"We've become a big business, oh, galaxy merger. Two of us, a big bang."
"We didn't know that it would blow up with such might."
"Some may call me a lucky shot; no, no, no, but it was not."
- "Irresistible Force"; Jane's Addiction
Leaving Earth was the hardest possible thing for any nation to comprehend, let alone execute.
Earth - our home, our birthright, our mother planet. She'd been given to us, graced us with her wide expanse and her resources, and we'd used and abused her with abandon. We didn't think. We didn't stop to consider what exactly it was that we were doing - at least, not until it was too late to change anything. Progress was too effective a blindfold, and by the time we looked past it and tried to make amends, we were too late. Our home was drained, dying. Our people were in danger of following suit. Our very lives were threatened with extinction by our own arrogance and our own mistakes.
So we chose the only path we could.
It was almost laughable, that the only time we were able to successfully unite was when we'd been driven against a wall, left completely without other options, by our own foolishness. But we did it. We united. We pushed out past Earth to explore in all haste the vast unknown of the universe, and it was there that we found our salvation.
So we left. We left our Earth.
Not all of us abandoned the mother planet, however. Not all of us survived the transition. It took a great upheaval, a great effort to reach our new home, and by the time we had, our numbers had irreversibly dwindled.
They continued to do so, one by one. Our kind, the Earthborn, was dying, even as we raised our successors. We couldn't do anything. We couldn't stop it. It was inevitable, as people and culture and history warped and forgot and faded.
Until, at long last and many years after Earth... there were only two of us left standing.
Alfred could hardly remember what it felt like to truly be America.
He was still fundamentally the same person - there was no getting rid of Alfred F. Jones, no sir - but the circumstances were so radically different that the degree to which he'd been forced to adapt was startling. His culture was barely distinguishable among the many, slowly taking on entirely new characteristics from all that now encompassed it, and so much history had been forgotten by his people that thinking about it made him cringe. His was a history of revolution and democracy, of heroics and hypocrisy, of westward movement and civil war and a changing world. But that history, which made him and broke him and was such an integral part of his identity, did not matter so much, here in this foreign part of the 'verse.
For years, he hadn't thought about this. For years, he'd dealt subconsciously with the growing loss. But it was resurfacing now, and with it came an ache inside of him, raw and doubled since Matthew and Kiku had died. Yao had once called it the ache of Earth, and it couldn't be more aptly described. It was a longing, a yearning to go back - the land made up a nation almost as much as the people did, and even though Alfred had long since accepted this star system as his home, it was not. It wasn't his birthplace. It wasn't Earth. He missed Earth something fierce, and the ache for the mother planet had grown stronger as of late, where before time had eased it.
He didn't realize the implications of this until it was far too late.
There hadn't been a collection of enlightened minds like these since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and Alfred knew that for a fact. Even amidst his inexplicable misgivings and Earth-centered aches, it gave him hope for the future. Men and women like these were what humanity needed; keeping the many planets linked and ensuring their survival was an enormous task, but if anyone could do it while guaranteeing humanity's safety, these people could.
Yao was thinking the same thing, Alfred knew. The two of them sat side-by-side, accompanied by Winston and Akiko, at their rightful places in the joint session of their respective Parliaments. Today, it was being held on Londinium, and most of the gifted leaders of Londinium and Sihnon were present. Discussion had not yet started; Yao's boss had announced a few days ago that he wanted to make a game-changing proposition before the joint session, and no one, supposedly not even Yao, knew what it was. Speculation was evident in the controlled whispers that floated around the Parliament floor, and the animated air of the place was making Alfred jumpy.
"So you really don't know what he wants to talk about?" he asked Yao earnestly. It wasn't the first time.
"No," Yao said again, as patiently as possible. "He did not tell me."
"But word is that it's huge! C'mon, Yao, I wanna know!"
"You'll find out in a few minutes! Act like an adult!" Shaking his head, Yao leaned forward to give Winston a look; the young planet sat on Alfred's right and therefore, within the immature nation's sphere of influence. "You see that overgrown child between us? He sets a bad example. Don't follow it."
But Winston looked almost as antsy; it seemed that Alfred's excitement was infectious, his influence too strong. "Are you sure you don't know?" the young personification of Londinium asked hopefully.
Akiko, who sat on Yao's left, covered her mouth to hide a giggle as Yao threw up his hands in frustration. The smaller nation leaned on the half-circle table and looked down at the gathered political leaders, scanning their numbers; he, Alfred, and the two planets inhabited the only dais present, giving them an elevated view of the room. It had long ago been agreed that no member of Parliament would take a higher place than another; the only thing that would be lifted would be the people, conveniently represented by Alfred, Yao, and their charges. "If you want to know so badly," Yao told his 'western' counterparts, "perhaps you should make sure that your leaders aren't late!"
