An Aurora Rhapsody Short Story
Milky Way, Sector 14
12th Epoch Proper
When you’re an anarch, dying is the easy part. Completing your mission objective before nulling out? Not always so easy.
“A scan of your credentials does not return a valid result. Present Accepted credentials or be pacified.”
The weaponized arm pointed at my chest by the Vigil unit suggested the pacification would not be of the gentle sort. It rarely was.
I brought my hands up from behind my back and stretched them into the air, fingers curled in but giving every indication they were opening in surrender. As the nail of my left index finger reached the center of my palm, I flicked it outward.
The gossamer dampener net unfurled as it sailed through the air to envelop the Vigil unit.
The floating orb began jerking to and fro in the narrow hallway in an attempt to unsnarl itself. I leapt forward and collected the edges of the net in one hand, then wrangled it under some semblance of control until I was able to wrap my arms around the wide, circular frame and brace it against the wall.
It squirmed savagely, but after two tries I found the input port and shoved a spike into it.
“Not this time, Vigil. You don’t get me yet.”
The unit dropped from my grip to the floor and rolled into the opposite wall.
I’d bought myself twenty minutes.
I stripped off my infiltration suit, shrank it and stuffed it in my kit. The fete-worthy attire which remained looked ridiculous to my mind, but nevertheless appropriate to the venue I’d be visiting. I unbound my hair and began scaling the service duct.
The galactic core hung in the sky like an ornament placed just so to best complement the pavilion. The prodigious light it provided, even here on the verge, filtered through an invisible prism field to cast soft, color-varying rays upon the conveniently reflective flooring.
See how small you are, it whispered.
See how powerful we are, it hummed.
In this case the core acted as a stand-in for the Anaden Directorate, obviously.
The guests enjoying the Phoenix Arx amenities acted oblivious to the implied message, though in truth it was because most of them had internalized it decades if not centuries ago and would never question it again.
Yet as a backup if the message didn’t come through clearly enough—the Directorate didn’t practice subtlety—every rotation of the Arx brought them a stunning view of the Phoenix Gateway in the distance. The colossal triple rings gleamed in the unfiltered glow of the galaxy, beautiful and menacing. This close to the ancient structure, the Gateway appeared more massive than the core itself. It was an optical illusion, but an effective one.
Today the Phoenix Gateway numbered only one of hundreds of its kind; in comparison to many of them it was aging, if not decrepit. But there was a reason for that: it was the first. The first wormhole portal to span the interstellar void and link to another galaxy. A dwarf galaxy, true, and one long since fallen out of fashion.
But once upon a time the Phoenix Gateway had meant everything. This meant it still mattered today, if only as a symbol of all the Directorate had achieved over the millennia.
I noted all this in passing, obscured behind a mask of jaded disdain as I traipsed across the pavilion in a manner which said ‘standing in seemingly open space with the galactic core as a backdrop is so very passé. I’m bored already.’ I made sure my eyes were vaguely unfocused, since as a member of the Idoni Dynasty I would be presumed by all in attendance to be high on at least one hypnol, more likely several. Always, lest the horror of existence come crashing in.
My assigned contact worked the delectables area of the pavilion that stretched the length of the left side. I wove my way through a sea of patrons, trying to balance the disinterested attitude against the reality that I was on a short timetable.
A virtual overlay in my vision gave me a reference, but I only dared access the overlay in short pulses. On an Arx an unauthorized comm network became perilously susceptible to detection, and detection was guaranteed to bring a merciless punishment.
The Novoloume who the overlay proclaimed was my contact meandered among the crowd dispensing dollops of hypnols onto the tongues and into the eyeballs of buzzing Anaden revelers with a smooth grace which was as mesmerizing as it was expected. Her shimmery pearl skin transformed the light from the core into rainbows, the hues shifting as she did.
I shook my head as minimally as possible in an effort to break out of the reverie before I approached her.
