The darkness outside the bunker was pervasive, and a blanket of dull fog softened the small pockets of light near the two heavily armed men standing by the west door. The sound of the distant surf was muted by the damp thickness of the air. In front of the two, massive turrets scanned the seas beyond the island. Occasionally one of the men would shuffle his feet slightly or look around, as if searching for something in the heavy and expressionless night.
Presently one of the two looked at his companion and said, “One thing I don't understand.”
“What's that,” the other man replied, his inflection flat as the dark horizon.
“Well,” said the first man, cocking his head slightly, “why are they coming all the way out here when they could just do the same thing over FTL? I can't figure it.”
“Just the way it's always been done,” said the other man.
“Seems like such a risk to take,” said the first.
“It's a controlled risk,” said the other. He spat at the soft ground, then rotated his creaking neck with a grimace. “Everyone knows everyone else is taking a giant risk too, so nobody pulls any tricks. Initial expression of fundamental trust, they say in the manual.”
“Yeah, I get that, but I mean, the trouble of moving everyone out without people knowing about it, getting them here safely... It's just, I don't know, you know? Doesn't seem to add up.”
The other man took a deep breath, let it out slowly. “Dogma says the face-to-face thing is the most important factor here. Worth taking the risk for 'cause it can benefit all those hundreds of millions down the line if it makes peace any more possible.” He spat again. “That being said, I'm none too sure on this either. All I know is we've been making these happen for decades, and the secret's never been spilled and nobody's ever died. Obviously someone's doing something right.”
“Right,” said the first. He looked down at the assault rifle cradled in his hands, then at his arm, emblazoned with the logo of the five stars.
“Tonight, the part where no-one dies is up to you and me,” the other one said, looking at his companion for the first time. “You understand that much, I'm sure.”
Just then a crackling came across the sky. A series of blue lights appeared in the tenebrous heavens, streaking down toward the invisible line of the horizon and gradually growing brighter.
“Well,” he continued, flipping down his visor, “If you don't now, you will in a minute. Prepare to meet Empress Sarum, sergeant. And remember, bow deep.”
The chamber was a stark and simple affair on the surface, but the tastefully muted lights and the plushness of the furniture somewhat betrayed the elevated status of the four people the environs had been designed for. At the center of the room was a circular table with a single column of gentle bluish-green light descending upon it, expanding at its lower half to a benign arc of luminescence that enveloped the entire center of the room. As the four in attendance settled into their respective positions, their mannerisms gave no indication that just outside these walls, the finest killers from the four corners of creation were assembled and ready to strike.
“Well, then,” said Jacus Roden, President of the Gallente Federation. “A pleasure to see us all in the same room.” He leaned forward and smiled benignly, an act which made apparent a silvery streak of metal running down the line of his jaw on both sides.
“I am honored to be in the peaceful presence of peers,” said a dark-skinned, white-eyed man whose hulking frame belied his gentle demeanor. “In the name of the Minmatar Republic, Sanmatar Shakor greets you.”
Piercing as a dagger, a powerful feminine voice cut across the table. “The Imperial Throne of Amarr welcomes you to the table, as always.” The owner of the voice was a statuesque woman whose unwavering gaze was fixed on the table in front of her.
A long silence followed in which her final words seemed to hang in the air, suspended in the ambient lighting.
From the fourth quadrant of the table came a deep voice, laced with menace.
“So let's get this thing started, then.”
“Respected compeers. Please. We're squabbling.”
At these words, Empress Sarum and Sanmatar Shakor broke each other's gaze for the first time in several minutes. Shakor was hunched forward on the table, hands locked together; Sarum was sitting straight as an arrow, shoulders squared and nostrils flaring. Simultaneously they turned their heads to look at the unassuming bald man.
“We're not here to pick at our differences,” continued Roden. “We're here to find common ground.” His velvetine voice rose and fell in precise diplomatic melody. “I can understand that you have differing views on what the last few months of conflict have done to harm your respective peoples, but I assure you we would all be better served by some more constructive discourse.”
“What does 'constructive' mean to you, Roden?” said Tibus Heth, Executor of the Caldari State, his thick arms crossed and his great chin down, steel-grey eyes drilling into the man across from him.
Roden smiled sweetly, and for the briefest of instants a glow came into his gaze, a flicker of green fire almost too quick to catch. He leaned back in his seat.
“Tibus, my dear friend. We have a great number of differences, you and I and everyone else at this table, but we also have several common problems. Problems which are not going to go away of their own accord. Problems which, in fact, grow in scope and gravity with each passing month. I'm sure I don't need to list the phenomena to which I refer.”
