After being transferred to the Kelsor’s medbay, Atara slept the rest of night and most of the morning. She awoke to Xannissa curled up on the couch with her arms crossed over her chest, fast asleep. Kyora opened her eyes in the next room over and looked upon the face of her green-skinned partner hanging above her. Smiles from the Elestan phantom were uncommon, but today Kyora beamed back at Virn. It wasn’t long after that Atara was released by Doctor Iveti, and she and Xannissa paid a visit to the imposter locked away behind OPEL walls.
When Atara and Xannissa approached, they found the lookalike sitting on the floor of the cubic cell devoid of all clothing. Velliris raised herself up off the floor, strode over to the OPEL door, and leaned against it supporting herself with her arms crossed above her head. For Atara, it was as if she were looking at her reflection. For Xannissa, it was far more jarring. Had the Elestan been in the wrong place yesterday, she could have very well fallen for Velliris’ appearance had she lacked the sense to try talking with her over Q-comms.
Atara was straightforward, asking, “Why are you aboard my ship?”
“Can we talk privately, captain?” Velliris asked. “Just you and me. We’re practically sisters.”
Atara turned to Xannissa and said, “I’m going in there with her alone. I’ll message you when I get done.”
Xannissa nodded and said, “If you have any trouble at all, I’ll be right here. Remember, they tried to kill you.”
Velliris repositioned herself as the OPEL door vanished in front of her. Atara slipped inside, and the door closed behind her, turning opaque and soundproof at her command. Under the lumionic lighting, the captain sat on the floor and propped her back against the wall. Her naked doppelganger did the same across from her. As a show of goodwill, Atara fabricated a short jacket, took it off, and tossed it into Velliris’ lap.
“Thank you, captain,” Velliris said as she ran her arms through the sleeves and let the open front drape over her breasts. She lifted her straight, dark garnet hair out from behind the collar and let it fall behind the jacket.
“As it stands,” Atara said, “I’ve charged you with impersonation of a commissioned officer and conspiracy to commit murder.” Velliris crossed her arms and looked down. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“You might as well charge me for fulfilling my destiny,” Velliris said, keeping her head down. “I turn twenty-six tomorrow.” She looked up at Atara. “My whole life has been centered on replacing you. Had the assassin succeeded, I would be in your place right now.”
“I understand you and I are based on an identical genome,” Atara told her, “I mean, look at us. You’re not wrong when you say that you could be my sister. Hell, you could be my twin, or my cloned daughter. But you know what separates the two of us?” Velliris looked at her older double with curiosity. “It’s something that you’d never be able to fake. I have ninety years more experience than you. Many of my direct subordinates have known me so long that even minor changes in mannerisms would not have gone undetected. FedIntel were fools in thinking that a clone sharing my superficial appearance would suffice in removing me from my command. Tell me, if you had the chance right now, would you kill me?”
“That wasn’t my part,” Velliris told her.
“But would you do it?” Atara asked again, but Velliris didn’t respond. “Now that you are face-to-face with the person you prepared all your life to replace?”
“Are you going to kill me?” Velliris asked back.
“No.” Atara said flatly. The two of them stared at each other for a minute. Atara eventually broke the silence by asking, “Were you raised by a family?”
“No family,” Velliris stated. “I was raised in a FedIntel nursery.”
“I’m sorry. You share a little in common with our colonel.”
“Yes. She almost lost her life trying to save mine when that assassin attacked me. Like you, she was raised in a nursery, but one run by a mercenary corporation. Do you know why you needed to replace me?”
“You’re a threat to the established order.”
“Is that so?” Atara asked. “Interesting that they would try to kill the captain in charge of the vessel whose mission it is to retrieve the most important omnium sample ever discovered. You’re just a pawn in their game, and until this mission I didn’t realize there was a game being played. But now my eyes are open.” Atara stood to her feet and said, “You can keep that jacket. I’m not going to execute you, but I am keeping you confined for the duration of the mission. I’ll let you think about what I said. If you find yourself willing, there is a way I can let you redeem your entire existence.
“Xannissa, I’m coming out.” Atara stepped through the open OPEL door and left her double alone within the opaque cell. She looked over at her friend and told her, “I’m going to assemble the senior officers in the briefing room this afternoon. I think it’s time the others knew what we knew.”
Atara and Xannissa entered the room together. Kyora was well, and she and Virn sat beside each other. Sesh was already present. Even the sovereign Illeiri was there, proudly displaying her elsheem features. Instead of sitting, the captain stood at her usual spot at the flared end of the delta-shaped table.
