©Neville Goedhals 2007. Visit my site at: www.NevilleGoedhals.com

KR’AGH

 

(THE GODS OF SUMER)

 

By

 

Neville C Goedhals

 

Of the Gods and my children

 

Show pity on me Enki.

Bless me mother Ninmah.

The Gods return to their distant homes. They go to die.

The half-formed ones, the servants, have elevated themselves and war on their creators. They will rain ice and fire from the heavens.

Ibid Ziusudra prophesies a great deluge, and the head of your priest Adapta rests in a Kimah. The Buzur stock barges to save the peoples.

I offer my prayers and my life. Protect my children.

There is no God to accept this tablet and no priest to sing your praises. I place this tablet in the altar of the highest step.

I beseech your indulgence.

#

I am Jucur, scribe to Ibid Ziusudra

#

Transliteration from a clay tablet [Ziggurat of Eridu, ancient city of Curuppag, Southern Iraq] by renowned archaeologist Dr. Niles Engel (ca. 3100 BCE).

 

Chapter 1

 

Colin’s eyes jerked skyward at the explosive crack of lightning. A narrow wedge shaped aircraft flared in the discharge, lighting up the night sky. It veered erratically before disappearing beneath the tree line.

He wiped the rain from his eyes in amazement. The Everglades was a strict no-fly zone, and the aircraft was like nothing he had ever seen before.

A ball of flame burst above the thrashing palms and branches, dispelling the jungle’s shadows in a bloody glow. A moment of surrealistic silence, wind and rain muted, then a blast of concussion slammed across him. He bowed his head before the onslaught.

The drumming of rain and the rumble of distant thunder returned, and Colin looked up to see the remnants of the fireball melt into the stormy night sky.

He ran blindly toward the impact area, forcing his way through the dense tropical vegetation, tripping on roots hidden in small mud-choked streams. There might be survivors.

He pushed aside a low palm, its sharp leaves slicing his hand, and stumbled into a bayou. Before he could regain balance the tepid water had reached his knees, and he looked out across a stretch of open water.

Pieces of dark debris jutted at wild angles from the swamp. What appeared to be the nose of a craft stood almost vertically, bubbles boiling up around it. Colin stared at the wreckage, stupefied. Adrenaline compelled him forward while the strangeness of the craft urged caution.

Silver markings flickered briefly along its jet-black side as lightning blazed overhead.

 

 The inscription reminded him of claw marks, elongated wedges, like the writing on clay tablets in museums. No hatches or portholes were evident. If there was a pilot then where would he be, or more to the point, how could he be rescued?

Colin’s feet skidded in the slime and he tumbled into the water. He spat out the brackish liquid and staggered back a few feet in time to see the nose sliding down into the dark swamp.

“Damn!”

He glanced around for another piece of the craft. Multiple lightning strikes lit the area, thunder close behind. Soaked foliage shook and glistened. The surface of the water seethed in the rain, but not a single piece of wreckage stood out. He rubbed his eyes in disbelief and carefully studied the surrounding swamp again.

Nothing. If it wasn’t for the burnt smell still lingering in the damp air, he might as well have imagined the incident. He remembered a jet passenger aircraft that had crashed in the Everglades over a hundred years ago; most of it had simply disappeared in the swamp.

Colin stabbed at the PA on his wrist.

Big surprise, no signal.

His Personal Assistant was useless; transponders were not installed in National Parks, it was law. He would have to get help the hard way, trek and kayak fifty miles to Everglades city.

At least the GPS will work.

He stored the crash location on his PA and considered retrieving the route to his campsite. The thought of leaving possible survivors didn’t sit well at all.

He began circling the crash site, skirting the edge of the bayou. Who knew, he might still find something.

Making headway was difficult. The night sky was overcast and the wind and pouring rain reduced visibility. Fern and palm fronds were broken, bushes and trees scorched, and trees toppled. Within weeks all evidence of the crash would be non-existent; plant growth in the rainy season would soon repair the damage.

He stopped. A muddy furrow led from the water, obviously recent, the deeper grooves still filling with water.

