Chapter 1: Inter-species Union

I feel the colony block awake. It's still strange to me, the hundreds of minds in the area claiming consciousness one by one. Each is a distinct point, yet there are so many I cannot make out anything but the totality. "It's like that feeling you get in your mouth when you drink something carbonated," she said once, when we both received the implants. It's an apt description, I think. But it would be different, the Matriarchs said, if I'd grown up with this. Raised from a young age to feel the minds under my tutelage as a true member of their ranks would, I might have been able to identify individuals, know their locations, or even speak to them through the connection.

But the Matriarchs have a lifetime each of study that I lack. Generations of ancestry I could not hope to gain. Even those Matriarchs living here themselves, though-here on this ship alien to them and us both-say that the environs are not amenable to their talents. They're used to ships made for and powered by their psintegrat, ships that think nearly as well as they.

Nearly all of my block is awake now. We work in shifts with many others, as our home requires this level of precise discipline to maintain. Kilometers upon kilometers of a Vasari starship, and we must keep it in perfect condition. Small mistakes cost a lot when you have no other place to go. No sweetly-atmosphered orb to set foot on anymore. If the xenos are right, then our homes are even less safe now than when they were beset by war. They'll soon be swallowed by their mysterious enemy. We left tens of trillions behind there, and yet part of me wants the predictions to be true. Just so what she had decided... is right.

I lay back in my bed. I do not need to join the others in their labor. I have other responsibilities. My nose wrinkles; the stink of sulfur catches my nostrils. The nanodocs in my blood must have decided I was low on the substance.

Transcendent psitech in my skull, genetically-altered sulfur dependency, alien nanobots in my blood. The traders here whisper about it. They say I'm cursed. Listen to me, speaking like that of my own people, calling them "traders" as the aliens do, as if I'm no longer a member of the same species. Maybe I'm not. At any rate, I now know how she had felt her whole life. Trapped in a form one is not meant to take, yearning to be like others are.

Though... more than anyone, I suppose I represent fully the state of the human race. Simultaneously co-dependent on two other peoples to survive. A situation as irreversible as my own bodily transformations.

There's a knock at my door. It's a soft tap, the sound of someone seeking to fulfill the letter of instruction while avoiding the intent. No one wants to disturb the Witch of Cebriones. A silly name, I know, but by now I think more people know that title than my real name.

I lever myself slowly out of bed. I am by no means an old woman-forty-seven years old and sporting the longevity treatments that have kept me in the shape of one in her twenties- and yet I still feel the weight of years. I hold my focus to each step that takes me to the entrance of my dormitory, and with each step I force off some of that weight. She would want me to. She would know I need to. Today's planned events are too important for it me to allow such gloom to be a hindrance.

I swipe the controls and the door opens. Standing in front of me is a young woman of perhaps sixteen or seventeen. Too young to have participated in the war before now, yet she wears a clean, creased officer's uniform, a navy blue suit and cap with all the gold accessories of the Trader Emergency Coalition. Its purpose is obvious; where we are going, we humans must ignore our own power structures so we may look our sharpest for the others. Unfortunate that the suit is slightly too large for her. The girl reminds me somewhat of her when she first signed on with the Coalition.

At this proximity I can sense the fuzzy edges of emotion. Fear, mostly. Anxiety. Shame. The last is visible in her reddened face, and I soon notice why: I'd forgotten to dress before answering the door.

I smile. "Very sorry. My mind is often absent soon after I wake up. Come in and sit , I won't be long." I motion to a chair, but this elicits little response so I return to my room. I don my own uniform, which is considerably more worn, and attach my handful of ribbons and medals. I feel guilty about the decorations somehow, as if I don't deserve them. It's no worse than the girl in her suit though. Lastly, I fit a breather over my face that can continue to supply me with that so-important sulfur.

