October 29th, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
Jacob stared into the eyes of the creature behind the wall, watching her watch him watch her. This is the face of the enemy, he thought, still unable to shake the sense of horrified wonder. The Lefu was like something out of a childhood fable, her pale skin wrapped with vine-like, barbed tattoos. Even knowing that her race was generations ahead of the League and Concord, it was still hard for Goldstein to accept that the enemy pilot was anything but a mindless savage.
But that’s what the Concords say about us, the senior captain thought. He wouldn’t say that he felt sympathy for her, but he could empathize. Somewhat. Because of her and her people, his ship, his Liberty had died. They’d been crippled, boarded, betrayed and left to die. “But you still did us a favour,” he said into the silence, his eyes never leaving hers. That gaze, full of so much naked hatred and cold, calculating intelligence was still that of a human. Not the slit-pupiled, soulless visage of the Mulkari. Had Liberty not been sabotaged, had she not been brutalized by the Lefu’s forces, then humanity would never have known about them. “That’s why I asked to see you. To let you know that you helped us.”
“They’re coming,” he continued, wondering if the Lefu could even understand him. “Not by the dozens. Not by the hundreds. By the thousands. I know you hate them; I saw your ships chase them down, heard them warn us. The first thing your people said to us and it was a warning about the Mulkari. Doesn’t that mean anything to you? Anything at all?”
The beautiful savage continued to stare at Goldstein in silence. Just before he was about to leave, she raised her good hand, pointing at him with a finger, then drawing her thumb up to her throat and making a slitting gesture. She waved slowly as Goldstein retreated, a thin, unpleasant smile on her lips.
This was getting her nowhere. She kept trying to talk to the orderlies and the doctors, but they didn’t seem to understand her and she was starting to doubt that the problem was on her end. What did that witch do to me? She could feel Arykka’s touch inside her; feel her memories, the things she’d seen, the things she’d done. Dwelling on the memories brought them up like a tidal surge and Natalya fought to keep from retching as the exultation of killing her own ships came back in full force. Despite her revulsion, Natalya would rather see a thousand Concordat ships burn than to see the greater horrors that lay beneath those memories. “What am I?” she gagged, looking up beseechingly at Winters. “Who am I?”
The chief physician did not respond immediately, chewing on the inside of his cheek and eyeing the data from the neural scanners. “You can understand me,” he stated.
Natalya nodded, not trusting herself to speak.
“And you know who I am?”
She nodded again.
“What is my name and rank?”
The redhead bit her lip. “Captain Drake Winters, chief medical officer of Hyperion Prime Command Base.”
Winters frowned. He’d definitely picked out his own name and ‘hyperion’ from Archer’s response, but nothing else was intelligible. He could see for himself that her brain had been altered; he’d hoped that the treatments would reverse the changes entirely, but he supposed that the fact that Archer was simply awake counted for something. The only question remained was whether this was a nonsense language or… not. It was the latter possibility that frightened him the most.
She did say that the Lefu communicated with her and during the first incident, that she saw through the prisoner’s eyes and felt her emotions. Winters didn’t need to remind himself that this was uncharted territory. He sent for an orderly to bring a speechwriter; they were stripped-down laptops with text-to-speech functionality, used to allow patients who couldn’t easily speak or write to communicate.
“Whenever you’re ready,” he informed Archer as the computer was set down on the table beside her bed. “Let’s just take it from the top.” He held up three fingers.
Half-contemplating throwing in an expletive or two, Natalya fixed her attention on the keyboard, her miffed expression faltering. She didn’t recognize any of the symbols and was about to snap at Winters for his poor taste in fostering this charade, when she realized that she could read them. After a fashion, there were two sets of script in her head; she might not be able to remember which one she had learned from childhood (both of them?), but she knew that the one Winters was offering had to be the right one. There was a stab of pain in her temple, but she moved a cautious hand over the speechwriter, biting her lip harder as she selected letters one at a time, hitting enter when she was finished. “Three,” the machine pronounced.
Natalya’s slip hadn’t gone unnoticed by either physician. “Good,” Winters assured the younger woman. “Now – my name and rank?”
Archer’s brow furrowed in concentration as she typed out her response. “Captain Drake Winters. See Mem Oh for the hive.”
