by Nathaniel Katz | 2,945 words
“You are going to meet the gods?” one of the Urosili asked.
“We are going to ask the Above for assistance, yes,” I answered for the ambassador, who was busy spilling sauce on himself. He hadn’t bothered to learn Urosili, which meant that I – an assistant hired by virtue of being the ambassador’s brother’s friend’s sister – had to do all of the actual translation work.
The alien might have nodded; I could never tell what Urosili were doing under their mechanized suits. The uncovered bits were just clumps of fur, and I always wondered if there was anything but more hair inside.
The alien scooped another generous helping of ribs onto its plate and chomped them. They’d been nice enough to make us food from home, but I would have been happier if they’d cooked the meat.
The ambassador asked his favorite question: “How far are we from the barrier?”
“Three days,” I said without bothering to check with our hosts. Same as the last time, you doddering old failure.
This was the twenty-first day of our voyage. The ship was going as fast as it could, but it was still hard to not think of those dying back on Earth. When we’d left, the plague had been spreading into the last safe havens.
The Urosili gestured with a piece of gristle and said, “What has made you worthy?”
“We were carefully vetted by the senate.”
“Sure.” It never pays to disagree with the guys driving your spaceship.
“Trials by combat?”
Blasted one-track Urosili minds. They had fighting and religion, and everything else was a furry question mark. “No, no one died,” I said, “but we did get interviewed pretty thoroughly, so…”
The Urosili captain, whom they referred to as the Hopefully Blessed Leader into Faith and War, spat out its mouthful of raw spacecow and slammed its fists on the table. “No! You are not tested. The Urosili do not let inferiors go!”
I looked to the ambassador for help, but he was busy spitting into his napkin while his liver-spotted hands shook with the effort of digestion. On the day of our departure, as the military burned the rotting city of New Birmingham, he told me that digestion was, had always been, and would always be his biggest problem.
“There was no time to test us,” I told the Urosili. “Humanity’s facing extinction, so we thought the Above would kind of… bend the rules a bit.”
The Urosili leader motioned for his officers to leave the mess. “Everyone must be tested,” it said. “The Above themselves select those who may come. Only those who have received Intervention are welcome.”
The ambassador realized something was wrong. “Do whatever they say,” he told me.
“Not one more wheeze of air will enter this room again,” the Urosili said. “If the Above deem you worthy, you will breathe.”
I scrambled over the table between us, slipping and sliding and staining my boots in platters of meat and BBQ sauce, and ran at him with a steak knife. He, in turn, charged at me, hands spread wide. I tried to stab where I thought his gut was. He grabbed my arm, twisted until I dropped the blade, and threw me. I landed flat on the table, sauce platters and water carafes hopping, splashing, and toppling with the impact.
“May you be found worthy,” the Urosili said before the door closed with a whoosh.
“Why’d they do that?” the ambassador asked from his chair.
I groaned. I was soaked with food and drink. There was sauce in my hair. The world smelled like excessively sweet, excessively spicy, and excessively raw meat. My arm hurt. Mom was probably dead already.
Evidently noting my distress, the ambassador dipped his napkin in the cola puddle that enveloped my shoulder and said, “Take your time, dear.”
To be honest, I liked him better oblivious than sweet. His idea of kindness felt like an old world billionaire indulging in a bit of baby talk with a poodle.
I suppose I should’ve counted myself lucky. I’d evaded the plague, after all. Not dying with boils and growths, that’s something. Every girl’s dream. Of course, humanity was screwed, but nobody really believed a washed up diplomat and an assistant who’d never been off world would be able to reach quasi-transcendent aliens who had pets smarter than our best and brightest.
A moment passed in which I debated crying, but my eyes were, save the spills, dry, and I couldn’t help but notice my persisting ability to breathe. So I sat up, got off the table, and started washing myself off by dumping the few standing waters over my head.
When I’d finished, (and rejected the idea of using the napkins as towels as too demeaning), I explained what happened to the ambassador. He answered, “I’m sorry you have to die.” Amazingly enough, he actually looked like he meant it.
Unsure how to deal with his newfound kindness, I said, “No problem,” even though it was a rather large problem. “I would’ve anyway if I had stayed behind.”
Then I got my handheld out. If they were going to let us sit here, I might as well try to stay alive. Urosili computer systems aren’t the best in the known universe. Though my device was more e-Reader than supercomputer, it could overpower them. But I can only speak Urosili, not read it, and the translate feature on my handheld couldn’t run at the same time as the hacking programs I’d crammed in.
My screen showed an old-style Epic Fantasy trilogy’s worth of alien characters. Had I gotten in, or was this just an expansive No, sorry?
“Do you know why I agreed to do this?” the ambassador asked.
“No.” And I don’t care. He’d put his napkin back in his lap, as though we’d resume eating at any moment.
