BEYOND THE FABLED EDGE, where the stars are lonesome and the planets fall by inches into shadow and frore, I found myself amongst people after too long a time wandering the dead worlds of the Dhar-Ah-Sum Wastes in search of forgotten things. My mind, even accustomed to such solitary expeditions, was still numb and leaden, weighted down by memories and discoveries, by logical extrapolations and dark fantasies. My little explorer ship, the S.S. Ess, creaked and groaned as I nursed her, finally, into a docking bay at Dhar-Ah-Zhul Station, a small but busy Imperial outpost servicing the transport and distribution needs of a remote and small, but busy, province of the Empire with stars in its soul. She came down with a thump, external sensors all out of whack, and clicked and moaned and sighed as I shut her down. A deck-tech team advanced on the S.S. Ess with umbilical feeds and refuelling pods but I waved them away, having a better plan. I grabbed my Civilization Tag and disembarked.
The cavernous landing bay was about half full, with naval, civil and commercial ships coming and going at irregular intervals. Most of them, like my own beloved S.S. Ess, were of standard Imperial designs and manufacture but a few sprang from different minds; a Ziffrosian mining claw, a Zorth Imperium star-shaver, freighters from Ath, Koh-Lajr, The Span and Ziffros, private yachts from Cartella and Luxok, and at least seven A.I. Alliance drones huddled in a belligerent knot near the space doors.
Lifters and gravs flitted between the ships with cargo, fuel pods, spare parts, robots, repair crews and passengers. Radioed instructions, sirens, buzzers, bells, hollered communications, power tools, engines and the occasional bursts of laughter rang around the place, a mere cacophony to me but an exquisite running commentary for the experienced crew, a symphony of organization. The ships smelled of space, ionisation and rot, as I strolled past them. The bay was overloaded with the fumes from spilled fuels, lubricants and coolants, the confusing, nauseating fug of spilled foodstuffs from disparate cultures, the stench of leaking waste systems, and a thousand other things my nose had no clue about. After so long breathing the dusty drab air of dead worlds, though, my nose cared not and strove, in its own way, to grasp the concept of orgasm.
Outside the docking bay, in a wide and colourful carpeted hallway, the sound was far less; dull and enveloping like sluggish summer breezes. I shouldered my bag and made my way to one of the pilots’ bars at the station’s port side. The corridors were busy, teeming with people from all over the galaxy, a dizzying parade of body shapes, colours, twitters and growls, and further aromas for my nose to embrace like lovers. A few people knew me, and I they, sometimes acknowledged with a wave or a rushed statement of regret at having no time to talk and sometimes having so much to say and so much time in which to say it that the excuse of fictional impending deadlines spilled from my lips.
Eventually, after two and a half hours or so, I fetched up at Zoggy’s Bar. The place was comfortably full with starship crews on long layovers or short breaks and some looking for work or simply hanging around.
‘Ess!’ Zoggy, the establishment’s infamous owner, called me as I shouldered my way to the bar, smiling and nodding a welcome in return. ‘Terran whisky,’ Zoggy said as I took up an empty bar stool and he placed a tumbler of Tharnish swampcat piss in front of me with one of his manipulator tentacles. I smiled resignedly and took a sip. It tasted almost like whisky and had almost the same effect but, as was our custom, I made a disappointed face and shook my head.
‘Almost,’ I said, ‘but no.’
Zoggy sighed, a sound like distant thunder rolling out of his air sacs, replaced the cork in the bottle of swampcat piss, put it back on the shelf next to all the other failed bottles, and charged me 25 debits. Noting that his infra red eyes were narrowing, a sure sign that Zoggy was about to launch into his standard monologue concerning the difficulties of obtaining genuine liquors all the way out here, I asked about the pilots in his bar and was directed to a tall Martian captain and her tall Martian crew.
* * *
‘Captain Bambat?’ I asked. She initially ignored me, preferring to finish the tall tale with which she was entertaining the six biological members of her crew. As they burst into laughter at the punchline, an almost imperceptible expression of satisfaction ghosted across her ebony face. She took a swig of ale, put her tankard down and then looked up at me.
‘Captain Bambat,’ I repeated, ‘I am Professor General Sir Estobahn Khan De-Barlow Jo-Jong Brown, KPGE, DCM, AVA, CJC and bar, head of the Stellar Archaeology Department at the University of Europe in Bern.’
The captain’s dark eyes narrowed and her crew stifled giggles.
