“Astrafugia,” by Terry L. Mirll, is the First Place winning story in the science fiction category for the Ninth Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with W.R. Parrish and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2014 issue of Writer's Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Tenth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.
In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Terry's winning entry.
by Terry L. Mirll
The stars are deep. But they are not infinite.
After megaparsecs of travel, he awoke, ready now to open his—what was the word?
What was it?
He tried to remember, perplexed at his inability to recall it, slowly and dully realizing that the millions of years in which he had slept had robbed his memory, and that only after a supreme effort of concentration would he regain it.
So he began with the word: To open his-- But the word refused to reveal itself. Many months later, after clearing his mind of all else but the word, it came to him reluctantly, creeping up piecemeal like the first dawn of the very first sun.
Eyes. Yes, that was it. Now to take the next step.
A simple act, to open his eyes. And yet astonishingly difficult. It cost him many years of concerted effort, to execute even the slightest tic of movement from his eyelids. He had experienced intense cold in times past, even freezing. These had gone all but unnoticed, a trifle. But never before had he felt the crushing cold of absolute zero. It was—unsettling. After a time, he doubted he would ever open his eyes.
But he persisted, and with persistence came reward. He lifted his eyelids, and at last took in the abundance of stars scattered throughout this far galaxy. Ordinary stars, the same as in any corner of the universe. Still, when he first beheld them, he had never seen anything so beautiful.
Much later, he was able to tilt his head and examine himself. He felt an adrenaline pang of shock to find himself drawn up, as if he were a bit of mummified leather. His only garment was some bit of loincloth--an odd sight, strangely familiar, and yet foreign. It occurred to him that in deep space, in the far reaches between galaxies, clothing was pointless, and he tried to think of why he should be wearing anything at all. The reason eluded him.
He did not complain, or begrudge his discomfort. It was his lot, as Orrund-bearer.
Still, when the moment came to awaken, he found himself ill prepared for the immense cold. Every organ, his bones, every cell in his body was frozen solid, hard as diamond and twice as obdurate. The incorruptible seemingly corrupted.
The Orrund was the noblest of duties, and the highest of honors. Many others had flown here, and elsewhere, in the void between galaxies. Billions of galaxies, billions of flights. It had been commanded so very long ago, by a power so great it had no face, no name. Even to say that it was seemed inadequate.
Yet it had made him Orrund-bearer, and in decreeing him so was a someone of sorts, so he decided to give it a name, even if no name could describe it. So he called it simply the One.
Orrundlund was deep with this new galaxy, so remote from his own. Despite the rich abundance of stars surrounding him, he knew he still had far to travel. But he did not know how much farther, nor how long. Centuries, perhaps, or millenia. Those stars, so distant even now, their faint warmth just enough to wake him, to provide him the energy to act, to let him know that the Orrund was now approaching its final phase. Soon, it would be complete, and he could start the long journey—what was the word?
Another word forgotten. How frustrating. It eluded him, hiding at the blade of his tongue but refusing to leave his mouth, teasing him as would a petulant child. He focused his mind’s eye. Then he remembered.
But the cold. The cold, so invasive, so debilitating. He recalled the shock he felt when he first left the home galaxy, past the dwarf galaxies haunting its periphery, past immense clouds of dust and radiation, into the entropic deep, without the tiniest particle of matter to accompany him. He relived how the molecules in his body slowed to almost zero movement. His eyes had closed as he stretched in acceleration, drawing incrementally closer to light speed.
He did not understand how he could fly so fast. The One merely assured him it would be so. Indeed. He remembered a feeling of serenity sweeping over him as he set out, a sense of letting go, of dropping into a fast-flowing stream. The glide, the cessation of all impediment, then the rush of movement. It crescendoed into an effulgent magnificence.
And he was off.
Fast, yet not faster. In this also the One admonished him. You will fly, the One had said, his voice emanating from nowhere and everywhere, perceived not in words and sounds, but in purity of understanding. Fly as fast as the wavicle of light. But there are limits, even in speed. That is the law. For this reason, your Orrund will be long. Thus you must sleep. Sleep, without dreaming.
He did not argue. Law is law. The One spoke of law many times, always passionately, always reverently. The law was inviolate, and permanent, so that in speaking of law, the One in no small way was speaking of himself.
