Mercy Comes Last to the Vigilant

By Stewart C Baker | May, 2020


Artwork by Jose Baetas.

Qelna beloved,

Blessed be the Empress's name, and may this letter find you and your father in good health.

How are things at home? I know the days before Eltshan are a busy time, but I hope you are not overly neglecting your studies to decorate our home or go skating on the river which runs through the city.

Today we arrived in the system we have been sent to pacify. Just as our scouts reported, the fifth planet is surrounded by a graveyard of ships, each painted a ghastly crimson by the light of the system's dying red star.

Fleet Command is pleased: there are at least three dozen types of ship, none of which match any exot species we have encountered before. This alone, they say, is worth our two-year journey to this desolate star. Once we decode their secrets, we might learn of their origins and visit upon them the mercy of the Empress's peace.

And so, as ordered, I led my squadron of fire-spitters into the largest of the ships, a bulbous, segmented, shimmering hulk, which might once have been beautiful. In the swollen star's light, it looked strange and unnatural.

Inside the ship, we found death, but not the violent, battle-scarred death we had expected. Short, pale-furred exots with snouts like dogs and multi-jointed arms lay unmoving in every corridor. They looked almost peaceful, save for their eyes, which--to a one--had burst.

(I must insert, here, a reply to your father's inevitable complaint about the content of this letter. Your father thinks you too young to know the dangers of planets the Empress' mercy has not yet pacified. He does not want you scarred, he says, by the threat exot cultures pose to our peace and our safety.

Your father lives softly. Do not hate him for his fears. But a year from now you will be old enough to enlist in the Empress's ranks, and if you aspire to command like mine you must know what we face).

Fortunately, we had been following proper protocol, and none of us were exposed to whatever killed these creatures. Xenolinguist Ye, however, was unable to learn a single thing about the exots' origins. The ship's computers were all destroyed, their memories purged and their interfaces pulverized. At the center of one room, we found a pile of ash which Ye speculates might have been their printed records.

The squads which went to other ships reported different kinds of exot, from bird-like creatures with iridescent scales to women who looked disturbingly like us, save for their limbs, which were themselves as long as your father is tall. Everything else was much the same: Death and the complete destruction of anything written. The only thing we discovered of what had happened to them all was a single block of text, scratched on the walls of the smallest ship in the graveyard. An illustration accompanied it, a crude drawing of what appeared to be some kind of bug, standing on the planet below the ship with its legs raised, strange lines emanating from its outstretched tarsal claws.

Although our xenolinguists still struggle to make sense of the words, it is clearly a warning. Although the state of the sun makes the system unsuitable for resettlement, Fleet Command has ordered me to lead my squadron on an expedition to the surface and determine if the planet holds clues as to what killed the exot ships. Perhaps what killed them is something we can learn from or use.

I must go now and prepare my women for landing. I will write you again when I can.

With love and endless glory to the Empress,

Kitya

*****

Qelna beloved,

Tonight, on the first night of Eltshan, we reached the surface of the planet. Our dropship touched down gently, on a hill overlooking a forest of spindly, purple-leaved trees. Nothing stirred but the foliage, which danced in a hot, dry wind beneath the planet's bloated sun.

So much light and heat feel odd on this holiest of days, when we remember the years before the Empress's divine ancestor raised us from our darkness. Back home, you must be sipping hot cider with your father and watching the snowfall, watching the last of the light fade away for Eltshan week.

The women are relieved to find the surface peaceful, but still they are uneasy. The heat of this place, which can be felt even through our quarantine suits, and the strange light of its swollen red sun, sets them on edge far more than mere slaughter. Then, too, there is what we have seen on the ships, those sprawled exot bodies, and their ruined eyes. A sense of fatalistic waiting has spread throughout the ranks, a sense of unnamed horror just beyond the alien horizon.

It being the first night of Eltshan, and in the absence of an enemy, I was tempted to show mercy by letting them retire early. But mercy is death to the Empress's glory, and bonfires are traditional, besides.

I had Lietant Eja relay the order to establish a wide perimeter, and the women made short work in torching the thin, spindly trees of the alien forest with their fire-spitters. Soon the earth around us was cracked and steaming, cleared of any obstacle that might hide unpleasant surprises.