‘My friends call me Ess,’ I added with a smile, extending my hand.
She looked at it for a moment before honouring me with a brief handshake. ‘Kersis Bambat,’ she said, ‘captain of the Mwindo.’
‘An honour,’ I said. ‘Captain, my ship is damaged and I need a ride home.’
She shook her head. ‘Not going to Earth,’ she said. ‘Phobos Docks at Mars.’
‘That will do,’ I said. ‘My ship should make it the rest of the way from there. My distortion engines are running a little lumpy but my breach system’s all kinds of broken.’
She nodded, considering. ‘Be a while before we get to Mars. From here we’re breaching beyond the Edge to Ath, then a couple of deliveries in The Span, on to Koullar, Flith, Knoor, Hoh, then maybe Puth, Railar-Sorme, Hae-zo-zo Uff, and the Centrehub before heading home. A month at least, maybe two.’
This was perfect for me as it would allow plenty of time to arrange and study my data and also to rest and calm my mind. I did, however, feign reluctance in order to secure a better price. It didn’t work.
* * *
For three weeks after our departure I remained aboard my ship, which remained lashed to the deck in one corner of the Mwindo’s primary cargo hold. Some days I had the hold almost to myself, others the S.S. Ess was crowded in by stack upon stack of pallets, pods, and containers, once even by countless eerily still cattle encased in individual stasis fields. On the sixth night of that last week, as I slept, or tried to sleep, or dreamed of sleep, I heard sporadic, mournful cries from the depths of those carefully stacked herds. As if some of them were aware, and paralysed, and terrified. Capable of only the weakest entreaty to whichever hidden force declares itself the God of Cows and comforts their despair.
Yet even these horrible moans were almost comforting, distractions from the data stripped bare before me. All my readings and recordings, all my translations and projections, taken apart and reassembled, examined, all contradictions eliminated. All doubts erased.
‘Permission to come aboard?’ Captain Bambat stood in the open door of my study, obviously aboard already. I returned my attention to the data.
‘You know, Sir General High Lord Professor Baron of the Rest of the Universe,’ she said after a moment, ‘I’m just a simple freighter captain. Somebody tells me to pick something up over here and take it over there, I pick it up and I take it. It’s a fairly simple job, on the face of it.’
I tried to tune her out, concentrating on the correlations between various electromagnetic and gravimetric scans, which yielded yet more compelling evidence to support the dark hypothesis I was so desperately trying to disprove.
‘But it’s not quite so simple, of course. Nothing is,’ she said. ‘I’d lay good debits that your job’s about more than just digging up old bones and bits of pottery. I don’t know what those extra dimensions are for you, but for me one of the most important is to understand my crew. When they’re happy, tired, disgruntled. Worried.’
I finally looked at her. Her arms were at her sides, loose beside her bejewelled scimitar, but in one hand she held two tumblers and in the other a bottle of genuine Ye Olde Sweaty Thistle Earth Scotch whisky.
‘They are worried about me?’ I asked, perplexed. ‘I’m perfectly fine. I appreciate that…’
She marched into my study and perched herself on the edge of my desk before setting down the tumblers and unstopping the bottle. ‘You misunderstand,’ she said, sniffing the open mouth of the bottle and closing her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, they were fixed on mine. ‘They’re not worried for you, they’re worried about you. Never mixing with us, never leaving your ship, never even sending regular status reports to the ship’s net.’
‘They fear I intend to murder them in their sleep,’ I said.
She began pouring the whisky and the aroma was like the kiss of a lover of long standing. ‘The idea has been floated,’ she said, ‘my duty as captain is to sink it.’ She handed me one of the drinks. ‘Drink now, die later.’
I took the proffered glass and tapped its rim against hers. ‘Drink now, die later.’ I took a sip and laughed a small laugh. ‘Curious,’ I said, ‘how we put so much stock in such arbitrary, essentially meaningless traditions. They used to say “cheers” everywhere, even in space. Then Colony Jones supposedly says “drink now, die later” aboard her ship the night before the Latan were finally destroyed and suddenly that’s the thing to say, especially in space.’
She took a sip and leaned back against the wood-panelled bulkhead, making herself comfortable. ‘You got Latan to destroy, Prof?’
‘Captain,’ I said, ‘I assure you…’
She held up a finger and I waited for her to savour and swallow her latest sip. ‘I’m sure you do. But there’s something in your eyes. Thought I glimpsed it at Zoggy’s but wasn’t sure. It’s there now, though, plain as night.’
