Chapter 1. The Planet of the Necromancers
The story of Atmur will arise only in a dark galactic eon, when the accounts of its prime have been forgotten. By the time of its telling, uncountable epochs will have passed and entropy itself will quench the fires of the stars like an insatiable beast. Grim constellations will declare themselves in the skies of a billion worlds. Perhaps it shall beguile the denizens of the dying worlds, grown hopeless of even oblivion. The tale shall be related as it shall be in that cosmic elegy, beneath dimming suns and sad heavens.
Of the scarce worlds that hosted life, fewer reached any semblance of civilization in their unwatched eons of existence. Of those scant civilizations, only a slim minority reached the stars. The rest laid unmourned in their crèche-planets like neglected infants, stillborn races buried beneath the eerie light of long dead stars and a pall of funereal blackness. Condemned to eternal obscurity like the names of infamous murderers, they left naught but fossils and forsaken fanes.
Yet extinction was not the end for some species, but a second beginning. As explorers traveled between the stars with trivial ease due to the proprietary Sedni engine, they happened upon the dead worlds. They descended with the rapidity of vultures upon a fresh carcass, picking over the cairn-worlds in an orgy of looting. The savviest xeno-archaeologists armed themselves to protect ruins from such sacrilegious thefts, but they often arrived too late. The insatiable demand for novel curios outweighed the pecuniary pittances offered by pure research.
Not even the genetic material of the long-extinct races was safe from the grave robbers. Like marrow-hungry ghouls, resurrection cartels profited from a gruesome trade in alien remains looted from lost worlds. Some were nominally researchers, selling excess material for profit. More common in that trade was utterly dispensing of any altruistic pretense. Their clients included bio-prospecting corporations, upstart researchers seeking unconventional approaches, smuggling syndicates, and even cults that arose around each fallen species like palm trees around a desert oasis.
While each fallen world offered a new cache of artifacts, not all their native races remained extinct. Using recovered biological specimens and virtual reality, a handful of researchers attempted to restore such long-lost species back into galactic civilization with mixed rates of success. The patrons behind such efforts were often cults and backwater authorities seeking to draw in commerce, but they often were unpleasantly surprised by attempted resurrections of beings far removed in mindset, nature, era, and culture.
Yet not all resurrection attempts relied upon quasi-scientific guesswork and cultural approximation. Many of the cults manufactured stories of their respective races' prophesied return, which would sweep them to glory atop piles of unbelievers' bodies. Mysticism arose in the cults' often willful gaps in knowledge, like weeds arising from cracks in a long-abandoned avenue. Erratic personalities and whimsical rituals overtook these necromantic dabblers in their remote hopes of fulfilling their own powerless prophecies. Unfortunately for the galaxy, one succeeded.
Arrival on Atmur
The backwater world of Atmur rested at the galactic rim, precariously close to the favored routes of corsairs and raiders. Tidally locked beneath a yellow sun, the respirability of its atmosphere by baseline and near-baseline humans made a relatively habitable world in an otherwise sparsely settled cluster. Had the native race not succumbed to a cataclysmic gamma ray burst in its infancy an eon ago, it might have been the center of a middling extra-solar polity by the era of the Grand Unifier, the human warlord and explorer who formed the first trans-galactic empire in half-mythic times. Instead, it was naught but a long-scoured crypt.
Despite the remoteness from the basest and uncouth worlds of the Far Rim, Atmur was nevertheless as foreboding from orbit. Like a celestial Janus, each half of the world presented a contrasting face to the cosmos. The sunward side was a sun-blasted desert where the remaining water of once-grand oceans was banished into underground cisterns. The rimward side was a never-thawing frozen tundra with any signs of prior habitation buried beneath mountains of ice under eternal night. Between the two was a thin slice of perpetual dusk, where hot and cold air from either side of the world clashed to form unceasing thunderstorms thousands of kilometers long. Boiling waters from the sunward side were quenched by encroaching ice from the rimward side, resulting in temperate oceans that fueled the mighty storms that unendingly battled above them like an army of titans.
Located on the sunward side, locked on the edge of unchanging dusk and a vast ocean, was the world's de facto capital. The largest settlement and only location with a serviceable spaceport was Dosma, which was inhabited almost entirely by the two thousand cultists who called it home. Travelers, merchants, spacers, and other transients rarely tallied long on that forsaken world, for the ever-present (and well-deserved) fear of offending their hosts. The ominous shadow of an ancient domed structure made of wind-blasted sandstone, lingered over the improvised spaceport like the specter of approaching doom. A half-rusted fleet of derelict craft housed the visitors, with the largest of them acquisitioned by the cultists as a compound. Due to the planet being tidally locked to its parent star, the shadow over the rusted craft never moved from its position, forever stuck in the same morbid permanence as the ruins that littered the planet's surface.
Above Dosma one day came a spacecraft of unremarkable design, but unknown importance. Its body was sharp and angular as an assassin's stiletto, able to navigate serviceably in atmospheric conditions. It was the color of polished obsidian, with sensors located in bulbous knobs protruding from the central port of the hull. While the hull seemed sleek and narrow relative to the deep bellies of other cargo haulers, it nevertheless bore a plethora of surprises, not the least of which was carrying more bulk supplies than its appearance suggested. It landed beside the gigantic hull of the cultists' freighter like a guppy beside a whale. Upon both the port and starboard sides were a hull registration number of a distant world with a name etched beneath it: Weird Suzerain.
