Sunday, December 27, 2015

Memory of Starlight: Marooned

(For longer stories being ported over to the condensed blog, I've edited them together whenever they're complete. -D)


621 AS

The sand was blindingly white, the water was a brilliant shade of turquoise, and the sky was an inky dark blue.  Though the distant sun was up, the stars were out and watching him, the surf and sand casting back the sun and star light back.  The castaway thought this world strange, with its reversed shadows and vast azure oceans dotted with low islands.  Vegetation huddled and bunched together on the landlets like survivors on a raft at sea, the tall palms and low brush providing cool relief from the omnipresent glare of the planet.

Light rippled around him as he hauled the chartreuse and black striped shark-like thing from the water's edge to his camp, spear still embedded in the head of the many finned beast.  His body ached from the hunt and he was anxious to carve the thing up and roast it.  Food was the first priority here, since the water was drinkable.  At least, that's what the kit in the escape pod told him about the water.  And that the plants were edible, and the animals should be edible too.

No, what the castaway worried about was if anyone would come looking for him on this out of the way planet.  He was fairly certain none of the other crew had survived the crash.  Not after what happened.  The castaway checked his knife for sharpness, and took the whetstone to it, the sharkreuse's skin being tough and sandpapery to cut through.  The dressing of the carcass was routine after two weeks here, putting him in a contemplative trance.  His light aegis armor sat nearby, keeping a silent vigil over the camp and the ruins of the egg-like escape pod.  Some distance away were the graves of the other two survivors who had died, the solemnly folded and placed pressure suits becoming memorials.

He really should be dead, he thought.  He was an Imperial Marine, and was supposed to die defending the crew from enemies.  But, how does one defend against something like that?  It had been like madness walking through the ship; a riot of shapes, noises and colors.  There was that face too, that mask permanently grinning in a hideous parody of a person...

---

The emergency lights came on and the alarms sounded on the swift dolphin-shaped voidship.  The prisoner had escaped and had somehow killed the summoner who had bound him.  Death stalked the corridors, wearing a crimson-stained mask of porcelain with a mirthful expression frozen in place.  Reality went crazy around it as it hunted, barrages of impossible sensory noise confusing victims before the light of life dimmed in their eyes, their vital spark consumed by the terrifying thing that had gotten loose.

There were screams too, until the laughing man had decided that screams were boring.  The alarms were replaced by howling shrieks of wind as the ship vented atmosphere. The marines on board attempted to combat it with their lightning spears and white-hot diamond blades, the din of thunder felt through the feet and armor of the defenders. But without the summoner's magic to bind and contain the outsider's own magical power, arcs of searing lightning splashed off it like water and the luminescent swords stuck fast in the fabricated mass of the outsider.

In the end, three made it to the escape pod.  They didn't need the now absent air to hear the ringing echo of laughter as the outsider approached, a vision of blood stains and primordial fears of the dark rolling off of the unreal being.  It moved forward, crossing the gap between it and the escape pod hatch in the flickers of darkness from the failing emergency lights.

Though the marine had closed the hatch and it was being frantically sealed, the laughing man's hooded mask pressed against it, the black pits of its eyes flicking back and forth as it considered.  The outsider tasted the fear of the three people inside the pod, and laughed.  The pod lurched, and pulled away from the emptied ship, carrying four passengers.

The squeal of metal grated suddenly on the senses of the lone marine and two crew members.  It was slow going, peeling open the hatch, but the laughing man had time; the people inside didn't.  Moments later, the hatch burst open, stunning the masked outsider.  The glow of the planet below was looming, growing closer as the marine and outsider fought, armored fist grappling against the hideous strength.  The crew didn't stand idly by; they were holding on to the marine for dear life, trying to keep him from being pulled out of the escape pod by the creature.

Sound returned as the pod descended into the atmosphere and the world began to become a midnight blue.  Wind whipped and buffeted the craft and its four passengers, tearing the marine from the crew's hands as it shuddered and rolled.  They tumbled, crashing into each other and the interior before the craft auto-corrected its vicious roll.  They were stunned as an armor-clad arm gripped the edge of the hatchway, and they crawled over to help the marine back in.  Of the outsider, there was no sign, and they counted their blessings just as the ship crashed through the treetops and underbrush, skidding and tumbling through the wet sandy earth.

