Azari thought himself lucky to survey the archives, not least because they held relatively few corpses. The virus had killed some clerks and librarians there, that was true, but the carnage was nothing compared to the habitat blocks, where bodies spilled out of doorways in so many bloated landslides, or to the expanse of Victory Square, where the massed faithful were piled three or four deep. Instead of reeking of death, this place merely carried its scent.
He set down his flyer in a clearing not far from the archive complex. Buildings were sparse out here, and the twisted, tangled vegetation, colored a robust green now that summer had come, seemed on the verge of swallowing them up entirely. The grey towers of the City of the Sacred Path rose from the horizon to the south. Nothing moved but branches tossed by a cool breeze, and the distant, silvery outline of another flyer soaring across a blue sky.
He switched on a microphone and surveyed the scene from his aircraft's cockpit. "Log: I have reached the designated landing zone. Conditions consistent with previous drone exploration. Buildings in good repair, no bodies visible." A journalist before he had become a Confederation agent, he would have preferred to be more flowery in capturing what he saw, but his superiors demanded concision.
The view from here certainly allowed for some elaboration. With augmented senses he could detect anything from radio waves to gamma rays, in enough detail to track an insect at half a kilometer, and his sensorium integrated it perfectly into one seamless experience. Every pixel went straight to the databanks, to be pored over by the AIs in their distant fortresses.
But the AIs couldn't make good in-situ judgments, meaning that there was still a niche for flesh-and-blood explorers like Azari, if not baseline humans. In most respects he was like the people back home, save for a bevy of enhancements to senses, dexterity, strength, and intellect, as well as one still greater difference: his origin. Technically speaking he was a clone of the real Azari, who was too valuable to risk on fieldwork.
On his way out of the aircraft he walked past its bioassembler, the same cocoon out of which he had so recently stumbled, gasping for breath, trailing cables and vital fluids behind him, with all his counterpart's memories in his head. If he died on this coming mission the flyer would just synthesize more organics from local materials, and throw them together to make another one of him. He was expendable. But he was programmed not to mind that, and so, the computers told their subjects, the practice was ethical after all.
The hatch swung open. Azari walked out into air that would have killed a normal man, his enhancements providing a bulwark against the one of the deadliest viruses ever made. Some meters away the roof of the archives protruded above the treetops at the end of a paved footpath. It was an unassuming concrete structure, concealing its true bulk underneath the ground.
With a thought he summoned his only companions. Two drones detached from the underside of the flyer and rose to hover on either side of him, their circular anti-grav rigs humming softly. They stayed eerily still for just a moment, until he issued his second command, and in silent acknowledgement they went flying off to map the vicinity.
At the entrance he encountered two security robots, both defunct, and so primitive regardless that he would have handily bested them in combat. Gaining access to the building was a simple matter of slicing open the double titanium doors. Then he widened his range of vision, and peered into the darkness beyond.
"Log: I have gained access to the complex. The place is deserted, as I expected. An analysis of the air shows that it has been sealed since a day after pathogen release."
Its occupants could easily have sealed it before the release, sparing themselves. Everybody had received fair warning of what was to come. But Varad had been clear in his instructions, and nobody disobeyed Father Varad.
Azari's drones came back from their sweep, then flew through the broken door and swept ahead, illuminating the room in their spotlights. Motes of dust swirled wherever their beams passed. In front of him lay a wide set of stairs, carpeted in velvet and leading down to the levels beneath, while opposite the stairwell, behind a balustrade, stood a golden statue of the mass murderer himself.
Varad wore robes marked with the esoteric symbols of his cult. His hands reached up towards the ceiling, as if pulling divine guidance straight out of the sky, and he carried a beard that would have fit nicely on an Old Testament prophet. His eyes blazed with fervor that should have been impossible on a mere sculpture. The real man's warts and slight paunch were nowhere to be seen, nor were the scars he'd gained from his youth street-fighting in the mines of Savordan. Here there was only the pure and undiluted essence of Father.
Azari scowled at the sight, and he would have cut the statue apart with a plasma beam if not for his orders to avoid any unnecessary damage to the site. He walked down the stairs.
