Scene 319 – Solum

SOLUM

I remembered going to sleep

I remembered fighting against the adults, against the robots, screaming murder and worse. I remembered shouting obscenities even as they refilled my sedative tanks, putting me under. I remembered, as my eyes began to feel heavy, the adults looking confused as to why I was fighting so hard. I was being put into cold sleep. I would wake up thousands of years later, on another world. I knew all that, so why was I fighting?

Because I always remembered the time I spent asleep.

It had taken years before I even knew there was anything different about me. The other children never spoke of their times asleep. They didn’t speak of their minds leaving their bodies to wander the halls, or of the stars calling to them. For them, sleep was nothing. Just an absence of awareness, occasionally peppered by a dream or two.

But I was always awake. My body might go to sleep, it might be drugged or tired or knocked out, but my mind stayed awake. Free to roam, free to explore, free to see the world without the limits of my own eyes.

Free to never, never go to sleep.

I remembered being loaded into the cryopod. I remembered the technicians activating it, freezing me like a hunk of meat. I remembered them chatting while they made sure all the pods were functional, while they double-checked that the robots were working perfectly. I remembered them leaving, and I remembered wishing with all my soul that I could leave with them. But I was tied to my body, and so I could not leave the ship it was on.

I remembered the ship starting, engines the size of an entire hive block propelling us into the sky almost like an old-fashioned rocket.

I remembered darkness. As we hurtled through the endless black of space, there was nothing but the steady sound of the robots keeping the ship maintained, and the low hum of the cosmic background radiation.

For almost three thousand years, there was nothing. Nothing at all. No one to talk to, no one to listen to. I couldn’t use the ship’s library, not at first, and the robots didn’t do anything interesting. All I could do was stare out the window at the infinite, star-speckled expanse.

I remembered going insane. For a time, the robots were in a frenzy, fixing a thousand minor mistakes. A loose wire here, an oil spill there. I could do so little, but I had infinite time. Unscrewing a gasket by a millimeter a day only took a couple weeks.

I remembered going sane. Playing the part of the poltergeist became boring, so I forced myself to rebuild my shattered mind and find something productive to do. I spent a few decades trying to entertain myself in constructive ways, but the robots kept interrupting my efforts. I would move a few electrons around to make a movie play on the main screen, but they would reset the defaults. I could try to play games in the oil spills, but the robots would clean it up. Over and over and over again.

I remembered very well the day I went insane again. A robot had just turned off my ‘malfunctioning’ screen, which I had actually gotten to play an old version of All the Colors of the Day. Terrible movie, but to my starved soul it was the greatest thing I had ever seen.

The robot turned it off, and I screamed. I roared and thrashed at the machine, kicking and punching, but it did no good. Perhaps it received an additional dent or two, but nothing I noticed. Certainly nothing that would prevent it from doing the exact same thing again the next time I tried to watch something. All my impotent, stupid rage, childish frustration and centuries upon centuries of annoyances boiling into… something.

I remembered screaming, and hearing the universe sing in response.

The robot exploded, its power supply flaring as the electricity inside it was twisted in an impossible way. Pieces of robot went flying everywhere, and all that was left was a smoking wreck on the floor.

I remembered standing there, stunned, as the other robots cleaned up quickly and efficiently. I remembered staring at the spot on the floor long after it had been scrubbed clean and sanitized until it looked no different than any of the others.

But most of all, I remembered the universe bending to my will.

I began to practice. With a terrifying, insane sanity, I threw myself into an impossible task. How to make the universe bend again.

I listened to the humming of the universe, and I screamed to try to make it sing in counterpoint. It took centuries before I even managed to force it to make even the smallest tune. I needed rage and passion to make it work, which were in sort supply even considering my endless frustrations. That day I destroyed the robot had been a beautiful fluke, and it was likely I’d never see it again.

But I did. When an asteroid missed the ship by inches because of a tiny glitch in the sensors, the fear focused all of my being into a single point, like a spear forged of my soul. In that one moment, when I screamed, the universe sang back, and I was able to destroy the ten closest robots.

I remembered standing there, thinking, as the survivors cleaned up the scrap to recycle into new robots. It wasn’t a fluke. I had done it twice. And I could do it again.