She held the dispenser aloft, ready to provide a dose of synthesized bliss. I started to decline when she placed an elongated, delicate hand on my waist with a sultry smile. Her breath wafted across my ear as she leaned in.
“I know, my dear, but one must maintain appearances. Trust me.”
Trust was not something that came easily in my world. But this was her world… I offered the tip of my tongue while glaring a fierce warning at her.
The tip of the dispenser touched it, but no further sensation followed. It was empty.
First test passed. I nodded politely. “I’m Eren asi-Idoni.”
“You may call me Maeli.”
“But it’s not your name.”
She shrugged faintly as her gaze drifted over my shoulder. “It is as much a name as I allow myself to have. It is the same for you, no?”
“No. Eren asi-Idoni is my name.”
“Yet the soul behind the name no longer exists, does it?”
I cut my eyes into the crowd, searching for threats. This was all getting far too mystical for my tastes. “Not in the Annals. I’m on a tight schedule here, so—”
“Dance with me.” Her hands grasped mine in a display of surprising strength.
“I don’t dance.”
“All Idoni dance.”
“Damn, that must be why I never fit in with them.”
She pulled me closer. “There is a Praesidis Inquisitor approaching. Dance with me.”
I didn’t panic, but I did allow her to sweep me along the smooth pavilion floor as I reviewed my limited options.
I kept a neural layer on tap which allowed me to pass as a proper Idoni connected to the integral on casual contact with other Idoni Dynasty members. But Praesidis members always saw through the charade. Praesidis Inquisitors, doubly so. And once they did, it was a swift trip to null for me.
The fact I wasn’t already dead, however, meant the Inquisitor hadn’t come here for me. If I played the part of a… well, a typical Idoni, I stood a chance of escaping notice.
I tried to relax in her embrace and flow with her movements. She was of course correct about the dancing—the natural, innate rhythm was encoded in my genetics. Annoyed, I allowed instinct to take over.
“You have stunning eyes. They are as twin starbursts in the night sky.”
I swallowed, feeling heady enough I started to wonder how empty the dispenser had been. “Stop doing that.”
“Doing what?” She swept me between two other dancers in a lengthy, dramatic spin.
“That thing you’re doing.”
“It is not a thing I am doing, Eren asi-Idoni. It is a thing I am.”
So all the Novoloume insisted. The pheromones they secreted were not intended to send most mammalian species into a sexual froth; in fact, they had no knowledge of such an effect until they encountered those species.
I’d insist as strongly it was a lie they professed to hide the nature of their blatant manipulation of others, except the talent hadn’t gained them any greater freedom than the other species were permitted. Still, it was no wonder they had been decreed an Accepted Species in record time following contact. Rumor had it the Idoni Primor kept a stable of twenty Novoloume as pets.
I wasn’t immune to her beauty, both real and sense-induced—the Novoloume, regardless of gender, were among the most lovely sapient creatures living. I was nonetheless able to resist the mesmeric aspects of her presence, but the act of resisting was itself distracting. I tried to focus my thoughts on other, more relevant matters.
“Is the Inquisitor gone yet?”
She smiled blithely. The core spun around us, or us around the core. “Nearly. He is currently disposing of a troublesome Ch’mshak.”
That sounded like a show worthy of observing, but I didn’t dare cast my gaze toward it. “Successfully?”
“If bloodily.” Her attention flitted to the left then back to me, and her tone remained studiously casual. “You are the first Anaden anarch I’ve worked with.”
“There aren’t so many of us. It’s not an easy task, breaking away from the integral.”
“I can imagine.”
“You really can’t.”
Her chin dipped. “As you say. The Inquisitor has departed the pavilion.”
“Good.” I grasped one of her hands firmly and dropped the other. “I’m in a bit of a rush. I was told you could get me into the maintenance channel, so make that happen.”
“As you wish.” Her manner became purposeful but no less graceful as she guided me past the crowd to the staff area and onward to the rear wall. A server unit dawdled above a cylindrical tunnel, and Maeli indicated for me to wait.
