The Gods in Their Galleries
by Rick Kennett
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Cy emerged into the oblong chamber and her boots touched the frosty floor. “On deck, ” she said against the throat mic. Danny’s acknowledgement whispered in her earpiece.
She unhooked and flipped light-boost goggles down over her eyes. Amplifying the light coming down the hole, they restreamed it as a monochrome grey distinct enough to see by.
From the top of one of the coffins, she picked up the note she’d written in Lingua Stellar on a strip of fungus, using as ink blood syringed from her arm. She wiped the frost from the top of the coffin to look through its transparency at the dead god within.
It was empty.
She heard Naomi say, “In the chamber,” after she was lowered through the hole in the tomb ceiling, followed by Danny’s answering whisper in her earpiece’s general frequency.
“So Zhores relented,” said Cy, glad now not to be alone here in the tomb.
“Don’t think he liked the idea of the military taking all the glory,” said Naomi, unhooking.
Cy indicated the coffin before her with with its cleared space already beginning to whiten. “It’s empty.”
“So they have resurrected their dead.”
“So it seems. But if the bodies have been revived, why is this tomb still cold? Why is it still here at all?”
“What’s that?” Naomi gestured to the fungus strip in Cy’s hand.
“The note I left the aliens.”
“May I see?”
“Can you read Lingua Stellar?”
“Oh. No. Though I can speak a smattering: Quaz metri zy byx wad ed ze graten.”
“So the pen of your aunt is in the garden, is it?” Cy glanced up at the cable hanging motionless from the ceiling. “No one else coming down?”
“You might not have noticed, but I’m the only one of the crew skinny enough to fit down that narrow hole.”
“I noticed,” said Cy with an appreciative smile. “Though I would’ve said svelte.”
“What does your note say?”
Cy read aloud what her seventeen-year old self had written: “’If you have come to resurrect your dead at last, think on this little creature of your own design as well. You sent it to me, and I accepted it as my friend through many hard days of travel. When you raise your dead, I ask that you raise it, too, and let it live again. Lieutenant C.J. De Gerch. Martian Star Corps.’” She pulled a face. “What a soppy kid I was!”
“Not at all,” said Naomi. “It was a very thoughtful and beautiful sentiment. But what’s this?” She pointed to a single word at the bottom of the note and away from everything else. A bold, spiky hand quite unlike Cy’s light, thin script. And apparently not in blood.
Cy squinted at the lone word. “Aai. It’s Lingua Stellar for ‘will comply’.” Did I write that? She looked at it again, and her face lit with childlike glee. “They said yes!” Her yell echoed about the tomb. “They said yes! I asked and they said yes!” She clapped and jumped for joy. “They did it! They did it! Lazarus is alive again!”
Naomi peered about with sudden apprehension. “The spider?”
“Yes!” Cy squealed, jumping up and down. “The spider! My spider! It lives!” She stepped eagerly to the other coffin and tapped its top. “It’s in here!” she said, laughing. “That’s why they’re keeping the tomb cold!”
Naomi steeled herself for the sight of a huge spider while Cy excitedly brushed frost from the lid and peered in. Her expression of happy expectancy changed instantly to surprise, then to shock and finally disgust.
She pushed back from the coffin with an animal growl.
Perplexed, Naomi bent close to the cleared space. At first she thought the coffin contained a thick roll of heavy shag rug in dark grey. But this rug had a liquid orb at one end and, in its middle, a circular maw fringed with white triangular teeth.
“The Xenoid that tried to kill me,” said Cy, regaining her composure.
Naomi stared at the monstrosity, its one blind eye, its gaping mouth and circling teeth. “You said you killed it far to the west.”
“So I did. We fought out by the survival cairn. We sank together to the bottom of an estuary. I was stabbing it all the while until I was sure it was dead. But it grabbed me as I tried to swim free, then let go and patted me away.”
“Maybe an honourable admission of defeat.”
Cy flashed her a look of strained patience. “It’s plain you’ve never had to fight these things, Naomi. There’s nothing honourable about them.” She wiped a hand along the length of the coffin, clearing the frost, revealing the bear-like being’s thick, grey fur.
Deflated arms or tentacles like huge flatworms stretched down either side. In a close group about the centre of the torso, multiple knife wounds were buttered with eruptions of a clear fluid gone hard. To one side was a large ragged hole, surrounded by pale inner skin made visible by fur clawed away. “Lazarus did that,” she said with grim satisfaction.
“Best we leave this tomb,” said Naomi. “Close the hatch and rebury it. There’s nothing for humans here.”
