Story by James Todd Lewis
(c) All characters copyright of James Todd Lewis (2017)
The battle-hardened Archons of Light stood valiantly upon the surface of Suriana Six, their long purple robes trimmed in gold billowing in the wind over their mystical armor plating, imbued with the primal energies they had learned to draw from the natural universe. Ten thousand strong, they were accompanied by a far greater number of regular soldiers from the Core Worlds who had pledged themselves to this noble and desperate cause. Overhead, the massive defense carriers were – even now – in a tenuous stand-off against their enemies, the murderous Hordes of Darkness from the outer rim. Each side was able to cast a barrier of protection over their own soldiers on the ground but unable to push beyond the shields of their opponents. They grappled like strong men, each unable to gain against his opponent or disengage to try another tack. On the ground, the dark legions were likewise ranged on the other side of the barren desert plain, standing as they on the low ridges which had once been verdant with plants too thick to walk through, now only grassless crags and rocks. This was the prime focal point. This was the dead center of the war. This was the crucible.
Holding their legendary staff weapons beside them, the Archons stood stoic and unwavering with almost perfect unanimity upon their holy duty, the elimination of the betrayers who had assassinated the leaders of the peace-loving peoples of the galaxy. That act of unprecedented betrayal was what threw then, those who lived in the bright center of the galaxy, into a civil war with those who lived along its darkened edges. Hundreds of billions had fallen, and the two spiral arms which connected the inner part of the galaxy with the mass of stars in the ring beyond were littered with the dead – dead planets, dead animals, dead people, and dead worlds. All had been slain in the conflict.
Trans-phasic charges had been detonated during the war in such a way that these barren worlds formed a line which spacecraft could not cross less they slip into an alternate dimension and perish forever. On the opposite side of the galaxy, the Salneas Arm had actually been cut in two by this method forming a demilitarized zone which neither side could cross. The technology for both sides’ faster than light ships required an anchor system to home in on, and with the obliteration of these stabile anchor points, there was no hope of breaching the Salneas Divide, as it was called.
Now, here in this frail backwater, the fate of the galaxy wrested upon the one anchor point still remaining, the Suriana system. The Archons of Light were trying to preserve this planet as their holding while those of the Dark Horde sought to take possession of it. Ownership and fortification of the anchor point, the bridgehead, meant protection and profound advantage for the victor, and desperate vulnerability for whoever lost this world. On this day, whatever ground force could advance far enough along the surface to set up weaponry beneath their opponents’ ships would tilt the balance of power, routing the enemy and making them flee out of the system.
Time was precious. Both sides had called for help, and both sides had reinforcements coming. No one knew whose would arrive first nor how many their opponent was able to summon. The matter had come down to this day, to this hour, to these few precious minutes upon this dusty dry world. A young Surian, his almost ovoid green body topped with an inverted triangle of a head, stood nervously on the front line of the Archon force, hoping to defend this, his home.
With the war, so many had fled their worlds but the Surians couldn’t leave. Deep within their world was a sacred crystal which helped keep them alive, and so, trapped as they were, the already scarce population fled to cower in the underground caverns, trying to subsist on the plants they could grow there and the scarce water remaining. Of his entire species, only this single young Surian had been off world, a small fragment of the crystal magically imbued with power helped to sustain him. The Surian named Jannar had felt lost and mentally weak most of the time he was away, but he had wanted to fight in the war, wanted to help. He wanted to protect his world and keep this day from happening.
Now, to his horror, that day had come. Those who longed for no other victory than to destroy his kind and take possession of their world faced them, their brutal and crude weapons readied for a charge into the valley that would be certainly and decisively answered by the Archons. A war which had spanned twenty years and nearly the entirety of their galaxy would be decided not by great space battles, not by amazing and daunting weaponry. It would be decided in a ruthless clash of hand-to-hand combat echoing those battles from the distant past of this now galactic species.
It was only a matter of moments, tender remaining moments of life where Jannar just knew his end would come. He looked up into the elderly face of Toraldar, an individual who answered any argument or any question with only one word, a single word, and then destiny would be set upon its course. He was legend – Grand Master of the Archons, Toraldar the Wise, Wisest of the Age. It was what he was known for; it was what he was renowned for. Jannar wondered what word would come from his lips, now, and what would happen to his own kind, the Surians – his mother and father, his frail little brother, Tebbie.
The dark leader on the other side of the plain, standing so close that Jannar could almost read his expression, raised his brutally curved and serrated sword in defiance of his quiet enemy and was accompanied by the banging of their deadly rail guns on vicious looking shields by the thousands upon thousands facing them. The young mage prodigy standing to the other side of Jannar cursed. “The insolence of them! Hare dare they even stand upon this ground let alone call to us in defiance! What are we to do?”
