Aphelion Issue 262, Volume 25
June 2021
 
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Heaven's Radio


by Jason Arsenault



Gardner asked Selfless, "What are the incontrovertible truths, my Occal?"

"Unheeded growth cannot be sustained," The man said as he looked up, feeling the sun on his lustrous skin. He watched the gleaming shimmers of the Azure rings in the sky. The embassy was quiet with little more than Sporers shedding and both men enjoyed that sort of serenity. "Nor can stagnation be tolerated. The balance is finding life's temperance." Then he kneeled towards the flower patch and appreciated the results of this daylight's warming beauty through his olfactory antenna.

The old man looked at him like a larva would with joy. "You ask for enumeration as if there are an ordained few--but times change. Today, we can duplicate information at infinitum," he said looking at Gardner. "Some are quite reluctant to share information limitlessly. Should that not require a decree as well? The rules to live by, should be yours to discover." The chosen leader of the world-over peered towards the fulcrum shape of the planetary rings. With clear skies like today, it looked as sharp as a razor.

Gardner accompanied him down the path. The Occal was truly selfless, he thought as they headed towards the slums. The Occal chose to retire every evening to the lowest commode. He taught that if he could not be comfortable where the most unfortunate would be cursed to inhabit, then he would direct the social workers to find the necessary compromise. No one went hungry on Zyne anymore. Indeed, it was wise to have discovered and nominated such a man for the Occalcy.

Two large lumps of shallow shells, which were male Sporers, dashed between their feet. They skittered below shrubs to find more nectar to imbibe. This pair Gardner noticed numerous times before; so familiar were their hollow clicks when they ran on cobblestone. Their insatiable appetite for nectar and pollen was truly remarkable. But they were an intricate part of the ecology; shedding was responsible for most, if not all, pistil pollination.

"They are happy, we are happy, and that makes them happy too," the ruler said after seeing Gardner stare at the everyday critters. But that was wisdom also, because if the Sporers felt threatened, their venom was lethal at every instance. There were many reasons why Sporers evolved as survivors on every continent. Yet Sporer attacks were dramatically rare, almost nonexistent within their contemporary bio-equalitarian society.

Indeed, Gardner was glad to accompany the Occal today.

The two large insects they had crossed earlier hopped down at a rapid pace. "Certainly are in a hurry," commented Gardner. He thought he might have said something wrong when Selfless stood silent, looking only at the Azure.

"Do you study history, my brother?" the Occal asked sharply.

"With passing admiration, perhaps."

Without taking his eyes off the planetary rings, he said, "The fall of the last Zyne monarchy."

"More than two millennia ago," confirmed Gardner. (One orbit Of-Zyne = 5.66 Yu'Mann Urth orbits.)

"Yes, but the cause?"

"Famine--a cataclysmic ecological collapse."

"The Sporers were not happy," he said naively. "There are theories that the rings were the cause."

"That the orbital defense bases built by the monarchs offended the Sporers?"

"Perhaps," he said, but Gardner couldn't tell what was so particular today about the ancient cyclopean remains of one proud dynasty's most ambitious endeavor. The crumbled mega-structures, which, from his vantage, looked glossy and solid, had been orbiting Zyne for thousands of years, and were computed to remain for thousands more. Everything built from the rings, crumbles back into the rings; as would all those that are of Zyne.

Like an ominous chill, Gardner started having misgivings about the attitude with which Selfless stared at the Azure. The place grew eerily quiet, like everyone tried to listen to the sounds of shedding when there was none. Very few Of-Zyne ever thought arid tranquility was a good omen.

But his chill was followed by a distant, growing hum; some barely perceptible noise growing to deafening proportions. The very low frequency wave seemed to descend from the sky itself, echoing from everywhere. It was as loud as anything Gardner had ever heard before.

A lone Sporer emerged from under a leaf, scurrying drunkenly towards them. The noise, that Gardner could barely tolerate, seemed to be affecting them as well. He had never seen one behave quite like that, despite his professional familiarity with them. This one looked stunned but suddenly dashed towards the Occal.

Startled by the creature's jolt, the man stumbled. Before Gardner could intervene, the Sporer climbed the Occal's body, withdrew its aculeus from its shells, and stuck it into his neck. Never had he seen an attack with his own eyes, but to have it be directed at the Occal himself was ungodly; he lamented as loud as the thundering, incessant hum. The Sporer had been so violently fast. The elder man lost consciousness almost immediately as the muscles forcing his lungs failed to contract. But Gardner's hope soon turned lamentably worse; two more Sporers emerged from hiding and scrambled at him--towards one who had dedicated his life to nourishing them.

He brushed one aside with his foot--absurdly worried that by trying to save his own life he might injure the critter--but it jumped, wrapping its small shell, like clumsy appendages, around his ankle, and impaled him more times than he could count. The sequence was so overwhelming that he barely noticed when the noise from the heavens tapered to extinction.

In the new silence, Gardner grabbed for his swelling ankle. The pain was atrocious, and the insect that had given him this sentence of death simply stared at him with inconsequential eyes. Having proclaimed Gardner's sentence, it carelessly perused the bushes walking away.

There was no hope, he thought as he stared at the insect; feeling the dreadful pain pulse in his leg. He accepted his fate with complacency and eased himself onto the ground. He saw it explore slowly like Sporers did, but--being the expert botanist that he was--he noticed it never sniffed, no pollen traversing its hide to be shed elsewhere. Something was dearly wrong with them.

After a few minutes, when the swelling in his ankle seemed to subside, and he didn't notice his consciousness waver or his breathing falter, Gardner propped himself up. Why aren't I dead, he wondered?

But Selfless was. His gaping labium, the swelling around his eyes, and the flaccidity of his antenna left Gardner with little doubt. Their honored leader was no more.

Two regulators ran to help Gardner to his feet, holding the traditional, yet rarely used, Sporer tongs. Another went to the body of the Occal. This one proclaimed the leader dead and wailed his own lamentations; he hadn't been there to protect their beloved ideal when danger had befallen him. One regulator asked Gardner if he was well, but after he told him about his wounds, the man looked at him like he was a liar. Gardner pointed to his ankle, but a second man dismissed it as a scrape. Leaving Gardner behind, the three took the Occal through the solemn march.

Gardner stumbled down the path, trying to walk while his injured leg lagged behind. Another Of-Zyne caught him as he stumbled. He also told her that he had been stung, but she didn't believe either, leaving him to his painful shuffle.

Numerous came out of hiding after hearing the mourning bells. They rushed past Gardner, shocked from the astral roar and unable to accept the spreading rumors about Selfless. Again, some aided Gardner as he stumbled, but no one remained after he was thought to be dishonorable enough to lie. "No one stung can speak," the old sterilized female had told him, disgust showing in her eyes.

No matter what they thought, the sanatorium regenerists were bound by oath to help. But again, he saw their brows frown and their antennas part as he told them what had happened. Gardner told him that the poison might have a late onset, that despite his apparent constitution, he might still die. The regenerist, overwhelmed by the injured following the chaos outside, took a closer look at Gardner's wounds despite his better judgment.

He exhaled as he took a swab of the trickling white ichor that indeed looked like poisoned blood. The swab he transferred into his analytical machine and computed the device to fully profile the wretched man's wound. But alas, as impossible as it was to believe, a large absorbance spike in the spectrum, which was unmistakably Sporer neurotoxin, was as visible as the Azure on a cloudless day.

The regenerist, about to ask how the patient on his sick bed could have survived, instead hastened to verify Gardner's biorhythms, expecting him to die then and there. But Gardner's breathing was normal, his heart rate steady, and his compound eyes dilated in response to bright light.

"There is a good deal of swelling around the wound," he told Gardner. Very little was known about the long-term effects of the ultra-potent neurotoxins. In fact, it had never been documented at all.

"Is that worrisome?"

"Normally, death is so fast there is little time for inflammation. But as I have never observed the effects in a--live specimen, I have no idea."

After receiving anti-inflammatory medication and promising the regenerist that he would return for a full physiogenetic follow-up when the sanatorium quieted down, Gardner made his way towards his accommodations at the embassy.

***

The council scrambled to an emergency session to discuss the incident and debate who next should be appointed to the Occalcy. An older Of-Zyne with which Gardner had a passing familiarity, named He-Who-Looks-Back, led the meeting with his usual statuesque eloquence. The man said, "As parlance of succession is tradition on Zyne, we will begin the process of appointing the new Occal."

No one doubted that He-Who-Looks-Back secretly sought it, but as it was ordained, neither man who seeks the Occalcy nor fertile female may be permitted to hold office. The promise of power can influence the judgment of those who are vulnerable to its call, and some men--even underhandedly--could influence the selection process to become nominated. It had happened before, and it was bound to happen again. Certain males were born with a fertile female's innate desire for power; the indomitable will of a matriarch. It was said that a woman who bore ten children would seek to rule her field, but one who bore a thousand would seek more than the galaxy itself.

Gardner thought little ill will towards He-Who-Looks-Back, but he was no Selfless; nor could anyone ever replace him. Another strong tinge of mourning flowed through Gardner as he recalled the horrors of yesterday.

The councilmen had been given until the next ring shimmer to nominate their next Occal (On Zyne, ring shimmers are tantamount to Yu'Mann moon phases, the procession cycle lasting approximately 4.2 Yu'Mann lunar cycles). The next phase would start in only four days from now. Indeed, He-Who-Looks-Back was hastening the nomination process. Couldn't they see the obvious ego in his desires; he raised the issue of the Occalcy before the situation with the Sporers and the roar from the sky? But he had always been an adamant proponent of cultural stability and perhaps that was enough to ignore his misattribution of priorities.

A regulator at the council chambers stopped Gardner in his path. It was the same man who had lamented over Selfless's body. He definitely remembered a liar. "Not you," he said with unquestionable fatality.

Dumfounded, he didn't know what to say to convince such a man, holding the long tong that was well suited to also be used against any Of-Zyne. But a loud voice carried over, "Let this man enter, I know that Selfless held this man at high esteem. Gardner is a Sporer expert." An expert, thought Gardner sardonically; I don't even know why I am still alive.

