Chieftain Kohlvar tightened his grip on the butt of his rifle when the chunk they’d just cut out of the worldship’s hull clattered to the floor.
Beyond the smoking hole lay only darkness. “Lights,” said Kohlvar, and the tribesmen obeyed, activating their helmet lamps.
The cool scent of mildew wafted out of the hole and into the airlock. Kohlvar wasn’t sure what they were going to find inside, but this was the moment he’d been anticipating since he’d volunteered for their mission nearly six months ago. The unknown excited him. Predictable military exercises bored him. He wanted action; risk.
“Everybody keep your ears open and your eyes peeled,” he said. “We don’t know if these people are friendly or hostile, so I’m assuming hostile until I’m proven wrong. Fingers on triggers, safety off, but don’t get jittery.”
Striker Gabriel shoved past him and into the hole. He turned around and flashed a wry grin. “Who you think you’re talking to, sir?”
“The best damn Striker in the force,” said Kohlvar. “When it comes to simulations. This is the real deal, here, kids. So don’t get cocky.”
Gabriel’s smile fell off his face. “Yes sir.”
Striker Utu rushed forward to join his comrade while Defenders Xisthros and Rigilio took their expected positions on either side of Kohlvar.
Kohlvar liked Gabriel–he’d petitioned command for the young man’s integration into the tribe, in fact.
He’d come from Anshar, the outermost of the colony worlds, and the one longest cut off from contact with Galenia after the WET shutdown. It also happened to be Kohlvar’s birthplace.
Ansharans were a different breed of human–rougher, hardier, more resilient than most. They’d been on their own so long that their society had developed an identity all its own, one forged by greed, ruthlessness and brutality.
Gabe was smart, skilled, and tough, but he was green. Hell, they all were. Easy to be a showoff when you’ve never been in any real danger. The last war on Galenia had taken place nearly six hundred years earlier and the military had largely functioned as a contingency since.
For the first time in his career, Kohlvar felt like he was doing something that mattered.
The long and winding grated steel catwalk that creaked beneath their feet seemed to go on forever as they made their way deep into the worldship.
Beyond the catwalk, in all directions, lay a seemingly endless chasm of blackness. All they could see was the dust reflected in their beams.
The deeper they went, the stronger the scent of mildew became, much to the chagrin of Kohlvar’s allergies.
Imagine breathing this day after day, month after month, year after year…
Their journey at last brought them to a door with a passcode pad embedded into the wall beside it.
Kohlvar placed a small device on the pad, and it latched on with a satisfying clink before discharging its nanocytes. The nanos made short work of the lock, cracking its code and opening the door within seconds.
Their beams illuminated a high-ceilinged roomful of pile after pile of junk–old, rusty machine parts, frayed wires, and a scattering of what appeared to be dead birds.
Kohlvar picked up one of the birds, and it seemed heavier than it should have. He broke it in half.
“It’s artie tech,” he said. He handed it off to Rigilio. “Put this in your pack. Grab one that’s fully intact as well.”
Rigilio obeyed, and they continued exploring the room, finding more of the same. A door on the other side led to an expansive chamber with what appeared to be fog rolling slowly across the floor. Gabriel started to advance, but Kholvar’s raised arm held him back.
“Wait…” he picked up a random chunk of metal from the ground and tossed it into the fog. It made no sound.
Kohlvar watched as the fog around the object’s entry point briefly parted to expose the rock floating in mid-air.
“Utu,” he said, “flame setting. Let’s see what’s underneath this fog.”
Utu pointed his rifle at the floor blanketed it with fire. The fog cleared, and before the vents on the walls could replenish it, they caught a momentary glimpse of what appeared to be a primitive village thousands of feet below. The object remained suspended in place.
“Forcefield?” asked Gabriel.
“I don’t know,” said Kohlvar. I’m not sure what it is we’re looking at, here.”
“Why, the heavens, of course.”
All four whipped around, their weapons trained on the source of the voice coming from behind them.
