TWILIGHT OF THE GODS
JOHN C. WRIGHT
John C. Wright is the author of nine novels including the recent Null-A Continuum, an authorized sequel to A.E. van Vogt’s World of Null-A. The first book in Wright’s Chaos Chronicles series— The Orphans of Chaos —was a finalist for the Nebula Award. His first novel, The Golden Age, was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best SF novel of the year. He is also a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor, who lives in the commonwealth of Virginia with his wife, author L. Jagi Lamplighter, and his three children Orville, Wilbur, and Just Wright.
“Twilight of the Gods” is a sequel to Wright’s short stories “Not Born a Man” and “Farthest Man From Earth,” and is his attempt to tell the story of Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung in space. “All three tales take place in a common background or future history, where the human race has discovered the secret of immortality on 36 Ophiuchi,” Wright said. “Only an incentive such as eternal youth, in my opinion, could motivate the human race to overcome the near-infinite expense and hardship of interstellar travel.”
Tall golden doors loomed up behind the dais of the throne. Behind those doors, it was said, the Main Bridge of the Twilight of the Gods reposed, a chamber dim and vast, with many altars studded all with jeweled controls set before the dark mirrors of the Computer. But Acting Captain Weston II found the chamber oppressive, and did not like the mysterious dark mirrors of the Computer watching him, and so, since his father’s death many years ago, this white high chamber before the golden doors was used as his hall of audience.
The chamber was paved in squares of gold and white, with pillars of gold spaced along white walls. Hanging between the pillars were portraits of scenes from somewhere in the ship the Captain had never seen; fields of green plants, some taller than a man, growing, for some reason, along the deck rather than in shelves along the walls. In the pictures, the deck was buckled and broken, rising and falling in round slopes (perhaps due to damage from a Weapon of the Enemy) with major leaks running across it. The scenes took place in some hold or bay larger than any Acting Captain Weston II had seen or could imagine; the overhead bulkhead was painted light blue, some sort of white disruption like steam-clouds floating against it. In many pictures, the blue overhead was ruptured by a large yellow many-rayed circular explosion, perhaps, again, of a Weapon.
In most pictures were sheep or other animals, and young crewmen and women, out of uniform, blissfully ignoring the explosion overhead, and doing nothing to stop the huge leaks, one of which had ducks swimming in it.
Acting Captain Weston II found the pictures soothing, but disturbing. He often wondered if the artist had been trying to show how frail and foolish men are, that they will trip lightly through their little lives without a thought to the explosions and disasters all about them. Perhaps he preferred this chamber for that reason.
What the original use and name of this chamber had been in days gone past, no man of the Captain’s Court could tell, not even his withered and aged Computerman.
The chamber now was bare, except that the Computerman approached the throne and knelt to Weston. “My lord,” he said. His face was worn and haggard, his garb simple, rough, and belted with a hank of rope. The Computerman’s eyes showed red and staring, a certain sign of the many long nightwatches he had spent writhing in the grip of the holy drug, which allowed his brethren to commune with the Computer.
“Why do you come unbidden unto me?” Weston asked sternly. “I know you await another,”
The Computerman replied. “It is to warn you against that other, that I am come.”
The Acting Captain raised his hand, but the Computerman said swiftly, “Bid me not to go! Unless you would not heed the will of the Computer in this thing, the Computer which knows all, indeed, even things most secret and shameful.”
The Captain had a troubled look upon his face, and sat back with one hand clutching the front of his jeweled coat, as if to hide something behind his hand, something, perhaps, on a necklace hidden beneath his tunic. “What shame?” he said.
“Every child knows the story of the Ring of Last Command,” the Computerman said. “Of how, when the Sixth Barrage destroyed the lights and power of the second hundred decks, and Weapon of the Enemy opened the Great Chasm in the hull, reaching from the stars below almost to the thousandth deck, the first Captain, Valdemar, capitulated to the Enemy, and allowed a Boarding Party to come in from the Void Below the Hull. Decks Three Hundred through Seven Hundred Seventy rebelled, and followed bright Alverin into battle against the traitor Captain. But the Captain was not found, and his Ring of Final Command was lost. The ring, they say, can waken the Computers all again, and send the Weapons of the Twilight down into the Void.”
“Children’s fairy-tales,” the Captain said.
“Yet, I deem, they tempt you,” the Computerman said.
The Captain was silent.
“This prisoner which the giant brings; he had a ring inscribed with circuits, did he not? A ring which matches the descriptions of the Command Ring? You dream of learning the Secret Word which controls that Ring, and of conquering the world, of driving back the tall elves from decks above, where they fly and know no weight, and compelling the twisted dwarves from Engineering to obedience to your reign, and, one day, who knows? you think you will drive forth the Destroyers, and the servants of the enemy who infest the many antispinward decks, and hurl them down into the Void from whence they came. You dream a dream of vile pride; you are corrupted with temptation.”
The Captain rose angrily from his throne. “Stop! Do you think your holy office will protect you from my wrath? Were there such a ring as legends say, for certain I would seize it to my own. And who would dare deny me? You? You?”
But the Computerman bowed in all humility, and said, “My lord knows there can be no such ring. A ring to waken the computers, indeed! Our faith informs us that the Computers do not sleep, that their screens are not dark, not to eyes that keep the faith. I and my brethren commune with the computers each nightwatch, and it gives us secret knowledge.”
“My father told me the Computer screens once were bright to every eye, and a voice like a man’s voice spoke from them, every man, even the humblest, could hear that voice. Before the Fifth Barrage, in his youth, he had seen them shining, and heard the voice.”
“Men knew less sin in those days, my lord.”
At that moment came a noise at the doors before them, not the golden doors of the Bridge, but the silver doors leading to the outer part of the palace and to the corridors and warrens of the great city of Forecomcon. The silver doors swept wide; here were twenty pikemen of the Gatewatch, dressed in blue and silver, and here, garbed hugely in the gray-green of the ancient order of Marines, strode in the giant.
