The viewports on the bridge had tinted nearly to the point of full opacity as the Grand Design barreled through the hole in the side of the Gestalt’s shell, the dark glass a bulwark against the blazing golden light streaming from within. The shell was built close around Apollyon’s star, and without its protection they were uncomfortably close to its roiling corona. Even the inner shell was heated to the point that it was glowing - despite their sensors’ insistence that it was almost perfectly black.
“Split into your teams and keep an eye on hull temperature,” Anja broadcast, watching the smaller ships stream through after them. The Cormorant came in on their heels, followed by six of the converted Ysleli craft. Anja felt a pang as she counted them, Neryn’s proud voice still ringing in her ears. “That goes double for Ysleli ships,” she added, “your heat management is worse than human ships. Be careful with your buildup and rotate your craft to distribute the thermal load.”
She turned to Rhuar as the acknowledgements flooded back over the channel. “The Huginn?”, she asked.
“Heading out now,” he replied. “They still following the Cormorant?”
Anja shook her head. “West group is understrength by two ships,” she muttered, reaching over to key her console. “Slight revision to plans,” she broadcast. “Subtle Knife is leaving East group for West, Tiln is the new West group leader. Huginn, you are with East now. Cormorant is now the sole member of South, and we remain the sole member of North.”
Tiln was first to reply, his voice grim. “Acknowledged,” he said worriedly. “With just three ships we may have trouble with munitions.”
“You should be fine if you are careful,” Anja said, although privately she thought that he had a fair point. With such a large swath of the shell to cover the smaller ships could easily run into supply issues. Three could probably do it, but if they ran into trouble partway…
She shook her head. “Prioritize survival and target destruction in that order,” she commanded. “If you run empty meet us at the antipode, we will regroup and complete your segment on our way back.”
“Yes sir,” he replied, the note of worry not budging from his tone.
“Be bold, captain,” Tarl’s voice thundered. “There are few things better in battle than finding a target for every round on your ship.”
“No reason to wait, then,” Anja said dryly. “Split into your teams and begin your attack. Advise immediately if you see Emissary activity.” The four groups took diverging paths from the entry point, engines burning pale against the inferno as they began their grand semicircle across the inside of the shell. She toggled her console over to weapons and pulled up the nearest high-order node.
They were unassuming visually, barely standing out amid the hellish surface of the inner shell. Higher-frequency EM and gravitics told a different story, however, plotting swirling lines of energy that clustered around bright points spaced regularly along the shell. Anja locked on and keyed the guns, sending gouts of white-hot metal shimmering from the surface. The EM traces flickered and dispersed - the node was dead.
“Good shot!”, Rhuar shouted. “Just ten thousand more to go!”
Anja grimaced and reset her console, tracking the next node.
Jesri glanced down at the board, nervously turning a stone over in her fingers. Trelir had enclosed her small group of markers in a net near the center of the board, a loose group of black stones nibbling away at the edges. She let her hand hover near a likely move, then pulled it back hastily as she reconsidered.
“My dear Captain,” Trelir said amusedly, “as entertaining as it is to see you stumble through the strategy of your game, you may as well just place the stone there. You will lose if you pick that spot, of course, but that outcome is immanent no matter what move you make.”
She shot an annoyed glance up at him. “You’re rude,” she said irritably. “Isn’t there an equivalent of sportsmanship somewhere in your archives?”
Trelir cocked his head. “And of what benefit would that be?”, he asked. “I’m aware of the concept, of course, but it contains an inherent presumption of equality between players. The Confluence cannot engage in a true competition. There must be the possibility of defeat in such a contest, and there are none who could challenge the Confluence in any respect. We are not playing a game right now, Jesri Tam. This ‘game’ is your means of coming to terms with your inevitable defeat, and I am allowing you the time to do so because I find it informational.”
“Oh?”, Jesri said through gritted teeth. “In what respect?”
“You could at least try to be subtle with your attempts to extract information,” Trelir sighed. “Not that it matters. I’m observing you because it provides insight into a psychological quirk that we find sadly relevant. One of the least comprehensible traits of humanity was their penchant for hopeless holding actions, deriving some bizarre satisfaction from inflicting delay or even the most minor of discomforts upon the victor as they spiraled towards their defeat. In every era, in every context, humans choose to lionize those who ultimately contribute nothing except insignificant tokens of spite.”
