December 5th, 4233
United Terran Concord
Hyperion Prime Command Base
“It’s not my fault if you don’t like the rules.”
The first words that Senior Captain Jacob Goldstein heard as he stepped into Cell Bay Fourteen were not the ones he had expected to hear. His stride arrested for an instant as he entered the room, walking past the Concord guards and the empty cells to the sole inhabited enclosure. Inside, Commodore Archer and the Lefu pilot… Erica? Was that it? were playing cards.
“No, you’re just going to have to guess like everyone else.” Goldstein blinked, but Archer hadn’t even looked up. Erica shifted in her seat.
Archer held her cards against her chest, impatient. “Call, fold or raise.”
“Eerie’s a word that gets used a lot around here, sir,” the Concord sergeant at the main security console said as he looked up at Goldstein, nodding towards the cell. “But it never stops being applicable.”
“I can imagine,” Goldstein mumbled as Archer carried on half of a conversation. “Why are they-?”
“That was a BXA brainstorm, sir. They’ve been getting the Commodore to run the tat through to all sorts of little things. A few days ago it was mnemonic games.”
The sergeant gestured to his forearms. “For tattoos, sir.”
“Ah.” Just like ‘Empty’, I suppose. “How’s she been doing?”
The sergeant’s expression darkened. “Off the charts, sir.”
Winters desperately wanted a cigarette. It was a habit that he’d kicked back in medical school, but he couldn’t think of anything else he wanted more at the moment. Reviewing the information from Archer’s sessions with Selliphii was always depressing. The more he learned about the Lefu, the larger the cold knot in his stomach grew.
The Brei’orai had bred their captives to be slaves, but intelligent slaves. Ignorant primitives could not fulfill anything but the most rudimentary tasks in a technologically advanced society and as the aliens’ civilization had withered and died, it had only been more imperative that the Ovea’brei be capable servants. What the Brei’orai had not adjusted, the Evea’shi had done themselves. Selliphii’s evolved – Winters hated that colloquialism; there had been nothing natural about the Evea’shi’s development, but the shorthand term was as hard to get rid of as a bad reputation – neural structure had benefits outside telepathy. Her IQ was in the upper percentiles. It didn’t make her a genius, but the Lefu learned very fast with a memory retention rate that put the vast majority of Terrans to shame.
A lot of the personnel that worked around her were too quick to judge the pilot on her berserker aggression and the random outbursts of violence. Winters wasn’t one of them. He’d seen the Lefu’s eyes wander whenever she was taken out of her cell, the way she evaluated everything and everyone, noting the layout of the corridors, the signs and markings on the walls. Perhaps not a genius, but definitely not an animal, either.
Every day we learn something new about her, but she learns about us, too. Right now they were surreptitiously probing the extent of her connection to Archer. With poker. Winters shook his head; whoever had come up with that idea was either on too many drugs or not enough. It was far from a conclusive test, but it gave them a starting point for how easily the pilot could ‘read’ Archer, without letting either of them know that’s what they were doing. He suspected that the commodore would be none too pleased to find out that she was being used, but he wasn’t the one she was going to be gunning for. All he had to do was take care of Medical, review these recordings and try to keep his mind off the cigarettes on the shelves of the hive’s convenience stores.
Natalya flopped face-first onto her bed with a groan, almost too tired to peel herself out of her uniform. She didn’t have enough time these days for anything. She had to coordinate with Commodore Robert Harkness, the fleet operations chief appointed in Hunt’s absence. Appointed by her in fact, which made Robert Hunt’s man. As a result, Natalya was treated about as civilly as a teacher would treat a particularly simple student. She had to run around on the hive on whatever asinine test that BXA wanted her to help with and try to convince a recalcitrant Evea’shi to humour her. Then, the requisite trip to Medical to make sure that her brain wasn’t starting to dissolve. After that, she had her duties for TF 111, but she was gone so much that LeFay and Fung were shouldering a lot of her responsibilities, which she hated. It wasn’t fair to them, it would only make it harder for her do resume those duties and it wasn’t good for morale.
But at least her crews had familiar and trusted faces overseeing them, not a possible traitor and useless gopher. No matter how many times she shoved it aside, the temptation to simply abdicate what little responsibility she had left was always there. It wasn’t in her to quit, to simply give up when things got rough, but she was getting pulled in a dozen different directions and was long past the point of self-doubt.
