“Shit, shit, shit!” Cylenna cursed as she engaged her Goshawk’s ODEC. Her lumigraph to Xannissa disappeared, and she gunned her strikecraft’s throttle, blasting her fusion engines and reorienting her gravitics as the marauders fired their missiles toward her. With her ODEC active, her fighter’s RPDS fried the internal electronics and systems of the missiles just before they hit, allowing them to crash harmlessly as duds against the vehicle’s kinetic barrier. She piloted the Goshawk out of the hangar which was being overrun by syndicate soldiers, flying through the starboard airscreen faster than she ever had before. Only travelling a kilometer or two, she slowed the strikecraft and yawed around to face the hangar bay from where she escaped.
“Specter, this is Big Boss. Return to the Kelsor at once!”
“Permission to blast these fuckers off our ship,” Cylenna asked. She waited for a response. Several seconds passed before she heard anything.
“Permission granted,” said strikecraft control with reluctance, and Cylenna shot back toward the airscreen without registering the second part: “Don’t make a mess.” Cylenna backed off on the throttle as she approached, weary of any missiles that the small army of marauders might train on her. Her craft’s sensors detected several target locks, and when the missiles came flying out of the starboard airscreen, she vectored her craft’s gravitics to shift quickly out of the way. The missiles overshot her and arced back around, but once they were far enough away from the Kelsor, the battlecruiser’s RPDS eliminated them.
Cylenna piloted her Goshawk back to the airscreen and moved just through it. Below her—all the way to the other airscreen on the ship’s port side—was a mass of marauders, and before they realized what Cylenna had in store, the Elestan pilot was strafing them. Pitching her nose downward with her gravitics, Cylenna fired her Goshawk’s twin plasma autocannons which created streams so fast and so hot as to be confused for sustained beams. Every marauder they touched was vaporized by the direct, ionized blasts. The fury of these drivers was so great that Cylenna’s sustained assault risked overheating the cannons. She stopped the flow after fifteen seconds, letting the glowing SIRAC rest. The craft’s cooling system would take a while to eliminate the accumulated heat by itself, so Cylenna manually engaged emergency cooldown, flooding the chambers and mechanisms with liquid coolant that immediately vaporized, taking the heat with it and cooling the weapons quickly. The marauders retaliated with more missiles, but her RPDS handled them—though, a few more shots from her enemies and she would need to withdraw from the hangar and allow her RPDS time to recharge. When her autocannons stopped discharging steam, she took aim and fired again, mowing down the helpless marauders as they tried to leave the hangar and advance through the ship.
Where was the pleasure that she had experienced before? Countless marauders were perishing to her plasma, but she wasn’t feeling anything. The thrill of pushing them over the brink of death was gone. Was it just too easy? The pilot didn’t ponder it. More missiles targeted her craft, so she canceled her fire and engaged her drives, bursting out of the port airscreen.
The Kelsor’s REMASS started immediately mending the damage sustained to the bridge. Ethis rushed over to the bodies of her friends and cried, “Captain!” Spherical housekeeping drones appeared and began consuming the dust and debris to be reprocessed back into omnium. She knelt next to the cluster of armored bodies. That’s when Atara’s helmet moved. The captain’s head was lying in Sesh’s lap, and she rolled over, trying to get her bearings.
“Is everyone okay?” Atara asked weakly as she crawled on all fours. Sesh moved her head slowly toward Atara.
“I’m okay,” Sesh assured her. The commander used her gravitics to move herself off the floor.
“I’m fine,” Naret said through her coughing. “Just a little winded.” She rolled over and crawled behind the wall that was being rebuilt, dodging the little drones working to clean up the mess.
“We need a medic!” yelled one of the Auroras. “The tactical officer is down!” The tactical officer’s torso appeared to have been penetrated by the leftover force of the blast. When the Aurora rolled her over, the front of the officer’s chest was cauterized, and her limbs and head were limp. To give her a fighting chance that she might be saved, the Aurora attached a stasis unit to the officer and fed it power from her own, functioning suit through her palm.
