The Eternal War, by Erica Ciko Campbell

The Eternal War originally appeared in The Kyanite Press: Volume 2, Issue 2 in February of 2020. In this story, my race of psychic bat people, the Insavatu, appear for the very first time.

“This is no stardust utopia where the good guys always win,” Kyrnath snarled at his reflection. “This is life on the front lines. And if we want to win, we have to work harder.”

But just as he was about to devolve into another of his unforgiving solo pep talks, the beauty of the tranquil Earthen lake soothed the troubles of his core. Few Primordian Spore Emissaries earned the honor of walking upon a world so untouched and immaculate, he knew.

His six ocular vents stared back at him in the once-pure stream, now contaminated by his mucus tendrils. His infrasonic feelers twitched as his new assistant slinked up behind him: The girl’s reflection didn’t materialize in the water until several seconds after Kyrnath sensed the gaze on his back—which could have been the difference between life and death, if it was an Insavatu creeping up on him rather than Shiru.

“You’re still here after last night?” Kyrnath teased. “I half-expected you to run back to Primordia and forget you ever saw the frontier.”

Although his tone was placid, almost whimsical, the visions of light-speed carnage still tore fresh wounds through his silent mind. The Emissaries faced the same thing every time they penetrated the atmosphere of an uninhabited world, but somehow, the memory of last night’s attack made the tips of his feelers shiver with unease.

The Insavatu dreadnaughts had closed in on their fleet from behind, as they had a thousand times before. The scream of the Void Cutters was little more than a lullaby for most seasoned emissaries—one of Kyrnath’s old commanders often bragged he could sleep through it—but last night, their adversaries had gotten dangerously close to the vessel containing the Terrorboric Incinerator. One of the dreadnaughts had even managed to breach the Halcyon Field.

Kyrnath had never seen that happen before. And after living through 6,766 cycles, Kyrnath didn’t encounter many things that were new to him.

“If I was the type that scared easily, do you really think I’d still be here?” Shiru replied, interrupting the much-older Emissary’s moment of introspection. She smoothed her mucus tendrils over her forehead to cool off, and Kyrnath didn’t blame her, since it suddenly felt like some invisible intergalactic overlord had turned up the heat knob on the sun.

“Relax, it was meant to be a compliment.” Kyrnath twitched his ocular vents at his assistant to show his approval. “A few of the other new recruits didn’t stick around: But I say they’re hopeless romantics that gagged on the first taste of the frontier. Maybe you’re meant to be a true Emissary after all.”

“Thanks for the compliment, sir,” Shiru said, gritting her fangs with building impatience. “But weren’t we due back at the Incinerator over an oroch ago?”

Kyrnath sighed, his feelers wilting with regret as he turned his back on the most beautiful mountain he’d seen since Serenience IX. “You’re right. I just . . . wanted to spend a little more time taking in the view. There’s something about this place.”

In truth, the infinite blue sky of Earth had stuck with him for no small eternity: When he departed its atmosphere at the beginning of the last Expurgate, when he was just as inexperienced as Shiru was now, he knew this place would haunt his memory until he could finally return.

But now that he finally had, after what felt like a thousand lifetimes, somehow, it wasn’t the same.  

“I don’t see what’s so great about it,” Shiru answered, her elbows emitting a sticky glorp as they sunk back into place after a full-body shrug of agreement. “It looks just like the last one.”

As they set off for their encampment, each step between the pine-basked mountains and overgrown fields of green felt made Kyrnath feel like he was crushing the most priceless jewel in all the galaxy beneath his boots. He didn’t have the energy to argue with Shiru about the beauty of Earth, which was as clear to him as the waterfalls cascading down over the faraway hills.

“Maybe this really will be the world where we finally get it right,” Shiru suggested, tilting back her head to drink in the sights as they traipsed through the woods. “I mean, I doubt it, but I guess you never know.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Kyrnath agreed, before he caught himself and felt like a fool for giving her any credibility. Earth was a rare and beautiful treasure, to be sure, but what did a kid like her know about ‘finally getting it right?’ She’d seen almost nothing of the seedling galaxies, and even less of the war.

“So have you really been fighting the Insavatu since before I was born, or . . .?” Shiru pried, earning a suspicious twitch of the feelers from Kyrnath.

“You’re a lot more talkative than usual,” he remarked, finally making out the faint, atmosphere-warping outlines of the Terrorboric Incinerator above the trees in the distance. “But yeah, I have.”

