Anacyclosis by Brian Niemeier

by


anacyclosis-cover

ANACYCLOSIS

Brian Niemeier

Kob Agur strained to see behind the red circle that gamboled upon his screen’s starry backdrop, but distance obscured his target. He eased his magnaframe forward with the left control stick and kept the red dot centered with fine movements of the right. Sweat moistened the palms of his gloves. Kob’s computer, in all its DNA-encoded wisdom, warned him not to approach the Ynzu, but he wanted a clear shot.

Kob’s screen showed a static image of space. The red circle at its center beckoned him, but only the numbers measuring his range to the target gave any indication of movement. The sluggishness of the numbers’ regress made him grit his teeth.

Everybody dies, Kob reminded himself. Better make it memorable.

Kob opened the throttle. The stars remained fixed, but the string of numbers rolled back with blurring speed. A green, vaguely rhomboid shape appeared. Kob’s thumb hovered over the switch that would loose a spray of tungsten slugs from the linear gun in his magnaframe’s hand.

The Ynzu machine suddenly grew from a green blotch to a behemoth that filled Kob’s screen. The cockpit shook as the enemy latched onto his magnaframe.

I never got off a shot! Blaring alarms and synthetic voices invaded Kob’s reeling mind. Armor compromised. Structural integrity failing. Reactor breached.

The cacophony ceased. Kob removed his helmet and stared at his sandy-haired, grey-eyed reflection in the black screen.

A pneumatic hiss admitted glaring light into the cockpit. “Did I interrupt something?” asked a feminine voice.

Kob turned to see LTJG Rafu Shida leaning in the simulator door. “Only my unsung death,” said Kob.

Shida’s lip twisted in a smile. Her lithe fingers brushed brown hair out of her face. “There’s a polite social gathering in the wardroom. I thought you’d like to escort me.”

Kob unfastened his harness and pivoted toward Shida. “Why would you think that?”

Shida’s expression became flat. “Just a passing fancy,” she said. “Though you never seem to—you know—relax.”

Kob brushed Shida aside and descended the single step to the deck below. The room was a long, harshly lit box lined with doors giving on simulators. The scent of electronics filled the sterile air of the magnaframe carrier UCS Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

“I’ll relax when I’m dead,” said Kob.

“Typical Martian,” Shida said. “Delaying gratification till it’s too late.”

Kob ignored the slur—he shared his countrymen’s pride as well as their austerity—and strode toward the exit. The click of Shida’s boot heels followed his. “Indulge all the pleasures you want,” he told her. “Or join a convent. It won’t matter when you’re dead.”

Kob reached the lifts first, but Shida lunged past him and hit the up button. “If everything’s pointless,” she said, “why bother doing anything at all?”

“Not everything is pointless,” said Kob. “Just most things.” He pressed the down button.

Shida folded her arms. “Care to enlighten me?”

The up arrow glowed green above the middle lift, which opened on a car crowded with uniformed passengers. The door on the right opened, and Kob stepped into the empty lift. Though his car was going down, Shida only hesitated briefly before joining him.

Kob selected the hangar deck from the menu screen. He felt a momentary sinking feeling as the car moved perpendicular to the ship’s artificial gravity plane.

Peace reigned for several moments before Shida broke it. “Not talking?”

“About what?”

Shida gave an exasperated grunt. “About what’s worth doing if we just end up dead.”

“Does the name John Fitzgerald Kennedy mean anything to you?” asked Kob.

Shida’s brow furrowed. “Wasn’t he a Holy Roman Emperor? No, wait! He was an American president before the Collapse.”

Kob still faced the screen. He was glad Shida couldn’t see his grin. “Got it on the second try,” he said. “For extra points, can you tell me about his administration’s policies?”

The hum of magnetic actuators was the only sound until Shida said, “I know he was assassinated.”

“There’s your answer,” said Kob.

“You’re not making any sense!” Shida complained.

Kob turned. An indignant frown traversed Shida’s face. “You knew the name of a political figure who’s been dead for centuries,” he said. “I doubt you could name another US president besides Washington or FDR. Or Lincoln—for the same reason as Kennedy.”

“What do you mean, ‘the same reason’?”

“They were both murdered. And people obsessed over Kennedy’s death for years.”

Shida sighed. “So, only our memories live on after we die, and people remember interesting deaths.”

“I couldn’t have put it better myself,” said Kob.

The lift glided to a stop, and the doors slid open. Kob ventured out into a vast expanse that seemed worlds apart from the clean hallways abaft and above. The air tasted—and even felt—oily. The din of men and machines at work joined in martial harmony.

Kob marched across a concrete floor bedecked with lane demarcations and warnings in bold colors. Immense storage blocks towered on all sides, making Kob feel like a trespasser in a city of giants.

It was, in a way. The first three-quarters of the Newcastle’s kilometer length were reserved for the storage, maintenance, and deployment of magnaframes. A navy blue 1SMF-01MP Defender much like Kob’s rumbled down an intersecting path—lying on a flatbed truck, not walking on its own two legs—and Kob savored the awe in Shida’s eyes. She reluctantly followed him into a lift attached to the side of a storage block, betraying her discomfort at straying so far from the familiar administrative and living areas.

