According to Naret’s lumionic displays, the Kelsor would enter Mirida’s upper atmosphere in twelve minutes. Mirida’s star appeared to be directly centered on the battlecruiser’s hyperwarp vector as seen through the bridge’s sweeping OPEL window. Xannissa opened a copy of Naret’s terminal interface for herself and placed it beside a lumigraph showing general system information including synerdrive performance.
“Naret,” Xannissa asked, “how do you like her?”
“The Kelsor,” Atara specified.
“It’s more responsive than I was expecting,” Naret admitted. “I still prefer corvettes and frigates.”
“I imagine you’ve never flown a frigate as fast as this ship,” Xannissa told the lieutenant.
“Never,” Naret said with a laugh. A lumigraph appeared before Atara showing Sesh seated within a Lancet ALAT.
“We’re ready down here, captain,” said the black-haired Zelnaran.
Xannissa asked, “My sister with you?”
“Of course she is.”
“You have another eleven minutes before full stop,” Atara told Sesh.
“We’ll be standing by ‘til then.” Sesh’s lumigraph disappeared.
Kyora crept through the mansion centered with the penthouse botanical garden. She was confident in her shrouding despite being leery of omnimic resonance detectors. Even then, omnimic resonance worked over short ranges of only several meters and returned weak signals. The phantom sneaked through several of the well-decorated rooms hoping to learn something more about her old friend. Peering out of a bedroom window toward the moonlit yard, she spotted several Domina soldiers in armor walking toward the building. That was when she decided on her own escape plan.
Kyora fabricated a remote charge and placed it on the closest wall. Before she left the room, a pair of Domina soldiers burst in. Fabricating her helmet and a pair of plasma-coated SIRAC daggers, she grabbed the first soldier and severed her head from her body. She cut clean across the second’s chest and kicked her body to the floor. As Kyora moved through the mansion, she placed a charge every several meters and lunged at any guards within striking distance. None of them ever saw her coming. Kyora marched back out into the garden leaving behind Domina soldiers littering the hallways and high-yield charges placed in all three levels. She then ascended—her gravitics propelling her toward the ceiling. Crouching on the bottom of one of the OPEL panels, she traced a circle around herself with one of her daggers, slicing through the OPEL panel until she had detached a circular section of the window that fell toward the sky. The piece was influenced by Kyora’s gravitics until she kicked it away and altered her gravitational flux to carry her toward the horizon, leaving the circular slice under the influence of Mirida’s natural gravity. She flew across the top of the building until reaching the edge, then pointed herself downward toward the glowing sea of stratus. Once clear of the structure’s apex, she activated her planted charges. Their simultaneous detonations ravaged the penthouse gardens, blew out most of the OPEL panels, and sent fragments of metal tumbling down the side of the building.
“Throttling down, captain,” Naret said. The lieutenant was watching her screens with diligence. Atara and Xannissa had observed Mirida’s star gradually brighten. Bright specks had resolved themselves from the star as the ship approached. One of them was Mirida, now centered in the bridge’s field of view. “Hyperplane convergence in ten seconds,” Naret added. Mirida’s moon would soon become distinct from the planet.
“Our entry altitude is one-hundred-twenty kilometers,” Xannissa stated with concern.
“It is,” Atara responded.
“It’s only about twenty kilometers shy of Mirida’s turbopause. Isn’t that cutting it a little close?”
“I thought you had more faith in this ship’s engineering.” The two felt the jolt and heard resurgent humming of the Kelsor’s hyperwarp drives as the ship merged its spatial pocket with real space.
“I don’t want to push our luck if we don’t have to.”
“We’ll be fine,” Atara reassured her.
Mirida grew larger until it covered most of the OPEL window. All of the shining specks and dots of aerospace vehicles returned, but their intensity was reduced because of the now set sun. The face of the planet’s urbanized nightside gleamed as those waiting in the two ALATs, two dropships, and four shuttles prepared to depart. On Atara’s orders, all eight vehicles launched from the hangar and accelerated toward the surface.
Kyora halted her descent at a vehicle bay midway down the tower’s exterior. Maintaining her shroud, she slipped through the bay’s airscreen. Once inside, she was faced with an oncoming armored aerocar that she narrowly avoided by falling prone on the floor. The Domina gravidyne hovered over her and out of the airscreen, rapidly accelerating into the night sky. Domina soldiers ran through the bay, scrambling into vehicles and lifting off. Sirens blared and red lights flashed—probably in response to her demolition of the penthouse.
The phantom rolled out of the way of another departing aerocar and used her gravitics to propel her above the commotion. She flew toward an empty parked gravidyne, grabbed the pilot’s seat, and brought herself down upon the upholstery. Now seated, she quickly engaged the car’s REMASS which fabricated the car’s windshield, windows, and ceiling. Changing the operational state on the gravidyne’s ODEC from “Standby” to “Active” would take a little more patience. Doing so required Domina authorization which she did not have, but she knew well enough how to fake. As she usually did when faced with any security lockout, Kyora turned to her Accellus and programming prowess. Seeing no visible ports for a hard connection, Kyora established a wireless connection with the craft knowing that doing so might attract the attention of anyone able to detect short-range electromagnetic emissions that she had to drop her shrouding to release. Soon thereafter, a pair of Domina soldiers, suspicious of the covered craft still sitting idle in the emptying bay, approached the aerocar.
