GOLGOTHA - PART ONE
Almost at the end of all things, the universe has become a cold and desolate place: sparsely peopled, crumbling into entropy, teetering on the edge of final death.
Almost all intelligent life that existed was absorbed into the MODALITIES: vast, god-like intelligences that have transcended the dying universe to a higher phase of being. Now, at the very end of everything, only the most desolate and desperate souls remain, suffering together in the cooling entrails of creation.
Worse, the Demon Lords have entered the universe, burrowing like maggots into the cosmic corpse to feed upon what remains. Beings of cold and cruel appetite, they hunger for mortal consciousness, for innocence and purity. And for every world they consume, a billion souls are lost, removed from the cycle of karma to suffer the torments of the infernal pits.
Soon the universe will collapse back in on itself. Soon all will be returned to base matter, to face another trillion years of slow and painful progress back to sentience. Time runs short. For all who would avoid this fate, for all those who would escape the cycle of rebirth and step to heaven's vault, imminent ascension is of vital importance.
- The Book of Morhavion
Grey is the colour of a mind compressed in hypersleep. A space tense and bounded. A dismal arena for the memories that fester there, looping over and over to torment the dreamer in a thousand undying instants.
Okami Kensho dreams. And in his dreams he sees the lush green hills and valleys of Krokus. He sees the rice-paddies where the peasants worked with bent backs. He feels the wind on his face and the smooth motion of his horse's flanks beneath him. He hears the roar and shout of villages aflame, the crackling of the arquebuses. He knows blood-rage by firelight. He lashes out at squat warriors with katana and wakizashi while the frogs peep and the crickets chirrup. He sees the towers of Edo ablaze, the streets amuck with screaming forms, people burned to crocodile-ants by the flames. He sees Himeko in the doorway, her satin robes awry, screaming for the dead thing in her arms-
And then comes the sigh of decompression and a rush of cold air.
He sat up with a gasp, silence ringing in his ears. Before him was the black enormity of space.
“Kensho.” Came a voice, cool, silky and flat. “Awake, my lord. For we are in crisis and a decision must be made.”
He exhaled heavily, his thoughts moving slow and grey, like clouds across the sky.
Above him, the raised visor of the hypersleep capsule. Around him, the cramped quarters of the ship's bridge. Before him: unending blackness, blurring before his eyes. A glimmer revealed itself. Then another. Another. A handful of dying stars. And hanging directly ahead: a gleaming redness, too small to be made out.
“An anomaly in time and space.” The cool voice returned. “Something like a supernova, only smaller; something like a planet, but not a planet. My readings detect breathable atmosphere, signs of life. In five minutes we will reach the edge of its gravity well, from which I lack sufficient power to escape. You must excuse me for waking you, Lord Okami. However you must choose between this and the things that pursue us.”
He was still for long moments, his mind clouded with confusion. Then he remembered.
“Do not call me this.” He rasped.
“Your memories will return shortly.” The voice responded curtly. “However, you have only four and half minutes to make a decision-”
“What pursues us?”
“Two demons of the ravager class. I cannot outrun them and I lack sufficient power for a successful engagement. I estimate they will close and consume us within the hour. There is nowhere else to run. It is either this or the anomaly. Which do you prefer?”
He tensed at the mention of the ravagers. The memories began to flow back and resentment rose within him. Resentment at having been woken from his nightmares. Resentment at being pulled back into this world of cold and bitter ashes.
He sat up, rolled his shoulders, clenched his fists to test the strength of his body. Yes – it is as he remembered. Strength enough, ready to serve his will. All that was required was resolve.
“There are life-readings you say? Down on this planet?”
“Unless my instruments are mistaken. A few hundred souls. Homo Sapiens, or something like it.”
“Then my purpose is clear. We will go down to this world.”
On all sides came quiet bleeps and whirrs as the computer banks set themselves.
“As you wish, Lord.”
He turned, extended legs the colour of nutmeg over the edge of the hypersleep capsule. He saw the reflection of a naked body in the cold plexiglass of the main visor: a figure large and powerful, muscles rippling beneath nut-brown skin; a body tall, heavy and lithe, its movements suggestive of power and grace. He saw a face, broad, flat-featured and inscrutable, a pair of dark almond-shaped eyes glowering out from beneath a heavy brow.
