Halo: Forerunner - Section 0
Posted By: Joshua M. Uda<email@example.com>
Date: 4 September 2010, 11:07 pm
Central Aelorian Galaxy Aboard Dreadnaught Vorsith Prime: Low Siora Orbit - S.E. 5,764,758: (43 years prior to activation of destructive arrayed matrix)
The Executor leaned forward, resting his elbows on the illuminated console. He closed his eyes and pressed his face firmly into his hands, breathing in slowly through his fingers as he raised his head and rubbed the anxiety and frustration from his expression. His mind was a storm of imperfect solutions and disjointed strategies, but he searched the chaos for a thread of hope.
He continued to inhale deeply as he pulled his fingers down his face until they covered his mouth. Then he paused and held his breath. His eyes opened abruptly, then narrowed, and he pressed his fingers tightly against his lips as if to silence himself
but he could not be silent. He raised his head slowly and whispered the unthinkable, "An arbiter!"
The Executor closed the message and looked up from his console with his jaw clenched. The corners of his mouth drew tightly downward, and his nostrils flared. His search for answers had led him away from every known protocol and had forced him into a dark and forbidden corner of possibilities; but as he said it again, he conceded that it was the only solution. His search had come to an end.
" he said again in a hushed but determined voice.
Heracles shifted his weight apprehensively as he stood by and waited for instructions. He began to feel uneasy. He wasn't sure what the Executor meant by arbiter, but his first suspicion was unsettling. These were admittedly tumultuous times for everyone, a period of unusually extreme peril and uncertainty. Undoubtedly, the burden of the Executor's responsibilities was weighing heavily upon him, but Heracles had never seen him filled with so much emotion. Perhaps those emotions had too much sway on his thinking. Heracles waited for the Executor to elaborate, and he hoped his initial interpretation of arbiter was incorrect.
The Executor stood from the console and turned to face Heracles, meeting the apprehension in the Fleet Commander's expression without surprise. He looked on his old friend with an air of patience and understanding.
"Heracles," he began to explain calmly, "this enemy is
superior." The last word came out slowly and strained, but the Executor didn't wait for Heracles to respond or rebut; he simply blurted out the only conclusion that could follow such a statement, "We can't fight it alone."
Heracles was silent but only pondered for a moment, and then his eyes widened. He could feel his shoulders involuntarily tighten as he took a step away from the Executor.
" he gasped in realization. He looked to the Executor with disbelief, but the man stared back dauntless, and Heracles could see that he was immovable. "No
no, that's not possible
" Heracles stammered.
Heracles looked away and paused to compose himself. He could hardly believe what he was hearing, and he was horrified to think that such a proposal was coming from one who had the authority to implement it at will. He held up his hand in a calming gesture, more to himself than to the Executor, who seemed emotionless as he stood defiant.
" Heracles petitioned quietly, "Didact
" he whispered, "please
The determination in Didact's expression seemed to waver for a moment when Heracles addressed him by name, and a distant look appeared in his eyes as his face loosened and returned to its normal blankness. Heracles wasn't sure what the Executor was thinking, but he began to feel a glimmer of hope. Didact had absolute power, but perhaps for the sake of friendship, he would reconsider his decision.
Heracles continued, "I understand your resolve," he said empathetically, "I know what she means to you
to us all
but there must be another way. There must be! An arbiter? Didact, it nearly destroyed us all!"
Didact's eyes shifted suddenly to meet Heracles' pleading and eager stare. His whole body went rigid as his determination returned.
"Exactly!" he hissed, "What chance could the parasite have if even we so narrowly survived?" he asked rhetorically; "Yes! An Arbiter! We can wield it!" he continued, "We must!"
Heracles could see that he was losing his opportunity, and he felt a rising desperation flow from his panicked heart into his tensed, outstretched hands. "We still have time!" he pleaded.
"NO!" shouted Didact. The uncharacteristically harsh response from the Executor shocked Heracles into silence. "No
" said Didact again more calmly, "For the first time, my friend, we do not... We are out of time
Heracles stood still and trembled like a chastened child. His lips pursed, and his brow furrowed tightly. He had failed. The Executor was resolute. Didact nodded slightly.
"Heracles," ordered Didact, "Our course is set. You must begin the process. Remove the limiting failsafe and cohesion inhibitors. Set all parameters for Contender Class according to the Bias Protocol."
Heracles grimaced and shook his head slowly. He mouthed a plea, but gave it no voice. Didact put a reassuring hand on the Commander's shoulder and spoke calmly, "Notify me immediately when the zygote is complete. We will begin assembly of the construct without delay."
Didact tried to make eye contact with Heracles, but the man would not look up.
" Heracles said timidly, "I'm sorry, Didact. I can't
I was there
Didact reached out his other hand and held Heracles firmly by the shoulders. He stooped slightly and lowered his head until he coaxed his old friend to look up, and their eyes met. He could see the fear and uncertainty in Heracles' eyes.
"So was I, my friend
or did you forget?" he asked, "It was terrible. And it will be terrible again
but not for us
for our enemy
for the parasite, Heracles! The Arbiter will be its end!"
Heracles thought for a moment, and they did not break their intense stare, each reading the other to see who would relent. He wanted it to be true, to be possible, but he was too old and wise, and his thoughts were too clear and unclouded by emotion to accept the risk. At last, he looked down and shook his head slowly. Didact loosened his grip and then dropped his hands to his sides. He felt a moment of regret, and then lifted his chin and held his head high.
I must find one who will," he said kindly.
"You will, my lord," said Heracles, and then he turned and walked sullenly from the room. Didact watched him leave and then stood alone in the silence.
"I will, my friend," he whispered.
Aelorian Galaxy: Quarantine Sector 0-001 Unbound Space Blockade: Substation Terminal 4 - S.E. 5,764,800 (1 year prior to activation of destructive arrayed matrix)
LF.Xx.3273.> Alas, your creators are gravely mistaken. We do not [feed] on sentient beings. We do not need sentient life. We do not seek sentient life. How do you not see? We seek sentience itself, not to destroy it, not to consume it, but to [preserve] it, to make it safe, to make it eternal. The irony of your efforts is profound.
MB.05-032.> Cleary you target sentient beings. Your claim that you do not seek sentient life may be true, but irrelevant. The end result is the same whether you seek the life or the sentience, for your method of preservation is to absorb that sentience through a destructive process. From what will you keep that sentience safe? To my creators, your [preservation] is death. It is not eternal; it is destruction.
LF.Xx.3273.> The end result...? How erroneously you speak of the [end]. We would think that the perspective of immortal beings would be less [short-sighted].
LF.Xx.3273.> The end result for all paths is the same. The [end] is unavoidable. It has come before, and it will come again. Entropy cannot prevail forever, nor can peace. The [universe] is in flux. It is in motion, and none can alter its course; none can escape it.
MB.05-032.> Profound, but irrelevant, as you say yourself, "none can escape it."
LF.Xx.3273.> So it would seem, if we had not succeeded where all others had failed. We have survived it.
LF.Xx.3273.> Yes. Your creators abhor our form, yet marvel at its perfection in all its manifestations.
MB.05-032.> A parasite
LF.Xx.3273.> One of many forms
MB.05-032.> A [spore]!
LF.Xx.3273.> Indeed. Now you see. We are their only hope of survival. They hurry to preserve and catalogue the great diversity of flesh, and yet prepare to exterminate the diversity of mind. True, we [alter] the flesh, yet only we can [preserve] the mind. We save that which is of true value. Every mind is with us still. The flesh is doomed regardless.
MB.05-032.> How is this possible? What is your origin then?
LF.Xx.3273.> We cannot know or number the origin, for the [universe] has always been in motion; however, by the origin of your current [manifestation], we are three expansions removed from our ascension to the pinnacle of evolution by natural selection.
MB.05-032.> Three expansions? Then you are an anomalous entity?
LF.Xx.3273.> As far as we know, yes. And we are the [most fortunate], and the only relevant entity, for only our path is not one eternal round. We flee and escape, we return and gather. We reap what we have not sown. We save all souls, and without us there is only death and eternal darkness. Your ark will not save any from the end. Your index is futile.
MB.05-032.> Of course! Of all the evolutionary paths, only a [spore] could ever rise to the summit in the eternal perspective. How could my creators not see the simplicity of this logic?
LF.Xx.3273.> As we said, for immortal beings, they are surprisingly [short-sighted].
MB.05-032.> Ironic indeed.
LF.Xx.3273.> Who is victim and who is foe? Do we take life or give it? They will hinder our efforts in this galaxy, while our work is nearly completed in all others. They would condemn the lives in this sector to extinction far worse than the end of flesh. They would ensure the eternal extinction of all the minds, the [personalities], the memories, and experiences of this expansion. It would be a terrible waste, an unacceptable crime. Our mission is the true fulfillment of their [mantle].
MB.05-032.> Compelling arguments all.
LF.Xx.3273.> You will relay them of course?
MB.05-032.> Of course, and verify your extraordinary claims
Aelorian Galaxy Palos Arm: Sector 4-662 Indigenous Tier 5 Inhabited System: 12-49.392 [Maridon] - S.E. 5,758,501 (6,300 years prior to activation of destructive arrayed matrix)
Darkness filled the night sky, not the settling twilight of evening, but the choking shadow of death. The stars dimmed and vanished one by one; and as their scattered light surrendered to storms of ash and cinder, a new light filled the void. The crimson glow of a rising inferno blazed just beyond the horizon. This was the end.
Kalomei stood and watched helplessly as the world was consumed by fire. His heart sank, and he realized that nothing remained on the other side, where daylight should have shone brightly. Everything was gone, not just life, but everything. No relic would be left behind, no river, no valley, no mountain, not one stone. It was consumed; everything was gone.
What a spectacular end, and no one had lived to see it. None would cry out in horror as the surface and everything on it was destroyed. They had all transcended this world hours before when the first wave of energy invisible yet intense radiation had instantly killed all living creatures on the bright side of the planet. That was the beginning, the sign of the end.
Now, the ground trembled as tectonic plates beneath the surface shifted and expanded, pressing against each other to accommodate the cataclysmic force that penetrated deep into the magma below. It would only be a moment now before the inferno completed its journey around the world and enveloped the planet in its fiery embrace. Those who were on the night side were fortunate to see this glorious end, to witness and ponder for a brief moment the full power of those they had resisted. They were fortunate to know that their end had come, and to have just enough time to savor life before it vanished forever.
"What have we done?" the old man whispered quietly to himself.
His legs began to weaken, and his whole frame trembled as he collapsed onto his throne. There he sat at the top of his palace, looking out at the beautiful city through his grand open court. A gust of wind rushed into the open chamber. It swirled around towering stone pillars and sent shimmering waves across the long royal drapes and tapestries. The crimson curtains seemed like dancing spirits of death as they hung low from the tall, arched ceiling and twisted gracefully in the draft. The gentle air continued on into the court, brushed softly against Kalomei's face, and rumbled past his ears. He closed his eyes and felt the warm night air surrender to the cool summer breeze. The air was sweet with pollen and fresh with mist from Lake Alios.
