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Small Magellanic Cloud, 7 January 2380 (Auld Greg Aerth Calendar)
"Behold," Frane said, unable to keep a slight tremor of awe out of his voice. Or is it fear? he wondered in some deep, shrouded corner of his soul.
But the vista that stretched before the assembled Seekers After Penance took Frane to a place far beyond fear. It was the most beautiful and terrible sight he had ever beheld. Effulgent tendrils of energy reached across millions of klomters of trackless emptiness toward the battered transport craft, like the probing fingers of some great, grasping hand.
Frane heard Nozomi gasp as she cowered behind him, as though the image threatened to reach straight through the cramped vessel's viewer and grab her.
"Have faith," Frane said. As a Neyel who had forsworn his own people's conquest-hardened traditions to live among society's slaves and outcasts, he knew well that faith was often the only thing that sustained him. To comfort Nozomi, he took one of her hands even as her graceful forked tail gently entwined with his. He gently disengaged from the female Neyel after noticing that one of her feet was grasping his leg hard enough to whiten the gray flesh beneath his loose pilgrim's robe.
"I'm keeping station here," said Lofi, the female Sturr who was handling the helm as well as the sensor station. Because she belonged to a race of multipartite colony creatures -- one of the first local peoples, in fact, to be conquered by the ancestral Neyel after their arrival centuries ago in M'jallanish space -- Lofi was able to separate several of her rounded thoracic segments briefly in order to perform disparate simultaneous tasks. Looking toward Lofi, Frane considered how this ability had made the Sturr species so useful to the earliest, most expansion-bent generations of precursor Neyel, the eldest Oh-Neyel Takers who spread throughout the M'jallan region to build the Neyel Hegemony on the backs of dozens of conquered slave races.
Will my people ever expiate the shame of those sinful days? Frane wondered. He feared he already knew the answer.
Eager to chase those dark thoughts away, Frane turned his gaze back toward the great, slowly coruscating starburst of energy that filled the screen before him. He saw that the image was holding the attention of everyone else in the narrow, dimly lit control room.
"Can't we approach it more closely?" g'Ishea said, cuddling up against Fasaryl, her mate. Members of an indigenous species that had been displaced -- and then largely slaughtered -- to make room for the shining Neyel capital of Mechulak City and the other great metrosprawls of the Neyel Coreworld, g'Ishea and Fasaryl had never known a time when their kind had been free to graze unhindered. Frane could only wonder what it was like to live as a forced laborer on what had once been a bucolic paradise, toiling endlessly beneath the Neyel lash and the lidless eye of Holy Vangar, the Stone Skyworld that had orbited their planet since the times of the First Conquests. How would it be, he wondered, to live that way for a dozen generations without any hope of freedom?
Frane cast a questioning glance at Lofi -- or rather at the globular, leathery portion of Lofi to which her primary sensory cluster was attached.
"I would advise not getting any nearer to it than this," Lofi responded, an overtone of fear coming through the vocoder that rendered her guttural native utterances into Neyel-intelligible speech. "That phenomenon is throwing off spatial distortions like nothing I've ever seen before. I can't guarantee this ship will hold together if I let us drift any closer to them."
"Disappointing," Frane said, though he wasn't completely certain that he meant it.
"I'm more than happy to keep my distance," said Nozomi in a quavering voice. Her tail was wrapping nervously around Frane's waist again. He brushed the prehensile appendage aside with his own.
Frane turned toward her, prepared to offer a waspish observation about her tiresome, almost theatrical displays of faintheartedness. Why couldn't she keep her fears to herself, as he did?
"Why has this appeared?" Fasaryl said, pointing the opposable digits of one of his front hooves toward the tendrils of energy displayed on the screen.
"You know why, beloved," g'Ishea said, worrying her dewlap with her wide, rough tongue. "Because the Sleeper has at last begun to awaken." Though g'Ishea's low voice sounded calm, the gurgling noise emanating from her multiple digestive organs told Frane otherwise.
"So everyone keeps saying," Fasaryl said, clearly unsatisfied with the obvious answer.
