October, 4233: Gathering upon the Precipice
October 9th, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
That she hated her current accommodations was a considerable understatement.
Arykka Selliphii, Pilot Third Rank in the Evea’shi War Fleet, was unsettled more than usual as she ran through her exercises. Getting shot down was indignity enough, but being captured by the Enemy and cut off from her brothers and sisters had proved… more than unsettling. She was a soldier, not normally given to blind rages and after her first breakdown, she had managed to dampen her fear, though it still bubbled beneath the surface.
She would have preferred to be able to work through those feelings – particularly in fire and blood – but the Enemy seemed to think that letting her out of her cell would somehow endanger them. Arykka couldn’t understand why they’d be under that preposterous pretension. Her lips twitched at her self-delusion. If they were only that stupid… but if they were, the Fleet would never have needed to come here. The woman suppressed a sigh as she moved through her forms.
To date, she had had only a few conversations with the Enemy, and only one of them had been longer than a few words. She knew her silence frustrated her captors. The other Enemy tried to communicate with her, without success. She was fairly certain that she had – at the very least – a pidgin grasp of their language, but she refused to try it out. It annoyed the Enemy and that was one of the reasons why she did not indulge them. Evea’shi did not speak to Enemy. There was no reason to. Either you understood and no conversation was necessary, or you did not and any conversation was therefore pointless.
But they still wanted from her. What they wanted was manifold: information, understanding, acknowledgment. But they still wanted. So they talked. And talked. Some shouted. Some wheedled and cajoled. Some limped through other languages, trying to elicit a response from her and still she remained silent. Whenever they talked, she learned. More than they thought.
That small secret – well, and the Enemy’s frustration – were her only sources of enjoyment since her capture. Being caged like an animal, she had to take her pleasures where she could. She had nothing to say to any of them.
Well. Almost all of them.
Among the tens of thousands of teeming mind-blind Enemy aboard this moonlet, there was one that could hear Arykka – and that, only barely. An Echo amidst the bubbling, whispering static of the Terran Enemy’s tayi sher.
For the Enemy, nothing. Neither solace nor suffering, compassion nor contempt, kindness nor sadism. You gave Enemy nothing. Nothing but death.
You treat with the Echo, a svelte voice whispered within the pilot’s mind and she hissed in displeasure. That was different. The Echo was a soldier, like she was. The Echo’s voice always crackled with hate, accusation and fury tainting her tayi sher – but there was a layer of uncertainty buried beneath the anger. An uncertainty that drove her to seek sought Arykka out, not even knowing why she did. There was a bond between them, as insane as it seemed. Enemies, yes – they would never, could never, be anything but – but they were linked together, almost like lovers. And, like lovers, one of them would surely be at the other’s side when they died. Arykka wondered who it would be; she had seen no sign of the Echo for days on end now.
The Echo was so fragile; all of these Enemy were. At their best, they had been wrought from crude clay-flesh and pig iron-bone. They were half-blind and half-deaf, cut off from each other so completely that they did not even realize what it was that they were missing. At first, she’d pitied them for that. Now, alone and surrounded by the chafing, nonsense noise of their minds, she envied them for it.
Arykka looked out through the blank walls of her cell; she could feel familiar presences out there. Her guards, of course. She didn’t have to see with her eyes to know they were there. If she were free, they would be the first to die.
Death was her gift. Fire and blood. Arykka remembered her mother holding her hands, whispering comforting words in her mind as she whimpered, feeling the needles work upon her young flesh, marking her skin with the family’s crest. That had been her first emblem, her first lesson. That nothing was given without pain. From the earliest time of the Ovea’brei to the birth of the Evea’shi and the Broken Days, sacrifice had been a constant in their lives.
I was there the day the gods fell.
It meant nothing to a thousand races both living and dead, but to an Evea’shi, it was everything. Maybe she could make her long-lost kin realize that. Even if no one else did, the Echo would understand. For an Enemy, this time she would offer something. Once… and then? And then, we see if the gods have fallen.
Feeling more centered, the young woman continued her exercises.
