“Intruder alert. Level four security breach.”
There was only one thing that came to Doctor Souq’s mind when he heard the words echoed by Fiori’s adjunct. His daughter was somewhere aboard this ship, and so long as there was an active security breach, Lieren was in danger. With nothing left to protect in his life but her, he leapt from his desk chair and put on the Accellus boots that he had been encouraged to wear for his own safety. He didn’t like the feeling of having his body wrapped in a bodysuit, but at least he could don his usual attire over it. Though the suit easily covered his male anatomy, it could not as easily hide it, and that made him uncomfortable. As soon as he was dressed, he threw away common sense and opened the door. He poked his head out only to be shoved back inside by passing Auroras.
“Remain in your quarters!” they commanded him.
“I need to find my daughter!” he pleaded.
One of them, knowing who he was and reasoning who his daughter might be based on names, said, “Adjunct, locate Lieren Souq.”
The adjunct responded, “Cadet Lieren Souq is in main engineering.”
“It’s a war zone over there,” one of the Auroras stated.
“Please, I’m begging you,” Souq pleaded once more. “She’s all I have left.” The man was on his knees now and grabbing the hand of who he perceived to be the leader. The leader of the group sighed through her helmet. Her Accellus was mostly exposed bodysuit.
“Armor up and you can follow us,” she told him.
“H-how do I do that?”
“I really don’t have time for this,” she told him. She grabbed him by the wrist, dragged him to his feet, and used his lumionic interface to recall his clothing and fabricated for him a suit of SIRAC.
“Just remember this,” she instructed, “do not get in our way.” The scientist nodded. The Aurora in the phantom armor configuration motioned to her girls and they set off down the darkened corridor. Bold lumigraphs on the walls visually announced the ongoing state of emergency aboard the battlecruiser. The group moved swiftly and cautiously from hallway to hallway as they followed the sounds of weapons fire. When they arrived at one of the local arteries, they encountered a firefight that forced them to hang back. In the wide corridor beyond, a line of three white, hovering battle drones lobbed plasma bolts from their twin cannons toward a group of heavies. Each drone was under Fiori’s direct control. The phantom knew that the only one who could authorize their use was Atara. The captain made the right choice, she thought.
“Colonel Teseri,” said one of the Auroras, “how should we proceed?”
“Hold your ground,” Kyora told them. “Let the drones do their work.”
The battle drones were only a quarter of the size of an ALAT, and they were truly the only heavy infantry in the Federation’s arsenal. As most of Civilized Space—including the Federation—was still leery of using fully autonomous weapons systems for frontline combat, their deployment was rare and always required senior level authorization. One of the drone’s lumionic systems eventually gave up, reset, and exposed the drone’s armor to direct kinetic bombardment. It wasn’t long before the drone’s exterior had been penetrated. The syndicate bullets shredded its innards, and the drone stopped firing. It’s dying husk drifted to the floor, shooting off sparks and flames. The other two battle drones soldiered on, completely immune to the psychological aspects of battle. Their persistent advance was enough to drive the surviving marauders back down the corridor.
“This is our chance,” Kyora told them. “Make for the other side! Now!” The group, led by Virn, charged across the open corridor, past the dead drone, and into the other hallway. Kyora brought up the rear until all of them were safely across, including Souq. The group moved about twenty meters down the hallway before something made them stop.
“Subspace rift detected,” said the adjunct’s voice. A lumigraph marked the location of an incoming blinker. Two seconds later—barely enough time to spread out—, the rift exploded and out came another marauder who slammed his feet to the ground. Reacting purely on instinct, Kyora charged the heavy suit as its user got his bearings. The phantom leapt through the air, fabricated her knife mid-flight, guided her jump over the marauder using her gravitics, sliced through the back of the marauder’s neck with her glowing knife as she vaulted over his head, and rolled as she landed on the ground. She crouched there—smoking blade in hand—as the marauder’s body fell forward. His armor thudded against the floor.
Atara and Sesh watched the Kelsor’s white plasma shoot across the dorsal hull and slam into the last corvette. Proving tougher than it appeared, the craft continued to barrel toward the battlecruiser which prompted Atara to order that Naret change course.