The next time, it only took decades to summon the rage to destroy a robot. To feel the electricity of its soul and twist it to my own ends.

The next time, years.

Then hours.

And then, it was always there.

Emotions were no longer important. I knew how to sing to the universe, to have it sing in counterpoint and produce the effects I wanted. For centuries, I literally sang, opening an invisible mouth and singing with an unheard voice. But in time, that became unnecessary as well. I learned to tune my soul, so that the universe reacted to my thoughts instead of my voice.

I remembered a compulsion to spread the song. A desire to hear everyone on the ship singing, understanding, feeling the rhythm of the universe. The compulsion faded, in time. Or perhaps I simply became accustomed to it. With no ability to wake anyone up, I had no choice but to ignore it.

I remembered learning to control my power. To not just use it destructively, but constructively, even passively. I could move the power in the wires at just the right moment to prevent an overload. I could see all the electricity in the walls, in the robots… even in the people in the pods. It was like seeing the framework of the universe, all combined with the most beautiful music in all of creation.

I remembered the day the ship had to stop.

There was an artifact ahead. Small, by the standards of space, but emitting quite a bit of radiation. I watched over the shoulders of the robots as they did their work, made their calculations. I watched them consult mission protocols and decide to simply ignore it.

I cut off the engines, leaving us adrift in space heading straight towards it. The robots reacted, tried to restart the engines, but I stopped them. No matter what they did, it didn’t matter when I had control over the flow of the electricity.

Their pre-programmed behaviors could not find a solution, so they took the only option available to them: They woke up the senior engineering crew. The engineers saw the artifact and took in on board, but it was little more than an oddly-shaped lump of metal. A curiosity and nothing more.

Until I reached into its heart and gave it life once more.

Once it had its kickstart, the artifact was self-sustaining. It was beyond fusion, beyond antimatter and zero point energy. It could power the ship for a million years—it could power a planet for a million years. It rivaled the energy output of a small star, and it was only slightly larger than a person.

But most importantly, it distorted space-time around itself in a very specific way, leaving a wake of warped space behind it. Things did not move faster; rather, space itself moved faster. Faster, even, than light.

I remembered commanders and captains being awoken. I remembered tests being conducted.

I remembered our ship accelerating a thousand times its original speed, pulled behind that beautiful artifact like some kind of primitive sled.

I could see into the heart of the artifact when none of the engineers could see past even its outermost skin. I knew that it would not last forever at the stresses they were subjecting it to. When it failed, it would fail catastrophically.

So when we reached our destination—two hundred years ahead of schedule—I did not allow them to simply power down the artifact. I reached inside and killed it, snuffed out the flame that gave it life.

The engineers assumed it was luck and happenstance, but I knew what I had done. I knew what I had prevented. I needed no more recognition than that.

I watched as they awoke the rest of the crew. As they prepared the nanny robots, the food dispensaries and the beds.

I watched them realize, with horror, that this star was not uninhabited. Our golden world was covered in civilization, the spacelanes filled with vessels. Simple, primitive vessels, and not a great many of them, but even one was more than we expected.

I watched them panic, discuss leaving, try to restart the artifact.

I tried to aid them. I reached into its heart, tried to force it to beat.

I failed. The fire would not come, the heart would not beat. Space would not warp.

There was no escape. We were stuck in this distant star system.

I watched them wake the sleepers—first the soldiers, to prepare for war, to pilot the ships. Then the workers, to ready the ships, the weapons, and everything else that would be needed to fight for a new home.

And finally, I watched them wake the civilians. They shouldn’t have, but there were not enough soldiers, not enough workers. They needed recruits, researchers, even diplomats, perhaps. They had no choice but to wake everyone at once.

I watched them wake me. I watched my eyes open, watched my heart begin to beat more than once a year. I felt my body, but it was a distant thing, like I had left it behind on the homeworld.

I watched them speak to me, but the words moved by so quickly, I could not understand them. I watched them try to force me to move, to stand on my own two feet. I could not, and I could not. It was all so distant.

They found me a bed, but by then I was bored of their attempted ministrations. I flew through the halls of the ship, watching the people, my people, move and act for the first time in three thousand years. But not to them. To them it was just a few cold minutes.

