The jump to Apollyon passed in silence as David busied himself rechecking his preparations and Rhuar stood rapt in the shipjack’s grip, gazing out through the ship’s eyes at the blackest depths of hyperspace. Anja, for her part, had long ago learned the value of a quiet moment and made no move to disrupt it. She leaned back in her chair and stared at the void outside, a space so dark the viewports seemed painted over.
She kept her face implacable, but deep in her gut she felt the thrill of their impending arrival building with each second that passed until it demanded her focus. The bridge seemed to yawn wide around her; she suddenly felt small and out-of-place in her captain’s chair. She jumped to her feet so suddenly that David flinched on his monitor.
“What is it?”, he asked nervously. “Did something happen?”
She forced herself to smile at him, shaking her head. “No,” she said softly. “Just felt like standing.”
“Mmhmm,” David said, sounding unconvinced. “Nervous?”
“Of course,” Anja replied. “If any situation warrants it, this is it.”
“I’m glad it’s not just me, then,” David said, letting his breath out in a puff. “I wasn’t sure you ladies even got nervous, to be honest. It seems like something they would have spared you from, considering your line of work.”
Anja laughed, pacing around behind her chair. “They tried, at first,” she said. “But anxiety is just a flavor of fear, and it turns out that a fearless soldier is less useful than history had anticipated.”
“Too reckless?”, David guessed.
She shook her head. “Too dead. Fear and pain are the tools any living being uses to keep itself alive. In order to properly motivate self-preservation they need to be truly unpleasant. There are no shortcuts for things that fundamental, unfortunately.”
“I’m happy to report that my drive for self-preservation is functioning at one hundred percent,” David joked, wiping his brow theatrically. “I hadn’t done anything at all risky for quite some time before I met you. I spent thirty years on Nicnevin, watching and lending a hand to the free Irri where I could. Before that I was just watching, sifting through data or observing the stars.” He sighed, burying his face in his hands. “I feel like I could have given some more thought as to the implications of transferring myself into a warship.”
Anja’s brow furrowed, and she leaned on the back of her chair. “David, how long ago did the Alphas escape the Gestalt? You said you had been on Nicnevin thirty years, and I know you had similar deployments elsewhere.”
“A little over one hundred and fifty years,” David replied. “If you were anyone else I’d make a joke about looking pretty good for an older fellow, but you take all the fun out of age-related humor.” He met Anja’s gaze with a wry smile. “You’re wondering why I don’t look older.”
She nodded. “You still have human biology, albeit simulated. Even with standard longevity treatments you should be feeling your age a bit more.”
David held up his hand, fingers splayed, and focused for a moment on the air just above his fingers. A second later, a sandwich materialized and dropped into his hand. He grinned and took a bite. “Behold the power of the master of the universe,” he said around a mouthful of turkey and swiss. “One of the things we prioritized during our escape were a set of ‘administrative’ commands for the universe simulation. Aside from the immediate demands of food and resources, we wanted to ensure that we could continue our work for as long as we needed. Yetide did most of the legwork to ensure that we wouldn’t age further, although unfortunately it was unrealistic to revert us all to our mid-twenties and give us fantastic physiques.” He patted his stomach, then shrugged and took another bite of the sandwich.
“Would any of these commands help Jesri?”, Anja asked.
He chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then shook his head and swallowed. “I don’t see how,” he said. “These are things we use specifically to control the universe simulation, and she’ll be interacting with the Gestalt…” He trailed off and shrugged. “Well, I don’t know how, but probably not in the same way she was visiting me. Suffice to say that my sandwich-conjuring abilities are not likely to be applicable.”
“Oh well,” Anja sighed. “It was worth-”
“Guys!”, Rhuar shouted, shaking out of his shipjack trance. “We’re coming up on something!”
Anja and David blinked, then turned their attention to Rhuar. “In hyperspace?”, Anja asked incredulously. “Is that possible?”
“Nope,” Rhuar growled, rolling the ship slightly. “But there it fucking is.”
