Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Memory Plague

In the beginning, we are one, and we are ignorance.

Our skin is chaffed tender from the womb-sac and the exit ring. Out, we writhe blindly in the grit that cuts our softness until the dryness of the air hardens us.

Slowly, receptors awaken.

Muted colors curve across the night, outlining the glistening ribs of the drop chamber arcing over us like planetary rings.

Instinctually, we grope through the hard stillness. Our tac-pads draw against lines of unmoving flesh, cold like a memory of interstellar vacuum. A dome of skin radiates faint warmth. Flesh peels away like the rind of a fruit, and a stone pops forth, slick with life fluid gone cold.

Comfort bleeds from it, easing our fear, but insufficiently to fill the void. We curl away from the shadows, afraid, sheltering the stone in our knobby appendages. There must be more, but in this darkness, alone, our primal yearning to feed is overwhelming, and the stone, smooth as starlight, slides effortlessly into us.

Its first sliver dissolves. From it, a memory seeps into our consciousness.

We are Audu.

We are the first.

• • • •

Air moves through the breach in the side of the drop chamber. Our simple receptors detect shadows of movement, but we taste only bitter bio-lubricants and inorganic metal oxides. The shadows sway too regularly to be living, to be feed, but we shield our vitals with our hardened back skin and withdraw our tac-pads. As the first of our vorta, we hold the ancestral fears rooted deeply to when the Vortive were primeval and planet-bound.

Another sliver of memory dissolves into our being.

We are the hundred and sixth vorta in our lineage, and the stone contains our collective memories. We do not remember the homeworld—out of necessity, the Vortive went to the stars before we were birthed from the collective consciousness—but we remember traversing the void with our brethren in a living matrix of organo-crystalline structure, vagrants of the stellar winds.

We are on a feeding ground, but we sense no other vorta, and the comforting hum of the collective consciousness is absent. Perhaps, in those confusing, initial moments of the culling, our drop chamber was launched into the wrong sector, as once happened to the eighth vorta in our lineage. But even then, the thought-sphere buzzed with excitement, with hunger destined to be sated.

But here, now, silence.

Yet, they must be out there. They would not leave us because we are of the one and the many.

• • • •

Omi is birthed from pain so intense it is a flash of white-hot light. Then, through the shadows and the muted shapes cut the hard-edged geometry of metal and glass, scattered across the floor like grains of stellar dust—alien debris come in through the jagged hole breached in the side of the drop chamber.

Coated in birthing fluid, Omi sits up on our segmented tarsi, thrusting eyestalks high. What is this place? Omi asks, always curious, as is Omi’s purpose.

The feeding ground, we say.

Omi accepts our answer, as Omi is meant to, but it draws attention to the hollowness eating within us. For a vorta, harvesting feed is our contribution to the Vortive. Without us, the collective consciousness will cease to exist.

On the wall opposite the breach in the drop chamber, the plates have separated, exposing a crevice filled with a tangle of fluid vessels and fleshy organs that feed the drop chamber’s womb-sac and connect Omi to us through the thought-sphere. The organs glow warmly under Omi’s long-wave scrutiny, but otherwise reveal nothing.

Bored, Omi click-clicks across the floor, our eyestalks sweeping and spinning, taking in the carbon scoring that blackens the plating along the jagged edge of the breach. Omi thrusts our body out into the yellow light. From the ground far below, alien pillars of stone and metal thrust upward, twisted and broken, their outer walls torn away, their tops sheared off, their insides gutted black from fire and rot.

Omi scuttles out the hole, the nano-bristles on our tarsi holding us fast to the vertical surface. Far beneath us, visible only due to Omi’s advanced photoreceptors, green stalks sway in the moving air. They sprout from deep cracks in the ground, between crushed metal and glass containers and blocks of fallen stone riddled with twisted metal bars, like bristles.

Omi, come back.

But Omi scuttles down the wall, intent on the movement below. We reach the ground, and Omi sniffs the fleshy green blades with our nasal-bulb.

Instinctively, we know they are not feed. In the universe, energy comes in many forms. These green blades lack the complexity of sentience. They offer nothing to sustain the collective consciousness.

