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Set Fire To The Stars

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Every time she dreams, she’s in the same place.

 A stone floor, warmed with sunlight. Climbing vines curling across the roofbeams with soft flowers of white and yellow. Windows framing a view of mountain peaks and blue-hazed forests. There would be a garden too, out of sight from where she’s standing, designed like everything else here to be calming, peaceful, still. As if there’s nothing beyond these walls, and certainly nothing to worry about; as if years here could pass like days.

She does not look at the corner beside the windows.

There are books here too, muted colours lining shelves. This would be a good place to read if you wanted to (why should you want anything else, after all). And any books requested would be brought without complaint, of course. They were not cruel.

The figures beside her are standing back a little, waiting, close enough to reach her in a heartbeat if they need to. She can’t see their faces - she doesn’t want to see their faces - but they’re Warrior caste, she’s sure. Out of armour (no such thing, Branmer used to say). It wouldn’t be appropriate here. Or maybe it would be too appropriate.

Because there’s something wrong here, something terribly wrong, and she can’t look away from it any more. A figure in the furthest corner half-hidden beneath a blanket. Not moving (asleep? injured? although surely not injured, not badly at least, not here). She can smell sweat and blood and fear.

The figure stirs, lifts its head and -

“No.” She turns fast away. The guards move together without words, one keeping pace with her, the other two standing aside.

“Perhaps tomorrow?” the guard says once the doors close behind them and she is free. “I appreciate progress is slow, Satai Delenn, but -”

“I’ve changed my mind. Let him go.”

“Go where?” says the guard. 

She woke cold and disoriented, unable for a moment to recognise even the comforting familiarity of her own rooms. 

She forced herself to breathe. Slow. Calm. Here, the cool glow of the artificial sunrise was starting to light the shadows; there, the dark outline of the nearest frame on her wall, holding an abstract pattern of green and grey, a vision of home that her clan had sent on her appointment to the Grey Council. 

Beyond the doors her aide would be sleeping. Delenn briefly considered waking her but decided against it; it was near morning now, and she was hardly a child who needed comforting after a bad dream. Besides, there would be someone awake elsewhere if she needed to talk. The Valen’tha had been home for years now and there were many here she called friend.

Talking about this, however… No. That would not be necessary.

Breathe, she told herself. You are here, this is home. You were dreaming. You will forget. 

And yet.

 


 

The Ingata was preparing to leave for home, with a considerable degree of damage and a number of frayed tempers. Neroon’s was very much among them. Escorting survey missions was usually something to look forward to: either nothing happened, in which case it was easy, or everything happened, in which case it was interesting. This one had managed to be both dull and exhausting at the same time. 

They spent several weeks far too close to an unstable gas planet while the Worker caste survey ship scanned an empty, plain-looking moon. In theory they were there to make a statement to the Drazi about whose territory this was, but it wasn’t long before they were protecting the survey ship by directly shielding it from an endless bombardment of dust from former secondary moons, long since pulled apart by the planet’s gravity. The Worker caste ship went undamaged at the cost of the Ingata’s shields, with Branmer’s crew working themselves to exhaustion on constant rounds of maintenance and repairs while the Workers refused to leave. And for what? Not because they found anything - not even because they seemed likely to find anything - but because the Drazi wanted that moon and therefore it must have something worth wanting. 

Eventually one of the Ingata’s power cells failed with a dramatic explosion and a fire that put three of the crew in the medical wing. The Workers agreed to leave after that, at least, although not without a pointed comment about the Warrior caste’s ability to protect Minbar against enemies given its apparent problems with rocks.

It had, all in all, not been a good voyage.

Branmer was quiet when they brought him the message from the Worker caste captain. He folded his arms across his chest, he looked thoughtful, he nodded very slowly. 

“I could speak to them,” Neroon offered. 

“Absolutely not, and don’t tempt me.” Back to quiet contemplation. Branmer was not easily rushed. 

Neroon let the time pass trying to calculate how long the ship would be out of commission once they were home. If it was just the faulty power cell, that could be replaced easily enough; but if the surges had caused further damage, if the diagnostics systems were failing somewhere, that was weeks at best. Likely weeks at this little research outpost in the middle of nowhere, too, no risking a long hyperspace voyage alone. Wonderful.