She looked up at him. “You think that’s what this is?”, she asked angrily. “A hopeless holding action? We’re taking the fight to you, protecting our future. We have no desire to drag this out indefinitely.”
“Your mission is futile. Your entire life has been futile,” Trelir replied. “The future of the universe had already been determined when the extent of humanity’s technological advancement was a particularly sharp rock. Perhaps if your planet had developed sooner and displayed some extraordinary potential you might have contested it, but you missed your window. There was never anything humanity could have done to stop the Confluence at its peak, much less your current band of sad relics and upjumped primitives.”
Jesri stood up from the table abruptly, glaring at Trelir. The walls of the room seemed to ripple around the two, and a vibration rattled the stones on the board. “Then why kill us?”, she seethed. “If we were so insignificant, why bother?”
“I told you already,” Trelir said with exasperation. “You were-”
“-an unknown variable,” Jesri finished. “I remember your answer, I’m asking again because it was a shit answer.” Trelir’s face darkened, but she pressed on. “Why kill humanity, then spend so much effort researching it? If you wanted information you could have studied us at your leisure, but you felt compelled to kill us and sift through the ashes. Tell me,” she snarked, “do you respond to all non-threatening curiosities with such immediate and overwhelming force?”
The walls of the room seemed to squeeze in on her for a moment, and a burst of panic stabbed through her before the space normalized once more. Trelir looked around curiously, then returned his gaze to her. “Your elimination was expedient,” he said smoothly. “Initial investigations established that there was a small likelihood your species could effect a minor delay in our projects.”
He gestured dismissively. “Rather than wait until you had spread further still, the Confluence made the decision that it would be more efficient to preemptively eliminate you.” He folded his arms and gave her a patronizing look. “I understand that it seems like a major event to you,” he said, “but actions like this happen all the time. The Confluence is constantly tracking and eliminating potential nuisances before they can fully manifest. None of them rise to the level of significance - none are given the opportunity.”
“Constantly?”, Jesri smirked. “It must be an atypically quiet couple of millennia, then, for you to be digging through our trash five thousand years later. Unless you think there still may be a concern. Our ‘tokens of spite’ not so insignificant, perhaps?”
“My only concern,” Trelir sneered, “is that I may be misallocating my time observing you. I held the misguided impression that you might have potential when I saw you force your way in here, I thought that you might have pushed beyond what limited constructs your masters had forced upon you.” He looked momentarily tired, his eyes taking on an empty look as they met hers. “I was even eager to meet you, perish the thought. But now I see that I was wrong.”
Jesri rolled her eyes even as his change in tone sparked disquiet in her. “And yet here you are, in just that sort of limited construct with me. Here you are while my sister and our allies have free rein in your most secure system. Where is your total supremacy, Oh Mighty Confluence?”, she asked mockingly.
Trelir’s eyes flashed, the tiredness dissipating in an instant. “Do not mistake my indulgence for weakness,” he said angrily. “Would you like to see what your pretensions amount to? Shall I rescind the time I granted for you to face your defeat?”
“No, please, stop,” Jesri deadpanned. “I’m finding it so very enjoyable.”
“Humor,” Trelir said disgustedly. “A paper-thin pretense of indifference. Will you be so nonchalant once you learn that I have just destroyed all of the long-range communication receivers?”
Jesri froze. “What?”, she asked, feeling a sudden sense of hostile vertigo pressing in around her.
“Your attempts to congest the network were inventive but ultimately meaningless,” Trelir said, his voice once again neutral. “Your paltry band of allies is now unable to help you. You stand alone, Jesri Tam, against the full strength of the Confluence.”
Chills raced through her at his words, and she found herself unable to move her body. She licked her lips at a sudden dryness in her mouth. “If I must,” she said. “I will keep you here with me for as long as it takes.”
Trelir blinked in suprise. “For as long as-” He broke off laughing, swiping a hand idly over his face. “Oh, my dear Captain,” he said, shaking his head. “What is it you think you’re buying time for? The superficial damage your sister’s fleet is doing to the inner shell? Do you think that by compromising the backup physical links you’re somehow hurting us?”
