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by Steph Bennion

Priest Taranis is far from home and close to death, his quest to find the mythical world of the greys having ended in disaster. Caught between masters and slaves, sacrifices must be made if the dark priest of destiny is to live to tell his tale...

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THE SPACESHIP DRIFTED in the silent void, spinning slowly as the last remnants of life-giving air vented into space. The Accueillir les Extra-Terrestres was nothing special: a flying-wing interstellar transport common to the Epsilon Eridani system in the late twenty-third century, though few had been prepared so thoroughly for a voyage into the unknown. What made it unique was the light that cast its glare upon the tumbling broken hull. The distant bright white sun and dwarf companion was that of Procyon. No human-crewed ship had ever before ventured to this star. The rogue chunk of ice that had smashed through the spacecraft’s frame looked certain to leave their tale untold.

The Accueillir les Extra-Terrestres’ fusion reactor was a blackened, mangled husk, damaged beyond repair. With no power other than the dwindling reserves of its fuel cells, the vessel’s extra-dimensional drive could not take them home. They were eleven light years beyond the nearest of humanity’s outposts in the Epsilon Eridani system and there was no way to call for help. They were alone like no one had ever been before.

Priest Taranis had brought his followers to the edge of nowhere. The mythical planet they had travelled so far to find was just that, for the debris of creation encircling Procyon had never coalesced into worlds and moons. They had reached the end of the road.

Against the odds, help came.

* * *

Taranis drifted in and out of consciousness for days. He became aware that he was no longer aboard the Accueillir les Extra-Terrestres. The green-walled chamber in which he sat looked organic, a dome of thick branch-like growths like the roots of a tree, interspersed with a web of smaller vines and mysterious patches that glowed sky blue. Eerie music murmured softly, abstract and alien to his ears but somehow soothing. Each laboured breath he took tasted fresh, life-giving air quite unlike the recycled atmosphere of a spacecraft; or even that of his Epsilon Eridani home world, the terraformed moon of Yuanshi. A faint wave of panic washed over him as he wondered where he was. It mattered not. He was safe.

The days passed and his strength returned. He was sitting within the familiar contours of his spider walker, the mechanical eight-limbed mobility chair he had relied upon since he was young. The joystick on the right-hand armrest no longer seemed to work, leaving him unable to manoeuvre. Strange tendrils clung to his upper arms, looping down to the floor and up again to join other stout growths across the ceiling. The loose-fitting white tunic he wore was freshly-laundered and one he recognised as his own.

With a growing sense of alarm, he tried to move his withered legs and felt nothing at all. He guessed he was in some sort of medical facility, but wondered why he was in his chair and not a proper bed. Trembling, his fingers reached down to where his torso met the seat of his mobility chair.

Taranis screamed. The lower half of his body had gone.

He reached beneath his tunic, hesitated and then touched the still-healing scar tissue beneath. With growing horror, he traced the wrinkled contours of his skin to an unfamiliar mesh band attached to his seat. His flesh merged smoothly with the seat of the chair. A shiver ran down his spine. He and his spider walker had become one.

“My legs...” he murmured. “Lord alien greys! What has happened to me?”

He could not stop his fingers from shaking as they fell upon the tubes that ran from behind his seat and up his back, past his neck to his head. What felt like metal plates covered parts of his skull. Years ago he had submitted himself to surgery to install a security-forces implant inside his cranium, a device that gave him thought-control access to certain types of hardware by way of tiny filaments grown into his brain. The tubes entered his skull where the implant was located. Someone had hard-wired his chair straight into his head.

A memory returned of being trapped in the wreckage of the ship, unable to move. It was not unknown for people to lose limbs after being cut free. Yet no human doctor in their right mind would ever think of reassembling a damaged body in such fashion. Taranis withdrew his quivering fingers and buried his face in his hands.

“Who did this?” he whispered bitterly. He surprised himself with the realisation that he was more angry than dismayed. “Why was I not left to die?!”

