Dark AlliesPeter David
"Mr. McHenry, get us out of here… !"
… Captain Calhoun shouted. "We're going to try and shake that thing loose."
McHenry didn't move. He was staring, stunned, at the blackened screen.
"I … I can't," McHenry said.
"What do you mean, can't?" Calhoun was out of his command chair, standing next to McHenry, looking down at him in surprise. "I've seen you fly this ship virtually blindfolded. You piloted her without instrumentation. You're the one who's constantly in tune with his environment. This shouldn't be any different for you."
He had never seen McHenry look so lost. "Sir, something about its motion … it's disrupting space/time. I feel completely disoriented. I'm not sure why it's happening, but I can't get any sort of… mental lock on where we are and where we should be. I don't know which way to take us. I could fly into a star and kill us all…"
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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ROLISA WAS THE GREATEST WORLDin all of the known galaxy.
It had started slowly, and certainly when one looked at the world's earliest years, no one could possibly have seen it coming. The Rolisans seemed a rather unremarkable people. Rolisa was not particularly lush nor attractive. It was not strategically located. It had no resources that anyone found attractive, and the Rolisans were mostly known for being of somewhat sturdy stock, but not much else.
Who knew that there would be a woman named Tara (that was as far back as the ancestry could be traced) who would sire a child named Arango, who in turn begat Izzo, who begat Faicco the Small. Faicco the Small turned out to be not only one of the greatest thinkers of Rolisa's history, but in fact one of the greatest thinkers in the history of the quadrant. She took to lecturing, putting forward philosophies and directions on how to live a good life that were so pure, so unique in all of recorded history, that strong men wept and women would dissolve in paroxysms of ecstasy. Word of Faicco spread; eventually Faicco had two children, a boy, Milenko, and a girl, Blaymore, who shared Faicco's gift. They went throughout their home sector, and word of their teachings spread, carrying across the spaceways like glittering dust.
Soon, races from all over the known galaxy were flocking to hear their words. Means of communication being what they were, their words reached places that never would have known such thoughts and concepts were possible.
Different races fell over each other to show their gratitude by making pilgrimages to Rolisa itself, the birthplace of the greatest sages known in the history of sentient life. Rewards, technology and gifts were rained upon the citizens of Rolisa. Unlike other instances in the past where races were overwhelmed by such advancements, the hardy folk of Rolisa rose to the task. They built upon what was given them, taking things in new and unexpected directions. Rolisa grew in stature, wealth and power—but power used always for the common benefit, never for destruction. Rolisa became the model of civilization for all, likened to such ancient and lost realms as Atlantis and Ko'norr'k'aree. But Rolisa was not legendary; it was real, gloriously real.
Once begun, the wave of glory rolled over the known galaxy, unstoppable, and who would have wanted it stopped? Within two hundred years, as the descendants of Faicco, Milenko and Blaymore continued their ancestors' great work, it was a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity. Unthinkable, unbelievable as it seemed, there was no war, anywhere. All races, from the least to the most advanced, had simply outgrown it. And no one knew that it was only the beginning. Well… no one except such elevated races as the Organians, for they knew that soon (soon being reckoned as Organians reckoned such things) all of that which was considered mortal would rise to their level.
And many millennia hence, that was exactly what happened.
And lo … there was glory everlasting, forevermore.
In another universe.
"Universe" is a misnomer, for all of creation is, in fact, comprised of a vast and wondrous multiverse, where many possibilities can occur. In one universe, the humble world of Rolisa was the birthplace of a great and transcendent fate for all of life …
… because, by an evolutionary quirk, the Black Mass did not exist in that universe.
Here is what happened in a universe where it did exist…
Tara let out a screech as her stomach swelled almost to bursting. The doctor crouched next to her, clutching her dark blue hand tightly, and said, "Now breathe steadily … that's it… that's it…"
She groaned. "It's easy for you to say I should breathe easily. You're not the one who feels as if a million needles were being jammed into every pore of the body. You're not the one who has been carrying this gradually growing lump of flesh in your belly for the past eleven months. Who in Krod are you to say breathe steadily?" She tried to sit up, couldn't, and fell back like a beached fish. "I'm trying to remember just why in the world I ever thought this was a good idea, and nothing immediately comes to mind. Where is my mate? Where is he?" she demanded.
"He would be here if he could," said the doctor soothingly.
"Why isn't he?"
"Because he wanted to be somewhere else," the doctor told her, and then let out a yelp as she squeezed his fingers so hard that it threatened to snap them off. The vents in his throat flapped quickly as he sucked in air to prevent further unprofessional vocalizations of pain. He forced a grimace and said, "Is that helping you… feel the pain less?"
"No," snarled Tara. "But making you suffer is helping me feel better."
