The power of the storyteller is immeasurable. Especially when, against all odds, the story is true.
I sense that you crave forgiveness. But there is nothing to forgive. It is human nature to fight: the wrestling of children, the squabble of a loving couple, the knife in the back under cover of darkness, the gleeful murders in full daylight under the guise of noble war. Heroes and villains, glory and shame, have passed in and out of our collective consciousness, and they have held up a mirror. We've glanced in that mirror often, calmly, in recognition, and calmly we've continued in our ways. Our violent nature has not changed since before our species came down from the trees. And yet we dare to call it evil. What nonsense! Is the lion evil for bringing down the elk? Is the spider evil for eating her mate? This is merely their nature. And so it is with humankind.
I was a warrior like you once. Under this doddering remnant of human flesh lie many memories. Some of the clearest are of war. I have never sought forgiveness for what I was. I am human and in my youth I gloried in the murderous nature of humans. As I aged I gloried in other natures: some love, some politics--if you ever wish to be amused, dabble in these two; they are our most comic natures. I have been...
You tire of an old man's ranting? Forgive me. Over you I do not have the spell of the ancient mariner over the bridegroom--but please stay. An old mind is cluttered with many paths, and I sometimes detour into overgrown, lost memories to see if anything worthy can be found there, forgetting that I was with company on another trail.
I am old, and many of my memories are overgrown, never to be found again; but within this skull lies one memory which I have maintained with care, treading it often since my violent youth. At times I have tried to forget this memory, straying through other, far distant paths; but all my travels have led back to it, so I have long since surrendered to its demands and attentions. My life has been devoted to this memory, so with it I begin my tale.
A great battle was underway. It was fought within a distant star system, but that tiny collection of worlds was not the reason for the conflict, merely the battleground. The real reasons no longer matter.
I was in a fleet of reinforcements. When only an hour from the battle, communications with our fighting armada ceased. The beams went cold, inexplicably so. We had received no orders for quiet running; we did not hear the feared death cries. There was just sudden silence. It was a long hour we spent hovering over our dead receivers, wondering. It is not the domain of warriors to wonder. Such thoughts are the domain of leaders, not fighters. We were uncomfortable.
By the time we reached the system we were barely creeping along, afraid of a rout, afraid of an ambush, afraid of just about everything but what confronted us. There was no ambush, no battle, no movement. The armada had been destroyed, but no enemy was there gloating over their victory. The silent hulks of both sides drifted about. Once-powerful giants were now shredded carcasses, celestial flotsam in the inevitable grip of the local sun.
Tales of dread and terror told in the safety of the gravity wells, told in all seriousness by the old and laughed at by the young, came to all our minds amid the scattered bones of once-great fleets. Ghost stories are told over a fire or a beer, but they are remembered in graveyards. We, the young, stopped laughing that day.
The unknown is a terrible thing. It alone can unveil fear in the fearless. Coasting through that graveyard, we instantly believed the awful fables. This was not a comfortable graveyard we passed through, not a cemetery of the battle-slain. No, a field of death would have been comforting. As gruesome as death may be, it is familiar. The scene before us was far from familiar.
Even though we recognized some of the mangled forms as ships of our comrades, among them there were no comrades, alive or dead: no bloated, bloodied bodies floating amidst the wreckage; no carcasses pierced and mutilated by the tortured remains of their ships; no dismembered fragments drifting by with their comet tails of crystalline blood. Throughout the mass of monstrous metal corpses, not a single human one was to be found.
In a short time we discovered that there were no organics whatsoever remaining. The wreckage had been stripped of all vegetation, plastics, water--even the batteries and fuel cells were gone. Nothing living or capable of harboring life remained. The visions from the horrible tales reared up before us. Grendel had come and feasted upon the combatants. Grendel, an unknown terror, a name some forgotten mystic had pulled from an ancient epic. The newest of those tales were hundreds of years old, the oldest mere rumors from many millennia past. It was as if an occasional plague were sent to slap humanity in the face, to remind us of our distant fall from the Golden Age when humans were gods and held power over suns. That reminder was vividly before us again, shaming us from our lofty dreams of power.