“Two for two,” the doctor noted. “And your name?”
A pause, longer then before. “Natalya.”
“All right. Do you remember what happened to you?”
Archer seemed to withdraw into herself for a moment, her expression growing haunted and distant, before typing out her response. “Pain. Screaming over and over. Arykka inside me. I can still feel the pieces she left behind. I see ships burning, feel the need to kill, hear the song. It won’t stop.” There was desperation in her eyes. “What happened to me. What am I.”
“Arykka… that’s the Lefu pilot?” At Archer’s confirming nod, Winters took the younger woman’s hand in his. “We’ll find out what happened. I promise you.”
You don’t know? Natalya’s eyes flashed with anger. “No. Want to see her. In person.”
“I’m not certain that’s the best course of action right now. You’ve only just recovered from-”
Archer’s hand latched on Winter’s arm. In her eyes, there was a mixture of pain, anger and pleading. “Dahsi,” she said beseechingly. “Please,” the machine said for her. “Can’t hurt me anymore.”
Winters wanted to refuse outright, but Archer had just woken up from a coma speaking an alien language. At least, she thought she was. There was no way to tell for certain unless she actually did get a chance to speak with the prisoner. He doubted that ‘Arykka’ would be forthcoming to anyone else’s questions, given recent events. Medical had had to set the bones in her hand after she’d shattered them during a berserk attempt to break the cell walls. “I’ll consider it,” he capitulated. “But not until you get at least six hours rest, understand?”
Natalya hadn’t realized how tired she actually was until Winters spoke. She nodded, sagging back onto the bed. “Yenae.”
Winters decided to take that for agreement. He patted the young woman on the shoulder. “If you need anything, anything at all, don’t hesitate to call for an orderly.”
Romanov nodded towards Archer as the doctors took their leave. “Should we put her on a sedative drip?”
Winters shook his head. “I’d prefer not to. She’s got enough chemicals and hormones in her system right now; no reason to chance an adverse reaction. If she has trouble sleeping, put her on a light isodemelin injection. No more then 10cc. In the meantime, I believe I have a meeting with Admiral Foraker.”
Natalya watched the personnel vacate her room, one of the orderlies dimming the lights before she left. Her eyelids fluttered shut as images of dying ships faded from her mind. Her lips moved in an echo of the lullaby Arykka sang to her. When the darkness reached for her this time, she wasn’t afraid.
This was going to be one of those days. Foraker could feel it. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “She’s speaking Lefu?”
“I can’t be certain, but from what she told me, she thinks she is,” Winters confirmed. “She can still understand English, spoken and written – although she had some trouble reading the speechwriter’s keys – but can’t seem to speak it. I suspect this is an artifact of the re-wiring her speech center underwent. For a simple analogy, the Lefu appears to have ‘terraformed’ Commodore Archer’s brain. It doesn’t appear to have been an easy process, as I’m sure you know – if medical personnel hadn’t responded as quickly as they had, she would be dead now. As it was, the Lefu’s first telepathic scream nearly did that all on its own.” His lips thinned. Both men knew he wouldn’t continue that line of thought. If you hadn’t agreed to the torture of a prisoner, we wouldn’t have nearly lost one of your officers.
Hawthorne grimaced from the unspoken admonishment. “I understand. You said ‘she believes’ – you don’t think that’s the case?”
“There’s no way to tell for certain, sir. Not without agreeing to her request. Her temporal lobes have been restructured to some degree, as have the memory centers of her brain. This could be a form of dementia cause by brain damage; it’s not uncommon for stroke victims to speak in gobbedlygo- ah, their own language.”
“And to find out for certain, we’d need to expose Archer to direct contact to the person that almost killed her, to see if she actually does know their language.”
“Yes, sir. I wouldn’t be mentioning this if there was another way, but we’ve seen what happens when we try to start dialogue by playing back the prisoner’s own speech.”
“That’s true.” After Singh’s special questioning had been curtailed, the usual interviewers had tried again, hoping for a favourable comparison when compared to Bates. To get the Lefu’s interest, they’d used recorded snippets of her own speech. ‘Incensed’ was putting the pilot’s reaction in mild terms. Foraker had been surprised that her shrieks of fury hadn’t been heard on Secundus and they’d had to render her unconscious to prevent her from injuring herself. Of course, that could be put down to her generally hostile reaction to everyone.