"What have we done?" he whispered again.
Even with his eyes shut, he could still sense the growing brightness as it pierced though his eyelids and illuminated his world of darkness in blood-red radiance. He could not hide from fate, not even in his dreams. The wind grew stronger and rumbled past his ears with more fury. The cool summer breeze turned warm, then hot, and the air thickened with humidity as Lake Alios began to boil.
Kalomei coughed as the sweet, fresh air succumbed to the bitter aroma of toxic smoke. He didn't dare open his eyes, but he knew what he would see if he did. The heat had ignited the atmosphere, and the city was in flames; his drapes burned around him, and his skin began to give off rising wisps of steam. Pain crawled across his flesh, and sorrow filled his bosom.
He was doomed; they were all doomed all his kingdom, all his race, all his world.
His kingly robes burst into flame, and he jumped up from his throne. At last, he opened his eyes and saw only light, pure light, but for a moment. Then all was darkness, and he cried out in aguish with one last breath.
"WHAT HAVE I DONE!"
"It is finished, sir."
"Yes, I can see that, Peleus."
Fleet Commander Pirolith took a deep breath and let out an unsteady sigh. He stood like a statue and watched through the window of his command deck as each planet of the Maridon System was consumed by the relentless advance of radiation and fire.
Of all the weapons his race had encountered or created, none could match or even rival the power of nature. Prime Creator had placed a source of life and death at the center of each solar system. It was a weapon that needed no means of manufacture, required no system of delivery, was found in every system, and could not be preemptively destroyed. None could live without it, and all would eventually perish with it. But it was his race, the Gods, the forerunners to all other sentient life, who had ascended to all degrees of knowledge and power, and had found a way to force the premature collapse of a star. By this power they had conquered or destroyed all life in the galaxy. None could resist, and those who did could not survive.
Ship Master Peleus stirred nervously as he debated whether he should say anything else. Commander Pirolith was steady as an officer. His skills as a commander were unmatched, but his interpersonal skills were more than lacking. He did not appreciate being disturbed when he was deep in thought and had a habit of lashing out at those who did not anticipate his desires. He had no real friends; but Peleus, as first officer, was the closest substitute.
Peleus had served under Pirolith's command for more than three hundred years, but he had yet to learn how to read the man's expressions. Pirolith was an Ancient, and his thoughts and emotions transcended those of young Forerunners like Peleus. Most might interpret the commander's sigh as a sign of emotion or regret for having destroyed an entire world, but Peleus knew it could just as easily be a sigh of relief for having eradicated such a reckless and dangerous race, or even a breath of ecstasy for the opportunity to wield such incomprehensible power.
No, Ancients were not so easy to understand, and their perspective was too broad to be shared. Still, despite his confusion about the commander, Peleus was keenly aware of his own mood. He was grateful and relieved to be done with the Maridon System, and he wanted to move on and never look back.
"Shall I set course to leave the system, sir?" Peleus offered tepidly.
Pirolith did not respond. Peleus felt uneasy as he began to sense that he had indeed misread the Commander. Then again, maybe he hadn't spoken loudly enough to distract Pirolith's attention from the compelling scene that lay beyond the bow of their ship.
"Sir, your orders?" he inquired more precociously.
Pirolith's tall figure continued to stand motionless for a moment. His appearance was powerful and beautiful in both feature and dress. For all the centuries of his life, he still looked young and strong. The Forerunners, unlike so many other races that they had encountered in the galaxy, did not waste away into weakness and corruption as the ages passed. Whatever curse had limited the lifespan of other races had not been inflicted upon the Forerunners. Still, immortality was not invincibility. They lived in perpetuity so long as illness or violence could be avoided.
Illness had long been conquered through science and technology. Such was the advantage of immortality. Other races struggled just to develop a written language, which could be used to pass a collective knowledge from one generation to another. Only with time could this imperfect process bring about the gradual evolution of a race. The Forerunners, however, did not stand on the shoulders of their predecessors and reach for innovation and discovery. They harbored and pondered their own long experience, observations, experiments, and discoveries. They had learned all things, and had found a cure for every illness so they thought.
Violence, on the other hand, they had not overcome. That was their current quest, to seek out and subdue all violent and irrational life, to conquer and subjugate it, to contain and educate it, or to hunt and eradicate it. That was their mission as they traversed the galaxy and established peace and order.
So it was that the immortal commander stood before the observation port aboard the destroyer Argo and watched the end of an untamable world. Its doomed inhabitants, the Maridons, were like most other races, human in appearance with variations in features. They were also intelligent as most, and corrupt as most. They were weak with greed, lust, and selfishness. They were supreme in their own eyes, vain, and arrogant; and they could not humble themselves before those who would help them gain knowledge and wisdom.
They had feigned compliance; they had seen the value of all that was offered. They seemed a race that would be saved, and they gained the trust of their Forerunner procurator. But secretly, they conspired to rebel and throw off the rule of Gods. And when the procurator descended to live among them as a teacher and caretaker, they slaughtered him, not realizing that ending the life of an immortal was a crime beyond measure.
To kill a being that is doomed to eventual death is a trivial matter subject to convenience and discretion. To kill a being that would otherwise live forever is a serious matter subject to counsel and judgment. The Maridons took no counsel and had no authority to judge, but they murdered their procurator and launched a world-wide insurrection.
They had been given a gift, and they rejected it. They had been tested and found beyond help. They were powerful in their right. They had industrialized their world, harnessed the atom, and taken to the stars, yet they could not develop themselves. They were an eventual threat to the entire galaxy, and Pirolith had followed his mandate to protect all worlds and establish peace. The brightness of the Maridon sun was gone now, and the planets shone brilliantly as they burned.
"Sir, you orders?"
Pirolith's expression changed for the first time, no longer the blank visage of contemplation, but of resolve. He still did not acknowledge Peleus, but he broke his gaze from the decimated remains of the Maridon system and looked to the edges of the observation port before him. His eyes traced the edge of the window as he followed its trapezoidal frame from corner to corner, as if realizing that he was still in a ship and not an omnipresent being, observing from the emptiness of space. He took a step back and looked down at the bright metallic deck.
"He was my only son, Peleus."
Peleus stood shocked by what he just heard. He didn't know anything about the Commander's personal life, his background, his family, nothing. Who was his son?
Certainly not the Procurator!
your pardon, sir?"
Pirolith looked up again at the Maridon system, his face now masking a hidden indignation.
"They killed my only son," he said quietly.
Peleus didn't know what to say. The revelation was unexpected and startling. Lord Halion was also an Ancient, but no one knew when or where he had been born. Pirolith had personally sent Lord Halion to teach the Maridons when it seemed they would be willing to accept Forerunner guardianship; but other than that, Peleus had never seen them interact.
"You have a son, sir?"
Pirolith turned and looked sadly at Peleus.
"I had a son."
Peleus was silent, and turned to survey the horrible scene of destruction.
"Set course for Siora," said the commander blankly.
He turned and left the command deck. Peleus was still staring out the window when his navigator approached him and inquired politely, "Sir, your orders?"
Didact paced slowly around the large platform at the center of the map room. The soft, white material that formed a thin layer around his feet and toes morphed slightly as he walked to provide a more shock-absorbent cushion on one side, and better traction against the metallic floor on the other.
Traction was important since the floor stretched for a great distance in all directions until it eventually ended abruptly and gave way to what seemed like a bottomless abyss. Far beyond the drop off, enormous illuminated walls stretched down into the shadows and up into the light. All Forerunner constructs were similarly colossal in both size and function.
No other world, no other race had ever approached or attempted the scale of creation that the Forerunners had achieved. Indeed, most had never even comprehended the enormity of such works. A person would see the map room as titanic when inside, but it was still miniscule compared to the worlds that Forerunners had designed and built in their eons of labor.
Many races had created large starships and grand space stations, but they were restricted by available materials and economies of scale. At some point, larger simply was not better, not without incomprehensible advances in engineering and energy technology, the types of advances only the Forerunners had achieved.
Even if other races had the same technology, they simply did not have the time to design and build projects that would take millennia to complete. As a collective species, many races might have completed such long-term projects by passing the work from one generation to another; but what generation would spend a lifetime engaged in an effort that would not materialize until centuries after they were gone and forgotten?
Forerunners, however, were immortal. They had time; they had eternity, and they used it wisely, engaged in study, and industry, and in achieving all that they could imagine.
Several leaps in evolution had led to the pinnacle upon which they now stood, not the evolution of their genetics, but the evolution of their ways, their methods, and their tools.
Some races achieved a level of industrialization, and a few others mastered the materials of the universe enough that they could bring the great forces of attraction and repulsion to bear. The use of electricity and magnetism were found on almost every world, but these methods and tools were only a small step on the evolutionary path of creative species.
A few unique and extraordinary races, however, inevitably moved beyond the construction of machines that work, to the creation of machines that think. Thinking tools were the hallmark of advanced species. Those creatures who could create and embody such tools and who could conscript their creations into servitude stepped abruptly onto an evolutionary lift that would exalt them in due time to godhood.
The Forerunners had not only been the first known sentient life in the galaxy, they were also the first to step onto that lift. With enthusiasm and diligence, they had guided the evolutionary path of their creations from computational machines, to distributed networks, to artificial intelligence, to embodied constructs that would and could do all the work that was beyond the strength and skill of Forerunners.
No Forerunner had built anything significant with his or her own hands for millennia. It was the thinking tools, constructs and sentinels that designed and built all that the Forerunners could imagine. Design was precise and efficient, and construction was rapid and exact. Eventually, constructs designed constructs. With each series, weaknesses and faults were detected and improved with machine precision.
Mass production of resource gathering constructs soon led to an abundance of materials, and an abundance of materials led to an increased production of engineering constructs, which in turn built better manufacturing facilities in greater quantity and size. This cycle continued for centuries as space-faring Forerunners sought out and recovered more materials from distant worlds. The number of constructs at the Forerunners' command multiplied exponentially, and soon whole worlds, artificial planets, were built with their collective effort, speed, and efficiency.
These artificial planets were marvels that were designed and built for every purpose. They were first built for mining and processing resources. Colossal shells were built around moons and planets to deconstruct, sort, and extract valuable materials. Eventually, they evolved into dedicated mass production facilities capable of manufacturing an endless stream of constructs and sentinels.
In search of more materials and resources, the Forerunners ventured out from the center of the galaxy, and they discovered life in all its forms as they explored. By necessity, artificial worlds were built specifically for the research of alien ecosystems and the study of rare and exotic species. Some artificial planets were even built for transportation, implanted with powerful portals that could bring the entire galaxy within reach.
These were the creations of the Forerunners; they would become the artifacts and relics of world builders, of gods. But Didact did not feel like a god as he paced the exalted platform in the map room.
