15 – Heated Words

The soft pings of the room’s vital sign monitor weren’t enough to keep Lieren awake in the dim room. To her, they sounded almost designed to encourage sleep. That combined with the room’s darkness put the female Larissian on a path toward slumber.

     Just as her mind was wandering into the abyss and her eyes were shutting, her father’s vital signs jumped and he began to cough forcefully. Lieren shook herself awake and rose from the chair to approach Doctor Souq’s bed. This prompted the lights to slowly brighten.

     “Dad?” Lieren asked. After his bout of coughing had settled down, the door to the room opened and in walked a nurse dressed in standard uniform beneath a white gown marked with a small red cross.

     “How is your father doing?” asked the nurse.

     “He just started coughing all of a sudden,” Lieren told her.

     “He may be coming to. Doctor Souq,” the nurse said to Lieren’s father, placing a hand to his gowned arm. “Doctor Souq.” The bearded, lavender-skinned omnimologist stirred before opening his eyelids. He tried to keep his eyes open, but the lights were too bright for them. He squinted as he groaned.

     “Doctor Souq,” the nurse said again after opening a lumigraph with more of Souq’s vitals, “nod if you can hear me.” The man nodded weakly. Turning to Lieren, the nurse said, “He was hit with a fairly strong dose of sedative. He’s just now starting to recover, but he’ll need more time.”

     “May I stay with him?” Lieren asked.

     “Of course,” the nurse said, smiling, “just be sure to let him rest.”

     Xannissa and Sesh quietly returned to the bridge. To them, it felt more appropriate to conduct themselves solemnly given the recent loss of members of their crew—a loss that they were unwilling to think of as senseless even though it was exactly that. No one thought it more than Atara herself. For the rest of the day, the ship’s atmosphere became muted as the reality of the loss, regardless the percentage of the Kelsor’s complement, set in. This was still the mission’s very first day, and it was nearing its end.

     “Captain,” Ethis said, breaking the silence, “we’re receiving a Q-comms transmission. It’s Admiral Aesho.”

     “Sesh, you have the bridge,” said Atara. Without another word, she turned around and left. Atara made her way to the Q-comms chamber aft of the bridge. Once within the room, she confirmed her identity with the ship’s adjunct.

     “Identity confirmed,” Fiori’s adjunct announced. “Captain Atara Korrell.”

     Atara stood with her legs together and arms behind her back, and she waited patiently for Aesho’s image to appear. When the admiral materialized, she was standing directly before Atara. The captain could see nothing of Aesho’s surrounding office, and Aesho couldn’t see the Kelsor’s Q-comms chamber.

     “You did the right thing,” Aesho started.

     “Is that all you wanted to tell me?” Atara asked her, trying to suppress her regret and frustration in the hope that Aesho wouldn’t detect it.

     “I wanted you to know that before you started second-guessing yourself or this operation,” Aesho stated.

     “With all due respect, Admiral,” Atara said, “aren’t there larger problems you should be dealing with?”

     “Everything is being taken care of as we speak,” said Aesho. “We’ve served together for decades, yet you still underestimate the power of this office.”

     “Maybe I misjudge how far you’re willing to take things.”

     “You question my resolve, then.”

     “I question your morality.” Propelled by emotion, this sentence slipped between Atara’s lips and struck Aesho like a dagger. Had Atara been more aware of the impact that that statement would have made, she would have withheld it—then again, she may have not. Aesho chuckled.

     “I see,” Aesho said in a low tone. “You want to talk about morality? Consider this: I stand back and let the media rip this incident apart. Would that be more morally-sound than covering things up? I can let this entire thing fall down on your head. Atara Korrell, rogue captain, in defiance of the Federation, attacks ships in orbit around Mirida while undertaking a rescue mission she was not assigned, leading thirty-two Federation starmen to their deaths and resulting in the deaths of several Tribesson citizens. How does that sound to you?”

     Atara said nothing.

     “What, then, would happen to your crew?” Aesho continued, raising her voice. “They’ll all be labeled traitors, and condemned as such. After all this, the elsheem escape with the ecksivar sample which poses a danger to all of Civilized Space. Yes, I’m willing to go to incredible lengths to see that this mission is accomplished. Every action I take that keeps ecksivar out of the wrong hands is a morally-sound decision!” Aesho’s rant ended with her standing so close to Atara that their faces nearly touched.

