“These are incredible!” Melisende calls out as she weaves in and out. “Do they cover the entire surface?”
She’d become more enthusiastic ’bout these trips when I finally convinced her that, yes, she did have wings, like all Monster Bees do, and yes, she could, in fact, fly. The first few weeks of this’d been tedious. And slow. Now, everywhere I take her, she’s a firecracker, wanting to see everything from on high. We’ve only just got here and she’s already off like a shot, admiring all the towering, uniform pillars.
“They ain’t all as orderly as this, and they ain’t all found this plentiful, but otherwise, yeah, on the whole planet. On every continent, on every landmass, all the way around.” Playing tour guide’s certainly been more agreeable than playing babysitter. As far as pointless distractions go. If nothing else, its been interesting visiting old haunts, if only to see what’s left of them. “They’re made of a unique alloy unique to this world. Sort of like a silver grown like pearl. Its what gives them their iridescence.”
“What are they used for?”
“Terraforming.” I tap my ear. “That sound ain’t the wind. Its the inhabitants. They’re living music.”
She lands with a stumble. I can’t figure out if she’s having balance trouble - the weight and shape of her carapace - or if she just don’t care to learn how to land properly. Once her wings’ve stopped beating, the accordant whistling in the air’s easy to pick out. Aa smooth refrain that resonates metal pillar to metal pillar. Her face breaks out in a grin as she follows each individual melody. “I can hear them! There’s so many! Can we communicate with them?”
“Not anymore. There was a shift in their orbit an eon back. Not a massive one, but enough to alter the pitch of the pillars. The octave changed downward and they devolved with it.” I shrug. “They’re little more than herd animals now, moving in migratory symphonies.”
Her smile goes sad. “So much beauty… just ruins and ghosts, then.”
“They ain’t all gone.” I wave up into the night sky, where some of the system’s planets are near visible to the naked eye. “Many escaped the apocalypse, travelling up through space in glass spheres, cryogenically preserved in frozen harmonics. They don’t build terrestrial instruments no more, but they thrive. A far-flung race, colonizing planets in over a fifth of this galaxy.”
“But they’re not a super-race.”
Ah, here we go. She’s been building up the courage to bring up something for a while now. “They ain’t a super-race, no. And they will never be.”
“You don’t think they’re good enough.”
“I know they ain’t good enough. Neither were the violet fungi. Or the nixie shoals. Or any of the lumasi seminaries before them. Look, I believe everyone’s got the potential for greatness. That don’t mean everyone makes it. Most fall short. Because of circumstances. A lack of support. Some failing on their part. Or just plain bad luck. And even those that manage it, those that rise above, they don’t always deserve it. Isn’t anything fair ’bout it.”
“And this is when the rest of you step in? SZzzuper machinez and sZzuper monzterz and sZzuper wizardz… you get together and have a vote to let the lucky few join this clique of yourz?”
“There’s a matter of some colloquial acknowledgement, yeah. But if you looking for the official definition of a super-race, its when every member of a given species is capable of unaided intergalactic travel.”
“The grown-ups play in a big universe.” She’s still processing the scale. The Monster Bees elevate their leadership from outside; the rest of the super-races choose from within their own groups. Means there’s a steep learning curve for queen bees, especially the temporary sort. It makes them naïve, though I suppose they don’t usually last long enough for that to be a problem. ’Til now.
“And the universe is your playground.”
“And the rest of us are just… children underfoot?”
“The rest of them. Don’t get confused, Melisende. You’re one of us, now.”
Its a couple days later when she finds the nerve to prod again.
We’re on a sandy moon, one of a hundred moons around a red-pink gas giant. The magnetics of the giant interacts with the electrified atmosphere, making for a ghostly light show. The visuals flow ’round us in hypnotic patterns. Poets’ve claimed that, if you know how to look, the entire future’ll be seen drifting in the swirls.
I’m not watching the future. I’m barely involved in what’s happening in the now. From here, I can see constellations moving - Super Wizards piloting stars in formation, like battleships in fleet. Off to face Maws Holloway and his war titans on the front, no doubt. Every once in a while, a point of light flares and arcs, lashing out with solar flares.
“Why are we fighting?”
