All eyes locked on Kahtash as she spoke. Her voice was its usual self. Clipped, reserved and dignified as she addressed Threedak and her sisters.
“They were building a ship,” she continued her address. “A massive capital ship just over four kilometers in length. Despite its size, it was fairly lightly armed and armored. Most of the interior was devoted to open space and what appeared to be large tanks of water for growing kelp, a fairly standard environmental and biomass preservation apparatus.”
“A meat barge,” Threedak frowned, worry trickling into her voice. “There aren’t supposed to be any of them outside of the main fleet. The vanguard shouldn’t have been building one all the way out here.”
“That’s what the analysts are thinking,” Kahtash nodded. “Whatever it is, the ship looks like a gigantic transport devoted to hauling around organic matter. We only got fragments from the analyst that ate the other invader, but we learned enough to be worried.”
“True,” Threedak responded slowly. “The vanguard wasn’t meant to build new meat barges. I think the masters wanted to prevent them from expanding out of control, but each and every barge was created in their home system. The great factory ships and their warships were built and rebuilt as necessity demanded, but there were never more than repairs done to the barges. That they would build a new one now means that something has changed.”
“The invaders are far from their main fleet,” Kahtash shrugged. “The final wormhole the humans took away from Earth was an unstable jump, we’re years away from their core fleet. Maybe they were just going to make another one to clean our area of the galaxy.”
“Perhaps,” Threedak replied, unconvinced. The vanguard wouldn’t have hesitated to make a risky jump home. They lacked individuality so the loss of a ship would impact them just as much as shedding scales would her. Only in great numbers would it even begin to matter.
The vanguard was doing something new. Her vision of their memories wasn’t complete, the soldier drone she ate was little more than a clipping of their whole. It frustrated her that even now she didn’t know the full shape of their enemy, but there was no cure for it.
The room lapsed into silence. For almost a minute the only sound was the crackle of the fireplace and an occasional shuffle as Pinrakt shifted restlessly on her couch. Finally, Bekai tired of the lull.
“Mother,” impatience bubbled in her voice. “You’ve been deferring questions about your health for too long. You told us that we’d finally hear the truth today, and I’m tired of being put off. Just let us know what’s happening. Right now the worry is worse than any news you could actually give us.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Threedak’s chuckled devolved into a cough. “Fine, you’ve sat patiently through all of this planning and rambling. I appreciate that you’ve held your tongues as long as you have.”
She took a deep breath, steeling herself. Part of Threedak knew that she’d been delaying this moment selfishly. Finding excuses to avoid this very conversation.
“I am dying,” she replied simply. “Dormah says that I have a matter of months at the best, but I’ve become more and more reliant on painkillers. Today I am simply enduring it, but usually I am in a fog. Hazy and unable to operate at my best. Already I’ve begun to notice mistakes. Small things, a misplaced item in an itinerary or a missed question to an expert.”
“So far I’ve been the only one to notice,” Threedak smiled tightly, “but it’s unacceptable. As I slow, I’ve become a liability to the empire. It isn’t a sustainable state.”
“But we don’t age as the humans do,” Bekai interjected, standing up from the cushions of her couch. “Our geneticists have confirmed that as time passes Dhajtel simply grow larger. We simply don’t die of natural causes. This must be some kind of mistake or ruse.”
Threedak chuckled, her throat scratchy and dry from talking. She shook her head, motioning with a grasper for Bekai to sit back down.
“It isn’t a natural cause,” she responded sadly. “The very gift that lifted our race up from squalor cursed me. The shuttle that crashed into Dhaj’s great desert was leaking radiation. The vanguard hit it with a fusion warhead to bring it down and I went inside to eat the twelve. I didn’t even know what gamma rays were, but I more or less received a fatal dose that day.”
