Children of Heaven: Choir of Silence, Chapter 23

Chapter 23

October 31, 4233
Hyperion Hive
Hyperion Sector, Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord

Hyperion Prime Command Base, Conference Twelve

Natalya licked her lips uncertainly as she stood at the forefront of a conference table just off the main war room. Admirals Foraker and Hunt were there, as were Captains Winters and LeFay and their parliamentary envoy, Diana Pierce. Hunt was waiting for Natalya to begin, but there was a stormcloud behind her grey eyes and every few moments, she’d shoot a glance towards Foraker. That he’d been keeping secrets from her obviously wasn’t sitting well with the fleet admiral and Natalya suspected that the admirals’ most recent conversations had been far from amicable. LeFay, like Admiral Hunt, was also waiting for the briefing to begin, though with a greater air of patience, his hands laced together and resting on the tabletop. By contrast, Winters had been wearing a look of muted shock ever since he’d sat down and Pierce… her expression was unreadable.

Foraker had made the decision to keep this information limited to as few people as possible for the moment, but he hadn’t been able to keep Pierce out – she was the seniormost civilian authority in the system and specifically charged to liase with the military. Even if she wasn’t, she’d heard about Natalya’s… situation and had made certain that she was not going to be excluded. The powers given to her by the President made a very potent Sword of Damocles and the envoy wasn’t afraid of making sure that both flag officers knew it.

She, along with Winters and Hunt, had been briefed by Foraker on Case Omega, or at least enough to give them the proper context for this conversation. Due to their respective positions, Hunt and Pierce needed to know and given the Mulkari’s demonstrated love of bioweapons, Winters had had to be brought in. Not that secrecy for Case Omega is going to be a problem much longer.

With an effort, Natalya stopped herself from twirling a forelock of red air, nodding to the assembled officers, starting her briefing. “They were called the Brei’orai. Literally translated, it means ‘people of the world.’ Their civilization existed from approximately 35,000-7000 BCE, spacefaring for the last millennium and a half. From what the Evea’shi – the Lefu – records indicate, they controlled several hundred star systems to the far galactic east. None of our scouts have yet made it to the point where they’d reach these worlds or be able to pick up even the earliest Brei’orai radio transmissions – provided they hadn’t degraded to incoherence.” She paused, licking her lips. She had to think about each world before she said it, otherwise she’d lapse into Dryn’evea again.

“The Brei’orai were ruled by a religious cabal known as the Curate – basically a parliament of popes. They handled all major civilian and military decisions, but were surprisingly secular in their decisions. By all accounts, they were a prosperous and growing star nation; if they’d continued to develop, they might have been the most powerful race in the galaxy by now.” These weren’t her memories, and it was hard to remember that. They were echoes of what Arykka had learned as a child, the lessons she and her fellow Fleet trainees had been taught in their Academy. That was what Natalya had to keep reminding herself; she could feel the emotions attached to these images, gestalt thoughts that weren’t hers.

That she didn’t think were hers…

“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” Admiral Foraker commented.

Natalya nodded. “Yes, sir. Several hundred years before the end of their reign, a disease known as the Cull appeared. Its exact origins were never discovered, but the Evea’shi believe it was a Mulkari bioweapon. It fits with their MO and the first outbreaks occurred in towns nearest to where a rogue asteroid slipped through the planet’s tracking net and impacted planetside. Given the extensive intra-system traffic and orbital works that Brei possessed, it would seem highly unlikely for anything its size to go unnoticed, let alone impact the planet – at least, without outside help.

“The Brei’orai themselves suspected it was a variant of their common cold that mutated after exposure to off-world pathogens. Regardless of its origins, the Cull was – for lack of a better term – the perfect killer. Highly infectious through touch, air and bodily fluids even in its dormant state, it incubated in its hosts for well over a year.” Natalya paused for a moment, trying not to imagine what came next. “Think about it – some kids find the crash site and become exposed. They go home and their parents get it. Mom goes shopping and passes it to everyone in the store, who spread it to their families. Dad spreads it to everyone at the office – managers who go to major cities for conferences pass it along to everyone there and it keeps going and going….”

“And they never detected it?” Winters inquired.

“The Cull wasn’t virulent at this point – there were no outward symptoms and whatever medical scans the Brei’orai had, they weren’t good enough to spot the dormant phages. In weeks, entire cities were infected. In months, 70% of the Brei’orai homeworld populace had it. And it didn’t stop there – the Curatorium had suffered several rebellions to their rule and as a result, they kept a tight grip on all shipping and communications. Say world A and world B are only four light-years apart from each other and thirty from Brei. If someone on A wanted to send a package to B, they’d have to ship it to the capital first and then to B. This centralization allowed the Curate to keep potential troublemakers under their thumb… and it was what killed them.