“People remember Lincoln for other things,” Shida said after the lift shut out the hangar’s harsh music and began its precarious ascent. “He won a war.”

“Lincoln put down a rebellion of his own people,” said Kob. “We’re fighting aliens who’ve wiped out entire colonies, decimated space travel, and besieged earth for thirteen years with no sign of letting up.”

Shida studied the floor tiles as she said, “Fighting the Ynzu does seem impossible.”

Beating them might be impossible,” said Kob. “That’s no reason not to fight them.”

“You can’t be serious,” Shida said.

“You should know better by now,” said Kob. “Why enlist in the UC Navy when I could’ve served in the MRV, if not for better odds of seeing combat?”

Shida fixed a withering glare on Kob. “And dying in combat.”

Kob shrugged. “No sense wasting my best shot at immortality.”

Shida scowled. “Getting assigned to the Newcastle must be a disappointment,” she said through clenched teeth.

Kob struggled to keep his face from confirming Shida’s accusation. “The ExSols aren’t a hot spot like earth,” he said, “but there’s less competition.”

The lift jerked to a halt, and the doors creaked open. Kob exited onto a catwalk twenty stories above the main hangar deck and turned to Shida. “Want to help me calibrate my Defender’s targeting system?”

Shida backed up against the lift’s rear wall. “I’ll pass,” she said.

Kob didn’t wait for the doors to close. He entered the storage block’s labyrinthine access corridors as the lift began its lonely, rumbling descent.

Lt. Malleck came over the escort team’s dedicated channel, announcing that he was in position and that his assigned area of space was clear.

“Delta Zero-Two in position,” Kob informed his squad leader. He scanned the empty star field above the red-brown arc of Andalus and added, “All clear.” Additional members of the escort team called in similar reports.

Only Kob’s helmet-amplified breathing spoiled the silence. The stars filling his screen beckoned him to join them. Knowing that some of them were dead, but that their lingering light would conceal that fact for eons, gave him comfort.

“Sierra Zero-Seven departing main hangar,” the shuttle pilot announced over the flight control channel. Hovering in formation hard off the Newcastle’s starboard bow, Kob had a clear view of the shuttle’s elongated hexagon hull exiting the hangar. He thought of a projectile leaving the barrel of a rail gun in super slow motion.

Kob pulled up Sierra Seven’s flight plan, double-checked his orders, and sighed. The shuttle was destined for Andalus’ surface, where it would deliver long-overdue mail and supplies to the isolated colonists. Meanwhile, Kob’s Defender would stay parked beside the Newcastle.

I should’ve joined the UCAF, Kob thought. If he were an airman, he could pilot one of the Emancipators assigned to escort the shuttle. Not that he wanted to visit Andalus. But piloting a magnaframe during reentry would at least let him flex his muscles. He hadn’t faced a challenge since his last simulator run two days before.

“Echo Zero-Four to Control,” a nervous male voice said over the comm, “I’ve got a heat shield failure. Please advise.”

Kob zoomed in on the shuttle and its four escorts. He didn’t need the figures that popped up to tell him they’d passed the point of no return. One of the slender grey Emancipators lagged behind, fighting a doomed battle against gravity.

“Echo Zero-Four,” the flight controller said with subdued urgency, “return to base.”

The Emancipator pilot’s rapid breathing betrayed his imminent lapse into panic. “Negative! Unable to reverse course.”

“Sierra Zero-Seven,” the flight controller said after a conspicuous pause. “Jettison your payload and prepare to take on Echo Zero-Four.”

“This is Lieutenant Junior Grade Kobus Agur calling Sierra Zero-Seven,” Kob transmitted to the group. “Belay that order. I’ll pull Echo Zero-Four out of the fire.”

“Negative, Agur,” said Malleck. “You are not cleared to break formation.”

Kob ran the numbers and quoted Malleck the solution. “The only way to bail out Echo Four without scrapping the mission is for a carrier escort to intercept at an angle to the gravity well. I’m the closest to his position, which gives me the best chance of success.”

“Two magnaframes is a steep price for a load of care packages and tractor parts,” Malleck said. “Not to mention how much the UCP sank into pilot training.”

“Standing by to jettison cargo,” said the shuttle pilot.

Kob’s hand tensed on the throttle. He watched the Emancipator receding toward the rust-colored sphere. Another few seconds, and the window would close forever.

“If I’m wrong, you can bill me,” said Kob. He set the Emancipator in his sights and opened the throttle.

The massive carrier shrank in his rearview monitor as Kob rocketed toward Andalus. In its reentry configuration, the imperiled magnaframe resembled the hybrid offspring of a fighter craft and a piece of construction equipment. It was angling toward the shuttle, but its odds of docking before burning up in the atmosphere stood just above zero and threatened to plunge lower every moment.

Kob squelched Malleck’s blustering and focused on lining up his approach. Gravitational forces arm-wrestled him for the stick as he fought to align his flight path with the Emancipator.

“Just try to stabilize your descent,” Kob told the Emancipator’s pilot. “I’m on approach from your eight o’clock.”

