In a burst of scintillation the ship emerged from subspace high above the planetary plane, beyond the gravity well of the small yellow star.
The ship’s secondary shield grid flared in violet discharge, then stabilized. It paused, oriented itself and moved deliberately down into the inner system toward the bright points of a double world. It slowed as the twin horns began to resolve out of blackness: one gray and the other brilliant blue-white. The ship made one terminator orbit around the moon before moving toward the dark side to hang above a narrow valley of the north pole where it waited. Below, twisted masts reached up amid the radial pattern of the base. Shrouded in shadow, the base lay dark and silent, cold like the cliffs that surrounded it. After a time the ship rose and slowly moved away.
It climbed above the horizon to be greeted by a blue crescent of a sleeping world. The northern ice cap shrouded under untidy clouds stretching their twisted whorls into night. In a burst of speed, the ship vanished into the black shadow of the waiting world. It moved into a polar orbit as the planet shifted ponderously beneath it. It made a single circuit, looking for the sentinel cruiser, noting the scanning sensor probes coming up from the ground. It found the cruiser hanging above the equator. The ship maneuvered until both flew silently side by side in a locked orbit.
* * *
“Status?” Kukll-nn demanded with an impatient growl.
Oryana lifted her head gracefully and looked where he stood before the high window, hands clasped tightly behind his back.
“They’re sending down a landing boat,” she said, her voice soft and musical, now slightly breathless. Her black eyebrows were arched and traced a thin line above large brown eyes. She pulled at her small pointed chin with a slim delicate hand and turned back to the main display plate positioned above the sloping consoles. The tactical grid dissolved and the image reformed into a wide-angle pattern. She glanced absently at the small repeater plates and sighed dreamily.
“A ship from home! I wonder how much things have changed,” she mused, eyes misty, lost in memory. Absently, she fondled the long, white tresses that spilled across her shoulders. Long hair cascaded down the middle of her head, streaked with twin bands of dark gray of a mature Deklan female.
Kukll-nn stood silent beside the window, his eyes far in another reality. The observatory gave him an excellent view of the city below. The lake, its black waters lapping softly against the massive stone walls, stretched north and west as far as the eye could see. Shrouded in blue haze the mountains arched toward a violet sky. Ice and snow capped the peaks, shouldering the lower slopes. How fragile, he thought, almost brittle in their stark and serene beauty. So much like his native Kaplan. He shook his head, surprised at the nostalgia that overcame him.
“All continental stations reported in two minutes ago,” he heard Oryana say behind him. “The intruder has matched with our ship and is maintaining neutral status.”
The Center quiet, waiting, the stillness interrupted by the whisper of computer reports and an occasional shuffling of feet from the watchstanders.
For a few seconds, more silence. Oryana stared at Kukll’s back, then climbed out of her seat and walked slowly to the window to stand beside him. Following his gaze, she watched the natives busy at their work. Lord of this world, it would all now end. They expected this, and some probably even welcomed it. As the years marched, the waiting had not grown easier.
She looked at his reflection in the window and the face she saw hard. A rough face full of slabs, chiseled with deep lines of power and determination. A face used to command. His hair rusty, shot through with patches of white. It had lost some of the gloss that used to make her breath catch. The years had been kind to all of them, she thought as she gazed at him with deep affection. And there have been so many years. Too many perhaps to face what they left behind.
“Do you really think that’s necessary?” she asked gently and reached up with her hand, hesitating before touching his shoulder.
He tensed at her touch and turned to look at her, faintly amused. “Don’t you? Yes…I can see it in your face. All the years we’ve spent here have not removed the longing. You still yearn for the worlds of Deklan. And me…” The fire in his black eyes waned and his jaw lifted with resolve. “Those worlds are no longer ours,” he grated, each word a blow and she flinched. Slowly, he raised his hand and pointed a stubby finger at the ceiling. “The ship up there hasn’t come to help us, remember that. You ask if Sachmm-nn is necessary. We shall see. Now, order it to power up and stand by.”
