On that unnamed planet, Jalleen kept vigil over the bodies of his fallen crew mates. He sang the song of mourning, three songs of interwoven photons flaring into the night sky.
Jalleen had been in the pod, working on exploration reports, when they'd met their deaths. He'd found their burnt-out bodies lying next to one of the intense energy outlets that punctuated the landscape. A power surge must have overloaded their minds. It was a lonely place for their deaths, a world in an isolated spiral of the galaxy, which had once been home to a few million Zyxlars. Other worlds in the sector contained abandoned Zyxlar cities. Members of The Quantized Vortex explored those ruins, hoping to find trade goods, lost technologies, perhaps even a relic.
But this planet held nothing. Not even multicellular life. The ecosystem swam with microbes, but on this planet evolution had stalled, preferring to spiral into obscure and elaborate methods of unicellular metabolism rather than forming larger life forms.
Cali, the leader of the exploration party, hadn't wanted Jalleen on the team. He'd made that quite clear with a variety of sarcastic remarks. "You can practice your preaching to the microbes," Cali had said.
Jalleen had been raised on a preaching ship. His family travelled the galaxy sharing the doctrines' spectrum with any species that would hear the words. Jalleen was the first member of his family to leave The Photonic Creed in generations.
His crew mates, Cali, Quolim and Frahar, never would they reach The Vast.
All his life, Jalleen had been fascinated by the stories of the Methenes' lost home world. His family thought that they would find the location of The Vast in the apocryphal texts, studying the electronic signals that had accumulated over thousands of years.
"It's all here, Jalleen. In the words of our prophets," Jalleen's grandfather would say. "You'll find nothing on the outside that can't be sublimated right here."
Jalleen adjusted the position of Frahar's body slightly, so that it aligned perfectly to the planet's magnetic North. Frahar had seemed indifferent to Jalleen. They'd barely exchanged a dozen words.
And Quolim. She had been the kindest to him. Jalleen's time on The Quantized Vortex had been difficult. It had never occurred to him that the others might not believe in the doctrines. Oh, they said they believed, but they didn't embrace its truth. He'd tried to show them their error. He'd issued a ship-wide invitation for a doctrine study session in his quarters. No one had showed up. He'd tried to engage his work team in theosophical debate. His crew mates quickly started to avoid him.
Quolim had tried to help him. Jalleen could see that now, although at the time her words had made him angry.
"You've got to lighten up, Jalleen," she'd said. "Not everyone wants to constantly discuss the doctrines."
"There is no discussion about the doctrines," he'd said. How dare she lecture him about the doctrines? "They are."
Quolim flickered in amusement. "You'll learn. Or you'll leave. Not everyone thinks the way you do."
"Well they should." How pompous he'd been.
She'd sighed. "Why are you here, Jalleen? Not for the money, nor for the adventure. Are you here to preach the doctrines? You could have done that on your family ship."
"I want to find The Vast," he'd said. It sounded a little ridiculous. How could he find the world that had been lost for countless generations?
But Quolim hadn't laughed at him. "It's a fine ambition, Jalleen. Just go easy on the preaching, eh?"
Yes. Quolim had been kind to him.
Jalleen sang the song of mourning, lighting the alien dark.
Jalleen ended the song when dawn touched the sky. It would be a few more days until The Quantized Vortex returned. He'd had been unable to contact the captain due to the static that swam in the atmosphere. The static was caused by the venting energy streams that plumed like flame from cracks in the planet's metallic rock.
The energy signatures of the streams were unusual. Were there patterns in the electron stream? It seemed that there might be, but they were elusive. But intriguing. Jalleen could understand why his crew mates had wanted to investigate the venting streams. Methenes are always fascinated by obscure energy forms.
Except it was strange that they'd ventured too close to the streams. They were veteran explorers. Cali in particular had been cautious. His natural racial curiosity tempered by years of training. He'd lectured Jalleen endlessly about the need to follow protocol. How was it that they'd ventured to close to the streams? It seemed like a rookie's mistake. Cali should not have allowed all three of them to investigate a dangerous energy source.
