“The Authentic History”
by Aaron Emmel
Adira conjured light from the darkness. Her fingers stitched luminous threads into orbital stations and naval assets, years’ worth of data visualized as holoprojections. The solar system’s planets flashed with reflected sunlight as they wheeled through the black of space.
Three pinpricks of light flared near Neptune. The holo zoomed in to show three Inventor ships like silver blades slicing the emptiness.
“The Inventors are coming back,” Adira said. “This time, we’re ready for them.”
“When will they reach us?” asked the Commander of the West American Subjugate.
“They’ll enter human space in almost exactly one year. We expect them to pass near Neptune. Just like the first time.”
The silhouette that was Kalen leaned forward. “Is that why you’re here? Are you defending the Empire, or just protecting Neptune?”
“I serve the Empire. Neptune is on the front lines.”
“But your family. They haven’t always been friends of the Empire, have they?”
Adira squeezed the datacube in her hand until her palm went numb. “My mom did her time.”
She heard shifting bodies, felt the councilors’ stares. Adira sucked in her breath. She wouldn’t be thrown off. This was what she had trained for.
“The first time we encountered the Inventors, our fleet was destroyed,” Adira said, “and Earth almost fell. All that saved us was obedience to the Empire, and the fact that the Artificers—the Order of the Artifact—were able to steal the Inventors’ technology and use it to intercept their transmissions.”
“You said they’ll be here in a year.” The snakelike mark of the Artificers, the memento of his acceptance of the Authentic History, glimmered on Kalen’s wrist. The condition for entering the Empire as a refugee.
Adira tried to ignore him. “My team developed the Codebreaker algorithm—”
“This council should see the exact location and date,” Kalen said. “Kindly pull it up.”
Adira stared at him for a long moment, wondering what trap he was setting. But she couldn’t think of a basis for refusing. She conjured a row of numbers: coordinates and a date.
“That’s not right,” she murmured. The date indicated by the digits hovering in the air in front of her wasn’t a year from now. It was less than forty-eight hours away.
“You didn’t check the data before you came before the Conclave?”
“Of course. I worked on it.” She couldn’t move her eyes from the hovering display. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“We will send the fleet to intercept them,” said another woman.
Adira looked up. The speaker was an admiral with three gleaming stars on her uniform. “It will take them six months to get there.”
“Neptune will be lost,” the admiral agreed. “Possibly Titan as well. But we will make a stand if they attack the Jovian system, and defeat them before they get to Earth.”
Five minutes later, Adira hurried back down the marble steps outside the Conclave chamber as the Artificer guards’ electric halberds clashed with an audible sizzle of air behind her. The datacube’s edges cut against her fingers.
The news was streaming publicly by the time Adira reached her studio apartment. Antimatter-engine military ships were being readied for launch from Near Earth Station. She didn’t need to turn up the volume to know they would be too late to reach Neptune in time.
“It’s good to see you, Adira.”
It had been three years, but her dad looked a full decade older.
“Really? I wasn’t sure you’d want to talk to me.”
“You’re still my daughter.”
“I’m streaming you to warn you. The Inventors are coming back. Neptune is right in their path.”
“How much time do we have?”
She almost smiled. Her dad never wasted time worrying. No matter what happened, he always focused on the next steps. “Most of the messages recovered from the Artifact ten years ago were classified. Military intelligence couldn’t translate all the signals. My team just deciphered them.” As soon as she heard her own words, and realized what she was doing, she stopped talking and breathed in. She was justifying what had happened. Her mom, her departure. Trying to prove to her dad that it had all been worth it. There wasn’t time for that now.
Her dad, as always, kept to the point. “How long?”
“They’ll arrive in our system in two standard days.”
He nodded slowly. She knew that look. He was already making plans.
Adira was alone in her apartment, but she glanced around before she spoke again, and when she did, it was in a whisper. Even so, she knew her precautions were pointless. The Artificers controlled the FTL communications network, so if they decided to spy on a conversation between worlds, there was no way stop them. “The signals our task force received were altered. Either that, or they were doctored later.”
