49 – Eclipse

The lumigraph disappeared, the sirens grew louder, and Sesh repeated the announcement from the bridge officer while placing her hand on the captain’s shoulder. “New contacts, Atara.” Velliris stood at the edge of the bridge, watching her much older duplicate contend with this surprise attack.

     “What do we have?” Atara asked over the sirens.

     “Two jump signatures,” the officer announced. “Emergence in forty—no, thirty seconds.”

     “Ethis,” Atara asked, “Where did Eclipse’s transmission originate?”

     “From the kicker,” Ethis told her, looking first at Velliris and then, realizing she was looking at the wrong Atara, directed her gaze toward the true captain.

     Atara asked, “How far is it?” At this point, the sirens quieted.

     Fiori stated, “Heading three-three-one, plus one-five at three-hundred-fifty-thousand kilometers,” after appearing near the captain and the first officer.

     “Orders, captain?” Naret asked, looking eagerly at her console.

     “Hold on,” Atara said. “Distance to the jump signatures?”

     “Fifty kilometers. Emergence in twelve seconds. Three other hyperwarp contacts closing on our position.” The officer paused, and then she said, “Vessels emerging, captain.”

     “Identify.”

     “Two destroyer-sized vessels. Markings identify them as the Three Brothers Syndicate.”

     “What?”

     “Incoming transmission,” Ethis stated.

     “Put it through.” Another lumigraph appeared, and the bridge officers saw a familiar sight: a helmeted marauder in dark yellow Novekk armor and the three, clean, red stripes diagonal across the torso. The armor was more pristine than that of the marauder that attacked them on the edge of the Saraian Range.

     “Captain,” said the marauder in a feminine voice, “we’ve come to collect our toll. Please, for your sake and that of your crew, do not resist.”

     “Are you working with Domina now?” Atara asked.

     “Our temporary joint venture is none of your business,” the marauder warned before closing the lumigraph.

     “Atara,” the captain turned around and saw Kyora and Virn standing at the door, “Deminesse is here, isn’t she?”

     “Yes,” Atara told the phantom. “Domina is working with the Three Brothers Syndicate.”

     “I’ve already mobilized the Auroras,” Kyora told her. “If I get a chance, I will kill her.” The Elestan phantom glanced at Velliris, and then back at Atara. “I guess you do know how it feels now; to have someone share your face.” Kyora backed away, turned around, and took Virn with her as she departed from the bridge.

     Atara turned to her duplicate and said, “Your services are no longer required. Return to the brig.” As Velliris quietly departed the bridge, Atara told her, “Put a helmet on.” The doppelganger complied, fabricating a helmet to hide her face before exiting, accompanied by two Auroras. They passed groups of Auroras, ceiling turrets, and battle drones scattered throughout the ship, standing by for a boarding attempt by blinkers or otherwise. Atara said, “Are the destroyers close enough for beamed plasma?”

     “Affirmative,” said the tactical officer.

     “Target both ships with the forward plasma beams,” Atara directed.

     “Aye captain.” Brief alert pings sounded, and beyond the forward OPEL, two bright, white streams shot instantaneously out from the front of the battlecruiser in two different directions toward deep space. The plasma beams crashed against the lumionic shields of the two destroyers, both of which could not be seen in the darkness with the unaided eye. The officers aboard those vessels watched their screens showing the stored potential energy of their single-layer lumionic defense systems draining away to keep the voracious plasma at bay.

     The Kelsor’s tactical officer announced, “Targets have activated invulnerability shielding.”

     “Shit,” Atara whispered to herself.

     “They are moving toward us.”

     “I want intruder alerts, now.”

     The adjunct made her own announcement across the ship. “Alert. Prepare to repel boarders. Ship-wide lockdown engaged. This is not a drill. Repeat. Prepare to repel boarders. Ship-wide lockdown engaged. This is not a drill.”

     “Get ready for blinkers,” Atara told Xannissa.

     “I thought we were facing Domina.”

     “The syndicate from Saraia is here too.”

     “Damn it. We can’t do much against blinkers.”

     “Come up to the bridge.”

     “I need to defend the drives.”

     “We have Auroras for that.”

     “This is my synerdrive, Atara. I’m going to stay here as long as I can.”

     “Please, Xann, don’t do this.”

     Xannissa sighed. Twisting her engagement ring around her finger, she said, “Don’t worry about me.”

     “I’m sending Kyora and Virn to you.” Opening a lumigraph to Kyora, Atara said, “Colonel, can you and Virn shore up engineering?”

     “Heading there now,” Kyora said as she walked briskly down one of the main corridors with Virn and several Auroras behind her.

     “Is Xann going to be okay?” Sesh asked.

     “I really hope so,” Atara told her. Just then, another lumigraph opened, revealing a crimson-haired elshi.

     “Captain,” Illeiri said, but noticing the evidence of Atara’s dried tears still on her face, she asked, “are you okay?”

     “I’m fine,” Atara replied. “What do you need?”

     “I’m taking the cadets to the briefing room,” Illeiri stated.

     Atara said, “Good. We’ll keep them safe.”

     “Afterward, I’m going to return to the omnimology lab and defend the scientists and the ecksivar.”

     “Understood, stay safe.” The lumigraph closed, and there Atara was standing beside Sesh and Naret, watching another battle about to unfold aboard her starship.

     Illeiri stormed through the doors of the omnimology lab accompanied by several Auroras and three naked discs orbiting behind her back, and to all the scientists, including Souq and Namara, she said, “You all need to return to your quarters.”

     “What’s going on?” Souq asked her.

     “We’re about to have blinkers,” Illeiri told them. “Same ones that attacked us in Saraia. You won’t be safe here.”

     Namara said to her worried assistants, “You all go back to your quarters.” Illeiri looked inquisitively at the Elestan science officer as the junior scientists dodged the armed Auroras and filed out of the lab. Namara stared at Illeiri, stating, “After what it took to get the ecksivar back, I’m not letting it out of my sight.”

     “And I’m not leaving Sayn alone,” Souq replied, looking at Namara and grasping for her hand. After their hands connected, he turned to look at Illeiri.

     The elshi queen asked them, “There’s nothing I could say that would change your mind, is there?” The two scientists said nothing.

     Souq and Namara looked at each other, and Namara said, “We need to armor up.”

     When Kyora and Virn entered the vast engineering department, everyone was wearing armor, making it more difficult to distinguish between the Auroras and the crew. The phantom paused to look around, and she noticed a helmetless Xannissa standing among a group of other armored personnel. As Kyora approached, avoiding the crewmembers and Auroras passing every which way, it was clear that the group Xannissa oversaw was composed of engineering officers, and the chief engineer was delegating duties to them before the impending battle. The scene the two Elestans created in the briefing room many days ago was still fresh in Kyora’s mind, so she reluctantly stepped within Xannissa’s field of view. After the arrest of Musani by FedSec, it seemed that Kyora’s viewpoint had been mostly wrong, but she wouldn’t be able to withstand the arrogance of one of these intellectual types shoving vindication in her face. Xannissa wrapped up her delegation and dismissed her group of subordinates who scattered off in a multitude of directions, leaving only Xannissa and Kyora to stare at each other.

     “Atara told me you were coming,” Xannissa told them. “I’m thankful for anyone I can get.”

     “Xannissa,” Kyora said, “I want to apologize to you.”

     “For what?” Xannissa replied.

     “For how I behaved toward you in the briefing room. After Atara’s assassination attempt.”

     “Oh, that? Honestly I had forgotten.” Kyora’s serious expression didn’t change, hiding the fact that she was stunned. Does this woman not hold a grudge? “Actually,” Xannissa said in a solemn tone, “I forgot to thank you for protecting Atara, and I also thank you for saving us in Semarah. I owe you a debt I’ll never be able to repay, and I apologize for calling you a coward. You’re anything but.”

     “I…” Kyora started, “thank you.”  Perhaps Atara was right. Perhaps this really was her true purpose—to defend rather than to kill—but this was not the time to dwell on that thought. “You need to find cover and let Virn and I handle this. The Kelsor’s going to need her chief engineer.”

     “We need to cut through that invulnerability,” Atara said. “Fiori, we need those phasic torpedoes. Can you give them to us?”

     “One last time,” Fiori told Atara and Sesh, standing beside them. “This is a protocol violation, but I will intercede on your behalf. The Kelsor must return to Lanan. Emergency experimental weapon deployment protocol engaged. MARAD lockout override authorization: Fiori root. Decrypting design, please stand by. Decryption complete. Mark One phasic torpedoes are now available. Two hostile targets confirmed. Firing solutions complete. Prepping phasic torpedoes. Torpedoes away.”

     Both torpedoes left their tubes heading for either destroyer, accelerating through the interstellar void. As they approached the syndicate starships, the torpedoes’ onboard phasics activated, pushing their material out of phase with all other mass and energy and disappearing from optics, sensors, and scanners. By modifying their propensity for interaction with the universe, the weapons circumvented the impenetrable hardened lumionics of the destroyers; however, only one torpedo made it back from the up-phase transitional boundary.

     One of the destroyer’s hulls erupted with a blast so violent as to shed the entire aft of the craft to pieces, immediately severing it from its propulsion source and bringing down its shield. The battlecruiser’s other weapons systems pelted the stricken ship until there was only an unidentifiable husk and a field of debris. The other destroyer continued onward toward the Kelsor. Its torpedo was lost to another phase of existence.

     “We got one,” the tactical officer announced. Even with only one down, relief rushed through Atara.

     “Can we get just one more?” Atara begged.

     “My authorization has been revoked,” Fiori told her with widened eyes. She turned toward captain and said, “I’m sorry, Atara.”

48 – Abyss

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?”

     “Yes.”

     “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.

     “About oh-two-hundred.”

     “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.

     “Ethis.”

     “Yes, captain?”

     “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.”

     “Shrouded?”

     “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.”

47 – Informant

High above the clouds, beyond the edge of space, hung an office whose wide floor was composed of OPEL panels. The office formed the base of a massive structure named Tetra 5 that drifted gently in intermediate orbit over Akos V’s lush moon. The ceiling was a mirror, reflecting the bright surface of Lanan—clouds, land, and seas—back into the room. Glimmers from distant starships and orbital infrastructure flashed in the black sky. A transparent, circular desk inhabited the room’s middle, and within it sat an Elestan with long, black hair and dark gray skin wearing officer formals. Multicolored, transparent lumigraphs surrounded her. Some showed maps of the entire Federation; others the entire region of Civilized Space. Yet more displayed information about the Navy’s Fifth Fleet and the ten Armadas composing it. News from several sources, both near and far, played on another.

