Day 41. 64 pages, 30,290 words.
A scream burst the tranquillity, sending a flock of colourful four-winged birds flapping and hooting melodiously from a copse of graceful trees. The sky, aquamarine and perfected rather than marred by a few clumps of high, fluffy cloud, seemed to reverberate with the howl.
Moments later a filament-thin line that had been etching itself across the vault of the sky for almost a minute swelled and brightened into a particulate-wreathed trail of fire and the scream intensified as a blazing object hurtled towards the rolling green hillside. Just as it seemed inevitable that it would impact the ground destructively the projectile slowed, its flame dropping to a rosy glow, and came to a halt in midair just above the turf. The air-flattened vegetation singed, browned, and then crumbled away in the heat, and the object completed its landfall with a heavy clunk.
It was large, a rounded-off cuboid with a wider base than top, its underside rounded slightly and still glowing hot from the atmospheric insertion. It hissed and spat and tinkled slowly as it cooled, and the silence otherwise returned.
The tall, brushed-chrome cylinder that had observed all this rose from her resting place and whispered towards the landing site on a cushion of agitated micro-leylines. By the time she arrived at the edge of the burned circle of ground, the landing capsule had already split along a couple of seams and a doorway was swinging open in the hull. A hand, red-orange and wreathed in flame, reached out and grasped the still-glowing metal from the inside, pushing the capsule the rest of the way open.
The figure that vaulted out of the oven-hot interior and subjected the landscape and the waiting cylinder to a critical and tactical stare somehow managed to be stupendous even though there was absolutely no basis present for comparison. He stood almost as tall as the landing capsule, somewhat taller than the watching cylinder, and his vast body was a shifting, glowing tapestry of flames and curling ribbons of blue ice. He was unclothed but for an assortment of belts and straps that were clearly by necessity heat-resistant. His face, formed of the same elemental matter, was a stern overlay across irrepressible good humour.
Keeping glowing red eyes fixed on the cylinder, he reached behind him and put a hand on the ruddy metal of the capsule. The flames around his hand brightened, then the underlying ice rose up and ran together. At the same moment, without any further sounds of contraction or stress, the capsule dulled and returned to local background temperature.
“So,” the enormous figure said. “This is Sheen, in the faraway Dimension of Serdios.”
“Revered Second Disciple,” the cylinder said. “Welcome,” she paused momentarily. “You are…”
“They call me Brutan now,” Brutan told her, and grunted in wry amusement. “Brutan the Warrior. Quite the joke they all thought it was, too. I suppose I was quite different, the last time we met.”
“Hindab the Sly,” the I-Spy confirmed, “in the years before the war in Ekelesees.”
Brutan grunted almost soundlessly, and scanned the surrounding countryside. “You’ve come far.”
“There is farther yet to go,” the I-Spy said.
Brutan looked surprised, then nodded thoughtfully. “You’ll go where the cold whims of fate guide you, old friend,” he said, “as you always have. Serdios, though, stands on the very edge of the Infinites’ dominion,” he glanced up at the sky, the blazing yellow-green sun that sailed through the sky above this part of Sheen, the second that crept across its horizon. “These are the last living stars – if stars you can call them. From here on out, there is just the darkness.”
“Many things live in darkness.”
Brutan chuckled again. “Most things live in darkness,” he agreed. “Still, this seems a pleasant little place. I suppose I should go through the motions,” he stepped forward, went to one knee and placed his hand, which had returned to its normal balance of fire and ice, flat on the grass. The vegetation did not burn – would not, unless he wished it to. “God,” he said, “I found You another world. Warm regards, Brutan.”
The I-Spy watched this careless dedication impassively, recording the Brotherhood’s claim and formalising it through the Corporate data networks. For Firstmades, such claims were uncomplicated – and binding in perpetuity. Whether or not settlers would ever come out this far, or sentient life evolve on Sheen of its own accord … well, that would be a matter for future debates. For now, however, Sheen was part of the Pinian sovereignty and theirs to do with as they pleased.
“I trust you examined the information I have collected,” she said.
Brutan nodded. “Not much else to do on the way out. How long do we have until nightfall?”
“Still a month or so, by the Firstmade calendar,” the I-Spy replied. “You would be best advised to lift off again before that point,” she swivelled in the air to display the deep scratches marring her shell.
Brutan whistled appreciatively. “And that was an organic? Not a tool-carrier of any kind? Not an energy weapon?”
“This damage was done by the #3 hominid I listed,” the I-Spy told him. “On other worlds, or in other circumstances they may be on the verge of tool usage, but this damage was done with claws alone.”
“And they’re not likely to advance to tool usage,” Brutan said, “because of this evolutionary monolithism you mentioned.”
“Yes. Hominid #3 has reached a point of balance and its development has stopped. This is quite distinct from the other flora and fauna of this world – either aspect of this world – because everything else is still changing and mutating and competing as normal. It is just that every change that has come to anything else in the past several million years … simply poses no threat or change-prompt in the #3 hominid. It continues as it was, and everything else evolves around it. It is almost as if some freak mutation moved it into a final state, as close to perfection as naturally possible. This is why I contacted you.”
