Thank you for reading! Me and my coauthor Darinost are gradually combining forces and blogs, so the joint comment section for our stories is currently located on discord! Come on in and let us know what you thought, we don’t bite.
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Hyperlinks in the text are intended as supplemental material, discussing elements of the science behind the science fiction. They are not intended as required reading for the story. Hyperlinks will be provided at the point in the story where it comes up, but all the links will also be collected at the bottom of the post for easy reading.
Anna Constantos woke up looking up at the ceiling. It’s grime and cracks seemed less evident in the dim red lamplight. She was laying on a bed somewhere, not harried by any kind of immediate danger despite the rumbling of the ship beneath her… the shaking of the ship at explosive force detonating against an aegis field rattling the Death of Hope. The base impressions successfully reached Anna’s mind, yet the Medical Officer’s mind had difficulty focusing… she had suffered a grievous enough hit to her head that her wonderings were slow to work in concord with consciousness. For several moments she did not even think about where she was, what she had been doing, and the blinding terror she had recently felt when two groups of casteless fought over her was slow to return.
Anna’s whole body shook. That was right… shortly after she had discovered a discarded, barely functional copy of Atalanta she had learned about the deactivated clones. When the two of them had tried to venture onward to where she could find them… that was when it had happened. The snarls. The wild lust and crazed abandon. The violent, bloody madness of casteless warring with one another, the doctor losing consciousness, and the Kthid madness. She had been knocked out amidst the flurry of claws and blades and spraying blood.
Heavy footfalls approached nearby. Anna squeezed her eyes tightly shut, pretending to play dead… or at least to still be unconscious. She heard the steps grow closer and felt the heat of his breath as the passing Kthid stopped to look down at her from barely any distance away. The weight of his gaze felt heavy, pressing down on her psychically, making her struggle to resist shuddering and shaking as chilling horripilation ran down Anna’s spine. The doctor thought he knew she was faking, that he was about to do something… but then the footfalls resumed. They traveled away from her, and Anna wheezed quietly with immense trepidation at this close call.
It was only a few seconds later that she realized it was weird that he didn’t wake her. Why did he allow her to lie where she was? That seemed strange for one of the casteless… if she was there to be taken, he should have taken. The ability to recover, rapists who actually cared about keeping her intact enough to stay desirable and healthy… those were luxurious mercies enjoyed only by one of the Heitera.
Anna cracked open one eyelid. She glanced around the tenebrous room, the chamber too dark to see much. What she could see was not as important as what she could hear, however. The ship was, she judged, entering another battle, but more so the din of the Death of Hope’s engine turbines told her she wasn’t too far away from where she had been ambushed. She was still in the bowels of the Kthid battleship, the rearmost, bottom-most parts of its labyrinthine casteless quarters. Charnametros had dropped her into some random place, and she had managed to find her way to the absolutely darkest, most dismal depths of the vessel. That feat seemed more of a miracle than all the years she had survived as her master’s slave… Yet that just begged the question. What sort of reclusive people would willingly habituate in the deepest, darkest pits of the ship?
She had come here looking for someone… looking to test a theory. Anna’s throbbing, swollen head, however, disagreed vehemently with such lofty speculations. Instead, just trying to think about them birthed a hard dose of buzzing excruciation that consumed her skull. Anna’s palm moved to stroke her forehead, and it was only then that she realized that there was something there… someone had wrapped some kind of cloth-like substance around her skull. A bandage. The Medical Officer gaped as if having encountered some new baffling kind of alien technology. Bandages? Among the Kthid? Someone had taken care of her when she was unconscious? “What the hell kind of place have I woken up in?” she said out loud.
“Merely because you are in the depths does not mean you’ve awoken within hell, female-one,” a raspy reptilian voice spoke behind her.
Anna whirled in her bed. Years of living underneath the heels of Kthid terror came rushing back to her all at once. The lizard in the room, however, wasn’t even looking at her… he was sitting at a workbench, the stoic-looking Kthid tinkering with something. He didn’t even glance in her direction, sitting there with quiet contemplation and work. That was strange enough. It was far from the only thing odd about him, over, and peculiarities about the lizard soon overtook Anna’s horror-struck mind with intellectual bafflement. He was the last thing Anna had ever expected to see from a Kthid.
Old. Visibly old.
