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No Other Gods

John Koetsier - sparkplug9.com - Pre-release version

You shall have no other gods before Me. - Exodus 20:3 Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. - Arthur C. Clarke

John Koetsier - sparkplug9.com - Pre-release version

Chapters

1. Fight & feast (rinse & repeat) 2. We are your overlords 3. Never have so few 4. So long, suckers 5. Rock, paper, scissors 6. Not so deep 7. Polar Solar 8. Cold comfort 9. Summer in Sumer 10. Perchance to dream 11. Three times is enemy action 12. Any sufficiently advanced technology 13. A man who can destroy a thing 14. Paradise found

John Koetsier - sparkplug9.com - Pre-release version

Fight & feast (rinse & repeat)


War in heaven is hell. - Ron Hale-Evans

You smelled it through your skin. Dust, sweat - the rank odor of fear. The reek soaked in through my nose, through my tongue, through my eyes. It was all I knew. Perhaps all I had ever known. One foot in front of the other step, step, and another step. This had been my existence for eternity. Or at least since morning, which was pretty much the same thing. The enemy was out there, somewhere, and so was battle, and eventually there would be blood. Some of us would die. This was normal, expected. Another day, another death. The toiling backs in front of me were bowed and tired from twelve hours on the road, a full day at forced march speed. Formerly sky-blue tunics were soiled and sticky-wet with sweat caked with grime irrigated with yet more sweat. The bright steel of our once-glorious imperial helms was dimmed with the chalky-fine dust kicked up by our metal-shod feet. Step. Step. Step. Keep moving. The strangely forgettable fact about an ambush is that it is, after all, a surprise. By definition. And a surprise you know about shouldnt be a surprise ... in theory. But wed crossed twenty leagues or more today, with dozens of hills. Wed crested fifty ridges, passed hundreds of copses of trees - all good ambush points. We knew it was coming, we knew it was racing the spinning of this world and the passage of its star through this sky to come and meet us before dark. But we didnt know when. And we didnt know where. And while in theory there is no difference between theory and reality in reality there is. The coming battle probably wouldnt kill all of us, but the suspense very nearly was doing the job. Perhaps fortunately, we knew that we now would not have long to wait. The sun was setting. We had done this thousands of times before, and wed do it thousands of times again. There would be battle there was always battle before nightfall. Wed been marching so long, and dusk was near. And then it happened, slowly and suddenly.

John Koetsier - sparkplug9.com - Pre-release version

5 The savage whisper of hundreds of arrows ripping the sky filled our ears and jump-started our hearts as our distant foe unleashed pent-up wrath. Almost simultaneously a red-clad mass of men burst out from a stand of olive trees fifty yards ahead. And it began. Time slowed, as it always did, and my heartbeats counted the moments while my eyes took freeze-frame captures of the few remaining instants before blood and guts were spilled to dampen the dust underfoot. Beat. A charge of fighting men, glorious in confusion, boiling like a lake of lava. Metal glinting, standards waving, legs caught in mid-leap, arms raised, faces distorted in the savage rictus of raging battlelust. Beat. One erring arrow, rusted tip slicing air, feathers spinning slowly, regretfully as flesh eluded it, plunging into dirt. Beat. The wooden shaft of a spear flexing mid-flight, undulating slowly like a living thing, bright dangerous point impossibly missing all of my companions but one, pinning Darius blue cloak to the already damp red earth. Beat. A beautiful deadly dripping sword, shining like hot coals in the low evening sunlight. Sharp enough to separate soul and flesh, capable of slicing through my armor and neatly dropping my steaming guts to the ground. Beat. And then the world sped up, fast, as the charge was upon us. The crash and scream of men and beasts in heavy armor smashing into our front lines almost deafened me. Our forward ranks crumpled under the impact, men died suddenly and in great pain, and now I was the forward rank. I dodged an already-blooded spearpoint stabbed out by a still-charging hoplite, twisted, spun, and took off his legs with a single two-handed sweep, straightened and searched for my next adversary without favoring him with a second glance. Stepping sideways just to be elsewhere, I narrowly avoided skewering. Then ran the off-balance attacker through his armors shoulder-joint straight to the

