Aphelion Issue 281, Volume 27
March 2023
 
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Amidst the Heavens

by Carmenn Alexander King Kocznur




The shuttle drifts steadily through the cold stillness of space, through an endless night tossing with terrible wonders the probing mind is afraid to understand. The man in the shuttle turns towards the window. He looks into the darkness, that same darkness he's seen for ten months, populated with innumerable worlds desolate and pale. How awful and vast is this place! And yet how brightly, how beautifully, the stars shine! They bring to mind an ancient verse:

Aerunil spreadeth her black garment betwixt the Twin Moons -- She adorneth her cloak with glowing sapphires to seduce the Kings of the Sun.

Glowing indeed. According to the natural order these sapphires are set in their places and carefully aligned for the cycles. They are the universe's gentle shepherds beloved and feared more than the old gods and the tyrant emperors who cast long shadows over forgotten civilizations. And they are the faithful watchers of manifold worlds, shining and concealing as planets make their consistent pilgrimages round about them, drinking from their ceaseless springs of light. Harbingers of peace and portents of doom, they sing forever and forever they dance in this infinite sanctuary while magi strive to know their secrets and their courses, to determine the coming days.

Aerunil's sapphires, the man smiles half-heartedly, Confounding and enlightening. Inconstant and always the same. He is alone in this clunky craft, the Mashada'ra-Shia. Alone for so long that his bones groan for human touch, a familiar voice, a caring eye or a listening ear.

Out his window he sees the dead world, Magma. Like an ember burning amongst ashes so this world flickers amid deep space.

Eden one day. Hell the next.

He can't bear to look there any longer. Too many torturous memories overcome him. The war, the pestilence, billions dying without hope. Evangeline was there, he remembers. He begged her not to go. It feels like just yesterday they argued. . . .

"Those people need a way out."

"If the fleet doesn't come none of you will have a way out!" he protested.

"I can't leave them without a chance."

That look in her eye . . . the compassion she had for those poor bastards . . . "Evie. . . ."

"No," she said, "My world burned, and everyone and everything I knew was gone. I will not let that happen to them."

"It's against the Imperial Decree . . ." he reminded her weakly.

"Damn the decree and the Imperial System! They can all take it to hell. You can't declare people worthless based on what world you're from."

"It's treason to defy the Lord of the Age," he said in a panic, sweat glistening on his brow, "He'll have you executed, you and your charity society. Think this through, Evangeline! The whole solar system will hunt you down."

"Let them hunt," she said with calm boldness, "let them search the galaxy, even. If I have to die, then let me die for this purpose. I know you can't come with me, and it's best you don't. You're needed where you are. I'm needed here."

There was silence, he remembers. He hadn't stopped her from going. What she did was honorable, worthy of memory. He remembers their long embrace and his whisper in her ear, "I love you . . ." before sharing their last, tearful kiss.

The man hasn't seen her since. The fleet never came. Nuclear holocaust soon incinerated that world, appropriately renamed Magma. He wonders how they died. Did they suffer slowly from radioactive poisoning, or was death mercifully instant? He prays it was instant, Right in the eye of the fireball. This is why I'm here. She died. The damn fleet didn't come . . . those cowards! Those goddamned cowards!

A sudden bump shakes the craft. He stumbles over to check the controls and the holo-visors. Nothing seems to be wrong. Shields remain up and running.

Probably a rock or scrap metal, he reasons. Wait! something catches his eye. He returns to the window. . . . This time a small creature is in view crawling slowly up the ship. Its green swollen eyes stare into his own through the glass while a wet, slobbering tongue hangs from its mouth dripping a yellowish slime.

"Welcome," he says dryly, barely alarmed at the sight of the thing. He's seen many like it all too often. Bored, the man pours himself the last cup of piping hot coffee. He raises his mug to the creature, "Care to join me? You're the only decent company I've had around here. Where are your pals? Don't they like comin' around here anymore? Where are your pals, slimey?"

A moment passes. The man wishes the creature could communicate, even if it's to say something obscene. Anything. Anything at all.

He takes a sip of coffee, "No pals today," he says softly with a sad twinge in his voice, "No words today, or yesterday, or tomorrow. . . . No nothing."

Something grabs the creature's attention. It looks upward, then wiggles its fish-like body away from the shuttle, disappearing from view, leaving the yellowish mark as a reminder of its presence.

So much for company. He downs the mug then sets it on the table.

He looks beyond the slime into space: the stars seem brighter now. He watches as some burst into a blinding light, covered in black cloud and ash, ever dying, while others are marvelously born into existence.

The man's home world is still a long way off. The Plague has wiped out crops, humans, animals, even alien empires. A few human factions survive on the man's home world huddled together on only one continent. The last recorded estimate was about 3,000. Without the man's return with the required crystalix minerals they'll have no hope of living.

What do I care? he says inside, I died a long time ago. Doesn't matter anymore. Just doesn't matter. They did it to themselves. They were warned, but hell if they listened. . . . They deserved it. They goddamned deserved it! Goddamn! I'd kill them myself if I could! They deserved it all!

He looks at the slime once more. Strange how tragedy has the capacity to turn the timid cold and the gentle cruel.