Hurt, she turned to the operator behind one of the consoles. When he nodded to her, she looked at Kukll-nn.
“They have acknowledged,” she said stiffly, torn with warring emotions.
They watched the city in silence. After a while, he turned to stare into the deep pools of her eyes and gently brushed her cheek.
“I am sorry, Oryana. I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. It’s only—”
“Don’t.” She clasped his hand and held it. “I understand. But…” She left it unsaid. Nothing left to say when the yesterdays suddenly came crowding.
“We better go and meet them,” he said at length and managed a faint smile that didn’t touch his eyes.
* * *
The voice from the temple boomed and the people stopped their work and stood silent in the streets, markets, homes and farms. The gods were speaking. Leoichan, High Priest of Tiahunn-cc, heard the voice and listened. As he listened, his excitement grew. When the voice stopped, he ordered the priests to send a message to the king and gather the people to direct them to the star nest. The gods were coming!
Slowly, then with hurried fervor, chanting, the people moved down the broad avenues toward the star nest where the gods would come. The King, the High Priest, the Oracle and the multitude of peasantry waited at the gates of Tiahunn-cc. Black marble doors rumbled as they slid open. Clad in tight red coveralls, Kukll-nn emerged with Oryana at his side dressed in blue. The people held their arms high and sang the names of the two gods. With slow dignity the gods mounted an air chariot and it began to move. The populace shouted and danced and walked with them toward the star nest.
The valley walls fell away and the baked plain opened before them. Leoichan started the sixth chant of observance as he stared in awe at the two metal birds perched on their stone pads, surrounded by spidery towers. The minions of the gods moved about on flat air chariots and Leoichan watched it all and chanted.
Assembled, they murmured and waited, eyes fixed on the heavens from where the gods would come. A deep rumble shook the air and the ground trembled. The heavenly bird glittered in white light high above them. Leoichan began the eleventh chant and the priests around him held their arms high.
Clad with fire and light, it looked like a descending star. With thunder that shook the heavens, white smoke billowing, the heavenly bird fell quickly. It slowed and hovered for an instant, roaring in tortured anger, and then it touched the pad. The fires stopped and thunder echoed through the hills. Smoke drifted slowly down the valley. In the sudden silence, only the chanting could be heard.
The bird sat there breathing hot air, shimmering in the haze and everyone waited for the gods to emerge. Leoichan turned shyly and smiled at Kukll-nn and Oryana, proud to be near them. They smiled back and he felt warmed in his soul.
A hush fell over the crowd when one of the towers began to slowly move toward the bird. Kukll and Oryana mounted their air chariot and sped quickly down onto the baked plain.
Leoichan watched the chariot stop at the base of the tower. The gods climbed down and stood before the bird, waiting. A box descended within the tower. When it stopped, doors opened and he stood there, tall, his hair bright red and clothing silver. When Kukll-nn saluted, Leoichan gaped, his surprise complete. The other stared back a long time before returning the salute.
* * *
Kukll allowed his hand to fall to his side as his eyes raked over the thin form of his visitor. The man’s long hands swayed and his fingers twitched in characteristic agitation. His small yellow eyes darted restlessly as they moved over everything. Hidden behind bushy orange eyebrows, they glinted with cold fire. The face pale white and pinched, fixed with a thin nose. Arrogance and hidden cruelty marked the face. The twin bands of thick red hair were rich and prominent. Kukll decided they weren’t going to get along.
“Master Scout Kukll-nn, and my executive officer, First Scout Oryana,” Kukll said evenly, trying to keep the distaste out of his voice. The man was a political busybody and the quicker he dealt with him the better. “I see Prima Scout, that the Serrll Combine has not forgotten us after all.”
“No, they have not forgotten, Master Scout,” the other grated heavily and looked about him pointedly. “I am Virrchaa, on a special Executive Council Mission to look you over.”
“Look me over or take me over? I suppose I should be flattered, but after nineteen years, taking into account four time dilation jumps, you’ll have to forgive me if the excitement has kind of worn off.”