"Log: The entryway leads to the first level of the archives, as expected." The drones had left him far behind now, having flown off to map the towering bookshelves and data racks that dominated this floor. Every byte of information they gathered was routed through his neural net before it went back to the flyer. "There are no bodies in sight." He watched the video feed from Drone Two, the farthest-roaming of the twins, and saw that he was wrong. "Correction, there are two, a man and a woman. Decomposition appears to be slowed by the cold, dry conditions down here. They exhibit the skin blisters and hair loss characteristic of the virus."
The corpses slumped in their chairs some thirty meters away, in a small, comfortable reading area set among the shelves. From their green tunics and shoulder sashes they appeared to be members of Varad's general staff, maybe even his inner circle, and Azari had Drone Two take tissue samples so that they could be identified later.
Drone One, meanwhile, located an atrium. There the floor dropped away to reveal a tremendous space five stories high, crowned by a glittering dome and centered around another statue of Varad, this one garbed in the fanciful armor of a warrior rather than a prophet's robes. Banners adorned with Father's personal seal hung from the sides. Everything was immaculate, intact as if abandoned last week. Which it had been.
Azari took note of the discovery and focused again on his own eyes and ears, the former restricted to grainy infrared in the darkness, the latter finely and subtly attuned. Aside from the ever-quieter hum of the drones, the only sound he could make out was the distant drip of water from a ruptured pipe somewhere.
Here it smelled of books—paper books. Of all Father's eccentricities, that had been among the least heinous. More than half the collection here was in a medium two hundred years obsolete. The rest used the standard digital formats, encoded on bulky but secure disks that were themselves well out of fashion. Azari would have gotten more done by going straight to the databanks, but he was in a whimsical mood today, and as much as his AI masters demanded efficiency he figured it couldn't hurt to admire an anachronism. Lighting his way with a flashlight, he approached a nearby bookshelf and picked a volume at random.
This one was hardly the ancient tome he had expected. A look at the inside cover revealed that it had been published within the last year, under the title Domestic Matters in Askivar Province: A Report for His Sacred Majesty, Father Varad.
Within three minutes Azari had read it, or, more precisely, made photorealistic memories of every page. The text was illuminating, despite its glaring sycophancy towards the intended audience of one man. He supposed he might view it as another piece of the puzzle, another insight into the empire that had stepped onto the galactic stage for a brief time, and then vanished in a catastrophe of its own making. Even Domestic Matters hinted at the coming collapse. Nearly every page mentioned saboteurs, most of them imaginary, working to undermine the state Father had built.
He moved on down the shelf and picked out another book. This one was the kind of antique he had expected to find, a well-worn compendium of poetry by the twenty-second-century author Julia Cartwright. Father had annotated most of the pages, filling them with commentary that would not have been out of place in the lecture halls Azari remembered from his time in university—or rather, his template's time in university.
Drone One sent him an alert. It reported that it had found something strange, a focused radio beam that had sprouted up out of nowhere. But in another moment, it told him that the situation was nominal, and no further action was needed. When he sent a query it merely claimed it had encountered a sensor echo.
He decided he would take Drone One apart at the end of this mission, and see just what had gone wrong in its maze of circuitry. The matter did not seem urgent, however: the drone was zooming along just as it had before, having moved on to the lower levels. Down there were the main government archives, containing the missives, blueprints, and directives that had kept the bureaucracy running, and those were the nuggets of information Azari had come here to recover, so that the AIs could piece together an account of the catastrophe to go in the history books. He could justify only a little more poetry before he had to go and see for himself.
He put Cartwright's volume back where he had found it, creating a quiet rustle of leather on leather. But at the tail end of that noise came something much louder. If he heard correctly, there were footsteps close behind him.
Azari rewired himself for combat, though, strangely, he took a few milliseconds longer than was optimal, and turned to level his flashlight and beam cutter at the threat. He expected to see a disloyal survivor who had barricaded himself here to outlast the virus, or perhaps an automaton someone had forgotten to turn off. Instead he looked upon the dark eyes and bearded face of Father Varad.
Varad was supposed to be dead. He was dead, they had found his corpse. Nevertheless...
"Stop right there!" Azari shouted, one hasty decision away from slicing the murderer in half. But Father complied, giving a smile that shone pale in the flashlight's beam, and he came to a halt some ten meters away.
