I don't know that there's a lot to tell, but I imagine there will be, by the time it's all on paper. I suppose someone has to give an inside view of our planet, and I suppose that someone will be me. My name is Adraig mac Mara, and I am a major with the 287th Legion of the Spectran Military Forces.
Like most little boys destined for the military, I was an orphan. Whether I was a true orphan or one of those bastard children born and abandoned for the orphanages during the time of the old leader, I do not know. Abortion and birth control were illegal in those days, rape and incest virtually the norm; I could be anything.
Whatever the circumstances responsible for my birth, I was raised in one of the "orphanages" of the Luminous One. These are technically boarding schools, where children learn loyalty to the Spirit and military skill. In practice, however, they're boot camps, rife with abuses, turning out violent zombies instead of human beings. Such are the beginnings of a soldier of Spectra. Such were my beginnings.
I remember when Zoltar ascended to the position of Leader, at the age of seventeen. There had been a great ceremony, and we were told we were witnessing something that took place but once in a lifetime. I was not involved in the event in any way -- it would be several more years before I, at seventeen, would meet Zoltar for the first time.
I remember the shock on the faces of my teachers at the laws passed by the new Leader. He was radical, they said, the Luminous One would never tolerate such behaviour. But it did, and Zoltar remained in power long enough for the people to see that his radical ideas were working. Long enough for him to capture their worn hearts.
For Zoltar was a man of the people, with their needs and comforts in mind. The world is dying; to Zoltar, that's enough for anyone to worry about. Hunger, poverty, crime -- these were things he could affect, and did. Much later, I was to learn that the Luminous One did not agree with Zoltar's visions, and that Zoltar bore the scars of their disagreements.
At sixteen, I graduated from my school and took an assignment in the army. I wore my uniform with a mixed pride.
* * *
I do not remember where I first heard the word "Aishe". I do remember that it struck a resonant chord in my heart, and that I became obsessed with discovering its meaning. I had seen the wreckage that the Luminous One had perpetuated on our world, had questioned its purpose for us, and finally had lost the faith my teachers had worked so violently to instill. Still, I didn't know what to do, now I doubted the Great Spirit, so I buried my feelings and carried out my orders -- a life was a life, after all.
Zoltar I met during an inspection of our legion. I had acquired a reputation as a wisecracker, and had been unaware that my chief had asked his superior officer to discipline me once and for all. The major had asked his captain, who, knowing about the impending visit, made a request of Zoltar.
He moved down the line, resplendant in the purple and red uniform, his body lithe and controlled. As a gymnast, I appreciated his movements, observing them with a practiced eye. Not a twitch uncontrolled, no muscle unmastered; he moved with a fluidity seldom seen in the military. He moved down the line, his masked face glancing -- was it with disdain? -- over the ranks of soldiers, murmuring comments to our platoon's captain.
He stopped right in front of me.
My heart had stopped. He was looking me up and down, a certain haughty wryness emanating from him. "And what do *you* think of this company?" he inquired of me.
What do I say?? My throat locked; could I speak? Then I heard someone speaking, "The captain's braindead, the major's a brownoser, the soldiers are gits and I'm the company asshole." Then the speaker's lips spread into an idiotic grin.
With horror, I realised that the speaker was ME!
You could cut the tension with a knife. The captain glowered at me, the troops were in shock, the majors gaped with their mouths about their knees. Zoltar continued to regard me with those ice-blue lenses, his expression unreadable.
"Well," he said, turning to our captain, "He's honest, observant, direct and inimitably correct. I don't see what the problem is."
* * *
After that I was transferred to other areas. My expertise was in sonars, radars and their applied technology, so I was assigned to Intelligence for a while. It was there that I met the woman of my dreams.
She was tall, regally tall, with blonde hair that fell in a golden curtain past her knees. Her eyes were as green as emeralds, her lips full, soft and pink as blossoms. Her figure was slim, high hipped, her every movement controlled. She was silent, observing everything with a penetrating stare, rarely offering comment. When she spoke, her voice was low-pitched and aristocratic. If she laughed, it was a close-lipped chuckle, rising from the base of her long, white throat.
Her name was Zarabeth, and she was Zoltar's sister.
Only rarely did she come around, only rarely was she seen. She was the twin of Zoltar's other sister, the more often-seen Mala. In temperament, however, Zarabeth was much more Zoltar's twin -- they were both silent observers, taking everything in with minds that were razor-edged. All three of them had tongues to match, once you had crossed the line.
