Waves arose from the depths of the ocean like mountains of liquid obsidian and amongst their shadowy crags the palace burned; a ship adrift and crewed by self-immolating mutineers. Alone each fire might only have been enough to raze a house to the ground but together they were bright enough to be seen from space as though some hell-serpent had gnawed its way up from the planet's core to unleash its wrath upon the world. Coils of smoke, like the tattered shreds of an infernal raiment, trailed behind it and left a scar upon the sky that threatened man with never seeing the heavens again until the divine cities fell from on-high and collapsed in ruin on the shores of the mortal realm. Likewise it seemed as though the palace city, that supposed ark of civilisation, was poised to plunge from its lofty dominion and smash into the surface world which it had become so estranged from. The anti-gravity domes that covered its belly, usually aglow with Byzantium's purpure hue, were dim and dark. Their surfaces lit only intermittently by squibs of feeble colour that rippled between each other before peeling away into the air like wisps of funerary incense through a crypt. Were it to fall from the sky it would have been a spectacle equalled only by the sight of it tearing away from its terrestrial bonds all those centuries ago like a titan clawing its way out of Tartarus.
For all the chaos outside Ralph would never have guessed that anything was amiss if all he had to go on was the evidence presented to him in the halls and rooms of the palace. Granted they were not in their ordinarily pristine condition but seeing as the diplomats and bureaucrats had fled for their lives, that was not entirely unforgivable. Computers operating on reserve power warbled to themselves in sequences of demented numbers. Piles of smashed digi-slates dubiously adorned all manner of tables and work surfaces, proof enough that not everything on file in the various archives was innocent or innocuous. There were even scraps of ripped clothing and clumps of hair from when people had gone mad with fear and started tearing at themselves and each other in a mad scramble to get to safety. At any other time he may have found the silence left in the wake of so many people to be eerie, disturbing, profoundly unnerving even but after having had his ears assaulted by the furore in the streets it was somewhat relaxing. Without the endless hordes of civil servants and their assistants chattering away in their alcoves like insectoid drones tending to their pupal charges, there was a certain placidity to what would have otherwise been an egregiously frantic atmosphere. If he hadn't known that on his doorstep there were men and women fighting for their lives, and for the course of every future life, then he would not have been shocked to discover if he was the only human left alive scratching around in the musty remnants of society. The lonely curator of a museum devoted to a failed species he would pause to consider the significance of a teapot or to ponder the true purpose of the internet. Moving from room to room lamenting and yet celebrating his isolation he relished the sound of his footsteps rebounding through the silence, the echoes occasionally disturbed by muffled thumping from behind closed doors. What was causing them was a question best left unanswered.
It was only as he approached the throne room that he came across any signs of recent habitation. A plate of half-eaten finger food had been dropped next to a blood-smeared stun cudgel. A child's wrist-top computer, a lump of sculpted fondant, had been discarded not much further down the corridor. There was an empty pistol inexplicably stuffed half into the compost around a potted plant, its still cooling muzzle protruded through a molten hole in the terracotta. Then there were the lights playing across the glass walls of the seat of mankind. At first Ralph believed them to be the detonation of plasma grenades in the gardens and courtyards far below. At least that is what he feared. His brother's troops gone mad with terror and rage, running amok from house to house incinerating anyone who stood or cowered in their path. It would be just like his brother to destroy what he couldn't have. In the past he had not wanted to believe how savage and depraved his younger sibling could be, but at that point in time as his home shuddered to its very roots he would not have been surprised if Jerrin revealed himself as an ancient pagan spirit of mischief made flesh. Then he realised that no, the lights were of a different colour and kind. Explosions were harsh and rapid, like knocks on the skull with a spiked-glove. The lights he saw moving in the throne room were soft and slow, like stars splintering on the surface of the eon-deep eyes of fey creatures luring unsuspecting travellers to untimely graves.
When he had walked a few slightly uneven paces down the hall, a clock dropped out of its wall sconce and followed him. The thing in itself was tolerable; the sound of its anti-gravity propellers even quite soothing, but Ralph lost his patience when it started to chime the hour just inches from his face. He shooed it away with a dismissive hiss and glared at it until it locked itself back into a repair draw hidden beside a portrait of an obscure relative. He turned away and went about his business just as arms tipped with loofah circles stretched out of the clock’s socket and proceeded to buff its marble and platinum case. The moon was high over the city, its light gliding down spires and steeples like daisy-chains of sylphs running into puddles of old blood. Through windows stained with spent imperial glory, he saw flotillas of speed-shuttles and transport barges scudding across the sky disturbing the strips of wispy cloud that were lazily being dragged along by the sub-orbital wind-tugs that made sure Earth’s ancient climate didn’t collapse in upon itself. Floating missile silos spurt-burst their engines as they adjusted their rotational spin around the palace so that any intruding craft could be swiftly and neatly obliterated. With feet that fell ever slower he moved with trepidation, ambivalent about his decision to proceed alone and unprotected. He knew that it was absolutely necessary to do so, but that did not make it any easier.