“I’ll handle tactical,” Sesh said as the senior officers watched a medic rush into the room to perform an evaluation of the tactical officer’s body.
“I don’t want to lose it again,” Souq said to Namara as he clutched the cylinder containing the ecksivar sample. Both of them sat in the lounge connected to the lab. “Too many people have died because of this crystal.”
“They won’t get to it,” Namara assured him. Both were in armor and helmets as was everyone else. She watched as Souq clung to the sample even tighter. “Illeiri will protect us.”
“I can’t ask her to die for this,” Souq told her. “I need to take this godforsaken thing away from here.” The scientist rose to his feet and opened the door of the lab.
“Where are you going?” Namara asked in a frantic voice. She followed after him, worried for what he might do.
“We still have the drone!” he said, standing before the unused piece of equipment.
“Quen!” she said, watching Souq load the cylinder into the drone’s body. The firefight was happening just outside, visible through the OPEL windows of the dark lab. “What do you think you’re doing?”
His helmet turned to her and he said, “I’m saving our lives. They can’t take it if we don’t have it.”
“How are we going to get it back?” Namara asked. They both knew the drone had no communications system, no transponder, or anything that would make it easily visible to a ship trying to look for it. They designed it to buy time—a way to sequester the ecksivar sample in deep space because they could not destroy it. Souq paused, staring at her as they both stood next to the drone.
“I’m going with it.”
“No you are not!” Namara shouted, clasping her hands to Souq’s arms and forcing him to face her. “Your daughter needs you!”
“I’m trying to save her!”
“Then I’ll go.”
“You stay here. Whoever goes might not come back, or if the enemy finds it before we can, we’re their prisoner. Your life is more valuable than mine.”
“As a Federation science officer, let me do this.”
“No, Sayn. No!” Souq’s voice cracked.
“Go wait in the lounge.” She let go of Souq’s arms, but he went nowhere. “Please.”
“I can’t let you go,” he said emotionally.
“I’m sorry, Quen,” she told him. Her voice was starting to crack as well. “I hope you forgive me for this.” She fabricated a stasis unit and stuck it to his armor. Aided by her gravitics, she pushed him into the lounge, released him from stasis, and locked the door behind her. Souq ran to the door and tried to open it, but when he couldn’t, he looked through the OPELs to the lab.
He beat his fists on the wall, shouting, “Sayn! Goddamnit! Sayn!” Tears rushed from his eyes as he watched the Elestan science officer take the drone with her to the center of the lab. She looked back at the struggling Souq, and then she vanished in a brilliant white flash, leaving behind craters in the floor and ceiling and chunks carved out of the adjacent benches, as if the sphere that enveloped her during the jump took everything immediately around her as well. Souq bawled as he slid down the wall, just having watched his future spouse disappear without a trace.
A moment later, syndicate marauders blasted their way into the omnimology lab. Swarming in with their bright lights, they saw the perfect circle carved out of the lab’s interior, and they also noticed the OPELs at the rear and Souq’s collapsed body. They then tried to force the door to the lounge, alerting Souq to their presence. The marauders quickly lost their patience, trying to break through using brute force and weapons. The grieving scientist brought himself up from the floor and retreated through the back of the lounge.
“Say again!” Kyora demanded. Plasma bolts and bullets crisscrossed the wide corridor nearby. The battle drones bore the brunt of the ongoing skirmish, and Auroras took cover behind barricades within the smoke.
“They’re about to breach ODEC Five!” said a frantic Aurora over comms.