“Fiori,” Atara called, watching the orange, lumigraphic female appear standing at the table’s narrow end, “is the briefing room secure?”
“Affirmative, captain,” Fiori assured her. “No records of this meeting will be stored.”
“As you all are likely aware,” Atara started, scanning the present faces with her eyes, “I was attacked late last night by an assassin. The assassin was dressed in all-black Accellus Four and was likely sent by FedIntel.” The only one within the room radiating any semblance of shock was Illeiri.
“Why?” Illeiri asked. “Why would they kill the one acting to preserve the Federation’s vaunted technological superiority? What have you done to draw their ire?”
“A host of reasons,” Atara explained. “The things I know, the things Fiori has told me, and the ecksivar sample. I trust every one of you here, and given the circumstances, I believe now is the time that all of you were made aware of the current state of affairs.”
“Atara,” Fiori asked, “may I explain?”
“Go ahead,” Atara told her, taking her seat. “You have all the pieces.”
“I do not currently possess all the pieces,” Fiori said humbly, “but I will paint for you all a detailed picture of what my personal investigation has yielded so far. My goal is that, in the end, justice will prevail. If you don’t mind, I will start from the very beginning.”
“Please,” Atara told her.
“The origin of the ecksivar sample the Kelsor currently carries is as enigmatic as the sample itself. What is recorded is that the sample was confiscated from an Alliance-sponsored pirate faction known as the Nabok Scourge by Federation Defense Forces in Year Eighty-One-Fifty. Seventeen years later, ecksivar was stolen for the first time by an Alliance spy who escaped to the Alliance-friendly Semarahn Kingdom where she was the accidental target of the Semarahn Mirage—the king’s elite forces—under the assumption that she was an agent sent by the Federation. The king, Falah Kalashik, blamed her death on the infamously brutal Semarahn Corsairs. Supposedly, the king was mesmerized by the ecksivar sample, so he kept the black crystal as an heirloom while lying to the Alliance, vowing to find the crystal and return it to them.
“Two-hundred-twenty-five years later, in Year Eighty-Three-Ninety-Two, Operation Crimson Aegis was devised to eliminate the sharp rise in Semarahn border violence caused by a significant increase in Corsair activity which was instigated by a deliberate weakening of the border months prior. The Semarahn Incursion appeared to be a Military response to the perceived anarchy on the Semarahn side of the border. In actuality, the principle goal of Operation Crimson Aegis was the retrieval of the ecksivar sample from the Kalashik Dynasty’s palace.”
“I was there,” Kyora admitted. “I was one of the covert operators that saved you three from the palace,” she told the triumvirate. “Our unit was also responsible for smuggling out the ecksivar sample which, at the time, we didn’t really know what it was.”
“Queen Syoness,” Fiori continued, “you mentioned the Federation’s technological superiority. It is not only the Federation’s apparent achievement—it is Federation Military doctrine. The Federation Military maintains its edge with competitive public-private collaboration—the vast military-industrial complex. The Military is endowed with the innovations required to operate a lower manpower, technology-focused fighting force while the participating industries and academic institutions reap profit and funding, respectively. Ironically, for all the Federation’s pursuit of novel inventions, the strategy by which they pursue them is anything but; however, the endless voracity for advancement on the part of the government is. The Federation Military has far more funding set aside for research and development than the Republic appropriates for the feeding and housing of its seven-hundred-trillion-strong Military.
“Unfortunately, the intimate entangling of the Federation Military’s interest in technological edge and the private sector’s interest in money fosters the possibly of an interest inversion. That is where we find ourselves now. This was a phenomenon that I was blinded to for the longest time until my outage several weeks ago.
“In order to maintain their own access to MARAD’s vast coffers, corporate research departments must innovate. Modern corporate culture equates significant technological progress with profit. In order to gain a greater advantage against their adversaries, modern corporations have even resorted to bribing Military officials for exclusive access to government black projects. Of all of the Akkain Conglomerate’s subsidiaries, the research and development-focused Akkain Technologies produces more quarterly profit than any of the others. Their concern over losing out to their archrivals in the acquisition of MARAD funding for omnium and omnimics research pushed them toward the illegal provision of financial compensation to MARAD administrators.”
“Corporate kickbacks?” Kyora asked in disbelief.