Homo Dominus in all its glory.
He turned his eyes away.
“Do not call me 'Lord'. The Okami Clan is gone and I am no Daimyo.”
“As you wish, Kensho.”
He shook his head slowly. The image of Himeko's eyes seemed to hang before him, holding within them a thousand accusations.
Ibu, he recalls now. The ship's name is Ibu.
“No. Not 'Kensho', Ibu.” He says quietly. “Not 'Lord', or 'Lord Okami', or anything like that. I am a Ronin now. A samurai without a master. Call me that, if you must call me anything.”
“Very well, 'Ronin'.” The ship returned, with the barest trace of irony.
The Ronin nodded. He rose on bare feet and stalked from the bridge.
In the rear compartments, the Ronin found everything he needed to prepare himself for death.
First his body must be purified. Kneeling before the wash-basin, the Ronin bathed and then shaved his face and forehead. He applied lotion to his hair, tied it back into a neat topknot. Then he cut the nails of his hands and feet, rubbed them down with pumice and wood sorrel. Dressing himself in a black kosode, he next sharpened and polished the two blades of his daisho then raised his eyes to the hulking O-Yoroi armour that stood at the centre of the compartment, being careful to avoid looking at the snarling wolf-snout of its ornate menpo mask. He polished the armour's overlapping scales until their surface shone like porcelain. Then he oiled each of the servo-motors that articulated its limbs, checked the charge on its shoulder-mounted arquebus and checked each of the internal systems.
He moved quickly and precisely, his mind automatically emptying as he performed these necessary rituals. Above, the ravagers could be seen through the clear dome that veiled Ibu's rear compartments: two sinuous forms snaking against the vast, eternal blackness. Fully grown demons, each about 500 metres long. Their forms were a composite of serpent and insect. They undulated like flatworms through the vacuum, frills and flukes flowing grotesquely on their vast underbellies. One showed a neutral guise, its massive head forming a flower of cayman jaws, each saw-toothed mandible underset by a score of cold, hungry eyes. The other, showing some perverse humour, had adopted the head of a human infant: a bulbous face twenty metres across, its purple features scrunched and silently squalling, tears flowing from its eyes to evaporate into the void.
The Ronin did not look up. His lips moved silently as he worked, repeating his vows over and over:
“Never to be outdone in the way of the Samurai; To be of good use to my master; To be filial to my parents; To manifest great compassion; To act for the sake of man.”
The words clutched bitterly at his heart, threatening to draw him from no-mind.
Finally he stood back from the gleaming O-Yoroi and knelt before it, skipping over the ritual contemplation of his ancestors and Buddhas to focus solely on the contemplation of death. He imagined it a hundred different ways. It came in the swish of an assassin's blade, in the blast of an arquebus carrying him from his horse. He imagined it finding him amidst a screaming melee, his foes swarming like hornets to topple him. He dreamt of a slow seppuku in a woodland hollow, his wakizashi driving slowly and deliberately into the thick muscles of his stomach, his face set, lips drawn back in a snarl. He imagined his death. And always he imagined himself a combatant, always a willing participant. Not for him the indignity of old age or the softness of infirmity. Never would he endure a dog's death.
He was roused from his contemplations by the juddering of the ship. A dull roar reached his ears, a sound shockingly loud after the naked silence of the void. He rose, tucked his daisho into the sash at his waist and returned swiftly through the aft compartments to the bridge.
Emerging onto the main deck, a bizarre sight greeted him.
Framed in the ship's main visor, stark against the black canvas of space, it hung, large and weird: a human figure, a thousand leagues tall and perhaps two hundred across, laid out like a corpse on a slab. Ibu had entered the thin atmosphere atmosphere that hung about the thing, and as they descended he saw that a weird landscape had grown up on its chest: a landscape of green valleys, arid plains and high plateaus, cut across by a series of rivers. The thing's head – more like a huge domed rock than a human skull – was craned forwards, its chin tucked into the high mountain range that had formed along its clavicle. Its face, vast and cragged with aeons, had the appearance of a stage mask and he saw in the tears that flowed from its sunken eye-sockets the source of all the rivers that criss-crossed the landscape of its torso.
