Atara and Xannissa walked through the doors of the fleet operations center. The room was lit like a typical clear night on the Academy’s side of Lanan—bright enough to see the colors of leaves, grass, and animals and block out the stars, and in this case, bright enough to see the colors and features of each of the officers and starmen. Lumigraphs covered the entire forward wall and every station, making fleet ops look like a tunnel carved out of lustrous stone. On either side of the door ran two ramps down into a low trench full of operations officers in standard uniform sitting in front of lumigraphic displays or looking over others’ shoulders. The wide trench wrapped all the way around the other side of the room, making the narrow walkway Atara and Xannissa walked across appear like a stage of sorts. At the end of the stage sat a circle of consoles that overlooked the rest of fleet ops.
At the center of the circle, surrounded by seated officers, stood a blonde Terran woman that Atara would have wished out of her life if given the chance. An officer that the woman was talking to nodded and walked down the stage toward Atara and Xannissa, cutting her way between the two friends before exiting the room.
“Captain Korrell and Commander Cetalo,” said the woman. She was a dim silhouette against the forward lumigraphs, but Atara could make out her usual arrogant smirk. She was the only one in the room, and perhaps the entire ship, wearing the formal uniform consisting of a white dress with a hemline halfway down the thighs and a hexagonal opening on the upper torso between the breasts. A black necktie with a pointed end, embedded in the collar, hung down the front of the dress to about the navel. The collar and large hexagonal outlines on the hips were orange, and the outfit was complete with the short jacket. It was recommended that the combat bodysuit be worn underneath when aboard a starship, but Atara and Xannissa could see the bare skin of her legs and cleavage.
“Greetings, Admiral Aesho,” Atara said as courteously as she could. She and Xannissa gave her the Federation Military’s salute by placing the left hand, open, behind the back and the right hand, also open, to the forehead with palms out.
“We need one more person,” Aesho said. “Fiori,” she called out. A standing, orange figure materialized at the door to fleet ops—a lumionic construct in the form of an unclothed female lacking nipples and genitalia. Her sclera were white, her pupils black, and her long, flowing hair a slightly darker orange. Fiori moved gracefully down the stage, carried on bare feet. Standing behind Atara and Xannissa, she placed her hands on their backs and smiled.
“Are you ready to begin the countdown?” Fiori asked in a most lifelike way.
“Not just yet,” Aesho told her. “Atara,” she said, looking at the captain, “there was a change of plan. You’ll be commanding the flagship.”
“Aren’t we supposed to advise?” Atara asked her in disbelief.
“Not this time,” Aesho said. “I think it would benefit the junior officers more if they learned how to take orders rather than give them.”
Atara felt the heat within her building up, gritting her teeth and clenching her fists. She stared into Aesho’s eyes, and Aesho stared back, giving Atara that same smirk. According to her, the point of the exercises was to train officers in the art of tactical thinking and decision making. Aesho always positioned herself to be diametrically opposed to Atara, or so it seemed, but she managed to keep her emotions suppressed—most of the time.
“Come on, Atara,” Xannissa said, sensing her friend’s anger and understanding her feelings, “it’ll be like old times. You and me.” Atara snapped out of her mounting rage and looked at her friend.
“Close enough like old times,” Atara told her in a soft voice. “Okay,” she said, looking at Aesho with a serious expression.
“Now we’re ready,” Aesho told Fiori. The orange figure backed away from Atara and Xannissa and stood perfectly straight with her legs together.
“Attention all personnel,” Fiori said, broadcasting herself to everyone involved in the exercises. “The Third Armada of the Greater Federation Navy’s Fifth Fleet will begin a joint, blue space combat simulation with the Federation Assault Force’s Seventh Army in one hour.” She paused before repeating herself. “The combat simulation will begin in one hour.” Fiori relaxed, smiling sweetly at Atara.