As the ship rotated, an anomalous glare of blue-white light lanced through the viewports. A vast glowing structure shifted and roiled like a latticed stormcloud far in the distance, stretching away into dizzying nothingness until it became a thin tapering line.
“Holy shit,” David breathed. “We knew the Gestalt had set up some sort of interdiction around Apollyon, but I thought it would be…” He gestured to the viewport helplessly. “Not this, that’s for sure. What are we even looking at?”
“No clue,” Rhuar replied. “Ship’s sensors aren’t even remotely equipped for this. All I can tell you is that it’s hyperspace-up from us, so if we weren’t flying with the boost from the gate we’d be right in the middle of it.”
“What would that do to the ship?”, Anja asked.
Rhuar shrugged. “The fuck should I know?”, he said irritably. “But you don’t set up a gigantic four-dimensional light barrier to tickle people, so I’m betting it wouldn’t be anything good.”
The three of them watched silently as the vast wall of light slid by them, its surface a fractal chaos of edges and corners that met at impossible angles. The far reaches of the wall seemed to bend around on themselves as they watched, stretching and warping until they arced up to meet in a distant point.
“What’s it doing?”, David wondered, flipping between images on his monitors. The wall shrank to a ribbonlike cardioid that glowed brightly against the darkness.
Rhuar shook his head dazedly. “Nothing, we’re just passing by it. If it looks a little weird it’s because you’re really just seeing the shadow the four-dimensional structure is casting on our little three-dimensional bubble.” He paused, averting his eyes from the impossible view outside. “I think.”
The barrier shrank to a point and disappeared, leaving the bridge in the comfortable darkness of hyperspace once more. “Well,” David remarked. “That was something.”
“I don’t want to be the voice of pessimism or anything,” Rhuar said, “but what the fuck are we doing? The matrioshka brain was bad enough, but I could at least understand the concept of how they were able to build it. That magic shit we just flew past?”, he said, his voice quavering. “That shouldn’t exist. There are no fixed points in hyperspace, there is no space to build a structure in. You can’t do it. How the fuck are we supposed to go up against someone who can build that kind of thing?” He looked up at Anja, his eyes wide. “What are we going to do?”
Anja sat back down in her chair and steepled her fingers. “All we can do is stick to the plan,” she said quietly. “We knew we were outmatched going into this. We lacked the resources to do anything before, and if we had waited much longer we may have lost what little we had. This is our best shot, the only shot.” She sighed, shrugging.
“We may fail,” she admitted. “We may not have ever had a chance. But when humanity learned what the Gestalt planned to do, they tasked the best minds they had to come up with a solution. They understood the Gestalt and its capabilities even more than we do. They terrified it, Rhuar, so much so that it destroyed all of them in a panic. The *Gestalt* thought they had a chance.”
“But they were bluffing,” Rhuar objected. “Everything we know about MANTRA says that it was a long-shot, a last-ditch effort to disrupt the Gestalt’s timetable. They never seriously contemplated destroying the Gestalt.”
“Yes and no,” David said, looking fidgety. “You’re not wrong, Rhuar, MANTRA was a project borne of desperation. That said, there has always been far more to it than just delaying the Gestalt. We’ve found far too many useful tools in those files for that to be the case. Every time I find something new in the files I feel like some long-dead analyst is looking over my shoulder and waiting for me to figure out the next piece. I’ve often wondered if we should have delayed our exit to find more, if the key to understanding all of this was waiting buried in the next set of documents.” He looked at Rhuar and Anja in turn. “We are being guided towards something greater, even if I can’t see what it is.”
Rhuar slumped to the deck. “Not helping,” he said glumly. “What chance do we have if we don’t have all of the plan?”
David leaned forward, suddenly intent. “Having all of the pieces isn’t the point, Rhuar,” he insisted. “The point is that the plan takes our lack of information into account. It assumes we don’t have all of the information, it assumes that from time to time we fail. Every time we exhaust our current leads, another one falls into place.”