Since the puzzling energetic phenomenon had abruptly appeared several weeks earlier, just pars'x from the very Coreworld itself, the Neyel intelligentsia had offered countless theories to account for it, as had the clergy, both on the cultural fringe and in the mainstream. To some it was a rare instance of interspatial slippage between adjoining regions of subspace. To others it was merely the beginning of yet another iteration of the cycle of cosmic death and rebirth, a phase that would take the universe billions more years to pass through entirely. To others it was merely a localized natural disaster, a thing of rare beauty and thankfully even rarer violence.
Frane knew that some saw the vast, multihued energy eruption as a cause for fearful rejoicing, because it had destroyed but a single Neyel-settled world.
So far, he thought.
Or was the expansive, colorful energy bloom, as those of a more secular bent had suggested, merely a temporary reopening of one of the long-neglected spatial rifts through which the Devilships of the Tholians had launched their savage attacks some ten generations back?
Frane felt certain he knew the true answer to the mystery. The real nature of the thing on the screen. And he knew that the other Seekers After Penance, the natives who had traveled with him to the ragged edge of this lovely, savage manifestation, shared his certainty deep down, regardless of their fears and doubts of the moment. Their own peoples, after all, had compiled the stories, had told and retold them for uncounted thousands of planetary cycles.
This blaze of unimaginable forces was nothing less than the Sleeper of M'jallanish legend, stirring at last from His aeons-long slumbers. And Frane was here to witness it.
Maybe we haven't come merely to watch the Awakening, he told himself, almost overwhelmed at the purity and audacity of his purpose now that he was finally able to stare directly down the maw of the Infinite. Perhaps we have come to help bring it about.
So that the Neyel, Frane's own people, might atone for the many crimes they had committed against virtually every sentient species they'd met in M'jallanish space -- at least before Aidan Burgess had come all the way from Auld Aerth and tried to show the Neyel the gross error of their ways.
The Seekers After Penance revered Federation Ambassador Burgess, and it was their devoir to complete what she had begun: to continue teaching the entire Neyel race the lessons of peace to which the long-dead, martyred diplomat had introduced them. Even if the aim of those lessons -- atonement -- cost the lives of everyone who had participated in the Neyel Conquests. Even if their heirs who perpetuated those injustices even now, knowingly or not, had to suffer -- along with native peoples too weak-willed to have even tried to oppose their conquerors.
"Is it true, Frane?" Fasaryl asked. "Is it true that every world in the M'jallan Cloud will vanish when the Sleeper finally comes fully awake?"
Frane nodded. "So say the legends of the His'lant. And those of the Sturr. And the tales of your ancient Oghen forebears as well."
"The His'lant Taletellers say that the Sleeper dreams all the worlds in the Cloud," said Nozomi. "And when the Sleeper awakens -- "
"The dream ends," Frane said, finishing her thought. Along with every evil act our people have ever perpetrated against those worlds.
Fasaryl shrugged his thick, bovine shoulders. "Or so say the stories. We won't know until and unless it happens."
"We already know that the Sleeper stirs," said g'Ishea, nodding toward the colorful energy pinwheel that now lay just a few hundred thousand klomters before them. "And that stirring has already wiped out at least one whole world. After Newaerth's disappearance, I need no further convincing."
Frane nodded grimly. The truth of g'Ishea's words was undeniable. Newaerth was no more, having vanished cataclysmically along with its entire planetary system, within days of the initial appearance of the colorful spatial distortions -- a beautiful blue world, settled only a century after the arrival of the ancestral Neyel in the Lesser M'jallan Cloud, extinguished by the stirrings of the Sleeper.
"Perhaps the Sleeper will spare us if we conduct the propitiation rituals," Nozomi said in a quiet, frightened voice.
Unlike Nozomi, Frane had no realistic expectations of being spared whatever divine wrath was about to engulf the entire region. Nor did he believe himself particularly worthy of any such mercies. But he was ready and willing to undertake the meditative ritual, if only on behalf of his companions, whose faith in the efficacy of the ancient native rites clearly exceeded his own. After all, why should his fellow travelers face summary death when it was his forebears, not theirs, who had truly earned the ire of the cosmos?
