by Michael Arram
The leap was risky. Mendamero had more than once lost a temporary body by misjudging such things, and had found it a frustrating experience. The problem wasn’t so much whether or not he would find a tolerable atmosphere in the Yaahl ship, but whether he had the right one. He found it next to impossible to read the creatures’ minds, though he had gained the facility to understand their speech when he had surrendered his physical humanity centuries ago. The gift of tongues was bestowed on all creatures of pure spirit.
The choice of ship was little more than guesswork, but he had kept his eye on this particular leviathan. It was indistinguishable from the other vessels of the armada in appearance, but he had noticed how it was the only ship which did not keep station as the others did. It had pressed in close to the atmosphere when the squadron had moved to attack the British Isles, and had not withdrawn when the two survivors had. He calculated that it was directed by an impatient, aggressive mind, that of a draconid who could not be seen to show fear of anything.
The Yaahl leviathan was as vast inside as he might have expected. The former Henry Atwood materialised in his preferred form of a human within a gigantic cavern of a hangar, where hundreds of the familiar fighting platforms were ranked. Yaahl were screeching everywhere, a fearful din. They seemed to be loading up ready to ferry yet more of the creatures down to the planet. For a while Henry stood and stared, impressed despite the urgency of the moment. When he moved, however, black heads on long necks instantly focussed on him and hissed. He was rapidly encircled, and from the ululation around him gathered that the only thing preventing his being ripped apart was the impossibility that an Arhaal could have penetrated the security of the capital vessel. There were too many impossible things going on around the Yaahl at the moment, and it had clearly disordered and confused them.
Tact was as pointless with such creatures as negotiation was impossible. He simply batted them aside, bodies flying up and away from him. Projectile weapons chattered but their bullets simply rattled harmless to the floor plating, spent before they reached their target.
Muttering to himself, Mendamero took an exit that seemed the busiest. The fire slackened as the draconids realised their guns were useless. None of them was quite berserk enough to attempt to use a missile on him within the confines of their ship. So he walked on up what seemed a major artery of the vast vessel, the Yaahl crowding after him but at a respectful distance. It occurred to him that it could be a long walk to find the control centre, but he was calculating that the Supreme Yaahl would be in a quandary. All its minions had shrunk back and away from this Arhaal whose powers were so mighty and inexplicable. Should their leader do so too, they would fall on it as too weak to respect.
After twenty minutes’ hike, on a straight stretch of corridor he found himself nearing a single draconid, one that, unlike all the others, stood firm in his way and did not shrink from him.
Ten metres from its jaws Mendamero halted. The black head wove slightly from side to side, but gave no other sign of its intentions. The shuffle and subdued squealing and hissing from the pack at the seraph’s back were silenced as its followers awaited their leader’s move.
Finally the creature hissed at the intruder. ‘You are not Arhaal. Is that so?’
‘If you are speaking to me, then I surely cannot be Arhaal.’
‘That is so. The creatures of this planet are weak bipeds. They are Arhaal indeed, fit for no more than jaw and claw. You are not as they, though you wear their shape. I therefore conclude that the shape is not truly yours and you are some other thing which is un-Rhaal, like us but not like.’ It raised its voice high so it carried to its people. ‘It is no dishonour to speak to you therefore. I have not surrendered dignity! This is not prey to which I talk.’
‘I’m glad that’s clear. What do I call you?’
‘I ... I am Leader of the Hunt. Packmaster above all Yaahl. I am the Dread of the Galaxy, Drinker of the Blood of Worlds. I am the Nightmare of the Weak, Feaster on the Flesh of Seven Races.’
‘Great. Leader will do.’ It occurred to the seraph that this was not a species that would much value modesty.
‘The Arhaal below have fallen like others before them to our claws and I have given my people their flesh to eat. Why do you frustrate us of our rightful prey? For I deduce that it is you that has struck down our harvesting ships and hunting barques, not pitiful mammals such as they.’
