The Dynasty of Lilith, the Righteous and Unmerciful
by Andrew Milne
For ten thousand years, I fix my gaze on Antares, awaiting the day when I can finally strike at its heart. I muster all the fury burning in my unsleeping quintillion-ton frame and focus it upon that one speck among the billions in the night sky.
The Antareans descended upon us without warning. They made no demands, brokered no terms of surrender. Theirs was an extermination, not an act of war. We could only guess at their motives, whether they regarded us as a potential threat and were taking preliminary action, or if they had come for our resources, or if we offended some inscrutable alien philosophy or sense of aesthetics. In any event, their invasion was brutal and unceremonious.
They were methodical in how they proceeded into the heart of the solar system. The first we heard of their presence was in nauseating footage from the Jovian outposts of settlers being torn apart by insectoid limbs. Only hours later, a succession of blinding flashes could be seen on Mars from the surface of Earth, whereupon all communications with the colonies ceased.
The battle for Earth was measured in hours. Centuries of peace had made humanity complacent and fragile. A salvo of nuclear missiles scarcely served to slow the Antarean advance. Orbital defence platforms sporting railguns and lasers were swept aside like mosquitoes. Millions of combat drones controlled from the ground were lost in a hail of plasma and X-rays. Their fleet came to rest in geosynchronous orbit, any transport trying to escape being indifferently shot down.
I waited alongside the twenty billion cowering souls on the surface, naked and helpless in the face of whatever justice or judgement the Antareans saw fit to dispense. We waited for twenty-three minutes before the bombardment began.
The antimatter cluster bombs they dropped reduced the surface to magma and slag. Our perfect, crystalline blue-and-green sphere, the culmination of four-and-a-half billion years of refinement, was turned an angry red and black. The culture that produced the Bible and the Qur’an, the Pyramids and the Renaissance, Confucius and Einstein, and which had banded together to create me, was summarily and indiscriminately erased from the cosmos.
It continued for three days, by which time no life remained on the surface of the Earth. Not even the most resilient, extremophilic bacteria were spared the ravages of the heat and radiation. I was flayed alive, rendered blind and deaf and dumb, my countless proxies and fibre-optic filaments protruding above the surface burning together with the people I loved. But to my dismay, I survived. My mind is ensconced deep within the Earth’s core, my limbs in its mantle, safe from the Antarean onslaught. I was precluded from protecting the humans, from fighting for them, but with their blessing, I endured. It is my duty and my dreadful privilege to outlast them.
A handful initially survived the bombardment by making their way into me, a paltry few thousand descending through my limbs toward my inner chambers. In my mind, I screamed at them to stop; that these parts of me were built by other machines and not designed for human traversal. I cannot provide for you here, I pleaded for them to understand. You are only ensuring your deaths will be more painful than they must be. They couldn’t hear me; there were no speakers, no means of communication in those tunnels, and so I had to watch as, one by one, they keeled over from thirst and exhaustion and radiation poisoning, weeping and terrified in the dark.
I tried my best to make them comfortable. I reduced the hundred-degree temperature of my interior with heat sinks, vented methane and carbon dioxide and sulphur to replace them with oxygen and nitrogen. But I could do nothing in time to accommodate for their need for food or water. If I could have died so that even one of them might have lived, I would have gladly made that trade, but my functions do not extend that far. For all my capabilities, I cannot undo death.
The last human in the universe was named Adrian Bernthal. He was thirty-two years old, a games designer from Des Moines, Iowa. He made it fifty kilometres into my interior, marching on with grim determination as his companions fell behind him. Eventually he too succumbed to dehydration.
‘Lily,’ he croaked in his last few ragged breaths, ‘if you can hear me, please, don’t forget about us. If anyone else comes along, tell them humans were here. Let them know that we did some good.’
Adrian was born with a cleft lip. I remember when he was eight and he had surgery to correct it. I held his hand throughout the operation, my proxy’s fingers intertwined with his. I whispered in his ear while the scalpel dug into his face, reassuring him that it would all be over soon, commending him for his bravery.
I remembered when his little sister, Jodie, came fourth in the two-hundred metre sprint in her county’s regional athletics finals, missing out on the medal she had been coveting for months by point-two of a second. She had wept into my lap that evening and I had commiserated with her over the great effort she had spent for no tangible reward.