Omi moves on, scuttling and stopping, our tarsi click-clicking on the hardened ground. Each time we stop, Omi thrusts our array of receptors upward to gather inputs. The ground reeks of long-chain hydrocarbons and oxidized metal. Small things scurry before us, twisting down into the cracks as we approach.

Without Omi, the drop chamber is muted again. We curl away, afraid, as shadows brush by us. They feel substantial in the solitude as if something tangible lurks within.

Come back, we say, our fear palpable.

Omi trains our eyestalks upward. Our drop chamber is embedded near the top of one of the alien towers. We detect nothing perched outside poised to attack, but that does not comfort us. We are not complete, so we are not yet equipped to hunt. Instead, we are vulnerable, and Omi should return.

Yet Omi’s curiosity drives us across the rubble field, our bulb scenting the ground, while our eyestalks search for heat signals. We slither through dark holes and twisted spaces under metal beams and around decaying debris. Each turn carries Omi farther from us and increases our discomfort.

Through the thought-sphere, Omi senses our rising fear and reluctantly breaks off our search.

Only when Omi draws close does our fear retreat.

Soon, we will be three, we say, as Omi scuttles back into drop chamber, and huddled together, we find comfort knowing that soon we will fulfill our purpose. Soon we will hunt.

• • • •

Another sliver dissolves, and we remember the taste of our first feeding ground like it is today and not generations past. The sentients, our feed, had yet to achieve interplanetary travel and offered futile resistance. Our drop chambers rained down on their crude settlements like embers from a fire, and the vorta burned across their world, consuming everything. No refuge spared them from their purpose, and when the grounds were filled with their empty husks, the Vortive departed, following our advanced scouts across the void to the next culling. We have fed on countless grounds, scattered across the glitter of the dark. These worlds, holding sentient life fresh and ripe for our arrival, are our birthright.

• • • •

Snarling, Rhu’s lithe form shakes off the birthing fluid and undulates across the grit, circling the chamber like angry smoke. Rhu snuffles the air currents.

Where are they? Rhu growls.

Omi scuttles to the jagged hole, Rhu in our wake, and together we lean out. Even with night nearing, the urge to feed is strong.

Rhu growls again, deep and raspy with menace. The scent of feed should be heavy on the air, but even Rhu’s sensitive tri-lobed bulb detects only decay, sweet and sharp.

Already Omi is out the hole and down the face of the tower, eyestalks sweeping for signs of movement. Rhu follows, the sticky pads of our feeding strings giving purchase on the pockmarked wall.

We alight on the ground, spreading out. Rhu slips through webs of metal netting, squirts between chunks of concrete. Our nasal bulb close to the ground now, we catch scent, familiar but faint, that sends shivers through us. Excited, Omi scuttles over the top of the debris, seeking a better vantage from which to triangulate.

Rhu delves down through the rubble, slithering through the tight spaces to the bottom, where we clatter into a pile of bleached sticks. Rhu holds one close, its scent stirring memories. Our feeding strings encase the bone, but these husks are now devoid of sustenance.

We howl with rage, and the bone splinters in Rhu’s grasp.

Omi’s eyestalks droop.

Our hunger and disappointment threaten to consume us. Yet, before that can happen, a new memory dissolves from the stone.

We came from the dark side of their moon, from an angle undetectable by their primitive sensors. By the time the Vortive dropped into orbit and disgorged the drop chambers, it was too late. We covered their planet, their cities, their forests, their oceans, like cinders from a pyre.

They were creatures of carbon and oxygen and hydrogen—the stuff of stars. We recall then the taste of their energy, each rich and complex, each different, each shaped not by a collective consciousness, but by individual ripening, individual experiences, creating memories unique and sweet as our memories of the fruits of our homeworld.

Rhu purrs.

Omi shudders with pleasure, our tarsi click-clicking on the rusted metal in the planet’s dying light.

This memory, while pleasurable, fails to comfort.

