The city before her was one which Arixa had never seen before, which was to say it was not Roxinaki. The people crowding its stone-paved streets were not Scythian. They were lighter-skinned, and the colorful garments they wore left their arms and legs bare, as if the weather and elements were of no concern.
The structures which towered above the people’s heads were brightly colored, too, with stout columns of fluted stone supporting fabulously engraved roofs. Among and between the buildings stood vivid likenesses of semi-nude heroes and ornately draped goddesses. Water splashed into mirrored pools from the snouts of stone beasts.
Arixa looked upon this foreign vista from some tower or ledge. She did not know where for she could not turn her head. In a way, there was no need to. It was as if she saw not with eyes at all. With impossible clarity, she saw these unknown folk walking their markets and gardens, trading and bickering, laughing and shouting, running and lazing. She wondered idly who they were and how she had come to be among them.
The sky was as Scythia’s sky, vast and blue and streaked with insubstantial clouds behind which the sun blazed. The day seemed warm, and it must have been, judging by the people’s dress, but Arixa felt no warmth. She was aware of no sensations at all, no body whose limbs she could summon to motion.
It reminded her of something, looking up at a sky from within a body unable to move, but the familiarity was a distant one.
The sky darkened. Slowly, a shadow fell upon the roofs and fountains. The gaily dressed men and women looked up as one at a dark object emerging from the clouds, cleaving them like a sailing ship on the Bleak Sea parts a morning mist.
The object in the sky was oblong in shape, and it grew… and grew… and grew… until Arixa could see that it was itself the size of a city.
Its surface was smooth, mostly, but irregular in places. In no way did it resemble anything natural, like a mountain or an enormous beast. This thing had been made by men. Or gods. Much of its surface reflected the ground below, warping the image slightly, as water might, or…
Not water. Was it possible that this behemoth was built entirely of metal? It would require far more metal than all of the swords in Scythia, every stirrup and buckle, every Parthian artifact, every woman’s brooch and hairpin. Even then, Arixa could not imagine it would amount to enough.
Her heart would have pounded, but she had no chest to contain one. She would have backed away, but she had no legs that were hers to command. She possessed no body, not even any eyes to close, and so it was only her mind that trembled in fear at this overwhelming sight which she had no choice but to witness. She heard the object, too, or rather felt its steady hum in imagined bones: a deep, permeating vibration.
Staring at the behemoth, she began to understand what it must be. This was a vessel, but not of the sea, and not of men.
It was a ship of the boundless heavens and of gods.
From points along the perimeter of the floating object there issued a number of smaller, swifter shapes which soared like eagles in graceful, swooping arcs. As these smaller ‘skyboats’ descended upon the streets and temples of the city, Arixa better discerned their outlines: they were boxy and lacked wings, and green discs glowed brightly on their undersides.
Many of the city’s inhabitants began to scream, sensing that the visitation was of ill intent. Some began to run, others prostrated themselves wherever they happened to stand. Shrill horns of warning sounded, but were as the buzzing of gnats before the great hum of the god-ship overhead.
When they had reached a height barely above the highest roofs, the skyboats began to deploy a yellowish substance upon the streets, particularly over the largest congregations of men and women.
Arixa thought for a moment that it must be meant to kill, some sort of poison which the gods threw down on men as farmers might poison vermin.
Then she saw her mistake. This yellow substance was no lethal weapon but an ensnaring one, like a fisher’s net or a spider’s web. On reaching the ground, the liquid solidified to form a clinging prison for whomever it touched.
After each craft’s passage, what had been a mob running for its collective life was rendered a single, translucent yellow mass in which individuals were embedded as bugs in amber or nuts in a festival loaf.
Once these skyboats had criss-crossed the city, trapping clusters of its people, they turned and circled back, flying lower over the yellow masses. A door opened in the rear of each blocky vessel, and thin arms of metal emerged. Bands sprang from the ends of the arms, coiled around one end of the yellow cake, from which jutted a head or a leg here, half a man there, and began to hoist them into the air and toward the ship’s waiting open hatch.
The mass of snared men and women were pulled into the ship like dough into an oven, and then the hatches shut while the craft moved into position to consume another.
The ships went about collecting like this for some time, and as the bellies of the craft became full, they began returning to the god-ship above.
A great many men and women yet remained in the city. Some still ran, screaming or not, while others vanished, seeking refuge inside homes and temples. In any case, the number captured could represent only a small proportion of the great city’s inhabitants.