‘I do so because they are under my protection, and because what you do is wrong.’
‘Wrong? What we do is not wrong! Wrong is to let prey escape! You are a hatchling; weak in the head. Take care or I shall spring and rend you for your foolishness.’
It occurred to Mendamero that he was getting the same verbal treatment as would a Yaahl who challenged the Leader for its position; bluster and aggression, which if it failed to force a backdown would be followed up by a vicious battle to death, with the loser becoming a meal for the winner. Close up he noticed that this Yaahl was undeniably a large specimen, and it carried scars along its flanks. It had fought to get where it was. Attempting to preach at such a being was pretty much pointless.
‘Very well. Let me introduce myself to you. I am the Darkness. I am the End of All Things. I am Death, and I have come to take you all. The eternal hunt will end. For it pleases me that it should.’
The red eyes flared, and the seraph realised he was talking in terms the Yaahl could understand. He had elicited, if not fear, then caution in the face of what it naturally assumed was bluster and boast.
‘You lie!’ it hissed.
‘Do I? Tell me, Mr Leader of the Hunt. You look an intelligent sort. You have lived a very long time and killed many other Yaahl to get where you are. As you curl up in your tub with nothing else to do but think as you travel between the stars, you must have wondered why it is your species has made no new thing in millennia beyond count; why it has forgotten more than it remembers and why it is your colonies all wither away. You have long been a dying race and now the Universe is tired of you and your decadence. I have come to end it for you. I am the bite that paralyses the Arhaal before it is eaten, but it is around your neck that my jaws close.’
The draconid glared at him, and had nothing to say. At a guess, Mendamero calculated that the thing was wrestling with its instinct to pounce and rend the creature that had dared to threaten it, despite surely realising that such a gesture would be futile. Finally, with a visible struggle, the Dread of the Galaxy answered as it had to. ‘Do your worst, un-Rhaal. I despise your threat.’
That word, or rather tortured screech, ‘un-Rhaal’ suddenly registered with the seraph. ‘You talk of things that are neither Yaahl or Arhaal. You talk of un-Rhaal. Does this mean that your species once dealt with a people who were not Arhaal?’
The Leader stared at him. Clearly intellectual conversations were not something such a creature often had. It did however respond. ‘There was a time when the Great Hunt was beginning. In those days, long before my own, there were un-Rhaal, with whom the Yaahl spoke.’
‘And what happened to those un-Rhaal?’
‘We have no trophies of them. Our ancestors went searching prey elsewhere in the Galaxy.’
‘So they drove you away?’
‘Not I, hatchling. I am the Undefeated! But maybe in the days of the Early Mothers. I have not thought of such things since my Conditioning Tank. We learn much there that is useless.’
‘But knowing of the existence of un-Rhaal is not useless, is it? It’s a warning to you all that there are some foes to avoid. So here is a further warning. The Great un-Rhaal are coming, against whom there is no defence. Imagine my great power and theirs combined, and tremble! Stay, and Death will bite your neck and feast on your entrails.’ Mendamero exerted his power, causing his voice to ring through the entire ship. ‘The Hunter can be hunted, and your own Hunters are closing in. Run far and fast. The un-Rhaal are coming to slay you all. This is a time of change or death.’
After a dramatic pause, Mendamero vanished in front of the staring eyes of the draconids, hoping against hope that he had done some good.
The two Henrys remained where the seraph had left them until the drone of a plane reminded the human one that he was not wearing anything. He went indoors and reassumed clothing, registering that part of his mind was now telling him he looked silly in it.
His avian mate trailed in after him and sat on a bench in the refectory as his lover dressed. As he did so, Henry Atwood’s forgotten mobile throbbed in his tunic pocket.
‘Is that a handij?’ the avian asked. ‘I’ve heard of them.’
Henry searched for it. ‘Course, avians don’t need them, do they? But we’ve had handsets like this for centuries so that human kids can keep in touch all day and every day and talk bollocks.’ He scrutinised the screen. ‘The network is back up, amazingly. My parents. I need to contact them.’
