Annaka and the survivors of her forces were loaded into Lancers as they lifted away from the battlefield. The entire countryside was alight with roaring flames. Lancers moved back and forth over the area, burning away with their massive forward plasma gun, leaving no area unscorched.
Annaka, stil shook from facing death minutes before, breathed deeply to calm her nerves. Gripping hold of the ship’s bulkhead she found herself moving around the troop compartment. She felt like she needed to keep moving before the horrors of the battle overwhelmed her.
A medic, passing down the hall towards the rescued crusaders, saw her. “Are you alright, Commander?” she asked, glancing at Annaka’s rank insignia.
“I am,'' she responded, giving a weary smile. “Have they gotten all the faceless, do you know?”
The medic, not at all dissuaded by Annaka’s assurances that she was okay, quickly started checking her for wounds. “Last I heard the HEL sensors hadn’t picked up anymore of them, but they’re still expanding the sensor area to make sure.”
“Thank you,” the commander answered. The medic nodded and moved away to check on the others. Annaka could see the same horror on the faces of her troops, as she no doubt had on her own. They all looked tired and weary, but their eyes were wide as if in fright. The only thing she could think about was how many of her people she’d lost. How many had been turned before they perished.
There was no doubt a count being taken and the number would be given to her when she met with the Precentor aboard his ship. But she couldn’t think about the debriefing right now. She could only breathe steadily and try to keep the shakes from overtaking her.
The Precentor’s stateroom felt cold and Annaka resisted the urge to shiver. Two massive viewports looked out over the planet below. Hayavu, a primitive jewel in the cold setting of space. She gave it a quick glance, but turned away as the events of the battle flooded back to her mind.
Three quick breaths and then five long ones and she was once again in control of herself. Two frondauri sat at a table before her. They were analysts for the commonwealth, sent to observe how the engagement had progressed. One was a Watcher, the open eye emblem on the front of their tunic. The third wore no insignia, but the cut of their outfit and the pleated vest they wore was enough to mark them as an agent of the Council of Twelve.
None spoke to her, nor looked at her. There’d been barely a glance at her as she’d entered the room. They were busy writing away at their parchments, scribbling out their initial reports as quickly as possible. Lest they lose their immediate thoughts. They were also waiting on the Precentor, and they dared not to start the debriefing before he arrived.
He did not leave them waiting too long, barging into the stateroom with only the quickest of glances at the occupants. Annaka tightened her shoulders and forced herself even straighter as he entered. He was flanked by one of his flag officers and a junior aid. The aid gave Annaka a pleasant smile, the flag officer didn’t even look at her.
The Precentor took his seat at the table, so did the flag officer. The aid remained standing behind them. The Watcher and Council agent looked expectantly towards the Precentor, but the flag officer stared at Annaka.
The Precentor greeted each person in the room, asking no names as those weren’t relevant. He then turned his eyes to Annaka, and despite thinking she was standing as stiff as possible already, his direct gaze made her stiffen up further. “Commander, thank you for joining us,” he said in a booming tone that was neither pleasant nor disagreeable. “Please recount the events of the battle for us. Your own words. And try not to embellish.”
She stamped her right hoof in a gesture of respect, and then gave her report on the events. The Precentor’s eyes never left her as he listened intently. The others would dart their attention to their parchments as they took notes, only looking up when she said something that interested them. When she was finished an uncomfortable silence filled the room.
The Precentor only removed his attention from her long enough to look at the others in the room. “Does no one have anything they wish the Commander to clarify?”
The flag officer raised his hand. “I do.” The Precentor motioned for him to speak. “You were ordered to hold and defend the starbridge plaza until the arrival of the fleet. Yet you marched the bulk of your force out to meet the horde. To defend the natives, as you said, yet this was not in your orders. Explain.”
Annaka took another deep breath before answering. “If the faceless had reached the native city, their numbers would have grown exponentially. I decided to attack them before they could grow in numbers, otherwise defending the starbridges would have been untenable.”
“You lost 129 of your forces. Frondauri and Shyanar. And yet you still believe moving out to meet the enemy was a good course of action?”
“Yes,” she answered. “I’m sure the natives we saved would agree.”
The flag officer went to say something else, but the Precentor held up his hand to silence him. He then turned to the two Watchers. “And what questions do you have?”
The watcher spoke up. “You said the faceless moved against the native city almost as soon as you arrived. Do you believe they were alerted to your presence?”