“I was afraid of the plague. I thought that, if nothing else, I’d have a better chance of surviving out here.”
“Oh,” I said, beginning to hit buttons at random. “That’s nice.”
He forced a chuckle. “So much for that.”
My screen trifurcated. One part had big, red Urosili on it. Another had tiny, white-on-orange writing so hard to read that I couldn’t even tell what language it was. The third showed a video of us sitting in the dining room. I kept hitting keys, figuring that things couldn’t get worse.
As it happened, they got better. The feed shifted to the passageway just outside the dining room. It was empty.
An idea struck like a sluggish meteor. “Give me your handheld,” I told the ambassador.
He fished it out of his pocket and passed it to me. Copying alien characters from handheld to handheld was annoying, but it beat randomly guessing, and his translate program had no problem spitting out the answers while mine hacked.
The first thing I figured out how to do was to oversupply systems with power. I tested it out on the television, which exploded in a satisfactory manner.
Then I learned the camera’s controls and turned to the bridge. Six Urosili occupied it, though four of them had been shot to hairy bits. The two that remained pointed rifles at each other. One of them stood near a high-tech Urosili power strip.
“Blow him up or not?” I asked the ambassador.
“Blow him up,” he said, so I did my best. To my disappointment, the strip just fizzled. Something it was powering must have been holding the ceiling tiles up or something, though, because one fell on the guy with a thump.
The other Urosili took this in stride. It looked up for a second or two, shrugged, and wandered off. Hoping it wasn’t about to do anything untoward, I did my best to follow but eventually lost it.
Two or three minutes later, it appeared outside the dining room. “I think we’ve got company,” I said.
“Blow him up, too,” the ambassador ordered.
I ignored him. Mom would’ve been so proud to see her daughter ignoring Earth’s best and brightest.
The door opened and the Urosili stepped through. Like all the others, it didn’t look like anything so much as a giant hairball with a gun, suit, and – in his particular case – a severed head in one hand.
“They are dead,” it said.
“The crew. They wanted you to die. I killed them.” It threw the Hopefully Blessed Leader into Faith and War’s head at me. I caught it. The face had been burned away by laser shots.
“I want to meet the Above. You want to go to the Above. We can go together.”
“Oh,” I said, standing up and dropping the head. “Why can’t you go with your own people?”
“No Urosili has ever met the Above. We worship them, but we never meet them. None of us have ever received Intervention.”
“I wonder why that is,” I said.
“I wonder too. But I decided that I needed to Intervene for myself; waiting for the Above was taking too long. We shall go and save your race.”
Unfortunately, our Urosili (who I soon decided to call Urso) did not, it turned out, know how to pilot the spacecraft and had various religious reasons for not even trying. But it wasn’t concerned. “We are aimed right,” it said. “We will sail past the gatekeepers and smash right into the planet of the Gathering.”
“I’m concerned about the ‘smash’ part of your plan,” I said.
It shrugged. “The Above will save us.”
There wasn’t much I could do to contribute after that. The ambassador spent his time reading pornographic books written in whatever dead tongues he’d studied at uni, and Urso wasn’t big on conversation.
I did a lot of math. The timeline remained tricky. Would there be anybody left to be magically saved by quasi-transcendent aliens, even assuming that said quasi-transcendent aliens were willing to save said anybody?
The Ahm Axi – the race the Urosili called Gatekeepers – contacted us when we were six hours from the barrier. “Who are you?” they asked, the second most advanced race in the galaxy doing its best to be polite.
The ambassador sat up straight and didn’t say a thing. Urso looked shocked that someone so close to the Above would deign to talk to it. I said, “We are representatives from Earth seeking an urgent meeting with the Above.”
The Ahm Axi, hovering holographically a few feet above the floor, cocked his avian head and said, “Don’t you know that they’re busy?”
“I’d heard they were at some kind of concert, but…”
The Ahm Axi made a sound like a chicken choking on a bone. “A concert?” Its feathers twitched in indignation.
I licked my lips and tried to think of something to say. I eventually settled for: “I’m sorry, I heard they were listening to music…”
“They are.” Then, applying emphasis like Urso applied laser bolts, it added, “They have been listening to music for two and a half million years and are only now winding down. The performance began with the first birthed cell of a race and will end with a people’s dying gasp. The musicians are playing indigenous instruments and bringing the humble existence of an inconsequential species to life, creating a real time tribute to sentience everywhere with a performance that brings meaning to every action and thought dreamed of by billions.”
“Oh,” I said. “Is there no way to get in contact with them?”
The Ahm Axi sighed. “You will have to wait for the end of the performance.”
“And that will be when this species is completely wiped out?”
“We’re in a hurry,” I said. “We can’t wait that long. Besides, I’ll only live another few decades. What if the concert’s still going?”