When it vacated, she gestured to the tunnel. I peered down it to get an idea of what awaited us.
It was tailored for product delivery, not personal travel, and it held no transport implement.
I raised a questioning eyebrow at my escort. “You know how to do this?”
“Then, after you.” No way was I plunging into the unknown shadowy depths and leaving her standing up here surrounded by every creature comfort, where she might decide the trip wasn’t worth taking.
A flash of defiance sparked in her magenta irises as she leapt into the shaft. 3… 2… 1… and I followed.
The towering Arx had a thousand levels. I suspected I’d be doing so for a while. The snug, curving walls whooshed by in silence, unmarked and unrelenting. They threatened to become as suffocating as the Idoni integral had been.
I closed my eyes and concentrated on the mission details.
The ways in which the mission could fail were legion.
A thruster suit was impossible to smuggle onto the Arx. A stealth, external breach by vessel ipso facto failed due to strict security protocols. An antimatter-tipped long-range missile, in the improbable event it penetrated said security, stood to cause significant damage, but not enough. Multiple distributed detonations were required, and follow-up missiles would doubtless be intercepted.
Turning a ship into an antimatter bomb was arguably viable in theory but an absurd risk in practice. The amount of antimatter needed to be stored on the ship in order for the reaction to reach the target when the vessel ignited was so large it created a sixty-eight percent chance of blowing early.
The solution—or the best solution my superiors had concocted—was a solitary incursion via the channel the maintenance and repair drones used to access the structure. It stretched the three megameters from the Arx in a series of magnetized coils which propelled objects traveling within them forward through space.
It wasn’t as fast as a thruster suit, but I would ride the stream to its destination, just like the drones did.
I chuckled quietly, though the analogy to the Anaden drones above, to when I’d been little more than a drone myself, was too evident to bother enunciating.
The increased resistance against the soles of my feet manifested a bare second before my descent slowed to an abrupt halt. The braking mechanism was designed for less squishy objects than organic limbs.
I landed on the floor with a jarring thud… and found Maeli waiting on me stoically, the swirls of her lustrous robe unruffled and in their befitting place.
It ought not to come as a surprise to me that this, too, was a skill the Novoloume had perfected.
Well, one of us no longer felt obliged to project an expected appearance for onlookers. I gathered the copper cords of my hair up off my back and secured them, then ditched the majority of the dress attire. Best to wait to don the hazard suit until we reached the channel.
She motioned me forward. “The passageways proceed for some distance. If your time is as limited as you say, we should make haste.”
In my life I had an eternity’s worth of time—and right now, none at all, so I adopted the haste.
This deep in the bowels of the Arx, everything was mechanized. Not an organic in sight. Better yet, not a Vigil unit in sight, either, for the Directorate had no need to police their shackled and neutered machines.
Let the citizens dance the night away above, secure in their warped caricature of a free existence. Let the machines do the work. Peace and harmony reigns…
…but not unchallenged. Not tonight.
After crossing an expansive assembly floor we took a left down a short, wide corridor ending in a force field. Maeli stopped.
“The maintenance channel begins on the other side.”
“Understood.” I put my kit on the floor, opened it and retrieved the hazard suit, then began tugging the snug material on.
Once it covered my waist, I eyed her grimly. “The Arx should be far enough away to survive the blast, but if you’ve got a new locale in mind, it wouldn’t hurt to head in that direction close to now.”
“I seldom linger in any one location. It will take me a few moments to reach the transport wing and depart, but no longer than it will take you to reach your target.” She paused, looking uneasy. “I’m confident in my ability to achieve shelter, but how will you reach a safe distance before the detonation?”
Suit in place, I re-secured the utility belt on my hips. “I won’t.”
The silence hung a span too long. “Oh.” Another gap of silence. “Is it painful?”
I snapped both ends of the explosives ribbon to the belt. Carefully. “Almost always.”
“Then your sacrifices for the cause are even greater than I realized.”
