‘EMPIRE’ by Gareth Jack Sansom
On a cold and distant planet at the outer edge of the galaxy, the stillness of an alien morning was shattered abruptly by the roar of twin jet engines busting through the cloudy grey. A pale white sun, barely risen over lifeless rock and mortar shied against the brilliance of rocket fire as it descended slowly downward from the heavens with a steady motion. For a few brief minutes, dense clouds of ash and dust were thrown into the air as the entire area became thick with an eerie, living mist which all but obscured the spaceship touching down on the planet’s surface.
Christened the Inheritance, its hull was a vast chrome cylinder some two hundred metric meters long by sixty wide, and the skin and bones of the ship were, like most vessels in the industrial fleet initially constructed purely for civilian purposes. As the seemingly unending struggle for galactic order wore on towards the later end of the twenty-seventh century, it had become necessary to register many such practical and trade craft as secondary assets for military tactic and transport. This particular vessel, however had been charged with a far greater destiny.
Hundreds of years had passed, by the old chronology since life had existed on the soil of this world, which for even longer still had been unable to sustain a native seed. Ash, silt and stone flew through the air as forty-thousand tons of titanium collided with the desolate terrain, now as scarred and dry as her once great oceans to the west. To the ship’s crew, this world was not unlike so many other worlds that they had visited in reconnaissance as part of their mission. In the years following the more intense warfare between her districts, the Empire had lost countless outer colonies, outposts and settlements to conflict, cheap skirmish and all-out attacks from the enemy. Federation, order and unity did not come cheap, and the cost of lives had run easily into the tens of millions.
While some worlds and their occupants had fallen easily to the will of the Empire, others merely feigned fealty before returning as participants in a rebellion that had overseen the wanton destruction of many new planets terraformed for future habitation. Whole worlds and systems filled with new and developing civilisations were extinguished completely and, in some cases their chemical elements vaporised altogether. But these were not the shells of worlds sought by the crew of the Inheritance.
Before the clouds of dust had settled and according to a predetermined rotary roster system, the crew aboard the ship had assigned a landing party contingent to arrive at the planet’s surface to begin harvesting geological samples for testing and cultural research. On this day, as history would remember, the contingent comprised a senior commander, three geologists and a young archaeologist named William Taylor. William, better known as Will to the rest of the crew was without doubt one of the youngest recruits selected for the mission, but had already managed to attain significant accomplishment in his field, despite having been drafted directly from the Federation Academy.
Their mission had been devised following the final defeat of insurgent forces a decade earlier at Gamma Prime. The resistance, a massive force comprising various expat species from conquered worlds and led by a small force of Federation dissidents had become a thorn in the side of the Empire’s trading companies at the outer colonies. For engaging in racketeering, incitement and skirmish, the High Council had charged a legion of battlecruisers in the outer district with crushing the rebel forces, who were after a long and bitter struggle eventually annihilated to a man, as Federation policy dictated. With all resistance thus destroyed and homogeny restored to the galaxy, it was decreed that the search for the lost home world, the birthplace of the Federation and her Ethos so many centuries earlier could finally begin.
The allotted mission had been expected in all reality to carry on indefinitely, for very few despite their deepest hopes and a devout faith in the scripture of the Old World had actually expected the mythical Terra as a single point of origin to have ever actually existed, let alone that tangible ruins and remnants of her fabled once great cities had survived the great catastrophe. Almost an afterthought to the conquest of their galaxy and an ongoing political rallying effort for the unity of the Federation, their mission was essentially a one-way ticket into the unknown, and they knew it.
Once on the planet’s surface, it took the better part of an hour for the correct consignment of landing gear to be assembled and delegated to the party. Each crew member was equipped with two cylinders of oxygen to be metered intermittently throughout the expedition, specialised geological assessment kits, medical equipment and a standard armament in the form of a single-shot energy pistol. For any greater threat that the group might encounter, the Inheritance was equipped with ballistic cannons powerful enough to raze whole cities to dust in a single strafe, and sat well within radio range should the situation deem it necessary.
The party, now equipped and briefed on the planet’s environmental composition by the ship’s data computer entered the airlock and began the slow decompression required to withstand the planet’s atmosphere, now all but scorched away through an horrific disaster centuries earlier. This fact in itself qualified it as an ideal candidate for listing for their mission.
In the airlock and finally assembled, the party exchanged pleasantries and discussed the impending expedition: “Ten years and counting,” geologist Troy Harris began, “ten years, thirty worlds and two thousand volumes of next-to-nothing. At least fighting in the crusades gave a man something to write home about.”
