November 23rd, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
It wasn’t a love bite; if Arykka used only a bit more pressure, she could tear Natalya’s throat open. The Terran scrabbled at her attacker, trying to push the younger woman off her, but the Evea’shi’s grip was like iron. Natalya could feel something warm and wet running over her neck, sudden panic overtaking her and her flailing became all the more desperate. Her mouth worked in an attempt to cry out, but no sound emerged, only a pitiful, pained squeak.
Just as suddenly as the attack had begun, it was over as huge, armoured paws hooked under the Lefu’s body. “Get off her!” one of the Marines snarled, pulling the pilot away from Archer. She hissed like a feral animal, her teeth and lips covered in bright red blood.
“Med-team to Gym Thirteen, med-team to Gym Thirteen,” snapped a second Marine as she knelt beside Archer, checking the commodore’s pulse.
“It’s all right,” Natalya heard herself say as she pulled herself up into a sitting position. She touched a hand to her neck; it came away sticky and covered in blood, but it was trickling out – not pouring. “It wasn’t that deep.”
“I’m fine!” Natalya snapped, a moment passing before she realized that she’d lapsed into Dryn’eva. Again. “I’m fine, Corporal,” she repeated in English a moment later, softer. “It looks worse then it is.”
The Marine wasn’t convinced. “With respect, commodore, the med-team should still check you out.”
“All right,” Natalya replied, letting the corporal help her to her feet. It really wasn’t as bad as it had felt, but that didn’t mean that it didn’t hurt like hell. She glared at Arykka, still restrained by the Marine. She wasn’t struggling in his grip, or hanging bonelessly. She was watching Natalya with the cold, curious eyes of a wild animal. Sometimes, Natalya thought angrily. Sometimes I forget what you are.
<And what is that, Echo?>
Natalya didn’t respond; she wasn’t sure what her answer would be. She stepped forward, wafting her fingers under the pale girl’s nose. “Why?” she demanded.
Arykka met her gaze unflinchingly. “Because you trusted me.”
+status: all systems fully operational+
+damage to fleet: negligible. all killfleet components once more at full combat status+
+status: killfleet strength increasing.+
+latest killships to arrive: Terror Dreams, Bloodmist, Vizier of Ruin, Citadel of Char+
+status: corridor of approach to system designate Hyperion Hive cleared+
+situation: slaves report increased highthreat and massivethreat preparations for conflict+
+imperative: monitor system designate Hyperion Hive. initiate cleansing once highthreat units have launched attack on massivethreat holdings+
+situation: once highthreat and massive threat forces depleted, primary and secondary killfleet bodies will attack. tertiary killfleet body deemed unnecessary at current status+
“So this was supposed to be some kind of lesson?” Natalya snarled angrily, covering her throat with one hand. The left shoulder of her tunic was soaked with her own blood, but the wound was already clotting, her immune system attacking any traces of infection that might have gotten into her body.
Arykka tugged halfheartedly against the Marine holding her, but even Evea’shi strength was not a match for the synthetic muscles of Concordat powered armour. “Yes,” she stated, refusing to speak English. It sullied her tongue to form the Enemy’s words. She hated them. She hated them all.
“You lowered your guard. You thought I was ‘safe’, that I wouldn’t – couldn’t – hurt you. That because we are… close, that you could trust me.” Arykka licked her lips, tasting the Echo’s blood. Salty and metal-tangy. “Had I desired it, your life would be mine. It is my duty to kill all Enemy for the safety of my people. Because we cannot afford to trust. We did not grow up like you, Echo. Surrounded by warmth and emptiness. We were born to the fire, to the cold and the harsh realities. You act like this galaxy is yours, as if the worlds you’ve tamed, the sonnets you’ve written, the history you’ve made mean anything. You know nothing of sacrifice or loss, arrogant and ignorant in your complacency. You think the sun never sets on your universe, but we know better. It is always night, and the night never ends.”
There was pain in her eyes; almost a longing. Natalya felt her stomach clench. It was true; the Evea’shi civilization had never known anything but war. In the Concord, they saw an image of themselves, one untouched by countless centuries of war, a people that had grown up in a galaxy of horrors and never realized it, one that had flourished outside of the shadow of the Mulkari. They hate us, she realized with a sick sensation.
Natalya took Arykka’s chin in her unbloodied hand, squeezing the girl’s cheeks and twisting her head to one side. Though she couldn’t see it, she could almost feel the Marines stiffen, expecting another outburst of violence. However, the Evea’shi offered only token resistance, letting Natalya expose her throat like a half-tame cat responding to a comforting touch. She even mewled like one, a long sibilant murmur. It meant something, Natalya was sure. But the knowledge downloaded into her brain didn’t cover it. All she saw when she looked into that was fire and steel. There was nothing soft in those memories.
