The windows in the tower offer a commanding view of the sprawling city, the likes of which we have never seen before; it is an upside-down city whose spires extend into the thick atmosphere of the gas giant below, which is riddled with millions of gently floating lifeforms that vary in size from microscopic to no larger than our fists. They are all luminescent and light up the city’s ever-night with every color known in the Spine.
Our enjoyment of the serene outside beauty is disturbed by Speakers Tanna: they raise their hand and loudly demand the attention of Chairmen Erroo, who stand at the center of the Committee’s circular table. One of Chairmen Erroo’s heads turns to face Speakers Tanna; there is annoyance in its multi-pupiled eye. Chairmen Erroo’s hands motion for silence to the other Speakers.
‘Yes, Speakers?’ The Chairmen’s voices speak in unison.
‘The Committee should return to the subject of the migratory patterns of the local microbes, there is a desire--’
The Chairmen sigh. ‘We agree with you that the matter of the microbes is most pressing, but we feel that the Committee’s time should be spent in a different way at this time.’
Most meetings of the Committee are like this. The Sentients in the city above--varied as those of any trading hub in the Spine--see all-of-us and believe all-of-us are mysterious and powerful; they believe that the Committees, hidden in their enigmatic towers of metal and glass, determine the fate of the universe. Unfortunately, it is a common misperception: Committees spend most of their time discussing the migratory habits of local microbes. . .
The Chairmen’s heads wrap around each other again to form a single head, and the Chairmen continue speaking, both mouths moving at the exact same time. ‘The threat of the Mass shoal at the edge of our star system is a significant one: we all know that the Mass are quite capable of violence. And while the High Committee may not believe that they are here to conquer or--as they might perceive it--liberate, all-of-us should be mindful that they may be here to plunder and pillage.’
We nod our head in agreement. ‘All-of-us must prepare for war,’ we say. Most of the other members of the Committee mutter agreement.
Speakers Tanna flutter their lips in perfect synchrony. ‘Madness! The Mass shoal at the system’s edge is far too small to pose a significant threat to all-of-us, and they know it. They would never attack.’
‘Well then, Speakers Tanna, what do you suggest?’ The Chairmen make no effort to hide their annoyance.
‘We suggest that they are here for the outer worlds of the system: they're here to refuel, and they will leave once they have what they want. They are no threat to the city or its traders.
One of Speakers Tanna’s eyes rests on us; the pupils slowly and independently look us over. ‘And all-of-us,’ Speakers Tanna say, ‘should return to discussing the microbes. . .’
We take the elevator up to the top of the city, the street level. Through the ceiling of the elevator’s glass box, we see the bottom of the city streets rush down towards us at an incredible speed. It is a view we have come to enjoy, the upside-down skyscrapers, the enormous needle-like gas mines that pierce the planet’s gaseous hull, and the millions of little lights that light up the city’s ever-night, each going about its own business.
At times, we see a mine light up--miles and miles below us--as it gathers the electrical discharges in the gas giant’s volatile atmosphere and harvests it to power the city. When that happens, lightning flashes below and illuminates the world’s rock core and we truly feel how upside-down we are as our stomachs pull frightfully at our bodies.
It is one of the most frighteningly beautiful places we have ever been stationed.
The elevator stops at Core-West Street, a long corridor that extends into the financial heart of the city--where the mining corporations have their offices, flanked by the giant towers of the service providers that leech on the mining industry. Core-West Street is a sight of itself, but what sight depends on the beholder; in an attempt to attract tourists, Core-West Street been psionically enhanced to let it tap into the minds of consenting passers-by, so that they can make the corridor appear any way they like, within the limits of the city’s Psionic Control Act, of course.
We are simple in that respect: we like to make the corridor transparent. It takes an iron mind to do so--to move suspended in nothingness with naught but a twirling mass of raging storms below and an upside-down city above. But we have witnessed first-hand many a horror in the Spine: other, more sinister phobias, have replaced the common fear of falling that may cripple any being that would dare to invoke the same psionic illusion.
