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No matter how long or how hard they strive, no matter how extensive their education as a species, no matter what they experience of the small heavens and larger hells they create for themselves, it seems that humans are destined to see their technological accomplishments always exceed their ability to understand themselves.
Certainly there was no understanding, no meeting of the minds, on the world called Aquila Major. There was only the devastation of one mind-set by another. Proof of it took the form of a statue fashioned of advanced, reinforced preformata resin. It was an imposing piece of work, for all that it had been reproduced by its originators on many other worlds. Too many other worlds, according to some. Not nearly enough, according to those who had put it in place, its massive footing firmly rammed into the resistant soil of Aquila Major.
It was a Conquest Icon of the Necromongers. Over five hundred meters tall, it gaped openmouthed at the utter desolation and wreckage that spread outward from its base. Whether it was seen as wailing in despair at its surroundings or moaning in triumph depended on whether one was a surviving citizen of that world's once-splendid capital city, now reduced to waste and ruin, or a member of that peculiar space-dwelling group who called themselves followers of the faith known as Necroism.
They had been preparing for such moments for a very long time. They had burst out of the great darkness to impose themselves on the civilized worlds with a forcefulness and cool brutality that was as stunning in its single-mindedness as it was in its efficiency. Aquila Major was not the first of their conquests, nor would it be the last. As long as there were worlds to be freed, as long as humans lived who dwelled in ignorance of their true destiny, the Necromongers would continue with their work.
Unlike so much of the humankind who had spread explosively throughout the galaxy, the Necromongers were driven by genuine purpose beyond the need to merely exist. They believed fervently in their work, and went about it with a determination and competence that was breathtaking to behold. In the majority of cases, literally breathtaking. Furthermore, there was no meanness in them, no suggestion of brutality for its own sake or of sadism. Like all true believers since the beginning of time, they saw only good arising out of the destruction they inflicted. Everything they did was for the benefit of the destroyed, they knew. Nor was their great work devoid of irony.
For it was the dead who triumphed by passing on, while only the most dedicated forced themselves to carry on the work by continuing to liveuntil due time.
The Lord Marshal knew this better than anyone. While longing for his own time of passing to arrive, he continued to consecrate his continuing existence on the present plane of existence by seeing to it that as many as possible of his unaware, improperly informed fellow humans preceded him onward toward bliss. During the preceding days, many had done so here on Aquila Major. A great many.
Clad in battle armor that was intended as much to instill fear and intimidate any who cast eyes upon it as it was to protect its wearer, he stood scowling thoughtfully at the scene of desolation and redemption that flamed below him. The fires were beginning to die out. While the capital had been taken, opposition to the balm and comfort his people brought remained strong in other cities and in isolated pockets across the planet. There was still much work to be done on Aquila Major.
As to its final outcome, the Lord Marshal had no doubt. Some worlds resisted the bringing of the message more obstinately than others. A few proved sensible and buckled under at the mere sight of the Necromongers' ships. Such worlds were much more to the Lord Marshal's taste. While they were to be admired for having reached a newer, higher state of being, dead resistance fighters were no use to the great cause. The deceased were to be envied, but could not be recruited.
Nevertheless, by craft or cajoling, by force or by bribery, the faith was advanced. Aquila Major was only the latest, not the last. No time was to be wasted here. As soon as the last pockets of resistance had been eliminated, the armada would move to the next, carrying enlightenment and revelation to the disbelieving. How he longed for his own moment of finality, for his turn to be done with this sordid, unnatural temporal plane!
But he could not simply embrace that of which he knew so much. Having striven to rise to the exalted position of lord marshal, it did not behoove him to surrender it voluntarily. By the edicts of his kind he was compelled to master all that it offered, by offering his talents to the cause. This he would continue to do. That he would not be the one to finish the work he knew well, as had the various lord marshals who had preceded him. That he would be joining them eventually he also knew.
But first, there was much work to be done.
Vaako stood nearby. A fine commander, as dedicated as one could ask for and a superb solo fighter in his own right. While his attention was focused on the Lord Marshal, that of the saintly Purifier, who stood nearby, was directed at the destruction below. Neither man spoke. There was no need. They had done what needed to be done, and saw no reason to comment on it.
Nor did the Lord Marshal have anything to say. The fire and smoke, the ruined buildings and flaming vegetation beneath them were more eloquent than anything those beholding it could have voiced. There were times when it was best to say nothing, he knew. Time enough for discussion later, when the last of Aquila Major's resistance had been eliminated.
Turning, he moved up the steps on which he stood. His commanders and the chief spiritual adviser of their people followed. Once they were within the Basilica, the massive portal, through which they had briefly emerged to view in person the horrendous yet beautiful vista below, closed tightly behind them, sealing them in the ship that was their home and their purpose.
Rumbling to itself, the immense Basilica vessel that had been hovering over the once-striking and now thrice-struck capital city lifted skyward. Slowly at first, but with a gathering speed and momentum that were as formidable as the purpose for which it had been built.
There are habitable worlds, and there are uninhabitable worlds. There are also worlds that can be rendered marginally habitable, but never should be. Foremost among the latter was a hellish, geologically schizoid, melted and re-formed planetary body of unremarkable size and appearance whose astronomical designation no one bothered to repeat because it had long since been supplanted in the vernacular by the name that had been given to it by its inhabitants. Or rather, its inmates.
On most worlds, the time just before sunrise is a period of calm and preparation. Of quiet introspection and looking-forward. A time to awaken and gather oneself in readiness for a bright, new day. On Crematoria, pre-sunrise was a time to be denied, avoided, shunned. This was one world where dawn killed.