An alligator. Perhaps a crocodile?

Not many crocs in the Everglades; however, it paid to be cautious.

“Should have grabbed the flashlight. Damn!” He paused, peering through the curtain of rain into the gloomy undergrowth. “Curse it,” he muttered.

Carefully pushing the foliage apart, he hunkered over and crept down the trail. It continued for thirty feet, ending in a small clearing surrounded by tropical growth. A body was propped face first against a palm. Cautiously he moved closer.

A teen or woman? No, it must be a man with those shoulders.

The victim was short with a wasp thin waist widening into a broad back. A large piece of metal jutted from between the shoulder blades. A half-helmet covered the head; some sort of visor had been attached, the shattered remains were visible on the side of the helmet. The torn and muddied clothing looked like utilities with lots of pockets.

A miracle that he dragged himself this far.

Colin knelt over the man, hesitant to cause further trauma. Without hi-tech medical kits and equipment he felt useless.

Reality check. It will take days to fetch help.

Colin mentally braced himself to do what little he could. He slid a hand around the man’s neck, tried to find a pulse, waited a few moments, then gently pried the man’s right hand from under the body. The entire arm felt like a rag.

Probably multiple breaks.

He probed the wrist for a pulse. Not a flicker, but the hand looked odd, the fingers thick and elongated.

Colin shuddered. The man was probably dead, and if not, deserved to be considering his injuries. With nothing to lose he gently pulled the man over onto his side.

The man’s face, smeared with blood and mud, looked deformed. The closed eyes were too far apart, too large, too round. And the nose was missing, simply elongated nostrils flat to the plane of the face.

Injuries from the shattered visor?

Colin gently wiped at the dirt with a corner of his rain soaked t-shirt revealing pale, almost white skin, giving the face a bleached skull appearance. He pulled at the helmet; there was no resistance and it slid off.

“Damn!” Colin almost lost his balance. The scalp was smooth, hairless, and oversize pointed ears stuck out on either side of the head.

“Oh hell! What are you?”

The eyes snapped open, impossibly large, streaked red with broken blood vessels. A hand darted forward, clamping Colin’s arm. The creature’s mouth opened in a hiss, piranha-like teeth flashing in the dark.

A demanding roar echoed in Colin’s mind ordering him to sleep and forget. No words, just an overwhelming insistence that was impossible to deny.

Fangs ripped painfully into Colin’s arm as his world faded. He tried desperately to marshal his thoughts, to fight for awareness. He believed he was winning, then, nothing ...

#

The creature sucked noisily at Colin’s forearm for a few moments then pushed him off to the side, and in obvious agony, hoisted himself higher against the palm’s trunk. He reached behind his back with his good arm and felt the broken metal strut. His other arm flopped limply at his side. He hissed in pain, ears folding tightly against his head. His round eyes closed and he let out a great sigh.

He groped in one of his numerous pouches and retrieved a flat metallic object that fitted neatly in his palm. He activated a switch, and a short solid-red beam materialized on one end. Closing his eyes again, he reached behind his neck and made a practiced incision just below the skull. Dark blood spurted briefly then slowed to a trickle. He dropped the cutting tool, plunged three long fingers into the wound, and with a sucking noise pulled out a black ovoid, the size of a walnut.

He paused, panting, then not wasting time, rubbed the black ovoid against Colin’s forearm, covering it with blood. A minute adjustment to the ovoid and a small bluish light strobed briefly.

He made a similar incision in Colin’s neck and inserted the ovoid into the freely bleeding gash. He pinched the wound together with his fingers for a moment and then released the skin; the flow of blood stopped.

The creature smiled a copiously fanged grin. He noticed the PA on Colin’s wrist, fumbled for a moment to work the clasp one-handed, then slid it off and tucked it into one of his utility pouches.

With difficulty, he pulled himself off the palm, placed the helmet on his skull-like head, and dragged himself one-armed back toward the murky water.

As the water deepened, his progress improved. Soon he was almost submerged. He turned over and took a last look at the storm clouds before he sank, then clawed his way deeper still.