A name, he realized with a start! He had a name! It was—
Again, he could not remember. Silently, he mouthed but a single word of admonishment: Patience.
Were there time, he would have flown near one of the bright suns, perhaps even through one. That would provide bountiful energy, more than enough to thaw him completely and unfreeze his brain, the conduit of mind. Then the words would come to him.
But to veer from his course was not allowed. The Orrund came first, absolutely and without question. It had to be delivered at the proper moment. A moment the One had determined in the So Very Long Ago, before time was time.
More years went by. Then, to his relief, he soared through a pair of stars, one small and white, the other much larger and red, in rotation with each other, spinning in a circle like partners in a dance. Once held in equilibrium by distance and the speed of their binary rotation, they had now drawn close together, their velocity increasing to compensate for the increase of their gravitational attraction. A long tendril of plasma spilled from the red star onto its tiny white companion. As he sped between them, he felt their warmth, especially the white one, and at long last absorbed enough energy to allow himself to thaw completely. Finally, he could—
Qip! His name was Qip! A delighted laugh burst from his throat. It made no sound.
How could it, out here?
His name no longer in the way, a memory engulfed him.
It was in the lower world, what he called the dream world, when his conscious mind was still young. His body was covered in tattoos. The hawk, the bear, the reindeer, the sloth, and many strange designs having little meaning other than he found them pleasing.
There was a fire behind him as he sat upon a promontory rock, tying a fresh spearhead to the spear his father had made for him. He heard voices, the elders, the shaman, his father. They talked about him.
He looked up at the night sky, caught up in its thick display of stars and dust. Some of the stars meandered. Some darted across the sky in fiery blaze. Most moved very slowly, towards the far horizon where they disappeared only to return the next evening. He did not understand them. Why were they there? Who hung them in the sky? And why so many?
Sensing someone approach, he turned. It was his father, his face joyless, his eyes betraying deep concern.
It is time, his father told him. Leave the spear. It is of no use now.
He obeyed, rising to greet the elders who drew him into their circle. Lighting torches, they led him to the bottom of the hill, to the mouth of a sprawling cavern. They brought him inside, where it narrowed. There, among the cold rocks, lay the bare slit of an opening, wide enough to admit only one.
The shaman, his body coated in ash and powder, handed him a torch and said: You must crawl upon your belly for many hours. Do not stop until you reach the end. You will know it when you see it.
What am I to find there? he asked.
Beings not of this world, the shaman replied. Do not speak to them, or they will devour you.
He looked to his father for reassurance. His father gave none.
Unsure, he slowly moved forward, falling to his belly as he climbed inside. It was difficult, trying to crawl among the rocks and still hold the torch to light his way. At times, the pass grew so narrow he feared he had gone the wrong way, or, worse yet, that he was trapped. If he got stuck here, or if the torch went out, he would never find his way back. Or he could cut himself on a sharp stone and bleed to death. Maybe a snake would bite him, or a badger would attack him in the narrow tunnel. There would be no room to fight or to flee.
His arms and legs tired, his energy depleted from physical expenditure. As he gave in to exhaustion, his heart pumped furiously, and his breath became rapid. He could feel panic overtaking him. Still, he pressed on. Should he fail this ritual, he would be ousted from the tribe.
And what of the beings the shaman said he would find? Perhaps they would devour him, no matter if he spoke. What were they? Monsters? Devils? Or something worse? He envisioned them tearing the flesh from his body, gnawing his bones as he lay helpless, unable to save himself, dying only slowly enough to allow his agony to descend into torment. He trembled.
Hours later, his body covered in grime and sweat, he sensed the passage widening, and he found room to stand. As he pressed himself upright, he raised his torch high, and gasped at what he saw.
The opening was many spear-lengths wide, and twice as many high, and along its walls were paintings made from ash and crushed mineral pigments, the figures of many colors and hues. The lowest ones were familiar—hunters chasing down bison and reindeer. Nearby, men in a state of trance, their arms raised, confronted animals, just as he had seen the shaman do after eating sour-root. Representations of bears and birds stood beneath a bright yellow sun. There were trees bearing fruit and waterfalls where women filled pots, and rivers and seas teeming with fish.
