The ArcBuilder Universe

 

Last Days

 

In the last days of the World, there was to be war in the Dark Heavens, and there were to be demons rising from the Core. The earth would shake and the air would be tainted, and the very Foundation would crack and send all of mankind into the eternal grasp of the Flaming Eye.

It was written in the Archives that this Day would come, and that the People would wail and go mad, for they knew that their doom was upon them and nothing could be done. Fate and destiny ruled the World, written in as they were in the Archives, and never in all of history had any of the Happenings occurred which would make us think differently. There were some, though, who hoped. There were those among the People who believed that the Archives could be rewritten, if only we could learn the Code. It was an arrogance that was frowned upon, that was denounced. And, as the signs became more pronounced, as it became more obvious that there was indeed a war in the Heavens, even we who believed Fate could be changed had begun to lose hope.
I was the last. Out of all of those who believed this, I was the last. I was the youngest, Signy, the daughter of Solvar, the eldest of those who believed. I had always believed. Even when the skies darkened, even when they shone with the light of the Flaming Eye, even when they showed us the endless depths of the Dark Heavens, I believed. But belief was not enough, and there came a day, when cities burned and the people rioted and went mad and raged like wild animals… There came a day when I lost hope.

It was the day after that when the angel fell to the Foundation, and my hope was rekindled.

It's was difficult to say, anymore, when it was day or night. The shaking of the World was such that almost every standing structure had fallen to ruin. Mechanical clocks, water clocks, all of them were buried under the rubble of buildings that had stood for uncounted hundreds of years. The sky was no longer reliable, regardless. If one sat and looked up, peering through the windows that framed the great beyond, the Dark Heavens could be seen drifting by, those sparks of light that marked it so well shining like angry fireflies. The Flaming Eye might come into view at a later time, either the Eye itself or his body, awash with greens and reds and blues. And sometimes the sun would finally return, if for a short time, and even amid the shaking it was wonderful to sit there in the middle of a grassy field and feel its warmth once more, the soft touch of a lover too long gone.

It was just such a day when the angel fell. The sun had travelled the length of the windows, and for what seemed like an eternity I had lain in the grass, barely able to ignore the frequent shaking of the Foundation, my small frame stretched out like a cat. The nearest center of population was over three clicks away, and most of them had died in the first of the great shakes. Occasionally some would wander by, but the grass was tall enough that in the unlikely even that one might come close to me, I would still remain hidden. As long as I wasn't being stupid, and not making noise, anyway. No one was nearby now, though, and as the sun finally slipped out of view, leaving only the much more dim light of twilight reflecting off of the mirrors, I wondered if I would even see another person before… before the final end.  It had been so long since I had seen anyone anyway.  Long enough that there were moments when I wondered if I might, indeed, be the last.

Next to me, Dog whined. He was a mutt, really, and had been wandering with me for a few days now. No doubt his owners had died in the early quakes. He was thin, malnourished, and had not left my side once. I softly whispered nonsense into his ear, and his tail thumped almost forlornly on the ground. Smiling to myself, I looked back up into the night that peeked through the windows, then frowned. There was something wrong…. I could see nothing, but I could feel a tingle, a ghostly sensation that was warning me something approached.

A moment later, a shining bright light passed into view, moving against the slow drift of the stars, but so much brighter. I squinted up at it, and as the light dimmed I could see that the light emitted from an object, dully metallic, descending from the Dark Heavens towards the body of the world. I frowned, almost afraid, but at once memories from the Archives flooded into my mind, and I knew this… thing for what it was.

An Angel was falling to the Foundation.

I leapt to my feet and ran. I ran so fast that I didn't even notice where I was, I didn't look for straggling survivors, I ignored flaming ruin and crumbling walls. I ran into the nearest access to the Central Complex, the entryway set into the ground and framed by a small arching structure that the quakes could not touch.  I ran through corridors and down ramps and passed buckled metal walls. I needed to get to the Charter Hall, where it was said that, in the Days of Old, men would pass to and fro on business with the Heavens. Back in the days when we held congress with the Flaming Eye. In no time, I was in the anteroom, and standing in the center of it, I stopped and tried to catch my breath. I was only vaguely aware of Dog, finally making his way down the corridor and joining me. How hungry he must have been, for me to have outrun him!

