Ashes of Eternity

by

J P Koenig

Chapter 1: The Endless Dark [A]

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The monolith tumbled through space.  Its path was aimless, and it was hundreds of light years from any star.  It was a broken shell, a piece of what was supposed to be a sphere, but was larger than any planet.  One edge of the curved monolith was a mess of melted girders, each girder a thousand kilometers wide and ten times as long.  The other edges were broken, shattered from the cataclysm that had destroyed it. It had been part of a ringworld once, one that had been expanding into a Dyson Sphere.  Now it was a lifeless husk.

Or it was a lifeless husk if one did not know what to look for.  Inside the broken eggshell that was large enough to have its own gravity, ghost cities and towns surrounded by lifeless parks and frozen forests.  Vast tracts of land were barren wastelands, and immense factories and industrial fabricators lay silent. Huge reserves of materials, the wealth of a hundred star systems, lay unused.  Giant weapons dotted the outer curve, their vast firepower capable of decimating entire fleets now cold and silent.

Once, this monolith had been the crowning achievement of the Imperium Aeternus, the Eternal Empire.  The palace was larger than any city, with hundreds of thousands of people living within it. It stood within a cavernous region so large that its sky hid the hundred-kilometer thick armor, and it was lit by an artificial sun that was dimmed for a simulated night.  It had its own weather patterns, its own seasons, dictated on a schedule for the convenience of all. Rain fell onto the palace’s parks and supporting villages in the evenings, and snow was forbidden from falling on the roads. All of this wonder was lost. Now a hole into space replaced the sky, and the palace was in ruins.     

But if one were to dig deep enough, down into the oldest part of the monolith, there was a section that had been part of the ringworld.  Here, the huge parks still housed frozen, lifeless trees and dessicated grass. Instead of cities, there was a palace under what had been an endless sky.  Deep inside this palace, there was movement.

Automatons still moved, even after a thousand years of destitution.  Drones running on ancient commands and operating with only the tiniest fraction of power than they had been designed for still tried to make repairs, battling back against the ravages of space and time.  One automaton endlessly swept clean a throne room that was sealed by happenstance from any external influences, its limited power allowing it to clean one square meter of space per day, despite its already immaculate condition.  The only dust it could gather was the minute scrape of marble as its endless sweeping slowly wore down the material, and like water against stone, the floor was flawlessly smooth, almost softened, by the tireless attention over centuries.

Deeper still, beneath that throne room, was a medical facility.  It had been part of the Eternal Emperor’s private suite of rooms.  This private suite was far more modest than one would expect of a man who had single-handedly built the Imperium from a single world with an almost unlivable, harsh environment.  He had turned that world into the start of an empire that had spanned a hundred thousand planets and a half-million star systems. His pioneering breakthroughs in science and technology had gone unmatched in the centuries since, and yet he had not lived like an interstellar despot.  His suite had a handful of bedrooms of modest size, a large library that acted as his private study, a kitchen and live-in suite for his chef and the chef’s family, a research lab, and a modest medical facility. It was modestly appointed, with no public receiving space, and few luxuries.

In this medical suite were two medical pods.  The indicator lights on one indicated that it was in low-power stasis mode, but all other indicators were green and healthy.  This pod was wedged into a corner, a mass of cables and cobbled-together devices snarled around the legs that supported it. It had never been intended to be in this room, for this room was dedicated to the health of the Princeps, the First Citizen and Emperor of the Imperium Aeternus.

The second medical pod was far larger and complex than the first.  It had been state-of-the-art even by Old Imperium standards, and in the current markets of the universe, could be sold for enough wealth to enrich anyone.  Its indicators, too, showed it to be in low-power stasis mode. Its health indicators were a mass of red and orange, and its electronic supporting units sparked with damage.

Four drones moved slowly in and out of this room.  The drones had far more capability than the simple automatons in the palace above.  The automatons had simple instructions, many attempting to fulfill repairs or perform cleaning in buildings that were simply gutted and demolished.  In one building that had once served as an embassy, a plumbing automaton had been trying to repair a faucet in a bathroom, unable to understand why its request for water service had gone unanswered for a thousand years.  But the drones servicing the medical facility were so far above these simple machines it was like comparing an ant to chimpanzee in complexity.

The drones worked without ceasing, albeit at a bare snail’s pace.  If the automatons moved slow, the drones moved even slower. They needed power for more than movement, after all.  They had been given directives, not specific commands, and had the intelligence to determine the best way to carry them out.  This planning, these calculations, required energy, and thus slowed their movements. Yet time and patience lent an inevitability to their actions.

