The red light on T'sai's desk began flashing at precisely the same moment he stopped resting his eyes.
He tapped into the communicator. "INTEL six-three-alpha. We have a code red located in the ... Axis-22 region. Definitely not routine. Looks like something heavy. Real heavy. Over."
"Roger that, Lieutenant T'sai. We'll have a team out to the region in about 10 minutes. Out."
Since the day when intergalactic travel had become a reality, the people of Earth had moved quickly to be both gracious hosts and visitors to worlds so foreign to their own that the sheer culture shock of it all had driven more than one simpleminded human completely insane. Within the first few months, there had been numerous attempts to destroy the now-numerous launch pads by religious fanatics and Luddites. When those plans had come to a halt, the first acts of intergalactic terrorism had begun. Stowaways on commercial flights to places millions of light years away detonated internal bombs that annihilated hundreds of fellow passengers in mere seconds.
Soon, more sophisticated bomb sniffers and detectors became commonplace. As the large galactic federations began regulating trade, whole worlds were left in the dark. 2441 marked the first use of the term "Third World Planet." Here, too, fundamentalism and simplistic living clashed with the modern technological demands of the 25th century. The reactions were predictably harsh. Wars broke out, and weaponry became almost impossibly impressive. A few enterprising scientists created the first Planetsmasher, a thermonuclear device that would instantly reproduce the nuclear winter that had devastated Jupiter in the 22nd century. There were never any survivors. Such was the cost of war in the age of the galaxies.
One small tribe of people had waged war on the Federation since its very inception some 200 years prior (with Earth taking an early position as a major contributor and participant). The Gavelians were, unlike many of the major planets, a matriarchal society, run by a council of Elders who had always looked out for the best interest of their people. They had never suffered a civil war, and they were actually one of the more prosperous planets in existence. However, a tiny fraction of Gavelia saw fit to wreak havoc on what they saw was an ever-growing power structure that would wipe them off the face of the universe. They began with targeted assassinations, culminating in an explosion outside of a Federation municipal building that had killed several thousand office workers going about their daily affairs. The council of Elders tried to appease the Federation by arresting several of the offending terrorists - but when they refused to execute or extradite them, "war" was declared all the same, which meant a Planetsmasher would be dropped onto the planet in the next 24 hours. Evacuation plans were made. Unfortunately, the payload arrived in a mere 6 hours (conspiracy theorists suggested that the building demolition had been staged as an excuse to destroy Gavelia) as only the second ship was leaving its homeland forever.
Fortunately, it was a dud.
The news quickly reached the Federation, and a second Planetsmasher was put into flight and dropped.
By then the Gavelians had long since vanished, along with the unresponsive ordinance.
"What seems to be the situation, Captain Mugotto?"
"We're not quite sure. hostages taken, demands and threats are being made. Par for the course, but we're not quite sure what their ace in the hole is."
The captain and in his counterterrorist force squad stood outside a small library in Axis-22. The red light that had flashed across Lieutentant T'sai's desk meant that a terrorist situation was underway. If it had been black, there would be no need for the captain; merely a mortician and a press conference.
Mugotto shook his head in confusion. It doesn't make sense. This library has no value. There's no one important inside...
A shout interrupted his thoughts. "We will now make a declaration," an anonymous voice rang out from a third floor window.
"Since the dawn of our civilization, we have worked hard to coexist with others. Sometimes we have prevailed; sometimes we have not. We have now been forced into a life of secrecy, infamy, and exile by those in power. They have usurped their authority in the name of peace. They have destroyed entire worlds in the name of justice. They have mistreated and used every end of the universe for their gain in the name of prosperity. And they have allowed billions of innocent lives to simply fade away in the name of progress."
"We will no longer sit idly by as the blind lead the blind into a world of destruction and corruption. Today Gavelia announces its independence. Like our enemies, we must enjoin to commit a terrible act in the name of righteousness. Those who might survive, I ask of you: show us mercy. We have been defeated as no other has. We have now passed the dusk of civilization. We are in a long and dark night, of which there seems to be no end. We are as beasts of burden, unthinking, unquestioning - and unnecessary."
"There is -was- a saying in Gavelia: 'Forgive us, and the gods will smile upon you. Forgive yourself, and the gods will kneel before your throne.' We ask you to forgive us as we free ourselves from this wretched place. We ask that you forgive us as we free you from your fates. Forgive us!"
By now the speech was being re-broadcast throughout most of the galaxy. Captain Mugotto checked in with his superior.
"Permission to evacuate, sir? I don't exactly want to become barbecue."
"Permission granted. Out."
Mugotto's group was already safely back on its way to Isocron when a breathless dispatch interrupted their trip.
Mugotto stopped the ship in his tracks. "Repeat, please."
"The library they are in has the collected works of Tiberius Opp."
"Yes! He did a lot of theoretical research on the Planetsmasher. He even came up with plans for an entire Galaxysmasher, though he never implemented it! And there's certainly enough capability for a much .. larger .."
Mugotto was already racing back towards the small building. He arrived just in time to hear the explosion that vaporized the entire universe.
As the two gods watched on with a complacent detachment, the small ball of glass on the pedestal shattered, and a light puff of smoke wafted through the room. Finally, Gaia turned to Chronos. His smirking face told her much.
"It was only the first one, dear." She pointed to the row of pedestals the lined the Hallway of the Worlds. "Each one has been an improvement over the last. Look how well 15 is doing. Or 37 - they just discovered fire!"
He sighed and patted her hand lovingly. "They are all beautiful things. But the first .. it was true and tragic and I was so very young then. It was the loveliest one. I'll miss it." The two walked slowly out of the hall, and the few last fumes of haze were carried away by a warm eternal spring breeze.
Title from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.