It made an oddness in the air, the prospect of contact. One that did not require Mateo's sensitivity to detect. The ship hummed with it, sang that song even above its own crystal humming, and there was perhaps none of them who did not feel it.
They were like flowers, Diona thought. Like Kallik's plants in the waterdomes, unfurling when the sunbulbs came up, heads drifting around to face and drink the light. Not that contact was light, of course. Most often the opposite. Nonetheless. They were moved, every time. They unfurled in anticipation, one and all.
She strode into the mess hall, Ebsin beside her. Not quite the latest, Aban had shambled in behind them, still half asleep, and Iena of course was at her station on the bridge. They wouldn't see her until later. But Tielfin and Alial were already there, the physicians conversing quietly with Captain Sahvis, Alial humming low and strident in concern. Kallik had probably been up for hours, racking and shielding his plants in case of coming violence, opening the mess for the rest of them. And even Mateo had managed to appear, crumpled in a chair off to one side, broadcasting a lack of desire for company as widely and silently as possible.
Ah well. At least he had remembered to eat, this time. It had cost him to forget a time or twenty. Not even aether pilots could live completely in their heads.
"I'll collect our rations," Ebsin murmured beside her, trailing light fingers through the small hairs of Diona's arm. "You take seats. Beside Aban, I think? Neither Mattie nor Alial will thank us to sit elsewhere, hmm?"
"Not from the looks of things," Diona agreed, smiling at her partner and moving up onto her toes to place a small kiss to the other woman's lips. Ebsin's opal eyes shuttered, the pale stone vanishing for a moment behind dark lids, her fingers suddenly tight and rasping on Diona's arm. Joy fluttered, a warmth in her chest, and Diona gently pushed Ebsin away, laughing softly as eyelids darted open again. "Go," Diona said. "I'll take a table with Aban."
Ebsin glared at her, only for a second, before shrugging tall shoulders and moving away in a huff. Neither Mateo nor the three at the captain's table so much as watched her pass, though Kallik appeared to have noticed enough to tease, at least.
Also Aban, she saw, when she moved across and made two places at his table. The mechanical engineer looked up at her, a wry and entirely too knowing look on his face, waving a hand mockingly to invite her down. Diona sniffed pointedly at him, even as she coiled into place beside him. "Not a word, you," she said, and smiled for the pious innocence in his eyes.
"I say nothing," he agreed, nodding softly. "I see nothing, I know nothing, I say nothing. I'm only the engineer, after all."
"Hush," Diona admonished, elbowing him lightly. "There are only nine people on this ship. Everyone knows everything, and the engineer not less than most. You make a bad liar."
"No-one told me I had to make a good one," he answered, while Ebsin appeared behind him and placed their rations on the table. "Thank you," Aban said, entirely unperturbed, and didn't so much as look while Ebsin curled in next to Diona and wrapped one arm around her.
"The captain isn't wearing her arm," Ebsin stated, after the first mouthful of tea. "Alial is decidedly unhappy about it. Tielfin is mediating. Badly."
Diona winced. "She's been leaving it longer," she said, carefully not turning to look at the captain's table. "I think she only wears it on duty. If the crystal-graft isn't taking, Alial is right to be concerned."
Ebsin shrugged, saturnine. "I don't think Sahvis wants it to take," she said, without much expression.
"No," Aban agreed, in the midst of eating with considerable relish. "Not everyone is so sanguine about the graft as a crystaltech, Diona. Sahvis would have preferred the old prostheses, the mechanical ones. As soon as we head back to Aeterna, she'll get one. She won't let the graft take before then, mark me. She'll go armless sooner."
Diona blinked, feeling herself disturbed by the idea. Her crystalline eyes, obsidian to Ebsin's opal, shuttered in perturbation. But before she could say anything, before she could argue with any of them, a change came over the atmosphere of the room, and almost to a body they looked around.
Mateo, as frail and absent-looking as ever, had come to standing, his dead eye and his live fixed to the ceiling, pointed unerringly towards the upper bridge and Iena. His expression curdled, his mouth twisting in pained distaste, and he glanced once towards Sahvis before heading out without a single word.
Sahvis, equally silently, stood in her turn and pulled her inert arm off the table, fixing it with calm, precise movements beneath her right shoulder. Crystal-graft merged silently with flesh, perhaps not as rapidly as it should have, and Diona noted that the arm did not quite take the tone of the shoulder, either, a shade or ten too pale to match the captain's skin. She winced to herself. She should have noticed before, perhaps. One of two crystaltechs aboard, she should have noticed sooner. But she had not, and for the moment it could not be relevant.
"Finish up and to stations," the captain called, crisp and clear. "We draw level with the disturbance within the hour. Make ready all."
"Aye sir," they answered, more or less automatically, and both Diona and Ebsin turned back to their rations with more intent than before. Aban maintained his steady pace, as always, incapable of altering it for anything short of an immediate crisis. Kallik came around the counter, a small wrapped ration in one hand, and headed their way, Alial and Tielfin behind him. Sahvis had already left, heading after Mateo towards the bridge.
