Forgotten Opportunity

Nightflayers attacked ships and colonies. They took survivors for experimentation and study. They ignored all attempts to communicate.

Humanity fought back. With greater numbers and equivalent technology humankind fought without understanding what the nightflayers wanted.

It took Coordinator Tevyan, the sole Survivor and former nightflayer prisoner many years to understand the war.

Returning to Ilivian gave him the chance to make a difference.

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Coordinator Tevyan did his best to hide his feelings during the shuttle descent to the Kepler station on Ilivian. His weathered reflection — somehow an old man now, with what hair he had remaining buzzed close to his scalp and white — stared back at him. The overhead lights cast shadows across his face like craters on an airless body. His cheeks were deep depressions and his eyes nothing but a glint like polar ice at the bottom of the craters. His wrinkles, a tortured landscape shaped by major impact events.

He had never planned to return to Kepler in his lifetime, but here he was, riding on a stomach-twisting grav shuttle to the surface. Grav drives in gravity wells; the competing forces always upset his stomach. Had way back when he was still a young man going through basic. Back before the War, before Kepler, when he was nothing. Just one more cell in the multi-trillion body mass of humanity spreading out, engulfing one star after another.

Not the Survivor. Or the Prisoner. Or Coordinator.

Nothing.

A simple life then, with this future unimaginable. Unbelievable. Humanity fractured, wounded, the entire mass of humankind grieving still for lost limbs amputated during the war. The body survived but seriously scarred, scared and unbalanced. Bitter over its losses and struggling to find any meaning in a universe turned dark and hostile. The war was over, but the whole of humanity suffered from post-traumatic stress.

And somehow this ceremony was supposed to help start the healing process. The socioanalysts planned to spread holorecordings of the event across the entire spiral arm. They claimed this one thing, this one event, could somehow tip the scales. A butterfly effect that would turn into a hurricane of healing across the worlds.

Tevyan agreed, but not for the reasons that they thought. His plan differed from their plan.

“Sir, we will touch down in a moment.” The voice was smooth, pleasant, genderless. Artificially combined to suggest child and mother both.

Tevyan glanced over at the floating silvery orb in the aisle. The attendant for this flight was featureless, but a dim nimbus of blue surrounded it, an ionizing effect of its displacement drive. It wouldn’t be long now before the grav drives shut down and the shuttles displacement drives took over now that they were low enough in the Ilivian atmosphere. He anticipated the switch-over with longing.

“Thank you,” Tevyan said so the thing would go away.

Through his reflection, the world came into view. Ilivian’s blackened landscape at first looked charred and burned, the surface of a planetary disaster but it was actually the vegetation. Black sticky stuff that got into everything. Gum trees, Tar trees, Tar Babies, slink weed, choke vine and all the rest of the nastiest stuff any of them had ever seen. Landing on Kepler had been like landing in a tar pit.

Exactly like that, and like a dinosaur they had all met their deaths on this blasted planet hurtling too close around its star. All except him. The Survivor.

Coordinator Tevyan sighed. He was old and tired and resenting this whole affair but underneath that he felt a tingling, a surging in his pulse, an excitement he hadn’t felt since the first time he laid eyes on Ilivian.

Beside him his aide, a young woman with lovely brown hair that made a straight line down her slender back. He didn’t bother with her name or any of their names. She leaned close enough that he could smell the clean scent of her. Not perfume, no one wore perfume anymore. Her’s was the scent of a person carefully washed clean of any offense.

“Coordinator?” Her voice was pitched just right, soft and clear. “Are you in need of refreshment?”

Tevyan reached over and patted her arm. A bony little thing. “Stay away from the slink weed. That stuff creeps up on you. I saw it strangle a bunk mate once.”

Her perfectly composed face barely twitched at that comment. “As you say, sir. You will let me know if you require my aid?”

“Of course. Of course.” Tevyan looked back out the window.

The shuttle bounced at the switchover. Well, vibrated a tiny amount, but Tevyan recognized that shiver, like the feeling when someone walked over your grave. No one else gave any indication of feeling it.

Beneath them, a bright spot appeared ahead among the frothy black hills. Kepler station, right on time, looking like a raft among the black Ilivian vegetation. The first time he had come down in among the deployment to create the station there was nothing there except the bright reflections from the lake and what looked like a black sand beach. Muck weed was a low-growing plant with a sharp thorn at the heart of the tangled mass. What seemed like a smooth bed of vegetation was actually like walking on a bed of needles. And like many of the Ilivian plants, the muck weed could move and strike out in defense with its needles. The plant killed unwary animals, which rotted into the muck it favored along lakes and ponds.