He took a deep breath and concentrated on the facts. He was disfigured but alive. The mobility chair had been part of his life for almost as long as he could remember, so in a way there was no great change. The damage inflicted by his rescuers could possibly be fixed when he got back to civilisation. Right now, he needed more information.

In his mind, a jab of a mental finger brought up a line of symbols representing various functions of his cranium implant. A faint web-like shadow of his chair and its eight spindly legs lay behind the familiar control icons, something he was sure had not been there before. No external networks were evident, which was unheard of in the five systems. Nor could he link with any of the communication wristpads worn by his crew. He was however receiving remote readings from two medical implants, which meant their owners were alive and near.

Being unable to connect with the outside world felt worse than losing his legs. He opened a storage cubby-hole below the armrest of his chair and extracted a tiny camera drone the size of his fist. He carefully unfurled its rotors, pressed the power switch and watched as it whirred into life. A gentle sweep of his hand launched the drone on its mission.

The tendrils wrapped around his arms pulsed and squeezed tighter, though he felt no pain. A weariness seeped into his veins, easing his grief. Taranis’ eyes closed once more.

* * *

The sound of footsteps reached his ears. Taranis lifted his head and saw an archway had opened before him, filling the chamber with cool blue light. Two figures stood silhouetted in the entrance. On seeing him move, they hastened forward and came to his side.

To his surprise and relief, it was communications officer Belenus and pilot Sirona, two of his crew. Belenus, a bald-headed young man with pale blotchy skin, had an arm in a sling and a myriad of fresh scars across his face. Sirona, a middle-aged woman with dark hair and a Mediterranean complexion, bore an interesting collection of bruises and a pronounced limp. Both wore flowing cream-coloured open robes over their battered flight suits. Their wary glances suggested this was first time they had seen his crippled form since their rescue.

“Priest Taranis!” cried Belenus. “You’re alive!”

“Brother Belenus, I am that,” Taranis said slowly, his voice a rasping croak. The tiny camera drone buzzed lazily above their heads. “Though somewhat damaged, as you can see. What manner of a doctor rebuilt me into this perversion? What is this place?”

“We don’t know,” Sirona replied. Her own and her colleague’s first language was French and her heavily-accented English sounded more hesitant than usual. “Neither of us remember being rescued from the ship. Our hosts are... How shall I put this? Strange.”

Taranis’ eyes narrowed. “Hosts?”

Belenus beckoned to someone unseen beyond the arch. A man and a woman entered the chamber, both pale-skinned with tumbling locks of auburn hair. The strangers were a good ten centimetres taller than even Belenus and stocky with it, but despite their heavy build moved with unusual grace. There was something uncanny about their broad mouths and prominent brows, yet the smile upon their faces was genuine. Both wore curious closed robes in a shimmering gold fabric.

Taranis gazed in wonderment. “Angels are among us,” he murmured.

The flame-haired woman came to Belenus’ side. Bowing to Taranis, she held out her hands and then brought them back to her chest over her heart. Her companion, standing silently beside Sirona, dipped his head reverentially.

“They don’t say much,” Belenus admitted. “We’ve somehow got along with sign language. They are pleased to see you are making a good recovery.”

“That depends on your definition,” snapped Taranis. “Are there others?”

“The rest of the crew were in the passenger cabin when the meteoroid struck,” Sirona reminded him, looking pained. “There was nothing we could do to save them.”

“I am aware of that,” he growled. “I referred to the others of this establishment. Your two silent friends cannot be the only ones here. Is there someone in command? What of the medics who used me for their deranged surgery? Is there anyone with a tongue, even?”

“You do not understand,” said Belenus. “They are our saviours.”

“They have presented us with gifts,” Sirona added. She pulled back the sleeve of her robe and showed him the thick gold bangle she wore. “We have a place here with them.”

Taranis’ eyes narrowed. “Here? And where is that?”

“Nirvana,” she said. “Heaven. Does it matter what we call it?”

“We will return when you are recovered,” said Belenus. He sounded disappointed. “You will not want for anything. But you must believe.”

