Choosers of the Slain

– Choosers of the Slain –

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

THE STRENGTH of twice three thousand horse
That seeks the single goal;
The line that holds the rending course,
The hate that swings the whole:
The stripped hulls, slinking through the gloom,
At gaze and gone again
The Brides of Death that wait the groom
The Choosers of the Slain!

— Rudyard Kipling (1898)

Table of Contents

    • 1. The Time was Autumn
    • 2. She Came from Places Far Beyond his Knowing
    • 3. The Land of the Young
    • *** *** ***

      Date Redacted by Order of the Museum of Man

      1. The Time was Autumn

      The time was Autumn, and what few beech trees had been spared, released gold leaves into the chilly air, to swirl and dance and fall. Defoliants, and poisons, had reduced the greater number of the trees to leafless, sickly hulks, unwholesome to behold; and where the weapons of the enemy had fallen, running walls of fire had consumed them, leaving stands of wood and smoking ash. But here and there within the ruin, defying destruction, a kingly tree raised up a bounty of leaves, shining green-gold in the setting sun.

      Through the ruins of the forest came a man. He was past his youth, and past the middle of his age, but not yet old. His posture was erect, untiring, unbowed, and strong. His hair was iron-gray with age, his face was lined and careworn. The sternness of his glance showed he had been a leader of men, used to command. The sorrow and cold rage kindled in his eye showed he was no more. The furtive silence of his footstep, the quick grace of his flight, showed that he was hunted.

      He wore the uniform of a warrior of his day and age. The fabric was soft dove-gray, broken into unpatterned lines and shadows. The fabric faded to dull green when he stood near a flowering bush, or darkened to gray-black when he ran across an open space thick with piles of ash.

      Across his back he bore a weapon which could fire a dozen missiles no larger than his littlest finger. The missiles could be programmed to seek and dive, circle and evade; or to search out specific individuals, whose signatures of heat, or auranetic patterns, matched those locked within the little bullets. The little bullets could fly for miles, hunting, or, if fired with a booster, reach enemies a hundred miles away.

      On his shoulder, he wore his medical appliance, with needles stabbed into the great veins of his arm, and colored tabs to show what plagues and viruses of the enemy had been found and contradicted in his blood.

      Hanging open at his throat, there hung a mask to filter poisoned air. He left it dangling loose now as he walked, for the wind was fresh, and smelled of the salt sea, and blew into the east, toward the foes he fled.

      When he came clear of the trees, he saw a rushing mountain stream, but poisoned now, and clogged with stinking fish and blood. He had climbed higher than he knew. Not a dozen paces to his left, the stream fell out into the air, and let a bloody waterfall tumble down high cliffs once green with trees.

      He knew these cliffs; he had climbed and played upon them as a boy. Once he had climbed their craggy sides to a high place not far from here, and felt such crowning triumph and such joy as he had not felt again, not even when the many fighting factions of his land had united all beneath his hand to join in common bond to repel the invaders from the east.

      For many years he had ruled a turbulent people, united them in one cause, and laid down strict laws to govern them, laws he prayed were fair and just.

      Now, remembering the way, he climbed the rocks again to find, unchanged, that wide, wide and grassy ledge where once he viewed in triumph the green field of his youth.

      When he turned and looked out upon the world, he saw the hills and deep-delved valleys fall away into the roads and fields and cottages, now blackened and deserted. By the river in the distance, he could see the city burning which once had been his capital. The bridges leading to the city had been shattered; the tall towers beyond had been thrown down, or tilted on their foundations like senile drunks. The airfield, bare of ships, was cracked and torn. Where once his mansion stood, a crater smoked.

      Sirens wailed to no avail. There was no one to answer.

      On the far horizon, red with sunset, was the sea. Against the clouds stained red with dying light loomed angular, grim silhouettes; the warships of the enemy were gathered in great force. Midmost, and taller than the others, was the flag-ship, a giant vessel, whose every armored deck and deckhouse held up dark muzzle-bores of many cannons.

      He took his weapon into his lap and lit its tiny screen. The symbols showed the codes and patterns for the five highest officers of the enemy forces, as well as that for their commander. Only on the last day of the war, now, too late, had his spies discovered what those patterns were; only now, too late, would vengeance be fulfilled. He gently touched the button with his thumb which programmed his ammunition.

      The man took out his knife and turned it on, and scratched into the rock these words: OWEN PENTHANE SEPTEMBER THIRD STOOD HERE AND FIRED A FINAL VOLLEY INTO THE FLAGSHIP ‘ATLAS’

      He paused in thought a while, and watched the setting sun. Already the lowlands were in shadows. The rocks and trees around him gleamed cherry-pink. Now he wrote more words into the stone: THAT ALL WOULD KNOW BY THIS, THAT WE HAVE BEEN DESTROYED, BUT NOT DEFEATED, AND EVEN TO THE LAST MAN, LAST BULLET, FOUGHT EVER ON.

