A Backcloth of Ashes and Stars
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This is SEMELIEL. I have finished translating a transmission that I intercepted as I passed the rim of an isolated solar system in the far reaches of the Aquila Rift. It is a message from an unidentified sapient being, and I believe it must be at least a century old. The words have been relayed to this day by a few surviving radiotelescopes strewn across the surface of the fourth planet from their sun.

This may be the final signal ever sent out from that world.

I am recording this because it may be the last thing I'll ever say. The last Imperial ships have left orbit, carrying our future into the backcloth of stars – and leaving us behind on the world that was our cradle and is now to be our tomb.

I am not sorry. We had it coming.

Three generations spent under ashen clouds should have been enough to make us realize the futility of conflict. Our crops withered and nature choked under the smoke of a thousand warheads, countless species driven to extinction as we squabbled over trade routes and import taxes. Engineered plagues strangled nations into anarchy, and billions immolated themselves crossing fields of burning earth in a desperate search for water. The warm sun that had cradled us since we crawled from under the soil now dawns and falls in perpetual red – a crimson shroud for a planet on the brink of collapse. We killed the world, and then fought for supremacy atop its corpse.

We were warned that this would happen. We were warned. Why didn't we listen? Why didn't we stop? Were we so blind that we could not see the seas boiling and the skies darkening, so deaf that we could not hear the screams of those anointed in pyroclastic ash? It wasn't until that hatching season – when no egg bore life – that we realized we were doomed. Our fertility had been quashed by the toxins on the water, air and soil. No next generation would inherit the wasteland of our making. The world would end not with a blaze of fire, but with the muted lament of the last of our kind.

That was true then, and it is true now. I wish I could tell you that some great miracle has happened, that the gods of our ancestors have awakened from their buried slumber to make the world right again. I wish I could tell you that the skies are golden once more, and that our fields are rich in fruit anew. But that would be lying, and you deserve to know the truth of our people's past, the truth of your inheritance. The world is still a wreck, and every day there are fewer of us left. All we can do now is dive into remembrance and hope you'll one day see us for more than just our miserable ending.

Were you to ask me what I miss most about civilization, my answer would be the towers of Kairú, our capital city. Once – before some nameless battle against some faceless enemy brought them down – they stood so tall that their tips pierced the clouds of ash and smoke, allowing those of us who were born after the great pollution to gaze at a clean sky. I remember my first time up there, my eyes full of tears both because of the blinding, unfiltered sunlight and because I never thought the heavens could be clear. My father held me close as we stood there for hours, drinking in a vestige of a better time, a lost age that seemed like paradise.

My father died after stepping on a trap from a war fought before he was born. I was barely into adulthood, and my chances of survival were slim. Still, I adapted, and for years I roamed the remnants of what was once a great continent. Sometimes I helped those I came across – and sometimes I harmed them beyond measure. I am not proud of what I've done, but at the time I knew nothing but killing my way through. Mercy has always been enshrined among our values, in our prayers, and in every single lie we told ourselves to absolve the evils we committed against each other. Now, with the world coming to an end, being cruel feels like the honest thing to do. We are animals, after all, cornered beasts who claw and thrash and kill because survival is all we understand. It is only natural, some tell themselves as they crush their enemies and their eggs, for all that is left is to outlast the rest.

Perhaps that is why some of us keep on killing, keep on shattering unborn eggshells and passing the knife to mothers and fathers. There is nothing left to fight for, yet we seem fixed on seeing it through to the finish line of extinction. Perhaps that is why I always felt we deserved this ending. One day, I hope, the last one of us will slit their enemy's throat and realize how alone they are.

For you, however, I wish better than this. I wish for you to know that you are not alone – not in life, not in the Universe. Our petty wars have been but a faint spark in the celestial blackness, important only to us who fought them and now suffer their consequences, but there is still wisdom to be gained from them. I know this now, though it is much too late for me. Some nights I gazed at the starless dark and thought that we would become as unheard echoes, imploding into oblivion without anyone to ever reminisce about our folly. No lesson would ever be learned from the smoldering ruin of our civilization, and it would soon be like we never even existed.