When the last of the skyboats had disappeared again, small red discs flared to life near the edges of the huge god-ship.
Wide beams flashed down toward the city, and wherever they touched, men and women simply dropped to the ground, dead, their flesh smoldering until the corpses were withered husks wrapped inside clothing that remained pristine. Likewise the streets and walls, anything which was not flesh, remained intact and undamaged, while the beams swept left and right over the whole of the city and its periphery, eradicating all who had managed to avoid entrapment.
The horror on display was sufficient to crush the stoutest of hearts. No man or woman could look upon this sight and fail to shriek, or flee, or pray, or vomit from fear, or any combination thereof.
Arixa was given no choice but to watch. With neither stomach to empty nor eyelids to shut tight, she witnessed a city far finer than Roxinaki reduced to empty streets and wailing spirits.
The god-ship’s red beams winked out, but it was not yet finished with the city. Near the center of the impossible metal hull, an array of white lights appeared, and from them lanced beams of blazing fury like a hundred bolts of lightning. Where they struck, fires erupted with explosive force, splitting open the roofs of temples, collapsing walls, turning stone-paved avenues into pits of blackened gravel.
Like the diffuse red beams before, these more focused and brilliant beams of white swept back and forth across the city, etching trails of total devastation. On and on the bright lances danced, roving from neighborhood to neighborhood until everywhere fires burned and nothing was left.
Where mere minutes ago had been a glorious city, now hardly two stones stood stacked upon one another.
By now Arixa’s desire to give vent to terror, by screaming, by sobbing, by burying head in arms and never emerging, verged on overwhelming. But it was not to be. For she was but a bodiless spirit, it seemed.
She was… dead.
She had fallen. The memory of it dwelt just out of reach.
With unblinking eyes, Arixa watched the god-ship withdraw into the sky, the clouds absorbing its massiveness as sunlight was restored to a freshly wrought ruin.
* * *
As a nearly drowned man might as he finally broke the surface of a lake, Arixa gasped for air.
Her limbs too flailed as frantically as a drowning man’s. Her eyes, suddenly wide open, looked upon no sight that matched either of her last, fleeting memories—of a city annihilated, of a bone-breaking fall.
She was not drowning. This was no sea or lake. No water filled her mouth and nose or slowed her wild movements, which she promptly ceased.
Panting, she sat upright on a yielding surface, like a moss bed. But this was no forest. All around were smooth surfaces that gleamed.
Seeing a hint of dark movement at the edge of her vision, she turned her head—and she screamed.
Staring back at her were a pair of wide, black, reflective eyes, and the eyes were set in a face which was coated with gray-brown fur. Its nose was black, with wide nostrils, and set at the end of a blunt snout, and the mouth beneath it was a dog’s mouth, full of canine teeth set in glistening purple gums. Its ears were stiff and protruded upward half again the height of its head. Around its neck were waves of still thicker fur that hung down over the collar of its clothing—clothing—which was blue and white with sleeves down to the furry elbows and tight-fitting trousers.
Faced with the nearness of something which should not exist, Arixa’s body acted clumsily and of its own accord to put distance between her and the creature. The attempt sent her tumbling backward off of the waist-high platform on which she now realized she had sat. Some of her instincts must have remained intact, for she partly broke her fall with an arm.
During the fall, she realized she was still screaming, and also realized she was naked. Both revelations were equally embarrassing, but only the first was in her power to quickly remedy. She shut her mouth.
Regaining her feet, she looked across her former perch, a soft-topped table of sorts, at none other than the dog-like creature which she had recently chased to her—
It raised its right hand, which was not like a dog’s paw but comprised of a palm with three fingers and a thumb. Its left hand gripped an object: a slender white cylinder with intricate markings lining its smooth surface.
When the dog-man stepped closer and raised the object menacingly, still more instincts took over. Arixa leaped over the table, reaching out to catch the wrist of the thing’s left hand before it could bring the strange weapon to bear.
Her instincts may have been present, but her agility was not. Her limbs felt thick and sluggish. Instead of reaching her target, she wound up draped over the thin table on her belly, her hand barely brushing fur. The dog-man touched his wand to her shoulder, and instantly all became black.
* * *
Arixa awakened on her back with a feeling of ease and well-being pervading mind and flesh, as when one has inhaled just enough cannabis vapor, but not too much. She drew deep breaths and blinked her eyes to focus. The sight which met them was that of a smooth, polished surface broken by clean lines and perfectly etched circles.