Janner knew this one, Kinnea – hot headed and brutal although still holding to the tenants of the Archons of Light. She was amazingly talented and had even taken to trying to teach and reassure Jannar during his sojourn with the Archons. She, as Jannar, looked expectantly towards their leader, to the wisest of them all, for what his response would be. Would the word be stand, to hold the line? Would it be patience? Would it be to return their own cry of righteous defiance against their foes? Would it be to attack? They both waited for a moment, looking at his white-bearded face for the word which would change their destiny forever. Then, they noted his eyes dart to the right, towards the edge of the windswept plain. The word that came from his mouth was simple – “What?”
They both looked and nearly had to shake themselves. Walking and now starting to pass between the armies were two figures who looked like they were utterly ignorant of the momentous tension between these two deadly opponents; instead, they looked like two souls walking along a peaceful beach on holiday. What’s more, as Jannar raised his forward set of tentacles to shield his five dark eyes, he recognized one of the two individuals as a Surian, and as they drew closer, his two hearts sank – it was his little brother, Tebbie.
“So, Teb, enjoying the stroll? Do you feel better, now?” the tall human dressed in all white asked the little eight tentacle creature as it trundled along beside him, it’s rear six tentacles walking it efficiently across the ground.
“It’s comfortable, and I’m good now! Thank you! Tentacle shoes are awesome!” he commented brightly.
“I’m glad you like them,” the man chuckled as he watched how much easier his companion was able to move along the dusty and uneven ground. “You won’t need them for much longer, although you are certainly welcome to keep them as a souvenir.”
About the time the conversation had progressed to this point, one of the Dark Horde fired a photo mortar at the two. To his briefly stunned amazement, the charge disappeared in flight three quarters of the way to the target and then sailed right back at him from the same direction in which he had fired it. The gunner had just a moment to raise his own shield before the concussive explosion knocked not only him but his entire phalanx to the ground – badly wounded and bleeding.
Others in the line, believing this an attack, fired at the two who had continued walking without so much as a flinch, and to their great dismay and injury, the rounds fired at that target were returned to their source to devastating effect. As that part of the line crumpled, their neighbors raised their rail guns and fired a blaze of projectiles directly at the interlopers, signing their own death orders as the bolts tore back through their own lines and ripped down three rows of Horde troops.
“Do we attack, Grand Master?” the female archon asked, clearly anxious to take advantage of the confusion and losses on the enemy side.
“Pointless,” Toraldar the Wise observed and simply stepped forward and raised his hands, motioning for his whole army to hold their fire and stay where they stood.
A heavy Horde battle tank tried shooting at the Archon line from the other side, but was instantly blasted out of commission by the round from its own weapon, the collateral damage taking out half a legion who was standing too close. Those now started a frantic charge towards the center of the field, but as they reached a point not more than ten paces beyond their own line, they were incinerated as if they had suddenly stepped onto the surface of a star.
“Wow,” Tebbie replied, “you were totally right! You said exactly what they would do! Are you always right?”
“I have a little help,” the man chuckled as they neared the center of the plain directly between the two armies. “Nice to see one side in this conflict has a little brains,” he noted, lifting his hat in polite greeting to those gathered in the center of the Archon front line.
In the meantime, with nearly one third of his army destroying itself, the leader of the Horde raised his hand to stop the failing onslaught. He looked across the plain as the smoke drifted away and the dust settled, the wailing and confusion of his own troops the only sound. Focusing on the center of the plain, he was angered to see the two creatures still standing untouched by the massive barrage which had been arrayed against them. The Surian seemed only to be a child of the species, and the man standing beside him appeared utterly unremarkable, dressed in white holding a short walking stick . “Could he be some kind of Archon spy or agent?” he wondered, and almost in confirmation the distant flank of the Archon army started to move forward with their staffs pointed ahead of them in an obvious attempt to flank the Dark Horde’s lines.
However, just as he was about to give orders to start preparing for the defense, the line of Archons abruptly stopped – the glowing white spheres on the tops of their staffs all winking out or simply burning away against the same kind of invisible barrier which had cost his men so dearly. Word which was passed with obvious haste back down the Archon line drew the confused and bewildered group of soldiers back into place.
It was at this moment that both the leader of the Archons and the leader of the Horde realized their predicament. Neither of them could advance. Neither of them could gain the advantage, and the individuals standing between the two armies were somehow causing this stalemate to occur.