Henry Gretason picked at his wings while the human boy raised Whitby and had a long and emotional conversation with his distant parents. The human Henry chose not to go into recent events, just reassured them that he was safe and the school had survived the initial attack. He promised to brief them when he could.
There was a pause after he hung up. ‘What do we do now?’
‘We need information, little monkey.’
‘Then best go up to the communication suites. I don’t think the Yaahl damaged that wing of the school.’
So Henry Gretason resumed his premenja and armour, and the pair made their way hand in hand through corridors and up stairs to a room full of the subdued technology which now suited the human race. Henry Atwood took a seat at a panel and powered up an array of screens. His fingers danced across a control area and the screens came alight. News networks were still functioning and the story they had to tell was of continuing world conflict.
Henry focussed on Europe, and here the story was one of the rallying of the Imperium, for all the loss of many major cities. The unaccountable freeing of the British archipelago from the alien menace was causing comment and hope, as was the sudden destruction of one of the armada’s capital ships. Not one of the alien cruisers or hunting packs was active in the British Isles and the creatures had sustained further losses in attempting to renew the onslaught. The news of the survival of at least one member of the imperial family had broken, though the deaths of the beloved Empress Osra and her children and grandchild had hit the Imperium hard. The military was keeping the location of the new emperor concealed but assuring the world of his safety.
‘So it’s all in the balance,’ the avian boy concluded.
‘It seems so, but the protection of Mendamero means we’re safe here. I wonder where he is now? The big ships have stayed out of the atmosphere.’
Henry moved to the British network, and it was gloomy watching. Most of the great cities of England and Scotland were in ruins, and the survivors of the English government had rallied at a still intact Winchester. The fate of the two royal families was unknown. Defence had passed to the Dragon Guard and what survived of the English military, but with Britain miraculously secure the Welsh were deploying their ships along the Channel coast to raid alien positions in northern France. Casualties were beyond counting, and the remaining public services were overwhelmed. People were advised to return to their homes where they were able.
The two boys discussed the situation till the sun went down, and then decided that food and bed was the best option for them. Henry led his avian mate through the still empty school to his accommodation block. The avian ordered him out of his clothes once more and pulled him into the shower unit. The result was predictable, but the human boy unexpectedly found himself with a new duty in life as the avian fluffed out his damp wings.
‘This sort of thing needs a partner. Your parents, your usakamaradij and then your mate all do it for you. So check for loose and bent feathers and brush out any lint. It’s gotta be done, little monkey. You wouldn’t believe how manky wings can get without proper care. Then there’s moult. Real messy.’
‘Okay, but in return I get a massage, okay?’
The pair managed to get some fun out of things, then with a yawn the avian boy placed the human in front of him on the double bed and spooned up behind him. An exotically scented wing spread to cover them both, and Henry Atwood subsided into sleep in a warmth and security quite new to him.
Before Henry surfaced from his slumber, his avian lover had woken and was shaking his shoulder. ‘Engines!’ he hissed.
The human yawned. ‘Your cute pointy ears work very well, angel-boy.’
‘There are several vehicles entering your school’s grounds. Up, my monkey. We each have to get dressed and assess the risk.’
‘You may recall that the Welsh troops shot at me when I took off with you.’
‘Oh! I had hoped I’d imagined it.’
‘My armour absorbed the impact of two bullets. I was quite impressed at their marksmanship. I assume they thought they were saving you.’
‘Or maybe that lady sergeant took an instant homicidal dislike to me. It wouldn’t be the first time it happened.’ Catching the look on the avian’s face, he assured him he was joking. He searched around for his leggings and boots. As he was levering himself into them, he observed, ‘These days anything unaccountable is an alien danger, I guess. We’ll just have to be careful.’
‘Mendamero hasn’t returned,’ the avian said with a degree of concern.
