The Dark Festival

Ea'Vah is part of a pan-civilisation human-machine symbiotic organisation called the Cirance Inquisitive. Once occupied with directly altering the progress of lesser-societies, which ended in disaster, she now merely reports back on the progress and leaves the tampering to her Acquisitive counterparts. But when information goes missing from the Cirance Libraries and Ea'Vah is blamed she is sent to Pliasdenene, along with her android counterpart LeSkelle. A backwards world where short lifespan and mind-state backup hold the world in a terrible stagnant circle, Pliasdenene is ruled by a bigoted group of immortal religious fanatics who believe Ea'Vah is part of their faith's apotheosis. She suddenly realises she is not welcome there, and although her first instinct is to leave, hints from her tragic past haunt her every step, and she discovers she's not the only alien on Pliasdenene.

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1. Rable's Point

 

 


The great machine groaned cacophonously, erupting steam from its behind. It looked even comical, if seen from a distance, as if it were a giant headless chicken stalking through the icy wasteland leaving its flatulence behind.

Below a large streamlined platform, shaped not unlike a toilet seat, two colossal legs rose and fell, their pointed ends boring into the ice beneath like two huge chisels, leaving craters the size of trains ten meters deep as the machine strode across the pink and orange landscape, painted by perpetual sunset.

The platform atop the gargantuan legs was the image of some vast terraria; a glass dome shining violently at the light of the sun enveloped the platform to protect its passengers from the bitter cold outside, and at the front a smaller animated platform moved left to right, inspecting the azure and cerise ice sheet a hundred meters below.

Sunset, Orvatcha thought. What a curious thing.

He stood by a railing, peering out from atop the huge machine, his slender fingers gripping the cold iron bars as if for fear of falling – in truth, the inertial stabilizing generators that kept his and every other’s feet firmly on the ground made him feel quite nauseous, and he was gripping the railing because the severe cold of the iron distracted him from the insidious feeling of being about to vomit.

Also distracting him was the sheer beauty of it. From here, the ice stretched out for, quite literally, thousands of kilometers in every direction. It enfolded an entire side of the planet, and although he thought - more regularly than was agreeable - about his insignificance in comparison to such endless tundra, being here never ceased to amaze him.

Of course, most would agree that Deliria Supreme Orvatcha Semphle, that being who was so close to Mada, the great life-giver, was anything but insignificant - quite the opposite, in fact.

Still, being so far away from the great glass palace of Shara, that most massive of holy cities (well, really the only city, if one was so pedantic) made him less than what he was …but only slightly.

Here, he thought with just a touch of bitterness, even resentment, I am just a man.

High above, seared across the flesh of the sky, the dwindling contrail left by what they sought still tore its way across the fiery sunset, and filled him with just a hint of apprehension. Perhaps even fear, as absurd as that may be; Orvatcha Semphle was not accustomed to fear, nor apprehension, really. In fact he lived most of his life in a blissfully perpetual state of contentment, so proud of how his people lived and equally proud of how he led them, and he basked in the rewards that such omnipotent benevolence over the masses presented.

Some, like Glench, whom some seconds ago he had heard emerge from the bulky excrescence that made up the body of the giant machine through a protesting iron door, called it decadence. Orvatcha thought that was a fairly facile way of looking at it, for if he, the Deliria Supreme, was guilty of such hedonistic debauchery as Glench so often judged him to be, then too was each and every citizen of Pliasdenene, were they not?

What else was there to do when strolling through eternal life? If you are given a gift, it’s only polite, even imperative to put it to good use.

Orvatcha frowned as another wave of nausea crept over him. Glench’s footsteps clacked upon the metal floor behind him, and with caution he unraveled his long fingers from the railing and turned to face the other man.

“Befue’s vomiting again.” Glench said. He bowed his head to the Deliria Supreme.

Orvatcha stroked a hand across his belly. “Not just me, then.”

