Celadon: A Strange Space Novel | Part 1: The Youngest and the Ensign | Chapter 1
Updated: Dec 31, 2022
There are few places better for silently observing a conversation without being noticed than a tangle of rafters and support beams high above the balcony where the speakers are standing.
In Celadon Toreval’s mind, their people’s Council House must have been designed with such purposes in mind—not that any of the other Elders would ever admit to climbing up into the rafters themselves at all. That sort of behavior is expected of kittens, naturally, but an Elder is expected to carry themself with a certain amount of dignity.
Dignity or not, Toreval spends a lot of their time in the Council House rafters, even when they don’t have a pair of interesting aliens to listen to. It’s part of their role to make themself aware of all things going on, after all—and the Eldest doesn’t seem to mind having them drop down from above when their opinion is actually called for. Toreval has never really cared what any of the others think, if they’re honest.
This present bit of listening is on Toreval’s own account, though, rather than the Council’s. They’ve placed themself just close enough that their keen catlike ears can swivel and focus on the voices of the two aliens, but still far away enough that one of the speakers would have to look up at precisely the right angle and location to see them at all. Their long prehensile tail curls around the beam they’re sitting on for stability, while their four hands lightly anchor them to the support beams. They have both legs loosely crossed, their lightweight sandals long since removed and tucked neatly into the folds of their sash for the sake of greater ease in climbing. The pale greenish-blue of their silver-striped skin and the amber layers of their robes disappear into the rich browns of the wood around them and the deep shadows cast by the Council House roof.
The people Toreval is observing are too caught up in their conversation to consider looking up and seeing the Florivan Elder whose three golden eyes peer out of the shadows in the rafters, of course. The human Admiral and her young assistant have a lot to talk about, now that they’ve left the Council chamber and are waiting to be told where their guest quarters will be and if the Florivan Council of Elders has anything else to say to them today.
“I’m telling you, Admiral,” says a voice which Toreval assumes must belong to the young man who’d stood silently by the Admiral’s side throughout her speech to the Council, with a light sigh of resignation coloring his smoothly accented words, “there’s no way this plan of yours is going to work.”
“Oh?” asks the Admiral, in much the same curious but parental tone Toreval themself often uses when their kittens are struggling to understand something. “And why do you think that, Ensign?”
“They’re a species of pacifists, Ma’am,” the Ensign replies pointedly. “Their Council is never going to willingly throw in with us in the middle of a war.”
“We’re not asking them to fight.”
“No, but after what happened to your Rangers—”
“—My Rangers are why we are here, Ensign.”
In the silence that follows, Toreval quietly shifts position to a perch where they may more closely watch the body language of the two humans. It’s a good distraction from the stab of regret and grief that the Admiral’s words have sparked in the back of their thoughts.
Admiral Marvin herself is standing close to the curtained archway between the balcony and the waiting chamber inside, her single pair of arms crossed over her chest. A tall russet-skinned woman with all her light brown curls pulled back into a bun and held with a pair of long brass hairpins, in general bearing and attitude she strikes Toreval as being very like some of the senior Elders they’ve trained under: driven, confident, and with an air of genuine concern for the people under her command.
The Admiral’s young assistant, meanwhile, is halfway leaning against the balcony railing now, looking out at the courtyard below. A light breeze catches the long leaf-black hair he’s wearing up in a high ponytail, making it shift and shimmer against his tawny-pale skin and the green of his Defense Fleet uniform. He was so quiet and politely attentive during the proceedings earlier that Toreval has been unable to make any assessments of his character, aside from the loyalty he obviously has towards the Admiral. His posture now indicates that he’s quite comfortable with the woman he serves, enough that he clearly does not fear to speak honestly to her.
“I just don’t think they’ll agree to help us if it means abandoning their customs.”
“Your lack of faith is noted, Ensign.” The Admiral joins the younger human at the railing and sets a hand on his shoulder briefly. “But I have no time for pessimism when this may be our only hope to survive.”
“Now,” the Admiral says, her tone shifting to something almost affectionately parental, “why don’t you go get to know the locals while I wait for word about our accommodations?”
“Ma’am?” The Ensign seems startled by the request.
“You’re my assistant, aren’t you? I’m relying on your observational skills while we’re here. Go explore the city a bit and see if you can learn anything that will help our cause.” She stifles a chuckle. “Besides, we’re supposed to look like we’re on leave, and we’ll likely be here a while yet. It wouldn’t do to keep you cooped up here and have folks wonder what official business we might really be here for.”