The inhabitants of Dosma were unused to visitors, although not so insulated to have never seen a spaceship before. Most of the cultists arrived on craft that now laid abandoned beneath the perpetual shadow of the ruined dome. Nevertheless, the landing of a new spacecraft was a rare enough event to warrant curiosity from the townsfolk. Even the high priestess of the local cult, the Hierodule, stopped mid-meditation to behold the landing vessel. Far from being irate, she led the crowd that gathered at the base of the ship's outstretched landing struts as if eagerly awaiting what they delivered. Shushing her followers into quietude, she awaited as the vessel opened.
The droning of retrorockets and impact of landing struts gave way to an unseen mechanism that lowered a ramp before the Suzerain's cargo bay. The Hierodule commanded her followers to assemble into orderly ranks, forming up like soldiers on a parade ground. While they bore no overt weapons, they nevertheless provided a martial mentality. As the doors opened, the denizens of Dosma beheld the latest arrivals to their world.
Three figures emerged from the darkened cargo door, stepping into the dim light as though they were nocturnal emissaries from a Tartarean realm. The crowd stepped backward, as if in a subconscious gesture of reverent deference to the crew. With soft and measured steps, a humanoid machine in likeness to an ancient knight in plate armor stepped forth, its armored body decorated in blue and white robes embroidered with a square within a circle. It was flanked on either side by a contrasting pair of human crewmembers. To its right was a man of unremarkable build and average height. His pale skin was marred by grease marks and burn marks, a telltale skin pox of a spacer engineer. He wore a green jumpsuit with every pocket filled with some machine, from a strangely primitive four-barreled pistol to tools of every description that bespoke potential for all manner of creative mischief. Contrasting him was a bald, muscular woman with skin of palpitating jet. She wore a gray suit of powered armor with which she cradled an assault rifle and saber that was too worn to be purely ceremonial. Behind them were a pair of servitor robots, skeletal machines pushing a sealed metal container on a hovercart. Wisely, the crowd once more parted before them.
The Hierodule stepped forward as the triumvirate of offworlders stepped onto the dusty soil of the cemetery planet. She was a dusky woman with high cheekbones, long black hair, and an avian stance, suggesting an affluent upbringing prior to her arrival on the lonely world. She beheld her three opposites like a circling raptor eyeing rodents. The man with the tools, Engineering Officer Lon Kastun, beckoned to an unseen party within the ship. Security Officer Efri Ghon took position before the door, as if ready to repel any would-be boarders. The vessel's commanding officer, Exar Ironheart, approached the Hierodule and spoke with a stentorian voice that sounded like the bellows of an industrial furnace.
"We bear a delivery for the Hierodule of Dosma," Exar said. "Manufactured by Dual Star Heavy Industry."
"I can answer any questions regarding the operation," said the engineer. "But I am honestly not sure how the Sedni principles so casually trounce physics."
"None are," the Hierodule said, her voice full of honey. "But bring it here."
As the sect leader finished speaking, she took a step forward. Her flock followed.
"Where's our payment?" Efri Ghon asked, raising her bullpup rifle. "One more step, and we'll shoot."
"The previously agreed sum is forfeit, as far as you are concerned," the Hierodule said as she took another step forward. "It was required for our sacred work."
A shot rang out from the rifle, kicking up a cloud of dirt like a miniature simoom. The Hierodule stood for a moment, noting the obsolete slug-thrower leveled at her. Efri adjusted a lever on her weapon before readjusting her aim. "The next one goes in your head."
The Hierodule turned her gaze upward toward the derelict freighter, the Yeothreum. The vessel arrived on the world to deposit cargo for a xeno-archaeological expedition a century prior, but its sponsors found it cheaper to abandon it after an engine breakdown. It had a long, cylindrical hull with a head like a hammer. Its engines flared outward behind it like the handle of a Sedni starblade. As the tallest recently constructed artificial structure on Dosma, its size nearly rivaled the ancient dome behind it. It lingered in the shadow like a lethargic beast threatening to stir. At its feet were other abandoned vessels dismantled by the cultists, offered to the behemoth like blood sacrifices for piecemeal repairs. Yet it bore surprises for the unwary, like an arsenal of concealed weapons and its now-functional engine.
The Hierodule whistled and entrusted her underlings to follow the well-rehearsed gesture. A caster bolt, an energy projectile the color of an indigo sun, struck the ground behind the Weird Suzerain. At a practice-honed alacrity, the assembled cultists threw aside their ragged coats to reveal arsenals of salvaged and improvised weapons. They encircled the trio of visitors, interposing themselves between the crew and the promise of escape.
"The next one goes in your ship," the Hierodule said, condescendingly mimicking Efri's voice. "Now, come with me, and you may depart with your lives."
Exar released two wisps of white smoke from unseen valves in his neck and raised his hands. The engineer and gunwoman rose their hands in unison with their commanding officer. Efri saw the cultists hesitatingly surround her and she briefly considered resistance. Beholding the sly grin on Lon's face, she trusted her instinct and surrendered her weapon. The cultists shoved aside the robots, carting the cargo before them like trophies from a successful hunt.
The Hierodule held her head back in triumph, as though she stood at the forefront of an imaginary coronation parade. Each of her steps bore the spring of a lissome dancer. While supremely confident in her ability to compel her guests' compliance, she nevertheless ordered their ship be impounded instead of annihilated. At the very least, it could serve as another addition to her fleet once their delivery had served its purpose. She led her captives, cultists, and cargo in an unceasing train toward the ruins.
The Descent Under The Dome
The dome that overshadowed Dosma was unique among the relics of antediluvian Atmur, for no other ruins matched it in scale. Among the myriad ruins discovered and excavated, it bore a distinct grandeur, a palpable aura that lingered from whatever unseen builders rose it high above the surface. For those reasons, it was a site of frequent visitation by offworld researchers and local cultists alike.
