October 18th, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
Foraker tapped a finger on his desk as he read over the after-action report. “Hermes detected some wreckage from the Lefu ship, so we know that Takasawi got a piece of them. Unfortunately, even at the distance they were from Hyperion Meta, its gravity well is acting like a vacuum and both debris fields are being distorted and drawn down towards it, which makes it hard to estimate which heading the Lefu ship took, but nothing’s turned up. It’s possible that it hypered out. There was enough of a lag between Belligerent’s destruction and Hermes’ arrival that even a damaged ship could have gotten close enough to the hyper limit to escape.”
Diana Pierce laced her fingers together. “And there’s no sign of the attacking ship?”
“None. Admiral Hunt,” Foraker gestured toward Alicia, who didn’t return his glance, “has her ships combing the outer system now, but it’s unlikely that we’ll find them. We are intensifying the sweeps and as more ships become available to us, we should be able to drive the Lefu out, despite their ECM.”
“I see. Thank you for your time, then. I’ll let Parliament know that you’re doing everything you can.” Pierce and her assistants stood to take their leave, Hunt rising to her feet as well.
The admiral took Pierce’s hand and shook it. “Thank you as well, Ms. Pierce. Anything you can do to get Sol off our backs would be greatly appreciated.” She shot Foraker a sidelong glance. “As you say, we are doing everything we can.”
Diana nodded, catching the meaning in Hunt’s eyes. “Of course, admiral.” The envoy nodded respectfully to both flag officers and took her leave, pausing just outside the door to Foraker’s office as it hissed shut. Which may just be the problem.
Now that that nosy parker from the President’s office was gone, Alicia seated herself and turned back to Hawthorne. Her eyes glittered coldly, the fleet admiral quelling the urge to snap at Foraker. Almost. She slid the flimsi in her hands over the polished mahogany surface of the station admiral’s desk. “Belligerent was lost with all hands, sir,” she replied politely, her voice cold enough that it seemed the room dropped in temperature. “Fifteen thousand men and women, including an officer I watched come up through the ranks. As I recall, system security is your responsibility. I’ll wager that the men and women left under your command don’t feel that secure.”
Hawthorne’s eyes flashed. “I suppose not,” he conceded bitingly. Hunt’s words had more than a kernel of truth in them; Hyperion Hive was his command and he was supposed to make sure that the officers and crew that served under him did not die needlessly. Belligerent and her crew had perished trying to save Covenant. Not for nothing, but he found it difficult to accept that. And if he was finding it hard….
He knew how Alicia felt, he’d felt it after Archer and TF 111 had come back from Priorii, bloodied and scarred. He wanted to offer some words of solace, something that didn’t sound trite, but he doubted that Alicia was in any mood to accept it. She’d all but accused the League captain of cowardice and incompetence for refusing to aid Belligerent, despite the transmission records that showed Takasawi ordering Goldstein and Covenant off.
Covenant; of all the things Foraker had expected, the Empties’ return from the dead aboard a Mulkari killship was among the least likely. Case Omega personnel at Hyperion Hive were itching to get aboard the prize vessel and the Empty crew’s debriefing had been illuminating, to say the least. If depressing. It’s finally happening, had been the only thought pounding in Foraker’s tired brain for the past twelve hours. They’re finally coming. The ‘Lefu’ that Case Omega had feared for over two hundred years were finally coming to settle their issues with the Concord.
Though the captured killship’s AI had deleted much of its information, the League’s prize crew had uncovered enough to know that the killfleet that had descended upon ‘Cemetery’ was only a fraction of the incursion’s strength. As bad it might seem, three hundred scout killships weren’t an overwhelming force. Not to a star nation as powerful as the Concord. Even the forces here at Hyperion Hive might be enough to stymie them, but it was the ephemeral references to other, larger vessels that had Foraker worried. Covenant was more advanced then the killships Case Omega had seized during their long shadow war with the Mulkari, which unsettled him further.
It wasn’t just the fact that Covenant had been developed, it was that her advances were unprecedented. Which suggested several things, none of them good. The first was that the Mulkari had always had a core of more advanced vessels, or at least the ability to produce them. The second was that there had been some political or social shift that had led to the beginning of a Mulkari technological renaissance. That was the last thing that humanity needed.
“The one good thing out of all of this,” Hunt was saying. “Is that it doesn’t look like the Lefu and these Necros play well with each other. Which means instead of a clusterfuck, we’re looking at a three-way war.” Her eyes hardened. “It also means that your prisoner probably knows who these new bastards are.”
It was amazing how quickly the lie formed. “I’m not sure about-”
Alicia shoved her datapad across the desk to Foraker, letting it join Belligerent’s casualty report. “The Nakir squadron commed Liberty and told them to run,” she interrupted. “In English, mind you. Look at their reaction – look at it, damn it – they didn’t hesitate. As soon as they ID’d the Necro force, they ran. That’s not the action you take when you encounter an unknown.” She folded her arms across her chest.