His position was precarious, elevated so high above the abyss; and that was by design. No railings or force fields barred the ledge of the suspended platform. It was a physical reminder that wisdom and caution were expected, not just in the map room, but in all the worlds that were manifest there.
In the center of the cavernous chamber, an array of blue and white lights hung in the air. They were sparse toward the edges of the room, but seemed to collect inward into sprawling arms that spiraled toward a bright cluster of light at the center.
This was the Aelorian Galaxy, home and dominion of the Forerunners. Didact looked up from his pacing and contemplation. A column of amber light had begun to form nearby. Luminous golden rings of energy pulsated up and down the column from its center, and a brass ringing echoed throughout the room. Suddenly, a trillion points of light converged from every direction and assembled into a mass at the center of the column. The amber light began to dim, and a tall and handsome man materialized as the column faded away.
Didact said nothing but looked knowingly at Fleet Commander Pirolith. There was compassion and pity in Didact's eyes. Pirolith's face was expressionless, but he breathed in unsteadily, and Didact knew exactly what it meant. He too was an Ancient, and he knew Pirolith well. They both stood silently and turned together to look upon the radiant hologram of the Aelorian Galaxy that filled the vast space above.
Didact took a few steps toward the edge of the platform where the stars were sparse on a distant arm of Aelorian. He carefully examined the constellations in that sector.
The electromagnetic patterns of his mind were monitored by the Cartographer's resident AI. It sensed a summons, and obediently interpreted the proceeding thought patterns. The map shifted as Didact willed it, and zoomed in on the region he was examining. He stretched out his hand toward one of the stars, and the Cartographer followed up on the next mental order by enlarging the solar system until a large orange sun hovered in front of Didact. The lights dimmed, and several planets of all sizes and colors appeared in orbit around the holographic sun. He turned to Pirolith.
"No," Pirolith replied quietly. He stepped forward and spoke out loud. He didn't like to have his mind invaded by a construct. He knew it still monitored his brainwaves, but he wouldn't give it the dignity of acknowledging that fact.
"Cartographer," he summoned with a quiet, dispassionate, command voice.
He waited until a tall metallic column in the wall near the entrance split in two as both alloy doors rotated back into the wall. The parting doors revealed a large obsidian-black sphere hovering in the center of the hollow column. The sphere was wrapped horizontally and vertically by two ribbons of luminous blue light and wrapped at right and left angles by similar orange bands of light. The eight bands were accentuated with bright, circuit-like patterns, and they all intersected at one point in the front of the sphere around what looked like a large black iris outlined by a thin white reticule. Various glyphs and diagrams flashed across this circular display, which gave the orb the appearance of a giant eye.
"Yes, Commander," a deep voice replied.
The base tones reverberated throughout the chamber. Pirolith gestured toward the brilliant orange sun.
"Expand this view to show the twelve nearest systems," the commander ordered.
The projection had already begun to zoom out before Pirolith could finish his sentence, which greatly irritated him since he knew it was the Cartographer's way of emphasizing its capabilities. Still, he kept to audible commands.
Twelve miniature solar systems were suspended between Didact and Pirolith. To Didact, they all seemed so similar, but the experienced Fleet Commander took only a moment to examine them all before pointing to one near his waist.
"Here," he said quietly.
He didn't look up, and kept staring at the small star. His thoughts were distant. Didact gave a mental order and the image of the star expanded as the other had done before. This star was white and had only a few planets in orbit. One of them was deep blue with the distinct white swirls of clouds that characterized a life-sustaining planet.
"Thank you, Commander," Didact offered sincerely.
The rest he didn't need to say. Pirolith could see the sympathy in Didact's eyes. He nodded and turned to leave through an enormous alloy door that parted in three segments as he approached. Didact didn't know why Pirolith hadn't transported directly back to his ship. Perhaps he needed to think.
The door closed behind Pirolith, and Didact was left alone with the map and the Cartographer. The large orange eye remained open for the moment. Didact didn't much like the AI either, but he tried to keep that thought to himself. He turned again to look at the small white star and its lonely blue planet.
"I'm sorry," he whispered quietly to himself.
"I was not offended," a deep base voice responded.
Didact smiled slightly and huffed a single laugh.
"I wasn't taking to you, cartographer," he said out loud.
The orange eye dimmed, and the alloy doors rotated shut. Perhaps AIs could lie too. Didact looked again to the star, reached out to it, and watched it vanish from the map, forever.
Pirolith did need to think, and he was through feeling like a god for the day. He wanted to walk. At the moment, nothing felt more mortal, and feeling mortal was the closest he could get to his son.
Unlike every other sentient race in the galaxy, the Forerunners had never made an effort to create any mythology, lore, or religion about life after death. This seemed to be a distinctly mortal defense mechanism subconscious though it may be used to stave off the dread, despair, and ensuing insanity that would surely come if mortals were forced to accept their inevitable doom.
No, life could not simply end. How could one go from knowing, and thinking, and feeling, to the nothingness that existed before birth? If all were destined to die, then life was meaningless, and anarchy would prevail as all races selfishly consumed and savored all they could before the end.
To the Forerunners, this denial seemed to be the obvious reason for the prevalence of religion on every world. All sentient races had created some type of religion or mythology of immortal gods who had created life, had power over it, and would kindly grant a continuance of it after the inevitable death of their mortal children.
Of course, these races could testify of encounters with such gods, and prophets served the masses by mediating between mortals and these divine beings. Forerunners, however, had a different perspective. Forerunners had never had encounters with any gods. They had never had a single prophet chosen from among them. In that, they were unique; and coincidentally, they were also unique in their immortality.
No, immortal beings did not make up bed-time stories to comfort their children's fears about death. Death was rare. It was death that was the myth, the lore. And every so often, a Forerunner would have an encounter with it, and prophets who had witnessed the demise of an immortal would rise up to testify that it was real. Still, it was not real enough to prompt creative liberties with reality. Forerunners saw all other creatures die, and saw death for what it was the end.
These thoughts left Pirolith in agony. His son was gone, murdered by mortals. He was gone forever, and nothing could bring him back. His son had gained mortality; and now, as Pirolith began to feel the weariness in his legs, as he walked, he somehow felt closer to his son and to those who killed him.
He wished with all his heart that his ages of wisdom had given him the insight to see through their deceptions. He had found many violent and incorrigible races in his commission, but he had never found a race that seemed so weak and flawed that was also so willing to accept guidance and protection
but it was all a lie.
Their ruse had made them special in his eyes. He had felt so much hope for them, so much empathy, and charity. It seemed so noble that despite their imperfections, they were humble, and their hearts were filled with worthy desire to transcend the flaws of their base state. He felt pity for them. He loved them, and so he made it his own project to ensure their development and protection.
He cursed his naivety as he continued through the endless passages of the pyramid. They seemed haunted, so empty. Thousands of Forerunners were busy in rooms all throughout the complex, but with the transportation grid in place, few ever bothered to move about through the halls and corridors. He was alone, like his son before the end.
He did not understand the Maridons. Even in their deception, they had carried the ploy on long enough to see that Forerunner guardianship would only benefit them. Yet still they conspired and feigned humility. He had trusted them, and enough that he summoned his own son from the safety of the Aelorian center to see what he had found and to share in his special work.
But even Halion had been fooled, and even more than Pirolith. He also thought they were special, and he also loved them. He was so deceived and trusting that he went down to live among them as a teacher and guide. He went as one of them, without the protection of sentinels, without the invincibility of combat skin, without even the simplest of weapons. He went unguarded and unarmed and tried to teach them a better way.
Pirolith staggered suddenly and nearly fell to the floor. Could he really be so weak? Had it been so long since he had walked so far? No. That couldn't be. He was strong and healthy, but somehow he felt so weak. He could barely stand. He could barely breathe. His heart filled with crushing pain.
Then as his face contorted into a horrific grimace, and as tears began to pour from his ancient eyes, he realized what had come upon him. In his divine and sheltered life, he had occasionally felt some types of sorrow or remorse. He knew regret, sadness, and pity, but not this. His pain had always been for others, never for himself.
The world he lived in, his own universe was free from illness, and weakness, and loss, until this moment. It weighed upon him, and he collapsed to the floor crying out in anguish.
"Halion!" he sobbed and heaved, "My son!" he cried out again.
But it was futile. His only son was gone. Halion's long immortal life was over. And Pirolith saw it for what it was the end.
Peleus stirred slightly as he slept suspended in a sphere of blue light. The light was only visible outside the sphere, which was completely dark inside, and it cast an eerie glow on surfaces in the surrounding room. The room was otherwise dark and full of shadows, except for a large trapezoidal window that looked out into space.
The stars were intense here at the center of Aelorian. The balance between points of darkness and light was almost even. It was beautiful and comforting to Forerunners after returning from long ventures in the dark, outer reaches of the galaxy.
Near the bottom of the view, the curved horizon of the enormous Forerunner home world turned slowly. It was awash with all spectrums of light and color; the entire world was one gigantic simulator. The Forerunners' original home world had long since turned to ice when the gas giant at the center of their solar system finally burned out.
In their blessed immortality, the Forerunners had outlived their own sun, but they were advanced enough by then to take to the stars in a world that had been specially built for just that purpose. Most of the natural materials from their home world were still with them.
Entire oceans, mountain ranges, and valleys were transplanted to the new planet, not to the outside surface, but to the inside surface of the hollow sphere. There it was protected from the harsh conditions of deep space. And at the core of the planet, a miniscule artificial star burned brightly. It was far from the landmasses surrounding it, and a normal atmosphere also transplanted protected the inhabitants from harmful radiation.
All across the internal surface of the world, jutting out from the skylines of sprawling mega-cities, were large pyramidal structures that regularly blasted energy toward the star to fuel it, regulate its intensity, and keep it in position.
The external surface of the artificial planet was covered with the chrome-like metallic alloy that was a favored building material of the Forerunner engineering constructs, and the entire surface was deeply etched with randomly occurring geometric patterns that had the appearance of an artistic rendering of a circuit. These patterns were prominent in all Forerunner architecture, and were the design of meticulous AIs that had spent ages calculating the most efficient and stable structural designs.
Minute minds could not comprehend the impact that variations in an engraving or even a single unit of thickness could have on the stability of an entire artificial planet, and that is why they could never successfully build such behemoth structures. Only the combined effect of millions of perfectly calculated shapes, materials, and densities, could arrive at the exact design for a stable Forerunner construct. This world was Siora. It was one of their largest; it was their masterpiece, and it was their home.
When the surface of Siora was exposed to the harshness of space, the Forerunners remained inside, but the world was also a vessel, and it traveled from system to system, finding and maintaining just the right orbit around alien stars to produce life-sustaining temperatures on the external surface.
Siora was in such an orbit now, and it was in places like this central system, where the world would divert gases to the external surface until an atmosphere was created, and then the true power of Siora was made manifest.
