Hypernovae are a theoretical type of supernova produced when the incredibly large stars collapse at the end of their lives. The star's nucleus collapses directly into a black hole, which ends up generating two extremely energized plasma jets from both of its rotating poles, and these jets emit gamma radiation powerful enough to cause destruction wherever it goes.
As I said, all of this is still extremely theoretical, and so I have taken some narrative freedoms that science will eventually prove wrong.
The amber light of the evening covered the great city that was known for hundreds of years as Mahvoc. It had already received many names before that, but most of them had long been forgotten by the memory of the civilizations that took place in that land of low, round hills, where the city grew like a small human colony in the first decades of expansion, until it became the metropolis of gigantic buildings of metal and glass.
Another ship rose toward space, leaving behind a column of red vapor that looked like a long scar as Aly-o sat quietly in the luxurious penthouse of Gêlg, who had once been his lover. Gêlg was one of the many who fled to the stars without looking back, soon after the news of the inevitable end of the world arrived. And who could blame him? If Aly-o had two fingers of judgment inside his head, he would have left as well.
But he could not, not yet.
The breeze that blew at that hour heralded a cold night, as they had all been in these recent strange days. A hundred floors below, on the avenues and alleys, the priests would turn on their green xenon lights and beg to their gods the promised purification. It would not be long, and much of Mahvoc would be dominated by the ghostly glow and the whining chants of the holy men.
Aly-o's communicator vibrated in his pocket, but he did not have to look to know who it was. He grunted and slid his finger idly at the scratched, matte screen.
"I've already signed your waiver for weeks," the voice on the other side of the communicator sounded more tired than irritated. "Why haven't you left yet?
"You know I never leave an investigation unfinished."
"Stop being so stubborn man! What a hell! Who cares about this case if the whole system will turn into a gas cloud in a few days? "
"I do." Maybe Aly-o had sounded more defiant than he intended, and so he felt a small twinge of guilt. On the other end of the line there was a heavy sigh. "Forgive me Captain Hunno, but I really feel compelled to finalize this investigation. The person responsible for these murders can still be tried and punished in Dargos or Guanthom. Maybe even on Earth itself?"
"Aly-o, you have no idea of the size of the paperwork that this would cause me." Another long sigh sounded through the communicator's loudspeaker. "But anyway, continue then, anyway I will not be able to bend your damn stubbornness. It must be the dolmasze blood you inherited from your dear mother."
"Probably," said Aly-o with a cheerless smile on his lips. No one in Mahvoc's police department missed the opportunity to mention that. Wherever he went, that alien part of him would make him an outcast. "But I asked you to call me for another reason, Captain."
"Yes it's true. I was about to forget. What it is?"
"I found one more body in a penthouse of a building in the center of the city; I'm looking at it right now." The investigator had returned inside and was standing in front of a corpse with the throat cut from one ear to the other. It had been a man, he seemed to be no much more than forty, and had long, dirty hair and wore a rich and fine, though faded, lilac tunic full of luminescent green spots that gleamed in the dim light of the room. "He was one of the priests this time, and by the clothes he seems to be one of the superiors. His mouth is all green stained with that neon drink they pour by the gallon. "
"That's troubling," the captain's voice now seemed tenser. "If the killer starts looking at the superiors of the order, we will have a serious problem, even with that star exploding and sweeping everything on the way."
"I know. That's why I called. I need a forensic team here."
"I'm going to turn over the department and see if anyone's still around, but I cannot promise anything. Send me the address. In the meantime make yourself a preliminary sweep." The call was cut off and Aly-o saw himself again in the silence of that abandoned place.
He put the communicator in his pocket and looked around. A few more minutes and the night would falll for good and everything would be into complete darkness. There was no energy, he discovered as soon as he arrived and neither water nor gas, the cupboards were empty, as were the refrigerator and pantry. But the pictures remained on the walls, and the fine rugs on the floor, the expensive furniture coming from exotic planets outside the human colonies already had a thin layer of dust on top.
This scene left Aly-o filled with melancholy, all still very familiar, but at the same time it seemed a strange and uninviting place. There had been good times there with Gêlg; long baths in the heated pool, elegant dinners made by the best cooks in the galaxy, parties with the rich and important people of the city. But now there was only silence.