Well. That wasn’t entirely true, but it was close enough. All she needed was one day, one day to unwind, to take care of just one thing, to make sure it was done and then move on, instead of flitting here and there like a mayfly. And maybe with the life expectancy of one.
Fuck it. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, I’ll tell Winters and Johnson and the rest of OMI and BXA and whoever-the-fuck-else that I’ve got better things to do. They want something out of Arykka, they can fucking well ask her themselves. See how that goes. God, immature rebellion. She felt like she was sixteen all over again.
And maybe while she was at it, she’d ask for a pony.
Out at the edges of the Hyperion Hive system, so far that the great yellow star of Hyperion was indistinguishable from constellations light-years distant, reality shuddered and twisted. Space fell in upon itself, a rift opening and something massive slid out, invading the stillness. In the darkness, it could have been mistaken for a Lefu battlecruiser, but a closer look would have stripped that illusion. There was no art in its form, no concession to aesthetics. That was acceptable. It neither needed nor cared for them.
It turned its blocky U-angled hull towards the distant spark of Hyperion, its drive systems coming on-line, falling towards the star. Like a child inhaling the scent of fresh-cooked pastries, it drank deep from the electromagnetic emissions that beckoned to it from the bauble its foes called Hyperion Hive. Soon, they would call it nothing.
Its name was Whispering Ember and it was only the first.
The clock rolled over to 0523 and Natalya took another sip from her coffee, blowing the wisps of steam away from the mug before bringing it up to her lips. She scanned over personnel and department reports, nodding to herself. LeFay ran a tight ship, but all of her captains did… had. She wanted to schedule several combat drills aboard Courageous and run through some maneuvers with TF 111. Something that she’d need to crawl in front of Harkness to get clearance for. Natalya snorted. Maybe she should bring kneepads along next time, just in case.
She licked her lips, hesitating a moment before calling up her Case Omega files on Mulkari killships. She’d have first set of sims run against them. Despite Covenant’s presence, the ‘Necro’ threat wasn’t real to many of the personnel. The Evea’shi were closer, easier to understand, easier to hate. Some ephemeral potential threat was hard to focus on when there was a genocidal race on your doorstep now. Well, she’d make it as real for her people as she could. Foraker would probably tear a strip out of her for it, but she wanted her crew prepared as best she could make them. Besides, anyone who knew about the Mulkari would recognize the simulation easily enough and anyone who didn’t would think it was just a pointless exercise from an insane CO.
She fed the files into the computer, setting the parameters for several scenarios. Her computer would confer with the Tactical system, processing the files, developing hostile warships, likely variants, comparable tactics, terrain and specific objectives. Natalya thought for a moment, and then added random encounters to the settings. As in warfare, you could never count on a battle running precisely how you thought it would. Civilian vessels were found where they shouldn’t be, you got reinforcements from a long-ranging patrol, your fleet came out hyperspace more dispersed then it should have. You let yourself be sung to sleep by an avatar of death.
God – bad poetry, too. Maybe this really is my second childhood.
“Senior Captain Goldstein. What can I do for you?”
“The usual.” The Empty clasped his hands behind his back, looking up at Natalya as he fell in beside her. She had one or two inches on him, as most Concordat citizens did over the minimally-or-not-at-all enhanced Leaguers. There were even some League worlds where people lived for less then a hundred years, eschewing modern medicine for a ‘simpler life’. And a vastly shorter one, too. “I was hoping to catch you yesterday, but you were occupied.”
“That seems to be a perpetual state of affairs. I’m afraid that I can’t help you, captain. You should talk to Harkness or Foraker.”
“I’ve tried. I’m starting to believe that neither of them actually exist and are simply convenient fictions you Concords have invented for the purpose of bureaucracy. Harkness, if he is real, spends most of his time aboard Valorous and does not fancy visitors, particularly League visitors. Likewise, your admiral Foraker always seems to be ‘in conference’ whenever I try to get a hold of him.”
“I guess that means I’m the lucky winner, then. Look, captain-”
Goldstein cut her off. “Commodore, whatever you were going to say, you should be aware that I don’t particularly care. If I was irritated the first time I came to you… well, let’s just say I’ve moved several steps beyond that point. I keep hearing promises. Empty promises. Empty Concordat promises and I’m more then a little tired of it. My crew has appreciated your hospitality, but our ship is repaired, our stores are replenished and we want to go home.”
