The Oracle of Ganymede
by Frank Cavallo
The war between the outer worlds was over.
Dead calm slumbered where the Colonial Fleets had joined beneath the Rings of Saturn. Only their wreckage remained. The scattered debris of starships and freighters teetered in chaotic orbits, a final resting place for the brave, the foolish, and the forgotten.
Merciless vacuum silence reigned; a permanent night stirred by occasional, brilliant collisions among the ice.
The ships were gone, careening at speed toward the kingdoms from which they had long ago assembled. Racing the light from a far off sun, the survivors of the pogroms returned home.
They had come from all the populated planets and moons. They had left their homes and their families millions of miles behind. They had come forth to the icy desolation of the gas giants to challenge the aggression of the Lords of Mimas.
And they had won.
Back to those lost realms they now flew, to the volcano palaces of Io and the sea-ice citadels of Europa. Toward the canyon barrens of Callisto and Titan’s iron-mountain fortress. To these and a dozen other worlds-that-were-not-quite-worlds did the armada hurtle, sailing on the solar wind.
But of them all, cruisers and destroyers and battleships, only one set its course for the dim shadows on the far side of Jupiter, and the red glare of the Great Spot.
Cade had not seen Ganymede for nine years. The thought of it had been the one thing that had kept him alive through the horrors.
The memories had warmed him during the Galilean Campaign, trapped in the zero-G vale beyond his fighter while the Titan auxiliaries drove off the medusa warships. It had maintained him for all those long, lonely hours hovering in stony silence among the inner rings, waiting in ambush seeking helpless, wayward Iotian freighters.
Not the thoughts of the moon itself, breathtaking though the green and black ice could be at planet-rise—gleaming bright like no other place in the solar system. It was for Ganymede’s only other resident that he pined. It was for her that he had waited so long.
The only woman he had ever loved.
As he careened toward her, Cade thanked the grace of the encrypticons. By their unknowable fortune, he lived. They had spared his info-cache, when the data-chem stores of so many others had been lost. Erased in beautiful, soundless eruptions of nuclear flame and molten metal, so many whose accumulated sequences would have added so much more to the grand music of the interlink.
He would not allow their grace to be wasted.
The sub-orbital thrusters fired while he was still in cryo-sleep. Distant metal rumblings woke him as the ship began its descent. Nothing rattled the frame of a vessel like gravitational stress. Ganymede was a large moon, larger by far than the planet Pluto, and her pull was as great as any world.
It was impossible to sleep through the creaking and the shaking, but he never stopped trying.
Having failed again, he wiped his eyes clear of the last specks of frost and made his way down to the cockpit. If the ship were going to tear apart, at least he’d be at the controls when it happened.
He arrived just as the Temple was moving into planetary dawn. As the ship’s attitude lowered, the blackness of space began to fade in the plasma swell of re-entry.
Ganymede’s atmosphere was thin. Piercing it created only a mild burn, even at high rates of speed. Soon the lightning and the tongues of fire died down, and the scene below came into view.
The brilliant storm-scape of Jupiter loomed over the moon’s crest, reflecting the gathered sunbeams in milky, gaseous rays of orange, red, and white. When the ship angled downward for the final approach, those colors died.
Then the planet and its light were lost behind the ice-horizon. There was only black.
Holo-driven systems rendered tasks like re-entry and landing little more than spectator events. The mathematical variables were too numerous and the margin for error too small. A half-degree tilt error was more than enough to send the ship into a death spiral. Not even the best pilots could hone their reflexes to so acute a level, although the occasional hotshot flamed out in the attempt.
So Cade just sat back and watched. A hundred things were happening at once: crystal diodes surged with blue glows, green filaments of light spat info-streams in rapid fire across the navigation gels. Calculations, corrections, and adjustments tumbled in binary cascades over the static-glittering surfaces of sensor globes. Algorithms and vectors were configured. Measurements by the nanosecond were plotted and re-plotted.
“One blip on the dash for a million computations,” Cade thought. “A million different things that have to happen before I can be back with her. And I don’t have control over a single one.”
The green and black Temple spires were pure methane ice. While they looked for all creation to bear deliberate resemblance to the great gothic towers of old Earth, they were as natural as any formation on the moon’s frozen vista.
They glowed. A weird, translucent jade hue glimmered when the searchlights crossed them. The beams welcomed him. They signaled home.
His ship glided the last few kilometers, clearing the lion’s jaw peak that curled out in advance of the runway and cruising in for a delicate landing. The auto-controls brought him safely through the magnetic screen, from the frigid void into the humid, oil-scented air of the hangar.
Cade debarked without so much as a cloth over his ragged face. His own appearance was inconsequential. It was hers that occupied his mind.
The hoverstruts greeted him warmly, as they had been programmed to do. But he ignored them. They would not begrudge him the slight.