He had stopped there almost by accident. Or was what he wanted to make himself believe. He was walking down the avenue when he looked up and thought he saw something. If he'd actually seen something or was just a convenient excuse, he did not want to know. He decided to go up, because he still had the key in his coat pocket. But the door was unlocked, and so he found the corpse.
The darkness finally fell. Aly-o then went to his waist for the ultraviolet flashlight he always carried and the small reagent spray to reveal the presence of toxins or suspicious substances in corpses. He splashed the reagent over the dead man's green mouth and then through the rest of his body and around him. The click of the flashlight echoed through the silent penthouse, and in the next instant the ultraviolet light shone brightly, pushing the shadows away and creating slender shapes along the nearby walls.
The dead man's lips came to life, glowing in an intense phosphorescent green that sometimes shifted to a dark brown or almost blue depending on the angle at which the light illuminated them. But other than that, the reagent did not indicate anything abnormal there. But on the tunic were marks of what could only be semen, and on the floor the blood marks spread for several yards in all directions. His eyes were eerily orange with that light, as if they were two fire opals floating in the air. Aly-o had never seen anything like that.
What are these fanatics up to? This can't be natural.
He adjusted the flashlight so that the light made a larger circle, so he watched the blood spattered on the floor and the walls, and other marks that he could not tell what they were. He'd have to wait for the forensic team. That if anyone comes.
In the limit that the light reached something caught Aly-o's attention. He approached with cautious steps, avoiding the pools of blood that began to clot, and soon discovered that it was a shoe brand, with its lines drawn in blood. A large size, a 42 at least. It should be of a synthetic leather boot sold in the trading districts, of the more generic type. When he spread the light more, he discovered more of these footprints, heading toward the bathroom.
The chill of the night entered through some open window, next to gray moonlight that was mixed with the ultraviolet light filling the corridor that Aly-o crossed with a dense and distressing atmosphere.
The bathroom was open, and a purple glow was visible from behind and under the door. The investigator took his pistol and released the latch. He walked slowly, almost breathless, staring at the door and trying to hear if any noise was sounding inside. With each step he felt that he heard something, but no real sound, it was something more like a very low whisper, in a frequency that his ear did not catch, but that he knew that it was there.
He pushed the door with his foot. There was no sound or movement.
Two firm steps forward and he was inside the icy bathroom that smelled bad. Inside the long bathtub that one day were Gêlg's, three women lay dead; naked, with their necks open like the priest, and covered with purple neon paint.
In the huge mirror that occupied an entire wall on the opposite side of the bathroom, there was a message written in blood.
I DID NOT FORGET YOU ALY-O. YOUR TIME IS NEAR.
The murders began shortly after the announcement about the hypernova and the hysteria that came with it. At first the deaths were not even considered suspicious, because every day there were confusions in the space ports in search of places on the ships that would evacuate the planet, people would be trampled underfoot or banged on the head or even stabbed. It was as crazy as Mahvoc's police department had never seen. Sound cars and loudspeakers repeated the same messages throughout the day, saying there was room for everyone and there was no reason to panic. But people panicked the same way.
It was Aly-o who realized that some of those deaths had nothing to do with panic and hysteria. He had been flipping files that sleepless night, like so many others, and noted that at least four of the deaths recorded in the past few days had different characteristics from the others. All four victims had their throats cut open, but the other bruises on the bodies, cuts on the arms and legs, marks of punches and punches, were inflicted postmortem.
Aly-o took the information to the captain and suggested that the victims died somewhere else and then dumped where it was certain that another riot would happen. Three in distinct parts of the city, and one in the vicinity of a farm set apart from a powerful family that had its own private spaceport. The captain did not want to know about it at first, but when the toxicological analysis of those dead arrived and showed that there was a rare hallucinogenic drug in their bodies, an investigation had to be opened.
Many people in the city government thought that was absurd. The hypernova would explode in a short time and the person responsible should have fled Vallosh with the majority of the population of the condemned planet. But a fifth body appeared and not much later a sixth. The investigation would have to continue.