“What about this?” Cy glared down at the monster. “This is human business.”
“Maybe it was once, but no more. No more, Cy. No more. Leave it for its own people to recover. Isn’t it why your aliens left it here? Like you said, they don’t believe in death — anyone’s death.”
The two stared at each other from either side of the coffin. Cy clenched her fists, and Naomi feared she was about to punch through the lid and strangle the corpse. At that moment she looked quite capable of it.
Abruptly the Martian turned away. But instead of stepping to the cable hanging from the ceiling hole, she crossed to the empty coffin by the far wall. She stooped, wiped its lid clear of frost and shone a small penlight inside, making careful examination from one end to the other.
The penlight beam swept about the tomb, across its floor, along its edges, into its corners. Naomi heard her whisper, “Lazarus,” and her fear mellowed to pity as she saw Cy’s expression sag into disappointment, replacing the hate that moments before had crushed out happiness.
They were reeled up and the hatch was swung down., snicking into its silver rim. To the relief of all, the cold dissipated.
* * *
Via subspace radio Zhores sent a report to his corporation in the Electra B system. Considering the distance involved and knowing what corporate bureaucracy was like, he estimated the earliest an answer could be expected was the following morning.
“In the meantime,” he said, rubbing his hands together, “how about some basketball to warm us up again.”
All assented to this except Cy who prudently excluded herself.
“Do you really want me to stand at one end and drop goal after goal through the opposite hoop all afternoon while claiming ignorance of the sport?” she told them. “For the sake of your sanity and my safety, I best sit it out. Besides, I’ve a report to make to my own lords and masters.”
Later, during a break in the game, Zhores wandered over and squatted beside where Cy sat composing her report beneath a mushroom tree.
“Lieutenant, I want you to promise not to go into the tomb again.”
Cy looked at him, bemused. “Do you think I’m going to climb down there and have another go at killing the Xenoid?”
“Yes. I understand it’s the way you’re created, but I’d like to avoid any... unpleasantness.”
“I’ll promise not to kill it again if it promises not to come back to life. Deal?”
“Perhaps that creature in the tomb wasn’t all that dead two years ago. Maybe it’s only in suspended animation. There’s war and then there’s war crimes, and I don’t want any committed on my watch. Deal?”
“You have a civilian outlook on these things, Zhores, but very well. You have my word as an officer and a...”
“I was going to say ‘genetically engineered killing implement for the Martian state,’ but gentlewoman will do.” She glanced across to where Zhores’ people were regathering between the jury-rigged hoops at either end of the truck. “Who’s winning?”
“Naomi’s team. She’s scoring field goals more consistently than she’s ever done before.” He stood, then with a barely repressed smile said, “You’re clearly a bad influence on her.”
Cy cast an appreciative eye at the lithe female figure jogging down the middle of the makeshift basketball court, bouncing the ball before her with graceful ease. “If only,” she murmurred.
* * *
She woke into darkness and the feeling of lying horizontal in a sleeping bag. But it was so cold that she could feel it on her upturned face.
It had been warm that afternoon. After their basketball game, they’d set up a portable barbecue while Cy had helped move the plasma arc from the tomb entrance, rigging it to light their impromptu camp as dusk steepened in. She’d chowed on half-burnt meat with no comment from anyone about Martian vegetarianism and had sampled wine fermented by chemists working among the wrecks back east. They’d toasted this enterprising group, then the mysterious aliens whose suspected art had made their expedition possible.
Afterwards, Cy had regaled the company with stories of deep space: the Battle of Procycon where a dog long dead helped win a victory; the action off the gas giant Cue Ball where she vaporised a damaged Martian troopship in which lay someone she had once loved; observing aliens exploring the Mars-like world New Hell that ended in her slamming an asteroid into the planet.
“One of the few things in my career I’m not ashamed of,” she said.
Later she’d leaned across and propositioned Naomi.
Cy sat up in the truck’s oversized seat. She switched on the light. The cab was empty. Naomi had politely declined her advances, she remembered now. So she’d bedded down by herself in the truck with windows open to the warm night air. The others had retired to the vehicle’s cargo bay in the rear or down to the transport parked on the shore. She had somehow expected to see Naomi wander off with Zhores, but he wandered off with Danny.
She closed the windows against the cold, muttering, “Weather,” in disgusted tones, having lived most of her life within controlled artificial environs.
Outside, something was happening. A stir of dark on dark. Turning off the cab light, she fished into her tunic pocket for her light-boost goggles.
There among the trees an indistinct shape moved in the murk of amplified star shine.
