About a year ago, I posted here inviting views on what my next fiction project should be (https://timwordsblog.wordpress.com/2018/02/10/what-next-help-me-decide/) – a sequel to Zeus of Ithome or a sci-fi project. Opinions were divided, but in the end it was the latter that refused to get out of my head. I have nearly 50,000 words now, but this is a long term project that I am pursuing in parallel with other things, and may take a while to come to fruition.
Nevertheless, I thought it was time to share a first taste of the project here. There is a main story thread, but I’ve also written some independent pieces to flesh out the world where it is set. This is one of those.
The rumours arrived first, days before anything was visible.
There is a Stranger in the sky, people began to whisper in taverns, in temples,
around firesides. Not everyone believed them. How did they know, after all, if
nothing could be seen?
But then, one cold, clear spring night, something was visible. A speck, to be sure, but if you were one of those who liked to look at the sky on perfect nights like this, you could hardly miss it. In the constellation of the Falcon, peering at the world from its perch above the Eastern horizon, there was a third eye – dimmer than the others, but unmistakeably there.
Then the rumour-mongers began to walk around with self-satisfied smirks on their faces, and other people were afraid and started asking the priests what it was, what they should do.
“Do not worry,” said the priests. “The God will protect us,” and declined to answer any of the questions. But the next night the stranger had left the head of the Falcon altogether and was bigger and brighter than before – one of the most brilliant stars in the whole sky.
“Do not worry,” said the priests in the temples the following morning – for it was the God’s day. “The God will protect us. But we must prepare ourselves. Gather food and water for ten days, find a place to shelter. The temples will be closed for those ten days.” They would say nothing more.
That night the Stranger had moved again, and it was brighter, bigger than any star. And those who dared to watch could see that it was moving – as each hour passed, it left other stars behind.
The next day, there were no priests to be seen anywhere. “They have gone to the mountain,” people wailed, “to be with the God at the end of things.” And those who had not already done so now did as they had been told – they gathered food and water and huddled in the safest, most sheltered places they could find.
That night the Stranger was almost as big as a moon, and seemingly getting bigger all the time. No longer could anyone doubt that, whatever it was, it was going to hit the world. Only a few brave souls – those who felt that if they were going to die anyway, it was better to stand and face the cataclysm, not cower in a hole somewhere – had dared to stay outside and watch, gathered together in little groups on hilltops and crater rims. The Stranger began to glow a fiery red and grew a long flaming tail behind it. Red became yellow, then searing, unbearable white.
From the summit of the Holy Mountain, a spear of that same impossible whiteness impaled the Stranger and seemed to hold it for a second. And then every watcher went momentarily blind as the entire sky turned from black to that same, eye-blasting white. When, a few seconds later, sight returned and the dazed, blinking watchers turned their stinging eyes back to the sky, there was no spear, and there was no Stranger, only a misshapen, expanding cloud where it had once been: still glowing but fading by the second. And around it, heading away in all directions, were small bright miniatures of the vast orb of light that had been there moments before.
The watchers looked at each other open-mouthed. They had been watching their own death hurtling towards them in a ball of flame. Now, miraculously, they were still alive, witnesses to the greatest event in the history of the world. They had been a sceptical lot, for the most part, these watchers. Not that they would have called themselves atheists – almost no one dared to do that. But they were the ones who asked awkward questions about scripture, who went through the motions in the temple services, whose enquiring minds had brought them out to observe the end rather than pray hopelessly for it to go away. The ones, in short, whose beliefs were only skin deep.
Not any more. “The God has saved us,” they shouted as they embraced each other. The God’s spear had struck the Stranger and destroyed it. What other explanation could there be? Their faith, formerly so tenuous, was suddenly unshakeable and all consuming. Many of these people would soon be banging on the doors of their local temples, demanding to become priests. A good few would eventually succeed.
The God had not saved everyone. In their rapture, the watchers paid little heed to the fragments of the Stranger as they disappeared below the horizon – behind the Rim, for those who could see it. But they could not ignore the flash that lit up the sky in the direction of the northern Rim – insignificant in comparison with the blinding light that had accompanied the obliteration of the Stranger itself, but still brighter than anything else they had ever seen – or the pillar of faintly glowing cloud that rose up where it had been. Beneath that cloud, a village had been replaced by a crater six hundred metres across – its own group of watchers duly meeting the apocalyptic fate they had been expecting. Around them, others died too, incinerated by the flash or flung into the air and scattered upon the ground by the vengeful wind from the Stranger’s spiteful death throes.
When the ordinary folk emerged from their hiding places in the morning, there were strange clouds in the sky and a strange taste in the air. But their world was otherwise much the same as they had left it. They found the people who had remained outside during the night eager to talk about the miracle they had witnessed, and rather wished they themselves had stayed out to watch. Above all, though, they were relieved and grateful to be alive. Soon the priests returned, and reminded people that they had said the God would protect them. Nobody was inclined to argue. The temples, when they opened a few days later, were very full indeed.