September 25th, 4233
United Terran Concord
The senior officers’ briefing room aboard Covenant had been set up in an unusual manner; there were no slings for the Necro officers to settle upon, but each shipboard section head was assigned to a specific place at the table, with a monitor set up behind their head, carrying a datafeed from that section. This had allowed the vessel’s captain to view the specifics of issues that his officers brought up, or to communicate with them should they be unable to attend in person. The humans used a similar set-up, though they had brought in chairs and eschewed the feeds. While normally not a fan of long meetings, Goldstein recognized that for him and his personnel this was often the only chance that they got to sit down in any given day. He’d long ago relegated falling asleep at these meetings to a very minor offence.
Jacob nodded warmly to each officer as they took their seats, each of them worn out and bone-weary. There was a limit to what the human body could endure; some had snapped under the strain, others were little more than zombies, doing what they were told, walking dead with no light in their eyes. Those were the exceptions. Many more had risen to the challenge and met it with a fierce determination.
A captain could never have asked for a better crew, he knew. They gave and gave and gave without complaint. This was something that none of them had wanted, but even the youngest of his crew had shown a dedication and maturity that did themselves honour and made him prouder than he could ever recall being of those under his command. He would see to it that everyone in the galaxy knew it, too. We walk with heroes every day on this ship.
The good news was that Covenant was now completely under the League crew’s control. Liberty’s old computers had learned enough from the alien system to absorb many of its files and, when it tried a last-ditch attempt at sabotage and had to be shut down once and for all, to run a facsimile OS with near-complete functionality. The final enemy troops had been hunted down several days ago and neutralized. None had allowed themselves to be taken prisoner. There wasn’t enough storage space for all the bodies and Goldberg had given the order to simply stack the dead in one of the hangars and depressurize it. They’d keep.
It also appeared that they had shaken pursuit; there had been no sign of anyone following them in the ten days since their escape from Graveyard. Goldstein and his crew had spent the time hopping from system to system, heading towards Tebrinnin. At the moment, they were in an empty system only a few light-years away from it; known as Jukebox Twelve for the pulsar that star at its core. Officially, it was part of the Concord, but its planets had been devoured by their star millions of years ago and, save for a shell of captured asteroids ringing the system, there was nothing of value here. Apparently the Lefu regarded it with the same dismissal that the Concords had. There’d been no sign of the bastards, but that didn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t out there.
In the time they’d had to themselves, Liberty’s crew had learned a lot about their Necro enemy’s technology. It lagged several generations behind the League and Concord in many areas – which explained how a Lefu cruiser could take out a Necro ship four times its length and dozens of times its mass. There were times that Goldstein wished it had been one of those ships that his crew had taken. He wondered what they would have found aboard one of those dark-hulled vipers.
That was merely wishful thinking, though. What they had was what they had and all the woolgathering in the universe wouldn’t change it.
Besides, the Necros weren’t completely Stone Age. Their hyper generators for example – while their vessels couldn’t go as deep into hyperspace as even Concordat vessels could, they recharged very quickly after realspace emergence. A Concord battleship’s systems would take almost two hours to recharge after reversion. Liberty’s hyper systems took less than half that. Covenant could be ready for a second jump within fifteen minutes. Which meant that if she or her buddies dropped into a system and didn’t like what they saw, they could be gone before the defenders ever got to grips with them. That was a frightening idea; it meant that while slow, they could hop from system to system looking for targets of value and be gone before the defenders could hope to intercept them.
Necro ships had emergences slightly further out-system than Lefu vessels. They also handled like a brick in atmosphere, but they could build up acceleration very quickly, faster than almost any other ship he’d seen outside of a light cruiser. Covenant could run down virtually anything she wanted to. Coupled with her ability to fire off-broadsides, which meant that she could target all her tubes onto any enemy, no matter where they were, she became a tricky prospect to engage.
At least if her EW, point defences and shield walls hadn’t been complete and utter crap. Engineering teams were trying to strip out the Necro systems and replace it with the parts they’d brought over from Liberty, but getting two entirely different hardware and software systems to work together was tricky at best.
Covenant did have obscenely thick armour even for a ship her size, which was probably both a compensation for her shield walls and a defence against ‘high’ energy weapons such as particle beams and certain laser variants – which could pierce even a dreadnought’s shield walls. The Necro vessel was light on energy weapons herself; she was a missile boat and her magazines were full. Nukes, antimatter, focused warheads and omnidirectionals – almost every missile type known to man was represented in her armouries… including more than a few ‘specialized’ classes. Those were designed to disperse pathogenic warheads. If they hadn’t been empty, Goldstein would have ordered them dumped.
