September 15, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
Arykka Selliphii, Pilot Third Rank, Dreamchaser Squadron, awoke slowly. Her head throbbed. That was the first thing she realized. The second was how quiet it was. She couldn’t feel the machine, couldn’t hear the others. She was no longer Merged.
I remember… a cityscape swelling before her, her Fire Knife falling out of control…. She remembered going down, her fighter breaking apart around her as it slammed into something… she couldn’t hear the machine, nor any of her brothers or sisters. Instinctively, she reached up to the implant cradle in the back of her skull, but found no connection to her Fire Knife.
Her eyes opened and Arykka quelled the rush of fear as she realized where she actually was.
“Human,” Admiral Foraker stated, still unable to come to grips with the concept.
If Captain Drake Winters, the hive’s senior physician, had had glasses to adjust nervously, he would have done so. Over the past two days, he’d been feeling more than a little like Alice staring down the rabbit hole. Only there was a saying about looking into the darkness too, wasn’t there? He nodded, taking a moment to settle himself. Almost all of BG 97’s senior officers were here, in addition to Special Envoy Diana Pierce and none of them looked entirely happy.
A rather attractive redhead, whom he realized was Commodore Archer, appeared the most discomfited out of them all. He’d heard rumours about a disagreement between her and one of her captains during the final moments of the battle for Hyperion Hive and she’d been a consistent voice for more aggressive action against the Lefu. To find out that the ‘alien bastards’ she’d lost friends to over and over again were human themselves… it had to be unsettling.
“Yes, sir,” Winters began. “Unquestionably. However, her physiology and genome is markedly different from any existing line of humanity.”
In the centuries before the development of hyperdrive, globalization had reached a point where humanity had been amalgamating towards a uniform skin tone of light brown. After the Diaspora, many worlds were colonized by many different factions, not solely from the government’s own initiatives. Most of these groups were harmless, motivated by little more than a desire to eke out a ‘fresh life’ for themselves, or simply explorers looking to push back the boundaries of known space. Others were not so enlightened: religious zealots, isolationist xenophobes and racial purists, executing their social theories on the planets they tamed. Many of the latter had later been forcibly pacified by the Concord, a strategy that had backfired horribly when the Resurgency raised its head.
Whatever the motivations, the scattering of colonies across hundreds of light-years once again led to a heterogeneity in humanity. There were black people, white people, brown people. Those whose genetic and biological modifications were more extensive in nature could be any colour that they desired. Sky-blue was the current fad, Winters was given to understand.
However, the Lefu pilot was certainly in a class by herself. Well, along with the rest of her homicidally-inclined kin. Her skin was chalk white, interspersed by the network of black tribal tattoos that crisscrossed her body like bladed vines. Possibly warrior’s markings. Her hair was almost the same hue as her skin, though it possessed a very light yellow sheen.
“A chromosomal analysis shows that interbreeding and viable offspring are certainly possible,” the doctor continued. “So it might be best to think of her as a sub-species, much like our current selves are from the original genotype of Homo sapiens.” He clicked the remote control, beginning the slideshow. “Be that as it may, as I said, her physiology is quite different from our own. The examination we conducted of her bone and muscle tissue shows that she’s stronger, faster and tougher than any other human alive. Bone structure also tells us that she’s not descended from any branch of humanity we’ve got in the forensic archaeology banks – and those go back thousands of years.” He sighed. “We came up with a 21% probability of Meso-American ancestry. At such a low value, it may be nothing more than coincidence, especially after we take into account the inevitable genetic drift and the alterations to her genome. We’re running her mitochondrial DNA, but on a being as extensively engineered as she is, it’s probably for naught. There’s been some theories that she might be a warrior breed, but until we know more… well, as I said, it’s all speculation.”
The CMO cleared his throat before continuing. “Her metabolism is a lot faster too. If it helps to think of it this way, the normal body is an engine – she’s a nuclear reactor.”
Winters clicked another slide. “Internal organ structure is not too different from our own; more efficient and with an incredible ability to self-repair – her liver ruptured in the crash and as far as we can tell now, she’s as good as new – but I’ve included the highlights of the IMSIS in your reports. Currently, the concussion she took on impact has kept her unconscious, but she’s recovering from that far faster than I’d have expected, too. Which brings us to her brain.
“What is really fascinating is this,” another slide popped up, a pair of different CAT scans. “The image to the left is the patient’s. The righthand scan is from an ordinary human brain. You can see the difference between them; hers contains many more cortical folds than ours. This is an important distinction. About two millennia ago it was thought that the more intelligent an animal was, the more convolutions its brain possessed. In some sense that’s true. The folds increase the amount of neural tissue that can fit within the skull, a trait common in higher animal orders. Before we start thinking of her as some super-genius, it should be noted that dolphins possess many more of these gyri in their brains than humans do, though their cerebral tissues aren’t as developed in other areas; they require the additional mass to support their unusual sleep patterns and process information derived from echolocation.