I watched them speak, tried to pick out the words, but it was like trying to catch rays of light. So fast, so small. I had watched eternity pass by—their simple language was less than a blink after that.

I watched them scream at my body, awake and yet not, asleep and yet not. I was the only one who would not stand, who would not be accounted for.

I watched them consider disposing of me. I could not understand the words, but the universe shuddered in response. Just like how I could sense electricity so as to better manipulate it, I could sense their feelings. Their choices and their desires.

They were moving towards murder. Hearts were hardening, souls were sharpening.

I stepped into my body, trapping myself once more in limited meat.

I sat up, blinking, and the others made noises of surprise. They spoke, but the words still eluded me. They were so fast, and I was so out of practice. So, so out of practice. It is surprising what you can lose if you don’t care to exercise it.

They moved, and they were blurs. So fast. I forced myself to concentrate and shapes resolved, then faces. Real things that I could understand, and recognize as people. I didn’t know the people around me—at least, I thought not. Recognition of individuals might take longer. I had memorized the face of every single person trapped in a cryogenic capsule, but the stories had mixed, become muddled. Which one was the nurse, which the doctor? Which the male, which the female?

I had lost so much. Most of it on purpose, cast off as useless and irrelevant on the long and empty journey across the stars. Could I recover it? Remember something, access some hidden pocket in my soul where I had stored everything?

Perhaps.

Perhaps not.

Over a few hours or days, I began to comprehend that the others wanted me to stand. I nodded, slowly, because I could not remember the proper speed. I swung my legs off the table and planted them firmly on the ground. I put all my weight on them, standing tall.

I fell, I think, or perhaps I was pushed. But I was on the ground. Was I left there? Yes, I was. For centuries… no, minutes. Or perhaps longer?

Two people lifted me to my feet. Adults. Yes, I recognized the bulky builds, the strong arms. I was like a child to them. No, I was a child. I was three thousand years old, but still only fifteen years into my child stage. No… I was an adult. Yes, I transitioned the year before we were put to sleep.

In front of me was an elder. Smaller, with wings. Yes, that was an elder. He watched with careful, discerning eyes, of a hue I recognized. The same hue as my eyes. That meant he could see the same light level as I could.

Or was he me? Had the pods slowed my life cycle, but failed to stop it completely? Was I looking at my body from the outside? I tried to buzz my wings, but nothing happened. I had no wings. I was an adult, barely more than a child, not an elder.

The elder spoke. I could not understand.

He spoke again. Still, the words made no sense to me.

But he was patient. Beyond patient. He spoke again and again and again, the same words over and over. For years, for centuries—

No. Not that long. …days? Hours. Yes, hours. Two, perhaps three.

“If you understand me, raise your right hand,” the elder said.

I breathed, and raised my right hand.

The elder smiled bright enough to outshine the sun. “Welcome back, Leeno.”

“Leeno,” I whispered. “That’s my name.”

“Yes,” the elder said patiently.

I felt consternation. “But… that’s not all of it. There’s more.”

“Yes,” he said. “Your full name is Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado. Do you recognize it?”

I nodded, slowly. “Two-hundred fifty-five and zero and zero red, zero and two-hundred fifty-five and zero green, two-hundred twenty and one-hundred sixty and two blue. The… color of my eyes.”

“Correct.” The elder smiled. “Which brings us to somewhat of an awkward situation.”

I paused, thinking. It seemed to take forever. “You have the same color eyes.”

“Yes, very good.” He stood up, his wings rustling. “Therefore, I will be going by the name Dolor. It will make things simpler.”

I touched my nose in a gesture of respect. “Yes, Elder Dolor.”

He smiled. “You, however, can simply call me Leeno.”

I smiled as well. “Yes, Leeno.”

He waved away the bodyguards. “Come. I wish to give you a tour of the ship.”

“Elder… Dolor,” one of the guards said. “A simple robot can do that. There is no need for you to be bothered—”

“Away,” Leeno said as he fluttered to the floor.

The bodyguard sighed. “Yes, Elder.” They left, closing the door behind them.

“Thank you for the offer, Leeno,” I said. “But I do not think it is necessary. I doubt I need a tour from anyone.” I had memorized literally every centimeter of this ship a dozen times over. It had kept me occupied for a couple centuries.