He stopped and stood in an open doorway, dwarfed by an arch etched with a mind boggling cornucopia of archaic motifs that paid some form of homage to the legacy of those who had sat the throne before his father. Strange that so much of history should be summarised in the names of a few when it was the nameless millions that made their triumphs possible or suffered through their often disastrous decisions. It was only accident of birth or coincidence of circumstance that separated the masses from the monsters and martyrs. He knew it was absurd but it was the way things had always been. Try as it might humanity could never fully purge itself of the excesses of ego that made one man a legend whilst countless others were not even footnotes in the history books. How much had been missed out on because of that? How many Miltons, Beethovens, Brâncuşis, Einsteins and Roosevelts had gone to their graves unknown and unloved for their efforts simply because they were not arrogant enough to flaunt themselves or their talents? How different could things have been if more attention had been paid to those who languished in obscurity? Those were questions that Ralph could not answer at that moment because as he set foot across the threshold of the throne room he was presented with a different kind of horror than the unconscionable waste of human resources that had haunted mankind since it had decided that certain metals and stones were precious whilst life was cheap as long as the breeding stock lasted.
The morbid vision that seared itself onto his retinas seemed as though every atrocity in history had been condensed into a singularity of malevolence to which he was inexorably drawn even as it repulsed him. It was like peeling a plaster off to look at a wound; both disgusting but intriguing at the same time. Initially Ralph found himself not incapable but unwilling to speak, lest his words dispel the gruesome phantasmagoria before him. The very concept of speech became alien to him, the act of vocalising protestation somehow made irrelevant in the face of such an unrelenting horror. There on the steps of the throne his father slumped, dead and brutalised, his body less a corpse that had been allowed to retain some measure of its owner's former dignity and more a trophy to be displayed for the admiration and envy of Jerrin's contemporaries. Above it all there hovered seemingly infinite blocks of text projected in pale blue holograms that crawled over every available surface as though the palace's computers had vented all their psychotic bilge in one great confessional outburst that Although the room was silent, the air undulated and pulsated like webbing in the nest of a demon spider. Every breath he took felt as though it was the oily effluent bubbling up from the depths of some parallel dimension where everything that was good and noble in the world had long since been forgotten. But just as the first light dawn turns choking fog into a fine spray of amber and rose as though the very air itself could blush, his mind reasserted itself over the bafflingly terrible sight that had almost ruined his mind.
Not fully though and at first he could only muster enough sense to ask, 'What is this?' That rather mundane question was more to cover his grief than to alleviate his ignorance of the situation. Although grief might not have been the right word. His father had never really meant all that much to him. For most of his life he had been completely absent and even when he was present he had never been entirely there. Ralph could not have said that he was particularly upset or surprised to see him dead but he wasn't glad either.
Jerrin turned away from the moonlit megalopolis engulfed in flame and said, 'It’s a beautiful evening isn’t it?'
The reply came as if the lurker had been expecting to be caught, as if that were the plan all along. There was a trill of discomposure in the tone but its effects were lessened admirably by the tell-tale signs of life-long elocution lessons. From a certain macabre point of view perhaps the evening had a certain charm, but Ralph had never really developed an appreciation for such things. Even if he had his impression of it would have been somewhat lessened by the sight of his father reduced to nothing more than a shochet's plaything. 'I knew you were ambitious but what led you to this madness?'
'Don't you see!?' Jerrin didn't wait for a response as he swept down towards his brother like the shadow of a hawk's wings passing over head. 'It's all so obvious to me! Our father knew his time had come. His title and honours were the manifestations of everything about our past that I know you find so repugnant. The unearned wealth, the self-satisfied privilege, the moral decadence and intellectual cowardice that almost drove our ancestors and the planet itself to the brink of oblivion. After thousands of years we still haven't learned our lesson! But I can be different. I don't care about the crown or the throne, they're trinkets! Mere baubles used to dazzle the ignorant and wise alike. I intend to do away with them all, to return humanity to its dignity and glory. Will you help me?'