Kob’s monitor chimed contentedly as the blue line projected on his screen intersected the Emancipator’s red line. A visceral thrill like no simulation could evoke burned the moment into his mind. “Echo Zero-Four,” said Kob, “I’m locked on for intercept. Brace for impact and prepare to fire thrusters on my mark.”

“I copy, Delta Zero-Two,” the Emancipator’s pilot replied, his voice shaken yet relieved. “Thanks for the assist.”

Kob fixed his eyes on the target, which continued its descent halfway between him and the shuttle. He reduced speed and spread the Defender’s limbs.

A green flash that burned a pink afterimage into Kob’s vision preceded the chirping of his proximity alarm and the shuttle’s detonation by a split second. Expanding clouds of burning gas ruptured the hexagonal hull and sent debris ranging from microscopic particles to house-sized chunks spraying outward.

Kob’s thoughts had no time to coalesce before the shrapnel cloud absorbed the three adjacent Emancipators. Three new explosions continued the chaotic chain reaction.

Swarms of white-hot debris screamed past on all sides. The last Emancipator—the one that Kob had risked his life and honor to save—took the brunt of the barrage. The shockwave slammed Echo Zero-Four’s perforated fuselage into the Defender and flung Kob back and forth in a Newtonian tug of war.

Unearthly stillness followed. Only Kob’s racing heartbeat marked the passage of time.

“Echo Zero-Four!” Kob belted into his helmet mic. “Do you copy?”

No one answered. Kob ordered his Defender to turn the damaged Emancipator. Though only one arm heeded his command, it sufficed to show him the jagged hole where Echo Zero-Four’s cockpit had been.

Kob regained enough sense to open the comm channels he’d blocked. A chorus of hysterical chatter clouded his aching head. Kob’s eyes darted to the rearview monitor. His cracked visor split the image into dual views of hell.

The Newcastle’s oblong hull seemed to be coated with tarnished copper scales. The sickly green patina writhed like the flesh of a loathsome aquatic parasite.

The chill that gripped Kob’s insides seemed at odds with the sweat that streaked his face. Through his fractured visor, he watched the corroded scales resolve into hundreds of crystalline machines that resembled nothing so much as squat four-legged crabs. Each mechanized crustacean measured thirty meters across, and the whole mass of them were busily eating away at the carrier like scavengers consuming a whale carcass.

Ynzu, Kob recalled by rote, Nidulans-class.

A green swarm orbited the carrier like toxic spores. A plaintive chirp and a red strobe on Kob’s screen warned him that something in the cloud had locked onto him.

Muscle memory developed by hours in the simulator prompted Kob to bring his Defender about and reach for the linear rifle racked on its back. An error message reminded him that the arm he’d chosen for the task was offline as a green beast made of synthetic diamond burst from the cloud on a collision course with his magnaframe.

The Defender’s functioning hand drew its close-combat weapon an instant before the charging crab made contact. A clawed arm lashed out, seeking to trap Kob’s magnaframe in a crushing embrace against the Nidulans’ larger hull.

A transparent column of violet-tinted plasma emerged from the rectangular hilt in the Defender’s good hand. Kob swung reflexively. The magnetically stabilized plasma blade strove against the ions sheathing the Nidulans’ claw with a fusillade of brilliant sparks. The sheath parted and plasma bit into the pincer’s main joint. The crab’s arm recoiled, its claw maimed.

But another diamond claw clamped down on the Defender’s right leg. Kob fired all thrusters on full reverse. The Defender lurched backward, shearing its leg off above the knee and slamming into the wrecked Emancipator.

A turret mounted above the Nidulans’ claw discharged a bolt of emerald light that reduced the Defender’s remaining leg to slag. Kob frantically aimed his thruster nozzles downward, and a second bolt lanced through the space where his magnaframe had been. The Emancipator erupted in a shower of molten metal.

Warning klaxons shrieked. The burning pain in Kob’s chest alerted him to the fact that he’d been holding his breath. He sucked down a lungful of moist air and checked his screen. The crab hovered below him for a moment before launching itself upward, claws poised to rend his magnaframe in two.

The enemy’s slight delay allowed Kob to drop the plasma blade and somehow draw his linear rifle from the opposite side. At his command the Defender pressed and held the trigger, spraying a hypersonic stream of tungsten at the ascending enemy.

The slugs punched a constellation of burning holes in the Nidulans’ diamond carapace. Its limbs curled like those of dead vermin, but the pitiless laws of physics maintained the lifeless crab’s trajectory. The collision snapped Kob’s head backward.

Kob awoke to the urgent clamor of automated warnings. The only indication that he’d been knocked unconscious—besides the pounding in his head—was the extra eighteen minutes on his camera feed’s time code.

Kob scanned his position. No trace of the Nidulans remained. It had most likely knocked him free of danger and succumbed to Andalus’ gravity. Seeing how close he’d come to burning up in his sleep made him shiver with relief and shock.

Widening his sensor sweep gave Kob another, even more jarring, surprise. Not only had his enemy vanished; the high orbit once occupied by his carrier was empty. “Newcastle,” Kob barked into his helmet mic, “this is Delta Zero-Two. What is your location?”

Only bursts of static punctuating airless silence answered his call.

Newcastle, please respond!”