The signs of rarefied age were all about him… even without ever having seen an old member of their species Anna could easily identify them. There was a droopiness to his pointed snout, the viridian scales of his hue seemed crusted and not so snugly plated. There was little agility to his moves, and his arms trembled a little as he worked… Even in this dim lamplight all of these things were readily apparent. Anna would have found it less astonishing to find a talking polar bear down here. With Kthid medicine the casted warriors she had been around didn’t seem to age… they stayed young-looking and fit-looking. Sarcand was a couple centuries old and he didn’t show it at all. The casteless, however, didn’t get much of the same medicine, and even if they did it seemed that among the casteless living long enough for it to matter was an extreme rarity. The casualty rates of their quarrels and feuds were simply that costly, and the edge of physicality ruled all conflicts. This rarity of his dolor lent him a venerable cadence, like some dignified priest, or an august decon, or a haggard sage out wandering in the wilderness. Anna could not fully get over her awe at seeing something so preciously uncommon, to the point it began to reawaken long-dormant curiosities.
“It is good that you are awake. We were concerned you might not. The name I’m called by is Meimetos. Some prefer to call me Meimetos the Prophet. Outside of this place, though, most of the casteless would no doubt refer to me as “Meimetos, that crazed heretic who walks in the darkness.” None of those three names are entirely untrue, I assure you,” the wizened Space-Dragon said.
He put down what he was working on… something technological, Anna noted. The casteless were supposed to be forbidden technology. After Meimetos did, he put both hands on the workbench and slowly, painfully pushed himself up and to his feet, finally turning towards her. “How is your head? We do not have any skilled doctors” He stepped up toward her. Against her better judgment, Anna remained still as Meimetos sat down on another bed beside her. Anna swore that she could hear bones creak.
“You are…” Anna stuttered.
“Old?” he replied, a smile on his face.
Several other strange words passed through Constantos’s skull. Conversant. Not hostile. And what was that he had called himself… a heretic? “That is… quite a feat,” she gingerly replied, hoping he would take it as some great compliment.
“I am, I admit it. The only ways to survive down here are to work together, and there are only so many willing. Billions of Kthid die never seeing the truth, their minds are closed-off cages never to be unlocked. There are few of us, though. The sons of Kan’lun.” The alien nodded to her. “Your life here might not be pleasant – our home is too small for that – but you will be safe at least.”
Anna’s brain now worked in overdrive to figure out what was going on. It was a long time since she had been forced to decipher sophisticated meanings. Her scrambled, throbbing head trying to think felt like an old machine long abandoned in disuse. Heretic. Esoteric. The truth. Sons of Kan’lun. She had awoken amidst some community of religious heterodoxies? “The Sons of Kan’lun? Who are they… you?” she asked.
“The opposite of the Shan’lun’s followers,” he said with assurance, causing Anna further bewilderment. “Those would seek forgiveness from our mother.”
Anna squinted as she tried to force her exhausted brain to work. Shan’lun… that word she knew well. It was one of the words that the Kthid used to refer to the Dark Star they swore by. Invoking the name of that malignant pseudo-deity the Kthid seemed to venerate made shudders run down Constantos’s spine. She repressed the impulse that nothing good could come from worship of that foul anomaly. Keeping an open mind, she listened to what the elder said. “What do those two names mean?” she pressed.
“They are two aspects of the origin of life, the Dark Star,” he responded. “Have you seen it? I have. Not on the murals or on the wall hangings, I have seen it in the flesh. The hole of darkness in the sky that all life comes from. The angry horror that burns the universe, yet also birthed our race and every other. That is Kan’lun… she is that of which I speak.” he spoke like a prophet divulging articles of faith.
“I thought the Shan’lun was the Dark Star?” Anna asked.
The alien drew his lips back over his teeth, and for a moment Anna worried she had made an enormous mistake. His tone, however, grew no angrier… instead, it seemed to contain disgust. “Kan’lun is the black hole. Shan’lun is the unlight. The invasive, pervasive power that radiates from her, that should not be.” he continued. “Shan’lun Is the reason why the Kthid exists, to violate and conquer and rape and spread like a disease across the galaxy. Our faith in Kan’lun, meanwhile, is the reason why you awoke with a bandage around your head.”
Anna was perplexed. Religions never made much sense to her. Their divine mysteries could lead to beliefs in such unbelievable things. Religion hadn’t found much hold in the Terran Federation for a long time now, and among the casted Kthid, she hadn’t encountered many who seemed to genuinely believe. Down here, however, such vagueries seemed far more real.
“I am not surprised you do not know of this distinction. Above, few care… and those that do consider themselves the faithful of Shan’lun, having a duty to conquer the galaxy on behalf of their divine father. We believe otherwise. Kan’lun created the universe. Shan’lun is the male aspect of the Dark Star that raped her, the unlight, the energy which radiates from its perimeter and touches the genes of every living lifeform in the galaxy. It perverts, it changes, it domineers… it is what made the Kthid, ripped us from the Dark Star’s womb, and unleashed us on the galaxy. It is what kills or forces living species to kill to stay alive.”