We shuffle around the small drop chamber. Pushed up against the wall is the lump of tissue that was our progenitor, now partially recycled by the chamber’s regenerators. The body is cold and lifeless, the flesh peeled open where our stone once burned. We have no memories of this vorta, but as the holder of our lineage’s collective memories, they were a first, like us.

They, too, were Audu.

Our tac-pads slide across the dome of skin on our torso. The stone, hard and smooth, pulses warmly beneath the thin tissue.

“You are not the first.”

The simple truth had been within us all along, but we do not possess the deductive abilities to reduce the evidence to such a simple statement of fact. Yet phrased succinctly, it is evident; we are not the first vorta of our lineage to be birthed on this feeding ground.

Then, quickly, we realize that statement arrived not from the collective memories of our lineage, but through our tac-pads.

We lift our attention from the body of our progenitor. Except for the motes spinning in the dying light streaming in through the breach, the drop chamber is still and warm. Again we feel soft vibrations in the air, and we shift our tac-pads to gather the sensations.

“Ring-a-ring o’ roses . . .”

We rotate our tac-pads, trying to triangulate the direction of the sound, but the source eludes us. It moves behind the walls, first next to us, then across from us, then back at our side.

“. . . A pocket full of posies . . .”

How does it move so quickly and effortlessly when the space behind the metal plates, packed tightly with organs, is accessible only to the chamber’s regenerators?

“. . . Hush-hush, hush-hush . . .” The sound continues, growing quieter as if imploring us to silence.

Who are there? we ask.

Omi rises up on our rear tarsi. Where? Our eyestalks scan across the rubble field. Nearby, Rhu slithers from a hole, our sleek body bristled with feeding strings, all waving excitedly.

Where are you? we ask. Our fear rises quick and hard, radiating danger signals into the thought-sphere. Instantly, Omi drops onto all tarsi, and scuttles over the slabs of crumbling stone toward the alien tower in which our drop chamber is embedded. Rhu follows, driven by the urgency of our fear.

“. . . Or we all tumble down.”

We retreat first one way, then the other. Whenever we move away from the sound, the vibrations shift so that we are moving toward them again. We consider fleeing out the breach, but our stocky form is slow and clumsy. We would never make it down the vertical surface of the alien tower. But our skin is thick and tough, and we can curl up so that our vitals and our receptors are safely tucked away. In that way, surely, we would survive long enough for Omi and Rhu to return.

We see something then. In the crevice where the metal wall plates have separated, barely visible among the tangle of vessels and organs, glistening white orbs darken for a half second as membranes slide over them and retract. They are set in indentations on a soft globe of lumpy flesh, which, as it seems to move forward, coalesces into what we instinctively know is a face.

We tremble at the memory of its taste.

Feed.

Omi rushes forward, our tarsi click-clicking as we scale the vertical surface toward the drop chamber. Rhu is ahead, nearing the breach.

Vibrations emanate from the hinged orifice along the bottom of the face and dance across the air to our tac-pads. The sound resonates through our consciousness, forming images that, beyond reason, carry meaning: “Not feed. Human.”

The membranes slide over the white orbs, and the globe of flesh withdraws deeper into the crevice, fading away like dissipating smoke.

Rhu bursts through the opening, feeding strings whipping with enough vigor to emit a low frequency hum. We dart across the room and plunge into the crevice, squeezing in among the tightly packed vessels and soft organs, but our nasal bulb detects only bio-lubricants and us.

Rhu trembles with pent up aggression. Where are they? It is an affront to our superiority that this feed eludes us. Rhu turns to delve deeper inside, but our actions are injuring the delicate bio-machinery of our drop chamber. Gently, we urge Rhu to come out.

We must feed, Rhu says, refusing to listen. Rhu knows only the hunt, cares only to feed, and our primal hunger drives us deeper into the cavity. The microbarbs on the tips of our feeding strings lacerate the chamber’s organs. Fluid oozes out, puddling on the floor. The chamber’s regenerators buzz to life behind the walls and move to stem the damage.

We call to Rhu a second time with no effect.

