The Fifth Element
In the expansive depths of velvety blackness there lay a tiny unique planet that glows like a blue marble in the background of the harsh vacuum of space. It's a favorite spot on this side of the galaxy; atmosphere, geology and local funny little two-legged wildlife make it of interest as a common stopping locality for those who were, shall we say, visiting from out of town.
In fact, there lay a vehicle now, hovering over the swirling blue planet, and for all intents and purposed it seems to be waiting. It wasn't a warship, nor a merchant craft. It had a sleek look of something designed for speed and secrecy. The creators of said craft were known throughout the galaxy for deep, measured thinking. The Mondoshawans are treasured for diplomatic wisdom and overall are considered gentle giant shepherds of a vast number of species, some of whom were all too intent on war-mongering.
To have traveled such a vast distance and to have overcome many trials, none which enter this narrative, must have meant something important lie on that planet. Not a vacation from drudgery drove them, nor sightseeing, or even a mission of intergalactic domination but a mission. What brought them to the edge of the galaxy was desperation.
The midday heat was suffocating enough to be oppressive. Billy was amazed that even after nearly a full season at the dig hadn't been enough to let him adjust to the sweltering desert. Even inside the relatively shadowed coolness of the ruins of the temple wasn't enough to lend itself relief from the feeling of being cooked from the inside out.
From his comfortable slump against a pillar Billy let the Professor's droning words wash over him as he let an idle pen sketch over his notepad. Fresh of out the Eastern York Collegiate School and having been trained in classical archeology with a penchant for drawing had led him to some interesting places. The most current of which was the inside of a Nineteenth Dynasty ruin that had been devoted to Ramses II.
Mostly his time in Egypt had included sketching near faded hieroglyphics and dictating notes. This particular morning, however, Professor Pacoli had made a discovery that had him glued to the intricately carved ruins of the eastern wall since daybreak, muttering fervently to himself and hurling instructions and inscriptions over his shoulder. There was a great deal of mysticism behind it and after three hours of distracted murmuring that included words like 'millenniumial Hermetic' and 'Tetrabiblos resemblance' Billy succumbed to the heat and the silence and the boredom and allowed his mind and pen to wander.
There rose a cacophony of donkey braying and shrill children's voices outside, raised in cheerful laughter and pieces of song; locals hired to help with the dig. They were as good as watchdogs; the deafening boisterous noise meant that someone was coming inside the temple.
Billy paused in a very involved drawing that included an anatomically correct examination of the female persuasion as movement caught his eye.
The water boy, Selim, holding a water skin under one arm and crawling along the floor with his other, extended a finger to poke a pubescent boy holding a large copper disk.
It was an ingenious use of ancient technology that had modern relevance; each copper plate had been beaten flat and angled just so it would catch light and illuminate the deepest part of the ruins that would normally be inky black. Using torches or gaslight had a tendency to leave sooty black marks that would ruin the delicate findings.
Well, that was the theory; it helped when your hired hands didn't fall asleep and let the copper disk sag, casting them all into semi-darkness.
Selim hissed furiously,
There was a gusty sigh from the Professor, who paused in his findings to bellow,
The booming sound ricocheted in the small space like a gunshot, effectively shaking Aziz out of dozing slumber and Billy snorted, making another mark on the top of his sheet of paper.
" 'Aziz, light.' " he said mockingly, though very softly. Openly insulting the man who signed the pay was never a wise idea.
The Professor let a out a grumbling 'harumph' and turned back to the wall, gesturing with the artists brush he had been using to sweep away imbedded dirt.
"Good, then we start again. When the three planets are in eclipse, the black hole like a door is open, evil comes, spreading terror and chaos. See the snake Billy? The ultimate evil. Make sure you get the snake."
Billy made a quick squiggle to the side of the nearly full page and answered,
"Yes, yes I got your snake. I got all the snakes. So when does this snake act supposed to occur?"
There was a pause and out of the furious fluttering of muttering came, 'Well if this is the five and this is the one…."
"Every five thousand years."
Billy snorted again and went back to his drawing, his voice floating out over the large sketch pad,
"So I've got some time."
In answer came a resonate voice that echoed eerily in the stifling closeness of the ancient temple.
" 'So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom.' "
Billy jerked at the deep and somber voice but quickly smiled in recognition and relief for a break from monotony.
