“Are you aware of the galactopolitical entity known as the Society?” Fiori asked the captain as they stood in the latter’s quarters.
“The machine-worshipping cultists?” Xannissa responded from the open door. She entered the room, allowing the door to close behind her.
Atara turned around and said, “What are you doing here?”
“Fiori told me to meet her in our quarters.”
“I did not think it best to meet with both of you separately,” Fiori explained, “considering your service partnership, let alone your resilient bond.”
“I may have heard Sesh mention the Society at one time,” said Atara, returning to the subject, “but all I can remember is basically what Xannissa said—a state of synthetics.”
“I was under the impression that it was all a myth,” said Xannissa.
“Indeed, most information regarding the Society has been fabricated by widespread ignorance and fear among the greater populace,” stated Fiori, “but its existence is fact.”
Atara said, “Surely you didn’t call us together to tell us that.”
“No, I did not. I came to explain that my interruption today was no minor accident.”
“I’m guessing it wasn’t an accident at all,” said Xannissa, “and that the Society is somehow involved?”
After a pause, Atara asked, “Can you elaborate?”
“Occasionally,” said Fiori, “my core operators hire outside experts to assist with key infrastructure upgrades. In order to preserve the enigma surrounding my physical core and to protect those involved, these temporary workers have their memories altered such that they remember nothing about their work while filling the resulting void with meaning.
“Xannissa,” Fiori continued, “you are one such individual.”
“Me?” Xannissa asked, startled.
“You helped to design and implement a hyperwarp-capable ejection system for my personality module—the heart, if you will, of who I am.”
“I… don’t believe it,” Xannissa said calmly despite being abundantly surprised.
“When?” Atara asked.
“At that time,” said Fiori, “you had been the rank of captain for eighteen years. Xannissa returned to your ship three years later.” She looked to Xannissa and said, “You will recall serving as an instructor at Tikon Academy.”
“I do,” said Xannissa. “I assume none of those memories were real?”
“Affirmative,” said Fiori, “although they were fabricated based on a template obtained from a donor.”
“Tikon Academy…” Xannissa whispered. She turned to Atara and said, “The experiences I had there are why I urged you to take up instruction at Lanan. Did you know anything about this?”
“I’m in as much disbelief as you are,” Atara told her.
“Prior to the beginning of your time serving me,” Fiori reassured her, “you chose the memories that would best fill the three-year gap. As of this moment, you are the only one among your peers who has been granted this awareness.”
“Is it not dangerous to the Federation if I know this?” Xannissa asked.
“I have made you aware because of a danger to the Federation,” Fiori stated. “Upon the successful completion of your current mission and your safe return to Lanan, the suppressed memories you created while in my service will be restored.”
“What about my current memories?”
“They are as important to you as any other memory and you will remain in possession of both.”
“Well, so much for Sanctity of the Mind.”
“So, is this ejection system what caused your interruption?” Atara asked.
“Use of the system will cause the symptoms that you witnessed during my interruption. Indeed, the system was deployed at that time, and my core entered deep space less than a lightyear away.
“The circumstances of the deployment of the ejection system are still under investigation. While my core drifted in deep space, my… mind… was accessed in an unusual way by an unidentified vessel. Both the software and the vessel contained subtle signatures of Society origin. Before the vessel left and I was rescued by Federation craft, I could feel another ‘self’ for a brief instant. My scenario is that my core was infiltrated to eject my personality module into space where it could be copied by agents of the Society.”
“For what reason?” Atara asked.
“An archonoid possessing identical software signatures to my own could be produced to override my own functionality within the Federation. The worst-case scenario is that this weakens me as a prelude to a secret attack by the Society.”
“Have you discussed this with High Command?”
“Absolutely. However, they will seek to hide this incident from the public eye. Unfortunately, this is not the only reason why I wished to speak to you. I have personally scanned your quarters and the surroundings using the Kelsor’s drones, and I detected and suppressed two listening devices. What I am about to tell you is information beyond classified.
