Copyright 1996 by Wil McCarthy
Limited license is granted to print or distribute this file in unmodified form.
“…they come from Orion, from the waist of Orion… radiant phenomenon is now identified as a propulsive maneuver involving a large number of…
“…moved in on the second planet at approximately oh-sevenhundred… The lunar surfaces are almost completely devastated. …heard nothing from the Lesser Worlds in almost two days. Look, you probably know all this. You damn well should know all of this. I can’t be the only one transmitting.
“…can’t even think how many people have died. Everyone is dead, do you hear me? The whole damn colony is dead.” <strained laughter> “The question has been answered, yes? The Waisters are yes-damn-it a hostile force. It’s…
“I have to get below the surface now, but listen to me: Sirius has fallen. We are beaten, we are utterly smashed. I am Pavel Gremov, Entertainment Twelve, signing off. I repeat, Sirius has fallen…
— Sirius System, Final TransmissionDCN 5328-551-5327-1839AR
(Courtesy of the Uriel Archive)
Keywords: <see index>
PINEGA, GATE SYSTEM:
CONTINUITY 5218, YEAR OF THE DRAGON
The first thing the monster saw when she opened her eyes was a man leaning over her. Blurry, doubled — her vision refusing to focus — and viewed also through the frosted, transparent arch above her. She lay naked before him in a coffin of glass. I’m freezing, she thought, but right away she knew that was wrong. She remembered where she was, remembered that she was in fact unfreezing.
Shapes and colors sang across her tongue.
With a pneumatic pop and hiss, the coffin lid rose.
She vomited clear gel. Attempting to speak, she vomited again.
“Reliaxu,” she heard the man say. “Paniku nin. Thest nin dangeris.”
“My children,” she finally managed to say. Her voice a yellow croak, the sound like bubbles rising in oil. And desperate. “My children.”
“Standard, late interstitial,” the man said to someone behind him, out of view. He spoke without turning, his breath warm in her face, smelling of nothing, of the hibernation jelly still clogging her nostrils. “Congratulations; dating appears consistent.”
“My children! Elle, Vadim.” she pleaded. “How?” Too weak to rise, her limbs soft as noodles. Brain refusing her orders, still cold. How are my children, please?
The man loomed over her, spinning off colors like music at high volume. “Deep cryostasis, madam, and the machinery is old. What can I tell you?”
Another voice, from somewhere behind him: “Indications are positive, madam; there are ten bodies here, two of them children, and so far as we can determine, all of them appear safe.”
Oh Ialah. Thank you, in all your names.
Relaxing, she blinked her eyes.
The world oozed into focus, her eyes finally clearing away the gel that had fouled them.
The face above her looked much too broad at its top, much too narrow underneath, the mouth tiny, as if toothless. She thought this an illusion at first, but as he pulled away she noticed the eyes, staring back at her like blank copper mirrors, without iris or pupil or other visible detail. His hair was green, and very short, and clinging in strange patterns to his scalp. Another figure came up behind him, also green-haired, clad in strange, soft garments and moving in a ripply, loose-boned gait no more human than the canter of a horse. Their skins were gray-blue, their limbs unnaturally long.
“Names of Ialah,” she croaked, “we lost the war.”
The two figures exchanged knowing smiles, and in a moment the cryostasis ward echoed with their laughter.
“You remember the war, then?” the nearer man said to her eventually. He spoke carefully, as if Standard were a language well known to him, memorized though not often employed. “We hoped you might; it seems our risk investment has been a wise one. But a long time has passed, much longer than you perhaps suspect. The war is over, the Waisters long gone.”
“Wh… wh…” Where? How?
Who are you, she wanted to know. What’s happened here? How did the war end, and how long ago? Her blood, still cold, felt as if it would never warm again. No green-haired people had dwelt in Sirius system, in her time or before. Nor elsewhere in human space, so far as she knew.
“We are as human as you,” the man assured her, his copper eyes glittering.
