In July we shared a writing prompt titled “Starting Point: The Return”. Picking up where the starting point left off, Vanessa Ravencroft has continued the story. Here is the fruit of her labours…
The Starting Point
As Noah turned onto the familiar path home, his ears caught a sound not altogether unfamiliar to him, but which had not been heard in those lands since many years past. There was a peculiar blackness rising from the valley. Smoke. Thick, heavy smoke, and it was coming from the village.
Noah dashed along the road as quickly as his tired old ankles would allow, and as he reached the crest of hill his most feared suspicions were confirmed. The valley below was a scene of total devastation. The village was ablaze. Not a single building was untouched by the flames, and even some of the farmhouses that dotted the surrounding hillside were alight.
Kaleb and Lola Fizman were about a nearby field where they had been tending their flock, accompanied by their daughter and grandchild. They did not turn to greet Noah from his long journey, but instead were transfixed by the horrific scene. As Noah approached them, Lola Fizman fell to her knees and began to sob for her daughter, whose husband was Goodwizard of the village temple and had surely been caught in the violence.
Who could do such a thing, and why? Noah knew there could be only one answer: They had returned.
Tears of frustration rolled down his wrinkled cheeks, while his hand cramped around the walking staff, wishing it would be a weapon potent enough to fight back. Strong enough for revenge!
Noah felt ashamed of himself and his emotions. He was a man of peace.
His eyes fixed on the thick column of smoke, he wondered how many had been taken this time.
Kaleb the shepherd of the Fizman tribe came running as he noticed Noah.
“Elder Noah, what are we going to do? I am sure they will come this way as well.”
“We must give them what they want, this is what the spirit of peace demands. We must not resist.”
Kaleb pointed to the mountains “We could hide.”
Lola shook her head. “Grandmother said they hid the last time, they found them nevertheless. They have beasts that can find our scent, even better than dogs. You heard the stories just like I did!”
Noah wrestled with his convictions, what he was taught all his life and his burning emotions as he saw the flames and the smoke.
Lola, still on her knees with her eyes full of sorrow, stared at the Elder. “Maybe the way of the Elders and the Goodwizards are wrong after all.” Her face of sorrow slowly changed as her tone became sharper with each word. “Maybe we should…” She hesitated to speak the dirty word but then she spat it out. “Fight!”
Seeing the burning village; a sight he had seen last when Noah was a young boy. He remembered the pleading screams of his mother, as she was dragged away by them and his father doing nothing, except telling everyone not to resist.
He pulled her up. “Swift, gather everyone of your tribe. We are going to the Valley of Descent.”
Kaleb, whistled and signaled his dog to gather the flock.
Noah who suddenly had an idea growing, held him back. “You must leave the sheep and all your livestock behind. We must travel fast and unburdened.”
Kaleb, not entirely convinced to simply leave his livelihood behind, not knowing what the Elder had in mind, said. “They didn’t take everything last time. Maybe they’ll overlook us this time. Did they take sheep back then?”
“Everything! Sheep, chicken, pigs, dogs and cows. Many men, women and children.”
Kaleb, never known to be the sharpest mind, pointed towards the burning village. “Maybe it is their punishment for living so easy. Giving honest shepherds only a small part of what a sheep is really worth. They cut it up and offer it to others with much profit. Is it not said that greed is one of the evil things that cause violence? We have eighty sheep. Maybe we should go and give them forty and they will be pleased and let us be?”
Noah did not find any flaw in Kaleb’s argument. Especially in terms of their religion, but his memories and the sight of the burning village made him question the very foundation of his faith and conviction.
Lola hefted one of the curved shepherd knives. She always had been handy with this wicked looking sickle shaped knife, perfect to cut through fleece, or the throat of a sheep.
”What about Oraht, the husband of our daughter? What if they want one of our grandchildren?”
Kaleb was not a certain anymore. “Oraht might be dead already.”
Lola turned to Noah. “What is there? What is in that valley that will help us?”
“It is where our Ark is buried, the ship that brought us here. If the legends are true we came from beyond the skies as well.. Just as them who know burn and pillage our homes.. The book of peace says we left because man was evil and wicked. That all misery was caused by man and its willingness to shed blood and even kill.”