While the orbital surveys of Dosma noted the vast structure, it was not until shifting sands revealed an entrance that the megalithic structure's macabre purpose became apparent. The yawning threshold loomed before the procession and their captives with the same antiquarian opulence its architects hewn from uncouth stone. The passageway's profile was that of a smoothed arch, and the floor was lined with quinquangular flagstones that fit tightly into place without no visible means of attachment. Visitors hung electric lights down the single, long corridor that led into the structure's palatial depths.
The Hierodule beheld the familiar cuneiform-like carvings along the walls, which her order kept free from defilement. The same message was repeated in a number of other alphabets, which took a top research institute a decade to decipher. The immaculate state of preservation gave Atmur a supernal quality that drew her there, but the message was what truly resonated with her. It spoke of an evil beyond death that an ancient Atmuran ruler would return to vanquish beside otherworldly visitors, freeing the souls of its people once more. Her lecture was lost on the infidel captives, but they would nevertheless serve the Atmurans in ways they could not comprehend.
Entering a stone door at the end of the passage, the Hierodule unveiled the find that drove her to cast aside a life of decadent luxuries to settle on a musty planet at the galactic rim. She expected her captives to be terrified, which was accompanied by other types of physical discomforts. The soldier was sweating in the hot, stale air of the tunnel, the odor of her perspiration joined by that of her followers. Nevertheless, she bore a steely, defiant look on her face, like a cornered dog ready to fit to the death. Beside her, the robotic captain was clearly crestfallen, from the way his head sunk partially into a chest recess. Only the engineer possessed a cavalier nonchalance about his predicament, swaying as though he was on a casual stroll. It would have been infuriating had the Hierodule cared to make them suffer.
Instead, the Hierodule sought to make believers of them. She was painfully aware of her order's dire need for seasoned spacers. The precarious test flight of the converted Yeothreum made it clear that more work was required. The fact that it would serve as her religion's flagship, at least until a proper warship could be acquired or built, necessitated using any means necessary to staff it. While the impressment of crew was a desperate move, she knew it would only be a short-term measure. She recalled the awe of what remained in the chamber at the corridor's end, which never failed to evoke the wonderment she first felt upon her arrival on the world. She hoped it would have similar effects on her latest potential recruits.
The Tomb of the Ages
The disaster that befell Atmuran civilization was a single catastrophic occurrence, a gamma ray burst that struck the side of their planet. The native Atmuran race knew of no weapon more advanced than the iron spear and of no faster means of conveyance than reliance on muscular power or natural forces. Nevertheless, they achieved magnificence in the philosophical and mathematical fields. This prowess flowed naturally from their language, itself a poetic medley of mathematical and philosophical pictograms designed for ease of learning. Their asexual reproductive biology relied upon selectively growing spores able to survive long periods of desiccation, rather than the awkward sexual dimorphism in baseline humanity and its cousins. Their dominant model of society was a pluralistic one, although geographical factors kept the small city-states from consolidating into the continent-spanning empires known in the history of other worlds.
The Atmurans were utterly annihilated by the gamma ray burst, but physical traces of their culture and bodies remained. While xeno-archaeologists and looters picked the other prominent ruins clean, the Hierodule took pride in the fact that her order protected the most important site on the world. She did not know how the structure remained, but what it contained provided key insights into the glory of a bygone race she desired to restore. Even in extinction, the Atmurans left behind unique aesthetics unmatched by other races in the galaxy.
The Hierodule believed the dome was neither palace nor temple, instead being a public tomb. The alien ossuary was truly monumental in scope, and if the walls could talk, she possessed no doubt that they would recount a litany of forgotten glories unmatched by any yarn from humanity's long-lost home world. The dead race would again know their glory and the Atmurans would be given an empire deserving of their high culture.
When her underlings threw open the door to the crypt's primary chamber, she beheld genuine wonder in the captives' eyes. Efri stared widely while Exar's head emerged quizzically. The engineer stared ahead blankly, rubbing his eyes in disbelief. Before them was an entire chamber filled with the remains of the native Atmurans. The bodies were arranged upon what might have been furniture like that used in life, only hewn from the same stone as the room itself. The room smelled of terrible antiquity and the display of bodies bore with it a peculiar morbidity juxtaposed with positions reminiscent of revelry, as far as an untrained human eye could discern.
The Atmurans' bodies were excellently well-preserved given the dearth of extant decomposers on the world. They possessed little common physiology with humanity or its offshoots, as their body type was a cylindrical trunk that used a mollusk-like foot as its primary method of locomotion. Chitinous claws radiating from five points halfway up their rugose, squamous bodies were each accompanied by a cluster of withered eye-spots. While their anatomy indicated radial symmetry, the different bodies were topped by sponge-like crests that were unique to each. The bodies were black and muted colors after silent epochs stole their natural colors, although hints of vibrant shades lingered on some portions of the creatures' appendages. Like a garden of abandoned statues, the Atmurans stood eternally in that sepulcher, blissfully ignorant of the untimely demise of their race. The Hierodule pledged to rectify that.
The charnel house bore no scent beyond the musk of cramped humans. Despite the weight of numbers streaming into the chamber, the cultists moved carefully and with great deliberation around the objects of their devotion, moving as quietly as a tomb-born echo. Efri, Lon, and Exar were moved toward the center of the chamber, having been relieved of their weapons and tools and placed in thick bindings. In the center of the dust-blanketed floor, the Hierodule drew a threefold circle with a piece of white chalk. She beckoned to her underlings to bring her the cargo.