"You'll want to head out fast, Eba," Tielfin noted quietly, the slender psychiatrist coming abreast of them and leaning herself against the back of Ebsin's seat. "And take some fortification with you. Even if contact goes well, I don't think the bridge will be very pleasant this cycle regardless."
Ebsin raised one eyebrow, a mute and not entirely polite indication that she was not at all surprised by this statement. Tielfin, expressionless, reached out and flicked said eyebrow lightly with her thumb, a warm, friendly sort of malice in her eyes.
"Tiel and I will be taking the gallery with you, Diona," Alial cut in hurriedly, nudging her fellow doctor hard in the arm. "Mattie thinks it's alive, whatever it is. We'll need to be watching, just in case. That alright?"
Diona shrugged, gently steering Ebsin ahead of her out of their shared seat, ignoring her partner's glaring contest with Tielfin. "Should be. It's not as though the ship will mind. Though Ebsin might, hmm?"
Her partner blinked, head coming back around towards her again, and Diona promptly took advantage, leaning up to kiss her softly once again and hold tight until the tension seeped away. Ebsin relaxed abruptly, the muscles in her arms easing under Diona's hands. Crystal brushed crystal as their touch-grafts extruded from their fingertips, opal and obsidian syncing gently against each other in anticipation of later shipsync. Ebsin sighed, resting their foreheads together, and gathered mental fortification for them both.
"I will not mind," she murmured, her mouth curving softly, her opal eyes so starkly luminous in her ebony face. "I mind nothing, do I not? I have better things to be doing."
Aban, somewhat forgotten to one side, snorted explosively at that one. "Of course you do," he agreed, completely straightfaced. "And in point of fact, so do the rest of us. Off with the lot of you, hmm? Kallik and I have a ship to keep together while you're off making eyes at aether-contacts. Hup to it, hie?"
Ebsin sneered lazily at him, throwing an elegant gesture his way with stone-tipped hands, the fire-tracery of her opal rendering it infinitely more noticeable. But she moved nonetheless, drawing a final touch across Diona's hands before turning and striding determinedly towards the bridge and its troublesome threesome.
And Diona, with only the smallest of sighs, pulled her eyes from that retreating figure and set about gathering her own troubles into position. Tielfin smiled faintly at her, a sister-in-law's knowing humour, and waved a hand towards the door.
"Shall we?" she asked, very mildly, and to a body they shook themselves, as though waking up for the first time that cycle.
Yes. Yes, at last, they probably should.
The Voidsong's gallery was still opaque when they arrived, a vein of dark crystal in the metal of the ship, meters thick and black as the void around her. Diona left it so for the minute, slinging herself down through the hatch and focusing on getting Alial and Tielfin down behind her before she started waking things up. The doctors staggered a little on the landing, less used to the slick, sloped crystal than she was, dropping onto their haunches alongside her in the bottom of the long tunnel for balance. As soon as they were safely landed, Diona ignored them and set about waking the gallery for action.
It always felt odd to her. Slower than she knew it really was, light stirring in the glass like a languid bloom, the opacity fading back and the distant, ambient light of the universe filtering up through it. Distantly, she felt Ebsin waking the ship's opal nodes and firewings from the bridge interlink, the two at either end of the gallery flaring brightest to her senses, stonefire shining with her partner's presence. Voidsong stirred itself to full wakefulness around them, alive and intent beneath Diona's fingertips, and the sensation moved her as it always did, as few other sensations could. In the underslung curve of the gallery, she came alive.
"Connection to bridge established," she murmured softly, for Tielfin and Alial's benefit alone, as she felt opal and obsidian fall into true sync, with each other and with the metal-and-electric hull that cupped them. She twitched her fingertips, bringing up full function. "Bridge view on the monitor high and front. External views through the crystal, low and around. Captain, have you got us all?"
Sahvis flickered into view high on the gallery panels, the rest of the bridge crew arranged around her. Iena sat curled into the listening station behind and to her captain's right, the tiny, knobbled woman immersed still in her sensor readings, maintaining contact telemetry. Mateo sat ahead of her at the helm, his face lopsided as it always was on the bridge, his good eye closed and his dead one open and milky while he listened to the murmurings in the aether. His expression had stilled, emptied of his usual sourness, a professional blankness as he let his mind expand towards their target.
And across from him, on the captain's other side, Ebsin sat calm and stiff-backed before her station, fingertips grafted to the opal station, the ship alive and singing in her veins as surely as in Diona's. She could feel her, in the other systems, at one remove but still closer, infinitely so, than the two women physically behind her. Diona smiled, involuntarily.
"Double clear," Sahvis cut in, an acknowledgement to a question Diona had almost forgotten. "Iena puts the aether contact ahead right, two billion kilometers. No other contacts detected. It's rogue. Bring it up, Gallery."
"Aye," Diona agreed, half-absently, already reaching down through the crystal to focus ambient radiation into a light-visual, here and on the bridge. The contact wasn't difficult to recognise, an emitter on par and moreso than their own ship, a star hung shining in the void. It wasn't difficult to bring into focus. It was difficult to look away from, once it had appeared. For each of them, one and all.