“I should imagine.” Virrchaa snorted and swept his hand before him. “Holy Master of Sin, man! What have you done to this world?”
Kukll glanced at the assembled multitude. “I have brought it life.”
“I’m not in any mood for your worm shit!” Virr growled and lead the way to the sled-pad. “Let’s talk.”
* * *
“Is that all?” Virr said with icy politeness as his fingers drummed impatiently against the desk.
Kukll nodded and took a sip from a frosted tumbler. “I guess that’s about the size of it, Prima Scout.”
Virr glared at Oryana, but she became suddenly busy studying her nails. He pushed back his chair and started pacing. Kukll sat back and a faint smile creased his chiseled face. Whatever Virr expected, he certainly didn’t like what he found.
With a growl of exasperation, Virr stopped before the wide window. The city below lay spread before him in neat patterns. It looked simple, belying the sophistication of its design.
“You were sent here on a follow-up survey mission,” he hissed impatiently and turned to glare at Kukll. “Nothing else!”
“That sounded okay nineteen years ago,” Kukll pointed out.
Virr pursed his lips. “Look at it from my point of view. I break out of subspace and I think maybe I’m in the wrong system. There is no SC&C, no patrols, nothing. And the moon base? Abandoned. You were sent here to watch them, not mold them!”
Kukll shrugged and reached for the decanter. He filled the tumbler, stared at it for a moment, then looked up, his mouth hard.
“We set up bases here for one reason and one reason only: genetic engineering experiments. Don’t tell me you didn’t know. So let’s drop this indignant posturing nonsense, shall we? We don’t need to pretend here.”
Virr exhaled and bared his teeth. “I expect a measure of respect from you, Master Scout!”
Kukll laughed. “What are you going to do? Send me home?”
Virr glared, pursed his lips and turned to stare out the window. “They look happy down there. How much do they know?”
Kukll glanced at Oryana. “They know I teach and heal. When necessary, I punish. I leave it at that.”
“How many other bases?”
“Two; one farther north and one on the western landmass across the ocean. We had a base on the southern island continent, but we had a reactor accident and were forced to abandon it.”
“They’re developing. Not as fast as predicted, though. It’s being looked into. The western continent is dry and getting worse. Here, we have a chance and the polar ice is receding.”
Virr turned and looked directly at Kukll. “You will shut down all bases and terminate the experiments.”
“Does that include the natives as well?” Kukll asked calmly.
“This doesn’t come from me.”
“Tell me one thing. If the Executive Council intended to close us down, why the regular resupply ships? In all my years here, there has never been even a hint of abandoning the project.”
“I don’t know—”
“Don’t give me that! Not after coming all this way. What happened to make everyone suddenly want to salve their conscience? Look at them!” Kukll swept a hand at the window and stood up. “That’s an indigenous population and this planet is a protectorate. You’re sworn to defend what’s here.”
Virr smiled grimly. “You’re right. The natives will be left alone. They can struggle on as best they can. But this,” he said and looked about him, “this has to go and you’ll return to Captal for a well deserved promotion and rest.”
Kukll glanced at Oryana and chuckled. A mirthless laugh full of irony.
“What do you think of that, my dear?” He looked at Virr and shook his head. “No, Prima Scout. It won’t be so easy. Our work here isn’t finished yet. Too many things still need to be done to ensure the natives’ survival.”
“You like playing a god, Kukll?” Virr studied the other man, past the mask of a Serrll officer at the mantle of power radiating from him.
“A god?” Kukll lifted his head in genuine surprise. “You’re a fool to think so, Virr. This, for what we left back home? I am prepared to return. We all are. Holy Master of Sin, who wouldn’t be? Only if the Mission Plan is maintained and we’re replaced. Only if the Mission Plan is maintained,” he repeated, his voice flat and uncompromising.
Virr shook his head. “I cannot do that, and you know it. My orders are clear.”
“And you don’t have the guts to do the right thing.”
“Even if I sent a message to the Executive Council pleading your case, my orders will not be rescinded. They don’t have any reason to.”
“Who the hell cares? By the time you get back, how many months will have gone?”
