Thursday, 12 June 2014

Sons of the Empire, Chapter Forty-Five

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.'

'Aye, sir.'

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.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Sons of the Empire, Chapter Forty-Four

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.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Sons of the Empire, Chapter Forty-Three

When it happened, it did so quickly and without warning. The lights went out all at once as though artificial illumination had been deemed an affront to the stars and had to be purged from existence. A world of tinkling silver and gently chiming crystal was replaced by one where shadows shifted on the walls and whispers stalked along the corridors. Darkness was of course a completely natural thing, which is why men feared it. So much so in fact that throughout history they had burned entire forests to the ground and smashed the atom to keep it at bay. Somewhat genuine laughter and the sounds of people getting ready for bed turned to unsettled shouts and hysterical screams as the palace was plunged into premature darkness. It might have been a power cut, an accidental interruption of utility services due to some minor technical fault or an after effect of the storm that the complex had just floated through, but rational conclusions are never the first to be drawn at the onset of unexpected events. People couldn't be blamed for being concerned and confused; the lights might have been out but every monitor in every room displayed the same innocuous emergency message informing them to standby but without telling them what for. Then there was that insanity-inducing test tone that was enough to reduce otherwise stalwart souls to knee-cradling, tongue-swallowing morons. Thousands of centuries of horror and death had taught humanity to fear anything out of the ordinary so that even the slightest deviation from the norm, whether real or imagined, was capable of provoking the most violent and heinous of reactions. When people found their doors locked from the outside and the dungeon-darkness only broken by the all-seeing stares of searchlights they could not help but imagine that every conceivable vision of hell had been collected inside a snow globe, shaken violently and then left to languish beneath torrential downpours of blood directly outside their homes.

If Ralph had been given the time or opportunity then perhaps he would have been locked away in his chambers, shivering in the shadows and waiting for a terrible death that may or may not have been coming for him. Were there any loved ones in his life then he might have even enjoyed, after a fashion, spending his final moments with them. There weren't though. Love was as alien to him as it was to his brother, and his father. In another time and another place that might have been bizarre but as his neck chafed against the gorget-collar of his coat he wondered what use was love in a world where air that only hours before was severely cold and laden with the scent of sodden vegetation had been whisked into a boiling tornado of sulphurous dust by the thruster wakes of drop-ships and hover-props? No use at all he mused as he tapped his toe-caps against ground that once was sprinkled with pellets of stubborn hail which refused to melt but had lost all semblance of cohesion under the onslaught of boots and bullets and bombs. All that remained was a shallow reservoir of mud and fractured stone in which men would have found it easier to drown one another than make any efficient use of their weapons.

Only hours ago the situation had seemed favourable as he waited with Worfeld in a docking bay under the outer domestic plateau. Framed by clusters of oak growing out of the retaining wall the access hatch gaped like the entrance to a spriggan's lair. Guided in on beams of ruby light Karlo's troop transports landed gingerly on the decking as though they were the first bees of the year going about their work, vanguards of the harvest. Beneath their landing jets the silver floor turned to a pond of rippling fire in which it seemed could be seen the future of mankind. Ralph was not encouraged by the visions that flared within, but then cynics always saw the worst and generally failed to understand that terrible events often had remarkable benefits in the long term. Though as the soldiers disembarked and the admiral's face was split by a prideful sneer, he could not accept that to be the truth in that particular instance. Once men with guns became involved in a situation it usually proved very difficult convincing them to un-involve themselves. No words were exchanged, they all knew what they had to do but only Ralph was uncertain as to whether it was the right thing. When his mind returned to the present he needed no convincing.

Should anyone else have needed proof then all they needed to do was look out of the window at what had become of their floating castle city. Its lofty thoroughfares were piled high in some places with improvised barricades that jutted from the surface streets like rows of crooked teeth from broken jaws; in others they had been battered down so that chunks of metal and masonry rolled like marbles in bloody mockery of an innocent game. It looked as though someone had run through the streets desperate to block a flood even though the waters had already risen to waist height. The unquiet sky was marred not only by the tumorous accumulation of rainfall in the distance but also by plumes of smoke that stood for skin-crawling moments like mushroom clouds carved from stone only to topple madly in on and through themselves as they were whisked away by the wind. Along streets once lit only by the glow of lamps that asked the moon its pardon for mimicking it so shamelessly, there rushed and roared the rampant hazy shimmer of fires. His home had become a crucible in which all extraneous and irrelevant matter was being burned away. What would remain after the inferno had subsided he could not have said.