Anna stiffly nodded. Her whole body felt rigid as a plank of wood.
“And so she hates us, Kan’lun. Even as every modern Kthid is born from an unwilling mother’s womb, so was it true for the first of us, born from hers. She is resentful of it. On her darker days, she is resentful of all life… because we exist.”
“But if Shan’lun is the unlight…” Anna injected. “The energy which… exudes from that stellar body.”
“Then Kan’lan is the physical body itself of the Dark Star, yes. The darkness. The singularity. The perfect sphere of silence and calm where mysteries hide beneath the surface. You see, beneath her rage and hatred, she is ever the mother to the universe. The Dark Star is not a thing of evil. It is this aspect of her Dark Star that we try to live by,” Meimetos stated. “That we might earn her forgiveness.”
A Kthid lugging some heavy equipment walked right past the doorway to this room. Anna was so absorbed in the content of the elder’s words that she scarcely noticed his approaching heavy footsteps until he was most of the way past the door. It was with some alarm she noted that he looked it and met her gaze for a moment… but then he just… kept walking. Meimetos continued to speak. “We are a broken people, female. This is a truth I have seen with my own eyes. I did not understand it at first when I was condemned to this pit, but… I was given much time to think. This is not as common as it should be for the casteless, I think. So many die so young. But with the grace of Kan’lun I managed to survive… And in surviving, I managed to gain some measure of wisdom, and influence among others who would listen. Eventually, others like me found me.” He gestured around. “There are many of us. Not as many as there should be, perhaps, but enough that they were able to retreat into the deepest, least desirable places, and hold them. Make a community of our own down here. As a group, most of the more bloodthirsty casteless avoid us. The only ones who venture here are those who want to live by our way, or those too crazed and violent to have sense.”
Anna blinked thrice while trying to understand it. These recluses had committed to… to almost a pure reformation of their baleful faith. A rejection of what orthodox Kthid civilization represented. A small bit of excitement grew, something she had been trying to avoid hoping for but now grew anyway. “Meimetos,” Anna said slowly. “How does one become casteless? How do the trials work?”
Meimetos twisted his face into an expression she had never seen before. It took her a moment to note the similarities to other, more cruel expressions… it was happiness. “Many ways, female… and yet only one. The trials reject younglings if they fail to match up to the Kthid ideal in some way. Either by being too incompetent to earn a class… or by being too soft and kind to conquer.”
She knew it. She knew it.
“Yes,” he worded. “It is true. You only know us from the cruelty of our actions, because that is all the Kthid are permitted to show. To them, even if they no longer worship, Shan’lun is still the entirety of their existence, a society built off the back of conquest and ravishment. Rape. Destroy. Survive. Profligate our species in the name of the Dark Star. That is all we’ve ever known. All those who came before us would permit us to know.”
Anna felt something heavy sink into her stomach. Generation, after generation, after generation, the bricks of this culture had been built. She had earlier recognized that the caste system had likely developed as a way of compensating for the Kthid’s short lifespans, a way to avoid wasting precious short time through specialization. It had been easy – inevitably, really – for that to turn into an equally potent form of social control. When the last generation decided who was given a caste and allowed to breed and who was not, they would pick those like themselves… and over years, decades, centuries, Kthid society filled itself with its most brutal, violent members. Less violent, less cruel ones didn’t stop existing… they just didn’t fit in. Were pushed to the side.
Were made casteless.
Anna should have seen it earlier. She had noted something similar happening in the HEF, after all… there was a reason membership and leadership both were so gender imbalanced. Once, it had been a reaction to a medical issue, but even after the issue was solved the imbalance hadn’t been corrected… in fact, until recent years it had steadily gotten worse. The same thing had happened here, and the Kthid in charge had had no reason to even try to address it.
Meimetos audibly inhaled and then wheezed a breath that was pregnant with wistful emotions. “Some of our members go days without speaking after realizing this and beginning to internalize it. That what we’ve been taught were failings of our character was nothing of the sort. Others kill themselves. Some others turn and try to kill us instead… the trauma of changing their entire worldview driving them into suicidal madness. Still, we do what we can… and we judge that giving those like you aid is what Kan’lun would wish her children to do,” Meimetos stated.
After all these years of torment. The more rationally-oriented parts of her brain still would not believe it was real. This. This is what Anna had been looking for evidence of. Mercy. Empathy. In the darkest parts of the Death of Hope, Anna Constantos had finally discovered an aspect of the Kthid not wholly dedicated to genocidal militarism. “What about Atalanta?” Anna asked, suddenly remembering the brutalized body of the Exalted. She had spoken of copies of herself abducted, taken out of circulation. What had happened to the digitized heroine?
