by Michael Arram
THE GREAT UPRISING
Henry was bemused and utterly powerless. His will was paralysed, his seraphic power useless to save either him or his companions, whom he sensed stumbling helplessly towards the suddenly gleeful aliens.
Pikes and blades had appeared in the draconids’ hands. Henry realised this must be the end, but his captive consciousness couldn’t even stir itself to panic. He was just an observer of his fate. The creature he had been conversing with waved back its associates and ambled towards him, relish for the coming massacre obvious in its movements and the red gleam of its eyes.
The thing’s clawed hand took Henry by the throat and it raised its blade for a down stroke that would gut him. Those fierce eyes blazed into his, ready and eager to see the pain and death that would soon fill them. But it was not the light in Henry’s eyes that was suddenly extinguished.
Shadows swooped low over the party and a spear spiked down through the head of the beast that had Henry in its grip. It didn’t even have time to screech as it keeled over. Intent on their prey, the draconids had not seen two new avians swoop from above and behind them.
The mental thrall Henry and his friends were held in dissolved as the draconids gave out alarmed shrieks and drew back, staring wildly upwards. The highly-trained avian warriors didn’t need a second chance. They were already at close quarters with the beasts, and blades were instantly in their hands, slashing draconid throats and piercing bellies. It was quick and brutal. By the time Henry had got to grips with the situation half a dozen of the creatures were expiring in pools of black blood. The remainder were seized by Henry’s mind, their weapons dissolved in their hands and their bodies caged immobile in a zone of stasis.
Finally, Henry had a chance to look at his saviours. Two avian youths had joined his moon mission. ‘Leo? Lucacz?’ he exclaimed weakly.
Henry regarded the chamber of horrors within the wrecked spacecraft with distaste. The four warriors were gently releasing the preserved and exhibited remains of Emilija and Ruprecht from the draconids’ anatomical display, and casing them with reverence in one of the craft’s storage boxes. They were to go home to their friends back on Rodinija.
‘So those were the original inhabitants of Selene?’ he asked Gus, who was looking dispassionately at the depraved trophies the draconids had made of their ancient victims.
‘It would seem so. You can see a kinship with the surviving fauna. I think that perhaps we should deal with these poor folk as respectfully as we are dealing with our own people.’
‘I agree, Gus. Time to put what’s left of them to rest. Can I leave it to you? I’ve got to think what to do with the monsters that murdered and dishonoured them.’
‘You think that the draconids we’ve captured are the actual culprits?’
‘I can read their unconscious and unresisting minds. They live a long time, Gus. Those tubs they have in their ship can put them into decades of stasis as they travel through the stars. If they’re bored they can just go to sleep in them in a self-induced coma for a century and more. The Yaahl live a long life in addition to the artificial extensions they make to it, and they use their years to seek the thrill of murder, torture and mutilation of others. What can you do with a species that lives just for blood and the excitement of inflicting fear and horror on innocent beings?’
Henry emerged into the open once more, and found Leo and Lucacz drinking tea and making severe inroads into the moon mission’s remaining supplies. Leo waved a deer-meat sandwich. ‘Cheers, Uncle Henry! We were running short of food, and that chase really took it out of us.’
‘So tell me the full story, kids.’
Leo obliged, with the shy help of his zemec. Danny hugged Lucacz warmly as the story drew to a close, and whispered something in the boy’s ear that brought tears to his eyes.
‘… So I grabbed that lance he killed the beaver-thing with, and we flew as fast as we could for the hills. The ship went pretty slow so we could see where it was heading. We only lost it at the hills, but it’s so big we could see where it had landed from the ridge top. We came up over the top of the wreck, and we could see they’d done the urine-hypnotism thingy, so down we came, me holding my breath so it wouldn’t get to me. And I ran the thing through the brain with as little compunction as it had spiked that poor animal back at the mound. Awesome justice! Same weapon too. My Luczu dropped a bloody big rock on the head of another one, and you guys did the rest!’
‘Amazing,’ Henry concluded. ‘Your dad’ll be so proud when he gets to hear of it.’
‘Uncle Henry, I was going to ask ...’
‘About going back to Earth?’
‘Do you want to?’
‘To be honest, no. I’m true Petakh, one of the Great Family; I belong to wing and sky. I have a lover beyond any dreams I might have had, and I’ve found out what I am in so many ways. This is my home. But still ...’
‘You have your family back on Earth. I understand. Your mum and dad and Ossie need to know what’s happened to you here.’
‘But how can I leave my zemec and my usakamaradij? It’ll kill us; it’d hurt the lodge awesome bad.’
