Ulla

This story first appeared in Talebones magazine in 1998. It was recommended for the Nebula award, but didn’t receive enough nominations put it on the final ballot. The title comes from H.G. Wells’s “The War of the Worlds.”


7022 Ulla:

The moment has nearly come. We will begin killing them soon. I wish I could see you again before then, or at least have the soft pleasure of your voice. But I must be content with the pulse of your mind from the thought-tablet, already five hundred rotations past. Your thoughts do comfort me, and I hope that these thoughts of mine comfort you as well.

It is right for the Council to have struck our names from the Rock. We who go to kill can have no honor, even among ourselves. I confess I did not really believe this when we left, for it has been an incalculable time since our race last suc- cumbed to the blood-lust, and my only taste of it has been in the shifting images of the Krusleth as I slept. But now I believe the striking of our names from the Rock is wisdom, because I have been thinking of killing, and no punishment is too severe for what we are about to do, even if our actions are necessary.

The world we now occupy is red, fourth from its sun, and extreme in its temperature. The at- mosphere is lethal. Without our shelters we would die. But we will not be here long. Already the attack-cylinders, loaded with machinery and the weapons of destruction, stand ready in the firing tubes. Soon I shall be sending you thoughts from the third planet.

I have loved you. — Diutheskriull

6554 Diutheskriull:

Things shall have changed greatly when you receive this. Your ship travels fast now, and every word flowing through my limb to the thought- pad takes five rotations to complete. I am told that the soonest any message can reach you is sometime after you occupy the base-world. But I am satisfied with that. I have lived with you for ten thousand rotations, and I shall live with your thoughts until they stop, and your memory until our sun expires or the invaders, in the event of your failure, arrive.

In the crystal garden a new flower blooms. Its center is smooth as ice, and brilliant as morning. I have named it Diutheskrana to remind me of you. Seeing it pleases me. In a thousand seasons its facets will be large as the tips of my limbs, and I shall have to remove it to the water lawn.

I shall not advise you to be careful, only to do what you must without malice. I have never known the Krusleth to err, but who knows? Per- haps the dreams of the Krusleth show us not what must be, but what might be. And hasn’t the Council sent you? But even if the chain of nexts is unbreakable, do not allow the blood-lust to in- vade you, nor expect to be invulnerable to it. I have respected the one you are, the one of peace and self-sacrifice. I have even respected you—a- gainst all command—for what you must now do. But I cannot bear to remember you in rage. Let the future show that our enemies were evil, even at the cost of our selves, rather than become that way again. Think to me soon.

I have loved you. – Ulla

7023 Ulla:

I have been occupied. The time came for the command to fire the first cylinder, and my thoughts gave me reason to pause. Rithganulk asked for the command, but I made him wait.

I went to my quarters to be alone. I thought of the river behind our home, the sound of the wa- ter against the rocks, the glint of light against the slivers of crystal near the bank where the current cannot quite reach. How many nows have we shared, you and I? How many moments since our forefathers, some of which still live, indulged the passions of our former nature? Was this world we are about to destroy even born yet?

I have watched them, and they fascinate me. Their lives are over as we blink. To live a thou- sand rotations is a great accomplishment among them, and yet they exterminate one another as though each were insensate matter. A bit of dust, a few drops of hydrogen. Perhaps this is what they are, after all.

And yet they speak, twittering like jiuthogren. They dance, they sing, they make music. They clamor and jeer and vibrate. Were it not for the great shivering commotion of life and noise that smothers their existence I could find myself thinking that they might someday create a cul- ture. But there is never—not even once—a now of silence among them.

Still, I thought, this is not an evil, for one does not blame the river for its incessant gurgle. Per- haps their noise is a difference which could be- come greatness in them.

But I have this against them: They hate. They envy. They kill without remorse. They invent new ways of doing evil. They possess a blood- lust which diminishes even ours. I know this be- cause they admit it. But they do not confess it in themselves, with sorrow. They confess it against one another. They shake their limbs at their neighbors in fury at the evil they profess to de- spise, and then do the same evil themselves. I think the universe will not be a lesser place with- out them. The universe will be diminished only because, upon my command, so many of my brethren will have become killers. My only regret is that I cannot carry this shame and this horror alone.

