IN AN ULTERIOR LODGE huddled beside a nameless pass through the Barbarian Mountains on Outer Pell, waiting for a brutal spring blizzard to pass, I was dozing by the fire and half-dreaming of Emily when the outer door slid open and a figure all in ragged furs staggered inside, dragging an ill-tempered limb of the blizzard thrashing in with him. The other patrons, there were four, and the innkeeper scowled at the sudden intrusion but the door slid shut behind the figure immediately, amputating the blizzard’s thrashing claw so that it exploded into a puff of feeble, harmless snowflakes.
The figure removed his furs and hung them on the rack. His clothes were as distressed as his furs but still serviceable and warm. He seemed human, or thereabouts, slightly shorter than average but also more sturdy. His wild beard and wilder hair were a deep almost blood red and his eyes sparkled in the firelight. It is hard to guess a man’s age now that we can all live forever, but in those sparkling eyes I divined a youth belying the careworn cicatrice scored into his leathery, midnight blue face.
The innkeeper, a bipedal hairy mammal with a silicon shell and talons on his knees and elbows, bowed to the man and handed him a bowl of hot broth. I was intrigued, and more than a little peeved, to note that the innkeeper did not ask the ragged man for payment. Payment was the only topic upon which the innkeeper and I had touched, and then extensively so. Payment for broth. Payment for drink. Payment for a room. Payment for heating said room. Payment for hire of linens. Payment for sundries. Payment for parking my little explorer ship in the lee of a sheltered escarpment half a mile away. Payment for local taxes. Payment for Imperial taxes. Payment for the blizzard tax. Payment for hire of the comfortable armchair by the fire.
The other four patrons, sat in an easy group around a table near the counter sharing hot broth and red bread, were of the same taxon as the innkeeper but they too bowed their vaguely chiropteran heads respectfully as the ragged man walked past. He acknowledged their gesture with a small but warm smile and an all but imperceptible nod.
He settled into the armchair facing my own, on the other side of the fire, and took a deep sniff of the steaming broth as he swirled it around the bowl in his gloved hands. No, not gloved, bandaged. He opened his eyes and caught my gaze.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean to stare.’
He smiled and took up a spoon between his bandaged fingers. ‘Huruku will be gratified to learn you find his broth so fascinating,’ he said, before blowing on a spoonful of the stuff and sipping it daintily into his mouth.
I looked into the fire, not sure what to make of this ragged man, and its warmth on my skin and the constant, muted thunder of the blizzard outside lulled me once more into thoughts of home and of Emily’s vital embrace.
‘Mmm.’ The ragged man put down his bowl and wiped his lips with the back of his sleeve before producing a distinctly unsanitary handkerchief with which he finished the job, beard and all. ‘Best broth on the planet,’ he said. ‘Only,’ he leaned forward and beckoned me to do the same, which I did, ‘don’t tell old Huruku I said so, all right? I can’t have him taking it as a royal endorsement or anything, at least not under the current circumstance. In the future,’ he spread his bandaged hands, ‘who knows? Broth-maker to the King, perhaps. The Royal Brothier. But not now. Now is too dangerous. So…’ He tapped the side of his nose with a bandaged finger and winked but did not sit back in his armchair. Instead, his dark brown eyes stared into mine, awaiting an answer.
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I’m just passing through, don’t want any trouble.’
He nodded and settled back into his armchair, gazing at the fire. ‘You’d almost think it was real,’ he said at length, ‘not a hologram behind an emitter field.’
I managed to hide my surprise but not, I think, my disappointment. The fire looked and felt so real and, more than that, I had wanted it to be real. But of course it was artificial. It had to be. What kind of idiot sets a real fire inside a building in this day and age, even in as remote a place on as remote a planet as this? But now it was as if some intangible enchantment had been lifted and the lodge felt a little less cosy, a little more afraid of the ravening blizzard clawing at its walls.
‘I wish it was real,’ he said, ‘that would be more satisfying, somehow. Raw nature outside, trying to kill us, and raw nature inside, keeping us alive. Ice and fire, the eternal struggle between the inferno and the glacier, to burn or to freeze.’
‘Real or not, the fire is warm. On a day such as this, I’m content to tolerate the dissatisfaction.’
He nodded. ‘Wise words,’ he said. ‘This blizzard will take lives. They always do. Someone, somewhere, will be unprepared, or uneducated, or unlucky, and the blizzard will eat them.’
