The Span Of Empire – Snippet 58

None of the others had noticed her yet where she stood still near the door. She raised her head to its highest extension, and began to intone the aria. Her pitch was high; the timbre soft; the volume low. The sound carried, but was perhaps felt more than heard.

Third-Mordent was near the end of the third iteration of the theme when a few of the crowd began to fall silent and drift away from the throng in the middle of the room. Some of these noticed her and slowly moved her direction. One by one they drifted near.

When the fifth iteration of the aria began, the two or three Ekhat nearest her began to sing it along with her. By the third motif, all of the drifters had aligned themselves on her, and were singing. Even as Third-Mordent watched, three more turned from the contention in the center of the workroom and established themselves on the edge of the group surrounding her. They joined the melody almost immediately.

By now close to a third of the original group had joined Third-Mordent’s melody, were singing according to her harmony. The aria had become the strongest force in the workroom, and the remaining unaligned Ekhat had all turned to face her.

Third-Mordent stepped forward with deliberation, continuing to hold her head high despite the urge to slip into predator mode. She could feel the tegument around her neck hardening, trying to contract and pull her head lower and forward. She overrode the instinct, and began to sing even louder.

She focused her attention on the three largest of the remaining Ekhat, seeing from their posture and stances that they were strongly resisting her building harmony, her attempt to assimilate them into her structure.

Pitching her voice to batter now, rather than entice, Third-Mordent elevated both volume and tone, leading her structure to assault the remainder. She was rewarded by several of them shaking their heads.

Suddenly there was a rush of Ekhat in Third-Mordent’s direction. She stood her ground, prepared to blade dance, but the flow divided and went to each side of her, swelling both the composition of her structure and the volume of her aria.

Two-thirds of the Ekhat in the room now stood beside or behind Third-Mordent, and most of the rest were drifting away from the center. Only the three largest, the three resisters, were still opposing her theme, her aria, creating only dissonance as they tried to combat the harmony that almost dominated the workroom.

At last, the three made common cause and adopted a common theme that they could sing. They made a strong presentation of it, but it was too little, too late. The towering wave of Third-Mordent’s structure almost crushed their song even as it began.

Third-Mordent advanced again, approaching the center of the workroom to directly confront the triad of resisters. She felt the others beginning to curl around the edges of the room, advancing to assimilate all who stood in their paths.

The largest of the resisters, head down, eyes red, gave a piercing shriek that just for a moment interrupted the harmony. In that moment, the three snapped open their forehand blades and attacked.

Third-Mordent stood her ground, her own forehand blades ready, still singing. As the resisters neared, she suddenly shifted to a descant theme above the melody of her aria, which she projected directly at the central attacker. Just before the resister entered Third-Mordent’s scope, she stumbled.

That opening was all that Third-Mordent required. The blade dance that followed was short, but intense. The dissonant squalls of the resister tore at Third-Mordent’s descant, just as her larger forehand blades tore at Third-Mordent’s body. Yet the stumble had opened a gap, and before the resister could recover Third-Mordent was inside her guard.

It ended with the resister keening on the deck of the workroom, one forehand blade cut off entirely, the other broken, all legs on one side cut in various places so that they would not serve their functions.

The resister still tried to stand; still tried to attack, mouth gaping open to exude mindless screeching. But all she could do was push her stricken body around on the deck, small manipulators reaching out to grasp her foe.

Third-Mordent stepped back, flicked her blades to clear them, and folded them away. The descant strengthened as she turned to see the other two resisters mobbed by the other Ekhat in the room. Their completed bodies lay in widening pools of ichor. They had not gone down alone; there were three others completed and several more with serious gashes in their teguments.

Third-Mordent took the aria and descant to a cadence, where she paused. The room fell silent. The other Ekhat stood spaced around her, gazing at her, some with heads held high, others on the verge of predator mode with heads lowered and reddened eyes.