‘You’re imagining things, Captain.’ I put the tumbler down and returned to my work. She didn’t move save for recharging both our glasses.
‘The crew knows you’ve been out beyond the Edge.’
‘So have many people.’
‘And many people have been changed out there.’
She shrugged and took another sip. ‘You’re a man of science,’ she said, ‘if there’s a danger to my crew I have to… assess its probabilities.’
I laughed. ‘There is a danger,’ I said, ‘a very great danger, but it is not me.’
She put down her tumbler with deliberate slowness, her lips compressed with the pressure of concern. ‘See now, any mention of “very great danger” gets me…’ she groped for a word.
She snapped her fingers and pointed at my chest. ‘Bingo.’
‘Captain, have you ever heard of the Unsaahl?’ I said after a pause, taking up my drink and leaning back into my chair. Her brow furrowed and she shook her head.
‘They are part of an ancient myth cycle common in the outer reaches of the galaxy, all around the Rim as I believe. The myths begin with Aug, the Inferno, and Gau, the Screaming God.’
She nodded then. ‘Yeah, I heard the locals thereabouts talking about such things. They split apart, right? The Screaming God became the Splintered Gods and the Inferno became the stars?’
‘Yes, but there were others. Uru, goddess of Hope, and Ka-Yava, god of Despair, siblings tricked into mating by ancient Uga, daughter of Aug and Gau, goddess of Agony. The spawn of this foul union was the Unsaahl, a race of monsters.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘Monsters.’
I held out my tumbler for a refill and, after a moment’s thought, she obliged.
* * *
There came upon this infant galaxy the oldest of the Unsaahl, whose name is unknowable but whom The Splintered Gods named Mawglut, Devourer of worlds.
First Mawglut devoured Pell, beloved of Thune, God of the Mind. And Thune could not defeat Mawglut, for Mawglut is without thought or reason or dream. And Thune warned his Splintered Siblings but they laughed at him, berating his inability to protect a single world from a single monster, and calling into question his right to be called a god at all.
Next Mawglut devoured the paradise world of Oreegha, where Ekshaah-Ekshah, Goddess of Life, first encouraged biology to think. And Ekshaah-Ekshah could not defeat Mawglut, for Mawglut is not alive. And Ekshaah-Ekshah went before her Splintered Siblings with dire warnings of Mawglut’s power but again they laughed, though a with a little less certainty this time, and said that life was a puny thing anyway, fit only for entertainment and amusement to while away the eternities.
Third was Kood, where the Blessed Ä, God of Geometry, kept safe his sacred angles, but which Mawglut consumed angles and all. And the Blessed Ä could not defeat Mawglut, for Mawglut exists at right angles to the universe and all there is of him in this world is his shadow, and shadows have no fixed angles. And now the Splintered Gods took notice and were afraid, for could not the Blessed Ä fold entire stars into darkness with ease? The Blessed Ä could shape galaxies, how now so powerless against this monster?
The Splintered Gods then called for a champion to defeat the monster and it was agreed that, of them all, only Oio, Goddess of Time, was powerful enough to face Mawglut, for all things flee before her. So she set herself before Mawglut in the depths between the stars, stacking centuries in his path. And the more centuries she stacked before him, the harder Mawglut strove against them so that the years foamed over his skin like surf. And in ten centuries Mawglut advanced but an inch. After ten more, a foot. Ten more, a mile. And, in the last millennium, a light year, so that Oio began to weary even as Mawglut grew thinner and more ravenous. But Mawglut would not die, because he was not alive, and Mawglut would not give up, because monsters endure.
But Oio, being unhurried, was setting a trap. In the path of Mawglut, the Goddess of Matter was building a solar system filled with ten thousand planets of pure uranium, the monster’s food of choice. When Suln-Ya declared her solar system completed, Oio removed the centuries from before Mawglut, replacing them with scant seconds, until the ravening monster fell upon the planetary feast. There to remain, gorging contentedly, until the massive star at the centre of the trap collapses into a black hole and crushes Mawglut to oblivion.
Thus does Oio teach us the value of patience.
* * *
Captain Bambat poured us both another drink before letting me know that my story had provided her with a little less than zero confidence in her crew’s continued nocturnal safety. ‘I know a story about a Yallish monk who rescued a Murian parrotmonkey because he thought it was the reincarnation of Zebediah Scott. It’s hilarious. Really. There’s even a donkey in it. And an actress, sort of. Not really relevant though, is it?’