This was not Varad the prophet. This was Varad the warrior, garbed in the full panoply of war, with serrated plates of golden armor springing from his shoulders and an ornate blade hanging at his hip. It was all for show, of course. None of that would last an instant against Azari's firepower.
"Hands over your head," Azari said, motioning with his weapon. "Stand against the wall there."
"You should know better than to threaten a god."
"You're no god, Varad."
"Three hundred million people would disagree."
"And all of them are dead." Azari tightened his grip on the cutter, wondering whether he could kill Varad in two hundred milliseconds or three. He had to remind himself that it was not his place to act as executioner, and like a good operative of the Confederation he would bring this criminal to stand trial before its AI rulers. "Last I heard, you too were deceased. The surveyors found you sprawled across a palace couch, with blood on your face and three lethal doses of tryceranine in your stomach. Explain yourself."
Varad shrugged, clanking together the plates of his ridiculous armor. "What's there to explain? Poison can't stop me, any more than your vaunted fleet can."
Or he had just been crafty enough to fake his death. Such a thing wasn't unheard of, and would be well within the reach of a dictator with vast pools of time and money on his hands. There was a way to find out for certain.
"Place your right hand on the wall, fingers outstretched."
"Or what? You'll shoot me?"
Varad complied, reaching out and pressing his hand against the wall. The gauntlet he wore thudded as it hit the metal surface.
In five hundred milliseconds, again much longer than it should have taken, Azari activated the beam cutter and swung it through a few degrees, neatly severing Varad's index finger. The man choked down a scream and nursed his wound.
"It's procedure," Azari said. It most assuredly wasn't, but he was not about to let his prisoner go without a little pain, not after he'd had to spend long hours cataloging Varad's grim handiwork. He motioned for the prisoner to step aside, then walked over and picked the finger up off the ground.
The fingerprint analysis was easy. All he had to was send a detailed image through to the computers on his flyer, and he got back a clear verdict. The man standing in front of him was Father Varad.
Next, Azari sent a message through his flyer to the command-and-control station up in orbit, giving a report to the AIs in charge of the survey operation, and asking what he should do next. But the computer returned an error message. Apparently, the signal could not get through.
"What the hell?" In all his short life of three days, the comms system had not once failed him. He stabbed a finger at Varad. "How did you do this? Tell me!"
Varad smiled, revealing teeth much less perfect than they were on the statues and posters. "Well, I may have put up a jamming field around this facility. One of many nifty technological marvels I have lying around here, I assure you."
"I'll take off another finger if you don't lower it."
It was illegal to treat a prisoner this way, but would the AIs really begrudge him that when the prisoner in question had a body count higher than Hitler and Stalin put together?
"The jammers will remain in place. It levels the playing field, don't you think?"
Azari fired, but this time the beam did not strike home home. Varad reached out with his hand, creating a wall of light like a thousand fireflies packed close together, and he was unharmed.
"That's not possible." Azari backed away with wide eyes, searching his mind for a way out of admitting that, evidently, it was possible. "Not even the Confederation has man-portable shields."
"Look at you, so shocked to learn there's one trick in the book that you don't own. Your people have starfleets roaming across a thousand systems, you can grow supersoldiers in vats like they're fruit, and still you get upset when a backwater tyrant blocks one of your particle beams."
"Well…" He had to think of something. "Even you admit you're a tyrant."
Varad laughed, and Azari, thinking his guard might be down, fired another shot. Again the field sprang up to block it.
"I can't expect you to be a believer, can I? Fine. Between you and me, I suppose I might not be a god. Nevertheless, I was justified in what I did—all of it."
If this monster wanted a debate, he would have one. The original Azari, the journalist, had made a name for himself exposing the enemies of human rights, and he would not shy away from confronting this one. "I will have you answer for the blood on your hands, Varad."
"And how much blood is that? What's the total death toll, calculated by the oh-so-wise computers who pull your strings?"
Varad stepped away from the wall, and paced halfway around Azari. His missing finger seemed not to bother him at all. "The population of this planet was 307 million when I released the plague. Your numbers are off."
"Doesn't make you any less of a murderer. How many of your people do you think followed you willingly over the brink, and how many did you have to push?"