The Resurrection Engine
The Hierodule learned the Sedni were more than harmless mystics. Their prowess in battle, especially with starblades, warranted entire armies and fleets of warships to even attempt to pacify a true master. The true insidious aspect to the current regime was the not the way they introduced impossible technologies, but the way in which they leveraged them to utterly dominate politics and commerce. What friends they lacked, they could easily buy.
Lacking such resources herself, the Hierodule reasoned her own efforts were required to be of far greater efficacy. While she was too old to be indoctrinated and trained into the Sedni Order, she nevertheless learned a few skills from the Sedni Order's burnouts, rejects, and exiles. Much what she learned were ways to see, interpret, and change time and space itself without the need for specialized technologies or implants. The esoteric nature and difficulty of such endeavors meant that only a minute fraction of the galactic population would ever be able to grasp the fundamental concepts, much less exhibit any nature of competency with them.
The Hierodule harbored no illusions the Sedni inventions operated on the limited laws of physics known across the galaxy. They turned faster-than-light travel, artificial gravity, and energy storage into trivialities by building machines that perplexed generations of engineers and scientists. She understood such devices merely channeled power from the same extradimensional sources the Sedni did in exchange for allowing entities outside reality to peer within. Though she did not comprehend those beings, she immediately understood an application for the scant Sedni principles she knew.
Every intelligent being possessed a method for storing memories and interpreting new information. Even with AI copying and connectome uploading into duplicate bodies, each individual possessed different experiences from the original after the instant of creation. Despite her initial misgivings, the essence of a being was not lost forever upon death or destruction. Through invocation of certain entities beyond time, the information from their moment of death could be transferred into the present. Data from a dead organism was best utilized by placing it in a facsimile of the body it once wore, rendering it useable once again. Her earlier experiments had produced naught but suffering-addled minds without bodies, tormenting the eon-dead intellects of the extinct race she professed to worship.
That was why the Hierodule prepared the site in the tomb. The minds of dead Atmurans would be drawn into the mummified forms in the room. Because their exotic biochemistry required access to specialized laboratories lacking on the planet, she was unable to afford cloned or prosthetic bodies. Instead, she trusted her mastery of the esoteric Sedni arts, preferring to try a necromantic experiment beyond any of her prior ones. She found great irony in the fact that the Sedni essentially invented and industrialized sorcery, and the paucity of resources available to her necessitated the older, less refined methods the Sedni honed over generations. Even her sciolistic understanding of their principles was sufficient to achieve her goals.
The Hierodule reflected upon the many things she cast aside to reach the present. She remembered the name and wealth she discarded to travel the galaxy and the boorish suitors that tried to woo her with callow displays of wealth. She remembered the amazement with which she beheld the magnificence of the Atmuran crypt. She remembered the way she blithely dismissed the concerns of the cult's former leader, whom she deposed shortly after her arrival. She remembered the first necromantic experiments, through which she established mental contact with a race long departed. She remembered designing the apparatus with which the next phase of her plan would begin, an undertaking that expended the entirety of the cult's savings and pecuniary resources.
The Hierodule stood in the center of the chamber, standing before the sealed crate holding the Resurrection Engine. When located at the center of the ritual circle, it would act as an antenna to draw the souls of the dead Atmurans back into their withered forms. The arcane energies the engine used would simulate an Atmuran physiology uncorrupted by age, meant to prevent each restored mind from going utterly mad. Nevertheless, the potential for misunderstandings and confusion on either side warranted special precautions. The resulting race would be bound to her control as a failsafe, as to ensure one failure did not endanger the success of the whole project. Her syncretism of arcane ritual and artificial reanimation would allow her to fulfill the race's destiny.
The Hierodule positioned herself and her dozen hand-picked acolytes in the center of the chamber, at the heart of their ritual circle beside the Engine. They were clad in ornate raiment of Tyrian purple, as if in mimicry of the kings of lost antiquity. Their initiates positioned the Atmuran corpses with great care in a ring around them, as though the alien dead were besieging their leaders. The remainder of the flock surrounded the outer wall, availing themselves to whatever arms they found, ranging from improvised spears to bolt blasters. They placed the captives opposite the only door and in plain view to deter any escape attempts and ensure they had an unobstructed view of the ritual. Other cultists set up recording systems and sensors, intending to use such for both propaganda and analysis.
The Return of the Atmurans
Once her followers were in position and the captives were watching, the Hierodule began the ritual. The electric lighting in the chamber was quenched as though water was poured over it, with the exception of the lighting in the central chamber. The Hierodule began to chant in a low, rumbling tone before escalating to a high-pitched tittering in mimicry of native Atmuran sounds. While never meant to be spoken by human organs, the alien syllables and phenomes drew silent reverence from even the lowliest of the initiates.
Exar withdrew his head into his chest like a great metal turtle while observing his crew's reactions. Efri was clearly unnerved by the turn of events while even the previously unflappable Lon recoiled from each inhuman syllable as though facing a barrage of mortal blows. The cultists in the center of the room echoed each of the Hierodule's chants, many following in utter nescience of the chant's meaning. He understood the appeal of novelty to a jaded sensate, having identified with a bad cause in his own youth.
Curiou, Exar cross-referenced any previous knowledge of the chants and found a scantiness of research into the spoken Atmuran tongue, as xeno-archaeologists believed the race lacked a mouth or analogous organ. He hypothesized the Hierodule's utterances were nonsensical gibberish for ceremonial purposes. Even at the Far Rim, humans flocked together like the bleating sheep they were. Despite having his original body ground to dust in the cosmos, he nevertheless understood the visceral desperation of being alone in an uncaring universe. He could empathize with the cultists, even as he found himself their prisoner.
