Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Goblin Gate

The Goblin Gate 

Let me tell you a story.

It is a story with a beginning that has been lost to the mists of time; it is a story of a long desired and dreamed of vengeance; it is the story of a world that was finally reclaimed.  And we join it near to its end…

 *      *     * 

“You claim to have found a way to unseal the Great Gate,” said the warlock, his yellow eyes glittering in the candlelight, “A puzzle that my brethren have battled against for many centuries. You will forgive me if I appear sceptical.”

“I understand, of course,” said Urk-Meth, the Goblin Prince, supplicating himself at the feet of the Crimson Throne. “We are, of course, but humble Goblins; we know that we are not fit to kiss the feet of those such as you. However, you must know that we Goblins have our own special magicks, and we have delved deep into those magicks to find you an answer, to the find the answer most wanted by your Majesty.”

The huge troll standing at the Warlock’s side snorted derisively, his chainmail jangling, and hefted his battle hammer. “Shall I throw this little snot out?”

“Wait, Grax” said the Warlock, holding up a bony white hand. “We will hear him out. “

“Thank you, your Majesty,” said Urk-Meth, bowing even lower, “The depths of your generosity and wisdom and are not in any way exaggerated.”

“My patience is limited,” said the Warlock, “you will explain. If I am satisfied with your explanation, you will be rewarded. If I am unsatisfied…” he let the words trail off.

“Your Majesty, when the Great Gate was sealed and the World of Man was lost to us, it was said that no force could shatter the lock.”

“I am aware of the prophecies,” said the Warlock, “and I am aware of the efforts we have made to prove them false. We have rained all manner of magicks down upon the lock in the last Age; every Warlock and Witch that has lived has tested their strength against that of the Great Gate and they have all been found wanting.”

“Your Majesty, we are Goblins. We are not creatures of strength, which is why we are the lowest of the low and why it is such an honour to be the first Goblin Prince to be allowed an audience with his Majesty in the last two centuries.” Grax laughed uproariously when Urk-Meth referred to himself as a Prince, but he ignored him and continued. “But what we are is creatures of stealth, creatures of cunning. “

“Creatures that crawl in the dirt.” spat Grax.

“Yes,” nodded Urk-Merth, “We are creatures of the dirt but it is in our cunning that we have learned how to unseal the Great Gate; for the prophecy is true – no force may shatter the lock. But we have not shattered it. We have picked it.”

“Go on,” said the Warlock, sitting forward in his seat.

“It took the blood and the lifeforce of a thousand Goblins, but we have fashioned a skeleton key that I can use to open the Great Gate and give you entry again to the World of Man.”

“How can you be so sure?” asked the Warlock, his eyes narrowing.

“Because I have been there,” said Urk-Meth, standing for the first time. “I have walked among the forests of Man and I have watched and I have learned.”

“He lies,” spat Grax, “He is a filthy lying Goblin.”

“I promise you, your Majesty, I am not lying.” said Urk-Meth and dug into the pocket of his jacket, bringing out a white rose. “And I bring you a gift from the World of Man.”

The Warlock took it, turning it in his fingers so that the petals were illuminated by the soft light of the candles. It had been more than an Age since a flower had been seen in this world, more than an Age since the beauty of nature had been gazed upon. The Warlock closed his fist tight upon the rose, crushing the petals in the palm of his hand before letting them fall to the floor.

“The time is finally here,” he said, sharp teeth exposed by his smile, “The day we have waited for ever since we were cast out; the day when we can finally exact our revenge upon all of Mankind. Summon the armies!”

 *      *     * 

It took three days and three nights for the Army of Darkness to be fully drawn together; a legion of evil the likes of which had not been seen by the World of Man for more than a thousand years. At the front line were the Trolls; ten feet tall , decked out in plate armour and armed with battle hammers, axes and pikes; they snarled and roared as they waited for the Great Gate to open. Behind them were the Skinshifters and Wraiths, obsidian blades at the ready, while behind them were the Centaurs and the Satyrs, the Vampires and the Witches. Overhead, Fire Wyrms swooped back and forth above the massed ranks, their howls and screeches filling the air as they unfurled their wings and bared their sharp talons. And at the back of the many thousands, borne on the back of a nightmare black as midnight itself, was the Warlock dressed in his finest battle armour.

