The war had lasted ten thousand years, but it was at last approaching its end.
Once the Empire had occupied half the galaxy, and its influence had spanned star systems far beyond that. But that had been a long, long time ago, before the tide of war had turned, and kept turning.
Now, the last remnants of the Galactic Empire huddled in the ruins of Imperium. In the few square kilometres that were left of the Empire, men and women, royals and soldiers, civilians and artificial intelligences, waited in their various ways for the end.
It would not be long in coming.
Nobody acknowledged, even now, that the war was almost lost. That was treason – not just treason to the Empire, but treason to all they had believed in; it was treason to the human race.
The enemy had come out of the dust clouds near the galactic core ten thousand years ago, and step by step had driven the Empire back across the wastes of space. The enemy was as deadly and implacable as they were faceless – for nobody in all these thousands of years had seen them and escaped to tell the tale.
And now, it seemed, nobody would.
The city trembled in its death throes, as the enemy poured down devastation on it, and smashed aside the puny attempts at retaliation.
In a shell far below the surface, the warcaptain Sorah sat back from her console and rubbed her weary eyes. The air in the shell was rank, but Sorah scarcely noticed it. Her mind was still on the combat going on far overhead, where the last of the Empire’s drones were, increasingly fitfully, fighting off the enemy’s battle-swarms.
In happier times, Sorah might have been considered a beautiful woman. In the last years of the dying Empire, while she had been growing up, the fashion had been for a decadent chic which had placed a premium on physical attractiveness above all other traits. If she had chosen, Sorah could have used her looks as a passage to high office. But she had not so chosen.
Her decision to become a warrior had been a delicious scandal among the great halls of Imperium. After all, she was of noble blood. Minor nobility, to be sure, of the lowest rank of baronetcies, but that made it all the more scandalous. The Royals served because it was a symbol. The helots and freedpeople served because they had no choice. But the nobility did not serve, unless they could take credit for participating in a glorious victory, when there was credit enough to go round.
But the time for glorious victories was long past. It had been past since millennia before Sorah had been born.
Her family hadn’t understood either. As part of the nobility, of course, she’d been allowed to grow up with her bloodfather and bloodmother, instead of a communal crèche like a helot. That had been supposed to be a privilege. Instead, she’d often thought of it as a millstone around her soul.
“Why do you want to have anything to do with the war?” her bloodmother had asked tearfully. “With your looks, and the education we bought you, you could be a sector administrator. You might even be raised in the nobility, all the way to Countess.”
Sorah had shaken her head with exasperation. “Mother, the way the war’s are going, there aren’t going to be any sectors to administer, nor any nobility left. Don’t you understand that, or don’t you want to?”
Her bloodmother had gone white and looked quickly around, as though the royal spies were listening. As nobility, they should have had immunity from surveillance not specifically approved by a Lord, but in these latter days one could never be sure. “Don’t say things like that,” she’d muttered. “You shouldn’t ever say things like that.”
Sorah had snorted. “As it is, I’m joining in the war effort, so there’s no way to accuse any of us of being disloyal. There are plenty who can join the administration if they want to.” She’d softened a little and touched her bloodmother’s shoulder. “Mother, the enemy’s still a system away. It’s going to take decades for them to get here, and I haven’t been selected for the space battlefleet, so I’ll spend my entire career here in Imperium without handling a weapon in anger. You can be sure of that.”
But it had not taken decades. The enemy’s final offensive had come with breathtaking suddenness, had wiped out almost all the Imperial battlefleet in one engagement, scattered the rest, and brushed aside the puny defences of the inner planets. Now their battle-swarms crawled over the surface of Imperium, and the nearest were only a few kilometres away.
Sorah rubbed her eyes and hunched forward over the console again. She no longer remembered when she’d last eaten or drunk; it did not matter. Once her battlesuit would have reminded her, but she had turned off those functions long ago, the better to concentrate on the fighting with.
Not that there was much more fighting to be done.
On the screen, she watched the feed from one of her remaining drones, climbing over an expanse of broken rock which had once been one of Imperium’s great highways. The signals from the drone were growing increasingly weak and interrupted, and she had no idea if she could still control it. She tried channel after channel, until she got one which was still in relatively good condition. With a nod of satisfaction, she began to process the feed.
Her satisfaction disappeared in an instant. “Oh...blast.”
No matter how many times she’d seen an enemy battle-swarm, she’d never got used to it. This was a small swarm; there were only three of them, but against one half-controlled drone three were more than enough. They whirled low in the sky, spokes of brilliant yellow light whirling behind grey discs of aerosol cloud shields, and she could imagine the enemy inside sighting on her drone, getting ready to burn it out with their energy torpedoes. If she’d had even one platoon of drones handy, they’d never have dared to get so close, but she didn’t have a platoon of drones anymore. Nobody did.
