Bite-sized Backstory 47: The Best Thing I Can Think to Be (Destiny)

by Ragashingo ⌂, Official DBO Cryptarch, Sunday, January 27, 2019, 23:08 (2005 days ago)


“You're the devil," Alis Li whispers. "I remember… in one of the old tongues, Mara means death.”

"You realize," Alis Li says, breathing hard, "that this is the worst thing ever done. Worse than stealing a few thousand people from heaven. Worse than that thing we fled, before we were Awoken—"

The words above, spoken by Alis Li to Mara Sov, are completely serious. Not a single one is rhetorical or played up. Alis Li is as furious and as serious about them as she has been about anything in either of her two lives. But how did we get here? It must have taken something extremely extraordinary to provoke the normally staid first queen of the Awoken to lash out with such hatred. Let’s rewind just a bit and find out.

Things have been moving rapidly forward since Mara’s broadcast. Undoubtedly, all of Mara’s teams and companies and hosts of engineers and experts are now hard at work on the technologies and ships needed to leave the Distributary and its pocket universe. Given how much Mara put in personally to the development of new technologies back before Sjur confronted her, it seems likely that she would be right there working along side them. But on this particular day, Mara has taken leave of her work and journeyed with Sjur out to the beautiful Pearl Groves that contain the Sanctuary of Former Queens.

…she looks out across mazes of channel and tidal pond to the compounds of ancient silver-white stone beyond. Two-ton oysters glitter in the shallows, their shells jeweled with mineral inclusions. Seabirds peck and fret along narrow white beaches.

They touch down some two kilometers from the retreat, and, after ignoring a warning from Uldren to not go alone, Mara walks that distance through the heat, dressed in black no less, with nothing but a small parasol to shield her from the sun. Up in the sky, Mara thinks she can just make out the glittering specks of her hulls, advanced starships…

built under eutech supervision to the specifications of radically post-conscious AI that will one day fly between worlds.

This is the first we’ve heard of AIs that did not originate in Humanity’s Golden Age or the Eliksni in the form of their Servitors. I wonder if anything became of them… (There’s a chance this question is actually playing out in Forsaken’s Dreaming City right now… and its answer might be: “yes!”)

Finally, after walking for quite a while, Mara reaches the place Alis Li has been living for the past several hundred years ever since she gave up the position of Queen. From its description, it sounds like it might be the structure Mara first woke up in a few thousand years before. Alis and Mara sit down for tea served from that same tea service that Captain Alice Li of the Yang Liwei once used to serve tea to Mara and her mother a very long time ago.

The two sit and drink their tea and converse. It’s not a friendly conversation, really, but Mara and Alis are at least respectful of each other. As they talk, we learn that Mara did indeed get Devna Tel elected as the new Queen, but also that Queen Tel took that authority and then decided not to support Mara’s expedition back to earth.

Alis kinda rubs this in Mara’s face. She sorta mocks Mara by pretending to be surprised that Queen Tel doesn’t want thousands of Awoken ripped away from their home on the Distributary.

Mara argues that she isn’t ripping anyone away because all of her people are volunteers. In reply, Alis reminds Mara of what her mother told her during that meeting on the Yang Liwei way back then: “….that it is one thing for you to have a particular power over people, but another thing entirely to deny that you are using it.”

Mara snipes back, quoting Alis’ own words back at her:

"You once told me," Mara counters, "that I had to consider the symbol people made out of me, and that if it were good, then I had to be that symbol for them. I had to perform as they required. I have done so. I have been the best thing I can think to be.”

Alis’ reply?

Is this the best thing you could think to be?

For a while, the two drink in silence. Then, finally, Alis gets to the important matters. She first asks about the Diasyrm and the Theodicy War and demands to know if Mara arranged it all. Mara admits she nurtured the Eccaleist and made sure she always had a group of Awoken who were not satisfied with the heaven they lived in so that she would have people willing to follow her back. But Mara denies that she arranged it all. Which we’re told is a lie.

Alis, growing more furious, wants to know why Mara is asking so many to sacrifice so much. She wants to know why Mara is asking these people to die for a home that was doomed. She wants to know why Mara wants to go back and try to save Earth when 891 members of the Yang Liwei’s crew voted to abandon it. Alis reminds Mara of the Amrita charter and how it directed them to explore new worlds and how it was that same charter that Alis used to shape the creation of the Awoken and the Distributary.

Mara agrees, that the first one to awaken was the one who got to set the rules. This satisfies Alis for a moment. She sort of releases her anger and sits back in her chair and asks why Mara really came out to see her.

