by Michael Arram
‘Farewell tour ...?’
The seraph gave a quirky smile. ‘Sorta. As they say – or once said – in superhero films, my work here is done.’
Henry Gretason stumbled into the lounge, yawning. He did a classic double take when he saw who was occupying their sofa. ‘Lord Mendamero! Is everything alright?’
‘Sit down, favourite babes, as an old friend of mine used to say.’ The couple sat cross-legged on the floor in front of him, like children looking up at an adult, expectant but a little worried. ‘The thing is this, my young Henrys, all the prophecies have come to pass. Human and Petakh have met gloriously to defeat the ultimate threat. Their dual Imperium will spread peace and prosperity through this spiral arm, and you two very special babes are the symbol of the reunion of the races: the first of many such couples, I might add. Interstellar travel is now practicable and all shall be well, all manner of thing shall indeed be well. So, my work here is done.’
Henry Atwood perked up. ‘This is the happy ending, yes?’
‘For you, my dears, it is. I don’t need to be a prophet to know that you two have a wonderful life ahead of you and great things to do. And when your days are done and you slip from this existence hand in hand, as happens with those bonded as you are, there will be yet greater challenge and glory to come across the Final Sea. And for me, that’s the thing.’
‘What is, lord?’ asked the avian boy, evidently puzzled.
‘That you go on, and I stay. But the time has come when I no longer have to put up with the bitter farewells. I meet many such as you, precious and beautiful souls, and I learn to love you all, then endlessly we separate. Matt and Andy, Gavin and Max, Oskar and Pete, Will and Felip, Tommy and Bela, Tovyan and Kris, Danny and Gus, Lance and Reggie, Daimey and Helen, Rudi and Harry, Terry and Davey, Davey and Cornelius, Leo and Lucacz and so many, many more: it goes on and on. But at last I can break the cycle of heartbreak, because the days of prophecy are at an end, and the Kingdom has finally come.’
The two boys sitting in front of the seraph stared up at him, mute and uncomfortable. He too was quiet for a while, reflecting on something internal to him. When he snapped out of it he gave a sweet smile and asked if they were ready. They nodded slowly, and of a sudden were no longer sitting on the boards of their house-tree lounge in Hendriksberh; cold stone was under their butts.
The two boys scrambled up. ‘I know this place,’ the avian boy pronounced. ‘This is the Great Hall of the Fallen, in the necropolis of Petakhrad.’
Mendamero was brooding on the towering figure of the Nameless Seraph looming over them, his great staff indicating the path common to all mortals, but not open to him. He shrugged. ‘This way, guys.’
The necropolis was rarely empty. At any time of the day there would be avians and human tourists exploring its monuments and laying flowers. The annual Days of the Dead which occurred around the anniversary of the Burial of the First Fallen saw the place packed, as the Houses of the First Continent visited and celebrated their ancestors laid there.
But that morning the underground city was deserted. ‘Were you here that day, when their funeral was held?’ Henry Atwood asked the seraph as they passed the elevated and jewelled caskets of Emilia and Ruprecht, the First Fallen.
‘I was. It was one of the most moving and hopeful ceremonies I ever attended. Funerals can’t help being sad, but they need never be gloomy. Take it from me. My experience is extensive.’
From there they passed the Chamber of the Sixty, the monument-crammed antechamber to the necropolis where the first war dead of the Petakhij had been laid. The central tableau was of a Petakh in antiquated armour slaying a black marble Yaahl. They passed thence to the cavernous Imperial Catacomb where the Macavoys were laid. A towering domed mausoleum housed the remains of the first avian emperor, Damien the Great, and his empress the Lady Helen, whose images sat enthroned on either side of its closed bronze doors.
‘You knew them too?’
‘Oh yeah. An amazing kid was our Daimey, if a bit of a control freak. But there has been no greater and more constant guy as far as friendship goes. Look, even in death his friends are around him.’ The cirque surrounding the imperial rotunda was lined with spectacular monuments for the emperor’s closest courtiers. The marshal-princes and archangels, Michael and Lance Atwood; the politician and sometime High Chancellor, Luc Charpentier; Augustus Underwood, the avians’ greatest philosopher-scientist, whose calculations paved the way for wormhole interstellar travel; all these, their lovers and more friends besides kept solemn company with their beloved lord.
Mendamero entered the rotunda, the valves of the door opening silently at his command. Within, under the coffered dome, were two solid gold sarcophagi set high on marble catafalques, rich with the heraldry of House Macavoy and the Petakh state. Other tombs were set in arched recesses around the walls.