“Those constructs whose pain and humiliation is the Castless’s sole entertainment in life? Their damage is not as easy to heal as the damage done to your flesh. Centuries of pain. If we could deactivate them, simply end their suffering, we would… but such is not possible. If these bodies are destroyed, the central computers will simply create more. Instead, the best we can do is mitigate their suffering by storing them away. Most just lay there, staring at nothing… merely pleased this body need not react to pain but still twitching with the agony of other bodies. I am not sure what more could be done with them,” the wizened Kthid said.
“Can you show me them?” Anna asked, forcing herself to rise out of the bed. The movement made her head buzz with resurgent hurt, and yet no amount of post-concussive cephalagy could dampen her spirits right now. Steadying herself, the Medical Officer looked at Meimetos. “Please. I would like to see them.”
He shrugged. “If such is your wish, then the Sons of Kan’lun will make it so,” Meimetos said.
Space was alight with a bevy of flames as warships sundered in the distance. Burning debris awash in the vented air from destroyed ships light up the starscape far more than she would have expected. “Focus all railgun fire along 34 -85 164!” Admiral Chanda commanded loudly, moving between orders on the bridge as new intelligence streamed in. “Direct them towards the incoming missiles. There will be more boarding sleds hidden in their wake, and I do not want the Azteca bombarded with another host of kill-hungry boarding parties. My marines are still working on making sure we’ve flushed out all the Void Tracers from the vents and ducts, and that’s the last thing I want to deal with again.”
As usual, the grandiosely uniformed Admiral stood in all her medals and livery while directing the course of the battle much like a conductor would direct an orchestra. Unlike the last battle, Ri’she’a wasn’t on duty at the helm… and as stressful as it had been to be active in the battle it was somehow worse to just stand there and need to watch. She was officially present on the bridge in a capacity as an advisor, but practically speaking she could contribute very little – Having seen a Kthid in the flesh once didn’t really give her much pressing insight into the realities of waging the biggest and most important space battle in human history. Right now, Ri’she’a was a spectator for the real heroes and leaders.
“How do you think this one is going?” Evangeline whispered in her ear, her friend talking through their private channel.
“I… I…” Ri’she’a stammered, spotting a distant warship explode into flames through the display screens that served as palatial frontal windows of the flagship. Her brain got caught trying to identify if that wreckage was one of theirs or one of the enemies. “I don’t know,” she finally said to her fellow survivor.
“Me neither,” the engineer admitted.
The realities of grand strategy were beyond them. Neither was an expert tactician… The calamity of blown-apart spacecraft and attacking boarding vessels seemed to them a kicked hornet’s nest of confusion. The Kthid had, this time, come in more slowly… not in a strafing, straight-on path, but following a curving line… one that would have them circling and enveloping the human world and its defenses in an ever-moving swarm, raining down fire on either the human fleet or the orbital infrastructure. The Kthid outnumbered them, but the milling chaos made it hard to see by exactly how much. Only one thing was clear – this change in tactics was an attempt by the Kthid to force a decisive engagement. By using their superior numbers to circle the world, they forced the HEF to likely stretch themselves out to oppose them. If they could break the human defensive lines in any particular spot, then the ever-rotating swarm over Set III would be able to pour its way through the weakness and inside the defensive perimeter. And after that…
After that, her homeworld would die in flames.
“I don’t know, sir,” an irate communications officer spat. “Look, we’re having enough trouble processing these as it is.” A pause. Ri’she’a’s eyes turned towards her… for some reason, the Sethis woman found her worthy of attention amidst the din of uproar that was Admiral Chanda’s command deck. Possibly it was because she didn’t seem frightened, or determined… merely annoyed. “Yes, I got that code.”
Needless to say, the bridge was replete with a whole grouping of military officers. Some were petty and some were grand, but all had the purpose of aiding Admiral Chanda in her direction of the battle. Yet all of them struggled to keep up with the tempo that was required and chaffed underneath the enormous stress and amount of their work managing a fleet engagement of this size. In such a situation, having a wrench thrown into one’s list of duties would aggravate anyone and this was exactly what had evidently happened to this young communications officer. She had stumbled upon some strange anomaly amidst the fight which she was unsure how to deal with. Uncertainty birthed frustration. Frustration birthed a need to resolve the situation quickly even if she could not do so optimally.
Ri’she’a stepped closer to the console by which she sat. She perked her ears and listened attentively to the words rapidly coming out of her mouth. “Yes! As I said, the codes are old!”
“Well, what does that mean?” a tinny voice came back over his headset.
