The Admiral and the Artwork
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The next day or so was hell. The news of the approaching fleet spread rapidly across the planet, breathlessly repeated by every news station and network rumor mill, each one exaggerating the danger more than the last. Not that there was much space for exaggeration, given how objectively bad the situation was already. Bouwon-Phane, as the capital of the Architectine Republic, was more well-defended than the average planet, but the Architectine Republic’s small size meant that even a substantial fleet wasn’t much compared to the sheer mass of the Order. It had taken just under two weeks for the Order to overwhelm New Malagasy. Nobody knew how long Bouwon-Phane was going to be able to resist; worse, nobody knew what would happen to the planet when they failed.

Wherever news of the danger went, panic followed. I saw shops closing down in the capital city’s downtown area, their shelves having been completely emptied out by panic buyers. Protesters swarmed around the government autoplexes demanding price controls and handouts of supplies during the siege. When I was inside the autoplex I’d hear Architects having hurried conversations about how the planet was going to keep its infrastructure going when much of its high-value industrial supplies and raw materials were imported from elsewhere in the system. 

Meanwhile, Amanda informed me, the political system descended into complete and utter chaos. A substantial minority of senators were fervently arguing that war with the Order was not inevitable, and that Bouwon-Phane should negotiate with them, in contradiction to the fact that the Order had not sent so much as a single word of demands or complaints. That faction didn’t have the votes to actually force any kind of demobilization, but they were very loud and could waste everyone’s time. The rest of the government was busy arguing over things like what fraction of military supplies should be diverted such that the civilian population could better weather the siege, or which off-world stations and planetoids the navy would be mandated to defend. 

Within a day of the announcement of the incoming fleet, panic had itself given way to crackdown. Stunrod-armed police patrolled the streets of the cities, shoving homeless Architects off the streets and dispersing protestors with choking clouds of oxygen gas. Food handouts did start not long after, but haphazardly, unequally, some regions of the city having no nearby distribution centers while others were crowded with them. 

And all the while, that same cold feeling of helplessness sank in. It was New Malagasy all over again. Amanda continued trying to earn Dr. Erobosh his freedom, but found it even more difficult now that most people were too consumed with fear over the invasion. One evening I overheard her complaining that several of the government officials she was meant to be making liaison with had vanished, fleeing the planet on privately-chartered ships. All private ships had been seized and commandeered for the war effort earlier that day. 

The next day after that, we took the bus to the autoplex from the hotel the same as we had every day since we arrived on Bouwon-Phane. Our routine was disrupted when, upon entering the lobby of the building, our group was intercepted by a trio of Architects all wearing navy uniforms.

“Mrs. Karus,” one of them said, “we’d like for you to come with us.”

Amanda stopped, eyes narrowing suspiciously. “Am I under arrest?” she said in Architectine.

The naval officer had seemingly predicted the question, and shook their head, saying, “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to. But there’s someone who wants to speak to you, who claims to know you.”

“Did this person give a name?”

“Shimazu Kajiko,” they said. “They contacted us via Q-comm, giving the correct code phrases to indicate that they’re an official representative of the Collective, but refused to say any more until you were available to listen.”

“Kajiko?” Amanda said, one part half-disbelieving and half-impressed. “Alright, if ze wants to talk to me, then I’m not going to refuse.” She briefly looked over her shoulder at the rest of us. “But in case you’re lying… I’m not going alone. Deal?”

The lead Architect growled at us, saying, “You might be exchanging confidential information, we can’t possibly allow—”

One of the other Architects, one who hadn’t spoken yet, threw an arm across their chest before they could continue their rant. “Of course we’ll let you bring your family.”

On some level, once you’ve seen one room for military and political leaders to coordinate the defense of an entire planet against invasions of incomprehensible scale, you’ve seen them all. This particular one had a similar sparse aesthetic to everything else Architects build, albeit lined with terminals and pin-boards for managing the constant flow of operational information entering the place. Most of the bigwigs, Architectine men and women wearing minimalist bodysuits accented with decorative metal elements, were seated around a long conference table in the middle. Sitting on the table was the Q-comm, a disk-shaped ceramic object just large enough to fit in one hand, with a cluster of speaker membranes on the top side.