The giant’s shoulder was taller than a tall man’s head, but his hair and beard were white with age. For he was the last of his kind, born to serve as a Marine, created by the lost arts of the Medical House, back when the Twilight was young. His name was Carradock.
In one hand Carradock held a mighty weapon like a spear, made by ancient and forgotten arts. The weapon could shoot bullets like a musket, except that it could fire many at a time, yet the bullets were slow, and would not pierce the bulkheads, or damage the equipment, and so the weapon was lawful according to the Weapons Law.
In Carradock’s other hand was a chain. Bound by that chain, manacled and fettered, was a strange, dark man, wearing a uniform of silver-white, unlike any uniform known to Weston’s lore. The man had pale hair like an upper-deck elf, and, like them, he was tall. But he was darkened and scarred by radiation, like the dwarves of engineering, or like those who lived near the Great Chasm, the Lesser Chasm, or the Hole, or near any other place the Weapons of the Enemy had blown up through the world. He was muscled like a down-deck dwarf, with thicker muscles than Weston had ever seen, except, perhaps for those on Carradock.
The Gatewatch lieutenant spoke up out of turn, coming forward and saying, “My lord! I pray you, let not this man alone in audience with you! He has the strength of three men.”
“Then let him be bound with three men’s chains, but I will speak alone to him.”
The prisoner in silver-white stood, face calm, staring at the Captain. His face was still, his demeanor quiet. He seemed neither proud nor humble, but he stood like a man surrounded by a great silent open space, wherein nothing could be hidden from him, nor anything approach to harm him.
When he did not kneel, the Gatewatch pikemen struck him in the back of his knees with the butts of their spears. But the muscles of the prisoner’s legs were strong, and did not bend when struck. Three of the Gatewatch put their hands on his shoulders to force him down. The prisoner watched them calmly, but would not budge.
“Leave him stand,” the Captain ordered. The men stepped back. Then the Captain said, “Where are his wounds? He has no new scars. I ordered him put to torment. Bring forth the Apprentice Torturer.”
But the lieutenant said, “Sire, the Apprentice Torturer fled after you ordered the Master Torturer tortured to death. After, none of the lesser torturers would approach this prisoner. They refused to obey your order.”
The Computerman was still standing near the throne. He leaned forward and whispered, “Sire, why did you order the Master Torturer put to the question? I guess this: this prisoner told you that he had told the Master Torturer the Words which command the ring. The Master Torturer denied it. You conceived a jealous suspicion, and feared the Master Torturer craved the ring, and knew the Word. Do I guess aright?”
The Captain stood. “Leave me! All of you, except my giant, leave me! You, as well, Computerman!”
The lieutenant said, “Sire, shall we bring the other prisoner in now as well? The blind man we found wondering the Inner Corridor?”
“What care I for wandering beggars? Leave me, all!”
But the Computerman would not leave until the Gatewatch came to drag him away. The Computerman was shouting, “Beware the thing you covet! Beware! It is a thing accursed! All who do not possess it will crave it! It will drive you to madness; it will drive you to destroy your trusted servants, as you have destroyed your Torturer! Eschew this thing! Cast it away! The Computer cannot be controlled by it!” But by then the Gatewatch had gently pulled the old man out of the chamber and closed the door behind them.
Acting Captain Weston II sat upon his throne again, and bent his gaze upon the dark, scarred man before him. The man did not fidget or stir, but stood, calm and silent; and the giant stood waiting behind him.
“Speak!” ordered Weston.
The man said, “I have nothing more to say.” His voice was soft and pleasant to the ear.
“The Old Code requires you to speak to a superior officer. What is your name and station, rank and duty?”
“I am Henwas, son of Himdall. I come from Starwell. My rank is Watchman. I am come to report to the true Captain.”
“There are no Watchmen; the order is defunct. After the Boarding by the Enemy, all the outer Hull was laid to waste. No; you are no Watchman. You have the look of an aftman farmer about you.”
“I was not born a Watchman; indeed, I was born a farmer. My village is called Aftshear, in the secondary engine core, near the Axis, where the world has no weight. My youth was spent tending the many plants and green growing things from whence come our air, and life. But I was captured by the Enemy, and, for a time, was a slave. I escaped, and fled below decks, where every step is a crushing weight, and the air is poisoned by the radiations of the Seventh Barrage. The servants of the Enemy feared the radiation, and could not tolerate the weight, and did not pursue me. Crawling, I went still lower, till I was nearly crushed. Then I came upon a place where nothing was below me, except for the stars.
“There I was found by Himdall, last of all Watchmen, in the midst of a deserted place and empty corridors, a chamber lit, and filled with sweet air, although surrounded by darkness and poison on every side.
“Himdall nursed me back to health, and taught to me his art, and showed to me the Starwell, at whose deep bottom the stars underfoot turn and turn again. And I became a Watchman in truth, and was adopted as his son. And for long years I kept watch on the Enemy stars, and saw the slow, grave motions.”
Weston asked: “And do you believe the heresy which says the stars which move are not mere colored lights, but the Ships from which the Enemy, in ancient times, came forth?”
“I do. And yet among those lights, are four Ships friendly to our own, sent out, as we were, in ages past, from Earth. Their names I think you know: the G"otterd"ammerung, the Apocalypse, the Armageddon, and the Ragnar"ok.”
Weston stirred uneasily upon his throne. “I tell you the original Captain betrayed the crew, and fled. This happened when my father was a boy. He was Acting Captain; now I am the Acting Captain.”
“By what right do you call yourself so?”
Weston shouted angrily, “By right of blood succession!” Then he was quiet, and he said quietly, “You may give any report you must give to me.”