‘Oh!’ declared Henry Gretason in surprise. ‘These are a human couple! I had no idea.’
‘Yep,’ the seraph answered, ‘here lies quiet for once the emperor’s father, Justin Peacher-White of Earth, and his faithful Nathan. The Second Emperor of the Oecumene conveyed their bodies for burial in this place at the Emperor Damien’s request. Justy was my oldest and greatest friend. We were always on the verge of messing around, but never quite did. God, he was so sexy and wild, a born meledh if ever there was one, but he never wanted to be avian.’
Henry Atwood nodded. ‘He looks hot, even in marble.’
The seraph gave a little laugh. ‘It’s a good likeness. He’d have appreciated the endorsement.’
‘And are these the Lady Helen’s folks?’ Henry indicated the niche opposite Justin and Nathan.
‘Yes, but they became Petakh and founded House Debies, from which our present imperial zemec derives. But still they requested burial here rather than in the Debies fief on the Second Continent.’
The seraph meditated for a while then passed outside again, the boys following. The great doors closed behind them. Mendamero led his young companions out from the necropolis and on to Hochstrasse, busy in the morning rush, new coffee shops drawing in queues. The economies of Earth and the Rodinijan system were coming into sync to the advantage of both, especially for the terrestrial reconstruction effort after the Yaahl invasion. Great ships passed above their heads, manoeuvring to land at the busy spaceport which now occupied one of the valleys below the city. Humans, clothed and unclothed, were everywhere in the avian capital.
Mendamero led his namesakes into a traditional Rodinijan breakfast café, not as chic as the new Earth chains, but friendly and cheap.
‘Me and monkey used to come here when the lodge ran out of food, which was all too often. None of us ever sorted a shopping rota,’ commented the avian boy fondly.
The boys ordered drinks and breakfast and took a table looking out on to the main street of the city.
‘Aren’t you having anything, lord?’ the avian asked.
‘You may not have noticed, kid, but eating and drinking is something I gave up quite a few centuries ago.’ He sighed. ‘I do miss my Friday evening G & T. It was a sort of ceremony me and Ed had.’
‘Was he your partner?’ Henry Atwood asked.
‘Seems rather a mundane word for what he was. But we were very like you two, so perhaps you are among the few who might understand exactly what he was to me. And that maybe is why I’ve invited you along for this tour.’
‘Where are we going, lord?’ the avian asked.
‘A brief look around the Universe, after which I can take my farewell of this neck of the galaxy. There’s no one really for me to say goodbye to, so I’ve chosen you boys. I was so glad that prophecy brought me to you at the end. It seems right in so many ways.’
It took a while, but Henry Atwood finally noticed that people were staring not so much at his avian husband, but at him. He prodded his mate in his tight and muscular butt, and got a slap on his own small, tanned and naked rump. They grinned, and mouthed ‘Earthlings’ at each other.
Strelzen was rising again. Cranes, engineers and workmen were everywhere, as were the tourists on the hill of the Staramesten. Queues stretched across the rebuilt Ercbiscofsplaz as modern-day pilgrims waited their turn to visit the miracle of St Vitalis, the cathedral which escaped the Yaahl bombing unscathed, while all around it was reduced to shattered walls and dust.
The three ignored the queue and walked unchallenged through the great west door. The seraph simply waved away the attendants who appeared to want to challenge them, and they walked off. The tourists as one vacated the lower church, again at a silent signal from the seraph, and it was in a quiet crypt that the three sat as Mendamero introduced the boys to his own former mate. They listened attentively, holding hands, as he talked for quite a while about his own boyhood in a far distant age. Tears were streaking the human boy’s face as the seraph finished his tale. He sought his namesake’s arms, to be kissed and hugged for a long time.
‘Thank you, little one, that helped,’ the seraph said with his sad smile, and Henry returned to the arms of his husband to grip his hand tight.
‘It seems so unfair,’ pronounced the avian. ‘For all you did and suffered, you don’t get the consolation that everyone else has … well, apart from the Yaahl.’
‘That, my dears, is the unfortunate way of the Universe. Fairness is not built into it, it’s something we have to create, and in creating it someone has to pay a price. In this case it’s me, I’m the most scandalised particularity you could imagine.’
‘The what?’ The human boy was puzzled.
‘I forgot. No one does A-level religious studies any more. Ah me, history is not all gain is it? Now, since you’ve met my Edward, I think it’s time to visit some less pleasant acquaintances from my past who live – in a manner of speaking – not too far from here.’
