“Is that what you wanted to show me?” Kyora asked as she entered the omnimology laboratory-turned workshop alone—one of the few instances you would ever see her without Virn outside of a mission. The device she pointed to rested on a bench in the center of the room and was flanked by Namara and Xannissa. Souq was seated a little further away.
“Indeed it is, colonel,” Namara said. “It’s a little something that Doctor Souq imagined when confronted with a little problem of ours.”
Kyora asked, “And what might that be?”
“MARAD wants us to destroy the ecksivar sample if we can’t retrieve it,” Namara explained.
“But it can’t be destroyed,” Souq added, “so we had to double-down on retrieval as our only option.”
“What you’re actually looking at,” Xannissa told her, “is a homecooked VARICOR jump drive system scaled down to fit into the size of a drone. Its sole purpose is to house the ecksivar sample and fling it off into deep space.”
“You’re going to make me carry this on my back and infiltrate the Voulgenathi with it?” Kyora said to them, sounding unsurprised.
“I’m glad you understand,” Namara said.
Souq said, “When the syndicate attacked us and I saw how you handled yourself, I knew we had an infiltrator. Xannissa and her team have gone above and beyond to put this thing together.”
“Does it work?” Kyora asked.
“Of course,” Xannissa assured her. “In simulation.”
“Simulations will be good enough for this.”
“Guess I’ll have to trust you on that.”
Namara said, “If you would, switch into your combat variant for a moment. We’re going to fit the drone on your back.” The phantom complied. She stood before them in her sparse SIRAC and combat bodysuit. Xannissa used her gravitics to assist her in lifting the heavy drone from the bench and attaching it to Kyora’s back. Kyora’s gravitics automatically compensated for the added weight, making her feel lighter.
“The drone will have its own built-in omnium supply,” Xannissa explained. “We designed it so that you’ll be able to tap into that reservoir, but there’s a caveat. The drone will keep a certain amount in reserve for the jump system, so try to use the reservoir sparingly so you don’t run out of your allocation.”
“Don’t worry. I can’t do much killing with this big-ass thing attached to me.”
“Engage your shrouding system for a moment,” Xannissa said. Kyora did so, and her entire body, including the jump drone, disappeared from the others’ view. “Thanks. The drone incorporates with your shroud. That was my biggest worry.” The phantom then disengaged the shroud and reappeared before them. Xannissa detached the drone and placed it back upon the lab bench.
“We’ll keep it safe here in the lab,” Namara said. “Just remember to come pick it up and take it with you when you board the Voulgenathi.”
“About yesterday,” Kyora started.
“What’s that?” Xannissa asked.
“It was fun. We should do it again.”
As the Kelsor’s confrontation with the Voulgenathi drew nearer, Krystal, with Fiori’s help, arranged a transmission with the Avenathi Magisterial Assembly. Krystal sat at the table in her private quarters before a lumigraph. Four elsheem were gathered on the screen with barely enough room to fit all of their heads.
“You know, that Archon of yours… Fiori, was it?” asked the magister from before who occupied the right most side of the screen. He spoke in Avenathi. “She is quite impressive; much more so than the Alliance’s Patriarch, that is.”
“Please, Magister Leyondin. Let the queen speak!” said the elshi on the far left. Also known as Voice Leyondin, he was the Voice of the Assembly: a title on par with prime minister. Ironically, he also loved to talk. The elshi, on the other hand, was also a member of the Assembly and the grand admiral of the Avenathi Liberation Fleet which until recently was quite weak. Smashed between them were two more Assembly members: the grand general and the current representative of House Syoness.
“My sincerest apologies, magistress,” Leyondin said. The magistress glared at him.
Krystal said, “I’m sorry you couldn’t meet in a more comfortable setting.”
“I apologize, my lady, but I simply cannot take you seriously as you appear now,” said the general. “May I ask that you please remove that unpleasant human disguise?” Without a word, Krystal pressed her fingers to the two modules that rested behind her ears. At once, her eyes turned green, her hair a vibrant red, and her auricles grew several centimeters longer. “My queen!” the general gasped, and he bowed his head.
“I’m short on time,” Queen Illeiri told them. “This ship, the Greater Federation Vessel Kelsor, will intercept the Voulgenathi within the week. Is the Assembly ready to retake the country?”
“Yes, your majesty,” the admiral said. “Twenty billion soldiers and five-hundred-thousand warships are standing by, and you won’t believe the battle gear they’re using.”
“Remember that deal you brokered with the Federation two decades ago?” Leyondin asked. “Well, it’s finally paid off. It’s all on loan, but those soldiers are equipped with top-of-the-line Magus armor from Avond Designs: power armor built for elsheem physiology. Those ships were built in secret at the docks on the Federation Frontier by Miokogen and GreDrive. Our brightest have been advising the Federation on Avenathi design considerations since you finished your negotiations. Here are some pictures.”
