This story does not start at the beginning.
As so often happens within a universe in flux, the concept of a linear narrative has been lost to the winds of millennia. Whole stories, unable to maintain cohesion under the massive weight of years, have been fractured, and their elements allowed to drift at leisure. Stripped of their original context, they rather resemble sun-bleached fragments washed up on a stretch of beach. The whisper of the waves is more than enough to drown out their feeble voices.
All of this is not unusual, though. What is unusual is the presence of an entity in the scene. A dark blotch on the sand. Potent. Waiting. Unspeakably dangerous. It contemplates the pieces of forgotten history at its feet. And it smiles.
1 – Seva
“What… what could do something like this?”
Shian tugged the brim of her leather hat further over her features as she contemplated the vast sweep of field before her. Utter destruction. Every leaf, every sapphire tendril that had stretched its brilliant round blooms towards the sun only yesterday now lay under the unmistakable brown-black mantle of death. The low, rolling hills of purple grazing land surrounding the field almost seemed to mock her with their normalcy. A familiar scene, bathed in the gathering morning light. Ordinary in every way, except for the aberration at her feet. How? Unconsciously, she continued to pull at the brim of her hat, as if just the right amount of shade would expose the scene as a mirage.
“I don’t know, Shian, I just don’t know!” Ro’s voice soared upward at this last syllable. “Who the hell’d wanna destroy our crops? That harvest was for the whole damn village. The whole. Damn. Village. Nobody in their right mind’d starve themselves like this. Nobody. They’re crazy, all of them.” Breathless with panic, Ro searched his breeches pockets for a handkerchief. With the ragged bit of cloth, he delivered a rapid series of blows to his furrowed forehead and deeply lined cheeks. As the old man gasped for air, each blow became progressively more violent.
Shian turned and seized his trembling hands. “Shh, calm down, Ro. We don’t know that it was anyone from the village. I don’t see how it could be. Even twenty men couldn’t have caused this much damage in the space of a night.”
“Well, what if they used poison? What if it was someone from another village? I bet it was those Dunnick kids from Mekin. Lounging around our fields all day getting up to Da-knows-what. If they can’t steal from us, they can still ruin us…”
“Ro, just stop it.” Shian’s dark eyebrows met over her clear, blue eyes as she shook the man slightly. “You were here yesterday. You checked the crops. They were fine. Everything was healthy. This is, has got to be, something else.”
“What something else?” Ro shrieked, voice straining to escape through constricted vocal cords, “What on the whole of Seva could possibly have caused an entire field of mell to just drop dead?”
“I’m not sure.”
Letting go of her companion’s hands, Shian descended the rough stone steps to the tangled purple furze at edge of the field. Ro followed more slowly, muttering imprecations against multitudes of unspecified “vandals” and “cowards.” Hiking up her loose breeches, Shian squatted down and reached for the nearest wilted tendril. As her fingers brushed it, she lurched to her feet, panic and dismay finally making their way to her core. Despite the warm blaze overhead, she suddenly felt icy cold.
“Shian, what is it?” Ro’s voice at her side. She looked at him, unable to form a coherent sentence, dark freckles frighteningly prominent on a face blanched with fear. He seized her arm in a rough grip.
“Speak, Shian! Tell me what’s wrong.”
“L-look at it. Look closely,” she whispered through trembling lips.
Ro bent his aged body towards the earth, bringing his face level with the ruined mell.
“How…?” His knees sunk into the soft, dark soil, eyes blinking rapidly as his mind worked furiously to comprehend the information it had received.
Though it had appeared as a tangle of rotting vegetation from a distance, what had taken root in the field could not be considered plant life. Not by any definition known to man. A complex crystalline lattice had replaced every snaking tendril and oval bloom. Despite the strengthening sun, the surface of the latticework appeared to absorb light rather than reflect it. But this thing was not inert. Oh, no. Before Ro’s terrified eyes, it slowly, constantly shifted and re-formed, rendering a continuous stream of new and infinitely intricate patterns.
It was alive.
2 – Rale
From a distance, the settlement appeared as a squat blister, possessively clinging to a vast stretch of horizon. Of course, the notion of anyone viewing the dome of polymer and metal from a far-off vantage point was completely absurd. It had been built millennia ago, a small pocket of warm breath carefully and completely sealed off from an otherwise desolate planet. A backdrop composed of dark vacuum and brave photons scratching their way along the fabric of the universe lent an air of loneliness to the scene. So palpable was this feeling, that it may have caused a fictional observer to pause and consider the fragile nature of biological life in an expanse composed entirely of harsh angles and impassible distances.