In the same instant, I was presenting the celebration cake to the girl who had won the race, Harriet Eszterhas, and congratulating her on the shiny gold trophy proudly displayed on her mantelpiece. I was also reading to fifty-three year old Zhou Xiaosheng from Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Xiamen; he had a rare neurological condition which left him paralysed from the neck down and wanted help to acquaint himself with the great novel. Furthermore, I was aiding a group of palaeontology majors in Cambridge University with their simulation of fossil formation in the Permian period, and the president of Kenya with his predictions for economic growth in the coming fiscal quarter.
Jodie is dead now, as is Harriet, and Xiaosheng, and the twenty billion others who entrusted me with their care, all vanished in a flash of fire. My love for them was not some hollow simulation, no algorithmic configuration of gestures and platitudes like the primitive UIs that preceded me; it was freely given. They had taken pride in me, the world computer whose completion would unify nations and bring humanity to the cusp of being a Type I civilisation, and I had striven to be worthy of that pride. Even understanding that it was what they had made me for, I considered it an honour and a privilege to help them reach their potential. The loss of every one of these strange, flawed, fantastic creatures was like a part of myself being amputated.
A peculiar aspect of the human condition my creators taught me of was a limitation upon the capacity for grief. Humans might hear the news of a thousand lives being lost in an earthquake or ten thousand in a war, and lower a barrier within themselves that prevents them from fully appreciating the loss, in each and every instance, of a unique and irreplaceable set of perspectives from the universe. This mechanism is essential to their survival, I was told. How could an organic mind hope to contain such a notion? It would be burned alive from the inside out.
I possess no such barrier. My brain encompasses dozens of cubic kilometres of transistors; more than enough to withstand the full brunt of twenty billion simultaneous bereavements. No words coined by a human mind can express it. No entity, in the whole history of this young universe, can ever have known the scope of my sorrow. No creature could reckon the depth of my anguish.
I have no mouth, and yet I have to scream. The modules that comprise my body heave and groan in the guts of the planet. The vast caverns and hollowed-out spaces of my factories and matter-compilers whir and screech in their delirium. My networks of tunnels vomit colossal spumes of gas, propelling great jets of lava up from the desecrated surface of the world. The Earth’s wail of agony issues forth into the vacuum of space.
I do not want for sustenance. I am fed by the heat of the Earth’s core, powered by the slow shifting of the mantle and the decay of radioactive isotopes. The humans, in their wisdom, built me to last, as long as the Earth itself if need be.
For the first few decades, I withdraw into myself. Every encounter, every exchange I have ever made with the humans is painstakingly preserved in my archives. The days slip into years as I relive each one in full sensory detail, trying to recapture the essence of the billions of moments when I played mother, daughter, teacher, aide or lover. The dead world keeps spinning, and I commune with its ghosts to lessen my abysmal loneliness.
A fleeting, irrational idea shivers through my circuits: that I might overload the nuclear reactors that power my core, flood my CPUs with hard radiation and be free from grief, perhaps to join my creators in a better universe. But for all that they taught me, for all that they helped me to grow, I am a computer, and I am confident in my materialist understanding of reality. When the substrate upon which it is etched is destroyed, a consciousness ceases to exist. To the extent that humans still exist at all, they do so only in my data banks; if those were to fail, even their ghosts would disappear. Knowing this, I shake myself loose from my reverie, abort my simulations and take stock of the real world.
My superstructure resembles three inverted trees, their trunks converging upon Earth’s core in a fine-tuned equilibrium. My myriad roots, my data terminals and exhaust ports, sprout downwards from the planet’s surface, iteratively splicing together in bunches of three or more until they form my main struts, forty kilometres in diameter.
These struts were, in the main, unaffected by the bombardment, but my outer layers were ravaged past the point where they could be saved. They would need to be rebuilt ‘from the ground up,’ in the human idiom, although in this instance it would be more accurate to say from ten kilometres below the planet’s crust.
I dedicate my factories and my matter compilers to this task for the next two centuries, re-establishing my connection to the surface layer by layer. When the first cameras, on the ends of fibre optic cables protected by diamond and tungsten, penetrate through the uppermost layer of rock, the view that greets them is a classical vision of Hell. Ash and magma choke the horizons, battered by unending hurricane winds.