Alfred sighed in impatience. As if that was his fault! "It was short notice, 'kay!" His curiosity was getting the best of him, and within seconds he'd leaned his elbows on the table and dropped his head onto folded hands, starting to noticeably fidget and willing the last few stragglers to hurry.
Yao's mouth was twitching upwards, and he looked away, shaking his head and muttering something. Alfred didn't catch all of it, but the few words he heard were enough to cause him to freeze in his anticipatory twitching. "What was that?" he asked, trying to appear nonchalantly curious.
"I said, you haven't changed at all since Earth," Yao replied, then seemed to realize the meaning of what had just left his mouth. He frowned, his eyes locking with Alfred's, as the two planets sensed a changed in the mood and looked up at the nations inquisitively.
"So..." Alfred said quietly, feeling that old ache twinge in his chest. He should have guessed. "... You've been thinking about it too."
Yao sighed, absently raising a hand to his chest as a small scowl crossed his face. "All too often lately," he murmured. "I thought I had suppressed those memories." His head cocked slightly as he studied Alfred's face. "And you-?"
"The ache is back," Alfred told him. "I haven't felt it this strong since... well, since not long after we left." It was present like a large hole in his chest even as he spoke; in the past few weeks, it had becoming impossible to ignore.
"What's wrong?" Akiko asked in concern, breaking the melancholy spell that had temporarily descended over the two nations. She looked at them intently, mirrored by Winston opposite her. "What ache? Are you hurt?"
Alfred and Yao exchanged a glance, then Alfred gave the young planets a reassuring smile. "We're fine," he said. "Just some old memories. Don't you worry!"
Neither Akiko nor Winston looked convinced, but before either of them could say anything, the room abruptly fell quiet. The nations and planets, startled out of their conversation, looked out over the assembled politicians, and Alfred realized that all were finally present. Li Huan, the Minister of Sihnon, had gotten to his feet and was approaching the open center of the room reserved for those with something to say. He stood tall despite his rather small stature, and his was a commanding presence. Alfred had always liked him and not just because the guy was reminiscent of Yao himself.
"I realize that this is an informal way to begin a session," Huan said, as soon as he was in the speaker's circle and was sure he'd captured all attention. His voice was carried powerfully, projected by the well-designed acoustics of the oval room. "But... my proposal is not to be taken lightly, and we must discuss this as fellow members of humanity." He nodded in respect and grave acknowledgement to the nations. "In particular, I speak to you."
Alfred and Yao shifted simultaneously, nodding in return; their attention was focused solely on Sihnon's Minister, and after a moment, the two young planets followed suit, fidgeting in excitement as Alfred had previously been doing. Huan smiled, then continued.
"I will not bore you with preamble or pretty speeches," he said. "What I am proposing is a merger between our governments, what we deem the 'American western' planets and the 'Chinese eastern' planets. In short, a true alliance under one government, whose sole purpose will be the continued existence of our race." He fell silent in response to the massive surge of murmurs that followed this startling statement, and he gazed out serenely over the crowd of Parliament members, waiting for them to quiet.
Alfred's eyes were wide, and his mind was already calculating. It was always calculations, now, always a precarious position, and he was rapidly trying to figure out what exactly such a merge might entail. Would it ultimately be beneficial or harmful? How much would it cost, both in money and politics? Would he be able to get along with Yao enough to make it work?
That last was a given. They'd worked closely together since Earth, for nearly three hundred years, and they might as well have been lumped together under a single nation for all the nonexistent differences and quarrels present between them. And Yao understood more than anyone what it all was like. The recollection intensified the ache in Alfred's chest, and he realized that it was not a question of Yao - it was a question of himself.
He was already losing the identity he clung to so fiercely. And he knew that this would only erase it even more. The question was: did he even care?
He was surprised to find that the answer was no.
Not if it was Yao.
At least, not after Arthur and Matthew and Kiku and everyone they'd lost.
Alfred winced as he looked askance at Yao, who was gazing back at him with much the same surprise.
Huan continued abruptly, drawing attention back to himself as his words rang out across the room. "A significant concept, I know," he said. "But after thinking on this for many weeks - months, even - I have come to the conclusion that we're stretching ourselves unnecessarily thin. Our governments are possibly the most harmonious in all of human history, but the constant coordination between them drains away precious resources and drags out. Imagine, if you will, an alliance of all the central planets - a seamless creature that will unite us even more closely." He paused for a moment to let that sink in. "That is our goal, is it not? Unity... and the safety of our race." He smiled suddenly, face alight with the thrill of the idea alone. "It is not so far-fetched a scheme as you might think."
Perhaps not, but it was huge, a veritable bombshell. And yet - so had been every decision they'd made in the past centuries, all the way back to the formation of the Anglo-Sino Alliance. They were not strangers to radical ideas, and this... this was not as radical as some. This wasn't even close to leaving Earth.
