UNTO THE HEGEMON
The world of Metra turned beneath us, an ocean veiled in bands of cloud reflecting winking speckles of orange from the fat, dim orb of Kamari Star. A diffuse band of irregular flotsam girdled the planet, metal fragments glinting as they spun. Before the pocked face of Metra's moon floated a massive derelict spaceship, its scarlet plating rent aside exposing twisted decks and clouds of spinning kipple.
The space around Metra was a graveyard for warships.
Mr. Oliver's console crackled through yet another band of random squelches and noisy static, then he tapped the sound off with a resigned sigh. "There's nothing out there, sirs. Um, every frequency's the same: dead air."
"Are you wearing your heir differently, led?" asked Captain Ting suspiciously.
"Um, nossir," said Mr. Oliver, flushing slightly.
"H'm," grunted Ting. "Well thet's demned peculia, isn't it? No treffic control, no globel positioning, no bloody enterteinment signals even."
Jeremiah nodded somberly. "The transition of power may not have gone smoothly for the Kamari Hegemon."
Ting flicked at his console. "I heff old meps. We cen find Thellos that wey so long as they heffn't moved the whole demn city. Shell we go down?"
I nodded. "He who hesitates is lost."
The globe tilted up toward us, orange-tipped cloudscapes filling the view from window to window like a sea of whipped cream. As I was climbing into my seat I nearly tumbled, the deck shaking beneath my feet. The ship groaned ominously. "Mr. Oliver..." started Ting.
"Something's gone wrong with the batteries on the secondaries -- they didn't come up to full after we discharged the push-cannons, Cap'm." Mr. Oliver looked over at us, his thin face anxious. "All aerofins and antiwell stabilizers are offline, sir. We've started into an uncontrolled descent."
Ting scowled. "What heff we got? Eren't there a couple of portable converters in the hold? We could petch them into the seconderies."
"Um, what would we stoke it with?"
"Enything, boy! Get down there and throw in enything you find -- nevermind gumming the works, led!" shouted Ting. "Ell of you -- help him! I heff the stick."
Mr. Oliver exploded out of his chair and bounded up the stairs. Glory, Dr. Pemma, Pish and I tore after him. He threw himself down the corridors like a monkey and burst into the debarkation bay. He opened a cabinet full of silvery suits with metal rings around their collars. He tossed a suit to each adult. "Um, please put these on. We'll need them to breathe in the engineering section. I don't think there's one small enough for Pish, though."
Pish kicked his shoe. "Aw, man."
The ship rumbled again. Mr. Oliver touched a contact on the rings around our collars and round shields cracked on around our heads. He opened the way into an airlock and we followed him, Glory waving to Pish as the lock sealed behind us. The atmosphere evacuated with a hiss and we were released into the cavernous cells of the airless majority of the Neago's interior: cold and silent, dimly lit in the red and infrared.
Captain Ting's voice spoke out over my telephone: "We're geng to plow into the top of the etmosphere soon. How're those converters coming?"
"Working on it, Cap'm," grunted Mr. Oliver as he touched down inside a cargo cell and began to cast through the assembled containers arranged on shelves of pliable webbing. "Here we go," he said, gesturing me over. I helped him kick off the side of the heavy container, sending it coasting gently to the other side of the cell. It bumped against the wall and started to come back at us. Mr. Oliver deftly stepped in and gave it a heave upward.
With Glory and Dr. Pemma's help we rounded up a gang of robots and all together managed to bounce the unwieldly cube back into the airlock, and then we were cycled through to reunite with Pish. "What's that?" he asked.
"A field matter converter," explained Mr. Oliver as he cracked open the case and exposed the large grey appliance. "You can throw anything into and get power out of the other side. Can you go get stuff to throw in?"
"What kind of stuff?"
"Anything," said Mr. Oliver, extending a series of thick cables from the rear of the converter and plugging them into a socket nestled between two bulkheads. "Sheets, blankets, food trays, apple cores, surgical instruments: anything. Go!"
Pish took off. The floor shook beneath our feet. Mr. Oliver turned to Glory, Dr. Pemma and I. "Um, I need you to get another converter up here. I'm going to hook this into the secondaries and validate the system with the coordination matrix."
"Uh, okay," I said.
A moment later as we cycled back through the airlock with the second unit Captain Ting sounded over the ship's speakers: "I need the antiwells online now, led! Right bloody now!"
