Exactly twelve hours after Captain Raena arrived aboard her ship, the Fencer’s VARICOR jump drive came alive on the Kelsor’s sensors. After ninety-seven minutes of wormhole generation, the Fencer vanished into a corridor whose local wormhole entrance would remain stable for hours. As a parting action, Atara ordered a buoy with a subspace beacon placed beside the wreck of the Voulgenathi. It wasn’t long after that the Kelsor’s synerdrive was active once more, propelling the battlecruiser toward Federation space that lied at the coreward edge of Thalassia Orionis.
Atara was comforted by the subtle, gentle hum of the ship’s synerdrive. She realized that the Kelsor’s mission had been accomplished and that her responsibility now was to return the Kelsor safely to port at Lanan, and this diminished her sense of urgency. The great chase was over. The Voulgenathi was destroyed, Taretes defeated, and the ecksivar sample secured.
The morning after the synerdrive’s reengagement, Atara sat across from Xannissa as they both had breakfast. Atara quietly checked her mail as she chewed her food, sitting with her legs crossed.
“Fiori sent another video of my mother.”
“Do you want to watch it? Do you have time?”
“We can, after I finish eating.”
Cassandra started by saying, “I need to tell you a few things. There are some in the Admiralty who are keeping damning secrets. You aren’t likely to know what’s going on unless I explain it to you. MARAD, which is a government entity and is funded by the Federation taxpayer, is the umbrella agency that is responsible for all defense contracts and the distribution of grants to universities and corporations for the advancement of often-classified military technology. MARAD also maintains its own labs and keeps track of all military research projects.
“The grants usually benefit entities that struggle to fund themselves while the contracts go to larger companies able to deliver licenses. Some members of the Admiralty are responsible for administering MARAD. You probably already know what I’m getting at. I have reason to believe that Akkain, one of the leaders in omnium technology, has been essentially bribing key members of the Admiralty for priority MARAD funding. The best part is that the funding falls within MARAD’s black budget, so no one in the federal government is able to see what MARAD is using this money for. And it goes even farther. The Navy is starting to change the way it operates because of the influence of these larger defense contractors like Akkain.
“It took me a while to dig around, but if you seek, then you shall find, and I did, and it took many years. The only way this is able to continue is because something is wrong with Fiori. She is totally oblivious to this corruption. I did the best I could to cover my tracks, but I now find myself in a place where I don’t know who I can trust. I watch my back all the time now. I can’t even trust Hari anymore. I believe that she may even rat me out if she hasn’t done so already.
“I love you, Atara. You probably already know how this story ends. I hope I’m right there beside you, but my instincts are telling me I won’t be. I’m burying these recordings in a place where only Fiori can find them. Maybe one day she’ll snap out of whatever is blinding her. I hope sooner rather than later. I hear echoes sometimes; people uttering cryptic names such as Crimson Aegis and Project Sage, and I don’t want to know anything anymore.” The lumigraph ceased.
Atara had no time to contemplate the recording before Fiori appeared in Cassandra’s place, asking, “Do you remember how your mother died?”
“It was my mother and father,” Atara told her, showing little emotion. “They were caught in a skylane accident on Elestus. Collided with some man with a death wish flying manual because he was suicidal. But I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to tell me that it was all staged.”
“That is the truth,” Fiori said. Atara was now visibly upset, and Xannissa couldn’t help but be as well. “The evidence was difficult to procure, but I have quietly pieced together my own memories from during my subversion.”
“Was Aesho…” Atara asked in a grave tone, “was she… responsible?”
“I do not have enough information yet to determine who knew what,” Fiori explained, “and who was ultimately responsible for the deaths of your mother and father. As such, I can draw no further conclusions at this time.”
Xannissa, twisting her platinum engagement ring around her finger, eyes glistening in the white lumionic light, looked into Fiori’s eyes and spoke in an agitated tone, “Don’t you have any sensitivity at all?”
“Xann,” Atara spoke as she glanced toward her friend with her own glossy corneas.
