Marah finished telling Duncan's tale. She fell silent and looked around at her fellow officers.
"And that's where we came in," the Vice-Captain said.
"What do you suppose it's for?" asked Logan, Exeter's engineer. "An ancient, planet-wide city, right in the middle of Banshee territory?"
"More importantly," said Malone, the science officer. "Should we lead humanity back to J359, as Duncan Norbert suggests?"
"We've got to," said Marah, with an unusual fire in her voice.
Malone looked at Mothram, then back to Marah. "Did the artifact instill Duncan with a compulsion to bring humanity back to J359, and was that compulsion passed on to you?" he asked her.
She appeared to look inward for a moment, then replied, "If such were the case, I suppose I wouldn't know, would I? But I'd like to think my desire for humanity, or at least some of us, to go back was the result of my own innate sense of curiosity and wonder, not the result of outside coercion."
Mothram asked, "But why does it want us to come back? Did Duncan leave you with any speculations or observations that might tell us why?"
A few moments' pause, then: "No. But the artifact said that `the seed it had planted had come to fruition.' Perhaps we're descendants of whoever built the city on J359, and it wants us to return to bestow some preplanned inheritance upon us."
Nervous, excited shuffles passed around the table. "That would be fantastic," Malone said thoughtfully. "It would follow, then, that the Banshees don't want us to come into that inheritance."
"Well," said Mothram, "it's not up to us to decide the next step. We'll reach Goliath in four days and perhaps, when a decision is made, our number will come up again. Dismissed."
The others had left the room, leaving Mothram alone with Marah. He pushed away from his chair and motioned her toward the door with exaggerated gallantry. She smiled and preceeded him into the corridor.
"So," Mothram said as they walked along. "Tell me the rest."
She looked at him in mock ignorance. "The rest, sir?"
"The two faces." The two faces the artifact had uploaded into Duncan Norbert, the two that were to be brought to the artifact. "Who are they?" "You noticed that I didn't mention that, did you? I didn't think anyone had noticed."
"Silence doesn't mean ignorance. You should know that better than anyone," he told her. "I'm sure the others noticed but assumed the information was classified."
"Oh," Mothram said, looking wounded.
Marah smiled. "Marina Farrakhan."
"The President?" Mothram asked, perplexed.
Marah nodded. "And someone else, a man. I don't know who he is. There are no records of him in my database. Which is highly unusual. I have records of every person that lives or has lived within known space for the last thousand years."
They walked in silence for a moment. Several crewmen passed and saluted the Vice- Captain. "How could the artifact possibly know about the President? And why would it want her in particular?"
Mothram sighed. "Who do you suppose built the artifact?" He meant it as a rhetorical question; he knew she couldn't possibly know. But he wanted her to elaborate on the speculation she'd given in the briefing.
"I wish you could see it through Duncan's eyes, the way I can. I keep running his records through my mind. That city...its dimensions, its style--I think WE built it, sir. I don't mean US, I mean humans, millions of years ago. And since to date Earth is the only planet in known space that gave rise to humans, that means WE built it--our ancestors, that is."
Mothram raised his eyebrows at her. "Really."
Marah opened her mouth and--
"Captain to the bridge!"
They both looked up at the intercom speaker, then darted into the central access corridor and rode the lift to the bridge.
Mothram stood above the Communications Officer, looking down at the small display screen.
"It's an automated loop-signal, sir, being broadcast by a buoy," said the CO.
"They were hit hard and fast, if this is all they managed to load before they launched the buoy," Mothram whispered.
The CO nodded.
Mothram watched as the message reset itself and repeated for the third time since his arrival: the bridge of a battlecruiser, in flames, several blood-smeared bodies slumped at their stations.