The two began to walk around the incoherent mash of machinery that occupied most of the platform that stayed perfectly, sickeningly level atop the giant creaking legs of the colossal vehicle. From the gallery on which they stood, the towering peak of Rable’s Point jutted out violently from the serene landscape. The staggered contrail that drew a line across the sky faded to nothing as it met the face of the mountain.

And beyond that, darkness.

“Thankfully,” Glench said as he craned his neck to observe the foreboding peak, “We are but a few minutes away from our destination.”

“So I gather.” Orvatcha said, peering forward, beyond the head of the gantry and up the sheening, blue-white excrescence of the Point. Below, a louder, even more discordant tone screamed from the groin of the machine, and the platform under his feet began to swim as if it was a raft. He winced and gripped the railing as he walked.

“We know where it landed with just a hundred-meter margin of inaccuracy. Our eyes can do the rest.” Glench said. “I, for one, will be glad to step off this disorientating toilet.”

General Glench stood a whole head higher than Orvatcha Semphle. At just over two meters tall, and of muscular build, he was an intimidating figure and the polar opposite of the Deliria Supreme, who smiled at the General’s observation. This smile stretched rather literally from ear-to-ear, and his mouth stayed more or less the same shape whether he was smiling or not. The only difference between a smile and a look of indifference was the parting of his greenish lips, revealing sixty bright white teeth, each studded with a precious red stone, and very subtly sharpened.

“A humorous comment, my dear General, glib as it may be.”

The General let out a laugh. “Well, pardon my candor, but I’m rather loathed to feeling quite this sick.”

“Candor pardoned.” Orvatcha said. “I believe if I’m not mistaken, its designer was reset recently. If we’re lucky, in his reincarnation he will design machines displaying somewhat more…grace.”

“If we’re lucky,” the General replied, “He will not design anything at all.”

In what had seemed like only seconds to Orvatcha Semphle, Rable’s Point now loomed over them like some vast tsunami. The platform had, much to the Deliria Supreme’s displeasure, tilted somewhat upwards as if the tiny machine was just as intimidated by the towering mountain as the passengers aboard it.

His mouth began to water, and he forced down vomit. “This is insufferable.” He conceded. “I’d like to stop this now. Please signal the captain. I’m dismounting from this deplorable steed.”

Glench put a hand to his temple, and blinked. They had walked down the gantry all the way to the tip of the streamlined dome. A few meters below the two men, the head of the machine that was moving clunkily around the front of the vehicle, anchored in place along massive tracks cut into its iron shoulders screamed to a stop. They could see through the glass roof of the head from here, and the small team of men controlling it began to punch in commands on various screens.

With a less-than-swift lurch, the disharmony of iron components scraping along iron components peaked, made Orvatcha’s ears ring, and finally, mercifully, the whole machine came to a grinding halt.

Far below the two men, the huge chisels at the end of the long legs of the vehicle spouted a thousand serrated blades that bored into the ice and kept the craft completely still above the pink and orange tundra.

The machine gave one last splutter of movement, and the whole platform shook. Far behind the Deliria Supreme and his obedient General, an impossibly loud, deafening klaxon rang out, shattering the silence that had briefly fallen. A gigantic plume of steam prevailed into the sky.

Glench sighed. “At last.” He turned and walked back towards the hulk of machinery. “I’ll get the motors ready.” He said to Orvatcha, who rubbed his stomach and belched quietly. “We will be ready to begin our ascent in twenty minutes.”

Orvatcha nodded. Glench’s footsteps faded, and through the eerie silence he heard the faint creaking of a door. It slammed shut, and Orvatcha was alone once more with his thoughts.

He looked up at the face of Rable’s Point. Some sixty or seventy kilometers up, on a severe slope that spread from the peak of the giant mountain right down to the icy sheet on which their inelegant machine stood, a tiny stream of grey smoke whorled out from a little black point.

He wasn’t sure whether it was the lasting dregs of nausea or not, but a spike of nervousness scraped its way through the Deliria Supreme’s stomach, and he fumbled his long, pointy fingers about the small Holy Book that hung from an illustrious chain round his neck.

