The humans were scared, terrified even, and that made matters all the more complicated. In ragged clothing, with matted hair and gaunt faces, the party of fifty three huddled together like so many malnourished cattle.
That was an unfortunate comparison for Thyt to make, even if it was one that he did not voice for the humans to hear. For most of their lives, the gods had not only referred to these humans as such, but treated them so.
No, that wasn’t altogether true. From what Thyt had observed, before the gods had arrived on this planet, many cultural groups of humans had used cattle as a self-replicating food source. An ingenious idea. Neither of the gods actually ate humans. Enslavement, that was what awaited humans who were caught.
Or it used to be. This war of scarlet and indigo had changed. No more slaves were going to be taken now.
Looking to the top of a ruined building, little more than a blasted shell of its former self, Thyt caught sight of a gentle pulsing. Reconfiguring his vision, he shifted through wavelengths of light until he could better identify the signal’s meaning.
A variety four pulse, which he and its signaller – Ishmn – had decided previously would mean all clear.
Returning his vision to its normal parameters – the infrared to ultraviolet spectrum – Thyt turned to address his fifty three humans. Upon gathering the motley collection, Ishmn had insisted that there were fifty two point five humans, and it had taken Thyt the best part of the day to make his companion understand that when a human was a child, they were not quantifiable as point five of a person.
The humans at the front of the group flinched as Thyt turned his attention to them. A month he had been keeping them safe, and still they feared him. Never mind that he was only four feet tall, never mind that he had not once harmed them, never mind that he had saved their lives untold times – they still feared him.
But considering these life forms had spent their lives under constant threat from Gallus such as Thyt, he could hardly blame them.
‘The avenue ahead is free of danger. We must move now.’
‘Where’s the other one of you?’ An older woman, hard of face and large of hands. These physical attributes, along with her forceful nature, had helped her climb to the stop of these humans’ social entanglements. A leader, though not by the definition Thyt had been created to understand.
‘Ishmn is in the rooftops, watching over us. We must move now, before danger returns.’
Before we all die, Thyt wanted to say, but he judged that comment too inflammatory to be spoken just yet. Humans could overcome great obstacles when worried, but scare them too much and they became obstacles to themselves.
The rest of the group looked to the older woman – Ruuna, her name was – for some social cue that they were allowed to follow Thyt. On this occasion that cue took the form of a nod, but previous cues had ranged from vocal assurance to indicative silence. As a Constructor, Thyt was capable of giving physical shape to wonders of engineering and architecture, but he could not puzzle out the mechanics of human social interaction.
Ruuna took a strong step forward, followed closely by her herd. ‘Lead the way, demon.’
Demon. An incorrect and derogative term, but Thyt wasn’t interested in correcting the woman. In truth he understood the word’s use. To these humans, with their dull skin tones, two arms and two eyes, he must seem monstrous. A mere four feet tall he might be, but with leathery maroon hide, four muscular arms and four large, oval black eyes – two on each side of his head – Thyt was sure he looked akin to something out of human folklore.
Plus, there was his complete lack of mouth. In his experience, it was the telepathy of his speech that scared humans the most.
The avenue was as deserted as Ishmn had promised. Wrecked, three-wheeled transportation vehicles littered the cracked road. There was even a downed Yarln Interceptor, its alloy hull the same shade of red as its godly owners.
The humans kept pace with Thyt as he jogged, on his legs and lower arms, around and between the torn metal and shattered concrete that now called the avenue home. His destination was a mere three kilometres away. They need only progress down this street, and two dozen or so more, and they would be safe, relatively.
An almighty crash put Thyt on top of a car and shifting his vision to scan for the source of the disturbance. Behind him, the humans started wailing and clinging together, less than useless. Thyt tried not to judge them – because if remnants of the Yarln or Tiash forces found them, the humans would be less than useless.