This snapped his attention back from his plans. “How do you know?”
She held up the datacube. “This has everything we worked on. It doesn’t match what’s currently in the classified Stream.”
“You made a copy?” He sounded impressed. “The Adira I knew would never have broken protocol.”
He meant it as a compliment. Or, maybe, he was probing, trying to find out how much she might have changed. “I had permission. The classified Stream is only accessible from certain facilities. This was the only way to work on it at the university’s secure terminals.”
“It sounds like you’ve become as important to the Empire as you always wanted to be.”
That, she knew, would never be a compliment. “None of that matters, if we’re not prepared to defend against the Inventors.”
He stared at the datacube. “Adira, come back. With the information you have, you might be able to help us.”
Her heart lurched in her chest. He wanted her back. He wanted her information, her skills, her experience. He knew she could help.
He trusted her.
“There’s not time.”
“Not on a ship. But you can use the Artificer relocation network.”
“You told me never to trust them.”
“Did that stop you the last time?”
She didn’t answer.
“There’s no other way to get here before the Inventors do.”
“And, Adira? Make you sure you bring the cube.”
So, she went to Sarai.
Sarai never looked at Adira directly. She was always solicitous to the point of being deferential, as she watched Adira out of the corner of her eye. It was the opposite of how she’d been as a kid on Neptune. As if she and Adira shared a secret, a knowledge of guilt that Adira was supposed to remember but didn’t.
Being alone with her made Adira’s skin crawl. This time, however, Sarai’s eagerness to please could be put to good use. “I need to get to Neptune.”
“You’re not authorized.”
Adira paused. Yesterday, that would have been enough to stop her. But the Inventors were about to attack her homeworld. “I need to go.”
For the first time since they’d run into each other on Earth, Sarai lifted her eyes to meet hers. Adira squeezed the cube and tried not to look away. Then Sarai nodded, as Adira had known she would. “Follow me.”
When they arrived at the relocator doorway, Sarai’s finger hovered over the entry pad. “This is an Artificer relocator. I need to hear your acceptance of the Authentic History.”
Adira almost laughed. Sarai was sneaking her through, but she was still going to make her formulaically praise her employers?
But Sarai had to cover her tracks, didn’t she? In case her unauthorized use was discovered. Adira shrugged and humored her. “The Artificers saved the human race in the battle with the Inventors, and to them we owe the Empire.” Then she entered the closet-sized room.
The door closed behind her with a click. The room went black. She felt tingling like static electricity on her scalp. A green light went on above her. There was another click as the door reopened. She was on Neptune.
She was naked. She opened her hand. The datacube was gone.
The air had a stale taste she’d never noticed when she’d lived here. Outside the doorway, she found folded clothes on a table and put them on. An Artificer technician appeared.
“I had something with me when I stepped in,” Adira said.
“Then it’s still on Earth.”
“I need it.”
“I’m sorry. Maybe the techs on Earth will save it for you.”
“I was told I could bring it with me.”
“I’m sorry, you were misinformed.” The technician was polite and brisk. She was not, according to any instinct Adira possessed, sorry. “That’s not how the relocators work.”
A few minutes later, as she searched for the exit from the Artificer module, Adira saw Sarai.
It was impossible. She had just left Sarai on Earth. But it was undeniably her, albeit wearing a sleek Neptune flexsuit and with her hair cropped short rather than worn long. Sarai froze when she saw her. Adira walked toward her, but Sarai spun and walked through another doorway. When Adira reached it, she found an empty corridor. Sarai was gone.
Adira was about to press the buzzer a second time when the door opened and her dad stood before her, unshaven and dressed in lounge clothes. He ignored her hopeful smile.
“Adira. What are you doing here?”
“Are you going to let me in?”
He appeared to mentally debate the question. Finally, he pushed the door open wider and stood aside. When she entered, he closed the door after her, but other than that he didn’t move.
“It’s good to see you,” she told him.
“Why are you here?”
“Can we go sit down?”
“How long have you been on Neptune Station?”
“Dad, you told me to come.”
“Why would I do that?”
“You’re not going to invite me sit down?”