A ship, hung in the darkness of an empty void, still and silent in the face of the universe. A construction, at least. A city, a station, perhaps a monument, but something. Some constructed thing, left waiting aeons from anyone. Alive, Mateo had said. Alive and unempty, for all it didn't look it. And beautiful.
They noticed it, Diona thought. All of them. They must have. Though alien, though strange, the contact had a beauty about it. It lay in the void like a spired dagger, metal spun over a glass skin, shining with an inner light. A real one, a low, steady glow in the visual spectrum, granting an ethereal, inexhaustible armour against the darkness. A fragile prayer against the void, perhaps. A cathedral.
"Defiant," Tielfin noted softly, behind her. "Whoever they are. Hard to tell their technology at this distance, but the aesthetic has a defiance to it. Deliberate fragility. It doesn't look like something that should wait in the darkness unmoved, lightyears from anyone who could maintain it. And yet, here we are."
"It could be a lure, either," Alial murmured cynically. "A diamond in a coal vein. Who wouldn't reach for it?"
"And who would they lure, so far out in the void?" Tielfin shot back, glancing over her shoulder at the other doctor. "There's no-one out here. Aeterna Nema is lightyears behind us, and she's the only cityship this close to the galactic edge. We border the void itself. Who could they think would come here?"
"Someone who lived here," Iena said suddenly, the half-ear she had cocked to the bridge and their conversation becoming apparent. "We've made no other contacts, but we have been tracing the void deliberately, for the Aeterna's sake. Some of the systems oblique to us could be inhabited, perhaps?"
"Someone put it here," Sahvis agreed coldly. She had propped her chin in her flesh-and-bone hand, the crystal one tapping idly at her knee. "Either they came from some system to the inside of us, or else ..."
Or else it came from outside. Somewhere in or beyond the intergalactic void, in the long darkness between stars. The thought was an instinctive chill, even for a crew born to the cityships, who had never known planetside. The Aeterna might be a loner even by city standards, tracing darker paths than they and maintaining more isolation from planet-based civilisations, but even she fed from the warmth of stars. Even she needed their light and their fuel to maintain herself. To travel the long dark would be beyond even her.
What kind of ship would it not be beyond? What kind of ship might cross the long dark and then stop, stand still, just on the edges of the light? Hang in the darkness like a lone, fragile star, a monument on the edge of emptiness.
"Speculation," Alial snapped suddenly. "There's no reason to think it comes from outside. None of the cities have explored this far along the spiral arm. There could be half a thousand worlds in there that we've never heard of. Statistically, this thing is far more likely to come from one of them than from an impenetrable emptiness that no-one has so much as seriously looked at yet. Let's not get carried away."
"Don't be so sure."
The voice was odd, hollow, and Diona's head came up instinctively, along with both her companions. On the bridge, it drew everyone save Iena, who still had the majority of her focus directed to telemetry. Diona felt Ebsin's flare of startlement through the ship, a tiny surge of shock.
Mateo didn't notice. His good eye was still closed, one hand sketching absent shapes in the air in front of it, a curious rhythm to his movements. Conducting, Iena called it. An echo of the imperceptible music that only he could hear. Threadsongs in the aether. The pre-battle twitch was one of the hallmarks of aether pilots.
"... Well?" Ebsin demanded, perhaps harshly. "Don't start and then stop, Mattie. What are you reading?"
His eye opened, brown to contrast its milky brother, blinking as he refocused. His brow furrowed automatically, personality restoring itself from the aether-trance. He coughed, and glared at the lot of them.
"It's alive," he said, voice low and rough. "There's someone in there. Or something, maybe. But it's ... hollow. Distant. It isn't looking at us. It's looking out instead. Into the dark. It's waiting for something."
Diona blinked, doing her best not to shiver, but Tielfin behind her wasn't nearly so impressed. Like her sister, she was prone to some skepticism.
"How long has it been waiting?" she asked, and there was intentness now in her voice. Not wonder, not distant speculation, but the earnest determination of a scientist once more. As Alial specialised in contact biology, so Tielfin specialised in contact psychology, when it came to it. She had focused now, Diona knew. "Mattie. Can you get a sense of age, or time?"
Mateo shrugged wiry shoulders, agitated, but let his eye slip closed again anyway. Whatever he reached for was invisible to Diona, to all of them, something beyond even the crystal-graft's reach. Even anathema to it. There was a reason, after all, why Mattie only had one eye. A crystal-graft replacement would have driven the crystalsong between him and the aether. No aether pilot could use them.
It made her wonder, abruptly, about Sahvis and her arm. There had to be a reason someone would turn down a crystal-graft prosthesis, deliberately try to keep one from taking. An aether-connection, even a hidden one, made more sense to Diona than the strange, sourceless aversion the captain seemed to have to the graft.
Speculation, though. As much as the source of their contact, that was nothing but speculation. At least until Mattie ...