“It could mean anything! Mostly likely a distress beacon from some life raft that hadn’t been updated properly. Even if it is legitimate, the likeliest explanation is that the Kthid has obtained them from human captives under torture. I can’t just relay a command to your gunners to carefully pick their shoots when there are swarms of missiles and ships out there.”
“The Admiral gave orders she be informed th-“
“The Admiral also gave orders that she not be bothered with anything non-essential… she has enough matters to personally handle as it is. We’ll just have to assume that it’s some trickery from the Kthid’s side and continue on t-”
Ri’she’a had stopped listening. She tapped the man on that shoulder hard enough he rocked in his sheet, her heart hammering in her chest. “Let me handle that,” she said to him.
“Who the hell are you and why are you disturbing my coms!?” the young officer shouted back at the helmswoman.
Ri’she’a was like a flame alighted. She felt sure she was going to find something critical, she had to get a look at that message. “I’m an advisor to the Admiral. Send them to me.”
“I need authorization t-“
“The Admiral can only be disturbed by the most pressing matters,” Ri’she’a repeated back to him firmly. “I’ll take them now, please, and you can get back to your work.”
“What are you doing?” Evangeline asked in her ear.
“Give me a minute,” Ri’she’a muttered back. With a sigh, the communications officer sent her the message she requested, and the Sethis woman bent over a desk, furiously digging through the transmission data, looking for the data she was after. She was hoping against hope as she poured over them, looking for… for…
“Leila!” she whispered excitedly. “I found he-“
Some impact slammed against the flagship. A barrage of nuclear torpedoes impacted close enough to the aegis field that some of the energy transferred, rocking the ship like a sailboat in a storm. Ri’she’a wasn’t strapped in but she managed, barely, to keep her footing anyway, and that shaking was nothing compared to what was going on inside her head. Amara. The digital signature of the communication was Amara’s access codes. The old codes had been rejected, of course, but their system had noted it anyway… and now Ri’she’a was looking right at the message her lover had sent. She was going to escape, and they needed to flag the ship as safe.
Ri’she’a looked up at the chaos around her… no one had time to talk about it. She sent the order to the communications team to monitor for IFF broadcasting these credentials but she had little authority on the matter… she didn’t know if they would do it or not. The Sethis helmswoman girthed teeth in frustration. Her blood pulsed with the knowledge that Amara Black was somewhere out there. The Admiral was busy, Aesha had far more pressing priorities, and rescuing escapees was far from the top priority of either of them.
But Ri’she’a had another idea.
“Leila, I need you,” she said into her comm, then she took off running.
“What do you need?”
“Can you give me shuttle launch authority?” the Sethis woman asked as she ran.
“What! Are you crazy!?” Leila spat into her ear. “You realize we’re in the middle of a battle and the ship is under attack, right?!”
Ri’she’a didn’t stop running, sprinting past doors and around corners. “Amara is out there. If Admiral Chanda can’t help her, then I will.” She didn’t slow down the frantic pumping of her legs at all as she moved as quickly as he could through the blaring sirens and moving marines.
“Ri’she’a, this is crazy!” the blonde engineer exclaimed.
“Damnit Leila,” Ri’she’a cursed, promptly stopping upon arriving at her destination… one of the transit shuttle ports. Ri’she’a stared at it for a moment… it was at a door just like this that she had last seen Amara. Now she was at one again, and it was going to be to go and get her. “She’s the reason you’re still here, and she’s counting on us. Are you going to help me or not?”
Evangeline groaned. “Oh god!” she peeped. “This is a… this is suici—“
“Don’t say it,” Ri’she’a interrupted. “Amara Black would do the same for us. In fact, she did.”
After a pause, the engineer groaned. “What’s the plan here Ri’she’a?”
“I take one of the HEF ships,” the helmswoman said, opening the port and stepping into one of the Azteca’s supply and transport shuttles. “And I then fly it right to from where Amara is broadcasting that signal. I’m going to improvise a rescue operation. If the navy can’t keep a lookout for potentially friendly alien vessels during this battle, then we’ll have to make sure that Amara gets evacuated with a HEF vessel instead.”
“Ri’she’a… can you really do?” Evangeline asked.
She swallowed. Then she nodded. “I damn well will,” she hissed.
Leila paused for just another second before she sighed. “I’ll get you clearance. Get ready for launch.”
The elder Meimetos guided the injured doctor out of the building and through their small community, and Anna was having a hard time believing what she was seeing. These religious heretics, these “Sons of Kan’lun,” seemed to live a fairly austere, almost monastic existence, but it was a true community, homes and workshops, and people working in groups. At first, she was jumping at the sheer number of Kthid she saw around her, but no one paid her much mind, and nowhere did the Earthling behold any sights that were contrary to what Meimetos said. There was a whole other type of Kthid civilization in existence, buried in the shadows of the first.