---

When they were in basic training, the castaway and his fellow volunteers would often talk about what they would do if they were marooned on a planet.  Typically there would be obstacles and challenges thrown in by others to make the person describing what they would do to get flustered and trip up in creating a viable survival scenario.

Not one of those fantasy scenarios involved deserted tropical islands on a warm water world.

It was too comfortable compared to many of the worlds he had visited as an Imperial marine.  He found the emergency blanket to be too warm at night and had instead hung it across the doorway of the escape pod to keep the omnipresent light out.  So he could at least sleep without the weird light of the planet keeping him awake.  The air was warm during the day and night, and the stars were always out.  Whenever he was too warm, he would dive into the ocean's water to fish.

He judged, based on what fragments he could remember of the basic planetology course they had given him, that this planet was primarily composed of air, water, and fire.  While life elements were a decent sized part of the planetary composition, the planet was not particularly earth aspect.  There was a lot more life in the oceans.  The planet wasn't terribly cold so that meant that fire and air elements were in rough proportion to each other.  Water predominated though.

It was another day, another routine day.  He didn't have the knowledge of artifice to fix the escape pod or to fashion a ship from the available materials.  So, the castaway went to sleep, leaving a fire to cure and smoke the remains of the day's catch.

Day after day.

---

He was woken up by a most wondrous song.  Deep rumbling basso intertwined with high keening fluting carried through the air, celestial choirs singing in dulcet harmony shook the carefully arranged tools and containers in the escape pod.  At first, he was annoyed, but then his eyes widened as he realized what the song meant.  He bolted out of the pull-down bunk and to his feet, throwing the blanket curtain aside, looking at the inky star-filled void.

A pod of void whales had decided to make planetfall, accompanied by families of beacon dolphins with their gems flashing to each other.  The void-bound cetaceans paraded down from the sky, diving gracefully into the languid turquoise waters.  Each of the void whales were bigger than the patrol cutter he had been on, and capable of sailing the galactic ley lines that linked the stars.  And with the amount of things that lived in those streams of raw elemental matter, he could hitch a ride on one of the gentle leviathans and get off this planet.

He didn't know how long he had, so he started packing things like the canned rations and water bottles into a backpack and satchel.  Down came the emergency blanket and into the satchel it went.  The emergency pressurized shelter was lashed in its rolled up form to the top of the pack, along with the tough cloth tape he would need to keep it affixed to the back of a void whale.  Then he donned his aegis armor, since he would need it to survive the airless void, the familiar glove-like fit of it somehow putting him at ease and calming his frantic mind.  He hoisted the heavy backpack on with the easy strength granted by the magical enhancements of the armor, and put the large satchel bag's strap across his chest, making sure both were affixed to the harness rings on the armor.  The lightning lance was secured firmly in its compacted form on his leg.

He took one last look at the camp that had been his home for the past few months.  He checked things off in his head, grabbed the tough survival knife from the rock he had left it on when carving up yesterday's catch and stowed it in the sheath on the armor's chest.  Certain he had everything he would need, he spared a moment for the graves.  Like any good person would, he said a prayer for the two lost souls, wishing them peace and a swift entrance to their next lives.  No need to foster new ghosts.

With his duty to his fallen comrades done, he jogged towards the beach, crashing through the vegetation heavily in his armor.  He stopped at the edge of the starlit sand, the sound of surf and whalesong competing with the thunderous beating of his heart.  At the edge of the water was a figure in a crimson robe that faded away into the air like waterfall mist, watching the void whales play in the placid waters of the planet.  He approached the figure cautiously, plucking the lightning lance from its leg mount and extending it.

"Are you... a survivor?" he asked, hearing the shakiness in his own voice. It had been so long since he had spoken aloud.  His voice sounded dusty and unused, hoarse.

"After a fashion.  I survived falling through the cracks of the world." The voice sounded too perfect, too uncannily controlled.  Like somebody was pretending to be a person.  The castaway's reaction was to fire the lightning lance, white electricity leaping forth from it.  The figure blew apart into a flurry of red-winged butterflies and black foam, leaving only a porcelain white mask with a horrible smile and spatters of blood lying on the beach.  High keening laughter filled the air around the castaway as the world around him grew dark and receded away from him, snatching away his breath and pulling him to his knees.

