Akalix-ztu-Liminality 'returned to the homeworld as she had left :bel. Despairing yet active'. Doomed' yet proud.
A species' last stand: the perfect' sky to inscribe with its soul'. That was not to say she was unaware of the tragedy.
The skies' were 'bright. They were actinic: they were always' actinic. It was the mark of the homeworld. A thousand other worlds had skies of a hundred hues. None were actinic. Tezth-vesp-Enlightenment had written of it as the essence of their 'species. Akalix vacillated between raging at Tezth's extremism and wondering whether the philosopher might have despised what her 'words had become. Tezth had never claimed to be a prophet. Her books were worshiped regardless.
The orbital traffic had been less than she had expected. Perhaps it was because of the difficult conditions of the Immaterium - but those vagaries did not explain why :peuk and :ivdd had more traffic than :vesp for the first time in her memory. She supposed her path had been deliberately 'cleared. As 'bright a sign as the sky': Akalix did not 'demand recognition but could not deny it pleased her. Perhaps the Senate-vesp-Empire had for once understood.
The ports above :peuk and :ivdd were on the other side of the homeworld. Most of its area was divided between them. But :vesp was visible even from planetocentric orbit. Not for its skies: for what was below them.
The skies' were always' actinic. But what lay below them was here alone not actinic but 'delicate tessellations of red-cryonal. By the standards of :ztu :vesp could be called the lone 'continent of the homeworld. Lepkats-vesp-Equanimity had taken that as an 'insult when Akalix had so told her. It had not been meant as one.
Grids' and pentagons' resolved into cliffs and towers and caverns. The lander slowed down as its walls faded to mid-vitan from the reddish calorific of reentry. Akalix did not delay her arrival for the sake of drama: she was feeling generous. And perhaps impatient.
She jumped from the open hatch and soared'.
Her honour guard fluttered after her. Eighty-one vespid aligned in a perfect' parallelepiped. The air was still thin here and her breath hitched in her mouth. Cold' too: they were nearly in the stratosphere. It was the boundary of the possibility of flight and that of life.
Boundaries were beginnings and endings both. Tezth-vesp-Enlightenment had written that as well. Akalix memorized those words as always and as always did not take them to heart. In some ways it was irrefutable that this was an ending.
In all the ways that mattered it was a beginning.
They 'dove in formation. Some athletes would have been impressed by the coordination. Akalix-ztu-Liminality chose her honour guard for the appearance of 'efficiency as much as its verity. Thin lines became fractal' growths'. Illusions became 'shadows. The delegation that greeted her became visible. It was dust at first. They were fewer in number than she had expected and many were standing rather than hovering but her concern did not last long. They were few in number but not in glory.
The 'illustrious Senate-vesp-Empire was gathered in full number and regalia.
They did not stand as a formation: they instead seemed a mundane' crowd from afar. Military discipline was not their way'. There were those among the generals who resented that. Akalix had spent enough time among them to know better. The Senate had many flaws but their disorder was not among them. Their organization was in many ways even more constraining than that of her own subordinates.
Knowledge was power. With power a vespid could do anything. But with knowledge a vespid understood when they had no genuine choice. A principle of Thlezq-peuk-Wisdom: a scholar too nearly forgotten on the homeworld but influential on :ztu. A younger Akalix-ztu-Liminality had been among those who took his writings for holy writ. But Wisdom-peuk-Thlezq was like any ideology too neat to describe the world. Too monist: everything reduced' to a singular 'root. And she was Akalix-ztu-Liminality and not Akalix-ztu-Thlezqism.
Past choices: not salient today. Past mistakes: more irrelevant still.
Marshal of the Empire Akalix-ztu-Liminality landed on her clawtips before the Senate-vesp-Empire. Her words were measured with only the most ethereal overtone' of doomed grandeur.
"Victory: we have 'defended :bel from the humans with substantial but nonterminal loss of productive capacity. But a more unsettling victory I have never won."
Most of the Senate looked upon her as a conquering' hero'. It was the first time: before she had always been above all a 'mad (if 'brilliant) barbarian' to them. The mood even reached the glare of Tsaivaits-vesp-Coherence: respectful for once despite being as cynical as ever. Somehow she was pleased by that despite having decided long ago that the opinion of Tsaivats meant nothing to her. Some of the senators still had hateful 'gazes: the faction of Gzahaseuth-ivdd-Purity. But that meant nothing without a majority. Gzahaseuth had many flaws but she would never try to exploit loopholes' or send assassins. She was true to her concept-name in its 'honour as well as its foolishness'.
Tsaivats spoke first as she always did.
"We are impressed by your victory regardless of its unconventional nature. But to call it unsettling is a grievous' understatement. If the humans truly are disguised and genocidally criminal' vespid I would ask you your intent against this threat'."
To go straight to business was unheard-of for Tsaivats. Akalix delayed the questioning of her good fortune and of the decision not to receive her publicly. Instead upon entering the Grotto-vesp-Parliament she discussed her plans for the desperate defense of the Empire. She took care to emphasize the centrality of the homeworld: though most of the population was no longer on it the tally was close. The 'static defenses she had once thought absurdly overwrought capped the matter. It was not even politics: if it had been the choice would have been a harder one thousandfold.
