In all things, the Job came first. It was the first thing you learned and the last thing you ever forgot, since it was also a given truth that this wasn't the sort of occupation that ended in a nice pension and a beach-side Havana retreat. There were beaches. Occasionally, there was Havana. But retreat? Never. It was down there in the manual, right next to the little sidebar about cauterizing amputated limbs with a smokeless campfire.
. . . for it is known that he . . . who flees the face of darkness, is as unto that face. And he who shirks the shadow of light, shall know none other fate than the perpetuity of his shame.
Condorin Vavorsus had not been born with his name, nor with the raking scars that coated his ragged face. In fact, he possessed very little of the world he had been born with. His father had been a small-time cook in a little-known diner on the side of a rarely-traveled highway. He'd have been shocked to see his son with any sort of gun, much less the massive scope of a Cry-ntox02, the barrel of which seemed less like inanimate metal and more like a tiger, waiting impatiently to pounce.
The trees were whispering, in tongues too old to be remembered.
It was cliched to say there was something out there. There was always something out there, depending on the frame of reference and the changing temper of the night in question. It just so happened that tonight, "something" was a good deal more frightening than usual.
Vavorsus gripped the rifle like a lifeline, his own breath heavy in his ears. The radio on his vest exploded with static. He jumped, cursing, to a crouch.
"Condorin," said a voice. "You bastard, where are you?"
He scrambled for the radio, heart pounding. "Left of the grove."
"Left of the . . . what the hell do you mean, the grove?"
"The one with the . . ."
"You know what? Never mind. It doesn't matter."
"Is everything alright?" asked Vavorsus. He'd begun to regain enough of his wits to recognize something was wrong. Ninkovai's voice sounded unusually strained, and the signal was far too patchy for the small distance between them. "Where are you?"
"Never mind that, either." The words were rushed. "Get to position Bravo, got it? Bravo."
"I thought we'd cleared it."
"Doesn't. Matter. Get there, bring the gun, don't be seen." The radio fell silent. Vavorsus hesitated, thought to say something, then hooked it back on his vest with a sigh. Ninkovai was an officer. He knew what he was doing. These things became clear with time, anyway. He stood slowly, disassembled the rifle, stowed it away, and swung his pack over his slim shoulders.
The path was too dark for this time of the night. It is important to note that no mortal night is ever truly black. It's stylish to think so, but in reality the stars and the moon and the semi-reflective nature of many things renders the actual shade a variation of dark gray, ranging to the soupy color of dawn. Now, with a full moon in the air and a crisp wind blowing confidence into the stars, he should have been able to see a good two hundred feet down even this cramped dirt path. Instead, he kept running into trees, scowling and wishing that his department had taken the investment into night-vision goggles. Never mind that the . . . well, that their prey didn't give off an infrared signal of any sort. At least he'd be able to carry himself like a field agent -- with grace and an ambiance of silent danger that was made impossible when you were tripping over every tree root designed by God.
The radio fizzed to attention.
Ninkovai again. His voice hissed over the radio: "Where are you?"
"En -- goddamn it -- en route." Vavorsus freed himself very carefully from a bush of nettles. "Anything interesting going on?"
"You don't. Want to know." There it was again! An edge to the voice of the officer, this time unmistakable and barely even hidden. Something crackled across the noise of the communicator. Interference, or something else?
"Yeah, we're fine. Just move, Condorin. We can't" -- a sharp, flat hiss interrupted his squadron leader's voice. Then: "it! Condorin! Do you understand?"
"Good. And hurry"-- sssssss
Vavorsus slammed the radio on his vest and drew his handgun. His veins wanted to burst out of his skull. Shrugging once more against the weight of his pack, he sprinted through the foliage towards the direction of site Bravo, which he knew was somewhere along this particular segment of the path. His footfalls crashed against the suspicious silence of the night, until their ruckus was drowned out by a sudden rush of . . . something.
A wave of peculiar sensation rolled over Vavorsius where he stood, then shot onward into the dark. It was not sound of any sort. The exact opposite, in fact, to the point where he began clapping very vigorously in a panicked attempt to regain his hearing. He'd gone deaf, he thought. That must be it. There'd been a bomb, something of that sort, in the brush close off, and now his ears had gone to an early grave . . . he hastened onward, but slowly. The thought of running crossed his mind, and was immediately killed by the memory of his training. He grimaced, and then stepped gently off the path.
Two minutes later, Vavorsus tore through a thicket of brambly vines into the stark moonlight of site Bravo. It was still peculiarly dark. The night came to him in stages, as if through a heavy yet translucent fog, and as he stumbled forward it took him a moment to realize that he was no longer tripping over tree roots.
He stepped on a rock, and it gave way. Curiously: first a steady support, then a sudden concavity that dropped his foot into something wet and textured. He blinked. Still, the world was silent. He'd just crushed a skull, and had nothing but the feeling of it to inform him. Slowly, his gaze traveled downward.
