The Death of Dreams
Posted By: WONDERLIBERTARIAN<firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: 28 December 2004, 10:37 PM
"Lo! 'tis a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight,
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theater, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres."
-Edgar Allan Poe, 'The Conquering Worm'
Percales rubbed his red, aching eyes as he stared at the glaring glow of the screen in front of him. He looked at his watch as the moments crept by silently, he pressed his hand against his face, wiping it down and rubbing his eyes.
The machine hovered over his shoulder, studying every move his fingers and eyes made.
"By the Gods, Guilty Spark, don't you have something better to do?"
The lights were dim without purpose, Percales liked the dimness, it made him feel like he was back home on Myrdok Prime where the sun was often clouded out by storms even when it shined fully.
"Quite not, sir, I'm here only to serve you."
He glared at the frustrating little device, his only companion in the eerie halls of Halo Four's Library, "Shouldn't you be overseeing the samples?"
"Sir, the samples never do anything interesting."
"I'm only studying here, Spark."
"You should look at the samples if they're so interesting to you."
Percales groaned and stood up, glad to have an excuse to leave his work for a moment, "If it'll make you happy."
The hovering orb didn't respond, it only followed, satisfied to have gotten something interesting out of the evening.
The samples were hidden on the other side of a complex system of halls, and Percales offered his hand as identification to each door, Guilty Spark hovering behind him, patient. This was nothing compared to the security that surrounded the Flood pestilence.
The samples were arranged in canisters, genetic information with miniature holograms representing each race.
The Unggoy hologram hobbled back and forth on its stumpy legs, the Sangheili glared furiously at the other holograms, the Reclaimer hologram stood silently, confident.
The Reclaimers were the only race that didn't already exist, which explained their lack of animation. They were a safeguard on a safeguard, a genetically refined form of Percales' own race. He squatted to examine the miniature Reclaimer and had to smile. Percales was no geneticist but he had to admire the job that they had done when tailoring the Reclaimers. They resembled his own race physically but many of the flaws that his race saw in itself had been removed, the Reclaimers were significantly less aggressive, not entirely peaceful because it had been decided that invention is the child of war, but still significantly less aggressive and more social than Percales' race. The Reclaimers were also, from what he had seen of their genetic code, absolutely brilliant, probably capable of technical bounds that had taken his own race or the others hundreds of thousands of years in significantly less time. All of this made the Reclaimers a masterpiece of genetic coding, but their similarities with Percales race forbade them from existence, the moralists and priests had labeled them abominations from even the earliest experiments, mockeries of the Race. And so here they were, hidden on the Halo, among the secrets. Percales smiled at the beloved little Reclaimer and prayed that it would never be born.
"All seems alright in here, Spark."
The orb hovered around, seeing its own limited entertainment dissolving.
"Let us check the Flood?"
"Not tonight, Spark, I've got work to do."
"More important than the Flood? What if they've escaped?"
"They haven't escaped Spark, they can't escape. They're dormant right now."
The orb floated out the door in front of him, looking back at Percales with what, had it been accompanied with facial features, could only have been described as a glare.
Percales paused to listen to the hiss of the door closing behind him.
Since the beginning of time everyone had sought the ultimate weapon. The Sangheili had looked for it by training their bodies, the Harraid had built massive Plasma cannons that could humble entire worlds, but in the end only Percales' race had possessed the wisdom to see that any weapon could be turned against its masters, and that a second perfect weapon was needed to keep the first in line. Station Four, and others like it were the second perfect weapon, and even they had certain safeguards on them.
"Index in place," Guilty Spark hovered ominously in place in front of Percales, who nodded.
Percales checked the screen, "Halo charging."
The generators were running smoothly of course, Percales race built things to last, and this Station was no exception, everything was flawless.
"All cleared," Guilty Spark moved around to behind Percales as he pushed down the button.
In a moment the lights came back on, "Simulation complete, Halo Four in full working order."
It was the eighth test that Percales had run that week, something big must be happening, Percales knew that there were tensions between the Harraid and his own race, but testing the Halo eight times? Someone was loosing a lot of sleep about this, someone other than himself.
Percales brushed his long, careless hair back with his thin, wiry hand. He let out a tense stream of breath, how long until somebody swung at the other? Percales wished there was something he could do about it, but short of firing the Halo he could do nothing, he was absolutely powerless. He was faceless and meaningless to either side, just another Engineer running some station in the middle of nowhere. Percales had his own dreams of course, ambition coursed through his heart with the same urgency that it did for any mortal, and especially within the hearts of Percales' competitive race, but they were meaningless when compared to the dreams of Empires, and such were the dreams he served, forsaking his own.