No voice spoke to Kob, save the synthetized complaints warning him of heavy structural damage. He stifled the computer’s squawking and brooded. Disembodied faces spun through Kob’s mind: his father, his squad mates—and Shida. Shame warmed his face as he recalled his last unkind dealings with all of them.

The desire for self-preservation banished Kob’s guilt to the dim recesses of his mind. He almost hailed the colony but stopped himself and scanned the surface. Though he had no visual on the city, the glut of amateur video and official propaganda on which all UCP citizens gorged informed Kob’s imagination. There, diamond crabs swarmed through skies blackened with human ashes, their turrets setting buildings alight. Bipedal giants stalked the cratered streets, mowing down survivors under scythelike claws. And below, tri-symmetric leviathans with burning, lamprey maws devoured the tender roots of human civilization.

Revulsion—not any hope of rescue—impelled Kob to steer his limping magnaframe away from the graveyard world until he reached the Newcastle’s previous position. A long-range scan and a few calculations resolved the mystery of the carrier’s absence.

On the edge of sensor range floated diamond dust and ferrous alloy particles. The computer extrapolated a debris trail spanning half an AU. Based on the rate of decay, the wreckage had been there for ages.

Kob scanned for gravitational disturbances and found spacetime trembling like a drumhead. His guts twisted worse than on his first day of zero-g training. They tried TC/D.

Kob’s last memory of the Newcastle breached the surface of his churning thoughts. Compressing and dilating time allowed a ship to circumvent the cosmic speed limit, but it required a minutely exacting account of all mass aboard. Encrusted with Ynzu like coconut flakes on a cake, the carrier hadn’t made it far. Or perhaps it had, before the original frame of reference caught up. Kob pondered whether Shida had died in the attack, or whether she’d waited, conscious yet frozen, while the Newcastle spread its atoms across eternity.

Kob pictured his name on a tarnished bronze plaque, unremarkable amid the hundreds lost with the UCS Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Despair promised the comfort of oblivion.

Enough. Since he was the only one left to save, Kob resolved to save himself. Alone in a heavily damaged short-range craft with no means of rescue in sight, Kob set a course that followed the debris trail while conserving his meagre fuel supply.

The proximity alarm stirred Kob from the delirium of hypoxia. Though his stomach lacked contents to turn out—he’d last dined days ago on the bitter gelatin of his computer’s DNA drive—he fought to suppress the dry heaves that racked his dehydrated frame.

Kob stared at the small square of screen that the Defender’s failing powerplant and his own hunger had left him. Laughter rasped through his cracked lips and misted in the stale air when he saw the elongated hexagon.

“A shuttle!” He croaked, fearing amid his joy that the longed-for sight was only a mirage. Kob gambled some power on a detailed scan. His investment paid off. The shuttle drifting amid the trail of diamond and metal dust was as real as his need. The Defender’s arm grabbed a rail at the vessel’s stern.

The perils of wading into a veritable firing range thick with supersonic projectiles seemed like airy abstractions. Kob shut down his failing magnaframe, pulled the cockpit’s emergency release, and hurled himself at the shuttle’s rear doors.

Several days of sedentary privation had dulled Kob’s reflexes. He struck the shuttle head-first. Only when the initial fear of his cracked visor shattering proved groundless did Kob realize that he’d rebounded from the shuttle door. He flailed in the vacuum and found purchase on his Defender’s outstretched arm. Kob’s helmet amplified his ragged breath as he crawled along the metal limb to relative safety.

Unprepared for the cargo hold’s artificial gravity, Kob took a nasty spill that almost earned him a broken arm. He struggled to his feet but only made it halfway across the hold before his cracked HUD announced the exhaustion of his air supply. Removing his helmet allowed him a deep breath of more or less fresh air—along with the mingled scents of burned electronics and fear.

Hunger, thirst, and fatigue sang to Kob like sirens, but curiosity quieted them. He engaged the automated loading system to bring his Defender on board and trudged toward the flight deck in search of answers.

According to the main computer, the carrier’s desperate TC/D jump had caught the shuttle in mid-launch. Thrown clear of the hangar, the shuttle had been spared the Newcastle’s fate—cold comfort to the crew whose immaculate corpses surrounded him, frozen in the throes of their doomed escape.

Kob set course for Niflheim, the next closest ExSol, adding several random TC/D jumps to throw off pursuit. He spent the last of his strength shambling through the still burdensome gravity to the crew quarters. He gorged himself on bland rations and tepid water, collapsed on a dead man’s bunk, and lost himself in troubled dreams.

Kob dimly remembered klaxons blaring. The screeching had lasted only a moment before a deafening roar drowned out all other sound and intense pressure had smothered his consciousness.

“Praise to Our Lord Jesus Christ through Saint Luke and Saint Jude,” a male voice said.

Kob felt as if a hundred red-hot nails pierced his flesh. His leaden eyelids opened. The room where he lay was dim, but he saw that its otherwise Spartan confines boasted reasonably up-to-date medical equipment that hissed and beeped in time to his body’s enfeebled cycles.

The calm male voice spoke again. “Can you speak, Lieutenant?”

Lifting his head sent a jolt of pain down his spine, but Kob managed the task. A thin man who looked neither young nor old sat beside the bed. His hair was mere stubble.

