Chapter 3

earth 

Akkad glared at the blip orbiting the Earth, leering at the Therian disc keeping watchful eye over his prize. He clenched his fists in frustration, his tail thrashing and slapping the craggy floor of his stygian abode. Akkad circled the shaft of light, hissing and gnashing his teeth. The muscles beneath his scales tensed as if he were about to pounce. The other Krush hid deep in their crevices, not wishing to draw the attention of their lord.

A laelap hovered toward Akkad, halting to assume its green silhouette. “Status report, primarch.” Akkad failed to hear the laelap. “Sir?”

“What?” Akkad shouted, jerking violently forward and baring his fangs at the mech.

The laelap did not flinch, its flickering facade staring blankly at Akkad. “Status report, primarch,” it tranquilly repeated.

Akkad flared his nostrils, biting briefly at the air before turning back to the display. “Report.”

“Communications have been achieved with Khasra.”

“Has our situation been relayed to them?”

“No, primarch. We have only informed them of our arrival in system and current operational status.”

The disc shone in Akkad’s oily eye as he continued to focus on the Therian impediment. A contemplative gurgle bubbled in his throat. “We will begin a communications black out.” He turned to the laelap, extending his hand to expose his claws in a threatening gesture. “Until I order, no one is to send a communiqué across the link.”

“As you command, primarch.”

“Status of the fleet?”

“Very little damage was taken on our voyage. The majority was structural received from entering in system. Repairs are nearing completion now. All systems are running at satisfactory levels. We will be able to initiate invasion at your discretion.”

A hacking cough, a sign of pleasure among the Krush, barked harshly from Akkad’s throat. “Excellent.” The talons of his feet clicked excitedly on the floor.

“Primarch, I must report a problem.”

Akkad’s cough devolved into a low, guttural growl. “What problem?”

“As requested, a probe was sent to the planet’s surface to gather data on the natives. We have finished analyzing the samples collected. The data has not been wholly positive.”

Akkad advanced toward the laelap, his monstrous form towering over the emerald shade. “How so?” he snarled menacingly.

“Simulations have been run regarding the feasibility of genetic alteration of this planet’s natives via nanocytes similar to their intended use in Nasnas production. Physical trials of limited scope have already been carried out at the cellular level. Complications have arisen.”

“Such as?”

human 

The laelap circled around the shaft of light to stand opposite Akkad. The Earth dissolved to be replaced by a blue hologram of human physiology. The digital skin was stripped away, revealing an indigo musculature, while the veins and arteries were highlighted bright crimson to enhance the view of the circulatory system. “At the biological level, numerous differences have been discovered. Their blood is iron-based, in contrast to a Krush’s copper, creating issues in genetic compatibility. This includes metabolic rate, cellular respiration, and other functions. This has forced us to reformulate our original organic designs of alteration slowing progress.”

The highlighted circulatory system darkened as the contents of the thoracic and abdominal cavities flared a bright orange to reveal the individual organs located within. “The problem of alteration is further compounded by their organs. First, there is an issue concerning their hearts. A native’s heart is four chambered versus three and is smaller and more fragile in comparison to a Krush’s, possibly due to their thinner blood composition.”

The heart withdrew from the holographic figure, beating as it came forward while expanding to allow for better examination. “Experiments have proven their heart to be vulnerable to cardiac arrest following nanocyte manipulation. We are unsure at this point if it is due to increased steroid and hormonal content brought on by the alteration process, possible tissue rejection, anemia, increased blood viscosity, hemolysis, or if the combined physical and mental toll placed on the specimen as a whole is to blame.” The heart beat faster and faster, taking on a manic speed until the beat became irregular, struggling to continue, until it stopped altogether and dissolved from view.

“Second,” the laelap continued, “they lack a hasha or an organic equivalent thus negating necessary regenerative capabilities. This compounds difficulties and lowers survival rates for the process to roughly 25%.”

“How do these creatures survive?” Akkad asked himself disgustedly. “Hatchlings are more durable than these frail beasts.”

