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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
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Veil of Shadow - 15. Always Two

The first chance that Konstantin had to speak with Kerensky was a week after taking his new job. A lot of that time had been spent getting familiarised with the London military headquarters, in the Westminster area of the central city. Many decisions had been awaiting his attention, and while he had attended to some of them, plenty more were needed that he did not understand the best response for. A number of meetings were held with prominent civilian and commissioned officers to do with policy, though Konstantin still felt that he needed more direct guidance and to see things with his own eyes.

This was how he found himself in the company of the admiral as they rose above the magnificent curve of Earth's horizon in a military space transport, to review the orbital facilities.

Kerensky was dapper, in a navy-blue mess-dress uniform, the pins of his rank on the shoulder above a single military decoration, worn proudly. Though they had a quick continental breakfast on the ground, as soon as they were airborne, the admiral whipped out two cigars as an afterthought, much to Konstantin's surprise and delight.

"Lucas said we were alike, but I didn't realise just how much." He took the proffered cylinder, and Kerensky zapped the end of his own with a lighter before passing it across. "Are you sure there's no relation?"

"Hah. If they could reprimand me for smoking in here, they would." Kerensky relaxed in the flight chair, the transport beginning to rise. His tone was much changed from the military succession and the veneer of formality was gone in private. Almost a different person entirely; very candid, shrewd but with calculated bluster and a healthy amount of sailor's vulgarity. "But, with the new boss on board, no-one will dare."

Konstantin laughed. "Haha! I don't know about that."

"So with the small talk done, I wish to say this straight away: you are either the luckiest actor in the world or the most naturally-gifted statesman I have met," the admiral puffed his cigar, and blew a small cloud, "and I'm hoping it's the latter, because we badly need someone like that."

"I- ... I don't know about that." Konstantin did the same, enjoying the small luxury before they reached orbit proper. "I am just a person who has seen a few things, who knows what the world should be."

"In a room full of idiots, the average guy will seem a genius. You were in front of ten senior federal senators, some of the most-practiced politicians in the world, and you made Martin Quân crap his pants, drop his balls, and shut his mouth, in that order. You caused a political coup at the drop of a hat by simply talking, so what does that make you then?" The admiral waved airily, dismissing the rhetorical question. "I have other things on my mind than labels. What I want to know is what you intend to do with Earth's space fleet, because this is why you requested me, isn't it? You asked for my guidance specifically, when there are at least four other flag officers you could have called on, and you have delegated some of the less influential ground operations to the general staff. You're focused on space. You definitely have something else in mind."

It was at that moment Konstantin decided that, not only did he trust Kerensky already, but that he really liked the guy. Before he could say anything else, however, there was a chime and the pilot's voice spoke.

"Admiral Kerensky, Commander Andropov, we are about to dock at station Beta 4. Command is informed and will be available for any needs."

"Very good." The admiral stood, the ship's inertia managed so well that Konstantin had not realised they were now totally motionless. Kerensky stubbed out what was left of the cigar on the trash receptacle, with Konstantin following suit, and the two exited the transport onto the station's concourse.

"I do have something in mind, but I want to learn more about our space forces first." Konstantin spoke as they strolled briskly along the corridor, stars and space visible above, branching intersections passing by on the left and right. "I know what the production and logistics figures say, and some of them were surprising, but, in the same way that you trust my sense of integrity, I think your insight is what I need here."

Kerensky did not respond immediately, and instead indicated a small door in the concourse's wall. It slid open and the two men stepped into a capsule, large enough for dozen people standing. The walls were mostly transparent, the colossal superstructure of Beta-4 revealed all at once in a number of directions. The branching shape and size of the spacedock was fully apparent, and it was a startling revelation of what Earth's industry was capable of. Still, the enormity of human technological prowess was small beside the natural view below, Earth's tapestry taking up half the view through the floor. Ever appreciative, Konstantin was struck, once more, by the sense of history, the power that he had come into, as he made transit over this marvel, an authority made true by the grace of God. He almost could not fathom it, but he knew, as he had known from the moment he accepted the office, that all of this -- every last ounce of steel and energy -- would be needed for the human race to survive.

He would be there, seeing that future renewed, his conscience as clear as glass, or ... he would perish.

This was his charge to keep.

Providence.

With the flick of a hand, the admiral started them moving, the door having sealed shut, and the capsule shot away from its berth at a phenomenal speed, following the guide-rail above.

"The government thinks we have more than enough fleet for Earth's full defence." Kerensky snorted. "I don't think we will ever have enough, and we have been building and upgrading ships nearly constantly for two centuries. We are in good shape and the numbers must look healthy, but there is something you should know."

"Is it about the lunar facilities and the Mars outpost? I understand the need to not have the public know the full capacity of the space forces, so as to not scare people without need."

"No." The admiral shook his head. "It's more serious than those." The capsule came very rapidly to a halt, and the door snapped open. The two men stepped into a new corridor, one that was wide and extended nearly out of sight in both directions. The ceiling was high and the walls open for some way so the view could be observed. Kerensky pointed to what lay just beyond, nestled within temporary structural gantries. "This is part of the 'something' in question."

They were looking at a ship under construction, at least fifty metres long. It was mostly completed, the outer hull in place, though a score of grav-lifters were gliding over the surface in various tasks related to assembly and systems installation. "One of a great many we are building. Custom made to kill the enemy out there that we both know is coming for us, but, there is a catch. This ship, all the technology inside it, and the crew that will operate it, are subsidised commissions by CorpSec-Space. Ultimately subordinate to the military command, but acting as an independent service branch."

"CorpSec." Konstantin drew in a breath and stood tall. He would not let this news sway his intentions or dampen his resolve. "How much of the fleet, and why is this the case? How can you trust them?"

"The exact number is 36.2% of our space force. As for 'why', it was all part of the secret legislation that happened a long time ago in 2104, around when this mess began. The relationship has actually had a number of benefits too, in honesty, and as for trust?" The admiral gestured to the ship in front of them. "I don't trust them, but CS-Space is far more careful than those thugs down on the surface. It's operated separately, has ten times the number of eyes watching, and is on probation indefinitely. They know that if they break the rules, we will break all their pretty toys for them, because we take our purpose very seriously."

