Gods AbovePeter David
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The Old Father was amused.
From his place of exile, he looked out upon the insanity that his children had wreaked and the havoc that they were in the process of spreading, and he could only marvel at what he beheld. He wasn’t certain whether to be proud of them for having learned from him so well, or ashamed because of what they had learned. He opted for both and, since he was vast and contained multitudes, did not consider holding the two to be mutually contradictory.
His children had been very, very busy. They had returned to a cosmos that had considered them legend—gods from the times of ancient Greeks and Romans and Egyptians and Norsemen—and endeavored to gather in one of their own…a half-breed, a genetic throwback, who had grown up in the so-called real world under the name of Mark McHenry.
McHenry had chosen an odd path, as an officer aboard a spacegoing vessel, the Excalibur. The Old Father remembered when he had first seen such vessels launching themselves into the abyss, with the same verve and confidence that such heroes as Ulysses or the Argonauts had displayed when first taking to sea. Certainly the latter had been as vast and daunting to those explorers as the former was to these intrepid souls. Impressive, the potential for disaster remained equal for both.
And disaster had indeed presented itself. It hadn’t seemed so at first. They had been investigating a section of space they termed Zone 18 Alpha. (Funny, the continued obsessions of the little creatures. They needed to name everything. Everything. It had always been that way with them. They could not handle anything, from new lands to new diseases to new offspring, until they found something to call it.) And in Zone 18 Alpha, they had discovered McHenry’s former lover, the child Artemis. She desired to take up with McHenry once more. She also desired, on behalf of her kind—the “Beings” was all they referred to themselves as—to allow all races within the United Federation of Planets to partake of the sacred ambrosia. To bestow upon all beings a new, great golden age of health and wisdom and achievement. But McHenry did not trust her, and informed his commander—a noble sort called Calhoun—of his trepidation. This earned him the wrath not only of Artemis but her kin, and the Excalibur was beset by the god children in their stunningly impressive vessels, hurtling through space but looking for all the world like ancient triremes. It was a lively battle, terminated by the arrival of the Excalibur’s sister ship, the Trident, under the command of one Elizabeth Shelby. But the battle was not without cost, as it appeared to claim two lives: McHenry, and the woman of nearly immortal lineage herself who was named Morgan Primus. Their bodies were burned and wounded nearly beyond recognition, or any sign of life. Although life, as the Old Father had discovered, had a way of constantly surprising one.
Ah, the Trident. A vessel with nearly as much stimulating activities as the Excalibur. The Trident had had its own mission, to travel to the world of the Danteri. The Danteri, an aggressive and combative race that desired to revive the fallen Thallonian Empire, with former royalty Si Cwan as figurehead. The Trident had brought the so-called Lord Cwan to the Danteri, along with his sister, Kalinda. There they had agreed to take the Danteri up on their offer, much to the annoyance and dismay of the Trident personnel in general and one Robin Lefler—daughter of the deceased Morgan Primus—in particular. But the business of reigniting an empire soured for Lord Cwan…particularly when the Danteri speaker of the senate, Lodec, found a new and even more intriguing ally: the god child Anubis, renowned by the Egyptians as the harbinger of death. Anubis, who even now confronts Si Cwan, preparing to remove what might be a potential impediment to the worship that the god children seek as price for their precious ambrosia.
The Old Father smiled a tired smile to himself. There were other activities as well on board the ships, activities that would lead to nothing but heartache and death, as always. As always. For all their sophistication, for all their advancement, they remained consistently and depressingly the same. No wonder the departed god child Apollo had thought he could compel earlier versions of these space voyagers to bow down before him. For all they thought they had left their primitive origins behind, they had really accomplished nothing but to introduce their own absurdities to a universe that looked on in stunned amazement.
“What fools these mortals be,” said the Old Father, and only one heard him, and looked but saw but did not see.