“You know who I am?” Kob replied.

The man closed his bespectacled eyes as if meditating and said, “You’re Lieutenant Junior Grade Kobus Agur of the UCP magnaframe carrier Newcastle-upon-Tyne. To spare you from asking, we salvaged your personnel file from the crash.”

Kob’s heart sank. “Crash?”

“This is St. Roch Extrasolar Colony—province of the Societate Pacis in Saecula Saeculorum. You’ve been in our care since your shuttle crashed here six days ago.” The man pressed a hand to his robe-like garment, whose coarse fabric seemed black at first, but which closer scrutiny showed to be dark green. “I am Brother Daniel Teresa Chiune.”

“Never heard of a St. Roch in the ExSols,” said Kob. “Or people founding a society for the sake of…what again?”

A grin split Daniel Teresa’s face. “Peace in all ages,” he said. “You may call us the Saeculum for short.”

“Peace?” Kob snorted. “Good luck.”

The brother’s smile remained, but his demeanor became eerily serene. “Providence will suffice,” he said. “As you must know.”

Perplexed by Daniel Teresa’s cryptic retort, and his own pain, Kob changed the subject. “Didn’t mean to impose,” he said. “I was actually en route to Niflheim.”

Daniel Teresa nodded. “We maintain a guidance beacon for automated craft. Setting your shuttle to make random TC/D jumps brought it within range.”

“So your beacon thought I was a wayward drone and forced an override,” said Kob. “I’d’ve gotten the hint when the shuttle started crashing. Didn’t anyone call for confirmation?”

“The drones are our only contact with the outside world,” said Daniel Teresa.

Kob groaned. “You really want to keep your secret society secret.”

The wooden beads at Daniel Teresa’s waist clattered as he rose. “Discretion is only one virtue that history has obliged my order to perfect,” he said. “The last scions of French royalty shielded us from the Collapse. But the Coalition’s return forced us to seek refuge in the heavens they’d colonized.”

Kob furrowed his brow. “The warlords and the socs never agreed on much,” he said. “What did the Saeculum do to piss them both off?”

“Perhaps I’ll show you when you’ve recovered,” Daniel Teresa said. “In the meantime, rest from your labors with God’s blessing.” His unhurried gait carried him from the room.

Resting from his labors was the last thing Kob wanted to do, but a wave of exhaustion sapped his strength. His head swam with arcane visions and strange dreams as it fell back against the clean-scented pillow.

Daniel Teresa appeared late one morning after Kob’s physician Brother Joseph Augustine Gilbert had finished his daily examination.

“You’re on the mend,” Joseph Augustine said with an avuncular smile that never failed to elicit mirth. The portly physician greeted Daniel Teresa with a knowing nod, replaced Kob’s chart, and made a brisk exit.

The allegro clacking of the departing friar’s beads somehow kept time with Daniel Teresa’s stately rhythm. “I heard Brother Joseph Augustine’s prognosis,” the latter said.

Kob shrugged. The act produced only moderate pain. “I’ll be discharged in a week or so,” he said. “But then what?”

Daniel Teresa’s face remained placid. “Then you resume the work to which you’re called,” he said.

Kob couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice. “The only thing I had to live for was a memorable death,” he said. “That’s not gonna happen if I’m stuck on an uncharted rock with a bunch of recluses.”

“That is the voice of despair,” Daniel Teresa said.

Kob propped himself up on one arm, ignoring his body’s protests. “What you call despair, I call reality. I saw an Ynzu swarm scuttle a carrier and sterilize a colony in a matter of minutes. Hope is just wishful thinking.”

“Yet you escaped the attack, found this world, and survived a crash that claimed every other soul on board.”

“They were already dead,” said Kob. “Probably for decades. That’s the thing about TC/D. Push time far enough, and sometimes it’ll push back.”

A sad chuckle escaped Daniel Teresa’s throat. “I take your meaning—perhaps better than you know. My order’s charism involves the study of history.”

Kob eyed the friar suspiciously. “How can you study history and still be pacifists?”

“The Saeculum strives for lasting peace,” Daniel Teresa said, “but violence is sometimes justified in defense of the innocent.”

Kob slumped back. The pillows nearly swallowed him. “When I got my commission, I took an oath to defend the UCP and its citizens,” he said. “I can’t do that anymore, either.”

“Perhaps you’re speaking too rashly,” Daniel Teresa said.

“What do you mean?”

“My order dwells in secrecy for a reason. Few understand our work and its fruits. Perhaps your presence here marks you as one of the rare souls called to aid us in our labors.”

Kob was pretty sure that Daniel Teresa and his brothers were nuts. But the prospect of being useful piqued his interest. “How can a grounded pilot help an order of hermits?”

“Not necessarily grounded,” Daniel Teresa said. “Your magnaframe weathered the worst, though we lack the means to fully restore it.”

“Well, that’s not nothing,” Kob granted. “We could use it as construction equipment.”

“Perhaps,” Daniel Teresa said, “but I must attend the Divine Office. Will you join me?”

Curiosity stoked Kob’s interest. “Is that where you folks do your mysterious work?”

