I. The Future
The Mithra came without warning, just as they had six thousand years ago, when they halted human progression for the first time. Destroying a planet seemed like quite a feat, but the Mithra had done it twice.
Now, New Earth was gone.
Humanity had been inspired after Earth’s annihilation to right so much of what had gone wrong the first time. Now, it was facing the same task again. Maybe the third time’s the charm.
“Can you imagine having actually lived through it on Earth? Moving to New Earth, waiting for six thousand years—afraid it’s all going to happen again?”
“And then it does,” Jack said. “I can hardly imagine living through it once!”
I slumped down next to my brother beneath the porthole of the last rescue vessel to leave New Earth. Sitting with our backs to the ship’s outer wall meant we didn’t have to face what waited outside the window. Jack sighed, rubbing his eyes like he might be able to wipe reality away by cleaning his view of it.
“We kind of saw it coming. I mean, look.” I gestured at the massive ship—lovingly, unironically, called a Life Raft. “You don’t build Life Rafts the size of small countries and actually expect people to believe, They’re gone. Move on.”
He laughed. “They’re gone. Move on. How long before they start telling us that again?”
“They’ve got to find a new one now. Maybe, Enjoy it while it lasts.”
“Or, Don’t bother.” This time Jack shook his head, picking up on the same startled smile I’d had since we took off. “We had some good times, humans.”
“I’m glad Mom didn’t see it.”
“The last days before near-extinction? Yeah, I guess that brings out the worst in people.”
“She was always so optimistic—it would have killed her to see how bad it got.” I looked at my brother, my best friend, and wondered what it would have been like to lose him. “I still feel hope.”
“That’s the whiskey. Which, speaking of . . .” Bracing himself on my shoulder, Jack stood up to retrieve the bottle and refill his glass. “Another?” I grabbed his hand and hoisted myself upright, but in doing so, my gaze froze on the view outside the porthole.
Everything felt heavier. Jack raised his glass to the framed apocalyptic scene, pointed—with his thumb and forefinger in the shape of an old-fashioned gun—and made a clicking sound. It was a horrible rendition of the “I’ve got my eye on you” pickup move I’d seen him try too many times. Now, though, it looked as if his imaginary bullet had eradicated an entire planet, its pieces still red hot from the attack. Where once there was purpose now drifted shattered remains, all floating to join the rest of useless, empty space.
“To you, Sis.” He wobbled his glass over to me. “You’re going to be a hot commodity now that we’ll be filling up another planet.”
“Gross!” I pushed him away, faking a laugh, and he wandered back to the window.
“Home.” Jack touched the window as if trying to catch the pieces and put it all back together.
My throat clenched. A new planet awaited where the name Earth could be forgotten by generations who wouldn’t realize their world was built on a disordered memory.
Jack tried the word, but it sounded so unfamiliar. “Rathe.”
Our new home.
The Distant Future
Admiral Rex Westerly
“We need that planet for expansion.”
“The Flora have lived there for longer than your species has existed! It would be absurd to transplant them for not responding to your communications!”
“Our communications, Steward. Unless you have risen above the Democratic Assembly, I believe you are still on our side.”
Chatter ceased in the one-mile-high legislative chamber as Carona, the Assembly’s head of resurfacing, brought Steward Sliop’s argument, and his Column’s ascension, to a grinding halt. Sliop was a guest; Carona was a regular, but still only part of the auxiliary, location-based Intergalactic Authority, not the central, species-based DA she now addressed. Tenure was one of many things working in her favor, including being a member of the species that terraforming would primarily benefit.
“I only meant that we have barely made an effort at establishing contact with a peaceful species that might not even know we exist.” Sliop’s tentacles slithered at his side—he was not yet defeated.
“It’s a simple matter of economics.” Ambassador Carona was always matter-of-fact. She had to be: clearing planets for human expansion was a messy business. I knew firsthand.
“They are a peaceful species!” But the more the Traken steward, Sliop, argued, the farther his Column dropped. Even as head of his species, Sliop was no match for the Columns’ brutal honesty. The Columns were an intimidation tool used to ensure that Assembly visitors knew that the honor could be stripped away at any time. Every major species in the universe had a single, anonymous vote to raise or lower a speaker Column, ruthlessly displaying DA approval ratings.
“We simply cannot afford a group of useless squatters leeching off the trade, technology, and security our Democratic Assembly provides. They’ll be relocated, and the planet will be prepped for terraforming.”