‘One of many questions I have yet to answer, Leo babe. Now tell me about the draconids back on Rodinija.’
Maxim Elphberg had his own battle to fight. The draconids were coming. They had deployed two aerial fighting platforms with a swarm of their warriors flying alongside and above them, perhaps as many as a hundred of the creatures. Maxim’s section had height and sought cover in the clouds. Their lieutenant had her instructions.
The draconids must have had some intelligence about avian dispositions in the mountains. They knew of the existence of the fort and they meant business. Powerful cannon opened fire as soon as the platforms were in range. Towers toppled and holes were gouged in the walls. The avian guns mounted on the fort were no match for the draconid artillery, and their fire was swiftly suppressed. The platforms approached closer, and it was at this point that Commander Mike Atwood sprang his trap. Concealed avian emplacements on the surrounding hills opened fire. Fire bloomed on one of the platforms and it lurched inexorably downwards, ploughing into the mountainside as its crew took to the air to avoid their own destruction.
A signal from below brought Maxim’s section into action, hurtling down through the cloud into the midst of the disorganised draconids. Here the avians had the advantage, their empathic ability giving them a perfect sense of place and opportunity. Maxim drew his avian sabre and, skilled swordsman as he was, carved off one of the wings from a passing draconid, while a comrade emptied a gun into the same creature’s brain. It seemed the creatures were not used to fighting other airborne species and could be killed.
But so too could avians be killed, for the smashed body of one of his section fell past Maxim as he looked around. He surged upward as he unshipped his assault rifle. Firing in midair was tricky, as the recoil could be unpredictable. But he moved to protect the rest of his platoon, which was beginning a dropping barrage with their RPGs on to the remaining draconid platform.
The draconids were rallying to confront the threat of Maxim’s section. But this allowed the avian ground artillery to return to action against the surviving platform. It was clear that the arrogance of the draconids had undone them. They had underestimated the level of technology and the numbers of their opponents, misled by the avians’ preference for a low-tech life. As Maxim strafed a group of ascending draconids his mind was coolly reflecting that the human origins of the avian species had its advantages. Warfare was regrettably a major part of human history, and military skills were more advanced on Earth than the draconids may have encountered in another species.
Even so it was a hard fight until the ground-based avian sections joined in, then it was a massacre. Draconids did not surrender, it appeared. They fought till Mike Atwood himself skewered their leader through the gullet with a pike, in a hand-to-hand personal combat which his troops drew back to watch appreciatively. It was the last of the aliens in the air; the rest lay broken and bloody on the rocks below, or in the smoking wreckage of their gun platforms.
Ever the professional, after despatching his formidable adversary Commander Mike looked up from its falling body to call his flights to muster at the fort. Casualties had not been light. Two of Maxim’s platoon lay dead on the mountainside and two more were badly wounded.
‘All packed, guys?’
Sergeant Marius gave the affirmative, picked up a well-wrapped and insulated Henry and took to the air. Danny and Gus had the box containing the remains of Emilija and Ruprecht slung between them. At an appropriate height Henry made the leap and once again the green landscape of Rodinija lay below him. He gave an interior sigh of relief. He’d missed the place, for all Selene’s strange and solemn beauty.
The mission spiralled down to the mountain city of Petakhrad. They were met by Damien himself, ascending to meet them with lung-bursting strokes of his great wings. As soon as he was in range he called out. ‘No time to explain, Uncle Henry. Get yourself, me and this warrior flight to the North Fort! Use my mind to target us.’
Henry caught the alarmed look in Marius’s eyes, and at once airlifted them all to the Dragons’ Teeth.
Black smoke rose from the mountain valley as avian troops wheeled above them, still on the alert for surviving adversaries. There had been a battle, and the fort itself was battered and in flames. As soon as Damien was spotted, the three senior officers flew up to meet him.
‘Victory, lord king!’ Commander Mike announced.
‘But at some cost, I’m sorry to see.’
‘We took no prisoners and this species doesn’t surrender. We lost over sixty dead, but I am so glad to see my father. The wounded need his help.’
Henry was hurried to the temporary field hospital, where the avian medics were overwhelmed. He made their job easier, moving from the most seriously endangered to the less injured as they indicated to him. Soon, all the wounded were sitting up, flexing restored bodies and wings and marvelling at the miracles of healing the small human could accomplish.
He encountered Maxim supporting one of his angel-born comrades who had been hideously wounded by an alien scythe. She was in shock and close to her end, but Henry brought her back and sent her into a deep and healing sleep. Maxim followed Henry around after he had cleaned himself up.
