed to be neither near nor far – detached, not attached to any body, yet perfectly real. And somehow familiar.
“You have lost. The peoples of the solar system have risen to the challenge and defeated you thru bravery and ingenuity. Lemnis will now be free of your tyranny forever.”
By Ay-Artz’s throne, Xunia’s body collapsed limply, her ego finally choosing to flee to its just fate on Venus. Yet the voice was not hers.
“WHO ARE YOU!” the tyrant roared mentally. “WHERE ARE YOU! I will crush you a thousand times over!”
“I’m already dead, Ay-Artz. I stayed behind, by sheer force of will, for long enough to see what would happen – and tell you one thing.”
Ay-Artz roared in explosive, frustrated rage, and grasped the head of his cowering officer with one large, mechanically strengthened hand, crushing his skull and hurling him against a far wall. The telepathic voice had spoken one last sentence:
“Dos-Tev still rules.”
Narodny’s devices were now showing him a view from the surface of Neptune, the entire large window in front of him turning into a screen. He waited, not breathing, not moving a muscle, a mechanical instrument like a conductor’s stick poised in his hand, a complex keyboard waiting below the other.
He saw Tranda’s ship hurtling down thru the cover of clouds, and soon he began playing. No conductor had ever led an orchestra with such furious movements, because he was also composing the music every second from the etheric vibrations he received, and it was most complex piece of music a single man had ever played.
Sweat beaded on his brow, then sprayed from his hair, and then ran dry. Narodny was holding himself up only by the force of his inspiration and concentration. He had been working unceasingly to revive Mea-Quin’s mind, not sleeping, not eating, barely even drinking, and he worked even harder now than all of that time put together. Yet he took the very sensations of his body starting to give and weaved them, too, as part of his musical performance, driving his movements by his own breakdown.
There wasn’t a long time to play, but minutes stretched to eternities of ecstatic pain. He played, and he played, and he knew that he had finally outdone Verdi’s doomsday – tho, of course, his was real.
The view was transmitted to every visiplate and screen in every ship in the solar system fleet, the music to every device that could play it. Everywhere, people of different worlds stopped to look and listen in wonder.
They saw a view of the surface of Neptune, strangely beautiful landscapes in blues and other exotic colors spread out beneath swirling strata of gas overhead, mountain ranges standing in the distance. For a few seconds, there was silence, everything waited as if in anticipation. Then, at the center of this view, something happened. At first far in the distance, but then quickly expanding, a ball of blue-white light blossomed. Narodny’s music began: a sound like a reverberating drum the size of a planet, a tremendous boom echoing from the horizon in every direction, a single wall of sound yet filled with thousands of undercurrents, radiating and swirling.
The globe of blue light advanced rapidly in every direction, consuming the clouds above and the ground below. As its edge approached, they saw ground being thrown up ahead of it, each bit momentarily flying before it, too, was consumed by the blinding light and fed it. The sound of the drum broke into a million violins, each wail another feature of the landscape thrown up and consumed. In the background, a thunderous music as of innumerable horns blowing a storm.
Just before the wave of destruction reached it, the viewpoint receded at dizzying speed, many times that of sound, showing more and more of the landscape before each mile of it was consumed. Violins, horns, drums, a choir of angels in their death throes sang out with every explosion and flash of the ground being turned into flaring energy.
Faster the viewpoint receded, giving a glimpse of the landscape before it was consumed, the wall of destructive energy ever filling the horizon.
A huge jungle of gas-plants: an explosion of their deadly contents, spreading out in a vast black cloud for a second, the music a thousand stinging needles, before it all became another flash in the wall of blue light, and the music absorbed in a chilling storm again.
A broken glassite city, briefly thrown in the air like someone kicked a mound of sand, a terrified choir of mourning turning into the tinkling on shattered glass, and then nothing but the light again.
Ay-Artz’s fleet, now, racing away from the destruction, ahead and up, the mighty attackers reduced to futilely fleeing for their lives, horns and drums of war playing at frantically increasing speed until they turned into just another note in the storm of music and vanished into it, the ships swallowed without a trace in the glow of their own weapon.
Even faster the viewpoint raced backwards now, showing more at once: A proud mountain range many times taller than anything on earth, majestic crystalline peaks forming a mighty wall pushing aside the clouds, a grand and lofty sound of the brass section; the impossible wall of energy rising behind them and far higher, then sweeping them to nothingness in an instant, bending them forward like blades of grass before they vanished, the fury of the musical storm increasing impossibly as it swallowed their music.
A glittering, purple-blue sea as large as the oceans of earth combined, bold notes like violins covering the onrushing storm again for a moment, then suddenly a churning inferno, then not even that, just the blue glow swallowing up everything.
Even farther back the viewpoint raced, now at nearly the speed of light, soon showing all of Neptune in glorious silhouette, a choir of ten thousand gods singing in language nobody ever heard before. The unbearably bright blue light was spreading all over the planet, eclipsing its own blue, a mere dull gray in comparison. All the sounds of the music swept into a vortex where they lost their identities, yet formed a whole that was so much more than incoherent noise. The intensity rose, impossibly, even further, and further, felling many listeners off their feet, building up to an absolute climax.
Then, sudden silence. The viewpoint had shifted to where Neptune was only a dot in the distance, little more than another star. And, after what seemed like an eternity tho it was but one second, it flared as a supernova. A single note, celestial, almost gentle, not like any instrument in existence, but that sound had hidden roots deep in the infrasonic and struck straight into the listeners’ chests, momentarily stopping their hearts.
For just a few seconds, Neptune flared out as a blue star, brighter than the sun, just a spark in the middle of the immense field of stars but eclipsing them all. Then it was gone. The only thing that remained was the afterimage.
In his sip, Narodny closed his eyes for the last time, sighed in contentment, and keeled over from his platform.
All the music didn’t die with its creator, however. After a while, a gentle tune began to play, composed from the quiet field of stars. Sad yet soothing, it was a requiem for the world now gone.
The solar system had been ravaged by the war. Some of its best men and women had been lost along with large parts of its fleet.
The immense, beautiful blue world Neptune was gone, leaving behind only a handful of survivors bound for an exodus that could never end.
Nor would the planet be forgotten; Narodny’s magnum opus, the only work he had ever shared, would be treasured in awe by countless future generations of descendants of the solar system. It would remind them ever after of the terrors of war and the precious value and fragility of that which they took for granted.
The survivors were sad, tired, yet at peace. A terrible shadow had lifted. And if this was the end of a story, it was also the beginning of another one, an even greater adventure that would go on for generations and more.
The worlds of the solar system, technologically advanced but for centuries turned inwards each to their own local strife, had taken their first strides into real space travel.
The other, strange worlds of the solar system – save the one that was gone forever – were now not only a relatively short way away with these new fleets of ships, but their inhabitants were already allies. And there was so much more.
Around the twin suns of the Alpha Centauri awaited exotic Lemnis, whose usurping tyrant and rightful ruler had both died in the solar system, and the mighty and mysterious Risbo. Beyond that, other solar systems with countless worlds to challenge explorers – perhaps even other galaxies, if the distance could be spanned thru the fifth dimension. Even farther away, yet accessible with just a step, uncountable other dimensions waited to reveal their secrets.
The peoples of the solar system had saved it from conquest and destruction, and now stood together at the threshold of the cosmos.