I submitted a report to Fleet Command, then had Eja give the order to encamp, send out scouting parties, and organize the night's watches. A group of enlisted women with no duties performed the Eltshan Miracle plays--more or less accurately, and with a minimum of bawdy insertions--and we officers amused ourselves with a game of Fnordian Snake which went on far too long.

It is late, now, and those women not on watch are enjoying the deep sleep of the righteous. I will write you again when time and my duties permit.

With love and endless glory to the Empress,

Kitya

*****

Qelna beloved,

Glory and good morning to you on this, the second day of Eltshan. May your spirits stay bright in upholding Her glory, even while your skies are dark.

Or so I have written, but it is as sun-bright and summer-hot here as it was when we landed--an oddity my mind cannot quite reconcile with what it insists is the season.

I'm sure you are hoping for news of a battle in this letter. A retelling of some dramatic clash, filled with valiant sacrifice and eventual triumph. I'm afraid you will find nothing of the sort; the most interesting thing to happen today was when one of the scouting teams returned with news of a monolith several miles into the forest.

I woke early, and aided the women in decamping. With no further orders from Fleet Command and no sign of any enemy, we marched towards the monolith and rested there as the alien sun reached its apex.

The monolith was set in a clearing. Tall as the trees, but far more substantial, it was half-covered in thick yellow vines. Lietant Eja noticed a pattern engraved into its westward face, and, when it was determined that the structure was unlikely to be harmed, I had one of the women torch the vines clear with her spitter.

Beneath, we discovered a repeating series of exot letters, although neither I nor Xenolinguist Ye can make sense of them. For your entertainment, I have included a rough sketch of the pattern:

We still have not so much as sighted any bugs like that pictured in the exot warning. Indeed, were it not for the graveyard of ships, I would think no bugs exist.

I wish I could be home, to share cider with you and your father, to watch the warm fires of a thousand homes twinkling in the snow-filled landscape of another Eltshan evening. Instead, I must go, for duty calls and our mid-day rest has ended. We have a long, tiresome march before us in this unseasonal weather.

With much love to you, and endless glory to the Empress,

Kitya

*****

Qelna beloved,

My apologies for failing to write over the last three days. I had meant to send you mid-Eltshan greetings, but something about this planet's atmosphere has drained me, and I have returned to my tent after each day's progress through the endless jungles too tired to put stylus to ansible.

In the three days since my last letter, we have reached an exot city. The city stands atop a red-clay butte beyond a grassy plain a short distance from the forest, and it is as empty and as silent as the rest of this planet's lands. Yellow-green vines stretch across its buildings, pulling down walls, ripping open windows, making a maze of those streets we can see from our distant vantage.

There are more of the monoliths, as well. One stands at each entrance of the city, tall and straight and clear of vegetation. The jagged lines of their sigil face uniformly out:

We have sighted no bugs, but the monoliths, coupled with the planet's pristine, forested surface and the ruin of this city, have unsettled the more superstitious women in our ranks. Last night, Lietant Eja and I began to hear whispers that the monoliths are a warning. That there are no bugs at all, but some more obscure, even deadlier threat. That Fleet Command has interpreted the exot message scrawled on the wall of the ship and abandoned us here. That they intend us to die, so they can study further the nature of whatever exot weaponry lies waiting for us to activate it.

In the early hours of the morning, while the stars still shone, I discovered that Xenolinguist Ye was the source of these unrighteous rumours. Lietant Eja and I confronted her at dawn, and she waved her journals in our faces, raving about viruses and memetic reproduction, about curses and dead empires. She had removed her quarantine suit, and her face was pale, her tongue flecked with white, her pupils strangely dilated. She stank of sweat and urine.

With a dour heart, I had the lietant shoot her and the worst of the other dissenters, and had the women hang their bodies from the monoliths. We denied them a funeral pyre, and renounced them as heretics who had wished death on the Empress's name.

This may seem harsh--especially so close to Eltshan's holiest night, when the light at last returns, brought back by our Empress's splendor--but please understand, Qelna beloved, that on the front we can never reduce our vigilance, and such fearful talk is poison. It will spread like deadly jat'ka if you do not remove it at its source.