Brevet Junior Lieutenant Reeds had discovered her original name and class: Solemn Lament, a Herald Enflamed-class killship. There were references in the database to other classes of vessel, but the Necro AI had wiped its archives of military schematics as one of the first things it did.
Though he bemoaned the loss of the information, Jacob was nothing but glad that that fucking thing was finally dead.
Their hyper systems were good to go, which presented an ugly problem for him. Returning home would have taken them over a year and he had already dispatched three of Covenant’s hyper drones, each with a series of complete log entries filled with everything from the Lefu’s overrunning of Priorii to Covenant’s specifications to make sure that the League would be aware of what was happening. He knew that his surviving personnel wanted nothing so much as to head home themselves and he couldn’t blame them. He was down to but a third of the crew that he had started out with.
“Our options are limited, as far as we can see,” he began without preamble. “The first is simple – we head back into hyperspace and for home. We never wanted to be a part of this fight and we’ve given a lot – some more than others – just to stay alive. Many – most – of you are just cadets who signed up for a training cruise. Not to become embroiled in an interstellar war. There’s no shame in being tired, in just wanting to wash our hands of everything here. If that’s what you think, say so. No one here will hold it against you.
“Our second option is to head into Tebrinnin and from there beyond the territory the Lefu control to the Concordat holdings. Covenant’s hyper systems should allow us to get through the alien-held systems in one piece. I won’t lie to you: it’s a risk and a big one, but there’s an enormous shitstorm coming down the pike and they while might be Concords, they’re also human and for that, they deserve some kind of warning. After that’s done, our priority will be going home. I just want to hear what you have to say before I make my decision.”
Karen looked up; Covenant had actual showers and while neither the junior captain nor her uniform were caked with dirt any longer, very little in the galaxy would have been able conceal the signs of her fatigue. “These people killed a world,” she said. “They have to pay for that and they won’t even begin to if we let them catch the Concords by surprise.”
She looked to Saul Fields, Liberty’s chief engineer. “Not our fight,” the stout older man grunted. “But no matter what, I’m with you sir, and so are the snipes.”
Security: “Necro bastards deserve a kick in the teeth, even if it’s the Concords doing it.”
Sciences: “Tell them, sir. There’s no reason to think these murderers will stop at Earth and even if the Concords go under, the more damage they do, the better for us.”
The other officers added their own opinions, but ‘tell’ outweighed ‘run’ and Jacob felt his heart swell with pride at these men and women. “Then to your stations. We’re heading out. We stop for nothing but Hyperion Hive and God take pity on any alien bastard who gets in our way.”
Nendeeth Moonswell, 19896
Holy Curatorium of Brei
Palace of the Curate
The Great Hall was empty.
There were no throngs of supplicants and worshippers. No advisors, no censer bearers or clerics cloistered about. No choruses singing for the glory of the gods and the Curate. No honour guards standing beside each red-marble pillar. Flickering torches cast uncertain and grotesque shadows throughout the room, the sputtering of glowpanels only adding to the nightmarish atmosphere.
Sitting upon his gilded throne, the Curate coughed, dabbing at the dark blood and phlegm that burbled out over his lips with a finely embroidered silk kerchief worth its weight in gold. He still wore his robes of office; no servants had helped him into them. Even the Curate’s dignity had been second to the survival of his people and his Ovea’brei had been taken into the Fleet months ago. They were capable of holding guns and thus, that was what they had been taken to do. The Curate coughed again, wondering if they were still alive. He had never even bothered to learn their names, never thought that they had been worth that much consideration.
Now, that seemed terribly neglectful of him.
He wanted to stand, but his legs shook with the effort; it had taken most of his energy simply to carry himself from his bed to sit here, in this empty throne room and not tend to the masses. There were none left to tend to and there had been none for many days. He had seen no living beings for some time, save for his own sickly reflection in the mirror. Machines catered to his whim, prepared his food, washed his clothes, swept the dust from the halls. Once, they had been seen as inelegant signs of poverty but as the lower classes were Culled and the higher classes sealed themselves away from their dying servants, machines were all that they had left.
The Curate buried his head in his hands and wept. He had not prayed for weeks, turning his back upon the gods who had blotted their subjects from the universe so maliciously. If they had even existed at all. He had always tried to believe in merciful, beneficent deities, but how could such beings allow this to happen for so long and do nothing?
