Scow of Destiny, by Jonathan Shipley
“All-Highest Avatar, we await your Light. Avatar of the Fire Undying, we await your Light. All-Highest and All-Glorious, we await your Light.”
Aboard the garbage scow Steadfast on route to the sun, Jarek dutifully gave the three-fold invocation with the masses back at the high temple on Galatrus, then brought the other open channel to foreground. “So now what’s happening?” he asked Sitra.
“Not much,” she murmured back, keeping her voice very low. An open com channel at an Adorationist ritual was in shockingly poor taste, but they were being rebels today. “The courtyard is all shadows with lights only on the perimeter. With all the rumors of conflicts on Throneworld, people are uneasy. Some say it’s taking longer than it should — not that anyone knows, of course. It’s been two-hundred years since the last Avatar Ascended. Maybe we’ll still be here when you get back. Jarek, it’s not right that –”
“Shhh, it will be fine,” he soothed. “It’s just a garbage run. The timing hits badly, but so what? I’ll be back for the celebration.” Those were words for his newlywed wife, not words from the heart. Inwardly, he still fumed that the Galatrus Service Authority hadn’t canceled the run. The whole planet — the whole friggin’ cosmos — was on pause awaiting the Ascension of the Avatar, but Jarek Indaluse had to haul garbage across system like it was any other workday. Everyone on a million planets across the Imperium got to commemorate the day, but not him. Intellectually he understood why toxic waste had to be gotten off planet quickly and dumped in the sun’s corona, but emotionally he chafed at the hand Fate had dealt him. The wedding was only two days ago. To be called back from nuptial leave because the more senior scowmasters refused to work on this High Holy Day was a blatant abuse of rank, in his opinion. But as low man in the hierarchy, there was nothing he could do about it. Tomorrow he could resume his nuptial leave, but today the separation was like an ache in his gut.
“And I will make it up to you,” he added suggestively. And those words did come from the heart. “We shall start with a kiss that lasts from . . . ”
His little fantasy imploded as movement registered on long-range sensors. There should be no in-system traffic on this day. All ships — except his — were grounded. And these were large ships, practically the size of . . . oh, they were battle cruisers, he realized as more data came in. Six Dreadnought Class cruisers from Stedra Gloria on detached duty to the Galatrus system. Jarek almost relaxed, then realized what that meant. The Stedren military would be awaiting the Ascension as avidly as the untold civilian quadrillions. No fleet would be actively patrolling on this day unless someone had placed them on high alert status. And that someone had to be the Prince.
He felt something deep in his gut that was distinctly different from the longing of a moment before. The Prince was in Holy Conclave with his demi-divine Highborn brethren on the Imperium’s distant Throneworld, supposedly a peaceful endeavor in support of the Ascension. But supernal politics were always vicious, demigod against demigod. Lately there were even rumors of civil war between the Great Houses. The atmosphere on Throneworld was said to be so tense that the Highborn princes barely spoke to one another lest they set spark to the tinderbox. And amidst all this fever, the ancient All-Highest had discorporated to become one with the Fire, leaving the Imperium holding its breath as a new, untried Avatar ascended to become their fully divine god incarnate. If the Highborn princes were tense, the general populace was terrified. No one wanted civil war. When Highborn fought Highborn, all lesser races became expendable. Humans became expendable.
“Jarek, what is it?” Sitra’s soft voice held alarm.
He blinked, thinking back to his last words. Yes, that was unlikely place to leave her hanging. No wonder she was worried. But he could diffuse that. “Just a sudden course correction, love,” he said with forced buoyancy. “This close to the sun, there are always manual corrections to be made. Now, where was I?” He would not distress her with a military report — he dared not, actually. The high alert status of Stedren battleships was not for civilian ears. Or eyes, he realized a second later. His eyes should never have seen those maneuvers. With growing unease, he reached over and flicked off the sensor array, flicked off all systems except auto-navigation, life support, and his com link back to Galatrus. If the question came, he could say that he was flying blind on minimal power to better focus on the temple ritual he was linked to, and his logs would back that up. Battleships? What battleships?
But his unease grew instead of faded. If the Prince was worried enough to call in a fleet, then something was on the brink of happening. And once he was at that conclusion, Jarek couldn’t shake the specter of civil war from his head.
“You were at a kiss that was to last . . . ?” Sitra prompted.