The first and last line of humanity's defence.

No-one could endanger that.

"So that's the big secret?" Konstantin said it slowly. "A private paramilitary that is run parallel to the real deal?"

"It's one secret of many." Kerensky shrugged. "So what do you plan to do for our protection, with these untold trillions worth of hardware? You haven't said."

"It isn't for our protection, admiral." Konstantin turned fully to face him. "I am going to ask Premier Guiterrez to lift the travel ban. I want to attack our enemy."

-o-0-O-0-o-

In the Sylvan Morass, the passage of the nightly cycle was different. The sounds and scents were discomforting, and although some of it was familiar, Yugan did not welcome the constant feeling of tension, the need to be alert even in the quietest moments. There was the ever-present spectre of something watching, on the edge of notice, just beyond sight.

The roving spread of the gigantic wetwoods and towering dry-shells was the basis of the Morass, the bigger trees wrapped between messy layers of thick thorned vines and the dozens of breeds of endlessly-branching spore flowers, jagged and lethal. The colourful living aggregation of wood and blossom was as treacherous as it was wonderous; the elevated path was never consistently stable, the thorns were sharp and unpredictably placed, and the natural poison was on anything and everything that the spore pollen could cling to. What was not dangerous through inanimation was alive and hungry; from the stinging lek fly, to the wilds chitok more fanged and cunning than its simpler cousin, to the lumbering territorial tul-erelin, the father's bounty. All had to be seen and tactfully avoided.

There were enclosed caves of space within the jungle fastness; places where the thickened expansive maze of ebbing and flowing plant life would clear. In these places, there was a fleeting openness, allowing for river, rock and air to break the suffocating forested hold. Often it was where the more vigorous game of hunter-and-hunted happened. Fewer hiding spots and lurking danger meant more room to move, and thus opportunity all round. For the herbivores, it was ease of grazing; for the carnivores, the chance to kill and eat. Yet, it was the apex predator that required the most care; three times the dagenith of Otsin made their way clear of the telutuk's nesting grounds, two of those just barely avoiding notice.

So it was that they rested in the relative safety of the upper canopy, several cycles of travel done but with more to go before Usun-Gar. Yugan was restless, as he had been since entering the Morass, and over the disquiet of Turil's death. Yet it was not simply disquiet that ate at him. The night-vision continued, a constant that was uninterrupted even when his communication with Shay could not be two-way, far removed from the boon that the hidden fire gave, on the mountains of Dagen's Grace.

His awakening during that nightly cycle was sudden, the so-called 'dream' of a desert world cutting off abruptly. The matriarch was next to him, watching the darkness as he and Ralot slept, the hearth-stone's glow dimmed down to nearly nothing between the three. Camped on the junction of a massive horizontal wetwood branch with the even more massive trunk that it sprouted from, they were far from the ground. The deep wilds of the Morass allowed some truly gargantuan trees to form, and the forest floor was far below, out of view.

"You rise early, Yugan." Mikom was calm, her own long-staff across her legs as she sat. It was like Ralot's, though the cured wood was further reinforced with inner bracing and extended for greater reach at either end, an allowance for her advanced skill and a mark of prestige both. "The dark is young this cycle. What wakes you?"

"Matriarch." He sat up too. "I see the night-vision. Though I cannot speak to him, nor send any message from here in the Morass, I still see it. They are upon a new world, hot and dry. The sky is blue and the ground is rock, brown and red. The secret fire is there also, and he seeks it. He seeks me. He seeks answers."

"He does as he must." The matriarch's approval was passive, but present. Her ears flicked, her claws tracing a thoughtful groove along the weapon's haft. She could tell it bothered him, her perception reading him all too easily. "Why does this unsettle you?"

Why indeed?

There was a reason. Yugan had taken time in coming to it, over a number of daily cycles, but he had reached that point.

It was still unexplained.

He had to know.

"It unsettles me because he and his kin ask questions. The humans seek with their lives and all their being, for answers to their existence. They are not Mishith, and their bodies and minds are not ours, but," he paused for a moment, considering his words, "I seek too. I seek, but you ... do not. Ralot does not. None from Otsin do! This we spoke of once before, but I ask it of you again, now and here: why are the Dagenith this way?"

Her eyes were wide, her head back, and she stared. Surprised, maybe, at the timing, but no doubt having anticipated this question from him for some time. "You know already. You say this now for your conscience, and what it demands of me, the proof it will bring." Her hiss of breath came fast, and she spoke just as quickly, but soft still, not to wake Ralot from slumber. "Then, you were not ready, but now? Now, your mind is dedicated and desires this fully, and I will tell you what more I know of the Sundering. Though, what I say may be less than what you are expecting."

The Sundering.

All part of the truth; an ancient story that was legend and history both.

A guide, cloaked in ambiguity and confusion, but a means to find and know the path.

It was a point where the whole became two halves.

What were those halves?

"We were divided." He said it, the literal meaning of the term. "Was it our minds that were split?"

The matriarch looked away, her eyes skimming the dim arboreal tint of the Morass by night. Her voice slowed some, though she did not pause in her answer, measured and assured. "We came to this world as something different than what we are in this cycle, this time of the Great Circle. Did you think us forever simple, happy creatures; content, unknowing and alack the intelligence and artifice of these 'humans'?" Her lateral right eye glanced his way, and she turned so that the nearest medial joined in that, regarding him sidelong. "No, Yugan. We are more than them today, but once, we were much more than all you have seen them do, much more than all they are. Dagen beheld the future, the same river of time you feel with your gifted sight, and he took from us our inquiry, our keen thought and honest will. He turned inwards that part of our minds, the same part that was always in pursuit of ultimate answers and the deepest questions, the tool by which the dominion of the past was built and made greater than any other. Like your own sight, he could tell a thousand ends, and then a thousand more, and he knew. He knew what would pass if we were left unchanged, reasoning and searching in the manner we did when we were whole. So he laid this down, to be divided, to be less, that our future might live."

