23 – Zone of Obstruction

“The lume looks clearer now than it’s been,” Aedan said from his apartment on Earth as he stared into the eyes of a lumionic recreation of Xannissa using data sent over sub-comms.

     “We’re passing very close to Vandos,” Xannissa told him. They both sat on the edges of their respective beds next to the lumionic construct of the other. Each noticed that the colors on their projections were more accurate now, and they both noticed the overall lack of interference.

     “Vandos?”

     “It’s just one among millions of other habitats out there,” Xannissa said, “but what makes this one special is that supposedly it was a joint venture with the Republic, and it’s the most densely populated place for many lightyears around.”

     “Do you have any plans to stop there?”

     “We just don’t have enough time. Atara does want to make a stop for shore leave on the way back.”

     “How do you all handle being stuck on a ship for so long?”

     “We have four really good simulators,” Xannissa said with a smile.

     “I see,” Aedan said as he looked around his own room. OPEL panels made up all of his walls, ceiling and floor. He had them set as if he and everything in his room were sitting in a flat, grassy field surrounded by oak trees under a starry sky.

     “You don’t use it for anything like…” Aedan said jokingly.

     “Hah! How dare you!” Xannissa laughed and slapped Aedan’s arm. After they had had a good laugh together, Xannissa said, “But there is something I need to talk to you about. It’s a bit serious and I may need your opinion.”

     “What is it?” he asked.

     “It’s about Cylenna.”

     “Alright, I’m listening.”

     “Well, it all started when I heard about her disrespecting her superiors.”

     “What else is new?”

     “I know, I know. But while I was there, I found a device of hers. I had the liquid inside analyzed by someone in medical. Turns out it’s one of the more potent neural stimulants.”

     “Which one?”

     “They called it chronol. It messes with your perception of time—slows it down.”

     “Never heard of it.”

     “Neither have I until today. I haven’t told Atara about it yet.”

     “Where is she? I expected her to be with you.”

     “She’s on the bridge giving me some space. I’m going to invite her back in when I’m done talking to you.”

     “I don’t want to impose,” Aedan told her.

     “No,” Xannissa said, “she’s the one who decided that. But what do you think? Do you think I should tell her?”

     “I always thought that she was the kind of person in need of more tough love. I think it’s better if you and Atara intervene, especially if she poses a risk to others.”

     “I just hate feeling like the bad guy all the time,” Xannissa said. “I hate telling her what she can and can’t do. It makes me feel like I’m trying to enslave her.”

     “Have you ever asked her about that? Asked her how you make her feel?”

     “I, well… what if she doesn’t tell me the truth?”

     “Surely if she loves you, she will.”

     When Atara returned to their quarters later that evening, Xannissa told her everything she knew about Cylenna, her disrespect, and her drug possession over their evening meal. It wasn’t until they were both naked and lying in bed when Atara proposed a solution other than confinement: counseling.

     About a week later, Naret saw the downspin face of the Saraian Range’s Zone of Obstruction through her terminal’s lumionic interface. Atara instructed Naret to hug the Zone as tightly as she could because she wanted to gain time on this maneuver. The young helmsman piloted the hyperwarping battlecruiser within a few hundred astronomical units of the seemingly random outpouchings of collapsed space. Ethis experienced as sound what Naret saw. Unless the signals were bounced over the Range, all sub-comms from upspin Civilized Space beyond the Zone were completely blocked. This gave the communications officer the sensation that the ship was cruising next to the best insulation in the galaxy. Atara stood over Naret once again. Xannissa and Sesh flanked the captain as they watched the virtual demarcation of the Zone’s edge fly by at almost seventeen astronomical units per second.

     Sesh asked, “Why is the boundary so irregular?”

     “Beats me,” Xannissa told her. “People disagree as to whether it’s even natural.”

     “If it’s not natural, who could have even made something like this?”

     “A weapon, maybe.”

     “Can you make a weapon that destroys space?”

     “We can’t, no. But I’m sure people would love to have them. Take what I’m saying with a grain of salt, though. We have no idea how the Range came to be. It’s the only volume of collapsed space we’ve ever found.”

     Naret asked, “What would happen to us if we went in there?” as she continued piloting the ship while staring at her lumionic console.

     “Nothing,” Atara said. “We would all still be alive.”

     “Except that,” Xannissa explained, “every technology we have that relies on multidimensionality would cease to function, including REMASS.”

     “So, we’d be dead in the water?” Sesh asked with concern.

     “Exactly,” Xannissa assured them. “People seem to forget that REMASS relies on subspace.”

     Atara said, “Don’t let that intimidate you, lieutenant. You’re doing a fine job.” Naret smiled and refrained from thanking the captain. The captain then turned to look at the three-dimensional lumigraph she kept open next to her that visualized subdar data.