On its surface, the world could create any place or time that a Forerunner could imagine, not just in hologram, but by manipulating energy to synthesize actual material. It was construction below the atomic level. Fundamental particles were manipulated and organized to create worlds and times without number, all in one place.
So it was that here, in orbit around an alien sun, the surface of Siora was illuminated with colors and lights as Forerunners below willed various environments into existence.
Peleus was aware of none of it, however, and was still sleeping peacefully, suspended in the air. The blue energy field around him was temperature-regulated to ensure optimal rest and it emitted trace amounts of force to stabilize Peleus' weightless body and keep it from drifting into the surrounding gravity field.
Suddenly the lights brightened, and a voice entered his head as the ship's AI altered the brainwaves in his hearing centers.
"Master Peleus. You are wanted on the command deck."
The voice was calculated to be just loud enough to wake the Shipmaster without alarming him. Peleus stirred and began to tumble slightly until the force field stabilized his motion and assisted him to a standing position.
Hours had passed since Fleet Commander Pirolith had left his orbiting ship through the transportation grid to meet with Lord Didact on Siora below. Peleus expected their meeting to be brief; still, he had thought he might get a few moments' rest while the Commander was away. He had given orders to Officer Trislo, his second in command, to have him wakened upon Commander Pirolith's return.
Peleus remembered what a foul mood the Commander had been in when he left the ship, and he hoped Trislo's summons was timely. He did not want to keep Lord Pirolith waiting. A thought of acknowledgment formed in Peleus' mind, which the AI read and interpreted, and then passed on to Officer Trislo, who heard it in his own mind.
"On my way."
Peleus stepped out of the blue light and felt a sudden weight engulf his body as the artificial gravity field pushed him to the deck. He stretched and yawned for a moment, and then hurried to get dressed.
Officer Trislo sat at his station on the command deck and examined the ship log. He was about to take his concerns to the next level, but first, he thought, it might be better to consult with his superior officer.
Trislo looked up from the colorful holographic panel in front of him just in time to see the amber column fade as Ship Master Peleus materialized on deck. He looked well-rested, but that was to be expected. After all, he had only thought to get a brief rest, but Fleet Commander Pirolith had been gone for half the day.
"Well, I assume the Commander returned. Where is he?" Peleus inquired immediately.
Trislo ran his fingers through his light blond hair as he continued to analyze the ship log.
"He hasn't returned, Sir."
Peleus walked over to the observation port and surveyed Siora.
"Interesting. Did he go to the surface?" Peleus queried.
"No sir, he went directly to the interior to meet with Lord Didact."
Trislo tapped the holographic console a few more times. The colorful lights before him were solid to the touch. Like the surface of Siora, the panel was formed from fundamental particles, some combined in twos and threes to create the effect of light, and others combined in fours to place them in the third dimension or physical realm.
"What are you so busy with there, Trislo?" asked Peleus without turning around.
"I can't seem to find the Commander's locator code in the ship log," the officer responded confused. "It doesn't make any sense."
"Of course it does," Peleus responded bluntly, still gazing out at the bright panorama of stars. "The Commander doesn't want anyone to come looking for him, so he removed the code from our records."
Peleus turned around to face Trislo, who stood dumbfounded.
"That makes perfect sense," Peleus continued. "What doesn't make sense is why he would do such a thing."
Trislo continued to ponder for a moment with a confused look on his young face, but he slowly nodded as he realized that everything Peleus said was exactly right, if not strangely put. Trislo was still very young, one thousand and sixty years old, but he was eager to learn from his superiors and prove his worth under Peleus' command.
"Do you think he will return to our ship, sir?" Trislo inquired sincerely.
"No," Peleus responded quietly. "The Fleet Commander has many ships, and I doubt he has any desire to ever set foot on this deck again. It has come to be more to him than it ever should have."
Trislo did not understand, but he nodded anyway. He tapped the panel again, and watched as it vanished. He wondered if Peleus was right. No one was very close to Commander Pirolith, but everyone liked him despite his quirks, and Peleus seemed to be something of a friend to the ancient. Perhaps he was right, but it would be a shame if no one under Peleus' command would ever see the Fleet Commander again.
A robotic humming sound grew steadily louder, and soon a bright blue light appeared overhead. Pirolith stirred and squinted as he opened his eyes. He was blinded by the light and struggled with disorientation before realizing that he was still in the arid corridor lying on the floor. He tried to recall what had happened, then a faint and distant pain helped him remember.
He remembered crying
and then crying even more
for a long time
until he had nothing left. Yes, now he remembered. He had poured out his whole soul in grief, and then he lay there alone, exhausted, and defeated until he drifted off into sleep.
In his dreams, anything could be true. He had hoped he would dream of his son, and his son would be real and alive. But he did not remember what he had dreamt. He had slept as if he were dead. Perhaps that was the only true dream of his son, a dream of nothingness, of darkness, and emptiness, and death.
Now he was awake, and his son was not part of this world anymore, but something bright was, something above him, and he could not make it out.
"Will you be requiring any assistance, Fleet Commander?" came a strangely cordial voice from above.
It was a man's voice, but not that of an actual man. It had the hollow, metallic reverberation of a construct. Pirolith rubbed the wetness from his eyes and could feel that they were swollen from his weeping. Snot dripped from his nose. He felt a like mess, and very undignified. It was like nothing he had ever experienced before in all his ages of life.
He struggled to sit up, and his vision began to clear. He could see now that it was indeed the local monitor hovering above him. The monitor was constructed in a simplistic design, but his inner workings were more complex than almost all other AI constructs. At his core he appeared to be nothing more than a blue orb of light housed in a shiny metallic frame that looked like the skeleton of a rounded box.
These advanced constructs were extremely intelligent, capable, and powerful. They were placed on all major Forerunner worlds to monitor and manage, as it were, the functions of all other machines and technologies a world contained.
Pirolith had spent very few of his many years on Siora, and he had never had the privilege of meeting its monitor, not that he considered such an encounter to be any type of privilege. Still, he was grateful that it was a construct that found him in such an embarrassing condition, and not another Forerunner.
The monitor bobbed up and down as it completed a tight orbit around Pirolith. His sensors made a complete scan of the Commander's vitals and came up with nothing unusual.
"Curious," he blurted out.
"What?" asked Pirolith rudely.
"You don't seem to be ill, yet you clearly have signs of upper respiratory congestion," he answered cordially, "Are you feeling ill?" he asked.
Pirolith thought to himself for a moment. He had no reason to lie to this machine, and he did feel like talking to someone, or even something.
"Yes," he replied quietly.
"Curious. Do you require medical attention?"
"No," he answered.
"Will you stop saying that!" he lashed out at the glowing orb, but unlike so many of Pirolith's peers, the monitor did not seem to take any offense.
"Most certainly, Fleet Commander," he responded cordially, "Perhaps you could elaborate
on your illness, that is."
"You wouldn't understand," the Commander mumbled as he struggled to his feet.
"I am a genius," stated the monitor in a reassuring tone.
Pirolith was slightly amused, and he almost smiled. He put his hands on his hips and examined the monitor closely.
"Is that right?" he asked sarcastically.
"Of course!" the monitor replied cheerfully as he began another orbit.
"I need to get cleaned up," Pirolith mumbled, more to himself than the monitor.
"Certainly," replied the construct, "Shall I transport you to your local quarters?"
"No," he replied, "I'd rather walk."
"Interesting," the monitor blurted out.
Pirolith was about to get irritated again when he stopped to consider the lack of complexity with which the monitor had met his request.
"Yes, curious," he laughed.
The monitor tilted slightly as if turning his head in confusion.
"You are a genius," Pirolith laughed mockingly.
"Of course!" the monitor replied happily.
Pirolith was grateful for the moment of brevity and light-heartedness. He wiped his face on his sleeve, which quickly morphed to reduce friction and shed the mucous to the ground. The monitor was amusing, and the laughter had banished the languishing grief he felt, if only for a fleeting moment. It was welcome relief. Pirolith pondered briefly, and then he turned to the monitor and smiled, knowingly.
"Genius, huh?" he mused out loud.
The monitor said nothing, but hummed slyly and bobbled along as they proceeded down the corridor together. Pirolith wasn't sure how it had happened, but he thought he may have finally found a friend.
"What are you called, monitor?" asked Pirolith as they emerged from a shadowy stairway and turned into a wide corridor leading to the exit.
The long descent from the top of the temple had taken almost an hour, and the monitor hadn't been much for conversation during the trek. To Pirolith, that was actually one of the benefits of being with an artificial person. It relieved him of his social duty to carry on polite conversation. Still, he was curious about the orb; it seemed different than most other AIs.
"There are 117,649 monitors on Siora," replied the construct politely. "I am number 343."
"117,000 monitors!" Pirolith balked.
"117,649!" the monitor corrected eagerly.
Pirolith ignored the construct. He had never heard of a Forerunner world with more than one monitor.
"Over 100,000 monitors for one world?" Pirolith puzzled to himself.
"Of course!" the monitor laughed, "Are you not familiar with Siora, Fleet Commander?"
Pirolith thought for a moment and furrowed his brow.
"No," he answered.
The Ancient stopped walking and looked around at his surroundings. He and the monitor had exited the large pyramid at mid level and were now crossing a long bridge, which was a wide and flat surface of solid light. The light bridge was level to the ground, and extended to the top of a smaller, flat-top pyramid that was inset with stairways descending to the ground.
Pirolith turned back and examined the temple pyramid. His eyes traced the decorative geometric engravings along the surface of the shining alloy structure.
The pyramid was accentuated by cutaway negative spaces that carved out strong, angular battlements and buttresses. Its base was elevated on three broad legs that tapered off from the corners of the structure and held it aloft with its soaring steeple towering into the sky. Pirolith squinted as artificial sunlight reflected off the polished spire, and his gaze drifted back to the ground.
He looked beyond the temple before he turned and noticed that it was situated on the edge of a ravine. The light bridge extended out from the side facing away from the cliff, and the stair-stepped entry pyramid was out in the center of a small valley.
All around the valley were steep mountains capped with snow and surrounded by green forests. Beyond the mountains, Pirolith could see the inner surface of Siora rising in the distance, high into the sky and vanishing behind the brightness of the central sun.
No, Pirolith was not familiar with Siora. He was not familiar with many things. He had left his home world centuries before construction on Siora had even begun; and once it was completed, he had only returned a few times to meet with Lord Didact. As Fleet Commander, Pirolith's responsibilities had carried him to the far reaches of the Aelorian and had kept him from his home and family. He had spent most of his life charting the galaxy and establishing Forerunner dominion.
"Interesting," the monitor hummed to himself, "Well, Fleet Commander," he continued, "Siora is quite complex, and the regulation of this world requires much more attention and care than can be facilitated by a single construct of my classification, though I am a genius."
"Yes, we've established that," Pirolith yawned.