Exar would have dismissed the Hierodule's ritual as another grifter's effort to prey on the gullible had he been unaware of what the delivery entailed. Dual Star Heavy Industry was a military manufacturer in the Core Systems that operated directly under oversight from the Sedni Order. Whenever the Sedni were involved, the line between reality and showmanship was tenuous at best. As their inventions rendered casual interstellar travel commonplace, any product they manufactured would be best treated with the utmost caution. He distrusted machines operating on principles he did not at least understand, which fit most Sedni innovations.
Exar beheld many strange technologies, weapons, and ships in his time, but none were directly comparable to the Resurrection Engine in the center of that cyclopean chamber. From the crate, a tree-like metal growth arose, each fractal branch unfurling into circular antennae that resembled chrome flowers following an invisible sun. Each scintillated across the entire visible spectrum and beyond. The celerity in which such changes transpired was faster than his own optical sensors could fully measure. As they did so, a chiming like funeral bells echoed in the timeworn chamber. As the chanting increased in crescendo, the machine began to drone like a starship's activating engine. It was as if the apparatus was receiving a broadcast that could not be expressed in any signal known to mundane science. He was tempted to open his own sensor array and scan, but feared revealing himself to whatever entity remained on the other side of the signal.
Exar did not see the first time it happened, but he dispassionately observed the cultists' reaction to it. Their hooded robes scattered before him like leaves in a storm wind. A gasp issued from the inner circle, but the Hierodule stood unmoved. A hint of a grin played across her face as she beheld something beside her. The crest atop the body of the nearest alien corpse moved, as if blown by an unseen breeze. Someone in the assemblage of initiates screamed. Then the clawed appendages around the torso moved, slowly at first, but then flailed in an automatic frenzy as the corpse took its first step forward in eons.
Exar beheld the Hierodule extend her hand toward the closest claw. She grasped it in her hand as though preparing to discipline an unruly child. At once, the alien immediately ceased its frantic movements and tilted forward, as if to mimic a bow. The long sunken eyespots all converged on the cult leader, reflecting the eerie lights like an otherworldly aurora. The aliens immediately beside the first to stir repeated the same gesture, and they were followed by the others in the circle. Within a few seconds, the reanimated Atmurans bowed toward the center of the grand chamber as the armed cultists stepped back with weapons raised.
A silence fell upon the chamber once again, broken only by the thrumming of the Engine. The inner circle of cultists bowed before the Hierodule as if before a sovereign. Exar himself felt a vestigial sense of self-preservation that compelled him to do the same, but an unseen influence in his mind resisted. His jaded, centuries-long existence as an uploaded mind paled before the strangeness before him. If this woman could restore a millennia-extinct race, then what use was defying her? He reminded himself of his own ill-informed decisions and how his present condition resulted directly from them. The vindication of the Hierodule's power undoubtedly had a large doubt waylaying the insecurities and quelling the doubts of her followers.
"This is Magistrate Leiro, a philosopher-bureaucrat that led the most prosperous Atmuran city-state, which stood where Dosma now does," the Hierodule explained. "He has acknowledged our role as the otherworldly saviors in our races' prophecy."
The Hierodule released her grasp on the Atmuran. The creature continued bowing, but its other pupil-less eyespots flailed around in erratic patterns, while the other creatures did the same. Exarch wondered if that was an irregular feature of the race's biology, or if it was some method of communication. He wondered of the true extent of the Hierodule's control, whether if she was responsible for every action of the reanimated beings or some degree of autonomy remained. He was unsure which was more disconcerting.
"Come, Atmurans," the Hierodule beckoned. "Those awoken from the long night of the tomb shall be given what is due to them."
At her command, the mummies began to amble forward with a swiftness rivaling that of a human sprinter. Behind her, her underlings herded Exar and the other captives. He could not help but notice that Lon blinked rapidly at one of the undead creatures, which did not reciprocate the gesture. He did not think of the significance of it as his tenure as an impressed spacer began. It would not be the first.
The Dead Ship of Atmur
Much to the surprise of the captives and crew, the Yeothreum lifted off the surface of Atmur. The launch was not entirely without incident, as a half-dozen cultists were killed when a pipe of superheated exhaust burst and scalded them to death. The hull was impacted by a half-forgotten weather satellite, as the massive bulk of the freighter made it an easy target. The projectile inflicted no more damage than a pebble tossed into a torrent of raging water, but the shock reverberated through the hull loud enough to startle even the Hierodule.
The high hopes of the crew were tempered as they set about delegating the responsibilities necessary for running the ship. The freighter's infrastructure was either obsolesced or jury-rigged into a loose semblance of operability, but the Hierodule nevertheless enforced her will with the reanimated corpses of long-dead Atmurans. Like clockwork janissaries, they were immune to bribery,threats, or cajoling. They shuffled through the hallways in trios, ensuring that the cultists were following their orders. Those found insufficiently fulfilling their tasks were escorted by the creatures to one of the Hierodule's robed deputes for punishments that resulted in a broken, compliant shell of the person being returned to work. If they returned.