“Very well,” said Henwas Watchman, and he recited all he had said when first he had been brought before Weston: “The Eighth Barrage, which has been approaching for so many years, has turned aside, and seeks now to strike the Armageddon. The missiles and small ships of that Barrage shall smite their target starting twelve years hence, with a bombardment lasting a year or two, peaking fourteen years hence and diminishing thereafter. We shall not be struck by it; presumably the masters of Enemy now know we were boarded by the sixty armies from the landing party from the Dreadnought Kzalcurrang-Achai, which, in our speech, is named the Hungry Indeed For Battle.
“I further report that our escort ships, the Revenge and the Vendetta, were destroyed between thirteen and seven years ago by picket ships launched from the Tzazalkiurung, which, in our speech, is named Ready To Do Grave Harm. This ship is presently four light-minutes off our port bow, where it has remained for seventy years, no doubt waiting to see if it must render aid to the Kzalcurrang-Achai.
“Yet the main sweep of the Destroyer fleet has passed beyond us and done us no hurt. We are in the midst of some eighty Dreadnoughts and four motile planets. Their Crown ships are within eight light-minutes of us now, and have not maneuvered to avoid us by a further distance. Asteroids from the shattered planet called War Storm are all about us in each direction, and perhaps hide us from the main body of the Enemy, and from the Crown Ships, which take no heed of us, but proceed against the Armageddon and the G"otterd"ammerung. Of the Apocalypse there has been no sign for thirty years. The Ragnar"ok is hidden by a great light; either she maneuvers, or she is in full retreat.”
The Captain was sarcastic. “And you believe all this? That the fate of our world depends on the motions of these little colored lights?”
“I have one thing further to report. The escort ship Hermes Trismegistus out from the G"otterd"ammerung has entered an orbit of the Enemy planet called Promise of Destruction. She maneuvers without any flare, and will not be seen by the Enemy. The orbit will carry the Hermes Trismegistus to us before the decade ends. It is a rescue ship. When the officers from the Hermes come aboard, power and light will be restored to all sections, the wounded and the poisoned will be healed by their knowledge; and those who have not kept faith will be punished. If you have been disobedient, you will be taken before the Court Martial.”
The Captain sneered. “My nurse, when I was but a babe, would terrify me with tales of the Court Martial and the Day of Judgment that would come when the Earthmen would come up from Heaven underfoot. But you shall not live long enough to find the truth of these things, unless the medicine of the Earthmen knows how to resurrect the dead.”
The Watchman said simply, “I have lived near the radiations of the outer hull. I have the disease. I know the hour of my death is not far off. Why else would I be willing to bear the cursed ring?”
Weston drew on a chain around his neck. Up from inside his jeweled coat he drew out the ring. It was gold, inscribed with delicate circuitry, and set with gray stone. In the middle of the stone gleamed a strange light, which showed that the power of the ring still lived.
“Tell me the word which commands this ring.”
“I may only tell the Captain.”
“I am Captain! I am he! There is no Captain Valdemar! He is myth! Even were there such a man, he would be long dead, a hundred years or more gone by! I am the true Captain!”
“A true Captain would use the power, not for himself, but to complete the mission, and discharge the great Weapons the stories say our world carries at its Axis,” the Watchman said softly.
“And if that were my intention . . . ?”
“Then you would not have chained me,” said the Watchman, rattling his manacles.
The Captain sat until he felt his anger cool within him. Then he spoke in a voice most reasonable and even, “Watchman, if I could persuade you that there are no worlds hanging in the Void beneath our world, no Dreadnoughts of the Enemy, no war, except for the wars fought with the Enemy aboard our Ship, between here and Midline Darkhall, and spinward toward the Lesser Chasm, what then? If there is no world outside our world, no Weapons to fire, what reason have you them to withhold from me the Ring of Final Command?”
“No reason,” said the Watchman. “If there were no worlds below our feet, I would give the ring’s commands to you.”
“Then reckon this: If you are right, and there is a war in space below us, then this ship, and all aboard, were sent into that war, to fight, perhaps, to die, all in order to defend the ship called Earth from our Great Enemy.”
“Earth is not a ship. It is a planet. Earth is inside out, for the crew there live on the outer hull, and their air is outward from them. On Earth, gravity is backwards, and draws them toward their axis, so that they stand with their feet on the hull, with their heads looking down toward the stars.”
“Be that as it may; the Earthmen sent these great ships far out into space to fight their wars, not so? This they did with all wisdom and intention, knowing that even the swiftest flight across the Void would take generations, not so?”
“It is so.”
“I ask you then, in all candor, how could this be? Who but a madman would dispatch his armies to fight across the Void, sending them to battlefields so far that the grandchildren of those sent out would be the only soldiers on the field?”
“I know not: yet it was done.”
“Leaving us ignorant of all? No one has even seen the Enemy stars, nor do we know them. How have we become so ignorant so soon?”
“My master said once that the Computer spoke to all the children, and instructed them. When the Computer fell silent, there were no written things aboard with which to teach the children. Much was lost; more was lost in the confusion of the wars and darkenings. What we know, we know by spoken lore; but in the past, all men knew the priestly arts, and could read the signs.”
Weston waved his hand impatiently, as if this were nothing to the point. “Heed me. I tell you, I have led men into battle, not once, but many times, both against the rebel elves of Alverin, and against the Enemy. Will you take me at my word, that no battle could be fought, nor any force commanded, unless the soldiers are willing to die for one another, or for their home corridors?”
“I believe it.”
“Now then: who aboard this ship is willing to die for Earth, which no one has ever seen; or is willing to die for those aboard the other ships of which myths speak; the G"otterd"ammerung or the Apocalypse? Are the crews and peoples of those mythic worlds willing to die for us? If so, why? Perhaps their great-grandfathers knew our great-grandfathers back when Earth first made us, but who knows them now? Do you see? Wars over such length of time cannot be possible.”