Some of the beings did look somewhat like dogs, Oraht thought. These things did move like dogs would if walking on hind legs, Elga the wife of community leader Pascar had a dog that could dance on his hind legs, when Elga played the flute.
He and and twenty other men of the community sat with their hands fastened behind their backs, in what was once Pascar’s pig pen. It stank of pig feces and over it all hung the stench of the fires that still consumed the village. They were guarded by several upright walking dog beings. They spoke among each other, barked orders, but Oraht did not understand them.
They wore some kind of armor suit and carried weapons that could set fire to mud bricks and dirt. The being closest to him held a long stick in his right clawlike hand.. The stick caused a painful sensation every time it made contact with one of the men. There was no need to understand the language, it was clear the walking dog loved using it.
The dog was not alone, but not all of them looked like dogs. Some of the intruders were just like the people of Arat, others he could only describe as terrifyingly alien. Nothing in Oraht’s world could be used to help describe these things.
Pascar, naked and dirt caked as him, leaned over. “I see you are awake. They have taken the children and women already. What will happen to us?”
“I don’t know. I only remember what Old Noah has told me about the last time they came. They will take many, kill many and only leave the old and sick.”
Issaker, a sausage maker and meat cutter by trade hissed. “You take sausages and wool, meat and sheep just to give us your wisdom and assurances that you have the answers. Now is the time, Goodwizard. Now is the time to actually give advice that means something. If I get loose, I will teach you what I think of you arrogant better than everyone bastards, and your lazy no good ways.”
The Jooltar slaver snickered in the eerie high pitched, almost insane sounding way his kind was famous for. Then he exposed his formidable fangs. “The Syndic was right, there is a planet right here at the edge of Freespace settled by primitive humanoids. With a continent full of villages, each with livestock keeping human primates.” He snickered even louder. “For the Polonium they will pay me at Alvor’s, I am going to get me a bigger ship and come back here to take what I had to leave behind.”
The being he was talking to had a rigid body shell and a long snout. It was a Karthanian. Terrans sometimes saw similarities with sea horses, but unlike seahorses, Karthanians had left their oceans millions of years ago and developed into a space traveling species.
The Karthanian flickered his long black tongue into a thin tubular glass. In doing so gathering some of the thick brown syrupy liquid inside. It was the refreshment his host, the Jooltar offered moments ago. The Karthanians called it Slobber and it was consumed both for nourishment and pleasure. Only after the third flicker, did the Karthanian put the glass tube down.
“I suggest haste. These are indeed the fringes of Freespace, but what are a few light years here or there to a Union battleship captain, eager to pulverize pirates. Do I have to remind you how they feel about slavers?”
The Jooltar stopped snickering, and sounded not as loud and confident as before. “We are far from any Union system. This isn’t a Union system. The Syndic was here before and reaped great spoils. The Union would have been here by now, if this world was of any interest to them.”
The Karthanian gestured to the glass of Slobber, and then towards the planet majestically displayed on the large view screen before them.. “Never the less, I think I let you have this all for yourself. The profit seems genuine but I’d rather play a little deeper in Freespace,. I thank you for considering me as a partner, but I’ll pass on this one.”
“Suit yourself, coward. I have contacted others of our kind who will be eager to take a share of the spoils.”
The Karthanian pirate returned to his own ship, where his first mate waited at the air lock. “No deal?”
“The Jooltar is raiding a colony of humans.”
“The Jooltar is ignorant, I am certain these are Earthers.”
The mate, a yellowish four armed being from the planet N’Ger whispered with urgency in his voice. “I suggest we get away from here, as soon as we can.”
“Those are indeed my orders.”
Noah, accompanied by the members of the Fizman clan, was walking as fast as his old feet let him along the worn out path that connected the Sandman village with the Rosenheimer village.
When he was younger he could cover the entire distance of a day’s walk with only taking one break. Now he simply had to stop every now and then. He hoped the Sky Demons had not yet attacked and raided Rosenheim or spotted the small group. Up here in the Sinaid region of the Eastern continent were only a few forests, or tree stands to hide.