Repairs to the medical pod’s support systems had come first, followed by a constant replenishment of the raw materials and stockpiled supplies that had to be fed to it.  But like everything else, now that the shattered palace’s main power supply was gone, the pod operated at the bare minimum of capability. The stasis field kept the patient alive, but barely.  The regenerative fields were offline, the surgical reconstruction routines unused. The medical pod maintained palliative care, keeping the patient stable and without pain, locked in an eternal slumber as befitted the once Eternal Emperor.

This tiny hum of life in the otherwise lifeless husk could have stumbled on for many more millenia.  The talents of the Imperium engineers and designers had guaranteed that. Unlike the cheap consumerism that flourished in non-Imperium space back when the Imperium was alive and well, and often ran rampant in modern times, the Imperium had invested heavily in the future.  It had plans extending not years or decades, but centuries. But eventually, the tiny emergency power cores would die, and so would the medical pods.

Call it a stroke a luck, if you’d like.  Universalists would call it a second chance granted by the Universe.  Fatalists would say this was preordained and must happen. Most would just call it chance.  One of the drones ran into an automaton in its search for supplies, and recognized that the automaton’s function was far less vital than the medical supplies.  The drone ordered the automaton to stand down and surrender its emergency power core.

This added boost of power would do nothing for the medical pod.  But it did wonders for the drone. Now able to offload its critical functions to a secondary power supply, the drone was able to travel further than before.  The drone had learned of a new power source, so began to hunt automatons.

When the drone had collected enough power cores, it returned to the medical facility.  The palace was even more lifeless than before; the surviving automatons were now as lifeless as the monolith they existed inside of.  With its now large collection of power cores, the drone handed a few out to its compatriots, then enlisted them in wiring them in to the long-dead main power feed.  Once the cores were in place, they re-enabled the feed, and the medical pod drew deeply of energy it had been denied for so long.

One by one, the indicator lights blinked from red to orange.  Surgical arms cut away damaged flesh and removed foreign objects from the body of the medical pod’s occupant.  Artificial blood plasma replaced bodily fluids, and torn organs were stitched back together at the cellular level.  Once the holes and major damage was repaired, the regenerative fields turned on. These fields accelerated natural healing processes, taking hours what would have taken nature days to do, lifting the stasis field just enough to heal the body, without waking the patient.

After long hours of surgery, and many days of recovery, the last indicator turned green.  This triggered a directive for the drones. One of the drones went to the second medical pod, the one that had been haphazardly added to one corner of the room.  With a few typed commands, the stasis field dropped. A male voice screamed in agony at the harsh drop from stasis into reality. This had not been a medically induced stasis field.  He’d gone under, wide awake and cognizant of the pain he’d experience when his body jump started and tried to function as if it hadn’t been frozen in place for a thousand years.  Indicators showed his blood pressure spiked and his heart rate was through the roof.

The indicator lights vanished.  A seam appeared on the smooth, now featureless pod, and a man laying in the medical cradle sat up.  He wore a tight purple tunic and leggings that had been popular in the Imperium Aeternus, missing only the uniform jacket of a high-ranking member of the Imperium to complete the outfit.  His hair was white, streaked with black, his expression both gentle and haunted. Like all Imperium patricians, he was a supran, with the golden bronze skin and fit, muscular build.

The man had been known to the patricians and plebeians of the Imperium Aeternus both as the Saint, or the Emperor’s Soul.  One of the Four Consuls, Titus Proximus was one of the Emperor’s closest allies, a friend and confidant who had been trusted above any but the other Consuls.  Titus stretched, a thousand years of kinks to work out. He picked a bracer off the floor, and shook the dust off of it, before sliding it on his arm. Titus pecked a few quick commands into it, and blanched.  He sat down blindly on the edge of the medical pod, horrified at the data that his bracer revealed.

Eventually, he dried his eyes and put a stoic expression on his face.  With a bracing breath, he shook himself before walking over to the second medical pod.  All the indicators were green and healthy. Titus triggered the wake up sequence to end the medical stasis.

Unlike Titus’ awakening, this was not a rigged-up stasis.  The occupant of the pod had gone under while the palace still had power.  The newly energized pod smoothly transitioned from stasis to medically induced coma, before gently waking its patient.  The pod split and opened.

