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You Guard the Pyres of a Stillborn Universe

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"Dr. Astra! Just who I wanted to see!"

The flap of the tent floated down behind the scientist as she ducked into the canopied space. The man who had spoken launched himself to his feet, laptop computer abandoned in a moment, his arms spread out in enthusiastic greeting. Opposite to him was a troll with antlered horns and black contacts who simply glanced up for a second before returning to her work.

Jade sighed, ducking around the man's encroaching limbs as she moved out of the entrance.

"Dr. Towler. Do you have to make a scene every time we meet?"

He swung around, nonplussed by the chilly reception.

"Do I? No. Will I?" He grinned as if he was making a clever joke, but Jade was in no mood for dramatics.

Only three days after she had her concept of reality overturned, her least favorite American contemporary had sent for her with an urgent request for consultation on xenometrics. The message had been curt and brief: a time and date for pick up, an assurance of the critical importance of the request, and a suggestion to take a week out of her schedule. It read so much like something straight from the script of Hollywood's next CGI disaster that Jade had called the man herself to verify that she wasn't being pranked.

Attempts to dig into what the hell was going on over a series of heated phone calls had yielded only the vague idea that it had to do with the sudden eruption of a Polynesian volcano that had been on the news earlier, but as much as Towler irritated her, she knew that he didn't bullshit where it counted. If he said what she saw would blow her socks off, it would. So she had packed, and she had come, and now she was here.

Now that she actually was on-site with the jackass, she was almost reconsidering her decision.

"Tell me what was so important you couldn't send it over email," she grunted.

"Ah," said Towler with a wide grin. "Now-"

The troll's head snapped up abruptly, nearly clipping Jade with the movement of her antlers. She narrowed her eyes. "Wait, George. You didn't tell her—"

"I wanted to keep it a surprise!"

Jesus fucking Christ.

Jade pinched the bridge of her nose. "So you kept your mouth shut just to be annoying. Got it."

"Plus, at the time we didn't know half the stuff we do now! This island is full of surprises," the man blathered gleefully. "Penetration prospectors think there's a meteor site buried under all the frozen lava, we have some cranes digging that up, but the crazy thing is there are NPR signatures all over the place! Stronger than there's ever been on record!"

"The highest we've caught is ninety sigma," the troll injected. Jade nearly tripped, her head snapping around in disbelief.

"I can't imagine what could event could have left such a mark, and to last through primoarchaic time scales? Unless, the alternative is, it's—"

"It's fresh," Jade muttered.

"—exactly! You read my mind," Towler finished with a broad grin.

The female scientist shook her head, absorbing the information. Ninety sigma? Her skin was crawling—did this have anything to do with what the Witch and the Seer had been messing with? Had they been here?

She should have read through her data before stowing her phone back down in the Catacombs. Even only a skim would have caught something like that, and then she would have a benchmark to compare to. Every day she came with new ways she could have wrangled that whole fiasco better, but by now it was too little, too late. It was maddening.

"Excuse me," she found herself saying to the troll. "I don't believe we've met. The name's Jade Astra, I work in Echidnian geology, Sburbian materials, spectral analysis... and what the kids call 'xenometrics' nowadays, apparently." She shot the man who called her there a scathing look. The man was supposed to be stopping the science journalists from making up stupid words, not spearheading the efforts.

"Pleased," the troll answered, shaking her hand with a practiced grip that didn't do much to mask her crushing strength. "Vismes Talond. Metamolecular dynamics. We actually corresponded briefly on the Omnu project...?"

"Ah." Jade racked her brain. "I'm sorry, I don't remember."

The troll shrugged, not seeming offended.

"So, not that I don't appreciate being brought in on the juicy details, but what precisely am I supposed to be doing here?" asked Jade as she set her briefcase down on the table.

"Resolving our nuclear pararesonance spectra," Towler said.

Jade scowled. "You could get a grad student to do that."

Sure, her name was on the 2002 paper, but they lectured on NPR in undergrad courses these days, for God's sake. It wasn't exactly rocket science. The Spectroscoper's Handbook existed for a reason. Bringing her in was overkill; it couldn't be that simple.

