“Confirmed, command transfer to ranking officer aboard. Command authorization given to Warfather Tarl,” stated the ship’s computer. Anja flashed a smile in his direction.
“The Cormorant is all yours,” she said, sweeping her hand in an exaggerated gesture of welcome. “If you have any bridge officers in mind, you can delegate out access on your own authority.”
“Excellent,” Tarl murmured, running a talon over the high back of the captain’s chair. “I can’t say it’s unfortunate that my best officers have ships of their own to command, but it does leave me with fewer options for my own bridge.”
“That tradeoff is the same in any navy, it seems,” Anja agreed. “It always hurts to lose a promising officer to their own command, but you would be doing them a disservice by keeping them confined.” She shot Tarl a sly look, the corners of her mouth quirking upward. “Besides,” she said, “I think you will find the officers from my squad to be surprisingly capable in that regard. They had talent and desire, they only needed a path forward.”
An expression of annoyance crossed Tarl’s face, accompanied by a growl of irritation. “You’ve made your thoughts on the matter exceedingly clear,” he grumbled. “We will see if your efforts at sowing chaos in the ranks translate into success in the field. Certain of the squad leaders seem capable enough, but I was surprised to see you insist that Tiln be given a ship. I had little cause to talk to him before Elpis, but my impression is that he’s impetuous and disorganized - a good man to have in a fight, but not one I would put in command of a vessel.”
Anja shrugged. “Those are fair criticisms,” she admitted. “Neryn is certainly the more traditionally appealing sort of commander, there was never any question about him getting one of the ships. Tiln is prone to rushing into things, I admit, but humanity learned long ago that an order of battle benefits from flexibility and varied thought.” She raked a hand through her hair, stretching, then grinned at Tarl. “Impetuous officers constantly deal with the unexpected consequences of their actions, and if there is one battle where we can expect the unexpected - this is it. In this scenario we could use someone who is used to thinking on their feet.”
“More morsels of human wisdom,” Tarl muttered. “I will not contest it, but it is vexing to watch you constantly pick holes in our fleet doctrine.”
“Because I want to change doctrine, or because my changes are working?”, Anja teased. “You should keep a more open mind, Tarl. These ‘morsels’ were hard-won over many centuries. For all that humans grew to become a largely peaceful empire, our history is replete with brutal, endless wars. We warred until none could oppose us, and kept our blades sharp so none would dare try. The hard truth of the Pax Terra is that it was never a peace at all. It was a war against war itself, waged by those like me and my sisters. Quietly, efficiently, and with great prejudice.”
Tarl bared his teeth. “I would not have believed it before I met you and your sister,” he said. “The common view of humanity on Ysl was that they were a decadent, rotten empire that collapsed under its own weight. Most viewed you as a moral lesson about the perils of complacency.”
Anja failed to suppress a giggle. “This would be the theory circulated by Minister Trelir?”, she inquired knowingly. “I have no proof, but I suspect there may have been a conflict of interest.”
“Quite,” Tarl snorted. “Needless to say, I’ve revised my views somewhat. I suspect that Ysleli have more in common with humans than most would guess.”
“Really?”, Anja asked, raising an eyebrow. “Not that I would disagree, but it surprises me a bit to hear you say that.”
Tarl gave her a level glance, then stared out the bridge’s viewport. “A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come,” he recited. “If you told me a Ysleli wrote those words, I would not question it.”
“Surprises never cease,” Anja muttered. “I assume it is no accident that you read that particular play?”
“Your sister told me of its significance to you,” Tarl confirmed. “David directed me to the ship’s media library when I inquired. I was curious what sort of work would inspire your creators.”
Anja shook her head and sighed. “If I were to recommend a single work to contextualize humanity, I would probably choose differently.”
Tarl cocked his head. “Single work?,” he asked. “Actually, there are quite a few in the archives. I’ve read The Art of War, The Prince, The Book of Five Rings-” Tarl paused, noting Anja’s growing look of dismay. “I take it you disagree with the selections? Are they considered poor texts?”
“No,” Anja choked, “those are pretty much the ones you would want.” She recovered herself and gave Tarl an evaluating look. “Well,” she muttered, “nothing to be done about it. Did you have a favorite?”
Tarl bared his teeth fiercely. “Still the first, for all I appreciated the others. As we draw close to battle, it speaks to me.”
“Oh?”, Anja said, a smile returning to her lips. “And what does it say?”