When I returned to Rithganulk I gave him the command to fire the first cylinder. I wish now that I could have been first to arrive, first to make contact, first to kill. It would be easier for me to think that my actions had begun the shame, rather than mere words. But as Commander I must be last to arrive.

The atmosphere of their world is, as we sus- pected, a poisonous vapor. Our bodies cannot long survive the foreign microbes in the air. The first-team will prove to us how long we have.

If we can live sufficient time to assemble and detonate a global chain of blast-cylinders, then we shall wear no life-masks. We shall suffer ag- ony like that which we inflict, even before the sun is blotted from their sky and their world is plunged into cold and darkness. We decided this together, and the decision has made me proud, in this one respect, of my command.

Our world brings death to theirs. Their world shall bring death us. It is our last hope of honor.

Think kindly to me, though I shall not be alive to receive it.

I have loved you. – Diutheskriull

6555 Diutheskriull:The Council met today.
vision. I can guess what it was about, for every- one seems worried. A hundred times today I heard mutters of “The Krusleth does not lie.”

Our neighbors look at me with a mixture of admiration and disgust. This confuses me, for we have all submitted to the Council in everything.

At the end of the day everyone dispersed and the night stars glimmered like crystals in the gar- den of Krus. I stood alone and gazed upwards, as though I might find your star somewhere among them.

You are out there, I know. Staring back at me over the black void of night, even now. I can al- most feel your caress, your soft words of comfort, your promise of life. Do you remember telling me that love is the hybrid fruit of sorrow and joy?

I only thought that I understood you then. Now I see more clearly. Love is not merely the count- less, shimmering stars that spin throughout the universe. It is also the awful distance between.

Think to me. – Ulla

7023-2 Ulla:

I gave the command for the firing of the second-to-last cylinder. I shall go when I have finished with this letter. Rithganulk shall stay at this base until the planet is destroyed. Then he will return home with knowledge of the outcome.

I have no pleasure in reporting that the war has already begun, and that the resistance by the en- emy has been futile. They die wantonly. Their finest fighting machines, to this point, are helpless before the blast of our heat-rays. Their cities are like insect colonies. The destruction is horrifying.

I have tried to alleviate it somewhat by aggressive containment of our strategic areas, but—like the intelligent creatures they are–they seem to value most highly what we take, and despise what we are willing to let them (temporarily) keep. Thus I have ordered the spread of the toxic gas which we prepared from this base.

I swore to myself that I would spare you the details of my dreams, but I find that I cannot. For I know that someday you will have time to reflect upon my actions, and though I know that publicly you must view our mission with shame, privately I wish you to be pleased with me.

It comes to this: The blood-lust has begun in my men, and I haven’t the arrogance to think that I alone, after arriving and participating in the slaughter, shall be exempt from this instinctive desire.

I see the machines of the enemy as they alight to the surface of our world. Graceful, swooping wings like those of the Tarramaluk fixed to cres- cent bodies, huge as mountains, terrible in sound, as though enraged, vast as the desert sands. These disgorge their machines, three-legged weapons of destruction, equipped with heat-rays and capable of squatting to enter our buildings, or running like sand-sigits over valleys and hills. They have war-walkers. Our people are de- stroyed, tortured by fire.

I see you, my beloved, and the awful specter of death on three-metallic legs crouching at our door. I hear your scream.

This future may not be avoidable. But the council has decided to consider such dreams warnings, and to resist the invaders by the same methods they would otherwise use on us. It was not my choice, and I don’t know if it is right. I only know that I would rather die this way than cowering behind our door.

I must go now, for Rithganulk grows impatient for me to give the order.

I have loved you. – Diutheskriull.

6556 Diutheskriull:

I sit by the river with a thought-pad. Dawn ap- proaches with her curtain of light. The tingle of crystals on my skin gives warmth – just enough to make the chilling vapor of night pleasurable.

The sound of water against rock draws me to you, almost as though you were here now. I lean against the bank and close my eyes.

For just this moment I do not care that your name has been stricken. I do not care that the Krusleth grows. I do not care that the Council is in turmoil.

There is this now: the river, the crystals, the air, and the thought of you. – Ulla

7024 Ulla:Only my will brings me to the thought-pad. I have killed, and I have felt the blood-lust.

My cylinder landed last on an island, and my command began the final preparations for deto- nation of the blast-cylinders.

