Short Story: The Devil in the Archives

I have spoken about my fiction writing on this blog, but I have posted exactly none of it so far. This changes today! If you’re into tense, atmospheric sci-fi, with creative concepts and grisly twists, I present to you my first self-published short story, “The Devil in the Archives”. An excerpt is below, and I will link to the rest of it at the end. Enjoy!

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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.

——–

I’ve posted the remainder of the story to FictionPress.com, sister site to FanFiction.net (where I also have a presence, incidentally, under nicq98). Here’s the link: https://www.fictionpress.com/s/3347486/1/The-Devil-in-the-Archives

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more stories in the months to come!

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