07 – Onward

“Good afternoon, Doctor Souq. Please take a seat.” The woman, a Yeran with almost pinkish skin and short, orange hair, reclined in her seat with her legs crossed. Her front side was illuminated by bluish light from a one-way lumigraph that Souq could not see as he strode across the dark floor in the small, comfortable room lit by the last rays of orange sunlight from Mirida’s star. Beyond the windows, kilometers-tall towers climbed into the sky. These colossal monuments to modern decadence stood erect upon the ruins of ancient imperial might from an era long gone—yet not forgotten. Profit, vice, and pleasure were the most common thoughts associated with Mirida in this age.

     Akkain Technologies mandated Dr. Souq seek professional psychological treatment after the station attack. The same company compensated him for his hotel stay in the heart of Mirida’s capitol near the Federation embassy. Despite his status as a Federation citizen, Souq was prevented from staying within the embassy at the Federation government’s expense.

     Dr. Souq, clothed in business casual, took his seat across from the woman who looked like an inferno in the evening light. His now shaggy beard had gone unshaven for the last two weeks, and the bags under his eyes betrayed his inability to attain a good night’s sleep.

     “Let me see where we left off,” she said, scrolling through the transcript. “Ah ha. The last thing we talked about was your wife’s passing, and you said you had a daughter. How old is she?” The woman gave Souq an inquisitive glance. Perhaps most people on Mirida were like that, Souq wondered.

     “She should be twenty now,” Souq told her.

     “When did you last see her?”

     “I, uh… it’s been a long time.” Souq paused for a moment. “When Lira died, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I retreated into my work.”

     “Did your daughter stay by your side?”

     “I…” Souq paused again. Days of the psychologist’s interrogation was breaking him down. She stared at him, waiting for a line that her software could record. “I sent her away.”

     “Why did you do that?”

     “I don’t know, damn it!” Dr. Souq shouted at her. He shot up from the seat and paced around the room, passing from the shadow into the orange light and standing at the window looking across to the towers decorated with flashy, colorful lumigraphs. The female psychologist appeared unfazed, swiveling her chair to track Souq across the room. “I just wanted to see her succeed.”

     “I’m not convinced,” the woman told him. Souq scratched his bushy facial hair. After dropping his arm, he closed his eyes and sighed.

     “Maybe Lieren reminded me too much of her.”

     “You couldn’t accept your wife’s death, so you sent away the product of your love.”

     “Something like that.” Souq looked down at his feet, full of shame. The psychologist clawed open old wounds without treating the new. Dr. Souq’s patience was nearly spent.

     “Please continue.”

     “You know,” Souq told her, “I’m kind of getting tired of this psycho mind games bullshit.” The psychologist said nothing. She had heard similar sentiments countless times before. Her transcript grew at Souq’s every word. All she had to do was listen and spur the conversation.

     “How do these sessions make you feel?”

     “See? That kind of bullshit,” he told her, sticking his arm out toward her as if showing off an example. He walked back to his seat and sat on the very edge, his elbows resting on his knees and his hands clasped together. “Have you ever lost everything?” The psychologist refused to answer. Souq hung his head, chuckled quietly to himself, and then looked her dead in the eyes.

     “I have,” he told her in a whisper. “Forty-five. That’s how many brilliant minds I had working for me in my lab that day. None of them survived when those raiders came.” Souq’s voice rose as he spoke. “A couple were older than me. A few were as old as my daughter! My lab was the only one they attacked!” He was shouting now. “I’m just a man of science! These people were my friends, colleagues, my children! They took everything from me!” Tears streamed down the scientist’s face. “What did I do to deserve this?! If there really is a divine power, why does he delight in my suffering?!” His shouts became wails, and he covered his face in his hands. The psychologist leaned back in her chair, bringing her hand to her face as she watched him collapse into a fit of emotion.

     “I want my daughter!” he cried toward the ceiling.