One of the soldiers slammed her closed fist on the opaque exterior of a side OPEL panel and yelled something like “Move your ass!” Kyora would happily oblige in about ten seconds when she had successfully commandeered one of Domina’s cars. Kyora heard the gentle whooshing noise of the continously-running ODEC—a noise akin to a distant metal-on-metal clanging down an echoing corridor—as it become active; increasing the conversion of omnium’s rest mass energy to usable work far beyond the rate of standby mode. Flight controls were enabled. The vehicle’s gravitics and weapons were under her control.
Kyora realized right away that the gravidyne could not interpret instructions from Accellus gear. This disappointed her as it had been many years since she had piloted a vehicle by hand. The flight controls consisted of a lumionic steering wheel for roll and pitch, physical propulsion mode control shaft, physical throttle, and physical foot pedals beneath her feet for yaw. Refusing to yield any control to the craft or skylanes, she waited until her path was clear. She gunned the throttle, knocking both of the soldiers next to the accelerating craft to the ground because of the rapidly-shifting gravitational flux around the gravidyne. Cabingrav kept Kyora from feeling any sort of acceleration as her vehicle broke one-thousand kilometers per hour in a matter of seconds. She pitched the nose of the small craft up, leaving Domina’s tower as a distant mountain on a sea of multicolored fog.
“Kelsor,” Kyora said through her Accellus 4’s sub-comms system.
“Kyora?” Ethis responded. “What is your condition?”
“I’ve stolen one of Domina’s gravidynes,” Kyora said with her hands on the controls. “They’re likely to catch on any moment. Where are you?”
“I’m sending you our position,” Ethis told her. “We have deployed a rescue team to assist you. You should be able to see them as well.”
“Affirmative,” said the phantom as she closed the channel.
“Captain,” said one of the bridge officers.
“What is it, lieutenant?” Atara responded.
“We’re detecting four corvette-sized vessels and a destroyer-sized vessel on an intercept course with the Kelsor. They appear to be Domina and are in formation. Distance: ninety kilometers absolute. Altitude: seventy kilometers.”
“Nothing we can’t handle,” Xannissa stated.
“But there’s still the matter of the rescue team,” Atara replied.
“They wouldn’t survive an encounter with those craft,” Xannissa said.
Atara opened a lumigraph to Strike Officer Kodi and said, “Have our strikecraft on standby.”
“Understood,” said Kodi. “We launch on your orders,” and the lumigraph disappeared.
Atara turned to Xannissa and told her, “Unless things change, I’m launching our strikecraft in thirty seconds to cover our team.”
Xannissa responded by calmly saying, “This is spinning out of control.” Just as she finished, Ethis received a subspace transmission from the surface which she played aloud.
“Attention GFN Kelsor!” came a furious female voice. “This is Miridan Planetary Security. We have detected your illegal hyperwarp entry into our atmosphere and are currently tracking your landing party. Federation THORCOM has been alerted to your actions. You have sixty seconds to recall your vehicles and prepare to be boarded. Failure to comply will result in the use of force. I repeat, you are in violation of…”
“Shut it off,” Atara said. Ethis closed the channel.
“We came in above the atmosphere,” Xannissa said with concern.
“Indeed we did. Go to red alert status,” Atara commanded. “All hands, general quarters.” At once, the bridge dimmed, and the red warning lights flashed and the single siren sound. The captain looked at Xannissa and said, “I don’t know what exactly’s going on here, but I’m not taking it sitting down.” Opening a lumigraph to Commander Kodi, Atara said, “Strike officer, I need those strikecraft in the air.”
To Kyora, it appeared that Domina had finally caught on. Twenty seconds into her flight, she received a transmission she half-watched via a lumigraph as she continued to pilot the vehicle.
“Resorting to thievery,” Eclipse remarked. Kyora paid her no mind. “I’d rather destroy what is mine than watch it fall into the hands of my enemy. That includes you, Kyora. I wish that our relationship didn’t have to end like this, but it is what it is. Farewell, dear friend.” The lumigraph vanished and the sound of gravitics and rushing wind filled the cabin once again. Kyora kept her aerocar pointed toward the Kelsor.
The five vessels that Domina dispatched were only five kilometers beneath her. The ships had escaped Kyora’s attention until the destroyer fired a single missile toward her gravidyne. With mere moments to react, she attempted to evade, but there was nothing she could do. The car’s RPDS intercepted the missile and disabled it, sending the dead projectile flying off toward the heavens. But that one interception drained the RPDS of plasma—that was the cost of disabling an anti-ship missile with an aerocar-grade RPDS. Kyora, faced with the very real danger of being blasted out of the sky by another missile, recalled the top of the gravidyne. This prompted the vehicle’s emergency airscreen to engage, sealing in the cabin’s air and preventing explosive decompression. Reactivating her shrouding, the phantom leapt from the moving vehicle and fell upward using her own gravitics exposing her Accellus bodysuit to minus-ninety degrees Celsius air. The destroyer launched a second missile. This time, the missile exploded against the car’s lumionic barrier, breaking it with ease, and oblitered the craft which formed a cloud of debris traveling on the same trajectory. Kyora was on her own now with only her Accellus to propel her.