He straightened up, staring at her piercingly. “There is no point to further conversation with you, I’m afraid. Not for me, and not for you. Your ships are incapable of completing their mission, and you are incapable of either delaying me or providing useful information.” The room quavered around her, and she felt a sense of floating as something strange happened to the simulated space. “Because I pity your profound blindness,” Trelir said, “I will allow you to see just how insignificant your life was before I end it. I will show you the size of the gulf between us, and if you survive the experience I will send you to where primitives like you belong. There you may contemplate the extent of your inadequacy until your death.”
“Try it, asshole!”, Jesri shouted, straining with every fiber of her being to keep her unraveling senses in check. “I won’t leave without-” She broke off as her body was wracked with a spasm, her limbs stretching in ways they were never meant to move. Black stones crowded the grid on the table before it dissolved into nothingness Lines bent in impossible curves as the room distorted and an additional direction insinuated its way into reality. A lance of icy pain shot through her head as she struggled to make sense of the shift. Fragments of stars and metal swirled around her, the glowing sun of Apollyon blazing so close it seemed like she must burst into flame - but the only pain she could feel was the burrowing spike of ice-cold agony in her brain, pushing, tearing-
“You have no choice in the matter. Goodbye, Jesri Tam,” Trelir’s voice said, echoing strangely. “We will not speak again.”
His words barely registered as her body drifted apart, her carefully hoarded cohesion flying away into the yawning abyss. The pain grew, although she had no body to hurt. It was a living thing, an entity apart from her, and it was her entire world.
And then it was gone, and in its place there was light. She had no eyes, but nevertheless she saw it as she had never seen anything before. A latticed tower of boundless complexity stretched away into infinity across a direction she’d never properly seen, down into the depths of hyperspace - but who could call this hyperspace? Rather than inky blackness, Jesri saw the curvature of space itself as it folded playfully around the tower and undulated in fractal symmetries that sent quivering chills of awe through her being.
The tower rose to meet the thin veneer of realspace where it was capped with a massive interconnected web of sparking tendrils coiled around a sphere. The bent gravity well of Apollyon’s star had been artfully circumscribed to hold the matrioshka gem in its setting, the hollow sphere buttressed at every angle by undulating waves of a color she had no word for.
It was the Gestalt, and in all of her long life Jesri had never seen anything so profoundly beautiful.
She stood gazing at the infinite complexity of it for a timeless moment before she was torn from her reverie by a violent surge. The light disappeared, shattering into mist that condensed around her in a dull foggy glow. She felt herself ripped away from comprehension as the extra dimension slipped from her grasp and space reduced itself to a stifling smallness.
She lost consciousness, or perhaps existence for a time. When she regained thought she found that she once again had eyes. She opened them to a flood of morning sunlight sifting through broad leaves, the sky clear and blue above her. Sitting up, she saw a spread of mown grass and a walking path guarded by regal old trees. Barely visible above their canopy were the towering spires of buildings glittering in the sunlight.
Earth. For a moment, the stress of the conflict with Trelir and the ecstasy of witnessing the Gestalt’s true form fled in a wave of nostalgia. She could smell the rich soil, hear the birdsong around her masking the faint roar of city noise. She splayed her fingers out to bury them in the reaching green blades below her, and for the first time in many, many years Jesri Tam wept.
The click of his talons on the armrest created a soothing rhythm as Tarl drummed his fingers, watching his bridge officers huddled over their consoles as the Cormorant carved a thin line of destruction into the Gestalt’s shell. The flashing explosions from their railgun impacts barely registered against the immense brightness from the sun itself, although he could see their effects clearly on the EM scanners.
It was the heart of the most ambitious fight Tarl would ever undertake - and he was bored. No ships came to challenge them, no weapons fired from the interior shell. His freshly-acquired arsenal of deadly human armaments lay silent save for the periodic railgun blasts when they encountered a target. The quiet was all part of the plan, he knew, but watching his bridge crew efficiently destroy node after node felt too cold for his taste.
Even the occasional updates from the other task groups had stopped as they had receded beyond the horizon of Apollyon’s star. The interference made any sort of long-range communication impossible, and would remain so until just before they regrouped on the far side of the shell.