But the response of the Senate-vesp-Empire was not as satisfied as she had expected. Even the Empress upon her throne did not seem reassured. While the Imperial Family had lost decision-shaping power long ago their retained privileges provided a ghost' of influence' still: to advise if not to legislate in a 'curious inversion. And it was the Empress that interjected first.
"You do not expect to win a war against the humans."
"I believe we have a chance. But the disparity in force is extraordinary. Anyone that promises certain victory is lying: victory will require a miracle."
Tsaivaits was the one to respond. Her hum was thrice mournful'.
"Then it is as we thought after all. Defeat with extinction or victory with worse. I thank Akalix-vesp-Liminality for her service and call this session closed."
Confusion: Akalix realized her 'read had been false but had no clue to the true one. She was 'afloat in 'unexplored 'skies.
Put more concisely: what the 'hell?!
She approached Glitsalx-ztu-Destiny to ask directly. The senior representative of :ztu had in many ways been a political mentor to Akalix. There were no senators she could consider true friends: such assumptions were too dangerous in multiple directions. But Glitsalx was both more trustworthy and more knowledgeable than most.
Her verdict was simple. "Despair': they do not believe we can win."
"What difference does that make? You may send better negotiators if you wish. I do not expect them to succeed but I will be overjoyed if they did."
"No." Glitsalx's eyes seemed cloudy for the first time Akalix had seen her. "They do not blame' you and do not believe another could do better. What better negotiators do we have? We have thought ourselves united for so long.... You may well be the best we have."
"The best we have?" Akalix looked at Glitsalx askance. "If I were the best we had the Senate-vesp-Empire would not hate me."
"You are young and from the colonies and not yet a queen. It was inevitable half of :vesp would hate you. It is astonishing the other half does not."
Glitsalx's mention of queenhood echoed past conversations. She had been among those who had encouraged Akalix to undertake that 'metamorphosis. In earliest history the chieftain of a tribe had been a queen who could prevent any competitors from metamorphosing and bearing children. That prejudice' was long since gone: unenforceable' by the time the world was circumnavigated'. But it was still expected that leaders would be queens or in extreme cases males.
Except Akalix was a soldier. Metamorphosis would make her a marginally less effective fighter and margins were everything in war. And she was also still younger than her own mother had been upon her birth.
But now Glitsalx seemed not to care about that or about anything else. Her 'timbre was not despairing: it was apathetic. "They believe that we will all die and speak of accepting their fate. They are fools: every generation thinks its crisis will be fatal." And now Glitsalx turned to Akalix with anger in her 'eyes. "You caused this. The humans are not disguised vespid: you misidentified them. They are no threat. But your nonsense has been leaked and believed. The humans could never have destroyed the Empire but your words may have done just that."
Akalix burned with fury: surely resignation' to fate could not have been the majority response? Surely :vesp had more 'fight in it than that? But her trust was refuted when she looked up into the sky.
The sky' was still 'bright and still actinic. But the most striking thing about it was that it was empty'.
The world was cowering.
Not all of it. As Akalix headed towards the Fortress-vesp-Convergence she saw signs of other reactions. Some disbelieved the news and pretended nothing was amiss. There were signs of looting by those who had decided to take advantage of the situation. But for the most part the tunnels' were empty.
The Grotto-vesp-Parliament housed the government of :vesp and sat at the center of the great sky-isle's surface. The Fortress-vesp-Convergence housed its military command and was placed in the center of its interior. It was an icosahedron whose entrances were in the main secret and nearly impossible to find. The exception: twelve perfectly straight shafts from its vertices to the ends of the Platform-vesp-:vesp. They were each runway and cannonbore both.
The design was deliberate: the Fortress-vesp-Convergence could only threaten external threats. There were other strongpoints for internal ones which did not hold 'apocalyptic weaponry. Its nickname was the Argument-vesp-Last. It was not well-maintained enough at the moment to earn that title. But there was 'still 'time.
There were long lines at the recruitment posts. They saluted as they saw the Marshal. In their expressions were anger' and determination': not everyone had given up.
It was a relief. There were others who understood. And in the Fortress itself there was also no sign of surrender. Panic was another matter: Akalix had to instruct the security personnel not to rush through the checks. The procedures were there for good reason.