“We’ll let this go,” Branmer said eventually. “Infuriating though it is. They wanted their moon, they resent having to rely on us. Besides, they’re right.”

“They’re right?” Neroon barked. “Shai Alyt -”

Branmer cut him off with the wave of a hand. “This should never have happened. You know that as well as I do. And we’ll have enough to deal with back home without making a caste issue out of this. I’ll speak to the Workers, you arrange the immediate repair work, and then we’ll find out what went wrong.”

This, of course, was easier said than done.

They spent half a day going over the power systems with engineers and mechanics, then another speaking to the crew turn by turn about processes and safeguards and checklists, trying to discover what had failed. Someone assumed something, someone felt no need to double-check a superior’s work, some earlier revision of an older process let this go unnoticed. And underneath it, a sequence of unknowns: why this alarm hadn’t sounded, why that compensator circuit hadn’t worked, what would be the next system to go.

“This is a fractal disaster,” Branmer grumbled. “Look close enough at one problem and find ten more.” 

He hadn’t stopped once since the explosion. After it became clear that the problem was bigger than they hoped, he had walked the length of the ship twice, from the two injured crew still in infirmary care, to the engine rooms, to the control systems, gloveless hands skimming over the walls,  determined to somehow feel what he’d failed to see before. Branmer might have been Religious caste by birth, but at times like this there was no doubt where his heart’s calling lay. To a Warrior, damaged ships were wounded ships, and ships with unpredictable, destructive faults were sick. Suffering. “Fever”, was the word they used for overheating systems. 

Still, disaster at least had been averted. “Nobody died,” Neroon reminded him.

“‘Nobody died’ is not the standard of success I’m aiming for on a survey mission. When are the Moon Shields arriving?”

“Three days,” Neroon said, “probably.” The Moon Shields had the nearest ship that could be spared to accompany them back through hyperspace, which was the safest option if not exactly the most dignified one. At least Branmer was in command; had this happened under Neroon’s watch, the Moon Shields would have mocked him the entire way home and beyond. 

“Three days,” Branmer muttered, and picked up the tablet in front of him again. “Well. At least we have plenty of time for clearing all the repair orders.”

Yes... and yet. Neroon looked at the table before them, covered with screens and printouts and Branmer’s scrawled handwriting. “It doesn’t require two of us.”

Branmer looked up from his display. “Are you telling me to go and rest, or asking me to relieve you so you can take out a fighter and shoot some rocks?”

“The first,” Neroon said, although the second did sound very tempting.  Any situation which could try even Branmer’s vast reserves of patience was more than pushing his. But it was Branmer who’d slept the least over the past few days, Branmer whose ship the Ingata was and Branmer who had taken this the hardest. 

And Branmer who was fighting off a yawn now. “Later,” he said.

“Now, things are quiet. Later, things may not be quiet.” Neroon picked up a report himself and leant back to read it, the you’re dismissed gesture he’d have used with one of the junior officers. 

It was a gamble, but a successful one. Branmer laughed and left him to it.

 


 

He had six hours of quiet in the end before chaos found them again. Still, at least it was a productive six hours. In truth it was easier to deal with things in his own way and at his own pace for a while. Branmer’s approach was admirable - he’d not deny that - but it was always complicated and discursive, full of tangents and unexpected connections. Sometimes you just needed to get things finished.

He was reviewing the reports that would go ahead of them to the maintenance yards when one of the junior communications officers appeared on the screen beside his desk, looking nervous. “I know you said we were not to disturb the Shai Alyt. But -“

But, the Drazi declared war on us? But, we’re lost?”

“We have a transmission from the Grey Council ship. I did alert him but he said you were handling all his messages. I don’t know if he... maybe didn’t hear me clearly?”

 For a moment Neroon feared this was complications from the Worker caste, but if that was the case Branmer would have wanted to handle it himself. Which meant it was unrelated to the survey mission. Which meant. “Transfer it to me, then.”

 “But. Alyt.” Kalenn looked deeply uncomfortable, which he supposed he couldn’t blame her for. Only her first month on the ship and already expected to ignore protocol for what must seem like no reason at all. He’d been grumbling for years about the speed that rumours and gossip spread on this ship; just his luck that this had finally improved the one time it would have come in useful. 

