The Fortress on the Edge of the Universe
There must be something the universe is expanding into. The monsters have to come from somewhere.
Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. What about the void beyond space, though? Hakan Doron, chief engineer of the Fortress, looked out from the edge of the universe, into the void beyond and wondered, not for the first time, what was there. The universe was expanding at 73 kilometres per second per megaparsec (plus or minus 1) – it must be expanding into something.
The monsters had to come from somewhere.
Hakan looked down to the ground, where the unfinished equation glowed in the dust.
Dust probably wasn’t the correct term for the substance that made up the strange, deep purple plain on the edge of the universe, but the habits of language are hard to break. Hakan paused, staring down at the glowing numbers, letters and alien symbols that stretched out in an impenetrable mosaic, spread over a space the size of a Coalition battle cruiser. Eventually, he reached out with the broken spear that acted as his chalk and scratched five new symbols in the dust, which glowed a lighter purple as soon as his spear broke the surface of the plain.
Motionless, he stared intently at the new line of the equation with dark, unblinking eyes. The equation still wasn’t finished – perhaps it could never be finished – but he was close. Closer than ever, he was sure. Close enough to put it to the test. Hakan’s eyes slowly rose to look out across the plain beyond the equation, before he drove the broken spear into the dust to mark the end of this period of work. He stooped to pick up a bundle of marking sticks at his feet and prepared to move onto the next task. The test.
Taking no chances, Hakan turned around completely to look back towards the Fortress. Fixing its location in mind as securely as he could. It was easy to lose any sense of direction on the plain and the ugly, blocky Fortress - made from the detritus of the universe, compacted dust and the bones of monsters - was the only feature on either landscape or sky upon which to fasten your bearings.
The Fortress had been built up by its soldiers over time without measure. As the only thing on the plain to break the monstrous monotony apart from the occasional dull glow of an uncollected marking stick, the Fortress couldn’t help but draw your gaze. Once you moved beyond sight of it, however…many, many soldiers had been lost that way.
As he began to turn his face away from the Fortress – unblinking black eyes with a narrow, dark features and a mouth containing sharp, needlepoint teeth – he heard a horn made of compacted dust blow a rasping alarm from the far side of the massive, sprawling structure.
The Fortress drew other things to it, apart from your attention.
Hakan stood still, seemingly impassive as the horn blew again and again. The rasp of the horn was soon joined by dozens more sounds – running feet, the deep, heavy clanks of ballistae being drawn back to fire the godspears, shouts and cries and roars. Despite himself, Hakan turned back towards the only home he had known for time without count. It was impossible to tell how many years had passed since he was sent here to fight – the same as every single person here. He should be running to join his efforts to those he could already hear in the Fortress. “Everyone Fights” was the very simple rule that all new soldiers were told when first they Slipped onto the plain – but instead he waited, marking sticks in hand.
Above the far side of the Fortress, the creature approached from the void. From the nothingness from beyond the edge of the universe. It came down towards the Fortress and Hakan could already see it was one of the big ones, perhaps almost half the size of the Fortress itself, a huge mass of mismatched limbs and tentacles and thorax. A combination of centipede, squid, locust and other creatures Hakan had no name for. A hundred wasp-like eyes were strewn in seemingly haphazard fashion all over its body and it gave Hakan no comfort at all that he could not see a mouth of any description. Forget about joining the fight just because it was the most important rule of Fortress, Hakan knew he should be rushing back behind the walls for his own safety. And yet…if the creature was attacking the Fortress right now, perhaps now was the safest time to be outside. Besides, as huge and horrifying as it was, it was only one creature. The soldiers of the Fortress had fought off far worse.
The creature moved like it was in a strobe light, blinking in and out of existence every second, getting larger and closer every time it reappeared. It moved like a half-remembered nightmare. It moved with the utter silence of the void.
Blink…the creature had split into three…or multiplied itself by three, Hakan thought.
Each of the three was identical in size and appearance and all dropped down on towards the Fortress in strobe light unison. Hakan breathed sharply through his nose, surprised despite himself. This was new – in all his time here he had never seen any of the creatures replicate themselves instantly. He wavered, almost ready to run back to the Fortress to help with the defences.
