Small Magellanic Cloud, 7 January 2380 (Auld Greg Aerth Calendar)
"Behold," Frane said, unable to keep a slight tremor of awe out of his voice. Or is it fear? he wondered in some deep, shrouded corner of his soul.
But the vista that stretched before the assembled Seekers After Penance took Frane to a place far beyond fear. It was the most beautiful and terrible sight he had ever beheld. Effulgent tendrils of energy reached across millions of klomters of trackless emptiness toward the battered transport craft, like the probing fingers of some great, grasping hand.
Frane heard Nozomi gasp as she cowered behind him, as though the image threatened to reach straight through the cramped vessel's viewer and grab her.
"Have faith," Frane said. As a Neyel who had forsworn his own people's conquest-hardened traditions to live among society's slaves and outcasts, he knew well that faith was often the only thing that sustained him. To comfort Nozomi, he took one of her hands even as her graceful forked tail gently entwined with his. He gently disengaged from the female Neyel after noticing that one of her feet was grasping his leg hard enough to whiten the gray flesh beneath his loose pilgrim's robe.
"I'm keeping station here," said Lofi, the female Sturr who was handling the helm as well as the sensor station. Because she belonged to a race of multipartite colony creatures -- one of the first local peoples, in fact, to be conquered by the ancestral Neyel after their arrival centuries ago in M'jallanish space -- Lofi was able to separate several of her rounded thoracic segments briefly in order to perform disparate simultaneous tasks. Looking toward Lofi, Frane considered how this ability had made the Sturr species so useful to the earliest, most expansion-bent generations of precursor Neyel, the eldest Oh-Neyel Takers who spread throughout the M'jallan region to build the Neyel Hegemony on the backs of dozens of conquered slave races.
Will my people ever expiate the shame of those sinful days? Frane wondered. He feared he already knew the answer.
Eager to chase those dark thoughts away, Frane turned his gaze back toward the great, slowly coruscating starburst of energy that filled the screen before him. He saw that the image was holding the attention of everyone else in the narrow, dimly lit control room.
"Can't we approach it more closely?" g'Ishea said, cuddling up against Fasaryl, her mate. Members of an indigenous species that had been displaced -- and then largely slaughtered -- to make room for the shining Neyel capital of Mechulak City and the other great metrosprawls of the Neyel Coreworld, g'Ishea and Fasaryl had never known a time when their kind had been free to graze unhindered. Frane could only wonder what it was like to live as a forced laborer on what had once been a bucolic paradise, toiling endlessly beneath the Neyel lash and the lidless eye of Holy Vangar, the Stone Skyworld that had orbited their planet since the times of the First Conquests. How would it be, he wondered, to live that way for a dozen generations without any hope of freedom?
Frane cast a questioning glance at Lofi -- or rather at the globular, leathery portion of Lofi to which her primary sensory cluster was attached.
"I would advise not getting any nearer to it than this," Lofi responded, an overtone of fear coming through the vocoder that rendered her guttural native utterances into Neyel-intelligible speech. "That phenomenon is throwing off spatial distortions like nothing I've ever seen before. I can't guarantee this ship will hold together if I let us drift any closer to them."
"Disappointing," Frane said, though he wasn't completely certain that he meant it.
"I'm more than happy to keep my distance," said Nozomi in a quavering voice. Her tail was wrapping nervously around Frane's waist again. He brushed the prehensile appendage aside with his own.
Frane turned toward her, prepared to offer a waspish observation about her tiresome, almost theatrical displays of faintheartedness. Why couldn't she keep her fears to herself, as he did?
"Why has this appeared?" Fasaryl said, pointing the opposable digits of one of his front hooves toward the tendrils of energy displayed on the screen.
"You know why, beloved," g'Ishea said, worrying her dewlap with her wide, rough tongue. "Because the Sleeper has at last begun to awaken." Though g'Ishea's low voice sounded calm, the gurgling noise emanating from her multiple digestive organs told Frane otherwise.
"So everyone keeps saying," Fasaryl said, clearly unsatisfied with the obvious answer.