     Panels detached from the ceiling and slowly descended around the desk. Each panel paused and hovered at a certain height, together forming a circular staircase that wrapped around the Elestan’s work area. As the staircase was still falling into place, a Terran woman with blonde hair—also dressed in officer formals—stepped downward into the office.

     “Hari,” said the Elestan, looking up to the ceiling from where the Terran appeared.

     “Admiral,” the Terran addressed. When she reached the OPEL floor, she stopped at the front of the desk. The Elestan made all of her lumigraphs disappear. “Adjunct, chair.” A lumionic seat appeared for the Terran, and she sat down. Across from her was a lumionic nameplate hovering above the desk’s surface reading “Fifth Fleet Admiral Ula Musani.”

     “So,” Musani said, crossing her arms over her front, “what’s so important that you needed to hop on a shuttle first thing in the morning to come up here?”

     “I want you to see something,” Aesho told her, trying to keep her anger in check. The armada admiral produced a lumigraph and flicked it toward Musani. Aesho let her superior read it for a moment before saying, “What the hell are you doing?”

     “Don’t give me that,” Musani said.

     “FedIntel? Really?”

     “You should have kept her on a tighter leash,” Musani barked. “She’s been snooping around like her mother, and now she knows too much. About you, about me. I invested in a little wetwork a couple decades ago. I knew she’d eventually be a problem, like Cassandra reaching out from the grave, but I never anticipated our archon waking up. Aren’t you concerned about her at all?”

     “You went over my head,” Aesho told her. “It wasn’t enough to have deprived her of her parents, was it?”

     “You’re too attached to her. She’s like your niece. Or your old friend. Take your pick. You know you never would have done it. That’s why I had to do it all. Remember, we’re in this together.”

     “Or so you think,” Aesho told her. The Terran snapped her fingers, and down the floating stairs walked four women in SIRAC armor and one Zelnaran in just a bodysuit. All of them sported dark navy blue with white checker patterns and the immediately recognizable FedSec emblem. When Musani’s eyes met the FedSec agent’s who wasn’t wearing a helmet, her face soured, her mind melted, and her heart cracked. Beneath the office was one of Lanan’s oceans. If only she could fall through that OPEL floor that very moment and be close enough to skydive down, incinerating quickly in the reentry. If only there was a way to end it all quickly instead of being publicly crucified. The way the Zelnaran agent looked at her, Musani knew that her years of deception were about to catch up with her. At least Aesho would be there with her, having been her accomplice for decades.

     “Good show, Admiral Aesho, I must say,” said the Zelnaran, her skin almost matching the color of her bodysuit. “Fleet Admiral Musani, I’m agent Rhin Dekka, Federation Security Agency Investigation Division. I have a warrant for your arrest.”

     “On what charges?” Musani asked, refusing to stand.

     “Want me to name them?” The agent asked. She opened a lumigraph and read from it. “Let’s see. Bribery; malfeasance in office; treason; conspiracy to commit murder, three counts; and archon manipulation.”

     Musani asked, “What about Aesho here?”

     Rhin laughed and asked, “What about her?”

     “You’re going to arrest her too, right?”

     “I don’t make a habit of arresting my informants,” Rhin explained.

     “Informant?” Musani whispered in shock. The armored FedSec officers walked behind the table and lifted Musani to her feet. Musani stared at Aesho in utter disgust.

     Rhin told the admiral, “I would like to remind you that pursuant to Federation law you are legally protected against compulsory self-incrimination. Therefore, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law.” Musani’s arms were placed behind her back, and bindings positioned over her Accellus bracers. “You have the right to be represented by an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed by the court. Do you understand?”

     Musani wanted to hurl every curse in the Miri lexicon toward Aesho, but she took Rhin’s warning literally, holding her tongue. Aesho trailed behind the contingent of FedSec officers, following them up the stairs as they retracted into the ceiling.

     “Welcome back to your morning headlines on SBN,” said an anchorman to the lumigraphers capturing his likeness and cool speech for broadcast throughout the Federation and into the surrounding Civilized Space. “I’m Jorj Danner. The time is now eight-oh-five. Yesterday, Fifth Fleet Admiral Ula Musani of the Federation Navy was indicted by FedSec on charges of bribery, treason, and archon manipulation. This high-profile arrest of a top Navy official is connected to the recent attempted murder of another, unnamed high-ranking Navy officer.”

     When Atara and Xannissa ate breakfast together in the morning, now that they were back within Subnet range, they typically played the news in a large lumigraph across the room that they could watch together. When they realized the headline that was being introduced, both of them set their utensils down upon the table and quickly finished chewing.

     “Joining us now is lawyer and Military legal expert Jas Feder…” said Jorj. The scene cut to briefly show a Larissian woman. “…as well as Defense Secretary and Retired Admiral Noro Katased,” the scene cut again to show an Elestan woman, and then went back to Jorj.

     “Sesh,” Atara asked her first officer through a separate lumigraph, “you need to see SBN.”

     “SBN?”

     “Morning headlines,” Atara said. Sesh opened another lumigraph to the Subspace Broadcasting Network’s news service. She then projected it forward of the bridge, between Naret and the sweeping OPELs, for all of the bridge officers to see.

     “Madam Secretary,” said Jorj, “I’ll start with you first. Can you describe for us who Admiral Musani was in regards to the Military?”

     “Yes I can,” said Secretary Katased. “Musani was the Admiral of the Fifth Fleet. Basically, she ran most of Coreward Operations Command as the Fifth Fleet tends to operate entirely under it. She was also officially in charge of MARAD—the Military Advanced Research and Development agency under the Defense Department.”

     Jorj stated, “So it sounds like she was involved in a lot of top-level Military operation.”

     “That is correct.”

     “Madam Feder, can you describe the charges that Musani is facing?”

     “Admiral Musani is accused firstly on bribery, a serious corruption charge that stems from alleged decades of accepting kickbacks from defense contractors for priority MARAD funding for black projects. The second one, treason, is a little less clear. Some believe that, in the lead up to the Semarahn Incursion, the Semarahn Corsairs were goaded into a confrontation with the Federation because of a deliberate drawdown of downspin border security, so I believe that’s where the treason charge might be coming from. That one will be harder to prove, that the drawdown actually occurred the way FedSec thinks it did, and whether it was deliberate. But if that’s part of the indictment, then they must have enough evidence to support the prosecution in court.”

     “So FedSec mentions archon manipulation in the indictment,” Jorj told them. “If I could get your opinion on this, Madam Secretary, what exactly does that mean?”

     “It literally means that Musani found a way to hide her actions from the Military’s archon, Fiori,” Katased explained. “Sadly, we didn’t know she had been illegally modified until her outage last month, and I think that’s what led to a breakthrough into the investigation into Musani at this quick a pace. FedSec claimed they had someone on the inside, and they’re not saying who yet, but that’s another reason why they have all this evidence just sitting around.”

     “The Fiori outage happened last month,” Jorj stated, “and now this comes out, I mean, how reliable is the archon system?”

     “The archon system is very reliable,” Katased assured them. “She is invaluable to the modern Military command structure. When you are in command of millions of starships across millions of cubic lightyears of volume, and trillions of soldiers, it takes a mind of a electronic god to keep track of it all. Could it be better? Of course. Mankind has said similar about his inventions throughout history, and we are actually working right now to make it better. In a few years, the Navy will begin introducing an addon to Fiori that we’re calling the subordinate archonoid hierarchy that will replace the current core-node relationship between Fiori and the multitude of primitive adjuncts in service. Our goal is that every starship and base abroad will have its own archonoid that is semi-independent of Fiori, and this new system will be safer, more secure, and more robust.”

     “That makes sense considering the widespread adoption of archonoids by the private sector over the last couple of centuries,” Jorj said. “Madam Feder, Madam Secretary, thank you for your time.”

     “Thank you, Jorj,” both of the women said one after the other.

     Jorj continued with the next headline, “The Persean Corporate Alliance is threatening to boycott the upcoming meeting of the diplomatic body, the Interstellar Cooperative, next year, saying that they will refuse to send their delegation to the meeting if hostilities in the Persean Rift do not cease…”

     “Do you think they arrested Aesho, too?” Xannissa asked as the news continued to play.

     “If they got the head,” Atara said, “surely they’re hunting down all the tendrils. They may already have Aesho since they worked so closely together.”

     “Captain,” Ethis announced through a newly-formed lumigraph, “you’re receiving a Q-comms transmission. It’s from Admiral Aesho.”

     “Thanks, Ethis,” Atara told her. “Xann, I want you to come with me.”

     Xannissa leaned against the side wall of the Q-comms chamber to avoid being captured by the lumigraphy scanners. Atara stood before her superior one last time, but the captain had a certain confidence about her that felt different than times before.

     “Atara,” Aesho said, “I don’t know what you’ve heard, but…”

     “About the Fleet Admiral?”

     “Yeah.”

     “I heard about it just a few minutes ago.”

     “Okay. Saves me from explaining things to you. Before the hearings start, I just wanted to say…”

     “My parents. Were you responsible for my parents?” The two stayed silent for a moment.

     “I’m sorry, Atara,” Aesho admitted. “I’ll pay for what I’ve done, but I can’t bring them back to you, and I am sorry.” Atara could feel the raw emotion swelling within her. Before her was the orchestrator of that tragic day in the skies of her homeworld.

     “I hope they give you what you deserve,” Atara told her coldly, “and then some…”

     “I know, Atara, I really do…”

     “…and I hope to God that I never see you again.”

     Before Aesho could utter another word, Atara killed the transmission and looked over at Xannissa. Tears already threatened to overflow in the captain’s eyes, but when she looked upon the face of her best friend, she lost it, seeking solace on her lifelong friend’s shoulder one more time.

46 – Cancer

The next day at around midmorning, the Kelsor departed the Dockyards and passed through one of the massive gates in the underside of the Vandos Habitat. With their heading adjusted toward Federation space, Naret engaged the synerdrive and the battlecruiser was on its way. No stops had been scheduled until the Kelsor was to dock at the orbital facilities above Lanan all the way on the other side of the Federation from Tribesson.

     “Naret,” Atara directed, “begin routine course deviations. Don’t keep us in a straight line.”