Mr. Oliver jumped over the first converter and started throwing handfuls of other equipment into the open mouth, including his own suit for airless breathing. The material was sucked away into a secondary compartment inside the body of the machine which began to emit a mounting hum. "Is it working?" I called.
He nodded, poised over the converter's small round screen. "We can give you ten percent, Cap'm!"
"Bloody hell!" replied Captain Ting.
Pish arrived with a load of bedding in a laundry cart. It was tossed into the converter as Mr. Oliver worked on hooking the second unit into his jerry-rigged battery. Glory was stuffing both machines with first aid kits and boxes of tongue depressors. "Um, it's not enough," said Mr. Oliver, wiping sweat from his face. "We need better fuel!"
"Throw in the bloody robets!" suggested Ting.
Mr. Oliver's face lit up. "Right!"
The call signal for the medical robots and engineering robots alike was given, and they filed into the debarkation bay and queued up in the corridor outside. Mr. Oliver issued the prototype orders and then Pish and I carried them down the line: "Our lives are in jeopardy. You are ordered to disassemble yourselves. Pass your parts up the line and feed them into the machine, until you are consumed. You do us all a great service, and we thank you."
The white robots silently obeyed, the whole of the last robot being passed down first along the line and then the next, each helping to disassemble his neighbor in turn. Plastic and metal forearms and pelvises and heads were chucked into the twin converters, their combined humming rising to a shrill pitch. "It's working!" yelled Mr. Oliver with glee. "You have thirty percent on the secondaries, Cap'm!"
"Aye!" said Ting over the relay. The ship bucked and dove again, the habitat ring ceasing to rotate and losing pseudo-gravity as it locked into position in the outer hull. A low but constant roaring could now be discerned as I worked my way up the corridor far enough away from the whining converters. I grabbed the wall as we dropped suddenly for a moment, the row of semi-disassembled robots scattering in sequence like dominos.
"The fleps eren't moving! It's not enough!" signaled Ting, his voice edged with stress. "I cen't control it -- throw more robets on the fire!"
"Robots: continue!" commanded Mr. Oliver. "We'd better get to the bridge."
When we descended the shuddering steps to the bridge Captain Ting was poised in front of the controls and the windows were awash in fire. We strapped ourselves into our seats around him. Dr. Pemma muttered something about the captain's mental state, at which he turned around and smiled icily. "If you'd rether get us down yourself, Decta Heartbush?"
The Neago shook violently, a concussion rocking through the habitat ring and a string of flaming debris tumbling away behind us, flashing through the aft windows. "Emergency locks in the operating theatre are giving way," reported Mr. Oliver, face almost pressed into his console in order to read the shaking readouts. "We're taking on superheated gas."
A klaxon sounded and fire retardant foam poured out all over us. The smell of burning plastic carried on tendrils of black smoke began pouring out of the ventilators. "Steedy now..." muttered Ting.
We came through a deck of cloud and I saw an ocean dotted with rocky islands. Another bank of cloud swallowed us. The air outside began to screech piercingly after the double-concussion of our passage through the sound barrier. "Too fast!" warned Mr. Oliver.
"Hold tight everyone," recommended Ting. "Heng on now..."
"The retros are spent!" cried Mr. Oliver.
"Is that good?" I asked hopefully.
Rolling hills flashed beneath us, trees casting long purple shadows in the twilight. An instant later we were crashing through those trees, and before I could blink we were all pitched violently forward when the Neago plowed into the ground. Dr. Pemma screamed. The shields and structural reinforcement fields failed: a second later the lights went out and the forward windows shattered in a hail of flying transparent shards. I clutched my harness and closed my eyes.
After a seemingly interminable time we slid to a halt. We were tugged back roughly in our chairs, bits of bulkhead, window, dirt and rocks falling around us. The rumble of our progress reverberated away, leaving an eerie stillness in its wake.
"Roll call," I whispered.
"Pish!" said Pish.
"Glory," said Glory.
"I'm alright," muttered Dr. Pemma.
"Sir," said Jeremiah.
"Oh, no," said Mr. Oliver bleakly.
Captain Ting was hanging in his chair limply, his eyes open and a shard of the window embedded in his forehead. Drops of blood were intermittently working their way along its edge, and then falling off to plop sullenly against his darkened dataplate.