'To do what?' Ralph had never seen his brother in such a state. If he'd listened to his survival instincts he wouldn't have even remained in the same room as his brother, let alone have walked towards him. Was Jerrin gripped by some dreadful madness that had seeped its way through his entire mind like rot through a wooden wall and left it on the verge of crumbling away into nothingness? Or was his agitation merely the inevitable consequence of his being honest, probably for the first time in his life?
'Haven't you been listening?' Although Jerrin asked the question it did not seem to be directed at Ralph. If there had been anyone else in the room it would not have been asked of them either. Rather it seemed to be addressed to some imaginary audience; a chorus of celestial commentators that for their incessant interrogatives about his motivations were rewarded with nothing but rhetorical questions and insubstantial rants. 'To unite our species! No more Empire, no more Republic. No more pointless wars over definitions of freedom! Equality for all, not superiority for some. We will be whole again!' The swirling mass of text above them faded into nothingness, its display ended just as he completed an act of his own.
'I would like to help you, Jerrin. Truly I would. But look at what you've done already. How can you believe it to be good?' Ralph bent over his father's corpse. Strangely enough the old man seemed more human when dead than he had alive. Perhaps because it was only in death that the true nature of humanity revealed itself. A person could walk, talk and think but all they really were was a lump of flesh and bone temporarily inhabited by some intangible sense of agency. That might have been a little harsh but as he looked at his father's body it was certainly appropriate. 'What demented corner of your mind thinks I want any part of this lunacy?'
Jerrin's idle gaze snapped towards his brother and more importantly the knife he had just picked up. 'I'm not insane! On the contrary I've never known such clarity of thought. Just imagine what we could do together. The Sons of Yund working together, could bring peace to the galaxy.'
Ralph lost himself in the warped reflections that seemed to be crawling out of the blood black sheen that still oozed along the edge of the knife as though some ethereal creature of unspeakable vileness had found a way to manifest itself. His father's gore had a life of its own, all the poisonous secrets he had harboured during his existence congealed into a semi-sentient mass of unforgivable betrayals. But not! It was only blood. Nothing special and nothing terrifying save for the fact that it should not have been outside of a body. 'So this is your definition of peace?' The palace trembled as somewhere something exploded. 'You must lend me your dictionary, no doubt it's an interesting read.'
'Everything I've done has been and will be for the best. I'm sorry you can't see that, Ralph.' His brother still held the knife. That was all Jerrin needed. He couldn't help but let the corners of his mouth curl into a smirk as he shouted, 'Guards!'
Keir had spent what seemed like an age waiting for that signal, granted it was not the most original summons but it served its purpose. One might have been tempted to interpret his sigh as one of vexation at being called in to perform yet another menial task far below his station, but really it was one of relief. Finally, something to do! Conversation with the pair of soldiers, Pearce and Brolin, sat alongside him had long since died a death of its own. A victim of mutual misunderstanding and incompatible interests. What could he have said to them? What could they have said to him? Perhaps they could have chatted about the weather, or local laser jousts (non-lethal bouts of course) maybe even the shortcomings of some recent blockbuster. Or they could have talked about the fact that their friends and colleagues were outside killing and dying for reasons they probably couldn't even begin to really understand. But not only would that have been disrespectful it would also have been pointless. There was nothing they could do to stop it except for following him out into the throne room to help a man who didn't even know their names to meet what he had decided was his destiny. Obviously there were worse fates than that but at that particular moment in time even Keir wished he was wading through the quagmire of filth and ichor that politics and war had made of one of humanity's first sanctuaries. They all stood, not exactly in unison but close enough to it for all three of them to understand that they just wanted to get the day over with, and checked their weapons. In silence their eyes met, each of them certain that whatever happened next would not be in the history books. They would get no fame, glory or praise for their coming actions. Not that any of that was necessary but it was always nice to recognised. Although in truth Keir doubted that either of the grunts would live to old age if Jerrin decided that their continued existence posed a threat.
