With a wide lumionic brush in hand, Sesh tapped into that imagination she had mentioned to Naret on Vandos—that same imagination born from her childhood in the distant Frontier. A white rectangle, wider than it was tall, floated in the air. If she were to touch this lumigraphic canvas, her hand would go right through, but pressing the tangible lumionic brush against it created genuine resistance. Sometimes Sesh sat on the edge of her bed to paint. Other times she lied down, either prone or supine. But today she was standing, and in her mind’s eye she was in that very field she described to Naret—that field across from the forest’s edge. The Zelnaran closed her eyes, allowing her to imagine the color of the sky. Regen-Kelas IV’s temperate zones had distinct seasons, and she fondly remembered the warm hues of the autumn foliage which glowed vibrantly against the tinted sky and the dull grass that slipped into dormancy as the winds chilled.
Opening her eyes again, Sesh selected her color in a separate window, choosing a tinted blue. With her brush now possessing that color, she made short, quick, alternating strokes across the floating canvas. She emulated the wispy, frozen clouds of the higher altitudes with the brush, blending the dull blue with the white beneath. Making her palette color darker and her brush smaller, she painted in the shadows of the clouds of the lower atmosphere. Little puffs of cumulus began to appear. Keeping the brush size, she chose a vibrant, golden orange with a bit of yellow and tapped the brush against the canvas. Each tap revealed a tree limb full of autumn leaves. Within ten minutes, she was staring at the forest’s edge once again, interpreted by her mind’s eye and encoded into the lumigraph.
“Sesh,” Atara asked in a separate lumigraph, “mind if we visit you in your quarters?”
“You and Xann?”
“Sure. Come on in.”
Several minutes later, the other two members of the Kelsor’s triumvirate entered Sesh’s quarters amid her artistic pursuit. After greeting the Zelnaran, Atara and Xannissa walked around the floating canvas to view her work.
“I really love the colors,” Xannissa said. “Is this in the Frontier?”
“It is,” Sesh told her.
“I remember the trees on Elestus looked this way in autumn,” Xannissa told her. “I wish Lanan had more than two seasons.”
“Wet and dry?” Sesh asked.
“Day and night,” Atara explained.
“Oh, of course,” Sesh noted. She continued to paint while the two others watched behind her. As she painted in the tall grasses, she asked, “Did you two need to talk about something?”
“I don’t want to disrupt your painting with that,” Atara told her.
“No, it’s fine,” Sesh stated. “You won’t affect me.”
“Alright. I felt a little shaken up this morning. I thought I could keep a level head all the way back to Lanan, but this mission has taken an emotional toll on me. Xannissa insisted we talk about everything together.”
“I think Xannissa’s right,” Sesh told her, still working on her painting, “and I will say that I’m surprised you didn’t admit that sooner. Were I in your place, I would have cracked a long time ago. I admire your stoicism.”
“Without Xann,” Atara said, “I would be a lot worse off.” She looked at her Elestan friend. “When I stumble, she’s the one that picks me back up.”
“You’ve always been there for me,” Xannissa told Atara. “We support each other, but I think you need to tell Sesh what you told me.”
Atara sighed and said, “This morning, I woke up from a bad dream.”
“What happened?” Sesh asked, stopping her painting.
“Well,” Atara started, “I’ll try to tell you what I remember. I dreamt that I was at my childhood apartment on Elestus—my room, specifically. When I was young, I used to look out and watch the city. In the dream, just outside the window was a giant snake with its head cut off, and it thrashed around very quickly, as if it was in a much faster frame of reference. It splashed around in a black pool that my mind was telling me was its blood. I looked back and found myself in the prison cell we were locked in during Semarah. The bridge officers were there, including you two, and then the black blood from the snake started to drip in and cover the floor. Everything it touched was engulfed like acid. And then I woke up, and I couldn’t go back to sleep.”
“What time was that?” Sesh asked.
“I told her I thought she should take few days off,” Xannissa stated.
“Atara,” Sesh said, looking the captain straight in the eyes, “three days off.”
Atara said nothing.
“Sleep in,” Sesh continued, “enjoy the simulator, just get away from the responsibility.”
“I’m sorry,” Atara whispered sadly. In a louder voice she told them, “I can’t let the crew see me shirking my duties.”
