The stars outside were flying past them on all sides as the ship ripped its way through space, bending and indenting the black matter. The ship was so incomprehensibly vast, it was almost hyperbolic. Jupiter could have fit inside of it thirty times and still had growing room. Something with that sort of mass was not easy to recover from, which was why everywhere it went, it left a gravitational impression. It seemed Einstein had been right: space was like a tub of jelly, and the planets, their moons, the stars, the bits of rock flying stray, they were all like weighted balls flung in that tub, displacing the jelly with their density and drawing other objects in toward them, down the funnels they created with their presence. And the ship was the greatest ball of all, after the sun.
Its creators had also mastered the art of cloaking, such that as great as the ship was, it could not be seen, much to the puzzlement of the astrophysicists down on Earth who picked up strange mathematical anomalies in the solar system that simply could not be reconciled according to what they thought of as the natural rules of matter.
The ship’s name was Nibiru.
Quetzal gazed out the window at the ocean of space they were submarining their way through. He had not moved in over an hour; there were things weighing upon his mind.
He was tall, seven-foot-five, in fact – over eight feet when he wore his headdress. His skin was the colour of autumn leaves and his arms – extending from brief black sleeves of leather – were vined with hieroglyphs, one for each battle he had won. They were innumerable, which was just one more reason why he had been given this latest task. The other was that only he had the mind for it.
His hair was like gleaming black beetles that had been crushed into thread, and it flowed like a cape across his back. He wore a long golden robe embroidered with ancient symbols that only the most educated among their race could understand. His eyes were long and narrow, angled up at the outer corners, and heavily lined in black, drawing out the fire of his irises. There were rumours that he could burn you with a single look, if he wanted, but no one dared test the truth of it. In fact, most dared not come near him at all. He cut an imposing figure, and though his temper was rarely roused, he had a history of emotionally annihilating competitors with his words.
The most defining thing about him was his long nose, which reminded one of a bird. In fact, everything about him gave the impression of a golden eagle, soaring proudly through an endless sky. Which, in a way, he was, for he had been on Nibiru, navigating its way through the heavens, for longer than he cared to remember.
He wasn’t happy, just now. Not that he ever gave off an impression of jubilance, on the best of days. But today, there was something particularly sombre about his angular face. It lay in the way his eyes sat still, seeing through the stars and seeking out what he knew waited for them in the dark beyond. It showed in his stance, his hulking legs slightly apart and no piece of him moving. He had his great hands clasped behind his back, his long fingers mixing with the velvet of his robe.
His eyes were fixed on a point in space where Earth would soon be appearing. The last time he had been on that small blue world was two thousand years ago. It hadn’t ended well. Something told him this would not go as expected, either.
There was a noise, the sound of the door opening behind him, and someone entered his room.
Quetzal did not turn around. He already knew who he would find if he did. ‘How many times have I told you to knock, first?’ he said in that deep, quiet voice of his that sent a thrill of fear through most people.
But Horace was not most people.
‘You’re wanted,’ Horace said.
Quetzal finally turned to face him, slowly, almost disinterestedly, his hands still behind his back. ‘I said I didn’t wish to be disturbed. Whoever it is can wait.’
Horace held his eyes defiantly. In many ways, Horace was similar to Quetzal; in others, they could not have been more different. Horace, too, was very tall and broad of chest. His arms were snaked with hieroglyphs, almost as many as Quetzal – almost. His hair was also black, thick and long, his skin a shimmering gold. And he had the same slanted eyes, but his stare was less fire and more like ash falling from the sky in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption. He wore his own robe of velvet, but his was the colour of tar and woven with gold thread. The symbols on Quetzal’s robe spoke of triumph and strength; Horace’s told a story of domination. And while Horace, too, looked bird-like, his nose was more hooked, giving the impression of an angry parrot. But as comical as that might sound, there was nothing funny about him. On the contrary, everything about Horace was deadly serious.
‘I thought you’d say that,’ Horace commented, stepping further into the room. They stood six feet apart, surrounded by Quetzal’s array of instruments, strange devices of metal, glass and imagination, the purpose of which Horace could only guess at. He had never professed to be the genius his reluctant partner was.
‘Then you should have saved yourself the time and stayed away,’ Quetzal remarked coolly.
Horace smiled. It made his face look crooked and untrustworthy. ‘I didn’t say I was going to accept your reply.’
Quetzal gave him a crushing look before turning on his heel and gazing back out the window. It was huge, more like a cinema screen than a window, covering the entire wall of his living quarters on the ship. He had demanded it as part of his incentive to take up the assignment nineteen years ago. Horace walked across the room, his thick black boots making a heavy clanking sound as each step shook the metal clips bolting them around his large feet, which seemed to have been made by the Godzilla franchise. He stood beside his partner and stared out the window with him.
