In desperate times desperate people head here – an online journal of Apocalyptic-themed fiction and commentary.

Zoroaster’s Conundrum

Copyright © 2005 by Chris Tannhauser. All rights reserved.

Zoroaster’s Conundrum

     Amazing, I thought with the heavy wet thing steaming in my hands, how much your lover’s severed head looks nothing like itself.

     I fell to my knees, sending up little showers of dust in the hard vacuum, and gazed stupidly into the wreckage of Anabel’s face. Her ghost had taken flight, leaving nothing but this, just shit on bones. The hard shadow that had torn her from the universe, from me, passed across my back and occluded her face. I felt it then — the thing God had promised us we would never feel again . . .

     We left the starship because it would be destroyed twenty minutes into the future. Denver saw it first, but then he was the one with the farthest-ranging mind. We floated in a loose cluster in the ship’s radar shadow, far enough back to make sure any antimatter that made it our way would be diffuse.

     Anabel, sweet Anabel, her wild mane of dark curls, her bright flashing smile and the accompanying squint and sparkle of her blue eyes; her pubic thatch a neatly trimmed rectangle made narrow by the spread of her hips. It’s why we were here, to ensure the undeniable expansion of that human universe held nascent within all women. Varius, shaved hairless and pink, his fine, lean shape etched from the fabric of the universe by the winds of time. Denver, the ascetic, his full beard and long braids streaked with gray, his foreskin tied at the point with a simple length of string. All of us rendered as humans were meant to be–naked. Naked and powerful. The rightful heirs to the universe.

The ship suddenly detonated, a bright, soundless flash that flared and died, leaving behind an expanding cloud of sparks. The debris wave washed over us, etching our skin with traceries of light; antimatter motes burning us like hot embers. But it was better than dissolution.

Between my feet, far below my ten perfect toes, hung the small, airless world of 338. Our orbit was high above nightside; 338 was a shining silver bracelet ringing a void center. 338–we had already burned 337 of their worlds, but we wouldn’t burn this one. We would let them see us, experience us, and leave witnesses to the slaughter. Machine records, personal testimony–they would know us, and fear. That would be their ultimate undoing.

Denver, I thought, pick a landing site.

I felt the pull of Denver’s mind, narrowing and lancing down to the surface, scanning minutes from now. Straight down, he thought. The research outpost is dayside, and they’re expecting us from above.

Good, thought-smiled Anabel, I could use a walk after being cooped up in that insufferable ship. She dropped, feet together, arms spread dramatically. Her breasts bounced upward as she accelerated away, her long dark hair pulled vertical above her.

Anabel was right; it was liberating to be naked in space again. Denver and I dropped after her, with Varius taking up the rear.

We hit the ground running. The dust didn’t billow or cloud in the hard vacuum; it showered outward from our footfalls in perfectly spun parabolas, each stamping foot a miniature asteroid strike. Above, the nightside sky was smeared with stars, more pearlescent powder than black. We passed the interface into dayside, all hard shadows and glare. The local star rose into the black sky as we ran. A large, hilly plain spread before us, cratered and gray. As God’s chosen people we crossed this dead plain with no more difficulty than stalking the green savannahs of Earth; we were here, naked and alive in the vacuum and hard radiation with nothing more than the simple faith that it could be done. On the other side, we slowed to a walk. Low, serrated mountains tore at the near horizon, shredding the sky into narrow strips.

Tripwire ahead, thought-whispered Denver. Scouts.

I stopped and looked; they were huddled behind a jagged boulder, fourteen klicks out. The dense rock fuzzed their images slightly, but the truth was clear enough. Four of them, Two-Taps in powered suits with gigawatt lasers. They saw us through a remote sensing rig, and fear. Bright, shining point–sources of fear.

The sensing rig dipped back behind the rock like a startled insect.

Take them.

Anabel leapt straight up into a pike position, gracefully folded, and twisted through a neat arc to land on the other side of the boulder. Denver and Varius sprinted for the flanks. I took the center.

They popped out from around the boulder, looking like mechanical turtles with twelve legs in their armor, and fired. Denver dodged his beams easily with dance-like steps; Varius took a straight one that burned from the side of his chest to his hip as he pivoted. A beam lit past my head; I took it in my hands and bent it back. The boulder burst into a fountain of light that rang my bones. Bright droplets of molten rock showered the area, pattering the dust and rolling off my skin like fluorescent blood.

Anabel bolted after the one that survived the blast. She grabbed it by an alloy-sheathed leg and twisted, kinking the suit. Little white feathers of atmosphere danced around the torn limb. She kicked it flat on its back, stood on it, cocked her fist over her head and punched down through the helmet. The suit burst with a yellow sneeze. The Two-Taps shuddered briefly, then faded. Anabel extracted her arm from the suit and stepped back. She held her arm out in front of her, turning it this way and that, letting the gore boil off into ephemeral streamers.

God–she stuck out her tongue–I really hate that.

Varius clutched at his chest and thought-screamed obscenities, edging into outright blasphemies. I felt our collective concentration begin to slip ever so slightly, sandstone and wind.

SHUT IT, I thought at him, my mind a granite block, UNLESS YOU WANT TO DIE.

He calmed; his mind solidified. The wound healed into an angry sash. Hate them, Varius thought loudly. Two-Taps. Having to be here–

Having to touch them, Anabel interrupted with a frown.

Denver just shrugged.

I shut them out, penetrated them. My thoughts could not be denied. They have to see us; they have to know. They have to fear.