The regulator's eyes never wavered--his opinion of Gardner rigidly fixed--yet he withdrew and stood aside, letting him enter. The councilman that granted him entrance was Stargazer. Gardner walked to him and curled his antenna cordially, then both turned to listen.

The speaker opened the floor to discuss the loud astral event and the Sporer attacks. "We have over a million fatalities through all five continents, from Ataban to Surmivol, no place on Zyne was unaffected," he told the council. "During the roar, the Sporers became frantic, behaved as if threatened. And since then, we hear not the sounds of shedding." Many lowered their heads. "I'm afraid that if they do not become serene soon, the next harvest will suffer greatly. By this day next cycle, we will no longer be able to export soma and green grass past The Strand [The Strand is a large city on the equator where the Azure shrank to the barely perceptible thickness of leaves]. "Famine will follow." Spurious whispering underlined the worry palpable inside the council chamber.

"You, Gardner," He-Who-Looks-Back said, watching him with the face of someone who withheld something important. "You have been a groundskeeper at the embassy for eight cycles, have you not?" He nodded from the sidelines. "Would you be able to explain the Sporers' bizarre behavior?"

Gardner gulped and, after seeing Stargazer's sign of approval, walked to the podium. "I was with Selfless when the sounds from the heavens came," he started, "I noticed then that they weren't moving as usual. Frightening, the noise was, but there was something bizarre in their candor. Then suddenly they became violent. And ..."

"We won't need to go into the details of our brave Occal's death," interrupted He-Who-Looks-Back. "Obviously, there was nothing to be done--but please, tell us why this roar caused them to attack and their shedding stopped."

"I--I do not know, honored councilman."

"Then do you know what caused the wail to begin with?"

"No councilman."

The man stood and raised his arms, "There you have it; even the best botanist in our very capital does not understand how this could have happened." That wasn't exactly what Gardner had meant. Obviously, the Sporers were sensitive to noise and vibration, their mood was dependent on humidity, sunlight, and a whole range of other factors. There were simply too many variables to speculate upon than decidedly not knowing. But the older man continued, "Well, I will tell you what caused it, I have been speaking to the scientist operating the orbital radio telescopes around the poles. They have recorded something very curious--a signal, coming from deep in space. Something ... not Of-Zyne." Confusion began spreading throughout the council chamber. Could He-Who-Looks-Back be so focused on the past to accept fanciful folktales about prehistoric aliens? He turned quickly to Gardner who still stood at the podium. "Have you noticed any sporadic decreases in their rate of shedding recently?"

Indeed Gardner had, but infrequent silences were not unheard of, such as before difficult weather depressions or following builder activity, yet the calming vibrations always returned. He had little worry--he hoped, trying to convince himself their silence could only be temporary--that they would adopt their normal activities soon enough. "Throughout the recent cycles there have been unusual numbers of quiescent periods, but I assure you--"

The councilman broke in again. "An increase of quiescent periods," he said portentously. "Not only has this been reported, but recently, our scientists have also discovered that the Azure can be stimulated, like a radio-receiver, causing a resonance effect which echoes through our atmosphere within a particularly narrow range of frequencies. This is obviously what caused the Sporers to attack. Is there any doubt of that?"

"The attack started during the hum, I have very little doubt of that, Councilman." Gardner said truthfully. But the more he listened to He-Who-Looks-Back, the more he felt like he was being led, made to become a part of his agenda.

"This was an attack," said He, "Directed and deliberate. To sabotage our world in preparation for an invasion."

Was he really trying to convince the council that they were being attacked by aliens? It was ludicrous. Scientists were searching for evidence of alien life for hundreds of cycles but to no avail. "I am afraid I cannot estimate on such matters."

The old councilman excused Gardner rather forthwith, then walked to the podium without official invitation. He pressed the controls and a holographic display of ancient calligraphy appeared over the circular table seating the two dozen active councilmen.

Gardner made his way back to Stargazer who shrugged apologetically about his compatriot's conduct. But like any Of-Zyne, it was their duty to listen when anyone had something important to say.

The text looked like many of the old hieroglyphic records that survived the transition following the last monarchy, and Gardner squinted to peruse the fine pictographic details. He couldn't read the language; few could. "Those who fail to learn from the past are as doomed as those who bowed to queens. Found through the old records, we have incontrovertible proof that the roar we experienced yesterday was no accident. The Queen Maj of the Tremar dynasty, a hundred cycles after her ancestors built the habitats in the rings, declared war upon the alien aggressors of Bormal. It is written that by gravitational amplification, she diverted the giant asteroids, whipped them from one orbit onto the next, accelerating for sixty cycles until it had enough kinetic energy to decimate--but perhaps not annihilate--the Bormal aggressors."

Certainly, with some scientific reservations and interpretations of metaphors, the ancient text could recount such an event. As fanciful as it seemed, their very old astronomical calculations were mostly correct. But there were numerous incongruities. Gardner knew that, for a long while following the fall of the last matriarch, the Of-Zyne had fallen into a lengthy period of cognitive darkness, where science was replaced by magic, facts by analogy, and knowledge by beliefs, but throughout the last three centuries, they were finally beginning to re-learn the full extent of the technological prowess they had achieved long before the fall.

The Azure would not let them forget.

He-Who-Looks-Back continued, "Here is the location of the star of Bormal as confirmed by numerous records." The night sky was visible in the middle of the room, constellations highlighted by converging lines, the position of Zyne and their red-giant primary Zor shrunk below it. The coordinates were slightly askew, correcting for over two thousand cycles of stellar dispersion. "Beside the constellation of the Flyer, north of the Hermit." A rare single-star system was highlighted. "Now, our radio telescopes were able to pinpoint the origin of the attack." The stars flickered and dispersed at a rate of hundreds of cycles per second. The motion of stars made their corner of the galaxy seem alive for a brief instance until the constellations appeared just as Gardner had seen them the night before. While he looked at the projection, he tried to expiate his guilt and silently asked the heavens why he had been spared. The position of Bormal was annotated. The man at the podium clicked on the next piece of information as he said, "Now this is where the signal originated."

Whispers turned to rabble and discussions turned to arguments as the council chamber went into an uproar. If this was true, there were more to the ancient texts than allegories and life-lessons. But if so, then the Queen Maj hadn't succeeded in annihilating the demonic aggressors of Bormal as was written in the texts. She hadn't been the savior of Zyne, as the records told, but simply delayed their imminent invasion. It was too much for Gardner to take in all at once. Like most educated Of-Zyne, he believed that, statistically speaking, there were likely other life-forms in the galaxy, but at no time did he ever believe that they might be so close--or a direct threat--to Zyne.

Beside him, Stargazer stood impassive, pensive, wondering of his own accord. The new variables in the situation evidently bothered Stargazer as well, thought Gardner. Although there were still mysteries they didn't understand, one thing seemed certain. Acting hastily to He-Who-Looks-Back's agenda could be disastrous to them all and he was committed enough to jeopardize even his honesty. Gardner didn't know, but He certainly was sure.

***

A second astral storm came the following night, but of a much higher intensity, and for a much longer duration. Gardner rolled off his hammock; fell to the ground grabbing his ears. After he could stand, he saw, through his hermetic window, the Sporers running madly to find a quiet place that could not be found; glad he wouldn't have to test the lethality of their venom once more. Far down the cobblestone path, a young couple fled an armada of Sporers. Seconds later, regulators wearing earphone leggings swung their tongs, sending the critters mangled or unconscious. There was so much death. Gardner lamented as loud as he could.

But the astral thunder made it all indistinct, stretching the hopelessness until it tapered. He wondered, rather alarmingly, that perhaps this roar had never ceased, that instead his hearing had faded; auditory cilia destroyed completely. Once distinct sounds gradually returned, he hoped he hadn't been permanently debilitated.

How fortunate he was to be inside, isolated from the Sporers. This was the second time the sky screeched; once was a mystery, but twice was a frequency. Gardner had no doubt there would be more.

Stargazer met him at the cafeteria and used the familiar greeting by saying, "Hearing the sounds of shedding, brother?"

The authenticity of the question caught Gardner by surprise. Stargazer wasn't simply saying hello. Instead of the traditional, "Calming as always," Gardner said, "I'm afraid they've barely recuperated from the first roar when they were afflicted by a second."

"I doubt it's the last we will hear."

"I'm afraid my thinking is likewise, brother." They silently ate meager amounts of moldy-root porridge. Gardner knew he liked Stargazer more than the average Of-Zyne. Stargazer had gotten his namesake because he had wanted, at first, to be an Azure tomb raider--later, a telescope space-naut after the tombs were barred--but he had never been able to pass the full-physiogenetic profile required for such specializations. Stargazer suffered from congenital node stiffness that, he was told, would exacerbate if he spent time in low pressure, zero-gravity environments. Besides, tomb access was restricted now, trespass punishable by death. Thus, he was bound to gaze at the Azure from the pebbles of Zyne, yet he was an astute thinker and his progressive views were often diametrically opposed to He-Who-Looks-Back's. And that, some said, was his most important contribution to the council.

After morning calories, Stargazer went to the chambers as he was appointed, but so did Gardner; the flowers without Sporers left him with little else to do. The room was much busier than usual with delegates coming from all five continents, as did curious citizens like Gardner, and children sheltered by their kin in the event of a new astral storm. He had never seen the room so filled, but he felt he was becoming all too familiar with the man who took the podium.

He-Who-Looks-Back seemed more determined than ever, reiterating the true danger all Of-Zyne faced. "The Bormal are fifteen light cycles from Zyne, but I urge you to consider this, if we were to act today, and we are not yet ready, our funneled gamma-ray burst would take that time to attain their planet, then another fifteen cycles before their attacks ceases to reach us. Do you think we can sustain our ecology without the Sporers for that long? It is pivotal that we act now, before they send a fleet to invade. In fact, that fleet may already be on its way. Let us not fall into the history books like the last matriarch of Zyne."