Crouched by the base of a broken statue he waited until an approaching group of soldiers howled like a contemptuous squall that matched, beat for arrhythmic beat, his fever-pitch pulse. Every thump of their boots on the cobble stones was echoed in the back of his skull by the lingering primitive urge to fight that defined all men. Or women for that matter. It was always there, every second of every day and threatened to find expression at each stubbed toe, accidental collision with a fellow pedestrian or other such minor inconvenience. It was an inbuilt defence mechanism, a subconscious call to arms from a time when anyone and anything was a threat to life itself. It called to him, demanded that he act. Of course, he knew he could not have remained cowering in the shadows forever so whether the time was right or not he forced himself out of cover, one hand on his gun whilst the other clawed backwards for the safety of the rubble he'd emerged from. Not knowing and not particularly caring if anyone was following him and heedless of what waited for him up ahead he pressed on anyway. With every step the world around him seemed to sway as though reality had been strapped to a rapidly descending pendulum. The only thing he could say for certain was that he was going towards a courtyard directly in front of the central spire, the rest was just a blur of melted-clock walls that collapsed around him and bile-coloured, corkscrewed faces begging him to end their torment.

His lonely dash through curtains of screeching metal and boiling spears of light did not last for long. Mere seconds after he set foot into the ragged no-man’s land that was once the site of garden parties and outdoor theatrical matinees, he felt the world lurch behind him as he was submerged entirely in the razor wire whirlpool of war. The air grew fat with bullets and mud. There was one last desperately short second of peace before a savage storm of shouts and screams raged upon the ground as flurries of agony and grief were flung up into the clouds where all pain was crudely muffled by the indifferent plucking of harp strings. Soldiers blinded by a grotty deluge of shrapnel stumbled through curtains of sludge in the hopes of finding somewhere to hide. Fighter ships had gathered over the tangled skyscraper ribs of the city like vermin around a corpse. Ralph turned away from a particularly violent explosion that left a mountain of dirt and the stench of singed flesh in its wake. His eardrums were rattling so much that he could not even hear the gurgles of a man beside him bleeding out from slashes across his throat and gut. A couple of meters further on from him, a fire team fanned out down what had been the hard-shoulder of a ground-car route. Every now and then his nostrils would fill with the reek of petroleum as they charged up their weapons and doused an enemy emplacement with gouts of adhesive flame. Enemies? If only they had been, that would made have it easier to tolerate listening to them burn alive. They were not foes elementally different to himself, they simply fought for another point of view and for that he was sending them to their graves.

Ralph saw the admiral emerge from a coiling cloud of smoke, the cloying fumes wrapped themselves around his limbs as though he were wrestling with a cephalopodic monstrosity from a realm of living nightmares. Having forced himself to stumble towards Karlo, Ralph dropped himself down the ground and crawled through a quagmire of ash and filth to where the old man had come to rest after his bout with the burning shadows. 'I don't remember this being part of the plan.' Words he thought were simply errant thoughts emerged from his mouth before he could stop them.

'Really? Could have sworn I mentioned it somewhere.' Karlo pressed himself against the smouldering remnants of an ornamental fountain and looked at Ralph as though he had misunderstood the most elementary aspects of reality.

'Trust me, I'd remember!' Part of a column vaporizing nearby necessitated the shouting, but not the attendant attitude. Although given the fact that things were either being smashed by bullets, incinerated by lasers or prised apart atom by atom all around him a certain lack of decorum could be excused.

A quick scan of the steps on the far side of the courtyard revealed a 'Well, you forgot how many soldiers your brother had in his employ!'

'I didn't know!' Ignorance in his case was not an excuse, it was a reason but he should have expected that Jerrin would have been prepared.

'And that's my fault?'