‘Thyt, get down!’ From out of the dust thrown up from the impact, Ishmn came running. Despite being a Yarln-bred Gallus like Thyt, the gargantuan creature couldn’t have looked more different. Eight-feet tall and broad as a battleship, Ishmn had legs and arms that rippled with genetically engineered muscle divided by two knee joints on each leg and two elbows on each arm, all of them hyper mobile in the extreme. Strength and flexibility – that was the way of the War Gallus.
Thyt swung from the vehicle and bounded to meet his companion. ‘Is the way not clear?’
‘Not anymore.’ Ishmn’s mental voice was as thunderously deep as one might expect. ‘Run.’
Calling for the attention of the humans, Thyt and Ishmn rounded them up and guided them into the nearest alley. Behind a stack of rubbish bins piled long ago into a barricade – the scorch marks proof of its previous purpose – the humans squatted down and held one another, silent as corpses. All that had lasted this long knew when they needed to be quiet, to not even whimper.
As to what was coming, Thyt has his answer within minutes. A clicking, like nails drummed on a metal sheet, told him it was a Tiash Scout. To confirm, he climbed to the top of the barricade and peered over the top, in time to see the twenty-foot tall creature pause in front of the alley. Just as the Yarln made their war machines scarlet, so did the Tiash make theirs indigo. By the laws of physics, the Scouts four long, spindly legs should not have been able to support the weight of its segmented body, but then the Tiash had mastered physics centuries ago.
The Scout’s too-large head was mostly metal-plating and sharp teeth, but somewhere between were its thin eyes and sensitive nostrils. It snuffed loudly, jerking its head. Thyt felt a massive hand take him gently by the body and he let go of the barricade, allowing Ishmn to lower him to ground level.
They stayed trapped behind the barricade for nearly an hour. Thyt had hoped the scout would move on fairly swiftly, but instead it stayed exactly where it was, blocking the only way out of the alley. Scouts weren’t supposed to stay in one place for such extended periods of time, but with the Tiash making their victorious withdrawal from the planet, this one was without telepathic direction from its masters. Who knew how long it would remain before some primal urge, some accident of bio-engineering, induced it to move on.
Dust fell from the alley walls in thick streams as the world started to shake. Windows shattered, drainpipes came loose and tiles slid from roofs as the rumbling intensified, transforming into a steady drone that drowned out all other sound. The humans, already as closely packed together as was possible, tried to huddle in tighter still. Only Ruuna resisted the instinct to be with her herd, moving to join Thyt and Ishmn as they looked to the sky.
The blue of the atmosphere was blocked out as a colossal form passed overhead. Sleek and pointed, the spacecraft’s gravity-reduction field sent massive cracks down the buildings on either side of the alley walls, eliciting shrieks from most of the humans, which were thankfully drowned out.
That was what it took to break the scout from its stupor. With a shrill yell, it broke into an awkward gallop and took after the Tiash ship.
In twos and threes, the humans emerged from their hiding place and followed their Gallus guides back out into the light. Thyt kept his vision trained on the spacecraft, the green glow of its thrusters like the light of three stars, neatly arranged into a row.
‘That’s not a good sign,’ rumbled Ishmn, coming to stand next to Thyt.
Thyt felt a pull of dread inside his torso. At first he was glad for the feeling, because that chemical-hormonal reaction in response to an external stimulus was what made he and Ishmn different from the Scout. Their ability to experience emotion marked them as something unique, something unintended, as more than the designations that their godly masters had bred them for. It was this reason they had rebelled. It was the reason they were trying to save the indigenous people of this odd planet.
Emotion had a cost, however, and right now it was the fear he felt for what would be happening very soon.
‘Explain.’ Ruuna had her arms folded and an expression indicative of anger on her face.
Thyt considered whether to keep the truth hidden for longer, but the rest of the herd – he really must stop thinking of them that way! – were looking at him now too. If he lied, he might lose what fragile trust they had placed in him.
‘Upon withdrawal from a battlefield, it is Tiash standard practice to raze the field clear. This ensures any Yarln survivors are obliterated.’