‘That’s a rather grim view, I think. Even the most basic of modern vehicles and emergency shelters can easily handle conditions like these.’
He nodded, still gazing into the dancing holographic flames. ‘Nevertheless, the blizzard will have its meal. It’s the law.’
My brow furrowed. ‘What law?’
He pushed his hand inside his shirt and slowly scratched his belly, luxuriating in this simple pleasure. ‘The law of the universe,’ he said.
He delivered this pronouncement with such quiet conviction, such inner certainty, that it was impossible not to be intrigued. Before I could question him further, however, the innkeeper’s wife padded up to the ragged man and set a brass bowl of warm water on the floor beside his armchair.
‘Now let’s get you sorted out, Your Majesty,’ she said in her people’s high, monotonous accent.
I raised an eyebrow at this royal address but the ragged man refused to catch my eye, focusing his attention on this furry, silicon-shelled, vaguely bat-faced angel of mercy. ‘Huruka,’ he said, his voice soft but clear, ‘you don’t have to do this. I’m quite all right, really.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Huruka, taking one of his bandaged hands gently in her dextrous paws, ‘who will ever visit here again if word gets out that I allowed the King of the Galaxy’s hands to rot away and drop off under my very own roof?’ She began unravelling the bandages, taking infinite care where they were glued down with dried blood. ‘Very bad publicity, that would be.’ She dropped the soiled bandage into a waste bag and then took a moment to touch her paw to his cheek and gaze into his eyes. ‘And very rude.’
She lifted the brass bowl onto his lap and lowered his ravaged and bloody hands into the steaming water. The ragged man first winced and then eased through the pain into something akin to contentment. Huruka let his hands soak for a moment before cleaning them with a mild, unscented soap and an oil-soft sponge.
When his hands were cleansed, she dried them with a sterile pad and, as she reached into the pocket of her apron for a dermal spray, I saw that the ragged man’s fingers, palms, and wrists were covered with fresh, deep cuts. The slightest movement caused blood to flow, which Huruka efficiently wiped away as she applied the spray to each cut in turn until they were all healed, leaving behind a pattern of bright white scars overlying countless others more faded.
‘There,’ said Huruka, holding the ragged man’s hands and leaning back to examine her handiwork. ‘Good as new, Your Majesty.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, for I could hold my tongue no longer, ‘but I must know, why do you address him so? As if he is a king?’
‘Because he is a king,’ she said. ‘He’s the King of the Galaxy.’
The ragged man frowned. ‘Well, that’s not exactly true,’ he said, ‘as Huruka well knows.’
‘I did think it somewhat unlikely,’ I said.
‘I used to be King of the Galaxy, for a very short time,’ the ragged man said, ‘thirty seven minutes and twelve seconds, to be precise, but I’m not the king any more. Not at the moment, anyway.’
His name, this ragged man, this King of the Galaxy, was Hosef, and no more would he add, though Huruka expanded with pride, ‘King Hosef, the First and Only Monarch of the Entire Milky Way Galaxy.’
Hosef himself shied away from the title, at first I assumed through humility but soon I realised it was through fear. I begged him to tell me the story but it was Huruka who began it when Hosef returned his gaze to the fire.
‘Out here,’ she said, ‘the Old Gods still walk abroad, away from the confusing clamour of biology, out in the peaceful dark beyond the fringes of the galaxy where they can perform their godly works unencumbered. But once, when the galaxy was young and pure, it belonged to the Splintered Gods and the Primal Gods alone and they found much joy in its beauty and in its sanctity.
‘They played amongst the stars and planets. The Blessed Ä, God of Geometry, made boundaries and constellations, folding and bending stars into complex geometric patterns pleasing to the eyes of gods. Fa-R’mni, the God of Gravity, began his lifelong rivalry with the Blessed Ä there when he crushed the geometry of a star to nothing and ripped a hole in the universe, releasing Uvu, the Fractal God, into the world. And Ekshaah-Ekshah, the Goddess of Life, began her experiments there. She taught biology to think and at first the Splintered Gods were enamoured of mortals.
‘But soon the life was everywhere, spreading on its own, even evolving on its own as if the galaxy itself learned to make life on its own by watching Ekshaah-Ekshah. Worst for the gods was the incessant chatter of uncountable biological minds, an infinity of perspectives forever plucking at the fringes of the Splintered Gods’ daydreams, threatening to hypnotise them into ruin. And so they left the noisy galaxy behind and settled in the dark, quiet gulfs beyond the Edge.