Her answer came quickly.

"The object signature isn't far-time," and her presumptions came crashing down.

Shit, of course—fresh, they'd said. The algorithms they developed way back in the early 2000s were only good for large time-distances, which was supposed to be every normal Sburbian excavation site given their hundred million-year order of age, but if this signature was fresh...

"That's..." she muttered, exhuming through memories that seemed ancient to her now. "You should have called Jack Bragg. He wrote the diffraction kernels, which is what we're going to have to rework."

"Called". It was still confounding, the fact that she had been simply called to a remote dig site like this with barely notice. This couldn't be Towler's doing, even if her name had probably come from his mouth—he was president of the AICSS, but that was miles away from the type of pull necessary to mobilize UN Maritime Resources. There was more to this than met the eye.

Towler shrugged at the mild rebuke. "I didn't know, but now you're here, and he isn't. Can you do it?"

"Hmph."

Jade did a mental review of what she remembered of Jack's notes. She hadn't done that much of what one might call algorithm development over her career, but her work was novel enough that she had to dig into the nuts and bolts of the programming often enough to basically amount to the same thing. That wasn't what she was thinking about, however: no, it was the Witch's words that lingered in her mind. A throwaway line, but it had stuck with her.

Two-phase convection dynamics.

The doctor had gone over the literature on the topic countless times in the days between their meeting and now, trying to understand what insight another her could have found in that alternate history the goddess had strongly implied. She had come up empty. It could be that someone else had made the breakthrough in her place and there was nothing to find anymore, or maybe this her hadn't lived the life and read the books she needed to find that spark of inspiration. Perhaps it was arrogance to think that she could reproduce what might have been years of work in only an afternoon based on one tenuous connection.

But assuming she understood the Witch's words correctly, then another Jade Astra had made a name for herself in computational fluid dynamics. And if that was possible...

"I can," Jade decided. "We do have something bigger than a laptop to run the CHR, right?"

"Alternian biocore," the troll—Talond—answered without looking up. "I can walk you through the interface."

Well. Not like Jade could complain about having some of the galaxy's most premier computing hardware at her disposal, but she had to grimace at the prospect of learning a new system on top of getting back up to scratch on Leicester transformations.

"So what are we waiting for?" she sighed. "Give me the tour. Let's see what you have up your sleeve."


When Jade had first disembarked from the ship at the temporary port they had set up, she'd wondered why the air was so clean less than a hundred hours after a volcano blew up right there. Now, as their newformed party of four trekked over veins of solidified lava and blackened cinders, she voiced the same question out loud.

"Rain," was the answer from the scrawny meteorologist that led the way. "It was raining through the eruption and for two days after. Stripped the ash from the air. See the beds from the lahar?"

He pointed. Her eyes followed to the washed-out gullies marring the side of the mountain.

"This whole face drained into that trench over there and flooded the plain, dumping into the harbor. We think the coastline was much farther back before the eruption."

"Yeah, what's with that huge trench?" Jade asked, craning her head at the gorge he was referring to. It was a huge channel, starting close to the neck of the volcano and carving its way down the side before terminating abruptly at the bottom, like some titan had clawed a groove out of the land.

He shrugged. "It definitely isn't a natural fluvial landform. Leading theory is a particularly large piece of debris from the volcano, though the actual vulcanologists around here don't seem to like that idea very much."

She was inclined to agree. What kind of monstrous boulder would it take to gouge that much matter out of the side of a mountain? She couldn't say it outright, of course, but act of god were the words that jumped to mind. How could they not, after what she'd seen?

Then again, when life had just handed you a shiny new hammer, everything looked like a nail. Evidence of the supernatural wasn't proof against the mundane. No, it was better to assume the absence of divine intervention first.

"Say," huffed Towler, who was trailing a few meters behind them. He was surprisingly out of shape for what he looked like. "Jade, I've heard about some strange things in the Catacombs."

She sighed.

"Oh?" said Talond. The troll leaped, soaring meters through the air to slam down in a crouch next to Jade. She dusted her fingers off, righting herself after the casual display of superhuman physicality. "What's this?"

