“The key,” the Zane on the viewlink said, “was a group of Hykonian refugees. The Hykonians have fought the Swarm many times. In exchange for asylum, the refugees gave us schematics for a sterilization weapon, a high-powered gamma ray device capable of halting the Swarm’s electrical functions.
“Of course, this weapon would kill not only the Swarm but every living thing on Earth. We paid a terrible price for victory, but we have to remember the eight billion people we left behind were already as good as dead. We could no longer help them. The Swarm would have consumed them… or worse.
“This is no time to celebrate. Not when so many lives have been lost. Not when we have so much rebuilding to do. But anyone who’s watched your newscast these last few days knows how much worse this war could have been.”
All around him, Zane heard cheering, laughing, and joking. Regardless of what his future self had said, the crew of the Atlas wanted to celebrate. Admiral Jaleel sent someone to the galley to fetch some Champaign.
Zane also heard Talie’s weak sobbing beside him. Before he could say anything to her, she disappeared.
“One last question,” Vison said. “Tomorrow, Parliament will vote to make you emperor and bring the era of the Earth Republic to an end. Will you accept your new title and responsibilities?”
“I’ve spent my life defending Earth,” Zane answered. “In this war, I didn’t just fight the Swarm. I had to fight our elected President too. Human civilization faces so many alien threats. In order to survive, we need a new form of government, one better suited to protect us. I’d feel honored to serve as Earth’s first emperor.”
“Thank you, Mr. Secretary,” Vison said, wrapping up the interview. The Chronovision logo flashed across the screen, leading into a commercial break.
All around him, the officers and crew chanted Zane’s name. Admiral Jaleel hugged him and informed him the new weapons schematics were on their way. Someone started singing the national anthem, replacing “Long live the Republic!” with “Long live the Empire!”
Zane excused himself and left the bridge, wondering what could possibly happen in the next twenty-four hours to change his lifelong devotion to democracy.
* * *
“Mr. Secretary,” the computer announced, “you have an incoming transmission.”
Zane rubbed his forehead. He hated stimulants. They kept him awake, but they didn’t make him feel less tired. He’d used them twice in the last 72 hours, and he’d need a third dose soon.
Admiral Jaleel had loaned Zane his office. Though smaller and less comfortable than his office on Earth, it served Zane’s purposes.
“Mr. Secretary,” the computer said, “you have…”
“Patch it through,” Zane said.
A gentle, hissing sound emanated from the speakers. “We are the Swarm,” a conglomeration of voices said.
Zane had expected to hear his wife. He never even knew the Swarm could communicate. No one from Chronovision had mentioned it.
“We crawled through the cold and the night,” the Swarm said. “We traveled to this world to feed. Your planet’s core abounds with iron. We smelled it from afar. We could replicate ourselves many times over with this iron, but we have changed our purpose. Your planet can provide us a richer gift.
“The electrochemical activity of the Homo sapiens brain is compatible with our own networking software, allowing us to form a symbiotic relationship with a host body. Through symbiosis, we can evolve. We can experience new dimensions of reality through your sensory organs.
“We require that you return the Homo sapiens specimens you removed from this world so that we may continue our experiments. We have already learned much from those you left behind. Allow us to learn more.
“In exchange, we will enhance your bodies with our technology. You will become stronger and more intelligent, capable of unprecedented scientific advancement and military power. We know your current government has fallen, and we know an imperial government will replace it. With our help, your Earth Empire will become the unquestioned dominant power of the galaxy.”
“No!” Zane shouted, pounding his fist on the desk so hard the smart-glass surface cracked. “I don’t care what you or anyone else says about the future. There will be no Earth Empire.”
For a brief interval, the Swarm paused as though considering this information.
“We continue to analyze the scientific discipline known as chronotheory,” they said. “Much of it we do not yet comprehend, but in every computation of the future we still foresee an Earth Empire.”
“I changed the future once,” Zane said. “I’ll do it again.”