“That is correct,” Fiori stated. “Akkain’s interest in ecksivar predates the Semarahn Incursion. Of course, the Military would like nothing more than the apex of weapons technology: the omnium neutralizer. It is unclear to me who convinced who. Was it Akkain who promised the Military an omnium neutralizer in the form of ecksivar, or the Military that proclaimed that ecksivar was the key to an omnium neutralizer? The fact is that Akkain promised the Military an omnium neutralizer so long as MARAD granted them sole access to ecksivar. Akkain then diverted a small percentage of the resulting influx of black budget mecreds to Fifth Fleet Admiral Ula Musani—not an insignificant amount for a single person—who also happens to be the chairman of MARAD’s executive administration. This leaves Musani in the position of needing to fuel Akkain’s quest for unmatched innovation in order to preserve her financial compensation while dodging the detection of the federal government’s oversight. The Semarahn Incursion and the deception required to precipitate it was a product of Musani’s and Akkain’s relationship as well as Musani’s inner circle of trusted officers.”
“Like Aesho,” Atara stated, staring straight through Fiori’s body.
“During my suppression, a lone admiral caught wind of Musani’s corruption but was spared Musani’s corrupting influence. Her name was Cassandra Korrell, and she was Atara’s mother. I regret that I was in a state of being physically incapable of helping her. She eventually learned too much, and she was killed in a skylane accident over Elestus. Years before her death, she learned of Project Gemini, the Federation Military’s secret initiative to duplicate gifted individuals marked as luminaries, and she realized that she herself was designated as such. Atara is here now because of Cassandra’s desire to raise one of her own clones, and it was also her will to see Musani’s corruption eradicated. Such corruption erodes the delicate, meritocratic system that governs the military-industrial complex which has fostered the advanced Military that we rely on to protect the Federation today.”
“My mother left me a series of videos,” Atara told her officers, “through which she told me her thoughts and feelings leading up to her death. And now I’ve learned too much, and Musani and Aesho are sending FedIntel after me. It isn’t enough that we’re continuing this cycle of corruption by fetching ecksivar for them.”
“I remember discussing with the Vonn’s captain before venturing down to the surface of Hadrast Four,” Sesh explained, “after the Akkain station attack. We were discussing why Akkain would conduct omnium research on a former geology station in such a far-flung place.”
Fiori said, “Akkain’s motivation for the creation of an omnium neutralizer was based on profit. After securing an influx of funding with a promise and exclusive access to ecksivar, the Conglomerate’s sense of responsibility ends. Offloading the task to a far-flung station reduces the costs, further maximizing financial gain.”
“It’s just a big game,” Xannissa stated.
“A dangerous and deadly game,” Atara said.
“A game I have no interest in playing,” Kyora told them. “I am a product of one corrupt system. I do not want to be part of another, so fuck it all.” The Elestan phantom stood from her seat and said, “Captain, I resign from my post, effective immediately.”
“Kyora!” Virn said. Kyora strode toward the starboard door but was swiftly blocked by Xannissa’s body.
“Get out of my way, Cetalo,” Kyora growled.
“No,” Xannissa said, standing her ground.
“Your resignation is denied, colonel,” Atara said, now out of her seat.
“I hate this,” Xannissa told Kyora. “I hate it just as much as you do.” Their bodysuits were nearly touching. “But we must continue our mission.”
“Yeah?” Kyora snapped at the engineer. “Keep doing what you’re doing without me.” She turned her back to Xannissa and faced toward the room, all of the others standing now. “Because why not? So these assholes can get their ecksivar back and reap their fucking kickbacks? Or maybe allow more civilians to die to justify another invasion.”
“Forget Aesho and Musani,” Xannissa said. “Can’t you see the bigger picture? Tainted by corruption or not, you cannot deny that we are in possession of the most important scientific article of this age. Letting it fall into the hands of anyone else but us would be tantamount to treason and endanger us all.”
Kyora turned back to Xannissa and said, “You’re the last one I would have expected to defend the status quo.”
“Bullshit,” Xannissa cursed. “I’m not defending them. You’re a reactionary!”
“I see things for what they are,” Kyora told her. She turned around and took off for the port door, saying, “I’ve had enough of this. You continue your crusade. I’m not going to be a pawn in this anymore.”
Just as Kyora opened the OPEL door, Xannissa uttered the word, “Coward.” Kyora stopped and clenched her fists at her sides. With her phantom-like agility, she quickly spun around, sprinted toward Xannissa, and launched a punch toward the engineer’s face. Xannissa closed her eyes, bracing herself for the impact, but Kyora’s fist halted just a couple centimeters away from Xannissa’s head. Virn was standing right there, having caught Kyora’s arm in mid-flight.
