37 – Hostages

“Captain, we’re detecting a Republic jump signature two kilometers off the starboard stern. It will emerge in three minutes.”

     Atara and Sesh exchanged glances.

     Atara asked, “Is it too early to make contact?”

     “Aye, captain,” Ethis responded. “Wait until the wormhole forms.”

     At the same time, the Kelsor’s adjunct announced, “Intruder alert. Level four security breach.”

     “That’s us, Atara,” Xannissa explained through her Q-comms link. “There are a few hostiles bearing down on us, but we have more than enough firepower to hold them off.”

     “Hang in there, Xann,” Atara thought, clenching her fists.

     “You kidding? So long as they can’t blink into the middle of engineering, this is easy.”

     Xannissa, along with the other engineers and technicians, stood at their posts overseeing the ship’s vital systems. Just beyond the blast doors sealing off main engineering, several Auroras and crewmen were crouched behind freshly fabricated barricades. They lifted themselves, brought their guns over the solid duralithic blocks, and sprayed the entrances to the engineering department with plasma bolts, forcing the attackers back down the corridors.

     Minutes later, a bridge officer reported, “Republic vessel is emerging,”

    “Hail them,” Atara said. “Republic vessel, this is the Federation battlecruiser GFN Kelsor. You have entered an active combat zone. We are currently engaging….”

     Before she could finish her hail, a male voice in a Republic accent said “Damn right, we have.” Ethis identified it immediately.

     Atara asked, “Who is this?”

     “We’re Republic Revenant special unit Quietus of Hiracet aboard the Republic Navy ship Fencer,” the voice said.

     “That’s Rikter Svalti,” said Ethis. She couldn’t believe her ears. Naret shot a quick glance back toward Ethis and smiled.

     “Can we lend you our assistance?” Svalti asked.

     “If you’re willing to hunt elsheem,” Atara told him, “I can’t really refuse.”

     “We’ll be blinking aboard,” said Aran Eda of Quietus. “Just give us a safe place to jump.”

     “Fiori,” Atara said, “I leave that to you.”

     “Affirmative, Atara,” Fiori responded.

     Cylenna sat on a container near the edge of the hangar bay. She had escaped; survived her brush with death yet again, but she was neither thrilled nor ecstatic. The Elestan pilot was hunched over, supporting herself with her arms atop her thighs. Her helmet concealed her sorrow to a degree. Never in her life had she experienced such loss before, amplified by the effects of the chronol. Oh, if only she could find some modicum of pleasure right this moment. But she had enough life experience to know that would only deepen her despair. Her Goshawk had been destroyed. Ice was dead. A few other pilots had lost their lives, and the ship was currently being invaded. If she hadn’t had been so selfish. If she had taken the battle more seriously instead of as a thrill. If she had allowed Atara to confiscate all of her chronol.

     There was an explosion on the far side of the hangar. Cylenna looked beneath the nose of the Goshawk behind her and witnessed the fireball and the destruction of the blast door that had kept one of the larger thoroughfares sealed. Is this how it all ends?

     A contingent of Auroras were prepositioned to meet the elsheem attackers as they tried to assault the hangar. Cylenna heard the faint whiz of bullets brushing past her helmet.

     “Motherfuckers,” Cylenna whispered. She said it again, this time shouting, “Motherfuckers!” The Elestan jumped up from the crate and floated up to the Goshawk’s cockpit. Once sealed within, she activated the craft’s ODEC and lifted the craft up, propelling it with gravitics only. Cylenna yawed the craft starboard and pitched down slightly until the blasted door was within her line of fire. Upon direct mental control, the revolvers within the Goshawk’s twin autocannons began rotating up to their maximum revolutions per minute. Each cylinder contained within the revolvers engorged itself with white hot plasma. Three seconds later, the cylinders, fully charged, released their contents into the accelerators of the gravitational mass drivers—essentially the barrels—and within the blink of an eye, the wide corridor from which the elsheem poured was back-flooded with white plasma. Before the elsheem knew it, their compatriots were incinerated before their eyes. During their struggle to comprehend what was happening, they, too, were blasted by the large-caliber rounds from the Goshawk Cylenna piloted. The Auroras defending the door cheered for her and withdrew as the bolts from the fighter’s autocannons reduced the attacking elsheem to ash, then dissipated like perpetual rolling thunder.

     Fiori initiated a broadcast to all hangar personnel and said, “Attention. A Republic assault squad will be initiating a jump into the central hangar bay within two minutes.” Cylenna powered down the twin autocannons. The woman’s breaths were heavy, and her heart raced. Until now, she had never found so much pleasure in killing. She had only ever pursued it the one place she knew she could and the one place she knew was somewhat legal: her own brink of death. This brief event, if not only to grant her some kind of vengeance, placed a subconscious seed within her psyche that pleasure—an almost sexual pleasure—could be derived from pushing others over their own mortal cliffs and into the dark abyss.

     Oblivious to the mental damage she was always inflicting upon herself—today more than ever—she set the craft back down, put the ODEC back into standby, and jumped out of the cockpit, meeting a group of Auroras who praised her initiative and potentially saved their lives.