They materialised on the empty peak of the Kaleczyke Horja. It looked much as it always had, except that the ancient Soviet war memorial was now no more than a tumbled platform of white limestone blocks, its obelisk gone without a trace.
Young Henry Atwood shivered a little, as there was a chilly wind even though it was summer. The climate of Rodinija had rarely bothered him after he had abandoned clothing, but Earth was different. His husband observed this and curled a wing around his mate, who snuggled into the scented warmth it offered and snaked his arm around his avian partner’s waist.
‘Now boys,’ Mendamero commenced, ‘I’m not entirely sure what we’ll meet in the caverns below this rock, as it was not my magic that created what you are about to see but that of the One, the Second Emperor of the Oecumene, my godson. It was a spell of great power he wove, to chain two depraved souls to this Earth until they realised the depth of their evil and repented it. I only learned what had been done from the emperor himself on his deathbed. So imprisoned beneath us is the soul of a man named Clive Dressner, of whom you’ll never have heard. A child rapist and murderer of scores of innocents, he spat in the face of an agent of the Creator when asked to repent at the last and so achieve forgiveness. The other you both will know. Imprisoned with him is whatever’s left of the Emperor of the Black Horde, Malik-Rammu.’
‘What! So that’s what happened to him! My books say he died in the Starel Gap!’ exclaimed the human boy.
His husband declared, ‘I’ve heard of him! Most of my ancestors were refugees from the devastation he created on Earth. He’s in all our avian histories. Isn’t this where the legendary Great Uprising happened? I’ve seen pictures.’
‘It is indeed. I was here that day to wave my kids goodbye. Now to work. I have to warn you there may be some danger involved in what we are about to do, but it is necessary for a number of reasons. Trust me on this.’
The pair looked at each other and the avian gripped the human’s hand. ‘I’m with you, monkey mine.’
‘Okay then, babes. Off we go!’
All was blackness, but not silence. Water rushed and bubbled not far away. The two boys were hand in hand and felt hard stone beneath their feet. Those two sensations were what was barely preserving them from vertigo. There was no sign or sound of Mendamero in the total darkness that surrounded them.
‘Hello!’ a male voice called out in English from the dark. ‘Is there someone there? Please! If there is, answer. We don’t want the madness to be back.’
The avian Henry was struck by the poignant edge to the man’s voice. Was the seraph there with them? He gave no sign, so Henry Gretason answered. ‘Yes, I’m here.’
‘Oh thank the Creator! A voice, another voice! Are you real?’
‘Yes. Solid enough. Who are you? Is there another with you?’
‘Yes! We’ve been here so long. I have no idea how long, just us two. My name was ... is ... Clive. And with me is my lover, Mehmed. You seem a young person.’
‘I’m also here with my partner. We’re kids, yes.’
‘Have you been confined in this place too? I am so sorry. What year is it in the mortal world?’
Henry Atwood took up the conversation, if not directly. ‘How did you get down into this place? How could you survive in the perpetual blackness?’
Another male voice replied, more collected than the other, though the English was accented and Eastern. ‘It doesn’t take long to be grateful for it, believe me. There are things it’s better not to see. Darkness hides the ugliness outside and inside.’
‘You’re lovers you say?’
‘Yes, it took ... I don’t know how long and how much madness and pain, but ... we found love. Clive and I had only each other and for so long we bit, wept and fought, but finally we asked why we were hurting each other, and why we sought and inflicted pain.’
‘... and then we talked for so long, it may have been decades for all I know. Talked ourselves sane, I think.’
‘... apart from our memories, that is, but when they drive us demented we’re here for each other. We think we know each other now, and knowing that we know ourselves.’
Henry Atwood had to ask. ‘And when did you fall in love with each other?’
The accented English of Mehmed replied. ‘Who can say. It may have been last year, or last century. We have no way of knowing. I guess it happened when we surrendered it all: our pain, anger and lust, and realised that all there was in the end was us two and how we treated each other. It was a long time before we even realised we were caring for each other in our pain.’
‘It was a lot to put up with, believe me,’ said the voice of Clive. ‘And yet, slime and corruption though I am, I came round one day to find him holding and caressing me.’
Slowly light grew in the darkness. A dim rocky roof could be seen above them and a misty illumination coiled up from the ground like a luminous fog.
‘No!’ the one called Clive shrieked. ‘Turn it off. I don’t want to be seen like this. Turn away, Mehmed. Don’t look at my horror.’
