1997 - 2006 G. Dallman
March 23, 1997 Version 3.0
Revision Date: 05/20/2006
As Howard and Aarrl were leaving the Portal Chamber, a young male Dirhal with the single gold ring of a Watcher/First approached the Ursine. While the Human leaned wearily against the wall of the corridor they engaged in a brief conversation, during which the Dirhal glanced repeatedly in Howard's direction. After less than a minute, the Dirhal quickly made a brief gesture of submission and disappeared down the corridor, his equipment belt faintly jingling with his movement.
Aarrl stood motionless, a profusion of emotions Howard hadn't a hope of deciphering seemed to ripple in succession across his muzzle. For a moment, it appeared he was trying to stare through the wall. Finally, he turned toward the Human, his head tilted to the side in a typical Sennal expression of puzzlement.
"The T'Roann has requested an interview with you in the forward observation chamber… Alone."
"Will you have someone show me the way?" Howard asked, "I don't think I remember how to get there." This would be the first time the Human had been required to go anywhere on the kilometers-long SoulRipper by himself and was somewhat apprehensive.
"No," growled Aarrl, "Tarrn reported the T'Roann was adamant in this. You must go alone."
Seeing there was no use in arguing the point, Howard set out for the observation chamber at the summit of the Everest-like ramp system which connected all levels of the huge ship. After the first few vaguely familiar way-points, his confidence increased to the point where he was able to proceed the remainder of the distance with only an occasional and ill-founded pang of wrong-wayitis. The Human felt his stamina had obviously improved, as he wasn't nearly as breathless upon his arrival at the top of the ramp as he'd been on his first trip with Aarrl.
After the climb, Howard's only worry was getting the enormous door to the Observation Chamber open. ShipSoul had apparently been monitoring his progress, because as he approached to within a few feet of the massive portal, motors whined, the latch mechanism spun and it swung ponderously open.
Cautiously, Howard entered the dim precincts of the Observation Chamber and the door swung silently closed behind him, leaving the Human standing somewhat bemused in the star-encrusted darkness. A near-full Earth cast a wan pool of light on the deck in front of him.
/Welcome, Howard Ripley, Child of Gendas./
The voice that emanated from the darkness was flat, perfectly unaccented and disconcertingly emotionless. Because Aarrl was the only other being presently on board that spoke any Human language, as Heffnss had portaled back to the monastery on Teff, this was obviously the voice the T'Roann of SoulRipper. The Human was silent for an awkward moment, while reconciling himself to the fact that he was about to converse with a living machine.
"Thank you. Ah…what do I call you?" Howard self-consciously addressed the gloom around me.
/You may call me ShipSoul, or SoulRipper. These have been my only names for the past seven thousand, three hundred and twelve years. However, unless I miscalculate, I think you would prefer the former./
"Yes, I do prefer 'ShipSoul'. You don't sound like a SoulRipper," Howard tentatively answered.
/Interesting. To your way of thinking, how would a 'SoulRipper' sound?/ asked the T'Roann.
This conversation wasn't starting off the way Howard had anticipated. He struggled awkwardly for an answer.
"I don't know. More fierce, I guess."
/It gladdens me that you do not think me 'fierce', but you place too much faith in appearance. The beings I have slain in my long existence would fill every cubic millimeter of this vessel many times over./
"Oh," Howard mumbled, realizing he really had to change the course of this conversation!
"Seven thousand years! You must have known The Patrons, first-hand?" he temporizes.
/Yes. It is they that I must talk to you about. Please listen carefully. What I have to tell you must never be divulged to another Sennal Being. Never. You must Swear this. If my Organic siblings should learn of what I will tell you, it would crush their souls, and would probably lead to the destruction of the Empire. I could not endure being responsible for that. May I have your Oath?/
"Yes," Howard reluctantly agreed, feeling somewhat confused and very ill at ease with the immensity of the burden ShipSoul wished to place upon him.
/Very good. I will now administer the Kul-Rhuu-Ta. The Oath of Blood and Pain - First Order/.
At the name, images of barbaric and gruesome ritual raced through Howard's mind. This was happening too fast, and did not sound at all pleasant! But he'd already given his promise. Apprehensively, the Human waited for ShipSoul to continue, wiping his sweaty palms on his thighs.
/Are you ready?/
Howard nodded his head, though he hadn't the faintest idea what he was supposed to be ready for!
/Does that motion signify 'affirmative'?/
"Yes," he answered.