The meteorologist—whose name Jade had already forgotten—glared at the troll. "Don't do that. Lava tubes can collapse. We're not fishing you out of a hole."

Towler raised an eyebrow at Jade, waiting for her answer.

"Lost an EVISC-61," she answered curtly.

Talond let out a choked laugh. "You broke an EVISC-model vehicle? How? Did you crush it in a converging trench? Or did you finally find your stupid first guardian? Unless you mean you literally lost it?"

"I heard the vehicle was last recorded entering the Catacombs, and then you showed up swimming to the platform without it," faux-whispered Towler. He was catching up to them—wait, why had they stopped?

Jade ignored them and kept walking. She didn't know where the epicenter they were heading for was, but they had been going in the same direction for minutes.

The troll frowned as they started moving again. "Why would you... I thought humans could only survive tens of atmospheres of pressure at most."

"That's correct," the meteorologist said.

"I'm not really able to comment on the issue," Jade stated, silencing them all with a glare, and that put an end to that discussion.

The story at that moment, still working its way up the bureaucratic chain, was that she had observed the apoptosis of Echidna and then subsequently been trapped under falling debris. An unidentified mechanism teleported her to the surface, which based on all available information, was being tentatively pegged as the still poorly documented first guardian of Earth.

It wasn't the most foolproof of stories. Jade didn't know what the gods had done with the remains of the Tomb Raider, but once the investigation teams got there, she would find out if her cover story held up to scrutiny.

The rest of the trip progressed in silence. The troll kept sneaking her strange looks, Towler looked put out but not put out enough by her non-answer, and the other human was doing his utmost best to ignore the brewing atmosphere of discomfort. Whatever, they could deal.

Eventually, they stopped at a small flag hammered through the volcanic rock.

"This is Epicenter 2," said Towler, clapping his hands. "Epicenter 1 is at the base of the trench, but it's less accessible at the moment. Both are buried under the volcanic matter, so they were here before the eruption. Or possibly made during."

"I take we're running on the recent event hypothesis?" the other male asked.

"You got a better alternative?" Towler fired back. Turning back to Jade, he continued, "You've seen the ground-penetrating radar scans."

Jade nodded. "This one is the cone, right?"

The radar scans gave them an idea of what the topography had been like before the volcano slathered everything in lava and pyroclastic material. Both epicenters found so far featured obviously unnatural blocks carved from the rock and soil, almost geometrically perfect within a 5cm tolerance. Some of the people video calling in and out of what they had christened the "war room" were throwing around ideas like diffusion-limited corrosion processes, but to Jade, it was only more evidence of divine action.

"These are the strongest signatures, but there are small traces—again, near-time—dotted on a lot of other places on this island. Also, we think parts of the meteor site come close to the surface below here, but they're digging for access elsewhere so they don't mess up the signature."

"Some common sense around here, at least," Jade sighed.

They went to work.

The team had come prepared. The other three unpacked the sensor sticks and assembled them while Jade scouted the area with a handheld Marshall counter. That gave them enough to sketch out the perimeter of the signature and eyeball the nodes for the resonance sensors, and then most of the work left was hammering the stakes in. Since this was only a rough run to get the lay of the land and calibrate the equipment, precision wasn't that much of a concern.

Fifteen minutes later, they had everything wired up and the data streaming. Jade furrowed her eyebrows at the readouts on her screen. The other three lingered behind her, waiting for her verdict.

...

She checked that the ports were plugged in the right way. They were.

She stared at her screen some more.

Uh.

"You can't tell me you didn't catch this," Jade finally said.

"...you're talking about... the alpha two value?" Towler ventured, uncertain.

She had to suppress the urge to hiss.

"Of course I'm talking about the alpha two! It's two-point-fucking-three!"

"Is that important?" the troll asked."I thought it was just a calibration constant."

"Is it important? That's the normalized resonance product integral! It's not supposed to be anything other than zero!"

"But... when we did the Hephaestus machines there was a nonzero—"

"It's nonzero for an enclosure image. For a directional capture with the source this deep alpha two can't be bigger than point five at most."

