Can’t see anything but blinding white. There’s a sweet pause of blinking relief, and then its back to stinging blindness as Vaso shines the light into my other pupil. When he finally turns it off, I swear I rub my eyes hard enough for them to fall out.
“Okay, sir, you seem fine.”
“Fine?” My sight’s still adjusting, but Vaso’s blurry stance lacks the square shoulder confidence I expect out of him. “Leniency does us no favors, solider. We’ve got to be certain. Of me most of all. Otherwise, our methods, our objectives, everything comes into question. Now… are you sure?”
This time, his response is rock solid. “Sir, you’re all clear, sir.” Hm. All right. That’ll have to be good enough.
He frowns and steals a look over his shoulder. “What about them, General? We can’t check them all.”
Far enough away to prevent eavesdropping sprawls millions and millions and millions of restless, hulking, monstrous bees. The entire transformed population of Volsci. Milling about the sky. Covering the sandy horizon. Carpeting the rolling desert landscape. All buzzing and bunching and generally anxious to be doing something. We’d brought the whole lot of them with us. At least, I think we did. Its near impossible to get an accurate headcount of them. Its near impossible getting anything out of them. But we’ve been managing, Vaso and I. We’re nothing if not old hands at improvising. “We don’t have to. We just need to check a handful. They’re a eusocial colony with telepathic abilities. If any of them have it, they’d all have it in short order.”
“Okay. Which ones?”
I point at the nearest group. The tight bunch, climbing on top of each other, clustering around the misshaped queen. “Those. Those guarding her. I’ll keep her busy while you’re working. She’s about due for some time away from them, anyway.”
It isn’t easy taking from her ‘subjects’. When we approach, they surround her immediately. She’s shocked. And frightened. Of them and of us. And it echoes exponentially throughout swarm. Vaso has to physically haul them off, even burn a couple, before I can take Sybilla’s arm and pull her away.
She watches Vaso shine lights into multifaceted eyes. “What… what’s he doing? Isz he hurting them?” she asks as I lead her from the swarm.
“Don’t worry. Just a routine exam.” Its difficult guiding her. Her oversized abdomen drags, her lanky sharp legs struggle to find purchase. Too much of a grip or too strong a push, and I risk tipping her over completely. She still doesn’t know how to manage her new proportions. Hasn’t accepted it yet. I figure she’s not really trying. “He’ll be done momentarily. Here, I want to show you something.”
She moves mechanically. “Is he a doctor? The szacred writings left to us described you as sczien… scienzZ…”
“A scientist, yes. Most of our race start out that way. But he makes an excellent field medic. Watch your step.”
“But he calls you ‘General’. Are you two some szort of military?”
Military. A little grandiose for just the two of us. The three of us. “Well, its like… hm. There’s what we want to be, and there’s what we need to be. For the lucky ones, that can be same thing. For others, for the rest of us, its a balancing act.”
“So, which is it? For you… is thisz what you want? Or what you need?”
I stop. And I stare at her.
She immediately shrinks. “Szorry, szzorry, I… should not… itsz not my place.”
“What I do… what I am doing, it has to be done. Because someone has to do it. Because no one else is doing it. They’re scared. Scared of what might happen. Scared of what they could lose. Scared of things they can’t change. We can’t live like that. We can’t just accept things are so much out of control, that things cannot possibly be corrected. Its a coward who lets fear overcome his sense of… duty.”
“What if szomething happens? Szomething terrible, and you can’t never take it back?”
“I’d rather chase a good cause than suffer a bad one.”
She’s quiet for a while after that. Quiet and shivering. Not from the desert cold. I doubt she can even feel temperature. I move on, leading her up a low rocky hill.
When she finds her voice again, its barely a squeak. “I had to kill Urbain Jean Joszzeph earlier today.”
“I know. I saw.”
“He wasz my mentor at the obszzervatory. I mean, I think it wasz him. He szzaid thatsz who he wasz, before he was… before it happened.”
“You did what you had to do.”
