The mist drifted down, layering over the city like blankets of fog. Though still sparse, the towers rose into the clouds and were obscured by the scattered light erupting from their own facades. This created an ocean of light above the streets that danced like rainbow aurorae. Below the persistent flow of gravidynes, the pedestrians at the towers’ foundations meandered under the eerie, diffuse glow drifting above that prevented most shadows—except one.
Kyora kept her distance from her captain. In the denser crowds she took to the air, haunting everyone and defying detection like her combat class’ namesake. When Atara moved beyond the seas of bodies, the phantom descended to stalk her charge on foot.
Atara stopped in her tracks for only a second. When Atara then proceeded onward, Kyora could tell by the way she walked that something was off. The Elestan phantom reasoned that a shrouded adversary had emerged and had placed Atara under the threat of assault. Having anticipated something like this happening based on her gut instinct, Kyora’s greatest ally would be her patience. If now Atara was indeed under duress, she told Kyora nothing—perhaps leery of revealing the presence of her shrouded bodyguard.
Atara embarked on a shallow escalator with glowing lumionic platforms. Kyora was never farther than three meters away from the Terran captain. Stepping off the escalator, they found themselves at the bottom of one of the terraced canyons beneath the duralithic jungle. A steady stream of wanderers filed into and out of the many open stores and restaurants flooding their light into the street. Kyora refused to ascend despite the oncoming wave of humanity. She slipped her slender figure between the bodies, trying not to collide with those who could not hope to see her.
Darting through the open archway of a clothing store, Atara left Kyora’s visual field for a moment. When the Elestan entered behind her, the captain was moving to the very back of the establishment. The phantom charged between rows of shirt racks, fabricating a SIRAC blade and coating it in plasma. Even the air was parted by the phantom’s shrouding systems, creating no wake as Kyora sprinted forward. Still undetectable, she faced an enemy equally so. Without an omnimic resonance detector, the only way to detect a shrouded opponent was to reach out and feel for them like a blind man feels for a doorknob. The Elestan stuck her hand out before her, encountering resistance where none should be. Were they friend or foe? To the honed phantom, the question was irrelevant. The only correct answer was her blade through their body in defense of Atara.
Kyora struck true, slicing the plasma blade into the assailant’s body. Immediately, the assailant’s shrouding vanished, revealing to Kyora a woman wearing solid black Accellus 4 configured as a phantom. Even her bodysuit beneath her unmarked SIRAC armor was pitch. The dying woman sunk to the floor, keeping one hand glued to a device stuck to Atara’s back. That’s when Kyora noticed that Atara had ceased to move—locked in stasis.
Kyora withdrew the blade, recalled it, and deshrouded herself. The attacker was dead. Easy. All she needed to do now was remove the stasis unit. But Kyora couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Atara’s body was disintegrating before her eyes—her bodysuit atomizing into dust and her skin behind it, revealing the crimson muscle fibers beneath. Not one to normally hesitate, Kyora was stunned by the grotesque show, and for a moment she was unable to act. Atara would die with her last memory being corralled into the clothing store.
Frantic, Kyora grabbed onto the stasis unit to which the dead assassin still supplied power through her Accellus. The phantom hacked into the unit’s programming and proceeded to understand it—see if she could reverse it. But before she could make significant progress, shouts echoed through the store behind her.
“Put your hands up and remove your REMASS!” a woman, undoubtedly an Archangel, yelled toward her. Kyora refused to sever her link with the stasis unit. She only lifted her unoccupied left arm and hoped that the Archangels would leave her alone long enough to save Atara’s life. “We will not ask you again!” The phantom pressed on, rewriting the stasis unit’s program. Atara’s skeleton was exposed, but the horror was being at least partially concealed by a reddish cloud of Atara’s molecules that Kyora prayed had not been let go by the lumionic system.
The Archangels fired their drivers into the Elestan’s back. The first plasma bolts hit shield. The second shots ablated her polyalloy bodysuit. The next burned through her back and into her chest. Kyora screamed and slid down toward the floor. As the Archangels gathered around her, weapons pointed toward her helmet, Kyora submitted the execute command through her right hand still attached to the stasis unit. A peace came over her with the thought that, even if she might die, Atara might be saved. With the last of her effective consciousness, she witnessed Atara’s body be slowly rebuilt, molecule-by-molecule, by the same device that had been actively destroying her. She also uttered two words over her Q-comms link to Virn: “Atara… attacked.”
The Archangels didn’t know what to think. The black-armored phantom was clearly dead. The white-armored phantom had just gone unconscious. The upright, opaque cloud of biomatter thinned to expose a Terran whose skin was closing over her muscles, and polyalloy over her skin. When Atara’s body was made whole, she fell limp onto the ground beside the two others. The Archangels couldn’t see any of them breathing.
“Kyora? Kyora, are you okay?” Virn replied through her link.
“Cylenna,” Atara said urgently over a lumigraph sometime later, “I need you to pilot the ALAT back to the Kelsor. It’s urgent.”