The Nonane had already decided in favor of the Flora’s extraction, as was evident by the position of Ambassador Carona’s Column—which had risen almost to eye level with President Jas Bogá and myself.
Steward Sliop was practically shouting objections from his Column, a half-mile below. “Relocation? We all know what that means!” The angrier Sliop became, the more ridiculous it was for any species with Assembly representation to cast their support in his favor, and so he descended even lower.
“Steward Sliop.” The president’s husky voice brought silence to the cylindrical chamber. “This debate is over. I will not have you drag the integrity of our Assembly through the mud in a feeble attempt at swaying its verdict.”
The DA coordinated all of its activities from the Nonane. Each intelligent species, regardless of population size, was assigned a level of the legislative chamber from which to manage its existence within the union. Humans were at the top, a position not unrelated to the fact that few had showed up to discuss today’s rather mundane topic.
“This Assembly of Stewards is adjourned. Terraforming of Beloch—Mère—Legentil is now in the hands of the IA’s Department of Resurfacing. Ambassador Carona, to you as head of that department: Thank you for your service.” President Bogá stood abruptly, punctuating the Assembly’s adjournment with an echoing stomp as a mile of species stewards followed suit.
Bogá was obviously upset. I stepped aside to let her exit the balcony before following behind. Hab, her chief of intelligence, waited on the other side of the door.
“President Bogá, excellent wrangling of that unruly creature. Sliop was completely out of hand. Horrible creatures, Trakens. The way their tentacles writhe when they get upset.” He sneered, just for effect. “Disgusting.”
Any sane person could have seen Bogá fuming with every word Hab spoke, but Hab was not human. Titans, a humanoid species, were particularly lost when it came to discerning human emotions. His glowing teeth wove his own undoing. Hab continued, “You should have seen how mad he looked, shouting and squirming as his Column plummeted. Well done, indeed. Impressive containment of some potentially dangerous comments.”
Bogá turned, and Hab stopped just short of collision, bringing them uncomfortably eye to eye.
“Hab, if you would be so kind as to go to Steward Sliop. Let him know that I require his services as my new chief of intelligence.”
“I was impressive? I was totally unprepared! Your briefing on Beloch left out every bit of information Sliop presented. You didn’t even mention . . . whatever life it was!”
“It is a simple resurfacing, President Bogá. Nothing outside the ordinary.”
“And yet Sliop seemed to know more about it than anyone in the whole Nonane!”
“It was nearly unanimous,” Hab protested.
“Because it’s necessary! But that does not discount the counterpoint. It seems only fitting that I should garner at least a sliver”—she raised her hand and defined a tiny slice with her thumb and forefinger—”of information from my team on a planet my kind is about to occupy!”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, then.” She grabbed Hab by the hands and pulled him to the side of the hall that connected the humans’ Nonane balcony with the rest of the Assembly ship. “Let me put it to you this way. You see, I don’t have time to research every planet, every squabble, every vote that occurs in that chamber. That is why I have my ministers. As a member of that team, your job is to keep things running, to do your homework, so that I can attend to matters of greater importance. Now, if the removal of an entire species from a planet they’ve called home for millennia does not hold your interest as a subject of study, than I require a more studious advisor. Steward Sliop seemed riveted by this ordinary occurrence.”
“But he was against it.”
“At least he knew what was going on!” she shouted.
I suppressed a smile. The hem of Bogá’s violet dress trailed behind her as she walked out, a tug of war that conveyed power and beauty, leaving me to follow the swift clicking of her heels in the marble hallway. Other spokes leading away from the Nonane and deeper into the DA’s mobile home were not so sumptuous.
Technically, the Assembly was a ship, but actually moving the nearly planet-sized hub and all of its security would be an impossible task. Some forward-thinking individual had positioned the universe’s headquarters in Dar—Valladrian, orbiting a young sun, which meant it wouldn’t need shifting for a long time.
Jas Bogá and I stepped inside the president’s elevator at the end of the hallway after a microsecond retina scan verified our identities.
“President Bogá,” said the elevator in greeting.
“My quarters,” she said simply.
IT, the assembly’s intel system, analyzed the pitch of her voice before obeying. This elevator existed solely to take the president from the ship’s heart to her distant room without disturbance. Had IT detected any incongruence in identity or stress signs, we might already be dead. IT was the eyes and ears of security as well as the mouth, arms, and heart of the DA.