But the Watchman said, “The medicine of those times past was much greater than our own, and men expected lives many hundreds of years in length, due to things they had put inside their bodies; things we do not have, and cannot make with our scant arts. To the immortals, wars, no matter how long, are done with swiftly.”
The Captain knew a moment of doubt. His gaze rested on his giant; a man made huge and strong by arts the Captain knew had been lost. He also knew the old tales, which said that, before the Medical House was destroyed during the Second Barrage, all officers were young and ageless, able to see in the dark like cats, strong as dwarves, and instantly cured of any wound, poison, or hurt.
“Even were there such a war,” the Captain slowly said, “If we are, as you say, deep in the ranks of the Enemy, overlooked and ignored, to fire our Weapons now would mean the destruction of this world, if not now, then in the time of our children.”
At that moment came a great commotion at the silver doors, a sound of trumpets and alarms. There came a banging at the doors, and the lieutenant rushed in, his sword drawn.
“Sire,” called the lieutenant, “The rebels from abovedecks attack in great force! Alverin himself leads them! Already he has been struck by a dozen arrows; each time he plucks them forth and laughs. The men . . . the men are saying he is an Earthman!”
“Rally the men. Draw down the great doors at Spinhall Common Fork and at the Underroad. Flood the stairwells leading to deck Eight Thirty Six with oil. Then, withdraw the men behind the Great Barrier Wall and close the High Gate. Use hand pumps to withdraw some part of the air from the circular approach corridor; this will seal all doors beyond the power of any battering-ram to breach.”
“But if he brings unlawful weapons? Explosives?”
“Fool. Alverin has never broken the Weapon Law; never cheated a treaty; never lied. Why do you think his rebellion does so poorly? They must be mad things to attack us now.”
“Will you come to lead us?”
“Presently; first I must do otherwise. Go!”
And when the man had left, Weston said to the Watchman Henwas, “With this Ring, I could call upon the Computer to close and open doors at will, extinguish lights, drain corridors of air. Tell me the Words!”
But Henwas said, “You did not think to hide the ring when your lieutenant entered here. He saw it. If he craves its power as much as you, he will be gathering men to lead against you here to seize the ring.”
“There is no more time for talk. Say the words, or I will order my giant to snap you like a wire!”
“You cannot escape the curse of the ring. Whoever does not have the ring craves to have it. So my master Himdall was told by the strange blind man who gave it first to him.”
“Strange blind man?”
“Perhaps he thought the curse would be alleviated if the ring were given to so remote a hermit as my master.”
“And did your master say what this man’s appearance was?”
“Many times, for he was most peculiar. The wanderer, he wore his hair long, like those of the lower decks, but walked with a staff, like an upper-deck man not used to our weight. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, like the men of the Greenhouses, where the light controls never dim their fierce glare; but he wore cusps of black glass before his eyes, like a darklander out here where lights still glow. On each shoulder he carried a bird, like men who walk in fear of poisoned corridors, who, when they see their pets keel over, flee.”
“Carradock! Go tell the Gatewatch to bring the other prisoner in! The description matches; it is he.”
When the giant was at the door, speaking to the guard, the Watchmen flexed his muscles hugely, and the chains about his wrists snapped free. He bent down and tugged the chains about his ankles; the links bent and broke; but, by then, the giant had seen, and flung himself back across the room to fall upon the Watchman with his full strength.
For a moment they strove against each other, limbs intertwined, muscles knotted. Their strength was equal, yet the aged giant was more cunning in the art of wrestling; the giant twisted and flung the Watchman to the ground and fell atop him. By this time the guards from the door had run forward, and stood with pikes ready, but could find no opening, and dared not strike for fear of hitting the giant.
When he rose, the giant had the Watchman’s arms pinned painfully behind his back, his hands twisted up. The giant was grinning. “You are a worthy opponent,” he whispered, panting.
“You also,” said the Watchman, as blood trickled down his face.
A moment later a second group of knights and pikemen came in the chamber, escorting an old man in a broad black hat. The old man walked leaning on a staff; two black birds clung to the shoulders of his long cape. The cape was fastened with a steel ornament shaped like a spiked wheel.
“Lieutenant! Why does he come before me unchained, garbed in no uniform, holding his stick? Were these things not taken from him at the door of his cell?”
“Sire!” stammered the lieutenant, “We found him now, not in his cell, but walking the corridors leading to the palace, singing a carol.”
The stranger lifted his head. As the hat brim tilted up, Weston saw the man wore round disks of black glass before his eyes. The stranger sang, “Woe my child! Woe is me! My son was born while falling free! Cannot endure Earth gravity, he never shall come home, not he, but evermore, forevermore, shall fly the airless deep, fly free!”
“That is an old song,” said Weston.
“I am an old man,” the stranger replied.
“I think you are Valdemar,” said Weston.
“Then why do you not salute me?”
“Valdemar was a traitor!”
“Then why do you not embrace me as a brother, my fellow traitor?”
“What treason do you say I do?” asked Weston.
“The same as mine; you covet the ring. But I cannot use it; when the Chief Engineer Alberac learned I had let the Enemy aboard, he bound all the main circuits of the Computer to a single overall command; and wrought that command into the ring you hold, leaving all other systems on automatic. Lauren, the Ship’s Psychiatrist, and I, we traveled to the Engine Room, and we deceived poor Alberac and seized the ring. But Alberac had wrought more cunningly than I had guessed, and had programmed the ring, such that whenever it was used, any other member in the computer then would know from where and from whom the ring’s commands had come. The Enemy would bend all their forces toward its capture, were there any Enemy aboard. You see? The ultimate power of command, yet it can be used only by someone not afraid to die. Where to find such absolute devotion to one’s duty? Many years I searched the halls of this great ship, from the Ventilation Shafts where pirates aboard their giant kites fly the hurricanes from level to level, down to the swamps and stench of the Sewermen, who silently take the dead away, and, in the darkness, use secret arts to recycle all foul things to air and light again. Only one man I found had not deserted his post; Himdall, last of the Watch, and most faithful. Surrounded by the enemy, abandoned, alone, yet true to his duty. And look! Here is his son, equally as faithful as is he. Equally as doomed.”