“We just saw an explosion. Are you okay?”
“I turned off my transponder so Domina doesn’t know I’m alive. I lost my vehicle in that explosion.”
“Hang in there Kyora. We’re almost there.”
The ALAT carrying Virn, Sesh, and Cylenna flew beside on of the dropships. Suddenly, the dropship became awash in brilliant white light. A lumionically-contained plasma beam hit the dropship which carried thirty Auroras and two pilots, instantly overwhelming its shields and devastating the craft. Everyone aboard vaporized. The dropship’s gutted husk slowed and began to fall toward Mirida’s surface.
“Sesh!” Atara yelled. “Get out of there!”
“Affirmative, captain,” Sesh said, looking around at the other Federation craft, then straight ahead at the Domina vessels. “Rescue team, return to the Kelsor. That is an order.”
“But Kyora,” Virn cried.
“Didn’t you see that explosion?”
“She’s alive!” Virn’s eyes were welling with tears. “She spoke to me via link just now.”
As the other vehicles were breaking off and turning around, Sesh looked at Cylenna and said, “If your piloting is half as good as your sister claims it is, then by all means, keep going.”
“My sister compliments my flying?” Cylenna asked. With a smurk, she said, “I’m flattered.” Cylenna noticed the distant speckle of a fully-charged beam cannon. She broke hard right and narrowly avoided the beam by a few meters.
Back aboard the Kelsor, Atara ordered the launch of four missiles—one targeted at each corvette. Propelled by both gravitics and fusion engines, the missiles escaped from the two rows of missile hatches on the ship’s ventral surface. The projectiles traveled the roughly sixty kilometers before colliding with the shields of the corvettes and obliterating them as the destroyer had done to Kyora’s car. Cylenna cheered as her fellow strikecraft pilots streaked around her from a great distance. The loose swarm of small craft descended upon the destroyer. The two bomber flights unloaded racks of missiles toward the Domina ship while the thirty other fighters and interceptors strafed the vessel with streams of high-caliber plasma bolts. This aerial firefight ended with four clouds of small debris and two large pieces of exploded destroyer husk falling toward the ground many kilometers below.
Having looked down to see the aftermath of the carnage, Kyora deactivated her shrouding and turned her transponder on. Cylenna could see the lone, Accellus-clad Aurora phantom on her head-up display. After insuring everyone in the vehicle was wearing full Accellus body coverage, Cylenna brought the ALAT beside Kyora and recalled the craft’s top. Sesh and Virn aided the phantom inside, Cylenna refabricated the top, and took off toward the Kelsor within a bubble of strikecraft—trailing behind the other craft of the rescue party.
“Thirty-two people,” Atara whispered to herself as the last of the strikecraft docked within the hangar. “Thirty-two people.” She hadn’t forgotten what it felt like to lose women under her command; the idea of those peoples’ lives being extinguished in an instant over the simple matter of rescuing a single person. In the eyes of the Creator, was the life of the one worth the lives of the other thirty-two? In reality, the Federation Military abhorred the abandonment of personnel as cowardice, same as any proud armed service should. Those thirty-two would be remembered as heroines who died in defense of the Federation, but they were also friends, wives, sisters, daughters, mothers. Atara hadn’t felt this much remorse since Semarah, but she did what she always felt was part of her duty: suppress her emotions and maintain her composure. And that’s precisely what she did. She acted so well in this particular instance that Xannissa, usually aware of Atara’s mental state, was none the wiser.
“Atara, I’m going to the hangar,” Xannissa said. Atara quietly nodded as she rolled the incident over in her mind, thinking about what she could have done to prevent it, and attempting to rationalize their deaths as anything other than a consequence of her own actions.
“Cy!” Xannissa cried as she ran toward her now-helmetless older sister who had just exited the ALAT she had piloted. Xannissa’s swift embrace sent the two of them spinning around each other for a moment. Cylenna returned the hug after being caught off guard.
“Hi Xanni,” Cylenna said in a soft voice. “Everything okay?”
Xannissa looked into her sister’s eyes and said, “I could have lost you back there, you know that?”
“I know,” Cylenna said. “That was a thrilling ride.”
After they let go of one another, Cylenna rested her hands on the side of the Lancet for a moment, acknowledging the work put into it by the designers at Klade. Xannissa stayed with Cylenna as the latter cheered at her fellow strikecraft pilots who were leaving their vehicles. Sesh stood outside of the ALAT while Kyora and Virn remained inside. The phantom held her head in her hands while her partner held her friend’s arm to her bosom. Back on the bridge, Naret reengaged the hyperwarp synerdrive system and departed Mirida for what would hopefully be the last time on this great chase through the unaligned heart of Civilized Space.