She's staring around my dormitory when I come back. I notice she's stepped just shy of actually entering. I have a sitting room here, my own kitchensynth, private washroom, and a relatively spacious bedroom-a far cry from the barracks-like arrangements she's likely been placed into. I feel as if I don't deserve this either, but the TEC commanders insisted on it for my "contributions" to the war. The irony appears to have escaped them; as guests on an alien ship, they reward those who did well in murdering who are now their hosts?

I put a hand on the girl's shoulder and gently nudge her around and back into the corridor so we may begin walking. "Tell me your name," I request.

"Moira," she says.

"A portion of the whole; it also associates you nicely with doom and fate. Do you think we are here because of fate? Or that it is our doom?" I notice she continues to speak more with her eyes than her mouth. "Idle thoughts, most of them. Something to keep me occupied in lieu of conversation," I answer. It was a sort of game I used to play with her. We always tried to find the hidden meanings on names, whether they were correct or not.

Moira takes the hint. She opens her mouth a fraction. "What's your name?"

"Who were you told to fetch?"

"The Witch," she mumbles.

"If I told you a different name, you would still think of me as such." She starts to shake her head, but I interrupt. "It doesn't bother me. The aliens call me that as well."

There's more to it, though. When people started calling me the Witch, she insisted I should embrace it. Because then it would mean something positive.

We're passing through an exterior branch of the ship, now. Through the filtered windows I see a star looming fat and blue, filling nearly the entire view. Cnidus, I believe they said it was. A star I had never been to before, and likely never will again. I'm struck, not for the first time, by a sudden rush of perspective. This will be what the rest of my life will be. A new star every month. All those after me to be forced through the same, with perhaps the exception of a decade or two here or there to settle, replenish, and repair before moving on again. But we cannot allow ourselves to stop for even that much until we have outrun the others.

"Speaking of the aliens, you have been informed of our purpose today, have you not?" I ask.

"We're supposed to be... sharing our experiences, or something, right? So we all understand the others' positions, and we can work better together with them. We three were chosen to represent a range of human experiences." Moira glances between me and the floor as she talks.

"That's about right." I'm sure it has to be more complicated than that, but I've been told as much as she. We will have to find out what exactly we've been selected for.

We meet the third of our delegation on the ship's automated magbus system, which we board to take us the rest of the way to what has been dubbed the "Understanding Center." I know him in a cursory manner as Captain Ulysses Slifer. He's commanded a Kodiak Cruiser since about midway through the war, and by now is known as something of a minor hero to those in this fleet. There's a bright red slash painted on the side of his ship, Harpy's Brother, for every vessel he and his crew have personally destroyed. They're up to eleven by now; an impressive number.

This thirty-something man with a shaved head exposing a metal plate, acquired after being afflicted with a bad case of collapsing command bridge, has been firmly in Trader hands his whole life. Never has he been governed by alien leaders or even been forced to listen to their propaganda. Interestingly, that puts him into the minority of humans who haven't been wrestled over as if he were so much common metal.

After an exchange of cordial greetings, the captain exhibits the same unwillingness to converse with me as Moira has. However, it seems that he considers silence to be even more unbearable, especially in the face of a bus completely empty save for us three.

"So I came back from the rock empty handed," Slifer says. That's right, he was visiting a world in this system to try to recruit from the humans there. Ostensibly to save them, but more importantly to bolster our own pool of manpower.

"And why was that?" I ask.

"Our rebels already got to 'em. None of them are going to have anything to do with xenos, it seems. A really nice man even went so far as to tell me something about how I... let aliens give it to me from behind, I think it was. He seemed rather misinformed, if you ask me. I mean, they've given us a lot, but we're always face to face them when it happens."

He looks me in the eye solemnly. I gauge his face for any sign of mirth. "You do realize-"

Slifer coughs. "A joke. That was a joke."

"Right."

"Yeah."

I catch a stifled giggle from Moira.