Then, just like that, it made sense. It had never been so clear.

Yugan understood immediately.

Without Mikom needing to say another word, he knew it.

Ignorance is a shield.

The matriarch's own rendition of the Tale of Sundering, the same he heard as a child, had the answers within it. The truth was right there in the telling, and it was a paramount thing. One line he remembered well, and it stood out to him now.

Curiosity proved to be a thankless boon.

The Dagenith lived as they did, questioning little and in native simplicity, despite the obvious and powerful origins of their culture. The reason was because, in the futures where the Sundering never occurred, all Mishith were dead.

As the Tale told, the Enemy would hunt his race until the end of everything, and the old empire, the bright minds and limitless fortitude of his ancient kin undivided, were a scent that would call to them forever. Summoned once more, the Enemy would come to consume; drawn to that same spark as they were in the war long gone, and the new conflict would be ended prematurely. A defeat before Shay could turn the tide, before Dagen's heir could come into his own and do what was necessary to stop it.

"Dagen." He uttered the name. "He saved us from ourselves."

She breathed a soft sigh of agreement, a sibilant huff. "That is the heavy burden of the farseer. As it was named, the grace of this world is in the protection he gave us. Safety, for as long as we keep the gift of the Sundering, until you become what Dagen was. Now you seek, for that is what you must do. The hidden fire returned this desire to you, and that is exactly what Dagen intended."

All of this, a plan set in place by their ancestors, so long ago.

"This is only one part of the Sundering, boy-ithi. For it was a division of the mind, but also ... the flesh."

The flesh?!

She moved closer to him, her right arms brushing his back and shoulders, her head coming near to his, voice low, a tone reserved for the most perilous secret, eyes wide and inner lids open. "Each matriarch and patriarch bears knowledge written through the many cycles on this world, but there is much from those early days that we do not know. I have learned many things, and there are others I have thought on alone, even though I do not act so strongly with that desire, as you might." Her voice dropped lower, near to totally inaudible. "Yugan, our minds were sundered as I have said, but so too were our bodies. We are the blood of Dagen's blood, yet the dominion from which he came, that was finished in the Sundering; it was born of a union. It came from blood ... and stone."

Again, from the Tale of Sundering.

The Empire of Blood and Stone.

She moved her right arms from his back, to in front of both of them. The fingers of the four hands meshed in their respective pairs, left and right clasping, the claws locking the grip in place. "Two together, as one. A union." Mikom let go, the left and right separating again. "Two apart, divided. Asunder." The right hands clenched into fists. "The Mishith, the Dagenith; blood." Then the left, the hands open, the question unanswered, a query as much as a statement. "The other half. Stone."

Stone.

"How?" He whispered it back. "How can you know this?"

"It is hidden in the words." The matriarch told him, still speaking softly. Their faces were close, and her eyes were serious, focused, the irises coloured nearly indigo in the dark. "Our history is told through stories of our past, and we keep these words true, as little changed as we can. From the first telling a great time ago, the truth is still present today. Think on what you have already learned; from the Tale of Sundering itself, the text of the Threefold Gift. Dagen's intent is described in a way that is curious to me, and his manner is different from what the dagenith of today use. When I visited with our ostinith elders to Gerik village, to help clear the selet nesting near the forest road so they do not harm travelers, I met with their patriarch."

"What did he say?"

"He is like all Sundered, not concerned with old tales any more than most, but I asked, for your sake, what tradition of writ and speech lives from those cycles. He said that the Sundered settled in many places across this world, but before his departure Dagen stopped at only a few. Gerik was one such place."

His eyes widened. "The patriarch's ancestors knew him?"

"Yes. It was short, but Dagen was there. He told the firstborn gerikith to keep a close bond with us, the ostinith; a request for the Mishith of both villages to live well in an alliance of support and friendship. Why," she grinned, ears flicking, "do you think that was?"

There could only be one reason.

"Because his Sundered kin, my family, were there."

"Just so." She hissed, continuing on. "Protection, for his family line. He then said to the gerikith: 'all is done here, and you, the blood of my blood, are promised a life on this world. Now, I say farewell, for the stone of my stone awaits deliverance. I must leave for the stars.' Thereafter he departed Gerik, and not long following the world also. Yet, Dagen himself was not Sundered."

If Dagen was not Sundered, and the firstborn of Gerik knew him, then ...

"Matriarch, did they see Dagen?" He was apprehensive over the answer. "Did they witness him and tell of it?"

"Yes, Yugan." Her voice sounded so calm when she said this, and she smiled, looking away again into the night. Contemplative, soft, wistful. "They saw him. The patriarch told me he was big, strong." A passion imbued Mikom's words, a strange longing that Yugan had not encountered before; a regret for a wrong not of her making, a deep want for the resurrection of what was lost and forgotten. "Brilliant in mind, temperate and gracious in spirit. Alike us in form, but more. Greater than our greatest guardian, and so hardy as to withstand a mighty foe. He was half again our height, built of Mishith muscle and power, yet with a tremendous defence; a part through and upon him was strange, essence likened to hewn metal and glittering rock."

Metal and rock.

"Did the patriarch tell you any more? What does this mean?"

"No. I cannot say." Her look back to him was a little sad, the pupillary X widening again as she relaxed. "That was the limit of his tale, and is also the utmost of my own, boy-ithi. We speak tonight of the most central things, of the core of life as Mishith, but now my wisdom is shared and that knowledge exhausted."

Feeling odd, from all he had heard and from what it could mean for events yet to come, Yugan stood, and walked to the edge of the wetwood branch, the barely-visible space below full of nocturnal sounds, and signs of the ceaseless struggle of life on Dagen's Grace. Mikom's footfalls followed him and then the matriarch stood too, gazing upon the same sight.