However for Winters, ‘do no harm’ wasn’t just a suggestion. Initiating a situation that was proven to cause one or more of the parties involved to injure themselves was not something he was comfortable with. Ever since he’d had to patch up the prisoner after she’d ‘fallen’, he’d been coldly indifferent to his superior officers rather than his usual nervous self.
“We could set up a comm line, keep her out of proximity to this… Erica, was it?”
“Something like that, sir. I’ll suggest that to the commodore after she wakes up, but my impression is that she won’t go for it. I was hoping that you could talk her out of, sir. At least until she’s fully recovered. She does look up to you.”
“In your professional opinion, how long will that be?”
“At least two weeks, possibly more. She was only in a coma for several days, but given the circumstances of it, I’d prefer to be cautious.”
“That’s too long. See if you can convince her otherwise, but if she’s adamant…” Foraker sat down in his chair. “We need information, Drake. Pull the plug if Archer’s life is in danger, but I’m giving the go ahead for this.”
“With all due respect, admiral-”
“I know how the chain of command works, captain. And I’m making this an order in the interests of state security.”
There was a sudden rigidity to the doctor’s spine. “Yes, sir.”
It was embarrassing to have to be wheeled through the hive like an invalid, but Winters had flatly refused to let her walk, claiming concerns about her motor functions and the fact that she hadn’t used her legs in over a week, despite a regime of physical therapy. Secretly, Natalya was glad for his insistence; the first time she had seen an officer in a naval uniform, there had been a flash of instinctive hate so strong that had she not been sitting, she would have fallen down.
With an effort, she forced the unwelcome memories out of her mind. These people were not her enemy; they were her friends. Her brothers and sisters. At least, most of the time she thought that they were. It was easier to clutch onto the ‘real’ memories now that she was surrounded by familiar faces, but there was still a part of her, not very deep inside, that wanted nothing more then to see them all burn. Before you do it to us, that aspect of her-not-her whispered.
She felt sick, all the more so because she knew where that murderous sentiment came from. She wanted to laugh and cry all at the same time, but did neither. Instead, she seized a hold of Natalya’s – of her – thoughts and memories, reminding herself of who she was, afraid to slip back into the other memories. She couldn’t even make herself hate anymore. That wasn’t completely true, she could, but it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t anger for a faceless, genocidal foe, it was the bewildered fury and hurt that one had for a friend’s betrayal. How could you do this? Why didn’t you even try?
At last they reached the cell block and Winters nodded the guards to allow them access. Donald was there too and he squeezed her shoulder comfortingly. She was glad that he was there, despite the mixture of guilt from wishing that it was James and uncertainty about her first officer’s absence. She’d asked about him, but nobody had given her an answer. She knew from experience that that was always a bad sign. She hadn’t seen anyone from her ship and that only tightened the icy hand wrapped around her innards.
Natalya didn’t have any more time to dwell on the cold feeling in the middle of her gut as the cell bay doors hissed open and her orderly wheeled her in, her little entourage of guards and medics following. Arykka was standing, already looking in her direction. Archer pulled herself to her feet, ignoring efforts to get her to sit back down. She needed to be standing, needed not to look weak. Forcing her legs not to shake, Natalya approached the cell.
Arykka pressed her good hand against the window, evaluating Natalya warily as the other woman approached her prison. After a moment, the redhead laid her palm over the Evea’shi’s, resting her forehead against the transparent metal. It felt cool on her skin. “What,” she began, taking a moment to keep the anger out of her voice. “Did you do to me?”
The Echo’s accent was atrocious, her words clipped like the Enemy’s own brutish tongue. But Arykka could forgive her that, resting her own head against the wall. “I gave you exactly what you wanted, Natalya Echo,” Arykka responded. “What makes you Enemy? Brei’orai. Mulkari. Shadronai.”
“I guess that answers your questions, doctor,” LeFay said to Winters under his breath.
“Only some of them,” Drake replied softly.
Donald’s attention fell on one of the BXA officers at the main station. “Tell me you’re recording this.” The prisoner hadn’t spoken this much in her own language in all the time she’d been here.
