A/N: Hey all. One or two more Final Echoes scenes still working their way through, but I'm posting this per request. See, I do listen to the vox populi sometimes.
Alois Drummond came through the gateway in the smooth, catlike tumble of the Race, his head coming up instinctively to give his surroundings a long, slow scan. His infiltration softsuit covered his face with a molecule-thin clear mask, protecting him from any seriously corrosive or poisonous gasses that might be in this world's atmosphere. It wasn't perfect, couldn't be and still pass light and sound so perfectly that he might as well be bareheaded on this strange new world, but his filtered lungs and boosted immune system could easily handle anything that could get past it.
Drummond took in his surroundings with the fever-bright eyes of a hungry man surveying a huge dinner laid out for him. The Directorates had once thought to limit exploration to different timelines, but they had reckoned without the sheer hungry need of a hundred million Homo drakensis who had suddenly found that there were worlds upon worlds to conquer and devour right next door, so to speak. The energy cost was horrific and there had been setbacks, a few outright disasters, but the Race had begun to extend its tendrils across time just as surely as they had reached across the stars. Now it was his privilege to carry the Dragon standard to a new world, to make sure it held nothing that could threaten the Domination of the Race- and if all went well, to lead its conquest and rule as Planetary Archon. Adventure, combat, and at the end of it an entire world laid out at his feet.
He could hardly wait to get started.
It was a strangely beautiful world he'd come upon as well. As he took in his surroundings Alois could see that he was in the middle of a long, narrow green field, surrounded by low buildings of white marble, stone, steel. Beyond them he could see the low buildings of a smallish city, but there wasn't a single inhabitant in sight. Other than a few bird songs the scene was eerily quiet. There was no sound of vehicles, machinery, or the bustle of crowds, no smell of industrial waste products or packed-together humans. Except for the buildings themselves, he might have been in the middle of the deepest wilderness, or in the deepest reaches of a tomb. Even for a posthuman super warrior, it was more than a little unsettling.
Drummond could think of a few things that would cause a scene like this, but not too damn many. From the size of it this would have been a city of a few million people at least, so the lack of damage argued against any kind of massive war. No scent of death and decay in the air, so a massive plague or bio attack wasn't likely- at least not a recent one, and the buildings still looked to be in perfect condition. Damn it all to hell, what had happened here?
Then he heard it.
The sound wasn't much, just the low hum of a functioning solid-state electrical transformer, almost too faint for even drakensis hearing to pick up. Still, it meant that there was power. Where there was power there might be people, or at least functional machinery. If he was exceptionally lucky, maybe even a library. Any road, he had another twelve hours before his return gate was due to re-expand from the quantum foam, and it was a better lead than anything else he'd seen so far.
The source of the hum was a low building of concrete and glass set at the top of a hill, with a concrete staircase leading up to the entrance. Clearly a museum or public building of some sort, but so were many of the ones he could see. Nothing on the outside, at least, to indicate why this one was different. Alois loped easily up the steps, senses alert, and examined the first door he came to minutely. No sign of microswitches or any other kind of trap, and although there was an electronic locking mechanism a gentle exploratory push confirmed that it wasn't engaged. With a shrug, he pushed the door open and walked inside.
If the city had been unsettling, the museum was downright eerie. It was obvious to Alois as soon as he walked in the door that that was the building's purpose, but it was like the rest of the city- clean, in perfect order, and completely deserted. The ground floor seemed to be one huge room, lit by sunlight that filtered in through the great panes of glass, built around a circular enclosure with a mural painted on the outside.
Alois took a step closer, taking in the painted figures, wetting his lips in excitement as finally, some answers started to present themselves. The opening scenes were familiar- the Draka, his people, leaving their homes and arriving on the Cape in the dying years of the 18th Century. Their wars and expansion, the Draka taking Africa first, then surging out of it with the Great War. There were pictures of the hundred-dirigible raids on Constantinople, and the hard bloody work of Afghanistan that came after. Then the start of the Eurasian War, the Dragon banners sweeping across a Europe too broken and divided to resist them-
-and then the nightmare began.