Jade took everything back about bringing her in being overkill, because these idiots clearly had no idea what they were doing.

"Huh. Yeah, you're right," Towler muttered, cleaning off his glasses as he thought. "What if the time-distance..."

"No," Jade insisted. She opened a terminal and started typing. It took a few tries to remember some of the commands, but she wasn't that out of touch. nmral config -la... Unless they were all malfunctioning the exact same way, it wasn't an equipment error. Her agitation grew as she checked and double-checked and triple-checked the readings, and they were saying the same thing.

It's the meteorologist that has the first useful insight.

"Do you think... if we're going with the recent event hypothesis, maybe... the NPR nuclei could have dispersed into the environment? In that case the gradient might not be enough to clock on the Marshall apparatus, but it would image fine on, um, th array."

"Enough resonant mass to maintain a detectable concentration after days?" the troll doubted.

Towler frowned, thinking aloud, "There was a storm, remember? If it stuck around that long..."

...No. It was ludicrous. But if it was true—

"Give me a second to check something," she muttered as she pulled up another command window.

This wasn't her device, but her login credentials were memorized for this exact scenario. In a flash, she was sshed into the secondary server back at the platform as admin, and from there the passive downwards monitoring database was all hers. She grabbed the data from the last two weeks, sftped it over to this device, and rigged up a plot—

She leaned away from her screen, at a loss for words. She had been expecting it, but...

The others peered over her shoulder.

Resonance product integral over time. Flat against the axis for the first nine days. Immediately after the date of the eruption, a kink, then a slow, accelerating creep upwards. Normalized, it was up to 0.6 now.

"Where... what is that from?" the meteorologist breathed. Jade could hear Towler turn and step away.

"Echidnian Subsea Research Platform," said Jade. " Tasman Sea. Seven hundred kilometers off the Australian coast."

But this wasn't a good control. A completely separate unprecedented event had taken place just under the platform recently. They needed readings from... Greenwich, or Houston, or something. And places far from any Sburbian sites. It would take time to convince people to send equipment out to the middle of nowhere, but they needed more data. This could be the natural event of the century.

Right on cue, Towler returned to the group, slotting his phone into his pocket—he'd been talking to someone on the phone? His face was clouded with a grave expression.

"Folks over at Cambridge say they have the same thing," he reported. "They thought it was an equipment problem, but..."

"How high were they?" Jade demanded.

"0.2 and steady."

"It has to be airborne, then," suggested the meteorologist. They were all catching on now. "Waterborne particles couldn't travel that quickly. Are there... health risks? To exposure?"

"There shouldn't be," said Jade. "Except maybe bioaccumulation could eventually mess with MRIs? There hasn't been any studies on ecological effects, only acute exposure, and the effects of that is nil as far as we know. The idea of having enough pararesonant activity to constitute even a trace contaminant for a whole ecosystem is inconceivable. Or it used to be."

"If this is real, it's going to be obvious once sites everywhere start comparing notes," Towler muttered. "We have to report this."

"Yes," the troll said with a grimace. "Yes, we do."


The commswindow fritzed before winking out with an zap. A shadow of an hornless figure could be seen clipping in at the edge of the viewport at the very last moment before the feed cut out.

Connection terminated by client, the screen read.

System High Commander Foiblo Prysek snarled as he reclined backwards in his iron throne, squeezing his eyes shut. The urge to fire that grassblooded moron boiled, but he resisted. Vismes was sloppy on military protocol, but he didn't deploy her for the purposes of war. She lay low, she reported. That was all. Her performance was passable.

True, passable was not a word usually taken well in the Alternian Fleet, but as they said, cull too many and you fail to maintain a breeding population of sufficient genetic diversity for long-term survival. Prysek wasn't on the frontiers anymore. He couldn't afford to be picky.

<Ship,> he spoke aloud without opening his eyes. The circuitry embedded in the wall hummed to life expectantly. <Summon Navigator Xigisi. Message: Change of course required. Prime the helm and meet me at the throneblock. End message.>

<Acknowleged,> rang the ship's mechanical voice. <Delivered. Will that be all?>

<That will be all.>

The walls dimmed and fell silent.

