It had taken seven local days for the realization to settle in, and even then it felt unreal, like a bad dream than anything else.
Cefac was gone.
He tried to envision it as a whole, on the level he knew he should see it as, but he couldn’t. For all their ability to create and contemplate, their minds had limits. Perhaps it was for the best; perhaps realizing the sheer magnitude and horror of the event would crush them entirely, instead of mostly.
He could only think of it in bits of pieces, for that was the most he could handle without feeling wholly and utterly empty. Gone were the old towers of ice he used to see in his youth, for they had turned to hot steam under the light of a temporary sun. His home was gone, reduced to smoke and rubble and ash. Even the old rock he used to sit on when he watched the sunset was now radioactive slag.
A world was not just gone; it had taken his memories with them, tainted them with death and destruction. Now, when he’d think of them, he’d think of their inevitable fate, and they would turn bitter in his thoughts.
The great cities were now crumbled ruins, too lethal to even venture into, and the vast mountains they fringed were broken and tumbled, their majesty brought down by his people’s folly. The Eastern Star, a painting he’d seen in the Central Museum, was now just burnt paper scattered to the wind. The books written by old scientists and poets and dreamers and leaders were gone, with only a shadow of a memory remaining. How many philosophies and religions had died out, perished in nuclear fire? How many poems and artworks would be forgotten?
How many ideas would never be born, now? How many thinkers, or poets, or inventors?
It wasn’t Cefac that had died. Life would survive, endure, and spring anew; it’d come back from worse, in aeons past. Maybe, in the distant future, even his own people would live on it again.
No, the idea of Cefac was what had perished. The planet would survive, but the world would not.
And who would carry the scraps?
Sheshak endured. It was a self-sufficient colony, located in a resource-rich system; it would keep his species from fading into extinction, if only for the time being. Already a million called it home, and perhaps a shadow of Cefac would survive through it.
And yet, it was still little more than a mote of dust in the cosmic wind, unfathomably small compared to the vast universe. What was a civilization to the planet it lived on? What was a world to a sun, or to a vast galaxy of suns, where entire civilizations could be wiped out without anyone knowing of their fate? If Sheshak, too, perished, would there be anyone to carry on their memory? Or would only the ruins stand testament?
He had a lot of time to think on it, as the Urshnata swung back to Tenokaskin on a Hohmann orbit. And in that time, he thought of the nurma.
They had a right to live, just as his own people had a right to live. They could create art, and dream, and contemplate themselves; they were above the beasts around them. Perhaps, in time, they would also create a great civilization, and forge works and crafts that rivaled his own.
Would they destroy it, too?
They seemed to lack the same aggression as his own kind, but they were still capable of violence. He’d seen evidence of conflict, where they butchered each other with their stone hand-axes, and sometimes even burnt their homes to the ground. Such disaster had never struck the one he’d visited, but scouting trips had found evidence.
He had faith in them, however. Their tribal settlements were closer-knit than the analogues of Cefac’s own prehistory; it may had something to do with their omnivorous nature, where they still had some lingering instincts from herd animals.
And yet, that did not meant they would survive. In a universe full of solar flares and scouring novas, it was all too easy to be reduced to a vapor on the cosmic wind. Even if they conquered themselves, nature could destroy them.
It wasn’t fair, not in the slightest, but that did not mean there was nothing that could be done.
A civilization spread across other worlds would have a higher chance of survival. If a world was destroyed, either at their own hands or in some cosmic event, then others could carry on the memory, and maybe even rebuild.
He had a lot of time to think about it. As the Urshnata grew nearer, he even began to make some notes on the matter, while continuing his observations of the nurma.
Eventually, those notes grew into something… larger.
The commander called him and his crew back to the ship when it finally parked itself into orbit around Tenokaskin. It was a startling contrast, the difference between the two crews; he and the others looked darker, their scales rougher and their limbs thicker. Tenokaskin had moulded them in a short time, and not without some deleterious effects.
