Chapter 5 THE GREAT ARCHITECT
In response to Haides’s call, a man stepped into the ring of light. He wore the robes of a senior savant: dark blue vestments over a pure white cassock, heavy with golden embroidery extolling his many fields of expertise. His dark brown almond eyes were those of an old man, but his tanned skin was smooth and young—new skin grafted on top of old flesh. Neatly done, but I can still tell. It was especially apparent where the skin met the chrome-plated graft covering the back half of the man’s skull.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Master-Savant Vernissimon de Veridia de Archangelos. Vern for short.” He made a formal bow and scrape.
Marcus was familiar with Archangelos. It was a world famous for the scholars and savants it produced. More recently, it had been the linchpin of the Archaic War, a conflict as brutal and bloody as any in the history of the Coalition. The University-City of Veridia was one of the eight major colleges, renowned across the Dominion. Or was. The war left it weakened, eclipsed by less prestigious schools. But this was all long after your time.
“In life, I was the architect behind all of this—the Chimera and its psychic archives, the infrastructure that makes this meeting possible. I was Quaestor Samael’s senior savant—and in the capacity as his chronicler and chief archivist, I continue to serve even in death.”
“I am honored to make your acquaintance Vernissimon de Veridia de Archangelos. I am Prefect-Legate Marcus Aurelian of the Ordo Draconis.” Marcus made to rise, but Vern waved him back down.
“Please, do call me Vern.”
The Prefect-Savant had moved to stand next to Marcus. Up close, he looked tall, half a head taller than Marcus, and uncommonly broad of shoulder.
“Exoskeleton. Made according to my specifications. Started out as locomotive assistance, but subsequent additions have added to both functionality—and bulk.” Vern’s hands slapped against armor plates hidden under his voluminous garments. “A man of my age needs all the help he can get.”
The fleshy parts of his head were perfectly hairless, undoubtedly artificially induced. He wore the Eye of Horus proudly, tattooed over the right side of his face. I’ve seen many such displays of zeal—not all of them genuine.
Vern frowned. “For much of my life, I was a man without faith,” he said, stepping closer. “I professed to be amongst the faithful, but I was not. I went through the motions, prayed my prayers, made the offerings, and observed the holidays. But I did not truly believe.” He made the sign of the Pantheon, two hands in front of the chest, palms showing, thumbs and index fingers touching, in a rough approximation of a pyramid, the sacred symbol of the collective gods of the Dominion.
“Not until I was saved by Him. I was saved when so many others were not. He put His radiant mark upon me, and the foul spirits of the Abyss feared to touch me. That is why I carry the Eye upon my flesh, so that I will be forever reminded of my faithless years and what we all, and especially I, owe Horus-Who-Is-Ra.”
“Have I passed another checkpoint? Is this the Second Circle, or am I still in the first one?”
Vern fell silent, regarding Marcus intently. “Perceptive of you, Marcus. Very perceptive,” he finally said.
“Thank you.” Marcus felt unreasonably pleased with himself, almost like a student receiving rare praise from his otherwise so stern professor. That was quick. At this rate, reaching the final circle shouldn’t take too long.
“The chimera doesn’t just offer up her secrets to just anyone. You’ve made a good first impression, so to speak, but we must go through the motions nevertheless.”
“I see.” Marcus nodded for Vern to go on.
“Are you familiar with Dante?” Vern said.
“As in Dante’s Inferno?”
“I am. It’s one of the great classics. One of very few truly ancient literary works to have survived the Last War—and all the turmoil that came after.”
“Then think of Haides as Publius Vergilius Maro. He will be your guide. Show you around the place. Explain things.”
“And I’m Dante Alighieri?”
“Not literally,” Vern said and smiled. “But yes, you’re Dante. At the mid-way point of your life, you’ve walked here through a dark wood, to find that which might save you, or maybe save humankind. To reach your goal, you must first pass through nine circles to reach the Maiden’s heart.”
“If Haides is Vergil and I’m Dante, who are you?”
“Me? I’m the creator of Hell,” Vern laughed heartily at his own joke.
Marcus shook his head. “If you were aiming for Dante, you’ve done a poor job out of it.”
“I admit I took more than a few liberties when I constructed this place. But the basic idea stands: Haides is your guide as much as he is the gatekeeper. Without him, you will be lost. Follow him, listen to his story to gain access to the deeper circles. To reach the ultimate prize: immortality.”