‘They never stopped looking back, though, towards the Milky Way, towards reclaiming it for themselves. None searched harder for a solution than the Splintered Goddess Ekshaah-Ekshah, who was responsible for imbuing biology with life and filling the Milky Way with clamour and noise. She would not eradicate the cacophony, though, and refused to take back the gift of life from throughout the galaxy as many of the Splintered Gods demanded. She thought, then, that if the cacophony could not be silenced, perhaps it could be organised and transformed into a symphony pleasing to the Gods’ ears. To do this, Ekshaah-Ekshah decided that the galaxy needed a king, a being of infinite wisdom, humility, honour, and…’
‘Stop,’ said Hosef, still gazing into the fire. ‘I wasn’t chosen,’ he said. ‘I was foolish. Foolish and about to die. Adrift in a dead starhopper somewhere inside the Yawden Void. Ekshaah-Ekshah did not choose me, I just happened to drift past her on my way to the grave.’
Huruka sniffed and began to gather up her things. ‘The ways of the Splintered Ones are not our ways, their paths are not for our paws, their meat is not for our jaws. She chose you, Hosef, and brought you to her, out there in the dark nothingness with not another soul for light centuries in any direction. She chose you, from an entire galaxy of people.’ She tossed the soiled bandages into the brass bowl and picked it up. ‘Coffee?’
We both nodded and Huruka padded away, her paws silent against the deep carpet.
‘Why were you in the Yawden Void, if I may ask?’
He shifted in his armchair and frowned, as if he couldn’t quite remember. ‘Knowledge,’ he said. ‘Exploration.’
‘But there’s nothing that far out,’ I said, ‘no stars, no planets, nothing. What were you looking for?’
‘Detritus,’ he said, ‘intergalactic wreckage. Flotsam and jetsam cast out of galaxies throughout time. The cinders of ancient stars, perhaps from the very first galaxies, long since spent and dead, their cores as cold as their crusts, stars as close to maximum entropy as it’s possible for stars to get before they turn to dust and blow away. And with them, perhaps, planets from the most profound depths of abyssal time and, upon those planets…’
‘Yes,’ I said, my mind playing with the possibilities. ‘Scooped up by our galaxy’s gravity as it moves through the cosmos, like accumulating dust – but, yes, such precious dust indeed.’
Hosef smiled and looked at his boots. ‘I thought you would appreciate that, 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. Or do you prefer to be called Ess?’
My jaw fell so fast I feared I might knock out all my own teeth on the floor. ‘How did you…?’
He chuckled and looked back into the fire, absently rubbing the palms of his hands together. ‘I was King of the Galaxy, remember? For over half an hour. I know everything about everybody.’
The innkeeper, Huruku, padded towards us with two mugs of steaming hot coffee. ‘Your Majesty,’ he said, handing the largest and cleanest of the mugs to Hosef with a bow. ‘Ten debits,’ he said to me, slapping my mug down onto a disreputable table beside my armchair. ‘I’ll add it.’ He bowed again to Hosef and padded away back to the counter, where Huruka was softly singing as she polished the counter-top to fill an idle moment.
We sat in silence, blowing on our coffee until it was cool enough to sip. The holographic fire danced and crackled, the emitter field before it threw out a pleasant heat, and the blizzard redoubled its efforts to scour the lodge off the mountain as the suns went down and the winds got up.
‘I looked for months,’ said Hosef, ‘and found nothing. A few grains of dust, incredibly old, a few shards of gravel. Tantalising. I should have settled for that meagre teaspoon of dust, taken it back for study, but I wanted more. I wanted a dead, extragalactic star. And so I kept searching even as my rations, and my fuel supply, began to run dangerously low.
‘Finally, a million light years from the nearest star and in the deepest midnight I have ever known, I found it. Hosef’s World. A planet ejected from its parent galaxy before even our own galaxy was formed. A fossil, preserved all alone in intergalactic space for time beyond reckoning before falling under the influence of the Milky Way, clinging to its gravity well like dust to a balloon.