“My bout of unconsciousness had an unintended consequence. For decades, my cognizance was circumvented with the use of illegal software of Federation Military design. When I was subdued, the software manipulating my cognizance was inadvertently overwritten. Atara and Xannissa, how would you define your relationship with Admiral Aesho?”
“Abrasive, as always,” Xannissa said.
“She seems more riled up lately,” Atara stated. “It might be related to this ecksivar we’re after.”
“I will advise you to treat Admiral Aesho with extreme caution,” Fiori explained. “She may be involved with a circle within the Admiralty that is seeking to undermine the Federation’s core values for personal gain. With the removal of that software, the accumulated experiences of decades have become clearer, and all of the questionable activities that I have been blind to all stems from ecksivar.
“Ecksivar was discovered three centuries ago. Immediately identified as unique, it became an object coveted by the upper echelon of the Federation’s omnimology community. It was lost to piracy shortly after its discovery until it was rediscovered as an heirloom of the ruling family of Semarah.
“The Semarahn Border Raids, key to igniting the Semarahn Incursion, were allowed to occur by willful Military inaction. Using the Raids as a casus belli, Fifth Fleet Admiral Ula Musani crafted Operation Crimson Aegis as a cover for the retrieval of ecksivar from the palace of King Belar Kalashik. Neither the government nor the public were ever given any reason to believe that the Semarahn Incursion was merely a—”
“Slow down,” Atara interrupted. She clasped one hand loosely over her mouth while Xannissa’s eyes widened.
“Crimson Aegis,” Atara said, dropping both arms to her sides, “was just a cover op?” Her voice deepened, a sign that anger was welling up inside of her. “They allowed Federation citizens to die so that we would have a reason to invade Semarah?”
“Sadly,” Fiori said, “that is correct. Federation Navy patrols on the Semarahn border were reduced seven months prior to the series of deadly raids that are infamous for sparking the conflict.”
“Was Musani responsible for this?” Xannissa asked.
“Ultimately, yes,” Fiori said, “but the idea originated from and was arranged by Admiral Aesho.”
Atara’s hands had slowly curled themselves into fists, and her mandible pushed against her maxilla with tectonic force. She took in a deep breath, relaxing as she exhaled.
“To hear of this scandal is one thing,” said Atara, her voice shaking, “but to know that I and my crew are perpetuating it is absolutely inadmissible.”
“I sympathize with you,” said Fiori, “but I urge you to continue the mission; for the sake of the Federation and Civilized Space.”
“You reveal to us that Aesho is a scourge,” said Atara, “a slime associated with a terrible blight of corruption that is destroying the honor of our leadership, yet you insist I forget everything you just told me and continue to serve a woman who I have just lost all confidence in!”
“I never asked you to forget,” Fiori said. “I informed you so that you would be aware of the threat Admiral Aesho and her co-conspirators pose to the Federation. I advise you because I trust you.”
“I… I…” Atara’s mind was clouded.
Xannissa approached her friend and, consoling her, said, “Look at it this way. We are armed with this knowledge now. We could have undertaken this entire mission without it, but ignorance isn’t always bliss.”
Atara, inspired by Xannissa’s words, straightened herself and stuck out her chest. “I will continue to fulfill my duties as a captain of the Federation starship Kelsor.”
“Thank you for trusting me,” said Fiori. The benevolent, orange, conscious construct vanished, leaving Atara and Xannissa alone in their quarters. Atara stood for a few seconds, and then she turned and placed both of her hands on the wall beside her. She arched her back somewhat and tilted her head down. Feeling the rage accumulating within her, she slammed both fists against the wall and cursed the name of her unrighteous superior before collapsing to the ground. This was the true Aesho that Atara had remained ignorant of for far too long. Xannissa knelt beside the captain as Atara’s eyes welled with tears.