An old man in tattered animal skin coverings winced as their beams assaulted his eyes. It might have been the lighting, Kohlvar reasoned, but the man’s flesh looked pale; almost translucent. ”
Put those away,” he said. “I will not harm you.”
They held their rifles steady as Kohlvar sized him up. He was inclined to believe the old man’s assurances–he appeared unarmed, and was in no physical condition to represent a threat to four heavily-armed, highly trained men.
“Rifles down,” he said. Gabriel started to protest, but Kohlvar shot him down with a look.
“Much better,” said the old man. “Now, I must admit to some perplexity as to who you are and what you’re doing here. I know everyone on Ecc-sile, and yet your faces are unfamiliar to me.”
Kohlvar apologized and introduced himself and then the others of the tribe.
“I am Abbaz,” said the old man. “I fix the machines. I am the only one who knows how to do it.”
“From what we’ve seen so far, seems you’re a little behind schedule on your maintenance,” said Xisthros.
Kohlvar glared daggers at him and he shut up.
“I use the birds for parts,” said the old man, visibly offended. “I apologize for the mess, but I wasn’t expecting company, you see.”
“It’s fine,” said Kohlvar. “Besides, it doesn’t matter. We’ve come to take you home.”
Abbaz narrowed his eyes, his wild, bushy eyebrows bunching together like two flitworms mating. “Home?”
“Yes,” said Kohlvar. I’m not sure what knowledge your people have retained of Earth or its final decade of human dominion, but the majority of humanity now dwells on a planet called Galenia.”
The old man seemed disturbed. “This story you tell… you mustn’t let the ‘Teller know that you’ve spoken it to me. He alone must hear new stories, and then he passes them on to us if he deems them worthy.”
The tribe members looked at each other.
“We don’t understand your ways,” said Kohlvar, but we do not wish to create a disturbance. Will you take us to this ‘Teller, that we might discuss these things with him?”
The old man’s eyebrows shot up. “Of course! Oh, he’ll be very pleased with me, he will. Might even make me a holder.
“I hope so,” said Kohlvar, smiling. He didn’t know what a holder was, nor did he particularly care. He didn’t want to bombard the man with questions. “When can we meet him?”
“Oh, he’ll want to meet you as soon as possible,” said Abbaz eagerly.
There was something about the old man that Kohlvar didn’t trust, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Until such time as he could, his suspicions were baseless. He’d simply have to be on his guard.
“Splendid. Let’s go meet this ‘Teller.”
“Passage should be starting soon,” said Abbaz. “That’s the only time he leaves the garden.”
Kohlvar nodded as if he understood. “Seems we arrived just in time.”
“Indeed you did,” said Abbaz. “Follow me.”
He led them through an invisible door they would never have discovered on their own. Holographic, Kohlvar assumed, but he didn’t ask.
With heads lowered, they trekked through a dark, narrow tunnel that appeared to have been carved into rock. They were inside of a mountain, Kohlvar guessed, or at least an artificial approximation of one.
A few minutes later, they passed through another holographic door, this one leading to a platform overlooking the village they’d seen earlier. A ladder hung from the platform to the ground. Kohlvar found the light
“It’s a bit of a climb,” said Abbaz, but it doesn’t appear that anyone here lacks the stamina for it.”
“You go first,” said Rigilio.
Kohlvar considered reprimanding him, but he was only fulfilling his duty as Defender, and couldn’t be faulted for that, even if he was considerably lacking in tact.
Abbaz either didn’t interpret the request as indicating a lack of trust, or he chose not to let it bother him. Either way, he went first. The Strikers followed, then one Defender, then Kohlvar, then the other Defender.
Kohlvar looked around at the trees, the sky, the mountains, and the birds soaring overhead. It looked real enough, but it didn’t feel real. The whole place reminded him of a soundstage from one of the early Earth films.
A small child, a little girl dressed in the same sort of clothing Abbaz wore emerged from the woods.
Kohlvar knelt down to her level. “Hello there,” he said, and the girl turned and ran, disappearing back into the woods.
Gabriel laughed. “You’ve got quite a way with kids, sir,” he said.
“Shut up,” said Kohlvar. And put that damned gun away.”