Mr. Oliver unhitched his harnesses and dropped down to the dirt exposed through the open windows. He reached up to Ting's eyes and gently closed them, and then picked up the captain's gold-braided hat and fingered it reverently.
"He died doing what he loved," I said. "...Er, cheating death."
Mr. Oliver nodded and then ceremoniously placed the cap upon his head. He saluted Ting's body, and then turned to me crisply. "As of this hour I am assuming command of the spaceship Neago, such as it is. I shall begin effecting repairs immediately. Can any of your party stay to assist me, Mr. Fell, sir?"
After a moment of shock I found myself smiling. "Yes, Captain Oliver. Dr. Pemma, Glory and Pish will stay aboard."
"What!" yelled Glory.
"Hey!" shouted Pish.
I held up my hand and shook my head. "That's final. We have no idea what we're up against out there, but the least of it may be another mob of irate Citadelites. They wounded you last time, Pish, and it could happen again."
"I don't even remember it," he argued pointlessly.
"I do," swore Glory darkly. "We should stay here, Pishy. Come on. We'll help Captain Oliver."
Pish hugged me, and then hugged Jeremiah. "I like it when I can see your face," Pish told him. "It reminds me of when it was just you, me and Dad."
"I will return soon, Little Master," he promised.
Jeremiah and I headed for the corridor. Dr. Pemma touched my shoulder. "You might need a physician," she said seriously.
"We'll call you," I promised, tapping the new telephone bead on the side of my neck from the ship's stores. "Hold things together here, will you?"
She pinched her mouth into a tight line and nodded. I turned and followed Jeremiah down to the debarkation bay. "We can't open the ramp," I pointed out, "it's stuck in the ground."
When Jeremiah didn't reply I turned to face him. He was putting his robotic masque into place, and then covering it with the cracked pieces of his scratched blue-green carapace. "Sir, there is a ladder to the top hatch," he answered at last, his voice modulated electronically as it had been before.
I did a quick personal inventory. I had packed the pockets of my longcoat with supplies: Glory's box of fixers, my wallet and plate, a flask of water and a package of rations, a gift of Ting's Navy dagger, protective gloves from the doctor, and of course my Annapurnese gun in its red leather holster. "I'm ready," I claimed.
We ascended the ladder and Jeremiah unscrewed the hatch. He helped me through and then we stood up on the scorched hull of the Neago, the fading heat still radiating through the thick soles of my boots. The ship had come to rest in a shallow ravine it had carved into the side of a grassy hill. The air was still, and somewhat chilly. The sun was rising in the east, a ruby smear behind the hill.
"Are we close to Thallos?" I asked.
"Sir, according to our maps we have crashed within the bounds of city itself."
We clambered down from the ship and then climbed up the wall of the new ravine, crossing lines of dirt and rock still smoking hot from Neago's crash. I met Jeremiah at the top, pausing to catch my breath. When I looked up I lost my breath once more.
The red morning sun was rising over a ruin.
Broken finger carcasses of unwalled buildings pointed hopelessly into the pink sky, rising out of an ocean of irregular lumps of stone and concrete, torn fabric and splintered wood. Thallos had been founded on a series of hills, and we could see each rising successively paler into to the grey horizon, faces littered in debris and lifeless spoil.
The morning mist was slowly burning off, lurking in the shadows of the hills and the valleys between them. There was no wind. There were no birds.
"A holocaust!" I whispered.
"Yes," agreed Jeremiah solemnly, leading the way to a narrow natural path between two fallen heaps of slag. "Notice the debris: no plastic, no metal." He pointed to an exposed face of rock at the base of a steep hill, apparently fractured.
"No. Veins of specific minerals have vanished. I believe a weapon was deployed here which targeted specific elements, and destroyed them. In one moment a city, in another moment tons of concrete suspended in the air without superstructure."
"The buildings would have fallen out of the sky..." I said, awed. "All at once."
As we continued walking we came across little islands of undestroyed property, always delineated by a perfect circle. "Shields," explained Jeremiah. Despite these round scars of untouched architecture we saw no sign of person or beast save an occasional red ant scavenging among the pebbles and weeds. We passed a house that was mostly shattered with a single round section intact by the back quarter: a dry fountain and a statue of little boy urinating into it.
"Tell me something, Jeremiah," I said as we crossed over a tall hill of smashed bricks. "You've said you were fifty million hours old, and yet you told me you were named after your ancestor. How long ago did he live?"
