Space is silent, but through the ships of the first Reilian fleet an anthem of hope rang out.
“They’re not barraging the planet anymore,” Starshine said. “That’s a good sign, right?”
Beth felt a ripple of fear close up her throat. The change in the fleet was an excellent sign, but it felt so fragile, as though any acknowledgement could jinx their victory.
Except they weren’t quite victorious yet.
“How much time do we have before the second fleet arrives?” she asked.
“None,” Starshine said. “The Grand Stellar Gate is open. The advance guard is pouring out already.”
“How many are there?” Beth asked. She maneuvered back to wall of the communication ships generator room and tried to make sense of the console’s displays.
“As many as there were in the first fleet it looks like,” Starshine said. “Except none of the new arrivals have been blown to bits by a two woman boarding party.”
Beth called up a tactical display, and said a prayer of gratitude to whoever invented the Universal Interface tech that the unsecured stations were using.
The first fleet was readily identifiable by the “CONTAGION” symbols that overlayed each of the spacecrafts.
For a long moment none of those ships moved. They hung in space, their crews disabled by the music and speech that played on the channel which had been feeding external control impulses into their brains.
From the Grand Stellar Gate, the second fleet closed on them, weapons charging up, with not a spec of mercy to be found in any of the advancing ships.
“Come on!” Beth said. “It’s now or never. Fight!”
It felt weird demanding that. She’d never fought back against the people who tormented her. It was her biggest source of shame. Proof that she was as weak and worthless as people accused her of being.
Something sour slithered around her throat and down her back.
For a moment Beth wasn’t in the crumbling generator room of a Reilian ship. She was back in the courtyard of Parell Prep, back at school, and back hiding behind a tree hoping no one would notice her. That was who she was. Who she would always really be.
The solidity of the computer in front of her became fuzzy and muted. She wasn’t a daring space adventurer. None of what was around her was real.
On the flickering remnants of the screen, she saw the second fleet spreading out to engulf the contagion-infected first fleet. There wasn’t going to be anywhere to hide, but what did it matter? How was what she was doing any different from playing pretend?
“They come to cleanse the taint,” one of the Reilian techs said.
“But I don’t feel tainted,” another said.
“I feel like myself for the first time,” a third said. “Like I’ve been screaming for my whole life and now there’s a wonderful stillness within me.”
“The second fleet will be within firing range in thirty seconds,” Lagressa said, speaking over Beth’s comm-link.
The Reilians gasped and turned to look at each other for support.
“We can’t fight,” the first one said. “We’ve never fought before.”
“Yes you can,” Beth whispered.
She saw herself as she was, and as she had been. She’d been afraid so often in her life, and she’d hated herself for that. Seeing the same fear in the Reilian’s eyes though gave her the unclouded mirror she’d always needed.
“You can fight back,” Beth said, her voice rising above a whisper. “Just because you haven’t before, doesn’t mean you can’t make a new choice now. You couldn’t fight before, couldn’t resist, and that’s fine. Sometimes fear is ok, sometimes it’s good to listen to it. Don’t hate yourself for who you were. Believe in who you can become. That’s what matters. That’s what always matters.”
The sour, slithering presence faded from her awareness, the feeling of dissociation faded, and the two halves of her awareness melded back together. The Unread wasn’t just a dream. She walked there in the flesh, just like her father and grandmother did before her. It was a part of who she was and a legacy of her heritage and no one would take that from her.
But she was certain she knew who was trying to.
“The Burners! They’re using the second fleets Overmind channel!” she said. “They’re trying to shatter our will.”
“Was that mental assault intended seriously?” Lagressa asked, not phased by it in the slightest.
“Yeah, it almost pushed me out of the Unread,” Beth said. “Or maybe it was trying to do something worse?”
“I’m guessing it’s working on the rest of the first fleet then,” Starshine said. “They’re just sitting there in space waiting to be blown to space dust.”
“Can you share your defenses with them?” Beth asked Lagressa.
“No, I don’t think my magics will work through this device,” she said. “What else can we do?”
“We’ll have to fight them on the Overmind channel directly,” Beth said. “Switch out the song. Give me something angry and loud.”
It took twenty long seconds for the first fleet to find itself. Twenty ticks of the cosmic clock as the spirit of rebellion against their fate flared from the sparks planted by Admiral McMaster’s words into a bonfire of actions.
When the two fleets met, it wasn’t as equals. The second fleet were fresh and completely focused. They were driven by a single mind, a single voracious will.
The first fleet was no longer unified in vision, but from their multitude of views sprang an unstoppable wave of creative solutions to the impossible problems of a battle.
The Overmind of the second fleet fought to retain its dominance and power. The first fleet fought for raw survival.
It wasn’t even close to being a contest.
“We should really get out of here while the getting is good,” Starshine said.
“Don’t leave us,” a Reilian tech said. Another tech put their hand on the first’s arm as a warning not to ask for too much.
“I think I need to see this through,” Beth said. “No more running and hiding.”
“There’s a real big problem with that,” Starshine said. “There are more Grand Stellar Gate’s forming! Six, no make that seven, more! And each one is as big as the last one!”
Beth’s breath caught in her throat. The Burners were pulling out all of the stops to win this battle.
But they were doing it in such a mindless manner.
No. Not mindless. Uninspired.
“Oh my god,” Beth said, her voice a disbelieving whisper. “I see how to fight them! I know what their weakness is!”