Children of Heaven, Chapter 25

Chapter 25:

September 19th, 4233
Hyperion Hive
Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord

Hyperion Prime Command Base.

Once again trading a hospital gown for her uniform, Natalya fastened her collar. She’d been poked and prodded so much over the last few days that sometimes she’d half-expected the medics to insist on an endoscopy. God knows that’d probably be one of the few places of mine that they haven’t tried to look into. I was afraid to come in one time and see a doctor pulling on rubber gloves and holding a speculum. The good news appeared to be that she wasn’t crazy. She had a few more sessions with the base’s psychiatric personnel – which she really resented, if only because having to go to them made her look crazy – but so far they weren’t talking about removing her from command.

She didn’t know how she’d have reacted if they did. To lose her ship… she shivered. She’d served in the Concordat Navy for almost two decades and though her family’s connections had hastened her ascension through the ranks, she had always fought to prove herself worthy of the positions she’d held. Now, with two losses against the Lefu, she was starting to wonder. Maybe she should be removed, if all she was going to accomplish was killing her own people.

Her parents had wanted her to break tradition and enter law or medical school, but… she’d seen too many portraits of her ancestors in the family estate, heard too many tales of Archers from relatives, too many accounts of their deeds in school textbooks. And this is my contribution to the family’s legacy: two half-assed plans that barely worked. If she’d been a doctor, at least she could only kill one patient at a time.

Natalya ran her fingers through her hair, trying to sort out her thoughts. At least they were hers this time. The medics expected a full recovery, but they didn’t know if Natalya continued to talk with the prisoner, whether each time would be better or worse. Would whatever was ‘wrong’ with her brain acclimate to the Lefu’s speech, or would the damage keep piling up? None of them knew. The young woman rubbed her temples. She’d have to talk with the pilot again. So far, she was the only one who could communicate with her.

Since the Lefu still refused to speak, there was nothing for the translation programs and linguists monitoring her to work with. Some BXA personnel were trying to teach her English – a process to which she was nothing if not disinterested. Accordingly, progress was slow. Other medics were speaking with the other personnel who’d reported migraines, waking dreams and nightmares but so far none of them had shown the kind of sensitivity that she had.

Why me? What was so special about her that she, out of tens of thousands of men and women, was the only one that could do it?

Evolution’s a strange and wondrous thing, she remembered her high-school science teacher saying. And we’ve turned it on its head. Two thousand years ago, no one could imagine Homo sapiens doing the kinds of things we take for granted. We’ve altered our bodies, added centuries to our lives, beaten back disease and injury. But for all these genetic boons, these biological alchemies, for all that we think we’ve tamed and mastered our own bodies – evolution will still have a trick up its sleeve, just for us.

Natalya shook her head. Yeah. And I’m the punchline.

~

“Mulkari.”

Arykka’s head half-turned at the word that came through the cell’s link. The older Enemy male, the one that had come to her before, was there. “Tel mee abut thim,” he garbled in their nonsense verse. She was learning it, slowly. Tasting their words; her interaction with the Echo, brief as it had been, had been helpful in understanding something of their language.

The pilot looked away from the Enemy, folding her arms. She knew Scouting Fleet would have left some vessels behind to observe in the wake of the Fleet’s withdrawal from the Major Enemy Base, but she could not sense them. They were too isolated, too far away. The same restrictions applied to her; she was but a single voice in the depths of this system. No Scouting Vessel would be able to sense her, not unless they drew so close as to make their detection and destruction inevitable. They didn’t even know to search for her and the fear of living like this was sometimes almost more than she could control.

The Enemy spoke again, using more words that she didn’t understand, though his tone grew heated. He and others had visited her regularly since the Echo had been broken. Most had been trying to get her to speak, but she had not indulged them. Evea’shi did not speak with Enemy; they eliminated them. This was a lesson that had been wrought from blood and iron, learned in the Broken Days.

It was not a universe of wonders. It was as nature was: brutal and unremitting. There was no safety without sacrifice. The Enemy had never learned that lesson. She pitied them for that.

She pitied them more for what was going to happen when the End of Dawn arrived.

~

The Lefu crossed over to her cot and dropped onto it, staring up at Foraker for a few moments before closing her eyes. When he was younger, one of the many excursions he’d taken with his parents had been to the Saint Louis Zoo. One of their most recent exhibits was a fresh litter of Siberian tiger cubs. Extinct for almost two thousand years, they were just one of many animals returned to life through cloning. Even a thousand years after the Resurgency, cloning technology was still heavily restricted, but restoring ‘lost’ species from ancient genetic samples were one of the few exceptions allowed under the law. Some of these organisms were simply impossible to bring back – they’d either been dead for millions of years, or driven to extinction before keeping viable genetic samples had become standard practice. Other species had so little genetic stock that it took an extremely expensive regime of carefully controlled mutation to restore biodiversity.