      He stood and raised the weapon to his cheek. The magnified image on the screen before his eye displayed the deckhouse of the mighty warship, and the moving figures bent over their controls. Webs of wire covered all the windows; these would detect incoming shots, and control the massive counter fire.

      He wondered if he should step away from the rock which bore his epitaph; were it to crack or melt within the counter-fire, no future generations would read his final words.

      And yet again, the circuits woven in the fabric of his suit were designed to bewilder and confuse the electric brains of approaching fire. It was possible he would not be harmed at all.

      Nonetheless, he stepped aside for many paces. Now he raised the weapon once again.

      A touch of his finger spun tiny gyroscopes within the stock. His weapon was now as firm on target as if it rested on a tripod. The computer built inside adjusted for the minute pitch and roll of the warship’s deck, and for the vibration of the intervening air. The image on the aiming screen grew steady, clear, and fixed.

      A woman’s voice spoke gently from behind him: “Lord Owen Penthane. Hold your fire.”

      *** *** ***

      2. She Came from Places Far Beyond his Knowing

      His thumb twitched on the programming dial. “I can fire behind as easily as ahead.” He had programmed the first bullet to circle.

      “Fear not.” her voice answered softly. “I am unarmed.”

      He looked behind him. He squinted in astonishment, switched the weapon to stand-by, and studied her closely.

      Her hair was yellow as corn-silk, held on top within a web of silver wires set with pearls, but escaping on the sides to fall loose about her shoulders to her waist. Two long red ribbons dangled from the back of her pearly corona, and lifted in the breeze which stirred her hair into a fragrant cloud.

      Down to her feet white vesture flowed, shimmering like sea-mist, of some fabric he had never seen nor dreamed. Tight around her narrow waist she wore a wide embroidered belt of red; red slippers clasped slim feet.

      On her finger was a silver ring, whose stone gleamed with a point of light, burning like a star. It was not electric nor atomic nor any energy he could describe. He knew enough to know she came from places far beyond his knowing.

      Her face was fair; her eyes were grey-blue as a stormy sea; her lips were red as sweet roses. She watched him watching her, and softly smiled, as if pleased.

      “There is rock wall behind you.” he said, “And no place to climb except up in front of me. You were not here before I came.”

      “Not before, but after.” she said, “Many ages hence, I shall stand within this place, and use the art we know to travel eons backward in a single step. I am a child of the future many centuries unborn. My name is Sigrune.” She smiled, for a moment, at the rock he had inscribed, as if pleased to see the inscription freshly cut.

      “Your accent is peculiar.”

      “I learned your speech from books, in my time, ancient, in yours, not yet composed.”

      He glanced at the medical apparatus on his shoulder. She laughed; a gay and lovely sound; and said, “No hallucinogen is in your blood. What you see before you is most real.”

      He laughed. “Flattering to think myself so famous that posterity will fly out of the deeps of time to talk to me! Flattering, but impossible.”

      “Impossible to the science of this age, perhaps. Be assured: your works shall not be forgotten, but preserved, and what you have said and done and thought shall shine through all the ages with clear light, and, in days to come, young students shall wonder what it would be like to see and to talk with you.” And now Sigrune blushed and faltered.

      Owen Penthane was perceptive. He could imagine some young student of time drowsing over her history books, waiting for the opportunity to meet the man whom time has lent the luster of myth and hero-worship. A famous man in his own day, he had seen such blushes, and received such hero-worship, before. Somehow, her shy look made him believe she was what she claimed.

      “All this is most pleasing to me.” he said, nodding to her, gravely. “Since all my work, till now, has been futile, and led to nothing more than ruin, I take your presence here as a sign that great things are left for me to accomplish in what few years a man of my age has remaining. Perhaps my scattered folk will rally, or my treacherous allies repent, and combine to drive the invaders from our soil. Now stand away; for with this shot, I hope to signal the return of hope to my oppressed nation. Having seen so fair a child from the future, I now have cause to think that hope shall not be vain.”

      She looked down, smiling uncertainly. It was a demure gesture, but also betrayed a strange hesitation, a hint of fear and sorrow.

      He stood, weapon in hand, staring at her for a long moment. Her fingers were twined together before her, and her head was bowed.

      Owen Penthane said, “If you are a time traveler, how is it that your ventures do not imperil you? Any smallest change could unravel all the history you know, or thwart the marriage of your ancestors, undo the founding of your nations, and make you fade away like ghosts. What make you proof from change?” There was a steely edge within his voice.

      “There are two precautions that we undertake.” she said, still not daring to look up. “The first is this: our grandchildren and their grandchildren have the government of our span of time, warning us of bad results to come, and wiping out mistakes, to make them as if they had never been. If any ill were fated to befall us on any of our journeyings, the Museum of Man at the End of Time would warn us of the outcome, long before it ever could arise. Their knowledge is perfect, for they cannot ever err.”

      “And the second?” he said, grimly.

      Now she raised her head and met his eye. “We show ourselves only to those who are about to die.”


