by: Van Plexico
as published in
PRO SE PRESENTS
Peculiar Adventures #1
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I felt my body ripping itself apart even as the spacecraft disintegrated around me.
Not a pleasant experience, that. It makes one grateful for the human capacity to quickly forget pain. Lacking that ability, women might never give birth to more than one child—and Zanos knows we need all the new recruits we can get. And speaking of soldiers, the wounded might never jump back into combat, without that short memory for suffering.
That’s what I am, of course. A soldier.
No surprise there, right? That’s pretty much all anyone on the Five Worlds has been for the past nine hundred years.
After all, the War Gods had decreed it: There will be war. The five inhabited planets of our star system would contend with one another until the bitter end, they had said, and only one would emerge victorious. Only one would survive.
Thus they had spoken. And, for all the years since, we had indeed contended, till our five worlds had beaten one another down into ruins. We moved our cities underground, abandoning the surfaces and the sunlight; and still we bombed one another, and invaded, and poisoned, and killed. Our worlds, now five anthills, churned the dead soil above one another’s heads, over and over, year after bloody year.
Now, though, with one another’s help, if not that of the gods, the nightmare would end.
Our spacecraft, the Godslayer, roared down through the atmosphere of Olympus, flames engulfing it, lasers from the grim Tower playing over its hull.
We had anticipated this, and the experimental shielding held, at least long enough for our shuttle to eject.
Above and behind us, the Godslayer vanished in a cloud of fire and debris.
The shuttle angled downward quickly, crashing through the tops of the tall, spiky trees below. We had to get out of the line of fire of those awful weapons; they posed a much more immediate threat than the danger of death by impact.
With my free left hand I patted at my chest and abdomen, as best I could, within the rigging and my own body armor, confirming for myself that I was still, somehow, in one piece. Pain lanced throughout my torso and into my extremities, but the drugs in my system fought back, undoing some of the agony, if not the damage itself. Next I ran my hand for the hundredth time over my rifle strapped to my chest. A nervous habit, but I liked knowing it was still there. Then I gripped the handles of the crash cage, just as the shuttle shuddered violently around me. There came a spine-shattering impact so severe I only felt it rather than hearing—perhaps it had deafened me; I was not sure yet.
My vision swam; my brain fuzzed out for an unknowable time. I believe we must have skidded along through the forest underbrush for some distance while I was out.
Stimulants pumping into my bloodstream brought me around, just as the crash cage popped loose and I tumbled out onto the walkway. On either side of me, the other troopers picked themselves up, and together we raced for the hatch, arriving even as explosive bolts hurled it out of our way.
Out we all jumped, we soldiers of the Five Worlds. Mortal enemies on any other day in the past millennium, today we sought to overcome inborn and learned hatreds, and to cooperate. For, much as we despised one another, somewhere just ahead of us, somewhere in that grim, gargantuan edifice that loomed over us, our mutual foes resided. And we hated them more.
The shuttle erupted in flames and exploded as we dashed away from it. Searing rays from above tracked our movement, running down one soldier after another and bringing to each a terrible, burning death.
The details of that awful passage through the woods are not important. Time had no meaning during our frantic, desperate struggle to avoid annihilation. Suffice it to say that five of us—and how fitting that was—lived to reach the walls of the Tower, where the beams could not touch us. We wasted no time but instantly searched for the promised entryway.
“I have it,” cried Pamma, a captain in the Delthan Marines.
I looked at her, appreciating what little of her lithe body I could see, covered as it was by her camouflage fatigues and belts of munitions.
I had grown particularly close to her during our training sessions for the mission, despite my being an Andalusian and her being a filthy otherworlder. The work had been physically and mentally demanding. None of us truly had believed we would even survive such an insane mission. In our passion and our fear, we had shared everything, struggling in that twilight time to bond, to truly come together as one, as our leaders had claimed they’d wished. In the hours before our assault, when our team of commandos had grabbed what sleep we could before being ushered aboard the Godslayer, she and I had committed the most terrible treason, naked together in the dark, whispering to one another what little we knew of each of our worlds’ forces, plans, and even our defenses.
Somehow, at the time, it had felt right. Who would ever know what we had done, what we had said? What harm could there be in it?
Now I felt dirty. I felt ashamed.
But I knew much.
We gathered around her as she pulled off her gloves and traced the door’s outline in the dark stone with her bare fingertips.
The Pilgrim had not lied. He had been the only human ever to travel to Olympus, that sixth habitable planet of our system, and return alive. Defying the proscriptions of the War Gods themselves, he had sought entry into their great gray Tower, and had somehow succeeded. His ingress, he had sworn to us, had come via a door that lay at the Tower’s base. He would not say how he had made it that far, or why he had been allowed to depart in safety. But the intelligence our interrogators had taken from him had given hope to our peace-loving leaders and had inspired our mission.
Pamma found the center of what we hoped was a door and pressed with both hands. A pause, during which fear and anticipation mingled in my belly, lying there like a lump of lead. Then a popping sound, and a darker rectangle formed within the outline. It was indeed a door, sliding aside, revealing a portal to an utterly black space beyond.
We raced through it.
I cast about in the darkness, a sudden terror sweeping over me.
Pamma and the others switched on chest-mounted lights then, and I fumbled at my own, feeling foolish. To assault the gods themselves, in their own sanctum, and yet only feel fear of the dark? The mind is a remarkable thing.
Jemm smiled back at me, his white teeth flashing in the jostling light as we ran. I had learned his name, and that of the others, only reluctantly. All my life, I had been taught that those of the other four worlds were subhuman, fit only for slaughter. I understand there was some disagreement among our leaders as to how much we of the assault team should be allowed to fraternize. Finally it was decided that we should learn one another’s names, and even perhaps befriend one another, in the spirit of cooperation and in the effort to increase the mission’s efficiency and chances for success.
