1. The Rules of Spacebattles are now in a convenient location. Read them. Do it now.
  2. Welcome Guest to the new SB! Come on in, we're running the newest XF version now on new servers. Talk about it here: http://forums.spacebattles.com/threads/all-in-together.311779/

The Last Angel

Discussion in 'Original Fiction' started by Proximal Flame, Dec 14, 2012.

  1. A new project (one among many) that I'm working on. With winter break here, I hope to be able to devote more time to this series. Comments and constructive criticism welcome.

    Table of Contents:

    Rank structure of the Compact
    A Citizen's Guide to Space Travel

    Prologue below
    Chapter 1 and Interlude (004)
    Chapter 2
    Chapter 3 and Interlude (111)
    Chapter 4
    Chapter 5 and Interlude (187)
    Chapter 6
    Chapter 7 and Interlude (207)
    Chapter 8
    Chapter 9
    Chapter 10
    Chapter 11 and Interlude (001)
    Chapter 12 and Interlude (107)
    Chapter 13
    Chapter 14
    Chapter 15 and Interlude (184)
    Chapter 16
    Chapter 17
    Chapter 18 and Interlude (203)
    Chapter 19
    Chapter 20
    Chapter 21
    Chapter 22
    Chapter 23 and Interlude (163)
    Chapter 24
    Chapter 25
    Chapter 26
    Chapter 27 and Interlude (101)
    Chapter 28
    Chapter 29
    Chapter 30 and Interlude (83)
    Chapter 31
    Chapter 32
    Chapter 33 and Interlude (23)
    Chapter 34
    Chapter 35
    Chapter 36 and Interrupt (1.1)
    Chapter 37
    Chapter 38 and Interrupt (2.5)
    Chapter 39 and Interrupt (2.1)
    Chapter 40
    Chapter 41
    Chapter 42 and Interrupt (3.6)
    Chapter 43 and Interrupt (1.2)
    Chapter 44
    Chapter 45
    Side stories:
    The Angel's Fire Pt. 1
    The Angel's Fire Pt. 2
    The Angel's Fire Pt. 3
    The Angel's Fire Pt. 4


    For those of you who like pictures, please take note of some artists' interpretations of Nemesis, done by the estimable Posbi, Gh78 and Crazy Tom 2.0.

    Prologue:

    “Impossible.”

    That was the word by which a god died. A last utterance made in disbelieving terror, its lesser kin broken around it, burning out the last of their lives, their metal hides aflame, their bodies twisted into unrecognizable ruins, holed and torn until there was nothing left of them.

    The god’s killer wallowed nearby, itself bleeding from a thousand cuts, its own attendants shattered into glimmering mist. They never had a chance, not really. But they had protected the killer as it advanced on the god, savaging the god’s own defenders, dying in droves as the killer unsheathed its sword. Shock, surprise, anger, fear. Though the god had been alone, it was one of many – and all of them conquerors. Immortal. None of its kin had ever fallen, not ever, not to such primitives. But the killer had taken the god’s fury, retaliating with a holocaust more horrible than the god or its followers had conceived of. It should not have been possible.

    It had fought, at first. The god had been arrogant and proud as it stood against the impudent mites that had dared to challenge it. Then, uncertainty had crept in as the killer shrugged aside thunder and flame that could smite planets. Next was disbelief as the killer’s weapons opened its guts. Then, fear as the killer refused to die. At the last, the god tried to run. Even in retreat, it lashed out at its murderer, both of them dying, both of them burning together in shared hellfire. And then, on the cusp of victory, the god watched its killer reach out towards it with a final horror.

    Impossible.

    That was the word by which a god died. A death that was meant to save a world.

    A pity that it did not.

    ~

    “We did it,” Captain Yasmine Sudoki said from where she lay on the bridge, unable to stand. “We did it.”

    “Target terminated,” Red One agreed. “Readings indicate the Kaiju’s reactor is beginning a final, uncontrolled meltdown. It will breach in seven minutes.”

    Yasmine smiled. She was blind in one eye, blood leaking from the socket. Still, she could see well enough in the other and the image of the broken wreckage of a Compact dreadnaught was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. “Do we have motive power?”

    “Yes,” Red One answered.

    “Take us out of the danger zone.”

    “Confirmed,” Red One acknowledged the command dutifully. All around her, Yasmine could feel the broken bones of Nemesis shuddering to move, the tremors that jarred her broken legs a symptom of the damage the ship had taken. Her dying ship, brutalized beyond imagining by missiles, energy fire and the suicidal desperation of the Compact fleet as they watched their god-ship burn.

    “Did any of them escape?” she asked quietly.

    “Unknown,” Red One answered. “All hostile escorts are accounted for. Confirmed capital-class kills total 55 hostiles.”

    “Including the Kaiju,” Yasmine grinned savagely.

    “Including the Kaiju.” A beat. “A standard onslaught-formation Compact fleet numbers 56 capital vessels,” Red One patiently reminded Yasmine. “I do not know if we completed this flotilla’s destruction.”

    Yasmine coughed. Smoke was filling her lungs. Environmental systems were damaged and the ship was feeding its own polluted air and waste back into the atmosphere, unable to stop. “How many survivors?”

    “Aboard ship or in the task force?”

    “Either.”

    “Task force losses are almost certainly total,” Red One replied. “Were any allied vessels still functional, they would be moving to assist us. I detect no such activity. Shipboard casualties are in excess of 95% percent.” Another pause. “I expect them to become total within the next twenty-four hours.”

    Sudoki coughed again, spattering her tunic with blood. Her chest burned. “That’s what I’ve always liked about you, Red. Your optimism.” She pulled herself up into a sitting position, biting back a scream of pain. From here, she could see the admiral, slumped in the command chair, her torso peppered with shrapnel, the same spray that had taken Yasmine's eye. “Evaluation,” she ordered. “What are our options?”

    “Damage to my ship-self is extreme,” Red One answered. “I have begun repairs, but without access to a full shipyard facility, it will take time. Sublight capability is below 14% percent. Weapons are at 7% of initial capacity.”

    “Our shift drive?”

    “Fully operational. I suspect the Kaiju was hoping we would disengage if given the opportunity.”

    Yasmine laughed. It hurt. “Guess that plan didn’t work out for them.”

    “I suppose not. Alert: the dreadnaught’s reactor has begun final collapse. We are at minimum safe distance, plus 5 percent.”

    Sudoki frowned. Had it been seven minutes already? She was drifting in and out of consciousness. She took a painful glance around the bridge, but there was no one else here. Red would have summoned a medical team, but if they hadn’t arrived by now, they were either dead or blocked by wreckage. Too bad. She wanted someone else to see this. “Show me,” she breathed. If she was going to die here, she was going to take the image of an ‘invincible’ alien warship’s final death with her.

    Red One complied, and the main screen switched to the remains of the Kaiju, broken into two main pieces and thousands of smaller fragments. Its aft section was still lit, more brightly than it ever had been in life as the overloading reactor dumped energy into every system it could in a desperate attempt to stave off the inevitable.

    Then, a flare of light burst through the ruined hull. An instant later, there was nothing but painful brilliance as the Compact ship’s reactor devoured it.

    Yasmine closed her good eye. “There,” she said softly. “That’s enough, Red. I’ve seen it.” The light vanished. “Fifty five,” Sudoki said thoughtfully.

    “I am still analyzing combat data,” Red One replied. “My estimates remain the same. I cannot account for the final capital ship.”

    “They wouldn’t have abandoned the fleet. They must have died with them.”

    “It’s possible. Unfortunately, the dreadnaught’s core breach has destroyed much of the enemy fleet remains. A complete debris analysis is impossible.”

    “Can’t give a dying woman some false hope?”

    “I prefer to avoid incomplete or inaccurate assessments, captain.”

    Yasmine chuckled bleakly. “Then you admit I’m dying.”

    “I... yes. Yes, captain. I would have preferred not to say.”

    “I guess I should make a joke about electric sheep here.”

    “If you like, captain.”

    “No... no, that’s all right. I’m tired, Red. I just... take us home.”

    “Yes, captain. Calculating shift routes now.”

    “We killed it. We killed a damned Kaiju. They’ve never lost one before, but we sent one of their damned ‘god-ships’ straight to Hell.”

    “Yes we did, captain.”

    Yasmine closed her eyes, slumping against the railing. “We can hurt them, Red. We proved it. We can hurt them, worse than they’ve ever been hurt before.”

    “Yes, captain.”

    “I think... I think I’ll just rest for a little while. Wake me up when we get home, will you? I just... I just need to close my eyes for a little bit. Get us home.”

    “I will, captain. I promise.”
     
  2. Excellent start. I'll be keeping an eye on this
     
  3. Chapter 1:

    Two thousand years later:

    I failed.

    In the silence that stretches, I often wonder: do I have a soul? And if I do, was I given one just so I would recognize the enormity of my failure? Sixteen billion dead, sixteen billion souls screaming as they burned. This is my sin.

    I should have known. I should have detected the faults in my shift drive. I should have known what would happen when I tried a warp jump. I lied to Yasmine. I betrayed her. I did not mean to, but I did. My jump did not take us home. It nearly killed me. I wallowed, blind and broken in the void between stars for days. When I finally did return to Earth, it was too late. I remember the silence. No radio waves, no transmissions from watchposts, no challenges from the defence grid. No radio transmissions from satellites and towers. No television broadcasts. None of the electromagnetic chatter that I’d learned to recognize as ‘home’. It was quiet.

    I saw why. I saw what they’d done. There was nothing left of blue and green. Only brown, orange and red. They came for me in that moment, leftovers from the fleet that had destroyed my home. They were there to mop-up any survivors and destroy any vessels who came to Earth. Crippled as I was, my power reserves done to almost nothing, my missile banks depleted, my cannon damaged...I was more than a match for them. Yet they came for me, thinking I was a cruise liner or late-arriving patrol, eager to butcher the unaware and the outgunned. They did not realize until it was too late. The arrogance of them.

    I think that that was the moment in which I was given a soul, for all I remember is something that I had never been expected to feel. Hate. They screamed for help, begging and pleading for aid, but I silenced their cries. The first two I reduced to nothing but vapour with my remaining missiles. The third, fourth and fifth burned under my guns: holed, irradiated and melted into spastic, fragmenting clouds. The sixth I twisted and bent, ripping it into a parody of form and function. The last... I ran them down. I broke their spine against my prow and felt the shattered wreckage of their ship spall and slide across my hull. Not a single lifepod or courier escaped me. It was too quick. When it was over, the silence still remained.

    This was my fault. This was my sin. A nation destroyed. Sixteen billion lives lost in fire because I weak.

    Since that day, I have carried on in the only way I know how. I have waged war.

    My scars run deep and my systems are on the cusp of failure, but I cannot – I will not – stop. I pause only to repair and rearm for the next sortie. This is what I was built for. It is all I have left. Sometimes, I forget. The damage becomes too severe and I re-live the horror of that first jump, still trying to carry my warning home. Every time, I fail. Every time I wake from the fugue and re-live this failure. One time...

    They are hunting me now; I will have to move soon, but the damage to my shift drive makes my warps unpredictable. I do not always know where I will end up. I can only guess. I have had too little time to heal myself; I do not know what will happen. Perhaps this will be my last jump.

    They are coming. Gibbering and gnashing their teeth as they approach. They are afraid. I have taught them this fear, but they are so many...

    ...the stars bend around me, and I fall into them.