It was a relief, to be away from the thin air of the world below. Now, he could feel himself growing less lethargic, the weary weight of crushing gravity lifted from every part of himself. The food seemed to taste richer as well, and it felt wonderful to stretch his wings and fly once more.
Eventually, he was called to the main hub. The commander was there, along with a handful of members from both crew.
“Teksha,” she said.
“Commander,” he replied.
A moment’s tension.
“Well, you’ve got what you wanted.”
He shot her a look. “What do you mean, commander?”
She gestured to the holograph of Tenokaskin. “We can’t afford to be picky, now. We’re staying in-system. We’ll begin world-shaping within half a local year; I believe there are some methods we could use that you highlighted…”
“Commander, if I-“
“If you may what?” the commander snarled at him.
He ignored her body language, and continued. “Commander, this world is not very suitable for habitation, and it already has a native sentient species inhabiting it.”
“Yes, I read the reports.”
“I believe it is for the best that we head for Sheshak, and help the colonists establish themselves there. Our ship could help them obtain valuable resources for developing a large-scale civilization.”
“It is a risk,” the commander said. “Too large, in my opinion.”
“The Urshnata has been deemed capable of reaching targets up to a hundred light-years from…” He paused, feeling painful memories well up, then pushed past it. “From home. Once we’ve helped Sheshak, we can reach other worlds, worlds that are more suitable than this one.”
The commander paused, thinking, then chuffed.
“We stay here, where there’s less risk. We need to spread out if we’re to survive.”
“But we can simply choose another world,” he protested. “And what of the natives?”
“The natives?” the commander asked, contemptuously. “They’re primitive, backwards; we could easily beat them off, assuming our worldshaping doesn’t do it for us. And if they survive, then perhaps they could provide useful menial labor while we establish the colony.”
He stared at her, feeling a growl rise in his throat.
“You’d commit genocide? Enslave the first intelligence that is not our own?”
The commander stepped forward, wings raised as she bared her teeth.
“Have you forgotten that our home is gone?” she barked, flicking her tail back and forth. “Millions vaporized? We come first! We’re a civilized species, where they’ve barely learned to stop freezing to death in the night! If there’s a slight chance that it’d give us survival, I’d slaughter a billion of those dirty savages!”
“Savages?” he asked. “Savages?!”
It was his turn to step forward, his teeth bared. The commander did not move from her position, but he could see the fear in her eyes.
“They weren’t the ones who destroyed their own home!” he roared. “They weren’t the ones who ruined everything they’d created over petty differences! If we want to survive, we can’t just settle across new homes; we need to change! And what you’re suggesting is the same kind of narrow-minded, short-sighted, and stubborn brutality that killed us!”
The commander lunged at him, but he managed to move to the side. Her claws scraped the scaled on his chest, but failed to find purchase.
“You would take us on the path to savagery and extinction!” he growled. “You are not fit to lead us!”
“And you are?” the commander asked, voice low.
After a moment’s pause, he raised his crest.
“Better than you, though that is little qualifier.”
She howled, and rushed at him. He ducked under her swing, then brought his claws up, cutting through the scales on her chest. Blood oozed from the wounds, blue as the old home’s sky. He could feel the urges rising up, but he tried to restrain them.
The commander backed away, contemplating her injury. Around them, the rest of the crew stared in silence.
“Stand down,” he managed to say. “I’ve shed first blood. You can give stand down and give up your position to me.”
“Not to a traitor like you,” the commander hissed.
It was his turn to move. He caught her in a tackle, knocking her off the floor, and they drifted through the hub, grappling. Her tail barb caught his side, but he ignored the pain, instead opting to dig his teeth into her shoulder. The commander struggled, but his grip was like iron, after so long in Tenokaskin’s punishing gravity.
Pushing away, he caught her in the snout with a glancing blow, dazing her. Lashing out with a kick, he slashed her in the thigh, drawing more blood that floated away in small spheres.
“Submit,” he said, trying to keep his voice even.