He was certain the far distant villages at the end of the river Nole would again fare much better able to scatter in the woods.
But what troubled him even more than his weary body, was the turmoil of emotions raging inside.
He listened to his father, he had always done so. But even now so many years after his mother had been abducted, he woke up from painful dreams and the deep seated hunger to avenge his mother. In Rosenheim he planned to get donkeys that could carry them soewhat faster on the two day journey to the Valley.
The Keeper of the Valley was an old man like him, and a friend. Noah hoped Aaron would know how to find the buried ark.
The oldest and most forbidden texts of the old records spoke of a time where man was traveling the stars. Fighting, killing and making war. The reason people came to this world in the first place, to escape violence and live in peace.
Just as he and his entourage was about to reach the peak of the hill from where they hoped to see the other village, Noah heard the high pitched whistle of something strange and not of this world.
A heart beat later, a pointed black thing streaked across the sky.
A cold hand of fear grabbed his heart and a sickening feeling spread across his stomach. He was certain of the sight he would see in a few moments.
His throat constricted as he saw the flames and the smoke, Rosenheim too was burning.
In his despair he didn’t see it at first, but Lola pointed it out. “Look one of the flying monsters is burning too!”
She was right. Not too far from their group and right next to the path was the twisted mass of one of the flying machines that brought the intruders and transported their loot away. He noticed two beings stumbling away from it.
Noah was a man of peace and abhorred violence. Just like he was taught, just like his father, but he did not hold them back, the young adults of the Fizman clan, led by Lola. As they stormed down the hill. Shepherd staffs and knifes no longer tools, but weapons indeed.
He watched motherly Lola, in her flowing simple dress transform into a beast of fury as she cut the throat of the first alien without hesitation or apparent remorse.
Oraht watched helpless as two of the alien intruders ripped two men to pieces. The scene was as horrifying and frightening as it was revolting. The short but powerful jaws of the dog like intruders sank into the still moving bloody heaps that once had been neighbors and friends. The wet tear and the dull crunch of bones were sounds Oraht would never forget, he was certain.
However in all this horror and agony, something new grew deep below his stomach. It was a cold rage. He was raised as a man of peace, to abhor violence and that there was nothing that justified it, not even self defense, but his old conviction was withering and peeling away with each act of horror he had to witness.
Then they came for him.
Noah reached the burning village and Valtar, the old community leader. The man was sod caked and his robe was in shreds, but he was smiling. “Noah, we have chased them away! The Sky Demons can bleed. Their thunder throwers can be used by us as well!” He held up an alien weapon. “I took down their flying thing with this!”
“They will come back with more and bigger ones. They will drop exploding things from far away and kill everyone. My father told me that it is better to let them have what they want. A few of us dying or abducted is better than all of us dead.”
“Your father was wrong and so are you. Who is to stay behind and live and who must die?”
Noah sighed. “I am reciting what I held for the truth all my life, but I am no longer sure if my father was right. They are back and that means they will return as long as we let them. I am on the way to the Valley of Descent.”
“What good will that do? The legend of the Ark that brought us here might be buried there, but how to find it? What will it hold that can help us?”
“Things like that.” Noah pointed to the thunder thrower.
“You put your hope on something that might be there or not. Why not talk to the speaking altar and ask the spirits of the past for help?”
“Because it is forbidden. The talking altar is of the evil side. Besides my grandfather had it ordered destroyed.”
“And my grandfather disobeyed yours. It is hidden in a cave not too far from here. It still speaks.”
“Then your grandfather might just be the reason these Sky Demons came in the first place, looking for that altar.”
“Do you want to take a trip to the Valley and search for something buried thousand years ago, while these demons raid and destroy every village, or take a chance that the speaking altar might grant us help?”
The Jooltar slaver and pirate had already forgotten the cowardly Karthanian, because seven ships had answered his call. The world held too much loot for one slaver. He wanted to haul off as much as he could. It was a small colony, as colonies go, but still over a hundred thousand slaves and thousands of tons of livestock.
The slaves were spread all across the main continent in small settlements. There was no real city, no traffic system that could be used to gather them at one convenient point. There was not even a central communication system that could be used to intimidate them. So his plan was to simply burn and raid village after village, gather the locals in pens and then pick them up as soon as he had enough cargo space available. This was now the case.
