39 – Close

The explosions from the Kelsor’s weapon blasts ceased, but the thunder from the secondary detonations of the Voulgenathi’s own machinery continued for several minutes. Damage control teams consisting of personnel and drones ran back and forth within corridors filled with emergency lights and sirens, some of which were barely functional or operating erratically. Lacking sufficient power to sustain airscreens, many of the ship’s outermost sections lacked atmosphere. Gravitics were sporadic. Bodies of the dead and dismembered floated in one stretch of corridor but lied motionless on the floor in the next stretch. The bridge was chaos.

     Despite all this, Taretes was safe in his quarters surrounded by his concubines—still naked and now frightened—and nurtured by an independent power supply. The emperor ignored the elshi and walked swiftly into one of the rooms in his capacious suite. This room was built like a cockpit with OPEL panels staring into a dark bulkhead. Taretes activated a drive system using a central console. The entire suite lurched, but he received an error warning in Avenathi: “Obstruction detected. Unable to disembark from parent craft.” Taretes growled with fury and slammed his fists against the console.

     Sometime later, Quietus exploded into the emperor’s suite located in the middle of the ship. Their arrival was met with screams of terror coming from several females within the room. Having blinked into midair to avoid melding with the floor, the Revenants crashed down upon the soft, red carpet. They raised their weapons to the source of the high-pitched screams: the naked elshi upon the bed, clinging to each other and afraid for their lives.

     “What the fuck is this?” Dreth asked. “Did we blink into the Voulgenathi’s brothel?”

     “Look away, boys,” Aran told the males. “Don’t let these elsheem turn you on.”

     “Ha!” Itagoreth shouted. “You kidding me? Being turned on by this elsheem filth?”

     “I’m sure that queen,” Jade stated, “Illeiri I think was her name, would resent that statement.”

     “Do I know her enough to care?” Itagoreth snapped.

     Svalti told them, “Cut the chatter. Round them up and search for the ecksivar sample.”

     Apparently, the room still had power because lights and gravitics were operational. After conducting a thorough, ten-minute search and scan, Quietus concluded that the suite was not actually a part of the ship but was instead its own separate vehicle containing its own ODEC and hyperwarp unit.

     “Also, no emperor and no ecksivar,” Jade told Svalti.

     “Alright,” Svalti responded. “I think it’s time to make some noise. Aran, can I trust you to take care of these creatures?” The Revenant leader pointed to the row of naked elshi on their knees next to the wall—their hands on their heads.

     “Absolutely,” said Aran. She sat on the edge of the silky bed crushing under her Type-M’s weight, forced the golden veil surrounding it out of the way by tearing it, and directed her weapon at the helpless elshi who let out subtle squeals of fear. “Like so much meat,” Aran whispered to herself as she looked through her scope.

     “I’m opening the door,” Svalti announced, “so get ready.” Dreth and Jade took positions on either side of the double door with Vald and Jon behind them. Svalti touched his fingers to the console, and the luxurious double door slowly slid apart. Svalti was the first to step through. Two black armor-clad elsheem soldiers stood guard just beyond. Knowing that the elshi concubines were forbidden from leaving the suite, the guards quickly turned to look. Before they could react to the sight of a Republic Revenant, Svalti bashed the guard on his left with the stock of his driver while Jade shot the guard on Svalti’s right. Further down the corridors, masculine shouts echoed followed shortly by the sound of alarms.

     “Come out here and start shooting!” Svalti commanded. “Let’s draw an army to us!” The rest of Quietus, save Aran, stormed into the corridor and fired plasma charges down the corridor. Within moments, like disturbing an insect hive, elsheem began flooding toward their position, and the corridor became alight with bullets and plasma charges.

     “Prepare to board the Voulgenathi!” Kyora said to all of the Auroras assembled in the Kelsor’s hangar. The captured elsheem invaders sat in organized clusters behind them. The phantoms, including Kyora, activated their shrouding, disappearing from both sight and sensors of anyone not networked with Accellus. Kyora spoke again, saying, “The phantoms will take point. After we clear the way, we will signal for the rest of you to commence the assault.”

     Illeiri was unsure how to engage her shrouding at first, but after several seconds, she finally discovered the means. Kyora watched her without giving instructions and smiled when the elshi finally figured it out.