Tarl looked out through the viewport once more. “Danger knows full well that Caesar is more dangerous than he. We are two lions littered in one day, and I the elder and more terrible,” he said, his eyes flashing. “And Caesar shall go forth.”
“A good sentiment,” Anja said ruefully, “but you do recall what happened to Caesar, right?”
“I do indeed,” Tarl said. “He was immortalized in the legends of your people, and now we speak his name among the stars when all else of your civilization has passed. I can think of no better end,” he said.
Anja opened her mouth to respond, then shut it. “Fair enough,” she said. “But if that works out poorly and we happen to survive this you need to add a few more items to your reading list. Rousseau, Hume,” she mused. “John Locke.”
“Lock. A warrior’s name,” Tarl said approvingly. “Was he a great conqueror as well?”
“After a fashion,” Anja replied coyly, moving to leave the bridge. “Live, and find out.”
Swirls of color and space closed around Jesri in a psychedelic tornado before resolving neatly into the interior of David’s apartment. She opened her eyes to see David standing over her with an impressed expression on his face.
“Under five seconds this time,” he said, reaching down to help her stand. “You’ve really got the hang of it.”
She popped up to her feet, feeling only a touch of the vertigo that had plagued her in previous practice sessions. Using the link was an intense sensation, but with repeated connections and some sage advice from Rhuar she had managed to keep her disorientation to a minimum.
“It’s much easier now,” she agreed. “Still feels pretty crazy while it’s hooking up, but I’m used to it.”
“I think there’s going to be an inevitable adjustment since you’re connecting remotely,” David said, scratching his chin. “For me it’s always been very natural, but I’m wholly in the framework. You…” He trailed off, giving her an appraising look. “Well, I’m really not sure what you’re doing. There’s obviously some handling for the protocol built into the legacy Gestalt simulation code we’ve adapted, but it can’t be simulating you in the same manner as it is me. I figure that it’s creating a projection of your physical form that’s just complex enough to register sensory input, then mapping that back through the connection to your link.”
Jesri shrugged. “I’ve got no insight on what it’s doing. At this point it feels totally natural, like I’m really standing here.”
“Your brain and the link are both able to remap themselves to suit new inputs,” David said. “They try to process things in a way that seems normal to you. You’re probably mostly done with that process now, so any connection of this sort should come naturally.”
“Do you think it will be the same connecting to the real thing?”, Jesri asked, suddenly feeling a bit chilly. “No disrespect to your apartment, David, but it’s not on the same scale.”
David wandered over to a chair and sat, looking contemplatively at the wall. “It’s hard to say,” he replied eventually. “There are a lot of unknown variables. When you connect to the Gestalt it won’t be a defined simulated space like this - or at least there’s no reason it would be,” he amended. “We did a lot of work trying to map a standard computer interface over the Gestalt network back when we were trying to break out of the simulation. We had limited success, but the network behaves a lot more like a huge, slow brain than a computer. It was incredibly difficult and unpredictable. My guess is that even with the work we’ve done here you’ll experience a period of disorientation while you adjust to the environment - or lack thereof.”
“Sounds about right,” Jesri sighed, then frowned as she mulled over David’s words. “Why a big slow brain? Isn’t it incredibly advanced?”
“Oh, sure,” David said, “don’t get me wrong, it’s about as fast as a thing like that could be. The problem is the size - after a certain point you run into signal speed issues. A straight-line transmission across the shell would take around ten seconds to arrive, and of course you can’t transmit in a straight line because you’ve got the central star in the way. Despite this the Gestalt somehow seems to achieve signal times of around a half-second between antipodes. It’s blazingly fast, but still orders of magnitude slower than a signal propagates through a normal-sized brain.”
Jesri frowned. “That would mean that it probably has a fair degree of redundancy, since centralizing functions would be inefficient,” she mused. “How much of the network are we going to have to destroy to take it down?”
“Well, there’s not a good answer to that,” David said hesitantly. “The higher-function nodes are more specialized by their very nature, but you’re correct in saying there’s also a fair amount of redundancy. When we modeled it, the trick was never really destroying a certain quantity of nodes inasmuch as it was severing parts of the network from each other.”
He moved his hands to indicate a sphere, then traced a line around its equator. “Destroying half the nodes would be impossible,” he explained, “but destroying a thin belt of them to bisect the network? Totally doable, if a bit daunting.”