     Atara and Xannissa sat alone inside the quiet gravidyne rising from Lanan’s atmosphere—now just a blue halo arcing over the horizon. Before them was a dark expanse littered with shining objects of many sizes, like a cloud of metallic dust drifting in the vacuum. However, these lustrous constructs were still many kilometers away, in orbit around the temperate moon.

     Xannissa played with her orivar-banded engagement ring, twisting it around her laminated left ring finger. Atara studied her assignment details one last time before closing it. Upon noticing Xannissa’s perpetual ring twisting, she asked, “You nervous?”

     “Do I look nervous?” Xannissa asked in return, looking at her friend. “I’ll be honest. I’m dying to see Aedan again.”

    “I’m glad he was able to get off those last two days,” Atara said. “He’s a good man, and the only one I could ever imagine you with.”

     “I just feel like I’d be having a late start with him,” Xannissa admitted. “My parents married well before a hundred.”

     “A late start is better than no start.”

     “That’s true. I don’t know why I’m having these thoughts. If I had married him years ago, I wouldn’t have had the experience or maturity I have today.” Xannissa paused and looked down at the ring again, still twisting it round and round slowly. “I guess… this is the first time in my life that I’ve lost my sense of direction.”

     “What do you mean?”

     “I don’t know,” Xannissa told her, still looking at the ring. “It’s hard to explain. I feel happy, but sad at the same time.”

     “I don’t want to accept it,” Atara said, “but I think this chapter of our lives is coming to an end. Maybe that’s why you feel this way.”

     “I think you’re right.” Xannissa let go of the ring and placed her hands on the seat, relaxing her head against the back of the chair and looking at Atara, then out at the bright moon below, visible through the large, clear OPEL panels that darkened the star’s incoming light. Atara stared out for a moment and then back at Xannissa, resting her hand on Xannissa’s leg. The Elestan smiled, then twisted her body and wrapped her hand around Atara’s front side, initiating a hug. Each held the other in her arms. Xannissa’s eyes filled with tears, but her face remained dry as they patted each other on the back.

     “I love you Atara. Never stop being a sister to me.”

     “I would never.” After letting go of each other, Atara asked, “Have you seen the crew roster?”

     “Not yet,” Xannissa admitted, wiping her eyes.

     “I think you should. It might be better than being surprised.”

     “I’d rather be surprised.”

     The shuttle approached the white-hulled battlecruiser floating in open space among a sparse cloud of starships. A Tanden-class battleship off in the distance glimmered in the sunlight—its hull surrounded by heavy scaffolding. Evident from its incomplete form, the ship was currently under construction with industrial-scale REMASS. Formations of strikecraft zipped by, making practice runs from the five-kilometer-long carrier even further away, watching over the other starships like a guardian mother. Streams of white plasma flowed from the strikecraft engines, stretched out behind them by their warp drives. One corvette floated past the GFN Kelsor’s surface leaving behind bright, white fusion engines. A supply ship hugged the Kelsor’s port side away from the incoming shuttle. Large, black letters on the ship’s white surface read CB-53-3930, flanked on one side by an orange Federation Triangle.

     The shuttle eased through the starboard airscreen that blocked the hangar’s internal atmosphere from blowing out into space. The port airscreen formed the opposite wall from floor to ceiling. Once through the airscreen, the shuttle quieted its engines, allowing the Kelsor’s gravitics to guide it onto a landing spot marked by lumigraphs. Those same gravitics moved crates and containers off of cargo haulers (mostly omnium with some prefabricated supplies) and carried strikecraft overhead without relying on gantry cranes or drones.

    “Captain! Commander!” Aesho said as they stepped off of the shuttle. The blonde Terran, along with representatives of the ship’s officers and crew, stood in formals. The officers formed one line and the crew another line on the opposite side, creating a lane for Atara and Xannissa to walk through accompanied by the admiral. They offered the captain and commander their salutes. “Why are you not in formals?” Aesho asked them.

     “Can we skip the formalities?” Atara asked her in the same brusque tone she was given about a week ago when her vacation was interrupted.

