This time death was like being in the center of a whirlpool, inside the heart of a roaring tornado. The universe spun madly, time and space whirling into a dizzying blur, planets and stars and atoms and electrons racing in wild orbits with me in the middle of it all, falling, falling endlessly into a cryogenically cold oblivion.
Gradually all sensation left me. It might have taken moments or millennia, I had no way to gauge time, but all feeling of motion and cold seeped away from me, as if I were being numbed, frozen, turned into an immobile, insensate block of ice.
Still my mind continued to function. I knew I was being translated across space-time, from one cusp of the continuum to another. Yet for all I could see or touch or hear, I was in total oblivion. For a measureless tune I almost felt glad to be free of the wheel of life at last, beyond pain, beyond desire, beyond the agonizing duty that the Creators forced upon me.
That stirred me. Somewhere in the vast reaches of space-time Anya was struggling against forces that I could not even comprehend, in danger despite her godlike powers, facing enemies that frightened even the Golden One and the other Creators.
I reached out with my mind, seeking to penetrate the blank darkness that engulfed me. Nothing. It was as if there was no universe, no continuum, neither time nor space. But I knew that somewhere, sometime, she existed. She had loved me as I had loved her. Nothing in all the universes of existence would keep us apart.
A glimmer of light. So fault and distant that at first I thought it might be merely my imagination obeying my desire. But yes, it truly was there. A faintest, faintest glow. Light. Warmth.
Whether I moved to it or it moved to me mattered not at all to me. The glow grew and brightened until I seemed to be hurtling toward it like a chip thrown into a furnace, like a meteor drawn to a star. The light blazed like the sun now and I threw my arms across my eyes to ease the pain, delighted that I had eyes and arms and could feel again.
“Orion,” came a voice from that blinding, overpowering radiance. “You have returned.”
It was Aten, of course, the Golden One. He resolved his presence into human form, a powerful godlike figure with a thick golden mane, robed in shimmering gold, almost too bright for me to look upon.
He stood before me in an utterly barren landscape that stretched toward infinity in every direction. A featureless plain of billowing mist that played about our ankles, an empty bowl of sky above us the color of hammered copper.
“Where is Anya?” I asked.
“Far from here.”
“I must go to her. She is in great danger.”
“So are we all, Orion.”
“I don’t care about you or the others. It is Anya I care for.”
A faint hint of a smirk curled the corners of his lips. “What you care or don’t care about is inconsequential, Orion. I created you to do my bidding.”
“I want to be with Anya.”
“Impossible. There are other tasks for you to perform, creature.”
I stared into his golden eyes and knew that he had the power to send me where he chose. But I had powers, too, powers that were growing and strengthening.
“I will find her,” I said.
He laughed scornfully. But I knew that whatever he did, wherever he sent me, I would seek the woman I loved, the goddess who loved me. And I would not cease until I found her.
I found myself confined in a featureless gray enclosure, the curving wall of a smooth plastic cocoon so close upon me that I could not lift my head without bumping it. I lay on my back, disoriented, blinking eyes that felt gummy with sleep. My arms were pressed close to my sides; there was scant room for me to move them. But I edged one hand along the curving wall of my chamber. It felt blood-warm. Yet I was chilled, as cold inside as a frozen corpse.
I could remember dying, more than once. I recalled freezing to death in a frigid landscape of snow and ice and bitter, merciless winds. The numbness of the cold had been a mercy then; my body had been torn to bloody ribbons by a cave bear.
A mechanical click snapped me to the here and now. I heard a soft beeping sound, strangely annoying. Then the curved plastic cover abruptly swung open. Immediately a chill white mist enveloped me. I shivered and tried to sit up. It took an effort.
Propping myself on one elbow, I squinted through the icy mist. I was in a large room. Featureless gray walls. Low ceiling that glowed with cold bluish light. The floor was lined with large objects that looked to me like coffins. Dozens of them, a hundred, perhaps. And that irritating beeping sound, soft yet insistent, like a worry gnawing at the back of your mind. One at a time, and then in twos and threes, the lids of the coffinlike capsules swung back with soft sighing sounds, like the slightest of breezes wafting through the nodding limbs of a forest. Cold whitish mist drifted up from each of them. The beeping stopped when the last of them opened.