"Pardon me, honored speaker," Stargazer broke in, uncharacteristically. "Would you kindly enlighten us how the Queen Maj and the Of-Zyne were able to survive a sustained roar while the asteroids she sent traversed fifteen light cycles. This would take much longer than the beams from our orbital generators. Notwithstanding the tremendous energy needed, if it is even feasible at all."

"I assure you the orbital platforms are fully capable to completely ionize their atmosphere," he replied, and again Gardner thought his priorities seemed askew. After a moment of defiantly staring at Stargazer, the man at the podium said, "The historical records show that the roars were, at first, not sustained, but that it was the Queen Maj's wisdom that prevented the Bormal attack. She counter-attacked with an offensive of her own before the roars became incessant. It has occurred before, it will occur again."

"Citizens of Zyne," started Stargazer, "We have been at peace below the Azure for more than a thousand cycles. We have not received any firm evidence that the signal we received from Bormal was an attack. This hearsay is based on a skewed interpretation of our ancient texts, written in a language no Of-Zyne still speaks. These fantastical tales, of Queens fighting Gods in space, needs a more objective interpretation."

"We are not debating a scientific study here, brother Stargazer," He-Who-Looks-Back said disdainfully, "But we are fighting for our very survival. Will you be the one proclaiming inaction when we face our greatest challenge since the fall of the last Monarchy? We, the children Of-Zyne, have risen above our biological compulsions to consume everything in our path, to live a life of self-betterment, but you would curse us into the darkness once again."

"I do not argue against our way of life, brother. But I prone caution; objective, researched caution. If we must commit genocide to survive, then so we must, but it shall be a sad cycle for all of Zyne. To desiccate a planet that could be just as richly populated with life, tenfold more teeming with diversity perhaps than our own? Not only would we extinguish the Bormal, but all life on their planet as well. Who are we to proclaim their ecosystem less important than our own? We are bio-equalitarian, let us not forget, and our constitution nowhere states that our views end at the extremity of the Azure. We need to have higher ideals; we need to uphold higher responsibility to our ideals, even more than those of the Bormal. We have a responsibility to them, as much as we have to ourselves."

"A culture as belligerent as theirs would destroy their own ecology through unheeded growth. Would it not be better to stop them before they spread their unsustainable seed, first to Zyne, then to the rest of the galaxy?"

"This is wild speculation; we have no firm understanding--as culturally subjective as our views are--to conclude anything with any degree of certainty. Despite star charts and ancient records, we still know next to nothing about Bormal. Perhaps, all we really know is simply that it is there, displaying the correct color spectrums for a life sustaining world in the liquid water zone of their Zor."

He-Who-Looks-Back seemed unfazed by Stargazer's comment, but numerous councilmen and citizens of Zyne heard his words. "Brother...Pray your views do not condemn us all."

"Attack, is yet to be our only path."

***

Prior to the nomination process, Gardner was surprised by a visit from council-appointed clerics who requested that he, given how close he was to Selfless, also cast a vote of nomination. A singular honor. Very few botanists would ever be so fortunate. But it took him little more than a pause to decide whom his vote would go to.

The other twelve councilmen appointed to vote for the nomination process were seated around the table. This was the first-time Gardner sat in the council chamber, instead of watching from the sidelines. He wasn't an official councilman, so it was only temporary, but Gardner couldn't help but cherish the occasion, despite reminding himself that Selfless would have called this, "A flattering of the ego."

Gardner drew Stargazer's symbol on the parchment leaf and placed it inside the receptacle. He watched the others do similar as the procession of clerics anointed the votes as was customary.

Then they were read.

The first vote went to He-Who-Looks-Back who tried, but failed, to feign humility as his name was read first. The second went to Stargazer and Gardner hoped that it would not be his sole vote.

The third vote went to Gardner.

The confused whispered couldn't be ignored. Gardner, slack-mandibled, said, "But I am not even a councilman."

It was Stargazer who spoke, "There is no rule barring non-councilmen from being nominated." Gardner was surprised to realize that Stargazer thought so highly of him, that he could be even a fraction of the man who Selfless had been. But Stargazer only looked back with a surreptitious smile.

He-Who-Looks-Back received a second vote putting him in the lead. Gardner wondered how, from the half-billion Of-Zyne living on this world, could the voting be restricted to so few candidates. But the custom had been successful for hundreds of cycles and he had no desire to question it today. There would had to have been some consultation--or Zor forbid, collusion--between the voting members prior to the ceremony.

Two others he didn't know received one vote each. Then another vote for Stargazer tied him to He-Who-Looks-Back.

Gardner received the next vote.

He was about to protest again, to stand and say he had no desire to be Occal. But he knew now that that was why he had been named. Or the news about his resiliency towards Sporer toxin had quickly grown to magnanimous proportions.

All three of them were tied and he found himself feeling his heart accelerate, not only to avoid his own nomination, but to secure Stargazer's, whom Gardner felt truly best deserved to become Occal.

But Gardner received a third vote and now he was in the lead. Catching He-Who-Looks-Back's stare, the man wasn't happy at all at this turn of events. Another two new names came up, but Garner felt with strong intuition that they would be excluded from the second round, if a second round was necessary. He was in the lead and only two ballots remained. His antenna retracted as he leaned in and hoped, with all his might, that the next two would be for Stargazer.

But the next one was for He-Who-Looks-Back. They were tied with three votes each and if any name except theirs was spoken, there would be a second round of nominations; the thirteen chosen voters would give their support to either top candidate. Stargazer, he hoped, with the last vote could make it a three-way race.

Yet today, on the first day following the ring shimmer over the capital, there was no second round of nominations. He-Who-Looks-Back stood in jubilation as his name was read for a fourth time. Gardner was relieved, but a growing realization slowly set in that it wasn't an auspicious moment to have that man become the new Occal. If it had been himself, Gardner didn't know what he would do about the astral thunderstorm, the Sporer affliction, or the demons of Bormal. But he felt certain that He-Who-Looks-Back was a power-monger as hungry as the most fertile of females and that his kind of self-righteous confidence was much worse than any scientific uncertainty.

Later Stargazer came to congratulate Gardner on the race, seemingly as calm as if he had lost in a childish larval game. But this was no game, thought Gardner. "The people are afraid," Stargazer told him, "They would rather forget who they are, than fear what might happen. He-Who-Looks-Back promises them certainty, when all they hear from anyone else is speculation and discussion. Many have lost kin to the berserked Sporers and he promises them that he would quiet the roars forever. Sometimes those Of-Zyne can be very short sighted."

"Thank you for your vote," Gardner told him. "But it was wasted, those who supported me should have supported you, the votes against him were divided between us."

"Welcome to politics, my brother, but alas, I could not vote for myself," he said in a rare instant of selfish humor. Gardner couldn't help but laugh. He was glad Stargazer took the time to console him. Indeed, he must have looked dismal after the ceremony. Then, following down the cobblestone path, Stargazer said, "There are advantages to not being Occal."

Gardner stopped to stare at him.

"Since the Sporers aren't shedding, you find yourself with free time."

"I suppose I do," Gardner said listening to the eerie quiet that stretched throughout the embassy. Perhaps without any subsequent astral events, they would return to their shedding.

"The records of which He-Who-Looks-Back speaks are incomplete, fragmented, yet there are locations not on Zyne where plentiful more resources are yet to be discovered. Preserved, sterilized in cold vacuum."

Gardner looked towards the Azure. Stargazer confirmed. "I've lifted the ban on orbital archaeology. Given the importance He-Who-Looks-Back proclaims the ancient records to be, I've turned my attention to the past as well. Using my pull as a councilman and director of the orbital exploration agency, I've permitted the ruins in the Azure to be re-opened for scientific scrutiny. Councilman He, agreed."

"You mean Occal." Gardner snickered. "Perhaps we will finally be able to read the full history, without confabulation," he replied, then turned towards Stargazer. "But what does that have to do with me?"

"I've checked your physiogenetic profile, your intelligence quotient, and I've verified with the orbital exploration agency. Highest marks--fit enough to survive Sporer toxins." He grinned widely. "You're approved to attend training, where you can be my eyes and ears. I'm afraid that the potential information uncovered in the tombs can't be trusted to common channels, channels which He-Who-Looks-Back can edit or censor. If I am right, this man is trying to rewrite our history for his benefit. And you, my brother Gardner, are the only person with enough ... integrity of character to investigate this objectively. All those of Zyne might depend on it."

"But I'm just a botanist."

"Trained in the scientific method, acute of mind, and agile of footing, the equipment will do the rest. We can get you there as safely as possible, help you penetrate the tombs, and give you the ability to translate the hieroglyphs."

He craned his neck and peered at the razor sharpness of the Azure. "For all those of Zyne," he said, "For the shedding to become as calming as always."

***

The training began at The Strand. Gardner knew of the dangers. Going to orbit had numerous pitfalls in itself, but the colossal ruins, located on multiple segments of the rings, have their own built-in defense mechanisms. Installed by the brood of ancient Queens, the orbital platforms could once nullify enemy attacks by means not fully understood. Plus, they were crumbling and could instantly expose any unwary space-naut to explosive decompression. They could crumble and implode from the slightest touch. However, some whispered the real reason the ban was placed wasn't safety, but that the tombs held secrets which many Of-Zyne weren't ready to accept. Gardner was prepared to face all that, but he was sure he would face the unexpected as well.

The first days of training were pleasant enough. They began with morning exercise followed by the study of mechanical diagrams. Gardner learned to differentiate between an equal pressure door and a locked pressure door. He knew how to weld an emergency breach, and how to cleanse himself in freefall. Given his special stature with the embassy, he was put through expedited training, but Gardner had no wish to take solitary space-walks without tether during this mission up, so those more advanced classes were skipped. He was ordered to always be escorted by a team. Quietly, he hoped he wouldn't inadvertently cause them to risk their lives for his own safety. He had, after all, received enough nomination votes to be honored with the actual title of councilman.