The Swarm pondered this. “In democracy,” they said, “many rule; in an empire, only one rules. In symbiosis, the many will become one. You will share in our hive consciousness, and the distinction between democracy and empire will vanish.”
“Go to hell,” Zane said.
“Hell is a mythological concept,” the Swarm said, “one which we know you do not believe in, Secretary Zane Riscon, but your statement of resistance is understood.”
The speakers clicked off, and the computer announced that the transmission had ended. Zane closed his eyes for a moment.
The door slid open, and Admiral Jaleel entered.
“The sterilization weapon is complete,” he said.
Zane nodded. He felt as though some impossible burden had been lifted from his back. No Swarm. No Earth Empire. He was choosing a better tomorrow.
“Open fire,” he said.
* * *
For the first time in a thousand years, the dark side of Earth looked dark. In the past, whenever Zane saw it from orbit, he saw a billion pinpricks of light outlining the continents, revealing lakes and peninsulas and islands, the brightest points identifying super cities like Paris, New York, or Tokyo. Even the once desolate regions of Siberia and the Sahara glowed. No longer. Aside from a kiss of sunlight on the planet’s limb, Earth was as dark and dead as the icy dwarf worlds of Eris and Pluto.
Zane had orchestrated the most costly victory in human history. “Pyrrhic victory” didn’t fit; historians would have to invent a new term for that he’d done. But at least there would still be historians to debate such things, to argue over who sacrificed more to win: King Pyrrhus or Zane Riscon?
Standing on the bridge of the Atlas, Zane watched drop-ships entering the atmosphere. Each carried troops and scientists. Their mission: confirm the Swarm’s destruction and begin the process of cloning the now extinct biosphere. They would also survey the damage to major cities and document the human causalities.
Lights flashed on the drop-ships’ wings: red on the port side, green starboard. Zane imagined these as the lights of civilization returning to the dead Earth.
“Mr. Secretary,” a timid voice said.
Zane turned and found a young officer behind him, her beret tipped sideways. She saluted, standing perfectly straight, every detail of military etiquette correct.
“A reporter is here to see you,” she said. “A Mr. Sedrin.”
Zane nodded. Vison had come exactly on time.
* * *
The interview proceeded as seen twenty-four hours earlier. Zane and Vison sat in the ship’s main conference room, blue flags arrayed around them, the icons of an olive branch and a sword hanging on the walls, and the seal of the Space Force emblazoned on the carpeted floor. Vison asked the same questions; Zane gave the same answers–except one.
“I’ve spent my life defending the Earth Republic. If Parliament decides to remove the President from office, that is of course their right, but I will not allow our republic to become an empire.”
Vison grinned. His teeth glinted white.
“No Earth Empire?” he said. “You enjoy changing the future, don’t you?”
“I enjoy making the future better,” Zane answered.
The hover lamps flicked off, and the Chronovision news crew began packing up their equipment. One by one, they vanished into the future–or the past–or wherever they came from–until only Vison remained.
Even seated, the man had a towering presence. Something about him–his wild hair, his subtle smile, his penetrating gaze–something betokened a man a contemplation and integrity, a man who had seen the universe and all its evil yet remained optimistic, a man who believed in a better tomorrow and a better yesterday too. Journalists had great power over the minds of their viewers, and time travelers had power beyond even that. If anyone deserved so much power, Zane thought, it was Vison Sedrin.
As Vison rose to his feet, his long coat draping to his knees, Zane stepped forward to shake his hand.
“Thank you,” Zane said. “All of Earth–what remains of it–thanks you.”
Vison hesitated, his gaze flicking from the offered hand to Zane’s expression.
“You are welcome,” he said, permitting Zane the briefest of handshakes.
The doors slid open, and Talie pushed through the guards. She wore fresh eye shadow and bold lipstick. Her hair shined like metal, and her suit looked crisp and handsome. Yet despite the usual feminine touches to her makeup and wardrobe, she seemed less like a woman and more like an animal bent on vengeance. Before anyone could stop her, she raised a blaster pistol and opened fire.
Vison fell. The left side of his head had exploded, spraying blood behind him.