Abiigian’s Moonswell, 19447
The Commander coughed, setting his lungs to rattling and filling them with fire. He beat a hand against his chest, trying to stifle the spasm. After a moment it passed, leaving behind a dull, wet ache.
“Declarations,” he ordered.
A minor officer swayed up to his dais, her eyes sunken and turning yellow. She took a moment to steady herself before speaking. “Rath have still not located anything of value, Commander. They continue to search, but…” she trailed off and handed him a report. “Courier from Homeworld; the Enemy are growing closer. Every year they move further and faster. They still remain unaware that we are tracking them… but that will not last.”
The Commander nodded, biting back another coughing fit. Onslaught Fleet was already in dire straights; all of its ships were undermanned and most were functioning on a skeleton crew only. The Cull was slowing, but only because it was running out of victims to claim. If it continued – and it would, there was no doubt of that – then all that would remain of the Fleet was empty ships, derelict and left to drift helplessly through the cosmos. The Commander did not know why the gods had cursed his people to such a fate, but if the Cull could be slowed, stopped – then they might have a chance.
But only if the Enemy did not find them first. They were too weak, too few to fight back meaningfully against a foe that swallowed planets, that absorbed star systems and spread like a plague across the galaxy. They would not gamble their fading lives and faint hopes upon the virtues of a species that had already proven its savagery.
That was why the Curate had agreed to this mission, this lost hope of their people. Somewhere out in the galaxy, there must be what they sought. There had to be; it was their only chance. It might take years, but there was no other option.
Within Seneschal and her brood-mates lay future generations, asleep and waiting. Waiting their turn to crew and command these ships of Scouting Fleet once their present occupants succumbed to the Cull. And then, after them. And then, after them.
The Commander coughed again, dabbing at his mouth with a fine kerchief, catching bile and blood upon it. His dam had embroidered it for him. She was dead now, she and their children. Culled.
If he failed, if he faltered and the Enemy drew too near, then there would be… the contingency. What little remained of the Fleet would lash out, falling upon and savaging the Enemy so fiercely that the creatures upon their own Home Worlds would cry out in pain and fear. Slowing and crippling them enough that the People’s frantic scientists might discover a cure for the Cull and that he might succeed in his own mission.
It was perhaps, scratching at the lid of the coffin, but it was the only chance his species had.