‘So, Maxxie. Looks like both you and your brother have been in action. It seems the pair of you have done your father proud.’
‘It’ll be a change to make dad proud of me,’ the young man commented glumly.
‘Don’t underestimate Rudi, sunshine. There’s nothing you could do to make him anything less than proud of both his sons. He knows how hard it is for you. You just need to give him a chance to tell you that in person.’
‘I guess. I suppose we need to talk about going back.’
‘We do, though we can put it off for a little while. How do you feel, Maxxie?’
‘Me? I’m a different person in so many ways from the self-pitying wreck you found in the Hofkapelle. Thanks Uncle Henry, I really don’t deserve you. All I’ve experienced on Rodinija’s given me perspective. These are a great people fighting bravely to build a wonderful society, I’ve been honoured to be with them. I don’t know how I’m going to leave.’
‘But you know you have to.’
‘Yeah. I chose my fate long ago in the car park of the Strelzen International School. For a while I forgot why, but now I remember. I have to make the human race as Petakh-like as I can. Humans need what this people has. I just need to find out how to do it. Will you help me, Mendamero?’
‘Kid, you only ever needed to ask.’
Hochstrasse in Petakhrad was one of the few paved streets of that mountain city that went in a straight line and had any width to it. So that day it served as a solemn processional way. Black hangings were draped from every window, and the street itself was carpeted with white and blue flower petals which the breeze occasionally stirred and raised. Through it marched the long cortège. Warriors in dress armour with black mourning cloaks hanging between their wings bore high the coffins of their comrades, while ahead of them twelve meledhij carried the caskets that held the remains of the first two victims of the Yaahl, girls for Emilija and boys for Ruprecht. Walking amongst them as they processed were the novachekij, singing their sad songs with such sweet wistfulness that tears filled every eye.
For the first time the Petakh colony had to find ways to accommodate the certainty of death and the grief it inevitably brings. A necropolis had long been readied for the eventuality within the mountain, the Radkornatij knowing the necessity of such a waiting memento mori for their long-lived people. Tsernatov masons had created a great portal to the dark catacombs, opening directly from the city street. Its arch was figured with avian caryatids, looking not out to the busy world but inward, to the mystery within the gates.
The whole of the Great Family lined the streets and fell in behind the cortège when it had passed, to mass together in the Great Hall of the Fallen beyond the portal. Within there was nothing macabre carved: no skulls, bones, tattered shrouds, hourglasses or scythes. The Petakhij knew more of the mystery of death than did their human brothers. They knew of the Isles of the Blessed and the Final Sea, and there were murals depicting those places, images caught from the minds of those of their people who had communed with the World Beyond and been to the gates of the Dead, their cousins.
But behind the throne at the head of the Great Hall was erected one brooding monument to Death: a monolithic figure of the Nameless Seraph, the one whose task it was to keep the gates of death and bear souls through them. Like a Petakh prince he was winged and horned, though his wings were six in number and not feathered but scaled. With a great staff he motioned to the door beyond where he stood. There began the caverns in which the People’s remains were to rest forever.
It was not Damien who occupied the throne that day, but the One who had himself passed Death’s gate. Henry had restored King Maxim Elphberg’s power, and it was he who was to preside over the first funeral the Petakh race held. He did so in avian form, but grander and greater than that which Henry had given him. For at last there was revealed in him the full majesty of what he was, in ways the human form did not allow.
The coffins were ranked before Maxim and he rose, royal armlets glowing on either bicep, gifts of the Petakh, for they acknowledged the One as emperor over their own king, who stood amongst his grieving people, arm around his queen, their children standing in front of them.
It was Damien and Helen with their royal majalath, Justin and Nathan Helenson and Anna Damienschera, who went forward as the song of the novachekij died away plaintively in the echoes of the Hall. They bore five wreaths for the murdered family, and placed them on the top of the caskets: Damien’s on Ruprecht’s, and those from his wife and three children on Emilija’s. Then the princes and princess of the Petakhij stood before their parents and sang their own pure song for Emilija’s stillborn majalath, and there was none in that hall that did not weep.
When it was done, Maxim raised his hand and the wreaths atop the coffins momentarily glowed, then were no longer flowers, but precious metals and gems, bound forever to their lids.
‘People of the Great Family! My brothers and sisters! In two things do Petakh and human remain kin, which will always unite us: in the Love and Death that frame our lives. We are born in love and we die cradled still in that love. Standing here before our departed brothers and sisters, we assert the immortality of our souls by the very act of loving, a love which we pass in this way down our generations. Our love is our immortal part, and we fly on its wings to meet those we loved who have gone before, our usakamaradij of the spirit who have already flown beyond the Final Sea.