A kiss? Jarek grimaced at where his deceit had led him. How could he sustain this little passion wordplay with his wife with cold fear in his gut. “Any kiss of any duration would be my dream as long as the kiss is not our last,” he said, then winced. That sounded very dark.
“Are you sure you’re all right?”
“No,” he answered truthfully. “I don’t want to be out here and wish I were back on Galatrus with you.”
“Maybe if we –”
The com link went dead.
Suddenly the mother of all solar flares rolled over the Steadfast, sending it spinning. The lights on the bridge sputtered and died, and Jarek heard the whine of the old fusion backup generator trying and failing to kick in. In the utter darkness, he felt the sudden drop in temperature as life support stopped supporting. But the air would go bad before he actually froze to death. So this was the end — a freak systems failure on a routine garbage run. And soon the Steadfast would fall into the sun’s gravity well, and there would be nothing left of either his life or his death. He remembered his farewell to Sitra that morning when he’d gotten the order to work. “I’ll come back to you,” he had said, but now he wouldn’t. He might do well to pray, but for the first time in his life, there was no Avatar to pray to.
Then with a long moan, the generator finally came on line. The ship lurched, trying to right itself with thrusters but was still rolling. The light that returned to the bridge was weak and sickly, but Jarek didn’t care about that. There was warmth and air again. As long as he had life support and navigation, he had a chance of surviving.
He stumbled over to the com console to open a distress channel to the fleet. “Garbage scow Steadfast in need of assistance . . . ” He stopped, frowning at the deadness on the channel. There was always a little echo when broadcasting widebeam and always some background chatter. But he heard nothing. That had to be at his end. He set the com to reinitialize and activated sensors again. The load of toxic waste he’d been tractoring was drifting free after the power outage, but a quick calculation affirmed that it was still on trajectory to the sun. Then his eye went to the last location of the battle cruisers – the cruisers that should have picked up his distress call. Nothing. At first he thought the sensor console was also malfunctioning, but all the planetoids and lesser bodies were registering fine. Just no more fleet. He scanned one of the locations more closely and came up with a cluster of space rubble. Fragments of metal and plasteel — the two principal materials of any ship.
A strike? Maybe it wasn’t a solar flare that sent his ship rolling, but the first wave of another Great House attacking? He saw nothing, but what did he know about warfare? Fighting a rising panic, he launched a call across all channels: “Emergency — Galatrus Central, please respond!”
The continued deadness of the com told him no one was receiving, which made no sense. Galatrus Central coordinated ten-thousand ships a day in and out of its airspace. Even with all ships temporarily grounded, Central should be listening.
He changed frequencies. “Extreme emergency — Bretthold Royale, please respond!”
That he was attempting to raise the palace-world of Bretthold — the Prince’s private preserve — was an act of sheer panic. No commoner was allowed to intrude on those frequencies.
He checked sensors again and gasped. The Galatrus readings had changed. What should have registered as energy readings from a million small systems that facilitated the lives of billions was . . . nothing. Not even the high temple was registering as a source anymore.
Shakily, he crossed the dim bridge to manually crank open the observation window, hoping for visual contact. Even at a distance, Galatrus should give off a nimbus of light from the sheer number of energy sources in use at any —
A flash of pressure sent the Steadfast rocking again. Some ship was in-jumping dangerously close. Enemy attack, his brain supplied before he actually saw anything. Then a streak of flame barreled passed his line of sight. Small ship . . . leaking plasma . . . out of control.
Then he stopped breathing as he truly saw. A royal yacht — his Prince’s yacht — badly damaged. The Prince had been attacked while fleeing Throneworld? He pressed his face close against the thick-paned plasteel window, assessing the damage with new desperation. Half the fuselage was torn away, leaving no possibility of functional life support. Nothing remotely human could have survived that . . . but the Prince might have.
The thought galvanized Jarek. Rushing to the navigation console, he reset the tractor controls and set a new course in pursuit of the yacht. The scow didn’t have much thrust on backup power, but its target only had momentum carrying it forward.
The Steadfast drew close enough to throw its tractor, pulling the two ships together. Jarek scanned the interior as it came closer. No life forms, but one indefinable energy reading. A Highborn.