If Keir had been an ordinary man perhaps he might have wondered what he could have done to stop the killing he knew had already taken place. He may even have intervened before Jerrin carried out his plan, but he was not ordinary. He never had been and he never would be. He was unusual by design, virtually every trace of recognisable human emotion had been filtered out of him along with a host of other apparently undesirable traits when he was nothing more than a clump of cells brewing in an amniotic stew. He simply lived to serve. It was the reason for his being, the core of his existence. He could no more counter-act his innate obedience than a star could stop itself from imploding. That didn't mean he had to like it though. Sometimes he wondered if the engineers who built his genetic code had a sadistically ironic streak; they had left him perfectly capable of resenting the people who gave him orders but unable to disobey them. Most of the time. Luckily, they hadn't given Keir much of a conscience otherwise the strain might have been unbearable when Jerrin bellowed at them on sight, 'Soldiers, take this citizen into custody!'
'That's your brother, sir.' Pearce pointed with his rifle, not knowing whether to pull the trigger or salute.
Jerrin almost snatched the knife back from his brother to slice off his own tongue to keep from snapping at the soldier for stating the obvious. Somehow against all the gods of space and time, if they existed, he managed to stop himself. Instead he did his best to look wounded. 'I am cursed that should be so, but that does not change the fact he has murdered your emperor!'
'What!?' If Ralph's jaw had fallen any further he would have had to collect pieces of it off the floor.
'Don't even try to deny it you have the bloody knife in your hands!' Literally. Jerrin's smile at his own wit was expertly hidden behind a savage sneer.
'But...' Ralph wanted to protest but there really wasn't any point. There was nothing he could possibly do, even the truth wouldn't save him now. He wasn't even sure the truth even existed any more or if it ever really had. At least one way or another the war was over. For the time being. Whatever happened next that would be consolation enough to endure it.
'I'll brook no excuses from you, traitor! You were First Inheritant, assured to gain the throne upon our father's death. He was old and frail but you couldn't wait. You used the distraction of the war to strike him down when he was lowest. A cruel and savage act that you would hide behind a façade of your so-called honour and discipline!'
'Jerrin, please!' Ralph tried to fall upon his knees but the soldiers held him upright, their gauntlets dug into the flesh of his inner arms pressuring nerve clusters to prevent him getting any bright ideas about escaping or attacking. The knife fell from his slackened hands and skidded across the floor, a thin spiral smear of blood left in its wake.
As Jerrin approached the throne he rounded on his brother. 'No doubt our father had more courage than to beg so meekly. Agent Olesk! I am holding you personally responsible for the security arrangements regarding this prisoner. Once the battle outside is over you will take him to the nearest shuttle bay. From there you will escort him to the furthest borders of our dominion and send him forth into the void, alone and unarmed. There to meet whatever miserable fate may happen to befall him. This is my first command as your new emperor.' He sat on the throne to make sure no one could mistake him for anyone or anything else. 'Do not fail me.'
'Of course.' Keir had promised to take care of the boys, but Gaius never went into specifics about how it should be done. Maybe he should have asked for some parenting tips. Too late now though.
'You two will assist Agent Olesk, but I must ask you not to speak to another living soul about this matter. My brother is beloved by the people, if his crime was to become common knowledge I fear it would break their hearts. I'm sure you can understand that would be disastrous for us all.' Jerrin hoped his regal tone was enough to bamboozle the soldiers. Since they offered no resistance to his assumed authority he took their silence for assent. 'Go now and do not return until your task is done.'
'The emperor is dead.' Keir jerked his head and the soldiers began to drag Ralph away. He didn't even kick or scream. Such restraint was admirable. Most men wouldn't have surrendered so easily, but then most men weren't at the mercy of the most powerful person in the galaxy. 'Long live the emperor.' He looked at Jerrin alone on his fancy chair and hoped for his sake, and the sake of humanity, that the entire endeavour had not been a colossal mistake.
When the Xeli-2 communications array finally came back online it did so just in time to send trumpet blasts of triumph reverberating around the galaxy. The war was over. The Republic was defeated. Granted, an emperor had been killed by his own son and of course everyone was in a state of conspicuously deliberate mourning but the imperial way of life had been secured for future generations to...enjoy. But what did that really mean? Alvin asked himself as he watched a vitamin pill dissolving in a glass of water. The affectedly exuberant tones of the news announcer were drowned out by the sound of those tiny shimmering bubbles rising through the glass, their passage from birth at the bottom to transcendence at the top marked only by a sibilant hiss that disintegrated all other sounds until there was nothing left but the soothing static of a solid turning into a gas. Through that veil of silver-white spheres he watched himself fighting upwards through hails of bullets that poured down the insides of the palace tower like waterfalls of stars at Ragnarӧk. Even as all he wanted to was run and hide he remembered going forwards and upwards, not because he was brave but because he was afraid. Afraid of what could happen if he carried on and afraid of what would happen if he went back. But he had carried on. By the time he arrived at the throne room the unthinkable had already happened. Strange that people should say that horrific acts are beyond the realm of thought when their very existence made it obvious that some thought about them every day. With lungs like collapsing Zeppelins he staggered in to find a man weeping over the ruins of a city and a corpse. Jerrin Yund, formerly Second Inheritant but presently king of all he surveyed. Which in the immediate vicinity wasn't all that much. A city that turned the sky ruddy with ash and lingering flame as it lumbered through the clouds inhabited by a population of terrified and humiliated bureaucrats. Not an auspicious start to a reign.