These days Kepler station was a whole city unto itself with skyscrapers shooting up into the sky, their surfaces an unappealing gray to mute out the intense reflections from the Ilivian star. It gave the station the look of a prison.

But then, it was that too, for a time.

Landing went as expected. Tevyan made sure to keep control of his personal bag, although long habit and attitude ensured that no one would lay hands on the bag. Not unless he gave them a reason or requested help, which he wouldn’t.

Wouldn’t dare. Just as he couldn’t dare allow anyone to see his arm tremble at lifting the bag. His bag, immune to any scans or searches or measurements. The shuttle systems would have recorded the combined weight of passengers and luggage but only for use in calculations involving energy expenditure and allocation. In days past no one, not even him, would have gotten on board without a thorough examination and the weight of his bag would have triggered numerous alarms. Not to mention the added cost of those excess kilograms.

Today none of that applied. Humanity won the war, but humanity itself was the survivor, the prisoner that now struggled with the trauma of its injuries. Growth had stalled. Humanity didn’t reach for new stars any longer. People spoke about returning to Sol as if humanity’s origin could contain and support them any longer. It was ridiculous. Even as wounded as they were, they encompassed hundreds of systems, not even counting the quarantined systems, on which humankind might survive in some nightmarish fashion.

And still, people flooded Sol with pilgrims and refugees. The First Colonies worlds were likewise inundated with the tide of retreat. It was as if all humankind was going to curl in on itself, retreat into the corner to die a slow and painful death from its wounds. Victor in the war, but still to expire from its injuries.

Against that, the socioanalysts worked to promote healing and encourage more growth. Humanity could regrow and expand around the amputated areas. Those wounds were contained and carefully monitored lest the cancer ever spread again. In all of their plans, he was one small part. One small jolt of hope and strength to stir his fellow humanity.

They still didn’t understand what happened. The socioanalysts today weren’t even born back during the war when he was taken prisoner.

Striding toward the reception in the main terminal, he didn’t recognize the place. The ceremony was supposed to take place right outside the front of the terminal building. All of this had looked different back then. A temporary base, a staging area, burned out of the stick Ilivian landscape and built with prefab components. None of it back then had been designed to last. Half of it was charred and melted when the night-flayers descended.

Nightflayers, an unfortunate name for a people that humanity had never understood. The result of sensationalism dating back to the beginning of the war after prisoner remains were discovered flayed among the ruins of a nightflayer mobile base. A combination of nightmare and flayer, it put a name on an enemy that until that point hadn’t had a name. At least none that humanity had identified. No one succeeded at decoding nightflayer computer systems, or even understanding how they functioned. Apparently quantum computers, but with a solid matrix that resisted any attempts to analyze. Any scans done caused the system to fuse and become lifeless. Any functioning systems captured ceased to function as soon as humans came within the vicinity. Robots didn’t have any better luck. In one operation microscopic drones infiltrated a nightflayer base merely to observe and not interact. Before any useful information could be extracted the drones were all simultaneously destroyed by some sort of pulse.

The nightflayers became a mystery, a source of terror. Ships that appeared out of nowhere to eradicate any sign of humans whether found on a ship, asteroid or planet. Military or civilian, it made no difference. Once nightflayers appeared in a system they began randomly destroying targets. One habitat would be utterly destroyed, and then the nightflayers would appear somewhere else in the system to attack another.

No negotiations. No response to any communication attempts.

All of that was bad enough, but the nightflayers took prisoners. Most were never seen again, but what humanity did find in the ruins of captured and disabled nightflayer ships sent waves of terror through the colonies. Not only torture and death but biological modification.

People gathered around Coordinator Tevyan. They clapped, but the sound hardly registered. People talked, but he didn’t pay them any attention. None of it mattered.

“Coordinator?” His aide, right in front of him. Concern on her young, unlined face. “Are you alright? Do you need to rest before the ceremony?”

No. “No,” Tevyan said aloud in a firm, strong voice. He couldn’t show weakness. Not now. “Let’s get on with it.”

His aide looked doubtful. Caryn, that was her name. Not that it mattered now. He straightened his spine and walked purposefully toward the podium where some official was making an introduction. Seeing the Coordinator coming that official quickly wrapped up whatever he was saying and stepped back out of Tevyan’s way.

Tevyan placed his case on the podium in front of everyone. An air of hushed expectation came over the crowd. So many people standing here, but even among these hopeful he could see the aura of defeat and fatalism that had gripped humanity.

