The Midnight Bells

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OOC Date: April 26, 2011
IC Date: February 7, 2128

Petty Officer Yin provides the XO with some hypothetical scenarios, liberally sprinkled with her own brand of sunshine.

XO's Office - Deck Three

Every good office is dominated by a desk and this one is no exception. The XO's desk is almost eight feet across, half that in width, a sheet of black glass that shimmers through with motes of color. Bits of it light up as needed, becoming brilliant controls that respond to a touch and then fade into nothing when not. Behind it sits a high-backed chair, sleek and black. Behind that is a plasma screen that occupies almost the entire wall, pretending to be a window that looks out into space when not otherwise in use. In front of the desk are two smaller chairs, also black though not as imposing. Black is a theme here; there is also a sleek black sofa set against one wall, ruining the perfect linear symmetry of the room. It matches the charcoal color of the carpet, and imposes in hard lines against the ivory walls.

The only changing thing in the XO's office is the enormous plasma screen that eats up the furthest end of it. Today, it shows a real-time image of the alien ships - specifically the flagship - that have come to court the Genesis. Eisley herself is less than mindful of that, busy at her desk, typing away against the glass. Each time her fingertip hits the black pane something underneath lights up, registering the impression. Even in the 22nd century, typing is not an obsolete skill and, peculiar or no, the Commander does most of this chore on her own, from consultation with a data pad on the desk beside her.

Yin goes where Yin is told to go. At least she's cleaned up before arriving — sort of. Her hair's still damp from the quick shower she took when she knocks on the door, and when she salutes a couple droplets of water trickle down her uniform to rest on the ridge where her jumpsuit meets left boot.

Dripping? In the XO's office? Intolerable! Okay, maybe not. Eisley looks the worst of the lot then; ordinarily a creature of habitual neatness, she has a few hairs out of place; dark locks have escaped the braid and come precariously close to licking the collar of her uniform and dark shadows deepen the set of her eyes. Sleep is not yet an option, however, and she looks up at the knock and returns the salute. "Petty Officer Yin," she greets. "Come in, sit down."

Sitting casually is always a production. This matinee showing involves the quick click-clicking of heels against deck and still more dripping as Yin ties her hair into a limp little ponytail. The smell of something vaguely floral grows stronger as the slender woman gets closer: from another blast of perfume, which she's applied with an indecorous hand.

Eisley considers for a moment, then waves a hand over the desktop. Glowing icons skitter away from the gesture and then vanish, swept clean and into the ship's enormous archive somewhere. This leaves her with a plain black sheet of glass, in which some of the stars reflect like tiny diamonds trapped in smoke. "Shevchenko's Rosetta program cracked the alien database a little while ago," she says, cutting right to the chase. "Necessarily it is an imperfect translation, but it was enough to give us some small measure of insight into their goals."

"Mm." It's a small, soft sound that invites the XO to go on. Though Yin isn't accompanied by Fortress Legal Pad this time, neither is she looking anywhere in Eisley's direction. Instead, her dark eyes focus on a little spot to her left, her pupils dilating as they get adjusted to the light. Processing.

"Eve. Retrieve the last three transmissions decoded from the Symbiote ship, apply active Rosetta translation with Decode-WIP, and playback audio with neutral male application." Eisley speaks and leans back in her chair, most of the titanium long gone from her bone-weary self. This is the least most mandatory posture to keep up: she's sitting in her own office, for goodness sake. And they play, a mild-voiced man replacing Eve's cool reply.

"The Devourer remains uncooperative. It took a great deal of trial and error just to capture the one live Devourer we have. Once the Devourers realized that we could __ them without killing them, they began to mass suicide. They will not let themselves be taken alive. Word must have spread quickly, as they now kill themselves as soon as they see us with our __. If we lose this one, it will be difficult to secure another.