“Seventy-three days. We can do two hundred times the speed of light now.”
“At max boost perhaps, but you cannot push max for that long. Not all the way to Salina. Anyway, it’s long enough for the Council to change its mind. Think, man! This goes beyond mere political expediency, or this experiment would never been allowed to continue.”
“There is nothing I can do,” Virr said flatly. “Begin preparation for immediate evacuation, Master Scout.”
“I have a ship up there and this place is defended,” Kukll said softly.
Virr stared. “You mean it?”
Kukll’s eyes were cold with resolve.
* * *
Leoichan watched the air chariot leave the gates of Tiahunn-cc and speed toward the star nest just as the summons arrived from Kukll-nn. Torn, wanting to watch the air chariot, the summons could not be ignored. Chewing his lip in frustration, he motioned to his retainers and the little group moved quickly toward the black marble gates.
When he reached the gates they opened with a low groan. With a feeling of religious awe and dread, he walked in. One of the minions greeted him and he indicated to his retainers to wait on him before following. He stood before Kukll-nn and the goddess Oryana many times, but each time he stood in their presence, he felt vulnerable and his soul naked before their gaze. His sins were many and it was never certain how the gods would judge him. He gave an involuntary shudder and hurried after the minion.
The door slid aside and his footsteps were loud in the quiet of the Great Hall. Light streamed in yellow shafts through tall windows and made warm pools through which he walked daintily. The god stood before one of the windows. Oryana, all in blue, sat on the reception dais and smiled at him. He sank to his knees and bowed.
“Your humble servant awaits your word, Lords,” he whispered, not daring to breathe.
“Stand, our faithful Leoichan.” Oryana’s voice soft and clear and sent a tingle of excitement down his spine.
Slowly, he straightened and stood and waited.
Without turning, Kukll said, “Tell the King that all his people must leave Tiahunn-cc immediately. Tell him they must not stop until they’ve reached Tiukk-ll. Start now,” he growled and waved his hand in dismissal.
Leoichan stood stunned as he heard the words, not believing. Leave the city? Uproot their lives?
“Lord, have we offended thee that you should send us away?” he whispered, greatly daring.
Kukll didn’t say anything. He merely stood there, his hands clasped tightly behind his back. Oryana got up and walked slowly toward Leoichan to stop before him.
“The gods are angry, my servant. Fire may fall from the sky, consuming all.”
“The gods are angry with the people?”
“No, Leoichan,” she said softly and placed a slim hand on his shoulder. “I am well pleased and so is Kukll-nn. My friend, a messenger from the stars brought us news of troubles. We must stay here and defend Tiahunn-cc, but you have to leave so that your people may be safe.”
Leoichan did not understand. However, the gods have spoken and therefore it must be so.
“I shall stay here with you. All of us will stay and help you in your need,” he said with sudden resolve and straightened. “Have you not cared for us?”
As Oryana looked at him, he was awed to see a tear glisten in her eye and slide down her cheek. “Thank you, faithful servant,” she whispered. “The fire of the gods cannot be stopped. You must flee.”
“To pack…there is so much…” He faltered and looked helplessly at her.
“Don’t pack, just go!” Kukll snapped and Leoichan blanched, feeling himself tremble.
“Lord,” he whispered and bowed low.
Relenting, Kukll walked up to him. “Don’t be afraid, Leoichan. I didn’t mean to be harsh, but time is limited. I shall not abandon you. Wait for me at Tiukk-ll. Don’t forget the writings and the laws, my servant,” he added, then abruptly turned and strode out of the Hall.
“Go quickly,” Oryana whispered and followed.
Leoichan knew something terrible was about to happen if the gods were so troubled, but leave Tiahunn-cc?
* * *
The display plate cleared and Virrchaa glared at her.
“I want to speak to Kukll, First Scout,” he said impatiently, his head held high and haughty.
“I speak for Kukll, Prima Scout,” she said unflinchingly.
“Very well, then.” He glanced at the chronometer readout. “Tell him he must evacuate all stations in fourteen hours. If he doesn’t, I shall close them by force.”