“I gathered as much. What kind of information do the first and second circles hold?”
“The first contains lore known by Haides when he was alive. The second is much the same, only the lore is mine—and thus much more extensive.” Vern tapped the cybernetic implant—a cortex booster by the looks of it—covering the back of his head. “Care to try me out?”
“I would like to know how Haides, born after Samael’s death, after the Maiden was made, came to be in here. But I sense this is a question you cannot or will not answer.”
“So, instead, tell me about Akakios.”
The three-dimensional map of the Milky Way shifted again. The great orb of a planet, as seen from space, soared towards Marcus. White clouds over teal and cerulean oceans. Continental landmasses, primarily in the southern hemisphere. Varied topography. Swathes of green in coastal areas and along waterways, but otherwise arid. Extensive, but not excessive signs of human habitation.
“Akakios’s single sun, named Aethyr, meaning ‘Pure Light’ in Archaic, was a yellow main-sequence star a fraction less luminous than Sol. Akakios orbited closer to Aethyr than Old Earth do Sol, but its albedo was higher and the greenhouse effect not as pronounced. Actual energy retention was about the same, but differences in orbital eccentricity, axial tilt, topography, and other factors conspired to make it a borderline arid world. The seasons were also more extreme. But all in all, Akakios was a prime candidate for settlement.”
Marcus nodded him on.
“Akakios’s history is shrouded in legend and myth. At its core, it’s a tale of a great ark-ship venturing out between the stars, back in hallowed antiquity.”
He reminds me of Arch-Magister Caeldabar. The same ability to make even the tedious exciting.
“Hallowed antiquity? Are we talking First Flowering period?”
“First Flowering, yes. Before the middle of the first millennium of the New Era,” Vern confirmed with a smile. “Good catch, young man.”
“Thank you, professor.” Marcus grinned back at him.
“He’s quite clever,” Vern said, turning his head towards Haides. “And polite. I like him.”
Haides gave Vern a stern look in return.
“The ship became the victim of several calamities, but its captain, Nik, finally managed to bring its precious human cargo to a new home.”
“It’s not exactly a unique genesis myth. You’ll find many worlds claiming similar roots. My own homeworld of Metrodora has a similar one.”
“What’s special about Akakios is that it may actually be true. I’ve looked at ancient records that have the Absalom listed as an early ark-ship that experienced a missjump as it passed across the Kerberos collapsar’s event horizon.”
“A missjump? That’s a death sentence. The ship and everything aboard will disassociate into sub-atomic particles.”
“Not always. It’s the likely outcome, but there is a faint possibility the ship survives.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing, but I haven’t studied the matter in any great detail,” Marcus admitted.
“Somehow, impossibly, the Absalom survived the miss-jump, arriving all the way out here on the edge of everything, long before any other ship made by humans had explored this far.”
“Even if the ship survived the miss-jump, how did it return to real space? Without a point of egress, it would be trapped beyond time and space. The chance of randomly hitting another collapsar’s shadow…”
“No one can tell for sure,” Haides interrupted. “Maybe it was luck. To have survived a missjump...to have passed through a realm so alien it defies description...found a way out…to happen upon a garden world at the other end. What are the odds?” he asked rhetorically.
“Minuscule, truly minuscule. So tiny it hardly shows in the sum over all histories. Practically impossible,” Vern replied.
“Or Nik was truly gifted. That’s what the legends of my homeworld tell us. Nik alone had the foresight and determination required to walk the dark paths and emerge into the light. All children of Akakios knew that story by heart before they could read,” Haides said.
“This Nik, if we assume he was real, could he have been a scion? A man of the divine blood? Perhaps the blood of Poseidon? They are said to be navigators without peer. Many starwalkers claim descent from him.”
“The Dragon Order considers that the most likely of several unlikely scenarios. Though in the Order’s not so humble opinion, his lineage could be one of several. Poseidon, yes. But just as easily Apollo—or Sobek even,” Haides said.
“Akakios endured both the Second War against Shadow and the Interregnum. When the Bellum Dominum—the Wars of Dominion—finally reclaimed that region of space, Akakios was still there. Its people had fought off all enemies, kept technology and civilization alive during the long wait, and learned to cull its own latents and abominations,” Vern picked up again.