Jas seemed to deflate; her shoulders dropped.
“You did well.”
She turned around, addressing me for the first time since leaving the Nonane: “Don’t.”
I reached out and grabbed her hand, giving it such a small squeeze that I thought she might not even have noticed.
“I can’t believe you made Hab fire himself.”
She cracked a smile. “You heard him.”
“Oh, I heard him. You should have heard yourself. Stone cold.”
“Stop it!” She playfully backed away, an equally small movement. “You know how much I hate expansion votes.”
“Well, I’d say they’re your least contentious,” I joked, skirting the species issue.
She rolled her eyes. “Imagine that. Oh, well.” She moved in closer. “I cleared my schedule for tonight.”
Then she grabbed my hand.
“Rex!” She let go.
“Sorry! It’s your war!”
“My and war are both exaggerations,” she said. “The Defiled are hardly worth going to war over.”
“Well, you are the president.”
“Don’t remind me. Don’t you think calling it a war is a bit of an overstatement?” she asked seriously. “What Defiled nonsense now?”
“You’ll love this. The Vanguard has been receiving messages from some unimaginative Defiled trying to convince us that he can lead us to their heart.”
“And you don’t believe him?”
“There is no heart of the Defiled—just lowly scum pretending to feel righteous about murdering, kidnapping, and stealing. They’re tricking themselves into believing there’s a purpose to unplugging from the Feed. There’s no plan behind it.”
“Strange attempt at a trap, though.”
“Ridiculous. Though I might have better luck with that than what I’m doing next. D’Vor has requested the Vanguard in Dra Nook Cia.”
“The admiral of the Assembly Fleet flies across the universe on request by an IA ambassador. Powerful,” she teased.
Sometimes I forgot how young she was. This was partly her fault. Not that I wasn’t to blame.
“You know D’Vor is not just another ambassador. I still need to establish myself as an effective chief admiral.“
“Well, I don’t think catering to his every whim is helping you establish any healthy expectations.”
“Jas. You make for an incredible politician, but an awful soldier.” She backed away again—ever so slightly. A trained pleaser.
“Well, I didn’t know we were at war with our own ambassadors.”
“Politicians are at war with nearly everyone around them.”
“Especially the IA,” she responded.
Most of Jas’s time was spent mediating IA and DA confrontations. It was rare the Democratic Assembly of species stewards made a decision that wasn’t at odds with another the Intergalactic Authority’s galaxial ambassadors hadn’t just decided for the opposite. Jas hated trumping her Auxiliary government.
“But you are the chief admiral of the Assembly Fleet.”
“Now you’re reminding me,” I laughed. “That’s my point anyway.”
The elevator doors opened, and we were in Jas’s private quarters.
“Hello, Ma’am.” The mirror image of President Jas Bogá stood waiting in the main room.
Her twin: “Dinner is on the table.”
“Thank you, Em, that’s plenty, please. I’ll be fine.”
Em smiled at me and left with the same dominant stride as her other half. It must have been genetic.
“How long before you have to go?” She clasped her hands around the back of my head and pulled closer. I backed away, letting our combined heat diffuse back into the room.
“You just fired your minister of intelligence and appointed the Traken steward.”
“He has an interesting background—studied the multiverse at the First Academy of Physical Sciences. Besides, the appointment will help in Goldilocks. The Traken are everywhere in our sweet spot.”
“Aha, so firing Hab wasn’t as uncalculated as it appeared?”
“My ministers are not selected on a whim.” She looked away, clearly bored with my questions.
“And everything checks out?”
“Clean enough. Sliop’s done some interesting work on parallel universes. There was one paper, a bit outlandish, something about these universes actually posing a threat.” She must have seen my face, because she hurried to defend her position. “Bizarre, but not dangerous. The front runner for his replacement as Traken steward is perfectly mundane.”
“So the universe’s intelligence is wrapped in an eccentric’s idea of another dimension. Powerful.”
She smiled, pulling me close again before responding: “And terraforming continues. Small price to pay for the space we’ll have in Legentil.”
“Fascinating.” I tried to sound intelligent. “That just leaves one question, then! In how many universes have I fallen ludicrously in love with you?”
“At least one.”
And I kissed the most powerful woman in the universe.
The story continues. Read The Plague, and experience change in a universe that forgot it was possible.