Each tale has its own story: The sad demise of some hero, the final death of some terrible villain. But Grendel feeds on them all. Always, two great fleets oppose each other in a great battle--it has to be a great battle, for two lone ships in a skirmish did not make a legend--and always, Grendel comes and indiscriminately destroys them, leaving never a witness.
The mystery and the legend had come alive before us, and we would now write our own tales. We could add what had never been told before. We now knew of the dreadful immediacy of Grendel. The other stories talked of days or even years before the battleground had been visited. In our chapter we would bring that down to a single hour.
When the somber shock in our minds quieted enough for us to function, we mechanically went about collecting the few remaining secrets our ships held, and searched for remnants of the secrets of the enemy. But this was mere fill in our story. We had one more chapter yet to write.
Our sensors were running wide open, active as well as passive. Hiding, we guessed, would be useless, so we scattered our pings in all directions, not wanting to be surprised. We finished our survey the next day and were about to go home when one of the spotters caught a distant derelict changing course. Something was still alive a million miles away. When we got there, we found more than machinery, but less than a man. His mind was as twisted and jagged as the wreckage we had left behind. He had expended nearly the last of his breathable air to deflect his drift in the hope that we would notice. It saved him, but by the time we got there he was already suffering from anoxia. Vacillating between light-headed fatigue and raving lunacy, he was quite insane, but those of us who saw him knew that it wasn't oxygen deprivation that had driven him mad.
The official report pieced together from his fractured testimony was quite bland, of course. He and his squadron had jettisoned early to surprise the enemy. But the enemy had surprised them instead with the same thought. They fought their little skirmish and lost. He was alive with his little environment intact, but all his systems were knocked out. The victors hurried off to join their main force and left him to float with the remains of his friends. All he could do then was watch and, with no systems, all he had were his naked eyes.
A million miles is a long way, but the combat was a fierce one, the power of the battle fires toyed not only with the machines, but with space, which glowed and wavered around the combatants. As a light-bulb under water, he described it. But then it flashed brilliantly and he was blinded for hours. When his sight finally did return, it was the next day. From his distance he couldn't see anything of the battleground. His signal was simply the last act of desperation.
That was his story on the official documents, but his pages on the chapters of our legend were such to grease the fires of morbid romance. No longer would the tales speak of sad heroes and vanquished villains. The old tales all spoke of the horror and the mystery, but those had always been subsumed by other plots. This demented witness's testimony of horror brought the mystery to the fore, and there it would stay. A ball of light flashed brilliantly about the battle--that much had made it into the official report--but he wasn't blinded by it. Not really.
Because of the light he could see nothing but Grendel, but what else was there to see? From a million miles away, the greatest ships of the fleet were mere specks, yet he could see Grendel tearing away at those specks, unleashing the energies within, cracking shells between its teeth to suck at the vital meat. Yes, teeth. That is how he saw Grendel, a great face, vicious and beastly. Through the massacre it was bowed down, concentrating on its work. But when the fleets were consumed, it turned and glared at him, a face of energies: red heat, white heat, a tattered blue-green corona blowing as a mane in an unseen wind, eyes burning with the power of suns, its snout smeared with the lifeblood of its kill, bleeding planets dripping from its ethereal fangs. When it saw him its countenance brightened, grew less demonic, its eyes twinkled. It winked at him once before returning to its lair beyond the universe.
Ah, you're listening to the old man's tale with interest now! You hadn't heard these stories before? I had thought that perhaps you had. So have I gained the power of the ancient mariner over you after all. Isn't it a wonder that that yarn has survived over untold centuries? Why would such a tale stay with us when so much else is lost? It is the mystique, of course. The mystery always attracts the human soul. It is because of curiosity that we toil as we do, and curiosity is fed by mystery. The works of our ancestors which betake of this mood appeal to all ages while the fare of lighter moods vanishes in a few years. Beowulf. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The Jovian Dirge. The wordsmiths and the memories of them have long since drifted into oblivion while their moody tales have survived to taunt us, becoming mysteries themselves.
I am wandering again. Forgive an old man his senility.
I was haunted by what I had seen. For a time I tried to forget the wrath of Grendel. But who could forget such a manifestation? And who would let me? We who had seen the bones of Grendel's feast were the center of attention at every landfall. So I took the memory and fed upon it. It became a dream of mine to see Grendel for myself, to tell of the real Grendel, not the inarticulate visions of a raving lunatic. Grendel fed on war. Very well. I would remain a cog of war.