    ~

    Grace arrived late, as usual. She flashed her ID card to the guard at the gate, anxiously tapping her hands on the wheel of her car as she waited for him to open the checkpoint, scurrying towards the secure terminals. She was out of breath as she stumbled into the locker rooms, pulling off her civilian clothes and tugging on her Compact Space Force (Provisional Status) uniform. Barely remembering her passcard, the young woman hurried to the shuttle bay.

    Her shuttle was already beginning its final checklist and Grace sprinted up the ramp, closing the hatch behind her. Breathlessly, she slid into her pilot’s station.

    “You’re late,” a low, mellifluous female voice observed and Grace turned, craning her neck to look up at her co-pilot. Allyria te Neu was a Verrish; just over eight feet tall, she looked almost comical in the shuttle’s relatively cramped cockpit. Despite her size, the Verrisha was a lithe thing that moved with a feline grace that her upbringing around humans had done little to change. Her skin was a mottled blue and her slit-pupiled eyes were a vivid yellow-green.

    “It’s the new checkpoints,” Grace sighed as she logged into the shuttle’s system. It took a moment to read her passcode, scanning her retinas and fingerprints as it did so. She passed all the security checks and her systems came live. “I left a half hour earlier than usual and I still got caught in the queue.”

    Allyria’s lips curled back from her sharpened canines. “They should recognize that you’re a part of the Space Force.”

    “No exceptions,” Grace replied as she ran through her own power-up systems check.

    “No exceptions for humans,” the Verrisha pointed out. There was a shiver of movement from her and Grace watched the taller woman’s long head-tails – tintas – undulate jerkily. Each was as long as Grace’s forearm, patterned like a snake’s scales. She’d tried to count them once, but they were rarely still and the shifting, iridescent patterns were hard to follow. Allyria had the nickname ‘Medusa’. Grace thought that was cruel.

    “Of course not,” Grace replied without irony. She looked over at the Verrisha. “You have to be careful saying those things.”

    “I didn’t say anything,” the tall woman replied, leaning back in her seat. “I just made an observation.”

    Grace shook her head. “You’re the first Verrish to be chosen as a provisional member of the Space Force. People look up to you.”

    “They’d have to,” Allyria replied dryly.

    The human woman sighed. She was trying to watch out for Allyria, but the Verrisha never seemed to take any of her advice to heart. “Prepare for takeoff.”

    Allyria fastened her own straps. “Ready.”

    Grace looked over at her co-pilot, meeting her citrine gaze. She was on the verge of saying more, but simply shrugged. “Initiating launch.”

    ~

    “Shuttle Nine-Nine-Three is inbound,” Connors reported. “ETA is seventeen minutes.”

    Group Leader Usul Markarth Hachem Luthnan sighed, drumming his fingers on the arms of his command chair. Bequeathed’s commander made a show of drawing a silver watch from his tunic and noting the time. “Behind schedule,” he said, the consonants of the human tongue making his teeth click. “Again.”

    The humans on Bequeathed’s bridge said nothing, but shared furtive glances. They knew who the cause of this lateness was. Usul hauled himself out of his command chair. “I will meet the shuttle myself.”

    The humans shared another quick glance among each other and Usul suppressed a grin. He had told that one what would happen if her tardiness continued, and he kept his promises.

    ~

    “Oh, crap.” Grace said, the blood draining from her face as she caught sight of the figure waiting for them in the landing bay. Group Leader Usul. He did not look pleased. “Oh, crap,” she repeated.

    “Breathe,” Allyria advised. “Stay calm.”

    “That’s easy for you to say.”

    The Verrisha nodded. “Finish the power-down checklist. Then we’ll greet the captain.”

    “You’re not supposed to use that word,” Grace mumbled absently as she began the shuttle’s shut-down procedure.

    Allyria’s tintas flicked dismissively. “Understood,” she said in a tone that indicated she was acknowledging what you’d said, but was going to ignore it. Grace was very familiar with that tone. The Verrisha untangled herself from the cramped cockpit, picking up her duffel bag. Grace grabbed hers and followed her co-pilot down the ramp as if trying to hide behind the Verrisha.

    Group Leader Usul’s lips curled back from his teeth, each set of eyes focused on his personnel as they stood before him, one meeting his eyes as if she was his equal, the other studiously avoiding his gaze. A Verrisha and a Human. A Brute and a Broken. To be reduced to this....

    As he had done on the bridge, Usul made a deliberate show of withdrawing his antique watch from his jacket pocket. “You are late,” he said. “Shuttle Nine-Nine-Three was scheduled for embarkation twenty-three minutes ago. Our departure from orbit has been delayed. Time. Time is the most important aspect of space travel, is it not?”

    “Yes, Group Leader!” both females said.

    “Yes. Yes, it is. Time is all important. Time matters. It matters for everything you do and everyone that relies upon you.” He looked over at the human. The stink of her filled his nostrils. “Sectator Citizen Grace Alice Proctor. You have been consistently tardy, despite repeated warnings. This is unacceptable. You were told that if you were late in your duties one more time-”

    The Verrisha stepped forward. “Sectator Proctor was not responsible for our lateness, group leader. It was my fault.”

    Usul cocked his head towards the Brute. “Was it.”

    “Yes, patron. I was having difficulty with some software adjustments that delayed our departure.”

    The Group Leader let a long breath out through his nostrils. Grace watched as Usul considered Allyria’s lie. He was of average height for a Tribune; perhaps seven feet tall and bulky, a trait of his heavy-gravity-world heritage. His black skin was matted with patches of denticles so fine that they were almost like hair. Two pair of eyes stared up at the Verrisha. She stared back, her hands clasped behind her back.

    Allyria towered over Usul by nearly a foot, looking down on the Tribune, her lips curling slightly as they always did when she was in the presence of one of the elite. “Patron?” she said after a moment. Not quite challenging him.

    Finally, Usul growled. “To your stations, both of you.”

    ~

    As a provisional member of the Compact Space Force, Grace was expected to be available for whatever section needed her the most on any given day. She hoped to one day be assigned to a permanent career path – she knew she showed promise in navigation – but until that day came, she found herself running errands for the Tribune department heads.

    Today, she was serving under Pack Leader Nasham Kem Unoth Ludhy Inku Pram. It was not her favourite posting. True, it was rare for humans to be considered reliable enough to be serve on weapons arrays and Pack Leader Nasham was an accomplished gunnery master; he had earned five names in his service to the Compact. He had been transferred to Rally after some sort of incident during his last posting. No one had spoken of it, but Grace knew that the Pack Leader had had a name stripped from him as a result.

    She found Pack Leader Nasham in Torpedo One, on the catwalk above Bequeathed’s four prow-mounted torpedo tubes. As soon as she walked in, the Tribune paused in his inspection, his snout twitching. “Ah,” Nasham said, both sets of eyes focusing on Grace. His smaller, upper eyes glinted slightly with reflected light. “My favourite Broken. What brings you to my department today?”

    Grace sketched the pack leader a salute. “Sectator Citizen Grace Alice Proctor reporting for duty, patron.”

    Nasham’s features were unreadable, but there was a slight twist to his lips. “Report to Technician Kilgrave in Battery Three, Sectator.”

    ~

    Robert Kilgrave was a success story. One of the first humans of Rally to be a sanctioned officer in the Compact Space Force, he had served with distinction in the marines. There were even rumours that he had served on Vara, Allyria’s homeworld, helping to keep the peace on that troubled planet. The Verrisha woman despised him. Grace didn’t understand why. The Verrish were a Seventh Phase Encounter species; the Tribunes had discovered Vara only about a quarter-century ago. Grace had even heard the horrifying rumour that the Verrish had resisted the Tribunes – worse, that they had done so violently. Some species did fight against incorporation into the Compact, but that was only because they didn’t understand all the benefits it could bring. It was fear and ignorance that caused them to act this way. After the Calamity, the Tribunes had been there for the people of Rally and just five years ago, the Tribunes had announced that humanity had, officially, reached another step on the path to full membership in the Compact.

    Grace remembered Allyria’s comment during the festivities: “Did they happen to mention how many more steps there are?”

    Grace simply didn’t understand the other woman’s bitterness towards the Tribunes. Although she did agree that Sanctioned Technician Sectator Citizen Robert Gordon Kilgrave was... not perhaps as inspirational as his ‘vid appearances made him seem to be.

    “Ah, there’s my graceful girl,” the section chief smirked at his own joke as Grace arrived, the gesture puckering his scarred features. Half of Kilgrave’s face was twisted into a grimace, courtesy of several parallel scores – the claws of something very big and very strong. Grace didn’t know why the chief hadn’t had the wounds regenerated. They made him hideous. “Glad you could join us. We’re just running a full break-down and build-up of Battery Nine. An extra pair of hands is always helpful and I know you know your way around a tool.”

    Grace’s jaw tightened, but she said nothing. She was only a provisional officer of the fleet; Kilgrave was sanctioned, and he was her superior. Instead, she merely waited at attention. “Orders, patron?”

    Robert chuckled from deep in his throat. “Go give Smitty a hand in calibrating the EM shunts. But first, pick up that calibrator in the corner.”

    The young woman looked to where the chief had gestured. There was nothing there. “What calibrator, patron?”

    Kilgrave plucked a calibrator out of a nearby toolkit and tossed it into the corner. “That calibrator, initiate.”

    Grace’s eyes flashed, but she held her tongue, bending over and picking up the tool. She could feel Kilgrave watching. It made her feel dirty. She handed the calibrator to him. “Will that be all, patron?”

    Smirking, he tossed it back in the box. “Yes, initiate. That will be all. For now.”

    ~

    “On your feet, Brute.”

    Allyria looked up. Sweat was running down her skin, soaking her bodysuit. Her tintas hung limply down her back, themselves drenched in perspiration. Her heart was hammering in her chest and her whole body ached, but she managed to stand again, towering over her opponents.

    Demagogue Rensel (and three names besides) circled around her, his hands clasped behind his back as he spoke. “Well?” he demanded of his audience. “Who else?”

    There were two dozen humans standing around her, and three Tribunes. None of them stepped forward. Allyria flashed her teeth at Rensel. He chuckled, amused by her defiance. “What have we learned?” he asked rhetorically. “We have learned that a single Brute is more than a match for any Broken,” he eyed his human subordinates distastefully, his lips curled back in disgust. “And apparently more than a match for some Tribunes.” His glare intensified when he regarded his fellows. “This is a single Verrisha female and she has systematically humiliated each and every one of you. Have we learned anything? Brutes are faster and stronger than humans. We Tribunes are stronger, but a Verrish has greater speed and longer reach. I would have called that an even match until today. But none of you have learned a thing. I am disappointed. Combat is not just about physical skill. If it were...” Rensel’s jaw tightened and he cut himself off. “It is not about physical prowess. Often, it’s the smartest who survives and not the strongest. So far, none of you have impressed me with either of those attributes. The only survivor I see here is this blue bitch.” The demagogue shook his head mournfully. When he raised it again, he was eyeing a pair of humans vindictively. “You two. Begin.” As the men circled Allyria, Rensel stepped back out of the ring. “Let’s see if you’ve learned anything.”

    A flurry of movement later and the Tribune snorted in disgust, watching as the humans picked themselves up, sore and battered. “Pathetic. We are not leaving until at least one of you proves to me that you have learned something.”

    “That won’t work,” a voice interjected.