“Those phenomena,” said Heth acridly, “aren't problems to all of us. In fact, some of us are reaping benefit from them already.” He fixed his gaze levelly at Roden. “So why don't you tell us what your particular problem is, Mister President?”
“My problem, most esteemed Executor, is that we have a growing power bloc in this universe of ours that does not and will not ever share a seat at this table, or any like it.”
"Capsuleers," said Heth. "Our common problem. Need to find a way to stop them. I think I've heard this somewhere before.”
“Is it any less true than the last time you heard it?” asked Roden, raising a carefully plaintive eyebrow.
“Capsuleers are fighting our wars for us,” said Heth. “Their efforts are the backbone of our struggle. Our squabble, if you'd rather call it that.”
“And while they're doing that,” replied Roden, “do you honestly believe that they don't have schemes of their own? Do you think that much power can be handed to anyone without some enterprising individuals eyeing the potential for abuse?”
“These people have families, friends, cities and nations they're beholden to,” said Heth. “They have loyalties. Loyalties do not vanish simply because you acquire power.”
“Noblest Executor,” said Jamyl Sarum, quiet as a whisper.
There was a small pause. “Your Eminence,” replied Heth, somewhat taken aback.
“Have you ever felt your life ripped away from you? Your very consciousness sucked into a bottomless pit? Everything you ever thought you were or would be, snuffed out in the smallest fraction of a second?”
Heth's brow lowered. “I believe I have felt something like that, your Eminence,” he replied.
“And have you felt your consciousness light up into existence again, as if the laws of life and death did not apply to you? As if you were being born again, unbeholden to the principles that bind the mere mortals of this universe?”
Heth looked down at the table, clenched his jaw. “No, your Eminence,” he said in a low voice. “I have not had that privilege.”
“It is not a privilege, Executor,” replied Sarum. “It is the curse that has doomed the Empyreans from the beginning. It is true that there are some of them who are devoted still to causes greater than themselves, but the vast majority are so disconnected from reality that they exist in a realm all of their own, where none of the people they perceive to be lesser are worth any consideration at all.”
“Sounds somewhat familiar,” said Shakor.
The Empress turned her head to look at the Sanmatar, whose sightless eyes were fixed squarely on her from across the table.
“Sanmatar, I am stung by your insinuations,” she said.
“Then it's a good thing faith heals, your Eminence,” replied Shakor.
“Again, people...” began Roden, but this time he was interrupted by the Minmatar.
“Due respect, Mister President, but this nonsense is intensely tiresome,” said Shakor. “I am not a young man and I am not particularly given to frivolous wastes of my time. We've all gone to great lengths to be here, so let's not waste the precious hours we have, or offend the fine institution that made this possible for the greater benefit of all our peoples. Let's all just address the real reasons why we came here, and then I'm sure we can be about our business of killing each other again momentarily.”
The room's three other occupants looked at each other, then down at the table. A silent moment passed, then quietly President Roden began to speak.
“We need to discuss the matter of certain new technologies.”
“Indeed we do,” said Shakor. Heth nodded. The Empress was grave and impassive.
After the escort was successfully over with and the west entrance had slid closed, the door's guards were approached by a man with craggy features and close-cropped white hair, dressed in cumbersome dark armor that bore the insignia of House Sarum. His gait was heavy and assured. As he neared, he thrust out a hand.
“Amon Ahashion, Lord Commodore of the House Sarum Imperial Guard, here under provision of Joint Command Directive CC-9.”
The men shook hands. “Corporal Lutiere, DED classified. That's my second, Sergeant Ulfbrard.”
The Amarrian glanced briefly at Sergeant Ulfbrard, then held out his hand.
“Lord Commodore.” They shook hands.
“We are all in agreement,” said Ahashion, “that for the duration of this operation the western perimeter of this bunker remains under the control of the House Sarum Imperial Guard. Are we not?”
“Affirmative, Lord Commodore,” said Corporal Lutiere.
Ahashion nodded curtly. “If you need anything, the man in charge on the ground is Marshal Commander Kahd. I will be reachable in my quarters, down on the beachfront.”
Corporal Lutiere nodded. Sergeant Ulfbrard studied the ground in front of him, his expression fixed and unmoving.
When the Commodore had made his leave, the younger man turned to the older man and said: “Don't think I like him much.”
“Don't have to like him,” replied Corporal Lutiere, slinging his rifle across his shoulder. “But for the time being, you do have to obey him.”