Daniel Teresa brought a wheelchair from the corner. “It is indeed,” he said. “And the laborers are always too few.”

The friar wheeled Kob across a narrow courtyard under an amber sky. The high brick walls encompassed a garden teeming with flowers whose perfume Kob savored. His eyes were still dazzled from the daylight when he and Daniel Teresa entered a gloomy hall with vaulted ceilings and mullioned windows. A dozen other friars stood among the double row of benches that marched up to a dais of three steps. The graphic sculpture of a victim nailed to the crossbeam of a torture rack stood in stark contrast to the room’s ethereal mood.

“What are we doing?” asked Kob. Daniel Teresa just handed him a small leather bound volume marked with a silk ribbon.

Kob’s confusion only grew over the next several minutes as the brothers read and sang from their books. Not knowing the language didn’t help. Some of it reminded Kob of the scant French he knew, but the book’s words were less baroque.

Suppressing his impatience, Kob followed along as best he could. But the cloying residue of incense irritated his still raw throat and lungs. Toward the end he contented himself with the role of detached observer—an anthropologist documenting a lost tribe’s primitive rituals.

Joseph Augustine released Kob a week later. The Saeculum’s dwindling numbers left ample room for guests, and Kob took an empty cell as his private quarters.

Within two weeks, Kob obtained permission to restore his Defender. Repairing such catastrophic damage would’ve daunted a well-equipped maintenance team. The lack of qualified assistance, combined with the friary’s limited selection of outdated tools, multiplied the weight of Kob’s burden. On occasion he sought rest from his labors in the walled garden—or the chapel, where he sometimes found the brothers at prayer and stayed to observe—though his detachment became harder to maintain.

“How goes the magnum opus?” Daniel Teresa asked one morning. His voice echoed in the former warehouse turned workshop.

Kob stuck his head out of the supine magnaframe’s cockpit and barked a harsh laugh when he saw the bespectacled friar. He hadn’t heard Daniel Teresa come in.

“I wouldn’t call it great,” said Kob. “Decent work is the best I can do, but at this point I’ll take what I can get.”

“We can advance no other virtues without humility,” Daniel Teresa said. “But they are perfected in moderation. Will you not take a brief respite?”

“Is it time for Terce?”

The friar shook his shorn head. “It is two hours till Sext,” he said. “You may join us then, but first I desire your assistance on a brief errand.”

“I aim to please,” said Kob. He hoisted himself out of the cockpit and climbed down the metal giant’s torso. He wiped his oily hands, tossed the earthy-smelling rag onto the stone floor, and fell in behind Daniel Teresa, who’d already started toward the exit.

Kob followed the friar out of the workshop, into the sun-warmed garden, and through a door across from the chapel. The door gave on an echoing hallway that led to the brothers’ library. The scent of old books evoked memories of Kob’s visit to the museum of pre-Collapse artifacts in Argyre City. The curators back home would kill for a collection like this, he thought.

Daniel Teresa strode through the labyrinthine stacks with confidence. Kob stood by as the friar paused to unlock a door featuring the stained glass image of a red-cloaked, arrow-pierced woman. Beyond the door, wooden stairs spiraled down into the bedrock.

“Are we getting something from storage?” Kob asked during the winding descent.

“An apt description,” said Daniel Teresa.

“This might take more than one trip,” said Kob. “Joseph Augustine doesn’t want me lifting too much.”

“The object of our search has no physical weight,” said Daniel Teresa. “Nor do any of the Archive’s contents.”

“Archive?” Kob repeated. “You’re going all this way to search a database?”

“After a fashion,” said Daniel Teresa, who stepped from the foot of the stairs and into a cool brushed metal hallway. “Yet its like is not to be found anywhere outside my order.”

The friar preceded Kob down the hall to a door composed of black ceramic slabs. Daniel Teresa pressed his palm against a panel set into the wall and entered a code on a number pad that appeared thereafter. The door opened with a smooth hiss, revealing a walk-in closet-sized chamber with bare walls of the same jet black material as the door.

Kob hesitated at the threshold. “This is an archive? It’s empty.”

“Yet some say that any number of angels may dance on the head of a pin,” Daniel Teresa said as he ushered Kob inside. A dry chill filled the air. The door closed, plunging the room into perfect darkness.

Kob’s chest tightened claustrophobically until the room seemed to expand infinitely in all directions. His skin tingled at the appearance of a distant but growing speck. “What’s that?” Kob asked with a note of trepidation. “Looks like it’s getting closer.”

“Spirits have no extension in space,” Daniel Teresa said. “They manifest by focusing their intellects on specific locations.”

Kob opened his mouth to dismiss the friar’s superstition, but his jaw dropped when the expanding point resolved into a vast crowd in whose midst he suddenly found himself standing. Young and old, strong and frail—encompassing every race and both sexes—the multitude stood silently waiting.

Without taking his eyes from the crowd, Kob checked his peripheral vision and sighed with relief to find Daniel Teresa still present.

“Who are these people?” asked Kob. “Why are they in your basement?”

As he asked the question, certain faces in the crowd drew Kob’s recognition. “That’s Tod Ritter,” he whispered, pointing to a dreadlocked young man whose dusty fatigues covered most of his mahogany skin, “the founder of Neue Deutschland.”