“Affirmative, captain,” Naret responded. “Steering to port two-eight-zero minus one-five.” The corvette’s shields ultimately capitulated to the endless bolt barrage. The entire forward section of the small craft’s armor melted and broke apart.
“Great work,” Atara said to her bridge in a normal tone that only Sesh and Naret could hear. Louder, she asked, “How many marauders are still on my ship?”
“Two-hundred-thirty,” Fiori said after appearing to Atara. “Your adjunct detects one more subspace signature on the bridge.”
When the lumigraphic markers visualized, Sesh yelled, “Everybody down!” She, Atara, and most of the other bridge officers—all of whom had been sheathed in armor since the intruder alert began—fabricated weapons. The Auroras that were guarding the bridge stepped forward into the bridge’s center circle and prepared to meet the marauders that exploded into the most secure area of the ship, immediately triggering a level five breach warning. The captain and the commander leapt over the divider that separated the center circle from the ring of terminals that formed the aft perimeter of the bridge. The other officers, including Ethis, took up positions in that cover next to them.
“Naret!” Atara yelled. She was the only one of the regular bridge officers left in the open. Not even Fiori’s image was still present. The marauder armed his twin, triple linear motor cannons and started spraying the bridge. The Auroras were reluctant to battle him because Naret was potentially within their line of fire. Against all compulsion to cower down behind the giant suit of armor and knowing that the other bridge officers were in immediate danger, Naret fabricated a handgun, held it firmly with both hands, lifted herself out of her seat with gravitics, and fired the gun point-blank into the back of the marauder’s neck repeatedly until he fell to his knees. When the firefight was over, Naret was still suspended in the air. Her trembling hands still clenched the gun and would not let go. She couldn’t catch her breath, either. Atara and Sesh emerged from cover first. They grabbed Naret’s body from both sides, pulled her down to the floor, and praised her for her bravery. The other officers joined in the praise, but it was short-lived as the Kelsor still needed to contend with the remaining marauders aboard, the frigates circling about them, and the kicker ship ready to emit more spatial waves to keep the synerdrive grounded.
“Scramble the strikecraft,” Atara ordered.
After a brief, yet successful, round of counseling cleared her head, Cylenna was back on duty. She was already wearing her Accellus’ piloting configuration: helmet, bracers, boots, and dark gray bodysuit. The hangar had seen its share of combat between the Auroras and syndicate marauders, but that didn’t stop her and the pilots from running to their aerospace strikecraft.
“You ready, Ice?” she shouted to one of her fellow pilots she was fast becoming friends with.
“Yeah, I’ll try to save you a piece of the action!” Ice was a Larissian and a Predator interceptor pilot.
Arriving at her Savid Astronautics Goshawk aerospace superiority fighter, Cylenna used her gravitics to ascend into the cockpit. The vehicle was sleek—a design choice that was not only aesthetically pleasing but also aerodynamic and allowed it to cut through atmospheres during blue space engagements. It possessed a warp system that was designed for intrasystem travel only. The fighter relied on a mothership like the Kelsor for interstellar transit. Once inside the craft, there was a minimum of control systems. The vehicle immediately identified her, and through her Accellus’ interface, she switched the craft’s ODEC from standby to active. As the fusion engines roared to life, Cylenna’s helmet display changed to serve as her vehicle HUD. Most people knew Cylenna as a racer, so when they realized she flew superiority fighters rather than the faster interceptors, she told them it was two-fold: superiority fighters were on top of the strikecraft food chain and fighter pilots flew more missions more often than interceptors according to Military statistics.
After performing her cockpit checklist, she EM-commed strikecraft control. “Big Boss, this is Spectre One. Ready to taxi, over.”
“Roger Spectre One. Taxi to fence and hold, over.”
“Wilco. Holding at fence.”
Cylenna engaged the craft’s gravitics but held the fusion engines at idle. The Goshawk crept slowly from its bay and into the hangar’s main area. She turned it to face the lumionic airscreen and drifted until her craft’s nose almost touched it. The other strikecraft in her flight borrowed her usual nickname as their callsign, and they lined up behind her.
“Spectre ready for launch, over.”
“Roger, Spectre, you are go.”