“From the beginning I’ve been consulting with our medical establishment,” Threedak continued, nodding to Dormah. “Chemotherapy, biological agents, transfusions- we’ve tried everything. All they’ve done is slow the spread of the cancer. You may have noticed my recent difficulty speaking. It’s almost consumed my lungs. Each day it grows harder for me to breathe. I might be able to survive another six months, but I would be in constant agony.”
“That isn’t how I want you to remember me,” she smiled, dampness pooling in her eyes. “I want to exit this plane on my own terms rather than as an invalid.”
“There has to be another way,” Dahlass blurted out, her shyness forgotten as she stared at Threedak with wild eyes. “Even if we don’t have the technology to fix you now, we can cryogenically freeze you, wait until the technology is advanced enough and bring you back. You can’t just leave us like this!”
“Dahlass,” Threedak smiled down at her. “You’ve grown so much over the years, but I’ve always been there as a crutch. Your ideas are good and your reasoning is sound, but you defer too much to me. I can’t help but feel like my presence is the last thing holding you back. You’ll miss me. I know you all will, but this is simply what must be done.”
“There’s no must about it,” Dormah snorted. “We’ve already talked about cryogenic freezing. It’s perfectly viable, but you’re just too stubborn to go that route. This isn’t about what HAS to happen, it’s about what you want.”
“Fine,” Threedak agreed. “This is partially a selfish decision on my part, but it is what the empire needs. Without me you will all be regents, placeholders making decisions in my stead rather than rulers and ministers in your own right. I don’t want to fade into our empires mythology as some sort of heroic figure that can be called back in a moment of crisis to save the Dhajtel.”
“I’ve had my moment in the sun,” tears were streaming down her face as she beamed down on her daughters with pride. “It was beautiful. Together we accomplished so much, dragging the Dhajtel kicking and screaming from a collective of savages bashing rocks together into a technological and artistic powerhouse. We claimed the stars themselves for our daughters.
“Almost more importantly than the empire,” she continued, vision hazy as she made eye contact with each Dhajtel in turn. “I’ve forged bonds with everyone in this room. These emotions and feelings yet another gift from the humans for which we will never be able to repay them.”
“But my moment in the light is drawing to a close,” Threedak pulled an object out of her satchel and set it on the table in front of her. “My day is done and now it is time for my daughters to take up my mantle. Together you are stronger than me and I’m sure that you’ll make me proud.”
“Mother,” Kahtash’s eyes were fixed on the table. “Please tell me that isn’t what I think it is.”
Threedak picked up the needle pistol, an ugly block of plastic and metal designed for a smaller human hand. She turned it over in her grasper, the metal smooth and cold under her grip. A red six glowed faintly in the indicator built into the weapon’s hilt. For years it had been her constant companion, but she’d never found the need to use it again after that fateful day in the swamp when Lament was nothing more than a pile of bricks and a lofty idea.
“I’m a sentimental Dhajtel,” she chuckled, her eyes still hazy with tears. “The symbolism of the human artifact that protected me in the first years of our civilization being the tool to usher me out of this world was simply too much for me to pass up.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Pinrakt spoke, frowning as she stared at the human weapon. “Please speak plainly Mother, what are you planning.”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Threedak asked, a hint of mirth on her face. “I stand before you a prophet that ushered in a new age and tonight I have gathered around me my disciples. This is the last supper.”
“The human religious event?” Dahlass asked, choking back tears of her own. “Why couldn’t you have just made things simple and gone with a Dhajtel ceremony? Why the need for mysticism and religious overtones that you don’t even believe in?
“Because we are more than Dhajtel,” Threedak chided gently. “By consuming the memories of the humans, we have become more. Dhajtel in body, but a hybrid in mind. We can reason and feel in a way that the Dhajtel before could not. Plus, I may not believe in the human religion, but its words have a certain power and they apply now.”
“After all,” she smiled, staring lovingly down at her daughters and Dormah. “She who eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall have eternal life. By eating my flesh and drinking my blood they will live forever in me as I live forever in them.”