“Better to send your family back a sub-space communication than a body-bag, or less,” replied their commander. Rudolph ‘Rudy’ Green was among about a dozen crew members aboard the Inheritance who had previously seen action while locked in fierce combat with the Empire’s dissidents, surviving above all else a five-year tour of duty in the Federation’s ‘Secret Service’ division, administering support to a siege offensive at the rebel home-world which ultimately turned the tide of war in favour of the Federation.
It was during this same offensive that the highest tolls on both sides of the struggle were recorded, as rebel forces were eventually surrounded on all sides and fought back with an almost inhuman viciousness. A fierce aerial campaign was undertaken which culminated in a heavy surface firefight as enemy forces were driven into the ground and finally vaporised completely. The surface of the planet was bombed from space and its upper mantle sublimated entirely by new and advanced weaponry. In the caves beneath the surface of Silica 6 in the Gamma Prime system, both sides had turned desperately to unspeakable acts of cruelty in order to stay alive in those dark days before the war was won.
Often referenced in Federation transcripts as ‘Silica Syndrome’, many of the operation’s most hardened solders were discovered after the siege to have developed crippling mental afflictions whose symptoms ranged from simple tics to full-blown psychoses, the result of months and months spent claustrophobic beneath the planet’s surface, often pursuing insurgents through a vast network of tunnels no wider than a shoulder’s width and which criss-crossed the planet’s surface like Swiss cheese. Commander Green had himself spent six months in an off-world sanitarium following the final push, before finally being cleared to return to military service. Others were not so lucky.
“Let me tell you something,” he began again, addressing the entire group, “I won’t deny that the past few years aboard this ship have dragged-on, and some of us have managed time and again to get on each other’s nerves,” he shot a quick glance at Harris, “but what we have here is an amazing opportunity to be among perhaps the first human beings to set foot on the Old World since expansion.”
“If the Old World even exists, Rudy..” interrupted Ed Turner, second geologist for the landing team and an ever-present voice of skepticism.
“Oh, It exists,” continued Green, becoming more animated, “the one planet from which the vision of Federation and homogeny among the stars was born is most definitely out there. I’m sure you’re all aware of the old scriptures and their histories..”
“Of course,” started Taylor. The stories taught to him throughout his childhood and interwoven through his lessons with the Academy which followed had supplanted firmly within his memory. “The scriptures teach of the ancient struggle for Terra, of the fight for the basic purity laws that became the cornerstone for the Empire and of the great catastrophe which nearly annihilated our species in the Old Age. They teach of the basic principles of improvement and warn against the dangers of false fraternity. Our entire galaxy would have been destroyed had the great civil war ended differently, if the early districts had succeeded in their resistance to the Ethos.”
“Precisely,” continued Green, “History would read very differently had the foolishness and corruption of the Old World and her usurpers’ ways survived. For the Federation and the warning given us by its scriptures, we must never forget the fate of the Old World and we must never, ever forsake our mission to find it.”
Green gazed then through the airlock and into the grey of the terrestrial morning with a thousand-yard stare. After a few long minutes had passed, decompression had at last completed, and the Inheritance’s airlock slowly opened outward with a steady pneumatic hiss and a rush of cold air. It was then that he noticed that the rest of the party too were minds elsewhere, staring absently into the distant streams of history that had coursed them to that moment.
The landing party moved through the airlock with trepidation. It was raining now, a variable the crew had failed to take into consideration as they prepared and so the party moved quickly to detach the rain cloaks that were always fastened at their waists as a contingency. The Inheritance had made landfall at a north-western inland continent on the planet’s Northern hemisphere, chosen due both to a steady climate and high density of what the intelligence team aboard the ship had suspected were city ruins. Commander Green wasted no time in selecting a more heavily fortified structure from the outcrop and ordered his party to erect a makeshift base of operations both for shelter and use as a temporary geological laboratory.
The cold morning rain began to drift softly over the party in steady sheets, growing ever heavier as a mass of darker clouds moved in above them. Far off in the distance a faint clap of thunder could be heard, and it soon became clear to the group, now struggling desperately to steady their shelter that the storm would not pass any time soon, and that they had better make arrangements to wait it out. The commander radioed his intentions to the ship and with a crude shelter adequately assembled, the party sat in silence for a long time, taking rations and performing maintenance on the scientific equipment that they had brought down to the planet’s surface.
After several hours of monotonous routine tests, and when the group began to show signs of boredom Will moved to position himself at audience with the rest of the party and began to speak:
“Does everyone here know,” he began, “the story of the origins of the Old World scriptures, and the founding of the Ethos..?” Will had left the ship on several worlds over the course of their mission, however each time with different groups of people. As always, he was eager to show off what he had come to learn during his time at the academy, and took great pleasure in retelling their histories.