Urk-Meth stood at the very front of the great Army, the clamouring hordes to his back, and drew a complicated spiral on the ground at his feet. Then he took a glass vial and poured its contents into the dirt. Black Goblin blood swirled around the spiral and the ground beneath his feet began to shake. In front of him, a huge portal with shimmering edges began to open to reveal a yellowed landscape beyond.

“Today,” shouted the Warlock, his voice so loud that all could hear it. “We take back what was once ours. Today we will fall upon the World of Man like a plague and we will ravage it until we have slaughtered all who dare stand before us. This a world that has forgotten magick, that has forgotten the darkness; this is a world that is ripe for the taking. Prepare yourselves for glory!

Urk-Meth darted to one side, dodging the trampling feet of thousands of Trolls as they poured through the portal, ready to taste the blood of Man for the first time in an Age…

 *      *     * 

The hordes of Trolls were the first to emerge from the Portal, charging out onto the hot sands with Grax at their head they immediately spotted a group of men in beige clothes in the distance. Blood hot with the thrill of battle, they roared their battle cries and began their charge towards the men while, behind them, the Army of Darkness continued to pour forth from the portal in a seemingly endless stream and the first of the Fire Wyrms swooped menacingly through into the air of a new world.

The first line of Trolls made it no more than fifty yards before they were scythed down by some kind of invisible magic but the momentum of the forces behind them was too great and the Army continued to surge forwards, trampling over their twitching corpses as they did so. And so, it was only when a series of huge fireballs erupted within the midst of their ranks that their battle frenzy finally began to desert them. When the first of the Fyre Wyrms, eviscerated and bloody, tumbled from the sky and crushed more than a hundred Wraiths and Skinshifters below it, that frenzy was replaced by confusion. Hasty defensive magicks cast by the Witches in their ranks did little to halt the slaughter as death and destruction continued to rain down mercilessly upon the Army of Darkness.

The Warlock, last through the portal astride his great black steed, looked out across the flaming death that was being wrought upon his troops, watched as great steel birds swooped across the width of his Army and cut through Trolls and Satyrs, Vampires and Centaurs, as if they were nothing. And he realised in that moment that the world of Man they had come to conquer was not the world of Man that they had been banished from.  There was to be no victory for him today; his Army was being utterly obliterated.

He pulled on the reins of his nightmare and wheeled about, realising that all that was left for him now was to save his life and turn and flee back to his own world. But, even as he did so, he saw that the portal was rapidly closing behind him and the last thing he saw of his world was the Goblin Prince grinning at him before the Warlock was left to face the wrath of Man.

 *      *     * 

Records show that the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit were on a routine deployment in the Persian Gulf when the Anomaly Event occurred less than ten miles from their position. A forward patrol unit of two Humvees first encountered the Anomaly Forces and, briefly engaged them, before radioing for artillery and air support.

A combination of air strikes by Harrier AV-8B jets, ably supported by a contingent of A-10 Warthog close air support craft, served to stem the movement of the Anomaly Forces and a sweeping up operation conducted using M777 howitzers and M82 mortars ensured that the Anomaly Forces were reduced to less than 5% of their original strength. The surviving members of the Anomaly Forces were captured by marine forces backed by LAV-25 armoured vehicles and are now being interrogated as enemy combatants in a number of facilities around the world.

Scientists continue to try to understand the Anomaly Event but, thus far, have been unable to establish a cause.

 *      *     * 

And that, you see, is the end of the story. The story of how the Goblin people, who had been so sorely oppressed and who had suffered so much, managed to finally exact their revenge upon those who treated them as nothing. The story of how a world was reclaimed.

I knew that the Warlock would never have given a second thought to the fact that the world of Man might have moved on. I knew that he would never guess that I, Urk-Meth – a mere Goblin Prince – would harbour dreams of betraying him utterly and sending him into a battle that he could never hope to win. He underestimated the world of Man and he sorely underestimated me.

And now, I think I’ll go back to tending my new rose garden. It really is lovely.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

First Contact

First Contact

I remember seeing the data that came in when the Outer Relay first picked up the asteroid; the telemetry indicated that it was moving fast, far faster than any of our models had predicted possible, but that it was heading on a trajectory that ensured it posed no danger to us.  I found it a curiosity, certainly, but it was a mystery to be solved another day when we had more time; there seemed more pressing concerns, things higher on my to-do list. And then we lost contact with the Outer Relay.