‘In love of this city and their people did these our soldiers die, giving up their precious lives for ours. For this we honour them, for no greater sacrifice can any give than to lay down a life freely so that others may live in freedom. No monument could ever match the glory and grandeur of such sacrifice, save only the lives we lead that they bought by their sacrifice. Therefore I say this to you, my people: with your every act and thought erect a monument in your heart to these great ones, for our future is the only cenotaph that could be worthy of them.’
In silence now the coffins were raised and one by one each was borne to their final rest in the catacombs beyond the hall, while, led by the king and queen and their children, the Great Family walked out into the clear sunlight that bathed their mountain city and began their future.
Henry and the Elphberg brothers decided that night to try out Petakhrad’s café quarter, even though, as Henry insisted, Leo was under age. Leo pointed out that the Radkornatij had not yet got around to instituting licensing laws, and since the High Chancellor was a former bar manager and club proprietor, none were on the horizon. Lucacz had decided to spend the night in the lodge with their usakamaradij, who wanted material for songs and a drama they planned about the mission to Selene and were eager to begin work on their epic.
As a bar, Henry found the place very satisfactory. It was lit by candles and globes of the local light-emitting amber and green crystal. It had ambience, though that night it was all but empty, with just a couple of winged figures talking quietly with the patron at the counter.
Henry sipped at the clear liquid the patron had brought over in a small glass. ‘They call that gin? Where’s the ice? I have to have my lime slice! Gimme back my Tanqueray. I’m homesick.’
‘Or gin-soaked,’ grinned Maxim. ‘Seriously, what’s it like? They distil it from some Rodinijan root vegetable, so they say.’
‘Not too bad, I have to admit. It has a bite and not too sweet a taste. There might be a market for it on Earth. What’s that you’re drinking, Leo?’
‘It’s beer, real beer made with grain and yeast the People brought from Earth. We smuggle it into the lodge. A guy Igor knows lets us have stone jars of the stuff. It’s dead cheap and we get awesome smashed on it, then Barry creates merry hell with us.’
‘Ah ... just like your brother at Oxford, or so the tabloids said.’
‘Henry, I’ve changed. Be merciful. It’s getting to be time to wind up here, isn’t it?’
‘Not quite yet. The last of the draconids are still on Selene. Do I have to do anything about them, or shall I leave them marooned up there where they can’t hurt anyone? Marky and his troops have searched the Yaahl mounds and found them empty. Are all the Rodinijan ones dead, or have the survivors made a strategic withdrawal? Yuri’s examining the remains of some of the draconid corpses from the fort, and she’s looking pensive about it.’
‘Good, more time then,’ Maxim laughed. ‘There may be one or two available girls I’ve not yet had.’
Leo looked wicked. ‘Any more cocks been up your royal butt? Felix, the angel-born who did you, said you were major enthusiastic.’
‘That’s your department, bro. And if it ever gets back to Earth ...’
‘I wouldn’t be so mean. But Uncle Henry, what do I do about going back?’
‘We have time. I may not have mentioned it, but I can take you back through the rift to the very moment you left. No one’ll know you’ve been away.’
‘But we have been, and I’ll never be happy as a human. What do I do about Luczu and my usakamaradij?’
Henry was troubled. ‘I know, baby. The problem is that there will be equal pain on Earth if I don’t take you back.’
Heads turned in the bar at this point, as the striking figure of Queen Helen entered with a group of several other females, including Yuri Oscott, Henry’s angel-born daughter, now the university hospital director.
The queen and Yuri came over to their table and pulled up stools. She kissed the boys and Henry, while Yuri took her father’s hand.
‘So you get out sometimes, Helen? I hesitate to call it a hen night,’ Henry sniggered.
The queen laughed. ‘Just as well you didn’t; my wings could give you a nasty cuff. Yes, us girls get out sometimes. This is our regular night, and Damien and Mattie have the kids around at our place. It’s like a demented aviary, but they can cope. They’re playing football in the throne room. Our kids are still a couple years short of becoming meledh, so fly-ball is not yet an option, thank God.’
Leo looked earnestly at Helen. ‘Your three did an amazing thing at the funeral.’
‘I was so proud of them. Being Macavoy is a hard thing for the kids to grow up with. Royal Petakhij have the duty to be the focus for the Great Family. That’s a lot to cope with if you’re only eleven, but they didn’t disappoint. Justin will be a fine king when his time comes. I’ve never seen such a blend of impish fun and high seriousness; he switches from one to the other with no problem at all. If only his grandparents could see him.’
