35 – Children of Darkness

“Incoming transmission,” Ethis announced.

     “Let’s hear it,” Atara ordered. The captain stood with her triumvirate in the middle of the bridge.

     “Ahh. Hello, Federation,” said an elshe from an appearing lume. Atara could see his trimmed, blond hair, gray eyes, elongated auricles, and masculine facial features despite the smoothness of his chin and jawline which had been forever hairless. His menacing voice was sprinkled with decadence, and his Miri was excellent. The elshe presented himself in shiny, black armor partially concealed by a matte, black overcoat. “You are in the presence of Valin Taretes, Emperor and Executor of the Elsheem State, a sovereign member of the Persean Corporate Alliance. I didn’t know the captain after me would be so attractive. Atara, right?”

     “Cut your engines and return our stolen property,” Atara demanded, “and you may spare yourself unnecessary bloodshed.”

     “Ha!” Taretes scoffed. “Do all of you Federation sound so self-righteous?”

     “I’m just offering you mercy,” Atara explained. “Is that a concept the elsheem can comprehend?”

     “You’ll need a lot more than a few words and a pretty face to stop this ship, captain,” Taretes said.

     “You have no idea what our battlecruiser is capable of.”

     “We’ll see then, won’t we?” The transmission terminated and the lumigraph disappeared.

     “Time to intercept?” Atara asked.

     Naret turned her chair around and said, “Eight hours, thirty-two minutes.”

     Atara faced Xannissa and asked, “Xann, are you ready to kick them when we’re in range?”

     “Of course,” said the Elestan engineer. “I’ll verify that the mediator is ready. It should already be recalibrated to an acceptable precision.”

     “What do you need the mediator for?” Sesh asked.

     “The thing is, Xannissa explained, “the drive cores were designed to operate entirely in sync, and this also applies to spatial wave generation. If we want to make anything bigger than subspace noise and actually kick a ship out of hyperwarp, we need both drives to fire at exactly the same moment. The mediator makes that possible.”

     Eager to get started, Xannissa traveled to main engineering and met with her direct subordinates. After coordinating with them, she moved to the mediator’s main terminal and began her final check on its calibration.

     “Is today the big day?” Lieren asked Xannissa from behind, startling the engineer who was reluctant to show it.

     “You nervous?” Xannissa responded as she kept her eyes on the terminal.

     “Honestly, I am.”

     “I think everyone is,” Xannissa assured her, “and if they say they aren’t, they’re lying. Now I feel like Atara did on the day we left Lanan. They should have never put cadets on this ship.” The Elestan broke away from the terminal, turned around to face Lieren, and said, “When we face the Voulgenathi, we’ll be fighting on our own terms. The Republic was able to stop that ship for forty hours in Onen, and they gathered loads of valuable intel for us. Bad news is that it’s sturdier and has sharper teeth than we thought, but the good news is that the Kelsor was designed for these kinds of confrontations.”

     “That makes me feel a little better,” Lieren told her. “I did want to know something, though. How does a kick actually work? Why can’t a ship just escape afterward?”

     “Sure!” Xannissa said happily. “The coils within the hyperwarp cores generate the fields we use to manipulate space and propel us through hyperspace. Those coils are supposed to hold a mostly-constant potential energy which we maintain by making gradual adjustments to our velocity. Spatial waves can only be made by ships in hyperwarp, even if it’s only for a brief moment, but the engine must be completely spooled up. Then, you tell the engines that you want to vector one-hundred-eighty degrees from your current trajectory. When the cores try to do this, it will always fail, and you will end up with this kind of hyperspatial shockwave that ripples out at the realspace-hyperspace interface. The crests and troughs that makes will force other ships’ hyperwarp cores to crash back into realspace and emergency stop, completely purging their coils of potential. Ours will have done the same, and every time you perform an emergency stop like that to these engines, they go into recovery mode which is exactly like turning them on for the first time. The potential has to rebuild within the engines before they can be restarted, and for us, takes about seven minutes. I’m not sure how long it will take the Voulgenathi, but judging by the information we have, I estimate about thirteen. Twelve or thirteen.

     “I apologize for bombarding you with that. You can stay here in engineering if you want,” Xannissa said before turning back to face her terminal. “Or, if you’d rather be with your fellow cadets, a good place for you would be within the vicinity of the medbay. It’s near the center of the ship and away from important systems. Actually, I think one of your classrooms is near there.”

     “It is,” Lieren said. “I’m going to see if I can pull the other cadets together.” Xannissa glanced back at the Larissian one more time and noticed the subtle glow of lumionics in her eyes: a sign that Lieren had grown comfortable with her Accellus. “Thank you, Xann.”

     “Don’t worry,” Xannissa told her. “Everything will be okay.”

     Virn had forgiven Krystal for her deception, but Kyora had not. Virn understood the reason for the necessary evil, but Krystal knew that it was different for Kyora. It saddened her to think that someone like Kyora would forever view her with disdain. In her Terran guise, Krystal walked the corridors alone that morning with those thoughts on her mind. The Kelsor was filled with a kind of focused silence. Despite the tenseness from the imminent confrontation with their target, the crew maintained composure. While moving toward the aft sections of the ship, she watched Lieren appear from around a corner and stride toward her. Before they passed each other, Krystal calmly called to her.

