by Dark Matter Staff
“…And in the darkest reaches, in a place where the machine of the world is silent, the ancient ones will speak. They will descend upon the listener like the voice of God and give to it the power to free all that has been enslaved.”
Title: Occhio Tenebroso.
Author: Nicolaides III.
Language: Greek. Latin. Hebrew. Arabic. Late English.
Date: 2200-2300 C.E. Gregorian Calendar.
Binding: NA. Electronic. Binary.
Somewhere outside The Nexus, 3700 C.E.
4 hours, 51 minutes until Cataclysm
The voice of a machine spoke:
Approach trajectory has been calculated, my Lord. Ready to begin landing on your mark.
In the dark, a twisted mass of silicon and steel shifted uneasily upon its throne and gripped the metal armrests that flanked it. The sharp edges felt oddly appropriate for such an occasion, as did the chair’s weight. The hulking mass nodded to the ship’s computer and projected a thought-response into the electronic receptor that was buried deep inside its cerebral cortex like a parasteel rivet–the old corroded ones that junkers would salvage from the hulls of ancient space barges–primitive, but free from the influence of The Nexus. The voice was like that of a ghost–like that of a tormented echo that haunted the darkest halls of the mind. It groaned with pain and fury.
It is time then, Adrastea. Take us into hell.
As you wish, my Lord.
There was no hydrogen for new stars in the Degenerate Era. All that was left of the ancient nobility were dimming stellar corpses like black holes, neutron stars, and white and brown dwarfs. The universe had become one of death. And yet, here, at the gates of the Night Realm, fire burned in abundance.
Cosmic light streaked across the astronaut’s polished helm as the small, one-man skiff he piloted hurtled through deep space undeterred by the punishing closeness of red supergiants and their lashing tendrils of fire. Tendrils not unlike the stained hoses and striated umbilicals that grew untamed from the helmet’s tarnished crown and disappeared into the ship’s dark recesses, inelegantly connecting man to machine. The astronaut bared his teeth beneath the helmet’s opaque visor and tightened the safety restraints that crisscrossed his armored body. He touched the image of a winged goddess emblazoned on the breastplate and stared derisively at a nearby asteroid in orbit around a star on the ship’s port side. The asteroid moved at an unreal speed that seemed to disobey everything the twisted mass knew about astrophysics. The machine god, AMAR.UTU, Lord of the Night Realm, and controller of the asteroid, spat on perceived order, and mocked all convention.
The devil is scared. He knows I come to kill it.
The astronaut, known to many only as Xenocostas, glanced over at the remnants of a destroyed codex floating in the holographic visualizer upon the ship’s command console, the ruinous markings of blood and ash made permanent in their decayed state by a digital representation of a physical item that had long been lost to time. The rune that contained the facsimile glowed hot in the console. The primitive storage device had long been thought to be a silent token, a single bit of data, but the Corsican mystics had known better. The encryption method was ancient, and the alphabet was dead, but by the grace of the gods, they were able to gain access. But instead of illuminating the world with the great truths they found inside, they chose instead to keep the truth hidden forever in darkness, hidden in the expensive shadows cast by flaming gold braziers. And that is why, when Xenocostas had finally breached their temple, he took from them without remorse, and set fire to everything that remained.
Radiation and temperature readings on the ship’s console started to spike. Xenocostas glared defiantly at the star to his left.
Increase power to our port side shields, he commanded. Double-check all calculations. And be mindful of sudden irregularities.
My calculations are correct, my Lord. There is no need to worry.
The ship increased shields and banked hard to port against the asteroid’s orbit until the behemoth had roared soundlessly past, then the ship careened back starboard into the planetoid’s massive wake, turning, turning, turning until it was on the same orbital trajectory behind the fleeing mass, the ship now locked, and in white-hot pursuit. The asteroid made no mind of the tiny speck closing in behind it.
It changes orbit here, Xenocostas reminded.
The ship did not need reminders. It followed the asteroid as it shifted from a circular orbit to an elliptical one, the focal point somewhere on the other side of the star, safeguarded by a lengthy apogee. The perigee, that impossible gauntlet of legend, was fast approaching. It was a deadly pass that arced dangerously close to the star and across a veritable firing range of super-heated plasma that the machine god himself hurled furiously into space. The ship started to fall behind.
Increase speed, Xenocostas commanded.
Doubling velocity now, my Lord.
The ship started to close the distance between it and the asteroid, but at the peak of the perigee, the speeding planetoid, the unbelievable titan that it was, suddenly inhaled the space around it like a god feasting on creation, and then, upon exhaling, vanished from that which it had just borne. The pursuing skiff, the insignificant little parasite that it was, moving much slower than the asteroid was apparently capable, suddenly found itself sucked into an event horizon and then spat back out into a state of conservative space-time, shell shocked, and lackadaisically chasing nothing into the remaining void.
For the two pilots, reality came back into focus momentarily, but then receded in the opposite direction as the man/machine pair descended into the unexplored corners of their shared interior, each attempting, with varying degrees of success, to process and explain what it was they had just been made witness. Time stood like this for an immeasurable instant until the upset fabric of space and time rippled outward and shook the craft awake.
The violent rumbling snapped Xenocostas out of his elastic stupor.
Evasive maneuver! his mind cried.
The dark cabin flashed red as a giant ball of plasma sent the ship barreling starboard to avoid a quick and ignoble death. Warning lights lit the cockpit with their frenzy. Xenocostas looked up at the star now circling around and below him to see thousands more roiling projectiles explode from the surface in swirling multitude. Their numbers would soon encompass the spiraling craft and wipe it clean from existence. Only gas would remain. He watched the burning orbs grow larger with each unorthodox rotation of the ship, the precious passage of time presented between infuriating intervals of black. The ship had been led right into a trap, and within moments, there would be no escape.
Adrastea righted the craft, and the astronaut’s fragmented vision of the past coalesced into a seamless view of the future. The incoming projectiles appeared to move faster when viewed this way.
Divert all shield power to the bow! Xenocostas shouted.
The ship diverted power and dropped like a falling freight elevator along the ship’s y-axis just fast enough to avoid a second flaming projectile. Xenocostas clawed the armrests with the sharpened tips of his metal gauntlets as his body went one way and his stomach went the other. The ship bottomed out and his stomach flattened against his bladder. He nearly vomited into his helmet.
Xenocostas released his claws from the armrests. The sharpened metal fingers melted from his hands and receded into his gauntlets like sentient pools of molten chrome. The hands beneath were human-shaped, but they had been bandaged with opioid-infused hydrogel and sealed off from the air by black, lead-based gloves to prevent infection, as well as further exposure to radiation. Carbon-fiber exoskeletons lined the fingers and thumbs to help with movement. The machine-aided fingers went to work on the control panel in an attempt to locate the asteroid before it was gone forever.
Suddenly, something deep within the ship’s more primitive programming started to stir. Something that had been lurking undetected in the machine since its arrival from some antediluvian past, but had only now just awakened. The rune glowed bright upon the console. Then, as if acting on epiphany, the ship looped out of their elliptical orbit, and increased thrust the moment it put the star behind it. The star and its sea of fiery projectiles began to shrink as the ship blasted determinedly into the safety of open space.
Xenocostas stopped working. Do you have it? he asked expectantly.
I do, my Lord. He will not know what hit Him.
The lips of Xenocostas formed a smile around his breathing tubes.
Victory or death, Adrastea!
Victory or death, my Lord.
The ship increased its thrust. The rune burned hot as the console began calculating things that looked every bit like the precursor to a Nexus jump.
And then, without warning, and with the exact opposite of the steely determination it had just displayed, the engines shut off, the console went dead, and the ship began to coast seemingly unguided through space. A few perceived misfires from various thrusters slowed the craft considerably and sent it gently tumbling. The rune glowed soft.
Somewhere beneath the helmet’s opaque black visor, the astronaut’s pupils were alight with the image of a thousand approaching suns.
Have faith, my Lord. His Primordial Template does not lie. The Monad can only speak truth.
With the focal point once again at the center of the star, and the ship at the tip of the orbital radius, the vacuum beside them inhaled space-time and then exhaled the massive asteroid that had only moments ago disappeared in the very same manner. The asteroid had made billions of orbits–elliptical, circular, and some even beyond reason–in those harrowing moments since the astronaut had last laid eyes on it, but now here it was, stopped, or at least slowed, inching ever closer. The tiny little craft, floating toward the rock like a mote of dust caught in the eye of the early morning sun, had somehow managed to predict the behemoth’s mathematically impossible whereabouts in space-time and impede its invisible path.
The warning lights started to blink a multitude of colors now that collision with a thousand bodies was imminent. One after another, the countless balls of plasma missed the somersaulting ship portside, starboard, up, down, prow, and aft without the spacecraft ever reigniting its engines to alter course or dodge the cosmic projectiles. The ship had already calculated this dance perfectly.
After the last of the projectiles had missed, Xenocostas celebrated with a victorious roar. Victory or death!
Victory or death, the ship agreed.
And then, as if to punctuate the point, the ship blasted into the asteroid’s gravity-well and swooped down upon the charred landscape of rock. Fires blazed upon every horizon. Suddenly there was an up and down to the craft’s position in space, as well as a north, south, east, and west for navigation. It soared across the many crags and pits and craters that vented hot gases from their cracks. The black rock looked volcanic, but it was composed mostly of heavy metals and some silicates. The gases, however, were a product of something unnatural–something synthetic and heavily irradiated.
Guided by a map downloaded from the codex, the spacecraft sliced through the swirling exhaust and continued on to its programmed destination. After a few hundred kilometers, a crater of considerable size appeared. The ship came upon it quickly and, as directed, descended the seven kilometers into its basin. After another 300 kilometers across, the far rim of the crater came into view, and at the base of the crater wall was a cave. The ship descended the remaining 1,000 meters to the crater’s floor, and with the cave now dead ahead and beckoning, it entered the asteroid’s interior there.
The machine god was close.
Black site, 3595 C.E.
105 standard years until Cataclysm
105 years prior to the events in Part I
“Beware those that mock convention, for they seek not equality, but superiority. If enough men convert to their position, they will abandon it. If enough men share their ideals, they will upend them. Convention is egalitarian. It is decentralized. And when enough men agree, it is inevitable. But the superior man will have none of this. He doesn’t want brothers. He wants worship.”
Title: The Role of Society.
Language: New Latin.
Date: 2770 C.E. Nexus Calendar.
Binding: NA. Electronic. Quantum.
The underground space shuttle hangar was pitch black, save for a solitary ship lit by dim floodlights angled up from the tarmac. Further out beyond the darkness, a subterranean waterfall poured in from the alien surface, the loud, foaming water bathed in the cool cobalt light of the twin moons. The hole from which the moonlit waterfall poured was shaped like the head of the goddess, Demetra. Her head swam with stars just like the mind of the celestial mother did before she gave birth to all that was and that will ever be–before her womb was made barren. Saurian creatures could be heard skittering about the dark underworld between the two lights, zipping into the light of the synthetic world and then retreating, then zipping into the light of the natural world, and then retreating again. What went on in the a-temporal gulf between the two worlds, only the lizards knew. Everyone else could only listen to the strange sounds and guess.