Alois followed the mural, his mind glassy and numb, as he took the next scenes in. Primitive-looking aircraft swooped out of the night sky, crippling the Draka empire in two nights. His people were broken, their dreams of conquest shattered, allowed to live only in exile on a single island. Drummond's stomach bloomed with hate as he watched them claw their way back, changing themselves as they did so. His ancestors remained a breed apart, never trusted, but they were weak. They learned to coexist, to earn the trust of the rest of humanity as though the regard of inferiors was something to delight in. They were scientists, pioneers, explorers- everything, it seemed, but their destined role as conquerors and rulers.
There was a break in the mural there, a gap in the circular wall letting him see into the space inside. Alois felt his lips curl back into a snarl. There, in the center of all this, was one of those damned airplanes, the architects of the humiliation that had overtaken his people on this world. Laughably primitive, glass-nosed and twin-engined, it stood there as though placed especially to mock him. He took a step towards the thing, reaching for the plasma gun he carried in his softsuit's hip holster.
"Please don't go breakin' the artifact, youngster. Yo' have no idea what I went through to put the damn thing back together."
The voice was rich, female, heavy with amusement and arrogance. Alois wheeled with the lightning-quick reflexes of the Race to find a woman standing behind him. She was tall, with an apparent age in her late thirties- though a drakensis knew better than most how utterly meaningless that was. She had long mahogany hair pulled back into a braid and was dressed in a set of form-fitting blacks not too dissimilar from what he wore himself most days. She stood there with hands on hips, her face showing only quiet amusement as he pointed the plasma gun at her. A moment later, her scent hit him like a dull punch in the gut. Nearly overwhelming after the empty, almost sterile smell of the rest of this world, and it had the unmistakable tang of Draka that resonated deep in his genes. But there were no Draka here. As his mind tried to process the impossibility all he could manage to get out was,
The woman laughed. "Well, she got smashed up pretty good back in 1945, and it was a good long while befo' any of us had the means to go about putting her back together. Ended up having to dig out most of a Swiss mountainside and go through the damn thing molecule by molecule with nanofog, sorting out the aluminum and iron oxide from all the other stuff in there. The organics, the leather and rubber and such, they were all gone- but I used atoms from that place to make 'em, so they could be authentic, yo' know. Once I had that, puttin' her back together just took some blueprints. Good few decades of hard work, but nothin's too good for the old Spirit."
"Wotan damn it!" He knew she'd misunderstood him on purpose- the fox-faced grin was the next best thing to putting up a billboard. Drummond could feel the anger taking him over, felt the red curtain drop across her nervous system as instincts coded deeper than conscious thought told him to take this stranger, kill her, eliminate the threat to his territory. "Who the hell are yo'? Where the hell'd yo' come from?"
"Oh, that." That damned smirk widened. "Name's Gwen. Gwendolyn Ingolfsson. As for where I came from, oh, Madagascar originally. But to answer what I think yo' meant, been watchin' yo' ever since we redirected your little molehole up a dozen-so centuries and lettin' the utility fog hold in my scent. Followed my little trail of breadcrumbs quite nicely, I must say."
"Redirected?" Drummond kept his eyes focused narrowly on her, tightening his grip on the plasma gun. He was in control here, he reminded himself. She might be Draka, but so was he- he'd see any move she made as soon as she made it, and nobody could outrun a plasma bolt once it was fired. "How the hell do yo' do that? And why?"
"Hmmm." Gwen cocked her head to one side and gave him a considering glance. "Maybe some hope fo' yo' after all, Mister-"
"Drummond. Alois Drummond. And don't try to divert me."
"Perish the thought. Answerin' yo' first question, Mister Drummond…I'm afraid that would definitely be telling, and we don't do that sort of thing here. The second, though…that one is definitely much nearer the mark. Tell me, Drummond…what do yo' think of my work out there?" She made an airy gesture towards the panels.
"Disgustin'." He didn't bother to keep the contempt out of his voice. "Yo' smell Draka, I'll give you that, but yo' ain't Draka and won't never be Draka. The Draka here were gelded, worse than we did to the serfs. Tamed. And yo' celebrate it."