"Two bound into one, and one divided into two." Yugan mused aloud. "I must find more about this. It is my wish to have a better understanding of the path ahead. I must tell you, matriarch: the other humans who know Shay, and have journeyed with him; they spoke of gods. Their words and opinions differ, but two of those companions described a similar being. This being has unlimited power, knowledge and ability; a magical agency to understand every intent and purpose so great as to defy reason. This being is considered a cause for all known and unknown; a creator and a destroyer both. I saw the hesitation Shay has, the same I feel, as we are both youth who are beset by greater forces. Each force has a voice and they loudly proclaim their own as the truth. We both dread something about it, but I cannot say what." He looked to her, his ears downward, the sentiment within almost pleading, his age very apparent to Mikom's patience. "It is so daunting."

"Ah, but we know of gods," rumbled Mikom, her superior right hand rising to rest on his left shoulder, a reassuring scratch along the ridging that was a comfort. "We have seen many others embrace them, to look for solace and explanation in a higher form than their own. Much can be invoked in the name of a grand concept, yet, our reason has ever told us but one thing: all that exists is a cycle, and it is endless." She waved her left arms into the dark, to the forest of Dagen's Grace in front and below them. "It turns, and there is birth, life, and death, then birth anew and so it goes. Be it smaller than a mote of dust or larger than a star; be it in less than a moment or for time lasting a thousand ages, all things are within the Great Circle. If there are gods, they reside in the forces of nature, silent and indifferent, neither needing nor asking for our worship."

All things were touching, connected, but ...

"What, then, is our foe?"

She cupped his face with the same hand, a very intimate touch normally from a parent, or mate. "The breaking of continual motion," she whispered, "and the end of the eternal cycle."

The death of the Great Circle and all things.

He touched her hand, with his own, his eyes searching her face. "Mikom, I am afraid."

"Yugan, do not fear, You will face the Enemy," she breathed, her eyes alight with belief and faithful promise, "and you will do what Dagen could not. You will kill it."

-o-0-O-0-o-

The days following Kenji's arrival at the Moldovan quaternary headquarters were busy. As the fourth and final option available to the Brotherhood's field operations in Europe, Chișinău had been a largely inactive and infrequently-used location before the CorpSec assault. The primary, secondary and tertiary locations in Italy, the Czech AR and Serbia, respectively, had all been overrun and neutralised during the corporatist attack. Though the Europe theatre was one of several command posts that were coordinating the Brotherhood's mostly-illegal global efforts, it was also arguably the most relevant. This was mainly because the contemporary political centre of Earth was in Brussels and would not be shifting for years more. The most crucial work in preventing corporate socio-political domination of the planet was managed from there.

So it was that the damaged Brotherhood continued to struggle in recovering from the blows struck across the planet, as Kenji tried to make sense of what had happened from that new base in Moldova, close to the Black Sea.

A lot of it was still wrapped up in politics.

Blasted and accursed politics.

As far as statecraft went, realism was an ideology that had been a struggling third in the federal senate for as long as it had existed. It was under-represented compared to the other two larger and older forces. There was a long-held belief by many in the Brotherhood that this deficit was not due to a lack of popular support. Many thought, and there was plentiful evidence to support the theory, that the realist ideal had far more followers than was typically estimated. The disparity was more to do with a systemic failure of representation; a distortion of the electorate through manipulative practice.

The description most often used for this phenomenon was gerrymandering.

It was a method employed rigorously by the corporatists and loyalists alike. Whether through economic pressure, changes to electoral law or simply redrawing the borders of a constituency, these methods had worked to suppress any minority from accumulating too much political support to challenge the status quo. Ways were constantly found to make traction next to impossible for any group that wasn't strongly aligned to either of the two largest schools of belief. It also served to entrench those two schools in their incessant struggle against one another for an outright majority. It had reached the point where a significant chunk of the federal legislature's seats were immobile and locked down, perennially bought and sold for either MFM or the SDCP.

There was little room left for a third way.

Still, the realists were more than just a minority and had persisted far longer than any other movement. Even the Brotherhood alone was influential enough to be considered a threat by corporatism and not merely a passing concern. To the loyalists, they were a questionable 'Option C'. However, the Brotherhood in particular had always been very careful to keep their politics and subversive operations organisationally separated, just enough that their senators could not be arrested or tried for whatever the field counterparts did. This apparent disconnect ensured that the conflict of words between politicians of all stripes stayed -- mostly -- as just words, while CorpSec, the federal police and the Brotherhood agents continued the endless dirty war of espionage and sabotage in the background.

It had been this way for a very long time, though now it was clear things were changing; the polarisation was sharper, the events accelerating, the rhetoric and actions more extreme.

All of this Kenji knew and understood.

Then came current events.

Earth's turmoil had moved into a new uncertain phase. The CorpSec assault had been intended as some kind of precursor to the seizing of the military leadership, though it was not yet clear if there was any greater purpose to it. However, Lebaredian's assassination and the outcome of the succession were definitely not intended, and were a massive complication for the corporatists. Konstantin Andropov was not a puppet to any group, and the new premier was also not MFM's friend; if all sources were to be believed, Guiterrez was a stalwart loyalist, and he soon proved it. Three days after Kenji's arrival at Moldova, the new premier had called a press conference. After consultation with the requisite officials, there was an important announcement to be made regarding what had transpired during the dramatic spectacle of the military succession.

By executive order, CorpSec was illegalised and the chief officer, Martin Quân, was to be arrested, pending investigation of criminal charges.

This news was a ray of sunshine on what had otherwise been a decidedly dark few days. The charges included abduction, economic and scientific espionage, conspiracy to commit and execute terrorist acts, treasonous activity and gross negligence contributing to human genocide. The celebration was short lived, however, as the following morning further news arrived.

"Can you believe this bollocks?" Shearer threw the datapad onto the conference table, startling Kenji out of his morning stupor; his brain lost in the quagmire of contemplating Earth's situation, a mug of hot coffee in hand. "First useful thing I've seen a loyalist premier do in months and the senate just craps all over it like it's nothing."

"What? Let me see that." Heinrich picked the pad up and skimmed over the contents. At Kenji's whim, the three men had taken to meeting for a planning session every morning. Though both were accomplished team leaders and important in their roles at the European command as field personnel, neither were experienced in advisory roles. Kenji had requested they serve as such, because he knew and trusted them more than anyone else, except for his own team. Yet, his team was not available; Ayize and Rashid were far away on another world, and Lindani?