Grade 9 Sburbian anomaly—incipient planetary event. Suspected movement of first guardian.

Her message had been short. Delivery lacked precision, but it had been short. Report making was another skill Vismes Talond sorely lacked, but that was a common defect among those of her caste. Certain allowances had to be made for those of less august blood.

Of course, his subordinate hadn't realized what waves those few words could make. Few did. There were Imperial secrets that few on the Glacier were privileged to know, and one of those that did was making his way up at that very moment. Agents all over the planet were instructed for what to watch for, but they didn't know what it meant.

What did it mean? To put it simply—

Trouble.

The door of the throneblock slid open, a stocky figure slipping through. Prysek raised an internal eyebrow as he checked his desktop timepiece: that might be record response time, actually. Xigisi stalked across the floor of the room, arrested himself two meters before the Commander's table, and dispensed a stiff salute.

<Skip the formalities,> Prysek grunted. <We have a problem, Galekh.>

The indigoblood's posture shifted at the informal address. Not exactly relaxed, but something relaxed-adjacent. Warily attentive, perhaps. There were limits to the casualness between the commander and their inferiors, but at least in private, these two were on good terms.

<What, sir?> he questioned. <More problems from the forward base?>

Prysek wished that the problem could be as easy as more complaints from that dressed-up dungheap of a base they had in Corpus Christi. The planetary coalition had been as much of a pushover as the mission briefing had led him to expect from the start. No, this was much worse.

<Nothing that simple,> he said, shaking his head. <Update from Talond.>

Galekh's poker face was flaming hot garbage. Prysek nearly had to wonder if the flash of contempt was intentional, but no—the Navigator had no such capacity for subtle duplicity. This was the same song and dance they went through every time the Sburb projects came up.

Prysek had no patience for the game today.

<Shut the fuck up and listen,> he ordered before the Navigator could fire off his typical snide remark. The troll reared in mild surprise. <Grade 9 event, she said. Planetary.>

<I know what Grade 9 is,> said Galekh sharply. <What is it?>

<A freak volcanic eruption dispersing primordial activematter across Earth. And she also said the first guardian might be on the move.>

<You think it's the Coming,> the other troll said, visibly unimpressed.

<I know your feelings about Sburb, Navigator. Keep them to yourself.>

Galekh cocked his head. <I apologize if I overstep,>

Prysek shook his head. Not a hint of irony in the other troll's voice. Sometimes the Commander wondered how Xigisi had lived to his age without having his head ripped off by a less personable superior officer.

<You haven't seen what I've seen, Galekh,> sighed the troll for the hundredth time.

The indigo looked away—It was common knowledge among the crew, what he was talking about.

The High Commander had been forged in the crucible of apocalypse as a young troll. He was one of what the records now called the Centesimal Culled, one of the few in this day and age who had heard death itself and lived. Many of the lower-blooded on the Glacier were from an Alternia that had all but forgotten those dark ages, but a hundred sweeps had done nothing to temper the monsters of Prysek's mind.

He remembered the day it happened. He dreamed of it. He remembered scrabbling his way to consciousness in a puddle of his own excrement, ruptured cerebral fluid bleeding from his facial orifices, drowning in it, his mind broken and eyes clawed out by his own hand. He remembered how he screamed himself hoarse in blind terror, not from the paralytic acidsnake feasting on the necrotic sinews of his right leg or the pain or darkness, but from what he'd seen. From what had nearly snapped his mind like a twig. From the barest glimpse of what mere trolls could not and were never meant to know.

The song of the Rift's Carbuncle. The Emissary's gift.

All of them had seen. All that survived, that is. Other survivors spoke of towers to the weeping heavens, of serpentine titans at skaian war, of golden cities and chained moons, of phantoms fleeing an armageddon of hells... What had descended on Prysek, in that tortured vision when the Deep opened its maw and sang, was a glimpse of the crawling abyss. The void that teemed with horrors. The darkest reaches of the furthest ring, where minds were rent asunder and the caress of the eldritch robbed of even death's solace.