"Whatever… works for you, then," he said gamely. "And if you break off some of my fingers… that's… that's fine. I can always… grow new ones. It's a long and…somewhat agonizing process… but I just want my patients … to be …unhhhh… happy . . "
"Right now, I'm ecstatic—arrrhhhhh!"
That high-pitched scream signalled the final moments of the birth. Her outburst echoed to the sky, which was not surprising considering they were outdoors. That was the traditional and preferred venue of a Rolisan birth, since it was felt that if a child is coming into the world, then the child should actually be exposed to that world as soon as possible. Tara had picked a rather nice area, actually, a peaceful wooded site not far from her house. The doctor had had no trouble finding it, which was rather fortunate. He was also grateful that there was nice weather for this birth, since births in the rain or snow were always such an unpleasant chore. Indeed, Tara could not have picked a finer day, or a more glorious moment in that day. The hottest part of the afternoon was already gone. The sun was lowering on the horizon, but there was still plenty of light, with just enough shade to add to the coolness. He had hardly had to dab any sweat from her forehead.
; The vent across her belly widened for the last push, and her body trembled in the labor throes. One more shove and then the newborn child popped out of the birth sac at the usual high speed. In this case, the doctor nearly missed the child completely, since one of his hands was still in Tara's grasp. But he snagged the speeding infant at the last moment. "Got him!" he called, the traditional exclamation that a doctor gave when the newborn had been successfully snagged.
The declaration penetrated some of the haze in Tara's poor brain, the pain only just subsiding. "Got him … ? Your… your hand! Oh, my Krod, I'm so sorry! I was crushing … and … and you needed … andI…"
"It's all right, it's all right. I'm used to it. Professional hazard." He shook out the newly released hand, restoring some of the circulation to it. "Actually, I suppose I should be grateful. I can assure you, I've been grabbed in far more delicate places than that."
"And it's a him? A boy? You're certain?"
"I don't pretend to know everything about everything, but even my medical training can distinguish that, yes."
She laughed, which was a surprising sound for her to hear from herself, considering the shrieking and string of profanity that she'd been letting fly moments before. "And his color? His color is good?"
"This is without question the most stunningly blue child I've ever seen. He couldn't be healthier."
"Let me see." She stretched out her arms, waggled her fingers. "Let me see … please …"
"All right, all right," and now he was the one who was laughing. "Here." He handed the child over to the eager mother and she took him in her arms with an almost ferocious attitude. The membranes on his neck were fluttering very nicely, and with a graceful, extended finger she traced the line of his face, his eyes which were not yet open (but would be within minutes). He made a small mewling sound and she jumped slightly on hearing it, and then laughed at her own reaction.
"Do you have a name picked out?" he asked.
"Arango," she said immediately. "I shall call him Arango."
"A very nice name. Rather popular this year, too, I believe."
"That doesn't matter," was her firm reply. Her agony of a short time ago already forgotten, she tried to prop herself up. He eased her to sitting as she drew the child closer into her lap. The stressed vent in her stomach had already sealed itself up, the automatic healing process commencing reliably on its own. "I had visions, doctor."
"Visions?" he asked. "What sort of visions?"
"He's going to go on to great things," she said. "And not just him. His children, and his children's children, and … oh, doctor. I just know it."
"Of course they are, Tara."
"You're laughing at me," she said with a slight pout.
"No, I'm not."
"You are," she remonstrated. "Let me guess: you've heard this from more mothers than you can count. We all speak of how wonderful and incredible our children are going to be, and we're all fools because we're setting ourselves up with such high expectations that no children can possibly live up to them."
"Well, now, Tara, you said that. I didn't." He glanced toward the sky, mildly surprised. It was getting darker earlier than it usually did.
"You didn't have to. And I admit, doctor, that most of the time… you're right. All those new mothers, they are being unreasonable. They don't know what they're talking about."
"But you do."
"Absolutely. Little Arango… he has a place in things. It may not be a big piece of the puzzle, but it's a piece nonetheless. And it's going to have ramifications beyond this world, I'm telling you."
"Oh, now, Tara, let's not start that again," he said scoldingly. "I've been your doctor ever since you were a little girl, and we've always had these discussions." As he spoke, he tried not to sound distracted, because he saw that he wasn't imagining it. It really was getting dark far too early to be normal. An eclipse, perhaps? But such an event would certainly have made the news, and there had been no word of such. He tried not to be alarmed about it, though. There really was no reason to be. It's not as if it was the end of the world, just because the sun was setting faster. "As much as I would like to indulge your fantasies about meeting up with alien life forms some day, I have to admit I'm somewhat the skeptic."