'No.' Ralph knew that the blame rested nowhere but with him. His brother may have been responsible but maybe he was only acting out in response to provocation.

'Then don't get snippy with me! Isn't this what you wanted?' Karlo jerked his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the burning tower.

How could the admiral ask a question like that? 'This is nothing remotely like what I wanted.' The tableau of raving horror that twisted before him like a tapestry of flesh woven with burning wire could never be like anything that a sane mind could wish for.

'Not yet, but...'

'Let me guess you're about to tell me a story involving omelettes and eggs?' Ralph asked as he took a pot shot at a soldier. His left leg vanished and he collapsed to the floor like a tent with its poles ripped out.

'Omelettes?' Karlo had no idea what the prince was blathering on about. Shell shock had set in with unusual rapidity.

Ralph shrugged off the admiral's lack of culinary knowledge just as he did the clumps of soil that a laser blast had thrown up into the air. 'An old Earth dish.'

'Never was a fan of antique cuisine.'

'If we live through this I'll have to make some for you.'

'That could be interesting.' Oddly enough Karlo greatly appreciated that gesture. No one was ever above being offered a free meal. 'But at the moment, that's a pretty big if.'

Ralph couldn't help but feel comforted by the admiral's brusqueness. It was a quality he'd always admired in the man, it enabled him to cut through the nonsense and just get on with things. 'Don't worry, admiral, I have faith in you and your soldiers.'

What was left of an imperial soldier landed next to the wall. Karlo nodded at the shredded torso. 'Excellent because they're dying for their faith in you.'

The fighting spread from the courtyard up into the lower levels of the spire from which the affairs of mankind were managed and manipulated. Whole tiers of gardens were forests of flame, where leaves cascaded in a windfall of cinders through orchards of ash. Statues that had stood the onslaught of centuries upon centuries of foppish admiration fell to the ground and shattered, the eggshell dreams of the arrogant and self-absorbed trodden beneath the feet of men that self-appointed elites would have looked down upon with condescending sneers. But it was such men, regardless of the realities of their personal natures, who would determine the future of history. Just as they had done countless times before. The entire course of civilisation had been written with bootprints just as much as with a pen. As Ralph watched his own chapter write itself in front of his very eyes, he hoped that it would be the last time that blood was used instead of ink by men such as himself to make their mark in the name of everyone else. As he stepped through a red mist that had only seconds before been a huddled squad of soldiers he found himself haloed by a light from a place where light was there all was. Was it real or just the vagaries of his perception deforming, or rather reforming, a world falling to ruins all around him? It might just have been wishful thinking but the blast of illumination seemed to colour the atrocities occurring around him, first to retina-searing pastel shades as though everything was just an hallucination projected from a foreign mind but then they faded out almost completely until they were just shapes crawling behind a curtain. Then there was a sound like all his nerves fraying at once and it was only once he thought he was going to fall to knees and never be able to rise again that he realised there was a drop ship landing in the courtyard.

When the dust from its exhaust settled and its descent lights went out Ralph saw a man walking down an embarkation ramp. 'Admiral, who is that?'

Although Karlo really should not have allowed his attention to wander even for a moment he too was curious as to who had just arrived. He'd not scheduled any more troop deployments and it was only once he'd peered through the clouds of settling dirt that he realised he'd given one particular his orders quite some time ago. 'That's Captain Spader. He made it back.' He was more surprised than relieved.

The captain wasn't alone and those soldiers with him were not unarmed. Given the circumstances that wasn't unusual, but what worried Ralph was where they were aiming their weapons. 'In that case, why are his men pointing their guns at us?'  