"I find it as __ as the rest of you to even think of __ with these Devourers. The __ are our natural Hosts. These Devourers would have to be forced into it. Still, our Hosts are fragile, we need stronger Hosts if we are to win the war, and these Devourers are our ideal soldier Hosts."

"The Devourer has at last agreed to undergo _. I'm concerned, however, that it may be a trick. We will perform the __ soon, and report to you the results.

Yin blinks owlishly when that message is through. She's silent for a very long while, as if playing it back in her head — and then, with a faint little smile, she leans forward to rest an elbow against her knee, cradling her head against the back of her right wrist. "It seems the Devourers also discovered glorious cyanide pills, sir."

This actually makes the Commander laugh. That's a rarity, but there is humor to be found somewhere in this situation at last. "I guess we have something in common with them after all," she agrees. "Now, tell me. What else stands out to you about these transmissions?"

As Eisley laughs, Yin merely looks at her with her head tilted to one side. Too busy, it seems, wringing out a few last drops of shampoo-infused water onto the ground. "There is one superficial point to be made," she replies when she's through. "It seems the parasites have developed a sense of respect for individual autonomy. But they are constrained, like we are, by necessity, and principles are often the first to go in times of war. I would not put much stock in their seeming respect for their prisoner's free will." A flash of something very close to sadness crosses the woman's face as she speaks, but as quickly as it appears it's gone. "More important, I think, is the fact that they tell us precisely what they do and do not need in a Host." She'll use their term for it, at least for now. "They are searching for a body that can help them compensate for their preferred Hosts' relative physical weakness. It may therefore be to our advantage to appear as weak and frail as possible. Incapable of withstanding the stressors their war inflicts upon the bodies they — ride?"

"They seem to have a marked preference for these Devourers, and went to -great- lengths to secure the permission of the one they caught. This is the one that destroyed their ship; it was never.. implanted." Whatever the appropriate term for this process is, Eisley sticks with that, for the moment. A nod is given to the rest of it, along with a counterpoint. "They have our database. They can glean what they desire from it, and our attempts at deceiving them are be quite unsuccessful. So let me ask you another question. If they are -not- looking to court us as hosts, then what could they possibly want from us?" This is a pointed question, nothing rhetorical or hypothetical about it.

"Not necessarily. Witness the discussion we are currently having, in which we are applying essentially human models of behavior to creatures that may in fact have little in common with ourselves — in culture, the arts, language, history, cognitive pathways and mental heuristics, to name some obvious differences." Yin rattles off that list in her musical English, switching elbows so she can make herself just a bit more comfortable. "Just because they have acquired all the intelligence they need does not guarantee that they will interpret that intelligence correctly. As to your second point: I do not know." At that, the woman shrugs. "I can speculate, if you wish."

Eisley shakes her head. "They hit our ship with an invasive, penetrating scan. They are aware of how many of us are awake and aware and how many are in stasis. Their technology is superior to ours; their ships move faster, and they can see through our cloaking devices. If they intend to take us as hosts by force, then they will do so and there is precious little that we can do to stop them. That they have -not- and that they went through such pains with the Devourers does indicate that they might have other motives. So humor me." This is not a suggestion, either; it is sober, somber, a thing of tremendous sincerity and focus summoned from somewhere deep within. "So speculate for me. If they cannot have us for hosts, what else might they want?"

"That is not the issue, sir. The question was not whether they could take us as hosts if they wanted. I expressed great certainty that they could the last time we spoke. The question was whether we might disincentivize them from taking us as hosts by downplaying our capabilities in some fashion. This is not yet settled in my mind." Because if it were, Laurel would assuredly say so — though, having drawn up her knees to her chest so she can curl up in her chair, she still doesn't really look the self-confident type. "But. To speculate? One: religion. We might occupy a privileged space in their cosmology, much like the Spaniards to the Aztecs. But this is unlikely, given the state of their technological development. Two: military assistance. They saw us destroy two Devourer vessels, though in both cases we were aided by deception. But this again is unlikely, given once more the state of their technology and the fact that we are but one ship. Three: intelligence. We may be able to help them 'think themselves out of the box,' if this is an expression, and help them win a war they are by no means assured of winning. I judge this the most likely of those three preliminary scenarios. Do you require more?"