And should those pages read the truth, a great chapter was beginning.

Sunset, Orvatcha thought. What an appropriate thing.

 

Despite narrowing his pupils so they were but a tiny speck set within ochre irises, Orvatcha still squinted from the light exploding off the ice. The all-terrain travel-sphere that encapsulated him and his small entourage of fellow Immortals seemed to splutter in short bursts up the face of the mountain rather than smoothly traverse the terrain as he had been promised, and this lurching motion did nothing to ease the last flickers of nausea fluttering through his gut (and whether they were slivers of sickness or just depth charges of sheer terror remained moot).

The two steel rings that encircled the travel-sphere whirred and intermittently clunked as the sharp blades that dug into the ice beneath the Immortals’ small viewing platform spewed up a fountain of snow behind it. The underside surface of their platform, the surface closest to the ground (its surface polished and smoothed and lacquered with liquid diamond – and then, finally, lubricated), made no sound at all as the elegant little craft laboured its way up the steep face of the mountain.

He fingered the miniscule pages of the Book that hung about his neck and, pondering the significance of this day, the queasiness abated a slight amount.

He had been clawing at the thighs of an acolyte wrapped around his waist when he had heard the news, and had quickly ingested synaptic enhancers shortly afterwards to diminish the effects of the sex-enhancing drugs. A bright light, a ghostly contrail and a deafening sonic boom as it hastened its arrival on Pliasdenene. The ceremonial landing pad illustriously crafted but, obviously, now, just a carbuncle on the side of the glass palace of Shara had obviously proved too conspicuous an arrival spot for He who represented none other than the physical manifestation of Mada himself, Orvatcha had conjectured, or, perhaps whatever craft He manned possessed controls beyond His understanding and he had spiraled down unto the surface of Pliasdenene at the wrong angle, or whatever techno-babble was used to describe ones approach or descent (Orvatcha Semphle was no technician of any kind, after all), and that was why He had seemingly crash landed here, at Rable’s Point, just on the cusp of the dark side of the planet.  

Or maybe He just didn’t like to make a fuss in front of everybody – the entire world, no less – and feared appearing too pompous, too…showboat-y.

Let Him choose where to land, he had thought. We’re not in any great rush; let Him take his time. I’m sure he’ll wait for Us to find him.

That was the nature of deities: They just assumed you would come and find Them. Arrogant so-and-so’s really, he thought. Surely They’d come and find Us if they were as omniscient as they’d have us believe.

He smiled (and his teeth gleamed white as the snow they had traversed) a little at the thought.

And now our god waits for Us to save Him at the zenith of our faith. How ironic.

 

From behind the Immortals’ vessel a second, much larger travel sphere unloaded an inelegant and rather dangerous looking machine onto the ice and snow, its head a giant screw and it’s body a hunk of iron and carbon fiber components flanked by tracked pedrail wheels. It was there as a backup mostly, in case the crash site had induced an avalanche or had been caved in by the sheer force with which it collided into the mountainside.

As Orvatcha gazed upon the gaping crater that opened wide before them, he realised they probably wouldn’t have need for it.

Smoke, acrid and black, belched from the belly of the hole. The heat was immense, and melt-water trickled past Orvatcha and his retinue while the tongue-tips of fire flickered from the depths of what they now saw was a semi-circular trench that stretched from about a hundred meters downhill and ended in this large, leaking, flaming hole.

It was like a god had scooped a fingertip full from the mountain as if it was icing on a cake.

It was a relief, really, as the crater – which they now saw as more of a tunnel, given the projection of the impact and the trench that snaked up to it –, and the tricky removal of the artifact given the near-vertical descent, was now a much less daunting task, and although, like the rest of Pliasdenene, nightfall was not a hindrance, nor an inevitability, it could possibly have taken at least a day to lift whatever great machine lay at the bottom of it and scale back down the mountain.