Ragged screams echoed all around. Numbers scrolled across the bottom of the screen, along with the name Demeter and the number of a planet: TC863 II. An unidentified officer clutched his seat as the ship rocked. His face pale white, vomit leaked from the corners of his mouth, and as the deck tilted sharply he screamed into the camera: "Under attack...colony already wiped out, in seconds....Banshees...." As he said this, a wisp of ghostly-lit fog darted in front of the camera and static filled the screen. The message reset itself....
Mothram straightened and paced the deck before seating himself at the conn. TC863 was several light-minutes from their current position; it had been colonized ten years earlier, present population: 1.3 million. And it was nowhere near a forbidden zone; it was actually fairly deep within human space.
Mothram sighed. Silence engulfed the bridge around him; all attention centered on the transmission. It had an unreal quality to it, a cry coming to them from the cold depths of space.
"All right, shut it off." He looked at Marah as she sat down to his right. "What's the old expression?" he asked her.
She looked puzzled for a moment, then raised her eyebrows and asked, "The shit hitting the fan?"
Mothram winced. The words were at odds with her innocent young face. He momentarily felt guilty that he'd led her to say them. "That's the one."
"Sir," the CO interrupted with a frantic note to his voice. Everyone on the bridge caught it, and the murmuring whisper that had begun with the end of the transmission suddenly stopped. All faces turned to the CO, who cleared his throat self-consciously. "Sir, we're receiving a transmission from Earth. It's--it's automated, sir."
Mothram's face went white.
Goliath was the most ambitious space-based construction effort ever to be undertaken by humanity: a great sphere twelve miles in diameter situated at the edge of Sol, just beyond the haze of the Oort Cloud. It had been completed five hundred years earlier, after more than one hundred years of construction that had proceeded in fits and starts. A permanently-manned space- station, home to half a million civilians, many of whom had been born there and would die there as well. Goliath was a hulking sentinal peering out into the cold lonely dark between the stars, while a Solar System teeming with life surged at its back.
When Exeter crept cautiously in from the depths of space, they found the giant station with its guts ripped out.
A five-mile wide, ragged hole had been bored completely through Goliath. The rest of it had been battered mercilessly. Enormous steel girders jutted from its surface or floated freely in space; small gaping holes dotted the surface, spilling out Goliath's innards. Bodies tumbled slowly in the cold vacuum, among drifting clouds of debris. Darkness shone in most of the windows, although a few flickering, strobing lights dotted the station.
The crew of Exeter studied the station with jaws agape. Except for the Vice-Captain, who sat with his practiced, calm detatchment. And Marah, who had been strangely silent, almost morose, for several hours before they'd arrive at Sol. Goliath's SOS bleeped insistently through the silence of the bridge, no longer noticed by anyone.
Exeter made three orbits around the station, finally going through the enormous wound in its gut. There were no survivors. The Banshees had made certain of that.
"Mr. Rickman," Mothram said into the silence. Rickman looked around at the Vice-Captain as though he'd forgotten there were others on the bridge. "Take us to Earth."
"Y-yes, sir," Rickman said.
At all the colonies along the way it was the same: complete destruction, total devastation. Io, the Rings, Phobos, Mars. Every place in the system where man had entrenched himself. Mothram felt they were following in the wake of a hurricane.
Earth was the final, paramount blow. She'd become a bright orange spark dancing around the sun's furnace: the Banshees had somehow ignited her atmosphere. Though not before killing most of her children, Mothram was sure.
The Earth burned.
"It's come to this, has it?" Mothram whispered. "Thousands, millions of years to get where we are, and this is how it ends?"
"Sir," the CO said suddenly. "Picking up a signal, receding from us. It's a probe. Transmitting Jericho Priority codes."
Jericho Priority, Mothram thought. Not just an ordinary, ignorable space probe. Jericho Priority said it was to be retrieved at any cost.
When they overtook the probe, they found it to contain one item: a vial of blood from Marina Farrakhan, President of Earth.
And then the probe began transmitting a single recorded word, in the voice of Farrakhan: the number of a planet, JQ8519 IV.
En route to JQ8519 IV.