     “Phantoms,” Kyora commanded once more, “ascend and advance.” She, Illeiri, and the twenty-four phantoms lifted off from the hangar floor, drifted toward the lumionic airscreen and, letting their hands pierce it first, eased through until they were in the interstellar vacuum. This phantom vanguard quickly closed the one-hundred-meter gap with their gravitics. When they reached the damaged hull of the stricken Voulgenathi, the women and elshi positioned themselves—some standing and some kneeling—around the gaping hole created by the primary ODEC explosion triggered by the phasic torpedo. The hole itself was at least thirty meters wide. The walls and floors just beyond the outer hull were the most intact. The deeper in the phantoms peered, the worse the damage seemed. There were no lights and no atmosphere; however, the elsheem had positioned guards to stand idle in the vacuum and point their weapons toward the Kelsor’s hangar in anticipation of a boarding event. Kyora figured they were scouts, ready to feel out an attack and report it rather than repel it as twenty soldiers would never be enough to defend this wide of a hull breach from an onslaught of Auroras.

     “Illeiri,” Kyora said, “let me see you use those discs. I haven’t had the chance.”

     “Do you want me to kill them all?”

     “If you have any reservations….”

     “Reservations? They follow Taretes, a usurper and a murder. It would be my pleasure to kill them. I’d just rather not assume anything.”

     “I see. Yes. Light them up.”

     Illeiri nodded, grabbed one disc at a time from behind her back, and threw each of them into the hole. The discs remained invisible until they left the influence of her shrouding which really only extended a few centimeters from her body. As each disc departed her hand, they were engulfed by white plasma. Directing the discs with her celornathic mind and neural interface, she sliced three elsheem through the waist simultaneously. Since the soldiers kept themselves glued to the ship despite gravitics loss by the magnetic adhesion generated from their boots, the severed upper torsos of the cleaved soldiers drifted away from their legs. The Avenathi queen bisected three more elsheem as they panicked. A lone soldier opened fire on the discs as his brethren retreated into the ship. Remarkably, the soldier who stood his ground was able to destroy one of the discs before he was cleaved in the same way.

     Illeiri gasped when the disc darkened and its pieces flew off into the deep black. Her reaction was like the hunter who lost one of her prized hunting hounds to a wild beast. She quickly redirected the other two discs back to her.

     “Incredible,” Kyora told her. “I’m glad you’re on our side.”

     “I’m down to two discs,” Illeiri responded, upset.

     “Don’t worry. He got a lucky shot.” To the rest of her phantoms, Kyora said, “We’re advancing.” The Aurora leader lifted herself off the Voulgenathi’s warped surface and drifted down the hole. After placing her boots upon one of the deeper deck surfaces, she stood upright and kept watch while Illeiri and the phantoms made their decent. Of course, with gravitics, one can be normal to any surface with just a thought. The phantoms also used their gravitics to push away debris at close range without risking their limbs to do so. They stayed together, following one of the paths the elsheem took to escape Illeiri’s discs. As they glided through a corridor, the ship’s material appeared less warped and damaged, moving away from where the blast had occurred. Almost as soon as they reached untouched sections, the group encountered a sealed blast door that likely closed in response to the blast. Kyora approached the door’s console, activated it, and despite the Miri translation projected atop reality, she beckoned Illeiri to read the Avenathi readout as well.

     “It’s on backup power,” Illeiri explained. “We need authorization to open it.”

     “I’ll give us authorization, all right,” Kyora said as she knelt down and detached a wall panel below the console, letting it drift away in the weightlessness. She began working on the electronics, asking, “How many are behind this door?”

     “Our mass scanners are correct,” Illeiri assured her. “I can feel all thirty-seven.”

     “Good,” Kyora said, plugging a fabricated connector into a port that allowed her to directly interface with the door’s controls using her Accellus so long as she kept her hand on the connector. Seconds later, she overrode the door’s security. Still kneeling, she announced, “Get ready. This will attract their attention.” But before she opened the door, Virn spoke to her via their Q-comms link.

     “How long?”

     “Give us another sixty seconds,” Kyora told her.