"I was the one who was forced! Your Confederation was bearing down on me, threatening war, threatening to destroy everything I'd worked so hard to build for my people! To back down would have invited you to pounce. To fight openly would have only handed you a victory—there's nothing in the universe that can stand up to your jump-ships and super-soldiers and AI tacticians. So I chose to deny you even the glory of winning. I announced to my people that we would all take our lives, to prove our resolve to the galaxy, and those who weren't traitors went along with smiles on their faces."
"But you yourself didn't even have the decency to go through with it. You're here, talking to me, instead of lying dead with 'your people.'"
"That's because my work isn't done."
Azari sent a message to both drones, telling them to fly back to his position. He would need their help when the time came to force Varad back to the shuttle.
"What the hell do you think you're going to do? Leave this planet and start from scratch somewhere else? Indoctrinate a whole new crop of people into worshiping you, just so you can kill them all over again?"
"Well, Azari, is it really that hard to grasp? It's not just power that I want, or the luxury of millions at my beck and call. I aim to rejuvenate the galaxy."
He scanned the darkness. Where were the drones? They certainly weren't talking to him, nor did he hear their hum in the distance.
"The galaxy's been doing just fine without your help."
"It's stagnated, under the rule of inhuman minds and barely human enforcers. When was the last great innovation in literature, or politics, or spirituality? By creating a new society on this planet, by binding people together in ironclad devotion, I hoped to finally break the mold. Until you ruined it and sent me back to square one."
Azari sent another batch of messages to the drones, but they remained as silent as the grave.
"The Confederation only acted to enforce its statutes on human rights. Don't deny you were quietly murdering ten thousand people a week, and torturing twenty times that number in the camps. Camps which, I should point out, have been extensively catalogued by surveyors like myself."
Varad scoffed. "Ah, yes, I'm quite familiar with all that holier-than-thou moralizing. It's especially odious coming from a state that happily clones sentients for missions they aren't expected to survive."
Azari twitched a little, then reminded himself that he didn't care. "Any state has a few necessary evils. But you…"
He caught a glimpse of one of the walls behind Varad. There was a scorched hole there, thoroughly melted around the edges where the cutter beam had struck it—except that shouldn't have happened, because the beam had been blocked. Stranger still, the mark vanished a moment later.
"You seem to have noticed something amiss," Varad said.
Azari ran a diagnostic on his own sensorium, digging underneath the status reports he had taken at face value earlier. All of it still seemed normal. But the more he looked, the more he saw inconsistencies, things like incorrect patterns of light and shading, or sounds that did not echo quite as expected.
That, and something unauthorized was taking up almost all of the bandwidth in his signal back to the shuttle...
"You're not really here."
Varad disappeared into thin air, then reappeared on the other side of him. "Took you long enough to figure that out."
Azari lowered his cutter, now that it was useless, and tried to pry open the data streams entering and exiting his head. The upload had disguised itself quite cleverly. Nevertheless, he could tell that a massive signal was being routed through one of the drones, then through his neural transceiver, and finally to the flyer parked outside. Trying to stop the flow did nothing; it went on uninterrupted, like the profuse bleeding of a wound just beyond his reach.
"What did you do to me?"
Varad shimmered, as if some fraction of his pixels were replaced by brilliant light, and suddenly there were four of him surrounding Azari.
"Technically, I've done nothing. I am just an algorithm, a digital ghost implanted in your head.
"A Trojan horse."
"It's a marvelous equalizer, isn't it? You've got all the tech and wealth in the world to back you up, and still I can land a blow."
Azari pressed down on the beam's trigger and swept it around, with the full knowledge that it would do nothing but fruitlessly damage his surroundings. All four Varads broke out in synchronized laughter.
"I'm going to find a way to stop whatever the hell you're transmitting," Azari said.
"Oh, you don't have to. My work's already done."
At once, the illusion disappeared, and Azari was alone in the archives.
Alone, but not idle. The Varad program had been forwarding something to his flyer, he knew that much, and he had to get there. He started for the staircase to the ground floor. But his movements were slow, uncontrolled, clumsy, as if every limb had arbitrarily added centimeters and seconds to its motion. This was doubtless the Trojan's work. It had cracked the interface between his augmented mind and his physical muscles, and bloated it with extraneous software.