    Subdar could detect the unique shockwaves within subspace created in response to any kind of spatiotemporal manipulation including gravity, warp, or even hyperwarp. It was unintuitive for most beginners learning advanced propulsion that ships in hyperspace create distortions in subspace, and that’s when Xannissa would urge them to forget any ideas they may have had about multidimensionality being arranged as defined strata. Even if hyperspace was “above” normal space and subspace “below,” hyperwarp still involved the movement of a parcel of normal space—albeit in hyperspace where spacetime is less dense and gravitational effects are significantly reduced. The effects of spatiotemporal distortions are amplified in the denser subspace, and hyperwarp signatures are unmistakable on sensitive subspace detection and ranging systems.

     The detection radius within the lumigraph extended up to one-hundred lightyears in every direction. Of course, the Sarairan Range was marked as undetectable. Atara counted nineteen subdar contacts in hyperwarp within that sphere of detection, but one signature made her anxious.

     “Xannissa, Sesh, look at this,” Atara said, pointing to the contact of interest.

     Sesh asked, “Is it still following us?”

     “What is?” Xannissa inquired.

     “Same signature?” Sesh asked again, ignoring Xannissa for the moment.

     “Exact same,” Atara stated. Turning to Xannissa, the captain explained. “As we were passing Vandos, subdar detected a vessel on an intercept course with the Kelsor. They have no transponder, but the drive signature is Federation—GreDrive.”

     “If it’s kept up for this long,” Xannissa noted, “it has to be Military. Have you hailed them?”

     “Of course,” Atara told her. “No response.”

     “Maybe it’s a silent escort,” Xannissa replied. “But then again, what good is an escort that can’t keep up?”

     “I’m hoping it’s not Archangels,” Sesh said.

     Atara stated, “I’d rather not get tangled up with mercenaries.”

     “Especially the Archangels,” Xannissa added. “But they can’t catch us, so don’t worry so much.”

     “Unless they are corralling us into some kind of trap,” Sesh said.

     “If that’s the case,” Xannissa said calmly, “are you prepared to parley?”

     Atara said, “If they’ll ever talk to us.”

     The officers of the bridge carried out their duties. Naret navigated the hills and swales of the Zone’s edge closer and closer—now to within less than fifty astronomical units. The unknown contact kept itself up to a half-lightyear away from the Zone, easing Atara’s mind somewhat. One of the spherical drones that patrolled the ship decided it was time to shield-scrub the bridge floor, so the triumvirate moved out of the tiny drone’s way as it made its lumionic sweeps. As the triumvirate looked on through the starscape projected through the OPEL panels, the atmosphere began to quiet. It was a while before Atara noticed this peace, and its eeriness bothered her. It was like a lull before an impending storm.

     Sirens blared as Fiori’s adjunct announced, “Warp hyperplane destabilization detected. Warp drive emergency shutdown engaged.” The demarcation of the Zone, which just moments before was moving by like the sea beneath a low-flying aeroplane, paused as if it were stuck in time.

     “Adjunct, elaborate!” Atara yelled.

     “Spatial wave interference intersected hyperwarp trajectory.”

     Naret turned around and looked up at the captain. When they locked eyes, Atara was struck by Naret’s dismay; the latter shaking her head in a nonvocal attempt to deny responsibility. Atara told the young officer who was approaching the point of tears, “It’s not your fault.”

     The sirens continued to blare as the lights dimmed, indicating an automatic transition to the red readiness level and a call to general quarters. When Naret turned herself back around to look at her console, Ethis told the triumvirate that she was receiving a sub-comms transmission.

     “Put it through,” Atara told her. A lumigraph appeared before the triumvirate. Their eyes met a helmeted man dressed in dark yellow armor with three clean red stripes crossing diagonally over his chest. The stripes bifurcated on his left breast and terminated with the Miri-equivalent symbols for “3BS” arranged vertically. The armor’s design was reminiscent of Novekk’s work, albeit modified for marauding. The armor was scratched and worn, revealing the metallic nanoplating beneath the armor’s coloring.

     “Greetings, captain,” said the armored marauder. “You’ve entered territory belonging to the Three Brothers Syndicate. As such, we reserve the right to collect a toll.”

     “Saraia owns these volumes,” Atara rebutted, “and they have given us freedom to navigate.”

     “Even so,” the marauder said, “you’ve warped into a dangerous place. We can guarantee your safe passage with a price.”

     Atara asked, “What is it you want?”

     Without hesitation, the marauder stated, “The schematics of your so-called ‘synerdrive.’” Atara said nothing. After a few moments of silence, the marauder said, “All we want is a little information. No one has to die today.”

     “Stop wasting your breath,” Atara told him. “You can’t intimidate us.”