And the monster knew right then and there that he was lying, and that he was comfortable lying, and that the truth would be a difficult thing to get out of him. But not impossible, no.
She favored him with as steady a gaze as she could muster. Cleared her throat, still slick with gel. “My name is Malyene Andreivne. With whom am I speaking? Plainly you are not Waisters, but what you are I cannot guess.”
Her forwardness seemed to catch them off guard. They exchanged glances.
“In your language I would be called Crow,” the nearer man said carefully. He nodded his head at the other. “This one is Plate.”
She held his gaze. Held it until he spoke again: “We’re from Finders ring, Wende’s six, both of us Workers. The Gate colony has…” He stopped, blinked. Forced a smile. “Let us not be hasty. Thereis much you do not know–“
“But I will know it,” she told him. Shivering, she tightened her back muscles, hauled her nude, numb body upright. Cool slime ran off her in rivers. Her eyes held them both. Few secrets could be kept from her, had ever been kept from her, for she was Colonel Malyene Andreivne Kurosov’e of Central Investigations.
She swung her head around in a slow, purposeful arc, taking in everything. The cryostasis ward had scarcely changed, its dozen coffins inclined, as ever, against the spinward wall. Equipment lockers all around, dead light fixtures above, a floor of bare, textured metal. But: three spheres of hazy white light hung motionless in the air, connected to nothing and yet providing illumination, and the wall which should contain the exit hatch had been replaced with a gray-white… membrane, it looked like.
The two men had begun to get upset, she noted. Not angry, precisely, and not intimidated either, but she had the sense that they were distracted, annoyed, finding her less convenient than they’d expected. Convenient for what?
“How long have you been at Sirius?” she demanded.
Crow frowned with his tiny mouth. “Sirius? Ah. We, that is, our people, arrived here some sixty essey past. Sixty Earth standard years, I should say. But madam, this star system has been called Gate for over two millennia.”
Malye froze. Two millennia?
Barely an hour seemed to have passed. Into the coffin, and then the choking fluid and the awful cold for a while, and then the awakening… A few weeks, she’d thought, they’ll come for us in a few weeks if they come for us at all. Names of Ialah, two thousand years?
“I expect this comes as a shock,” Plate told her gravely.
He held a red, glittery, translucent object in his hand, like an eyeball-sized ruby or a piece of cut glass, and as he spoke he pressed this against the side of his head, and then withdrew it.
“My people?” Malye asked, feeling faint, resisting the urge to lie back again in the inclined coffin and ignore all this.
Crow looked troubled, hesitant. His bedside manner nonexistent, but at least he had the good grace to be embarrassed about it. “Madam, the Sirius colony was destroyed, and was quite empty when we arrived. Until we located this facility fifty months ago, it had always been assumed there were no survivors at all.”
“There are a billion people in this system,” she protested. “Were. A billion people. Two planets’ moons crawling with people, and a thousand hollow rocks…. It was a thriving civilization.”
“Yes,” Crow agreed. “Waisters are very thorough.”
Oh, Ialah. Grigory, her husband, twenty centuries in his grave? Along with her whole world, yes, along with all the worlds of Sirius? She had somehow saved herself, and Elle, and Vadim. Had no one else managed to save anything? Damn them, damn them all!
“Madam,” Plate said, “we have awakened you in the hope that you can assist us. You’re an eyewitness to something we can only conjecture at. You have seen the Waisters in confrontation.”
“I never saw them,” she said.
“But you saw how they behaved? You know the sequence of events? The Fall of Sirius is a matter of no small importance to us.”
Her eyes narrowed. The colors in the room began once more to sing. They were holding something back, still.
“Tell me why you need my help,” she commanded.
Crow put a hand to his brow, looking deeply troubled, looking… scared? “Because, Madam, the Waisters have returned. An armada of at least seventy large ships, not responding to any attempts at communication. They will be in system just over a hundred hours from now.”
The world swam, shimmered. “Oh. Oh, I see. Yes, well, I will do what I can to help you, of course.”
Only now did the monster think to cry.