In truth, Kyrnath had been on the front lines longer than almost anyone he’d ever met. And he didn’t have any delusions of resting anytime soon: He’d lived through far too many broken treaties and false declarations of peace to believe that The Eternal War between Light and Shadow would ever end.

“Why are you still working this job, then?” She teased, getting far too comfortable and sticking both her tongues out. “Damn, I hope I’m not still a lowly Spore Emissary after all those years. I’d—”

“I’m too good at my job,” Kyrnath interrupted, narrowing his eyes with distaste as they passed beneath a crumbling archway of rock. “Why would the Shepherds promote me to some cushy office job when I’m the only one in the fleet that knows Sirius from Saiph?”

But Shiru didn’t have a chance to answer before the hum of the charging reactors sent a shiver through both their cores, sterilizing the disquiet of their minds, just as they’d burned through a million layers of ozone: They were back in the encampment at last, in the shadow of the Terrorboric Incinerator and all the ships that chaperoned it across the galaxies.

As they passed by a group of their fellow Spore Emissaries, a familiar voice caused Kyrnath’s feelers to twitch. “I thought you two fell into the Incinerator while no one was looking,” Horsythe joked.

“I was reminiscing, that’s all,” Kyrnath scoffed, and Shiru’s ocular vents shivered with obvious annoyance.

“I’m sure the Shepherds will be happy to hear that you’re putting your time to such great use,” Horsythe teased. “We’ve been waiting orochs for you to get back! The others wanted to get on with it, but I made them hold off: I knew the new recruit would want to see the Incinerator in action.” Her feelers wriggled mischievously in Shiru’s direction, who scrunched her vents and slinked away.

“Come on, you deserve a front-row seat when the action starts,” Horsythe insisted. She grabbed an unenthusiastic Shiru by her right tendril and started dragging her towards the Incinerator. Kyrnath followed closely behind with a bemused smile, curious to study her reaction when the time came.

The three of them stood directly beneath the main feeding terminal of the Terrorboric Incinerator now. It twisted down from the mainframe, a contorted warzone of wires and half-melted metal. The feeding terminal was a hungry, waiting mouth on the end of a throat large enough to swallow ten Primordians whole, leading up to the dimension-warping vacuum that lurked inside the Incinerator’s throat. Only the dead—no, the erased, Kyrnath reminded himself with a gulp—knew what lurked inside.

Although the feeding terminal alone was the size of a small ship, it was dwarfed by the city-sized body of the Terrorboric Incinerator that twisted up into the sky, warping reality with a sickening hum around its melting, molten towers.

With a shudder, Kyrnath remembered what his mentor Aragnath told him would happen if a living creature touched any part of the device except for the outer grate of the feeding terminal. It was an entire Expurgate ago, but the warning still rung as fresh in his mind as the countless worlds that the Incinerator had evaporated:

“You’ll be sucked inside, cell-by-cell, through the outer layer of metal. In slow motion, of course: The Terrorboric fields have a way of making each breath last as long as the birth and death of the universe. And once you’re finally inside, your entire essence will be dissolved by planet-melting Terrorboric acids. Soon, your flesh and soul will be one with the primordial gunk of a million dead civilizations. You’ll spend eternity drowning in the pus of more dead worlds than there are stars in the sky. So in short, don’t touch the Incinerator.”

 “Come on, Carvine!” Horsythe’s desperate whining tore Kyrnath back to reality, and his visions of anti-cosmic terror died as quickly as the innumerable souls that would soon be snuffed out by the Incinerator.

“I’m coming, I’m coming,” shouted Carvine, a thin, blue-skinned Primordian. As he approached from across the field, Kyrnath could make out the shivering outlies of the Pentagonal Antiprism that he clutched haphazardly between a pair of forceps. His voice was distorted by the anti-gravity fields bleeding out from the depths of the inter-dimensional crystalline prison.

The Pentagonal Antiprism was pure euphoria and pain woven together as one by the fibers of a trillion forgotten names. Psychedelic ripples of torsion screamed out from its core, and Kyrnath swore the forceps warped the slightest bit as Carvine struggled to stabilize it. Finally, he wrestled the cube into the mouth of the dormant Terrorboric Incinerator. He held off on firing it up, giving the new recruit time to study the perfect polyhedron of freshly-compressed data.

“Wow,” Shiru remarked, but her tone somehow managed to sound as unimpressed as usual. “I’ve heard about these things, but I never thought I’d actually get to see one in person.”

