The Abadon Relic
"And they held their heads equal in combat, and they rushed on like wolves: whilst grief-bearing Discord, looking on, exulted: for she alone of the gods was then present to them contending..." The Iliad, 11.72-75
The Dark Heart’s planet-killer, The End of the World, shuddered violently as a fusillade of tactical nuclear warheads detonated off its port bow. The defensive laser grid caught them before they entered the killzone, but molten slag still peppered the ship’s hull and the shield generators trembled under the strain of ionizing radiation. Siri Joranson, leader of the Dark Hearts, felt it all like a series of blows against her own flesh through the ship’s VR suite.
It only stoked her furious glee.
“Direct bombers to intercept the Inferno-classes. Support flight alpha, on me.”
She issued the order directly from her mind to the minds of her commanders, connected via their ships’ ansible networks and respective interface suites. The commanders, in turn, issued orders to squad leaders, who delegated individual tasks, each carried out by that ship’s Navigator. Many of those belonged to Eris, who enhanced and coordinated the entire communication grid with her ubiquitous psychic presence.
Siri thrilled in the sensation of these Navigators responding to her commands, turning weapons on their former allies. They had belonged to the Federation - to the Terran Astral Guard, in particular - but now, thanks to Eris, they served only the Dark Heart. Some had taken to the change, reflecting Siri’s own grim pleasure as their comrades fought and died.
Some remained cowed only through suffering, and they cursed their own existence as they were forced to obey instructions.
Siri found that sensation to be even more satisfying.
But then one of her commanders’ minds abruptly vanished from the link, and she knew something had gone horribly wrong.
“Captain, we’ve been ambushed,” came Markona’s voice through the VR link. “Five Lancer-class frigates just dropped out of warp on top of us. The Deathly is fragged!”
The battlefield conditions flashed through Siri’s mind in an instant. Her army was engaged in numerous skirmishes across the space over New Asia, the planetary base of the Terran Astral Guard. The Dark Hearts had finally gained enough rebels to their cause to challenge the Astral Guard’s defenses, and with Eris’ support, this battle should have been a slaughter of the enemy. Instead, they were not only holding, but actually surprising her forces with tactics that, for some reason, Eris hadn’t been able to predict.
“Rally,” Siri found herself saying almost automatically. “Tear them apart, never mind my cover. Eris, full ahead.”
She attuned her focus to Eris, who was controlling The End of the World through her Navigator warp core in the center of the bridge. Another volley of tactical nukes detonated over the starboard anti-frigate slugs, closer this time, tilting her ship on its axis, but Siri ignored it, concentrating to get Eris’ attention. The woman materialized in Siri’s perception: tall and muscled, body covered in nothing but chitin plating on her vital areas, ram horns curling through her fiery red hair, and inky black tentacles sprouting from her back.
She wasn’t responding.
“Eris,” Siri said, a feeling of terror slowly opening in the pit of her stomach. “Full ahead.”
[I cannot recommend that course], Eris whispered in Siri’s mind. [Falling back is advisable.]
For a moment, Siri couldn’t believe what she was hearing. This woman was the pinnacle of malicious delights, violence made incarnate by the twisted machinations of Federation scientists, and the inspiration of Siri’s highest dreams of vengeance. And she was advising they fall back? Eris, the woman who tore men apart with her tentacles for fun, who had converted countless other Navigators and soldiers to serve in her cruelty?
But The End of the World quaked once again as a shield generator exploded, unable to withstand the concentrated stream of ion fire pouring into it from a nearby destroyer. Where had that even come from? It should have been impossible for a destroyer to push past her own screen of capital ships. Why did her forces seem so disorganized?
There was no time to answer the question. For now, she had to trust Eris, whose love for Siri had never failed to protect her in the past. Siri’s own love for Eris allowed her to grant that trust.
“Full reverse, then. Milo, bring us about and direct maser fire at that destroyer. Bombers cover my fallback - all other units, on me!”
She watched her ships respond in real time through the VR suite, interceptor craft and corvettes retreating to their carrier ships as frigates accelerated to the limits of their crew tolerances in a dash towards their flagship. The enemy destroyer unleashed another blast of ion fire, shredding through The End of the World’s primary fore shield generator, leaving the nose uncovered.
But the destroyer’s maintained aggression left it directly in Siri’s sights, and the Inferno-class frigates on her sides - the ones shooting nukes at her - were already coming apart under her bombers’ dedicated assault. Many of those bombers were dying, but most were piloted by former Federation Navigators anyway. She spared them no concern as she gave the order.
“Fire at will.”