Even from here, however, his sharp ears heard Kana’s voice, high and clear, shouting orders from the ramparts. He saw the first of the godspears fire up towards the creature in the middle of the three. It missed, but the first shot often did. It was difficult to judge distances when firing into the void.
He heard another order shouted by Kana, her voice confident and commanding despite how nervous Hakan knew she got at the start of every attack, and the next blink, a dozen godspears shot up in three directions, most striking their targets as the creatures appeared again, larger and closer. They did not appear to take much damage from this volley, but Hakan was satisfied. The soldiers had found their range and Kana was marshalling their defences. The Fortress would hold, and he had more important things to do.
Hakan turned his back on the battle and slung the comfortable weight of the bundle of marking sticks up over his shoulder, his hammer swinging off his hip. He glanced down again at the equation then walked with steady, careful paces away from the Fortress. It could mean death to venture out onto the plain alone. It could mean death to abandon the Fortress in the midst of an attack. Hakan, however, knew down to his bones that this was vital enough to risk everything. Even if the equation was unfinished, he was sure this expedition would produce a result more important than fending off yet another attack on the Fortress. Even if he didn’t find exactly what he was looking for, it should at least yield more data to add to the equation and bring him ever closer to solving the riddle of how to leave this place.
He didn’t need to count his steps this close to the Fortress, but he did anyway. Survival is a difficult habit to break. The battle between soldiers and monsters raged at his back and far, far above the tiny twinkling circle of the universe shone its feeble light into the void, and Hakan Doron, chief engineer of the Fortress, walked alone into the plain on the edge of the universe.
Hrugha slowly descended back into the pit, the blinding light as the box lowered down through the levels providing no issue at all for her. Hrugha’s species had long-since abandoned eyesight as a useful way to make sense of their world. Even though soft brown felt had grown over her eyes before even leaving the pouch as a cub, long before she Slipped onto the plain, Hrugha knew every detail of the Fortress.
She knew the crack in the wall on Point Side, which required constant patching and could re-appear longer or shorter at any moment. She knew how the Fortress changed colour, bathed in the eldritch lights of different layers of dust dug up from the pit. Sometimes the Fortress hid its scars, sometimes it revealed them.
She knew each individual tooth in the massive jawbone which made up part of the most ancient wall of the Fortress. The structure had long since expanded past this wall, which was now used as a part of the barracks and lent its name to Jaw Side.
The teeth ranged from barely the height the Hrugha to ones which towered above the tallest people in the Fortress. Legends were told about the jawbone. The most common one held that it was from the first creature to be successfully killed, after time without count of beings Slipping onto the plain and being slaughtered by the horrors coming down from the void. Finally, a hardy group of nameless heroes arrived. They were lucky enough to have Slipped while locked in a fierce battle on their home-world, fully armed and armoured, and soon mortal enemies were fighting back-to-back against a monster intent on killing them all.
They defeated the creature after suffering heavy losses, and its bones formed the first walls of what would later become the Fortress.
Hrugha didn’t know if the story were true or not, but she liked it.
She knew the endless bubbling of noise from the slums of Krik Side and the deafening bangs and hisses of the dust-compacting foundries on Pit Side.
Most of all, Hrugha knew the Pit.
Well before her time here began, the Pit was dug 100 steps outside the Fortress, but as it got wider and deeper, the Fortress grew and sprawled out around it, encompassing it. She knew all the layers, from the light purple at the top, darkening to deep red, which in turn lightened to orange than yellow into green then blue, which finally lightened into bright, blinding white light that didn’t seem to change no matter how much further down they dug.
Hrugha spent most of her time in the Pit. She gravitated there as soon as Hakan Doron brought her to the Fortress, after finding her alone and terrified on the plain, so long before. She was built for it, with long, digging claws which held sensors to tell distances, and wide, rounded ears which picked up sonar activity. In time, she became the Pit-boss, in charge of mining the different layers of dust which made up the substance of almost everything used in the Fortress.