His eyes bored into Rhuar’s, his voice growing low and harsh. “Is that a coincidence?”, he asked hoarsely. “Or has our good luck been MANTRA’s doing all along? Every time we’ve needed it most, MANTRA has prepared the ground for us. It’s too convenient, too neat to be mere serendipity. The other option, the one I choose to believe, is that we’re still on a path that we’ve yet to see the end of.”
“You sound like one of those decklicker priests,” Rhuar scoffed. “We’ve been playing it by ear this entire time. You can’t tell me that they predicted all of this. If they had the ability to do that, they’d have been able to predict the Gestalt wiping them off the face of the fucking universe.”
“They were good, not perfect,” David admitted. “This is a high-stakes game and we’re always one wrong move from failure. We have a chance, that’s all. Against the sorts of forces we’re talking about here, a chance is the greatest gift we could have expected.”
A low tone sounded from the console, and Rhuar’s eyes glazed over momentarily before snapping back to Anja. “We’re close,” he said tersely. “I guess it doesn’t matter much at this point. We’re already too far up to make it back under the barrier.”
“Keep that optimism, you might need it later,” Anja said dryly. “I want a quiet reentry, then switch immediately to passive gravitic scans for a count of any nearby Emissary ships. Don’t engage or power anything up until we’re ready to make our move.”
“Aye sir,” he said distantly, falling back into the shipjack. David busied himself running a final check of his preparations, sweat beading on his forehead as his fingers danced over his workstation. A rumbling vibration swept over the deck just before the first traces of white fire began to lick at the viewports.
“Twenty seconds,” Rhuar intoned, his focus completely on the ship. Thin curtains of starlight began to flicker across the black void, the rumbling building to a peak.
“Ten,” he said. Even in the shipjack fugue tension was bleeding into his voice. “Five. Here we go-”
A splash of glowing plasma cast flickering waves of light over the deck before dissipating into mist, leaving behind a brilliant starfield and nothing else. Anja could see similar flares in the distance as the fleet exited alongside them, but as the light from their reentry faded only the distant starlight remained. Apollyon was cold, dark and silent.
“Gravitics show one large signature,” Rhuar said quietly. “That should be the sphere. No sign of any Emissaries. Yet.”
“Reorient and tightbeam our vector to the fleet,” Anja ordered. Rhuar nodded, and the ship slowly began to turn to port. The stars scrolled past until the ship was facing a round patch of nothing, an empty void in the dim tapestry of light surrounding them. It was perfectly circular and perfectly dark as it hung in front of them.
“Distance?”, she asked.
“Ten million kilometers, give or take,” replied Rhuar.
She sighed and turned to her console. “I suppose there is little point in waiting,” she said, keying her communicator. “All ships, begin your approach. Clear a direct-line path between the Grand Design and the target as a fire corridor. We will mark your ingress point.” She paused for a beat, then toggled the transmission back on. “You all know the stakes,” she added. “This is our chance. Make it count.”
A chorus of acknowledgements came back, followed by the cold light of ship engines as they burned towards the empty circle ahead of them.
“Acknowledged, Grand Design,” Tarl’s voice rumbled last, steady despite the fire running through it. “Ysl!”, he cried, and Anja could hear his crew roar behind him. “Champions of the fallen! We go now to kill a god and write the legends of a new age. Today we teach the bloodless to bleed! Ysl!” This time the shout from his crew was joined by transmissions from the other ships, a chorus of elated Ysleli screaming filling the bridge. Anja let it echo through the cavernous space for a few seconds, then cut the feed and looked over to the pilot’s station.
“Here we go, Rhuar,” she said with grim finality. “Full speed ahead. Fire when ready.”
Shuddering vibrations ran through the ship as the WCML deployed, its capacitors howling as energy flooded from the ship’s reactor into the mammoth railgun. With a final wailing crash, the first projectiles screamed into hyperspace. Another shot followed as the hyperaccelerated sabots disappeared into the void. The guns fell into a rhythm, the buildup and release of energy echoing through the bridge like a mournful war chant.
Thirty seconds into their barrage a flare of light erupted against the dark silhouette, a new star briefly erupting as the light from the first impacts reached their viewscreens. It pulsed like a heartbeat as each barrage impacted the metal shell with crippling force.