"Celebrate." Gwen's voice was thoughtful as she walked slowly towards him. Drummond tensed, but she gave him a wide berth and walked past, crossing the room to lay an affectionate hand on one wing of the plane she'd called Spirit. "I suppose I do celebrate it. Do yo' know what the most precious thing is in the universe, Drummond?"
"Power." Automatic. Gwen laughed, sharp, short, contemptuous.
"How very predictably Master Race of yo', dear boy. No. The most precious thing, Drummond, is life. Mind. The capacity fo' sentience and to become mo' than what we are. The ability to evolve."
"Like we did. The Draka did."
"No, not like the Draka did, yo' fuckin' fool!" Gwen wheeled towards him, her hair almost standing up as she looked at him with laser-bright green eyes, her anger washing over him with such hot intensity that he almost started shooting from pure reflex- would have, if she hadn't been so still and perfect in her control. "All the Draka ever were was parasites. We shackled other minds to do our work for us, and had to use every bit of our own to keep those shackles from breaking- sweet Eye of Odin, wasn't nothing we did didn't have that as a goal! Then yo' lot decided to change yourselves, and instead of growing all yo' did was lock that same damn pattern into yo' genes!
"Call that evolution?" Ingolfsson was pacing now, back in forth in front of him, but he was calmer now and wanted to see where she was going with this. "Just the same damn thing, over and over without end. Variations on the theme of Homo sapiens bein' beastly to one another, same as we been doin' ever since we started walkin' upright." She turned and fixed him with those eyes again. "I thank the Gods every night we were set free of that here. This plane did it for us, mo' than anything I could ever hope to find. Was she spread out over the whole Earth, wouldn't have been too much for me to find her."
"Free? Sound like a Yankee." Drummond didn't bother trying to keep the sneer from his voice. "Yo' lost, Ingolfsson, yo' and your people. They whupped your asses and made yo' into little gelded puppy dogs. Don't expect me to envy yo'."
"We did lose." Ingolfsson's voice was softer, catching him by surprise. "We lost, and that meant we didn't have to keep doin' the same thing anymore. But that wasn't end of it."
"No?" Drummond shook his head. "Look…I'm tired of talkin' riddles with yo', Ingolfsson. Where are all the people, here?"
"Ah." The anger was gone. The smirk was back. He'd liked it better, on the whole, when she'd been raging at him. "He finally gets it. They're gone."
"If'n yo' keep repeatin' what I say, this conversation goin' take twice as long, yo knows. Gone. They kept makin' things better and better. Made it so there was enough for everyone to have food and shelter. Then they made it so everyone could have a good education. A good doctor. And they kept goin', till everyone could have…most anything they wanted." Gwen shook her head. "It was…glory. They built such wonderous things, Drummond. And then eventually they were gone."
"Where'd they go?" At least he wasn't repeating her anymore. Gwen shrugged.
"Where? Ask a baby where its parents go, when they leave the house and go to a Mozart concert. Ask a tadpole where a frog goes when it hops out of the pond, or ask a caterpillar where a butterfly flies to. I don't know, Drummond. I can't know." One tear trickled down her cheek, but she was still smiling. "But they've laid they hands on a vaster wheel. The universe is their playground- more than one, for all I know- and the stars themselves are canvas for they art. They're not something human-derivatives like you or I can understand. That's evolution."
"So what're yo'? The Wandering Snake?" Gwen laughed, an honest, high sound.
"Wanderin' Snake. I'll have to remember that one, thanks kindly Drummond. In a manner of speakin', I suppose." Gwen walked past him again, running her hands along the bare, smooth inner walls of the circular enclosure. "We could have gone with them. But we knew there were other universes, even then. Had a couple visitors, and fo' that matter gotten some worrisome astronomical observations from a couple galactic arms over. Someone had to stay, yo' see, and it was best it be us. Of all humanity, we were the ones with the greatest crimes to wipe away, generations of shackled minds and misery to answer for. So we modified ourselves, made ourselves immortal, and stayed to watch the children."
"Children?" Gods curse it, she was makin' him do it again!