‘I’m sure he’ll be fine,’ Henry assured him. ‘Let me go first and find out who’s turned up. For once, my angel warrior, you have to stay put and let me stick my neck out.’
So despite his mate’s reluctance Henry Atwood took off through the school buildings. There was a warm feeling in knowing that another being would put himself between him and a bullet, to which his mind kept returning. He found a viewpoint over the drive and the Ludlow Road. From an upper classroom he observed several trucks drawn up in front of the school’s main entrance. More could be seen in the town. It looked like the people of Medwardine were returning home, since all was clear. But the trucks in the school drive were as full of uniformed police and soldiers as of returning schoolkids and teachers.
‘Oops! How do I account for an angel in my cupboard?’ the boy muttered to himself. He trotted down the stairs to meet the deputy head of school coming up.
‘Henry Atwood!’ the man beamed. ‘We’d heard that you got to safety with the prince ... I mean the emperor. The little ones in your party had a very strange story. An angel flew in to save them from an alien! Over-excited I suppose. How did you get back?’
‘Oh ... I ... er, hitched a lift from a ... soldier.’
‘There are some soldiers out there now, disposing of the carcasses of those monsters. The disgusting things are beginning to deteriorate. Report yourself to your head of house, if you will. Have you been in touch with your parents? Excellent.’
Several Year 11 boys greeted him. There was a degree of backslapping too. His adventures with Rudolf Elphberg seem to have got around the social networks. For the first time in his school career, Henry Atwood was something of a celebrity.
‘But what’s this story about a winged boy who flew in to help you,’ Lucius Westenra pressed him. ‘It sounds bonkers, but my brother Alan was pretty adamant about it, and a Year 9 boy says an angel rescued him from the mouth of one of those dragon things. Thanks for saving Alan’s little neck by the way, they all said you and Rudi were awesome.’
‘Look, Lukey, the story’s sorta true.’
‘Sorta true? Come on!’
‘Yeah. True, and er ... the guy’s up in my room too.’
‘You’re kidding me.’
‘Follow me and find out.’
‘This I gotta see ...’
So Henry and Lucius, and half a dozen others from Year 11 who tagged along, all crowded up to his corridor. He cautiously opened the door to find his room ... empty. The window was wide open.
Lucius guffawed. ‘You had us all going there, Atterboy! For a moment I almost believed you!’ The other lads were not quite so amused, and Henry got a cuff round the back of his head from an unknown hand as they left.
Where was the winged boy? Henry calmed himself down and tuned in. His new empathic sense told him that Henry Gretason was not far away. He went deeper into his mind and picked up that the boy was up on the roof, sitting tight between the ancient gables of what was still bizarrely called New School, though the buildings were over nine centuries old. He projected his thought. What are you doing, fly-boy?
Keeping an eye on things, monkey mine, came the tart reply from the roof. I didn’t like your friends much.
Well, I wouldn’t exactly call them friends ... though Lukey’s not so bad. You met his little brother Alan.
Right. The cute little novachek with a million questions. I could do with some breakfast.
What can I get you?
Cheerios are a favourite where I come from. Oh and yeah! Maltesers. Do you humans still have them?
Maltesers for breakfast? You serious? Where on Earth – or rather Rodinija – did you hear about Maltesers?
It’s a family legend that humans eat Maltesers and they’re very nice. I’ve wanted to try them since before I fledged.
Henry projected a mental sigh and trotted back down the stairs. It was easy enough to swipe a box of breakfast cereal, and the Maltesers came from a dispenser that Henry simply smashed open with a fire hydrant. He hoped the damage would be chalked up to the Yaahl. As he was pondering whether to get a bowl for the Cheerios, he was suddenly gripped tightly around the waist by a grinning Year 7 boy. ‘Henry! It’s you! Lukey told me you’re back. Where’s my friend the angel?’
‘On the roof, but don’t tell anyone. I’m gonna take him some breakfast.’
‘Can we come?’
‘Me and the group.’
‘Just you. Go fetch a bowl and spoon from the refec and I’ll meet you on top corridor.’