Jalleen found himself drawn to the streams. He shook his head in annoyance. How foolish to consider investigating the very phenomenon that had already claimed three lives. Reluctantly he returned to the pod to fill out more reports. But he was unable to concentrate. His curiosity burned, nagging at his mind.
This planet was too silent.
He missed the voice of his crew mates.
He missed the sound of other creatures. All Methene ships have a company of small semi-gas life forms. In fact, any noise would be welcome, even the strange sounds of organic or silicate life. This was a silent planet. Yet it lived with uncountable millions of small life, with the energy that spiraled and danced. The air, the earth, the ocean teemed with microbes. When Jalleen's looked at the sea, his senses perceived the biological energy as a glistening layer of brightness in the upper lengths, with descending spirals of energy to the depths where the microbes fed on the chemical or heat energy of the planet.
It was a pity that the crew of The Quantized Vortex was not interested in such things. They only wanted to find the objects left behind by the departing Zyxlar which could be traded quickly.
But there was much to discover here, like the strange anomalous energy streams. Why had Cali allowed them to venture so close? There was mystery here that wouldn't be solved. The Quantized Vortex would move on, further into the deserted sector, and the mystery of their deaths would be left behind.
They deserved more than that.
Unless . . . .
Unless . . . Jalleen touched their minds and reawakened the memories.
It was no small thing to touch a mind.
Jalleen left the pod. The glowing dawn glittered across the sky, as light reflected from atmospheric ice crystals. Under the diamond dust sky, Jalleen resolved to solve the mystery of their deaths.
The Methene brain is constructed of an amorphous gas which exhibits the static properties of a solid. The brain, like their high-energy skin and homeostatic organs retains its integrity for a few weeks after death.
By constructing a questing energy pattern, Jalleen could reactivate the pathways formed in the recent memory. But degradation would have already occurred. There would be gaps in the mind.
Jalleen entered Quolim's mind. How strange and unfamiliar it was. It was the first mind he'd touched since he'd entered adulthood and relinquished his link to his parents. Quickly, he passed over Quolim's deep emotions. They were too private. He entered the recent memories and entered the last few hours of her death.
Cali, Frahar and Quolim stood at the mouth of a cave. Quolim held a scanner in her hand. She was excited. "Shouldn't we fetch Jalleen?" she asked.
"Ha! That doctrine mutterer?" There was contempt in Fahrar's voice. "Why should we share this with him?"
*A break in the memory*
Quolim walked through the cave, the darkness illuminated by the energy of her body.
There was a glimpse of movement. A flash of something grey. Quolim experienced fear, followed quickly by feelings of great disgust.
"What's that doing there?" shouted Cali.
The flare of an energy weapon.
Followed by laughter.
*A break in the memory*
They stood in an underground cave. Distant water rushed from an unseen river. The walls of the cave were curtained by dripping sheets of microbes. Cali and Frahar stood in front of Quolim obscuring the view.
"I don't believe it," she said. "This is . . . ."
An overwhelming wall of energy struck her. Her light was forever diminished.
Jalleen emerged trembling from the fugue. He recognized the place of their death as a system of caves they'd encountered on their first day. Ten clads distant. That was where they'd met their deaths. But someone, something had bought them back to the pod. It seemed that the planet was not as devoid of life as they had thought.
Jalleen returned to the pod. He ran repeated life-scans of the planet, but found nothing. It seemed as if the planet's natural static was a veil covering something malevolent. Something that had killed his crew mates.
His duty was clear. He would track down whatever had killed them, and bring justice.
Jalleen entered the caves. Darkness was not a problem for his species; they bring their light with them.
His homeostatic organs pulsed as his body adjusted to the cave's atmosphere. In this way, Methenes are natural explorers. They alter the pressure, temperature and elemental composition of their amorphous gaseous flesh to match the composition of the surrounding environment. They are a species equipped with an internal atmospheric suit.