     “Aye, captain,” Naret replied. As soon as Atara was satisfied with the operation of her bridge officers, she left command of the bridge in Sesh’s hands and departed for the medbay.

     “I’m here to see Doctor Iveti,” Atara told the nurse sitting behind the desk at the front of the medical bay. “I just want to talk.” The nurse was dressed in a white gown over her standard uniform like all the others, and the small red cross on her breast marked her as a medical professional.

     “She’s currently seeing patients,” the nurse told her. “Do you mind waiting half-an-hour?”

     Atara nodded. She took a seat in the waiting room among other starmen who themselves awaited attention by the nursing staff for minor ailments and injuries. About forty minutes later, Atara was called back by a nurse who guided the captain to Iveti’s office.

     The red-skinned Yeran physician stood near her office fabricator. Her bobbed hair was colored like golden rust, if that were even possible. She wore the dark gray combat variant bodysuit beneath her open white lab coat, not caring about how much of her feminine form escaped it. With both hands, she held a mug of hot, black coffee, bringing it to her lips and sipping it quietly. Lowering her mug yet still facing the fabricator, she said, “Hello, captain.”

     “Doctor,” Atara addressed her. “May I sit?”

     After taking another sip, Iveti said, “Please do.” She strode slowly to her desk, placed her white mug down upon it, and took her seat. Iveti grabbed her loose lab coat and tugged it across her front before crossing one leg over the other. With her hands in her lap, Iveti asked, “What is the nature of your medical emergency?”

     “I feel fine, thanks.”

     “Then what brings you here?”

     “I just wanted to talk with you about something.”

     “Ahh,” Iveti vocalized. “You need physician-patient privilege—a little medical confidentiality.”

     “Maybe,” Atara admitted softly.

     “I’m no shrink, but whatcha got?”

     “Don’t worry. It’s something a bit larger in scope. I just want to hear your wisdom.”

     Atara explained to Iveti the information Fiori summarized for the senior officers in the briefing room yesterday. Of course, Atara asked Fiori to check the room, and the captain made Iveti promise to keep the information to herself. Iveti sipped her coffee as Atara explained, keeping her yellow eyes trained on the captain’s face.

     “Mind if I tell you a little story?” Iveti asked. The Yeran set her empty mug down upon the desk. “You might find it a little analogous. Once upon a time, humans lived short lives. We know this—records going way back to the pre-interstellar period. Hell, even before Mirida, people didn’t live very long, even less so thousands of years prior.

     “Around the space ages of the Sister Worlds, medical technology was improving which doubled people’s lifespans. Then humans wrestled with a disease called cancer. Do you know what that is?”

     “I know the concept,” Atara said, “but I’m a little fuzzy on the details. I’m not a medical expert.”

     “Cancer,” Iveti explained, “is a condition in which some of the body’s own cells begin to go their own way. They break out of the tight cellular regulation, immortalize, and proliferate, eventually spreading and killing the host. It’s pretty frightening if you ask me. Makes me thankful that we’re where we are today—nearly biologically immortal.

     “What I’m trying to say is, to me, it seems like you’ve found yourself a tumor. A tumor is a collection of cancer cells. The best way to treat a cancer was to treat it early—as early as possible. Because if you waited too long…”

     “It’ll metastasize,” Atara said. “I understand what you mean.”

     “See?”

     “So, what would you suggest we do?”

     “I think you already know that,” Iveti said. “You target the cancer and destroy it before it consumes the Military’s leadership.”

     “What are you doing, Quen?” Doctor Namara asked softly. She had been standing in the doorway of the lounge, staring at Souq’s back from across the omnimology lab. Souq had his hand atop the container holding the ecksivar sample, and the container’s sides were transparent. The strange crystal radiated its shadowy anti-light within. The assistants were absent, leaving the two of them alone.

     “Just thinking,” he told her.

     “Thinking?” Namara’s arms were crossed as she leaned against the doorframe. “About what?”

     “How bittersweet it is,” Souq said. “There’s a part of me…” he paused. “Part of me wants nothing to do with this thing anymore.”

     “But Quen…”

     “No matter how much I think about it,” Souq told her, “no matter how much time passes, I don’t think I could ever look past that day. I lost too much because of this ecksivar.”

     “Quen,” Namara said, standing straight and dropping her arms, “you know more about ecksivar than anyone alive. Losing you would deal a huge blow to the scientific community.” Souq didn’t appear fazed by this. Namara stepped away from the doorway, moving across the lab. “I don’t want to lose you, either.”

     “Sayn…”

     “That time me and you were on the beach in the simulator,” Namara told him, “that was really sweet. I never realized I would find the company of a man so… compelling.”

     “What do you mean?”

     “You don’t need to go it alone anymore.” Namara was standing next to him now, looking at him with her teal eyes. Souq’s maroon irises stared back at her.

     “I love you,” he said.

     She stroked his beard, saying, “I love you, too.” She leaned in toward his face and kissed him on the lips. Her hands reached behind his head, and his wrapped around her waist.

     After that brief moment of passion, their lips broke away, and Souq said, “If I joined the Military, would you partner with me?”

     “Why not marriage?” Namara asked in return.

     “Why not both?” he leaned in to continue kissing the Elestan scientist. The ecksivar sample remained there, casting its eerie shadow within that small container.

     Xannissa strode between the cadets as they completed their examinations. When she wasn’t watching them, she was staring toward the incoming, foamy waves breaking against the golden sand. All twelve cadets sat at their desks in the filtered sunlight pouring through the open pavilion’s skylights. The breeze blew in between them as they worked within their lumigraphs. Shouts from the distant beachgoers barely reached them.

     Lieren was the first to finish the test. As she did so, her collection of lumigraphs vanished. Xannissa turned around to see the Larissian looking at her. Noticing her teacher’s nod, Lieren stood from her desk, departed the pavilion, and stepped out across the sand. Never eager to begin studying for the next round of exams, Lieren enjoyed these brief post-exam reprieves from her academics. The only problem for her—a problem she seemed to share with the other cadets—is that after looking forward to her free time, she had no idea what to do with it when it came. Seeing as her advisor was still proctoring, and that she was aboard the simulator already, what better place to unwind than where she found herself now?

     Because of her time aboard the simulator, and this virtual tropical resort in particular, she was finding joy in swimming. Not ocean swimming, but swimming in the pool that was separated from the beach, and most of the rest of the complex, by a ring of walls and buildings. After storing her Accellus away, she walked out toward the blue water of the deep pool. This was her favorite part. She leapt out and plunged in feet-first. It didn’t matter that the water was a lumionic construct. The coolness of the water splashing against her bare lavender skin was genuine enough for her. Holding her breath, she opened her eyes beneath the fresh water, free of chemicals and salt, and began to swim toward the other end of the pool. Lieren rose steadily toward the surface, avoiding other swimmers, and emerged her head to exchange the air in her lungs. The crisp water flowed past her, refreshing her as she taxed her muscles. Perhaps that’s why she enjoyed it so much. To her, it was like exercise that felt like anything but. The pool was fifty meters from end to end, and when she reached the opposite edge, she put her arms on the duralithic walkway and let the beads of water run through her soaked hair and down her face.

     “Lieren,” called a masculine voice. It surprised her, since it was unmistakably her father’s. Lieren looked up, and there he was above her alongside Doctor Namara.

     “How did you find me?” Lieren asked of father wearing shorts and Namara a short jacket. Both of the scientists sat down at the pool’s edge on either side of her, placing their feet into the water.

     “You told me you had a test,” Souq said in a fatherly tone, “and you told me you like swimming, and the simulator, and that the test was on the simulator. So, I put those together.”

     “I get it,” Lieren said, sounding slightly annoyed.

     “I used to be on the university swim team,” Souq boasted. “I guess that’s where she gets it from. Lira always avoided the water.”

     “If you don’t mind,” Lieren said, “I’m going to swim another lap.”

     “Hold on, girl,” Souq told her, grabbing her shoulder before she took off. “Sayn and I wanted to talk to you about something.”

     “What is it? Should I get out?”

     “You might want to,” Sayn told her.

     “Can you two give me a hand?” Souq and Namara gave Lieren their hands to grasp ahold of and tug on, easing her exit. Dripping wet, she walked across the warm duralithic sidewalk and placed herself beneath a shield-scrubber to quickly dry off. Lieren played with and tried to correct her dry hair while she rejoined them, taking a seat on a lounge chair between the scientists.

     “Alright,” Lieren said.

     “You go first, Quen,” Namara said.

     “When the Kelsor returns to dock,” Souq told his daughter, “I’m going to join the Military.”

     “As in Military scientist?”

     “Yes.”

     “Your father and I,” Namara said, “we’re going to join together in a partnership.”

     Lieren looked at them both and asked them, “Why don’t you just get married?” Souq and Namara traded glances.

     “One step at a time, honey,” Souq told Lieren, patting her back. “One day, you’ll understand. Relationships aren’t like REMASS.”

     “Oh, come on dad!” Lieren said. “Seriously, though, I’m happy for you two.”

     “Are you okay with this?” Souq asked.

     Lieren asked him, “Do I have a choice?” She paused, letting the question sink in before admitting, “Yes, I am okay with this. I’m sure mom would want you to move on.” Lieren looked at Namara and smiled, and the Elestan scientist smiled back at her.

45 – Final Stretch

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.”

     “Colonel Teseri?”

     “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.”

     “Kyora.”

     “Yes, captain,” the phantom solemnly replied.

     “Can you meet me in my office?”

     “Affirmative.”

     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.

     “See what?”

     “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?”

     “One-hundred-seventy-eight.”

     “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.”

     “Eclipse?”

     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.

44 – Doppelganger

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?”

     “Granted.”

     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.

     “Xannissa?”

     “Atara?” Xannissa asked, shocked. “Why are we leaving Vandos?”

     “What?”

     “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.”

     “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?”

     “Yes.”

     “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.

43 – Flesh

Sesh stood at the feet of the hand-carved stone statue of the Exan mega-engineer. The 3:1 scale, monochromatic representation of Dr. Mavin Vandos sat in a chair with his desk beside him. His left arm was extended into the air where the object of his attention floated: a model of the Vandos station rotating gently above his palm. The Zelnaran commander was among others there who admired the handywork and noble portrayal of this man appearing to cherish his creation. Just being in the middle of the museum upon that habitat alongside billions of people was more than enough to appreciate the man’s genius. This made Sesh feel that perhaps she should cut Xannissa some slack.