“—Do I need to make that an order, Ensign?”
The Ensign shakes his head reluctantly, then gives her a small salute. “You don’t, Ma’am.”
“Good. Have fun—see if you can find us somewhere interesting to have dinner, while you’re at it.”
Toreval watches from their perch high in the rafters as the Ensign walks away. They would have liked to hear the rest of the younger human’s thoughts, but that can wait. They will make a chance to talk to him later.
They have other business to attend to first.
“Your Ensign may be right, you know.”
The Admiral looks up to them with much the same expression their parent usually wears when they see Toreval up in the rafters: something halfway between disapproving and amused. “I was unaware that eavesdropping was one of your people’s habits, Youngest.”
Toreval drops down onto the balcony railing beside the Admiral. The amber silks of their robes catch the breeze nicely as they take a comfortable position on one corner of the railing and steady themself with their long, tufted prehensile tail and lower pair of hands. This meeting is far different in tone than the formal introduction the two of them had an hour ago when she first stood before the Eldest and the other members of the Council who are present today. They’re amused, though, that she’s still deferring to their proper title. They wonder if that’s out of respect, or if she’s simply not remembered their public name out of the eighteen Elders she met earlier.
“I wanted to speak to you.”
The Admiral raises an eyebrow. “On behalf of the Council?”
“On my own account.” Toreval dips their head lightly.
“I see… I would have thought you’d all still be in there deliberating.”
“The final decision regarding your proposal won’t be made until the rest of the Elders arrive.” Toreval shrugs, twitching one of their ears. “Until then, I don’t care to waste time arguing about it.”
“What did you want to say to me, then?”
Toreval looks out towards the city. They can see the Ensign crossing the courtyard now, one lone human figure among the blue and silver bustle of their people. They watch him as he turns and looks towards the upper levels of the Council House, one hand shielding his eyes from the smaller sun which is doubtless cresting its domes at this hour. After a few moments, he lowers his hand and continues walking, disappearing down one of the side streets that leads towards the River which cuts through the heart of their home.
“Why are you here, Admiral?” Toreval asks at last.
“You heard my case already, Youngest.” The Admiral leans against the railing and joins them in gazing out over the city. “I’m here to get permission to recruit volunteers from your people for the Fleet.”
“So you said. What I want to know is why.”
“We don’t stand a chance of surviving this war against the Novans without your technology—”
“—you already have our technology on your interstellar vessels.” Toreval gives her a knowing look with their third eye, keeping the lower two directed towards the courtyard.
“Civilian vessels, yes, or Ranger ones. Never the Defense Fleet’s.”
“If we could use the Drive without you—or if anyone else was willing or able to share their post-light tech—I wouldn’t be here. I’d have the whole Fleet outfitted and flying instead of sitting around on the edges of all of our systems waiting to be attacked.”
“That is not by our design, Admiral.”
Toreval is silent for a few moments, watching the courtyard below. They’re well aware of the fact that human ships on their own are limited to relatively slow-moving solar sail flight, and that it’s only thanks to their people’s gift of the so-called ‘Quantum Space Drive’ that interstellar journeys are possible for them in weeks or months rather than decades. Likewise, they’re personally familiar with the role a Florivan plays as the member of such a starship’s crew who runs the Drive and safely jumps the ship back and forth through the veil between ‘Normal’ space and the dimension their people know as the Strange with the help of their human Navigator counterpart.
“We’ve been trying to integrate with your species for a century now,” Toreval says at last. “Do you know how many times we’ve been approached by those who would adapt our technology for warfare, even before our peoples met?”
“No, although I can imagine… But the present situation is different.”
“The Novans know that your people exist now.”
Toreval turns all three of their eyes back to the human. “What do you mean by that, Admiral Marvin?”
The Admiral holds eye contact with them for a few moments, and then lets out a half sigh and looks away, back towards the domes of the city and the purple-black treetops beyond.
“Just after we got pulled into the war,” she says, folding her hands together, “I was approached by two Ranger pairs who volunteered to help us. Since their ship was equipped with the Drive, they were the only scouts I had to send across the Teegarden Expanse into Novan-claimed space to assess what we’re up against and where the Armada was heading. It was all kept strictly secret—I’d wager there’s only two or three people between Ranger central command and the Alliance’s joint admiralty who knew they were working with me at all.” The Admiral pauses for a moment, her tone growing more solemn. “Their last mission went… badly. The ship was captured, and later reported destroyed. We have no reason to believe there were any survivors.”