The night has passed and the day lies open before you, came another voice, more in their heads than spoken.
‘Have you come to forgive us, Lord?’ begged Mehmed. ‘We repent! We repent! We’ve felt their pain, the pain we inflicted on the innocent. If we could but take it back ...’
Stand and face each other. Do you see ugliness?
‘Oh! We have bodies, eyes … faces. We are human.’
The two boys stole forward and beyond tumbled rocks they saw two naked men staring at each other, with eyes for nothing else. Then they clasped each other frantically.
The voice came again. So, you are human and in becoming so have found each other. One thing remains. You must go from this place to another. There you will find others in need almost as desperate as yours was once. Help them and try to lead them to new life. Do so, and you will be fully healed.
A column of dust rose from the floor and whirled about the two men, then they were gone. The two boys looked around for the seraph, and saw him emerge from the shadows.
‘Was that you, lord?’ asked Henry Gretason.
‘Didn’t seem quite your style, lord. Bit sententious,’ Henry Atwood commented.
The seraph looked a little amused as well as miffed. ‘You try to avoid pomposity when you’re dealing with two beings imprisoned for over eight centuries.’
‘Are they cured?’ the avian asked.
‘I think at least they’re on their way. They’ve fought their way to a human shape, and if they love each other without abuse, which they plainly do, they could yet love others in a healthy way.’
‘So where did you send them?’ asked the human boy.
‘To a very different place from this, but not out amongst the human race and its avian offshoot. That wouldn’t be fair to them after so long, nor to mortals. No, they’ve gone where they may be able to do some good for another set of prisoners. Time for our next excursion, I think, and time to let darkness return to this strange place, this time until the world’s end. It will never be needed again.’
Mendamero and his two young friends stood now on a grassy hill overlooking a broad lake out of which rose wooded island peaks.
The sky was dark with cloud, as if rain were coming. The avian wrapped his lover with a wing once more when he saw him shiver, and they looked up at their companion. Mendamero was not as he had been when last they saw him. He was far taller now than Henry Gretason, mighty in figure with three huge pairs of bronze wings springing from his shoulders. The only thing familiar about him was his hair, which remained the same Atwood brown.
‘Where are we, lord and father?’ the avian boy asked.
‘Nowhere any mortal has come for centuries. This used to be called Eden and those were the Isles of the Blessed. But even in the World Beyond there can be change, and it has come to this place because of the choices that have been made here: wrong choices. Look below.’
Where the river entered the lake stood a city of white stone. Mendamero’s great wings beat and he rose to fly down to the buildings, the young Henrys following him, the human riding as ever on his mate’s shoulders.
It was an odd city in which they alighted. It had buildings, but little sign they were lived in. It was a city without commerce or any purpose they could see. Henry Atwood would have been inclined to call it a necropolis but for the fact that there was nothing commemorative in its construction. If it were a city of the dead, then its inhabitants appeared never to have been alive.
‘Odd place, isn’t it? Not so much a city as a stage set: buildings constructed by people who have never lived in them, and who have no real idea what they are for.’
‘Where are they?’ enquired the human Henry.
‘They’re here, but not easy to see. They’re not really interested in being seen in fact, though I’m quite certain they know I’m here. I bring out the best in them. They don’t like me at all.’
The avian looked around cautiously. ‘How is that best? What did you do to upset them, lord?’
‘You they won’t like either, kid. They can scent the angel DNA in you, and they dislike angels almost as much as me. I offend them as an intruder and usurper of their realm, or what they liked to think of as theirs. You they dislike because your ancestors made the right choice and they wilfully chose the other.’
‘So who are they?’ the human boy asked, increasingly intrigued.
‘They are, or were, the erelim. They are the true seraphim, unlike me. I was made seraph, they were created seraph. The erelim fell into great error in the time of the First Emperor and the Horde Wars. They dared to attempt the extinction of humanity in defiance of the Creator’s known purpose, misled by the arrogance of their leader. He was struck down, but in being brought low in fact found redemption, in the same way as your ancestors did, Henry Gretason, offspring of archangels. You’ll know him, Henry Atwood, as Tovyan Bošvic, the greatest human scientist of the first centuries of the Imperium, the first super-sap in fact.’
‘He was a seraph!’
