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Author's Note: So I know I normally do this at the end, but this chapter kind of ended up having a lot of exposition in it, so this is your fair warning. A lot of backstory has to get dropped, and frankly, I'm not sure how coherent it all is. So please please please criticize, and if there's anything I've made confusing let me know.
Caelesti sumus omnes semine oriundi.
The Singer didn’t want to sleep.
It was too unnerving to realize how in control
her fellow Human was. That wasn’t how things were supposed to be. One man, especially a man in her opinion, shouldn’t have so much power. Most unnerving was that he was a man very comfortable with violence and surrounded himself with those proficient in it.
These Viribus held themselves with an unmistakable dignity, and she hoped that meant they would treat her with something resembling honor. Turin’eh, the smaller of the three Viribus, had been nothing but polite. But that had been at the General’s orders.
No. Better to be cautious around a man who chooses a new name for war.
The room Turin’eh had shown her to was spartan, but the door locked from the inside, and a tiny green plant sat near a screen. She could switch the display to any number of scenes as if it were a window. Eventually, she settled on a relaxing night time view of a terrestrial city. The screen played the sound of gentle rain that she found soothing.
The bed was simple, and like all things in space, made from artificial materials – the usual plastics around a metal frame. But more comfortable than the cots that the Singer had recruited when she could before – when it wasn’t just a corner behind the pipes.
“... all that remains is to decipher the etchings,” the Singer heard from the hall outside. It was the voice of that chubby looking insect thing. She thought she remembered the General calling them Arnarxx.
“Very good. Try to get me something by morning,” the Singer heard the General say.
The Singer’s breath caught in her throat, and she moved as quietly to the door as she could. When she pressed her ear against it, she could hear the General’s footsteps.
“Yes, sir,” Arnarxx replied obediently. “But I should warn you that even with the new servers, it will take time. Five dimensions increase the complexity by a power of-“
“I’m aware, Arnarxx,” the General sighed, cutting them off. “The time we have is growing short. Just give me your best work. I’m trusting you with this. Now go on,” he said softly.
The Singer once again found her mental image of the General put into question. Brettn had made the General sound like a heartless monster who would stop at nothing to gain power. But monsters didn’t encourage their underlings or speak with such respect to the people who were supposed to be beneath them. Perhaps the General was more complicated than she realized, or more devious.
She waited for Arnarxx’s staccato steps to disappear into the stairwell at the other end of the hall and quietly edged open her door. She peeked out into the darkened hallway and spotted the General’s well-made shoes as they stepped into a room at the end. When the Singer didn’t hear any more footsteps, she left the safety of her doorway and walked silently to the General’s door.
He hadn’t closed it all the way, and she dared to look through the crack. His bedroom was no less spartan than her own, save for a wardrobe in place of a chest at the foot of the bed. She watched as he pulled off his jacket, and then began to unbutton his shirt.
His back was a mosaic of scar tissue. Long, ragged stripes from a whip or cane, maybe a hundred in all, covered the length. And raking claw marks overlapped puckered puncture wounds. But oddly, there were spaces along his spine that were untouched by scars: metal disks emerged from his spine, and flawless flesh surrounded them without a single sign of surgery. It was as if they were a natural feature of his body, but so unlike how anything organic should look.
And so very like the ones grafted to the Singer’s spine.
A vast, blue-furred hand reached around her and silently eased the door shut. She couldn’t stop the gasp that escaped her as she whipped around to find the most massive of the Viribus looming over her.
“Is it not rude,” the Viribus rumbled, “to watch from the shadows?”
“Yes,” the Singer stammered, abashed. “I suppose it is.”
“If sleep escapes you, would you like some tea?” the Viribus asked, their four eyes boring down into her.
“Best not,” the General’s voice came from the other side of the door. The door slid open, and the General spoke to the Singer with his shirt hanging from his belt. “If you let her get talking, Sheh’teh will fill your head with stories about God and Angels. It’ll only confuse you further.” The General stood close to her now, blocking the door with his body and giving her a pointed look.