"Father! How good to see you! How are you today?"
Father Abdullah was a Coptic priest from one of the stranger, smaller sects of religion found in the region. He had been given an excellent education in his life, being fluent in several languages, had a rough understanding of ancient Egyptian history, a smattering of archeological knowledge and was considered an important figure both to his native Egypt and neighboring Europe.
He was not a tall man but he carried himself with such dignity and pride that he radiated calmness and solidness. He was a favored figure wherever he went, most people were glad to see him.
"Good, Billy, very good. It gives my heart happiness to see such progress in uncovering our ancient past."
He put a hand on Selim who gawked up at him, still holding the water skin, and smiled deeply.
"You brought the water. Good boy, I will give it to them. Go with God, be safe from evil." And took the water skin and gave a little shove, sending the boy on his way.
Professor Pacoli, always a little absentminded concerning ancient relics, continued his mumbled monologue, oblivious to their newest visitor.
"You see here these different peoples, or symbols of people,"
Here he pointed briefly to one particular carving; humanoid figures in a rough circle.
" - gathering together the four elements of life, water, air, earth, fire, around a fifth one. A…fifth element."
His voice slowed, paused in newfound discovery, weighing the implications.
Both men missed the brief frozen expression of dismay given by Father Abdullah, a deeply disconcerted look that furrowed his brow.
However, his face was clear and untroubled as he turned to address Billy.
"Billy, do you have drinking cups handy? It would hardly do for each of us to take a swig out of one water skin."
"Of course, Father. One moment."
Deep from within the robes of his office Father Abdullah produced a very small vile. With a quick gesture he crossed himself and said very quietly,
"Forgive me, Lord, but they already know too much."
and poured the substance into the container. It was carefully measured, a secret process passed down through the ages that bordered on alchemy. The components were complex but the result was a temporary blackout that robbed the victim the memories of the last twenty hours of their lives.
His approach to the Professor startled him out of revenant concentration and he chuckled, gesturing to the wall.
"Father! I'm so glad you are here! It's the most extraordinary thing! I mean look, it's the greatest find in history!"
Father Abdullah cleared his throat and smiled.
"Yes, it is astounding.…here, Professor, you've been working all day, you must be parched."
Billy reappeared at his elbow carrying three tin cups that had seen better days. Father Abdullah poured a generous amount into two and pressed it into the Professor's hand.
"Huh? What? Oh yes."
Professor Pacoli absentmindedly wiped a chalky hand on his white linen jacket and turned back to the inscription, sloshing the water with the movement. He gestured wildly.
"I mean it's like, a battle plan…with good and the evil… and here, a weapon. Against evil. Never before has such inscriptions been found! I'm going to be famous!"
There was a luminous smile on his heat reddened face that was almost like a fever. It bordered on unhealthy and was edging into fanaticism.
Father Abdullah gave a strained smile and raised his empty cup.
"Then, then let us toast to your fame!"
Both men raised their cups happily, lost in fevered dreams of fame, fully funded archeological seasons and maybe even a spot in Scientific American.
The Professor raised the cup to his lips tantalizingly, then paused as though just realizing something. Father Abdullah felt his heart thud in his chest.
"Father, I've just realized – you can't toast to something this monumental with mere water-"
With a contemptuous scoff the Professor hurled the contents out of the cup, the liquid disappearing quickly in the greedy dry sand below their feet.
"Sorry, Father, did you say something? Only it sounded as though you made a noise."
Father Abdullah cleared his throat. There is no time, he thought desperately to himself, soon they will come and-
"Not at all, I only-"
"Billy! The wine! We must celebrate in style."
Billy turned his back to rummage through the pack bags just as a noise became perceptible; it was like a hum but it went deeper. It was in the bone, in the gut and in the base of the neck and it was just starting to vibrate the columns and ancient ceiling noticeably as little showers of dust came down over the three men.
Outside the camels and children were making a racket again, different from before. There was alarm and wonder in the children's voices. The camels were shrieking like something wounded.
Father Abdullah closed his eyes.
Professor Pacoli, not one for distractions from precious antiquities, bent back over the recently discovered inscription, lips moving silently. He stopped, abruptly straightening.
"I don't understand, this could be something…but wait, here, yes"
Light were dimming, as though an eclipse was passing over midday desert casting them all into shadow.