“We haven’t spoken in three standard years. How could I have told you anything?”
A cold feeling rose within her, but it was overwhelmed by irritation. “Dad, I know you have chairs. I’ve sat on them.”
He worked his jaw, then walked past her. She followed. When they reached the living room, she put her arms around him. He stiffened, but returned the embrace. She sat on the couch. He took the armchair. “How did you get here?”
“I took the Artificers’ relocator network, like you said.”
“I never would have told you to do that. When did I do that?”
“Just a couple of hours ago. On the Artificers’ FTL communicators.”
He stared at her. “What FTL communicators?” Before she could respond, he answered himself. “The Artificers don’t have FTL communicators.”
“Then, how did we just stream?”
“Why would you think something that couldn’t have happened just happened?”
“We didn’t. We couldn’t. It takes at least four hours to send a message one way. Usually longer. You know that.”
“The Artificers use the Inventors’ quantum entanglement technology to—”
“The Artificers have reverse-engineered a lot of the Inventors’ tech, but the Inventors’ quantum-entanglement network is one they never mastered. At least, not with a functional node here on Neptune; who knows what they’re doing back on Earth.”
“Dad, we just—”
“Well, except you would know, wouldn’t you? Because you’re an imperial analyst. So, I guess that means you work with the Artificers.”
“I don’t work with the Artificers. They’re not the Empire. The Empire humors them because they’re useful, and when they stop being useful, they’ll be replaced, sooner probably rather than later. The Artificers are a cult with tech skills.”
“Are you here on behalf of the Empire, then, Adira? Because if you are, it was worth it to have you cross the solar system just so that I can tell you to get the hell out.”
She sighed. “Dad, I’m sorry.”
He didn’t acknowledge the statement, or the opening it provided. “Are you here for the Empire?”
“I’m here for the human race. The Inventors are coming. They almost wiped us out the first time, and it’s a miracle the Artificers were able to use their own tools against them. This time, Earth’s ships aren’t going to make it in time. We have to figure out what we’re going to—”
“Earth’s ships are already here.”
Her eyes widened. “Here? How? They were just departing when I relocated here.”
“I saw them.”
“With your own eyes?”
“Did your own eyes see them fight the ‘first time’? This is the first time. What other time are you talking about?”
“When our ships fought, when our fleet was almost wiped out—”
“If the Inventors haven’t arrived yet, how could our ships have fought? How would our fleet have been almost been wiped out?”
“But everyone knows—”
“On Earth? Is that what they know? Did anyone see that? You didn’t see it.”
“All the streams and articles—”
“They lied to you.”
“Stop interrupting me! I’m not a kid anymore!”
“Maybe I’ll interrupt you, dad. How does it feel? I didn’t come for your lectures.”
“Then why did you come?”
“Right. Because the Inventors are coming. They are coming. For the first time. You betrayed your mother for nothing. Do you understand that?”
“Then how did the Artificers get their tech?”
He flexed his jaw muscles again. Then he rose forcefully to his feet. “Come with me.”
She followed him. In the back of his office suite was a concealed door, which led to a narrow tunnel. After a few hundred meters, they stepped over a welded-over joint, and the walls, floor, and ceilings changed. It took a moment for Adira to realize where they were. A passageway of the original colony ship around which Neptune Station had been built. Soon they came to a hatch, which Adira’s dad opened. Beyond the hatch was a large, circular room.
“This is the Artifact which told us everything we know about the Inventors,” her dad said.
The floor was convex and gray, and covered with tiny pits and scratches. After Adira climbed through the hatchway she knelt and touched it. It didn’t feel like steel, or stone, or plastic, or any other familiar material. The floor was divided by two grooves, as if it had been formed out of three huge, stacked cylinders. Near the middle of the chamber stood a mirror-like black slab, about fifty percent taller than she was, that appeared to have been raised from within the central cylinder. Its surface was so smooth that it looked like liquid.
Her dad watched her take in their surroundings. “There never was a battle. We never encountered the Inventors. We found this probe, one they had sent out across the universe, and from it we learned that they are traveling to each of the places their probes found life. They have been traveling all this time, and they are about to make first contact.”