Cylenna throttled up her gravitics such that her strikecraft fell through the airscreen at five g’s. After she was hundreds of meters away (only a few seconds), she throttled up her fusion engines and dialed back the gravitics. After initializing her warp drive, all three drive systems worked in a three-way synergy that conferred the Goshawk unrivaled maneuverability (except against interceptors) and saved omnium fuel for use in weapons and shield systems.
“Flights, destroy those frigates.”
“Wilco, Big Boss,” Cylenna said. EM-comms could become more distorted the farther from the Kelsor the strikecraft operated, but they relied on it for short-range communications first before using sub-comms in order to keep sub-comms free for long-range transmissions. Her flight of superiority fighters escorted a group of bombers toward one of the syndicate frigates. The strikecraft were weary of the eighty-centimeter plasma bolts and were cautious to avoid the firing lines between the Kelsor and their target frigates.
Kyora and Virn’s group of Auroras passed into the lower decks and toward engineering which had seen the fiercest of the fighting. They arrived in an outer corridor at one of the last ongoing exchanges between syndicate attackers and defending Auroras which happened to be in front of a closed blast door. It would be a while before the marauders’ miniature jump systems had recharged. Virn fabricated her sustainer and found a place behind a SIRAC container to lay down fire while some of the others—especially Kyora—attempted to flank the group of eleven marauders attempting to besiege engineering. Souq waited safely behind a corner with his hands gripping the sides of his helmet. Virn’s fire was able to bring down one, and she was hoping that the shock of seeing him die would drive the others into cover. On the contrary, the other ten faced her and fired at her with a combined sixty guns. The Exan’s lumionic system held on for a staggering nine seconds—she was mostly behind cover—before its potential reached critical low, prompting her and the others with her to crouch down behind barricades with their weapons in their arms to avoid the incoming fire. During the kinetic barrage, Virn released her right hand from her sustainer and fabricated a concussion grenade. She swiveled in place to give herself enough room to throw it, and she lobbed it right into the crowd of armored marauders. One of the braver—or foolish—ones picked it up when it landed, but as he prepared to toss it back, the grenade exploded. The detonation turned his hand into a cloud of metal chunks, bone, and blood that sprayed everything around him. The armor on his arm was shredded, and the weapons systems of several marauders suffered critical damage. Virn and the others felt the blast rock the crates and barricades protecting them. Without protection, the pressure wave would have made them deaf and damaged their lungs. With the marauders in momentary disarray, Virn and her group stood up again and opened fire. Their bolts ripped through the partially-pulverized marauder armor but only managed to bring down three before the marauders with functioning weapons restarted their suppressive fire.
While the marauders had their sights on Virn, the blast door behind them slowly opened upward. Once there was sufficient space between the floor and the door, a shrouded Kyora rolled beneath it, bounced to her feet, and started unleashing bolts from her heavy pistols directly into the weak neck armor of the marauders. In moments, Kyora had reduced the remaining marauders on this side of engineering to a pile of corpses. The phantom deshrouded after determining that the scene was safe. Any remaining grasp on life from any of the marauders was swiftly denied by her handguns.
Virn recalled her sustainer, took Souq by the hand, and led him into the engineering department. There, they found Xannissa kneeling over a visibly-shaken Lieren. With his helmet still on, and simultaneously not knowing how to take it off and not caring to, he knelt down and wrapped his arms around his daughter. Xannissa stood and backed away to give the father and daughter their space. He could feel her begin to sob, and he could no longer hold himself back. His helmet began filling with tears.
“Hyperwarp contact closing,” said one of the officers. Everyone was back at their stations. REMASS had repaired most of the damage to the bridge and its terminals while the Aurora had tagged the armored body so that the Kelsor’s internal gravitics could haul it away.
“Show me,” Atara ordered. When it appeared on the lumigraph, Atara remembered it immediately. “It’s that ship we thought was Archangels,” she told Sesh.
Sesh replied, “I guess we’ll see what happens.”
The Virga bombers dodged the limited anti-strikecraft fire from the remaining frigates as they worked to acquire a positive lock onto the ships’ engines. When those locks were confirmed, the bombers unloaded guided missiles from their bays, unleashed them, and broke off to circle around as their ordnance was replenished by onboard REMASS. This cycle kept the bombers a relatively safe distance from the frigates. On the other hand, the fighters flew much closer to the frigates’ hulls. The Goshawks closed in fast and strafed the frigates with plasma bolts and missiles, dealing direct damage to guns and weak-points while the Virga bombs blew out the fusion drive systems which sometimes resulted in catastrophic structural integrity failures.
