Stanza I: Ankarudan

Tear of Asar Palace Complex
City of Eladya
Planet Asar, Lyrali System
72 standard cycles before the Crescendo

Synthesized Recollection

Three tourists stood in the shadow of the Ankarudan, a colossal stone monument that rose above the city of Eladya. It was the first time any of them had seen the thing with their own eyes. In fact, this had been the first day since its construction, over six thousand star-cycles ago, that any outsider had been allowed to visit the planet Asar and stand before it.

This small cluster of honoraries stood on the balcony of the central palace complex—a maze of sinuous architecture that rose in elegantly twisting columns connected by curving bridges and walkways. It was like a flower opened partially, frozen mid-bloom by a network of glittering spiderwebs.

The palace itself was a miracle of construction and a triumph of art but standing in the shadow of the Ankarudan made it difficult for the visitors to focus on anything else.

Drinish gripped the polished marble of the railing tighter and drank in the astounding level of detail of the monument. He assumed that whomever the statue had been made of, must have been important. Perhaps he had been a king or a very rich merchant.

The figure was cloaked in ornate layers. Two aqueducts flowed from his slightly outstretched arms and arced around the perimeter of the city, twisting into its bowels. Clear water flowed from the top of the mountain peaks through the monument and down into the city’s lower levels. The stone of the monument was colored, though not painted, no. The stone itself had ripples of marble, veins of crystals, and layers of strata that corresponded with the monument’s flowing clothing. The contours of his arms were shaded with darker tendrils of stone, and the skin where the light of the stars hit directly sparkled in an iridescent shimmer of colors.

The closer he looked; the more details found. Drinish could make out a subtle woven pattern in the clothing, he could make out delicate veins of blue beneath a translucent layer of marble on the skin’s surface. There were some strikingly lifelike qualities to the monument, but not all of it simulated realism. Many of the monument’s surfaces displayed complex geometries: layers of stone, metal, and crystal that intersected at impossible angles to create dramatic flourishes of style that seemed to meld naturally with the lifelike elements. It was as if the monument were warping reality around it.

The Ankarudan’s main purpose was clear, to help support the massive twin aqueducts that transported spring water from the mountains behind the city. But if this was its main function then a simple column, or series of columns, would have sufficed. The faster and cheaper it could be built, the better. At least that was the thought pattern of the Valturan Confederation of which his system was a part. The planets and satellites touched by the Valturan trade network all had a similar sanitized feel: modular blocky buildings, muted colors, and panes of glass, stacked atop one another with endless flickering advertisements and neon signage. Drinish wasn’t upset at the advertisements; most of the time they were more interesting than anything they’d otherwise cover.

Unable to come up with a better explanation, Drinish arrived at the idea that the monument must have been a product of great love. He had seen, in different museums and galleries and gardens, works of art that could not be explained by anything else but unbridled passion. A great love for something, someone, someplace. Drinish wished he could understand what sort of love could have driven an ancient race of people to dream of something so magnificent, let alone be able to execute it.

He’d heard the stories of the powers that Asarians claimed had belonged to their ancestors, that some Asarians still claimed to possess. A civilization as secretive as the Asarians were bound to attract rumors of that kind, but seeing this—seeing Eladya, made him believe those stories just might be true.

Kemke the scholar took another step closer to the edge of the balcony as if it would have made any difference. She had prepared herself for the scale of the Ankarudan, for there were star cruisers and building blocks back on her homeworld of Celaro that were even larger than the Ankarudan. So, it wasn’t the sheer scale that caught her breath. It was a combination of craft and context.

Asar never exported any of its own historical or sacred texts. Luckily for Kemke, some texts had been smuggled out and quietly circulated among her colleagues. Because of this, she could recognize the figure of Ankari, the father of Eladya, looking over her many shimmering towers. Even a basic understanding of the Asarian language would have revealed the monument’s identity; Ankarudan, the outline of Ankari. The word outline in Asarian had a meaning that was not possible to translate into Kemke’s own language, but some scholars chose the word “soul” or “essence” as an imperfect substitution. To an Asarian, a thing’s outline was indicative of its unchanging and perfect design, its form, but an outline was incomplete. An outline was a blueprint, the most precise rendering of a thing or person, without holding that which would give it life. A contradiction, Kemke thought when she’d first had this concept explained. For how could something be the most perfect essence of a thing without also holding the essence of that thing?

Asarian philosophy and religion were full of contradictions. Kemke quickly realized that this was almost always by design. It created tension, a duality that never quite resolved itself. Never giving easy answers, but always leaving its adherents with more questions. It was—compelling.