A familiar hum rose in the distance. It was reassuring, for a short moment, until he tried to contact his drones, and received only silence in response. Like the flyer, they were no longer under his control. He switched from the darkness of the visible spectrum to the busy landscape of infrared. Quickly he spotted Drone One, rising from behind a bookshelf, the disk of its antigravity drive glowing with heat. Drone Two soon joined it from another one of the archive's many passages, and the battle was on.
These machines were not built for combat. They were fast, and they were armed with low-power lasers, but that was all. Even with his movements handicapped, Azari sliced Drone One out of the sky. Drone Two was smarter, weaving between the nearby bookshelves for concealment, if not cover, but even then he could just swing his beam in a violent zigzag and hit the target with sheer volume of fire. None of the shelves lasted more than a second under the onslaught. The drone, for its part, rolled out from behind the ruins in several smoldering pieces.
Azari had taken a full two seconds to engage and prevail. Shameful.
He ran towards the stairs, to the fullest extent that he was able. His own deteriorating motor skills were the only thing to hinder him as he left the archives. The pair of corpses sat still in their reading chairs, the darkness bided its time, the collapsed robot sentries by the gate lifted not a servo.
Outside, everything was as he had left it. His flyer was visible through the trees, parked at the epicenter of the dry leaves and pine needles its landing jets had blown away. One more time he tried hailing it, but the craft just sat where it was, completely incommunicado, taunting him with its silence.
He closed in on his target. Every step was slower than the last, and twice he tripped over his own feet, but nevertheless he made it. Even from a meter away there were no signs of activity. The flyer was no longer friendly, his own home and domain, but it did not appear overtly hostile, either.
Azari walked to the front of the fuselage and swung open the hatch, prompting a cloud of pinkish, foul-smelling steam to billow out. He backed away, holding his forearm up to his mouth to dampen the stench, then poked his head inside once the shock had passed.
The bioassembler was the culprit. On the other side of the flyer that machine appeared to be hard at work, with waste gases venting out a door open by just a crack. Through the glass, clouded with steam and fluid, he could make out the same writhing red tendrils in which he had been born.
And now, it was where Father Varad would be reborn. He'd figured it out: the Trojan had routed through him a dormant consciousness, encoded in ones and zeroes, along with a genetic template to give that mind a body to inhabit.
He did not wait to take a closer look before ending Varad for good. He fired the cutter beam, punching straight through the bioassembler and then continuing out the fuselage entirely, and error messages blinked red on every screen in sight.
Now, Azari stumbled over to that broken cocoon, his motor functions nearly gone. He swung open the hatch and leveled his cutter at what he expected to be Varad's bisected corpse. But the bioassembler was empty, its cell-producing tendrils squirming in the air, its feeding tubes spurting nutrients into a body that was no longer there to receive them.
For a few moments Azari stood in the doorway, staring into that small abyss of sickening life. Then a hand grabbed his shoulder. Even through his polymer jacket, he could tell that it was wet and slippery. He spun in place, showing a pale mockery of the reflexes he used to have, and came face-to-face with a nightmare—or rather, the newest incarnation of Father Varad.
The man was almost fully formed, save for the skin and hair that the bioassembler had not had time to add. There was a thin, transparent membrane stretched over his muscles, to keep most of the blood in, but that made the sight of him no less inhuman, no less wrong. His eyes were the only part that seemed normal, and those were clearly Varad's.
Azari raised his beam cutter. But Varad wrested it from his hand, then threw it across the floor with strength far too great for a freshly assembled body. Undeterred, Azari threw a punch at his foe, who caught it midway and then twisted his arm around. He heard his arm pop straight out of its socket. The left side of him disappeared in pain, and he could not suppress a loud grunt and a grimace.
He broke out of Varad's grip. With another three seconds, he could have gotten his wits together and struck back, but Varad did not give him that luxury—the man delivered a swift blow straight to his windpipe, crushing it. Azari crumpled to the ground.
First his ruined throat and shoulder hurt the worst, but then it was the suffocation, building up in every inch of his body as his breaths returned only blood. He squirmed and thrashed and grasped at his trachea, to no avail. Through barely open eyes he watched Varad climb into the pilot's seat.
As he finally slipped into unconsciousness, the world shook, and he grew heavier. Azari knew that was the flyer taking off.