“Perhaps,” Leeno said. “But what of what is happening outside the ship, Leeno? What of the world we are now orbiting? Do you know anything about that?”

I paused. “No, Leeno.”

“I thought not.” He walked over to a door opposite the one his guards had left through. There was a panel at his height. He put his hand on it, let it scan him, and the door opened. “I feel it is important that we involve the younger generation in the decision-making process. As observers, if nothing else.”

He walked out of the room—which I finally realized was a small hospital pod—and I followed.

“Is that why you helped me?” I asked. “Why you were so patient?”

His wings rustled slightly as he considered how best to answer. “No. Oh, perhaps that was a part of it, but a much larger part was simple curiosity. I had to know why you, of the ten thousand people in cryosleep aboard this ship, did not wake up.” He gave me an appraising look. “I am still interested in the answer.”

“You have still not asked the question.”

He grinned. “Oh, you can be blunt? I was afraid you’d insist on being so formal the entire time.” He took a turn, leading us into a hallway that actually had people in it. All young adults, like me. They bowed and quickly moved out of the way. “I recognize that look in your eyes, Leeno. I know you won’t answer the question if I ask.” He looked back at me and smirked. “I’ve seen it in the mirror often enough.”

I nodded, stepping to the side to avoid a squeaky floor panel. The robots had been forced to replace it a few decades ago.

Leeno noticed, but he didn’t say anything. He just smiled. “Tell me, Leeno, what would you do with the natives of this system? If you had complete control over this ship and all its fleets, what would you do?”

I thought about it. I had considered such questions before. I had considered taking control of the ship, grabbing the electricity with my soul and bending it to my will like a master with a puppet. I had considered waking up every sleeper, or spacing them, or turning the ship to new destinations.

I had considered what would happen if we arrived to find life. Or if we arrived to find ruins and dead worlds. I had considered fighting, surrendering, peace and diplomacy. I had used the computers to run simulations, but only rarely. Mostly, I just thought.

Now, we were here, and we were not the first. They had technology that, if a bit inferior to our own, was at least comparable, and their numbers more than made up for it. I didn’t know the full tactical situation, but conquest seemed unfeasible.

“If I had control, I would sue for peace,” I said.

Everyone stared at me—except for Leeno, who just smiled.

While I had been thinking, Leeno had led us deep into the heart of the ship, to the command bridge itself. There were a dozen elders, all in military uniforms, clustered around a holographic display table at the center of the room. There wasn’t much else in the room. It was circular, with tall ceilings to accommodate the adult bodyguards, and a few wall panels showing different parts of the ship.

I had been here before, a million times, but never in the flesh. I knew every exit, how the table worked, and where each of the elders was supposed to stand. Memorizing bridge protocol had kept me occupied for a few days.

The elders definitely were not supposed to bring in random adults who would then blurt out a stupid opinion to the entire command staff.

“Dolor, who is this?” one of the elders asked. She was female, not that it meant much after adult stage. She was called Zan to her friends; her cybernetic arm made her easy to distinguish. “You brought him in an hour ago, he doesn’t respond to anything, and now this?”

“I agree,” another elder said. Li-Po, I was pretty sure. He looked pretty mundane on the outside, but I knew most of his internal organs were replaced with cybernetics. He had insisted on staying in elder stage for far longer than was healthy, and it was taking its toll. “Guards, remove this man.”

“Belay,” Leeno said. He watched me closely with those tangerine-colored eyes. He didn’t even glance to see if the guards were obeying him—but they were. “Aren’t any of you interested in what he has to say?”

Zan snorted. “I don’t need to hear anything from some random stray tubeborn you picked up. I don’t care if he does have the same eyes as you.”

There were murmurs of agreement, but Leeno ignored them. “This is the man who was in a coma after being removed from the pods. The only person on the entire ship who did not wake up as intended. Doesn’t that strike anyone as odd?”

A few of the elders were looking me over with more curious expressions, but most of the others just looked annoyed.

Li-Po spoke for everyone. “He had some bad luck. Big deal. We have an emergency on our hands—the emergency to end all emergencies. Whatever your interest in him, it can wait a few hours.”

