Caesuras could often be startling things, but not always intentionally so. Their occurrence was surprising even when they were expected. They were an oxymoronic confluence of nothing and something. In life, as an experiential representation of temporal variables, they lasted anywhere between a second and a million years or more, although that greatly depended on whether one was the viewer or the viewed. As with most things, their significance was entirely relative. At times they might have consisted of a baited breath before orgasm or death; at others they took the form of mass extinction events. But perhaps their most bemusing incarnation was the pause before deciding whether or not to kill. In that moment, time lines wove and unravelled themselves as entire sections of the multiverse were created or destroyed by fluctuating probabilities. Such a decision could govern the fate of a single life or the entirety of existence. Every action or inaction had consequences both minuscule and massive, some that were easily explained away and others that were utterly beyond comprehension. One path might have taken one to a field of wild flowers, another might have only ended in a grave yard.
It was just such a total juxtaposition of potentiality that confronted Alvin as he stood beneath the drop ship and felt its exhaust brush against his face like the wave of almost balmy air that heralds an oncoming explosion. He knew that the arrival of his contingent of troops would be cause for concern for those scrabbling in the dirt for the pieces of what used to be their lives. What he could not have predicted was that instead of being treated just like any other targets, his soldiers were greeted only with silence and stillness. Where only seconds ago there had been a carnage-cloaked demonstration of entropy at its most unwittingly savage there was only an eerie calm, the warriors all still and sullen, each one like a golem with its shem torn out. But that didn't last for long. Unfortunately. As the barrel of his pistol swayed slightly he saw signs of life returning to the people who had been killing each other before his eyes. Their limbs moved in spasmodic nervous twitches as though they were gargoyles waking from their stony slumber. They regained awareness of their surroundings and the gruesome purpose to which their lives had been forfeit.
None of those battling at the base of the tower fully understood what they were doing, they were killing and dying simply because they had been told to. Each side knew without any doubt that the other one was wrong because that was the narrative with which they had been supplied. To question the story would have been too uncomfortable, it was so much simpler just to follow it. Their awareness of the truth did not really extend beyond that, they couldn't have known they were doing more harm than good. He had to stop them, so before either side fully gathered the good sense to react, Alvin acted. 'Pacification rounds. Put them all down.'
Once the order was given the response was instantaneous. The ruddy glow of perdition's sulphurous flames that had bathed the courtyard was replaced by a flood of sapphire light that seemed to freeze the scene and in an instant transformed it into an exhibition of mankind's brutality preserved for eternity in a gemstone glacier. Each volley of stun slugs from Alvin's soldiers sent groups of men shuddering to the ground as their nervous systems were overloaded. They gibbered in the dirt as though their skeletons had mutated into monstrous vermin eating their way out through the flesh. But for every one of them that fell victim, as much to their own weakness of constitution as their natural vulnerability to intense electric current, several of Alvin's troops were pulped where they stood by stray shots and shrapnel. Something soggy and dense splashed against the back of his coat and it was all he could do to repress a reaction of cringing disgust. Not only at the idea of an internal organ bouncing off of him but also at the sight of Ralph creeping into the tower and up along staircases fragile as the ribs of an ivory exoskeleton as though he was some kind of scale preening parasite. Perfectly content to let his men suffer for his sake, paying no mind to their sacrifice as he pursued his own ends. Then again charging alone into an enemy stronghold, even if it just happened to also be his home, with nothing but a pistol to defend himself with was rather brave. Annoyingly so in all honesty. It wasn't wise to judge Ralph's kind too harshly or hold them to the same ethical standards as everyone else. They weren't used to dealing with the restrictions of normal day-to-day life so their every word, thought and deed was at a great remove from objective reality. Their hearts and minds were residents of some effluvial plane, divorced entirely from material concerns unless of course they involved power or money. Alvin wished he could have said he was as disconnected as he watched the last of the opposition sprawled upon the ground trying to reassure their bodies that they weren't paralysed forever. He wasn't alarmed by the pain he could inflict, but rather by his professional indifference to it. Perhaps he wasn't entirely unlike men such as Ralph. He shook that disturbing thought off as he dragged his foot out of a mud puddle and trudged towards the tower. Elliot and Lenham stumbled after him through a field of the dead and dying where limbs waved like wheat in a breeze composed of screams.
Gaius sat in state upon the throne. He was alone, just as he always had been even when surrounded by hundreds of adoring “subjects.” The loneliness gnawed at him and at any other time he would have summoned someone to divert him from staring into and being consumed by the deepest recesses of his soul. As the tower trembled from foundation to pinnacle he found he had no further need of his secretaries; no cause to listen to their endless chuntering or deal with their petty visitations. There were no more documents to sign, digi-slates to scroll through, edicts to issue or laws to amend. He need no longer listen to the prattling of politicians or the knock-kneed courtesies of silk-shrouded dignitaries who wouldn't have known dignity if it spat in their faces. All that was left to do, was wait. What a laughable concept, as if he had done anything else with his life. Of course, there were accomplishments that allowed him some small measure of pride but everything he had done was not for himself but rather in service to the future. Once it seemed so impossibly distant, like the hint of deception in a loved one's eyes, that he never imagined truly facing it. But as the hour drew nearer, swept onward by the hands of time ever closer to the precipice between past and present, he could see and feel it looming over him like a chronometric citadel built not with bricks and mortar or glass and steel but sculpted from the sands of Time itself. The numerical denomination of that fraction of existence cast its shadow far and wide about him. Its walls were etched by the winds of fate that swept across the quantum membrane of reality, carrying with them the sound of every whisper and every scream that ever had or ever would be given voice. Towers carved by swords of destiny topped a foundation of fortresses that housed every moment of his being. All the decisions he had made and the plans he had drawn condensed into a single structure with a single purpose.