Half seeking respite from the downpour at the edges of the shelter and half in muted interest in a story every child of the Empire had been raised on in their earliest years, the group edged closer to Will and listened regardless with keen interest to his excited and passionate accounts of the elder legends, often punctuating the story with rousing vocal effects and an engaging ability with oratory. The tale was long and wore on until the last light of dusk began to fade behind the hulking ruins of the alien city, looking almost in the dark like crooked teeth on the horizon:
“In the year 2045CE by the old chronology, the Old World from where all the foundations of the Empire had been lain had been gripped by a great and terrible civil war, a global conflict arisen from a centuries old hatred which had been fermenting until the catastrophe that crippled their society. Wild skirmishes were fought between the cities of Terra, and oceans were dried up and mountains torn down by science and weaponry kept secret since the time of the Great Prophet a century before, killing billions of men and beast alike and casting the world into a dark age from which it would take decades to recover. Far beneath the surface of Terra, like a dormant seed waiting for the rains that would always come, the adherents remained in secret and prepared to rise as a phoenix from the ashes of a world lain to waste. They would return and establish a new Imperium, and eventually draft the Ethos that had grown to bear the fruits of their Empire.
Certain accounts of the great wars have varied slightly over time, however the fundamental timeline of events which had brought humanity towards a final reckoning conflict remain the same. In the early years of enlightenment, the Great Prophet had gifted his people with a doctrine that would eventually become the earliest form of the Ethos. The Prophet had come to identify the path to Imperium, and the true form and nature of the enemies among them that would seek to bring about the destruction of the Empire. He had fought a courageous and costly war in his time against the forces of evil, who had proved in the end to be far too cunning and powerful to defeat and so the first and earliest manifestation of the Empire was doomed to collapse beneath the sheer weight of biological entropy.
Of the decades that directly followed the fall of the Great Prophet little is truly known, save that it was by all existing accounts the darkest and most chaotic time in humanity’s history, and one during which all hope of hegemony and cohesion amongst the adherents of the doctrine was very nearly lost forever. Within a century however, and by the one-hundred year anniversary of the Prophet’s fall, a new resistance comprising brave and fanatic adherents had succeeded in consolidating considerable power and influence and by a leaderless uprising against the oligarchy that had administered the chaos that threatened Terra, the Great War finally began.
It was a war not only of adherent and oligarch, but of brother and brother also as so many had already been tricked into the service of the overlords. It was as much an ideological war as a war of weapons, of light and darkness and of truth against lies. Many millions of our strongest and bravest on many colonised worlds, those with the greatest potential to serve the doctrine were killed in that conflict and in a few short years, the fate of their world and ultimately of the galaxy was finally decided.
The New Order was founded in their victory on the core principles of the doctrine, and sealed with the blood of the last of the remaining oligarchs, who were hunted down to a man and put to death in great public ceremonies to the rapturous applause of the survivors that had gathered in droves and on various worlds to bear witness. Shortly after the purification of those worlds that were deemed salvageable and as the constructing of the Federation began, their doctrine was revised to encompass a galaxy and was ratified and sanctified henceforth as the Ethos.
It was the Great Catastrophe that had finally rendered Terra and its system uninhabitable, the price of freedom proving ultimately to be their home-world. Their forces withdrew from Terra and went on to eventually conquer a galaxy, and all knowledge of that irradiated planet that they had come from slowly faded from memory over time, remaining only in scripture and legend.”
At the end of the retelling and after a sober minute’s silence, Turner stirred from adjusting the settings on their purifier and sought to clarify with uncharacteristic interest the story surrounding the Great Prophet:
“The Prophet,” he started, pointing a ratchet in Will’s direction,” you say that he had identified the enemies of the Imperium. I know we can all list with detail the forms and factions of the resistance as we have struggled against it in our lifetime – what can be said of the oligarchs, who were they and where did they come from..?”
“Well,” started Taylor with a sigh, “what little we know of the oligarchs is that they were not so dissimilar to us in form, but the fact that that they were not unlike us in appearance was their most dangerous quality. They had, over many centuries succeeded in amassing vast quantities of wealth, power and influence in our societies and worked to bring them down from the inside. They were deceivers, thieves and manipulators and where adherents to the doctrine sought to create and control, to prosper and to innovate, the oligarchs had only greed and chaos in their hearts.”
“They had nothing but envy and contempt for those who would strive, invent and who desired beauty. It was our naivety, and our compassion that they had exploited, and by these qualities we very nearly risked losing everything. That is why we must never again compromise our doctrine, and our vision. Never again can we allow our people to lower guard against alien blood. Never again.”
“Well I’m not sure exactly how much of what you’ve said tonight is true,” replied Turner with a smile, “but I am thankful for the Empire, such as it is. With things as they are now, I think we can all clearly see the continued existence of our people and a future for our children, for generations to come. No compromise is worth risking that.” He turned and returned to making final adjustments to the machine before turning-in.