Outside fleet ops, Atara and Xannissa hugged each other before taking separate lifts. Atara made her way to the bridge as Xannissa traveled to the engineering department. The bridge was collocated with the ship’s own operations center just below deck. Two corridors shot out from the aft area of the bridge which led to the captain’s office, briefing rooms, Q-comms, and the lifts. The bridge’s walls curved, widening toward the bow, and were covered with lumigraphs and consoles already manned by seated officers. Atara stood in the middle of them with plenty of room to pace. She had no place to sit. Senior Federation officers didn’t command their vessels from armchairs. A balcony separated the bridge from the operations center below and the sweeping OPEL panel forward and above them. Bounced light flooded into the bridge from Lanan’s light side. Vast tracts of green and expanses of blue were interrupted by tiny puffs of soft white, features drifting as the ship hung in low orbit. Lumigraphs on the OPEL panel marked Greater Federation Navy ships, dry docks, installations, and satellites that would have been difficult to see otherwise for the great distances separating them.
The conning station was a small depression in the edge of the balcony, reminiscent of a cockpit. Cothlis Naret sat within—her head coming up to Atara’s shins. She faced a low wall of lumigraphs presenting detailed drive and maneuvering information. Standing just behind her, Atara looked down and saw operations officers and starmen at their stations or pacing around. Staring straight ahead, she took in the wide view of their moon and the blue halo at its horizon.
“I’m here,” Atara said while standing above Naret. Naret looked behind her, and then scrambled out of the conning station.
“Captain on the bridge!” Naret shouted before saluting. All of the other bridge officers stood from their chairs and saluted toward Atara. The captain hesitated for a moment, caught off guard by bridge formalities she was beginning to forget.
Finally, she said, “At ease,” and the officers dropped their arms and returned to their stations except for Naret.
“Strange turn of events, right?” Naret said, not sure what Atara was thinking.
“You were supposed to be captain of the flagship,” Atara told her, leaping straight to the point—a hint of frustration lacing her words.
Atara didn’t know what else to say. She could have railed against her superior in front of her subordinate, but what kind of example would that have set? It also wouldn’t have changed anything about the situation for the better, so Atara held her tongue, turned around, and started pacing behind the bridge stations looking at her officers’ lumigraphs.
“I feel more comfortable at the conn anyway,” Naret said softly before jumping back to her station. Atara heard what she said. She stopped pacing for a moment, giving herself time to suppress the urge to be blunt. Naret was one of Atara’s latest students. The captain wanted to rip her out of her comfort zone and watch her grow, but Aesho stepped in and prevented that just because she had the power to do so.
“Naret,” Atara said from the center of the bridge. Naret turned her chair around and looked at the captain.
“Come here.” Naret stood up again, stepped up from her station, and walked toward the captain.
With Naret standing in front of her, Atara said, “You’ll be my first officer.”
“I’m the CO of this ship,” Atara told her. “Therefore, I choose my officers.”
“A-affirmative,” Naret nodded, then moved her black hair out of her face with her hands. She couldn’t argue with the captain. Atara grinned a little, but realized she would need a replacement for Naret. If what Naret’s file claimed, and what came out of Naret’s own mouth were true, finding an equally talented officer would be difficult. She reasoned Aesho had a choice of first officer already lined up. When that junior officer appeared, she would take the conn.
Ten minutes passed. A Yeran junior officer with scarlet skin and silver hair entered from one of the aft corridors and introduced herself to Atara, claiming to be her first officer.
“There must be some kind of mistake,” Atara said. “There’s your station,” she told her, pointing to the conning station. The officer stared at her, then at the station, then back at her with a confused look.
“Understood,” she said, giving a salute and taking her station. Atara watched her touch the controls, look at the correct screens, and interact with the right elements, easing her conscious.
In the hour before the start of the wargames, the attacking ships took formation around the flagship that Atara commanded—the three-kilometer-long Tanden-class battleship GFN Hallyon. The ship had a complement of fifteen-thousand crew, six thousand-officers, and eight-thousand Auroras. With the aid of the most powerful gravitics systems in Civilized Space, the ship could enter atmospheres and skim the surfaces of planets. The battleship sported its own collection of a hundred astronautic strikecraft—fighters, bombers, and interceptors—and a pool of shuttles and dropships. It could also be modified to hold thousands of Assault Force soldiers and their tanks, transports, gunships, and aeronautic fighter-bombers. Possessing the same modularity as most other Federation hardware, the exact specifications of the ship were subject to change from mission to mission.
“How are you feeling?” Xannissa’s voice echoed in Atara’s head.
Without giving away the appearance that she was talking to anyone via technological telepathy, Atara responded, “I’m ready. I made Naret my first officer, and I don’t care what Aesho says. How are things down there?”