Turning to a square-shouldered man with greying blond hair, Kob said, “He’s Josef Friedlander, leader of the dissenting Coalition colonies.”

Daniel Teresa confirmed both men’s identities, but Kob barely heard him. The palpable sense of history thickened with each luminary he recognized. There was the notorious Dr. Browning, whose weaponized industrial walkers made him the father of magnaframes. The bald scowling figure to Browning’s left could only be Coalition Defense Minister Sanzen Kaimora, whom conspiracy theorists blamed for the Friedlander family’s demise.

But of the whole phantom assembly, one apparition stole Kob’s breath and froze his blood. She looks so small, he thought, knowing that Chino Megami had seized power at age fifteen. But he struggled to believe that this waifish girl had nearly purged the earth of mankind. Kob couldn’t avert his gaze from the pale face framed by her blue-black hair, and his skin crawled at the perception of something old and alien moving behind her dark eyes.

“Take care,” Daniel Teresa said, “for the abyss gazes also into you.”

The warning roused Kob from his grim contemplation. “This has to be a simulation,” he said, “but I’ve never seen one this perfect.”

Daniel Teresa nodded. “History quickly taught my order to mistrust historians. Even primary sources omit details and embellish facts according to unconscious biases. The solution was gaining immediate access to the impressions events leave on human minds—memory itself.”

“I don’t get it,” said Kob.

“History is a great court of law,” Daniel Teresa said. “The verdict is reached by questioning witness.” He swept his hand across the room. “Here we have a great cloud of Witnesses ready to testify to the truth.”

“But they’re all dead,” said Kob.

“Death is no obstacle when data storage and processing technology perfectly mimics the human brain.”

Kob scratched his chin. “I understand storing people’s memories in gel drives,” he said, “but where’d the data come from?”

Daniel Teresa bowed his head and lowered his voice. “The Saeculum subsists on the charity of highly placed benefactors. They obtain the memories of Witnesses, and occasionally send novices to refresh our ranks.”

“Why did you bring me here?” Kob asked.

“That we may render judgment,” said a young man with wild golden hair and cold eyes.

Being addressed by one of the phantoms, who’d all been silent until that point, gave Kob a start. “Your judgment of what?” he asked.

“Your worthiness to join their number,” Daniel Teresa said.

The Witnesses betrayed no emotion, but Kob felt deep yearning, and the intoxication that precedes fulfillment. “You’d copy my memories?” he asked.

“If you are worthy,” Daniel Teresa said.

Kob grasped the friar’s robed shoulders. “Is there some kind of test?” he asked, hardly noticing the increased speed and volume of his voice. “What do I have to do?”

“Enrollment in the Archive isn’t earned,” Daniel Teresa said. “One must be called.”

Kob lowered his hands. “Don’t you do the calling?”

Daniel Teresa shook his head. “We are bound by anacyclosis.”

Pressure started building behind Kob’s eyes. “What?”

“History moves in cycles,” Daniel Teresa explained. “Events repeat according to broadly predictable patterns, and individuals are called to fill certain archetypes. They form the order of Witnesses.”

“And they can tell if I’m one of them,” said Kob.

Daniel Teresa gave a solemn nod.

“Let’s say I am,” said Kob. “What happens then?”

“Then reproductions of your mind and memories will be added to the Archive.”

“For how long?”

Daniel Teresa spread his hands. “As long as the Saeculum survives,” he said. “And it has outlived governments, languages, civilizations, and worlds.”

The elation in Kob’s heart burst forth in his voice. “Do it,” he said. “Scan my brain—whatever you have to do. I want into that Archive!”

Daniel Teresa’s tone was somber. “As the resident archivist, I modeled your brain and copied your memories before you regained consciousness. Understand that it was a precautionary measure, in case you never woke.”

“Great!” said Kob. “When do I meet myself?”

“You misunderstand,” Daniel Teresa said. “I copied your memories on the chance that you were a Witness, but I cannot discern the call for you. Only the Archive’s combined wisdom can tell if you are predestined to one of the archetypal roles.”

Kob turned to the host of phantom Witnesses. “Well?” he said like a condemned man arguing his appeal. “Am I one of you or not?”

Megami, the butcher of millions, rendered history’s judgment on Kob: “No.”

The spectral gathering faded. The black walls closed in. Kob stood alone with the friar.

At length, Kob broke the silence. “They’re wrong,” he said in a quivering voice. “They have to be.” He cast a pleading look at the archivist. “It’s Providence. You said it yourself. Why else would I crash in the one place where I can get what I’ve always wanted?”

“I cannot say, my friend,” Daniel Teresa said. “Nor do I claim to understand the workings of those wiser than myself. But I know that our deepest longings are not inspired to no purpose.”

“Then to hell with the ghosts,” growled Kob. “Put me in the damned Archive!”

Daniel Teresa laid his callused hand on Kob’s shoulder. “My friend,” the archivist said, “I am the Archive’s servant—not its master. To contradict the Witnesses’ judgment would be to undermine their integrity and risk corrupting their vision.”

