Audiobook version here:
I am hurtling through space in a dead ship, away from my homeworld, away from my wife and children.
The engines of the craft that carries me have grown cold. All the fuel is spent. The near-deafening roar of accelerants has been replaced by sharp, metallic clicking sounds as temperature differentials in the plating and bones of the ship cause bits and pieces to slide imperceptibly against each other. The only other sound is my own breath.
A drab field of stars fills the forward portal. I am moving toward these stars, but it will be a long time before I pass a single one.
A million hungry mouths are chasing me, attracted by the thing that floats behind me in the storage area of this craft, tethered in place by a dozen straps. It is a Lure, built and delivered to my world by the Enemy, intended to destroy us and frustrate the plans of the Old Ones.
I don’t suppose this record will ever be found. In fact, I hope it is not. If it is found, and you can understand this, watch out for things that are following me. They can destroy entire worlds. It may be that it is already too late for you. Pray for deliverance.
The statistics against this craft ever running into anyone are astronomical. This ship is pointed at nothing—no world, no trade routes. I am traveling, as best I can, OUT of the galaxy and away from civilization. I would not want the misfortune that my people narrowly escaped to befall anyone else. I and my train of world-eating locusts, have a one-way ticket into the black expanses of intergalactic space.
Once this craft’s batteries die, the life-support gives out, the transponders fail, and the ship cools to the ambient temperature of space, radiating no more energy than it absorbs from the meager starlight that strikes its surface, no one will ever be able to find it. It will disappear into the background noise of the universe and be lost forever.
Part of me is still hoping to hear the faint, musical chirping of the ship’s simple communication equipment as it detects a much faster vessel than mine coming to my rescue, coming to pluck me from this metallic tomb, but this is a fantasy. No one is coming. I tell myself a story that some covert ship on a secret mission might fortuitously be nearby and come save me. Perhaps it is manned by one of the strange alien races with whom we are allied, and I will join their crew and assist them in their mission, then many years from now be returned home to my wife and children. It’s a pleasant thought and right now pleasant thoughts are welcome.
I am running out of time. I hope I have enough to set my thoughts down in order.
My people are very superstitious. We believe that unless a man’s bones are laid to rest in sanctified ground—soil upon which the shadow of a church’s spire falls—his spirit cannot move on to whatever awaits us in the afterlife. He is doomed to wander in the Shadow World, a ghostly, intangible reflection of the place inhabited by the living, a creature only ever glimpsed by the living on moonless nights in desolate places, his moans and howls of despair faintly piercing the veil and chilling the blood of whomever happens to be nearby. It is generally thought that a man must have committed some ghastly depravity or injustice in life to merit such a fate. Our stories and folklore reflect this, as villains often perish in ways that prevent even a single fragment of their bones from being recovered. Our philosophers agonize over the conundrum of manifestly vile men who died peacefully in their beds and were laid to rest in the usual way.
I suppose it may seem odd that a people such as mine, who have achieved such scientific advancement, should simultaneously be so superstitious. I, however, do not find it strange. These superstitions are our heritage, our tradition, and it is important to keep such things alive. The Enemy hates such things, and would submerge all traditions and heritage beneath their self-righteous and godless nonsense.
Theologians might quibble about our superstitions—I have seen them do it—and wave about hefty tomes of systematic theology purporting to disprove what we believe about those who are not properly buried, but can they really know? I have doubts. Perhaps our ancestors, the men and women from whom these traditions originated, were not as foolish as we’d like to think. Perhaps they saw and witnessed things we cannot imagine.
I cannot say one way or another, but what I can say is that my ancestors were good people—at least I must presume so, for they taught their children, and their children’s children, the way of righteousness, and to obey the Lord Our God, Creator of Heaven and Earth—and it is not becoming to lightly dismiss whatever else they taught us.
I suppose I should put down some record of the events that led to me being in this situation..
Many years ago, I was a soldier in the War, and I was one of the few who returned from the Front Lines.
