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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

This is the Way the World Begins

C.L. Holland is a British fantasy writer and winner of Writers of the Future. She works in Customer Service, which would be fine if it weren't for all the customers. She blogs about writing, cats, jewelry making, and other miscellanea at xanthalanari.livejournal.com, and has an author page at facebook.com/CLHollandwriter.

On the observation deck of the terraforming ship Lifebringer, Commander Therro watches the surface of the planet below burn on the screens before him. Flames writhe and smoke boils, and sometimes he catches a glimpse of tall, thin figures moving through the destruction without concern. They're the cause of it, after all.
He flicks a switch to change his view. Abruptly, he sees one of the twenty-foot tall humanoids walking stiff-legged across the screen. This one is apparently female: breasts and hips are visible beneath the thin blue fabric that shrouds her, although having seen the creatures in the flesh, she's too towering and sinewy for him to think of her as a "her."
"Are we interrupting, Commander?"
The voice from the doorway is unfamiliar, but Therro recognizes the man from his picture. Prefector Kissef, the man for whom all of this is being done. Every prefector aspires to a planet of his own, after all.
Therro salutes, even though the man isn't military. Better safe than sorry when it comes to the men with the power to sanction this kind of destruction. "Not at all, Prefector."
"I've just been to visit the handlers," Kissef says. "Fascinating how those people keep your automatons under control. They let me touch one, you know. The 'female.' Cold as a dead fish, her skin. I don't think she liked me."
He shoots Therro a wink and moves to the screen to consult the records. "Helter has an ecosystem similar to Kefferru before that world was terraformed. Interesting. I wonder if it reminds them of home." He grins at Therro, who returns a weak smile. "No plague this time? Don't they usually wipe out the life before they burn it?"
"Yes, sir." Therro gestures at the female figure. "The female didn't start a plague this time." He feels a squirm of discomfort as he adds, "This time they're burning everything alive."
"But you still have control?" Kissef's gaze flickers from the screens to Therro and back.
"Yes, sir."
One of the males is kneeling. Therro flicks another switch that sends a pulse of electricity through the pylons that jut from his back. The featureless face raises in what Therro imagines might be a howl, and the male lurches to his feet. He begins walking again with flame trickling from his fingers.
"But we can terraform the planet as normal?" Kissef asks. "It won't cause any disruption?"
"No, sir. I've reported the anomaly to the admiralty and they advised to proceed once we've completed repatriation of the automatons to the ship." Sometimes Therro thinks the admiralty named them automatons to make everyone forget that these had once been free, living creatures. They certainly weren't going to call them gods, as the population of Kefferru had done before their planet was taken and their gods enslaved.
Prefector Kissef nods. "Carry on, then."
Therro turns back to his screens to see the three in a circle, looking skywards. For one disconcerting moment, he thinks they look straight through the screen at him. His fingers reach for the buttons to send a jolt of electricity through each of them, and falters. He has never liked using punishment; the automatons are all too eager to use destruction once unleashed. Therro suspects it's a reaction to their enslavement. To add more suffering to it seems unnecessary.
The males kneel and dig their fingers into the earth. Abruptly the fires die down and leave the planet's surface smoldering.
This, too, is new. Usually they leave the fires to burn until nothing is left.
Therro reaches for the comm to contact the admiralty again, but another alarm sounds before he reaches it. The lights turn red. Therro remembers his training: contamination.
Therro hits the button that isolates his control room from the rest of the ship, but already he's thinking of the environmental systems, of incubation periods, of Prefector Kissef touching the female. The female always starts a plague before the males burn the planet.
When he looks back at the screen, the automatons are moving again. They walk hand-in-hand across the ravaged surface. Soot coats their feet. In their wake he sees things stirring beneath the ash, shapes unfolding and shaking the dust from their bodies. Life begins anew.
How ironic, he thinks, that we used them only for destruction and thought to create life there ourselves.
The female pauses, as if she hears his thoughts. For a moment she faces him from the screen and this time he knows she sees him. The featureless flesh moves in what might be a smile, if she had lips.
Already Therro can feel his chest tightening, possibly just fear, but the map shows red dots all over the ship as the environmental systems pick up the contamination. It's spreading fast but then it would have to, to wipe out the whole planet in less than twenty-four hours.
His vision is blurring. Therro touches his fingers to his eyes and they come away spotted with red.
It will, at least, be quick.
Amid the flashing red lights and blaring klaxon, Therro watches them create life, and waits for his to end.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, October 11th, 2012

Author Comments

This story was written during a Liberty Hall Flash Challenge--during which forum members attempt to write a trigger-based story in ninety minutes. The trigger for this particular challenge was Salvador Dali's striking painting "The Burning Giraffe." Although the basic plot was completed in the initial draft, there was very little internal logic, which came through in the editing.

- C.L. Holland
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