From: Issue 3
The dirigible’s takeoff from the top of the pyramid was accompanied by the same pomp as an Imperial bloodfeast. Everyone in attendance had shined their carapaces, and some had gone so far as to paint themselves as on a high holy day. The mateless filtered through the crowd, sacs of spume mounded on their backs so any who wished for food could have it.
Hygeria, my left-mate, tapped her foreclaw against my neck. “No more will our race scrabble in the dirt,” Hygeria said with the taps, gesturing at the dirigible with her mandibles.
I passed the message to Ryke, my right-mate, as was expected of me, but I kept my own thoughts unmoving lest I be suspected.
The dirigible lifted into the sky amidst a great clacking of foreclaws. Clusters began to clack in unison, and words rippled through the crowd. “Progress, Progress, Progress,” was the first to assert itself. Then “We reach the sky.”
All eyes were on the dirigible.
Its bulging airsac gleamed silver in the bright sunset, and the crew clung to metal racks along the bottom.
“The silver of our glory!” someone tapped, and the crowd took it up with zeal.
Then the dirigible exploded. Orange flame ripped through the silver airsac, blooming instantly over the entire structure with a roar. Everyone froze in horror, then stampeded away as the fireball crashed back down on the pyramid’s side, frame crumpling, crew trying to pull free of the wreckage.
I looked at what I had wrought and allowed myself to be pulled away, rejoicing grimly.
It would never reclaim what they had destroyed. Nothing could. But finally the flames of my anger, so long hidden inside the world of thought, rose a column of smoke in the world of the body so that all could share in my pain.
— * —
A disaster requires reflection. This is a known thing, even among the artless. The Trifold Emperor, therefore, ordered all to go into early hibernation to ponder in the thought world what had happened.
Of course, none of the military mate rows would be hibernating. Bred directly to the Emperor, they were beyond suspicion. They would be counting the sleepers, noting any who were missing. The Emperor thought, perhaps, that whoever had sabotaged the dirigible would refuse the call to reflection and try to escape judgement while all were hibernating.
Had I a desire to do so, I might have indeed escaped; I am a strong tunneler. Escape, however, was not what I sought. I sought justice.
In the thought world I would lay out my case before all those who slept, and I would see if justice found me.
When the call to reflection came, as I knew it would, I went deep into the earth to the tunnels of sleeping. There, I found my designated spot in my mate row, between Hygeria and Ryke, and began to spin my cocoon.
Hygeria tapped upon my thorax before she was fully encased. “Mourn beautifully,” she said.
I passed the message to Ryke, and he passed it to his other mate, who passed it on down and down the row. Being my direct mates, Hygeria and Ryke could be killed for what I did if I failed to convince the colony of my righteousness in the thought world. My whole mate row could be killed, in fact. As the message to mourn beautifully passed on, I hoped desperately that I had not condemned them all.
I finished my cocoon and ordered my body to shut down. My limbs shuddered and went still. My antennae became limp. My view of the inside of the cocoon vanished into nothingness. Finally, all but my uppermost heart ceased to pump.
For a moment I lost all thought, lost all emotion, lost myself. I was as a stone. Then my mind sharpened, and the thought world gradually came into focus.
Lights fuzzed into being to either side of me. Those would be the thoughts of Hygeria and Ryke. The thoughts of the rest of my mate row began to shine dimly too, the close ones brightest.
I gazed into their thoughts as far as I could see and found they were all focused on the dirigible explosion as commanded. As the hibernation went on, their minds would each wander their separate ways, but now they were unified. With their minds all attuned to the same thing, a revelation about the subject of their focus would ripple through them all until the whole colony heard.
With a practiced concentration, I pictured the dirigible in flames and made the lurid light into that of satisfaction. “The flames were mine,” I said, “and mine the destruction.”
The thoughts of both Hygeria and Ryke reeled in surprise. The lights of their thinkings burst with sun-like brightness. On down the line, other lights flared as well and turned their attention to me. They pelted me with thoughts of hatred and confusion.
Against the violent force of their thoughts, I solemnly offered them a memory.
— * —
In my memory I was young. I had just experienced the second hardening of my carapace, and I could barely walk for the awkwardness of my newly formed body.
Unmated, of course, I carried sacs of spume upon my back, that others might taste of it and perhaps decide I was a worthy addition to their mate row.
I was also disoriented, as many are at their second hardening, and I stumbled across a grand gallery dappled with light. Unlike the hugging tunnels of most of the colony, this gallery was massive. It was indeed so large and bright that I thought at first I had stumbled outside at midday and must surely crisp and die.