Though this was a strange and fear-inspiring sight, she remained strangely at ease. She tried to move her arms, then her legs, and found she could not. Even that revelation failed to shatter her calm. A light dent, perhaps, as she realized she was at the mercy of… whom?
Perhaps it was those gods who had destroyed a city and scooped up its people in scores.
That particular thought did manage to speed the beating of Arixa’s heart with mild panic.
“Be welcome, Arixa,” someone very near said in accented Scythian.
She tried to angle her head toward the source of sound, and found that it worked.
Although this was the same room in which she now recalled having spilled naked onto the floor, she was pleased to now find herself in the company of a man and not a dog. She was also pleased to find herself clothed, even if it was only in a sort of linen shift.
“Do not be afraid,” the man said. “Bodily control will return to you shortly. Considering your earlier reaction, we thought it a wise precaution. We mean you no harm, and you are unlikely to accomplish any against us.”
The man was smallish of frame, smooth of complexion, and neatly groomed with a pointed black beard that matched his short, gloss-black hair. He wore long-sleeved, tailored garment of black and gray with no ornamentation.
Arixa had never seen such garments, in or outside of Roxinaki.
“I… do not…wish harm,” Arixa said, finding her jaw, much like her mind, to be more relaxed than was ideal for conversation.
The man smiled. “I believe you, Arixa. You saw something outside the confines of your accepted reality. Rather than fleeing or trying to destroy it, as most Earth-born would, you let the desire for knowledge drive you, did you not? A rare quality, and in a warrior, no less.”
“You know… my name.”
“We have our ways. None of which are needed when your comrade is kind enough to shout your name repeatedly in the vicinity of a being with quite large and sensitive ears.”
“Indeed, he does resemble a dog. Dr. Fizzbik was enjoying a walk when you elected to give chase. He felt quite badly when he saw you fall. He turned back to check on you, and finding you clinging to life, he fetched you to our shuttle and repaired you. You’ll find you are rather better off than you were when you arrived. For one, you had a tumor in your breast which would have killed you before you reached thirty. Had you not broken your skull and spine, that is.”
“Fizz… bik?” Arixa spoke the name of the dog-man which she was meant to believe had saved her from certain death.
“You are human,” she observed to the speaker.
“Forgive me for not introducing myself,” the man said with a kind smile. “My name is Vaxsuvarda. And yes, I am human. You might try moving now.”
Arixa wiggled her fingers and flexed an arm, feeling pins and needles on the skin. She brought the arm before her face and found it to be the arm she knew, with its familiar inked bestiary. She could take nothing for granted. She attempted to push herself up, and succeeded. Her captor or host, Vaxsu… something, made no move to assist her.
Looking herself over, she accepted herself to be in full health. Or better: at least one scar which had been below her right knee had disappeared.
She now vividly recalled her fall, the snap of many bones on stone.
She should have been a cripple for life, if she had lived. Yet she was healed.
Something felt wrong with her head. A certain lightness. She put hand to temple and realized that her braids were gone. Instead, her scalp was covered with fine, soft hair of a length not much greater than an inch.
“It was necessary,” her host explained. “Dr. Fizzbik was also prepared to remove your tattoos in regenerating your skin, but I convinced him to make some effort in preserving them. I felt sure they must hold special meaning to you.”
Fingering the soft hair which felt nothing like her own, beginning to feel her strength return, Arixa looked squarely at her host, appraising him. He was, after all, the lone familiar thing in this polished, strangely lit environment, a human.
For what her steppe-born instincts were worth in this strange place, she sensed no deception or ill intent.
“Many thanks,” she said, and meant it. “The loss would have pained me. You will have to repeat your name. Possibly more than once.”
The man with the pointed beard smiled in acceptance of her gratitude. “Vaxsuvarda. Some relations call me Vax. You may also, if you like.”
“Where do you come from… Vaxsuvarda?”
“That…” Vax began with a strange and thoughtful look, “is no simple question. Or you could say it is two questions. My ancestors came from a city called Parsa, which once stood to the south and east of your land.”
“I know of it,” Arixa said. “An empire of old. Persia. My ancestors fought them often. And won.”
Vax laughed softly. “Congratulations.”
“And the other meaning of the question?” Arixa prompted. “Where are you yourself from?”
“There is the unsimple part,” Vax said. “My birthplace, from your perspective, would be… the heavens.”
* * *
Thanks for reading!
I hope you want to continue the story as Arixa learns about the state of the galaxy, attempts to save her people from the devastation she has witnessed, and even dares to dream of making the attackers pay.
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