Kyora looked over to the immediate group of Auroras and, pointing, said, “You all, follow me to ODEC Five. We need to hurry back toward the bow.” Kyora used her gravitics to lift off from the floor and drift toward the ceiling. She then took off down the corridor, cruising swiftly above the battle. Virn ascended after her, and so did all of the Auroras around Velliris. Seeing as her fate had become intertwined with the vessel, as it would have also been if her mission to pose as Atara had succeeded, she took off after them, flying above the smokescreen and the bright flashes from Federation drivers. The biggest hazard was being shot down by quick-thinking, trigger-happy marauders, but the second most dangerous aspect was the SIRAC containers still being routed by gravitics above the ship’s corridors, and in a wide corridor such as this, those containers darted like locomotives on straight track. Velliris looked down and saw the five battle drones that passed her earlier holding their ground against the bold syndicate forces, but the collision detector in her helmet warned her of an incoming crate that she quickly and clumsily avoided. Some of the Auroras were taking shots from below, and one of them went down into a cluster of marauders.
The group steered clear of the hangar, opting to travel through the lift shafts to ascend the upper decks and then cut over the violent hangar bay. Several minutes later, the group touched down near the band of marauders leading the siege of ODEC 5. The syndicate attackers appeared to be completely preoccupied with breaking down the SIRAC door leading to the chamber containing the ODEC system. To lose one of the six main ODECs would be somewhat inconsequential as the other ODECs would bear the downed ODEC’s share of the load, but every one of them that was lost would mean having one less that could be lost until the entire Kelsor was left without any power generation capacity. For the moment, the group watched and waited as Kyora silently discussed tactics with Virn over their shared Q-comms. Velliris’ Accellus counted over seventy marauders just within her field of view as she stood with the other Auroras out of the enemy’s sight.
“Alright,” Kyora told them, looking away from the marauders and back toward the group, “I want you all to sheathe yourselves in as much SIRAC as you can, and fabricate HR-Twenty-Threes.”
“The rotary sustainer?” one of the Auroras asked.
“Yes. How many of you are wearing boosters?”
“I am,” said two of the Auroras.
“Only four of us,” Kyora noted out of the nine. “You five without boosters need to hang back. Virn, you and the other two are going to turn that corridor into a death chamber. You stand back and let me shake them up first. Do you understand?”
“Let’s set up lumionic barricades,” Virn told them. She had picked one up from a crate before leaving engineering, and she grabbed it from behind her back and set it down on the floor. The hexagonal, cylindrical device unfolded and produced lumionic field potential whose area of effect was marked by an orange lumigraphic line touching the floor and rising up as tall as most of the SIRAC barricades had been. Unfortunately, she was the only Aurora in their group possessing one, so all three of the women wielding rotary sustainers had to share it for extra protection.
“I’m going in,” Kyora told them. She disappeared beneath her shrouding and rose from the floor, directing her gravitics to guide her toward the mass of marauders holding down their position with sprays of bullets. The phantom’s goal was to disorient and confuse rather than to eradicate, but the means by which she chose to accomplish this goal involved the use of potent weapons. Kyora fabricated an explosive charge and attached it discreetly to the top of one of the marauder’s helmets nearer to the door. She reasoned that the charge was far enough away from the door as to not deal any real damage to it. Moving her arm away from the charge, the explosive device left her suit’s shrouding and was visible, though it remained unnoticed by all present. Kyora floated away from them, flying beyond a safe distance. She then detonated the charge, vaporizing the marauder to whose head it was attached and killing everyone around him, mortally wounding others farther away, and propelling body parts and debris toward everyone else.
As soon as the blast went off, Virn and the two Auroras huddling behind her portable barricade sprayed the marauders with their shoulder-mounted rotary sustainers, further fueling their confusion. This prompted pockets of Auroras around these besieging syndicate soldiers to launch offensives, driving into the weakening pocket of intruders.
“The destroyers are vulnerable again,” Sesh said, standing at the tactical station overlooking the marauders’ bodies. “Launching torpedoes.” Regular, non-phasic torpedoes fabricated in the tubes and fired toward the syndicate destroyer. Defiant against the hostile ship’s point-defense fire, the torpedoes loosed by the battlecruiser detonated, one-by-one, against the destroyer’s lumionics. With each of the torpedoes packing a tiny amount of antimatter—enough to ruin a small city—and the durability to power through point-defense, the Kelsor’s modest spread of thirty torpedoes reduced the syndicate destroyer to a cloud of debris. No doubt the Domina kicker ship had witnessed this destruction.