But, you are carrying out orders as instructed by Shai Alyt Branmer and myself,” he said. “No-one would expect anything different from you.”  

Kalenn nodded, looking barely any more reassured, and the screen dissolved to silver as the incoming message connected. 

As he expected, it was Delenn's face that appeared, and as he should have expected she looked far from pleased to see him. He bowed all the same, fist to palm. "Satai."

"Where is Branmer?"

"Resting."

"Resting. Really." She sighed. “So. Should I wait patiently until he feels fully rested, or do you think he might consider sparing me a few minutes of his time?”

"Is this an order from the Nine?"

"Do I need to order my dear friend to speak to me now? Go and get him, Neroon." 

"I have orders of my own."

There was a long, cold silence. "I see," she said.

“I can take a message to him if you want,” said Neroon, hoping she didn’t. Even if he hadn’t known anything about their last argument her tone would have been hard to misinterpret.

But instead, she was quiet for a few moments, looking thoughtful. “If Branmer is indisposed, then you are in command of the ship?” 

“Of course.”

“And I hear you are returning home?”

“Yes. For repairs, though. We’re in no state to serve as an escort if that’s what you need.“ Whether the Valen’tha should be travelling without escorts at all had been a continuing subject of discussion since the war; best not to comment too much on that.

“No,” she said. “I am travelling alone. I will be with you in two days.”

Well, he could hardly refuse. However much autonomy Branmer had over the ship, neither he nor Neroon acting in his place could deny such a request from one of the Grey Council. Nevertheless, this seemed unlikely to go down well with Branmer, and Neroon couldn’t shake the feeling he’d just been outmanoeuvred in a game he didn’t know he was playing. “We’d be honoured by your presence,” he said, falling back on formality. 

She nodded, looked satisfied. “One more thing. Have you ever read Aszeni of Izan? The mystic.”

What? “You’ll be amazed to hear I have not.”

A smile flickered briefly over her face. “There is something she wrote I find intriguing. She believed that although the future is not predestined, still the universe has a path it prefers to follow. Like water in a stream bed. We can divert the stream, but if we do it will run alongside its true path and seek a way back. It knows where it should be and it longs for its own direction. So if we are troubled by visions of things that never happened, this is because they should have happened and the universe is trying to create them through us.”

This did strike a vague memory with him. Something from childhood? One of Branmer’s anecdotes? Well, whatever it was, he didn’t find it any more revelatory now than he presumably had then. “Fascinating though this is, Delenn, I do have considerable work -“

She cut him off. “Do you believe it?” 

“Are you really asking a Warrior caste Alyt for my thoughts on medieval mystics?”

“Yes,” she said simply.  

He sighed. “Then, no, I don’t believe it. I don’t think the universe works in this way. I don’t even think water works in this way. Is that what you wanted to hear?”

“It is,” she said. “Thank you.” The screen blinked to black and she was gone.

 


 

Branmer’s quarters were a strange blend of Warrior and Religious, something Neroon had slowly grown accustomed to over the years. All the other converts he’d ever known distanced themselves as soon as possible and as much as possible from their old caste; Branmer never had. 

Neroon had found it unnerving at first, in the earliest days of the war. How could he be a Warrior, how could he lead Warriors, with trappings of the Religious caste all around him? But Branmer seemed as happily oblivious to his or anyone else’s discomfort as he did to the conventions they’d expected him to follow, and by the time Neroon worked out that Branmer was never oblivious to anything, candles and prayers seemed a small price to pay for one of the best tactical minds the Star Riders had known for decades.

So Branmer kept his prayers and his candles and his odd customs, his Adronato books and his strange-smelling teas. The Star Riders soon grew used to it and the other clans would never challenge the loyalty of someone of Branmer’s stature, even when caste divisions grew after the war. The few comments that still came these days were minor grumbles that Branmer waved aside with ease (“it’s a cup, Shakiri, I don’t think it’s plotting against us.”) 

Right now Branmer was surrounded by papers and screens, lost in a world of ancient battles. This was, apparently, resting, although Neroon didn’t quite see the appeal. Studying past defeats and failures was one thing; viewing history as a series of errors awaiting sensible correction felt like courting trouble.

The virtual landscape in front of them showed some landscape Neroon didn’t recognise. A bay surrounded by hills, with a small scattering of rocky islands punctuating the waves and a cluster of lights shimmering at the shore. “You finally gave up on Trivana Bridge?”