Jalleen immediately sensed a wash of energy similar in nature to the vented energy streams. The energy came from the grey curtains of microbes that hung from the cave walls. He remembered the grey shape that he'd glimpsed in Quolim's memory. Could the microbes have somehow been responsible for his crew mates' deaths?
"Show yourself," he shouted.
There was no response.
On other worlds, evolution had formed complex life-forms. Methenes were conglomerates of highly specialized cells bound by their high energy skin. Other creatures, the fragile species, were held together with chemical bonds. And with complexity had come sentience. Could the microbes have achieved such complexity, somehow forming into a creature of will?
There were no answers here. Jalleen needed to follow the tunnels deep underground. As he walked through the caves he recounted the song from the seventeenth doctrine. It was comforting to him.
"Though I stumble through this life.
My feet slow, anchored deep.
Tomorrow I will be home.
Roiling through the endless sky.
In The Vast, where my fathers
free form sing with olden stars."
If the Methenes could find their lost world, would they still be compelled to explore? Wasn't that the driving force behind their exploration? All their convoluted alliances with other races, all the skirmishes? Weren't these just diversionary tactics for a homeless people? Wasn't their very nature, their relentless desire for knowledge, just a function of their desire to return to The Vast?
"The Light Bringer will bring us to The Vast when we are ready," Grandfather would say speaking of the doctrine's messiah. "The Light Bringer will bring the full spectrum to all species."
"But Grandfather, it will be too late for you." The high energy bonds were changing in Grandfather.
"This is natural, Jalleen. With old age, comes dissipation."
If they could find the Vast, then his Grandfather would not die. He would live in the sky with the ancestors. This was the doctrine's promise. In all their explorations, the Methenes had never found such a world. They evolved on The Vast, and it was only there that they could experience the second stage of their lifecycle, as gaseous beings in the endless sky.
Grandfather was dying. And Jalleen couldn't bear to watch. After he'd seen the first signs in Grandfather, Jalleen had enrolled onto the crew of The Quantized Vortex. It was a hasty choice. He should have waited and found a ship were the people were more respectful of the doctrines. Jalleen was an outsider on The Quantized Vortex and always would be.
"Stop screaming at me, gas-bag." From the shadows, a grey shape shambled into view.
"Stop," shouted Jalleen, activating his rail-gun.
Kanzai! Of all the species in the galaxy, Methenes hated the telepathic Kanzai. They looked like the doctrinal images. They looked like devils. The Kanzai crawled forward. It was ancient, faded and mottled. Patches of grey flaked from its semi-moist skin, revealing patches of incongruous pink flesh. It was clothed in an old Zyxlar transparent skin suit. Thin snake-like tentacles grew from its thorax, quivering in the air, most pointing towards Jalleen, but others caressing the sheets of microbial slime. The tentacles were poison barbed. They'd kill a Terran or a Chitter but they wouldn't penetrate a Methenes high-bonded skin.
"If you ever meet a Kanzai," Cali had said. "Kill it before the devil has a chance to control you like a puppet."
Jalleen's finger trembled on the trigger.
"All creatures bear the spark of light," Grandfather had told him. "No matter what body the creator chose for them. Harm no one as you fly through the world. Be gentle, Jalleen and trust the doctrines."
"You are responsible for the death of my friends," Jalleen said.
"Not me. Not me," said the old Kanzai. "Never me. All Sha-jim does is sit and wait. In the quiet. In the quiet. And all he does is listen to the voices of the sea. Very quiet voices in the sea. You scream at me. You are loud and loud and loud."
"If you're responsible for their deaths, I'll . . ." What would Grandfather do? It seemed obvious that Sha-jim was feeble. Look at the way it dragged itself across the rocks. It was old and it was tired, maybe it was dying.
"The voices of the sea might be like the voices of your ancestor. On your world, your old world. Gone long gone, all gone like the Zyxlars." The Kanzai's tentacles twitched. "Have you ever considered that?"
"No. It's not doctrine."
"No, never doctrine. Doctrine makes Jalleen unhappy in his new family. Anyway what does a Kanzai know about Methene doctrine? Unless we do. Unless we know more than you. Doctrine gets you into trouble, eh? Makes you unhappy. I am Sha-jim." The Kanzai rose a little higher. He seemed to gather dignity around himself.