But no, this tunnel was simply large and open, and into the sides and ceiling of the tunnel were images carved of pure light. What science was this, I thought to myself, that pictures could be made of the very light? And how has no one told me of this marvel?
An old fellow clacked toward me on uneven legs. His limbs were calcified at the joints and his gait was more lopsided even than mine. His carapace was a dull and cracked contrast to my newly formed body.
“Have you come to add yourself to our row, Mateless?” he asked with trembling taps.
“What is this place?”
The old fellow took a sac of spume from my back and sucked out its contents. “You could join us if you wish,” he said, after savoring it. “Our row is small, and our task is ever seeking new limbs to support it.”
I clacked a formal thanks as best I could with my newly grown claws. Secretly, though, I was skeptical. Disoriented I may have been, but even pupa know to expect negotiations when seeking to find a place in a mate row. For this one to accept me so blithely meant they were surely a pathetic and diseased lot.
“What is this place?” I asked again.
He scraped disappointment with his rear claws, then with his front said: “It is history, Mateless. The history of our species, carved into the sands of our home and lit from behind by the raging of the sun. Our mate row, and yours if you reconsider, has tended this place since the founding of this colony, that all might know from whence we came.”
As my eyes adjusted, I took in the first series of shining images above me, a creation story that was instantly familiar from my instruction as a pupa. It showed a worm venturing to the surface, blistering in the sun, and retreating back into the ground to hibernate. After its sleep, it had transformed. It now had mandibles with which to eat the other worms and gain strength. As time went on, it grew legs, antennae, and a hard outer carapace as well.
The set of carvings showed the worm progress through the stages of development in stunning detail, and I pulled myself out of my memory enough to focus on those details with an artist’s eye that I did not yet posses at the time of the memory itself.
In the thought world, the hatred and confusion ceased for a moment and was replaced by awe at the beauty I showed them. I waited briefly to resume my memory, hoping the question created by their marveling would be the same as mine all that time ago.
“Why have I never seen this before?” My young self asked. “Why would such beauty be kept hidden?”
“Perhaps, Mateless, this colony has lost its taste for beauty.”
Still gazing at the bright carvings, I could not conceive this to be true. “Never,” I said.
“Then perhaps it is the past they have lost their taste for. It used to be, Mateless, that our gallery branched from the main-most tunnel. All stopped through often. But now the tunnels have been changed. There is only one way here, and that long and twisted. Only the lost happen by.”
I tore my gaze from the first series of carvings to see the length of the tunnel. More carvings shone down and down, like a mate row.
“Show me more,” I said, tapping with my mandibles as if I were addressing the Trifold Emperor itself.
The old one turned on his calcified legs to lead the way, letting his rear claws drag lightly behind him in satisfaction.
— * —
My concentration burst under the barrage of questions from my mate row, especially from Hygeria and Ryke.
“Have you joined yourself with another row?” Ryke asked, in shock and disgust. “Are you then part of two, like a pupa seeking to mate indiscriminately with all of its fellows?”
Hygeria joined him. “And how have you hidden this for so long, even in the close communion of the thought world, even to your direct mates?”
My mate row began to turn against me. “Shame,” they clamored. “Shame upon shame. First the shame of joining our row to others without permission, then the shame of the dirigible. Let the fires of the sun consume you, as your fires consumed our great achievement.”
“You are right in saying I joined the row of the Sun Carvers,” I said, “but I was free of them before binding myself to you.”
“Free?” many asked. “How could you be free of your mate row?”
“Because,” I said, “that mate row is now extinct. Their art, so astounding, is gone.”
“Extinct?” The horrified unbelief of such a concept reverberated through all who listened.
“Hear, mates of my mates: the shame is not mine. See now the day my rage was born.”
— * —
In this memory I was no longer clumsy, and no longer mateless. My carapace was dusty as I lay upon a scaffold, legs in the air, carefully scooping out sand within the lines my master had inscribed. As I scooped, I stopped periodically to harden the supporting areas with my saliva. The sun shone faintly through the thin sand in the places that I had scraped.
Only the master carvers were allowed to poke completely through to the sun beyond. One day I hoped to be one.
I focused on my work intensely. This carving would depict the most recent advances in science: the paste that protected the body from the sun’s beating, the great drills made by the metal forges, and the invisible pulses of sound that detected worms at a distance so that they might be hunted. This carving would be a thing of beauty and glory, and I would be part of it.
Frenzied taps echoed through the gallery. “Come all. We stand as a row before the Emperor.”
I scuttled down the scaffolding as quickly as I could, and when I came to stand with my mates, I found the three members of the Emperor there together with a great line of military crowded behind.