Nearly everyone I knew had a mad-on for Zarabeth. She was the quintessinal mystery woman, revealing nothing about herself. More often than not, however, the men would joke and tease with Mala, some finding the nerve to ask her out. No one had the nerve to ask Zarabeth for a date.
Zarabeth's knowledge of reconnaissance and espionage far outstripped that of anyone else I had ever encountered. If you needed advice on a procedure, she was the one to ask -- if you could find her. Sometimes messages on her desk went unanswered for days, though they would be answered thoroughly once she had gotten to them. Where she went, what she did, what missions she was assigned to I never knew.
Nor, to my knowledge, did anyone else.
* * *
Slowly, over the years, my knowledge of Aishe grew and with it, my dislike for the Luminous One. Rumours, whispered only in certain areas somehow deemed safe, it was whispered that there was an organized underground rebellion, dedicated to the downfall of the Great Spirit and the restoration of Aishe.
An underground?? My heart leaped; this was what I had needed to hear. There were others, like me, disillusioned with the life the Spirit had made for us? Where were they? Could I contact them? Would they trust me?
That night, in a secret meeting place, several of us got together to make a prayer to Aishe. We had never done such a thing before, did not know how. So we simply spoke what was in our hearts -- if we could help You in any way at all, find us the means to do so. We asked nothing more, made no specific reference to the underground, for we were still uncertain of its actual existance. We just wanted to help.
I was reassigned to a legion bound for a mission on Earth, under Zoltar himself. I felt crushed, certain my prayer had been rejected.
* * *
My propensity for foot-in-mouth disease was what had gotten me assigned to Zoltar the most often. I found the lackwittedness of my fellows to be irritating and frustrating, especially when we were being taken down for incompetance. *I* was not incompetant, *I* knew what I was doing, *I* was not lazy -- I resented being lumped in with the others, yet what could I do? I wore the same green uniform, my face hidden under the same horned mask. On the surface, I looked no different. Hence I applied myself most diligently to my tasks, cut my comrades with words, and got myself noticed.
Zoltar, it seemed, was equally frustrated by the general stupidity of the Spectran soldier. I didn't realise at the time that Zoltar, too, was lumped in with the men under his command, strips taken off his back regularly by the Luminous One himself. When I understood that, I sympathised wholeheartedly, and applied myself even harder. I was determined that Zoltar should have at least one competant person under his comand.
Since he seemed to appreciate it, I continued my wisecracking banter. I took pegs off my superiors when it was appropriate (and when I could get away with it), made comments about the performance of others, and criticized my own work with the same jaundiced eye. Fairly soon, I had a partner in my creativity, and we often rapped back and forth. I was an outlet for some of his previously unvoiced thoughts, the only person besides his siblings he felt intelligent enough to appreciate the ironies he saw. He was right, at that. I say that as fact, not out of pride. At times I'm convinced that the orphanages beat the brains out of their wards, literally.
At times, the Luminous One saw fit to relieve Zoltar of his command, to replace him with other govorners. Zoltar was always greatly upset by these pieces of news, though at the time I didn't understand why. However, having seen the good the man could do, I supported him fully, reassuring him that the Luminous One would eventually change its mind. Inevitably I proved to be correct.
After a few of these events, I became a personal attache to Zoltar. I guess he liked me after all.
* * *
After my promotion, my involvement with Zoltar and his siblings became even more engrossed. At times, it almost seemed that Zoltar considered me a friend. While in my heart I thought the same, I would never voice it, as he had enough trouble with toadies. Mala and I gradually assumed the same level of banter as I had with her brother, but Zarabeth remained as distant and aloof as ever. Sometimes I made her laugh, that low chuckle that was muffled by closed lips, and her eyes would take on an aura of amusement. But she never laughed outright. I wondered what made her life so hard, that she could never laugh?
As I worked with him more closely, the reasons surrounding Zoltar's various behaviours gradually became clear. His trouble with the Luminous One, for whom he could never succeed; his careful promotions of efficient staff -- the Spirit had veto power and often used it, placing brown-nosing high-borns in the positions Zoltar had slated for more intelligent officers, to his endless frustration. His carefully crafted invasion plans, all skuttled, some seemingly needlessly. I asked him once why he didn't mount several missions at once, spreading G-Force too thin to be effective. He cocked his head at me and asked if I thought anyone in this army could walk and sip ti at the same time. Oh.
Yet sometimes it seemed he skuttled his own work, with an ill-timed word or phrase. Some of the more clued, irreverent officers sniggered among themselves, claiming that this proved the Luminous One to be correct about Zoltar's incompetance.