Marcus nodded. Akakios was a place where humanity had survived the dark centuries of the Interregnum, not only in the absolute sense of the word, but also retained both civilization and a measure of prosperity.
“When the Dominion came calling, the Akakians were skeptical. They were a proud people. Proud of their history, of their accomplishments, proud of their genetic and spiritual purity. Why, their elders asked, should we bow before lesser men?” Vern had taken to pacing around the ring of light as he spoke.
“Why indeed,” Haides added.
“The Archons urged an all-out assault, but the Autarch ruled against it. Instead, he personally led a diplomatic delegation down to Akakios to meet with the planet’s rulers. After a brief period of negotiation, the Akakians joined the Dominion willingly.”
The conquest of an entire world required great military effort, decades of occupation, and massive rebuilding afterward. If a planet could be brought into the fold with less drastic means, it meant more profit for all. Mikael, First Autarch of Terra, knew this better than most. That’s why he succeeded in building an empire when so many other warlords had failed before. If only the rulers of the Successor Kingdoms were more like him, the galaxy might know peace again.
“Here is an interesting aside: the world was entered into the Roll of Worlds, not as Akakios, but as Protasia.”
“Protasia? I’ve seen that name applied to a frontier world, located on the outskirts of the Amalfian sector. It’s not that far from Archangelos.”
“You might at that, Protasia is the same place as Akakios—in a purely physical sense,” Haides interjected.
“The name Protasia is derived from the word ‘Protos,’ meaning beginning, or first, in the old Gaean tongue, or Archaic Dominion as we like to call it now. As far as scholars can tell, Akakios was actually a colony world that was settled by people from Amalfi, back during the First Flowering. Protasia, the First Colony of Amalfi.”
“That’s not a theory supported by Akakian scholars. But no matter, they are all long dead and unlikely to quarrel with you,” Haides said.
“What do you mean?”
Haides shrugged. “Akakians would tell you that the Absalom founded two colonies: The first to be settled was Akakios, the second was Amalfi. That’s why the Amalfians, already part of the Dominion at the time of rediscovery, had us listed as Protasia—their forefathers knew we were the first colony. Theirs was the second, named after the ark-ship.”
“Two colonies? That’s unusual. The old ark-ships had materials for only one colony. The ship itself was a primary source of building materials and technological equipment.”
Haides had a sip of conniaco before replying. “According to legend, a small group, led by Nik, left the Absalom to settle upon Akakios. They took only a few supplies, the bare necessities.”
“How did they survive?” Marcus asked.
“The Akakios of old was a garden world, where men could walk around without suits, breath the fresh air, drink the water—even some of the local wildlife proved edible.”
“Another miracle?” Marcus wasn’t convinced. The number of worlds where humans could survive unaltered, without any terraforming, was microscopic, even on a galactic scale.
Haides didn’t reply, just sat there with his drink.
“The diplomatic settlement meant the Akakians were free to continue with their ways. Concepts like equality, freedom, and democracy were central to Akakian culture and continued to be so until the very end,” Vern’s voice trailed off.
Democracy wasn’t a conventional means of planetary government anymore. History had shown it to be inefficient, often leading to civil unrest, even outright rebellion. Even when it didn’t, democracies were not self-sustaining in the long run. The authoritarian equilibrium offered by a feudal-dictatorial system governed by divine scions was far superior.
“The Titanomachy did not touch Akakios. The world fiercely maintained it’s independence, first in the face of Illyrian aggression, later against Coalition expansion. Until one day, Archon Raphael III Guillaume decided to settle the matter by force.”
“How did the Order become involved in a land grab? And what of the Edict of Excommunication?”
Haides cut in. “It started small, with a quarrel. The quarrel turned into a war, and the war stirred up a hornet’s nest. One thing led to another, and eventually, the Draconic Assembly got involved. At first, by sending Quaestors, only later came the Knights.”
“It’s a cute story, Haides, but it’s a fabrication. I’ve never heard of Akakios, but I do know of Protasia. Only passingly, I admit, but enough to know there was no Edict of Excommunication. It’s an unimportant frontier world, peaceful, loyal. You promised to guide me, Gatekeeper, but you’re not.” The last bit came out bitter, heavy with accusations.