Men and women began pulling themselves up to sitting positions, rubbing their eyes, stretching their arms, looking around the room. I could see that they were young, slim, physically fit. They looked so much like each other that they could have been brothers and sisters. At first I thought they were siblings from two or three families. They wore nothing at all. Completely naked, men and women alike. Just as I was.
The room suddenly jolted sideways, as if some giant hand had slammed it. A dull, distant boom reverberated through the mist-filled air. I almost fell off my bier. Several people gasped or yelled out in surprise. An earthquake? No. Only that one shock.
I swung my legs to the floor and stood up, tentatively, testing my strength, keeping a grip on the edge of the coffin or sarcophagus or whatever it was. A cryonic sleep capsule, I realized, not knowing how I knew. That is what it was. The room was crammed with row upon row of cryonic sleep capsules. The men and women in here with me had just been awakened from death. Or the next thing to it.
“Who is in charge of this squad?”
I turned toward the challenging, impatient voice. And stiffened with sudden fear and hatred. Standing in the hatch was a reptilian, a bipedal lizard decked in green and gray scales, insignia painted on its chest and shoulders, an equipment web strapped around its torso, the stub of a rudimentary tail visible between its legs. It was only about shoulder-high to me, not yet fully grown.
One of Set’s offspring! Every nerve in me burned with hatred, every muscle tensed for battle. But I had killed Set long ago, in the howling agony that took him and his whole brood of reptilian invaders. And he had killed me. I remembered dying then, back in the age when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and the Sun’s dwarf companion star had not yet been crushed down to the planet Jupiter.
And this reptile was different. Its face was more lizard-like, with a snout full of teeth and a single bony crest atop its skull. The eyes were mere slits, glittering like a snake’s, but they were set forward and scanned us with intelligent scorn.
“Come on! Shake out of it! You’ve been sleeping long enough,” it said. Its voice issued from a tiny jeweled medallion it wore on a gold chain around its neck.
“Who’s in charge here?” it asked again.
“I am,” I said, realizing the truth of it as I spoke the words. “My name is Orion, captain of this hundred.”
Those glittering eyes fixed on me. “Very well, Orion. Get your troops on their feet and ready for action-”
Another jolt rocked the room. This time it felt like an explosion. And sounded like one, too. The troops tottered and staggered. I grabbed the edge of my sleep capsule to keep from falling down.
The reptilian made a slight hissing noise. “You’ve got to be ready for action in one hour. That’s an order, soldier.”
It ducked back through the hatch. I realized that its equipment web was empty, mere decoration. We were going into action, all right, but it wasn’t.
The mist from the sleepers was almost completely gone. The troops were standing uncertainly, still unsure of themselves, their minds still fogged with cryonic sleep.
“All right,” I said, loudly and firmly, “you heard what the lizard said. We’re going into action. Fall in!”
They eyed me suspiciously, sullenly almost, but pulled themselves together and formed files alongside their sleeper units. Sergeants stood at the head of each row, and three lieutenants-two of them women-marched barefooted to the front of the room and stood at attention before me. No one seemed distressed by their nudity.
I did not know these troopers. I had been placed in their command just before the expedition took off, I recalled. Their regular captain had been relieved of duty for reasons that had not been explained to me. I had all the personnel data in my head, of course, but those were merely cold facts from their files. These hundred soldiers were all strangers to me.
I could remember! I marveled at that. As I marched my hundred to the lockers for their clothes, armor, equipment and weapons, I rejoiced in the fact that my memory had not been wiped clean by the Golden One. I wondered why this time was different. Aten always erased my memory after each of my missions. Sometimes I had overcome his erasures, sometimes I reclaimed my memories. Aten often smirked that he allowed me to remember, that I could never have overcome his erasure with nothing but my own efforts. I myself thought that Anya probably helped me.
But now I could remember it all-or at least, I could remember a lot. Anya. I loved her and she loved me. She was one of the Creators, as far beyond me as a goddess is to a mortal, but she loved me. She had risked her life to be with me in all the ages I had been sent to by Aten. I wanted to find her, to be with her, forever.