     The shrouded Elestan opened the door, and as it slid away, an airscreen blocked the ship’s atmosphere from blowing out. The opening door alerted one of the nearby soldiers. He turned around to look through the open doorway—even stepped through right next to the kneeling Kyora—, but he could see none of the shrouded Federation Auroras. Kyora told her girls to back away. She detached the connector, recalled it, stood up slowly while fabricating a blade, and grabbed the soldier, stabbing the plasma-coated blade through his chest. She released his body into the void, floating past the waiting phantoms. Wasting no time, Kyora fabricated a concussion grenade and tossed it through the airscreen. The grenade’s blast briefly overpowered the airscreen, sending a stream of air from the ship through the corridor through which the phantoms could hear the faint sirens and shouting elsheem. Kyora and Illeiri entered first, followed by the phantoms. Inside, they moved from elsheem to elsheem, dispatching them with their pistols and blades.

     Once again standing amongst the carnage of combat’s aftermath, Kyora sent a Q-comms message to Virn saying, “You’re clear to proceed.”

     “We’re moving,” Virn responded. She, along with the other five-thousand able-bodied Auroras, rose and traversed the vacuum toward the Voulgenathi.

     The elsheems’ chain of command was broken. Despite the fact that most of the bridge officers were still alive, orders started coming from several lower ranking leaders—each with different objectives and motivations. Fearing a full-on mutiny, the bridge had actually closed itself off from the rest. The functional portions of the ship were slowly dying, and the dead portions were succumbing to the cold dark. Thirty-thousand elsheem faced a force six times smaller; however, these invading Federation Auroras surpassed them in technology, morale, and order. The Aurora force was cohesive; sticking together through the sporadic attacks from a shattering enemy. As pockets of elsheem surrendered, they were disarmed, forced to remove their armor, and corralled in one of the powered cargo bays that the Auroras had secured and emptied through the use of their Accellus’ gravitics. The highest value captives were loaded onto shuttles, ferried to the Kelsor, and placed into stasis. If not for the actions of Quietus of Hiracet, the Auroras would have faced much greater resistance. The Revenants held onto the emperor’s suite, turning it into an enclave of death that the elsheem could not regain. Using Illeiri’s bioomnimic senses, the phantom group moved quietly through the ship, swiftly dispatching any enemies in their path. Illeiri tracked the black omnium toward the stern, and when the group reached an unpowered hangar bay, Illeiri said “It’s here.”

     The dark hangar—filled with atmosphere but lacking gravitics—was occupied by over five-hundred soldiers who seemed to be standing guard. A few of the elsheem around the periphery thought they had detected the phantoms’ gravitics, but just as they went to investigate, the phantoms used their gravitics to float toward the ceiling, making them less visible to gravimetric sensors. Once gently gripping the ceiling, the phantoms lobbed grenades down (or up from the phantoms’ perspective in the null gravity environment) toward the elsheem soldiers, blasting them across the mostly-empty hangar. With the soldiers in disarray, the phantoms readjusted their gravitics to plant themselves firmly on the ceiling, raised their pistols, and fired upon the elsheem across from them. They stayed in perpetual motion so that the elsheem were unable to trace the phantoms’ shots back to their sources and strike them. Illeiri guided her two plasma-coated discs around the hangar, cautious not to let another be destroyed as she struck down vulnerable targets. Eventually, Kyora jumped from the ceiling, landed on the floor, and lashed out with her plasma blades. When there were about fifty elsheem remaining, they threw their weapons to the floor, dropped to their knees, and raised their hands to their heads. Without lowering their shrouding, the rest of the phantoms returned to the floor.

     “We have about fifty more captives for you at our position,” Kyora told Virn through Q-comms.

     “We’re cleaning up the ship now. We’re making our way to you.”

     From out of the corner of the room came loud shouting in Avenathi. Illeiri understood its meaning directly, but for everyone else, it was translated to Miri by their Accellus: “Disgrace! Progeny of slime! Die!” Plasma bolts originating from the source of the shouting lit the room, burning through the suits and flesh of the surrendered elsheem.

     As the phantoms dodged the plasma fire, Illeiri said “That’s where the black omnium is,” referring to the source of the shots. The remaining elsheem stood up and ran for an exit, but were gunned down before going far. The phantoms approached the source of the shots where they found an elsheem in black armor and a cloak with a raised plasma rifle standing outside a warp-capable shuttle. His hysterical laughter echoed through the dark bay.