Silently I stood there, inching so slowly, closer to the door that was shut, that had been shut for as long as I could remember, blocking off the Charter Hall. No one alive now… well, no one who had been alive recently, nor in living memory, had been within there. It was feared that to enter there would be to invite the Flaming Eye into the world, and hasten our destruction.  Once we spoke with the Flaming Eye, but long ago we had come to fear it, and had shut the doors to bar its entrance.

Irony, I darkly mused.  The Flaming Eye had simply decided to smite us from beyond the Walls.

Slowly I leaned against the door, the side of my head pressed to the metal, my fingers splaying out on the smooth surface.  I could not open it.  No one could have.  Access was denied.  Still, I listened at that door, straining, trying to hear… anything. Here was where the Angel would come, I was certain.  Deep within myself, I knew that it had already touched the Walls, and had gained access from the outside.  A surge of elation was building within my breast, for the Angels were said to be our saviors, coming in our time of need, to convey us to the Next World.

To my shock, I heard voices. And though they were strangely accented, I understood them.

" --out of station for at least three months," one voice was saying. It was a soft, almost musical voice, and I found that I had to listen harder to catch his words. At my side, Dog whined a bit; I realized that I was repeating the words aloud.  but I did not stop.  "Infrastructure stress levels are tremendous."

"Which we saw by the outer skin cracks," another, so much more harsh voice barked. Almost at once I could tell that it was his normal voice, and I envisioned someone of truly heroic stature. "It won't be long until the inner surface buckles as well."

There was a long sigh, and I closed my eyes. In that one, simple sound I could hear both the deep authority of someone in command of these other Angels, and a being  burdened with so much more. He mourned, and what was more, he was mourning the end of my world.  My elation turned to ice.  What did it mean for a saving Angel to despair?

"That is when the atmosphere will vent," he said quietly, his voice accented just a bit differently from the others. "And when THAT happens…."

"When that occurs," the deep, angry man spoke again, though somehow there was an equally deep sadness in that guttural voice, "the stresses will be such that the entire habitat will tear itself apart."

"People have been searching for this place for hundreds of years," the Soft One whispered. "And we find it hours before it's death."

I shivered. No, it wasn't me. The Foundation was quaking again, but at the same moment my insides felt cold, as if a frigid wind were blowing through me. My eyes remained closed, and I found that I could look back out over the landscape, and the fountains of smoke from the ruined buildings, curling upwards into the center of the sky, where an angry roiling cloud of black had been building for days. I could see the silence of all things, and for the first time I realized there had been almost no movement for just as long. A few stray animals, yes. But no people. No people at all. And now these Angels, who had been meant to save us all.  But there was only me.  I knew it with a certainty now.  there was only me.  And Dog.

The door leading to the Charter Hall shuddered.

With a cry that sounded distorted as it echoed off of the metal walls, I jumped back. The Angels were opening it.  Access Denied meant nothing to the divine host, and the screeching sound of forced gears and rails rang out like a cry of anguish coming from a sleeping beast.  In a panic I stumbled back and, looking about frantically, darted to the side of a Servitor, one of many that were crumpled against the walls and throughout the corridors.  Metal manikins, mindless aids to the people, they had dropped mid-step in the earliest quakes, struck down by the anger of the Flaming Eye.  no one had bothered to move them.  No one wanted to touch them, as if they had been tainted by the wrath of the Eye.

Beside me, Dog started barking, and though his mangled ears had fallen back, his tail was wagging furiously. He, like I, was terrified and at the same time desperate to see these Angels.

