The First Immortal
I walked the streets of a city I hadn’t seen in two-hundred years.
And I felt thousands of people watching me.
If Sumer’s crowds were passionate, it felt easy to forgive them. They knew me only from the stories they’d read, the outlandish tales their parents had told, and the exaggerations their schools had taught. In their eyes, I was something well beyond human.
‘Callista – Bringer of Light,’ the banners at the light-train station had blazed.
‘Callista – the Savior.’
I’d learned long ago to ignore such things.
Behind glass partitions, amid lush gardens, and atop silver towers, the people cheered me. An entourage of black-suited men led my way, pushing through the crowds as we neared Arcadia’s tallest tower – the Gran Spire. The people wanted more than my fragile half-smile.
But then, they knew nothing of the horrors I’d faced.
I crossed white streets and meandered through a courtyard made of glass. At the bottom of the Gran Spire’s white-marble stairs, I halted. High above, a long line of glass doors remained shut.
“Is all this necessary?” I asked the man beside me. He was young – at most twenty-five years. He’d never left the planet of Sumer. I knew it at a glance.
He’s never even left Arcadia.
“Pardon, m’lady.” He looked nervous despite his black suit and dark sunglasses. “It’s protocol. President Hephast and the Congressional Court want to welcome you in style.”
I’d known his answer before he’d said it.
But I’d been hopeful for something other than cheering crowds beneath the midday suns.
I stood in the entourage’s center, tugging at the collar of my deep blue dress. I hadn’t wanted to wear the sleek, ridiculous Arcadian fashion, but I’d allowed the heralds who’d greeted my landing to convince me otherwise.
“The people will love you,” they’d promised.
“It’s best to look as though you’re one of us.”
I miss the war already, I thought.
And I forgot how warm this planet is.
A dozen times since last I’d stood beneath Sumer’s two suns. I’d died and been reborn. My newest body had only ever known the cold of interstellar Rings and the deep dark of planets long ago murdered by the Strigoi.
And now the light hurts me almost as much as my enemy.
I glanced at the bronze-skinned Arcadians surrounding me. To them, my discomfort must’ve seemed strange.
“M’lady, are you well?” the young man in sunglasses asked me.
“I am. And please don’t call me m’lady.”
“As you wish, m’la— Madame Callista,” he stammered. “What shall I call you?”
“Cal,” I said. “I prefer Cal.”
The glass doors at the Gran Spire’s bottom swung open. Out stepped President Hephast and seventeen members of Arcadia’s Congressional Court, all of them decked in garish Arcadian suits. They were old, many well over a hundred years. To them, standing at the stairwell’s bottom, I must’ve looked childlike.
Yet I’m far older than anyone here.
“Callista Lightbringer.” President Hephast boomed across the courtyard. The amplifiers on his collar projected his voice loud enough for everyone within a half-kilometer to hear.
The crowds fell into reverent silence. The entourage of black-suited men knelt all around me. I stood alone among them, the only soul in Arcadia gazing up at Hephast and his assembly.
“Please, Lady Lightbringer,” Hephast called to me, “come forth.”
With a sigh, I climbed the stairs. My heeled shoes clicked on the glass, and my dress’s train dragged behind me.
Why all this in the middle of the day? I winced against the light. Why not at night?
Symbolic. Must be.
I arrived at Hephast. Standing just one step above me, he looked older than I’d expected. His bald scalp was tanned to a golden shine by Sumer’s suns. His shoulders were narrow, his fingers long and thin, and his eyes hanging in his sockets, busy yet so very tired.
Humanity had found many ways to extend their lives.
But only I had managed immortality.
“The light, it bothers you?” Hephast saw me wincing.
“It’s been so long,” I said. “And this new body…it’s never been to a sunlit world. It hasn’t yet adapted.”
The old man peered beyond me. I followed his gaze, and found the crowds still kneeling, their eyes averted.
“Wave to them,” said Hephast. “Wave and then join me in my tower. The people have waited so long for you to come. They want to see you happy.”
I can’t remember happy.
I faced the crowds and waved to them. A few dared to look up at me, and within moments they all stood and roared with applause. I’d never heard such a noise before. The sound of such overwhelming humanity felt powerful, but empty.
I waved for a full thirty seconds, and then faced Hephast again. All at once, I felt the Congressional Court’s eyes fall upon me. The line of elderly men and women smiled down at me, but not because they loved me.
