Had his destiny been different, he would have thrown himself from the terrace at that very moment. But it wasn’t and he knew, as a matter of fact, that he would be tortured forever.
His hands trembled raggedly as he recoiled from the station. He fell down to the pedestal floor and clung to the console’s valences which rose from both sides of the glowing display. With his head hung low he felt the first wave of grief slam into his heart; the impact made his lungs seize and his mouth dry.
He looked up for a moment, recalling his true purpose. Running the length of the corridor were hovering bands lighting up one after another in perfect unison until they reached the far end of the citadel’s relay chamber. The rings encircled a glass bridge that led from the terrace pedestal to the single lift and entrance opposite of it and they now beamed brighter than they had ever before.
They had been activated.
He pushed himself away from the console’s arced casement, slinking sullenly toward the center of the disk floor which represented the citadel’s terrace. Around him, light from an artificial sun streamed through lancet slits and an ornate, lattice-spun window which vaulted out toward the glowing core of this world.
There, one could only see a thick red mist — a compound catalyst gas and empty space. It was a dormant foundry. Beyond this and gripped by gravity at the immediate center of this world was a mineral body — spherical, planetary and ready to spool out uniformly under the direction of the sentinels which would serve to operate this machine if ever need be.
His thoughts returned back to the lights like an injured beast to its wounds; these bright rings that bled into his eyes and mind with piercing brilliance. He knew what they meant. He knew that they were necessary and almost too late at this final hour, but it didn’t change the broken reality of what had just happened.
A searing knot of energy had been bound in his heart, curled up into a tight, burning furnace without remorse. He had once thought that this was dread he felt, and maybe it had been for a time. Now he knew the truth. Part of him had always known. This pain, this blackened and fiery shard which crawled into his throat was grief. It was his final betrayal and he had always felt it there, waiting in the wings for this day.
As his tear spouts opened and warm streams caught across the taut lines of his battle-hardened face, he tried to pull himself together. His eyes were watching his own pitiful shadow heave and weep on the ground as the machine in front of him did a thousand jobs at once and in silence, murdering untold trillions in the process. Finally, he stood up and his lungs reached out into the depths of his chest to catch a breath buried far below.
Then he walked.
Moving across the shimmering light bridge and onto the glass and stone parapets that ran the length of the chamber, each ring wrapped around him, swallowing him with every step he took — just as they would do with everything else in this galaxy. He had fought against this act for centuries, every morning awaking to a false hope, pulling some fabric of his mind closer toward the notion that it was possible to defeat the enemy.
But it was not.
Then there was her. The thought of her alone made him weak and he reached out for the beveled rail to steady himself. He moved quicker now, there wasn’t much time. In the distance he could hear the vessels volley into the air. Some were keyships, returning to their sanctuaries and others were for the journey.
Those ships would never be returning to anything.
She had insisted on staying in Eden, finishing her work, and now she was gone forever. Every step of the way she had fought him tooth and nail, never relenting the mandate of the array and how the mantle had fallen so far. Of course, now, in the finality of this hour, she had been right. She had always been right. The enemy could not be stopped by fist or sword or any other machination — and it would not stop, not on its own. It would feed and feed until it could not longer devour for lack of sustenance and then it would perish through starvation.
He closed his eyes, his hands guiding him down the aisle and into the mouth of the lift. He looked out with his mind into the distance of space and whether by imagination or intuition, he saw pins of light scouring the remains of the enemy’s fleet, like flies hovering above a carcass. One of those lights was Offensive Bias, a simple weapon fashioned to counter another — the latter was his life’s work, his prodigy — something he had named Mendicant Bias.
The lift dropped, pulling his body to the antechamber and platform below. He felt the tug of gravity lessen as the structure lowered gently toward the base of the citadel. Lights rose on all sides as he drifted down; his eyes were still tightly shut, as though he was trying to forget all that had just happened.
It was over. Mendicant Bias was over. The war was over. Everything was.
Like a gun he had pointed to the head of his own child, he leveled one creation against the other with clear intent. The solution to their problem which he had dispatched long ago was now returning, its visage covered in traitorous hate, glimmering with the fleshy infection of its new master. Offensive would now find Mendicant and carve it from it ship like a sandy grit between stones; ripping it free from its housing now that the enemy was inert, lifeless and cast adrift.
As the lift stopped, he opened his eyes one last time. This would be the last time he would see this place. The cool air from the antechamber’s mouth gave him goose bumps. He shivered and grabbed his cloak, palling it over his shoulders and face in shame. The feel of the fabric on his skin reminded him of her.
Now, at the end of all things, he could remember very little, but he remembered her face and her skin.
He remembered the world which they would have called home had the enemy not arrived when it did. He remembered how they once indulged in long walks aside a shallow forest-fed stream, behind them rose snow-capped mountains, stoic gods lifting a curtain of pure blue sky. He remembered the way the wind tussled the valley’s reeds at night when they made love in the fields. It was the same place he had promised to one day build their home.
But this was a broken promise, they were all broken promises — they were a false transcendence.
He reached the end of the antechamber and the door opened, the frigid wind of the encroaching canyon spilt into the corridor of the citadel’s mouth like poured water. Three daunting towers arced upward across the ice-packed canyon floors, volleying energy high into the air as a formidable barrier.
At the end of the platform stretching out before him was his vessel, the passageway to the great journey. Had his own will governed the next few moments, he easily would have leapt from the edge of the platform and fallen far below to be crushed by the stone and ice.
But it wasn’t his choice to make.
He had recorded every spoken word. He had written down even more. But none of it was guaranteed to pass to those who survived and followed, so he would stay alive, forcing his shameful heart into a dark machine so that it could live into infinitude. In many ways this was a sentence, a punishment imposed by his species’ ignorance. All who survived this wretched folly would await a similar fate.
He climbed into the machine which was not much larger than himself. He closed his eyes as the steel hinges slid the solid carbon sheets over him, layering against the torrents of space’s bitter realm. Then he gripped the harness, as it pried him into place. Something slipped into the base of his skull and he began to dream.
But not yet. Just one last time, he said in his mind, forcing the machine back for only a split second.
It was then that he remembered everything.
He remembered his father’s tear-drenched face when he told of his plans for war. He remembered the first night he met her, in a distant world that had long since been reduced to ashen glass. He remembered the day he retrieved Mendicant from the threshing floor, the unfettered hope for the galaxy — the only thing he would ever create. He remembered the last message he received from her and how she spoke so purposefully of Eden.
He remembered her face and skin.
Then he closed his eyes and the vessel lifted.