With a brief flash of light, the feed from the drone went dead.
Fighting down a rising tide of panic, Sorah checked her remaining forces. There were none. Not a single one of her drones survived.
Her fingers flickering over the screen, she tried to communicate with the other shells. There were many, on all sides of her, above and below, and when the battle for Imperium had started they’d been co-ordinating their drones. But as the fighting had gone on and the drones had been destroyed one by one, the co-ordination had broken down. She didn’t even remember when she’d last talked to one of the other shells.
Increasingly frantic, she sent out a general message, first in code, and then in clear, asking for updates. There was no reply.
Either all communication channels had been cut off, or everyone else was neutralised. Whichever it was, there was nothing more for her to do here.
For the first time in longer than she cared to remember, Sorah uncoupled her battlesuit from the console and stood up. The low ceiling of the shell was a white curve just above her head, its pristine smoothness mocking the ruins of the great city on the surface. She had no idea how things were in the city, but she had no choice now but to find out. Stepping into the emergency pod, she leaned back against the wall and let her battlesuit’s computer control the ascent to the surface.
Despite her decision to volunteer for the fighting forces, the warcaptain Sorah had had a largely sheltered life. All she had ever known was the colonnades and halls of Imperium, its great avenues and soaring bridges bearing the Royal sigil, and the blue sky above. As the pod breached the surface and split to allow her egress, she gasped with sudden shock.
The sky was blue no longer, but the colour of deep space, the atmosphere burned away. Far over her, the sun of Imperium shone, a glimmering disc of white light, glittering on specks and scratches on the visor of her battlemask. And around her, of the greatest architecture of the known galaxy, on which so much blood and treasure had been expended, there remained –
Nothing. A sea of ruins. Shattered buildings toppled over wrecked highways. What was left of a bridge reared skyward, ending in a tangle of masonry and metal.
There was not a single living creature to be seen.
Her mind numbed with shock, Sorah wandered through the ruins of all she had ever known. In the distance, she could see the Great Dome of the Imperial Palace. When she had seen it last, it had been a thing of beauty, golden and ivory in the sunshine,
Now, it was a burned out, skeletal shell.
Far overhead, there was a twitch of movement. Sorah froze, watching the sky. Her battlesuit’s sensors picked up the image, amplified it and projected it on her visor. It was a flotilla of the enemy’s ships, their shape unmistakable. They floated overhead, unmolested, not even bothering to take the precaution of shielding themselves from basic sensors such as hers.
It must really all be over then, she thought. The end of the battle for Imperium, the end of the ten thousand year war, the end of the Empire which had endured a lot longer than that; and the end of everything she had ever known.
What was there to do now, for her?
She thought of going to see if she could find her bloodmother and bloodfather, but dismissed the thought. They had been only minor nobility, without any right to protection from raids, and without an atmosphere they would have died long ago.
As she would die, too, if she stayed where she was.
For a long moment she debated whether to depower her battlesuit and let herself suffocate to death. What were her other options? Capture by the enemy? She did not even know what to make of that. What would life be like as a prisoner of an enemy of whom nobody knew even what they looked like, breathed or ate?
Suddenly exhausted, she slumped down on a chunk of rock and buried her head in her arms. Grief washed over her – grief for all that she might have known, and done; grief for the Empire, all the way from the Emperor down to the least helot. They were all gone, gone forever, and she was the only one left. She was too exhausted even to cry. She just sat there, her battlemask clutched in her gauntleted hands.
Time passed, while she fought down her grief.
She became aware that things had changed around her even before she opened her eyes. The change was too subtle to name in words, as though the taste of the air her battlesuit was feeding her had changed. Slowly, she sat up, and her hands fell away from her face.
Someone was standing there, looking at her.
For a moment of wild excitement, Sorah thought it was another survivor, maybe a battlesergeant or even another warcaptain. Then she realised that the battlesuit the other was wearing was none like she had ever seen before, a leathery brown covered with bumps and knobs, the helmet projecting forward like a hooked beak.
She was on her feet, frantically cycling through her defences, before she realised that the suit was dead. None of her personal weapons worked, and when she tried to call up her sensors, her mask’s visor stayed stubbornly transparent. Her suit was still giving her air, but that was all.
“I can stop the air, too, if I want,” a voice said in her earphones, so suddenly that she jumped. “I can shut everything down.”
It was a soft voice, with a curiously familiar quality. Sorah was almost sure she’d heard it before, somewhere. If she’d had control over her battlesuit, she’d have used its computer to run comparison tests, but as things stood –
“Are you coming along?” The figure in the brown battlesuit was waving at her, and she realised she’d missed something it had said. “Or should I begin making your suit walk you? I can, you know.”
