November 23rd, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
“Commodore. I see you’ve made excellent progress with your little pet. Teach her anything? She didn’t do so well learning ‘speak’.”
“We’re working on that, ma’am.”
“I can tell. Maybe you can get her to roll over. It seems like you’d be successful at that.”
Natalya gritted her teeth, but she ignored the jab. It was hard enough to keep Arykka from launching herself at Singh and Hunt; the captain been present for more then one of her ‘special questioning’ sessions and the admiral was simply guilty by association. The two Marines by the door had their stunners out, ready to put the Lefu down if she did get out of Archer’s grasp. The other two armoured soldiers were likewise prepared to intercept the pilot well before she reached the senior officers. Realizing how much the odds were stacked against her, Arykka stopped struggling, but Natalya refused to loosen her grip or let Selliphii get any traction.
Because I trusted you, right? I’m not falling for that again.
Arykka twisted to look up into Archer’s eyes, a sickly grin on her face. “You learn.”
Singh stepped forward, looking over the Lefu like she was a laboratory specimen. “We know she speaks, ma’am,” he said to Archer, ignoring Selliphii. “But maybe you’d like to ask her about this.” The flag-captain held up a datapad for the commodore to see. “It just came in from a hyper drone, off the Ramillies.” There was a flash of recognition in Archer’s eyes and Asija nodded. “Yes, I thought the name would be familiar. You and Captain Maclean served out of Necropolis at one point, didn’t you?”
Natalya’s jaw clenched. She’d had the security rating necessary to see it, until she’d been cut out of the loop. Her indignation lasted only a moment as she scanned the information that Singh helpfully scrolled for her. Her stomach clenched as she looked over the fragmented images of a ruined world and the casualty lists from Gryphon Peak. Another Code Black. Another dead friend. Her arm tightened, digging into Arykka’s throat. The Lefu rasped as her windpipe was squeezed, but she didn’t fight back.
She met the captain’s eyes levelly. “I would. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, captain. Admiral. It’s something that I think,” Natalya’s voice hardened as she choked Arykka just a bit harder. She could feel the Lefu’s muscles tense and relented. There was only so much rope that Selliphii would give her ‘Echo’, especially in these circumstances. “We should talk about,” she finished icily, making sure that the enemy pilot knew precisely who ‘we’ was going to be.
“Yes, I can understand that,” Singh replied, setting the datapad down on a bench before returning to Hunt’s side.
“Congratulations,” Alicia said aloud, her cold grey eyes fixed on the Lefu. “Thanks to you, the last reason to hold the fleet here is gone. In a month, you’re going to be a memory. But before that, I’ll make sure that you get the chance to see your ‘Enemy’ at war.”
The Fleet element designated Bereavement’s Canticle translated from brightspace into Sentinel Nine’s outer system, a hundred and twenty warships strong, from the smallest destroyers of Scouting and Strike Fleets to Onslaught Fleet’s leviathans. The Enemy had launched an attack to hold this system and it was only fitting that the Major Enemy Base fell to an attack from this site. However, symmetry had not guided their hands here. The Enemy had increased their efforts to get their own rath units into Sentinel Nine. It was believed that they would shortly make another effort to retake their ‘Priorii’.
Sentinel Nine could not be allowed to fall. Once the Enemy Fleet lay crushed and ruined before them, Bereavement’s Canticle would continue on to the fortress-system that had launched them and burn it utterly. This was, at last, where they would draw the line. Where the Enemy would falter.
There could be no quarter, no mercy. Not until the Enemy were defeated.
“I knew Maclean. Not as well as I should have, but we’d played a few games of racquetball together.”
“Am I supposed to apologize? To tell you how sorry I am that someone you knew died? I’m not. She was Enemy. Enemy die. It’s as simple as that.”
A pause. “What did you think? That the war would slide to a halt simply because you wanted it to, that what happened between us would somehow change my people’s drive?”
“No, I… I don’t know what I thought. I shouldn’t be surprised, though. You’re killers without peer. Innocence means nothing to you, does it?”
“What is innocence except a lack of opportunity?”
“Don’t play the sanctimonious philosopher with me. I know you don’t actually think like that.”
“…true. But many of my brothers and sisters do.” Arykka was kneeling in front of the window of her cell, her fingertips pressed against the transtanium surface as if she was braced against the air.