“Then why…?” She couldn’t form the words.
“Why would the Artificers lie about what happened? When it’s bought them influence across the solar system? That’s really your question?”
“No!” She spun to him. “Why would you lie, dad?”
“I never lied to you.”
“You never told me this was here.”
“We couldn’t. Other people would have stolen the technology or abused it, just like the Artificers did.”
“If that’s what the Artificers did, it’s because nobody stopped them.”
“We tried to stop them. Your mom and I. And we could have, but…” He shook his head. “What’s done is done.”
Adira slid down to the floor. He heart pounded. It was a long time before she could speak. “Dad, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. When I informed on mom…. I thought she had forbidden tech from the war. I didn’t know this was the secret you were keeping. I didn’t know.”
“She was your mom.”
“I know that! I didn’t think anything would happen to her. I was just trying to follow the rules.” She closed her eyes and leaned her head back. After a while, her dad sank beside her. His arms encircled her and pulled her against his chest. She inhaled the familiar but forgotten scent of his aftershave. She kept hoping he’d say it was okay. He didn’t. But he held her.
Adira opened her eyes and stared at the Artifact beneath them. “The Inventors never attacked us.”
“But the Artificers want us to think they did.”
Her father didn’t respond.
She had to understand. “When the Inventors come, the Artificers are going to attack. If there wasn’t really a war, they’re going to create one.” She pulled out of her dad’s embrace and stood up. “Artificers always try to get guard and transportation posts. The Earth ships probably have Artificer pilots.”
“That’s likely, yes.”
“Dad, we need to find a way to stop them. How is Mordan?”
“Out of jitter and money, so probably lucid for the next couple of months.”
“Can you help me get in touch with him?”
He rose. “I’m already working with Mordan, Adira. We’ve been preparing for this day for a long time.”
“You have a plan?”
He didn’t answer that directly. Of course, he had a plan. “We have permission from Governor Wyne to establish a back channel for peaceful negotiations in case official diplomacy is sabotaged. There’s an Artificer who’s had a change of heart. Mordan is working with him to make contact with an Inventor diplomat and relocate it from the alien ships to Neptune Station. I’ve put our security assets at their disposal.”
“Let me talk to Mordan. Maybe they’ll let me join them.”
Her dad didn’t answer.
“Dad, I’ve studied the Inventors, and I refined the translation software Mordan is likely to use. I’m also an expert on the Empire’s security policy. I came here to help. Please, let me.”
“Adira, they’ve been preparing for this. They don’t need the help. Or the distraction.”
Adira had to get control of her breathing before she could respond, and when she did, the words she wanted to sound firm and sincere came out thin and quavering. “Dad, I know I betrayed mom. I betrayed both of you. I thought there was a war.”
“There was a war. But it was on Earth, not out here. The Empire destroyed half of Earth to win it, and the Artificers conveniently gave them another explanation for what had happened. They had defended humans from species traitors who worked for the Inventors.”
“I thought mom was keeping sensitive information that could protect everyone when the Inventors returned. I thought I was helping you.” I didn’t think they’d take her away.
“You trusted the Artificers and their political supporters more than you trusted us.”
“I was…I thought I was doing the right thing.”
“You always wanted to follow the rules. You thought that was the same.”
She brushed her hand over her eyes. “I tried to follow your rules. It’s how I showed you I loved you.”
“And then you followed the Empire’s.”
She looked down. She wanted to say, Because if I didn’t, if I ever stopped, if I ever didn’t believe, it would mean I was wrong to report mom. Instead, she asked, “Will you connect me to Mordan?”
He sighed. “I’m sorry, Adira.”
“If you don’t trust me, why did you tell me about his plan? Why did you even bring me here?”
“You need to the know truth.” He stroked her hair, the way he had when she was a kid. “And I do want to trust you, Adira. Really, I do.”
She pushed his hand away.