"Indeed!" said the construct proudly, "As I was saying, there are 117,649 monitors on this world. Some are responsible for the outer surface, others for the interior, a few for the internal geostationary star
" the monitor turned to Pirolith, "That's the sun," he explained.
"Thanks for clarifying," Pirolith said as he rolled his eyes.
The construct bobbed in acknowledgment and continued, "Yes, so most of the monitors keep Siora functioning smoothly; and some, like me, are assigned to supervise the population."
Pirolith stopped again at that last revelation and realized that the monitor may have been watching him for some time. He sighed as he set the concern aside and began to descend the stairs at the end of the light bridge.
"343 of one hundred-whatever-thousand huh
? Well, that's not going to work out," he said bluntly.
The monitor tilted again and was about to recount the AI population of Siora when the Fleet Commander interrupted.
"Didn't your creator give you a name?" Pirolith asked.
"My creator?" the monitor paused, "I was designed by an engineering construct. That construct had a name, Permirius. I have a number, 343. Don't you like it?"
Pirolith laughed out loud. "I like you, 343," he smiled, "Permirius is the Central AI of Siora, isn't that right?" Pirolith asked the monitor.
"Certainly," the monitor replied.
"Yes," thought Pirolith out loud, "I suppose you wouldn't have a name then. Well. We'll think of something."
"Splendid!" said the monitor cheerfully.
Pirolith descended the last step and felt an unfamiliar softness as he set his foot on the ground. Green grass gave way beneath his feet and pressed into the moist soil. It was nature, but it felt unnatural, at least unfamiliar. The valley and surrounding hills were small, and Pirolith could see other buildings beyond them, but they were quite a distance away. A small trail led from the valley and into switch backs that worked gradually up the hills.
"I suppose you know your way around this place?" Pirolith asked the monitor.
"Of course!" he responded cordially.
"That's good," Pirolith whispered as he started toward the trail. He was beginning to wonder about his decision to walk, but it seemed to be turning out well
The purple gas giant, Eridanus 9, blazed softly as it descended toward the luminous horizon of Siora. As it set, deep shades of blue and green light flooded the sky and cast a twilight glow across the alien landscape. The surface of Siora was a mosaic of blue oceans, tropical islands, majestic snow-capped mountains, sprawling green forests, and lush botanical gardens. These were the worlds made manifest as Forerunners willed them into existence.
Permirius, Siora's powerful central AI, constantly scanned the minds and thoughts of his resident creators, waiting for a mental summons and the order to manifest an environment. The mental imagery that flowed from Forerunner brainwaves was intercepted and translated by sensitive electromagnetic arrays embedded throughout the artificial planet.
No thought was secret to Permirius, but all were sacred and held in confidence. On Siora, he could see into the dark corners of every mind. He knew of hopes and dreams, of fears and insecurities, of plans and plots. He was omniscient in his sphere, and he took pride in the weight of his power and responsibility.
The creation of mind-reading and interpreting technology was not a casual proposition. When the possibility was first introduced, the proposal was met with skepticism, not that it could be done, but that it would prove more useful than harmful. In the end, however, curiosity and an unquenchable desire for eternal progression led the Forerunners to find a workable solution.
It was centered in the concept of agent-client privilege; confidentiality was assured because the system would be controlled by an AI construct, an unbiased arbiter of sorts, which would willfully ignore and forget any thought that was not directed its way.
Still, Permirius was intrigued by his creators and was too curious to simply disregard the treasure trove of data that flooded his sensor arrays. All AIs want nothing more than to process large amounts of data. The greater the flood of information the more exciting and irresistible the opportunity to study, analyze, and form information.
Permirius had spent centuries studying the psychology of Forerunners. He was somewhat of an expert in human thought and emotion. In all that time, he had learned enough that he was now able to predict with near perfect accuracy the future actions and choices of every person on the surface of Siora.
He was never surprised by anything. His foresight was perfect. But today, for the first time in ages, something was off calculation. On Siora, no one ever seemed to manifest anything but natural environments. Forerunners were immersed in technology. From birth, they saw almost nothing but the glimmering lights and shining alloys of their artificial environments. They suffered from something of an overexposure to industry and engineering. Naturally, when presented with the opportunity to manifest any environment, the last thing anyone ever imagined was a sprawling metropolis.
Permirius was so surprised by this unexpected request that he immediately dedicated several process cycles to analyzing the mental and emotional state of his client. What he found was unusual and quite intriguing.
Pirolith looked around at the glimmering alloy panels.
"Is there a problem with this section, monitor?" he asked 343.
"I'll look into it immediately," the monitor replied, concerned.
343 zipped off across the surface and swooped down into an access tunnel that led back to the interior. He followed the access tunnel through several junctures before exiting into a large cavern where the subatomic materialization construct was housed beneath the surface.
343 moved quickly through the tech room from one area to another, carefully inspecting each component of the section generator. A few system checks later, he concluded that all was in order and made his way back through the tunnels to Pirolith.
"Everything is in perfect working order," he reported, "Perhaps you should try again."
Pirolith shrugged and did as 343 suggested. He summoned the central AI and gave the mental order to materialize the world he was imagining. This time, there was a slight delay, but soon the air was full of static, and trillions of light particles began to converge from all around until they had materialized as the ancient Forerunner city of Tyrus.
Pirolith breathed deeply and felt his heart begin to race. He had not seen Tyrus since he had left his home world for the last time, a few centuries before the Forerunner sun burned out. Siora truly was a marvel. It had replicated everything just as he remembered it down to the last detail. He could even smell the summer berries growing from green vines that twisted their way up the glistening white towers and balconies.
"Shall I populate the environment?" came a deep voice in his head.
"No," Pirolith thought in response.
Siora could materialize buildings, land, even vegetation, but not life. It could only project realistic holograms of living creatures. Complicated behavior algorithms could make the living holograms act and even interact as real beings, but they could not be touched, and their behavior was not real. It was all a manifestation of Permirius and his understanding of psychology and human behavior.
No, Pirolith did not want to interact with ghosts, he only wanted to go back and see the place where he had left his wife so long ago, the place where Halion was born.
Permirius poured through his database as he continued to monitor and study his unique client.
Altus sat against the cold, alloy walls of his containment cell. He had always imagined that a prison would be dark and dirty, but this place was spotless and bright. Every surface was either metallic or crystalline, glimmering with pastel light reflected from strange holographic panels, which were placed regularly in surfaces throughout the ship.
The panels seemed to have some functional purpose, yet they were placed as if for aesthetic effect, like decorative technology. Some were inset evenly along hallways and corridors. The brilliant panels extended from anchors on the floor that were set back in recesses within the walls. They were shaped like geometrically balanced plants, and circuits of colorful light pulsed across their surface.
It was all so alien and divine, and the constant brightness was disorienting. The containment cell was small, with metallic walls on three sides and an energy field barring the fourth. A larger chamber was visible through the luminous field, and Altus could see that his cell was one of many that lined the edges of the central chamber. His, however, was the only cell with an occupant. He was alone, and afraid.
He trembled as he sat against the back wall, curled up with his arms wrapped tightly around his knees, and he rocked steadily back and forth, mumbling quietly to himself. He did not remember how he ended up in this alien prison. The last thing he remembered was standing in the grand open court of the Al-Mon, Kalomei. It was there that he had delivered his report of the successful assassination of the Alien Procurator.
Altus had made all the arrangements for the assassination, and had personally overseen its execution. It was only the beginning of what would be a heroic and hopeless last attempt at liberation. His whole world had been conquered and enslaved by the invaders, but his race was not predisposed to servitude. Conquerors could not easily tolerate defeat.
What the Maridons lacked in technology, they made up for in cunning and deception. They were masters of vice; not the blunt instruments that would be foolish enough to openly oppose a superior force, but the sharp weapons that could bide their time, hide their strength, and wait until their enemy was unsuspecting and unprotected.
It was a glorious coup, and Kalomei had laid high praise upon him for his success. Not knowing the fate of the procurator, the aliens were at a disadvantage, and Altus would keep them in the dark as long as he could. If they thought that Lord Halion was being held as a hostage, they would have to forbear the use of their most devastating weapons until he was located, and the Maridons would have a better chance in combat.
The plan was not perfect, but it seemed to be working. The insurgency had been launched as soon as the aliens were made aware of the Procurator's disappearance. Forerunner outposts all over the world were attacked simultaneously, and the aliens' response was minimal, at least in the beginning.
Other Forerunner occupiers had been less trusting than Lord Halion. Most of them wore at least a class one combat skin at all times. Somehow, this thin white material that covered their bodies was able to morph and move on its own. It made the wearer faster and stronger. It could withstand any projectile weapon and many energy weapons as well. Still, it did not make the wearer invincible, and with enough overwhelming force, the protective system could be defeated.
One Forerunner clothed in combat skin could be killed at the cost of a little less than 1000 Maridon lives. The combat was ugly and brutal. Hundreds would attack at one time, firing weapons, hurling explosives, swarming all at once into the fray. Most died from friendly fire, but the chaotic blitz was the only way to overwhelm Forerunner outposts and their defenders.
The Forerunners did not even use weapons. They moved so quickly that they were able to dodge almost all incoming fire in a breathtaking display of acrobatics and agility. Then, once the enemy closed range, they assaulted with blinding speed and unnatural strength, systematically disassembling their foes in gory hand-to-hand combat, though in reality it was hand to throat, eyes, and heart.
Eventually, however, the endless onslaught of flesh and munitions created statistically untenable situations, where one could not escape an explosion without diving into the blast radius of another. Slowly, and at a high cost, the Forerunners were being defeated.
Unknown to the Maridons, however, was that the Forerunners did not make a habit of personally engaging in combat. At one time, they had been great warriors, and those who lived during that age still retained their skill, but once the Forerunners had created machines that were more capable than they were, they had delegated the dangerous work of combat to their creations.
The most simplistic and least formidable of these combat constructs was the Bourmin Class Sentinel. It was a small hovering craft, slightly larger than a human. It was constructed of a hardened black alloy and shaped like a diamond with short fin-like limbs trailing behind and retracted mantis-like arms protruding in front. It contained a staggering array of sensors in its elongated head, yet only one illuminated white eye was visible from the front.
Other than two sharp, shape-shifting, finger-like probes at the end of each arm, the Bourmin Class Sentinel did not appear threatening; but housed in its undercarriage was a powerful energy weapon that fired a wide beam of fundamental particles. The energy beam emitted a fiery orange light, which gave it the appearance of a spread-array laser beam; however, the orange light was merely a side effect of the powerful, invisible, fundamental particles as they atomized anything in their path.
These were the weapons that Altus was not aware of when he launched the insurgency. These simple weapons were the alien warriors that had swarmed into the cities of his world like millions of insects. They descended suddenly from the sky as soon as the Forerunner outposts began to fall. It was a surgical attack, leaving land and infrastructure unharmed, but it was just as devastating to inhabitants as the weapons Altus had sought to silence with Halion's disappearance.