“Usually when a mutation like that happens, the over-evolved animal destroys everything and starves out,” Brutan mused.
“Yes. Hominid #3 does not seem to feel the need to do so,” the I-Spy replied. “And the unique environmental conditions help to further maintain stability.”
Brutan waved an enormous hand. “Show me.”
The I-Spy swiveled once again. “This way, revered Firstmade.”
They set out, floating construct and striding biped matching couse and speed, across the warm and fertile landscape.
“There’s no sign of the change that’s coming,” Brutan noted. “I would have expected, as temperatures fall and sunlight lessens, for some sort of adjustment period.”
“The shift between day / summer and night / winter is extremely abrupt owing to the nature of the temperate bubbles that surround the star clusters,” the I-Spy replied. “Within hours, the ambient environment shifts completely. The flora of Sheen then either dies or goes dormant, and the fauna of Sheen enters hibernation. And at the same time-”
“The flora of Thord grows,” Brutan said, “and the fauna comes out of slumber.”
“Yes. It is a dramatically violent few hours.”
“There are a couple of other worlds like this closer in towards The Centre,” Brutan remarked, his eyes quite literally alight, “but none so savage. If this #3 hominid is so impressive, how does the Sheen fauna stand up to the territorial disputes at nightfall and morning?”
“Much of it does not,” the I-Spy replied, “although there are a couple of species that are capable of holding their own, in sufficient numbers. The rest is made up for by a prolific breeding season the next time Thord enters a star-bubble and reverts to Sheen.”
Brutan nodded. “Any large predators in this area?” he sounded idly curious, mildly anticipatory rather than worried.
“No. They do not willingly frequent areas where the #3 hominid sleeps. There are numerous bird species that take advantage of this fact to nest here, but they are comparatively harmless.”
“And what about hominids #1 and #2?”
“They don’t willingly frequent these areas either,” the I-Spy quipped. Brutan favoured the floating cylinder with a narrow sidelong glance. “They have their own remarkable collections of genetic oddities,” she went on, “and are impressive life-forms although not particularly dangerous. Certainly, in this biosphere they might be considered benign.”
They continued past small clusters of trees and down into an overgrown river valley. There, on the far bank of the pleasantly gurgling stream, several large holes had been clawed into the loamy earth.
“Usually dens like this are made for protection,” Brutan said with a mighty frown. “What are these big fellows hiding from?”
“I would theorise that it is an instinctive action that they never grew out of,” the I-Spy replied. “Originally they may have done so to avoid some now-extinct superpredator, or to curl up and lick their wounds after the Thord / Sheen crossover, or merely to avoid the worst of the sunlight and heat. These dens do not actually maintain a sub-freezing temperature of the sort the Thordic organics are accustomed to, but they may be slightly more comfortable than sleeping in the open. Since Sheen’s ambient temperature is enough to put the hominids in a dormant state, and they enter the dens at the close of Thordic night / winter, it’s entirely possible that they just … don’t realise that the burrows are not particularly effective.”
Brutan snorted. “Not all that bright, then.”
“They are pre-sentient,” the I-Spy said, “and likely to remain that way.”
“Just a little joke my Brothers like to repeat about brains and brawn,” the Pinian said.
Brutan the Warrior stretched slowly, opened and closed his huge fists, and let the fire and steaming frost writhe along his forearms.
“Right then,” he said, and launched himself directly across the river.
The Pinian landed in the shallows, rolled tightly and trotted into the nearest hole. He didn’t quite have to duck his head in order to enter. He descended into darkness, the shifting light of his body illuminating the soil to either side for a time, but was soon no longer visible from the far bank. The I-Spy settled her domed lower end into the underbrush and waited.
A few moments later the ground shook and a thunderous roar reverberated from the riverbank. The thumping and bellowing continued for several seconds, not seeming to taper off or weaken in the slightest as the unseen struggle went on. It ended abruptly instead, and a short while later Brutan reappeared in the mouth of the den. He was holding his side and the fiery matter that made up his physical form seemed to be damaged underneath his hand, but he was grinning widely. In his other fist he held a large, curled black horn, sheared off at the base.
“Magnificent,” he declared.
“A suitable candidate-species for your proposed shock troops, revered Firstmade?” the I-Spy asked.
“Eminently suitable, old friend,” Brutan congratulated her, and vaulted back across the river. He landed heavily and grunted in discomfort, but his exuberance seemed undiminished as he climbed abreast of the I-Spy. “Well worth the six-month journey out here,” he laughed, the sound almost childlike in its joy. “Big fucker hardly even woke up to fight,” he marvelled.
“Will you relocate them while they are still dormant,” the I-Spy asked, “or wait until after the next night / winter period? I have calculated the world’s trajectory around the inner edge of this bubble and predict the next Thord iteration will last almost nineteen years.”
“Oh, plenty of time to worry about that,” Brutan said, and hefted the massive horn in his hand. He winced again and shifted his clasp on his wounded side, but then his grin returned. “I can’t wait for a rematch come nightfall.”