Signals from the Front: Visible Elements Chapter One

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Visible Elements

Chapter One

The pulse of the launch guns wakes Vysha. They wait for the length of two breath cycles, seawater pumping through gill slits, shivering with the fatigue of interrupted torpor. Vysha’s internal clock tells them it is deep into the night-cycle. Again, fingers of warmlight etch the stone wall above the rejuve pool, and this time Vysha comes fully awake.

The direction of the pulse is wrong. The rejuve pool on this level of Traat, the great seastack of the Veerten and Vysha’s home, faces the sea; yet the launch gun array is inland, anchored into the bedrock of the old caldera that cradles the city of Anmerresh like a cracked eggshell. They shouldn’t be able to sense the warmlight of the array’s lasers from here, although sometimes they can feel the vibrations rippling through the water, through their gelatinous body.

Uncoiling their stalk from its dormant position, Vysha detaches their footbody from the pool floor. They brush past the unconscious bodies of other Veert anchored to the floor like a forest of seaweed, careful not to jostle the others’ delicate sensory bulbs. The pool floor slopes up and Vysha breaches the water. A shock of air causes their arms to contract, shielding their own sensory bulb from desiccation. But it’s only the moist air within Traat. After the first instinctual contraction, they unwrap their flexible arms from the swelling of softer tissue in the center: a disc-shaped structure containing their tympanum and the infrared-sensitive cells that allow Vysha to both see and transmit warmlight. A cool night-cycle breeze blows from the aperture carved into the exterior wall. Following the gradation of cooler air, Vysha shimmies along the floor to the window.

The sea beyond is an emptiness. No flickers of warmlight from the sun heat the tops of the waves to visibility. Trying to get oriented, Vysha recalls the topographical maps they have traced with the sensitive pads lining their arms. Anmerresh City is a waxing crescent of rocky land nestled in the crook of a steep bay, the remnant of an extinct volcano. A waterbreak partially encloses the wide harbor where the Veerten have their seastacks. Rocky islands pock the rougher surf beyond, remnants of land almost swallowed by the sea.

But the islands are apparently far enough above the water line to serve as stable platforms for more launch guns. The thermal catalyst lasers scream from each peak for half a breath cycle: pushing more payloads into space, raw materials for the orbital assemblies to churn out ships and weapons to replace those lost to the Terran forces. Vysha startles as the spears of warmlight streak their vision. This time the surprise is succeeded by sinking comprehension, like a current of colder water washing over them.

The Coalition of United Species must have commandeered the islands for the war effort. Built more launch guns in secret, in the dead night-cycle hours when no Veert would be awake to protest. The islands are legally Veerten territory, as are all the maritime parts of the planet with a saline concentration greater than one in five parts. It is part of the treaty the Veert drew up with the first land-dwelling settlers to reach Teluk. Not long ago, the Open Council would have categorically denied such a violation of Veerten sovereignty. But war makes light of such niceties. With the planet under martial law, the military Coalition can pretty much do as it likes.

Vysha resolves to lodge a formal protest with their Councilor the next day-cycle, though the gesture will likely be futile—as futile as all Veerten protests have been since the Coalition committed to this conflict.

Two revolutions have passed since the Terrans pushed into Teluk’s inner system, puffed up with demands for a lease to one of Teluk’s moons. A temporary arrangement. The Terrans are losing a war a system over; they need the moon’s materials for more ships and mechs. They need the space and the breath cycles to build them.

The Open Council of Teluk considered. It opened its halls to all its citizens, as it had done in the past. It heard the arguments for and against allowing the Terrans a presence in Teluk’s system, even if it was temporary—a holdfast from which they could strengthen their war machine.

Vysha’s people had been in favor of the arrangement. It was only a small moon the Terrans wanted. It had no water or air, so was equally useless to Veert and land-dwellers alike. Let them have it, the Veerten representatives said. Think of how the new trade opportunities could enrich Teluk: unusual crops, precious ores, adaptive synthetics. We have treated with the Expansion before to great benefit. Listen to us.

But the Veert had been only one voice in the Council’s amphitheatre. They’d been drowned out by the protestations of the land-dwellers, the Rul and the Baskar: The Veert care nothing for the land. If the Terrans break their promises and make planetfall, it is not Veerten territory that will be in danger.

The Council looked at the arguments. They studied the war raging a system over—a war the Terrans started by an injudicious grab for territory from a civilization they did not understand. And the Councillors of Teluk refused the lease.

Predictably, the Terrans did not tolerate this insult for long.

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