Admiral Alicia Hunt, CO of Battlegroup 97, flipped through the report that had just come in from Pioneering. She looked over at Hawthorne Foraker; the older admiral was seated behind his desk. They were in his office aboard the hive, a hollowed-out chunk of rock slightly larger than Deimos. Foraker’s office was much larger than Hunt’s own aboard her flagship, and much more ornate – the walls were taken up with wood-paneled bookshelves containing decades’ – even centuries – worth of volumes of military law, treatises and debates. Concord, Resurgency, United Earth – there was even a set of League naval lawbooks. Hunt knew that this collection was inherited, passed to each admiral as they took command of the hive. She also knew that Foraker had done more to add to it than any other man or woman who’d taken this office. Running a finger over Centauri Naval Law, CE 2247, Ed. IV, Alicia looked back at her Fortress Command counterpart.
“How bad is it?”
“Over four hundred thousand dead, military and civilian,” Foraker grimaced. “Most of those were caused when Old Oak collided with Cat O’ Might, but there were the additional sixty-three thousand civilian casualties caused when the Nakir opened fire on the convoy.”
Alicia’s expression was no more cheery than Hawthorne’s. “All to one damned scout cruiser.”
“Which had taken the time and effort to all but perfectly mimic one of our own ships and managed to fool a half-dozen of our escrots and dozens of freighters for two weeks.” Foraker drummed his fingers on the polished tabletop, the only outward sign of his inner turmoil. Lefu technology was superior to the Concord – they’d known that for months – but this incident was a perfect example of just how vast the gulf between the two forces really was.
“Admiral Mwate assures me that his forces are looking for it, but so far, they’ve had no luck. He’s requesting additional ships to aid in the search.”
Hunt raised an eyebrow. “We can’t spare anything, Hawthorne. Not after the drubbing the Lefu just gave us here.”
Foraker sighed; he knew this as well as Hunt did. Pioneering had only ever had light units at its disposal to keep raiders away from the mining ships. Any destroyer or frigate that had the ‘luck’ of actually finding that Nakir would never get a chance to report it. If Mwate concentrated his forces to prevent that, it opened up too much territory. And sending only one or two heavier ships wouldn’t help much – a star system was a lot of ground to cover. “Given the level of outer-system industry the system possesses, they’ve got a lot to be worried about,” he continued. “Rather, I was thinking of diverting a few of New Britain’s new sensor platforms to Pioneering to assist Mwate.”
“Good luck. Governor Iling’s a spineless cunt,” Hunt snorted. “She’s been trying to hold onto all of her fresh builds.”
Foraker winced. Alicia Hunt was a good flag officer, but she had all the political acumen and tact of a drunken bull in a china shop. If you needed something reduced to its component parts, she should be one of your first picks. However if you needed a more… diplomatic solution, Alicia should be considered a very distant Plan B.
Along with Foraker himself, Hunt was part of the ‘Johannen School’ of officers promoted after High Admiral Warrent’s fall from grace in the aftermath of the League’s little ‘October Surprise’. Once installed as high admiral, Lois Johannen had taken an axe to the chain of command, ruthlessly excising politically-minded officers or shunting them off to places where they could do very little damage. In their place, Johannen had grabbed every able officer she could find or forge and all but threw them into the now-vacant positions, creating a cadre of men and women who’d risen to prominence fighting a war instead of the political mahcinations of their own peers.
Like many of Johannen’s camp, Hawthorne had earned his ‘stars and bars’ in the League War. Hunt herself had only reached commodore at the end of the war; her rise to admiral had come fourteen years later, a reward for her role in quashing the Asylum Uprisings. The Uprisings had been a very messy business, one that could have gone very badly if officers like one Commodore Alicia Hunt hadn’t been on hand.
Technically, this meant that she was junior to Foraker, but she was Fleet and he was Fortress; system security in Hyperion Hive and throughout the Sector was his bailiwick, but offensive operations and mobile assets fell under her purview. Both of them had been dealing with more than their fair share of resistance to their endeavours to protect Hyperion Sector – first, the threat of the Lefu hadn’t been taken seriously and now because individual systems were looking out for themselves. And who could blame them for that, when the Navy that’s supposed to protect them washed its hands of Twilight Sector and can’t even pull off a win on its home ground?