While still tending to the ship's instruments, Lofi detached one of her scaly, rainbow-colored thoracic segments. Its multijointed arms and sensory clusters immediately set about arranging the ritual materials on the deck before the viewer. Scuttling to and fro with purposeful deftness, she covered about a square metrik with a precise arrangement of colorful soils from the Sturr homeworld, mixing them with several large droplets of her own viscous body fluids, secreted directly from glands hidden beneath the arms of her independently operating body segment.
Frane lowered his head, his eyeshutters closing out the vaguely disturbing ritual as Fasaryl began to make a gentle lowing sound. His song chilled the base of Frane's spine; he knew that the archaic words Fasaryl sang were far older than the Neyel's most ancient ancestors from Auld Aerth.
Fasaryl reached the end of the ritual utterances within the space of a few dozen heartbeats, as though in anticipation of something momentous. Frane glanced upward, opening his eyeshutters enough to see the energy tendrils that remained displayed on the screen. The image was unchanged. The Oghen repeated the words again, and Lofi's artificial voice joined in, forming an oddly tinny counterpoint to Fasaryl's mournful, bass-laden chant.
The image on the screen continued its slow, stately pirouette, stubbornly constant. What was I expecting? Frane thought, chuckling quietly to himself. Was the Sleeper supposed to answer our prayers? Did I really expect Him to come fully awake right at this moment and promise to save us from the destruction that's coming down upon us?
There would be no engraved invitations to watch the apocalypse from some safe cosmic balcony. When the Sleeper finally awoke, when its mystical dreams no longer served to sustain the very existence of M'jallanish space, Frane expected to wink out of existence along with everything else within at least a hundred pars'x -- just as the ancient His'lant physicist-priests had foretold.
An alarm whooped loudly at that moment, startling Frane out of his doleful reverie. Nozomi jumped high at the sound, her tail and bare feet instinctively grabbing purchase on one of the control room's ceiling-mounted gangways.
"Frane!" said Lofi, an unusual urgency underlying her customarily even, synthetic voice. "I am detecting several ships, closing rapidly on the energy cloud. They are headed straight for us."
A knot of apprehension began to form in Frane's stomach. "What kind of ships?"
"Neyel military, cylindrical configuration. They're warning us to stand down, and to prepare to be teleported aboard their flagship." Lofi turned an eyestalk directly toward him. "They're asking for you specifically, Frane."
The knot in Frane's belly suddenly tightened like an ancient slavecatcher's noose. He could think of only one military officer who would have asked for him by name.
"Bring the male Neyel prisoner directly to me," Drech'tor Gherran said, his eyes remaining fixed upon the strange phenomenon that covered his main control room's central viewer. He glanced away from the coruscating cloud, looking down at the bracelet of exotic shells and stones and fabric that adorned his left wrist.
"And the woman?" replied Harn, his ever-efficient helmrunner and subaltern. If Harn had noticed how distracted Gherran was feeling at the moment, he betrayed no sign of it.
"Leave her in confinement with the indigies," Gherran said, gently caressing the bracelet with the spade-shaped tip of his tail.
Harn looked slightly askance at Gherran's order, but dutifully moved to the communications panel on the opposite side of the control room, where he began carrying out his instructions. Crisply and efficiently, as ever.
Moments later, a pair of black-uniformed Neyel security officers exited the lift tube, a slight, robed figure herded between them, his hands bound behind his back. The guards looked confused at having been told to bring their charge to the ship's sensitive control room.
The prisoner seemed far too calm for someone in such a vulnerable position. But that came as no surprise to Gherran.
"Release his bindings," Gherran said. "Then leave us."
"Sir?" said the senior guard, his eyeshutters opening and closing rapidly in surprise.
The guards hastened to comply, and seconds later had withdrawn from the control room. The handful of instrumentation officers present watched discreetly as the prisoner stepped toward Gherran, rubbing his just-freed wrists as he moved.
"Are you going to interrogate me here, Drech'tor Gherran, right in front of everyone?" the prisoner said in what the drech'tor recognized as a mocking tone. He gestured toward Harn and the other members of the control room crew. Each of them immediately looked away, conspicuously busying themselves at their various consoles.