"I ask your opinions first," Huan said to the nations, and all eyes were on them. Winston and Akiko were riveted, caught up in the tense, excited atmosphere. Conscious of this attention, of young minds who would remember this moment for the rest of their existence, Alfred looked to Yao again.
They didn't exchange a single verbal word, but they didn't need to. After a moment, Alfred gave a light shrug as Yao inclined his head, and then both of them were smiling tightly. "Our opinion?" Yao asked.
"Seems to me that this is going to take a fair bit of planning," Alfred said simply.
Huan smiled in return, and there was scattered applause from a few of the younger and more enthusiastic Parliament members. Alfred's words seemed to have broken a dam; several voices were raised in encouragement, doubt, agreement, and question, and spirited debate began with hardly a prompt. It grew in volume, reverberating around the Parliament chamber, and the renewed charge of the atmosphere infected Alfred yet again.
It was sudden and unexpected. It would take months. There was no guarantee of it working. It might not even come to fruition at all. And Alfred wasn't quite sure if he'd truly registered the implications yet.
But if the lively environment of the Parliament floor and the members' unusual enthusiasm was anything to go by, then Alfred had the feeling that change was in the wind.
If there were any two people who could get things done with remarkable speed and enthusiasm, they were without a doubt Alfred and Huan. Yao reflected on this with a smile and shake of his head; his boss and Alfred were known for getting along famously, and they'd taken to this new project with zeal.
It hadn't been easy, no. After Huan's initial proposal, debate had raged in the Parliament room for a full week - some for, some against, and Yao began to live for the breaks in between sessions. But the majority had agreed to an experimental stage - the proposal would be formally written up and sent to all the planets and their respective governments and people, and their vote would ultimately determine if this plan was to be carried out.
The vote had returned quickly, and the majority had once again ruled in the plan's favor. And that was when the full impact of the situation had hit Yao.
He and Alfred had already agreed to dually represent this new union, as neither of them was willing to push the other out. It was strange, the harmony between them, and Yao wondered where it would take them further. Soon, he would not be able to refer to himself as a singular nation. Soon, he would lose even more of the self he'd left behind on Earth. Could he do that?
Alfred was obnoxious and loud and overly enthusiastic and too damn cheerful, and yet Yao was perfectly fine with that. Were it anyone else, he may have resisted, rejected this new arrangement, but he'd shared the same burden with Alfred for years. He may have been about to lose a part of himself, but so was Alfred. And Alfred understood the loss.
The answer was: Yao could. And only because it was Alfred and not a stranger.
After the confirmation had come the drafting of a new constitution, a step that he and Alfred had griped their way through. It was tedious work, going through the old and working out compromise after compromise - political positions had to be renamed, rearranged, and compensated. The election system had to be altered, the chain of command adjusted. Londinium got the Parliament location, the political power, and Sihnon got the guilds, the financial power. Londinium had too much of a concentration of power? Then fine, Ariel got the military. It was like this for weeks, planets arriving and leaving and coming back and quarreling, and sometimes Yao just wanted to introduce his head to a wall, or perhaps their heads... until at last a document was drafted that suited everyone as much as possible.
And finally, finally, came the crux of the matter.
They were in the same place that the plan had first been proposed, and now it was coming to fruition. The Parliament room was crowded near to capacity with the addition of several planets and their leaders, and the air was hot and thick. In the speaker's circle, a table had been set up, and on that table was a piece of thick paper on top of the new constitution. It was a symbolic thing, meant to represent methods of bygone days, and underneath the surface of the table was a pressure pad that would digitally record signatures for storage and later confirmation. But the only thing the room's occupants could see was the physical signing of the paper in ink, and Yao could tell that the sight was making Alfred a tad melancholy.
The nations and planets present inhabited the dais, which had been cleared of its table and chairs in order to make room for the increased amount of planets here today. They were not going to sign; their names never appeared on any official records, but their presence marked their approval. Alfred and Yao were in their center, with Winston and Akiko once again on either side, and Yao placed a comforting hand on Alfred's shoulder.
Alfred glanced at him and smiled apologetically. "Sorry," he said, rather sheepishly. "I'm being a bummer right now, aren't I?"
"No need to apologize," Yao said. "This is very much like your memories, isn't it?"
Alfred sighed. "'We hold these truths to be self-evident,'" he murmured, "'that all men are created equal.' I've come a long way since then..."
Winston, at Yao's left, glanced around the smaller nation curiously. "That's from your Declaration of Independence, right?" he asked. "Those are nice words."
"Yeah," Alfred said quietly. "Though I guess my Constitution applies here more. 'We the People...'" But here he fell silent again, unwilling to give voice to an old name, and Yao gave him a reassuring, if sad, smile.