Ten minutes later, she walked alone through the Blue Concourse, oblivious to the crowds of pedestrian commuters and shoppers around her. The relationship between humans and the Inventors was about to be decided, and there was nothing she could do. Nothing to do, and nowhere left for her to go.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. There was still one other place on Neptune Station she still had a connection to. When she arrived at the storefront, she realized that’s where she had been heading since she’d left her dad at the Artifact.
When she had departed for grad school on Earth, she had known that her dad took it as one more betrayal in her series of betrayals, and she wasn’t sure when or if she would see him again. She hadn’t been able to afford cargo space on a ship to follow her, so she’d paid a service to store some of her mementos. Zara the Zebra, and a holo of her mom, and a few other personal things. She hadn’t thought she was ready to see them again. But that didn’t matter anymore, did it? This might be her last chance. She entered the shop.
Then she remembered that she had only paid for a year in advance. That had been almost four years ago. She turned back toward the door, but just before she walked out, she glanced over her shoulder at where her box had been. There, in black, blocky letters on a silver-colored door, was her name: “ADIRA IVANORE.” She walked over to it and put her hand on the door. The biometric sensor read her print and the door sprang open.
Zara wasn’t inside, nor the holo, nor anything else she recognized. There were only two items, a datacube and an unfamiliar, rolled-up tube of paper. She took out the page and smoothed it out. It was covered with writing.
Adira, will you/I ever read this? I’ve streamed you dozens of messages and you’ve never responded, so I’ve begun to wonder if they’re all being watched and erased by the Artificers. By now I hope you know not to trust them. If you’ve returned and I’m not here to greet you, it’s possible they’ve probably killed me.
Adira’s hand shook. She looked up, afraid that someone might be watching her. She was alone in the lobby.
This is what you need to know:
The Artificers plan to be here to attack the Inventors when they come. The Artificer ships will be equipped with self-destruct mechanisms so they can make it appear they were victims. But I’ve found a backdoor to their onboard system, and the key is on the datacube I’ve deposited in this box. If you can link in and find a way to stop the ships from self-destructing, maybe you can prevent war, and our first real encounter with the Inventors will be a peaceful one. The Empire will no longer be able to use fear of invasion as justification for ruling Earth, and everyone will have access to the technologies the Artificers hoard now.
I’m sorry. Mom and dad were right.
Adira took the cube and shut the storage box door. Even though it was addressed to her, the note was in her own handwriting. But she had no recollection of having written it.
She paused when she passed one of the concourse’s observation windows. Half a dozen Earth warships hovered above Neptune’s cerulean arc.
There was no way they could have arrived in time. The news stream of their launch on Earth must have been falsified to make it appear live. They would have had to have left at least six standard months ago to be here now.
There was nothing in the universe she could trust.
She had made a mistake coming here.
She pressed her forehead against the viewing pane. “Dad, did you really never understand why I had to follow the Empire’s rules?” she whispered. He couldn’t hear her, of course, and the person to whom she really, finally wanted to admit her motives was herself.
Neptune Republic might be nominally independent, but the Artificers dominated its access to Earth, and the Empire controlled Earth. The Empire controlled information. It controlled reality. It had built a maze of illusions it could change at will, and so its rules provided the only safe path.
Her parents had never admitted that. They thought their knowledge protected them, just like the Artificers thought theirs did. But that knowledge actually made them threats and targets. Her parents, and Neptune, and the Artificers, they all existed because the Empire let them. If Adira hadn’t intervened, if her mother hadn’t spent two years in jail—this was a harsh truth, harsher even than the guilt she’d shouldered by refusing to articulate it to herself—if that had never happened, both of her parents, as prominent Neptune citizens, would have been turned into examples eventually. Adira’s fealty to the Empire had kept them, relatively, safe. Adira had protected her family because they had been unwilling to protect themselves.
And now, she didn’t even know how to do that anymore.
She returned the note and datacube to the safety deposit box. She doubted she would ever see them again. She left the concourse and its windows. Ten minutes later, she was back at the Artificers’ module.
Sarai was in the relocation room. When Adira entered, she looked at her with such pure panic that Adira was afraid the engineer would bolt through the door. “You’re heading back to Earth?”