There was a jolt that made limestone columns shudder. Father Abdullah raised his head and said in a leaden tone,
"They are here."
Professor Pacoli traced the center of the intricate carving with the tip of his brush, sweat falling from his chin.
He did not notice the unnatural quiet. Billy had stopped midway from his kneeling position on the floor, face ashen and staring.
Nor did he notice the children, open mouthed and gawking and Father Abdullah grave and unsurprised, waiting.
"This man, this perfect being…"
He spoke into sodden stillness, voice unnaturally loud. The light was nearly gone now; something enormous was setting down outside the temple.
"I know this is the key, I know it. This divine light they talk about, what is divine light?"
There was no light now. The Professor let out an impatient, angry sound from the back of his throat and yelled,
" Aziz, light!"
And there was light, starker and more brilliant than a thousand lamps. Crevices that had never seen illumination since its inception now stood harshly under display from light that seared the eyes. Outside the temple, the landing gear of the space ship had lit up everything.
"Thank you, much better Aziz." The Professor muttered distractedly.
Aziz tapped the copper plate, mouth open in dumbfounded confusion.
The great vessel that had landed as quietly as snowfall had traveled unfathomable distances and it showed in pitted metal scabs and burn marks of the great hull. There was a moment of hushed silence, then the doors opened.
Two by two, they marched. Larger than several grown men, swaying as they walked, an awkward gait that made them seem top heavy. The creatures seemed to be made of metal. Cast light from the sun made them nearly glow as though they were surrounded by a nimbus of gold. Humanoid, if you added architecture to flesh; plated armor over graceful curves, tall spikes radiating like a fan across the back and beak-like proboscis that was almost birdlike that formed the head.
They marched, oblivious to the turmoil around them. The camels, spooked and frothing with terror had already snapped their moorings and bolted into the desert. The children had run, or cowered or simply stared in the way that children do, not understanding danger but enraptured with wonder.
Billy, with shaking hands, ripped his sketchbook open and his hand flew across the sheets as they made a strange procession, heading straight up the ancient temple aisle and towards the still carelessly enraptured Professor.
Father Abdullah ran a hand over his sweating face, fell to his knees and murmured, "My Lord!"
They stopped, spreading out before Professor Pacoli as Father Abdullah attempted to speak but was only able to make a sort of guttural whimper.
Running his fingers across the inscribed pictures on the wall the Professor turned and said gleefully,
"Father this is the most unbelievable thing I have ever seen, don't you think-"
And stopped short; he turned and looked up. Then kept looking up for the creature that stood before him was well over three heads taller than he.
The small birdlike head before him bobbed and jerked in a curious way, investigating, inquisitive and utterly alien.
Shock and terror held the Professor but curiosity is a strange and terrible compulsion, especially in the scientifically minded.
"Are - are you German?" he managed to stutter out.
The fragile looking head swayed back and forth. No.
Father Abdullah rose from his knees and rushed towards the creature nearest to Professor Pacoli, the one with the slightly deeper colored gold tones than the rest.
"Lord," he began frantically "I know he was about to discover everything but there is no need to worry, I was there in time."
There was silence from the creature, then a click-hiss noise.
"Priest…you and those before you have… served us well." came a voice from deep within the body of the creature. It had a strange harmonic to it, as though several people were speaking in cadence while swallowing gravel. There was a strange stutter-stop lilt to it.
"But war …is coming, stones not safe on earth anymore."
As the creature spoke it made its way to the temple wall directly opposite of the Professor.
With a surprisingly delicate movement from a creature so large and ungainly, it feathered a hand gently over the intricate carving, sweeping it back and forth before it came to a stop.
Extending a single digit of its hand it stopped at one spot, the shape of its finger then seemed to waver like heat over pavement and it changed to the shape of a key. If a key had three faces instead of one. There was a deep clunk noise from within the walls then stone shifted on stone.
Before the strange group was an entirely new antechamber, free of dirt and debris and clean as though it had been built the week before.
Professor Pacoli's eyes swept back and forth, hardly able to contain himself and nearly vibrating with excitement.
"This! This is truly amazing!"
He was so intent on this newest discovery that he didn't even notice the birdlike head of the creature next to him swivel and stare before it moved quickly and quietly towards him. There was an intense ringing in the air, an unheard sound profoundly uncomfortable that could be felt in the bones.