     “Not today,” Aesho demanded. Atara and Xannissa stopped in their tracks, recalled their standards which left them naked for a mere moment, and clothed themselves in officer formals. They continued walking with the admiral along the short lane flanked by Accellus users. “That’s better,” she told them.

     The hangar walls and ceiling were bright white in the Federation style, illuminated by lumionics. The featureless floor was a dark gray with markings generated by lumionics, enabling the entire floorspace to be rearranged at will. What was now a landing zone for the shuttle could become a temporary storage area an hour later, or a safe zone after that. Crates moved through the ship’s wide corridors, drifting through the ship’s air due to the Kelsor’s logistic gravitics and surrounded by warnings such as “Gravity-propelled object” or “Variable gravity fields.”

     “What do you think of your officers and crew?” Aesho asked the pair as they walked past one of the last gently-drifting crates moving toward one of the corridors on the way to the cargo bays.

     “I was actually very pleased,” Atara told her. “It’s an all-star crew with a few interesting surprises. I didn’t need to make many changes. You know me too well.”

     “You’re just like your mother, you know that?” Aesho said. The look in her eyes nearly betrayed her mal intent in her choice of subject.

     “You’ve told me before,” Atara stated. This side of the hangar had been vacated save for the three of them. No one was within earshot.

     “Actually,” Aesho continued, “sometimes I forget you’re not her. That’s how close the resemblance is.”

     “I see.”

     “That dark red hair and those green eyes. That same emotional suppression. She made a really fine admiral in her time. With you, it’s like she never died.”

     “That’s enough,” Atara spoke with tension. Her clenched fists hugged her sides.

     “What’s wrong?” Aesho asked. “I can’t talk about my friend?”

     “She may have been your friend,” Atara said, “but she was my mother, and she did pass away. Nothing will ever, ever replace her—not even me.”

     “So be it,” Aesho said, her eyebrows raised. The admiral called the gravilift that ferried them to the Kelsor’s bridge on the dorsal side of the aft section of the two-and-a-half-kilometer long battlecruiser.

     “Do you think it’s a good idea to put AOTP cadets on my ship?” Atara asked Aesho while they rode the lift.

     “I think it’s an excellent idea.”

     “This isn’t a training cruise.”

     “I’m well aware. Decades of peace has made this service soft. I think we could use a few more opportunities that really separate the wheat from the chaff.”

     The gravilift arrived at an antechamber for the bridge. The three of them were greeted first by a large Federation Triangle decorating the wall that separated them from the bridge. Walking around the wall and through the doors, they found themselves in a familiar setting. The Kelsor’s bridge was identical to the Hallyon’s in nearly every way. A Zelnaran with deep blue skin and long black hair stood in the middle of the room with her arms crossed.

     “Sesh!” Atara called out to her, and the Zelnaran spun around. Her neutral expression immediately changed to warm and inviting.

     “Captain!” Sesh said. Sesh opened her arms to hug the captain. “It’s been so long.” They closed their eyes as they embraced.

     “I guess we’ll be hearing that a lot,” Xannissa said behind Atara. Sesh’s eyes opened and looked at the Elestan.

     “Who are you?” Sesh asked Xannissa in jest.

     “Hello to you, too,” Xannissa said. When Atara and Sesh finished, the Zelnaran squeezed Xannissa to her.

     “I missed you two,” Sesh said. Before Sesh released the engineer, Aesho cleared her throat in a manner that could be considered obscene. Sesh stepped away from Xannissa and shouted, “Admiral on the bridge!” All of the bridge officers—every one of them in formals—stood from their stations, turned toward the center of the bridge, and gave their salutes.

     “This is, without a doubt,” Aesho told the three senior officers, “the best personnel complement in the Navy.” She turned to the standing officers and said “At ease,” and they returned to their stations around the bridge’s perimeter. Atara noticed Naret and her black bobbed hair climb into the conning station. “Would you not agree, Atara?”

