Mark Everglade and Joseph Hurtgen
Five thousand rotations ago, the Umbra built a network of geothermal generators on Mertvykh, that small, dark planet at the far reach of Marko’s Star. The world was the Umbra’s plaything for many generations, having installed solar mirrors to reflect light across the planet, compensating for days that lasted as long as an Earth year. Temples of black marble soared to the sky, flanked by diamond-eyed golems, unmoving for centuries.
After centuries, they vanished, leaving behind an altered heat distribution across the planet that wrought tidal waves and hurricanes and melted ancient icecaps, bearing new rivers to cut into the landscape, evaporating others. The solar mirrors lost calibration and turned to no longer reflect the sun, and the west hemisphere was cast into darkness.
It was all fine by Council Regent Hesperus, who spent his life shielding himself from UV rays due to xeroderma pigmentosum, a severe sensitivity to sunlight. Even when entire sectors of the economy collapsed, including the agriculture that sustained them, Hesperus enjoyed the good life, roaming the landscape without heavy-duty gear, the marble light of the twin moons fresh on his skin.
The day after his sixty-third birthday, an odd communication arrived at The Lunisolar Council. A towering man in a slim-cut suit approached with a grey pad emitting a wavering hologram of a hooded man.
“I am an ambassador of Umbra. You live in our shadow. But for a fee, we can lift the darkness from your land. Altering the mirrors locked to geosynchronous orbit is easy enough for us. In return for correcting the course of light, we will collect fifty percent of your gross planetary product.” He held out an electronic tablet with an alien symbol on the header followed by legalese. At bottom, a blank line next to an X.
Hesperus looked at Vice Council Kaya. “Fifty percent! That’s outrageous!”
Kaya nodded in agreement.
“A small price considering the fate of your world depends on it, no?”
Hesperus was caught between making a deal the planet neeed and losing the darkness that let him freely walk the dead, barren ground.
“We’ll think about it.” He cut off deliberation with a swipe of his hand.
Crystalline towers rose heavenward outside the legislature, piercing the thick fog that lay across the dark lands. The towers served as emblems of the oppressive Umbra. A barrier wove through every level of the tower, crisscrossing it and shielding the main entrances. It had resisted all attempts to gain access. He examined the glyphs inscribed on the sides. “They must have some weakness.”
Kaya ran a hand across a glyph. “Why must they?”
Hesperus frowned. “Doesn’t everything?”
“Not the Umbra.”
In the lower corner of the building was a recognizable symbol — the one on the legal document the hooded man had offered, requesting fifty percent. “That must mean 50. The repetition means this tower was built in the year 5050.”
Kaya nodded. “Five hundred years ago, when the Umbra arrived.”
“The only other thing that has lasted that long are the geothermal generators. I bet they power the barrier. Shut them off, and the towers might be accessible.”
“Then maybe we can calibrate the mirrors from there. Nothing else here is as valuable. It’s the only thing they’d need to protect.”
“But with our thin atmosphere, if we disable those generators, we’ll freeze.”
“We’ll only have a few minutes in the tower, and if the generators are reinstated while we’re inside, the barrier will react and we’re cooked.”
“Unless we could change the barrier’s patterns. These crystals look like phosphophyllite.”
“Yes, the oceanic hues are unmistakably phosphophyllite. But they’re too fragile to use for even jewelry. Do you think that altering them would change the barrier’s direction?”
“It’s worth a shot. They’re sensitive to acid. A few applications in the right places and the crystals will detach from the towers. It’s unusual for a space-faring species to use such a rare element in their construction, so it must serve a purpose beyond aesthetics. Still, why phosphorus, a mineral that’s usually associated with life? Life is as much phosphorus based as it is carbon based.”
“Only one way to know–tear it down!”
Firemen sprayed down the tower with a massive hose. Spidering veins of ice latticed along the façade. An ominous creak reverberated across the wide plain athwart the tower. A booming followed, loud as derecho over an endless ocean.
Five crystals emerged from a stony base and rose like swords to the left. Five more rose to the right, detaching from the towers. The brittle shards curled like fingers, the gem facets forming and reforming to make them flexible. The crystals travelled along the edge of the towers, flaring into spikes, until they congealed into a golem. Its turquoise brilliance drew even moonbeams to be captured within its bulwark, the light infinitely reflecting within its faces. Two trapezoidal jewels turned on end near the top of the towering structure, but the light inside these jewels was different. It was the light of…
“The barrier wasn’t to prevent us from gaining access to the tower. It was to protect us from the golem!” Kaya cried.
“A little too late for that!” Hesperus signaled the firemen. “Target the golem!”
The firemen blasted the golem, encasing it in three meters of ice. Kaya and Hesperus approached the frozen guardian.
“Why would they have put a golem here?” Hesperus asked.
As an answer, a half dozen of the Umber materialized around the two council regents. “You have desecrated our most holy of temples.”
Kaya drew a repeating laser rifle and blasted down an ugly Umber. It shrieked and writhed on the ground in a pool of its purple blood.
One Umber held out a hand to the tower and a lightning bolt struck an Umber standing to his left, frying him. “No! The calibration!”
Hesperus had his laser rifle out, but the firemen had their hose back on. The Umbers and the council regents were soon covered in a mountain of ice, frozen like Mertvykh, that small, dark planet at the far reach of Marko’s Star.