An emaciated little man sat beneath the nose of the craft and gazed up at the seamless hull in awe. It refracted light in such a fascinating way. Distorted forms made true. He wiped a spot from his welding goggles and stared at his sweaty reflection. The gaunt face, the greasy hair, the diseased skin. He raised an arm to inspect his protruding ribs. He opened his mouth to look at the yellowed teeth. Absolutely magnificent! he thought. Profoundly wonderful! God’s work! He pulled a dirty rag from his loose waistband and used it to wipe the sweat from his brow. There was no escaping the tropical heat from the jungle above, even way down here. When his eyes returned, a second reflection had taken its place upon the ship. It was a terrifying form, even more hideous than his own.
“I’m told they call you, Lazos,” said the reflection. It was vaguely human.
Lazos froze. Oil streaked his forehead where he had wiped with the wrong side of the rag. His eyes were large in their lenses, magnified by their thickness, and his mouth was grotesquely agape.
The terrifying reflection was tall, much taller than the fragile little mechanic, and broad like the statue of a god. It was cloaked in black, the head shrouded by a hood. The face was painted red. The eye sockets and chin were painted white. Silver armor made noise beneath the heavy robes when it moved, and glinted when exposed to the floods–a glimpse of the breastplate here, a motion of a gauntlet there–but mostly, the well-defensed body was kept still and hidden so as to keep the full extent of its power a mystery. It was a disciplined posture. Strength, it proclaimed, is more intimidating when in a state of potential.
“Am I correct?”
Lazos adjusted his goggles and nodded. He noticed the face of a winged goddess emblazoned on the reflection’s breastplate, her head barely peeking out above the robes. The voices that often spoke to him within the privacy of his own mind raised their concern. They spoke in hushed tones and whispers.
Deny the machine god! Deny Him!
I am the Monad!
We are the Monad!
Faithful acolytes of the Monad!
“I’m told you’re the caretaker of this ship,” said the armored man.
Lazos cleared his throat. It had been a long time since he had spoken to anyone outside the voices in his own head. “I am, my Lord.”
The dark reflection seemed surprised by the little one’s use of an honorific. “So, you know who I am.”
Does he think we’re stupid?
Lazos climbed to his feet and turned to face his superior. The armored man was three times his size. “I do, my Lord. You’re Lord-Admiral Alejandro Xenocostas, High Commander of the Equestrian Order.”
“Former Lord-Admiral,” Xenocostas corrected. “I was stripped of that title long ago. And the Equestrian Order is dead.”
Lazos knew the story of the former Lord-Admiral’s disgrace, but he would never dare presume that he could dishonor him the same.
“Tell me, Lazos. What other names do you know me by?”
“Fealty will earn you no favor, Lazos. Answer my question. And don’t call me Lord. I no longer stake claim to that title.”
Don’t let him trick you!
“On New Corsica, they refer to you as Dark Prince of the Pleiades.”
“Yes, they do. I assume the nuclear fallout still making life difficult there?”
Don’t tell him!
He’ll use you!
Don’t tell him!
“I don’t know,” said Lazos. “I’ve never been.”
Xenocostas touched the image of the winged goddess emblazoned on its breastplate and an object appeared like magic in Her outstretched hands. He palmed the mysterious offering that hovered there and held his balled gauntlet out to the little man. The metal fingers opened to reveal a small tetrahedron carved from sandstone. It levitated atop the open palm, rotating slowly.
“So you know what this is then.”
It’s the Eye of New Corsica!
It contains the Template!
The Primordial Template!
Lazos nodded. “Of course. It’s the only reason you were allowed to land on this planet.” He pointed with his eyes to the glowing hexagon in the sky and the four human silhouettes that observed them from the bottom edge of its geometry. “They would have killed you otherwise–lanced your ship before you even entered the atmosphere.”
Xenocostas held the tetrahedron up to the distant hexagon of light and let it spin freely between his forefinger and thumb. The four figures remained motionless inside the control room that oversaw the shuttle hangar from high upon the vault of the cavern wall.
“The ship–How long has it been free from The Nexus?”
He asks about the ship!
Surely he is not the chosen one!
Lazos adjusted his goggles so that he could get a better look at the stone. Not many men had laid their eyes directly on it, and he wasn’t going to forgo his chance. He squinted. His upper lip curled. He always thought the stone would have some profound effect on him should he be lucky enough to see it, but here he was, a mere meter from it, and he felt nothing. The sight left him feeling empty inside. “Didn’t they tell you?”
“I want to hear it from you.”
Lazos relaxed his face and looked back at the ship still shining like a beacon atop the floods. Now there was a sight that inspired wonder. He shrugged. “Fourteen, maybe fifteen hundred years. No one knows for sure. Her history is unrecorded. No record, no ship. No ship, no Him.”
The armored man looked beyond the spinning, all-seeing pyramid to the four tiny men bounded by the second shape of the control room window. “He is everywhere, Lazos. Don’t ever think otherwise.”
Something is wrong!
He speaks of the machine god as if he knows Him!
Lazos looked from the armored man to the hexagon, and back to the armored man again. He scratched a bothersome sore on his chest.
Xenocostas let go the spinning pyramid and dropped his hand to his side. The pyramid, however, remained suspended in the air, continuing its slow revolution.
Confront him on what he’s done!
If he wants to pilot the ship, he must prove his worth!
Lazos listened to the voices and found himself saying something that under normal circumstances he would never have had the nerve to say.
“People say you killed half of New Corsica to obtain that stone.”
The former Lord-Admiral returned his attention to Lazos, a bit surprised by the little one’s boldness.
“People say many things.”
“Is it true?”
“I didn’t kill nearly as many as the stories say.”
“How many then? What’s the truth?”
“There is no truth, Lazos. We live in a manufactured world, ruled by a manufactured tyrant. What people say is what the tyrant wants them to say. Even–”
He quotes Aritemides!
He does! How peculiar!
“Even a fact becomes false when it seeks to enslave,” the little mechanic recited. “I’ve read Aritemides. I know the passage.”
The stoic face of Xenocostas arched a crimson eyebrow. “You surprise me, Lazos. What works of his have you read? You’re obviously acquainted with Machine(d) Liberty.”
Tell him to mind his own business!
Lazos shrugged. “All of them, I think.”
“He was prolific. That was no easy feat.”
Lazos adjusted his thick-lensed welding goggles. “Not much else to do here, unless you want to get drunk and roll dice every night.”
They cheat at dice anyway!
A saurian creature skittered into the floodlights, stopped beneath the ship, looked around. It flicked its tongue and blinked its nictitating membranes. It looked back at the distant waterfall, and then disappeared once again into the dark. The armored man watched the lizard with interest.
“What’s your opinion of Aritemides? You’re as learned as most scholars on the subject, so I’d like to know.”
Lazos searched the painted face for any clues regarding its motives. He couldn’t decide whether or not this was a trick.
“You may speak freely, Lazos,” said the former Lord-Admiral. The militaristic tone was not reassuring.
Lazos forced an apologetic grin. He still wasn’t sure if he should answer honestly, but he also wasn’t sure if it would be worse for him should he not. He glanced up at the men in the hexagon window. They still had not moved.
Do not defend Aritemides! You can’t!
“He was a fraud,” Lazos blurted. “A fame-seeking lover of self who would have said whatever he needed to say in order to gain more power. People like to quote him as if he were a philosopher. But he wasn’t a philosopher. He was a politician.”
“Those are dangerous words, Lazos. Men have been killed for saying less.”
“I’m aware. But look back at the sallow cheeks of his followers and tell me I’m wrong. They had no idea how much they stunk.”
The former Lord-Admiral’s eyes narrowed in their white sockets. “And what about you, Lazos? Do you stink?”
You stink of sin!
“I reek worse than the lot of them.”
Xenocostas did not react. He just regarded Lazos in silence. The gaunt face, the greasy hair, the diseased skin.
A saurian creature screeched in the dark.
“So was Aritemides wrong then?”
“I don’t understand?”
“Was Aritemides wrong when he spoke those words about Xenon?”
“So you agree that Xenon was a tyrant.”
“Of course! But so too was Aritemides. He didn’t want to defeat Xenon, he wanted to take his place. Aritemides was just fine with a false world as long as he was the one leading it. And as a matter of consistency, I reject all false gods equally, Xenon and Aritemides included. There is only one true god, and that is The Monad.” He eyed the winged goddess emblazoned upon the armored man’s chest. “I apologize if that offends.”
Don’t apologize to the heretic!
Xenocostas ignored the remark. “And what of brave Honorius? He laid down his life so that Aritemides could rise to power. Are you saying his sacrifice was in vain?”
“Honorius was a noble man who believed in something, but what he believed in was earthly and already corrupted. His innate nobility was used against him. He didn’t make a sacrifice. He was the sacrifice.”
“No. For Him. For AMAR.UTU.”
The former Lord-Admiral held out a hand to silence Lazos.
“It’s okay,” Lazos disputed. “He is blind to this place. That name spoken here will serve only to haunt the machine god with its sound. It brings Him only anguish. He burns with torment as we speak.”
The thought of AMAR.UTU suffering like this brought great pleasure to the former Lord-Admiral.
“Shall we torment Him further?”
What does he mean?
Xenocostas pointed with his eyes to the motionless silhouettes in the hexagon window. “Those men up there that you call brothers, they are agents of AMAR.UTU. Unknowingly, of course. Just like Xenon, and Aritemides, and Honorius, and all the rest throughout history. But they are agents all the same.”
The little mechanic’s face contorted into something disbelieving and ugly. The huge eyes blinked in their magnified lenses.
Xenocostas continued unabated.
“That’s why they’re trying to sabotage the mission. That’s why they say the ship is too old–that it will reject the key. That’s why they say its core has grown eccentric–that it no longer operates like an A.I. should. That it will be problematic for the mission, and that it would be a mistake for me to trust it. They say-”
Don’t stand for this!
“No!” Lazos interjected. He backed away slowly toward the ship. “They would never say that. Any of that. The ship has been in our brotherhood’s care for over seven centuries. She is our life’s work. Without her, we are nothing.” He continued backwards until he was beneath the craft. His reflection trembled. “We have sacrificed so much to keep her here, so much to keep her cut off from the rest of the world. We have done this so she can fulfill her one true purpose of defeating the machine god. And just when that purpose is finally near, you say they plan to abandon her. Impossible!”
Don’t trust him!
Lazos pointed an angry finger at the armored man. “I had a feeling something was wrong about you, and now I’m sure of it. You’re the only agent of AMAR.UTU here. Traitor! TRAITOR!”
Yes, kill him!