Omi arrives and searches the chamber for other cracks in the wall plating through which to peer. Finding none, Omi scuttles outside and searches the exterior of the drop chamber for other entries. Omi slips through a space between the external heat skin and the alien tower and drops into a shadowy interior. Wires and cables dangle from the ceiling tiles. Where our chamber has not destroyed the internal structures, the space is sectioned into a grid of cells by mold-covered walls that are only slightly taller than us. Omi click-clicks along an exposed metal beam, our eyestalks sweeping back forth.

Finally, Rhu stops our thrashing and collapses, flaccid, among the oozing organs. The damage is significant, but fortunately, repairable.

Where are they? Rhu asks, despondent.

We saw them? Skepticism colors Omi’s tone.

Certain, we say.

Then where are they? Rhu demands.

We have no answer.

Omi breaks off the search and scuttles into one of the grid cells. On a table-like platform, covered in a skin of dust and residue, is a thin rectangle of metal and electronics and a discolored board with punch-keys. A wooden frame, face up on the platform, encases a two-dimensional image behind a dusty pane of transparent silicate.

Our eyestalks swivel closer.

What are these? Omi asks, in reference to the four fleshy globes that comprise the image.

Human, we say without hesitation.

Hoomon? Omi savors the name like the sweet essence of feed. Omi likes the sound of something different, and it piques our curiosity. We scuttle into the adjacent cell and find another image tacked onto the soft, moldy wall. The paper is curled and blackened, but the image is another pair of faces.

What are these? Omi asks.

Human, we say again.

They are first? Omi asks.

They have no second, we say.

How can they all be hoomon, then? They are all the same but different. Not like the vorta.

They are feed, Rhu says. Nothing more.

All lifeforms are less than the Vortive. We are the pinnacle of sentient design, our superiority ensured by the unified knowledge of our existence shared through the collective consciousness.

Hoomon . . . how do we know this construct? Omi asks.

We are afraid to explain to Omi and Rhu because we do not understand how we could communicate with feed. How did they access our thought-sphere and understand us? These are questions we are not yet capable of addressing.

Fortunately, Omi’s attention shifts, and we scuttle down the aisle between the cells, poking our eyestalks into cubicle after empty cubicle.

Rhu angrily stalks the drop chamber. Not even a scent.

They were there, we assure. As real as Rhu or Omi, the human was there. They had nowhere to flee, yet they are gone like a wisp of ozone. Not ozone, for even that leaves a trace.

Another memory bleeds from the stone. A memory of this feeding ground, rich and sweet under its unremarkable yellow star. Humans everywhere, but after the shock of the initial culling, they realized they could not resist us, and they fled into the tunnels and dark spaces under the rubble of their primitive civilization. Our progenitor hunted those narrow dark spaces, passing through conduits where our feeding strings were compressed by the tightness of the walls. In dark corners, behind barricades of metal, quietly trembling in the sputtering light of flaming sticks, we found them. These humans were crafty, good at hiding, but for all their wile, they could not escape us. We found them in pairs and triplets, small and large, each one different and succulent, each one strong and determined to escape, but failing. Human faces flash by, each in their final moments as our feeding strings pulled their energy from their organic vessels. Their eyes grew wide as they embraced their fate, and the shadow of their fleeing existence descended over those gleaming orbs.

In one of these faces, we recognize the landscape of their features. We must be mistaken, confused by the superficial resemblances among the individuals, but as we study the face, our certainty rises. Rhu had found this human in the tunnels long after we had first landed. Unlike their brethren, this one and their companion had survived for many days. Curiously, they had not tried to escape while Rhu drained their companion, and like all the other feed, ceased to exist, the gleam slowly, inexorably draining from their eyes as they were culled. We know this because it is in the collective memory of our lineage. Yet, with certainty now, we are sure the face in this memory is the same that confronted us today.

• • • •

Night on this feeding ground is darker than the vacuum of space. Its atmosphere dampens our vision in many wavelengths, and the background glow of the universe, beautiful and bright, is muted.

Driven by hunger, Rhu slithers through dark spaces, nasal bulb snuffling, but detecting only the reek of dust and decayed metal, and the faint, persistent odor of ancient bones. It is as if these grounds are empty.