"It-- They. They are a they. I feel them." His voice was hollow again. "They are ... They're hard to grasp. They're spiky. But they're not old. Older than us, maybe, but not older than the Aeterna, I think. They look ... outward. Waiting. Something will come for them, out of the dark. They're waiting for it. They're ready. They mean to--"
He cut off, eye flaring open, but he didn't have to finish. Diona had registered it almost as rapidly as he had, Ebsin behind her from the opal nodes, Iena giving a small cry from telemetry. The cathedral ship had flared, suddenly. A pulse of light, hard and sharp, that dropped back almost to nothing, and then rebuilt. Slowly, surely, in steady, measured increments. The light in the metal-spun star had begun to build.
"Mateo?" Sahvis demanded sharply, leaning forward in her seat and holding her right arm towards Ebsin's station and the firewings. "What just happened?"
Mateo didn't answer for a second, wiping shakily at his mouth, but he mastered himself quickly. He calmed, and then chilled, hardened into a shell to armour himself against what was coming. He looked at his captain, and his live eye was as hard as stone.
"They saw us," he explained, briefly. "They're waiting against something from the darkness, something they think means to destroy them. And then they noticed me. They're aether-capable. I didn't notice at first, though it explains why they were so prickly and opaque. They think ... they think I'm what they were waiting for. They think we're the thing from the darkness."
"They're not from the dark themselves," Tielfin realised softly, nodding to herself. "They're from inside, like us. They put this thing on the void edge to watch for something that isn't. Something that comes, and cannot be allowed."
"Xenophobic," Sahvis agreed. Tielfin opened her mouth to argue, but the captain had no time for it. To be fair, Diona agreed. The light from the other ship had built to visibly painful levels, and so much energy could not mean anything good. "Diona, armour the hull. Mateo, call down to Aban and make ready to move quickly. Ebsin, ready the firewings. They have aether pilots. They'll try to grab what we're thinking. Don't fire first, but if they do, fire hardest. Understood?"
"Aye!" Three voices, entirely in unison. Diona registered the doctors kneeling back away from her, giving her space to move, but it was distant enough. She was in sync, now, locked into step with Ebsin in the crystal-graft and with Aban, somewhere above her and deep in the ship's engine room, a manual presence somewhere on the edge of her senses. Voidsong sang up around her, the ship moving from alive and curious to active and ready, the knowledge of battle a new and different hum in the metal-and-crystal skin. They were threatened, and the ship was ready to respond.
The ship, Diona acknowledged privately, was ready to destroy. The Aeterna was behind them. Maybe lightyears distant now, but still following, still tracing their path. It was their purpose to find and even remove any threat that lay in the path of the seven million odd lives held in that cityship. It was their job to clear the way. If they could, they would go around, but first they had to survive, and to do that they were ready and able to destroy anything that threatened them or their cityship behind them.
She hoped, at least. She hoped they were able.
For a long moment, nothing happened, save that the light from the cathedral ship continued to grow, to build and build until it looked like nothing so much as a star, though infinitely smaller. They watched it, breath baited, for an endless stretch of aching silence.
And then, without warning, the cathedral ship moved. It sprang to life, and raced towards them with a flash bright enough to burn.
"Captain!" Iena cried, her station breaking out in wails of warning. Sahvis didn't acknowledge. Nor did anyone else, already in motion, already reacting, too caught up to waste time for speech. Diona felt the obsidian sing, the veins across the hull extending for protection, a crystalline shield to absorb any energy directed against it. Ebsin meshed against her senses, opal nodes flaring next to hers, the firewings coming to life as the vast secondary engine ribs swept out to Voidsong's either side. Weapons, defenses, both to the ready. Under Mattie's hands, the ship leapt into motion, lunging and diving out away from the spireship's path.
The cathedral ship moved like nothing Diona had ever seen, nothing that matched its fragile, ethereal appearance. Neither slow nor brittle, it seemed to flash from place to place, almost as though it didn't recognise the intervening space, as though it moved faster than light but it could not, not in so small a space and not so precisely. Yet it moved that way regardless, darting around them in lancing, evil arcs, hounding them from all sides. Not with weapons but with itself. Physically, it drove about them, and Diona had no idea how they managed to avoid it.
"Mateo," Sahvis demanded, but softly. Carefully, and Diona realised what it must be. That they were not avoiding it by speed or by agility, but by prescience. Specifically, by the skill of an aether pilot who had touched his enemy's mind, and could follow the echoes of it from the present and the future, and the places where they intersected. "Mateo, how bad is it?"
"Ebsin," Mateo said, ignoring her, too desperate in his focus. "Power to the ribs in bursts. Agility. Stabilise us, yes."
"They're not firing," Tielfin noted, and Diona startled, having almost forgotten them. Her passengers, alongside her in the gallery. "They're driving. They're trying to drive us somewhere."
"The void," Iena said, addressing Sahvis as much as Tielfin. "They're driving us outward, into the dark. They're trying to drive us home. Or what they think is our home."
"Then send us there," Sahvis said, wheeling abruptly. "Mattie, bring us to face them, but reverse outward at the same time. Fast, as fast as possible. See how far they follow us. Now, do it now."