She tightened her grip, wanting to speak but the words wouldn’t come. The part of her that wasn’t her took over and she growled, matching Arykka’s feral behaviour with her own. The muscles in the Lefu’s neck twitched as she strained against Natalya. Tempting, it was so tempting to grab the smaller girl and bite her back. The impulse was as frightening as it was simultaneously alien… and disturbingly familiar.
“Your sidearm, Corporal.” Natalya held out her hand and Marine next to her. Almost instantly there was the comforting weight of a Colt 997 in her hand. Optimized to function with power armour systems, it was awkward for an unarmoured human to use. That didn’t stop Archer from jamming the barrel up into Arykka’s chin.
…they would all say she was escaping and a threat to others…
“Do you trust me?” she purred.
Hunt circled the SPS on Warlord’s bridge as each repeater monitor showed a different image and set of data. Alicia was putting her staff through ‘soft’ war games, using the dreadnought’s own computers and command network to run tactical simulations. There were twenty different scenarios, from breakout offences into Priorii, hyperspace ambushes, encounters with reaver squadrons and outright combat between Concordat and Lefu fleets.
On one screen, Commodore Wilson was engaging a squadron of Lakhesis carriers, hostile icons vanishing from the screen one by one, almost as fast as his battlecruisers.
On another, Captains Yulani and Tzu were fighting a desperate rearguard in hyperspace as a swarm of Lefu destroyers bore down on BG 97’s dreadnought squadrons, the overwhelming numbers of the small ships dragging the Terran boomers down into hyperspace to die.
Twenty different battles, twenty different outcomes. Hunt was trying to make sure that her captains were prepared for anything. She wanted – needed – more information, but that wasn’t likely to happen. There were a few scouts and drones expected back before Reignfall launched, but not many. Worrisome, the enemy’s security around Tebrinnin had gotten much better recently, which told her that those tattooed freaks were Up To Something. Just what, she didn’t know, but she knew it couldn’t be anything good.
Likewise, there’d been no further contacts from the Mulkari… they seemed content to sit outside the Concord and let their two biggest foes grind away on each other. If Archer’s little bedtime story was true, they’d done it before with the Brei’orai, waiting for them to drop dead of plague. Like then, now it was certainly easier then wasting ships and manpower fighting two enemies at once. Their presence only made Reignfall more vital – the Lefu had to be driven off the Concord’s worlds quickly, before they could do more damage. Then she’d deal with the so-called ‘End of Dawn’.
“Admiral,” Singh’s cultured Nova Delhi accent interpreted Alicia’s reverie. “Outer-system pickets have just recovered a hyperspace drone. Tagged as belonging to UTCNS Ramilies.”
“Ramilies – that’s Maclean’s ship, one of Cavazos’ captains, isn’t she?” The last dispatch from Cavazos was only a few days old; he was expecting a Lefu raiding party to hit Gryphon Peak. The bastards had already burned Curare off the face of the universe, but Hunt simply couldn’t get too worked up about losing a planet of pirates and smugglers.
“Yes, ma’am.” Singh’s face was completely expressionless as he handed the datapad he was carrying to the admiral. “The drone’s damaged, but we got enough of its databanks to confirm… Gryphon Peak’s gone.”
Hunt blinked. “Define gone.” Gryphon Peak was out on the ass-end of the Concord; its mobile resources were light, but it had heavy system defences. Taking it out was beyond the capability of any light attack force – even a reaver fleet the size of the one that had hit Newfounding would have been stymied by the peak’s fortresses and minefields.
“Destroyed, admiral. Much of the drone’s information was lost when it damaged by hostile fire, but we’ve confirmed the Code Blacks of two dozen ships and it’s likely that the rest of Cavazos’s force was lost alongside them. Analysis is still trying to clean up the remaining archives… but it appears that over a hundred capital ships attacked the system. As far as we can tell, there were no survivors. At all.”
Hunt froze, her eyes drifting over the datapad to Asija’s face. “None.”
“No, ma’am. We can try to confirm it-”
“Don’t bother. We can’t spare the ships to confirm what we already know. The Lefu don’t do things halfway. Either the planet’s intact or they’ve gone SD17 on it. There’s no point risking more lives.” Hunt frowned. “But what do they want with Gryphon Peak? It’s too far off the front lines to be a viable staging area and none of the worlds in that sector are industrial powerhouses. They wouldn’t bother investing that many ships on relatively worthless territory.”