“Shit,” Cylenna spoke. She was still in the red-light district with her rival, Hammer. “I’ll be there in a bit.” She took off using her gravitics. Several minutes later, Cylenna set her feet down next to the ALAT and found Atara waiting for her. She shamelessly exposed her gray skin, keeping the open short jacket as her only clothing beyond her boots and bracers.
“Get a move on,” Atara told her sternly.
“Really?” Cylenna asked. “No comments about my choice of attire? Not even one deriding remark about my lack of modesty?”
Atara said, “Please, just take me back,” staring impatiently at the parked ALAT.
“Geez,” Cylenna remarked as she opened the vehicle’s top, “you’re no fun tonight. Relex got you down or something?” Atara said nothing.
Cylenna piloted the ALAT swiftly, borrowing maneuvers from her racing career as she spirited the two of them toward the docked battlecruiser. Once parked inside, Atara quietly disembarked and stormed off toward the bridge. When she arrived, she found only a token watch of green officers.
“Attention,” Atara directed the officers, “I’ve received an urgent directive from THORCOM. We are to undock from the station immediately. Get all officers and crew back aboard the ship asap.”
“Understood, captain,” one of the officers responded. “How long do they have to return?”
“Two hours, no more.”
“Aye. Putting out the word now.”
It was at that moment that everyone belonging to the Kelsor received Atara’s message, even those still aboard the ship. Virn, who had registered Kyora’s plea not an hour before, marched off toward the bridge. After entering, she asked the captain, “Where is Kyora?” Atara swung around and looked the Exan in her tan eyes. “She’s not answering Q-comms.”
“I’ll send a team to look for her,” Atara said.
“The last thing she said was that you were attacked.”
“It was Domina. I got a little scuffed up but I’ll be fine.”
“May I lead the team to find Kyora?”
Atara’s first sensations were of the beeping tones behind her. Their rhythmic plainness alluded to an infirmary. She tried to open her eyes, but the dim lumionics were still too bright for her. Groaning, she kept her eyes closed for the moment. Where was she? Perhaps this was the Kelsor. That’s what she assumed, anyway. If she ended up here in a hospital bed, then what happened to Kyora? She shifted her body beneath the covers, and that’s when she realized one thing was certain: her Accellus, bodysuit and all, was gone, but that didn’t prevent her from using her NI.
“Atara?” Xannissa asked, shocked. “Why are we leaving Vandos?”
“You’ve had me worried. I saw your message telling everyone to embark. I tried to message you with Q-comms but you never responded.”
“I,” Atara said, “I just woke up.”
“Yes. I think I’m in the hospital.”
“But you’re on the bridge.”
“That’s not me,” Atara assured her friend.
“Oh my god,” Xannissa uttered. “Then who the hell is she? Someone is masquerading as you, and she’s in command of the Kelsor.”
“The last thing I remember before ending up here,” Atara explained, “I was leaving the bar where I met Relex. Kyora was with me. Another enshrouded put a gun to me and cornered me in a store, and then here I was.”
Atara heard footsteps, then the curtain parted to reveal a nurse and someone with white and light blue Accellus formals—Archangel colors. She looked up and saw the black hair buns and gray face. Two other women in similarly-colored armor stood on either side of her.
“Relex?” Atara asked weakly.
Relex said, “I thought something was off when you requested to leave dock early.”
“That wasn’t me,” Atara replied.
“Clearly,” Relex noted. “Seems like you have an apparent doppelganger. Do you have any idea who might have attacked you?”
Atara blinked her eyes a few times. “I could name a few.”
“Not a nice place to be,” Relex said. “I was there once. Not surprisingly, that’s why I came to Vandos, so trust me. I’m on your side.”
“I don’t even remember what happened.”
“They came at you with some kind of lumionic device. You were being disintegrated.”
“How did I survive?”
“Your phantom reprogrammed the device and saved your life.”
“Where is she?”
“Right beside you.” Relex drew the curtain back and there was Kyora lying in a bed next to her. Her eyes were closed and her chest was rising and falling rhythmically. “She’s sound asleep. In the confusion, my girls roughed her up bad. I hope you’ll forgive me. She should be fine in a few hours.”
Atara closed her eyes. “That’s reassuring.”
“We installed an omnimic resonance detector out of sight,” Relex said. “If whoever tries again, we’ll see them.”
“Thank you.” Atara started to lift herself up from the bed. The sheets collapsed, revealing her naked breasts. Relex grabbed her shoulder and pushed her back down. Atara muttered, “My ship… my crew…”
“Do you have anyone who could verify your identity?”
“I know one,” Atara said, grunting. “Where are we?”
“I’ll tell you. You going to contact them?”
Xannissa and a fully-dressed Cylenna entered the hospital suite housing Atara, Kyora, Relex and her entourage. The Elestan engineer first looked over and saw Kyora peacefully asleep. She then looked past Admiral Relex, her bodyguards, and onto Atara who was looking straight at her with a wide smile. The captain’s expression lit the room the moment she saw her friend enter. Xannissa moved around the others to kneel beside Atara.
