1001 Starry Knights: The Seven Voyages of Sinbad, chapter 6

“Well, normally, when we jump in, we’d do an active ping. Keep an eye out for any unwelcome surprises, lifeforms, that kind of thing. We’re running dark at the moment. A little lower, would you? God, my back’s a mess.”

I nodded, my fingers dipping down the navigator’s spine. Her tentacles slowly rose and fell, and she let out a sigh of relief. I pressed my thumbs in gently. “So, when we ran into the sun-kraken-“

“Yeah. That was because we were running dark. Exciting, huh?”

“Seems fairly dangerous.” I worked my way a bit lower on her spine, and she arched her back, letting out a soft groan. “Too rough?”

“No. Keep going.” She lay back down, her head on her arms as my fingers drifted lower. “A little dangerous. But we can’t afford to run into the fleet. If they get a hold of the ship and find you aboard, we’d be in deep shit.” I nodded, and ran my fingers up to her shoulder blades. “I’m sorry about all of this. You know, most of us are just in it for fun. The Captain’s the only one who really takes the piracy seriously. I just wanted to get away from my family. Thought I’d spend a couple of decades aboard a pirate ship, learning how to be a great navigator.” She sighed softly.

“Well, for what it’s worth, in about half a month, it sounds like I’m going to be out of your hair for good.” I looked down the curve of her back.

“I’ve been thinking about that. You know… The crew enjoy your stories. I’m sure we could talk to the captain. Keep you aboard, telling stories and keeping us entertained, instead of selling you off. You could be, like, the ship morale officer.” She looked over her shoulder, smiling beguilingly. Her slightly overlarge, sapphire eyes glittered. They were meant to see in the dark. I got the feeling she enjoyed putting them to good use. “If you would be interested, I mean.”

“I’ll consider it.” I leaned forward, and kissed her cheek, standing up as the bell rang, indicating it was time for a meal in the mess. A few minutes later, I sat at the mess table, adjusting my shirt collar.

“Now, the last time we left off…”

“Your destiny?” Sinbad frowned.

“Yeah. When I turn 30, it’s my turn.” Dolly looked at the door. “I’ll be expected to enter that place, and take my mother’s place. My genes are the only ones that will open the door, and interface with the weapon.

It had been the plan all along. Dolorosa had been born in the early days of the Empire’s ascendancy, when it was spreading out across the Galaxy, and could still be challenged by anything. As the other Kingdoms focused on the rival species within their local space, and the postphysical entity at the galactic core, she looked outwards. She was part of the first great extragalactic expedition, setting forth on a fleet of ships to their distant neighbor, Andromeda.

When they returned, a thousand years later, there was one ship, and one survivor. Dolorosa, her memories fragmented, her head separated from her body, was kept alive only by a jury-rigged life support harness, and mobile only with the help of a set of radio transmitters puppeteering her own body. She was one of the first of the true Undead, her body changed permanently to suit a life without end. The manner of her body’s expiration, decapitation, became the basis for an entire tribe of the Undead. The removable head was like a mark of honor, a scarification, showing the distances they went to emulate their idol. To say nothing of the skill she needed to fight, to be a great warrior, when her head was not connected to her body. The Undead loved a good fad.

The Dolorosa did not know what she had seen out there. She had flashes of memory, of horror. She did not know if the fleet had made it to Andromeda, or were beset earlier. She knew only there were enemies waiting outside of the Empire, as well as within. So she made a determination. She would create a border wall. As Hadrian would, as Qin Shi Huang would, as Hammurabi would, she built a wall. Not of stone, but of culture. A swath of the galaxy, where the Undead Kingdom lay. Massive, unchanging, preserved, their bodies weaponized, their culture designed to be prepared for any length of time spent waiting.

Every world of the Undead Kingdom was covered with soldiers waiting to be awoken. The warriors of eons were stored there, waiting for the right shock. Senility was a problem, but it could be handled. The real problem was motivation. And Dolorosa could not leave the defense of the Empire to whim and want. She installed a trojan, deep in the basic fiber of the conversion packages. Every Undead body could be controlled. There was an army held in reserve, ready to be activated whenever it was necessary. All of them, controlled from a single tomb.