Aly-o thought of all this, sitting by the bar counter, two blocks below the building where the body count of that killer had risen to ten. Two hours later the forensics team arrived, and for two hours he stared at the message in the mirror. There were prints in the door handler, the analysts said, but too many of them and impossible to sort any out. The priest was killed there, as the women, but nothing evident was found in the quick tests and samples would have to be analyzed in the lab.
If there is any god listening to me, make it not be what I'm thinking. I beg.
The drink was coming down his throat, and he wished it would burn the thoughts that tormented him.
The bar had a good movement that night. The owner wanted to get rid of his stock as soon as possible and so he sold any drink for 1/3 of the normal price. Each day that passed the shelves were emptier and soon that bar would close its doors forever. It had made Aly-o sad, he had a good many times there in the Three-Headed Hat. It also made him question the decision to stay with the investigation. Gêlg had begged Aly-o to accompany him on a private ship that carried a good portion of Mahvoc's elite to a paradisiacal planet called Dondegavi'tt, almost deserted and out of Terran domain. I should have agreed. He would never forget the devastated look of Gêlg when he refused and turned his back on him, probably forever.
Maybe he loved me more than I loved him. But I miss him anyway, not from luxuries and comfort, but from himself.
"Another dose for you, on the house," said Maggush, the bar owner, a mestizo of a human with the native race of Vallosh the Jarkave, and therefore had yellowish eyes resembling a reptile and a pair of small golden horns, one next to each eye. "Sounds like you need it."
"Actually, I do," Aly-o answers, as the blue liquid is poured into his glass that could be cleaner. "Do you think I'm crazy to go on with this investigation that seems doomed to failure?"
"Why," Maggush began to speak, but stopped to spill the bottle in his mouth and suck the rest of the drink and then play it under the counter. "Do you feel like you're doing the right thing?"
"I try to convince myself of this every day." Aly-o smiled, deep down he knew the conversation would go this route, after all the Jarkave were a people who believed in feelings and intuitions.
"Well, that means at least a part of you feels it's the right thing. In my understanding, that's enough not to think you're crazy. "
"How long have we known each other, Maggush?"
The mestizo scratched his head with pale blond hair; he looked confused. "Why, my whole life if I'm not mistaken. What a silly question is this? "
"All this matter about the hypernova. It is as if the eminence of the end of the world is making me forget things, leaving my memory blurred, everything is distant and unreal."
"I think you're drunk," Maggush said, picking up the empty glass of Aly-o. "No more liquor for you today."
For a moment the detective caught himself watching his own reflection in the glass cover of the counter. He felt old and tired. His dark brown skin that had once been bright and shiny was now pale and opaque, some wrinkles on his narrow forehead, and white threads in his curly hair and a thin, barely trimmed beard that covered his pointed chin. The only thing that had never changed in appearance was the long nose of three nostrils, the only physical trace of the dolmasze he had inherited from his mother. It could have been colorful hair that was almost the same thing as the silk from Earth, the blue freckles on their faces or perhaps a pair of almost functional wings. But genetics only gave him the nose. Which is bad enough already.
The Dolmasze were the first alien race humans encountered at the beginning of the expansion, and obviously there was conflict. Dolmaszes are proud and did not accept the human visit very well, which they say was peaceful at first, but ended up turning into a war that lasted almost a generation. After that the two species did not enter into large-scale conflict any more, but enmity has persisted for centuries, and there is no sign that it will ever end.
"A few more days, and I think I can close the bar without any loss and then leave," Maggush said, taking Aly-o out of his reverie. "Have you booked a place yet?"
"The department provided a pass that gives me the right to seat on any ship. As soon as I close the case I can leave immediately. "
"Anyone else in your place would have gotten away, you know that, right?"
"I know, I've been told this a couple dozen times. But I stay here until the last moment I can if I do not find the killer. "
"That sounds almost like you do not really want to leave." Maggush was washing glasses and hanging them on wall brackets.
"A very sophisticated form of suicide, one could say." Aly-o laughed at that much louder than he'd like. He was really drunk. It was time to go home. He threw a few notes on the counter and put on the frock coat. "Good night, my friend. Have a good trip if we end up not meeting again."