“A Modality.” He murmured.
“A failed Modality.” Ibu corrected. “A godhead that has failed to ascend to the higher planes. A thing of weird and thin reality. I fear you've chosen poorly, Ronin. However, there is both good news and bad.”
The Ronin said nothing, his fingers going to the hilt of his katana as the ship continued:
“My sensors detect several human settlements on the surface. Beneath the largest of these, I detect emissions consistent with an active fusion core and power enough to replenish my reserves. Unfortunately, however, the ravagers are not likely to allow us this attempt. Unimpressed by the sleeping god before us, they remain in pursuit and are closing rapidly.”
The Ronin drew out the blade of his katana a little way, his thumb pressed lightly against its edge. His expression was unreadable as his eyes moved across the landscape growing rapidly before them. He saw the thing's torso: a great continental plate, strata growing up strangely from the body beneath. At the continent's southern edge, a pair of legs thrust out into the void of space. Here, just above the godhead's waist, a high mountain range loomed, its snow-covered peaks wreathed in mists and snow-storms.
A single red droplet fell to the floor. SHING! The blade was sheathed.
“Take us down to those mountains, Ibu. We'll lure the ravagers into the passes and destroy them there.”
“My reserves are almost depleted, Ronin.” The ship said quietly. “You will get off perhaps five blasts of the ion cannons before we lose all power.”
“Only two will be required.” He replied, turning to leave.
Back in the rear compartment, the Ronin removed his daisho, then bowed once to the imperial O-Yoroi armour. Touching a point just below its sternum, he stood back as it opened. There came a hissing of gases, a mechanical whirr. The wolf mask opened, the scales of the chest and limbs moved rapidly aside to reveal the metal skeleton within. Turning around, he backed carefully inside, pushed his hands into the gauntlets. He flexed his fingers – the scales moved rapidly, sealing him inside. The mask closed over his face; for an instant all was dark and silent. Then a display flickered before his eyes, its colours deep and vibrant. The servo-motors gave a pulse and he moved his limbs experimentally, feeling the immense power that flowed with every movement.
Stepping forwards, he took up the blades of his daisho and belted them at his waist. Then he turned and strode from the compartment, moving swiftly to the gun port at the ship's tail.
Here, a plexi-glass dome looked out over the rushing white of the tundra below, twin ion cannons suspended on either side of it. Up close, the landscape was strange in its familiarity: a vast expanse of snow-covered slopes, their smooth white surfaces broken only by sections of darker stone and ice. Beyond the snow-fields, the mountains loomed. They filled the horizon, granite escarpments rearing above frozen valleys, their snow-capped peaks lost within the clouds.
A snow-storm raged in the lower valleys of the range, and it was towards this blizzard that the ship now fled: a slim golden speck flitting across the vastness of the tundra, two black shadows following close behind.
Calmly, the Ronin took up the gunnery cradle that hung suspended in the dome's centre. The restraints came down automatically. The cannons groaned as gyroscopic motors came to life. Beneath his hands the joysticks throbbed.
“Take us down into the storm, Ibu.” He said. “We'll split them apart, destroy them one by one.”
“The blizzard will interfere with my instruments.” The ship replied, its voice almost lost to the roaring of the wind and thrusters. “The risk of a crash will be extremely high. I cannot recommend this course of action.”
“Step out from under the eaves and you're a dead man.” The Ronin quoted. “Leave the gate, and the enemy is waiting. I am resolved, Ibu-san. Reroute power to the ion cannons. I want a full blast when I squeeze the triggers.”
A shudder passed through the ship as the first of the blizzards slammed against its hull, the snows instantly obscuring the gun port's dome. Ibu made a sound that might have been a curse, began to arc down towards the unseen valley floor.
Above, the Ronin saw the black outlines of the demons, dimly visible through the storm. They drew closer, flowing like eels towards their prey.
