One Terran month later
The barely lit tunnel stretched ahead of Srequi Lantrane, a mix of green and dark gray alloys bounding a corridor with a coffin-like cross-section. Where the earlier paths had branched and weaved, this one was straight and (given that they were in a realm not bound to the same distances as the material) unnecessarily long. Anrakyr even exuded uncertainty over the possibility of a trap.
Lantrane knew there was none. The path to Szarekh had, she recognized, been engineered to induce doubt in those who trod it, even if they were Necron. Still, if pressed, she would have admitted uncertainty. After all, Szarekh’s location was not entirely a secret – the Dragon of Mars, that ancient enemy of the Necron race, had managed to somehow uncover it. And yet there was this interminable corridor.
Over a Terran month of walking, according to her internal chronometer, with some property of the walls inhibiting running, and presumably mechanical transportation. Anrakyr had said, at first, that it was a fitting walk for an audience with the Silent King.
“It still is,” Anrakyr transmitted, and Lantrane recognized she had transmitted that last thought. “If it is not a trap.”
“Five and a half minutes,” Lantrane updated Anrakyr. Unnecessary, but a firm reminder that they were almost there.
To meet the being that had led the Necrons to their destiny. While on quite a few subjects he had insisted on keeping his silence, Anrakyr had told Lantrane of Szarekh, the last Silent King, who had forged the pact with the sinister grandeur of the C’tan to take vengeance on the Old Ones of Terra. Who had led his people to sacrifice their souls, and in many cases their very minds, for immortality, but led them too to victory in an impossible war. Who had, in the end, betrayed his gods and restored the Necrons’ free will. And who had, in the last instant of his undisputed reign, caged the Necrons for sixty million years (sixty-five, if Terran), for reasons Anrakyr did not fully understand.
To awaken at the End, calculated to within a few millennia on a scale of aeons. Lantrane did not need even her Mechanicum augmentations to recognize the implausibility of that being accidental.
Most of the Necrons were still in stasis, and Anrakyr himself had only recently awoken, spending the last decades covertly visiting other worlds and ushering them into this new era. Many had been less grateful than Anrakyr had hoped and expected. Nonetheless, he had thus far come out ahead on resources. But with the situation being as desperate as it was, Anrakyr had decided to sacrifice freedom and summon the Silent King, if Szarekh still lived.
Lantrane, on that, would honor her part of the bargain. Liberty had never been high among the Mechanicum’s values – all Adepts were servants of the Quest for Knowledge, and while there was a certain amount of equalized discretion implied in that, there was also a certain amount of random defiance forbidden by it. And she had sacrificed her life once, to a mad god. Sacrificing her liberty to a reluctant king…
If, of course, Szarekh would listen. And on that matter, she could only trust Anrakyr’s competence and patriotism.
“Forty and a half seconds,” Anrakyr transmitted, and Lantrane allowed herself a concealed crest of irritation. It was strange – her emotions had become subdued, or perhaps more accurately slow, and changed greatly (as evidenced by a month of near-solitude, interrupted only by Anrakyr’s occasional commentary, having little psychological effect), but they had not gone entirely, or at least were not the reason for the hole at the center of her mind.
What was missing was, rather… something she had not known she had. A soul, Anrakyr had dubbed it, and that was as good a name as any. Was it a figment of the Warp? An inefficient twist in neural circuits? Merely the absence of a fragment of hungry C’tan discontent that the star-gods had, accidentally or not, forced upon those meant to be their pawns?
And then the empty space in front of them changed, and what had been a road became a cell.
They stood behind an erratic grid of varying light, arranged as if a stained-glass window, though presenting no image Lantrane could discern. Beyond them, there was a trophy hall filled with crystalline cells holding wildly varying weaponry. Some were straightforward, swords and pikes and tridents, albeit decorated in widely varying ways and in some cases half-camouflaged. Others, Lantrane associated with things besides war: lanterns, cubes, screwdrivers. Yet more were filled with weapons with forms deemed impractical by every race in the Milky Way: taijitus, asterisks, and something that looked vaguely like a Terran hippopotamus. There was nothing resembling a gun, though. Many of the artifacts seemed to Lantrane to be whimpering, as if denied some portion of themselves and stating as much noospherically.