“That’s what we could be looking at here as well; her senses are superior to ours and she can probably process data a lot faster than we can. As well…” the chief physician moved onto the next slide, a spiderweb of tendrils reaching through the Lefu’s brain and backbone. “The implants in her spine are connected to each other and to the primary one implanted in her skull. It’s hooked primarily into her motor sites, but there are connections to her visual cortex as well. The secondary implants are similarly networked into her spinal cord and primary ganglion. What I think we’re looking at is a neural interface, which, as I said, explains the need for increased mental faculties.”
There was a soft murmur from the assembled officers. Natalya’s expression darkened. The Concord had tried for centuries to link a pilot’s mind directly with the ship they were flying. Ever since organic minds had proven their superiority over AI-controlled ships in the Earth-Centauri war, humanity had always been looking for a way to get the best of both worlds. None of the experiments had ever succeeded and there were folders full of disastrous attempts and droves of volunteers killed or driven insane by the attempt to hook a human’s mind into a computer system.
Apparently, the Lefu had found a way. That explains why their fighters have such reaction times; all they need is to think of what they want to do and they can carry it out.
Captain Winters waited for the noise to subside. “There’s more I could go into, but those are the basics; full reports have been uploaded to the base’s computer system for further review if you wish. Are there any questions?”
Before he could take one, his comm chirped urgently. Apologizing to the senior officers he thumbed it on; his staff knew enough not to contact him unless it was something important. “Sir,” the voice of one of his assistants reported. “She’s awake.”
She was clad in strange fabrics and she didn’t recognize the structure of her cell. That was what it was, what it had to be. Arykka prowled back in forth in the enclosure like a caged animal. There was noise, bubbling on the edges of her perception like static from a radio. Words that she couldn’t quite make out, couldn’t understand.
There was a cot and a commode but nothing else remarkable in the cell. Each of its walls was a stark white slab with but a single door to break up the monotony of appearance.
Shot down, captured, stripped, caged. This was not turning out to be one of her better days. Her fingers hooked into claws and Arykka’s pacing took on a manic edge as she fought down panic. She was better than this; she was a soldier in the Fleet, not a crèche-born child.
The ripples grew louder, more discordant and she turned to face the Enemy, pulling herself up proudly.
“The walls are still closed?” Foraker inquired
A guard nodded. “Yes, sir. She… shouldn’t be able to see you.”
But the Lefu pilot was staring straight out at him, her expression a mixture of curiosity and hostility. But there was fear in those frigid eyes of hers, too. The face of the Enemy, Foraker thought to himself. And what a face it was. He chided himself for that surge of attraction; the Lefu pilot was a beauty but the galaxy was full of beautiful things that were as every bit as deadly as they were lovely. She was just one of them, like one of those pretty little snakes. Such wonderful colours, but if they bit you, you died in agony.
“Fine,” he nodded. “Clear the glass anyways and open the comm.”
The guard nodded, depressing a button on his control, which turned a part of the wall into a window. The Lefu’s eyes narrowed as she caught sight of him and his officers and she bared her teeth in a silent hiss.
“I am Admiral Hawthorne Foraker of the United Terran Concord,” Foraker announced. “Who are you?”
The enemy pilot didn’t respond, at least not with words. Faster than the eye could follow, she smashed her fist into the walls of her prison. Transtanium was not battle steel by any stretch of the imagination, but it was still nearly unbreakable. Impossible as it seemed though, she’d managed to put a crack in it. A small one, but it was there nonetheless. Not without cost to herself, though; the bones in her hand had been shattered, a spray of blood left where her fist had hit the wall. The Lefu didn’t cry out, pulling her injured hand to her mouth and nursing the injury, popping her fingers back into place. She winced as she did so, though even that was soundless, the alien continuing to stare at them like a half-tame animal watching its owner for any sign of weakness.
“Your people launched an unprovoked war of aggression against the United Terran Concord,” Hawthorne demanded. “Why?”
“I don’t think she even knows what you’re saying,” Diana Pierce pointed out.
“You have to start somewhere,” Foraker replied, keying the comm channel back open. “Can you understand me?”
The Lefu shifted her attention from Foraker to Commodore Archer and from her to Admiral Hunt, then Envoy Pierce. She pointed to the group, then tilted her head back and drew her thumb across her neck in a throat-cutting gesture. There was no malice in her expression, as if she were only stating a fact. You’re going to die.
Foraker turned away from the cell with a snort.
“That went well,” Diana observed.
She wasn’t sleeping when there was a rap on the glass, but she was in mood to perform tricks for the amusement of her captors. There was a louder rap, then a buzz through the cell’s link. “Ah nuh yo’or uhwaik,” an Enemy’s nonsense words babbled through and Arykka’s eyes opened a slit, looking over at the once again translucent wall.