Since the puzzling energetic phenomenon had abruptly appeared several weeks earlier, just pars'x from the very Coreworld itself, the Neyel intelligentsia had offered countless theories to account for it, as had the clergy, both on the cultural fringe and in the mainstream. To some it was a rare instance of interspatial slippage between adjoining regions of subspace. To others it was merely the beginning of yet another iteration of the cycle of cosmic death and rebirth, a phase that would take the universe billions more years to pass through entirely. To others it was merely a localized natural disaster, a thing of rare beauty and thankfully even rarer violence.
Frane knew that some saw the vast, multihued energy eruption as a cause for fearful rejoicing, because it had destroyed but a single Neyel-settled world.
So far, he thought.
Or was the expansive, colorful energy bloom, as those of a more secular bent had suggested, merely a temporary reopening of one of the long-neglected spatial rifts through which the Devilships of the Tholians had launched their savage attacks some ten generations back?
Frane felt certain he knew the true answer to the mystery. The real nature of the thing on the screen. And he knew that the other Seekers After Penance, the natives who had traveled with him to the ragged edge of this lovely, savage manifestation, shared his certainty deep down, regardless of their fears and doubts of the moment. Their own peoples, after all, had compiled the stories, had told and retold them for uncounted thousands of planetary cycles.
This blaze of unimaginable forces was nothing less than the Sleeper of M'jallanish legend, stirring at last from His aeons-long slumbers. And Frane was here to witness it.
Maybe we haven't come merely to watch the Awakening, he told himself, almost overwhelmed at the purity and audacity of his purpose now that he was finally able to stare directly down the maw of the Infinite. Perhaps we have come to help bring it about.
So that the Neyel, Frane's own people, might atone for the many crimes they had committed against virtually every sentient species they'd met in M'jallanish space -- at least before Aidan Burgess had come all the way from Auld Aerth and tried to show the Neyel the gross error of their ways.
The Seekers After Penance revered Federation Ambassador Burgess, and it was their devoir to complete what she had begun: to continue teaching the entire Neyel race the lessons of peace to which the long-dead, martyred diplomat had introduced them. Even if the aim of those lessons -- atonement -- cost the lives of everyone who had participated in the Neyel Conquests. Even if their heirs who perpetuated those injustices even now, knowingly or not, had to suffer -- along with native peoples too weak-willed to have even tried to oppose their conquerors.
"Is it true, Frane?" Fasaryl asked. "Is it true that every world in the M'jallan Cloud will vanish when the Sleeper finally comes fully awake?"
Frane nodded. "So say the legends of the His'lant. And those of the Sturr. And the tales of your ancient Oghen forebears as well."
"The His'lant Taletellers say that the Sleeper dreams all the worlds in the Cloud," said Nozomi. "And when the Sleeper awakens -- "
"The dream ends," Frane said, finishing her thought. Along with every evil act our people have ever perpetrated against those worlds.
Fasaryl shrugged his thick, bovine shoulders. "Or so say the stories. We won't know until and unless it happens."
"We already know that the Sleeper stirs," said g'Ishea, nodding toward the colorful energy pinwheel that now lay just a few hundred thousand klomters before them. "And that stirring has already wiped out at least one whole world. After Newaerth's disappearance, I need no further convincing."
Frane nodded grimly. The truth of g'Ishea's words was undeniable. Newaerth was no more, having vanished cataclysmically along with its entire planetary system, within days of the initial appearance of the colorful spatial distortions -- a beautiful blue world, settled only a century after the arrival of the ancestral Neyel in the Lesser M'jallan Cloud, extinguished by the stirrings of the Sleeper.
"Perhaps the Sleeper will spare us if we conduct the propitiation rituals," Nozomi said in a quiet, frightened voice.
Unlike Nozomi, Frane had no realistic expectations of being spared whatever divine wrath was about to engulf the entire region. Nor did he believe himself particularly worthy of any such mercies. But he was ready and willing to undertake the meditative ritual, if only on behalf of his companions, whose faith in the efficacy of the ancient native rites clearly exceeded his own. After all, why should his fellow travelers face summary death when it was his forebears, not theirs, who had truly earned the ire of the cosmos?
While still tending to the ship's instruments, Lofi detached one of her scaly, rainbow-colored thoracic segments. Its multijointed arms and sensory clusters immediately set about arranging the ritual materials on the deck before the viewer. Scuttling to and fro with purposeful deftness, she covered about a square metrik with a precise arrangement of colorful soils from the Sturr homeworld, mixing them with several large droplets of her own viscous body fluids, secreted directly from glands hidden benea... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.