Instead he made his way directly for the Hall of Shadows and Ice, through a path of winding corridors carved out of the subterranean depths. Even that trip seemed too long, longer than it had ever seemed before.
Finally, he came to the Pillars of Prometheus and Epimetheus, and beyond them the towering doors of black steel. He pushed them open with little effort, despite their looming height.
The vast chamber was dark, but not at all cold. It was a cavernous expanse, chiseled from the diamond-hard ice but shielded from the poisonous fumes by the gentle glisten of ionized fields. From his vantage, the far end could not be seen. It was lost behind the dark shadows of stalagmites and overhangs.
Cade spoke into the emptiness.
“My lady,” he began. “I have returned. Once again I stand at your service.”
He knew the acoustics. He knew that his voice was heard in every corner of the chamber as though spoken a meter away. He knew that she heard him.
In short order, his certainty was confirmed.
She emerged from the black hall into a light that had not been there before her arrival, a light that seemed to grow more intense with every step.
Her form was naked but for a nylon scarf that snaked across her body, intertwined with her white limbs like an asp among poplar branches. The color of it shifted with every angle of view, white, gold and silver, but always tinged with green. Though the moon was devoid of native life, and not a single flower had ever grown there, green always dominated the eye on Ganymede.
She was bald, with anemic-pale skin as hairless as her head. The only color in her came from her lips, glossed black and gleaming in the soupy-glow, and from her eyes, silver-blue and burning with an ancient stare.
He removed his cap, revealing his own bald skull. He knelt a pace before her, lowering his gaze away from her face. He raised his left hand, bare palm open.
She did not take the hand, though she neared to within a millimeter’s width of it with her own. He could feel the warmth of her skin.
“Welcome,” she said.
Though it was no more than a single word, the timbre of her voice sent a rush through his bones. A peace that he had not felt in years fell over his heart again.
Cade spent the following days settling back into his old abode. He had come to the Oracle as a wanderer, hardly past adolescence. Like so many others, his first visit to the largest of the Jovian moons had been for counsel, to seek the advice of the ageless woman renowned among all the kingdoms of the solar system for her wisdom and her prescience.
Captivated by her from first sight, Cade had chosen to forgo the life of an aimless waif. He had offered her his service, and she had accepted. Then did he remain at her side, for more than a decade the two of them alone on that cold, dark rock. In all that time he had loved her deeply, but never had she so much as hinted at any feeling in return.
The Oracle was an enigma, even to him, even after so many years. From her hidden sanctum in the Hall of Shadows and Ice she had received visitors for as many years as anyone alive could recall. Some whispered that her tenure dated back before the Sundering War, though no records survived from those early ages. There she had dispensed her wisdom and her prophecy to all comers, ever beautiful and with a voice like music, never aging a day and never leaving her dark haven.
Nearly a month passed, and Cade had spoken not a word to her of his desires. On the thirty-first day following his return however, he reminded himself of his resolution, and he entered the Hall with one thing to say.
“I love you.”
For a long while his only response was the quiet. He knew that she had heard him, but no answer seemed forthcoming. There he stood, waiting and waiting and speaking no more.
He was about to leave, and had already turned to do so when a reply finally came.
“Long have you served me, always without fail. For that you have my thanks, and my endless admiration. But my heart is a matter far different from my grace. To earn that I would ask far more of you.”
When he turned back she was standing only a few meters in front of him. He answered without a thought.
“You need only name it, my lady.”
Despite her words, nothing more than a vacant gaze lay across her face. Her silvery eyes stared deeply into his, as they did whenever addressing another, but no indication of human feeling was evident.
“If it is my heart you seek, then you must go from here. You must go and seek the Blue Heart of Triton, where it rests among the ruins of the Neptune towers.”
Though an onerous task, he did not shrink from the suggestion.
“For your love I will do so, without question,” he answered.
“Take pause, for none have ever sought the jewel and returned to speak of it. The cataclysm that ruined Neptune rendered its once noble citizens feral beasts. They savor the flesh of humans.”
His reply was as assured as his gaze. “I will take the Heart, and bring it here to you, my love.”
In his cruiser again, he made preparations to journey for the edge of the solar system, and the distant, ruined civilization on the furthest true planet. It was far off at that time, its orbit having carried the world of the sea god to the far side of the sun. Thus did it take several hours to simply calculate the trajectory, and several long months for the voyage.
Lost in his cryo-sleep, the trip seemed to him no more than a jaunt.
When he came to the Towers of Neptune and the fallen moon of Triton, Cade searched the ruins. As she had warned him, the hideous children of Triton’s once-proud citizens slithered out from the rocks like vermin.
With their serpentine nostrils they smelled his vapor trail. They crawled on their four limbs, gnashing their teeth and beating their claws against the ice.