He seemed harmless. But maybe he was lying. One of his tentacles was damaged. It dragged behind him like rope, and bore the burn marks of an energy weapon.
"What happened to your limb?"
"Your friends they shoot me when they see me. Harmless old Sha-jim. I am like your grandfather. And you are like me. An outcast. You are like me. You are like the egg I never spoked. You are. But who would let crazy Sha-jim spoke their egg? And you are like me too, you have never spoked." A tremor ran through Sha-jim which Jalleen thought was laughter.
"We don't talk about it," said Jalleen
"Ah. Plenty of time for young Jalleen to spoke."
"It's not considered a polite topic of conversation."
"And you thought that Quolim might let you spoke her eggs. Or however you gas-bags do it?" A pause. "How do you gas-bags do it?"
"Will you please stop talking about spoking?"
"Aha! I see you did the mind magic with Quolim. After she dead. My, oh my, you are naughty. We Kanzai can do nothing with the dead. I like you. I like you. I might help you."
Sha-jim was unlike any Kanzai Jalleen had ever heard of.
"Yes. Yes. I am hearing all the species' voices. Sha-jim is not typical Kanzai."
"I just need to know what happened to my friends."
"They came here. I came out to say 'hello'. They shoot me. I run. They laugh at me. They carry on. Afterwards, I bring them back to you. So they can have a proper ceremony. Did I mention Sha-jim is a priest. Ceremony is very important. Onwards to the void."
"But what killed them?"
"Ah. That's Sha-jim's secret. But I tell you, Jalleen. You are the egg I never spoked."
"The relic killed them. None may approach relic."
"There's a relic here?"
"Yes. You can't see relic without discarding veil of static. Other gas-bags must have worked out how. Very clever of them. But they shoot me. So I not help."
"Tell me about the relic," said Jalleen.
"Yes. The relic. Once it was a Kanzai thing, and people like Sha-jim, the outcasts the ones who hear all the voices, they tend to it. And then the Zyxlar come and they think, hello. We use this. And they kill all the priests, and that is all. And many, many years after they gone, old Sha-jim learns about the place. And comes here and is priest again. And he likes it here. Because it is so quiet. And he is something important, for the first time in life. He is not outcast. He is priest to the relic."
"I would like to see the relic," said Jalleen.
"And Sha-jim goes with you. He goes. He goes with Jalleen. Perhaps you be the last loud voice that Sha-jim ever hears."
As Jalleen followed Sha-jim through the cave, the sheets of microbial slime became denser forming masses and obstructions that they sometimes needed to negotiate. An ecosystem thriving in darkness. Many life forms in the galaxy need sun light, but life can also form in the dark places. Even in the voids of space, colonies of radiosynthetic bacteria thrive on gamma radiation. The energy signatures of the cave slime were similar to the signatures from the pervasive Terran organism Thaumarchaeota which utilized ammonia as its oxidizing agent. But as the masses grew larger, Jalleen sensed a growing complexity. It seemed that there were patterns in the flow of material between the microbes. A pulse of genetic material, and a meaningful flow of electron exchanges across countless cell membranes.
"It's data," he said to Sha-jim. "They're exchanging data. Did the microbes evolve sentience?"
"No. No. No. No. Too small, you see, to develop mind independently. That's not Sha-jim's secret."
They walked further down the tunnels, until Sha-jim stopped. "Here we is. Wait. Wait." Sha-jim shuffled and touched a wall of slime with his tentacles. He called back to Jalleen. "Come now, is safe now."
Sha-jim led Jalleen into a cave where slabs of microbes ran with channels of liquid ammonia. Curtains of slime, awash with information, combined into networks of specialized cells, like veins, like neurons. This was the relic, a biological entity made up of countless billions of microbes. Reams of data in high energy streams travelled along biological veins that reached through the ceiling, to be vented on the planet surface. It was massive and complex, an artifact built of endless microbes.