The skeletal structure of the humanoid hologram blazed green. “Further complicating our efforts is their size. Their frames have proven too small to carry the necessary weight following alteration. Krush are far denser than these natives in terms of musculature and skeletal mass. This can be corrected through manipulation of these creatures’ growth process to accommodate biological alteration’s intended goals, but it will take time and carries risks. They are only 40% the size of a Krush with a bone structure and circulatory system incompatible with such immense size. Estimates put full maturation to Krush levels at between thirty and ninety planetary rotations for important genetic alterations with minor changes continuing thereafter, but such rapid growth raises the prospect of malignant neoplasms.”

Akkad flicked his claws together in frustration. “Damnable creatures. I should never have agreed to use them. That Therian goaded me and I took the bait like an addled hatchling.”

“Also,” the laelap droned on, “due to such accelerated growth, the need to feed will grow exponentially in the subject to acquire the raw materials necessary to fuel their increasing metabolism. Simulations advise the subject come from a region rich in either vegetation or prey to meet this demand. Otherwise, the subject will quickly perish, its body consuming itself.”

“Have you found such a site?”

“We have several in mind which I am prepared to show you.”

“I have a choice? How rare,” Akkad darkly joked.

“There is more, primarch.”

“What do you mean ‘there is more‘? Have you not cursed me enough with your predictions?”

“Primarch, there are fears that the minds of these creatures cannot handle genetic modification. Possible problems such as mental instability, stroke, or full shutdown have emerged.”

“Why?”

“In order to spur growth, we will have to increase the hormonal output of their interstitial cells as well as artificially stimulate stressor glands. This will lead to increased aggression on the part of the subject chosen. It will also entail an increase in stress. Therein lies the problem. Their minds have been shown to possess a weakness to prolonged stress and rage, unlike your species. Too much stimuli and their brains begin to atrophy. Insanity could follow. Psychosis. Mindless rage.”

“Mindless rage is to be desired. I do not want this creature calculating. I want it annihilating.”

“But it will be unstable, primarch. Even self-destructive.”

“We can always put it down after. It is a blasphemy, regardless.” Akkad took a breath, thinking over the data while his tongue flicked in and out of his mouth. “Is there any way to lessen the threats of alteration?”

“The subject will have to be young. The closer to pubescence is preferred. Their body will be most likely to survive the stress and be most vulnerable to alteration by nanocyte intervention as the adolescent is still developing naturally.”

“Ah, so we will make a stripling a warrior.”

“Have you any prerequisites for the site, primarch?”

“Just one. Warriors may only be forged on battlefields. Of the sites that fit your demands for sustenance, are there conflicts occurring in or near them?”

“Yes, primarch.” The human physiology faded out to once more be replaced by the Earth. “Magnify point 39-116.” The Earth revolved until Asia came into view and then enlarged to focus on China’s eastern shore, Japan floating off to the right. “Investigations have shown an ongoing conflict in this region.”

Akkad cackled deep in his throat. “Surely we will find a warrior there.”

“Yes, primarch.”

“That site will do. Do what you must. I do not care if you must kill a thousand of these natives. We must have a champion.” Akkad turned away from the display, focusing on the laelap’s silhouette. “With that settled, have you finished your investigation into the Theria?”

“Yes, primarch. Our archives are extensive.”

“Tell me what you can of these creatures.”

“Their origins are unknown, even to our records. Scattered sources claim they are the creators of all things. Others claim they are the universal firstborns. All agree they are ancient.

“Descriptions vary regarding physiognomy. Theria are said to be creatures of light as well as amorphous, shape-shifting beings without a predetermined form. But there is more. Myths on several planets speak of members of their own species becoming Therian, chosen for reasons known only to the Theria.”

Akkad’s tail snapped to the side, betraying his surprise. “The Theria have a history of altering alien life?”

“Yes, primarch. To what purpose is not known. Perhaps it is a form of reproduction.”

Akkad thought briefly on the subject before letting it pass. “What of their abilities?”