Natalya sighed. “I’ll pass that along to Admiral Foraker-”
“You misunderstand me, Commodore. We’re past the point of asking your permission. I’m informing you of our intentions. By the week’s end, Covenant will be returning to the League.”
“This may not be the best time-”
“It never will be, if we listen to you. We fought your government for the right to be independent of your decisions. We’re not your vassals, not your citizens and we are not under your command. Too many of my crew have died for the sake of you and yours, commodore. We’re tired of being dictated to like children.”
“I apologize, senior captain. But I don’t know what you expect me to do. Most of my clearances have been revoked. My crew barely trusts me; the other officers don’t. My closest confidant is a bloodthirsty little demon who’d happily cut out your ribs one by one just to see how long it took you to die. I said that I would bring your situation up with the admiral and I will. But you have to realize that yes, you and your crew will be asked to make some additional sacrifices. Yes, we have your technical specifications. Yes, we have your logs. Yes, we have all that. But I’m positive that you know as well as I do that files and data scrolls are never the same thing as having a first-hand perspective on-hand. If – when – the Mulkari arrive, that perspective may be invaluable.”
“And if they decide to let the Concord and the Lefu bludgeon each other a while first, if they decide instead to attack the League?”
“Then at least your people have the files you sent them.” Natalya’s expression softened. “I know it’s not what you want, captain. There’s nothing desirable about anything in this situation, but we wouldn’t ask the League to think of us before themselves. Likewise, you should expect our concerns to be focused on the war and not necessarily your own needs. Like or not, you are here and not in the League.”
“More’s the pity, then.” Jacob replied stiffly. He said nothing else for several moments, marching alongside Natalya. “There was one other thing, a question I had. I asked… Selliphii, is it? earlier and didn’t get much in the way of a response.”
“You probably wouldn’t. It’s easier getting blood from a stone then a straight answer for her. I don’t even know why she didn’t… doesn’t react the same way to me.”
“She’s still human. Somewhere in there, under all that genetic modification, all that indoctrination. Maybe there’s a part of her that wants to connect, but you were the only one enough like her.” Goldstein shrugged. “I slept through my psychology courses. You’d have better luck asking one of your labcoat boys.”
“They’re not very helpful at the moment. For a human, she’s not easy to predict.”
Goldstein nodded. “Too true,” he said quietly, remembering the Lefu ship drawing alongside his crippled Liberty, the cold chill in his stomach as their armoured Marines stalked the outer corridors of his ship, searching for a way to the pressured inner decks and the huddled remains of his crew. His relief when they’d withdrawn… because they’d booby-trapped his ship, leaving him and the cadets under his command to die in the middle of nowhere. Mercy and cruelty all at once.
That was the question he wanted, needed to have an answer for.
They continued in silence for the rest of the journey.
Arykka was exercising again when they reached the cell, doing push-ups on the floor. She’d braided her hair into a single long ponytail, but a number of smaller loose strands of diamond-white hair hung down, some dripping with sweat. She finished her series and stood up, drawing her sweat-slick hair back over her scalp. Her skin gleamed like polished glass under the lights of her cell, droplets of sweat sliding down her neck, over the swelling of her breasts. Her eyes were alert, already tracking the visitors that she couldn’t see.
“Nothing much,” Natalya answered, nodded to the staff officer to clear the window. “But Senior Captain Goldstein has a question he’d like you to answer.”
The Evea’shi’s nostrils flared, eyes narrowing as she looked over at the Second Enemy. She huffed and turned her back.
Natalya rubbed her temples. “Sometimes I wish I had a newspaper to smack her with.”
Whispering Ember would have smiled had it possessed lips. It gleefully relayed the taken its slaves were absorbing to its crew and fellows. Yes, they had timed it marvelously. An imperative flickered to the nearest slave unit and it vanished into subspace.
Natalya’s comm pinged. “Commodore Archer,” she answered crisply as she took it out of her breast pocket.
“Sorry to disturb you, commodore. This is Lieutenant Jeffers in the War Room. Admiral Foraker wants you here ASAP.”
“What’s happened, lieutenant?”
“Our listening posts have picked up an incoming hyper wake, ma’am. A big one. ETA sixteen hours.”