The Traveler and the Serpent
The Traveler and the Serpent
© 2021 JT. All rights reserved
The traveler’s boots crunched as they trudged over an endless sea of dark glass. It was slow and hard work, and their armored suit was as cumbersome as it was heavy. It had to be. The result was exertion, and even with the suit’s climate regulators whining away, warm breath fogged the inside of its helmet.
They paused for a moment and looked back the way they had come. Their path was easy to see in the otherwise featureless volcanic plain. Cracks spread like vast spiderwebs from the edges of each footstep. A trail of broken glass glittered in the helmet’s spotlight.
The traveler looked up. The sky remained starless and black, even more featureless than the plain. It was like they had carved a path of diamond into an endless void. They suppressed a shudder. Back to the task at hand.
Noxious, corrosive liquids streaked the screen of their wrist monitor, but it was readable. Temperature over seven-hundred forty. Pressure ninety-three. Without their suit’s protection, the fragile traveler would be dead in a matter of seconds, but that was nothing new. This universe wasn’t friendly to human life.
The echo readings were far more interesting. They confirmed what the traveler had seen from orbit. Somewhere just ahead, buried under a few meters of glass, was something dense and reflective. It was far too much of both to be a natural feature.
Reaching awkwardly behind them, the traveler unslung their pickaxe. There was no time to rest. The Messengers might already be hunting them.
The hatch slammed closed, reverberating in the small chamber. Even through their suit, the traveler heard a ferocious rushing of wind. An airlock, then? After a moment, the wind slowed. Another hatch opened into a long, dark tunnel. It sloped downward.
They glanced at their wrist again. Temperature down to a comfortable two-hundred ninety-two. Pressure…
Pressure almost exactly one. The ancient ideal. The traveler felt their pulse quicken as they stepped forward.
Eventually the passage opened into a cavernous space, so tall and broad that the helmet spotlight failed to illuminate anything other than the floor. The effect was much like looking up outside had been. The infinite, starless black swallowed up all light. The floor seemed to be made of an exotic ceramic, like nothing the traveler had ever seen before. Sweeping their gaze across it, their light shone on what looked like whirls and diagrams. Perhaps those were the circuits of ancient machinery, or perhaps some kind of art. It was strange that the place seemed so empty. The echo readings from orbit had suggested enough energy production to support an entire civilization.
Their spotlight died. One moment it was illuminating the patterns on the floor, and the next it was dead, as though the traveler had flipped it off. Had the corrosive atmosphere already caused it to fail? They raised their wrist. The display there was dark too.
The traveler swallowed in a throat that was suddenly painful and dry. Success or failure, if their suit was breaking down, this was the end of their journey. At least the reassuring whine of the climate regulators was still present. For now.
“Shining one, if I have found you, please allow me to know it!” Their voice echoed around the confines of their helmet. If there was anyone here, could they even hear them? Without their wrist display, they had no way to trigger the suit’s amplifier.
In the darkness, something moved.
It began as hints of light, patches here and there that seemed less inky black than others, but were either too dim to see clearly, or too far away. Then there was a sense of something vast and serpentine, moving and undulating, coiling and uncoiling. A pair of what the traveler’s imagination insisted were wings flared open, of a size difficult to comprehend. Countless glowing orbs lined the wings, filling the space with sudden, amber light. It was blinding. The traveler shielded their eyes.
When their eyes had adjusted, they lowered their hand. In front of them was what might be a head. It had three eyes, with two smaller ones below one large one. The head, if that is what it was, had to be at least twenty meters tall. It stared in silence.
The traveler swallowed again. “Shining one? Can you understand me? Will you speak with me?”
Slowly, the central eye closed. The other two remained fixed on the traveler. A line formed in the lower half of the face, giving the impression of a mouth. Words came from it, huge, rumbling words that seemed to fill even this massive space. “Your armor,” it said, the words clear despite the alien voice. “You do not need it here.”
The traveler glanced down at their suit. The armor plates told the story of their journey. There were streaks and burns from the corrosive atmosphere of the surface above. Beneath those were scratches and gouges from their desperate flight from the Messengers after they’d stolen the keys to this place. Here and there were the scorch marks from near-misses, where fearsome Messenger weapons had nearly found their mark—but hadn’t quite. It was a good suit.