NEVER FOR AN INSTANT had Si Cwan thought he would find himself helpless before Lodec, the senate speaker of Danter. The powerfully built Thallonian stood a head taller than Lodec, and was younger, in far better shape, and one of the most fearsome and deadly fighters ever bred in the history of Thallonian royalty.
So it was that he had been astounded to discover himself in Lodec’s palatial estate being held high up, up off his feet, dangling in the air, as the much shorter Lodec held him there. Unable to draw in air, Si Cwan could only gag. His hands clamped around Lodec’s arm, trying to twist it free, but he felt corded muscle beneath Lodec’s sleeve that had not been there only a few days earlier.
Kalinda let out an infuriated cry and tried to come to his aid, but the other senators intervened and held her back with no effort.
Lodec’s smile was affixed upon his face, spreading wider as he drank in Si Cwan’s helplessness. “In case you have not yet figured it out, Lord Cwan…we were willing to present ourselves as test cases for the ambrosia. And we are able to give firsthand testimony as to its effectiveness…as I’m sure you now can, as well. Oh…and here is our benefactor now.”
A shadow fell upon Si Cwan as he saw a monstrous creature coming toward him. Kalinda had described the being to Cwan as eight feet tall, skin like ebony, face like some sort of vicious jackal’s. Evocative of one of the Dogs of War, but far more terrifying. She had not exaggerated in her estimation; he was just as Kalinda had described him, and his eyes burned with fiery scorn as he gazed upon Si Cwan.
Si Cwan fought desperately to break loose, but the inability to breathe hampered him severely. He dangled there from Lodec’s grip, helpless as a babe, and the world seemed to be growing dark around him.
“I know, I know,” Lodec was saying. “This prospect of ‘worship’ and such…it seems absurd. But Anubis explained to us their specific desires, and we’ve discussed it, and we felt, truly: What is the harm? The problem was, we suspected that your pride would make it impossible for you to accept, which was why we had to keep you excluded from many of these meetings…and it turns out we were correct in our assumptions. But I say again: What is the harm of a bit of worship? We tell them what they want to hear. We have prayer meetings and such…and in the meantime they provide us and our allies with this remarkable substance.”
Anubis moved closer in toward Si Cwan, an unobstructed path to Si Cwan’s face, and his jaws opened wide, and the warm, fetid breath washed over him. And as blackness closed upon Si Cwan, the last thing he heard
was Lodec’s gently mocking voice inquiring, “Come now, Lord Cwan, honestly…would it harm us…to gather a few laurel leaves?”
And then Si Cwan was jolted back to awareness when he hit the floor. He had no idea what had caused it to happen. All he knew was that one moment he was firmly in Lodec’s grasp, and the next he was on the ground, gasping, the world swimming before his blurred vision.
There was a roaring in his ears from the blood deep within, and then it started to fade, only to be replaced by screaming. It was Lodec’s voice doing the screaming, which couldn’t have suited Si Cwan more.
What Si Cwan could not comprehend, though, was why Lodec’s hand was still squeezing his throat. Then his vision began to clear and he instantly understood. Lodec’s hand was no longer attached to his arm.
The senate speaker of the Danteri was clutching the stub of his right arm, staring in horror at the blood which was fountaining from the end of it. His face was becoming a paler shade of bronze, and his eyes looked like they were glassing over. The fingers were still clutching spasmodically on Si Cwan’s throat, and the Thallonian quickly pried the hand away and tossed it, still quivering, on the ground nearby.
The other senators had a collectively stunned expression on their faces, but Cwan was also struck by what they no longer had: specifically, Kalinda in their grasp. The Thallonian princess was standing several feet away, and she was holding a golden, shimmering, curved cutting tool. The cutting edge was dripping with a thick liquid that was the same color as the blood pouring out of Lodec’s stump, and Si Cwan did not require a map to be drawn for him to figure out what had just happened.