     There was nothing subtle about the Republic’s blink technology. Mirroring the Republic Military’s prevailing doctrines on brute force and frontal assault, the members of Quietus, housed within their modified Novekk Type-M, exploded into the hangar’s atmosphere. Pulled down by the Kelsor’s gravitics, their power armors—about a half metric ton each—crashed into the hangar’s floor.

     “Kelsor, we are aboard,” Svalti announced as Quietus drew their weapons.

     “The fighting is starting to die down,” Atara told them, “but we’re watching a situation begin to unfold around the omnimology lab. Meet up with our forces there.”

     “Understood,” Svalti responded. “Just point us in the right direction.”

     “Fiori,” Atara asked, “can you have your counterpart lead them?”

     “Already done, captain,” Fiori assured her. Rellia, Fiori’s Republic twin, had received the layout of the entire Federation battlecruiser and guided Quietus in the same manner Fiori would have. The Republic Revenants made for the aft door that the elsheem had broken through and departed from the hangar.

     Doctor Souq followed lit corridors until he was at the intersection of one of the large thoroughfares. The whole situation gave him flashbacks of the day the elsheem boarded his science station in Tribesson. The fear of letting Naret succumb to the same fate as his lab gripped him as he stared out into the darkness and heard the thunderous sound of expanding plasma echo through it. Suddenly, he felt a tapping against his helmet. Terror shot through his system.

     No doubt that tapping was a gun. Doctor Souq dropped the handgun he held and put his hands in the air. He then felt something plant itself into the armor on his back and one of his arms was grabbed. Whoever it was behind him forced him onward into the darkness in the same direction he had been planning to go. He could hear multiple sets of footsteps behind him. Maybe the elsheem would finish what they started—dispose of the last of his lab by executing him. So long as his daughter escaped with her life, his own life didn’t matter much to him anymore. But he would have liked to have seen his daughter smile one more time. If he was going to die anyway, why not take the chance and fight back?

     Souq turned around and tried to wrest the gun away from the black-clad elsheem, but he had never been trained in any sort of close quarters combat. The elsheem soldier easily overpowered him and kicked the scientist to the ground. Souq writhed about as two more soldiers dragged him to his feet. Each of them restrained one of his arms as they carried him off.

     The thunder grew louder, and the separate bursts of dissipated plasma grew increasingly resolved. Souq could now hear the swooshing of bullets being fired from elsheem mag drivers. The corridors were still dark, perhaps darker. Lights from the elsheems’ suits illuminated their path and revealed the armored bodies of deceased fighters littering the corridor. Souq noted that the amount of black armor far exceeded the white, but there were still dead Accellus users. When they reached the end of the corridor, an elsheem beckoned them and shouted, probably to hurry as there was a lull in the firefight judging by the reduction in noise.

     One of the elsheem restraining them ducked Souq’s head as they moved behind barricades and obstacles and around fellow elsheem fighters. Red flashes from the Kelsor’s emergency system pulsed periodically above the desperate elsheem who had no way to escape their impending annihilation at the hands of the Kelsor’s Auroras. Their lucky encounter with Souq was the only chance they had, short of surrender, of escaping with their lives.

     The elsheem shoved Souq against a closed door. His left arm was held out to the frame, feeling for that sweet spot where the door would register his Accellus and allow them access. White plasma bolts struck nearby like lightning. The elsheem manipulating his arm became more frantic as the firefight started to re-intensify. Bullets and plasma flew through the corridors as shouting could be heard from both sides. An explosion went off from a hand grenade. Finally, the door registered his Accellus and opened up. The elsheem shoved Souq inside as they flooded in to clear it.

     He hadn’t recognized the outside, but this was the omnimology laboratory. The elsheem barked from different corners of the lab as they rounded up women clad in Accellus armor. An elsheem soldier dragged them into the lineup they formed, and forced him and the women to collapse to their knees, recall their helmets, and place their hands on their heads. Another woman was forced down on his left, and despite the dim light, he could see that she was Namara. She looked down at the floor in sorrow as the elsheem soldiers started pacing behind the lab benches. Souq looked toward where the jump drone had been but saw that the space was empty.

     “Namara,” Souq whispered. Namara’s head shot in his direction. Her eyes were wide and her expression grave. “Jump drone?”

     “Hid it,” she mouthed.

     “What?” Souq whispered again.

     “I hid it,” Namara barely vocalized. An elsheem behind them struck Namara in the back of head with the butt of his gun. Souq growled, tried to shuffle to his feet, but was given the same treatment, feeling the sharp pain of being beaten in the back of the skull.

     “Captain,” said one of the elsheem commanders. His Miri was the best among his troops. “We have your valuable omnimologists in our possession.” The soldier stepped out of the lumigraph’s field of view to show the kneeling scientists illuminated by a spotlight. “Call off your guards and surrender to the Voulgenathi. If you do not, we will execute one of them every ten minutes. If you value their minds as much as your Federation does, you will comply.”