‘He began that way, but he grew out of it, fortunately for him. His colleagues weren’t so lucky. They took refuge here in this changeless place, but found that they couldn’t maintain the serene equanimity which they believe natural and desirable to them. Cut off from the Creator’s dynamic flux of joy and energy they withered and stultified. They’re little more now than shadows and reflections, just like this city of theirs is nothing more than a cardboard facsimile of a real city. I have this much hope for them, though. They can still summon up enough personality to despise me.
‘Now boys, behold my strategy for dealing with this, almost my last responsibility. Don’t worry, they can’t see you.’
‘Who ...?’ exclaimed Henry Atwood, and then he saw two distant human figures descending the hill above the city, one pale in body, the other brown-skinned with long and rich dark hair. He was a rather handsome male. The pair entered the city’s margins cautiously, hand-in-hand, looking rather as if they weren’t used to walking. As they made their way along its streets the darker one in fact stumbled and yelped as he stubbed his toe. The pale one was immediately on his knees in front of him, concerned. He chafed and kissed the bruised foot. That they were utterly devoted lovers was very much apparent.
‘Hang on, aren’t they Clive and Mehmed?’ the human asked.
‘Damn right, and look at what’s going on around them.’
Henry concentrated, and seemed to see flickering shapes in the alleys of the city. They could not be fully comprehended, but that they were staring at the pair of intruders in their streets was obvious. They did not seem hostile, merely curious.
Clive and Mehmed limped on between the empty buildings, the latter supported by his lover, unaware that they had picked up a retinue of invisible hangers-on.
‘Good,’ pronounced Mendamero with satisfaction.
‘What’s good?’ enquired the human boy.
‘They’re curious. That’s what’s good. They’re bored after their centuries of self-imposed isolation and are no longer resisting a sense of curiosity … anything to escape their eternal ennui. Two unaccountable humans have wandered into their city. Clive and Mehmed will take up residence as they try to make sense of where they might be, and, sooner or later the erelim will talk to them. Once they do, their education in humanity and mortality will begin. They can’t resist it, because they have nothing else to engage them. Give them a few years and they’ll be experimenting with bodies and sensation just to see what it is makes Clive and Mehmed so exotic and vibrant, and then … well, who knows. It’s still a matter of choice, and this is their chance: possibly their last one.’
‘And Clive and Mehmed …?’
‘They’ll grow more human by explaining humanity to the inhuman. And in the fullness of time they’ll be awarded the gift of death so they may continue elsewhere. That’s the plan anyway.’
Henry Gretason was regarding his ancestor with a degree of awe. ‘That’s so cool,’ he commented.
‘Glad you think so, kid. Now follow me.’ Mendamero beat upwards, far above the empty city and the lake into the upper sky where the low cloud was breaking, allowing shafts of light to reach the isles below.
Henry Gretason laboured to follow him, his mate perched on his broad shoulders. ‘You cold, monkey?’ he shouted.
‘No, it’s not like Earth,’ came the reply. ‘It doesn’t seem to get colder as you go higher.’
Eventually Mendamero hovered and the pair came up beside him. They were very high now, and the sun in the strange sky seemed closer to them than it did below, though it was no hotter. The air was more crystalline and pure however.
‘Look to the east,’ the seraph instructed them. ‘What do you see?’
The boys craned and at first saw nothing, then dimly they became aware of the emerging faint shapes – blue on blue – of vast mountain ranges, which appeared to rear up beyond the edge of the world. They climbed up, one above the other, until they melted away from sight.
‘Where’s that?’ asked the human Henry, though he knew the answer as he saw the yearning look on the seraph’s face.
‘It’s the place you’ll pass to one day. That’s the Final Imperium, the Land of the Dead, from which only one has returned, and he twice. In that place are to be found all your relatives and friends, human and avian, united in love and exploring a Universe we here cannot even guess at. They used once to come to those Isles below, but all their prophecies are now fulfilled and they come no more. God knows I have moped about there in hopes often enough … but, nothing. So now I move on and cut my own furrow through the waters of the future. This, my dears, is where we say goodbye. I’ll be coming amongst humans and avians no more. As I said, my task amongst you is done.’
Henry Atwood kept rubbing at his leaking eyes. They were circling down to Hendriksberh, above which the seraph had kindly deposited them after their final embraces on the Isle of Meeting. Mendamero had transformed to human at the last, and he too was in tears at what he declared was for him the final goodbye. When asked where he was now going, he declined to answer, just saying that there were other places to visit and other tasks to accomplish.
Both Henrys knew exactly where they wanted to go. Henry Gretason flew them in through their bedroom window and there for a while they kissed and cuddled chastely. Eventually they dozed off and awoke refreshed enough for a life-affirming episode of vigorous sex, which was energetic even by the avian boy’s standards.