Did I have an inkling that something was wrong at that moment? I don’t think so. We’d had brief dips in communication for various reasons before and there was no cause to think that this wasn’t just another temporary transmission loss. We ran through the standard recovery protocols mechanically, knowing that if we hadn’t managed to receive anything in three days then we’d run the remote reboot as a last option. And then, thirty hours after the Outer Relay went dark, the Inner Relay started chattering.

It was the same asteroid but it was now moving slower. No, let’s face it, we knew as soon as we looked at the data that was coming in; it wasn’t moving slower, it was conducting braking manoeuvres and it was altering its trajectory.  I can still remember the wave of excitement that swept through the room as the realisation of what this was dawned on us. Here we were, the first seventeen people in the world to realise that we were heading towards the very serious possibility of first alien contact.  There were lots of smiles and back-clapping, lots of laughter.  Optimism was the key word, I suppose.  At least, it was then. We lost contact with the Inner Relay a few minutes later but, by that point, that was the least of our concerns.

My next few days passed in a whirlwind of briefings and meetings that saw me jetted to every corner of the globe and which are now little more than a blur in my memory; I stood in a variety of different rooms around the world, in front of fellow scientists, in front of officials, in front of the World Council itself. The data was still coming in thick and fast; the object was the size of a mountain and would arrive in our orbit within the week. There was debate about how, and even if, the general populace should be told. I listened to all manner of psychologists give their perspectives; some argued that it would it trigger panic, some argued that the media had already prepared the public consciousness for this day. In the end, the debate turned out to be irrelevant when some amateur astronomer tracked it and publicised the film in the media. From that point on, it was just damage control.

I guess both sets of psychologists were right. There were some places where panic did set in, where people became scared of what this meant and lost sight of all reason. I remember seeing the lootings and the rioting on my screen the day before it arrived and feeling oddly responsible, as if my discovery of the object somehow made this all my fault. But the majority accepted the news with a kind of calm but keen anticipation. We’d struggled with the question of whether we were alone in this Universe for so very long and now, we were about to have our questions answered.

The world paused, the collective holding of breath as the hour approached. Some people held vigils. Some people held parties. Some people prayed. In that moment, a whole world stopped whatever it was doing and looked up. Crime rates fell to zero. Armed conflicts around the world simply ground to a halt. We were all focused on the heavens. Nothing else seemed important. We all wanted to be able to say where we were on the day that we first made contact with an alien species. There was no partying for me; I was still attached as an advisor to the World Council and we watched the arrival from the depths of a bunker deep beneath a mountain. Military advisors had deemed it necessary until the intentions of the visitors became clearer.

And then it arrived.

I guess, after the sudden and explosive build up, it was somewhat anticlimactic. It didn’t part the clouds and hover above the top of one of our capital cities as perhaps we’d come to expect alien visitors would, in fact it didn’t part the clouds at all. It took up orbit at a height just beyond the clusters of our space stations and then did precisely nothing. No response to the welcome message we were blasting out on every frequency. No communication at all. In fact, there was no indication of life whatsoever. It just sat there in orbit, vastly bigger than anything we had ever put into space, and looked down on us. The hours ticked away, became days. Became weeks.  And nothing.

The media exploded in all manner of theories. Experts from every walk of life were wheeled out to explain why an alien spacecraft would resolutely fail to have any contact with us at all. But, like any story, it couldn’t stay at the top of the headlines forever and, as the weeks became months, people gradually began to accept the object as an addition to our skies but stopped looking up. Like a firework that had failed to go off, it held their attention for a while but then they got bored of waiting. People began to get on with their lives. Crime rates returned to normal. The conflicts, stalled but not forgotten, gradually stirred back into life.

And us, the scientists? Well, we banged our heads against a collective brick wall; the object proved to be impervious to any of our attempts to scan it and we lost contact with any craft that we attempted to move within a range of less than ten times the object’s circumference.  It was an enigma.

But, six months and three days after it arrived in our orbit, something happened.  The satellites we had positioned beyond its influence filmed as the object slowly began to open up like a set of gigantic petals and a smaller object detached itself from the centre of the mass and took up a course that would allow it to enter the atmosphere.

The world exploded with excitement again as the smaller object arced across the sky and I was part of a team that was hastily assembled and rushed to a remote island in the middle of the ocean, the location that the craft was projected to land. I clearly remember holding hands with one of my colleagues as it blazed into view; a black triangle that descended so abruptly that its movement seemed at odds with the laws of physics, or at least the ways that we understood them.  It landed, softly, on the white sands no more than a stone’s throw from where we stood.