The computer on the far side of the room was picking up the slipspace newscasts that were being transmitted instantly through the galaxy, it spoke gravely about the showdown with the Harraid on Balthus Prime, with Harraid Cruisers filling the sky and blockading everything, the Prime Chieftain had given the Harraid twenty more hours to back down and things were not looking so well.
And if it came to war then at least Percales was confident that the Flood would not be deployed anywhere, it was too terrible a weapon even to be used against the Harraid, and even if it was deployed it would be a safe, controlled deployment just like all of the tests, the Flood would be isolated to single planets, planets chosen by Percales' race, things would not fall apart, the Halo would never be fired.
And so he whispered to himself on that cold restless night in Station Four, shivering no matter how he set the temperature, knowing full well that everyone else who knew the secrets he did, those of the Flood and the Halos, was just as sleepless and as frightened. Watching the moments tick away and listening as the Harraid ships remained motionless above Balthus Prime.
And the hours fell away, one by one, like the wilting petals of a widow's black rose.
Nineteen and a half hours later Balthus Prime, and its governor who had allegedly given safe harbor to pirates who raided Harraid space were vaporized by Harraid Plasma, and Percales knew that there could only be one response to that.
The Flood and its handlers would be dropped on the Harraid homeworld. The Lekgolo were equipped to keep the Flood away from the Space Stations and to work against the evacuation from the ground, evacuation would only spread the Flood. A fleet would be stationed to blockade the planet, nothing would escape the destruction. The mathematicians and the generals presumed that in fourteen hours the world would be lifeless and the Flood would go dormant, the politicians assumed that fifteen hours after the pestilence was released the Harraid would surrender. If not, the process would be repeated on other worlds, they would be devastated and the dormant Flood would be collected and destroyed by the Sentinels, the planet would be repopulated and recycled.
Percales could imagine the planet, with the short, wrinkled, crane necked Harraid hovering in their half orb chairs as the Flood consumed them and turned them against each other, as the virus spread itself with fire and wreckage. He could imagine all the terrible dreams of the geneticists who had crafted it, all of the insurmountable terror, it wasn't something he wanted; war had become an impersonal art of terror and murder, and had lost its glory. There had been heroes once, men with stronger arms to swing swords, men with sharper eyes to shoot guns, now there was only a countless multitude of geneticists and engineers building savagely precise weapons and viruses. Soldiering had once been a noble career, one that needed talent, now all the nobility was gone; now hollow tanks marched onto fields to destroy other faceless machines, and if they target civilians then who is to blame them for finding a target of substance and of meaning? Technology had robbed everything from war, and now it was nothing but an exercise for the engineers to test their pretty new weapons as they fought meaningless battles against other hollow machines.
The monitor glowed and the slipstream newscasts, broadcasted instantly throughout the galaxy with speeds rarely possible even in slipspace, poured out onto his desk, the machines of war were to be loosed, and heaven help the civilians.
The slipstream newscast kept sputtering through the night ignoring the slumber of the only being of flesh and blood on the station. His eyes flickered open hours later, his head rising gently from the table where his arms had shielded it from the world and where his exhausted rest had left him.
The broadcast was calmly reciting reports of the massive damage, the Harraid were confused and falling apart, just as the Flood had been intended to make them. Their ships were scrambling to fight across space, but even if they managed to arrange a substantial navy what good could it do? Percales grinned despite himself, victory was achieved, everything was going as planned, there would be no error, nothing that would cause the Halo to fire.
This was modern war, he realized, a spectator sport played as much by the cameramen and the newscasters as by the Generals, satellites had been deployed rapidly to watch the damage, and videos were available, but Percales had no stomach for it, he knew already enough of the power of the Flood, and of the power of his own race. Guilty Spark hovered near him, listening intently with robotic ears to the news of the wreckage. The little orb glowed in the artificial twilight around the metal desk that held the glowing screen within the mighty library of Station Four.
"This is going perfectly," the orb's voice betrayed no emotion, "too perfectly if you ask me."
"What could possibly go wrong with this Spark?"
"Have you been listening to the accounts? The Flood is taking control of the sentinent creatures on the planet."
"As it was designed to do, Spark, stop worrying so much."
"But it is taking their machines as well; there has been much talk of the Flood ramming down barricades with Harraid vehicles."
"What if it took a ship?"
"The Flood could never take a ship, you know that."
"You underestimate the talent and finesse it takes just to get a ship out of an atmosphere. The Flood is nothing but a tool, it could never do that. Ramming a tank through a barricade is one thing, bringing a ship into orbit is another."
"I think that you've underestimated your tools, Percales, I think we all have, and I think that we will pay dearly for it."