“It wasz like you szZaid. They’re at me. Conszztantly. Szaying I’m worthlessz, telling me to give up, to give in, to let szzomeone better take my placze. They would have crusZhed me… He wasz the leader thisz time, riling up the pack, and I had to… I had to.”
“They’re monsters, circling you, sizing you up. I can’t always be there to defend you. You’ll have to be the one to push back. You’ll have to meet them head on if you want to survive. Thats means getting your hands dirty. Doing things you never thought yourself capable of. Meeting their savagery head on.”
“Are they… do you think they remember who they were? From before? Thisz one waszn’t like the otherszz. It szpoke like him and it acted like him and it had a bad leg juszZt like Jean Joszzeph uszed to have and it talked about our azzro… aszztronomical sztudieszzz… and it knew me. It knew me.”
“No. No, of course not. They share a connection with your mind, and they’re going to exploit that… but they’re just animals.” I’ve seen that look before. The look on her face. She knows I’m lying but she wants to believe it anyway. “Never mind that. Come on, up this way. I want to show you something.” At the top of the hill, I wave up at the night sky and ask, “Tell me what you see.”
“I szee… wait, what’sz… I’ve watched the szkies all my life. I’ve known them since I was a girl. But I… don’t recognize these. Where are we?”
I smile and point up at a small distant dot. “See that one there? That’s your solar system. That’s Volsci, over forty trillion kilometres away.”
“I’m… on another planet?”
“Some confusion’s expected when travelling. Usually, you’d experience this through the swarm’s telepresence technology, but…” …she stops listening. There’s a child-like excitement in her eyes as she wanders away from me. She reaches up at the sky, trying to pluck down the stars.
“Ah! Ah! I see it! I see it now! That’s Alpha Circeii! And that’s Fabrateria Vetus, the binary! That would put… yes! Yes, there’s Sora and Arpinum! And Atina Gamma! Foreign constellations! I’m seeing completely foreign constellations! Ha ha ha! This is wonderful! I’m on another planet!” She turns back to me. “What planet is this? Does it have a name?”
“Officially, it has an incredibly long and complex serial number, but everyone calls it ‘Planet M’.”
“M? The system described in the apocrypha handed down to us by the gods of…?”
I give a half nod. “Hm. By the super wizard race, yes. A strategic value, recognized a long time ago.”
Footsteps behind us. Vaso, joining us. Finally. “I give them a clean bill of health, General.”
“Good. Just in time,” I say, watching the opposite horizon
Sybilla’s oblivious to us. “We weren’t told much of M. I mean, nothing beyond what we were instructed to do. We observed and we recorded. We hypothesized and we philosophized. Why it was so important, that particular piece of the universe? Was it special? Was it holy? Was it inhabited by…? Oh. Oh! Is it inhabited? Are there people here?”
Vaso laughs. “People? Damn straight there’s people here. You can see a whack-load of them right over there.” He points to the growing number of black specs sprinkled in the distance. Too far away to make out details, but I can see them collecting into large, separate formations. Organized, regimented formations.
“That… looksz like an army.”
“That is an army. They’ve been gathering over the past two hours, I estimate.”
“For what?” Sybilla asks.
“For you,” Vaso says.
“Me? …but why? I haszzn… I haven’t done anything.”
“Sure you have. You’ve invaded! Your swarm is here! Your planet’s entire population. All of them flight-capable, heavily armed, obedient soldiers.”
She looks at me. Shocked. And frightened. She wants me to lie. Not this time. “I told you, I needed your help.”
She shakes her head. “I thought you meant our recordsz! Our noteszz! I gave you our aszZtronomical data!”
“Yes, that’s why I visited Volsci originally, and trust me, the intelligence you provided will be immensely invaluable. But now, I’m talking about you. You, personally. And your troops. Your countless forces. Finding purpose. Finding worth in whats happened to them. Help me complete my mission. Do what has to be done. Be my red right hand.”
“You szaid… you promiszZed…”
“I did. I promised. But this is the cost. This is the price.”
“And it only getting more expensive from here on in,” said Vaso.