But at the walls’ highest reaches stood large, fearsome creatures. Some with great, twisted horns, some with flint-sharp talons, others with huge tusks and teeth like hand-axes. It was a world he had never seen, higher than the world he knew.
Perhaps relief, brought on after hours of near panic, made him forget himself. Perhaps it was merely youthful exuberance. Whatever the reason, he scooted onto his belly and began making the long journey back, and as he did, he shouted: Father! Elders! I have seen it! I have seen the world above the world!
As his cries echoed down the tunnel, he placed a hand upon a rock to pull himself forward, where he froze as he sensed a vibration beneath his fingers. Dust drifted down upon him like snow.
Suddenly he remembered the shaman’s warning, and once more his heart rang in terror. He dragged himself forward, kicking wildly with his feet as the sharp rocks cut into him.
In his haste, he dropped his torch, and the darkness engulfed him. Determined to find his way back, he raised his arms to feel the tunnel walls.
But then, something gave way, which pinned him to the floor. It pressed down hard. He heard a snapping sound, and gasped for air which did not come.
With a start, he opened his eyes to find the familiar, comforting stars around him, and the memory receded, its pain now letting go of him. A sensation of serenity welled up within him, and his smile returned. This was why he called it the dream world. Its pain could be remembered, even revisited, but it would not endure. Here, in the higher world, there was joy, and an end to pain. He marveled at the simple creature he had once been, his mind affixed solely on his immediate needs—the hunt, water to drink, to claim the mate his elders selected for him.
Now, all those were gone, and his mind had been filled with vast knowledge, far beyond what he would have known in a thousand lifetimes in the dream world. The wave/particle duality. Dark matter. The spin of a top quark.
Vast knowledge, but not infinite, and so, as he felt a rustling of fabric, he looked down, his eyes widening in surprise. The loincloth had disappeared, now replaced by a long, flowing set of robes. Flax, so it seemed, held together by a woolen cord wrapped snugly around his waist. He ran his hands along the thick fabric—not even the most revered of elders had ever worn such splendid garments.
It was pointless to seek an explanation. Instead, he took his new robes for a sign that something strange and wonderful was about to happen. He felt hopeful.
As he left the red giant and its white dwarf companion behind, he turned to look at them one last time and laughed with delight as both stars reddened, going from bright to dull. Then, uncannily, they disappeared from his sight. At first, he could only gaze in wonder at this magician's trick, puzzling over how it had been accomplished. Then he realized--the stars were visible in approach because their light was moving towards him; now past them, they disappeared because their light could no longer catch up with him. How strange, to view the rich panoply of stars before him, only to watch them disappear into inky blackness once he had passed.
Law is law.
Yet, though the stars behind him were no longer visible, he knew they were where he had left them. And he knew their fate. The white one would soon collapse upon itself, perhaps had already done so. Upon collapse, it would pause a moment, as if drawing in an enormous breath, and then erupt in a dazzling flash of light, ejecting its red companion into the depths of space.
How he wished he could see it. But it was not important. Only the Orrund. Only this.
More years passed, and yet he did not despair, for he sensed his journey drawing to a close. Soon, he felt himself slowing as he drew near a star, bright yellow, orbited by a number of planets. On the system's outer rim, just past an icy ring of asteroids and rocky detritus, were two gaseous giants, the gatekeepers of all life-bearing systems. Deeper inside, another four rocky planets, keeping pace in their oval orbits.
His eyes became affixed to the fourth planet, small, but with an abundance of materials. The rocky core. Liquid oceans. A gaseous atmosphere. He understood. Understood, without understanding why. Orrundlund.
He slowed to a speed that first seemed like a crawl, but as he made contact with the planet's atmosphere, he realized was still hundreds of meters per second. The air blasted his face, contorting his features and making his skin burn. He enjoyed the sensation.
He continued to decelerate as he reached the planet's surface. At a hundred meters to surface, he stopped, hovering in place and surveying his surroundings. Rocky here, and barren, almost a desert. It was night, very cold, the landscape thoroughly dotted with vegetation, small, stubby bushes with prickly gnetophyte leaves. Between them, though, a worn path could clearly be seen, and upon it, a trio of odd characters.
They were blue, slightly translucent. Their blood must have been nickel-based. An odd sight, they nonetheless delighted him. He smiled as they passed.