Me? I wasn't so sure. Behind that brooding mask was a mind clear as glass and sharp as the broken edge: He was too clever to slip up so easily. I wondered if there weren't something deeper.
* * *
I'm an Upper Fheidhleichean by birth, but I was raised and live in Lower Feileidh. I live on an island by the sea. I like to watch the ro`in, the northern mer-people. They were hominid once, like us, only they stayed in the sea when we went back to land. Their legs attrophied, the feet developing into flippers, their torsos elongating and fattening to withstand the frigid waters they call home. They have sleek fur and liquid eyes, their hands clawed with thick nails. Their noses and mouths have protruded into a muzzle, and they speak with a curious mixture of grunts, squeals and clicks. They are as sapient as we, who live on the land, though they care less for technology than we do. On Earth, I saw creatures remarkably similar to the ro`in, called "seals". These "seals" lacked the arms and hands of the ro`in, and their heads were different, but their lower bodies were virtually identical. It was amazing.
I was watching a couple of the ro`in sport in the waves while I packed for my vacation. I had one coming, and Zoltar insisted that I take it, since we had all been under considerable pressure. I was due to catch a liner for Tath La`an, the islands that were once a continent, in the southern hemisphere. It would be spring down there, people just coming out of their winter sleep. It was on this trip that I had my first true contact with the underground.
I had been following lead after lead, rumour after rumour, along with several other people. I had met someone in a cafe and we had talked. I became aware that he was passing silent signals to me, perhaps sounding me out. I do not know for sure. I have never known the exact circumstances that led to my being brought to a Meeting.
I was diving off the coast, seeking to view the remains of the cities, those lost in the nuclear wars a thousand years ago. I prowled through the shadowy depths, looking through the wreckage, marvelling that humans should be so dangerous, so stupid; that the world had lived through it at all. A shadow fell across me, blocking out what little light there was. I shone my diving light -- a face looked back at me, without mask or breathing tubes.
A ri, a southern mermaid. She gestured to me, making sounds for me to follow. I swam after her, riding the currents stirred up by her tail.
Like the ro`in, the ri were also hominid, also staying in the sea. Their legs and feet atrophied entirely, not even showing on their external bodies, the skeletal remains vestigial and useless. Their coccyx elongated, growing long past the pelvis, to form the framework for the muscular, tough-hided, horizontal-fluked tail. The ri are slate grey, dappled on their upper sides, pearly on their bellies. In both the ri and the ro`in, the sexes are difficult to distinguish, both being well padded with fat, the breasts of the females only forming with gestation, the genitals of both recessed within the body. The female ri have slightly more delicate features, the whiskers of the male ro`in being thicker and more pronounced. The arms of the ri are longer than those of the ro`in, their hands more like ours, less clumsy and better adapted for fine manipulation. Their eyes are much larger, black like those of an Earth shark. They are powerful swimmers.
The ri dove, leading me down into the sunless waters below. I wondered about my depth gauge, and had to turn on my diving light so as not to lose my guide. She led me into the black mouth of an underwater cave. Fear gripped me -- would I be trapped? What was she leading me to?
Then I sensed that I was swimming upward, rising through the water, although no light penetrated. In a short time I broke the surface. I shone my light upward -- the cave's ceiling was several dozen feet above me; this must be the inside of one of those hills, I mused.
The ri called out in her strange, liquid tongue. Men answered. Carrying torches, men arrived with a wheeled chair, hoisting the ri out of the water and helping her into it. She spoke to them, pointing at me. They looked at each other, then one ran back the way they had come. He returned with a verdicator machine. As I climbed out of the water, I was frisked, my diving pockets emptied and the contents searched. I was offered dry clothes to change into, but was expected to submit to a strip search.
I was questioned under verdication: To whom did I owe my loyalty? Was I loyal to the Spirit? Did I understand Aishe? My name, identification number, position and rank.. all of these and more. The light flared red when I lied about being loyal to the Spirit: The men grinned at each other. I was shaking in my boots, but finally the questions were over.
"You're clean," said one of the men, "Welcome to the meeting. It's your first time, isn't it? Well, get used to it, you'll go through this at every Meeting of the Underground."
The Underground!!! I had made it!! I was in!!
Then a sound of running feet, shouts, a shot, then silence. My blood was cold as I asked what it was.
"Someone who didn't make it," the man answered, "We get spies for the Great Spirit sometimes. They don't survive to tell about us."
The ri smiled at me, and spun the wheels of her chair. I followed her as she led me through the labyrinthine caverns.
The Underground! I thought again, still barely able to believe it. I thought about what I had learned about it; about Aishe, about the Prophecies, about the Child of Light. Was it all just myths, or was there truth? I would find out, here.
