Children of Heaven: Choir of Silence, Chapter 26

Chapter 26:

November 13th, 4233
Hyperion Hive
Outer Reaches
United Terran Concord

Hyperion Prime Command Base

“God, this always creeps me out.”

Carson looked over at his usual partner in purgatory, security sergeant Anne-Marie Janine, his eyes drifting to the screen she was watching. “You’re not the only one, sergeant.” he mumbled, trying not to think what he was thinking.

Sitting on the floor, her back against the cell’s window was Commodore Archer. On the opposite side of the barrier, the Lefu pilot was reclining in the exact same pose, like a bleached-out reflection of the Concordat officer. Like a reflection of all of us, Carson found himself thinking, quelling a mental snort. Whimsy wasn’t his normal choice of self-expression. His English teacher had told him that he didn’t have a poetic bone in his body, but maybe something had rubbed off during all those classes.

The ensign scanned over the other camera feeds; there were a few drunk and disorderlies, a handful of conduct unbecomings, but none in this division. All he, Janine and the other security personnel had to look after was one crazy bitch. Maybe two, Carson thought, almost guiltily, as he let his gaze focus on Archer. He didn’t know what the story between her and Lefu was and that doubted he ever would, but there was plenty of gossip to go around. There was always was.

The current crop of rumours had been percolating through the hive said that the Lefu thought that they were fighting for their own survival, seeking to destroy their own blood out of misplaced fear. Maybe that means that they are human after all.

~

Forbidden to teach their own history to their children, the Ovea’brei had had to resort to other ways of holding onto their traditions, even amongst their dying ‘gods’. Their body art was one, a part of the culture that had lived to this day. At first, it was only a way to keep their past safe from their arrogant Brei’orai masters but the tradition had evolved, diverging across careers and trades. Family lineages, notable events in their lives, their rank and position in society – all were worn on their flesh, much of it open to public view, but others would only seen by their closest family, friends and lovers.

Scientists would decorate themselves with glyphs of learning and knowledge as well as aspects from their fields of expertise; chemical equations, molecules, double helixes or stars and planets. Those in the medical profession preferred smoother patterns; softly flowing curves and spirals that ringed their limbs. Those convicted of heinous crimes had their tattoos removed, marking them as outsiders to society.

Their Army and Marines were fond of the sword motif, sharp angles, triangles and bladed surfaces, commemorating the birth of their trade in the bloody sands of gladiatorial arenas, where the first of them had fought for the amusement of a decaying civilization, ritual daggers in each hand.

Fleet personnel preferred the winding, skeletal coils of a serpent, along with lightning and flame – symbols of destruction from above, both mythological and real. The Evea’shi only knew their ancestors by the simple name they’d had for themselves – the People – but they had believed serpents to be totems of life and death. That their damned Fleet would use those symbols was of no surprise.

Fighter pilots like Arykka wore the bloodvine, a carnivorous plant that attacked its prey with thin, snaking limbs, each one speckled with dozens of poisoned barbs. One prick would do little to a creature the size of a human or Brei’orai, and a single vine was easily swatted away. But the plant never attacked with just one; it would send dozens of stinging, cutting tendrils to ensnare and paralyze its prey, ripping off bits of flesh with each attack until there was nothing left but bones. The perfect choice for the Fire Knives.

It was easy to make the clichéd lewd comments about how far down the tattoos went and Natalya felt a little guilty; she knew just how far. She’d seen Arykka naked, seen the dark starburst that lay over her heart, between her breasts. She didn’t know what it meant, only that it was something that was for intimates.

<Haven’t we been intimate, Echo? I was inside you, I stood with you on the cusp of death.>

Natalya blinked. She hadn’t realized she had been thinking that ‘loudly’. Not that she really knew the difference, or could do anything about it; Evea’shi were taught from childhood how to deal with their telepathy. She, and the rest of the medical personnel on the hive, were still trying to understand the basics involved. ‘Mirror neurons’ and ‘broadcast synapses’ were words that she’d heard bandied about more than once, though she had no idea how they related to the Evea’shi’s abilities, if at all. At least she was no longer subject to brain hemorrhages with every conversation; now the Evea’shi just felt… weird when she was inside her. Not wrong or painful, just… weird.

“I suppose we have,” Archer admitted unwillingly. “But that’s not really what I was thinking of.”

Warmth spread through Natalya’s mind. <And what was it that you were thinking of, Echo?>

The commodore’s cheeks flushed, the heat there matching the lascivious invitation still lingering in her thoughts. She didn’t know, wasn’t sure that she wanted to know if it was genuine, or Arykka was just teasing her. Suddenly uncomfortable, she stood back up, straightening her tunic. “When can we expect another attack?”