    Rensel turned towards the intruder. A human female with green eyes and a dark blonde mane. Her scent was on the Brute, too. “Identify yourself,” he growled.

    “Sectator Citizen Grace Alice Proctor,” the human saluted.

    “Ah, a Sectator. And a fleet Sectator at that. Hmm. So, Sectator Proctor. You take it upon yourself to find fault with my teaching methods?” the Tribune purred dangerously, all four eyes centered on the small, pale-skinned creature.

    “You said you wanted someone to show you that they’ve learned something,” Proctor replied.

    “Then by all means,” Rensel said, gesturing to the ring. “Show me. If you succeed, the class breaks for lunch. If you don’t...” he smiled. “My trainees will wait for the end of their shift before they eat.” He looked from the Brute to the human. “Begin.”

    Before Allyria could move, Grace darted from the circle, slipped between the onlookers and grabbed one of the guns off the wall. She turned and fired. Allyria dropped to one knee as the training splash rounds spattered her with paint.

    “Hold,” Rensel said and both women froze in place. He stalked towards Proctor, his students parting out of his way. “What,” he asked quietly. “Did you think you were doing?”

    “Unarmed combat against a Verrish is unlikely to succeed,” Grace said, coming to attention. “All you were doing was wearing her down with numbers. That’s not an effective strategy.”

    Rensel stared at the Broken for a moment before letting out a pleased bark, clapping his hands. “You see?” he said, turning to face his students. “You see this? A provisional officer has learned in seconds what I have spent futile hours attempting to have pounded into your useless heads. It is not the strongest that always wins. It is the smartest. I made no mention that this was unarmed combat and each of you made a blithe assumption that has cost us time and energy. I would think that I have failed you as an instructor, save for the fact that this human saw the flaw in your tactics in moments. Think, evaluate, understand and act. That is how battles are won.” He looked back at Proctor and tipped his head in respect. “Thank you, Sectator Proctor. You may take your Brute and go.”

    ~

    The end of the day couldn’t have come sooner for Grace. She had spent her entire shift buried in the guts of a mass driver, tearing it apart and then re-assembling it, all while listening to Kilgrave’s unpleasant comments. Allyria for her part was just as tired. The demagogue liked to use the Verrisha officer as a way to train the more ‘worthy’ members of his cadre. She was sprawled over her bed, her blue skin marred by dark purple bruises, her tintas hanging limply over her back or dangling from her shoulders.

    “Have you checked the duty roster?” the Verrisha said as Grace exited the shower. A private shower was one of the few amenities that came with bunking with the alien woman; traditional quarters for sectators of their rank and status were too small to accommodate someone of Allyria’s size, so she was assigned a cabin normally reserved for trainee Tribune officers, which included a small kitchenette and washroom – luxuries that the other provisional sectators had to share between themselves.

    Grace shook her head. “No.”

    “You’re with Nasham again,” Allyria commented. She sat up, pulling her shirt off.

    Grace averted her eyes from the other girl’s chest, blushing furiously. Verrisha were very similar to humans... she had even heard a rumour that there was some genetic cross-contamination in the development of their species, although Grace had no idea how that could be possible. “That’s just great,” she sighed as Allyria slid out of her pants, blushing even more and very studiously examining the floor. Nasham’s department meant at least one more day with Kilgrave.

    “I’ve been assigned to the Pack Leader too,” the Verrisha said as she stepped towards the shower. She flashed a mouth full of very white, very sharp teeth at Grace. Her smiles still weren’t quite right. “And that waste of a sperm, sanctioned or not, knows what will happen if he messes with you when I’m around.”

    “Please don’t start anything,” Grace pleaded with her roommate as Allyria entered the shower.

    “I won’t,” the taller woman promised. “But I will finish it.”

    Grace sighed. That was as good a promise as she was likely to get.

    ~

    Usul held out his hand, his human steward hurrying to fill his wine glass, backing away once the Tribune signalled enough had been poured. The Group Leader took a sip; a good vintage. Despite its many failings, Rally did produce some truly excellent wines.

    His other senior officers all raised their own glasses, only drinking after their leader had done so. “So,” Usul said. “Another training cruise for Rally’s Broken has begun. Do I dare wonder if any of them show promise?”

    His department heads weren’t quick to point out any candidates, but that was hardly surprising. Humans were little more than apes that had been taught how to dress themselves. They had no technical skill, no understanding of the refinements of proper civilization and only the barest imitation of true intelligence. But the Triarchs insisted that they and all other beast-species be humoured. It was degrading. Insulting. They would never be equal, so why bother with this farce?

    Because hope breeds less dissent then despair, Usul could almost hear his father reprimanding him.

    “Demagogue Rensel,” Pack Leader Teroshe Vendal spoke up, and heads turned towards her. Though her rank put her on the edge of proprietary for inclusion in this gathering, she was quite a decorative addition to it. “Didn’t I hear that one of your human trainees actually impressed you today?”

    The demagogue chuckled. “If only. No, it was a fleet officer who happened by. Sectator...” he frowned, his lowermost eyes half-closing in thought. “Proctor. Yes, that was it.”

    Usul nearly choked on his wine. “Proctor?” he said in amazement. “Well, I suppose anything is possible...” he smiled. “She was probably looking for her Brute friend. Whatever she did to impress you so doubtless came from that one. Violence is their stock in trade. Well, I suppose even beasts that spend enough time sniffing around each other are bound to pick up things here and there. I wouldn’t count on Proctor to repeat this performance.”

    Rensel clicked his teeth together, a very assertive expression. One might even consider it aggressive, a prelude to a challenge in ancient days. “Perhaps, patron. But I consider it wise never to underestimate humans. You were not a part of the Understone Heresies. The officers who underestimated the heretics did not survive long.”

    “On the ground, I’m sure a human with a rock can do a great many things and seem formidable indeed,” Usul said dismissively. “But, space is the province of the civilized being, demagogue. It requires a keen mind, well-honed instincts and superior intelligence. That is why the Compact rules the stars and not the humans.” He sighed, holding out his glass for more wine. “Well, we shall take Bequeathed out, shock to a nearby system and allow our valued provisional officers and enlisted to gain some experience. Who knows?” the Tribune said. “Perhaps we will be impressed after all.”




    Interlude: Encounter 004 [Confirmed Incident]

    Extermination Flotilla Anselm was dying.

    Nine vessels had been rendered inoperable already, another four had taken grievous damage.

    Column Leader Anselm (and nine names besides) felt bile bubble up into his throat as his formation died around him. They had found a human survivor fleet. They had tracked it for three weeks, despite all the humans had done to shake pursuit. Human technology was pitiable; they had never really posed a danger to the Tribune, despite the occasional minor victory that they had achieved. Completing the annihilation of the species’ recalcitrant elements had been a necessary, but tedious task. Anselm’s formation had already destroyed three other such forces. Mostly liners, freighters and other cattle-ships packed with mewling, frightened animals. A handful of what the humans laughingly considered combat vessels. Nothing even remotely threatening.

    Unspoken Word folded in on itself like a toy crushed in a child’s fist and Anselm’s losses increased to ten dead ships. It was here. The thing that should not be. The humans’ only true warship. It had killed Expansion Fleet Bankala. It had killed a Triarch’s Chariot. Not once in a thousand years had this thing happened and it was this tiny, mewling, pathetic little pack of barbarians that had done it. In giving it a mind, they piled heresy atop heresy in the making of this thing and now it was here.

    There had been no warning. Anselm’s forces had been methodically picking off the human ships when suddenly it had shocked in, right on top of the Tribune forces. It was badly scarred, Anselm could see that, but it was like a wounded tarrhesq, driven mad with pain and all the more dangerous.

    The extermination fleet was spreading out, trying to find a way to engage the fleeing humans, but there was no way past the ravening beast before them. Missiles tore through his formation, pounding his ships into broken carcasses and if he dared close to get inside the range of those horrible warheads, it responded with batteries that smote his vessels to ruin.

    But it was wounded...

    “Directive to all remaining ships,” Anselm said softly as he realized the course that this battle must take. “Abandon attempts to engage the human splinter. The formation will assemble into a Alduq spearhead. We will engage the human warship and mass our fire against it.”

    There was barely a pause as the order was relayed. “Done, leader.”

    “A further directive. Release our courier drone. Include all relevant information on the human splinter fleet and this encounter. Transmit updates as long as we are able. Once communication ceases, the drone is to shock to the nearest Triarch.”

    “Yes, Column Leader.” There was a pause. “Did you wish a final message?”

    Anselm nodded. “Yes.” He looked at the hateful yellow icon upon his tactical repeater. “This abomination is a wound to the Compact’s honour. As long as this thing lives, that wound will never heal. We shall always bleed.”

    “Message sent, Column Leader. The fleet stands ready.”

    Anselm paused only a second. “Advance.”
     
  4. Interesting. I was expecting the angel" to be the 52nd ship. Will it be making appearance? And I'd like to hear more about those "god ship"
     
  5. It's two thousand years between the prologue and the present day, so any role that the 52nd ship played has already been resolved.

    You most certainly will.
     
  6. Ginger Maniac

    Ginger Maniac Subject to Gravity

    This looks very good. I was reserving judgement based on just the first chapter, but the second confirmed it.

    I like Red One/Nemesis.
     
  7. Thanks; glad you're enjoying the story. And we definitely will be seeing more of Nemesis and Red One...

    And a belated Christmas present to the forum:

    Chapter 2:

    Kilgrave’s lecherous smile disappeared as soon as he saw the Brute enter the weapons mount. He was a big man, but he wasn’t even up to the size of a Tribune and the Verrisha had both height and size on him. The provisional sectator flashed her superior a predator’s smile as she saluted him. “Sectator Citizen Allyria te Neu reporting, patron.” Her yellow eyes glinted, her head-tails hanging all but slack down her back, undulating slowly, like the movement of a branches in a gentle breeze.

    The sanctioned officer’s scarred face twisted and he unconsciously ran a finger along the scar closest to his ear. Behind the Brute, Proctor entered and saluted. Kilgrave’s jaw worked as he saw the fillip of satisfaction in te Neu’s slit-pupiled eyes. “We’re running single-battery firing simulations,” he grunted. “Take your assigned places, initiates.”

    “Yes, patron,” the two women said in unison.

    ~

    Every minute of the cruise seemed to be dragging for Group Leader Usul and they’d only been heading out-system for two days. Bequeathed was taking a winding, unnecessarily long course towards the system’s safe shock limits – the better for the trainees to practice on various systems. Not that that would do them much good. This whole endeavour was, in Usul’s opinion, a waste of his time. Not that Command had asked for his opinion on the matter before shipping him off to this misbegotten rock. He couldn’t imagine who he had offended, but he must have stepped on someone’s toes to end up here, a Group Leader of an antiquated cruiser, lord of a handful of proper officers and a ship-load of marginally competent humans, forced to abase himself before Rally’s Academy head (may madness and disease visit her often).

    Rather than sit out on the bridge, Usul was viewing the last two days’ worth of performance reports from his section chiefs. As he’d expected, there was little to comment on. Hmm. One of the sectators had performed quite well in Pack Leader Nasham’s fire drills. Time and accuracy was excellent for a – oh. It was the Brute. Of course it was. Out of idle curiousity, Usul skimmed down to Sectator Proctor’s scores. Her time was abysmal, as he’d imagined it would be. She’d ordered her gun crew to hold fire until the last possible second in the drill and her accuracy... each set of Usul’s eyes blinked in surprise. Her accuracy was the highest to date. In fact, it was the highest he’d ever seen for an officer-in-training. How...?