The three naval officers escorted us inside, then very quickly retreated. Amanda walked in like she owned the place, right up to the table, and grabbed the Q-comm before any of the Architects in the room could even notice her. 

“Shimazu Kajiko,” she said. “That’s not a name I’ve heard in a while. Last I heard, you were captain of the… From Damnation, Strength?”

The voice on the other end of the Q-comm chuckled, a rough contralto. “Close. I was on the Sword From Manacles. Admiral Karus, I presume?”

“That would be me, yes,” Amanda said. “I assume this isn’t just a personal call?”

“No, it wouldn’t be. Everybody gather around, now,” Shimazu said, “because now I can properly introduce myself.” All of the nearby Architect bigwigs leaned in, and a few left their seats in order to stand closer to the Q-comm.

“I am Admiral Shimazu Kajiko, officer prime of the battlecruiser Soul of Apophis and, by extension, of the Collective Fleet Alpha. Ze/hir. My first order of business is thus: we have, over the course of several weeks, pursued the Fleet Secondary of the Order of the Pale Star as retribution for their unlawful annihilation of the planet New Malagasy. I kindly ask permission of the Architectine Republic to engage them in your system.”

When Shimazu’s powerful voice left the room, it left the space profoundly empty. Several long seconds passed before one Architect leaned forward. “Permission granted,” she said timidly.

“Who is it that I’m hearing?” Shimazu said.

“Habkalahrant Mator, Prime Minister of the Architectine Republic.”

“And do you have the authority to grant me that permission?”

There was another long stretch of silence while Prime Minister Mator nervously adjusted her suit. “I do,” she eventually said.

“Excellent. I would also like to set up channels for cooperation between our fleets, but we can get to that later,” said Shimazu. “Are you still on the line, Arana?”

Amanda was still holding the Q-comm, in spite of a few abortive attempts from various generals and ministers to take it from her. “I’m right here, Admiral Shimazu.”

“Alright. Well, I have here a digital order on my Ariel—you can’t see it, but it’s in my lap—which would authorize your reinstatement as Admiral, thus granting you control of half of the Fleet Alpha. Right now, it has 1,761 unique digital signatures from various representatives to the Union on Triumph of Emancipation. As of right now, the only signature it needs to take effect is yours.”

Amanda’s expression fell. The breath leaked out of her chest like a punctured air tank as she closed her eyes and muttered to herself, “Goddamnit…” Shaking her head in disbelief, she tried a couple of times to speak, but couldn’t manage to do more than continue to sigh and mutter bitterly.

“Are you aware, Admiral Shimazu, that my wife and child are on this planet as well?”

After a moment, Shimazu replied, “No, I didn’t. I’m sorry.”

“And are you aware that, if I were to accept your offer to lead the fleet, that I would be leaving my wife and child behind on this planet with absolutely no assurance that I would come back alive?”

My mother’s anger wasn’t extreme or fiery, but it was forceful nonetheless, and you could hear it in every word coming out of her mouth. It was honestly sweet, seeing her so worked up about the thought of leaving us behind… I can’t say it made me forgive her for everything that had happened, but it was a sweet sentiment. It made me want to hug her.

“Karus…” Shimazu said with a note of resignation in her voice. “You’re the Tigress of Telemachus Cloud. You’re the best admiral I’ve ever known, and I include myself in that count. And I’ll tell you the truth: even with the two fleets combined, the Order still outnumbers us. This isn’t a good situation. But if there’s anyone who’s good at getting this fleet out of bad situations, it’s you, ma’am.”

Amanda looked at me, sadness in her eyes. Then she glanced at Steph, her eyes starting to wet with un-wept tears. Finally she tore her eyes away from us and looked back at the Q-comm. “And that’s why I’m going to take the offer. I’ll take a shuttle to the fleet as soon as I can.”