The Enemy who’d spoken to her earlier stood before her, this time without his entourage. The pilot closed her eyes. She had nothing to say to the Enemy. He rapped on the window again, this time holding something up to it. It was…
“Thot theted gat yur atenshun,” the older male commented as she stood up from the cot, eyes focused on the image in his hands; it carried the codes of a Scouting Vessel’s broadcast. Fear, deeper then being captured by the Enemy, shuddered through her and she reached out as if to touch the datasheet, trying to disbelieve it. But there was no lie, not that she could tell. Angel Above…
“Wee indursepded thus frem wun uf yur shipz,” the Enemy chattered and Arykka’s lips moved in time with his, but she still did not say anything, focused on the information at hand. “Hoo ar thiy?”
She knew. Every Evea’shi soldier knew. The Prime Enemy. The End of Dawn.
She looked up at the Enemy in front of her and Foraker almost stepped back, taken off-guard by the naked terror in the Lefu’s eyes. She pointed to the paper in his hand and said one word. “Mulkari.”
It could have meant anything, but somehow Foraker knew what it was: the name of the species that were at the heart of Case Omega, everything he and hundreds of others had feared for over two hundred years. They were finally coming. No, it was even worse; they were already here.
Arykka paced wildly in her cell as if by doing so, the door would magically open of its own accord.
Shot down, captured, stripped, caged. Imprisoned. Entombed. Helpless and now finding out that the Prime Enemy had launched an Incursion into this realm of space. From the data she had been shown, it was not a mere sleeper fleet, either. She knew those killship signatures, knew what they meant.
And she could do nothing about it.
The pilot fell to her knees and screamed in despair, long and loud and piercing… and utterly without sound.
That was not the same as silent, nor did it mean that she was unheard.
Natalya wandered the hive, unable to sleep. Intolerance was still awaiting its slot in the repairs; the Lefu had slagged most of Hyperion Hive’s shipyard facilities and the few berths that had escaped the torch were, in the Navy’s own version of triage, relegated to the most badly damaged vessels as other ships tried to restore and rebuild the rest of shipwombs to functional status. The reconstruction had only just started and there were a lot of injured vessels. Fresh reinforcements were already on the way; another three dreadnoughts and dozens more warships. It might not be enough if the Lefu returned.
‘Might’ It won’t be. Not with what those monsters can do.
Sometimes when she couldn’t sleep, Natalya would wander her own ship’s hallways until she wore herself out, but it hurt to do that now. To see all the damage, the charred passageways, some still sprayed with blood and gore, to offer cookie-cutter praise to the damage control teams and the walking wounded. All it would do was stoke her anger and she’d do more harm than good to morale. She couldn’t stay in her quarters either, not with the casualty lists sitting there. She’d already sent out the letters of condolence, soul-sick at having to find some way to lessen the blow to a mother or father, husband or wife, brother or sister that had just lost someone they’d loved. There wasn’t any way to do it and too often all she could offer was more empty words about someone she’d only known in passing. Her own thoughts would keep turning back to Unicorn Set and the Resolute’s last stand. Tim’s last stand.
Another face she’d never see again.
Her crew. She’d been responsible for their safety and she’d failed them. Oh, but they’d hadn’t died in vain! It had all been For the Greater Good. Right. What does it matter when I have had to tell a mother why she’ll never see her only son again or let a father know that his cherished daughter is ‘missing, presumed dead’. It wasn’t fair, but nothing in life ever was. Too many were dead, snuffed out by an ‘alien’ race that attacked without reason, provocation or mercy.
Human. It still seemed surreal, impossible. Pierce had been right; there was a common ground between the Concord and the Lefu. They had the same heritage. Death. Humanity’s history was far from peaceful, filled with thousands of intractable, irrational human foes and billions of deaths in wars between just one line of Earth’s children. All those philosophers, all those fools dreaming of a human race that would evolve beyond violence were wrong. Technology had simply made it that much easier to trample down the next village over.
There was nothing truly ‘inhuman’ because there was nothing beyond humanity’s grasp, nothing outside what they were capable of. One simply had to look at the Lefu, or whatever they were called. They were so far removed from humanity that they might as well be aliens. The pale killer sitting in an isolation cell proved that well enough.
Natalya closed her eyes, tried to banish her anger, but there was too much of it. She’d sent too many to their deaths, lost too many friends to ignore it just because she and that thing had the same ancestry. It was… she staggered, falling to her knees as a wave of despair washed over her, so strong it was almost a physical impact. Fear and hatred bubbled into her mind and Natalya bucked, vomiting as thoughts slid ripped burned through her and she couldn’t think her own thoughts there was too much too fast and it was so loud so loud so loud…. all alone, she was all alone, trapped, entombed, she couldn’t hear any of the others, and they were coming, could they hear her, the Enemy had her, let me go, I’ll kill you, hear me, help me, she had to get out here, listen to me, caged, can anyone hear me?
Alone in the corridor, Natalya clutched her hands to her head and thrashed blindly, screaming even as she felt someone else scream within her mind.