Many of these restored species were now flourishing on their homeworld and across the cosmos, introduced to new worlds by the careless, the unaware and the well-meaning. This often ended predictably; a return to extinction as their new worlds had killed them through predation, competition or disease. In a handful of cases, introduced species became a threat to indigenous flora and fauna.

Mother Nature did like to tweak the nose of her children every now and again.

The admiral had to wonder what kind of selection, what drives had led to the birth of the girl before him and as he did so, he was once again shaken by that sense of looking into a cage at something vicious and primal, something that shouldn’t be, and a little boy’s hope that the bars were thick enough to keep them apart.

~

LeFay was trying to avoid her.

The first few days he’d managed to avoid giving her an explanation for his ‘case omega’ business by pleading off to oversee Courageous’s damage and she hadn’t pressed; she’d been busy enough herself. After her encounters with the Lefu pilot, she hadn’t had a lot of free time anyways. Now that she was, for the moment, done with every conceivable test that the medics had been able to think up, Lefay was curiously incommunicado.

Donald wasn’t the type to hide from the consequences for his actions. At least, she had never thought he was and his Houdini routine was more than a little irritating. Natalya had read his first officer the riot act after the third ‘sorry, not here’ she’d gotten, but all the other man would say was that he couldn’t say anything other then that she should get in touch with Captain Lefay.

It was frustrating, almost enough to make her pop what blood vessels the Lefu hadn’t. She’d tried researching Case Omega on her own in between sessions crammed into a medical scanner like a sardine, but there was nothing – literally nothing – in the hive’s computers. She didn’t like being kept in the dark, and she was thinking that Admiral Foraker might have something to do with this as well. She remembered the occasion when she’d plowed into LeFay, coming out of Foraker’s office and Donald’s first officer had all but said that he’d been ordered not to tell her anything. No matter what bullshit Case Omega was, she was LeFay’s superior officer. Only someone senior to her could override her authority.

Irksome.

Natalya tapped the keys on her console, looking over the data from the battle. The Lefu fleet hadn’t been caught as off-guard by Light Brigade as she’d hoped, but it had prevented them from massing all of their fire against a single foe. Which was something, she supposed. Both sides had stuck to their plans, at least as much as they could be expected to. Lefu ships were tougher than they had any right to be and Admiral Hunt had been forced to withdraw earlier than she’d planned to.

We outnumbered and outmaneuvered them and we still only pulled off a draw, she thought unhappily.

The most recent data from the few scouts that had managed to survive their missions showed no significant increase in the number of Lefu ships throughout their territory, which could mean that what they had now was all they had. Which meant, in the long run that the Concord would win. Lefu SDs might be tough, but the Concordat Navy had a hundred and twenty of their own dreadnoughts and a high-end shipyard could build a new DN per slot within two years. At full production, the Earth and Centauri yards alone could lay down more than sixty new SDs, and still have space available for almost a hundred smaller vessels.

The problem was that most of their current boomers were thirty years out of date and laid up in yard hands awaiting re-activation. Though a few, like the DNs at Hyperion Hive could and had been brought to combat status in weeks. The PDP had been garroting the military with their purse-strings – if a dreadnought still remained ‘sufficiently’ powerful to overcome conventional adversaries, then what was the point in spending taxpayers’ money to upgrade them? It was the ‘second-best’ spending strategy and it had turned the Concordat Navy into a fucking joke. If the Lefu had attacked ten years later… that was not something that Natalya really wanted to consider.

Couriers had been dispatched to Earth in the aftermath of the battle for Hyperion Hive; they should be getting there in a few more weeks. Natalya would have liked to see the reaction that they’d be getting. The PDP would find itself in hot water and the other parties wouldn’t simply have their knives out – they’d have the places to stick them in already marked out. That arena wasn’t her concern, though.

The Concord still had no idea what kind of industry that they were looking at, but judging from Tebrinnin and Unicorn Set, the Lefu were busy little beavers. Their fat-hulled construction vessels were disassembling asteroid belts and moons, converting the raw materials into synthetic alloys; two more fortresses had come on-line in Unicorn Set, though all indications were that they were not yet fully functional. Tugs had dropped in from hyperspace carrying fortresses as well, minefields were being laid and at Tebrinnin, a shipyard had just begun construction.

Throwing the Lefu out of those systems was going to be a very messy business. Natalya chewed her lips. Once the 181st was repaired, she was going to suggest raiding operations into Lefu space. Those construction vessels are slow; if we can hit them, we can set back their operations more then by going head-to-head with their warships. Maybe knock out some of their carriers, too. Yes, it would be a messy business, but it would be nice to put the Lefu on the defensive for once. If they had to worry about their own lines, it would curtail their raids.

