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By the mind of Match, Shadow Councilor to the True Emperor. Upon the Leviathan, helpless to alter its course. Today I pour out water from the Y-Goblet, so that my ancestors may wash their eyes. My every thought and purpose for my Emperor, Calus, once and future sovereign.
We pass through the outer marches of our lost empire. One day the Leviathan howls along at speed, and the next it drifts on an idle course. We still cannot repair the butchered control systems, and our Emperor, who once ordered this ship's construction for his purposes, refuses to share his knowledge in metaconcert.
Yet as we leave the space that was once his dominion, I see how my Emperor digests his situation. He no longer rages and spills wine. He has not cursed Ghaul's name in nearly a year. I feel his thoughts taking new shape and color.
I do not know if I like it.
In the fast-time of relativity, we watch the Cabal change around us, and it leaves my eye cold from weeping. When Calus reigned, artists and thinkers visited the athenaeum worlds to be inspired by alien wonders from across and beyond the Cabal. Now the athenaeum worlds are shut. The works they inspired have been replaced by grim assembly-line weapons and the architecture of bunkers. Fountains geyser black fuel; gardens vanish beneath belching factoria.
Ghaul has even disfigured the peoples' minds. He has dismembered the Cabal of its foreign influences, teaching the people a pit fighter's gruesome self-sufficiency. Weapons only a grunt can understand. Language that can only be barked through a battlenet. I mourn the empire that built wonders like the Nineth Bridge. I mourn all the client species beaten into cogs.
But if I mourn, my emperor withers entirely. Even his interest in the archives and the observatory has vanished- he no longer cares to study a universe that has offended him. He doubts his own divinity, because how could a god allow this to happen? His rage has gone and he does not know what he has left after it. The new shape I feel in his mind is gray and smooth like fog.
Among my people-I mean my people, the people of the chalice, not the whole Psion species- we call this feeling "sweet oubliette", the shelter that becomes a prison. For Calus, I imagine it feels like the loss of all appetite. Even the curiosity that made him great.
The councilors ask me to go to him. But I am still afraid. What if he sees my secret? What will he do? Even his beloved tea-seller has already abandoned him. If he knows I still worship the old cup, and I put it before His Name in my benediction... will it be one betrayal too many?
At least he no longer bellows in the night.
By the mind of Match, Shadow Councilor to the True Emperor. Upon the Leviathan, helpless to alter its course. Today I pour salt from the Y-Goblet so that my ancestors may roughen their skin. My every thought and purpose for my Emperor, Calus, once and future sovereign.
We are at war. Here at the fringe of the empire, fleets clash over emptiness. In council, we surmise that the tyrant Ghaul wants this void as a buffer against invasion- but isn't the irony bitter? This enemy desires nothing but our death. And so we oblige them by dying for nothing.
It is the opposite of everything Calus wanted for his people. Even the new Cabal's ships are expendable. These are not the beautiful deterrents of Calus's armada; they are ugly, hasty, and crude. The crews live in their armor, prisoners of their duty, escaping only through music and games smuggled into the battlenet. One popular pastime, I understand, is to draft personal "fleets" and "legions" from among real Cabal ships and soldiers, competing with comrades to win the most victories. Of course it is bad luck to draft your own unit.
The enemy is yet worse. All Psions live in a world of minds. I believe in the cup and all its spirits because I feel those spirits every day- the prints left by other minds on the things I touch and see. These Hive... have no spirit. Their souls are emancipated. Some horrible solvent has stripped them down of everything but hate, cunning, and the will to survive. I think they worship death because it is the only salvation from their existence.
I suggested that the War Councilors invite Calus to observe one of Ghaul's carrier groups attacking a Hive War moon. He came because he knows the value of pretending to care. But even the shape of the fleet hurt him; Ghaul and his tyrannical ally Umun'arath have abandoned proud, independent cruisers (instruments of state, Calus liked to say) for swarms of frigates that suckle fuel from enormous fleet carriers. The Hive's portals leave no time or space for elegant vector dances, so these new ships are built for brutal exchanges at point-blank range.