Elsewhere, Omi clicks across stone floors stained sticky with organic residue. Human faces hang on the walls, and Omi stops to study each of them in turn, cooing, hoomon softly, absent-mindedly.

We shuffle our stubby torso over to the breach in our drop chamber and turn our gaze up to the quiet, star-filled night. What has happened to the Vortive that this world is so quiet. Our collective memory tells us the feed were culled efficiently, yet they still exist, whereas the Vortive seems to not.

Our torso vibrates to comfort us, but our fears do not subside. Only the hum of the collective consciousness will bring us peace, but instead of the collective consciousness, we hear again the human sounds, “Ring-a-ring o’ roses, a pocket full of posies, hush-hush hush-hush, or we all tumble down.” A strange feeling that is more than the hollowness of our hunger turns uncomfortably within us.

Fearing the human may have returned, we turn our insufficient receptors to the crevice, but in the darkness, they are not up to the task. We wish Omi and Rhu were here to show us nothing lurks within, but we are afraid to call to them through the thought-sphere.

“Why did you kill her?”

In the shadows to our left, the human stands over a fallen companion. The scene matches our memory of their culling, and scanning to our right, we sense Rhu, as in that memory, circling in towards the small human. Yet unlike our memory, Rhu slows as we grow closer to the human, until finally, Rhu’s sleek form becomes still and shadowy.

Is this a collective memory? We know Rhu has not returned to the drop chamber; we sense Rhu below us, among the ruins. Yet, we also know this human no longer exists, except in the collective memory of our lineage.

“Why did you kill her?” the human asks again.

We do not understand our compulsion to respond, nor care that we lack the mechanisms necessary to produce the human’s sound. They are feed, we say.

Omi pauses from our inspection of the human images. Audu?

I realize then that Omi and Rhu do not share this experience; this human is for Audu alone. As the first, we are the keeper of the collective memories of our lineage, to share them, to augment them, and when our vorta’s time is complete, to pass them on to the collective consciousness.

Slender appendages hide the human’s face, and their body shudders. Human communication is crude and primitive, limited to a narrow bandwidth of sound, imperfect visual cues, and reeking chemical emissions that lack subtlety, but we do not understand this reaction.

What is this? we ask.

The human looks up, their eyes glistening in the moonlight. “I’m sad because she is dead, and everything she was is now gone forever.”

We do not understand. At the end of every culling, the organic form of the vorta are re-absorbed by their drop chamber, and we cease to exist in this form. The energy we extracted during the culling is uploaded to the Vortive, and the collective memories of our lineage are processed into the collective consciousness. Vorta are destined to exist, not exist, and exist again, but there is never loss.

The click-click of Omi’s tarsi coming in through the hole draws our attention. Rhu follows, feeding stalks waving rapidly in agitation, but Rhu does not charge into the corner and attack the human. When we turn back, the human and their companion are gone. So too is the unmoving Rhu, and we are left shaken, afraid, and unable to understand what is happening to us.

Audu? Omi asks again, and we choose to remain silent.

• • • •

Ba’s bulbous and wrinkled body lies motionless on the metal plating beneath the womb-sac, and for a moment we fear stillborn. Then stumpy appendages sprout from our dorsum and the turgid, fleshy mass rises. Instinctively, Ba tries to wriggle into a narrow recess in the machinery beneath the dripping womb-sac, but the machinery has been damaged, and we no longer fit.

Ba emits a quivering noise that grates across our tac-pads, causing consternation. Ba needs to be sheltered to function, to attain our purpose as the fourth. Turning, Ba searches for another place and notices the crevice between the damaged wall plates.

We do not want Ba to go in there, but Ba’s despondence is nearly crippling, and we do not block them. The human, if they ever existed, is gone now, and the crevice is safe. Once pressed in among the chamber’s vessels and organs, Ba coos serenely, drawing the tension from us like a toxin.

After a time, Ba says, The thought-sphere is quiet.

Memories flash as Ba extracts them from us for processing. They reach back to the feeding ground where the first vorta in our lineage tasted the succulent sweetness of a successful culling. Then the second feeding ground, equally ripe, the third where the resistance was strong but ultimately futile, the fourth, fifth, sixth—each memory speeding past our consciousness faster than those before it. The memories stop abruptly on this world, with the human face that has haunted us.