Natalya was sitting with her back to the Evea’shi, leaning against the same wall. A few long moments passed in silence before she raised her head, look out past the cells. “I can almost forgive you, you know. Gryphon Peak was a military base. The civilian population there was… incidental.” Even in another language, saying that made her feel nauseous. “But Curare? No.”
“What value did… Curare,” the Evea’shi rolled the unfamiliar word down her tongue, “possess, that killing it has fired your blood?”
“What value?” Natalya snarled, refusing to look behind her. “It was a pirate world; a haven for smugglers, slavers and murderers. It had no value. But it had millions of people living there, most of them harmless. And your fucking Fleet killed them all.”
“It had no value,” Arykka repeated, an odd note to her voice. “I am a pilot, Echo. Not privy to the stratagems of my Command Structure. I merge, I fly, I fight, I kill. But the Fleet does not bother to burn tactically worthless planets.”
“Then why did you-”
“Yes,” Arykka interrupted. “Why did we?”
The water never felt warm enough, even when she knew it was practically scalding, it still felt as she should turn it hotter. The desire not to have burn marks all over her body was the only thing that kept her hands off the dial. Still, it felt good. Natalya leaned into the spray, letting it run down her back, her hair plastered to her neck and hanging around her face. The Lefu’s words still echoed back and forth in Natalya’s mind. No matter how hard she tried to push them away, that simple question was still there.
Why did we?
The Evea’shi didn’t throw good money after bad. They didn’t attack everything in their path, didn’t waste ordnance and manpower targeting worlds that had no value to them. Tebrinnin cut off the Concord from the League and gave them a beachhead. Unicorn Set neutralized local military forces. The other first-stage worlds secured them territory and a foothold into the Concord. Priorii was an industrial hub. The second-stage worlds made the Line of Control, allowing the Evea’shi Fleet to secure their gains while neutralizing the closest possible staging points without dispersing their forces. They’d gone after the hive in a concentrated attack, not another wave across the Sector.
Why did we?
Curare was so far out of the war zone that there was no reason for it be hit. It had no industrial value, no likelihood of being used as a base. The Evea’shi didn’t do terror attacks for their own sake. Likewise, Gryphon Peak was a patrol hub for the Grey Zone – it had almost as little value as Curare, but as she’d said to Selliphii, it was a military target. Destroying it would weaken the Concord, but not very much. The gain was almost nonexistent, especially since the Lefu should have followed up that attack by pouncing on several of the nearby Concordat worlds. They hadn’t. Why not?
Why did we?
There was something in the back of her mind, something niggling at her thoughts, but she didn’t know what it was. It was important – at least, she thought it was. But like the name of a half-forgotten song, it just wouldn’t come. She knew why that was, at least partly. It was in the memories that Arykka had put into her mind, the memories that she tried to hard to push down and away forever. The memories that she really, really, didn’t want to have to experience again.
I shouldn’t even be doing this. It’s not my job. I shouldn’t even care. Why do I care? Why do you? Why do we?!
In frustration Natalya snarled, digging her fingers into the ceramic tiles of the shower stall, lightly tapping her forehead against the wall, trying to think. She closed her eyes, the images of a murdered world drifting in front of her eyes. The senselessness of it. Boiled oceans, desecrated plains, forests and jungles, deserts of glass. There’d been absolutely no point, a waste of life… Wait. That was it. By God, that was it.
With a sudden manic edge to her actions, Natalya turned off the water and reached for the comm on the wall, keying in the main shuttlebay. “Archer to Hangar Control. Please ready a shuttle for me; I’m heading over to the hive.”
“Yes, ma’am. We’ll have one prepped in five minutes.”
“Thank you. Archer out.”
The girl was lying on her cot when Natalya returned, her eyes closed in an effort to fall asleep. She finally acknowledged the Echo’s arrival, glancing towards her. “You came back.”
The other woman’s hair was still wet, clinging to her face like blood-red seaweed, though Natalya had made a token effort to style it. She held the datapad that ‘Sing’ had left for her in the gym. “I just thought you’d like to see your people’s handiwork.”
Arykka snorted, rolling onto her side, turning her back to the Enemy. “No.”
“I’m sorry, I phrased that as a request. It isn’t.” Natalya’s eyes flashed. “Look. Look.”
The pilot considered a response that was short, sharp and definitely obscene. She didn’t care to be a party to an attempted guilt trip, but there was something in the Echo’s voice, an urgency in her mind. Arykka rolled over and sat up, her eyes drifting over to the planet that the Fleet had killed. It had been a pathetic criminal haven, according to Natalya. So what was…? The planet had been burned. Arykka leaned against the window, her mouth drying. That wasn’t right. She had to be missing something. Had to. The planet had been burned, left as a scorched ruin rather than a life-giving world.