“If I lied to you, Marcus, you’d be the last to realize. I’ve told only the truth,” Haides said, voice bereft of emotion. “The Edict was issued, but the Draconic Assembly chose to cut away only the corrupt parts. All references to Akakios and any mention of the planet’s troublesome past were deleted. Only the lie that is Protasia remained. If you doubt me, just look it up: you carry the Dark Omega, if you want to know, it will let you. ”
“You can be certain that I will. We’re inside the greatest repository of knowledge this side of Terra. You can be very sure I’ll check your story,” Marcus said. Something is wrong. The observing part of Marcus’s mind reviewed the situation and concluded the interactive partition had been left with too much emotional capacity. That’s why I have been so passionate. First, the mind-reading, then the emergence of lost memories, and now this sentimental hogwash. I need to do something about my mental architecture.
Haides sighed and slumped back in the chair. “Vern. If you please.”
“I have compiled a brief overview, based on some rare eye witness accounts—mine included. Perhaps it will answer some of your questions.”
“You were there? To witness the destruction of Akakios?”
“Indeed. At the time, I was in the employ of the Coalition military, so I was in a unique position to bear witness. I served as a senior staff analyst, responsible for collecting and indexing all sorts of data on the military operation.”
Curious. Vern had served Samael, made the Maiden, yet continued his career as a savant into Haides’s lifetime. Marcus would not be surprised if Vern was what connected Samael and Haides, the bridge leading into the past.
“There had been mounting tensions for a while. It came to a head when the Marchesa of Amalfi—the sector overlord—sent Ambassador-General Bacchus Eiden to Akakios. A diplomatic delegation backed up by a regiment of Amalfian Armored Guards, five thousand strong, carried aboard the flag cruiser Terrible Retribution, a Hades-class warship, out of Port Vengeur—Port Vengeance.”
Marcus saw a great leviathan, a dagger of metal nearly two kilometers long and massing millions of tons, gliding through the cold darkness of space. It’s gun ports were open, revealing row upon row of particle cannons protruding from its armored flanks. Heavy ordnance turrets crowned the vessel’s ventral and dorsal quarters. The massive shield doors protecting its spinal gun had been retracted, giving the ship a distinctly predatory look.
“Classic gunboat diplomacy. That only provoked the prideful-as-hell Akakians. It went downhill from there. The Senate of Akakios petitioned the Archon for a settlement. According to the Senate, they had this right by ancient charter. According to Marchesa Nicola of Amalfi, they did not, seeing as the Dominion was no more.” Vern had begun pacing again, gesticulating to underline key points, and making sure he had his single student’s undivided attention. “No reply was ever received because there was an incident. No one truly knows who fired the first shot, but the Akakians sure fired the last. Before the destruction of his command, the Ambassador-General managed to get out a distress call using astral projection.”
The mighty leviathan, which had seemed invincible moments before, came under concentrated attack from orbital defense platforms and surface installations. The cruiser’s screens were quickly overwhelmed, and devastating explosions wracked the hull until its keel broke, and the starship came apart.
“Amalfi’s liege lord, Grand Duke Marius of Salerno, Lord of the Seventh Astro-administrative Circle, responded quickly. Soon an entire fleet was underway, carrying sixty or so divisions. The troops had been scrounged up, primarily from worlds in the Amalfian sector and neighboring areas, in what was the biggest mustering the Seventh Circle of the Coalition had seen in many years.”
“I’m quite familiar with Coalition history,” Marcus interrupted. “I’ve never seen any mention of this great mustering to reclaim Akakios. Or should I say Protasia?”
“Are you familiar with the Magellanic campaign?”
Marcus nodded. Several hundred years ago, the Conclave had persuaded the Coalition to expand into the Magellanic Clouds using a newly reactivated collapsar gate. The Magellanic campaign—jokingly referred to as ‘the Crusade’ due to the Concalve’s heavy involvement—had started well but ended badly. Not even the participation of the Dragon Order had ensured victory.
“Nubecula Minor—the smaller of the Magellanic Clouds—was the intended destination of the divisions, the pretext under which they had been formed in the first place: a final attempt at salvaging that unfortunate expedition. It was the only way Lord-Marshal Maxim Maximus could persuade the Archon to equip and transport so many new divisions.”
“But when Akakios rebelled, the divisions were retasked,” Haides interrupted. “How opportune that my homeworld should rebel at just that time. The regiments had formed, the divisions were ready for deployment, the transport ships were there to carry them, and the escorts were already assembled. How very opportune.”