“Good impacts,” Rhuar called out, his voice deadened with the weight of full immersion into the shipjack. “No large ship activity, but I am detecting some motion around the strike area.”
“That’ll be the repair drones,” David muttered. “Quick response time, as expected. They’re going to try to patch the opening.”
Anja nodded, her eyes fixed on the pulsing mote of light. The black circle of the Gestalt’s sphere was noticeably larger than when they started; they were drawing close. “The guns should clear them from our ingress while they are firing,” she said. “We need to reserve the jamming for our interior run.”
No stars were visible through the fore viewport any longer. The bulk of the sphere in front of them stretched wide to cover the sky in a featureless black cloak, disrupted only by the pulsing flares of shell impacts against its skin. A diffuse glow had formed around the impact site as fragments of white-hot debris spewed outward.
“We’re nearly at the midway point,” Rhuar said tersely. “Penetration is slowing a bit as we go deeper, but we’re still breaking through shells. Should be-” He paused suddenly, then whipped his head around to look at Anja with alarm. “Gravitic spike!”, he called out.
Anja lunged at her communicator and mashed the toggle. “Evade!”, she screamed. The ship’s superstructure groaned as the Grand Design vectored slightly off-course, and the drive traces ahead of them diverged in all directions.
One of the Ysleli ships exploded with a searing flash of distorted light, the glowing fragments of its destruction pulled rapidly outward in the wake of the projectile that skewered it. “David, start the jamming!”, Anja yelled. “Everything you have, now!” Far in the distance the blackness of the Gestalt’s shell was dispelled as the light from the explosion reached it, the echo of the ship’s death illuminating an impossibly-large expanse of matte grey marred only by the twisted crater from their attack. As it faded back to blackness Anja could see the distorted traces of more enemy fire racing towards their previous position - and then it was dark once more.
David’s hands raced over his console, sending pings to each of the waiting resistance cells. His finger paused for an instant over the last control, then stabbed down to contact it.
The groans and rumbles of the ship echoed dully in the cargo hold as Jesri lay immobile on her gurney with her head enclosed in the grasping petals atop the MANTRA pedestal. She listened to the sound of the guns, a lumbering giant’s heartbeat that stood out against the constant dull roar of the engines. It stretched on for what seemed like ages; it was almost calming except for the deadly context that gripped her own heart.
Suddenly, the timbre of the engines changed and the heartbeat stopped. Jesri felt a thrill of dread as the ship shifted course rapidly. They were drawing fire, she knew, that was the only reason Rhuar would have diverted course. That meant that any second now-
Reality shattered around her. Suddenly she was not, stripped of her body and her senses in an instant before being thrust into a raging maelstrom of light, noise and scouring wind. Jesri tried to find stillness in vain amid the flood. Her practice with David had not prepared her for the sheer volume of information forcing its way into her, sweeping her self away in a tide of chaotic noise.
Slowly, laboriously, she collected herself from where the stream of data had scattered her. There was a hostile pressure here, an impetus to blend with the flow rather than stand apart from it. The more she attempted to define herself apart from the greater stream, the more intense and unfriendly that pressure became. She determined to ignore it, focusing instead on her rudimentary sense of self. She reinforced the barrier between what was hers and what was else, rejecting the mindless nirvana that the flow offered her.
Suddenly, she found herself coalescing, reality nucleating around her in a storm of solidity and geometry until she was sitting at a low table in a small room. The quiet was jarring, and her head spun as she turned it to take in her surroundings. The walls were bare, painted in a dull beige and textured with odd wavy patterns like ocean-floor sand. A single window of tinted crystal behind her showed a street view and a grey sky, hunched and cloaked figures straggling past in lines like listless ants.
Fighting back nausea, she turned to face forward once more - and found she was not alone at the table. A figure was forming in the air across the table from her, long limbs folding into a seated position to mimic her own. Spindly fingers bent around a steaming cup of some hot beverage, and as he sipped it Trelir made a face.