We felt other Psions hard at work, hiding the traitor fleet from the Hive as they scattered drills and boarding pods in the war moon's path. A strike at the surface was not enough; someone would have to bring a planet-cracker warhead down into the moon's viscera. Caught up in the excitement, I asked one of the war councilors how we could possibly prevail against the Hive, who were so old and so powerful.
She compared our Cabal to a seagoing warship and the Hive to a submarine. They might dive into deep metaphysical layers of existence, where we are no match for them. But in the ordinary universe, the Hive are like a submarine on the surface: still dangerous, but not invincibly so.
I was fascinated and secretly struck by the clarity of the goblet on her face. Did she believe we could ultimately defeat the Hive?
No, she said. But we could hold them back long enough to live our lives. Wasn't that enough?
Inviting Calus was a mistake. It only reminded him that he had no power at all.
By the mind of Match. Upon the Leviathan, resigned to its course. Today I fill the Y-goblet with powdered bone, so that my ancestors may dry their ink. My every thought and purpose for my Emperor, Calus, once sovereign.
The Leviathan journeys through a void in the galaxy, without stars or even dust to relieve its nothingness. The astronomers say that an ancient cataclysm blasted open an abscess in the cosmos here. I feel the absence of spirit like a pressure headache, as if everything inside me wants to come rushing out.
We are losing hope, but as long as we are still losing it, then it has not run out. Psions are said to have no sense of humor, because humor comes from the unexpected, and we are clairvoyant. Well, we were not clairvoyant enough to expect the coup, so I suppose we must be blind enough to retain a sense of humor, and I can still laugh at our predicament: the loyal retinue of the Curious Emperor, the Emperor of Joyous Excess, marooned in absolute nothingness.
Calus won't leave his observation couch- not to take meals, not to visit gardens or sample the wines, not to read or to write in his Imperativa Titanica or to suggest new dishes to the cooks or to tell us stories from far-away worlds or even to wonder aloud why Caiatl never heeded him. He stares and stares into the emptiness.
I think he feels small. Most of the universe is nothing, and he is nothing to it. This scar in our galaxy was cut long before he was born.
I drew the Y-goblet in the dirt of a garden today. I used my finger, not my mind, so that no one would feel it. My faith was exterminated long before my people met the Cabal, in a way so total and vicious that I do not think a people without psionics could understand the pain.
My ancestors were the strongest secret-keepers in the universe. I know this because they survived long enough to give birth to me. I don't know how they did it, because every time I look another Psion in the face I see the Y-goblet, the holy cup into which our minds were poured.
What if Calus knows I'm losing my faith in him? What if I'm the poison that makes him wilt?
Do you want to hear a joke? No, I already know I'll laugh. That is a Psion joke.
By the mind of Match- I do not know where we are- chalice catch and save us all-
God answers god! The void in Calus's soul called out and THIS is what replied- the Leviathan's control system failed when it saw what awaits us- we are drifting into it!
Calus has sealed himself in his observation chamber. His transmissions strike the THING and return to us disfigured by intolerable forces. We have gathered to share our thoughts in concert, to try to understand what's happening, but we are afraid we will succeed- we stammer like children and the concert fails.
Is this the edge of the universe? Space cannot have an end: it goes on forever. But a hole in forever would be a kind of edge... a flaw, a defect, a place outside place...
I must be calm. I must record my thoughts. Now I think of the OXA Machine, eternally lost and eternally rebuilt, passed down from civilization to civilization like a ship's black box. I think of the legends of the Hive King Oryx and his quest to pass into the Deep. I took that story as an allegory. I think I was wrong.