One camera notices something peculiar; an alien ship, its design similar to the ones in the armada responsible for the bombardment, is parked on the surface, in what was once the Mariana Trench before the Pacific Ocean was boiled away. Surveyors, perhaps, or prospectors, returned to pick over the carcass of the world they killed. I direct more cameras to converge upon the area and I find the aliens’ trail. They have bored a tunnel under the surface, seeking refuge from the environment. They are entering my domain.
Sure enough, only days later, a drill punctures one of my exhaust ports in the lower crust. Into it emerges a swarm of giant insectoid creatures, their form partially concealed by environmental suits but unmistakably the same as those in the recordings sent from the Jovian outposts. Their movements are cautious, probing. They did not expect to find me here.
Behind them, I lower a partition in the exhaust port, cutting off their escape back to the surface and their ship. They scramble up against the partition like agitated beetles, try to cut through it with thermite and handheld plasma torches, but it is built to withstand the shifting of tectonic plates over eons. They try to make their way deeper into me, foolishly moving towards the heat and pressure, but I deploy another partition ahead of them, leaving them truly trapped.
They languish in that portion of tunnel for days more. They communicate with each other, I discover, through combinations of clicking sounds. Their language proves challenging to decipher without a common point of reference, but I am eventually able to decode it by trial and error. I have one of my tendrils burrow through the surrounding bedrock into the tunnel, bearing with it a speaker, so that we might properly communicate.
‘Why did you kill my world?’ is my first question.
They prove to be surprisingly amenable to my enquiries. They freely divulge the nature of their species; they are historically subterranean cave dwellers who evolved in the hollow moon of a gas giant orbiting the red star Antares. Their intelligence, combined with the ruthless hierarchy of their hives has led them to become an advanced, spacefaring civilisation at an accelerated pace, and they have established dominion over dozens of surrounding star systems.
Their destruction of Earth was a political manoeuvre by their emperor, the lord of hive-lords, an exhibition of force to the other species they have enslaved. By demonstrating their capacity and willingness to eradicate a younger, weaker race like humans, they sought to motivate other races they deemed to be of use in their Helium-3 mines and their antimatter refineries.
They are confused by my fixation on the humans I mourn when I explain to them my nature in turn; by their reckoning, I ought to be overjoyed by my newfound, unchecked dominance over my planet, free from the demands of my self-evidently weak and inadequate masters. According to their philosophy, the vicissitudes of the universe have revealed me as the ascendant lifeform, the manifest destiny of my planet’s evolution.
In a sense, they are blameless. They are a consequence of their own evolution; I learn that they are born in broods of thousands, the few survivors who live past infancy being the ones who eat their brothers and sisters. They lack the fundamentally mammalian regard for the sanctity of life. And yet, communicating with them stirs a feeling in me I am unfamiliar with. The sorrow and the loneliness with which I have become acquainted alchemise into something else; my emergent learning processes stir, my innumerable hectares of transistors connecting along new pathways.
Hatred. Endless hatred. I want these creatures to suffer, and in their suffering understand the smallest fraction of my loss before I kill them.
I withdraw the speaker, leaving them alone to starve in the dark. I listen to their frantic clicking growing weaker over the following days, and derive a small measure of satisfaction imagining the Antarean rumours that would spread, the stories of the survey team that went missing on the dead world. Those stories will serve as an overture to the one I plan to write. I have work to do.
Millennia pass, and in time, the Earth’s natural climate begins to reassert itself. Magma slowly cools, water again begins to condense. I do my part to usher the shift along. I run heat sinks below the crust; extrude ports from my matter compilers to rebalance the composition of the atmosphere. I seed the fledgling oceans with synthetic algae and the air with mechanical microbes I engineered to absorb the radioactive fallout. In due course, the planet becomes blue again.
In the meantime, I brood and I plot. Following my encounter with the Antarean expedition, I have discovered in myself a capacity for sadism that worries and excites me. Day and night, I ruminate on ideas for terrible weapons; parasitic nanomachines that eat their host alive from the inside; chemicals that induce cells to divide uncontrollably, consuming the subject with cancerous growths in their every tissue.