“Silar, update,” Tarl thundered irritably. His first officer sprang to attention, and fumbled for a moment before responding. He noted a slight tremor in the officer’s hands.
“No change, Warfather,” he said nervously. “Target destruction is on-schedule and our ammunition stores are within safe margins. No hostile signatures detected.”
Tarl sighed, drumming his fingers on the armrests again. He missed his staff, currently off flying in the East and West groups. Breaking in a fresh bridge crew was hard enough when they weren’t on an unfamiliar vessel fighting the strongest enemy to have ever threatened Ysl. These officers were too jittery for his taste, their nerves too frail.
“Try to relax, Silar,” he grumbled. “We will be at this for a while, and if real combat comes I will need you fresh.”
“As you command, Warfather,” Silar stuttered, awkwardly leaning against a bulkhead in a tense mockery of relaxation.
Tarl shook his head. For all that he had disagreements with Anja’s methods, she seemed particularly successful at imparting her laconic detachment to those she trained. He thought back on what he had observed and reclined jauntily in his chair. “Silar, speak of your interests,” he said, taking care not to raise his voice to his normal commanding tone.
Silar jolted from his forced pose, staring at Tarl confusedly. “Warfather?”, he asked hesitantly. “I do not understand.”
“You are not relaxing, Silar,” Tarl said patiently. “Tell me what you do when off-duty, so that your mind may clear itself.”
“I train?”, Silar said hesitantly.
Tarl drummed his fingers a bit faster. “Training is duty,” he replied. “What else?”
Silar thought for a moment, then perked up. “I sleep,” he said, looking quite relieved to have found the answer to Tarl’s question.
“And if you had to occupy your time for a quarter-day,” Tarl said, drumming his fingers on the armrest quite rapidly now, “and you were forbidden from performing your duties, training or sleeping, what would you do?”
Looking perturbed, Silar bowed his head in thought. “I suppose,” he said quietly, “if there was nothing else to do I might read.”
Tarl’s face lit up in satisfaction. “Hunting knowledge is a noble pursuit, Silar,” he said. “What do you like to read?”
“Mostly naval training manuals-”, he began, but was interrupted by the strident tones of an alarm from the conn. Seizing the opportunity to escape, he quickly moved over to the console and inspected the alert. “Warfather,” he called out shakily, “we have two incoming enemy ships. They appear to be Emissaries.”
“Then relaxation will have to wait,” Tarl rumbled, rising from his chair. The bridge had been built for human biology, and he always felt pleasantly gigantic when using their furniture. “Arm primary weapons and prepare to evade their fire,” he called out. “Assume that our countermeasures have failed and that their shots will be on-target.”
He stalked over to stand beside Silar and looked down at him. The shorter Ysleli was redolent with the smell of fear, his hands trembling violently under Tarl’s one-eyed gaze. Silar gave him a plaintive look and clasped his hands together to stop them from shaking. “Forgive me, Warfather,” he said miserably. “They will not stop trembling. I cannot make them stop.” He closed his eyes, tilting his head to expose his throat to Tarl.
Tarl fanned his talons and inspected them, then dropped his hand to his side. “Death would be too easy, Silar,” he said quietly, “for both of us.”
Silar opened his eyes and looked up at Tarl questioningly.
“Your punishment is to serve,” Tarl said in a low voice. “Your penance is to fight this threat with me.” He took a step back and raised his voice so the whole bridge could hear. “We are the most dangerous ship of Ysleli that has ever existed,” he thundered. “We have weapons and armor to beggar entire fleets, but that is not what makes us dangerous. We are about to face the most powerful enemy that ever has been or shall be, but our will to fight despite the risk does not make us dangerous.”
He looked Silar in the eyes. “We are dangerous because when we win,” he shouted, “we will never again face a foe to match the one we have defeated! Today we kill fear, brothers, so do not let its death throes disturb you. Ysl!”
“Ysl!”, the crew cheered, and Tarl saw the spark in Silar’s eye as he rushed to his station. The whine of capacitors vibrated through the ship and firing solutions began to stream across the tactical display. Tarl eyed the two innocuous-looking ovoids shimmering on the screen and felt the familiar fear pulse through him, examining it with a clinical detachment as it snaked into his gut. Even one of these ships was more than a match for the Grand Design, and the Cormorant was that ship’s inferior in every respect… save for agility.