Professor Pacoli fell gently backwards, crumpling like a discarded kerchief.
Mindful of the fallen body the creatures stepped into the antechamber, slowly, almost reverently.
Father Abdullah, with a sorrowful glance at the Professor, followed. His ears rung slightly; that was the affect of the device used by Mondoshawan technology. Non-lethal instantaneous black out if used directly on the target and a nasty headache for everybody else within twenty feet. Those who were of a certain biological disposition, anyway.
Daylight filtered down from a cleverly hidden hole, high in the temple's ceiling. Shafts of light lit the object in the center of the room; gleaming off the metallic surface.
"The fifth element!" Father Abdullah said in awe.
It had the shape of an iron coffin.
Countless generations before him had been the guardians of this temple. They lived and died with only the vaguest ideas of what lay inside, living only with the knowledge that it must, must be kept safe at all costs. Now he was witnessing something no mortal eyes had ever seen before.
The Mondoshawan turned its head back and forth working up the steam to communicate.
One by one the creatures lifted strangely carved statuettes and carefully put them into a lined chest. With this task done three of the Mondoshawan surrounded the coffin and the air hummed. What surely weighed over two tons floated gently off its pedestal then lay level with the ground. Then they simply walked out of the antechamber.
Father Abdullah raised a tentative hand of beseechment and said,
"My Lord, if you take the stones we will be defenseless when evil returns!"
Stutter-grind. "When… in three hundred years, evil returns… so shall we."
A flash of light on metal caught Father Abdullah's eye. There was a raised gun, in the shaking hand of Billy
Father Abdullah sucked in a breath, ready to shout to Billy to stop, wait, to explain away the terror in the boy's eyes but there was a loud round of multiple gunshots. The bullets ripped into the Mondoshawan behind him and the creature made a terrible noise that was animal agony and metal grinding on metal all rolled into one terrible scream. Liquid substance flowed freely from the holes.
"Billy, NO! You do not understand, they are our friends!"
Billy, shaking his head, backed away with shock and horror in his face.
"No, Father, no! They-they killed the Professor! They're monsters!"
Father Abdullah desperately reconciled his wits to calm the situation, to stop any more violence when there was a grinding noise. The Mondoshawan, critically wounded, had lost all concentration and in doing so had lost the ability to keep the secret door open. It was closing, with the creature inside it.
Father Abdullah swayed helplessly, feeling as though too much was happening too fast. There was no way he could help the Mondoshawan; the weight was beyond a dozen men and it was bleeding its life into the unforgiving floor of the temple.
"Please, hurry, the wall is closing!"
Even with its life speeding away from it the Mondoshawan remained unhurried and made calm measured steps towards the priest. It drew a rattling breath as the doorway became smaller and smaller.
"Here… is your mission now, pass your knowledge… to the next priest as it was… to you."
Father Abdullah wrung his hands in anguish and moaned,
"I will do as you command, of course! But please you must hurry, you still have time!"
"Time… not important, only… life important."
Father Abdullah could only watch helplessly as one of the ancient and great races of the universe expended its last bit of life energy to push forth its hand between the closing doors of stone.
There was a sickening crunch as flesh, metal and bone was separated forcefully and the doors shut, leaving only the severed hand with the key.
Outside the great temple the mooring that docked the unearthly spaceship slowly retracted itself as the Mondoshawan prepared to withdraw from the planet. The power generated from the immense vessel kicked up giant winds, blowing dust and sand in gale force winds.
Father Abdullah stumbled from the entrance, clutching the precious key to his chest and raised his voice to the departing craft.
"I will fulfill my mission! I will pass on the knowledge until your return!!"
300 Years Later
The pride of the United Confederated Territories star born battle cruiser fleet, The Correction, drifted in the deep black quadrant of the Omega arm. For several weeks now small border terrestrial civilizations had been winking out of communication and a platoon had been dispatched, expecting any number of small inconveniences that often plague settlers pushing out into the vastness of space.
What they found, however, was beyond their worst nightmares.
Those who had made it back alive could barely string together coherent sentences. One Sergeant Rona could only continually shake his head back and forth repeating,
"I looked at the darkness and it looked back."
It wasn't long after that he died; body mysteriously failing, organs shutting down one by one.