“That’s your problem.”
Urso stepped past me and pointed his rifle at the hologram. “If we have to,” it said, “we’ll shoot our way through.”
The Ahm Axi twitched as if Urso had just puked on its best sports jacket. “To use violence here, so close to the Above and their sacred music, would be to desecrate all that is holy in this universe,” it said.
Urso shot the projector, and the Ahm Axi’s image vanished. “They won’t stop us,” it said. “We shall smash against the Above unimpeded.”
Unfortunately, as it happened, the Ahm Axi were a bit more resourceful than our Urosili friend. When the two Pacific-Island-sized battleships first popped up, we thought them just for show. After all, if you couldn’t shoot, the size of your guns was irrelevant, right?
But, true as that might be, the size of your ship was not irrelevant. The Ahm Axi got ahead, parked in the way, and opened their shuttle bay doors. Estimated Time to Crash (ETC): two hours and seven minutes.
The Urosili took all of twenty seconds to think of an answer. “We’ll shoot our way out,” it said, slapping its hand against its rifle.
“That seems a poor idea,” I said. If you’re going to pick a situation in which having really big guns is useful, a shootout is pretty much the definition, and I was fairly sure the Ahm Axi would get over their aversion to violence if we shot enough of them.
“What if we use the escape pods, instead?” I asked. “We could blow this ship as a distraction and arc the pods right under their noses. If we time it close enough, we could be there before they could get in the way.”
Urso liked my plan, but had to correct a few parts. “There is,” it said, “only one escape pod. And it can’t be controlled manually, merely programmed. As it is the humans with the crisis, and as I am sure the Above will now Intervene after I have so proven myself, I shall not be the one to go.”
I shut my eyes, took a deep breath, and got ready to do the right thing. “You should go,” I told the ambassador. “I’ll program the pod.” He was a hero in my day! mom had exclaimed on hearing who I was going with. You’ll learn so much just being with him!
But, when we walked through the cramped hallways to the more cramped pod, the ambassador wilted. “I don’t like small spaces,” he said.
“Seriously?” I asked.
“Since I was a little boy,” he said. “Once, when we were on an asteroid for a summer vacation, my mom said, ‘You never play in the space caves, son,’ and she was right! You see…”
“I got you,” I said. And so it was up to me.
In preparation, I ate a big lunch: a bellyful of weird alien grub stuffed between two doughy pieces of rye. Between bites, I programmed the pod’s route, aiming to slip right under the Ahm Axi’s ships.
The ambassador hugged me before I got in. “Earth will remember you.”
“And you,” I said, though I doubted there’d be anyone left to remember us by the time we finished out here. He smelled like sweat and baby powder.
The inside of the pod was smaller than it looked. I was squeezed in tight so tight that doing anything but breathing and staring at the viewscreen led to smacking into some jutting piece of technology. If there was a communications system, Urso hadn’t explained it to me. Therefore, I had no warning at all when I was shot off into space. One moment I was a squished up little ball, the next a squished up little ball hurtling through the cosmos with a spikey thing jabbing into my gut.
Behind me, the ship exploded. I was facing the wrong way to see it, but I didn’t miss the chunks flying past me. It didn’t make any noise, but I imagined a boom anyway.
Was I the last human left? There was no way to tell and not much more to do than go on and save the world. Solo. For now, going on consisted of sitting still and experiencing the sensation of every muscle in my body becoming a gigantic, lady-shaped cramp.
The planet of the Gathering had no land. It was an ocean encircled by clouds, and I was heading right for it without steering or breaks. ETC: one hour.
A cloud shifted, and I saw my first Above. They were mountains of flesh sitting on the ocean, their central bulk motionless despite the waves around them, their countless multicolored protrusions writhing and twisting like streamers in the wind.
The Urosili craft shuddered as it entered the atmosphere. The metal all around was screaming. I was thrown what distance I could be by each bit of turbulence and it only took two or three hits for me to hear the snap of my first broken bone. A second was right behind. My eyes and nose were sticky with blood.
I just know you’ll save us all! Mom told me on the last day. Then she’d started weeping and bombarding my cheeks with lipstick-gilded kisses.
“I love you, mom,” I said. “I love you, humanity.”
Below, an Above gestured and the pod ceased its plummet. The thrusters cut off into silence; the groans of abused machinery ceased; the pain in my limbs vanished along with the blood on my face. I hung there, above the ocean, below the clouds, as the Above as far as the eye could see rose to applaud the concert’s ending.
And, standing upon the water, a lone Above played the final notes of a solo on an electric guitar.
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© Nathaniel Katz 2012
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Nathaniel Katz is an editorial assistant at Innsmouth Free Press and blogs at The Hat Rack. When not blogging, he pretends he can write fiction. So far, in addition to Interstellar Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Space and Time, and others have gone along with the idea.