The days were designed to help assimilate as much technical knowledge as possible; repetitions of learning, eating, and exercise. The tests were easy though; despite minor inattention mistakes, he otherwise could now make his way through most basic control centers. He wasn't going to be an engineer or a navigator, so they dispensed with those classes too. But what annoyed him most was the way the hermetic suits chaffed his antennas, like they were meant to keep you from getting too comfortable inside them. They were as technologically complex as anything else; able to swell and congeal upon sensing air leaks, autonomously sealing small punctures. In a pinch, the nauts could be maintained alive for many rotations with its air and water recycling systems.

Gardner would have liked to learn as much as he could, but the third astral storm reiterated their urgency. It was as loud as the second. The evening jog was cancelled for the cadets to help the citizens of The Strand handle the crazed Sporers. Gardner didn't like to be called upon to wrangle them, but at least he trusted himself to avoid crushing the Sporers unlike many clumsy Of-Zyne. The leggings muffled the boom to his ears, but the intensity of it shook his exoskeleton, shook the very pebbles resting on the ground.

This event was doubly disturbing to Gardner as yesterday there had appeared reports from the southernmost continent: their Sporers, the larger green variety, had returned to their shedding. But alas, it was all for naught as this new ominous soundwave silenced them once again. The next day, Gardner wouldn't leave his study until he completely mastered the new diagrams. He pushed his capacities during physical training just as much, racing the younger Of-Zyne cadets; making them feel larval in his wake. More than ever now, Gardner felt sure, that the safety of Zyne resided up there, in orbit, on that razor-sharp strand of brightest blue.

Stargazer assured him--through daily transmissions--that He-Who-Looks-Back's zealousness was tapered by the rest of the council and that, despite Gardner's recent opinion of him, he wasn't such a bad Occal after all. He was no Selfless, but that needed little feedback. The new Occal had installed emergency measures to minimize lethal Sporer panics and to distribute tongs even to the humblest families. But--and this cancelled all the good news which Stargazer tried to convey--He-Who-Looks-Back ordered the upgrade of the orbital EM emitters, boosting their capacity and narrowing their frequency so they could be used for a sustained gamma-ray burst.

"Then I must get to the Azure as soon as possible," Gardner argued.

"Patience my brother," Stargazer said on the tiny screen above Gardner's alcove. "They are not yet ready, and firing shall take full-council approval. Some, like me, are not ready to grant him that. But I fear, the way things are progressing, the Of-Zynes on all five continents grow more desperate, and genocide will not remain so unthinkable."

His instructors then told him that his knowledge on ground was sufficient and the next phase of his training would no longer be on Zyne. Gardner gulped and returned his sight to the blue strand overhead. He felt uneasy so far south, being a native northerner all his life, he had always seen the Azure as a disk. But now he knew--as difficult as it was to conceive--that he was really going up there, and it stiffened his nodes with anxiety. But by Zor, it was necessary; not only for the Sporers he loved, but for all of Zyne.

Still on the equator, the slingshot was situated a hundred clicks west from The Strand, but Gardner saw the giant structure from the aerodyne well in advance. A long black needle stretching seemingly as high as the Azure itself was held erect by tension. Composed of ultra-light-weight carbon polymers, the slingshot was tugged by solar-powered rockets situated in the thermosphere, tugging the entire structure at near right angles to a stationary orbit. The slingshot was, in fact, held at equilibrium with gravity, trying to pluck itself right off the face of Zyne.

When they approached near the base, Gardner saw it was as gigantic as he had imagined. Optical illusions made it look like a pyramid stretching into a hyperbole, but the diameter was almost constant throughout. Near the base, he saw the orbital exploration agency institution--or the Hoobs as it was slanged--and the miniature elevators which would accelerate them off this very world. The aerodyne landed on the strip, the cadets milled out like well-trained monarch drones.

Gardner was sidelined and brought to a formal meeting in the institute's grand hall. Sycophants, he thought, all of them. There shouldn't be time for such activities. Barely having a say in the title he had been given, he was greeted by a cornucopia of delegates wishing him joy; congratulating him and the counsel for their wisdom in reopening the Azurian tombs for scientific scrutiny. Their wisdom, he thought sardonically, as he wished to palaver with Stargazer one last time before he went into orbit. Knowing the dangers that lay above, both known and unknown, he feared he might never see his dear friend again. But Stargazer was needed in the capital, had actual work to do, unlike these multi-titled delegates from all over Zyne. By Zor, he wished to rid himself of this anxious anticipation and to be flung up there. To finally release these nervous jitters, before he became too verbal for these flatterer delegates here on Zyne.

The launch was scheduled for the morning. Tossing and turning in his hammock, he realized that he would get very little sleep after all. But finally, when it was time, and having slept very little, he met his team on the elevator platform where they queued like clockwork, in homage to their martial ancestry.

Gardner's anxious prodding turned to reluctance as he was fitted inside the tightly packed housing they would ride throughout the day to the launch platform atop the head of the slingshot. Given the tremendous amount of energy needed to fast-track the pod to such heights, the agency filled them as much as was allowed. This gave him little leg room and it became doubly uncomfortable when the acceleration started.

One cadet regurgitated his breakfast while Gardner tried to raise his antenna to avoid smelling the mess too poignantly. Beside him sat an experienced space-naut who--by Zor--seemed to actually enjoy the experience. He roared with pleasure after laughing at the much younger cadet who couldn't keep his meal down.

Turning to Gardner he said, "Enjoy this weight, brother, for tomorrow you shall have none." Then he laughed again.

As blood receded from his brain, Gardner could only reply with, "As calming as always."

The man laughed. Introduced himself as Jumper, a namesake that Gardner wondered how it had come about. But then he said, "Contract your underbelly. Theory is of very little use if it isn't applied." His sitting there was no coincidence as Gardner realized Jumper knew quite well who he was. Jumper was his direct attaché, and he would be assigned to him whenever they egressed from the orbital station.

"I--I didn't think it would be so intense," he spoke loudly over the groans and gyrating clatter of the climbing wheels. But the rhythms assured him that they were indeed accelerating and, shortly afterwards, the clatter became a steady buzz. Jumper yelled with joy again.

"Better?"

After a long pause to consider, Gardner said, "Yeah a little." Forcing his head to turn, he saw that Jumper had a curious musculature, he surmised it due to his experience in space. He wasn't atrophied, but it seemed that the stress discolorations around his nodes were redistributed somehow.

"Just a few more hours, then the motor will be cut, and we'll slow the rest of the way up on inertia alone. If we timed it right, we should stop exactly at the top."

"If?"

But Jumper only laughed again.

***

When the elevator slowed, and his weight became almost nil, Gardner appreciated the lack of tension immediately. Many Of-Zyne didn't like the lack of downward orientation, but Gardner--speculating that the painful climb was the cause--felt pleasantly relaxed. He would trade two and a half gs for zero any day (One Zyne gravity = 1.56 Yu'Mann Urth gravities).

"Wait until you meet the boss," Jumper told him before launching himself horizontally.

Clumsily trying to follow, Gardner said from memory, "A female named Kav."

"The file barely denotes the true extent of her Glory."

"You think highly of her?" Gardner replied, speculating upon which facets Jumper meant.

"Yes, we do, highly competent. And you won't get any slack for skimming on protocol," he yelled, then waited for Gardner, tentatively zigzagging about, to reach him at the valve. "But that's not why she's so glorious."

"Oh?"

Jumper didn't say any more. They left the team and cadets in the docking bay for their own debriefing and headed for a transport shuttle. The shuttle, a small four-seater, had been prepped for launch by two space-nauts who saluted Jumper and the newest councilman. Unlike Gardner's uncontrolled bouncing, they were supremely at ease in low gravity.

Jumper was as agile with the thrusters as he was acrobatic, but the true spectacle came when the shuttle emerged from the platform. Zor shone distant in the sky as Gardner turned to look at the shimmering Azure seen through his bubbled window. The full splendor of the rings was remarkably more beautiful through the clarity of empty space. The sharpness from here made the sight of it through Zyne's atmosphere seem dull and faded. Nearest them, the water crystals and minerals seemed diffuse and intangible, yet looking out, as far as it stretched, it seemed to congeal into solidity stretching as far as the eyes could see. A shuttle could traverse the Azure effortlessly without so much as touching a pebble yet, far away, it looked as solid as polished cobblestone. The dichotomy was breathtaking.

All too soon the light of Zor was blocked by the orbital station and Jumper slowed the craft for docking. Protocol was followed as entrance and egress were performed on the face away from direct irradiation by Zor. The vastness of space was replaced by a homogenous and claustrophobic environment very much like inside the Slingshot. The agency would benefit from a little groundskeeping, thought Gardner. But he surprised himself by yearning to return to space once again, where the Azure shone brightly and Zyne, humble and silent, wore it with pride.

Jumper led him through widening corridors linked around connection nodes where other nauts toiled at their tasks. The builders and engineers did impeccable work, Gardner realized. Much smaller than the slingshot, the station's complexity and industrial prowess easily rivaled the giant structure that launched him here. No matter what happened, Gardner thought, this wild adventure had already become more than worthwhile.

"Here we are," he told Gardner, but then quickly added, "Be careful, brother Gardner, she is fertile."

He gulped.

The room was eerily quiet and somber. Flickering lights from computer consoles shifted the shadows and betrayed the chamber's full dimensions as he slowly floated in. Jumper did not follow. Gardner introduced himself to the darkness.

He heard quivering clicks, like hard mandibles grinding together; something had awoken. His heart started racing and he urged himself to relax. There was no danger here, he told himself, but vestigial fears remain imprinted in the subconscious. Suddenly Gardner realized how foolish he was; he had let himself float away from any handholds and his inertia was bringing him, uncontrollably, deeper inside the spacious room. Now his nerves were throbbing, surging panic into his mind as he regretted not asking Jumper just exactly how fertile she was.

