The Dawn Of The Kotturuh
Birinji was the first planet to be judged, because even Death has to start somewhere.
No-one's saying the Dark Times were perfect – but our universe was so new that even the Eternals were young. We were all immortal back then, barring accidents (such as an infected toenail or a neutron war).
It was the Kotturuh who introduced us to the idea of a lifespan. And they started with Birinji.
They appeared one day in the city square. Well, it had once been a city square, it was more the village green these days – a quiet little stretch of puce meadow over which the crystal moths hovered and the birds spun. And one day, as I was saying, the Kotturuh appeared in it.
They were still as statues – their very stillness drew the eye of people. The folk of Birinji thought they had mastered quiet contemplation but they had nothing on these new arrivals who seemed to draw the light out of the air. They were there as the villagers wandered to the salt pillars at daybreak and they were still there as they headed home at suns-set. Three figures, wrapped in cloaks that flickered and danced as their calculations flowed over them – that was the only thing about the Kotturuh that moved. Their tentacles of shimmerstone hung as though tasting the air, their faces wrapped in bandages sewn in gold with words from a time before this. They were waiting.
The blue skies around them grew dark and the air hung heavy with an ominous mist.
Eventually Majoral (her father's father's father's mother had once been the mayor of the village when it could remember being a city) approached. She was polite and smiling and wondered if they were in need of salt. Or water. The people of Biriniji were calm and wise and it seemed only polite to ask after the bare necessities.
She asked the question several times before one of the figures acknowledged her. He turned to her, the grass swaying in the thickening mist.
“Ah,” the Kotturuh said, and his voice chimed like a distant bell. “Forgive me, little one, I was thinking of the insects. Of how they taste.”
“The crystal moths?” she frowned. “Do you want to eat them?” No-one had ever tried that, but these were strangers, and she'd heard that strangers could be... strange.
“No,” the Kotturuh's tentacles moved at last, drawing in, the figures shifting and dancing across its cloak. “We have been tasting their futures.”
“Oh,” said the best that Birinji had for a leader. She had been brought up to be polite. “And... how do they taste?”
The Kotturuh turned to his colleagues. They bowed to each other, as swiftly as mountains. Then they turned back to Majoral. “A good question.”
“They have potential,” the Kotturuh announced. “In a few billion years, perhaps. Given the climate, given the changes in orbit caused by the imminent loss of your moon to warfare, and your second sun going nova, then yes, the crystal moths can flourish.”
“Our sun, excuse me—?”
But the Kotturuh, having started to speak, was on a roll. “There is an even chance that this world will become a desert or a verdant forest – either way the crystal moths will survive.”
“And what about us?”
“Ah,” the Kotturuh said after a long pause.
The Kotturuh spread their tentacles out into the breeze, and whatever it was behind the shifting mask appeared to be sucking at the air. “We have assessed your species.”
“I see,” Majoral was beginning to wonder if they'd need to chase these people off with weapons like they had the salt raiders last Shadowdawn. The people of Birinji were devoted to peace and wisdom and stillness and found all conflict tiresome. “Why?”
“We are Kotturuh,” the alien admitted. “It is what we do.”
It went on to explain that this was their Great Task. The Kotturuh believed they had always done this – across universes before this one and for all the universes that would come after. It was their duty to bring the gift of death to all life. Their mission was to visit every world and assess every species – tasting their timestreams and assessing what value they would offer to eternity.
“To us, a universe is a song,” the Kotturuh concluded, “And we wish to make it beautiful and harmonious.”
“Right,” said Majoral, none the wiser yet somehow unnerved. “And you've come here to tell us we are doing something wrong?”
“Your wisdom is not exaggerated,” the Kotturuh sounded almost sad. “An orchestra does not work if every instrument is playing all the time. Some contribute by playing but a single brief note. And some by not being heard at all.”
“Where is this going?” again, Majoral thought of the weapons store. But these creatures weren't salt raiders. They were almost poetically terrifying.
All three of the Kotturuh drew themselves up, their tentacles and talons spread out into the air. “We have assessed you across the planet,” their leader said. “You once had promise – you once built cities and travelled far and wide, and made peace with empires. But now—”
“We do not do so much of that,” Marjoral said. “Now we contemplate simplicity on our own.”
“Indeed,” the Kotturuh said. “It is a pity. You had a chance – there was a species you could have traded with, but you refused. Denied supplies, they have become warlike. In a few centuries, they will be the ones who destroy your moon – and it is in eventual reprisal that your sun will be accidentally targeted. It could all have been prevented.”
“But—” Majoral said, “We had no idea! And it hasn't happened yet! I feel – I feel as though you're saying we're guilty of something we knew nothing about.”
“Indeed,” The Kotturuh all bowed, a slow and methodical process. “You had perhaps something to offer to the Great Song, but not any more. As such, eternity is wasted on you. But the crystal moths – we believe they will make the most of what remains. They will soar.”
Majoral was shouting at them, trying to work out what they were saying. She was also sending the tribe mothers for the weapons after all. So far these strange visitors had only offered words, but weapons never hurt.
The lead Kotturuh held up his hand. “Do not bother, little one,” he said, his tone surprisingly gentle. “We mean you no harm.”
“We are simply adjusting the lifespan of your species according to the value you offer.”
“What's a lifespan?”
“Currently each of you will live and proliferate for ever. A lifespan curtails that. You will now take up as much of the universe as you deserve. And others will make better use of the space.”
“The crystal moths? Really?” Majoral laughed, especially as one buzzed aimlessly past her.
“Oh yes,” the Kotturuh's bandaged face seemed to smile, “I'm pleased that you agree.” The three creatures bowed to each other, then made to turn away.
“Wait!” Majoral called after them, wondering where the tribe mothers were with the weapons. “Are you going? Is that it?”
The Kotturuh turned back to her. “Yes. We have judged you, we have given you our gift. Now you may begin screaming.”
“I'm sorry?” Majoral said. “I feel the same.” She looked over at the people looking on. All very much the same. Had these creatures simply come to lecture them? Or was there more to it than that?
“Your new lifespan shall be three months,” the Kotturuh said. “Three turns of that moon.” A pause. “It is a nice moon. What a shame.”
“What do you mean three months?” Majoral felt something in her throat, something more than fear. She could see panic spreading among her people. Panic and something else.
“All of your species will now live for three months exactly. A harmless amount of time. Unless it catches up with you.”
“But – but—” Majoral cried, and then had no more words.
By the time the Kotturuh turned back to his comrades, there was little left but a pile of dust. Dust and crystal moths buzzing above it.
In the distance, the screaming spread and echoed across the planet. It had gone well. There would be conflict and argument among the Kotturuh before the planet fell silent – but they had had to start somewhere.
The Kotturuh moved away to follow their paths.
“This has been the first planet,” they said to each other. “But we have so many more to visit.”
And so they began.