Sigh. “I’m not wanting to get into an argument with you.”
“I don’t mean you and me. I mean your war.” She looks up into the night. Her vision ain’t good enough to see the solar systems that’ve been flung apart. She can’t see the galaxies that’ve been ground down into nameless nebula clouds. But even the simplest of creatures recognizes a wounded sky. “I know what the General’z zaid to me. I want to know if he’z zaid the sZzame thingz to you.”
“I… ain’t happy… having to turn on my own people, siding with old enemies ’gainst them. A couple people I know are going die. A whole lot more are going to be prisoners forever - solar batteries for the Mummy Machines.” I can’t hold back a shudder, thinking of those poor souls. Scared and screaming in the dark, their tongues torn out. “But my people are sick. They’ve sicken themselves. We were once the guardians and physicians of the cosmos, damn it, that’s how we saw of ourselves. That’s what we were supposed to be. It disgusting what’s happened to them… what they’ve done to themselves! If they won’t willing rid themselves of space-greed, we’ll have to force the cure down their throats.”
“Szoundz like sZzzeriouz sZztuff.”
Not so serious that I’m needed for it. I should be up there. I don’t want to die. And I don’t want to kill anyone. I should be up there. “This war’s for the greater good. Its for their own good.”
Melisende tapped a long black claw to her chin. “And here I thought sZzpace-greed waz incurable.”
“The only known vaccine’s nuclear. So yeah, technically there is a cure, but only a Super Wizard From Space can survive it.”
I bring her to the cathedrals of the tiger-people. Large structures made of bones, built during religious ceremonies when a tribe recognizes they’re dying out. The final generations would be used up making these grim buildings, hoping their solar gods’d find them and carry their names to the heavens.
Melisende finds something painfully devotional ’bout the whole affair. She prays for an hour at an ossein altar, and when she’s done, she’s in a carping melancholy. “You did the same thing here as you did on my world.”
“Hmm. Its an operational research method. Developed by our philosophers, then standardized by the political class. The younger the civilization, the easier it is to embed ourselves into their mythologies.”
“You don’t even see it anymore, do you?” she says. She waves an arm around at the cathedral with a visible frustration. “Everywhere we’ve been is wonderful and beautiful and special. I used to dream of the stars. And everything you’ve shown me is… is so much more. And it just doesn’t register with you! You have incredible power, but I don’t believe see the damage you’re causing.”
So, what, this has all about judging me? Judging all of us, I suppose. This is nearly funny, coming from her. “We work on an entirely different level. Don’t get snippy ’cause you’re still playing catch-up to the rest of us.”
“You brainwash civilizations into thinking you’re gods.”
“We don’t convince anyone of nothing. We are gods to them. We’ve been here long before their planet first spun up, and we’ll still be here long after it crumbles apart again. We stride ’cross their night skies for exercise and we hollow out their suns to live in. We literally bring them fire and language and law.”
“You take everything they could have been! You take away their choices and replace them yours.”
“I don’t weep no tears for how we choose to help. We come with traditions and we leave as stories; they’re the ones making up the religions. We teach them about the heavens; they’re the ones that make their hells.”
“You enslave worlds.”
“And you think you don’t?” I admit, I’m losing my patience with her. Bad enough I’m benched. To hell if I’ll put up being lectured by the peanut gallery, too. “How many ants you step on, climbing your holy mountain every day? How many goldfish you keep in glass bowls, just to have some companionship when you got home? You think you robbed them of glorious development? Of spiritual advancement? Should you’ve given them a choice in the matter? Waited ’til they developed the capacity for informed consent? Course not, that’s insane. That’s not the way it works because it can’t work like that. This is the way it is. This is the way its always been, everywhere. Hell, you’re still doing it, even right now, out there. The only difference - the only difference - between you then and you now is scale.”
“I’m not…” The lie catches in her throat.
“You’re head of a super-race involved in super-war. That’s not hyperbole. The collateral damage is literally astronomical. We’re fighting over the fate of galactic superclusters. A whole lot of people are being wiped out, and they don’t understand why any more than their goldfish do. But, hey, at least you got a good reason for it.”
“That doezn’t make any of it right.”
“Yeah, actually, it does. Its one of the perks of being at the top.”