Marrak’s Chest

A Sci-Fi Short Story written by Bob Johnston

Marrak’s Chest

by Bob Johnston

When a locked star drive gifts the crew with virtual immortality Marrak and Guin discover that they have a long time to consider whether or not some gifts might be better not given.

Bob Johnston has been a science fiction and horror fan since childhood. He started scribbling after a too early introduction to the likes of Michael Moorcock, H P Lovecraft, and Algis Budrys and hasn’t stopped since. A list of his published works, as well as a quartet of his stories, can be found at bobjohnstonfiction.com

The citadel had been built on solid rock, high on a mountain, and as far from population as had been possible at the time. But, of course, time was always the issue and even the most solid of foundations will give eventually. When the news did arrive that something had happened Marrak’s first thought was not one of panic but of admiration that the builders had built so well.

Alexander, though, knew his master well and had taken the precaution of bringing a shot of brandy for him. His moods shifted quickly these days and deep despondency could come charging in behind absurd moments of elation. Alexander had no such swings of mood. He was an old man and settled in his ways, comfortable in his role, and trusted by his master. He was also hugely younger than that master.

Marrak thought about the news Alexander had brought as admiration for the citadel’s builders was replaced by the realization that he had to get to the site and quickly. He downed the brandy and stood.

Prepare a flight, just you, me and a couple of guards.”

It’s already being done, sir. Suitable clothing and equipment will be on board so you should relax until it is ready to leave.”

Marrak sat back down on the ornate but comfortable chair. He thanked Alexander and took the opportunity to prepare himself mentally for the work ahead. He looked to the side and Guin’s empty chair. Like two thrones, side by side. Both old, worn down, scratched and beaten. Marrak smiled, thinking about Alexander’s repeated requests to have them tidied up. No, the chairs should show their age, even if their occupants did not.

#

He had never liked gifts, always feeling they came with some sort of obligation. Giving them was a minefield, always open to misunderstanding or contempt. The recipient was sometimes delighted but more often disappointed. Receiving them was as much a nuisance as, early in life, he had discovered he liked to have as few things around him as possible. Gifts were not tokens of affection or gratitude. For Marrak they were simply more crap to clutter his precious space. He always found some sour humor in the fact that the word gift in German means poison. Few others shared the joke.

The “gift” of prolonged life was not a gift in any conventional sense, as it had been given by a locked star drive on board a runaway ship so long ago it was dizzying to think about it. Marrak remembered that moment vividly when he and Guin had realized that the problem was fixable but every second their velocity was increasing. Every moment took them further from earth while the tumbling gears of the starship’s engines messed with the crew’s DNA in ways it would take years to unravel. Years that could only begin when the SS Shirase finally limped home months after it had disappeared.

Marrak came out of his musings to see that Alexander had refilled the brandy glass on the arm of his chair. He sipped the drink, savoring the luxury of it, a true gift if ever there was one. It was strange, he thought, but the people around him brought him welcome gifts these days. Their input to discussions, their presence when he needed ears to bounce ideas off, and small things like the refilled brandy glass in his hand.

There were gifts in this world, real gifts, and he was surrounded by them each and every day, each and every week, month, year, century…

Surely not millennia. What was the date?

Alexander entered the conference room precisely on cue, just as Marrak finished the brandy.

We are ready when you are, sir.”

Marrak stood up smoothly, his muscles and tendons working in perfect, youthful coordination.

Millennia?” he whispered to himself.

#

He had visited just about every corner of planet earth in his time. He had also taken an interest in a few of the new terraformed colonies but, after that wild ride on the Shirase, space was no longer exciting, it was just big. They had only gotten as far as the heliopause but that was deep space enough for Marrak. The thought of making the stellar jumps simply filled his mind with a sense of just how tiny human beings were compared to the galaxy, far less the universe.

But his knowledge of the earth was deep and extensive and, as they flew over the coastline to the west of the citadel’s location, he could see that it had silted up long before. The old oceanside town he used to land at while the citadel was being built was now kilometers inland, its river diverted and controlled to service the new coastal town. There had been times long ago when Marrak wondered how humanity had ever become the apex predator on planet earth but there were also times that he marveled at the race’s ingenuity.

They rose as they flew east and away from the ocean. The mountains were as remote now as they had been at the start and tough to get into. And even having found a way to the citadel there was still the problem of how to get into it. Marrak watched the approaching peaks and smiled.

It was a perfect arrangement. Firstly someone would have to want to find the citadel, then they would have to find their way there, then they would have to get in, and then they would have to find what it was the citadel was protecting. And even if all of that came together perfectly, well what exactly had they found?