Instinctively, he reached to open a channel, then shook his head. The yacht was a shattered shell. It had no communications. He was on his own to decide what to do next. The scow was only a skeletal structure designed to tractor masses of free-floating waste in its wake. It had no bay as such capable of housing the yacht. The best he could do was tractor the other ship planetside and try for a soft landing of both craft.
On Galatrus? No, he didn’t trust the strange non-readings he was getting from there. Taking the Prince directly to the palace complex on Bretthold made more sense anyway. He’d just have to pray that planetary defenses didn’t incinerate the Steadfast for violating royal airspace. But surely not with the Prince in tow . . . He gave up trying to think that through. There were no directives for such a situation. Probably the defense systems would be at least as confused as he was, and that was in his favor.
He set course for Bretthold, sheering away from his heavily traveled route to and from Galatrus into a part of the system he had never been before. The royal planet didn’t engage the services of scows, but then it only had a hundred-million or so residents. The closer he came, the more he realized readings here weren’t right either. Where there were supposed to be cities, there was nothing but rubble. Then as he reached orbit over the southern continent, the Prince’s private continent, he saw the unthinkable — the palace complex was destroyed, leveled . . . something. All he knew was that it was gone. But the sweeping parklands around the palace filled with endless gardens and lakes seemed to still be intact. It was no spaceport, but it was all he had to work with. But it was almost evening local time. Attempting a planetside landing would be better done in full morning light. Though he really didn’t know, Jarek suspected that nine or so hours would make no difference in the fate of the Prince. Highborn were virtually indestructible. It took another Highborn to kill a Highborn, or so it was said.
“Bretthold Royale,” he broadcast across empty frequencies. “This is the garbage scow Steadfast in orbit with the Royal Personage. Please respond.”
He expected nothing, but after a moment a staticky voice asked, “The Prince has returned?”
The signal was so weak that it could only be a personal communicator, but it was something. “Yes, the Prince has returned,” he answered. “His yacht is badly damaged, and I have not had communication with him. But I am bringing him home. I’ll attempt a soft landing in the palace parklands at first light.”
“Praise the All-Highest,” the voice responded, then seemed to switch frequencies.
Was there now an All-Highest? Jarek wondered. Had the Ascension reached fulfillment? He had his doubts, all things considered.
He settled for the night . . . as best he could. He was agitated from the inside out and couldn’t relax enough to doze more than a few minutes at a time. His mind pinged between his Prince hanging in orbit beneath him and his wife waiting on a planet gone dead. Occasionally he spared a thought for Throneworld, the Imperium, the Avatar, but he really didn’t care about cosmic politics. He only cared about his home. At times he roused himself to try comming Galatrus again, but never with any response. All systems seemed to be dead.
Dawn finally came after an impatient night, the sun peeking over the terminator to turn the lakes below into golden-pink pools. Jarek pre-calculated as best he could for the descent, but the yacht was a problem. At some point, he would have to drop the yacht to land the scow, and the difference between dropping his Prince fifty feet versus ten feet seemed enormous. But there was no other way. As near as sensors could report, the Highborn energy signature hadn’t changed at all during the night. It still radiated steadily. With a deep breath, Jarek took the scow down.
Life forms, many life forms, registered on the ground below. That was good. These would be the Prince’s staff preparing to receive him and attend to his needs. But as the Steadfast descended to visual range, what Jarek saw was not a group of palace professionals, but a chaotic throng gathered in a great circle around the landing point.
He came as close to the ground as he could maneuver by eye, released the yacht from the tractor, and after it settled on the ground with a metallic clunk, moved forty feet beyond to let the auto take the scow safely down. He emerged shakily from the hatch, the gravity of Bretthold feeling heavier and stranger than that of Galatrus. As far as he could tell, no one of the waiting crowd had yet approached the yacht and as he looked more closely at the figures standing closest, he realized why. There were a few in tattered court dress, a few uniforms, but mostly he saw common workers. This ragtag gathering had no more idea what to do than he did.
“What happened here?” he asked the closest bystander, a man dressed in farm clothes.
“Imploded,” the man said. “The palace, Viver, Tattanus — all the cities. Nothing left of any of them.”
Jarek swallowed hard, visualizing Galatrus whose surface area was one continuous city. “Did people survive?” he asked hesitantly.
“Few. Some right at the edge of the implode-zone got thrown clear. Mostly not. Chancellor’s trying to sort things out.”