"The proliferation is complete," said Shakor. "I'm sure our intelligence agencies have all agreed on that by this point."
"And what of it?" asked Heth. "We have new tools and new methods. Why call a meeting about it?"
"An influx of possibilities this size," said Jacus Roden, "destabilizes the ground underneath all of us, Executor." Any semblance of affected mirth had vanished from his tone entirely.
"I suspect that's not all we're here to discuss, though," said Shakor. "Is it, Your Eminence?"
All eyes fell to Empress Sarum, who was sitting with her jaw clenched, eyes cast down.
"It is not," she said presently. "Though this was a convenient pretext, I arranged this meeting for another reason."
For the first time on this cold evening on this dark world, Jacus Roden's steel-streaked jaw dropped, just a fraction of a fraction of an inch.
"You?" he said.
"CONCORD does not always call these summits, Roden," said Shakor. "You of all people should be aware of the twisted roads our dance takes us down."
Roden sucked in his cheeks, placed his hands on the table in front of him, clenched his fingers together. In the depths of his irises, a green fire was burning.
"Perhaps we'd better hear what Her Eminence has to say, then," he said, his knuckles whitening.
The western beachfront was a hive of activity, with Sarum troops constantly moving between hastily erected emplacements and surveillance equipment. Looking over the scene, Ulfbrard was reminded of slave children playing in the wind-swept courtyards of his neighborhood, back before the star, back before everything.
"See that machine over there?" said Lutiere, pointing down to a small alcove on the beach, where four men busied themselves with a large contraption bearing three giant discs that extended threateningly toward the sky.
Ulfbrard grunted in acknowledgment. "Atmospheric surveillance, right?"
Lutiere nodded. "That thing picks up every last little heat signature given off by anything that crosses the ionosphere in about a fifty-mile radius," he said. "They say the tech came from the Cartel originally, though the Amarr call it their own, of course."
"They call a lot of things their own," said Ulfbrard.
Lutiere gave a knowing glance at his second-in-command. "I don't disagree," he said, not unkindly.
For a few moments the two men stared out at the distant horizon.
"All I know," said Lutiere, "is if someone's gonna come at us tonight, they better have something very special up their sleeve."
At this Ulfbrard's posture loosened. He slunk a deliberately lazy look at his superior. "Again with the all I know," he said. "If everything you knew was half as much as all you knew, old man, then I'm sure--"
He was cut short by a distant boom, a quiet thrum more felt than seen, reverberating through the rock and seeming to shake the very air. The two men looked at each other, then down to the beachfront. Several of the Sarum soldiers were stock still in defensive poses, their weapons up and pointed toward the darkness of the tide. Others were barking commands into microphones.
Amon Ahashion emerged from his quarters, shouting orders. He was met by Marshal Commander Kahd, with whom he exchanged a communication by all appearances quite urgent.
"Polaris One, this is Polaris Five," said Corporal Lutiere into his radio. "We have Code D on the western front. Repeat, Code D on the western front, copy."
There was no sound from the radio. Corporal Lutiere felt his heart begin to race. He held his rifle up in front of him and peered at it closely.
Plasma temp gauge offline. Hybrid mixing chamber on force manual. No lights, no music.
"Shit," he breathed. He straightened up and hoisted his weapon. "Sergeant Ulfbrard, it looks like we've been EMPed," he said.
Ulfbrard stared at him. "How?" He mouthed the word, but no sound came out.
"Your guess is as good as mine, Sergeant," said Lutiere. "We need to get down there."
Ulfbrard flipped down his visor and swallowed hard. "Lead the way, sir."
"I am reliably informed that the infantry implant technology has spread throughout the cluster," said Sarum. "We are all in possession of it, and no doubt well on our way to building our own armies."
The other three at the table remained resolutely silent.
"The reason I have called this meeting," continued the Empress, then took a deep breath, "is that this technology in its current form poses a significant mutual threat to us, and I firmly believe all of us should cease and desist in our efforts to pursue it."
For a brief moment the veneer of political prudence dissipated, and Roden and Heth exchanged frankly incredulous glances.
"What..." began Heth.
"How is..." said Roden.
"Gentlemen, please," interrupted Sanmatar Shakor. "Let Her Eminence finish."
"I'm sure I need not remind you that the Empire's own Templar program was the first ever successful implementation of this technology," continued Sarum. "All the mistakes you're making, we've already made. All the lessons you're learning, we've already learned. Perhaps the most significant of these lessons is that the Sleepers do in fact pose a threat, and that threat is far greater than we had presumed."
The three men exchanged guarded glances.