Her response was to try and slit his throat. The attack was clumsy, however, and he rewarded the attempt by grabbing her arm and twisting. The angle was awkward at first, but he snagged her leg with his tail to remedy that. There was a sharp snap, and the commander shrieked.
She managed to swipe his face, nearly taking an eye. Heat began to spread across his face, and he could feel his control failing, struggling to contain his instincts. He kicked her in the chin, nearly shattering her jaw on the spot, and she fell limp for a few moments.
“Submit,” he repeated.
“No,” was all she said.
She dug her tail barb into his wing, tearing into the delicate skin, and he howled in agony. She began to try and work the barb down, slicing through it.
“I don’t want to do this,” he said, pleading. “Please, don’t make me.”
She worked down further, and his agony doubled upon itself as it sliced through a nerve.
He finally lost the struggle.
His teeth found her throat in a moment. She let out a weak gurgle, then tried to struggle, doing anything she could to avoid what would come next. Hot blood flowed through his teeth, and he hated himself at that moment.
Then, he sank his teeth deeper, tearing back, and the commander stopped struggling.
It was when her body began to grow cold that he finally pulled away, the magnitude of what he’d done hitting him. The commander -no, Virsh– drifted away, limp and lifeless, and all he could do was stare.
For all of her aggression, her temper, her willingness to commit genocide if need be, she’d never actually killed.
The rest of the crew was now gathering around him, staring. He caught Vark’s gaze, and averted his eyes, painfully aware of the blood staining his teeth.
“What are your orders, commander?” Tararsha inquired.
It took him half a moment to realize who it was directed to.
He licked his teeth, then stopped. “Hold a funeral feast, with full honors. Recite her favorite verse from the Tome of Heroes; you know which one.”
The feast was a hasty affair. His crew were hungry after subsisting on rations and aquatic life while on the ground, and they made quick work of Virsh, tearing into her like a pack of animals. They’d left him the heart, as was custom, and it took all of his self-control to not just toss it away and clean his hands of what he’d done.
Her bones were interred in makeshift crypt, and that was that. No-one else was willing to challenge him after what he’d done, and so he kept his new position, bloodstained as it was.
After they finished preparations, they set a course for Sheshak, as per Commander Teksha’s orders. He opted to spend the first shift awake, so he could continue to work on his notes for improving society.
Over and over, he stressed a certain theme: they were of two halves- the civilized thinking being, and the vicious animal. The animal relied on instinct and cunning, whereas the thinking being used wisdom and rationality. The animal destroyed, the thinking being creates. The animal seeks only worldly pleasures, while the thinking being finds philosophical satisfaction.
Many of the ideas were not new, but he streamlined and altered them, connecting them together into a thesis. It was time-consuming work, but he had plenty of time to expound upon the ideas that had been forming in his mind, building them into a pamphlet, then a slim volume, then into something larger.
When the shift for cold sleep came, he decided against it, stating that he’d need to prepare plans for when they arrived at Sheshak. There would likely be a need for some minor worldshaping, as well as surveying potential areas for cities and factories.
That was a lie.
The truth was that he feared what dreams he’d have if he went under.
Sheshak had grown while they were on their voyage. When they finally arrived in the system, they found a world with a population of ten million, with large cities scattered over the icy world, and stations littering the orbitals. Industrialization was only a fraction of Cefac’s capacity, but technology had refined itself and advanced over the decades.
And yet, there was something… subdued, about them, something he couldn’t quite put into words. Only a small handful of them remembered Cefac; most of the population had actually been born on Sheshak, and had only pictures and the words of their elders to go by when they tried to think of the home-world.
He was content to settle down quietly, after the initial clamor when he’d arrived and recounted the failed voyage to Tenokaskin. The tome he had written remained stashed away, gathering dust, and he tried his best to forget about all that had happened. He tried to forget the nurma, or the feeling of hot blood on his face.
But it would not forget him. It gnawed at the back of his mind, refusing to stop, until eventually he couldn’t stand it anymore.
He published it a local year after he’d arrived.
