19 – Ceremony

“I apologize for this mission wasting your Frontier conning skills,” Atara told Naret. The captain stood just behind the young officer on the seventh day of the mission. Naret, who had been staring at readouts on her lumigraphs, swiveled her chair completely around to look up at Atara.

     “It’s relaxing—probably too relaxing,” Naret admitted, “but I can run simulations from this terminal to keep myself occupied.”

     “That’s a good idea,” Sesh stated as she stepped toward them. “Our chase will take us dangerously close to the Saraian Range. We have a high chance of encountering pirates when we swing by. It’s best you stay in top form.”

     “Pirates?” Naret asked.

     “The Saraian Range is a volume of space,” Atara explained, “that is difficult for warp systems to manipulate.”

     “If you want to get anywhere in the Range proper,” Sesh continued, “it’s going to take you a very long time.”

     “So criminals use it as a hideout?” Naret asked.

     Sesh nodded, and then she said, “They perch at the edge of the Range and attack merchant traffic. If things get too hot for them, they just slip into the Zone of Obstruction. The boundary is well mapped, but the interior not so much.”

     “Not even sub-comms gets through,” Atara added. “If you’re wanted by law enforcement, it’s a safer place to hide than the Frontier.”

     “Oh,” Naret vocalized, recounting the scum she encountered in the Frontier and at a loss for how anyone could be much worse.

     “Anyway,” Atara said, “have you gained a feeling for the ship yet?”

     “I have,” Naret responded. “It handles very nicely for such a large ship.”

     Atara laughed and said “No, no. What I mean is, can you sense its personality?”

     “You mean the adjunct?”

     “I mean the ship itself; as a whole.”

     Naret pondered for a moment before saying, “I think I understand. I see it as a hotshot—someone with a lot of talent and ambition but no experience.” She paused for another moment. Embarrassed, she added, “That sounds like myself.”

     “It’s normal for us to see ourselves in our machines,” Atara told her. “Sometimes you can see other people. To me, the Kelsor has given us little drama. Quiet and dependable; responsible but lax, like the commander.” Atara and Naret both turned their heads toward Sesh who stood there staring through the bridge’s large armored OPEL window at the stars and nebulae. She hadn’t registered a word of what they said.

     “To me,” Xannissa said, startling the captain from her other side, “she’s a really hard worker that tries its best to be left alone to do her work. That’s why there’s no drama.”

     “Really?” the captain asked. “I thought it was because we had the best engineering chief in the Navy.”

     “I don’t deserve any credit,” Xannissa told her, placing her arms upon and leaning against the railing next to Naret’s station. “GreDrive and Archetype did really remarkable work.”

     Using her Q-comms link, Atara asked, “Have you talked to your sister recently?”

     “I’ve been giving her her space,” Xannissa thought. “I don’t want to be the overbearing younger sister, but I’ll make it a point to see her more.”

     Via audible vocalizations, Xannissa said, “I came up here to gather you three for the suiting ceremony. Are you ready?”

     Atara, Xannissa, Sesh, and Naret changed into their white dress uniforms with dark gray bodysuits beneath, black neckties and white short jackets. After riding the lifts and walking together, they met up with Kyora and Virn and arrived at one of the four partitioned-reality simulators aboard the ship—collectively among the major sinks for the excess power saved by virtue of the efficient synerdrive. Upon entering the simulator room, each person was enveloped in their own lumigraphic bubble and held aloft via a combination of gravitics and lumionic barriers. These bubbles—or individual reference frames as they were technically known—allowed each person to experience the fictional environment maintained by the simulation from their own point of view. Each individual reference frame was then placed somewhere within the dark meta-space—the term for the physical simulator room itself—and constantly rearranged at the behest of the simulator’s controller that attempted to position individual reference frames such that those which were adjacent in the virtual space would be adjacent in the meta-space also.

     This maintenance of an elaborate illusion manifested through the eyes of the officers as a seamless transition from a starship corridor to a resort situated atop a tropical shoreline. As they walked through the open-air lobby, they passed by officers and starmen both with and without uniform and in various states of undress. They eventually arrived at a large private balcony overlooking the beach and recreational facilities. Twelve pairs of Accellus 4 boots had already been placed on the smooth stone floor. A table nearby held the dozen pairs of bracers. After a few minutes, the cadets were led in by a junior officer, and each cadet stopped behind the pair of boots that were to become hers.

     “Cadets, attention!” Sesh shouted. The cadets stood with their backs straight and their arms glued to their sides. Atara waited for a moment to allow the ceremonial tension to fill the air as the salty sea-breeze blew in from the ocean on that clear evening.

     “At ease,” Atara commanded, and the cadets stood with their legs slightly apart and their arms behind their backs. Atara paused again, looking at the face of each one where she stood.

     “As cadets,” Atara started, “you are the future leaders of the Greater Federation Navy. As future officers, you are inheriting the responsibilities that we as the current officers of the Navy carry: answering to the will of our Commander in Chief, Madame President of the Orionan Federal Republic, setting the example for our forces by leading with courage, honor, and integrity, and being model citizens to the very people we sacrifice ourselves to protect.

     “Some of you are near the end of your training, while others of you are only just beginning. The Active Officer Training Program was established so that the best and brightest among the pool of cadets could experience the rigors of interstellar service at the foundation of their promising careers in the Navy. You twelve are among those who have proven themselves through academic accomplishment and have been granted this rare opportunity to serve the Federation alongside a body of mentors underway on a real-life mission.

