by Gustavo Bondoni
The children pushed and shoved, each trying to get the best view of the blossoms. The largest of the lot, impervious to all attacks, pressed their noses to the thick transparent viewport. Others, too small for physical competition, stood off to one side, using another transparent section of hull to watch the show.
The children had decreed, using some logic Sarah was unable to understand, that the central viewport was the only one worth watching from. But, as far as she could see, any disadvantages were more than offset by the fact that the two or three small children stationed away from the coveted spots were much more comfortable, munching contentedly on sandwiches made of sucrose jelly and the ancient staple of the spaceways, peanut butter. Sarah smiled when she realized that little Wingle, seven years old and still as chubby as a newborn, was among the latter group.
Suddenly, as if by some telepathic consensus, or just because they seemed to know what was coming, the writhing mass of children calmed. Even the last couple of ‘hey, stop pushing’ were delivered in nearly inaudible whispers.
Sarah shook her head sadly. There had been a time, decades before, when the blossoming was something that human children were forced to observe in order to teach them about the nature of the universe, the nature of power, and the nature of wisdom. One of the galaxy’s deepest on-going tragedies.
But this wasn’t decades ago. Just twenty minutes before, her boss had reminded her of that very fact.
“Just tell them what they’re seeing,” he’d said. “don’t worry them with moral issues.”
“But the moral issues are the reason the Imperium sends the children of its top officials all the way out here. Interstellar passage to the borderlands isn’t cheap, you know,” Sarah had replied. She knew it would end the same way it always did, but she had to try.
“I think the parents just do it to get the brats out of the house.”
“No, they don’t. They do it because it’s the law. The government is paying for the trip.”
“Yes, but the parents can choose any of the other ships out there. And if the snot-nosed kids come back whining about boring old history lessons, they will choose another ship for their next child. So, how about making an effort to make it fun?”
“Fun? It’s one of the saddest things humanity has ever encountered.”
“It’s also the most profitable trip we make. Every Blossoming keeps this ship running until the next one. We can’t afford to lose customers. Now get out there and do the job I’m paying you to do.” That, testily delivered, had ended the discussion.
She knew what she had to say, and knew what she had to avoid. Make it fun, she thought, sadly.
But he was also right about one thing: it was the job she was being paid, and paid extremely well, to do, and no one had forced her to accept it. Sarah would do her part. She resolved, for the millionth time, to quit right after this blossoming.
She clicked on her mic and gestured for the nannybots to stay silent. “Good afternoon, children,” she said, “you are about to see one of the most important things that happen in the galaxy.”
Some of the children turned back to look at her but most kept their gazes firmly fixed on the space outside the viewport. They’d heard the story a million times anyway.
But, she would do her job. “To the right side of the port, you can see the Freliz fleet, although right now, they’re just tiny points of light.” She knew that as she spoke, implants in the children’s optical nerves linked to the ship’s computer would mark the position of the fleet with a red square. If they so wished, the children would be able to zoom in and have a closer look at the Freliz’s wedge-shaped cruisers.
“The formation on the left belongs to the Hon-Kanneh. You can see their battle stations with the naked eye.” As far as humanity had been able to ascertain, the Hon-Kanneh seemed to prefer fortified space stations the size of small moons to fast-moving attack ships. There had never been any way to know more. The first human explorers to approach had been unceremoniously blown out of the sky without ever discovering what was going on or being able to establish contact. In those days, human military technology was nowhere near the capability of either fleet. It still wasn’t, but centuries of observation had led to the conclusion that despite their might, neither Freliz nor Hon-Kanneh would ever be a threat. For starters, neither race had developed interstellar travel.
“The Freliz originated on a planet orbiting Hammersmith 402, a relatively small main-sequence yellow star, while the Hon-Kanneh are deemed to have evolved on the largest moon of a gas planet in the Hammersmith 201 system. It’s the only place in the galaxy where two intelligent, space-faring races share a binary system.”
She paused to let their implants show them the two stars, despite it being unnecessary in the extreme as they were by far the two brightest points of light visible from the viewport. There were always a few really dense kids in the crowd.
“Every twelve-and-a-half years, the orbits of their stars and the outer planets of each system pass as close to each other as they ever get, and the cometary clouds in each system mix together. It is at this time that they launch their expeditionary fleets, which are those before you.”
Another pause as the children focused on the fleets again. “Each fleet holds millions of intelligent, sentient beings, and every twelve years they meet in the deep, cold, empty wastes between their systems.” She eyed the position of the two fleets, and calculated that the show was about to start. “We don’t know what they call these meetings, but we call them the blossomings.”
As if on cue, a perfect sphere of yellow light ignited in the midst of the Freliz formation, a truly beautiful blossom of fire. The children oohed and aahed, forgetting their snacks for a moment. In short succession, a number of other spheres blinked into existence near the first. Sarah went on with her explanation.