Five minutes later, Adira stepped into the relocation chamber. The door closed and locked behind her. She held herself still and waited. She watched the orange light above her to see it go out and then come back on green. Nothing happened. There was a click as the door reopened. Adira stepped back out into the room she had just left. Sarai stood in front of her, looking defeated.
“What happened? Why am I still here?”
Sarai stared at the floor. “You were never going to Earth, Adira. I just couldn’t kill you again.”
Adria clenched her fists. “Kill me? You were going to kill me?”
Sarai shook her head. She still wouldn’t raise her eyes.
“Why aren’t I on Earth?”
Finally, Sarai looked up at her. “I didn’t kill you before, Adira. I just…I let…I didn’t warn you.” Her face was pleading. She wanted some glimmer of sympathy or understanding to help her through whatever else she was about to say.
Adira didn’t provide it.
Sarai exhaled a long sigh, looked back down, and spoke anyway. “There’s probably a way to send people across space, actually send them, but we don’t know it. We’ve reverse-engineered the Inventors’ tech to the point where we can map a mind and transfer that information to a clone body, and we’ve gotten good at rapidly generating age-appropriate clones with tolerable life expectancies, but we still can’t teleport a person directly.”
A pit opened up in front of Adira where her understanding of the world had been. “What happens to the person who’s relocated? What happened to me a few hours ago when I left Earth?”
“You’re a clone of her, Adira. Your body, you—you’re only a few hours old.”
“What happened to me?”
“Not you. Her. She was term—she was killed as soon as her data was sent here, and you were created.”
Adira felt herself swaying. She leaned against the wall for support. “You kill people every time you relocate them? That’s what you do?”
“No. No. Not always. Artificers, like me, we can keep our originals on the planet of origin as long as we agree not to go back. I’m an original. I have clones on Earth and Io. For high-ranking officers of the Empire, or anyone else important, we sometime keep their originals alive for weeks or months. Sometimes even years, as long as they can be useful to us. They give us information, and their clones don’t know they’ve been compromised.”
Adira closed her eyes. “I’m not the first Adira clone, am I? I went from Neptune to Earth and back. I’m a clone of a clone.” She opened her eyes. Now, she understood. There were no rules. Rules themselves were an illusion. They were how the illusion was maintained.
“No! When you relocated to Earth, I didn’t kill you. I kept you alive, just like I did this time. I told you everything, just like I’m doing now.”
“You didn’t kill me.”
“But other Artificers did.”
Sarai didn’t answer.
“You knew. You didn’t stop them.”
“I didn’t want you to die,” she said softly.
“And your clone on Earth, she arrived after me, so she knew what had happened to me, didn’t she?”
“Adira, I didn’t send you to Earth this time. There’s no reason for the Artificers to come after you. When you do leave, if you leave, take a ship. No one needs to know you know any of this.”
There were no rules.
It wasn’t just the Empire that was lying, or the Artificers. Her life was a lie. She was a lie.
“You can’t ever make this up to me, Sarai. But you’re going to help me now. Mordan Hele is meeting with an Artificer and an Inventor they’ve secretly relocated to the station. You’re going to tell that Artificer I’m an Artificer too, on his side, and get me into that meeting. You’re going to help me stop a war.”
Kahane Luke, Artificer Imperator, dressed in a crimson breastplate and black vestment, sealed and locked the outer and inner doors. At his direction, the four of them had already deposited all of their weapons in the vestibule, with the exception of the Inventor’s ceremonial blade. Outside of the vestibule, Luke had posted robot guards.
He turned to Adira. “Are we secure?”
She checked her streams. “Surveillance defenses are up, and remote monitoring is deactivated. Life support and pressurization systems normal. No suspicious Stream activity.”
Her voice echoed in the empty hall. Above them, in holographic verisimilitude, the Inventors’ great galaxyship hung in the black well of the sky, Neptune’s curve a glowing arc far beneath it. The galaxyship was confronted by a hemisphere of Earth dreadnaughts and attack cruisers. Two Inventor vectorships hung just behind it, a curtain of spacetime stretched open between them, and through that gap shone the stars of the Inventors’ home system, a billion light years away.