But there was a crisis, out among the stars, far from Earth. Anya was out there fighting somewhere, as were the other Creators. Fighting for their lives. Fighting for the survival of the human race. Fighting for the survival of the continuum.
Against whom? I had no idea. Was this the time of the great crisis in the continuum that Aten and the other Creators had feared so deeply? Is that why I was here, with my memories intact?
I wondered about that. How much of my memories were with me? There was no way to tell. How do you know if you don’t remember a lifetime or two? I could hear Aten’s mocking laughter in my mind. It seemed to say that I remembered what he allowed me to remember, nothing more. I was his creature, destined throughout all the lifetimes of the continuum to do his bidding.
“ORION TO THE BRIDGE.” The order sounded from the speakers of the ship’s intercom, overhead. “ON THE DOUBLE.”
My troops hardly glanced at me as they pulled on their armor and equipment and hefted the heavy weapons we would be using planetside. They were veterans, despite their seeming youth.
I headed for the bridge without hesitation, finding my way through the labyrinthine passageways of the huge battle cruiser as if I had never been anywhere else. We were part of an invasion fleet, and our approach to the target planet was not unopposed. There was a battle going on, our invading fleet against their defenders.
At each double-doored hatch there was a sentry, a reptilian with insignia painted onto its scales and a sidearm buckled around its middle. Each time I flinched, remembering Set and his minions and how they had tried to make the Earth their own. But each of these sentries stiffened to attention at my approach and saluted with three-taloned hands.
They had one thing in common with Set’s species; their size told their age, and their age told their rank. The bigger they were, the older and higher-ranking. I wondered what happened to reptilians who did not get promoted as they aged.
The bridge was small and cramped and eerily quiet with the tension of battle. Nothing but reptilians at the consoles, the cruiser’s captain at the center bigger than all the others, of course. They were all absorbing data directly through the cyborg jacks plugged into their temples, their eyes covered with wide-spectrum lenses that showed them everything that the ship’s sensors detected, far more than unaided eyes could see.
For me, though, there was nothing to see except these rapt reptilians at their duty stations, claws clicking on keyboards set into the armrests of their chairs. There were no screens for human eyes, nothing but blank metal bulkheads and consoles covered with dials and gauges that meant nothing to me. The bridge was uncomfortably hot, and had a strange dry charred smell to it, like a desert in a blazing noon sun.
Suddenly a hot glow blossomed off to one side of the bridge, burning through the bulkhead plates like a laser hit. I tried to call out a warning to the bridge crew but my voice would not work. The glow grew brighter, larger. I thought the ship’s shields had been broken through; in another instant the hull would be ripped open to vacuum.
None of the reptilians noticed a thing. Behind their lenses and cyborg jacks they remained intent on the battle. The glow turned golden, too bright to look at, yet I could not turn my eyes from it. Tears began to blur my vision as the glow dimmed slightly and resolved itself to the human form of Aten, the Golden One.
“Tears of joy, Orion, at seeing your creator once again?” he mocked.
He looked calmly magnificent in the midst of that terribly tense, inhumanly quiet bridge. He wore a splendid high-collared uniform of dazzling white, with gold piping and sunburst insignia on his chest. His thick mane of golden hair glowed magnificently; his cruelly handsome face was set in a cold smile.
“Or perhaps you feel frustrated at not being able to view the battle,” he said.
All at once I could see in my mind a planet nearby, and dozens of spacecraft swarming toward it. Defending craft were rising through its atmosphere, firing lasers and missiles as they approached our fleet. Three of their ships exploded soundlessly, vivid red blossoms of destruction against the planet’s blue ocean.
“The battle goes well,” the Golden One said.
The ship shook again from another blast, nearly knocking me off my feet.
“So I see,” I replied dryly.
Aten arched a golden brow. “Humor, Orion? Irony? My creature is expanding his repertoire of behaviors.”
“Where is Anya?” I asked.
His expression turned more thoughtful. “Far from here.”
“I want to see her.”