Apparently formality has been checked off for the night; even the formal little Yin is slouched and curled! Not that Eisley is doing much better, though she at least still has the wherewithal to simply lean back in her seat, hands curling over the end of its arms. "Ideally, I would like every possible scenario presented so that the probable one is brought to my attention at least five minutes before it is communicated to me by a Symbiote. While this is not practical, I am exceptionally tired of surprises, and this trip seems fraught with them." One hand lifts from the chair then, reaching up and back so that she can rub at the nape of her neck. "Captain Ramesh has given me carte blanche to negotiate. There is only one card I will not bring to the table. It will make for a -terribly- interesting discussion."

"I agree. But for the sake of argument, why will you play with only a deck of fifty-one cards?" It seems Yin has a fairly good guess about just which card Eisley wants to leave behind, as she doesn't bother asking. Instead, she leans the side of her head against her knees, letting out a fluted sigh while her metallic jumpsuit stretches underneath the strain. "Consider those elderly women incapable of bearing children and possessed of no vital skills. They have no strategic or tactical value. Merely a sentimental one."

Eisley lowers her hand and straightens up. "Petty Officer Yin, I am not at all sure what cards you think I -should- bring. They performed an invasive scan on our ship. They have our historical files. Our medical records. They know what we are, and what we are capable of, and at this point there is precious little that we can do to exercise any sort of deception. If you have an idea, tell me. Otherwise, we need to quit revisiting the same subject mater." Her eternal patience has been stretched thin. These words come out fast, sharp, like the crack of a whip. While there is no anger in them - she is probably too tired to be angry - there is a touch of annoyance in there somewhere.

"I just did, sir. You were not listening to the implications." Yin's shrug is equally listless. "The last card is the unthinkable one. If they demand willing hosts, you are actually in a position to grant them willing hosts: the infertile and the infirm. You and I both know the colonists chosen for the mission to New Eden were those souls humanity determined it could live without."

"Absolutely not." It is unthinkable, and it would seem that Eisley is in fact unwilling to entertain this idea; that might be why she didn't catch the connotations of that statement the first time. Now, spelled out in black and white, she dismisses it with that same little rise of emotion; again it is not anger, but it is steel-clad. "Humanity may have thought both our crew -and- our cargo to be expendable, but they reckoned wrong. I will not make that mistake."

Yin falls quiet for another one of her trademark silences — and then, after what seems like a full minute has passed, she uncoils herself from her chair and pads over to Eisley's desk. That is: to Eisley's side of Eisley's desk, on which she sits with a curious innocence that's not at all feigned. She even crosses her legs. "Do you mind if I ask a personal question?"

Well, that is downright disconcerting. The XO settles back in her chair again, elbows on its arms, hands folding save for that steeple of index fingers. She studies Yin over that solitary spire of blunt nails, one brow twitching upward just a fraction of an inch. Much like the other woman, Eisley is silent for a few moments - not nearly a minute, but for a passing span of time that can be measured in full thoughts not shared. "Go ahead," she allows.

Four words. "Why are you here?"

There are a thousand ways that the Commander could answer this question, and it might be apparent that the first answer that comes to mind is not the one that she gives. In fact, her gaze goes briefly unfocused, shifted to middle space someplace between where she sits and the surface of the desk. "…because I swore to protect those people," she answers finally. "Because they are all that we have left."

"Mm." Yin notices, but for once she doesn't say anything. Instead, she seems consumed with something on her hands, which still bear faint traces of rough calluses since worn away. "Do you know of a city called Suzhou?"

For a moment, again, there is nothing; a flicker of thought, perhaps, which passes with an answer-turned-question. "It was known for its gardens, wasn't it?" Eisley had to search her own databank for that, but that might be all that she could come up with.