Besides, we enjoy the sensation in our stomachs as we slide through nothing to nothing.
When Core-West Street opens up into Liberation Square, the illusion is shattered and makes place for the busy cityscape of any place that offers homes to a dozen different species of Sentients. We see humans in life-support suits; Corals of all shapes and sizes that trudge along ponderously, decorated with shells and chitin; crystalline Priests that radiate with an inner light; and Hunters with folded wings that step through the city in their two-legged and two-stilted gait, while glaring at the mantis-like Spinners, who curse the city’s strict sidearm policy enforcement under their breaths.
And then there are the Bound, the all-of-us, conquerors of the Spine, masters of the galaxy. The all-of-us enforce, all-of-us direct, and all-of-us make to prosper. It is the inherent superiority that comes with being two entities of a single mind that makes the all-of-us masters over the other races.
At least, that is what the all-of-us like to believe. . .
We find that we have much in common with the Colonies. Symbiosis and eusociality are very different, but all-of-us are more akin to a eusocial collective than we are to a solitary Sentient, who to us seem always rather lonely.
Yet the Colony is a hard creature to the eyes: a mass of smooth, featureless worms strung together to form a bipedal, two-armed glistening mass with a narrow torso and a strange protruding bulge at the top where several worms have evolved into eyes, ears, and a tremoring thing that the Colony uses to make sounds and communicate with. It is no surprise that most Sentients resent them, despite their calm demeanor.
We sit down in a dark corner of an inner city Lounge, a place where Sentients pay to be lulled into a psionically induced dream; a place where everyone is too busy fulfilling their deepest desires to care about what goes on around them. Perfect for a meeting such as this one.
A robotic servant hovers towards our table and offers us the services of one of the local Psions, refreshments, or both. We decline the illusion and order a local beverage, while the Colony orders some ice. Its voice is a deep tremor that sounds surprisingly musical for a creature of such disturbing appearance. It then focuses its oval white eyes on us, and waits for us to speak.
‘We have spoken to the Committee,’ we say. The translator changes my words into trembling, musical tones. ‘We believe the Chairmen can be convinced to respond to the Mass shoal you have created.’
The Colony nods slowly. ‘We must be sure,’ it says.
‘The Committee gathers again in two solar days,’ we say. Our left head writhes free and turns to keep an eye on the Lounge. ‘We believe that if the shoal will still be there by that time, we can convince the Chairmen it is a serious threat, and that all-of-us must act.’
We are silent as the robot serves our refreshments. As the Colony dips its hand in the ice, the ends of the individual worms that make up its fingers unfold and start sucking on the ice, consuming it at an amazing speed.
‘It is a huge effort to maintain the shoal,’ the Colony says once the robot is gone.
‘We know it is. Freedom comes at a cost. But if you wish to call it off, there is still time to do so.’
As the Colony thinks, it hums a tune that sounds familiar to us. It then holds our eyes for a moment, uncertain of which pupil to stare into, and finally shakes its head-like bulge. ‘We will maintain the illusion for another five solar days,’ it says. ‘Once the Bound decide to respond to the distraction, we will give the signal for the uprising.’
We nod our right head, while the left still scours the lounge. ‘When you give the signal, we shall let you into the tower, so you can take the Chairmen hostage. Chairmen Erroo are heroes to the Bound, all-of-them will negotiate with you for their lives.’
‘It is a desperate thing to do. . . ’
‘Freedom is worth any sacrifice,’ we say.
The Colony nods, rises slowly, and turns.
We smile as it shambles out of the Lounge. Chairmen Erroo’s cycle has been nothing but a rapid succession of demonstrations in incompetence. Whether or not they survive the uprising is of no consequence; their failure will not be tolerated by the Supreme Command and the only possible successors to his post are Speakers Tanna or we.
And we doubt Supreme Command will suffer Chairmen who prioritize microbes above hostile shoals.