##

Colin woke with a fever; his throat felt like sandpaper and his head throbbed. Steam rose from his wet clothing as the Florida sun baked down. Sluggishly he propped up his athletic frame and looked around. Not a good idea, he decided. His head swam. He shut his eyes to settle his balance and the sounds of the Everglades intruded. The warbles and twitters of wild birds and the buzzing of insects was a constant background drone.

“Damn this!” he rasped. He struggled to stand, fell over, and finally crawled through the sawgrass to the bayou where he gulped down the brown water. It was tepid and bitter, not refreshing at all. He found a dry spot and collapsed on it like a drunk finding his favorite gutter.

There was something that he had to remember ... Something.

Yes, some sort of accident. No, a crash. Images of a strange craft with strange markings, and the face of a monster; large red eyes, white skin, vampire mouth ... Too many teeth for a vampire. He puzzled over why he pictured it with large pointy ears.

Must have been injured--that was it, probably a concussion.

He felt his head and yanked his hand away as stabs of pain shot through his skull. Obviously a blow to the base of the head. It was little wonder that he couldn’t get his mind straight.

He examined his legs, then arms. A cruel scar ran along his left forearm; a picture of a monster chewing on it sprang to mind, and then faded.

What the hell happened to me?

Colin looked around, carefully and slowly this time, covering 360 degrees. There was a lot of broken foliage and scorch marks, but apart from that no other hint as to what might have taken place.

Black spots danced across his vision and his head began pounding again. Nausea threatened. He had to get back to the campsite. He grasped at the PA on his wrist, but it wasn’t there.

Odd. It’s got a safety clasp.

He scrounged around on his hands and knees to find it, but quickly gave up. Finally he stumbled off in a wide zigzag pattern, in what he hoped was the direction of the campsite.

Soon he came across a group of Cypress trees he recognized.

I lay there watching an egret ... Was it only yesterday?

With a better sense of direction he found the campsite. His breath came in gasps and he could hardly stand. Two bottles of sports drink and five energy bars later he felt that he may have a chance, but it was clear he needed medical attention.

He could stay where he was, although no one would find him in time; after all, he wouldn’t be missed. There was still five days of vacation left. The alternative was to navigate the 1½ million acres of the Everglades without a GPS and hope that he stumbled upon someone. The options were not good.

“Fate spits on my burger,” he mumbled while pulling food packs from the tent.

He left the pup tent where it was, packed only the essential in his rucksack, and lashed it securely to the kayak. He tied a stay to the center of the oars and hunkered down as low as he could in the kayak; there was no sense in losing the oars or passing out and capsizing.

He poled off in what he hoped was the general direction of Everglades City.

#

Colin passed out a dozen times the first two days. The kayak would embed itself in tree islands or in mangrove clusters, and when he woke he would pole back into open water.

The sports drinks and water were finished first, then the energy bars and finally the trail-mix. Colin couldn’t stomach eating the dehydrated food, and was left to rely on brackish swamp water, leaving the kayak only to relieve himself.

By the third day dementia had set in. He wasn’t sure where he was, or why he was there to start with, and he didn’t have the strength to care.

#

Colin woke on the fourth day.

He felt fit. No, fantastic. He shifted and water sloshed around the kayak.

Why am I in the kayak?

It seemed a damn stupid place to sleep. Vague recollections of searching for Everglades City and medical help came to mind. And images, something about a crash or a monster.

Couldn’t have been a crash, the kayak looks fine.

He remembered a jet-black angular aircraft and more clearly, a painful wound to his neck. He reached behind his head to feel the wound.

“Well I’ll be.” His fingers brushed over smooth flat skin. “I’m sure there was a bad bump ... or a gash somewhere.” He glanced at his left forearm. The skin was unbroken, flawless. It seemed impossible. He clearly remembered a large ugly wound on his arm.

Did I imagine it?

He balanced the oars across the kayak and ran his fingers through his sun-bleached hair, pushing the sweat back, trying to remember.