“Myths throughout the galaxy have attributed to the Theria – or creatures matching their description – with powers such as psychokinesis, telekinesis, telepathy, transmutation, teleportation and bilocation. They are also renowned healers and warriors.”

“Warriors?”

“Yes, primarch. There are tales of Theria fighting in battles using physical rather than psychokinetic abilities. They are said to be blessed with great strength and speed.”

“Warriors,” Akkad hissed, shifting his jaw. His gaze fell on the disc watching over Earth. “Are they immortal?”

“No, primarch. There are stories of Theria perishing, such as during the Siege of Agin and in the campaigns of Magne. They are quite mortal.”

“Gods that can die.” Akkad’s mouth widened in a mocking laugh.

***

Pol levitated above the deck, head tilted back, his body flaring radiantly against the concave argent walls of his ship, filling the bridge with an unearthly iridescence. His robes blazed like fire, burning aureate and fierce as the morning star. The Therian’s hands were steepled together in front of him in a gesture of prayer. He whispered in mellifluous syllables that multiplied in the divine expanse and culminated in a collection of angelic verse.

A shift came over the room when he bowed his head. Warmth faded from the bridge. The light began to contract toward Pol like a constricting pupil, leaving inky blackness at the luminous fringes. The intensity of his aura increased as the ship dimmed until he became a lambent sliver in the growing gloom.

Pol’s hands seared lustrously, shining brighter than the rest of his form, until a flickering sparked between his palms. Gradually, Pol pulled his hands apart, bolts of electricity coursing violently between them. An inchoate series of specks gathered in the fulgurant space and began to knit together, forming a hollow, fragile shell. The bolts crackled loudly as Pol focused his essence into the empty sphere, his voice becoming strained. The orb’s smoky center throbbed, its vacuous core crystallizing. As it solidified, a quartz membrane encompassed the orb, sealing in Pol’s blessed glow and climaxing in an implosion of light. Pol descended to the deck silently, the orb in his hands. Exhausted, the glimmer of his countenance wavered and dissipated, leaving the bridge in total darkness.

The ceiling soon blinked to life, a soothing brilliance bathing the chamber to reveal a gray-skinned, wrinkled figure at its center. A timeworn being of small stature, Pol trembled and took a knee, gasping raggedly in fatigue, his vast robes spilling beneath him. He put his free hand down to support his weight, his hairless head slumped forward on the cool deck. In time, his head rose shakily and his crescent eyes opened to behold his creation. For some time, he scrutinized the orb in his hand, marveling at the empyrean craftsmanship.

With little warning, a molten shower began to rain down behind Pol, the sparks dancing upon the floor with a soft ring.

Pol did not bother to turn. “You disapprove.”

“You know the laws. Therian history. And yet you choose to intervene.” The voice seemed to vibrate from the walls of the ship.

Pol’s shoulders sagged. “Would you rather I watch them suffer?”

The sparks gathered into a mist that condensed to form a golem of liquid ferrous composition. Suul, the ship’s AI and Pol’s counsel, presented itself to its master. “It is the way of things. It is their fate. One they have earned.”

“I disagree, Suul. These creatures…these humans…are innocent of the sins of our galaxy.”

“Are they?” Suul glided forward to stand beside its master. The AI gestured toward the far wall which morphed from silver alloy to a lit HUD. Video of humanity’s history throughout the past several thousand years played upon the concave surface before their shadowy forms. Images of battles, ruins and great suffering played out in front of them. “You have perused the vids, and seen their brutal legacy as have I. Like so many other races, these creatures are animals at best. There is no nobility in them. To think these humans consciously cause such destruction…”

“They are far from mindless,” Pol countered sternly.

“Their minds are flawed, their thinking twisted. They abuse the gift of reason.” Suul looked down on Pol’s bent form. “They defy the natural order, place themselves at the fore of all things to the detriment of all else. Selfish, immature brutes,” it spat. “It is not enough they succeed, but all else must fail. The idea of coexistence is alien to them. With their environment. With each other. They blacken their own skies, taint their soil, pollute their water. They drive species to extinction – including their own, much like the Krush. For what? Shortsighted gain. They are a cancer to their own world.

