The heavy metal door clanged open and the breach officer’s armoured boots added to the general crashing and hollow ringing that never quite went away on board. It was deafening at first, and then you got used to it. And then it actually got a bit creepy to be somewhere quiet.
The Commander looked up from his interface pool.
“Well, if it’s not the luckiest idiot in the Maj,” he said.
“Commander,” the officer looked decidedly queasy behind her visor. Queasy was good, but absolutely ashen with nausea would be better. “The breach was a success-”
“It was a success because you got in and out alive, and you took a sample,” the Commander snapped. “That’s a pretty fucking low bar to clear, junior breach officer Mørkht,” he shook his head in disgust. “And take that stupid thing off, you’re out now.”
Junior breach officer Mørkht looked like she was about to protest, then clanged and clattered with gauntlets and helmet, fumbling them all off and half-dropping, half-setting them on the deck. “Regulations stipulate a seventy-minute repressurisation-”
“Oh, now you care about regulations, that makes sense,” the Commander interrupted. “Relax, soldier. You’re not going to turn to salt. And if you do, I’ll use you to season my dinner. Your breach was unapproved, understaffed, poorly equipped and hit the wrong fucking Sanctuary. You’re lucky any of your team got out. I suspect you only got out because They let you, and that makes me very fucking nervous, and that makes me very fucking angry.”
“Commander,” Mørkht stammered, “I take full responsibility and will accept any charges of-”
“No shit you will, you imbecile,” the Commander delivered his best parade-hall roar. The officer flinched. The Glyph in full fury was not something that happened every day, or even every year. And what the handbook called ‘discipline’, the Maj‘s crew called ‘competing to not be the one who made the Glyph mad the next time’. The handbook was actually punchier, the Commander conceded. “But in the meantime,” he went on, “since you are the luckiest idiot in the Maj, let’s see what you got.”
Junior breach officer Mørkht nodded, and hastily tapped on her arm to summon the float-crate. It hummed into the room, a glossy black case of petrified barrow wood etched with military-grade runes and reinforced with tarnished silver. Mørkht hesitated, cutting a swift and longing glance at her discarded gauntlets.
“Come on, soldier,” the Commander said. “Pick it up. It’s not going to hurt you now,” he waited until the young twit had reached into the box before judiciously adding, “unless you fucked up the transference the way you fucked up almost everything else, of course,” and was rewarded by a clatter and a terrified squeak as Mørkht fumbled the prisoner. Finally, though, she lifted it free.
It wasn’t much to look at, but he’d already seen from the report that the Goddess they’d captured hadn’t been much of a Goddess.
The expression was visible as a thread, like a single strand of hair, blazing white in the dirty amber core of the diabolised Bharriom prism. It was, he had to admit, a clean transference. Funny, how small and harmless They looked when rendered into a real-space function of null-energy. But then, it was fair to say most things did. At least this one could light up a small room.
There was no point letting Mørkht know that she’d done one thing right, of course. “I’ll take it down to the Bilge,” he said, “and think about how many different reports I feel like putting your name on,” he looked up from the crystal-bound expression. “You can make a start on minimising the number of reports I feel like putting your name on by going up to the Glassblower and unloading everything you saw and heard and thought about while you were inside that Sanctuary. Clear?” Still the officer hesitated. “Was there something else?”
“Only…” Mørkht reached into the box and pulled out a small carbon-lattice cage with a silver handle. Inside, something rattled angrily.
The Commander had heard about the additional … sample … the team had brought back, but hadn’t seen any images yet. He peered in through the lattice. “Ugly little critter, isn’t it?” he noted. “And it didn’t react to the transfer?”
“Just … kind of … jabbered and scratched the cage, Commander,” Mørkht hesitated. “She said its name was Chittle, Commander,” she added. The Commander raised his eyebrows, and she gestured at the gleaming prism on the desk. “The Goddess.”
“Chittle, huh?” the Commander looked at the little hunched creature in the cage. It was round, with a knobbly shell and a cluster of little feelers and claws surrounding a single angrily glaring eyeball. It was a hodgepodge, but it was viable. “So. They’re creating in there,” he tapped the cage with a fingernail, then snatched his hand back as the little creature screeched and jabbed at the mesh with several unpleasantly pointy … bits. “Well, for some definition of ‘creating’, anyway.”
He shook his head, and waved her to attention. He had a reputation to maintain, and Mørkht had fucked up phenomenally. The Glyph could not be lenient. One breakdown was all it would take. They’d been very lucky with this explosive abortion of a breach. “Dismissed, junior breach officer Mørkht.”
“Commander,” she said crisply, and hurried out. She stumbled in the doorway, turned and scurried back, and retrieved her helmet and gauntlets. “Sorry, Commander,” she muttered, and hurried out. She paused in the doorway, and looked back hesitantly. “Commander?”
“What, junior breach officer Mørkht?”
Mørkht’s eyes were wide and frightened. “They were … beautiful, Commander.”
The Commander clenched his jaw. The Glyph could not be lenient. “That They were,” he said quietly. “Dismissed.”
He watched her go, then turned his attention back to the crystal-bound expression and the … Chittle … on his desk. The grotesque little creature had huddled up on one side of the cage, its eye gazing at the glowing white filament inside the Bharriom. It made a harsh yet somehow disconsolate little grinding noise with its mandibles.
The Glyph sighed heavily.
“That They were,” he murmured.