(Originally posted on LiveJournal)
[Based on two different copyrighted properties. Kudos to those who know the other one.]
In the most powerful city in the greatest intergalactic empire mankind had yet known, The Temple loomed over all.
From orbit the Old City resembled a human figure with outstretched arms, with a nimbus of urban sprawl. The Temple roof, atop glass-steel shoulders, bore an orichalcum image of a square-jawed face smiling beatifically. Anyone in the Empire would recognize that face from countless icons and medallions: the God-Emperor of the Empire of Man.
Within the Temple’s sanctum sanctorum, crablike robots tended ancient machinery which no human hand had touched for centuries. Faint indicator lights barely illuminated the cavernous hall. Every pipe, every cord, every crystal rod of that vast machine terminated at a dust-covered sarcophagus of transparent aluminum. A hand had wiped a window in the dust and revealed the scarred, desiccated face and a glimpse of a once powerful body below it. The face looked hauntingly familiar.
A figure sat next to the sarcophagus. His left hand absently wiped dust on a maroon greatcoat. The figure’s hairstyle and clothes would remind a man of the Empire of ancient fashions, although in truth his clothes had never been fashionable in any era. The figure examined the instrument in his right hand, and he spoke, apparently to the body in the sarcophagus:
“That’s as much life support as I can squeeze out of this rig, old friend. Under the screams of a million deaths I heard your words, what I suppose are your words, and I’m so very sorry it took this long to come here … but seriously, nobody else caught your message? In your vast empire, nobody obeyed? Tell me I have it right; say it with your own lips, and I’ll do it.”
The apparent corpse opened its eyes: clear blue eyes, human eyes. Its thin lips twitched, and unseen apparatus amplified its whisper: Let … me … go.
The man from another time nodded grimly. He raised the object in his right hand, like a cylindrical tool. From its end light flared briefly, and a high-pitched piercing sound broke the silence. A moment later, all indicator lights went out.
Father Ilon strapped the sacrifice into its chair, like he had done twenty times today and countless times over his past three decades serving the God-Emperor. The Impure had to die, but their sacrifice to the God-Emperor demonstrated the devotion of His servants; through this service His Divine Light remained at the heart of His Holy Empire and guided the faithful.
The sacrifice sobbed like a ten-year-old girl, which she was. (It, it, the sacrifice was an “it”.) After routine adjustments to straps and soul extractor dish, he strode solemnly to the control console, and muttered the brief prayer written for these sad yet joyous occasions. Without further delay, he pulled the lever that would speed the sacrifice on to his God.
Some act of the God extinguished all console lights, and all interior lights but ceremonial candles. The sacrifice’s fear gave way to confusion.
Angrily Father Ilon left the Booth of Reunification to find a Machine-Priest, and to his surprise met a cluster of Machine Priests and fellow Brethren of Spiritual Union milling around the Inner Court. Some shouted angrily, others muttered in low voices, a few looked stricken. “What’s going on here?” Ilon shouted. The babble in reply suggested that all the Booths of Reunification had ceased, and the Angels of the Machine no longer danced. The implications eluded him at the time.
Zora watched the man in robes step through the doorway and join the shouting outside. She hated shouting. She and her mother could talk to each other without making a sound, without anyone even knowing. Long days in the factory passed more quickly. Then the priests came, and took Mama and her away in separate cargo holds. More priests gave her tests, which she failed. She heard Mama in her head one last time, an outpouring of love and reassurance before a brief but unforgettable agony as the priests extracted her soul and fed it to their god.
When it was her turn, she tried to act brave like Mama had been, but she was scared: how long would it hurt? The Old Religion claimed that virtuous souls reunited in Paradise, but the Priests promised only death for disobedience. The last moment of Mama’s life destroyed any hope of ever seeing her again, of growing up, of getting married. (She vowed never have children; bringing a new life into the Empire doomed it to a lifetime of suffering and toil.)
Now the man in robes had left, and she wondered how much longer she would live. Was this one last punishment, this waiting?
Zora gasped as something swept over her, not a sight nor sound nor feeling but the other sense that she and Mama shared. For a brief second she thought it was Mama, but no: it was a man, far more powerful than Mama, well-intentioned but used to being obeyed. Help him, the Man said.
When Zora returned to the senses that did not blaspheme against the God-Emperor, the straps holding her felt looser. She wormed one arm free, then unbuckled the others as quietly as possible. She crept closer to the door and watched the milling crowd for an opening.
Shouts at the far end of the hall drew her attention, and everyone else’s. A man in a long coat ran down the corridor, dodging through the crowd. Is that “him”? she wondered. Behind him four soldiers fired Beatifiers. Everyone in the crowd ducked, although a few unlucky ones exploded into soggy chunks of meat.
Near her the man in robes who almost fed her soul to his god pulled out a needle gun and aimed carefully at the man. The man ran on oblivious, getting closer. The man in the coat would die.
Zora remembered her mother’s dying agony in painful detail. She dropped the memory into the robed man’s head.
Tech priests rushed around in panic. The Temple had lost power. All the temple had lost power, including the ancient machines that kept the God-Emperor alive. A few calmer ones ransacked scriptoriums for schematic diagrams. Others strove mightily to open access hatches sealed shut for millennia. No one living had the knowledge to repair the Sustainer of Life at the Temple’s heart, but for the sake of the Empire they had to try.
The pearly white glow began subtly, first outlining doors to the Sustainer, then seams in the walls, then the walls themselves. Within the Sustainer a howling sound grew louder and higher, rising to an unnatural scream.
Then the real panic began.
The former sacrifices gathered around the Sanctum Sanctorum, the Sustainer of Life, the Sarcophagus of the not-quite-dead God-Emperor.
The soldiers had left. Most of the priests had fled glowing walls. Those priests who remained lay unconscious or dead where the Power or some more prosaic tool struck them.
The man in the coat died from an archaic slug-thrower one of the soldiers carried as a side-arm. Prisoners arranged his corpse in a more dignified position, for there was nothing else to do for him.
Together men, women, and children in rags and prison-issued tunics watched the eldritch transformation of the holiest sight in the Empire. Those with the Power felt something die, and something else being born.
An incomprehensibly vast explosion rocked the sarcophagus. Buttresses held the sides together, but weak points in the roof – carved eyes and mouth – ruptured under the strain. Pillars of pearly-white light streamed into the sky, spreading as they reached vacuum. The light, and whatever else it contained, grew more tenuous but not weaker as it spread across interstellar space.
Unseen and lost in blinding white light, the tastefully arranged body of the man in the coat glowed a faint gold. Golden plasma streamed from his exposed face and hands, and the stream grew ever stronger. When the brilliant light ceased, prisoners looked for the body of their deliverer, and found nothing. A different man in the same greatcoat slunk away, unseen.
From orbit the Old City still resembled a human figure with outstretched arms. The ruptured Temple roof bore the face of a square-jawed man, eyes open, shouting in triumph.