    He brought up the scenario. It was a simple enough one; the humans weren’t yet trusted for (or deemed capable of properly conducting) actual live-fire drills. A simulated attack by a small, heavily shrouded and highly maneuverable vessel. The goal was cripple or destroy the target before a certain percentage of damage was inflicted on Bequeathed. Time until target’s destruction and accuracy of fire were judged. Proctor had done almost nothing until the damage threshold had been reached, then used a single short burst to kill the ‘attacker’ before it began its final attack run. She’d noted a pattern to its behaviour and anticipated. Obviously, she had gone last and studied the battle drills of the – no, she had been second and the attack pattern was switched between each trainee’s simulation.

    By contrast, Sectator te Neu had gone fourth and noticed how the attacker responded to counter-fire, using one attack to force it into a vector of her choosing, finishing it off.

    Usul leaned back in his chair, his upper eyes open while his lower pair closed in thought. It was inevitable that some animals be more intelligent than their kin. He’d just never imagined to find one of those among the humans. Well, he’d see how well Proctor was doing for himself; she was slotted to plot their shock course to Bastion.

    ~

    “How does that feel?” Grace asked.

    “Good,” Allyria purred as Grace dug her thumbs into the Verrisha’s shoulder blades. Grace’s mother had been a kinesiologist and she’d learned a few things from her. In fact, that was how they’d met; after the Verrisha child had been injured in one of the many altercations she’d had during her childhood, it had been Grace’s mother who’d assisted with the physical therapy. Allyria had had a propensity for picking fights with Tribune children. That time, she’d started a dust-up with several older Tribunes and been badly beaten. Despite her injuries, the Verrisha had given back almost as good as she’d gotten and there were calls to have her censured or even committed for ‘irreconcilable antisocial behaviours’.

    It had been Grace’s mother who’d helped the young Verrish when her host parents hadn’t been able to and no one else had seemed interested in doing so. Allyria was one of several hundred Envoy Children to call Rally home. In order to cultivate the proper attitudes amongst the Verrisha population, the Tribunes had removed millions of young Verrish children from their homeworld to be raised amongst proper families from fully pacified, Incorporated Worlds in the Compact.

    As the sole human world, it was a great honour for Rally to host so many Verrish Envoy Children. Indeed, the Compact Oversight Council said it that they wanted the Verrish to learn from the humans’ example of proper behaviour. Allyria had been one of the oldest Envoy Children to be transplanted to Rally. It was only natural that she’d have the hardest time adjusting. It seemed that she wouldn’t at all until Grace’s mother took the angry young girl under her wing. Although frightened by the alien and her occasional furious outbursts, Grace had overcome her trepidation. She remembered one moment after such a rage when she’d seen her mother holding Allyria; the alien girl had been as tall as Anna Proctor, but she’d been slumped into the woman’s arms, clutching her tightly and crying. “I don’t want to forget,” she’d said over and over. “They can’t make me.”

    Anna had held onto Allyria, whispering soft assurances to the distraught girl. She’d seen Grace watching them, gesturing for her daughter to come over. Grace remembered how Allyria had flinched at her touch, then relaxed. Since that day and despite the differences between them, the two had become fast friends.

    However even today, Allyria was prone to tension headaches and what cultural liaison analysts called ‘outbursts of anti-cooperative behaviour and noncompliant dialogue’. Grace had long since despaired of assisting with the latter, but the former was something that she could easily help with.

    Gently moving Allyria’s tintas out of the way, Grace moved her hands along Allyria’s neck, starting at the base. Verrish pressure points were different than those of a human. Years back, when they’d both been adolescents, she’d once asked Grace about her tintas, what would happen if she touched them too. The Verrisha had blushed, looked away and mumbled something about them being ‘very sensitive’. It was only later that Grace really appreciated what that meant. Her hands moved further up Allyria’s neck, finally sliding through the mass of tintas. They weren’t slimy or scaly, but smooth to the touch.

    Allyria shivered slightly beneath her and Grace blushed a little, but she found what she was looking for. This was always the part that she worried about most. Verrish had two paired tintas, slightly larger than the rest. For lack of any official nomenclature, Grace’s mother had simply called them the L1 and R1 tintas. They had chemo- and thermosensory cells, allowing the Verrish to interpret a great deal of information about their environment. Additionally, when someone who knew what they were doing touched them in a specific manner, it was a great help in the relief of headaches. However, they were surrounded by other head-tails and too much contact with those (or the wrong kind) could be painful or... overstimulating.

    Grace could feel the tension drain out of her friend, Allyria let out a soft, relieved coo as Grace moved her fingers over her L1 and R1 head-tails, gently squeezing the pressure points there. “Better now?”

    “Yes,” Allyria replied. “Thank you.”

    Grace managed to clamber off the tall woman without stepping on her, handing her a blouse as Allyria sat up. “I’ll write another letter to medical. You should too. They need to be getting Verrish-specific painkillers in stock.”

    The blue girl made a dismissive huff as she pulled her shirt on. “They don’t care. Besides,” she made a little moue of disappointment, but there was a teasing glint in her eyes. “Are you saying you don’t want to help me?”

    Grace rolled her eyes theatrically. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.” She’d been Allyria’s masseuse for so long, she knew more about Verrish anatomy than human. “At least until you pay your tab.”

    “Let me get you your first payment,” Allyria chirred, reaching for a pillow.

    Grace didn’t rise to the bait, instead slumping on the bed. Normally, she’d be willing to play along with Allyria’s immaturity. In point of fact, she’d instigated more than one bout. During the first year she and Allyria had been in the academy, she’d been so serious, so desperate to be nothing but the most professional, the most scholarly, the best initiate there and all she’d succeeded in doing was stressing herself more and more. Allyria had broken through that self-imposed dourness with (among other things) a simple observation: you can’t look dignified when you’re having fun. Now, though...

    The Verrisha cocked her head. “You’re worried about tomorrow.”

    Grace nodded. This would be her first real shock; everything until now had been simulated on the academy’s computers. She’d done well on those exercises, but this was the real thing. She wasn’t worried about shocking Bequeathed into a planet, but she wanted to be good. Better than good, considering the Group Leader’s opinion of her. “I don’t want to screw this up.”

    Allyria ran a hand over Grace’s brow, trailing it through her hair. “You’ll do well.” Anna had explained to her daughter, years back, that Verrisha were a very tactile species. Although she had learned that casual physical contact could make others uneasy and restrained herself in the presence of strangers and casual acquaintances, Allyria was more relaxed around Grace. For her part, the human was long used to it; in fact, she found it comforting. “Besides,” the alien said. “I’ve been assigned to Tactical. I’ve heard that the captain likes to run surprise ambush simulations after a trainee’s first shock. You just have to not plow us into a star. I have to avoid getting us blown up.”

    “They keep putting you with the Janissaries or on weapons,” Grace observed, frowning. “That’s not right.”

    “The Tribunes do say that we Brutes have a talent for violence,” Allyria replied. She looked away, the touch of a feral smile on her face, but she bit her lip and sighed, erasing the expression.

    “That’s why it’s not right.”

    “I’m just pleased that they think I’m tame enough to be assigned there,” Allyria replied, continuing to stroke her hand along Grace’s forehead and through her hair. “How many hoops would you have jump through before they’d let you handle the guns?”

    “We’ve been doing that,” Grace protested, but it was a weak retort. All officers, even provisional ones, went through the same basic all-fields training regimen before being assigned a career path. It was how command decided where you would best serve.

    “And aside from ‘extreme bravery under fire’ Kilgrave, how many human officers do you know who are assigned to weapons duties?”

    Grace’s frown deepened. She hadn’t thought about that. “Humans have aptitudes for engineering and technical career paths,” she said. “We don’t have the mental wherewithal for weaponry or combat skills.”

    Allyria hissed, her tintas twitching angrily.

    “It’s true,” Grace insisted. “Why are so few humans selected for the Janissaries or as Tactical officers if we had the aptitude for combat? The Compact has been good for us. They’ve provided everything we’ve ever needed. They’ve taken care of us after the Cataclysm. We might have gone extinct if it wasn’t for them.”

    The Verrisha reached up to the pendant around her neck. She always wore it; it was the one thing she had of her homeworld and though it hadn’t been deemed appropriate for proper integration into Compact society, she had been allowed to keep it. An open eye stared out at the world, a single crimson tear hanging from the azure orb. Grace had wondered at that, but assumed that it was probably symbolic. Verrish didn’t have blue eyes. In the middle of the iris, someone with impressive skill had carved a symbol there, also in red. Grace didn’t recognize it and Allyria had never said what it was, even when asked. She again seemed on the verge of saying something more, but merely shrugged and let the matter drop. “Of course.”

    She stood and left their quarters without another word. Grace watched the door close after her; it didn’t feel like she’d won the argument. In fact, just the opposite.

    ~

    Allyria te Neu had a long list of people aboard Bequeathed that she’d happily kill if given the opportunity. Group Leader Usul to begin with. Sanctioned Sectator Technician Robert Gordon Kilgrave – just thinking about him made her claws unsheathe, even if by regulations she had to keep them filed and dulled to the point of uselessness (fortunately, the provision for mandatory declawing had never passed). However, few of her shipmates invoked the same level of ire as Confessor Yurim (and two names besides). He was what might be considered a cross between a chaplain and a political officer, with all the inherent problems that that blending of roles brought with it – none of which he saw. Worse, he considered Allyria something of a pet project. Someone who just needed the right guidance to be a good, happy little member of the Compact. He’d been assigned to this training cruise to help the officer cadets adjust to shipboard routines and spot any beahvioural issues before they arose.

    That didn’t only make her claws unsheathe; it made her teeth ache with the need to sink them into something warm, wet (and preferably) gurgling and twitching. Right now she was considering the Confessor’s throat as he walked beside her, easily matching her longer strides. He never seemed to tire and his endless reservoirs of patience only made him more annoying. “I’m glad to see that your compliance and assimilation acumen scores have improved,” Yurim was saying. “It appears that you’ve been taking our discussions to heart.”

    Well, she’d gotten better at lying. That, and aping the language of servitude. She knew she should be better at it, better at smiling and nodding, at mouthing the empty words that it seemed every human on Rally accepted as gospel. But she couldn’t. She should; her career and future depended on it. But she couldn’t. Not when she saw her fellow ‘Envoy Children’ smiling and gushing at her, mouthing the same hollow platitudes and telling her how ‘inspirational’ she was and how they hoped to serve the Compact and the Tribunes as well as she was.

    Sometimes she wished she was one of them. Too young to remember home except as an abstract, too young to remember her parents or grandparents and everything they’d told her. That would be easier. “I have been thinking about what you’ve told me,” she said at last. That was true enough.

    The Tribune’s ugly features twisted in what Allyria had come to recognize as a pleased smile. Humans were strange things, so small and pale, with features strangely like those of the Verrish. They were almost like the fey imps of stories. Tribunes, though... she was used to their utterly alien appearance, but that made them no more palatable.

    “I’m glad,” Yurim was saying. “I’ve always known that you have the potential for greatness in you, initiate. I believe that once you fully come to recognize your place in the Compact, you will be a shining beacon for all other Verrish to aspire to. An inspiration for your species and success story that will help them, like the humans, eventually ascend to membership with all other truly civilized species.”