As he was being mercilessly pummelled by the muscular body above him. Henry Atwood sought the link to his usakamaradij and all within range acknowledged his call and transmitted the message on.
Two days later, the Atwood house-tree was packed with friends and lovers. It was like the old days, and as a final joy Rudi Elphberg turned up from Selene. ‘I was en route to Radelngrad when the news got on to my usakamarad network,’ he declared.
Henry cuddled into his human friend, whose hang-ups had all evaporated in an avian environment. Henry was lifted on to Rudi’s lap, where he was kissed and intimately stroked. Even more sexually frank things were going on elsewhere in the room. It was like being in lodge again, though at least Henry had hopes that overspill would be wiped up and breakages avoided.
‘I like your dick,’ the Twelfth Emperor commented coolly. ‘You get to be a connoisseur once you’ve sucked enough of them, and yours is superbly shaped, Atterboy. Not that big, but very aesthetic. Petakh cocks are just too large and heavily-veined to be fully comfortable with.’
Henry stroked the imperial penis, which was of suitably impressive dimensions, and spread the lubricant around its red and emerging head. It thickened to dimensions that wouldn’t have disgraced an avian. He went down on Rudi, enjoying the experience of a human cock in his mouth for once. He drew the blow job out luxuriously and savoured the result. Then he was lifted off Rudi and on to his husband’s lap.
‘Interesting to watch two humans going at it,’ Henry Gretason commented. ‘Very exotic. You know what happened to us?’
‘News gets round, and your Henry’s brief report of your encounter with Mendamero got rapidly to the desks of both imperial chanceries. Did he give you any clue as to what he intended?’
‘Nope. He just said there were other places and tasks he wanted to get on to. It was a final goodbye. Wherever he’s gone now, he’ll never be back. Human and Petakh are in a time beyond prophecy. Our future is our own to plan. What do you know about it, Rudi?’
The red-head grinned. ‘Oh, I have plans, as does the Petakh emperor. I got the sexiest of my usakamaradij pregnant, not surprisingly considering the compulsive nature of our relationship, though we haven’t made millenij. So I have a majalath of half-avians on the way. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of Harry. She’s Macavoy, a horned princess in the fourth cadet degree from the current emperor, a descendant of his elder brother Justin II. She’s to be nominated ruling empress to take over from Damien VIII as the Empress Harriet III Macavoy when his term on the throne ends and I commence my rule on Earth.’
‘So does that mean …?’
‘The simultaneous sovereigns of the Petakh empire and the Oecumene will have mated and produced offspring, yes. The eldest of our majalath may therefore eventually succeed in both realms. I wonder if he or she will have wing buds? Interbreeding is a new thing for us. Whatever, our kids will be brought up on Rodinija as novachekij and meledhij, wings or not. Human adolescence sucks by comparison. I want our kids, Harrysons or Rodolfscheras, growing up in the love of the Great Family, naked and open to all, without shame and anger. That’s the sort of future I want for our races; Petakh and human living and working together, absorbing the best of each other’s culture. With that happening, a lot of what’s still wrong with Earth will be healed.’
The seraphic intelligence which had once been little Henry Atwood of Trewern sat poised above the spiral arm; though he didn’t exactly sit, for he was disembodied. Life for Mendamero was a continual existential dialogue with the legacy of his metaphorical human mind. It gave him a degree of amusement at times.
He knew the location of the Sol system and from there could try to plot the course of the remnants of the Yaahl fleet as it fled its defeat in the orbit of Earth. No Yaahl who had entered the atmosphere of the planet escaped the vengeance of the Petakh militia. It was as their battlecruisers began to carve holes in the leviathans of the Yaahl fleet that the retreat began, encouraged by several more strikes by Mendamero himself. He had transmuted the hulls of a dozen of their giant ships whose demented commanders had tried to hurl themselves down on the planet below and so sterilise it of the life-forms who had dared not just to defy but to conquer the hunting Yaahl. The remnant of the fleet could take no more. Interstellar engines had come alive and the ships pulled away from Earth at a speed beyond that of any Petakh warship. Perhaps no more than seven of the leviathans survived the defeat, and maybe twenty of their smaller battlecruisers.
Where had they gone? Mendamero knew that finding the Yaahl in the empty gulfs of interstellar space was going to be harder than finding a flea in a herd of mammoths. But at that point they could not have travelled much further than a light year from the Sol system. The problem was in which direction they had headed. Well, he was not short of time, was he?