     “According to this,” came a familiar voice. Sesh looked over and saw Naret standing before a lumigraph with her arms crossed. “Doctor Vandos was born in the Federation but immigrated to the Republic.”

     “I never expected you to be here, lieutenant,” Sesh told her. “You like history?”

     “A little,” Naret said, looking back at the commander. “My father was from the Republic and my mother was from the Federation. Most of my siblings joined the Republic Military. I was the only one of them who joined the Federation, so I feel an attachment to both.”

     “I suppose that helps you relate to this gentleman more.”

     “It does.”

     “Where I’m from,” Sesh explained as she backed away from the statue to allow those around her to take a closer look, “we didn’t have all these sorts of technological marvels. All my brothers and I had was the sky, the plants and animals, and the soil.”

     “What was that like?”

     “You’ve never known peace like the peace I’ve known. Mind you, we lived in comfort, but you could go outside the house, and across the fields you could see the forest’s edge. The only thing you could hear was the wind in the trees.”

     “Did you ever go anywhere?”

     “Only the places we could get to on foot.”

     “All on foot? Wow.”

     “Our parents encouraged us to venture out and explore; to experience the natural world.”

     “What keeps you sane?” Naret asked.

     “What do you mean?”

     “I mean being confined to starships so much.”

     “You might think this is silly,” Sesh said, “but a good imagination is all I need—an imagination nurtured by past experiences.”

     “And that keeps you from needing to get away?”

     “It’s not that I pine to return to the far Frontier, or even to a natural setting, but it is something that I enjoy very much.”

     “You know,” Naret noted, “you and Commander Cetalo seem a lot alike.”

     “How dare you!” Sesh said in a tone that belied the statement being a joke to anyone but those to whom she was familiar. She followed plainly, “You’re right, of course, which is why we give each other a hard time. Xann was born on a Sister World…”

     “Elestus?”

     “…Yes, so technology and civilization are all the woman knows. Maybe one day I can actually show her that the world is more than just hyperwarp and omnium.”

     “Have you ever gone with her to the simulators?”

     “No simulators. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy them, but I want people to admire the things that have inspired the great minds of the past with their own eyes, and not through some lumigraph. Do you understand? That feeling of being so far away from civilization as to be at nature’s mercy—camping in a wilderness that you can’t just step through a door and leave from—to live with nature like our ancestors for just a moment.”

     “Can I go with you sometime?”

     “If you’re serious, I can take you to Akos Three when we get back. No Accellus.”

     “No Accellus?”

     “No Accellus.”

     “That’s fine with me. I look forward to it.”

     Cylenna’s brand of reckless hedonism was often difficult for others to understand, but this was her lifestyle. It was her subconscious understanding that the majority of pleasure was gained by skirting the boundaries of pain. More danger, more delight. Higher the risk, higher the reward. It wasn’t just actual threats to life that excited her. The feeling of vulnerability gave her the reward she sought when other means weren’t immediately available, but it often gave the people around her the false impression that she was an exhibitionist. Though, if you considered the mechanism of her pleasure, the attention she gained from exposing her nudity made her feel vulnerable, and this perceived threshold of peril was the place where she desired to reside.

     Cylenna walked down those crowded, lumionically-lit Vandos streets showing to all that passed by her neutral gray flesh above her knees, including her breasts, which tried desperately to protrude from her open short jacket—her maroon-tinged nipples threatening to flash with every stride, often succeeding. But she wasn’t alone in her choice of attire. Many other women and men deep in the pleasure district liberally displayed various parts of their bodies. The roving Archangels kept the atmosphere one notch short of a full street orgy. At least once, she felt an engorged masculine appendage brush against her buttock, prompting her to turn around while she continued to walk. She looked down at the man’s penis, and then back at his face.

     She told him with an alluring smirk, “Better watch where you’re pointing that.”

     “Oh, I’m watching all right,” he told her, looking the Elestan up and down.

     “Though with that tiny thing, I don’t have much to worry about.”

     “Oh, well fuck you!” the man shouted.

     “Not a chance,” Cylenna said, bursting into laughter as the crowd closed in around her and she slipped away. She passed the storefronts bathed in red light whose entrances were manned by naked sex workers beckoning clients and patrons. After following the crowd for several more meters, Cylenna paused while people flowed around her, all delighting in their debauchery and occasional skin-on-skin contact. Over the noise of erotic euphoria, she heard the characteristic sound of an aerobike pass gently overhead. The Elestan looked up and followed it with her eyes as the craft set itself down within a clearing in the crowd. Wanting to take a closer look, Cylenna walked toward the landed aerobike until she arrived at some kind of event.

     Three aerobikes hovered centimeters above the duralithic street. A fully-clothed Zelnaran man sat upon the vehicle that had just landed, and it didn’t take long to recognize who he was: the Republic Navy’s racer, known by his callsign, “Hammer.” Cylenna watched him dismount the bike from the crowd’s edge, arms crossed and nonchalant in her nakedness. Hammer approached a shorter man who looked like a lumigrapher as he scanned the crowd, only for his eyes to rest on Cylenna’s gray skin. Curious as to what was holding his attention, the lumigrapher and his assistants turned around and spotted her. Before Cylenna knew it, the lumigrapher was in her face asking her something over the murmur of the crowd.

     “What’s your name?” the short lumigrapher asked her in a shout.

     “I’m Cylenna,” she said loudly.

     “The Cylenna? Cylenna Cetalo?”

     “The very same.”

     “Well I’ll be fucked!” said the lumigrapher rather flamboyantly. “What are the odds?! I’ll pay you for some shots right now if you want to pose for some. I’ll have an assistant of mine contact your agent.”

     Cylenna dropped her arms and said, “Sure, I’ll humor you.” Under her breath she mumbled, “And the money’s nice.”

     “Spectre?” Hammer asked her as he watched her form drift toward them. The lumionic lighting above highlighted her slender body. “Come to haunt my PR gig?”

     “Absolutely,” Spectre said in jest.

     “Even after you beat my ass in Metro Aero?” Hammer held out his arms to hug the naked Elestan racer. Cylenna eagerly reciprocated but soon realized that the lumigrapher was already capturing lumes.

     “You taking shots already?” she turned and asked, quickly releasing Hammer.

     “That’s the stuff!” the lumigrapher shouted. “A little tenderness between two fierce rivals! Love it! Lo-o-o-ve it. Spectre, drape your arms on his shoulders, and Hammer, put your hands on her hips. Move a few steps that way so I can get the bikes in the shot! Spread your legs out just a bit, there! Great!” The lumigrapher took several shots as he orbited them. “Now, how about you be brave, big guy? Think you can bare all with Spectre?”

     “You sure?” Hammer asked reluctantly as the two racers let go of each other again.

     Cylenna, recalling her short jacket, teased him, “You can’t compete with this,” as she rubbed her sleek feminine genitals, then dragged her hand upward across her tight abdomen and over her right breast.

     “So that’s how it’s going to be, huh?” he asked. Hammer recalled his blue racing gear into his civilian REMASS, and after they both removed their boots, the both of them were fully undressed. Cylenna ran her eyes across the Zelnaran’s hairless, masculine figure; a smile forming on her face. Hammer took note, causing him a little unease. “What’s your problem?”

     Cylenna’s eyes shot away from his privates. “What do you mean?”

     “I want to keep with a sort-of erotic innocent theme,” the lumigrapher told them. “Spectre, do you mind if Hammer picks you up and holds you like a princess?”

     “Sure thing,” she said, letting Hammer lift her up with one arm under her knees and the other behind her back.

     “Now, wrap your arms around his neck. Remember, sex sells! Don’t smile too much. Let it come naturally. Keep her up for a few more seconds, there! All right! How about we take some with the bikes? I’m sorry we don’t have yours here, Spectre, but we do have a Nessin.”

     Cylenna’s mild-mannered younger sister waited in a dim chamber. A lumigraph showed the status of the connection that the simulator was attempting to establish across a few thousand lightyears. Xannissa’s anticipation grew as the transmission began. A simulator-quality world unfolded around her, and she found herself standing within a spacious room lit mostly from the OPEL windows. The sunlight cast long rectangles of light upon the ground, and Xannissa couldn’t tell if it was morning or evening. Either way, standard time was the same for Vandos as it was on Lanan: about 2200.

     “The sun’s been in the same spot since yesterday,” Aedan’s image said to her as he stood in the sunlight behind a sofa. “It’s going to take me a while to get used to this. Hi, beautiful.”

     “Hello, handsome,” she said through her smile. She drifted slowly around the sofa to stand next to him. The bright sunlight highlighted one side of his body. The Elestan was eclipsed by his form for a moment. Glancing at the OPEL, she spoke softly, “Yeah, Lanan is like that. But let me show you something.” She took him by the hand to the OPEL window. Touching the panel prompted a lumigraph to appear. “If you want,” she continued, tapping through the menu, “the panels can give you the illusion of night.” Xannissa engaged the OPEL’s timesync mode which enabled them to alter the appearance of the outside world to mimic a certain time of day—specifically, the day as it should appear for a particular hour in standard time designating 0000 as midnight and 1200 as noon.

     “I appreciate it,” Aedan said, “but I’ll try to experience Lanan’s day-night cycle for what it is, even if they are long days and nights.” Undoing the changes Xannissa made, he told her, “It makes the sunrises and sunsets that much more precious.”

     Xannissa said, “You’re so sentimental.”

     “Speaking of,” Aedan said, “I brought this home from my office.” The Terran picked up a framed photograph from the coffee table and showed it to her. Xannissa’s face lit up when she saw the two of them at his old office tower’s observatory a couple of days after his marriage proposal. She reached out to grasp it and bring it closer to her face. Aedan kept one hand on it at all times, leery of Xannissa’s lumions dispersing at any moment.

     “Ever since that day,” Aedan said, still helping hold the picture, “I was worried that I’d placed too much of a burden on you.”

     “What would make you think that?”

     “The pressure of this engagement tacked onto your service.”

     Xannissa laughed as she let go of the picture. “No. You gave me something to look forward to. This is my last mission.”

     “What will you do when you get back?”

     “Go back to instructing.”

     “I can see if Klade would take you in as a Military engineering consultant. They’re always in need of more of those.”

     “I’ll think about it,” Xannissa told him. “In the meantime, show me around the apartment.”