Inside was a man who appeared to be in his early thirties, with the same golden bronze skin as Titus, but with pure black hair that lay in wild curls around his head.  A ghost of a beard was on his face. Unlike Titus, he lay there unclothed, for the medical pod had cut away the burnt, torn clothing he’d been wearing.

“Titus,” said the man, his hawk-like yellow eyes opening to see his oldest friend.

“Imperator Artifex, I failed you,” said Titus, bowing his head and placing his right fist over his heart.  HIs oldest friend and leader, Imperator Regnans, Princeps of the People, Emperor Dominus Valerius Artifex, was finally awake.

Artifex sat up slowly, shaking off the effects of anesthesia as he tried to orient himself.  He looked around, then down at his own bare skin. “I was wounded,” he stated.

“You were,” confirmed Titus.  “Imperator, I --”

“Titus, please,” said Artifex with a sigh.

Valerius, then,” conceded Titus begrudgingly.  “I’m sorry to report that we lost.”

Artifex looked around the room, at the lack of power and the sheer disarray.  The drones, now with no directives to follow, sat in an unoccupied corner in standby mode.  He climbed to his feet.

“Losing a battle is hardly the end of anything,” said Artifex lightly as he walked to the door.  The door was jammed open, so he stepped out into the hallway. His thoughts were still slightly muddled from the anesthesia, but were clearing swiftly.

“We didn’t just lose the battle, Imperator.  We lost everything,” said Titus.

Artifex froze midstep.

“Swiftes is gone, the star went supernova,” admitted Titus.  “I detected two rogue Nyx in the core just before… the end.”

Artifex closed his eyes in defeat.  “Who was it?”

“Imperator, there was only one…”

“Marcus,” interrupted Artifex.  “He was the only other who could have.”

The stab of betrayal from the one who should have been his closest ally jabbed into him.  He closed his eyes against the pain, taking slow, deep breaths against the world closing in on him.  Artifex did not let the feelings overwhelm him. His was a disciplined and driven mind, able to compartmentalize and keep moving, keep working.  Nevertheless, it took some time to get his emotions in check.

“What of the others?” asked Artifex a few minutes later.  He wrestled open the unpowered door to his bedroom, forcing it back along its track.  He could hear the frozen motor whine in protest before its bearings broke. Inside, he rummaged through a wardrobe.  Most of the clothing had gotten brittle and weak from the long ages, but not all. In the back was a uniform sealed and protected from the ravages of time.  He dressed himself swiftly.

“Emilia and Auria were out of the system, so I have no idea of their fate.  Sicarius was with… Marcus.”

“So he is either dead or a traitor,” said Artifex calmly as his emotions roiled beneath the surface.  The agony of betrayal stung deeper still. After two thousand years as a ruler of men, Artifex was no stranger to betrayal, but that did nothing to blunt its pain.  This one was by far the worse. This break of trust was personal.

“My liege, I secured one craft for us.  I allowed the survivors to abandon the palace with the rest, with my blessing.  It is your personal corvette, with the latest manifold translator installed.”

Artifex nodded, and walked out of the bedroom.  “I can see it’s been a long time. How long was I in stasis?”

“We were both in stasis until the drones could make sufficient repairs to heal you.  You were on the brink of death when I found you. It’s… It’s been close to a thousand years.”

A thousand years?  Artifex was astounded, and at first could not believe it.  That was half-again as long as he’d built the Imperium Aeternus.  He wouldn’t, no, couldn’t accept it.  Except the proof was in front of his eyes, in his own living quarters.  Ruined machinery, darkened rooms, rotted clothing. He was adept at many things, but lying to himself and ignoring facts was not a fault he’d ever developed a talent at.  He had to accept reality. Only after admitting that did Artifex let the enormity hit him. Tears flowed freely from his eyes for several long minutes. All the many long centuries of building, hundreds of years of forging the largest empire ever known to the Universe, were nothing but ash floating in the endless dark.

“Then we can do only one thing,” said Artifex with iron in his voice.

“What is that, Imperator?” said Titus, trailing after him as they made their way through broken doors into the hangar bay.

“We must begin again.”

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About the author

J P Koenig

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Bio: I live on the coast of Virginia with my wife and daughter, where we enjoy hiking and camping. I am a lifelong reader and occasional writer who has decided to start sharing my work. Writing for me is recreation, what I do instead of watching endlessly repetitive reality tv or derivative shows. I joined RoyalRoad so that I can have a place for feedback to improve my writing, and in return I will be posting something every week.

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