“In the tradition of all great generals, yes I did. This is five hundred years before that. Island settlement. See?” 

No, but it would put off the other conversation for another few minutes. “Where’s the enemy?”

“Ten years away, caught up in civil war. Not the problem. The problem is that here they spend ten years starving before the enemy arrives, and that's why they're a target in the first place. Look.” He waved a hand across the simulation and the hills started to glow green, then slowly dapple and turn to yellow as the lights flickered and thinned. “That’s the first ten harvests. There isn’t enough food.”

“What about the sea?”

“Exactly! They didn’t touch it. All their food came from the land. See, if it hadn’t…” Another turn of his hand and the simulation started again, this time with the sea glowing green as well. The dots of light brightened and spread across the bay. “Why not?”

"No boats?" suggested Neroon. 

"They had boats. They came in boats."

"I don’t know. Unusually dangerous fish?"

"Ha. No. Or not that I can tell. I've spent most of the last hour trying to find contemporary accounts of the ecosystem."

Of course he had. And this conversation could go on for another hour with ease, Neroon was sure. Still… “With all respect, Shai Alyt, this doesn't seem very restful."

"You'd be surprised." Branmer waved the simulation off. "So. What did Delenn want?"

I am not entirely sure, would be the truest answer. “She has requested that we take her back to Minbar.”

“She’s coming here?”

“In two days.”

Branmer muttered something under his breath in Adronato. “Does this delay our departure?”

“No, it won't.”

“Well, that’s something at least.” He gestured for Neroon to sit on one of the mats opposite him. “I take it she is unhappy with me.”

“She thinks you’re avoiding her.”

“I am avoiding her.”

“She’s noticed.”

Branmer rubbed at his eyes. “Notify the bridge crew and make sure someone’s prepared quarters for her. All right, engineering reports. How far did you get?”  

He looked very, very tired. “Branmer,” Neroon said.

“Don’t feel sorry for me, I’ve brought this entirely on myself. It’s no great principled stand. I just didn’t want to fight with her again, shortsighted idiot that I am. Reports, Alyt Neroon.”

Neroon handed them over without further discussion. 

 


 

Another dream.

She’s determined not to look away this time. She tells the guards to keep back (what harm can he do me?, she says, and they exchange glances and step almost far enough away). She kneels before his hunched, frightened form and doesn’t flinch herself as his alien eyes meet her own.

Valen sa. Tu asta sha ti -"

“I’m not your Valen,” he says. “I don’t know what you want.” 

She can see the thin metal band binding his hands together at the wrists. (Temporary, all this is temporary. It won’t be like this forever. It won’t.) He’s cradling one bruised, swollen hand in the other. They are not supposed to cause him harm - she’s been very clear. There is even a group of physicians assigned to keep him healthy. Medicines, food, she’ll spare nothing to find him what he needs. And yet no matter what they do, what she does, he seems to fade more and more every day. “That is the wrong question,” she says.

“It’s the only question! I’m not worth anything to you. I’m not high ranking, I don’t know anything important. Surely we can’t be a threat to you now.”

She wants so much to reach out and touch him, to soothe his bruises and feel the warmth of him alive under her skin. Instead, she promises him everything they have. They can show him the science of their ships, artificial gravity, limitless clean energy, whatever he wants to know. They can show him archaeological relics older than his planet. They can show him messages found in the stars from civilisations long dead, ghost voices still whispering in radio waves across the galaxy. They can show him philosophy, poetry, anything he wants from a thousand different worlds. If only he will stop fighting them. If only he will work with her.

“I don’t understand,” he says. 

“Valen once brought us together. He made us one people. And now we are breaking apart again.”

“I’m not Valen.” 

She holds his injured hands in her own. As gently as she can, but he hisses in pain all the same. “Please,” she says. “I know you don’t yet understand, but we are in danger. All of us. A terrible enemy is returning.”

“You’re the enemy,” he says, and there’s nothing left but hate in his eyes.

She woke in panic, once again. Got to her feet, paced across to the viewing window, waited for her racing heart to still.

“I did not do this,” she said out loud, needing to hear the words spoken. “I would not have done this. I will not do this.”

The stars looked back at her, silent and cold.