If they’re coming back, Natalya had to amend. They certainly had bugged out like their tails were on fire; something had spooked them enough not to press their attack. It had to be related to ‘Case Omega’ – which led her back to square one.

She’d gone through the historical archives, but there was no evidence anywhere of encountering the Lefu before. She didn’t want to think that it had simply been deleted, but that was possible. Not likely, but possible. To what end, though? And why would previous encounters lead to them withdrawing and Donald ordering her to let them go? Natalya shook her head. All she had were questions and the people who had the answers were avoiding her.

Except for one.

Natalya moaned and sunk her head into her arms, trying to avoid a choice that was looking like no choice at all.

~

“Ma’am… are you sure about this? Captain Winters said-”

“I know what he said. I’ll be brief. Now, open the door.”

The guards exchanged a quick glance at each other, but unlocked the doors anyways. The security officers in the cell bay straightened at Natalya’s arrival and nodded respectfully, but neither moved away from their console, the stiffness to their expressions suggesting that she couldn’t shoo them away this time.

The Lefu was watching for her already, the alien cocking her head to one side like a bird, her expression evaluative. <Little Echo came back,> she spoke inside Archer’s mind. <Didn’t punish yourself enough last time?>

Natalya twitched at the stabbing pain in her skull, drawing two fingers up and rubbing her temple. “Why don’t you ever speak aloud?”

<Why should I?>

“There are some people who think our species can reach a common compromise.”

The pilot huffed dismissively. <No. We are Evea’shi. You are Enemy.>

Suddenly angry, Natalya advanced on the cell. Damn you. We’ve never done anything to you or your people! “What makes us your enemy?”

The pilot considered this for a moment, then spoke. Natalya didn’t understand any of it; the Lefu sounded like a record playing backwards. <It’s not what you have done, it’s what you will do,> she translated. <That is what makes you Enemy.>

“What do you mean?” Natalya demanded, ignoring the pounding in her brain and the blood running out of her nose. One of the officers tried to pull her away, but she shrugged him aside, willing herself to stay on her feet.

<To survive means to destroy,> the Lefu replied, a gentler tone to her voice, as if she were lecturing a child. <It is inevitable. For all we hate them, the End of Dawn taught us this lesson and we learned it well.>

Her knees shook and her brain felt as it were on fire, but she had felt something from in those words. “The end of dawn?”

<The End of Dawn,> the Lefu confirmed as Natalya shook; she would have collapsed if not for the security officer at her side. <The Mulkari. Ask the older male. The one with more medals. He knows.>

Natalya didn’t have the time to fully understand what that meant before the blackness took her.

~

“I’ve given the personnel assigned to watch the Lefu’s cell orders not to admit you again without my explicit instructions to do so,” Captain Winters informed Natalya as once again she found herself waking up in a hospital bed. “You’re not to attempt to speak with the prisoner again. Not without some way for us to prevent you from nearly dying from a thirty-second conversation. Is that understood?”

“I guess… this means that… I’m not crazy?” Natalya asked wearily.

The physician snorted. “I wouldn’t go that far, ma’am. Anyone who keeps subjecting themselves to that kind of experience without good cause… well, you get the picture. You can’t keep doing this to yourself. One of these times we’re going to be a second too slow and you’re going to suffer serious brain damage. Since leaving you to your own recognizance didn’t work that well last time, you’re not leaving this bed until I am completely satisfied that you’ve recovered.”

“No, I have to-”

“-follow your doctor’s orders. The restraints remain an option, commodore. Now if you’d prefer, you can be transferred to Intolerance for your sabbatical but, as I said, you [i]are going to have some time off.”

“Where’s Admiral Foraker? I have to tell him-”

“-nothing that can’t wait,” Winters interrupted for a second time. “Base Command is already aware of your visit, but both they and you are going to have to wait a few hours. You’re still recovering from trauma and neural surgery. You’re in no shape for a debriefing right now. Is that understood?”

Somewhat meekly, Natalya nodded, sinking back into her pillow as Winters completed his examination and departed with a promise that after at least six hours sleep, he’d allow her to have visitors.

Natalya closed her eyes and tried to rest, but something kept bothering her, something that she only half-remembered from the end of her conversation with the Lefu pilot. The End of Dawn… she’d said it with such revulsion, such fear. What else had she called it? M-something. Minbari? Millhari? Mulkari. Who – what – was that?

He knows.

She remembered hearing that, too. But it was hard to recall, the memory slipping out of her grasp like a fish in rapid waters. It was important… at least, it [i]felt important. But it… she couldn’t quite remember all of it. It would come to her.

As Natalya’s thoughts faded and comforting, dreamless sleep took her, she could almost imagine that she heard someone singing to her.

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