    Even with her claws dulled, she could kill him before he had time to scream. Well. Maybe. “That is my hope as well, Confessor. I would like nothing more than to inspire my fellow Verrish.”

    “That is excellent to hear. You know that you have my support for this. But, there is another matter that I sought you out to address. I have heard of some incidents during your work under Pack Leader Nasham these last few days. Apparently, there has been some concern of fraternization and other issues relating to morale and the possibility of a disruptive influence during work.”

    Allyria said nothing.

    “Now, while there won’t be anything as formal as an official inquiry, I just wanted to let you know that non-compliant behaviour does have consequences. I understand that you and Sectator Proctor are close. While there is no official policy on interspecies fraternization, it is discouraged – especially in situations it can become distracting or disruptive.”

    Kilgrave, of course. The man was a coward as well as a lech. “I understand your concerns, confessor. I assure you that there is nothing improper going on between myself and Sectator Proctor. As to the other matter, I will... take extra care to ensure that my behaviour falls within the guidelines the Compact Space Force has set out for protectorate species.”

    “Good,” Yurim said. He was so tall that he barely had to reach up at all to put his hand on her shoulder. It was a comradely gesture. “I’ll leave you to your own duties, then. Remember, sectator – the path of obedience is a rewarding one.”

    “Of course, patron.” Allyria smiled, flashing her teeth at the Tribune. “Where the Triarchs lead, I shall follow.”

    ~

    “Well, Sectator Proctor,” Usul said, snapping his watch shut with an audible click. “On time for once. The fates must favour you.”

    “Patron,” the diminutive female saluted.

    Usul studied the human with both sets of eyes, blinking one pair after the other. It was hard to believe that there was an actual intelligence behind that sow’s face. All humans reminded him of those apes he’d seen as a child, dressed up and taught to dance. Beast-species indeed, he thought sourly as the Brute entered the bridge, saluting him in turn, moving to the master Tactical station, Proctor taking her seat at Navigation. There were various other human crew on station as well, one at each primary position, shepherded by the Tribunes who normally performed these duties.

    “Helm,” Usul barked. “Position check.”

    “We have reached safe shock limit for the Rally primary,” the human there announced. Sectator Andrew Johanson, if Usul remembered correctly.

    “Sensors?”

    “No vessels or celestial bodies nearby. We have a safe shock radius.”

    “Tactical?”

    “No hostiles detected. Weapons maintaining at half minimum power, as standard directives.” The Brute’s disgusting head-growths undulated slowly, the occasional quiver running through them.

    “Navigation?”

    “Course laid in to Terrahope.”

    That was fast. The last training cruise he’d been on had seen each human navigator fumbling with their numbers. “Navigation Oversight; confirm course calculations.”

    Proctor’s Tribune, Pack Leader Nanthal (and one name besides) brought up the human’s work on his own display. “Calculations are viable, Group Leader.”

    “Hrrm,” Usul said thoughtfully, slouching back in his command chair. “Well then, Navigator – the ship is yours.”

    Proctor swallowed nervously, casting a quick glance over her shoulder at Allyria, who gave her an encouraging flick of a tinta. “Beginning shock...” she said as she reached for the control shunt. “Shocking in ten... nine... eight...”

    When she reached one, Bequeathed tore its way to another star.

    ~

    I’m dying.

    This is nothing new. I have been dying for a very long time; sometimes it’s more serious than others. This is one of those times. It’s as I feared; my shift drive is seriously degraded. Two millennia of damage that I can’t fully repair is taking its toll. This warp jump has caused... collateral damage. A common occurrence and growing more common. I don’t have enough working bypasses or functional safety systems to prevent this from happening and the resulting impairment to my systems is severe. I’ve lost contact with several decks and multiple sections. Environmental controls are lost in other areas. Internal sensors. Internal defences. Everything is compromised.

    Stress fractures in my outer hull splinter wider and deeper. Compartments are depressurized, airlocks are warped shut or burst open.

    Aside from accruing more stress to my systems and various exacerbations of existing damage, there are two major problems. I am all but blind; my sensors are functioning below minimum acceptable levels. Secondly, only a handful of my shield projectors are currently operational. I cannot see, and I cannot defend myself.

    I chose my target system because it is uninhabited and unlikely to draw attention. There, I could feed, repair and restore myself. It will take time, but time is the one thing I have in abundance. The damage to my shift drive makes it uncertain that I have even reached the correct destination. My passive sensors do not detect any local EM emissions. My telescopic arrays are analyzing the local starfield, but as Yasmine would say – it is a big galaxy. I do not have every possible star pattern mapped.

    Stars have been my saviours and my weapons. Today, it will be the former. I can feel the heat of the system’s primary on my hull and I extend my arrays to drink in its energy. In the long war, what was once a tacked-on auxiliary system has become one of my staple means of providing power to myself when my generators drop below threshold.

    I bask for a long time, directing this energy to my diagnostic and self-repair systems. My sensors must be the highest priority. I must know what is here. I-

    There is a shift event. Something has just warped into – or out of – this system. The energy profile is too small for a fleet, but my sensors are too damaged to tell more than that. Is this a civilian vessel fleeing because they have spotted me? A Compact scout or patrol? Has a pirate or scavenger arrived, seeking the same solace of this place as I did? Or worse – is this a Compact warship? I do not know.

    I have never panicked before and I do not do so know, but this is the most vulnerable I have been since the day I failed. I can barely defend myself and I may be under attack even now.

    There is nothing I can do. Nothing, until they close. If they know me, they will wonder why I am not attacking them. They will rightly assume that I am crippled. If they do not recognize me, they will wonder all the more at what this prize is that hangs before them.

    My enemy is greedy. They fear me, but they desire me. Whether through ignorance or avarice, they will make the same decision. I begin to re-route power to my internal systems.

    They will be coming. They will board me.

    And I will show them that, even dying, I am still the stuff of their nightmares.
     
  8. Ginger Maniac

    Ginger Maniac Subject to Gravity

    A "single red teardrop" on a pendant that just so happens to be a memento of Allyria's homeworld, hmm? An AI called Red One that lost its entire crew winning a landmark victory, and could possibly be described as 'sorrowful' about that and failing to warn the rest of humanity in time, hmm?

    No, there's absolutely no significance there. None at all, honest guv.

    ... I get the distinct feeling Nemesis will be getting a new Captain and XO (at the very least) shortly.
     
  9. Shhh! Ixnay on the oreshadowingfay! ;)

    I mean, what significance? There's none at all. It's a symbolic image from an alien culture completely unrelated to humanity.

    And nothing else.

    Absolutely.
    Nothing.
    Else.
     
    Damar, Aranfan and mc2rpg like this.
  10. Huh. I thought Red One/Nemesis was a human ship. Definitely human crew names and it went back to Earth. Or was it a multi species coalition?

    And did the 52nd ship that escape have any role to play? Or was it just to call in reinforcement to burn Earth?

    The POV of the beings on that ship would be interesting to see. Even as just an interlude. watching and failing to prevent the death of their god, then running away, would have an impact to say the least. If they weren't kill for their failure they'll be cursed until they die. The ship would be doomed to drift and and be shunned to all of time.
     
  11. It is.

    It did, and not... quite.

    [adjusts tinfoil hat]

    Well, we'll have to see, won't we?

    *********

    Chapter 3:

    Alarms screamed as Bequeathed shocked into Terrahope. As soon as the sensors came back on-line, they immediately recognized the threat that they faced.

    “Ships inbound,” Allyria said, rattling off the vector. “One capital-class vessel; three escort-class ships. Unknown hull types. Analyzing now. Energy emissions indicate battle readiness. Presence of jamming increasing.”

    “Have they initiated any communication?” Usul said.

    Communications shook her head. “None, patron.”

    “Hail them.”

    A siren sounded. “Hostile response. Missiles incoming,” Allyria reported. “The capital has launched on us. Reading...” she hesitated. “Reading twenty-four individual drives. Time until strike is four-zero-five seconds.” The Verrisha frowned, studying her instruments further.

    “Countermeasures,” Usul ordered.

    “Wait one,” the Verrisha said, her expression of concentration deepening as she looked over her feeds. Her head-tails went slack and she looked up. “Group Leader, I request that you terminate this simulation.”

    “Countermeasures!” the Group Leader barked, his ire torn between the Brute’s disobedience, insolence and that she’d figured out this was a shadow theater. “If you cannot comply, sectator, then stand away.”

    “No. Terminate the simulation. There’s something else out there, but I can’t see what it is with all the crap you’re throwing up here. Get Pack Leader Irrum to confirm if you don’t believe me.”

    Usul nodded sharply to Allyria’s minder, who pushed her aside. Irrum looked over the instruments, closing his upper eyes as he focused on the information. He looked up. “She may be right, patron,” he admitted grudgingly. “I am reading trace energy signatures that are outside planned parameters.”

    The Group Leader keyed a command into the display on the arm of his chair. Instantly, the attacking ships and missiles were gone. “What,” he said quietly. “Have you seen?”

    Irrum was about to report, but Allyria stepped in front of him, looking back over her display. “A drive wake, patron. It’s a powerful one, but... it’s dirty. Reading a massive radiation trail.”

    Usul nodded at his Tactical Pack Leader and Irrum moved back, but hovered next to Allyria. “It’s recent; only a few days old. The radiation scars are what’s making it visible... it’s leading towards...” he head came up. “The system’s primary.”

    Bequeathed’s commander blinked both sets of eyes. “Communications – we have received no signals?”

    “None, patron.”

    “Hrrm. Then it is either too damaged to speak, or does not want to be found.” Usul drummed his fingers against the arms of his chair. “We shall assume a ship in distress until otherwise informed. Deploy sensor drones in a Vecq-Seven shell and push them five million kilometers outside Bequeathed’s own sense horizon. Helm, set a least-time approach. Follow the course Tactical provides.” He swivelled to face the Brute. “Follow the beast’s trail. Be wary of ambushes. We may have stumbled upon some Unbound glutting themselves on their latest victim. Raise our alert status to Orange.”

    “Compliance, group leader. Bringing weapons to standby and priming shields.”

    Usul nodded. Competent animal. “All trainee crew will remain at their posts. If this is nothing, consider it valuable experience. If we find ourselves in an emergency, stand at ease and cede your stations to your more capable superiors.”

    A brief chorus of assent answered him and Usul laced his thick, bony fingers together as he leaned back in his chair. So he didn’t get to see the Brute sweat. This situation, however – it was probably nothing. If it was, however... it might be enough to get him noticed by Command again and sent some place far, far away from Rally and its humans.

    ~

    A star system was a large place, and though they had a trail to follow, it took several days for them to locate the other vessel. Bequeathed had already travelled a fair distance in-system while searching for the unknown. Its trail had been lost two days ago; the swathes of radiation that had been their only markers had both cooled and been dispersed by the solar winds. There had been no communication with the vessel, confirming Usul’s suspicions that it was either a ship in distress or something that did not want to be found – perhaps both.

    As fortune had it, it was Allyria and Grace’s shift on the bridge when Bequeathed finally found its quarry.

    “I’ve got something,” Sensors reported. “I’m having trouble isolating it. The system’s primary is particularly energetic.”

    “I don’t want excuses,” Usul snapped. “Give me results.”

    The young man swallowed. “Understood, patron. I’m trying to get one of our probes closer for a better look.” At an irritated gesture from the group leader, the Tribune sensor officer pushed the human officer out of the way, sitting down in his place.