‘Why are you so fascinated with that insignificant speck of dust?’ Horace wondered. His voice was just as deep at Quetzal’s, but had none of the natural presence.
Quetzal made a noise that might have been a derisive laugh. ‘Insignificant?’ he echoed. ‘You would call your birth home insignificant?’
Horace bristled. He didn’t like being reminded that he had been born on Earth, while others were reared on Nibiru. He didn’t know how Quetzal could stand it. In fact, Quetzal even seemed to take pride in his Earthly heritage. Though at least Horace was able to say with honesty that he was full Ancient, and not one of those disgusting Halflings they had left behind.
‘Sometimes,’ Horace philosophised, ‘the past is best left where it is: in the past.’
‘Be that as it may,’ said Quetzal, ‘the only way to embrace the future is to understand our history.’
‘Is that what you think this is?’ Horace wondered. They did not look at each other through the exchange, their heads remaining forward, looking out into the universe that enveloped them. ‘Is it your way of reaching the future?’
‘We are dying,’ Quetzal stated simply. He had a way of doing that, of taking the most dramatic, terrible realities and speaking about them as casually as if he were remarking upon the weather. It was one of the many things about him that made him so formidable; he didn’t seem bothered by anything.
‘And you think the child can save us,’ Horace summed up.
‘Perhaps,’ said Quetzal. ‘It was a mistake, leaving the Wisdom behind.’
Horace shrugged his enormous shoulders, making his robe rustle on the marble floor of the room. ‘Accidents happen,’ he said.
‘Hm,’ said Quetzal.
‘Besides,’ Horace noted, ‘we don’t know for certain that we left the Wisdom there.’
‘I do,’ Quetzal spoke with finality. ‘I’ve seen it on my sensors. It’s out there.’
A blue dot appeared in their view. It wasn’t much, not yet, but it would grow and grow until it was close enough, and then they would –
‘It’s Charon who wants you,’ said Horace. ‘Come with me, now.’
Quetzal tore his gaze away from the window with great difficulty. If it was Charon…well, he had no choice but to obey. And he supposed he could not stall any longer. The enormity of their mission fell on him like a meteor – and he knew just how heavy that was, because it had actually happened to him, once.
He turned and headed for the door, Horace following him.
‘What are you hoping to do with all this stuff, anyway?’ Horace asked as he paused at one of the instruments. It was comprised of a set of small metallic balls caught in a whirlwind of energy, endlessly spinning in the air, suspended from absolutely nothing.
Quetzal approached him and pulled Horace’s hand away before it could disrupt the balls, his face like a father exercising tremendous patience with a disobedient child. ‘Do you know what that does?’ he asked quietly.
Horace smiled. ‘What do you think?’
Quetzal smiled back. ‘Then don’t touch it.’ His tone left no room for argument.
They exited the room and walked heavily down the long winding corridor that sloped the interior of the ship, making their way to the lift. It hummed as it zipped up to their floor and yawned open for them. It was made of translucent glass, such that as they stepped inside, they could see its workings surrounding them, and they could see how far up they were. Horace pushed a series of steel buttons and sent them plummeting down 463 decks of ship, to the Director’s quarters. The first time both Quetzal and Horace had used one of the lifts, it had terrified them. Now, they had travelled in it literally millions of times in their thousands of years of life, and it had simply become another part of their world. It had taught Quetzal that anything could become normal with enough exposure to it. Like the life he led on Nibiru, for instance.
The Director was not a woman to be trifled with. She did not respond well to Horace’s efforts at flattery when he bowed at her with forced graciousness and commented upon the good state of her health. She was unpaired and had never been known to take a lover in all her countless years of life. But she offered Quetzal a begrudging degree of respect for what she once referred to as strength of character. She was a woman impressed by power, rather than pretty words.
When they arrived at her door, Horace remembered to knock. It was a politeness he seemed only able to afford the Director. There was a low beep as the door opened for them and they were permitted entrance.
Director Charon sat behind a fat desk made entirely of glass, like the lift. It was a common theme of Nibiru, the design of the brilliant architects whose genius it had been to build underground, under the surface of the planet, and harness its energy – in short, to transform a whole world into a spaceship.
Behind her was the only window on the ship to compete with – and outdo – the one in Quetzal’s room, aside from on the viewing and launch decks. It made her look like she was flying amongst the stars. Through the translucence of the desk, it could be seen that Charon was dressed in a velvet dress the violet of royalty, which was so long it seemed to sink into the floor beneath her, obscuring her feet. It flowed out from her waist, but the bodice was tight across her chest. The sleeves hugged her upper arms, before waterfalling down at the elbows. Her hair, the colour of straw glinting in the sunlight, cascaded in tempestuous waves absolutely everywhere: some ran down her back, some fell over her shoulders, giving the impression of a statuesque lioness.