Redeeming Temple had been supposed to be safe from the Cull. Once known as Fall, it had been consecrated and renamed after Orai and the rest of the First Worlds had been Culled in the first outbreak, some six centuries ago. Fall’s legate had reacted swiftly – some would say brutally – to the reports of the phage’s outbreak. All colonists were forced to undergo immediate medical testing. Those who were found to be Culled, or refused to be tested were put to death, their bodies burned. Few other worlds had had the will to act as swiftly and with such finality as Fall’s legate and because of their compassion, they perished.
Nearly half the population had been killed, but Fall had been made safe. When the surviving Clericulum had fled the dying First Worlds, they had been in terrible need of a symbol, something with which to rally the panic-stricken masses around. Fall’s ‘miraculous’ lack of infection had been that symbol and the Clericulum had renamed the word for the ancient city upon Brei, forever lost to them. Since that time, only the most stringent quarantine procedures had been set in place and for a time, they had worked.
The surviving Shell Worlds followed the example of their Curate – what had once been a senate of clerics and now the lone voice of an autocrat – and put the infected to the torch, sealing themselves away as best they could. But the Cull refused to beaten so easily. An act of mercy, a moment of greed, a second of lapsed attention – that was all it took and the cycle began anew.
Seven times the greatest minds of the Curatorium had declared their victory complete, that the Cull was once and for all defeated and seven times it had made liars of them. Incubating. Mutating. Rebuilding itself so that it could start the killing cycle anew, months and years later. It was not a plague, it was not a virus, it was nothing forged by nature. Perhaps it was only the whim of an uncaring universe, or perhaps the flagellants had been right and it was divine judgment come to pass. The Curate, like all those before him, had refuted that idea time and time again. Panic and riots had become an everyday fact of life in what remained of the Curatorium and justifying the worst fears of the mob would do nothing to stem them.
Those fears had been ever-present for centuries, made all the worse with the Enemy looming over their skies, grinding the outermost colonies and the Fleet away. They were like the Cull: remorseless, unstoppable killers. No matter what they lost, how many times the Ovea’brei threw them back into the darkness, they came forward again with the inevitably of the tide. A preternatural determination that they would win. The cost was irrelevant; only the outcome mattered.
Had it only been days before when they had broken the last lines around Redeeming Temple? The Curate could not remember how long it had been since he had hobbled into an empty war room, the rotting corpses of the Fleet’s Command Structure left where they had fallen. There was no one to tend to them. The stench had not bothered the Curate; even in his palace, it was a smell that had become all too familiar to him.
He remembered the report from the senior Ovea’brei commander; the creature had been master of the Fleet in all but name for years. Her minders had died off time and again and as each set of progressively less experienced officers took their place, they had listened to her more and more instead of the other way around. Now, with no one left to even pretend to command her, the orders she gave were utterly hers, the missions the Ovea’brei planned unsanctioned. Such actions would have been unthinkable only a handful of generations ago, but the Ovea’brei sensed the weakness in their masters and strained against their chains.
Perhaps that was as it should be. The night had come at last for the Brei’orai, but the dawn would rise on the children they had stolen five centuries past.
As a child, the Curate had had an Ovea’brei that had looked much like the executrix, but the darkness in that one’s eyes made her seem nothing like the docile pet he had known in his youth. She had been respectful in her declaration, noting that the Enemy would be over Redeeming Temple within days. He had asked about the other worlds of the Curatorium and she had simply stared at him for a moment before telling him that there were no other worlds. Not any more. They had each been Culled or overrun by the Enemy’s forces.
He hadn’t known; there had been no one to tell him.
The Ovea’brei had been tasked to defend their masters and Redeeming Temple until either there were no more of them to fight, or no more Brei’orai to fight for. Even now, what was left of them struggled and died against the tide, forcing the Enemy to pay for every meter they took, though they were doomed to fail.
All for what remained of a once-proud race, one who had walked amongst the stars. The Curate looked about, upon the relics and murals that adorned every surface of the Great Hall, sculptures and paintings that had taken master artisans years to complete, forged for the glory of uncaring gods. As a boy, he had been awestruck to see such honours, such craftsmanship and love poured into every facet of the palace and now… now it all seemed so meaningless, so empty. Trinkets and baubles.
The torches and candles within the Great Hall flickered with a draft as a sliver of light appeared in the distance. The Curate squinted against the brightness that flowed over the polished floors. There was a minute silhouette striding towards him. For a moment, his failing vision and tired brain deluded him into thinking that it was another Brei’orai – who they might have been, what their station was did not matter at the moment. But reality dawned; the figure was too slim, their movements too smooth. Ovea’brei.