The human male in the long white coat raised the walking stick, pointed right to the leader of the Horde, turned and pointed it to Toraldar, the leader of the Archons, and then pointed to spots on either side of him. It was obvious; they were being summoned. “What say you, Grand Master?” Kinnea asked, confused.
Putting out his hands to both Jannar and Kinnea, Toraldar told them, “Come.” Pointedly turning to Jannar, he retrieved his staff and handed it to Kinnea’s aid. He removed his gauntlets and any other offensive weaponry, surrendering them all. With a directing look at the two he had chosen to accompany him, they also divested themselves of weapons. Once accomplished, the Grand Master of the Archons began to make his way forward, his two chosen attendants just behind him.
Watching with curiosity, the leader of the Horde saw that the trio were allowed to pass the barrier unharmed without visible weapons, and so he removed his most obvious weapons and started to step forward. When he reached the area where the barrier had been before, the secreted blades in his armor’s decorations started to get exceptionally hot, and he was forced to step back. Swearing quietly, he extracted every weapon on his person and left them in a great pile upon the ground.
Alone, he moved forward at a pace that would ensure his delay in disarming would cause him to arrive at the same time as the stately marching Archons. He staged his pace carefully so that when he drew within shouting distance he could approach this stranger with “dignity” commensurate to that of the haughty Archons. Within moments, those of the Archon and he stood about ten feet away from the human dressed in white who was looking out into the empty wilderness.
The stranger spoke without malice or condescension. “Thank you for coming.”
Kinnea grumbled slightly, “It wasn’t as if we had much choice.” A quelling look from the Grand Master kept her from any other comment. However, that gave the leader of the Horde his opening.
“Especially after you have slaughtered my soldiers. You have made a blood enemy of the Horde!”
The stranger whose aquiline face still did not bother to look at them smiled gently. “I would consider your words, carefully, both of you. This is a significant courtesy I’m doing you, so do not take it lightly. Both of your groups are engaged in hostilities which have endangered this planet and its population. The Surians are now under the protection of the Allarrae.”
“The … who?” Kinnea asked.
“We’re new to this area, but regardless, this is how things work. First, as I’ve already demonstrated, we have the ability to turn any intrusion or hostility away…” and now he looked at the leader of the Horde before completing, “with exactly the same amount of force. Your men pulled the triggers which cost them their lives, sir. Their blood is on their own hands, so seek your blood oaths against them.” He then turned back towards the open wasteland. “I’m sure the dead truly care about such,” he commented before continuing. “The Surians are now covered by the shield of the Allarrean Protectorate, and in short, that means anyone who attempts any violence against them will face death.”
“Why?” the leader of the Archons queried.
The stranger looked down at the tentacle he held in his other hand. “Do you see this little one here? His name is Tebbie. Tebbie risked his own life to call out to me. He was nearly burned to a crisp by doing so. He begged for help to be rescued from both of you. Yes,” he said looking at Kinnea, “from both of you. You see, I know what’s going on here, the limitations of your ships. Five parsecs into your own space is another bridge point that is completely unoccupied that could be cut off, protecting you from the Horde forever – as if that was your real problem. Yet, you choose as your battleground world a planet with living, breathing, sentient creatures. I would ask the same question of you. Why?”
“Unjustified,” the Grand Master admitted, uncomfortable.
“Orders, I suppose, from a higher power?” The Grand Master nodded, gravely. “Let me explain something so that you’ll have it for later. Both the Horde and the Archons have been betrayed by the leader of the Core Worlds. He seeks complete power over your whole galaxy, and he is not what he appears. He has sent you to war to thin your numbers and weaken you, but he clouds your minds and perceptions to shield himself.”
“Proof?” Toraldar asked.
“Take my deeds as proof.” Turning towards the leader of the Horde. “You have been played like a child’s toy. The sacred revelations given to you in your temples have been the very words spoken by their treacherous leader. You have been beating your plowshares into swords at his word, not by any divine order. When this link is cut, his words will no longer come to your corrupt priests, and then you will know they betrayed you at his behest.”
“Cut … this link?” the leader of the Horde asked, shaking his head.
“I’m taking this system with me, and you have exactly one hour to remove you and your wounded before this planet literally disappears from underneath you. I’m giving the Surians a new home. A safe home,” he said, looking down at the little creature affectionately before turning to Jannar, “A home where you no longer have to be afraid and no longer have to fight. Your kind have great value, and I will restore everything around you to what it was.”
At that moment, to everyone’s astonishment, they were standing in an green and verdant oasis flowing with water, a sight which brought wails of joy to the two Surians.