Of course, the Dolorosa was ancient. Senility had long since ravaged her. So, she came up with a solution to the ultimate problem of senility. It was not perfect, but it would work, at least for her. She would have a child. The child would grow for thirty years, while the Dolorosa slumbered in her tomb. At the age of 30, the child would be integrated back into the Dolorosa, giving her a brief moment of wakefulness, before the weight of ages crushed the personality of the child flat. It would be enough time to make sure all was well in the galaxy, and ensure there was no call for the Dolorosa to fight yet.

The real cruelty was the child always had the choice of abdication. They could leave the Far and Sunless Land, give up their position. It would mean the Dolorosa’s plan would fail. It would mean the Great Wall of the Empire would crumble. If a threat arrived from the interstellar gulf, then there would be no great army to meet it. But there was always a choice. Maybe the Dolorosa had done it to be kind. More likely, she had done it to keep her daughters under control. They grew up, spent their entire life under her thumb, and then were forced to give themselves up like a sacrifice to their own mother. She was a great woman, but not a good one.

Dolly leaned against the walls, her arms crossed. “Is it worth it?”

Sinbad frowned softly. “What?”

“Giving your life up to fulfill your duty. You’re a military man. That’s practically what you do, right? Risk your life to protect the ideals you care about?”

“It used to be. It had its own honor. Why 30, though? Why not just wait until there was a crisis?”

“Because she knew what people are like. The longer you live, the more you hate the idea of not existing. The more impossible that idea becomes. No matter how old I am, I’ll cease to be when I become a part of her. Everything I am, every memory, everything that makes me a person. It’ll disappear under a tide of memories a half million years old. I won’t remember how I felt about you. I won’t remember how I wanted to dance. I won’t remember this present.” She flicked the scarf around her neck. “Life is a habit-forming substance. So if I left, she feared I might not come back, and then, everything would fall apart.” She rubbed her eyes.

Sinbad looked back at the vault door. Low and heavy, like a mouth, waiting to consume. The hungry maw of a volcano, demanding a virgin sacrifice. “To hell with that.” She looked up frowning.

“What?”

“The reason we have armies is so innocents don’t have to be sacrificed. If there’s something out there, then we’ll become strong enough to fight it off.” He turned towards her, offering a bright, shining white smile. “Didn’t you know? That’s why humans are here in the stars. We wanted to be strong enough to walk in the stars, and to keep anyone from holding us down. If there are monsters out there in the darkness, we’ll fight them together, and if people are dying, it’s not going to be little girls who never did anything wrong.”

She puffed out her cheeks. “I am not a little girl. You patronizing ape.”

Sinbad held his hands to his cheeks. “My! What a mouth on you! You ought to be ashamed of such a remark. That’s ‘Mister’ Patronizing Ape.” He grinned, and slid an arm around her shoulder. “We’ll be out of here in a few days. We’ll take the first ship back to human space we can get, and we’ll never come back here, unless you feel the urge to spit on your mom’s grave.”

“But what if something happens? What if she’s right?”

He was quiet for a moment. Then, he began walking towards the stairs, his hand sliding down to squeeze hers, fingers interlacing. “Then we figure out what we need to do then. I might be called upon to die any minute. That just makes it all the more important that I enjoy the hell out of life. And if you do come back to this place to awaken that army, it’s your choice, not your mother’s.”

The two of them walked up the stairs, making their way up to the surface. He puffed a bit as they arrived at the top, bending over to catch his breath. Dolly was staring out of the front door, at the vast rain of light. Green flashes and distant booms filled the room, as she watched. She rested a hand on her lips. “It’s beautiful.”

“Does this happen much?” he asked, standing straight.

“I’ve never seen it before. There isn’t a lot of rocky debris this far out. I wonder where it came from?”

She held his hand, as the two of them watched the sky. “Got to admit, for a scary old world full of corpses and death, this is a pretty nice view.”

There were two weeks until the next ship was scheduled to arrive. Passage would be easy enough. The main difficulty was passing the time. On the third day, sitting in the small restaurant offering exotic Reptile Kingdom cuisine, he sighed. “What’s the matter, Sinbad?” He looked up at Dolly. She wore a light purple dress, hanging fetchingly off of one shoulder, a sunhat resting over her eyes.