     “Sure,” he said. “I didn’t get much of a raise for coming out here, but the income I was making would only allow me to live with Rom and Deya. That’s Earth’s housing market for you. Here, do you want to guess how many rooms this place has?”

     “How many?”

     “Six. Living room, dining room, two bedrooms, two bathrooms.”

     “Where are we?”

     “About a twenty-minute gravidyne trip from Lanan Sector University.”

     “Farence?”

     “Farence metro area, northeast side.”

     “That’s a very nice place,” Xannissa told him. “You have a good eye for real estate.”

     “I’m just planning for the future,” he said, looking into her eyes. “I want to live a good life with you, and for our children.”

     “Are you sure you’re okay with me not carrying them?”

     “Xann,” he said softly. “You know how I feel.”

     “I want you to answer yes or no.”

     “It’s your body, Xann.”

     “Yes, that’s why it should be my decision.”

     “But the research says that exgest kids…”

     “Then you carry them.”

     “What? But I can’t.”

     “Then why should I, if the technology exists?”

     “I just want our children to be healthy.”

     “They will be healthy. I’m proof of that, and that technology was less sophisticated when I was an infant than it is now.”

     “My mother was pregnant with us,” Aedan said. “She made that sacrifice for us.”

     “I’m in the Military,” Xannissa said with a heated tone. “Don’t talk to me about sacrifice.”

     Aedan sighed before saying, “I’m sorry, Xann.”

     “No, I’m sorry,” Xannissa told him. “I’m the one who brought it up.” The Elestan’s tangible lumigraph clung to him. “I’m still so far away, and I just want to be home.” Aedan moved a hand under her short jacket and rubbed her bodysuited back up and down.

     “You’ll be back before you know it,” he assured her. “And then I’ll be Aedan Cetalo.” The Terran tilted his face down and kissed her blue hair.

     Atara, Kyora, and Admiral Relex continued to converse within the private booth at the Shattered Star.

     “I’ll give you a chance,” Relex said, “to right the wrong of your superiors. Leave part of that ecksivar here on Vandos.”

     “Are you out of your mind?” Atara asked, sharing a look of agitation with Kyora.

     “Have you bothered asking your Admiral Aesho that? How could you, or they, sleep at night when the only known sample of ecksivar turns up missing because of the thieves of the Thalassia Orionis? Wouldn’t you want the assurance of having part of it kept safe here on Vandos?”

     “I have my orders.”

     “You have your orders. Fair. You have no reason to trust me. I could just turn right around and sell it to the highest bidder. But in the long run, in what way would that profit me? The Federation is a rational actor. I would much rather all ecksivar end up in their hands, but definitely not Domina or the Three Brothers or whoever. Can’t you see that carrying all that ecksivar on one ship is inherently disastrous?”

     “If you care so much,” Atara told her, “give us escort.”

     “If I gave you escort,” Relex said, “we would attract the syndicates en masse. We would have the largest engagement this side of the Saraian Range in a hundred years.”

     “So your hands are tied?”

     “Not with regard to what I proposed: holding part of that sample.”

     “I’m afraid I can’t do that, admiral,” Atara said. “If you would allow me to pay for the drinks, the colonel and I will be on our way.”

     “It’s on me, captain,” Relex said. “I do appreciate your time. Not often do I get to hear the Federation’s current perspective.”

     “We enjoyed your company,” Atara stated, “and thank you for your hospitality.”

     “My offer still stands as long as you’re docked,” Relex told Atara and Kyora as they moved through the open OPEL door and left the private booth.

     Both of them stood outside as the mist started to move in. The lumionic lights of the streets and buildings bloomed in the condensed microdroplets of water that floated on the chilly breeze. Atara was still wearing the short jacket she fabricated earlier as she looked down the street. Kyora, in her phantom combat configuration, stood in front of her captain and said, “I’m going to shroud myself and shadow you.”

     “You still feeling bad?”

     “Worse,” said the Elestan phantom.

     “Alright,” Atara said, scanning one end of the street and then the other. The phantom disappeared into the night. “I’m going to meet up with Sesh at the museum.”

     Atara strode off toward those busy streets, past the ethereal lights glowing overhead. Though the night wasn’t exactly frigid, she could see her misty breath mix with the humid air when she exhaled. She knew Kyora was keeping watch over her from the shroud, but she couldn’t shake her loneliness. The towers were titans, and the stepped terraces canyons, all enveloped in a night as artificial as the station itself.

42 – Vandos

The Kelsor left hyperspace as it’s synerdrive spun down. A distant gas giant grew in the distance, but its growth slowed as they slowed, remaining smaller than Akos V looked in Lanan’s sky despite being a far larger planetary body. Another object, once just a single point of light, expanded as the battlecruiser approached. The habitat, Vandos, threatened to eclipse its parent planet with its five-hundred-kilometer width. Through the OPEL panels, the bridge officers could see the flat underside of the giant, discoid station and eight massive, open gates positioned symmetrically across the plane, each an equal distance away from its nearest neighbor and three-fourths of the distance to the station’s perimeter from its central axis. Distant ships gleamed in the light of the system’s star as they eased through the gates, circled the habitat, or shot into hyperwarp.

     After receiving clearance to traverse the gates and dock, Naret lined the two-and-a-half-kilometer-long ship up with one of the truly enormous gates labeled with a three-kilometer-long number 4 beside it. The Elestan lieutenant focused within the partial shroud of lumigraphs around her—all sensory aides for this intricate maneuvering to which she was the master. Through these lumigraphs, she knew the dimensions of the battlecruiser and the opening that she needed to cross. All of the minute adjustments made to the gravitics and plasma engines were handled automatically as Naret willed the ship forward. Not for a moment did she feel flustered by this responsibility, and Atara and Sesh were impressed by her performance. The passage appeared harrowing, but it wasn’t as tight of a fit as it seemed. The Kelsor had about half a kilometer of clearance on either side as it gently passed through the gate.

     Naret’s conning trial did not conclude until the Kelsor mated with the station. She guided the vessel through the expansive, artificially-lit Vandos Dockyards. Large shuttles—small compared to the battlecruiser—moved personnel, cargo, and materiel through the dim, weightless vaccum as other, larger ships inched into and out of the docks—a mixture of mercenaries, civilians, some Republic, and a few Federation. The Kelsor was crawling now, coasting on its own inertia with Naret making only slight adjustments to its course with gravitics. Naret slotted the ship into one of the large, numbered docks where she allowed the Kelsor’s adjunct to park the ship in the precise location and orientation the dockmaster specified. Like all the other anchored ships, the Kelsor remained perpendicular to the station’s orientation. Two umbilical docking ports articulated out from the dock walls to meet both the port and starboard hangar entrances—the both of them being standard Federation Navy design. Four smaller ports attached themselves to all four docking bays. The Kelsor was secured in dock, and Naret’s lumigraphic shroud disappeared.

     After waiting three hours for the first set of starmen to leave the ship and explore the domed metropolis of Vandos City above the Dockyards, Atara, Xannissa, and Sesh approached the white ALAT that would ferry them up to the city.

     “Well, well,” said a smirking Cylenna from the driver’s seat as the triumvirate approached. “Looks like I have the honor of being your chauffeur.”

     “Gives you an excuse to take your leave with us, right?” Xannissa asked as she sat down in the front passenger seat.

     “I do enjoy the privilege, yes.” Atara and Sesh sat down in the back. Once the car’s top was fabricated, Cylenna lifted the vehicle off the hangar floor and pushed it forward through the giant docking port. “So, what’s on the itinerary?”

     “Good question,” Atara said. “I haven’t forgotten about Admiral Relex. I need to see if she’s docked, and then get in touch with her.”

     “I read they have a really nice museum,” Sesh told them. “Did you know that this station was named after a Federation-born mega-engineer and architect named Doctor Mavin Vandos? They’re supposed to have an exhibit dedicated to him.”

     Xannissa asked, “First, why don’t we find a place for lunch? There was a nice place that grows their own seafood.”

     “I could go for seafood,” Atara admitted.

     Sesh said, “Take us there.”

     “Seafood sounds great,” Cylenna said as she piloted the car beyond the umbilical and into the internal portion of Dockyards.

     When the ALAT emerged from the Dockyards, Cylenna and the triumvirate found themselves within a well-kept urban sprawl. There was enough atmosphere within the enormous dome to create a characteristic blue sky, clouds, and weather. Everything within Vandos City was under the influence of a gravitics network, giving the billions of residents and visitors one g of gravitational acceleration without the need for spin. Skylanes crisscrossed the sky, and towers ascended for kilometers. Lakes, parks, nature preserves, and even a small saline sea broke up the beautiful, duralithic city blocks, and the entire perimeter of the City was ringed by a mountain range. It was toward those mountains overlooking the azure sea that Cylenna guided the craft, and she set the vehicle down in a lot next to the restaurant they were visiting: a small place called Sorrelin.

     “Sorrelin, eh?” Atara said.

     “I was thinking the same thing,” Cylenna noted.

     “If I’m not mistaken,” Sesh asked, “the famous Elestan sea serpents?”

     “Same ones,” Xannissa said as she stepped out of the ALAT. “I figured it would be a good taste of home.”

     “What are you talking about?” Cylenna asked loudly. “You’ve never eaten a sorrelin!”

     “Neither have you,” Xannissa responded, “but I’d be willing to try it.”

     The women were seated at a table on a wooden outdoor deck overlooking the sea. Bordering the deck on either side were verdant conifers swaying in the gentle breeze that carried their terpene scent. An alpine chill nipped at their faces being so far above the rest of the station. Because they were at the station’s edge, they could look out and see just about every other place across Vandos, atmosphere permitting. The air was kept clear, and it was easy to see the distant urban monoliths from the mountainside restaurant, but the mountains at the station’s opposite end were obscured by the sky. Every so often, a low cloud rolled through the forest, giving them the sensation of being in a misty fog. The light received from the system’s star was about that received on Lanan by virtue of distance: about the intensity of average room lighting. The sunlight was far dimmer than a bright planet such as any of the Sister Worlds, but it was easy for anyone to adjust to.

     As their young waitress departed from their table with orders in mind, a visibly older woman, an Elestan with silver hair, approached the party of four. The wood beneath their feet creaked with every step. Atara felt a hand on her shoulder. The smiling captain’s expression neutralized as she turned to face the woman.

     “Hello there,” said the older woman. “My name’s Xera. I’m the owner.” She offered her hand to Atara, and the Terran captain accepted it and shook it. Xera had seen enough military personnel to know that these women were high-ranking officers, judging from the markings on their standard uniform bodysuits. “What brings you ladies way out here to Vandos?”