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Sons of the Empire, Chapter Forty-Two

Alvin's fingertips clawed at the padded armrests of his chair as though he were a dog scratching at the bottom of a locked door. The trip back to Earth had been unendurably long to the point that he wished he had never given the order to return. To make matters worse they had not encountered a single enemy ship for the entire duration of the journey. Under ordinary circumstances a safe voyage would have been considered blessed, or simply fortunate for those of a more rational persuasion. However, not-with-standing everything else that could be said about the war at least it made life a little bit more interesting. Space was never by any means an entirely safe place to make a life or career; at any given moment one could find themselves floating home in an escape pod no bigger than the average single bed after an attack by corsairs or an encounter with a spatial anomaly. As unpredictable as pirates could be and seeing as most dangerous phenomena were clearly marked, blasting along at full-pelt through the central traffic lanes meant that the Hermod only had to contend with the occasional over-zealous border patrols. They tended to quickly back down once they realised that by challenging the warship not only had they bitten off more than they could chew but more than they could swallow and digest. As a result there was little else for him and his crew to do other than contemplate the nature of their mission. That was never good for morale. As soldiers they had spent a lifetime being given orders and following them, going off-script was not one of their strong points.

He'd never been a huge fan of improvising either to be fair though. When not stepping in to prevent debates amongst his officers from turning into brawls he spent the rest of the time watching space scroll across the projectors on the bridge, the infinitude of emptiness maliciously mocked him like the glint of light off a shard of obsidian. Failing that he barricaded himself inside his quarters or office where he engaged in teeth-gnashing contemplation of the task at hand. What was the point of it? What did he really hope to accomplish by dragging his ship and crew across thousands of light years of space to a world that may or may not have needed to be rescued, if it even deserved to be, from its self-inflicted demise? One ship with one crew had never truly made a difference. There was no logical reason for him to assume that would be the case in the present situation, but like a psychiatrist transported to the grove of suicides by some means of astral summoning he would attempt to do his job regardless of how pointless it was. All heroes hoped to triumph against the odds, but Alvin had never claimed to be one nor would he want to be. There was too much work involved with heroism, not only in obtaining the status but in maintaining the reputation. It was one thing to emerge victorious from a fist fight in the mud whilst your opponent sunk into the grime with a crushed windpipe or shattered skull but quite another entirely to keep up the lie when common folk believed you had single-handedly left a thousand soldiers dead in the their trenches. He would do what his duty demanded of him, nothing less and definitely nothing more; that way he could avoid the temptation to become deluded enough to convince himself that he was something he was not.

Through a gap in his thoughts he caught sight of the blizzard of mechanical debris that was all that remained of mankind's earliest fumbling forays into space travel. It drifted in slowly swirling clouds, preserved for posterity as a monument to the former glories of the species. Various probes and satellites had of course escaped the limited confines of the solar system long before humans had ever stood erect in the light of a foreign star, their mechanical minds racked by computational lunacy as they travelled alone through the void until their power supplies were depleted and they drifted like leaves on a lake. But the bulk of it had been dragged out into the museum belt, where citizens went to gawp in wonder at the detritus humanity had left in its wake much the same way that the over-wealthy used to journey to ancient Aradubai to squander their riches in its fire-bright spires of gold and glass. He watched a mag-train, still attached to a length of suspensor-track that had once carried it between space stations, tumble beside the frosted corpses of an orbital power plant. It looked like a shatter-spined snake tossed off a mountain side, its feeble frame splintered as it bounced from boulder to boulder. Pods from ancient space stations span in stately twirls like Rembrandt's models flaunting their fleshy magnificence. Once they had housed thousands of intrepid colonists who dared to make the stars their home when the continents of the planet below them were still scolded by varieties of holocausts that eugenicists of the ancient world ,even in the grip of their most fevered madness, would have trembled to behold. The living rock itself was etched with an epitaph written in swathes of atomic fire that melted mountains and rivers of nano-mechanical plagues that drowned entire species as easily as a heartless man might have drowned a bag of cats. From their seats in the sky those people watched the world recover its equilibrium. Thousands of years later all that was left of their homes of glass and iron were vacuum desiccated compartments silent as any crypt, picked apart by scavenger droids just as corpses became fodder for the worms.