“To ask you for that boon you owe me.” Mara says.

Alis knew this must be coming. Certainly she suspected Mara would call in her favor after her worldwide broadcast. Alis speculates aloud, saying she is sure that Mara has come to her to ask her to endorse the expedition to earth. It all makes sense to Alis. Devna Tel turned Mara down, but if Mara can get Alis’ backing, the backing of the first Awoken queen, well that would be far more powerful that having the support of the Awoken’s newest queen. All in all, Alis is sure this is just more political gamesmanship from Mara. Except, Mara says no. The real reason she has come to see Alis Li is something Alis probably never expected.

“The boon I ask is your forgiveness."

Then she explains the truth. She tells Alis Li what she did: about the choice Alis Li would have made, if Mara had not made her own first. It's only an extension of what Alis has already deduced.

When she's finished, her ancient captain's jaw trembles. Her hands shake. A keen slips between her clamped teeth. The oldest woman in the world conjures up all the grief she has ever felt, and still it is not enough to match Mara's crime.

"You're the devil," Alis Li whispers. "I remember… in one of the old tongues, Mara means death. Oh, that's too perfect. That's too much."

She laughs for a while. Mara closes her eyes and waits.

"You realize," Alis Li says, breathing hard, "that this is the worst thing ever done. Worse than stealing a few thousand people from heaven. Worse than that thing we fled, before we were Awoken—"

"Please," Mara begs. "Please don't say that."

There it is! There is Mara’s biggest darkest secret? Did you catch it? I’ll highlight it again for you:

She tells Alis Li what she did: about the choice Alis Li would have made, if Mara had not made her own first.

Alis Li has lived for thousands of years thinking she was the first Awoken. She remembers defining her own name and her own existence. She remembers creating the Distributary and restoring herself to a physical body. She remembers being there when she pulled Mara back from the void. But now Mara is telling Alis that yes, she did make those choices. She did all of those things, but that she was only able to make those choices because Mara made her own choices first. That in reality, Mara was the first Awoken, and that she kept that fact secret from everyone, including Alis.

We’ve been leading up to this for a while. Think back to the times Mara has protected or revealed some important, unspoken secret:

So, what exactly is Mara asking forgiveness for? Well, now we know that it was Mara who set the very initial ground rules of existence for everyone, including Alis Li. She set it up so that Alis Li would remember the Amrita Charter and create a world and a people to the best of her ability. But, knowing that a creator who stole godhood away from the Awoken would be seen as evil by many, Mara hid that knowledge from everyone and instead arranged it so that Alis Li would be the one to take the blame. Mara manipulated Alis so that everyone, even Alis herself, believed that Alis was the one who allowed suffering and death into their perfect world. Mara even arranged a war among her peaceful planet of immortals to further her own agenda and she again set Alis up as the one to take the blame.

Maybe, in the end, it turns out that Mara did all this to help save Humanity and fight The Darkness, but what she did to Alis Li is one hell of a thing to ask forgiveness for. And, maybe rightly so, Alis does not forgive Mara. Not in the slightest!

Alis Li rises from her chair. "I'll support your fleet," she says. "I'll use every favor and connection I have to get your Hulls completed and through the gateway—and I will do it so that I can hasten your departure from this world. I will do it out of hate for you; I will do it so that every good and great thing we achieve here will ever after be denied to you, you snake. No forgiveness. Do you understand me? It is unforgivable. Go. Go!"

"I'd be very glad if you didn't tell my mother," Mara says.

Alis Li hurls the pitcher of blackberry tea over Mara, turns, and goes inside, leaving her to trudge, wet and sticky but unbowed, back to her ship. She leaves her tea-stained parasol on the deck, but when she remembers it and looks back, it is already gone.

So now there are two people who know Mara’s secret. Her brother Uldren, and her sort of rival, former queen Alis Li. Uldren accepted the secret and its implications but has such faith in his sister that he buried it away from everyone. Alis Li called Mara the devil and promised to do everything in her power to send Mara far away where she will die.

But what about Sjur? She doesn’t know. And she is someone who switched sides during the Theodicy War because she believed punishing Alis Li for denying the Awoken their godhood was more important than any other loyalty or responsibility she had to her Queen or her people. She fought and killed and was prepared to murder Mara or Uldren all for that belief. What will she do if she ever learns Mara’s secret?

The answer is actually out there. We’ll explore it eventually, but next time, we'll close out this first book of Awoken history and get a hint at what’s to come.

Chapters Referenced:
Nigh I
Nigh II
(And the rest of the Marasenna)

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Next: 48: Departure

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