Into the morose, contemplative silence gripping the bridge, Rickman asked, "Why do you think they did it?" The question wasn't directed at anyone in particular.
Logan White, echoing Mothram's own opinion on the matter, answered, "I think they did it to punish us for our discovery and Norbert's exploration of J359. Perhaps it has some strategic value to them, or some value to us that we haven't yet realized. They decided to wipe out humanity because of it. We--"
"That could be a valid supposition," Malone interrupted, "but trying to interpret their behavior, their actions, based on the same desires which motivate us is dangerous. They're so completely different from us we may never be able to understand them."
"So what's they point in trying, is that what your're saying?" the CO asked with a touch of anger. "What's the use in anything anymore? Why don't we just stop and let the Banshees have us?"
"We're not stopping," Mothram said. Everyone looked at him. "Think about it. Why haven't the Banshees killed us as well? After all, we rescued Duncan Norbert. I know I'm being anthrocentric," he glanced at Malone, "but houldn't they be the angriest at us? But they haven't even touched us, and since they've already destroyed most of our species, you can be sure they want to finish the job. So why haven't we seen them yet?"
"We're moving," Rickman said, "It's because we haven't stopped long enough for them to get us. That may be their weakness. If we stay still long enough, they'll get us, so we just keep moving."
"And there are at least ten other ships on patrol," Malone said. "We're probably not the only survivors."
"I'll send out a message," the CO said. "Tell any ships out there to keep moving. And to meet us at JQ8519 IV."
Mothram nodded. "Good."
Marah's shift was over. She and Mothram had just left the mess hall and were walking toward their respective quarters. They'd both picked at their food, eating little, talking even less.
"What's bothering you?" Marah finally asked.
Mothram looked sidelong at her. He considered denying her suspicion,pretending nothing was wrong. Keep up the image of the untouchable commanding officer. But she knew him better than that. "I don't know," he shrugged. "The world has just changed dramatically. Every generation always thinks that things are going to hell, that it can't last much longer. But we're actually facing extinction now." He stopped talking as several crewmen passed. "Earth is gone; for all practical purposes, we're homeless. The institution which this ship and everyone aboard her serves is gone. I guess I'm feeling...directionless. Lost at sea." He laughed, trying to shrug off his admission of weakness. Then: "Your turn: what's bothering you? You've been unusually silent and withdrawn since before we arrived at Sol. Three days ago."
They'd come to Marah's quarters. She keyed open the door and leaned against the frame, shoulders sagging. "I felt them die, all of them."
She tapped her head.
She nodded. "No one is supposed to know, but I guess now it doesn't matter. We're telepathic. Linked, even when we're light-years apart. We don't know the thoughts of others, only general feelings. Above all we can sense the PRESENCE of the others. We know when one of us dies. We feel a little of the hurt." Mothram sensed that she was holding back a flood of tears. "It's always been comforting. Even when I was alone, I could feel others around me, so I was never TRULY alone. But that's all been ripped away from me. I felt them just winking out of existence, like flames in a dark room being extinguished. By the thousands." She looked up at Mothram. "I guess we're both feeling directionless."
Mothram fought the urge to reach out and touch her. He wanted to so much, but...
She glared at him. "For once would you stop hiding behind your damn walls?" She reached out and took his hand. "Let's share our weaknesses, and find strength." She pulled at him, and he found himself following her into her quarters, unresisting.
Three hours later he left her asleep in her bed. On the way to his own quarters, he stopped at the cargo hold and opened one of the lockers. He took out the small vial of blackish fluid and studied it thoughtfully. Held it up to the light, turned it over and over in his hands. She'd known beforehand. Something BIG was happening, things were coming to a conclusion, and she knew. SHE knew what it was all about, but she was dead and the knowledge had died with her.
Or had it? Why had she sent them to lonely star in a neglected, unexplored corner of the galaxy?
He set the vial of blood back in the locker and went to his quarters for a much-needed shower.
Scott can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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