Two days passed. Those who lost friends during the syndicate attack grieved their passing. The bodies of the marauders that died on the Kelsor were extracted from their armor, placed into stasis to halt their decomposition, and situated inside a large cargo container. The container was fitted with a subspace beacon. If the Three Brothers Syndicate cared enough about their dead, they would find them. At least, that was Atara’s reasoning. Atara ordered the ship to stop in deep space for just a few minutes—long enough for the Kelsor’s tractor system to launch the container into the black.
On the morning of the thirty-ninth day, Xannissa insisted that the Kelsor stop to acquire more matter that the battlecruiser’s onboard refinery could convert into fresh omnium. It wasn’t until the next day that they arrived in a largely-vacant star system with a significant asteroid belt. With the triumvirate gathered on the bridge, Xannissa consulted with Atara and Sesh and settled on a ten-kilometer-long asteroid from which they would gather raw material. On Atara’s orders, Naret guided the battlecruiser to within a thousand meters of the asteroid’s surface. Xannissa took the lifts to a cargo bay she had ordered emptied in anticipation. Gravitics in that bay had been shut off, and Xannissa compensated for the weightlessness with her Accellus. From there, she looked through the bay’s airscreen and gazed upon the asteroid’s dark gray regolith. She watched the Kelsor’s shadow curve across the pock-marked, uneven surface. The Elestan communicated with her team, and the ship’s port-side gravitic tractor activated. The tight cone of artificial gravitational flux swept across the asteroid’s surface, and the asteroid’s ancient regolith departed from it like a river of dust. The regolith flowed toward the tractor’s source until it was caught by the bay’s stronger gravitics being projected beyond the airscreen. The dust was formed into a sphere, and as it gained mass, mass from it was slowly drawn into a long, hexagonal cargo container positioned just beyond the cargo bay’s airscreen which was held in place by gravitics. The regolith was compressed, the container sealed, and the gravitics system of the cargo bay, acting like an invisible crane, rotated the container vertically and dragged it into the hold. What loose dust was on it was pushed back into space by the airscreen. An empty container was driven through the barrier into space, and the process was repeated until the Kelsor had collected three-thousand cubic meters of regolith—the entire matter-harvesting process taking about an hour.
That evening, Krystal Zara locked the door to her private quarters. She had anxiously awaited this moment since first boarding the Kelsor five weeks ago. The woman opened her small locker, grabbed the box she had deposited aboard, and placed it on her bed. Inside was a small, black device with only one purpose. She grabbed the tiny device—a cube—and placed it on her desk. Krystal sat down in the desk chair, opened a lumigraph, and pressed the cube’s top. As the cube’s sides flashed red, the lumigraph before her closed and reopened a total of four times—behavior consistent with either poorly written, malicious, or surreptitious software. After the cube’s software had finished its work, the lumigraph stabilized and presented an image of a red symbol against a black background. The symbol was a surviving relic of a state senselessly upended. No one younger than two-hundred years was likely to recognize it as the Star of Avenath: a small circle in the center with four flares radiating away from it in a clockwise spiral. The image changed to that of a man with white hair, a smooth face, and pointed auricles—an elshe, and he was just sitting down as if she caught him unprepared. Visual artifacts corrupted the image from time to time, but they were the consequence of snaking her pirate transmission through the Federation’s Q-comms and sub-comms network.
“Illeiri?” the elshe on the screen asked in Avenathi. “I mean… um… Krystal! Krystal Zara! It’s been almost ten years!”
“Please excuse my silence, magister,” Krystal responded, also speaking in Avenathi. “This is the first time that I was able to….”
“Hold on, your majesty,” said the magister. “You were on the Akkain station posing as a guard until the Revolutionaries struck it and made off with the black omnium they’ve been so intent on possessing. Then, you befriended the Federation, and are on the fastest ship ever constructed: the Kelsor? Correct me if I’m wrong, of course.”
“I didn’t need to report anything, after all,” said Krystal. The magister grinned.
“Those Revolutionary dogs still don’t know you’re alive,” the magister stated, “even after two whole centuries. If the Federation will openly support you, you will no doubt defeat that bastard pretender Taretes.”
“Don’t mention his name to me,” Krystal said coldly.
“I apologize, your majesty,” said the magister. His expression changed to fear when he said “Oh no… our transmission’s been detected. We barely even got to say ‘hello,’ too! Be safe, your majesty! Terminating now.” His image vanished, and so did the lumigraph she was watching him through. The door to her quarters slid open despite her lock, and two Auroras dressed in full sets of white armor marched in toting drivers.