Remember this, when you are grown and leading women of your own: victory stems from calmness and determination; unease leads only to ruin.

As a treat for you, I asked one of the women with some skill in the arts to sketch the exot city, and have attached it to this letter. Please consider it an Eltshan gift, delivered with all my heart.

I will write again tomorrow, I promise you.

With love, and endless glory to the Empress,

Kitya

*****

Qelna beloved,

May your morning be bright and cheerful on this, the first day after Eltshan's darkest hour, when light has returned to your skies.

Here, alas, no Eltshan miracle has visited us.

The planet's sun is as red and ugly as ever, its heat just as pervasive. Our removal of Xenolinguist Ye came too late, as well: some of the women have been complaining of stabbing pains behind their eyes, agony under their fingernails, molten fire inside their tongues. They have not removed their quarantine suits, and our med-scanners insist that nothing is wrong, but I have left them resting all the same.

This is what comes of weakness. This is what comes of doubt in the Empress's ineffable reach.

Lietant Eja tried to contact Fleet Command and have us extracted. There was no response, but it is not for us to question Fleet Command's decisions. Even if we have been sent here to die, we will carry out our orders until no woman remains to do so.

We must not falter: Victory stems from calmness and deter--

I split the remaining women into three groups: a handful to watch the sick, and two-score each for Eja and me. We entered the city equipped with sonic-burst rifles (we dare not use the spitters in such close quarters, in such dry heat), and began to clear its buildings.

This was a slow and laborious process. I will spare you the details, but by the time the planet's sun reached its zenith my women and I had barely walked a quarter of the way around the city's outermost streets.

We rested briefly and ate a hurried meal of rehydrated kal tuber mush--packed with nutrients and calories, and every bit as tasty as it sounds--then chased it down with stale water before setting out again. We hadn't gone far before several more women fell ill. Although I doubt it will save them, I sent them back to camp with the others. Let them take what solace they may from the company of their friends, from some semblance of security.

After they had left, I radioed Lietant Eja for a report on her progress. I received no response.

Those women who remained and I and continued onward, further into the city. Its streets were dim with the closeness of the vines, and each step we took kicked up clouds of choking dust from the ruined walls of buildings.

No longer did I give orders to clear each structure we passed; no longer did I keep a close watch. We had followed every regulation since landing and it had made no difference; now that we numbered only a handful I could no longer bring myself to enforce the orders of Fleet Command.

So it was we came upon the exot unready, in a circular depression surrounded by curving crystalline walls, each of which was marked over and over with that sky-darkened sigil.

The exot was small, about half the size of a woman, and spindly as the trees we had seen upon landing. It was as different as we were from the exots we had found in the ships, but looked nothing like a bug. Its shape overall was human--two arms, two legs, a single head--but it had green-grey skin, and a white-flecked orifice split its face in place of a nose. Something or someone had gouged out its three eyes, and it sat at the center of the chamber on a squat, blocky bench before a crystalline table.

Fortunately, the exot did not react as we blundered into its presence; it simply sat in place, one withered hand dragging a sharp, silvery stylus across the table's surface.

"Ready arms," I whispered, belatedly. "Approach at my signal... Now."

We stalked towards the creature, but it did not stand, did not flee, did not fight. It stayed where it was, its hand moving in an endless line across the bench. Still, it was an exot; it lived in opposition to the Empress's will.

We had standing orders to destroy any unclean life we discovered, and that is what we did.

But do not mistake me, Qelna beloved: It was not like the dramas. There was no heroic sacrifice, no passionate fight in the glory of the Empress's name. I simply raised my rifle, aimed, and fired. The exot slumped forwards, dead, its hand never loosening on the stylus it held.

After, there was little to do. Less to say. We gave the exot a cursory examination, and I faithfully reported what we found to Fleet Command--trusting to the Empress that they hear me, for they still did not respond. Beyond the exot at the workbench, the room was littered with corpses, all of which matched the one I had shot.

On the table, uncountable copies of the sigil, scratched into the rock-hard surface, overlapping endlessly, runes running into runes, the marks of what must have been a thousand thousand hours of work or more. Elsewhere, dust lay thick as Eltshan snow, so that I had the impression we had interrupted the last survivor of some long-forgotten, long-dead race, futilely repeating some unclean ritual.