“Here it is: Everything the denizens of planet Earth ever hoped, dreamed, and died for.” Horsythe beamed as she gestured to the Pentagonal Antiprism, drinking in the collective death wails of every soul that ever existed on Earth through her rapidly-flashing ocular vents. “It’s all their crimes, aspirations, and sins condensed into this cool little package! Their immortal souls usually linger close to the surface of the planet after death, so those get thrown in there too.”

Shiru’s infrasonic feelers began to twitch in silent introspection. She stared at the impossibly dense mass of lives and dreams, tangled together into an inescapable conglomerate of energy. “How can everything countless Earthen civilizations accomplished through an entire Expurgate of evolution be compressed into something so small?”

“It doesn’t matter ‘how’,” Kyrnath interjected. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to understand what she was getting involved in, but he knew how the Shepherds felt about curiosity—especially from a recruit as green as her.

“All you need to know for now is that when the last surviving civilization on a planet reaches its ultimate demise, the Shepherds sweep in to compress all their data. Sometimes it’s nuclear war, sometimes their mother star burns out and needs to be reignited . . . But it always ends the same way.” He nodded to the Pentagonal Antiprism.

“Anything of true importance is uploaded to the mainframe to be analyzed later,” Kyrnath continued. “But most extraneous data, such as lingering souls or collective memories, is destined for the Incinerator. And that’s where we come in,” he finished. Even after all these cycles, his heart still swelled with pride when he remembered the importance of his job.

“True importance?” Shiru asked, her tendrils swaying back and forth with building uncertainty.

“Yeah. You know, groundbreaking stuff like a civilization finally learning the true nature of reality, or figuring out how to connect with the mainframe. Needless to say, it doesn’t happen very often—usually, we just end up incinerating the whole mess and starting over,” Kyrnath shrugged. “We don’t have nearly enough storage space to archive all those souls, and certainly not even half of their so-called accomplishments.”

“What do the Shepherds want with the data?” Shiru asked. Kyrnath could tell by the way she narrowed her vents with suspicion that she was going to be a problem. “There’s no way the creatures that live on a backwater world like this know the first thing about defeating the Insavatu, so why bother?”

“Listen, don’t worry about it,” Carvine piped in, shifting around uncomfortably as he struggled to hold the writhing Pentagonal Antiprism in place with his forceps. “The deaths of a hundred trillion of these lesser beings don’t emit any more energy than a single pulse of our own cores.”

Kyrnath talked over him, knowing that an overzealous new recruit like Shiru wasn’t going to be satisfied without a proper explanation. “The Shepherds say that if the simulation runs through enough times, the suffering of the lesser beings may help us uncover the secret to winning the Eternal War. This means their lives and deaths have meaning!” He exclaimed. “Every time their history is analyzed by the Shepherds—and erased by the Terrorboric Incinerator—we’re one step closer to defeating the Insavatu.”

Shiru’s tendrils shivered with rage as her accusatory gaze darted between the entire group. “So you’d make the seedlings die a thousand deaths for the chance of uncovering a few worthless secrets? What makes you think an entire race—no, a thousand different races, a thousand times—should be born just to die over and over, to further your cause in a war you cannot win?”

Kyrnath’s ocular vents all squelched in unison as he rasped, “‘Your’ cause?” But before the ventricles in his core could register that something was fatally wrong, before he could press the panic button on the wrist of his armband that would connect him with the Shepherds immediately, Shiru’s face began to melt away.

Carvine’s feelers secreted the pungent slime that only terror could invoke, and Horsythe emitted a pathetic whimper of fear as Shiru’s tendrils hardened into countless pairs of horns. Her ocular vents clouded over until they were as black as the gaping mouth of the Terrorboric Incinerator. Her flesh evaporated into liquid smoke, revealing a thick layer of purple, scaled armor underneath.

Shiru’s metallic bones pierced through her armor with a rage-fueled scream that echoed off the mountains. Three pairs of black, holographic wings unfurled from her back and nearly blocked out the sun. She towered over the entire group, now, taller than all three Primordians fused together as one.

“Y-you’re an Insavatu?!” Kyrnath stuttered in disbelief, his core pulsing deep within his chest as true fear washed over him for the first time in countless cycles. Horsythe had already turned to flee without so much as a yelp.

“You could say that, yes. But truthfully, I am but a pawn in the Eternal War that raged since before the birth of flesh, machine, or god. My mission began before the first shadows stirred in the hearts of men, before a single ray of light refracted from the firstborn star. And for as long as the Primordian Empire has existed, I’ve known your ways are wrong.”

