The Death Star of New Bethlehem, by Matt Cowens
Everyone knew it was an ill omen.
Life on New Bethlehem was tough enough without ominous lights in the sky and rumours of invading aliens, but as the third year of human colonisation drew to a close a shiver ran through the small towns and scattered settlers of that harshest of all Earth’s colonies. The cold season had arrived, and with it something much worse.
The mountain pass was almost blocked when Joseph and Mary reached it, their meagre farm left far behind, their few possessions strapped to the sides of their stubborn, six-legged mule. It was big enough to carry them in a small shed mounted on a harness on its back. Inside Joseph coughed and pulled his coat tighter around his shoulders. His wife smiled at him, offered him her coat. She hadn’t felt the cold so much as she had neared full term. She rested a hand against her swollen belly and closed her eyes, enjoying the rhythmic swaying of the mule’s steps. It was a luxury, one of the few useful native creatures this world had.
In the valley below them a farming village came into view. Even from the height of the mountain pass Joseph could see the extra tents of refugees spread out on the snow-covered fields, cooking fires smoking lazily in the dying light.
“Looks like it’s not just us who got frozen out,” Joseph said sadly, turning back to his wife.
“It’ll be all right, Jo,” his wife replied. “The colonial seeding ships will be back next year. We shall make do until then.”
As the twin suns set behind the vast western ranges the lights in the south began to flicker again, a rain of tiny green and red flares in the distance. They twinkled like stars as darkness descended over New Bethlehem.
“I hope you are right, my dear. I hope,” Joseph muttered, watching grimly as the distant ships dropped through the atmosphere.
They reached the village in the middle of the night. There was only one inn but with the pressure of extra refugees it was more than full. Joseph and Mary were forced to take up lodgings in the vast stable with their mule and a young orphan boy whose family had not survived the journey north.
“It will be OK,” Mary insisted. “Have faith.”
At dawn a chorus of screams was heard, echoing down from the mountains. At first it was the ragged, piercing screams of men and women. This was soon joined by the ear-splitting cry of a New Bethlehem mule, its huge lungs rending the very air with its mournful bellow. Finally another cry joined the cacophony, an exultant screech unlike anything the settlers of New Bethlehem had heard before.
Smoke was seen at the top of the pass.
“It is the invasion! It has come!”
Panic swept through the town as refugees and locals gathered in the inn, their meagre weapons and farming tools clutched anxiously in their hands.
“Please, please try to remain calm!” the innkeeper shouted, raising a hand in a vain attempt to silence the crowd that was packed into the inn’s central room.
“Silence!” an old voice called, a voice of authority and command. A hoary figure stepped forward from the crowd and clambered up onto a table. Two other old men followed him, their priestly robes, flowing beards and burning eyes signalling to the crowd that here were men of wisdom, men worth listening to.
“I am Don Bianchi, this is Don Conti and Don Moretti. Like you, we came to New Bethlehem to start a new life. This rock at the edge of known space is not a good home, but it is our home, and we are not going to let some damn aliens take it from us. We must send someone to see first-hand what the problem is. Someone fast. Any takers?”
There was a moment of awkward shuffling as the packed inn resounded with the silent anxiety of the crowd. Finally a small figure stepped forward.
“I shall go,” said the thin orphan boy from the barn. “I have a dragonfly. A tame one.”
“That’s a good boy,” Don Conti rasped with a thin smile. He stepped down from the table and patted the boy’s cheek. “You make your momma proud, eh?”
“I will sir. And…” the boy hesitated.
“Yes?” Don Bianchi asked. The crowd had remained reverently silent, knowing that in all likelihood they were sending a boy out to his death.
“Can you come with me to the barn first, sirs? The woman there, I think she’s about to have her baby.”
“Of course we can, of course,” Don Moretti said, helping Don Bianchi down from the table. “We are a young colony. My brothers and I have blessed every new birth on this rock. We shall go praise this infant, too.”
“Thank you sirs. My dragonfly is in the barn also,” the boy explained, leading the old Dons out into the bitter cold.
“Dear God, what is that?” Don Bianchi cried as they stepped out into the cold light of the early morning. A thick fog was flowing down the side of the mountain and filling the valley. It had already obscured the outlying farms and buildings and as they watched it rolled forward and swallowed the barn. As it reached them they were surprised to find that the mist was warm, almost hot.