     “Just running ops in Thalassia Orionis,” Atara told her. “I can’t say much, but my starmen needed some shore leave after what they’ve been through.”

     “I see, I see,” Xera said. Her face had retained most of its youthful, feminine beauty despite its age. “What ship did you come in on?”

     “The Kelsor.”

     “Did you say Kelsor?”

     “That’s it.”

     “What a coincidence that you would wind up in a place like this!”

     “Vandos?” Sesh asked.

     “No, my restaurant.”

     “The captain and I are from Elestus,” Xannissa explained, “so we thought we’d sample the sorrelin.”

     Xera responded, “Then surely you know about the Kelsor? The Kela Sorrelin?”

     “I’m afraid not,” Atara said reluctantly.

     “The King of the Sea Serpents!” Xera said. “What are they teaching young people?”

     “Now that you mention it,” Sesh told her, “it does make sense. I just never equated the name ‘Kelsor’ to the Elestan myth.”

     “A fearsome creature with diamond fangs and titanium scales,” Xera said. “Faster than any sailing ship the ancient Elestans could ever produce. He was Elestus’ version of Leviathan. All the sorrelins in existence are female, and today we know that they reproduce via parthenogenesis, but back then they thought there was a lone male keeping the species alive. It’s also how they explained ships lost at sea. If you could see the intricate armor that Elestans fashioned with those tough sorrelin scales. They could deflect bullets!”

     Atara told her, “I’m honored that my vessel shares a name with such a magnificent creature.”

     “Anyway,” Xera said to them, “I don’t mean to impose. You ladies enjoy the food, and I hope you find Vandos a relaxing place.”

     Several minutes later, the young waitress returned carrying four plates. She sat one in front of each of the officers. It didn’t matter who got which plate since they all agreed to order the same dish: baked sorrelin filet with a side of potatoes and assorted baked vegetables. The underside of the filet was composed of the hard, black scales and skin to which the meat was still attached. Xannissa was the first to lift her fork and knife. With the fork, she pierced the seared, white meat and sliced through it with her knife. The juices ran off the filet and onto the plate as steam rose from the cut, filling the air with a smell that was reminiscent of both fish and fowl. Xannissa found that the taste matched the smell as she took her first small bite, expecting the sea serpent to have a gamey texture. But the meat melted in her mouth. The Elestan engineer closed her eyes as she savored the umami. The other three followed her lead, and the conversation they carried was put on hold as they dined. After the four had their fill, overlooking their mostly empty plates, Atara spoke to them.

     “I think after this we should head into Vandos City proper. There is a twenty-block area with plenty for the four of us to do. Sesh, that museum you want to visit is there. There’s also some shopping and a bit of night life. There’s a Subnet parlor there if you wanted a better place to talk to Aedan. Has he spoken to you since he left Earth?”

     “Not yet, but he did send me a few pictures.”

     “That parlor has a simulator that would let you see his apartment as he sees it. When we get downtown, I’ll try to contact Relex; see if she’s available.”

     Many minutes later, they were cruising in the ALAT once again, heading for the downtown area. Cylenna found a place to park the Military vehicle at not-so-cheap a price. The women stood with the ALAT while Atara used her Accellus lumigraphs to contact Relex, but while Atara was flipping through lumes, Relex contacted her instead.

     “Captain Korrel?” Relex asked, heard by the others.

     “This is she. Admiral Relex?”

     “Yes. I hear you’re on my station.”

     “I am,” Atara stated, “and I wanted to buy you that drink.”

     Relex said, “Meet me at the Shattered Star downtown.”

     “What time?”

     “Twenty-one-hundred.”

     “I’ll see you there.”

     The blocks Atara mentioned before were laid out like hexagonal terraces with multiple levels for walking paths, storefronts, and market stalls. The tops of these terraces were occupied by either towers or greenspaces. Thick, leafy deciduous trees formed a partial canopy above the walkways that were lit from beneath by lumionics. People drifted from window to window, some entered the stores, and others stopped in front of market stalls. The women took the stairs out of the parking bay and emerged in a vast public green in the midst of Vandos’ skyrises. Such a lively city was indistinguishable from its planetary analog, and for a while, those aboard the Kelsor could escape the reality that they were still aboard a manmade construct orbiting in the deep black of space. Walking on the pristine paths beneath the trees, the triumvirate witnessed their first instances of Archangels patrolling the station on foot as police officers.

     “Mercenary police force,” Sesh muttered as a pair of black-clad Archangels passed them.

     “After they came and helped us near the Range,” Xannissa said, “I don’t think it’s a problem.”

     “They don’t hide who runs the show,” Atara stated, “that’s for sure, but like Xannissa said, nothing wrong with that. You have to remember that a lot of them were once Federation.”

     Sesh said, “A good police force a military does not make.”

     “They’re a city-state,” Atara told her, “and their system seems to be working well enough for them.”

     The leaves above them rustled in the station’s wind, almost inaudible over the distant murmur of the crowds and their clacking footfalls. This combined with the faint rumble of machinery and whooshing of overhead gravidynes to cast a veil of sonic static that only the birdcalls of nesting and flying avians could penetrate. Then there was the cry of a child, a group of laughing passersby, and then the shouts of a shopkeeper drawing attention to his wares. Xannissa paused in front of one of these loud shopkeepers and examined his stall. When Atara noticed her friend wasn’t keeping up, she tapped Sesh on the shoulder, and the group halted.

     “Hey there!” said the shopkeeper. “How ya doin’?”

     In an attempt to appear cordial, Xannissa said, “I’m fine. How’re you?”

     “Wonderful! Anything interest you?”

     The Elestan eased down to look through the glass display cases between her and the young shopkeeper. Her bodysuit brushed against the bodies of other pedestrians as she interrogated what looked like basic civilian communicators. Behind the man were tools and other devices that would be effortless to make with any home REMASS system.

     “Do you sell any licenses for these?” Xannissa asked the shopkeeper as she pointed to the display case.

     “What for? Oh wait, you an outlander? No one owns civilian REMASS systems here. I buy production time from the Archangels to make all this stuff to sell.”

     “Why no civilian REMASS?”

     “It’s the statutes, hon. Can’t really talk too much more about it.”

     Xannissa backed away from the stall to rejoin the group. She moved her head close to Atara’s and told her, “Did you hear that?”

     “I suppose that’s one way the Archangels make their money,” Atara noted.

     The women wandered the duralithic plazas until the massive OPEL panels forming the dome began to filter the blue wavelengths of the star’s light, bathing Vandos City in yellows and oranges. Those living on Vandos experienced zenith sunsets due to the station always facing the sun. After visiting another restaurant for dinner, the quartet agreed to part ways and regroup at 2300.

     Atara walked alone among the crowds in the artificial night. Even in the post-twilight darkness, the sun remained visible. The OPELs only allowed in enough light to mimic the ambient illumination of a small full moon. Atara and the others failed to take note, being bombarded by the nocturnal brilliance of the downtown region. The skyrises, once having appeared monolithic and plain, were plastered with face-spanning, lumigraphic advertisements. Perhaps they had been visible throughout the day, but their luminosity was far more apparent in the dark. The composition, attire, and attitude of the people around her had also changed—metamorphosed from families, modesty, and temperance to singles, skin, and irresponsibility. Rarely did she find anything of this sort unsettling, but being around the denizens of the night in a wholly unfamiliar place—an orbital habitat, no less—prompted her to fabricate a short jacket and fasten it down the middle to conceal her bodysuited breasts.

     Atara’s corneal lumigraphs led her through the busy streets, across suspended walkways, around corners, and to the front of the Shattered Star. The captain looked up at the single lumigraph it had that served as its sign. Looking back down at street level, she found that the rest of the bar’s facade was plain. Other than the sign, the establishment drew no attention to itself. Atara pushed the loose strands of dark garnet hair out of her face before she pulled the door open.

     The low, rumbling rhythm of the music vibrated across the floor and through her feet. The sweet smell of ethanol wafted from the bar to her left, but stronger than that was the savory scent of cooked food flooding in from the dining area to the right. Parties of inebriated patrons watched the performances of cooks as they prepared their meals right before their eyes. Laughter would erupt on one side of the large room, and then somewhere else on the other.

     The bar was much more subdued. Smaller groups of two, three, or four stood around or sat on tall stools as they conversed with slowing tongues. Atara took a seat at the bar, but though she sat adjacent to no one, she felt the strange sensation that someone was watching her; that she hadn’t arrived alone. The captain looked over her shoulder, seeing a flame shoot upward from one of the grills, illuminating the entire dining room for a moment and ending in applause and more laughter. She turned her head back around to see the male bartender standing eye-to-eye with her.

     “What can I start you off with?” he asked her.

     “I’m waiting on a friend.”

     “Who’s your friend?”

     “A woman named Relex.”

     “I suppose you don’t mean the Relex?”

     “I actually do.”

     “You have powerful friends,” the bartender told her. He motioned with his arm, and one of the waitresses appeared. He told the approaching waitress, “She’s here to see her.” The waitress nodded.

     “Follow me,” said the waitress. Atara was led into the dining area, past the hearty aromas, sizzling and steam, and into a separate, darker room with private booths segregated by OPEL doors. The door to a booth opened, and she was invited inside. Admiral Relex was seated, wearing her Accellus 3 formal uniform: a dress resembling the Accellus 4’s formals, but equal parts white and light blue. Her skin was a cool gray like Xannissa’s, and her black hair was tied into two buns on top and to either side of her head. She crossed her arms beneath the short jacket that was draped on her shoulders; the sleeves of which fell to either side of her.

     Before Atara took her seat, Relex said, “When I told you to meet me, I wasn’t expecting you to bring another.”

     “I’m not sure what you mean,” Atara told her. “Is someone else here?”

     “Come on, captain!” Relex said loudly. “You insult my intelligence! I can see your phantom bodyguard as clearly as I’m seeing you now.”

     “Huh?” Atara turned around to an empty room, save for the waitress, but suddenly a dark gray bodysuit and white SIRAC chest materialized right in front of her, startling the waitress. The short, white hair and neutral gray face immediately betrayed the phantom’s identity to Atara. “Colonel? What are you doing here?”

     “Look,” Kyora said defiantly, “you can’t fault your security chief for trying to look out for you. No disrespect to you, Admiral…”

     “Of course,” Relex replied.