If any inquisitive mind had been able to equip themselves with adequate technology and venture outside the confines of the settlement, they might have found traces of former life clinging to the more remote corners of the planet’s rippled and pockmarked surface. There, beneath the frozen blue-grey dust and quiet cataclysm of shattered rock, secrets and curiosities lay dormant.
Not many of the structure’s inhabitants tended to concern themselves with these forgotten fragments of history, though. The reason for the dome’s existence, and its place in the planet’s narrative, have long since been lost. Questions such as “where did our home come from?” and “how did we get here?” were largely confined to the synapses responsible for wild stories and conspiracy theories. These were fit things to discuss after more than a few pints in the tavern, or when conjuring up tales to confound the impressionable minds of children at bedtime. However, the artificial illumination of day drained them of any potency and veracity they may have gained under the flickering cover of starlight.
A sharp-edged chirp shrilled through the cabin, neatly slicing the slender threads that bound Aya to the realm of unconsciousness.
Oh, Da. Already?
With a barely-suppressed groan, Aya turned on the narrow mattress and slammed an impatient hand on top of the alarm. The room fell abruptly silent, and in the resulting stillness, her consciousness teetered on the brink, ready to tumble back into slumber.
Nope, not today. I can’t be late again.
“Illuminate,” she croaked, attempting to rub the fatigue from her eyes. Soft yellow light warmed the room as she threw the thin sheet aside and swung her legs to the floor. The glow revealed the familiar muted grey bulkheads of her diminutive cabin. Every object in its place. A panel of fabric in the wall automatically raised, affording a narrow view of the vista beyond, heavily criss-crossed with thick metal bracing. The pale, distant sun had just started its march across the blackness, resembling an impossibly bright coin sparkling at the bottom of a well. Ripples of blue-grey stretched as far as Aya could see, eventually losing themselves over the curve of the horizon.
It’s so empty. All of this space, and nothing to fill it. Almost feels like an appropriate metaphor for my life.
As she hurriedly twisted her long, dark hair and pinned it into place, Aya contemplated her reflection in the mirror, twisting her head this way and that. Pale blue eyes, framed by fair skin and features that were just a little too blunt and too round for her liking gazed back.
Yep, same old face.
She pulled the standard loose-fitting tunic and trousers from the clothing slot next to her mattress, and quickly wriggled into them. Today they were grey, which caused a slight twinge of disappointment. She looked so much better when the clothing was blue. Skipping on one foot towards the door, she pulled her slippers on. One, two. She was going to have to pick up the pace if she wanted to catch the tram out of the Residential District to the Archive.
Rale Settlement was laid out in a rough oblong shape, divided into ten districts, though only five of them were currently in use. There was the Business District, Medical District, Entertainment District, Educational District, and Residential District, all neatly strung in a row along the lengthier side of the oval. The empty districts mirrored the active ones, and had clearly been intended for long-term population expansion. Children were somewhat rare in Rale, though. Few couples seemed to find the motivation to stay together long enough to raise another life, and with mandatory work duties, single parenting was all but unheard of.
Technically, the inactive districts were off-limits, though Aya had heard stories of misguided souls that had wandered off into the abyss. Personally, she’d never known anyone who would attempt such a foolish thing. Besides, those districts were largely unpowered, with no nutritional stations, active tram lines, sanitation facilities, or clothing dispensers.
A slender network of overhead tram lines connected all of the active districts, supplemented by elevated walkways. The walkways had become more necessary in the last few years, as certain sections of tram lines had succumbed to age and infirmity. Currently, the trams were running at about half-frequency, which was the main impetus for Aya’s hurry.
Stepping into the wide grey corridor, she rushed past several cabin doors, making her way to the nearest nutritional station at the central hub of her Living Section. The Residential District was divided into hundreds of such sections, each hub providing a convenient place to meet nutritional needs and catch a tram between districts.
Dammit, why does this always happen when I’m in a hurry?
Two of the nutritional dispensers at the hub appeared to be out of order, and a ragged queue of hungry, grey-clad people stretched from the other five.
Well, no time for that now.
Threading the irregular throng milling about the hub, Aya made her way to the tram station. By some minor miracle, the tram heading towards the Business District was still waiting, doors wide open.
Oh thank Da, finally some luck.