But in that deepest pit of Tartarus, he had seen a unary speck of light. A mote sailing the darkness lone and bright, shouting through the darkness for the briefest of moments. A shooting star. Hope.

It had been that moment of clarity, of brief refuge from the unending oblivion, which lent him the will to drag himself back from the brink of total obliteration. He had woken, drenched and dying. Peeled the acidsnake off his leg, crawled his way down the stairs, over his lusus' dead body, bashed his way into his neighbour's abode and ripped the prosthetic gander bulbs from the cerulean corpse's blue-soaked sockets. He had stumbled out the door, seeing for the first time with glitching infravision the maddened carnage which painted the streets. He had fended off other survivors, scavenged the ruins of civilization for scraps for sustenance, and when the drones returned from the brooding caverns and a new Heiress took the reins, he had climbed the ranks of their recuperating society. He had survived.

He had risen.

And, in time, ascended.

<I never told you about my cohort's egress freighter, did I? What happened on our conscription.>

Galekh snapped to attention in an instant.

Prysek put the question out casually, like it was just any murder anecdote from his long-past youth, but the truth was anything but. Any information on the Centesimal Culled, and the Death's Chosen that preceded them by eight thousand sweeps, was by default classified to Royal Command save the most carefully curated historical bones. There were rumors abound, ranging from freakish psychic awakenings to horrific experimentation on the afflicted, but whether out of loyalty or fear, leaks directly from the lions' mouth were practically unheard of.

In other words, if the Commander was breaking protocol to tell Galekh about this, it was damn well important.

<Everyone was put through memory transcription of their visions from Glb'golyb,< said Prysek quietly.

Galekh balked.

Everyone? he wanted to ask, but Prysek didn't stop speaking.

<The candidates that topped the Ordeals were slated for total destructive transcription. Twelve mnemosurgeons were driven mad by what they transcribed. Twenty percent of the sweep's graduates didn't survive the process.>

Prysek's eyes stared off into the distance behind the other troll's shoulder. He licked his lips. Galekh remained silent.

<Then, once the transcripts were secured and encrypted, the ship culled the remaining fifty-two mnemosurgeons.>

Galekh swallowed.

The Commander's face was completely devoid of expression. Galekh didn't understand what he was trying to say, but he didn't dare interrupt. When Prysek spoke again, his voice was hard.

<Section 9, Order 7, 88th Revision of the Executive Fleet Master Protocol. Recite it to me.>

The other troll's voice held steady as he answered.

<In the event of any Guardian or Sburbian event of Grade 8 or higher not contained to the Alternian home system, the High Commander is to be immediately alerted. The stationed system warship is to be moved to high alert and repositioned as outlined in Section 6, Order 3b. If no system warship is stationed, a priority request for allocation is to be sent to Central High Command, and during the interim, all system resources must be moved to high alert and repositioned as outlined in—>

<The redacted appendix for High Command perusal,> Prysek interrupted.

Galekh's mouth opened and closed like a fish before he steeled himself and restarted.

<In such an event, High Commander(s) are advised to calibrate evasive maneuvers against SSF-Class piloted entities and SSS-Class piloted entities. Undocumented Technology Warning is in effect at the maximum level. Training Simulation Hyperion is applicable. Training Simulation Siege is applicable. Training Simulation Conditional Immortality is applicable. Training Simulation Collision Course is applicable. Training Simulation Unstoppable Singularity is applicable. Deep Immersion Simulation The Coming is... Commander, surely you can't—>

The troll shut his mouth once the High Commander fixed his eyes on him.

<Those training scenarios weren't penned from Royal Command's fanciful imaginations, Galekh,> snarled Prysek.

What? the troll thought. But—

<They were reconstructed from the memory transcripts.>

Galekh Xigisi's heart froze as he processed his commander's statement.

There were certain telepathic simulations that were universally despised in the Fleet, thought by most to be some sick form of Empire-mandated hazing instated by Royal Command. Few were ever referenced in official handbooks, and those that showed up were typically written off as superstitious nonsense from addled Sburbists in high office. The fidelity of the worst-offending telepathic playbacks was unusual for synthetic experiences, but it was normally dependent on the skill of whoever produced them anyway. Nobody gave it much thought.