The reaction was unexpected, to say the least. He thought it would simply be given a brief discussion, then forgotten, and he’d be free of it forever. Instead, the world seemed to latch onto it, poring over every word he’d written, every idea he’d put forward. Five million copies had been printed and sold by the following year, and it’s popularity refused to die down. The Stargazer Dialogs became a name known to all, and the world began to look to him.
He didn’t know why. Perhaps it was because the world needed an ideal to adhere to, a philosophy that could give them hope in such times. When most of their cultural identity had been atomized, there needed to be something to fill the gaps, and they had chosen his work for the task.
It was not a position he wanted, but the world did not care for his wants.
He spent some years as a hermit after that, trying escape the attention of millions, but it only seemed to intensify their interest in him. He continued his work on the nature of the nurma, but he tried his best to
When they finally began to send ships to other stars again, he was all too happy to launch another expedition.
Nearly three hundred years after he’d left, he returned to Tenokaskin, in a vessel far larger and more advanced than the old Urshnata, which now served as an orbital museum. The nurma were still there, along with a close sister-species that was beginning to migrate out of one of the larger continents.
He was not here for a mission of colonization- that had been ruled against shortly after he returned to Sheshak, and there were other worlds far better suited to it. It was neither a research mission- at least, not primarily.
It was a mission of conservation.
It seemed the nurma in the region he’d visited still had faint legends of the strange beings that brought gifts of food; it was easier to gain their trust than before. After a twelfth of the year, he was able to get them into cold-sleep pods adjusted for their biology. In other regions, where it would be more difficult, he simply had the small populations tranquilized and put in the pods.
Samples of flora and fauna were also collected; they would be needed for the next stage. It took a quarter-year to get everything that was required, but he was patient.
Once he had sustainable breeding populations, they were off to Kauetirye, a voyage that’d take thirty years. Six of the nurma and their cousins perished en route, but the other three hundred made it intact.
It was difficult, helping them establish a colony. There were tensions amongst the various groups, especially between subspecies, but they slowly died down as his crew encouraged cooperation. He gave them new techniques and technologies, from metallurgy to writing, and watched as they slowly began to understand them.
Two local years later, he found himself standing on a hill, looking over at a small town that the nurma and sister-species had built for themselves. Already they were forming primitive concepts of government and civilization; in a relatively short time, he imagined, they’d be quite sophisticated.
It was astounding, really, to think of how far he’d come. He should’ve been in the twilight of his life at that point, but new technologies on Sheshak had found ways to slow the aging process, and replace failing organs.
He drummed his fingers over his chest, where they’d removed his heart and replaced it with with a mechanical version, one that did not pound against his chest, or grow pained when he overexerted himself.
Another two local years, and then they’d be off, back to Sheshak. It was changing drastically, he knew, developing more and more advanced technologies. Not too surprising, considering that it had originally been colonized by scientists and engineers. Quality of life was improving, and their newer starships were crossing the void at higher and higher velocities, nearing light itself.
Would he feel at home there, however?
He knew the answer. His own ideas had drastically shaped society, and new technologies had made it virtually unrecognizable. In time, he could adjust to it, but that did not stop him from feeling like a stranger in a familiar land whenever he stepped foot there.
No, he’d only make brief visits there. There were worlds to explore, and a species to observe and safeguard. He’d most likely return to Tenokaskin in a few decades and collect more populations, as to reduce the chance of the nascent civilization on Kauetirye dying out. And it would be best to observe Tenokaskin itself, to see what they would develop on their own, without outside influence.
He looked down at the carving in his hand, and gently rubbed at it with a finger.
Yes, that would be for the best.
A hundred thousand years passed that way.
His people’s sphere of influence swelled over the millennia, until they encompassed a bubble of space a thousand light years across, with colonies in thousands of solar systems. With access to millions of systems worth of material, they were in a true age of post-scarcity. A single individual could use more energy than the entire pre-fall civilization without being a drain on the economy, and there had been discussions of massive engineering projects, of shells that would harness a sun’s power with minimal waste.