     “Degenerates!” he shouted again in Avenathi. Illeiri could feel that the black omnium was within the shuttle. She also noticed that the shuttle was still locked into a set of docking clamps. The armored elshe—Illeiri identified him as Emperor Taretes—turned around and, keeping his weapon grasped in his right hand, climbed into the shuttle’s cockpit and unlocked the clamps using the shuttle’s power. Kyora crept in behind him, stole the rifle from his hand, and sliced his helmet’s communications system with her plasma blade. Startled and furious, Taretes barged out of the shuttle and onto the hangar deck.

     “Come out of the shadows, Federation!” Taretes yelled in Miri. Willing to comply, Illeiri stood before the elsheem emperor and removed her shrouding. Because of her white Federation Navy Accellus, she appeared to him as merely another Federation soldier. He lashed out at her; his fists flying, but the enshrouded phantoms standing around her held him back with their gravitics. Taretes growled with rage as Illeiri removed her helmet to reveal her elsheem facial anatomy. Taretes stopped, stared, and growled, “Syoness.”

     Smiling, she said, “That’s right” in Avenathi. “Your illegitimate reign is over.”

     “Sniveling princess,” Taretes barked back in Avenathi, “you should have joined your father long ago. This is a new age, House Syoness. The old nobility is dead.”

     “The old nobility,” Illeiri laughed. “Look at you, the self-proclaimed populist revolutionary! Tell me, what kind of populist lives a life of such luxury as you?” One of the phantoms summoned a lumigraph with a video feed from his suite courtesy of Jon’s camera drone. The video showed the naked elshi with the members of Quietus standing behind them with weapons ready. The lavish quarters formed their backdrop. “You are the new nobility; a usurper; a nobody from an insignificant family with no social standing who circumvents the Magisterial Assembly with violence to take the crown away from my father, the legitimate king of Avenath.”

     “You disrespectful child,” said Taretes. “You surely were raised by your bastard father.”

     “Pig,” Illeiri spat. “You’ll never be the man my father was.”

     “Your father was a bastard in every sense,” said Taretes. “It’s a wonder he was elected king in the first place.”

     “If you think yourself any better a man than he was,” Illeiri said, “you would honor yourself by accepting my challenge to duel in the magisterial tradition.”

     “I don’t have time for ceremonies.”

     “If you defy me, then you truly are a coward.”

     “Fine. I will play your game and prove to you that I am the true king of the elsheem.” Taretes removed his helmet, revealing his handsome, well-defined, hairless face and short blond hair.

     Illeiri’s naked discs dropped to the floor as the elshi reabsorbed her armor, bodysuit, and driver into her boots, leaving just a portion of the bodysuit over her breasts to function like a brassiere, and she fabricated a light jacket to conceal her arms and upper torso. She stepped out of her boots, leaving the rest of her skin bare. Her bracers were capable of giving her one-quarter-g of gravitational acceleration, allowing her to keep her feet on the cool floor.

     Taretes then detached his armor piece-by-piece until all that remained was his bodysuit and cloak—both insufficient to serve as armor unlike the more advanced Federation polyalloy bodysuit. He kept his boots on which only functioned as floor anchors. Illeiri stood two meters away from Taretes, facing him as she cleared her mind. The both of them raised their arms and lowered their centers of gravity in preparation for battle. Kyora noticed Illeiri’s red circle behind her neck glow brightly, almost burning white like a plasma engine.

     “Close?” Illeiri asked him to initiate combat. It was the closest word in Miri that the expression could be translated to.

     Taretes glared at her and said, “Close.” He dashed at her immediately, striking out with his left hand followed closely by his right. Illeiri deftly dodged both arms, moving her head between the flying fists. Subtle, glowing, red lines appeared across the elshi’s naked body as she dodged Taretes’ initial attack. She dropped her body beneath Taretes’ charge, careful to avoid his legs, and kicked out with her left knee aiming for his crotch. She missed; striking him in the abdomen instead. This knocked the wind out of the emperor, leaving him staggering for a moment. Illeiri readjusted her gravitics to carry her away from Taretes. As she floated above the floor, vibrant red lines grew from her bright avenovah and traveled down her right arm, causing her right palm to light up like a red warning signal. She generated a cocktail of combustibles from her palm, ignited the fuel-air mixture, and channeled the resulting blue flame toward Taretes using a kind of bioomnimically-generated lumionics. The flame turned yellow and orange as it approached him. Still gasping for air, he shielded his face with his arm.