The Royal Chancellor had survived. That would bode well for regrouping. Here, at least. He no longer had expectations for Galatrus. His home gone; Sittra gone. The fact that he was still walking and talking told him he was deeply in shock. He dreaded when the shock wore off.
But for the moment he lived for the Prince. Making his way to the shattered yacht, Jarek cautiously stepped through a gaping hole in the hull and made his way forward. Tall Stedren warriors stood at intervals, frozen solid by the vacuum of space, but only a few. Not a full entourage. Then in the remains of a stateroom, he found a glowing golden cocoon. At first it made no sense, then he slowly recognized it as a Greatclock wrapped around a form. He made no move to approach, let alone touch the glowing fabric. Greatcloaks could be savage in the protection of their Highborn. But this one looked to be the Greatcloak of State worn by the head of House SanVier. The Prince.
“High–” he began. His voice cracked with the stress of the moment. He cleared his throat and began again. “Highness, you are back on Bretthold Royale. There has been disaster here. We don’t know what to do.”
A soft slithering told him the Greatcloak was unwrapping itself. A marble-pale face appeared from the folds, eyes bright and crystalline, hair metallic gold. More of the Prince emerged slowly, dressed in the black-and-gold colors of the House. The Highborn scent of burnt cinnamon filled the cabin.
Jarek knew better than to approach, standing silently with bowed head as the Prince found his feet and stood upright. Neither spoke, but from quick, stolen glances, Jarek saw that the Prince was rattled — if that term even applied to Highborn. Of course, having your yacht blown up around you and being tractored for half a day in a vacuum was excellent reason for being rattled. Any lesser being would be dead several times over.
A clumping in the corridor told Jarek that someone else had finally ventured into the yacht. A moment later, a white-haired gentleman in a bloodied uniform of gold filigree limped into the stateroom. The face was familiar from a hundred newsvids. The Royal Chancellor, Jarek recognized with relief. Someone who’d know what to do.
“My Prince, the damage is extensive here, but worse elsewhere. Stedra Gloria does not answer hails and is probably no more. I fear Galatrus is also a complete loss unless by some miracle . . .”
Jarek glanced up in surprise as the old man faltered, his mouth open in astonishment. A moment later the Chancellor was on his knees amidst the ruin and rubble. “All-Highest,” he murmured, touching his forehead to the floor. “We await your Light.”
Jarek gaped in confusion. Not the Prince . . . but the All-Highest Avatar? And in his ignorance, he hadn’t been able to tell the difference, hadn’t been able to tell one Highborn from another. Then the full import of the Chancellor’s words sank in – the new Avatar had indeed Ascended and was standing before him. Jarek, too, fell to his knees and kowtowed.
“Enough of that,” the Highborn in the golden Greatcloak said. His voice was gold and crystal, multi-toned in the manner of Highborn. “Stand, both of you.”
They did immediately, though Jarek would not raise his eyes to the All-Highest.
The Chancellor cleared his throat. “All-Highest, these energy implosions that have devastated our system – are they happening all across the Imperium?”
“Suns have novaed and worlds have imploded” the gold-and-crystal voice answered. “This system has fared better than most. What is needed here?”
“The world is shattered, the people are shattered,” the Chancellor said. “But the Presence of the All-Highest Avatar of the Fire Undying shall restore all. Let me announce the joyous tidings immediately, I beg you.”
“No, enough of that,” the Highborn said sharply. “Throneworld is gone; the Imperium is gone; the Conclave of Highborn is gone. Let all those failures lie where they have fallen. The cosmos is better off without the snakepit of supernal politics. So no more Avatar. What else will serve?”
The Chancellor had to pause a moment to regroup. “Then the people need their Prince to lead them.”
“That is possible. My brother and I have always been able to pass as each other. I consent to being him for a while to rebuild the damage. No one can know.”
Jarek, nodding in automatic agreement, froze as the Chancellor’s gaze cut suddenly to him. Oh, shit, he mouthed silently.
“Then I shall announce to the people the return of their Prince,” the Chancellor said with a smooth bow out of the room. “You, stay,” he ordered in Jarek’s direction.