I served my masters well, but their thanks was a forced retirement. It seems they found no more use for a feeble old man. Feeble! That was half a century ago and I still live! We all heard, later, that on the night of my retirement ball, Grendel had struck again. And the ships that had been under my command were there! It mattered little to me that my ships were torn to shreds. They saw Grendel before they died! That was all that I had asked and my masters had taken it from me.
But they were my masters no longer, and there was still hope. This latest visitation, terrible as it was, was nothing more than the retelling of the older tales. No new chapters could be written from it. The battle ground was not trod upon until days afterward; there were no surviving witnesses. The desolation was familiar--yet no matter how familiar, it was still terrible, and many were very afraid. Grendel had never attacked in such quick succession before. It was a sign, they pleaded. Stop this useless waste of men and machines or Grendel will feed on us all.
Ha! It was a sign, all right, but it didn't portend any of their superstitious nonsense. I had some suspicions of the nature of Grendel that this latest attack appeared to confirm. Only the most exceptional show of power attracted it, and I knew our war machines were far from exhausted. We and our enemies were still human, still full of our nature, and we both had much more wealth yet to squander. Another great battle was sure to occur again soon. So I waited. Yet waiting was not enough. I had to live to see that battle. I became an expert of human nature and, in my own small way, I assisted our civilizations in achieving the summit of that nature. There would be another great battle and I would be there, waiting.
I wanted to see Grendel with my own eyes. This desire superseded all other passions, or brought those passions to bear for it. I expected my doom when I encountered Grendel, and I would be satisfied at that if I could just view the vessel of my destruction. But I could still hope to survive the encounter, could still hope to add my own chapter. So when I wasn't studying human nature, I was studying the sciences to bring about that survival. I had amassed enough wealth to buy or take most anything I needed. The only fear I entertained was that I would face death before I faced Grendel. But you see that I have survived.
At last the greed of the empires built beyond endurance and they once again went to war. Exploratory skirmishes at first, but soon all of their greatest engines were brought into service and, in the usual irony of war, the two sides could still find one thing upon which they could agree: a meeting place and time for the mutual slaughter.
I was there before the combatants, waiting. For those enamored of battle machines it was a magnificent sight. Even from my hidden distance, burrowed into a dead rock loosely orbiting the dead sun that marked their rendezvous point, the arrayed forces opposing each other were beautiful. Manufactured black shapes set against the natural blackness of space. One ship is almost invisible, but bring hundreds into view in an orderly pattern and space becomes an embossed sheet of velvet, figures rippling through the fabric as squadrons maneuvered.
For a moment they stood, quivering but quiet, like cobras preparing to strike. Then they opened their energy piles against each other, each of them the power of a small sun, combined, a hundred suns, and soon a thousand, blazing in fury amidst ships who expended as much energy in avoidance and absorption as in offense. The dead system was ablaze. I thought my distance would be sufficient to keep me out of the force. I was wrong. The rock around me boiled away to nothing; my shields alone kept me alive.
The expanse around me blazed and soon began to shimmer as if through the heat rising from a fire, though, of course, there was no air from which such a fire could breathe. But it wasn't an air-breathing dragon that had been awakened. This dragon breathed space. The glow was fierce. My displays dampened until almost opaque and I was still nearly blinded. My ship itself seemed to glow. The shimmer increased; the stuff of space began to fold into itself and, as if it couldn't bear the stress, I saw what I can only describe as cracks and gashes. Most of them, the largest, were far from me, but a few were much too close. The forces tearing away space outside my ship began to slip their talons within, scratching at me. Scratching was all they could do to me--I was still protected--but it was terrible. Before I blacked out, the sinews behind those talons reached out for the battle. Grendel tore through the cracks of space, firing.