Arykka didn’t move from her position, her back still towards Natalya. “Soon,” she replied in English. It wasn’t anything that the Concord didn’t already know, but there were things that Selliphii wouldn’t reveal, not even for Natalya. “Have you told them?”

“Told them what?”

The ghost of a thin smile drifted across the pilot’s lips and she tilted her head slightly towards Natalya. <Have you told them what they face?>

“Yes.”

<Did it give them hope? Or crush what there was?>

“Both. We’re a complicated people.”

Arykka snorted in amusement. She had shown Natalya perhaps more than she intended, but there had been nothing of true significance in it. Nothing, save for the fact that the warships the Concord was facing were old. Not just years or decades, but centuries – even millennia old. They were still viable combatants, but a far cry from War Fleet’s newest and finest, drawn from what reserves the Evea’shi had had available. Natalya didn’t like to think about how depressing that was. We’re fighting their oldest, least capable starships. In Arykka’s memories, Natalya had seen more of War Fleet and if the current crop of Evea’shi warships were bad enough, she knew just what kind of Hell was waiting for the Concord if they managed to overcome these forces.

Fortunately, the Evea’shi’s war with the Mulkari was drawing off their most potent vessels. That, and only, that, had bought the Concord some breathing room. But the longer those ships were active, the more time they had to be upgraded, to be refitted and modified and the more dangerous they’d become.

As the commodore moved to take her leave, Arykka did acquiesce a little, though she did not look up. “I was there the day the gods fell,” she said into the silence. It was a single sentence, one that meant so many things for the Evea’shi. This time, there was no doubt what it meant.

When we come, you will fall.

Natalya froze, the not-her part of her mind dredging up images of dozens, hundreds of warships; the open-ringed giants of the Brei’orai’s forces and the sleek, sculpted predators of the Evea’shi War Fleet. Only one enemy has ever withstood our might, that part of her mind whispered. If it had a voice, it would have spoken in a medley of her and Arykka’s own words. Only one foe has pushed us back. Only one adversary broke us. You are not them.

“I know,” Natalya replied. She wanted to hate. She wanted to hate the other woman so badly, but that wasn’t an option, not any more.

~

Commander Vualii laced his fingers together as he skimmed through battle reports. Sentinel Fourteen had been secured against the Enemy’s probe. Their doomed charge had been brave, if foolish. It had cost them eight of their capital ships and all of their Scouting Fleet units. He had suffered losses of his own; three destroyers and a cruiser killed, one of his battlecruisers gravely injured and a few other vessels damaged to varying degrees. Not enough to offset his element’s strength; he’d dispatched all his ships with less then 80% combat capacity for repairs and drawn up replacements, returning the Strike Fleet element to full strength. Command had also sent a fresh Scouting Fleet element to secure Sentinel Fourteen; the rath units there had been completely destroyed by the Enemy’s forces.

The Fleet was almost ready to begin the second assault on the Major Enemy Base; it was up to him and those under his command to prepare the way for them.

Scouting Fleet elements had reported in from several Enemy Systems; the Enemy had their own game of where’s-the-candy under way, shifting their defensive forces from point to point, trying to anticipate the next attack. Well, who was he to disappoint them? They’d put so much effort into this.

That one,” he directed, selecting a target. If the Enemy wanted to play at war, he would gladly indulge them.

~

“Admiral Hoss; welcome to Hyperion Prime Command Base.”

Vater nodded, clasping Foraker’s hand in his own and giving it a firm pump. “Thank you, admiral. My duties with the Joint Chiefs have kept me on Earth too much for my liking; it’s good to be out on the frontier again, though I wish the circumstances were different.” Hoss took Hunt’s hand next, nodding respectively to the shorter woman. He was a full head taller then either of his fellow flag officers and most of the people in the room; there were rumours that there was some Rebirthed in his lineage, but none of those were ever uttered in earshot of the admiral.

“It’s good to have your ships here,” Hunt admitted with a smile. “We’ve been pulling everything with an engine and a hull into service and we’re still behind schedule.”

Hoss nodded. “High Admiral Johannen’s been grinding on the minister of defence and he’s been pushing Erasmus to create a department of war production to unkink the bottlenecks. The President should have authorized it by now, given the political pressure he’s under. Won’t please the PDP’s base, but they can go fuck themselves.” The admiral smiled. A war hero and High Admiral Johannen’s right-hand man, he could get away with such breaches of etiquette and wasn’t above taking them. “You should be seeing a lot more materiel arriving shortly. DIMWATER’s also been trying to get a couple of their new toys into development. Both Sol and Centauri are laying down new construction as well. The one good thing about this situation is that it’s got the Inner Worlds rattled and when they get rattled, they get building. That, and scream at us to protect them from their own mistakes.”