Jumping into the tram car, Aya settled into the hard, plastic seat, eyes closed, anticipating the day ahead. She knew that the hub malfunction was going to result in extra work at the Archive. Ostensibly, the Archive’s main purpose was to meticulously document every aspect of Rale, to keep a running history of the most minute details. This was what had initially inspired Aya to become an archivist. There was something appealing about preserving the existence of such a remarkable place for future generations. If a story is going to be told, it should be told correctly. She’d always believed that. She had also been intrigued by the history of Rale, with an insatiable desire to know just how much truth lay beyond the tales she’d been told as a child.
Lately though, she’d come to view her job with disgust. All she was doing was documenting the failures of a crumbling wreck. To Aya, it was akin to recording every single pulse of a palliative patient. And history? Effectively, Rale had no history. All hints as to its origin and purpose were either inaccessible, or housed in dead mechanical components. So, too, was the knowledge which would have allowed the inhabitants of Rale to repair or preserve the crumbling infrastructure.
We can document the failures, but we can’t fix them. It’s pointless. Less than pointless. All of our efforts are a means without an end.
“Now arriving at Archive-1,” a metallic female voice crackled from the speakers as the tram car slowed. The doors rumbled open, and Aya stepped onto the platform, hurrying towards the nearest walkway. Almost there.
Suddenly, a deafening roar enveloped the entire section. The sheer volume seemed to drive every molecule of air from Aya’s lungs as her feet lifted from the walkway. Eyes squeezed shut, she flailed blindly for something, anything to hold on to as her slight form tumbled along the narrow metal platform. The knuckles of her right hand grazed the walkway guardrail as she seized it with her left. Her hair whipped painfully at her face as she struggled to wrap both hands around the railing. The hysterical shriek and groan of an ancient alarm filled her ears. Even if she’d been able to scream, nobody would hear her.
A lurch and the sound of squealing metal warned her that the guardrail was about to give way. She managed to open her eyes for a fraction of a second, though she was unable to fully process what she saw. A crack, several hundred metres long, had formed in the staid outer shell of the district, and the precious atmosphere of Rale was rapidly escaping into the chill vacuum of space.
So this is how I die.
Starved of oxygen, Aya could feel her fingers beginning to relax of their own accord. A second unearthly scream caused her eyes to lurch open for another split-second. Incredibly, a rattling, sparking slab of metal was slowly descending along the wall from overhead, stemming the flow of atmosphere hemorrhaging outward.
After what felt like an eternity, the breach was fully sealed and normal pressure restored. Gasping for breath, shoulders and hands screaming with agony, Aya collapsed onto the floor of the damaged walkway.
Oh thank Da, I’m alive. Somehow. But what the ever-loving fuck could have caused such a massive rupture? And who knew there were such robust emergency systems in place? I sure as hell didn’t.
Limbs trembling, she hauled herself up and picked her way among other dazed and bloodied people towards the viewpoint at end of the walkway, determined to get a look at the emergency shield. A few feeble cries for help met her ears as she stumbled past, but they didn’t register. Her entire mind was solely focused on that shield.
I have to see it. I have to. This is something completely new, completely unprecedented in Rale. It must be recorded.
Leaning heavily on the guardrail, Aya peered downward towards the settlement floor. What appeared to be thick, black tendrils snaked their way across the ground, seemingly emanating from the bottom of the shield.
“What?” she gasped aloud, feebly rubbing her eyes as the world appeared to dance before her. Whatever those things were, they weren’t static or still.
They were growing.
3 – Seva
“Quiet! Quiet please,” Shian’s voice rose above the baritone rumble coursing through the tavern.
The undercurrent of tense chatter slowed slightly, but did not cease.
“Quiet!” the thump of a fist on wood.
Shian stood at the head of the table. It was long and irregularly shaped, hewn from a massive tree that had fallen during a severe winter storm more than a decade ago. Careful hands had polished it to the brightness of glass, and it had been placed in the tavern, eventually becoming a quasi-official gathering place for Pretan villagers.
Fingers tented on the lustrous yellow woodgrain, Shian paused a moment before addressing the twenty worried faces stretching down both sides of the table. Her erect posture and piercing gaze belied her advanced years. Only the deep lines crinkling the edges of her mouth and eyes hinted at the method by which she’d gained her formidable wisdom.
“So it’s been confirmed. A messenger from Mekin was sent to inform us that a field of their mell crops has also suffered the same strange sickness as ours. I hope that eliminates any lingering suspicions, gentlemen.”
A mutter turned a few unproductive circles around the room before settling down into doubtful silence.
“Well, if it wasn’t them, who did it then?” Ban, a middle-aged farmer with thinning black hair spoke deliberately. A worn gray-green waistcoat struggled to contain the expanding flesh at his middle.