The banquet to mark an enforced period of mourning for his late father would make up for that. Ordinarily, there would have been spontaneous outpourings and impromptu public displays of grief at the loss of so great an institutional figure. Poetry recitals, candle lit vigils, garlands of flowers that somehow represented the strength and fragility of life. That sort of thing. All of it awful, even if it was heartfelt. But with the war at an end there was time for a more considered, tactical approach. Once the Dukes and Lords, Dames and Ladies had shown their grimaces of solidarity with the new regime the rest of the regal courtiers and noble hangers-on would soon follow suit for fear of not being invited to any other galas and soirées. Then the whole sorry mess would continue and the death that was to supposedly serve as a learning experience for all mankind would become nothing more than just another plain and simple fact. A grey smudge on the borders of conscious perception where the sodden realm of grief met with the retina-searing gleam of reality.
A head appearing at the door brought Alvin back to the present moment. 'Morning, ensign.' He dragged his feet off the desk in an effort to look more presentable, but given that his uniform was still riddled with scorch marks and blobs of mud, blood and other muck it didn't really work. The stacks of derma-plastic bandages that he'd peeled off a wound on his back weren't helping matters either. He swept them into a slot in his desk where they vaporized with a faint hiss and a spritz of lavender perfume. It went some way to covering his shame at his field office smelling like a zoo exhibit.
'Lieutenant 2nd grade actually, sir.' Elliot wasn't sure if it was the prospect of his new responsibilities or the lingering concussion courtesy of a chunk of masonry to the back of his skull that was making him queasy. Either way the trembling in his stomach made it difficult to focus. Strange that so simple a thing could make a man believe that the equilibrium of the universe had been so horrifically upset that he had difficulty with that most basic of locomotive functions: standing up.
'Oh?' That question mark curled into a raised eyebrow as Alvin gestured for his guest to sit. 'Congratulations.' He meant it but it probably didn't sound that way.
'Thank you.' Elliot was grateful for the praise as well as the offer to take some weight off his feet. Despite it being one of the earliest things a human learned to do, walking never ceased to be a burden. There was an animal contentment to be extracted from idleness that had a lifelong allure that no one could ever entirely resist.
'You'll be reassigned?' Alvin sipped his water and grimaced at the flavour of the still dissolving pill. Why, why would they make it taste like fish tank gravel of all things?
'No, no. Admiral Worfeld felt it better that I remain with you. To keep an eye on things.' Elliot looked around him and regarded the room with a level of disdain that even the most harpyish of school ma'ams would envy. It would definitely be better if he stayed, for the captain's sake if not his own.
'Ah.' Well that was an encouraging thought, even after all he had done apparently he still needed a minder. Although Alvin couldn't blame anyone for thinking that and if he was honest with himself it made perfect sense; the only thing he could be relied upon to be was unreliable.
'There's nothing sinister about it.' Elliot made fumbling hand gestures as he attempted to be reassuring before he realised that he might as well just admit the truth. 'The admiral just doesn't want you getting in any unnecessary trouble.'
'What about the necessary kind?'
Elliot couldn't help but mirror Alvin's smile. Not because it was necessarily a genuine response but more for the fact that it was the polite thing to do. 'He's left that to your discretion.'
Alvin lurched to his feet and poured himself another glass of water. The civil engineering teams hadn't fixed the air filtration systems yet and his throat felt like it had been lined with shards of desiccated bone. 'That's generous of him.'
Yes, it was. 'In all honesty, I asked to remain aboard the Hermod. I don't think I could go back to Novagrad and just be a clerk. The admiral seemed to understand. In fact, I think he was relieved.' Nervous tittering was not something Elliot did often.
'That's a good career move at least. It might even lead to your own command one day.'
'Well, I don't know about that.' Elliot tried to look like he hadn't already taken that fact as a given. 'One step at a time, sir.'