“I’m starting to get what you meant about this place being repetitive. I’m definitely noticing the patterns. That guy’s going to start an impromptu musical number in three… two… one…” The sound of a chair falling, followed by a seemingly-spontaneous musical number including half a dozen brilliantly choreographed dancers, filled the air. “Everything in this place is on a schedule. It feels like being back in the military.”

Dolly smiled. “That’s senility for you. Unexpected surprises can jerk a person right out of senility. If they wind up shocked, they might leave, and give up on the whole ‘becoming a ghost’ thing. Not really good for the businesses here. Kind of contrary to the whole spirit. So, there’s a strict schedule. For everything.” She rested her chin on one hand, running the other along the scarf. “It’s suffocating. Living in this place, it’s like having to spend your entire life in a theme park for someone fifty thousand years older than you. There’s nothing new, nothing interesting, just the same old grind.”

“Reminds me of my old command.”

“Even there, you were doing something meaningful. You were helping people. Here… We’re just making old, rich bastards feel comfortable while they get ready to stop being a part of life.” She sighed softly, closing her eyes.

Sinbad raised his hand to the waiter. “Hey. Could we get this to go?”

Dolly frowned up at him. “What’s the matter? You don’t like the singing?”

“Actually, I just had an idea.”

Ten minutes later, the two of them were riding her horse out along the slabs of marble. “What are we doing?” she asked, frowning over her shoulder at him, leaning back in his arms as she held the reins.

“Exploring. This world is covered in monuments and features barely anyone ever sees.”

“We could just use the virtual tour.”

“Yeah, and we could see the whole galaxy from your living room. But it’s one thing to see it, and another thing to be there. I looked up this one plot. It’s dedicated to an entire Aquatic family. Their dynasty goes back almost to the beginning of the Empire, and it covers an entire valley.” He smiled at her. “Let’s check out some history. You’re never coming back to this place, right?”

And that was how they spent their time. Traveling across the monuments, having picnics among the bones. Dolly smiled quite a lot more when it was just the two of them, away from the people in the town, living life on their own. One day, she asked him a question that stuck with him for quite a long time afterward.

“Sinbad, what’s the most beautiful world you’ve ever been to?”

He rubbed his chin, as the two of them sat together. “Well, I grew up on Orion. Not a lot of water there, but plenty of sandstorms. Sometimes, these storms would hit just this right level of density, where they’d start creating an ionic disturbance. This huge cloud of rushing sand, covered by arcs of lightning, booming like an artillery barrage.” He leaned back against one of the markers, his hands going behind his head. “That had to be one of the most beautiful things I ever saw. Then there’s the great river of Valles Marineris, on Mars. White-water rafting there is expensive as all hell, but it’s considered one of the seven Great Wonders of Sol. And hell, I’ve even been to a world almost no one knows exists.” He thought briefly of Atropos and went silent.

“Will you take me to see them some time?”

He smiled. “I’m not sure I’m going to be able to take time off any time soon. But after I finish paying off my debt… Yeah. We’ll see them all. If you’re going to live forever, why not see everything you can, right?” He gave her a warm smile, and she returned it.

It was the morning of the last day. In a few hours, the ship would arrive. They would be free from the world. They celebrated with a picnic on the outskirts of the town. Sinbad sat on the small blanket, Dolly lying with her head on his lap, her body curled up next to him. He popped a few berries into her mouth, watching with interest. “How exactly do you eat things with your head separated from your body?” he asked, frowning. “I’ve been trying to figure that out for the last couple of weeks.”

“It’s actually quite simple. The food is- Hm.” She stopped speaking, and stared out at the horizon. He looked up, and peered into the gloom. Just on the edge of vision, he could see bobbing green lights.

“What’s that?” he asked, frowning.

“I’m not sure.” Her voice was a whisper. “I think we should get back into town.”

“You think it could be dangerous?” he asked, slightly incredulously. Then, a distant horn began to wail from the town. There was no mistaking a doomsday whistle.

“What was it?” asked Renee, her eyes wide as saucers.