“I don’t quite understand,” Fiori admitted. “All I did was show you the truth.”
Xannissa admonished the orange figure, saying, “Truth? You’ve only ever shown us bits and pieces. Half-truths at best. Have you ever stopped to consider that you are just a bearer of bad news? That the information you keep bringing before Atara is damaging her emotionally? Have you ever thought about showing some tact?”
“Xann, please,” Atara said. A tear rolled down the Terran’s peach face.
Her mind brimming with anger, Xannissa turned to her friend and said, “I don’t want to see you upset anymore.”
“She’s on our side,” Atara said softly. Another tear left the captain’s eyes and landed on her bodysuit. “I’d rather die to the truth than be alive in lies, or be swept away in blissful ignorance.” Atara’s candor caused Xannissa to shed a tear of her own, streaking across her cool gray skin.
Sesh stood alone in the center of the bridge. With her arms crossed, she stared out of the OPEL panels like usual, watching as a close star drifted slowly away from the center of her field of view and toward the periphery. Eighty-four-hundred times the speed of light was a fantastical number, but when one really considered how fast it truly was in the vastness of the galaxy or the greater universe, it was only a mere seventeen astronomical units per second, or one lightyear in about sixty-three minutes—not at all enough to see any great parting of the stars. As for blue-shifting, electromagnetic emissions of distant objects were subjected to the effects of warp field screening upon contact with the bubble of realspace enveloping the Kelsor. This phenomenon, inherent in the spatial nature of warp and hyperwarp, causes the light ahead of the starship—blue-shifted up to gamma wavelengths—to return to its original wavelength; however, what energy is lost in widening wavelengths is exchanged for amplitude. The multitude of stars ahead of the bow always shined with the collective glory of a close sun. The OPEL panels across the ship censored this fact, showing the oncoming stars as they should be seen in realspace. For the stars behind whose light emissions are irretrievably lost behind the stern, the OPEL panels displayed a false image combining data taken from passing stars and from detailed star charts. The only place to witness the warp field screening effect uncensored by the OPEL panels was within the Kelsor’s hangar where one could watch the bright, passing stars through the airscreen before they slowly faded into darkness.
After gazing at those censored stars for a while, Sesh paced toward Naret and, standing just behind her, asked, “How do you feel?”
Naret stared at her screens for a moment more before answering with another question, “What do you mean?”
“We just took down the Federation’s most wanted,” Sesh explained.
Naret thought about this for a few seconds, then she said, “I guess it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”
The young Elestan turned her focus back to her screens. Her thoughts wandered to the last time she had gotten to peruse Subnet encyclopedias. That was back when the Kelsor was still receiving high-throughput sub-comms bandwidth from Vandos, and she missed being able to know everything about anything, especially historical articles.
Naret turned her chair completely around to face Sesh, asking her, “Do you think history will remember us?”
“I’m pretty sure they will,” Sesh assured her. Quietly, she added, “But will it be favorable?”
“What’s that?” Naret questioned her, unable to understand the commander’s mumbling. Sesh stayed silent.
About that time, Atara and Xannissa entered the bridge together and stood with Sesh; Sesh to Atara’s left and Xannissa to her right. Naret turned her chair back to her terminal so that she would appear to be busy.
“What’s our status?” Atara asked softly.
“Quiet,” Sesh told her. “Uneventful. And happy to be alive. Of course, it will be a while before we make it back to Vandos.”
“We’ll be there before we know it,” Xannissa stated. “Still planning to give the crew shore leave?”
“I am,” Atara told her. “It’s the least I can do for them, after all they’ve been through.”
Naret couldn’t resist joining in on the conversation. She turned her chair around and asked, “What is Vandos like?”
“It’s your typical orbital habitat,” Atara explained. “Home to a few billion people. Do you recall when we passed it on our way? It’s the last bastion of civilization before the desolation that is Thalassia Orionis.”