Two-Taps. Their name for themselves was Two-Taps-Twice: dit-dat, dit-dat. They were squatly shelled and multi-legged, with tripartite claws. When a Two-Taps spoke it did so by reaching up and gripping the lip of its shell with those claws and drumming out little tattoos of meaning. A group of them sounded like jungle rainfall, or war drums. They could speak with another’s voice by reaching out to grab their neighbor’s shell, adding the authority of that voice to their oratory. Their culture was unique among the stars, and fascinating. And we were going to kill as many of them as we could.

They see us, thought Denver, a placidly cold lake. They know. They fear. Then, Incoming antimatter.

My blood chilled. When?

Denver smiled without showing teeth. When we see the outpost. When they see us at the outpost.

We walked across the last of the dust plain, to the broken mountains. No one was in any hurry to get to the coming antimatter barrage. Denver was right: they did fear. They feared us more than the burning of their own world. I couldn’t decide whether or not I found that to be a good thing. To what infernal depths would that fear drive them? How much further until they broke like all the others? No race had held as long as the Two-Taps.

We could break them here. It was Denver. But . . .

But what? I asked.

Too far away. Then bifurcated. He sighed a mental reconstruction of breath. Two ways to go.

Find the right path, I commanded.

He smiled again, his green eyes sparkling in the harsh glare. Of course.

We climbed the mountains, in our reluctance, with feet and hands. Just below the ridge, Denver stopped us. This is it. The outpost is on the other side.

We can run, I thought to them, unless you feel like flying.

Varius shook his head. Too much concentration, being and fighting and flying all at the same time.

Then run. Denver?

Denver nodded. Just follow me.

We crested the ridge, high above a valley of black rock, almost as black as the sky. The valley was coffin-shaped; the outpost waited like a patient mechanical spider toward the short, wide end. Little lights twinkled at the perimeter-missile launches.


They ran, but I flew. Denver may have had the farthest-reaching mind, and Anabel was beautiful in the way all human women are beautiful, but I flew because I had confidence in who I was in the eyes of God. I flew because we were unstoppable and righteous, and there is nothing but joy in flying as God’s own chosen weapon.

Below me they ran as the missiles sought them, Denver leading them in a crazy serpentine chaos of split-seconds; brief suns flashed into being, sending long-legged shadows fleeing like spooked ghosts.

At the apogee of my arc I increased my personal gravity field, bunched space around me to fall faster, aiming my feet for the midst of the Two-Taps spilling from the airlock. My g-field pulled up a cone of dust beneath me; I dropped into it and burst from it at a dead run. As I came at them, arms pumping, head low, I broadcast glyphs of their burning worlds, fueled by pyres of their dead children; I showed them the tablet scribed with all they knew broken over a human knee.

Several of them fell stunned; others threw down their weapons in despair and prostrated themselves before their new human masters. As it should be. I skidded to a stop before them and swept my hands upward; a wide strip of dust and grit peeled from the ground and accelerated into orbit, scouring the suits of those few left standing until they burst.

We fell upon the remaining Two-Taps, tearing them from their armor with our bare hands.

And then it all went wrong.

Something else revealed itself, like a dark planet swinging into view around the limb of a star–something in the airlock, vast and impenetrable. Something looking out through the little window with earnest calm. We turned simultaneously from the hapless and savaged dead as the lock ground slowly open, the seconds ticking by with ever increasing intervals between them, time swelling with the sick realization that things were never, ever going to be the same again.

A Two-Taps. A big, naked one, shell gleaming deep jade in the unfiltered light, glyphs of devotion burning on its carapace, pink limbs and knobby head glistening like oiled baby flesh. It pulled itself from the lock and gazed upon us, savoring the moment, its mind a slab of ice, pure cool, pure rigid orthodoxy.

Varius was first. I felt his mind disengage from the group, felt his presence dwindle into terror.


It was the only sentiment I had time for. The Beast was upon us that swiftly; it pointed at Varius and Varius vanished.

It began to crystallize time, slowing the flow of cause and effect to trap us. I jinked into higher dimensions, only to find them curling tight and snicking shut ahead of me, our only hope for escape cut off.

Denver attacked and the Beast met him, together they seized the fabric of life and tore into it, desperately weaving probability into tapestries of disaster–collapsing and reinforcing causal chains from the Big Bang to twenty minutes in the future and back again: you cease to exist, you exist twice, and never, and so on. The Denvers and the Beasts were legion, whole armies of them falling upon the other. It was a sickening strobe of reality laced with moments of awful nothingness–Denver’s efforts were a marvel of human faith.

And then all the Denvers cancelled out.


Her concentration wavered, her faith splintering beneath the load of the experience. Her mind toppled from that great height; her body twisted in on itself, knotting up, curdling in the vacuum. Her corporeal battle suit, her body–her self–fell to pieces.

I fell with her, to my knees.

They did it, at their little R&D facility in the back-end of space. They found God–and earned His favor.

I made fists in her hair and held her to me.

Are we praying in the same direction?

Anabel said nothing.

Or are there two gods?

Her sweet, savaged face was further obliterated by my tears.

If there are two gods, I asked the head of my beloved, which one did we get?

The Chosen Two-Tap’s shadow fell across me as I knelt in mute prayer, horror and love twisting in on each other within me, twining into the most primal of emotions. My concentration spider-webbed with fractal cracks, and the vacuum began to pull at my blood.

We worship the right one, don’t we? I begged the universe.

Don’t we?

For the first time in my life, there was no answer.


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