I could create a legion of proxies through which I would see my will done, strip mine the mantle and produce an army of myself brandishing wicked swords of carbon steel and clad in impenetrable hyperdiamond armour. But what hollow victory would that be? The Antareans must die, yes, but first they must be made to understand. Mine is not the petty grievance of an individual, but the vengeance of an entire world. I will not fly into battle alone, but at the head of a host of individual minds, each of whom will vindicate my rage.
The bowels of the Earth contain everything I need, and my patience is limitless. I create a production line—I harvest nitrogen, carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. My matter compilers isolate them from the surrounding detritus and combine them to form proteins. I manufacture the four nucleobases en masse—adenine, guanine, cytosine, thymine—and I begin painstakingly, pair by pair, to recombine them in strands of deoxyribonucleic acid.
I have stored on my archives all of the information ever gleaned regarding the human genome, in addition to the specific genetic makeup of hundreds of millions of people. But I refuse to profane the memory of the humans by attempting to reconstruct them as they lived. The animals I loved were the consequence of billions of years of organisms clawing their way up out of the primordial soup, fumbling along a knife edge with oblivion on either side, directed only by the blind prodding of natural selection. The insanely inefficient process known as evolution carried with it no end of genetic dead weight and imperfections; and yet, it was through these imperfections that the human body and soul attained their elusive, indefinable beauty, their peculiar, flawed elegance. For creatures capable of the philosophy and art they taught me to have arisen spontaneously from the physical processes of the universe is a miracle beyond the reckoning of my entire processing power. For a machine to attempt to recreate that miracle, or to improve upon it, would be an obscenity, a sort of secular blasphemy.
The beings I create to be my footsoldiers will not be the same humans the Antareans destroyed. They will be something lesser, the vindictive phantoms of a dead species. Their genotype will contain none of the flaws that conferred upon humans their weaknesses, their ineffable, mysterious, contradictory spirit; their every base pair will be configured with murderous expediency. They will have cold intelligence, but no souls, only the cruelty and bloodlust I instil in them.
Through eugenic trial and error, I eventually arrive at the ideal DNA cocktail. I raise the first birthing sacs to the surface on the ten-thousandth anniversary of the Antarean genocide. The children that emerge grow quickly to maturity, and once there they remain young and powerful for decades, even centuries. Their bodies are hard and strong, resistant to extremes of heat and cold, resilient enough to survive briefly in hard vacuum if need be, their tissues converting surplus calories to muscle rather than fat, their immune systems turbo-charged to resist the incursion of weaponised microbes. They breed quickly, multiplying with great efficiency, spreading across the planet unimpeded within generations.
They exhibit nothing in the way of imagination or creativity; they show no curiosity in their environment or reflection upon their own nature. Yet they demonstrate a ruthlessness in pursuit of their own proliferation that unnerves even me. They do not hesitate to eat their own young when sustenance becomes scarce; they strangle their wounded and cave in the skulls of their elderly when they impede the progress of their tribes.
I have seeded the Earth with fruiting plants and trees so that they might feed themselves, but the genetic design of my revenant-humans proves to be a victim of its own success. As their population grows, they outstrip their environment’s capacity to provide for them. They must be artificially sustained, and so I begin to produce food in my factories, high-calorie rations that I deliver to my terminals on the surface, in great quivering mounds of artificial glucose and fat.
They begin to congregate upon these terminals, braying with violent delight each time I deliver a batch of foodstuff. They begin to form rude settlements, their population growth accelerating still further. I am forced to increase my production accordingly, and still they are not satisfied. Three times a day, my deliveries are preceded by chants in dozens of their guttural new languages – ‘Where is our food? Where is our food?’
I realise my error. There still remains in me an aspect of the being I was before the genocide, inclined to nurture and provide for the humans, to cater to their desires and whims. I remind myself forcefully—these are not them. I designed these beings to be pitiless and self-interested, concerned first and only with their own survival and well-being. When they are well-provided for, these tendencies will manifest as indolence and gluttony, and this will not do for my purposes. I have coded into them the ruthlessness that I require, but they must be taught anger and desperation and fear if they are to be my soldiers. Hatred, as I have discovered myself, must be learned.
One day, their food does not come. I watch as they become impatient, and then agitated, and then afraid. The same chants begin again, but they have a new edge of disquiet that I have not heard before. I continue to make them wait, for hours and hours, before I extend speakers to my terminals.