They smiled because they needed me.
Soldiers clad in powered white armor emerged from the Gran Spire and held open the giant glass doors. Hephast beckoned for me to lead the way, and so I did. Behind me, Arcadia trembled with the cheers of thousands, and then I vanished into the tallest tower humanity had ever built.
Inside, I breathed. The midday heat fell away, and the crowd’s roars went silent. I stood beneath a spinning silver fan whose blades ushered cold air across my face. I closed my eyes and pretended I was still aboard the Sabre, still gliding through the deep darkness between the stars.
The soldiers stepped aside. Hephast and the seventeen Court members swept toward the Gran Spire’s central hall.
“Come,” Hephast called to me.
In a vast white chamber with pale carpets and sharp lights, I settled into the chair they offered me. They put me in the second highest seat, just a half-step below Hephast’s colorless throne. Below us, some hundred chairs sat in a great ring around a table carved of glass.
Every seat was filled.
All eyes were on me.
As I looked into the room, I considered my audience.
These people have never seen me before. They know my stories, but not the truth.
The lights dimmed. Only two still shined.
One above Hephast.
And one above me.
“Welcome to Sumer’s high assembly, Lady Lightbringer,” announced Hephast. With his amplifier still active, his voice spread throughout the room like thunder.
“Thank you.” I gazed forward without expression.
“Before you sits the Arcadian Congressional Court.” He waved his skinny arm. “Also here are delegates from the city of Mercuria, emissaries from Iona and Venya, and members of the Far Court from distant Plutari. They come from all corners of Sumer to hear you speak.”
I gazed at my audience. Their faces, shrouded in shadow, looked shapeless in the dark.
“Forgive me,” I said, “but most of these places…I’ve never heard their names. When I left Sumer more than two centuries ago, the planet hadn’t been fully colonized. Now it seems—”
“We’ve come a long way, Lady Lightbringer,” said someone in the darkness.
“Callista,” I corrected him.
“Pardon?” He sounded confused.
“My name – Callista,” I replied. “No one in the fleet calls me Lightbringer. I am…I always have been…Callista.”
Murmurs spread throughout the chamber. The Court’s discomfort hung heavy in the air.
“Callista,” Hephast said my name. “So be it. We’re told you have a full report. If it pleases you, we will hear it now.”
My report arrived years before I did, I wanted to say. You already know everything.
“As you wish.” I nodded.
I reached into my bodice and withdrew a slender silver capsule. I motioned for the nearest attendant, and the nervous young woman took the capsule from my fingers.
“Slide it into your holo-viewer,” I said loud enough for everyone to hear. “You will see what I last witnessed.”
“Wait…” said someone in the dark, “is it—”
“Yes. It’s a vid-capture from Strigoi hive XV Prime,” I said. “From their home-world. Or should I say — the home-world that is no more.”
The Court drowned in a sea of whispers. I heard their voices, faint and full of disbelief, and I allowed myself a smirk.
“…it’s true after all,” one woman said.
“…XV Prime? Their last stronghold in the Milky Way?” uttered a man in the seats below me.
“…she has a vid-capture? We’ll get to see the dark planet?”
The attendant girl looked to Hephast for guidance. He nodded, and the young woman scurried to the projector machine beside his throne.
She slid the silver capsule into the machine.
And we watched the battle unfold:
* * *
“They’ve nowhere to escape,” the young pilot beside me shouted.
“Which means they’ll fight all the harder.” I shook my head.
From the cockpit of my scythe-winged warship – the Sabre, I saw everything:
To the left, the star we’d just created blazed with brilliant yellow light. Even at ten-million kilometers away, the infant sun hurt my eyes to see.
To the right, the bloated Strigoi world XV Prime shuddered beneath the impact of the two-thousand string reprogrammers our fleet had just dropped on its surface. We’d sequenced the string reprogrammers, or S.R.’s, to turn the black substance composing XV Prime’s surface into glass.
If the new star we’d made didn’t kill the dark planet, we’d shatter it instead.
We knew most the S.R.’s would be overwhelmed and reversed by Strigoi death-bots.
“…but they can’t stop every last one.” I grinned in my cockpit. “And when the chain-reaction starts, we’ll break this planet. You’ll see.”