     “Is that so?” said the marauder captain. “After I steal your ship, I’m thinking it’s been a while since my boys have had any good R and R. What better than a ship full of… beautiful women?” The marauder laughed heartily at the thought. Leaning closer to the lumigraph, he growled, “And I’m coming for you, captain.” Then the lumigraph disappeared.

     “Total savages,” Xannissa muttered.

     Atara said to Xannissa, “They’ll never get the chance.” Louder and to her bridge she commanded, “Put our strikecraft on standby. Have we calculated the source of the kick?”

     “Affirmative, captain,” said Fiori appearing before the triumvirate. “The spatial wave originated from a stationary vessel three-hundred-thousand kilometers forward of your current position.”

     “What precision,” Xannissa noted.

     Sesh added, “They planned this well.”

     “Three— no, five new contacts detected at warp,” a bridge officer declared. “Make that six. Closest is one AU. Furthest is fifteen. All closing on us, captain!”

     “What’s the kicker doing?”

     “Just sitting there, captain.”

     Sesh asked, “How large are these ships?”

     “Destroyer-class hulls based on warp signatures only.”

     “Give me those signatures,” Xannissa ordered, and a lumigraph appeared before her displaying each of them in separate rows. “These are modified GreDrive units.”

     Atara asked, “Same as that one following us?”

     “Not at all,” Xannissa told her. “I never saw the other signature, but if subdar was spitting out ‘Federation,’ then the difference is night and day. These ones are either very old or modified from civvy engines.”

     “Naret,” the captain told the young lieutenant, “the rules of engagement in this situation are very clear. Tell me what I am allowed to do.”

     “They kicked you out of hyperwarp without warning,” Naret said. Her voice was trembling from her surge of adrenaline. “They stated their intention to kill us. They are of a known pirate faction which is deemed ‘kill-on-sight.’ You are free to fully employ lethal force.”

     “Very good,” Atara said. “Tactical, launch a quarter salvo of warp missiles. Target all incoming ships.”

     “Aye, captain,” said a tactical officer. “Prepping twenty-two missiles and firing.”

     Xannissa was still looking at the warp signatures when something caught her attention. She superimposed each signature overtop the others. Normally, every engine had very minute differences in its warp signature that could distinguish it from others of the same model. This is how tracking stations and ships’ subdar could keep track of particular, otherwise-unidentifiable ships across vast distances.

     “Wait,” Xannissa said. The results of her quick analysis revealed that every one of the signatures was exactly the same. “Those ships are all fake.”

     “What do you mean?” Atara asked.

     “Missiles away,” the bridge officer shouted.

     “I guess you’ll see in a minute,” Xannissa told her as she panned her lumigraph toward Atara.

     The freshly-fabricated missiles left their tubes and engaged their small warp engines. Guided by the Kelsor’s subdar telemetry, the missiles shot across the immediate deep space to intercept the incoming signals. The captain watched a lumigraph and witnessed the missiles approach the destroyers’ signatures—only to fly straight through them, arc completely around, and follow the false targets until they self-destructed.

     “Looks like you were right,” Atara told her. “Not that I wouldn’t have believed you.”

     “Captain!” said an Elestan on a lumigraph that opened before Atara.

     “What is it, Kyora?” Atara said, interpreting her identity based on her short, white hair.

     “I have a bad feeling,” the phantom expressed. “Give me authorization to mobilize the Auroras.”

     “Go,” Atara told her. “Do what you have to do.”

     “Thank you, captain,” Kyora said before disconnecting.

     “Now then,” Atara spoke. “Target that kicker and…”

     “Multiple new contacts detected!”

     Atara sighed and said, “Not again.”

     “Positively-confirmed by optics,” said the bridge officer. “These are real. Multiple corvette- and frigate-class ships deshrouding within twenty kilometers!”

     “How could we not detect their omnium signatures that close?” Atara asked.

     “They could be using conventional nuclear reactors,” Xannissa explained, “but we can discuss that later. I really should go back to engineering.”

     “Why didn’t you leave sooner?” Sesh asked. It was only partially a joke.

     “Shut up, you,” Xannissa quickly retorted as she hurried toward the lifts.

     Sesh stated, “Those corvettes would chew our strikecraft to pieces.”

     “But they’re too close for our missiles,” Atara replied. To her bridge she shouted, “How effective are our eighty-centimeter cannons against those corvettes?”

     The tactical officer asked, “Is that an order to fire, captain?”

     “Not necessarily,” Atara turned and told her, “but if you think they can do the job, by all means.”

     “Aye, captain. Engaging corvettes with eighty-centimeter plasma.”

     Upon the Kelsor’s surface was a well-organized, loose mosaic of invisible hatches. The missile tube hatches—twenty-two of the eighty-eight having just been used—were now closed. There were ten much larger hatches—five dorsal and five ventral—that opened to reveal turrets that emerged from the hull’s protective SIRAC shell. Each turret possessed dual cannons capable of firing solid or plasma projectiles with diameters of eighty-centimeters. Once the sleek turrets were secured in their combat positions beyond the hull, the twenty cannons aligned themselves along the trajectories of their targets and fired in a sustained cycle of one bolt from each cannon every three seconds. The dual cannons in each turret operated alternatively, so each turret unleashed a glowing, white projectile in half that time.