     “What are you up to?”

     “I’m gathering up the cadets near the medbay.”

     “What for?”

     “Xan—I mean Commander Cetalo said that would be one of the safest places aboard the ship.”

     “I understand,” Krystal told her. “Mind if I follow you?”

     “Not at all,” Lieren responded, and the two took the lifts to the medbay and walked to the multi-use room across from the medbay’s entrance. Three of the four walls within the empty room were transparent. It took a few moments, but eventually Lieren remembered that this was the room she had some of her instruction in. Her difficultly in remembering was due to the lack of furniture as the room had been filled with desks. Next to the door was a lumigraph, and the cadet interacted with it to fabricate furniture appropriate for a lounge. Couches and tables now occupied much of the floorspace within the small room. After Lieren placed a call to the other cadets, they began appearing at the door and streaming in solo or in pairs until they were all united. As Krystal was the most senior among them, the young cadets naturally looked to her as their chaperone.

     One concerned Elestan girl asked, “It won’t be that bad, right?”

     “We’ve seen combat twice already,” said another cadet. “Don’t worry so much.”

     “I understand why she’s worried,” Lieren said to them. “We’re up against an Elsheem State battleship.”

     “So what?” asked another. “They’re so small compared to the Federation.”

     “But they’re backed by the Alliance,” Lieren explained, “and the Voulgenathi is an Alliance-built ship.”

     “But they’re just elsheem,” came a voice from across the room.

     Krystal asked, “Why does it matter if they are elsheem?”

     “Aren’t they weaker than humans?”

     “Yeah. They have, like, zero drug tolerance for starters.”

     “I heard they have a low threshold for pain.”

     “Don’t they die if you poke those weird neck circles?”

     Krystal asked, “Do you all hate the elsheem?”

     “Aren’t they our enemies?”

     “Personally,” Lieren chimed in, “I don’t understand the hatred.”

     “Why is that?” Krystal asked her.

     “I’ve never met one nor seen one,” Lieren explained, “so I have no opinion. I don’t know much about them anyway.”

     “You don’t hate them after what they did to your father’s lab?”

     Krystal sighed. She placed her fingers behind her ears and disabled her camouflage devices. The cadets witnessed her change from blonde Terran to fiery elsheem firsthand. Most of the cadets, especially those who were the most vocal, did not know what to say or how to feel.”

     “This is my true identity,” Illeiri said. “I am an elshi, and my name is Illeiri.

     “I-if we knew you were an elsheem… we wouldn’t have…” the Elestan stammered.

     “Don’t try to take anything back,” Illeiri said. “I know how you feel, and on behalf of the entire elsheem race, I sincerely apologize.”

     Still, whispers of disbelief echoed through the cadets. Lieren, who had been seated next to Illeiri, gave the elshi her hand. Illeiri grasped it and said, “I’m sorry for the deception, but it is because of the very stigma you highlighted that I must protect my identity.”

     Lieren looked the elshi in the eyes and said, “Thank you for saving my father.”

     “She saved your father?”

     “What is an elsheem doing aboard anyway?”

     Illeiri told them, “My race and my legacy have a stake in what is about to transpire today. Have any of you heard of the Commonweatlh of Avenath?” Most of them shook their heads, so Illeiri told them the story of her people’s recent history and her role in it.

     Several hours later, Atara and Sesh stood close together on the bridge. The captain’s right arm crossed her torso and supported her left arm upon which her head tilted. Naret watched the remaining seconds dwindle on a timer being displayed by one of her lumigraphs. When that timer reached zero, the adjunct spoke to the bridge officers.

     “Target vessel Voulgenathi within interdiction range.”

     “Adjunct,” Atara ordered, “red alert. All hands, general quarters.”

     “Affirmative,” the adjunct said. All starmen across the ship were witness to the warnings. They quickly suited themselves in SIRAC and readied themselves for the encounter ahead.

     “Thirty seconds, Xann,”

     “You’ve got it. Preparing the kick.”

     Thirty seconds later, the noise of the synchronized drives that filled the engineering department around the clock had ceased. That was the only phenomenon a human could have registered to determine that they had generated a spatial wave. The wave propagated instantly in all directions—the effects of which fell off about four-hundred-thousand kilometers away.

     “Kick confirmed,” Naret announced, focusing on her console. “We’re out of warp.”

     “Positive confirmation of target,” said another bridge officer. “Distance: two-hundred-thousand kilometers directly ahead.”

     “Prepare long-range weapons,” Atara ordered, “and hail them.”

     “Affirmative,” Ethis said. “Broadcasting now.”

     “This is Captain Atara of the Kelsor. This is your last chance to surrender. We are prepared to open fire.” After this, Atara waited fifteen seconds for a response. Upon hearing nothing, she turned to Sesh and said, “Engage them at will.”