What has he become? He who once wept for his fallen brothers and sisters during the United Interplanetary War; whose smile made his lover giggle. Those bastards deserved it! They deserved to die! Those --

What's this? He reaches inside his coat pocket feeling for the object he heard jingling. It is a pewter medallion on a chain with a strange engraving. He holds it lightly. The Sign of the Lady of Ai-Senir. Il-Shalha-In-Amri-El-Uach.

Evie. . . . She'd given it to him some time ago. He carries it everywhere as a reminder of her. But he hasn't paid much attention to it during this long voyage. Ah, he remembers, weeping must replace anger. Tears intercede where voices are silenced. Fools are to be pitied rather than hated. He stares at the medallion and remembers Evangeline with her eyes the color of lightening when it flashes in the night sky, white and pure, and her dark luscious hair. Her very presence mirrored the universe, the man says inside.

Evie . . . Evie . . . I love you . . . . Evie he calls her. Evie who died. The fleet hadn't come.

He has nightmares of her lying in the street amongst the corpses, faceless and mangled. He can't stand it. My God! Let me die! He begs over and over. Yet he lives, fully aware of her death, fully aware he'll never see her again.

A week passes. The isolation is more than he can bear. He doesn't even bother playing the music loop anymore.

"God Almighty," he moans, tired of this emptiness, the mundane minute-by-minute routine, "Just a bloody word. One bloody word! Just me. . . . The stars are mine, all mine. All this space is mines. All mine! Maybe there's nobody back home. Maybe they all went and died. Good for them. Me, the only surviving member of the former human race. What a cheap laugh. Cheap. Real cheap."

A streak of light -- perhaps a shooting star -- flashes by the shuttle. The man peers out the window to see a woman clad in white robes, faceless save for a deformed mouth. She gives birth to an albino child with broken eagle wings. The child suckles from the woman's breast, and the stars dance around her head like a crown. Then the figures disintegrate into particles of dust spinning at an extraordinary speed, clumping together with dust from space until it forms into a ball of rock -- An explosion! Cloud! Ash! Screaming and cursing! A purple star is born.

The man rubs his eyes. The vision passes. The purple star has vanished. Il-Shalha-In-Amri-El-Uach . . . Yes, he will remember. But he will not marvel. The time has not yet come to know the hidden things, the things which only the ancients and the stars know. He remembers Il-Shalha-In-Amri-El-Uach.

After six agonizing months his home world finally approaches. The Mashada'ra-Shia enters orbit, burns up a little but heat-shields protect it from exploding into flame.

Here we are. He guesses that whoever sees his ship landing will think it's a monster of some sort. Hallucination is just one effect from the Plague. And the Mashada'ra-Shia is the last known functioning spacecraft in existence. He'll be lucky if they remember that.

Hundreds of miners dig out the corlphite gases, harvest it in geysers, preparing for its blend with the crystalix minerals. The corlphite keeps their minds sane a little while longer. But it isn't enough. The crystalix minerals must be blended with the gases to produce the cure. Only then can they use the minerals to regrow the crops.

He prepares to land near the ruins of a once famous city. Multitudes look upward and scream in frenzies. True to the man's suspicion they believe the ship is something other than machine. A few particularly vocal people shout, "Come and free us O covering Cherub! The gods are angry!"

The Plague has burned their minds. The corlphite has lost its affect. Worse than I thought. Goddamn.

Thousands dance violently while beating themselves. Others lie on the ground writhing like worms. Still others shake and moan as they see ecstatic visions. The ship's sensors pick up their eerie chants, "Behold! the lamb of the gods that takes away the Plague of the world!" "The coming of the last god!" "He has returned as he promised!" "Praise to the covering Cherub!" "The Cherub of Ashtar Sheran!"

What the hell is this? The ship touches down. The man arms himself with three pistols. One in hand, one strapped to his ankle, and the third in his pocket. Before his hand reaches the door he looks up through the glass ceiling once more. It is nightfall, and the stars are dim, leprous. Their haunting gaze sends cold shivers down his spine.

You look at something so beautiful, so perfect, and it makes you warm inside, and calm. You can relax. You can enjoy it, like vintage wine. You savor it. Like a walk along the beach, you feel the ocean spray, the sun, and hear the waves. Then it turns. It becomes vinegar, poison in your throat. The sand turns to ash, and you're drowning. It becomes something else, and it fills your heart with dread. Terrible, terrible dread . . . So beautiful, so perfect, so terrible. . . .

He pushes a lever that covers the glass ceiling with a metallic dome. He won't look up there again.

Here we go, he tells himself. His heart pounds like a jackhammer. He exits, unsure what the crowds will do. He takes his stand, looking at his fellow human beings lost to the madness. The silence is tense. All activity has come to a halt. Fear continues rising in his chest. He hears his heart pounding in his ears.

One from the crowd creeps toward the man, "Are you the Prophet of Ashtar Sheran?"

Before he's given the chance to respond the man from the crowd shouts, "The Prophet of Ashtar Sheran! Hear him!"

"Ashtar Sheran is dead!" he blurts out. The crowds remain deathly silent.

