They had cuffed him, stuffed his head into a black bag and were dragging him through the arctic landscape. He had burned his belongings, every record of his existence that was onboard, though the lighter itself was stowed in a secret pocket. From the terrain they crossed, Hyram could swear that the planet was a flat rectangle of cold darkness and nothing more. The air was frigid and unmoving. Hyram felt like he was wading through a pond of frozen slush; the void of space was comparatively inviting, with its infinitude of suns and their promises of warmth. Even through the wetsuit and layers of fur, his bound hands were clammy and numb, eyes veiled by a thin crust of frost. The guards never spoke, only dragged him by the arms, his feet scraping against the crystalized vegetation that crunched underfoot.
The Dionysus was gone, impounded. Hyram had already resigned himself to the possibility of dying here, and the ship was the least of his worries.
Suddenly the guards stopped, jerked him to a violent halt. They muttered something unintelligible to one another; a low, guttural voice echoed in the distance, far away. The black bag was lifted, and for one paralyzing second Hyram Nick was snow-blinded by the monstrous sun encompassing half the sky. A pair of sunglasses was jammed against his eyes and the surroundings mercifully dimmed. Ahead of him were two looming hills that formed a wide crevice, domed by a distended arch of ice—Jiang’s artificial stronghold. Hyram forced his mind into disbelief, and the glacial cathedral shifted into a dazzling matrix of electricity.
A nauseating pain erupted in his stomach as the guard throttled him forward. When he looked up again, the electric mesh was replaced by Jiang’s projected image.
The transition between open wasteland and yawning cave was imperceptible. They melted into each other, bled their features over their respective forms. No beginning and no end; they simply were. Hyram was impressed by the hologram’s sheer complexity. Looking up, Hyram saw intricate murals and paintings—of Jiang Yu of course—engraved into the arch of ice.
Entering the crevice, hundreds of Quai natives surrounded Hyram Nick, their bodies short and stubby. The guards cut his hands free, and with a laugh shoved him into the throng of savages. Warily and very slowly, Hyram scoped his surroundings for a weapon of some sort: a rock, stick, anything. Nothing.
A Quai native came forward, toting a flint-spear. This was the first time Hyram had seen one up close, and for a moment he was fascinated, forgot about the weapon: the savage’s forehead was enormous, concave and rigid. Like all Quai, his back was bowed, and he loped rather than walked. Aside from those anatomical differences, it was obviously primate-evolved.
Reluctantly Hyram concentrated on the image of a laser-pistol, pressed his palm with his fingers; the weapon materialized in his hand, ready to fire. Only, Hyram knew that the pistol was faulty: even if the gun seemed real to the untrained mind, it couldn’t generate a laser blast. The Quai, wide eyed and frightened, backed away.
“Mr. Hyram!” the words rebounded and echoed off the towering ice walls. Hyram Nick noted the stubborn remnants of a Chinese accent. Quai native and human alike immediately dropped to their knees, bowed their heads to the cold snow. Row after row of grey-clothed bodies littered the cavern like lumpy stones, and finally Hyram realized how expansive the artificial palace was. Though the planet’s close horizon made it difficult to accurately gauge, the rolling wastes extended for two or three miles before dipping down and disappearing. A temple nested against the ceiling, massive staircase straining toward the summit.
Interspersed between the clumps of Jiang-worshippers were rock-hewn statues depicting the same Godhead image emblazoned on the warship.
He couldn’t see Jiang Yu, though the murals above twinkled in abstract condescension.
“Don’t bother looking for me. It was easy to find you. I was hoping for a subtler breed of killer.”
Very suddenly—Hyram couldn’t explain why—they seemed face to face, as if he were speaking with his own reflection.
“Tisk-tisk Hyram,” continued Jiang in deliberate chiding rhythm. “Scaring my children with that toy gun!”
Hyram scoffed, dismantled the laser pistol. It vanished into nothing. He slowly raised his arms in surrender, transfixed by the staggered clumps of Quai natives bowing their frames in reverence. A gust of wind blew through the cavern, and the smooth arch began to hum.
“Guards, escort our guest to my chamber room.”
Jiang Yu was drenched in shadow, sitting on a bunk. A pail of water was at his feet, a rag in hand. He was kneading the cloth into knots, wrapping it around his clenched fists and balling it repeatedly. His chambers were surprisingly small: no larger than the Dionysus, though lavishly decorated—art deco style—thanks to the augmented reality projectors. Immediately across from Jiang’s bed was the entrance, heavy brass doors that depicted two Olympian figures prying them open; looming over the bunk was the eternally lit and golden image of a star. A sky window encompassed the entire ceiling, reflecting the whirling universe whatever the time of day. A Quai servant lurked next to the bed, on his knees. \
Ponderously Jiang dipped the rag into the bucket of water. Hyram swallowed, trembled for a moment. As Jiang Yu poured the steaming liquid over his scalp, he asked, “Are you enjoying your stay, assassin?”