“You dare to question my belief?” exclaimed Taranis, incredulous.

Belenus smiled. The silent woman at his side took his hand, the man likewise with Sirona. As one, they turned and walked back through the archway and faded into the light. Taranis watched them go and scowled. His drone, circling by the door, gave a hesitant twitch as a small silver blur leapt across the departing shadows.

“Heaven!” muttered Taranis. “Fools! This is a living hell.”

“Both being human constructs, of course,” purred a female voice behind him.

Startled, Taranis jerked his head and yelped in pain as the tubes at his back pulled against his skull. To his amazement, a silver and black tabby cat sat on the floor near the wall, calmly washing a paw with its tongue. The cat paused and regarded Taranis solemnly. In a mind-warping blink of an eye, the creature sprang up and suddenly became a tall, slim woman with sleek dark hair and smooth olive skin, clad in a long white dress and floor-length fur coat of silver and black. Her youthful, playful nonchalance contrasted sharply with the wisdom in the depths of her stare.

Taranis’ hand instinctively went to the joystick to turn his walker and he cursed upon remembering the controls were broken. The dull ache from where his torso met his chair was clouding his thoughts just when he needed to think clearly. He scrutinised the stranger warily.

“An impressive metamorphosis,” he acknowledged. “Am I party to mind-altering drugs? Or maybe you are little more than a holographic illusion?”

“For someone driven by belief, you are a sceptical and distrustful man,” she retorted. Walking to the front of his chair, she put a hand to her hip. “I expected more gratitude from someone rescued from the jaws of death. The mighty Priest Taranis! Father of the Dhusarian Church. Defender of the claim that only alien gods can save humankind from itself!”

“My fame precedes me,” he remarked. “Would you care to reciprocate?”

“I’m the Christmas fairy,” she retorted. “Be careful of what you wish for.”

“Christmas?” exclaimed Taranis. “It is barely November.”

“Time flies when you’re having fun. You’ve been here longer than you think.”

“Do not jest with me, stranger. Tell me who you are!”

The woman paused. “I go by many names,” she said. “Your ancestors revered me as your small band of followers do you. Homer attributed my deeds to Pallas Athene.”

“Athene,” muttered Taranis. “Pah! There are no gods but the greys. A true god would have no need for the smoke-and-mirrors arrival, nor gaudy dress!”

“Do you like the coat? I made it myself,” she remarked lightly. “And I come and go as I please. Who are you to judge divinity? You’ve a long way to go before you convince your species that your mysterious greys are anything more than a myth, let alone their saviours.”

“I have seen them with my own eyes,” he told her. “Two such creatures found in the forests of our moon are in our care. I have decoded enough of the sacred texts to know their culture is far in advance of our own. They are no myth.”

“Yet their home world remains just that. Did you find what you sought?”

“At Procyon?” Taranis paused. “Are we still in that blasted star system?”

“That’s for me to know,” Athene replied mischievously. “And for you to find out.”

She twirled on the spot, lifted her arms, then twisted and shrank into an owl-shaped blur that fluttered in a spiral towards the ceiling. Taranis stared in disbelief as the creature swooped past his whirring camera drone, through the archway of light and away. He felt a headache coming on.

“It must be a mind-probe experiment,” he decided. “First my legs, then my sanity! Is there anything left for the butchers in this accursed place to take?”

* * *

Taranis was once more alone. He pushed his aches and pains into the back of his mind, brought up the icons for his cranium implant and contemplated the mysterious wispy filaments forming the ghostly image of his chair. A dull glow rose from an oval mass at the centre, roughly where the spider walker’s artificial-intelligence control unit should be. The part of him aware of his own presence felt different. Startled, he realised he was sensing the inanimate contraption beneath him, right down to the pressure of the steel legs upon the floor.

Focusing on his metal limbs, he imagined them moving. With a scrape of metal, his chair lurched forward and stopped. Exhilaration mixed with the shock confirmation that the circuits of his chair had been routed directly into his brain. Anyone familiar with implants would have set up a wireless connection. He was not sure whether to laugh or cry.