I know. Foraker wanted to tell her that. Hunt had as much a right to know as Archer did, and it wasn’t like Case Omega was long for its position as an official secret, not if Covenant’s information was to be believed. But, when you came down to it, he could trust Archer – and could control her – more than he could his fellow flag officer.
Like everything else, secrets got heavier with time. Harder to reveal and if this was false information created by Covenant’s AI, then Foraker would not be the one who undid two centuries of effort. The Confederation’s citizens were terrified enough about the Lefu; if the Mulkari threat could be contained, there was no reason to panic them further. And there was certainly no reason to give the PDP the chance to screw the Navy a third time.
Realizing that Alicia was waiting for a response, Foraker shook off his woolgathering. “I suppose you’re right,” he admitted.
Hunt’s eyes narrowed at her comrade’s… minimal acknowledgement. “And what are you going to do about it?” she demanded. “Show your prisoner some flash cards, hope that she’s feeling cooperative?” I forgot – ‘cooperative’ means that she just outright ignores you, doesn’t it?
She jabbed a finger onto the causality list. “This isn’t an abstraction, a debate in the Academy’s Ethics courses. People are dying, Hawthorne. Our people. And you want to coddle that little bitch and hope that maybe she’ll start talking or maybe your eggheads will find a way for Archer to ‘talk’ – or whatever the hell you call it – for more than thirty seconds without her brain running out of her ears.
“We don’t have time for it. We need information, any information. On the Lefu, on these Necros. No matter what you, Pierce or the PDP think should happen, how people should act, we don’t deal in that kind of universe. We deal in the real world. I think, sitting here in your comfortable leather chair, behind your fine wood desk, on your impregnable moonlet, you’ve forgotten that. You may speak the words about ‘doing whatever it takes’, but you don’t actually mean them.”
Foraker’s cheeks flushed with anger. “The Centauri Accords apply to everyone, Alicia. Not just the people we think they should be applied to.”
“In theory, yes. In practice, in the real world, things are a little more grey. OMI would disagree with you. We both know that the high admiral and her staff – even those prissy little libs – won’t question results. As long as they get them. All they’re seeing now is failures, and not on my end. You think this last little fiasco won’t show up on their radar, Hawthorne? How long before they start second-guessing their man on the spot? It won’t be pretty.”
Foraker leaned back in his chair. “That’s immaterial. I won’t be the officer who opened the floodgates to later abuses. We are better then the Lefu and we should damn well act like it.”
“I shouldn’t have to remind you that aside from that one anomalous transmission, the Lefu have never made a single demand for surrender, a single offer for negotiations. We have and they answer quite clearly – by firing on the ships hailing them and massacring everyone in their path. We don’t have to be ‘better’ than them. We already are.
“In any case, taking the moral high ground is a luxury we don’t have, Hawthorne. This isn’t about ideology like it was with the Resurgency, it’s not about territory and self-determination like it was with the League. This war is one of survival, sir. We just have to be the ones standing when the dust settles. No matter what the Inner Worlds might delude themselves into thinking or saying, there’s only way to coexist with butchers like these. And if – if! – some sort of settlement is reached, do you think that the Lefu are going to complain about the treatment of one pilot, when they’ve slaughtered millions?”
She had a point, damn her. “And what do you think our Special Envoy is going to do when she finds out?”
“I won’t tell her if you won’t. And besides, she’s not going to rock the boat either, not with her masters back home glad-handing her for those same results. The Conservatives will only be disappointed that we didn’t break out the branding irons and thumbscrews. The PDP and the Foundationists… can both go fuck themselves. They’re not the ones dying out here.” She leaned forward as a confidant, a conspirator. “I was hoping to temporarily assign Captain Singh to the hive’s administrative staff. He knew Captain Takasawi well and there isn’t enough work on Warlord to keep him from dwelling on Belligerent’s loss.”
Hawthorne steepled his fingers. BXA was getting nowhere with their attempts to communicate with the enemy pilot and Captain Winters was still deep in research, obsessing over Archer’s condition – days from even a workable version of whatever he was doing. Days that Hyperion Hive might not have.
In the wake of the Lefu’s first attack and their withdrawal, Foraker had allowed himself to believe that he had time, had breathing room. His relief that these people were not the ‘Lefu’ that he had been dreading for much of his career had made him complacent.
They were human. In that, it was often easy to forget that they were ruthless, had wiped entire star systems clean of life, shot down fleeing refugees, butchered the men and women under his command. Those thoughts were always with him, but he’d tried to shunt them aside, to push them out of his mind. A leader couldn’t let himself be sidetracked with his personal grievances. Or any personal agenda, for that matter. They needed to know – anything. Everything. These were dangerous times and only getting more so. Ignorance killed; Hawthorne knew that first-hand.
Foraker thought of himself as a moral man, but too often in space there was no room for morality, only the cold equations. One alien life against the millions of Hyperion Hive, the hundreds of millions of the surrounding system and the billions of the Sector who looked up with fear each night, dreading the arrival of a Lefu armada. When he considered things that way, there was no decision at all.