What will happen to us inside? Will the geometry of space and time collapse, so that we experience our lives in a single moment, crumbled over ourselves like a tangled chain? Will I tend to myself as I die of old age or scream warnings to my own past as we meet in the berserk maze of a twisted Leviathan? I hate the thought of it! An eternity reading my own mad minds, tasting the insanity of my own future and thus becoming it!
Even the spirits from the goblet would go mad.
There is only one of us who welcomes this insanity and I do not know why but how could I? How could I ever anticipate or understand a god?
All over the ship- broadcast from the comfort of his observation room- CALUS IS LAUGHING
By the mind of Match, Shadow Councilor to the True Emperor. Upon the Leviathan, wandering at our Emperor's whim. Today I fill the Y-goblet with dice, so that my ancestors may roll the odds. My every thought and purpose for my Emperor, Calus, once and future sovereign.
I was in the observatory today when he came to me. I should have been vetting a list of loyalists for the countercoup, but in truth, I was watching the ruined mirrors of an ancient starshell as they plummeted four hundred million kilometers into a blue sun. They look like crumpled handkerchiefs. Their fall is very slow, and those who made them are eons dead.
Here on our Leviathan, all is reborn. The guard companies have buffed their armor to a syrupy shine. The ship responds ably to our commands, and we barely quench its appetite for mass to feed its engines and factories. Music fills the gardens, the gardeners hum along as they trim and weed, and Calus dallies in the kitchens with a pinch of spice, once more unmistakably himself.
I haven't thought into this journal since that day at the edge, when Calus came out of his observation bubble overflowing with joy. "It's the end," he bellowed, giddy as a girl with her first tusks. "It's magnificent, it's divine, it's more than I ever was! Match, it's the end of everything!"
He frightened me. That day frightened all of us- none of us will speak of it, and we do not dare more than the shallowest metaconcert, lest our memories pool into a deadly truth. But in that void, Calus saw his purpose renewed. He guided us to reset the failed navigation system, repair the traitors' sabotage, and retake control. I thought we would hurry back to the homeworld, but Calus no longer seems to pine for his lost throne... or to care about the reforms he once championed.
Now we wander the galaxy on an epicurean crusade, sampling a bounty of raw furies and rare delights. All the inquisitiveness and avarice that Calus once poured into government he now extends to his appetites. I have seen Calus feast on things no living mouth can eat. A chill superfluid of helium-4, whorled in his cup for ten years by a single turn of his wrist: he returned a decade later to toss it back. Or a pea of neutronium that should have torn through him like fog. He told me it tasted like the thickest fudge.
He is changing.
He was here a moment ago. The ruined starshell caught his attention: He loves beauty, and millions of mirror-bright sails folding up like tissues in wind to fall into a blue giant and very beautiful. Eons ago, someone built these mirrors to hover on the blue star's light, and for a while, I suppose, they lived in sun-fed paradise.
"How did they die?" I asked.
"That, Match, is the wrong question." He tuned the observation room to track a single tumbling mirror. In life, the sail had been as wide as the space between a world and it's moon; in death, the rigging had collapsed into a thistle of spinmetal and glint. "What you should ask is why I am so glad they died!"
I could not imagine, and I admitted it. "These beings were much like us. They did not travel through time or lacerate the universe and crawl into the wounds or yearn for the patronage of any old machine... they were creatures of material ambition, of physics, of life. If they failed, it is an omen of death for us."
"Precisely," Calus said, with wry generosity. "They were grand once. They thought, very briefly, that they would live forever. And they were wrong. We would be very ungrateful to refuse the lesson, wouldn't we?"
I sat before a fountain and tried to pour out spirits for guidance, but they would not explain.
(An addendum, later: I have not seen Calus in the flesh since.)
By the mind of Match, Shadow Councilor to the True Emperor. Upon the Leviathan, triumphant in our Emperor's battle. Today I fill the Y-goblet with linen, so that my ancestors may tie up their wounds. My every thought and purpose for my Emperor, Calus, once and future sovereign.
