Among the myriad worlds of the Tracean Empire, there was no center of learning more renowned than the marble halls of the Institute of Inquiry, no profession as prestigious as an Inquirer, and no Inquirer more infamous than Gabriel Silveros.
Julian Solas was one among many students in Kenaz Hall, seated at rapt attention as Silveros began his lecture. The robed man stood in the dead center of the lecture hall, up on a raised dais that Julian, from his seat, had to lean back to see properly. Behind him was a monolithic display screen that stood as high as the ceiling, dwarfing the man. With his gossamer Inquirer robes and scarecrow-like stature, Silveros seemed like a powerful sorcerer plucked from the pages of an ancient myth. He had a sharp goatee, completing his arcane look.
“To say that history is written by the victors is nonsense. I say history writes itself, and it is a cruel author.”
Silveros said nothing for a moment, letting the students absorb his words. Then, with a swipe of his finger, the screen flickered, and a vast starfield materialized. It glimmered darkly, like a grand tapestry dotted with tiny white lights.
Within the depths of the starfield, an object grew in size. It was almost imperceptible, but as it approached, Julian saw it was a ship, traveling closer and closer from the edge of infinity. Soon, the ship dominated the screen, its great form pure white against the dark backdrop of the void.
The ship was barbaric, a leviathan on predatory wings of ivory, a colossal, looming raptor.
As Julian looked up at the Zhai dreadnaught, a chill ran down his spine.
Behind Silveros, the ship seemed to rise out of the screen itself, taking on three dimensions as the space and stars around it folded inwards. The bow of the ship hung over the class.
Silveros raised his eyebrows. “Scary, don’t you agree? An unexpected stroke from history’s bloody quill. A twist of the plot, one might say, as if to tell us: search no further beyond your place in the stars, children of Trace, for this is what awaits you in the dark.”
He sipped from a cup of tea, punctuatorily.
“Here’s an easy question to start us off,” he said. “Can anyone tell me the name of our first encounter with the Zhai? Anyone? This is elementary, after all—ah, Seventeen.”
Julian lowered his hand. “The Purge of Proudmarch.”
“Indeed. Proudmarch, a burgeoning, thriving city, a jewel on the crystal plains of Asgardia. Then, in a divine stroke, the city was annihilated. Seven hundred thousand innocent Tracers, lost in an instant.” He pointed up at the dreadnaught. “You think that’s scary? That’s a hologram. Five of those monstrosities—five real, physical leviathans—dropped out from the Bifrost into the skies above Proudmarch. They were twenty times bigger than this simulation. And they were just the first.”
He tapped the podium and the dreadnaught disappeared. Julian winced as the lights in the hall came up.
“New students of history are blind to the raw humanity that hides between the lines of history texts. Instead, they see an objective narrative, stripped of the human experience. This is why many fail to truly grasp the story of our race. There is no frame of reference for our ancestral anguish. And without that emotional tether, we are doomed to watch as the bloody quill of history writes a new chapter of tragedy.” A pause. “Yes, Twenty-Two?”
Oriana Sahin, a squirrel-faced girl with pale hair, spoke. “Are you saying that in order to appreciate the Zhai Invasion, we need to have…another Zhai Invasion?”
“Metaphorically, yes,” said Silveros.
A wave of murmurs broke out through the classroom. Oriana’s hand shot up again. Julian felt Basil Katz nudge him in the side. When Julian looked at him, Basil jerked his thumb up at Silveros and scrunched his face in disbelief. Julian shrugged.
Silveros silenced the crowd with a flourish of his hand. “I did not say I want our people to be exterminated. If a period of peace lasts long enough, society inevitably decays. We as a people have lost the flame of survival. The primal spark of fear. We have forgotten how to be afraid, and when the next chapter of history is penned, we will be struck from its pages. I guarantee it.”
Basil raised his hand, his eyebrow arching.
“Check me if I’m wrong, Silveros, but I thought this was a history lesson.”
Silveros looked down at him, unamused. “We are only five minutes into this course, and you have already failed to grasp my lesson. You think history is constrained to the past, Eighteen? Naive. History is a totality. It is the was, the now, and the will be. It is chaos, yes, but within the chaos lies a pattern. The lot of you are just too blind to see it. Moving on.”
Basil leaned over to Julian and muttered, “That bastard called me naive.”
“When the Zhai invaded,” Silveros said, “our technology was mere toys compared to what those creatures unleashed upon us. And when—”
Julian requested the floor.
“I’ve been wondering,” said Julian. “Has there been any research into where the Zhai came from?”
“Prerzhai. Even a child knows that.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t being clear, I did not mean to inquire about where they live now. I meant, before they conquered Prerzhai, they had to come from somewhere, right?”
“This class is an examination of our history with the Zhai, Seventeen. I am here to educate you on our eternal conflict, not tell you their life story. Now, does anyone have any serious inquiries?”
Julyan hesitated a moment. “Have there been any developments with the theory of mutual origin?”
His words hung in the air, as if he had cast up fireworks and everyone was waiting for them to explode.
Silveros pursed his thin lips. “You wish to entertain heresy? In these vaulted halls?”
“Is it, though? I’ve been reading—”
“Reading what, old tabloids on the shadow net? Fanatical ravings? We exist in the realm of academia, Seventeen. Let us return there at once.”
“No, verified sources.” The words were coming naturally now. “Peer-reviewed articles by Inquirers. Genetic cross-analyses, common linguistic roots, but nothing conclusive.”
Silveros’ eyes bore into him. “There are no articles of that nature in existence. Anywhere.”
“They weren’t easy to find, but it all makes sense. The Zhai look the same as us. We’re structurally similar, even genetically. So I am inquiring, here in these vaulted halls of Inquiry—are you saying it is impossible that Tracers and Zhai have a common ancestor?”
“Seventeen,” said Silveros, his tone acidic, “you dare suggest that our people and those monsters are the same?”
Julian’s words caught in his mouth.
“No, by all means, continue to educate me,” said Silveros, coming around the podium and looming over Julian from the dais. “Does it please you to think this way, Seventeen? Does this alternate version of reality you’re describing appease your whimsy?”
“I…I mean, I didn’t intend to—”
“You have already spoken; your intentions mean nothing. You say you have read articles on this matter? Have you researched the authors of those articles, Seventeen? Likely you’ll find that they haven’t a credit to their name. This mutual origin theory is heretical fancy. To even suggest it makes me doubt your aptitude as an Inquirer.”
Feeling a rush of blood to his head, Julian said, “I’m not suggesting. I’m inquiring, and I was under the impression that is what Inquirers do.”
Silveros flushed. “Get out.”
His robed arm lashed out and pointed to the hall doors. “Leave!”
Julian stood shakily. Basil looked up at him, but Julian couldn’t meet his gaze. Awash with humiliation, Julian turned out of the row and headed up the staircase to the exit. He felt a host of eyes casting judgment upon him as he walked. When he came to the door, he heard Silveros say, “Moving on.”
Julian closed the door and left the class behind.
“Well, that could have gone better,” he said under his breath.
The injustice welled up inside him as he set off down a cobblestone path.
The Institute of Inquiry was supposed to be the pinnacle of higher education.
So what was so dangerous about that question?
Julian didn’t know for sure, but he intended to find out.
written by Chris Barrett