The shuddering door had silenced at the sound of Dog barking, and then began again, renewed with greater vigor. A mechanical groan of protest sounded out above the angels' sudden calls, their voices excited and shouting encouragement.  The thin wail of metallic protest became a sudden shriek of grime, rust, and corrosion. The doors cracked in the middle, and then slowly and ponderously rolled back with a curious smoothness.  Once Access Denied had been defeated, further resistance was pointless

There they stood, the three Angels, standing in the open door, their bodies backlit by a blinding light.  They were huge, or so they seemed to me, and for a moment I thought they seemed so much like the fallen servitors that I had the ludicrous thought that perhaps those autonomous things were a lesser form of Angel themselves.

One stepped to the side, great long fingers used to pry the door open folding back on themselves, being tucked away.  The other two stepped forward, their steps slow and measured.  Their heads were formless domes, and they did not look one way or another.  But I knew that they saw everything.  I could almost see their hidden gazes, sweeping throughout the hall, over the walls and the fallen Servitors, even over me.  But it was Dog that they focused on.

I could also see something else.  I could see their bodies, these Angels, great bulky things, meant to withstand, perhaps, even the force of the Flaming Eye.  But I could see something else as well, something hidden within each one of them.  Their souls?  Did Angels have souls, tucked away within their metallic bodies?

At once Dog leapt forward, barking, growling, peeing on the polished floor, jumping up and down with the unbridled excitement of a pet that had too long been absent from the company of people. The foremost Angel at once stepped back and raised an arm, a small device suddenly sliding upward and pointing forward. It was all so ridiculously defensive, that an Angel should fear the sudden advances of a mongrel animal enough to deploy a weapon.

The third Angel, standing behind the others, moved forward, quickly taking the foremost position in three decisive steps, one hand pushing the other Angel to the side.  That defensive Angel seemed to pause, then lowered his arm.  The weapon immediately withdrew, becoming just another part of the arm.

"Atmosphere?" the third Angel asked.  His voice was the soft, mournful one I had heard before.  I knew at once that he was, indeed, the leader.

The Angel that had pried open the door spoke.  His was the musical voice, the voice of an artist, an engineer.  "Heavy traces of contaminants, primarily from the fires.  The filtration systems in this area are working, but not enough to eliminate them.  It's safe enough.  I wouldn't go outside, though."

There was a pause, and then the leader seemed to stiffen, to stand more erect.  His body began to snap, to hiss.  I looked clser, eyes widening.

"We're being scanned," the Angel who would have struck down Dog spoke.  his was the harsh, angry voice.  "Automated systems, I would guess, picking up suit activities.  No sign of deterrents."

The Leader said nothing.  In a sudden motion his chest burst open, spilling out light, while strange noises whizzed and whined.  I blinked, looking passed that light, and I saw... I saw the soul of the Angel.

It was a man.  Haggard in his face, dark eyes blazing with intensity, the soul of the Angel was nothing but a man.  He lifted his legs and withdrew his arms, stepping from the body of the Angel like someone stepping from a suit made of metal.  I glanced at the Servitors and suddenly wondered if they all held corpses within their bodies.  The man, the Leader, he took a step forward and stretched, and I could hear the popping of muscles, as if he had been too long confined within the shell that stood motionless behind him.

Before him, Dog simply sat down, and whined, tail forlornly thumping on the ceramic floor.  Looking down, the Leader smiled softly, then bent down to one knee and quietly patted the ground, calling Dog with gentle, nonsensical words. With a sudden shyness Dog crept forward, hunched down, tail between his legs but still wagging. "A last survivor, eh boy?" the Leader spoke soothingly. "Good boy… good dog…."

"Malnourished," the Musical One remarked, stepping forward.  he paused, and suddenly his head split a part, the smooth dome collapsing in on itself.  Revealed was another man, his head covered by a tousled mop of unruly black hair, his eyes looking down with a shockingly jewel-green gaze. He stayed in place, watching with obvious compassion. "It's been a while since this animal has been cared for."