I had learned their names and something about each of their backgrounds, their lives.
They still felt like enemies to me, though.
I knew this was the fault of the War Gods. They looked down on us from their sanctum on the world we called Olympus and they moved us about like game pieces and they laughed. And we danced our dance of fire and blood for their grim amusement, and generation after generation died.
It ended now. Humans had not started this war. Humans, I believed, wanted nothing to do with it. But humans would now end it.
We saw, flickering in our beams at the far end of the hall through which we now ran, a broad staircase leading up. Perhaps halfway to it, dozens of laser beams lashed out of hidden recesses in the walls, cutting two of our number down immediately.
There was no cover. There was nowhere to hide. The only sanctuary I could see lay in the stairway, and I pushed myself to the brink of unconsciousness, sprinting for it.
One figure reached it ahead of me, racing upward in the darkness. I followed, hearing someone just behind me.
Up and up we climbed, turning at right angles every fifty steps or so. My chest light played off the gray, blank walls and the churning legs of the soldier ahead of me, and the light from another behind and below me illuminated the steps at my feet.
At last we could climb no more and all halted more or less together.
The soldier ahead of me came back down after a few seconds and I saw it was Pamma. The one behind us caught up. It was Jemm. All of us gasping, we sank to the steps, our eyes moving restlessly, seeking the next danger, the next deathtrap.
“Not good,” was all I managed to say.
“We weren’t expected to make it this far,” Pamma said after she had caught her breath.
“We’re all that’s left,” Jemm said, his brown face sagging. He looked up at the dark stairwell above us. “How far, do you think?”
“No way to know,” Pamma said.
“No reason to go back, though,” I added.
They both looked at me, then nodded.
We stood, checking our weapons and supplies, and started up again.
“I wish I knew what was up there,” Jemm said.
I shrugged. We would find out soon enough.
“I know what’s there,” Pamma said.
We looked at her.
“Peace,” she said, smiling. “An end to war. A golden age.”
Neither Jemm nor I replied. I don’t know what he was thinking; who could understand the mind of a Jasiran? For my part, though, I was terribly conflicted. Two enemies, in the flesh and well-armed, one on either side of me—this seemed, to my mind, a far more immediate threat than some amorphous concept of gods lying in wait for us at the top of this Tower.
Biting my tongue, I kept climbing.
“How do we know we can even do this,” Jemm asked, “once we get up there? How do you kill a god? Five gods?”
“The Pilgrim said we could,” Pamma shot back. “Everything he told us has worked out so far. This whole mission was built around what he saw what he told the interrogators.” She flashed Jemm a grim look. “If he lied, we’re dead anyway, so don’t worry about it.”
Jemm couldn’t argue.
Up we climbed.
The robot waiting at the top of the stairs snatched Jemm almost out of his boots as he rounded the final turn ahead of us. It had throttled him and flung his body away before we could react.
Pamma and I dropped to our knees and sighted with our rifles, unleashing a simultaneous barrage of fire at the big, gray, hulking shape. It staggered back, sparks flying from its bulbous joints, then surged forward again, glowing orange eyes focused with murderous intensity upon us as it lurched toward us.
I tossed two grenades and ducked around the corner, yanking Pamma back with me.
The force of the explosions knocked us further down the steps, and I feared we would be set upon before we could recover. Nothing of the kind occurred, however, and together we again achieved the top of the stairs and raced out into a broad, high-ceilinged room lined with row upon row of flickering, multicolored lights.
I stopped suddenly, looking down.
The robot that had attacked us lay motionless on the hard metal floor, damage from my grenades obvious. Its orange eyes faded in and out. I brought the butt of my rifle down hard, repeatedly, on its gleaming metal skull, and the lights at last winked out.
Pamma had run past me, stopping at Jemm’s body.
“Dead,” she confirmed.
The voices we heard then shook us both more deeply that I could have imagined.
“Delthan,” one voice boomed, low and deep.
“Andalusian,” the other roared, higher and filled with anger.
“You will fight,” both said together. “Fight!”
We looked at one another, frowning.
“No,” Pamma said.
“Fight,” the first voice rumbled. “Garthas commands you! Slay your enemy! Reap your reward!”
“Up yours,” Pamma replied, turning slowly, squinting into the darkest recesses of the chamber.
I did likewise, seeking the source of the voices.
“Andalusian, you know I am your god, Zanos. You know this creature next to you is your mortal enemy. It must be exterminated! Kill it! Now!”
I chewed on my lip, glancing at Pamma, feeling an awful compulsion building within me. I fought it down as best I could, then lurched to the side, vomiting.
“Kill,” both voices screamed as one. Other voices joined in, then, as well. “Kill!”
“Computers,” Pamma said then, as I straightened and wiped at my mouth.
“They’re not gods.”
She pointed to the rows of metal cabinets around us, covered in flickering lights.
I looked, and I saw, and I understood.
The awful truth came to me then, for the first time.
For nearly a millennium, we had fought and killed one another in the names of gods who did not exist; who were mere machines, dictating to each of our worlds across the vastness of space.
“Sacrilege,” the voice of Garthas roared.
Deadly beams lashed out from a small black box affixed to the wall just ahead of us. I felt them cutting into my legs, into my chest. I dropped to the floor, gasping.
Pamma lay beside me, unmoving.
The beams vanished.
“Only one remains,” came the voice of Zanos. “Mine.”
I could feel blood soaking through my pants, through my undershirt. Anger and hatred burned deep within me. I clutched at my rifle, waiting for the deathblow.
“Rise, son of Zanos. Rise and obey your god, the great benefactor of your kind.”