     “…but I’ve had one of those feelings, instincts, whatever you want to call them, since we pulled into dock.”

     “How bad is it?” Atara asked her.

     “What?”

     “The feeling. How bad?”

     “Honestly? Feels like someone is tightening a bolt into my gut.”

     “Both of you,” Relex told them, “have a seat.” The mercenary admiral motioned to the seat across the table from herself. The two women complied. Kyora refused to sit down until Atara did, ensuring that the phantom positioned herself on the outside of the booth. “Colonel, huh?” Relex asked. Kyora said nothing.

     “Commander of our Aurora complement,” Atara explained.

     “I understand,” Relex said. “I feel like whatever I were to talk to you about would just get passed on anyway, so why not entertain the both of you? Anyway, we’re keeping the waitress waiting.” Relex turned toward the waitress and spoke her order. “Bring me a martini on the rocks.”

     Atara said, “I’ll just have gin and tonic, thanks.”

     “I don’t drink,” Kyora told them. Relex gave the Elestan phantom an odd look, so Kyora followed up with, “I can’t do my job with dulled senses.” The waitress departed and the OPEL door closed, sealing the three of them within a private chamber.

     “So, you triumphed over the Voulgenathi?”

     “We did.”

     “And did the Federation Navy’s revenge quest profit you at all?”

     “I’m not inclined to talk about it.”

     “I’m glad,” Relex told her, “otherwise the premium I paid for the information I have would’ve been worthless.”

     “Is that so?” Atara asked.

     “That’s quite a haul you have, captain, for such a tiny crystal. That with your synerdrive makes your Kelsor a treasure trove.”

     “Is that a threat, admiral?”

     “Not from me, no. I admire you, captain. As someone in charge, I need people around me who will blindly follow my orders.”

     “Excuse me?”

     “What? Did I get a little too close to the truth?”

     “I’m a patriot. I’m serving my country.”

     “And I admire that, I do. But what about the long term? What’s going to be left of your Federation when the next major conflict erupts? What happens to Civilized Space when one superpower has the capability to bring it all to ruin?”

     “What’s your point?”

     “Wouldn’t you be a better patriot if you could ensure its integrity for the ages to come? If you could prevent it from becoming an unstoppable hegemon?”

     “I would never put the Federation at risk of being overtaken.”

     “I see,” Relex said. “So short-sighted. As you can probably guess, I am well aware of your ecksivar. I am also aware of its capabilities, and I shudder when I think about it. An omnium neutralizer would be the beginning of the end for humanity.”

     “You’re afraid.”

     “Absolutely! Aren’t you? The winds are shifting. A storm is coming.” Relex paused for a moment, letting out a sigh. She continued, saying, “My apologies, captain. I’m a pessimist. It’s no wonder I find myself in here at least three nights a week with gin in my hand.

     “But do hear me out. The powder keg is ready, and its more massive than at any point in history. The fuse is primed and ready to be lit. When everything is finally set in motion, you know that the next galactic war will be the last. Civilized Space will rip itself to shreds. That’s why I left the Navy and came out here. It’s places like Vandos that will be on top when that happens, and we’ll be picking up the pieces.”

     “That last part sounds too overly-optimistic for a pessimist.”

     “It might be.” The waitress returned with their drinks, opened the OPEL door, and set them both down upon the table. “Can you bring me another?” Relex asked. The waitress nodded. When the waitress departed, the admiral had three good sips before speaking again.

     “Captain, there is something I need to tell you. Despite what I said, I don’t want to see any harm come to you, so listen closely. Our scouts and long range subdar have detected an increase in activity from here to Mirida. The Tribesson syndicates have been flexing their muscles more than usual. You’re good people, so I don’t want you heading home unprepared.”

     “I appreciate that,” Atara told her. “We still have a way to go.”

     Kyora, who had only been listening until then, asked, “Is it Domina?”

     “Largely Domina,” Relex told her. “I hate those people. They think they own these volumes.”

     “I’m pretty sure Eclipse thinks she does,” Kyora replied.

     “Who?”

     “Domina’s leader.”

     “Oh, right. That bitch. I’ve had to meet with her face-to-face before, and you would not believe the arrogance. Now that I mention it… no. I won’t say it.”

     “Say what?” Atara asked.

     “Colonel, you look a lot like her,” Relex told the other Elestan.

     “I’m not surprised you said that,” Kyora replied.

     “Oh really?”

     “We’re literally cut from the same cloth.”

     “Are you clones or something?”

     “We are clones, conceived by Unit.”

     “I remember Unit.”

     “You do?”

     “They were rivals to the Archangels for a while a long time ago, then suddenly they dropped off the radar and never came back.”

     “That’s when they morphed into Domina.”

     “So Unit was Domina’s predecessor?”

     “In a sense.”

     “That’s interesting. It’s a small galaxy after all.” Relex had just finished her martini when the waitress brought her another. “Just be on the lookout, captain. I’d hate to see your mission end in tragedy.”

41 – Betrayal

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.

     “Hey Xann.”

     “What’s up?”

     “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.”

     “That’s understandable.”

     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.”

     “No way.”

     “Tonight’s my last night on Earth.”

     “That’s fantastic!”

     “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.”

     “Why?”

     “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.”

     “Fiori?”

     “Yes, Xannissa?”

     “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.

40 – Recuperation

The Voulgenathi was secure. The Kelsor’s engineers repaired the Voulgenathi’s power systems to a point where they could maintain stasis around each of the twenty-six-thousand survivors for up to six months. It was unclear how long it would take the Elsheem State or Alliance to rescue them or if they would even try. According to the Fencer’s captain, a prison ship was a month out and would pick up the survivors in the event no one else did. Meanwhile, all remaining damage to the Kelsor was repaired. The medbay was providing medical treatment to the starmen wounded in the fighting including Illeiri who, without an external source of the red elsheem dekacelorn omnium, had sacrificed her own biomatter to attack Taretes. In all, the battle against the Voulgenathi resulted in the deaths of about five-hundred and over thirteen-hundred wounded among the Kelsor’s personnel. The Voulgenathi suffered over fifteen-thousand deaths and many more wounded, but rather than treat them, the stasis would leave them for either the Republic, Empire, or Alliance to take care of.

     Kyora saw to the delivery of the ecksivar sample personally. The Kelsor was in such a shape now that it appeared like the battle had never taken place. Still in her combat bodysuit and sparse SIRAC, the Elestan strode across the floor of the omnimology lab. She had long recalled her helmet, showing off the smug expression that she was unaware she was even broadcasting. In her left hand was the opaque canister containing the sample. She held it at the base like a server with a platter. After approaching the pair of scientists, Souq and Namara, the phantom stopped and placed her right hand on her hip. The jump drone was still attached to her back.

     “That’s it,” Souq said softly. His face expressed his sudden elation and relief.

     Kyora told them, “Seems like the jump drone wasn’t necessary after all.” Namara watched as Souq grabbed the container with both hands. Kyora dropped her arm as the Larissian man set the container on the bench top, interfaced with it, and turned the outer wall transparent. All three of them moved their heads closer to look at the jagged, black crystal within and the eerie anti-light that it emitted.

     After being held in stasis for ten hours, Taretes was released and escorted by eight Auroras to the briefing room. His wounds had been sealed by Doctor Iveti, but she had not repaired the damage which distorted his face and hands. His limbs were bound, and two fully-armored Auroras stayed behind with their guns trained on him. Taretes stood at the aft end of the room for five minutes after which the Kelsor’s triumvirate appeared and took their usual seats. Illeiri also appeared at the request of the three, but no one else was allowed to participate.

     “Tell me,” Atara demanded, her elbows resting on the table and chin supported by her clenched hands. Her Miri was translated to Avenathi. “What were your plans for the ecksivar sample?” Taretes blinked but said nothing. “Surely it was for your Alliance overlords.” He blinked again and kept silent.

     Sesh asked “How did you sneak into Tribesson without being detected?”

     Xannissa then asked, “What would motivate the leader of the Elsheem State to participate in this operation?” The triumvirate spent the next twenty minutes in vain, asking questions and receiving no answers. Finally, Atara stood up, walked to the narrow end of the table nearest Taretes, and sat down on its edge and placed her hands in her lap.

     “You know,” Atara told him, looking straight into his eyes from less than half-a-meter away, “if it were up to me, you would be a drifting corpse; a piece of space debris. Let me be clear: this interrogation is just a formality. This will show my commanders that I took the time to extract some information from you, because it’s against Federation law to hold captive a head of state of a country we’re not at war with, whether we acknowledge the legitimacy of said leader or not, or the sovereignty of their state. You belong to the Queen of Avenath.” She pointed over her shoulder to Illeiri who was sitting sideways in her chair with one leg over the other. “To be honest, I don’t give a damn whether you talk at all. We already know about your intimate connection to Supreme Executor Evic Redolain of the Alliance. Surely he planned to build an omnium neutralizer using ecksivar.” After a brief pause, she looked at Taretes once more, saying, “I am thankful that, because of you, I was able to captain a ship again.” Atara turned her body toward Illeiri and asked “How do you want to dispose of the refuse?”

     “I’m going to release him,” said the elshi.

     “What?!” Xannissa exclaimed.

     “I don’t want his blood on my hands,” Illeiri told them. “If Taretes remains alive, after all this, his kingdom will crumble. Let him use one of the Voulgenathi’s warp shuttles so he can pay a visit to his master empty-handed.”

     “So be it,” Atara said. She directed the Auroras to carry out the orders. The two soldiers quietly escorted the elsheem emperor from the room.

     Xannissa and Sesh stood from their chairs, and Atara said, “Illeiri, you may use this room to contact your leaders.”

     “Please stay,” Illeiri told them. “Despite the extraordinary aid given to us by the Federation, my subordinates are still distrustful of humans. They need to see the faces of the people who have befriended me and helped us defeat our common enemy.” Atara nodded and the triumvirate was seated again.

     “Fiori,” Illeiri called as she moved to the end of the table farthest from the other three. Fiori’s orange figure appeared across the table from her. “Contact Magister Leyondin.”