Ruuna regarded him with the weary impatience of a woman who had lived through too much hardship, who had seen too much barbarity. Sweat and dirt mingled in equal measure on her brow and cheeks, and her eyes were red with bloodshot. As the ruined buildings around them might give in and collapse at any moment, so too might this woman, hard as stone, nonetheless crack into pieces. Her anger was a last-ditch offensive to stave of what must have been an overwhelming desire to simply give up.
‘Your demon language means nothing to us. Speak clearly,’ she said, but the slight wobble of her voice suggested to Thyt that she had understood something of what he had said.
‘The indigo gods have defeated the scarlet. Now, as their final act, they are going to obliterate all life on this planet, or at least, as much as they can manage.’
Surprisingly, the humans did not immediately panic, as Thyt had expected them to do so. They became very quiet. Perhaps hearing that the end was nigh was a cruel comfort to them?
‘Thyt and I have known for some time,’ said Ishmn, mirroring Ruuna by folding his mammoth arms, ‘and we have a plan to survive. Countless rebel Gallus around the world are attempting to do the very same thing – to save as many humans as possible.’
Ruuna had unfolded her arms. ‘Which is?’
‘The indigo gods have a…device,’ said Thyt, attempting to find the right words to help the relatively primitive humans understand. ‘It will let us move out of phase with this dimension for several hours. This will protect us from the bombardment.’
Ruuna only raised an eyebrow, and Thyt looked up at Ishmn. ‘I tried to keep it simple.’
‘Good job.’ The titan winked – a mannerism he had picked up from the humans.
‘All you need to know is that this device will keep us safe.’
‘Oh, that’s all we need to know, is it demon?’ Ruuna had her arms folded again, never a good sign.
‘It is,’ Thyt insisted, and would have sighed were he biologically capable. ‘Can you trust me, human? One more time?’
It took some minutes for Ruuna to give her answer.
They encountered nothing else living for the rest of the journey, save for the rats and insects that now called this industrial-age city home. The streets were silent save for their scuttling as they escaped the trudging column of humans, refugees in their own civilisation. The sun had begun to set as Thyt opened the loading-bay doors of the warehouse and then climbed onto the roof to keep watch. As the last human entered the grey concrete building – a basic construct but indicative of a species with great architectural potential – Thyt eyed the Tiash Titan Warships moving into low geo-stationary orbit, coming into view hazy view one-by-one until thousands upon thousands dotted the dusk sky.
Everywhere around the planet, the same thing would be happening. It was time.
Swinging into the warehouse through a broken window, Thyt saw that Ishmn had nearly finished ripping the wooden crating away from the stolen Tiash phase device. Procuring this machine – along with the hundreds of others they had distributed to other rebel Gallus around the world – had taken him and Ishmn nearly a decade. A decade of working in secret, under constant threat of discovery and death, come down to this moment.
Thyt went to his task, jumping between pylons and cables, using all four of his hands at once to connect this plug to that socket, inset this accelerator into that receptacle, calibrate this gauge to that setting. Tasks such as these were literally what Thyt had been made for, and though it was his Yarln programming that made him so good at it, he didn’t feel guilt for fulfilling pre-determined his role as other rebel Gallus might. A skill was neither good nor evil. Morality was in the application.
In minutes he was all but done and seconds afterward the annihilation began. First there was the light – green, like the Tiash ships’ thrusters. Next a distant rumble shook the ground beneath their feet – the sound of a giant rousing from a long sleep. Last came the wind, a sudden storm that whipped in through the shattered windows and broke those still whole.
‘Into position!’ roared Ishmn, raising his mental volume not to cut through the din of the wind, but to penetrate the humans’ collective panic.
They gathered about the massive Gallus, suddenly not so afraid of him if it meant an assured place on the platform.
The light coming through the broken windows was blinding now, washing away all other colour. Most of the humans were screaming, even Ruuna gritting her teeth and growling like a cornered animal.
‘Ready, Thyt?’ called Ishmn, a touch of desperation to his thoughts.
Slamming the last power coupling into its port and twisting the head to lock it in place, Thyt clambered up onto a pillar and hurled himself toward the platform, to be caught by one of Ishmn’s massive hands. The device began to power up, thrumming placidly and glowing in all the right places.