Gherran pointed toward a hatchway located equidistant between the lift tube and the head. "In my prep chamber. Now."
The prisoner shrugged and did as he was told. After the hatch had closed, ensuring their privacy, the robed detainee turned toward him, the hard gray skin of his mouth turning up slightly at the corners. "Hello, Father," he said, an insufferable irony suffusing his words.
"What do you think you're doing out here, Frane?" Gherran said, struggling to keep his son from seeing how angry he was. He doubted he was succeeding even a little.
"Perhaps I should ask you the same question, Father."
Gherran sighed, shaking his head. "You know perfectly well that the Hegemony Navy can't permit interlopers to approach the...phenomenon."
"Why, Father? Are you afraid we're going to rouse the Sleeper further?"
Gherran snorted, his tail switching involuntarily behind him. "Nonsense. There's no Sleeper, Frane. Only ridiculous native legends, kept alive by the fantasy-prone offspring of slaves. And enabled by gullible, bleeding-heart Neyel trash like you."
"How can you be so certain that the Sleeper's dreams aren't really all that keeps M'jallanish space intact, Father? Do you have a better explanation for what happened to Newaerth?"
Gherran decided he wasn't going to let himself be baited. "Why are you traveling with those smelly cattle, and the rest of those alien kaffir, Frane?"
Frane was finally beginning to look rattled, which Gherran found gratifying. "We Neyel are the aliens here, Father. And those 'kaffir' are my friends."
"Then you have made a very poor choice of friends," Gherran said with a long-suffering sigh. Certainly, he wasn't proud of the excesses of the earliest generations of Neyel. Their tradition of treating native species roughly -- a habit developed during the years immediately following their accidental exile from Auld Aerth, when their day-to-day survival had been uncertain in the extreme -- hadn't really begun to soften until the days of Ambassador Burgess, more than eighty Oghencycles ago.
"What are you planning to do with my friends,
Gherran offered his son what he hoped was a beneficent smile. "Once our patrol is done, they will be turned over to the civilian authorities on Oghen. The vessel in which we found you all has been reported stolen. If your friends were involved in the theft, they will be punished accordingly."
Now Frane looked truly distraught; piracy, after all, was punished in the most severe and irrevocable fashion possible. "Let them go. I'm the one at fault. I'm the one who stole that ship."
"We shall see in due course, my son," Gherran said, his eyes once again straying to the bracelet wrapped around his left wrist. The bracelet had been in the family for eight generations prior to his own, handed down from Gran Vil'ja, who had received it directly from Federation Ambassador Burgess herself. Every tiny stone and shell and bone and gem and fiber woven into the bracelet's cloth-and-metal frame represented a story added by each successive generation that had held it. The bracelet itself was an unbroken tapestry that reached all the way back to the far distant Great Pinwheel of Milkyway -- and the unreachable orb of Auld Aerth itself.
Gherran saw that his son, too, was eyeing the bracelet. "I must be a great disappointment to you, Father," Frane said quietly. "Who will you appoint to carry the story bracelet forward into future generations?"
Gherran felt righteous indignation rising within him. "I thought that your bizarre death cult didn't believe in future generations."
Frane shrugged. "Look beyond the hull of this vessel. Whether or not there will be a future doesn't appear to be up to us at the moment." He looked significantly at the bracelet. "Perhaps you should send our family heirloom somewhere safer than this place."
Gherran raised his wrist, brandishing the bracelet as though it were a weapon. "Do not mock tradition, Frane. Someone in our lineage must eventually get the bracelet back to Auld Aerth, as Gran Vil'ja and Burgess Herself intended. You know that, at least as well as you know the silly precepts of your sleeping kaffir god."
"I suppose we each have always embraced myths of our own choosing, Father," Frane said, smiling. "Mother always said that you and I were very much alike in that regard."
Gherran felt his teeth bare themselves involuntarily. He knew that the death of Lijean, Frane's mother, had devastated both of them equally. Though more than half a decade had passed since the shock of her suicide, Lijean's absence remained both an unhealed wound and a cause for mutual blame. Even now, her death remained a weapon that both of them still used against one another from time to time.