Whereas earlier Kalinda had been tentative and even daunted by the prospect of facing down the difficult Danteri senators in Lodec’s home grounds, there was now no trace of fear in her at all. The contemplation of difficulty, it seemed, had been far more problematic for her than being faced with the actual difficulty itself. Now that the danger was thrust upon them, she was completely focused on finding a way out of it, and whatever concerns for herself she might have had been shunted aside.
Si Cwan felt a swell of pride in his sister, even as he wondered where in the world she had gotten the cutting implement from.
The answer was not long in coming as the feral-faced creature called Anubis took a step forward. Kalinda swiveled in place, keeping a distance between the two of them, holding the blade level so that any attempt to come in at her quickly would result in the same sort of dismemberment that Lodec had experienced. Lodec, for his part, had sunk to his knees, his screams reduced to faint whimpers. The other senators made a motion toward her, but a quick flick of the instrument in their direction froze them where they stood. “I’d stay where I was if I were you, Senators,” Kalinda said in frozen tones, “lest you lose other, more valuable parts.”
Anubis likewise ceased any forward motion, but unlike the others, he did not seem particularly intimidated. Indeed, his red eyes burned again, but this time with what seemed a sort of vague amusement. He spoke, his voice low and gravelly, and his long, pointed teeth clicking together slightly. “That is my scythe,” he informed her.
“I know,” Kalinda said matter-of-factly. Si Cwan truly admired her icy demeanor, for when she had spoken earlier of merely seeing Anubis in passing, she had had such dread in her voice as Cwan had never known. He suspected it was taking all the self-control she possessed to keep herself together in the face of this…this whatever it was. “It was hanging from just behind your hip.”
A weapon. He’d had a weapon on him, and Cwan hadn’t seen it, else he might have tried to grab it himself. Then again, considering he was being choked at the time, it was probably understandable that he’d missed it considering it was dangling out of immediate sight behind him. But not, obviously, out of Kalinda’s sight.
“So you shook free from your captors and grabbed it from me. Very resourceful,” said Anubis. He was studying her with such intensity that it seemed as if his gaze were dissecting her. “There is more to you than meets the eye, I suspect.”
“And less to you, I’d say,” shot back Kalinda. Si Cwan had detected some slight trembling in her hands earlier as she held the scythe, but now it was rock steady.
She abruptly took a step toward Anubis, thrusting the scythe forward. The jackal-headed god did not flinch, but his eyes narrowed in what now seemed annoyance. It appeared that Kalinda’s amusement value to him was wearing thin.
“You have potential, child. But not as much as you think.” Then Lodec’s whimpering from nearby distracted him, and Anubis turned his attention to the injured Danteri with poorly disguised annoyance. “Cease your carrying-on. Pick up the hand. Hold it against your wrist.”
Lodec did as he was instructed. He did so very tentatively, however, apparently appalled by the notion of touching his own severed hand. Anubis, seeming for all the world as if he’d forgotten that Kalinda was standing there—or perhaps he simply no longer cared—strode over toward the fallen Lodec and produced a small vial from the belt of his kilt. A thick, viscous green liquid was within, and he upended it so that it poured down upon the separation between hand and arm. Lodec let out another scream then, and this one made the earlier seem a mild squeak in comparison. There was a loud sizzling, like meat being cooked up, and the aroma almost triggered Cwan’s gag reflex. He was relieved he was able to squelch it in time; vomiting before one’s enemies was never a good idea.
“Stop your yowling,” commanded Anubis, and Lodec did the best he could. He sank his teeth into his lower lip and once again confined his pain to whimpering noises. As he did so, however, he was staring fixedly and with amazement at the point where he had pressed his hand against his arm. The tissue appeared to be reknitting, and there was already some movement visible at the ends of his fingers. “You see? You see how we take care of those who treat us properly?” continued Anubis, and Lodec managed a nod. “Good. I do not suggest you forget.”
“I will not, High One,” stammered Lodec in gratitude.