'Quite.' No matter what the war may have changed at least Alvin could count on some sense of continuity on his ship. 'So, if you're going to be one of my senior officers then you'll need to be one hundred percent honest with me at all times.'
'Of course. I wouldn't be anything but honest. Truth is part of duty.' Elliot had lost count of the number of times that had been drummed into him at the war college, but whether it was just once or a thousand times it was and always would be an important lesson. Once a man lost sight of the truth, he lost sight of himself.
'It is. So tell me, Lieutenant 2nd grade Cordova,' that would take some getting used to, 'what do you think of our new emperor?' Alvin rifled through a tray of stale rations as though he were perusing a box of chocolates. Unfortunately there was nothing there that initially took his fancy so he offered some to Elliot.
'Is that a trick question?' Elliot grimaced as he chewed what might have been a cube of dried swede. Or chicken for that matter. It was hard to tell.
'No.' Alvin coughed around a spice-pea.
'Well, his speech last night was interesting. “No more statues!” It was a good way to end it.' The war officially and the address technically.
'Yes. It was certainly a popular notion.' But emperors were never truly popular. They weren't meant to be. They were simply there; intangible figures like gods only real in the sense that they were feared.
'I think that was the point, sir.'
'Hmm.' No doubt it was. A crowd pleasing gesture to make the common folk believe he had no interest in the trappings of power. The galaxy had seen far too many rulers who were more interested in what their eyebrows looked like when carved from granite or etched in iron than they were in ensuring the rule of law and common sense. Maybe Alvin was being cynical, perhaps Jerrin meant to be a better class of leader. 'He's a bit young though, no?'
A hover-prop landing outside made the room rumble. 'Well, yes but that's hardly his fault. Given the circumstances I suppose it's entirely understandable, it's not like he planned for it to happen.' Whatever it was that he'd just eaten hadn't been that bad after all. He reached for another sponge coloured dice and popped it into his mouth.
'I've been wondering about that. Stranger and worse things have happened.' Alvin span on his chair and looked out the window. Between the shutters he saw not just a city in ruin but a galaxy as well, or at least parts of it.
Elliot paused mid-rumination. 'Seriously, you don't believe he wanted his father to die!? At the hands of his brother no less.'
'I don't know what to believe.' Although it wouldn't have surprised him. Political ambition turned people into bar codes and populations into figures to be crossed out of a ledger. General human decency was often no barrier to the pursuit of personal gain. 'All I know is, I was told to look closer to home for the cause of all this.' The death, the destruction, the lies. 'When I walked into the throne room and watched the medics carry his father's body away it seemed to me as though our new emperor was the only one who wanted to be there, like it was just the final step on a very long road.'
'But we know his brother did it, he was caught red handed.'
Alvin didn't even know where to begin with how convenient that had been. 'Yes and where is he now? There was no confession, no trial. He was given no chance to justify his actions, and if not to excuse them then at least to explain them.'
'Did he deserve that?'
'Everyone deserves that, even murderers. In fact, especially murderers.' Alvin gave a professorial wave of his index finger.
Elliot had every right to disagree with a man who was defending someone who, according to all sources, had not only killed his father but also the most respected (if not loved) emperor in living memory. But what would that have got him? A pointless argument which would never have a clear winner. 'I don't know what to say, sir.' Well, he did but he daren't. Offending his commanding officer so soon after promotion would have been professional suicide.
'Neither do I.' Alvin regretted having broached the subject. It was not an appropriate time. 'Forget I mentioned it, I'm just tired.' That may have been a bit of a cop out but it was also the truth.
'We all are, sir. I understand.' Elliot was a little shell shocked himself. Killing was not something that any ordinary man grew accustomed to. He decided to save himself before his thoughts became too morbid by handing over a report that he'd had tucked under his arm. 'Commander Tresselian wanted me to tell you that the ship should be ready to launch by the end of the day. We're Just waiting on some replacement parts for our propellant injectors.'
'Excellent. It will be good to get back into space.' And as far away from Earth and its new emperor as possible. There was something about the man that Alvin couldn't stand. Looking at him was like staring out of a well-lit room into the night; he could see something moving in the shadows but he didn't know what.
To stop himself from clearing out the ration tray Elliot asked, 'Do you know where we're going yet?'
'No, I'm still waiting for our orders.' If Alvin had been told to go to the second star to the right and straight on until morning, whatever he found there would have probably made more sense than life in the empire.