Alan Westenra gave a whoop and scampered off, apparently none the worse for his recent injury.
Once back in his room, Henry poked his head out of the window and sent a mental breakfast call to his mate, whose hunger he could feel in his own stomach. Apparently avians needed a good intake of carbohydrates, which was no real surprise to Henry. A buffeting of wings brought an armoured figure, crouched on his sill.
‘Get yourself in, quick!’ With a grin the avian boy wriggled his way inside and shed his armour and premenja. He took the red packet of sweets with a gleam in his eye and slumped naked on the bed. He had a pronounced hard-on, which he was all too obviously flaunting in hopes. Just in time, Henry threw a towel over his midriff as Alan bustled in.
‘Cool!’ he whooped and leaped on the angel, whom he kissed and hugged tight. ‘I knew I’d see you again!’
The avian grinned and ruffled the child’s hair. He switched to English. ‘Ach! I voss hoping I vould see you again, little Alan. Und there you are! Fill me up this bowl of cereal like a good little fellow, prosim!’
He lolled back and tried a Malteser. His eyes almost bugged out. ‘Men bosz! They are magnificent! My grandfather to the fourth degree did not exaggerate venn he told the tale!’ He emptied the packet of chocolates amongst the Cheerios in the bowl little Alan handed him and got busy chomping. It took four bowls till he was satisfied. ‘Not the same as home, perhaps too much sugar, but very satisfactory all the same.’
He then got up, the towel dropping to the floor, and went to use Henry’s loo. He left the door open, and carried on rhapsodising about Maltesers as he emptied himself. Henry caught Alan’s wide eyes. It seems there were cultural differences between avian and human which would take some getting used to. The avian strolled back in after flushing and washing, his erection mercifully deflated for the time being, and resumed his place on the bed.
‘So, my little human friends. It seems vee are under siege here. This is annoying. Today the Petakh Militia arrive, I hope, and I vood vish to join my people. But if vee fly, vee get shot at by your nice human varriors. I am pissed off.’
‘Any idea exactly when your people are coming?’
‘Vell, I am afraid they did not let me into their confidence about their strategic plans. Does your handij connect vith the news netvorks?’
‘Yeah, ’course.’ Henry summoned up the news pages about the progress of the alien onslaught. ‘Whatever Mendamero did hasn’t made any difference. The Song Huángdi of China was killed last night when the Yaahl hit Shaanxi province, and they took out Kiev too. I wish your Militia would hurry.’
‘To organise an interstellar campaign involving several million troops is no easy thing, little monkey.’
‘I realise that, but so many humans have died. It does not seem fair. How could the powers like Mendamero allow it to happen?’
Little Alan was nodding solemnly.
The Petakh boy could only shrug. ‘You had best take that up vith the seraph. In vorrs people die, as we all know, and more may have to, but if vee vin the Yaahl vill never plague the galaxy again. These are not deaths in vain, my Henry.’
‘So you two are boyfriends!’ perked up Alan as the penny dropped. ‘Awesome. I wish I had a boyfriend with wings. I really, really do.’
‘So you’re gay?’
The kid nodded. ‘I think so. I told my mummy before … y’know. Don’t tell Lukey though. He’s a pig.’
‘Come over here, little novachek,’ the avian invited, and Alan innocently swarmed into his embrace, to get a kiss on the cheek and a big hug. ‘I think you are special. It is quite possible that you vill find an avian boy who likes you. More of us are gay than is so amongst humans, I have been told. And you are super-cute.’
Alan blushed. ‘D’you really think so?’
‘I know so. Do you agree, monkey?’
‘I do indeed. Now, you’d better scamper off, Alan.’
‘No! I want to stay with you and my angel.’
As Henry was about to argue, there was a thud of heavy feet outside the door. With astounding reflexive speed, Henry Gretason was instantly in premenja – to Alan’s bemused astonishment as he was jettisoned from the avian’s lap – and then swarming into his armoured suit.