"Anyway, a bit more interesting, we also met a Vasari patrol out there. That is, the ones that're trying to kill us, you know. Not ours. Er, the ones that're friendly to us, not that we own them. Um... Only a couple of skirmishers, though, so they turned tail after a good growl from Mama Bear.

"But..." Slifer takes a breath, sucking up air wetly through his nostrils. "There's bound to be an egg or two in the area. I think we can take them, set 'em a few systems back off our tail."

The Evacuators. Large egg-shaped city-ships mostly made to house the vasari's populace as they move from place to place, though plenty large enough to be a significant threat on their own besides. And with those of the Solitary Path-the ones who still seek to work in opposition of our group and "our" Vasari-stripping planets to bare rocks and scrambling to destroy anything in their own path to leave, they've drawn in their large fleets close around those evacuators.

"Might be costly in delays," I say.

She had an interesting point to make on the subject, once. "Running? What's so bad about running?" she'd said. "If anything, it's far more noble. Means you value the long-term over some egotistical desire to win."

I want to repeat her words, but I bite them back. Slifer's clearly run out of impetus anyway. He doesn't want to argue against me, however much he seems bound to his idea.

We arrive at the Understanding Center shortly, where we enter into a small, roughly circular room, filled with six figures waiting in expectation of us. Moira tenses beside me, staring at the aliens before us, but I instead opt to examine the environment first.

There are nine seats set facing the wall, six made for a human frame, and three for someone of a different posture. Three threes. It suddenly makes sense why the Vasari would call on groups of three from each of our peoples; it forms round numbers for people who think in ternary. The seats face devices with rounded and flowing forms, each made as though sculpted uniquely by an artist. Advent interfaces for the computers, with their ever-present insistence on form before function. My interest is piqued.

I slowly turn my eyes back to the aliens. To the left are three women in immaculate white and blue robes, altogether very human in appearance. They'd have to be; the Advent have only been set apart from the Traders for a single millenium. A very short time, relatively. Biologically, they're still the same species as we.

They were set apart because of a banishment by our old confederation, the Trade Order, for practicing, "the utmost in scientific and social deviancy." Experimentation with mind-enhancing drugs and technology designed to interact with, feed upon, and amplify what they'd unlocked. Unrestricted biological experimentation to advance their discoveries. A strange form of collectivism which, frankly, stymied any attempts by the Trade Order to open a market in their clearly thriving society. What apparently had been forgotten by the Trade Order was that, whatever unethical experimentation had been performed, large amounts of it were successful.

They had originally returned to kill us, and most of them still wish to. The ones here, on this ship and following in vessels of their own, see that they've taken their revenge too far, too recklessly, and too late. I believe that some of them wish to proceed with a form of penance, though many simply wish to leave what they think is the greedy corrupting influence of their former leaders.

The physical differences are subtle, but some may be easily seen. The most telling I can spot right ahead of me; of the three Advent, two elderly and one of perhaps Moira's age, all lack irises. If I saw them in a different light, I might even notice the small glow they sometimes pick up. She always thought there was something beautiful about it. I doubt I'll ever comprehend her fascination.

To the right stand three creatures each taller than most humans. They have thin, chitinous frames covered on the front and back with a sort of dark draping. It seems to be more ornamental than it is there to serve the purpose of clothes in the traditional sense. Their legs bend back at a strange angle, with a second knee bending them nearly vertical again, and ending in three-toed feet. Their hands have what they would consider to be three fingers, though I count four with the thumb. One such hand grasps a clawed staff firmly.

They're the reason we flee, in an indirect sense. As the rulers of a vast empire many times the size of even Trader space, their ancestors knew a society of ruthless expansion and oppression over any lifeforms that would be found in their path. This was much further to the core of the galaxy, though. We might never had seen them, ever, had they not been beset by-what was it they called it? Right-The Stalker.

What that Stalker is responsible for, exactly, the Vasari themselves aren't even sure. It simply caused large groups of worlds within their empire to fall silent. They supposed it to be a rebellion or similar threat, and dispatched part of their Dark Fleet to quell it... It never came back. The inhabitants of a border world found a single battleship returned from the engagement. The crew was driven mad with fear, certainly in no state to discuss what they had found.