Oraht had no hope left, he already saw himself torn to pieces. Perhaps it was the sight of the macabre scraps around him, the blood dripping fangs of the aliens, but something exploded inside him. He rammed his head as hard as he could underneath the maw of one of the aliens and out of pure instinct, as he had never fought anyone or anything before, followed up with his knee into the belly of the beast.
His sudden and unexpected attack was even more successful than he could have hoped. His attacker was thrown to the floor and did not move.
His action was like a signal and the rest of the men scrambled to their feet and overwhelmed the other two alien guards with kicks and head butts. Only two men were harmed by the pain sticks before the three aliens were stomped and kicked into bloody pulp.
It took them little time to figure out how to open the cuffs. They had seen how the guards did it after all.
Armed with Thunder throwers and pain sticks, some even wearing bits and pieces of the alien armor, they gathered around Oraht. He was no longer a Goodwizard or a priest of peace, but the leader of a wild half naked group of warriors out for blood and revenge.
There, deep inside the cave, a few hundred paces from the well concealed entrance, and by the light of a lantern and several torches they looked at a rectangular metal box of chest height. It had a dark window and several bright blue lights. They all could hear a constant stream of voices and music emitting from it. It was a mix of many voices. Each talking in a different tempo, but every now and then an understandable word could be heard.
Noah was more than a little intimidated. The altar, to him more or less a piece of lore, indeed existed after all. He also remembered his own grandfather talking about it and warning of its evil.
He whispered.” What if these are the voices of the Sky Demons?”
Valtar shrugged. “They are already here and they are already killing and abducting us. We don’t have much to lose!”
Meek and womanly Lola was gone, in her place was a woman with the dried blood of a slaver smeared across her face, holding her shepherds knife and an alien thunder thrower with confidence and a flair of unmistakable readiness. She pushed herself next to Noah and asked. “How does one talk to the gods then?”
Valtar shrugged. “No one I know has ever done it. My grandfather simply hid it here so that the fanatical grandfather of old Noah could not smash it.”
Recent events seemed to have peeled away any fear or hesitation. Lola stepped forward. “Hello Gods, we need help against the Sky Demons.”
The chorus of voices stopped and the Altar fell silent, the blue lights suddenly turned red. Noah was already turning and about to run when a single voice said. “Language analyzed and recognized. Old Terran English with Yiddish elements. This is GalNet Terminal 5646. Part of the Colonization package for Ark New Canaan. Energy reserves at 22 percent. Please restate your request.”
The small group stared at the thing, the lights had turned green. Lola cleared her throat. “Hello Galnet Terminal. I am Lola of the Fizman family. We are all under attack by demons from the sky. They kill and abduct many of us. We need help from you.”
“Unable to determine the meaning of request. Cultural references and terms used are not in context with any emergency situation on file. I am forwarding your request to the closest Union emergency center. Please stand by.”
The dark window started to glow and out of nothing the head of a scaled monster appeared inside.
This time Noah was certain the machine was loaded with demons and ran towards the exit.
Lola however remained where she was.
The greenish monster said. “I am Emergency Analyst Zuuzz, it appears your terminal is not avatar or holo enabled. Please restate the state of your emergency.”
Lola simply repeated her last sentence.
The green being responded with a nod. “It appears your emergency call originates from a GalNet terminal that was part of a colonist ark. An ark that was listed as lost.
“By analyzing your terminology, it looks like you are colonists that have lost some or all connection to technology. Please don’t be afraid, I am a Shiss and my species is part of a large multi culture society.”
A human face appeared next to the green monster. “ I am Specialist Miller, my ancestors came from Earth. We have forwarded your emergency request to Union Fleet. The USS Resolute is diverting course as we speak. Estimated time of arrival is within 12 hours.”
The Jooltar could already see the sacks of rad shielded Polo coins before his inner eyes as the first shuttles filled with slaves were about to return from the planet’s surface.
Yes there were a few reports of resistance, but nothing really unusual. If the trouble makers could be captured, they would bring more profit. Fighters were always welcome at the Death Arenas of Sin 4 and N’Ger. If they proved to be too much trouble, he could simply drop some orbital ordinance on them.