"This thing killed my friends?"
"The relic didn't kill," said Sha-jim. "The automated defenses killed them. That was a Zyxlar innovation. But Sha-jim found the key."
"Why didn't you help them?"
"They tried to kill Sha-jim, remember?"
A large insectoid shape made of light coalesced in front of Jalleen. It said: "Question?"
"It is a memory store," said Sha-jim. "The ghosts in the relic. The relic stores knowledge and mind. Our priests fed her often with minds, all the species you know about and a few others, eh? But the priests are all gone, except for me. And there is silence. Silence is good mostly. But sometimes I ask questions just so not to be lonely."
"Question?" asked the Chitter.
Jalleen didn't want to ask the Chitter anything. Instead, he turned to Sha-jim. "Why is it asking me that?"
"She is an archivist. An electronic mind. The relic stores the minds of everyone it consumes. Your friends are in there somewhere. Ask her a question, Jalleen."
"How many years of knowledge does the relic contain, Sha-jim?"
"Who can say, tens of thousands. Is very good relic. Kanzai, you know. The Zyxlars found it very useful. Very powerful," said Sha-jim. "Everyone is fighting. Everyone wants a piece of the Empire the Zyxlars left behind. But this is an empire. A memory of the ages. Everything is here, stories and songs, powerful weapons, esoteric science. The knowledge of millennium. Maybe even powerful enough to give the galaxy the gift of the doctrines. Maybe a person could be the Light Bringer to the alien races, eh?"
"If it's so powerful, why don't the Kanzai use it?"
Sha-jim trembled with laughter. "Ha! Alien knowledge is filthy to most Kanzai. Besides only Sha-jim knows its location. And I am more cosmopolitan. I am like the relic, I am a mind of all species. I want Jalleen to have the relic. With knowledge comes power, and Jalleen might use it to bring the doctrines to the galaxy. Jalleen is the Light Bringer."
"No," said Jalleen. "If I was the Light Bringer, I would feel the hand of the Creator."
"Light Bringer," whispered Sha-jim. "I like you. You could bring a quiet to the galaxy. Just imagine a whole world quiet and meditating on the doctrines. Everything quiet, I give to you. Impose it on the others."
It would be a great thing to bring the doctrine's spectrum to the other races. Perhaps with the knowledge stored in the relic, Jalleen could become the Light Bringer.
Yet . . . he could not even persuade members of his own species aboard The Quantized Vortex to embrace the doctrines.
The immensity of the relic bought a chill to Jalleen's mind. It was a warped chalice. How many wars would be fought over the knowledge it contained? The galaxy in its current state was not ready for such an influx of knowledge. "No," he said. "I am not he and you are like the devil that tempts."
"I am not devil," said Sha-jim. "I am a priest."
"No," said Jalleen. "I will not take this knowledge. We're not ready."
Sha-jim trembled. "Perhaps you're right. That was the Zyxlars' way, eh? To impose their will. All must find their own way, yes? But ask question, eh?
Surely one question wouldn't be wrong. Jalleen turned to the Chitter and asked, "What is the location of The Vast, the lost Methene home world?"
The Chitter disappeared. A star map materialized in her place, annotated in the ancient language of the doctrines.
This was the location of The Vast? Jalleen memorized the image. He would find a way of getting the information to the doctrinal guardians, and at long last they would see their home world.
"Thank you, Sha-jim. This is a great gift."
"Good bye, Jalleen."
Jalleen hesitated. He stared at the relic. There was so much knowledge here. He could help his people so much. He could do so much good with the knowledge. But at what cost? He resolved to keep the relic secret. The galaxy was not ready for it. It would bring only disarray.
"Go," said Sha-jim. "Go. But soon you return."
Jalleen walked slowly out of the cave. At the last moment he turned. In the shadows, Sha-jim was watching him, his limbs jerking as if in laughter.
Quickly Jalleen walked away, a disquieting image filling his head. The doctrines spoke the truth. The doctrines gave good warning. For in that moment, cast in the relic's shadow, the old Kanzai looked remarkably like a devil.