“The good news for the Brei’orai was that in practice only the First Worlds – their largest, closest systems – followed this dictum; the Shell Worlds on the outer limits of their territory shipped directly to each other. The larger trade guilds refused to transport goods to many of the outer planets because of this, which kept the points of contact to a minimum and thus, the vectors for infection. The Shell Worlds were still contaminated, just not as badly.”

“When the Cull turned virulent… there were more than a trillion Brei’orai before and less than 300 billion afterwards. Over two-thirds of the Brei’orai population died in the first wave,” Natalya stressed each word, still having trouble believing it herself. “‘Panic’ can’t begin to describe what the population went through. There were riots on every planet and aboard every ship, lynch mobs and doomsday cults in the streets blaming every possible religious, social, political and cultural minority, flagellants proclaiming that this was the end of days. Millions more died in these uprisings.

“Somehow, a portion of the ‘Clericulum’ – their version of parliament – survived and made it to a world that escaped contamination by wiping out every infected person. They managed to stabilize the disorder, backed by their scientists’ pronouncements that they had found a cure.

“It didn’t work that way; the Cull mutated too quickly and it would go into dormancy for several years – over three decades in one instance – before coming right back and wiping populations out again. The Brei’orai were very good with biosciences and they managed to create effective vaccines on seven different occasions, but the Cull – it adapted and just kept killing. That was bad enough, but Brei’orai navy elements ran across a small Mulkari sleeper fleet. The Lefu never believed that was a coincidence, them being so close to the Brei’orai territories and not attacking. It was like they were waiting.

“There was the inevitable battle and the Brei’orai won. Barely. Somehow they found out that the Mulkari were going to come back. The Brei’orai were dying out; they didn’t have the ships or the manpower to fight back. They needed an edge.”

Natalya stiffened. “That’s were we came in. A last hope expedition was launched from the Brei’orai worlds to search for other species as allies, or as slaves. They needed both.”

Foraker leaned forwards, frowning. “Why weren’t automata an option?”

“Several reasons, sir. Firstly, it was the industrialized inner worlds that were wiped out in the first outbreak. The civil unrest that came with it – riots, doomsday cults – destroyed a lot of the infrastructure. This wasn’t a slow, orderly event. There was no one to put out fires, no one to safely deal with nuclear power plants or shut off microwave transmission centers, no one to safeguard and evacuate fuel depositories or keep the planet’s orbital works running. These facilities were either damaged by the violence or fell into disrepair; power transmission beams drifted off-target, reactor cores went into meltdown, fires ignited stockpiled supplies. Sewage and industrial wastes leaked into cities and water routes. Space stations fell out of the sky, ships crash-landed. Other medical centers were breached, releasing more pathogens into the air. There was outright civil war on several of these planets and many were sterilized – Desecrated, really – by the Navy in an attempt to prevent the disease from escaping.

“Add in additional damage from normal natural disasters and the First Worlds of the Curatorium became completely uninhabitable in short order. Whatever was left of the industrial base on them was unsalvageable.”

“And it’s not just the factories and research facilities themselves, sir,” LeFay added, leaning forwards. “It’s the people you need to make that industry work. If Commodore Archer’s information is correct, two-thirds of the Brei’orai population was wiped out in less than a year. All of their most advanced planets and the people on them were gone.” He looked up at Natalya. “You said the Shell Worlds were analogous to our Outer Reaches, yes?” At her nod, he focused again on the admiral. “How many of the Concord’s intelligentsia can be found in the Outer Reaches, the Eastern Expanse? If the Inner Worlds were suddenly gone, how easy would it be for the outer territories to recover? They wouldn’t just have to recreate the industry; they’d need the people who could recreate it and if most of them were dead, it would take decades to recover.”

Natalya nodded again. “Whereas by Clericulum decree, most of the biosciences were located on the less-populated Shell Worlds. Ironically to reduce the risk of a Curatorium-wide outbreak should something get loose. They had a medical infrastructure already in place, but to build automata, they literally had to start from the ground up: they didn’t have enough engineers or the industrial base to simply whip up some blueprints and start cranking fully-functional robots out. Their capacities were strained to breaking just keeping the fleet in fighting shape and preventing what they had from falling apart. The Brei’orai were devising robotic designs, but they couldn’t rely completely on them. Domestic machines are fine, but we all know how well combat AIs work in practice.”