A low rumble filled the room. Third-Mordent spun to see Ninth-Minor-Sustained standing in the open lift door, intoning a pitch so low that Third-Mordent didn’t think she could emit it herself. Even as she listened, secondary tones were added, imparting a resonance to all who stood in the room.

When Ninth-Minor-Sustained added a difficult tertiary tone, Third-Mordent felt her mind recoiling, sliding away from what she was hearing. Yet the others in the workroom stood straighter, looked around as if uncertain where they were, and began leaving through the outside doors, by ones and twos and threes.

Ninth-Minor-Sustained’s voice fell silent afterward. Third-Mordent stood still, head high, manipulators raised, as her ancestress approached. Ninth-Minor-Sustained looked around at the completed Ekhat, ending with a long stare at the panting crippled red-eyed hulk that had once been a dominant female. Her eyes finally lifted to Third-Mordent, and her head twisted in an effect of inquiry.

“I failed,” the younger Ekhat replied in a dirge. “I did not bring harmony to all.”

There was a long silence.

“Hear me,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained whisper-sang. “It was no failure. It was not total success, no, but it was no failure. You built harmony, you included others, and you held against dissonance and attack. It was no failure.”

Ninth-Minor-Sustained moved to loom over the wrecked resister, who had mindlessly pushed with her legs until the hulk of her body had wedged against a wall. “All were older than you, all were from fecund lines. This one, and these others”–a manipulator waved at the other two completed resisters–“were all from your ancestress’ progeny: this one from a direct line from Descant-at-the-Fourth, the others from collateral lines.”

Third-Mordent approached. “Why?”

“Your most dangerous enemies will always be those first of your own lineage, and second of your own factions.”

There was a long moment filled only by the panting of the resister while Third-Mordent began considering the thought that she was most at risk from those with whom she had the most in common. A door seemed to open in her mind, enlarging her perspective. It almost drove her to predator mode.

Again she asked, “Why?” in different tones and with a glottal stop.

“To see what you would do,” her ancestress replied as she turned away from the ruined hulk of a still breathing, still bleeding Ekhat.

“And?” Third-Mordent’s pitch was high and ascending, a demanding query.

Ninth-Minor-Sustained seemed to take no notice of her descendant’s importuning. “It was a lesson that your lesser ancestress never learned.”

That brought Third-Mordent up short, as if a cable had been thrown around her neck to throttle her. She had been wary of Descant-at-the-Fourth. That Ekhat had been truly formidable, and dangerous to all around her. Yet she had envied her as well, and had taken satisfaction at being descended from her fierceness, even in a collateral lineage, even now that she had met Ninth-Minor-Sustained. It disconcerted her to hear her elder ancestress’ words.

“Within all factions of the Ekhat,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained returned to a whisper-song, “control of others is more often attained by subversion. You can force alignment for a short time, but is that control? You can destroy one by strength and assault, but is destruction control?” She looked back at the one who had been near destroyed by Third-Mordent. “To turn one to your purposes, whether in knowledge or not, is more skillful. If such ones as these must be completed–and if you survive, complete them you will–let them be completed for your purposes.”

Ninth-Minor-Sustained turned back to the wrecked resister. “This one is from your lineage, from my lineage. She is from your creche, from two cycles ahead of you. You may have seen her there, before she survived the final tests and was released.” There was a moment of stillness. “Complete her. Now.”

Third-Mordent bared a forehand blade, and approached. The resister stirred enough to raise her head again and screech thinly at her, all tone gone, all melody gone, only dissonance left. She tried to lunge at Third-Mordent, but her head fell to the deck as her muscles gave out. Third-Mordent’s forehand blade pierced the nearest eye, transfixed the brain, and severed the major neural ganglions at the top of the spine. Completed at last, the final breath poured from the resister as a moan, her desperately wounded body sagging into the spreading pool of her own ichor.

“Have your wounds tended,” Ninth-Minor-Sustained intoned. “The one near your eye is dangerous.”

Third-Mordent summoned servients to clear the room and tend her wounds, with her ancestress’ last whisper-song still ringing in her mind: “Control.”