The path behind them was closed, as were their sides; Anrakyr poked the leaden-gray wall with his halberd, experimentally, but it was no illusion. Lantrane was not sure how it had emerged, but she had more crucial points to obsess over.
One of them being the Necron now walking into that hall. He looked not unlike Anrakyr, if slightly hunched where Pyrrhia’s ruler stood straight. Moreover, his skeletal body glowed green, not blue, and seemed saturated with light instead of merely emitting it from a few orbs on his body. He wore a complex article of clothing built up of metalloid strips, with a bright green cloak around his shoulders and a black cylinder that presumably extended into a blade at his belt. His gaze turned to Anrakyr and Lantrane, and both were on their knees without the latter realizing how. It was a look of unfaded memory, across a barely conceivable temporal abyss, and of an unbounded authority undimmed by those depths.
“Anrakyr, Overlord of Pyrrhia,” Szarekh said (in Necrontyr rather than binary), causing Anrakyr’s eyes to twinkle in confusion. “Oh, don’t worry, I am silent no more. Your companion?”
“Srequi Lantrane of Mars, your grace,” Lantrane said, unmoving.
you been up to, Anrakyr?” Szarekh’s tone held only a thin slice of accusation, reflecting that he saw Anrakyr’s cooperation with the C’tan as unlikely; but that slice was stark indeed.
“It was her choice, not mine,” Anrakyr said. “You hid yourself well, your grace; I had to get your location out of a shard of Mag’ladroth, through a mix of intimidation and her sacrifice.”
Szarekh’s face cracked, indicating his worries were assuaged. “Never Necrontyr, yet Necron. Well, Anrakyr of Pyrrhia and Lantrane of Mars, I bid you welcome to the Tritium
The bars of their cage vanished, and Anrakyr rose to walk forward. Lantrane followed him.
“An impressive collection,” Anrakyr noted.
“Aye,” Szarekh said, “but little of it is functional, so close to the Milky Way. The Warp confounds some of the mightiest tools, and both its strength and character are profoundly variable across megaparsecs.”
“And some of it is complaining about that,” Anrakyr added.
“Indeed,” Szarekh said. “Come! We may be incapable of food and drink, but I have long run out of worthy opponents in saain-mo. And discuss, in the meantime, whatever your reasons for coming were.”
Anrakyr’s head vibrated at a slightly anxious tenor as he sent Lantrane the game’s rules. He had been considered one of the empire’s best players in his time, but Szarekh had presumably improved over the time he had been awake – a time Lantrane expected was a small fraction of the Necrons’ era of sleep, to be sure, but still.
“It was originally a game of the Old Ones,” Anrakyr transmitted to her in Necron binary. “A symbol, even, of the Necrontyr’s derision for gods who spent months on a mere game. Now we are the only beings to retain it.”
They walked up a set of barely moving stairs, and Lantrane was forced to note that the complex – whether it was indeed a vessel or not – looked truly ancient. Wear that had to have taken thousands of years to engrave itself was left unrepaired; yet regions were built up that implied repairs nonetheless happened. And Szarekh’s mentions of foreign galaxies… Lantrane could actually believe some of those travels had been sublight.
“The great dark of space,” Szarekh said, “smiles with a gaping maw.” But the great maw of time, it seemed, was nothing to him. How many millennia had he seen?
Was even the Emperor any more than an aberration in his heartbeat?
And then they came up to the game table, situated at the center of what seemed a royal bar. No alcohol or water, of course – Necrons mainly kept personal processes from ambient energy, herself included. She had needed to suppress the temptation to tinker with her own body, after realizing that. If she had still been an Adept and discovered such a possibility… but it was far from the greatest dazzling strangeness, in this new world she had entered. If her emotions had not been altered, her wonder would have been overwhelming; as it was, it was modified towards awe, though still abundant.
Anrakyr set down opposite Szarekh; Lantrane took up a position as the designated second, and a bodyguard as Szarekh’s. Neither needed to make significant strategic decisions, thankfully. Lantrane could not expect to meaningfully contribute in that sense.
