“Corporal Zara,” Kyora called in the wake of Fiori’s sudden, unexplained failure and subsequent, spontaneous restoration. The modest-chested, white-haired Elestan approached the blonde Terran. As always, Virn was accompanying the phantom. Krystal had followed the pair of Aurora officers instinctively after leaving the bridge. “I understand you are not a formal member of the service.” Krystal nodded. Feeling somewhat uncomfortable, she held one arm over her chest gripping her other arm.
Kyora approached Krystal until they were face-to-face, and in a low voice she continued, “I have been instructed to separate you from the rest of the units. There are private quarters reserved for potential VIPs—”
“Are you offering me one?” Krystal asked quickly, leaving Kyora a little surprised.
“I suppose I am. Virn and I will show you.”
Together, they walked to the lifts, taking one to reach the private quarters near the officers’ dwellings. Kyora noticed on the way that a lumigraph user interface was projected on Krystal’s right forearm, but she didn’t say anything until they stepped into the room.
“Here we are,” said Virn, “your home away from home. It’s about as spacious as a bunk room, but you’re not sharing with seven other women.” Krystal blushed. She had lived in a bunk environment for the past several years and was no longer accustomed to this type of special treatment.
“Thank you,” she told them, bowing her head.
Kyora asked, “Do you have an NI for your Accellus?”
“For Accellus Three. Not Four.”
“All you’ll need is a quick swap,” said Kyora. “It’s a quick procedure far simpler than having your first NI implanted.” Krystal took a step back, recalling the fear she had for her Accellus 3 NI implantation. “I’ll have you scheduled for one tomorrow. The sooner, the better.”
“U-understood,” said Krystal with hesitation.
Virn said, “If you need anything at all, let us know. We will be starting Accellus Four training courses for the Acting Officers soon. Feel free to join us.” And with that, the two Aurora officers left Krystal alone in her spacious quarters.
Lieren stepped off of the gravilift and into the buzzing hive that was the Kelsor’s engineering department. Technicians moved from one end of the giant space to another, many standing at consoles or kneeling before service hatches. Small spheroid drones hovered above each deck before flying off into ducts opening to tight service corridors. Flanking both sides of the department were the tops of the ship’s twin spherical hyperwarp drive cores. Between them and towering over the rest of engineering was the master synergistic drive regulator module—referred to simply as the mediator.
The Larissian cadet, still dressed in her cadet uniform, stood her ground after leaving the lift, giving her time to scan the surroundings but forcing others to flow about her. In the middle of this clean, industrial expanse was a large table upon which a collection of 2D and 3D lumigraphs were being dissected by a committee of senior engineering staff. At their center was their gifted leader—and the one Lieren was looking for: Xannissa Cetalo. The engineering chief had her back to the cadet as she approached, leaning on the table, drowning herself in run logs and event data.
Xannissa bounced up from the table and spun around, eager to see another report from a crew member until she realized it was her student who called her.
“Lieren!” Xannissa left the table and closed the few steps distance. “You came all the way here to talk to me? What do you need?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, professor, but I just wanted to remind you that you’re my mentor in the AOTP.”
“I’m your… what?”
“I’m in the Active Officers Training Program and you’re my mentor.” Xannissa stared at Lieren for a moment. It was as if the chief engineer were hearing this for the first time—at least the part about being a mentor.
“I need to get you set up, then,” Xannissa said quickly. “Why didn’t you come to me sooner?”
Lieren responded, “I assumed you knew.”
“For your first lesson,” said Xannissa amid her frantic scrolling through freshly-summoned lumigraphs, “never assume anything.”
“You’ll need training in propulsion systems, omnimology—I’ll be teaching both of those—, information systems, weapon systems operation, bridge operations, and combat tactics. This is in addition to your regular courses. I’ll find your instructors for you and tell you where they are and when they meet.”
“Thank you so much, professor,” said the young cadet.
“No problem. Anything for my students. Instruction will probably begin after we hit Mirida. Oh! There’s something else you need to do. We need medical to give you an NI.”
“A neural interface?”
“Exactly. And then the ceremony. Dammit! Why didn’t they tell me before we left? They always hold a special ceremony for the first time a trainee receives her own Accellus armor. Since you’re in AOTP, you get yours now.”
Lieren said, “This is exciting!”
“They usually have it before we leave dock, but we’re in a bit of a hurry. Anyway, combat training will teach you how to use your Accellus suit. It’ll take time to learn how to interface with it.”
“Because it’s under direct mental control?”
“Of course, but it’s like learning to walk. Once you learn, you don’t have to think.”
“I see,” said Lieren. “Does the implantation hurt at all?”
“No. It’s easy. I’ll arrange it for after Mirida. Doctor Iveti will probably be doing them all day.”
“The chief medical officer. She’ll take care of you.” Xannissa then noticed the time. “It’s getting late. The captain’s arranged for another meeting soon. In the meantime, try to find the other cadets. Make some friends.” The Elestan was walking toward the lifts.
“I will. Thanks again, professor!”
“Stop calling me professor!” Xannissa shouted back to her. “This isn’t a classroom. Just call me Xann!”
The Kelsor’s triumvirate entered the full briefing room as they had done several hours ago before the battlecruiser left the Lanan Orbital Dockyards. They took their seats at the flared end of the table. Krystal and Aesho were the only ones from before who were now absent.
“I hope most of you have settled in,” said Atara. Fiori sat in the chair on the other end of the table from Atara—her legs crossed and her elbow resting on the table’s surface supporting her head. Atara gestured to Fiori, saying, “As you can see, Fiori is back with us.” Fiori smiled, hiding her embarrassment—something she was in fact capable of feeling.
