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This is the way the world ends.

Posted on July 7, 2013 by in Iron Empires | Comments Off on This is the way the world ends.


We are the lesser sons of greater fathers.

There was a time, ten thousand years ago, when explorers leapt from world to world like wildfire. There was a great age of discovery, when our scientists wrested secret after secret from the cosmos. There were telepaths to look inside the mind and heal it, cyborg wombs to spare women the pains of childbirth, robots to free workers from drudgery, brave peacekeepers to free the weak from fear. A single Federation of humankind united a million thriving worlds.

Now our boldest explorers merely comb the ruins of abandoned colonies, and our greatest scientists sift through faded archives for secrets we have lost. The psychologists that our ancestors revered as healer-telepaths, we fear as sorcerers — with some cause — and brand with the Bright Mark. The peacekeepers’ great-great-grandsons have made warlords of themselves. We have death in childbirth. We have slaves. We have holy warriors and inquisitors again, with heretics to burn. We have rulers by right of birth and change of rulers by assassination. The Federation ossified into an Empire, the Empire splintered into feudalism, and a century ago the last acknowledged Emperor of human space was murdered. Now what was once a single prefecture of the Federation has splintered into eight squabbling successor states, each barely able to control its own contentious worlds.

Like an old man babbling and soiling himself in his senility, civilization has relapsed into the ugliest habits of its childhood. It is a new Dark Age, an Age of Iron. The faithful of the Church offer the comfort that we will rise again, that history’s wheel will turn eternally, and that the fire of our great ancestors will burn bright again, if not in us, then in our children’s children’s children. The cynics say our endless wars and wrangles are no different than what humanity has always been and will always be.

But the faithful and the cynics are both wrong. This time, the universe has found an alternative to the human race.


Perhaps you saw it in the star maps, in planet after planet lost to all trade, all communication, all human contact, as if swallowed whole. Perhaps you heard it in the voices of refugees, homeless and betrayed, as they told you how their own trusted leaders, with smiles and open hands, urged them into gleaming new “medical facilities” for the last surgery they would ever need. (Just a nip at the base of the skull, a little slithering sensation, and pop! All done.) Perhaps you felt it in the arms of your own father, suddenly cold and alien in their embrace; or in the caress of your lover’s hand just before it drove in the knife; or in the cuts your daughter slashed in her own face, just to find out how it would feel.

Perhaps you killed them yourself, then, to save them from the parasite inside their minds. Perhaps you couldn’t do it. Perhaps they still live, trapped, paralyzed inside themselves, while aquatic flatworms that are not even sentient without a borrowed brain now play puppeteer inside their bodies.

The Vaylen are coming. They have been coming for a thousand years. One by one by one, until the ones added to the billions, they have made our worlds, our families, our very bodies theirs, from the inside out. Now they are coming here, to this world. Like a hundred thousand worlds before us, we are not ready.

Our house is divided, and it cannot stand. Nor are the lines dividing us mere petty things. Would-be emperors fight each other over how best to restore humanity to its lost glory. The emperors fight their own outworld nobles over how to balance the unity of the realm against each planet’s right to rule itself. The nobles fight the commons over whether to hold tight the ancient glories of ten thousand years or to embrace savage and frightening new freedoms. The heretics fight the orthodox over the church’s responsibility to be a voice of conscience or a bulwark of what stability we have left. The psychologists fight the mundanes over how to harness, or hobble, the dangerous power to read and reshape the human mind.

These battles matter, to people who matter to us: our families, our comrades, our liege lords, the innocents entrusted to our protection. Except that none of it matters if all our skulls are hulled. Which human viewpoint wins is meaningless when every human being is host to a parasitic worm that wears our flesh as a child wears fancy dress to a festival (a gaudy delight to be worn, and then worn out). And the bitterest irony is that our destroyers are those who love us best. The Vaylen long for every aspect of our humanity — pleasure and pain, greatness and pettiness, sainthood and sin — with such an undiscriminating appetite that they will devour and destroy what they desire. Then the worms will weep amidst the ruins they have made and wonder where they can ever find such extraordinary souls as ours again.

Or maybe, just maybe, we can stop them. If we are willing to pay the price.


So, you think you cannot live with humanity’s defeat. But have you asked yourself if you can live with the price of victory? You say you are ready to give up your life for humankind? That’s admirable. But that’s not enough. Are you ready to give up your best friend’s life? Your principles? Your dignity? The love of everyone you care about? Are you ready to turn coldly from your own father’s embrace, to caress your lover as you plunge in the knife, to slash your child in the face, if that is what it takes to shake your world into finally waking to the threat? Are you willing to sacrifice everything that makes you human in order to save the human race?

You don’t have to answer that. Not yet. Maybe never, in your lifetime. There are worlds beyond the worm’s reach, after all. There could be years to come when you might live unmolested, with family and friends around you, and no one asking you to make such terrible choices. You could always run. You would hardly be the first.

I’ll wait.

You haven’t gone, I see.

I’m glad.

There really is a chance that humankind may pass through these flames and live. Just don’t presume you personally or anything you love will make it.


Let’s burn.

– by Sydney Freedberg

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