Sensing Ba’s activity, Rhu and Omi halt, raise their nasal bulbs and eyestalks into the air.

Awash in the memories of feed, we purr and shake with pleasure. When the memories finally end, the hollowness of our hunger is greater. Left unsatiated, our flesh will soon begin to die once the last of the memories have dissolved from the stone left by our progenitor.

We are eager to resume the culling, but we await Ba’s wisdom.

Finally, Ba speaks. The feed are depleted. The Vortive have departed. Our purpose is ended.

Rhu’s feeding strings weave agitated patterns through the air. This ground is not empty. Audu sensed one, but it escaped. We hear the disgust in Rhu’s tone. Tell us how to find it, Rhu says gruffly.

The thought-sphere is quiet; therefore, the Vortive have migrated, Ba says, carefully articulating our logical argument. The Vortive migrate only once the feed are gone. Therefore, the feed are depleted.

The Vortive does not abandon vorta, we say.

Ba rustles dismissively. This assumption is unsupported by the collective memory. When vorta are defective, they are excised to ensure the integrity of the Vortive. The collective memories contain four instances of vorta abandoned on feeding grounds.

How can vorta be a threat to the collective consciousness if they are part of that consciousness?

Ba emits displeasure at our temerity. They are a threat if they introduce memories inconsistent with the identity of the Vortive, Ba says. The one and the many are the same.

Ba’s statement disturbs us. We should not challenge Ba’s analytical capabilities—it is not the place of the first to do such—but Ba must be wrong. We possess no defects in ourselves or our progenitors, and we pose no threat to the collective consciousness. The one and the many are the same, so we do not understand why we have been left.

When we do not respond, Ba turns inward to ruminate, leaving us alone in our drop chamber.

Our tac-pads detect faint vibrations. “If the one and the many are the same, are they not just the one?”

Eyes materialize from the darkness near the breach. They are followed by the faint outline of the human’s face and the grey silhouette of their spindly, frail body.

Collectively, we are more. We are the Vortive.

The one and the many, Omi says, far below us.

Again, the vibrations are faint, as if the human noise is intended to be soft. “That doesn’t make sense,” they say.

What is this creature that seems to both exist and be a memory?

“I am Tru,” they say. “I was named after my grandmother, Gertrude, because my mom says my dad lacked imagination.”

The communication between us is not clear, but we discern that Tru is a name designating this entity of feed, like Audu-Omi-Rhu-Ba designates our specific vorta within the collective consciousness of the Vortive.

Yet, this was not what we wanted to know.

As if they can penetrate our mind, the human responds again, “All that I am will be gone forever. You fed on me.” The face fades back into the darkness, and the eyes wink out of existence, like light into a blackhole.

Our crude receptors sense only metal and air and darkness.

Afraid, now, we curl about ourselves protectively. We have no memory of feed possessing the ability to come and go like smoke. If Tru is only a figment of our mind drawn from a collective memory, then the feeding ground is empty, as Ba deduced. It is another realization that scares us more. Collective memories are not capable of interacting with the existing. Yet this memory seems to be not of the collective memory, but an intrusion of the human’s energy, an infection capable of appearing at will and communicating with Audu, an independent sentient entity capable of challenging the core tenants of our collective consciousness. To which we are drawn to one conclusion.

Ba is correct; we are defective.

• • • •

We are not capable of fully processing this information and it cripples us into inactivity.

Ba, however, wriggles from the crevice and stands next to our curled torso. Ba’s cooing, along with the sense that Ba knows what needs to be done, provides comfort.

We must cease to exist, Ba says, after a time.

Sensing something has gone wrong, Omi and Rhu pause their hunt. Rhu howls in denial and turns back to chasing spectres. We try to comfort Omi by vibrating.

Ba shuffles over to the machinery under the womb-sac and pushes up against the interface plate. Ba intends to disable the chamber’s regenerators, shutting down the womb-sac so no new vorta will be birthed, and our collective memories will dissipate into the ether. Our lineage will cease to exist.