A purpose that only came into shaper focus at the approach of his youngest son. The boy seemed so meaningless in that place. The vaulted domes of glass and gold like bubbles of imagination held in place by the collective will of their architects and builders made him seem like an insect crawling beneath a microscope. The half-finished king approached from the far side of the room with steps so light it was as if he floated on the words of a song in his heart. A song that echoed across cobbled streets and off the flanks of wooden houses and reverberated above the walls of prisons that were nothing more than constructs of the mind. It was the sound of tomorrow, something that started as a hum shaking the bones of ordinary men, but that grew into a chant every breath of which was from the war-worn lungs of people holding aloft an endless stream of banners daubed with blood. If he were in a more morbid mood then perhaps he would have laughed at the absurdity of it; then again perhaps it was the absurdity that he found so sobering.
Jerrin had forgotten how impressive his father was, even when his placid countenance was marred by a disquieting smile there was still something monumental about him. The lapse in recollection was not surprising given how rare it was to be in the same room as him. His gently admonishing brow bore a simple silver crown. His purple regalia matched the accents in the columns and steps that climbed to the throne and then stretched out beyond it for tens of thousands of light years to every imperial residence in the galaxy. Where others might have thought him to be weak because of his relative slightness of frame, Jerrin knew better. There was an incredible strength of will, an undaunted sense of self-determination concealed within that angular, surgery-supplemented frame. Then there were his eyes, or rather his ocular implants, orbs of cold granite veined with kintsugi as though they had been shattered and repaired after they glimpsed a fraction of some divine mystery. Portraits, statues and holograms of the old man might have been everywhere but they were just artificial echoes, poor imitations of the real thing. His advancing years had clearly been harshly punitive, for all mankind's progress there was nothing that could halt the inevitable march of cellular decay. Nanite regeneration was a fine preventative but all life lived to die. The nucleus of every cell might have been a powerhouse of genetic self-perpetuation but eventually boredom would set in, and like a man who spends decades stacking shelves the cells would self-destruct just to avoid the tedium. Sometimes though, it was wiser to put someone out of their misery earlier than nature might have otherwise intended. More convenient too.
'Finally got tired of waiting I see.' Gaius wondered when Jerrin would show his face. He thought it would have been sooner but perhaps it took longer than he imaged to work up the courage to slink away from the shadows like a fiend released at the onset of dusk. 'What do you want now?'
'Father dearest, you've given me so much already.' Jerrin cringed at his own tone. If he sounded that obsequious even to himself then he didn't want to know what his intentionally elaborate bow made him look like. 'There's only one more thing I want.' His crooning words slithered like stream water between stones as he drew closer to the throne.
'Yes. I know. Keir has told me all about it.'
That traitor! Still, he should have expected it and some part of him must have done otherwise that news would have come as more of a surprise. 'Ah.' Jerrin did not waver under his father's stare, although it took all of his effort not to do so. Over the course of the emperor's life those eyes had no doubt seen things that no mere man should have ever seen, and to become the sole object of their attention was not a wise move. 'How long have you known?'
'I have always known.' Gaius said that as if somehow it explained everything. Perhaps it did. On reflection it was all perfectly logical and in some way he was oddly comforted to know that his son was not entirely a disappointment. 'You needn't have bothered with all this.' He looked out at the fires flickering at the base of the tower and across the city-fortress. It had always been meant as a beacon, a bright light that all mankind could look towards and feel inspired not some self-contained fragment of a dun-coloured hell.
'What should I have done instead?' Jerrin was genuinely curious. Circumstances had left him precious few other choices and none of them were as appealing. Though he could not have said he was looking forward to what he was about to do. Not with any jot at least.
'Wait.' The desperate whispering echo that reached Gaius' ears sounded more like a plea than a command.
'Oh is that all?' Jerrin all but strutted backwards out of bemusement at such a banal suggestion. 'I've been waiting my entire life!' All that was missing was the foot stamp, but Jerrin's was no ordinary tantrum.
'Just as I've been waiting all of mine.' If only Jerrin could have understood what that felt like to spend decades in speculation as to what horrors and marvels were to come then maybe he wouldn't have been so inclined to play the martyr for his patience.
'Waiting for Ralph to be ready no doubt.'