"Or seen people," the Angry Man rumbled.   I hadn't noticed, but his head had also vanished, revealing another human visage, so shocking with its midnight black skin and pale white eyes.  "But the fact that it is friendly tells us it knows Humans and their kin. A wild beast would have run… or attacked."  He almost sounded grudgingly accepting about that, as if he would have welcomed an attack.  or had been trained to defend these others from one.

"Could that mean there are survivors?" the Leader asked, looking up, though his hand never left the side of Dog, much to his everlasting pleasure.

"The readings were clear," the Musical One shook his head. "Nothing Human survives here. The initial shock of displacement likely killed almost everyone.  Fires, ecological collapse, energy production failure, all of that would have taken everyone else out in a matter of weeks."  He sighed and looked around, eyes passing from fallen Servitor to fallen Servitor.  They even passed over me, but they did not stop.  "This place is dead."

"I'm not dead!" I suddenly cried out, despite myself.  My voice echoed throughout the halls, the desperate pain in my voice surprising even me.

In an instant the Leader was on his feet, looking throughout the hallway in shock.  The Angry Man immediately threw his arm back up, weapon again protruding, his head suddenly snapped back into the protection of the Angelic shell.  The Musical One merely glanced around, as if only mildly interested, though I knew instinctually that he was observing everything in the anteroom with a keen eye. In a flash these men, these Angels were ready to defend themselves, no matter the threat.  Ignored, at their feet, Dog whined, tail continuing to thump, perhaps a little harder now that he had heard my familiar voice.

I dared not move, and remained crouched by the fallen Servitor.  These Angels could see so much, I knew.  How did they not see me?  "Please don't hurt me," I begged softly.  "I'm all alone here."

For a moment more they looked about. The Leader slowly turned about, his eyes searching the entire hall, even glancing back into the Charter Hall. "Where is here?" he asked hesitantly, voice lifted to the air. Then, in a stronger tone, "Who are you?"

"No biosignatures aside from the animal," the Angry One muttered, his voice changed, filtered, now that he was again encased within the Angel's body.

"It's coming from the communications system," the Musical remarked, glancing to the back of his forearm, where a small display was suddenly being projected.  I could feel his gaze, via that display, passing over myself and all of our surroundings.  I couldn't understand that, and I didn't try.  I was too terrified.  These Angels were so powerful, yet held the souls of Men, and seemed unable to understand what was happening.  I wanted suddenly to only hide away.  But to hide, to flee from their grace, this was a path to death.  Without them, I would never leave for the Next World.

I steeled myself, and with  a resolve even more unsteady than the Foundation, I made myself speak.  "I am Signy."

Immediately the Angry one focused his unseen gaze upon my body.  "Power levels... there," he snapped, arm and weapon suddenly pointed at me.  The other two swung their gazes, their true gazes, to me.  Even the Musical One seemed surprised.

Slowly I stood, hestitantly moving away from the fallen Servitor and the wall.  I took a step towards them, then stopped when they moved back.  Except the Angry One.  He focused on me, and I knew that the weapon he bore could kill me before I could even register that it had fired.  "Please… please don't leave me. Take me away with you, to the Next World…."

The Musical One's eyes widened. "That is… astounding," he murmured.

"What?" the Leader snapped?  "What in the name of hell...?"

I flinched to hear an Angel be profane, but said nothing.

The Musical One glanced to his arm and the display, then back to me.  "It's tied into the central Core.  It's...."

Abruptly Dog barked, just once, and moved back to my side, tail wagging more vigorously.  he was tired of being ignored, and came back to the one that he knew would give him the attention that he craved.  Absently I reached down and gently stroked his head.

Something changed within the Leader's eyes as he watched the dog, and my hand.  When he looked up, there was a sadness that made my stomach turn to ice. "Signy," he spoke quietly, and he alone stepped forward. "Signy, who are you?"