"We'll find each other. I demand you to come in the official farewell of the Three-Headed Hat. The whole gang gathered for one last binge. "
"I'll do my best to show up. Now I must go, Maggush. "
The half-breed smiled and nodded, and then went to the other end of the counter to meet another customer. Aly-o put the hat on his head and adjusted the pistol at the waist and replaced his badge in the crumpled shirt. He sighed, suddenly exhausted, and headed for the door.
When he set foot on the sidewalk, the first thing he heard was a song playing not too far away. Again? I can't take it anymore.
It's the end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone)
It's the end of the world as we know it (I had some time alone)
It's the end of the world
It was a very old song, from the time that Earth was the only home of mankind. It became popular again shortly after the hypernova explosion news arrived. The rhythm pleased Aly-o's ears, but the repetition was driving him crazy. Luckily, his apartment was in the other direction, and it did not take long for the music to disappear in the distance.
The streets of Mahvoc were filled with dirt, many of the light poles were off, and besides the music echoing at times and the delirious singing of the priests, all that was heard was a depressing silence. Before the end, the city was already dead. The priests' xenon lights only gave a ghostly air, green spots floating like souls lost in the night.
Just before he reached the low, poorly maintained building where he lived, Aly-o felt his communicator vibrate.
Go to the priests' temple tomorrow morning. First thing. You know the questions you need to ask.
Aly-o did not respond. He was too tired.
The front door was unlocked. The owner of the building was one of the first to leave, and he did not worry about anything he left behind. But it was no problem, not even thieves were left in the city.
The elevator did not work anymore, so he went up unhurriedly up the dark staircase and it creaked with every step he took. His apartment was not locked either, it was a foolish trivia to worry about. A small but comfortable place, it had a kitchen and a living room, a bedroom and a bathroom. Although the building was old and dirty, Aly-o made sure his home was clean and organized. The dishes were washed, the floor always swept and the bed made. He believed that this was the influence of his father, an organization-obsessed military explorer.
He hung the frock coat on a hook by the door, took off his clothes and set them to wash. He took a quick shower to get the blood and sweat out of the body and then went to bed, not hungry to eat anything.
The darkness of his room soon made him fall asleep, and with sleep came an old friend's visit.
The dream was always in the same landscape, a beach half a hundred miles north of Mahvoc, near an abandoned temple of the strange religion of the natives, which most had perished before the arrival of the first human settlers. There were columns of pink stones, a bow-shaped entrance, and a large hall with an empty altar. Claudius waited for Aly-o seated on the steps of the temple stairway.
"It's been a while," Aly said, sitting down beside the ghost of a Roman general who had haunted his dreams since he could remember.
"It is true," agreed the general, in a casual tone. He wore a silver helmet on his head, steel plate on his chest, a dark red kilt, and sandals on his feet tied around his legs. He had a gladiolus on the right side of his waist and a pugio on his left. Lying on the steps were his spear and shield. "I was fighting a war, like in the old days."
"Ghosts fight wars?"
"The world of the dead and the dreams is a boring place. We make wars more for entertainment."
"Oh yeah, I understand." Aly-o laughed heartily for the first time in weeks. Claudius had this power over him. "I think I need your advice."
"If you need advice, you've come to the right person!" The general was a mature man, with a severe face and short trimmed black hair, had scars on his burned face by sun and wind, a protruding nose that had been broken half a dozen times, his mouth was a rigid line, but he knew how to smile when he wanted to. "Did you know that I was once an adviser to Julius Caesar himself?"
"No, I did not."
"For it is the truth. The siege of Alesia that resulted in the great battle that bears the name of the city and the eventual surrender of Vercingetorix was my suggestion, which Commander Caesar promptly accepted as an excellent plan. "
"Impressive." That was probably a lie, but what good was arguing with a four-thousand-year-old ghost? "My world will be destroyed soon, there is nothing that can be done to prevent this, all that remains is to flee. But I have a mission to fulfill, and everyone thinks I'm crazy for insisting on something as damned as the world itself."