The assembled personnel shared knowing glances and murmurs. In the early age of humanity’s expansion into space, computer-controlled ships had proven themselves over and over again in matters of exploration and simple travel. When war broke out with Earth’s wayward colony in Alpha Centauri, the next step had been to put machines in control of United Earth’s sublight fleets. Touted as a ground-breaking step that would forever remove humans from the messy business of war, analysts predicted a quick end to the conflict with the Centauri, whose ships were so ‘primitive’ that they relied on human crews.

Things had not turned out that way.

Combat between such rudimentary sublight craft was not an arena ripe for unexpected maneuvers and last-minute turnarounds, but it was chaotic enough in its own right. Time and again the ‘inferior’ Centauri-made torchships had trashed the UE’s cutting-edge drone vessels. Even for that archaic form of sublight combat, their tactics had been predictable, their systems unable to counter capable EW (at its simplest, a computer system could be completely fooled, but a human monitoring it might recognize what was happening and attempt to compensate). Human repair teams could not be knocked off-line like auto-repair functions. Human officers had intuition and suspicion; AIs had difference engines.

Facing a Deep Space Conglomerate that was defeating their next-generation fleets in every major engagement and rapidly eroding the technological gap between themselves and Earth, what was left of the UE Naval officer corps, backed by popular support, initiated something of a coup and forced the AI lobbyists, and their bought-and-paid-for senators and admirals out of power. Initiating a massive recruitment and training regime, the ‘Old School’ began retrofitting the UE’s latest fleet to carry crew.

When the Centauri ships encountered this latest ‘drone’ fleet, their survivors reported being quite shocked at the turnaround of fortune. A valuable lesson for the as-yet unborn Concord: computers were an invaluable asset to fighting a war, but they could never carry it themselves. In twenty centuries, that had not changed.

Foraker nodded. “I see, thank you. Continue, Commodore.”

“Thank you, sir. Several expeditions were launched from the new Brei’orai throneworld; most of them came back empty-handed, if at all. One succeeded. They traveled to the galactic north-west, eventually coming across Earth, around 8000 BCE. That’s as near as we can figure using the timelines available. Given the… records Pilot Selliphii showed me, they landed somewhere in Central Mesoamerica, kidnapped a few hundred locals and brought them back to the Curatorium. They were altered by the Brei’orai; stronger, faster, more intelligent. This was a long-term measure; they didn’t expect to have an army in a single generation, but when they did, they wanted the best one they could have. The abducted humans were called the Ovea’brei – ‘servants of the people’.

“Though their population was dwindling rapidly, there were still around three hundred billion Brei’orai, many of them infected by the Cull. Most of their military was gone and conscription efforts only slowed the rate of decline. The aliens began,” she paused and mentally winced. “Widespread cloning to boost the Ovea’brei’s population.”

There was a moment of silence around the table. A thousand years gone and still the specter of the Resurgency’s war gardens and their legions of blank-eyed, same-faced soldiers had a grip in the Terran psyche.

“Cloning,” Hunt mused. “Why didn’t they do that for themselves?”

It was Winters who took this answer, leaping ahead to the conclusion. “Homogeneity,” he replied simply, looking somewhat nervous before expanding on it. “When a species or population becomes too similar in genotype – whether random or caused by inbreeding – it opens them to mass extinction from genetic degradation and disease from the build-up of detrimental mutations in their genome. As well, the population’s resistance to pathogens becomes reduced. It wouldn’t matter if the Brei’orai cloned themselves once or a million times; if the genetic donor could be infected by the Cull, then all their ‘offspring’ would be as well. One resurgence of the virus would wipe out entire lineages, no matter how many there were. That wouldn’t be a problem for humans; they’d be at less risk from the Cull then a pine tree would be from pneumonia.

“For the Brei’orai, there’d be no point in cloning themselves, not until they knew they either had someone immune to the Cull, or a workable vaccine. And with a few hundred billion people still remaining, they may have felt it was unnecessary.”

Natalya nodded, grateful for the doctor’s intercession. “Even with the most stringent quarantine procedures, they averaged a loss of tens – even hundreds – of thousands a week to the plague. Tens of millions of people a year. The Mulkari hadn’t gone away, either – they continued their attacks, wiping out entire colonies and forcing the Brei’orai to throw their forces into a meat grinder, year after year. The Brei’orai fleet kept beating the invaders back, but each time they lost a little more territory. The Mulkari would attack a single point over and over until they either had no more ships left to throw at it, or they took it. Casualties didn’t make any difference to them – if they had to wait another eighty years for reinforcements, they’d do it, continuing to snipe at the Brei’orai with the ships that they had.” She paused a moment. “Suicide cults sprang up on the Brei’orai worlds. I suppose they felt it was better to die on their own terms, then wait for the plague or the Mulkari to take them. The birth rate plummeted, too – no one wanted to raise a child in a world of disease and despair.”