An enemy appeared beyond the ridge of our primary defenses. He held a missile weapon be- fore him. He stared at us for what seemed a long time. An animal howled next to him. Then he raised the weapon in both – what do I call them? Their limbs are jointed like the forelimbs of the jiuthogren – he raised the weapon in both fore- limbs and fired it at us. The projectiles would be deadly enough to our bodies, but cannot pierce the armor of the cylinder.

That itself is encouraging, because now we know with certainty that they do not actually have war-walkers or heat-rays. Nor do they pos- sess the freedom of mechanical flight. So per- haps the Krusleth speaks only of possibilities, af- ter all. Perhaps our efforts to fashion weapons like those which we saw in our dreams were un- necessary, even from the standpoint of justice. But these questions are irrelevant now.

For a moment, beloved Ulla, I hesitated. I feared myself. I wondered if this enemy had thoughts like mine, desires, opinions, regrets.

Then I gave the command, and the heat-ray (which we took from them by the Krusleth) was turned upon him. His body twisted in agony for just a moment before death, and then there was awful silence.

Oh my beloved Ulla! If I had ever felt such a complete union of joy and shame on our world the ground would have run wet with the blood of my brethren.

I scan the horizon now for more enemies to kill, because I cannot stop my desire. It is only train- ing that keeps me from leaving this place in a war-walker and spreading destruction.

Soon the blast-cylinder link will be ready, and our shame will end.

I have loved you. – Diutheskriull

6557 Diutheskriull:

The Council wavers. No one has dreams. We all know that the Krusleth is erratic, but now they attribute the silence of Krus to some fault. Our neighbors assign blame at random. I believe that they would rather see enemy ships in the sky than not know what to expect.

And now I have this thought: What if Krus speaks also to the enemy? Forgive me this profanity, but I see a deep irony. Perhaps when we are dreaming dreams, their Krusleth is silent, and when ours is silent, they are dreaming dreams.

Could knowing the future be evil? I have loved you. – Ulla

7025 Ulla:

I grow weak. Four of my command have been killed by the enemy, and six by the alien atmos- phere. This planet is torture to us. The air is too thin, and the island where we have landed is cold.

Water condenses easily and patters against our bodies, but there is no pleasure in it. Crystals here are rare. I have heard the enemy rations them for food. But there is a taste of them in the air when the wind blows up from the sea, for it has a slight crystal content.

Three of my command were destroyed by an enemy ship when they went to the ocean to bask in the crystal water, but I have ordered everyone to stay away. This of course is also torture.

Soon I will be able to give the command for detonation, and our pain will be over.

I have loved you. – Diutheskriull

6558 Diutheskriull:

Forgive my last thoughts, the insanity must be touching me also.

I have loved you. – Ulla

7026 Ulla:

Krus forgive. I spread gas to stop them. They run in terror because they know not our agony. I scream at them when I train the heat-ray upon their bodies, their houses, their weapons. I shriek with ecstasy. I shiver in the coldness of my self, this awful power of loosing the sentient from the temporal.

Death beckons.

It reeks around us. It addicts. It draws more powerfully than the crystals.

Beloved Ulla, I would hide from you what I am, but you have loved me, and something inside me compels me to utter honesty. My command dis- integrates. My warriors are dying. I feel the alien microbes at work in my body even now.

Next message shall be my last. – Diutheskriull

6559 Diutheskriull:

This, according to our time-schedule, will be the last message you receive, but I shall keep thinking to you, just in case. Somehow, at the edge of the void, our transmitted thoughts will mingle in waves of light the way our lives did, and in this way we shall always be together.

The Krusleth returned to one of the Council – I know not whom – and things have settled. As though in shame our neighbors circled our home last night. I heard the scuttle of their limbs as I slept, and then the murmur of voices in unison. I peered through your window to see them stand- ing three-deep in almost hushed silence.

Outside they bowed to me, and we listened to the water for a while. No one spoke. After a long time Emeruthull of the Council placed a stone before me. It was the center stone from his gar- den. It has always been his most treasured piece.

Beloved Diutheskriull, do you know what was on the stone? Your name, engraved as it once was upon the Rock of meeting, except Emerut- hull had pressed crystal into the surface, so that your name would shine.

I could not look at them, for my heart was filled. When dawn came I saw that they had left during the night, and now I am thinking this for you, because I cannot bear to think of your shame.