And, occasionally, she saw other women.
A handful of Arane. A few Nys. More Faliran than anything else. Even another human who waved at her. Other slaves but… none of them looked like slaves, or were acting like them. None of them looked beaten down, or bruised, or frightened… no one appeared to be walking on eggshells or hiding. Some of them even wore clothing, if very clearly amateurishly made. If Anna was being deceived, it was an elaborate deception and she was hard-pressed to find a reason for it.
“Here they are,” Meimetos brought her attention back to him as he reached the door he was looking for. Pushing it open, he stepped inside and he and Anna entered a spacious room.
The chamber was replete with… for lack of a better term, shelves. Row after row after row of shelves. Laying unmoving on top of them, laid out like they were sleeping, were Exalted bodies… several hundred of them at least. Anna could espy copies of dozens of different bodies, this copy of them removed from torment. “We try to collect a whole set of them if we can,” Meimetos said as Anna grimly took in the room. “If we can remove every copy of a given AI from out there, then we can let them sleep, knowing they won’t awaken to fresh nightmares. It’s not a lot, but it’s the best we can think to do.”
Anna couldn’t believe it… but her eyes didn’t deceive her. Her instincts were right. Not only was this Kthid non-hostile towards her as a woman, but they were actively going out and rescuing some of the Exalted from an eternity of suffering at the hands of the other casteless. These constructs could do nothing for them… they could gain nothing from doing this. Indeed, the more women they collected here they were just making themselves a target for more bloodthirsty casteless. The only reason to do it was…
Empathy. Because letting them suffer was wrong.
“Our efforts have been slow,” Meimetos said. “Rescuing these constructs is more risky than we’d like. Hoarding them invokes the ire of the others were they to know that we’ve absconded them… and should those above realize what we’re doing its possible they wouldn’t stand for it. The recent war effort with your people, however, has greatly improved our ability to move around and act openly. An enormous amount of the more violent casteless volunteered for the battles and did not come back, so with them dead or still away we can move through the tunnels much more confidently. Praise be to Kan’lun, that was how we managed to find you in the nick of time.”
An electric jolt snapped through Anna’s heart when she thought about the space battle occurring out there, still occasionally shaking the Death of Hope as its aegis confronted deadly munitions. It made clear that she was under time pressure. There was a risk of this ship being destroyed, of course… but also her people were fighting for their lives out there. She had come here with her goal of proving that she was right… that the Kthid were not all the monsters she saw. Now she needed to do something with that knowledge. She turned towards Meimetos with an anxious expression of haste. “The battle against my people…” she said softly.
“Yes. It appears that your race wages war well,” he agreed. “From the course, I can see things have not gone smoothly for the warrior caste.”
“The HEF. The Federation. Listen. I…” Anna said before realizing she had no idea about how to articulate what she was trying to say. There was a long and uncertain pause. She had just met the Sons of Kan’lun, had just proved to herself that they even existed, and now she was about to argue for them to change their way of life forever. “Elder… ehh… Prophet Meimetos. The Federation… My peo-species,” Constantos stuttered.
The looming, ancient Kthid gazed down at her with unblinking eyes.
“I beg of you… I implore you too…” she awkwardly continued. There really was no graceful way of saying this. “Elder, I implore you to seek the aid of my people,” Anna finally settled upon saying. “You should not live in isolation like this. Your faith, your ideas, they are too important to die off inside this dreadnaught. Imagine if you were free to move around and about in the stars! Imagine what difference you could make to the Kthid species if more of them were able to hear your words and learn a better way! The Federation can, and will, help you. If we were but to reach a HEF ship and—”
Meimetos nodded solemnly. “You are talking about escaping from the Death of Hope,” he worded.
“Yes!” Anna exuberantly replied.
“We have considered it many times,” he candidly admitted. “And yet, we are as prisoners here. We have little in the way of weapons. Only the aegis in the way of armor. And we are outnumbered.”
His words were dismissive, but not an outright rejection, Anna noted… and that gave her hope. “Not so,” she argued back. “You said the casteless war parties were the volunteers, yes? This means that the majority left behind are either sympathetic to your view – at least sympathetic enough not to oppose you, even if not moral enough to join you – or too cowardly to risk their lives fighting. The majority of the warriors are engaged in fighting my people… they can scarcely just abandon keeping the ship in working order without killing themselves. The numbers are as favorable to you as they are likely to ever get.” Anna noted, as Meimetos took her out of the Exalted’s vault, that several other Kthid and alien women had begun to gather around, listening to their discussion.