      *** *** ***

      3. The Land of the Young

      He was silent, frowning, while she looked on. Her gaze was steady, calm, and sad.

      “I meant to cause you no pain, Lord Owen.” she said. Soft breeze sent ripples through her hair. “Bid your world farewell: a finer world awaits you; a world which lacks no joy.”

      “You have told me nothing I did not foresee. The soldier is a fool who thinks to live forever. I suppose if I do not fire upon the flagship…?”

      “There are enemies lurking in the woods below. The result is much the same.”

      “Indeed.” He turned and put the weapon to his shoulder. “Again I thank you, young miss. Now that no hope torments me, my mind is put to rest. I am resolved.”

      “Wait! I beg you, wait!”

      She stepped forward suddenly, and put her hands on his weapon. He caught her one wrist with a hard grasp, and stared angrily at her.

      “Why now do you interfere?” he asked. Her skin was soft, untouched by any scar or plague. Since the bombardments, he had not seen many women with unblemished skin. She put her other hand gently on his rough fingers, and gazed at him with wide eyes.

      “Set your weapon on its timer.” she said. “And hold my hand and come with me into my land, beyond all history. At the Museum of Man, the arts and sciences of every age are gathered, the bravest of men, the most beautiful of women, the greatest of philosophers, and the most lucid of all poets.

      “Our medicine can restore your vanished youth to you; it is a country of the young, where aging is unknown, and death by accident is undone before it can occur.

      “In the twilight of all time, sorrow is unknown to us, and all those wise and great and glorious enough to join our company have been called up from out of the abyss of history. You will sit in our feast-hall, to eat whatever meats or breads delight you, or drink our sweet and endless wine.

      “A place has been reserved for you, next to the seats of Brian Boru, Alfred the Great, and Charlemagne. We feast and know no lack, we who can change time to restore drained goblets back to fulness, or resurrect the slaughtered beast to roast again.”

      He released her wrist.

      She saw the cold and unmoved expression of his face.

      Grief made her voice grow shrill, but no less lovely. She knelt, and clasp her shaking hands around his waist. “Come away with me, I pray you, Owen! I offer what all men have dreamed in vain! Our joys do not pall, cannot grow stale and wearisome like other joys, for we can change unhappy days not ever to have been!

      “All great men, except for those who died in public places, in the witness of many eyes, are gathered there. All these great men, your peers, will cheer your coming to our halls. You shall hear the thousand poems, each grander than the last, which Dante and which Homer have composed in all the many centuries since they have dwelt among us, or sample the deep wisdom Aristotle has deduced in his thousand years of subtlest debate with Gotuma, Lao Tsu, Descartes, and John Locke.”

      He said sternly, “What chance have I to open fire, and survive? To gather up my scattered people, and lead them once again against a foe, which, if my bullets find their aim, will be, for now, leaderless and demoralized? What chance?”

      She rose slowly. “I was told to tell you, you have none.”

      “But you cannot know for certain. You know only that, in the version of the history you know, I did not fire, but went away with you.”

      She bowed her head and whispered a half-silent, “Yes.” But then she raised her head again. Her eyes now shone with unwept tears, and now she raised her hand to brush her straying hair aside. “But come with me, not because you must, but because I ask. Give up your world: you have lost it. You have failed. I have been promised that, should I return with you, great love would grow between us. We are destined. Is this ruined land so fair that you will not renounce it for eternal youth, and love?”

      “Renounce your world instead, and stay with me. Teach me all the secrets of your age, and we will sweep my enemies away with the irresistible weapons of the future. No? If you change the past, you cannot return to find the future that you knew, can you?”

      “It is so.” she said.

      “You will not renounce your world for love? Nor will I, mine. Now stand away, my dear. Before the sun is set, I mean to fire.”

      She whirled away from him in a shimmer of pale fabric, and strode to stand where she had been when first he saw her. Now she spoke in anger, “You cannot resist my will in this! I need but step a moment back ago, and play this scene again, till I find right words, or what wiles or arguments I must to bend your stiff neck, and persuade you from your folly. Foolish man! Foolish and vain man! You have done nothing to defy me! I shall make it never to have been, till finally you must change your mind!”

      Now he smiled. “Let my other versions worry what they shall do. I am myself; I shall concern myself with me. But I suspect I am not the first of me who has declined your sweet temptation; I deem that you have played this scene before. I cannot think that any words or promises could stay me from my resolve.”

      She hid her hands behind her face and wept.

      He said, “Be comforted. If I were not the man you so admire, then, perhaps, I would depart with you. But if you love me for my bravery, then do not seek to rob me of this last, brave, final, act.”

      She said from behind her hands, “It may be that you will survive; but the future which will come of that shall not have me in it.”

      And with these words, she vanished like a dream.

      The sun was sinking downward into night. Against the bloody glimmer of its final rays, the warship which held his enemies rose up in gloomy silhouette. Now he raised his weapon to his shoulder, took careful aim, and fired.

      And because he knew not what might come, he was at peace.


      THE END

      Here find another tale from an aeon near or far