The young woman repressed a shiver; it was a sobering thought. Knowing without a doubt that there was an enemy out there that wanted you dead, one that couldn’t be bargained with, couldn’t be reasoned with. One that would pay any price for victory, willingly choking your rivers with their own bodies just as long as it meant that they triumphed. How many must have snapped under that constant, implacable strain? Listening to their fellow worlds go silent as their populations died in agony from the Cull and hearing the desperate, pleading shrieks of murdered planets as the End of Dawn came upon them must have driven many to insanity.

“As the Brei’orai population declined, the Ovea’brei grew in prominence. At first, they were treated as little more then expendable animals; trained to fill the vacant bottom rungs of society. Initially, the Brei’orai tried to pass themselves off as gods, or at least divine instruments. But despite being primitive, the humans they’d taken weren’t stupid. Despite their power and ‘magic’, it’s hard to take someone seriously as a god when you can see them sicken and die before your eyes. Only the first few generations believed this lie, but the Brei’orai had other means of control.

“The Ovea’brei were forbidden to teach their history to their children, to keep any record of it at all – the Brei’orai wanted them to know nothing but their place in society, to be nothing but ‘Ovea’brei’. The humans defied their masters whenever they could. At first, only in little ways. The tattoos – originally they were a way of keeping their history, their beliefs and legends alive. None of the Brei’orai knew the humans’ written language and it took decades before they realized how blatantly they were being disobeyed.

“The Brei’orai suppressed this whenever and wherever they could. They made examples out of the historians, the storytellers and the artists but they couldn’t afford to ‘put down’ every single disobedient Ovea’brei. Even with cloning, it took years to make an effective soldier – years that the aliens just didn’t have – and a quid pro quo was reached; as long as the Ovea’brei did not display their tattoos openly and continued to obey and revere the Brei’orai as their masters, they wouldn’t be punished.” Natalya shrugged. “Both sides would curtail their radicals. The Brei’orai who wanted absolute control of their slaves would be reined in and the Ovea’brei who avoided – or were resistant to – the aliens’ indoctrination would keep their heads down. It wasn’t a perfect solution, but the Ovea’brei were still too primitive to put up much of a fight in any widespread uprising and the Brei’orai were becoming increasingly dependent on their slaves.

“The Cull and the Mulkari continued to eat away at the Curatorium and what remained of the upper classes finally felt the winnowing; the officer corps, and the leaders of industry and government were slowly replaced by Ovea’brei as the aliens sickened and died off. Before, they’d just been one part of the Brei’orais’ attempt to save themselves. Now… now, the Curatorium depended on their slaves – they were indispensable to the functioning of Brei’orai society. They were handed more and more power by the dying race, but the Brei’orai still clutched the reins. The Ovea’brei were the ones dying, they were the ones doing all the work while their would-be gods huddled inside their domed cities, quarantine zones and sterile environments.

“Ovea’brei were indoctrinated since birth – brainwashed – to serve the Curatorium. They were programmed to be unable to ignore an order from their masters – perhaps genetically, but definitely mentally. However, the strength of the compulsion weakened over the generations. There were also the ‘freeborn’ – children born in hiding and kept away from the B rei’orai’s… resocialization process. Between their deteriorating mental conditioning and the increasing number of freeborn Ovea’brei, it didn’t take long for the discontent and defiance that had always been there to rise to the surface.”

“And they turned on their masters,” Foraker guessed.

“No, sir. The Mulkari got there first. Their final attack was launched in overwhelming strength and they broke through the last lines of defence around the remaining handful of Brei’orai systems; the Ovea’brei fell back on every front, their fleets crumbling. Every single Ovea’brei was thrown into the fight, ordered not to give up as long as a single Brei’orai still lived. Fighting to death now meant extinction for their race. At some point, they realized that there actually was only one Brei’orai still living, the Curate himself.

“Rather then die to the last for one doomed being, the Ovea’brei sent down their ranking officer, a freeborn. As his last act before letting her kill him, the Curate proclaimed them free, that they had outgrown his people – they were now ‘Evea’shi’ – the Children of Heaven.