"Tell me," said Sarum, looking at each of them in turn as she spoke. "Your recruits for this new breed of soldier. How have they been behaving, post-implant? Any instances of mental instability? Sudden forceful dissociative symptoms? Healthy young men speaking in tongues, thrashing their heads about hard enough to break their own necks?"
Roden and Heth were stone-faced; Shakor crossed his arms, his expression grim.
"Those implants carry the fragmented consciousness of the Sleepers within them," said Sarum. "In some of them, the Sleeper presence is so strong that it can overwhelm the implant's host."
Heth's brow furrowed and his eyes hardened.
"What's more," continued Sarum, "all Sleeper technology has these fragments within it. The Empyreans who today wage war on the Sleepers' outposts to harvest their technology are not, in fact, mere resource gatherers, nor are they simple thieves. They are committing something far worse than theft."
"Genocide," said Heth.
A leaden silence descended on the table. Roden was the first to break it.
"Assuming any of this were to be believed, Your Eminence," he said, a sharp edge sliding into his voice, "how big is the risk to us?"
"The risks are significant and cannot be ignored," replied Sarum. "The Sleepers are a civilization older than any other - older than New Eden, some believe. They may not exist in our physical realm at present, but it looks like that may stand to change. If they continue to be attacked in this way, there is no telling what they might do out of self-defense. And it is certainly not prudent for us to leave them any openings."
"And what would you have us do?" asked Heth.
"Accept my gift of alternative implant technology," said the Empress. "Created through other means, with no Sleeper taint, and thus no way for them to gain a foothold or exact their revenge."
"Your Eminence," said Shakor. "With the greatest of respect, you must think us absolute blithering fools."
"Sanmatar," said the Empress, raising her powerful voice so that it resounded off the small chamber's walls. "Having so recently gained your freedom, I would think you of all people would not wish to see others enslaved. I started the Templar project because this war has seen too many lives lost. I wanted a swift end to it, and gaining this technology was a means to that end."
"You wanted to win the war, not end it," corrected Roden.
"In the eyes of God and the Throne, those terms are one and the same, Mister President. You understand enough about us to know that much." Her syllables were coming faster now, rapid-fire, words tumbling over each other as her voice gathered momentum. "The things I speak of here today are important. Do not attempt to smother them with petty semantics."
Roden gave a small flourish. "Continue then," he said.
Sarum was pensive for a brief moment, seated at the table in regal diplomatic posture, her hands forming a small triangle on the edge of the table. She cleared her throat. Her cheeks looked sunken and sallow. Droplets of sweat pearled on her forehead.
"If you don't believe me," she said presently, "then answer me this: has the number 514 played into any of your lost cases?"
The atmosphere in the room sharpened perceptibly.
Heth leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. At length he began to speak.
"It's been happening since the beginning," he said. "At first we thought it was localized to a particular place. Our first two cases came from the same barracks. We thought it was something a few of them had seen on joint operations. Some kind of graffiti they'd seen during a traumatic moment on Caldari Prime."
Sarum was staring at him intently.
"Then it started popping up everywhere," Heth continued. "Always the same."
"Blood-red skies, strange beings, and the number 514, often written in blood," said Shakor.
Heth looked at him, eyebrows raised. Roden showed no expression, but his eyes darted back and forth between the two men.
"Exactly that," said Heth.
Empress Sarum nodded.
Before the moment and all its implications were allowed to go any further, Roden spoke.
"What does that prove, though?"
"I beg your pardon, Mister President?" asked Sarum.
"The implants give them strange visions," said Roden. "How do you know for sure that Sleeper consciousness is the culprit, and not some," he made a flippant gesture, "random subroutine implanted as a failsafe by their engineers? For that matter, how do you know this isn't merely a quirk of the technology, soon to be ironed out by engineers? Surely those of us who are old enough —" and here he nodded his head pointedly at Shakor, "—remember the spectacular capsule failures of the Caldari-Gallente War. To my recollection those stories weren't much better."
"You're not listening," said Sarum, growing agitated. "You're willfully misinterpreting my words."
"My point, dear Empress," said Roden, "is that there are a million possible explanations. Why should we so readily fall on this one?"
Sarum inhaled sharply, straightened up, then exhaled slowly through her nose. "A... most trusted advisor relayed his first-hand experience of Sleeper consciousness to me. It is," and at this her gaze grew distant, "the most rapturous thing I have ever experienced, and at the same time the most horrible. We are literally rending the fabric of their self-constructed universe into pieces."