     “Bitch!” he gasped through the fire. Illeiri placed her feet on the floor and stopped the flames. Taretes raised his head and balanced himself. Illeiri crouched, clasped both hands far in front of her body, closed her eyes, turned her face, and used her bioomnimics to generate a chemical reaction that triggered a blinding flash of light. This time, Taretes was shielding both eyes with both hands, and he was unable to stop Illeiri’s midair kick that knocked him on his back. Once on the ground, Illeiri positioned herself to sit atop his abdomen. She brought both hands up to his head, ignited both palms, and engulfed the elshe’s head in flames. Acting on instinct, he pushed her back, sending her flying a couple of meters where she landed on her back. With haste, Taretes got up, stood over her, and sent his left foot hurdling toward her abdomen. Before it landed, she rolled out of the way and shot more flames at him as she leapt to her feet.

     Taretes was now mad with fury. He charged Illeiri, tackling her and pinning her to the ground this time. Her naked torso was squeezed between his legs, and he threw three heavy punches at Illeiri’s face before she caught one of his fists and then the other. With his fists in her palms, she ignited her hands once more and burned the emperor’s fingers through his bodysuit and clothing. Howling in pain, Taretes loosened his hold on her, allowing her to slip her hips from beneath his body. Standing above him now, Illeiri released her grip and kicked him horizontally in the side of the head, causing him to fall prone. After slamming on his lumbar spine with her foot, she collapsed onto his back, grabbed his head in her hands and started incinerating his flesh. Kyora noticed Illeiri’s heightened breathing and the onset of an unnatural weariness, like a wave of lethargy. The red streaks across her body were less intense than they had been at the beginning of the battle. Taretes screeched as his hair was scorched and his skin melted, but judging by Illeiri’s body language, she, too, was in serious pain.

     “I surrender!” Taretes yelled in Avenathi. Illeiri could not understand him the first time through her own intense pain. “I surrender! I surrender! Mercy!” Illeiri finally registered his pleas and stopped desecrating his once perfect face. Still lying prone, Taretes covered the smoldering sides of his head with his burnt hands. Through sobs, Taretes said “Let me live and anything I have is yours!”

     “The black omnium?” Illeiri asked as she panted.

     “Yours!”

     “Avenath?”

     “Yours! Just spare me!”

     “I won’t kill you,” Illeiri reassured him as she tried to stand up, still panting. “To be honest, I’ve wanted to kill you for some time, but eventually I realized that you wouldn’t deserve the death I could give you. The way you behave now reinforces that realization. You’re a coward.” Taretes made no sound. Midway through her rise from Taretes’ back, Illeiri lost consciousness and collapsed atop his body. Kyora and the phantoms quickly placed them both in stasis and relocated them to the Kelsor.

38 – Phasics

At that same moment, Fiori contacted Kyora to tell the phantom that she could proceed with her part of the plan. Kyora forwarded the command to her subordinate phantoms. Having eventually found a way into the omnimology lab without alerting the elsheem, several phantoms in full shrouding stood motionless and silent. On their colonel’s order, they grabbed the hostage-takers from behind, lifted the SIRAC blades they all carried in their right hands, coated them in plasma, and shoved them into the hearts of the elsheem soldiers. The knives burned through lumionic shielding, armor, skin, muscle, bone, and right through myocardium, cauterizing all tissue and vaporizing blood. The scientists beneath them heard the pops and sizzles of plasma striking flesh, and the odor of incinerated meat filled their nostrils. As the soldiers went limp, the phantoms held their bodies tightly to prevent them from crushing the scientists. The phantoms rolled the corpses over and let each of them fall between the hostages and crumple upon the floor. Any other elsheem in the room were dispatched by a few other phantoms toting handguns.

     After this brief and deadly strike, the phantoms disengaged their shrouding and revealed themselves to the scientists, most of whom shook from the adrenaline coursing through them. Namara latched onto Souq and wouldn’t let go. He felt the irregular rise and fall of her chest from her crying. The phantoms lifted the scientists to their feet and escorted them out of the lab by the way the phantoms had infiltrated.

