The boats are gone now
The sands on which they slept
The waters where they danced
The trees that gave them life
The sky that smiled
The sun that was extinguished
I will not fish there again
Save in sorrow, in dream
– Gwllarthanganmaran, one-Kho
In the vast and restless region of space called the Lagoon Nebula, a fleet of ships appear to hang in the void, but in fact they are always on the move. They move together, keeping in sync so that none are left behind. As the invisible eye draws closer, it sees that smaller ships scurry back and forth between the great vessels of this astral city. For that is what it is, a collection of structures housing millions of lives, that happen to float in space. Once they were for transport, warmaking or exploration alone, now these ships are the lifeline to entire species – or what remains of them.
This is the Flock, a conglomeration of species united by the need to survive. The colossal struggles of the Enemies obliterated their home planets, forcing them to take to the stars. With every passing cycle, they acquire more refugees. It seems to their leaders, the Shepherds, that every new species that joins has been further diminished, that the uncaring (or even unaware) Enemies wreak greater feats of destruction as their war continues. Even in the short history of the Flock, species that were rescued have become extinct. But how can it be helped? The Shepherds see it as their duty to protect the remainder, at all costs.
There is one among the Flock who sees a way to help. In a storeroom buried deep in the bilges of one of the ships belonging to the race called Xerra, she has gathered a great store of items. She thinks of them as relics. Physical artifacts, they are the last remnants of planets abandoned or vapourised. She does not fully know yet what many of these things are, but she understands them, what they represent. They are a testament to what went before, and what could be again. Her name is Xerra, but because of recent events she has begun to think of herself as Xerrapon.
As she works, Xerrapon talks aloud about the objects surrounding her. She is not insane, but sometimes it is lonely here in the depths. “The unfortunate thing, of course, is that in the case of the Knolasper, who died en masse shortly after their arrival because of a chemical agent introduced to their lymph nodes before their planet imploded, we have a great deal of physical remnants, but little in the way of context. This…flute-like thing, was it a treasured heirloom of a dynasty, or the cheap knick-knack that one Knolasper bought for another on a business trip? Additional resources would be helpful, a carbon dating machine for one thing, but the value of the Museum’s work has not yet been recognised…”
That is what Xerrapon calls this overcrowded store-room: the Flock Museum. She is not a useless academic, she is one of those who steps to the forefront in a time of crisis and says, “I will help!”. For many species, however, a symptom of modern life is that the specialisation of skills has rendered otherwise potentially useful people into monomaths. Xerrapon can indeed help, but not in navigation or repair or any of the myriad host of functions that the Flock requires. She can do what she was trained at: curate a museum. So she has founded one, in a space acquired from the Xerra with all her skills in cajoling and guilt-tripping she had learned at home on Tyess.
Tyess is gone. As is New Tyess. As are so many other planets, some inhabited and most of them not. The Xerra, once so populous, are reduced to a fraction of a fraction of their former population. As she regards the Knolasper trinket, she cannot help but think of her home. The great City in the mountains, where the green glacial torrent of the River roared past tranquil squares and the City Hall itself was built into the side of a giant cascading waterfall. On Tyess, museums represented something else: they were the sum total of a family’s achievements and the pride of every Xerra who could claim some small part of the legacy. Xerrapon was born into a very distant twig of an insignificant branch of the family tree, yet her prowess at presenting and upkeeping a collection was recognised, and she earned the honour of eventually curating her own exhibit in a prestigious wing of the Museum.
Now, in her tiny disused storeroom with its grandiose designation, she rises from her desk and crosses the room – it only takes three steps – to the one item she managed to salvage from that exhibit in the evacuation. It has its own crate, filled to the brim with packing foam. It is not delicate, but she accords it all the respect and importance that she can afford. She reaches into the crate with gloved hands and draws out the thing. It is a piece of clay fashioned into the shape of a feather and lacquered to a shining blue. It is a thoughtband. As she handles it, she speaks aloud again, as if to an interested tour group:
“As you know, we Xerra are possessed of an extremely latent telepathy which serves to provide context in language, and also enables us to learn new languages at a rapid pace by other species’ standards. It also infuses our art… or at least it did. The art of the Xerra can often leave the viewer with a psychic footprint, as if another Xerra had spoken to them of the piece. Xerra of ancient times believed that the artist had to anoint a piece of art with their own blood in order to provide this effect, leading to many tragic tales of sculptors driven to suicide to imbue their masterpieces.
