After exiting the last gateway, and making a minutes-long, low-powered hyperwarp leap across the system, Naret parked the Kelsor high in Mirida’s atmosphere; the ship kept aloft by powerful gravitics. Mirida was the fourth planet from its star, and like any of the other developed worlds in Civilized Space with a planetary population in the hundred-billions and a system population of a few times more, starships and other aerospace vehicles, both system-bound and gateway-bound, flew into and out of Mirida’s atmosphere at a steady rate. The Kelsor’s detection systems identified and tracked every one of the thousands traveling by every minute which, to the human eye, were just distant metallic specks glaring in the sun with brighter fires burning from their fusion engines behind them.
The away team witnessed the horizon before them and the distant sparkles of cruising gravidynes. Sesh and her team sat within one of the Kelsor’s white Lancet ALATs ready to depart while the setting sunlight, filtered orange by the atmosphere, washed across their faces. Cylenna’s Accellus was assimilated with the craft without any tangible connections. Her thoughts commanded her suit, and her suit commanded the ALAT. When she encouraged the vehicle to lift off, it rose from its idle hovering to a few meters into the air of the Kelsor’s hangar. The ALAT drifted toward the hangar’s airscreen and emerged in the relative vacuum of Mirida’s exosphere. Cylenna nosed the craft toward the planet’s urbanized, artificially-lit surface and accelerated.
During the slow and cold atmospheric reentry, Sesh, who was seated in the passenger seat to Cylenna’s right, contacted the Federation embassy one final time.
“He’s not at the embassy,” Sesh said loudly enough for all of them to hear. “Kelsor, can you give us the location of Souq’s hotel?”
“Going to pick him up yourself, then?” Ethis asked her from aboard the bridge in her heavy accent. “He’s staying at the Luminocta, a casino hotel near the top of a multi-use tower about eighty kilometers absolute from your location. I’ve transferred the nav data to your vehicle.”
“Understood. We have it,” Sesh told her.
“Luminocta,” Kyora uttered. “That was one of Domina’s enterprises.”
“We should be fine,” said Sesh. “What does Domina want with us? We should be able to slip in and out.”
Kyora asked, “How much are you willing to bet that this isn’t some kind of trap?”
“I suppose I’m betting my life on it.”
The ALAT soared through the overcast night sky between the kilometers-tall towers in the heart of Mirida’s capitol city of Ae. The misty stratus hanging above the city glowed in the lights of gaudy signs and flashy advertisements—a mixture of reds, pinks, and purples combined with the white of the city’s general illumination. The clouds were like a cold, glowing, red sea, and the towers were mountains standing alone on islands with cars like birds or fish moving in organized lines across the dull night sky or through the mist.
Cylenna piloted the ALAT to the Luminocta—its simple lumigraphic logo drifting slowly across the building’s higher facade. She set the vehicle down within an airscreened hollow containing the hotel’s main entrance. Two men dressed in formal attire waited to help them out of the ALAT when its top was resorbed. After helping the others out of the craft, their assistance was declined by Cylenna. Sesh had ordered her not to leave the vehicle.
The men guided the four women, dressed in their usual standard uniforms, through a large archway serving as the main entrance. Because the arrival area was shielded from the wind and weather, doors lost some of their utility. Plus, open archways were more inviting, maybe even enticing given the venue.
Sesh approached the check-in counter and, to the woman behind it, said, “I’m here to see Doctor Quen Souq.” The lobby was dark and quiet save for a few couples staggering through.
The woman, a Terran, looked at the group of military officers and, feeling intimidated, said, “I’ll page his room for you.”
“No,” said Kyora after quickly approaching the counter. “Just tell us his room number and we’ll take care of the rest.” Kyora’s face betrayed the look of a woman unwilling to play games. The concierge nodded.
“He’s in room twenty-two-forty-five.”
“Thank you very much,” Sesh said with a smile as she turned Kyora away from the counter. Sesh led the group of women through the lobby, past its black leather furniture, lumionic displays, and inebriated guests and turned a corner into a long dim passage. Sounds from the distant end grew louder, and so did the volume of guests walking with them and by them—some glancing at their uniforms and granting the Federation Navy officers a wider berth. As they approached the end, the deeper sounds became rhythmic, ceasing the reverberations that made it a low hum and giving leeway to the electronic beeps and whistles of the main gaming floor of the casino.