     “A starman relies on her REMASS gear for offense, defense, and basic survival. It is your weapon, your shield, and your tool. It protects you from the vacuum of deep space, the crushing gravity of giants, extreme weather of distant worlds, and armed conflict with our enemies.

     “It is with great honor that I, Captain Atara Korrell…”

     “…I, Commander Xannissa Cetalo…”

     “…and I, Commander Yora Sesh…”

     “…collectively the triumvirate of the Greater Federation Navy vessel Kelsor, grant you, our young cadets of the Navy, your own, personal Accellus Four REMASS gear. You may go ahead and put them on.”

     A junior officer approached each cadet with a pair of bracers and put them on the cadets’ outstretched arms. The cadets then removed and folded every article of clothing they wore and handed it to the officer before them. The last item they removed was their shoes, placing them on top of the pile of folded clothing at which point they were fully nude. They stood like that until the officers placed the old cadet clothing on the table. When the officers returned, the cadets placed their feet into the Accellus 4 boots. The officers helped the cadets clothe themselves for the first time in the Military REMASS gear. They would use lumigraphic user interfaces projected on their arms until they adapted to using their neural interfaces to operate the suits. As the sun neared the horizon and the ceremony concluded, Atara invited the cadets to dine with the triumvirate in a seaside pavilion aboard the simulator.

     After the ceremony, the junior officers were dismissed. Naret returned to her small quarters and fabricated a meal from her room’s REMASS terminal. After that, she recalled her standard uniform, stepped out of her boots, and collapsed her gray, naked body face-first upon the bed where she lied for several moments. Eventually, she rolled over, pushed her black bobbed hair out of her eyes, and rested her head on her pillow. As was her nightly ritual thus far aboard the Kelsor, she put her right arm behind her head and with her left hand navigated the Subnet through lumigraphs projected before her face. She spent at least an hour checking her favorite social outlets before wandering into an encyclopedia.

     Her respect for Atara as a mentor was stronger now than it ever had been. Her encyclopedia journey began with an article about Captain Atara Eisen Korrell which immediately led to an article on the Semarahn Incursion. With interest, she read the article’s introduction:

The Semarahn Incursion (8392-10-12 to 8393-06-20), also known as the Semarahn Conflict or Operation Crimson Aegis, was a war between the Orionan Federal Republic and the Kingdom of Semarah. The war began on 8392-10-12 when the Federation invaded Semarah following a series of deadly border raids by attackers originating from Semarahn space. The Federation invasion ended in a truce after thirty-three weeks.

     “Crimson Aegis,” Naret whispered to herself. “That’s an interesting name.” She continued reading the article, but the more she read, the less sense it made to her. And it wasn’t because the article was poorly written. She dismissed her confusion as a result of still being young and naive. She found out that Atara, Xannissa, and Sesh had served on the front, but to Naret’s surprise, they had been captured after a critical battle in the war that took place above the Semarahn capitol world.

     “Aesho, I realize we are pushing a campaign of rapid dominance, but don’t you think this is a bit reckless? Even for you.”

     The dark-haired, dark-skinned Elestan, Admiral of the Fifth Fleet, contrasted with the light-skinned, light-haired Terran beside her. Thirty-six years ago, they stood together within Orionan Rift Command’s map room filled with lumigraphs that displayed a scaled view of upspin Semarah. Every star system was mapped. Every Semarahn starbase was identified. Space under the control of the Federation Navy appeared as orange volumes. The armadas pushing the Federation advance were Federation Triangles. Most notably, the two admirals were alone.

     “Remember what we’re here to do,” Aesho told Musani in a lowered voice. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.”

     “Of course not,” Musani said. “You just need to be more transparent with me.”

     “Killing terrorists isn’t exactly a good reason to send a courier to the king’s castle.”

     “Sending good women to be cut off is?”

     “That’s what I’m counting on. Do you know who’s commanding our flagship?”

     “Who?”

     “Cassandra’s daughter. She’s smart, so for her sake, I hope she uses her head.”

     The triumvirate of that battleship was determined to carry out their superior’s orders. Just as Aesho wanted, that ship and its accompanying strike group became isolated from the rest of the armada and was forced to surrender in the Semarahn home system. In exchange for the safety of their crews, the triumvirate of the flagship Unity—a younger Atara, Xannissa, and Sesh—offered themselves as prisoners of war. The three officers were ultimately taken into custody by Kalashik’s daughter, the guard captain, and placed in a cell beneath the palace where they would spend the next few months unclothed but untouched. As a matter of fact, the guard captain never allowed her father to see them.

     When the Semarahn Incursion ended, it was publicized as a major victory over the terroristic elements that had butchered civilians on the Federation side of the border, but without a lasting occupation and a strengthening of the Semarahn government and military, no real victory had actually been achieved. Unfortunately, releasing prisoners of war was not one of the conditions for a Federation withdrawal, so without ever realizing that the war was over, the Unity’s triumvirate spent a few more months held within their relatively cushy cell beneath Kalashik’s palace. This was exactly what Aesho wanted. Six months after the end of the Semarahn Incursion, Kalashik’s palace was infiltrated by an elite team of Assault Force phantoms. Without harming a single guard, they swept through the lavish chambers and ornate halls and rescued the triumvirate from their captivity. The real prize, though, was what lied in the palace vault. One particularly-skilled phantom cracked the Vault’s security within a minute. Once within, they retrieved what had been Crimson Aegis’ primary objective all along. The thing that cost so many Federation and Semarahn lives was none other than ecksivar, held by the Kalashik dynasty for over two centuries, and now once again in the hands of the Federation.

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