It was this environment that the crew of the Weird Suzerain found themselves impressed. Lon and Efri were separated, disarmed, stripped, forced to wear the ragged outfits of the lowliest initiates, and kept on different parts of the ship. Exar was attached to the vessel's ancient computers and used as an auxiliary processing unit while his body was welded to the hull. While having served as the chief artificial general intelligence and captain of the Weird Suzerain and other ships, he found his predicament most unpleasant and rapidly lost what sympathy for the cultists he had. From observing the way the Hierodule and her deputies interacted with the undead Atmurans and their lower-ranked initiates, he believed he was not the only member of the crew being treated as chattel. One of the Hierodule's deputies had already taken to using his immobilized body as a laundry rack to dry clothes.
Silently and helplessly, Exar beheld the way his crew were belittled and abused. From the concealed sensors the cultists wired across the ship, he surveilled far more than the turpitudes inflicted upon the cultist rank-and-file. He beheld the illicit conversations among the Hierodule and her deputies as they beheld the crew in an increasingly voyeuristic manner. He wished he could hijack the entire sensor array and allow the brutalized crew to overrun their captors, but his own network capacities were physically isolated from the major life support systems. At most, he could manifest his displeasure by causing a few light systems to flicker or spy upon the sensor feeds that passed through him like the flow from an aqueduct.
Exar one day beheld a sight that caused him to futilely struggle to free himself from the welds that imprisoned him. He watched one of the dozen deputies, a hirsute man he knew only as Brother Mhot, try forcing himself on a female cultist. She'd fought back with some success, but was unable to overcome or evade the brute after he cornered her in a dead-end passage. He tried turning out the lights, overriding power to the nearby door, or anything else conceivably within his power, but was unable to stop the travesty he beheld through a pinhole camera implanted in the wall. When Mhot finished, he beat his victim to death with the emotional reaction of cutting vegetables. He left her bloody body in the room and ordered a pair of undead Atmurans carry it toward the airlock when he appeared to have a new idea.
Exar watched with trepidation as Mhot ordered the undead Atmurans to take the body down to the cargo hold, where the Resurrection Engine was stored. Mhot hurriedly ran to tell the Hierodule of his idea, omitting the circumstances that led to the death. The Hierodule did not bother to ask, instead eagerly listening to the concept Mhot explained with unparalleled enthusiasm: reanimating his victim in the same manner as the Atmurans. Though they'd suffered unintentional deaths previously, they were either industrial mishaps or re-education sessions gone south that warranted the rapid disposal of the body out of the nearest airlock for fear of decomposing tissue contaminating their already-strained life support systems. Such a resource, he argued, would allow them to save power and energy on life support and atmosphere.
Exar saw the Hierodule unexpectedly veto the idea, citing the need for people to breed and repopulate after their war of conquest. When Mhot countered that people were in ample supply and ships were not, he watched with trepidation as the Hierodule delayed her response. While Mhot waited impatiently, Exar considered his options. He knew of no way to communicate with his crew or the lower-ranked cultists, but there was the troubling fact the undead Atmurans were vital to quelling any mutiny. Once again, he wondered of the extent of the Hierodule's control over them and the extent to which the cult maintained scholarly interest in their erstwhile objects of devotion.
Exar found a trove of files written by another member of the Hierodule's inner circle, a converted xeno-archaeologist, on the system's archives. The files were backed up on his own memory. They represented a scholarly examination of the Atmurans' culture, biology, and language, which was not spoken. Instead, the creatures communicated by means of reflecting light between their eyespots in a manner similar to an antique heliograph. The researcher compiled a few suspected words or concepts based on coerced "interviews" with reanimated members of the species, but failed to complete the research due to the Hierodule changing priorities to improving ship operations.
Exar recalled the archival footage he possessed, realizing that he possessed sophisticated facial recognition software as a result of the illicit surveillance. He had hours of footage of the undead Atmurans on patrol, and modifying the software to examine their wandering eyespots was a trivial task for him. He planned and executed his own analysis, using his modified script to try to recognize Atmuran communications underneath a protective layer of ambient subroutines. As he changed back to the Hierodule and Mhot, he observed them discussing the last-ditch circumstances that would be appropriate for a mass reanimation of the crew. In the meantime, the Hierodule reanimated the deceased female cultist, Ru, ensured she was responsive to orders, and sent her to Brother Mhot's room as naught but a muted shade of her former being.
Exar wished he could look away and thus immersed himself in his analysis of Atmuran linguistics. He beheld surprising success with the gesture recognition, as the undead creatures often repeated the same simple gestures. He saw the algorithm detected sentences that filled him with another sense of terror and revulsion.
Mockery of life.
Whatever the perverse machine in the hull did to bring them back, the Atmurans were in constant agony wrought by their unnatural state of existence. Seeing no other way, he tried an experiment when the next patrol of undead passed through the hallways he oversaw. He flashed the lights near a polished reflector and sent them a message: I can help.
The response was enough to cause the Atmurans to halt their patrol for a split second before they continued onward. When he ran his algorithm on the footage from a nearby camera, Exar was ecstatic to recognize a response: How? In order to ensure his algorithm was not malfunctioning, he repeated his experiment on the next patrol to pass through. He recognized the leader of the patrol as Magistrate Leiro, someone he'd met previously at pirate ports. He once more received a pause and an identical response. At once, he devised a plan.
The Hierodule never fully trusted or believed Brother Mhot, but she appreciated the sound strategic logic behind his idea. The walking dead did not need air, water, food, or sanitation. Unlike robots, drones, and cyborgs, they were utterly immune to electronic warfare, electromagnetic pulses, and cyber-attacks. With her necromantic powers, she could command them and see through their senses with less latency and more bandwidth than even a Sedni faster-than-light communications system, and with no chance of interception. Her troops knew no fear, and they could rise indefinitely if they had a batch of waiting bodies. Unlike mind uploading, her troops would not develop any differences across their various incarnations. One of her deputies, a former mercenary herself, reminded her of the psychological advantages of using undead aliens against humans who never seen them before.