“First move is mine,” Szarekh observed as the randomizer resolved, entering his first rules into the system, laying the game’s foundation. Anrakyr responded by attacking randomization; Szarekh did not fight on that front, instead acting to speed the match up. In principle, a full saain-mo match could take Terran months; the shortened version Szarekh had here chosen was limited to a day, and with the current rules would be over within three hours.
Anrakyr pushed his luck, but Szarekh cut him off with what Lantrane found to be a clever loophole. Anrakyr’s reaction indicated that it was in truth a well-established part of opening theory. The Pyrrhian pressed on scoring rules, but was once again repulsed, this time through a dagger that exposed weakness in his randomization advantage. Anrakyr responded with quick interplay to make massive gains in rule creation economy, Lantrane assisting, but Szarekh exploited the hole to score his first points and render the victory almost moot.
“Vakhephis’ gambit,” Anrakyr said, head vibrating. “You’re only the third Necron to successfully pull that off on me.”
“Well, since you blocked off Pririz’s….”
Anrakyr nodded. “A rapid match, then.”
Szarekh nodded, entering his next commands. Stars littered the field, the board in information on void warfare. “You’ve still got quite a chance, mind you.”
“I’m aware,” Anrakyr said, illusory cracks appearing on his face to signify calm confidence as ships began to appear. “So where are we, then? You mentioned that it was near
the Milky Way?”
“I should be able to reach the galactic east within a few of our years, if necessary,” Szarekh said, Anrakyr winning the first battles, tilting the score in his favor. “You awoke early?”
“And have been trying to awake others,” Anrakyr agreed. “Clocks have somewhat diverged over time, tectonic movements making matters worse.” He radiated frustration, though trying ineffectively to hide it; Lantrane tried to make calming movements, but Anrakyr overextended nonetheless, allowing Szarekh to swoop in. Suddenly Anrakyr’s lead had become Szarekh’s, though Anrakyr regrouped in time to prevent total collapse.
“I had my reasons,” Szarekh declared after a long silence.
Anrakyr let out a rattling sigh, one of the few portions of Necrontyr body language close to humanity’s. “Aye,” he said, “and they were valid. But communication….”
Szarekh gave affirmation, as he failed to press his advantage, perhaps from distraction. Anrakyr sent probing attacks, scoring a few points to start catching up. Both focused on the game once more, as it became increasingly competitive; aside from a few compliments to one move or another, the Necrons were silent. The bodyguard – no, the Praetorian – had remained thus since appearing. Lantrane imitated her hosts.
Then Anrakyr made an attack, adding a crucial rule change in lieu of scoring… only for Szarekh to respond with his own, clearly planned attack, also forgoing the scoring to use a loophole in Anrakyr’s move. A few shots later, Anrakyr’s economic meta-advantage was in ruins, the score even, slightly above three hundred.
Anrakyr’s head shook. “You’ve made that move before,” he commented.
“Yes, in a recent game in Triangulum. Never underestimate the effect of boredom, Anrakyr. But this was meant to be a friendly match, was it not?”
“Yes, yes,” Anrakyr said. The cracks appeared again, though this time they were ironic. “So. How many galaxies have
you visited, anyhow?”
“Ones not secret? Six hundred and fifty-eight. Over forty million years of subjective time.”
The shockingly unshocked Anrakyr looked at the board, as he pressed Szarekh’s forces back again, capturing critical freedoms. “We’ll both beat that score within an hour.” A Necrontyr hour, of course, equal to roughly three-quarters of a Terran one. Alien time measurements were a special tier of torture.
“And the game will end soon after,” Szarekh noted. “So, business?”
“Business,” Anrakyr accepted, and there was another long, pregnant pause. “Your grace, we need you to return. To awaken the Necrons and lead our kind to war one last time. The End Times are here.”
“The End Times?!” Szarekh’s troop movements showed no sign of his shock, but his diplomatic ones were a different matter. The Silent King’s forces were quickly surrounded, and suddenly Lantrane saw through the espionage system what Anrakyr must have noticed several minutes ago, a way to go in for a sudden kill. And Szarekh would not be able to realize it, at least not unless….