“So you’re saying that this was orchestrated? That the Marchesa tricked the Grand Duke and the Archon into this war? That she sacrificed an old cruiser, a regiment of elite troops, and a retired general, to create the pretext for an invasion? So the Akakians were victims of Amalfian plotting? Or was the Archon in on it from the beginning?” Marcus let doubt bleed into his voice.
“Amalfians are rightly infamous for their insidious ways. But no,” Vern shook his head gently, “that is not what I am saying. He is the conspirator here. But as Haides already pointed out: the Akakians had it coming, one way or the other.”
“Those who coveted the wealth of my homeworld did make one mistake, though,” Haides interjected. “They badly miscalculated the willingness—and ability—of Akakios to fight. The Akakians were to be crushed.” Haides thumped his right fist on the desktop for emphasis. “Then there would be purges and a period of dissent before things calmed down after a few generations. But there wasn’t supposed to be any widespread destruction. Kick in the door with enough force to make even the most stubborn Akakian cower in fear. Only it didn’t work out quite that way,” he said and fell silent.
“Trouble began in space,” Vern said. “Orbital defenses easily destroyed the cruiser that carried the ambassador. Now the system defense ships of Akakios turned out to have more potency than even the most pessimistic planners had allowed for. The Coalition battleship le Coeur Furieux —the Heart of Fury…”
“Don’t bore the man to death with Vern, show him.” The authority in Haides’s voice was unmistakable. This was a man used to command, expecting to be obeyed.
“Are you sure? It is very soon, the others...”
“Vern. Have you ever known me to be unsure? Wrong, yes. But unsure?”
“No,” Vern admitted. “Very well,” he said and turned his attention to Marcus. “Master Aurelian, I have made available a psychic recording for you to peruse, should you so desire.”
Marcus sensed it immediately: another data stream, much like the one accompanying the Gatekeeper’s narration. “To what purpose?”
“Let me put it this way: do you want to listen to Vern listing up every little detail of the campaign, or do you want to see it through the eyes of those who fought in that war?”
Marcus replied by plunging his interactive mental compartment into the rich data-stream. Let’s see where this takes me.
“You know what, Kwame?” Balack said suddenly, interrupting his own storytelling.
“No, I don’t,” the younger security officer replied. “You just keep talking; the story was finally going somewhere.” It was so typical of the old geezer to change subjects when he had finally managed to pique Kwame’s interest.
“I think you’re right, there is something fishy about this Marcus fellow,” Balack said.
“I...what? You just told me to back off! Never mind Marcus. Keep telling me about Calpurnia Pisonis and her desk!”
“Yes, yes, so I did,” Balack conceded. “But now I have new information, so I’ve reassessed the situation.”
“Bet you have. Took you this long to realize I was right is what.”
“There is a difference: you were jumpy and wanted to rush into the situation, while I have carefully reviewed the evidence and drawn an informed conclusion,” Balack said with a great deal of smugness.
“Care to let me know?” Kwame said with as much sarcasm as he could muster.
Balack smiled. “How long has he been cupping her chin and staring into her eyes? Twenty minutes? A bit more?”
“Something like that.”
“If you look at the psychic flux levels, there was a small spike when he touched her, and it’s remained relatively steady since then. I’m thinking he’s trying to read the chimera’s mind, but not getting anywhere—it’s a machine, after all.”
“Maybe he’s run into trouble? A security system. Or a trap of some sort,” Kwame theorized, trying to score a point.
Balack made a little harrumph. “Good one, Kwame. I think you may be right. Engage the drone. I want a full bio-scan—and keep an eye on the psy-reading. Loop it until I tell you to stop.”
Kwame did as ordered. Inside the chamber, the drone responded without hesitation, its scanning beam playing over Marcus’s perfectly still form. “There, done. If it picks up anything, we’ll know.” He pointed at one shared display. “Now, would you please tell me how the story ends?”
“Sure, sure,” Balack chuckled. “Where was I? Ah yes, all the ingredients were in place: me, the librarian, her desk, and a pair of manacles.”
“Manacles? There were no manacles before,” Kwame responded with a snort. “You’re just making this up. You’re so full of shit Balack.”
Balack shrugged. “Do you want it with the manacles or without? Your call.”
Kwame considered for a second. “With,” he replied and sat back to listen to another of Balack’s outrageous stories.