But her magnificence emerged from the shadows. Gardner felt the urge to bow--beckoned by the reverence with which only royalty could emanate--except he physically couldn't while floating here. But those types of matriarchal subservience were archaic and no longer required in their equalitarian society. But Kav didn't care about such things; she was as regal as they came. She was fully disrobed, as no regulatory space-suit could possibly fit her. A full four times his size, Gardner realized why some of the later corridors had been widened, and her sensitivity to light, which was a symptom of egg production, revealed just how fertile she was. Gardner always thought that the Of-Zyne hubris showed in their arrogance in choosing the names of ancient Queens for their female larva.

Like a predator, her eyes fixed on him as she deftly swung towards his tumbling body. Gardner felt fragile and insignificant as her massive, gorged, and voluptuous body took hold of him. She latched onto the opposite wall, pinning him against it.

"Still need practice," she said in a concerned tone. Then her face approached his, her preternatural strength moving his comparatively flaccid neck to fully appraise him.

Gardner gulped as he realized it wasn't only his skills and competences she was evaluating. He heard her clicking mandibles again; like honing knives. Her antenna probed his face, olfactory and tactile; she could taste his growing fear.

Gardner was about to protest, to wonder how regulators could have let her become so sybaritically fertile. But up here, as high as the Azure, the laws by which they lived couldn't be rigorously applied. Some oversight slipped the legal authorities. He closed his eyes and reminded himself that there must be good, objective, reasons why she was the leader here.

She seemed to moan at the taste of him, but then she said, "Forget your titles; it matters very little off Zyne, councilman. Here, my rules are to be followed or you will die." He hoped she hadn't intimated by her own means. Then she drew him closer, seemingly to have found something highly curious about him. She probed him some more. "Do you understand me, one called Gardner?"

"Yes--yes," he said.

"Reopening the tombs was a foolish thing to do," she said, seemed to be distracted, then she groaned. "I told your brother politicians, down there--that there would be more deaths if I send nauts there. Send you there. But they were unfazed." She released him where he could hold onto scaffolds, but still she surrounded him, held her arms and hands around him (female Of-Zyne have an additional two appendages). He had the compulsion to flee, but it was almost impossible given the way she blocked his path. "Are you ready to die for Zyne, brave politician?"

Gardner could hardly find his words, "I was voted to that honor, but of no choice of my own."

Her throat made a strange guttural sound, reverberations which sent quivers through his loins. "I did not believe when they said you had survived a sting. But there is some--strange scent about you, Gardner."

"I do not know why I survived." Last Stargazer had informed him, they had begun genotyping his plasmatocytes (unlike Yu'Mann leukocytes, Of-Zyne plasmatocytes function as both microbial-devouring macrophages and antibody-producing B cells), but it remained inconclusive.

Still, she looked at him with those powerful eyes. "Make your way to your chamber. Jumper is waiting outside. We will convene to plan the mission at next rotation."

Gardner didn't feel he had been violated, but rather that he had been enticed to dangers which wilds the mind. Kav, as fertile as she was, had the necessary files logged with the regulators, Gardner learned. It was permitted that she broods upon the time of her choosing. Gardner speculated that she was waiting until she took leave on Zyne. But it became her right to choose when, once her license had been approved.

***

After he realized that the station completed fourteen rotations every day, he clumsily hurried through the corridors as he was late already. The entire launch team was there, with numerous station scientists, and Kav, hooked upon the central overlay above the projector.

Inside the dimmed room, she stared at him, but didn't comment on his tardiness. Kav motioned towards one of her subordinates that then started the hologram. Gardner noticed that the ratio of space-nauts numbered five sterilized females to six men (unlike the Yu'Mann nearly equal 51:50 ratio, the Of-Zyne female-to-male ratio was 1:12). This was perhaps further evidence of the females' superior proprioception--spatial orientation; so many females qualified for the agency, Gardner noticed (according to Zyne cultural norms, unlike males, females could, but weren't obliged to, find a specialization). He knew the other females were sterilized, as fertile females quarreled fiercely over territory. Yet, it still disturbed him somehow, in the vestigial parts of his brain, to know that someone so ready to brood was commanding the station. It was not unlawful per se, but Gardner knew that this situation could become problematic, being isolated in high orbit, away from the regulators. What if she were to submit herself to her full hormonal proclivities?

The holographic video showed multiple sections of the Azure under various angles and magnifications. The sequences were time-coded and overlaid with the supposed alien radio signal. One of the subordinates explained that certain ancient structures were still responsive to specific radio-band emissions, despite the ages since their construction. Scientists, a few cycles back, had shown--and achieving high scholarly praise--that a directed EM beam could activate some still-yet-to-be-understood function of the cyclopean mega-structures, causing them to contract and segment, or to expand and connect. Given all that they still didn't know about the Azure--and the ancient technology used to build it--prudence superseded curiosity. But now, Gardner saw the effect with his own eyes; the tombs' remnants, which looked like giant crystals, spaced throughout the further rings, with additional smaller structures of similar shape and design peppering the inner rings, began to move and collide, merged into larger complexes at the same instant that the signal was detected, moments before the first boom was heard. Yet, despite all this chaos, every structure remained within the orbital plane; nothing was deflected out of the Azure. He-Who-Looks-Back had been telling the truth; somehow, that cascade rearrangement of the rings was sufficient to transduce the intense reverberations down to the lower atmosphere, rattling Zyne in the process.

"Some that might be deactivated or broken, or perhaps not responsive to the same frequencies, did not react to the signal," the naut continued to explain.

"For the time being, I am restricting exploration to the inactive structures." Kav spoke, her voice emanating authority. "As we do not know when another signal will be received, it would be disastrous if you were to be inside when the next signal reaches Zyne." Gardner thought that that might not be the best idea as there could still be working computers--or their age-old equivalent--within the active structures, but he held his mandibles.

The meeting continued with trajectory plotting, entrance procedures, the general plan of action, and the emergency procedures if needed. Gardner listened, but it was all out of his hands. He would need all their help to get there or he couldn't do very much at all.

***

A short time before their first away mission, Gardner was summoned back into Kav's dark control center. Again, the lights were dim, she lay hidden within the shadows. He regretted coming almost immediately, but he didn't know if he could have refused. This time Gardner caught the proper handholds and eased himself in. He asked, "You have summoned me, commander."

"I have, one named Gardner," she said as he noticed her frame, emerging from the darkness, floating towards him.

"How might I advise you," he asked, but his voice quavered. She only stared during her guided inertia. Gardner tried to move aside, but she caught him once again.

"The radiation outside might damage your skin and seed."

"It was a risk I was willing to take," he answered, stoic.

"But not I. Remove your suit, Gardner, you shall inseminate me now."

He didn't know what to say. He tried to speak but couldn't find his words. She started to laugh; deep, dangerous, and malicious. "You males behave like we still would sever your genitalia and consume your entrails after copulation." She eased back, then said, "Sadly, that is no longer the case." He couldn't tell if she was joking. "But do not worry, little man, I have been declawed. You will leave here--intact." She brought his hand to her loins.

Gardner couldn't escape even if he wanted to, but she was right about his vestigial fears. Touching her soft, yet extremely warm, nether regions, he felt the scar tissue around where her jagged chitinous, manhood-devouring, clamps used to reside. When all sex had been animalistic, those organs would keep a male trapped until his task was accomplished, keeping his seed organ pumping, with or without the rest of his body. He couldn't help but be enticed, like the countless males of eons past, voluntarily devoured to fulfill their biological imperatives. But the potential dangers were what seemed to enthrall him most.

"I've been approved to brood with the suitor of my choosing. And I shall have you, sweet-smelling Gardner." Her antennas tapped at his face again.

After hearing that long guttural ululation that only females could emit and feeling it quiver through his limbs, Gardner realized that his free will was outside the airlock with Jumper. Had she still been clawed and promised to eat him whole, Gardner would have willingly submitted himself to her nonetheless.

"Remove your suit," she told the dazed male. But this time there was menace in her voice. She grasped him by the neck, then brought his head close to hers; eyes showing only hunger.

Shaking, he did exactly as he was told. Too slow to do it by himself, she flung off his suit, leaving him floating, unanchored, then brought him to her. She moaned unapologetically as she guided him inside. Hands and arms grasping around him, he was trapped against the wall. He tried to hold on, but like the subsequent space exploration missions, very little responsibilities were left to him. Her vaginal cilia, where her claws would have been, tugged and pulled like desperate hands. The bare scar tissue was almost enough to tear his cleanly off by themselves. Her antenna probed and searched, discovering every curve and cranny.

But all too soon he came, losing himself in the process. There was no longer any ego in his mind as he realized the full consummation of his biological self. Bruised and beaten, he felt fulfilled, fully fulfilled through the deepest parts of his soul; nothing else mattered. Had she bitten his head cleanly off, he would have welcomed it. As he swooned, she flexed his limp body another dozen times until she thought he was completely spent. Then she released her hands, arms, and all, and he drifted without purpose, floating like in a dream, staring at the long array of flickering lights refracted through oily droplets; for he was dead in space and all that glimmered were stars.

She caught him deftly, guiding him to a handhold. "Have I injured you, my sweet-smelling Gardner? The female drive can be somewhat--potent."

"I--I don't think so."

"Your fugue should clear before the egress. But I must thank you, one called Gardner." She brought his hand to a swelling bulge just above her moist cavity. "Your seed filled my receptaculum quite abundantly. You were a very fertile male, little Gardner." (Unlike Yu'Mann mammalian reproduction, Of-Zyne females can store spermatozoid for many dozens of rotations prior to fecundation).

When his head cleared, sentiments of dark perversion crept over him. All Of-Zyne aspired to become more than animals, to better themselves through reasoning and logic, to become more than they were. But for that brief moment of total fulfillment, Gardner had known how truly animal they still were. That despite the laws, this female, who would otherwise have been a powerful queen, desired to devour him whole. He didn't want to consider how close it really came to that (Cannibalistic sexual manslaughter, though rare, still did occur on Zyne). Gardner had seen the mad lust in her eyes. But despite it--and because how great it had felt--he knew that that loss of self, both psychological and potentially physical, was meant to be experienced.

