September 24th, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
“It always creeps me the fuck out when she sings.”
“I don’t know; it’s kind of… soothing.”
Justine McNichels looked over at her partner. They were both on watch duty in the Lefu’s cell. The pilot was singing again, a wordless vocalization that had been setting the eggheads scrambling ever since she started doing it. The pale girl’s control was rough in a few places, but she did know how to carry a melody. Justine’d give her that. “Since when are you an expert on music, Jeremy?”
Julian Jeremy shrugged. “It reminds of the hymns I heard at mass. Always like them, especially the tonal ones. No words or nothing in English – just voices raised for the glory of God.”
Justine smirked. She was a staunch atheist and though he’d grown into agnosticism, she often teased Julian over his more religious upbringing. “If there wasn’t anything in English, how do you know what they saying? For you all you know, they could have been singing about the glory of buttered toast.”
“Weak, McNichels. Really weak.”
“It’s too early for truly biting rejoinders about your childhood. Once I’ve had enough coffee, I’ll put you in your place. Until then, uh, fuck you.”
“If I thought you could ever have enough coffee, I might be worried about this scathing retort.” Jeremy snorted. “Besides, I’m still allowed to like the singing, aren’t I?” He leaned forward, watching the monitors. The Lefu was kneeling on the floor, her eyes were closed and her head slowly lolled around as she sang wordlessly, matched by slow, almost sensual undulations of her frame. “I wonder what an entire choir of them would sound like?”
“Seriously? That’s creepy.”
Arykka enjoyed singing. She had grown up with her mother’s voice in her mind, caroling her to sleep and as she had grown, she too had learned how to sing. It had always comforted her. Thousands of years ago, they had been forbidden to read or write anything but what the Brei’orai decreed they could. They were not to remember their history, but the lorekeepers had kept their past alive with story and song unbeknownst to their masters. Many of their traditions had fallen away in the thousands of years of their existence, but song remained an important part of their culture.
Crews sang battle hymns as they sailed to war, funeral dirges for the fallen, cries of exultation. All blended together through thousands of voices and minds. Arykka loved battle hymns the most; the sounds of a squadron descending upon their victim was rapturous. To feel an Enemy swell before her, to embrace it with her mind and sing to it, drawing it into the darkness… there was beauty in destruction, razor-edged and hollow, but to deny it was to deny reality. To see nothing but the flame, nothing but the kill – that was frightening. Empty and abyssal.
She sang when she killed, flying through fire, and when she made love, gasping and writhing. Life was nothing without passion and neither was she. Ayrkka never felt more connected then to have her voice and mind mingle with the thousands of her brothers and sisters, to be a part of something greater than herself.
Now she was alone and everything was too quiet but for the gestalt static that crackled and babbled at the edges of her senses. Only the Enemy Echo could hear her and that one burned with hatred for her. Not that Arykka could blame her.
She’d never been cut off like this before. Entombed. Buried alive in every way that matterd. Arykka’s song rose higher as tears glistened in her eyes and the Evea’shi poured her despair, her loneliness and her pain into the wordless symphony, knowing that the only one who could hear her was an Enemy.
Natalya wiped the sweat from her eyes with the back of her hand, tucking loose strands of hair back into her headband. Her father had loved prize fights; her mother had considered them too lower-class and had forbidden James Archer from taking his daughter to them, but he’d smuggled Natalya to more than one match, indulging her with treats and regaling her with almost-mythic stories of the fighters in the ring.
Raising her arms back into a fighting stance, she continued pummeling the punching bag. She had taken the mandatory self-defence classes during the Academy, but only shadow-boxed to stay in shape. Her form wasn’t perfect and it had been years since she’d had a serious bout, but one punch from her genhanced body and a twentieth-century boxer would have been lucky to escape with nothing but a broken jaw. Natalya put a quick combo into the bag that would have splintered ribs and driven bone shards into the pulped organs beneath them. Some colonies rejected humanity’s self-improvement and had regressed themselves towards closer to baseline Homo sapiens out of some misguided ‘reverse genetic purity’ or other nonsense.
Natalya felt her lungs burning, welcoming the pain in her chest as a distraction. Even the most stalwart baseline human’s endurance would have given out half an hour ago and they would have been more likely to hurt themselves on this punching bag than not. Their bones were so fragile, muscles so weak, immune systems vulnerable to simple bacteria and common virii. How anyone could have preferred living like that made no sense to her. The prims from the twentieth – maybe. The technology had only just dawned and superstition and irrational fears had made it seem as if it was going to be used to create a race of monsters. It made people better. That was all.
She slammed her fists into the tough plastic hide of the bag. Is that what your ancestors thought they were doing? Making you better? There was no answer, but she hadn’t expected one. The Lefu’s telepathy had limits and distance was one of those. Within a few kilometers, Natalya could hear the girl if she screamed, but the Lefu could only sense her within a few dozen meters and they could only communicate within half of that.