The snaking caverns smelled of tin, their dull purple walls reflecting the glow of torches and lights along the way. They reminded me of the areas designated "safe", back at the bases and cities. I walked for nearly half an hour, following the wheel-bound ri. I wondered if her weight would trouble her, as it did other sea mammals when on land. She seemed to be bearing up alright.
A glow emanated from a large chamber up ahead. I could hear the sounds of voices, a lot of people. I saw uniform masks thrown in a pile, the cloaks of captains, the outerwear and diving gear of commoners. One cloak I recognised -- Zoltar was here?
The chamber opened out into a vast room, piled with boxes and crates, computers, tables, chairs, and people. I saw Mala and waved. The ri moved off, being greeted by others of her people, ro`in, and other humans. I saw other people I knew, some I had planned with, some whose presence took me completely by surprise.
"You made it!" It was one of my bunkmates, who had given me the Tath La`an lead. We hugged each other, congratulated each other on achieving our goal. "There've been seven attempts tonight," he told me, his voice tight with worry, "They're considering moving the meeting, or cancelling it all together."
"Someone else followed rumours, I suppose. If we could do it, others could," I reasoned. He nodded, "But the organizers feel the risks are worth it, if it brings people like us. Every little bit helps." I nodded my agreement, then something across the room caught my eye. My friend followed my gaze, then got an inscrutable grin. "Bye," he said as he left hastily. Hm?
There was a figure seated on a packing crate brushing its hair. The person was bent over forward, brushing from the nape of the neck, then pausing to grab the hair and brush it to the tips. The hair was immensely long, a golden ribbon that caught the light and flashed it back with reddish highlights. I had seen hair like that before..
The hands were bare, the long violet gloves piled carelessly beside the figure. Occasionally, the hair would part enough to reveal the tip of a boot, encasing a long, slender foot in violet leather. The tunic that reached the wrists of the hands was royal purple.
Then the figure straightened up, flinging the long sheet of hair back in a gesture that drew gasps of envy from the watchers. The head was shaken, settling the strands into their new position, then the brushing continued, smoothing the sheet once again into a glistening ribbon. The luminous green eyes caught the light, turning purple in the torchlight. They stared into mine, that penetrating gaze. The low chuckle rose from the long, white throat, the pink lips never parting. The slender hands continued to brush the hair.
"Hello, Adraig, fancy meeting you here," The voice was Zoltar's. The eyes revealed amusement, the lips barely containing a smile. My watching comrades giggled among themselves -- they had been in this position not long before.
"So," I heard myself say, "I guess this means our date is off?"
* * *
The halls had rung with laughter. The Meeting was a happy place, generally. We heard about the latest plans to conquer Earth, about the power levels of the Spirit, about the position of Eridani, about the degree of degradation suffered by both it and Spectra. We heard about the situations in the various countries, and Zoltar (for it was he!) described his plans for what to do about it. Our opinions were sought, brainstorming commenced -- it felt good to be a direct part of the process of Zoltar's govornment.
We listened to the Prophecies to date, and I marvelled at their accuracy, still staring, along with my fellows, at the revealed face of Zoltar. This was living proof of the Prophecies' accuracy. This was our icon, our inspiration. This was our faith.
Through it all I could not stop thinking...
My dream girl is a guy...
* * *
The capture of the G-force woman was an unexpected twist, but it too was revealed to have been predicted in the Prophecies. So too her activities while on our planet. With every revelation, the more my faith grew. Every time I looked upon Zoltar's naked face my heart soared with possibility; everytime I saw him masked, my heart warmed to share the secret. I had been issued a spiridium-laced mask, that my thoughts might not be so stressed -- its a tremendous effort to police yourself. I marveled that our ancestors had been doing it since the time the Luminous One landed.
I shared many of Zoltar's secrets, though by no means all. I never did learn the meaning of the scars he bore, and while I knew he required many medications, I never knew why. But I saw his growing love for the Earth woman, and I confess I went home and cried with joy when I saw she returned his love. He had been hurt so many times -- it was good to see him having some happiness for a change. When she was taken from us, knowledge that he had been loved sustained him. When he was taken from us, I carried on under Mala, always wondering what was happening to him. Before long I saw for myself, and again I cried with joy to see him looking happy at last.
I know that one day very soon the day will come upon us that we rebel against the Spirit. I know that I will die in that confrontation.
I have made myself a promise: I will live just long enough to see him complete the task for which he was born. I will be there at his side.
I will die at his side. For Aishe, for my people, but most of all