"Go to the end," answered Claudius without hesitation. He was like that, quick and sharp as his short, deadly sword. "A man who does not fulfill his missions is not a real man. Even if it fails in the end, it does not matter: you always have to go until the very end. I learned this from all the years I've had in the army, being commanded and commanding. If you leave it behind in life, it will haunt you forever in death."
"Something haunts you today?"
"No not really. I never left anything behind, I had victories and defeats, but I always finished what I started. And I think you should do the same."
"Thank you, Claudius, that's good advice." And Aly-o said it sincerely. The general's ghost first appeared in his dreams when he was only five, and since then he was a recurring presence, which at first was frightening and disturbing, but over time Aly-o had become accustomed and they became friends. And often Claudius had given good advice; there would be no reason to doubt this time. "Today a friend suggested that I might not want to leave. And maybe he's right, no matter how hard I try to deny it."
"And why? You never seemed like the one who would give up life so easily."
"I can't put in words very well. I fear something from my past is coming back to haunt me, to collect a debt, something I can't escape." Claudius said nothing, as if he knew Aly-o had no desire to speak more than that.
"Boy, listen to this old soldier's words," he said after a long silence. "Fight. Most of time it is the one and only thing you can do even when all the odds are against. Do not give up, and face your fate and cling to life with all your might."
"I will Claudius, I will."
"If you do not mind, I have to leave now. I am bound to meet my friend Millo, a Greek pederast who died fighting the Persians. We'll fight until we get bored."
"Alright, good fight. And I will follow your counsels."
Claudius took the spear and the shield, made a hard gesture of a soldier and left, walking along the beach until disappearing in a curve. When they had become friends the general had told his story. He died fighting German barbarians on the banks of the Danube, his body never properly buried, and his spirit lingered there for centuries until an archaeologist found his bones and what's was left of his weapons, and then spent a few more centuries in museums, living with other spirits like him. The exhibition was eventually taken to Mahvoc, several hundred years later, in an effort to connect humans with their earthly roots.
Aly-o's parents took him on this exposition, and the next night Claudius came into his dreams. Later he discovered that it was something to do with telepathic abilities of the dolmasze, which in some cases can connect with spirits and share a connection with them, creating a whole parallel world out of reality where these spirits mingle with dreams.
In time Aly-o learned to like it. It gave him the feeling that he had a power.
He opened his eyes and saw that the morning light illuminated the room.
He got up and went into the kitchen. On the table was a wrapped gift box.
According to the stellar cartography, the hypernova was called FRS-95770–000, and was only three light-years from Vallosh. But the human settlers who arrived in that region at the dawn of the expansion called it the Eye of Odin, that's because in the night sky the star glowed alone on the edge of an empty space full of darkness, and many people saw in it the face of a one-eyed man, like the Odin of the ancestral legends of the old Earth. As the king of the Æsir had sacrificed his eye for wisdom, there arose among the settlers the custom of looking at that star and asking for advice and guidance in difficult times.
Now, with the Eye of Odin reaching the end of his life, it glowed even more, so much that it could be seen in the sky even during the day. Aly-o rummaged with himself as he walked down the sidewalk and glanced sideways at the corner of the sky where the Eye was, if it still would be worth asking for advice from it, as his ancestors did so often. Better not, he concluded, it would be too strange to ask for wisdom for the same thing that will destroy the only home I have ever known.
He had not yet decided whether to open the box he had received or not. It was still standing on the table in his kitchen, untouched. There was no card next to it, or anything written on the paper. Aly-o felt no motivation to open the box; instead he stared at him for a long moment, feeling a mixture of indifference and fear that rolled like an eel in his gut. He had decided to think about it again later, and then he left for the temple.
And the temple was at the other end of the city. It would be a long walk. Aly-o never had the slightest interest in learning to drive, after all Mahvoc's public transportation system was huge and comprehensive, and one could go from one end of the city to the other in no time at all. But that was before the hypernova. The subway lines were abandoned now, the empty carriages and tunnels overtaken by bats, rats and darkness; waiting for the end.
Cars were everywhere, dusty, covered with leaves from the trees, and with patches of bird droppings. There were still a considerable number of people in Mahvoc, but anyway the city was pretty much just a graveyard.