Steph moved at once, charging through the cluster of Architect bigwigs, shoving them aside so that she could throw her arms around Amanda’s shoulders. Amanda dropped the Q-comm onto the table, pushing her masked face into the crook of Steph’s shoulder as she hugged her back. I was frozen. My mind understood what she was doing, why she was doing it, but my body refused to react or comprehend. 

I didn’t rush to embrace my mother. I stumbled. Unsure that I should even be doing this, not certain that she even deserved the hug after all that she’d failed to do, I staggered across the conference room. When I got within arm’s reach of her, I stopped. 

Amanda, hearing my footsteps approach, looked up from Steph’s shoulder and looked at me, her eyes stained with tears on the other side of the airtight suit. “I have to do this,” she said. “I’ll be thinking of you the whole time.”

I hugged her. I hugged them both. I hugged them as tightly as I could, until I felt like I was being crushed, then I kept going. Eventually, it was Amanda who broke the huddle, picking up the Q-comm again when Shimazu asked what was going on. She and the Admiral started talking logistics, how she was going to go to the fleet and when. The rest of us were escorted out of the conference room not long after, with mutterings about “classified materials” and “unnecessary distractions.”

 

 

“So where did you get that name?” I asked. “‘The Tigress of Telemachus Cloud’? There has to be a story behind it.”

It was several hours later, at the huge spaceport at the foot of the Bouwon-Phane space elevator. When the next elevator arrived, Amanda would go up with it and leave the rest of us behind on the planet’s surface, where it would be safer from the Order. We were sitting on a series of low benches in a waiting area just beyond the security checkpoint while we waited for the time to come.

Amanda groaned. “I hated that name when I got it, and I hate it now. It makes me sound so aggressive. Like I’m a warrior more than a leader.”

“I think it’s about time that our child got to hear the story behind that nickname,” Steph said. “Don’t you think?”

“Is this going to be like the time you told me how you met?” I said, nervously. “Because I don’t think we have that long, and my tolerance for bullshit has only decreased since then.”

“It’s not a particularly long story,” Amanda said. “And it’s very real.”

Steph threw an arm over my shoulder. “You see, kiddo,” she began with a tone like I was about to get The Talk again, “when your mother was much younger and not quite as amazing as she is now, the fleet under her command was faced with an Order fleet nearly twice its size.”

“It wasn’t ‘nearly twice the size’, Stellina, it was barely fifty percent larger,” Amanda said. “But, yes, an enemy fleet arrived unexpectedly with a substantial numerical advantage. And, as my ships were the only ones stopping the Order from having near-unrestricted access to several systems full of Collective innocents, I had few options.”

“But your mother had a plan,” Steph continued, smiling at her. “First, she engaged the enemy directly, playing the part of the overconfident, out of touch, elitist Collective officer to a T. Then, once she’d fought long enough to make the Order think she was serious, she began a feigned retreat.”

“There is a downside to the Order’s ruthless bloodthirst; they cannot resist a fleeing opponent,” Amanda said. “So I led them on a game of cat and mouse across multiple systems for nearly a month, until we arrived at the Telemachus cloud, a nebula formed in the aftermath of a merger between two neutron stars. Back then, it was chaos; gravity waves, high-energy particles, plasma, all things that can affect a fleet’s ability to coordinate.”

“And the Order charged right into it,” said Steph, “because they thought you couldn’t fight any longer.” Steph turned to me, her voice growing louder and more emphatic as the excitement of the story took hold of her. “But she could fight, and she had them exactly where she wanted them. So your mother sends the signal and her entire fleet turns around at the same time, using the magnetic field of the black hole at the center of the cloud to decelerate as they open fire on the Order fleet! The Order, meanwhile, hadn’t planned for another fight, and definitely hadn’t planned to have to fight in a place like the Telemachus cloud. Their engines wouldn’t work properly, their sensors would get knocked out, they could barely even communicate with each other in that cloud. So the Collective fleet descended on them like a tigress on the hunt and tore out their throats!”