“Everything is great,” Xannissa said in her cheery tone. “I made Lieren my second-in-command here too, so don’t worry about it. Just have fun. These are wargames after all.”
The two of them were able to share their voices with each other using their service partnership Q-comms links. For this, they were required to swap their neural interfaces with ones possessing both a Q-comms transceiver and direct neural output. They heard each other’s voice only when it was directed through the link, but sometimes words slipped into the link that weren’t meant for it. Other times, words from the link slipped into normal speech. Atara found herself in a situation once during which she injected a word Xannissa told her over Q-comms into a serious conversation she was having with a student. “You need to understand the seriousness of lunch?” Of course, this was rare.
“Attention fleet,” Aesho said on a lumigraph, “prepare for warp in two minutes.”
Atara and Naret stood behind the Yeran at the conn. “Plot a course for Akos Three.”
“Affirmative, captain,” the Yeran said. When the time came, Atara gave the order, and the Yeran engaged the warp drive. At first, Lanan didn’t budge despite their rapid spatial acceleration. A moment later, the temperate moon started moving, and it quickly darted from their view leaving the massive Akos V lonely against the black ocean. After several more seconds it, too, crawled, then leapt behind them. In-system travel didn’t require the incredible speeds hyperplanar travel was capable of, so hyperwarp was unnecessary. Within two minutes, Akos III was as large as Lanan had been. The rest of the fleet followed behind the flagship, leaving warp seconds later. Ships continued to stream in for several seconds afterward.
Fiori appeared on the bridge, materializing in a seated position upon the balcony’s railing. Her crossed legs dangled above the diligent crew in operations, and her left arm crossed over her torso. Her right hand covered the right side of her face as she stared out at the defending fleet marked by the OPEL panel’s lumigraphs. It was her job to calculate every mock attack during the simulation, yet she didn’t bat an eyelash.
“New contacts detected ten-thousand kilometers straight ahead,” an officer said.
“Red alert,” Atara called out. “General quarters.” A quick siren sounded across the ship with lumigraphs displaying the current situation. The bridge’s OPEL panel changed from a full color image to a subdued red color channel, decreasing the bridge light and accentuating the lumigraphic augmented reality elements. The other lights in the bridge dimmed, making consoles brighter than they had first appeared. The aft corridors were closed, and two Auroras in full armor and helmets stood guard. The planet and other ships were projected on the walls of the bridge with simulated-depth lumigraphy—appearing like red shadows. “Prepare for low orbital engagement.”
“This is Admiral Harianan Aesho,” the admiral said, broadcasting herself to the entire attacking fleet. “Welcome to the One-Hundred Forty-Second Joint Exercises of the Greater Federation Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Third Armada and the Assault Force’s Seventh Army. Our fleet is on the attack, and that means it is our job to wrest orbital superiority from the defenders. We must liberate Akos Three in one-hundred hours, and this cannot be accomplished without a victory in space. This is your opportunity to show your classmates, your seniors, and your juniors the training you have received at the Academy and abroad. Do your friends on both sides a favor and give these wargames everything you have. It just might save their lives.”
Atara couldn’t agree more. These junior officers were peoples’ daughters, sisters, and mothers. “You heard the admiral,” Atara said. “You’re all here to learn. Let’s try to keep our distance and attack at range.”
“Prepare to engage at point-blank range,” Aesho said, apparently still broadcasting fleet-wide.
“What?” Atara cried in astonishment. Thousands of attacking ships all around them shunted power into their gravitics and fusion engines—points of white light shining behind them as they pulled ahead of the Hallyon.
“Captain of the Hallyon,” Aesho told Atara in a private communication. Her tone was serious. “Proceed to engage.”
“I object,” Atara said.
“Noted,” Aesho told her. “Now, follow orders.”
“Understood.” The captain maintained her neutral disposition in front of her junior officers, but her emotions boiled within. “Conn, move to melee range, subwarp.”
“Affirmative,” the Yeran said. “Falling forward.”
“Thank you, Atara,” Aesho told the captain before terminating the link. The faint rumbling of the Hallyon’s nine fusion engines easily reached the bridge located on the ship’s dorsal surface toward the stern. Omnium kept the engines fed with reactants while supplying power, material, and life support to the rest of the ship. The gravitics worked together with the fusion engines—thrusting the ship while it “fell” toward the defending fleet. Ship-wide cabingrav kept the crew oblivious to the acceleration caused by the fusion engines.