"There are the legends …"
"Yes, yes. The Red Gods. They who come from the sky and return to the sky at will." He shook his head.
"As you say … legends."
"Or visitors from outer space," she said insistently. She tickled under Arango's chin. The baby scrunched it up automatically. "Perhaps Arango will find out. Arango or one of his children's children's children, right, my precious? My love?" Then she gasped in delight. "Doctor!"
"His eyes! They've opened. Aren't they beautiful? Quickly, what's he looking at? They say the first thing a child looks at will be a tremendous influence in his life."
"The 'they' who say that are mothers, and the reason they say that is obvious, don't you think?" said the doctor.
"You," she said archly, "have no romance in you at all. No sense of wonder, no…" Her voice trailed off and with clear disappointment, she said, "Ohhh … he isn't looking at me."
"And here I thought you said mothers weren't the ones who came up with that superstition. So where is he looking?"
"Skyward. Just straight up, at…"
Once more she lapsed into silence, but this time it wasn't simply tapering off into quiet. This time her voice sounded more choked off. Confused, the doctor looked up to try and get a feel for what the child was looking at.
"The sky …" she whispered in low, uncomprehending horror. "The sky … it's … it's moving …"
The sky was darkening, faster and faster. Something huge was blocking out the sun… no. No, beyond huge. It enveloped the entire horizon. And the reason that Tara had said it was moving … was because it was.
Something dark had entered the skies above Rolisa, something very dark. The rays of the sun were trying to punch through, but were failing. And in the few areas where sunlight was visible, they were quickly closing up, as if the planetary curtain being drawn over Rolisa was getting tighter and tighter. Day was becoming night without the usual niceties of the planet turning on its axis. Something, some … thing … was eating the sky.
And it was indeed moving. Not just moving … undulating. It was still miles off, but it was drawing steadily closer, and whatever it was looked—even from this distance—like a huge mass of intertwined threads. The light was completely gone now. There was only the mass, drawing closer, becoming blacker, and eerily silent. It seemed as if such an occurrence should be accompanied by some sort of noise, but there was nothing. Only the silence.
The threads were continuing to move, twining and untwining, slithering, pulsating …
"Oh my Krod… it's alive," she whispered. "Whatever it is, it's alive."
"That impossible," said the doctor with a distinct lack of conviction. "Whatever that is, it's not part of nature. It can't be alive. It has to be a … a …"
"A what?" she demanded. She didn't sound as if she was being challenging. Instead, more than anything, she sounded like someone who desperately wanted some sort of explanation that made anything remotely resembling sense.
"Let's get back to the house," he said urgently, not trying to answer. What purpose was there in endeavoring to come up with a reply. He had none to give, no real clue. The only thing he wanted to make certain of was that they weren't in the open when it hit. And it was going to hit, of that he was quite certain. What it was going to do once it got there, he had no clue, but he knew he didn't want to be outside to find out.
"Hurry. Hurry!" he urged her. Normally he would never have dreamt of speaking so to a woman who had just given birth, or forcing her to stand. But now he took one of her arms and draped it over his shoulders, hauling her to her feet as she held her baby tight with her other arm. He didn't give her any opportunity to delay or drag her feet. Instead he half-pulled, half-
carried her along the ground, hauling her toward her unassuming house.
The mass drew closer. Its individual components were becoming more and more evident. It was unquestionably creatures, individual creatures, interlaced with one another. His rational, scientific mind told him that was not possible. Because science had made far too convincing a case against there being any such things as creatures from outer space. And if this cloud was what it seemed to be, then it was something extraterrestrial. Something beyond the understanding of everyday science.
The notion that there might be anything beyond that which was already known was utterly terrifying to him.
He had no intention of letting her sense his fear. For her, he was going to be brave and determined and fixed on the not-inconsiderable task of getting them to safety.
They made their way to her house, and the mass was coming faster. He wouldn't have thought it possible, that something that far away could approach that quickly. The house was just ahead. There, there would be safety and explanations. There he would put on the vidnews, and they would explain the nature of this … this mass hallucination, yes, that had to be it. A trick of light, or swamp gas, or some similar rational explanation would be put forward, and they would all laugh about it by tomorrow and go on with their lives.
He shoved her into the house, barred the door, just in case it wasn't something completely laughable. "Let's watch the vidnews," he said quickly. "See what's happening."
She tried to turn it on. Nothing happened. The vid remained silent. There was a visual, but it was a sign that just told them that there were technical problems which were being dealt with as expeditiously as possible.
"Don't worry. They'll get it fixed shortly," said the doctor with an impressive amount of certainty, all things considered. "These things always work out in the end."
There was a sudden rushing of air, and for some reason that the doctor never quite understood, there was a sense of heaviness all around. He turned to her, was about to speak…