Despite her deputies assuring her of her own tactical vulnerabilities, the Hierodule was well aware of her own vulnerabilities. She was painfully aware of the shortcomings of her own mothership and believed that securing a flotilla of craft under her direct control would be ideal. With a necromantically controlled commander at the helm of each warship, she could coordinate even a small fleet with greater operational speed than her enemies. Though she was no master of warship tactics, her mercenary deputy was.
In the meantime, the Hierodule adjusted her own strategic plans. While she always planned to acquire an empire, she understood that maintaining it required more than military force. The immediate systems around hers were peopled only by desolate outposts, remote colonies, and the like. Their vulnerability to the pirate rates from the Far Rim made them insular and xenophobic, which made occupying them with conventional forces a risky proposition.
Therefore, the Hierodule decided to focus her initial efforts on seizing the nearby pirate outposts, reanimating their corpses and capturing their spacecraft to use in further pacification efforts. The scant communities would thus turn to her for protection, or be crushed beneath her bootheel. She made a mental note to devise some particularly gruesome means of necromantic torture as examples to her subjects-to-be. She figured Brother Mhot would be a suitable sacrifice for such ends, given his disgusting proclivities with her order. Nevertheless, he served his role as a blunt instrument for the time being. She wondered if the reanimated initiate, Ru, was truly aware of the grim fate befalling her, or if she merely experienced a similitude of the senses before her death.
The Hierodule beheld Ru's animated body before it was sent away. Through her bloodied eyes, she felt the black languor of awakening from an uninterrupted slumber. She felt Ru's enthrallment with that eternal sleep. She felt her blood running chill and sluggish, with a languid mind that ran as though trudging through a mire. She felt the lack of passion or sensation, only a ceaseless gray longing to return to that tranquil oblivion. Like a somnolent waking nightmare, she shambled lethargically down the hall to Mhot's room.
The Hierodule withdrew her mind from stolen senses, recalling the vague and illimitable weariness of the dead. Such tranquility was not what she recalled from her earlier experiments, as she attributed the results to the functionality of the Resurrection Engine on the human species. She ruminated on the possibility that the Atmurans might have been reduced to naught by obedient shadows instead of the species she pledged to restore. She wondered what she truly wrought by using tools she barely understood. Nevertheless, she clung feebly to the pretense that her actions were necessary for the long-term restoration of a species denied their due by an apathetic universe. Her order was predicated on that, and sacrifices were necessary to achieve her goal.
The Hierodule justified her actions over the following with such thinking. The first time, it wore aware the veneer of morality she ensorcelled herself with, but it ceased to trouble her by the end of the third week. She plotted a course for a known pirate haven, but her mothership lacked the ability to make the transit in a single jump due to deficient hardware. Thus, she was forced to navigate between separate jump points instead of a single attack vector. If the pirates noticed her, they did not react, perhaps owing to the slow speed and condition of the vessel, like wolves hesitating to attack a diseased sow. Slowly but surely, the vessel limped toward its destination at a glacial pace.
On the third day of the fourth week, the mutiny started when a group of workers attacked a patrol of undead Atmurans. They swung away with hammers and rods, targeting the eyespots of the nearest creature with a barrage of simultaneous strikes. The Atmurans instinctively countered them with a flurry of claw snaps. Another rush of cultists joined the rebels, and the Atmuran the Hierodule possessed surrendered after it was impaled through an eyespot with a shiv. She redirected more undead Atmurans to the cultists, hoping reinforcements would stop the strike from spreading.
Much to her horror, the rest of the ship was plagued by simultaneous attacks. Human waves bearing improvised weapons descended on her Atmuran patrols and few loyalists like an unceasing torrent. Spears, caster bolts, bullets, and bombs filled the corridors of the ship, damaging the overhead systems she spent so long repairing. With a heavy sigh and great reluctance, she considered the final option she agreed upon with Brother Mhot. The Hierodule found it ironic that the man she once considered sacrificing to placate the restive initiates was now one of her few living allies on the ship. She planned to summon him to the bridge, such that he might be join the other loyalists and be spared the fate she had in mind for the crew.
The Hierodule intended to open the lower levels to hard vacuum, isolating herself and her loyalists in the bridge at the heart of the ship. The depressurization would sweep through like a cleansing enema, removing all who doubted the holy path they were on. Culling her own followers was distasteful, but she would be given an overwhelming supply of necromantic material to work with. She directed the Atmurans to fall back to defensive positions so the insurgents would not overwhelm her. Their undead nature and alien physiology gave them protection from the fate she intended, as they could withstand vacuum and sucking pressure with ease. She changed to Ru's body to give Brother Mhot his instructions, only to find another unpleasant surprise.
Brother Mhot's chamber was sealed from outside. When Ru arrived, the chamber's was being pumped out. The cultist frantically pounded the door controls, the emergency call button, and his communications devices, but all betrayed him. Mhot thrashed and pounded like a raging ape, using up valuable oxygen as he asphyxiated to death. The Hierodule tried to assist him through Ru's body and her own console, only to find neither was successful. Brother Mhot died in a crumpled heap on the floor, only to be reanimated spontaneously. Strangely, she could not control his body as she did with the others on the ship. It was only then the door to his room opened, and the unholy revenant advanced towards the Hierodule's room like a relentless automaton.