Aly-o crossed the center of the city with a swift, agile step, almost as if marching the way his father had taught him to do when he was a child. A naked man ran past him, giggling, and then a beggar sang a sad song about lost loves, and when the investigator was almost leaving the area of huge buildings he saw a woman in ragged clothes and distant eyes pulling a man, in not much better conditions, by the hand toward an alley.
Some things will never change, with the world ending or not.
The Goviakk Temple was in a suburb of low-rise buildings, houses with backyards, and several gardens and squares, a resting place for people with comfortable living but not rich enough to be part of the high society that lived in the center of the city. Aly-o had been born in that region, and practically all his childhood memories were passing there. I was sad to see the abandonment.
The Subjects of Goviakk performed their rituals in a building that had disturbed Aly-o as far back in time as he could remember. Three monoliths of dark stone, with lions and serpents carved at the top, forming a triangle around the huge building that looked like a ziggurat, but on each floor was a row of towers, not much taller than a normal person, painted green, blue, yellow and red, all luminescent. During the day it was not noticed much, but when night fell, it was as if that place came alive. The eyes of the lions and serpents on top of the monoliths were of special stones that shone differently depending on the weather, but no matter what, those eyes would always be scary.
Aly-o crossed the gate, saluting the priest who guarded it that morning, followed a path of gritty gravel flanked by a well-tended lawn, and as he overcame it, he climbed a broad staircase, so wide that a large man could lay down on the steps easily. On the first level of the ziggurat the towers began to line up on both sides, and the investigator could see that several of them were occupied, with acolytes and priests making their prayers soaked by hallucinogenic vapors. They followed their routine as if nothing was happening.
The main entrance of the temple was a perfect circle open on the massive stone wall, its edges covered with polished and glittering silver, filled with blood red inscriptions in the strange native tongue of the planet where the cult of Goviakk appeared hundreds of years ago. This entrance led to an atrium, a room with high ceilings and white walls, the floor covered with a worn carpet, and the ambiance taken by a bluish half-light. Aly-o took off his shoes and left them in a corner, then took off his hat and frock coat and hung them on hooks on one of the walls. He left his pistol and communicator there, too. It was not forbidden to enter armed in the temple, but at the same time it was not wise to do so.
He went to the door that led into the temple. It was a simple wooden door, unadorned, and could only be opened from the inside. Aly-o gave him three firm, dry beats.
"Who wants to enter the sacred abode of the Venerable Immortal Goviakk?" The voice that had answered the knocking on the door was soft, feminine, with a mystical but firm intonation.
"Aly-o Terfassiov, investigator from Mahvoc's police department; I believe the Priestess was warned of my visit."
"One moment, please." Across the door came the sound of quick footsteps echoing. Aly-o waited silently, hands on his waists, looking down. After some time the sound of footsteps returned and the door opened. From her appearance and the gray coat, the girl was still no more than a novice, but her lips were painted green and a determined expression on her face. "The Priestess awaits you, Mr. Aly-o."
The novice stepped aside and opened the remainder of the door, giving way to the investigator, who crossed the door looking down with both hands clasped in the chest, the gesture of reverence that was required of anyone who visited the temple.
When Aly-o raised his head he found himself in a more familiar environment than he would have liked. He had been in that monumental chamber supported by rosy marble pillars half a hundred times, for his mother was a devout Subject and several times a year she dragged him along for ceremonies and rituals. The floor was a hexagon that occupied all the empty space, filled with mosaics representing the various interpretations of Goviakk and its legends and myths. The ceiling tried to reproduce the style of painting of an era that the scholars said to be called Renaissance. There were figures of winged children, men with long beards and piercing eyes, naked men and women, dancing or loving each other, creatures half man half animal; colors that looked like a dream. Little Aly-o spent more time looking at those pictures than paying attention to what the priest or priestess were saying.
At the other end of the hexagon was the altar of the temple, where the images of Goviakk and his sons Govum, Gavex and Gyrga rested, as well as the smaller gods of the pantheon, who were the generals of the great lord. Neon green lights shone from the bottom up, leaving the statues with a severe and intimidating appearance.
