Three on a Match: Third Light

For the Record

“Starting with the affirmation of man, I work my way backwards using cynicism.” -Minutemen

I am the Emperor of the Squawks. We are a proud race. Our talons are sharp, our minds sharper, and our tooth-lined beaks are well suited to feast upon both the plants that sprout from the land and the animals that walk upon it.

I am known to my subjects as the greatest ruler the empire has ever known. This isn’t just their opinion. It is the law. Ours is a civilization that emphasizes progress. Science and culture are expected to improve over time. So are the emperors. I am greater than my father, who was greater than his father before him. I have a lot to live up to. Fortunately, my greatness has already been established by decree so whatever I decide to do is great by definition. An emperor shouldn’t have to second guess himself.

This is not to say I’m perfect. If I were, I would have led the Squawks to victory over the entire world and that is clearly not the case. I am not speaking of military rivals. All of them have been wiped out centuries ago. I am referring to scientific breakthroughs not yet discovered, a workforce that sometimes falls short of peak efficiency, and monuments to imperial glory that remain unbuilt.

And the vermin. We mustn’t forget about them even though life would be far more enjoyable if we could.

They live in the walls, under the floorboards, and in the shadows. They are easy enough to kill individually or even hundreds at a time. This has become a hobby of mine. Swinging an ancient war hammer of my ancestors, I have left countless wet smears around the palace from vermin who were unable to scurry for cover. Alas, they breed too fast for me to put so much as a dent in their numbers.

This is tragic for they are singularly disgusting creatures, not at all like the noble Squawks. They have neither scales nor feathers. Instead they are covered in hairs, like on a caterpillar, but thicker. Their young are born tiny and weak, but rather than stomping them to death as any self-respecting Squawk parent would when faced with such pathetic offspring, the vermin mothers feed them with a vile, white liquid they secrete from their own bodies.

I made myself a promise that I would be the emperor who bought about their extinction. Brute force alone had proven ineffective so I called upon our top biologists to come up with a solution to the vermin menace.  The scientists had found cures for many of the diseases they carry, but have failed to come up with a way to exterminate the vermin themselves.

I am a ruler, not a scientist, but I have done everything in my power to help. I have levied additional taxes to fund more research. I had underperforming biologists executed as a reminder to the others that I expected results.

I even enlisted the help of non-biologists in this quest. When a team of astronomers came to the palace with news of a comet on collision course with our planet, I asked them if it would kill off the vermin. Their answer was that it would kill quite a few. I told them I was not impressed. I had personally killed quite a few vermin myself without the help of any comet and I gently but firmly reminded them that killing quite a few makes no difference in the long run.

I rephrased my queston and asked the astronomers if the comet would kill all of the vermin. They said it certainly would in the area of impact. I told them that was a good start, but what about the rest of the world. They said they weren’t sure. I told them they needed to be sure and not to bother me until they were.

They all left the throne room except for one young Squawk astronomer. He was a proud specimen, his prominent beak defiantly thrust forward, the claws on his feet scratching at the marble floor. He knew how dangerous it was to disobey a direct order from the emperor and yet here he was standing before me. I admired him for that.

“Emperor, perhaps you do not realize how destructive this comet is going to be,” he said.

“Of course I do. If it is going kill off the vermin, I would expect there to be some collateral damage. Wouldn’t you?”

“It’s going to be a lot worse than that. It could wipe out our entire civilization.”

“And you would prefer to go on living in a world infested with vermin?”

“I’d try to make do.”

“Yes, I imagine you would.”

And with that, I summoned the guards and had him put to death.

He was such a disappointment. I was so hoping he was going to propose a bold plan that would ensure both the survival of the Squawk Empire and annihilation of the vermin. I did not believe any such plan could possibly work, but even the most laughable idea would have been preferable to his display of cowardice. Fear leads to treason. I did well to nip it in the bud.

I spent most of my time going over reports submitted by the two teams of scientists. The astronomers said the comet was definitely going to hit us, the location of impact was going to be a peninsula far to the south, and it would be an extinction event (at least for us Squawks). There was some good news, they assured me. Although the comet’s collision was certain, it was by no means imminent. We had decades to devise and execute a plan.

A plan to do what? I asked them. Kick the vermin the comet only stunned, but did not kill outright? And weren’t we supposed to be killed as well? Their answer was that most of the deaths would not be caused by the impact itself, but rather by a state of permanent winter brought on by all the dust cast up into the atmosphere. They said there was still time to construct shelters and stockpile food so at least some of us could survive.

Fine, I said. You can build your shelters if you can guarantee that no vermin will get inside. If they do, those shelters will be your torture and execution chambers.

They did  not build the shelters.

News from the biologists was no more encouraging. Poisons would kill vermin within certain radius but not outside of it. Infecting them with diseases would either kill them too quickly for a plague to spread or turn them into immune vectors that spread the illness to Squawks.

The researchers were convinced that there had to be some hidden weakness in the vermin’s genetic makeup. This was not a new idea. It was nearly as old as the Squawks’ hatred of vermin. There were literally centuries’ worth of tissue samples preserved from experiments that went nowhere. The biologists thought their predecessors may have missed something so they set about reexamining the samples in the hope of finding some crucial detail that had gone undetected.

It was this course of action that brought the worst news of all. A comparison between the vermin used in the earliest experiments and those alive today showed differences in their brains. Current vermin’s brains were larger and the cerebral cortexes more convoluted. The difference was barely perceptible, but it was there. The vermin were slowly getting smarter.

I had suspected this for some time. While others were quick to dismiss the vermin’s natural cunning as mere instinct, I knew there was more to it. This was part of what made them so hard to exterminate. It was also why we needed to kill them all while we still had the upper hand.

I asked the top biologists to make an estimate of how long it would take before the vermin became our intellectual equals. They said that evolution works very slowly and estimated it wouldn’t happen for another 65 million years, give or take.

This would be reassuring except that we did not have 65 million years to wipe put the vermin. We had less than 30 years before the comet hit. There was a good chance that we would be wiped out and they would not. Our world, everything we had worked and fought for, would someday be theirs for the taking. I decided right then that I would not allow this to happen and issued the following proclamation:


We Squawks can be pretty cunning too, you see. To force the vermin to build their world from nothing as we had, we had to eliminate any trace of our existence. Not only that, we had to hamper their advancement through a misinformation campaign the likes of which the world has never known. In short, the vermin would inherit a past that never was.

One phase of the operation was the dismantling of every building and every machine we had ever made. Even my palace, the most glorious structure all the Squawk Empire, was reduced to dust that was cast to the four winds.

Many of the Squawks themselves, either by volunteering or through conscription,  had their physical bodies become part of the grand deception. Our medical technology in the field of tissue regeneration had found a new purpose.

Through megadosing, Squawks were transformed into huge, grotesque creatures bearing little resemblance to their former selves. Some had theirs necks extend to be as long as their tails. Others had plates of bony armor form on their heads or sprout from their vertebrae. I think my personal favorites were the ones whose heads expanded while their arms withered into tiny, useless appendages. Seeing one of these poor creatures writhing in agony, I was unable to tell whether it was the pain of metamorphosis or the sound of our laughter that tormented it more.

Mercifully, none of these poor souls lived for long in their current form. Their bodies were buried in locations worldwide at varying depths. This was carried out  under the direction of one of our most brilliant scientists, who had engineered every detail to create a plausible geological narrative.

We completed the project not long before the comet arrived. Those of us remaining, the last evidence that the Squawk Empire had ever existed, traveled to the peninsula that would be the point of impact. There we stared up at the night sky and watched the approaching object, once cold and dark, burn hot and bright as the midday sun.

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