Someone else shouts, "He will return! He said, ‘I am coming quickly and bringing with me my recompense.' The Pallid Lord is coming back!"

"He's a liar. His false prophecies have brought us to this. He promised us peace but instead gave us this Plague from the Outer Damned. Every world is betrayed. The solar system is in ruins. All is lost."

Someone turns to the Mashada'ra-Shia, "Hail, O covering Cherub! Speak through your prophet: Was not Ashtar Sheran, Messiah of the Interplanetary Coalition and Lord of the Age, taken away by our enemies but promised to return triumphant?"

The man sees there's no reasoning with them, not in this state. Unless they blend the crystalix and corlophite and consume it their lives will be lost. Too many have already died. He goes along with the charade. Eyes focused on the crowds, he recites the words of an old sacred text.

"Hear me, you people! I speak through my Prophet! I am the covering Cherub, I speak no lie! I bring you the Prophet that you might live. I am the father of all things, and the god who visits vengeance upon those who despise my words. Behold! my Prophet comes to say, ‘Hear the covering Cherub!'"

The crowds are mesmerized by the words spoken by their god through his oracle.

"Ashtar Sheran is no more, so says the Cherub!" the man shouts, now speaking his own words, "The Cherub commands you to take crystalix and corlphite! It is the covering Cherub that demands of you!"

The crowds shout in agreement, raising their hands in praise. A woman, about the man's age, steps forward. Her face is scarred by burns and covered with spores from the Plague. She wears a battered uniform with pins and military crests. She stands mid-way between the crowds and the man, "The corlphite has kept some of us sane . . ." she says weakly, "but it will not last. The Plague is too strong."

The man recognizes her . . . could it be? Oh God . . . dear God!

"Not all of us believe in the covering Cherub, this thing of metal," she looks no better than a skeleton with skin stretched about, "and we don't believe in the Lord of the Age."

"Evangeline!" he cries, "It's me!"

"I waited so long for you," she says.

"Evangeline . . . I don't understand! You died on Magma."

She's worried now. "Magma? No one's been to Magma. . . ."

"You tried to save them!"

Tears well in her eyes. God no, not him too. "No . . .Nothing's on Magma. You're ill."

"Stop! You went to Magma to save them! The fleet never came for you and the refugees! Everyone died there! I remember!

"Adam!" she cries.

Adam. My name . . . She said my name.

"The Plague has made you sick," she continues, "Don't you remember? You risked it all to bring the minerals back. You've gotten sick."

The man shakes his head in convulsions, "The Prophet of the Cherub judges all and is judged by no one!" he snaps, "I do what I am commanded by order of the covering Cherub!"

"You need help," Evangeline says in a hushed tone. She calls for her soldiers, those who've kept their sanity, and directs them to search the craft for the crystalix to prepare for blending. They salute her as their Captain then rush to the shuttle. They find shelves upon shelves full of tubes containing the crystalix in the cargo compartment of the ship.

"Yes!" the man shouts, now in his mind fully convinced he is the Prophet, "Hasten! Blend it quickly, so commands the Cherub! The Cherub demands of you! Take the crystalix, all of you, for this is his body given up for you and for all for the cleansing of sickness. Drink you the corlphite liquids, for it is his blood in the new order, given up for you for the cleansing of all disease."

He is oblivious of his wife's tears. What if it's too late for him?

The two elements are mixed producing a fierce odor in the air. The crowds rush to drink the elixir, doing as their god through his Prophet commands. It'll take time, but they will regain sanity and health within weeks if they continue to drink. Some are beyond hope. They have no chance.

The man is given a vial. But he's so ill he can't even stand. Evangeline has already drunk from her vial. She lies her husband down and pours the elixir over his brow. The sores burn in reaction, then dissolve gradually. He gulps down the drink, his eyes briefly going blind, a temporary side-affect. Death is so near . . . but he will live. Yes, he will definitely live.

"You're home now," she says, stroking his forehead, "We'll never be apart again."

"Evie . . ." he whispers, gripping her hand tightly, "Did I save them? Does the covering Cherub find favor with me?"

She answers him lovingly. "Yes, Adam. They will remember you forever. We will rebuild civilization together."

A smile appears across his face. "Thank you . . . O Cherub . . . thank you. . . ."

Madness will flee from him in time, but now his mind is far away. He played the part well. He is the great Prophet of the divine covering Cherub! One greater than Ashtar Sheran is here, the people cry in his mind, one greater than Ashtar. . . .

His thoughts wander to the stars, those exalted stars above. They shine brightly again. He imagines himself soaring high above the clouds. For his fellow humans on this world a new day will dawn. So it is with the man who sees himself as a straying comet exploding into nothingness, then being reborn as a bright and morning star amidst the heavens.


THE END


2016 Carmenn Alexander King Kocznur

Bio: Carmenn Kocznur is twenty-seven, married to his lovely wife, Christie. They have a one year old, Levi, and are currently expecting our second child, Evangeline, in January. When he was fourteen, he had an opinion piece published in a German magazine entitled, Spot On. It is his dream to be a published author one day.

E-mail: Carmenn Alexander King Kocznur

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