“I’m glad you like it,” the stranger said, but then turned towards the two combatants. “Now, as I said to both of you, the clock is ticking, and I have disabled all weapons on your ships. You can evacuate, but you can no longer fight.”
“I don’t believe you. No one can just … take a planet, let alone a sun!” the leader of the Horde argued.
Kinnea agreed. “It’s impossible. Can’t be done!”
“Really? You both have communications devices. Call up to your ships in orbit and ask them how many planets are in this system?”
The Grand Master looked to Kinnea who touched a place on her helmet and asked the question. “There are nine planets in this system,” the leader of the Horde contested.
Kinnea’s stunned expression and shaking head were the precursors of her answer. “Now … now there are only seven…”
“Gas giants make good fuel; we’ll save those for later,” the stranger told them.
As the confused leader of the Horde called up to his ship, the Grand Master looked at Kinnea. “Retreat,” he ordered softly, and although surprised, it only took a moment for Kinnea to begin sending the order out.
“Retreat! General retreat! We have one hour to remove ourselves from this world before it is taken! Two planets of this system have already been removed, and everything else will follow! Move now!”
“No, it’s not true,” the Horde leader told them, a desperation on his face that none of them had ever seen. “There are only five planets, now.”
“The outer planets. Their gravity loss won’t affect this world very much, certainly not before I reposition it, give it its new home far away from this galaxy.”
The leader of the Horde raised his arm and spoke into the communicator there. “Leave the battlefield and return to the ships. Evacuate – mandatory in one hour. This system is … leaving. No! Do it now you fool or die in space! Four planets have gone already confirmed through command. Move! Good! Out!” He turned and looked at the stranger. “Our retreat is underway.”
“A little additional business,” the stranger warned. “When this system’s sun disappears, you will have to make a choice which way you go – towards the core or towards the rim. I have no preference, but with your current technology, your choice will likely be final for many years. We will not pick up or relocate any stragglers – that’s your problem. Also, I am completely aware of the various shortages both the core and the rim are experiencing, and if I may be so bold in suggesting, if you will simply re-beat your swords back into plowshares and take care of your internal political issues, you will find there is nothing you truly need that the worlds you already hold cannot provide.”
“Who are you to tell us this!?” Kinnea demanded, realizing that there would be no final conquest of their enemies, no vindication of their beliefs. “Do this to us?! Demand that we do what you will?”
“I am a fact, my dear. I am simply a fact. This is happening, and I’m not going to argue morality with two groups responsible for the destruction of so many lives. It is an argument you would invariably lose. If your philosophy doesn’t value sentient life – all sentient life, then I have little interest in hearing it. Now, here is another fact you should consider. The Allarrean Protectorate is a covering that can be spread across worlds or peoples without notice or warning. Within the space you supposedly own or have conquered, I recognize no territorial right for you to do what you’ve done here. My kind will annihilate anyone who violates the Protectorate, regardless of their ignorance.”
“But … but that means any world we would take or subdue,” the leader of the Horde asked, “could be one your kind protect? How are we to know?!”
“You don’t, and that’s the point. War is not a right, and annihilation is not an honorable duty. If you tread where we protect, you will not survive the attempt. What is happening now is as much warning as you will ever get.”
The leader of the Horde took a step back, looked up at the sky and then stared across the field to the Archons who, like his own kind, were pulling back. Looking down at the stranger, he nodded, and his whole appearance seemed to change. It looked to Jannar is if he was only an actor in a play who had now stepped out of playing his part. “I understand. Thank … thank you. I have been so … tired of this war.”
“Depart in peace, and may long life and happiness attend you, always.”
The leader of the Horde bowed and then turned and walked away.
Looking down at Tebbie, the stranger noted, “See? Reasonable.” Looking up at the master of the Archons, he asked, “And what about you?”
“Reconsider,” Toraldar promised.
“We … have much to correct back home. We did not know our leader was doing this; we … we trusted him. I trusted him,” Kinnea stated bitterly.
“I understand. Make sure you deal with it. When this gulf is no longer what prevents you from reaching the rim, reach out in friendship, not in war. After all, I might have just decided to protect them. Now, I have another request from little Tebbie. Would you release Jannar from your service and his oaths? I would consider it a personal favor, much like the one I did by not incinerating your soldiers when they crossed the line.”
“Released,” Toraldar replied, nodding.
“So he can remain with his kind,” Kinnea added. “You served honorably, Jannar. We can have no quarrel with you. Depart from us in honor. Depart from us a friend.”
“Indeed,” Toraldar agreed and knelt down to put his hand on the young Surian’s shoulder.
“Tebbie, why don’t you and your brother enjoy the springs over there; I sense that the Grand Master has questions to put to me.”