     The corvettes altered their trajectories constantly in an attempt to fool the Kelsor’s targeting systems. With Fiori’s direct help, however, the fire control system could discern an emergence of predictable order in the marauders’ deliberate chaos. Using this data, the cannons were able to land what appeared to the marauders as several lucky shots that dealt severe damage to a few of the corvettes. Damaged or not, the crafts accelerated toward the battlecruiser with all the impulse that their reaction engines could produce. Once close enough to the Kelsor as to defeat the turning radii of the eighty-centimeter cannons, the passengers aboard the corvettes activated their personal jump drives and launched themselves through subspace toward the vulnerable battlecruiser.

     A brief moment earlier, Xannissa exited the lift at engineering wearing a full suit of SIRAC armor over the dark gray combat bodysuit. The department was more abuzz than usual given the present circumstances. Her eyes darted from her personnel, to the synerdrive cores, the mediator, lumigraphy tables, and finally Lieren.

     After rushing past her staff and to the cadet, she said, “What are you doing here? You should be in your quarters!”

     “I know,” Lieren told her. The young Larissian was visibly afraid. “I was worried about taking the lifts. Are we really under attack?”

     “We most certainly are,” Xannissa assured her. “You need to armor up.”

     Lieren noticed the two armored Auroras now standing at the lifts’ entrances. Recalling her ongoing Accellus training, she quickly sheathed herself in her own armor.

     “Why are you in engineering, anyway?” Xannissa asked her.

     “I came looking for you,” said the cadet.

     “You could have opened a lume.”

     “I know,” Lieren said, distraught. “I didn’t want to disturb you. And then I heard the drives stop.”

     Xannissa told her, “That’s when the spatial wave hit us.”

     “Spatial what?”

     “It’s a hyperwarp interdiction technique,” Xannissa explained—her tone betraying her frustration. She rested an arm on the lumigraphy table while she analyzed the Kelsor’s systems in the virtual space. She noticed the large increase in mass expenditure from the use of the eighty-centimeter cannons. “A hyperwarp core can emit a pulse that distorts local hyperspace. It’s a common tactic to force engagements by pulling ships back into the material plane. We call it a ‘kick.’”

     “But why?”

     “Some syndicate rogues pulled us over because they want the synerdrive. That’s what happens when you cruise around with bleeding-edge technology.”

     Lieren’s eyes widened at the thought. She never considered that the Kelsor’s advanced technology could make them such a large target or that anyone could catch them if they were.

     “Just stick close to me,” Xannissa told her while she continued to pour over her lumigraphs.

     One of the Auroras yelled, “Blinkers!” A series of flashes and explosive thunder rattled the teams of technicians and engineers. Lieren felt a hand on her back pushing her to the ground. Xannissa dropped down beside her and pushed the cadet’s face to the floor. With her head looking to the side, she saw the emergence of a towering marauder in yellow armor with triplicate red stripes running down his suit. Two large guns unfolded from his back—each a triple-barreled, belt-fed, linear motor system—, and he grabbed the handles and squeezed the triggers. Just like that, engineering became a battlefield. The Auroras sought cover behind walls, terminals, and deployable static barriers from the barrage of kinetic rounds as they fired plasma bolts from their own assault drivers. The intruder alert warnings were barely audible above the sounds of ricocheting bullets and expanding plasma bolts. Xannissa dragged the cadet behind the lumigraphy table before fabricating a helmet and a driver. After lifting herself up into a crouch, Xannissa and the others throughout the department heard another blink followed by a blood-curdling scream. Using her firearm to peer around the table’s corner, she saw the source: one of the marauders missed his landing. Half of his body was now irreversibly melded with the floor. The ceiling autoturrets, equipped with their own omnium reservoirs, fabricated above to deal with the intruders as two more blinked in a half meter above the floor—leery of repeating the mistake of the one that accidentally killed himself. They dropped to the floor, unfolded their guns, and before they could all begin firing, one of their torsos had been reduced to an oozing, molten hole by the streams of focused plasma fire. Another took a lumionically-contained, white-hot beam from a shoulder-mounted cannon directly to the helmet that quickly evaporated his armor and vaporized his head. More Auroras were streaming into engineering now to match the marauders’ metal slugs with their own white plasma. The projectiles sliced through the air hitting walls, shields, armor, and flesh. Lieren wanted to be the strong woman she knew her mother had been, but in the present tribulation, she clasped both ears, shut her eyes, and began to sob. Tears streamed down her girlish, lilac face.

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