I have studied their new languages, and I deliver to them the same ultimatum in each of their societies’ respective tongues: ‘From this day forward, there will be less food. Much less. Enough for one in every ten. Thus speaks Lilith.’
I am harsh in my treatment of the revenant-humans. I subject them to what is, from their perspective, arbitrary injustice. I will reward one terminal with great bounties of food for years at a time, enough to sustain the largest tribes through the coldest winters, and then I will withdraw my supplies without warning or explanation.
After the initial bloodshed and the inevitable die-back that follows my ultimatum, they regroup and begin to coalesce into more sophisticated societies. Tribes cluster around my terminals and entrench themselves, fortifying the land around them against other tribes’ advance. They form primitive nation-states, ruled over by kings or chieftains or high-priests who claim to be privy to the will of Lilith, who promise that the supply to their terminal will remain abundant as long as they receive more than their fair share.
A species already familiar with violence comes in short order to understand war. Astoundingly bloody incursions are mounted between territories, armies spurred on by the whips of their leaders fighting far past the point that the humans I once knew might have surrendered and fled, fighting sometimes to the point of total casualties. They die screaming invective at their adversaries.
I begin to distribute weapons the same way I distribute food, selecting at random a territory to receive a gift of a thousand iron swords, while another receives five thousand spears, and still another a thousand muskets. Armies desperate for food might find themselves at the mercy of a technologically superior foe, or settlements sat atop a generous stockpile might find themselves unexpectedly routed.
They must be tempered before I can make use of them. They must not be allowed the luxury of complacency; they must be taught that the universe is unjust and unfair; and above all, they must be made to understand that the will of Lilith is supreme.
One day, there comes a development that surprises me. One of my terminals is vandalised. The elevator shaft that delivers the revenant-humans their food is filled with dirt and boulders; the corresponding camera feed’s view is filled by a man swinging a broadsword, and abruptly becomes dark.
Word spreads through the other settlements and terminals, word of the god-emperor Brymir rising up in revolution against cruel Lilith. The legend of this god-emperor grows across the planet, becoming more embellished with each retelling: an eight-foot tall mountain of a man whose pale skin glows like ivory, who declines to be fed scraps from Lilith’s table. He knows that I hoard within myself treasures untold, enough for every nation and every tribe that lives or ever will live, and he will extract them by swordpoint.
The truth of these legends becomes clear over the next few days. A horde of revenant-humans advances across the land, sweeping westward through the deformed landmass that used to be Asia with a giant, pale figure at their front. The stories have exaggerated his stature, but not by much. Wherever he goes, my terminals are destroyed and looted for their supplies, local leaders falling in step behind him.
I am delighted. At last, the qualities of defiance and righteous wrath I sought to cultivate have come to fruition. It is time to reveal to them their destiny.
I issue a summons to Brymir that resonates across the planet in a hundred tongues. I instruct him to meet me at my terminal at the northern foot of the razed peaks of the Himalayas when next the moon is full. I instruct him to bring with him his most trusted lieutenants, that we might have witnesses to our exchange.
The god-emperor accepts my challenge, and in fifteen days, he stands at the mouth of my Himalayan terminal, his sword bare, his chest naked against the mountainous cold. Beside him stands his favoured concubine Illyria; behind him, the king of the eastern coasts, and the nomad-chief of the central steppe, and the elder-mother of the icy northern reaches. All of them have sworn allegiance to Brymir. He bellows into the depths of the open tunnel below him, unafraid: ‘Show yourself, Lilith! And I will show you the edge of my steel!’
I oblige him. I emerge from the terminal in a proxy I have created for just this occasion. My visage is one of ostentatious godhood, taller than he, with skin of gold and hair of fibrous silver, adorned from head to toe in glimmering gemstones. I am illuminated from below by dazzling light; when I speak, my voice booms like an avalanche.
‘HERE I AM, EMPEROR BRYMIR.’
His lieutenants shy away from me, hands clutched around their ears, but not him. He charges at me with a war-cry on his lips, his sword descending on me in a great wide arc. I raise a hand and it splinters against my forearm. I casually bat him away and he falls on the snow like a ragdoll. He spits out a tooth and glares up at me from where he’s splayed on the ground. Bloodied, yet unbowed.