They had six appendages each--arms and legs, for lack of better words, but seemingly without an internal skeletal structure or exoskeleton to support them, bipedal bags of jelly. As the creatures marched along, they sagged with each step, only to recover to their original posture before taking the next.
In this vein they made their way along, a slow, rhythmical dance ensuing. Step. Sag. Recover. Step. Sag. Recover.
Delightful creatures, he mused. Delightful and dear. A true privilege that he should witness them.
One, large but not the largest, marched ahead of the others. An impressive creature, with a thick blue carapace at its head. Its eyes were large, black like obsidian, with a dour, wide mouth rather like that of a fish. It plodded forward authoritatively, apparently the leader of the group. Perhaps it knew this path well. Its steps seemed sure, determined. A cord woven of plant vegetation extended from its highest appendage, leading to the snout of the largest creature, blue and translucent like the others, but a different species. With the smallest one riding atop it, there could be no doubt—a simple pack animal.
He took a closer look at the small one. At its core, he realized, was a dark patch, barely discernable beneath the creature's blue skin, dim starlight its only illumination. At first he thought it was one of the creature's primary organs—perhaps the heart or brain. But he focused on it, letting out a delighted gasp as he observed it spinning in its sac. Then he understood.
They were not three traveling companions, but four.
Suddenly the night sky lit up, revealing the barren landscape and bringing the weary travelers into focus. He turned to face the brightness. His heart sang. The white star he had passed and which had exploded so long ago—the light of its demise had finally caught up with him.
At long last, the Orrund could be delivered.
Leaving the four, he quickly sought out his audience, the few long-destined to receive the Orrund. On a nearby hillside, he found a sizeable group, more creatures like the one upon the path. They had been sitting around a meager fire. Downhill, a large gathering of smaller creatures, yet another species, huddled next to one another for warmth. But with the night sky now in bright illumination, the ones near the fire had risen to their feet, staring in awe at the celestial splendor, and then, setting their black eyes upon him, dropping their wide, fishlike mouths, their faces reflecting both elation and abject horror. He smiled in sympathy.
A sense of humility now overcame him. That he had been chosen for this moment. That his journey, begun millions of years before the fish-mouths were to emerge as this planet’s dominant species, had ended in precise timing to coincide with the light of a now long-dead star. That the honor of the Orrund, at this unique moment in space and time, was now fully his. And so he spoke, in a language he himself did not understand, uttering sounds that clicked strangely upon his tongue.
He continued to speak, not comprehending his words, but recognizing in their eyes that the message had been received. The creatures cried out, fell prostrate before him, wept in his presence.
He wondered what he was saying to them.
The Orrund now delivered, he smiled upon them, uttered a few words in parting, or perhaps in blessing. Then he turned towards the brightly-lit sky. Within minutes he was past the planet's atmosphere, homeward bound. He could feel himself accelerating. Soon he would enter into deep space, leaving this strange, wonderful galaxy forever behind. Once again, he would grow cold, and he would sleep.
As he flew, he looked down. His robes had disappeared. Once again, he was wearing his familiar loincloth. One last time before he slept, he thought of that evening so long ago, when he failed the tribal ritual. Despite his failure, he had benefitted from it in ways which, to the primitive mind of a mere boy, were unfathomable. He had left the dream world, and entered into a higher one. Yes, there were strange and oftentimes monstrous beings here, but none that would devour him.
He thought of the charming creatures he had visited, especially the three—no, the four—upon his arrival. They were of great significance. He did not know how, but the feeling was inescapable. Yes, they were very important, especially the smallest one, the one yet unborn.
He wondered of its fate. His journey home would take many millions of years. During that time, the creature would be born, enjoy its childhood, be raised into adulthood. He wondered what would become of it. And what would its impact be upon the generations following it?
Such questions would remain unanswered--at least, for a time. This was inconvenient, perhaps, but he could accept his lot as Orrund-bearer without worrying about events which, at journey’s end, would be ancient history. He had done his duty, and this was enough.
Still, a question would not let go of him. Why? Why was the Orrund necessary? Why this place, and why did these alien creatures need to hear it?
Then he realized why. So that they, too, could see the world above the world.
Law is law—but that is not all there is to the universe.