'Admiral Worfeld should be discharged this afternoon.' Elliot mused as he took another glance around the room, fighting the urge to get to work with a dust pan and brush. 'I'll see if he can make our assignment top priority.' If there was anything that wasn't top priority any more.
'Please do.' Alvin turned his attention to the digi-slate and began browsing through the repair schedule. 'Anything else?' He asked, not even troubling himself to look up.
That was Elliot's cue to leave it seemed. 'No, I just wanted to see how you were.' Was that such a bad thing?
Although he appreciated the consideration Alvin really wasn't in the mood for small talk. At that point his thoughts were far too vast and rambling for him to put into words. 'Thank you. See you on board.'
The Outer Periphery. An expanse of space that encompassed all the dominions of man like a wall of shadow being pushed ever backwards by a shock wave of light. At its outer limits humanity's empire was nothing more than a smattering of asteroids, stray planets and the occasional outpost with pretensions of significance. Places that most people didn't even know existed and if they did then they didn't care. But not all of them were as insignificant as the others. Dresden Minor was one in particular that held special significance for Keir. It was an inordinately ordinary place with nothing remarkable about it whatsoever. It's surface, the colour of frosted shale, was a shallow shifting sea of dust that stretched from one horizon to the other interrupted only by mounds of aggregated geological debris that formed hills like ruffles in a duvet. Its sky was perpetually black and splattered with stars except when morning first broke and created a shifting haze of radioactive clouds that turned from tarnished coin silver to pencil rubber pink. The only sign of ongoing habitation was a lonely city, enshrined at the base of a crater like a rusted engine block at the bottom of a dried up canal. It was that city that the shuttle descended towards; the ever open eyes of its air defence cannons watched every metre of its fall. The area around the crater was dotted with swathes of dappled ground that were staggered unevenly like brush strokes on a badly painted ceiling. Perhaps there had once been plans to expand the settlement beyond the confines of the cyclopean eye-socket crater, but clearly they had been abandoned much the same as the tools and construction machinery that were clustered in places like weapons on the Wound Man.
The further the shuttle descended the less there was to see until finally all that remained in view were the walls of the crater, its side almost corrugated in a series of peaks and troughs like the fossilised rib cage of some great hemispherical creature. Haphazard towers jutted out above the grubby warrens of the settlement, its lower levels burrowed into the planet's crust and were illuminated only by a dull glow like radioactive tracers mapping out internal organs. Amongst it all was an elevated platform, flat and desolate as a mechanical tundra. For a space port there didn't seem to be many signs of life. In fact there were practically none. The systems were operated by machinery so ancient and decrepit that they made pocket calculators look like the vanguards of an android army. Even the security guards were robots, oh wait, they were just incredibly bored...and mean looking. From somewhere in the distance came the sound of drunken singing in a language that once had dignity but had since become a joke. Keir recognised it, but could not name or understand it. It carried with it the sound of tank tracks and bomb shells. A young couple were vomiting together in an abandoned comm-booth. Their mutual evacuation of bilious liquid was a testament to gender equality at its finest. Ships whose landing struts had taken root on the docking platforms loomed overhead like cybernetic cetaceans waiting to be gutted. What might have been rain was the sound of a micro-meteoroids impacting on the crater walls. Around them were clusters of prefab units that had once been part of a much greater structure, perhaps what might have been a promising industrial colony, but they had been reduced to hacked-up hovels where sunken faces watched from windows with eyes that were as grey and dead as the planet around them, soulless voids etched in lead.
Ralph looked up and saw the universe reduced to a disk of midnight as though he were watching reality slip away as he fell down a bottomless pit. Everything he had known and loved or hated had been compressed and twisted into a spike with which his mind had begun to lobotomise itself. 'Where are we?' He knew the name of the planet he just wanted to make sure he was actually experiencing the misfortune of being on it.
'Journey's End. For us any way. You on the other hand have a long way to go.' Keir gestured to the soldiers behind him on the shuttle's embarkation platform. Their fingers twitched just above the trigger pads of their guns. 'Guards, wait here. I'll escort him.' He didn't want the soldiers getting jumpy and starting a gun fight. He fully intended to go home alive, he still had work to do. Besides unlike the rest of the ships collapsing into mechanical messes their one was relatively new. If they left it alone even for an instant there would have been nothing left of it except a few scraps of wire and a pile of metal splinters.
'Sir, the locals?' Brolin asked as he pointed with his jaw at the militia men squatting in a lean-to using bottle caps to play draughts.