Natalya nodded at the girl’s shock. “What do you see?” she asked almost gently. Arykka lifted her head, meeting the officer’s eyes, that same bright blue gaze that had looked upon the Enemy around her with disdain, contempt and hatred now shown with another emotion. Fear.
When Arykka spoke, her voice was barely above a whisper. “A message.”
“I don’t understand,” Foraker said at last, stifling a yawn. Archer had woken him up at the crack of ungodly, with a fervour that would have had her banging on his door if he hadn’t answered the comm. “You’re saying that the Lefu don’t kill worlds like they did with Curare?”
“Yes, they do. But not like that.”
Hawthorne poured himself a glass of iced tea. He needed the caffeine. “Commodore, you’re going to have to start making sense sometime soon.”
“Yes, sir. Sorry sir. I mean – the Evea’shi will Desecrate planets, but in different ways. The first we’ve seen on Tebrinnin, Unicorn Set and the other first-stage planets they took. They used only enough firepower as necessary. The planet goes through a nuclear winter, but at the end of it, everything’s still habitable. If a planet’s too heavily populated or well-defended for that kind of limited bombardment to work, they’ll most likely destroy the world. And I mean ‘destroy’, sir. As in, all that’s left is an asteroid field and clumps of rock held together by gravity.” Her mouth twitched. “It makes it easier to harvest the remains for raw materials. The Lefu will ‘burn’ planets down to the bedrock, but only as an example, since it’s so wasteful. It renders the world uninhabitable, and makes mining and resource extraction a lot more difficult.”
“Lovely.” Hawthorne paused, then frowned. “Curare had a central city and several smaller outlying towns and ports. A destroyer could have Desecrated it and from what Prince Henry managed to get, there were no signs of industrial facilities going up. That leaves ‘making an example’.”
Hawthorne’s frown deepened and he took another sip of iced tea. “Commodore, it’s very early and I am very tired. I am also not a morning person. Perhaps you had best skip right to the point.”
“Sir… Curare was nothing. A pirate hangout. No military value, no economic or industrial muscle. It’s well off the beaten path – there’d be no reason to attack it, let alone use it to send a message. There are dozens of planets better suited to this type of attack.” She hesitated. “And sir, the worlds that the Evea’shi burn like this… they’re usually Mulkari.”
The glass froze halfway to Foraker’s lips and he set it down. “Mulkari.”
“Yes, sir. The Mulkari have… a lot of experience seeing the Evea’shi carry out that type of planetary devastation. They’d think it would be the Lefu’s preferred option. We also know that there hasn’t been a peep out of them since the Empties detected that fleet over ‘Graveyard’.”
“And… we also know that they have absolutely no compunction against sitting back and letting two of their enemies fight each other.”
“Maybe with a little assistance to help things along, sir. We know from Covenant that their ships are almost impossible to detect in hyperspace – it wouldn’t be hard for several of them to operate inside the Line of Control, trying to nudge the war with the Evea’shi back up to boiling.”
Foraker tapped a finger on the edge of his glass thoughtfully. “I assume there’s no proof of this.”
“No, sir. But it makes sense. And if Curare is a set-up… we can’t let the fleet leave.”
Foraker nodded, keying the comm. “Get me Admirals Hoss and Hunt, please.”
Alicia was not pleased, to say the least. Hoss didn’t appear perturbed or even affected by the early hour, sitting with a glass of Foraker’s iced tea, swirling it as if it were brandy. Hunt glared at Archer with open hostility, to such an extent that Hawthorne half-expected the intensity of that gaze to set the commodore on fire. “And you saw this…” she drawled. “In a dream?”
“No, ma’am. It’s part of the memories that Pilot Selliphii downloaded into me.”
“So you have no way of verifying its accuracy,” Hunt pointed out. “Or do you simply want it to be true?”
“I… don’t understand, ma’am.”
Hunt circled Archer like a wolf. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with the prisoner,” she observed. “Advocated for her. I’m left wondering as to your capability to be objective where she and the Lefu are concerned.”
Natalya felt a flush of anger warm her cheeks. “All I’m concerned with is the safety of the fleet, ma’am. With its personnel and citizenry.”
“Which fleet? Whose personnel and citizens?”