The Hallyon’s adjunct—one of the billions of nodes interlinked to form half of who Fiori was—aided the Yeran at the conn in reaching the proper velocity. Every increase in velocity would need to be repaid if the captain wanted the ship to stop, and gravitics were the only means of stopping unless the ship turned around and used the fusion engines to aid in reverse thrusting, also pointing the ship’s vulnerable stern at the enemy.
The Yeran cut the engines and gravitic propulsion and drifted toward the defending armada. “Incoming fire,” one of the bridge officers said. Numerous missiles appeared on the OPEL screen.
Atara, looking quite unconcerned, turned to Naret and asked “What would you do in this situation?” Naret who, like Atara, had seen real combat, began to quiver.
“I… um…” Atara awaited her response as the missiles, fake as they were, rocketed toward the battleship.
“Missiles closing fast,” the bridge officer said with alarm.
“I-I would evade.”
“Evade in a battleship?” Atara asked her. Naret knew she made a mistake. Atara turned back to face the OPEL screen and asked, “Did you forget about rapids?” Naret snapped her finger, having experienced a miniature epiphany. The Federation’s anti-missile close-in weapon system, termed REMASS point defense system (RPDS; pronounced “rapids”), relied upon the same nanoscale wormhole generation of REMASS but was used to pulse plasma or electromagnetic radiation into an incoming powered projectile, rendering it impotent. The inherent danger of RPDS, essentially a weaponized variation of REMASS, was backflooding, or directing matter and energy back at the sending device. Most modern REMASS systems possessed the capacity to backflood, making the weaponization of REMASS a difficult and risky pursuit.
Once the missiles entered within two kilometers of the ship, the RPDS silently obliterated them. Internally dead, the missiles crashed into the Hallyon’s lumionic barrier and ricocheted into space.
The Hallyon used its gravitics to produce negative acceleration as it approached the defending fleet. The battle in low orbit had begun in earnest, and the largely-untouched temperate world below them shined in the white dwarf Akos’ emissions. Waves covered the deep blue oceans. Fields, forests, deserts, and mountains stretched across the continents. White clouds drifted far below them in Akos III’s blue halo of air. Nothing but blackness separated the bright white star from its reflected light. Akos III was like a perfect sister to Lanan, though slightly more massive with roughly 1.2 g of surface gravity. It was used as a training zone for planetary invasion tactics, blue space naval engagements, and wilderness survival, though orbital bombardment was absolutely forbidden. Aside from one limited settlement, the world was left untamed. It was common for the more nature-oriented citizens of Lanan to take weekend trips there. Even Atara and Xannissa visited on occasion. The view was breathtaking, but the Hallyon found itself thick in the virtual battle.
Most of the ships participating in the combat simulation oriented their ventral sides down toward the ground, and they drifted in pseudo-orbit kept aloft via gravitics. The Hallyon’s simulated shields deflected simulated enemy projectiles launched from real ships from distances as close as five kilometers and as far as five-hundred kilometers. Squadrons of strikecraft darted between the ships at speeds that necessitated the use of smaller-scale sublight warp systems to defeat the disadvantages of Newtonian motion. As white-hot plasma left the tight area of influence of the strikecrafts’ warp systems, it trailed behind their engines creating kilometers-long streaks.
“Professor,” Lieren asked Xannissa as the Elestan commander stood at her station in front of a set of lumigraphic ship schematics and vital statistics. Engineering was alive with drones and personnel moving in and out of the primary control center forward of the huge hyperwarp drive, half of the main omnium reservoirs and convertors, and the reaction chambers for the nine fusion engines and the main omnium direct energy convertors, or ODECs. “Is it possible to use warp during combat?”
“Of course,” Xannissa said, glancing from figure to figure. Unlike the battle happening beyond the ship, regulating omnium-fueled, antimatter-catalyzed reactors and nuclear drives was very real. She maintained extra vigilance over her crew composed of many junior officers.
“What I mean is,” Lieren said, sounding intimidated, “why can’t we use the warp system to maneuver?”