The four faces were replaced by a slideshow of military hardware. One of the pictures showed the male and female variants of a battle suit that looked almost like Accellus. The armor was a deep red, and the helmet, armor, and weapon shapes were more organic in form, matching a more Avenathian aesthetic. The spiraling Star of Avenath emblem was placed on the right breast, replacing the Federation Triangle. The starships shown in the other images possessed similar appearances to the Kelsor, but shared the Magus armor’s color scheme.
“As soon as Taretes dies,” said the general behind the pictures, “we will take back Avenath.”
“As much as I have longed to slice his throat,” Illeiri admitted, “I’ve decided it’s best if I leave him alive.”
“Your majesty, are you out of your mind?” asked the House Syoness representative. The slideshow disappeared and Illeiri saw the elsheem faces again.
Illeiri explained, “He doesn’t deserve the honorable death I would give him. He’s on a mission for the Alliance. If he flees after the Kelsor catches him as he likely will—the pig’s a coward—then he will be an utter disgrace to his executor masters. His blood will be on their hands, and he will die with dishonor.”
“What if he goes into hiding?” the admiral asked.
“I know Taretes,” Illeiri said. “I’ve studied him for two centuries. I know how he thinks and who he serves. He’s too much of a coward to run and hide. His master is the current supreme executor of the Alliance. He would hunt Taretes across the galaxy. His master is the only one he trusts, and he truly fears him. He’ll try to make amends for his failure as quickly as possible. Admiral, general, hold off your assault until that day comes.”
“As you wish,” the admiral said. “We place our utmost faith in you, your majesty.”
“Farewell,” Illeiri said before terminating the transmission. She leaned back, rested her booted legs upon the table, and placed her hands behind her head. Visions of final victory danced behind her closed eyelids.
Just outside the room, Kyora and Virn were about to page Krystal when they noticed that her door was unlocked. Keeping with their desire to surprise Krystal with an invitation to dinner, they opened the door without alerting her and made their way inside.
When they saw Krystal’s figure, Virn asked, “Krystal, would you to join us for dinner this evening?”
“Sure,” she said. “I’d like that.” When her eyes met theirs, Krystal noticed that they were frozen in their stares.”
“Krystal?” Virn asked in shock. Krystal looked down at herself and noticed the locks of red hair over her bodysuit. She had forgotten to reengage her camouflage. In a panic, Krystal reached behind her ears to revert her appearance, but it was too late. Kyora said nothing. She recognized an elsheem when she saw one. Just like that, Krystal’s secret was out. The three of them remained speechless. Krystal’s heart was pounding out of her chest.
Shit! Krystal thought. What have I done?
“It’s no use hiding from you anymore,” she told them. “My true identity is Illeiri Syoness, an elshi, and I’m on a mission to restore the old Avenathi Commonwealth.” After Krystal said this, Kyora slowly turned around and left the room.
“Kyora!” Virn called out before chasing after her.
Kyora kept her silence until she and Virn had stopped in an observatory and were staring out at the starscape. She looked at Virn and said, “I’m sorry, Virn, but when I saw that… woman… just now, I saw those elsheem bottom-feeders on Mirida: my first memories. The hate, the torture, the pain. I feel betrayed.”
“I understand why you feel that way,” Virn said, “but surely she’s on our side. Surely she’s not a spy.”
“You are correct,” Fiori said as she appeared behind them. The archon explained to the pair of Auroras Illeiri’s purpose aboard the ship and in her grand strategy just as she explained it to Atara.
“I can’t believe we’re helping those monsters,” Kyora said.
“Until you found out she was elsheem,” Virn noted, “you respected her.”
Fiori said, “Unfortunately, hatred against the elsheem by the general Federation population has never been greater than it is now. The Elsheem State’s current political stance is primarily to blame. Humans and elsheem have been at odds with one another since the Persean Expansion during the period following the Miridan Civil War. Around that time, the Commonwealth of Avenath was a large and powerful state, but it was no match for the Miridan Rangers that protected the burgeoning colonies of Mirida. Mainly through attrition, the Commonwealth shrank to what the Elsheem State is today, surrounded on all sides by humanity.”
“Thanks, Fiori,” Kyora said. “You just gave me more reasons to hate her.” The Elestan shook her head.
“That was not my intention,” Fiori said. “I was merely highlighting the struggles in human-elsheem relations over the past four-thousand years.”
“Virn, where are you going?” Kyora asked after seeing her friend depart from the corner of her eye.
“To apologize to Krystal—for the both of us.”
Kyora stood her ground as the Exan departed the observatory.