The young officer stood in the shadows of the throne room, waiting patiently to be noticed.
He had appraised himself critically in the mirror before making his way here. His hair was carefully brushed and braided into an elaborate design. On his coat, the clasp at his throat drew the eye immediately; two stylised iratus bugs, antennae entwined, changing from black to iridescent green when he moved. A gift from his father, given to him before he left to join this hive. Green piping edged around his high collar, following the asymmetrical line of the front panel across his chest and down his right side, secured with glinting buckles. The line of green piping continued down past his wide belt and turned along the bottom edge of the coat which almost reached his ankles. He had practiced standing at attention, admiring his reflection, confident that his efforts would gain him notice.
The crew had been concerned when their leader had shut himself away in the throne room, and had grown agitated when the hours had become days. Someone needed to go to him and this young officer was determined to stand out from the rest. He had lobbied hard to be the one to go to the Commander, to call him back to the bridge.
But now, he wasn’t so sure.
The Commander sat frozen in the throne, staring out at nothing. If it wasn’t for the slow, repetitive clenching and uncurling of his feeding hand, one could mistake him for a statue, or fear that he had somehow simply stopped living. He had been that way for some time. So long, in fact, that the officer wondered if he might go completely unnoticed and would have to interrupt his leader to gain his attention.
No. That wouldn’t do at all. He would just have to wait.
Instead, he took this opportunity to observe his leader while he sat there deep in thought.
Rather than the straight-backed posture he adopted while at the helm of his hive or marching through the halls, the Commander was leaning forward in the throne, one arm draped over the side, the palm of his feeding hand facing up. His head rested on the knuckles of his off-hand, elbow perched on the arm of throne. Pale yellow eyes stared unfocused, seeing something that was invisible to the younger wraith. He found himself drawn in by his chiseled profile, his strong shoulders. Long legs, clad in leather, worn boots resting on the throne platform. Legs apart, comfortable. This was a wraith who was used to being in charge. Who would not be rushed.
He began to understand why so many of his young brothers squabbled over opportunities to be near him. It wasn’t just the chance to stand out, to chase a promotion or a coveted hive mark. They desired him. Yearned for his attention, his favour.
Taking in the dusty jacket and unkempt white hair, the officer started to feel foolish for spending so much time fussing over his appearance. This ancient wraith didn’t seem to care for primping and preening or styling his hair and uniform to impress others. And why would he? His age alone demanded instant respect from all who crossed his path. Lined skin so pale, his star tattoo was practically jumping off his skin. Even when slumped forward, the raw power emanating from his being made the officer bow his head in submission. Seeing him there in the throne made his knees jerk involuntarily, wanting to kneel as if before a queen.
Whatever the Commander was thinking about was shielded from his officers. It was strange. He often removed himself from the hive-link, preferring to mull things over alone. He was particularly prone to this whenever he returned from Atlantis. But never before had he kept himself cloistered away for so long. The Commander was certainly unusual; allying with the humans, placing himself at their mercy. The officer’s father had cautioned him about this when he made his choice to leave his birth hive. He told him that He-Who-Questions-the-Great-Void had always been different, but warned him not to underestimate this wraith because of his interest in humans. The-Seeker-Of-Illumination was also known to be ruthless and uncompromising.
The officer could feel the others tugging gently at his mind.
- What is taking so long? Is something wrong? -
Their doubts started crowding in, questioning if he was the right choice to send. His Hive Master reached out to him, wanting an update. The inexperienced wraith could feel the pressure building as more of his brothers were sending their worries to him. The weight of their growing anxiety clouded his thoughts and pressed him down.
Giving in to his own concerns, he tried to reach out timidly through the hive-link. While he wouldn’t have been surprised if he had encountered the Commander’s impenetrable mental shield, he was not prepared for what he found.
Where the mind of his revered leader should have been, there was only a… a… gap. An… absence. When his own mind reached further to probe this… nothing, it instantly filled him with unease and made his stomach lurch. Pulling back immediately, breath panting, he realised he was shaking. Even when disconnected from the hive-link, his Commander’s presence should still register.
Steeling himself, he cast his mind out into the throne room, starting from the rear and moving across to the door. Somewhere further back in the hive, he could sense his brothers. As his mind moved across his seated leader, all he could sense was the uninterrupted consciousness of his hive mates. This was simply impossible. Wraith cannot disappear. They are never truly invisible from one another. Otherwise they could become forever untethered, alone.
All thoughts of asserting himself in his new hive were gone. A cold fear was creeping in. Who was this wraith? This Ancient One? Had the junior officer made a mistake - abandoning his father, his birth hive, his queen?
He pulled on the clasp at his throat. Too tight. Too hot. His fingers were fumbling, trying to unclasp the bugs. Giving up he jammed the fingers of his off-hand down behind the clasp, raking his skin and drawing blood in the process. He yanked on his collar -
- Stop. You will break my gift. -
The young officer froze. Fingers gripping the clasp, nails embedded in flesh, he didn’t dare move. His mind seized completely, giving in to terror.
- Hush. -
A soothing feeling invaded his mind, spreading warmth, giving reassurance. The officer’s eyes snapped up to the throne. The Commander hadn’t moved. Wait. Those glowing, yellow eyes were now resting on his face. The hint of a smile faintly discernible.
- My- my- Lord… -
- Yesss? -
- Y-you… y-your… presence is required on the bridge. -
- Yesss. -
The young wraith realised he was still clutching the clasp at his throat. Slowly unfurling his fingers, he wondered what the Commander meant when he referred to it as ‘his’ gift.
- I gave it to an officer who served me once, many centuries ago. A cleverman. -
- You don’t mean...? -
- Your father. -
Shock rocked through his body, leaving his mind completely open, just for a moment. A moment was long enough for the Commander. Tilting his head, he reached out to the young officer with the full extent of his mental skill.
Power bloomed in his mind. Raw… golden… loud… A tempest of sound and light. Images of battle, of queens, of death. Anger violated its way through, a rage so great and so thick the young wraith thought he would suffocate from the force of it. Pain followed. A great mourning; never ending grief for lost brothers. A tidal wave of longing burst forth, and with it, the decades of loneliness and suffering.
Before the officer collapsed under the strain of his Commander’s emotions, a moving, breathing silence was conjured from the very edges of his mind. It moved inwards, quieting the storm, smoothing over the rage, the pain, the loneliness. Everything stilled. Everything disappeared. No hive... No brothers...
The Commander reduced his presence to little more than a whisper. The young wraith discovered he was lying on the floor sobbing. He scrambled up, humiliation burning his cheeks. How could he show such weakness in front of his leader? His father would be ashamed.
- Your father did the same thing. -
Amusement danced in his eyes. The vaguest sense of happiness made its way down the mind link from the Commander to his newest officer.
All at once he understood. This was the burden of a life stretching back as far as the Time Before. Retreating completely from the hive-link, from life itself, even for only a while, was the Commander’s only way of silencing the millennia of experience that clamoured around his mind. A brief respite from the weight of such a long life. Those impenetrable mental shields were not meant to keep others out, but to keep himself in, protecting his officers. His brothers.
The Commander gracefully eased himself off the throne and approached the officer. He stopped only inches in front, towering over him. Head tilted to one side, he slowly appraised the young wraith, pausing briefly on the clasp. He reached out his feeding hand, causing the young one to stiffen. He gently brushed his hand down the officer’s cheek and trailed his fingers over the clasp.
Without a warning, he spun on his heel, striding towards the doors. His dusty boots sent puffs of dust swirling around his ankles. He paused at the door and turned his head just enough to glance back over his shoulder.
“Nice coat,” he rumbled. Then he was gone.