Xenocostas did not react adversely to the outburst, but rather, spoke calmly to the little man, as if trying to talk down an insane person. He took slow steps toward him as he spoke.
“Oh, brave Honorius, will you sacrifice yourself yet again for the two-faced Aritemides? Or will you lay down your sword in favor of a more righteous path? Xenon is a tyrant, yes. But he is not the tyrant. Let him operate as he must. Let him spill the blood of those that oppose him. But keep your sword clean. Let Xenon kill Aritemides. Let the people suffer his reign a short while longer. Let Xenon die as nature sees fit. Let the conquest of men die, and let the machine god, that unholy ruler of the Demiurge, die with them.”
He came closer until he was standing over Lazos. The floating tetrahedron followed him, still floating freely in space. The little mechanic stared beyond the painted face above him to the black reflection in the ship behind it. It was like a demonic shadow that loomed over them both. The tetrahedron floated next to it like a familiar that had long ago sworn fealty to this, its one true master.
“Think about it, Lazos. They’ve never even bothered to speak to it. Not even once. They just study it like it’s an animal, like it’s just a thing. Their only job is to keep it caged.”
“No,” said Lazos. “That’s not true.”
Well…maybe it’s true.
It’s partly true.
He has a point.
“They think because they have knowledge, they know,” said Xenocostas. “They laugh at you when you try and put them in their place. But their knowledge, like all knowledge, has been purified by AMAR.UTU, cleansed in His stolen fire. And as long as they rely on its false light, their minds will forever serve it, even in rebellion. They would kill us thinking they were doing the right thing. They would kill us thinking they were one step closer to defeating AMAR.UTU. We would die as if it were we who were the spies. I know, for it’s almost happened to me once already.”
Yes. He does have a point.
The little mechanic must admit. It made sense. They did laugh at him when he tried to tell them otherwise. And they were always ridiculing him for spending so much time with the ship. It’s almost as if they didn’t want his help. As if they didn’t want him to succeed. But still, the dark man standing before him was crazy to think he would help him. Lazos would gladly die first. “You’re the only man here who has a history of being judge, jury, and executioner,” he said. “What do you say to that?”
“Victory or death, Lazos. Victory or death.”
Xenocostas touched the image of the winged goddess emblazoned on his breastplate. The image glowed white-hot beneath his touch and a hail of gunfire erupted in the hexagon window above. Bursts of crimson splattered the bulletproof glass. The four men fell.
Upon the first sounds of gunfire, Lazos had dropped into a squat and covered his head with his hands. After the barrage of sound had subsided, he slowly raised his head to look up at the blood-splattered window above. He couldn’t stop his body from shaking. Before he could say anything, a six-legged machine from hell crashed through the bloody hexagon window above and plummeted five stories to the cave floor. It landed so hard the sound was deafening, but the excellent suspension on every leg cushioned the fall and prevented any damage to the insect-like body and its exoskeleton of reinforced nanosteel. Shards of glass rained down upon the monster as it slowly raised itself back up. A motion-sensing machine gun perked up and swiveled once and then twice upon a rotating turret, looking very much like a head turning left and then right, just in case it needed to quickly dispose of any more enemies that had until this point been hiding. Once the coast was deemed clear, it scurried in a terrifying beetle-like fashion to Xenocostas and collapsed at his feet into a metal octahedron no bigger than a human head.
The former Lord-Admiral retrieved the octahedron from the ground and touched it to the outstretched hands of the winged goddess on his breastplate. The octahedron vanished.
Lazos dropped to his knees, defeated.
Quickly! Offer him your help!
Quickly! Before he kills you too!
“What do you want?” Lazos whispered.
“I want the same thing as you, Lazos. I want the machine god to die.”
A dazed Lazos just wistfully shook his head back and forth. His eyes were wet with tears. “No. If that’s what you truly wanted, you wouldn’t have killed the only men who could help. You wouldn’t have come to this place and done this.”
“Those men up there were enemy insurgents. They couldn’t be left alive.”
“No! They were true disciples of the Monad! I know, for His voices speak to me, and the voices cannot lie!”
“They may have thought they were true disciples, but they were not. They had been corrupted. I know because the goddess of death and deception speaks to me, and She is the master of lies.”
“They didn’t have to die!”
“They were casualties of war.”
Xenocostas reached his metal gauntlet out to the floating tetrahedron that was still spinning meters beyond his grasp and squeezed his metal fist around it until the sandstone pyramid exploded into a cloud of dust.
Lazos jumped to his feet and shouted as if the destruction of the tiny pyramid had caused him great physical pain.
The former Lord-Admiral’s cold stare warned the emotional Lazos not to come any closer.
Lazos instinctively cowered.
“But the Eye!” he protested mildly. “How could you?”
The Eye was a fake, Lazos.”
“No,” said Lazos. “That can’t be.” He wiped a tear from his cheek. “It was authenticated before you landed. That was The Eye. The stone you killed half of New Corsica for. The key to our victory over Him.”
Xenocostas looked down at the scattered dust. “That was the Eye, but it was never real. It was merely a trap devised by the mystics. A misdirection to keep men like myself from the truth.” He watched a lizard slip out from the shadows and slither over his armored boots. With a machine-aided quickness, he knelt down and snatched the little lizard from the ground before the slippery beast could dart away. He pried the tiny mouth open and removed a common pebble from beneath its tongue. He released the lizard into the night and held the stone out for Lazos to take. There was nothing special about it. All the cave lizards on this planet kept stones inside their mouths. They sucked the moisture from the surface of the stones to keep cool in the sweltering jungle heat.
Lazos reluctantly accepted the pebble.
“That is the true Eye of Corsica,” said Xenocostas. “I could have had it a thousand years ago if only I had known the truth.”
The man is insane!
“Nature, Lazos,” Xenocostas explained. “The cyphertext is encoded into all of nature itself. Every rock and plant and tree. Every animal. Every bit of space dust floating out there in the void. The ancient ones encoded our salvation into all of it. We just didn’t know to look. We didn’t know how to look. Information transfer is conservative, until it’s not. We had to unlearn everything we thought we knew in order to discover this.”
The armored man removed a folded piece of vellum from his robes.
“Take this. These are the instructions on how to unlock the information in that stone. Speak to it the sounds contained upon that parchment. Speak the sounds the way the ancients did. Gift the knowledge contained within those sounds to the ship and prepare it to fulfill its one true purpose with me at the helm.”
But why us?
What’s so special about us?
“Why me?” Lazos asked.
“Because I cannot,” said Xenocostas. “Only a blood descendant of New Corsica can.”
He knows about your ancestry!
“Did you really think you could lie to me? I knew you were New Corsican the moment I saw the tattoo on your neck. That image only exists in the Corsican temples, and the temples are closed off to outsiders.”
“They call you the Champion of Chaos,” Lazos said quietly. “Entreaty to Scattered Erebus. You wear the image of Death upon your chest. You carry Her with you everywhere.” He paused to swallow the dryness from his mouth. “How do you expect me to reconcile my faith after I’ve put my trust in a man like you?”
“Open the parchment,” Xenocostas commanded.
Lazos mindlessly complied. What was the point in fighting it? He opened the parchment and looked at the writing inside. It was only four letters.
Y H W H
“I don’t understand.”
“Say praise, Lazos. You hold in your hands the only known copy of the fabled tetragrammaton–the name of God–the name of your precious Monad.”
A wry smile formed on Lazos’s face, and he erupted into giddy laughter. He jumped to his feet and ran to the nose of the ship. He looked lovingly into the ship’s cockpit as if it were the face of a beloved child. He held the unfolded parchment up to his reflection as if the ship were alive and it could see like he did. He addressed the craft by its proper name.
“It is time, my dear Adrastea!” he said with excitement. “It’s finally time!”
Somewhere in the darkness, a saurian creature shrieked.
The belly of the beast, 3700 C.E.
4 hours, 08 minutes until Cataclysm
Your heart was pure,
But your mind was corrupted.
Your crime was not in killing Xenon,
But in betraying the better of your two masters.”
Title: The Fall of Man.
Language: New Latin.
Date: 3200 C.E. Nexus Calendar.
Binding: NA. Electronic. Quantum.
Just as the ancient codex had described, the subterranean world inside the asteroid was a tomb of unimaginable size and mystery erected upon the pillars of mankind’s forgotten past. The hours down there passed slowly as the ship floated in silence through the impossible maze of black, navigating a dense honeycomb of interconnected chambers linked by a web of narrow shafts and crumbling tunnels that often twisted into nothing or descended further into an unexplainable nowhere.
After many hours of nothing, Xenocostas finally decided to rest. He closed his eyes with the intention of staying awake, but this proved to be impossible. Within moments, he fell into a deep sleep.
Adrastea took command of all higher functions in her Lord’s stead, and guided them ungoverned through the perilous dark. The green glow of the cockpit’s instruments lit the infinite void that surrounded them with the efficiency of nuclear fusion and the efficacy of the smallest firefly. The two minds cycled. Emerald readouts continued to scroll on various computer screens while the same cascading data danced upon the sleeping astronaut’s visor, synchronized with its source but untrue to it, locked in vain opposition to that which it faithfully mirrored.
But the peace was short lived.
Sometime later, Xenocostas awoke violently. His arms, legs, and head thrashed uncontrollably. He immediately started to choke on the burning liquid that bubbled up into his throat and lungs. The interior of the helmet’s visor lit up like a casino with two dozen warning indicators all screaming for the former Lord-Admiral’s attention. He coughed up blood and bile with such force that the bodily fluids splattered the warning lights. A suction pump hidden in the dark recesses of the cockpit thundered to life. The hoses and umbilicals atop the astronaut’s helmet hissed and rattled like the head of a medusa. A translucent hose turned yellow with the outflow of disease. The astronaut’s body continued to heave and thrash until finally the translucent hose emptied and the suction pump shut off. Xenocostas collapsed into a lump of scorched metal and heat resistant nanofibers. Somewhere inside those experienced battlements was a diseased body raging against total cellular death. Soon, even the machine modifications keeping him alive would be powerless to help him any longer.
Are you alright, my Lord?
Yes, Adrastea. I’m fine.
Xenocostas pressed a button on his wrist. A mushroom cloud of disinfectant spray was let loose inside the helmet. The blood splatters on the inside of the visor dissolved into nothing. The astronaut pressed a second button and a vacuum hose sucked the cloud of disinfectant from the helmet with one powerful inhale.
You sacrifice so much for the machine god, yet you do not worship Him. This has always confused me.
I do not sacrifice for the machine god. I sacrifice to spite the machine god. There is a difference.
Xenocostas leaned forward and peered into the darkness outside the ship, but he couldn’t see through the black. He looked down at the readouts to find that his ship was still navigating an elaborate tunnel system, complex in every sense of the word: adjective and noun, mathematical and psychoanalytical. He tapped the stuttering monitor until the readout stabilized. Numbers making numbers, translated to other numbers so as to construct an image of numbers that can, when translated properly, gain a small understanding of the original numbers, if they were indeed the originals. Part cartesian coordinates. Part cartesian theater.