What Marrak found was chaos. A part of him had expected to find destruction, fallen walls, toppled towers but the citadel was simply gone. The spur on which it had stood was simply gone. The whole thing; building, security, surrounding structures was simply gone.

Alexander leaned towards the pilot. “Try to hover over the site. Let’s see what the cameras have to show us.”

The citadel, built as an ugly almost regular cube, was still an ugly almost regular cube, still mostly intact but now fifty meters down some sort of sink hole and dipping at an increasing angle as the mountain slowly devoured it. Alexander seemed to read his mind as he pulled his master back into his seat and spoke into his ear. “You cannot go down, sir. It is too dangerous. You have people here who can do whatever you need done.”

Marrak shook his head.

There are several portals to get through and only I have the codes.” He paused and looked at the screen again. “Me and Guin.”

Alexander put a hand on Marrak’s shoulder. “I am too weak to go down. Please do not let me have to watch as you step into danger again. Please.”

Marrak did not look at Alexander but he grasped his wrist and the strong but gentle squeeze said more than a thousand words crafted and refined by a thousand years of using.

You don’t have to come with me, Alexander, but knowing you are waiting makes whatever I have to do down there so much easier. Will you wait?”

As if there was ever really a question. Over decades these two men had fought, argued and disagreed but both only ever had the good of the other at heart. Alexander nodded.

#

Marrak had always preferred walking point but it had been a long time since he had been any sort of soldier. This time, though, the dangers were many and he was unceremoniously pushed into the middle of the line that made its way into the canted structure that had once been so solid it might as well have been a part of the mountain.

The route to the central chamber was straightforward, the codes simple but un-guessable. Marrak approached his own chest slowly and gently, gesturing everyone else to stay back. The wooden box was small, beautifully made and sitting beside another on the other side of a clear split in the concrete floor. Marrak stepped forward, lifted the nearer box and then stepped back and handed it to one of his guards. He then stepped back to the second box just as a voice echoed round the small room.

I think I can handle my own box, my love.” He turned as Guin dropped into the room, on point position ahead of her own guard. She lifted the remaining box and then crossed back across the line in the concrete just as it split with an echoing thud. Guin look down at the centimeter wide crack and then at Marrak.

I’m still not convinced that separating them was the best idea.”

Marrak returned her gaze, an ancient twinkle in his eye. “I was young. I thought I could live without you. When we rebuild we’ll put them together.”

The structure shifted again, just by the smallest amount but the growling in its foundations rattled everyone to the bones. This building was heading down and soon. Guards herded their respective master and mistress up and out of the crumbling, sinking citadel.

#

Marrak and Guin looked into the opened boxes at the broken gear parts from the SS Shirase. Gifts again and gifts with a sting in the tail, and gifts of doubtful worth. The Shirase had been taken apart trying to work out what had gone wrong. Of course nothing had gone wrong really other than that a complex machine had malfunctioned, but the effects on the crew had been profound. In planetary proximity to any part of the ship their lifespan was permanently slowed, something the authorities found fascinating to begin with and terrifying as time passed. How do you control someone who cannot be afraid of death because it is unlikely to ever happen to them?

Best take the ship apart, melt down every damned molecule of it and pretend the locked star drive had never happened. Wait a few years, the astronauts die and there never had been an SS Shirase.

Guin looked across the table at Marrak.

All they had to do was nothing and we would have been none the wiser. But they were so damned obsessed with control that they could not let it go. How old are we?”

Marrak looked at her and shrugged his shoulders.

I have no idea any more but we have to decide what we do now. Do we destroy these things and just pass away in the normal manner or do we rebuild the citadel?”

Guin looked at him, her face a mask of skepticism.

Rebuild it to your design again? On a slow-moving fault, stable as you like but eventually going to crumble.”

Marrak frowned. “It doesn’t matter where we build it, the world will shift, the continents will move and we will always have to decide at some point if we are rebuilding or giving up.”

Guin closed her own box and place her hands on the lid. “I have a few projects on the go at the moment so I’m in no hurry to throw in the towel.”

She stepped round the table and kissed Marrak on the nose.

Build something but don’t go building it on obvious faults. We’re grown-ups now. We can decide our own fate without leaving things to the earth’s whims.”

Marrak watched her leave the room and then looked into his own box. A Bendix gear from the Shirase’s star drive starter and a clip from the final mix-chamber fuel line. Bits of metal keeping him and Guin alive in defiance of time.

Precious gifts but poison in their own ways.

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