The wind reached fever pitch, blowing so fiercely it began to cut into Thyt’s hide. He could only imagine how much pain it was causing the humans.
‘There is no rush,’ said Ishmn, looking sideways at Thyt, who was sitting on his shoulder. The giant’s attempt at sarcasm was impressive. Thyt found it charming how hard his companion worked to adopt the humans’ ways.
‘It should only be seconds–’
And they were gone.
Darkness. Nothing. Then flashing images. Scenes of destruction, of green energy blasts making landfall, of the city wiped away. Darkness. Nothing. The land hauled up, thousands of square miles ripped away and hurled into the atmosphere. Darkness. Nothing. Oceans steaming. Rock burning. Fissures opening. Darkness. Nothing.
When the demons and their humans finally remerged into the world, a great deal more time had passed than Thyt had anticipated. He had given the phase device’s power cells too little credit, he guessed.
The warehouse was gone. The surrounding buildings were gone. The concrete of the ground was gone and the rats and the insects were gone. There was no city left and there was nothing to populate the horizon. There was only raw, scorched earth, exposed to the air.
Several of the humans chose that moment to collapse. Thankfully the ground was now mostly soft soil.
Ever pragmatic, Ruuna stepped up beside Ishmn and Thyt, closer than she had ever voluntarily come before. There were tears in her eyes. ‘What now, demon?’
What now, indeed? Already, Thyt could sense the poisonous particles swirling about in the atmosphere, could taste the ones that had already fallen to ground level. It was only a matter of time before sickness became a serious problem for the humans. Their society had never come close to inventing Zynl-type energy, let alone weapons that harnessed it. How was he supposed to explain the poisonous chemical fallout that it caused, after all they had already been through?
Hopelessness. A new emotion he could now add to his experiences.
There was nothing left, nowhere for them to take shelter against the fallout. All that remained was the dirt beneath their feet and the dust clogging up the air. Thyt hadn’t even considered this part of the plan. Simply getting this far had required all his dedication. What had he expected to happen?
He felt two thick fingers tap him on the shoulder. It was Ishmn, he knew, but he didn’t feel like talking.
The sound of his companion’s voice made Thyt suddenly aware that none of the humans were speaking. There was no sound at all, in fact. Thyt turned slowly.
Appearing from behind a smokescreen of airborne dirt, illuminated by the sun that it half eclipsed, a colossal structure presented itself. At first, Thyt thought it was a Tiash Titan Warship, come down to finish the job, but he soon saw that it was a completely different shape. It looked like a massive canopy, supported by dozens of gigantic pillars, rising out of the ruined earth and extending tens of hundreds of feet into the sky, like the roof of the world.
Ishmn dropped to one knee and put a meaty hand on Thyt’s back. ‘Well, Constructor, what do you make of that?’
It didn’t look like a canopy, it was a canopy, of solid rock, hundreds of miles long and just as wide. The stone pillars supporting it were misshaped and crooked, but were surely thousands of feet in diameter. From the underside of the canopy hung massive stalactites, each with a surface area as large as a city.
‘The bombardment must have created it,’ Thyt muttered, or as closely as it is possible to mutter telepathically. ‘The explosions must have melted the rock deposits beneath the surface and hauled them up into the air, where they suddenly dried, cooled by the endothermic slipstreams of passing Zynl blasts.’
‘You’re sure of that, are you?’ asked Ruuna, keeping her gaze on the canopy, her mouth hanging slightly open.
His eyes wide, all four of them, Thyt clambered up onto Ishmn’s shoulder. ‘It is the only explanation I can muster that makes anything approaching sense.’
A canopy of solid rock, elevated thousands of feet from the ground, with stalactites as large as cities, each riddled with tunnels and natural balconies – if his reconfigured vision wasn’t lying. It was perfect. They needed to get up there.
Ruuna gave Thyt a sideways glance.
‘I’ll ask again. What now, demon?’
Thyt met her glance. ‘Can you trust me, human? One more time?’