He asks for music to be playing as his birthplace dies.
The human female doesn’t question and he doesn’t elaborate. She told him – on one of the long nights of the long voyage – about firework displays she’d attended as a child, and it was her description of the sparks blooming in time with the martial music that gave him the idea. After all, it is a kind of entertainment, even if the part of him that will enjoy it is the reason he’s long since stopped looking in mirrors.
She’s amused when he puts in his request. “You want to fiddle while Rome burns?”
He doesn’t understand even when she tries to explain, but as he looks out of the viewer at the pretty red and blue world below, he realises it doesn’t matter. It’s not as if he will have the chance to get to know these contrary people with their unfathomable vernacular and peculiar history. There will be no place for him in the new order, in spite of their promises, because these people are not trustworthy. He accepts this.
She smiles at him with the acquisitive gleam that he has come to expect from her species. “This will be different,” she says. “I’m rather looking forward to it.”
They have no interest in his revenge but they did not hesitate to use it to milk him of useful knowledge. He accepts this too.
He wants to smile back but the music has begun, gentle and hopeful as she orders the initial bombardment (he learnt the names of the instruments even though he can’t identify them with any confidence. He thinks these might be violins). There are five ships in orbit under her command but this is the only one with music and the only one poised above his home. He feels no guilt for the rest of the planet. They refused his pleas for alliance against his despotic murderous mother; if they had helped him he would be the despot behind the throne now – he doesn’t pretend he would have been a benevolent ruler but he would have been better than her – so they can die with her or serve the new regime, if they live.
The attack is gathering pace. The sea strikes have yielded their tsunami to the brass section and the wetlands are gone, there will be no sea-bound escape. An alarm sounds; the planetary defenses are responding but he knows they will be no match for this ghastly orchestra. The female deploys fighters. The flutes applaud.
He fixes his eyes on the citadel, where he lived until his mother took his child to be raised at her discretion. He knew why. Although he (being male) could not inherit the throne, his child was the heir – but his mother wanted his sister’s eldest child to rule after her. After seven months under her care, his child died. His son died during the uprising that followed.
The borderlands expire thanks to the hundred violins. The female is enjoying herself, it seems: she says “we should do this every time” to no-one in particular. He isn’t enjoying himself as much as he expected. This ship is cold, and the more his world burns the colder he becomes.
He could have had more children of course, although none of them would ever have ruled because his sister’s three girls were in the way and he would not stoop, as his mother did, to butchering adolescents. But there will be no children now. He imagines the panic in the citadel, wonders if his mother has made the connection between her rejected son and her downfall. He wonders, too, whether there was enough warning for them to escape. The humans picked up no ships leaving the planet, but his family and their advisers could have left the citadel, if there was time. They could be in hiding somewhere.
He forces himself to breathe down the panic. The victory is assured. If they survive it, well, so much the better. He regrets that he couldn’t be on the surface, to ensure they understood their mistake as they died. Identifying them to their human captors would almost be better.
The music has turned righteous and uplifting as the outlying fields are set aflame and the people set fleeing towards the city walls ahead of the fire front, but the timing of the crescendo is all wrong; it comes too soon, as the outer walls fall. He watches the citadel crumple in silence, too far away to hear the cascade of falling masonry and the choral screams of his dying people. He can sympathise. After his mother’s forces crushed his rebellion he had no escape either, and he was banished, sealed into a ship that could barely make it to the next star and sent off to die in the void. He would have died, too, if these people hadn’t rescued him, nurtured his grievance and offered him their help. They even play violins for him while his home burns.
Somehow it doesn’t feel like salvation.