John Koetsier - sparkplug9.com - Pre-release version

6 heart, twisting as I withdrew to ensure maximum injury, catastrophic blood loss, and swift death. Turned immediately but just barely in time to see a massive shape lowering a boulder-sized shoulder to smash me down. Jumped slightly at the last minute and, twisting, turned the staggering impact into a leap and roll right over the mountain of man, ripping at the side of his neck with my dagger as I flipped over his shoulder. The battle devolved into a melee, small groups and singles facing off. Already half the number of both sides littered the ground, and the screams of the dying filled the battlefield. A space opened up around me and I considered my next target, selecting a clump of red cloaks circling a comrade in a blue tunic. I attacked from behind. There is no honor in battle, only winners and losers, living and dying. And if you think there is honor in death you havent seen a man die slowly with his guts run through by a jagged, battle-dulled sword. I hobbled the first one with a cut to the hamstring before they knew the odds had shifted. Leaving him as no further danger I immediately moved on to the next target, slicing open the middle attackers side before he fully turned to engage me, and leaving him for another continued on with my momentum and ran down the final opponent with my full body behind my shield, smashing it into his body to stun and to damage. We hit the dirt together and rolled, stabbing and hitting in infinitesimal moments of stability, then separated, bounced to our feet, and threw ourselves at each other. As we came together our helmets clashed and I saw his face. With a smile of recognition I shoved Kin back and followed with a feint to the feet while keeping my shield a little left of my body. Predictably, he skipped left and twisted in avoidance while also bringing down his sword on my now uncovered right side. Only I stopped mid-stride, anticipating his move, and closed with him in a completion of my initial feint, sheathing my dagger in his throat. I grinned at him, then raised my eyes, checked behind, acknowledged the sword wave of the man I had just saved, and surveyed the battle. It was all but over - red littered the battlefield - and some of it flowed from blue. Score one for the good guys. Pretty much the same as the bad guys. We came together. A few raised a cheer, most just slowly circled, fatigue setting in as we ran a mental tally: who made it, who died, who was squirming in agony and needed finishing, who was just leaking. Soon we were finished and gathered under a tree to the edge of the battlefield, collapsed to the ground.

John Koetsier - sparkplug9.com - Pre-release version

7 I closed my eyes and remembered the day. Marching for hours watching the slow anonymous countryside slip by as sweat slowly dripped down my segmented armor. Eating dust. Cursing stones in sandals. Ten hours of tedium followed by ten minutes of terror. Par for the course, I thought - just like any other day. War is hellish heaven, and we were in it. I knew what would happen next and sank slowly to the ground in anticipation. I lay looking into the deep blue sky as the world wheeled and the last rays of the sun slipped below the horizon and the first timid stars peeked down, winking at us in amusement at some eternal divine joke, most surely at our expense. Reviewed the fight in my mind and imagined the feast to come. The darkness came swiftly and my heart slowed. My awareness shrunk from the stars to my stars. My name. My name is Geno. I am a warrior in the hall of the gods. There is no more. Beat. Its always the moment that catches you. The second that outlasts eternity, then disappears forever with the next beat of your heart. Beat. Mists coiled over the carpet of living and dead flesh as the last light died and the smoke took our souls. Beat. I gave myself to the night and surrendered to the sleep. ... ... ...

John Koetsier - sparkplug9.com - Pre-release version

Dead or alive, win or lose, it was always the same. First there is the cold. Then the dark. Tubes disconnect, wires detach. As you rise through layers of varisleep and approach wakeful consciousness, the oval, coffin-like shape of the pod becomes dimly visible and the comforting glow of purring status lights gently intrudes. Then abruptly, the lid seals break open, hissing with the release of gases, and the varipod vomits you out to the warmth of the s.Leep room. You rise, still half-drugged, snag your homeclothes from the locker at the foot of your pod, get dressed. And then you walk out of the barracks and into the hall of feasting. I strode out into the hall, eager to see friends and acquaintances. There was Livia, and Jaca, and German. I winked, waved, greeted, but continuing to cycle through the hall, searching for one particular face. Turning, I found who it. I quicken my pace almost to a jog, and lowering my shoulder, butted right into Kin from the side, almost knocking him over. He bent, grabbed something from his boot, and corkscrewing up into me, sent me flying. I rolled, straightened from the floor, and froze as I felt a prick at my neck. Got you that time, Kin laughed. Slowly, hardly moving, I turned my head toward Kin at my side. Eyes burning, we didnt move for what seemed like minutes. Then, we couldnt hold it anymore and, bursting into laughter, we separated, punched each other on the shoulders, pantomimed horrific sneak attacks on each other, and generally got reacquainted. And you might have had me in the actual battle, too, if you didnt keep doing that same stupid move. Oh, Ill get you with it someday. I just laughed. Before I could explain to him for the twentieth time the necessity of changing favored moves from time to time to maintain personal fighting flexibility and ensure that regular opponents could not predict your movements, a clear cold gong sounded, just once. It was the signal for the feast, and, hungry, we all obeyed instantly, finding our assigned places and sitting. Kin sat across from me; the rest of our cadre took their places around us.