“Did you evangelize them or something?” she asked, desperate to draw her attention away from his chest – and convince herself she hadn’t been staring.
The General grinned. “No. I never put much stock in the Good Book,” he chuckled. “They’re monk warriors.”
“Poet Warriors,” Sheh’teh corrected from over the Singer’s shoulders. “Tasked with the protection of the Temple of Life.”
“And you have a noble and beautiful culture built around that, but the truth is somewhat less fanciful,” the General insisted. He turned back to the Singer with a sigh of exhaustion. “If you truly can’t wait until morning, then I’ll meet you in the workshop upstairs. Just let the talking deer sleep,” he said as he backed into his bedroom and slid the door completely shut.
“I will lead you,” Sheh’teh said as she turned away from the door, no small feat for someone with such a long body in such a narrow hallway. Sheh’teh flowed down the hall and up the stairs at the other end silently, and the Singer followed.
The third floor of the General’s office was split down the middle, with only one door on either side of the hallway. Sheh’teh slipped into one of the rooms and held the door open by way of invitation.
As she entered, the Singer heard the sound of sharpening steel and the click-clacking of pedipalps on keyboard keys. Inside the “workshop,” the two other Viribus and the flabby arachnid worked diligently among a boggling collection of tools, armor, and weapons.
The General had not been exaggerating when he said he was preparing for war. He’d collected enough arms and armor to supply a small garrison – everything from plate armor to Kevlar vests, anything between sets of actual swords
and light machine guns. A collection of machines lined one workspace dedicated to packing rows and rows of ammunition. A lathe sat silently, and a fume hood waited near a cold forge.
The soft arachnid, Arnarxx, sat at a set of computer terminals, with a rats nest of wires leading into an equally unruly mess of electrical components. Turin’eh sat beside the other, somewhat larger Viribus. Turin’eh was constructing arrows for a bow thicker than the Singer’s arm. The other one was carefully sharpening a set of four swords.
The Viribus paused as the Singer and Sheh’teh entered the room, Arnarxx didn’t look up from their work.
Sheh’teh leaned down to speak to the Singer. “I apologize if this question seems odd, but understand it comes from a place of ignorance, not insult: You are female, yes?” she asked.
The Singer once again felt blood rush to her face, but she tried not to take offense. She realized the reason for the question: The Singer had no idea how to tell the Viribus apart except by size, and they’d only met the one Human. She didn’t understand the need for the information, but she nodded, and that was enough for the Viribus.
“Good, then follow,” Sheh’teh said with the best approximation of a smile her long face could make. “That means we don’t need to bother with all these,” she waved dismissively at the other two Viribus and their weapons, “phallic
things.” She used another hand to take the Singer’s and guided her to the collection of armor pieces.
“In our culture, the women do not use weapons,” Sheh’teh explained as she began selecting a string of ribbons and ceramic plates. “Instead, we teach that a woman’s body is her weapon. All a woman needs to fight is the proper application of force,” Sheh’teh said as she took both of the Singer’s hands with all four of hers and slowly wrapped her wrists with the ceramic plates and ribbons.
The ribbon, the Singer realized, was made from Kevlar. The wrap around her wrist and between her fingers would brace her hands against impact. And for some reason, she was confident she could turn a blade with the ceramic plates woven against her palms and the back of her hands. The thought came unbidden, and she felt
in her arms that they would know how to move.
“A bit of armor helps, though,” Sheh’teh said with a satisfied nod. “It seems our hands are the same size,” she said, pressing one of her secondary hands against the Singers. She had two thumb-like fingers on each side of her hands, but otherwise, the palms were nearly the same size. “Tomorrow, I show you how to use them,” she said as she knitted their fingers together and gave the Singer a gentle squeeze.