Henwas called out, “Captain, I wish to report the Enemy Crown Ships are nigh to us, believing our world conquered and desolate, and are presently vulnerable to the discharge of our weapons!”
Several of the knights stared at the black-cloaked stranger in awe. “It is Valdemar!” said one. “Captain!” another whispered, and a third said, “Can it be he?”
One of the pikemen in the room was looking, not at Valdemar, but at Weston. This pikeman spoke out, saying, “My lord? You have the Command Ring?” But there was envy in his eyes, and he stepped toward the throne. But a knight, dressed all in ribbons and fine clothes, drew his rapier and touched that pikeman on the shoulder with the naked blade, so that the man was frightened, and stopped. The knight spoke to Weston, saying, “The rumor of the ring draws Alverin and all his tall, frail men. This old dribbler, if he is Valdemar, came also for its lure. I think the squat and surly dwarves who serve the fat Lord of Engineering cannot be far behind. The ring is surely cursed, my lord. It were better cast into a pit.”
A second knight, this a tall man from Cargobay, said, “My lord! The stranger rambles at length. He hopes for delay. Perhaps he is in league with Alverin’s people.”
The giant said to the Stranger, “Captain Valdemar. I am Carradock son of Cormac. My father died in the battle of Foresection Seven Hold, killing the great champion of the Enemy. My father was an Earthman, born beneath blue skies, and he did not desert his post, even at his death. By his name, and in return for the vengeance I owe you for his death at the hands of the Enemy whom you allowed aboard, I ask this question: Why?”
“Broad question. Why what?”
“Why did you surrender to the Enemy, and allow them to land sixty armies into our halls?”
“Is that your full question? Are you not also going to ask why, on the day of the Last Burn, did our drive core suddenly accidentally ignite? Why the Enemy vessel was struck amidships with a line of flame a hundred miles long, sterilizing half their outer decks? Why, to this day, they have not landed a thousand armies more, and why can they barely keep the empire to our antispinward supplied with arms and food, and that with picket ships which, till recently, were kept at bay by our escort ship Revenge? Why they dare not bombard the Twilight into flaming ruin, for fear of striking dead their own armies? And, best of all, why does the Sirdar-Emperor aboard this ship, the son of the Leader of the Boarding Party, why has he reported to his masters that the ship is taken? This last question I can answer: the Destroyers would certainly annihilate this vessel with their great weapons were they to learn that we still lived, and fought, and still ruled the inner decks as far spinward as Waterstore and forward as Airbay and Greenlitfield.”
“Watchman,” said the giant, “If you will promise not to escape, I will release one arm of yours. And I will trust your promise, knowing that, of all orders and ranks of men, Watchmen are the most true and trustworthy; for the good of the ship relies on the honesty of their reports.”
“Why do you wish to let go my hand?” the Watchman asked.
“So that my own hand shall be free to salute my Captain, as he has asked.”
“I agree,” said the Watchman. And the Carradock raised his huge hand and saluted Valdemar. There were tears in Carradock’s eyes.
Weston was livid. “Tell me the Word to unleash the power of the ring! Tell! Or I swear you die this moment, traitor!”
Valdemar said, “I know many secret words of high Command; words to open doors or trigger circuits which only open to my voice, doors leading down into secret corridors, accessways, and crawlspaces where no designers ever meant a human being to go. Every inch of all thousand decks of this vast ship I know, for it is mine, and I have never renounced my claim to it. I know words to darken lights, and still the airs to silence, or to send them rushing up again. But one word I do not know: the word which Himdall whispered to ring when he took it for his own.”
Now a group of twelve Computermen came into the chamber, carrying staves and bludgeons. The pikemen in silver and blue lowered their lances, but confusedly, some pointing at the Computermen, some at the black stranger, and one or two at the Watchman whom the giant still gripped. Three pikemen began walking toward the throne in a menacing fashion, but when the lieutenant called sharply out to them, these three hesitated, and stood uncertainly.
The Chief Computerman was near the silver doors. He waved his truncheon, and called out, “Weston! Give up the ring! It is false and has no power! Do not dream you can control the doors and lights and weapons of the world! Only the Computer can control these things, and it heeds only our holy order!”
“It that so indeed?” spoke the dark stranger. He pointed his staff at the silver doors and spoke a single harsh syllable. Immediately the silver doors swung shut, and there was a sound of great bolts slamming home. The Computerman jumped forward to avoid the doors. “No doubt,” hissed Valdemar, “These doors reacted of their own accord, from a wish to keep mere riff-raff and sweepings of the corridors from blowing in to botch the brew.”
“Edgal! Sindal! Garvoris!” called out Weston to three of his knights, “Kill Valdemar upon this instant! If he knows not the word to command the ring, then he is not any use to me.”
“Other words I know,” Valdemar mildly replied. And he shouted; the chamber dimmed into utter darkness. During the moment as the lights failed, Henwas saw Valdemar leap and spin lightly into the air, surrounded by a great gray circle of cloak, and by the flutter of his two dark, shrieking birds. With one hand, as he leaped, Valdemar drew out a breathing tube from his collar and put it to his mouth and nose; his other hand drew a hidden sword-blade from his staff. The staff-end, which had been the scabbard, fell away, smoking. Valdemar spun, disemboweling one oncoming knight with a kick, hidden knives unfolding from his boot spurs. In one smooth motion it was done; and the two other knights rushing forward missed him with their pikes as he leaped, swirling his cloak about the head of one of them. While the man was tangled in the weighted net hidden below the cloak, Valdemar slashed him to death with a stroke of his shining sword, which he held under his palm, against his fore-arm, after the fashion of blind-fighters.