It was now a matter of interstellar security which was how the crew aboard The Correction found themselves facing something never before seen by human eyes.
Three hundred souls it took to run the battle ship and each and every one was pulling double duty. They had been sent by no less than the President himself and was a matter of pride to stop all threats before they came anywhere near the place they called home.
All scanners indicated nothing; the mass that lay like a dark storm cloud gave away no secret, no reading nor output. The crew had begun to call it 'the anomaly' and remained on edge from the unnaturalness of it all. Nothing like it had ever been recorded in the history of space exploration.
General Staedert stood at the helm, face grim. He was not a man that gave way to anxiety easily as his face showed; it was the face of someone with a long and rigid life full of discipline, valor and glory. It showed in every line wrinkle and scar. Steely eyes gazed out over the frantic exertion of his crew below him.
"Anything yet, Corporal Franzen?"
"Nothing yet, sir."
"Not even a temperature?"
Corporal Franzen hesitated then reported,
"Thermal analyzer has jammed, one of them maxed out over one million degrees and the other shows minus five thousand."
There was a moment of shocked disbelief.
"Let's see it; bring it up on visual."
An image winked into view over the panel screen that covered the entire front deck of the control. Their position was approximately five clicks out from where the last communication was sent before they lost all contact. This particular solar systems sun burned orange, and before it, made starkly visible by the light, was a long stretch of darkness.
Like a cancerous growth, it seemed to expand even as General Stadert watched.
Diagnostics were all working ferverently, trying to get a reading. One looked up and said,
"It's taking a solid form…"
So it was; like something living, a planet sized storm of ash, heat, darkness and power. Almost like an eel it twisted then shrunk, giving off energy that snapped like dry heat lightening. Then it stopped. A perfect sphere of black.
General Staedert squared his chin and said,
"Send out a probe then hail Control, the President will want an update."
New York City, New United States Control Center
Many billions of miles away there was a very intense meeting happening in which the highest of the high gathered. Though they did not realize it, today they would be deciding the course of history.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the confederated territories."
Everyone arose as he entered. An auditorium filled with dignitaries, generals, leaders of countries and planetary sovereigns all gathered for a single purpose. The President gave a grave nod of the head and took his seat in the center of the room.
A staff member leaned over and murmured,
"On air with General Staedert in thirty seconds, sir."
On the far side of the open atrium-styled auditorium Father Vito Cornelius cleared his throat nervously and stepped towards his allotted seat. The faces of his contemporaries gazed back at him, all grim and expectant. The signs had been clear; the end was near. Now it was just a matter of a millennia of passed down knowledge to see if life could be saved.
Father Cornelius laid a hand on his young acolyte who started and jumped up out his seat.
"F-Father, I saved your seat!"
"Good lad. Let us see what fate decides today."
Aboard the Correction the lines of communication were open.
"General, the President is on the line. Ready for transmission."
The President's voice came over the speaker's, slightly scratchy as though there were interference with the communication.
"I have to address the Supreme Council in ten minutes so just the facts, if you please."
"Yes, sir." said General Staedert. "There are no results from the chemical analysis just yet. We are initiating thermal nuclear imaging just now."
"So what you are saying is you don't know what this thing is." There was a note of frustration in the President's voice that indicated some answers had better be found and soon.
General Staedert replied, "Not just yet, sir. All we know is it keeps getting bigger."
There was a shark like quality to the grim grin stretching General Staedert's mouth.
"You know my philosophy Mr. President; shoot first and ask questions later. I don't like uninvited guests"
Beside the President the long line of military force all nodded and murmured in consent. The President rubbed a weary hand over his face and said,
"All right. Proceed."
From the multitudes of the crowd a wavering clear voice called,
The crowd shifted and muttered to each other in surprised voices; who was this upstart who dared interrupt important matters?
The staff aide beside the President efficiently ran a finger through a digital catalogue of guests and announced,
"Priest Vito Cornelius. Expert of astrophenomena."
Now the crowd nodded and smirked to one another. The robes Father Cornelius wore was of an fringe order of religion that concentrated on history and theories of karma, respecting each blade of grass and all that other feel good claptrap. The good Father himself didn't seem like that imposing of a man; medium stature, a bland face that had the look of a benevolent scholar. Graying hair and a smattering of lines and wrinkles that bespoke of hard thinking and a life spent in thought. In other words a hermit monk. The room fell totally silent, waiting expectedly.