“You speak the truth,” he agreed with her. “As I mentioned, the space battles have made the tunnels and pathways of this dreadnaught more traversable than ever. If we move in number, then perhaps we could perhaps fight our way to the boarding sleds without being slain. But even if we were… we would be heading into the middle of a war between fleets. The Death of Hope and her fleet will be more than motivated to turn us into drifting atoms, but even if we made it away from them, where could we go?”
“To my people,” Anna vigorously intoned.
“Are your people so generous as that?” Meimetos said quietly. “Would they be so trusting of Kthid boarding sleds in their midst? Would they embrace with open arms some of the people that on the other hand try to force them into extinction?”
“They must. They will,” Anna insisted. “Meimetos, I promise you… if you can make it to the human fleet, the HEF will provide you sanctuary.”
Around them, voices muttered.
“I promise,” Anna said firmly, trying to sound more certain that she was. “You don’t know who I am but I’m an officer in the fleet. I can assu-”
“We know who you are, Last-to-yield,” Meimetos said solemnly. “The doctor. She who spat in the face of her own death. She who suffered without surcease to protect those she cared for. She who yielded only to save those same women.”
The praise and titles made her feel suddenly uncomfortable. Anna didn’t feel like she deserved any of them. “You just… have to fight,” she said with a swallow. “Fight your way free, destroy what you can, and make to my people.”
Meimetos stroked his protrusive snout. Those crusty scales made a dry, papery noise as his claws scraped over them. Anna felt like her heart had stopped, her whole body frozen in anticipation of his reply, and all around her, the susurration of the crowd had stopped, equally waiting for a decision. ‘s heartbeats had stopped in anticipation of his reply.
“I believe that you were sent here by the kindness of Kan’lun herself, female one,” Meimetos responded finally.
Anna gasped. “Is that… is that a yes?” she asked, excitement growing.
“After all,” he continued, “how else but by the grace of our mother could a living, fertile female make it so deep into the dreadnaught’s innards where we found you without being practically torn apart by the lustful monsters out there first? It is a miracle. Even as the unlight destroys the body, the Dark Star itself births new possibilities.” His eyes glittered as he looked at her. “Alright, Healer of the Sick. The Sons of Kan’lun will seize this opportunity.”
For the first time since the arrival of the Kthid Anna Constantos felt the fire of hope burning within her. Exhilaration filled her so that she could hardly stay still. Her journey to the depths of despair had somehow rekindled the light that she needed to go on.
“Of course… I knew that you were a sign from Kan’lun the moment the mother of one of our own was brought back by our patrols. We knew that the Sons of Kan’lun’s day of reckoning had come.” He remarked.
Anna spun towards him with such vigor that she nearly lost her footing. “What did you just say?” she spoke, voice hoarse like a straggler who had been wandering the desert. “Wh- repeat what you just said?”
“You do not even know his name, do you? The ravishers above do not normally divulge such things to their slaves, if they even give them one before it clear he will earn a caste,” Meimetos said.
“M-My son?” Anna added, the desert straggler having found her pool of water.
He smiled. “It’s Vaarg. He stands over there,” Meimetos said and pointed.
Anna whirled again and gazed toward where he was pointing.
There surrounding them was a crowd of Kthid and aliens watching them, pressing in, listening carefully. In more than one of them there was excitement at the prospect of escape and rebellion, and in others fear of the same… but one among them just… looked at her, his gaze intense and conflicted as he stood just a few feet from her.
A young Kthid, just on the cusp of true adulthood enormous already, towering over the shorter woman. His crimson eyes glittered, but not with the red lust of murder… excitement and fear and uncertainty warred in those eyes. Her son… her son was not one of those hate-filled monsters. She had known in, always known it. Anna Constantos collapsed onto her knees, and quickly Vaarg was before her, his arms on her, helping to hold her up, and she wrapped her arms around his as uncertain and long-withheld tears leaked down her cheek.
He was one of the Sons of Kan’lun. The goodness which he held within his heart was one she did not know existed among the Kthid until this day.
He was hers, and she embraced him the way she had never been permitted to when he was a child. “My son,” she wept. “Truly… my son…”
Anna had journeyed through hell to meet him. As a reward, she felt as if having arrived in heaven. She would do anything to get him off the Death of Hope and into safety. Anything.
“The Son of Kan’lun will rise up,” Meimetos said beside them. “We will escape our shackles, and reach safety among your people. Or we will die trying. Let’s hope that your species is giving Sarcand all the battle he can handle. We’ll need every distraction we can get.”
Anna didn’t even notice how much attention the Faliran were paying, and how excited they seemed.