“What happened next is what they call the ‘Broken Days’; the Evea’shi took what ships and people that they had left and fled, the Mulkari hot on their heels. They don’t know precisely how long that they ran, only that they traveled far beyond what had been the Curatorium’s borders, eventually managing to shake pursuit. Their ships were all damaged, some barely functional. During their exodus, they’d managed to seize a handful of additional craft: civilian, colony and scientific vessels, but the majority of this refugee convoy were the remnants of the Brei’orai navy. Even if more than a handful of them were lucky enough to have avoided the massive shortages that plagued the Curatorium’s days, they still didn’t have enough resources to sustain millions of starving refugees. They needed some place to stop, to repair and catch their breath.

“What scouts they had located a world – a godsend, it was close, it was fertile, verdant and perfectly habitable. It was also already occupied. They called themselves the Shadronai, a people about as advanced as twentieth-century Earth. Cautiously optimistic, the Evea’shi sent ahead a single scout to contact the world government while the rest of their fleet remained a few weeks travel away. First contact… did not go well. Though they seemed amicable, the Shadroni ambushed the Evea’shi contact party, massacring their soldiers.” She shrugged, preempting the questions. “They did it out of fear of invasion and loss of power, out of greed for the humans’ technology. The scout returned to the fleet, who decided that their needs outweighed the Shadronai’s fear – if the aliens would not allow them to settle, then they would make the decision for them and take revenge for their slaughtered comrades.

“When the Evea’shi fleet came out of hyperspace to begin the assault on Shadron, they found that someone had beaten them to it; there was a Mulkari killfleet in orbit, seeing to the last moments of another planetary cleansing. The Evea’shi fled again, deep into the galactic east. Eventually, they outpaced their pursuers and found another world to settle. For thousands of years, they’ve been growing in power, honing the technology their masters gave them, altering themselves further.”

Foraker was the first to understand what she hadn’t said and his face was set in stone, fingers laced together. He met Archer’s eyes and nodded for her to continue, to put into words what he already knew.

Natalya took a deep breath. “The first race that the Evea’shi met kidnapped and enslaved them. The second killed the first and would have killed them. The third species they met deceived and attacked them and then were killed themselves. In this formative period of their cultural, every species they encountered has done nothing but use or try to kill them. And so, every species that they’ve met since, they consider to be their Enemy, to be a threat to them – if not now, then in the future – because they’ve never known anything else.”

“You’re telling me,” Hunt began almost incredulously. “That the Evea’shi or whatever they’re called now, launched this war against us… to protect themselves? That they see it as a defensive campaign?”

“Yes, ma’am. They don’t believe that they can allow us to get any stronger – we have to be stopped now and stopped now before we – as they see it – inevitably try to exterminate them.”

“God.” It was Winters who spoke. “And they’ve… they’ve been out there for thousands of years, killing every other species they encounter?”

“Not necessarily – the Evea’shi aren’t Mulkari. They don’t casually commit genocide, but they do destroy other races’ ability to threaten them. As soon as a species reaches a certain technological point, the Evea’shi flatten them.” Natalya winced, knowing how this would sound. “They have wiped out a handful other species, though. The Immer, Vav-en-rul and… one or two others. I don’t know what we would have done but… if I can trust what Arykka showed me, I think the Concord would have killed them too, or at least stripped their industry.” She took a moment, forcing away the memories of fleets being swept aside, worlds pounded into fragments.

“And what about us?” Hunt asked darkly. “Where do we fit in on their little sliding scale?”

Natalya shook her head. “I don’t know, ma’am. Before her capture, Selliphii was aware of discord in their command structure about what to do with us. We’re too big to simply swat and-”

“Too dangerous,” the admiral amended, her grey eyes narrowing. “That’s what you mean, isn’t it? They consider it them or us.”

For the first time since the meeting had conveyed, Special Envoy Pierce spoke up. Her face was ashen. “And… there’s no way to convince them that we won’t, we aren’t going to attack them?”

Natalya looked away. They already knew. The Evea’shi had listened to the Concord’s attempts to negotiate from the very beginning, they’d taken Concordat worlds, had to have gotten into their databases. They weren’t going to stop. They believed they couldn’t take the chance. More worlds were going to die, more ships, more lives. “I doubt it.”

“But that’s… that’s insane!”

“Yes.” Natalya’s expression twisted into a grimace, tinged with more then a little hysteria. She couldn’t help herself; she started laughing.

Hunt’s lips thinned. “Perhaps you’d care to explain the joke, commodore.”

“The joke, admiral? The joke is that if we want to survive, we’ll have to kill every last one of them. We’ll have to turn into the genocidal monsters that they think we are. We’ll become exactly what we’re fighting.” Tears streamed down her cheeks and she gasped for air, unable to stop laughing.

No one else saw the humour in the situation.

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