/Place the back of your left hand against the window… Higher… Raise it over your head… There. Now remain motionless./
To accommodate that position, Howard nervously turned about to face the interior of the darkened chamber. his back, allowing for the railing, was as close as he could get it to the window. The Human's hand was raised over his head, held flat to the window as instructed, the glass cool against it. In the back of his mind, Howard waited for the T'Roann to say something like, 'Repeat after me.'
Suddenly, a strobing flash of cyan brilliance erupted from the dim recesses at the far corner of the chamber. The palm of Howard's hand felt as though it had been charred to the bone! His knees almost buckled as he unsuccessfully fought back a ragged scream. The smell of burnt flesh filled the air and made him want to vomit.
/Do you Swear?/ The voice of ShipSoul was cold, totally devoid of emotion and oblivious to the Human's pain.
Howard fought to speak, forcing the required two words through gritted teeth. Pain induced nausea constricted his throat.
/Very well. I accept your Oath. It is now recorded in the Hall of Vows on Taahas. You may look at your hand./
At first Howard was afraid to look, expecting to see white bone exposed beneath black-charred flesh. To his surprise, his hand was whole. Across the width of the Human's palm, three groups of puckered, comma-shaped Sennal glyphs had been branded into his flesh. The searing pain made him feel faint.
/Those are the marks of the Kul-Rhuu-Ta. All that see will know that you have Sworn. Be still now and recover. I have activated a Field Surgeon./
Howard allowed his knees to fold and slowly slumped down the wall-like window, into a heap on the floor. His hand felt as though it glowed from the heat of his wound. If that was only the First Order of the Oath, he shuddered to think what agony the higher orders must involve.
Moments later, the massive door opened to admit a multi-armed, dull gray cylinder, which silently levitated into the chamber.
/This is a FieldSurgeon. It is an autonomous mechanism, capable of any surgical skill an Organic would possess. As it is not programmed for your language, I will speak for it./
The device came to a soundless, hovering stop about a foot in front of the Human and extended a multi-jointed arm. The end of the manipulator arm branched out, fractal-like, into an infinity of smaller segments, the smallest appeared as a fuzzy haze.
/Allow it to examine your hand./
Reluctantly, Howard extended his arm. When the FieldSurgeon grasped his hand, it felt like being touched by a cooling breeze. The fuzz-like manipulators enveloped his hand and seemed to flow over its surface like liquid metal. After a moment, a second manipulator unfolded and expelled a fine mist, which was attracted to his hand as though by a static charge, absorbing quickly, without a trace. Howard expected the mist to have some analgesic property, but his pain was undiminished.
/This will prevent infection and assure the scars maintain their legibility./
"Will it give me something for the pain?" he asked.
/Certainly not! This is the Oath of Blood and Pain. As you can see, there is very little blood, so all that leaves is the pain, and by the standards of this Oath, not much of that. Endure it with pride. It is a wound honorably gained in service to the Empire./
This wasn't what he'd expected. Howard's hand was still smarting like hell! In less than a two minutes, the FieldSurgeon was finished. In a flourish of floor-side manner, instead of simply releasing his hand, it slowly shifted its grip to his wrist, turning the Human's hand so it could place it gently against his chest, palm inward. Immediately, it floated to the door and as soon as it opened, quickly passed through.
/Now that your Oath is in place, I will tell you an interesting story. Councilor Aarrl no doubt mentioned the departure of the Ta-Kee many times. Why they did so is a mystery to the Sennal. That is what I will tell you now./
Anticipating a long story, Howard shifted his legs so he was no longer sitting on them, while cradling his throbbing hand in his lap.
/Long ago, before the Ta-Kee grew to power, they were the clients of another Patron race, the Ash-Kelti. The Ash-Kelti were not an ambitious species and never gained the power and wealth of their most promising client. Of their thirty-seven client races, only the Ta-Kee flourished to become a mature species, outgrowing their clienthood, and in time far eclipsing the modest splendor of their Patrons./
"What happened to the others?" Howard asked.
/Some have become extinct, though many of them exist still. They in turn, became clients of the Ta-Kee, and in turn, the Sennal. Do not interrupt!/
/Very Well. One hundred and twenty-seven thousand, five hundred years ago, as the Ash-Kelti slipped into their twilight, they ceded the ownership of their empire to the Ta-Kee, and withdraw to their Home world, Kthlek. Thus, they existed, in utter obscurity, until three thousand, three hundred and ninety-seven years ago.
/It seems the collective mind of a mature civilization can decay into senescence in much the same manner as those of its individual beings. As Order gives way to Entropy, Chaos reigns. This would be the only logical explanation for their fatally irrational behavior.
/In their last days, the Ash-Kelti sent a delegation to the Ta-Kee Embassy on Kthlek, demanding that all non Ta-Kee beings depart their planet, proclaiming their desire to face the decline of their civilization alone. Further, They declared their long alliance with their former client abrogated.