Won the war? Perhaps, but humanity was fatally wounded itself. If he did nothing, then humanity would shrink back and shrink back, more and more worlds becoming isolated while others closer to Sol became over-run and collapsed under the mass of humankind.

The body of humanity stood on the brink of suicide. Traumatized and sick of the war. Terrified of the dark spaces between the stars. Doubting in the possibility of a higher purpose.

Tevyan flipped the catches on the small black case. The silence grew longer. Uncomfortable whispers spread among the crowd. Some of those in the front edged back slightly, probably unaware of what they were doing.

The night-flayers weren’t traumatized, even though they had lost the war. At least according to some, never considering that theirs had been a calculated retreat designed to draw humanity out, but humanity lacked the drive anymore and took the nightflayer’s retreat as an admission of defeat. It was on that basis that humanity declared itself the victor in the conflict.

Tevyan knew better. The nightflayers hadn’t given up. They were smart, fanatical and just as technologically savvy as humanity. But they lacked the numbers. If humanity was a wounded animal, it was like a great bear going back to its cave to nurse its wounds. The nightflayers were a wolverine who wasn’t going to tolerate the bear’s presence in its territory. They had retreated in a calculated effort to rest, rebuild and let the toils of the war further sap the strength of humanity. They’d wait until humanity slumbered, then strike again. If humanity hadn’t died of its wounds already, it would the next time the night-flayers came at them.

Unless he stopped them.

The case opened, and the crowd tensed. He saw the almost universal tightening of their features. The way they flinched back, trying to hide it. A crowd of people fearful because an old man opened a case. They knew! On some level they saw something in his manner that suggested the danger. A look, maybe, in his eyes. It was that bit of awareness that he needed. He wanted it.

In the wings, he saw security personnel moving around the edges of the crowd. They didn’t know that it was already too late. It had always been too late.

Coordinator Tevyan smiled. An almost inaudible sigh passed through the crowd. It’s okay, his smile said. He was the Survivor. The one prisoner in the long war that came out of a nightflayer lab at least somewhat intact. Luck and happenstance, only. If one little thing had gone wrong, history would have looked very different.

“Forgive me,” he said, his voice picked up and amplified to the room. Sound shapers made it sound like he was speaking to each member of the crowd individually, and he used that conversational voice that they all knew so well.

“Forgive an old man momentarily overwhelmed to be back here again. I never thought to step foot on Ilivian again. For those of you making a home here, forgive me, because I saw nothing of the beauty that I’m sure this world must hold.”

He coughed. Continued. “We landed in a field of scorched slink weed that smelled like burning rubber. We cleared muck weed from the lakeshore with flame throwers, fighting a daily battle to hold this one tiny piece of inhospitable ground so that we could build a foothold against the night-flayers. On this world wrapped in blackness, we fought to blaze a new hope for humanity!”

The crowd cheered and clapped. This was what they had come for, what the socioanalysts wanted. A message of hope to spread across the worlds. They didn’t realize that hope was the poison inflicted by the nightflayer claws.

“And we succeeded. We built our base. Then the nightflayers came. They descended out of the dark like javelins thrown by gods. Their initial assault was meticulously planned to wipe out our defensive capabilities while leaving as many of our soldiers alive as possible.

Security had relaxed. Holorecordings in the wings showed views of the way things were, and simulations of what he was saying. He didn’t care or control any of that.

“What happened then?” Tevyan looked down at the case. It held a large metallic egg-shaped object, but black and non-reflective. The surface gave nothing back, broken only by three lines around the perimeter, tiny grooves.

He took the object out of the case. The crowd now reassured, pressed closer to try and see what he held, but he kept it close to his body. Holding it but not drawing more attention to it just yet.

“Many have spoken about the nightflayers’ victims found in destroyed ships or cracked open asteroid habitats that they favor. You hear of talk of biological modification, but the full truth never spreads. Why is that? What do those in charge fear would happen if that were the case?”

More unsettled murmurs spread around the crowd. This wasn’t what they had come to hear. Tevyan lifted his weathered left hand, wrinkled with age but unmistakably half what it should have been. His outer two fingers and a good portion of the hand was missing. An outward sign of the mutilation and abuse he had sustained. A collective gasp went out from the crowd, even though they all knew of his injuries.

“In all of the battles, the victories we have won, no other person ever emerged alive from the night-flayer holdings. Or so you’ve been told. I’ve been the sole survivor, the prisoner that single-handedly managed to destroy a nightflayer base and then stayed alive among the rubble until rescued.”