The calm, quiet voice took him by surprise: he had expected the murmurs of a madman, the shrill tones of insanity, not this. Rational.
The steam rose from his balding head in white wisps and vented through the star.
“Jiang, why are you on Quai?” whispered Hyram. The man wrung his rag dry and chuckled. He uttered a foreign, guttural word and the Quai servant rose, took the pail and cloth and began to leave. Jiang whistled as it reached the double doors and the Quai froze, statuesque.
“You forgot something,” Jiang said darkly.
The servant turned and stuttered, in the broken sound of a deaf man: “Thank. You. Master.”
Jiang nodded, and the Quai slipped through the entrance. The lights blazed to life, so white-hot bright that Hyram felt fortunate he hadn’t discarded the sunglasses. Jiang Yu stood up, exactly like the hologram in the Dionysus mainframe; though the CIA jumper had been replaced by a dry, rustic tunic; similar sunglasses. He smiled at Hyram, stepped closer, his snow boots padding across the stone floors.
“Here’s a better question.” said Jiang, “What is mankind doing on Quai?”
Hyram shrugged, “We’re trying to teach them about space travel, before their sun goes nova.”
“So we’re assimilating the savage for his own good?”
He paused, nodded, “Yes.”
Jiang only stared at him. After a minute he said, voice oddly disappointed, “That’s wrong. Very wrong.”
“Care to enlighten me then?” Hyram shuffled, sniffed. What was the point of this conversation? He had expected Jiang to execute him on sight.
“Power, Hyram. Power over other people.”
“You still didn’t answer my question: why are you on Quai?”
Jiang laughed, the sound unnerving, eerie. It seemed to emanate from nowhere and everywhere, without fixity; Hyram figured it was the projection’s electrical radiation distorting the sound waves. Then again, he thought, Jiang Yu was extremely wraith-like.
With a broad, stupid smile Jiang answered, “For the same reason: to save the savage!”
Hyram felt a surge of anger boil in his skin. “You’re preaching mysticism, not science,” he said coolly.
“Is there a difference?”
“One hell of a difference.”
Jiang’s fist flashed out and struck Hyram in the temple. He collapsed, dark blotches perforating around the corners of his vision, head throbbing. Hyram clumsily groped at the cold floor, tried to stand—but too late. Jiang snarled and leapt on his chest, pinned him down. The pale lights enveloped Jiang like an aura; beyond him, Hyram couldn’t see anything. A knife gleamed nearby and he dully realized it was pressed against his neck. He lay still then, felt his heart thumping, adrenaline tensing his muscles. Jiang leaned over until he was just inches from Hyram’s face; rivulets of cool water streamed past his forehead and hissed in the air. And Jiang was shaking. Convulsing and raving. Hyram looked on with a queer detachment as he started to rant through grit teeth.
“Do you know what this palace is built of!” raged Jiang, “Electricity and the suspension of disbelief! Ignorance! Stupidity!” The knife pressed deeper, drew a trickle of blood; Hyram swallowed again and almost choked. “Don’t you realize what we’ve made! We’ve created machines that can recreate anything down to the atom!”
Jiang gasped, snarled. He bent closer, until the drops of sweat and water ran into Hyram’s eyes and stung. Then he spoke, calmer now, as if reciting scripture, “Was it Sir Arthur C. Clarke who once said: ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic?’ That’s what we’re doing on Quai: teaching the savage magic tricks he can never understand. If that’s not mysticism, I don’t know what is.”
Hyram was repossessing his senses, and his thoughts rattled about rapid-fire: he could hit Jiang—certainly close enough—but that knife would end Hyram in a second; best to wait, and hope Jiang took mercy; though he could die without a struggle. He heard footsteps tramping up the grand staircase. Jiang didn’t seem to notice. Maybe the guards heard the commotion and were rushing to their master’s aid…
He didn’t dare hope.
Meanwhile, Hyram tried to hide his recovery. Biding time, he lulled his head around woozily and whimpered. Breathing was difficult because of Jiang’s knees, but not impossible. After a moment, Jiang seemed to relax, stopped shaking.
“At least I have the courage to recognize—without guilt or pleasure—what we’re doing here on this barren planet,” he finished, quiet and solemn now.
Jiang raised the knife over his head, a gleaming splinter of reflected light—
—and the double doors swung in violently, the Olympian figures smashing into the walls. The human guards bumbled into the room and Jiang stopped the knife in midair. Hyram strained his neck back and issued a silent plead to the staggered humans. For the tiniest of seconds they seemed torn between leaving the temple and intervening, teetering on their heels back and forth, back and forth. The bone-white lights painted their faces ghostly, glistening sweat.