“Krystal Zara!” one of them shouted. “You are under arrest. Hands and face forward!” Krystal did not resist. She held out her arms and stared straight ahead with unflinching eyes as the guards put circular restrainers on her that covered her wrist bracelets and the ankle guards of the boots. The restrainers locked her out of any conscious Accellus functionality, and when the wrist pieces locked into place, a ring of light on the side of each restrainer turned from green to red. The guards commanded her to stand, and they escorted her out of the room.
“Captain Atara, may I see you in your office?” Fiori’s orange figure had appeared before Atara who was enjoying her evening meal with Xannissa in their quarters.
Atara finished chewing her bite before saying, “What is it?” Unfortunately, Fiori vanished before she could get the words out. The captain sighed and looked at Xannissa who simply shrugged her shoulders. “I guess I need to go see what this is about.”
“That’s fine,” Xannissa told her. “I hope it’s nothing too serious.” Atara left their quarters, rode the lifts up to the bridge, waved at and quickly told Sesh she was going to be in her office for a moment, and walked through one of the aft corridors past the briefing room and walked through her office door. Fiori was standing there waiting on her.
“What is this about?” Atara asked her. She was concerned that this involved Aesho, but she was calm in her inquiry. The captain slowly approached her desk. Fiori said nothing until the office door reopened and two armored Auroras marched in with a Terran in tow.
“Captain,” said one of the Auroras, “this starman was caught sending a transmission to an unauthorized receiver via illicit software. What are your orders?” Atara’s temper sparked. Betrayal was unacceptable. Atara moved closer to examine the face of the accused, but the captain was taken aback by who she was.
“Captain,” Fiori said across the room, “please allow me to elucidate matters. If you would, please dismiss the guards.” Atara treated as a pet peeve any orders from her superiors that were meant for her subordinates, but because it was Fiori, it was easy for her to let it slide off her back.
“Wait outside my office,” Atara told them, and they nodded in compliance. Krystal had no idea what was going on, so what Fiori was about to say was just as much a mystery to her as it was to Atara. Once the Auroras left and the door closed, Krystal’s bindings turned from red to green and unlocked—a work of Fiori’s seeming omnipotence.
Atara crossed her arms while she turned to Fiori, saying, “I despise being that captain that just blindly follows orders, so by all means, enlighten me.”
“I would be more than happy to oblige.” Fiori told her as she stepped between Krystal and the captain. “Krystal Zara is an alias. Her human appearance is a disguise. The female that stands before you is not a woman but an elshi. Her real name is Illeiri Syoness, heir to the throne of the now-defunct Commonwealth of Avenath.”
“The Commonwealth remains,” Illeiri said with passion. The elshi used her anger to suppress her fear.
“From a literal standpoint, that is correct,” Fiori stated as she looked toward Illeiri. “As long as you are alive, your sovereignty is legal.”
“I’m only still alive because of subterfuge,” Krystal admitted.
“Please,” Atara said, growing annoyed with her lack of immediate understanding, “just tell me what is going on here.” Looking directly at Fiori, she asked, “Why did you put a renegade elsheem royal masquerading as a human aboard my ship?”
“You are correct in assuming it was my doing,” Fiori explained. “I crafted the Krystal persona and allocated the espionage technology that has allowed her to walk among humans inconspicuously.” Krystal felt behind both ears and touched both places simultaneously. Suddenly, her head transformed as it had for Doctor Iveti the day she received her NI upgrade. Her hair changed from blonde to a red more vibrant than Atara’s own and eyes just as green. The auricles of her ears were ten centimeters longer, and a pair of black devices appeared, one situated behind each ear. “Allow me to start from the beginning,” said Fiori.
“Please,” said Atara. “I want everything.” Fiori knew the extent of Atara’s knowledge on elsheem history, so the orange figure kept things simple; far from the state of things. Over two centuries ago, House Syoness was elected into power in Avenath, the birthplace of the strikingly humanlike elsheem race, the capitol of the old Commonwealth of Avenath, and capitol of the current Elsheem State. Avenath was the only planet ever discovered to be inhabited by intelligent humanoid life while possessing a native supply of omnium; accounts of which date back to prehistory. Decades after House Syoness took power, and due to increasing influence from the neighboring Alliance, a popular revolution led by the current Emperor Taretes led to the fall of the Magisterial Assembly—the ruling body of Avenathi nobles—, and until now, no member of House Syoness was thought to have survived.
“After the revolution,” Fiori continued, “the Avenathi Magisterial Assembly went into exile, and they shielded Illeiri from the Empire. The state of Avenath was incorporated into the Alliance’s corporate confederacy and was granted representation on the Executive Board with Taretes acting as the Executor of Avenath.