By now, Shiru’s transformation had attracted the attention of the rest of the encampment. The supersonic howl of Primordian fear was echoing off the Terrorboric Incinerator, and the pine-covered mountains that stretched skyward behind it.

“Wrong?!” Kyrnath sputtered, his vision growing hazy and red through the quivering slits of his ocular vents. The rabid gnawing of fear had reduced his consciousness to its most basic operations, and it took him a moment to figure out what she was even talking about. But then he remembered what they’d been ruminating over before, what started it all: his vents shifted to the sad, shivering Antiprism in the mouth of the incinerator.

“Nothing we’re doing is wrong!” He rasped, standing his ground even though Carvine turned to run for the closest ship. “This is just how it is! How it’s always been! The seedlings can’t feel a thing, I swear it! They’re so wrapped up in the turmoil of their lives that they have no idea what’s going on. And the ones here on Earth don’t have it nearly as bad as the ones from, say, Hexagor VI. Earth’s only been reset 1,674 times. Hexagor is on cycle 55,774!”

“. . . And your Shepherds, in their infinite wisdom, still haven’t extracted a shred of worthwhile data from Hexagor, I suppose?” Shiru demanded, resting her massive hands on her hip and impatiently tapping her claws.

“Well . . . Nothing to speak of, no,” Kyrnath admitted in a dejected tone.

“And you still keep running these simulations, forcing the seedlings to die again, and again, and again?” Shiru sighed, quickly losing any hope that Kyrnath would admit that what they were doing was reprehensible. But still, she tried.

“They think their lives have meaning! They bond with lovers, and children, and friends despite the terror of death, fueled by the blind hope that there’s some order to the universe. But there isn’t, not for them: there’s only Primordian cruelty.”

Kyrnath’s slime-drenched tentacles all shivered in unison as he shrugged. He was the only Primordian left on the ground, now, and the screams had been replaced by the droning of the ships’ reactors firing up long before their charging cycles were complete. Most whined in cold refusal—and even if they drained their reserves, it would be half an oroch before they were warmed up enough to engage the antimatter thrusters.

Shiru began to stroke the plate of her left forearm with her glistening black claws. A surge of relief rushed through her entire body when she felt the two buttons, side-by-side, one red and one green. The implants had withstood her transformation and remained buried in her impenetrable shield of bone. They were ready to transmit the self-destruct signal to the Vorstygian Dismantlers the Insavatu dreadnaughts had planted in the heart of the Incinerator last night. Now that the Earth’s core was close enough to kick-start the reality-bending Vorstygian Gravity Reaction, their plan could finally come to fruition.

 “Well, do you have any last words?” Shiru demanded, giving him one last chance to redeem himself before being sucked inside the Incinerator to meet the same fate as the billions of souls he’d ended. “If you can connect me to the Primordian Shepherds, I might consider sparing your life for a few more moments.”

“Dismantlers . . .” Kyrnath muttered weakly, completely ignoring her question. He’d seen Vorstygian Dismantlers in action once and only once, when the entire Eggroid Sector was erased from existence and sealed forever in an inaccessible pocket dimension. As his core pounded with such violence that he feared it would erupt from his chest, he realized they must have planted them last night when they pierced the Halcyon Fields.

“Nope?” Nothing? Didn’t think so,” sighed Shiru, growing impatient. Her fingers snaked towards the pair of buttons on her wrist and rested on the smaller one. The encampment was in pure chaos, now, and some of the Primordians had already abandoned their useless ships to bolt for the nearby forest.

“Well, I’m out of here: hope all that Terrorboric acid doesn’t sting too much. It’ll be over soon, unlike the endless cycles of torment you subjected all these seedlings to.”

With that, her claw pressed down on the tiny red button, and her twisted form phased into the void only to reappear almost instantly on the top of a nearby mountain that pierced the clouds. She could still make out the abominable, contorted towers of the Terrorboric Incinerator far below. The Primordians were little more than panicked ants, scrambling desperately for a few more pathetic seconds of existence.

When she pressed the green detonator button for the Vorstygian Dismantlers, for a moment, she wondered if the dreadnaughts had sacrificed themselves for nothing: The encampment below was as still as the thousand lakes that carved their way through the wild as far as her eyes could see.

But then, the scream of the Terrorboric Incinerator was loud enough to dissipate the clouds, and she knew the Halcyon Fields in the heart of the monster had been vaporized forever.

It was a glorious thing, seeing that crusher—not of worlds but of civilizations and dreams—collapse in upon itself on the very planet it had terrorized for countless cycles, no less. But it wasn’t half as satisfying as watching the Primordians being sucked inside one-by-one. Shiru could only hope that each instant would feel like a thousand cycles as they were warped into the heart of the localized temporal disturbance.

On the peak of the mountain, she knew she was out of reach of the blast. Her sisters had been sure to program a much smaller detonation radius than usual before the Dismantlers were planted. Even a scratch on the surface of unspoiled, impossibly beautiful world would be a tragedy, they all knew. The Primordians were the only ones who deserved to suffer today.

The churning of the Terrorboric acids in the heart of the Incinerator crashed louder than the sapphire oceans at the edge of the sky. It was difficult to see from so far away, but it seemed like all the Primordians had been engulfed, now—just in time for the triple-reinforced metalloid exoskeleton to warp and buckle as the Vorstygian Gravity Reaction exploded in its heart.

The Incinerator’s incessant, groaning cacophony warped into a chorus of shrieks as the anomaly consumed it. Its horrific towers twitched and collapsed in on themselves, a puzzle of molten metal interwoven through the warm, refreshing breeze.

It never ceased to amaze Shiru how anticlimactic it was to watch something get sucked into the void beyond infinity with these Vorstygian Dismantlers. It was closer to watching a screen glitch out than witnessing reality unfold, she thought with a hint of disappointment.

The blistering star that served as the lone beacon of illumination for the entire planet flickered. The tendrils that wormed through the void beyond the stars emerged for a fleeting instant before zipping the anomaly shut from within.

The Terrorboric Incinerator was gone, along with the entire Cerulian Spore Fleet. A pillar of twisted yellow energy bled upward, discoloring a small cross-section of the sky to a dissonant, sickly shade of yellow. That pale jaundiced patch of color was all that remained of the eraser of histories, and before Shiru could truly even begin to enjoy it, it too faded away.

As the dust settled in the clearing below, returning to monotony and eternal comfort, Shiru pressed a button embedded in her right arm to summon an Archive Sphere. She was calloused from a thousand Expurgates on the front lines, but most of her sisters were soft and young: they weren’t yet ready to watch the carnage unfold in blood-drenched clarity, but they always looked forward to a detailed post-mission analysis—and she wanted to get started while everything was still fresh in her mind.

After all, what she saw here today could change the course of history—her actions would shine forever throughout the cosmos as a beacon of hope for the Insavatu, and all other races of Light.

 “Expurgate 66,464, Zerulian 5. Today, we dealt a disastrous blow to the Primordians, and all other races of Shadow. Everything has gone according to plan: The Terrorboric Incinerator has been eradicated. The central branch of the Primordian Spore Emissaries has been dissolved as well. As expected, all traces of humanity, the oldest Primordian seed, were erased on this mission.

Although we talked of rehabilitating humanity, and rebuilding them from the charred ashes of their Primordian design, I ultimately decided that the seedlings had no place among the stars. A race with suffering so deeply infused into its core, so interwoven throughout its history, stands no chance of true rehabilitation on any meaningful scale.

All it takes is one glance through the archives to see that humanity was destined to mimic the sins of their forebears for all eternity: The Primordian Shadow burned behind every pair of human eyes, and it’s painfully apparent in the atrocities that sullied the Earth since time immemorial.

And in truth, it only seemed just to let them rest: After enduring so many senseless deaths and rebirths at the hands of the Primordians, it seems fitting that they would rest for all eternity, along with their merciless creators.”

Shiru pressed the button to dismiss the Archive Sphere, her interest shifting back to the smoldering battlefield below. She would finish the report later, she decided.

Kyrnath, that stubborn old Primordian, had a warped and dangerous view of the universe—but he was right about one thing. This world truly was the kind of place that only came along once in a galaxy, once in an Expurgate. It was time to savor her victory beneath the tranquil clouds that drifted softly across the cerulean void.

But just as she was beginning to truly bask in her triumph, and the triumph of all beings of Light, she remembered: despite this monumental victory, the Eternal War wasn’t even close to being over, and it would never be won. It would never end, just as it never began: It simply always was.

The Eternal War between Light and Shadow would rage until the universe died. And until the triumph of nothingness over both dark and light, Shiru would be on the front lines.

She looked down over the still, silent world, smiling as the last vapor of the Terrorboric Incinerator evaporated into the Earthen breeze.

Nothing stirred, no one screamed, and the resplendent, immaculate Arcadia of Earth was as silent as it was when Light and Shadow were one.

END

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