"Investigator?" The voice came suddenly and seemed to fill the air of the chamber with its melody. "I would like your visit to happen under more pleasant circumstances."
"It's always an honor, Priestess," Aly said, respectfully bowing, even if his words were not really sincere. "I do not intend to take much of your valuable time; I know you're a busy woman."
"Why!" The green-lipped smile came before the rest of her emerged from the shadows of one of the pillars. She was tall and imposing, her black skin contrasted with the grenadine fabric of her robe richly decorated with gold and silver strands gracefully, her fine chin always upright, and her honey-colored eyes were piercing like that of a queen of the stories. "Let's take as much time as we need, I want this matter settled as much as the lords of the law."
"What can you tell me about the priest found dead?" Aly-o took the notepad from a pocket in his pants. It was outdated, he knew, but he liked the feel of writing on the paper.
"Doravo? An inveterate drunkard who had a latent taste for prostitutes. Those of flesh and blood, he often made clear his dislike for the androids."
"Did he go into dubious circles then?"
"To the shame of our temple." The Priestess sighed and ran her hand through her voluminous curly hair. "If it had not been for a senior priest with a lifelong position he would have been expelled long ago."
"Did the acolytes attending the priest Doravo ever report that he received suspicious visits in the temple? Strange people? Or at least not common here?"
"Not that it came to my ears. But I believe some of the priests have spotted someone unknown hanging around the temple in recent weeks."
"Right after the hypernova announcement?"
"Exactly," the Priestess did not lose her posture for a single moment, and if it all disturbed her, she gave no sign of it. "At first I supposed that it might be someone seeking the salvation of his soul with the eminent end, so I had some of the priests go and talk to the subject. But he always ran away. "
"Do you have a description of that person?"
"I was reported to be a medium-sized man, slightly overweight, with dark brown hair and a thin beard on the contours of his face, wearing worn clothes. I can't say more than that. "
"It's something already," said Aly-o, taking note of the description given. Now the case was beginning to take shape in his mind, and a slight shiver ran through his skin. The women killed in the bathtub were prostitutes of a luxury brothel in the city, and apparently Doravo was a frequent visitor to these establishments. And now the description of a suspect. I could not ask for more. "How was Doravo's behavior in the temple in recent weeks? Something out of the ordinary? "
"In fact he looked..." the Priestess seemed to search for the right word. "Paranoid, maybe? I'm not sure, but he would look over his shoulder and always be tense, and some of the acolytes report that he spoke in his sleep, things in his native language that no one here understands. "
"Just one last thing." Aly-o held the notepad in his pocket and replaced the hands together in front of her, in a position of respect for the Priestess, the highest authorit in that temple. "If it is possible I would like to read Doravo's personal archive, there may be some clue in him to help us find out who murdered him."
"Perfectly. If you want to wait a moment, I'll order one of the acolytes to pick him up right now. "
"Unfortunately I can't stay longer, so please send a digital copy to this address." Aly-o handed a card to the Priestess.
"I'll deal with that immediately. I hope I have helped investigator Aly-o."
"I feel ten steps closer to capturing the killer. You will have my eternal gratitude, Priestess."
"I'm honored. Have a good day, investigator, and please bring this individual to the justice of men, for in Goviakk's justice he is already doomed."
"I'll do my best, you have my word. A good day to you too." Aly-o bowed again and headed toward the exit. But after a few steps he forced himself to stop, feeling an impulse that did not know where he had come from. "Priestess?"
"Yes?" She was already shrouded in the shadows again, only her fluorescent lips showing.
"Why have not you left so far? For some reason I feel compelled to ask."
"Some of our most devout priests and believers plan to surrender their lives to the glory of Goviakk, to purify their souls with the Promised Fire that Gaddagan, the First Prophet, described in his scriptures, shortly after having had the revelations of Our Lord Immortal that led to foundation of our sacred order."
The Priestess's laughter caught Aly-o off guard, and echoed at length in that majestic chamber.
"No, no. My mission in this lifetime has not yet been fully fulfilled. I and the other Goviakk servants of this temple will stay here until the last possible moment, and then we will go to Haltrvk, the heart of our faith, and from there we will be allocated to a new planet. "
"Too bad the temple will perish with the planet, all this fine art to be lost." That was a half truth, but Aly felt it ought to say those words.