The ship wheeled, spun about to face her pursuer, her ribs sweeping forward to drive them backwards in the same moment. Ebsin and Aban piled on power, pushed it through the ribs, and the Voidsong roared out towards the galactic edge as though the void beyond it were a gravity well, plucking them outwards with greedy fingers.
The spireship darted after them, more power than Diona had ever seen in something its size, streaking after them far, far too fast to be outstripped. A direct, straight flight would have no hope of success, but that wasn't what this was. Hopefully, hopefully, that wasn't what they were doing. They weren't running, they were complying. That must make a difference somehow.
"Break off!" Mattie shrieked, suddenly. "Ebsin, Ebsin, wheel! Break away!"
One of the ribs cracked ominously, unprepared, but Mateo swept it down anyway, throwing the whole ship sideways and up relative to their old path. Somewhere in the bowels of the ship, Diona imagined Aban's howl of fury, but there was no time for regret. The flash as something seared past them to one side, not a ship but a weapon, something fired from the enemy that piled in close behind it, left no doubt of the correctness of Mateo's action.
"Bring us about," Sahvis snarled. "They're not letting us away. Not face to face. They drove us out far enough to destroy us away from their station. They're not afraid to hunt into the long dark."
"The Aeterna wouldn't stand a chance against them," Alial noted, very, very quietly. "They're too fast. I don't know how strong that weapon was, if it had hit us, but Aeterna would be a sitting target against them. She's too slow by far. The rest of the aetherships might challenge them, but not the cityship."
"How far inwards do they extend, Mateo?" Sahvis asked, and it was a distraction, it was a terrible distraction, but she did have to know. If they were to get out of this without destruction, she needed to know. "Could we skirt them on the inwards side? Could we go around?"
Mattie didn't answer immediately. Diona felt it as Ebsin moved along with him, Mateo's touch on the helm echoed through the opal and into the engines, Ebsin's understanding precipitating necessary action. Half of Mattie's mind was elsewhere, tracking futures in the aether, tracking his opponent's mind, and his attention was split too far already. Until some gap in the assault, he hadn't space to answer, but he had to. Regardless, he had to.
"Far," he managed, his dead eye rolling in its socket, a sign of severe agitation. "Years travel. But alone. They came alone, the long way out. No-one came beside them."
"But someone's in there," Sahvis said, almost to herself. "They came from somewhere, with power enough to guard the galactic edge. If we trap ourselves or the Aeterna between them and their origins ..."
"We could go outside?" Diona heard herself say it, distant beyond the shipsync. "Into the void and around. Aeterna could last that far, just for this one point."
"They hunt the void," Mattie interrupted grimly, as the weapon fired again and he drove the ship beyond it. "They hunt for any sign of life out here and they destroy it. Any range Aeterna could travel in, they'd kill her inside."
And Aeterna could only retreat so far. It had taken her eight years to come as far as she had, and she hadn't followed the emptier paths without reason. To retreat, to go around far enough to avoid whatever people had birthed the cathedral ship, would angle them towards the galactic center and both the other cityships and the planet-centered empires in its heart. It might take decades, or more, to traverse, and that close to the galactic center, it would only be so long before that which had driven them before it caught up with them.
They had no option for retreat. And if this thing would attack on contact, if it would attack immediately anything it thought had emerged from the dark, then for the sake of the Aeterna Nema and the seven million lives she carried, they had no choice. And all of them knew it.
"... They fired first," Sahvis said, with exhausted coldness. "They fired on contact, and for nothing else. To the dark with them, then. Ebsin. When you have the shot, fire back."
Mattie's breath hitched, a gasp of pained anticipation, and he stalled them dead in space. Deceleration wasn't fast enough, momentum taking over, but against something of their enemy's speed it didn't matter. It was on them almost in moments, too close abruptly to remember how to fire its weapon, and Ebsin had been ready before ever Mattie had acted. With all opal's rage behind her, she pulled the firewings up along the ribs and blasted the spireship with all the energy in stonefire's heart. Diona felt it fire, felt the crystal veins through the hull flare and scream, and felt the echo through the veins in Ebsin's skin.
It wasn't pain. That was perhaps the terrible thing. It never felt like pain. It felt like joy, like life and power through the blood, stonefire and crystalsong. The Voidsong had been born to fight for the cityship at her back, and they had been made to match her, in their way. It had never once felt like pain.
The blow struck the cathedral ship, enough force to stagger her to a halt, even if no other effect was immediately apparent. Sahvis ordered them about regardless, bringing them above and back from the target, ready to fire a second time. Ebsin gathered power from the engines once again, pulled it up to the firewings in readiness. They would have to refuel, on the way back, but they could fight for hours yet beforehand. It only remained to see if their enemy could do the same.
But it didn't move, their enemy. There was no structural damage visible, no fractures to the apparently not-so-fragile spire, but the light inside it abruptly dimmed. As though shocked, as though stunned. It faded as though appalled by their assault, and Diona felt them watch it warily. Felt their anticipation in the hush behind it.
"... Mateo? Iena?" Sahvis asked once more.
"I'm not detecting anything false," Iena said, bent across her console and holding to it grimly. "The energy isn't being redirected that we can tell. It's just fading off. Unless they've shielding that I don't know about and can't breach ..."