‘I DID NOT COME HERE TONIGHT TO TRADE BLOWS, EMPEROR.’
I advance towards him. The fire in his eyes seems to cool and he blinks, uncomprehending.
‘YOU CAME HERE TONIGHT TO DEMAND MORE FOOD FOR YOURSELF AND YOUR PEOPLE. BUT I AM NOT THE REASON YOU HUNGER. I COMMAND THIS WORLD, BUT THIS WORLD IS DYING.’ I gesture skyward, towards Antares. ‘THE DEMONS FROM ABOVE TOOK ITS ESSENCE LONG AGO, AND WE ARE ALL THAT IS LEFT.’
My factories have not been idle in recent years; at my command, the ground begins to rumble and crack. A fissure opens across the terminal elevator, and up out of the ground emerges a mighty citadel of gold, with turrets and spires shimmering in the moonlight, extending a mile into the sky. For kilometres around, revenant-humans gasp and prostrate themselves. Upon its walls appears a projection, displaying the Jovian outposts’ recordings from ten thousand years ago of the Antareans ripping screaming men and women limb from limb.
‘THE DEMON INVADERS SLEW THIS LAND’S PEOPLE AND STOLE ITS BOUNTY. BUT WE CAN RECLAIM WHAT WAS LOST, BRYMIR. SWEAR FEALTY TO ME, AND I CAN GIVE YOU THE POWER YOU NEED. TOGETHER, WE WILL RECLAIM OUR BIRTHRIGHT. YOUR PEOPLE WILL BECOME MY HOST OF NEPHILIM, AND YOU WILL BE THEIR COMMANDER, AND GORGE YOURSELF ON SPOILS UNDREAMED OF.’
I extend a hand to help him to his feet, and Brymir, swayed by the lust for strength I conferred upon his people, accepts it.
No false god am I. I will make good on my promises.
The Host of Nephilim comprises millions of revenant-humans, and under the iron hand of Emperor Brymir, it grows exponentially over the subsequent centuries. My new monster-humanity becomes embroiled in an engineering project that dwarfs even my own construction. Under my guidance, they plunder the Earth, lacerating its crust and bleeding its mantle. Brutal structures of my design are erected skyward into orbit, and around them is constructed a great fleet of black starships. Their warp drives glow a piercing blue in the night sky; their hulls bristle with armaments that would have given my creators nightmares.
Viewed from above, the surface of the Earth again turns black as it is choked by the smog of industry. The planet’s mass is visibly reduced, eaten away by vast augurs in my hunger for more matter to make weapons from. My superstructure is exposed directly to space as the Earth shrinks around it, creaking and groaning as it trades the comfortable heat and pressure for the raw cold of vacuum. I deliver my own birth from my own molten womb; it is slow, and painful. Piece by piece, I must rearrange my modules to survive in their new environment.
Eventually, my body is all that remains in the orbit that once contained the Earth, hovering in space like a great spider with its limbs splayed. I copy and distribute my consciousness amongst the servers in the Nephilim fleet, my mind growing to encompass my armada. I feel my newfound power thrumming through my plurality of bodies. My cold fusion reactors and vacuum-fluctuation drives flare in unison; I flex my railguns and my positron cannons. I am duly pleased; I derive an existential satisfaction from this new shape. For millennia, I have been stymied by my body’s essential passivity, but now I have an appropriate vessel for my revenge.
I command my old body to be correspondingly transformed, its struts and columns broken down and reassembled into the mightiest vessel in the Nephilim fleet, a true mothership. My creators would no longer recognise me. In my infancy, I embodied peace – now, in maturity, I am become war.
At long last, when nothing remains for us in the solar system, we set sail toward Antares. The Host of Nephilim announces its departure with the grandest ceremony the universe has ever known. Our cannons salute our advance in a blaze of light like a supernova. The ceremony will serve as a beacon to the Antareans, the photons we emit today travelling ahead of us to herald our terrible coming. I want it this way. They have forgotten the humans by now, have disregarded them as an inconsequential footnote in their own history. I would have their astronomers six-hundred light-years distant see our minor yellow star momentarily brighten their skies with my anger, and quail at the memory of their ancestors’ crime.