Then it was dark. There came a noise and shattering explosion of light. In the flare of the explosion, the corpse of the one knight standing near where the smoking cane-end had been abandoned could be briefly seen, headless, bloody, arms flailing as it fell. The hollow tube had contained some shrapnel which had been scattered among the pikemen and guards. Their chests and faces were bloody. Screams were starting. One man was blubbering like a baby. Henwas heard a hiss, smelled the fetid, dizzying smell of poisonous gas radiating from the corner of the chamber where Valdemar had been.
All was noise, screams, horn-calls, darkness, confusion, the stench of blood, the smell of poison.
Henwas was awed by the destruction. Was the Captain truly blind?
There was another flare of light; the lieutenant stood with an illegal hand-weapon blazing in his fist, his face blood-red, contorted with murderous wrath; he was shouting, “Suffer not to live who breaks the weapon code! Who kills the Ship kills all . . . ” The lieutenant had been driven beyond all reason by the traitor-captain’s use of poisons and explosives, which could damage air filters and bulkhead seals; he reckoned nothing for the illegality of his own weapon.
The ornament which Valdemar had used as a cloak-pin spun shining out of the darkness and struck the lieutenant’s hand. The disk was razor-sharp; it severed the lieutenant’s fingers. The hand-weapon fell. Again it was dark.
Weston shouted, “Carradock! Save the Watchman . . . ” and then he cried out in great pain, having betrayed his location by his shout.
Someone struck at Henwas with a bludgeon; with his free hand (for the other was still gripped by the giant) Henwas reached out and seized the arm wielding the bludgeon, and the bones broke under the strength of his fingers. At first, he was amazed and angered, for he did not think that any in that chamber would risk his harm; but under hand he felt the rough-spun cloth of a Computerman.
Then the giant was dragging him to one side. Henwas heard a clash of blades, a hoarse cry, where he had just been standing. Now the giant held him still.
By some odor or noise or pressure close at hand, Henwas felt an intuition that Valdemar was nearby, silent in the darkness.
The giant still had him by one arm; but, even so, Henwas did not move or speak, for fear of someone hearing. There was a ruckus in the blackness all around them, the clash of arms. Henwas suspected that the Computermen or the pikemen were in rebellion, and thought, under cover of darkness and confusion, to steal the ring.
Valdemar’s voice slithered out of the blackness: “Carradock, I ask you, by your ancient oaths, now to be obedient to me, and bring the Watchman to the throne where Weston is. We will seize the ring. When you call to him, he will answer, thinking you loyal.”
Henwas was amazed that any man who used explosives aboard the Ship could say words like ‘oath’ and ‘loyalty’ and not be choked. But he feared a coming tragedy; Carradock and Valdemar both were resolute, brave men. He knew the giant would not break fealty with Weston, who, however unworthy, was his lord. He knew as well that Valdemar, who might admire the giant, would not hesitate an instant to cheat, deceive or murder him, the moment that such crimes became useful to his grand design.
The giant made no noise. Henwas was not surprised.
Valdemar spoke again: “Unfortunate that you must betray Weston, who is your lord, but the mission goals require it. Fret not; treason is only bitter at first. The soul grows easily accustomed . . . ”
Carradock lashed the bayonet of his weapon through the air toward the voice. He struck nothing. By some trick or sleight, Valdemar had made his voice seem to come from where it was not.
“Henwas!” Valdemar whispered, sounding very near. “Call out, that I may hear where the giant stands, and slay him.”
But Henwas did not want the giant to die, and did not answer. “Henwas, Carradock! Both of you have disobeyed my direct command in time of war; for this I instantly condemn you. I now release the deadly vapor. Breathe, and perish . . . ”
Henwas knew this was some feint to compel them to move or act, so he doubted, and stayed still; and perhaps the giant suspected this a ruse as well, but staked no chance on it.
Carradock discharged his weapon straight up into the air. In the momentary muzzle-flare, Valdemar could be seen, crouching like a great black bat near the floor, white blade in his hand, point poised across his back like the sting of a scorpion.
The giant dropped the barrel of his weapon and fired again. Valdemar flopped and fell limply. The giant fired many times.
At that moment, the great gold doors behind the throne opened a crack. There was a weak light from the Main Bridge beyond, dusky blue service-lights said to burn forever. Silhouetting against that light, Henwas could see the staggering figure of Acting Captain Weston, who was pierced and bleeding.
By the slim crack of light from the door, the huddled figure of Valdemar could be seen, bleeding terribly. “Accept my surrender,” whispered Valdemar, “for I am wounded unto death.”
The giant stepped forward. “I repent, that when finally I had found a man worth serving, the true Captain from the young days of the world, he sullied his hands with unlawful weapons. Your surrender I accept, for memory of the nobility once you had.” A pause, then: “Can you hear me?”
And when he bent over the huddled figure, Valdemar, hearing the sound of his voice, flung up his hand and threw a poisoned dagger into the open mouth of the giant, piercing the roof of his mouth.
“Nothing is unlawful, nothing noble in war!” Valdemar screamed in anger.
The white-haired and ancient giant staggered forward and fell onto the supine body of Captain Valdemar, crushing him down. And perhaps the giant, falling, had struck down with his knife or hands, for the body of Valdemar was crushed and was not seen to move again.
As the giant fell, Valdemar cried a single word of command and then was silent.
The moment the giant had unhanded him, Henwas bounded across the chamber toward Weston. A knight rose up before him, like a ghost in the gloom, brandishing a rapier; but Henwas, scarred by radiation, knew no fear, came forward, was stabbed in the shoulder painfully, but struck in the knight’s skull with his fist.