Then the Immortal Empire revealed itself to us.

Cosmic behemoths descended from our noxious heavens and held silent court over our ruined cities. From their metal bowels came the Speakers, creatures sent down to address the handful of survivors who clamored for refuge even if it meant submitting to powers alien and unfathomable. The Speakers had no such mercy. They had watched us – they said – for centuries untold, and deemed us beyond salvation. Our people were corrupted, incapable of seeing beyond our greed and hatred, and we would surely bring about our own destruction anew. The violence we had wrought onto each other, it seemed, was to the Empire like a contagious sickness, one that the Universe could do without.

With our annihilation long foreseen, the Empire sought to preserve what it could. Hidden in the background of our countless wars, they registered what they considered to be our great achievements: our arts and songs, our languages and stories, our stillborn promises of a better world. Those would be the only things left to remember us, the sole proof that we once gazed at the stars with hope.

They told us we'd be left to die.

Chaos followed, of course. On every remaining settlement, malnourished and desperate crowds pelted the Speakers with rocks and insults, demanding that they take us off-world. We were met with nothing but cold gazes, the screams of five million throats falling on uncaring ears. The rich, always resourceful, banded together and built an escape ship for their own dwindling numbers. They burned in the upper atmosphere when the Empire's cannons enforced our planet's quarantine. We were trapped, stranded on a dying rock, our slow demise witnessed by the steely eyes of a rescuer who had judged us unworthy of life.

Why, then, had they shown themselves to us? Just to mock our doom? Just to gaze at the sun setting one last time over our planetary sepulchre?

No, the Speakers said. They came to us on the twilight of our kind, at the end of our time, to offer us a final chance. For a millennia, the Empire has collected every lifeform, every species of plant and animal on our planet – enough for each population to persist and thrive away from our eventual holocaust. Our people will be among them, refugees amidst the stars. But nobody currently alive is to join the exodus, for it was us who started the fire and must now burn with it.

I have accepted this fate, as have many others, and now we wait for the end not with dread, but with newfound hope. That is why I record this message, my child, for your time will one day come. In the lulling embrace of the cosmos, the threads of life will be woven into new beings, into a new generation – the first without guilt, cleansed of all sin and poison. You will remain hidden, asleep, your egg kept safe in suspended animation until our world has healed and the vestiges of our destruction are swallowed by nature unbound. Only then will you be hatched, cared for and educated by an Empire that claims to be immortal, until you are old and wise enough to face life on your own.

How long will it be until that time, I do not know. It might take a century for the last of us to die off, and a couple more for the Empire to finish terraforming this barren rock. By the time the last species are reintroduced into the reborn world, we will be less than nothing, less than dust and whispers. You will be born of a long-dead mother, sired by an anonymous father.

You should not see this as a curse, but as a chance to truly start anew. You hold no blame for what we've done; none of you do. The only burden you shall bear is the responsibility for your own independence, the responsibility for your own freedom. I hope that you will learn our history – all of it – and know to do better than us. I hope that you will be someone who seeks not to dominate others, but to join hands under the sun.

Please, my child, remember us. The gift of survival is yours.


The nature, culture, expanse and full capabilities of the "Immortal Empire" are unclear, but it is remarkable that a civilization has managed to accrue sufficient might and technological prowess to terraform entire planets, let alone persist in this endeavor for what they claim to be centuries. I will stay alert to any further mentions of this entity in future transmissions.

As for the people of that planet – the one quickly becoming an unidentifiable dot amidst the countless points of light – I believe I can safely say they are now extinct. One day, perhaps, their descendants will find their mother's message. One day, I hope, she will be vindicated.

This has been SEMELIEL, signing off.

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