‘They’ll at least have the pictures I’ve been taking. And maybe ...’
‘I may be back with visitors one day. No promises though.’
‘I worry about my Mattie’s parents,’ Yuri interjected quietly.
Henry quietly acknowledged to himself that his daughter had a point. Paul and Rachel Oscott did not join the Uprising, and he had memories of a rather fraught farewell between them, their son and his young wife. Paul and Rachel did not even know the couple now had a fine majalath of three lively seven-year-old grandchildren: Andrew and Paul Yurison and Rachel Matthewschera, only recently fledged and each exhibiting the warm brown wings and honey pelt of their parents.
‘I’ll be contacting the Earth-bound relatives quietly when I go back. So we’ll see.’
‘And when will that be, Henry?’ asked the queen. ‘There’s quite a lobby building up amongst your family that you adopt avian form and stay with us. Who knows what would have happened had you not been here when the draconids attacked?’
Henry looked regretful. ‘And if I did? You’re a frontier people, you avians. How would you grow and change if I was here on call, ready to solve all your problems and smooth away all the difficulties? ‘Sides, my Edward needs me, and I need him, bad. Rudi needs me too. Whatever problems Rodinija may have, those of Earth far eclipse them.’ Silence greeted that unanswerable argument. Henry changed the subject. ‘Tell me about the draconids, Yuri sweets.’
His daughter adopted her professional mode. ‘Dissection was a real challenge. The Yaahl are the size of winged rhinoceroses, and then some. We couldn’t use the labs, so the team had to take apart the samples I chose in the stockyard of the buffalo ranch. They are one and all female, verified by external examination of the ones we didn’t dissect. But it might be truer to call them asexuals. Not only did I find no males, but none of the females would have been able to reproduce sexually. The organs are there, but not all the connections that would be needed. I suspect there are now no Yaahl males. You can tell from their anatomy that they once had sexes, there are organs that would never have evolved except for sexual reproduction, but which are now disused, or turned to other functions. What they urinate and deliver their chemical weapons through is actually a clitoris analogue, by the way.
‘Anyway, my belief is that they no longer specialise sexually. They reproduce, so far as I can tell, like Komodo dragons on your Earth sometimes do: female dragons can fertilise their own eggs before laying. From my investigations the Yaahl use a similar mechanism, but breed only females. We do not know how the change from sexual reproduction came about – they may even have engineered it – but what is certain is that without sexual specialism, there can be no tending of their young, the way birds do on Earth. My guess is that they bury the eggs in a breeding ground and abandon them to hatch and survive as they can.’
Henry was mildly revolted. ‘So they don’t nurture, care for and educate their offspring? That explains a good deal. How do they survive as a species for heaven’s sake?’
‘I can only guess. The Yaahl young must struggle to the surface and immediately enter a fight for their survival. I’d imagine they emerge ready to fight and kill anything, including their siblings. Sooner or later, the Yaahl round up the mature survivors and put them through a form of training. Those black tubs we find everywhere might be used to put them under and programme their brains.’
‘How could a species ever develop like that?’
‘I don’t think the Yaahl were always thus. They are a very ancient species, and it is evident, as I said, that they once did have sexes. Long ago they must have had the ability to work together and create a hugely advanced technological civilization. What we see is the decadence of this species. I doubt they’re technologically creative any more. They get by with the decaying inheritance their ancestors left them.’
‘Blimey. There’s a warning there.’
‘Indeed, my father. The Yaahl have taken to the extreme the technological route in civilisation, and jettisoned the moral entirely. Yet though they are decadent they are also extremely dangerous. Especially so as I examined the egg sacs of the Yaahl we dissected. They were empty; all of them had recently laid a clutch of eggs, instinctive behaviour before going into battle perhaps. There is every reason to assume they all did this, and if so hundreds of immature Yaahl are concealed out there waiting to emerge one day, maybe years from now.’
‘Have you told the Radkornatij?’
Helen nodded. ‘We know, Henry, and we’re going to have to factor that into our plans for our civilisation. The watch on the north isn’t going to stand down. It’s as well we’ll have you around for a bit.’
‘Me? But I have to head home fairly soon.’
Helen seemed to have acquired her husband’s satirical grin over the years. ‘You may have to reconsider that one. I was talking to Dana Tsernatova yesterday. She’s pregnant and she’s pretty sure the majalath belongs to one of these two Elphberg studs you brought with you.’
‘What!’ yelled Maxim.
‘Holy shit!’ echoed his brother.