“I shall tell him, sir.” Oryana nodded and his image faded. She turned to look at Kukll standing nearby and bit her lip.
He barely nodded.
The black waters of the lake lapped below the walls of the fortress. Whitecaps curled and sent spray flying before the wind. About him, the city stood silent and empty. The last patrol reported all the natives evacuated. Something positive at last, he mused wryly. After all the time and effort, it’ll now vanish in fire. What a waste. If the natives survived, it would still be worth it.
Beneath him the floor shook slightly and he turned toward the command consoles.
“The last of the boats has taken off, sir,” the technician said, his eyes wondering, asking the same questions Kukll asked. “Low orbit in four-point-seven minutes.”
Kukll placed an arm over Oryana’s shoulder. “Virr could be right,” she said after a moment.
“Yes, I know.” A cold smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “If we leave, then they would have lost it all.” He waved at the window. “He’ll wipe it all clean to remove a political embarrassment. He might not like it, but he’ll follow orders. Who knows, in three or four thousand years the remnants might climb back to where they’re now. The species will survive.”
“We do what we must.” He shrugged, turned and looked questioningly at the technician.
“Sachmm-nn is fully powered up and all stations have acknowledged. The local population has dispersed. All boats are in position. Target is in low three-hour equatorial orbit. Our ship will shift to a geosynchronous position in twelve minutes from now.”
Kukll nodded. “Open channel to Virr’s ship.”
When the plate cleared, the two men stared at each other, both resolved, determined to carry it to the end. Virr pursed his lips.
“Damn it, Kukll! This is madness.”
“I agree, Prima Scout, but I cannot permit these people to be wiped out. Orders or not, it’s murder.”
“I cannot permit Sachmm-nn and Tiahunn-cc to remain operational, Master Scout. You’ve made the population dependent on your technological and social infrastructure. You cannot be with them always.”
“No, but without it, they’ll revert to savagery, or worse.”
Virr looked hard at Kukll and seemed to reach a decision. “I give you my word as an officer of the Serrll that I shall take no action against the natives. Provided all the bases are neutralized, with the exception of the moon base, of course.”
“I might go as far as to believe you, Virr, but that doesn’t bind the Executive Council.”
“I meant the Council, damn it! I’ll file a report with the General Assembly and the Council won’t force the issue. As you said yourself, it’s not worth it. You’ll be free to return. I don’t want to shed our blood for a cause I don’t believe in and reasons that are expedient. Don’t force my hand.”
“On one condition.”
“And that is?”
“The Serrll must send follow-up missions, to check up.”
“It might not be so easy.”
“Make it easy. Virr…you cannot afford to have your ship damaged. It’s a hell of a long way to Captal.”
“So it is.”
When the screen faded, Kukll looked at Oryana. “What do you think?”
She tilted her head and frowned. “He appears sincere, but I don’t trust him. He gave in too easily.”
“Just so.” He nodded and turned to the watch operator. “Maintain alert status and give me position of the primary target.”
“They’re maintaining neutral status, and their shield grid is up.”
“Then we wait.”
* * *
The comms alert beeped and Kukll turned as the image cleared.
“Sir, it’s three hours plus,” the operator said.
“All landing boats maintaining low orbit. The target has assumed a geosynchronous position above Sachmm-nn. All other bases—”
“I know,” Kukll snapped and slammed his fist against the desk. “Is Virr’s ship in line-of-sight?”
Kukll looked disgusted. “Get him for me, now!”
When the image cleared, Kukll stood straight, hands clasped tightly behind his back.
“You shifted orbit when I wasn’t in a position to see. Why?”
“I don’t make explanations, Kukll,” Virr snarled, his eyes almost hidden by flared eyebrows. “I simply want your compliance.”
“You’re not in any position to make demands, Prima Scout.”
“A missile might change your mind, Master Scout!” Virr bellowed as he finally lost his temper. “I want your answer and I want it now. I’m tired of this whole mess. And I’m especially tired of you! Copy that, Mister?”