At once, the lights and sounds hit them directly. The loud music drowned out the conversations and laugher from thousands of intoxicated patrons; many sitting, many more standing, and in multiple states of dress and undress. These were people from across Tribesson, the Federation, some even as far away as the Republic and the Alliance, and a rare few from the reaches of the Frontier. All of them gambled, drank, or found their infatuation and looked forward to their night between the sheets. Pleasure was in abundance—restraint in short supply.
“Akkain sent him to a place like this?” Sesh said to her team. They heard her through inconspicuous lumionic speakers in their ear canals, reducing their need for helmets.
Kyora said, “Most places on Mirida are like this, especially in Ae. They didn’t have much choice.”
Despite the drug use, the spirits, the gambling, the gluttony, the nudity, and the lust, the venue was surprisingly clean. The walkways were free of standers and guests used them as intended. There were no visible security officers or surveillance devices. There was no violence. The casino was the perfect picture of hedonic euphoria—a mosaic of different bliss. Sesh knew enough about Cylenna from her sister to know that this was not a place to have ever taken her, and the commander was thankful that she ordered the Elestan pilot to stay.
The party wandered out of the casino which was intended as the only passageway from the lobby to the main lifts. After riding the lift to the twentieth floor, the officers walked down the empty, door-lined hallway to the outside of Room 2245. Before Sesh could push the button on the door’s lumionic interface to buzz the room, Kyora caught her hand quickly and silently in her iron grip.
“I don’t like anything about this,” Kyora whispered to Sesh. After fabricating a handgun, the Elestan phantom pressed her hand to the door and, using her Accellus and programming prowess, overrode the door’s control and security, opening it slowly without any audio cues. The others followed her lead, fabricating handguns of their own and standing next to the corridor wall. Though lacking her armor and stealth capability, she and the others stormed into the suite with their weapons drawn. The dark room’s lighting activated when they entered. Flashing lights and colors from another room attracted Kyora’s attention. Turning the corner, she found Dr. Souq slumped over on a couch before a silent lumionic screen playing live programming. Virn and Sesh followed close behind. The Zelnaran commander bent over the unconscious scientist without speaking and assessed his pulse and breathing. Her nod to the others confirmed that he was alive.
Krystal was on to something. Though she said nothing, she could feel a disturbance long before leaving the lifts. This entire time she battled in her mind between maintaining the status quo or protecting her newfound companions. The vaguest way she could think to express her concern was by saying, “We need to leave right now.”
Krystal’s warning came too late.
“Yes, you all need to leave,” came a female voice from just beyond the suite’s bedroom door. “Take your scientist with you. I have what I want.” The voice’s source emerged from a shroud wearing black, unmarked Accellus 3 armor without a helmet. It’s wearer was an Elestan in the spitting image of Kyora.
Kyora, upon hearing Krystal’s warning, fabricated a duplicate handgun in her left hand. The phantom raised and unloaded both weapons the moment she witnessed the intruder’s face. The doppelganger stood unfazed by the brilliant flashes from Kyora’s pistols because their discharges triggered a lumionic prison. Everyone and everything in the suite save the intruder was frozen in a field of lumionic stasis, including the pulses of white-hot plasma from Kyora’s weapons yearning to break free.
The doppelganger laughed before commenting, “How utterly predictable, like a wild beast.” She strode toward Kyora whose expression was locked into one of intense, momentary passion. The intruder passed close enough to the paused bolts that her skin would have fried if not for the protection of her suit. The plasma’s light dissipated every second; its energy radiating away due to thermodynamics.
Touching Kyora’s face with her bodysuit-covered hand, and fully aware her prey could not hear her, the doppelganger said, “Eclipse is dying to see you again.” She smiled as her hand ran down the frozen Kyora’s neck, clavicle and breast.
Kyora awoke in the middle of a large, dark room. She was naked, cold, and alone sitting unbound in a solitary chair. When she came to, she looked into the darkness around her, and realizing she wasn’t restrained, eased herself from the chair. A sudden chill sent shivers down her spine, and she held her cool arms to her warm chest. The phantom took a few steps forward before colliding with a lumionic barrier she had not seen. After beating her fists against it several times, a feminine voice from the shadows yelled to her.
“Enough! I never expected the Federation to turn you into such an animal.”
Kyora backed away from the wall and asked, “Where am I? Where are the others?”
“The others are back on your Kelsor,” said the voice. “You, however, are home at last.”
“Deminesse?” Kyora called out. Anger coated her words. “Is that you?”
“That’s a name I haven’t heard in a very long time. As far as you’re concerned, Deminesse is dead. I am Eclipse.”