She felt Milo issue the commands to the ship, and then she felt the ship respond, a deep, almost lethargic sense of joy as its primary weapon system activated. A quadruplet of hydrogen-boron tokamaks churned into a frenzy, releasing gigawatts of energy into the ship’s power couplings, flowing like arterial blood to the maser array running the length of the ship’s keel. The maser itself fed on that energy like a starved animal, a slavering enthusiasm echoing from its subroutines as it directed that energy into collimated microwaves intense enough to ignite planetary atmosphere.
And then, at the speed of light, that energy crashed into the enemy destroyer, which Siri
now understood was called the Means of Honor. The bitter irony of that name turned sweet as she watched the maser heat obliterate its forward shields and strip away the hull plating in a matter of seconds. The ship twisted and melted, its body ablating off in layers, exposing viscera that bled crew as surely as its oils and coolants. There was, after all, no honor in the Astral Guard; only flawed, evil-minded Humans who believed they could do as they wished with no consequences.
As the helpless bodies evaporated in the maser heat, she felt a small sense of relief wash over her. The people who had destroyed her life, who had forced her into piracy to survive, would finally know what it was like to fear and suffer as she had. They would all pay for their comrades’ crimes on Grana.
That was the voice of Erge, Siri’s most valuable Navigator after Eris, speaking to her through
the VR suite. Siri left her reverie and attended, seeing Erge’s image as a slight, brown-and-silver haired body surrounded by a confining warp core. And she had a fear in her eyes, wild and unrestrained, the likes of which Siri had never seen in her before.
“Damask isn’t falling in.”
Siri’s relief turned to white-hot fury as she turned her attention in the suite to her second in
command: Damask Felsite, commanding the Call to Arms. He was supposed to be at her flank, overseeing the anti-bomber operations. Instead, his destroyer was arcing away from the battle entirely. The End of the World was falling back from the more fortified planetary defenses, but the Call to Arms...was retreating.
“Lieutenant,” she said, her voice a thin, trembling blade. “Explain yourself.”
“There’s nothing to explain,” he replied, coming into her view as a tight-lipped, grey-eyed man, arms folded behind his back. “You know exactly what this is.”
“And you know exactly what will happen to you when I find you after this is over.”
“Nothing’s going to happen, Siri, because you aren’t going to find me.”
Siri scoffed, projecting her disdain as a palpable bite into his skin through the ship link.
“You’ve always been shortsighted, Damask, but I figured you would at least know better than to underestimate me by now. After Eris and I destroy the Astral Guard, we’ll come for you. And with her power, you won’t be able to hide anywhere in the galaxy. But you can still save yourself if you fall back in, now.”
So powerful was her vitriol that Damask actually flinched, clearly feeling the full effect of it.
But he didn’t back down, either.
“I don’t think so. It seems to me that you’re not going to survive this battle, and I’d rather not be here for that. Neither would the rest of the Black Hand.”
“The Black Hand? Is that what you’re calling your little club of supporters, now?”
“Not so little,” he said, projecting a smothering feeling of confidence into Siri’s mind.
Along with it, she saw almost half of her army forming up on the Call to Arms.
“What is this...Eris?”
She turned her focus to Eris once more, desperate for an explanation. Many of those retreating ships were under Eris’ control, and the rest should have known better than to resist her power. Surely, Siri thought, Eris must be able to make sense of the apparent insurrection. Maybe she’d taken the liberty of ordering them to destroy Damask before he could warp away? It wouldn’t have been the first time Eris had anticipated one of Siri’s orders correctly, and right now, Siri did feel like obliterating the traitor.
But the image of her Navigator remained unaltered: calm, still. Silent.
“You’re wondering why some of Eris’ ships are coming with me,” he said, almost apologetically. “She’s gone, Siri. The presence in your warp core is just a shadow. She left before the battle even started.”
Siri frantically scanned the suite for proof that Damask was wrong. But Eris continued to be unresponsive, and the lifesigns from the warp core were remarkably subdued. How had she not noticed that before..?
“I warned you not to trust her.”
And then Damask cut the link between their ships, and Siri felt it like the snapping of a taut cord, whipping up to strike her in the face. It began a chain reaction, as every other ship belonging to the Black Hand cut their links, too. She began receiving frantic calls for support from her remaining loyal forces as they were suddenly outmatched, the Black Hand ships withdrawing all covering fire.
And then, as one, they warped away from the battlefield. A few of the Federation ships warped after them, but most remained focused on the Dark Hearts. On The End of the World.
“Eris..?” she tried, one final time, her voice quivering with terror and heartbreak.
The image of Eris - her inspiration, her Navigator, her monstrous lover - faded into nothingness.