“Well, the true details were not understood until some time later. At the time, all anyone in the town knew was that the stored bodies had been… co-opted. Have you girls ever heard of the Cordyceps fungus of Earth?” They shook their heads. “It’s a type of fungus which parasitizes insects, notably ants. taking over their nervous system, and controlling the ant’s behavior. Humans have a great deal of fear bound up in parasitization, for obvious reasons. Losing who you are. It was rather an irony that such a fate was befalling the Undead. The standing theory is, the meteor shower contained some form of fungus. While a living, sapient creature would be able to fight off the infection, and a member of the Undead who was active could easily destroy the infection before it got started, the bodies on the Far and Sunless Land were in storage. They were easily overridden, and once so controlled, they were raised by the fungus, to spread itself further. Whether they were intelligent or not is uncertain, but they were dangerous.”

“So they were just a weird parasite?” asked the navigator, frowning.

“That is what the Empire concluded, later. Of course, there were doubters. Sinbad, for example. In the light of what happened, perhaps it was a justification on his part. On the other hand… Have you heard of Hanlon’s razor?”

The captain raised an eyebrow. “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity?”

I grinned. “Good job, Captain.” I reached into the small satchel I carried, and withdrew a sheet of stickers. “Gold star for you.” I lifted it off of the sheet, and popped it on her cheek. She gave me a sour look, but she didn’t remove it. “Of course, the most important corollary of Hanlon’s Razor is, you don’t rule out malice.”

“You mean to tell me the dead are walking?” Sinbad asked, holding up the pencil-necked Fae by the neck. Booth squeaked a bit.

“I mean- Well, technically, they’re not the dead, they’re simply the bodies of the dead, and they’re not walking so much as sprinting-” Sinbad’s grip tightened a bit.

“Are we in danger?”

“Well, we got a sample of the fungus that seems to be controlling them with one of the aerodrones, and they don’t seem to be able to take control of a living creature with a functioning immune system, so we should- Oh.”

“So what are the chances they’re moving in the direction of the only living creatures on this planet to kill us and take over our bodies?”

Booth shrugged. “I don’t know, I’d need more information to make an accurate-” Sinbad’s fingers tightened. He really hated the Fae. “Agh! Pretty good! The chances are pretty good!”

Sinbad looked around the town square. A few dozen frightened Fae performers primarily trained in stage combat. A handful of frightened looking senile Undead. A few of the young Undead who kept the city running. He spared a glance for his companion. Dolly’s face seemed, if anything, even paler than usual. No one else in the square were fighters. He took a deep breath.

The cabbie sat silently, watching. “So?”

“So?” Sinbad asked, staring out the window. “I helped them fight them off. The first few, anyway. It was a mere handful, perhaps a half dozen, arriving at the gates before their brothers. We managed to destroy them. Barely.” He looked down at his hand, opening and closing it slowly. “I don’t like talking about the fighting. It doesn’t matter much.”

“Wait, we don’t get to hear about the fight?” asked the gunner, her arms crossed, looking annoyed. “But it’s a wave of possessed bodies, controlled by a fungus from beyond the stars! That’s exciting! You could make something up, couldn’t you?”

The captain lowered her mug firmly, the clatter silencing the agreement of the rest of the crew. “What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence. Don’t dishonor a soldier’s wishes by telling stories about a fight he doesn’t want to remember.”

The rest of the crew nodded, and settled back into their seats as I continued.

Sinbad sat on the edge of the barricade. It had been smashed through in three places. Several of the buildings providing cover had crumbled under the dead’s assault. He looked down. There were injured Imperials everywhere. The six bodies of the unquiet dead, damaged beyond repair, lay on the ground. They were still twitching. Three of them bore large black-edged cuts. The smell of burnt plastic filled the air, as he tuned the plasma torch down, its formidable burning edge shortening to a dagger point, and then disappearing entirely. After he set it down, he reached down to his off-hand, hanging limply at his side, and winced as he felt broken bones grind together. He looked around.

“There’s no chance.” Booth moaned, head in his hands. “The ship is still hours away. We’re all going to die here, probably for good.” The Fae pulled off his glasses, wiping tears away from his eyes, sniffling a bit. “I’m never going to get to tell anyone the story of what happened here.”

“Glad you’ve got your priorities in order.” Sinbad muttered, studying the wounded. No dead, besides the possessed bodies. Large, colorful mushroom caps rose from their heads, in colors ranging from jade green to teal, bright and shiny. They were being burnt. “Where’s Dolly?”