But Anubis had already forgotten about him, instead turning his attention once more to Kalinda. He cast a brief glance at Si Cwan as if trying to determine whether the Thallonian nobleman was worth further time, and obviously decided he wasn’t. “You trade in the ways of the dead, as I do. That gives us some common ground,” he growled. “And you did catch me unawares. You tricked me. I do appreciate a good trick, more than any others who live might. But do not, however, think that it gives us so much commonality that I will hesitate to treat you as anything other than an enemy.”
“Nor we, you,” Si Cwan said, rallying. He moved to Kalinda’s side, keeping a wary eye on the other senators. Cowed they might be by current circumstances, but Si Cwan had not forgotten for a moment the inordinate strength that had flowed through Lodec’s limbs.
Nearby was a fountain with a statue of a Danteri warrior wielding a sword. Si Cwan did not hesitate. He lashed out with a powerful thrust of his right foot and slammed into the base of the stone sword where it was held by the warrior. The stone cracked under the impact and shattered, and Si Cwan caught the stone sword with one deft grab. It was far weightier than any real blade, of course, but that was all to Cwan’s liking. If he swung it, anything of flesh and bone that it came into contact with would instantly be crushed by it. Water gurgled out of the broken-open hole.
“Very impressive,” commented Anubis, although he did not sound especially impressed. He was still watching Kalinda warily. “It is a pity. You could have been a most useful ally.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” replied Si Cwan. He swung the stone sword in a leisurely arc, causing the other senators to step further back. It gave Cwan a good deal of pleasure, seeing them hesitate in that way. If there was one thing he had learned long ago, it was that there was far more to dominating a situation than just having superior physical strength. Not that Cwan was ready to concede that they were superior to him. But they were obviously far less anxious to put self-defense capabilities to the test than he was.
“I suspect that Kalinda and I would be far too much in the way of independent thinkers to fall in line with whatever it is you’re planning. Which, by the way, would be…?”
Anubis made a sound that Cwan suspected was supposed to be vaguely akin to a laugh. But only vaguely. True laughter was infectious. This was a sound that was infectious in the same way that plague was.
“You seek some deep, hidden ‘true plan,’ ” Anubis observed. He was not moving at all now, not flexing so much as a single muscle in his body. If he hadn’t been speaking, he would have looked like a statue carved from ebony. “My clan and I have never been anything less than forthright. We wish to provide ambrosia to bring out a golden age of mankind. My kin offered it to your captain…” He paused, as if endeavoring to pluck a name out of the ether. “Calhoun,” he said finally, as if someone had whispered it to him as a prompt. “He was encouraged to refuse us. That was…unwise.”
“Unwise. What are you saying?” Si Cwan’s eyes narrowed, and he gripped the makeshift sword more tightly.
Suddenly he saw movement with his peripheral vision. Without even taking his gaze from Anubis, he whipped the stone sword around under his arm and slammed it into the pit of one of the senator’s stomachs. The man had tried to come up behind him. It had not gone well for him; with one swing, Si Cwan had done the man some serious damage, and he was now on the ground with his arms wrapped around his middle. Si Cwan suspected he might have broken several of the Danteri’s ribs. He did not, however, care. His concerns were focused instead on the implicit threat he had just heard. “In what way unwise?” he continued.
“Let us say they have been dealt with,” said Anubis.
“Let us say more than that,” Si Cwan said dangerously, and started forward.
But Kalinda’s sharp “Don’t move, Cwan” froze him in midstep. He looked at her, scowling, and she met his gaze with a warning one of her own. Immediately he realized what she was trying to put across to him: that continuing this challenge was not the wisest course of action. Anubis had made no further move toward them, but he was still coiled, ready to spring. And the fact that one senator was down with some broken bones and Lodec was just recovering use of his hand didn’t render the other two less dangerous, or the entire situation less fraught with peril. Also, for all they knew, other senators or even soldiers might show up as reinforcements. Matters were being held together at that moment through only the most tenuous of circumstances, and the more they prolonged it, the worse it would go for them.