The Curate waited in his throne, dabbing at the blood on his lips, waiting as the figure approached. It was the executrix – he knew no other rank by which to call her, nor even her name. He blinked against the dull glare spilling into the hall, looking at the spiderweb of markings that adorned her face and hands, vanishing beneath her uniform. In years past, she would have been destroyed for displaying the heathen tattoos but now she wore them openly, a challenge and mark of defiance.
He had never thought of the Ovea’brei being anything but faithful servants, as they were meant to be. The Curate coughed again, looking past the executrix. She was alone, as was he. “The Enemy have breached the final lines,” she informed him, her hands clasped behind her back. “They will be in a position to attack Redeeming Temple before sunfall. Multiple breaching pods have slipped through the orbital net and ground troops are launching attacks on the OWP power transmitter sites. We cannot hold them.”
He nodded. “The evacuation – how does it go?”
“There is no evacuation, Curate.”
He blinked in consternation. “None? But that…” But that means…
“There is no one left to evacuate,” the Ovea’brei completed the grim thought. “The cities are dead, filled with the Culled. The wards enacted to protect you have worked, Curate. You were the last to be infected.” The last Brei’orai alive, did not need to be said. Her dark eyes flashed. “And still we fight and die.”
The Curate nodded. Because of him. He was not a stupid man and he looked upon the slight figure, realizing why she had come. He could order her not to, but even if he was sure that he’d be obeyed, what was the point? The Cull had him and no one had ever defied its grasp, only delayed it. Days, weeks, months – the Cull could not be halted. The thought terrified him. He had seen what happened to those infected, how they died pleading for a merciful end, how many took their own lives rather than succumb to the disease.
It would not be his fate, even if such time remained to him. But there was no time, not any more. The Enemy were in the skies and he almost thought he could hear the explosions caused by the destruction of the planet’s defences. He looked upon the Ovea’brei. She stood before him uncowed, unashamed of her markings or her lack of deference, No longer servants, he thought with a sickly smile. Children. Children, who have surpassed their parents, as all do. Yes, this one was free of the chains. She was here for those who weren’t. For all her brothers and sisters that would fight to the end for the sake of orders given by long-dead men and women. As long as one Brei’orai lived, they would not be free.
He pulled himself up from his throne, refusing to allow his shaking legs to topple him. “Everything we did, we did for the survival of our people.” It was not within him to apologize, even if he had felt the need to. Much had been done to the Ovea’brei, but the future of his race had depended on them. It had been for naught, but he would not dishonour those who had given so much for that vain hope.
The executrix nodded in understanding, her hands still clasped behind her back. “And now, we must do for ours.”
The Curate nodded, raising his eyes to the heavens. He wanted to feel betrayed, but he simply felt… peace. Had not the Brei’orai done the same, when they had taken the Ovea’brei from their world and forged them into tools, never considering them more than that? His life was a small thing compared to the necessary sins of his forebears. “Yes, you must. But before, there is something I must do, my final act as Curate.”
He faced the woman – the person – before him and laid his shaking hands on her shoulders, intoning solemn words. Few Curates had used them; what followed next was as if he spoke for the gods themselves and no mortal could contradict him. “You are no longer Ovea’brei,” he decreed. “You are no longer our servants. You were born amongst the stars, in the realm of the heavens. Consider that your birthright. May the gods favour you more than they did us.”
Gently, she caressed his mottled green cheek with one hand. He thought he saw a glimmer of moisture in her eyes, but that could have only been a trick of his mind. “Walk in the light, Curate.”
He smiled, never hearing the crack of her pistol.
Looking down at the body, the woman’s expression remained soft, almost tender. Her comm chirped insistently.
“Commandant. The Enemy forces are regrouping for a final assault on Redeeming Temple. Estimate five hours.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied. “It’s done. I’m returning to the shuttle now. Recall all remaining ground teams. Evacuate and scuttle any vessel unable of keeping up with the Fleet and be ready to withdraw.”
“Once the last soldier is aboard, all ships will concentrate fire on Redeeming Temple. There is to be nothing left for the Enemy to glut upon.”
“Yes, commandant. Are there are further orders for the Fleet?”
She paused, kneeling down to the fallen Curate’s body and dug a coin, her personal worry-stone, from her pocket and placed it in his mouth, turning his body to the north. His last words rang in her ears. You were born amongst the stars, in the realm of heavens. “Yes,” she said at last. “Tell them that the gods have fallen. Tell them… the Evea’shi are free.”