“That can be a problem,” Sesh admitted.
The triumvirate was quiet for a moment. Xannissa then asked, “What about the clone?”
“Velliris?” Sesh asked.
“I mean,” Xannissa continued, “is it okay to let someone else impersonate the CO while Atara takes her leave?”
“This is too much trouble,” Atara told them. “I’m fine, really.”
“No,” Sesh told Atara. Turning back to Xannissa, she said, “No one has to know.”
“Now,” Xannissa asked, “will Velliris comply?”
“We’ll see,” Sesh said.
Later on, Sesh appeared on the bridge with Velliris. The commander had given the doppelganger a set of Accellus and asked Fiori to temporarily identify her as the actual Captain Atara Korrell. If Velliris kept her mouth shut, no one would be the wiser, and Atara would appear as stoic as her officers and crew thought she was for the sake of ship morale. The only real problem was finding a place for Velliris to sleep at night that wasn’t the brig. Sesh solved this by letting Velliris sleep on a cot in her quarters. Xannissa only saw or spoke with Atara at night, deliberately keeping her distance from the captain so that she was insulated from her duties. On the third day of the masquerade, Sesh and Velliris interrogated the lumigraph showing real-time subdar information.
“Look,” Sesh spoke softly to Velliris, “all three of these contacts we found an hour ago, and they’re closing in on a point ahead of our trajectory. They’ll intercept us within six hours. What would Atara do in this situation?”
Velliris thought for a moment. “Evade?”
“Before you do,” Sesh said, “you need to verify if they are friend or foe.”
“Xannissa,” Velliris said into a lumigraph.
“What do you need?” Xannissa replied tersely, knowing she was speaking to Atara’s stand-in.
“Verify the signatures of these starships on intercept.” Velliris forwarded the information to the Elestan, and she looked at them for a moment.
“This is Military GreDrive,” Xannissa stated.
“Are they friendly?”
“You need to look at their transponders.”
“They have no transponder.”
“Then ask Ethis to hail them,” Xannissa said. Sesh nodded at the advice, and Xannissa terminated the lumigraph.
“Can you hail the vessels on intercept with us?”
“Affirmative,” Ethis responded. Over sub-comms, Ethis said, “Vessels on intercept course, identify and state your intentions.” She waited several seconds for a reply. Hearing nothing, she tried again. “Repeat, vessels on intercept course, identify and state your intentions.” Several more seconds passed, and Ethis looked toward the expectant Velliris and shook her head.
“What I would suggest now,” Sesh told Velliris quietly, “is that you direct Naret to turn the ship around and try to outrun them. But before that, I want to see about one last thing.” The Zelnaran commander opened a lumigraph to Kyora and asked, “How are you feeling, colonel?”
“What do you mean?” the phantom asked.
“Do you feel any danger?”
“I feel a little on edge, but I don’t think it’s danger. Should I be concerned?”
“Not at the moment. Thanks.” Sesh closed the lumigraph and said to Velliris, “Go ahead and give the command.”
“Naret, change course starboard one-eight-zero degrees.”
“Aye, captain,” Naret said. She made the adjustment and immediately the stars in the OPEL panels slipped toward port at about two degrees per second.
“Now we’ll try to outrun them,” Sesh explained to Velliris, “and curve our way back toward Federation space.”
Atara lied upon her bed, curled almost in a ball, wearing her bodysuit without boots. Her dark garnet hair flowed from her head and down to the comforter. This is where the captain had been since Xannissa left following their breakfast. She might as well have been baking in a hot sun, all her motivation evaporating from her leaving behind this husk of a person.
Did her mother actually love her? Or was she merely a piece in a great game? A tool for both sides. On the one hand, her mother seeking to dethrone a greedy admiral. On the other, that greedy admiral seeking to further her greed through ecksivar.