The young pilot stared at XV Prime. The planet’s coal-black surface teemed with Strigoi death-machines, its dark towers housing billions of our enemy.
The poor kid shivered.
He sees them.
I ignited the Sabre’s quantum engine. I felt my chair vibrate and the universe move around me. XV Prime and the infant star became blurs as we accelerated to twenty-thousand kilometers per second. Anything slower, and the Strigoi warships would’ve carved us to tatters. Anything faster, and we’d have moved too far from XV Prime to fight.
“Joff would’ve gone faster.” I grinned.
“Who’s Joff?” my co-pilot asked.
That’s right, I thought, he doesn’t know.
I seized the cockpit control stick, guiding the Sabre between webs of Strigoi death-beams. They weren’t firing at us, but instead at the bigger, more powerful ships in our attack fleet. Red lights flared on the vid-screens, each one indicating a friendly ship’s extermination.
“God, they’re killing us!” the pilot screamed.
Should’ve left him on his home-ship.
No. I saw another twenty red lights illuminate the vid-screen.
If I had, he’d already be dead.
After many hundred years and countless attacks on Strigoi worlds, I’d become a far better pilot than anyone else in the fleet.
I’m still not as good as Joff.
I pulled, pushed, and spun the Sabre’s control stick. We weren’t moving through space so much as space spun around us. Whenever I pulled the trigger, streams of missiles tore into the darkness. The Strigoi scythe-ships, their hulls like black, cadaverous bone, dove out of the missiles’ paths.
Not one missile hit its target.
Not that it mattered.
I pulled a second trigger, and all at once the missiles erupted into orbs of light. Spanning a few hundred kilometers each, the orbs burned only a few seconds before collapsing back into shadow.
The Strigoi were made of nightmares, but they’d yet to find a way to survive our newest weapons.
Darkness overwhelms light, our enemy believed.
Light destroys the dark.
“They’re almost out of ships,” I said to my co-pilot. I looked at him, and I saw the sweat on his forehead, the color drained out of his skin. He looked like a Strigoi had touched him.
But it was only fear that paled my young friend.
“We have to get closer,” I said. “Fire the beacons above their largest city. We’re going in.”
“We’re going down there?” he gasped.
“It’s the same as every other world we’ve destroyed,” I told him. “Now fire the beacons before it’s too late.”
“All of them.”
He hammered a sequence into his half of the Sabre’s console. Nervous wreck though he seemed, he pulled himself together long enough to launch a wave of nearly a thousand light beacons from the compartments beneath our wing.
The tiny spheres ejected themselves into space. Soaring through the darkness behind them, I cut our speed to a few hundred kilometers per second.
XV Prime awaited.
On its surface, seas of black towers stretched to the end of all sights.
The Strigoi swarmed.
Having slain hundreds of their worlds and dozens of their interstellar death-spheres, I was their nemesis. They knew I was coming.
But they can’t stop me.
Can you see, Joff?
Are you watching?
The beacons formed a web a few hundred kilometers above XV Prime’s hugest, blackest city. All at once, they ignited. Strigoi death-beams died in the beacons’ light-storm. Swarms of death-bots soaked up the blinding radiance and disintegrated.
I blinked and saw clouds of ashes.
My eyes hurt in the aftermath.
The dark city had never seen such light before. Thousands of years ago, the Strigoi had stopped the planet’s rotation, cutting it off from the star blazing on its opposite side.
And then they’d killed the star.
And thrived in the shadows remaining.
“No death-bots survived,” I said to the young pilot. “Nothing to stop our Primary S.R.”
“Then can’t we turn around?” He shivered. “The other S.R.’s should be enough, right?”
“No,” I grimaced. “We have to be sure.”
I keyed a quick sequence into the Sabre’s console. A last few death-beams smoked and curled upward from the Strigoi city, but I seized the control stick and swerved just in time.
“Release the Primary S.R.,” I commanded the Sabre.
And she did.
Somewhere in the Sabre’s underbelly, a door slid open. A slender silver projectile, no taller than me and only half as heavy, leapt into the planet’s orbit at quantum speeds. I couldn’t see it, but I felt it in my bones. It was the most powerful weapon we’d ever created.
“…strong enough to turn a half a planet into whatever molecule we want,” the scientist had told me.
“…hydrogen, helium, anything…”
No. None of those, I thought.