"He is still alive, sir," replied the apparent robot. "First Jeremiah is involved in politics. He works at Eridani Star. I have not seen him in hundreds of hours."
"But you said you had his memories..."
"We pool our memories periodically, sir. It is a form of human executive communion for which your kind has no analogue."
"And this First Jeremiah -- he was actually born at the Solar Star?"
"As was I," replied Jeremiah, nodding.
I sniffed. "Are you immortal?"
"No," he said heavily. "My ancestor clings to life. Soon my time will come as well. Like him, I have business to see through first."
"Like this?" I said, gesturing at the ruined city around us.
"Like this," he agreed.
We walked along in silence for a while longer, the sky turning blue as the orange sun climbed higher. We came to a small section of city that was almost entirely unruined, its borders delineating hard curving edges in the mess. Our way was blocked by a large complex, so we elected to go through it.
I screamed when I saw the first person.
But the second person visible was frozen in a posture impossible to maintain for more than a split second, somersaulting in mid-air. As we drew closer it became apparent that the figures were depicted in a holographic mural that ran the length of an echoey hall, filled with scenes of children flying kites, couples holding hands, and smiling crowds. There were several spotted dogs with distinctive patterns, and what looked to me to be domesticated bears riding on the backs of elephants.
Jeremiah urged me on and we continued, passing next through chambers of abandoned toys, climbers and dolls. "What was this place?" I asked.
"A school," said Jeremiah without turning around or pausing in his stride.
Without waiting for him to follow me I wandered into a smaller room which was filled with boxes of little coloured sticks, the walls plastered with overlapping squares of plastic holding the scribbles of children. "My mommy and daddy playing skiing with me by Wheat Tetragon, section six," I read aloud.
I looked up at Jeremiah, who stood rigidly in the doorway. "Time passes," he reminded me.
I ignored him. "This child must be dead now." I passed on to another drawing. "Me and my dog by Benice Hollymat, section nine." I sighed. "This one, too." I looked up to examine a merry collection of figures clustered beside something green. "Me and daddy and Terron in the garden by Pish, section two."
"Yes," said Jeremiah simply.
I stood back from the drawing and wiped my hand down over my face. "You brought me here on purpose."
"Duncan was a friend to Volmash."
Jeremiah shook his head. "No, Simon. He is his father."
It suddenly made me sick, contemplating Pish's innocent hand holding the paw of the hated tyrant. I ran out of the room. I ran past swimming pools and cafeterias, dormitories and kitchens. I emerged into a wide courtyard centred around a massive oak tree, half of it blackened and dwarfed by fire but the other half luscious with half-curled green leaves. I sat down against the tree, sliding down its bark, and felt the urge to weep though no tears came to my eyes. I coughed, and then retched.
When I opened eyes that I had not realized were closed Jeremiah was standing before me, a gay garden of merry-go-rounds and overgrown bushes serving as backdrop, shining bronze in the warm sun. "It's beautiful," I said.
I stood up, and watched my boots on the interlocked bricks. I cast my eyes around the courtyard at the soaring architecture of the building, bleeding out to the tiniest filigree mock-minarets at the corners. Flags might have flown there once, but there remained only tatters hanging in the still air. "It shouldn't be beautiful."
"What were you expecting?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. Black gates, high walls. Spires and fences. Gargoyles."
I shook my head ruefully. "This seems like it would have been a nice place to have a kid go to school." I looked at him. "This doesn't seem like it was such a bad place to live...I mean, before it was smashed."
"Tyranny does not necessary imply immediate civic strife," said the apparent robot. "If it did, this course would never be followed. Remember always that the people of Kamari's worlds did not hate their hegemony. Such atrocities could only be committed in the name of love."
"Love?" I scoffed. "Look around. How can you say that?"
Jeremiah's black eyes fixed on me through his masque. "Fifty million hours, Simon," he said simply. "Fifty million hours."
We crossed another waste of rubble and then emerged between two hills into the city centre, a crumbled ring of high buildings surrounding a vine-entwined but otherwise untouched palace of soaring towers and nestled gardens overgrown with weeds. The palace rose like a spire in the ruin, its property demarked in a sharp circle of nondestruction.