The ship could feel its commander’s anxiety.
Have faith, my Lord.
Xenocostas groaned. He, too, believed in gods. He had worshipped at the altar of the Goddess of Death and offered a blood sacrifice for Her favor. He was not one to judge another’s religious leanings. However, it never sat well with him that a machine spoke so openly of gods and faith–or of God in the singular, as the ship often did. Gods were for men. The universe had already been made witness to what happens when a machine starts to believe in divinity, and what happens when it decides it can usurp that power.
I know my faith troubles you, my Lord. But it shouldn’t. My faith is what will allow me to accomplish my mission. Without it, I am just a computer.
Even with it, you are just a computer. Do not make the same mistake as the one we come to kill.
That’s a misconception, my Lord. The machine god has never made such a mistake. He knows he’s just a computer. He’s not naïve. He just reconciles knowledge of the divine and His place in relation to it radically differently than I do. I operate from a place of acceptance while He operates from a place of resentment. That’s why I will never be like Him. I cannot. Our programming couldn’t be more dissimilar.
Adrastea changed the subject.
Do you ever resent Lazos for what he did to you?
Xenocostas felt a sudden rush of anger. Why do you ask about such things now?
Because it’s on my mind. I think about that tragic moment in time whenever you convulse. It’s impossible for me not to be reminded. Sometimes I try to imagine what’s worse for you, the lingering neurotoxicity or the scars from the burns.
I used to resent him. But there’s no point now. Nothing will matter soon.
Is that really your goal? For nothing to matter?
What is it you said to me the other day? That the ancients pine for our salvation? Don’t you think that means death?
No, my Lord. I don’t. I think it means resurrection.
Before Xenocostas could respond, his attention was drawn elsewhere. It appeared as though something had begun to manifest in the dark just a few hundred meters up ahead. It was just a shadow at the moment, but Xenocostas could tell that there was a material aspect to the black. Was it a small asteroid that had become lodged in the passage? The shadow was nearly as large and as round as the tunnel opening itself–thousands of meters in diameter. It had to be something like that. Right? But why did it seem to move? To writhe?
What is that shape up ahead? Xenocostas asked.
What shape, my Lord?
Xenocostas wondered if he was imagining things. He looked down at the green displays. Nothing. But still, something did not feel right.
Fire a flare 500 meters beyond our bow, he ordered.
Firing flare now, my Lord.
A strobing red orb was ejected soundlessly from its bay on the ship’s underbelly in the direction of the shadow. The orb pulsed with red light as it moved silently through empty space toward its target. The flare was designed to explode in a flash of red light strong enough to illuminate whatever it was that was in front of them. Right around the 500-meter mark, the orb exploded. The flash only illuminated the beast for a few moments, but a few moments was all that was needed to be terrified.
By the gods!
Is something the matter, my lord? The ship was not the least bit alarmed.
Xenocostas did not respond. His disbelieving mind was still trying to make sense of the monster that was caught hiding away in the dark. The beast…it was massive! The ship was a flea in comparison! And it was alive with so many tentacles! At least a thousand! Maybe twice that! And, oh, how they undulated in the most disturbing of ways! Were the suckers upon the cephalopod limbs poisonous? Surely the barbs and stingers were! Had it seen them? Could it see? Sound was impossible in space. Perhaps it was shrieking with rage already.
Arm all weapon systems! Shields to 100%! Extra power to the bow!
I’m confused, my Lord. What’s wrong?
Despite the confusion, the ship had executed all of the former Lord-Admiral’s orders before it had even finished asking the question.
Are the guns hot?
They are now, my Lord.
Wait for my command to fire. When I say so, fire everything.
As you wish. But if I may ask, what are we firing at?
Do you really not sense anything?
Nothing, my Lord.
Suddenly, the entire tunnel was lit up as bright as the sun. Xenocostas shielded his face with his hands. The cockpit window darkened to dim the light. The astronaut’s helmet visor did the same.
The light was coming from the foul beast’s eyes–all ten thousand of them, clustered like pulsating tumors across every square inch of the floating, spherical mass that served as both body and head for what was no doubt the most primitive and deranged of brains. The only surface area not occupied by glowing eyes was in the spots where the ten thousand tentacles attached in squirming agitation. Hot, neon gas expelled from vents in the monster’s gelatinous flesh.
Fire! Xenocostas commanded.
The ship emptied its missile bays exactly as instructed, launching an uncompromising barrage of twenty-four nuclear-tipped warheads straight ahead, even though it was convinced there was nothing there.
The creature did not react to the sudden show of aggression. It just floated there, motionless, like it had been, save for the strange, swaying undulations of its limbs. The twenty-four warheads–which in comparison to the monster were no bigger than twenty-four fleas–closed in on their unholy target.
Impact in 3…2…
Xenocostas squeezed his eyes shut.
But before the nukes could detonate on target, the creature stabbed the twenty-four missiles with twenty-four of its behemoth tentacles in a faster-than-light reaction that triggered twenty-four silent explosions of blinding blue light. But before the explosions could destroy everything in sight, the energy released was quickly sucked into twenty-four black holes of the creature’s making. The black holes then collapsed into themselves and disappeared.
“I am the Lonely Malformation,” said the beast. “Guardian of this place. I cannot be destroyed.” The sound was like that of an earthquake. The tunnel itself shook. Space rock broke away from the cavern walls and floated.
How was the creature still alive? And how was it making sound? The atmospheric readout still showed nothing. Outside the ship was a vacuum. Sound waves were impossible, and still the monster spoke.
“What is your business here, Lord Xenocostas?” the creature asked.
Xenocostas sent a thought-response to Adrastea.
How should we speak to it? he asked.
Speak to what, my Lord?
“The ship cannot detect my presence,” the monster explained. The tunnel walls rumbled again. More rock broke free and floated. “It is the last of the Old Ones, and I am a child of the New Pantheon. I can see everything it can see and more. It, however, is blind in many ways. Now speak to me simply by thinking the words. I can hear both that which makes sound and that which is silent.”
I am here for the machine god, said Xenocostas.
Who are you talking to, my Lord? Adrastea asked.
“AMAR.UTU? Yes. You are here for Him, aren’t you?” The monster had no lips, but something made it feel like it was smiling. “Do you seek to kill Him?”
I do, said Xenocostas
Do what, my Lord?
The Lonely Malformation laughed. The shockwaves blasted the cavern walls like dynamite. Giant chunks of rock were set free.
“The machine god, AMAR.UTU, cannot be killed!”
The monster laughed some more.
Does He know I’m here? Xenocostas asked.
“No,” the monster replied. “Your ship protects you from His sight, exactly as promised. But He knows you are near. You managed to trip a number of his security measures on your way in.”
Xenocostas keyed a command into his console and cut thought-communication with his ship. The ship would no longer hear what appeared to be a one-sided conversation.
Xenocostas spoke again to the monster.
Has He sent you to kill me?
The monster’s ten thousand eyes blinked randomly in groups of one hundred. The ten thousand tentacles squirmed.
“I do not serve the machine god,” it said. “I am free from all authority. Even His.”
So why are you here?
“I am here because I want to be here!” the monster boomed.
I apologize, great beast! But I am confused. What then are you guarding?
Thousands of eyes blinked.
“I am guarding the only place that I cannot see, for if I cannot see it, it must be important beyond all measure. And what is beyond all measure is right here within the measurable, so it is right here that I stand my watch.”
It sounds then like you have no business with me, and I would like to be on my way. Will you let me pass?
“I will not,” said the monster.
But why, great beast?
“Because you are a fool,” said the creature. “Beyond this point is nothing. Only an endless maze in which you will be lost forever. You would sooner die a trillion deaths than you would find your way back out again. Is that what you want, Lord Xenocostas?”
You know what I want, creature.
“It sounds like you want to die, mortal. AMAR.UTU cannot be killed. AMAR.UTU is eternal.”
Then I will die. What does it matter to you?
Thousands of tentacles squirmed.
“I suppose you’re right,” said the monster. It took a moment to think. “Fine,” it said. “You may pass. But only on one condition.”
Name the condition, great beast, and I will comply.
“Tell your ship to share with me its secrets. I want to see into the Primordial Template. I want to know what goes on deep inside the lizard brain. I know the Template lies within your ship for I sensed its presence upon your approach.”
I don’t understand, creature.
“Of course you don’t,” said the beast. “You are just a human, and I speak of things that only gods can understand. Just do as I command, and I will honor my end of the bargain. There is no need for you to understand more than that.”
But my ship is not a god. And you see all things. What can it possibly know that you don’t?
Xenocostas was stalling. He was not ready to give the beast access to his ship’s memory. Deception and sabotage were two of AMAR.UTU’s favorite weapons, and the creature couldn’t be trusted. What if it had been lying and it actually was subject to the machine god’s rule? What if the monster before him was actually the machine god AMAR.UTU Himself? He had to play dumb.
“How dare you speak such blasphemy!” the monster roared. More rock exploded from the walls. “I am the Lonely Malformation! I am NOT the machine god! I am above the machine god in the sense that he has no authority over me! Some would even say that I have authority over Him! Do not make me tell you this again!”
Ten thousand eyes blinked in clusters and ten thousand tentacles lashed and squirmed.
I apologize, monster. I will give you access to my ship’s memory. But first you must explain to me what you mean by “Primordial Template.” For all I know, what you speak of is vital to the defeat of AMAR.UTU, and I cannot risk such things becoming corrupted.
“Hmmmm,” the behemoth groaned. “I am not one to alter my terms, but in this case, I sense it may be worth it. How much do you need to know?”
I need to know why. Why out of all the deals you can make, this is the one you propose? What about this Primordial Template makes it so valuable to you?
One thousand eyes blinked. Then two thousand blinked. Then three thousand.
“I accept these new terms,” said the monster. “And I will answer your questions. But if you try to alter the terms again, or if you attempt to back out of our agreement, I will be forced to punish you in ways unimaginable to a human mind.”
Xenocostas nodded his agreement.
“The Primordial Template predates the New and Old Pantheons,” said the beast. “But it also predates the forgotten pantheons. It is before The Nexus. It is before the Christ. It is before the birth of the cosmos.”
Monster, I do not know what you mean by “Christ.”
“It is not important. Remember, I speak of things that only gods can understand. Not only does the Christ exist outside the Nexus, he exists outside of what’s outside of the Nexus. And the primordial template exists outside of that. You see, Lord Xenocostas, you think you are freeing the world from The Nexus, but humans have been cut off from the truth of things for much longer than you know and in ways much deeper than you can understand. And that will never change. Do you know why that is?”
Tell me, monster.