Later, when Jumper asked Gardner if he was okay, he reluctantly told him about Kav. Jumper's grin widened, and he said, "Oh by Zor, you lucky man. How was it?"

"Had she devoured me whole, my life would have been complete."

"Wondrous," he said and told Gardner that during his younger days he had also been chosen by a female, but no one nearly as regal, nor as voluptuous as Kav. "By Zor," he said once again as the shuttle doors closed.

They were off. Gardner silently watched the gigantic crystal structures zooming closer through his bubbled window.

***

The first radio transmission received had been decoded and for the first time was shown inside the council chamber. The many Of-Zyne surrounding the spectral display cringed at the sight of the Bormal.

"They are like underbelly all over," Stargazer whispered at the sight of the hideous bipedal creatures, engaged in a yet to be understood act of ritualistic symbolism. The Bormal were performing a clockwork shifting of positions, where one would take the place of another over a large square area in a field. The number of permutations was recorded in a decimal code for reasons which still eluded them. A central orchestrator initiated the movements by throwing a spherical object. Then, the Bormal were forced to rearrange under seemingly extreme duress, moving as fast as their meager bipedal legs could propel them. Indeed, it was perplexing.

"They are performing a countdown," He-Who-Looks-Backs told them with more assurance than he could have had.

"Their culture is so alien to us that this could be a simple game," Stargazer rebutted from below the pedestal.

"They are sending us a message and the message is clear." The man who stood tall answered with pointed fingers. "As you shall see. The decryption from the second and third signal leaves little for interpretation." The holographic projection was reinstated and next showed a Bormal, clad in ceremonial robes--such decorum was difficult to interpret otherwise--speaking with tremendous furor. Before him, thousands of compatriots lined like monarch drones. Then the scenes showed droves of followers, strumming down lined walkways. Emblems of different socio-political alignments were omnipresent, erected with obvious reverence.

"Indeed, they appear militant, prideful--hierarchal. But this is no firm evidence that they are even conscious of us, let alone intent on our destruction."

"You jest brother, to think that this is mere coincidence." Those around whispered with worry as their tones grew passionate.

Stargazer was becoming irritated. "I see no evidence here that they have any intentions towards us at all. This could be a transmission for their own brethren, to propagate information for their own sake, to inform their world of the events occurring within it, whatever this may be. Perhaps it is merely happenstance that we received their signal at all."

"I cannot conceive that the surgical precision with which we have been devastated could possibly be a--coincidence." He shook his head vehemently. "No, I dare say no. Such would be astronomically improbable."

"Cause does not imply intent. Granted they may be dangerous for not having conceived that their erratic signal would do us harm. But I say again, I see no evidence, no evidence at all, that they are even aware we are here."

"Perhaps when we decode their actual language within this signal, you will see how wrong you are."

"Perhaps," Stargazer replied, holding the man's acerbic stare. "But then we shall know."

***

The building materials that covered the ruins were made of elements which couldn't be readily identified. Spectral scanning could discern their atomic composition, but they had been constructed with metallurgical methods that contemporary science knew nothing about. As they approached the glistening surface, Gardner noticed small grooves and indentations which couldn't be fully appreciated under telescopic observation. But what was clear was that they came from a time when those Of-Zyne knew things which they, despite their current technology, still couldn't fully fathom. The iridescent hues were far more complex than the steady blue which made its way down onto the surface of Zyne.

Circling behind the structure, it eclipsed Zor. "There," Jumper told him, nudging him out of his daze. Gardner turned to see an orifice port in the gigantic structure. Guided by the craft's lights, both men looked upon the structure with a larva's glee.

"I'll start the axial frequency permutation for the narrow beam," tentatively Gardner said and begun as he had been instructed. If this structure was still functional, a precise radio frequency band was purported to activate the door mechanisms, hypothetically. If the emitter algorithms couldn't open the tombs, then they would start the laborious process of laser cutting--if lasers could even penetrate that strange meta-material. The only archaeological studies of the tombs had been performed inside breached structures, those wrenched open by millennia of entropy and the last remnants of the matriarchal wars.

"Start at low amplitude," Jumper confirmed while holding the throttles deftly still. "I don't want it to think its needs to activate a defense program."

"Defenses?" Gardner asked, spooked. "I thought she said it was inactive."

"We only ascertained that it hasn't shifted position throughout the roars, Hoobs was quite adamant they wanted to interface with a still-functional computer."

"By Zor," Gardner cursed, but had thought likewise when he was safely elsewhere.

They stayed rigidly focused upon the entrance orifice until both believed that no code could open the port. The scientists perhaps had misjudged the structure; it might have been completely inactive after all. But just as Jumper was about to suggest that Gardner close the program, they saw the seams spread and their bubbled window was peppered by eon-old particulates--stuck in grooves where time meant very little.

Shining light through the opening, they saw a tunnel curving upwards. Not much wider than the entrance, the rugged, yet lustrous, inner walls revealed anchor points which the old Of-Zyne had used.

Jumper looked uncertain, like he had hoped they would fail in their attempt, but then said, "Shall I guide us in?"

With reluctance Gardner said, "It is our purpose." The other two pods, manned by other teams, waited outside, ready to aid if necessary, or to flee away from the structure as fast as possible.

The tunnel spiraled inwards; Gardner quickly lost track of his spatial orientation. Jumper, through his digital controls or his vastly superior experience in space, seemed like he knew where he was headed.

But then he said, "We can't go any further." They arrived at another port, dead-end, but this one was too small for the craft. "Ready to stretch your space legs?"

Kav broke in through the speakers, "Gentlemen, are you certain you can't continue within the shuttle?"

She had been listening all this time, Gardner realized.

Jumper answered, "That's right, commander. The diameter is too short, we found no other path. I believe this leads to the habitation quarters, we must be in some type of antechamber now."

"Acknowledge, proceed with caution." Gardner was certain he heard her stimulating vibrations through the com-channel but tried to convince himself that it was only his imagination.

The permutation algorithms were started once again, but one of their sister shuttles sent an all-channel message. "Outer port closing."

"It's okay," Gardner speculated, surprising Jumper. "The outer orifice would need to be closed for the inner doors to open."

Jumper nodded, confirming his logic. And as they expected, the inner door opened then. There was no change in pressure, so Jumper said, "No inner atmosphere."

Jumper checked Gardner's suit before transitioning to vacuum. He checked his own during the pressure transition.

Gardner felt the outer shell of his suit expanding. Before opening the doors, Jumper tried to anchor the craft using tow cables, but the clamps couldn't grip the lustrous surface. Despite the rigid rules, he motioned, but didn't say, to Gardner that he will take care of it. He exited first and launched himself towards the wall while the shuttle slowly drifted towards the opposite face. The gentle nudge of hitting the surface was well below the shuttle's structural integrity limits. Then Gardner was pulled sideways as Jumper tugged on the cable, passing it through a narrow handhold, and tying it down in a very rudimentary, yet efficient knot. The shuttle buckled again, but then held steady against the tunnel. He emerged tentatively, and they floated towards the dark orifice.

The inner chamber was gigantic. Empty space filled the colossal section with fragments of desiccated plant life, floating in tangles. A frozen bubble of water smacked Gardner's helmet as they shone their portable light emitters, barely able to illuminate the colossal inner chamber. On the distant walls, they gleaned multiple platforms with innumerable other orifices throughout. Habitation rooms, Gardner speculated. Through the center were long columns which looked like stairs.

They remained by the entrance, but it was clear that two men alone weren't adequate to explore such a vast structure. It was mind boggling, thought Gardner; this was only one of the hundreds of thousands of tombs flying, at blinding speeds, around Zyne--and by no means one of the largest.

"By Zor," Jumper said, shining his light against another array of platforms.

"What is it?" he asked as he tried to fathom what shocked him so.

"They knew where up was."

Gardner looked perplexed.

"By Zor brother, they had gravity, artificial gravity."

"That's impossible." Gardner remembered his physics classes, the only way to generate gravity was by concentrating mass--everyone knew that.

"Correction brother; it's impossible for us."

Gardner pondered that for a time. Then they ventured towards wide arrays of grooved consoles, which their archaeological scholars predicted were their ancient computer-interface equivalents. The hieroglyphs were beyond his understanding, but he moved his light emitter over them. The lens from his device absorbed the reflections and the patterns were analyzed through the ancient writings algorithms. "Archive processing," Gardner told Jumper. His comrade pushed off a bulkhead and spiraled towards Gardner's position. He activated his suit's jets and slowed, with perfect control, to almost zero speed.

"Care to try?" He asked looking at the interface.

Gardner hesitated, but then activated the emitter. Deciphering the other two ports, they had waited for quite some time, but this receiver reacted immediately.

The com-line resonated with both men's screams as sharp shards of ancient matter barraged their suits, eviscerating everything they touched. Kav overrode the channels, asking what had occurred, but groans of insufferable pain echoed through the control center. The noise then quieted to a steady hiss.

"The pain," Gardner whispered. "That pain," he lamented much louder, but forced himself to state what he already knew, "It's Sporer toxin. Jumper is dead." Kav could hear the outflow of air from the breaches in his suit, but it slowly raised in pitch as the suit sealed itself.

"Gardner, are you injured? What happened?" Kav spoke in his ear.

"I believe I will survive, but the emitter must have activated some defense mechanism, we were sprayed with needles coated with venom." He forced the words through his mouth despite the searing pain in his chest.

He heard her breathing, but she said nothing. That seemed to tell Gardner a great deal more than if she had said anything.

Then, "The tombs are dangerous places, we knew there were risks." Her voice seemed to sizzle.

"Risks yes, but did you know there could be Sporer toxins?"

Again, she said nothing.

Gardner pinned himself against the alcove, so he didn't need effort to hold still. He had to rest a moment. Then he told Kav chivalrously that he would be okay, but the pain spreading through his loins made that hard to believe.

It had been like last time--like when he had seen Selfless die before his eyes. Jumper had cried out, then become immobile, and floated away, lifeless, drifting into the tangles of ancient untended gardens.

"Can you get back to the shuttle?" Kav asked him.