“When Illeiri surfaced, she was already on Earth. It was then that she requested political asylum. When her background was verified, she was secretly granted citizenship and began working with the clandestine services of the Federation government to organize a reinstatement of the Commonwealth of Avenath. This plan involves interfering with the activities of the Elsheem State, such as the reacquisition of ecksivar.”
“What makes ecksivar so important to them that they are willing to risk war to steal it?” asked Atara.
“You assume the Revolutionaries want it for the same reasons you do,” said Illeiri, “for research. Avenathi intel suggests that it is meant for a far more sinister purpose.”
“It is not the Elsheem State that wants it,” Illeiri explained. “The Alliance does, and they sent their elsheem lapdogs to retrieve it.”
“Military Intelligence has arrived at identical conclusions,” Fiori stated.
“Are they planning to weaponize it somehow?” Atara asked.
“There is additional information that I must finally divulge,” said Fiori. “Please wait while I retrieve it.” Atara and Illeiri stood quietly, almost awkwardly, for ninety seconds as Fiori’s image took on an unnatural statuesque appearance; frozen where she stood. Not a virtual muscle in her virtual body moved. Her eyelids, which had blinked with biotic regularity, were stuck open. Eventually, Fiori blinked her eyes, subtly expanded her chest to simulate breathing, turned her head and said “Please look at this.” A lumigraph appeared at Atara’s desk, and Atara moved to sit in her chair. Illeiri and Fiori stood to either side of her. Atara’s eyes widened when she assessed the document. Displayed before them was the first page of a secret Military Advanced Research and Development document briefly describing a research project undertaken by Akkain Technologies.
“This is why Aesho wants ecksivar,” Atara whispered. The document’s abstract claimed that based on prior experimentation, ecksivar had the ability to neutralize orivar and military synthevars, and the goal of the project was to turn this characteristic into a weapon. The exact mechanism by which ecksivar neutralized other omnium synethvars was not detailed on the abstract, but that was all Fiori gave them.
“It would appear that the Federation’s goals are more aligned with those of the Alliances’ after all,” said Fiori to Illeiri. “This document merely introduces the idea.”
“What more can you give me?” Atara asked. “I want to know more about this.”
“I am unwilling to risk detection by the retrieval and decryption of additional classified MARAD information,” said Fiori. “If you are interested, the person to ask is aboard this ship. Doctor Quen Souq led the Akkain research team on the project until his sample of ecksivar was stolen from his laboratory.”
“Back to you… Illeiri,” said Atara. She was staring at Illeiri’s elsheem features and how not-too-dissimilar they were to human anatomy. Before the captain could speak again, Illeiri started saying something.
“You mentioned Aesho? Admiral Aesho?”
“I did,” said Atara.
“She knows who I am and what I’m fighting for,” said Illeiri, more confident as an elsheem than as a human.
“Did you trust her?”
“Yes. She has assisted me and the Magisterial Assembly since I came to the Federation. She granted my request to participate in this mission which has more import to my people than it does to yours. If the Revolutionaries fail, the Alliance will forsake them, and without the Alliance backing it, the State will crumble.”
“I wish I could believe Aesho to be that altruistic,” Atara told her, “but the Federation has much to gain from a friend so close to our enemies.” Atara approached the elshi and said “I want to foster a genuine friendship between human and elsheem. I will do all that I can to show you I’m trustworthy. All I ask is that you do the same for me.”
“With honor,” Illeiri said. She took a customary elsheem bow that Atara had never seen before, and upon straightening, said, “If you help me now, the Federation as a state, and you as a person, will always be my friend.”
“I hope that, in time,” Atara said, “my people will erase the stigmas associated with the elsheem and that our two species can coexist in harmony. Until then, it is best that you continue wearing your camouflage.”
“Agreed,” Illeiri nodded. She pressed the devices behind her auricles and reactivated her camouflage—her hair becoming blonde and her ears humanlike. She thus resumed the alias Krystal.
“I’m astounded that you haven’t been detected yet,” Atara told her.
“This system is Federation-made,” Krystal said, smiling, “and was designed to defeat even Federation sensors.”
“I have one request,” Fiori said. “Do not send anymore unauthorized transmissions. If there is anything that the Magisterial Assembly must hear, bring the information to me, and I will send it to them.” Krystal nodded.
“You’re dismissed,” Atara told Krystal. Atara followed Krystal through the door, picked up Krystal’s bindings using her suit’s gravitics, handed the bindings to the guards, and said “Escort her back to her quarters.”
“Affirmative, captain,” said the Auroras, curious yet asking no questions.