“That should take care of the blinker problem,” Atara said with relief.
“Captain,” Illeiri communicated to Atara just after.
“What is it?”
“I’m with Souq,” she said, “and you’re not going to believe this.”
“Namara took the ecksivar sample and used the jump drone.” Atara stood there for a moment and processed what Illeiri just said. The anger inside her welled up for her initial feeling was that Namara had betrayed them, but then she remembered the reason why the drone was made in the first place. “Did you get that, captain?” There was no way that Namara could have guided the drone toward the enemy, so there was only one question that came to her mind.
“Souq said he was going to sequester the ecksivar in deep space so that it couldn’t be stolen,” Illeiri explained to her, “but Namara took it from him and did it instead. She went with the drone so that we’ll be able to trace her sub-comms and retrieve it later.”
“So she’s out there alone?”
“Brave woman,” Atara said.
“Brave scientists,” Illeiri noted. “Souq was willing to go, too. Namara forced him to stay because of Lieren.”
“I don’t want to risk contacting her now,” Atara said. “I don’t want Domina or the Three Brothers to know she’s out there and find her first.”
After the lumigraph disappeared, Atara then said, “Fiori, we need to talk.”
The stars seemed brighter than she had ever seen them. Namara drifted there in deep space, lightyears from the closest of those shining sidereal orbs. The jump drone rotated slowly a couple of meters away along with the SIRAC fragments from the omnimology lab. All that separated her body from the terminal vacuum surrounding her was the thin layer of polyalloy sealing her skin and the SIRAC of her helmet encompassing her head. The scientist’s gravitics stabilized her motion, preventing her from rotating. Her lumionics formed a faint halo around her as they worked to deflect the cosmic background radiation. It wasn’t until she noticed that faint glow of lumions that she realized she jumped from the battlecruiser without attaching a booster to her back—a realization that caused her blood to run cold and her heartrate to jump. Her thoughts shifted back into perspective: having one would have just prolonged her suffering were she never to be rescued. Checking her Accellus’ reservoirs, she saw that her suit could sustain her for several hours, if not a few days. Namara disabled the lights on her Accellus and tried to take her mind off of where she was, hoping that maybe she could fall asleep there, her suit protecting her, but her mind kept circling around to Souq beating on the lounge walls yelling for her to come back.
With the destroyer obliterated, the Auroras protecting the cadets filed out of the briefing room leaving the terrified cadets with the scenes of slaughter burned into their retinas. Drones arrived to clean up the room, scan the marauders’ bodies, and mark them for routing through the battlecruiser’s gravitic logistics system. Gravilog also collected the ammunition crates, many of which were blasted apart on one side, and moved them out of the briefing room. Eventually, all that remained were the cadets clutching each other and crying beneath their helmets. Lieren had watched as the medic tried in vain to save the woman that the cadet had kept in stasis using energy from her own suit. Another Aurora had been gunned down on the other side of the room, and a collection of marauder bodies lied in a heap of cauterized giblets. With Illeiri, the bloodshed had been compartmentalized to the outside, and the elshi had protected the cadets with such efficiency as to eliminate any semblance of a bloodbath. This—what she and the other cadets had just experienced—was a far cry from what they endured during the battle with the Voulgenathi.
How does one cope? Lieren thought to herself as she stared at the syndicate bodies being hauled away by invisible force like garbage. Within minutes, the housekeeping drones would return the briefing room to the state that it was in before the battle occurred. The only remaining evidence would be the memories that were left behind in all that had lived through it. Lieren didn’t know what to feel. The marauders blinked in, attacked, and died, over and over and over. Auroras sat with them, placing their bodies in front of the cadets and taking the hits for them, sometimes dying to the exchange of fire. Was there any meaning to the violence? The young cadet had no answer, and that frightened her. She clung tighter to the Elestan cadet beside her, trying to keep from breaking down, but she could not. Her emotions rushed forth. Her lungs and tear ducts rebelled against her, and she was forced to sob.