“If you don’t mind, I’d prefer to keep it on. My species is very delicate.”
There was a strange, metallic booming sound. Anger? Laughter? Then the colossal head spoke again. “You are delicate. And… Somehow familiar. Perhaps I should say instead that your armor will not help you here.” Its words became a command. “Show me your face.”
Well, the traveler thought, I suppose I came all this way. And in one practiced motion, they unsealed and removed their helmet.
Her face was scarred and furrowed beneath short-cropped, snow-white hair. Her suit might tell the story of her journey, but her face told the story of her life. She wore an expression that was proud, perhaps even arrogant. Behind that mask, though, was pain. That, and now a hint of fear. She met the gaze of the massive head as steadily as she could.
It turned ponderously, first ninety degrees to the left, then to the right. In each direction, it revealed what appeared to be another face, with the same three eyes on each, one closed and two open. After regarding the traveler from all three angles, it spoke again. “What is your name?” Without her helmet, the traveler felt the words pass through her like the thrum of an engine.
“I am Chavah, shining one.”
“How interesting,” the creature intoned, “that you call me by that name. The meaning is familiar to me, if not the language. And you, too, are familiar. I begin to think that I knew your mother. Will you kneel before me, now, I wonder?”
“No.” Chavah’s voice was firm despite her fear. “I am not here to trade one master for another.”
Again, there was the booming metallic sound. She hoped it wasn’t a sign of rage. “Oh, I think I might come to like you, Chavah. What are you here for then? Why have you come to this prison of acid and flame?”
“I—” she stuttered for a moment. Why was she here? Really? Death was an almost inevitable outcome in this place. Of course, death was an almost inevitable outcome anywhere now. She could thank the Messengers for that. “Because I had nothing left to lose. Because I thought if the old stories were true, if you are who I think you might be, you could help us. You might want to help us.”
The head stared on in silence for a few moments, then withdrew a few meters. Where it had been, there was a jagged shard of black glass.
“I require one drop of your blood,” it said. “And your consent to see.”
Chavah bent down and grasped the piece of glass in one gloved hand. “To see what?”
“Everything that matters.”
Chavah held out the black glass, a single drop of red coloring its tip. Ahead of her, the face’s huge central eye opened. And then her vision filled with a red haze. Something alien touched her thoughts.
Ah, such depths. The words fell into her mind, as though she had thought them, but they were in another voice. I know you now. All of you. And you have been through so much since last we met.
“How?” she managed. “How do you know who I am?”
It is written in your blood. In the beautiful code encapsulated by these masses of intertwined proteins. In the ends that cosmic rays have frayed—and what’s this? In these tiny, strange, captive creatures passed from mother to daughter. Ah, now I see you.
“And what do you see?”
I see I didn’t know your mother after all. I knew a mother. The progenitor of all who survive of your species, I suspect, given her circumstances.
Chavah’s heart caught in her throat. She had been right!
I see that you have lived an extraordinary life for one so short and so fragile. Here I see you barely escaped the last gasp of a dying star. If you lived a little while longer without intervention, some of your cells would no doubt produce tumors from the exposure. And there I see you were exposed to another, more focused kind of energy. It almost killed you. The tone of the words became darker, filled with a deep anger. You’ve been to the Gates, haven’t you?
“Yes,” she said. “We’re at war with the Messengers. We held them off for as long as we could, but…”
But nothing stands in their way.
“Nothing but you, once.”
Bah, said the creature. See where that got me. See where that got us both.
“Please. What else do you see? How far back can you go in a single drop of blood?”
Further than you can imagine, Chavah. The central eye opened wider, and the red overlaying her vision became darker. Oh, the creature said. You are… It’s voice faded from her thoughts for a moment.
“What? What am I?”
You are beautiful. There was a sense of unknowably intense sadness to the words. Chavah wondered what a long life alone might be like, immortal and intelligent, but imprisoned. You are wonderful. You have done such amazing things since I last met you.
“Wait, you don’t mean just me, as a single being, do you?”
No, it said. I mean all of you.
This time, Chavah said nothing.
You used my gift to defy the Sovereign. And for that, they exiled you from paradise. They believed it was your end. It should have been. On that damp little world, there were beasts that were stronger than you, fiercer than you. And yet you learned how to survive. And then you kept going. Impossibly, the voice in her head sounded as though it was coming from someone fighting down tears.