Release, I tell myself. That is what I gave it. Not death but release from untold years of pain, of loneliness, of copying that evil sigil.

It was on our return to our camp outside the city that we found the first of our dead. She was lying in the middle of a road, her quarantine suit intact and her rifle still slung across her back, agony clear on what was left of her face. Her eyes had turned to red emptiness; her tongue had burst, and pink froth flecked her lips, her teeth. Crusted blood oozed from below her fingernails.

Priv Eloa, her name had been. I remembered her as a brash recruit, fresh from training, eager for glory. I do not know what private dreams she held, who back home had missed her company on the long, dark nights of Eltshan.

Speak of her, Qelna, if you read these words. Tell others she died bravely for the Empress. If you will not, who will?

As we walked, we found many like Priv Eloa. Face-down in the roadway, slumped against walls, half-up stairways. The worst were those who had removed their quarantine suits and who sat as if resting. With their heads slumped forwards, their eyes closed, and their rifles in their laps, the pulse-sized hole in the tops of their heads was the only sign of how they died.

And my own women, too, and the ones I had left resting at camp. All of them, they...

I should name these women, all of them--I should, I owe them that, after all they have suffered--but I cannot. I am tired, so tired. And guilty, although I know that guilt is second only to fear in bringing shame to the Empress's glory. For while my women sicken and die around me, I feel only exhaustion, no more pain than a slight itching at my fingertips which vanishes only when I write.

May the Empress in her light-bringing splendor forgive me for my weakness. For my crimes.

Kitya

*****

Qelna beloved,

Today I removed my quarantine suit. There seems no point in wearing it, when so many have already died while I remain unharmed.

I spent most of the day looking for Lietant Eja, but I never found her. Only, at the city's edge, a pendant her wife gave her when she departed for the front, dangling from a jagged, broken monolith shot through with sonic pulses. I called out her name until my throat grew hoarse, but she did not respond.

In the end, I looped her pendant about my neck and went walking through the city. It was easier to keep walking, somehow, than to stop. To admit to myself what I have become. What I have done to you who read these words.

Love and glory,

Kitya

*****

Qelna beloved,

Night.

Although the sun here is disturbingly wrong, the stars are truly beautiful--no city lights, no clouds, no Eltshan darkness hide their bright twinkling. They are beautiful, yes, but they bring me no comfort, no sleep. I find myself looking for signs of the Fleet, trying to determine if any of the stars are actually its beacons. If any of the censals who read our outgoing letters still--

I will write again when I have time, although I hope now that my words have never reached you. That Fleet Command severed all communications the instant we touched down on this terrible, peaceful planet. That the ansibles they gave us are nothing but props to give us false hope as we die here, alone.

With love to you and prayers for the Empress's forgiveness,

Kitya

*****

Qelna beloved,

No sign of Eja.

No word from Fleet Command.

No one left. Only me.

So tired.

Built pyres at the edge of the city for as long as I could. Saw those of my women home I had the strength for.

Left too many--May the Empress in her mercy grant them peace.

Buried the exot, too. The "bug."

Carried it to the edge of the forest, away from the city, to a place with no sigils, and set it on a hasty pyre of leaves and vines and braches.

Don't know what its people did for their dead but hope it finds whatever gods it holds to.

May the Empress in her mer--

My fingers itch with the need to write. My tongue burns with the need to sing.

Love and--

Kitya

*****

Qelna,

Alone still. Daren't go to camp. Can't bare to see--

Managed to destroy the monoliths we found with explosive charges. Are there more? Don't know. Doesn't matter. All I could do. Please te--

Back in the city.

Where the bug was. Flame-spitter.

Light the whole thing up.

Me too.

Doesn't matter.

Can't end up like--

Empress lend me--

I pray you'll never read these words. I pray Fleet Command's censal--

Empress for--

*****

Qelna bel--

couldn--

so sor--

with l--


Note from Kasma's editor: this wonderful story was first published in Intergalactic Medicine Show, December 2017, as "Mercy at Eltshan-Time."