As the narrative spun and warped around them, Beth felt teeth as sharp scissor blades hedging her in from all sides.
The Burners were at work.
They were behind the Reilian attack and the unprecedented second wave of ships that were due to arrive any minute. She could feel the truth of that, could see the unwritten words in the blank spots of the pages they stood in, and the knowledge sent spears of terror screaming down to her toes.
It had been easier to be brave with the thought that the worst that could happen was that she’d be ejected from the story. She had worried about what kind of trouble she’d land in back her world, but at least within the Measureless Stars she was supposed to be safe.
Her fear called that into question though and her mind went racing to find answers. Her father had been worried about the Burners and he could have hidden them all within the pages of a history book whenever he needed to. So did that mean the Burners could manipulate events within the Unread just like she could? If so, they would have had a lot more practice at it.
And they weren’t alone.
“The auto-repair on engine 2’s got it firing right again,” Starshine said. “And thanks to the big hole you blew in the comm ship, it looks like there’s plenty of space to dock up. Finish what you’re doing in two minutes or less and I’ll pick you up before the Reilian reinforcements arrive.”
“I’m attuning to the communications device now,” Lagressa said. “It seems to be responding to my new blood.”
Beth’s heart took the beat that it had been holding for a long moment. The Burners weren’t alone, but neither was she.
Of course, the Burners had an army to work with. That was still a problem.
“Starshine, do you have a radio link to the Galactic Library?” Beth asked.
Around her the engine room of the Reilian communications ship was starting to flail as the systems which depended on the ship’s structural integrity overloaded and erupted in showers of sparks.
The engine room was enormous, so the isolated, if spectacular failures, didn’t present an immediate threat to Beth but she drifted up to the empty center of the long tubular chamber to stay away from the volatile equipment.
“I do, but they’re dug in and sealed shut now. They can’t send any help,” Starshine said. In the background there was the steady sound of explosions as the Reilian fleet’s weapons hammered on Starshine’s shields. In a sense it was like the Reilians had been attacked by a tiny gnat that was wearing miniature plate armor. Hitting Starshine’s mirror clad ship was hard enough but even when they landed a blow it had maddeningly little effect as Starshine rolled away from the worst parts of the barrage.
“Oh, I think they can,” Beth said. “Put in a request for me please. I need the audio recording of Admiral McMaster’s speech on Border One.”
“Who’s speech?” Starshine asked. The amazing part to Beth was that she didn’t sound distracted at all despite what had to be a situation that demanded microsecond level reactions. That was what a galactic legend brought to the table though it seemed.
“She was a resistance fighter who lived ten thousand years ago. Border One was a colony world that fell prey to a Despair Swarm,” Beth said, remembering the short story that had covered the battle. She’d had to pick up an actual print magazine to get a copy of it, but it had been worth the trouble and the expense then, and even more so as a resource under the present circumstances.
“Those are real? I thought they were spacer ghost stories,” Starshine said.
“No one had ever survived a Swarm invasion. No one until Admiral McMaster’s broadcast brought the last colonists together for a final stand against them,” Beth said.
“Why do we need her words?” Lagressa asked, her voice in a different timbre thanks to the change to a Reilian standard physique.
“She called together an army,” Beth said. “The music we have will break the Reilians out of the Overmind’s control, but we don’t need them shutting down, or escaping, or even worse self destructing, anymore. We need them fighting.”
Around her, a trio of Reilian techs were floating in a circle, hands clasped together between them and their heads pressed together as though the contact would allow for a resurgence of the external voice that had been screaming in their minds for their whole lives.
“They’re fighting just fine out here!” Starshine said. “On the bright side though, the library has your speech ready. They’re transferring it to my data banks now.”
“Good, Lagressa, has the communications network let you load in the music we brought yet?” Beth asked.
“I have connected the device you gave me. The machine is ready to begin transmitting.”
“Perfect! find the song ‘Valor Flies’ then,” Beth said. “That should make a good backdrop for McMaster’s speech.”
Beth heard a sound like an old tape deck from a movie starting up before for the first few guitar chords for Valor Flies started to ring out through the ship.
“It is our final night…” Admiral McMaster’s played over the communications unit in their space suits and from there into the Reilian master communications relay.
Song and speech reached out across the cold void, and Beth saw thousands of monitors in the generator room spring to life.
“We are afraid. Ever so afraid.” McMaster’s had sounded tired and small, not the hero remembered for a thousand years and an inspiration to the galaxy but just a solitary woman, struggling against the end of all she ever knew. As she spoke, her voice, though faltering, rose, the words she spoke seeming to come from somewhere else than something so tiny as a human heart.
The Reilian ship shuddered, and the fleet shuddered with it. Kill orders were sent to cutoff the feed, but the communications ship was the central link back to the Overmind. No other vessel had priority to silence that.
“We are afraid, but we are not alone. In you, I find my courage. In you, I see the strength to rise.” McMaster’s words were backed by the swelling of the song, synchronized as perfectly as Beth’s imagination could provide.
The three Reilians who had been locked together began to move, their eyes flickering open and their limbs regaining fluidity as though they were thawing from within.
Over the comm units, the sound of heavy fire on Starshine’s ship faded away. The message was spreading throughout the fleet
As McMaster’s continued on, speaking to the colonists to come together and fight back against the creatures coming to destroy them, her words crossed the millenia and woke a fire in the minds of the Reilian fleet.
Freed from the Overmind’s dominance, the Reilian’s knew they were to be destroyed for their corruption. Without a compulsion to obey and await their destruction though, the survival urge which all life shares flared within them and Admiral McMaster’s words, the first they heard beamed into their minds which offered them hope, gave them a path forward.