Almost as compelling as the mystery of how any civilization could craft such a monument with simple metal tools, as Kemke knew the first Eladyan Archonage used during the period of the Ankarudan’s construction. Even the Asarians, in their own primary documents, denied being able to create the monument, let alone the fabled city, by using simple metal tools. They did it, according to their own sacred texts, with the use of catalysis. The Mulziban described catalysis as the art of using subtle currents of energy to detect and manipulate elements at the atomic level. Doing so would allow catalysts, practitioners of this sacred art, to trigger chemical reactions and manipulate fixed amounts of matter. It was possible, according to those texts, for catalysts to draw large amounts of water from the moisture in the air, to combust fuel and manipulate the oxygen in the air to animate the flames, to break down an object into its basic forms and recombine them to create new materials.

Kemke knew that most, if not all, civilizations had their fair share of unbelievable claims and mentions of gods and unexplainable abilities. It was to be expected from a culture’s mythos.

But it was difficult for Kemke to dismiss these claims as she looked upon the Ankarudan. The very materials that made up its form defied anything that she had ever seen. Not even synthetic manufacturing had come close to replicating the subtle tone and layering of rock and crystal formed, as if organically, into veins and sinew.

Mystical abilities or not, Kemke thought, the underlying cultural patterns were nothing so remarkable. Even if the ancient Asarians held special knowledge or abilities for crafting such a monument, this project would have been one borne of blood and sweat. It was always the truth that thousands must suffer and perish for the privileged few to be elevated into immortality. Kemke felt better, having rooted herself back into the realm of pragmatism and historicism that she so felt at ease in.

This, she thought, is the product of absolute power, absolute cruelty. The cost? Impossible to say, but she couldn’t deny that it was immense. The Ankarudan was impressive, but would it ever justify the thousands of laborers and scores of star-cycles it must have taken to craft it? Well, the beauty of the Ankarudan was still there to take away her breath. The suffering would have faded thousands of ages ago. A ripple in time, immeasurable now. It was something that had to be imagined, and most people don’t have a very good imagination.

The third tourist didn’t spend too long marveling up at the Ankarudan. He pulled apart the handles of his Navigator and swiped some controls on the right one. The hologram that bloomed between the two identical controllers formed a reticle, which he aimed at the Ankarudan’s head.

He snapped an image of the monument and snapped the device shut, sliding the conjoined controllers into the inside of his coat.

No time to waste.

He glanced down at the subdermal implants that colored the skin around his forearm in different hues and noted that he was running late. He still had several more monuments to photograph in this quarter of the palace and nobody wanted to see or follow the second person to upload firsthand images of Eladya to the Pillar’s infranet.

He turned on a heel, the Asarian guard stepped politely to the side and lifted the curtain higher. 

“Where’s the next closest one?” the tourist looked over his shoulder and asked, stepping back into the cool dark interior of the palace. “You know, the next point of interest? For pictures?”

The Asarian guard stood in the doorway, hands clasped behind his back. He cocked his head to the side.

The tourist repeated his question slowly, hoping the damned tick would translate better this time.

The Asarian held his hands out, palms facing the ceiling, as if to say, “I wish I knew what the hell you were saying.”

The guard had, in fact, heard the words clearly and in his native tongue. One of the stipulations for allowing the new Asarian Archon to negotiate for a controlled opening of Asar to the rest of the Pillar’s protectorates was to require certain Asarians that would come in frequent contact with visitors to be implanted with a tick. These were officially called “automatic translators,” but most people shortened it to “tick” instead. The device was attached in seconds through the ear canal and after a few days, it integrated into the language centers of the brain’s structure. After that, anyone with a tick would be able to understand any language recognized and registered with the Pillar. By the Pillar’s own definition, the guard was now functionally omnilingual—able to fluently communicate with any recognized class-one or class-two sentient in the Pillar’s map of charted space.

The translation method consisted of capturing the speaker’s intention and then translating that intention as best as possible in the listener’s own structure of language understanding. It wasn’t a perfect system, and conflicts of meaning did arise from time to time, as did misunderstandings.

It would take time for the tick to fully integrate the Asarian language into its central data core. So far, only a few Asarians had tick implants. It required large numbers of users a large amount of time to smooth out any anomalies and gaps in the language system. Both men knew this.

This is why the guard found it easier to pretend that he could not understand.

Soon there would be a time that he wouldn’t be able to feign ignorance towards little shitheads. A time when he would be forced to dignify even the most asinine request with the discipline hammered into him as Asarian honor guard.

But that day was not today.

The honor guard let the curtain drop back down, casting the hallway into darkness once again, and heard the retreating footsteps of the tourist. He sighed and turned his gaze back up to the Ankarudan.