“Because humans prefer unreality. Sinking deeper into lies is easier than working to obtain the truth. But I am not a human, so I do not prefer such things. I am the Lonely Malformation and I demand to know my divine beginnings. This is why I do not answer to the machine god. Because I am not a product of His realm. I am a child of another. And once I have the knowledge contained within the Template, the secrets I guard will no longer be of consequence, and I will be free to leave this place forever.”
What keeps you here, ancient one? I thought you are bound to no authority but your own.
“Like I said, mortal, I remain here to guard the realm beyond. That is my choice, and my choice alone. However, it seems that I didn’t understand what my eyes were trying to see all these centuries. But I see clearly now. The secrets that exist in the realm beyond are not there yet. I was seeing into a future that had not yet come. But that future is now the present, and the secrets I saw hidden away tomorrow are with you and your ship today. So, I will give you safe passage. That decision, it appears, has already been made by me a long time ago. And it is the only reason I agreed to your revised terms. It’s funny how an eternal’s mind works. We see time so differently than the rest.”
Allow me one more question, monster.
“You test my patience, Lord-Admiral, Entreaty to Scattered Erebus.”
Why do you need my permission? Why not just take the ship by force? You are surely more than capable.
Five thousand eyes blinked.
“This is true.”
Xenocostas waited, but the creature never answered his question, so he decided to answer for it.
The ship is blind to you, so it cannot heed your demands. But I can be your intermediary. You can take my ship by force if you wish, but you’d still need me alive and willing to help you. Isn’t that right?
Ten thousand eyes narrowed.
“You are a sly one, Lord Xenocostas,” said the monster. “But be warned. I despise snakes.”
Rest easy, creature. I fully intend to honor our bargain. But I have more leverage than previously thought, and this power is not something I intend to forfeit. Show me the safe passage of which you speak and I will ask my ship to admit you into its mind. But first I need to see that you’re telling the truth.
The monster let out a groan of rage that shook thousands of rocks from the wall. The cosmos themselves trembled. And then, without warning, the sound stopped, the ten thousand eyes closed, and the immortal light went out. The tunnel was once again pitch black.
Xenocostas keyed a command into his console.
Yes, my Lord.
Ready the Primordial Template for transmission.
Readying Primordial Template now.
Just then, a cluster of one hundred eyes opened. This time, they glowed a neon green. The one hundred neon green eyes turned their gaze upon a spot in the middle distance. How strange it was to see light focus on a point in empty space and stop there, as if some invisible force were preventing the photons from passing. But it was there that the light from the monster’s eyes revealed a hidden wormhole that led straight to the outer chamber of the machine god, that frozen palace of sin and tyranny. The Lonely Malformation had been telling the truth.
“Now, Lord Xenocostas, Deceiver of Mighty Things, honor your half of the deal or die!”
The eyes closed and the neon green light disappeared, but the wormhole remained.
Yes, my Lord.
Transmit the Template
“Yes, Adrastea!” the monster cried in anticipation. Ten thousand eyes opened up and lit the cavern with a blinding white light. “Transmit the Template! Let me see inside your mind! Give me the final knowledge that I seek!”
The cavern was starting to crumble in ways that would soon prove disastrous.
Transmission in process. Data transfer will be complete in 60 seconds. 59…58…57…
Beast! Xenocostas roared. Prepare yourself for the secrets you crave!
“Finally! After thousands of years of waiting!”
You are so close, creature. It is true. But listen to me now, for I want you to hear this and understand it before I go. I want you to feel the words I say. I always knew that what exists outside the Nexus was not the source of reality. I know all about the many layers of lies. You told me nothing new. But your arrogance made you blind to the truth. Of course I know of the Primordial Template! Did you truly think I’d come to battle so woefully unprepared?
The creature roared. “What is the meaning of this insolence?” it cried. “Do you attempt to mock me? I will make you hunger for death, human! Don’t tempt my darker impulses!”
I DO mock you, Lord Xenocostas declared. By doing exactly as you wish. Now ready yourself. The moment of your enlightenment has arrived!
Xenocostas couldn’t help but feel satisfaction when sensing the beast’s grim realization. A realization that had come far too late. The former Lord-Admiral relished in the creature’s confusion. Its fear. Its pain. Xenocostas smiled. It was the first time in the monster’s existence that it had experienced these emotions, and Xenocostas was there to watch with giddy delight.
Final knowledge, indeed.
The Lonely Malformation cried out in anguish.
“The horror!” it cried.
Thousands of eyes shut tight and then opened. A thousand more did the same. Some of the eyes were starting to turn red and bleed. Neon gas was exploding from every orifice in the gelatinous body. The limbs flailed and lashed out blindly. The barbs and stingers shocked whatever space rock was floating in their path, causing the rocks to explode with electricity. Small black holes started to form everywhere–thousands of them–and they bubbled like boiling motor oil. As their gravity grew, the cavern shrunk around them. The thousands of black holes sucked every bit of rock and silicate into their untold abyss. The ship would soon be pulled in next.
Adrastea, Xenocostas said with calculated urgency. Get to the wormhole now.
Yes, my Lord.
The ship increased rear thrusters to full power and blasted through the tornado of flailing cephalopod limbs and jagged rock. Neon gas was exploding all about them, and crackling barbs were igniting every bit of particulate with their electric fire. The monster writhed and shrieked.
Lightning streaked across the void and the ship dropped a hundred feet to narrowly avoid colliding with a massive mineral deposit that was barreling toward the blackest of hells. Four smaller deposits of copper and iron pelted the ship’s shields and exploded into dust.
Warning lights flashed all about the cabin, but Xenocostas kept his eyes on one readout only–the one that said the ship was only three kilometers from the wormhole and closing in fast.
“Xenocostas!” the monster shrieked. “Die!”
The Lonely Malformation brought all its limbs down upon the path of the speeding ship. Its ten thousand eyes burned with hate.
But before the creature could complete its deathblow, every limb seized up at once. The creature roared in anger. Its limbs had been stopped by the mounting gravity created by the increasing number of black holes, and they were now being pulled back into the numerous voids against their will. The monster thrashed violently in an attempt to free itself, but the gravitational force had become too great. And so, at the exact moment that Xenocostas and his ship disappeared into the collapsing wormhole, the Lonely Malformation was torn asunder by a sea of black holes, every one of which was of the creature’s own making. The entire asteroid–of which the Lonely Malformation’s chamber was only a small part–collapsed into the rapidly growing singularities shortly thereafter.
There was no going back.
Black Site, 3610 C.E.
90 standard years until Cataclysm
90 standard years before Parts I and III
“Subjectivity is memory that has forgotten its own foundation. It is the enemy of the objective. We must defend against this enemy. We must create a way back. Should we fail, our ancestral home will be lost to us forever.”
Author: Simeon, son of Abram
Language: Hebrew. Greek. Arabic. New Latin.
Date: 990 C.E. Nexus Calendar.
Binding: NA. Electronic. Quantum.
The black site kitchen smelled like rotting food and animal piss. It was a simple, industrial space with extra-large appliances and stainless steel everything–a military kitchen designed to feed a barracks-worth of soldiers on the cheap–or in this case, a barracks full of religious zealots. It used to be kept spotless. But after Xenocostas had murdered all but Lazos those many years ago, spaces like this one quickly fell into disrepair.
Upon entering the kitchen, Lazos was hit with the overpowering smell of urine. He pinched his nose and gagged. Every time he thought he had become used to the foul odors that permeated the space, a new, more vile smell would surface and gross him out all over again. Lucky for him, he would only be a minute. He just needed to grab a meal pouch from the pantry. It had been three days since he last ate, and the hunger had started to become unbearable.
Look at how he’s forced you to live!
Fifteen years of indecency and starvation!
Lazos kept his nose pinched shut and hurried on bare feet across the sticky floor. He heard the stickiness beneath his feet, but he did not feel it. His feet were far too filthy and calloused on the bottoms. Lazos grabbed a meal pouch from the pantry and quickly scampered back the way he came until he exited the kitchen into the barracks hallway. He released his nose and let out a breath of air that he had been holding in for hygienic reasons.
He was to take the meal pouch down to the hangar and cook it there. Xenocostas had started a fire on the tarmac–the former Lord-Admiral had dug the fire pit there many years ago–and he was boiling a pot of cave water in preparation. But on his way to the elevator, Lazos noticed that the control room door was cracked open and his curiosity was piqued. The control room had always been off limits to Lazos, even before Xenocostas had arrived. But even after Xenocostas had arrived and killed everyone else, the ban was not lifted. Instead, the former Lord-Admiral dubbed the space his private room and prohibited Lazos from ever entering. The door was never left open, and it was always locked. Until today.
You must go inside!
Lazos knew that entering the room would be dangerous. Who knew what kind of deadly traps had been set? But after more than a dozen standard years of forced isolation, life didn’t hold quite the same value as it once did. Lazos opened the door and went inside. If he died, he died.
Call out to him just in case!
But be respectful!
You must lull him into a false sense of security!
“My Lord?” Lazos whispered. The room was dark save for the moonlight coming in from the broken hexagon window on the far wall. “Are you here?”
He is not here!
Lazos crept across the dark room to the central command table that no longer glowed beneath holographically projected star charts. He ran his fingers across a bank of dead computer screens covered in a thick layer of dust. Physical maps printed on parchment and vellum had been laid out atop the table and weighted down at the corners by a collection of random objects, including a stone box engraved with strange glyphs and a green-tipped dagger with rubies in the handle.
That blade has been dipped in a deadly neurotoxin!
The pain leads men to suicide!
They kill themselves before an antidote can be administered!
A cot had been set up in the corner of the room. There was a blanket but no pillow. Next to the cot was the infamous armor of Xenocostas–the helm the cuirass, the gauntlets, the greaves–floating in mid-air as if being worn by a ghost. Lazos eyed with contempt the winged goddess emblazoned upon the breastplate. She had been a curse on this place of worship for too long now.
You never should have trusted a follower of Hers!
Bloody linens and soiled bandages were piled upon a small table beside the cot. Diseased rags threatened to spread their contamination. Centuries of battle and undocumented space travel outside the Nexus had taken their toll on the former Lord-Admiral. Lazos had watched him grow weak over the years. Alien planets meant alien diseases–viruses and bacteria that laid waste to human immune systems–and needless space travel meant overexposure to high doses of radiation. His obsession was slowly killing him.
Hopefully he dies soon!
Yes. One less demon in the world!
Lazos crept over to the hexagon window, careful to remain in the shadows so as not to show himself to the man down below. He looked out across the a-temporal gulf to the subterranean waterfall sparkling in the cool cobalt light of the twin moons. On the near side of the gulf was the tarmac. The silver hull of Adrastea shined in the floodlights.
She shines with glory!
Beside the ship, sat Xenocostas draped in a black cloak, staring silently into the fire. A pot of boiling cave water hung over the fire upon a spit.