“Transfer approved,” he said. “Send the paperwork to my office and it will be completed by the end of the day.” He held Alicia’s datapad up to her.
To her credit, Alicia did not offer any trite assurances, simply retrieving her PDA and retreating silently, leaving Hawthorne Foraker alone to contemplate the latest step he’d taken on the road to Hell.
Something was wrong.
Arykka lay on the cot of her cell, staring up at the ceiling. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but something was different, somehow. She had gotten better at deciphering the whispers, emotions and fleeting thoughts that chattered incessantly about her. There was an edge to them now, a new darkness that she knew was directed at her. She wasn’t a Mindsinger, but she didn’t need to be guess that Evea’shi and Enemy had clashed once more and these people had not come off well from it.
She wondered if the Echo, if Natalya Archer – Arykka’s lips moved, softly sounding out the alien name – had been among them. That would be regrettable. Without her, Arykka was alone.
That was a funny way of looking at things; Arykka had been alone for many days now and her brothers and sisters had flown against Natalya in combat, killed the Echo’s siblings. She could feel the Enemy’s hate, burning in her like an open hearth… but she could also feel her confusion, her fascination. It mirrored Arykka’s own. As bizarre as it sounded, that was the common ground between them. Maybe that was the thread that connected the two.
None of this made any sense. However, she suspected that things were about to get clearer. There was no happy ending for her; the Enemy’s patience would wear thin, if it had not already. Arykka wondered if the Echo, her Echo, would be there on that day. It scarcely mattered, but she had no illusions of seeing her family, her brothers and sisters again. A familiar face was all that she asked for.
And perhaps one more sacrifice to lay at the Angel’s altar.
She would not go quietly, never quietly. And if the Enemy tried to compel her to treat with them, she would make them see that even a caged Evea’shi could be a fragment of the apocalypse unto herself.
There was nothing else she could do but die well.
Arykka closed her eyes. She dreamt of autumn.
There was a nervous energy running through the hive; Natalya could feel it down to her marrow. She didn’t need any ‘psychic sensitivity’ to gauge the mood of the crew she passed in the hallways; almost two decades of service in the Fleet worked quite well for that.
Everyone was expecting the worse, which in this case meant another Evea’shi attack. Or worse – a Mulkari killfleet. Natalya didn’t know what fighting them would be like, but the files LeBlanc and Foraker had turned over to her certainly hadn’t helped her sleep. She hadn’t been able to sleep at all on Intolerance’s circuit back to the hive. It was hard to admit, but she had gotten… used to Arykka’s lullabies, if that’s what they were.
Natalya had ‘neglected’ to let the medics know about them. So far, there didn’t seem to be any ill effects from the Lefu’s song and she didn’t want to be banned from the hive entirely in the name of (what seemed to her) irrational concerns. It was comforting to know that Arykka had a range limit; direct, actual communication could only occur within a handful of meters, but this… whispering, singing, whatever, could extend for dozens, maybe hundreds of kilometers.
Which, if the Evea’shi could manage to convey information over that range, would be an extremely useful method of communication. She sometimes wondered how something like that would work, but often gave up after coming to the realization that if a single Lefu could induce strokes and seizures, a telepathic network would probably blow a ‘sensitive’ Terran’s brain out the back of their skull. Say, hers.
Not something that she really wanted to find out, anyways.
And what do you want to find out, then? a little voice asked her.
Not much, she answered herself. The ‘Why’.
But you are ‘Enemy’, the little voice mocked. It doesn’t matter, does it? She’s part of a war machine that’s coming for you. They don’t need a reason. They’re animals. Beneath that pale skin of hers, there’s nothing inside. You think they even bleed?
No, they bleed. Natalya remembered the dried blood on Arykka’s face as the medics cut her out of her flight suit, the blank look in her eyes. They feel pain.
Makes it easier, then. They’ve hurt you so much. Maybe she wasn’t one of the ones that killed Tommy, but she was there at Priorii, killing your friends. She was here, killing the HAVOCs. She’s the one that murdered Wing-Captain Drake. Wouldn’t it feel good to get a little of that back?
And how do you propose I do that?
I’m certain you’ll find a way. The voice sneered as it receded.
Natalya sat down on a handy bench in an observation gallery; it looked out into the one of the hive’s hollowed-out internal hangars, where several damaged cruisers were being repaired. As if I didn’t have enough problems, she mused with graveyard humour. Well, who needs sanity anyways?
She keyed in a refreshment request on one of the lounge’s small tables, sipping the glass of ice water that a servitor drone brought to her moments later. The Mulkari, the Evea’shi – whoever had been the first philosopher to make a curse of ‘may you live in interesting times’ – had certainly had a measure of foresight. Natalya laughed sadly, closing her eyes for a moment, somehow thinking of orange leaves falling from their trees. Though peaceful, something was indefinably wrong with the image, but she couldn’t figure out what it was. Like a graveyard, no matter how pretty it was, would always be a graveyard.
She didn’t even know what made her think of autumn.