Keir made his every thought a murder weapon and narrowed his eyes as one of the native denizens met his gaze then looked away instantly like a beaten dog. 'They'll be no trouble.'
As the pair of them adopted a surprisingly casual gait along what anyone would have hesitated to call a street Ralph asked, 'What do I do now?' Surely they couldn't mean to leave him in that place. Alone. Well not alone just not with people he, or anyone else for that matter not even themselves, wanted to be with.
'Haven't the foggiest, but if I were you I'd go and get a drink.' Keir's indifferent words were given substance by the savagely cold local air. He shrugged and pointed in no particular direction; everywhere seemed to serve alcohol or some other chemical intoxicant. Life at the edge of the galaxy was so charming...
Ralph followed Keir's finger to a shack that looked like it had been put built from welded together cargo crates. A crude sign cobbled together from different lengths of neon tubing, in the shape of what he assumed was a beer bottle with an arrow in place of its neck, pointed to the entrance. There wasn't even a door, just a curtain of barbed wire with beads on to stop people from pricking themselves. A strangely thoughtful and courteous gesture for a place with such barbaric décor. 'You want me to go in there? I'm unarmed. Defenceless. They'll kill me!' Or worse.
Keir knew he was right. None of the patrons entering or leaving the place looked like they hadn't committed a murder or two. But if Ralph's presence didn't serve as provocation then he should be able to survive at least until he said something stupid. 'These people may not be what you'd call civilised but I doubt they'd shoot a man just for walking through a door. Well, some of them might but I wouldn't worry about that.'
'Of course you wouldn't. You're a spy.' Ralph shut himself up as he dodged between a pair of brutal-looking mercenaries with faces like a pawn shop's junk jewellery draws. 'You don't even know who they are and you probably know more about them than they do themselves.'
'Possibly, but that's not what I meant. I'd be more worried about what's out there than what's in here.' Keir made sure Ralph tracked his gaze from the stars back to the bar.
'I suppose so.' Since for all intents and purposes the whole galaxy hated him, Ralph could see the sense in that. He wasn't safe anywhere, he'd never be safe again. Not entirely. As drab and dangerous was Dresden Minor was, there were worse places to be and worse people to be with. Jerrin was one of the latter. 'You know what my brother did, don't you?'
How best to answer that question? Honestly. 'Yes.' Keir pulled Ralph by the elbow to stop him walking into a sleazy slug of a man who looked like he'd be able to convince you that a kidney for a broken pocket watch was the bargain of the century. 'I also know what your father was doing and one way or another this is part of his plan to keep you safe.' He whispered as they slipped into the bar.
Ralph couldn't see any reason why his father would have wanted him brought to such a place. But the old man had always been rather unorthodox, to put it politely, in his approach to parenting as much as anything else. It wouldn't have surprised him if Keir was right, that didn't mean he had to be happy about it though. 'Doubtful.'
'Doubt is good. So is faith. Hope too. You'll need all three in equal measure here.' Keir unlatched the brooch on his collar. 'Oh and this.' He held it out for all to see but only for Ralph to take.
Ralph gripped it between his thumb and forefinger. It was nothing special, no real craft or art to it. It didn't even look particularly valuable so he couldn't trade it for food, clothes or a weapon. 'How is this supposed to help me?' As he lamented coming into possession of such a simple trinket he noticed that some of the other patrons regarded it with equal disdain. There was no envy or avarice in their eyes but rather what seemed to be a hint of fear. No, that wasn't it either. They looked upon it with respect.
'It might not. Then again it might just save your life. Do me a favour, don't lose it.' Keir hissed emphatically as he saw several drunks toying with their weapons, deciding if the brooch was worth killing and possibly being killed for. 'If you do, I guarantee you will die before the day is out.'
The tone of his voice and the unexpected warmth in Keir's eyes made Ralph unable to question his companion's sincerity. He looked at him for a moment, only a second or two in truth but internally it seemed to be forever, and began to sort through his memories of the man who had dragged him to the edge of the galaxy and was about him to push him off it. He realised he knew very little about Keir and what he did know was probably a lie which begged the question, 'Who are you?'
'You said it yourself. I'm a spy.' Keir hadn't intended to wink but found the urge irresistible. At that he left the former prince alone amongst his most misbegotten subjects with nothing but doubt, faith, hope and a silver brooch to keep him safe from harm. Once, for Keir, that had been enough. With any luck it would be again for another lost son of the empire.