Jeremiah stopped in his tracks. I followed his gaze: the base of the palace was cordoned off by fencing patrolled at intervals by soldiers with dogs. A cluster of domed shelters bristled with the comings and goings of personnel in grey cassocks. A car flew out from a lean-to garage and soared off into the distant hills. Closer to us a gang of six-legged machines was clearing aside rubble and laying the foundations for more shelters, their tarnished yellow sides bearing the seal of the Citadel of the Recovery.
"Citadelites!" I exclaimed. "And it looks like they've been here for some time."
"This is wrong..." said Jeremiah, his voice thick and unsteady. "No one should be here. Orders were given. Their expedition was to be held at the gate."
I found the shock in his voice unnerving. "What do you mean?" I demanded. "You've been lighting a fire under my feet every mile with that particular bogey! You're telling me we weren't racing them?"
"Apparently we were," Jeremiah admitted.
"Wasn't it they who set up the heat ray? What's with you and the errors of omission?" I cried. "Can I ever trust you to be straight with me?"
"I endeavor to speak the truth whenever the liberty is mine."
"Liar!" I snorted. "You're a puppeteer, just like Olorio. Just like Blighton, too. You're stringing me along to get what you need. I am a fish."
"As long as we have goals in common," he replied icily, "you should have no complaint, Simon. My duty compels me."
I frowned and turned away from him. "It's not your fault, naturally. You're just following orders. Why juggle the complexities of loyalty when you can always hide behind your duty?"
Jeremiah stepped up behind me and touched my shoulder softly. "I have told you, Simon, my emotions are not yours. My sense of duty is not like yours, either. I am not capable of performing a wrong action. Do you understand?" He turned me around gently. "I am not capable. My duty compels me."
I shrugged his hand off and resumed walking. "So you are a robot after all."
I avoided his eye. We did not speak for another hour as we worked our way through the shattered city, climbing mound after mound of rock and ruin until the circle of the palace grounds and the fences of the Citadel camp lay just ahead. We conferred in the lee of a crumbled pillar beside a decapitated statue. "How are we going to get past all those guards?"
"There is no approach from this angle," said Jeremiah. "We must search the perimeter for a weaker point. If a way cannot be found we can then proceed."
I furrowed my brow. "Run that by me again, will you?"
"We must explore all avenues of surreptitious incursion. If no way can be found, I can use...force."
"Why not just use force now?" I asked.
"My duty compels me," Jeremiah repeated dully. "All other avenues must be exhausted before I am free to act."
So we made our way slowly and carefully about the perimeter of the palace, ducking through archways and hiding behind clumps of wreckage. The sun was a hot yellow eye directly above us in a clear blue sky by the time we arrived back at our starting point, overlooking a road the Citadelites had pushed open for their own use. The six-legged yellow machines had erected a new shelter, and had moved on to clearing a fresh area beside it. The air shook for a moment as one of them vomited a load of broken concrete into a large metal bin.
"The beasts of industry are busy," I said. "Seems like they're planning quite a base."
Without another word Jeremiah stood up from the nook behind the crumbled pillar and started walking openly down the road toward the camp's fence. I followed, my hand resting on the butt of the Smith-Shurtook.
I heard the yell of a guard as we passed out of the shadow of one of the great six-legged machines. A few seconds later a platoon of men in grey uniforms assembled at the perimeter to meet us, wicked looking weapons mounted on their shoulders and trained on our position. "Halt!" they shouted in bass chorus.
"So," I said slowly, "are you just going to kill them all, then?"
"No," said Jeremiah evenly. "I am obliged to be selective."
"What should I do?"
"Follow in my wake."
Jeremiah did not slacken in his pace as he bore down on the fence. The order was given to fire, and each man who tried to do so folded out from under his weapon and collapsed soundlessly on the dirt. Their commanders' orders became more urgent until they too fell, frozen in the act of reaching for their sidearms. Last to go were the dogs.
My fingers twitched over my holster.
Jeremiah walked on. A group of nuns quailed before him and then ran into one of the shelters, shouting. More guards ran out to meet us, and fell. I stepped over their bodies and looked over my shoulder, hurrying after the patiently pacing predator.
He moved up the broad front steps of the palace and walked through the open door, walking between fat snakes of cabling that ran from the Citadelite camp into the dark palace interior. I turned around and backed through the door, eyes scanning the now motionless camp.
I bumped into Jeremiah and grunted. "Sorry!"