     “I agree one-hundred-percent,” Atara told her.

     “Permission to transfer command of the Greater Federation Navy vessel Kelsor over to the captain,” Sesh asked the admiral.

     “Granted, but make it quick,” Aesho told her.

     “I, Commander Yora Sesh, hereby transfer command of the battlecruiser Kelsor to Captain Atara Korrell, relieving myself of the position of commanding officer.”

     “I, Captain Atara Korrell, assume the position of commanding officer of the starship Kelsor and grant Commander Yora Sesh the position of executive officer.” The two smiled wide and shook hands. Initiated by Xannissa, the officers aboard the bridge and even the personnel below them in operations clapped at this brief ceremonial exchange of command. Some even cheered.

     “Alright, it’s time to go,” Aesho told them. “I want this ship spaceborne by the end of the day, and you still need to give your first official briefing. I’ve assembled most of the Kelsor’s senior officers already across the aft hall, along with a few other key individuals.”

     Atara, Xannissa, and Sesh followed Aesho out of the bridge, but not before Atara left bridge authority with Naret who gladly accepted. As Aesho said, the briefing room was already occupied.

     “I present to you the Kelsor’s command triumvirate,” Aesho told those already gathered in the room as she directed them to look at Atara, Xannissa, and Sesh who took seats at the flared end of the delta-shaped table. Atara sat in the middle, Xannissa on her right, and Sesh on her left. Aesho took her seat at the pointed end on the far side. The briefing room was long, dim, and had four doors open to corridors that ran on either side. Darkened OPEL panels allowed those seated within to see the corridors beyond, but those standing or walking without would see plain walls. Lumigraphs illuminated the wall behind Atara, and the wall behind Aesho was adorned with the ubiquitous Federation Triangle.

     “I am Captain Atara Korrell, commanding officer of the Kelsor.”

     “Commander Xannissa Cetalo, engineering chief.”

     “Commander Yora Sesh, the Kelsor’s executive officer.”

     “Colonel Kyora Teseri,” said an Elestan with short, messy, white hair above and around her face, beautiful despite being a warrior. She spoke with confidence. “Freshly transferred from the Assault Force to the Auroras. Security chief and commander of the Kelsor’s Aurora complement.”

     “Lieutenant Colonel Virn Lorralis,” an Exan with long black hair spoke next. Her voice was softer. “Also transferred from the Assault Force to the Auroras. I am Kyora’s service partner and her second-in-command.”

     “Commander Silva Kodi,” said another Exan. Her dark hair, tied in a looped ponytail, was tinged green. “Commander of the Kelsor’s strike wing.”

     “Lieutenant Commander Ethis Kasel,” said an Elestan with long, dark blue hair and cool gray skin darker than Xannissa’s. Her accent was different from the rest and had a Republic ring to it. “Communications officer.”

     “Commander Miry Iveti, medical doctor,” a Yeran said in a tone laced with arrogance. Her skin was blood red and her bobbed hair like golden rust. “Ship’s chief medical officer.”

     “Lieutenant Commander Sayn Namara.” Another Elestan, her ponytailed hair black as Sesh’s. “Chief science officer.”

     “Corporal Krystal Zara, Aurora,” said a blonde Terran with a ponytail seated at the end near Aesho.

     “Did you say ‘corporal?’” Atara asked her with confusion.

     “All will be revealed in time,” Aesho said. She was leaning back in her chair now. “Please proceed.”

     “Aye, admiral.” Atara remained seated. “Fiori,” Atara called, and the orange lumigraph female appeared within the room as she always did, standing behind Atara.

     “Greetings, Captain,” she told Atara as she bowed. Atara swiveled her chair to see the archon.

     “Fiori, can you give us the rundown on the events leading up to this point?”