"How dare you -- "
The ship lurched violently, its abrupt movement punctuated by the sharp cry of an alarm klaxon. Harn's strident yet controlled voice blared across the intraship circuit. "Tactical alert! Drech'tor Gherran to the control room!"
Frane had never before seen his father move so quickly. Gherran used his tail and all four of his opposable-digited hands to vault across his desk and bound through the hatchway back into the control room. Not quite as physically robust as his father -- he lacked Gherran's extensive military conditioning -- Frane followed more slowly, though he moved as quickly as he could.
Frane could see that his father had all but forgotten about him as he queried the members of his crew, each of whom worked at least one console with a fervid intensity. No surprise that he's ignoring me, Frane thought. Duty always did take precedence over family, even when there weren't any emergencies to deal with. Not for the first time, he wondered if Mother had taken her own life out of sheer neglect and loneliness.
The great cylindrical vessel rocked again beneath Frane's bare feet, prompting him to turn to face the wide viewer that filled the forward portion of the control room.
The energy bloom was...changing.
"Report!" Gherran shouted to his crew as the room shuddered yet again.
"We're being subjected to intense gravimetric waves, Drech'tor," said the young male officer seated at the nearest console. The tip of his tail was assisting his hands as he hastily entered commands. "They're coming from deep within the phenomenon."
"Ship's status?" Gherran queried.
"Our energy screens are compromised and failing, Drech'tor."
The tendrils of multihued energy shown on the viewer were becoming more agitated and twisted, gnarled like the native scrub vegetation of the Coreworld of Oghen.
Frane allowed a fatalistic smile to cross his face. Perhaps the Sleeper truly is awakening at last.
He knew that if such was indeed the case, then his own petty family squabbles, as well as the suffering of every species the Neyel race had conquered over the past several centuries, would soon be rendered moot.
Is today the day when it all finally comes to pass, as the prophets of the ancient M'jallan races foretold?
"Hail the fleet, Subaltern," Gherran said. "We're withdrawing to a safer distance. I want to put another million klomters between us and the phenomenon."
But before the subaltern could finish carrying out his orders, Frane noticed something else on the screen. Several dark, swooping shapes were approaching.
Unlike Father's fleet, however, they seemed to be approaching from inside the now-roiling energy bloom.
"Drech'tor!" shouted another junior officer, this one a young female. "A number of ships are closing on our position -- and their source is the energy phenomenon itself." She shook her head in disbelief.
Gherran was facing the screen. Though his face was a grim, gray mask, he could not keep the surprise out of his voice. "That's not possible."
Frane felt equally surprised. Watching the approaching ships, he supposed his father was recalling old tales of the Tholian Devilships that had preyed on Neyel vessels many decades ago, before Ambassador Burgess had crafted a peace arrangement with them, before both sides had agreed to allow the interspatial fissures that had connected their two distant realms to close from simple disuse.
"How many ships approach us?" the drech'tor wanted to know.
"Several dozen, Drech'tor," the subaltern said. "And I have detected directed-energy weapons signatures."
A raptor's smile cracked Gherran's military impassivity as he cast a brief glance at Frane. "So. We face no sleeping god here, do we? We are up against a new wave of invaders. The Devilships of old." To his subaltern, he barked, "Level one tactical alert. Make challenge as we fall back. And charge all weapons batteries. Be ready to fire on my command."
"No response to our challenges, Drech'tor," said another junior officer a few moments later, her voice hard and businesslike.
As the alien ships grew swiftly larger on the screen, Frane's initial impression of them became ever stronger. With their sleek, winged shapes and iridescent gray-green hulls, they truly did resemble nothing so much as a flock of predatory birds on the hunt. And they were bearing down on Gherran's ships, flying in a wedge-shaped formation that implied a merciless sense of purpose. Frane couldn't help but admire their grace and coordination as they moved as one, as though guided by a single, resolutely determined mind.