I answered immediately, so glad to be given a task that I knew I could perform.  I wanted them to know that I was trustworthy, that I could be taken away from here.  "My Father, Solvar, was the last of those who Believed, who hoped.  He taught me that Fate could be changed, that we did not need to listen to the Archives.  That we could learn the Code.  Until he died, he believed we could find a way to save the world, and get to the Next one."

The Leader glanced back to the Musical One. "Well?"

"Definite connections to the habitat's mainframe," he remarked in the voice of someone who had come across a bit of intriguing reading in an old book. "And the mainframe itself is showing a level of programming that is remarkably advanced, on par with our own AI's. Perhaps a bit more advanced." He looked to the Leader. "Advanced enough to mimic a true personality."

"You're saying that it is based off of a real person?" the Angry One asked.  he sounded almost offended.

"Just so," the Leader whispered, turning back to me. The pity in his eyes was clear. And it scared me even more.

"I don't understand," I said, and I moved back, back against the wall. Dog stayed with me.  "I just want to be away from here, before the Foundation cracks open and the Flaming Eye takes us all --"

"There is no one, love," the Leader said, pity mixing with compassion. "Everyone has died. A long time ago now. Except for a few stray pets…."

Dog barked once and scampered back to settle at the Leader's feet.

"I haven't seen anyone," I cried, knowing what he said was true.  I had to admit it to myself.  I had evaded the last of the insane survivors because they had already died.  "It's just me, then --"

"Look at yourself," he interrupted, shaking his head. "Look at yourself and tell me what you see."

"My father's daughter," I answered swiftly, automatically. A shudder suddenly ran through me, through the world, and I gasped in pain as I felt a deep and widening crack….

"I have a tie-in," the Musical One remarked.  His intense eyes locked on to me.  "Hab-Devona level one query:  Identify."

I straightened up, the relief of a pure purpose almost erasing the internal agony.  "I am My Father's Daughter, habitat Devona, established in March of 2994 AD, Standard.  Location binary system HIE 1823475, 0.345 AU from central red dwarf luminary.  Established to provide long term scientific study of the neutron star companion --"

"Look at yourself!" the Leader snapped again.

I looked down to myself, and again that searing pain struck me.  Almost in passing I noticed that the men could feel the shuddering, even as my body shuddered.  I looked down to my body, and suddenly I saw it as it was, as it had always been.  I looked for the source of the pain, and I saw it as well. I gasped aloud as I saw the crack deep in my shuddering body….

As if I were floating in the Beyond, I saw myself, a great cylinder of stone and metal, slowly tumbling through the Dark, a movement unnatural, unintentional, the result of a passing planetary body and its gravitational influence, one that was foreseen centuries past, and duly recorded in the Archives by a people who no longer had the knowledge to change this Fate. But some had believed they could, and so set about learning the Code in the hopes of changing what must come to pass. Chief among these had been an old man named Solvar, who still mourned for a daughter long lost to disease and early death….

I looked down, and for the first time, I truly saw myself. Twisting about, I saw the fallen Servitor, and realized that my body was identical. I blinked, and the point of view changed.  By body suddenly slumped where it stood, and I was now within the frame of the Servitor that I had hidden beside.  It stood... I stood.  I looked backwards, and I felt the connection to the other Servitors, all powered down, their independent functions lost when the control systems had been irreparably damaged by those early quakes.   Another shudder ran through me, and I could feel… I could *see* the separation of parts, the sliding of entire sections, the great crack in the outer skin, ripping inward, towards this protected environment that had supported Human life for 743 Standard years.

The Leader's eyes had moved to my "new" body.  he blinked once, then looked down and scratched Dog's head.  The poor animal was terrified; he could hear, even feel the shudders that ran throughout the habitat.  Throughout out... me.

"We need to go," the Angry One spoke, looking at a device set into an apparatus on his free arm. "There is a major disruption caused by the inertial stresses. The habitat will be breached in minutes.  These interior sections are not pressurized against the outside."