When I awoke, the air inside the ship tingled. Space was still creased and torn. And Grendel was still out there, scavenging for the scraps left over from the melee. It wasn't the vision of the demented lunatic that faced me, though I found myself mapping what I saw to the stories he told. The energies engulfing the scene, both visible and invisible, were intense. My screens were still at their dimmest setting. I was just outside their sphere of influence, much closer than I had planned, but still far enough away that I hadn't been torn to shreds. Dark but sparkling shapes were moving about within. They were huge, the size of planets, and they moved in perfect precision. At the center of the sphere of energies was a region darker than space should be. Space was still rent and cracked all around me. Most of the tears were tiny, barely visible, but planets could be swallowed by that huge gaping hole. With a little imagination, I formed of the ships a dotted outline of a face and of the gaping maw of non-space its grinning leer. The madman had, indeed, seen Grendel. As I watched, the beast which had consumed all around it began to consume itself. The sphere was shrinking and the jagged smirking visage was swallowing its own dotted outline, swallowing the planet ships.
Legends spoke of great battles fought by the nobility of the ancients, fought over galaxies. Much too grand to be believable, they could still be told as legends. But all legends have some truth to them, and I had a theory. In those greater times of the supreme glory of humankind, we fell from grace, and have been falling ever since. In the first battles, their strength had to be great indeed. Our mightiest conflicts would be mere skirmishes to them. In their ultimate encounter, they not only tore into each other, but they tore into the fabric of the universe, and fell through. They were swallowed by their own passions and trapped beyond space. Now, in our meager shows of vice, we but barely poke holes through the universe. But beyond those holes lies the power of the ancients ready to annihilate us before falling back to their lair as the holes heal.
My theory seems to have been correct. I have seen the glory of the ancients. You heard me rave about the beauty of our fleets, but I can rave about such things no more. Not only beautiful were the ancient ships, but sublime in their casual display of raw power. Not the pageant of our crude metals. Their parade was a crystalline spectacle; not even as substantial as crystal, those ships were pure energies made solid for the warriors' benefit. Every part of each ship could be converted to war.
But my thoughts again drift. You know these things. Please forgive an old man. I am still in wonder.
Now when I recovered from this glorious vision, the talents of my ship, unique in all the galaxy, were put into place. I know little of the science of space travel, but no matter. What needs a caveman the knowledge of chemistry to cook over a fire? Gravity wells play havoc with jump ships, this much I do know. They cannot jump from or return to normal space closer than a few million miles from anything larger than a moon without losing precision. And the closer to such a body, the more precision is wanted. But some unnamed genius had discovered a formula for the deviations, and my ship was built to prove it.
So now I set the ship to jump. And waited. The last of the dark crystal planets was leaving the universe; space began to unfold, spreading the cloth of itself smooth again. I guessed that I must now take the chance, and hoped the folds wouldn't upset the equation - I did have a direct line of sight to my target. I pushed the button. It amazes me that after thousands of years of technology, we still use such archaic tools, but how does one improve on a button? I pushed it and found the equation proven when I appeared next within the landing bay doors of the last ship in the Fleet of Grendel.
You had little chance, then, to decide what to do with me before the holes in the universe swallowed you back up, so now you are stuck with me and my ship. I care not your verdict or your mercy. I have lived to see Grendel. I have nothing more for which to live. To die, fight, or peacefully spend my remaining days is of little import now. The thought of writing my chapter is no longer appealing, even if it could be read. There would be no mystery in that chapter. Amazement, yes, but no mystery. Why should I take that from the human race? It will die when it discovers everything there is to be known. You, Lords of Grendel, are necessary for its survival.
You make us sound so noble, old man, but all we do is kill. You speak of millennia. We know only months. Even now we are again in battle. Feel the tremors? How much time has elapsed in your universe since you arrived? Ten years? A thousand? It does not matter in here. We cannot escape. We do not know how. We are only warriors, all we know is how to survive.
But you still haven't answered our question. The technology within your ship is new to us. Nothing less than a great state could develop such a craft. How did you come to be its pilot?
I have found that obsession can master the impossible, particularly when one has been an emperor.
Russell Butek (email@example.com) is a nomadic software type who can't decide where he really wants to live. He grew up in the Cold White North of Wisconsin and got his education there, and has lived on the east coast, west coast, and places in between, along with a brief stint in Munich -- a city, like all of Europe, firmly in the grip of the pigeons. He currently lives in Austin, Texas.
InterText stories written by Russell Butek: "The Web" (v6n6), "Grendel" (v8n5), "Blame it on the Pigeons" (v9n6).
InterText Copyright © 1991-2000 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 8, Number 5 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1998 Russell Butek.