     “Certainly,” Fiori nodded. “Monday, oh-five-fifteen, oh-eight-hundred hours, twelve minutes. Black, frigate-sized vessels of Alliance design attacked and invaded the Akkain Technologies omnium research station in coreward Tribesson.” The images on the lumigraph behind Atara changed as Fiori spoke. “These attackers decimated the laboratory of omnium scientist Doctor Quen Souq and stole the only known sample of the omnium variety known as ecksivar, or black omnium.”

     “What is this… ‘ecksivar’?” Dr. Namara interrupted Fiori.

     “Ecksivar is a novel variety of omnium with special attributes that cannot be disclosed at this time.”

     “I am an omnimologist,” Namara explained. “I would like to know.”

     “Now is not the proper time,” Fiori told her. “The nature and significance of ecksivar will be the topic of future briefings.” Continuing on, Fiori said, “The attackers have since been identified as belonging to the Elsheem State. The two frigate-sized vessels are children of a much larger battleship called the Voulgenathi, named after subterranean savages from Avenathi myth. Intelligence suggests that the Voulgenathi is on course for Avenath, the capitol of the Elsheem State. The battlecruiser Kelsor, with its superior speed, must intercept the Voulgenathi before it reaches Elsheem space.

     “Shortly after the attack, Doctor Souq was transferred to Mirida to undergo psychiatric evaluation and treatment. Unfortunately, his mental state continues to decline. The professionals issuing his treatment say that being reunited with his daughter is his best hope for recovery. His daughter, Lieren Souq, a cadet in the Acting Officer Training Program, is aboard this ship. The first task for the Kelsor will be to retrieve Doctor Souq from Mirida. Once this has been completed, I will be at liberty to discuss ecksivar.”

     “May I have permission to speak?” Kyora asked.

     “You may speak,” Atara told her.

     “Virn, myself, and Commander Sesh were there that day on the station,” Kyora said. “I haven’t seen a cold-blooded slaughter like that in a very long time. I’m not a scientist, and I don’t understand what exactly ecksivar is, but whatever it is, it’s important enough for these beasts to murder innocent scientists over. These are the kind of, things, we’re dealing with. I also want to add one more thing. Mirida isn’t a place you go to for a family vacation. We all need to be on our guard when we go there, especially the team that’s retrieving Doctor Souq.”

     “How much do you know about Mirida?” Atara asked the phantom.

     “A thing or two.”

     “I would like you and your partner Lorralis to meet with the triumvirate soon after this briefing is over. I’d like to know all I can about Mirida from someone who’s been there.”

     “Understood,” Kyora said reluctantly.

     “At this moment,” Fiori said, “little is known about the Voulgenathi’s combat capabilities; howev—.” Fiori’s image froze in the middle of her speech almost like she was stopped in time. At a loss for words, seeing a sight they thought they would never see, the senior officers stood up from their seats and stared at the frozen orange female.

     “What in the hell is going on with Fiori?” Aesho asked, raising her voice. Xannissa, who was closest to the archon’s image, waved her hand in front of the synthetic intelligence’s face.

     “Captain,” Naret called from the bridge via lumigraph, “they’re reporting a strange error in here dealing with the adjunct. Some kind of core disconnect?” Someone shouted on the bridge, and Naret echoed what they said, “Total network failure.”

     “I’m on my way,” Atara said. Already standing, she announced, “This briefing is over,” and she left the room and walked back to the bridge. Seconds after she arrived, a new image of Fiori appeared. This time, her arms were at her sides and she was standing completely straight with her eyes staring forward. Aesho and the other senior officers from the briefing room weren’t too far behind Atara. Scrambling was heard from operations below the bridge and even from the bridge officers themselves.

     “Report!” Atara shouted.

     “Running adjunct diagnostics now, captain,” said a bridge officer. Another image of Fiori appeared in another part of the bridge in the same pose.

     “Can someone please tell me what the fuck is going on?” the admiral cried.

     “Admiral, with all due respect, this is my bridge,” Atara told her plainly. “I’m in command of this starship.”