"Captain," Mateo said. Only a word, but the flat, warning tone of it cut through all other considerations. "They didn't like that. They won't tolerate that at all."
On the heels of his words, as if to illustrate them, the light in the spireship's depths changed. Out along the spires, the spun-glass edges wrapped in metal filigree, it deepened, bloodied, out into the redshift and the death of energy. But in the center, at the heart of the cathedral, a dense, blue-white sun began to pulse. A slow, steady beat, like a biological heart. It no longer looked like a star, like the prayer against the void that they had first thought it. Now, it looked like a curse. An admonition against all who would trespass where they were not welcomed. From out of the void or from just along the galactic edge, the cathedral ship did not care. For the crime of existing, of striking out against it, it had judged their existence forfeit.
"Ebsin," Mateo said, very softly. "We need to get behind the weapon. We need to get close, to catch it, or we'll die the second it fires. Mesh up into my station, as far as you can go. I won't have time for speaking. Diona. We won't get out unscathed. Be ready."
"Mattie," Sahvis said behind him. Not admonition. She had already given her orders. She had commanded them to destroy their enemy. Mateo hadn't overstepped. This was only ... confirmation. "Take us to them. And to the darkness with the loser."
"Aye," he said, odd and hollow once again, and then there was only motion.
The Voidsong spread out her ribs around her, a second of strain as she drew all the power in stonefire's heart, and Diona felt Ebsin flower within it. She felt her partner pulse out across the opal, felt the crystal-graft pulse back beneath the skin, the eyes, the mind, felt Ebsin reach out and become. The half of the ship that was hers, the half of the graft that knew her. Diona echoed it, on her side, but hers was deeper, slower, colder. Cold, cut-glass obsidian as it crept across the metal hull, meshing against the opal nodes, void-dark to swallow all that came against them. They coiled outward in step, fire and ice, opal and obsidian, and cupped the ship between them like a child, precious and defended.
And Mateo, blind to them as they to him, but trusting, launched her forwards towards the evil pulsing of their foe.
The cathedral ship was fast, even still. It moved outside time, outside space, again and again, or so it seemed. That strange, alien trick, to move without the intervention of space, though only over short distances. In a race it was fast. Maneuvering, it was quick, and abominably so. But it had aether pilots. And the aether cut both ways. Mateo was a small man, an oft hateful little man, but he had survived mindbattles where the greatest pilots of the core cities had not. He had tested himself against the hardest of them, the cruelest of them, and it was because of minds like him that the Aeterna Nema had survived to seek a darker path.
The spireship was fast, was deadly, was powerful, but it was driven by pilots even still. It was driven by minds that spread their hatred out across the aether, their furious intent, and Mattie had long since learned to be smaller, and colder, and deadlier than any other mind in space. He traced them without thought, and they had not the experience to master him in turn. They had waited out here for Aeterna's age for an enemy. Mateo had never been longer than a year without one.
It seemed like only moments before they closed on the other ship. It had the straight speed to outrun them, but that was not its purpose, and neither theirs. Mateo swept the Voidsong up and around as the cathedral ship vanished once again, and abruptly it appeared beneath them, the weapon-heart pointed away, the upper spire only bare thousands of kilometers from the gallery where Diona crouched. And then only kilometers, only meters, as Mateo dove like an animal of prey, and Ebsin swept out the firewings against it.
The stonefire boiled outwards. It was not a sound but a sensation, the crystalsong turned to a scream in their veins, Ebsin the opal and the opal Ebsin. Stonefire lanced downwards into the blue-white of the spireship's heart, and whatever it was that pulsed there shattered outwards with a roar of anguish after it. The fury of it struck them sure along the gallery, the Voidsong seized backwards by the force of it, and Diona's obsidian flared in its turn, drained and drank the forces flung against it, her blood fire and ice and the songs of crystal. The firewings flung energy backwards along them, still thrust downward towards the explosion, and Diona caught them where obsidian met opal, pulled the excess out and away and along the gallery to void. What she did not draw, she handed back to Ebsin, pulled out around the circuit of opal to be drawn again when it came to it.
But it did not. This time, in this place, it would not be used again.
The heartfire had torn the spireship from the inside out. Their strike had wounded it, had seared a path inside it, but it had been its own heart that sundered it. Suddenly, completely, the cathedral ship became as fragile in truth as it had only appeared before. The spires fractured, even as they watched, even as Mattie powered them back away from their enemy, and the fires of its pulsing heart flared in fitful, destructive bursts, licking empty metal with red and blue-white. A soundless shattering, the empty sundering of an abandoned star. Even as they watched, the cathedral ship guttered, and flared, and was no more.
To the darkness with it. To the long dark, where it had watched in vain.
Diona staggered inside herself, the remnant flares across the obsidian translated to twitching flesh, and distantly she registered a hand against her arm. A gentle summons, a call from outside the ship to remember herself. She juddered upwards from the crystalsong, snatching and tugging Ebsin behind her, soothing the ship as they went. Not all the way. Not to the body and the body alone. But out of the deep shipsync, and back to where eyes alone might see.