He work up terrified and bolted upright, smashing his head on the bunk above and rattling the supplies he'd stowed up there.  Eyes swimming with bright spots of pain, he regained his senses and realized there were no voidwhales or beacon dolphins.  That he had either dreamed them or the stranger had chased them off somehow.

After a spell spent contemplating what had happened, he walked outside into the glare of the planet's light.  The wind was moaning low through the trees and the air around him was filled with the rustling of the leaves and brush.  He knew that he would need to spend the day preparing for the storm that was coming.

 ---


This kind of wind meant there was a large storm coming, one that could tear trees from the ground and reshape the sandy landscape.  People called them god storms, and it was said that they arose when the spirits of the air and spirits of the water went to war with one another.  He had fought leyline pirates during such a storm, a few years after his training was done, decades ago.  Hellish was an understatement; they had to rely on their aegis armors' helmets to see through the never-ending walls of water coming down sideways through the skies.  Special issue attachments had been handed out to keep the marines from being swept off their feet by the awesome fury of the wind.

In retrospect, he realized his commander had been right.  Storming the pirate base during the storm was brilliant, since the pirates were all staying firmly indoors to avoid being carried off by the storm's rage.  The voidships and airships the pirates had were gone to avoid being damaged or outright ruined.  Seize the base, ambush the returning void ships with the base's defenses.  Worked great.

But here, he stowed and lashed everything he could inside the battered escape pod.  There was no foundation to hold fast against the storm, meaning the pod would be picked up and carried by the winds to parts unknown.  He was determined to be ready when the storm came, and finally having everything packed tight in the egg-shaped escape pod, he donned his aegis armor and  waited for the inevitable.

He must have dozed off inside his armor, because he woke with a start when something large collided with the escape pod and rolled it, the rattle and rustling of the stowed goods an undercurrent to the loud clang that had woken him.  The castaway leaned over to glance out a port hole, squinting behind the white gold faceplate of his aegis armor.  That was strange.

The world around the pod had turned into whirling motes of light and particulate, none of which was big enough to rock the escape pod like it had been.  He became aware that the escape pod was actually tumbling through empty space, another strangeness.  The castaway thought it would be wise to stay put, and strap in, so he did.

There was another loud clang on the exterior hull.  And then another.  He glanced through the porthole again and recoiled in horror as a leering white mask with suspicious crimson stains greeted him, the blacker than black pits of the eyes boring straight though him and bringing an immense chill to his soul.  The figure behind the mask was shrouded by darkness under a misty cloud-like hood of brilliant crimson, the edges falling away into the emptiness like waterfall mist.  The face turned towards the hatch and it sounded as if the outsider was crawling across the exterior of the escape pod.

The castaway fumbled with the straps that held him in as he heard the sound of metal straining, deciding quickly to pull his knife and cut them so he could meet this outlandish invader face to face.  He moved to the hatch to throw it open just as wicked talons finally pried the door off and the laughing man filled the hatchway.  There was a sound that came from it, a long rattling hiss reminding the castaway of a death rattle.

The two collided in the short span between them, the castaway with his knife and the outsider with taloned fingers, and they tore at each other even as the escape pod shuddered and tumbled from unseen forces.  He felt something give under the misty red robe when he struck it with knife and knee, and felt the hideously strong fingers pry away pieces of his aegis armor as warning chimes sounded in his ear.  It seemed so all familiar, a sense of deja vu filling his mind even as he fought with the alien entity.

Desperate, he grabbed for the mask with a free hand, grunting with effort as he tried to crush whatever passed for a face.  His efforts were rewarded with a low eerie laughter even as the porcelain white mask started to crack.  There was a sudden chill in his chest, and he saw the thing had managed to find a gap in the magic of the armor and shove its soul-numbingly cold hand through him.  And then it pulled and ripped some vital part of him out, a small thing that reminded him of a distant star as it quietly glimmered in the outsider's wicked fingers.  He wondered, as he died, if that was what the soul really looked like.

---

The crew members breathed a sigh of relief as the marine was finally pulled in, taking deep shuddering breaths as they watch the marine secure the hatch.  The marine removed his helmet, and turned to face his fellow survivors, who began to scream as they saw hollowed pits of blacker than black had replaced the man's eyes, tears of crimson-red blood coming from the corners as the marine's face twisted into a wicked smile.  The hollow man laughed.