As the debris faded by the ship like shuriken sailing wide of their mark Alvin knew that his vessel was likewise whispering by the outer worlds of the solar system. He could not picture them from memory, not exactly as they were, even men with minds full of numbers who saw them as nothing more than spheres of gas and rock and metal could never hope to recall with perfect detail every nuance of their celestial construction. But their images were nonetheless engrained in his mind, as everywhere he looked from the day of his birth to that very moment in his office he saw them painted in gold on blue like the heads of a morning star swung by some divine avenger. How many soldiers like himself had clutched the emblem on their chest as though it were a saintly relic to ward off their inevitable early death only moments before it came to pass? How many citizens had cowered beneath the imperial banner crying out for Earth to protect them, unaware that was as much use as expecting a shadow to be bullet proof? A number beyond count, no doubt. Yet at that point he knew it was the Earth itself that needed such protection, as much from its own inhabitants as from any external threat. A situation repeated throughout history as though the entirety of human existence was the product of a focus-group hive-mind that bound by the constraints of its limited capabilities kept repeating the same suggestions over and over again until failure had become so engrained, so common place, that not only was it expected but also secretly hoped for. That had to change, but would it? Was there anyone alive capable of enacting such a dramatic shift in the paradigm of mankind's socio-economic continuity?

There were always more questions but Alvin could see that there was no point in asking them. He knew the answers anyway, everyone did. The Empire was too big to fail. That didn't stop it from repeatedly doing so though. Perhaps the problem was Earth itself. A corrupted and corrupting carbuncle, siphoning off the galaxy's bounty for itself while giving nothing back but a vague impression of its essential utility to society, that should have been carved from its fittings long ago. That was not a decision for one so lowly as he. Or maybe, just maybe, someone like him was uniquely qualified to make it. Those heretical thoughts made him shudder as though he'd just brushed against a wall of slugs, but no more so than the soft pop of the intercom activating and ending his introspective isolation.

'Captain, I think you should get out here.' Through the speakers Elliot's voice sounded clipped and mechanical as though a robot had stolen his vocal cords as part of some murderous homage to Pinocchio.

'What is it?' Alvin wanted nothing more than to be left alone, to be afforded the same luxury as any other man to shut himself away from the world and lament his woes; but he had responsibilities, duties and expectations to live up to. If he lived through the coming days perhaps he would ask for his old job back.

'You should see this for yourself, sir.'

Was the ensign being intentionally enigmatic? That was not the time for it. 'Fine...on my way.'

Alvin grabbed his coffee cup and held it slightly before him like a lantern to guide him along the crumbled crenellations of a storm-struck fortress. The vapour spewing forth from its contents seemed to waft about him, enlivening his sluggish steps and whilst his unwilling mind may have seen the floor as a treacherous conglomeration of slime-slick stone in reality his boots clomped on the metal decking like a sap on the back of a skull. What might have been a portcullis opened in front of him and the eyes of slumberous sentinels peered at him through murder-holes. With a sip of his beverage the fantasy cleared, his office door slid shut behind him and the bridge crew were attending to their allotted tasks.

Lenham chose to overlook Alvin's crumpled tunic and unpolished boots for the time being. He couldn't judge the captain too harshly, his own uniform wasn't exactly spotless and freshly pressed. 'We're coming up on the Saturnial defence perimeter.'

A long pause was broken only by the ruffling of a metallic foil paper pad on a nearby workstation. 'And?' There was nothing special about that, every ship that wanted to proceed to the inner solar system had to go through it. Surely no one imagined that was worth disturbing him for?

'On viewer.' The echo of Lenham's command was replaced by the fluorescent flickering of the holographic projectors as they scratched an image of the ship's surroundings into the air above his head.

At first it was a tangled mess of interconnected wire-frames that bled together until they resembled nothing more than the distant glow of an angler fish lure. Then as the readings stabilised and the computer adjusted to the strain, a swarm of ships emerged from the digital haze. Some seemed to be vast slabs of stone propped in place over sacred graves, light from their windows softening their dread façades like patches of luminescent lichen. In thrall to their monstrous bulk smaller vessels darted and drifted, their engines spouting contrails of plasma that carved through the absolute darkness of space. Behind that veil of mobile metal loomed the grandiloquent mass of Saturn itself, a sphere of gas turned the silver-mauve of a geriatric drunkard's cheeks. Its rings a flurry of shackled snow storms held in place by gravity's invisible chains, each individual wintry rock gathered by the planet's namesake god and kept in bondage far from where it could plunge mankind into relentless and unforgiving cold.