Before departing to fight in the War, I was married. We married young, as all my people do. I note this because I have heard that not all human societies follow this practice. For my people, however, there is no other way.
I was an arrogant young man, and I resented that I was not in charge of things—that my intelligence was not recognized and rewarded. My wife bore my complaining with the patience of a saint, and kissed me to let me know that she would follow me even if no one else would. I do not think there was ever a better woman.
I was deployed several times over the first few years of our marriage, but I was kept far from the Front. By design, of course. There were roles to be filled farther away from the meat grinder, given to young soldiers so that their wives would not be widowed too soon, before they had a chance to conceive children. I was given the task of ferryman and pilot, bringing personnel and ships wherever they needed to be. I could fly anything, and I did.
It sounds disturbing to say it, but my society has been engineered by the Old Ones for this end. We are a people cultivated for War—to reproduce then die fighting. The Old ones orchestrate this, managing our lives and crunching the numbers like actuaries, determining how many bodies they need to throw at some objective to obtain it. It sounds inhuman, but it was the path my ancestors chose, thousands of years ago, and we do not see any other way.
You have to understand that from the perspective of the Old Ones, this is merely a temporary measure. After all, they live practically forever. A human life is an exceedingly brief candle to them.
Some people might find this state of affairs reprehensible. For instance, our philosophers—old men who survived the Front then took to the luxury of pontification with a will—have raised the question of its ethicality. I suppose it is reasonable to wonder about such things when benevolent alien overlords begin managing human lives as if they were a renewable resource.
I do not know. Perhaps it is a necessary evil. All I know is that humans are the shortest-lived of all our allies, and we reproduce the fastest, and without us manning the Front, this War would be lost in a very short amount of time—perhaps a century or two.
After the birth of my second child, I was finally sent to the Front. By this time, I think I had learned that my wife’s devotion was all the respect I needed. I did not need other men to follow my lead. After all, I did not have whatever quality inspires other men to obey. Indeed, I had to admit that I did my best work under the direction of other men. I think around this time I also began to realize how much pain my complaining had caused my wife over the years—pain which she had borne in silence, keeping her displeasure to herself.
I cannot say how much I really loved my wife when we were first married, but I do know that I grew to love her. I do not think that any man could possibly possess the depth of feeling I have for my wife now.
Even now, sitting in this dead ship, I ache for her. My insides quiver at the thought of her. These words are inadequate.
Only a day ago I kissed my wife and children goodbye. We shall not be reunited.
By the time I was sent to the Front, I had learned how to be truly useful to my superiors, and to understand my place. My commanding officer seemed to like me, and my unit was an effective team. We fought well, and were even involved with reclaiming a bit of territory from the Enemy.
What’s really remarkable is that nearly my entire unit returned home alive from the Front. This is practically unheard-of among my people. Many units do not return at all. We were given medals, and most of us graduated into civilian life.
I did not know what to do with myself. I had not expected to return from the Front. My own father, and his father, had died in the War and had never had the chance to become civilians.
It was around this time that the Old Ones began to realize that their management of the human race, or at least my people, was beginning to have unforeseen consequences. After being subjected to thousands of years of their breeding programs, our behaviour, and even the physical form of our bodies was beginning to change. These changes were barely perceptible, except to scientists, but the Old Ones began to suspect that if this process continued, we would eventually be transformed into something other than human.
These changes were not purely the result of culture. They were physiological and genetic. The electro-chemical composition of our brains was being altered, affecting the way we perceived reality, the things we perceive as normal. Our drives, inclinations, and patterns were beginning to deviate.
As I’m certain the reader must know, no matter how many eons separate us, the Enemy we fight today include those who grew discontented with their natural form and sought to engineer a better one for themselves—subverting the natural order and cutting themselves off forever from the grace of God. It seemed that in our battle against these creatures, we were in some way becoming like them.
The emotions of the Old Ones are hard to read, but it was clear that this revelation disturbed them greatly.