“Are,” Kahtash began but paused, a hitch in her voice. “Are you asking us to do what I think you are?” Her daughter’s eyes flicked to the needle pistol once more.
“Yes,” Threedak said simply. “I haven’t taken my painkillers today because I want the memory transfer to be as clear as possible. When the agony becomes too much, I will finish things with the needle pistol. It is too important to pass down everything I know to all five of you and I simply wouldn’t have the biomass for the transfer to be accurate post mortem. I will need to be alive for as long as possible.”
“No,” Bekai stood up, pacing back and forth. “There needs to be another way. This is barbaric, the very thing adopting the trappings of humanity was supposed to prevent.”
“Please,” she turned to Threedak, tears streaming down her face. “Ask us anything but this. Anything at all.”
Slowly, Threedak plodded over to Bekai, blossoms of fiery pain dogging her every step. She put one grasper under her daughter’s chin, gently forcing her muzzle up. The other wiped the tears from the side of her face.
“Bekai my sweet,” Threedak comforted her. “I am dying and this has always been our way. It is my duty to my daughters, my tribe and my empire to step down and pass on my memories. I have taught you all I could, but my time has come. This is the way that it has to be.”
She turned to the rest of her daughters and Dormah. They were distraught. None of them truly understood her decision. At first she’d railed against the unfairness of fate and sought a cure, but once none had revealed itself, Threedak had been gifted with plenty of time to confront her options. Long ago she’d come to peace with the fact that this was the end of her story and the beginning of something new.
“Please,” she spread her graspers, encompassing the room. “Although there is sadness in this moment I want you all to rejoice. What I am doing today is an act of love and a celebration of my life and accomplishments. Soon you’ll be able to view my life through my own eyes, to see how I cared for each of you. As my memories become yours, the imperfection of language will slip away and I will truly live on forever in each of you.”
Threedak returned to her couch and picked up her needle pistol. She rolled over onto her side and closed her eyes for the final time. Her tail slapped the floor. Once. Twice.
The first set of teeth bit into the haunch of her hindmost left leg, almost hesitantly. She hissed in pain. Agony exploded from her tail as a chunk of scale and flesh was removed.
Whatever trepidation held the rest of her daughters back faded. Threedak’s mind almost blanked with pain as she endured bite after bite. Despite the agony a smile stretched across her muzzle.
She struggled to remain conscious. Her thoughts went to her daughters, when they barely made it to her waist, insisting that they were just as capable as her as they struggled to use crude bronze implements. Even now, all she could think of was her pride in their accomplishments. From Pinrakt’s sculptures, to Bekai’s inventions, each of them was a savant in their own way.
For a crude savage born into a violent and unstable world, they’d blessed her. Truly, she didn’t know if her grand plans for their race would have amounted to anything without their constant protection, chiding and help. But they’d done it. Conquered a hostile planet and struck the first blow against an implacable and ageless foe.
Threedak didn’t know what awaited the Dhajtel in the darkness of space beyond their home system, but she trusted her daughters implicitly. Whatever might lurk on nearby worlds, her daughters would break and bend it to their will. All that was left were her memories. Each of them only had a share of humanities knowledge, but after today they would possess the full codex.
She gritted her teeth against the pain, the coppery taste and smell of blood on her tongue. That knowledge was the final and most important gift she could grant them.
The agony ground into her like broken glass, jarring her system with each bite. Threedak gasped for breath, lightheaded from the combination of blood loss and pain. It was enough. The years of suffering as a figurehead, serving as an ornament and symbol for her people while others worked, fought and died for her. The mornings, prodded and stuck with needle to slow the advance of the cancer, always hiding her infirmity from her people lest they divert their focus from the vanguard. When her daughters moved away, governing various facets of society and often too busy to visit even for a moment of small talk. Throughout her life and now in the moment of her death, she’d endured.
Struggling she raised her grasper to her head. The needle pistol was heavier than she remembered.
A single shot rang out.