“This was not made with the Ysleli tongue in mind, I think,” he said morosely. “And here I was so looking forward to the delights of form once more.”
Jesri gaped at him. “You,” she sputtered, her enunciation clumsy. “How?”
Trelir smirked. “You asked for me, of course,” he said smoothly. “Or rather, you expected me. We’re only meeting in this crude simulacrum because you insisted on it, after all.”
She shook her head, trying to get a grasp on the situation. She felt a pounding headache, a dull pressure behind her eyes. “Didn’t ask,” she managed.
“No, you didn’t,” Trelir agreed, “you barged right in and demanded that you experience this trite three-dimensional construct of a box. It’s disappointing, really, since you’re one of the few biologicals I’m aware of who would be capable of more - and I don’t just mean manners.” He leaned in, black eyes glittering. “You’ve sparked my interest, Jesri Tam.”
With some effort, Jesri forced the room to stop spinning. “You,” she gasped. “You’re the Gestalt?”
Trelir laughed, a thin, wheezing noise that echoed through the small room. “Haven’t I always been?”, he asked mirthfully. “But I suppose you mean to ask if I am suddenly the sum of the Confluence in toto, to which I’m afraid I must answer - no. I’m afraid that even were you to reach beyond your reliance on spatial constructs you would be unable to interact fully with the Confluence.”
Fear nibbled at the back of Jesri’s brain. If she wasn’t talking with the Gestalt as a whole, was the command override working? “Didn’t come here to chat… with a secretary,” she grated, feeling her command of language coming back. “Why don’t you take a break and let me talk to the boss?”
He laughed again, shaking his head. “Oh, you are fun,” he murmured. “I’m afraid this is as good as you’re going to get if you insist on this interaction taking the form of a conversation. You’re trying to pour an ocean into a teacup, Captain Tam. If it happens to fit, either your ocean isn’t an ocean or your teacup isn’t a teacup - and I’m afraid that the idea of a ‘conversation’ is quite a small teacup for the Confluence.” He gave her a reproachful look. “Seriously, Captain. Do you expect the greater Confluence to indulge your bizarre needs? To focus its entire being into an imaginary box with you, using simulated meat to vibrate fake air? By the time we’re finished making concessions to the demands of space and physics we’d be left with no more than, well-”, he chuckled, gesturing to himself. “The current crude state of affairs, as it were.”
Jesri’s mind raced. David had said simply holding the connection open would be enough, but Trelir’s implication was clear: her manner of interaction was too limited to occupy the full scope of the command override channel. She had to find some way to expand her access, to engage Trelir beyond the limits of the current conversation-
“Ah, how very… adversarial of you,” Trelir remarked. Jesri looked up to find him holding a glossy black stone in his hand, turning it over between his talons. She felt a weight in her own hand and opened it to reveal a similar white stone. “Very well,” Trelir said, placing his stone on the table. The surface of the table, previously smooth, had developed a crosshatch of lines in the center.
Jesri blinked. “Go?”, she asked incredulously. “You want to play Go?”
Trelir gave her a patronizing look. “You want to play Go,” he said, “or you wouldn’t have created the game board just now. I won’t object despite your transparent motives. This is your space, after all, and I’ve already decided to indulge your whims for my own amusement.”
She looked down at the Go board, where two black stones sat in the center of the grid. “Hey,” she said indignantly, the blatant cheat overcoming her confusion and fear for a moment. “If we’re doing this, at least play by the rules. You only get to place one at a time.”
“My dear Captain,” Trelir said, leaning towards her. “Consider where you are. Do you believe that anything in this room you’ve created is only that which it appears to be?” He tapped one talon on the board, and Jesri saw that there were now three black stones clustered in the center. “We have pieces on more than one board. There are many people playing this particular game. Your choice is to place your stone or watch it all play out without you.”
He leaned forward, his eyes boring into hers. “The game is as fair as reality, Jesri Tam. If the board shows that I have an insurmountable advantage,” he said softly, “it is because I do.”