“What happened to you?” Xannissa asked from Atara’s bedside.
“They said I was being disintegrated,” Atara told her. Xannissa pulled Atara’s hair away from her face, and then stroked Atara’s cheek.
Xannissa said, “I can’t believe I almost lost you.”
“You have Kyora to thank for saving my life,” Atara stated, turning her head toward the sleeping phantom.
“Will she be okay?”
“I know you’re recovering, but we have to do something.” Without waiting for Atara to respond, she uttered, “Fiori.” A tiny version of the orange figure spawned upon the bed in-between Atara and Xannissa.
“Yes, Xannissa?” Fiori asked her.
“Aren’t you aware of what’s happening?”
“Of course,” Fiori assured her.
Xannissa’s face flushed. Gravely, she asked, “Aren’t you going to intervene?”
“Unfortunately,” Fiori told the blushing Elestan, “it is sometimes necessary to allow events such as this to unfold uninterrupted in order to root out the corruption that causes them. Had I intervened, you would have never known of the attempt on Atara’s life nor the imposter that seeks control of her command. The responsibility for ending this ploy falls to you, commander.”
Xannissa stood up and said, “Put me through to the bridge.”
“Acknowledged.” Fiori opened a lumigraphic connection between Xannissa and the bridge, and Fiori’s image remained next to Atara. Xannissa saw Atara’s doppelganger and Sesh standing together in the bridge’s center with Naret seated below them.
“Xann,” Sesh said, “are you coming back to the ship?”
“Be bold,” Relex whispered as she watched Xannissa speak into the lumigraph.
“Sesh, that’s not Atara,” the blue-haired Elestan proclaimed.
“What do you mean?” Sesh asked in aggravation.
Xannissa took the lumigraph and shifted it to show the real Atara lying in the hospital bed. Sternly, Xannissa said, “You need to trust me right now, Sesh.”
“That’s enough, Xannissa,” said the doppelganger. “Return at once.”
Sesh turned to the doppelganger and watched her for a moment. “You know,” said the Zelnaran, “do you still remember what you said to me the very first time I served as your first officer?”
“I told you it was an honor,” said the doppelganger.
“Wrong. It was the first time we had ever met,” Sesh explained, “and you said nothing to me the whole first day.”
“I regretted that for a long time,” the bedridden Atara told Sesh through the lumigraph. At this point, Naret had turned around and was staring at the imposter with a look of confusion. “A first officer at thirty-two—very impressive. Xannissa just left for Tikon Academy the day before, and that’s where she’d be for the next three years. I’d never been separated from her like that before.”
“You’ve told me that story many times,” Sesh reminded the real Atara.
“I know,” Atara said, “but our friend here doesn’t know it.”
“Adjunct,” said the doppelganger, “verify my authorization.”
“Affirmative,” said the adjunct. “Authorization verified. Atara Eisen Korrell, Captain of the Kelsor-class battlecruiser, Greater Federation Navy Vessel Kelsor, hull number three-nine-three-zero, Fifth Fleet, Third Armada.”
“Fiori,” Xannissa asked the tiny, orange, lumigraphic woman beside her, “reverify that woman’s authorization.”
“Affirmative, Xannissa,” Fiori said. “Verification failed. Subject is not authorized for starship command.”
“Identify subject,” Xannissa commanded.
“Cross-referencing complete. Subject identity is Special Agent Velliris. Surname unspecified. Federation Intelligence Agency.” Relex’s eyes grew wide.
“Who is after you?” Relex whispered. Atara paid no attention. The captain stared intently at her double within the lumigraph.
“Sesh,” Atara ordered, “arrest that imposter.”
“Aye,” Sesh replied. The Zelnaran commander fabricated a sidearm in her right hand, and holding the weapon to Velliris’ back, reached over and grabbed Velliris’ arm with her left. The bridge Auroras stepped forward with bindings and attached them to Velliris’ outstretched arms. There was little else the doppelganger could do but comply with the starship’s guards. The Auroras erected a dark lumionic screen around Velliris’ face to limit the contact she would have with the crew as they transported her to the ship’s brig. Once the imposter was clear of the bridge, Sesh recalled her pistol. Naret also turned around in her seat to face her terminal. Atara’s head collapsed back upon her pillows.
“What happened to Atara, Xann?” Sesh asked.
“I’ll tell you when we return to the Kelsor,” Xannissa replied. “I’m going to stay here with Atara and Kyora until they fully recover.”
“If you’d rather transfer them to your ship,” Relex said, “we’ll release them to your medical teams.”
Xannissa asked Atara, “What do you think about that?”
Deflecting the question with a question of her own, Atara asked, “Where is my Accellus?” Relex quickly snapped her fingers, and one of her personal guards opened an opaque locker within the room, producing both the captain’s and the phantom’s boots and bracers.