One of his command crew members, an usually grumpy Oghr, interrupted his musings. The Oghr’s voice did not sound as gruff and forceful as usual, but almost fearful. ”Captain Vox’har, we are being hailed.”
“Ah, my call for more help has been heard. Put them on.”
Instead of the static hissing, echoing quality of the usual bad Myon transponder communicator he expected, a loud and crystal clear voice thundered across his command center. “This is Captain Snyder of the USS Resolute. You are hereby ordered to power down all weapons and shields and prepare to be boarded. This is your one and only warning.”
All blood seemed to drain out of Captain Vox’har’s head, his pointed ears drooped, and his tail went between his legs, just as the tails of his tundra hunting ancestors had when they suddenly faced a Zylon predator.
Two of his colleague were either insane or never faced a Union Battleship. They ordered their ships to open fire as soon as the Union ship came in range.
Vox’har’s throat became as dry as paper as he and his command crew watched the Resolute drop a heartbeat later out of Quasi space. The 3500 m titan of Union might dwarfed the biggest Slaver ship by magnitudes. The incoming fire fizzled away in the seemingly insubstantial bubble of shimmering purple light that engulfed the behemoth. The smooth Ultronit surface of the Union ship suddenly sported dozens of dome shaped pimples, and cold fear grabbed the usually so calloused slaver; he knew what those dome shaped humps contained – Translocator cannons.
No one knew how they worked, but they transmitted an antimatter bomb at the point of explosion via a different spatial condition directly inside the target. No shield, no armor could protect a ship from such an inside explosion.
Noah was almost blinded as suddenly two new suns flashed into existence, illuminating the world just for a brief moment even brighter than the sun itself. Flying things in groups of three roared moments later above his head, spanning the distance from horizon to horizon in a few eye blinks.
Lola and the others had emerged from the cave as well. She said. “We are not alone. We have brothers and sisters out there beyond the sky.”
Valtar, almost as old as Noah, said, “He and the other Goodwizards have always known that. They have buried the Ark we came to this world in and punished and isolated anyone who asked questions.”
Noah nodded. “Much of it has been forgotten, but we always wanted peace.”
Valtar made a gesture towards the destroyed village. “You can only live in peace if you are strong enough to defend that choice.”
Excerpt of the report of Captain Snyder
We were en route to Outpost 96 as we received a call for assistance, relayed from Union Central. The call came from a GalNet terminal that was, according to the meta data, part of the equipment associated with Ark New Canaan, reported lost in 2199.
Communications was able to establish the coordinates by co relating with Z Point station and triangulate its location.
Location was within the Freespace Fringes.
Command Central authorized response and I authorized engineering to red line the ISAH drive.
We arrived eleven hours and seven minutes later in a non-surveyed system approximately 1.5 light years inside Freespace. Eight contacts were registered in orbit around the third planet, three additional contacts noticed on long range inbound with an ETA of two hours.
Tactical confirmed activity of contacts consistent with planet raid action either of slavers or pirate raiders.
We hailed the raiders to stand down and expect boarding action to check for sentients taken from the planet.
Two of the potential hostiles, immediately opened fire.
After detailed life scans, it was determined no slaves or prisoners were present in those ships, I ordered Tactical to respond.
Tactical reported the neutralization of these two hostile contacts shortly thereafter…
Excerpt of the report of Lt. Brown – Surface Contact team
It is confirmed, the colonists are indeed offspring of the original colonists leaving Earth during the Second Exodus in the Ark New Canaan. We don’t know how this ark ended up here, so far away from its intended destination, but we think a miscalculated Hyper Jump might be the most likely reason.
The locals are all Terran human, but have lost all knowledge of technology. They devolved to a Tech level B society, pre industrial. Initial counts suggest a population of maybe hundred thousand. There are no large settlements, and only one of the four continents is occupied.
They have experienced slaver raids before.
The population still remembers their origin in legends and stories.
I recommend a BoCA team assist.
Written by Vanessa Ravencroft (‘starting point’ by Mark Ball).
Art by Soldat Nordsken.