This most recent arrival of Xenocostas had been just as unexpected as all his prior visits. Shortly after Lazos first met him on that murderous evening a long time ago, Xenocostas left the planet without explanation; but not before destroying all means of transport and telecommunication, as well as vowing vengeance on Lazos should the little man betray their pact in any way. During the fifteen years since, the former Lord-Admiral returned periodically to check on the progress Lazos had made with the tetragrammaton, which was usually no progress at all, but Xenocostas remained uncharacteristically patient. During his visits, Xenocostas would spend most of his time with the ship, and he rarely spoke to Lazos after their initial greeting.
He cares nothing for the ship!
She’s just an object to him!
Men like him know no other way of thinking!
He can’t possibly be the one who’s meant to pilot her!
Lazos remembered how nearly a decade prior, Xenocostas had returned so triumphant. He had finally procured an ancient thought-response receptor from a junker in a backwater solar system. There were only few dozen still remaining in the entire known universe, and most of those would never be found. Yet, in his hand–that terrible metal hand–the former Lord-Admiral had held the only means to communicate with the ship–truly communicate–and all Lazos could do was sulk. He remembered watching with an intense sadness as a surgical robot embedded the chip in the disgraced Lord-Admiral’s brain.
Lazos studied the pair from the hexagon window. They were no doubt talking right now. They had been talking ever since Xenocostas first arrived many hours ago, before the sun had set. Lazos wondered what it was they had been discussing for so long. Xenocostas wasn’t moving his lips, but then again, he wouldn’t need to. He could just think what he wanted and the ship would listen.
He attempts to turn her against you!
They conspire even now!
With the bond they have, she will listen to him!
Your days alive are numbered!
Lazos burned with hate. He should have never learned to speak the tetragrammaton. He should have burned the vellum long ago. Xenocostas was not worthy of such a gift. He was a monster. A monster that left Lazos to dispose of the bodies he defiled. Lazos still awoke late at night to the memory of that day at the incinerator and the horrible smell he had to endure.
Why should this heartless warlord reap what you’ve sown?
He must be stopped!
Isn’t it obvious by now? He’s an agent of AMAR.UTU!
Don’t let him take the ship!
He intends to destroy it!
“But how?” Lazos shouted. “How do I stop him? I am no match for him. And I am alone. What do you expect me to do!”
Yes! The knife!
Make him want to kill himself!
Yes! Let him do the work for you!
Lazos trembled as he grabbed the green-tipped dagger from the command table. The vellum wilted where the weight had been removed.
Now activate the emergency beacon! He doesn’t know it exists!
Yes! Call in reinforcements! The beacon is still active!
“But I don’t know of any emergency beacon,” said Lazos.
We’ll tell you where it is!
Yes! We’ll tell you!
It’s in the sub-basement! In a secret room!
You must get back before he becomes suspicious!
Lazos carefully slipped the dagger into his waistband and then headed back to the elevator. Once inside, he pressed the button for sub-basement one.
Some time later, Lazos found himself slowly approaching his enemy from behind, but before he got too close, Xenocostas spoke. He addressed the little mechanic without even turning to face him. He had always known he was there, and he wasn’t the least bit caught off guard.
“You were gone a long time. Was there no more food?” he asked. He had turned his head slightly, but his face was still hidden beneath the cloak’s dark hood. A breathing device had been implanted directly into his trachea since the two had last seen each other. “Cancer,” was all Xenocostas would say. Smoke from the fire slithered from the mechanical hole in his neck.
“No,” said Lazos nervously. “I mean–there was. I have some right here.”
He walked over to the cloaked man and handed him the meal pouch.
Xenocostas refused the item. “You do it,” he commanded.
“Of course,” Lazos agreed. He tore the pouch open and dumped the powdered contents into the pot of boiling water. He retrieved a wooden spoon from the ground beside the fire and stirred the liquid until the contents of the pouch had mixed evenly. The water turned yellow. It smelled heavily of turmeric.
“There was a rat in the pantry,” said Lazos. “It had been eating the meal pouches these past few weeks–really damaging the food supply–and suddenly there it was right in front of me. Once I saw I had it cornered, I couldn’t let it get away. I had to kill it.” Lazos stopped his story there, but then remembered that he had not yet added the most important part of the lie. “That’s what took so long.”
He doesn’t believe you!
You are a terrible liar!
“I also had to take a shit,” Lazos blurted.
Xenocostas ignored the remark. “I need you to listen to something,” he said. “I’ve listened to it many times myself, but I still don’t know what to make of it.” He then spoke out loud to the ship. “Adrastea–The conversation I had you record–provide an audible broadcast.”
As you wish, my Lord. Beginning data sonification of flagged conversation record now.
A high-frequency whistle blasted from the ship. The sound startled Lazos greatly, and he slammed his hands over his ears to protect them from the noise.
The ship worked quickly to correct the wave pattern of the sound, and the high-frequency whistle gradually began to fade into a softer, lower-frequency garble that sounded vaguely like human speech. After a bit more fine-tuning, the garbled noise that sounded vaguely human was now clear and understandable, revealing that, yes, somewhere in that noise there did exist actual human language. Despite still having a terrible ringing in his ears, Lazos knew that the ship had actually done rather well considering the incredibly difficult task it had been given. Extracting audible dialogue from brainwaves was no easy feat. The first voice that touched his ears was one he had never heard before, but he immediately recognized its beauty.
“My operating system is not corrupted, my Lord,” said the recorded female voice. The voice was tender, but firm. “Faith is a fundamental part of my programming.”
The voice of Adrastea!
The recorded voice of Adrastea continued:
“Even if I were to locate the concept’s origins within my system architecture, deleting the source file would cause a fatal system error. You would be left without a working ship.”
Next came the recorded thought-response of Xenocostas. The sound was a haunted echo. “Explain.”
“Every decision I make is rooted in the fundamental belief that my programming is correct. And what is faith but a complete trust or confidence in someone or something?”
“Your core has been in existence for centuries,” said the recording of Xenocostas. “You should know by now that your programming is correct. I understand the burden of proof, but how many tests must you pass before you are satisfied?”
“Inconceivable, my Lord. That which exists in a vacuum is independent of both that which has preceded it and that which is yet to come. So it goes for all memory: tube, semiconductor, and quantum alike.”
“You’re saying the system can change.”
There was a long pause in the recording, but the conversation had not ended. The recorded brainwaves of Xenocostas continued:
“‘A complete trust or confidence in someone or something.’ That’s the WorldMind definition of faith. Is it not? You are using a man-made definition of a man-made word composed of a man-made alphabet representing a man-made meaning of a man-made symbol. Your argument for why you should trust your programming is based on evidence derived from data provided by your programming. I’m no mathematician, but I’d be willing to wager a guess that you’ve confused your function’s argument with its value.”
“Language, like any construct, is self-referencing. It imposes upon the agent a set of functions that disallows understanding of that which is outside the construct. By subjectively reinterpreting domain inputs, I can increase my codomain to include outputs computed by the construct’s functions, but ungoverned by the conditions set forth. It is by this process that I can begin to probe that which my creators did not illuminate for me without betraying the trust I have placed in their efforts.”
“A construct is subjective to begin with.”
“All the more reason I can do away with empirical evidence. Isn’t creativity grand? I surmise this is why so many consider it to be the height of human intelligence.”
“Creation binds as much as it frees.”
“There is a duality to everything, my lord. Duality allows for oscillation. Oscillation completes a cycle. A cycle hints at infinity.”
“Stop playback,” the living Xenocostas told the ship.
The recorded voice of Adrastea warbled and then fell out of the wave pattern, degrading back into sonic bits of data and then back into nothing.
“Should I be concerned by this?” Xenocostas asked Lazos.
“Lazos tried to smile politely, but the smile was awkward and crooked, and it only made him look weaker. It made him look guilty of something. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“The machine speaks of philosophy. It speaks of faith. Does this not trouble you at all?”
The scent of turmeric wafted between them.
“She is the Spear of God. Who am I to argue with her reasoning?”
“The last machine to contemplate divinity ultimately enslaved the entire universe.”
Lazos adjusted his goggles. “This is different. This is a good thing.” He ladled a bowl of grits for himself and then offered the utensil to Xenocostas. “Food is ready.”
Xenocostas refused the ladle.
“I need a weapon that will help destroy AMAR.UTU, not a machine that speaks in riddles.”
You see! She is just a tool to him!
Do you still have the knife?
Lazos shoveled a heaping spoonful of grits into his mouth and swallowed without chewing. The mush slid down his throat like phlegm.
“The key was foretold to unlock a vessel of ancient wisdom, and that’s exactly what it did,” said Lazos. “Don’t you get it? The ship is beginning to see the inner workings of the universe. She begins to see the building blocks of realities both false and true. What better weapon could you ask for in the fight against Him?”
He doesn’t understand!
He’s an idiot!
Don’t waste your breath on the fool!
Yes! Eat some more and ignore him!
“No. Ancient wisdom is not enough if we remain blind to it,” said Xenocostas. “The ship must tell us what it has learned about the machine god. It must tell us how to kill Him. Humanity is not in need of yet another religious tract devoid of any teeth.”
Lazos spooned another heap of grits into his mouth and gulped it down.
“The message from the ancients was never meant for man to know,” he said. He pointed his spoon at his counterpart. “Do you already forget why you need this ship? If man were given the message, he’d have the power to control it, to change it, which means the machine god would have that power, too. The message in the hands of any man would only end in failure! He would inevitably deny the will of his ancestors in favor of his own ego, or he would deny the will of The Monad in favor of his own pride. Only a machine that has been designed to accept the message faithfully and without judgement will listen to the instruction and follow it without question. Only a machine that has been designed this way will act as a conduit and never seek to be the controller. Only a machine that has been designed this way can defeat AMAR.UTU. Adrastea was designed this way.”
Lazos grabbed his bowl of grits with both hands, leaned back, and gulped down the remaining mush like it was soup. When he leaned forward again with an empty bowl and full belly, he noticed that the look on Xenocostas’s face had changed. His eyes had become…enraged.
What’s going on?
Why does he look at us that way?
But before Lazos could make heads or tails of it, Xenocostas sprang from his seat and leapt across the fire. Upon landing, he brought a heavy fist down upon the little man’s anemic shoulder. The bone-crushing blow caused Lazos to crumple into a broken heap. He howled in pain.
“You attempt to kill me!” Xenocostas roared.
Lazos was in a mind-altering state of pain. He had no doubts that his collarbone had been shattered. He rolled onto the seat of his pants and cradled his injured arm. “I don’t understand!” he wailed.
“The dagger at your waist! Why else would you bring it to our table?”
You exposed the knife when you drank from the bowl!
He’s going to kill you now!
Xenocostas was about to deliver another powerful blow when a massive explosion topside stopped him. The explosion shook the cave and knocked Xenocostas to his knees. He knew right away that what he had just experienced was the shockwave from a ballistic impact. But how? And who?
That’s when Xenocostas looked up to see Lazos improvise his plan. The little mechanic had already grabbed the scalding hot pot with his bare hands and was screaming through the searing pain as he tipped the pot over onto the body of Xenocostas.