On the command bridge of the Death of Hope, Harvestmaster Sarcand sat enthroned upon his vast command chair as he leered predatorily down at the reading scrolling by him, showing him the progress of the battle. It was going well, as he had planned it. The frenzy of this war warmed his blood until the point of boiling. Today the HEF would fall… the chaos of their desperate defense led to them crowding around their paltry would while he was free to dip in and out and pummel them. The resulting chaos was exactly the sort of killzone that any savage spawn of the Dark Star wanted to battle within… they could remain far too stationary and be crushed to paste, or they could try to flee away from their defensive platforms around Set III and be hunted down as they ran. A broad leer remained etched on his snout at all times as his mind felt almost high with the glory of the coming triumph.
All around his central axis labored pilots, officers, and technicians, all of them working to win the day and to bring glory to their species and to him. They fired guns and steered thrusters, relayed orders and coordinated with other vessels, told the boarding parties which enemy craft to crash into and harry. Though the bridge was a beehive of such warlike activity, it was all immaculately directed after his drills and instructions. He could have no finer crew at this moment, no finer dynasty to command, and he was proud of each and every one of them. This war, this campaign of enslavement sanctified by the Sunbreaker’s themselves was his doing, his legacy. No puny, soft-fleshed primates, no matter how clever and how determined, would ever deny him this triumph. He would conquer this world, breaking the back of the human fleets. Then he would chase them all the way to Earth and beyond that to further planets that any Kthid had ever gone to before. The humans, Voerash, and even his Sunbreaker father would all eventually cower before his might. Of this, he was certain.
A high-ranked Kthid warrior, one of his Kangansverii, suddenly appeared on deck. He was followed by two armored soldiers who carried a broken lifeform in between them. “My Lord,” he said, saluting. “We must speak at once.”
Sarcand, seated upon his technogothic throne, peeled his predatory eyes away from the screens he used to direct the battle and inflict the slaughter he so loved. His crew both loved him and feared him, sought his approval but dreaded disappointing him, and one of the benefits of holding such a stranglehold of respect and terror over his ship was that he knew that they would not bother him unless it involved something absolutely important. “What is this?” he balefully voiced, fanged mouth open in his simmering rage like some hungry beast expecting a meal.
The Kangansverii, a distant nephew of his named Fergran, saluted with one fist again. “We found this one and a few others skulking through the ship. Damaging systems. They were carrying weapons,” the warrior stated. At his words, both the woman and a badly-repaired pistol were tossed down before the Harvestmaster. Sarcand looked dispassionately at the crippled Faliran woman, a warrior form of the insect people. All the bones in its arms and legs had been savagely broken, that was obvious from how they bent wrong. Her carapace was cracked virtually everywhere. His experienced eye also look into the weapon, the way it had obviously been a jury-rigged repair job, screwed together from components in secret.
Components much like he had caught Amara with, several months ago now.
His eyes narrowed, but with this Faliran woman involved it was clear that Amara was not the mastermind of this particular betrayal… but given her track record, he felt certain she was involved somehow. Still…
“Thia…” Sarcand snarled, the vapors escaping his mouth humid like those of a fire-breathing dragon. The Huntmaster rose from his throne with fists clenched.
“Those two are an endless series of problems. When that whore Thia is back in chains, I’m going to personally rip the wings of every bug on this ship right in front of her,” the Warlord spoke quietly, his malice cold and serene rather than the loud, heated anger he usually showed. No, Sarcand was furious. He enjoyed the challenge. He enjoyed the game. But right now… this was his moment of victory. And if he needed to crush even his most prized Heitera like the insects they were his triumph would not be interrupted.
The Huntmaster took a step forward, leaned down, and grabbed the dazed, half-dead Faliran by her skull. He lifted her into the, staring into her eyes while they tried, and largely failed, to focus on him. “Can you hear me, Thia?” he said coldly. “I am coming for you. And the things I do to you will make you scream into your hivemind loudly enough to drive your whole race insane.”
Then, with savage strength, he squeezed his fist closed.
It made a satisfying sound.
“Gather your men, Fergran,” he ordered. “Sound alarm, and dispatch those who are not working on the ship or involved in boarding. Get the computer tracking them down. Then you shall accompany me as an honor guard on a mission to crush this little rebellion.
“Yes, Harvestmaster!” the fighter responded.
Sarcand’s leer took on an even more crooked bent.
He was annoyed that they would attempt to interfere in his triumph, but… In a way, he was happy to hear of the Faliran Queen’s uprising. Deeply-rooted instincts had told him that such an event was inevitable. But that was not the reason for his mirthless joy. Space battles could be so impersonal. He wanted to squeeze the life out of something living with his own two hands, not just blast them to death from beyond a window. This would give him an opportunity to do so. Truly he was favored by the Dark Star.
He took up his blade and marched from the room, the tromp of metal boots ringing behind him as he went.