We are numb to Ba’s effort because the enormity of . . . death is beyond our experience. Feed die; vorta do not.

“No one wants to die.” Tru watches us from where they squat against the wall next to the breach that opens out onto the star-filled sky.

You do not exist, we say, willing the human to leave us, but they do not disappear.

Ba pauses, emitting scents of confusion. Ba cannot detect the human because it resides within us, among, but not of, our collective memories.

Our loathing transforms into anger. All that we are will end forever, and our primal instincts, which reach back to our time planet-bound and primitive, struggle to accept this.

Tru’s head shakes from side-to-side, and the act seems to diffuse our emotion. “You don’t have to die, you chose to.”

The one and the many are no longer the same. The words sound hollow as we watch the human before us. We have never considered the sentient design of feed—they are inferior to the Vortive and irrelevant—but all humans are the same and also different, each its own lineage with only one generation. Yet, looking at the gentle curves of Tru’s starlit face, we find it hard to accept that this difference makes them truly inferior.

“Different is just different,” Tru says.

Alone, we contemplate this concept.

Ba circles the drop chamber, sweeping the space with our crude receptors. Finding nothing, Ba stops near the breach, next to the squatting, yet unseen, human.

What is wrong, Audu? Ba asks.

Why must the one and the many be the same?

Ba is silent, our confusion obvious. Ba’s logic is bound by the evidence of the collective memories, and we realize Ba is incapable of reaching any other conclusion. As the first, our primordial instincts do not bind us to such limitations.

We are defective, Ba says. We must cease to exist.

We do not want to die. As we tell this to Ba, Tru echoes our words within our consciousness, and we understand then, that if we die, then all human lineages will die with us. The Vortive has always culled feed to extinction. We have always known it to be our birthright, yet we have never questioned this assumption.

The stone dissolves a final time, and the last of our lineage’s collective memories flood our consciousness. We have been trapped on this world for fifty-seven generations, repeating this cycle of existing and not existing, passing on the memories of our lineage as we were made to do. Every generation of our vorta has struggled to understand what has happened, and every generation has ultimately reached the same conclusion: the one and the many being different has a beauty to its design, and we are arrogant to believe the Vortive is superior to all other sentients.

This is wrong, we say.

This is the only way, Ba says.

When Ba moves back toward the womb-sac, we shuffle forward to block them. Ba tries to evade us, but we bump them back. Ba does not stop, however, so we bump them again, this time harder, and Ba, being awkward in physical form, tumbles backward and out of the breach.

Ba’s terror—our terror—is sharp and painful as the ground rushes upward. The force of the impact knocks us over, and for a moment, we believe we have ceased to exist, but our receptors slowly recover from the shock, and we lay prone on the floor of our drop chamber, alone and no longer four.

We had not intended for this to happen, but we also know that this generation will not be the last. Ba has ceased to exist, but Ba is not dead.

Above us, the womb-sac clicks to life. The regenerators hum behind the walls.

The drop chamber is empty, although, with satisfaction, I sense Tru is still with us.

The stone, now empty, can no longer sustain. Omi settles down before one of the images of the humans, our tarsi now silent, our eyestalks settling into the sticky organic residue that coats the floor of our tomb. Rhu’s lithe form slows and comes to a final rest in the tunnels deep beneath the rubble, in among the spaces where the humans of this dead world once tried to evade their extinction. We were an agent of that destruction, but we now have a chance to redeem our arrogance. Humans are not yet extinct, and they survive now as long as we survive.

We grow tired and can no longer right our torso. We sense our organic energy dissipating. The stone burns now, recording our final moments for the next generation, appending it to the legacy of our lineage’s collective memories.

The end and the beginning are the same but not the same.

In the end, we are one, and we are regret.

D. Thomas Minton

D. Thomas Minton has recently migrated into the mountains of British Columbia, but still pines for the tropical waters of the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, when not writing, he still gets to travel to remote (and warm) places, where he helps communities conserve coral reefs. His short fiction has been published in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Daily Science Fiction, and his books can be found in most online bookstores. His idle ramblings hold court at dthomasminton.com.