The boy's sneer was so predictable. 'Your brother is a good man. But being good isn't always enough.' Plenty of purely good people had tried to lead before; some were loved, others were respected but none of them understood treachery until they were betrayed. That's what resulted in their extinction, but perhaps there was a way to bring them back from the ageless abyss into which they had been cast by those with crueller minds. 'There are some decisions that only men like me, like you, are capable of making.'
'Such as?' Beneath his coat of grey and crimson Jerrin released his grip on the knife he had secreted away there. A few more moments of life for the old man, but only a few. Besides, he didn't want Ralph to miss the show.
'The choice you are preparing to make. The choice I've been preparing to allow you to make.' Gaius collapsed back onto the throne, the weight of over a century of responsibility bearing down upon him as though he were being crushed between the cogs of a gigantic machination.
Jerrin drew the knife, light glinted off its serrated edge as it did from his teeth as his face contorted with hate and regret. 'I don't have a choice.'
'Neither do I.' So it had come to pass at last. It was time. Not only to die but to show Jerrin what he had been working on for so many years. To offer him a reason for decades of neglect. He wasn't sorry. Not exactly. But it was a shame. As he pressed a button in the arm of his throne he hoped Jerrin would understand.
The air above their heads rippled, not from the heat or light of flames but as though the very atmosphere itself had become jittery with anticipation. Out of the air in a blink, or perhaps two, emerged swirling whirligigs of living colour like the essence of joy unleashed from its intangible bonds. At an unnerving pace they expanded and coalesced until the monstrously alluring chaos was replaced by the very definition of order, as though a pile of a toddler's building blocks had been used to rebuild the Tower of Babel. Numbers burst into being like the progenitor elements of the ancient universe, letters followed and surpassed them in their provision of true meaning. The very fabric of human reality in all of its infinitude had been encapsulated for a moment in one glorious burst of light. When it faded it seemed the walls of the world buckled leaving nothing in their place to support the structure of existence, but no they were not gone they were simply over-laid with endless strands of information that wove together into blocks of text that became the double helix of civilisation.
Jerrin's knife hand trembled. How could he kill a man capable of such an act? Because he must. Still he could not escape the fact his fear paled into nothingness next to his awe. 'What is all this?'
'My legacy. My gift to you. My final act for the people.'
There was no arrogance in those words. No megalomaniacal self-aggrandisement. They were uttered with such soft sincerity and humility that he could not believe his father was real. As Jerrin's mind became accustomed to the vision before him he began to grasp its full scope. 'This is everything, isn't it? Literally.'
'Yes, it is.' There was no point denying it or in being falsely modest. That would have been disingenuous. 'What you're looking at isn't just one man's opinion or perspective. This is history. Unedited, unabridged. Every birth, every death and every event of consequence. All that has happened officially or unofficially. It is us. All of us.'
Yes! Jerrin could see it. Over there hovering around a wall sconce was a recollection of the Thesauran Reformation. Off to the left by a door into a consultation chamber he could see a series of eye-witness accounts detailing the struggles of the very first terraformers on Hulari and the disaster that consumed that world from the inside out. On and on it went until just within reach, so close he could almost touch it, was a record of his own life. 'Why did you do all this?' Such a magnitude of information was baffling in the extreme. He felt as though he had been plunged into an ocean of madness where the dark gods of secrecy haunted the depths feeding on vast swarms of hidden knowledge.
'I haven't done anything. We've done it all.' Gaius gestured upward at the pictures of citizens that streamed across the ceiling and through the air as though their lives spun themselves from the primal void of nothingness that had birthed the universe itself. 'Unlike my predecessors I know what it truly means to rule. None of this is mine, just like it will not be yours. It belongs to everyone. But without a guiding hand to lead them on. That's what we're here for, to make sure they go the right way.'
'The right way?' Jerrin remembered himself and the knife in his hand.
'One that doesn't involve wiping themselves out.' The process had already begun in the streets below and elsewhere as well. The fires would spread. Everything would burn. 'For generations we've prided ourselves for overcoming the socio-economic barbarity of our ancestors. We believe there are no more poor, sick, needy people. But there are. Billions of them from one corner of the Empire to another and beyond. The crown you so eagerly seek was meant to be a symbol of our species' triumph, instead it is a mark of our utter failure. Here we are, in the middle of another war with our own kind, in our own home no less. For all the good we may have done, we have committed atrocities in equal measure.' The mists of history drifting around the room coagulated into a rapid succession of horrors. So much sorrow and pain that it seemed to take on a mockery of life, like a rot-skinned child fresh from the grave reaching for the living world out of curiosity and hunger. It was just his son getting closer. 'No more, Jerrin. It has to stop. It can with you.' Gaius touched Jerrin's face. He was still so innocent and yet...not.
Jerrin raised the dagger somewhat tremulous at the thought of an era ending and beginning. He took no pleasure in that fact. Truthfully, he didn't feel much of anything. 'I'm sorry.' That seemed like the right thing to say before stabbing someone.
'So am I.' Gaius did not flinch at the touch of the knife. He died as he had lived, with his eyes searching unflinchingly for the truth of the moment.