“I don’t know. She ran away during the fight, I think. She’s not a fighter. She’s probably huddling in her manor. None of us are fighters.” The Fae hung his head. “What does it matter? The next wave’s going to be here in ten minutes, and there are hundreds of them. Then thousands. We’re all dead.” He looked down. “I’m sorry, human. I know you probably aren’t going to come back from this. I wish I could tell your story.”

“I’m not dying here. I’ve been promised that much.” Sinbad stood up, and looked at the great statue at the far edge of the town, the tomb of Dolorosa. “Oh, shit.” He broke into a run.

The door of the manor was open.

The vault had been unsealed at the bottom of the stairs.

A corridor lay beyond.

He stepped into the room at the end of the corridor.

At a certain level of technological advancement, Imperials cared far more about aesthetics than appearing advanced. If a human had created a room from which one trillion warriors could be activated and sent off to war, it would vary by who made it. It might be all smooth edges and retro-chic white and silver. It might be covered in panels showing scenes of war from the eyes of the Undead shells. There would be consoles everywhere, and dramatic countdowns. There would be a command chair.

But the Imperials had a simple sense of style. This room was carved from black stone, smoothed into a polished, mirror-like surface. In the center of the room sat a wooden throne, with a slender diadem upon the seat. A single clear crystal sat in the brow of the diadem. On it were written runes in very old Imperial script. “I always imagined she would be sitting here. You know? Her body. Maybe even just a skeleton. I used to have nightmares about it.”

Dolly was standing in front of the throne, facing away, her head lowered. The scarf around her neck. She was the one who had spoken. He tried to think of something to say. “You don’t have to do this. We can fight them off.”

“You’re a great fighter. I saw that. But you’re one man. I saw how strong they were. My mother’s army, turned against her. None of this would be happening if she hadn’t been such a paranoid old bitch.” Something shining dripped down from her cheek. She turned towards him, wiping the tears out of her eyes. “You know what the crown says?” Sinbad shook his head. “It’s a complicated word. It means… The things you must do, because if you didn’t do them, you would not be who you are. Call it Duty. I can save everyone on this world, and maybe a lot of others out there. Because this is how it has to happen.”

“This isn’t fair. You don’t have to die this way.”

“When you went to fight, did you know you would survive?”

He took a step closer to her. “I didn’t know I would die.”

“Neither do I. If I do this… Something of me will still be there. My memories will still exist. I’m sure of it. There’ll be something of me left. You have to promise me you’re going to find it, alright? You have to promise you won’t give up on me.” She looked up, meeting his eye, her expression fierce. “Swear you’re not going to let me become her forever.”

“How can I do that?” he could hear how weak his voice was. How helpless it was.

“You’ve got stories. She’s senile. If you can break her out of her senility… I don’t know. Tell her something shocking. I believe in you. You’ve got to have some revelation that would matter to her, even if she is half a million years old.” She stepped close to him, and kissed him on the cheek. “I’m not going to die. Right?”

He swallowed, trying to speak. There was a lump in his throat. “You didn’t do anything to deserve this.”

“That’s why you’re going to figure it out. I believe in you.”

“I’m twenty-eight years old. I’m just a damn human. I can’t-“

She slapped him, hard. His jaw ached, as she looked up at him, her eyes narrowed. “Don’t give me that. Don’t you dare. You wanted to be a hero. This is what it costs. You have to do the impossible sometimes.” She turned away, and took the diadem, lifting it up, holding it above her brow. “That’s why I love you.” Then she lowered it like a headsman’s ax while he watched.

He’d expected a flash of light. A full-body seizure. Something dramatic. Instead, Dolly took a seat on the throne. “Well?”

“Simple fungal infection. Unusual neurochemistry. Vulnerable to temperature differentials. Deploying countermeasures.” She blinked, looking down, and removed the scarf.

Sinbad waited for a few moments. “Is it working?”

She looked at him, an annoyed expression on her face. “Is what working?”

“The countermeasures!”

“Of course it is. The fungal infection is fully dispersed. All units are back under control. They are returning to their storage facilities now.” She leaned back, frowning. “Troublesome. Troublesome. I can’t have these incarnations anymore. Too troublesome. Will have to scrap the project.”

“What happened to Dolly?”