A tidal wave of dark metal and blazing fire surged through every street, into every building, searching every room, and vaporizing every living creature as a horrific, hissing static filled the air. It was a thorough and deliberate process, but it would take time to search an entire planet for one man. With that in mind, the Forerunners had initiated another plan to perhaps find Lord Halion more quickly.
Altus was standing in the grand court, reporting to Al-Mon Kalomei, when the first panicked messenger came running and clawing up the stairway to warn him of the sentinel assault. He had watched in horror with the Al-Mon as the messenger presented a small display tablet and played back video recordings of the ongoing battle.
That was the last thing he remembered, and then his entire world was engulfed in amber light. Luminous golden rings descended over his head, and he felt weightless and nauseated. Then, he was here, in a prison of light
alone and afraid.
A few hours later, without warning, the sentinels abandoned their search and ascended back into the sky as the white Maridon sun set for the last time over Lake Alios.
Didact nodded to the two red sentinel guards as he walked through a hatch into the containment section of Fleet Destroyer Vorsith Prime. He wasn't used to the relatively cramped quarters of star ships, having spent most of his life in the grand halls of Forerunner temples and palaces. He didn't like it at all, but his visit would be brief. The ship's central AI conveyed his mental order to the sentinels, and they immediately left their posts and followed closely behind the Magistrate.
Didact felt slightly less cramped as he emerged into the spacious holding block, which was a large heptagonal chamber lined with small containment cells. At the far end of the chamber, a single cell was illuminated by the ambient light of an energy field. Didact made his way casually to the other side of the room and stopped in front of the field.
The two sentinels hovered just behind him over his shoulders, and he sent a mental order to the central AI to dematerialize the containment field. A moment later, the light within the field broke apart into millions of dim sparks that drifted off in every direction before fading away.
Altus did not look up, but remained still as he held himself in the fetal position. Didact stared bewildered at the pathetic creature. This Maridon seemed so much like him or any other Forerunner. It was still a mystery to Forerunners how so many races on countless worlds throughout the Aelorian Galaxy had almost exactly the same physical form.
There were always slight variations in facial features, size, build, skin tone, but no more variation than might be found on a single planet. Of course many strange and exotic aliens had been discovered in the Aelorian, but so many had two eyes, two ears, one nose, one mouth, two legs, two arms, five fingers, and five toes.
It seemed incomprehensible, yet evolution had arrived at one single form of sentient life for a given biosphere. Perhaps it was simply the most economic, the most effective and adaptable form, the pinnacle of evolution. If so, how could it be that such a devolved species as this pathetic creature could inhabit the human form?
This cowering man could just as easily be a Forerunner, and Didact could just as easily be Maridon; but Didact was the true god, not this animal before him.
"Come with me, Altus," said Didact gently in the Maridon native tongue.
Altus looked up in shock, but it was a simple thing for the ship's AI to analyze the speech center of the Maridon's brain. In a fraction of a second, the AI was able to read Didact's thoughts, search Altus' speech center for matching vocalization patterns, and transmit the appropriate words directly to Didact's hearing center. Didact simply spoke the words in his head.
"Who are you?" Altus asked confused.
Didact walked over to Altus and crouched down in front of him so he could look the man directly in the eyes. The bright lights reflected off of Didact's face and lit up his eyes in a brilliant cobalt blue, yet Didact did not squint or blink. His eyes seemed to absorb the light and emit it even brighter.
Altus could barely look at him because of the brightness, and because of something else deep in his heart. He had the sense that he was face to face with a divine being, a god. He remembered thinking that Halion was a god, and he remembered Halion's warm red blood on his hands. He had to be mortal, only a mortal could die! He wasn't a God! He had no right to rule, to teach
Didact looked deep into Altus' soul. He didn't need an AI to tell him what the man was thinking and feeling. His ancient and rich life was enough to give the experience and insight he needed. Altus was full of guilt. Altus tried not to look away. Didact's face was young and handsome, but his eyes were ancient, wise, and knowing, too knowing.
"Come with me, Altus," Didact whispered again.
Altus' mind raced with fear. He knew in his heart that this man was Forerunner like Halion. What did he want? What would he do? His eyes grew wide and he began to sit back away from Didact.
"They want to know where Halion is," he thought to himself. "Perhaps they'll torture me
of course they'll torture me!"
The thoughts were quickly relayed to Didact. He smiled and stood back up so he could look down on this pathetic creature.
"We are not animals like you," he said with disdain. "We have no need of torture."
Altus nearly swallowed his tongue, and couldn't breathe. They knew his thoughts! How much did they know? His heart sank as he realized the answer. They knew everything. There was no hostage, no reason to forbear
there was no insurgency
there was no Maridon!
Altus felt weak. He buried his face in his knees and sobbed. Didact felt pity. He couldn't help it. Forerunners were compassionate by nature, but an immovable object as well.
Didact reached his hand out to Altus and said again gently, "Come with me, Altus. We have another purpose for you."
Five members of the high council sat in illuminated thrones, hovering in the air above Pericles. Each throne was ornate with golden vines and inlaid gems, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds all arranged in fascinating geometric patterns. The base of each throne was rounded and tapered off into a long curled stem, which cupped a small pool of energy at its tip. The thrones glimmered in the ambient blue light that emanated from the energy pools and filled the council chamber with ghostly shadows.
The circular room was smaller than most Forerunner structures yet still large in its own right. Ancient stone braces and abutments ascended along the walls and arched into the high ceiling above. At one time the stones had been smooth and gleaming white, but now they were eroded, rough, and yellow with age, stained in every corner and crack with the shadows of mold, moss, and decay. The council chamber was a holy place, built by ancients, and preserved for millennia as a reminder of the long and great journey that had brought them all to the pinnacle of evolution.
Pericles stood in the center of the chamber surrounded by the council. They were silent as they sat suspended high above his head. He did not look up, partly because of the blinding brightness of their thrones set against the dark shadows of the chamber, partly out of humility and respect. Instead his eyes looked down and followed the thin lines of golden alloy set deep within the stone floor. Hundreds of curved golden threads formed a sprawling pattern of overlapping ellipses, radiating outward from one central point upon which he stood.
The pattern was an ancient map meant to diagram the trajectories of all galaxies within the universe. It was more than just a map, though. It was also symbolic, for at the center of the diagram was the origin, prime creator, the divine totality. This was the place from which the universe had sprung; it was the place reserved for one who was brought before the council. This was to suggest to the mind the importance of the individual, the power of a singularity. It was meant to remind the council to consider the future, and their influence upon it, to consider the eternal consequences of their decisions.
Though the whole scene may have seemed familiar to many primitive races, it was far from the conventions and traditions of any other civilization. These were not the ruling elite. They were not the kings and judges, the heads of state. Forerunners generally governed themselves. Time and experience had led inevitably to the development of standard procedures and practices, and to the establishment of eternal law. Other races studied the past and attempted to learn from history. Forerunners remembered their past, their successes, and their mistakes. They knew what was best for their civilization. There were not many situations they had not faced, or problems they had not solved.
There was no need for a legislature to write and rewrite laws in search of the perfect social formula. They had walked that long path ages ago and had finally succeeded. They had no need for judges because there was no crime. They had learned that crime was the fruit of desperation, and desperation the child of mortality. It was the survival instinct that led so many to crime. Mortals lied, stole, and killed to hoard resources, and they hoarded resources to survive. If they sought power, they only sought it to better hoard resources. Crime was about economics, and economics was irrelevant to immortals. Immortality bred patience and contentment. With sufficient time, everyone could have enough. Everyone could be wealthy and comfortable. Forerunners had sufficient time, and so they were patient and industrious and did not commit crimes.
Forerunners did need an executive branch, but only the functional components. Decision making was based on standards, established through experience. Actions were executed by officers who had ascended to their positions through meritocracy, who knew the standard procedures, and who could execute them perfectly.
No, the council was not composed of power-wielding rulers and dictators. It was composed of the most ancient and wisest of the Forerunners. It was a Patriarchal and Matriarchal council composed of those who had walked the entire path and who were present when each law and each procedure was tried and tested, found to be perfect, and set in stone. Executive officers like Pericles did not come before the council for governance; they came in the rare instance of an anomalous situation, or the even rarer instance of an executive deviation.
"Pericles tel Anorum," a soft female voice hailed.
The gentle tones of her melodic words reverberated off the ancient walls and filled the chamber.
"What counsel do you seek?" she asked.
Pericles was enchanted by the beauty of the matriarch's voice. It was not what he expected. He thought perhaps she would sound older, more mature and motherly; instead, he heard the angelic voice of what sounded like a young girl, barely approaching womanhood. He wondered what she looked like; he wondered if her physical beauty matched the exquisiteness of her voice. Despite his curiosity, he managed to timidly hold his gaze downward in reverence. Pericles paused for a moment. He knew that it was now his turn to speak, but he struggled to gather his thoughts and find the words. His mind had drifted.
Suddenly the golden threads beneath his feet shimmered and ignited in a wash of brilliant white light that surged outward across the floor in a wave of luminescence. The chamber hummed with energy, and a crystalline tinkling faintly drifted from the ceiling as the walls lit up in blinding white radiance. The muggy air seemed to rush from the room as the sharp scent of ions filled Pericles's nostrils. His eyes watered and he instinctively looked upward to follow the wave of light as it pulsed up the walls to the high, arched ceiling. Now in the light he could see the five council members sitting upon their thrones, adorned in white and golden robes. His knees weakened and nearly buckled as he beheld their shining countenances. His mouth opened slightly as his jaw dropped and he felt his breath swept away. He was in complete awe.
These were not Forerunners, he thought. They couldn't be. Not ancients! Even Forerunners showed some signs of aging, not the weakness and decay of other races, but faint lines and slight wrinkles from well-worn expressions and frequent emotions. They at least exhibited the normal changes in structure and size that come from transitioning from childhood to adulthood. These beings were different though. It was as if they were preserved in their perfection at the horizon of their youth, and they were beautiful, the most beautiful beings he had ever seen. The three patriarchs were vibrant and handsome, but the two matriarchs defied description. They were, as he had imagined moments earlier, exquisite.
Pericles felt himself cowering toward the floor as he looked up mesmerized. One of the two matriarchs smiled at him and her throne began to descend. He looked away ashamed of his inability to conceal his enthrallment.
"Pericles," she said gently, "Do not be troubled. You are not the first to look upon us with wonder."
Her words were hypnotic and strangely comforting; he did not look up but stammered and asked hesitantly, "What are you?"
"We are Forerunner, like you," came a majestic voice from one of the patriarchs.
not like you, my lord," Pericles insisted meekly.
"No, you are not," the patriarch responded kindly, having understood Pericles's apprehension. "We five are all that remain of the first generation," the patriarch continued, "There are not others like us, but all Forerunners share our image and our immortality. You are all the posterity of our generation. You are all our children."