"If the rapture you felt in a digitized simulation of reality outstripped the rapture you feel in your faith, then perhaps it's time to reconsider a few things, Your Eminence," said Shakor.
"Stay with the quips, Sanmatar," replied Sarum quietly," and watch them destroy us because we can't trust one another."
"And what, exactly, have you done to earn that trust, Your Eminence?" said Roden, raising his voice for the first time. The effect was pronounced and unsettling, a crescendo of pinpoint syllables.
"I have gone to great lengths to procure a solution to a problem I myself created," said the Empress. "I can only beg that you heed my words. I have no gambit."
"The Amarr Empire is not particularly known for having no gambit," said Shakor. "So you will pardon us if we don't heed your words quite yet."
As he said this, a wave of force passed through the room. Every one of the four felt their ears briefly buzz with high frequency, and summarily the hairs rose on every neck.
"You may be running out of time for that," said Sarum, and stood up.
By the time they reached Lord Commodore Ahashion the western beachfront was awash with running and shouting Sarum troops, hastily readjusting defensive plans, corraling men into formation.
"What's going on, Commodore?" said Lutiere, wholly out of breath.
"Some sort of electromagnetic pulse," said Ahashion, his eyes keeping close watch over his men as they spread out across the beach. "We don't know what could have generated one large enough to disrupt our equipment. Whatever it is, it disabled communications with our orbital forward point as well, several minutes before the blast. We don't know what's going on up there."
Sergeant Ulfbrard felt a cold chill run down his back.
"What are your immediates for our contingent over here?" asked Lutiere.
"Spread out," answered the Commodore. "Stay hidden. Watch the skies." As he said this he was looking at something in the far stratosphere above them, and now suddenly he began to move. "In fact, this would be a good time to start."
A tremendous clap reverberated through the night and a pillar of light appeared down on the beach behind a large outcrop of rock. Another clap brought another pillar, then another, all of them extinguished almost as soon as they had appeared.
The men on the beach held fast, waiting intently. Fear was pasted on every face.
"Find your men," said Ahashion to Lutiere, "and do it now."
"This is trickery," said Roden, backing away from the table. "I will not have trickery."
"There is no trickery," said Sarum. "This is exactly what I warned of."
"You did this, Minmatar," said Heth. "This kind of underhanded treachery is your hallmark."
"And how do I know it was not you?" answered Shakor. "Hallmarks or no hallmarks."
Heth's brow darkened. Several sharp noises carried in from the outside, shaking the earth as they went.
"We are about to be pulled out of here in the next thirty seconds," said Jamyl Sarum, looking at the only three colleagues she had in the world. "Three of us will be instantly safe. I do not know about you, Dear Executor."
Heth nodded. "My people will take care of me," he said.
"All I ask is that you remember my words," said Sarum over the growing staccato of noises from outside. "Research the matter. Find out for yourselves." She looked at each of the men in turn. "I have arranged for you to receive coordinates to cargo containers my people have deployed. There you will find the clean technology I have promised. Though you may not believe my words, I pray you will believe the evidence."
"What smoke and mirrors, Your Eminence," said Roden. "Absolutely ingenious piece of theatre, from beginning to end."
Sarum shook her head.
"Ye of little faith," she said.
One minute later the room stood empty, and one minute after that it was blown to shards, each of which flew out soundlessly past the fighting men and into the dark sea, silent sinking monuments to a chamber whose last occupants would never see each other in the same room again.
With his Corporal's head cradled in his lap and his blood mixing with the Corporal's blood on the glinting pavement Ulfbrard gathered his senses just enough to scream, and scream loud.
Though it had been intended as a roar, the sound that came out was more akin to a gurgle. He supposed it was probably due to the missing lung.
Blackness began to paint his periphery. This was it, then. Good a way to go as any. Something historic. Nobody there to witness it.
A dark silhouette came into his field of view. He narrowed his eyes at it, and as it gradually came into focus a sick realization rattled its way down his spine and took hold in his gut.
An armored figure with a matte visor, spread out over the face as if to deny even the existence of a face, stared down at him.
"Evening," he managed to say, through blood and sand and bile. Ocean air had never smelled so fresh.
The figure stood there for a brief while. Small clicking noises could be heard inside its helmet. Then it leveled its weapon at him.
Involuntarily his breath quickened, choked gasps coming in ragged rhythm. He had often wondered what his last words would be; in fact, he had constructed them carefully. He opened his lips to speak.
"Adakul, light of the world..." he began, but got no further.
The figure resumed its search of the surroundings.
The horizon was silent and dark.
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