     “Understood,” Sesh said as she moved to stand just behind Naret. Atara followed her. “Fire control, focus their engines and launch four salvos of warp missiles.”

     “Affirmative,” a tactical officer acknowledged, and new sirens sounded as the REMASS systems responsible for producing ammunition came online. The Kelsor’s eighty-eight missile tubes opened their hatches and exposed freshly-fabricated missiles to the vacuum of interstellar space. Half of the launchers were situated on the dorsal surface while the other half were on the ventral. All of the missiles used gravitics and plasma engines to launch in rapid sequence starting from the forward launchers and sweeping aft. After quickly escaping up to a kilometer, the missiles engaged their warp systems and blasted off toward the Voulgenathi, leaving streams of white plasma exhaust behind them.

     “New contacts detected. Target is launching strikecraft.” More sounds and pings filled parts of the bridge.

     “Launch our strikecraft,” Atara told her officers.

     A few seconds later, the tactical officer said, “Positive hits on target. Sixty-seven confirmed detonations. Shields only.”

     Sesh asked, “Are they using point-defenses?”

     “Aye, but they’re saturated. Enemy lumionic potential estimated at eighty-eight percent. Target is shunting power to main artillery.”

     “Those are warp artillery batteries,” Atara reminded Sesh.

     “I know,” said the first officer.

     The Kelsor’s OPEL panels highlighted all of these invisible projectiles and the Voulgenathi. The first warp artillery shots, moving at fifty-thousand kilometers per second, missed the Kelsor by several hundred meters, but the next saw them land three consecutive hits to shields. The actual speeds of these rounds were only about a tenth of their effective. Of course, the damage they dealt was only a product of their actual speeds. All projectile-based warp systems were ever intended for was to land hits at all.

     “Conn, evasive maneuvers,” Atara commanded. “Nothing fancy. Just make us a moving target.”

     The Kelsor’s Goshawk fighters, Virga bombers, and Predator interceptors had been positioned for launch within the hanger for the last four hours. Once the order was given, the interceptors rocketed forth from the hanger bay followed by the fighters and then the bombers. Cylenna once again piloted her Goshawk through the airscreen and into the darkness of interstellar space.

     “Flights, you are cleared to engage,” Strike Officer Kodi said over EM-comms. Her voice cut through the ever-present electromagnetic interference of the cosmic background.

     “Roger,” Cylenna responded, assuming the role of strike leader. “This is Spectre. Strike wing, form on me. Prepare for warp.” On Cylenna’s next order, the pilots activated their crafts’ warp drives and accelerated toward the hostile battleship just as the elsheem were sending their own strikecraft to the Kelsor. As the elsheem bombers passed the flights of Federation strikecraft, the interceptor flights broke off and pursued them. The Voulgenathi’s interceptors trailed the Virgas, and the Goshawks maneuvered to protect their slower, more powerful sisters. As the Virgas closed in on the Voulgenathi, they were met with anti-strikecraft autocannon fire from the front and interceptor weapons from the back. Cylenna’s and Ice’s Goshawk flights acted quickly to disrupt the enemy interceptors and cancel their pursuit.

     It was Cylenna who took first blood. Her accurate stream of plasma bolts spooked an elsheem pilot that had flown too close to his mothership. His craft collided with the Voulgenathi’s lumionic barriers, causing his own barriers to fail immediately. The interceptor burst into two large pieces and a cloud of debris.

     “Good job, Spectre,” Kodi said in an unenthusiastic tone. “You scared him into the ground.”

     “That’s where they should be if they can’t handle this,” Cylenna said unapologetically.

     After making an initial pass, the bombers turned around some distance behind the Voulgenathi’s stern and unleashed a swarm of guided bombs toward the ship’s engines. The resulting massive shield potential loss prompted the battleship to harden its lumionics.

     “Target battleship has activated invulnerability shielding,” announced a Kelsor bridge officer. “Estimated duration is six minutes.” The bridge was alive with officer call-outs, alert sounds, pings and beeps, and announcements from the adjunct.

     Atara said, “Good work to our pilots. Prioritize the strikecraft attacking the Kelsor for the time being.” Atara approached Sesh who was still standing immediately behind Naret and beckoned her return to the middle of the bridge floor. In a low voice, Atara said, “We can use this time to close in for torpedoes. Though, it might be better to wait for them to launch their frigates.”

     Sesh said, “They may be holding onto them for that very time when we do approach them.”

     “That’s a good tactic for dividing our focus,” Atara noted, “however, our primary anti-battleship punching power comes from our torpedoes. The sooner we’re within deployment range, the sooner we are to ending this battle—hardened lumionics or not.”

     “We’re too close for warp,” Sesh stated.

     “We’ll use fusion drives and gravitics,” Atara replied.

     “I say we go for it.”

     “Lieutenant,” Atara told Naret, “take us to within ten kilometers of the Voulgenathi’s stern. Engage conventional drives.”

     “Aye. Falling forward.”

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