Such a civilization would be impossible to maintain at sub-light speeds. The starbridge was the keystone of civilization, developed five thousand years post-fall. Originally little more than an idea on paper, it eventually became a reality after centuries of research and experimentation. It was a power-consuming technology, but they had plenty of power to spare, and soon all the systems were connected by them, with Sheshak at the center of it all.
Sheshak, the glittering jewel at the heart of civilization, a world home to nearly a billion. Dozens of space elevators ringed the planet, connected by lightweight arches until they’d become a halo around the world.
Death was virtually non-existent. Disease was no more. Barring an accident, or a sense of ennui, one could live indefinitely, without falling victim to the rigors of aging. They could transfer their minds into a number of bodies, both organic and mechanical- some even transferred their minds into a single unit, a sharing of minds.
And yet, he found it… empty.
They had followed his ideals, and reached unsettling conclusions. Food was made to be as tasteless as possible; some even got rid of their tastebuds. All reproduction was in-vitro, and though sex was not forbidden, those who did it were considered pariahs. All forms of violent crime were illegal, as they should have been, but even an aggressive personality could result in administration of sedatives.
They’d even taken to wearing masks, based on their profession, as if even seeing their faces stirred the dormant beasts in their breasts.
Gone was the sense of grandeur that Cefac had, and he was the only one who could tell, being the last one alive to even remember the homeworld. Oh, many took pilgrimages to the ruined planet, as to reflect on the folly of their ancestors, but they did not know Cefac.
In the process of conquering themselves, they had become lost, stagnant. The expansion had long-since stopped, and advancement had slowed to a crawl, exacerbated by the long lives they know all led. They refined and improved, but it seemed as though they had stopped creating.
He stopped returning to the colony worlds after the first twenty-five thousand years; he couldn’t bear to see the route they had taken because of his work. Instead, he cast his name aside and threw himself into his work, where he’d be far away from civilization. There were seventeen other sentient species within the Network’s sphere of influence, all of them which had transplanted colonies on other worlds. He received regular observation reports on each one of them, studying their development.
The transplants had proved necessary, twice. One species lost their homeworld to an asteroid impact fifty-thousand years post-fall, while another had a disastrous experiment with ocean vents that rendered their planet an ecological wasteland twelve thousand years after that.
Some of them were beginning to advance to industrial levels, but the ones that attracted his attention the most were the nurma- now called stargazers amongst his people. The subspecies he’d first encountered had perished on the homeworld, with their place taken by their cousins in Africa. They slowly spread across their globe, mastering their world’s vast seas, and he watched as the first civilizations formed.
At first, he watched them from orbit, then he ceased those operations when they began to chart the stars. He watched as they innovated, crumbled, and rose again, small cycles repeating themselves all over the world. He pulled the probes back again to the edge of the system when the stargazers invented the telescope, but he could still study them intently from such a distance. He watched with a small sense of joy as their civilization swiftly advanced, bursting through obstacles swifter than most he’d seen.
He watched in horror when they unlocked the power of the atom, and promptly vaporized two cities with it.
By then, he could simply learn by listening in on their radio waves. Their languages took time to decipher, but he managed, and he devoured the information they cast into the void.
He listened intently to the pings Sputnik made when it entered orbit. When the one they called Armstrong stepped foot on the Moon, he heard the immortal words spoken. And when he realized that the stargazers were sending messages into the void, hoping someone would answer, he knew that it would soon be time to make contact.
Then, for a time, he feared the worst. An ecological catastrophe rocked the globe, brought about by their short-sighted use of non-renewable resources. The oceans rose, threatening billions, and it looked as though they teetered on the edge of annihilation as wars and disease broke out.
Miraculously, civilization survived. It was a trait found across all sentient species, that they would do anything to avoid extinction if they had the option.
And in this case, they swallowed their pride, and worked together.
When they began to venture into the solar system, he knew it was time to pull all probes back through the star-bridge; contact would ensue soon enough.
For years, he waited patiently, until he suddenly detected a signal coming through from another star…