“Sachmm-nn has weapons capability, in case you have not been informed.”
Virr turned abruptly, nodded and the image faded.
“Sir! Sachmm-nn reports they’re under missile attack. Our defense screen has responded.”
Oryana drew in her breath. Her eyes glistened as she looked at Kukll. “After all we have done…”
“He won’t risk total confrontation,” Kukll said flatly, thinking furiously. “He hasn’t launched any scouts…yet. He wants to pull our teeth first. I cannot risk my ship and neither can he.” He walked to the tactical plot and studied the plate. “Order Sachmm-nn to fire a burst at his ship. Rattle his shields a bit.”
“Kukll!” Oryana cried. “This can only end in destruction for all of us. Then everything we’ve done will be a waste.”
“It’s already a waste. He’ll either destroy us now or someone else will do it tomorrow. Unless the Executive Council intervenes, the politicians will erase everything we’ve done here.”
She walked to him and looked gravely into his eyes. Her hands reached for him.
“You know, I have even forgotten what a Deklan sky looks like. Isn’t that terrible?” she said tragically and her voice trembled. “I remember black sands washed by a warm ocean and the smell of flying spray, but it’s only a memory now. Our reality is here. Understand me?”
He stared at her for a long time before squeezing her hands. “Are you sure this is what you want?” he whispered and she nodded. “Once committed, there is no going back. Not for a long time.”
“I am sure, my love.”
“Sir? Sachmm-nn received a near miss and our defense grid is holding. Prima Scout Virrchaa has shifted orbit.”
“Open channel,” Kukll commanded.
“The next attack will be on you, Master Scout,” Virr spoke softly, but his eyes were hard and uncompromising.
“That will not be necessary, Prima Scout. I wouldn’t want any stray missiles heading toward the natives.”
“You don’t trust me, do you?”
“What do you think?”
Virr’s mouth twitched. “No, I guess you don’t. Instead of wasting away in this backwater, your talents can be better employed elsewhere. When we get back—”
“We’re not going back.”
“What do you mean? If you are—”
“Don’t worry. I’m not planning to throw away my life in some grand gesture. I have reconsidered our position. Particularly the follow-up missions.”
“We’ve been here a long time, Prima Scout. All of us have. Long enough to develop a certain affection for the natives and this planet. For me, Kaplan is a faded dream, albeit a fond one. I intend taking volunteers and make a time dilation jump of fifteen years. It will buy the Council more than enough time to sort things out. Many of the people I know here will still be alive when I return. Enough for me to pick up the pieces, anyway.”
After a moment of silence, Virr shook his head. “Damnedest idea I ever heard of.”
“But it’ll work. Besides, who do you have willing enough to exile themselves here?” Kukll asked, his voice full of irony. “About the Mission Plan. The General Assembly may pretend that this place doesn’t exist, but they’d still love to have it followed through. At least through Stage Two.”
“I agree,” Virr said.
“On one condition, Prima Scout.”
“And that is?”
“Tiukk-ll and the other population centers must remain intact. This is not negotiable.”
Virr sighed, then nodded. “Very well.”
“And, Virr? My ship will remain in orbit and ready until you transit into subspace.”
Virr didn’t say anything as he cut contact.
* * *
Leoichan found it hard to breathe the hot, sticky air.
Overhead, the sun a white furnace, too painful to look at. Few people were about and the temple grounds shimmered in the heat. Somewhere, a child wailed and there came a startled cackle from the poultry. A fly buzzed, then the sound faded.
He hobbled slowly along the avenue, his stick tapping on polished stones. Bent, the skinny legs showed blue veins and tight, stringy muscles. Yet he enjoyed good health, even if he had trouble chewing with the few teeth he had left. Life had been harsh, but he did not complain. He had his sons and his family were powerful. He frowned as he recalled some of the practices at the temple and the loose interpretation of the laws. The king strong and the people have prospered. Surely not as in the days of his youth, but obedient to the laws nonetheless.