The Trifold Emperor waited patiently for all the Sun Carvers to arrive, then greeted us, all three of the Emperor’s members tapping in unison. “Long has your row labored in obscurity,” the Emperor said. “But now I offer you a fresh task: to extend the colony outward. Great will be your pride for this. Even more, to help you in your duty, I will give you twenty mateless from my very seed.”
The old fellow who had greeted me when I first stumbled into the gallery hobbled forth. He was the leader of our row, the Grandmaster Carver.
“Oh great one and mighty,” the Grandmaster Carver said, “We are bound to our place here as surely as you are bound to your role of leadership. We are artisans, not tunnelers.”
The Trifold Emperor gestured to the ceiling. “Are not those tunnels you have made to the outside? Have not you hollowed out this place in all its height and depth? And furthermore, are you not beholden to my leadership as you have just said? I say you shall go to the edges of our colony to expand it.”
“What shall be done, then, of the gallery?” asked the Grandmaster Carver.
“That too will further the colony,” said the Emperor. “Progress has need of its space. It will become a great workshop. Wondrous things will be built here, things that will reach the very ceiling of the sky above and plumb the emptiness below the earth.”
My mate row was still. I clacked tentatively with my mandibles. “What of our carvings?” I asked. It was not loud enough for the Emperor to hear, but those around me heard and began clacking their mandibles too. Soon, all of us were asking the question. The Grandmaster even had the audacity to tap the question with his ailing forelegs in open defiance.
“What need have we of them?” asked the Emperor. “Their crudeness will make way for the great inventions of our coming age.”
“No,” someone tapped angrily, and my entire mate row began pounding on the ground.
The Grandmaster quieted everyone. “Come and see the gallery,” he said to the Trifold Emperor. “Once you have walked it, you will comprehend its value. We have immortalized your reign, oh Emperor, and the science you love as well.”
“Are you the Emperor, then, to advise us on our actions?” said the Emperor.
“Far be it from me,” said the Grandmaster. “But does not even the worm open and close its mouth when it sees the hunter?”
“We will not walk with you,” said the Emperor.
“This is fair and wise, oh great one. But why do you seek this damp and crumbling hole? Why not leave us this sad place as our home, and let us dig for you something far better on the edge of the colony, something befitting your splendor.”
The Trifold Emperor paused, its three members, perhaps, speaking to each other in the thought world. What must it be like, I wondered, to simultaneously be in the world of thought and the world of the body as the Emperor was? “I wish this could be,” the Emperor finally said, “but the new workshop must be central to the forges, fabrician labs, and the gasworks. A workshop on the edge of the colony would not be acceptable. I do, however, grant you my blessing to recreate your carvings as you wish in your new place.”
The Grandmaster drew himself up weakly. “These carvings have been made over generations,” he said. “We cannot reproduce them.”
“Then make new ones,” said the Emperor.
“No!” pounded my row in anger. The Emperor’s military rows behind him tensed and readied their sharpened legs.
The Grandmaster hobbled up to the Emperor, his aged, battered body shriveled and weak. We quieted once again, and his faint taps carried utter scorn. “These carvings are older than your reign. You have no right to destroy them.”
Everyone grew still in surprise at the old one’s words. To speak so boldly against the Emperor!
And the Emperor again paused, communing within its three members without movement or sound. Then, without a single tap or scrape of response, the leftmost member reached out a lacquered claw, huge and strong, and snapped off the Grandmaster’s head.
My mate row had no time to reflect. The military gathered behind the Emperor surged forward ferociously, stabbing, cutting, tearing. Some of my row tried to fight back, but their legs were trained in shaping sand, not battle. They had no chance.
I was near the back of those gathered, and this was my only salvation. Those around me saw the slaughter. Rather than fight or run, they piled atop me in a great heap.
“Dig down, young one,” they said to me. “Escape. Tell all what has happened here. Tell all of the Emperor’s shame.”
I didn’t know what else to do. And so I dug, the death screeches of my beloved row following me. As I fled, the image of the Grandmaster’s head tumbling off played over and over in my mind.
My mind was so fixed on the violence I had left, that I ran mindlessly. The trauma demanded I stop and recede into the world of thought, but if I did, I knew the Emperor would find me and snap off my head just like the Grandmaster’s.
I forced myself to keep going until I reached a collapsed tunnel. There, exhausted and scared, I burrowed in as far as I could, loose sand closing off the path behind me. I didn’t know how far I went, but eventually the horror of what I had seen overtook me and I fell into hibernation without even forming a cocoon around myself for protection.
It was not until a great time later that I emerged, and when I did I found the injustice of the Emperor was deeper even than what I had witnessed.