     The torpedo left its launch tube and accelerated toward the Voulgenathi. Midway through its journey, the weapon activated a very experimental system known as phasics by MARAD engineers. It is widely understood that fundamental interactions are confined to distinct “phases” (not to be confused with those of thermodynamics) within physical reality. Modern physicists estimate that there are between five and seven phases in total—possibly more—depending on the measure of the universe’s total mass and distribution of said mass that is considered.

     The onboard phasics pushed the torpedo toward the high-energy, up-phase transitional boundary until the weapon began to fade from existence; however, it never quite disappeared. The torpedo slipped right through the Voulgenathi’s point-defense fire and its lumionic barrier, through its outer hull, and through the bulkheads until it was deep within the battleship. The moment the phasic system disengaged, the torpedo was instantly thrust back into the local phase. A mere moment later, the weapon detonated at the core of the Voulgenathi’s vast engineering section. Immediately unseen by those aboard the Kelsor, the ferocious blast caused a structural failure of the Voulgenathi’s primary ODEC that kept the battleship’s monstrous, un-mediated dual hyperwarp cores fed. The spontaneous loss of containment of the ODEC’s internal reaction chamber led to the rapid, uncontrollable release of plasma and traces of antimatter that flooded the department. This deluge—occurring within the span of a single second, triggered a secondary explosion, magnitudes greater than the first, that resulted in the hull failure of the majority of the battleship’s aft sections. Such a direct hit with a single torpedo against a ship with sufficient lumionic field potential and intact armor was unprecedented.

     The elsheem soldiers struggling to escape the Kelsor’s bridge looked out through the forward OPEL panels and watched with horror as a significant portion of their ship’s latter half blew itself apart. Just seconds before, these soldiers had felt that the battle was theirs. Now, as they failed to secure the Kelsor’s commanders and watched their mothership be violently incapacitated, their hearts were filled with a hopelessness beyond anything they had ever experienced.

     Then, a sequence of thunderous booms had the elsheem soldiers scattering—ducking for their lives. Appearing on the bridge were the Revenants of Quietus; all eight of them in their heavy, black Type-M armor. This psychological onslaught drove the elsheem commander over the edge. His eyes fixated on the Revenants as they caught their bearings after their disorienting blink. The commander could not move nor speak nor think. The Revenants raised their weapons toward the elsheem, except for Svalti who turned around to face the bridge OPEL panels.

     “Wow,” Svalti commented, “looks like your ship got fucked.” Turning back toward the elsheem, he said, “I’ll give you to the count of ten before we start shooting.” Raising his weapon like the rest, he began counting. “One… two… three….”

     The elsheem soldiers placed their weapons on the ground and lifted their arms. Their commander, still in shock, stood motionless like an animal caught in a pair of headlamps. His subordinates lifted his arms for him in surrender.

     “Now,” Svalti continued, “back away from the door. Walk to the center of the room.” The Revenant beckoned them forth by waving his gun as he ordered them around. As they gathered in the center of the bridge, the Quietus members forced them down and made them sit. Once they had formed a tight cluster of armored bodies, Svalti messaged Atara.

     “Captain, the bridge is secure.”

     A minute later, the captain, her bridge officers, and the Aurora guards filed back onto the bridge. Atara, who was first to enter, was presented with a pile of sitting elsheem soldiers towered over by Republic Revenants with an orange, lumigraphic Fiori presiding over them all against a backdrop of Voulgenathi debris radiating out from its primary ODEC’s destruction ten kilometers away. Despite these circumstances, the bridge officers nonchalantly returned to their posts. Only four of the Kelsor officers displayed any reaction at all to the present situation. Atara and Sesh approached the Revenants to thank them for their assistance. Naret sat in her chair and stared at Ethis as the latter approached Quietus. Ethis moved between Atara and Sesh, brushing shoulders with them, and stood before Svalti’s Type-M—his name was marked on the suit’s right breast. Her heart raced, for during their evacuation from the bridge, the anticipation of meeting Venosk 509 again surged within her. The communications officer opened her mouth to speak, but her tongue could produce no words.