Gabriel shrugged and sling his rifle back over his shoulder. The others followed suit, sensing it was implied that they, too should do so.
“That was Sanamtha,” said Abbaz. “Please don’t think her rude, sea just a bit shy.”
Kohlvar chuckled. “All these years. Eons. And children remain the same.”
Abbaz smiled wide. “Indeed. Come, we haven’t much time.”
They followed him down a well-beaten path to a clearing where others, some dressed similarly to Abbaz, and some nude, sat on the grass gazing forward with rapt attention at an ancient, frail-looking man sitting atop a chair carved from a tree stump.
The ‘Teller was speaking, but he stopped as soon as he spotted the newcomers.
“Fixer?” he said, peering at them through squinted eyes. “What is the meaning of this? Who have you brought before me? I do not know them.”
All eyes turned to the tribe and their guide. Abbaz stepped forward.
“Forgive me, ‘Teller. I did not mean to interrupt the proceedings. You’ll be pleased, though. These men are from the stars.”
A wave of excited chatter passed over the crowd before the ‘Teller silenced it with a bony upraised hand.
“From the stars? What sort of foolishness is this?”
“It’s true,” said Kohlvar. “We are from the planet Galenia. And we bring stories.”
The chatter started up again, and was once again silenced.
“Come closer,” said the ‘Teller, leaning forward.
Kohlvar nodded at his men, and everyone moved through the crowd to the wooden throne.
The ‘Teller looked them up and down, touched their suits, and scratched his chin. “Stories, you say?”
“Yes,” said Kohlvar, banking on his theory that stories were as valuable as currency in this mirco-world these strange people inhabited. “Stories beyond your wildest imaginations.
Gasps throughout the crowd of onlookers. Abbaz looked worried now.
“I tell the stories to my people,” said the ‘Teller. “If you do have some, I shall have to hear them in private. You will join me in my garden, after passage.”
There’s that word again. “Passage?” Kohlvar inquired.
“The passage of ancient knowledge from one generation to the next,” said the ‘Teller. “How do you pass down the knowledge of your people?”
“We store it in trees and access it through computers,” said Kohlvar, and everyone present except for the ‘Teller and the tribesmen erupted into fits of laughter.
“Trees,” whispered the ‘Teller when the laughter faded. “Yes… people come and go. They’re born, they wither, and then they die. But trees stand firm.”
He turned his head to the left. “Watching.” He turned his head to the left. “Listening.”
The crowd applauded, to Kohlvar’s amazement. The way people hung on the ‘Teller’s every word, one might think he was Shakespeare, or even Berengar the Eleventh.
“Once upon a time,” the old man bellowed, pausing for an extra long time and letting his words hang in the air for dramatic effect. He took a long drag from a pipe and exhaled a pungent smoke into the air.
The people seemed to have lost all interest in the men from another world standing directly behind them.
“During our seven thousandth year on the planet Orth….”
Kohlvar exchanged glances with Gabriel. Is he talking about Earth?
“We rode mighty dinosaurs into battle against one another, wielding swords of light. And then came the day when the conquerors arrived, and we learned to turn our swords from each other and join forces to valiantly resist the evil invaders. We put up a good fight, but in the end their number was too many, and their weapons greater. They built a bridge from the highest peak of Orth all the way to Ecc-Sile”
“Exile,” whispered Gabriel to Kohlvar, who promptly shushed him.
The ‘Teller heard their voices, and his dark, piercing eyes narrowed as he glared at them over the heads of his fam club.
He doesn’t like being interrupted, Kohlvar noted. Probably a crime around here.
“They told us we were the chosen people, superior to all other humans, and that they’d created this place as a paradise for us.”
Some paradise, thought Kohlvar, looking around, taking in his surroundings. There really wasn’t much to see. He couldn’t imagine living his entire life cooped up in an artificial environment such as this one, so thoroughly isolated from the rest of humanity, which thrived as they stagnated. He felt sorry for them.
“The rest of the people on the planet were put to death, as the conquerors had no use for them. Or so it was thought… When we are gathered again, I will tell you the story of the others.”