But if those were authentic memory images—

Galekh could do the math. The number of graduates per cohort multiplied over the age range of the Centennials, even culling the count with Ordeals passing rates, compared to the number of simulations available... the latter didn't even scratch the surface.

<What... what else was in those transcripts?>

Prysek shook his head. Galekh was thankful that he didn't seem to notice the shake in his voice.

<I don't know. What's in the sims is only a fraction of it. I don't think even anyone in Royal Command knows all of it. Perhaps only Her Imperious Condescension does. And I'm not telling you what I saw,> he said with a grimace.

Was it proof of what was in those simulations? They could be dismissed as hallucinations of dying minds, but considering the source...

Galekh swallowed.

<You really think the gods exist? That they're back? We'll fly down there and there'll be a marble human with... with black holes in his face and a red cape and a pointy stick, and he'll... what? Cut the Glacier in half with a sword?>

<I don't know,> the Commander admitted. <Maybe. I believe enough. It is not our role to question the protocols. We serve the Empire. We do the bidding of Her Imperious Condescension, immortal may she reign, and this is her will. Signed in royal blood. If you will not put your faith in legends, put your faith in the Empress.>

There it was. The Empire card. It marked the end of every uncomfortable discussion between superior and inferior. To protest further was insubordination, to disobey was mutiny. Galekh bowed, stiff and slow.

<Immortal may she reign,> he repeated after the purpleblood.

Prysek nodded. He sank back into his chair, leveling a stare at his subordinate.

<Then you understood what to do.>

Galekh knew that there was no point to pushing anymore. And, to be honest, after what he had been told—he was shaken. He was glad he had a job to fall back to. The rough navigation calculations running through his head were almost a comfort to drown himself in.

<I'll plot a transient solar orbit in rapid mobilization range of Earth. Is five weeks sufficient?> He frowned as a thought occurred to him. <Cryvex will have to tap the stealth engines if we wish to mask the Glacier's presence.>

<Affirmative to both. I want us in position in two hours. If there is nothing more, you are dismissed, Navigator Xigisi.>

Galekh saluted and turned sharply, glad to leave. As he began marching, the High Commander called out one last time.

<Wait. Galekh.>

He turned around. Prysek's face was somber.

<What I just told you is highly classified. It was disclosed at my discretion in my capacity a special category officer, under classification as need-to-know intelligence. Do not breathe a word of it. Not to others from High Command. Not to Central High Command. Not even to the royals unless someone explicitly and specifically demands it.>

The troll gave a shallow nod.

Prysek maintained his glare for several more seconds before letting up.

<Go,> he finally said.

The commander's eyes followed his navigator's back as it receded down the hall and slipped out between the gates of the motorized door. Only when the entrance sealed itself and the lock engaged did Prysek allow himself to sigh and bury his face in his hands.

Indigoes. That troll was going to get himself culled with how he acted.

Of course, it was partly Prysek's fault for letting him get away with everything. There was no room for soft spots in the Fleet, not even in the colonial reserves.

That said, with trouble on the event horizon, these might not stay the reserves for much longer.

The High Commander mulled over his navigator's words again.

Gods. Denizens.

Did he believe in such things?

Maybe. He believed in the vast horrorterrors that whispered through their Emissary's sickening beak. He believed that there were truths not meant for mortal minds. He believed in something. Her Imperious Condescension certainly did. He believed that something terrible, sooner or later, would rise from the catacombs of ancient Lands.

But be it harbingers of death or ones of life, be it creatures of the heavens or the abyss, he knew one thing.

When they came, they would be met with Alternian steel and Alternian fire. They would come, and they would see: that relics of bygone lands were nothing against crown warships borne of the Erebos Ringforges, the finest adamantine from the mines of the Rhapsodian slaveworlds, and an art of death perfected over untold millennia of total war waged across an unrepentant galaxy.

The gods would come. And the gods would die.

After all, he mused, chuckling to himself he remembered what his subordinate had said—

What were they going to do against a siege warship? Cut it in half with a sword?