Orvatcha felt a sudden yearn, even an impulse, to descend into the slanted tunnel. It seemed to call him, to beckon him, to reach the craft and break it open by any means necessary and find who awaited them inside. Not one part of him doubted, for any infinitesimal moment, that He was in the belly of the vessel (if indeed it was a vessel and not some otherworldly pocket of existence, some window into a dimension of the divine) that lay crumpled, defiled somewhere inside the hole that had been punched into the face of the mountain.

His fingers twitched, his stomach ached though now not from nausea or fear, but with…emotion. That was it…that was what had been niggling at his inside on the way up Rable’s Point: it was the pang that permeated through the gut at being so close to finding that which you lived for, you breathed for, you worshipped and you laboured over. All his life (which had been, of course, very long) had in some way, whether it be building another sacred Delirium Bank, or loving himself as much as his palace and his planet, gamely in accordance with the teachings of the Holy Book, had been leading to this moment, this apotheosis.

Sometimes, long ago, he had dreamt of meeting his maker. He had hypothesized on how He looked, what He would wear, how He smelled…he had felt Him touch his skin as he looked into His eyes, and shown Him all that Pliasdenene had accomplished as if he were teaching a child how a tree grew from germination to towering above all else in the forest. He had shown Him the glass palace in Shara, how it looked down over that magnificent city, bathed in constant sunlight.

He had shown Mada himself the Delirium Banks, those holy places that gave life to the citizens, each one more illustrious and grand than the last and how all five were so precisely positioned to face the palace and look up to it, as Orvatcha looked up to Him – and Mada was pleased with all he’d done.

And then…suddenly Orvatcha felt threatened. Was he needed anymore? Why, what role could he, being so close to God, play when God was so close to him? Would his citizens decide that they had no use for the Deliria Supreme? Would they simply forget about he who had led them to greatness over the last several hundred years? And Orvatcha was then very scared that he would pale, fade out of sight of his people. The part he played may be coming to an end, and that scared him most of all: the idea that he had become obsolete. Needless. Superfluous. There was no way he could live up to the awesome power possessed by God, presuming, of course, it was indeed God (or a manifestation thereof) that lay, injured and helpless inside this ship that had carved a crater in the mountain. He would fade into obscurity, forgotten by Pliasdenene as they celebrated the coming of a new age.

Two moons’ time. That was all he had left. Just two moons.

Surely there would be a place for him next to Mada? Surely He would assure him that all had not been for naught, and elevate him to something at least close to equal greatness?

Wouldn’t He? Orvatcha Semphle felt quite, quite sad.

“Shall we, sir?”

Orvatcha blinked, turned towards Befue, who belched and scratched his nose. Befue was a short Immortal, stout and portly, whose only striking features were his very long fingernails and bright yellow eyes. They gleamed from the light of the setting sun, as if he was some otherworldly being, quite alien.

Orvatcha nodded, his stomach in knots. He stepped through the travel sphere, its membranous texture slipping over him like an atom-bonded gel.

The cold was sharp and penetrating, and Orvatcha’s eyes stung in the dry air. His breath escaped his long gash of a mouth and bellowed and wisped around him like steam from that sickly hunk of machinery they had arrived on. He flexed his shoulders as if to alleviate the ache in his belly. 

Befue followed him out of the sphere. Glench was overseeing the maneuvering of the huge drill, and the other members of his retinue had already exited the sphere and stood at the mouth of the smoking hole and peering inside.

“Great God, it’s cold.” Befue hissed, and shivered. “Funny how severe it is when you’re not used to it, eh?” He sniffed and joined the rest at the lip of the crater. Orvatcha followed.

“Befue,” he said. “I think it would be wise to avoid such blasphemy, given our situation.”

“Eh? Oh, right you are, sir…tsst!” Befue spat through his two front teeth using his tongue, a habit that Orvatcha Semphle found most annoying and quite unbecoming, and craned his neck to look into the tunnel. “Blimey…in all honesty, sir, I don’t think Him listening in is going to be a problem. Tsst!”