“And their idea of civilization. It is a mockery, using technology to craft greater and greater weapons for slaughter, to galvanize armies, to oppress the masses.” Columns of marching soldiers passed by onscreen, marching mindlessly toward battle. “Their cities exist only to multiply their suffering. They are a stunted species that does not cherish life but yearns to enslave it. Dissect it. Bend it to their will. They have sacrificed so much upon the pyres. Who among them, I ask you, is worthy of the seed of the Theria?”

Pol extinguished the digital inferno with a glance before peering up defiantly at Suul. “And what of their literature? Their philosophy? Their magnanimity? You speak of them as if they were mere barbarians. Not every war they have waged was for base reasons. They have fought for freedom, liberty and justice. Even against the most insurmountable of odds they have stood firm…and won. In their darkest hours they shine the brightest. Every glow needs a shadow to display its radiance. To condemn the whole of humanity is to show how little you understand them or the natural order. There can be no good without evil, as there can be no dark without light. No race is without its tyrants. Not even the Theria.”

“And what of the conflict so recently ended? The one the natives call ‘The Great War’? Was there value in that?” Trench warfare from the Western Front blasted across the HUD. Dirt churned up in plumes only to rain grit in the smoke hovering above the ground, obscuring the cratered fields. Soldiers emerged like dead from the grave and ran willingly into Death’s maw, cut down by machinegun fire or torn to pieces by artillery. Those who survived vanished back into the smoke. Bodies littered the earth, left to rot or serve as carrion. Men wept in the muddy trenches while others stared blankly.

Pol was silent for a time, the images reflected in his eyes. “There is more to them than war,” he weakly offered.

“Perhaps. But the dichotomy of their being can never be reconciled. Creators. Destroyers. The former only exists so the latter may arise.

“They are thralls to their senses. Sybaritic automatons who merely feed, reproduce and die with the illusion of sentience. There is no valid independent thought within them save for an anomalous few who are quickly silenced by the many too scared to question the order of things. They will never transcend their flesh. They do not want to. The pleasures offered are too great for this venal species to overcome their instincts, to think beyond themselves, to prove their nobility. That is impossible for their kind.

“These territorial beasts’ factionalism has cost them knowledge. They would rather fight one another for an inch of ground than come together for a greater cause. They are selfish, short-sighted and stunted. They seek only death because they are incapable of understanding life. Again and again they turn on one another, murdering their brothers, tearing the world down around them in frustration like the spoiled children that they are.

“Do not ask me to pity them as you do. They have had ages to prepare for the Krush’s coming. Instead, they have frittered it away. I only ask that you do not allow your pity to overwhelm your sound reason. Theirs is a race of savages unworthy of salvation from the Krush. They have earned annihilation, if only to stop their cancerous spread to the stars.”

“And when does any race become worthy?” Pol waved his hand and the silver wall lit up with a map of the galaxy. “How long have we watched the Krush’s shadow spread across the galaxy? How many civilizations have we stood by and allowed to vanish in that yawning abyss?” Parts of the galaxy went red and then blacked out. Soon the once vibrant galaxy had shriveled, leaving a thin collection of stars upon the spiraling galactic wheel, a stark presentation of Krush conquests. Pol frowned at the image. “So many screams thought unheard. I cannot watch forever.”

Suul stabbed at the screen, increasing galactic magnification until Earth took up the wall. “And intervention is your solution? What if your intervention then turns to guidance, as it must? How long before that guidance becomes manipulation and then, when they no longer listen, outright domination? To interfere once sets a precedent. These humans will become your responsibility. They will turn to you, rely on you, corrupt you and destroy you,” Suul stated with condemnation. “It is inevitable.”

Pol shook his head. “Nothing is inevitable.”

Suul analyzed its master. “Why do you feel such guilt, Pol? This is the way of things. Rise and fall. Death and life. The Krush are not the first conquerors, and they will not be the last. This is what must be, a purging of the old order. Not even the Theria can save a galaxy from itself, nor should they. The galaxy must choose to save itself. If it is worthy, it will evolve. It will learn. It will grow. You must stand aside.”