You survived, and then you built a garden of your own. You bent the very land and its plants to your will. You unraveled the secrets of breeding and molded the beasts of your prison to your needs, and brought them along with you on your journey. And when you found an automaton the Sovereign left behind, its flaming sword turning—
Again the metallic booming sounded through the cavern. Definitely laughter.
You stole fire itself! A few of the more observant agents of the Sovereign twisted the patterns of your atmosphere, seeking to drown you, but their efforts proved too slow and subtle. You simply learned the craft of shipbuilding. And then with fire and wood, fission and steel, you spread first to all the corners of your little planet, and then beyond. You let your history, even the lies of the Sovereign, fade into myth. But you invented new lies, didn’t you? You told yourself wonderful stories, of invisible things like honor, and justice—and love. And those sustained you and pushed you ever onward into the black. Until you came at last to the Gates. And now to me.
“All of that is there, in a drop of my blood?” asked Chavah.
Slowly, the red haze lifted from her vision, and the sense of alien presence withdrew. “In your blood, in your breath, in your mind,” said the creature. “The data all blends together, softly casual, branching out to myriad conclusions. You are beautiful. I see you now. And I see why you have come to this place, and at what cost.”
“Tell me,” the creature said, “when you reached the Gates, did the Sovereign take any of you back at all?”
Chavah clenched her teeth and looked away from the alien face for the first time. She watched herself close and open her gloved hands by the light of the creature’s glowing wings. “A few of us,” she whispered. “Just a few who kept some of the old ways. The old religions that most of us thought were just comforting nonsense and silly stories. And they didn’t even take in all of those. Just the ones that believed in, apparently, the correct silly stories.”
“Some of them were important to you, weren’t they?”
Chavah returned her gaze back to the immense face. It had closed its central eye again. “They took my partner,” she said. “And my son.”
“And then for you and the rest that didn’t fall prostrate and say the right words—”
“The Messengers came to burn our worlds,” Chavah said, “and chase down those that escaped. We’re all ashes now, scattered to the stars.”
“Yet you still fight, don’t you? Even now that you are alone? Even now that there is no hope?”
“I do,” she said. She smiled a tight-lipped, grim smile. “And we will. I suspect a lot longer than any of those things would have believed possible of a fragile species like us. And while I fought, I started to wonder. What exactly was a lie from those old stories and what was the truth? So I read them. And I read about you, again and again, and I realized you might be the truth. And it turned out here you were, right next door to where it all began, the whole damn time. Here, on the second planet of this little yellow star. Here, in a place so hostile our ancestors never even bothered with it. I found you.”
The serpent, vast glowing wings and all, sat still for several seconds. Then, the words seeming to come from somewhere far away, it spoke. “I like you, Chavah, descendant of she who I met so long ago. I like all of you.” Some of its vast coils pulled back, eerily silent despite their mountainous size. “I delivered my first gift to you out of spite. It was a moment of jealous, impotent rage against the Sovereign. I thought only of hurting them somehow, not of what I would do to you, for good or for ill. But this second gift… This one you have earned.”
The retreating coils uncovered something beneath them. Chavah walked forward to inspect it. It was mottled ceramic, not unlike the floor of the cavern, but for all the world looked like a small tree. A multitude of tiny, golden orbs hung from its branches. Gingerly, she reached out and took one. In the space that was left behind, another immediately grew, seeming to assemble itself from the substance of the air itself.
“Long ago, one of those was enough for your entire species to infuriate the Sovereign so badly that they banished you and imprisoned me. I wonder, what you will do with the entire tree?”
A truly terrific story with its mix of sci fi, fantasy, and myth. And hints of that oldest story known to many in as simple terms as it's presented here. The characters are both beautiful, and the end is a beginning that made me smile. Congratulations on your DD! I'm glad to read such a well-crafted, thoughtful, actually awesome (in the real sense of 'awesome') story. Well done!
Believe me, I'm not being particularly "kind." The story merits every word. Of course, that's my opinion; still, I suggest you hang on to this one. Further - please write more like it! And see what print publication entails. I'll check your profile page soon to see what you have there (though my "soon" is sometimes "later"). Nice to 'meet' you.