“No need to make a scene over it.” Sacrifice was such an empty word, tossed about by those who weren’t engaging in it to make themselves feel better. I did not and would never know Maeli well enough to say if this was her purpose in using it. Didn’t really matter either way.
Satisfied the ribbon was secure and not exploding, I gazed up at her. “What else do you have for me?”
“I’m sending you the drones’ ID frequency. Broadcast it, and they’ll take you for one of their own—unless you bump into one. So… don’t.”
“Noted. No dancing with the drones.”
“Since you don’t dance, I trust that will not be a problem.”
I laughed for her. These flares of irreverence were probably a clue pointing to why she acted as an anarch. Part of me toyed with wishing I’d get the opportunity to find out more about her reasons… until I remembered I didn’t do attachments.
I situated the breather skin over my face and reattached the depleted kit to the belt as well. “Time to do this. Thank you for your help, Maeli. Nos libertatem somnia.”
“Nos libertatem somnia, Eren asi-Idoni.”
I slowed my respiration rhythm to maximize the effectiveness of the breather skin. Then I stepped through the force field separating the corridor from the entry tube.
Three rapid steps to the exit and I pitched into space toward the Phoenix Gateway.
The channel coils would get me to my destination eventually, but I pulled my arms in and mimicked a missile to help the propulsion system along.
The journey was much like the fall down the service tunnel, excepting the scenery. My deliberate revolutions presented me with views of the Arx, the Gateway, the galactic core and the intergalactic void in turn.
The once imposing Arx profile quickly shrank in the shadow of the mammoth Gateway. Each ring measured a kilometer thick and a hundred meters wide; the rig driving them weighed greater than six teratonnes. It had been built to last, and no conventional weapon an anarch might procure was capable of destroying it.
But even the strongest creations could not withstand the application of a fundamental law of physics. Matter and antimatter could not exist in the same space, and their collision was going to result in the expulsion of energy on the order of eight hundred petajoules—and perhaps most importantly, the annihilation of the matter/antimatter which triggered it.
Presto, no more Gateway.
The first of the three rings grew large on my horizon as the terminus of the channel neared. Right before I reached it I brought my legs up to hit the outer boundary at full speed, sprint across its breadth and launch off the structure in free flight toward the center loop.
The Gateway activated, heralding an incoming vessel from its twin in the Phoenix dwarf galaxy. The pulsing energy slammed into me, sending me spinning off course. I skidded out of control over the rim of the ring and grasped the edge with fingertips to spare.
Of all the cursed timing.
I adjusted my grip, trying my damnedest not to pant. Oxygen was a mite scarce resource in space, and now that I was out here I had what I had and no more.
“Well, hell.” Nobody was apt to notice an Anaden dangling off the side of one of the loops, legs swaying about in open space, right? Maybe I should stay here for a while….
But there existed no room for such luxuries in my life. The morbid irony implied in the notion I considered the act a luxury didn’t escape my notice as I hauled myself up over the ledge and stood on the flat surface of the ring to survey matters.
From here, the void to my right loomed as darkly shrouded as the core to my left shone bright. It felt as if I stood on the precipice of not merely a galaxy but existence itself. It was indulgent of me. Also dizzying, but dizzy was not something I needed to be at the moment.
I removed the ribbon of explosive slabs from my belt, careful to orient it in the correct direction so I would place them in the desired order. The protective layer was set to start dissolving as soon as it came into contact with the metal comprising the exterior; therefore I had to start with the slab bearing the thickest layer in order to buy time to position them all.
I detached the first slab from the ribbon, stuck it to the metal at my feet—and ran. Five kilometers to the next target location, and the reaper’s clock counting down on me like a shadow nipping at my heels.
The balls of my feet barely hit the surface as I soared from stride to stride. Lacking oxygen, my muscles used my body’s stored energy reserves to fuel my movements. The minimal gravitational effect the power rig generated for the drones kept me from flying off into space, while also allowing me to travel at greatly enhanced speed.