Natalya closed her eyes. “I do understand. I know what made you like this.” Her fingernails screeched over the smooth metal as she curled them into a fist. The men and women behind her jumped as she abruptly hammered that fist against the window. “Now take it out!” she screamed. “Take it out!”
“I can’t do that.” It was impossible to tell whether Arykka was amused or saddened.
“You put it in there! Get it out of me! All of it, you hear me?!” Natalya slammed her fists against the window, harder this time.
<I can’t,> Arykka repeated. <I told you, I’m not a Mindsinger. What I did in giving you what you wanted was hard enough; to take it back… your people would not save your mind. You would be nothing. If you survived.>
“I don’t care! Every time I close my eyes, I see the ships burning. Every time it’s quiet, I hear you singing,” Natalya’s expression turned vicious and cold. “You did this to me.”
“I gave you want you wanted, nothing less,” Arykka hissed, matching Natalya’s vitriol. She raised her bandaged arm. “You gave me more.”
Natalya blinked, seeing the cast on the Lefu’s arm for the first time. “You did that to yourself,” she replied icily.
<And did I do this as well?>
–someone grabbed her by the hair and slammed her face into the table–
Pain exploded behind her eyes and Archer yelped, stumbling backwards from the cell, clutching at her temples. Someone was at her side. “It’s all right,” she said, pulling herself back up to her feet. “It’s all right.”
“Commodore…” Winters began, trying to pull her away.
Natalya jerked out of his grasp, so abruptly that she had to steady herself against the cell’s window. “I’m fine,” she snarled, her frustration only made worse knowing that they couldn’t understand her. Archer’s gaze shifted back to Arykka, their eye meeting. Green and blue. “Why can’t I speak like I could?” She wouldn’t let herself be drawn into an ethical debate. It brought up too many memories, too many things that she didn’t – couldn’t – let herself think about. Not now.
The pilot considered. “You understand your own tongue well enough, so that part of your mind isn’t damaged. Perhaps inaccessible.” She shrugged, the familiar gesture somehow indefinably alien. <I might be able to wrench it free.>
Arykka’s choice of words was not lost on Natalya; she knew that it would hurt. “But there’s a price.”
<Everything has a price, Echo.>
“Then what’s yours?”
The Evea’shi smiled craftily. “You’ll know it when it comes.”
Natalya stood there for a long moment, her hands clasped into fists. She didn’t know what else to say. The anger had been burned out of her, the indignation. Even the sense of violation. Understanding was as horrible a curse as there ever was. She raised her hand back to the glass, the Lefu pressing her cheek against it. “I was there the day the gods fell,” was all Natalya said and though she’d never know why, she felt moisture well in up her eyes as she opened herself to her enemy’s embrace.
LeFay saw Archer stiffen and convulse and he was there to catch her when she fell. The order to stun the Lefu died on his lips as he looked up into the enemy’s eyes. There was no sadism, no hate, no malice. Her expression was… contemplative, almost compassionate as she looked down at Archer.
“Donald,” a weak voice said and LeFay glanced down at the woman in his arms. There were tears in her eyes. “It’s all right,” she told him – in English. “It’s all right.”
She’d insisted on coming here next, refusing to put it off, refusing to accept LeFay’s demurring efforts, or Winters’ insistence that she rest. She was in one of the hive’s cemeteries, standing over the coffin containing James’ body. He’d been her captain, her faithful subordinate and her friend. There one day and gone… just gone, the next. Him, dozens of people she’d known and commanded for years and the ship that she’d considered to be her home. All gone, along with five other proud vessels and tens of thousands of crew. Like they’d never even existed in the first place.
Her escorts had given her some privacy and Natalya sat in front of the coffin for a long moment, trying to think of what to say, what to do next. “You didn’t fail,” was the only thing she could think of. “You didn’t fail, James. I couldn’t have asked a better officer to have at my side these years. You never failed.” Here, alone in the dark chamber with the remains of a friend, Natalya let out the tears that she’d been holding back ever since the war began. For everyone that had died, on both sides.
And because she knew what was going to happen. “It’s never going to stop,” she said to the emptiness. “Not ever.”
When she finally left the room, if any of her companions noticed the puffiness around her eyes, they didn’t comment on it. “Whenever it’s convenient,” she announced. “I’ll need to speak with Admiral Foraker. With anyone that wants to know what this war is about.”