Diana’s eyes flashed at the senior admiral’s comments, but she bit her tongue. Hoss had been sent out to Hyperion Hive by her superiors; she couldn’t very well lay into him. Not yet, anyways.

“It’s good to know that we’ll be getting regular supply shipments again.” Foraker diplomatically ignored Hoss’s other comments. “We’ve set aside quarters for you and your staff and as soon as you’re settled in there’ll be a briefing to bring you up to speed; there’s been some… interesting recent developments.”

“Thank you. I’m still running on Earth time and as much as I’d like to dive right in, I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to give your information the attention it deserves. In… eight hours, if that’s acceptable?”

“Certainly, sir.”

~

Natalya was doing chin-ups in the gym, grateful for the familiar burning in her arms. She’d been cleared back to active duty and was allowed to continue her own exercise regime. She was glad; sitting in sickbay day in and day out was not her style. Neither of ‘her’ styles.

Shrugging off the intruding thoughts, Natalya went for number thirty-one. She was a commodore without a command; Intolerance had been destroyed and while she’d transferred her flag to Courageous it didn’t feel the same. She wasn’t sure if it ever would. Donald was a good officer and ran a tight ship, but she missed James, missed her crew. Her friends. Of the eight ships that had once been the 181st, all she had left was Courageous and Implacable. Over a hundred thousand men and women, gone. All thanks to the damned Lefu.

All thanks to her.

She was really earning her commodore’s stripes, wasn’t she? The loss of so many people that had been her responsibility to bring home was bad enough. Finding out that her higher-level clearances had been deactivated and she was no longer welcome in the hive’s secure areas felt like an additional slap in the face.

Active duty. Right.

Except for Cell Bay Fourteen, of course. They still wanted her to talk to Selliphii, but nothing else. Natalya didn’t want to admit it, but it hurt. I’ve given the Navy everything, she thought angrily as she reached thirty-five chin-ups. I could have stayed on Earth, the scion of a wealthy and politically powerful family. But I didn’t. I joined the fleet because I love my nation, I love the ideals that it stands for and believe its worth defending. I proved myself to everyone that questioned my abilities. I’ve nearly died a dozen times over in my career. I nearly lost my mind. What more do I need to do, what else can I do? There were whispers in the hall when she passed, sideways glances, conversations that died as soon as the participants saw her.

She’d fought to win her crew’s respect aboard the Pegasus, only gaining it after that bloody day. What would she have to do to earn it again? What could she do?

It was all the more galling because, even two weeks ago, she would have done the exact same thing, if Arykka’s ‘Echo’ hadn’t been her, had been someone else. That it hadn’t, that it had been her was one of the universe’s little jokes. You’ve killed my friends and I can’t even hate you for it. Just because I understand you doesn’t mean that I can’t despise you. It shouldn’t, anyways. She still had the urge to laugh, to burst out in hysterics and laugh until tears ran down her cheeks. She knew how useless the war was, how pointless and how it would end, how it had to end. She felt like Arykka, sealed away in a glass cage. Able to look out on the world around her, but unable to affect it.

Maybe that was why she kept coming back to the Evea’shi. That had to be it.

Forty-two. Forty-three…

She’d stop at seventy.

~

It drifted through the cold darkness, almost inert save for the barest trickle of power that fed its near-dormant systems. The Scouting Vessel had lain silent for many days as an Enemy patrol had swept through this part of the outer system and back again. The Enemy’s patrols had been tightened, and even their clumsy sensors would have found it had it not gone silent.

But now that the immediate danger was passed, it could afford a little risk in order to continue its mission. Hull plating slid open and antennae, sensor dishes and telescopic lenses unfurled like the petals and buds of a flower, jutting from its hull in insectoid symmetry. Had a casual observer somehow managed to pick it out against the backdrop of space, they would have seen how unlovely it was to look upon, lacking the predatory grace of its fellow ships. Aesthetics was not a concern in its creation; functionality was.

It listened and watched, drinking in every emission, every erg of energy that flickered across the ether. Transmissions, fleet positions and movements, emissions signature – they were all recorded. The presence of another half-dozen Enemy Onslaught Vessels did not go unnoticed. If the Scouting Vessel had been capable of it, it would have smiled.

That was just… perfect.

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