The changes they had discovered were not irreversible, but the Old Ones could foresee that eventually there would be no turning back from the precipice. A new, non-human race or subspecies would be born. With a casual glance they might look human, but they simply wouldn’t be—an abomination of the highest order.
This presented a problem. We could not stop manning the Front, but neither could things continue as they had.
So the Old Ones devised a solution. Me, my wife, and my children would become part of that solution.
It is more complicated than what I am about to describe, but part of the Old Ones’ plan involved the establishment of isolationist human colonies, free from advanced technology and free of further interference from the Old Ones. On these worlds, humanity would be free, as we were before the War. The natural and godly order would then reestablish itself on these worlds, and humanity would be preserved in its natural state. These colonies would be on worlds where the Secret Givers had never planted Gates and could only be reached by ship. They would be tucked into out-of-the-way corners of the galaxy where they could escape notice.
The Holy See was skeptical of this plan due to the disastrous ruination that often befalls human isolationist groups for one reason or another, but a compromise was eventually reached. The colonists could cut themselves off physically—burning the ships that carried them to their new worlds,—but lines of communication would be kept open.
There was some other matter that concerned the Church regarding this plan, but I was never really able to follow it. It involved some kind of prophecy regarding a human world that had cut itself off from the galaxy, I think. The word “immanentizing” was used. I only mention it because it seemed important at the time, but I never heard it brought up again.
These new colonies, having no technology, and no strategic significance, would hopefully attract no attention from the Enemy and could remain unaffected by the War almost indefinitely. The Enemy’s reach is vast, but their resources are not infinite.
The colonies would serve to preserve humanity in its natural state, and also eventually to revitalize and recenter those human populations who continued to fight generation after generation.
My family was selected to join one of these colonies, and we dutifully trudged into the ship that would carry us to our new home. It was of course a massive endeavour, involving a lot of research and stocking of supplies. There were several hundred people in our particular group: some veterans of the Front like myself, but mostly younger soldiers and their families who had been retasked for this project. Not being able to help themselves, the Old Ones selected participants based on various criteria, one final managerial oversight before leaving us to our own devices.
We felt like characters in a story, setting out to conquer a new world. I found new purpose in the project and dove into it headfirst. There was talk of “living the way our ancestors did on Ancient Earth”, if that is indeed where we come from, tilling the land with simple equipment and farm animals rather than the automated industrial machinery with which we were more familiar.
Our enthusiasm carried us through our long journey, down to the planet’s surface, and through the initial stages of building ourselves homes and basic infrastructure. Our enthusiasm waned somewhat when disease struck.
Since this world had no Gate, its microfauna was somewhat unique, and proved to be a shock to our system. Some few of us died before the remainder developed a natural immunity. My family, God be praised, was spared the worst of it, but I knew two women, and one child, who succumbed.
There was no one to help us when this disaster struck, and there was no going back. The ships that had carried us here were now either returned home, scuttled, or disassembled for their raw materials. Using our communications equipment, we reported what was happening, but there was no one close-by who could help. The only thing the disembodied voices we heard could provide was sympathy and prayer. Besides, even if a World-Ship of the Old Ones could have reached us, with its preternatural engines that can carry them instantaneously from place to place, its presence would be detected by the Enemy—and attracting their attention would be worse than any amount of disease.
Ultimately, of course, we survived, and were the stronger for it. We began to prosper, and the eldest of our children began to marry. We built town halls, and market squares, and churches. We built sawmills, and roads, and aqueducts. We took vows and wrote constitutions intended to preserve our new ways and ensure our children stuck to them. We were doing very well indeed.
Then a fireball fell out of the sky.
That was a month and a half ago. I myself witnessed its descent. I had seen other fireballs since arriving on this world—the intentional scuttling of the ships that carried us here, but those had been highly publicized and scheduled events. No one knew what this thing was, however. It was unlikely to have been a meteor, as it moved the wrong direction through the sky and just looked wrong. Most people who saw it agreed that it looked like it remained intact all the way to the ground.