“Modern Xerra know that it is simply an after-echo, though still the effect is not fully understood. Materials such as clay seem to pick up psychic impressions better than others, an artist wishing to impart a certain emotion might carry an unformed piece of clay with them, waiting many months until they experienced a surfeit of the intended feeling, then mould the clay at that moment. But this is still an extension of superstition, not science. Such pieces tend to impart a desire for fame and acclaim, not the intended emotion at all. This item here…”
Here she gestures, as if through a glass panel, to the clay feather. For in her mind’s eye this has the crowning spot in her exhibit. She remembers meeting the artist – a very distant cousin – and being impressed by her fury and devotion to her art, which was about the Great Schism and its longer-lasting societal effects. Back then, the feather had sparked and wavered in the mind as the freedom that only comes from rebellion, coupled with a huge canvas that depicted Xerra freely copying art which was not their family’s property, for the free consumption of all. It had been highly controversial on the exhibit’s opening, for some wounds were still fresh.
Now, the feather is without its accompanying context. It lies in her hand, giving no impression at all.
“…this item was a thoughtband. Its accompanying painting was destroyed in the Death of Tyess. Its artist died in that event, also. And her entire family, bar one. This Museum is dedicated to their memories, and to the memories of all those who have died in this War, not of our making…”
Not wanting her tears to damage this artefact, she replaces it carefully. Then, shedding her gloves, she locks up the Museum and heads for what she thinks of as the “surface”, the main concourse of this ship. Sometimes the weight of history, and the onerous nature of the task ahead, threatens to smother her. Spending time with the living is healthy, and helps her thoughts return to the joy she can take in her work. Besides, she has a date.
Today, the concourse buzzes with anger. She hears the word “Gilgamesh” repeated, it refers to a ship of newcomers that joined the Flock only recently. Of course she took an interest at the time, and even adopted a new name so that she could interact with them, but so far her opportunities to do so have not presented themselves. By the sounds of it, she may not have many in the future.
Her date fills her in. He is one of those who have started calling themselves Old Xerrans – to distinguish them from the denizens of New Tyess who were recently rescued by the Flock. Like most of that clique, he holds himself in reserve. Still, the excesses of other species flabbergast him like any other.
“Can you believe it, Xerra?” he asks shortly after they find their seats in the most fashionable café in the concourse. He doesn’t use the “diminutive” of Xerrapon as he calls it, instead the flavour of her given name scintillates in the shared mental space between them. The sensation of standing in the wash of an ever-moving sea, at the edge of a precipice bracing yourself against a howling torrent, of feeling cold and warm at once, a bracing feeling of being alive and strong and so very fragile. Xerrapon’s parents had a much more exciting vision of her future than she ever had. Perhaps they weren’t so wrong…
“I’ve been cooped up downstairs all day, what exactly is going on? Something with the Gilgamesh?”
“You really must get out more. It happened first thing this morning,” he says. It’s statements like this that remind her she really must break up with him.
She sips her tea, waiting for him to enlighten her, as he so delights in doing.
“They’ve declared an alliance between themselves and one of the Enemies, the ones that they call the Builders. Can you believe it?”
She can’t. She sets down her tea, in case the sudden need to clench her fists destroys the delicate handle. She clasps both her hands in her lap, and braces her back against the chair to counteract the sick feeling in her stomach.
“They what? How did they even communicate with them without being destroyed?”
“They found some kind of facility, with an automoton that spoke blandishments, and of course had a very persuasive case for their side of the War.”
“So now…what? They think that Enemy’s actions are justified? The destruction of Tyess? Of New Tyess? The extinction of so many species?”
“It follows, doesn’t it?” He was a logician by training, now he managed the logistics for a consortium of trade ships.
“How can they do this?!” she surprises both of them by slamming a fist on the table.
“Xerra…” he glances over his shoulder, afraid that she is making a scene. Yes, she definitely needs to break it off soon.
“Don’t.” She leaves her tea unfinished and walks out of the café. She leaves him to pay, as he always insists on doing anyway, but depriving him of the little song-and-dance he usually likes. She can see the conversation unfolding, him literally playing devil’s advocate as he plays with the idea of the Enemies having a justification for genocide, or the Gilgamesh seeing some hidden meaning or pattern in the wholesale destruction that reveals that one Enemy or the other was right all along. She can’t put up with it right now.
Xerrapon leaves the concourse and returns to her lair. The Flock Museum has acquired yet more significance in her eyes, and she knows what she must do. On the way, she consults her credit balance. Yes, she can hire an assistant if they don’t mind living on practically nothing. Perhaps one of the New Xerrans with their communal focus would be willing. The Museum needs to open its doors yesterday, to show all the Flock and those aboard the Gilgamesh who will listen. Each of the Enemies have wiped out more life than any known catastrophe to befall any of the thousand planets in their path. Neither cancer nor tornado can have allies, only victims. The Flock Museum is the Enemies’ legacy: billions of lives blotted out in an instant with only a threadbare recollection to honour them.
Xerrapon begins to haul the boxes around, finally putting her plan for the first exhibit in place. She will make them see the truth, even if she has to ram it down their throats.