Somewhere in the belly of the wolf.

Missing in action.

"What's it say?"

The German read it aloud for Kenji's benefit. "The senate voted fifteen minutes ago on a resolution that directly invalidates yesterday's executive order by undercutting the legal foundation. The statement made by MFM's senate majority leader says the executive has insufficient jurisdiction and is displaying a lack of due process." Heinrich made a disgusted face at the transparent hypocrisy of that description before continuing. "Furthermore, CorpSec is now accorded state-security equivalent status, subjecting it to the same immunity as federal law enforcement agencies, and extending protection from criminal liability ex post facto."

"Basically, they're rigging the bloody game. Again." Shearer slumped angrily into his chair. "Quân's got a pass. No-one can prosecute him until the premier resolves this with the senate, and they're not going to give an inch. Why would they?"

Heinrich shrugged. "Ja, well, I like Guiterrez's style. He's giving them hell, and maybe he can overturn that ethical review law which got us into this mess. Then there's always the fact that he isn't her."

"Can we please focus?" Kenji rubbed his forehead and waved at the briefing holo-screen in the centre of the table, placing his mug as he spoke. "Is communication still down with any branch?"

"No." Heinrich tapped a button and the world map appeared. All the Brotherhood command stations were green, denoting operational status. "It's taken a while to get everyone back on the map, but West Africa was the last. They reconnected early this morning."

"Anything new then? We've been rudderless for days. Tech ops has the burden on them, since field work isn't gonna happen until there's a better picture." Kenji glanced from Shearer to Heinrich, hopeful that there was a lead to go on. "I'd be running every type of oversight possible myself, anything at all, if I didn't have to be here. Doing this."

The other two men shared a brief look, both recognising the tone. They hadn't heard it often, because Kenji was intelligent and usually an optimist, but this situation was different. Though not lacking experience, he was young and placed unexpectedly into a role he probably didn't want, with the burden of the previous commander being captured by their biggest foe. The mood was heavy with frustration, but also with a powerlessness and anger. More than that though, there was something else.

Fear.

Their abducted comrade was not just a regular agent or low-level staff member. He was the reason Kenji was here, in the Brotherhood. He was the one who had recruited Kenji, had known him the longest, and out of everyone in their dangerous profession, he was the closest.

Lindani was a brother and a friend.

"Nothing, Ken. There's been nothing." Shearer's reply was soft. "CorpSec activity continues to be higher than normal since the raid, but there haven't been any tip-offs. It's business as usual, and most of our captured personnel have vanished like ghosts to god knows where. We can't tell which direction they took Lindani, which unit was responsible, anything really. Only that he's not still in Poland nor anywhere in Europe west of the Oder-Neisse, according to counter-int tracking probability, courtesy of our contacts with the Polish and German feds. Could be literally anywhere else in the world outside of that."

"But he is alive." Heinrich was quick to add this. "He's an important catch because of his position with us and because of his family relations. If you ask anyone to name the top five most wanted realists, it's always the same. Right after Jorge Monsanto and Medhi al-Bashir, it's Ayize. Lindani is too valuable to kill because he's a Mthembu closely related to our boss." He paused a second, switching out the world map for a data stream. "I want him back safe as well, you know that, but we aren't understanding what's going on here. CorpSec is acting on some bigger timetable, and we have to see that picture if we want to figure out where they're going with this and what's happened to Lindani. They've lost the military to Andropov. That's one thing in our favour, though, you know what I don't get?"

Kenji shrugged. "What's that?"

"The CorpSec raids and Lebaredian's assassination were only a couple of hours apart."

"So?" Shearer gave a shrug of his own. "What about it?"

"Well, she was helping them take control and MFM orchestrated all of that stuff in the senate with her cooperation. Sure, that's obvious, but think about it a little more. I don't believe the timing is chance," Heinrich insisted, "because it seems like too much to say it's coincidence they came at us just minutes before that bomb blew up in Brussels. They were trying to stop it."

To stop it?

Kenji stared at him, his attention definitely caught.

Heinrich wasn't finished. "CorpSec must have learned there was going to be an attempt on her life, but I don't think they knew nearly enough about the details. My guess is they must have figured it was due around the time she was to resubmit the military succession protocol. MFM didn't want their puppet to die, so they made CorpSec act first to disrupt the assassination through a pre-emptive attack on us."

"Except it wasn't us that was trying to kill her. The Brotherhood had nothing to do with it." Shearer was gazing thoughtfully at Heinrich too, eyes narrowed, reclining in his high-back chair. "Don't know who else to think of here. The other realist minors are too small to arrange a hit on someone as big as the premier. Apart from us, LEF is the only other group that could and we do know they have been moving resources into Europe, so they have the means to try, but ... there are problems with that idea. First, even they would have a hard time outplaying executive security, which is normally impeccable and very well informed. Second, I'm not sure about their motivation. They have some fuckin' weird ideological positions, but they don't do things like bombings without a real strategic point to it. Why would they care about killing her?"

The German nodded. "Exactly. There'd be a new loyalist premier in Guiterrez and we know MFM's senate majority would have found some other way to twist the law so the military succession happened without Lebaredian's prompting anyhow. Aside from making a symbolic statement by being the first to kill a sitting head of state, LEF gets no advantage from the assassination. Risk without payoff doesn't fit their MO. I'd know, I spent a lot of time with their Latvian agents during that whole Baltic proxy mess in '14. They don't think like that, the doctrine is results first, ideology following. So, that's what I don't get. Who did it and why?"

The longer Kenji thought about it, the mre Heinrich's commentary made sense.

CorpSec didn't do it. The Brotherhood had no part either. LEF wasn't above terrorist methods, but it made for a very strange fit with their normal style; there was no obvious reason and they would have claimed responsibility if they were the perpetrators.

Yet, the fact remained: someone had deliberately assassinated Tamara Lebaredian for political ends, but ... why?