“I can’t wait to teach you advanced propulsion,” Xannissa said, smiling. She looked at her student and said “It’s a design problem. It’s difficult to design a warp system with a low minimum speed and a high max speed. One is chosen over the other, and for capital ships, they choose high speed. Of course, going too fast without hyperplanar travel creates too much spatial shear and drive strain, so drives like this one,” Xannissa said while she pointed to a wall several meters away from them that formed the outer edge of the drive, “are always called hyperwarp drives because they are capable of going hyperspatial. Tiny ships like strikecraft tend to use warp drives which are confined to real space.”
“I see,” Lieren said as she processed the information.
“I need to stop myself before I get carried away,” Xannissa said before laughing. Her gaze went straight through the lumigraphs in front of her.
“One more question, if you don’t mind.”
“What is that?”
“What exactly is blue space?”
“Oh, that?” Xannissa wanted to laugh, but she decided it was better not to. “Blue space means the space around planets, like orbital battles and such. Of course, this is contrary to black space which are engagements that span entire star systems or volumes of interstellar space. The dynamics of battle are a little different between the two. Oh, hold on,” she said, leaving her station and marching toward two of her staff.
“This is Admiral Aesho,” the admiral said to the attacking fleet. “Focus you fire on the defending flagship.”
“Belay that order,” Atara said. She had already directed the Hallyon to hunt a cruiser that was eating their assault frigates. Naret heard her every command and relayed them to the other bridge officers. On their OPEL screen, the white glows of the cruiser’s engines flickered and ceased.
“Enemy flagship detected bearing starboard oh-two-five, plus one-two,” a bridge officer said. “Distance forty kilometers.”
“That’s not far,” Atara said. “It’s often more effective to eliminate the enemy’s smaller ships which tend to be built for damage. The larger ones, like this vessel, are designed for defense.” She turned to Naret and asked, “I’ll leave it up to you. Do we engage their flagship or continue hunting small game?” Naret, who had her arms crossed, slowly dropped them to her sides—her fingers slipping off her arms. She placed her hands on her laminated hips and hung her head in an attempt to look like she was contemplating her decision.
“Let’s attack the flagship,” she said.
“Are you sure?” Atara asked.
“Then give the order.” Naret instructed the officers to engage the flagship, and the Hallyon pointed its dorsal-mounted weaponry toward one glimmering sliver among many that shined against the darkness. A barrage of missiles left the dorsal and ventral surfaces of the ship, lumionically-contained plasma beams arced across the battlespace, and heavy, solid metallic rounds darted from the main turret-mounted cannons. As the two ships came closer together, the solid rounds were replaced by heavy plasma bolts. Fighters, bombers, and interceptors swarmed around the two ships like clouds of insects. Corvettes, frigates, and destroyers rushed to the aid of the two flagships, creating a growing brawl that consumed that volume of Akos III’s low orbit.
Sirens and warnings sounded and flashed as the two ships beat each other down. Unfortunately for the attacking fleet, periodic surface-to-orbit strikes had taken their toll, limiting their endurance against the defenders. The flagship, also a Tanden-class and a sister ship to the Hallyon, had the advantage, and it was only a matter of time before the Hallyon’s lumionics failed, exposing the SIRAC beneath. REMASS could keep the armor repaired for a time, but the combined firepower of the defenders was too great. Atara’s time was up, but so was Aesho’s.
“Attention all ships,” Aesho said. “Retreat. Retreat to Lanan and regroup.” The Yeran began plotting a warp course back to Lanan when Atara stepped behind her.
“Belay that order, lieutenant,” Atara commanded the Yeran as a grin shot across her face.
“What are you doing, Captain?” Naret said with concern. It was just a simulation, but the emotions were consuming her.
“Captain, we’re not moving,” Aesho growled.
“The enemy wants us dead,” Atara told her. “The Hallyon will serve as a distraction to save the fleet.”
“Did Semarah teach you nothing?” Aesho barked.
“You have no right to talk to me about Semarah,” Atara snapped. She terminated the transmission and watched as the Hallyon succumbed to the hail of virtual fire. Fiori, who had been watching Atara from over her right shoulder, grabbed the railing with her hands and rotated her body, placing her feet on the bridge floor. The orange figure walked toward Atara and said “Looks like you’re dead, captain.”
“We’re all dead,” Atara echoed.