"Yes. They are very beautiful. It is called the Venice of China." Yin's smile is gentle — almost wistful. "A man called Zhang Ji wrote a poem about it once. It is about a melancholy traveler who arrives outside Maple Bridge when he hears the midnight bells of Hanshan Temple. I — I do not know how to translate it. I once snuck out of my barracks to listen to the bells. This was when I was deployed to the city with the One Hundred Sixteenth Mechanized Infantry Division." As the woman speaks, her voice grows progressively quieter, that airy soprano almost ethereal in the otherwise silent room. "There were riots when the Yangtze River overflowed and the government ordered the city evacuated. We were too busy rebuilding Beijing; we did not have the money to spare. The rioters refused to leave. They resisted. Peacefully, at first, until one monk set himself on fire." Laurel clasps her hands together tightly, slender fingers turning white under pressure. "So we shot him. And then they stopped resisting." Beat. "Peacefully, that is."

Surely there is more to this story. Eisley must expect this because she does not speak yet. Rather, she waits, content to let the tale spend itself, or for Yin to take the thought to a new and different place. The telling of this inspires little in her; her gaze focuses but the intensity comes from attentive listening, not surprise, horror, or any of those other things that sometimes follow the speaking of wanton death. Maybe her patience has been renewed; maybe this is simply a variation on something she has heard a thousand times before. Either way, she is quiet.

"Fifty thousand people chose to stay in Suzhou," Yin murmurs. "After that day, forty-nine thousand six hundred and ninety-six people were convinced to live somewhere else. This was a correct action." And then the lithe woman scoots just a bit closer to the motionless commander, her expression equal parts earnest and sad. Clammy fingers attempt to brush against the other woman's hands, their touch so gentle they might not even be felt. "You may well condemn us all if you refuse to play all fifty-two cards. For even if you do not have to show your Ace of the Spade tomorrow, you cannot count on being so lucky every time." Cold though the sentiment may be, there's no mistaking the ineffable sorrow in the woman's voice as she steps backwards and away. "But at least you will be justly punished for what you do," she adds. "This is what it means to hear the midnight bells, I think. You will never forget."

And still, for long moments, there is nothing. When that changes it does so decisively, with the XO's hand moving to her desktop, sliding light back into it. It takes only a short while for her to find what she was looking for: a few passes of her fingers, scrolling through information, tapping through a menu tree. It will be obvious when she finds what she was looking for because the black starfield vanishes and is replaced by a slowly scrolling list of names, dates of birth, cities, countries. "One of the first things I did when I was given the enviable position of Executive Officer and rank of Commander of the Genesis was to requisition a complete set of civilian jackets. It's all there. Where they were born, where they went to school. Who their parents were; their sisters; their brothers; their children. What they did for a living. What mistakes they made. Their psychological profiles, their skill sets. These are craftsmen, farmers, doctors, midwives, fishermen, truck drivers, fabricators, foremen, miners, shop clerks. Men, women, children." That list of names will scroll for a very long time. "I will not give even the least of these up as hosts for those aliens. I will not open that door, even to peek out through it. If that is a mistake, then so be it." Though cool, sharp, so like razor blades, all of these words are measured and quiet. They spill out in an easy torrent now. "Perhaps you should volunteer to be the joker in my deck. At least you would have chosen, and not become a sacrifice."

"I will volunteer, even if I do not often joke." And no, that's not a joke: Yin's expression is as grave as ever. "But the point remains, Commander. I cannot tell you when this choice must be made, only that it will have to be made. You can choose to carry a few of those names with you, or you can choose to have no one left to carry any of those names at all." Laurel sighs, her chest rising and falling as she leans against the wall. "If there is nothing else, sir?"

"You may go," allows the Commander with a singular nod. Beyond that, she gives no more response, only a hard, even jaded stare.

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