He remained in a trance-like daze, using the paddles to occasionally steer around obstructions or change direction. And all the while he tried to recall what could have happened, to the exclusion of all else. Hardwood hummocks surrounded by sawgrass went unnoticed, as did ospreys, cormorants, and alligators.

He vaguely remembered a craft and strange markings, a vampire-like monster, and injuries. But the facts belied this, and his PA was missing. No obvious answers came to mind, although fever seemed a logical possibility.

Colin had drawn a pre-mission vacation, the standard seven day pass, but could only remember the first two days. More importantly, the IDV mission was scheduled for take-off three days after his pass expired.

Missing the mission was the worst thing he could conceive of; it was everything he had worked for since acceptance into the Kennedy Space Institute. Five years of astronaut training, weekly medicals, painful gene engineering; all were now in abeyance. All due to whatever it was that had happened out there in the swamp.

With the wild images his mind insisted on conjuring up, he wasn’t sure he would pass a preflight medical.

Hell, I don’t even know what day it is.

#

By noon Colin was in one of the main channels heading north. The waterway had been widened in an almost straight line and the occasional spoil island was an indication of regular dredging.

He passed a sign stuck in reeds at the edge of the channel that stated “5 miles to Florida City National Park Station”. He was seventy-five miles off course from his intended destination.

Less than an hour later, Colin slid the kayak alongside the weathered wooden pilings at the station’s dock.

“What day is it?” he called to a young ranger further up the bank.

“Wednesday. Fourteenth!”

“Wow! I’ve got a day’s vacation left.”

“What’s that?” shouted the Ranger.

“Nothing!” Colin grinned. “Want to buy a kayak?”

He sold his equipment to the Ranger--he wouldn’t need it for quite a while, no place to keep it in space. Part-payment was a ride to the shops to buy a new PA, then a lift to the nearest Florida Transit Authority station.

It never occurred to him that after four days, in one of the most insect-infected areas imaginable, he had no mosquito bites.

##

“Had some wild going-away parties? Eh, Commander Kruger?” asked Dr. Rupert as Colin sat down opposite him. He tried copying Colin’s almost perpetually serious gaze by drawing his gray eyebrows together and lowered his voice an octave. “But honest Sweetie,” he mimicked, “I won’t be back for over a year--”

“Not at all,” answered Colin with a grin, “I decided that if I was to leave Earth for half a year then I might as well appreciate nature while I could. I followed your advice and camped in the Everglades.”

“Good to hear it. Well, the test results will be here soon. How’ve you been keeping?”

“Ah, well ...” began Colin in a more sober mood, “I believe I picked up a bug.”

“Don’t worry with that just yet. How are you now?” asked the Doctor, reaching for the intercom. “Nurse Sheryl, do three times the full spectrum BioTec test ... Thank you.”

“I’ve never felt better. And that’s not just to make the launch. I really--”

“You don’t need to convince me Colin. The wetware test covers all viruses or bacterium that could be creeping around in your system. I ordered a triple test to raise the base blood population and increase the chance of detecting anything still in its early stage. Of course, it also covers my butt. Don’t want anyone to say that I wasn’t thorough,” said the Doctor with a smile.

An image of a white face and glaring red eyes flashed through Colin’s mind. He shook his head to dispel the memory.

“Your DNA plot,” said Dr. Rupert, “indicates that the retrovirus treatments worked fine.” He keyed his handheld compad. “Let’s see ... chromosome 10, gene CYP17 ... your cortisol activation of the TCF gene was dampened allowing the interleukin-two proteins to keep your white blood cells active. If you caught a bug and had a rapid recovery, it would point to the success of the treatment. You were previously--”

He was interrupted by a double ‘bing’ from the compad.

“Your results. Let’s see,” the Doctor ran his eyes down the screen. “Strange. Very odd,” he added quietly, intensifying his scrutiny.

Colin started in his chair in alarm.

“Not to worry. Nothing actually wrong at all, just unusual.” The Doctor prodded the compad, entering some commands. “Look at this,” he said, sliding the compad partway toward Colin.

“You’ll notice that all the tests are in the green. This,” he indicated, jabbing at the screen, “shows your actual results, and here, the optimum values for you personally per the computer. Now, look at the Optimum and your Actual.”