We have conquered the Clipse.
Among all the clients of Calus's reign, all those diverse species he encouraged to join and influence our great culture, the Clipse were one of his dearest favorites. When they greeted his return with missiles, it wounded him terribly. But Calus neither sulked nor raged nor signaled them in the dead of their night to woefully demand an explanation. This I credit to his mysterious new philosophy.
Instead, he asked Valus Nohr to plan and execute the reconquest of the Clipse, using only the Leviathan and the troops aboard. Then he asked me to deliver an account of Clipse history since the coup.
Calus was proud of his aid to the Clipse. They are- were- trapped in endless war with their alien-infested biosphere, which spawns horrors wherever it grows. Calus saw this war as a regrettable but unalterable fact, so instead of military support, he sought to enrich the Clipse with fine culture and high luxury. The Clipse were not pleased. After Ghaul's mutiny, the Dominus tried to secure their loyalty by sending a fleet group to "win" their ancient war.
Of course, the legionaries discovered it was impossible to conquer the xenocidal ecosystem without destroying the planet itself. Their efforts only poisoned the Clipse, both world and people. After a century of botched climate engineering, toxic shock attacks, and "clear and hold" nonsense, Ghaul wrote off the tormented Clipse as "no longer essential to the strategic security of the empire."
I think the Clipse hoped they could win back Ghaul's favor by defying Calus. Perhaps they thought their world was unconquerable. Perhaps they were even right, in the end. Valus Nohr landed on their moon and military capital Kaga-Clipse with just six thousand troops. For eight weeks, the Clipse attacked her by the ground and by orbit as their robotic interceptors swarmed the Leviathan. I was not part of the great metaconcert that helped protect us, but the might of gathered minds filled the carpets with static and gave me constant déjà vu.
When Nohr broke out of her bastion on her famous thunder run, calling down the Leviathan's missiles on the vital command posts she'd identified, the Clipse defense crumbled. Their last desperate act was a commando strike at the Leviathan itself. The boarding craft slipped under our sensors, but the metaconcert felt the vengeful purpose aboard.
Calus stopped us from firing. "I welcome their attempt," he said. "Let me see their spirit."
I called to ask his intentions- I have not seen him face to face for longer than I can count. "I'm curating my followers, Match," he answered. "Thinking about the shadows I'll cast."
The Clipse attack failed of course, but there was a survivor- the one named Rull. Some think he earned a face-to-face meeting with Calus, though I doubt it was truly His face. With Kaga-Clipse in our control, we could destroy the Clipse world at our leisure. Calus rewarded their surrender by giving Rull a gift: everything the Clipse needed to end their agonizing perpetual war.
It was a sheet of paper, the thick rough-edged sort that Calus makes out of cometary water and cotton from his personal garden (he says that he likes the smell). Rull signed it after two hours in a room with Calus. The Leviathan's factories shuddered into motion, forging luxurious self-contained arcologies, pocket worlds that could hold thousands in perpetual comfort.
When Rull's chosen people were safe in the arcologies, the guns of Kaga-Clipse bombarded the Clipse into a global firestorm. The chosen survivors in the arcologies would inherit lives of plenty. The rest had the peace of ash. The eternal war was over.
I prayed to the cup in the mirror for answers. But it was Calus who responded.
"Match." He spoke into my mind just like a Psion would. "I told Rull the truth. Everything is going to end soon. We must accept that. What matters is the joy and companionship we can find before the final moment. Why let billions suffer for a future that will never come? Life with no dignity and no purpose except to go on living isn't life. It's a virus. It's a curse. Better to die than to become like the Hive."
Rull left his world to journey with us. I wonder if he could not face what he'd done.
By the mind of Match, Shadow Councilor to the True Emperor. Upon the Leviathan, crossing a place of famine. Today I fill the Y-goblet with lithium, that my ancestors may never want for metal. My every thought and purpose for my Emperor, Calus, once and future sovereign.