A meeting was called in the Town Hall. Voices were raised. Concerns were heard. Ultimately, everyone agreed that it was worth investigating. An expedition was put together to search for the crater. It had struck the ground at more than terminal velocity, so if it was a ship it had certainly been pulverized, but we had to be certain. Many suspected that it was merely a cargo container forgotten in orbit which had finally fallen into the atmosphere, and many of us prayed that was all it was.
Men came from all around, riding horses. Some wore their uniforms from their days in the army. Others wore shirts stitched by hand from the vast stores of fabrics we had brought with us to this world. Still others wore shirts made from fabrics we had begun to weave for ourselves. We carried weapons of various sorts, and supplies for a few days of roughing it.
We set out and found the crater without too much difficulty. In it were the remains of some sort of ship—not a cargo container—smashed beyond recognition, but from within the twisted metal protruded something else, an undamaged, dark metallic object about the size of a large bathtub, with bright gold bands running through it. Carefully we cleared away the debris to expose the Thing more fully. It had a vaguely technological look, but alien, unlike anything our people had ever used.
Only a few of us knew, or suspected what it was, but the fact that the Thing was undamaged was enough to let anyone know that it had a preternatural element to its construction. It did not have the look of something made by the Old Ones. It was a weapon of the Enemy.
The Old Ones had been right that this new world was too far out of the way for the Enemy to attack, at least directly, but our benefactors had failed to take into consideration that the Enemy are a vicious and cruel people, vindictive and imaginative in their punishments. The Enemy did not have the resources to come destroy us in person, but they were not above sending a plague of locusts in our direction.
World-eating locusts, I mean.
The Thing in the crater was a Lure, designed to attract a kind of ravenous space bug. “Bug” is not really the right word for these creatures. They are enormous, super-planar entities that are usually harmless, usually only a danger to asteroid-mining operations, but if for some reason a swarm were to descend upon an inhabited world, the results would be apocalyptic.
A few of us had heard of these Lures being used by the Enemy, and my blood ran cold at the sight of it. Normally it would have been a small matter of loading the Thing onto a ship, carrying it into space, and firing it into an asteroid field or deep space, but I didn’t think we had the means to leave the planet’s atmosphere any more. We had taken vows to destroy vehicles capable of this feat, and there shouldn’t have been any left. There was much cursing and recrimination at this “shortsightedness”.
There was no possibility of disarming, concealing, or disassembling the Lure either. Witchcraft had gone into its making. We carried it back to our settlement, but neither our most skilled engineers, nor our most powerful priests could even scratch its surface. They determined that even if we could grind the Thing into dust, the dust itself would continue to attract the swarm.
An observation and communication satellite above our world was retasked to scan the heavens for the approach of the locusts, but I personally did not need its confirmation to know that the monsters were coming, and that they were close. I knew the Enemy. They would not have sent this Thing to us if they didn’t know there were locusts somewhere nearby.
The satellite detected the locusts, and a date was set for their arrival.
An urgent call was put out, to see if any of our friends could come help us, and although the voices of those who responded were filled with horror at our predicament, there was no one who could conceivably get to us in time.
Then another voice cut in over the voices of our friends—a slow, disturbing, gutteral laugh with a strange robotic-sounding edge, devoid of any true human emotion. It was the Enemy, mocking us, making us feel small. I myself only heard it for a few moments, but the hatred in that laugh, it haunted me.
A search, or a hunt, began. A hunt for a craft that was capable of escaping the atmosphere and breaking orbit. Perhaps someone had broken their vows and kept such a craft for themselves. It was hoped, anyway. Many barns and sheds were broken into and ransacked. Junk piles and junk yards were picked through. Abandoned landing sites were scoured.
Many aircraft were found, but nothing that had any hope of escaping the atmosphere, even if some sort of rocket were strapped to them to give them a boost when the air thinned.
All hope seemed lost, but then a rusted hulk was found in a junkyard, an old tug boat that had miraculously escaped being disassembled for parts.