“Its location makes it a crossroads of the region,” Sesh said. “Lots of Federation and Republic intermingling. It has its share of criminal elements, but it’s administered by the Archangels.”
Naret asked, “Like the ones that saved us near the Range?”
“Yes, them,” Sesh said.
“You’ll know we’re getting close,” Xannissa noted, “when the Subnet starts coming back.”
Sesh looked at Xannissa and said, “I bet you’re dying to see Aedan again.”
“You’re not wrong.”
Now on their long voyage home, the lives of those aboard the Kelsor were swept up into the mundane. As the days passed, the crew found themselves longing for something to look forward to, such as their free hours that many spent on the simulators. Atara had made clear her intention to dock at Vandos, much to everyone’s delight. Despite the Kelsor being the bearer of two items of exceptional value, the synerdrive and the ecksivar sample, her path to Vandos was clear.
Just like every other evening, Xannissa returned to her quarters for dinner. Atara was giving her weekly update to Aesho over Q-comms, so the Elestan engineer dined alone. The woman preferred to have something to occupy her mind while she ate, and though they were closing in on Vandos, they were still too far away to receive crystal-clear Subnet access. Xannissa activated a lume anyway, allowing her to watch the news with splotchy video and metallic audio.
A familiar, masculine voice called to her, saying, “Hey, Xann.” Xannissa’s eyes darted from her small lume to a male figure standing in the dark room. Aedan’s projection smiled at her, and she couldn’t help but smile back. His image was worse than the last time she talked to him: poorly resolved, low framerate, flickering, and now no color. Still chewing a bite of food, Xannissa stood up from her chair and wrapped her arms around Aedan’s lumigraph which reciprocated, each placing their head on the other’s shoulder.
“I’m so happy you’re alive,” Aedan said as he embraced the choppy lume of his fiancée. Still within each other’s embrace, he told her, “There was always that small chance that I would never see you again.”
“I’m here, Aedan,” she said, closing her eyes and rubbing his back.
“Thank you for calling me.”
Xannissa loosened her hug. “Wait, didn’t you call me?”
“I don’t even know how to call you from this side. But if neither of us called…”
“…Why are we speaking to each other?” Xannissa held Aedan’s shoulders as she looked into his eyes.
“Maybe we should just be thankful.”
“Perhaps. I’ll investigate later.” She leaned in toward his face, and the two exchanged a kiss on the lips. “So,” she continued as they released each other, “How have you been?”
“Well,” he started, “I’m moving out to Lanan tomorrow.”
“Tonight’s my last night on Earth.”
“I’ll be out there waiting for you when you come home.”
“We’re stopping at Vandos next week for a few days, and then we’ll be underway again. After that, it’ll take us two-and-a-half weeks to make it back to the Federation.”
“Maybe we can talk again when you get to Vandos.”
“That sounds great. We’re just a bit too far away for a good signal.”
“I’m about to lie down for the night.”
“You do that. You have a long journey ahead of you.”
“I’ll send you pictures.”
“Please! And let me know you made it there safely.”
“Will do. I love you, Xann.” Aedan’s figure kissed the Elestan on the cheek before fading away. Xannissa placed her hand over her cheek, longing to see him again in the flesh. A thought then crossed her mind.
Xannissa called out, “Fiori?” The orange figure faithfully appeared before the engineer. “Was that you?”
“To what are you referring?”
“That call with Aedan.”
“Affirmative,” Fiori responded. “I am responsible for that transmission.”
“I felt I should apologize for my lack of tact. The Kelsor just arrived within the maximum range of Vandos’ sub-comms arrays. Based on Aedan Soren’s recent activity, his departure for Lanan was imminent. Taking all of this into account, I reasoned that this evening would be the best time to contact him, and I had hoped the interaction, however brief, would have benefitted you both. I apologize if I overstepped my boundaries.”
“That was exceedingly thoughtful of you. I just wanted to thank you for that. I needed it.”
Fiori stood there for a moment before saying, “It was my pleasure.” The orange lumigraphic figure disappeared.