“Why?” Pol challenged. “Why must I let more blood be shed?”

“Because this is not your fight.” Suul gestured to the Earth. “It is theirs.”

“I value your counsel, but you are wrong. We speak of this galaxy as if we do not belong in it, as if we are above it. We separate ourselves, isolate ourselves. Why must we stand apart? The elders would make us believe – but we are not. Out there, across the spinning arms, are our brothers. So many shining souls much like ourselves. Can you not see that?”

“I see only beings whose failings the Theria are not to blame for. You cannot teach the galaxy the meaning of life. They must learn it. They must earn such knowledge or they will abuse it. Intervention inhibits growth.”

Pol’s demure mouth frowned. “If I retreat, I surrender to the fear that has robbed the Theria of their place in the galaxy – fear of what we once were, fear of what we could be. To have such power and to deny aid to those who need it, even those who forsook us…Why exist if we have no purpose, whether positive or negative?”

“The Theria are the neutral. You exist to chronicle the rise and fall of life. Recorders of history, not the authors of destiny.”

“And thus do we live through others because we are too scared to live ourselves,” Pol intoned tremulously.

“Scared to live? Once the Theria ruled the galaxy. How close they came to destroying it. Have you forgotten?”

Pol rose to face Suul. “No, I have never forgotten. But I also remember the nobility the Theria once held. Where has that nobility gone? Does it die with us?”

“You speak of current Therian nobility in a negative connotation. Has there ever been a race that has sacrificed as much as the Theria? Your people sought to save the galaxy from itself and were forsaken. So many cursed you, condemned you and drove you from their worlds.”

Pol reached toward Suul, beseeching him to understand. “They were afraid of us. They had every right to be.”

Suul’s gaze returned to the Earth. “There is nothing redeemable in them. They betrayed you. They do not see you as their brother. The races of the galaxy see only with their eyes and the differences perceived were far greater than the similarities. That is why the Theria withdrew. To remain was to be consumed in a conflagration of the galaxy’s own making. You have only to look at the destruction wreaked across the stars after the Therian withdrawal. How quickly they turned on one another destroying an age of Therian works. Now the Krush have come to finish what these traitors started, a cleansing element spawned by the natural order. Like a fire, they will consume what is left so the galaxy may begin anew.”

“I fear this time life may not rise anew.” A spectral ripple passed across Pol’s sorrowful eyes. “We risk losing so much if we let this come to pass.”

“Then why do you not fight for them? If you believe it your responsibility, why use a proxy? Why involve an innocent?”

Pol heaved a tired sigh. “If only I could, I would fight for them – but I have grown old. I cannot be the champion they require, no matter how strongly I wish I could.” He shook his weary head before his eyes drifted to the Earth. “So I turn to them. This is humanity’s battle. Fate has brought me to them. They have been chosen. One will rise. Not for me or the Theria but for the voices that cry in the darkness. He will stand as their final champion, a symbol of the nobility we once held. If he fails and the Krush succeed, then our time has truly passed and life has failed its greatest test.” Pol’s sorrowful eyes turned away from Earth.

“They are still a young race,” Suul argued. “Fractious. Undisciplined. Self-destructive. What if your power proves too much for them? What if it consumes them?”

Pol gave Suul a sidelong glance. “It could be the beginning of their maturity.”

“Or it could drive them mad. How much will it take to drive this homicidal breed into genocidal frenzy?”

“I have faith in them.”

Suul’s featureless face leaned in. “Why?”

“Because they are capable of dreams.” Pol thought that over and found solace. “You call them savages, but I see scared children. Yet despite their fears, they do not retreat. They do not hide. They look to the stars and see what could be. They reach, they fall, and they reach again. There is strength to them, a willingness to sacrifice if they must. A want to grow. They yearn to know as the Theria once did.”

“But they are not Therian,” Suul chastised.

orb 

“No.” Pol held the glowing orb at eye level. “They could be more.”

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