He found them with unexpected ease. They were heading for the Epsilon Eridani system, maybe following a pre-agreed itinerary which would take them past planet-rich stars on strategic autopilot. The surviving Yaahl were in hibernation, and since the seraph couldn’t at this point locate the new Dread of the Galaxy and Packmaster he too coasted with the stream of time. Twenty Earth years later the Yaahl fleet decelerated and entered the orbit of a blue, water-rich planet. There was life below, but not sentient, which was a relief to Mendamero, who otherwise would have faced a choice of genocides.
The fleet seemed inclined to keep station for a while. Ships shuttled between the giant transports and the surface. The seraph alighted invisibly on a hill near one of their larger landing sites. Draconids were everywhere, but gave off an air of listlessness. One or two hunting packs prowled after sport with the local wildlife, but many wandered aimlessly. The Yaahl did not grieve, and were indifferent to their fellows’ happiness, but the magnitude of the Earth disaster had dismembered their racial identity and self-belief. Hunting and sadism were their only purposes, and they had been taken from them.
Finding the Supreme Yaahl was not easy, but he located the transport showing the most activity and, to his surprise, eventually found the previous holder of the post still on its command bridge, though with livid new scars down its flanks. Henry was impressed at the creature’s resilience, despite his feelings about the species. He revealed himself.
‘You!’ screeched the creature, showing no fear but a good deal of outrage.
‘Yes, me. Are you willing to listen now? The un-Rhaal came, as I said, and accomplished what I warned you of.’
Mendamero was both unsurprised and yet taken aback at the reaction. ‘You lied, hatchling. They were not un-Rhaal.’
‘Really? How do you know that?’
‘I have had the banks of the conditioning tanks searched. Those bird-Arhaal were not like the un-Rhaal in the records of the First Mothers.’
‘Tell me more.’
‘I tell you anything? If you are Death I defy you.’
‘I am certainly the Destroyer, but like an earlier occupant of the office, a hatchling of mine, I can tell you that destruction may be followed by renewal. So I offer you that chance.’
‘At the seventh turning of the planet below us I will destroy your ships. You have that much grace to vacate them and transfer what you will to the surface. The Yaahl will not leave this planet. Here they will stay. Their only chance to leave will be to reinvent their society and their civilization.’
‘Fool! We will turn on each other and rend ourselves! That is the way of the Yaahl, as it ever has been. That is why we hunt!’
‘No, that cannot be so. Search your tanks. Once you were different, and you must be so again. You have only so much grace. We will not speak again.’
Mendamero gave a mental sigh. Here he was far above the wheeling spiral of the galaxy, with nothing much to do and fancy-free. Time had passed, but he had lost track of it. He stifled the mental desire to seek the company of humans and avians again, to check in on those boys he had left behind to see what had become of them and their marvellous worlds. But he had made his decision, and that sort of ersatz family could no longer be for him.
The Yaahl were under house arrest on Epsilon Eridani b, where perhaps the expanding Dual Imperium might one day find them and offer its own brand of assistance. He could pop over to Eden and see how Clive and Mehmed were doing in their re-education of the erelim, but stays in that place had their perils. He was unhealthily drawn to the Isles of the Blessed, hoping against hope that some sign or token might be given him there. It was a compulsion he should resist, for Mendamero still had the work ethic of the schoolboy of ancient times he once had been.
It suddenly struck him that there was one job still outstanding. Who were those un-Rhaal of the galaxy’s far distant antiquity, the people who had encountered and defeated the ancient Yaahl? Now there was a question worth pursuing. It appealed on several levels.
Mendamero stared down again at the galactic wheel. The Yaahl had first been encountered in the long Carina-Sagittarius arm. What he knew of their trajectory indicated they had travelled along that arm clockwise to the galactic wheel. Maybe they had been in flight initially from their ancient foe. The seraph pondered, and then abruptly sent his consciousness deep into the sparkling band of stars in search of intelligent life.
The seraph Mendamero stared down at what had at first seemed like yet another Yaahl-trashed planet. Their locust-like devastation of the galactic arm was tragic and horrible, but here there were signs they had not got all their own way. Ancient and decayed though it was by thousands of years of weathering and wear, still the shell of one of their leviathan transports was half-buried in a shallow sea off one of the great continents. There were also signs of wrecked cities in the deserts, but one of them had been overlaid by new building. There had been survivors and they had prospered for a while, which tended to indicate that the Yaahl had been defeated and driven off. But what had happened to their would-be victims?