Adira felt the pulse pounding in her temples. Here in the guarded hall, all was silent. Silent enough that Adira could hear her booted feet shift on the polished tiles. Silent enough that she could hear Mordan’s nervous cough. Silent enough that she could hear the soft, rhythmic hiss of the respirator worn by the Inventor beside her.
Luke nodded and turned to the Inventor. The creature had a diamond-shaped head on a bulbous, fleshy body that was supported by a pentad of tentacles. A mechanical apparatus was fastened around its snout and connected by hoses to a tank on its back. The hissing grew louder and its front tentacles writhed. At first, Adira thought it was about to attack, but then she realized it was speaking. Its voice gurgled through the machine on its face, an underwater whisper. The machine, designed by Mordan and equipped with Adira’s translation software, broadcast the gurgle and hiss as English words.
“We, between us, through communication, should achieve a covenant, which is necessary,” the Inventor said. “The saboteurs, who are rumored, should not prevail.”
“Yes,” Luke agreed. “There are still those among our people who believe you’ve come to attack our planets. But we know better. We yearn to be welcomed by you into the Communion of Stars.”
“We, to you, are grateful. I, to you, am interlocutor, who has been appointed.” It tapped a metallic cylinder on its clothing. A comms link, Mordan had explained, to alert its ship when an agreement was reached.
“We have given up our weapons to show our good intentions. But there is yet one weapon here. Your ceremonial blade.”
“Yes. It is here.” The Inventor unsheathed it. “You, to the pommel, should touch your appendage, so we, between us, will recognize each other as friends.”
“Very well,” Luke said, reached out, touched the pommel, grasped the hilt, and thrust the blade into the Inventor’s face.
The creature roared through its mask and lashed out with its tentacles. Luke was thrown onto his back. The blade clattered on the floor. Luke twisted onto his stomach and climbed up onto his hands and knees.
“You, to your actions, will be regretful,” the Inventor hissed.
Adira and Mordan both rushed forward to restrain Luke. Luke surged to his feet. The tentacles lashed again, slapping Luke’s breastplate and slicing gashes into his clothing and skin and flinging him back to the floor. Adira and Mordan both stopped. Luke groaned.
The tentacles whipped out a third time.
Luke rolled beneath them and launched himself again. Adira glanced at him as she ran to grab the Inventor’s blade. The stinging tentacles encircled Luke. He reached forward and grabbed the Inventor’s breathing mask. The tentacles twisted around him, squeezing, but Luke was familiar with pain by now and didn’t pause. He wrenched his arms to the side and pulled off the mask.
Beneath the mask was a rubbery beak, and it opened wide to scream, revealing a maw with rows of shark-like teeth. Luke stared down the Inventor’s black throat as the tentacles thrashed around him. He dropped and slid to escape them, but by the time he twisted away the tentacles were already stiffening as the Inventor shuddered and then grew still. It was dead.
Adira stared at Luke. His skin had blistered where the Inventor had cut through his clothes.
“You will pay for this,” Mordan told Luke.
Luke clambered back to his feet, using the wall for support. Adira glanced at him and saw that his gaze was pointed upward, at the holo-stream. Instinctively, her eyes followed. She saw the Earth ships advance toward the galaxyship. Then two Earth ships, at the outer edges of the military task force, turned as their thrusters fired, positioning themselves as if to speed past the vectorships into the void at the center of the wormhole stretched open between them.
Luke convulsed and collapsed back to the floor. Adira barely noticed; above her, the three Earth ships closest to the galaxyship accelerated. The galaxyship tried to retreat. Just before they reached the galaxyship, all three converging ships exploded. There were three flashes of light, which vanished behind three starbursts of debris. To an unknowing observer, it probably looked as though they had been hit by torpedoes. Adira knew they had triggered their own self-destruct devices. The galaxyship spun and split as its hull was punctured from three directions.
The remaining pair of Earth ships were almost to the wormhole. Adira only hesitated for a moment. She streamed self-destruct orders to both vessels.