Vavorsius staggered backwards, bile rising unbidden to his lips, the field before him swimming in and out of view. The trees, blurring -- indistinct. He screamed, yet his terror made no sound at all.
He drew up his gun. Calm. He must remain calm . . . and the silence passed.
The radio crackled.
"Ninkovai, thank god," he stammered. "Bravo, the men"--
"To hell with that. Are you there?"
"Yes, and they're everywhere, you don't understand"--
"Believe me," growled Ninkovai. "I do."
A brief pause, its edges blurred in a darkness deeper than death.
"Man up, Condorin! Man up and eyes up. Q's sending air, but we need time, goddammit!" There was a roar of crackling fire.
"Was that a gun?"
"Shut up! We're holding it, do you hear me?"
"Holding what? Is it the Yankor? Do you have it?"
"Get the Cryo, Condor. Train it directly at"--
And silence devoured the air.
And then, Vavorsius saw it.
The sky . . .
We see the stars without quite knowing that we do. By which is meant, the assembly of the night is as familiar to the evolutionary subconsciousness as is the rhythm of the heart. It registers weather, season, year, and even the passage of eras. It knows, now and always, the proper order of the universe, handed down through generations of linear worms that became fish that became monkeys that learned to walk.
Vavorsius shuddered without knowing why. Some will within him stood firm for a moment, drew up, was vanquished by a realization that hit him several moments after his brain had registered the fact. The stars were going out. A silhouette devoured the moon.
The stars came back. But not the ones he knew. Not the ones he expected. Alien brightness from an alien plane, and twin eyes that had known the radiance of galaxies, and laughed at their inadequacy. It passed through the trees, its form as solid as a moonbeam, and it reached the clearing to loom above Vavorsius as he shivered in the newfound darkness. Vavorsius, who realized all of a sudden, in the center of a blooming flower of stillness, that he was all alone. Ninkovai would not be coming. No, Ninkovai was dead. He was dead. There was no other way.
He was surprised to find he could speak.
"Aguhhgh. . ."
It looked at him. It looked through him. It is said that humans are but the hosts of our own little universes. That the complexities of time and space are as evident in our own brains and tissues and bones as in the most delicate nebula of the sky. Before now, Condorin hadn't understood how anyone could think that was possible. That living, breathing, mundane old life could even aspire to such fantasies had seemed to him a narcissistic daydream, and in this moment his belief stood firmer than ever, while the rest of his soul collapsed. He had met the walking universe, and it had shown him defeat and fear.
"You're not a Yankor," he whispered. It did not speak. It reached downwards with a hand in which infinity looped into knots that dazzled the eyes, a hand that reached further than regular anatomy suggested was possible, outstretching a finger that Vavorsius found he could not avoid, though he so desperately wished to run . . .
A finger that stopped, no more than four inches from the surface of his chest.
The eyes, like chasms, beckoned across miles that were warped by darkness and personal time.
Vavorsius awoke, and the world was full of noise.
"Lay still, please. You're safe. It's alright."
"Is it . . . that thing, it's dead?" He peered through the blurry gloom until he could make out a kind face, with a mask that hung down from the neck. Outside, the night rushed by in a swirl of dark color schemes.
"It doesn't matter."
"Of course it does. It's all that matters. Is it dead?"
The man -- the nurse -- grimaced. "Don't you remember?"
"Verse 201, sixteenth axiom."
"I feel like I've been run over by a truck," Vavorsius muttered. "And you want me to recite poetry."
"'For the stars can never truly die; in death, they are reborn."
"You're telling me"--
"To rest. As long and as well as you can. The situation is under control. I'd worry more about yourself, to be quite honest."
It suddenly occurred to Vavorsius what was so devilishly odd about his current situation.
"I'm not dead."
"To an extent, that's true."
"To an extent?"
"Verse 201," said the nurse. He looked worried.
"Which means what?"
The nurse hesitated, seemed to consider something. Then he leaned back in his seat and turned to look out the window with a frown. "Near as we can figure," he said, "you've been Touched."
Vavorsius said nothing.
"Now, normally, our kind -- you know, people -- we're not built to survive that sort of contact."
"With what? What was it?"
"Never mind that. You should be dead, to be quite honest. And what you are instead might not be preferable."
Vavorsius' fingers clutched tightly to his covers. His voice came low, but trembling. "Just get to the point. Please."
The nurse's glasses caught the nascent light of the dawn as he spoke, nearly a minute after Vavorsius' initial plea. "It seems," he began, as he unscrewed a bottle of dark brown gin, "that you have been fused with a star."
"Hold on . . . what? You can't just . . ." Vavorsius shut his mouth. A fresh wave of nausea threw him back into the cot with a groan.
"Actually, we have no idea what it means either," said his nurse in affable tones. Outside, the stars had turned purple with the horizon, fading to hard diamonds in the sky. "I suppose we'll all find out together."