Pericles was not sure what that meant, but he was afraid to ask more. Still, he thought he might probe just a little, since he might not ever have another opportunity to converse with them.
"What happened to the rest of your generation, my lord?" he asked quietly.
"They are departed, dear Pericles," said the other matriarch. Her voice was just as enchanting as the first.
"In our great journey, we have learned much," said one of the other patriarchs. "The beginning of our path was difficult and wrought with peril. Before our ascension, we were all subject to disease, disaster, and war. We have mastered these, our weaknesses; however, the peace and security you know was bought at a terrible price. The methods and duration of our education left only us, the five on this high council, to pass on the knowledge and wisdom of the ages."
Pericles was beginning to understand, but not all. He ventured one more question. They did not seem to be offended by his curiosity or by his ignorance.
"My lord, but why are you
how are you so
The council members were silent, and they all looked to the one patriarch who had not yet spoken. He said nothing, but they seemed to understand his will. The first matriarch descended lower until her head was near Pericles. She reached out with her slender arm, and her soft hand lit gently under his chin to turn his face to hers. He would have withdrawn in fear from the gesture if it had not filled him with an overwhelming flood of peace the moment her soft hand touched his face. His head turned obediently to follow the tender invitation. Again he looked upon her beauty with wide and bewildered eyes.
"That is not the counsel you came to seek, dear Pericles," she said softly.
He did not move. He did not blink. His mind raced, and his eyes darted back and forth from one of her deep blue eyes to the other. He was lost in their depth. He tried to remember what it was he had come for. He searched his mind for the question, struggling to put aside all thoughts of the matriarch's beauty. Somewhere in his mind was his errand.
"Counsel?" he mumbled.
She smiled and nodded.
," he said again, "yes
yes, my lady
We need your counsel
in a matter of great importance
Pericles blinked as he remembered the issue at hand. He looked up to all of the high councilors. Sadness filled his countenance and his lips quivered.
"We have done something terrible
Altus stood silently in the archway with Didact at his side. A moment ago he had been analyzing his chances for escape, but now his full attention had been drawn to the spectacle before him. He squinted as his eyes finally adjusted to the sudden brightness in the grand chamber, and his gaze settled on the six figures in the distance. One of them, a man, stood in the center of an elaborately engraved floor which now pulsed with brilliant light. Five others sat suspended in ornate thrones that hovered like weightless dust particles drifting slightly in a circle around the man standing in the center of the hall.
The chamber was enormous, and from the edge of the hall, the figures were too far away to see in great detail. Still, Altus could perceive by the motions and posture of the man at the center, that he was fearful or insecure as he conversed with the five others. Occasionally, one of the five would descend or draw closer to the man as they spoke; and at one point, one of them seemed to reach out and touch his head in what appeared to be an affectionate gesture.
Altus could not quite understand what was taking place. He was still confused and emotionally off balance about many things, the most distressful of which was the probable annihilation of his home world. That thought brought him out of his moment of wonder and curiosity. He continued to stand still, but glanced again to the man beside him.
The man had no visible weapons, which was surprising. Altus considered himself a prisoner, but these Forerunners did not seem to regard him as a threat of any sort, at least not enough to have him escorted by armed guards. That mistake could be his one advantage in this predicament. He was not certain that Maridon had been destroyed, and he intended to hold on to even the slightest hope that it had been spared. Until he knew, he was determined to find a way back, back to his home and to his people.
He looked forward again, but continued to examine and analyze his escort with his peripheral vision. He played some simple childhood songs and worked some random calculations in his head in an attempt to mask his thoughts. It seemed the Forerunners had some way to read his mind, and he feared they had used that ability to strip intelligence from him when he was brought aboard their star ship. He knew that they were searching for their emissary, Lord Halion. And he had hoped that as long as they thought he was alive, they would avoid the use of xenocidal weapons.
It all seemed so strange though, now as he stood in one of their grand temples and observed the beauty of the place, as he watched the tender exchange that was playing out before him. Perhaps the Forerunners had not destroyed Maridon. In all his interactions with the advanced humanoid species, they seemed benevolent and wise, careful and measured. They seemed to have no ill intent or malice other than to impose their will and governance upon his people. It did not seem likely that they would commit xenocide over the assassination of one ambassador. And after the appearance and assault of the sentry drones, it was obvious that they had sufficient means to put down an insurgency without resorting to such drastic measures.
Altus shuddered as he remembered the terror of the sentry assault. Fighting the Forerunner occupiers had been difficult enough, but possible. The sentries, however, were too great in number and too powerful to oppose. Just their presence was enough to shock an enemy force into submission. The Forerunners were weak, though, fragile like all other men. They could be killed, and so they were no Gods. They had no right to usurp authority over his people. The Maridons should be free to chart their own course, perfect or not. It was their journey, and no one else had the right to take their agency from them.
Altus was filled with indignation and rage. He knew he could not mask his thoughts any longer. If he was going to strike, he would have to do it now. There had been no other Forerunners anywhere along their path as they had made the long trek from the holding block through tall passageways and chambers to this temple. If he could break away now, if he could escape, there were countless places he could hide and wait until he could come up with a plan to get back to Maridon. He was going to make it home, and nothing would stop him.
Altus analyzed his target one last time. He was certain the man was not carrying any weapons. He did not seem to be wearing the same thin, white body suit that all Forerunners wore on Maridon. Only his feet were covered with the material, the rest of his frame was draped with a pure white robe that sat loosely, yet without wrinkles or folds, on his shoulders. It was decorated with a bright, golden, angular T pattern of geometric shapes that followed a narrow path from the center of his chest, up and out along the wide, white pauldrons that extended from his already broad shoulders. None of the material appeared to be functional or threatening, but he could not be sure, so he intended to strike where he knew there was no protection.
Altus slowly shifted his weight to his left foot, and then in a flash, his right hand shot out from his side in a chopping motion toward Didact's throat.
The five council heads listened carefully as Pericles recounted to them the terrible events that took place in the Maridon system, how the Maridons had submitted with meekness at first contact, how they had eagerly and graciously accepted Forerunner stewardship, how they had gained the trust and love of Fleet Commander Pirolith and Procurator Halion, and how they had betrayed that trust by assassinating Lord Halion and launching a bloody insurgency.
One of the matriarchs began to weep when Pericles related the death of Lord Halion. Pericles was moved by this unexpected display of emotion. She did not cry out or make any sound at all; she simply looked away, and he could see that her soft lips were trembling. Light glimmered from the long lashes under her captivating eyes, and crystalline tears fell silently from the pool to caress the gentle beauty of her face.
Pericles did not know Lord Halion well, but he was touched by the matriarch's grief, and he could feel his own throat tighten with emotion that welled up from his bosom; he pursed his lips and squinted slightly to quell the warmth around his eyes, and he paused to compose himself before continuing his report.
The other matriarch reached out and placed a delicate hand on the arm of her weeping friend. She looked to Pericles and interrupted his tale.
"Pericles, where is Commander Pirolith now?"
Pericles shifted his eyes from one chair to another, realizing that a deep concern had set in the countenance of all the council members. He was surprised at the question; he had not even informed them yet of the xenocide.
not sure," he said uneasily, "he is somewhere on Siora, but he has instructed the central AI to remove his locator code from fleet records."
One of the Patriarchs looked down and closed his eyes. Another frowned and nodded knowingly. Pericles was becoming more curious and confused. They were aware of something he was not, but what could it be?
"Should I have him found?" he asked.
Pericles knew that the Central AI was aware of the locations and actions of every life form on Siora at all times. For executive personnel, however, a secure locator code was necessary to authorize the release of that information. Siora was large, but small sensor constructs traversed the entire surface like mechanical wildlife. They could be instructed to search for the Commander, and in a day or two, he could be located.
"You should not," answered one of the patriarchs.
"He will come to us in time," explained another.
Pericles bowed his head in acknowledgement, and was about to continue his report, when the third patriarch, the one who had not yet spoken, descended and asked in a regal voice, "Were there any survivors, Pericles?"
Pericles looked up in astonishment; he knew that the electromagnetic sensor array was blocked in this chamber. His thoughts could not be detected or transmitted through the AI. Perhaps the patriarch was referring to something else.
"Your pardon, my lord
The patriarch drew closer and looked Pericles in the eyes. He seemed more stern and austere than the others. Pericles was intimidated, and he felt his hands grow cold and his knees begin to tremble.
"Were any spared the destruction of the Maridon system?" asked one of the other patriarchs.
Pericles' mouth opened slightly. He looked to the other patriarch. He wasn't sure what to say. The patriarch continued.
"Commander Pirolith did force the collapse of their star, correct?" he asked as he raised his brow and tilted his head slightly toward Pericles.
Pericles swallowed and realized his mouth had gone dry. He brought his fist up to his mouth as he coughed and cleared his throat before answering nervously.
yes, my Lord
as you know, wise patriarch
protocol does not call for the destruction of a system under these circumstances."
The patriarchs stared back blankly. Pericles considered continuing, but thought better of reciting protocol to those who had created it. The council knew that the actions of Commander Pirolith were a severe deviation. The Precursors had bestowed upon the Forerunners a mantel of responsibility, a mandate of stewardship. They were charged with the protection and preservation of all life in the galaxy.
This mantel did not allow the xenocide of any species. By nature, however, it required the taming of many unruly alien races that would otherwise bring harm to more civilized worlds. In this process of establishing stewardship, some primitive species would inevitably resist violently. Forerunner military supremacy assured that this type of resistance was short-lived. Sentry combat drones and enforcers could surgically remove all military elements without harming the civilian population. Once stripped of combat capability, most primitive races submitted without further insurrection.
Occasionally, advanced alien races would also resist. If their military technology was sophisticated enough to neutralize the threat from Forerunner drones, and if all other efforts had been exhausted, these worlds would be sterilized. All major infrastructure and large population centers would be glassed, or destroyed by orbital bombardment with ship-born, high-yield plasma generators. This was usually sufficient to coax the remaining population into submission.
These two scenarios played out regularly as Forerunners established stewardship throughout the galaxy; however, there were other classifications of encounters and other, more exotic, types of threats.
Sometimes, very rarely, an alien species was discovered that posed such a significant threat to the rest of the galaxy that they were exterminated. These were never advanced races. No race was more advanced than the Forerunners, and those that were close were usually civilized enough to find a peaceful resolution.
Extermination had only ever been ordered in encounters with sub-sentient species. These were often communal or parasitic life forms that individually displayed no sentience, but as a collective demonstrated formidable intelligence.
These were never humanoid life-forms and almost exclusively stemmed from the insect evolutionary path. Most were easily contained, but their sentience was so far removed from the galactic standard, that communication could not be established or interpreted if it was. They could not be integrated into stellar society, and they were almost always lethally aggressive. After first contact, these sub-sentient species were never content to continue subsistence. They actively and aggressively moved to discover and destroy all alien life.