The small, blind, burrowing, terrified individual now held one of the most important positions in the Fortress…but sometimes, Hrugha still felt terrified.
Right now was one of those times.
The attack from the latest creature had been fended off without too much difficulty, even after it had split itself into three. The soldiers had fought off attacks with up to 15 creatures striking at once in the past, so three was not a major concern. It was what she heard afterwards that made Hrugha fearful.
After the creature had been defeated, she had overheard Kana and Daiklan talking treason. They hadn’t even bothered making their conversation private – so confident, so contemptuous they were of those not in their faction. Hrugha’s sensitive nose twitched with hatred.
They were talking about Hakan Doron. He had not been seen anywhere in this latest battle – breaking the first and most important rule of the Fortress. Kana and Daiklan were going to use that to bring him down. They didn’t say it explicitly, but Hrugha was certain that was their plan. She had always known they would stop at nothing to destroy the great prophet.
For that is what Hakan Doron was – for her and for a great many others in the Fortress. Far more than violent fools like Daiklan and Kana suspected. The tall, bat-faced engineer of the Fortress was their prophet, their saviour. He alone could guide their souls out of this endless purgatory on the edge of nothingness, and back into the living universe. And now, he was in danger.
Hrugha was terrified at the thought. If they lost their prophet, there was no chance of ever leaving this terrible place. She had to do something. She would go to Culd-Dan. The huge fighter frightened her too, but she knew he hated Daiklan with the enmity of two species who had been at each other’s throats for millennia. He also held leanings similar to Hrugha about Hakan Doron and the reason they were all here on the plain, although he would never voice them to the others in his faction.
Together, they would protect their saviour from those who meant him harm. As she made her way from the light and din of Pit Side over towards the rowdy barracks of Jaw Side, she only feared they would be too late.
Kana stood on top of the wall as Daiklan slouched his way swiftly down the battlements, eager to examine the carcass of the creature. She knew she should send some other soldiers with him – Daiklan’s first instinct after a kill was always to feed and there were far more useful, far more important things that could be done with the flesh and bones of a creature than simply eating them. Especially one like this – able to replicate itself and move the way it did. Perhaps there would be something in its brain they could use to do a similar thing with the soldiers. If the creature even had something as recognisable as a brain, of course. Many didn’t.
She didn’t make the call, though. Let Daiklan eat his fill – with the huge size of this creature it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. Kana felt preoccupied, the usual elation of a successful battle proving elusive.
Damn Hakan. Why now, of all times, would he choose to break the first rule? He had all the time in the world to go exploring the plain, looking for Slips, trying to prove his theory about what they were and how they might be used to get everyone off this plain and back to the rest of the universe.
"Everyone Fights." It was a simple rule – black and white. And he had been seen walking away from the Fortress just as the creature began its attack.
Now she would have to come up with a plan for what to do about it.
As she looked out over the plain, she saw the clashing colours and rolling black against the darkness that signified a storm of wild, unkept time sweeping out towards the void. If Hakan got caught in it, perhaps the problem would be taken out of her hands.
Unlikely, that. Hakan Doron was a legend, even in this place of legends. The idea of him perishing in such a stupid fashion – getting caught in a storm on the plain without adequate time-placers to protect him – well…it just wouldn’t happen.
Kana frowned. Hakan goddamned Doron! It was Hrugha and her fucking Neciteans. Some people need religion, Kana knew, and so it wasn’t overly surprising that the Fortress had spawned its own. It even had spawned its own factions within the religion now. Kana remembered Hakan laughing to her about it when he found out some of the soldiers were calling him a prophet. She wandered if he still refused to take them seriously. Something needed to be done about them, and fast. This latest heresy of theirs was dangerous for everyone. And even if he didn’t realise it, it was most dangerous of all to Hakan himself.
About the Creator
Read one too many adventure stories as a child and decided I'd make that my life.
I grew up on a cattle station in the Australian Outback and decided to spend the rest of my life seeing the rest of the world.
For more: www.roderickmakim.com
There are no comments for this story
Be the first to respond and start the conversation.