‘I saw it, Captain,’ I said softly. ‘The Mawglut.’
She said nothing.
‘Out there, wrapped around the remaining half of the last pure uranium planet orbiting a collapsing star. At least, I think I saw it. A part of it. Something like a tentacle made of boiling ice, too big to see. Black against space, glistening with starlight.’
‘It’s real?’ She put her drink down and leaned forward.
‘Yes. I believe so. Just being close to it almost destroyed my ship. But I recorded everything I could. The more I look at the data, the more I am certain that the Gods made a mistake.’
She laughed. ‘You question the Gods beyond the Edge? Know better, do you?’
I scowled and waved her amusement away. ‘Regardless of what it is or how it got there, the Mawglut is real. The data is real. The science is real. The numbers are real. You see, the Splintered Gods miscalculated. They expected the monster to begin feeding at the edge of the solar system, to work its way over the billions of years towards the collapsing star, sliding imperceptibly down its gravity well until escape was impossible. But the monster began feasting with the planets closer to the star, and as it collapsed so Mawglut kept ahead of the gravity well. Soon, he will finish devouring the last of Suln-Ya’s planets and escape even before the star collapses.’
I told her, giving my best guess based on the data, the number I intended to present to the University Council immediately upon my return. She nodded and shared the remainder of the bottle between us.
‘Something like that, a creature bigger than planets,’ she said, staring deep into her glass, ‘something like that must be worth…’ Her voice trailed off.
‘Captain, it is death. Calculating its worth is like trying to meter gravity. It simply is.’
She shrugged and drained her tumbler. When I found my own thirst quenched, she finished mine as well and then took both tumblers and the empty bottle into her hands and strode away. She paused at the door and looked back. ‘Phobos in nine days,’ she said.
‘Tell your crew they’re quite safe, Captain.’
‘Except from prehistoric planet-eating god monsters,’ she said.
‘Well,’ I said, attempting a smile, ‘one can never be safe from those, can one?’
* * *
The remainder of the trip passed without incident. The crew’s worry evidently never reached a boiling point and they stayed away, failing to storm my ship with blazing plasma torches. For my part, I remained aboard the S.S. Ess and refrained from assassinating them in their sleep.
At Phobos Docks, I powered up my ship and eased her clear of the mighty Mwindo’s cargo bay. On the dockside, being loaded into one of the huge freighter’s secondary cargo holds, were spools and spools of mole-line, thousands upon thousands of miles’ worth. Alongside the spools lay stack upon stack of various species of harpoon and containers holding railguns and other, less identifiable equipment.
‘Captain Bambat,’ I spoke softly into the comm. ‘I never properly appreciated the sheer size of your ship until now.’ No response. ‘It strikes me,’ I said, ‘that to be in control of such a behemoth must require a great deal of confidence. I hope,’ I paused, my mouth dry. ‘I hope those old legends of which we spoke have not tipped you into overconfidence.’
‘Just deliveries for the breachturtle farms at Voth,’ said Captain Bambat. ‘You think I’m mad enough to harpoon a planet killer and try to ride it like a distortion-horse?’
‘I think, Captain, that you will do anything for a good anecdote. Please take care.’
‘Drink now, die later, Prof.’
‘Drink now, die later, Captain.’
I engaged my ship’s distortion engines and she shuddered into distorted space, grazing along at around lightspeed for the half hour trip to Earth. That was the last I saw of the mighty Mwindo and her crew. Two weeks later she docked again at Dhar-Ah-Zhul Station, bound for distant Ath out beyond the fabled Edge, where the stars are lonesome and the planets fall by inches into shadow and frore, there to fade into the infinite.
And for two years I lamented the folly of Captain Bambat and her crew, believing them victims of their own hubris. But when I returned to study the Mawglut, it was not there. The star designed by the Splintered Gods to crush it was nothing more than a dark pinprick surrounded by a thin ring of uranium dust and of the monster there was no sign, either there or in surrounding systems.
Before I left, my scanners detected several hundred miles of tangled mole-line and a score of mangled harpoons orbiting just outside the event horizon. Although I can draw no solid conclusions from this data, I do wonder if, somehow, the patience of gods and the endurance of monsters were eclipsed both by the uncharted bravery of ambitious fools.