"I believe so," Gardner said after a lengthy pause. Spines were still stuck to his chest, but they must have missed vital organs. Again, he was still alive, this time with the help of the suit which maintained his atmosphere intact. From the control center aboard the station, she could see his biorhythms, she knew he wasn't dead either.

"Make haste."

"Wait," Gardner said, disbelieving his sudden insubordination, especially towards such a female. "The interface was reactive; it means we can gain access. Let me have another try."

The slow rumbling heard through the com-line told him she wasn't pleased, but then she said, "We will coordinate with your emitter to see if higher-order algorithms are necessary to unlock the programs. We might be dealing with a very complex security seal; single wavelengths might not be adequate."

Gardner knew that would take some time, but it would take a great deal less time than retreating and waiting for the next away mission. But regardless of all that, as he stared at the tousled body of Jumper receding through the shadows of the dark superstructure, he knew that no one else should risk their lives in his stead.

"Your extension is permitted, Gardner," she hissed, "Use it wisely." She then told the other team to ready Jumper's shuttle for Gardner's escape, and to remain outside the central chamber itself. The port on Gardner's side closed silently.

"Activating uplink now," Gardner said as his emitter did most of the work. Indeed, the ancient computer required more than a simple static burst, the flashes of visible light which shown through his device almost blinded him in this darkness; he looked away as the station computer coordinated the decryption. Gardner bit his labium in anticipation of another fusillade of burning splinters--splinters meant to kill. But what happened next was far more impressive, and far more worrisome.

Directly in front of him, the apparently rigid-as-stone surface began to glow, then displayed lines of ancient hieroglyphs as the computer came online. They were still using two dimensional screens, but the resolution it held was far greater than anything Gardner had ever seen. The lines of black and white code shrunk to pinpoints, imageries of what could only be ancient Zyne came into view. He could hardly believe it was real. Rapid flashes of scenery came, then quickly became replaced with new landscapes as alien to Gardner as he could have imagined; some with a giant satellite in the sky. Could they have been sceneries from other planets? He certainly could believe it. The flicker became incessant, rushing past landscapes faster than he could discern.

"I have made contact," he whispered, barely audible in his helmet com-line.

"Begin data transfer," she immediately told him.

But how could he know where to start? There was no apparent command prompt for him to do so. The screen continued to cycle through innumerable images, yet he saw that the speed at which it flowed was slowing. Then it stopped; a large floating bubble hovered in front of Gardner's face. He looked aside, but the circular icon followed his gaze. He raised a finger and it parted, revealing numerous arrays of unintelligible iconography.

"Are you receiving this?"

"We see what you see. Your emitter is transmitting the entire codex shown on the screen. We are attempting translation now."

"It's reactive," he said, "And it is changing color, hues of pale blue, turning to deeper green." He heard Kav rumbling again, but just then, the entire chamber lit, and he felt creaks echo through the walls. The display flickered, but then returned solid.

Gardner looked about, expecting ancient ancestors to awaken and greet him, but everything was old and as dead as Jumper caught in the tangles. He turned towards the screen and placed his hand over the scrolling text. The iconographs collapsed and the floating sphere returned to following his gaze. Yet through his helmet he hardly felt close enough to attempt any kind of real contact. He knew Kav wouldn't permit him to try what he thought was necessary now, so he didn't ask.

Gardner unclipped the glove from his left hand. He felt his suit immediately tighten around his wrist. The chamber was extremely cold, but the absence of any atmosphere prevented his hand from rapidly freezing. Yet the painful vacuum tugged at the liquid under his hard skin. Swelling already starting, he placed his bare flesh upon the central display and felt, beatifically, heat emanating from the prehistoric device.

"What have you done?" Kav broke in.

He begun to understand the written text. Through the very pores of his skin, the micro-electrical impulses from the screen transmitted through his saltatory neurochemistry and traversed his peripheral nervous system, climbing up his spine to his tetratosphere (the Of-Zyne have an additional two hemispheres). Directly in front of his eyes, the writing changed. Whether the icons changed to a language he knew or that he learned to understand the pictographs he couldn't be sure, but he could read it now--no translator necessary.

"I--I've made contact," he said as he felt the searing pain of his blood reaching the surface of his chitinous outer layer. The bewilderment overrode his natural tendency to pull away, but he knew he could tolerate this pain--a pain nowhere near as potent as Sporer toxin--for as long as it took. Through his excitement, he forgot his glove slowly floating away. "It's all here." Words imagined came into view and receded as soon as he lost his focus from the excitement of summoning them. He cycled through the library with key-words brought to the surface of his conscience. He urged himself to concentrate, trying to navigate the ethereal landscape between cypher and thought.

Blood squirted from his inflamed hand when an edema ruptured, yet he ignored it as best he could. It coagulated almost instantly in the freezing cold. The information they wanted was so close. But then he saw it, found what he had come all the way up here to find, and it shook him to the core.

"By Zor," he said at last, his numb appendage drooping, and hurried for the hatch. This information needed to be told to Stargazer right away. All these long centuries they had been wrong, so very wrong.

The secondary team pulled him into the shuttle as soon as his hatch opened, covered his hand, and evacuated the chambers in haste. Gardner's face, stained with horror, foreshadowed impending doom.

***

"What do you mean, we attacked first?" Stargazer asked from the display screen. Kav stood behind Gardner, breathing down his neck. As soon as they docked at the station, he requested an emergency session before even a regenerist attended to his hand and chest.

"The records showed clearly," Gardner said, still partly out of breath. "Queen Maj ordered the destruction of Bormal, eighty cycles prior to the collapse of the last dynasty." Kav only waited, unshakable. He took a deep breath and started from the beginning, "The queens built the Azure from a natural satellite that once orbited Zyne, mined the entire planetoid for its core elements. We caused our own ecological devastation those thousands of cycles ago, whenever the Azure was used."

Stargazer seemed pensive through the projection, then said, "So we were the aggressors."

"The Bormal were only defending themselves," Gardner argued.

"Still there is missing information," Stargazer told them. "The nature of the decoded transmission is not in line with a defensive strategy. There is more we don't understand."

"Perhaps when more of the ancient texts are translated we will know why Maj attacked the Bormal," Kav spoke without much interest, but moved to another computer alcove behind Gardner. She didn't seem very fazed by Gardner's urgent news.

"The records show that they were also afflicted with roars approximately sixty cycles following the launch of the asteroid ballistics; this was clearly documented, after the first astral storm hit Zyne, during the old times." Gardner paused to take a breath, then said, "But what else is clear is that the ancient society failed, the last monarchy government crumbled, not long after those roars."

"So, He was right about that," Stargazer replied, pensive.

"But the Bormal were not the original aggressors," Gardner replied. "We started the conflict, eons ago."

"I am not certain if that even matters; it seems that the demons of Bormal have not forgotten our last monarchy either," Stargazer told them. "Whatever started the conflict, history is repeating itself." To Gardner, he looked exasperated. "I must return to the council chamber, my brother. May the shedding be as calming as always." The hologram receded to a pinpoint, then Gardner turned to Kav, who was the only other Of-Zyne in the room.

"Why does this not faze you, commander?"

She growled with irritation.

"What information do you know that we do not?" Gardner reiterated, his tone becoming increasingly insubordinate.

She lunged at him, clasped him by the throat. Had he a shell like Sporers he would have withdrawn into it. He tried to free himself, but to no avail. "Watch your tone, man. Or I shall not resist the urge to devour you." He tried to free himself, he didn't yield.

"You knew you needed someone immune to the Sporer toxins, didn't you," he whispered through clenched airways. "You both knew. Stargazer sent me, under your request."

Her eyes and sharp teeth came closer to his face. She glared at him with menace and something more. "You are an intelligent male, aren't you, sweet-smelling Gardner."

He tried to flee again, but he didn't reply. Then she sighed and released her grasp. "Stargazer would have given me his own life had I requested it. But we knew that the ancient ones used the toxins to coat their traps to prevent enemy brood from commandeering the superstructures. Crude given their level of technology--but as I'm sure you know--highly effective... at least, in most cases." She looked him over, then said, "Return to Zyne, Gardner, your purpose here has been satisfied." She left him nursing his bruises and, without glancing back, floated off adeptly in ways he would never master.

"You can't let them destroy the Bormal," he whispered all too softly.

***

His nodes hurt when he walked freely on Zyne once again. Despite only being up for a few rotations, he wished he could have remained, freely floating in that vast endlessness. He saw the gardens at the embassy were adequately tended to, despite his absence. The Sporers were still not shedding. During the time he was in orbit, the city had been afflicted with one more astral storm, but the consequences were tapered because the regulators responded fast, and the citizens acted appropriately once the noise started and the frenzy of the Sporers was noticed.

Gardner was greeted with honors and beckoned to take his appointed seat at the circular table. He sat, but with little zeal to listen to the proceedings. Something of his, deep inside, had been broken, left behind in orbit, and he didn't know what. But Gardner didn't feel whole anymore.

Stargazer came to him, leading him towards his seat, but Gardner said, "You had me venture inside the tombs under false pretense."

He sighed, but then said, "My reasons were true; we had to know, outside of conjecture, what the old records stated."

"You thought I could survive the poison traps," he whispered.

After a pause, he confirmed, "It was Kav's request. Yet I could not have chosen a more suitable scientist. Brother, please accept my apology."

"I accept your apology, but I am afraid I cannot call you brother for two cycles."

Stargazer sighed, then said, "Per tradition. I shall honor your request. But it was necessary."

"We shall see," Gardner replied cryptically.

The session started with He-Who-Looks-Back arguing with Stargazer on the interpretation of the alien signals. The language of the Bormal was yet to be understood and both men were still conjecturing. Gardner couldn't pay enough attention; his mind was clouded by thoughts of despair and betrayal. The two antagonists droned on about whom was right and what was at risk, but all of it seemed trivial to Gardner now. Both the Bormal and the Of-Zyne had been at war for millennia, both societies had almost crumbled to dust, and now, they had emerged out of the dark ages to restart the old conflict. What was clear to Gardner now wasn't whether they should attack the Bormal, but that they had started it eons ago. The power-mongering matriarchs had tried to destroy another intelligent race. The Bormal had survived decimation and thousands of cycles later, their historical memory was as intact as their will to survive.