“Lieren?” It was her father’s voice. She didn’t want to answer—keep him from hearing her sobs. “Lieren, where are you baby?” He wasn’t going to leave her alone until he got an answer, and she knew it.
“I-I’m in the b-briefing room,” she got out.
“Are you okay?”
“No! No I’m not!” she screamed.
Hearing his daughter like this hurt more than it would have had he not been dealing with his own emotional turmoil over Namara. “I’m on my way, sweetie. I love you.”
“The Domina cruisers are dropping out of hyperwarp,” said a bridge officer. The same cleanup effort was taking place on the bridge, and the officers were returning to their normal posts, including Atara, Sesh, and Naret.
“Transmission from the—,” Ethis was interrupted as she spoke.
“You’ve bested my pawns, captain,” Eclipse said through the opened lumigraph. “I hope you’re ready to concede.”
“Go to hell!” Atara told her.
“Wow!” Eclipse said. “You sound just like Kyora. I like you. Please, I’m begging you, don’t force my hand. I just want to help my unproductive, fringeward protectorate evolve into something the Federation would be proud of. Give me—us—a chance.”
“A snowball’s chance?” Atara replied. “Because that’s all I’ll give you. I’d destroy this vessel before I’d ever let you set foot inside it.”
“Funny,” Eclipse stated, “I said something similar when my dear sister was fleeing back to your ship. I really do admire you, captain, and you’re breaking my heart.”
“Enough with the bullshit!” Atara yelled.
“Oh? We’ll see who’s bullshitting who after I call your bluff.”
Atara paused for a moment as she stared at Eclipse. “Adjunct,” the captain said while Eclipse’s transmission was still open, “initialize auto-destruct.”
“Auto-destruct overrides are in effect,” the adjunct stated. “Please state additional parameters.”
“Engage auto-destruct on hull breach, and no continuous warnings. No additional parameters.”
“Triumvirate command authority authentication required.” All eyes were on the captain now.
Atara said, “Verify authorization.”
“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. Auto-destruct go-no-go.”
A lumigraph appeared before Sesh and said, “Initializing auto-destruct. Triumvirate command authority authentication required.”
Sesh replied, “Verify authorization.”
“Authorization verified. Yora Marro Sesh. Commander of the Kelsor-class battlecruiser, Greater Federation Navy Vessel Kelsor, hull number three-nine-three-zero, Fifth Fleet, Third Armada. Auto-destruct go-no-go.”
A lumigraph also appeared before Xannissa in engineering as she oversaw her department’s defense. “Initializing auto-destruct. Triumvirate command authority authentication required.” Her breaths grew heavier. Was Atara actually going to do this? If the lumigraph was getting around to her, Atara and Sesh had already interfaced with the adjunct. She stood there quietly for a moment, twisting her engagement ring around her finger.
“I’m sorry, Aedan,” she whispered. “Verify authorization,” she told the adjunct somberly.
“Authorization verified. Xannissa Reiss Cetalo, Commander of the Kelsor-class battlecruiser, Greater Federation Navy Vessel Kelsor, hull number three-nine-three zero, Fifth Fleet, Third Armada. Auto-destruct go-no-go.”
Xannissa paused again, still twisting her ring. Quietly, she said, “Go.”
The adjunct announced to the entire ship, “Auto-destruct initialized. Auto-destruct will engage upon hull-breach. There will be no further warnings.”
Loud clapping echoed throughout the bridge. Atara never did take her eyes off of Eclipse who now applauded. “Congratulations. It seems we have reached an impasse. You’re far more cutthroat than I could have ever imagined. Every calculation I have made thus far was based on the assumption that you actually cared about your crew. You’d send all of them to their deaths over a few little things?”
Atara said nothing. Most of the bridge, including Naret, was still staring intently at its captain.
“Perhaps if we could bargain?” Eclipse asked. “You hand over Kyora and you can be on your way.”
Atara remained silent.
Eclipse said, “All right. You’ve forced my hand. Prepare to die.” And with that, the transmission terminated.