Percales shook his head, "You're just frightened Spark, all will be well."
The orb made no expressions, its voice box fell silent and it spun out of the room, with a faint whisper of a hum its only remaining protest.
Percales was left with his own fears in the dark and lonely room, he knew that he could turn the lights on, and forget the illusion of his home world, but what could that do? Would it keep the Flood from pouring out and spilling into the Galaxy? Would it end their ravenous tide?
The slipstream newscast whispered the secrets of a war without heroes from across the galaxy.
The room was wide open and nearly empty, there were no ancient books to consume space, there were no computer parts that couldn't be stored elsewhere, it was wide open and lonely, without even the robotic mind of Guilty Spark to keep him company. Station Four was almost entirely automated, he was there for only one purpose, to fire the Halo if it came to that, if anything happened to him Guilty Spark would notify the authorities, if a Halo needed to be fired while they replaced him then it would simply be another Halo. There was no need to waste extra men on the station.
The computer screamed suddenly, incoherent, Percales shot upright. It wasn't a technical problem, it was an all too personal scream, it told him nothing and it told him everything. Any reporter who could handle the destruction of a planet was a seasoned veteran, they wouldn't scream unless something went terribly wrong.
No calm voice followed the scream, nothing explained how everything had recovered somehow, no information about what had happened, nothing but an ominous silence. Percales' long, wiry finger reached out for the button to begin accepting the video feed.
"Twelve hours into the attack on Harrai, with few remaining Harraid on the planet, with most of the cities fallen, the Flood overcame its Lekgolo handlers and took control of a ship in the Harraid city of Golth, ignoring all the fire directed at them they boarded the Battle Cry, flagship of the fleet stationed around the planet and slowly began the process of their attack," the cold, frightened words hoped for solace in Percales' ears, the image of the Harraid ship ramming itself into the Cry faded from the screen, only to be replaced with the ships cameras showing footage of the devastation of the Flood.
"After taking control of the ship the Flood sent out escape pods full of its pestilence, confusing them for survivors many commanders allowed them on their ships the Flood then used the boarding rams of the Cry to board other ships, turning each ship against each other. All of this was executed flawlessly, with precision that veteran Admirals have long desired. The first ship entered slipspace ten hours later, with the fleet decimated or retreated," the words continued, but to Percales they faded out as he reached out to flick even the audio feed off. He knew that the call was coming, the sands of time had finally run out on his world, on his universe and in these final days all was coming crashing together. Percales stared at the motionless hologram projector, waiting for the image he knew would come, waiting for the orders he had so long feared.
He had had dreams once, he wanted to settle down with a wife and maybe raise a few children, he'd saved up quite a few credits and was hoping to spend his last days doing something from his home, living with his lovely wife and beautiful children. Now none of this could pass, and for what? To what had he sacrificed this dream? To a life of service to the dreams of others, yet more dreams that would never see the light of day. Now it was time for nothing but nightmares, and nightmares fluttered on bat like wings across the void, swallowing the dreams of empires.
He had hoped to make something for himself in this world, in this cold and careless universe, he had hoped to chisel something eternal into it, if only to have a child with the hope that some part of him would survive his death, He had hoped, perhaps, to matter. Now he would matter, of course, he would be vital, but there would be no one to remember him. Bards could never sing his name, and if they could, would they? What man sings the praises of a man who by chance was put in a position to follow orders to destroy everything? Why couldn't he have settled for the quiet notoriety of a proud father?
The hours passed slowly, giving each man time to make peace before all was extinguished. They crawled with the pain of crippled children, searching for a parent who could no longer care and who would no longer hold them, the wind grew stale in Percales' mouth, he could not bear to speak, even as Guilty Spark hovered around him.
The Admirals and the Chieftains were prolonging the inevitable, there was no hope left but the Halos, and everyone who knew the secrets of this war knew that, but who could blame them for praying for any other miracle?
The hologram glittered like the tears in newborn eyes, the Admiral stood in his full uniform, his dark rimmed cap an executioners hood.
"Halo One's operator refused the responsibility of saving the universe, I won't have such troubles here I presume."
"Good. Your Station has been authorized to fire, this is not a test."
The hardened officer bit his lip, "Good luck, son."
"Thank you sir," Percales face was without emotion, what emotion could stand in the face of such an order?
The hologram flickered away, and Percales knew that he had just spoken to the last man he ever would speak to, he stood up to forced the stale air from his dry, cracking lips, "Spark, our time has come."
"Index in place."
The moment hung in the air, hesitant, Guilty Spark turned its hovering eye towards Percales, the air motionless in his throat.
"Halo charging," Percales replied, brushing his too long hair from his cragged face.