A virtual bullseye marked the next site. The ideal placement and spacing had been worked out in advance by anarch scientists, or engineers, or whoever it was who sat in labs and did those things so people like me could venture outside and… complete the missions.
I hardly stopped as I released the slab, not wanting to lose any momentum.
When the clock hit zero I would be dead, but right now I was alive. High on oxygen deprivation, the magnificent view, and the act of running free along the curving arc of an apparatus that warped the fabric of spacetime to sling objects and people 430 kiloparsecs in a frozen, boundless instant. The stars at my back, the universe at my fingertips—
—a drone clambered up the lip of the ring just as my foot hit metal. I tripped hard over it, landed on my ass with a painful crack and tumbled across the surface.
The drone landed on top of me before I could move. One of its spindly tool arms sliced through my shoulder as the other poked for my face.
With a groan I kicked at it and skittered away to climb to my feet. Undeterred, the drone sprang toward me.
“Off you go, machine!” I grabbed it with both hands and hurled it over the side into oblivion.
The cut on my shoulder hurt like a bitch, but worse, the swipe had sliced open the thin film of my suit. My dwindling life expectancy had now been cut in half.
But it hadn’t damaged my legs, so I ran once again. Two primed slabs still to place.
If I failed, the destruction might not be total. This constituted an unacceptable outcome. To my superiors, but mostly to me. I did not do half-measures, and if I was going to die in an explosion of white hot agony, it was going to be a properly majestic explosion.
One which served as a fitting symbol of how far we were willing to go to dismantle the Directorate superstructure and break its chokehold on not solely us but the entire fucking universe.
The near vacuum of space sucked at the tear in my suit, but I ignored it to sprint. Only a little farther.
That was such a lie.
The light of the core sank above me as the ring bowed in to the void. The marker for the next-to-last location blinked urgently at me, and I readied the drop—
—and very nearly made a disaster of it. The tiny sips of oxygen I subsisted on were taking their toll, and when coupled with the pain in my arm and leaking suit, I was now less running and more stumbling forward from sheer inertia.
I tried to drop the slab while moving, slipped and kicked it toward the edge. I lunged for it in panic, overestimated the distance, and fell atop it. Please don’t detonate. Please don’t detonate.
One thing was certain: my weight had succeeded in sticking it to the metal. I crawled to my feet and rested my hands on my thighs. Dizziness—the real kind—blurred the periphery of my vision.
“Why am I doing this?”
The stars had no answer for me, but it was okay. I had my own answer. I would run and I would fly and I would die, but I would not be a slave. Not to the Idoni integral and its sadistic Primor. Not to the Anaden Directorate. Not to my anarch superiors. I wasn’t here because they’d ordered me here; I was here to be free.
The journey passed in a blur, and suddenly the final location rushed up on me.
I placed the slab, knowing it had none but the slimmest protective layer, and flung myself off the ring into space.
I twisted around to face the Gateway with a second to spare. A second to witness the staccato of explosions shine more brilliantly than the galactic core as my body atomized to nothingness, until not even stardust remained.
Milky Way, Sector 59
Anarch Post Alpha
On the other side of the galaxy, deep in a sector the Directorate had long ago abandoned, I awoke with a gasp.
Sterile smooth walls and cushioned linens welcomed my transition. A fading echo of the flash of agony receded to a memory as I breathed in the oxygen-rich air of the restoration capsule.
My hand went to my shoulder, but of course the wound was gone. My skin felt cool, still moist from the gelatinous fluid it had resided in until needed.
Outside the capsule a Curative unit checked my vitals. A chime signaled all systems were nominal, and the protective cover slid away as the virtual image of my handler materialized.
“Welcome back, Eren. Congratulations on a successful mission. See to your personals, then report in twenty minutes for a briefing on your next assignment. Nos libertatem somnia.”
Continue Eren's story in Book One of the newest trilogy in the Aurora Rhapsody saga: