by Max Barry

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by The Red Tape Singularity of Yegla Islands. . 52 reads.



In the void, there were five.

Shadowy un-smoke twisted and roiled around the boundaries of a room. Except to call it a room would be a bit misleading in any sense but the general - its size was practically impossible to gauge. Its walls, shifting between blackened coils and ragged openings into the starry expanse. Here and there, flashes of gilt and glass and polished wood would make themselves apparent for but a moment, before vanishing once more under the covering of shadows. At the fore, there stood a more concretely-defined object, but even that was concealed in its detailing by the swirling mass.

In the midst of all this, one sat.

The shadows seemed most prominent around him. His face, concealed amidst umbral coils, was outlined by nothing save a singular, glowing ember. His figure, imposing even while seated, was blanketed in a wavering greatcoat seemingly cut from the night itself - draped over his shoulders in the manner of a cape, it flowed outwards along the floor.

Beside him, four stood.

More figures, made indistinct by the black mist. Here and there, a flash of detail would resolve itself - the hem of a jacket. The glint of flickering half-light on a belt buckle. One stepped forward. Its voice was bronze.

“It is time.”

The reclining figure seemed to nod - its response came slowly. Borne aloft on the smoke itself.

“Almost. It has been… a while.”

“You are uncertain.”

“Yes. I’ve no cause to hide it. The world awaiting us is not the one we left.”

Now, another stepped out. A voice of silver.

“Then we shall make it as it once was. Simple as.”

“Perhaps… perhaps. But it is not our place.”

A third. A voice of gold.

“Then we shall make a place for ourselves. It will not be the first such occasion.”

“And take the place of others?”

Finally, there came the fourth. A voice of steel rang through the un-chamber.

“Those incapable of holding their place are undeserving of it.”

A moment of silence… punctuated by a deep, mournful sigh. As the seated figure’s shoulders rose, then fell, the smoke seemed to swirl more vigorously.

“A truth I have long avoided exploiting… but there is little recourse from truth. I am sorry, old friends.”

Four voices, in unison.

“It is not your blame to take. We stand united.”

“In that case… you have my thanks. And I see no point in wasting any more time.”

The darkness roiled, and one rose. His mantle, spread as raven’s wings - a wafting cloak of shadow, streaming behind him as he walked. The drag allowed for a few more details to surface - well-worn epaulettes, still glinting with gilt. A smattering of medals on the lapels of a hefty greatcoat. An officer’s cap, adorned with a single golden star. The face remained indistinct, but the end of a smouldering blackwood pipe could be seen to poke out of the corner of a mouth.

As he came to the fore of the room, his four companions striding behind him, the darkness parted. The hazy object, now revealed as a weathered and chipped ship’s wheel. A smoke-shrouded hand reached out to grasp an ebon handle. The wall ahead, no longer a wall - countless stars, spread across the blackness in every direction. Here and there, one could glimpse smoky things - hanging motionless in their bubbles of darkness, they exuded some alien, unquantifiable sense of expectation. And it wouldn’t take very long at all for an observer to note that “here and there”, in a space that was functionally endless, made for... quite a few of them, all in all.

Across the star-strewn void, an announcement was made. The merry chime that preceded it was the roar of a supernova. Each word, the thundering death of a universe. Within each scattered, shadow-shrouded shape, it was met with an attentive echo.

“Attention, all vessels. Prepare for departure. The course is set. The heading is clear. The fleet stands assembled.”

The weathered wheel was spun… and one by one, across distances too vast to bother measuring, the shadows rose in answer.

At the helm, there was one.

At his back, there were four.

On their order, there came all.