Above the mountain, barely visible through the cloud and mist, a dazzling light hung in the sky. It pulsed hotly, bright yellow then fiery red.
“The barn, where is the barn?” Don Conti muttered angrily. He stepped forward then cursed under his breath as his shin struck one of the railings of the inn.
“It was between us and that hellish light,” Don Bianchi said, striding forward blindly. “Do not fear, my brothers. Follow the light until the barn blocks it out.
They stepped out into the mist and followed the light, and soon heard the sounds of laboured breathing and a man’s soothing voice mingling with the slow, steady breathing of a mule. The barn door lay slightly ajar and they stepped inside.
“David, is that you? My wife is very close now. Have you brought help?” Joseph called out, not leaving Mary’s side.
“I have brought the Dons, sir,” the boy answered, showing them to the shed.
Inside Mary was sweating, her fists clenched, but she was able to smile when they arrived. “The Dons! We are honoured,” she said, nodding to them.
“It is we who are honoured, Madame,” Don Conti said with a bow. “A child of New Bethlehem is about to be born. It is a thing of wonder.”
“I must go,” David said quietly to Joseph. “I must see what is above us, what has come.”
Joseph placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder, nodded solemnly. “I am glad to have met you, David. Stay safe.”
The boy slipped out of the shed, climbed into the rafters of the barn to summon his dragonfly.
The creature was sleeping nestled against the warm bulk of the mule. At the boy’s whistle it raised its beaked head, blinked its multi-faceted eyes, and sprung into the air. Its gossamer wings hummed as it circled the barn, gaining height, before coming to rest gently alongside the boy. He clambered onto its back, patted its side affectionately, and squeezed its abdomen with his heels. The dragonfly leapt from the rafter and dove towards the barn door, its wings fluttering against the boy’s knees as it swooped. With a whoop of excitement the boy and the dragonfly shot out of the barn door into the mist and spun upwards in languid circles.
The mist soon thinned as the ground grew distant. Looking to the pass David saw distant figures, bulky forms riding two-legged mounts. There were only a handful of them but they were large, their mounts enormous. David and the dragonfly swooped dangerously closer and he saw that the mounts had long, wrinkled necks, viciously sharp beaks and huge talons at the end of their legs. Their riders were bloated things with ugly snouts, thick limbs and small, cruel eyes. Beyond them were the remains of a smouldering caravan, several wagons and mules and dozens of people, their carcasses scorched almost beyond recognition. Above the horrific scene a machine floated, its engines giving off a blinding light. The machine was the size of a small house, round and covered in jets and vents. It followed the hideous aliens and David felt a chill run through his body as he regarded it.
Around the aliens the snow and ice had disappeared. Bare earth and small shoots of plants were exposed in an area hundreds of yards wide. As the aliens advanced the machine pushed heat out with them, enough to slowly melt the snow and ice but not enough to create more steam. As David whirled away, thankful not to have been targeted, he saw that the mist was clearing from the valley as the warm air dissipated.
He gently squeezed the dragonfly’s abdomen again to steer it towards the inn, and breathed a heavy sigh. The dragonfly turned its head, blinked at him reassuringly, and performed a barrel roll before landing outside the inn. As David dismounted it nuzzled into his side, unbalancing him and sending him stumbling a few paces. He laughed in spite of the horrors he had seen and patted its head.
“Good boy,” he said. “Good boy.”
The inn exploded into fresh panic when he shared his news. The Dons were still attending the birth, their medical skills as well as their religious duties keeping them from the inn.
“We must flee!”
“We must fight!”
“We must surrender!”
“We must have faith,” David said quietly, and though few heard him and fewer cared he slipped out of the inn, collected his father’s rifle from the barn, and began to walk toward the mountains.
The mounts of the aliens were quick, and they met David in the fields at the foot of the mountains. They drew to a halt twenty yards from the boy, their machine hovering above them, thawing the ground around them. David could feel the warmth of the machine where he stood, and he shrugged off his coat. He checked the breech of his father’s single-shot rifle. It was empty.
“Huuuman!” one of the creatures yelled, its voice thick and greasy. “Do you come to beg, huuuuman?”
“I come to warn you,” David replied, his eyes darting down to the ground and scanning the rapidly melting snow.