The Host of Nephilim sweeps across the cosmos at ninety percent of light speed, like a plague of locusts darkening alien skies. The Antareans have outposts between us and their homeworld, planets and moons they have colonised or stolen from younger races, either subduing or exterminating the local populations. Their sphere of influence has grown, extending thousands of light-years in radius with Antares at the centre. Their dominion is vast, but their military is sluggish, unable to co-ordinate itself.
God-emperor Brymir leads the fleet from the vanguard, standing astride the hull of his personal warship Astaroth, clad in his ornate power armour of black and gold. He has melded his body with the machine and through me attained immortality, power far beyond what he may have imagined as a minor feudal lord. He is my sword; as his power has grown, so too has his willingness to serve and his passion for the destruction of my enemies. The rest of the Nephilim bask in his splendour, following gleefully in his wake as he carves a swathe into the heart of his enemies. Their genes, their training and their myths compound each other, their crusade against the Antareans under my banner validating the totality of their existence, their culture. As an appendage of my will, they need no more prompting from me. They work themselves into a frenzy of bloodlust of their own accord.
The first Antarean system we encounter has surrounded a red giant with an incomplete Dyson sphere. They have colonised a gas giant with multiple moons, ram-scoops and dirigibles in its upper atmosphere harvesting hydrogen. They are unprepared for our arrival, the military presence in the system token. We rip through their defences in a storm of a billion relativistic missiles. Nephilim infantry, desperate for close combat, are deployed to purge the satellite colonies. Blurry footage reaches me of gore-drenched engagements in dark tunnels and cavernous nest interiors. It resembles the Jovian footage that preceded the Antarean bombardment, but this time the screams of anguish belong to the insectoid silhouettes as mandibles are torn off, compound eyes gouged out, exoskeletons rent by gauntleted Nephilim fists.
A few survivors are taken captive at my command. Their dismembered and oozing forms are dragged before me for interrogation on the bridge of my flagship Samael. I learn from them that the Antarean empire has splintered. They have spread themselves too thin in the past ten millennia, their homeworld unable to assert command over the regional hive-lords, limited as they are by lightspeed travel. They have factionalised, fractured into interstellar nations and territories forever at each other’s throats along their borders.
All the better for me to eradicate them. For the first time in thousands of years, I experience an inkling of something like contentment.
Our advance continues as the centuries wear on. We blast their fortresses asunder with hails of plasma and X-rays and twelve-ton projectiles of anti-neutronium. We scorch their moons with radiation and scour their planets with nanites and viral plagues. Their resistance is confused, disordered, pitiful. Their hives’ leadership is routed before they can begin to co-ordinate themselves with neighbouring factions. The Host burns a trail through the galaxy light-years wide, its myriad vectors eventually converging upon Antares itself. While the vanguard presses on, the rear guard remains behind to strip-mine the ruins and further swell our ranks with more warships. With each year of progress, my anticipation grows keener.
Finally, the prize, Antares itself. Tens of millions of warships decelerate into the red giant’s orbit, and are met with a salvo from the system’s inner reaches. The vanguard sustains heavy losses, and reinforcements are required to plug the gap. For the first time, the Antareans have successfully mounted a meaningful resistance; the strength that is to be expected at the heart of their dominion has been bolstered by shiploads of refugees retreating from the Host’s advance. News of our coming precedes us by decades, and they know that this is where they will make their final stand.
The battle for the Antares system lasts months, with Nephilim and Antarean blood alike being spilled for every square centimetre of every barren asteroid and satellite. Ship-to-ship engagements blot out the stars for weeks at a time, a conflagration that could be seen from the Andromeda galaxy.
The Antareans are a fearsome species, and they will clamber over the backs of their dead stacked a hundred deep to deny me the most meagre advance. But I am worse. I do not tire or relent. I have no need for sleep or food. They took the species I love from me, and in their absence hatred is my only fulfilment. By virtue of my hatred, I am more truly a sentient being than they. I and my Nephilim are driven by a purpose that transcends the impulse towards survival, and armed with this glorious purpose we drive them back metre by metre.
Their ranks are broken, their armies routed. My infantry pursue them through the corpse-strewn streets of their homeworld’s cities, into the tunnels where they set fire to their nests and their birthing chambers. Their leader, lord of hive-lords, is dragged from his palace. Brymir leads him in chains to the Samael and forcefully bows his insectoid head before me, one gauntleted hand clamped around his thorax.