‘My lady Charon,’ Horace greeted her with an awkward bow. ‘May I say how well you look today.’ Beside him, Quetzal merely dipped his terrifying head in acknowledgment of the meeting and retained a degree of disinterest.
She had been writing something, but now she looked up at them. She sat very straight, her posture untouchable. ‘Horace,’ she said. ‘Quetzal.’ Her eyes lingered on him for just a second. ‘Sit,’ she ordered. They each did as they were told, sitting down on the glass chairs across from her.
‘You wanted to see us,’ Quetzal began things. There were no niceties about him; he was strictly business.
‘I did,’ she said. ‘We’re almost there.’
‘Yes, my lady,’ Horace agreed.
Charon spun around in her chair and looked out the window. The blue dot had grown to the size of an orange. ‘Earth,’ she announced. ‘It has been a long time. Perhaps too long. And now we shall make one of our occasional visits.’ She turned back around to her guests and added, ‘Well. At least, you will.’ She eyed Quetzal, who was looking deeply discomfited. ‘Are you ready?’ she asked him in what was the gentlest tone possible for her. She folded her arms over each other on the table, lifting the edges of her sleeves and revealing her own battle marks on the skin beneath. It left Quetzal wondering what she would look like if he stripped away the exterior and unveiled the rest of her marks.
‘Yes,’ he said after a time. He hoped he sounded convincing. It wouldn’t do any good to sound shaky at this point. After all, the whole project had been his idea. He had devised everything, ninteen years ago. The trouble was that in that time Quetzal had privately developed not a fear, but an anxiety about the results of what everyone had deemed his greatest ever experiment. He had the uncanny sensation that it had somehow got away from him and was now out of his hands, and he was unsure what might become of it.
‘Then why do you look so restless?’ Charon asked him, her stare missing nothing, not one crease in his forehead, not one lick of his lips.
‘My tracking devices have lost their target,’ he said, again in that simple way of his. ‘How could that not make me restless?’
Charon’s mouth bent into the closest thing she had to a smile, her long eyes narrowing yet further. Like Quetzal’s, they were lined in charcoal and burned like fire. Against the backdrop of her golden hair, they made her look like a star. ‘You worry you won’t find him?’ she surmised from Quetzal’s expression.
‘It’s possible,’ said Quetzal. He crossed one of his legs over the other in his chair and tried not to notice the way Horace was watching him out of the corner of his eyes.
‘It’s not,’ Charon returned. ‘That’s why I chose you to do this. Perhaps the child is missing, for now. But you will retrieve him. And when you do –’
She didn’t have to finish. They all knew how that sentence ended. It had been their mission statement ever since Quetzal had decided to share one of his ‘brilliant’ ideas with the Council after he’d had too much Saturnian wine: track the boy, find the Wisdom. For the boy did not know it, but he would lead them right to the very thing they had all been searching for.
If everything went according to plan, that was. And Quetzal had a bad feeling about that little proviso.
In the distance, the orange had grown to the size of a football, and it was still getting closer.
‘Time for you to go, then,’ Charon said, rising to her feet. Her dress fell in heavy pleats down her sides. Everything about her spoke of majesty. Which it should have, bearing in mind she had been the Director for 10,000 years, and she had lived yet longer.
Her guests stood too, putting their right hands over their waists and bowing at perfect 45-degree angles, before righting themselves.
‘Good luck,’ she told them, her eyes again lingering on Quetzal.
‘Thank you, my lady,’ Horace answered for the both of them.
They took their leave of her and doubled back down the corridor, making for the lift one final time. This time, Horace rocketed them up 312 floors, to the Deck of Descent.
Others on that deck, busy with their own tasks, stopped and stared as the godlike pair made their way past. Everyone knew what they were about to do.
They pushed a button on the far wall, revealing a doorway, through which they stepped. The door closed behind them, so it was just they two, as it would be from now on. They stopped at another expansive window, this one even larger than Charon’s, and gazed out at what was now very clearly Earth.
‘Are you ready?’ Horace asked his companion.
‘No,’ Quetzal confessed, ‘but that doesn’t matter.’ He reached under his robe and patted one of the deep pockets woven into his clothing. He felt a hard cube and exhaled in relief. There was nothing worse than going on a journey feeling like you’d forgotten something. ‘Let’s do this,’ he said.
They walked up to the edge of the window and outspread their arms. ‘Open,’ Horace instructed the ship. In obedience, the window slid up, the oxygenless air striking them and sucking them out into space. And their robes ballooned above them like parachutes as they made their descent to Earth.