Toreval hesitates for a moment, forcing themself to remain composed and centered. It isn’t easy.
“…You didn’t tell the Council this.”
“They told me to wait and give my speech to the full Council, remember?”
The Admiral makes a vague gesture out towards the courtyard. “It’s like you said, Youngest. Your people have been trying to integrate with our society. The Novans knew that most of our ships they’d encountered could outrun their striker raids and escape, and now it’s certain they know why. Whether your Council agrees to help us openly or not, I doubt the Novans will care. I still don’t believe that the ‘Officially Non-Combatant Neutral/Protected Species’ status y’all have with the Greater Galactic Powers really means anything to them, frankly.”
“I see.” Toreval folds their upper pair of hands together contemplatively. Their tail swishes softly under the layers of their robes to match.
“You don’t sound surprised.”
The Admiral looks back to them suspiciously. “If I didn’t know better, Youngest, I’d say you already knew.”
Toreval is silent for a few moments, all three of their eyes turned to watch the City. The bustle in the courtyard below them is comforting. Home has a rhythm of movement and sounds all its own; one that calms their thoughts in much the same way their meditations on the faraway sensation of the stars do. They often find themself seeking out high places from which to watch and soak it all in, especially when the weight of their responsibilities is particularly pressing. Over the last few months, Toreval has spent more time sitting on the roof of the Council House doing just that than they have in years.
“How?” The Admiral is clearly taken aback. “Everything about it is top secret—”
“—Admiral.” Toreval turns their third eye away from the city and looks straight into the alien’s two green eyes, keeping their tone as level and pointed as they can. “Do you really think my kittens would not consult with me before volunteering for something so dangerous?”
The Admiral looks away, back towards the courtyard. “…I see.”
Toreval falls silent once more, watching the human’s bearing closely even as half of their mind is focused on keeping themself centered. They can’t help but wonder what she’s really feeling, considering how closely they understand she’d worked with Iralee and Inayan and the two young Rangers who’d become their counterparts scarcely three years before. Does it pain her, too, they wonder, to bear the weight of that loss?
“Was the information you gained worth their lives?” Toreval asks at last, calmly. Among the questions they’ve been waiting to ask the Admiral ever since the day the news reached them, this is the one that matters to them most. It’s the one they can’t help feeling that their kittens would have wanted them to ask.
“It’s already saved us dozens of ships and their crews.” The Admiral’s voice remains even-toned, but with a touch of sadness. “We’d have lost countless more lives without them by now, I’m sure.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Youngest. Teal and Turquoise were two of the best jumpers I’ve ever served with, even if I only knew them briefly.”
Toreval gives the Admiral a little nod of acknowledgment. This is, they think, the first time they’ve heard their kittens’ public names spoken aloud in months; the last was when the Ranger visited who brought them the two badges that now sit in their home beside a framed copy of the picture they’d taken the last time their whole family had been together. Losing Iralee and Inayan is still a fresh grief for them, but they appreciate her sentiment.
“They both always spoke highly of you, Admiral.”
“I’m honored.” The Admiral makes a similar slow nod in return. “They’d told me a few things about you as well, you know… I’d like to think we should have talked sooner than this.”
“We should have,” Toreval agrees, re-folding their upper pair of arms together over their chest, “but I doubt that would have changed anything.”
“Probably not.” The Admiral pauses, then tilts her head slightly to one side. “So you’re aware of everything, then… Do you share their position about aiding us?”
Toreval considers their words carefully before answering. “What’s best for my people may be very different from what I feel for myself.”
The Admiral nods. “I can understand that.”
“I’m sure you can.”
“And surely you know what’s at stake now—for all of us?”
“I do.” Toreval’s eyes stray back to the scene of the courtyard. “But what to do about it is something for the Council to decide.”
“I suppose it is at that.” The Admiral sighs lightly, shaking her head. “At any rate, I would welcome your support, Youngest.”
“I’ll let you know when I’ve decided to support you, Admiral.”
Toreval slips down off the railing with another flutter of silks and across the vines to the courtyard below, leaving Admiral Marvin alone on the balcony.