There were to be no camera crews and no reporters to capture this moment. Instead, first contact would be made by a delegation of scientists and World Council officials who were surrounded by a cordon of very nervous looking soldiers.  A door formed on the previously featureless metal of the triangle and then slowly opened.

I held my breath, heart pounding in my chest, as I watched a spindly metal figure step out of the triangle and onto the sands. It moved with a seamless grace, taking large steps across the sand that left no footprints. Finally, when it stood no more than ten paces from us, it stopped and tilted its head. Where one might have expected there to be a face, there were instead three bulbous spheres and these rotated as it took in the scene before it.

“Welcome,” said the leader of the World Council, stepping forward and bowing. “I am here as the representative of this world. May I bid you welcome.”

The being stood in silence, head tilted, for a moment longer. Finally it spoke.

“We are Kandor,” it said in a voice that I learned later all of us – no matter which language we spoke – could understand. “And we are the Judgement Due.”

I remember there was a ripple of murmuring as it said this, all of us wondering if this was a problem in translation. But when the being next spoke, all ambiguity disappeared.

“We have spent time watching you. Evaluating you.  We are the Judgement Due and you have been found wanting.  You are weak and you are flawed. You are a danger to yourselves and, should you ever leave this world, you would be a danger to all you come into contact with.”

There was a hushed silence.

“We have seen you. Seen how you care so much for your beliefs that you are often prepared to kill those who do not conform to your belief system. Seen how you are even willing to kill purely for material gain. You are greedy. You are limited. You are corrupt. You have been Judged, you have been found wanting and we are the Judgement Due.”

“What do you mean?” asked one soldier who was standing off to my right, breaking the silence. “What do you mean we have been judged?”

The being rotated its head as if to consider him.

“Your species has been deemed a threat. We are the Judgement Due. We will remove that threat.”

“Wait a minute,” I remember spluttering, and stepped indignantly forward, seeing myself reflected in its huge spherical eyes as I spoke, “what are you saying? That you’ve come here to destroy us?”

“You have five rotations of your planet,” it said, its voice entirely absent of emotion, “and then you will be erased.”

And with that, it turned and walked back to the triangle. I remember some of the soldiers losing it at that moment, shouting and firing their weapons at it, but it ignored them and stepped back into the craft which then ascended vertically so fast that it was lost to our sight in seconds.

Five days. That’s all we had.

The first day was filled with talking and with pleading. We bombarded the object with messages that begged for discussion and it ignored us. The second day was filled with all manner of military types setting out theories and tactics on how we could attack the object; the general consensus seemed to be that we needed to launch every nuclear device we had and then cross our fingers. And so on the third day we did just that, only for the wave upon wave of missiles to finally end and for the object to still be sat their unmoved by everything that we could throw at it.

The fourth day we panicked and the world went mad. Chaos erupted, but with all our satellites long since fried by the sustained nuclear attack of the day before, there was no way for anyone to know what was going on. We fragmented. We reverted to a world before global communication. We reverted to being scared and angry.

And now the fifth day is here and I am standing on a beach and staring out to where the sea meets the horizon, I am staring out at a lancing sheet of ruby light that has appeared in the distance and which is sweeping its way across the water towards me. I am staring at the end of us. I close my eyes and wonder what comes next.

                      *                                       *                                    *

The black triangle descended onto one of the largest land masses and two metal figures stepped out into a field of grass.

“It is done,” said the first. “The population has been entirely eradicated. Phase one is complete. I will commence phase two and begin nano-dissembling of all of their structures.”

“Good,” said the second, its gaze sweeping across the burning cities and plumes of smoke in the distance. By the time that this planet had made ten rotations of its star, there would no longer be a single trace of the race that they had purged. Every single structure, every single artefact, every single corpse, would have been broken down on a sub-atomic level and reconstituted.

“What next for this world?” asked the first.

“Our best models predict that those creatures will evolve to become the dominant species in a few million years,” said the second, pointing to where a monkey scurried nervously away into the trees. “They promise to be a considerably different species to those that we have had to erase today.”

“Let us hope that they evolve on a better path than their predecessors.”

“Agreed,” said the second. “After all, we will return here when they are ready to be judged…”