     “Establishing encrypted communication,” Fiori announced. With the Kelsor far beyond the sub-comms range of any friendly relay, Illeiri’s transmission once again relied upon the battlecruiser’s Q-comms uplink with the Fifth Fleet, Third Armada switching station all the way back on Lanan. From there, the transmission was bounced between sub-comms relays across the Greater Federation to the downspin border near Semarah. Once there, the signal was broadcast to one of the large deep space arrays from which it was propelled toward the more neutral reaches of the Orionan Rift that separated the Federation from the Alliance. Despite such great separation between the Kelsor and the Avenathi Commonwealth Liberation Fleet, the transmission suffered from only a five second delay.

     “Connection established,” Fiori told them. A wall-spanning lumigraph materialized before the orange Federation Triangle that decorated the aft wall. Instead of piling in front of a single camera, Illeiri’s Avenathi leaders appeared on four separate screens from four separate locations.

     “My queen,” they said in unison while bowing. Their Avenathi was translated by the triumvirate’s Accellus. Voice Leyondin and the House Syoness representative were in their usual Assembly robes, but the admiral and general were clad in their new blood red Magus armor.

     “Tarates has been defeated.”

     Taretes was shuttled back to the Voulgenathi. There, he took one of the warp shuttles and departed for the Alliance territories far downspin. The only thing on his mind was the hope that Thrassus would deliver him from this disaster and that he would spare his life and rule.

     After the elsheem captives aboard the Kelsor’s hangar had been transferred to the stricken Voulgenathi, the hangar became a memorial to the Federation starmen who lost their lives in the battle. The recoverable bodies were placed in caskets and held in stasis. Those who were presentable had their caskets left open for fellow starmen to pay their respects within the solemn silence of the bay. For all of the fallen—recoverable, presentable, or neither—, their physical portraits were presented in metallic frames upon pedestals.

     Cylenna approached the framed portrait of Tere “Ice” Yowel whose body was unable to be recovered. She thought she had the courage to approach her fellow pilot’s memorial, but the Elestan could only bear to see her face for a moment. She blamed herself for Ice’s death—horrified that her decision to inject chronol into her bloodstream mid-combat was what led to Ice’s tragic fate. Cylenna bowed her head, letting the tears stream down her face and drip to the floor.

     Over the next three days, the Kelsor and Fencer remained parked next to the wreck of the Voulgenathi. Teams from both ships examined the enemy battleship thoroughly in an attempt to learn everything they could about the craft, from its construction, to weapons systems, defenses, crew quarters, adjunct system, engines and power systems, and everything in between. The contents of the ship’s central computer were confiscated; its secrets and all other information gathered by the Federation and Republic teams shared between them.

     During this time, the officers and crew of the Fencer and the members of Quietus were invited to make use of the battlecruiser’s simulators. Despite being uncommon in the Republic, and unheard of on a Republic Navy starship, the Republic servicemembers were familiar with Federation-style partitioned-reality simulators. Some of them harbored contempt toward what they perceived as the excesses of the Federation Military—being able to take virtual shore leave while underway was a luxury unbefitting common soldiers. But being presented the chance to indulge themselves at Atara’s invitation made them forget their proud devotion to their doctrine of austerity. Those were among the quickest to leave the Fencer and partake in the Kelsor’s virtual worlds.

     One such person was Jade. She left on a shuttle ahead of the rest of Quietus. Dressed in the service uniform consisting of a tight white shirt and slate gray pants, she stepped off of the Federation dropship with a bag suspended by a strap slung over her shoulder. The bag contained a change of clothing because, unlike the forward-thinking Federation, the Republic Military still had not made REMASS gear a part of the regular uniform.

     Unbeknownst to most of the Kelsor’s crew, the battlecruiser’s designers had taken the implementation of the simulators one step further than they had realized. The officers placed the four large simulators into a networked mode. When Jade entered the simulator, she encountered four times the number of people that those aboard the Kelsor were used to seeing there. Shortly after arriving in the lobby of the coastal resort, the Yeran paused and took in the echoing chatter from hundreds of women (and some of the Fencer’s men), the polished, reflective floor, and the skylights above. She could already smell the salt in the air, and the faint scent of citrus, and as she looked around, she realized that she was one of the more modestly-dressed.

     She left the building and looked out from the terrace beyond to find the beach. Once she found it, the excited Yeran flew down the steps and walked along the duralithic path that bordered the sand. The sea breeze whipped her bronze hair as she stopped to look at the sand before her. Jade removed her metallic boots, balanced on one foot as she removed one sock and then the other, placed her socks in her boots and picked them up, carrying them with her as her bare feet hit the hot sand. It had been many years since she had felt the grains of sun-scorched silica give way as she marched across dunes, but one thing that always surprised her when she saw it was the tan horizon yield to a vast field of deep blue outstretched before her. There were no water oceans on her homeworld; only oceans of open desert and seas of dunes.

     Jade noted the sunbathers as she marched along—a concept not unfamiliar to her. The Yeran found an empty place on the beach away from most of the activity. She dropped her boots and bag upon the lumigraphic sand next to a single chair shielded from the sun by an umbrella. In accordance with the majority of beachgoers on this bright afternoon, Jade dropped her pants and panties in one go, lifted off her shirt, and removed her bra. With all of her clothing in a pile on the ground, the Yeran took her seat.

     Jade looked slowly back and forth across the coastline, watching people—the majority of whom belonged to the Kelsor. She noticed a pair of women nearby create towels in their hands and drape them across the sand. “How do you do that?” Jade yelled to them.

     “With your neural interface,” they shouted back.

     “I’m not Federation.”

     The two women looked confused for a moment, but one of them remembered something. “Just snap your fingers.”

     Jade did as they said. When she snapped her fingers, a lumigraph appeared before her. “Thank you! It worked!” she shouted once more.

     Time passed so quickly. Jade didn’t even recognize Svalti as he ducked underneath her umbrella. He and Ethis found the red-skinned Yeran reading a book in the nude over an hour after she settled down on the beach.

     “You enjoying yourself?” Svalti asked as he peered over her abdomen to see what the book’s cover looked like. Jade tilted the book down to see that it was Svalti who had addressed her.

     She dropped the book open on her chest cover-side-up and told him, “There is something to be admired about a good, old-fashioned paper book.”

     “Is it because it’s quaint?” Svalti asked. He moved beyond the umbrella so that he could stand up straight and pivot his head like a turret as he looked around.

     “It’s because it’s tangible,” Jade said, sighing. “Of course, the irony is that nothing in this world is tangible.” She stroked the sand next to her chair. “But it all feels remarkably real.”

     Ethis, dressed in a short jacket, gray skin brightened by the sun and eyes squinting, asked, “Does this make you change your mind about simulators?”

     “I’d say I’m more afraid of this technology now than I was before,” Jade expressed, “because when I’m here, I can’t help but think it’s real.”

     “Now you just need to convince the Republic to put them on their ships,” Ethis said with a smile.

     “Absolutely not.”

     “I want one,” Svalti said, watching people at the water’s edge walk into the oncoming waves.

     “Well, then,” Jade told him, “better enjoy it while you’re here.”

     “Oh,” Ethis remembered, “the captain wanted me to invite you and the rest of Quietus to dinner tonight aboard the simulator.”

     “Are we eating lumions?” Jade jokingly asked.

     “If that’s what you want, sure,” Ethis said. “The rest of us will be eating real food.”

     Jade snapped her fingers and made the book disappear. She eased up from the relaxing chair and stretched her arms and body. “I didn’t bring my formals,” she admitted.

     “I brought them for you,” Svalti told her.

     “You did?”

     “Yep.”

     “Okay then.” She paused before asking, “Where are they?”

     “In my bag.”

     Jade walked over to and knelt down next to Svalti’s bag. She pulled out the neatly-folded formals on top, including her peaked cap, and said, “Thanks, Svalti.”

     “No problem.” Svalti pulled his shirt up over his head and took it off to reveal his Brand of Revenancy across his back and masculine, muscular torso. He walked over to Jade and let the shirt fall next to his bag. Svalti then told the two women, “I want to check this place out. Either of you care to go?”

     Evening fell upon the coast. The sun was setting over the ocean, and the seaside pavilion was once again used as a dining venue. The Kelsor’s senior officers including Souq and Illeiri, the Fencer’s own senior officers, and Quietus of Hiracet were seated around the table. Atara sat at the table’s head. On her right hand were Sesh and Xannissa. At the distinguished position at her left hand was seated Captain Raena. The other distinguished position at the long table, the very far end opposed to Atara, was occupied by Rikter Svalti. None of the Federation formal uniforms ever included a cap, but the Republic Navy’s slate uniform did. The Republic officers hung their peaked caps on their seat backs. The virtual sun illuminated the virtual sky with its virtual orange light. The once white northern clouds turned into spectral pillars as the sun dipped beneath the horizon: white at the top, then yellow, orange, red, and then shadow at the base.

     Starman volunteers in enlisted formal uniform delivered fresh food upon platters from the fabricators in the mess. Torches and campfires illuminated the beach as Federation and Republic starmen continued to partake of the simulators while dusk fell upon them. As the officers ate their meal, they discussed topics ranging from recounts of the battle to interstellar politics to personal matters.

     “I don’t recall the Federation ever making a point of dining before the corpses of their enemies,” Raena said as she sliced her cut of meat with her knife.

     Atara looked at Raena as Sesh responded, “I was sure it was a Republic tradition.”

     “I’m surprised you know that.”

     “I also know it became a common practice in the latter half of the Miridan Empire to celebrate victory on the battlefield.”

     After all had finished eating, the parties continued their conversations for almost two hours. When their talking was winding down, Captain Raena rose from the table, bowed, and said, “On behalf of all those stationed aboard the Fencer, thank you for your generous hospitality.” Atara also rose from her chair, smiled, and shook hands with her Republic counterpart. “Once I return to my ship, we will prepare to start our jump cycle and be underway in twelve hours. Can you alert my crew across the Kelsor?”

     “Certainly,” Atara told her.

     Jade looked out at the fires and camaraderie happening across the shoreline and, turning toward Captain Raena, said in a serious tone, “Captain, I request to stay aboard the Kelsor until tomorrow morning.” Captain Raena turned to look at Svalti who was looking at Jade. Svalti finally noticed her gaze.

     “Quietus could use the extra R and R,” Svalti admitted.

     “If you’re not aboard when we’re ready to jump,” Raena explained, “you’ll be stuck aboard the Kelsor until Vandos, not to mention….”

     “I understand loud and clear,” Svalti said. When the three groups parted ways, most of the dinner’s attendants, save for all of the Fencer’s senior officers, made their way to down to the beach for a night under the simulator’s virtual stars.