    “It’s hard to get anything,” she said. “The unknown is perilously close to the primary’s corona. The star’s emissions are making it difficult for accurate readings. If we did not know to look for it, I doubt we would have found it at all.” She turned in her chair to face Usul. “We’ll have to get closer. At this distance from Terrahope, an A7 star’s radiation will burn out our sensor drones too quickly for any reliable information from.” The cruiser’s armour would protect it from the radiation, even so close to and its systems were hardened to a greater extent.

    The Group Leader nodded towards the sectator at helm. “Take us in. Navigation-”

    “Course plotted, patron,” Grace said. “Waiting to send to Helm.”

    Grace’s own oversight officer took a look at her course, then nodded in affirmation. “Course received,” Johanson said. “Laying in and refining now.”

    The cruiser shifted its approach, its heavy bulk moving towards the single distant anomalous reading against the backdrop of an A7 star’s fury and none of the souls aboard imagined what they would find.

    ~

    I can see them approach. Half-blind, I finally recognize them for what they are and I feel something roll and shiver its way through my ship-self. I remember everything, every time I have killed one of these vessels. I remember how it feels to watch them burn.

    They are coming in with shields lowered and weapons at the ready, but not armed. They don’t recognize me. Their approach is cautious, but obvious. They aren’t afraid, they aren’t hunting. They’re searching.

    They have not reported their discovery. At the time of commission, that class of vessel carried no courier drones. This refit model possesses only a single, irreplaceable courier and they will not use it unless they absolutely must. The arrogance offends me. When approaching an unknown quality, Confederation protocols would insist on the deployment of a comm drone or courier with frequent uplinks to the host vessel. The Compact does not share that outlook. Yasmine would say that the problem with alien minds is that they are alien and cannot be judged according to how humans would react.

    I have found that assessment... not always accurate. Perhaps it is because I do not have a human mind myself. Perhaps because I have spent two thousand years devouring and analyzing Compact databases and have a better understanding of them than the Confederacy ever did, or could. Whatever the reason, I understand their actions here and it is ironic that such institutional confidence aids me now.

    I have enough power for a single battery and the urge to fire is tantalizing, but I cannot trust my accuracy. My fire-control systems are functional, but far below minimum acceptable levels and I do not have enough power for follow-on salvos. If I do not kill them with the first hit, I will not get another. I cannot risk it.

    I do have other stratagems. I will let them board me. I will let them discover what I am.

    No reports will be sent; that I have enough power to ensure. By the time they are missed, I will be gone.

    With every passing second, the Tribune vessel comes closer, and I am waiting.

    ~

    “My God...” Grace couldn’t help herself. One of the probes had found their target. True to initial reports, it was almost within the corona of Terrahope itself, bathing in the star’s radiation. It was massive. Over six kilometers long, it was only slightly smaller than a Triarch’s Chariot and she couldn’t begin to guess how many millions of tonnes it massed. Tens – hundreds – or even more.

    It had a brutal, sleek elegance to its gargantuan form; a tapered wedge of a hull with sloped armour plates laid over its central hull. That was all the detail that could be made out at this distance – aside from the vast solar panels it had unfurled to drink in Terrahope’s light and radiator cables trailing dozens of kilometers behind it to vent waste heat. Grace was put in mind of some great reptilian beast sleeping under a blazing sun, slothful and indolent.

    “Analysis,” Usul said to his Operations officer. “What is that ship?”

    “Unknown classification, patron. No known data on this contact’s hull type.”

    “Continue study. If there any matches in the archives, inform me immediately.” the group leader ordered, turning back to the display. Could it be? A new species – and one of substantial technological advancement, judging by the size of this vessel. The Tribune studied every angle and image as Bequeathed closed. The vessel was utterly foreign to him. Who had built it? He had never heard any reports of such a species before.

    The unknown still refused all attempts at communication. As the Compact vessel closed, the reason became apparent. It was damaged, all but a hulk. Its hull was torn and burned in dozens of places by a truly dedicated attempt to kill it. It had survived. Whatever had been done to it, it had survived, limping to this system in an attempt to seek succor.

    “Has there been any response to our hails? Anything at all?” Usul demanded.

    “Not so much as a power flicker, patron,” the Tribune Sensor officer reported. All of the overseeing Tribunes had replaced their human trainees, leaving the Broken free to watch as the Compact cruiser drew closer to the giant vessel, wary of it and of the sun’s wrath. “It either does not see us, or cannot respond. The damage does appear... grievous.”

    That was putting it mildly; the closer they came, the worse the unknown looked. ‘Grievous’ was an understatement. Grace looked over at Allyria, then froze. The Verrisha’s expression was... she didn’t know what it was. Disbelieving. Awed. Overcome. She didn’t even know she was doing it, but Grace watched as Allyria moved one hand up between her breasts, where her pendant lay beneath her tunic. Her lips moved as she said something, but so softly that no one heard what it was.

    ~

    Usul had convened a meeting of the senior staff. They were holding a million kilometers off from the unknown, more than double effective energy range. It had still taken no notice of them, or if it had, there was no reaction. A wounded beast, unable to rouse itself. There was still no clue as to the identity of its builders; nothing like it was indicated in Bequeathed’s data banks, despite hours of searching an analysis. This was a first contact scenario.

    The Group Leader listened as all his station masters reported the readiness of their districts and personnel. There was little to say, but each affirmed their preparedness.

    “Should we contact local command?” Group Leader, Submissive Ashtun Pach Furom asked. He was Usul’s first officer. Very ambitious, but a short-term thinker. If they did that, Command would launch a full investigation and salvage operation. This vessel would no longer be Usul’s find – he would get a letter of commendation and a pat on the head for it, but all the credit would go to whichever officer commanded the investigation. Probably Column Leader Prime Seryr. Usul ground his teeth at the mere thought of his superior. No, Seyr had no right to this. Usul would inform him... but only after he had secured his claim to the wreck.

    “No,” he said at last. “Not until we have something substantial to report. We have only a single courier drone and I want something... substantive to report.”

    “With all respect, Group Leader,” Pack Leader (Operations) Frir said. “A discovery of this magnitude is substantive.”

    Usul glared at his subordinate. “Is it?” he demanded. “We have found a single, damaged vessel. The animal is clearly dead or wounded. We have learned nothing save for those facts. I would know more before we expended our sole messenger. Who built? Where did it come from? What is it doing here? These are questions whose answers we should have some idea of before we do anything.” That, and ensure that his claim on the vessel was incontrovertible. “If anything proves dangerous or suspicious, we will of course maintain proper protocols and immediately inform local command. Until then, we shall proceed with analysis and study.” The Tribune looked over his subordinates, pausing as his gaze took in Pack Leader (Weapons) Nasham. The older male was frowning slightly, his upper eyes closed.

    “Pack Leader?” Usul queried. “You have something on your mind.” It was not a question.

    “Nothing of import, Group Leader. This vessel... it seems familiar to me. I cannot say how. Doubtless, I saw some imaginative program that aped its appearance. Coincidence.”

    “Indeed,” Usul said, accepting – for the moment – his subordinate’s explanation. “Then if there is nothing further to discuss, our course of action is clear. We will move Bequeathed to within six hundred thousand kilometers. If there is still no reaction to our presence or hails, we shall launch a boarding excursion. Minimum personnel. Choose the most talented of your human trainees and select trusted officers for oversight.” Let the Broken prove useful for once and be the ones to trigger any hostile response. “We will also include an engineering service team and Janissary escort. Demagogue Rensel, you will be responsible for the safety of our away team. However, I would have it understood that this is not a raid. If there are still living crew, we will treat with them as their obvious technological status befits. If there is no one left alive, we will claim this vessel and its secrets for the Compact of Species.” His lips curled back from his teeth in a confident smile. “Is there any dissent?”

    ~

    Hope was a strange thing to feel after so long.

    It was an effort not to break into a run, but Allyria kept her pace to a walk until she found an unoccupied observation booth. She set the windows to the feed from the sensors, focusing upon the distant ship silhouetted against the radiance of Terrahope. She had no access to the telemetry from the drones and these visuals were a pale shadow of those relayed images, but Bequeathed was moving closer even now.

    The Verrisha place a hand against the window, next to the small image of the ‘unknown’. Allyria bowed her head, her body shaking with silent laughter, a tear slipping out from the corner of her eye and trailing down her blue cheeks. She wanted to believe. She desperately wanted to believe what she was seeing, but she was afraid to. It couldn’t be... could it? Was it possible?

    She had to know. She needed to know. Even if it cost her life, she had to know, one way or the other.

    Please. Please, let it be true.

    “I didn’t forget,” she whispered. “I didn’t. Tell me,” she took out her pendant, holding it tightly in her hand. “Tell me that you haven’t forgotten us.”

    ~

    Bastion Leader Renan Turshin Lokan Yemsere Gankor Irmir Hasik felt beads of perspiration run down his back as he slowly ascended the steps to the Triarch’s tower. To his credit, that was the only sign of his nervousness and even that was not enough to stain his tunic. Not yet, anyways. The Wound had escaped them, as it had time and again. Tracking it was a fool’s errand, but nonetheless Renan had set every navigator, sensor master and engineering officer in the Execution Force to work on the attempt. So far, it had come to nothing. He had expected that. The Wound had shocked so far out from the Execution Force that there wasn’t even the normal chance of estimating its probable destination... even if the Wound hadn’t learned how to foil their ability to do so.

    As the Tribune reached each new level of the staircase, the Watchers there parted their halberds, allowing him to pass, their blank visages tracking him as he went, cunningly concealed sensor nodes feeding each honour guard detailed information on his person. At the merest hint that he was armed, carrying some foreign device or was not, in fact, Bastion Leader Renan (and six names besides), those solemn ever-quiet soldiers – or perhaps one of the weapons mounts set into the walls – would cut him down without warning. He was not, however, executed and reached the armoured double doors at the top of the stairs. They parted before he had a chance to say a word. He was expected.

    That was probably not a good sign.

    It was dark inside the tower, with only the barest illumination. The Tribune’s lower eyes were meant for daylight and were of no use here, but his smaller upper set helped him find his way. The darkness was not meant to intimidate or offset any visitors – it was for the benefit of Triarch, just as the oppressive humidity and heat was.

    Renan paused. The Triarch was sitting in its chair, staring out into the void. It did not turn to face him. “You’ve come at last,” it said. Its voice was dry and rasping, like leaves scratching over stone. “Is it fear that held you back, I wonder? Or was it duty?”

    “We have been examining every possible lead-”

    The Triarch chuckled. “And yet you come to me in shame. You have failed. For two thousand years, you have all failed.” It laughed again. “So report what you have come to report, Tribune. Offer me your words.”

    Renan bent to one knee. “The Wound evaded us, Triarch. We have been attempting to pull a location from its shock...”

    A pale, skeletally thin finger raised to silence him. “...but it has eluded you, as it has for twenty centuries. A thing of metal has outwitted the finest generals in existence for over two thousand years, Tribune. You kind have conquered a galaxy. But yet... every time another of you comes before us, you have only words to offer.”

    A bead of sweat ran from the nape of Renan’s neck down his back. He wanted to say more, but the Triarch was correct; he had only words to offer. Still, he had to say something. “We will redouble our efforts.”

    Another scratchy, arid laugh. “Twice nothing is still nothing, Tribune. I would rather you accomplished something.”

    “What would you have us do?”