A tremor shook the cramped room. Daniel Teresa would have fallen if Kob hadn’t grabbed his arm.

A shiver ran down Kob’s spine. “Stay here!” he called back as he bolted from the room and leapt up the stairs. Three more earthquakes rocked the winding stairwell on his way up.

Kob gagged on acrid smoke as he emerged into an inferno that had been the library. Holding his breath, he fought his way through the raging heat. He was on the verge of blacking out when he reached the hall. Filling his lungs with the hazy air sent him into a coughing fit, but he composed himself by force of will and kept moving.

Flames were consuming the garden—along with the corpse of a friar that lay pinned under the ruins of a wall. Pangs of regret harried Kob across the burning courtyard, but duty brooked no delay.

Kob charged into the workroom and found his Defender as he’d left it: lying half-finished on its back. He vaulted into the cockpit, shut the hatch, and initiated the startup sequence.

Don’t let these men die because of me, Kob silently petitioned no one in particular as his fingers fumbled at the sensor controls. A quick sweep of the area confirmed his fears: multiple enemy contacts. Drawn by the sensor signal, a cluster of red dots signifying Ynzu craft converged in the airspace over Kob’s location.

Kob aimed his magnaframe’s linear rifle at the high wooden ceiling and fired. He opened the throttle at the same time, melting a crater as he launched his Defender through the jagged hole in the roof.

Nidulans gleamed above like emeralds sewn to a field of amber silk. Burdened with the knowledge that his negligence had betrayed the Saeculum’s refuge, Kob unloaded into the onrushing swarm. He dropped his empty gun, ignited his plasma blade, and veered off to the west at high speed. If there was such a thing as Providence, this final reckless act would buy the friars a few precious seconds.

Kob held to that hope as the first volley of enemy fire blasted into his Defender’s back.

Brother Moses Jerome John treaded lightly into the Royal Archive beneath the Palace of St. Jean-Baptiste. For the first time in his three decades as head archivist, his fingers trembled as he thought of the burden they held.

Moses Jerome crossed the ballroom-sized chamber of white glass that served as the Witness’ gallery and passed through a concealed door known only to a handful of men, including him. Soft lights twinkled like fireflies in the dark room beyond.

Data storage devices of every age and description hummed in their wall niches on either side. Moses Jerome passed them by, shivering in the constant chill, until he reached an empty socket in an antique section of the Archive. Carefully, lovingly, he slid his treasure into the niche and heaved a sigh of relief when the old DNA-based drive kindled to life.

I am the first to access this device since the Ynzu War, thought Moses Jerome. The drive’s age was certain—if not for the obsolete drone that had brought it that morning, then unquestionably for the unmanned vessel’s point of origin: the lost friary of St. Roch.

The device’s age and provenance were remarkable, but what made Moses Jerome’s palms sweat and his pulse race was the prospect of learning what information the doomed friars of St. Roch had spent their final moments to preserve.

It was all Moses Jerome could do to avoid running back to the gallery. When at last he stood within its pearly walls, he cleared his throat and said, “Open drive C-Y Seventy-Three.”

Symbols of a long dead programming language shimmered before Moses Jerome. His heart leapt when he realized that the drone had crossed all those light years at sub-luminal speeds bearing a precious copy of the St. Roch Archive. St. Jean-Baptiste would have been just a humble hiding place then—far removed from its current dignity as mother house of the rehabilitated Saeculum.

Moses Jerome pored over the St. Roch Archive all morning and well into the afternoon. Just when he thought he’d exhausted its riches, he found a file hidden away in an otherwise unremarkable subdirectory. It resembled the synaptic model and encoded memory of a Witness, but why wasn’t it stored with the others?

“Open file Proverbs Thirty,” Moses Jerome said.

The figure of a young man materialized out of the cold air. He wore a blue pilot’s uniform from the days when men had still fought the Ynzu. Sandy blond hair crowned his head, and his grey eyes shone with wisdom beyond his years.

“You aren’t a Witness,” said Moses Jerome.

“No,” the long-dead pilot agreed. “The Witnesses judged me correctly. I am no Martyrion, but Apollyon, the Destroyer. In seeking death, I brought destruction to all I knew. The archivist wished my memory to serve as a warning for all time.”

“And so it shall,” said Moses Jerome, marveling at the St. Roch archivist’s wisdom.

Food for Thought

Assuming Kob’s premise that there is no life after death, and his observation that those who die gloriously are remembered, is his resolution to seek glorious death in battle sound?

Does Kob’s motive for rescuing the Emancipator pilot, viz. personal glory and honor, affect the act’s moral character? If so, how?

What do you make of Daniel Teresa’s claim that pursuing peace isn’t always incompatible with doing violence in defense of the innocent?

Does the Saeculum’s cyclical view of history substantially differ from Kob’s fatalism? If so, how?

Was Kob’s final sacrifice in vain, or did he gain something in the end? If so, what?

About the Author

Brian Niemeier is a nominee for the 2016 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and also won the Dragon Award for his novel Souldancer. He chose to pursue a writing career despite formal training in history and theology. His journey toward publication began at the behest of his long-suffering gaming group, who tactfully pointed out that he seemed to enjoy telling stories more than planning and adjudicating games.

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