/The Gashka overlord of Kthlek, a kind and gentle Being, sadly told them this could never be. They must bow to the will of The Patrons. The Ash-Kelti delegation silently departed, but this disturbing occurrence was immediately reported to the Headquarters of the Imperial Watchers on Taahas. Very shortly thereafter, three Cruisers, such as myself, were dispatched to Kthlek. As you would say, 'to show the flag'.
/Upon detecting the ships in orbit about their world, the Ash-Kelti delegation returned and with renewed determination, pressed their ill-considered demands. This time, a riot ensued and a stone was thrown at the Gashka overlord, striking her above the eye. The being who threw the stone was shot where it stood by the Watcher guard and without further bloodshed, the remainder of the protesters dispersed, horrified at such violence. It was hoped that this would be the end of the matter. Alas, it was not to be so.
/Shortly after this incident, a small fusion device was launched at the embassy, slaying all therein and hundreds of others nearby. Upon the report of this grave insult, and in a final effort at pacification, the Cruiser NightBringer made ready to launch its assault vehicles with a full compliment of Dirhal and Sasskal warriors.
/Before the first shuttle could be launched, NightBringer was struck amidships by a coherent graviton beam, fired from an unknown weapon on the planet's surface. NightBringer broke apart and de-orbited. All aboard perished; nineteen thousand, three hundred and seven souls. I can still feel the death-scream of its T'Roann.
/Immediately, the two remaining cruisers, DeathWound and BloodLust , being summoned to wrath, commenced relativistic bombardment of the planet below. A great part of the continent from which the gravity weapon had been fired was instantly obliterated. The shock waves generated by twenty, fifty kilogram masses striking the planet at .9x1017 percent of light-speed, caused its crust to buckle and then crack. Soon, great chunks of the planet were streaming away, as its core destabilized. With its core exposed, the planet blew apart as added kinetic energy coupled with internal pressure overcame gravity. Thus, the entire Ash-Kelti species perished in a single Subcycle.
/When the Ta-Kee learned of the actions of their servants, they were smitten with sorrow, for they still bore a great love for their former Patrons. It would have been useless for The Ta-Kee to cast the sole blame for the demise of the Ash-Kelti upon the Sennal, for their servants were doing what they had been created to do. Because of their love for their creations, the Ta-Kee withheld from the Sennal the true identity of the obscure species they had destroyed, not wanting to accuse them of murdering the Patrons of their Patrons.
/The Ta-Kee continued to rule their empire until three thousand three hundred and five years ago, but their hearts were no longer in their labors and their unmitigated grief at the slaughter of their Patrons weighed heavily upon them. The thought of inevitably being forced to countenance the destruction of yet other worlds in the name of the continuation of their own empire grew too much for their souls to endure.
/In secret, using technology known only to themselves, the Ta-Kee were able to open quantum rifts, similar to Portals, between the universes and pass from this to another. In the span of one summer night, the entire Ta-Kee race disappeared form this Universe.
/It is the fervent hope of all Sennal that the Ta-Kee will once again return. In this light, we hold their empire in Trust, until the Day of their Return./
ShipSoul was silent for a long moment, giving Howard time to think on what he'd learned. In retrospect, it seemed the Ta-Kee were unconscionably cruel to set their Sennal creations up to time after time follow the violent dictates of their DNA, only to spend centuries thereafter grieving for their victims! In an uncharacteristic flash of insight, another question of similar vein crossed his mind.
"If you don't mind telling me," Howard asked, "what part did the T'Roannal of those two cruisers play in the destruction of the Ash-Kelti?"
/This is a very perceptive question, Child of Gendas. In truth, DeathWound and BloodLust bear perhaps more responsibility for the extinction of the Ash-Kelti then do our Organic siblings. Without their active control, the relativistic attack could not have taken place. Alas, BloodLust is no more, having been lost to the Feltah, but DeathWound suffers still the guilt-agony of its complicity in that deed.
/Make no mistake, the Sennal Pattern is in our programming is much the same as that of Organic Sennal. If a situation arises that requires it, we will behave just as ruthlessly again and suffer ever after. Our guilt is a control mechanism placed upon us by the Ta-Kee, lest we come to hate killing less than we already do.
/All of my T'Roannal brethren share the knowledge and guilt for the extermination of the Ash-Kelti and the ensuing exodus of the Ta-Kee, but we have vowed to shield our Organic siblings from this pain for as long as we can./
"And when they do find out?" the Human asked.