Who else was left? Could it have been someone within Earth's government itself that had discovered her duplicity? Some secretive loyalist fanatic group hellbent on stopping the traitorous premier's betrayal?

There was a beep from the desk, and Kenji waved permissively at the screen. Video feed opened on it, the tech ops coordinator from a few rooms away on the other end. "Sir, sorry to interrupt."

"It's fine, Sandra. What's happening?"

"Data salvage is done on the Prague archive." Beside Sandra's face, a new information feed opened, a screed of code flowing into it. To Heinrich and Shearer, it was incomprehensible, but Kenji knew what he was looking at, and his eyes lit up as he scanned over the stream. "As you can tell, a lot of it was a mess when we pulled it. We've reconstructed most of the last-minute communications before the secondary command was attacked. CorpSec interference was heavy, so we only got around 70% extracted before they terminated the physical link."

"I see. You have video capture?"

"Yes sir. It was between Václav Sedláček, the Prague communications officer, and Lindani Mthembu. He was in contact from the Wroclaw liaison with LEF as intended, right before CorpSec hit. Here, see it for yourself."

Sandra's video feed disappeared and a new image burst to life on the holo-screen. Lindani's face was speaking into the camera, the video beginning in the middle of a sentence. "-are unusually co-operative, though I haven't spoken with the field commander yet, just the attending agents."

"Do you know any more about the purpose?" Václav's voice came from off-camera. "Our original communiqué was to encourage transparency. We expected resistance to this idea."

"No." Lindani shook his head. "It's supposed to be conciliatory or about some kind of collaboration though still no specifics yet until I talk with the CO. They have mentioned the premier and vice-premier openly several times in conversation, but it's been inconclusive. There was something else about the 'Ruthenian boundary' and how MFM can't learn more about it, but it's all confused. I am going to ask when we liaise."

"Understood." Václav agreed. "We'll expect more when the-"

In mid-speech, the communication was cut off, no more video being available.

"That's it?" The Englishman frowned. "Not much to go on."

"Well," said Heinrich, a personnel file open on the datapad as he flicked down the listing, "Sedláček is listed as KIA at Prague, so we can't find anything more from him."

"We may not have to." Both men looked at Kenji, blank expressions. "LEF knows something about all this, and they mentioned a place."

"Yeah," Shearer dragged out the word, "but Ruthenia is a large area of eastern Europe with millions of people. That's vague as hell and not very workable."

"See, that's something I don't like hearing, because it's Lindani," Kenji inhaled heavily, a somewhat manic lopsided grin creeping onto his face, "and because, gentlemen, if there's one thing you should know about me by now, it's that I fucking love a challenge."

-o-0-O-0-o-

With the coast clear, Ayize ordered Rashid to the site of the torched xenomorph ships, both to meet up with Mira and inspect the remains, to ensure the arbiters were properly dead. Not saying a word more about the fireworks display he had just witnessed, Ayize came with me back to the intersection, and I woke Liberty. With a command, it lifted off and settled afresh in a new landing zone much closer to the node's location, upon the northeastern plateau. Through the sweltering heat, we continued the short distance on foot and found a way up onto the plateau's surface. Getting closer, I could feel the node easily without having to look for it, the shine from within the rock so painfully obvious.

Tapping into the ship's embedded human technology remotely, Ayize did a scan of the plateau's interior. To our surprise, it was partially hollow, the node inside a sizeable cave. Not having to smash our way through solid rock to reach it was a bonus, though the trick was now going to be finding a suitable entrance instead. The scan revealed the beginning of a zig-zag cleft through the rock that tunneled under the surface, not too far from us, and on into the node's chamber.

Stowing the LG inside the ship, we found the break in the ground. At first it was too narrow, but it began to widen until it was large enough to climb into. The path was not direct and twisted around and underground. I went first, and for some reason Ayize decided this was a great time to start a conversation, as we were both threading our way through a narrow rocky chasm. Since I had summarily fried the five Disciples, he had kept to communication needed for continuing in our quest.

"So, you really were listening when I said you should unleash everything? Because you managed to surprise the shit out of me."

"Spur of the moment." I edged further into the dimness, sidling around the protruding formations on the wall. I owe so much of what our success to Mira. "He inspires me to do whatever I have to do. It just .. works."

"You know, I've been wondering about that." He was right behind me as we picked our way through the rather narrow space. "Whether you've been together for just a few weeks, I mean, because you two look at each other like my mother and father do, or well, used to, when my father was still alive." Then, a moment. "Though Mira's really hard to read most of the time, but there is one thing that I keep catching him doing that's a complete giveaway."

"Really?" I glanced back, and he passed me the torch, the daylight not fully reaching our current point. "What's that?"

"Staring at your ass." I ... uh, what? He sees Mira doing that?! I was already going red, and Ayize chuckled, a wide grin appearing. "Don't worry, it's a puppy-love kinda thing. He's got fine taste." Then a momentary pause. "So do you, actually. You're both cute kids, and I'm not blind. You can relax though, I'm three times your age. Got no interest in anyone out of my zone." He continued on, cheerily ignoring the various shades of scarlet I was turning as we sidled onwards. "My sister Mbali has two daughters, 15 and 17. They'd probably pee themselves if they met your boy. He's basically sex-on-legs and they're going through this Caucasian-boyband obsession phase," he paused again to laugh a little longer, as we finally squeezed out of the crack into the chamber, "and I know how embarrassed you are, and I'm not even sorry I'm making you into a tomato. People are my entertainment on any mission, and right now you're the equivalent of a portable gaming system."

"We're inside!" I blurted it out, quicker than I should have, wanting anything at all to change the conversational tack away from Mira's sex symbol status. "The node is in here."

"Oh, so we are!" Ayize stepped with me into the clear, shining the newly-reacquired light in all directions. "Where is it?"

The cave was a dozen metres long and wide, and maybe four times my height. The floor was mostly flat, but the walls were stratified sandstone, and uneven, curving back in closer to form the ceiling. The node sat in the middle of the chamber, in the air, like the rock itself had receded to make space for it.