“They had already been on the move by the time we set up HEL’s sensor device. But they hadn’t been on the move for long.”
The Watcher grunted and shook her head. “I understood that part of your report. My question was, do you believe they knew your forces had arrived?”
Annaka looked to the Precentor but he only stared unblinkingly back at her. She had been told not to embellish, to speak straight. So she did. “I don’t know for certain, but the timing indicates that they were aware of our arrival.”
The Watcher looked to the Precentor. “This fits with the records we have of their invasion of Archon space.”
The Precentor just shrugged dismissively. “But it’s not definitive proof. Do you have any additional questions?”
The watcher looked at Annaka then shook her head. “Nothing.”
“And what about the agent of the council?”
The last Frondauri shifted in his seat, a bored expression carefully planted on his face. “I have no orders to ask any. I am merely here to observe your first engagement.” And he emphasized his dismissal of the whole debriefing by rolling up his parchments and putting them in his pocket. “Though I suppose for my own edification I would ask the Commander, were the faceless as terrifying as we’ve been told?”
This time the Precentor didn’t look at her as she answered, keeping his eyes on the council’s agent, but she could see a cold glare on his face. She decided to answer as succinctly as she could. “They were more terrifying than I could have imagined. They were so fast, and so many. I watched many of my own forces be turned into more of them simply by a quick touch.”
If anyone else had more questions, they wouldn’t be able to ask them. The Precentor stood and the motion drew their attention. “The inquisitor will wish to question her soon. We’ll all have access to their report when it’s finished. I think we’ve heard enough.” He then dismissed them. They all filed out of the room until only he and Annaka remained. Finally the stoic mask he’d forced his face into dropped and his eyes filled with relief and joy.
“Are you alright?” he asked kindly.
She dropped her shoulders and let all the tension she’d been feeling out. The fear, the horror, it all once again threatened to rush back. “Yes, sir,” she managed to answer meekly.
He had moved around the table and then came up and gave her a hug, holding her as she trembled with remembered terror. “You’re alright now,” he soothed. “You made it back to me.”
“It was terrifying,” she admitted, emotion in her voice. “I know I pushed for this command. I didn’t know what they’d be like. I wasn’t ready. ”
“Neither was I the first time I faced them,” the Precentor said. “I wanted to stop you, to keep you from this danger. But you’re your mother’s daughter, as well as mine, and I knew you would not be deterred. I am so glad you’re safe.”
“What can I expect from the inquisitor?Your flag officer seemed particularly upset with my actions?”
“He has his own orders no doubt. To make sure I don’t go easy on you because you’re my daughter.” He held her a bit longer as relief at her return washed over him. Finally he let her go. “The inquisitor will have more questions for you. They’ll be much harder and more specific. Be truthful. Their job is to decide if this operation was a success or a failure. And from there they will rework our strategy if necessary.”
She steeled herself again, pushing the fear from her eyes and calming the trembling she hadn’t realized she’d been doing. He squeezed her shoulder fondly. He gave her a fatherly smile. “I will delay my departure until after you meet with the inquisitor. Then if you’re willing I’d like you to join me for dinner before you return to Pendragost. I think a good meal would be beneficial for both of us.”
The vine-horn in the stateroom sounded, interrupting their conversation. The Precentor picked it up, the horn’s tip expanding to cover his ear and jaw. “Report,” he said.
Annaka couldn’t hear what was said but the Precentor reacted with an amused smile. “I’ll be right there.” He hung up and turned to his daughter. “Care to join me on the bridge? It looks like the Sekari have sent a fleet to greet us.”
They arrived on the bridge, a small cramped room with over a dozen crew working away at numerous consoles. There was no viewport, as the bridge was located within the ship’s bowels, but a display showed the positions of their ships around the planet. Another fleet, much larger than their own, was drawing up in a battle line around them.
“They’re demanding to know who we are,” someone reported to the Precentor.
“Very well,” he said, placing the bridge’s vine-horn on his head. “Please transmit my response.”
A few quick commands entered into a biomechanical console were put in and the Precentor was given the signal that he was transmitting.
“This is Precentor Draevin of the Crusader Fleet of the Twelve Worlds Commonwealth. I come with grave news for the Sekari Empire. Please, I wish to speak with Emperor Vissarion II or, if possible, with Eyleene Kirst.”
Father and Daughter (Instrumental)
- Guitar Tribute Players