He nearly had his hands on the wounded Weston, who, sobbing, was crawling through the golden doors into the vast dark chamber beyond, when a pike-stroke from behind Henwas cut into the muscles of his leg and toppled him. In a moment, the pikeman had him by the hair, and was pressing a dirk against his throat, even as Henwas’ hands closed around the bracelet-ringed ankle of Weston’s jeweled boot.
Weston drew a bloody hand out from underneath his gem-studded coat. “This is my death-wound,” he panted, staring in horror at the heart’s blood in his palm, “I am slain . . . ”
Meanwhile, Valdemar’s last spoken word had its effect. There was a noise like that of bolts being drawn back and of doors opening; and the pictures which lined the walls swung free in their frames, and from half a dozen secret doors, lights and trumpet-noise issued forth.
Into the chamber from these secret doors came suddenly the tall pale men of Overdeck, garbed all in green, some with breastplates and helms of polished steel, carrying bows and tall spears and slim straight swords.
The knights of the above-world were tall and fair and terrible to look upon, and they were singing their war-song. Not one of them was pock-marked, or scarred, or showed any sign of the radiation diseases which those who live on lower decks, to their sorrow, know only too well. Before them, came the white starbanner of Alverin.
Many carried bows and cross-bows, for, although the Over-men are weaker in their legs and bodies than are other men, their arms are sinewy and their eyes are keen.
Alverin himself came forth, his uniform as green as leaves, and from his wide shoulders hung one of the fair white winged cloaks those who live at the Axis of the world use to steer themselves in flight. His hair was as yellow as the corn his people grow in Greenhold; his eyes were blue and bright, and shone with a light of stern command.
Now Alverin raised his straight slim sword and called upon those within the chamber to surrender, saying, “Whoso lays down his arms, shall be spared, and set free, I vow, suffering no hurt nor any dishonor!”
Because the rumor of Alverin’s honesty and clemency was so well known, the knights and pikemen in that chamber instantly threw down their swords and pole-arms. None had heart to fight, seeing their leader, Weston, lay swooning with his life blood bubbling out of him. The weapons fell ringing to the chamber floor.
But one of the Computermen seized up a pike and, with a terrible cry, cast it straight into Alverin’s breast. Alverin staggered backward, pierced through the heart and lungs. In that same instant of time, the man who had cast the pike was stricken through his arm by three arrows. Yet these shots were not ill-aimed; for Alverin’s men, by custom, spoke before they struck, wounded rather than slew.
Alverin drew the pike-head out from his bloody chest and wiped the blood away. The wound closed up into a scar and then Alverin’s chest grew fair and smooth again. He cast the bloody pike aside. “I am an Earthman; I was born beneath blue sky!” he called out. To the wounded man, he said, “The knowledge of the men who made this entire world have made me as I am, and I am not to be slain by your small weapons.” And he ordered his physician to tend to the wounded among the enemy, even the man who had smitten him.
Alverin turned. He saw Valdemar laying motionless, his body crushed beneath the fallen giant. “So,” Alverin whispered, “These secret paths you showed to us were not a trap. Did you play us true, this once, old liar? If so, where is the ring?”
Now he turned again. In the threshold of the golden doors leading to the Main Bridge, a pikeman still crouched above Henwas the Watchman, a steady knife still touching the prone man’s throat. Henwas was bleeding at the shoulder and the leg, and yet his face was remote and calm, as if no wound nor pain could trouble him.
Alverin stepped forward till he could see, lying in the shadow of the door, dying, Acting Captain Weston II, and, in his bloodstained hand, the ring.
Beyond was the Bridge, a large dimly lit cathedral of a space, surrounded on all sides by the darkened screens of the Computer.
Weston croaked, “Pikeman. Slit the Watchman’s throat if the rebel-king steps forward one step more.”
“Weston,” said Alverin in a soft, stern voice, “Yield up to me the ring. I will restore to all the world, the light, the power, and the justice, which, by right, should have been ours. You have my solemn promise that all your men shall be dealt with justly.”
“Should I believe a mutineer? You betrayed Valdemar,” hissed Weston wearily.
“After he surrendered to the Enemy. Free men follow leaders into battle, and render him the power of Command, only while he does their will, in pursuit of a just war, or in defense against hostility. That power of Command, incapable of destruction, returned to the free men of this ship, upon Valdemar’s abdication of it. By their fair and uncoerced election, I was tendered the Command, and so am Captain. That trust I hold sacred; render me the ring, and I shall see this world prosper.”
“Prosper? Are we not surrounded by enemy worlds?” Weston asked softly.
“We are too humble for their attention,” Alverin said, “If we do not offend them, they will pay us no more heed.”
“And if the ring is used to launch the fabled Weaponry at World’s Core?” Weston now raised himself on one elbow. His face was pasty-white, his eyes wild and sick.
“Then the world dies, if not in this generation, then in the next.”
The lieutenant, his hand being bandaged by a tall pale doctor, spoke up, “Sire! Yield the ring to Alverin! Even we, so many years his foe, acknowledge his justice, wisdom, and trueheartedness. If any man is deserving of empire, it is such a man as this!”
But Henwas, who still had him by the ankle, said a voice of calm command, “In your last moment, sir, I pray you be a Captain truly. Use the ring, or give it me, to complete the mission of the Twilight of the Gods. We both are dying, you of wounds, me of radiation poison and disease. Should we, in such a time as this, abandon our posts and sue for peace? This whole world was made for war.”
“Pikeman, stand away. Here, Watchman; take the accursed thing. Do your duty; kill all my enemies, you, them, everyone. And be damned to you all.” With a curse on his lips, Weston slid into death, and his cold hand gave the ring to Henwas.