Clapping rose up. Tevyan waved it down.

“Thank you, but your applause is unnecessary, my escape was staged by the nightflayers themselves.” Tevyan twisted the first segment of the device. A faint green glow filled the bottom groove. The crowd grew more agitated, and security was watching him more carefully. It must worry them, hearing his words, not knowing what he held.

“It took me too long to realize their purpose. I was debriefed many, many times when I got back. It wasn’t until the years piled into decades that I realized their intent.”

Tevyan twisted the second segment. Now people were drawing back again, but panic hadn’t yet set in. Security remained uncertain.

“They let me free to generate hope in humanity. That’s right. The night-flayers wanted you to hope. It took them a long time to understand hope; it isn’t something that they are wired to understand. They don’t hope, they do or don’t do things. But their quantum computing technology has prescient capabilities, and it determined that our hopefulness would weaken us, make us hesitate, and draw back hoping for a different outcome.”

They were listening. It didn’t matter now, but he couldn’t do this and not explain.

“They sent me as an instrument of hope, to make humanity doubt and question. Many of you don’t remember that there were those at that time calling for a full-out attempt at genocide, to wipe out the night-flayers who had proved impossible to communicate with or reason with. That movement would have gained more strength if yet another base was discovered overrun with no survivors. Without any attempt at subverting me, the nightflayers made me their weapon. Humanity saw me survive and hoped for a different outcome.”

Tevyan twisted the last segment and returned the device to the case. The crowd relaxed further, though their faces betrayed their confusion and doubt at his words. Tevyan leaned on the podium. There wasn’t much time left.

“Be very clear. Our hope for peace, for an end to the war, was fed by that one small act. By a survivor. A prisoner who could convincingly believe that he had escaped, destroying the night-flayer base in the process through means of accessing the self-destruct. The one time in our history that a human accessed any night-flayer system! Don’t you see? Just as the socioanalysts planned to use this reception to reignite hope in humanity, the nightflayers sent me out to ignite hope at a time when we needed to take a different path.”

Silence ruled the room. The device was active. Nothing could stop it now. His words meant nothing, but he felt compelled all the same to speak before the end, as so many others had given their last words.

“We had an opportunity to decide to wipe them out. Those that cried out against that course failed to understand that the nightflayers intend exactly that. They will wipe us out, fighting to the last. Any retreat only serves their benefit. They let the poison inflicting humanity to grow and weaken us.”

Tevyan placed a hand on the device. “Some of you might recognize this device, deemed harmless. A laboratory experiment that proved time could be manipulated on a quantum level, a device without practical application until now.”

Murmurings rose out of the crowd. Any moment now it wouldn’t matter. Tevyan pushed forward, eager to finish before the end.

“I’ve set it for one very specific task. Reach back and flip a question asked of the nightflayer computers. Should I live or die? Would a survivor help the nightflayer cause? Last time it said yes. This time, it will say no and I’ll die with the rest of my squad. I don’t know if it will be enough, but I hope that humanity, outraged by the atrocities committed here will rise in a never-ending fury that will burn the nightflayers from existence once and for all!”

Tevyan swung his hand down at the podium.

The blow didn’t land. Where he had stood wasn’t there, never had been. Kepler didn’t exist, hadn’t except for one brief period many years ago. A tar baby, one of the native inhabitants of Ilivian, wandered through the spot where the terminal had stood, snuffling through the slink weed. Acidic saliva dissolved the tarry black coating on the slink weed and gave the tar baby a chance to consume the plant within. Slink weed tar coated its bare, hairless body. The tar baby didn’t care anything about the affairs of the humans and night-flayers that had battled over this ground. It knew nothing of the spikes of metal that rose up, half-covered by slink weed and gossamer webs.

The tar baby trundled on, blissfully unaware of the forgotten opportunities in that place near the lake shore coated with muck weed.

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3,472 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 74th weekly short story release, written in February 2012. Eventually, I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime, I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point, I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. I’m a bit behind on posting stories but check back next Monday for another story. Hopefully, I’ll catch up soon. Next up is my story, Killing Bennie.

Author: Ryan M. Williams

Writer and artist, Ryan M. Williams, author of more than twenty novels, writes across a range of genres including fantasy, science fiction, romance, paranormal, and mystery. He holds a Master of Arts from Seton Hill University in writing popular fiction. His short fiction has appeared in anthologies from Pocket Books, WMG Publishing, and in On Spec Magazine. He currently attends San Jose State University, pursuing a Master of Information and Library Science degree.