Colin briefly scanned the values on the compad.

“I don’t see the problem,” admitted Colin. “All the Actuals match the--”

“That’s just it. Nobody matches his or her optimum like that. Perhaps fifty percent of the values, but not all.” The Doctor sighed and leaned back. “Guess it’s one for the record books. Just a quirk of luck. Your chemistry changes from moment to moment. Well, I don’t see any medical problems at all.”

“Wait Doc, there’s more. I had hallucinations back in swampland. Thought I wouldn’t make it for a while. I imagined some pretty weird things.” Colin rubbed his temples as if to dispel the memory. “I couldn’t, or can’t explain much of what happened. I seriously doubted my sanity. Hell, I still do.”

“Do you think that you will suffer claustrophobia when you enter the ship? Do you doubt that your perseverance, work attitude and abilities will hold up on the mission? Well?”

“No. But--”

“Are you still having hallucinations?”

“No.”

“Those are some of the prime psychological factors we look for in astronauts. In addition, I have a battery of test results, obtained at great expense to the government. The results are excellent.” The Doctor paused, scrutinizing Colin’s perturbed expression.

“Look, normally I wouldn’t do this, however ... I see many profiles. Some are good, others not so great. Yours is one of the best we’ve ever come across. You were born to be an astronaut. I need a serious, currently existing problem before I’ll ground an expensive investment like you. Now, once again, what current problems are you experiencing, either psychologically or physiologically?”

“Point taken. Thanks Doc. It’s just that I don’t want to screw up the mission.”

“Exactly my point. You’re obviously sane ... well, sanity is a relative thing I suppose.” Dr. Rupert buzzed the office door open. “How about we settle for practically normal?”

“Huh! That’s pushing it,” chuckled Sheryl from the doorway. She flicked her hair back and winked at Colin. “You’re not going anywhere until you’re through with me, uh, I’m through with you.”

“That sounds like a Freudian slip,” grinned Colin.

“I mean paperwork!” Sheryl shook a ream of documents at him. “Men!” Her voice was resigned, but her eyes smiled. “And before you make any cracks about me being blond, remember you’re one also.”

##

Captain David Trost could not drag his eyes from the parked spaceship silhouetted against the Florida night sky. The Diaz never failed to instill a sense of awe in him; it was mankind’s peak of inventive skill.

Spotlights reflected off the ship’s pale-gray finish, casting the surrounding launch strip into murky invisibility. Save that is, for the podium beneath the flight cabin, where the rotund figure of Hans Becker, director of the Institute, stood dwarfed by the delta-winged craft. The prow of the ship formed a roof ten yards above his head and swept back and out, over the length of a football field.

The IDV, or Inter-dimensional Vessel, was wider than it was long, with a thick backbone enclosing a thirty-meter diameter cylinder. The craft looked like a fat triangle with a growth amidships. The immense area covered by this ‘flying wing’ was now home to numerous white cloth-covered trestle tables laden with food and a packed audience, patiently attending to the director’s address.

Captain Trost wasn’t listening. Pre-launch parties were primarily for the media and political in nature. It was essentially the same PR they spouted before every IDV mission. His heart and soul, not to mention his mind, was on his ship.

The sheer size of it did not impress him; the technology that drove it did. Unseen at ship’s rear were engines that allowed the IDV to function as a ramjet, scramjet, and oxygen-breathing rocket. The Diaz, the sixth ship of its sort, also employed Ion engines and a degaussing matrix; all powered by a Tritium fueled fusion plant.

“... and so, without further ado, I give you, Captain David Trost!”

The Captain started at the tumultuous applause, mentally played back the last seconds of the Director’s speech, and realized he had better get moving. Squeezing past the press chairs he strode to the podium and accepted a lapel mike.

“Thank you Director, Senator, honored guests, and last, but certainly not least, the superb Institute staff that have made this mission possible.” Raucous cheers followed his last statement, probably he guessed, from the ground crew who had already put a severe dent in the drinks inventory. He hoped they’d all be taking party-pills prior to takeoff tomorrow.