He experimented further and with effort found he could jolt his walker into motion in whichever direction he chose. Local gravity felt greater than that of his native Yuanshi, but less than that of Earth. The mental exertion quickly took its toll, for he remained weak following his ordeal. It dawned on him that he had not eaten nor drank in a while, yet felt no need to do so. He wondered if the tendrils attached to his arms provided sustenance. It was yet one more mystery in an ever-lengthening list.

He found a control icon in his mind’s eye and watched the hovering drone’s life-size holographic protection of Belenus, Sirona and their two silent companions as the recording replayed. Of the mysterious Athene there was no sign; the drone had captured his side of the conversation but no more. Yet he knew the shape-shifting cat woman had been no mirage.

“It is time to explore further afield,” he murmured. “By stealth, if necessary.”

He opened the drone’s programming interface in his mind and got to work. Strangers generally took offence at being watched, but holographic camouflage could work wonders. Taranis was determined to get to the bottom of this mystery and find a way home.

* * *

At some point, the archway dimmed and became a wall of green, as did the blue panels on the walls. His tiredness got the better of him and he dozed.

A soft thud awoke him. Taranis opened his eyes in time to see a tabby blur leap from the twisted vines of the wall and metamorphose into the mysterious woman once more. This time her white dress was shorter, showing off the toned flesh of her thighs and a shiny pair of black knee-high boots. A new fear arose within him as he realised he had nothing but vague memories of their previous conversation. The woman stepped forward and gave a sly smile.

The priest’s eyes narrowed. “You’re wearing my boots,” he growled.

“You intrigue me, Taranis,” the woman purred. “I felt the need to walk in your shoes for a while. I figured you had little use for them, what with no legs and so on.”

“Callous, slippery and vain,” he remarked sourly. “You should be in politics.”

“Democracy is dead, my dear Taranis. There are better ways to manipulate fate.”

“You remember my name. Why do I not recall yours?”

“Your memory is not what it was,” she said, sounding sympathetic. “Humans are distressingly fragile. Especially those who blast themselves into the void on foolhardy adventures. It is not wise to keep wrecking the ships you take to the stars.”

“I have flown many missions. This is the first that has gone awry,” he retorted.

“The second,” she corrected. “You have forgotten how you got to Yuanshi in the first place. But of course, that vessel you stole does not yet even exist! Entropy is supposed to make time a one-way trip so it’s no wonder your mind is addled.”

Taranis scowled. “You talk in riddles. Who are you?”

“Athene,” she said. “Remember?”

“The ancient Greek goddess?” he scoffed. “There are no gods but the greys.”

Athene sighed. “We’ve done that bit. Your mind is weak, old man.”

“Old man? I’m barely fifty!”

“Take a look in the mirror,” she retorted. “You have not aged well.”

“Belenus and Sirona were here,” Taranis said carefully. He was still monitoring the signals from their medical implants. “Where are they now?”

“They chose a different path,” she said dismissively. “Showered with gifts and swept off their feet by two rather charming individuals. I always thought it was a shame they lost out to you lot when it came to claiming Earth. Lovely red hair.”

“Whereas I get some damn fool Puss in Boots,” muttered Taranis. “Who’s ‘they’?”

“You ask far too many questions.” Athene stalked closer and stared levelly at the priest. “But not the obvious ones. Your so-called saviours fixed your shattered body, but saw no difference between your own mortal carcass and the multi-legged contraption on which you rely. You are not ready for answers when faced with questions like that.”

“Curiosity killed the cat,” he remarked dryly. “I am not afraid of the truth.”

Athene sidled closer and smiled. Behind her, the archway brightened, revealing a winding green passageway. Taranis felt the tendrils tighten upon his arms.

“The game is afoot,” said Athene. “Do not fear, my little pawn. I shall return.”

* * *

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All content is copyright Steph Bennion, WyrdStar and Danse Macabre 2007-2017.