He sat in the shade of the temple wall, lost in memory when shouting and the pounding of feet caused him to open his eyes. Squinting, he watched with amusement the running figures. In dismay, he realized they were coming toward him.
A messenger from the High Priest, and Leoichan frowned. That man would have to go if things did not change, he reflected darkly. One of the boys, still panting, sank to his knees and bowed before him.
“Venerable One,” the boy gasped and looked up with fear and wonder.
Leoichan’s ears roared and his heart began to pound. No, it cannot be.
“What about it?” he whispered, hardly daring to believe.
“The dome opened and a shiny dish-like shape rose from within and started turning. Then it stopped and I was ordered to tell it to you.”
Leoichan nodded and closed his eyes in quiet happiness. The gods were coming at last. He should have believed, he should have. Did not Kukll-nn promise he would come?
“Tell the High Priest and the King to assemble the people at the star nest,” he ordered and smiled at the gaping faces. “The gods are coming.”
He sat back and relaxed, content. He feared to die before setting eyes on Kukll and the goddess Oryana again, but he knew himself to be an old fool to hold such a foolish dream.
He remembered that fateful, terrible day fifteen years ago. Seven of his priests and he were hidden in the mountains, far above Tiahunn-cc and the black lake. They could hardly see the massive walls of the fortress in the hazy distance. The star nest on the plain far below clearly visible. They waited, wanting to see the anger of the gods, realizing that death may be their only reward for such presumption.
He watched as the last heavenly bird roared in anger, fire billowing from its base. He trembled in fear as it climbed into the sky. Fire and thunder followed it to the heavens and the ground shook beneath him. When the thunder stopped, only a column of writhing smoke remained. He remembered talking to one of his priests, arguing whether they should stay longer, when a flash of blinding radiance seared the hills around them. One of the priests screamed and tore at his eyes.
Leoichan turned to see a strangely shaped cloud hang over where Tiahunn-cc once stood. Then the wind roared and clutched at them, threatening to sweep them from the mountain. Terrified, they fled. That night, huddled together against the cold, he remembered Oryana’s tears and he wept unashamedly for things lost.
The memory of that writhing cloud had stayed with him always.
Four of his priests died of a mysterious, wasting illness. Although he took sick, he recovered, the illness leaving him old before his time.
* * *
Arms raised, the priests toned through the seventh chant of observance. The multitude buzzed with excitement. The King sat adorned in feathers and gold, hands folded as he stared at the emptiness of the star nest. Slowly, he turned his head, looked at Leoichan and nodded. Someone shouted and pointed and heads turned toward the heavens.
Brighter than a star and Leoichan squinted to look at it. It had been a long time, a long time since he witnessed the coming of a heavenly bird. He did not mind dying now. He watched the light sink swiftly and heard the first rumble of thunder.
Flame and smoke filled the small plain. The very air trembled as the pillar of fire hung briefly and touched the earth. In the sudden silence the echoes boomed in the distance and faded. The priests finished chanting and they waited. The smoke cleared quickly and a hole appeared in the side of the bird. Leoichan clenched his fists with gleeful excitement as an air chariot glided out, sank slowly and started toward them. He turned and nodded. The retainers moved his palanquin forward, away from the waiting priests and royalty.
The chariot drifted to a stop and sank toward the ground, but did not touch it. Its glittering bubble opened and Kukll-nn, all in red, stepped out and looked curiously about him. Oryana moved close beside him, her blue coverall shimmering in the heat. Leoichan stared at them with hunger, drinking in every detail. They were just as he remembered them, unchanged. They were gods, no?
Kukll turned and smiled as Leoichan stood and bowed low. “Lord, I have waited as you commanded.”
“My faithful servant.” Kukll placed his hand on Leoichan’s shoulder. “I have come, as I promised.”
Behind them, the chanting rose in waves.
* * *
A cool breeze ruffled his long faded hair and Leoichan grasped the fine red llama blanket closer to his thin body. His gnarled hand trembled and his breathing labored. Gold thread woven into the blanket glinted in the afternoon’s dying light. Dying like him. The prospect of death did not trouble him. He had lived a long and full life, and in the nine years since the gods returned, his people prospered again and spread into new lands in the west where Qatzeltal, the new god protector, held law. He carried out the will of the gods and was content. One last thing to be done.