Atara continued, “We are almost through our first day underway, and we are just a few hours out from Mirida. We need to decide who is going down there to retrieve Doctor Souq and our plan of action for doing so. I’ll open the floor for our away team leader, Commander Sesh.”
“Thank you, Captain,” said Sesh as she nodded toward the captain. “When we arrive at Mirida, we are taking an ALAT to retrieve Souq and immediately departing the system. I’ll secure us a good pilot.”
“To my surprise, my sister is aboard this ship,” Xannissa interjected. “I’ll admit she’s a good pilot, albeit a bit reckless, but—“
“We have our pilot,” said Sesh. “The ALAT holds six, so three more can go down there. Kyora and Virn, I would like you to join me.”
Virn nodded while Kyora remained motionless.
“Now for the last one—”
“How about Corporal Zara?” asked Virn. “Since they worked together on the station, and she rescued him from the attack.”
Sesh said, “That’s reasonable. That’s our away team, putting the cart before the horse a bit. We need to decide how best to retrieve him.”
“Easy,” said Xannissa. “Pull up to the hotel, grab him, and leave.”
Sesh looked at Xannissa and said, “No, not that simple. We’re in foreign territory.”
“Retrieving a Federation citizen.”
“Doesn’t matter. We cannot legally pluck him from the surface so long as he is outside the embassy.”
Atara asked, “Have we been able to contact him?”
“I have tried,” said Ethis, “but the embassy says he never answers.”
“Can we ask the local police to deliver him to the embassy?” asked Atara.
“You’re asking for a miracle,” said Kyora. “Mirida’s police don’t serve the people. They serve the syndicates.”
“Syndicates?” asked Xannissa.
Kyora sighed and said, “It’s the natural consequence of a government that reduces regulations in order to foster rapid growth and corruption. It’s a cancer, and it’s metastasized to the highest levels of government—its tendrils penetrating deep into the fabric of society.”
“Since you’re so knowledgable on Mirida,” said Sesh, “why not join in on our conversation? Enlighten us a little, since we never did have that meeting.”
“Fine,” Kyora said flatly. “In a word, Mirida is a shit-hole. A sparkling, glittering shit-hole. The exterior appearance is of a high-class world ripe with opportunity. Lift that away and underneath you will find that it is rotten to the core. The syndicates run everything. And then there’s the occult filth of the Understory.”
Sesh asked, “What, then, are the potential complications of our retrieval of Doctor Souq?”
“For one,” said Kyora, “so long as he’s outside the embassy, the syndicates already have him.” She paused, then asked, “Mind if I tell you a story?”
“Go ahead,” said Sesh. “I like stories.”
“Kyora, don’t,” Virn thought over her Q-comms link.
Kyora told her, “Don’t stop me. It’s about damn time I started confronting my past.” Continuing with Sesh she said, “I was born on Mirida. Unlike most, if not all of you, I was born as a clone. I had no parents. My only ‘parent’ was a mercenary corporation called Unit. At barely three years old, our nursery was raided, and me and my batch-mates—as they called them—were taken hostage by elsheem filth. My first memories,” she said as her voice cracked, “were of being beaten by them. It took Unit a whole year to finally rescue their investments, though in the back of my mind I’m convinced they let that happen to toughen us up. All of my batch-mates looked just as I did, and though our caretakers called us by number, once we realized the existence of names, we started naming each other. Kyora was a name we learned from history studies.”
“They taught you history?” Sesh asked.
“They taught us a lot of things at a faster rate than average children. Unit didn’t just breed us to kill. They made us think. To them, an intelligent killing machine is far deadlier than a stupid one.
“Unit used a mandatory service partnership system. I was paired with my friend Deminesse. After a while, we became inseparable, and we even tried to match each other identically in both looks and mannerisms so we couldn’t be told apart. We rose through the ranks of Unit until we found ourselves in the company’s inner circle. Unfortunately, it became difficult for Deminesse to see eye-to-eye with anyone, including me. She staged a successful coup against the corporate leaders, and that’s when I saw my chance to escape. Now they call themselves Domina, and I aided their enemies for a time, but they are now the strongest syndicate on the planet. Their reach extends to the edges of Tribesson space, possibly even beyond. What I implore you to do is expect the worst.”
“I think that’s a very convincing testimony,” said Atara. Looking to Sesh, she said, “Knowing this, I still think its best to send one ALAT with only you five.”
“Agreed,” Sesh replied. “Lieutenant Commander Ethis, can you try to contact the embassy again and see if they are able to retrieve Doctor Souq before we reach Mirida?”
“I will try,” said Ethis.
“If the Miridanian Police can’t help us,” Sesh continued, “we will travel to the hotel ourselves.”
“Well, then,” said Xannissa. “Seems we’ve come full circle.”
Sesh ignored the smiling Xannissa and said, “Commander Kodi, can you release Cylenna Cetalo to pilot our ALAT?”
“Already planned to,” said the strike officer.
Sesh said, “We depart for the surface in two hours. Captain, I give you the floor.”
“I think that concludes this meeting,” said Atara. “You are dismissed.” The senior officers of the Kelsor rose from their chairs and walked out of the room. Atara saw that Xannissa and Sesh leave before her, ensuring she was the last one out. Before she stepped through the door, Fiori, who had a moment earlier been seated at the far end of the room, put her hand on Atara’s shoulder from behind.
The captain turned around to face a grave archon who said, “I need to speak with you alone. I will meet you in your quarters.”