"'To form a more perfect union, to establish justice, to ensure domestic tranquility, to provide for the common defense, to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.'" Winston and the nations looked in surprise to Akiko, who was on Alfred's right. Sihnon's personification looked back at them with earnest eyes, and she laid a gentle hand on Alfred's arm. "Those are beautiful goals," she said. "Even if they aren't written specifically in this particular constitution, we should still give voice to them, to remind ourselves that this is what we need to do. And besides, they're very historical and yet still relevant. They are amazing."
Yao smiled at the look on Alfred's face, a strange mixture of melancholy, happiness, gratitude, and not a little wonder. Alfred put an arm around Akiko's shoulders and drew her into a one-armed hug. "Thanks," he said thickly. "You're so right."
"Hey," said Winston, looking a little sad at being cheated out of a hug. "I said the words were nice."
"And it was right fine poetic!" Alfred reached over with his free arm to pull Winston into the hug, and he withdrew his arm from around Akiko in order to playfully ruffle Winston's hair, enveloping the young planet in a giant bear hug. "So moving, in fact, that I may never let go!"
Winston began to protest, giggling so much that his words were unintelligible, and Yao smiled to see it. A moment later, he felt arms gently wrap around him, and he looked down to find Akiko smiling up at him. "You need a hug too," she said.
Yao's smile widened, and he placed an arm around her shoulders in thanks. Then Alfred glanced back at him, grinning. "Aww, does Yao want a hug from me too?" he asked, as Winston finally managed to squirm out of his grip.
"No," Yao said firmly.
"Yeah, what is this, free hugs day?" one of the other planets called.
"It totally is!" Alfred said with a lopsided grin. "Free Hugs Constitution Day!"
This earned many eyerolls and sighs, and Yao shook his head in amusement, gazing out over the room. The line to sign was considerably shorter, almost at its end, and the atmosphere was one of increasing merriment. And Yao could sense the change in the air; the nation side of him knew that it was about to alter. The line continued to dwindle, and he and Alfred became utterly focused on it as it shrunk to a mere three people.
Finally, only Huan was left. He'd been unanimously voted into the new and highest position in the 'verse, that would lead this new Union of Allied Planets - the Lord High Marshal. As he bent down to write his signature on the cluttered parchment, Alfred and Yao leaned forward simultaneously, their hearts beating rapidly in anticipation.
And as Huan completed the last loop of his name, those heartbeats, already so close in rhythm as they had been for many years, synced perfectly.
It felt... different. Yao frowned at the sensation. He saw Alfred doing the same.
He thought it would have felt more... pleasant. He thought it might have eased some of the ache in his soul, as the distance between himself and the mother planet grew. But it did not. If anything, the ache intensified, deepened by that distance.
Amid the cheering that surged as Huan stepped away, the two nations looked at each other in confusion. But neither had an answer in their eyes, and after a moment, they shrugged together and joined the celebration.
"So I was thinking we could add designs to the walls, like flames and stuff, 'cause that'd be cool."
Yao gave a heavy sigh and rolled his eyes in response to this obviously amazing suggestion. "You really are a child," he said. "We are not putting flames in the Parliament room."
Alfred pouted. Yao was no fun. "But it would look awesome!"
"We're expanding it only! Not giving it a makeover!"
The two of them were on their way to the room itself, strolling down the halls of what was now ordained the official Capitol Building of the Union of Allied Planets. It had only been a day since the historic merging, and one of the first orders of business was the expansion of the ever-important Parliament room, to accommodate the ruling body's larger size. Alfred and Yao were on their way to do a preliminary survey, Alfred having volunteered them for the job, and they soon reached the enormous double doors that marked its entrance.
"Alright, let's get down to work!" Alfred said enthusiastically and pushed open the doors as if they were nothing. Engrossed in their own thoughts and conversation as they were, he and Yao failed to notice that they were not alone until they'd taken a few steps in; then, they stopped short, staring.
There was a boy sitting on the dais.
Alfred opened his mouth to ask what the kid was doing there, but the words wouldn't come out. Because the first thing he'd noticed, the only thing that his mind was registering, was that the kid looked like him. And Yao. The resemblance was startlingly obvious. It was as if someone had taken their respective traits and tossed them into a genetic blender, with this kid as the result.
The boy sat calmly in the center of the dais, regarding them with an expression cool and proud. Alfred shot Yao a bewildered look, but Yao was too busy gazing at the kid. "Who are you and what are you doing here?" the smaller nation finally asked, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"I belong here," the boy said, standing. He was nearly as tall as Alfred. He smiled down at them suddenly, and Alfred couldn't help but think that he smiled like Yao. "My name is Julius Chou," the boy told them. "I am the Union of Allied Planets."