“The End Times,” Anrakyr confirmed, flipping another star. “Lantrane is from Mars – a world we once knew as Time IV. Her race, from Time III, dominates the Milky Way.”
“Terra?” Szarekh inquired. “Its location in the galactic plane is quite different from Time’s.”
“The humans moved it,” Anrakyr said. “Other astrological prophecies match, too.”
“And you want me to go back,” Szarekh continued. “To renew the command protocols, and lead the Necrons into the final war, to gamble for everything.”
“The gamble is inevitable,” Anrakyr defended himself, even as he attacked on the field. “If we do not play, we merely lessen our chances.”
“Indeed,” Szarekh said, and suddenly the map shifted.
Lantrane took several minutes to realize just how Szarekh had been able to pull it off, but suddenly Anrakyr’s forces were split by a trap, and Szarekh had split the Pyrrhian’s attack. The center could not hold, and the attack meant to end the game was bogged down. Anrakyr still held the scoreboard advantage, but within a few seconds every other advantage went Szarekh’s way.
Anrakyr looked down. “That….”
Szarekh was silent, looking into the space between Lantrane and Anrakyr. Seeing, perhaps, some shade from his eternity.
Anrakyr continued playing, trying to rebuild his economic advantage; Szarekh did not try to hurry the match. The conversation on galactic matters paused, a game taking precedence over galactic fate for several minutes.
“Anyhow,” Szarekh concluded, “I will do as you recommend, with one exception. The End Times… I trust you told the truth, Anrakyr, but my wrath will impress even Mag’ladroth if you lied here. Unless it was a joke?”
“It was not, your grace,” Anrakyr said, and cracks appeared on his face again, for the first time since Szarekh had turned the tide. By now in the Silent King’s favor, after a period of quick scoring.
“Then so be it,” Szarekh said. “I will steer the Tritium
back to the Milky Way, and initiate galactic awakening… but the command protocols are gone, Anrakyr. I am king for eternity, but god of Necronkind no more.”
Anrakyr seemed some mixture of relieved and frustrated. “Then the dynasties… there’ll be little to unite them. You are only one being, your grace, you cannot be everywhere.”
Lantrane did not know how she felt, herself. Surely at a moment (on the planetary timescale, at least, it was a moment) as crucial as this supposedly was, Necronkind would come together, even if not literally forced to?
“But it is better than doing nothing,” Szarekh said. “And I would not install the protocols again, even if I could. No… we will find our way in the flaming evening one by one. The Tritium
flies back to the Milky Way, Anrakyr; now, with that settled, back to the game?”
Anrakyr acquiesced, though even Lantrane saw that the match was hopeless. She took the moment to look around herself, at the implements she had no idea as to the function of. Absurdly ancient artifacts of a race that had risen from time’s trenches, that would bring... something
… back to the galaxy. To what extent it would be somewhat benevolent, or at least beneficial, time would as ever tell. Yet Lantrane expected that they would improve matters, if only because they understood them.
She noted a pinprick hole, in the bar’s wall, and rose to examine it; Anrakyr could manage for a few minutes by himself. To her surprise, when she leaned to observe it, it was a viewport. Through it, Lantrane could see a starscape – no, those fires were diffuse, a galaxyscape. And brightest of all by far, in the lower part of the vista, a great, tilted spiral lightfield, dominating the void.
The Milky Way.
Every empire, every life, every object she had ever known, within that half-steradian. But the space outside… she could see, with her newly enhanced vision, galaxies in every direction except the Milky Way’s halo, no longer blocked out by dispersed starlight. It was not empty; it was full of dream reflections, of paths she could have walked.
And yet they were returning home, to that wheel from which all her paths had sprung, and from the anxiety Szarekh had shown, she suspected it was for a crux that might well matter for more than one galaxy. For a time relevant on a scale well past millennia.
Yes, Anrakyr was a questionable hero, and the race she now belonged to moreso, those ghosts whose lifespan was geologic. And she was most questionable of all, had in a sense been even as a member of the Mechanicum, that sinking ark she had abandoned (with doubt, but without hesitation). But did it matter? The daybreak, from what she understood, would be fragmented….
Its sun would shine no less brightly for it. For knowledge, and for every other value.
And it would shine with the luster of iron.