The sun has come. My thoughts grow heavy. I have loved you. – Ulla

7027 Ulla:

Let this be a record for the Council. It will be news, since Rithganulk cannot reach home before this message finds you.

This now my command finished the blast- cylinder link. My second failed due to health so I sent him to his quarters, but he is now dead. I completed the calculations for simultaneous detonation myself. I contacted the other six teams and ordered them to prepare. I gave them time for Krus. Then – so I thought – I would destroy this world.

The blood-lust beckoned me, and I have not overcome it, but I knew that no enemies could be near, and I wanted to be alone. I wanted to see something of this world before it is gone.

I mounted a war-walker and entered the city. Evidence of the enemy’s terrified retreat lay strewn about in the cluttered emptiness and the black dust left by the gas. The mist of morning curled upwards from the ground.

My eyes were drawn to movement, and I felt the lust of death rising in me. Without thinking I pushed the war-walker down the street.

An enemy stood there, closing the door to his building. His skin was wrinkled and he stooped, as though in pain. In his forelimb he clutched something as though it were precious. He looked at me for a moment, and then at the thing he held, and then back at me. He might have been frightened. I don’t know.

I almost killed him then, but something stopped me.

Again he looked at the thing he held, then placed it gently upon the ground and walked slowly to the middle of the street. He stared up at me, limbs outstretched, and I understood. Your thoughts were with me, Ulla.

He did not wish his treasure to be harmed. Kill me, he seemed to say, burn my flesh. But not that thing which I have placed far from me.

I thought of Emeruthull’s stone. I thought of you, Ulla. I thought of what I had been, of what we had been before we came here. I thought of our people before we decided to attack the en- emy, for I believe that is when our death really began. But even these thoughts, even my shame, could not stop my desire.

I killed him, Ulla. I will not say that I didn’t mean to, because I did. And I believe I would do it again. I enjoyed killing the enemy, even then. Even now, thinking of it, the shame of pleasure taints my remorse.

Afterwards I lowered myself with some effort to the ground and turned the body over so that I could see its expression. I had given it a short burst, and much of the flesh was destroyed. But I could see the moment of agony in which it had died still etched onto its face, as though the act itself were recorded in rock, for all time.

I went to the doorway to retrieve the thing he had held, and when I picked it up I saw that it was a sort of book, with still images of the enemy fastened to thin brittle pages. In these images the enemy stood with his face pressed to that of a female. Perhaps this was a pleasant memory, a long-past ceremony of otherness.

I took the book back and set it on the enemy’s chest. “Forgive me,” I said. Perhaps I should feel foolish asking forgiveness from a dead enemy, but somehow this seems like the least foolish thing I have done in a long time.

I hear the clamor of the other units now in my thought-link, and tell them to enter the void in silence. I tell them that I am still in good health and will detonate the cylinders at the last mo- ment, and so purchase that much more honor. I do not wish them to know what I plan, for they might try to stop me.

They do not detect my lie. In a short time it will be too late anyway, for we are all dying quickly now.

I climb back into the war-walker and leave the canopy flung wide to the sky. Oh my beloved, we have been such fools! The Krusleth showed us what was to come, and we tried to avoid it. We sacrificed ourselves to save what might be, and in the process we have lost both. Forgive me.

I see the enemy in my mind. They will gain courage to attack again, and they will find us dead. And when they do they will find our machines.

They will find the method of our own world’s destruction.

Then they will say, as we did, that it is only right to attack us with the same tools we used to attack them. And some rotation hence they will come to our world in bright crescent cylinders with wings like Tarramaluk, and they will disgorge war-walkers to burn and kill. And we who stole the heat-ray from them will be the ones to have given it to them.

Ulla, beloved Ulla. I beg you, speak to the Council. Beseech them. Cry out to them for me: Let the enemy come. Do not raise weapons against them. Let them do what they will, though it means I lose you as you have lost me. Let us regain something of what we have lost. If you cannot persuade the Council, then share these my thoughts with them and I will speak from the dead.

Ulla, my Ulla. I cry to you from across the dis- tance. I take great gasping breaths of poisonous air and shout your name to the universe. Let the enemy hear me. Let him find me and see the ag- ony of my death.

May it bring him satisfaction, but not pleasure.

Ulla.

Ulla …

© Daniel Schwabauer. All rights reserved.
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