More gasps and murmurs. Kohlvar imagined they’d heard this story a thousand times, but not with that ending, which obviously referred to the tribe.
“Peace out, y’all,” said the ‘Teller, raising his hand in some sort of salute.
“Peace out,” the crowd chorused. They rose to their feet and approached the tribe.
“Get your damn hand off your damn gun,” Kohlvar hissed to Gabriel through gritted teeth.
“My friends,” said the ‘Teller, “Our visitors require rest. Please take your leave of them now. There will be plenty of time to speak with them later. Right now, they are to accompany me to the garden, where they will hopefully provide me with a new twist to the old story we know so well.”
The crowd scattered and left them alone with Abbaz and the ‘Teller.
“That’ll be all, Fixer. Thank you for bringing them to me.”
Abbaz’s face fell. He’d clearly been hoping to join them. “Yes, ‘Teller,” he said, and departed from them.
“Well,” said the ‘Teller, “Shall we go?”
“Ready when you are,” said Kohlvar.
He led them into the woods and down a path paved with smooth, flat stones that appeared to have been there long before the ‘Teller was born.
They soon arrived at the courtyard of a structure reminiscent of a castle from Earth’s Middle Ages, except much smaller. Surrounding the castle was a garden more lush and more beautiful than anything Kohlvar had yet seen since their arrival.
The sweet scent of blossoms from fruit trees intermingled with the strange aroma emanating from tall, green plants with pointed leaves. He would have to ask the ‘Teller what those were. They smelled like the contents of the old man’s pipe that he’d been smoking earlier.
Old, crumbling statues crudely depicting various unfamiliar creatures and people littered the courtyard. “Welcome to my home,” he said. “This is where the ‘Tellers have dwelt since the new beginning.”
He hobbled up to the door and swung it open. “Please,” he said, “come in.”
They followed him inside. The interior was a single room decorated with paintings of other old men who looked much like the ‘Teller, and sculptures that appeared to have been cobbled together with the bones of animals, both real and artificial. The only illumination came courtesy of a gaping hole in the ceiling.
“Doesn’t it ever rain, here?” asked Utu, looking up at the hole.
“Strange words,” said the ‘Teller. “I’m afraid I do not understand them. But perhaps we can sit down and learn these things, from each other.” He gestured at one of the wooden chairs. “Please.”
They seated themselves, and the servant entered the room carrying a tray filled with steaming strips of red meat, cooked rare and sitting in a pool of their own bloody juices.
Kohlvar had no idea what kind of animal the meat had come from, not what kinds of unfamiliar bacteria it had harbored in better days, but it smelled delicious, and so he grabbed a strip and took a bite when the servant held the tray in his face. The tribe followed suit, albeit reluctantly, at least on Rigilio’s part. Gabriel seemed to relish it.
It was a little stringy and bland, probably due to the lack of available seasonings, but tolerable. It was his first time eating meat that hadn’t been cloned in a laboratory, but he tried not to think too much about it. For diplomacy’s sake.
They were served some sort of fruity, fermented beverage in goblets that appeared to be carved from bone. He hadn’t seen any animals large enough for the bones to have belonged to, but it was possible, he reasoned, that the goblets were old and the animals extinct. Either that or they were being raised in a confined space.
Using what appeared to be a primitive flame-generating device, probably constructed by Abbaz, Kohlvar surmised, the ‘Teller lit the same long pipe he’d been smoking earlier. He took a long drag from it and passed it to Gabriel, who regarded it warily.
“It makes the stories flow,” said the ‘Teller. Go on.”
Gabriel relented and filled his lungs with the pungent smoke, exhaling it in a fit of hoarse coughs that the ‘Teller seemed to find highly amusing.
Each of them did the same, and though it was difficult, Kohlvar managed to resist coughing.
Instantly, he experienced a euphoric, intoxicating sensation similar to the one produced by the flowerfog back home, but much more intense. Suddenly he wanted to tell stories. And he wanted more food.
The ‘Teller slinked into a chair and stretched his arms across the back of it. “Shall we begin?”