     “Ethis?” Svalti asked before the mute Elestan. He took a moment to look her over, ensuring she was indeed who he thought she was. “Ethis!” The Revenant leader slid his assault driver onto his back, and with both hands, detached and removed his helmet to reveal his gray face and short, black hair. Jade, standing next to him, saw a smile she hadn’t seen in years—perhaps not since they became Revenants. Ethis wrapped her arms around his thick armor and gave him a hug that he reciprocated with his heavy arms. “What happened to you? Where did you go?”

     “Survivor’s guilt,” Ethis told him softly. They let go of each other. “I watched all of you die that day.” Somberly, she added, “There is no place for a survivor in a squad of Revenants.”

     Before Svalti could rebut her statement, a lumigraph appeared before Atara loud enough for all to hear. “This is Captain Raena of the Fencer,” said the woman on the other end. “We just suffered a sensors and comms blackout. What the hell happened to the Voulgenathi?” Atara didn’t have an immediate answer for her. She looked toward Fiori who was still within the room, and the orange feminine figure shook her head once.

     Taking the hint, Atara responded, “We… witnessed a power spike. I think they may have tried to overload their primary ODEC.”

     “For what purpose?”

     “I don’t know. Good news is that the Voulgenathi is functioning on limited power now.”

     “We’re seeing that, too.”

     “Do you know what caused your blackout?”

     “Unknown, but we’ll get back with you. Out.” Of course, Fiori would never admit to telling Rellia to blind and deafen the Fencer for the purpose of obscuring the deployment of experimental Federation weaponry.

     “Okay then,” Atara said as she fabricated a handgun. Holding it to her side, she asked, “Which one of you is the leader?” The elsheem soldiers kept their heads down and remained silent. The fiery captain asked them again. “Which one is your leader?” Still nothing. She lifted the small driver, pointed it at their heads and said, “Do not make me ask you again. There has been enough bloodshed on my ship.”

     “I am,” said the elsheem leader, finally breaking out of his stupor.

     Atara pointed her gun at him and demanded, “Order your men to surrender.” The elshe leader put his head down. “Comply, and they will be spared.”

     The elshe uttered something in Avenathi. There was a pause, and elshe’s voice grew louder and faster, like he was having an argument with his subordinates. “It is done,” he told everyone around him without looking up at Atara.

     Atara beckoned to the Auroras on the bridge, and when they approached, she said, “Get these elsheem off my bridge. Your colonel will give you further orders.” An Aurora sergeant ordered the elsheem to their feet and her troops escorted the enemy boarders off the bridge floor.

     “Captain,” Kyora said in a fresh lumigraph, “the elsheem are backing down. It looks like they are giving themselves up for surrender. What are your orders?”

     “Round them up,” Atara told the Elestan phantom, “every last one of them. Keep them in the main hangar under heavy guard. Keep the high-value ones separated and in stasis. We’ll be keeping them in custody.”

     “Understood,” Kyora responded before the lumigraph disappeared.

     Svalti turned to one Revenant in particular, passed him his helmet, and then asked him, “Jon? You ready?”

     “Yeah, let’s do it,” Jon responded.

     Atara asked, “Do what?” as Jon, with his free hand, reached for a tiny, spherical drone on his side and tossed it into the air.

     “Picture time,” Jon told her.

     “Picture time?” Sesh asked.

     “Sebastian Rikard is our political officer,” Svalti explained. “We just call him Jon. I know things work differently in the Federation, but in the Republic, public perception is taken very seriously.”

     “Okay,” Sesh said. “Picture time.”

     “Picture time,” Jon repeated, sounding eager. “Captain, if you would shake Svalti’s hand.” The Terran captain stuck out her dark gray, bodysuited hand, and Svalti grabbed it with his. Atara’s smile was reflected in Svalti’s Elestan face as the two shook hands. The tiny drone recorded the event as it floated nearby.

     When they released hands, Atara said, “Any port in a storm, but I am curious. What brings the Republic all the way out here?”

     “A friend in need is a friend indeed, right?” Svalti stated. “They also trafficked stolen Federation property through a Republic protectorate and killed several of our servicepeople in the process.” The drone continued snapping pictures as Atara and Svalti conversed. “Not to mention all the heartache they caused you in Tribesson.”