Jarek sagged against the wall, knowing all too well what was coming. He could hear the roar of the people outside as the news of the Prince’s return was announced. He agreed with the decision, strange though it was. The Prince was revered. His people would be energized and uplifted and they would follow him wherever he ordered. The Avatar among them would be overwhelming, paralyzing. Such was the difference between a prince and a god. Was he not feeling that same paralysis standing in the Divine Presence as he was currently? His mind felt scrambled — for many causes, but the Presence among them.
The Chancellor returned to the stateroom. “You have done well this day, scowmaster,” he said with a cool smile, “but the All-Highest Avatar requires more of you. He requires your silence” — he produced a dagger from his belt — “and your life.”
Jarek nodded mutely and reached for the proffered dagger. Perhaps it was better this way. What was life without his Sitra?
“Enough of that.” The crystal voice was edged. “I want an end to the Imperium’s bloody-handed ways.”
The Chancellor resheathed his dagger with a sigh. “Your Will, All-Highest.” He targeted a glance at Jarek as he retreated. “Your silence, then.”
Jarek slowly relaxed from the mass of tension that his body had become. “Whatever you require of me, All-Highest,” he murmured as the Avatar passed by him to address the people.
Standing there alone, Jarek thought about returning to the scow, but what was the point? He had nowhere to go. He couldn’t quite hear the words spoken outside to the crowd, but he had no trouble hearing the crowd roaring in response. The shattered survivors were being put back together emotionally, given new purpose. But none of that seemed to matter anymore.
His mind skittered around the idea several times, then finally stopped on the thought that the Chancellor was right — he should die. There was nothing left to live for.
“And definitely enough of that,” said the Avatar-turned-Prince, returning suddenly to the stateroom.
Jarek caught himself mid-genuflection, remembering that was not acceptable. “If I have served you well today, Most High, grant me the reward of an easy death. All that I love is now gone, and I do not wish to continue.”
“And if what you love is not gone?” the Highborn asked.
“What?” Jarek’s felt a flutter of hope in his heart. “Is it possible?”
“The great backlash of power that destroyed Throneworld and ten-thousand other worlds also took its toll of Galatrus, killing over 99% of its population. But that means a few survived.”
Jarek’s whole body trembled. “Sitra?” he gasped.
“That outcome can be made to happen. Playing with probabilities is, after all, the province of gods.”
“All-Highest.” This time Jarek did fall to his knees.
“But you shall do one thing in return.”
Jarek stopped breathing. Of course, there would be a price. There always was with Highborn. “My life is forfeit,” he said woodenly.
“Masochistic lambs to the slaughter, all of you,” the Highborn said with an impatient shake of his head. “But so you’ve been trained. What I require is a serviceable craft, and at this moment the list is limited to one scow. And I require a pilot. But only if you can do the job without being overwhelmed and paralyzed by my Presence.”
The Avatar among them would be overwhelming, paralyzing. Jarek’s face grew warm as he recognized his own earlier thoughts on the Avatar’s lips. “Perhaps the Presence of a god will be less daunting in the context of a garbage scow,” he murmured very softly, and waited tensely to be struck down for his impertinence.
“Ah, humor. Always a good beginning. But more chat later. I suggest you proceed quickly to Galatrus to search the south corner of the temple ruins. I promise there’s a survivor there.”
Jarek bowed and retreated, then stopped suddenly in the broken doorway. “But there are more survivors, are there not? Have I your leave to bring them all back?”
The Highborn raised an eyebrow. “Mercy. A good trait in a human, perhaps even better than humor. There are eight survivors on Galatrus. You’ll know where to find them.”
As Jarek hurried from the yacht, he began a silent prayer of gratitude to the All-Highest.
“Enough of that,” the crystal voice called from behind him.
Jonathan Shipley, a member of Science Fiction Writers of America, writes short stories and novels in the genres of fantasy, science fiction, and horror. His list of publications is pushing up to the half-century mark in a vast story arc from Nazi occultism to vampires to futuristic space opera. When not writing, he is immersed in the restoration of an old cattle baron’s mansion in Fort Worth, Texas, which occasionally he also uses as a setting for stories — though not the overly grim ones. A hundred-year-old mansion has enough strange noises in the night without creating causes over and above the usual old house shifting
and creaking. A listing of his short fiction can be found at <a class=”link2″ href=”http://www.shipleyscifi.com/publishedworks” target=”_new”>ShipleyScifi.com</a>
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Tags: Jonathan Shipley, science fiction, war