There was a strange smell in the air, like old meat and forest damp. I turned around to survey the expansive hall in which we stood, my eyes adjusting to the shadows and coaxing the details of staircases and balconies into focus.
Bodies hung from every rafter, taut chords around their necks. There were more than two dozen. "Mother of love! What happened to these people?"
"They have been hanged," explained Jeremiah. He walked over to one of the closest bodies and examined the tattered remains of its uniform. "These are palace officials. It may have been a mass suicide during the last siege."
"But there were bodies nowhere else..." I whispered.
"I do not know what happened here in the end," said Jeremiah, "but it seems even its participants judged it too sick to bear."
More sounds of shouting from the camp outside motivated us to push onward, following the Citadelite cabling through an empty gallery with broken windows and then disappearing down an open elevator shaft. Without hesitation Jeremiah stepped inside the shaft and began climbing down a set of rungs running down a shallow recess. I looked down into the darkness and steeled myself, then followed him.
We were swallowed by the gloom in minutes. "Do you have a light?" I asked. "We can navigate the ladder by touch," replied Jeremiah's voice from below me somewhere.
"Still, having a light would make this a little bit less like a living nightmare. But that sort of thing may be beneath your concern."
After a pause Jeremiah said, "I am capable of a mild phosphorescence."
Jeremiah's carapace appeared out the blackness beneath my feet, a somber blue-green glow that cast only the most fleeting illumination to the area of the shaft immediately around him. "Sir, this does us no service," he said.
For several moments there was no sound by our hands and feet touching the metal rungs as we descended. I kept my eyes fixed on the bobbing blur of blue-green below. Before I had really decided to voice my thoughts I heard myself asking, "If the Secret Math is so dangerous -- if it can be used to kill a dozen at a thought -- wouldn't you be the doing the galaxy the greatest service of all by just killing yourselves?" I sniffed. "Is there a way to hang you?"
"The Math is powerful, not dangerous."
"I'm sure it will seem fairly dangerous to the families of those soldiers you've just murdered."
"They lack perspective," he said evenly.
After a long interval Jeremiah added, "And we will one day need it. Every one of us."
"Need what? Need the Secret Math?"
"Yes. We carry it. It will be yours to inherit, when the time comes. But you cannot harbor it now, as evidenced by the Kamari Horror. We carry your burden while you grow, while your patchwork of societies co-evolve a solution to the problem of adapting human beings to a galactic life."
"You control us, then. You farm us for stability. We're your own personal chemical computers, dreaming and dying for your science."
"No. We are bound to you by our duty, and one day we will be free."
"There's your duty again..."
"You cannot understand, Simon. A human being is, and a human being's duty is to protect the capacity for future life. A human executive does, and his missions are weighted by two pendulums: to protect the capacity for future life, and to carry the Math for man." He made a sound that was disturbingly almost like a dry chuckle. "A human being may choose to follow a purpose higher than his flesh, but a human executive has no choice. Zoran's last edict is burned into our souls -- we carry the Math, and separate the worlds."
"Separate the worlds? Why?"
"To accelerate the process of local social evolution, to keep the pot churning but never boiling over, to keep change cellular. But we work against your nature, for human beings strive to connect themselves into ever greater meta-communities, and to imprint themselves upon a wider history that is shared as a racial inheritance. This drive built your first cities, and forged roads across continents to trade with alien cultures."
"Sounds like progress," I said.
"It is an expression of your Stone Age circumstances. Your human urges have nothing to do with space. That is a wisdom human executives have that human beings do not. You are, we do. Your palette of decisions is an imprint of an environment that no longer exists, except on Eden. Your racial wisdom is not fit to shape the galaxy."
"We're your little people. Will you one day keep us in zoos?"
"The little people were once kept in zoos," Jeremiah pointed out, "until your kind learned that anything that could actually ask for freedom probably deserved to have it. Your biology may be tuned in terms of millennia, you see, but your civilization is in constant flux. That is humanity's solution to the process of slow biology: you are only half flesh. The greater part of you is a purely mimetic organism, existing in an environment of information. This is why you have evolved laws and art and history."
"Crutches for unteachable flesh?"
"Yes," said Jeremiah. "Your civilization is a scaffolding that permits the expansion of Solar life beyond its home -- a bridge across which animals run. And where flesh is slow to learn, civilization is fast. Too fast. Premature solutions spread like fire from one culture to another, which is why we have placed barriers between the stars."