"They don't look like any Devilships I ever saw," Frane said to no one in particular, and no one replied. Neither he nor his father had been alive during the Devil Wars that Burgess had ended, but they had both seen pictures from that era.
Each of the alien ships' forward weapons tubes now emanated a menacing emerald glow. As the interlopers drew closer, Frane could see several small but agile Neyel destroyers approaching them on a gently curving intercept course. At Gherran's direction, the forward tubes of the Neyel ships released a lethal braid of bright red particle beams and a fusillade of armored projectiles.
The initial Neyel salvo seemed to have little effect on its targets, whose own glowing weapons ports responded by unleashing powerful streams of directed energy. The alien vessels' armaments blazed as brightly as the heart of a star, forcing Frane to look away momentarily, despite the viewer's light-filtering system.
A sidelong glance moments later confirmed the worst: the aliens were tearing through Gherran's ships as though they were defenseless. Within moments, three destroyers had flared up in roughly spherical, roseate eruptions of fire, vessel and crew alike vaporized in an instant commingling of molecular fire and hard vacuum.
As Gherran rattled his terse, precise orders to his own control room staff, the foremost of the alien ships loosed their weapons for a second salvo, their formation passing by without so much as pausing, as though their opposition was unworthy of the invaders' valuable time. A loud BOOM! shook the control room, as though the vessel it drove had just collided with an asteroid. The deck lurched perhaps forty-five degrees before the inertial compensators set things more or less right. Frane instinctively grabbed a nearby railing, which glowed in the suddenly dimmed lighting. His tail wrapped tightly about one of the railing posts as an added measure of security.
The ship rocked yet again, ringing like some great duranium bell as a console exploded nearby, singeing Frane's hair and causing his eyeslits to slam shut involuntarily. Fierce heat scorched him, even through his hardened Neyel skin.
When he opened his eyes, he saw clouds of acrid-smelling coolant hissing into the smoky air as various crew members busied themselves putting out fires all around the control room, while simultaneously running the ship's defensive and offensive systems. On the viewer, another pair of Neyel ships tore themselves apart, their extensive battle wounds finally yielding terminal conflagrations.
Coughing, his stinging eyes watering, Frane noticed a pair of bodies sprawled beside the wreckage of the exploded console, both in the unmistakably awkward postures of death.
One of the corpses belonged to his father.
Not knowing what else to do, Frane knelt beside Gherran, feeling for his carotid artery. His father, the man who had sired and then abandoned him and his mother in favor of his endless duties to a corrupt and belligerent Hegemony, now lay lifeless on the soot-smeared deck. He took one of Gherran's still, gray hands.
And noticed the bracelet.
Without knowing why he was doing it, Frane took the bracelet and slipped it into a pocket in his robe. He was, after all, his father's son. And that meant he was next in line to take possession of the bracelet, whether future generations were fated to be or not. If the Sleeper wakes and wipes us all from existence, then this will all be moot anyway, he thought, not certain whether the act of taking the bracelet represented faith or its repudiation. Perhaps that, too, didn't matter.
Frane noticed only then that his father's subaltern -- Harn, was it? -- was shouting at him, his words only barely comprehensible over the blare of klaxons, the beating of Frane's own heart, and a surreal sense of time-dilated confusion.
" -- said we have to get everyone to the evacuation capsules now!" Harn was saying, apparently annoyed at having to repeat himself. "We're about to vent our ceeteematter. Our Efti'el drive will go critical in mennets."
One of Frane's hands was still in his robe pocket, where he worried the beads and stones of the bracelet with quaking fingers. He could see the viewer, which displayed the aft sections of the dwindling alien ships; they were flying on into the space that lay beyond the stirring Sleeper, apparently uninterested in all the death they had so casually dealt. As the strange vessels receded into the distance, like a pack of hunters with sated appetites, their formation remained as perfect as the moment they had first appeared. It made Frane think of encounters with deadly, implacable forces of nature, like the Sleeper itself -- encounters which were apparently survivable, at least sometimes.
But he knew he'd received only a momentary reprieve at best.
"You have to evacuate my friends," Frane shouted to the subaltern, momentarily putting aside his anticipation of the end of the world.
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