A figure stirred from out of the shadows and approached where Kyora was standing. She was a perfect duplicate of the captured phantom. Eclipse wore a black, military-style uniform decorated with Domina’s logo on the sleeves. It was not immediately clear if the uniform possessed REMASS capability.
“You’ve already met, and would have certainly killed my closest associate,” Eclipse said. Harder footsteps than Eclipse’s came from behind Kyora. The armored assailant from earlier stepped into the light. “She is Dusk.”
Kyora looked behind at Dusk who also resembled herself save for long hair, and then back to Eclipse saying, “I’m beginning to see a theme here.”
“Of course you are,” Eclipse said. “You haven’t forgotten, have you? You and I and Dusk are all born from Mirida’s eternal darkness. The difference is that Dusk and I have accepted ourselves for what we are and what we are here to do.”
“We were bred to kill.”
“Nonsense. Anyone can build a machine that kills. We were made to rule. How else could we have so easily overthrown our masters and become the captains of our own destiny?”
“Possibly because you were given the intellect to destroy in creative ways.”
Dusk said, “I warned you she wouldn’t be receptive.”
“I am aware,” Eclipse responded. “I just had hoped, since she is one of us.” She looked into Kyora’s eyes and said, “Guess how many of your batch-mates are still alive.”
“Just us three.”
“That’s right. Just us.”
“If you’re trying to convince me to join you, you’re doing a shit job.”
“I think you have been made unfit by the Federation,” said Eclipse. “A few weeks or months in custody may make you more amenable. I want the person you used to be, not this corrupted beast. Dusk, have your way with her.”
Dusk lowered the barrier enclosing Kyora, and the phantom waited patiently for Dusk to grip her arm. When she did, Kyora grabbed Dusk and threw her to the floor. The phantom placed her foot to Dusk’s neck, threatening to crush it.
“Savage,” Eclipse muttered after watching Kyora’s display. She generated a handgun and pointed it at the phantom. “Get off my hunter.”
“You don’t want to shoot me.”
“You’re right. I don’t. But if you keep acting like an animal, I’ll put you down like one.”
Kyora stepped back from Dusk. She stared angrily at Eclipse before being locked within another one of Dusk’s stasis fields. Lumions held every one of Kyora’s molecules in place through steric hindrance.
Eclipse walked up to the frozen phantom and embraced her. Her eyes glistening with tears, she squeezed herself to Kyora whose body was like solid stone.
“I missed you so much, Kyora. Why can’t we be friends?”
The white ALAT approached the Kelsor’s port airscreen, passed through, and settled down hovering centimeters from the floor. A medical team stood by the landing area. Lieren was there as well, eager to see her father, and she was accompanied by her chaperone Xannissa. Cylenna resorbed the craft’s top, and the medical team rushed to retrieve the unconscious Dr. Souq from the vehicle.
Xannissa asked, “Is this what they have you doing now? Taxi driver?”
“Under different circumstances I would have laughed with you,” admitted Cylenna. “We’re a woman down.”
Lieren left with the medical team. Xannissa asked, “What happened?” By then, a visibly distraught Virn left the ALAT with Sesh and Krystal. Sesh glanced at Xannissa for a second as they walked away. “Kyora?”
“That’s right. Said she disappeared right in front of them. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to park my taxi.” Cylenna elevated the craft while Xannissa was leaning on it, forcing her younger sister to retreat.
“Explain to me what happened,” Atara told Sesh. The two of them met in Atara’s office near the bridge. The captain leaned against the front of her desk with her arms crossed while Sesh stood near the door.
“We found Dr. Souq unconscious in a suite of the Luminocta hotel. Kyora kept expressing her reservations, but I was determined to find him. When we entered the room, we found him on a couch. Then we heard someone say, ‘You need to leave.’ There was a driver discharge and Kyora vanished. Our suits experienced a chronometric desync afterward leading me to believe we were caught in lumionic stasis.”
Atara dropped her head and sighed. This was still the first day of the mission and she had already lost faith in her admiral and lost one of her senior officers. She raised her head and asked, “She has a partnership with Virn, right?”
Sesh said, “Yes,” with a nod.
“And a Q-comms link?”
Sesh affirmed again.
“Has she tried to contact Kyora?”
“She has, but no response.”
“I see. Well, I don’t hold you responsible for what happened. As captain, all responsibility rests with me. If we weren’t pressed for time, I would have you organize a search and rescue, but we must leave now.”
“I’m sorry Atara.”
“No, I’m sorry. Let’s move to the bridge.”