When we get to space, we learn that humans aren’t the “space orcs” we expected. In fact, we’re closer to space elves: the most elegant, the least brutish and violent and warlike, and the longest lived by far.
There are so few of them left.
One can go cycles without seeing a human. Hearing of them, yes. When our ship docked with the Angaasi space station, we heard tales of one that had come on board with a multi-species caravan, leading a mixture of generation and cryo ships to a new system; well, new to us. The human said it was a “sloom” - a system with society-supporting tech that had been left empty.
It was something to do with the Brightwars, when it seemed as if the whole universe would catch on fire from fusion weaponry and planet-eaters and it just escalated on and on and on. But no one knows for sure; so many died in the Brightwars that there were simply not enough bodies to continue fighting a war, let alone the hundreds of them that were raging. Entire species gone. Entire planets emptied of high-sentience lifeforms. Entire systems gone silent and dark. Survivors regrouping where they might. In the end, even enmities faded away, simply because there was no one to keep track of them.
Except the humans, and they will not tell of it.
Some claim humans reveled in the fighting. It’s said they learned at a prodigious rate; you could give a human any tech, and they would figure it out before their home planet had fully swung around their sun. Sklip, they might just figure it out before their moon had fully swung around their planet. They could break apart any mechanism and put it back together, the same or better than it had been before. They could take something broken that no one knew how to fix, and fix it. Or at least have it perform a function, even if it was not the original one. They could put pieces together in ways no one had ever imagined.
So, of course, someone handed them weapon-tech.
A few heretics say humans started the Brightwars, and reveled in the violence. No one believes them, of course. But they did fight in them, to the bitter, violent end, hard as it might be to believe. In the end, they were one of the few races fighting to end them, using tech they’d learned on the fly and improved on the go to ferry out survivors. There are many races who are alive today only because of their intervention. And they will likely never meet a human so as to thank them.
They don’t multiply as fast as other races. It’s absurd, really. In the time it takes the Blixii to establish a colony of hundreds, humans might bear and raise to adulthood a single spawn. One. And that’s if conditions are perfect.
I’ve seen one, up close. It’s hard to imagine how something so slender, so delicate, survived the Brightwars. They are as tall as a Taldo, with barely a third of their bulk. Their limbs are long and graceful, their fingers capable of such fine manipulation as only a machine can match. There’s no bulk, no hide, no chitin, no armor to them, no double density to bone or muscle, no silicon to their carbon structure. They are reeds, they are gossamer. When they enter a room one cannot help but feel rough and imperfect. They are so light they move in near perfect silence. Their bones weight a fraction of those of any other race, and this allows them a grace and agility unheard of. Their eyes are so simple, and yet full of such profound wisdom.
Adam came on board our vessel under less-than-ideal conditions. He’d been helping the Taldo figure out some issues with the meteorological controls in their home system, and he’d been badly injured. The Taldo were in such a panic that we, the nearest ship with fold-tech, were allowed to jump directly into the heart of their system; I don’t think any non-Taldo has set foot on their homeworld since before the Brightwars. Despite the injury, he was still gracious, cheerful even. He was of a height with a juvenile, and I could have probably wrapped one hand around his waist. His skin was pale red, like that of an albino - he was a summer reed among the rainbow of greens of the crew. One of his arms had been secured to his torso, and the first thing the Taldo told us was to make sure that he would not lose it, as he could not regrow it. His eyes were brown and, while it was obvious he was in pain, they almost never lost their keen curiosity. His hair was white and so fine one could have woven the finest fabric from it, if he’d not cropped it short.
It was a short trip. We folded directly out of Taldo space, and suddenly our “precious cargo” status cleared us the top slot at every jump-gate and fold-point all the way to the gate that would take us to the human homeworld. There, Adam assured us, was the technology to mend his bones and his respiratory system. I, as the most senior non-officer in the crew, was assigned to him personally. I spent most of my time chasing him into the engine chambers and the maintenance ducts. He made friends with all of the engineering crew, and most of the foundry personnel.
“Artee-efem issue,” Adam told me when I finally dredged up the courage to ask him what had happened, and smiled at my ignorance of his language. “It is what happens when you think you know all technology, and find out you didn’t. The Taldo systems aren’t Taldo-tech. It was… a surprise.” His expression brightened. “But I have learned something new, and that is always worthwhile. What is it you do, young Steelrender?”