Archer bristled, but she refused to be baited. “Canis Sebra’s pickets were destroyed by unknown forces; the Lefu hit Newfounding in retaliation. Now we’ve lost Curare and Gryphon Peak from unknown forces and we’re launching a counter-attack. We’re both being manipulated, admiral.”
“One of us is,” Hunt commented. “Do you have any ideas about who that’s likely to be, commodore? Or do you need to work it out with your pet?”
“Admiral…” Hawthorne interjected warningly. “Commodore Archer has raised a point that I felt you needed to be aware of, regardless of… other issues.”
“And I believe that those ‘other issues’ are quite revelant, Hawthorne,” Hunt replied acidly. “Nothing you or she have said is anything more then conjecture and circumstance. Nothing has indicated that the Mulkari fleet has moved anywhere near our borders since it was first detected.”
“We might not know,” Hoss said without looking up. “The technical specifications from Covenant indicate that while slower then ours, Mulkari hyperspace technology is advanced in other areas, such as their smaller hyperspace wake.”
“I think we might notice a few hundred ships.”
“Gryphon Peak did.” Hoss sighed. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any information on the identity of the attackers. I will, however, detach a pair of destroyers from the 812th to investigate. Once they return, we should have our answer.”
Hunt turned away from Natalya to address Vater. “I don’t think we can wait that long, fleet admiral. The Lefu have to have noticed the build-up of ships here. Our reinforcements have been tapering off of late; they have to be aware of that, too. The longer Eighth Fleet remains in Hyperion Hive, the more tempting a target we are for a pre-emptive strike. We can’t keep up the diversionary tactics forever, either; they’ll stop biting sooner or later. Then we’ll face a single prepared foe’s attack instead of dividing their attention.”
“You’re correct. I’ll send the destroyers anyways. By the time they return, Reignfall’s primary objectives should be complete. Once we have more information, we can decide where to go from there.” It was a compromise to both parties and Hunt nodded briskly.
Natalya was not as sanguine, but it was as good as she was going to get. She nodded thankfully to Hoss. He didn’t return the gesture. “Dismissed, commodore.”
Her cheeks still burning, Natalya whisked herself out of the office.
The doors had barely shut before Alicia turned to her fellows, about to make some observation, but Hawthorne pre-empted her. “She’s got a point, Alicia.”
“What she’s got is a weak spot for that tattooed freak. One between her ears and the other between her legs.”
“I don’t think that’s-”
“You didn’t see her ‘sparring’ with that thing. Her judgment isn’t reliable.”
Hoss set his glass down on the tabletop, “Be that as it may, Hawthorne and Commodore Archer do have a point. It’s not going to cost us anything to investigate. Two destroyers won’t make any difference to Reignfall and with luck, we’ll be able to settle this matter about Archer’s trustworthiness once and for all. As odd as it seems, Alicia, I think I’d prefer that you be right. If the commodore’s any indication, we know that on some level we can reach the Lefu. Believe me when I say that we won’t even have that if the Mulkari are active.”
Alicia took a breath and let it out. “Fair enough. I don’t trust her and I think giving her such free access to the prisoner and the base at large is still a mistake, but you’re right – it’s not going to cost anything to find out for certain. If that’s all, I’m going to return to Warlord.”
“It should be. We’ll continue preparations in the morning for Reignfall’s launch.”
Hunt nodded curtly and took her leave. Hoss lingered for a moment, glancing at Foraker. “Do you trust Archer?”
“I’d like to be able to say yes, but honestly? I’m not sure. She has changed since the, ah, incident. But there’s nothing to indicate she’s a security risk and I won’t-”
“Easy, admiral. I understand. If it were one of my officers, I might feel the same way. But she’s not and I’m more inclined to agree with Alicia. We don’t know what exactly happened to her. It could be that everything’s on the level, or… I don’t know how telepathy works. No one does. We can’t discount the possibility that Archer’s been turned somehow. Until we find out, there have to be precautions.
“That being said, I don’t think her theory is completely outlandish. There are things that just don’t add up. We can’t afford to be wrong. So I’m going to see if I can pry off a few extra ships for your defence while Eighth Fleet’s out knocking heads. Just in case.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Vater reached out and took Hawthorne’s hand. “Don’t thank me yet. I may only be adding to the death toll. Take care of yourself and your people, Foraker. All of them.”
The fleet admiral paused in the doorway. “Two days until the balloon goes up. There’s never enough time and always too much, isn’t there? Good night, admiral.”