Henwas came up to his knees and thrust the pikeman down across the dais’ stairs. Such was the strength of his arm that the man was flung many yards away. Alverin and the elves started forward suddenly, but Henwas, leaning inward from the golden door, reached and touched the shining ring against the dark, cold mirrored corner of the nearest of the many computer screens which filled the huge, black bridge.
He spoke the words: “Eternal Fidelity. I am forever loyal.” And all the mirrors flamed to life and shone with purest light. On each screen images appeared, words, symbols, strange letters and equations, and everywhere, the thousand shining lights of all the Enemy stars.
A pure and perfect voice, like no voice ever to be made by lips or tongue of man, rang out: “READY.”
Several of the Computermen screamed in fear or shouted with joy. One sank down to his knees and cried out, “Oh, that I have seen this day!” Even the knights and guards of Weston’s, and Alverin’s tall men, stood speechless, eyes wide.
But the Chief Computerman called out for the men to avert their eyes, “This is a deception of the Enemy! The Computer cannot speak to men, except through us!” But one of the knights smote him across the face with his fist. The Chief Computerman fell to the deck, and lay sullen, wiping his mouth, weeping and afraid to speak again.
One of the overman knights raised his bow, and spoke in a soft, clear voice, “Noble lord Alverin! We have heard the word which can command the ring. One shot, and all the world shall be yours!”
“Nay, Elromir,” spoke Alverin, “Not even to win empires will I have such a blow be struck, against a man wounded and unarmed.”
The Watchman, kneeling, said, “Computer! Are there weapons at this world’s core, ready to strike out against our enemies?”
“ALL WEAPON SYSTEMS AT READY. TARGETS ACQUIRED. FIRING SEQUENCES READY TO INITIATE. STANDING BY.”
Alverin said, “Watchman, I pray you, wait! You will unleash a storm of fire! None save me aboard this ship even recall the origins of this war, its purpose, or its cause. Why do you condemn all the nations, lands, and peoples, here aboard the Twilight, to be obliterated? Think of those born innocent, years after this dreadful ship of war was launched. Our Captain betrayed us; we have surrendered; let it rest at that.”
Henwas said, “When the stranger, whom I now know to have been Valdemar, gave my master Himdall this dread ring, he did so with these words: ‘You alone shall know when the waiting is completed, when the enemy grows lax, and deems us dead.’ Only now do I understand the Captain’s purpose after all these years, even from before my birth. The other ships we know only as names of glory, these ships are hard beset by that great foe which ruined and overthrew our world so long ago; and our true world Earth, though we have forgotten it, still calls to us to fight in her defense. The Captain expected us to fight and die for the glory of the fleet, to die, if need be, to have all the Twilight die, if it would forward the mission goals, and accomplish our duty.”
Alverin said, “But, those aboard the other ships, why do you give such love and loyalty to them, that you are willing to call destruction down on all our world, for the sake of those whom you have never seen, and do not know?”
“I will not live to see salvation, yet I know it comes,” said Henwas, “I never knew the other men who serve aboard those other ships; yet I know that there are those aboard them who would gladly do for me what I now do for them. That knowledge is enough for me.”
One of the knights, evidently realizing the Henwas meant to do an act which would provoke the Enemy to destroy the world, stooped, picked up a fallen dagger, and, before any of Alverin’s men could think to stop him, threw it. The dagger spun and landed fair on the middle of Henwas’ back. Henwas, back arched, eyes blind with pain, now shouted, “Computer! Shut these doors!”
“ACKNOWLEDGED. ALL STATIONS NOTIFIED OF OVERRIDE COMMAND LOCATION.”
The men in the room swept forward like a tide, but too late; the golden doors fell to, and shut in their faces.
Alverin raised his hand, and cried out with a great voice to rally his men. “Alberac’s curse has told all the computer screens now where the ring hides! The Enemy will sweep this area with fire, exploding all the decks below us if they need be! Come! We must be gone! It may be already too late . . . ” And he set his men passing swiftly out of the chamber. He and his paladins stood on the dais before the golden doors, unwilling to depart till all the men had gone before them.
And as they stood so, through the doors, they heard the great, chiming and inhuman voice call out, “WEAPONS FREE. INITIATING LAUNCH. WARHEADS AWAY.”
There came a noise like thunder. And a great voice echoing from every wall rang out; and it was the Watchman’s voice, tremendously amplified, and echoing throughout every corridor of every nation of the great ship. They heard the Watchman call out, saying, “I have seen it! I have seen it! And the heavens are consumed with light!”
Then, more softly, they heard the great voice say, “Father! If you see this, you shall know; I did not leave my post . . . ”
And then, even more softly: “Computer, now destroy this ring, and let its curse be ended, and return all functions to their proper stations and commands . . . ”
Light returned to the chamber where they where, and they heard, as from far off, a great noise of wonder, as of many voices of people near and far, all crying out at once. And they knew that light returned to darkened places which had known no light for years beyond count.
One of the knights took hold of Alverin’s cape. “Sire, look!” and he pointed to where the giant Carradock lay.
Of Valdemar’s body there was no sign. He was gone.
“Look there.” One of the knights, in wonder, pointed upward to where the two black birds were huddled among the pillar-tops, bundles of black feathers, croaking.
“They are his magpies,” said Alverin softly. “Even in ancient times, from before he was blind, he always kept such birds near him, to remind him of what he dared not forget.” And, to himself, he murmured, “Or perhaps, since all this was arranged by his cunning, perhaps it is I who am blind, or who have forgotten . . . ”
One of the black birds croaked, and spoke in a voice like a man’s voice: “No matter what the cost. The Mission goals must be accomplished. No matter what the cost.”
The other black bird croaked and said, “All’s fair in war. All’s fair. All’s fair.”
Alverin and his men departed from that place, and did not look back.