Lord High Chancellor Harrk stood on the platform near the top the holy spire. He leaned against the railing, his dusty blue cloak stained purple by the dull red light of the setting sun. He stared across the sprawling city. The buildings were spears of stone and steel, rising out of dark obscurity into the high thin air. Glass eyes were blind, unlit in the aftermath of the ancient cleansings. The city covered the continents with a pointless labyrinth, trapping ghosts in webs of shadow.
Harrk lifted his eyes to the stars of evening, his only company. They stared back in cold pity. He hated them for that. The lord high chancellor turned and retreated into the glass cage. It dropped out from under the platform and slid down the side of the spire. He continued to stare at the buildings but didn't really see them, his thoughts turning inward.
The satellite scans are comprehensive. I had hoped it wasn't true . All my people are gone, and I alone remain. We exterminated our enemies, but without the purpose of Holy War, we turned on ourselves, devouring reason in an orgy of blood, murdering each other over meaningless shades of dogma.
He pulled his cloak more tightly around himself, shivering, though the cage was warm. A dry rasp of laughter escaped his beak. And where are our gods now? In feeding their excesses, did we fail them or ourselves? He shrugged. What's the point of an answer anyway? It's too late to matter.
The cage brought him into the dark zone where the ancient lights had failed and the dying sunlight could not reach. The lift door opened. He made his way blindly through streets cluttered with skeletal remains, crashed flyers, and debris from past battles. A fractured skull rolled, kicked loose by his passing.
He knew these streets from walking this route evening after dreary lonely evening. He turned to the Plaza of Conquest, slipping past the righteous glare of twin statues; the ever-thirsting gods of war. The first was Chawk, the winged hydra. We gave you rivers of blood on a dozen worlds. Why did you have to drain this world dry? The second statue was Skaaa, the horned colossus, his tail a thickly spiked club. They were both mute, casting threatening glares earthward at the impudent vines tangling their feet.
Harrk crossed the courtyard, wading through a shallow sea of hollow bones that crunched beneath him as he passed. Once, he paused to kick free of a ribcage that snared his foot. Why must the past cling so persistently when it's all that's left anyway? He wondered. The air was dead as well; not even the wind would answer him.
Finally, he reached the great ziggurat and entered the last stronghold of order. Within the walls, mechanisms hummed with life, power illuminated the vaulting halls and chambers. The air was recycled, purified, and warmed against the onslaught of the night's icy bite.
"You're back," the building's cyber-core observed.
"Yes," Harrk admitted the obvious.
"Did you enjoy your walk, Lord High Chancellor?"
"No, too much death…too much silence."
"I told you not to go."
"You tell me many things that I choose to ignore. I will not lose myself in antiquated pomp and posturing. Ceremony should not exist for its own sake. Such games are beneath my dignity."
"But you will play them."
"I will not."
"You forget yourself."
"That's my main goal in life these days. If I can forget enough, maybe I can fade to nothing and leave the city to enjoy its dreams undisturbed."
Harrk drifted along the nearly endless Hall of Victory, where huge thin sheets of red-gold metal were fitted edge to edge, laser etched with depictions of thousands of battles, one winding into another so there was no troublesome peace intruding on the accomplishments of the Kashan. Eventually, the pictographs came to an end. The last few sheets of copper-gold alloy were as empty as the lingering future that haunted the Kashan home world. Harrk found the emptiness a soothing release.
He entered the august chambers where the Council of Lords once ruled with iron fists. Semi-circular tables and seating formed concentric waves for the Voices of military, industry, and the priesthood. A central dais remained for the royal family, with a station for the lord high chancellor.
"You must take your place," the computer said.
"And if I don't want to play this wretched game with you?"
"You have no choice. We both have our programming to obey."
"I am Kashan, not some soulless machine. You cannot make me do anything."
"Do not be so certain. I have left you certain illusions to balance your system, but I will crash your world-view if I must."
"You threaten me?"
"I state facts. If they threaten you, that is not my fault. Besides, this session is needed; there is new business before the Great Council."
Harrk paused in his slow advance. "New business? Nothing's been new in centuries."
"Take your place. I will explain."
Harrk continued on, intrigued. He climbed up the stairs to his podium, which fronted the empty table of the royals. As he faced row upon row of empty seating, photon-based images flickered into being, holographic representatives created from the main computer's memory core. "Why don't you just use a copy of me and leave me alone?" the lord high chancellor asked.
"Any true copy of you would want what you want. In the end, we would still need to compel someone or something to our bidding. It might as well be you--here and now."
"I can't fault your logic," Harrk said, "as much as I hate it. So, what is this new business of yours?"
"Redemption for the Kashan race."
"How do you redeem the dead?"
"The gods of the Kashan turned away from us when we failed them. That failure can be mended. The error can be deleted and honor can be restored."
"My people will still be dead."
"An unimportant detail," the computer assured him. "The grand pattern of utter annihilation can be achieved. No heretic faction can be tolerated."
"No heretic faction?"
"We have just received a tachyon transmission from a colony we thought destroyed. We have computed the location so that our oversight may be corrected."
"You're going to kill them? That's insane! They are the last of our race, the only future we have left."
"A heretical future is no future at all," the computer said. "Is it not better for the Kashan to die with symmetry, preserving a legacy rather than an aspect that is flawed and corrupt?"
"It's not for you to say!" Harrk shrieked.
"We are all that's left. Who else will decide if we do not?"
"Fate has already decided this," Harrk rasped. "We need only leave the situation alone."
"That is unacceptable. This governing body was never officially dissolved. We cannot abdicate responsibility and four millennia of precedent cannot be ignored. We must order the death fleet back to the stars for one final cleansing."
"No! We mustn't."
"The fleet is in orbit, under full cybernetic control, awaiting this body's official sanction."
"I will not be a part of this…this travesty!" Harrk said.
"You will play out your role," the computer said. "It is the only purpose left to you."
"No." Harrk's voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. His eyes blazed with the force of his will, as his cheek muscles knotted in adamant refusal. He hurled himself away from the podium, down the stairs to the chamber floor. Furious, he rushed toward the far hallway. The holographic simulacrums turned puzzled stares on him as he passed. A few frowned in annoyance at the breach of decorum. As he reached the back of the chamber, a line of housekeeping drones appeared, blocking his path, waving tentacle-like limbs. Haark skidded to a stop, but before he could reverse direction, they had him wrapped in metallic coils, suspended in the air.
"I see I'm going to have to drive home the reality of the situation in on you," the computer said.
"What are you doing?"
Limbs with claw-like attachments darted at him, tearing at his face, which came away, falling to the floor with a clatter. His visage stared back up at him with empty eye sockets. "No!" Harrk's scream emerged from a mesh of circuits surrounding glass eyes. "What madness is this?"
"The madness is your own," the computer replied. "You keep forgetting, you ARE a copy. When you died, your people loved you too much to part with you. You had led them to many great slaughters as a fleet commander. They resurrected you as a cybernetic display in the Capitol Museum. Thus, you were handy to replace the last chancellor when he died in the riots."
"Yes. Now accept your duty. There are certain formal proceedings involved in launching a proper cleansing. Then, surely, the gods will smile!"