“I’m coming.” Her voice was muffled within the mask, a murmur in her ears, but the person in the brown suit apparently had no problem understanding her. She took a wary step forward, and then another. “Where are we going?”
“Follow me.” The brown-suited figure led her between two charred buildings and to what had once been a small garden. The plants that had grown here were withered brown husks now, their air and water burned away, and in between their crushed remnants she saw something that looked not unlike the shell in which she had spent so long. A door opened in its side, and as she followed the other person inside, it slid shut behind them.
It looked so much like the shell that for a moment she thought it was the shell itself – but that was nonsense, because the shell was buried far underground. She didn’t have an opportunity to look around, though, because the other person was talking to her again.
“Take off your battlesuit. We need to talk.”
For a moment she thought of protesting, but there was no point to it. Without control, her battlesuit was useless, and she squirmed in the narrow space as she fumbled for the control fastenings. When she had finally stripped it off, she gathered it in her hands and turned. “Where do I put...” she broke off abruptly.
“It doesn’t matter.” The brown battlesuit had vanished, and the other person – the other woman – turned to look at her out of a face so familiar that for a moment she thought she was hallucinating. “It doesn’t matter where you put it.”
Sorah now knew why the voice was so familiar. She’d heard it every time she’d heard herself on a recording. “Who are you?” she whispered.
“Don’t you know?” There was the faintest mocking note in the voice. “Let’s sit down. There’s not really enough space for the two of us.”
They sat in front of the console. Sorah’s mind was so numbed by the fact that her own image was sitting opposite her that she looked away, at the screen. It was blank, but there was a small crack in the grey-white material of the wall in which it was set – a crack she knew well from having looked at it for all her time during the final battle.
There was no way but to accept it – she was sitting opposite herself in the shell which she had left far underground.
Of course, she reasoned, this could not be. But nothing that had happened in recent weeks could be.
The other woman was leaning forward, gravely watching her. There was something very subtly different about her, and it took Sorah a moment to realise what it was. She was used to seeing herself in a mirror image, but here she was confronting the real thing.
That thought finally drove her to words. “Are you real?”
“In a manner of speaking.” The woman’s eyes were full of an unreadable emotion. Sympathy? Could it be sympathy?
“And this?” Sorah waved at the console, the smooth white walls she’d never thought she’d see again. “Is any of this real?”
“Do you want it to be?”
“What the hell does that mean? Talk sense. Who are you? Are you one of the enemy?”
“Before we come to that,” the woman said calmly, “tell me something. Who are the enemy of whom you speak?”
“The enemy? Why...” Sorah gestured helplessly. “The...creatures...we’ve been fighting ten thousand years!”
“You say,” the woman continued imperturbably, “that we have been fighting these creatures. Who are the we to whom you refer?”
“We...” Sorah felt a creeping sense of unreality. “The Imperial forces. The Empire.”
“And you are a part of the Empire, of course, so that’s why you’ve been fighting?”
“Not exactly. I volunteered, and if I hadn’t I wouldn’t be alive now.” She paused. “But you know that already.”
“Do I? Then you can tell me this at least – why did you volunteer to fight for the Empire? Was it an Empire worth fighting for?”
There was a long pause. “Perhaps not,” Sorah admitted at last. “I don’t pretend I don’t know or care about the way the Empire came to rule over the galaxy, the systems and races it destroyed, the freedoms it snuffed out. But by the time I came along, that was long over. And I didn’t exactly have a choice, did I? It was go down fighting or go down. Period.”
“Exactly.” For the first time the woman smiled. “You chose to fight because you felt you could put some order in your existence. You chose to fight because you still had a choice.”
“Yes...” Sorah hesitated. There seemed to be something left unsaid. “How does that relate to who you are?”
“You could ask yourself this,” the woman said. “Why do you choose to see me as you see me?”
“You mean...you don’t look like this?” Fear suddenly shot through Sorah. “What do you actually look like? What are you?”
“I look like whatever you choose to see me as, Sorah.” There was a faint flicker, and the woman vanished. In her place was a blue pyramid. “You could choose to see me as this, for instance,” said the pyramid. “Or as this.” It vanished, and a scaly creature with long teeth glared at Sorah with black-striped yellow eyes.”Or even this,” and the woman was back again, still smiling. “It’s all in what you choose.”
Sorah swallowed. “I’m not really here,” she said. “Am I?”
The woman shook her head slightly. “Not in the way you mean it, no.”
“And all this?” Sorah waved her hand. “This shell...and outside, Imperium. What about Imperium?”
The woman reached out and touched a spot on the console. The walls of the shell melted away, became invisible. “See for yourself.”