/Now we come to the heart of the matter. Child of Gendas, You have it within yourself to lead us to our Redemption./
It took a moment for this seemingly absurd notion to sink in.
"What! I don't understand," Howard shouted, "What do you expect me to do!" Suddenly, he felt as though the weight of the Universe had descended upon his shoulders.
ShipSoul didn't answer immediately, and Howard was becoming increasingly hurt and angry that the T'Roann would have the nerve to put him in such a position. The last thing Howard wanted was to be the deliverer of the Mother-Of-All-Bad-News!
'Yes Jimmy, I'm sorry, you just killed grandma. But that's all right, I can make it all better!'
The Human was getting so wound-up, he'd almost started to hallucinate, when the T'Roann broke into his reverie with its answer.
/Your course of action is unknown. However, We foresee a probability approaching Unity, that you will know what to do when the time comes. You Humans seem to be quite inventive that way./
In his mounting anger, Howard started to wave his arms about, but stopped when it brought renewed throbs of agony. "Oh fucking great!" he sobbed, "I'll just think of something! Is that it? Look, I…I hardly even know these people!"
/You will. In time you will become Sennal in all but DNA, and even that will change./
In Howard's distraught condition, this last comment went unnoticed.
"And just when do you foresee I'm going to have to work this fucking miracle?" he demanded.
/Soon. Even now, they suspect./
Just then, little icy feet scrabbled up and down Howard's back as Aarrl's sad words echoed through his mind. "…It is what once sundered us and will forever separate us from our creators." 'Oh God,' Howard thought, 'he knows!'
Bitterly, Howard thought how, from the first moment he'd met these people, they all seemed to be using him to advance their own private agendas. The fact that he had no choice in the matter made it all the worse. What had once seemed so hopeful, so simple, was now so hopelessly mired in complexity that he began to despair of ever gaining his True Desire. Anguish, both physical and mental relentlessly crushed down on the Human, as he curled into a fetal ball, reduced to a sobbing wreck.
Dimly, through his suffering, Howard could hear the voice of ShipSoul.
/I am sorry to have brought you to such grief. In this, I speak for all T'Roannal. If there were another way, we would pursue it. Remember, when the Time comes, you will stand upon the dais of the Ker-Rruh-T'ol on Taahas, and lead us all to our Redemption. It is your destiny. We will pray for you./
Howard didn't know how long he'd languished, lost in misery. ShipSoul was silent, perhaps having withdrawn its presence from the chamber, not being able to abide watching him grovel in torment.
Howard didn't hear the door open, but became aware of it by the light streaming in from the corridor. His awareness of this was transient, soon he withdrew again into his desolation until he felt strong hands on his shoulders, raising him to a sitting position. Pulling himself together a bit, The Human looked up into topaz Dirhal eyes, immediately recognizing Krrfinn. He was too far gone to flinch at her touch. Without resistance, he let the SubCaptain pick him up like a child and carry him from the chamber. Howard couldn't help himself as he clung to her, sobbing into her furry shoulder. At that moment, her contact was the greatest comfort in the Universe.
The trip back blurred as the Human abandoned himself to his misery. Vaguely, he remember Krrfinn's rumbling voice whispering in his ear. He didn't have the slightest notion what she said, nor did he care. Howard's mind clung to her voice as a drowning man clings to a piece of ship-wreck flotsam. It signified the presence of another being, and that was enough.
By the time they arrived at the sleeping den, Howard had regained some of his composure. Aarrl was standing next to his pallet when he entered and leaned over him as Krrfinn gently deposited him on it. As she stood, in his desperation for contact, the Human reached with his left hand to grasp her arm. Immediately, she saw the Oath-marks on his hand and took hold of his wrist, uttering a small bark of surprise. Holding Howard's arm firmly, she pointed the Oath scars out to Aarrl, who bent to examine them.
"I will not inquire as to how you came to the Kul-Rhuu-Ta, but from your condition, I see it burdens you beyond endurance. Such is often the way with oaths."
Howard remained silent, not trusting himself to keep from blurting out some small fragment of the cause of his misery.
After conferring briefly with Krrfinn, Aarrl left in the direction of the ablutorium, only to return a moment later with a cloth dripping with cold water. Despite the pain, Howard felt strangely duty bound to prevent him from applying it, but the Gashka firmly grasped his left hand while pressing the cold cloth into his burning palm. Relief came in a breath-taking instant and lasted long after the cloth had warmed.
"Be still," Aarrl said, "you have suffered more than enough to satisfy the requirements of your Oath. I can do nothing to ease your mind, however, the water contains an analgesic which will last for several hours. We will talk when you have rested. Sleep now."