"Children. Last count, there are one hundred and nine sentient or proto-sentient species in this arm of the galaxy. We still lookin', of course. They deserve their chance to grow and evolve without havin' aliens from the next arm over kill 'em off, or for that matter interdimensional meddlers don't know how to interact with somethin' without tryin' to kill it, conquer it, or fuck it. Which brings us to the point of our little conversation, Drummond."
"A point? Loki be praised." That had been at least a decent half-sneer. Had to count for something.
Gwen nodded, and blurred into motion. Drummond yelled and squeezed the trigger on his plasma gun, two sharp, bright cracks reverberating in the closed space like a close thunderstorm. The air around Ingolfsson flared as she hurtled towards him, his plasma bolts disappearing into a light blue glow that filled the room with dispersed energy. Drummond had just enough time to drop the pistol and go for his layer knife when she hit him. Fingers as hard as steel jabbed into his wrist, sending it limp and his layer knife skittering across the floor. He twisted and landed a blow, heard the bone snap as his fist hit her face, and snarled as he followed up, trying to drive the shattered bone into her brainpan. Another crack, and his eyes went wide- the bone was intact, had grown back in seconds, impossibly fast even for a drakensis. Ingolfsson grinned at him.
"Told yo', boy. Problem with yo' Draka, is limited imagination." Her fingers clamped onto his shoulders and hoisted him up, throwing him into the air. Drummond felt himself crash through the windows and sail through the air, headed for the concrete steps below- and then he was slowing, somehow, sinking into air grown impossibly thick until he hung suspended a few feet from the ground, as thoroughly immobilized as though he was up to his neck in quicksand. He saw Ingolfsson walk casually through the hole in the side of the building and look up at him.
"Wonderful stuff, utility fog- could have had it immobilize yo' from the start, of course, but fo' some reason yo' little Draka brain don't really understand it's been whupped without some good old fashioned combat. 'Sides, much more fun this way." Her grin turned into a snarl and she reached up, grabbing his collar and pulling him down. Drummond yelped and rotated in midair, still held above the pavement with his feet in the air and his face only centimeters from Ingolfsson's.
"Now hear this, Drummond. Yo' go on back to yo' people and give 'em a message fo' me. They can keep playin' around in spacetime until they finally come across somethin' nasty enough to wipe the floor with them, and it's no skin off my nose. But this timeline, this galaxy, and this universe are under the protection of the Draka Errant. Come back, and we will send yo' back one molecule at a time…and if yo' come back after that, well then we just goin' get fuckin' angry. Is there an understanding here?"
There was, but he wasn't going to show it. "My, my. Must get boring being the cosmos' sheepdog, Ingolfsson. Sure y'all made the right choice givin' up on yo' precious evolution?"
"Oh, we didn't." She was smiling again, really smiling, and Drummond could see something new in her eyes. "We're immortal, barring accidents, and I plan to live millions of years. And when this galaxy grows cold and dim, when the last of the eggs have hatched or died in the nest…then, Drummond, and only then, will the Draka's crimes be wiped clean. Then we will join our brothers and sisters, all of them from all of humanity, and we will live forever.
"So we have been promised. And so I believe."
Alois Drummond had never seen belief, real belief, on a drakensis face before. Seeing it now, for the first time, he had to remind himself that he was a biologically enhanced posthuman cyborg, and it was absolutely impossible for him to feel as though he was about to lose control of his bladder. All he could do was nod.
"Y…you're going to send me back, right? Need me alive to deliver the message."
Gwen's smile was playful. "Well, technically, I suppose all I need's yo' mission recorder…"
"It's cybernetically implanted."
Gwen pulled on his shirt front again, pulling him down until she could whisper in his ear. "Does yo' really think that means I couldn't remove it if I was motivated enough, younglin'?" All he could do at that was shake his head, and Gwen smiled as she patted his cheek.
"Learnin' after all. Now, I got cleanin' up to do. Fog'll hold yo' until yo' gateway home opens." She turned and started walking back towards her museum.
"Enjoy life in the pond, Drummond. Me, I got much mo' to look forward to. And all time to look forward with."