“Right,” Jesri agreed. “That would be way easier. Is that the general plan, then? I’ve been skipping the fleet strategy meetings to practice getting my head mixed up.”
David nodded. “Essentially, yes, although we’re going to go for two rings so that the network is quartered. We’re confident that the Gestalt can’t persist in any meaningful way if it loses that much of its total network capacity,” he said. “The isolated pieces will be no threat as long as you can suppress the repair activity for long enough.”
“No pressure,” Jesri grumbled. “I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to be doing other than holding the connection open.”
“Really, that’s all we need,” David shrugged. “There may be targets of opportunity or challenges thrown at you, but as long as you remain connected you’re disrupting the repair efforts.”
Jesri sighed. “The biggest fight of my life, and I won’t even get to see it happen,” she complained.
“Life is strange like that,” David agreed. “But, on the other hand, you may have a unique view that the rest of us will miss. We have no idea what you’ll see.”
“A bright flash before my brain melts out my ears,” Jesri snarked. “In all probability.” She bounced on the balls of her feet, then let her breath out in a puff. “I think I’ve got a few more practice runs left in me,” she said. “I’m going to pop out and back in again.”
David nodded. “Sounds good, but be careful. We don’t want you to overdo it and…” He paused. “Well, I don’t know what would happen to you, or if it’s even possible to overdo this sort of thing. Just be careful.”
“If there’s something that I can strain by connecting like this I’d prefer to find that out now rather than in the tender embrace of the Gestalt,” Jesri said dryly. “There’s a lot we don’t know, but testing my limits is how we find out more.” She closed her eyes and concentrated, letting her hands drop to her sides. “Be back in a second.”
David took a step back and watched as she focused for a moment, then was gone as if she had never existed.
“So,” Anja inquired, “do you feel ready?”
“I don’t even know what I’m supposed to be ready for,” Jesri objected. “Who could be prepared for any of this?”
Anja leaned back in the captain’s chair, lacing her fingers behind her head. “Tarl seems confident enough,” she replied, smirking.
“Tarl is Tarl,” Jesri retorted. “He’s fine with getting killed as long as the circumstances are appropriately glorious. I have higher standards.”
Anja’s smile grew. “You mean a heroic death is not good enough for you? Generations of little Ysleli children growing up with stories of One-Eyed Tarl the Hero and his us, his plucky sidekicks-”
Jesri snorted. “Shit, that’s probably how it’s going to play out no matter what we do. Most folks on Ysl have never met us, but he spent months there coordinating food and water for them. Unless Leral bothers to correct the record we’ll be relegated to a footnote in his biography.”
“Does that bother you, sister?”, Anja asked, her face momentarily growing serious.
“Not particularly.” Jesri settled back in her own chair. “I’ve spent five thousand years trying to stay under the radar and I’ve been mostly successful at it. I don’t care if someone else gets the credit for what we do, as long as we actually do it. Taking out the Gestalt is everything, it’s all that matters.”
They sat in silence for a long moment, looking out at the Cygnus Gate hanging motionless against the stars.
“It’s not about us, anyway,” Jesri said. “We’re only alive because we happened to be on one assignment and not another that day. It could have been one of us that was assigned to the Grand Design, and Hana or Tessa would be here in our place. There isn’t anything special about us aside from lucky circumstances.”
Anja looked over at Jesri, her face blank. “Do you think that, sister?”, she asked quietly. “Are we really so interchangeable that it would make no difference?”
Jesri sat up, a bit discomfited by Anja’s tone. “Well, not no difference,” she said. “Obviously our sisters would have made different choices here and there along the way.” She smiled ruefully, shaking her head. “I’m glad it was you who survived, at least. I don’t know how I would have made it this far without you there to pull my ass out of the fire. If it had been Ellie who lived in my place, you two would have had this cleared up a couple thousand years earlier.”
Anja didn’t reply, looking down at the deck. “You should give yourself more credit,” she said eventually. “Even before, you diverged from the baseline a little more than the others. If one of us has been critical to arriving here, it is you.”
“You can’t be serious,” Jesri scoffed, pulling herself upright to look back at Anja. “I diverged, all right, but not in the right direction. The only reason I’m here is because you kept the beacon lit, kept searching for answers even when I was drifting aimlessly through space. I lost my purpose, my direction, everything. You dragged me back, you came and found me every time I destabilized - and how many times was that? A dozen?” Jesri shook her head emphatically. “Sometimes I was out for ten, twenty years before you woke me up. There’s no coming back from a fugue like that, not without outside help. It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never experienced it before, but you just feel… still. Quiet. Like-”
“Like a stone in the river,” Anja said dully. “You sink and are calm, and the water rushes around you. It’s peaceful and comforting even as you know it’s killing you. The water rounds your corners, little by little, and if you sit long enough you get worn down to nothing.”