The primary functions of The End of the World shut down without the psychic ghost of its Navigator. Siri went through the motions of reverting it to apsychic control, but she did so numbly, unable to process the cries of confusion and alarm from the rest of the bridge crew. As conventional comms were restored, she issued stiff, robotic orders.
“All ships fall on me. Lay covering fire. Establish new units.”
Reactions were sluggish and ineffective, and as news of Eris’ disappearance spread throughout the network, more and more of the Dark Heart ships either surrendered outright or even joined forces with the enemy. More than half of them were crewed by new recruits, terrified colonists who had heeded Siri’s call to join the rebellion or die - and now, without Eris to enforce the punishment for disobedience, they were abandoning the cause.
Those who stayed to fight were picked apart one ship at a time. Siri watched the whole thing happen with with the humor of the gallows; without Eris, an army twice her size wouldn’t have stood a chance at securing New Asia. But Eris had abandoned Siri, exactly the way she had always promised that she never would. This assault was doomed, and so was the
And even if Siri wanted to retreat to lick her wounds, she had no Navigator. That meant The End of the World was unable to make a warp jump. And that meant she had no choice but to fight.
Well, that was nothing new, after all.
“To anyone still loyal to the cause of vengeance,” she said across the ship links, projecting all the conviction she could muster, “form on me and full ahead. We’ll take down as many of them as we can.”
She was met with silence. Several ships warped out of battle, then, perhaps to follow the Black Hand; Siri had no way of knowing. The few that remained did as she asked without acknowledgment.
There was no need for any of them to say it, really. They all knew they were headed for suicide.
But that didn’t mean they were going to make it easy for the Terran Astral Guard.
After regrouping, and with her fury cooling into something hard and fatal, Siri was able to organize her remaining ships into a tight phalanx of destructive power, centered around her own flagship’s maser array. The End of the World was too slow to effectively target most of the enemy frigates with the maser, but an array of anti-frigate slugs on its upper and lower hulls allowed it to create a clear region ahead of it where Siri’s own frigates could operate more effectively. With them holding their positions, Siri’s ship chewed through five more destroyers.
Meanwhile, the few of her loyal followers piloting interceptor craft were dying by the second, and every few minutes, another frigate took critical damage, leaving it inoperable in the fight.
Normally, Siri would have felt every one of those losses as a piece of her own flesh being carved out of her - and not due to psychic enhancements from her Navigators or some trick of her VR suite, but rather to her fierce sense of ownership and protectiveness over the Dark Hearts. She had lost too many of her family to the Astral Guard already, and the thought of losing any more was usually enough to sicken her physically. Now, though, she barely registered the deaths pouring into her awareness through the ship’s sensors.
Her entire being thrummed with a renewed hatred over Eris’ betrayal. This rebellion was a product of their shared vision for a universe free of the Astral Guard’s tyranny, and for their own shared revenge against their respective tormentors. General Sendel, who had overseen the program that created Eris, was already dead - flayed by the blades in Eris’ own tentacles in the stateroom of this very ship. But the architect of Siri’s trauma still lived.
Evidently, Eris didn’t care. Siri couldn’t process an explanation in the confusion, but fears cropped up relentlessly. Had Eris only used Siri to get her own revenge, and to grow more powerful in her command of the warp, before vanishing and leaving her to die with the rest of the Dark Hearts? Was even the bond of love Siri had sworn they shared, that was powerful enough to remind both of them what humanity felt like, just another lie? Or was it none of those things, and merely some inexplicable whim of a being that was more of the warp than of the flesh, after all?
Where once Eris had been the singular fixed point in Siri’s universe, now she was nothing but a swirling cloud of chaos, as her name had always foretold. The shift of paradigm was vertigo-inducing, and the answer lay only in a recommitment to what Siri had always known, since long before finding Eris in a desolated cruiser. The stars were full of monsters - in waiting, if not in action - and no apparent gesture of love or kindness could erase that. With her last breath, Siri would make them pay for it.
Or, so she thought.
As she rallied her forces for one final push, the field of conflict erupted in an overwhelming surge of energy and light as an impossibly massive ship warped into the middle of the fighting. Once The End of the World’s sensors adjusted, they informed Siri that it was actually a space station, possessing just enough thrust capacity to make it conceptually compatible with making a warp jump. In effect, then, it was a mobile fortress.
It was emblazoned, physically, digitally, and psychically, with the emblems of the Interstellar Federation of Species Navy.