So they built the Exodus Fleet. And they ran. They ran for ten thousand of our years, dropping warning beacons behind them as they went. Each beacon would cease transmitting before long; none remained functional for more than a generation.

Everywhere they stopped, they stripped entire planets bare of minerals and other raw materials. However, Trader space turned out to be the largest obstruction of their entire flight. Lately they've been feeling the pressure of the Stalker. They made plans to move on again, regardless of whether we were in the way or not. They began to expand their forces frighteningly quickly with what they'd started to gain from stripping the holdings they'd taken from the Traders. They went on a renewed campaign to completely remove us as an obstacle.

Except not all of them did. A splinter group insisted that such a move would cause even more costly losses and delays. They instead saw the Traders and Advent as an asset. not an object. If we were powerful, they reasoned, they could add that power to their own rather than remove it. And so they informed us of the threat they'd unwillingly brought to our doorstep, and extended an offer to save us from it, so long as we put in our worth to helping them in return.

It's still a difficult decision for these Vasari to swallow, though. It was a choice made with cold reason, not sympathy. Not because they believe they owe us anything. One of our hosts, the one holding the staff, pushes himself up a few centimeters on its double knee, extending its already towering stature even taller. It thinks itself above us, wishes to control, to dominate. Very well. I wish to wind my arm back and deliver a solid punch to the jaw of the nearest alien to me. But I shall not. She wouldn't have approved.

The Vasari, possibly the leader among the three, begins to speak. "We are... here in order to foster... understanding among our three races." It speaks with a strained and airy voice of a respiratory system not made for verbal communication.

"Our needs have become... intertwined. As a foe larger than any... of us moves in our direction, we all are forced upon... the conclusion that cooperation is necessary. We accept you... as equals. By working together, our power... may only grow. By dividing ourselves and... feuding as we have in the past, we will only serve to bring ruin and... ignore the larger considerations.

"But the past is not a thing... so easily forgotten. The past is not there... to be forgotten. The past... is our identity, the past is our constant in a tumultuous present... and the past is our herald for an otherwise unforeseeable... future. We shall therefore... not forget our pasts, but we shall remember them. We... shall share them. We shall... synthesize them into a larger whole.

"What we shall do here... shall be utilized by all to understand our own pasts and those of... each other. Through it, we shall reinforce our own... identities, as well as contribute to the identity of... something greater than ourselves. Perhaps then we shall find... if not peace, at least cooperation."

He hunches slightly and becomes silent. The youngest of the Advent here takes a step forward, hands clasped in front of her. Is that the leader of their delegation? I have to admit I am surprised.

"The Unity is complex and further-reaching than any of us may perceive of," she says calmly. "We, as imperfect instruments, may misinterpret its plans. In assuming the Advent were the only ones included in that plan, we have done just that. We now know better. We now know that all along, the Traders and Vasari were in fact part of the fabric of the Unity. We shall work with you, as it is our destiny."

She steps back, and now their eyes turn to me. I decide to keep it brief.

"We traders know where to find our strengths and weaknesses, as well as what to do with them. Fighting you is a weakness. Cooperation is a strength."

Captain Slifer stays stone faced, but Moira nods slightly.

One of the elderly Advent speaks up now. "Take any seat, press your palm to the interface, and then relax. Try to think back to your earliest memory."

I find myself situated between Moira and the young Advent girl. I put my hand to the computer as instructed and feel a small vibration travel up my arm. It reaches my brain and I can feel it touching, lightly. Two seats to my left, Captain Slifer jumps a little. Moira simply closes her eyes and lies back. The Advent girl lets it happen, then raises her arms as if to begin a concierto.

I move my hands to my lap. I mutter something to her, involuntarily. I don't even know what it is. And I feel my awareness fade.