by Michael Bard
"...boldly go where no man has gone before!"
Just as the ancient whiney music began, a call sang through the wraithbone and the ship's spirit automatically halted the 40,000 year old Mon Keigh recording.
"Systems report an unscheduled spatial displacement."
"Focus all scans towards that point, order all ships to move towards the Shroud. I'll be there momentarily."
For a moment I looked at the paused grainy image, a whitish-gray saucer smeared onto a primitive depiction of the vast emptiness of space. They had had such dreams once, so long ago. "Off." Turning, I walked through the doors that puckered in the wraithbone as I passed through and paced up the ascending circular corridor that led to the bridge. It was quiet, no blinking lights or clicking systems as in the ancient Mon Keigh fiction, just a silent readiness as the command crew lay on their benches in a circle around the great stone that held the soul of the Ashintar.
"Long range scans confirm Mon Keigh vessels in our patrol area. Mass displacements suggest three cruiser class vessels and five or six escorts. They've challenged us."
"Xenos vessel. You are in areas controlled by the Divine Emperor. Depart at once."
Such dreams they had had. "Send this response: Make me. Then close all communication." I sat down on the only padded seat on the control deck and waited in the silence.
"Prepare all ships for battle."
There was no acknowledgement, instead the pale yellowish light faded as wraithbone grew to surround the bridge crew in a protective shell, similar growth following in all other control nodes. As transparent wraithbone swirled around my head in milkiness before hardening to crystal clarity, the bridge crew completed their entombment and the central stone began to pulse deeper and redder. Then it went dark as my seat enfolded me and the Alshintar linked to my soul and I entered the gestalt of myself, my crew, and the Ashintar. In my sensorium I saw a projection of local space/time; all I could sense in every direction was emptiness, with but a faint hiss of dust and hydrogen atoms. Below lay a great well of gray and red, ensheathed in an armour of oxygen and nitrogen and dust and age. Other vessels of my patrol floated nearby as we all slowly moved towards the Shroud, a dense band of rock and rubble in a long and highly elliptical orbit about Syl ag Iadel. Each ship grew in brightness as spiders wove wraithbone into a fine mesh-web that projected fields into the immaterium that filled with its flow as it curdled around the harsh matter in reality and formed currents and swirls nothingness. Drawing energy from the pattern of the immaterium flow that meshed with the magnetic and gravitic lines from Syl ag Iadel's primary, the fleet began to move forward, propelled by the force of the immaterium pressing at near right angles against the outstretched sails. Turning my focus towards where my mind had been told the Mon Keigh fleet lay, the sensors of the fleet followed my gaze and I saw the primitive ships as though I was standing beside them. Clumsy things of metal and air and burning matter. Harsh, angled, more primitive than the imagination I'd been viewing. Though I could hear their repeated demands I withdraw hissing in my ears, I ignored the distraction.
With a thought, hundreds of tiny attack craft shot into space and turned towards the Mon Keigh as my fleet followed my instructions and moved into the Shroud. Missiles were launched and destroyed, horrific energies of destruction flashed through the emptiness and with each death my soul shrank just a little. Most waystones would be recovered, but some would be lost, a little more each time. Eons ago, before that which I refused to remember, I would have been the fleet, not just one ship. However such communication required simultaneity and that would have required sending my mind through the immaterium and that was too dangerous. An escort died and I winced, but didn't feel it. Once I would have. Later I would remember and try to cry but only be able to cackle in demented madness. My fleet entered the shroud and my sensorium blurred, became distorted, but I was used to that. The Mon Keigh fleet split, some on either side, and I ordered the fleet to engage the isolated elements. More missiles, bombers, horrific pulses of energy. Primitive Mon Keigh devices struck the poor Alshintar and I felt the souls of secondary weapons fall out of the unity that was my ship. Mon Keigh ships began to die and after too much death their survivors turned to withdraw.
Through the ship I made my offer: "Show your flag and I'll allow you to recover your survivors and withdraw without further harm."
"So be it." The one light cruiser that hadn't withdrawn, Mythambar, moved around the edge of the field and fired a wave of torpedoes towards a Mon Keigh light cruiser. I watched as each missile evaded the defensive fire and impacted. I watched the Mon Keigh ship die and then I let the larger ship flee as my fleet reloaded.
"Send a signal on all frequencies: Mockingbird offers aid to any survivors and transport back to your base on the world below. Repeat message and await answer." Slowly my mind commanded and my fleet drifted out from behind the Shroud and towards the drifting hulk that had once been a ship.
Faint, broken by static, I heard a response: "Mess <sksksksk>ceived. Do<sk>t <skkkkkkk>." The combined surviving souls of the crew of the Ashintar wove the message through their spirits and suddenly the static vanished. "...peating, message received. Don't trust you but we have no choice. Permission granted to close and board but be warned that we will be armed. Acknowledge. Repeating..."
I ordered an acknowledgement sent, and then my mind ordered the escort Shinkal to close and send over rescue parties. It moved nearer the wreck, slowly, carefully, and then began to launch--
An incoming message shouted itself into my sensorim: "Die Xenos bastards!" and with that the primitive fusion reactor ran wild and detonated, releasing an explosion of energy that engulfed first the Mon Keigh ship, and then the Shinkal.
As the force of the blast reached the Ashintar I could feel the gestalt of our souls shake, but by force of will I held it. Only after it steadied did I gave the order and we, and the crew on the rest of the fleet, fell back into our bodies. Air was pumped back into corridors and the ship released us from our wombs into the suddenly lonely chambers. Only then did my helmet melt back into my skinsuit and I stood up as my chair released me. The rest of the bridge crew lay still, in shock. They knew that in battle people died.
But this had been under a truce.
"Open a channel to all ships in Syl ag Iadel space, and to Milanus." I should have cushioned them more before I released the gestalt. Nobody moved. "Now!"
Halshina gave the order and whisker lasers flashed from ship to ship, each vessel chattering at the other through coherent light until a web of communication was established. Once it would have been done directly and instantly through the immaterium, but not any more. The Ashintar informed my soul when the link was complete.
"Mockingbird to all Haras ag Iadonna vessels. On this day the Mon Keigh accepted truce and then betrayed it as they detonated their ship, the resultant explosion also destroying the Skinkal." I heard Halshina begin to weep -- her mother had been in command. "As the Mon Keigh have chosen to violate a truce they can no longer be trusted. As of this date, any offers of quarter will be refused. There will be no offers of aid; any disabled ships will be fired upon at range until they are utterly destroyed. Tau ships shall continue to be offered quarter. Milanus, I request you implement this in the ground war, and request you forward it to Shakarandras. End transmission."
A captain can never show weakness. I wanted to, I needed to. But if I did I would no longer deserve to be the High Admiral. Turning, I made my way to my quarters.
In my mind I heard an echo from one of the ancient Mon Keigh recordings: "We won't kill today." Once the Mon Keigh had shown a promise of sentience. Today they had proven they were nothing but animals.
And soon they would reap what they had just sown.