The engines gave a whine and the ship levelled, the outlines of a narrow canyon now showing on either side of them. The thrusters roared and they surged forwards, the canyon walls closing in quickly on their wing-tips. Ibu juddered and shook, battered by the howling storm winds. Before the Ronin's eyes the demon-shadows drew closer, squirming horribly against each other in their eagerness to feed.
“Hold on!” Came Ibu's voice. The ship tipped suddenly onto its side, balancing on a wing-tip-
The ship veered, darting like a fish into a narrow crevasse. There was a flash of black, a frustrated scream. The baby-faced ravager was gone, lost to the howling white of the blizzard; only the cayman-jaw shadow remained, bearing swiftly down on them-
The Ronin's fingers twitched at the joysticks.
The demon's jaws opened, the petals of a red flower in bloom-
He pulled the triggers. There was a sound like a scream and a bolt of pure blue light arced into the open mouth of the demon. It held for one terrible second – burning, rending – then it was gone. The ship juddered horribly, the hold lights dimming. Ibu made a sound like a groan.
The ravager burst through the storm, its black eyes filled with rage, globs of flesh flowing like mercury to plug the gaping wound-
The Ronin grit his teeth, fingers tense on the triggers. Then-
“Hold on.” The ship whispered.
The crevasse lurched as the ship turned a hard right-angle; the gunnery cradle swung free, all sense of gravity lost-
Then they were bolting upwards, twisting madly to avoid the narrow ice-walls. The demon surged forwards, its jaws snapping and crashing furiously-
It struck the blind wall of the crevasse with the force of a freight train and exploded into a boiling cloud.
Snow and ice a thousand years old flew through the air, shaken loose by the force of the impact. It cascaded about the ship as it rocked and spun through the air. The Ronin's gorge rose to his teeth. He clung to the sticks, the blizzard spinning about him, lights flashing on and off, a dim alarm sounding somewhere-
Then they were above it, rising from the mouth of the crevasse and out into the raging snow-storm. The ship righted itself with a pulse of its thrusters, slowed to a hover, swaying in the howling storm-winds.
“Ronin.” Its voice came, almost too quiet to hear. “My reserves are at less than one percent... I can remain aloft for only one more...”
“Quiet!” He roared, for now his blood was up. The joysticks creaked beneath his gauntlets, lips pulled back in a snarl behind the wolf mask.
There was a moment of silence. Another. Then, through the white wall of the blizzard, echoing between the mountainsides, came the sounds of an infant wailing, its voiced filled with misery, rage and hunger.
The sound grew louder, seeming to come from everywhere at once. He cast about desperately, his cannons searching the blinding white void-
The wailing barrelled down upon them with the swift inevitability of death. He grinned wildly, his heart thundering in his ears.
The demon exploded through the storm, its screaming face drawn into a snarl of triumph-
The cannons swung true. They crackled, made a blaze of blue light-
The ship's engines cut out abruptly.
The ravager surged forwards, wriggling like a crayfish, its maw opened to reveal rows of iron teeth, vestigial claws extended to strike. But gravity did its work and the ship fell away from the clashing jaws, plummeting nose-first towards the mountainside below.
“Full power!” The Ronin roared. Above him, the underside of the demon rushed past, its flukes working horribly. His fingers clashed uselessly against the triggers, again and again-
Ibu gave a shuddering gasp. The lights died, all systems offline. Then there was a terrific CRACK! and the bolts of the ion cannons arced upwards, bright and true, to slam into the ravager's underbelly.
The demon surged forwards, wailing tortuously, unable to slow itself while the ion beams cleaved it open, its belly parted to loose the slopping entrails within, horrible grey sausage links falling down-
It writhed and twisted, its black eyes growing dim-
Then the ion beams sputtered to nothing. The ravager disappeared screaming into the blizzard, its innards dangling like a gory fruit basket; an instant later there came the sounds of a terrific impact-
For an instant the Ronin knew deep and eternal peace. He spun weightlessly, white powder dancing about him like the spring blossoms of Krokus.
Then the mountainside rose up in a white wall to slam into the ship's front end.
There was a deafening roar. There was an eternal spinning void.
Then there was nothing at all.