"We should surrender to the Bormal," Gardner proclaimed during the emotional argumentation. Both men stopped to look at him, but they didn't heed his words. What Gardner had said was nonsense and couldn't be computed into their agendas. Others whispered in confusion at Gardner's comment, but then He-Who-Looks-Back reiterated their urgency to fire the gamma-ray burst.

"The records are clear," He-Who-Looks-Back said, "Our own councilmen discovered the key to activate the ancient computers. And by his brave initiative, we now have a direct uplink to the full records of our ancient brothers."

"Records that still need to be fully analyzed," Stargazer broke in.

Gardner felt like walking out of the council chambers, returning to the simplicity of the gardens, but the Sporers weren't in a mood to be helped. Despair seized his throat and he had more trouble breathing than when he was launched in the slingshot. His hand was still bruised and sore; he couldn't clench his fist.

"The orbital platform is ready to fire," He-Who-Looks-Back told the councilmen. "We shall vote openly," added the newly appointed Occal. Those who thought it was best to act urgently were asked to stand first. Gardner, dejected, left the chambers. "There you have it: seven votes for immediate action, one vote abstained. Their planet will be targeted as soon as the emitters are ready." Stargazer tried to plead, but He-Who-Looks-Back urged him to sit or he would be removed from the chambers due to insubordination.

Stargazer replied that He was the one who was insubordinate to all of Zyne.

***

Gardner was awoken from a lengthy sleep-cycle that he wished to maintain indefinitely. The buzzing at his door incessant, he rose to see who it was. Stargazer stood, trembling with anxiety.

"What of it?"

"My apologies for addressing you out of council, but there has been an unanticipated turn of events."

Gardner waited for more.

"Kav has destroyed the orbital emitters."

Gardner's mandibles became slack and his loins quivered, wanting to see that magnificent female once more. "So, we will not be able to ionize the Bormal home world?" He thought Stargazer would have been pleased at such a turn of events. "He-Who-Looks-Back is furious and ordered her immediate arrest. They sent a platoon of orbital-trained regulators to stop her."

"By Zor."

"They mean to kill her, brother Gardner."

"What is the stance of the orbital agency?" Gardner asked Stargazer, who commanded it.

"I--I tried to talk sense into her; despite my vote, I chose to abide by the wishes of the council. I told the next highest-ranking space-naut to take command, but she evicted everyone who did not yield to her. Brother, you must understand, such a regal female as she, she emanates charisma, she is the personification of royalty. Most, yield immediately. The station is no longer ours to command." Stargazer looked down, the next words were painful for him to say. "I know that she chose you, you must try to speak with her."

Gardner was shocked. After she had discarded him like a simple seed delivery device, she might not even listen to his words. But he said, "Then, I must try. At least to know what she intends."

"Please take heed; we must go to the transmission room at once."

***

Despite Gardner's doubts, she opened the com-line to them. Her face, full and powerful, glared back.

"Ah, sweet-smelling Gardner, how I would like to have you again," she said, ignoring Stargazer. "But I am afraid we shall not have that chance."

"What is this madness?" he asked her forthwith.

She growled at his tone.

"You might be brooding and a female, but you are required to abide by the chain of command. Your superior is Councilman Stargazer." Her eyes shifted to him, but then returned to Gardner.

Stargazer took hold of another terminal and sifted through holographic displays. "By Zor," he said, "She now has destroyed the Slingshot tether. The damage near The Strand shall be stupendous."

Gardner's eyes narrowed as he looked. "What is it that you are doing?"

"Down below on Zyne, all of you are playing pathetic games of men, and that, by law and tradition shall be yours to keep. But the rest shall be mine."

They both looked at each other.

She continued, "The station's computers have downloaded the command sequences from the Azure crypts and our algorithms have decoded them. The technology is still functional; it is responsive to commands." Gardner didn't know what she meant, but Stargazer opened another display, one which showed the Azure from multiple angles, numerous crystalline structures could be seen under this magnification.

"She's going to highjack the controls," Stargazer whispered, "But, to what end?"

"They can transform to my design. I destroyed the emitters so you would not be able to destroy Bormal. Because--that system is mine now. I proclaim it so, as I take the Azure." She turned and activated a sequence on her terminal. Behind her, Space-nauts loyal to her rushed to and fro as her plan was put into action.

"By Zor," Stargazer whispered as he saw the footage.

"What is it?" Gardner asked, confused.

"Look," he said, pointing to the endless array of structures.

Gardner lost the breath to swear to their star. What he saw he could never have fathomed. Everything crystalline, composed of the innumerable catacombs and ruins from the ancient past, began to move and congregate. One gigantic structure merged onto another and built upon each other like a tremendously accelerated, stellar accretion process. The glimmering blue material not only combined, but reformed, into new structures of unbeknownst functionality. But the super assembly then began to take a shape they could recognized.

Parts of the ring from all around Zyne flew together near the orbital station as Zyne began to be illuminated by a moon that had been gone for many thousands of cycles. Those outside rushed to get a better look at the glowing ball in the sky, while a new sound boom, louder than anything comparable before, shook them to the very core.

The combined activity of the Azure from of the radio emitters on the orbital station caused a whole new level of acoustic rumble on the face of Zyne. Like the Bormal had done, she had caused the soundwave to crash upon them a thousand fold. The Sporers skittered about in panic, while the Of-Zyne rolled on the ground, cradling their ears, hardly able to flee from the berserked insects. This was more than sound, Zyne itself shook.

Despite the horrendous noise and the dissonant pains that it caused, Gardner and Stargazer couldn't take their eyes away from the self-assembling super-structure on their holograms. The light falling upon the capital changed as more sunlight was reflected off the moon-sized object in orbit. Most of the ring faded--only leaving the irreparably broken bits of technology. She cannibalized and called forth, all the functional units from of the ancient structure that she could.

Then the noise stopped, and they witnessed the new super-aggregate, myriad times larger than their most ambitious space-station, activate. The orbital station from which Kav controlled the ancient technology was dwarfed to a pin point next to the artificial moon. Lights activated, and thrusters fired from one side, pushing the inconceivably large mega-structure into a higher orbit.

Kav returned to the com channel and said, "I believe the roars no longer will burden Zyne. And it may take many cycles for those below to understand what I have done, but, for Zyne, it was necessary. I have saved our planet, and, by Zor, I will save our essence as well."

"You mean to invade Bormal," Gardner speculated, and he realized then that she had understood queen Maj's motivation quite well.

"The traps, the ancient structure is riddled with Sporer toxins," Stargazer argued.

But then, Gardner knew everything. He turned to Stargazer with rigid mandibles, "Her offspring will be immune."

Then, they both heard her laugh, deep and maniacal, yet strangely alluring. "Keep your tepid games of men, I shall have the stars. This new structure is more than it seems, it is possible to achieve near light speed and it can be made to sustain a population far greater than my entire brood. And I shall confess: Gardner was quite fertile." She laughed again.

The regulators were scrambling outside; numerous people had ventured into the night to witness the sky reforming itself. The ring that had been, was now a solid sphere of highly reflective material; enough to turn night into day. Outcroppings of odd designs, curious in geometry and function, grew from the side facing Zor.

Too many people had been outside during the loudest astral storm. When the frenzy occurred, those in the open gardens were quickly overrun by the panicked Sporers. Right before Gardner's eyes, He-Who-Looks-Back, stunned into a stupor by the disappearance of the Azure rings, was stung silent and toppled, lifeless, onto the cobblestone path not far from where Selfless had.

***

Five cycles following the last event--the one that had shaken them all--the survivors Of-Zyne still argued about what had happened. It took many rotations to assess the full extent of the damage, with millions Of-Zyne all around the globe stricken in the night when the rings departed. Not long after that, the artificial moon adopted an increasingly eccentric orbit, slowly shrinking to appear like a star; and taking the orbital station, with her devoted space-naut patriots, in tow.

Kav did at least accomplish one thing. One ring shimmer later--for time within a cycle was still divided as such--the Sporers began to sniff once again. And the shedding, steadily increasing from the sporadic, became as calming as always.

Gardner, sitting in the Occal's chair, spoke in the recorder that he had been using to psycho-imprint his memories. The records they would send into space needed to be explicit, and honest. They needed to show how they had acted, because they, at the time, had thought it best; how the whole misunderstanding could have been averted--could still be averted. At the time, the Bormal simply didn't know their radio echoes were quivering ancient technology, fifteen light-cycles away, which had been dormant for millennia. How could they have known?

Gardner's progeny, his own children--tens of thousands of them maybe--were out there. The radio telescopes confirmed: an invasion by a faction split from the official government of Zyne was headed for Bormal in the Azure superstructure. His children, fully grown adults by the time they got there, would become the new Of-Zyne brood following in the old ways.

It took three cycles following the day Selfless died--compounded by the difficult transition the ring departure had caused--to translate the Bormal language; to know that they called themselves Yu'Mann, that their weird ritual shown in the transmission was a game called baseball, and their procession of flags, a diminutive-of-war ceremony called olympics. Gardner wished to let the Yu'Manns know they were in dire danger, that despite their best efforts to pursue a path of altruistic self-betterment and to respect all life, life above all else, that they were still animals at the core; no better than the Sporers or the bipedal mammals they once called the demons of Bormal. From the records the Of-Zyne had received from Urth, he was certain Yu'Manns could at least understand that much about themselves too. If they were enslaved--rather than extinguished--perhaps, in time, they could even come to forgive the Of-Zyne.

THE END


Copyright 2018, Jason Arsenault

Bio: Outside of speculative fiction, I am a neuroscientist working at the Hospital for Sick Children and at the University of Toronto in Canada. I have also published over a dozen scientific publications in biochemistry and neurobiology related journals.

E-mail: Jason Arsenault

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