"Back again?" Tielfin asked her softly, her hand light and careful against Diona's arm. "Only the one contact this time, Dee. Don't lose yourself, yes?"
"... Yes," she answered, and it was a croak, a rasped thing with more than a hint of crystalsong inside it, but it had been made by her throat and not the ship. There was, ever and always, that victory.
"Mattie," Iena said, up on the bridge. Diona blinked, looked up to the bridge monitor, and saw the telemetrist ghosting over to the helm, where Mateo hunched hollow and twitching. Not as Ebsin and her. Not shipsynced. But worse, perhaps. Drifting in the aether where enemy minds had been torn from him in stonefire and heartfire. He hadn't been lost to them. He had fought too many battles with more than one enemy, with fleets, to let the death of one ship cripple him. But there was a chill emptiness to his gaze in the absence of a fight, and his hands were still and frozen against the helm.
"Mateo," Sahvis growled, a hard and demanding call against him. It struck him as Iena's touch had not, shocked through him as a visible flinch, and when he turned his eye had warmed and become present once again. Iena tugged him to her, pulled him gently back against her chest for a moment, and the tenseness slowly slipped from his frame. Sahvis nodded to them, a silent acknowledgement, and they both of them nodded back.
"Iena," the captain commanded, after a little moment. "Run a full telemetry sphere, check that this is the last contact. We'll hold station here until we've contacted Aeterna and reported in. If the scan is clear, we break for twelve hours before the response comes in. Eat and rest. All clear?"
"... Aye," came five exhausted voices, two rasped with crystalsong. Mateo didn't answer, in full post-battle fugue already, but the rest of them called clear.
For the moment, at least, it was over. The contact was destroyed.
Ebsin found her in the corridor just off the mess. Well. Not found, so much. Diona had been waiting, the crackle of crystalsong still wild and twitching in her veins, seeking partnership to ease the flow. Ebsin, the wilder surge of opalsong, was worse again, and drew to meet her as though magnets pulled them together. The click of connection as skin met skin, as graft met graft, was almost obscene in its relief. Diona gasped, cried, and sank into her partner's arms.
"Firesong," Ebsin murmured, tugging her close against the wall. "Stonefire, to fight again. It was wonderful."
"Hmm," Diona hummed, the joy and the fire of the ship singing through her just the same, and surged up to press their mouths together, to kiss and join in savagery. The wounds to the ship flickered to their senses, the snap and wound of stonefire, and the graft extruded between them without thought. Surged, melded, they grew together, a unit whole while the crystal crept across them. Linked song, singing silence.
"... Sahvis does not want this," Ebsin whispered when they drew back, gently as to innocence. Diona blinked, staring at her. Her partner shook her head, mild beneath the opal, dark and shining like obsidian. "I felt you think of it, in the graft. She doesn't need this. Some people prefer to remain separate, unjoined. We can forgive her that."
Diona shook her head, an odd confusion, but there was not time to answer that. The others had skirted a berth around them, given them the moment to reconnect, but they stood outside the mess even still. They were not exactly alone.
"Hey there," Aban said cheerfully, coming up behind them. "Back from the graft, I hope? There's work to be done after we've had our rest. You and Mattie made a right mess of my engine ribs, Ebsin."
Ebsin smirked softly, a faint thing, full of fire. "Needs must, Engineer. They're not there to be decorative."
"I don't mind if they're decorative, so long as they're there," he shot back, sailing past them into the mess with all the serenity of a satellite in orbit. "Don't tear limbs off my ship, if you please. You'll need them again later, hmm?"
Ebsin raised an eyebrow, but did not disagree. "Let's only hope not immediately," was all she said, as they followed him on inside.
They were the last, it seemed. The other six were already there, habit and need drawing all of them together, however little they might have wanted company. By that, Diona meant Mateo, of course. But Sahvis too was not often prone to wanting company.
Not now either, it seemed. The captain looked to have only just arrived herself, perhaps having come from the other side while Diona and Ebsin had been distracted, without care to wake them to her presence. Diona could not really blame her for that. Sahvis had moved to the table where Alial and Tielfin already sat, and there was something stiff and exhausted about her mien.
"Doctor," she said, an odd note in her voice, and Alial looked up at her in surprise. Sahvis didn't comment, had nothing else to add it seemed, and simply reached without another word to her own shoulder, splitting the graft at the join. Alial blinked, shocked, but Sahvis had already pulled away the limb, leaning down to place the unwanted prosthesis silently and almost delicately on the table in front of her. She drew back, her empty shoulder rolling clear, and sighed in something not unlike relief.
"... Sahvis?" Alial asked, half-alarmed, and the captain smiled tiredly at her.
"Take care of that for now," she instructed quietly. "I'll be leaving it until the next engagement. Make sure it doesn't die or anything, will you?"
"I--" Alial started, but the captain didn't listen, already moving, already walking away. Silently, frozen in place, the entire room watched her as she to moved to where Mateo sat, curled against a wall with his eye shut, and leaned in to nudge him gently. His eye flared open, aggravated and pained, and Sahvis simply raised an eyebrow, silent askance, and waved her remaining hand to the seat beside him.