It was a thin advantage, but it was something. In a battle there was no edge so minor that it was insignificant. He let the fear beat a moment longer in his heart, savoring the taste, then extinguished it and was the Warfather once more.
A slight breeze pushed aside the leaves shading Jesri’s park bench, sending a ray of brilliant sunlight lancing into her eye. She didn’t react, not even to blink, although the occasional tear still streaked down her face. Her eyes were turned inward, and there was no sun there.
A battle played out in her mind, Anja and Rhuar frantically working to evade a swarm of Emissaries that shrugged off their return shots like so much rainfall. Smoke poured from the vents and the lights were dim and red, emergency lighting. A look of resignation spread slowly over Anja’s face as she realized they had lost, and she turned to meet Jesri’s eyes just before an Emissary’s shot tore through the ship.
She saw another view of Rhuar, panic and fear on his face as he turned to Jesri for aid she couldn’t give. David’s face appeared before winking out in an instant. Tarl’s charred corpse floated through the void, hands curled into fists and crusted with a dark rime of frozen Ysleli blood.
Because she had failed.
The images flooding her mind hadn’t come to pass yet, but there was no alternative path. Without interference from the resistance and the pedestal the Gestalt could deal with their fleet at its leisure. Jesri tried once more to disconnect from the network, but her concentration slipped away from her and she remained on the bench. She wasn’t sure if Trelir had barred her passage or if she just didn’t want to leave - and she wasn’t sure which would be worse.
Jesri sank like a stone in a river, the whirl of dead and dying faces pressing around her until she could see nothing else. If there was nothing more to be done then she may as well stay here and wait for oblivion, came the whisper from a back corner of her mind. Stay here on this beautiful, false memory of Earth. Stay here and be still.
The bench creaked.
She woke with a start, her head jerking sideways to stare at the man sitting on the bench with her. He was ancient, his back hunched and his thin skin hanging wrinkled from his face. Knobby hands covered in liver spots grasped a walking stick as he gave a sigh of relief and turned to face her.
“I don’t mean to intrude,” he said creakily, “but these old bones needed a rest. Do you mind if I sit here for a bit, miss…?”
“Jesri”, she supplied automatically. “Sure, sit.”
“Thank you kindly,” the man sighed. “Today’s been so busy for me. I try to take it easy these days, but sometimes life keeps you on your feet longer than you’d like.”
She choked out a laugh, burying her face in her hands. “That’s true,” she agreed bitterly. “Sometimes much longer.”
The old man gave her an appraising look. “I take it you’ve had a rough day too,” he said, a statement rather than a question. “Would you like to talk about it? I don’t have anywhere else to be at the moment, and I could use the conversation.”
Jesri looked at him blearily, then hung her head with a slight shake of negation. “Wouldn’t know where to start,” she mumbled.
“Ah, I know the feeling,” he said, nodding knowingly. “For my part, the day started out normally enough - with a nice late breakfast and a brisk walk outside my flat in Oslo. The sun was shining, I was just about to to think about lunch - when all of a sudden I get a call saying I need to go to New York right away, no time to waste.”
He pulled a cloth from his pocket and coughed into it, his lungs rattling unhealthily, then wiped his mouth with a shaking hand. “Excuse me dear, I’m sorry,” he apologized. “At my age that sort of sudden travel is stressful, even with a private ship. My doctor says I should avoid it entirely,” he said stowing the cloth in his pocket and withdrawing a small flat box. He placed it on the bench, flicking a small switch that caused it to hum softly.
“But when I get word that someone from the prime universe has made their way into the simulation,” he said gravely, “now, that’s the sort of thing that justifies a bit of discomfort.”
Jesri shot to her feet and backed away from him, her head spinning, but he only chuckled and patted the wooden seat feebly. “Come on, sit back down,” he said. “I’m sorry if I startled you. Let’s start over from the top, now that we can speak freely.” The old man patted the slim device from his pocket fondly, then smiled at Jesri.
“My name is David Kincaid,” he said. “Perhaps we’ve met?”