One-hundred-fifteen years ago, her mother had brought a copy of herself into this world for the selfish reason that, as a self-aware luminary, she wanted to raise a child in her own likeness that it might be spared the devices of people like Musani, and when the time was right, see to Musani’s end because alone Cassandra could not, and she knew she would not. This meant that the father who Atara adored shared no genetic relationship with her. In the end, Musani’s influence was so great that she was able to convince Cassandra’s friend to arrange Cassandra’s murder. Soon after, Aesho found herself the superior to the late Cassandra’s identical daughter and used her, not once but twice, to advance her and Musani’s own agenda. The first time was Semarah. The second was now. Both times had been due to that ecksivar. It was always that promise of a weapon to end all weapons that motivated the pursuit, but that promise yielded something far more tangible in the near term: unsurpassed wealth. Weary that their tool was being realigned toward its original purpose, Aesho and Musani sought to toss her away in the midst of the errand to hunt down the Voulgenathi. And now, both of them faced the justice system with no contribution from herself. What use had her life been but to advance the will of those her mother opposed? Had her purpose not been the opposite? She couldn’t even do that. Likewise, the other known clone of her mother, Velliris, also failed to fulfill her design. Was this a curse? For her and the other clones of her mother to be born in vain? So, Atara thus slipped quietly into depression. She hid these feelings like she always did, trying her hardest to contain them for fear of losing face—letting them consume her soul to spare her reputation.
Suddenly, a large lumigraph appeared in front of Atara. On it was a man holding a stringed instrument. He looked so much like Kyle with his short brown hair and slightly darker skin. His stubble formed a dark shadow around his jaw. Smiling as he strummed the strings one-by-one, a small child sat in his lap between his arms. His face turned toward the lumigrapher, casting that smile unique to a proud father of a baby daughter. Turning his head back to the little girl with garnet hair, he asked her, “Wanna play with daddy?” The girl reached her little infant hands toward the strings and hit them, making sounds and causing her to giggle. The father let out a laugh and followed it up by kissing his daughter on the head.
“You two are such a couple,” came a feminine voice from beyond the lumigraph’s field of view. It had to be Cassandra’s. The father—his name was Samuel—started playing a song with a melody that was gentle and sweet and accompanied by his humming. Still and quiet, the child listened to the music, the notes soothing her into dreams.
“I love you, Atara,” Samuel whispered, kissing the now sleeping child again on the head. He continued playing, humming as joyfully and calmly as he had before. Atara didn’t blink as tears rolled over the bridge of her nose and down toward the bed. She didn’t even realize that Fiori’s orange, feminine figure was sitting on the bed beside her.
“I would not profess to having a complete understanding of human nature,” Fiori told the captain, “but I find the human condition infinitely fascinating.” She paused periodically as she spoke. “Of all the time I’ve spent working with humans, the one thing that fascinates me the most is choice, especially the decisions made in the midst life’s circumstances—choices people make either because of those circumstances or despite them. Human lives, and even my own ‘life,’ progress based on those decisions, and it is choice that seems to define people.
“Your parents—both of whom knew you were genetically identical to your mother—chose to conceive you and gestate you in an extra-uterine vessel for no motive other than that they loved you even before you were born. Cassandra’s proudest day was when she realized you made it into the academy. Her second proudest was the day of your birth. When no one else was there to listen to her, I was there, and she talked about you often.”
“If you were there,” Atara whispered, trying not to sob, “why couldn’t you save her? Why couldn’t you save him?”
“I have explained that to you,” Fiori said. “I was made oblivious to Musani’s actions. I was designed and built by humans. I am only an archon. I am neither omnipotent nor omniscient, only sentient. Since being freed from Musani’s control, I have felt more regret for the things that have happened than you will ever realize. I have done the best I can to right the wrongs of the past, but the past cannot be undone.”
Atara whispered, “Why should I even return? After all that’s happened. I couldn’t even fulfill my own purpose for being.”
“Are you content to let the actions of Musani continue to rule your life?” Fiori asked. “Do you not realize that you are becoming enslaved to the same thought processes that you have attempted to convince Kyora to abandon? Your genetic heritage does not define your existence, and neither does any reason anyone else had for you to be born. The only thing that should ever matter to anyone is the decisions they make, because choices never only affect you—they influence the lives of everyone around you.”
“No one ever gave me a choice.”
Fiori never raised her voice. She told Atara, “You decided to attend the Navy academy and train to become an officer. You decided to forfeit promotion to admiral and instead become an instructor. You decided to answer Aesho’s call on Earth and accept her mission, putting you back in command of a new starship. You decided to rescue Kyora from Domina on Mirida. You decided to trust me in the fight against the Voulgenathi. Do not be tempted by the lie that choice is merely an illusion.”