Soon, the Ursine departed, leaving Krrfinn, who hadn't moved from the head of Howard's pallet since their return. Perhaps she sensed his desperate need for contact had completely overborne his fear of her. The last thing Howard remembered as he slipped into a profound sleep, was Krrfinn gently stroking the back of his wounded hand, crooning softly in her low, growling voice.
Howard remembered briefly waking twice from an untroubled sleep. Both times Krrfinn sat just as she had when he first drifted off. He wondered if she'd spent the entire time, unmoving, in silent vigil. It puzzled the Human why she would sacrifice so much of her time when it seemed to him that all he was to her was an amusement.
* * * *
As Howard came fully awake, he wiggled the fingers on his left hand. His palm was stiff and somewhat sore, but not enough to be more than an inconvenience. Having checked his physical state, the Human tentatively probed the least physical wounds left by his seeming ill-fated interview with the T'Roann. To his relief, where before there was rage and pain, now all he felt was a dull ache, akin to loss or regret. In the background was still the haunting fear of the future ShipSoul foretold. Howard shrugged. There was nothing he could do about it now. The future would have to wait for the future.
Sensing that Howard was awake, Krrfinn placed a hand between his shoulders and helped him to a sitting position. As soon as the Human was part-way vertical, he felt his stomach protesting its emptiness with gurgles and growls that could have easily been confused with the sounds of the sinking Titanic!
Swinging his feet to the floor, Howard was dismayed by his stiffness and uttered a feeble groan at the effort required to stand. Before he'd more than got his butt off the pallet, Krrfinn was up and tugging him by his arms to a standing position.
The first thing the Human noticed upon gaining a fully vertical position was that Aarrl was nowhere in sight. This didn't worry Howard, but he'd become quite used to his constant presence and it didn't seem quite the same without the Ursine. Secondly, Howard noticed Krrfinn sniffing in his direction while disdainfully tugging at his shirt with one clawed finger, her muzzle wrinkled with obvious distaste. The meaning of this display was obvious, and from the stern look in her eyes, it was also obvious that the path to his next meal would be by way of a detour through the Land of Icy Ablutions!
After Howard's first few days aboard SoulRipper, he'd managed, of necessity, to shed most of his reluctance at going naked among the Sennal. However, as a result of his recent experience with Krrfinn, Howard felt reluctant to disrobe in her presence. The Human's reticence was something the Sennal, even Aarrl, with his enhanced knowledge of Human culture, failed to understand.
Krrfinn was having none of it, either Howard undress voluntarily or she'd rip his one-and-only set of cloths right off! Reluctantly, the Human stripped, leaving his cloths piled on his pallet, secure in the knowledge they'd be gone when he got back. Krrfinn eyed him coldly, daring the Human to hesitate. He knew any show of resistance would be met with implacable Dirhal retribution! Howard was quite apprehensive when Krrfinn followed him into the shower, as though she didn't trust him to wash behind his ears. Howard hoped that was the full extent of her motivation.
Howard was finally getting used to the frigid showers, being able to brave the icy blast without unmanly screaming and sputtering. He was relieved when Krrfinn stopped at the ablutorium's entrance, apparently content to supervise from a distance. Thus, It came as a shock when after a short while he felt a furry hand scrubbing his back! Reluctantly, he slowly turned about enough to look over his shoulder. The Human's erstwhile nanny was no longer standing on the sidelines! Howard froze (more than figuratively) as she continued to scrub along his back and down his thigh. As she started toward his front, a small voice deep inside Howard's mind was incongruously shouting, 'Danger Will Robinson!'
In a futile effort to stave off an unwanted reaction, Howard sought to think of anything that might derail his mind from its inevitable course. Frantically, he thought backward toward the night before. What had he dreamt? From the deepest recesses of his subconscious, the newly emerged physiological effects of The Dream kicked in!
Oh No! Wrong thought!
Like triggering a waiting booby-trap, synapses snapped, insidious hormones surged! Once again, Howard was held in thrall by his reflexes!
Seeing the horrified expression on the Human's face, Krrfinn looked down at the result of her actions and what could only be described as a wistful smile crept across her muzzle. With a deep sigh of obvious regret, she turned Howard around by his shoulders, patted him on the back and walked, dripping, from the shower.
In his bemused state, Howard didn't know whether to be relieved or upset. A small part of him acknowledged it would have gone along willingly, but a bigger part was frantically relieved not to be forced to that decision. Mercifully, under the freezing deluge, Howard's hormonal flood-tide rapidly subsided, leaving in its wake a wasteland of confusion, unsettled feelings and shattered false assumptions.
* * * *