There’d be no further ‘incidents’ since she’d been put on medical leave, for which she was profoundly grateful. But it also meant that she didn’t have any more answers for her questions, and neither did OMI or the BXA; the pilot continued to refuse to speak and her interaction with the other visitors she received was minimal. Sometimes… sometimes Natalya thought she’d heard the girl singing, but she’d pushed that aside as nothing more than dreams.
Goddamn you and everyone like you.
Natalya continued to lay into the punching bag. Intolerance’s damage was less than some in BG 97and her crew was making excellent headway in repairs. Other ships were not as fortunate and the space around Hyperion Hive remained littered with debris and wounded vessels.
Constructor units had been deployed from Rube’s Luck and had just arrived, along with the Florence Nightingale, a hospital ship. Both were sorely needed and had been gratefully accepted. Dispatches from the other worlds were encouraging as well; there were two dozen planets within two weeks of Hyperion Hive and all reports indicated that their industries were moving into overdrive. Despite the losses they’d taken, the media was spinning the Battle for Hyperion Hive as a win, proving that the Lefu could be beaten.
But they weren’t. They let us win.
Things had been silent on that front as well; there hadn’t been so much as a probe of Concordat systems since the Lefu armada had withdrawn. If they could hold off for another two weeks, Hyperion Hive would have another twenty ships available for its defence and its SLIPs would be thickened to levels that would stop even the enemy’s HAVOCs.
Every day that the Lefu held back was another day that the Concord had to catch its breath and recover; time could do nothing but help them. So why is there still this gnawing in the pit of my stomach? There was something bothering her, something that she couldn’t quite place.
We are Evea’shi. You are Enemy. It is inevitable.
That was it; if the Lefu – the Evea’shi? – was telling the truth, then her people were determined to destroy the Concord. Why had they stopped their attack? What would have made them break away?
Natalya growled, slamming her fist into the bag so hard that she skinned her knuckles. Those words had been hovering in her mind all week, flotsam that she knew meant something. And there was something else, something that the girl had said to her, something she’d said with such loathing. What was it? The End of Dawn. Mulkari.
What did that mean?
The young woman howled in wordless frustration, slamming her bloody hand in the bag over and over, her own blood spattering onto her face. What do you want from me?! What does that even mean? There was something more there, something she couldn’t quite remember. Words, bouncing about her subconscious, impossible to separate like pieces of metal glinting in the sun. …metal. Medal? Medals… The older male. The one with all the medals. He knows.
The Lefu hadn’t had many military guests, especially not since she was outed as a mind-reader. The only person that could fit that bill was…
The comm laying on a nearby bench chirped urgently. “Commodore, Admiral Foraker is requesting to see you in his office.”
Speak of the devil. Natalya sucked on her skinned knuckles for a moment before answering. She was covered in sweat and her hair was natty and stringy from her workout. “Tell him I’ll be there in forty minutes, unless it’s urgent.”
A pause. “That’s fine, ma’am. He says he’ll expect you then.”
Donald rose to his feet as Commodore Archer stepped into the room. She hesitated for a second, her blue-green eyes flashing from LeFay to the Admiral sitting at his desk. She came to attention, saluting Foraker. “Sir, reporting as requested.”
“Thank you, commodore. Please, take a seat.”
She did so gingerly, a wariness to her expression. Before Foraker could ask how she was doing, the young woman spoke up. “Is this about the Mulkari and Case Omega, sir?”
Hawthorne’s eyes widened and he shot a glance at LeFay, but the captain seemed as surprised as he was. “How did you…?”
Vindicated in her suspicions, Natalya met Foraker’s stare evenly. “The prisoner mentioned them and said that you knew about them, too. A few things here and there too, sir.”
“Ah, I see.” Hawthorne frowned, unused to being the one that got surprised. It wasn’t a sensation he enjoyed. “Well… yes. I’ve discussed it with Captain LeFay and it’s been decided to bring you in to Case Omega.” He raised a finger. “This is not something that’s being offered lightly, commodore. It’s not a privilege – it’s a burden and one that I and the captain here and hundreds, thousands of people like us have had to bear alone. If you think you’ll be unable to handle that, then this meeting will have to be over here and now. I can tell you, however, that it will not affect the oaths you took as a Concordat officer.”
Natalya cocked a curious expression at LeFay. The admiral had consulted him on personnel decisions? She supposed it made sense, given that Donald had served under her for years and they were both a part of… whatever this was. Still, LeFay was a junior officer outside Foraker’s normal command. Whatever Case Omega was, it certainly had its own way of doing things. But she wanted – no, she needed – to know. “In the last month, I’ve had to order thousands of people to their deaths and I’ve had a human so far removed from humanity that she’s almost a different species inside my head,” Natalya said. “I want to know what it’s all been for.” Almost pleading: “Please.”
Foraker nodded. “Donald, why don’t you start?”
LeFay faced his superior. He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering a pain three decades old, wounds that had still not closed. “You know what happened to my wife?” At Archer’s confused nod, Donald continued. “The official records are not… entirely accurate.”