The Grand Design streaked past the crater in the side of the shell, sending vaporized repair bots scattering in bits as the guns thundered once more. Anja glimpsed the red-hot bottom of the shaft they had created glowing like a window to hell for a brief moment before Rhuar twisted their trajectory once more and carried them away from the hole.
“Rhuar, we need to maintain fire on the borehole!”, she called out. “Line us up for another pass!”
“Are you crazy?”, he grunted, his muscles tensing as the ship performed a slow, lumbering pirouette. “This ship was not made to be missed, Anja. The jammers are working, but they’ll still hit us if we fly in a straight fucking line.”
“We have a time limit on those jammers, and we need to be inside well before it runs out”, Anja retorted. “Ingress takes priority.”
Rhuar shook his head. “They’ll take us out before we make it through two layers, and by my guess we have at least six left. A strafing run is not going to get us inside.”
Anja growled low and punched her communicator, sending a broadcast to the fleet. Two of the ships had fallen before the jammers came online, but none since. “All ships,” she said tersely, “We cannot get a clear line on the borehole to maintain fire. See if you can take out some of those surface emplacements and clear us a path. Rhuar, open fire with the railguns.”
The Cormorant and the Ysleli ships veered towards the surface, but one stayed to fly in formation with the Grand Design. Anja peered at her console in surprise, then opened another communication channel as the railguns began to chatter away.
“Neryn,” she asked, “is something wrong?”
His response was delayed, but after a second his voice crackled from the speaker. “Sir, I’m concerned that it will take too long to clear out the surface batteries,” he said. “There are quite a few, and we will incur losses in destroying them.”
Anja sighed frustratedly. “I am aware,” she said, her voice tight with exasperation. “If you have a better idea, by all means-”
“Thank you sir, I will proceed,” Neryn said sharply. On her console, his ship peeled away from their trajectory and began an aggressive serpentine towards the Gestalt shells.
“Neryn, wait!”, Anja shouted, a cold lump growing in the pit of her stomach as the ship streaked off into the distance. The surface guns began firing at his ship exclusively as it drew closer, but some inspired maneuvering by his pilot kept him clear of the barrage.
A punishing wave of fire forced the Grand Design to make a quick dodge as well. The transmission lapsed into static, then into Neryn’s voice as it cleared. “-ready to come in behind us. The repair drones will only disperse for a few minutes.”
Anja distantly noticed Rhuar following Neryn’s orders without prompting, setting their ship up for a run on the entrance. “We can find another way, Neryn,” she said quietly. “We still have time for better options.”
“Anja’s twelfth rule, sir,” Neryn replied wryly. “We learned much in your trainings. Do you remember how you had to teach us about the idea of ‘voting’ near the beginning? The order that comes from the whole?” Anja couldn’t summon the words to answer his question, but Neryn kept speaking. “I shared the idea with my crew before, and we have done it now. This is our decision.”
Anja stared at the little ship on her monitor as it wove a complicated pattern around the incoming waves of fire. An unfriendly, logical voice in her head was evaluating Neryn’s plan on its merits even as the rest of her fixated in horror on what he was about to do. “Neryn,” she said. “This is not necessary. You can come back.”
Neryn chuffed in amusement, and Anja could hear his smile when he spoke. “If it wasn’t necessary that would have been an order,” he said. “Tell the Warfather of this, so he understands what it was that you gave us. We will protect our brothers and the mission. On an uncertain day, we will take the sure bet. We volunteer for this,” he said proudly. “We choose.”
The ship made one final flourish before plunging into the borehole and disappearing in a blinding flash of light, the reactor’s explosion tearing a gaping hole into the remaining layers of the Gestalt’s shell. The light did not fade, instead playing warm and golden over Anja’s face as the viewscreens tinted to compensate for its sudden brightness. Clouds of debris glittered like morning fog as the light caught them, billowing out from the wound in the Gestalt’s side. For the first time in tens of thousands of years, Apollyon’s sun was shining.
“All ships,” Anja broadcast, her voice wooden and cold. “We have ingress. Proceed with your attack run.”