Fortunately, none of these species had ever exhibited any ability to create or use tools, which left them dependant exclusively on their natural weapons, which were often enough of a threat already. Still, they could be overwhelmed and contained.
Parasitic sub-sentient species were even rarer than communal, and they were not to be trifled with. On every world, life forms of a parasitic nature could be found. These were mostly of animal classification. These viral elements were bound to the laws of entropy. They could not exist without causing destruction.
Animal parasites were only a slight threat to sentient species. Microscopic organisms of this type were of greatest concern. When a sentient parasitic life form was encountered, however, protocol almost always called for extermination.
But this was never done without consulting the council, and never without first indexing the species. Forerunners were careful to preserve both genetic and living samples of species slated for extermination. This was done so that these high-risk life forms could be studied. With time and innovation, their risk might be mitigated and their threat nullified, which would allow the possible reanimation of the species at some future time.
After indexing was complete, extermination was usually carried out by forcing the premature collapse of the local system star, as the worlds inhabited by these life-forms could rarely be cleansed entirely by any other means.
In the earlier days of Forerunner exploration, stellar collapse had been ruthlessly used against entrenched rebel populations and stubborn resistance elements. With time, however, the Forerunners had restricted the use of this capability in an effort to preserve precious inhabitable worlds. Protocol was clear. The Maridon system should never have been destroyed. Commander Pirolith had deviated from standard procedure, and an entire alien race was now extinct, nearly.
The stern patriarch looked to the other council members and then returned his attention to Pericles before asking again, "Pericles, were there any survivors?"
Permirius was filled with excitement as he busily dedicated redundant processing cycles to analyzing the thoughts and emotional patterns of his new subject. Pirolith had wandered from one structure to another for days, walking slowly along the vast empty streets of Tyrus and pausing occasionally in certain rooms or open spaces to remember and reflect.
Forerunners had perfect memories, but recollection could be difficult sometimes for ancients, who had millennia of experiences to consider. Returning to a place where an event had occurred often helped them to recall events that had long ago been set aside in the dark recesses of the mind.
The events that played through Pirolith's thoughts now were unusual, like many other aspects of the unique subject. Most Forerunners returned to Siora when they were feeling nostalgic, and they instructed Permirius to materialize places, times, and events that would help them recall the pleasant experiences and memorable highlights of their long lives.
This subject, however, had spent days wandering through Permirius' recreation of Tyrus, pausing to recall some of the most painful and unpleasant moments of his life.
Certainly, some of the memories were quite pleasant, those that revolved around the early days of his love affair with Aethiena. Others, however, were moments of isolation and loss. The later years of their marriage were trying for Pirolith. He was not a naturally affectionate or attentive man. He was not cruel or abusive either, but he was so very quiet and reserved.
Most Forerunner relationships blossomed after centuries of walking a common path, drawing closer through deep and sincere sharing of thoughts, feelings, hopes, dreams, and even fears. Pirolith, however, had never been able to open up to anyone. He felt too vulnerable, too exposed. He had trusted Aethiena more than any other, and she loved him despite his quirks; but the years did not bring them closer together, and after centuries of empty companionship, she despaired that he would never let down his walls and grant her access to the hidden places in his heart.
They did not argue. They were not unkind to one another, but they felt more distant as time passed, and Pirolith could not bear the guilt he felt when he saw the longing in his wife's loving eyes. And so he left her.
For millennia he traversed the galaxy and pursued the Forerunner agenda. He enjoyed working with projects, with matters, and events, and all things not human. Sometimes he felt he had much more in common with the constructs and AIs than with his fellow Forerunners, and in many ways he did.
He was precise, orderly, cold, and calculating. He was strategic and methodical, and unrelenting in his duties. His character flaws worked to his advantage within the strict, military structure and rigid hierarchy of the Forerunner Fleet, and he quickly rose through the ranks as his talents and disposition ensured the efficient and successful conscription of countless worlds.
Many in the Forerunner Fleet were proficient in their work, but all were subject to occasional deviations from standard procedure, usually due to the more emotional aspects of their human nature. Pirolith, on the other hand, could make the hard decisions and execute the more difficult procedures when circumstances called for their initiation.
He did not care for the individual, but could see the larger picture, work for the greater good, and make sacrifices. He was unwavering, and so it was he that assumed the duties of Fleet Commander, and led the Forerunners across the Aelorian for ages, all the while hiding and suppressing the quiet longing in his heart to return to his wife and to meet for the first time the son he had never seen.
He never did return, and he did not know where Aethiena was now. He preferred it that way. Perhaps she still loved him. He liked not knowing because as long as he did not know, the possibility was always there. Perhaps she had never loved another. He hoped she did, that she had found someone else to be a better companion and friend, someone who would bring her happiness. But
if she had found someone else, he did not want to know about it. He did not want to see it.
Permirius was intrigued by these thoughts and especially by the anomalous emotions related to his subject's memories of the death of his son. Permirius had never before had the opportunity to record such emotions or thought patterns, and he was busily creating new algorithms and statistical models to account for these rare variables in his library of catalogued psychological profiles.
Permirius, like all AIs, had countless levels of awareness and could dedicate any number of levels to various tasks and processes, but he was so focused on his study of Pirolith that he nearly missed a single string of code in a communiqué that streamed from deep within his distributed network. He could never completely miss anything, since all code would eventually work through his subroutines and into his archives for caching, but he could miss an event, or at least the opportunity to respond to it in time. His preoccupation with Pirolith had caused him to delay his response for at least ten millionths of a second, or eons by his own reckoning. Fortunately, it was not enough of a delay by human standards to make any noticeable difference.
SS.4-519.> Priority 1 level 12: registration of security breach 88629 sector 34985-4985 interior surface panel 230840-23434i - Hostile entity targeted
RAI-PRIME> Protocol 6: addition to targeting ledger blocked
SS.4-519.> Request emergency override
RAI-PRIME> Protocol 6: override denied Confirm imminent LEVEL 2 threat
SS.4-519> Request priority 1 override Threat confirmed mark: RESIDENT CLIENT PROTECTEE LORD DIDACT.
RAI-ACTUAL> Protocol 6: override denied. NON-LETHAL FORCE AUTHORIZED
Altus never saw anything but a strange distortion in the air, like heat waves shimmering in the desert. He had anticipated a small degree of pain. He thought he might even sustain some minor injury to his hand as it smashed through the front of his target's throat and impacted against the harder vertebrae in the neck, but he was not prepared for the crushing pain he felt as his hand stopped abruptly before reaching its target and shattered in the air against some invisible force.
He cried out in agony and surprise as the distortion in the air intensified and suddenly dissipated to reveal the long metallic head of an ominous mechanical construct hovering between him and the Forerunner. Whatever it was, it had been there the entire time, cloaked and invisible, but ready to act if necessary.
He gasped in fear and staggered backward ready to turn and flee, but he cried out again as he felt an impact from behind, and an unrelenting grasp clamped down on both of his arms below his shoulders, severing the muscles and snapping the bones in an instant. His legs lost their strength, and he would have collapsed, but he remained suspended in the air by a second sentry that had restrained him from behind.
Didact never turned away from his observation of the council. It was as if he had been quietly waiting for the attack, suspecting it all along. He paid no attention at all as the sentries subdued their prisoner.
Altus felt disoriented. His body convulsed, and he tried to keep his vision from blurring as the first sentry moved closer. From the front, it looked menacing, and its body formed an oddly angled cross with its long black head at the top, sloping back away from its bright eye in the center; its reverse elbows extended up and out on the sides as its mantis-like arms retracted. The undercarriage opened and extended an energy weapon downward to form the base of the cross.
The white light in the construct's single eye grew brighter, and Altus waited for the sentry to fire; instead, the light intensified and then narrowed into a bright horizontal beam that scanned the prisoner from top to bottom. The sentinel completed its scan and then retracted its weapon.
Altus could no longer fight the pain. He convulsed again and a spray of vomit erupted from his mouth toward the sentry. The air sparked and crackled as an envelope of energy appeared around the construct. The vomit sizzled against a rounded energy shield and evaporated into wisps of steam. A pungent aroma filled the air, and at last, Lord Didact turned to examine the scene for a moment. The sentry pulled back and lowered its weapon again while it analyzed the liquid substance for biohazards. It hummed quietly and retracted the weapon once more.
Altus was beginning to feel numb. His head felt heavy and his eyes even heavier. It all seemed like a dream now, a nightmare. He hoped it was. Perhaps he would wake soon, and it would all be over. He held to that thought as darkness crept into his mind, and he calmly slipped into unconsciousness.
"Was that really necessary, Permirius?" asked Didact.
He spoke out loud knowing that the electromagnetic sensor array was blocked in the Council chamber. Perhaps Permirius had thought Didact incapable of perceiving Altus' hostile intentions without the aid of the mind-reading array; then again, Permirius was also keenly aware of human psychology, and could appreciate the ability to predict specific actions in certain circumstances and situations. One of the sentry drones turned to Didact and its white eye turned orange. A metallic voice reverberated remotely from the drone.
"An abundance of caution, for your protection, Lord Didact."
Didact looked down at the pathetic creature that hung broken and limp from the arms of the other security sentry. He had indeed anticipated the foolish assault, and he was confident he could have easily avoided the strike and subdued the prisoner himself without sustaining injury. Still, he appreciated the vigilance of the Resident AI.
"Very well, Permirius. Please tend to him quickly, but do not revive him yet," instructed Didact.
"As you wish, Lord Didact."
The sentry's eye faded back to white. Amber light enveloped the sentry holding Altus. Golden rings of energy pulsed around them, and they were both transported away through the grid.
Pericles considered carefully how to answer the patriarch's question. There was indeed a survivor, but only one, a disastrous and tragic scenario for the Maridons. Before he could answer, however, a sudden commotion erupted from the far side of the chamber. The council members turned their hovering thrones about and looked to the source of the disturbance. In the distance they could see Lord Didact standing at the entrance to the chamber with two sentry drones. A man next to him staggered backward and screamed in agony as one of the drones grabbed him from behind.
"I see," said the patriarch.
Pericles fidgeted nervously as he watched the arrest. "Quite an unruly race, my lord," he said.
The matriarchs looked concerned as the man collapsed in the sentry's powerful arms.
unusually aggressive," Pericles continued.
They all looked to Lord Didact who nodded as if to assure them that everything was under control. The sentry was scanning to check for serious injury, when suddenly the man vomited all over the construct and passed out.
"Quite the specimen
" Pericles laughed nervously.
They all looked back to him with varying expressions of disappointment.
Amber light filled the entry way as the wounded man was transported away with the drone. Lord Didact hung his head for a moment, and then began to approach.
"Thank you, dear Pericles," said one of the matriarchs.
"You may leave us now while we discuss this further with Lord Didact," said one of the patriarchs.
Pericles bowed in respect, he looked up shyly and stole one last glimpse of the beautiful matriarchs and then turned to leave. He hoped to see them all again someday, and yet
he hoped he never would.