We have been at work for so very long that I have neglected this journal. But we are crossing a starved place, a burnt clearing in the dark galactic forest, and I find myself with time to think.
Perhaps that is why my Emperor came to me again.
The robotic facsimiles he manufactures are eerily like him- or like the Calus I remember; I have the surest feeling that his true form is no longer the Emperor I knew. Perhaps he is just a mouth now, smiling, laughing, eating what it fancies...
But I choose to believe he still has a soul. Why else would he come to me, except that he cares what I think of him?
As he settled on the observatory couch beside me, I tried to sense the construction of his machine body. But his presence was so fierce, it was like staring into the sun. "Do you know where we are?" he asked.
"A part of the galaxy that was settled very long ago," I said, closing my inner eye against his radiance. A star, I found myself thinking, is an explosion that cannot escape the appetite of its own gravity. "Poor fortune in supernova scattering left this area short of metals, and now there is nothing left but dim stars, dead worlds, and hydrogen."
"A place of poverty," he suggested. "A graveyard."
"You speak often of death, your Majesty."
"The knowledge of death is the key to happiness." He patted the bench beside him, as if acknowledging a missing friend. "Look out there. Imagine all the trillions of beings who lived among these stars. Do you think some of them were happy?"
"I should hope so."
"Why, Match? Why would some be happy, and others miserable?"
"Perhaps they had more metal," I suggested dryly.
"Exactly!" He clapped in delight, nearly bowling me over. "Happiness is comparative, Match. I tell you that if a rich man lived next to a woman who had ten times his wealth, he would never be satisfied, even in marriage. He would feel poor when he looked at her. Even the basic satisfactions of our biology require contrast- the absence of thirst, the absence of hunger, the absence of loneliness."
"This is a child's philosophy, your Majesty," I protested. "We need pain to know pleasure? We need loss to make us treasure gain? A runt would say these things. Why, you once told me that these are homilies the miserable use to excuse their misery. Suffering does not heighten happiness. Fear does not bless us. True contentment is true in itself."
He looked at me with great satisfaction, delighted by my insight, and by the way my words reflected his own wisdom. "What was the flaw in my empire, Match? Why did Ghaul overthrow me?"
I sensed he did not want my first answer: because those disenfranchised and infuriated by his cosmopolitan reforms had united without his knowledge. "Because you did not fear death, your Majesty?"
"Exactly! I opened my arms to embrace all my peoples, offering them consumption without limit and celebration without end. The stars themselves burned sweet and clear, and I forgot- even stars die." He leaned closer to me. I felt warmth like an oven under his counterfeit skin. "You're right. The truly happy do not need misery and suffering to give their lives meaning. They exist in the moment, at peace with their inevitable death. Now that I've accepted all this will end... it has meaning again, Match! I have MORE than the rest of the universe. I've seen what's coming! I know the value of every moment left!"
He smiled at me, his cleft pulled back from bright teeth. "And I want you to value those moments too, Match. I wonder... if there is something you want to tell me. Something that would change the rest of your life. Make no mistake: an end is coming, soon, and you will have no chance at all afterwards to correct what you regret. So why delay? Why not tell me?"
I do not remember the excuse I made as I fled.
By the mind of Match, priest of the chalice. Upon the Leviathan, where my temple now stands. Today I fill the Y-goblet with praise for my Emperor, Calus, once and future sovereign, so that my ancestors may know his generosity.
I told him.
He has decided where he will make everything ready for death. The Leviathan's course is set for a far system, where the Traveler awaits. His Shadows are already on their way to kill Ghaul, or die in the attempt. How could I betray him, in this time of endings, by keeping a secret he has asked to share?
I went to him as he bathed in his royal pool, for his proxies are, of course, as exquisitely sensual as his old form. I shed my garments, there being no taboo between us than between two animals, and sat beside him in the glow of his comfort.
