Author: Brian C. Mahon
The Ultimo stood high on the pinnacle of the spiraling, marble-faced steel staircase, the dais of control, his seat of power. “Come, Sarai,” his voice echoed in the white chamber and in my mind. “Ascend. Join me.”
I took in the height and climbed, snatching what glimpses I could of stars and space that fed through the tower’s encircling video screens. When I made it to the peak, he reached out a withered hand. The liver spots set in the meat of his grip startled me. The Ultimo spoke, “We mined a thousand worlds for this. We sharpened ourselves and gave away all other thought.”
I embraced his hand with both of mine.
“We abandoned our love and our joys. We stripped ourselves of our art and our music and any dream of what to do hereafter. We sharpened ourselves. We… we stripped our-“
With a tremor, a full quarter of his panoramic went dark. The Ultimo placed cold hands on my shoulders.
“We built a million warships and staffed them with our best, our finest, our future. All for this moment, for now, for right now. Look! Look at our grandeur! From the seed of one world, we grew to universal relevancy!”
I looked, and I saw the flashes, the articulate metallic dances against the void, the continuity of life born from a pretty blue world. I watched the machinations of mankind fight for that relevancy. I saw our craft and intelligence and order and design pierce the serenity of an uncaring galaxy. I watched those million ships convert their million little suns into millions of lashing throes against the darkness, against the it, against that thing that came to us and tried to root us out while we were still young. I watched our best and brightest, our young, our future go up in twinkling lights. I watched the screens of his watchtower flicker and fade until I and the Ultimo were fully blind.
“Do you see? Do you see how great we were?”
I smiled and gripped his hands harder. We survived the others who came before Spondylus the wicked. We pushed away the red giants and their hollow automatons. We maneuvered past hegemony by the false god’s golden people. We survived the wicked’s first arrival, when our primitive planetary defenses drew its attention. A thousand years proved our dominance, and I knew the Ultimo to be not simply right, but true!
His chamber convulsed with another tremor that threw me to my knees. Through his sweeping white beard, the Ultimo smiled. The lights in his eyes danced and grew, and his eyes danced in flames, in defiant greatness, in fire and sadness and pain and anger and terror. His silence became the effusive litany of our great legacy against and within the darkness, and with one last proud intonation of his wrinkled brow, the Ultimo reached for a pedestal and swiped it with a crooked finger. I flew. I flew upward in a gust so quickly that I hadn’t known I was flying until I saw the Ultimo below me, smaller and smaller. Then, I went black.
This is how I came to be, floating in the dark, a blink, a signal, a waveform in search of an ansible. We raged against it. We raged as we were taught to do, until it seemed the light had died. May the Million Fleet be victorious. May the echo of our voice still proclaim that we were.