"All cleared," the machine never paused, never wavered, it knew the way only as well as Percales, but it possessed more faith in it than he could ever muster. His heart grew sicker with each passing moment as a universe dragged itself slowly to its grave.
Perhaps it is all some terrible dream, Percales hoped in the last moments of the universe, right before he watched it all die.
As the deadly silver blaze of the Halo seeped out into the universe it couldn't be denied any longer. As the pulsing rays forced their way out across the void, leaving Percales stunned by their terrible beauty the reality came alive, and the glitter of newborn tears began to shine in his dark eyes.
Every dream has given way to nightmares more terrible, and dawn was an eternity away, hidden by the even darker years that were sure to come.
The Halo would deploy all of its genetic information, it would seed planets for each type, Percales knew that there was little he could do about that, as much as he would like to stop another Harraid child from ever being born. He smiled, he could change the planet though, and he could make sure that every Harraid child was born under the eyes of the Sangheili, a cruel sort of smile took to his lips.
"It's beautiful in its own sort of way," Guilty Spark observed.
His thoughts broken, Percales looked up, "An easy thing to say when you don't breath."
The orb turned to look at him, "I'm sorry, were you hoping for a lamentation?"
"I can't see how you could feel any other way."
"A disaster I could lament, but this was no disaster. This was a tragedy," the machine was quiet for a moment, inspecting the face of its companion, "A disaster is a simple matter of bad fortune. This was brought by your own race's pride and vengeance. You have no one to blame but yourselves."
"That's excellent conciliation."
"I wasn't designed for psychology."
The quiet retook the room with force, charging in with muffled stride as the silver death of the Halo fluttered out to the universe.
Many spend their lives in the pursuit of a second chance, pure and unadulterated absolution. It has been the quarry of great minds and the dream of impure spirits. This, Percales realized, was what he witnessed from the Halo, the achievement and the sum of all of those prayers and dreams on a universe's scale. The shapeless purity of the moments after the murderous lights of the Halo flickered away were, in this sense, beautiful. Alone in the massive station Percales knew that the beauty could not last, but that war and science would only sully the newfound amnesty.
If all the plans came to fruit then years from now a Reclaimer ship would arrive here, perhaps by chance, perhaps from pursuit. If all plans were met by reality then the Reclaimers would rule over the others; that was what they had been designed for.
And this station was a gift to these children from across the distant ages, theirs would be the Halo and the Flood, to do with as they saw fit. Theirs would be the power to rule, theirs the power to destroy.
Percales stared at the silent monitor, wondering if his own mark was clear enough on this station that the Reclaimers could know him; that perhaps he could survive in their memory. Perhaps, seeing him, they could learn of the Flood, and of the last days of the Galaxy he had known. Percales stared at the monitor.
"Computer, take this down," he began to dictate, "To the Reclaimers of this Halo and of the mighty empire of the Race.
"There are duties which are commanded by some greater power, and such duties I have known throughout my life, but there are other duties, duties to oneself, duties to conscious, and it is out of such duties that I write to you from across the ages.
"In the final ages of the Race we built and designed terrible weapons, weapons which we now commend to your care. These weapons are perfect, unstoppable, and our death is testament to that. Prudence should avoid violence in any event, but the use of the Flood was the downfall of an entire galaxy, of many races and of countless dreams. They are more than we anticipated, and overcame us. History is not noted for her kindness, and we cannot expect to be remembered for our wisdom, my only hope is that perhaps our example will serve to stop you from using the mighty weapons, the secrets that this station possesses.
"I have long believed that the greatest hope that an individual can possess is the hope to change the universe in some lasting fashion, and should this note leave you with greater mercy then perhaps my noblest hope has been realized. May you rule with peace and wisdom.
"Percales, of the Race who ran before your time."
It was an ancient forerunner library where the Prophet hovered within his chair, his guards around him, the Engineers had found something magnificent, they said, some evidence of some unknown race.
"Here, sir," the Sangheili paused, looking at the engraving, the Prophet turned his own eyes to it.
It was clearly a portrait of a prophet, in battle armor such that they had not worn since the Covenant was formed, what had fascinated the Engineers and the guards who surrounded the Prophet was who the prophet battled. It was a biped, standing as tall as a Sangheili, with hair hanging down from its head and with its massive musculature apparent.
"Is this the image of the forerunners, Prophet?" The Sangheili turned to him, questioning eyes burning deep into the Prophet's own.
"No," the Prophet smiled and waved the eyes away, "This is another. Their destruction was the will of the Gods."
"Of course, Prophet."
The Prophet smiled smugly within its floating half orb chair, "We are the instrument of the Gods, my friend, are we not?"
"Of course, Prophet."
The smile only grew.