He killed them like rodents, vaporizing hordes of the frost-lizards as he scanned the ruins for the sapphire that had once adorned the crown of the King of Neptune.
His weapon had been nearly expended, and his oxygen nearly gone when he found it. He took to his ship then, and blasted away into the black beyond lost Triton.
A mess of not-quite-human blood scattered across the methane snow was all that remained to suggest that Cade had been there.
The sapphire safe in his hands, he stood at the entrance to the Hall of Shadows and Ice. Inside, his love waited. Now she would have to give herself to him.
She came forth from the dim in the usual fashion. Expressionless and pale, and she remained unwilling to even touch him. That was his first indication.
“Your deed is admirable. But my love does not blossom so easily. The ice that binds my heart has grown hard, made heavy by the long years alone in this frozen realm. To melt it you must ready yourself for another task.”
“I am at your command,” Cade answered.
He was disappointed, but allowed himself no time to dwell on the thought. The fire in his heart was undiminished. He required no further impetus. Whatever she wished was his to do.
“You must seek the golden horn of Hyperion, last of the horns of the sea beasts of Earth. But beware, it is guarded by a machine that never rests, a sentinel in orbit around the tiny moon charged with the safekeeping of the artifact. Its watch is said to be impregnable.”
Cade’s enthusiasm was unwavering.
That too did he set out to accomplish, and in short order, quicker by half than he had spent retrieving the Blue Heart of Triton, he returned with the prize she had bade him seek.
“Again you have returned in success, and my adulation for you will sing to the spires of Rhea. Two tasks for my love accomplished, but there is more yet to be done.”
So it was that the Oracle bade him travel again, upon a third errand into the emptiness of space. To steal the crest of the Kings of Io was his mandate, and he took to it without hesitation. Dangerous though the deed was, Cade slipped past the Volcano Guard and made off safely with the ancient Standard of the Fire Moon.
But his return met with more of the same. Praise tempered with the demand for one more task.
So again he set off in his old gray ship, upon the solar winds to the red world of the war god. There he came to the aid of Prince Aeneas, and rescued the lady Hecube from the hands of the sand-walkers.
So again did he fly in triumph to the ice-temple of Ganymede, four great deeds now done for the love of his seer-mistress. But she did not relent even then, and sent him away for more labors in her name.
And again he returned in victory. This time he came to the black doors bearing on his shoulders the fearsome head of the white chimaera, slain in its den upon the nuclear tundra that had once been the Earth land of Europe.
But even five such labors did not seem to warm the heart of the Oracle, and to the hunt she sent him once more. So for a sixth time he ventured without question.
It was nearly a standard year on the ancient calendar before he returned, having worked that long to aid the trader barons of the asteroids in their struggle against the pirates of Circe. The winged helmet of Rathbone, lord of the stellar-Barbary islands, he laid at the feet of his love.
For the first time, she smiled, and his heart sensed that his time might finally have come. But her words cooled his passion one last time.
“Six great deeds for my love. Six tasks that mark you as worthy of my heart. You have done all that I have asked, but I must ask for one more.”
“One more and I will be yours forever. That much I promise you.”
Though the stress of things had worn on him, five years having passed since his declaration of love made in these same chambers, Cade readied himself one last time. No untruth had ever passed the lips of the Oracle. Deceit was not in her nature.
If she said that only one final task would suffice, then he could be assured of the fact.
The last test occupied Cade for nearly two years, and took him from the molten face of Mercury, through the poison clouds of Venus and out to the sunless reaches of Karon and Pluto.
But he never quit, and he did finally obtain the rare collection that she had sent him to find.
The prize in his hands, Cade stood one last time outside the doors of the Hall of Shadows and Ice. He knew she was inside, waiting for him in the darkness. And he knew that she would keep her word. After seven years of labor, and seven tasks complete, she would give herself to him now, without question.
The one thing that he had always wanted, the one thought that had sustained him through the long years of war and travail was now a reality. Beyond the portal of black steel he would have his love. He had only to open the door.
But he didn’t.
Instead, he spoke. Not to himself, but not quite to the Oracle either. He spoke toward the door, and that was enough.
“To you I have long been beholden. I have served you for all my days, but that did not win your love,” he said. “For your heart I ventured out into the stars. I won trophy after trophy, and worked deed upon deed for you. All because I loved you, and to show that there was nothing that I would not do to prove my heart.
“But in all that time, I never considered the obvious. Only now is it finally clear. I proved the depth and passion of my feelings. And you proved yourself as well.”
Cade did not open the doors. On the floor before them he placed the trophy, and he turned his back. Then he walked to the hangar, boarded his ship, and flew away from Ganymede.
He never returned.
Frank Cavallo’s first novel The Lucifer Messiah was published by Medallion Press. He has two short stories appearing in upcoming “Warhammer” anthologies from Black Library.