     “My statement was in no way meant to incriminate,” Atara said, unfazed by Aesho’s angry display.

     “I don’t believe you have anything to worry about.” Atara had always been tolerant of her superior’s hostile attitude, but knowing what she knew now, she could see how disgusting Aesho really was. After taking a few steps back, Aesho said, “I’m glad to see you’re on course again.”

     “Likewise,” said Atara.

     “I hope that someday,” Aesho said, “we’ll be able to settle our differences. You are so much like your mother. Well, you and I both have things to take care of. The Federation is counting on you. You’re dismissed.”

     Before leaving, Atara took a few minutes to calm herself down. When she felt mentally prepared, she left the Q-comms chamber and returned to the bridge.

     The sun was setting between the lustrous metropolitan towers outside the large office windows. Orange light from Sol poured in and illuminated the far wall with a shadow produced by a man sitting in a chair. A true-color lumigraphic model of a new ALAT design—the Jackknife—rotated in front of his transparent, C-shaped desk. The Terran had been staring and thinking for several minutes, but he was not particularly interested in the vehicle. Propped upon his desk was a physical photograph contained within a small, unadorned frame. Unlike his lumigraphs, the photograph could never abruptly disappear.

     “Aedan, I’m outta here,” came someone from beyond his office door. “Take care of yourself, and turn some lights on for cryin’ out loud!”

     “See you, Leo!” Aedan shouted happily. He pressed a lumigraphic button on his desk and the lights came on. The photo he was looking at before was of himself standing next to Xannissa; their arms wrapped around each other and joyful smiles adorned both of their faces. It was a picture they had taken in the observatory at the top of his office building a couple of days after he proposed to the love of his life. She was wearing her suit and jacket—her promise to the Federation Navy—and her orivar-banded ring—her promise to him. He became unsettled thinking about the unnecessary pressure he placed on her.

     But she was happy, he thought to himself. She was overjoyed. Xannissa always had a place in her heart for him, but he never had the courage to chase after her. If he could accomplish only one more thing during the rest of his life, it would be making this relationship last.

     Preparing to leave the office, Aedan locked his desk computer which made the lumigraphic vehicle disappear, and in its place appeared the logo of Klade, one of the leading Federation Military contractors. He backed his chair away from his desk, stood up, put on his jacket, and dimmed his office lights before coming out from behind the desk. Once out of his office, the door locked behind him. Most of his coworkers had already left. The closest lift was just across the office-space.

     As he traveled to the transit hub to hail a ride home, he remembered his own promises to the Federation as an employee of Klade: to design vehicles, systems, and weapons that will serve, protect, and enable those serving in the Military. Immediately he thought of Xannissa. She made his profession that much more important to him.

     Kyora closed her eyes and held her head to the shower nozzle, letting the hot water pour across her gray face, down her neck to her chest, and onward toward her abdomen and legs. The threat that Eclipse made—about pursuing her to the edge of the universe—draped itself like a opaque fabric over her thoughts and emotions. Kyora saw the joy in Virn’s eyes when she was safely returned to the Kelsor, but the Elestan tried to keep her distance without explicitly telling her partner that she wanted, more than anything, to be left alone. Eclipse was still at large, and with the death of Dusk, she was more powerful now than she ever had been.

     Kyora scrubbed her face with her hands, attempting to symbolically cleanse away the stains of Mirida. She turned around, letting the water rush down her hair and back. It was then that she remembered that no amount of purification could ever wash away the Mirida within and without her because, as Eclipse had said, she was born from Mirida’s eternal darkness—an origin she shared with Eclipse. Kyora now realized that no outside force would be able to stop the leader of Domina. Despite how wicked Eclipse had become, Kyora knew how she thought. Perhaps the only way to destroy Eclipse was to defeat her at her own game. Kyora had to see this current mission through to the end, at least for Virn’s sake, but after that she would quit the service in order to finally rid the galaxy of her old friend. But what would Virn think? What would happen to Virn if she didn’t?