Amanda gave a good-humored little smile, shaking her head. “And that is how I got shackled with that ridiculous little nickname. The Tigress of Telemachus Cloud.”

“Sounds pretty cool to me,” said Quinn. “It could always be worse. You could have earned it for a battle you didn’t win.”

Steph chuckled. “He has a point, dear.”

Amanda rolled her eyes and was about to say something when an announcement came over the spaceport intercom, saying that the elevator had arrived and was about to begin boarding. We said our goodbyes quickly and concisely. Amanda hugged Steph, then me, then grabbed her bags and hurried away. A couple of minutes later, she went through a door into the security checkpoint and vanished.

The rest of us, Miri and Quinn and Stephanie and I, lingered until we couldn’t see her any more and not a moment longer. We stood up from the bench and started moving in a tight cluster to the exit door on the other side of the waiting area. Before we made it over, though, I crashed into an Architect man moving the opposite direction. 

“Ow, shit,” I said. “Ugh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Cathy. Do you really not recognize me?” Xara said.

My eyes, all eight of them, nearly popped out of my skull. Xara did indeed look very different from when last I’d seen him. He was wearing a uniform, for one thing, the standard sleeveless affair that seemed to qualify as formal for an Architect, in a pattern of white-and-blue-grey that you could almost describe as checkered. He was also wearing some kind of accessory, a plain metal circlet on his head, open in the front like a laurel wreath.

“Xara!” I said. “How did you get out of prison?”

“Don’t tell me that the uptight Dr. Erobosh I knew is capable of staging a jailbreak,” said Quinn. “I might die of shock.”

“No, not quite. You see, the government would like to be able to start adding my modifications to the engines of their warships within the week, not three months after the planet explodes. I found myself in a position to negotiate my release. And several other perks besides.”

“That’s great!” I was literally jumping for joy, making little hops and fluttering my wings. “I’m just, I’m. I thought I was never going to see you again!”

He sighed. “So did I. Now, let’s leave this place.”

We went out the door we’d come in through, and began navigating the maze like passages of the spaceport. Xara led us on a different route than the one we’d come in from, explaining along the way that one of the “perks” he’d acquired was a car. We were about halfway there when I realized that I had no idea what was going to happen next.

“Where are we actually going?” I said. “I mean, after we get in the car? What is there to do?”

The group suddenly slowed down. “I was planning on celebrating my newfound freedom by driving to the nearest river and contemplating the nature of life,” Xara said.

“Yeah I could go for some of that,” Miri said.

I scraped my mandibles together out of annoyance. “But that’s not… accomplishing anything! Are we really just going to sit around and do nothing while everything goes to hell around us?”

There were several seconds of awkward silence before Steph spoke up. “Well… yeah. We don’t have anything else we can do. There’s a hundred thousand spacecraft battling for our future up there right now, and we’re just five people.”

“You’re right,” I said with a sigh. “That doesn’t make it any less frustrating.”

“You get used to it,” Steph said. “This is what it’s usually like when your family member is a commander of an entire solar system’s worth of warships.”

“It’s a big world, Cathy,” Miri said. “We can’t always be involved in all of it at once. Sometimes you just have to learn to go with it.” She flashed me a quick smile through the faceplate of her environment suit, then added, “Plus, doesn’t sitting by a river sound fun? Maybe you can learn how to do landscapes.”

I rolled my eyes. “I already know how to do landscapes, dumbass.”

I tried not to let my frustration show too much as we continued toward the exit of the spaceport. Miri had a good point, as did Stephanie; neither of them were wrong, necessarily, it’s just that there was a part of me that didn’t give a shit about right or wrong. I wanted to do something, to take revenge on the army that had destroyed my people, to ensure my own survival. But there wasn’t anything I could do, I thought, so I let it stew as we walked through the tangled passageways of the spaceport.