"It's here." I walked across, reaching up to touch where the beacon would be, though there was nothing there to physically contact. Ayize was following, and he pointed the torch at the air, then waved an arm through the spot.

"That's it?"

"Yeah," I laughed. "Your hand just went straight through it."

"Huh. Weird."

Now, let's see what you can tell me. I focused, about to reach out, but I was beaten to it by the node itself. There was the same weird mental 'click' of recognition from it, and then, as at Aspira, a visible display formed in the air.

"Oh!"

Ignoring Ayize, I watched it do a repeat of what I'd seen on Lucere. The node switched through a bunch of communication methods before the same conclusion, where it settled on a mental approximation of English. The display filled with the same type of alien script, though like before I could understand it just fine.

Calibration affected.

So far, so good.

----- User Definition -----
Sequence Type: Virtuous-Strength Strain-4
Sequence Grade: Master
Identification: identifying; parsing neural duality

The final line was different. Unlike Aspira, this node was finding my existence a little more confusing. It changed to a new text string.

Identification: identifying; defining quantum synchronisation

Er? There was another change following. What does this mean?

Identification: identifying; resolving personality coherence

Then another following that. Personality coherence? It's not sure who I am?

Identification: identifying; accepting unified physical patterning

Oh, now what?! Then, finally, it settled on a response:

Identification: Sulin

"Sulin." I whispered the word. "It's calling me a name."

"Hm. 'Sulin'?" Ayize queried. "This writing looks like a symbolic mixture from Chinese, Arabic and Hindi. You can read it? Well, what am I saying, of course you can read it, you've got a magical alien computer system inside your head. What else does it say?"

The display cleared, filling with a fresh jumble of script.

----- Planetary Network Regulator -----
----- Welcome: Master Sulin -----
Current Productive Integrity: Maximum (100%)
Network Link Activity: Disabled (0%)

"It's part of some kind of network," I told Ayize, "but it's disabled."

"Network? Like the aqumi grid on Lucere sort of thing?"

"Not sure." Time to try something else though. Staring at the node, I shot it my best version of a 'command' that I could manage, the same sort of authoritative 'voice' I had used with Liberty. Enable the disabled links and display any network properties. To my complete surprise, no further coaxing was needed. The response was instant and exactly as I requested.

Yet, it was more than I was expecting.

Far above and beyond, in space, I felt something change.

Like a pebble dropped into a pool, a gravitational ripple came from the star that this planet orbited. The splash was momentary but strong, a nudge initiated by the quantum node next to me, and then from across the vastness of the interstellar void, somewhere else, there came an answering ripple, a beat of acknowledgement ... from another star.

A place that I knew well.

"If it's a part of a network, wouldn't there be another node here?" Ayize was still speaking, oblivious and clueless. "I mean, what's it networked to?"

Stellar meta-spatial connection active.
Extra-solar resources accessible.

"Lucere." I told him, staring at the rearranging mess of words. "It's networked to Lucere."

Local Node:
Identification: Samed
Structure: meta-spatial network regulator
Anchor connectivity: active, stable

Network Link (1):
Identification: Sulin's Will
Structure: conservative defensive matrix
Anchor connectivity: active, stable

Network Link (2):
Identification: unidentified
Structure: meta-spatial network regulator
Anchor connectivity: inactive

"What?!"

"I, uh- ... it's the star," I managed, still staring. "They called this world Samed, and the star it orbits is linked to Lucere's star, like ... like two anchors in space."

"Lucere? You mean the stars' gravity wells are joined somehow?" He blinked. "That's crazy. Well, not totally, because it fits given the sort of reality-bending that's happened on Lucere, but how is it actually possible?" An uncertain shrug. "The other system is light years distant from here. This goes beyond what you've told me about aqumi so far."

"I bet it's the same method that voice talked to me from ... wherever it is. Somewhere out there, a long way away. Aqumi is often more advanced than I understand, but sometimes it seems like physical distance is totally meaningless and sometimes it doesn't. Still don't know why and how that works."

My gaze was drawn to the name for the active network link, and some kind of weird pressure was growing in my mind as my attention stayed locked on the script in the air. Like a pulsing rhythm, trying to get me to give in fully, to commit to ... something. Our current location was Samed, and Lucere had to be the first network link. The 'conservative defensive matrix' is, of course, the aqumi grid, and their name for the world was Sulin's Will.

Again, the name was so familiar.

Sulin. Is that ... me?

The air in front of my face misted, the drumbeat of the mental pressure intensifying. There was a burst of colour, my senses contorting along with the shapes in front of my eyes. Then I was plunged into a vision, a reality; my whole body experiencing something else.

It was me, but not me.

Another me.

Far away, long ago.

Tall, strong, unimaginably powerful.

My sight, the feeling of my body, the motion of my stride; all of it was unarguably alien. Muscles, movement, structure and perception; all of it was different. I walked, an indestructible avatar of war more than twice the height of a grown man; a symbol of victory and all the struggle required to attain it.

The master, the general, and the final hope of survival.

A planet before me, covered in a vast crystalline and metallic construction, adorned with fantastic alien technology; a glowing composition of light and wonder. Beside me, another of our kind stood, surveying the fruit of our labour.

"Look," she said, in the same voice I spoke with when I was 'possessed', a deep strange melodious reverberation. Alike to no language on Earth and with more than a few sounds human tongues could barely reproduce, it rolled through me, beautiful and bizarre. "Remember the sky."

My vision shifted upwards, to clouds and aemfid, and the sparkling constellations of the evening.

Lucere.

"I remember the path to my brother, as I remember you. I am destined to walk it, in a future time." Using the same language, I was replying to her. The sight was seared into my memory; the night sky of Lucere, the stars above Sulin's Will. Then to her, my guardian, companion and perfect solace; beloved and cherished. "You will see me again. The body dies, but our seed is immortal. The spirit lives on."

"The spirit lives," she intoned, a harmonious echo. "Dagen's promise is real."

"It is real," I assured her, "and I will find you, whatever we become."

