The haze closed in around me. I trudged on for hours until I finally stood in the dolmen’s shadow.
I saw the shadow first, darkness fringed by the crimson dust that blocked the skies and turned the light back upon itself.
The temperature dropped. Our first theory had been that the structure may have been some sort of cooling for an Imperial machine responsible for the anomalies, working away at a task for its long-gone masters.
If it was, it would have been putting out heat.
I wanted to reach out with my mind, anomalies be damned. But the thought of instant annihilation was too much. I flipped my vision across the spectrum, electronic eyes picking up heat, ionizing radiation, microwaves. Nothing. These were just stones.
Long-abandoned stones on a long-abandoned world.
I cursed under my breath. This couldn’t be everything. I paced around the structure, out of its shadow and back into the quiet dark again, seeking some answer.
There was nothing–unless–
A hollow appeared where there had been nothing before. I peered into it carefully. It expanded into the below, the stone making way for me as I passed into the underworld.
It was a facility, just like we had thought. But it was dormant. There were no machines grinding in this dark. Just a lone pump in a cryogenic system that lost containment long ago, trying to build up pressure in a broken vessel.
The place was built from omnistruct, standard Imperial fare. White hallways turned to bone-gray by the dark. Gilded doorframes. The stone dolmen above had been a marker. Something had wanted us to find it. Maybe even me; my Imperial conditioning. The company couldn’t know, of course, who I really was.
I tried to remember, but it wasn’t there. I just knew that I knew.
The omnistruct had outlived its contents. Here or there a piece of furniture had survived; a chair, a desk. Only gold and a handful of metal alloy materials remained.
And then there was a chamber. I passed into what seemed to be a natural cave, if natural caves could grow to so great a size.
My eyes could see what the memory could not hold. Hieroglyphs, written by those who had come before. The records of a world now lost and forgotten. And then characters I recognized. Eshkel. Eshkel. The word was familiar, one of countless Middle Imperial dialects that spawned in the diaspora days, but I had forgotten the meaning.
I would remember when I put my mind back to one piece, back at camp.
I could feel psionic energy wrapping tendrils around me. I proceeded unfazed. My power was both older and newer than this place’s.
Then something woke up. Machines sprung to life. I headed toward the noise. I could see pipes warming up, the heat coming across as a white-hot streak in my vision.
A woman’s whisper: Eshkel. I don’t remember, sorry.
It was urgent. I picked up my steps, ran to where I knew the machine to be in the memory not my own.
The door was trying to open, but something in it had failed during the millennia of repose. I slid my fingers under the lip–it had at least made it off the ground–and forced it up, fighting the screech of metal.
Then it was open. The chamber where the machine did its work welcomed me in, and I passed through the threshold.
The voices of the dead spoke in chorus. “Greetings, Senator.”
I bowed my head respectfully, even though the machine and its host of minds had no way of knowing.
“Venerated elders, what is this place?”
They did not respond. I repeated myself.
“We have forgotten.”
“Is it your resting place?”
They murmured among themselves. No consensus.
“Our memories disagree.”
“Have you been here long?”
“Since before–before–before–before–” the voices raised to a fevered pitch, the chorus disintegrating into individual screams.
They had no word for what they had seen.
“I am here for the Eshkal.”
“Eshkal” echoed. My metal feet rapped against the omnistruct as I headed for the core. I remembered why I was here.
“I will be taking the scion with me.”
The choir was silent. I heard one voice whispering to another; indistinct and then, “a mere senator?”
“Perhaps that is all that remains. It has been a very long time.”
It did not matter what the judgment of the ancients was. I’d done this before. I made my way to the central chamber.
There, in gentle blue light, was the person I was seeking. I could recognize the Imperial visage, cast in that cold wrath, wherever it found me. She must have been one of the first scions.
I opened my mind and reached out.
Her head tilted toward me. Her eyes opened. For a moment, she was still, and she reminded me of what I’d left behind so many lifetimes ago.
I took Ellison from my pocket and dropped him into a grate. Nobody needed to recover his memory. We could be just another patrol that got lost in the anomalies.
“Why did you do that?”
“Because we have a war to win.”