Orvatcha pushed past him and gazed into the mouth of the hole. All he could see was smoke billowing from the darkness and the occasional lick of flame. Chunks of metal lay scattered in the snow.  

“I want lights and extinguishers, gentlemen!” Glench yelled over the loud noise of the drill. Sims hustled and bustled over the machine as it crawled towards the tunnel, and others fussed over the supplies in the larger travel sphere.

Orvatcha wondered if, despite each sim being exactly and precisely the same, they too had their reservations about the situation.

A squad of sims carrying large, cannon-like torches in their arms and fire extinguishers strapped to their backs hurried towards the gaping hole and brushed past the inquisitive Immortals. With several loud cracks they turned on the torches and began extinguishing the small clumps of fire that clung to hunks of twisted metal.

Orvatcha still couldn’t get a good glimpse of what lay waiting at the end of the tunnel; the sims swept their lights frantically about, more concerned about the dwindling fires than the vessel from space.

Glench followed the squad inside brandishing a similar but far smaller torch in his hand. He kicked a piece of blackened metal aside, turned to a sim stood on the rim of the tunnel and beckoned it to pick it up. The sim obliged and produced a large, transparent bag from its pocket and with some effort placed it inside.

“It’s safe.” Glench yelled from the tunnel. His voice reverberated, amplified by the tunnel’s mouth. Orvatcha stepped in hastily first, and strode (as gracefully as he could muster) through the snow to catch up with the General. He plucked his own, handheld torch from his ornate, crost-fur coat and flicked it on.

“The impact…” Glench muttered.

“Would it be…?”

“Enough to kill a man? Most definitely, sir.”

“It is not a man we’re dealing with, my good General.”

“Ostensibly. It would take some serious inertia-cancelling engines to ease the blow from a crash like this. Certainly nothing we’ve ever been able to engineer. I’d like to have the ship reverse-engineered.”

Orvatcha looked back at the rest of the entourage, and pulled the General close. “Glench, I…don’t want anybody to know about this. Not yet. None save for those who stand here with us.”

“And why, sir, would that be?”

“Rumours spread fast. I don’t want mass panic. The moment one finds out, everybody finds out.” Orvatcha tried to come up with a reason that made this fit of profound pique seem more…honourable. “For good of the people, let’s keep this quiet. Agreed?”

The General worked his jaw. “Hmm. An event of this…gravity, sir, will be hard to keep under wraps. With the Festival approaching I don’t think we’ll be able to keep it secret very long. Besides, many will have seen the object arrive, or at least its contrail. It won’t be long before connections are made.”

“Even so. As long as is necessary…even if that means waiting until after the Dark Festival. I don’t want a lynch mob outside the palace demanding to see…” He swallowed. “Him.”

“We can do our best, sir. But as you said, rumours spread fast.”

Orvatcha frowned as the General walked away from him, deeper into the tunnel and he disappeared, only his torchlight revealing where he was. The cold outside had turned into an uncomfortable, sticky heat. The smell of acrid smoke and burned fuel hung thickly in the air.

There was a commotion further down the tunnel. A light was very suddenly pointed at Orvatcha’s eyes. “We found it.” Glench said. Orvatcha hurried towards him, very aware the hems of his trousers had become sodden with melt-water.

The wrecked ship came into view slowly, and at first looked as if someone had stuck together a hundred random pieces of warped metal with abandon, and thrown it headlong at the mountain. The heat near the ship was immense, like standing next to a bonfire. It hissed like oil in a pan.

Sims sprayed at the undecipherable hunk of metal with their fire extinguishers as Orvatcha pushed past a small group of them huddled round it. His eyes scanned the machine. There seemed to be no deliberation, grace or purpose in its design. Coils of metal hung from it like wood shavings and it emanated a strange, ethereal glow as if giving off radiation.

When they finally got it open, inside there was a man. Quite motionless, quite alien, naked, and in his hands he was clutching a small replica of what looked not unlike the Holy Book.

Orvatcha had, as so many others had figuratively mused before him, found God at Rable’s Point. 

 

 

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