Siri felt the fire starting to go out of her. She hadn’t expected them to arrive so soon. Even in the original calculations, she and Eris had assumed that they’d never be able to defeat a concentrated effort by the IFSN. The Terran Astral Guard was their real enemy, and it possessed only the strength of the hundred or so Human worlds; the IFSN drew technology and forces from all thirty-one member species of the Federation, spread across thousands and thousands of worlds. Most of those species were older than Humanity by far, and possessed technology Siri’s ships couldn’t hope to compete with.
But if she was doomed anyway, there was no point in not trying.
“Milo,” she said, voice soft but steady. “Train maser heat on the IFSN fortress.”
Milo’s face appeared in Siri’s perception through the VR suite, utterly dejected.
“That thing’s four times the size of even our ship. Shouldn’t we focus our final charges on the ships we can actually take out?”
“Fire on that fortress, Azer!”
She screamed the order, her cool snapping in a humiliating instant as her emotions consumed her, tears staining the edges of her ragged voice. Milo hesitated for only a second more, shocked, before complying with the order. The End of the World responded, training all of its deadly energy on the nearest surface of the fortress.
The enemy’s shields glowed a bright, sickening white. Sensors indicated imminent collapse
of their generators.
But as the maser’s roar softened and ended, the shields held.
“Captain,” said Relia, her communications officer. “They’re hailing us. Should I put them through?”
“No,” she growled. “Arix, can you divert energy from our engines and shields to overclock the maser?”
Her engineering officer materialized in the VR space as a wiry, blonde-haired figure, wrist deep in wiring and machines.
“I can,” they said, voice unnervingly calm. “It will probably cause the power couplings to explode before the maser even fires, though.”
Siri returned her attention to the fortress, her teeth clenched in helpless rage. The cursed thing shined, seeming ringed with a halo of radiance. As if the heavens themselves had somehow spat up this station to stop her, a city-sized archon to eradicate the demon she’d become. Siri was hardly the religious type, but the force of the comparison struck her almost as hard as the concussive wave of force slamming through the hull of The End of the World as another round of tactical nukes impacted.
She had accepted her status as a demon long ago, when she carved out her pirate identity as the Dark Heart on the outskirts of the Delta Sector. But she, like Eris, had been created by the Federation - albeit through very different means. And while the Terran Astral Guard was most directly responsible, the IFSN as a whole hadn’t seen fit to intervene, despite its overwhelming power, and that was almost worse.
Siri wasn’t about to let them erase her without at least putting a scratch on them.
“Do it, Wren,” she said, focusing on Arix once more. “The ship won’t hold much longer anyway.”
Arix pursed their lips, mulling over a counterargument, and drew in breath to speak.
The ship lurched violently. The VR suite flooded Siri’s mind with warnings of directed energy weapons of an unknown variety causing irreparable hull and system damage. Then it abruptly went offline, plunging her into sensory darkness.
She ripped the tangle of wires and leads from her skull and looked about the bridge for an
explanation. Her bridge crew were all doing the same, trying desperately to restart more conventional control overlays. Red warning signs projected holographically across the canopy of the bridge, blocking out the video feed of the surrounding battle. Much of that feed was gone now anyway, replaced with static or blackness as their microcamera relays sputtered and died from the effects of whatever had hit them.
Siri’s spine stiffened as an unfamiliar voice forced itself into the space of the bridge. On its heels, a video projection appeared on the center of the canopy, revealing a middle-aged human with short-cropped hair that swirled with iridescence, as if made of a thin sheen of oil. They were in the uniform of the Terran Governing Authority, the image framed with the insignia of the IFSN. Siri and the others on the bridge turned to the image, the Human inside of it looming twice as large as any of them in the projection.
Siri gave the order flatly, her venom all drained. She saw Relia shake her head helplessly through peripheral vision. No surprise, there; that this communication had even started without Siri’s approval meant the enemy had control of their comms, now, somehow. There was nothing to do but listen.
“I’m Xerat, she/him/xir/theirs.”
The human’s voice and words drooled false courtesy. No one introduced themselves with pronouns in the midst of a firefight.
Then again, Siri realized, The End of the World didn’t seem to be fighting anymore.
“I’m a functionary of the Terran government,” she went on, “and I’m here to broker a peace between the Astral Guard and the Dark Hearts. I suggest you surrender immediately.”
“Surrender?” Siri asked, her voice breaking. “So you can parade us in front of the whole Federation as examples? I’d rather die here.”
“That’s evident,” Xerat replied, frowning. “But no, we’re not so eager to make an example of you. In fact, we had the opposite in mind. The man who started you on this path...General Garristen, isn’t it?”