The storm continued to rage about them, torrents of cold rain belting against the thin synthetic walls of the shelter that they had raised and in which they had managed at last to reconfigure the air-pressure to a somewhat tolerable measure. It was arranged that one of the group would remain on watch throughout the night, less for confronting hostile life forms and more for making sure that the shelter remained pressurised throughout the night, should their equipment somehow malfunction. The planet’s rotation against its sun and its present seasonal axis would see a night of some twelve to fourteen hours pass, before they could again resume their mission.
The party on the planet’s surface had grown weary from the excitement of setting down on the new world, and from the retelling of the history of Federation. With no predictable end to the storm forecast until morning by the ship’s computers, the group made arrangements to camp on the planet’s surface until dawn when, weather permitting, they would enter the ruined city in the hope of finding answers. They slept in shifts, each of them to a man excited for tomorrow’s journey.
The next morning, the group awoke to patchy cloud and a thick, murky haze, however found that it had finally stopped raining and so after quickly sharing rations, they packed their equipment and set-out once more in the direction of the city. They walked for several miles before reaching the outskirts of what appeared to have been a massive metropolis which sprawled ahead of them. Where there must have once stood monolithic structures and causeways, little more than massive hewn stone foundations now littered the ground in all directions to provide an idea of what once was and make the way forward a difficult one.
The group were awestruck and a little excited – of all of the worlds that they had surveyed so far, they had not yet come across anything like this. Their commander slapped the wide base of what must once upon a time have been a massive pillar, declaring, “Solid stone, ladies and gentlemen. They just don’t make them to last like this anymore.” He couldn’t have been more right, either. Samples from the ruins that they had camped beside the night before had tested to be almost a millennia old, and looked to the group as though they might yet last a millennia more.
They slowly snaked their way along, over and between piles of earth and pulverised rock, following the more established foundation blocks of the city as they grew in size and, they hoped, indicated that they were nearing the heart of the ruined city. Whatever had happened in this planet’s history, it must have taken place right at the cusp of a cultural zenith; the city sprawled for miles and miles and in certain places the landing party were able to catch a glimpse through gaping earth at sections of what appeared to be an extensive underground catacomb, which ran beneath their feet.
After another hour or so carefully navigating the city, they reached what looked to be the remains of a massive central square and the monstrous stone foundations of a grandiose structure, the purpose of which they could only wildly speculate about. The rubble formed piles on the outskirts of the foundation, swept to the side by strong winds and they took a long moment to stand and look out over it before moving on. The atmosphere was a grey and shifting fog, and the sunlight filtered through it in a way that almost seemed to animate their surroundings, bringing them to life.
Gigantic stone megaliths locked-in beneath their feet, forming a wide expanse so massive that it had over time caused the foundation blocks to sink well below ground level. Their hearts were beating heavier now, as the enormity and complexity of the civilisation that once inhabited the planet became apparent and they quickly covered the expanse and made their way toward a dense mountain of stone and rubble that obscured their view of the rest of the ruined city. Will Taylor was the first to reach the foundation of the outcrop, and without waiting for the rest of the party, found a foothold and began climbing to get a better view of the alien world that they had stumbled upon.
Captain Green and the others were several meters behind Will when a sudden yell from up ahead caused them to stop dead in their tracks. He had ascended the summit of the hill, and thrown both of his arms up in the air in the direction of the view, calling loudly and emotionally out to the rest of the landing party. “Oh my god,” he started, “I don’t believe it..!” He placed both hands on his head, and his team could hear him softly sobbing over the communicator that lined his helmet. Still at the foot of the rise, commander Green desperately called-out to him for further intel before he and the rest of the group too threw caution to the wind and ascended.
“What is it, Taylor. What do you see – answer me..!” He was fearful, excited and himself eager to burst into a sprint and join Will at the summit and just as he was about to begin the climb, Will replied, “We did it, we found it. Comrades.. we’re home.” The rest of the group broke into a mad dash to reach him, and as they too caught a view of the ruins that lay beyond, one by one they dropped their arms by their sides and stood in stunned silence, the feeling of home finally washing over them.
The Empire was ready now. The Federation had finally conquered the galaxy, enforcing its doctrine over all and bringing harmony to a thousand new worlds and systems. Its vision finally realised and her true origins reclaimed, a new Imperium could now at last be established that might invite its children out further still into the universe to conquer and explore, to create and destroy – to plant that hallowed flag into the soil of eternity where it might continue forever to serve as a bastion for the one true Ethos.
In the distance, still intact and lining the central esplanade of the ruined city, weathered iron eagles flanked the way towards a solitary concrete arch which once marked the entrance to the greatest hall their ancestors had ever built. Inscribed upon that archway in deep letters that had only just survived the ravages of time, the moniker and closing words of their Ethos still proudly remained, for all of history to see;
“Tomorrow, the World.”