“We’re salvagers, sir.”
He winced. “Just Adam, please. Salvagers. Still traveling the universe, I see.” He looked thoughtfully at me then, and I felt as if he were looking at my ancestors, standing in my shadow. “Your people have ever loved the traveling as much as the arriving.”
It was the first time he mentioned knowing of our people before us, but it would not be the last. He tried to explain to us, but the concept that gravity and time dilation might be cumulative spiraled off into quarters of mathematics that greater minds have tried, and failed, to grasp. He insisted that it was not that humans lived longer, but that everyone else lived faster. The difference was, as far I’m concerned, no difference at all. He gave up trying to explain to our navigators and engineers with profound grace, and instead had me take him to examine the salvage pods. Everything fascinated him. The people, the machines, the interactions. He learned everything. His mind was boundless.
“Is there truly room in your head for all of this?” I asked him once, when he was making ready to retire.
“Of course. In my head and yours,” he replied cheerfully.
“I’m a salvager. That’s all I know.”
“Are you sure? Have you tried?”
The question, like so many of his, stumped me. “The thing is, Steel,” he explained carefully. He had to be, or he’d spiral off into terms and concepts too far beyond most beings in the galaxy. “Trying doesn’t cost you anything. In the time you’re spending here, fussing over an old lame beast like me, you could be learning to forge. Or to maintain the cooling systems. Or anything else.”
“You’re not old! And someone else already does that.”
“Out here in realspace, I am exceedingly old. And what happens if tomorrow a big old rock hits the ship and every engineer dies spaced?”
Everything in me froze. Of course you worry about accidents in space, it’s space. “Well, it couldn’t be all of them.”
“Could it not? It’s good to know a little bit of everything. Your people did, once. They loved knowing how to put things together almost as much as they loved taking them apart.” His expression suddenly shifted to sorrow. “Of course, it also helps to know how to use it. And when. And when not to.”
He said no more on the matter, and we brought him home as quickly as we could. One of their sleek little ships came up to meet us in orbit, gleaming like a bird against their sun; their planet has no docking platforms, planet-side or orbital. He allowed me to help him onboard, where the machines of his people waited to heal him.
“I thought your people would come to help you,” I admitted.
He laughed, but that sorrow was back. “Oh, Steel, there are not enough of us for that. There’s too many aio-ioos, and too few of us to pay them off.”
“Because of the Brightwars?”
He went so still. So very still. “Yes,” he admitted at last. “Because of the Brightwars.”
“Did you fight in them?”
His expression turned sheepish. “You’re younger than I thought if you’re curious about them already. How long has it been for your people, Steel? Five generations, six?”
“Ten,” I told him and proudly slammed my fist to my chest. “I am the tenth of my name.”
He winced. “A berserker’s salute. Some things never do change… Steelrender. Is that a salvager name, or an ancestral name?”
“Ancestral. From B-”
“Balgor Steelrender.” His expression turned wry. “I thought you looked familiar.”
“You knew my c- our clanmother?”
“Know her? I fought her.” He settles down as the machines scan him. “It’s nice to know she made it out alright.”
“Oh, yes. Most terrifying day of my life. Your people were hell on the battlefield. No one sane wanted to fight you.”
“… But you did. Humans did.”
“We did,” he admitted ruefully, as the machines helped him lie down and surrounded him in their healing glow. I knew it wasn’t magic. Of course everyone knows it’s not magic. But it’s so far beyond what anyone knows of tech that… Yeah, it might as well be magic. “What that says about us, I leave to you. But yes, in my youth I fought against your people. And then with them.”
“Against, and then with… But that doesn’t m-” It does. But at the time I was too dense to figure it out. “At the end. So it’s true, you’re the ones who ended the Brightwars.”
“What? No!” He laughed. “There weren’t enough left of us to end a mess hall brawl by then, let alone a war, let alone the war. No, we did what we do best: we advised. We supported. We helped. And in the meantime, we tried to preserve what was left. People. History. Knowledge. We were too busy squirreling away bits and bobs of information to end anything, let alone the Brightwars. No, Steel, your people did. The Brightwars daunted even them, that’s how bad it was. That’s why they must never happen again. But then,” his smile turns mischievous once again, as if he were letting me in on a joke ten generations in the making, “who better to defeat war itself than an orc?”