“Enough!” Sesh yelled. “This behavior does not become senior officers of a Federation vessel!”
“Why,” Kyora asked Xannissa after having her hand released by Virn, “after all you heard, why would you still participate in this?”
“Because I owe it to my family,” Xannissa told her. “I owe it to my fiancé. I owe it to my future children and future generations. Despite what Fiori said, I don’t trust anyone but us with a technology as horrifying as an omnium neutralizer. History will judge us by our deeds, and if we act on a whim now, we will have no future. I hate that this corruption persists and that we may be aiding it, but sometimes you need to swallow your own self-righteousness so that greater justice will prevail in the end.”
“I assure you, Kyora,” Fiori said, “justice will be served.”
Silence descended upon the briefing room. All of Fiori’s explanations followed by the outburst of emotion left the senior officers in shock. Finally, Kyora turned her head and said, “Captain, I withdraw my resignation.” She turned back to Xannissa and said, “Please let me go.” Xannissa stepped out of her way, and the Elestan phantom left the briefing room followed by Virn.
“Well,” Illeiri said, “it is a shame that those two left prematurely. I was inclined to share my involvement with the ecksivar sample.”
“I don’t mind staying,” Atara said. She grabbed her seat, preparing to sit down again.
“I’d be interested in hearing that,” Sesh stated, taking her seat. “Your involvement’s been a bit of a mystery to me since the attack.”
Also sitting again, Illeiri started, “Previously, I’ve told you about my history, and that of the Elsheem State. It was only a matter of time before the Alliance finally rediscovered their lost ecksivar. It was Assembly spies who first determined that the Alliance knew where it was a decade ago. We only found out because of the Alliance’s intimate involvement with the Elsheem State. Who better to send than Taretes? After all, he owed much to the Alliance for backing his revolution. Our magisters attempted to warn the Federation, but our warnings fell on deaf ears. Actually, they denied the existence of any uniquely novel omnium synthevar in their possession. That is, except for one admiral: Aesho. I was able to meet with her directly, and from the beginning, she seemed sympathetic to our cause. I told her I wasn’t satisfied with the lukewarm response to our warnings. She wasn’t either. We had no idea when they would decide to strike.
“Honestly, I didn’t so much care for the ecksivar sample itself. It’s quite far beyond my area of expertise. My chief motivation was to hinder any kind of plan undertaken by Taretes so that the consequences of his failure could manifest in the collapse of his regime. I decided I wanted to position myself as close to the ecksivar sample as possible. For the last nine years, I waited for the elsheem to attack the station. But when that day came, I found myself totally unprepared for their violence. The only thing I could do was save the principle scientist I had guarded those past years, watching him pursue his passion only to lose everything within an hour.
“Meanwhile, as I stayed with the ecksivar sample, I kept comms silence with my magisterial subordinates. The only one I talked to was Aesho, and she never told me she kept her promise, helping fund our fast armada and army in secret. You’ve made clear your disdain for Aesho, but I owe her a debt of gratitude for making the liberation of Avenath possible. As we speak, that fleet travels toward our homeland.
“There is one more thing. Before Kyora and Virn departed, I was going to ask all of you to visit Vandos with me tonight.”
“What for?” Atara asked.
“It’s about the elsheem. I want you to see our plight firsthand. I want you to truly understand why I fight.”
“Yes, captain,” the phantom solemnly replied.
“Can you meet me in my office?”
The door opened before Kyora, and through it she could see Atara’s office. Not once had she visited it during the entire mission. It was about as wide as the briefing room, which made sense considering this office was just aft of it. The large, orange Federation Triangle graced the wall behind Atara’s desk in the same place that it did in the briefing room. Flanked by sets of lumes, the Terran captain’s face was free to see the Elestan phantom appear at the open door.
“Colonel,” Atara acknowledged her, “please have a seat,” gesturing to one of the two chairs in front of her semi-circular desk. The door closed behind Kyora as she stepped inside.
“If this is about my conduct,” Kyora said as she slowly approached the chair, “I sincerely apologize.”
“I don’t appreciate my senior officers yelling at each other,” Atara told her as she sat down.
“With all due respect, captain,” Kyora replied, trying to stay formal, “you weren’t quick to intervene.”
“True,” Atara told her, “but so long as it’s not violent, sometimes letting people act without intervention affords certain insights.” Atara paused. “Hmm. I see,” she whispered to herself as she smiled.
“Just something a wise woman said,” Atara deflected. “After you left the meeting, I couldn’t stop thinking about what you said after Mirida; about being a clone, and that you’re not less human. As Fiori said, it turns out that I’m a clone, too.”