     The phantom stood beneath the spray for a few more minutes before shutting off the shower and activating the shield-scrubber. She left the bathroom wearing her Accellus standard uniform. Kyora found Virn where she left her—sitting at a desk in their shared quarters. Virn looked away from her lumionic screen and asked, “Are you ready to go?” Kyora nodded quietly and left the room, leaving Virn behind. The Exan jumped from her chair and rushed to catch up.

     Atara was the last to enter the briefing room. The captain’s furrowed brow and pursed lips nearly betrayed her suppressed inner fury as she took her seat between Xannissa and Sesh.

     “I realize this is the third time we’re meeting in this room today,” Atara said, a lingering sigh in her voice, “but a great deal has happened. Fiori experienced an outage—the first time in recent history. We arrived at Mirida and retrieved Doctor Souq, and we subsequently lost and rescued you,” Atara noted as she looked toward Kyora who was seated next to Xannissa. Virn was the only other person present.

     “We’re here to debrief you about that last part,” the captain told the phantom. “Tell us everything that happened.”

     Kyora explained to the triumvirate everything that she had experienced in the context of her knowledge of Domina. She emphasized Eclipse’s desire to commandeer the Kelsor and the fact that Eclipse was still alive.

     “That complicates things,” Sesh remarked.

     “It’s interesting that it’s one of the things you don’t often think about,” Xannissa explained, “the target that we paint on our backs by embarking on a mission with a ship possessing bleeding edge technology. I’m shocked that a group like Domina already knows about us.”

     “You just made a mistake,” Kyora said with her head down.

     “Excuse me?” Xannissa responded.

     “You underestimated Eclipse.” Kyora lifted her head up and stared into Xannissa’s eyes. “That’s why thirty-two people died today.” The engineer’s expression soured.

     “I am responsible for this ship and her crew,” Atara told Kyora. “Direct your remarks toward me.” Kyora shifted her stare to the captain. Atara continued, “I am at fault. I knew little about Domina before our departure from Lanan. Knowing what I know now, I would have never let you go down there. But let me ask you this: if you knew you were in danger, why did you volunteer to go?”

     “I never volunteered,” Kyora said flatly. “Commander Sesh gave me an order.”

     “Yet you could have let anyone else take your place if you knew without a doubt that Eclipse was hunting for you.”

     Kyora shot up, pushing away her chair. “Look,” she said loudly, “I’m a clone, but that doesn’t make me less human than any of you. I, too, make mistakes. I didn’t see what was coming before it was too late.” Her loud tone receded into a whisper as she said, “I should have trusted my instincts.” She pushed her hair out of her face and said, “Pardon me, captain,” before taking her seat again. “I should have stayed aboard the Kelsor. My involvement delayed the mission, put everyone’s lives at risk, and led those aboard that dropship to their deaths. I inadvertently involved you in my battle, and for that I am truly sorry.”

     Atara nodded before saying, “My questions sounded incriminating, but I wanted to know how you really felt. No matter how much blame you put on yourself, nothing that happened was your fault. I am the captain of this vessel and I will deal with any and all repercussions from what occurred today. Is that clear?”

     “Yes, madam,” Kyora vocalized.

     “Are you fit to lead our Aurora complement?”

     “Yes, madam.”

     “I’d like a report from you to send to Admiral Aesho. If no one has any further business,” Atara said, “you and Lieutenant Lorralis are dismissed.” As Kyora promptly emerged from her chair, Virn remained seated. Kyora was already at the door as Virn began to speak.

     “Captain, I will be overseeing Accellus orientation and training exercises for the AOTP cadets. I’m just verifying the date for the suiting ceremony to be a week from today.”

     “That should be right,” Atara said, turning to Xannissa who gave the captain a nod. “Next week.”

     “Understood,” Virn said as she stood. “You have a good evening, captain, commanders.”

     As soon as Kyora and Virn left the room, Sesh said, “You’ll have my report tomorrow morning. If there is anything I can do to help keep Aesho off your back, don’t hesitate to ask.”

     “Fiori?” Atara asked. The orange lumigraphic female appeared in the briefing room sitting in the chair opposite of Atara at the other end of the table.

     “What can I do for you, captain?”

“Can you tell Sesh everything you told us?”

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