“The war between these two races has been ongoing ever since humanity first encountered them centuries ago. Xenologers believe that the war started when one of the species, unaware that the other star had inhabited planets, attempted to colonize the other system. They were probably beaten back and massacred. Ever since, they have been hammering at each other, neither side able to get a decisive advantage, nor willing to risk the consequences of not preparing a fleet. The years between blossomings are spent breeding yet another generation of soldiers, building yet another fleet.”
Looking at the children, Sarah thought, and human children, once brought here to learn the consequences of narrow-mindedness, now view this as the galaxy’s number one spectator sport and social event, a sign that your parents are important enough for you to be sent out here. But she said nothing, just looking at the children’s reflection in the viewport, trying to judge their expressions to see whether any of them understood the magnitude of the tragedy they were watching. Most of them were still rapt, but they’d also begun absent-mindedly nibbling on their food. Not much troubling their pre-adolescent minds, then.
Suddenly, a much larger ball of flame and escaping gasses filled the vacuum on the left. The children jumped, exclaiming and pointing at it with glee. One of the Hon-Kanneh battle stations had finally succumbed to the fire from countless tiny wedge-shaped ships. This marked the second stage of the blossoming: the big fires.
The children might not have been able to appreciate the tragedy, but they had no trouble at all with beauty. They watched in fascinated silence as the huge fleets hammered each other with blades of unimaginable energy. They pointed as the large fireballs bloomed, mingled and occasionally combined with the smaller ones that denoted the death of a Freliz craft and all hands. But, except for the occasional exclamation, or pointing out a particularly colorful explosion to a companion, they spent the next few hours in silence. These children, daughters and sons of the best and brightest, were accustomed to standing patiently, but this time they actually enjoyed it.
Soon enough, the blossoms became fewer and eventually stopped altogether. From the tags on her monitor, it became apparent that a handful of Freliz craft had survived the encounter. Maybe a hundred thousand sentients still alive after a battle of millions. They pressed toward the Hon-Kanneh home world.
It was no longer worth watching, though. It would take the wedges weeks to reach the outer limits of the system, and even then, they would be destroyed by automated defenses that made the battle stations look like slingshots. There wouldn’t be enough of a show to make it worth watching.
She turned to the children once again. “Any questions?”
None were forthcoming and the children, herded by their nannybots, walked off into the cabin area. She scanned their faces to see if what they’d seen had sunk in at all, but nothing indicated that it had. The faces were flushed with exhilaration, and the word that she heard most often as they walked by was ‘pretty’. Her heart sank as she watched an entire cadre of the Imperium’s future leadership walk away from an experience that should have changed them forever without any sign of being richer for it.
Soon only her favorite, little Wingle, remained, staring out of the viewport. His nannybot tugged gently at his sleeve, but he seemed embarrassed to turn. When he finally did, Sarah saw that his face was wet, marked by tears, and his eyes were rimmed with violent red.
Sarah shooed the nannybot back and knelt beside him. “Are you all right?” she asked.
He nodded silently, eyes wide. Finally, he allowed himself to speak, barely more than a whisper, “Are they all dead? All those people in the ships?”
She wanted to tell him that no, they were fine, that it was all a game. That the ships were a simulation for their benefit. But she knew that doing that would be to do the boy a disservice. “Yes.”
“Why don’t we stop it?”
“We can’t. They have more ships, more power, and they won’t talk to us.”
“I don’t know. I think they’re afraid of us. Afraid of everyone who isn’t one of them.”
He nodded as if that was logical. What were they teaching these kids?
“My daddy is a senator. I’m going to tell him about this. He’ll stop it.”
With that resolve, the child took the nannybot’s proffered hand and walked towards his cabin.
Sarah called to him. “Wingle,” she said, “I’m proud of you.”
He looked at her strangely, not understanding, but finally smiled and went on.
She looked after him and decided, once more, that maybe she wouldn’t quit after all. Maybe it was important that these children see this. Some of them wouldn’t get it, now or ever.
But even one boy like Wingle, destined to wield power on a galactic scale, could change things. And she wanted to be there to put them on the right path.
She went back toward her room. She’d be asleep for the next twelve years or so, but she didn’t mind. There was a reason she did what she did, and it wasn’t the money.
Gustavo Bondoni was born in Argentina, which, he believes, makes him one of the few – if not the only – Argentinean fiction writers writing primarily in English. He moved to the US at the age of three because his father worked for a multinational company that bounced him around the world every three years. Miami, Zurich, Cincinnati. He only made it back to Buenos Aires at the age of twelve, by which time he was not quite an American kid, not quite a European kid, and definitely not Argentinean! His fiction spans the range from science fiction to mainstream stories, passing through sword & sorcery and magic realism along the way, and it has been published in fourteen countries and seven languages to date.