“Maybe they don’t plan to,” Asija suggested. “The drone’s data tracks are damaged; they could have sent a significantly smaller force, just enough to take out the peak. Or it might be a feint to get us to draw our forces away from Hyperion Hive.”
“It could be anything,” Hunt agreed. “Fortunately, I know just who to ask.”
Arykka’s eyelids flickered as if in REM sleep. <The Shadronai lesson, Echo.>
“Shadronai.” Right. How can you trust me, another ‘alien’? You’ve done that before.
<You dream of peace, Echo. Your emissary speaks of it, but inside all you are is iron and fire, blood and steel. Your own race has fractured, gone to war with itself. How can we trust that kind of Enemy? In a century, in five centuries, how can we be sure that you will be the same? You trusted me and I turned on you.>
Natalya pulled the gun away, handing it back to the Marine. “That’s not the same.”
“Of course it is,” Arykka replied, tugging again at the armoured figure restraining her. She ran her tongue over her lips, tasting Natalya’s blood again.
The medics arrived, but Natalya waved them off for the moment. “You wouldn’t have killed me,” she asserted.
<And why not?> There was genuine curiosity.
“Because I do trust you,” she replied. “I shouldn’t. I know you enough to expect you to fight us with every breath you have. We’re your Enemy, after all. But I also know that if you wanted to kill me, you could have done it at any time. You didn’t then and you wouldn’t now.”
<What makes you so sure?>
Natalya didn’t answer directly, looking up at the Marine holding Arykka. “You can let go now, sergeant.”
There was a brief pause. “Are you sure that’s wise, ma’am?”
“Yes. If you please?”
With obvious reluctance, the Marine released the Lefu’s arms, stepping back. Before she could regain her balance, Natalya slammed the girl bodily into the wall, holding her forearm against Arykka’s throat. “I know what you are,” she hissed in the lithe pilot’s ear.
Arykka stared at Natalya for a moment, opening her mouth slightly and running her tongue over her lips again. She hadn’t even realized she’d done it as she leaned towards the darker-hued Enemy. “And what is that?” she repeated huskily.
Natalya growled again, an atavistic sound she’d never thought she was capable of making. She’d snarled at Timmy before, usually right before she put him flat on his back and made him shout ‘uncle’. She’d done it when Tabby had tried to get her out of bed before noon on her days off. But this was different. Alien and familiar. She leaned in closer, the Evea’shi’s scent filling her nostrils…
<Careful, Natalya,> Arykka reproached her teasingly. <Your brothers and sisters might be wondering about you.>
“When I look at you, all I want is to see the people you’ve murdered. If I look hard enough, sometimes I convince myself that I’ll see something, something twisted and evil. Something monstrous. Do you know what it is that I see staring back at me?”
<What is that?>
“A person.” Natalya released Arykka. “A predator, but still a person. I’ve seen you afraid, in pain. I’ve listened to you sing me to sleep. God help me, I’ve even looked forward to it. I don’t expect you to change what you are, to stop trying to fight. I won’t either. But this has to stop.”
There was a brief flicker of pain in the pale girl’s eyes. “It will, Natalya Echo. One way or another. So where does that leave us?”
Haltingly, Archer reached out and gingerly traced her index finger along Arykka’s cheekbones, running along the twists of her family’s emblem. Her skin was so smooth. The tiniest of shudders ran through the Evea’shi. Like that same half-tame cat – unwilling to admit that another’s touch could feel good. “One way or another,” Natalya repeated.
The doors to the gymnasium hissed open. Natalya half-turned, quickly recognized the newcomers. She was in Arykka’s line of sight and acted quickly, pulling the Lefu off-balance. That gave her enough time to solidly trap Selliphii’s arms behind her back with her left and hook her right around her throat. The pilot struggled in her grip, but Natalya made sure that she didn’t have the leverage to work her way free. Instead, Arykka unleashed a hissing torrent of blistering curses, enough to put the saltiest Marine to shame. The hatred coming from her was almost palpable, nearly scalding in its intensity.
Taking in the medical team, the on-edge Marine guards, Archer’s bloodied neck and the snarling Evea’shi pilot, Admiral Alicia Hunt looked at Captain Asija Singh and smiled condescendingly. “And this is what they call peaceful relations.”
The last of their number had arrived. There were over three hundred of the slab-hulled monstrosities in total, squadron upon squadron of killships, each squadron dominated by a cullship. Even those titans were not the largest vessel in attendance. There were others, each vast nearly beyond imagining. Only a handful of beings in the galaxy could claim to have seen them and lived. That was not without reason.
As implacably as the tide, the hand of the Mulkari reached out across the stars, towards a single, bright beacon of light in the darkness.