All around, under the actinic glare of an unshielded sun, lay baked black rock stretching from beneath Sorah’s feet to the distant horizon. There was not the least fragment of masonry, not the smallest piece of broken metal, no indication that a mighty city had once stood there and been destroyed.
Sorah felt her lips moving, though she could not hear herself speak. “And who...who am I?”
The baked rock vanished and the woman and the shell were there again. “You’re warcaptain Sorah as long as you choose to be,” said the woman. “When you no longer choose to be, you can be anything you want. That’s the way things are.”
“Let me get this straight,” Sorah whispered. “What am I, an experiment? An exercise in free will?”
Now the woman laughed. “Hardly an experiment,” she said. “In your own present version of reality, you choose to be a warcaptain named Sorah, sole survivor of a defeated Empire. An Empire, you know, which this Sorah hated so much that she wanted to outlive – and would go to any length to outlive, including engineering its destruction. Of course,” she added, “Sorah could be anything or anyone else, if she wanted to be.”
She reached out to another spot on the console, seemingly at random, and looked at Sorah significantly. “You could be this...”
It was a green world, with trees reaching up to the sky, and water falling in the distance. Sorah stood up to her ankles in leaf litter, her spear in one hand, her bag of food in another. She turned her head quickly, nervously, because she was sure she was being watched. The village she had left was already two days’ distance away, and she’d thought she was safe. They’d killed all her family, accusing them of being witches, but she’d got away somehow. Apparently, though, they hadn’t been willing to her go. Either that, or someone else was following her, and that would be even worse. The villagers would only kill her. What an outsider might do...
“Or,” she heard a voice saying somewhere deep inside her, “you could be this.” The green forest faded away...
It was a world that had never known sunlight, so deep beneath the surface of the ocean that not even the faintest ray ever reached these depths. But the denizens of these realms had their own senses, electrical, magnetic, and others, which told them about their world. Sorah moved her fins, slowly heaving her bulk through the water, hungry as she always was, seeking prey, as she always had, always would. Something moved in the edge of her consciousness, and she swooped, snapping. Momentarily satiated, she was swam on, through a current of slightly warmer water. By the time she had reached the other side, she was famished again.
“Or,” a voice trembled down to her through the water, “you could choose to be this.”
The great sun hung in the void, so dim and red that it was difficult to see. Sorah did not need eyes to see it, though; she licked at it with infrared cameras, poked at its depths with hard X rays, dismantled its composition with spectroscopes. She had never known anything else, never would. Companionship meant nothing to her. She was happy where she was, in long-term orbit round the dim red giant at the end of the Universe.
And it happened again – and again...
More worlds followed, flickering faster and faster, until she could no longer grasp one before it was whirled away, to be replaced by another. Her mind began to black out, and she fell into darkness...
She came to gasping, sitting opposite the woman, who was still looking at her. “Now do you understand – a little?”
“I’m beginning to,” Sorah said. “But that still doesn’t explain who – what – I am.”
“Does it matter?” The woman sat back and stared at Sorah. “Think of something like a formless computer programme, a mix of fluxes of energies, a creature born of the random interplay of quarks and cosmic radiation, a creature of endless powers but no sense organs of itsown, no way to express itself. What could such a creature, without any senses or sense organs, know of itself? However vast its intelligence, how could it begin to grasp the universe around it?”
Sorah was silent. The woman looked at her and smiled again, a sad smile.
“You might ask, wouldn’t the creature want to know? Of course it would. But how could it know, except by analogies? How might it understand, except by borrowing the thoughts of those it could detect, and seeing the Universe through their eyes?
“And if such a creature existed, and was powerful enough,” the woman mused, “it might also feel that it needed to explore possibilities, to see all that might happen to those whose eyes it saw through, whose brains it thought with, whose lives it lived. You know, to be aware of all that might happen. But then again, this creature might have enough of a sense of ethics...not to want to actually disrupt the lives of those it had seen through. It could create different possibilities, a thousand, a million, but it would not want to actually put something else through the effects and repercussions of it. It did not want them to live their lives simulating different possible futures, exercising different choices, only to serve its purposes, you understand. What could the creature do?
“Perhaps,” she said softly, “you can answer the question yourself now?”
Sorah still said nothing. She might have been turned to stone.
“Such a creature might be thought cruel to its creations,” the woman said, “but if those creations are a part of itself, and if it gave that part a chance at self-awareness, well...” She reached into her discarded battlesuit and brought out a small box which she set down on the console. It was a black box with a raised white button in the centre.
“If such a part of itself wanted to know,” she said, “if the part really wanted to know, all it would have to do would be to press this button.”
Sorah looked at the box. They both looked at the box. It sat on the console, small and black, with the white button in the centre.
“It’s your choice,” said the woman. “Your choice, entirely. It’s the way that things are.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012