Finally one of them said, quite dumbly, “Sir, we heard you yelling. Everything oka—?”
“Get the hell out!” screamed Jiang. He was shaking again, like a predator caught in a corner. Believing Hyram still incapacitated, he whirled the knife forward and yelled something incoherent. The guards backed away, then hesitated again.
“You told us no one would get hurt…” murmured the other as levelly as possible.
Jiang’s skin flushed with color, and he eased off of Hyram. He began to yell something, pointed the blade at his associates—which was exactly what Hyram was betting on. With a desperate strength he thrust his legs and hips up; Jiang, off-guard and livid, crashed into the floors. They both scrambled to their feet, Hyram by the bunk and Jiang by the door. Hyram’s head began throbbing again, and for a moment he was nauseous and dizzy. The guards fled out of the temple and disappeared down the thousand step staircase into the throng of Quai worshippers.
Hyram’s eyes never left the knife, flipping from hand-to-hand like a ball of holy fire as Jiang slowly backed out onto the landing. He followed him, his adrenaline-fueled mind calculating his next move: striking first was out of the question; he was off balance and groggy; fabricating a weapon with the AR implants would be fruitless, as Jiang would counter simply by disbelieving. Hyram could only wait. The double doors inched closed and the aura of white light dissipated. The orange sun engulfed the cavern mouth, some four miles away, and the murals above sparkled like the grains of electricity they actually were. Jiang was shimmering at the sun’s center, much like the planet itself when Hyram first entered the system.
“I won’t hesitate to kill anyone who interferes!” boomed Jiang, his voice humming through the arch of ice-crystal. Below, encircling the too-long staircase, lay the faceless grey mass of Quai; the human guards were nowhere to be found. The sight itself was intoxicating, and Hyram captured the first glimmers of power, felt a thrill run through his spine.
Jiang must have noticed, for he whispered, “You know it too, don’t you? Don’t you realize what these savages will label us in a thousand years, after we’ve rescued them from this doomed planet? Guardians! Gods! I’m just one step ahead of the rest of mankind, and you know it.”
Jiang lunged at Hyram with a barbaric roar, his lithe arm twisting to plunge the blade into his heart—but Hyram caught the feint at the last moment; inches from Hyram’s chest he reversed the blade and slashed at his neck. Hyram raised a forearm and deflected the blow, rivets of pain needling his hands. Blood began streaming down and his hand went half-numb. His mind was a blank haze; he was yelling now, unthinking. Before Hyram could recover, Jiang throttled him with a vicious knee, pressed him against the landing. The knife flashed to his neck and he was trapped. Again. The fight ended before it began.
Jiang pressed his bony face closer to Hyram’s, “I don’t understand! I reveal our exact motive, our exact nature! I practice and preach it! I become the perfect model for the future dictators and future mystics who’ll inevitably abuse these poor, tribal savages—and how do they reward me—with an assassin!—they don’t like the truth—I wouldn’t either!” he was babbling now, the words gushing through a torrent of maniacal laughter.
Very carefully, without taking his gaze away from the madman pinning him to the landing, Hyram wriggled his arm free, dipped into his pocket, retrieved the lighter…
“Rational mysticism!—that’s what we’ve created—we don’t need to haul stone tablets down from the mountain—they just manifest at our palms! How wrong, how wrong!” Jiang was convulsing so forcibly that his skin seemed to rattle.
Hyram stretched his arm forward, just under Jiang’s rustic tunic. The lighter clicked to life.
“Jiang,” he growled against the pressed knife, “you’re on fire.”
When Jiang looked down, wide-eyed and incredulous, Hyram focused on the image of fire and pressed his palms together; with hands aflame he gripped Jiang’s neck and the double-agent delved into a frenzy. The knife dropped to the landing with a heavy clang. The actual fire spread and consumed his body with wolfish speed, and Jiang seemed invisible against the great red sun, a dull orange haze. Fearing the fire would spread to him, Hyram kicked him away, staggered to his feet. Jiang was still tearing at the invisible flames when he lurched back and fell, the staircase swallowing his body, the thousand-steps like jagged teeth. Death by panic. Moments later he lay at the temple’s base, a charred coal. The Quai worshippers too, coalescing like ashen cinders.
Hyram looked out across the cavern, out on the sea of savages that were without comprehension and without a god. He forced his mind into disbelief as he tied a band of cloth across his blood-soaked arm, and the ice fortress morphed into the matrix of electricity—but not this temple. This was the Quai’s temple.
He realized—consciously at last—why Jiang Yu had to die. He had denied it, as had every other human. But Jiang had been right. Jiang had known. Every culture is a simulacrum of a simulacrum of a simulacrum, and the only power is technology, the only ruler its wielder.
And it was an affront to know.
Hyram felt the crystal fortress resonate its electric hum. The exhilarating sensation overwhelmed him.
How could he resist?