He lifted off again and struck more confidently into a dense cluster of main sequence stars, rich in planets. It would have drawn the Yaahl, or may even have possibly spawned them. It was as he was assessing the chances of a particularly rich grouping that Mendamero got the distinct impression that he was not alone.
He addressed the surrounding vacuum. ‘Er … hi?’
There was no reply, but a distinct air of amusement hung in the ether.
‘Okay. This is not funny. Identify yourself!’
Again he had no reply, but he was nettled enough to seek out the source of the mental trace and pursue it. It led him to a green-blue planet around a nameless type G star. It was inhabited, for the lights of cities burned in the night beyond the planet’s terminator. A sub-continental island still in daylight drew the seraph. He descended to the most terrestrial landscape he had yet encountered in his travels. There were tree-like trees, rivers and prairies of grass, and from a hill rather like a Yaahl mound rose a temple that had the exact look of the buildings on the Isles of the Blessed. It could not be coincidence.
Mendamero once more took on the form of the human who had been Henry Atwood, and walked up the long slope. He felt human enough to be out of breath when he reached the summit and the walls of the temple rose above him. He walked inside to encounter vast halls, chamber after chamber, carved with marvellous murals. The weirdness grew as he identified humans and avians carved in a variety of tableaux, and it did not take long to discover that the central figure of the story they told was none other than Henry Atwood, and the supporting cast was his friends, enemies and relatives. Set on a throne under the great central dome was the marble colossus of a six-winged seraph, horned but with his own face, and to either side of it were representations of his sons and daughter, the five great archangels. But standing behind was a giant figure, its right hand on Mendamero’s shoulder: the figure of a human, handsome beyond measure. It was his own boyhood love, Edward Cornish.
Tears coursed down Henry Atwood’s face. Here on this distant, unknown planet he had received his sign. A hand took his shoulder. He turned rapidly, but it was not his Edward. Another seraph stood there, six-winged and horned, a staff in his right hand.
He had a smile and a warm voice. ‘You know me?’
‘Yes … but I can’t put a name to you, for I think you’ve never had one.’
‘Then introductions are unnecessary, my brother. You know what this place is?’
With a thrill of excitement and not a little fear, Henry nodded. ‘It’s my tomb. And a very fine one, I may say. Did you build it?’
‘Not I. That’s not my business. I am no custodian of memory, but the people of this planet have been celebrating your life and works since well before you were born.’
‘Who are they?’
‘You’ve already met them.’
‘I can’t recall …’
‘Come to the door.’
Henry walked to the entrance to his monument, to find the sky full of draconids, but not Yaahl, though they were plainly a related species. These had full wings, and were creatures not of horror but of beauty and delight. A great crowd of them covered the space around the hill, singing and dancing slowly to an ethereal measure that sent shivers up and down Henry’s spine.
‘I’m human again,’ he observed to the seraph.
‘Yes, my brother. Your task is done. The people of this realm want to salute the being who brought salvation to their sundered kin, the Yaahl.’
‘So these are the un-Rhaal!’
‘Yes. Aeons ago Yaahl and un-Rhaal were one people, but their nations took different courses. Bitter civil war and catastrophe followed, but eventually the black Yaahl were driven off into the emptiness of space and the dead end of their greed and anger, while their adversaries took the better course. Unaided by the Creator they found their own way to greatness. Indeed, they found him. They are his beloved foster-children and his delight. The Creator promised them what they could not themselves achieve and what they prayed for, the salvation of their cousins, the Yaahl. And you have made possible the fulfilment of that promise. Humans will ever be honoured here as a result. Your race has given them a gift they cannot repay. One day the un-Rhaal will meet human and Petakh to the enrichment of all, and the joy of the Universe.
‘But now, Henry Atwood, the time has come for what you have longed for, your death. I have carried no greater soul to the Final Imperium. Scenes of triumph and joy await that you could never comprehend in this existence. High honour will attend you, but I think I know what it is you most truly hope to find there.’
Feeling faint and suddenly very tired, Henry sat down and leaned against the cool stone of the door to his tomb. The last words he ever heard ringing in his ears were, he thought, Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Then a hand took his shoulder, and he turned to meet a smile as glorious and familiar as the sunrise.
THE END which is, as Lance Atwood said, only another BEGINNING
A final thank you to all my editors and readers over the years, who have been wonderful in sparing the time to read these stories and comment on them, to their great improvement, and my enhanced enjoyment in writing them.