Half the gallery had been utterly destroyed to form a broad clearing open to the sky, a pyramid built in the middle of it. The other half of the gallery looked out onto the clearing, but the carvings on its ceiling and walls had been plastered over with the hardened clay used for support columns.
In the shade of this overhang rested a bulging air sac swarming with workers.
There was no trace of what had been there before. The beautiful scenes of light were no more.
It was worse than the murder of my entire mate row. They’d murdered the past too. They’d murdered memory. The most infuriating part was that they had replaced it with ugliness, this blocky structure without nuance, this odious plaster, this bulging sac of air.
The only remnant of what was lost was myself. Mine was the only memory they had not managed to kill.
As I looked upon the desecration of my former home, I vowed to share that memory with as many of the colony as I could.
— * —
“And so you joined us,” Ryke said. “You joined the fabricians, that you might work on the dirigible and insert in it a fatal flaw.”
“Yes,” I said, receding from my memory.
“And in doing so you destroyed something beautiful,” said Hygeria. “Is that what you wish us to lift you up for? Destroying beauty for the sake of other beauty lost? How is your crime any different than the one you wish us to be outraged about?”
Her vehemence took me aback. Could Hygeria truly not see? How was that possible? “The Emperor killed an entire mate row,” I said. “They destroyed something that can never be gotten back, the entire legacy of our colony!”
“He is the Emperor,” said Hygeria. “The right is his.”
“Nobody has this right,” said Ryke.
Their argument flared bright in the thought world, and I widened my vision to see the same argument warring throughout the entire colony. I watched the arguments rage like fire.
Then three bright lights asserted themselves over the starry sky of the thought world. The Trifold Emperor. The lights were directed at me.
“Judgement is declared,” said the Emperor. “This one shall be given to the sun in the sight of all.”
For a moment dissent shone. Perhaps half the colony was with me.
But then the Emperor forced an image into all of our minds at once, an image of lacquered claws snapping off the head of an old carver.
The lights of dissent dimmed, then died completely.
— * —
The spot chosen for my execution was the top of the pyramid. There I was bound to await the coming of the sun and die in its heat. A great gathering surrounded the pyramid in the moonlight, the scorched taste from the dirigible fire still hanging in the air.
The Emperor announced my punishment and no one made the slightest sound to decry it. I was alone.
Then one small tap echoed over the quiet gathering. “No right, no right, no right,” repeated the tap.
I recognized the cadence of it too, the slight stutter on the word “no.”
It was my right-mate, Ryke.
His tapping continued, and for a moment I entertained the hope that others would join in, an upswelling of brave support that would topple the power of the Trifold Emperor and usher in an age of beauty and justice.
But it did not happen.
Ryke’s lonely tapping garnered no followers.
Then his tapping halted, and he was brought up the pyramid to be bound at my side.
The Emperor dismissed all those gathered, and the clearing that used to be the gallery emptied solemnly.
“I have failed,” I tapped to Ryke. I could only move my mandibles. My legs were strapped tightly.
Ryke, dear Ryke, tapped back. “Perhaps the sun will transform us. Perhaps it will give us new mouths, and we shall eat the Emperor.”
But it only made me think of the carvings that had been destroyed, the carvings that would never be brought back.
The night sky lightened towards dawn, and we both lay silently.
“Will you enter the world of thought to protect yourself from the pain?” Ryke asked finally.
“No,” I said. “I shall await the sun.”
“Then so too will I.”
The sun came over the horizon slowly, and heat began to mount.
Had I done rightly? I did not know. The sun’s blazing was becoming painful.
“Perhaps you did not fail,” said Ryke, his taps shaky. “Look.”
I flopped my head over to look at the overhang in which the dirigible had been built. Behind the overhang, the sun raged. It was hard to look in that direction.
I forced through the pain of the sun to see workers with drills making crude holes in the thick walls and ceiling of the overhang. The sun shone through the holes to form a rough shape: a pyramid. They had made a sun carving.
“Rebellion,” tapped Ryke with a hopeful cadence.
“Perhaps,” I said. It could also have been commissioned by the Emperor to forestall just that. “We will never know the legacy of my crime.”
“Nobody ever knows,” tapped Ryke.
We fell silent, and I watched the workers until my vision was seared from me.
“Die beautifully,” tapped Ryke.
I wondered if he was also now blind, but I didn’t ask. It didn’t seem right.
“Die beautifully,” I said back to him, and braced myself for what would come next, be it transformation or scorched white nothingness.
© 2016 Jared Oliver Adams
Originally appeared in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
About the Author
Jared Oliver Adams lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he writes, explores, and dabbles in things better left alone. He holds two degrees in music performance, a third degree in elementary education, and is utterly incapable of passing a doorway without checking to see if it leads to Narnia.