“Warn us?” the creature laughed, gravel scraping gravel in a deep cave. “We have studied your race, huuuman. We watched your ships abandon you here. We have nothing to fear!”
“We were not abandoned,” David replied softly. “This is no prison, no wasteland.”
The creatures regarded him with their sneers and evil eyes, their mounts clawing at the ground impatiently.
He knelt down, lifted a handful of newly exposed dirt. “This soil is precious to us. It is freedom. Freedom from tyranny, from despair, from hopelessness.” He straightened up. “This soil is our chance to start something good, something worthwhile. To grow something.”
“Grow? Hah, why grow when you can take?” the creature laughed again and poked at a control pad with a swollen finger.
The floating ball above them hummed into life and began to spin. David felt the hair on the back of his neck tingle then was surprised to see shapes flying into the air around him. It took him a moment to work out that they were potatoes, exploding from the soil, shedding their skins as they split with heat and then falling steaming to the ground.
“We can do the same to you, huuuman. Make you jump out of your skin.”
David saw a lot of teeth and assumed the creatures were smiling.
A crack followed by a whistling noise caused David to flinch as a bullet streaked through the air toward the head of the creature. The spinning ball flashed red and a wall of energy deflected the bullet. David glanced back toward town and saw a band of grim-faced men and women standing in the snow, rifles raised.
“No luck, huuumans! Silly weapons, flying metal. So primitive.”
David reached down to the breech of his own rifle, slipped the handful of dirt into it. It was worth a try.
“So you’re going to kill us all, take over the planet?” he asked, slipping shut the breech as quietly as possible.
“Maybe, maybe just kill you. Planet is cold too much. Still, we came all this way. May as well have some sport,” the creature flashed its teeth again. “How fast can you run, huuuuman?”
It tapped the control pad again and the ball began to spin. David dropped to one knee, raised his rifle, and fired the handful of stones and dirt directly at the control pad. The ball’s spinning slowed and the wall of energy glowed again, deflecting the rocks. Dirt pelted the creature’s hand and it laughed again, the sound sending shockwaves through David’s stomach.
“Nice try, huuuuman!” the creature bellowed, and extended its pudgy finger once more.
David lowered his rifle, his breath catching in his throat.
A baby’s first cry drifted on the cold wind to David’s ears. Poor child, he thought, born into a frozen world only to die.
The ball spun, heat leapt out in a slow wave which made David flinch, chapped his lips and caused him to raise one hand to shield his eyes. Between his fingers he saw the laughing faces of the aliens as they smeared war paint over their faces and chests, a thick yellow paste that smelled of spiced honey. The feathers of their hideous mounts ruffled as they squawked and clawed at the ground, the loose folds of red skin below their beaks shaking at the noise. Above them David caught sight of his dragonfly swooping down, its mandibles clicking together and a high pitched keening escaping its jaws.
Abruptly the heat ceased. Shapes were floating up from the ground, dragonfly forms of disembodied energy. David’s own dragonfly barrelled through these shapes, sweeping them along with it as it sped towards the ball. The machine crackled and flashed, arcs of electricity discharging in the direction of the fireflies. At the last second David’s dragonfly turned away and its spectral kin slammed into and through the machine.
The world exploded in front of David’s eyes.
He awoke to the soft sound of rain, to billowing clouds of rapidly cooling steam, and to the pleasant sensation of his dragonfly nuzzling him. The valley was warm, though he could feel the current of cool air streaming down from above. He was near the inn, with the rest of the villagers and refugees who had chosen to make a stand.
Sitting up, he saw the fireflies dancing above the gathered people. They were singing too, a child-like sound which was answered by the tiny baby cradled in Joseph’s arms. Whatever these beings were, these ghosts of dragonflies past, they were singing a lullaby to the child.
“Can you smell that?” Don Bianchi asked as he emerged from the barn, helping Mary to a seat beside the door.
“Meat?” asked Don Moretti, an enthusiastic glint in his eye.
“And potatoes?” asked Don Conti.
In the distance the smoking remains of the aliens and their mounts sat alongside the village’s seared crops. The honey glaze smelled delicious on the roasted skin of the pig-faced aliens and the enormous drumsticks of their mounts had fallen away from the tantalizingly aromatic bodies.
“It’s been a hard year,” Don Bianchi said to the crowd. “A hard three years, to tell the truth. I think it’s time we had ourselves a feast.”