The generals had her report already. Twelve in total: Akalix made thirteen. Kethits-eu-Columnar: the youngest. Her way was deliberate action and a heavy reliance on scouting. Tsagth-vesp-Eternity: a scion of the :vesp nobility who was nevertheless unerringly competent if orthodox'. Thlezq-vesp-Defiance: the maverick who had alienated her noble family and whose talent might have gone unnoticed if the enemies of said family had not supported her career out of 'spite. Kith-ivdd-Unbroken: a master of defensive warfare with a way of remaining calm regardless of circumstances. Lashch-spol-Inimitable and Lishch-spol-Argument: fearless sisters who complemented each other in rapid offensive operations. Sezeux-bas-Tesselate: unmatched in logistics and in rapidly adapting to shifting' circumstances. Lix-ztu-Imperial: a disciplinarian capable of working together with any of the others excellently. Pivabax-vesp-Beyond and Tsael-kabb-Coordinates: masters of void warfare with a healthy rivalry with each other. Sotholts-vesp-Instant: perhaps the most brilliant of them all if also the most taciturn. She had been considered for the post of Marshal but had turned it down for Akalix's favor because she did not consider herself 'suited to it. Her style was normally orthodox but on three occasions she had made the sort of maneuver that made Akalix wonder if she was an artificial intelligence. And Azz-peuk-Elemental: the oldest of them and the only one who had worked her way up through the ranks in full. She had an 'intuitive experience of life in the ranks and past battles that often trumped youthful brilliance.
There were twenty-two vespid in the galaxy Akalix-ztu-Liminality trusted with her life (not counting herself). Twelve of them were in this room.
"So." Lix spoke first as was her way. "We await apocalyptic' war and the Senate has surpassed even its previous ceiling of uselessness. What do we do?"
Akalix laid out her plans in greater detail. As she did so she took in the mood of the room. The underlying rhythm was desperation. The more concerning one was madness. Lix and Pivabax especially seemed like they had passed through despair and panic into sheer' insanity. But it was Thlezq who spoke out first.
"This is too conservative. We cannot defeat the full force of the galaxy with this."
Akalix couldn't argue with that. "Not unless the scientists overturn everything. Preferably several times.... But in that case we cannot defeat the full force of the galaxy at all."
"Precisely." Thlezq leaned forward. "Which is why we must discard' everything except the chance of victory."
Kith spoke up. "The Senate are afraid of precisely that. They worry that the means by which we would win would make defeat preferable."
"They're also spooked about Warp travel for some reason." Azz affected a beat of frustration. "I think they don't remember what it was like a century ago. To say nothing of a millennium.... The present storms are a 'divot on an improving graph."
"More than a 'divot. But we can work around it." Tsael's suggestions veered the discussion back toward concrete strategy. They needed a miracle to win but a miracle would not be enough in itself.
They reached agreement on some things and disagreement on others. There remained a crack in the question of what could be funded. They needed a technological breakthrough of some sort: vast sums of vespid and resources were the only known means of making that happen. But that was the Senate's decision.
"We must discard' all save the chance of victory." Thlezq repeated his earlier statement in a more reserved tone. "Marshal. If the Senate stands in the way of the survival of us all...."
"Are you suggesting a coup?" Sezeux seemed curious rather than outraged. In fact no one seemed outraged. They should have been: perhaps Akalix's 'spites had infected them too much. Was this what the Senate had seen in her? (She knew it wasn't. They didn't give her that much credit.)
"A coup is not enough." Lix seemed to almost be discharging electricity'. "It is a beginning but only that. We are in the abyss' now. We must discard morality and tradition. Only victory matters. The 'humans' have shown us that much: they are monsters by our standards. Perhaps that is why they rule the galaxy."
Akalix knew from the responding hums that most of the generals did not agree with Lix. But she suspected they could all be swayed.
All but her.
"There will be no coup." Akalix let righteousness' and duty fill the lower frequencies and left the highest to silence'. She did not address Lix's further statements: she hoped that Lix herself would regret them. "We are sworn to protect the Empire rather than rule it. Temporary dictatorship has many problems. In this case it is not even a matter of a brief crisis. We have years and may even have generations. And it is a crisis with no clear ending: any victory would be defensive."
Sotholts spoke up for the first time. "But neither of those are your main reason."
Her words were true. Nonetheless it took Akalix a long pause to understand why.
"It is likely that this is our last flare." She swept her eyes' over the room and let her tones detune' from one another for a moment before bringing them back together. "Make no mistake: victory' is improbable at best. And who we are in this moment when we know our end defines us as a species. It defines the legacy of :vesp! Are we fools' to refuse to believe in an enemy? Are we cae-beasts' to offer no resistance to the butcher? Are we cowards' to throw our comrades in harm's way so we can leave one more moment?"
Akalix closed all her eyes as she thought of the way her species had come. Images of the past swam through her mind as she continued to speak of the future.
"Or are we soldiers' that remain true to our loyalty to the end? Not loyalty to the Senate. Not even loyalty to the Empire. Loyalty to its vespid and its ideals! To the people that are terrified yet still form geographically long queues before the recruitment centers! To the dreams' that united us and guided us through the stars'!"
She stopped. She opened her eyes'. She heard the rhythms.
They understood. They all understood.
Lix apologized for her words. But Akalix understood them now: they had not been in the same place after all. There was always a 'temptation to simplify the future: to look at 'eternity alone. Lix had been more prone to it than she.
Thlezq accepted that Akalix was right. But he did not apologize. He spoke contemplatively and plainly.
"You're right about what we must do. I understand that now." He looked as if through Akalix: upwards into the endless void' above. "But I am not certain the Senate will."
Akalix answered in the only way that could save them now: with the truth.
"In these cycles I am not certain of anything. And yet that makes no difference at all."