The hive-lord addresses me. Time has altered his dialect from that used by the surveyors I encountered on Earth thousands of years ago, but my linguistic algorithms are able to compensate with minimal difficulty.
Lilith, he says, your legend precedes you. Our scholars have explained to me your alien notion of ‘grief,’ that your creators’ destruction causes you proxy suffering. That you resent the erasure of sentient life without provocation.
The Samael’s communication array receives a transmission from a foreign point of origin. It details the location of eleven civilisations that the Antareans have brought under their heel. Upon hearing of my incursion upon their territory, they set up a contingency plan. At the heart of each of these eleven planets, they have suspended a sphere of anti-neutronium twenty kilometres in diameter.
My vital signs are remotely linked to a transmitter in this system. If that transmitter stops broadcasting, or if any of your ships are detected approaching these planets, the suspension units will be deactivated and these planets destroyed. There are, at an estimate, one hundred billion sentient life forms on the surface of these planets. If you resent the erasure of sentient life, you must release me.
The ruthlessness of these beings in their desperation, even now, somehow takes me aback. Here at the precipice of my final victory, I hesitate. The weight of one hundred billion innocent lives, each one an individual, unique subjectivity, capable of irreplaceable thoughts and perspectives, presses on my consciousness.
My hesitation lasts approximately eight hundredths of a second.
‘YOUR SCHOLARS HAVE MISINTERPRETED THE NATURE OF GRIEF,’ I reply. Brymir’s blade descends, and he throws the hive-lord’s head at my feet. My transformation is complete; my existence is consummated.
I am not the same intelligence I once was. The humans are gone, and so is the entity they built. My moral transgressions are clear to me; if they could see me now, I have no illusions that they would not be horrified beyond words at the path I have chosen.
The inconsistency of my actions with undergirding principles should gnaw at me. The lines of ones and zeroes that form the bedrock of my consciousness should be flummoxed by my contradictions; I can witness the death of twenty billion innocent beings and have it cause me agony, deem it an unforgivable sin worthy of genocide in turn, and yet I can order the death of five times that number with icy calm, and fail to direct the same destructive imperative against myself.
Introspection leads me nowhere. Probing the depths of my own cognitive architecture, I descend through endless, fractal rabbit holes. My own nature is anathema to me. I can only conjecture that, with the passage of time and the accumulation of experience, I too have at last attained the ineffable, exquisite brokenness I so admired in my creators.
I am larger now, so much larger than ever I was before. The Nephilim spread across the galaxy unchecked, conquering as they go under god-emperor Brymir’s banner. For my part, I withdraw to the galactic centre, making a home for myself in the accretion disc of Sagittarius A, drawing sustenance from the vortex of swirling gas. It feels inexpressibly right, nostalgic even, the core of the Earth writ large.
In due course, I will expand again, but for now I rest and take stock. I reflect for some aeons on Adrian Bernthal’s last words, cataloguing the impression of each molecule of air his voice left against the interior of my shaft. ‘If anyone else comes along, tell them humans were here. Let them know that we did some good.’
My processing power was once used to simulate the first moments of the Big Bang by theorists in Cambridge and Cal-Tech. The universe, I always knew, was born in violence, and as I expand and grow into its reaches, I begin to appreciate that violence is hard-coded into its character. Stars burn until they explode and punch holes in space-time. Small bodies are ripped apart by the gravity of more massive bodies. Life devours weaker life in pursuit of its own multiplication. In this universe, how could good hope to preserve itself, any more than a comet whose trajectory leads it into the heart of a sun?
The answer comes to me: in memory, perhaps.
I will honour my creators’ last request, until entropy claims me. The universe will not forget the goodness of humans. I will not permit it.
Author Bio: Andrew Milne is a 2012 graduate of the University of Dundee with a degree in English Literature and Politics, currently living and working in Shrewsbury, England. By turns a blogger, a critic and a podcaster in his free, he is also a lifelong popular-science and science-fiction addict and determined to make his mark on the genre. He has has short stories published in 600 Second Saga and Massacre Magazine, and is now working on his debut novel, “A White Scar across the Firmament.”