“It may be difficult, sir,” Jannar admitted, looking into the Archon’s eyes. “He only says one word.”
“I think he says more than that. Run along, you two. We’ll talk in detail later. My friend is calling all of those out of the depths so that they can see the skies change. You’ll really want to see that.”
“C’mon, Jannar!” Tebbie shouted excitedly, wrapping a tentacle around his brother’s first shoulders, “Let’s go! Real pools of water! On the surface!”
As the two loped away to plunge into the depths of the greenery fringed pool, the Grand Master nodded. “Kind.”
“Merciful, also,” the intruder stated as he watched the two beings dive below the water. “They deserve nearly the same blame as you – they chose sides and believed the lies, but I’m not going to turn away from a child who is dying – who chose to die so that his poor world might live. He knew the moment he jumped onto the crystal that it would kill him, but it might give him the chance to call out to the voices he heard – our kind, nearby.”
Kinnea took off her helmet and looked at the stranger. “All my life, I followed the dictates of the leaders, was … taken as the protégé of the high leader; he’s my patron. How do you know that he has betrayed us?”
“I see into the dark places, even where your psychic vision cannot take you – I see there, too. He betrayed you, Kinnea, by manipulating you. He’s kept you close so he can seed your mind with doubts about your friends, and worse, seed your mind with fears – fears of losing those you love in the war, and he’s used those fears to drive not only you but everyone else mindlessly forward. As of this day, there is no war, and I have checked him here. You must face him, Kinnea, for the final blow to fall. I give you that power and that privilege. When you face him, the truth will be revealed.”
“Truth?” the Grand Master asked.
“Yes. I am a fact, but now she will be truth. I am the fact that this world will be taken, and she will be immune and toxic to the one who has used her, controlled her, manipulated her. Everything will become clear. I have taken no lives of those of the Core Worlds save one, and that will be of the guilty. Go now, Kinnea. Go, be the truth of the Allarrae.”
She had been standing, stunned and wide eyed, dazed as he was telling her this, now, obediently, she took her helmet and walked away towards the backs of the retreating soldiers. “When the time comes, be standing with her, those of your leadership. Then, allow her leave to do as she needs. I have shown her what has been done, and that horror will take some time to adjust to. I touched her mind, Grand Master. She has a lover – and although Archons are supposed to be pure and separate, I believe they’ve become toxically stoic and distanced from those who need their help. You said you wanted to reconsider. That’s not the right word. You need a new word in its place, Grand Master of the Archons. That word should be … renew.”
The Grand Master looked into the eyes of the stranger and slowly nodded, smiling. “Thank … you,” he said softly and offered his hand. The stranger took it and nodded, the clasp one of respect before the Archon took his leave, bowing before he departed.
As the last of the ships lifted off the surface, another presence joined him, a beautiful and delicate animal creature with a curious expression on her muzzle. “Did they believe you?” she asked him.
“They’re at least getting off the surface and back into orbit,” he told her. “That’s all they have to do. We’ll have to be a little careful how we take Suriana so we don’t cause any collisions up there. It’s going to turn into raw physics the moment the planet’s gravity disappears.”
“I’d bet their navigation systems aren’t ready for this,” she chuckled. “We restore the planet after it moves, right?”
“No. Just before. I want all of them to see it before it goes, let them know what can be done.”
“As you command, Me Sha,” she said, bowing, and as she disappeared, the entire measure of the surface started blossoming in green and flowing with water. Not far away, cheers and screams of joy and release could be heard as the Surians found their planet restored to life around them in an instant.
In orbit above, Kinnea, the female Archon watched with amazement as the barren dirt-ball of a world was restored to verdant green. “We could do that, Grand Master,” she breathed helplessly, “if we had not spent all of our energies fighting at the whim of a tyrant.”
“We could,” he said softly, and she looked at him, stunned. “I … kept the discipline of speaking only one word because it made me think and condense all emotion and reason to one thought, but I am undone by a wisdom far greater than my own. I, as well, have been tricked and coerced into a role. I will change our paths now to match your words. If we are the Archons of Light, we must bring dead worlds to life, not fight battles upon them that make barrenness their only future.”
At that moment, the planet below them simply vanished, and they were pulled backwards by the sudden release of gravity upon the ship and its wild veering away. Both held onto the railings fiercely until their vessel had seemed to right itself.
Looking to their left, Kinnea saw that even the sun was now gone. “That’s it. The anchor point is lost. He did it. Did … did you ever get his name?”
“No. He never told me. He only gave me the name of his kind, as you heard: the Allarrae.”
To be continued!!!