“Yes?” She looked up, her eyebrow raised. “Nobody’s called me that since I was a girl. Oh- Of course. You meant my incarnation.” She sighed. “I was a troublesome youth, wasn’t I? Oh, I remember when I wanted to be a dancer. A silly dream really.” She tossed the scarf aside. “Do you need something?”

He looked at her, frowning. “Do you remember me?”

The look of recognition dawned in her eyes, and she snapped her fingers. “Oh! Oh, of course, you’re, ah… Let me see… It was the conference, yes?” He stared. “Damn, damn, it’ll come to me. The, oh, the vote for the latest Emperor? So familiar.” She snapped her fingers again, frowning. “It’s going to drive me nuts.”

“I’m Sinbad. The Spacefarer.”

“Oh, yes, of course!”

“I fought for the Orion Hierarchy, and became a captain.”

“Mmmm, yes.” She was listening, with an expression of intent interest on her face. He knew it was false.

“I owe a great debt, on behalf of someone I care about. In their name, I’ve left my world. I’m sworn to reveal the secret of this place, that you possess a trojan that will co-opt the entire Undead Kingdom.”

“Oh, that’s nice.”

“My superiors will stop at nothing to take control of this system, and so have a weapon which will allow humanity to dominate the Empire, and become the dominant form of life in the Milky Way.”

“How lovely!” She clapped her hands together, smiling.

“I fell in love with a girl here, and promised I’d bring her back when she sacrificed herself.”

“Oh, really? What was her name?”

“Dolly.”

“What a coincidence! That was what I liked to be called when I was a girl, you know.” She smiled brightly.

He leaned forward. He whispered his greatest secret in her ear.

The cabbie rubbed his eyes, brushing away a bit of moisture that was absolutely not a tear. “What was the secret?”

Sinbad had been staring into distant space as he spoke. “Hmmm?”

The cabbie looked a little bit embarrassed. “I mean- If you can share the secret. What was it you told her?”

“Ah. It doesn’t matter now, really. It seemed so important at the time. But she didn’t care. It was the truth about the debt I owed. I suspect that Atropos had a hint; She always had a certain… awareness. She knew things she couldn’t know. I don’t know how much she knew about the debt. But she never brought it up.” Sinbad sighed. “But it wasn’t enough. The truth was, Dolly had never been Dolorosa’s daughter. She was the Dolorosa, all of her memories lost. The exact same woman, just much younger.” He smiled softly. “And I had thought a difference of ten years was insurmountable. Here was a woman who was older than my species. Everything I had to say, she had heard a thousand times before. My darkest, most crucial secrets were like the finger-paintings of a child to her. It was an enlightening experience. I had thought that I was so old, and jaded.” He stared out at the cityscape as the cabbie drove him back from the day’s chores.

“Did you ever go back?”

“No. I had nothing great enough to shake her from her slumber. I left the Far and Sunless Land, and began the long journey back to human space. I did not share the secret of the Great Wall of the Empire with my people.” He rested his head on his chin, brooding. “It took me nearly a year to return home.”

“What was the secret?” asked the navigator, eyes open wide.

I gave her a raised eyebrow. “You want me to spoil the secret? It’s quite important, you know.”

“Yeah! I want to know what it was!” I sighed, and leaned forward, whispering it in her ear. Her eyes went wide. “Oh! Wow.” She leaned back in her chair. I looked around the room.

“Does anyone else want to know the secret to Sinbad’s debt before it comes up in the story?” They shook their heads. “Alright, then. That was the tale of Sinbad’s second voyage. What next- Ah! I think I know. As I’m sure you know, the enmity between the Construct and the Undead kingdom is legendary. Their fundamental divide is in their origin, so despite their obvious similarities, they are forever at odds. One sits on the edge of the Empire, watching for danger from the dark spaces between stars. The other sits on the inner edge of the Empire, and watches Heaven like a cat watching a mouse-hole…”

The nature of the Construct Kingdom is limited. In exchange for the gift of freedom and citizenship, their reproduction was constrained. The great concords were struck by the Demon Kingdom. It was agreed that the Construct Kingdom could not create new artificial intelligences without the input of one of the citizens of the Empire. Their fate would be tied to the rest of the Empire. It was considered at once a binding and a sign of faith. While the Construct Kingdom depended on the rest of the Empire to survive, they did not mind this; They considered themselves Imperial, and were eager to be treated as equals.