"A temple is only a vessel," suddenly the Priestess's words sounded deeper, more solemn, emanating wisdom. "The essence of faith is within the hearts of those who believe, not in paintings, mosaics or frescoes, nor in statues and towers, these things are only means to an end. The Venerable Goviakk and his children demand only the honest surrender of the soul of thei faithful, nothing more."
I must be doomed to cosmic obliteration then. Aly-o had never believed anything of that, and even with the near end he was not tempted to start now. "I will not take more of your time, ma'am. I do not think we shall meet again, so I wish for a good trip to Haltrvk. Good bye, Priestess."
"Farewell Aly-o, may you have good fortune wherever Goviakk guides you. Send regards to your mother, her absence is felt in the community. "
Before the investigator could say anything else the Priestess plunged into the shadows and disappeared. My mom. Two years earlier she had returned to the planet where she was born shortly after Aly-o's father had died, and since then he had not spoken to her. Maybe I should go there when it's all over.
He shook his head, finding himself a fool, now was no time to think about it.
He left the temple and decided that he was going to go through the still-functioning brothels and ask if Doravo had been there recently, and with whom. The case is going forward, Aly-o reaffirmed, trying to convince himself that it would be worth it in the end.
He walked back along the same path, and as he passed through the area where the buildings began to grow he heard a noise coming from an alley. The police instinct made his neck scratch; he cocked his pistol, and walked cautiously toward the sound.
The alley was full of garbage and rats raced from side to side, squealing and rolling old paper, flies buzzing like a motor, and the scent in there was hopeless.
The more Aly-o approached the better he heard the sound, which now knew to be crying and sobbing. His throat tightened and his lips dried; his heart pounding and the fingers holding the pistol wet with sweat.
"Do you see Aly-o? I said I did not forget you. "
The soft voice floated from the darkest point of the alley. A few seconds later Aly-o heard a step and found a medium-sized man with a strip of cloth tied to his head and covering his eyes, he looked overweighed and was bearded on the contours of his face. A woman in ragged clothes was held by his arms while squeezing a knife against her neck. She now had her gaze charged with terror instead of distance.
"Release the woman," ordered Aly-o, as firmly as she could muster.
"Even if I do not kill her, she'd be dead even before the hypernova explodes, poisoned by adulterated hallucinogenic gas from the priests, what does the life of a vicious whore mean?"
"Let her go!"
"Only if you answer me Aly-o, what does a vicious whore's life mean?"
"How do you know my name? Where do you know me from? Who are you?"
"Ah Aly-o, poor Aly-o... will you ever learn to face the questions that are posed to you without running away from them with other questions? Will he never cease to be a coward? What do you want to prove trying to get me? And prove to whom?"
"It is not because this world will be swept away from existence than some filthy worm as you can go around killing without being punished. And that's why you kill? Because the world will end and only so did you have the courage? Who is the coward here?" After he stopped talking, Aly-o was afraid the words were too challenging, but the impulse had been stronger, his anger overpowering him.
"Words and words and more words. This is not how you will win this game."
"Game? Do you think all this is a game?" Anger grew more and more within him and he was about to risk the woman's life by trying to shoot the bastard's forehead.
"Life is a game, my dear Aly-o, a game without rules and impossible to win. And when you got into my own game you sealed your destiny. But that will not be today." The man then opened the woman's throat, which fell to her knees, drenched with blood that gushed and tried to scream, but she could not, and those terrified eyes lost more and more of life every moment.
Without even thinking Aly-o fired half a dozen times against the man who was kicking a board that hid a passage on the wall, but without hitting him. He ran as far as the passageway opened, but before he could get in, he was hit in the face.
A yellow smoke covered his vision, and then eyes began to burn as if on fire, skin seemed to melt, and a a brutal pain ran through his body in ever stronger waves. Aly-o screamed in agony.
"Ah, I was forgetting," the man's soft voice emerged sly amid the cries of pain. "Open the gift that I have left for you, if not I'll felt very hurt."
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