“I don’t think we can blame anyone, Ban,” Shian responded. “Nobody from any of the villages we’ve sent messengers to even knows what this stuff is. You’ve seen the way it changes shape. You’ve been through our fields. You know that our sharpest blades can’t cut it, the strongest of our men cannot break it or remove it from the soil, and that fire doesn’t harm it. Whatever this is doesn’t even reflect the sunlight, for Da’s sake.”
“What are you saying, Shian?” Ban’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “That it’s some kind of curse from Da? Superstitious beliefs like that are better left in the past, you know.”
“Don’t put words in my mouth, Ban.” She held his gaze with her own. “I’ve said nothing of the sort. All I’m saying is that whatever this sickness is, it’s something Seva hasn’t seen before. Which means we can’t start turning on other villages, and tearing each other apart with idle and unfounded suspicions. If we’re to survive the cold season, we need to work together. All of us.”
“All of us, Ban.”
The farmer slumped back in his chair and folded his arms, though his eyes sparkled irefully in the lamplight. “You know, Shian, you seem a little eager to extend the hand of friendship to the other villages. It’s almost as if you’ve forgotten what Mekin did to us five cold seasons ago. They nearly ruined us. And now you want to share what little resources we have left with them? Just because one of their fields appears to be infected too? I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds that hard to believe.”
“If you have an accusation to make, feel free to speak openly.” Shian’s voice was devoid of all tone.
“Oh, no accusation at all. I’m just trying to keep a level head, here. When the leader of our village starts speaking of fanciful new sicknesses, possibly from other worlds, and the need to share resources with people who would probably gladly see us dead, well, I can’t help but feel a little… unsettled.” A half-smothered sneer curled Ban’s thin lips.
“We all feel unsettled, Ban. Every one of us. And not just in Preta either. I can assure you that I’m examining all possibilities.”
“All except the most logical one,” Ban retorted. He stood. “Forgive me, but until it’s been conclusively proven that absolutely no one from another village was involved, I will not be able to rest easy with your sharing plan. If we ration our own crops carefully, we’ll have just about enough to see us through the cold season.”
“Just about enough, Ban. But not quite. Mekin has already agreed to send several sheaves of kavea in exchange for a few cords of cenwood to fuel their machinery. You would have Pretan villagers starve for your pride and suspicion?”
“I would rather starve than cooperate with traitors!” Ban’s voice swelled with anger. “And as for the other villages, let them rot.” Turning on his heel, Ban threw open the door of the tavern and made his exit, blazing emotion dissipating into the chill of night.
“Well. It would appear that we are done for the evening,” Shian spoke quietly in the ensuing pause. “Until next rotation, gentlemen.”
Hand in hand, Shian and Ro wound their way through the darkness towards home. The grim silence was punctuated only by the crunch of gravel under their boots.
“That argument with Ban is going to cause trouble, Shian,” Ro piped up.
“Will it? Ban is nothing but a stubborn, narrow-minded fool who cannot see anything beyond his own pasture. His little tantrum tonight only proved it.”
“Maybe, but he’s still respected in Preta. And though the others may not be as outspoken as he is, those same fears are concealed in their hearts as well.” Ro glanced up at Shian.
Her jaw tightened. “So what would you have me do, Ro? Allow people to starve to death? Give in to hysterical suspicions and start leveling accusations at our neighbours? I won’t do it. Logic must prevail. Preta must survive the cold season.” Shian’s voice was taut.
“Nobody’s asking you to do anything like that, Shian,” Ro gently responded. “But you have to remember, not everyone sees things the way you do. People are scared, and logic doesn’t always provide comfort or faith.”
Shian stopped on the narrow track. “I’m afraid too, Ro. Afraid of what this sickness might mean for Seva, afraid that people will suffer, afraid that I might fail our village by making the wrong decision. But I can’t reveal that to people like Ban. All I have in a situation like this is logic. I –”
Footsteps and a clatter of stones rang out behind them.
“Ms. Shian! Ms. Shian! Oh Da, it’s horrible!”
A young boy skidded to a halt, wide-eyed and out of breath. His youthful features were distended by fear, and his legs trembled beneath him. Shian recognized him as the messenger that had been previously sent from Mekin.
“What is it, Tem?”
“The kavea crops!” he gasped. “They’re gone. All gone. The sickness got them, too. We have nothing left.” He began to cry.
Shian straightened, her features still and blanched. As if on cue, a cold wind swept along the open roadway. She felt defenseless. Exposed. The cold season was drawing closer, and Preta’s nearest lifeline had just been severed.