Hunt spoke again, thankfully distracting Foraker from his morbid thoughts. “Could this be a prologue to a new offensive?”
“Unlikely. The Nakir was hidden in the convoy; it must have slipped into the formation here.” Foraker scowled, furrowing his brows. “I’ve already gotten ‘requests’ for an official investigation into this lapse of security. Among other things.”
Hunt nodded, sliding the Centauri book back onto the shelf. She picked the dispatch back up, skimming through it. “So I see. From the data, it looks like the Nakir emulated one of our freighters almost perfectly. I knew their ECM was good, but this is another level entirely.”
“Commodore Archer suggests that it’s not foolproof; aside from an active scan, a mass shadow analysis would be the simplest way to detect these changelings. The Lefu was able to match the movements and emissions pattern of a Spokane Systems Celestus Wayward medium transport, but even empty, the actual freighter would retain a significantly larger mass shadow than a Nakir-class light cruiser. The only problem is that MSAs are too short-ranged; running a decent one puts you right inside their energy range.”
“And active scanning will light the investigating ship up like a Christmas tree to anyone watching.” Hunt nodded. She reached around and stroked the back of her neck. “Has there been any progress made in communicating with the prisoner?”
“In a word? No. The eggheads are fairly certain that she’s got a grasp of the language, but since she never talks, it’s hard to get anything out of her.”
Foraker looked up. There was something in the woman’s tone. Earlier in her career, Alicia’s ship taken a League informant prisoner. The man had been leaking shipping information to the League’s privateer cats-paws, setting convoys and isolated planets up for mercenary raids. He’d been caught just after green-lighting another such attack and conventional interrogation techniques hadn’t been able to get the target or timetable from him. Then-commander Hunt had managed to convince her captain to allow her and a few Marines a chance to ‘question’ the prisoner. He had known what she’d meant, what was going to happen inside that cell, but he’d given her permission.
They had gotten the information.
Hawthorne’s brown eyes narrowed. “We’ve all lost people, Alicia. But we’re not going to stoop to the level of the Spanish fucking Inquisition, especially for a situation that is not life-or-death.”
“As you say, sir. I’m simply remarking that it’s unfortunate that we have such a potentially valuable source of information available on our enemy and it remains untapped.”
“We have been able to get some things out of her.”
“Yes and much of what she allegedly said to Commodore Archer is classified. Commodore Archer, who can’t go for more than thirty seconds without suffering multiple strokes and who could be unwittingly giving valuable intel to the enemy herself.” Alicia Hunt’s grey eyes hardened. “That prisoner whose rights that you seem so concerned with was taken as she participated in an attack on civilian facilities. The Lefu have withdrawn, but they’re still out there. This attack in Pioneering proves that their goals haven’t changed: they want us dead, Hawthorne. We need information.”
Foraker stood up and took the datapad from her. “Thank you for your input, Alicia.”
Hunt was the soul of courtesy. “Any time, Hawthorne. As ever, Warlord and her staff remain available for… anything you might need.” Alicia paused in the doorframe. “You might not want to consider this. But it’s something that you need to. She has information. We need information. We’re in a war. Those aren’t won by the hesitant or the soft. I’m sure you’ve learned that from her, if nothing else.”
UTCNS Intolerance, Flag Officer’s Quarters
What are you?
Natalya Archer was sitting in her office aboard [i]Intolerance, staring at her computer screen. The commodore had wrapped up her paperwork a few minutes ago and in lieu of anything else to do, had accessed the hive’s security feeds. At least, that was the explanation she’d given herself. Boredom and morbid curiousity. Absently, Natalya twirled a forelock of blood-red hair in her forefinger as she stared at a murderess.