I cannot recount for you the superhuman effort it took, on the part of many, many people, to get that tug functional again. That would require an entire tome in itself, and I don’t actually know the full story. I assisted the engineers in whatever way I could, but I was not the project manager, and I did not learn everything that went on. Parts had to be scavenged and repaired. Wiring had to be replaced. Rotten air seals had to be replaced with whatever alternatives could be found. This much I know.
And fuel had to be obtained. I will never know how enough was collected.
At one time, the tug could have been piloted remotely, but it operated on a proprietary analog system, and the control unit had gone down with one of the scuttled ships that had brought us here. Consequently, the ship would have to be manually piloted into space and then away from the planet. There was no question of jerry-rigging an autopilot. There simply was not enough time.
The question inevitably arose, Who will pilot the ship?
Of course it was me. There is not much to say about it. I was the most qualified, and I had done my part for the colony by propagating my family line. My children would live on, while I performed this necessary task.
I spent a last day with my family and then departed. I had taken the tug up on two very brief test flights, so I knew how she would handle in the air. It was the most unsteady craft I’d ever flown, and I suppose not just rocket fuel, but many prayers carried me upward. It was a rough ascent, and my teeth nearly rattled out of my skull. I half-expected the Lure to shake free of its moorings and start tumbling about the hold, but it stayed in place.
Watching the fuel gauge rapidly drop, I had a brief moment of panic and hoped we had not miscalculated anything, but soon the blue of the sky disappeared from my forward portal, and the darkness of space took its place. I was in orbit, and I had enough fuel to accelerate me away from the planet and out of the system, leading the locusts away. Over the brief time I was able to communicate with the ground, they told me the locust’s trajectory was shifting towards me.
I can see them, faintly, in the distance now, following the Lure—millions of scintillating lights, deceptively small-looking, possibly the reflections from their teeth. I cannot guess. As super-planar entities, their physical form is hard to discern. They have a maximum velocity and I have matched it. They will chase me; they will chase this craft; they will chase the Lure forever.
My family and my colony are safe. I remember there was some talk of taking the colony radio-silent, to trick the Enemy into thinking we had been destroyed. I don’t remember what decision they came to now. I have to confess it is getting hard to think. And I have a splitting headache.
I am sitting here on the float. I think the end is near for me. If that covert alien ship on a secret mission is going to save me, they’d better do it soon.
Soon life support is going to fail and then I’ll probably freeze before I suffocate.
Much could be said, I suppose, by a man in my position. Poets and playwrights put great moving words in the mouths of those close to death. I doubt anything I have to say could compare.
All I have to say is this. I lived a better and a longer life than I could have expected. The Lord blessed me with a loving wife and healthy children. I played what I think was a good part in a story bigger than my own. There is much that I regret that I have not recorded here, but my shortcomings for the most part were detrimental only to myself.
What more could a man possibly want in life?
I am awed by the workings of Providence I have seen unfolded in my life—the things I survived in the War, the woman the Lord gave me, and many other things, not least of which is the fact that the Lure fell to our colony where it could be seen, and not on the other side of the planet or into the ocean where it could not be retrieved. One would have to be blind not to perceive the power of God and of prayer in such things.
It is getting very cold.
I mentioned earlier that my people are very superstitious, and believe that a man’s bones must be buried in a churchyard in order for his spirit to find rest.
Needless to say, my bones are not very likely to ever find their way into sanctified ground, not for countless eons, anyway—billions and trillions of years.
It is said that one day, in the far distant future, the Lord shall roll up the heavens like a scroll, when the story of our universe is ended. Perhaps He shall prepare it for burial and lay it to rest (and me with it), in whatever sort of churchyard universes are buried in. Then I’ll finally be able to move on.
Perhaps I shall flit about the Shadow World until that day. Who knows? But I shall not be a spirit that moans and terrifies men in dark, desolate places at night. I shall not be tormented because my heart is filled with nothing but praise and I have faith in the goodness of God.
A billion trillion years is a long time to wander, but I shall be at peace.