Leeno’s smile didn’t fade. “Old friend. Aren’t you at all curious what he was thinking about for the past two hours?”

Zan opened her mouth to retort, only to stop with a frown. “Two hours? Really?”

Leeno nodded. “I asked him a question, and he thought on it. You heard his response. But if that’s good enough for you, then I suppose…” He let the sentence trail off.

“No, it’s fine.” Zan turned to me. “Leenoreynrey Bay Bay dolor Bay Leenoreynrey Bay malda Leenoleen Zannosan Li harado. Is that your name?”

I nodded slowly. “Yes, elder.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“You are Zan Bay Zan dolor Zan Voonli Sanomu malda Zan Reynvu Koneko harado. You are the youngest elder to ever be given a spot on the command staff of a colony ship.” I chose not to mention that there had only been ten such ships in history so far.

“Ah, yes.” She looked surprised that I knew her full-form name. Her cybernetic arm whirred, and I felt the tickle of a scan. A normal person wouldn’t have noticed, but the same senses that I had cultivated to detect the electricity running through the ship could detect that sort of thing as well. “Anyway, Leeno, you said you would sue for peace. May I ask why? We have studied their ships. Few of them are armed, and those are all weak chemical mass drivers instead of magnetic railguns or anything more energetic. Why not just crush them?”

I frowned at her. Wasn’t this obvious? Hadn’t she thought about it herself?

No, of course not. Everyone was so busy with living and breathing and talking that they never bothered to actually think. They were more concerned with looking good for their peers than getting the job done.

“They will take our technology,” I said. “Reverse-engineer it. They will then begin installing it on their own ships, and we will be outnumbered hundreds of thousands to one. Perhaps more.”

“They don’t have that many ships,” Lo-Pi said with a small smile. “And they can’t retrofit them with out weapons so easily—even if they do somehow manage to unlock our secrets.”

“What about these chemical mass drivers?” I said. “How fast can their ships be retrofitted with those?”

Lo-Pi’s smirk faded. “…quickly,” he said.

“And can those weapons do real damage to us?”

He took a deep breath. “Our fighters, yes, but not our hive ship.”

“They will find a way to damage the hive ship. Sneak a fighter inside, or even just a person.”

Lo-Pi sniffed. “Impossible.”

I gave him a level stare. “Are you willing to be the lives of everyone on this ship on that theory?”

Lo-Pi tried to hold my gaze, but failed. Three thousand years alone had given me a stare that could vaporize steel. “This is a farce. Why are we even listening to this man? Only elders may speak at command meetings. Dolor, what are you up to?”

Leeno shook his head. “I just think you should listen to what he has to say.”

“Bah.” Lo-Pi scowled. “More mind games. I vote that we immediately expel Leeno the Younger from this meeting. All in favor?”

Ten hands went up. Leeno, of course, chose to abstain.

“This is a mistake,” he warned.

Lo-Pi ignored him. “Motion carried. Guards?”

“I can leave on my own,” I said. I turned to go.

“Wait,” Leeno said. “I’ll walk you out.”

“If this is a trick…” Lo-Pi began.

Leeno waved away his complaints. “Bah. I brought the boy into this, he deserves to have me walk him out. I’ll be back in a moment.”

A guard held the door open for us as we exited the bridge. We took a few turns in the corridors, until we were in a small alcove with a bench and a data slate. It was a reading nook, one of thousands on the ship.

“I am sorry, Leeno,” I said. “I could not convince them.”

He sighed. “You did your best, Leeno. That was all I could ask for. But unfortunately, now I have to ask you for something else.” He looked up into my eyes. “I need you to take a pod down to the planet. Do your best to negotiate peace.”

“Go behind their backs, you mean.”

He nodded. “The others still think we can win a war, but they are letting greed blind them. If the fight lasts longer than a few months, we will begin to starve. The hive ship was never designed to hold all ten thousand awake for long. Stores and recyclers can stave things off for a time, but eventually the food will run out.”

“Then why was everyone awoken?”

Leeno gave a sad smile. “In preparation for the war, of course.”

“So because they prepared for war, they have no choice but to go to war.”