Arykka was exercising; the Evea’shi (no, Lefu!) seemed to do that a lot. Of course, there wasn’t much else for her to do in her cell. The commodore watched the younger woman’s lithe movements, the flexing of her supple limbs and the slight flush in her cheeks from her exertion.
The redheaded officer snorted. She felt like a voyeur. It had been a while since she’d had a partner that didn’t run on batteries and Arykka was attractive, but girls weren’t… normally… her thing. Not since Tabby. She could still remember the hurt in the other woman’s eyes, the accusation in her voice. The anger in her own, the words she’d said and then immediately wanted to take back. They’d both wanted to hurt each other that day and they’d both succeeded.
Natalya rubbed her temples, taking a moment to brush the forelock of dark red hair back out of her face. Sometimes, when she was falling asleep, she could hear – or at least she thought she did – Arykka singing to her – which was the clearest indication yet that she was insane. If there were any words, she couldn’t understand them. It should have been nothing but disturbing, but in some way, some small part of her found it comforting. That there was at least one other person in the star system who understood what was happening.
That it happened to be that pale-skinned psychopath was just the punchline of some sick, cosmic joke.
Natalya stood and started to pace. Everything about this situation was insane. That girl was an enemy combatant, who had happily killed men and women under Archer’s command. Her people were waging a genocidal war on the Concord. Natalya wanted to be angry at her; she needed to be. Anything less felt as if she were betraying the people who’d died. She would have been happier if Arykka had been some bug-eyed, tentacled thing rather than another human. It was harder to hate what looked like you.
But not impossible. Humanity’s history was a testament to that. It would have been easier if the Evea’shi or Lefu or whatever she was had been some ranting zealot, if the first thing Natalya had felt – so intense and horrifying that it had given her multiple strokes – had not been a cascade of the pilot’s own fear and despair. Natalya remembered her own cold-blooded hatred of the enemy – it was still there, would never fully go away – but it was faded, harder to hold onto now.
She felt cheated of that.
Still, she kept going back. Trying to understand, trying to learn. The finality in the pilot’s words, You are Enemy, was frightening. That should have been the end of it, but against her own hate, Natalya wanted – needed – to know more, despite the cost. And there was a cost; every time they ‘spoke’, Natalya suffered seizures, strokes and other unpleasant side effects that were only getting worse. But she was the only one that could. The only one that the girl would communicate with.
The Concord needed to learn more about the Lefu. Natalya tried to justify her actions that way, she also knew that she wanted to know, when she stared into the other girl’s eyes, just what it was that stared back at her.
Hyperion Prime Command Base
“A moment of your time, admiral?”
“Of course, Ms. Pierce,” Foraker said, nodding cordially to the Parliamentary Special Envoy. She’d been sent from Earth as a civilian watchdog – ‘observer’, Foraker reminded himself – to how the military was conducting the war and to report back directly to the President’s office. Foraker disliked being second-guessed at the best of times and having a politically-appointed overseer dogging his footsteps didn’t do much to improve his opinion. But it would be counter-productive to make an enemy of the woman, especially with her patrons back on Earth. “Do you mind if we walk? I have an engagement.”
“Diana, please,” she smiled in greeting. She was a lovely woman; thanks to the proliferation of genetic engineering, chronologically, the envoy might be sixty at the outside, but biologically she appeared as if she had just graduated from college. Just as Foraker himself didn’t look much like a centarian – though these days, he certainly felt like one. “And not at all. I have affairs of my own. I understand there has been some trouble recently in Pioneering.”
Foraker had to give the woman credit on developing her network; she’d only been here two months and had already caught wind of the news. “Something like that, yes.”
“There were high casualties.”
He gritted his teeth. “Yes.”
“I also understand that Admiral Hunt spent some time with you this morning.” The shorter woman’s head came up in a challenge, pale locks of hair framing her Inner Worlder’s mocha skin. “I know about her war record, admiral and I can read between the lines. I know how she got the information on the Daedalus Raid.”
“Was there something you wanted to ask me in between telling me how smart you are?” It came out before Hawthorne could stop it and he instantly regretted the catty comment.