Someone caught short, she told herself, then realized how unlikely that was. Those sleeping aboard the transport had access to its facilities, and she would’ve heard anyone in the truck’s cargo bay exit by way of the tailgate. She pulled on her boots and slipped outside, her clothes at once adjusting to the cold.
Through the goggles, the cooling barbecue faintly glowed in infra-red. She felt along its work top for a knife.
Her fingers touched the handle of something she guessed was the big carving knife Zhores had used so dextrously at dinner. She gripped it, ready in defence. Hesitating beside the arc light that had illuminated their camp, she decided against it. Right now darkness was an advantage.
The outlines of the mushroom trees lay ahead within an unfocussed grey. She advanced, trying to make out if any of those vague shapes was the hatch to the tomb swung open.
Movement again within those shapes, shuffled through the trees. As far as she could make out it was about half the size of a Xenoid, but they could shape-shift. There was a suggestion of a head with an irregularity atop it that appeared to sprout horns.
Some little distance behind this shambling thing, she could just make out that the tomb hatch was indeed open.
The figure lurched forward, halted, leaned back only to lurch forward again. Was the newly awakened Xenoid struggling to full consciousness, she wondered. And all the while, those horns waved and waved in time to its dance. Oddly, none of the motivating berserker rage bubbled up inside her, the consuming, obscene happiness she felt when battle was imminent.
She took a step backwards. The figure abruptly stopped. The shape upon its head seemed to squirm. The horns waving independent of body movement were joined by two more long, thin outgrowths of shadow. The whole of the apparition remained motionless a moment, then lurched towards her.
Cy swung around and, in the grey, glimpsed the murky form of Zhores close behind. “Get your people into the ship,” she whispered, “and ready it to lift.”
The approaching shadow had left the trees now and was crossing the clearing.
Zhores, also wearing light-boosts, glanced across the clearing, then at Cy. With a distinct smile in his voice he said, “Lieutenant... are you aware you’re brandishing a hamburger flip?”
“Huh?” She brought the flip up to eye level for a few squinted seconds. Uttering a clipped curse, she turned and bolted past him.
He stared after her as she vanished into the grey, stunned an instant by her unexpected retreat. Then, instinctively, he too turned and ran.
But he’d only gone a few steps when close by in the murk he heard a metallic clatter and glimpsed Cy pulling at the frame of the arc light, her small form struggling to reach the downward-angled lamp.
He skidded to a halt in the frosting fungus grass, finding himself nose to nose with a figure looming up in front of him. Lantern glare dazzled in his amplifying goggles while he and this sudden other gripped each other for support.
Zhores wrenched the light-boosts up and blinked against the racing green lines in his vision. “Danny! Get back to the ship!”
“What’s happening?” Danny asked.
“Get back to the ship! Get everyone aboard and ready to lift!”
“Now!” Zhores broke from Danny’s grip, turned, snapped the light boosts over his eyes and ran across to the arc light.
By now Cy had climbed the frame and angled the lamp into the horizontal but had yet to swivel it about. With his greater height, Zhores grabbed the lamp housing and helped swing it around.
Cy’s hissed, “Get to the ship!” was the only thanks he got.
“Why haven’t you?”
“I’m insane. What’s your excuse?” She glanced across the clearing to where the figure continued to advance in its staggered dance. She dialled the arc light output to FULL and made a final adjustment to the lamp, estimating where the Xenoid’s great bulbous orb should be. “Mind your eyes!”
They threw off their light-amplifying goggles, and Cy hit the switch.
The landscape lit bright as high noon, everything revealed in a wide blaze of stark white: the curved trunks of the mushroom trees, the fungus grass, the upraised hatch of the tomb twinkling metallically. And, in the centre of the clearing was Cy De Gerch herself. Or rather a fungus replica of her younger self sprouting from a snaking vine and dressed in ragged fungus clothes.
Cy stumbled from behind the light and stared at her pale mushroom self.
Zhores stepped up beside her, and they stared together. They stared and then they chuckled. Then their chuckles became a long, loud laugh, the laughter of sheer relief. The laughter of realizing that neither was about to die. What had looked so menacing in the dark looked ludicrous in the glaring light.
Then Cy’s laughter changed to a cry of joy. “Lazarus!”
Atop the figure was a creature black and hairy and obviously not a fungal growth. Its eight legs gripped the scalp of the replica but the upraised claws and eye stalks waved. They waved at Cy in excited recognition.
She laughed, this time in pure exuberance, cried, “Lazarus!” again, and with open arms and a heart overfilled with happiness ran across the clearing to clasp her long-lost friend, and that’s where memory ended.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by Rick Kennett