Mattie blinked, confused, and then the oddest expression crossed his features. The closest thing to warmth Diona had ever seen on him, and he quirked a lip in response, nodding to let her down beside him. Sahvis leaned into him, rested against him with her whole shoulder, and almost in unison they closed their eyes again, an impromptu nap coordinated without ever a word. The tension left them, the cold emptiness in the face of an enemy, and something almost like peace stole across them both.
It was ... nothing Diona had ever seen from them before. Not publicly, not before the crew. Looking around, she didn't think any of them had seen it before now.
But none of them, she noted, found problem with it. None of them raised a protest.
Although really, she had not expected otherwise.
"That was ... unexpected," Kallik said softly, as the seven of them gathered around one of the larger tables. There was food between them, the hard-packed rations for now, but the tea was fresh and plentiful. "They've never let that be seen before."
"It's been a while since Mattie went up against something so strong," Tielfin theorised quietly. Alial was still staring at the abandoned arm, perhaps a little bit in shock, and Tielfin nudged her gently. "He's not had a running battle like that in months. And Sahvis I think did not want to kill them."
"They didn't give her a lot of choice," Ebsin said flatly, hugging her cup to her chest. "The second they sensed Mattie, they came at us. She couldn't have done much else."
"Yes," Tielfin agreed. "But that doesn't mean she can't regret it. Whoever sent them out here will probably know by now. Even if they didn't send a warning home during the battle, they probably do check in. Who knows what sort of damage we've done, trying to get Aeterna through?"
"Who would send them out this far alone, though?" Diona wondered. It had been niggling at her, hovering at the edges of her thoughts ever since she'd first seen the cathedral ship, alone and beautiful on the edge of the void. "Why leave them alone to the watch, so far from home? Why send them out at all?"
"... Maybe they knew something we don't," Tielfin said, a strange, ominous note in her voice, a distant smile on her face. "Maybe things do cross from the long dark, hmm? Maybe they knew something was coming. Not us, but something else. We're so much farther along the rim than any of the cities have gone. Maybe there are things out here that they knew and we do not."
They stared at her, to a body, and she didn't seem to notice, her eyes bright and distant as they stared into some strange future, as vague as Mattie's in the aether-trance. It was ... alarming, Diona thought. She hadn't realised her sister-in-law had such strangeness to her.
"... As charming a thought as that is," Aban interrupted slowly, "wouldn't it mean trouble for the Aeterna? Unless they decide to chance a more internal route after this mess, she'll be passing this way herself before long. With a full escort, of course. Enough aetherships to make a mess of most things that aren't a full cityship fleet. But monsters from the long dark are a bit more than we've been trained to handle, don't you think?"
"Maybe," said Iena, piping up for the first time in the conversation. "But maybe not. That ship was sent here against whatever was supposed to come out of the dark, yes? And that ship died against us. Maybe they know things we don't, but maybe we're better against the unexpected than them. Even one of our ships is a match for them, and unlike them, we are not left alone and for aeons on a watch against the dark. Our city flies behind us, and she does not leave us undefended."
And it was important, Diona thought. It mattered. Aeterna Nema travelled a darker, more empty path than many, had been driven there by necessity, but though they travelled alone, she did not leave her people undefended. She did not ask of them without recompense. The cathedral ship, as beautiful and violent and powerful as it had been, had been left to keep the watch alone. A prayer against the void, it had died against them without aid, and shattered with only an enemy to witness.
"I wonder ..." Kallik murmured, pensive. "I wonder if she was all they had. I wonder if we've killed their last line of defense. The Aeterna will pass this place by. We'll move on until the rearguard no longer sense a pursuit. When we're gone, do you think their monsters will take them while they're wounded, and no-one left to be any the wiser?"
Ebsin raised her head at that, the opal burning stonefire in her eyes, long hands curled around her tea. Diona felt her, felt the crystalsong rise inside them, and met the opal with obsidian, met her partner's eyes with her own.
"If they did not want die," Ebsin said slowly, a certain coldness still inside her, "then they should not have struck against us first. If they strike at us just for existing, then perhaps they are well served when their monsters strike at them too, and harder."
Perhaps all were well served, when the tables turned against them. Perhaps the universe was. Those who struck at others just for being there, who scarred them and wounded them and drove them out before them. Those who would drive others into the void, and tear them open along the way. Perhaps they were all well served, when the wounded struck back despite them, and slew them even while running before them.
It was the song in the stonefire's heart, she thought. In the end, deeper than anything, that was the song of their city and their ship, and the one they all carried between them. They were wounded. They were running. But they were not, now or ever, without teeth. They were the monsters on the edge of the long dark, not a prayer but an admonition, and they would not lie surrendered before their foes.
Until the dark itself came to claim them, they would not stand and die. Not while their enemies still lived. They would fight until the last, and preserve their city still behind them, and with everything they had, they would see her safe, who had defended them in turn.
In that, Diona believed, they were a better prayer and a better curse than any spireship could ever have been.