The Hierodule struggled to call upon her Atmuran reinforcements, but her senses were overwhelmed with the rancorous cacophony of combat. While she could individually control any of them like a puppet, she found herself unable to deal with the tide of battle. One of the undead Atmurans she controlled fell when a caster bolt burned through its barreled torso. Another ceased moving when an improvised axe split its body, painting its faded plume with black, viscous ichor. Feeling trampled by the sensory stampede, she turned her attention toward immediate matters.
The Hierodule cursed as the life support purge she so elaborately planned ceased to work. Instead, her loyalists found themselves trapped and isolated in their own rooms and hallways as they very ship itself betrayed them. It was as though the spirit of the Yeothreum sought revenge for the defilement of its remains. Helpless to intervene or help her inner circle as they shouted idle threats and pleas, she could only watch them perish in a similar manner to Brother Mhot. His undead form, meanwhile, met no resistance as he continued on his way.
With great horror, the Hierodule recognized the route that Brother Mhot took. He was coming for her. Bulkheads opened by themselves and doors unlocked to admit him. He stamped over the recently deceased corpse of her chief tactician as he entered the last hallway between them. Fearful of what would happen, she piled furniture against her cabin's door. Her sparse furnishings, scavenged from the detritus of a dozen ships, amounted to a paltry barricade against the steel door. She drew the caster bolt assault rifle she kept stashed beside her bed and trained it on the door. She momentarily wondered if she should not use it on herself to ensure a clean and merciful death.
The electronic lock betrayed her as she thought it would. The Hierodule dove for cover on the floor as the barricade flew outward, as if it had been struck by a rolling boulder. Splintered furniture and broken wood covered the floor and she felt herself bleeding from a thousand small lacerations. She reached for the rifle and fired it into the doorframe, anticipating Brother Mhot's advance. He walked through the spray of iridescent bolts like they were raindrops. He charged forward, knocking her to the ground. With a single movement of inhuman quickness, he wrenched the rifle from her hands and effortlessly bent it in half with superhuman strength.
"The stars are right," came an uncharacteristically rasping voice from Brother Mhot's mouth, instead of his bellowing tone. "The stars awaken."
The Hierodule struggled to stand, but Brother Mhot wrapped his hands around her neck and held her down. "A pity. You might have been a hero, had you not toyed with forces you did not comprehend," he continued. "But I shall grant you this small mercy."
She now realized the role in this cosmic fable was that of the antagonist. With no further words, Brother Mhot snapped the Hierodule's neck. As soon as she fell to the ground, Brother Mhot's lifeless form crumpled beside her body. Silence reigned unchallenged on the upper decks of the Yeothreum.
The Final Voyage of Magistrate Leiro
The moment the undead Atmurans ceased resistance, the mutineers celebrated. The uprising was made possible by a manual bypass devised by Lon, but implanted by the undead Atmurans during a routine patrol. Exar was the architect of the plan, which was contingent upon him gaining access to the ship's master controls. Once he made contact with the undead Atmurans, it became a trivial matter of passing notes along. Lon planned the physical bypass and Efri organized the mutineers.
Exar found it ironically appropriate that the undead Atmurans, once the cornerstone of the Hierodule's power, were instrumental in her undoing. She was able to see through their eyes and even direct their individual actions, but her unfamiliarity with the alien senses, mode of thought, and separate neural controls for each set of arms limited her ability to comprehend how they conspired against her.
Now the mutineers were in control of the ship, their problems were only beginning. Even after the metalworkers cut him free, Exar reminded himself he was in a pirate-plagued system. The vessel's life support and provisions were strained and limited, especially in the wake of the uprising. The old freighter bore no escape pods, and it lacked enough supplies for a return trip. Efri's chain of command was holding up, but there was no telling if another wave of dissent would sweep through the ranks. There was also the question of what to do with the undead Atmurans and the infernal device that brought them into undying servitude.
Fortunately, Exar was able to work through solutions to his problems. Due to accessing the Yeothreum's communications array, he was able to contact the Weird Suzerain back on Atmur. He remotely operated the craft and docked with a still-functional airlock, using it to evacuate the crew. He intended to drop the mutineers back on Atmur and offered the same option to the undead Atmurans. Magistrate Leiro, after taking account of his fellow revenants, decided on a separate course of action. They resolved to take the damaged freighter and Resurrection Engine straight into the system's sun, granting them all the clean death the Hierodule denied them.
Exar did not blame them for desiring a quick end, rather than lingering in decomposing bodies until the thermodynamic death of the universe. He did fulfill Magistrate Leiro's single request for the cultists that still retained interest in Atmuran civilization. As the Atmurans reproduced by spores that could survive indefinitely, a few of the bodies still bore viable spores. As such, there was the possibility their race could be restored. A few hundred of the cultists expressed interest in the plan as a sort of penance for their role in the actions. The new generation would be instructed in their species' language, history, and culture, as well as the sacrifices of Magistrate Leiro and his companions. The species would be restored, but in a better way than the Hierodule intended.
Exar was honestly glad to see them go. As they departed that piratical system, he beheld the terminus of the undead Atmurans' first and last space voyage. From Exar's view, the Yeothreum became progressively smaller until it was a distant mote before the sun, then vanished entirely. By the time the light from the star reached Atmur, the first generation of modern Atmurans would be growing in the crèche. That way, the ancients would shine poetically over their future. As he plotted a course back to Atmur, he vainly tried to reassure himself about the unanswered questions. Sedni technology was erratic, and he could not help but feel another force was present during Brother Mhot's inexplicable reanimation. He said nothing as he watched the ship vanish forever into the sun, as Efri saluted and Lon grinned slyly.