“Crit another one!” Ice shouted over EM-comms as the frigate detonated from within and its hull buckled outward from the internal stress until it blew apart. Most ship destructions were never violent explosions, but the demolition was anything but uninteresting.
“Don’t get too cocky, Ice,” Cylenna told her in a more mature manner than Xannissa would have probably ever heard her speak if she had heard it.
“Hey now,” Ice responded. “I’ve seen you talk so much shit before races.”
“Well,” Cylenna said, “that’s before races. During one, I’m a pretty cool customer.”
“Bullshit!” Ice told her, laughing a little.
“Believe what you want,” Cylenna said. “I’ve seen people die on the track because they thought they were better than they were. Doesn’t mean I don’t take risks.”
Strikecraft control said, “Cut the chatter, flights.”
“Sorry, Big Boss,” Cylenna and Ice responded in unison.
“We have a new contact merging in the volume, ETA thirty seconds. Unknown dispo, eyes open.”
“Roger,” said the flight leaders.
After those thirty seconds passed, the unknown contact emerged from hyperspace between the Kelsor and the large syndicate kicker ship that still had yet to exchange any fire with the battlecruiser. When it emerged, it became clear that the craft was a giant, older but repurposed Federation carrier.
“Attention, Federation vessel,” said an Elestan with black hair buns in the lumigraph being presented to the Kelsor’s bridge. She wore a white and light blue Accellus 3 bodysuit. “I am Admiral Relex of the Archangel carrier Limitless Horizons. As you’ve no doubt seen, we’ve been following you since you passed Vandos. Not often do we see battlegroups come this far fringeward, much less solo voyagers, but when we do, they are often unprepared for the bandits of the Range.”
“What is it you want, mercenary?” Atara said. It wasn’t her intent to inject any condescension, but her tone belied her true feeling of relief.
“I’ll brush that one off, captain,” said Relex, “but that’s no way to talk to us. We’re just here to offer you safe passage. I’ve even deployed my complement to deal with that straggler.”
“I humbly thank you for your assistance,” Atara told her, trying to sound more positive.
“That’s more like it. By the way, who do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
“I am Captain Atara of the GFN Kelsor.”
“Ahh, yes. You’re quite the talk of the town at Vandos, if you have your ear to the ground. I didn’t believe it until we left dock and saw how fast you were going. Tell me this, from one commander to another… did GreDrive do it?”
“Would you believe me if I said ‘no?’”
“Come on, captain!” Relex laughed. “We’re on your side! Can’t you trust us for a moment? You know, many decades ago, I was in your shoes.”
“Okay, fine,” Atara said. “Yes, GreDrive did it.”
“That’s very good news,” Relex said, visibly pleased. “The future of the Federation looks brighter than ever. My girls and I will ensure your safe passage.”
“For a price, I assume.”
“Of course,” Relex assured her. “You must know how expensive it is just to operate one carrier such as this as a mercenary company. We don’t collect taxes except from passing merchants and Vandos.”
“How much do you want?”
“How much can you give?”
“I’m authorized to use a hundred-million for parley,” Atara explained.
“A hundred-million mecred? I swear, the Navy has gotten stingier.”
“I can give you half that,” Atara told her, ignoring her comment.
“Half?” Relex exclaimed.
“My girls handled most of the syndicate forces,” Atara explained. “You got here too late to contribute in any great capacity, but I’m still feeling generous.”
“Fine, captain. If I had known I was coming after your loose change I would have stayed in dock, but I see your point. Just know that we might be a little more reluctant in the future. We will take your offer of fifty million mecreds.”
“We have a deal?”
“Good. I’m wiring you the money as we speak,” Atara said before nodding to Ethis who nodded back. “I look forward to seeing you again.”
“If you ever step foot on Vandos,” Relex told her, “you owe me a drink.”
“Sure thing,” Atara said before closing the channel. To her officers, she said, “Recover our strikecraft. Once everyone is accounted for, I want to reengage hyperwarp.”