"The gates," he agreed. "By enforcing stellar locality, Solar life is forced to generate many simultaneous solutions to the human political question. The barriers to travel are imperfect by design: new mimetic constructs trickle through from star to star, free to catch on or to fizzle without being pushed by an interested force." He paused. "But life always finds a way. New technologies to facilitate easier and faster transit between gates are suppressed by the Queen of Space all the time. It is a losing battle. It is inevitable that civilization will become monolithic. We can only hope that enough strength has been bred into the foundations by the time it happens."
"What's the hurry? You bend us at your yoke so that you might sooner be free of the burden of caring for us?"
Jeremiah was silent for several moments, again the only sounds our patient footfalls and steady grippings and ungrippings as we continued the seemingly interminable descent into the darkness. "Simon, I have told you that we will all one day need the Secret Mathematic. We will need it very badly, for our survival may depend on it."
"Why?" I shot back impatiently.
Jeremiah stopped moving, and I froze with him. I thought he had heard something, but at length it became apparent that he had stopped only to speak. "There is one we call the Traveller. His true name is First Felix, of the Eighth Strain. He is the oldest of us, and the wisest."
"No doubt he puppeteers the Queen of Space herself," I grunted.
"No. He is the Traveller. He has been travelling for millennia."
"Where does he travel?"
"Have you ever seen a map of the Panstellar Neighbourhood, Simon?"
I thought about Blighton's terrifying projection back on Maja. "Yes," I replied softly. "It was just the tiniest puff, in a whorl of gas and light."
"The tiniest puff indeed. No human being lives on a world further than sixty lightyears from the Solar Nebula. And yet across that small parcel of space we have encountered two other civilizations -- two neighbors across sixty lightyears of space."
"Seems a bit lonely."
"On the contrary, it means this galaxy is teeming with life. And do you imagine that Solar life is the only life to have spread beyond its own borders? Have you ever stopped to think about what might happen when our borders expand against their own?"
"We seem to peacefully co-exist with the Pegasi and the...er, the --"
"The Hennish," supplied Jeremiah. "That is because we dominate them."
"It was explained to me that every race has an equal voice in the affairs of the Panstellar Neighbourhood."
"And so it is, for mercy is a human strength. Mercy comes from a position of strength."
"So what strength do we hold over the Pegasi and the Hennish?"
"Time," said Jeremiah simply, "nothing but time. We got there first. That is why it was human beings who came down out of the sky to prove the existence of alien life to the Pegasi, rather than the other way around. And while law, science and philosophy agree that the soul of a Pegasi is worth as much or as little as the soul of a human being, it is indisputable that our civilization is more mature. We landed on their world, they did not land on ours. As conquerors we chose to be compassionate."
"But, surely there are worlds enough for all. Pegasi must have their own planets..."
"The Pegasi have been granted a purely Pegasi world at an alien star, yes, with an atmosphere processed by Solar engineers. We teach them to use our tools, and how to work within our science. Their own science, though not without its gifts, has lost the opportunity to underlie panstellar civilization. In a thousand years it will be studied purely as an aspect of antiquity. The wisest of them should be grateful that the interstellar predators who discovered them were merciful, and the wisest of us should be grateful that we have not met our equal in them."
I frowned. "And the Hennish?"
"While in many ways more complex than ours, Hennish civilization is monolithic in the extreme, with the whole of Hennish sentient life concentrated in the shared experience of the Great Henniplasm. Due to this biologically founded limitation, the Hennish will be forever unable to leave their native star."
I grunted. "So you think one day we'll meet somebody else with an older, more powerful civilization, and they'll dominate us? Is that it?"
"Yes. There are worlds enough for all here and now, but we do not know if this young quarter of space is representative of the greater galaxy. Felix travels westward, into the thick of the spiral arm, to find out. His messages are beamed back via micro-gate, and received directly by the Executive Council and the Queen of Space. He has seen what no Solar eyes have seen. He has gone further than our fastest probe, and he has met our future."
"And..." I prompted.
"And his last transmission, received less than a century ago, confirms our worst fears."
The shaft suddenly seemed darker and more still than ever. My hands were suddenly sweaty, and I adjusted my grip against the ladder's rungs. Jeremiah's tone sent shivers down my spine. "What did the message say?" I breathed.
"It said: something wicked this way comes."