Jesri blinked, surprised. “You’ve been stuck in a fugue state? When did that happen? How did you break out of it?”
Anja hesitated, then looked Jesri in the eye. “After Mia left, on Indomitable. You woke me up.”
“Mia?”, Jesri asked. “That was three hundred years before-” She broke off, a look of realization crossing her face. “But you were fine when I found you,” she objected.
“Autodoc,” Anja said miserably. “I dragged myself over after I answered your call. If you had been a few decades later, I would have been dead.”
Jesri rose from her chair and walked over to where Anja sat, pulling her sister up into a hug. “Why didn’t you tell me?”, she asked.
After a few seconds, Anja pulled away. “I had a choice,” she said. “Sitting there in the autodoc, I thought about what you would see when you docked, the person you would assume I was when you saw me standing there healthy and healed. That person was better than who I had become. It was who I should have been all along. I wanted you to know her, and not me.”
Jesri met Anja’s eyes and held her gaze for a moment before Anja turned away. “Sister, I am sorry for-”, she began, but Jesri cut her off.
“You idiot,” she said, drawing a shocked look from Anja. “You’ve been holding on to this and letting it stew for five thousand years? The process you’ve just described, sister, is what most people call ‘learning from their mistakes’, and it is the perpetual aspiration of career fuckups like yours truly.” She rolled her eyes, then smiled at Anja. “You’ve spent five thousand years being the best person I’ve ever known.”
They embraced again, standing on the quiet bridge together until flashes of light cast a gentle glow through Anja’s closed eyes. She opened them, looking through the viewports as Ysleli ships arrived in ripples of white flame. “The fleet is here,” she said, pulling back from Jesri.
Jesri turned to look just as the larger bulk of the Cormorant arrived, its flaming wake shining brightly amid the smaller ships.
“Time to chin up,” Jesri said. “Can’t let the kids see us getting all sentimental. I should head down and meet Rhuar in the cargo bay before we jump out.”
Anja nodded. “I suppose it is finally time,” she said. “Jesri-”
“Please don’t tell me you’re about to confess to another ‘mistake’, Anja,” Jesri deadpanned. “If I found out that you’ve made two mistakes in your whole life the revelation of your erroneous ways would shatter my grasp on reality.”
“You are incapable of taking anything seriously,” Anja said crossly. “No, that was not it.”
“Good,” Jesri replied. “Crybaby.”
Anja’s eyes narrowed. “Baldy,” she retorted. “I was about to wish you good luck.”
Jesri grinned back. “Good luck to you too. Let’s fuck ‘em up.” She turned to walk towards the lift, but Anja grabbed her wrist.
“It had to be you, Jesri,” Anja said. “You were always the linchpin, even before this. The parts of you that are uniquely yours have saved us more than the parts of you that are Valkyrie.”
Jesri gave her hand a squeeze. “Lucky universe, then, getting stuck with you and I.” She released her grip and walked over to the lift, turning to salute in the doorway. “Terra Invicta, Anja. See you on the other side.”
Anja returned the salute, then dropped it as the doors closed to whisk Jesri belowdecks. As she returned to her chair, David’s voice crackled over the intercom.
“We’re all set,” he said excitedly. “Eight Ysleli ships and the Cormorant are ready to warp, the Huginn is standing by to deploy when we exit, and I have sixty-two resistance cells ready to flood the Gestalt with signal traffic on our mark. Is Jesri on her way down?”
“She is,” Anja confirmed. “Rhuar is helping her get ready. Once he returns to the bridge we can jump.”
“Fantastic,” David said, his image blinking on to one of the bridge viewscreens around her. “I’ll let the gate crew know to begin their warm-up.” His image turned away, and within a minute traces of glowing light had begun to writhe around the inside surface of the gate. By the time Rhuar appeared out of the bridge lift, the inner circle was a raging maelstrom of distorted, shining plasma. The center of the vortex slipped away, replaced by a featureless black circle that grew to the full width of the gate.
Anja tapped on her console and spoke, her voice ringing out in the empty space of the bridge. “All ships,” she called out. “Prepare to jump.”