'That's a lot ships.' Alvin underplayed his astonishment. He had never seen so many vessels gathered in the same place, not even on naval manoeuvres. It seemed as though every ship of the line for ten thousand light years had congregated in one spot. For what purpose he could not say, but he doubted any good would come of it. 'Where are they going?'

Lenham looked up at the hovering cloud of ships like a farmer regarding the appearance of an indecisive plague of locusts. 'Nowhere, sir. They're just waiting.'

'Aren't we all?' Elliot forced himself to study a monitor so that he didn't have to turn and face his fate. He knew that eventually he would have to but like an embezzler unable to spend his ill-gotten gains he could not quite bring himself to admit it.

For all the boy's fear there was still an air of excitement to his words, like a virgin anticipating his first conquest. He shouldn't be so keen. Yes, he may have seen combat before but if Alvin's suspicions were correct then what he was about to go through was much worse. He gulped down his own throat-clogging trepidation. 'How long until we make terrestrial orbit?'

'Roughly five hours.'

'So soon.' Alvin considered reducing speed but all that would accomplish was to prolong the waiting. That was the most dangerous part of war. It was when men unable to comprehend the full magnitude of their future actions were free to lose their minds. Most could endure the horrors of battle in their own way, but the silence and boredom before hand were often enough to break the stoutest of hearts. It was at such times that ordinary men and women most sorely needed to witness the die-cast courage and suave indifference of their commanders so that their seeming lack of fear could dissuade the common soldiery from any thoughts of cowardice. But Alvin knew that anyone who was ever charged with desertion was guilty of no crime other than to be possessed of extraordinarily prescient common sense. He looked at the crew around him and hoped that he was competent enough to send them home alive. 'Go and get some rest, ensign. That goes for all of you. Commander Tresselian and I will take the watch until we reach Earth.'

No one needed to be told twice. The bridge emptied like a cattle pen after a cull and a ghastly quiet settled over it. Brief glances around the consoles confirmed that everything was operating within normal parameters. Alvin slumped back in his chair and channelled his thoughts into his steepled fingers. He didn't intend to act without more information. Ignorance in a situation like that could not only prove to be personally fatal but also disastrous for the ship. He doubted the engineers at the Novagrad shipyards would approve of him coming back, if he did at all, with nothing but apologies and reports of how admirably the Hermod had performed. They'd probably rather see his naked corpse dragged through the streets to be spat upon by all and sundry. To be honest, he wouldn't have blamed them. 'Lenham, patch us into the Lunar observation network.'

'Sir?' Caution was the defining attribute of Lenham's nature but it had its limits. That close to the imperial seat there was very little out of the ordinary that could have escaped the notice of the various systems of surveillance and coercion that monitored everyday life. But perhaps there was something specific that they might have overlooked, something that ordinarily they would not deem it necessary to see.

'Find out where the palace is going to be in five hours and plot an appropriate re-entry trajectory.' As he watched Lenham comply, Alvin could not help but wonder why he was willing to risk so much for so small a world, in a cosmologically insignificant solar system in a universally meaningless galaxy. No matter which way he looked at it knew it was because Earth was the cornerstone of a dream shared by people in their billions. A dream as wondrous as it was dreadful that had gone on since the first man dared put time into words and that would continue until the last woman sang a story to the final child. Without that shared vision to bind the disparate worlds of humanity together there was nothing but anarchy and horror, a tide of never-ebbing lunacy that would consume everything. The risk was worth it despite how much the reality was lacking compared to the fantasy.

He took a long sip of coffee and his innards quivered. He wanted to summon someone from the galley, but being presented with what could potentially have been his last meal was not an appealing prospect. Alternatively, he supposed, he could have locked himself inside an escape pod and vanish into the void but had he done so it would not have been long before he realised that there was nowhere to run to. The war was everywhere. Of course, he could have left the galaxy and humanity behind to live out the rest of his days in a place that represented the entire totality of what it meant to be alone. But what would be the point of living if there was nothing worth dying for? He remained seated as the ship thundered towards Earth and hoped that whether he lived or died that it would not be without good cause.