‘Before it died, Hosef’s World was a modest gas giant, around the size of Jupiter. Now it is nothing but spent ash. Every chemical or physical reaction that can take place within it has already taken place within it. The core of the planet is the same temperature as the surrounding universe. It is a planet where entropy reigns supreme.
‘And, foolishly, I attempted to land upon it. The surface of the planet was completely smooth, like a billiard ball, and completely dark. There was so little energy in the surface that my sensors couldn’t get an accurate reading and, before I knew it, I was inside the planet. The surface layer of dust was so thin and inert that my ship passed through it as easily as mist, but that ancient, entropy-riddled dust got sucked into my engines and vents, clogged my systems. My ship began to wear out before my very eyes, as if the entropy-laden dust was sucking the vitality out of everything it touched.
‘I barely escaped, but doing so was no boon. My ship, purchased from new three years earlier, was now the equivalent of a fifty year old wreck. The engines died first, then the life support systems, then everything else. On the second day, when the lights went out, I could see my dark world, a shadow against shadows, as my ship limped slowly away from it. Picked out in the sparse, faint starlight, ripples were spreading all over the planet. My accident had introduced a pinprick of energy into that giant, inert planet, but in a virtually zero-energy environment that pinprick was like being hit by a moon. The ripples lasted for two more days and spread around the whole planet, creating complex, ever shifting, ever diminishing patterns in the dust until it returned to a perfectly smooth equilibrium. With nothing better to do, I made notes and christened it the Hosef Effect.
‘And then I settled down to die, hopeless of my remains ever being recovered. Another lost and unremembered mote adrift in the cosmos. And then, she found me.’
‘Ekshaah-Ekshah,’ I said, setting down the empty coffee mug, ‘Goddess of Life, one of the Splintered Gods?’
He nodded, his fingers folded around his still full mug. ‘I naturally thought it was hypoxia. Hypothermia. Hysteria. One of the hypes, anyway, most likely a melange. But it was her.’
Here, his story faltered as he tried to explain his meeting with the Goddess and found his words wholly inadequate. Clearly, the experience remained burned into him but he was attempting to convey the perspective of an eagle to an earthworm. All that he knew was what he had seen, which he could not describe, and all that he did sprang from what he had learned, which he could not explain.
‘She made me a crown,’ he said, and here his face darkened and he looked at one of his hands again, examining the fresh scars. He took a swig of coffee and, disappointed that it had gone cold, set the mug aside. ‘Once she placed it upon my head, every biological mind in the galaxy flowed through my own. I saw everything everyone saw, heard everything everyone heard, felt everything, knew everything. It was… It was… It was, I suppose, infinitely singular.
‘She wanted me to take control of it all, to become the galaxy’s great conductor, to transform the cacophony into a waltz so that the Gods might dance again. And in this cause I believed until Ekshaah-Ekshah placed that crown upon my head, for as soon as she did I heard no cacophony but a symphony, beautiful and tragic, filled with swooping pain and soaring hope. And I could not do it, I could not still the song of life.
‘And so I betrayed the Goddess, ripped her crown from my head, and she was terrible in her anger, like teeth in the night clawing at my soul and smothering vines choking my heart, but I escaped. I flung the crown before me and fled to this world.’
‘Why this world?’
‘Because this is where I hid the crown, somewhere in these mountains. I’ll know where when I see it. I remember only that I must dig for it, turn these mountains upside down if I have to. And then, once I have the crown, I can use the power of all the minds in the galaxy to destroy Ekshaah-Ekshah and all her Splintered kind for once and for ever, as the Unhinged Prophets of Extor foretold. Then shall mortals truly know peace under my benevolent rule. Even Satan Alexander, Emperor of the Pax Galactica, will bend to me, and every person, and every animal. Not the smallest bird shall live and die without my knowing, nor the highest king of kings. They shall all be me, and I they, and we one, and the Gods will be dead, so I will help the Twelve Galaxies kill their gods as well, bring to them my perfect harmony.’
He sighed and looked at me, his eyes glittering in the holographic firelight. ‘Do you think I’m mad?’
‘I hope you are,’ I said.
He laughed and nodded with no small measure of enthusiasm. ‘That would most certainly be the best explanation all around. Occam would love it.’ He sighed then, unseen dark weights settling upon his weary shoulders. ‘But then, Occam was never plucked out of spacetime and engulfed by a god, so I suppose it’s moot.’
‘I suppose it is,’ was all I could think to say.