“This mission would not be possible were it not for the best crew I have ever had the honor of commanding.” He paused to allow the applause to die down.

“I give you my Second-in command, Commander Susan Engel, co-pilot.” The Captain continued over the clapping and cheering. “My Navigator, Lieutenant Commander Colin Kruger.”

Press holocams highlighted the crew as they wound their way to the base of the podium where they stood facing the audience.

“Engineer, Lieutenant John Manley. Doctor, Lieutenant Maria Sanchez.” Catcalls and whistles mingled with the ongoing applause as the curvaceous Latin beauty started toward the podium. Probably the ground crew again, reasoned the Captain. “Lieutenant Ben Grover our geologist and communications double. Lieutenant Brenda Slone, science officer. Ensign Luo Donglu, or ‘Prof' as he’s better known, our anthropologist and linguist.” The Captain waited for the noise to abate before continuing.

“This will be the 29th mission to date. It is fitting at this time that we remember and pray for the two missions that are, as yet, overdue. Please observe a moment of silence for the crews of the Magellan and the Cook.”

Eyes glanced down, many closed. A mission without a planetary landing was usually five months, or with a landing, seven months. The Magellan and the Cook had been away for nine and eleven months respectively.

The science behind mSpace was a patchwork of unproven theories and guesses, and the Captain and his crew would soon be there.

 “Thank you. I’ll now run over the basic mission profile.” The podium lights dimmed and a holo-display behind the Captain glowed to life with the National Space Institute Crest.

The Captain turned to the display which changed to show a rotating three-dimensional axis with glowing lines indicating where previous IDV missions had traveled. Where the lines met, the designation TA1 was flashing.

“The Diaz will travel two AUs above the solar system’s elliptic in standard-space, enter mSpace, follow vector Z+, and remotely survey three systems. As you are aware, apart from Sol-System only one other ‘TA’, or system capable of supporting life, has been found. If a category ‘A’ planet is encountered, we will attempt a landing, then return directly home.

“The mission duration is expected to be anywhere between one hundred and two hundred days Earth time. For the members of the Diaz it will be at least a month longer; the time spent in mSpace. That month in mSpace will equate to less than half a second for those of you staying behind, and during that period the Diaz will travel over 390 light years.

“Further details are provided on the mission spec sheets ...”

#

The pre-flight party was a roaring success and everyone drank more than was prudent. This included Sheryl, Dr. Rupert’s attractive nurse, who claimed a seat beside Colin. Dr. Maria Sanchez sat across from them, glaring.

“Think you’re cute,” slurred Sheryl. Her hand squeezed Colin’s inner thigh way higher than he could ignore.

His whisky tumbler dropped to the table, shattered on impact and sent twelve-year-old scotch spraying. He had the presence of mind not to let out a surprised squawk.

“Watch what you’re doing!” complained Maria. A pattern of spilt whisky patterned her dress uniform.

“Sorry.” Colin attempted to ignore the hand still gripping his thigh. He leaned forward, elbows on the table, trying to hide Sheryl’s indiscretion.

“Ouch!” He flinched as a piece of broken whisky glass pierced his elbow.

“Oh really,” sighed Maria. “I’d better look at that. At least I’m sober.”

#

Colin’s dream that night was unforgettable. He stood in a circle of monsters, similar to the one in the Everglades. Dim lighting cast an ethereal glow on an undistinguished and featureless background.

The creatures wore black habits, their features hidden by cowls. But he knew who they were, even as he knew he was one amongst them.

Chanting ... Yes, they were chanting together. He tried to concentrate on what he was saying. The words were peculiar, very Germanic, guttural.

“Pakem va’noot vaa’gh ... wa’vraght hul.” He understood the words. Offspring represent a danger ... Eradicate them. Very sensible.

The cowls turned toward him.

Vragh’ter vaa’gh ... Gash′le!” their voices insisted; it was not part of the mantra.

“Yes, dire danger. I understand. Caution. I will show caution.”

The cowls turned away. The recitations continued.

Colin woke with a start.