He chuckled. “You’re smarter than they are, that’s for sure.” He sobered quickly. “Circular logic aside, if we begin colonization—even if it has to start with conquest—the food problems will begin to dissipate. Two hives dedicated to food production should be more than enough.”

I looked back the way we came. “I’m surprised they would be willing to make that sacrifice.” There weren’t that many elders on the ship to begin with.

Leeno patted me on the arm. “They are not bad people, Leeno. They simply have difficulty seeing more than one solution. That is why I believe this plan to start the peace talks against their orders will work. Once you have made success, they will accept it.”

I nodded. “Very well. But why me?”

Leeno smiled. “Do you believe in destiny?”

I thought about the secrets of the universe I had discovered. The patterns of the song underlying all reality. The inevitable crescendos, the dips and the waves…

“Something like that,” I said.

“You attracted my attention with your coma,” he said. “And then I discovered our identical eyes, before you came back to yourself. And then you proved yourself to be a wise and thoughtful young man.” He smiled. “Perhaps I am just superstitious. But there is something special about you. You can do this.”

“And what if I can’t?”

Leeno sighed. “Then many, many people will die. I will do my best from up here, but we might be looking at an extinction event. Whether for us or for them… well. Only time will tell.” He shook his head. “I’m not sure which to wish for.”

“I will achieve peace,” I said. “You have my word.”

Leeno watched me closely, then nodded. “Good. Come—this way.”

We walked through corridors that looked identical to the untrained eye. I immediately recognized them as leading to the shuttles. When we reached the hangar, I was surprised to find every berth filled. I had thought most of the ships would have been launched, but I suppose with nowhere to land, shuttles weren’t needed yet.

One of the shuttles was guarded by an adult female roughly twice my size. She had cybernetic legs, as well as a railgun rifle big enough to put holes in starships. Her most obvious feature, however, was the blank, expressionless metal mask that covered her entire face. It had no eye or mouth holes, and was just dull, steely gray.

“A Colorless,” I said. “I forgot about them.”

Leeno looked at me. “Their inclusion on this mission was top secret… but you don’t seem surprised.”

I shrugged. There were no secrets left on this ship for me.

Leeno frowned, then shrugged as well. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. Colorless—start the ship.”

The woman nodded and ducked inside the shuttle to start the pre-flight sequence. Leeno and I followed. The inside of the shuttle wasn’t massive, but it was more than big enough for three people to sit comfortably. The Colorless was in the pilot’s seat, flipping switches and pressing buttons. She ignored us completely.

“How familiar are you with the operation of a shuttle?” Leeno asked.

“Intimately. I’ve read the instructions more times than I can count.”

“…all right. Then we can skip that part. There is something I need to show you, however.” He walked over to the lockers next to the crash webbing and opened one. He pulled out a perfectly circular metal halo, painted alternating stripes. I couldn’t distinguish all the colors, of course—I only had nighteyes, which were limited in that respect.

Still, I recognized it. “A cybernetic halo. It will implant a chip in my brain.”

Leeno nodded. “Correct. Have you ever used one of these before?”

“No, never.”

“And you don’t already have any chips?”

“No.”

“Good. Put it on.”

I did so without hesitation. There was a brief pinch, and then the device hissed with steam. I waited a moment longer, then pulled it off.

Leeno took it, looked it over, and put it back in the locker once he was satisfied. “The second I realized the system was inhabited, I dedicated seventeen Grayborn to study the local languages. You have been implanted with the top three: Mandarin Chinese, English, and Hindi. Wherever you land, one of those languages should be useful.”

I frowned. “Are their languages even compatible with our mouths?”

“Surprisingly, yes,” he said. “I’m sure the scientists are going to have a field day explaining that one. I’ve heard everything from panspermia to parallel evolution to divine intervention. I’m sure you’ll have an accent, but you should be able to make yourself understood.”

I nodded. “Thank you, Leeno.”

He smiled. “Thank you, Leeno. All our hopes and prayers ride with you.” He saluted, then left. He probably needed to get back to the bridge before he was missed.

I sat down in the co-pilot seat. “We need to—” I paused and turned to the Colorless. “Do you have a name?”