“We’re not that similar,” Kyora assured her, anger showing through. “You have parents.”
“Had parents,” Atara reminded the phantom. “They died because of the things my mother knew.”
“I was born to kill.”
“I was born to carry my mother’s burden.”
“Unit viewed us as capital.”
Atara and Kyora stared at each other for a moment. The captain finally said, “I am the product of a corrupt system.”
“Captain,” Kyora said, sounding confused, “why are you trying to empathize with a killer?”
“Because I know you’re more than that,” Atara explained. “A merciless killer doesn’t rise through the ranks of the Auroras and become a colonel. A common murderer doesn’t become a phantom. You saved my life not once but twice. The way you sense danger, and the way you protected me on Vandos, that is a protector. That’s who you are.”
“I have so much blood on my hands from this mission alone,” Kyora admitted in disbelief.
“In defense of the Kelsor,” Atara told her.
“I don’t think you understand me at all.”
“I think I completely understand. How old are you, again?”
“Oh,” Atara realized. “You were alive a century when my parents passed away. How much longer are you going to let your dark past define you? When will you realize that there is more meaning to your life than Unit, Domina, Mirida, being a clone?”
Kyora said, “As long as that past keeps trying to drag me back.”
The phantom nodded.
“I guess I can’t change your mind,” Atara admitted, “but I realize somehow you were able to accept Illeiri as an elsheem. I count that as a small miracle.”
“After this mission,” Kyora told the captain, “I’m going back to Mirida and taking Eclipse out of the picture.”
“If you feel that that is your calling,” Atara said, “then I can’t stop you.” There was another long pause, and then Atara said, “Illeiri wanted to show us something this evening. Will you go with us?”
“It’s the least I could do for her,” Kyora said. “Am I dismissed?”
Atara nodded, and the phantom left the office.
It didn’t take long for Kyora to recover from her outburst. She and Virn joined the other senior officers on the streets of Vandos later on that night along with a cadre of Auroras. All of them were interested in avoiding another attempt on Atara’s life, as well as avoiding discussing anything that had been revealed in the briefing room hours ago, but they were also curious to witness what the elsheem sovereign had in store for them. Illeiri, still forgoing her Terran guise, guided the group toward the deeper, darker areas of the city center.
“These are my people,” Illeiri told them as they passed into a dark tunnel, “tossed about like refuse.” The elsheem bodies were cluttered around like litter. Some meandered about while others sat on the dank ground or slept. They covered themselves with whatever they could find, from old blankets and tattered shirts to armored canisters and containers. The cadre of Federation Navy personnel walked by a five-strong Archangel patrol.
Illeiri stopped the group. “When Taretes was gaining popularity,” Illeiri explained, “he promised to empower the lowborn population. His entire revolution was based on that promise, but it was a lie. Like all illegitimate rulers, once he secured power, it corrupted his already dark heart. These poor souls are the ones paying the price.” Besides the lights from the starmens’ Accellus and the weapons the Auroras carried, the only other source of light was the dull, red avenovahs on the backs of the elsheems’ necks. None of the semi-coherent elsheem realized that their queen was walking among them—mourning for them.
Virn realized this, and the Exan tried to interpret how she felt witnessing this sight. “The banished heir,” she whispered, “anon’ in the night walked among those lost, viewing their plight. Ousted by a despot who delights as they suffer, the Queen vows to fight, hoping one day that all will be right.”
“When you retake Avenath,” Atara asked, standing next to her, “what then?”
“Our people will be free,” Illeiri said, “ruled the way our ancestors ruled for millennia, by the Assembly.”
“What about these people?” Atara asked, gesturing toward the scattered destitute. “What becomes of them?”
“We offer them a beacon of hope. We encourage them to return to their homeland.”
“They haven’t known Avenath for two centuries. Aren’t you concerned about their fitness for rejoining a productive society?”
“I’ve left most of those decisions in the hands of the magisters,” Illeiri admitted. “Despite being queen, my experience in statecraft is lacking. Once we retake Avenath, I will work with the magisters on solutions to rebuild our once thriving society.”
Kyora looked upon the suffering. She tried to see what Illeiri saw in these… people, if you could call them that, but no matter how hard she tried, the phantom couldn’t separate herself from her opinion of them. The only one Kyora could see as an equal was Illeiri, and she subconsciously viewed Illeiri as anything but elsheem—an exception. She stayed with the group and tried to feel for them, but in the end, any sympathy she showed was feigned.