"I have a …different theory to offer you, sir."
Father Cornelius stepped through the crowd, obviously discomforted by the sheer number of eyes upon him but held his chin up firmly and gained confidence as he continued to speak.
The President gave him a mostly uninterested glance and looked at the time keeper on his desk.
"You have twenty seconds."
Father Cornelius cleared his throat and brought his hands together, gathering his thoughts.
"Imagine for a moment that this…thing is not anything that can be identified because it prefers not to be. Where ever there is life it brings death. Because it is evil, absolute evil."
The President snorted impatiently and waved a hand.
"All the more reason to shoot first-"
Father Cornelius was shaking his head sadly.
"Evil begets evil, Mr. President. Shooting it will only make it stronger."
Within the last fifteen minutes the Correction had been observing the anomaly it had increased in size by roughly three times. The tension was now palatable aboard the vessel; all eyes were on the viewing screen.
"Probe will attain its objective in five seconds."
General Staedert nodded and then swore abruptly; the signal had promptly disappeared.
"Sir…it appears to be…shielded. Growth rate is at twenty seven percent."
General Staedart clenched his jaw.
The President shook his head and said dismissively,
"This is all very interesting, Father, but we don't have time to go into this."
"Time is of no importance, sir, only life is of importance."
The President straightened in his chair, visibly annoyed.
"You're right! That's exactly what we're going to do; we're going to protect the life of some two hundred billion of my fellow citizens. Staedert, you may fire when ready."
"Roger." General Staedert signaled the missile launch crew who bent over industriously and began the attack.
"Upfront loading one-twenty Zion missile; Markolites on the objective."
From the viewing screen the planet sized ball of black rippled, almost in response to the incoming hostilities aboard the Correction. The crew watched in horrified fascination as the crackled and fractured surface pulled itself together, fusing to create one solid mass on the surface, smooth as a ball bearing. As though it was creating a thick armored shield.
There was a stunned moment of silence. The scientific exploration team onboard broke out in astonished exclaimations.
"Zero surface activity. Did you see that?! It just-"
Lab Technician Riggs turned to General Staedert with a look of disbelief.
"I think it's anticipating the attack. Anticipation denotes…intelligence. Sir…."
General Staedert gripped the railing above the command bridge as the conversation from Command came over the speaker. The priest was speaking again.
"The most terrible intelligence imaginable, President."
The General felt a stab of irritation, wanting this thing blown from the universe and out of his hair, or rather, what was left of it.
"Yes, Mr. President."
"I have a doubt."
"I don't, sir. Fire!"
Two one-twenty Zion missiles burst from the Correction and found their target, momentarily blinding the crew with the brilliance of the explosive aftermath.
General Staedert leaned back and took a breath to issue the command to return but instead spat out an angry expletive.
"Sir! Target remains! It's…it's increased in size."
The General could feel sweat trickling down his neck. This is what they called a career killer. If they failed here…
"Fire! Double missiles, fire!"
Panic was threading its way through the Correction. People were abandoning their posts to watch the screen. The resulting explosion rocked the ship, vibrating violently, making people grab onto the nearest stable surface. The interface of the screen momentarily blanked out.
Bated breath was held as the screen cleared and-
"…Planet has increased in diameter by two hundred percent and it's moving. Approaching in approximately two minutes. " said Lab Technician Riggs quietly.
General Staedert took off his garrison cap and mopped his face.
"What…what do we have that's bigger than the one-twenty?"
"Staedert! I don't want an incident! Do you hear me?! Get out of there!"
The Presidents voice crackled over the speakers, sounding weak and far away.
Black was rapidly filling the screen of the Correction and General Staedert watched death come for him. Distantly all around him he could hear things; the screams of his crew, the tinny scratchy voice of the President shouting 'Listen to me, this is the President, Get out of there, now! Staedert!'
But only the engulfing darkness covered his vision. He could hear a ringing in his ears. Or was it at the base of his head? It was difficult to tell but it vibrated like a buzz saw. Thick liquid dripped past his nose, down his neck and the General swiped a hand at it. Through the blanket of shocked disbelief he realized it was blood and the ringing in his ears had the undercurrent of malevolent laughter.
Then there was nothing.