The General was barefoot when he joined them. He’d traded the suit for something that closely resembled the clothing the Viribus wore; colorful, simple, and made from real wool. He carried a pile of folders and documents balanced in his arms, and he was quick to deposit them on a nearby workspace.
The General turned to the Singer. “What is your first question?”
The Singer hesitated, taken aback by being handed control of the conversation. She’d expected to have to argue for a chance to speak, and now she realized she hadn’t prepared her thoughts. So, she asked the first thing that came to mind: “Where are we from, if not Earth?”
The General began rummaging through his files. “We stole these during our escape from Laetus-“
“Laetus,” the Viribus chanted, cutting the General off.
“Home of the Viribus,” the General finished with an exasperated sigh as he spread out a set of photographs for the Singer. He pushed a thick document toward her and pointed to a figure on its first page. “The Viribus and I came from here, and so did you.”
The Singer took the stack of plastic sheets and scrutinized them. Perhaps the General was wrong. Humans came from Earth, that was a fact. Wasn’t it?
The figure described a set of planets belonging to a solar system around a star with a long unreadable designation and the name Atta. She could immediately see that he was correct. There were only six planets in the Atta system and only one giant, but the Sol system had nine, including four giants. Laetus was the second planet from its star and had three minuscule moons, Earth was the third planet and had only one massive moon. Laetus also had unique planetary characteristics, with a rotation that lasted longer than its orbit did, and in a direction opposite to most of the others in the system.
That star couldn’t be Sol, and Laetus couldn’t possibly be Earth.
“And before you ask. We – that is, Humans – came to Laetus on this,” the General said as he laid out another document.
This document had a satellite photograph, and the Singer stared at it in total disbelief. Buried in blue-green leaves of a forest that could rival the Amazon was a golden pyramid. The faces were a golden color but faded with lines and spots of darker color, something the Singer might expect if panels covered its surface, and some were missing.
“The sides have got to be ... kilometers
long,” she said as she leaned over to examine the photograph.
“Nine kilometers to a side, and five-point six kilometers above the forest floor. And more structures pierce deep below the surface. No one has ever explored them all, but masters of The Way have theorized that it may reach to the blood of Laetus,” Sheh’teh said proudly.
“The mantle,” the General clarified. “It probably uses geothermal energy for most of its power generation.”
“Uses it?” the Singer said incredulously. “This thing’s so big it probably could have started
the planet’s volcanoes from scratch!” she sputtered as her mind boggled with the scale. “There wasn’t anything like this
The General paused at that and narrowed his eyes in thought. “An interesting thought,” he said under his breath. “But you’re right, I’m certain we
built it and sent it to Laetus,” he said as he laid down another set of photographs.
The picture showed a great hall, which in the darkness seemed to stretch into infinity. Monolithic pillars split the wide thoroughfare and disappeared into the darkness above. Streams of water fell down the center of the hall and gathered into a shallow stream that reflected the flash of the camera. What little of the fractal wall that she could see formed mosaics that only seemed to become coherent so long as she didn’t look at them.
And lining the walls like Greek pillars, were coffins as far as the eye could see. Glass coffins resting on pedestals up several steps – which she realized now were coils of thick wire – leaned away from the center of the hall. It changed what the Singer thought might be a Temple into a Tomb.
In the center of the photograph, stood an Imperial Vyrăis Officer – his armor stained with blood. He looked into the camera with that intense and angry glare all Vyrăis seemed to share. He pointed with one hand up toward the nearest coffin as if in the middle of giving commands.
“The loremasters of The Way say your bodies have been in these Sepulchers for hundreds of years, and that the Temple had existed since long before anyone was around to record it,” Sheh’teh explained as she pushed one of the photographs toward the Singer. “These are the Sepulchers, where your people have slept since before history began,” Sheh’teh said.
“Since before time,” the other Viribus chanted in response.