They placed Leoichan’s palanquin on the knoll so he could see the star nest below. The retainers stood back respectfully. His sons waited in silence. The King had sent the Oracle to attend him, the shrew not pleased at the honor done to her. The woman too interested in the trappings of her position than the exercise of her duties to the gods and the people, thankful he wouldn’t have to deal with that problem. The High Priest and his attendants softly chanted the litanies of observance.
A coppery glow smeared the setting sun and painted the thin streamers of high cloud red. He knew this would be his last sunset. Unperturbed, Leoichan waited. The gods had promised, but would Kukll and Oryana come? It was always dangerous to presume on the will of the gods. Not that Kukll had been harsh, and the laws were just, even if the people did not always obey. He so desperately wanted to see the god again before Kukll and Oryana returned from wherever the gods came. A glint of light high in the sky brightened and he squinted. His eyes were not as they used to be, but he felt a prickle of anticipation race through him. Kukll had returned his faith.
Shrouded in a shimmering yellow cocoon the thick gray disk descended silently toward the stone landing pad of the star nest. The Oracle reluctantly began her chant. The heavenly bird grew in size, paused above the pad and extended its landing skids. The yellow light faded around the ship and steps dropped down from its side. An air chariot raced toward the waiting ship from the maintenance hangar at the edge of the landing pad. Two figures emerged from the ship and Leoichan’s breath caught in his throat. He could not mistake Kukll’s red uniform and Oryana’s blue coverall. The two gods climbed into the waiting air chariot and the machine sped toward the gathered crowd on the hill.
A respectful hush fell as the air chariot slowed and stopped beside Leoichan’s palanquin. Kukll stepped down, cast his eyes over the assembly, then smiled as he strode to the palanquin. Everyone bowed low. Leoichan struggled to rise, but Kukll gently pushed him back.
“My lord,” Leoichan husked, “it is not seemly that I lie in your presence.”
“My faithful servant,” Kukll said warmly. “We’re past such foolishness, you and I.”
Oryana stopped beside Kukll and her tender smile lit Leoichan’s soul.
“Leoichan, this day you shall sleep with the gods,” she said in a trembling voice.
“Then my life will have been fulfilled, goddess,” he breathed. The gods were powerful, but even they could not stay the hand of Death.
What happened next shocked him. Kukll bent over him and gathered him into his arms.
“Rest easy, my friend,” Kukll whispered.
The Oracle and the High Priest gaped as the god carried Leoichan to the air chariot and sat down. Oryana took the controls and the chariot turned and sped toward the star nest.
Kukll hardly felt any weight in his arms. Leoichan a frail sack of wrinkled skin and bone with little life left in him. Kukll climbed the steps into the scoutship and placed his servant on the reclined formchair. Oryana came up behind him and sat in the command couch. The nav bubble cleared and Leoichan marveled at this wondrous vehicle. Once before, long ago, he had the privilege to sit inside a heavenly bird, but what he saw now overwhelmed him. The hatch cycled shut and he felt a change in pressure.
“Won’t be long now,” Kukll said beside him.
The ship hovered, then surged into the sky. Leoichan gasped when the sky lost its softness and he could see the stars.
The stars spun and Leoichan saw the sharp curve of a blue world laid below him like a distant shore. And the world was like an island in a black lake, and the clouds were mists that painted the waters. He could almost embrace it. Did his people really live on this seemingly small orb? His labored breathing eased and he felt a quiet warmth steel through his body. He envied the gods their heaven. Were they here to take him there?
“Lord, I have tried to be a faithful servant.”
Oryana knelt beside him and brushed his forehead. “You were more than that,” she whispered and smiled, her eyes glistening bright. “You were a friend.”
“I don’t mind dying then,” he tried to say, but the words would not come. He stared at the blue world even as life left him.
The fires of death burned high in the temple that night.