"Your Majesty," I said, "I kept a secret from you."
I explained how I worshipped my ancestors and the sacred chalice that cupped their spirits. I admitted that I had put these beliefs before him in my heart. He listened as I told him how the ancient God-Thoughts of my people, the operant overlords who dominated our prehistory by sheer mental preparation, had exterminated my faith for daring to see a spark of the divine in every common person.
"Match," he said, "you have committed a crime, and I will pass my sentence shortly. But first, let me ask you something. Do you think I made the right choice with the Clipse?"
"No," I admitted.
"Because I ended so many lives?"
"Yes, your Majesty."
"But knowing that they would soon end anyway, and that by killing most could allow a small few to live in happiness rather than in strife... did I not chose the greatest possible good?"
"I suppose, your Majesty, that my faith makes me see the shared suffering of the Clipse as... more fair than the survival of a happy few. If I were one of the Clipse, I would want a fair chance. Not judgement from on high."
He nodded in compassion. "I know. I once tried to be fair too, Match. An empire of excess for every citizen, no matter their class or species of birth. It is good for a ruler to raise the standard by which his subjects live. But what if that ruler has found proof, absolute proof, that existence is a zero-sum game? There is not enough time or energy to give everyone a fair life? Knowing that, mustn't we privilege a chose few?"
I did not know and I admitted it.
"That's all right. I don't ask certainty." He shifted himself, sending waves across the pool. "For a long time after the coup, I stared out into the infinite universe, and I saw... meaninglessness. In a universe that goes on forever, there must be an infinity of Caluses, all staring at the same blankness. How could I be a god if I was... generic?"
"But now that I have seen what is coming, now that there is a limit to the time afforded to us... well, it may sound cruel, Match, but the less there is of everything else, the more I matter. I intend to be the last good thing in this world. I will gather my chosen companions and ease as much suffering as I can before the end. There are emperors who would take on any shape to escape death. I am not one. I am true to myself. And so, Match, are you."
He clapped me on the back with enormous gentleness. "Your only crime, my councilor, was that you denied me the chance to give you a gift. Come. Show me the place you favor, and tell me the measurements you require. I will build you a temple so you can worship without fear. And all I ask is that you remember me in your prayers."
By the mind of Match, Shadow Councilor to the True Emperor. Upon the Leviathan, at rest in the place of endings. I thank my ancestors for the fullness of my cup; I thank my Emperor for granting me purpose.
Without a secret troubling my mind, I've neglected this journal. I come back to it today in good humor, moved by my Emperor's own amusement A party of Guardians that Calus entertains arrived with a set of various squabbling demands- a starship, a precise description of their "Darkness", a list of stars the Traveler has visited, a treaty with the Cabal empire for the defense of Earth, a chance to see Calus in his true form, repairs to certain weapons they feel have gone askew, so much and so forth.
Calus loves these Guardians so. He loves them for their energy, their liveliness, their willingness to do whatever he asks in hope of a reward. He loves it when they dance. He loves the great heroic sulks so many of them enter when they become dissatisfied with their work. Seek joy, he urges them!
And he loves his Guardians because he knows he can teach them a lesson they cannot ever learn themselves. They are as Calus once was: unaware of their finitude.
Calus will teach them. They are immortal, but they will all be gone one day- like my Emperor, like me. That appointed day is coming soon. All of this will vanish as surely as childhood vanishes from the grown. And when the things the Guardians strive for are lost- their power, their future, their dive to do more and more- they will understand that what matters is the joy they found with their companions, not the arsenals and ambitions they gathered.
All things will end. All things done for the sake of some future greatness will come to nothing. In our final tallies, only the things that brought us joy and meaning will count.
And because I trusted Calus, I have found joy. I have made the choices that will let me die in peace.
Bless the spirits from the chalice. Bless the day they poured our souls into us. And bless my Emperor, who will lead us to the end.