The two prison guards lugging their burden along the rough path that wound its tortured way through the scarred, twisted lava field knew that. They moved with the urgency of men assigned to an unpleasant duty that they had tried, and failed, to avoid. The fact that their load consisted of one of their own engendered no special feelings of additional sympathy on their part, even though they knew it could just as easily have been one of them. The fact that the dead man was a former colleague and friend did not make his demised corpus any less heavy.
Relieved at having reached their destination, they finally halted near a shallow depression that had been machine gouged from reluctant rock. The small hollow was not empty. It was filled with ash, from which protruded a few angular objects. On closer inspection, one became recognizable as a human femur, another as part of a skull. The rest were well on their way to being reduced to the powder that was slowly engulfing them. No artificial agency had been employed to reduce these remnants of what had once been human beings to their constituent chemical components. None was needed.
They only had to wait for sunrise.
From the container they had been carrying, the two men extracted the body of a third and dumped him unceremoniously onto the pile, sending up a small cloud of dust. The body was not intact. It was marred by deep bruises and multiple lacerations. One glance was enough to tell that these wounds had not been incurred in a fall or some other accident. The unfortunate had been involved in a fight that, as clear as the sharp-edged horizon, he had lost. Among the few effects that still adorned his corpse was a visual ident that read "V. Pavlov." Some wag back in the prison had ventured to say that the guard had died like a dog. No one had laughed.
The anxious pair who had been charged with conveying the former V. Pavlov to his final resting place looked around uneasily, plainly in a hurry to get away from where they were. There was no thought of digging a grave. It would be a wasted exercise. None would arrive to bear witness over it or view it. Anything they might erect over such an excavation would quickly go the way of the body itself. Crematoria would see to that.
"Should we, uh, say something? I mean, I knew Vladimir pretty well. He wasn't a bad guy." On Crematoria, this might be considered a high compliment: one that could be applied equally to guard or prisoner.
His companion was gazing nervously eastward. The dull maroon glow that had been seeping over the ragged, distant mountains was beginning to pale toward crimson. Very soon now it would fade to pink, then yellow, and then to white. When it turned white, anything organic would do well to be as far underground as possible.
"Sure. Recite a whole sermon, if you want." He indicated the motionless body of their former colleague. "I'm sure Vlad won't interrupt you. Take all the time you want. I'll wait for youinside." A curt nod indicated the coming dawn.
His friend was already starting to backpedal, physically as well as spiritually. "Maybe I'll say something later. I knew Vladimir. He wouldn't want us to be late for breakfast."
The other man had already started for the nearby access tunnel. "Shit, if it was you or me, he'd already have gotten the hell out of here."
It was as appropriate a description of their situation as it was of their surroundings.
Down Below was business as usualwhich is to say, messy, loud, crude, and unpleasant. Used to their surroundings, the three guards muscling the transfer box did not comment on it, did not bemoan their fate. They were being paid good money to endure a routine of daily crap, money that was piling up in distant credit accounts even as they toiled to move the box. They often let their thoughts drift toward such accounts. It helped them to get through each day. Sometimes such thoughts were all that helped them to get through each day.
No noise came from within the box. No trouble. That suited them just fine. Occasionally, one would bend slightly to peer at one of the air vents that riddled the container. Its contents did not look back. Just as well. There were rules. As a guard on Crematoria, you bent the rules at considerable risk to your comparatively elevated status. Bend them far enough and you might find yourself on the other side of the social divide. That would be more than uncomfortable: it would be fatal. So the guard kept his thoughts to himself and concentrated on the work at hand.
As they passed one of the kennels, something with eyes bright with murder moved closer to the bars of its cage and began to howl. Its neighbors joined in. No human throat was capable of producing such sounds, though human ears could hear them. One of the guards snapped a curse in the direction of the center cage. Shining eyes swiveled to focus on him. The guard met the luminous, unearthly stare for a brief moment before looking away. He was not concerned. The cages were strong, and the howling things within, insofar as they could be controlled, were allies.
His tone spiced with agitation, the man in the lead looked back at the box. "Oughta know better by now. You act like an animal, gonna slot you up like one. Rules. Shoulda worked it different."
While carrying out his duty, the speaker's nearest companion was also experiencing a moment of unusual thoughtfulness. "Poor fuckin' Pavlov. Never had a chance, one-on-one like that."
The first speaker was less than sympathetic. "He shoulda watched himself. Always relyin' on his size, underestimatin' the opposition. Never, never do that. Size don't mean nothin' if you ain't got the moves." Glancing back, he directed his words to the inhabitant of the box. "You know all about that, don't you, Big Foe? You get what you give 'round here. But when you get itaw, that's the thing. When." It was not a direct threat, but the ugly implication in his voice could not be ignored. However the inhabitant of the box felt about it, the observation was greeted only with more silence.
Still muttering to himself, the other guard in front continued to remember his overconfident dead colleague. "This one's always been trouble. I knew it from the first. I smelled it."
Behind him, another guard thought to comment, to make a joke. In the end, he kept his thoughts to himself. Pavlov had always gone looking for trouble. Finally, he'd found it. While helping to move the transfer box, the guard was careful to keep his distance from it.
They reached their destination: an empty kennel. Around them, the howling of the unseen things with the shining eyes intensified. Intent on their work, the guards ignored the inhuman baying. Moving the box was one thing. Safely transferring its single occupant from box to kennel was something else.
Setting the box down in front of the open kennel slot, three of the men positioned themselves at intervals around the container while their remaining two companions warily moved to open it. Safeties were slid simultaneously off box and weapons. Operating together, the pair at the front of the box worked the seals until the doors clicked open. Almost immediately, they stepped back. Fast.