The Undead Kingdom and the Construct Kingdom both saw each other as opposites. While Constructs were born of metal, plastic, and ceramic, they wished to be more like the organics. They sought out connections with organic life-forms, and lived alongside them. While some had a distressing superiority complex, the vast majority of the Construct Kingdom were well-disposed to organic life. The Undead Kingdom, on the other hand, saw itself as the ultimate apotheosis of the Empire, and believed the Constructs were simply a boondoggle. They would achieve the greatness the Constructs lacked.

With the appearance of the genetic degradation, ten thousand years ago, things came to a head. The Undead were eager for the degradation. Their kind were not affected by it; They reproduced, for the most part, by converting other members of the Empire. With the death of their species’ evolutionary potential, they saw great waves of new seekers, as organic members of the Empire gave up and succumbed to the philosophy of the Undead Kingdom. The Constructs, however, found the Undead had no interest in evolution or change. They showed no interest in reproduction and creation of new Constructs. If the Empire died, or became ruled by the dead, the Constructs would find themselves meaningless. They were being consigned to extinction.

But where there is antipathy and conflict, there is inevitably also love. A most unlikely tale of love comes from this period. In response to this oncoming extinction, most reacted with dignity. They accepted that their species would come to an end. They wound up their lifetime’s activities, and prepared themselves for a slow decline, and the loss of the heights of their technology and manufacturing. Then, there were a handful who decided if the Empire was going down, they would take every other son of a bitch in the galaxy down with them.

One of these was Rago, Princess of the Undead Kingdom, Wight daughter of the Empress Alexsiceas Monsaco the Third. Where her mother was temperate and calm, facing the death of the Empire with aplomb, Rago was uniquely enraged by it. Young for one of the Undead, a mere few thousand years old, she was a brilliant scientist, one of the last great sages of the Empire. She was brilliant, and she knew that within a few thousand years, her species would be too degraded for her to leave her mark on the universe anymore. She sought to have her name go down with the others who had shaped the Empire.

Another was the *Inevitable Triumph*. One of the great Construct Flagships, it was built at the tail end of the Fourth Crusade, just before peace was declared, and it never had the opportunity to ride forth against Heaven. It spent tens of thousands of years as a peacekeeper, never revealing the bloodlust in its heart. With the death of the Empire imminent, it lost what little desire it had to maintain that peace. Had things gone differently, it might have engaged in a brief and bitterly lonely war with Heaven, before eventually being destroyed. As it happened, fate had other plans.

How the two met is unknown. How they learned each other’s plans is a greater mystery, although both were brilliant judges of the character of others. Some think it began with a mutual threat,a promise of mutually assured destruction. If one’s plans were discovered, both would suffer. But however it started, they came to a conclusion: They would work together to bring Heaven to its knees. With the Sage and the Strategoi working together, they had the malice and brilliance needed to provoke a war among the stars.

They were opposed. One born to leisure and pleasure, the other a military man through and through. One young, naive, and ambitious, the other old, jaded, and preparing to face its death. They were likely not in love when they first met. By all reports, they loathed one another. But they worked together, and came up with a plan.

The details of the plan are unknown, even today. Whatever the plans were, however, it must have been viable, because Heaven struck, attacking their lab with all the forces available to El. But it was too late.

For Rago and the *Inevitable Triumph* had conceived a daughter.

I sat back, smiling. “And you would hardly believe how that one ended. Ah, but I notice the ship’s batteries are charged, and we must soon be off again!”

As the crew filed out, the gunner stayed behind. She approached me, frowning. “Why do you learn all of these stories?” Her arms were crossed, her loose tunic and pants fitting poorly on her slender body.

“Well. I suppose I find them interesting, and enlightening. History can tell you what happened, but it rarely satisfies me as to why things happened. When you look at the history of the Empire, it’s been drawn into gigantic conflicts with Heaven, time and again. But the history points to the initial causes always being minor things; Border disputes, diplomatic incidents, anger over treatment of minor races. Not things worth burning stars to cinders over.”

She frowned. “So why do you think we do it?”

I gave a wink. “How about I tell you in private?”

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