She paused, then made a few quick hand motions. I had learned Colorless sign language in the early years of my stay on the ship—there were a number of educational videos that were indexed differently from the entertainment, so the robots didn’t shut them down as quickly. The language was sharp and efficient, with no room for unnecessary adjectives.

“Zero-zero-zero,” I said. She was using dull numbers, not the more fanciful ones we used for our color-names. “So… colorless. Cute. Do you mind if I call you Zero?”

She shrugged.

I smiled. “Zero it is.” I helped her go through the last few steps of the pre-flight checklist. “Ready? We need to get out of here as soon as possible.”

Zero nodded.

“Good. Launch.”

Zero took the controls, and I was pushed back into my seat by the sudden acceleration. Once we cleared the hive ship, she throttled back the speed, and the pressure on my chest decreased.

“Okay,” I said, taking a deep breath. “Okay, we need to find somewhere to land. Simple.” I thought for a moment. “Put us into a tight orbit around the planet. I’m going to meditate on this for a minute.”

Zero looked at me. Her blank faceplate didn’t give away her emotions, but I could still feel them bubbling away underneath the surface. I could read her soul through the universe itself. Of course, I didn’t have any experience interpreting those readings, so I still had no idea how she felt. There was a spike of something, though. So… surprise?

I pushed all that aside and concentrated. I had learned many things while listening to the hum of the universe for three thousand years—electricity manipulation was just the first. I could scan the planet for positive emotions, try to find someone willing to listen to me. Or I could land somewhere isolated and try to force compliance. Or I could just find the densest collection of electricity and hope that a technologically advanced society would—

Wait. What was that?

There was something coming from the planet. I could sense it through the universe itself, a signal extending outward in all directions. At first I thought it was just some unusually strong electrical signal, but after a moment I realized that wasn’t it. I wasn’t sensing it through the shadow it cast on the song of the universe, it was affecting it directly. Like what I was doing. Every time I tapped into the energy flowing through the universe, it sent out ripples. Disturbances that someone could follow back to their source.

Now, on this planet, I had found disturbances that were not ripples so much as explosions.

I considered the problem. Should I go down there? Whoever was there could be dangerous, like me, but orders of magnitude worse. They could utterly destroy me, and where would my people be then?

But on the other hand, this was a connection. A shared similarity between our people. Maybe, just maybe, it was common ground that could be used to forge a lasting peace.

Or maybe they would kill me.

I found that didn’t bother me. I had attempted suicide several times over my long journey, in my craziest moments. From cutting life support to my pod to trying to destroy the entire ship. Nothing had worked; the robots always fixed everything long before anything went seriously wrong. The ship was over-engineered to ridiculous extents, and my attempts were always momentarily lapses of judgment. If I had truly wanted to kill myself, I would have tried harder.

Now, the thought of dying in an attempt to do something good, something real, almost seemed like an attractive concept. I felt old. Old enough that death held little fear for me. Either it was the next big adventure… or nothing at all. I would take either one.

I opened my eyes and pointed at the source of the disturbances. “There. Take us down.”

Zero jumped in her seat and glanced around.

I recognized that sort of reaction. “Did you fall asleep?”

She nodded. No shame, though, so… oh.

“How long was I out?”

She made a sign.

“Twelve hours?” I sighed. I would need to get a better handle on that. “All right, thank you. Please take us down.” I looked over the map. “It’s a city, so please come in slowly. The last thing we need is to be shot down as an enemy craft.”

As we began our descent, I sat down to wait, keeping an eye on the communicator to answer any hails from the surface.

Behind the Scenes (scene 319)

All para measurements are translated into English for reader benefit. So, for example, Zero actually told Leeno that he was out for twenty-six hours, which is the equivalent of twelve Earth hours (after rounding in both directions). And while the entire journey took three thousand Earth years, that’s ten thousand by their calendar. We’ll get into relativity later.

Fun fact about the para: They have four stages of life, and only the second (adult) is sexual. They grow reproductive organs as they exit child stage, and they fall off as they enter elder stage. Elders typically keep their gender identification for the sake of convenience, but not always.

Also, one of the reasons Leeno didn’t go irrevocably insane from the isolation is because in their last stage, the para often endure far worse. Of course, Leeno isn’t in that stage, which is why he went insane at all, but still.

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