I want the Strigoi to be glass.
And so it was.
At the moment the S.R. hit, we were already on our way out of XV’s atmosphere. The last of the beacons’ glimmers shielded us from the death-beams, and we soared out into far orbit.
A graveyard awaited us.
Clouds of dark powder floated in the void, the remains of thousands of Strigoi scythe-ships.
Metal spun through the emptiness, sprinkled with the remains of the humans who’d died.
“Look,” I said to the young pilot. “No, not at the dead ships. At the vid screen. See XV Prime? The S.R….it’s working.”
Together, we gazed at the screen. XV Prime’s surface, already cratered from the other, weaker S.R.’s, began to change color. From black to translucent silver, it went, and from hard, inflexible bone to brittle glass. Towers once black and mighty collapsed under their own weight. A full quarter of the planet shattered all at once.
I tried to imagine the sound, but I couldn’t.
“God,” the young pilot exhaled.
“They’re finished,” I said. “The new star we made of its sister planet…the smaller S.R.’s burning…the Primary S.R. turning everything to glass. We don’t have anything capable of detecting Strigoi life-signs, but they’re all dead. I can feel it. Can’t you?”
He looked at me with his mouth hanging open.
“Weren’t they already dead?”
“Yeah…well…now they’re dead-dead.” I smiled. “And this was their last world in our galaxy.”
* * *
The hologram in the Gran Spire’s heart flickered and went out.
Having witnessed the spectacular end of XV Prime, Hephast and all the others fell into a deep, satisfying silence.
I wanted it to last forever.
But soon enough, Hephast spoke.
“It’s done,” he shouted. “It’s finished. The Strigoi are dead.”
I opened my mouth to interject, but the Congressional Court erupted into applause. Their raucous cries washed over me, hurting my ears. My new body hadn’t been conditioned for such noise.
“Lightbringer. Lightbringer. Lightbringer,” they chanted.
“The war is over,” they bellowed.
And I let them come back to calm.
After five minutes, the clamor died. Hephast called for order, and most of the assembly returned to their seats.
“Lady Lightbringer,” Hephast said to me. “You have done a great deed. For hundreds of years, we have lived in the Strigoi shadow. Many of us never thought it would end. We assumed…no…we knew we would make weapons and send fighters to their doom until the end of all days. And now—”
“All hail Lady Lightbringer,” someone in the assembly cried.
“Our champion,” said another.
“Give her whatever she desires,” shouted still another.
With a wave of his fragile fingers, Hephast quieted the room.
“And so we shall,” he said. “Lady Lightbringer – or Lady Callista, as you like – we shall restore your full citizenship upon Sumer. You shall be given a tower, upon which your name will shine until the end of time. When our people look to the sky and fear no death at Strigoi hands, it is your name which will linger in their minds, and your victory for which monuments numbering in the thousands shall be hewn.”
“President Hephast…” My voice sounded small. “If I may speak…”
“You may,” he said.
“The Strigoi menace in our galaxy is destroyed,” I began. “It’s true. We’ve spent nearly a thousand years making it so. When he – when Joff Armstrong slew the very first Strigoi installation, I never thought it would be possible.”
“And yet here we are,” Hephast raised his slender arms, igniting fresh cheers from the crowd.
“Yes. Here we are.” I raised my voice. “But our galaxy isn’t the only one in which our enemy thrives. We know them to exist in Andromeda.”
“Andromeda.” Hephast scoffed. “This too, we have heard. And yet even the Strigoi must know they can never overtake us now. Our scientists have said it will be a hundred-thousand years before our enemy can again marshal enough power to threaten our galaxy. A hundred-thousand years…might as well be a million.”
“Are you saying the war effort will end?” I asked.
The room quieted. I heard only the beating of my own heart.
“There is no war.” Hephast looked down at me. “This very day, we shall send word to the other planets. It is confirmed – the Strigoi are defeated.”
I hung my head. I’d always known what his answer would be, and yet I’d dared to hope otherwise. For all my centuries of wisdom, I often forgot the simplest lesson I’d ever learned:
Hope is a mistake.
* * *
The First Immortal is the opening chapter of upcoming novel – Eaters of the Light.
Eaters of the Light is the sequel to novels, Darkness Between the Stars and Shadow of Forever.
Look for it to hit stores in early 2018.
J Edward Neill