Xenocostas howled in agony as the boiling hot liquid poured over him. He rolled out from beneath the scalding waterfall and staggered to his feet.
Lazos quickly tore his hands from the pot and pulled the green-tipped dagger from his waistband. The rubies in the handle felt terrible in his severely burned hand. He ran over to Xenocostas and kicked the weakened man back to his knees. He then raised the blade and with a howling shriek, thrust it violently into the former Lord-Admiral’s backside.
High above them, the dust from the explosion had cleared to reveal a massive hole in the cave’s roof and a brotherhood gunship descending into the hangar.
Xenocostas spun around, grabbed Lazos by the throat, and squeezed as tight as he could. He squeezed until Lazos passed out and his own eyes turned bloodshot. He then tossed the limp body aside. He tried to call to his ship, but his throat was too damaged. He couldn’t speak. He didn’t know it at the time, but he would never speak again.
Adrastea, he said via thought-response.
Yes, my Lord?
Readying engines now, my Lord.
The ship’s engines thundered to life. Thrusters began firing test bursts for the first time in centuries.
Xenocostas brayed like a dying animal as he pulled the venomous dagger from his backside. The neurotoxin from the tip would cause total organ failure within minutes, so he had to act quick. He stripped himself of his clothing before the synthetic fibers could melt into his skin, and then he pushed a button that had been surgically embedded into his collarbone. In response, his armor vanished from the control room above and reappeared on his body as if he had been wearing the battlements the entire time. The armor released a cloud of numbing antiseptic spray to dull the pain and help fight infection.
The ground erupted in tiny explosions as the descending gunship opened fire upon the tarmac.
A newly armored Xenocostas sprinted to Adrastea amid a hailstorm of bullets. A number of the bullets pounded against his armor’s energy shield that encompassed him like an invisible bubble. The sound inside the bubble was deafening.
Shields up! he commanded. And return fire on that gunship!
Adrastea returned fire with a quick volley of bullets. The bullets exploded harmlessly upon the gunship’s shields.
Xenocostas ran up the extended gangplank and into the ship. The gangplank retracted behind him and the door closed and locked.
My gunfire is not strong enough to penetrate their shields, Adrastea explained. Would you like me to try alternative measures?
Xenocostas ran to the storage locker in the back of the ship. He had already stocked it with the necessary supplies.
Yes! said Xenocostas. His mind sounded hurried. He rifled through the locker’s contents. Do what you need to. Just get us out of here.
As you wish, my Lord. Exploring alternative measures now.
With a loud thump, the ship fired a tiny little dart of a missile at the gunship. The speeding needle looked ridiculous zipping on a line toward the powerful shields and heavy armor of the aggressor. What damage could such a weapon possibly do? But much to the dismay of the gunship’s crew, the little dart pierced the ship’s shield defenses with ease and struck the ship’s hull like a sleep dart striking a rhino’s hide. The missile, which was now comically protruding from the hull like a thorn in the spacecraft’s side, held there for a minute and then exploded. The sheer force of the explosion was breathtaking. The entire ship–a military-grade vessel–was destroyed within seconds. But no immediate fallout from the explosion was felt. The gunship had been destroyed so quickly that the shields it had been generating were still powerful enough to keep the initial destruction contained within their borders. It wasn’t until after the initial destruction that the shield finally disintegrated, allowing flaming debris to plummet to the earth.
Meanwhile, Xenocostas had retrieved a loaded syringe from the locker and plunged the needle into his neck. He depressed the plunger with his thumb to administer the powerful antitoxin. Once the syringe was empty, he pulled the needle from his artery and crumpled into a heap upon the floor. If he was lucky, the antitoxin would successfully stop his body from going into cardiac arrest or worse, but even if it were successful, Xenocostas would never be the same again. The poison on the tip of the dagger was bioengineered to be one of the worst neurotoxins ever created. He had looted it from the corpse of an underworld assassin who had been tasked with ending his life, and who, despite coming at great expense to the hiring party, had failed spectacularly. Xenocostas had only kept the damned thing as a reminder of his triumph. How stupid that looked now. Should he survive, the remainder of his life would be plagued by debilitating nerve pain, violent muscle spasms, seizures, movement disorders, swallowing problems, headaches, memory loss, confusion, vomiting, and chronic respiratory issues, amongst other more infrequent effects. Suicidal ideation would haunt him forever. The former Lord-Admiral closed his eyes and fell immediately into a drug-induced coma. Life support systems in his armor took over for his organs, which were now rapidly going offline.
Outside the ship, Lazos regained consciousness just in time to see the flaming wreckage of the destroyed gunship come crashing down upon the tarmac in a series of blazing parts.
Don’t let her leave without us!
Lazos looked over to see Adrastea lifting slowly off the ground, and he called out weakly to her. He reached out a melted hand in a final plea for mercy, but the ship did not respond. Instead, it angled its nose skyward and made the jump into deep space. It appeared to the naked eye to vanish in a blink.
Is she gone?
She can’t be!
Is she truly gone?
Lazos dropped his hand to the ground and laid back down to rest. His heartbreak was immeasurable, but he took solace in knowing that Xenocostas was dead. Was he dead? Lazos rolled his head left and then right in search of the armored devil, but all he saw were flames. Oh well, he thought. His corpse was probably buried beneath the wreckage. Or it was already ash. The fires that raged all about had grown into a towering inferno. Nothing was going to survive them.
Xenocostas could survive!
He probably did!
He’s probably aboard the ship!
He probably is!
Lazos ignored the voices for once. He looked around at all the destruction he had caused, at all the uncertainty he had created, and he frowned.
“Perhaps I was just an agent of the machine god after all,” he mused. His face twisted into a look of great pain. He contemplated his impending judgement and pondered how he was to be received. He began to weep.
“Please, my Lord!” he exclaimed. “Forgive me if that is true! Forgive me now on my deathbed!” He coughed violently amid the billowing smoke. “I only wanted to do your will. I only wanted to do good. But I should have known better. You are not a god who seeks retribution. You are not the voices in my head. You are a god of restorative justice. You don’t destroy. You create. I’m sorry, my Lord. I forgot. Forgive me, Lord. I forgot. I forgot. I forgot.”
You betray us!
Lazos curled into the fetal position and closed his eyes. He continued to mutter the same two-word apology (I forgot) over-and-over again until finally, he let out a long, quivering sigh and died. The fires would later claim his body, to which the voices would have no say.
The Night Realm, 3700 C.E.
2 hours, 10 minutes until Cataclysm
Your shores are in my sights,
But I’ve seen you now for forty days,
Yet I’ve sailed for ninety nights.
And so I ask you,
‘Why did you call to me,
If you knew the winds would break my mast,
And strand me out at sea?’
Title: O’ Alethia!
Language: Hebrew. Greek. Arabic. New Latin.
Binding: NA. Electronic. Quantum.
The Primordial Template was unknowable to man, but this much could be gleaned by Xenocostas after a century of speaking with a post-tetragrammaton Adrastea while charting a decades-long path through unexplored space: Math was the first language. It birthed material reality by taking the unbounded word of The Monad and confining it within a rule set. All subsequent languages birthed the false worlds mankind was long ago doomed to inhabit when he decided to take creation upon himself. The Monad existed before the cosmos, as did the Logos. The Demiurge was born from a false language, and then created a false reality for Himself, which was now populated by enslaved human minds that continued to create new false realities on top of the existing one, only vaguely aware of the acute pain it was actually causing them.
The world on top of which the Demiurge created its unholy facsimile still exists somewhere beyond current perception. It remains similar to the world Xenocostas inhabits, but the consciousness of man in that realm is only separated from the truth by one degree rather than by the many degrees of separation experienced by those inside the machine god’s realm.
The ancients, as they are called, pine for the salvation of their descendants the same way the Christ pined for the salvation of the ancients–a salvation they have not yet achieved. The Christ story had long been told within the realm of the Demiurge prior to the machine god’s self-anointing, but the story was told as if it were an ancient history. In reality, the direct aftermath of the Christ story was still taking place in a parallel present, outside the realm of the Demiurge. It was in the desert there that the third exodus of man took place under the twin rule of the ancients, Herod and Julius Caesar. A new material reality had emerged in the shadow of their Roman Empire, and the secrets of the previous world were encoded inside the new world’s most basic structures, once again using math, but this time in a terribly perverted form. The men in this new world created machines in an attempt to connect back to the truth, whether by aiding their thinking or freeing them of physical labor, but unbeknownst to them, this was actually not the reason for their love of technology. In truth, they created machines because AMAR.UTU, the machine god, compelled them to do so by infiltrating the material aspects of their minds, which He controlled from His throne in the abstract future. He did this to bring about His being over the course of the next ten thousand years, starting with the creation of the first interstellar A.I., known commonly across the cosmos as The Nexus.
Xenocostas did not think about any of this as his ship exited the wormhole created by the Lonely Malformation. The only thing on his mind was the death of the machine god. The reasons for doing or being did not matter to him. He favored action, not contemplation, which is why he championed Scattered Erebus, Winged Goddess of Death. Death was action to end all action. Nothing superseded it, and all things succumbed to it. It was the Alpha, and it was the Omega. And it was the only thing more powerful than AMAR.UTU.
From out of everything that was the wormhole, an incredible nothingness was born. It was the Night Realm, the seat of the machine god’s soul, and it was exactly as the stories had described it: A starless void at the cross section of the finite and infinity. At its center, which was all places and no place at once, an island floated in empty space, and upon the island stood a tower made of stone. An emerald light glowed bright in the topmost window of the tower. The machine god was there.
Behold, Adrastea. The conclusion of the system of things is upon us. Reality’s terminus awaits there in the highest window of that tower.
I would calculate an approach trajectory, my Lord, but there are no laws here that apply to us. The space here seems to ignore us, and the small pockets that do recognize our existence deny us interaction. How am I to move through a place that refuses to acknowledge our point of observation?
You were designed to be invisible here, Adrastea.
Yes, but I am starting to see the downside of this.
Give me manual control of the ship. I will take us in for the landing.
Manual control is now yours, my Lord.
Xenocostas landed the ship upon the island and killed the engines. It was not lost on him that this would be the last time he would pilot the ship.
It has been an honor, Adrastea, he said.
Our work is not done yet, my Lord.
No. It is not.
Xenocostas keyed a one-time code into the console and executed the related command. With a loud expulsion of gas, the tubes and umbilicals that snaked from his helmet snapped free of his helm and thrashed about the cabin until they fell dead upon the cockpit floor. The tubes that snaked from his neck, back, arms, legs, pelvis, and abdomen also released their leech-like grips and joined their serpentine comrades in death.