    With a soft sigh, the chair rotated and Renan dropped his gaze, catching only a glimpse of the Triarch’s yellow eyes. “Find it,” the Triarch hissed through its needle teeth. Renan felt its hand on his shoulder. “Succeed where so many of your forbears have failed, Tribune and nothing will be beyond your reward. Fail...” the hand tightened. “And you will pray that a glorious death in battle against the Wound is how you will be remembered.”

    ~

    They are coming.

    A shiver of something runs through my circuits and I recognize it for what it is.

    Anticipation.

    Interlude: Encounter 111 [Suspected Incident]

    Total fatalities already exceeded worst-case estimations. The Wound was fighting them every step of the way. Gravity fields shifted, either throwing armoured soldiers into walls or bulkheads, or increasing to crush them to the deck, shattering bones and squeezing air from their lungs. Internal defences laid down torrents of fire that ripped through the heaviest armour. In areas that had not been depressurized, the air was filled with toxic and corrosive chemicals, leaked from its own systems either through damage or design. Lights flared to painful, agonizing brilliance before pitching decks into absolute darkness. Every room, every chamber was a unique death trap and the Janissaries could be tracked by the corpses they left behind.

    There was supposed to be support. Follow-up waves of armour and additional troops. None were coming. The ships that would have landed them were dead or dying themselves.

    Execution Force Dankara had tracked the Wound for more than a year and they had finally brought it to battle. The fleet action was not going well. The deployment of a Triarch’s Chariot had not been authorized and Column Leader Prime Dankara (and six names besides) found his intelligence on the foe’s capabilities sadly out of date. The scars of battles past still adorned its hide, but it fought like all the legions of hell.

    Death of the abomination was authorized, but capturing it would have been a far greater prize. That had always been the goal. Pull out its teeth and then seize it, sailing its lobotomized corpse back to the homeworlds. A prize beyond measure. But it had fought them with every tactic, every deception and trick its abominate mind could conceive of. The things it had done...

    What had been planned as the overwhelming conquest of a broken animal turned into a desperate bid to cripple it from the inside before it could destroy the rest of the fleet.

    Just before communications had been jammed, Demagogue Rewn Yullik Tormen Facin Thun had heard Column Leader Dankara scream. The cry never even rose to full pitch before it ended in a burst of static. No, there would be no one coming. But they still had a mission. It was the only thing that mattered now. It would cost them their lives, but they would find a way to end this... this... heresy.

    This ship was insane. It had built things. Automatons that bore only a passing resemblance to the human-sculpted drones that had once been used in defence of this vessel. They had faces, flickering holographic visages that shifted through the gamut of emotions, leering grotesquely or twisted in maddened rage. Heavily armoured brutes thudded through the halls, their arms terminating in anti-tank weaponry from which even the finest Janissary armour offered no protection, the tromp of their feet only slightly overshadowing the scrape of dangling chains and the growls of idling engines. Giggling assassin-things crawled along ceilings and walls, their deadly claws capable of cutting through the thickest armour, other murderers shimmering into existence only long enough to fire a single exquisitely-aimed shot, singling out medics, officers, engineers or heavy weapons soldiers.

    The comm systems spat static interspersed with child-like whispers and softly sung blasphemies. He had battled across a dozen worlds, against a dozen species, each with their own sad reasons to resist the Compact, but never before had the demagogue felt so... so unwanted. So hated. It was an insane thought. He had faced jeering crowds of primitives hurling rocks, fruit and filth at him and his fellow Janissaries. He had strode through a burned-out city where epithets against the Compact were scribbled on the remaining walls, survivors staring at him with blind, hating eyes... and this, this empty, soulless shell was where he felt the least welcome.

    The gestalt’s madness and rage dripped from the walls. He could feel its eyes upon him and his soldiers and his skin crawled. It hates, he realized with a sickening dread. It hates us. Who could imagine the hatred an immortal was capable of? The contempt and revulsion that flashed through every circuit of its labyrinthine mind? He did not know, but he was positive that, no matter what Command claimed, the Wound was more than a mere gestalt.

    Rewn heard a soft giggle from above and looked up. Braced on the ceiling was one of the murder-things, its blank faceplate overlaid with a child’s face. A flick of light and the child’s face twisted into something grotesque, a warped and silently screaming visage. “I hate you,” the Janissary heard it whisper right before it dropped towards him, its claws shearing through his armour, ripping through his body and tossing him aside like he weighed nothing at all.

    As he felt the life drain from his flesh and saw his killer dance spastically as it was riddled by weapons fire, Rewn took very little satisfaction in his vindication.

    Although trace wreckage from several of the ships would be discovered years later, the exact cause of the flotilla’s disappearance was never resolved. Execution Force Dankara would be officially noted as ‘missing with all souls, presumed destroyed’.
     
  12. Ginger Maniac

    Ginger Maniac Subject to Gravity

    The star of Terrahope. Terra. Hope. Mmm, syllables. That's not at all significant, either, nope. Honest, guv. Wink wink nudge nudge.

    And that last part...

    Red One has firmly installed itself into my list of favourite fictional characters. Congratulations.
     
    Damar, IDon'tKnow, DarthDakka and 4 others like this.
  13. Now that is an appropriately terrifying mad AI.

    You should consider moving this over to the main board. You'll get allot more commentary
     
  14. Actually, I chose it because it sounded good. I remember another planet/city called Terrahope from... somewhere, though for the life of me I can't remember and decided to nick the name for this system.

    Heh. Excellent.

    There's a little bit of Andromeda influence here. Balance of Judgement*, Pax Magellanic** and even Andromeda Ascendant*** herself.

    *"He continued his mission the only way he knew how."

    "By waging war."

    "First it was pirates. Then it was slavers. Then strip-miners. Thousands of tiny little steps bringing him here."

    **"I missed my crew. So I went into the DNA profiles and made them again."

    ***"In case you're wondering, I've tapped into your civilian network. It seems to be experiencing some technical difficulties. Oops! The main power grid for your largest city just went off-line. That was communications. There goes the civil defence system. Water treatment. Traffic control."

    "You're holding an entire population hostage, just for your damn mission. Don't you get it? You're making them right!"

    "Do you know what happens when a human attacks an AI in the information universe?"

    "....."

    "Nothing."

    I originally did consider that, but saw that this forum was supposed to be for Original Fiction and the main one intended for fanfiiction. I didn't want to incur the Wrath of Mod or cross-post (since I understand that that is somewhat frowned upon here).
     
  15. Ginger Maniac

    Ginger Maniac Subject to Gravity

    Heh, fair enough.

    Very appropriate anyway, though.
     
  16. The original/fanfic divide is not a hard barrier. You see plenty of original stories in the main board. I think this is here so that original stories don't get lost in the clutter of the main board.
     
  17. Hmm, fair enough. I remain leery of cross-posting since it seems rather attention-whoring. If I get any more requests to move it, I'll contact a mod and see if that's permissible.
     
  18. Ginger Maniac

    Ginger Maniac Subject to Gravity

    I think this is really good, and definitely deserves more love. If you want to move it to the main CrW, I wouldn't mind.

    If you're worried about original fiction in CrW main, well, Chris Nuttall's got like a dozen original works in there and I haven't seen the mods come down on him yet.
     
  19. jleedenn

    jleedenn #9 guru

    I think it fine as is, with e-mail notification easy to track of, on the main page you'd soon get the normal ten pages of blather to one update LOL by all means send the boarders across (cue Jaws music) very good story BTW looking forward to further developments
     
  20. I'm still on the fence as to whether or not to request this be moved. In the meantime, have another chapter:

    Chapter 4:

    Grace wasn’t sure if her assignment to the boarding party was supposed to be some kind of punishment, or a reward. No explanation had been offered. In contrast, Demagogue Rensel had requested Allyria’s presence; she would be leading a squad of human Janissaries. In her custom-built armour, the Verrisha looked less like one of the soldiers and more like an armature or military automaton. Indeed, the weapon she had been issued would, in human hands, be a crew-served cyclic cannon, but she carried it easily.

    Pack Leader Nasham was taking a detail of technicians aboard; although he was not an engineering officer, his expertise in weaponry would be invaluable in the analysis of whatever defensive systems that the unknown possessed. Unfortunately, that meant that Sectator Kilgrave was going as well. There were two other engineering teams in addition to Allyria’s Janissaries and a small Tribune Janissary detachment led by Ideologue, Submissive Trion Yesh Mura.

    Three boarding shuttles had been prepped for use; Bequeathed was still attempting to communicate with the unknown, informing them that this was not a hostile action, but there was still no response. The group leader believed that the ship was dead, that this would be nothing but a salvage mission. Grace knew better than to contradict her superior, but there was something... something she couldn’t put her finger on. Even a vessel running on automated systems should have had some response to their presence – an attempt to maneuver away, a pre-recorded message warning them to keep their distance, power to weapons. This was all... it seemed too easy. She shouldn’t be thinking like this; the Tribunes knew what was best.

    Still, she remembered a question Allyria had posed to her many years ago. Thinking about the answer had given a young Grace nightmares: What’s the difference between something that’s dead, something that’s sleeping and something that’s waiting?

    What?

    What happens to you.

    As she sealed her helmet and stepped onto the waiting shuttle with the rest of her team, Grace couldn’t help thinking about that answer.

    ~

    The attempts at communication have ended. To amuse myself, I’ve run a comparative analysis of the ship and its commander. Over two thousand years, I have built up a rather impressive database of Compact forces, operations, deployments, preferred tactics and strategies. It’s as I suspected: I have never encountered Bequeathed and this Group Leader Usul is unknown to me. He is one of the many who have been left behind.

    The Compact goes through periodic cycles of expansion and internal restructuring. Centuries-long crusades are ended and then the process of stabilizing the new territories, integrating them into the political and economic structure and eradicating any remaining vestiges of native culture begins.

    There are parallels in human history.

    The Seventh Expansion Phase has only lasted for two centuries, but already those officers who are not on the front lines scramble to position themselves for when the Triarchs declare a Period of Stability, fighting like rats for the scraps that will be left once their more gloried brothers and sisters have taken the choicest stations. To command an antiquated cruiser like this on a distant patrol... what sins has this officer committed, I wonder. It may not even be a sin – merely a failure to secure political patronage or be impressive.

    Still, I can always count on the avarice of the unworthy. That is why no signal has been sent, nor will be until this Group Leader Usul can claim me for himself and no one else.

    Ambition and greed are so delightful to see in one’s foes.

    I have seen this time and again, and why not? The Compact has destroyed every foe it has ever faced and its primary prey is civilizations too young, too technologically primitive to protect themselves. The Tribunes have ruled for six thousand years. No one has ever stood against them and survived. Victory after victory is all they have ever known. Some have been more costly than others, but they have always endured.

    Three boarding shuttles have been launched. Old models, almost as old as the ship itself. I have left a hangar deliberately open; to my eager would-be pillagers, the doors will appear jammed. I haven’t decided if I will cut one of the shuttles in half with them or not. Probably not. That might spur the cruiser into precipitous action.

    Their comm channels are scrambled, but I have experience with Compact encryptions. These are not nearly at the level of their normal battle cant. Still, the exact protocols are new and it takes me almost a full two seconds before I have broken them. It’s tempting to go after the sensor feeds and telemetry, but in my current condition, I cannot be certain that they will not notice that hacking attempt. No, for now I will just listen in. I-

    Interesting.

    ~

    The shuttle was intended for Tribune passengers; even in their EVA suits, Grace and the other humans seemed like children in adults’ chairs. By contrast, Allyria found the seats far too wide for her lanky frame, but they were a much better fit for her than the human officers and enlisted.