Diana’s fingers pinched into his shoulder and Foraker stopped in his tracks. “Barbarism is not the answer, admiral. It never will be. I’m not talking about violence, I’m talking about the kind of actions that will come to haunt one, the kind of things that will destroy any chance for peace.”
He shrugged off her grip and continued walking. He didn’t disagree with anything she’d said – not really – but the lecturing tone in the woman’s voice grated on him. “I don’t need to be lectured on morality. If the Progressive Democratic Party hadn’t spent the last three decades gutting the Fleet’s budget, the Lefu wouldn’t have been able to stick one toe into our space,” he growled at the civilian, trying to mask his uncertainty. He knew many of his subordinates believed that and he wanted to do so himself. But he was too honest with himself to admit that. Of course, he wasn’t quite honest enough to admit that to Pierce, not when the PDP’s actions had damaged the Concord’s military readiness and capabilities.
Hawthorne had been trying not to think about Hunt’s carefully not-suggested course of action. It was easy to tell oneself that if there were some immediate need – the traditional ‘ticking bomb’ scenario, for example. Or the count-down to the Daedalus Raid. Something like that would give him a clear, compelling reason to act, instead of what one pilot might know. He was already being asked questions about what precisely they’d learned from her and as Hunt had pointed out, the answer was very little. Those questions would only become more strident as her people continued to kill his and their sole source of insight into the Lefu remained… untapped.
“But we did,” Pierce admitted, drawing Foraker’s attention. “Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. We can’t change the past. But the future and the present – those we have control over. I know the military loves its secrets, likes to imagine that the things it buries will stay buried, but that’s not always the case, is it? I won’t pretend to tell you your duty. Only that you already know what it is, that you swore an oath to the Concord and its ideals. If there is a peaceful solution to this war, how far do you think it will get once the Lefu learn what we’ve done?”
Foraker regarded the smaller woman. She had a point, though he didn’t want to admit it. ‘Special questioning’ and ‘enhanced interrogations’ – that sounded so much more clean and tidy than ‘torture’, didn’t it? Though one would think that such an uncivilized concept would have fallen from humanity’s zeitgeist by now, humans remained much the same as they had ever been. The only thing that had changed was its reliability. The Resurgency had developed several obscene technologies specifically to improve the efficiency of torture and the trustworthiness of the answers that they’d gotten. It was said that no one had been able to hide the truth from an Inquisitor; even the best conditioning the Concord had been able to provide to its personnel had been useless when compared to what those madmen were capable of.
They had done because they had believed that they were right and just and pure and their enemies were none of those things. When President Akar had ordered High Admiral Mustafé to enact Special Directive Seventeen against Resurgency stronghold worlds, both men had believed the same. “I suspect that they will consider us savages,” Foraker said aloud. “But then, what are they? They kill with no regard for who’s on the end of their missiles. Millions of civilians have died already. Are we supposed to accept their brutality? Just shrug our shoulders and congratulate ourselves for not being like them?”
“Is the only answer to savagery more savagery?” Pierce retorted. “As to what they are – you have someone who can tell you that, tell you why they refused to let some of our people die. Do you want your legacy to be that of the man who acted as the Resurgency did, or as the man who tried to stop a war?”
“That presumes that there’s anyone left to damn or celebrate me.”
“It does. We destroyed the Resurgency utterly because of their ‘barbarism’ and because we were the stronger. What’s done is done, admiral, but history has a way of coming full circle.” Pierce stopped at an intersection. “This is where I must head off. Good day, Admiral Foraker.”
“To you, Ms. Pierce.” Hawthorne watched the younger woman depart, mulling over what she had said and his own doubts. After a moment, he turned and adjusted his course, heading towards Medical One.
+threat assessment: high+
+defensive assets: minimal+
+industrial capacity: analyzing… minimal+
+planetary biosphere: habitable; reclamation necessary+
+final assessment: secure highthreat system. termination of highthreat resistance+
+imperatives: this killfleet shard will engage and secure highthreat system. initiate cleansing. maintain lookout for massivethreat killships+
+status: termination procedures commencing+