     After the transmission was terminated, Atara stood there for a moment, perplexed. Never did she consider that the elsheem intrusion would turn into a hostage situation.

     “What are we going to do, Atara?” Sesh asked her. Atara stood there for another moment more.

     “We had eight scientists down there, plus Souq, so nine, correct?”

     “We have nine minutes until they kill one of them,” Sesh said, sounding urgent.

     “Atara,” Fiori said to the captain as she once again appeared on the bridge, “trust me.”

     “I need everyone we have to go over there and wipe them out,” Atara commanded. “Is Quietus there yet? Where are Kyora and her phantoms?”

     “These fuckers really dug in!” Itagoreth shouted.

     “Quit bitching,” Jade shouted back. “They have hostages now. We need to clear a path.”

     “Dreth!” Svalti yelled.

     “Sir!”

     “Show them what divine ovation sounds like!”

     “Yessir!” Dreth complied. He maneuvered to aim his shoulder launcher down the corridor. Careful to reveal only the missile tube jutting from his armor, Dreth fired seven rockets from the tube into the pocket of entrenched elsheem combatants. The concussive ordnance detonated with the sound of successive thunderclaps as if from God’s own applause. When Jade peered around the corner, elsheem body parts were strewn about the floor, blood and scorch marked the walls, and the barricades protecting the elsheem had been shattered.

     “How many more you got?” Svalti asked.

     “Twenty-three.”

     “We might need a few more of those. Jade?”

     “Moving,” Jade responded.

     After a bit more bloodshed, Quietus took positions near the mass of elsheem protecting the omnimology lab. There were only seconds between them securing a forward position and Kyora’s elite teams meeting them.

     “We need to be careful,” Kyora told them through the sound of weapons exchanges. “If we look like we’re advancing, they might decide to start killing hostages.”

     “I’m afraid of that,” Svalti told her, “but that places us at a severe impasse.”

     “I know,” Kyora admitted. “I have some of my phantoms trying to assess the possibility of a sneak attack.”

     “Time remaining?”

     “Two minutes.”

     The seconds marched on unimpeded while Quietus and the Auroras were left unable to act for fear of harm coming to the scientists. Atara and Sesh hung their heads while they awaited the transmission from the elsheem commander.

     “Perhaps you didn’t take me seriously,” were the armored elsheem soldier’s first words when a new lumigraph appeared on the bridge. The camera panned as the soldier walked around the first scientist, a junior researcher, and kicked her in the back, knocking her face into the hard floor and causing her to scream. It was difficult to see from a distance, but the woman was sobbing. The other hostages shuddered. The soldier pointed his gun straight at the scientist’s head and said, “Five seconds, captain.”

     “Oh God! Please! No!”

     “One… two… three…”

     “Sesh,” Atara spoke somber, “power down our weapons. Alert the Voulgenathi of our surrender.”

     The soldier stopped counting as Ethis hailed the enemy ship with news of the Kelsor’s immediate and unconditional surrender. The bridge of the Voulgenathi didn’t know what to think at first, but as they witnessed power being diverted away from the Kelsor’s weapons systems, they held their fire while keeping their guns trained squarely on the Federation battlecruiser.

     “Your brinkmanship almost got this young woman killed,” the elshe sneered. “I’m bringing a squad of my men to your bridge to commandeer your vessel. If I die, they die.” The soldier tilted his head toward the scientists as he said this, and then the transmission ended.

     The elsheem soldier’s Alliance boots clacked as they marched down the corridors to a set of lifts that would take them up to the bridge. Along their path they passed the bodies of their own deceased as well as those of the Kelsor’s Auroras and crew, but the elsheem elites were totally unfazed. They stepped over the corpses—or on them in some cases—and entered the lift which took them to the highest deck on the ship. After exiting just forward of the briefing room, the soldiers—weapons drawn—gathered outside both doors to the bridge.

     The unprotected doors slid right open and the elsheem poured into the bridge, only to find it completely empty. The leader shouted to his men to fan out. The terminals and consoles continued to read out and beep and ping. He sent men down the forward stairs that ran down either side of Naret’s conning station in order to secure ops which, as he expected, was also vacated.

     He ordered his men to fan out across the deck and find those officers, but when his men tried to leave the bridge, or out through ops, all doors had been sealed with blast protection. Fiori appeared behind them in the middle of the bridge.

     “Emergency experimental weapon deployment protocol engaged,” Fiori announced to the elsheem. Some of the men reflexively fired at the lumigraphic figure, only to have their bullets fly right through her hitting nothing but air and the SIRAC and OPEL panels further beyond. “MARAD lockout override authorization: Fiori root. Decrypting design, please stand by. Decryption complete. Mark One phasic torpedoes are now available.” Fiori knew exactly who she was speaking to, and she knew the officers that would have appreciated these announcements were not present. This excited her as much as it would a human in her position, and she had hoped it would play into the psychological component of the battle. “Hostile target confirmed. Firing solution complete. Prepping phasic torpedo. Torpedo away.”

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