John Koetsier - sparkplug9.com - Pre-release version

9 One of these days, just one, Id like to be on your side, said Kin. In fact, Id like our entire cadre to fight on the same team. Blue would be OK. Seconds after the hall quieted, mechanical servitors entered the hall, whirring on their wheels, bringing loaded dishes. We ate. Only after the first half hour of focused attention to refueling did we pop up for air, refill our glasses, and slow down, looking for conversation. Livia started, smiling at me. I saw you just about bit the dust in the first charge, G. Getting soft in your old age? Our cadre - and beyond our cadre now - had a pool when I would finally die in a battle. No-one could remember the last time I had even been wounded, and as far as I could remember, I had never - ever - been killed. This was getting to be a bit of a thing in all the cadres ... which made me worry that someday, five or six of my opponents would throw strategy to the wolves and, regardless of the consequences to the battle, focus on putting me down. I had no idea how high the pool had gone now, and no desire. No sense tempting the gods. One thing she did have right: I was the oldest in our cadre, maybe the entire army. At least 4 years older essentially ancient. Not to worry, Livia. Still faster than you. Who else made it through this time? Livia had. Others grunted or raised a finger. Seven or eight of our ten had made it through the battle, though we had fought on both Red and Blue as assigned. Kin generally would have, except for meeting me. Jaca had been unlucky, caught in a shower of five or six arrows during the original Red ambush and wounded in both thigh and shoulder. He had been easy prey during the battle. We joked and laughed, same as soldiers for millenia, or so we had been told. The stress and fear of battle ebbed away, the good food and wine soaked in, and the comfort and ease of the company of our fellows washed away almost all remaining tension. Except we knew how this feast would end. The same as all our other feasts. Eyes not human had watched our battle. Minds greater than ours had seen, ranked, and judged. Decisions had been made, choices picked. And the consequences would soon be known. It never happened before three hours, and never longer than six. Some joked and said this was the last treat of life: a good feast. Not so bad a way to go, they said. Others would prefer the end in battle be the true end. But human wishes mattered little before the will of the gods.

John Koetsier - sparkplug9.com - Pre-release version

10 The floor of the hall shook, and deep, thudding sound staggered the tables and blasted our bodies. The air at the front of the hall shimmered and condensed, grew thick. Heavy mists fell to the floor, splashing in great slow waves at our feet as the air quivered and a small silver liquid ball appeared, then grew rapidly to the full height of the hall. It was a turgid, rippling, mirrored sphere - something from an alien world, reflecting shattered slices of the hall, of us, as it flexed and quivered and stretched and grew. Instantly the sphere became transparent, sound vanished, and we all bent our heads respectfully. It was time for Hermes. He appeared in the sphere. Human-shaped but not human or not just human. More than human. Twice the size of the biggest of us, his body shone as if lit with an internal sun, and when he spoke, we all heard his words without sound. Silent yet thunderous, his will filled our heads. It is time. Many of us bowed our heads, consciously or unconsciously surrendering to Hermes the right to decide. I kept my eyes on his as he turned to me. Geno, you have done well. Prepare yourself for the next test. Well, I had survived. Usually, that was enough, unless a warrior had only survived through cowardice or avoidance of combat. Hermes continued to name names, walking through the list of those the gods had judged to fight well. As each name was mentioned, I saw faces smooth, tension ease. Men and women who would live and fight and feast another day. Other faces, however, grew more lined, more tense. We had been seven hundreds, once. Now the hall held perhaps half of what it had once sat. I snapped my attention back to Hermes as he paused. Those who have not been named, stand, Hermes commanded. Ten or more, none from my table, stood. Some trembled, some raised imploring hands, some wept. Others simply stood and waited. One clenched his fists and looked ready to charge the divine Messenger and fight him barehanded. None of it mattered ... the gods cared little for your reaction, and nothing seemed to change either their decision or the inevitable action. Return to your varipods. Sleep. I knew that they would not wake up. It was possible that they were not dead Hermes had assured us once that such was the case but we had never seen a daysleeper return. Once Hermes had told me that they were stored, saved. I wasnt too sure how you stored people, or if the process was like

John Koetsier - sparkplug9.com - Pre-release version

11 canning or preserving fruit. But the gods were the gods, after all. If they knew how to do it, who was I to question? The naming was finished. Hermes turned, bade us a good day, and vanished in a cloud of smoke. The feast was over, and another day was about to begin. ... ... ...

John Koetsier - sparkplug9.com - Pre-release version

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