‘Well,’ Hosef slapped the arms of the chair with his palms, exciting thin billows of dust, ‘I reckon this lot’s going to blow itself out by morning,’ he nodded towards the domed roof of the lodge. ‘Got to keep looking, keep digging. I need my rest,’ he said, standing out of the armchair without a grunt or a groan. He extended his hand and I stood to take it firmly in mine.
‘Good luck, Your Majesty,’ I said.
‘A pleasure, Ess. It’s always good to meet someone I’ve already been, everyone in this galaxy feels like an old friend. If I can thank her for nothing else, then I can thank her for that. Goodnight, old friend.’
And with that, he took his leave and retired to his room for the night.
I awoke to silence and saw through the window a flawless green sky and endless drifts of virgin snow basking in clear morning sunslight. As Hosef predicted, the blizzard was no more and he was gone, departing before the suns came up to resume his search. And with this break in the weather I was able to resume my search also, an aerial cataloguing of the prehistoric temples of this remote world, about which little is known. I cleared the little lodge sleeping cubicle of my few possessions and packed them away into my bag, free now to return to the S.S. Ess and move on.
As I moved through the lodge to leave, Huruka barred my way. ‘Don’t go out without breakfast,’ she said.
‘My ship is half a mile away,’ I said, ‘and I have plenty of supplies aboard. Really, there’s no need to put yourself out.’
‘It’s no bother,’ she said, ‘and I insist. The weather up here can change in an instant and that half a mile might take you a lifetime. With a good breakfast in you, maybe half a lifetime.’ She wrested my bag from my grasp with surprising ease, presumably employing some little-known form of hostellers’ martial art, and directed me to a slightly too tall stool at the main counter.
‘Eggs, bacon, that kind of thing?’ Huruka asked, grasping for pans and turning on the stove.
I shrugged. ‘Sure. Sounds good.’
‘You know,’ she said as she flitted about, retrieving bacon and sausages from the fridge and dropping them into an angry snake of a frying pan, ‘you shouldn’t worry about Hosef’s stories. There is no crown through which he can destroy the gods and take control of the galaxy.’
I helped myself to a mug of coffee from the pot and said nothing. Such a crown could not possibly exist and, even if it did, there’s no way one mind can control all the minds throughout an entire galaxy.
‘Twenty five debits for a cooked breakfast,’ Huruku called from the pantry. Huruka ignored him and gestured for me to do the same. ‘I’ll add it,’ Huruku promised after a long moment.
‘I know there’s no crown to be found because Huruku already found it.’ She placed the breakfast in front of me and searched my eyes with hers. ‘Hosef… Hosef fell from the sky ten years ago, the crown right beside him. We were going to give it to him once he regained consciousness but… his ambitions for conquest…’ She lowered her head. ‘We decided to destroy it.’
‘Wait – this was a real thing? A piece of technology from a higher plane?’
She shook her head. ‘Can’t say what it was, really, or how it was made. It was hard to destroy, though. It took Huruku and me three days with a plasma torch, working around the clock in shifts, to disintegrate the thing. But we did it. There’s nothing left of it but atoms.’
‘Why haven’t you told him? He’s out there right now, cutting his hands to ribbons. Doesn’t that…’
‘We have told him,’ she said, a sliver of irritation jabbing into her voice, ‘many times. He refuses to believe us, saying that which the gods create cannot by people be broken. So he continues. Digging and searching and spilling his blood on these senseless rocks.
‘And every day he searches, and every day I tend to his hands, and feed him, and give him a bed, and bow to him.’
The breakfast was good but not holding my attention. ‘Why, though? As far as I can see, he doesn’t contribute anything to this place.’
She snorted. ‘How many kings have there been in this galaxy throughout the ages, and how much mayhem and murder have they wrought? How many have suffered beneath their heels? Died at their capricious whims?
‘Hosef was King of the Galaxy for almost forty minutes. He was every one of us, every person, every animal, and every one of us was him. He could have done anything with that power, literally anything, yet he cast it away to save us all. He took ultimate power over every aware creature in the palm of his hand, and held it there, and did not kill a single thing. Think of that. The most powerful king in the history of kings, next only to a god, and not one decree did he issue, not one subject execute, not one friend elevate. He cast it all away.
‘For this,’ she said, ‘and only for this, I wash the blood from his fingers and hold him as my King, from now until whatever grave awaits.’