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art by Shannon N. Kelly

The Prisoners

D.K. Latta hails from Canada and has had dozens of short stories of SF, fantasy, and horror appear in a variety of publications, including Strange Horizons, and the book anthology Lords of Swords. He has also written reviews of books, movies, and comics for various publications. His website is: www.pulpanddagger.com/dk_latta.html.

There was a lingering smell of smoke in Chanthrows' nostrils, like the acrid stink that stays with you even hours after the campfire has died. He was laid out flat, while overhead the night sky glimmered as with a thousand stars. He had never seen a sky like that before. Then he realized he had never looked up from the surface of this world before. And with that realization, his eyes snapped wider with a start.
It came back to him now, like a wave slamming him against the surf. He remembered his flyer--part of that armada orbiting permanently overhead, those glints of reflected sunlight that created the illusion of a firmament full of stars. He remembered his flyer's stabilizing engine being clipped by a rookie flyer moving in too close. He remembered the rookie bursting into a fireball and his own flyer plunging down into the atmosphere. Down into the world that was the closest thing his people knew to Hell.
He turned his neck stiffly, and sucked in a startled gasp of breath through clenched teeth.
A humanoid creature sat cross-legged near him, its skin green and scaled where it emerged from the simple robe of organic fibers. Its head was oval, wider across than high. Its black eyes were slits, but reflected an unsettling air of antiquity. Its mouth split wide and Chanthrows shuddered at seeing the triple rows of saw-edged teeth.
He had never been this close to one of the ancient enemy before. In his heart, he knew he was about to die. But he was determined to die with honor.
"You crashed, my young friend," said the creature. For a moment Chanthrows wondered why he couldn't match the words to the lips. Then he realized the legends were true. The creatures were telepaths. "We have endeavored to make you comfortable."
Instinctively, Chanthrows glanced down at himself. He looked in remarkable shape for someone who had just plunged out of orbit. His flight suit was spotless. His arms were crossed over his belly as though he was just resting after a hearty meal. For some reason he couldn't move, however. Yet, strangely, that did not bother him as much as he thought it should. He looked at the creature. "You'll get nothing from me."
The creature shrugged. "There is nothing I want from you."
Chanthrows looked at the sky that sparkled with ten thousand ships. The creature had to be lying. The armada had been stationed around this planet for two hundred years, keeping the creatures confined, prisoners on their native world, preventing them from spreading their reign of terror throughout the galaxy. And now they had him. Well, it would do them little good. What few codes and security clearances he knew would not be enough for them to break through the cordon. And he would never betray those codes--his father had served in the armada, and his father's father. He would not be the first in his line to bring dishonor to his family.
They might torture him, but they would never leave their world again.
The creature tilted its head. "However... is there anything you want from me? Are you thirsty? Would you like a blanket? We would move you somewhere more comfortable, but the strain might be too much...."
Chanthrows' lips pulled back in a snarl. "I want nothing from you--except maybe honesty! Tell me the truth!"
The black eyes blinked sideways. "It is our custom to grant the request of a dying man--but are you sure truth will bring you peace?"
Chanthrows frowned with bitter satisfaction. So there it was. They intended to kill him after all. "Yes," he hissed, "truth!" Though even as he said it he realized it was a vague request. He meant truth of their intentions toward him... but what did the creature mean by truth?
"Then I will tell you a story," said the reptile. "Of an ancient people, who loved knowledge, who loved the stars... but most of all, loved peace."
In his mind's eye Chanthrows instinctively conjured images of his people's distant past, before they had met--he glared at the creature--them.
"And of another race. A brilliant, intelligent race--but a race that loved conquest. They called it manifest destiny and did not see it as evil, but as a way to bring the benefits of their civilization to the savages and primitives of the galaxy. They were a noble people... in their own minds. And the first race became aware of the second, became aware of what they were like and what they could do. And they foresaw a galaxy soaked in blood spilled by this noble race of altruistic conquerors. And the wise men of the first race asked, 'what can be done? Do we fight them? If we did, could we even win against their might? And even if we did win, would not just as much blood be spilled?' For remember, they loved peace, and desired not even the blood of those who would be their enemies. But how could they stop this race from laying siege to a galaxy? How could they stop their fleets from blocking out the suns of a hundred innocent worlds?
"And then it was asked: are they not noble... in their own way? Are they not convinced of their righteousness? Do they not dream of being saviors of the galaxy? Perhaps they cannot be stopped... but merely redirected. The first race debated this for many years--for they loved the stars so, and the freedom to roam among them. But they were honor bound to love peace more. And so at last a plan commenced. And so this first race set about to create an enemy. They found a derelict ship of the second race, a ship destroyed by a meteor, and made it look as though they had attacked it instead. With their telepathy they planted fantasies of atrocities in the minds of this noble, conquering race, convincing them that they--the first race--were in fact the bloodthirstiest of conquerors. They went to war--not to win, but simply to establish a foundation for hatred, fuelled, again, by occasional telepathic suggestions on the influential, the policymakers. Until this second race, this would-be conquering race, became convinced that the noblest action in all the universe would be to protect other worlds from this evil planet, and they did--after all--see themselves as the most noblest of races. And they then devoted all their might and their space technology, not to invading other worlds, to other campaigns, but to making sure the evil ones never again left their planet."
Chanthrows felt something spasm in his chest, though otherwise he felt fine. Then he coughed, and his spit was made of blood, not saliva. The creature looked at him sadly. "I'm sorry," it projected. "We attempted to keep you calm, to make you comfortable, but as the end nears, even our illusions must break down."
Uncomprehending, Chanthrows looked down at himself. His flight suit was no longer immaculate, but was blackened and torn. His arms were not draped lazily over his belly, but were flung about him at awkward angles. He could not see one of his legs. He had been dying all along, he realized, the crash having been too severe. The creature had used its telepathy to make his final minutes more peaceful, less painful. He did not understand this compassion from the evil ones. He tilted his head to look at the reptile, who returned his gaze with infinite sadness. There was a blackness bordering his vision, slowly closing in like a contracting iris.
"Whu-why?" he asked, as he felt himself slip into the sleep from which there was no awaking. "We gave up the stars to keep the galaxy safe from you."
The creature touched him gently, and nodded. "As did we."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
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