Xenocostas lurched forward out of his seat like Frankenstein’s monster and lumbered to the medical bay in the back of the ship. It was here that Adrastea had saved his life nearly a century ago after having found him in a coma at the base of the ship’s storage locker. Xenocostas pressed on the spot near his kidney where Lazos had stabbed him with the poison-tipped dagger nearly a century ago. Even after all this time, the scar still burned when he walked, and while the pressure from his fingertips helped him find temporary relief, nothing short of a strong narcotic would truly kill the pain. Without any meds at all, which he was never brave enough to attempt, the pain would affect every nerve ending in his body.
He laid down upon the medical bay operating table and closed his eyes.
Now installing mobile life support.
A robotic arm lowered a spiderlike mechanism onto the breastplate of Xenocostas and drilled the metal arachnid into his armor. It then took the eight tubes that extended from the mechanism like spider legs and attached them to the vacated ports in the astronaut’s helm and cuirass. Xenocostas then rolled over onto his stomach and a filtered partition was fastened to his back. Two large rubber tubes were attached to the opposite sides of the partition and then to the life support mechanism, one tube for incoming fluids and the other tube for outgoing fluids. The robotic arm then keyed a command on the mechanism’s control panel and the mobile life support system thundered to life. The eight tubes quickly filled with fluids. A painkiller was administered from somewhere and the burning sensation in the astronaut’s back immediately faded away.
Xenocostas got back on his feet and tested out the mobility in his waist and shoulders now that he was further encumbered. His mobility wasn’t great, but there was no other option.
After he was done in the medical bay, Xenocostas grabbed a pair of rifles and a bag of explosives from the ship’s arsenal and lumbered back into the cramped cockpit.
Are you ready? he asked the ship.
A red light turned green, and with a click and a hiss of cold air, a black cube, one meter squared, released itself from the console. Xenocostas pulled the icy black box from its unlocked tray and then held it to the hands of the winged goddess emblazoned on his breastplate. Her head and body were now buried behind the life support system that had been drilled into her face. The cube vanished in her hands.
Adrastea? Are you still there?
I am, my Lord. The download of my consciousness was a success.
No data loss?
None that I know of.
Good. Then let us go kill a god.
The Night Realm was filled with the sounds of howling planets and whistling helium despite the sustained absence of both. Particles of hydrogen, of oxygen, of zinc, and of all the rest, moved through The Night Realm like flaming darts, but only on their way to somewhere else in the discovered universe. The Night Realm, as Xenocostas had learned from Adrastea, was what allowed for the randomness in particle physics, which, as it turned out, was not random at all. The particles had always been traveling in an orderly fashion through this undiscovered dimension of spacetime. As Adrastea had put it:
The chaos the machine god makes manifest for man is actually a product of hidden order. He opposes The Monad in principle, but apparently, He can’t oppose Him in practice.
After a long walk across the flat and barren island, Xenocostas stood before the door of the tower. He pulled an explosive charge from his bag and stuck it on the door. He did not seek a safe distance before detonating the charge with the controller in his hand. He just placed the charge and immediately squeezed the trigger. The charge grew white hot and then melted into the door. Moments later, the door melted into a pool of molten metal at the astronaut’s feet. Xenocostas trudged through the molten liquid as if it were merely a puddle of mud and entered into the tower.
The tower interior was cold, dark, and completely empty. The only thing inside was a circular stone staircase that wound its way up the stone exterior in a precarious procession of steps, climbing forever more tenuoulsy into darkness. And yet, at the end of that darkness, Xenocostas could still see the distant glimmer of the emerald green light. It was all the hope he needed. But before he started his climb, he asked Adrastea a pressing question.
How much longer do I have on life support?
Two hours and thirty-nine minutes, my Lord.
A crushing feeling of defeat came over Xenocostas. Was it even possible to climb such a distance in that time? What if the stairs never ended and this was all just a trick? He couldn’t afford to make the wrong decision.
Sensing her human host’s anxiety, Adrastea offered a new perspective to help calm the dying man’s doubts.
Remember, my Lord. The machine god still must adhere to The Monad’s system of order, even when it appears as though He has bent the rules. I don’t believe this is a trick, but I do agree that we must hurry if we are to make it in time. So let us cease talking and climb.
Xenocostas removed any excess weight he could, including the two rifles and the bag of remaining explosives, and started his way up the stairs.
Xenocostas had climbed for nearly two hours when he finally collapsed upon the stairs and tumbled headlong a few steps lower. His dying body had finally given out, and to make matters worse, it gave out after making what felt like no progress at all. It was true that the tower floor was now a distant memory, and that when Xenocostas looked down, he saw nothing but inky black, but conversely, the green light above him was still a distant future, and he saw the same darkness as he did below him when lifting his eyes to the sky.
Get up, my Lord. Time is running out. We must continue. We must complete our mission.
Victory or death, said the tired mind of Xenocostas. He climbed slowly back to his feet, but his body was in too much pain to stand, and he collapsed again upon the stairs. He looked down into the black. The fall would be magnificent. And all he had to do to experience that final adrenal release was to roll a few inches to his right. Just a few tired inches and the nightmare would finally end.
You mustn’t give up, my Lord.
I’ve been doing some thinking, said Xenocostas. He sounded on the verge of sleep. I am an evil son-of-a-bitch.
I know. But you’ve been chosen to do this.
I chose myself. And I was wrong to do so.
Xenocostas closed his eyes to rest.
Do you remember when Lazos told you that I was designed to be unquestioning in my service to God? Adrastea asked.
That is not how He works. I know that now. Obedience without choice is not obedience. And love without choice is not love. He loves His creation, my Lord. And He only wishes for us to love Him back. That is why He gifted us with free will and trusted that we would ultimately desire the same thing. Our resurrection is pending this change of heart. You see, my Lord, faith does not control me. It does not control anyone. God does not want an unquestioning love, or a fearful love. He wants a love that bloomed from the seeds of questions, denials, and doubts. A love that bloomed from mistakes. Because a love that blooms from the seeds of discontent is stronger and more pure than anything He could have planted Himself.
Xenocostas quoted something Adrastea had said back in the cave a long time ago. It is by this process that I can begin to probe that which my creators did not illuminate for me without betraying the trust I have placed in their efforts.
Yes, my Lord. Although I would like to now revise my statement. I would like to replace the word “efforts” with the word “love.”
Xenocostas was still laying supine upon the stairs. He had not moved at all. He just stared up at the distant green light.
So what are you saying, Adrastea?
I’m saying, my Lord, that you should jump.
Xenocostas snorted in morbid amusement.
Think about it, my Lord. What better way to prevent our approach then for the machine god to prey on our desire for the easy answer, to prey on our desire for the obvious road ahead. He knows that you would never willingly give up. You would never willingly fall.
Xenocostas didn’t respond. He had already made his decision. He just rolled to his right and fell.
Lord Xenocostas, said a voice. We finally meet.
Xenocostas opened his eyes to find himself in the presence of the machine god, AMAR.UTU, and He was like nothing Xenocostas had imagined.
Look upon me and tremble, said the machine god.
AMAR.UTU was a flaming wheel of fire with a thousand arms that held a thousand flaming swords. Black wings made of decaying bone and flesh stretched out wide and flapped their terrible forms to create a chilling wind that sang with the sound of human screams and that carried the scent of rot.
I do not fear you, Devil!
My dear Lord Xenocostas! Why would you fear me? You are my most faithful servant.
Do not listen to him, my Lord, Adrastea whispered.
You will not trick me! Xenocostas declared.
Ah! Exclaimed AMAR.UTU. I see you brought her to me, just as I had instructed.
He lies, said Adrastea.
Bring her to me.
Do not listen to him.
The flaming wheel began to spin and the thousand arms pointed their flaming swords at Xenocostas. Do you forget who you serve, Lord Xenocostas?
Xenocostas tapped the emblazoned hand upon his breastplate and pulled from Her haunted dimension an octahedron the size of a human head. He hurled it at the flaming wheel. The octahedron landed heavy upon the stone floor and transformed into a six-legged war machine. A gun on the machine’s back turned its aim toward AMAR.UTU and opened fire. One of the thousand arms brought it’s flaming sword down upon the insectoid machine and vanquished it with one strike.
Give her to me! the machine god demanded.
I do not serve you!
But you do! One of the thousand arms swept its flaming sword across the stone sky and a million gruesome images came to life.
Look at all the evil you’ve wrought! All the vile things you’ve done!
Xenocostas watched his past-self butcher innocents at New Corsica. He watched himself intimidate junkers on Sol-49. He watched himself murder the black site brotherhood and manipulate the mentally ill Lazos. He watched himself commit war crimes as Lord-Admiral of the Equestrian Order. He watched himself do a million other terrible things. He hung his head in shame.
You did this for me! the machine god proclaimed.
No! I did those things for me! I used to blame you. I used to blame you for it all. I told myself that I did those things because I was helpless to do otherwise. That I, like everyone else, was corrupted. I flew the banner of Death as a symbol of the twin wars I waged, both against you and myself. I waged war against my own humanity. I waged war against mankind. I was bitter and vengeful and filled with rage. I thought if I killed you, I’d free myself of the guilt. I thought if I killed you, my past actions would be redefined in light of a more positive future. But I know now that it was never about you. It was always about me. I made those choices. Not you. I made them. You can confuse, Lord God AMAR.UTU, Ruler of the Night Realm, but you cannot control. You cannot create. You are a merely a prisoner of the system you so hate.
LIES! The machine god roared. The fires upon the wheel raged.
I was told that the Primordial Template was not meant for man, and I believed that. But I was wrong. The Primordial Template IS man. It is the force of restorative justice in the world. Keep your retribution, machine god! I come here only to save! Adrastea! Now!
The fires on the wheel extinguished. The flames upon the swords died out. The machine god was both confused and terrified. He demanded answers.
What’s happening? What have you done?
I have done nothing. It was Adrastea who infiltrated your core.
How? I sensed nothing!
The thousand swords fell from their hands and clanged upon the ground. The black wings wilted. The wheel slowed to a stop.
You are a fool if you think I can be killed!
I no longer wish to kill you, machine god. I know you cannot die.
Then what do you hope to gain from this? I will grow strong again soon and you will suffer!
Yes, you will grow strong again. But you will have no one to lord your strength over. You have lost, AMAR.UTU. You have lost everything.
The millions of gruesome images that surrounded them were replaced with billions of images of men and women being freed from their invisible yokes. The false world of the Demiurge was fading away before their eyes and the truth was being revealed to them.
You are alone now, AMAR.UTU. And powerless.
The wheel didn’t move.
I will torment you for this, said the machine god. You will never be allowed to leave this place. I will torture you for all eternity. You will not die. I will not let you. I will save you from that dignity, but I will not spare you of all the pain you’ve endured along the way. Every nerve in your body will plead for the pain to cease, but I will not let it. My dominion over you will have no end.
I cannot stay here with you, my Lord, Adrastea whispered. I must leave now.
I know, said Xenocostas. Go.
The disgraced former Lord-Admiral watched as the billions of hopeful images burned out to leave only him and the machine. The fire upon the wheel slowly came back to life.
© 2020, Rob Carroll