She remembered the words she herself, and countless others, had been recorded saying: “The Artificers saved the human race in the battle with the Inventors, and to them we owe the Empire.” Now that false history had this real incident to back it up. The original chronology, which put the battle a decade in the past, would be ignored or forgotten. The Artificers would say the Empire was attacked and they defended human space; they would use this as justification to assume the mantle of rule. And how could Adira argue, when her own words proclaimed it?
The Earth ships were torn apart by internal blasts, taking the vectorships with them. The wormhole vanished, and behind the detritus of eight splintered ships, the Milky Way sprang back into view.
Six months later, Artificer guards pulled open the doors to the Executive Council Chamber and Artificer guards led Adira into the room in chains.
Adira looked around. Holoscreens formed the floor and walls, and the room was dominated by a large octagonal table. The room was empty otherwise except for a wet bar and a secure computer terminal. “This is the Conclave’s Council Chamber. Where is the Council?”
Kalen laughed. “There’s no Council. There is no more Conclave.”
Adira glanced at Sarai, who had led the pair of guards on either side of her and now stood apart, at the side of the room. There was no surprise on Sarai’s face.
“In the sixth months you’ve been a prisoner, we have taken over the empire.” Kalen stared at her from across the vast, glossy table, deep as the depths of space. He hadn’t bothered to rise; she wasn’t important enough. “This is our command center now, the central power station and launching pad from which the Artificers will take over the whole system. Our fleet is massed above us, and they will carry our force to all the inhabited planets. Neptune’s independence is over. It is now a subjugate.”
“Neptune will always fight, and within our lifetimes, even Earth will be free,” Adira said.
Kalen laughed again. “You’re a prisoner. You will never be free again, nor will anyone else you know.”
Adira had thought about Kalen in the Artificer ship that had brought her here, in the long months in the cold dark between the planets. But mostly she’d thought about her father, and the last conversation she’d had with him before she’d left Neptune for the last time.
“It’s a new era, under new rulers,” she’d said, “but most people won’t know it.”
“We will,” her dad said. “We’ll remember, whatever the history streams say.”
“That’s a lonely thing, remembering things differently.”
“Yes. It is.”
There was something in his voice she hadn’t heard in a long time. Adira turned to look at him. “When mom got out of prison, did she ever mention me?”
“She always talked about you, Adira. She loved you.”
Adira bit her lip. Then she looked down as her father placed a metal cylinder into her hand.
“The Inventor’s comm link,” her dad said. “Mordan asked me to give it to you.”
“I chose to be a prisoner,” she told Kalen.
“I doubt that.” But he couldn’t resist asking. “Why?”
Sarai plugged Adira’s datacube into a command terminal.
“You think you know what’s happening because of the rules you’ve written, because of the titles you’ve given us.” Adira held up her hands, and one of the guards next to her touched a key to the cuffs. They snapped open and fell to the floor. “But our titles mean nothing, and the rules mean nothing—it’s a maze, and now I understand how to move the walls.”
The room lurched. A boom came from somewhere above them, but it was carried through the walls, the ceiling, the floor, reverberating on every side. Kalen grabbed the table.
“That was your fleet dive-bombing this building,” Adira said.
“The command center has been destroyed and you control the fleet now, Adira,” Sarai announced, staring at a monitor on the terminal. “What few ships are left.”
Kalen roared and jumped to his feet. The two guards drew their guns and pointed them at his chest.
Kalen froze, his eyes on Adira. “There’s a war coming. The Inventors will want revenge. How do you think you’re going to defend the solar system now?”
“There’s not going to be a war.” Adira rested her hand on the metal cylinder tucked into her belt. “I contacted the Inventors before I left Neptune. They understand we were both betrayed. I’ve been transmitting all of this to them, and now they have proof.”
Kalen’s face twisted and he breathed more heavily. He rubbed the Artificers’ mark on his wrist, as if trying to wipe it off.
“Welcome to the revolution,” Adira said.
Aaron Emmel’s stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, sub-Q magazine, Starship Sofa and other publications. He is also the author of a graphic novel, science fiction game books and numerous articles. Find him online at www.aaronemmel.com.