Saturday, April 05, 2008

Probability, part three of three

The room is dark, large, with a vaulting ceiling, but incomplete; catwalks fill the space overhead, thin gratings (or nothing at all) cover the holes in the unfinished floor. The only light comes from a great window in the rear of the room, through which the stars gleam, even as warships fight and burn in the endless night.

Before the window is a throne, upon which sits a wizened, hideous figure, robed in black. Drool trickles down the corners of his mouth as he cackles. He doesn't seem to notice. "Fight!" he urges, his voice twisted and vile. "Fight!"

The young man, apprentice no longer, faces the Dark Lord. Both hold weapons in their hands. The young man grimaces, believes that the Dark Lord will, improbably, drop dead. The Dark Lord disbelieves it. There is a pause; then the apprentice gives up the effort. His grimace remains. Spitting, he shouts, "You should have joined me when I gave you the chance - back on the City in the Clouds. We could have forged a new era - but you preferred the company of this thing," gesturing to the enthroned Emperor, "and I won't give you another chance. You didn't really believe me when I promised otherwise, did you?" he taunts.

The Dark Lord is impossible to read. He is motionless. Any emotion he has is locked away, beneath his mask.

The apprentice, as he was taught, focuses his will. A chance electron moves, a switch fuses, wires hiss out (thinner and faster than the eye can see) and a plasma field envelopes them, seeming to be formed from the air itself before the weapon the apprentice holds. He swings, his face twisted with hate, and the Dark Lord's weapon extends its own wires, by some trick of chance. Magnetic fields collide, vibrate against one another, sending burning sparks flying.

The Emperor on his throne cackles with glee. "More!" he shouts, drool dripping onto the floor. "More!"

The combatants battle across the darkened room, bouncing between catwalks, plasma blades clashing constantly. They are seemingly evenly matched; then the young man, in an error caused by inexperience, leaves himself open. The Dark Lord, machine-like, takes the opening; his blade comes down, and the young man's left hand flies off. It hisses as it falls; gears spin and twist inside, then cease.

"Twice, you bastard!" cries the young man, red with rage. "Twice!" and in a moment of uncontrolled fury (for which the Dark Lord is unprepared) the young man believes and every particle of the Dark Lord's helm disintegrates - moving inwards - stopped just before the flesh.

Bits of alloy remain, embedded in the skin - for a generation he wore that helm, the hope of the old order, turned against them in a day of mutual betrayal. Not in all the time since, in the years that saw him commit the atrocities and destruction of the old order, has any man seen his face.

He looks into the eyes of his son, and sees himself reflected in his younger, hate-maddened eyes.

He looks down. The wires of his weapon retract; the plasma dissipates, leaving a burned scent to cover the sweat-filled air.

The Dark Lord's son is confused. He advances, swinging his weapon flashily, leaving arcs in the air. "Giving up?" he taunts uncertainly. "It's about time. Now I'll take my rightful place - Lord of the stars."

His father looks up again. There is something lost and despairing in his eyes. He makes no move to fight.

"I'll do whatever it takes!" the young man shouts, raising his weapon high.

For a moment - just a moment - the old, scarred man has disappointment in his eyes. Then he lowers his head, presenting his neck to the descending blade.

An electron jumps, and the wires retract, just before they would have struck flesh.

The young man bows down, finding in the end that there was a boundary he would not overstep for power; and his father rises, weapon glowing to life as he faces the Emperor, sitting on his throne. He begins to advance.

"No, no, no!" the inhuman creature curses, spraying spittle as it whines. It raises its hands, points them at its advancing servant. Electron clouds focus, forming (improbably) a circuit from hands to metal, and blue lightning arcs out, covering the black-metal armor. Burns cover the old man's face, and it contorts into a rictus of agony; but he neither cries out nor pauses, covering the last few steps up the dias at a run. He sweeps up the Emperor, lightning still arcing madly, and in a last burst of strength kicks aside a grate and hurls the Emperor down, fallen from his seat of power and consumed by his greatest creation.

The black cloak of the Dark Lord was struck in a dozen places by the lightning; now, as he sagged to the ground, it bursts into flames, reduced nearly instantly to ash.

Minutes later, the Dark Lord's son sets his father down upon the ground, in a brightly-lit corridor near a hangar bay. "You're not going to make it, are you?" he asks.

His father nods.

"There isn't much time left," the young man tells him. "I'm going to make a run for it. I'm - sorry. But it's not a matter of odds - I can't save you."

His father nods.

"Just - answer this," his son asks. "Why did you give it all up - the second-most-powerful man in the galaxy?"

Lying on the floor, his face burned and scarred, the man who had been the Dark Lord tells his son, "I realized - years ago - too late - that power that cannot be set down - makes you its pawn - not it - yours. And - now -"

He hacks and coughs, his son watching anxiously, filled with a new sense of responsibility. He concentrates, and the pain diminishes. Croaking, he speaks:

"I couldn't let it happen - to - another generation - to - my son."

The young man watches anxiously, still uncertain. He opens his mouth to ask another question - then he hears boots from around the corner, and his hand forced by circumstance, turns and runs. All around him, the citadel of the Emperor falls to ruin.

And if this is not how you heard the story heard, then you must ask: why?