     “Another statement like that and I’ll see you court-martialed for insubordination.” The entire bridged stopped at the threat Aesho gave. Looking around the bridge, Aesho barked at them. “Don’t just stand there! Contact CORCOM!” Another image of Fiori materialized right next to Aesho and she tried to shove the immaterial lumigraph out of her way, only for her hands to phase right though.

     Ethis walked to her station and, after standing over it for a half minute, said, “CORCOM is reporting a system-wide archon core failure. They’re not giving any details.”

     “That would be a first,” Sesh stated.

     “I’ll see myself to engineering,” Xannissa told the gathered officers, but to Atara and Sesh in particular.

     “Be safe, okay?” Atara told her. “Are you sure you can trust the lifts?”

     “Going to have to. Engineering needs me. How’s that diagnostic?”

     “All green so far,” shouted the bridge officer over the noise of voices. “It’ll take several more minutes to complete.”

     “Well, I’m off,” Xannissa told them before changing her uniform to standard. “Keep me updated.” She departed the bridge for the set of aft gravilifts. The other senior officers decided to do the same with their Accellus 4, and then Sesh realized something.

     “Why didn’t our Accellus give us any warnings about this?”

     “True,” Kyora said, “since they all contain adjunct nodes.” Several more images of Fiori appeared on the bridge.

     “Can we reset the lumigraphics on the bridge before Fiori floods us?” Atara asked.

     “We can,” said a junior officer, “but we’ll lose our screens for a moment.”

     “Do it,” Atara commanded, and the Fioris disappeared along with the screens and interfaces the officers were working on. After a few seconds, the screens reappeared along with a single, new Fiori image.

     “We may need to keep doing that a few more times before we get this mess sorted out,” Sesh said. Atara looked around the bridge, noticing Aesho’s sudden absence.

     “What happened to the admiral?” Atara asked.

     “I saw her depart after Xannissa left,” Virn told them. “Same with most of the other senior officers.”

     “Captain, I detect a Q-comms transmission emanating from the Kelsor,” said an officer.

     “Where is the destination?”

     “Coreward Operations Command.”

     “There’s your admiral,” Sesh whispered to Atara.

     “Let her do what she wants,” Atara said. “I can’t stop her.”

     Atara ordered that a pair of Auroras stand by the door to the Q-comms room. When CORCOM had enough of Aesho’s ranting, the pair escorted the enraged admiral to a shuttle bound for Lanan’s surface. A half hour and four more lumigraphics resets later, the images of Fiori on the bridge disappeared save for one that collapsed to the floor, held her head, and screamed in pain. Who knew an archon synthetic intelligence could even feel pain?

     “Fiori!” Atara cried. She and Sesh rushed to and knelt beside the injured-looking figure. The rest of the bridge officers halted their tasks and watched them huddled together on the floor.

     Fiori, acting so lifelike as to appear out of breath, said, “Atara, Sesh, what has just happened to me cannot be explained with brevity.” The orange figure eased herself onto her feet and lifted her body—the CO and XO following her slowly upward. Still holding her head, the archon asked, “You are not yet underway?”

     “Of course not,” Atara told her.

     “You understand that my adjuncts are sufficient to carry out normal operations?” Fiori said, almost in reproach.

     “Losing you is anything but normal,” Sesh stated. “Delaying our mission seemed to be our best option. Your images kept flooding the bridge anyway.”

     “Fair point,” Fiori said. “However, now is not the time for debate. You must get underway as soon as possible.”

     “Then there will be no more,” Atara told her. “Naret, plot a course to the gate hub in Varrel. Ethis, clear us for departure. I want to be underway in five minutes.

     “Xannissa, are you prepared for immediate transit?”

     “Ready as ever. She’s ready, too.”

     “Who?”

     “The Kelsor, silly.”

     “Dockmaster confirms preparations are complete,” Ethis said. “We are cleared to leave on your command.”

     “Seems like everyone is recovering smoothly,” Sesh stated.

     “Naret,” Atara commanded, “engage the synerdrive, maximum velocity.”

     “Aye, captain.”

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