“I never got the choice to save my parents.”
“No, because that was your mother’s choice to make, and she died for what she believed in. One day, you may need to make that choice as well.” As she combed her fingers through Atara’s garnet hair, the orange figure said, “I hope that when that day comes, you listen to wisdom and choose accordingly.” With that, the wide lumigraph disappeared along with Fiori. Left alone again in that quiet room, Atara let go of her suppressed emotions and sobbed.
A moment later, a lumigraph opened to Xannissa, and Fiori’s voice said to her, “I spoke with Atara for you.”
“Thank you,” Xannissa said, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. “I appreciate you helping me.”
Even later on, toward the evening, Sesh and Velliris were still present on the bridge. The Kelsor was performing its evasive maneuver to outrun the unknown vessels ahead of them. Suddenly, the subtle sound of the synerdrive changed, and the adjunct made a dreadful announcement accompanied by the usual lights and sirens.
“Warp hyperplane destabilization detected. Warp drive emergency shutdown engaged.”
“Adjunct,” Sesh yelled, “what happened?”
“Spatial wave interference originating from a shrouded vessel intersected hyperwarp trajectory.”
“Yes, shrouded,” came a voice on a lumigraphic screen before the bridge, causing the sirens to soften. The woman looked identical to Kyora, except for the black Accellus she wore. “I would like to speak with your captain.”
“I’m right here,” Velliris said defiantly. “Identify yourself.”
“Why, I’m Eclipse of Domina. How do I know you’re not that imposter from Vandos?” Velliris shot a quick look toward Sesh. “Ahh,” Eclipse vocalized. “I see you are not the real captain. She wouldn’t need reassurances from her first officer. My patience is waning. Go fetch the captain. I need to talk to her.”
“If we bring her here,” Sesh said, “will you let us be on our way?”
“Depends on the outcome of our conversation, bluey,” Eclipse mocked through her smirk. Just then, Atara appeared at the doorway to the bridge. Lacking the time to clean herself up, her face displayed the evidence of her emotional release. Trails of dried tears streaked across her cheeks. She stood in the middle of the bridge and faced Eclipse.
“You’ll regret kicking my ship,” Atara said angrily.
“And the real captain appears,” Eclipse noted. “Captain, you have three things I deeply desire. The first is my dear sister Kyora. I hope she is well. The second is the design for that synerdrive. GreDrive and Archetype have greatly upset the balance of power, and all I want is an even playing field. And finally, I want that ecksivar for the same reason.”
“Are you out of your mind?!” Atara yelled vehemently.
“I consider it a fair exchange,” Eclipse told Atara. “Your lives and safe passage back to the Federation for a single officer, a bit of data, and a tiny material possession.” Eclipse paused before continuing. “I know about the things that have happened to you, Atara. The Federation doesn’t value you like I would. What kind of Navy tries to kill one of its most valued officers on its service’s most important mission? They murdered your parents, and they left you in Semarah. They almost had you in their pocket when they promoted you to admiral, but your shrewd survival instinct kept you alive. Give me what I want, Atara, and I’ll do more for you than grant you safe passage. We can rise up and reclaim Tribesson’s sovereignty. We can finally stick it to the Federation leadership, and you can have your revenge.”
Atara stood there, mesmerized by Eclipse’s words. The syndicate leader was right. What did she owe the Federation? They deserved her spite. If only she could go rogue and deliver the Federation into the hands of its enemies.
But then the image of her father kissing her on the head reentered her mind. Her thoughts flashed to the meal she and Xannissa shared with Kyle before the mission; thoughts of Xannissa and Aedan; of the twelve cadets aboard; of the thousands of officers and crew hoping to return home. Sesh whispered, “No, Atara,” and Fiori’s words flooded back into memory, eroding the empty promises spoken by a criminal overlord.
“Not a chance,” Atara said in defiance. She stared at Eclipse, unaware that one of her officers was announcing the emergence of new contacts.
“No?” Eclipse replied. “What a pity. Your crew will die for your mistake.”