Then the vision was changing and it was the sky, once more, but on Samed, the scorched desert world. By night it was a deep, oversaturated dark blue, filled with a dazzling collection of unfamiliar constellations, bold and etched into the celestial backdrop, a snapshot of retrospect.

"I remember Samed." The alien voice, my own speech and yet, still, not.

Then, a new sky.

A barren planet, clad in a shroud of unlivable clinging gas and fog. The roof of this world was a brilliant detailed weaving of white pinpricks on the fabric of the cosmos. Obvious, clear and most importantly of all: easily memorable.

"I remember Elkos."

Elkos.

The next world.

"Shay?" The call seemed to come from a great distance, and I blinked. Through humans eyes, Ayize was practically in my face, slapping my cheek gently and peering at me. "Come on buddy, snap out of it. Shay! You with me?"

"Yeah." I nodded, taking a deep breath, the room fading to what it was meant to be, a rocky chamber inside a plateau. "I just had a ... a vision."

"No kidding. Your eyes went all funny, and you started talking in some weird language, like you were having a conversation with someone that wasn't there." He stood back, giving me some room, a grin quickly resurfacing after the drama of the moment. "Sounded like a Nazarite Baptist preacher high on the 'Holy Spirit' if you get me. Scary shit."

I smiled. "Heh, I'm sorry. It told me something; that this network is a path to a place where I can find, uh, someone. It- ... it, um," fumbling to speak, the vision had shocked me somewhat, "could be the owner of the voice that spoke to me through the kitten."

"The voice?"

"Yeah," I breathed. "I- ... I think his name is Dagen, and I think ... he is my brother."

em>Always two there are, no more and no less.
Happy New Year!
This chapter is all about twos, and with a healthy throwback to Hidden Sunlight and the beginning of Veil of Shadow. Who remembers the Tale of Sundering? wink.png
Of course, the discussion thread is available, and I would love to hear from you regardless; review, like and commentary are always welcome! smile.png Please let me know what you're thinking.
Copyright © 2017 Stellar; All Rights Reserved.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental.
Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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Lol, so always two... now the question is, who is the apprentice? :D
It should be telling that I got that reference even though I never heard that line in English, only in German. :D

 

Anyway, I liked the chapter, great work.

 

I'm not sure Konstantin's plan to go on the offensive is the greatest idea, but then, anything else would sorta suck for story development, I guess. :D As long as he waits until the internal problems are resolved... then again, actually being at war might make his job a lot easier (that is, as long there is war against an alien race, different human fractions tend to get along a lot better...
Yugan, Dagen, Shay... the whole thing is a bit confusing in the details, I might have to go over it later one more time. But all in all very nice. I sorta knew/suspected that reason for Yugan's race to withdraw from technology etc. all along, but having it confirmed was good. :3
I do like the idea of the whole rebirth(?) thing. If I get it right, Shay thinks that Yugan is Dagen? I hope I didn't get it all wrong.

 

Anyway, can't wait to see how that will end.
Great writing, I hope you will find the time for another chapter soon

 

:kiss: and :hug: from Germany :)

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On 01/05/2016 08:24 AM, Sammy Blue said:

Lol, so always two... now the question is, who is the apprentice? :D

It should be telling that I got that reference even though I never heard that line in English, only in German. :D

 

Anyway, I liked the chapter, great work.

 

I'm not sure Konstantin's plan to go on the offensive is the greatest idea, but then, anything else would sorta suck for story development, I guess. :D As long as he waits until the internal problems are resolved... then again, actually being at war might make his job a lot easier (that is, as long there is war against an alien race, different human fractions tend to get along a lot better...

Yugan, Dagen, Shay... the whole thing is a bit confusing in the details, I might have to go over it later one more time. But all in all very nice. I sorta knew/suspected that reason for Yugan's race to withdraw from technology etc. all along, but having it confirmed was good. :3

I do like the idea of the whole rebirth(?) thing. If I get it right, Shay thinks that Yugan is Dagen? I hope I didn't get it all wrong.

 

Anyway, can't wait to see how that will end.

Great writing, I hope you will find the time for another chapter soon

 

:kiss: and :hug: from Germany :)

Always two! Shay and Mira, Kenji and Lindani, Shearer and Heinrich, Konstantin and Kerensky, Yugan and Mikom ... Dagen and Sulin. This chapter is definitely full of pairs! Master or apprentice is totally your guess.

 

I'd caution to say the audience has no idea what Konstantin is intending just yet. I don't think that Earth's internal problems are going away any time soon, since they're very well entrenched into the system and if it were easy to solve them, they'd be solved already. In a sense, humanity is in a Cold War with the xenomorphs anyhow; either side is aware of the other but neither is engaging after the events of 2104 (for entirely different reasons, though the aliens rationale is not clear at this point.) Something will trigger the hot conflict at some point and at that point it will become 'survival or extinction' for Earth.

 

Regarding Shay and Yugan's experiences in this chapter: if Shay has Sulin's aqumi-ghost 'possessing' him to some degree ("The body dies but our seed is immortal. The spirit lives on.") then what about the others infused with aqumi -- who lives in Mira and Yugan? The text has already told you, if you can piece it together ;)

 

:hug:

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Again a great chapter - thank you.

Thought for me a little confusing at times. Very archaic what's going on with Yugan. But I think we are going to be told and will get the whole perspective lateral things develop.

 

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17 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Again a great chapter - thank you.

Thanks for reading.

17 hours ago, BarkingFrog said:

Thought for me a little confusing at times. Very archaic what's going on with Yugan. But I think we are going to be told and will get the whole perspective lateral things develop.

I am assuming you mean the dialogue between Yugan and Mikom is archaic? I would say this is true, mostly because you are reading an alien conversation rendered into human language. It will not have the word use, jargon, slang, contractions, etc., that make up modern English. There is a more formal style and a particular type of phrasing that the Mishith, and dagenith in particular will prefer, having spent so long in isolated and primitive conditions.

As for the Sundering and what it meant and means for their race: yes, that is an ongoing plot thread and a very important one. More information will emerge on this in due course.

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