A couple of minutes later, we were getting near to the exit. The group rounded a corner, a perfectly normal corner, and suddenly I was face-to-face with a dream. A vision. Something impossible. It was an image I’d seen before, in my drug-induced hallucinations, and in my own notebooks. Painted on the wall directly across from us was a mural depicting a wide swathe of purple forest, and rising up from the center of it was a single immense tower with a wide base that quickly narrowed into two spikes pointed defiantly upward, its structure ribbed like muscle tissue.

“What the fuck?” I said, stopping dead in my tracks.

“Huh?” said Steph. “What’s wrong?”

I pointed at the mural. “That. What is it? Who made that?”

“That’s the Spire,” Xara said, as though it were perfectly commonplace.

The Spire. That’s what I’d called the drawing. And… the more I stared at it, the more I thought that it seemed more familiar even than just a drawing. It was like I’d seen it before.

“It’s… an interesting relic, a site of religious importance to most Architects. Some think it was constructed by ancient Architects; others by a previous civilization which visited our planet.”

“I’ve seen that before. I’ve drawn that before!” I started walking toward the mural.

“What are you talking about?” Steph turned to Xara. “How could they have seen it before?”

Miri’s jaw went slack. “No, no, they’re right. I’ve seen that exact picture before in Cathy’s sketchbook! Back on New Malagasy, even! And it was called the Spire!”

I approached the concrete wall on which the Spire was painted as though it were a timid animal, and any sudden movements might cause it to run away. The more closely I looked at that painted image, the more familiar it became, until my memory of it became more real than the image. It was like part of me had seen the real thing before, and found the mural wanting. 

Then I reached out and touched it. All at once, the Waterspindle hummed to life at my chest, but it felt different this time than all the times it had activated before. It felt almost chilly and pure instead of hot and energetic. And then I remembered.

Remember the spire. It is your weapon.

The memory came back all at once in a big flood, nearly knocking me off of my feet. The strange glowing entity speaking to me in a dream, telling me that I was the Earth-born Emissary, telling me about… the Spire. More dreams welled up, more memories of glowing golden light and mysterious artifacts. I knew this place. I knew everything. And somehow, part of me knew that if I wanted to really do something, I needed to go to that Spire.

“Where did you say this was, Xara?” I said in a reverent whisper.

“A ways away,” he said. “Over a thousand kilometers to the north. It would be a two-day trip to get there. Why?”

“We need to go there,” I said. “To the Spire. I’ve seen it before, in dreams, in visions, I… I know I need to go there.” I looked down at the Waterspindle on my chest, slowly stroking the metal. “I think it’s connected to the Waterspindle.”

Miri turned to Xara and Steph. “Could we go there? Is there anything stopping us?”

“Not particularly,” said Xara. “I suppose I would need to settle things here in the city, but aside from that there’s nothing stopping us but the expenditure of time, of which we have plenty. It’s a major site of tourism and pilgrimage, so the infrastructure to reach it is fairly well-built.”

“Are you… are you sure about this?” Steph said.

“Yes, I am. Completely sure. I haven’t been this sure about anything in… a while.”

“Well, considering the alternative to doing this is to wait around singing Kumbaya, I see no reason not to go with Cathy’s plan,” said Quinn. “And, hey, it means we don’t have to be near any of those fucking bureaucrats for a while.”

Steph rolled her eyes, muttering, “Cheers to that.”

“Are we in agreement, then?” Miri asked.

Everyone made the same vague noises of assent, aside from Xara. He hesitated, looking down at me and making a series of doubtful clicks in the back of his jaw. “Ah, I have not been to the Spire since I was very, very young. Perhaps it will prove inspirational.”

Remember the spire, the spike, your weapon. The moment Cathy is referencing, by the way, is in chapter ten Interlude in the Void, in case you were struggling to remember. And with Amanda having finally returned to her people, and Cathy beginning to recognize her true purpose, we come one step closer to finally ending this epic journey. Remember to check Patreon if you haven't already, it's my only means of income right now and I would so so so appreciate any support that my readers can give that way. I also have a ko-fi, which I use as a tip jar if you want to give a one-off show of support. Otherwise, I'll see you in two weeks for Chapter 47: At the Foot of the Spire.

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