A commanding female voice shouted from outside. ‘Let the two boys out! There’s no escape! No one has to get hurt!’
His Imperial Majesty Rudolf Leopold Maria Anton Elphberg, Twelfth Emperor of the Oecumene and the ninth king of Rothenia of that name, was finding his situation intolerable. He could understand why it was that the High Command was paranoid about his safety, but he was a true Elphberg and found their caution excessive and an affront to his honour and dignity.
He calculated that today was the day that the avians would appear and the progress of the war change. He had a further conference programmed with the High Command, with which he had a frustrating relationship. For all that the generals were excusably preoccupied with a life-and-death fight for human survival, their attitude to him bordered on insolence. It was hard for Rudi to master his anger at the offhand way he was being treated, though he knew he must. It may have had a lot to do with the calibre of the military, which had declined over centuries of peace, or it may have been due to his grandmother’s un-Elphberg-like indifference to defence policy. She had mortally offended the generals by proposing the dissolution of the remaining armed forces and their amalgamation with the police and rescue services.
The conference screen in the commandant’s office of the Welshpool barracks lit up. It was Lieutenant General Prema Patel, deputy chief of the general staff. He looked exhausted, which somewhat mollified Rudi’s resentment.
‘Your imperial majesty, I hope you’ve had a chance to look through the files we sent.’
Rudi had looked briefly at the mass of detailed reports, and decided they were a diversionary device to keep him out of the generals’ hair for as long as possible.
‘That’s not what I wish to talk about, general. What I want is a briefing as to how you plan to accommodate the opportunity the Petakh intervention is about to give us.’
The general looked bemused and did not respond. He was not about to call his emperor a madman, but plainly his superiors had concluded the boy-emperor was unhinged. The silence said it all to Rudi. With the cool dignity of the true Elphberg he said ‘Very well, General Patel. I think I know everything I need to. Please convey to the general staff that one of my first priorities in the reconstruction of the empire which will begin in a couple of days’ time will be a reform of the Oecumene’s military structures.’
Rudi cut the connection and summoned the colonel in charge of the base. With the emperor in person in front of him, this officer had to be responsive. ‘Colonel, I want a transport available in half an hour. I’m leaving.’
‘Your … imperial majesty. That’s impossible. The aliens …’
‘… are nowhere to be found in the British Isles. I have business at Medwardine.’
‘I … really, sire. I think it would be best to stay here.’
‘I have no interest in what you think on this matter, colonel. The transport, now.’
The man did not move. Rudi had no doubt he was under orders from High Command to keep the emperor secure and under guard, and those were now at war with the impossibility of resisting the direct command of the Elphberg emperor standing in front of him. A nervous tic was developing in the man’s temple.
The officer capitulated. ‘Sire, it will be done. Please allow me to provide suitable security.’
‘Naturally. Another thing: get me appropriate battledress. My ancestor the First Emperor would I think find me improperly dressed for the current emergency.’
The man dared to smile. So it was that half an hour later as he entered his transport to the salutes of his heavily-armed commando escort, Rudi was appropriately attired in battledress, with the tabs of a field marshal. Somehow, it made it easier for him to deal with the situation.
The transport lifted off, escorted by two jet skimmers which took station on either side of his craft.
They flew low over the wooded ridges of the Shropshire countryside, across which Rudi had run for his life only a few days before. It was his former companions he was worried about now, and Medwardine was the best base to find out what had happened to them, since he was forbidden from more wide-ranging tasks.
It was as the craft had Medwardine in sight that shimmering windows of blue light opened in the sky above them, through which slowly emerged gigantic silver craft accompanied by regiment after regiment of winged warriors. The Petakh Militia had come, but Earth did not know them for its saviours. The fighters next to Rudi’s transport soared up to engage the new menace.
‘Get those fighters to stand down,’ Rudi yelled at his pilot. ‘I will personally break any man that opens fire. Those are friends, dammit!’