I stepped forward, ignoring the pain, the slow evisceration that was gutting me, inch by inch. "Don't leave me…"

The Leader had turned back to his... to his suit.  It was no Angel.  he was no Angel's soul.  I knew the environmental suit for what it was now.  I simply had to concentrate on it.  He paused, looking back to the where I stood. "Get back to the ship," he spoke.

The other two paused, but they knew this man, and they knew the tone of his voice.  Even the Angry One obeyed, pausing only to send a silent command to the Leader's empty suit.  Ponderously, of it's own power, it turned and re-entered the Charter Hall, followed by the others.

"I don't want to be left behind," I begged, even though I knew now that I could not go. I could not survive. "I don't…."  It was foolish.  there was no one left to save.  I... I was not here.  I never had been.

The Leader bent down and scooped up Dog in his arms. As he straightened, his eyes locked back on to me. Back on to where I perceived myself, within that Servitor's metallic frame. There was nothing but sorrow in his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said softly. "I wish I could do something." He swallowed, at a loss for words, hands reassuringly stroking the mangled fur of the dog that he held.  His fingers, I noticed, were long, like those of an artist.  My father had been an artist. "I'm sorry, love.  We don't have the capability of... of transferring you." Slowly he turned, and made to follow his men.

"His name," I called after him, stepping after him. He paused at the entrance to the Charter Hall and looked back. "His name is Dog," I said quietly. The Leader smiled, and nodded.  Then he was gone, back through the airlock that connected his vessel to the primary habitat airlock, an airlock that had not seen a visitor for hundreds of years.

Everyone was gone.  No people remained.  In the grand scheme of the Galaxy, I knew habitat Devona had had a short, unremarkable history.  But it had been our home.  And now... everyone had died months ago.  Solvar had died months ago.  And Signy, she had died years before that.

Slowly, I closed my eyes even as another painful shudder ran through my body. I willed the pain away. I willed away all those memories of my father… the man who had programmed me with the soul of his dead daughter, her biography, her remembered personality, her experiences. Somewhere, somehow, I still smiled.

And, finally, I willed away everything else and sent myself to sleep.

***

The great habitat drifted through space, along the edge of the emission nebula, a nebula marked by the blazing red giant embedded within its depths, and which shone like a great flaming eye. Slowly it tumbled, end over end, the mechanical stresses far too great and growing worse as repeated gravitational encounters with the rogue planet made the chaotic movement even more pronouced.

That rogue had come from the depths of the nebula, and after several orbits of the red dwarf, had again disappeared into its depths.  But it left behind a manmade world, lost to chaos, a world that had finally come to reach its final breaking point.  Great gouts of atmosphere erupted from its dark, chondritic skin. Chunks of the hull, long twisted hulks of metal, materials of every sort sped out into the darkness. Abrupt flares of nova-like explosions outshone everything else for several moments, the central fusion power source finally erupting in an unfettered release. The light retreated, and the habitat itself separated into two large pieces, support structures trailing like intestines, ices and chunks of flash frozen earth and entire buildings floating out into space like spilt blood.

An hour passed, and then two, and then five, and the mighty construction that had been built nearly a millennia before, and which had been lost to the rest of Humanity for that entire time, degraded into an ever expanding cloud of debris and rubble.  The remains would continue to be stretched out along its orbit of the red dwarf star for hundreds of thousands of years to come, utterly forgotten once more.

There was no sign of the sleeping consciousness that had inhabited it. There was only silence and the glittering remains in the light of the Flaming Eye.

The departing ship slowly arced away from the disaster, recording it all for posterity, heading for a safe position from which to slip into a deeper layer of space-time and return to its home.  The three man crew had long since settled in.  Two of them sat together in companionable silence, sharing a meal.

Alone, however, the Leader sat before a window, watching the distant sun, where the remains of the habitat continued to break apart. In his arms, comfortably curled into a small ball, medicated and properly fed, Dog slept on.


The ArcBuilder Universe is a science fiction project established, authored, and copyrighted ©
by John M. Dollan 2002-2016
This page first uploaded in January 24, 2016
Most recent update for this page January 24, 2016