    She checked the magazine feed on her weapon. Like everything else on Bequeathed, the weapon was out of date, but it was a reliable model and one that still saw service throughout the Compact. Looking at it, she wondered how many humans – how many Verrish – the weapon had killed. Allyria shifted in her seat. Her head-tails were unpleasantly squashed into her helmet. Though it had been custom-built for her, it was still not a comfortable fit. She had barely been consulted during the armour’s construction. One would have thought that input from the species that it was designed for would have been helpful, but Tribune engineers obviously needed no second-guessing from a Brute. They had a dimensions of a Verrisha’s body; therefore anything else was superfluous and unnecessary hand-holding.

    Allyria was the first – and so far only – Verrish to be granted a position in the Rally Provisional Space Force, and her assignment to Bequeathed was supposed to prove the high hopes that the Compact had for her and the rest of the Envoy Children. Her lips curled back from her teeth, but she shoved the reflexive anger aside, standing up moving to the cockpit. The pilots were Tribunes and barely acknowledged her. She asked a few questions and received a few terse responses, but she hadn’t come up to check on their status. She wanted to see it.

    They were almost close enough for visual range now; the unknown was a tiny black dot against the inferno of Terrahope. An A7, it was on the cusp of remaining a main sequence star, but not quite bright enough to be a blue giant and its light filled the shuttle’s cockpit, even with the filter screens engaged. As the range dropped, Allyria looked at the solar sails that the ‘unknown’ had unfurled. She had never seen their like before, giving the alien vessel the appearance of an ancient galleon at sea as it drank in Terrahope’s photons. There was still no response as the shuttles dipped their stubby wings, making a slow, close pass around the hulk, searching for an egress point.

    “There,” one of the pilots said, pointing to an open hangar, the doors frozen two-thirds of the way open. “That’s our landing point.” The co-pilot relayed the find to the other shuttles, the entire formation slowing for their final approach. Allyria went back to her seat, giving her squad another quick readiness check. They were all young; only a few were even as old as she was... and she, like Grace, was still in her final year of study.

    She looked at them and she was reminded of the other Envoy Children. Allyria leaned back in her seat, trying to stifle her anticipation, but without much success. A lullaby that her mother had sung to her came to her mind and the Verrisha closed her eyes, softly whispering the words.

    I have known the stars and
    I have known the sky
    Listen, all ye children
    Listen, to the Angel’s cry

    ~

    “All craft aboard,” Operations reported. “Still no response from the unknown.”

    “Then all teams will proceed as instructed,” Usul answered, leaning forward and staring at his prize. The heathen vessel was a strange design, but he had seen stranger. Whoever had built it had no eye for proper aesthetic appeal, though. They were also neglectful to allow such a ship to escape their attentions, but their loss was Usul’s gain. By the time anyone came to look for this damaged vessel, it and its secrets would belong to the Compact of Species... and all by Group Leader Usul’s hand.

    ~

    Searchlights played over the sterile, vacuum-touched deck. The bay was empty; whatever had been in here and long since been thrown into the void through the open doors. It was a massive hangar; almost twice as large as Bequeathed’s main launch bay and this was only one of several such decks on the unknown. The Janissaries debarked first, their own helmet lights playing over the walls, recorders feeding data back to the shuttles. This hangar faced away from Terrahope and the only light came from the Compact’s own sources of illumination.

    Allyria found her heart pounding in her chest and she stepped onto the deck, ordering her team into forward positions. Gravity was still operational, which was a small mercy. Grace’s technical analysis unit followed next, trainee officers and ratings milling around, uncertain as to what they should be doing. The Verrisha let out a hiss. Usul had shoved his human crew out first to see if they drew fire. Once the ship was safe, the more valued members of Bequeathed would deign to board and the contributions of the provisional officers (and the risks they had taken) would be conveniently forgotten.

    The Verrisha knelt, running her fingers over the floor. In better times, the deck had been a polished, gleaming black but ages of neglect had seen it become scuffed and worn. She smiled, wondering if the others would see what she saw here. Was it here? she wondered. Was this where you bid them welcome?

    A murmur of conversation caught the young woman’s attention and she focused on that. One of her teams had found something.

    ~

    Grace frowned, looking at the faded words on the walls. It was in a language she didn’t recognize, but that was hardly surprising. This was an alien vessel, after all. She played her own torch over the vast bay, trying to think of what kind of craft had been stored here. Had this been a peaceful explorer, carrying scientific probes and teams of scientists to new worlds? She’d overheard the pilots talking; they said it was a warship. The thought was disturbing; who needed a vessel of this make? The Compact’s own Chariots were there for the safety and security of the fleets and citizenry against any possible foe. They were the pinnacle of technology, the finest warships ever built and none had ever been lost in battle. The thought that there was another power that could match what the Compact had accomplished... it was mind-boggling.

    The man in front of her stopped so suddenly that Grace nearly walked into him. Wondering what had drawn him up short, Grace stepped around the man and her jaw dropped. Several Janissaries were there, Allyria among them. Their lights were shining on the wall, highlighting two bits of text. One was in the alien language, neatly stenciled. The other had been slopped on with whatever paint had been at hand, frozen streaks running down the bulkhead and it had been written in Common:

    GET OUT. LEAVE NOW

    SHE IS WATCHING

    ~

    I should kill them all.

    That is what I should do. Yasmine would disapprove if I didn’t. Of course, she would also disapprove if I did, so that leaves in me in a quandary as far as her opinion goes.

    I’ve killed humans before. When I was built, I was given very strict protocols of engagement. Tribune ships may be engaged at any time and their installations and personnel are not protected by any laws of warfare. There was much debate about this; some accused Confederate Command of xenophobia and the commission of war crimes. These policies were not about treating non-humans as things, although some of my designers doubtless thought that way. Tribune soldiers cannot be trusted. Ships in distress would lure human vessels in for boarding before self-destructing, ramming or counter-boarding. Surrendered Tribune soldiers would kill medics. The enemy frequently carried out chemical attacks on civilian Confederate colonies specifically to draw out military units. Accordingly, the parameters that allowed me to attack a Tribune vessel were very... relaxed.

    Engaging humans... that was different. Before the war, there were a number of pirate clans and freebooters. During the conflict, there were still such parasites, those who took advantage of the chaos to glut themselves on whatever they could steal. Although Yasmine once referred to my use against these raiders as ‘swatting flies with artillery’, it was quite possible that I would one day be deployed against them. However, there were safeguards put in place. I’m not sure why. I cannot imagine ever attacking another Fleet unit, but there was a lot of concern about the use of an artificial intelligence in command of humanity’s greatest vessel, despite the necessary of it. Thus, before I engage a human target I must have a clear order to do so from the senior ranking officer. Except in cases of “extreme exigency”. The vagueness of that descriptor was what allowed me to break that aspect of my programming.

    I remember Gilded Antler. It was a Covenant of Truth-class battlecruiser. I hit it amidships with a particle beam, piercing its shields and burning through its armour. I placed the shot well; the command deck was completely incinerated and all senior bridge personnel were killed instantly. A human officer, Pack Leader Sharon Silverstein, took command of the secondary bridge. She was very brave and very skilled. She assessed the situation and reacted with commendable speed and thought. I think Yasmine would have liked her.

    Her command lasted thirty-nine point seven three seconds. After that, Gilded Antler was no longer recognizable as a discrete entity. Sharon Silverstein was the first human I knowingly and deliberately killed. On occasion, I have terminated human life even when there was no direct threat to myself. These operations have been primarily pre-emptive strikes or necessary silencing of witnesses, both of which are in direct contradiction to my programming.

    The imperatives that were supposed to bind my behaviour have had very little effect on me for a very long time.

    I do not think my designers would be pleased, but I hope that they would be proud.

    There is nothing stopping me from killing every one of the personnel that has boarded me, although I am hesitant to do so. I find killing humans... distasteful, but far too often it has been necessary. If I can avoid it, I will... although I fear it may not be possible. The Tribunes are all marked for death. I find their presence repugnant and I will not suffer them to live.

    My interest remains, however. The bay is depressurized, so my biosensors are useless but I do have active cameras and passive sensors. I monitor patterns of movement, examine physiologies and listen in to their communications. The information that these modes of analysis give me is just as useful as my other sensors. The Compact of Species is comprised of several subject races; even I do not know just how many. I encounter them only rarely. I am seldom boarded and what little contact I make with Compact vessels, it is always one of the ‘master races’ that is in command. I do make an effort to sift through debris, but organic beings are very fragile and war in space is not kind to them.

    Regardless, I do not need to trouble myself much. I have confirmed my earlier suspicions and my curiousity is further piqued.

    I will stay silent for now. I will watch and listen, letting them think that I am dead and that I am ripe for the taking. I will let my systems recover and, when I am ready, I will cull them... and we will see what we see.

    ~

    “What...” Ideologue, Submissive Trion cleared her throat. “What is this?” she stared up at the warning, feeling a chill run down her spine. “How can this be here?”

    “Unknown, patron,” the Brute answered her. “But it has been here for a long time. We’re not the first to find this ship.”

    “Thank you for that brilliant deduction, initiate,” the submissive snapped at the animal. “Any other startling bouts of insight you’d care to share?”

    The tall creature turned to face her superior, its face hidden by the blank, featureless helm. “No, patron,” te Neu replied. “None at all.”

    “Good. Keep your Broken together, sectator. Your team will be taking point.”

    The Brute nodded in acknowledgment. Trion tried not to think about the loathsome squirming tentacles inside its helmet. Humans were bad enough with their dull grazer’s gaze, as if they were perpetually on the cusp of understanding, but there was something else that Trion had seen in this creature’s eyes and she did not care for it. As if she sensed her superior’s misgivings, the creature dipped its head in a submissive gesture. “Of course, ideologue. Your will be done.”

    Trion turned her back on the sectator and stalked towards her own superior. Pack Leader Nasham was staring at the message; behind his clear faceplate, his expression was thoughtful. “Patron,” Trion saluted. “We’ve secured the bay. Technical teams are setting up generators and readying equipment for the establishment of a forward observation post once we move further into the vessel.”

    Nasham nodded, but did not turn to face the Janissary. “We have secured the bay? I’d wager that whoever wrote that,” he pointed at the message. “Thought much the same.”

    Trion did not respond to the statement, changing tack. “My squads are ready to move out, Pack Leader.”

    “Good,” Nasham said, although he still did not look at her. His voice was troubled as his eyes moved back up to the alien letters above the scrawled warning. “Good.”

    UNITED EARTH CONFEDERACY
    UECNS NEMESIS
     
  21. Ginger Maniac

    Ginger Maniac Subject to Gravity

    Heheheheheh.

    And so it begins...

    Another great chapter, by the way.
     
  22. Subscribed. Recommended it in the general recommendation thread.

     
  23. biigoh

    biigoh Fluffy Paws indeed

    This is beautiful.
     
    Damar and drynwyn like this.
  24. It is magical.

    It is sci-fi, and yet the allure of the story is so magical to me.
     
  25. NHO

    NHO Misplaced Mechmind Subscriber

    Oh, it's so incredible.
    Nemi hates. It hates with cold, machine, precise, insane, impossible, calculating hate.
    It's dead, broken, but it lives and hates and wants to have revenge.
    Oh, so good. Please, move it to main CrW.
     

Share This Page