The photograph was a closer capture of one of the coffins – or Sepulcher, rather. Hidden projectors cast glowing text on the surface of the Sepulcher. They displayed numbers and codes, none of which she could recognize – but there was no mistaking the Roman Alphabet as alien text.
Inside the Sepulcher, she saw herself. Her body floated in a cloudy fluid, and her hair spread into a dark halo around her head. Wires and cables snaked out of the murky liquid and wrapped her in an artificial umbilicus. It was like she’d laid down to sleep only moments before. She looked so at peace
But the Singer felt an icy finger of dread trace down her spine as she realized the thing in the Sepulcher wasn’t alive
. It was a husk waiting for a mind – a soul. She didn’t know how she could tell. It was like staring at a wax figurine. It was too still. Too perfect to be real.
“What is this?” the Singer asked in horror.
The pictures only continued to fill her with dread as she realized many were of the sites of the battle between the Viribus Poet Warriors and the Imperial Vyrăis Soldiers. Toppled candles and torches, and woven mats soaked with dark blood. One was simply a picture of mounds of corpses, some of them only a fraction of the size of Sheh’teh – children. There had been children in the Temple when the Empire had attacked.
“It makes sense when you consider the limits of travel between stars,” the General continued. “Not even the Empire, which spans hundreds of star systems, has ever managed to travel faster than light. It’s a safe bet to guess that we didn’t either. So instead, we send a huge spaceship to colonize on its own and clone the settlers once it arrives,” he explained.
He pointed over his shoulder at the disks she’d seen running down his spine. The metal disks that didn’t have any surgical scars around them, as if they’d been grown in place. The same ones that the Singer knew she had on her own back.
“But what about the memories?” the Singer asked. “I remember my school, my friends, my family
,” she protested, even as the words felt hollow in her mouth. The memories were there, yes, although she knew she’d never actually met those people. Just like how the Singer knew
the name she remembered wasn’t hers.
“I’m no neurologist, but whatever let them grow our bodies in that place must also allow it to write memories into our minds,” the General said calmly, and she knew by the look in his eyes that he’d struggled with the same realization.
“Then,” the Singer stuttered. Her mind rebelled at the idea.
How could they be fake memories? She remembered her boyfriend. And the break up that had torn her heart to shreds. She remembered her friends that had helped her get over it and let her feel happy again. She remembered her parents. She remembered loving
them, and worse, she’d spent years missing them so much it hurt
. “But if that’s fake- That means that I’m not- I’m not-“
“No!” the General barked and slammed his fist into the countertop. The Singer jumped, jarred from the spiral of negative emotions. “Don’t say that! Don’t let yourself think it,
” he ordered and marched around the table and grabbed her shoulders with a sturdy grip when she tried to back away. “We’re real
,” the General said with conviction. His hands squeezed her shoulders to emphasize his point.
She grabbed hold of him without thinking, though whether it was to hang onto him or to push him away, she wasn’t sure anymore. Her fingernails dug bleeding furrows into his arms. But he didn’t let go, he just held onto her and said: “Those memories don’t make us
. It’s what we do now that we’re here that matters most, okay?
“Think about what all this means. The Temple, whatever it is, has been there for hundreds or maybe thousands of years. And it probably took even longer than that to get it there
. We may be all that’s left of Humanity: an all or nothing bet against something we couldn’t fight. But that’s not what matters right now; not only are our people in trouble, so are theirs,” he explained with a glance toward the Viribus. The aliens stared at them in concern, but they didn’t intervene.
His words drew her away from the panic with purpose. Terrible purpose, she realized, because she knew that left only one option that she could dare to accept. And she decided.
“Okay,” she said, forcing herself to let go of his arms. “I’ll do it.” The General looked surprised for the first time since she’d met him. She was surprised to find that genuine emotion cemented it into her mind: he was real, and so was she. “I’ll go to war with you,” she clarified. Previous
Also, I will be posting this story on RoyalRoad.com
as well, so look for it there. Don't worry, I won't stop posting here.