Siri’s eyes widened involuntarily.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
Xerat nodded to the side, and the image expanded as it panned to the left, revealing none other than General Garristen on his knees, stripped of insignia and bound at the wrists.
“We know what you’ve been through, Siri,” Xerat continued. “And we want to make it right. Now, most of your confederates are dying as we speak, and doing very little towards exacting vengeance. Most of the soldiers serving on our ships in this battle weren’t even at Grana during the occupation. And your ship, well...clearly you can see you have no further options, there.”
She smiled then, in a way that was both sympathetic and condescending all at once, and Siri hated him for it. But there was nothing Siri could do about it, either.
“Surrender immediately and you have my word that none of your Dark Hearts will be harmed. We’re prepared to offer a full pardon for your crimes, Siri, because we know that Garristen bears the real burden here. The example the Federation needs is him, not you. Surrender to us, and we’ll not only help you reintegrate back into society, but we’ll give you a front-row seat at his execution.
“I’m so sorry it’s taken us until now to respond to your cries for help.”
Siri fumed, her body quivering with a flood of warring emotions. Everything about Xerat felt intrinsically false, and yet the words she was saying were exactly what a younger Siri had always hoped would be said. But it had been too long - eight years too long - and the present Siri didn’t know if she could accept that sort of magnanimity, even if it were genuine. Yet she longed for Garristen’s death so powerfully she could taste it, and there was no way she would have it now, left to her own devices.
She thought, for a moment, that she might be willing to let even that go, in order to deny the Federation the satisfaction of recouping them. To ensure no one believed the ludicrous notion that there was justice in this house of horrors. To simply scuttle The End of the World now, before any more false overtures of peace could settle into her mind.
But as she glanced around the bridge, she saw the faces of some of her most trusted and loyal crew. Milo, Relia, Mirago, Veesha; they all looked to her with a mixture of pain and fear so obvious that even Siri couldn’t ignore it. They wanted her to take that deal, and she understood. As horrible as her losses at the hands of Garristen’s forces had been, she knew they’d suffered worse. With Eris at her back, Siri had believed they could make the entire Astral Guard pay for their complicity...
Eris was gone, though. And their flagship was dead in space. They had nothing left to collect payment with.
“Captain Joranson,” Xerat said, drawing her attention back to the screen. “I can’t delay the Astral Guard for much longer. What will you do?”
Siri let out a long, ragged breath, then drew herself up into the nearest semblance of a proud captain’s posture to respond.
“You must want something from us,” she said, fighting to keep the desperate agony out of her voice. “You wouldn’t offer terms this generous for nothing.”
“I understand why you would think that, Siri, but the Federation isn’t so ruthless as you’ve been led to believe. All we ask is your cooperation with future efforts where we need your assistance.”
“And if we were to refuse to cooperate during those future efforts?”
Xerat sighed, as if making him address that possibility were some massive breach of etiquette on Siri’s part.
“Then your surrender would be null and void, Dark Heart, and we’d be forced to pursue the full weight of Terran and Federal justice against you.”
Siri closed her eyes, unable to keep looking at this person, this new star in the constellation of confusion and anger that was her heart. But even without looking, she understood that Xerat was still there, rapidly losing patience. She was offering a leash instead of a noose, though, and Siri wasn’t certain which was preferable.
She opened her eyes and looked to her crew once more, and the last of her fury whispered out of existence, the flimsy smoke of an extinguished candle. They, at least, deserved the chance to make a life for themselves. For now, that fact was enough for Siri.
“Xerat,” she said, wiping a stray tear from her eye.
“Please patch comms through to the rest of my ships.”
“It’s already done. Go ahead.”
She drew one last shaky breath. No turning back, now. Here was a chance at life, like they had never had before.
She had to let her people take it.
“Attention all Dark Hearts,” she said, feeling her mind reel away from her body as she prepared to speak the words that would end her rebellion forever. “Stand down immediately. Total white flag protocol. We…”
Her voice caught, her throat unwilling to go through with the statement. She forced it to comply anway, choking out the final sentence.
“We are surrendering to Xerat and the IFSN.”
Several of her bridge crew burst into tears - of relief, sorrow, or both, Siri could only guess - but Xerat only gave xir Cheshire-like grin.
“You’ve made the right choice, Siri. Please stand by for further instructions.”
Siri released the tension in her body, pressure straps tugging her into the depths of her captain’s chair. Nothing about this felt right, but she didn’t have the energy to protest. All she could do was sit and reflect on three simple truths, each one shattering her view of the world anew.
Eris was gone. Garristen would soon be dead. And, for the first time since her childhood, Siri would have to actually live.
She wasn’t sure which of the three frightened her most.