     “Stand down intruder alert.”

     “Krystal.”

     “Captain? What is it?”

     “Emergency meeting in the briefing room in fifteen minutes. Can you be there?”

     “What about the cadets?”

     “Can you escort them to their quarters on the way there?”

     “I can do that.”

     “Good. See you then.”

     The lumigraph faded. The armored cadets looked toward Illeiri expectantly, but were immediately distracted by a group of marching elsheem soldiers just beyond the room’s walls. With hands on their heads, the soldiers in black armor were herded down the corridor under the escort of Auroras. Illeiri waited for the group to pass before speaking to the cadets.

     “As you can see,” Illeiri explained, “the elsheem boarders have surrendered.”

     “So, we’re going back to our quarters?” Lieren asked.

     “Yes.”

     Illeiri led the cadets through the ship. Evidence of the battles were still fresh, but most of the bodies had already been removed. The small custodial drones were actively cleaning away the aftermath: blood, scorch, debris. The Kelsor’s network of autorepair REMASS fixed any and all structural damage, no matter how small, that the drones aided it in detecting.

     After bringing the cadets safely to their quarters, Illeiri traveled the rest of the way alone. When she arrived, she was still foregoing her camouflage, so when she entered the briefing room, she received a fair number of stares. Kyora still had trouble looking at her. The table in the middle had been recalled, and all those present stood. The members of Quietus had their helmets removed and were holding them against their hips.

     “Thank you for caring for the cadets, Krystal,” Atara told her.

     “It was an honor,” Illeiri responded. “And you can call me Illeiri.”

     “Thank you, Illeiri,” Atara repeated. The captain turned to the rest of the group of seventeen and said “Twenty-five minutes ago, the Voulgenathi was hit by one of our experimental weapons and sustained critical damage. According to our sensors analysis, its drive systems are completely gone as are most of its main power systems. The battleship is functioning on auxiliaries to maintain gravity, lighting, and life support across the ship, but coverage is spotty.”

     Jade asked, “What kind of a weapon did you employ to inflict such damage?” At this question, both of the twin archons, Fiori and Rellia, appeared in the room.

     “Among those aboard the Kelsor,” Fiori said, “only I know the details of the device used against the Voulgenathi. The weapon was a standard-yield torpedo utilizing an experimental phasic translocation system allowing it to circumvent shields, point-defenses, and armor.”

     Rellia added, “I have ensured that the Fencer obtained no usable record of the device that was employed.”

     “Thank you, archons,” Atara told the orange and blue figures. “We have halted our bombardment of the Voulgenathi and are preparing assault teams to invade their ship. Colonel Teseri and Lieutenant Colonel Lorralis,” she said, pointing at the two, “will lead our Aurora complement. Lorralis will lead the main assault group while Teseri will lead a small team of phantoms tasked with recovering the ecksivar sample. Because the Voulgenathi is effectively disabled, we will position the Kelsor such that our assault teams can leap across from our hangar bay into theirs.” The lumigraphic model of the Voulgenathi appeared floating within the room and showed the ship in its current state: battle damaged within a debris cloud. Those clipping through the model stepped out of the way and moved towards the room’s periphery.

     Sesh walked over to where the giant hole in the Voulgenathi’s port-side was shown and stated, “We could also leap to these damaged areas.” Kyora and Virn moved to Sesh’s side of the room to investigate the destroyed sections.

     “It’s not unreasonable,” Kyora said. “We may face less resistance if we enter through there, but it may be more dangerous for us because of the damage. Either way, it won’t be easy, but if I were to choose, I would prefer this entry point.”

     Svalti said, “Quietus could blink deep within their ship as a distraction, giving your people even less resistance when they cross over.”

     “Once you’re over there,” Xannissa said, “you need to hunt for the ecksivar. If it’s not being hit by a keywave, it won’t produce a signature. Doctor Souq, do you know a way we could detect it?”

     “I’m really the wrong person to ask,” he told her. “I’m just an omnimologist, not a technician.” Xannissa directed her gaze toward Doctor Namara who shook her head.

     “I can find it for you,” Illeiri said. Everyone within the room stopped and looked at the elshi with vibrant red hair. Her naked discs floated in a rotating triangle formation behind her back.

     “Explain,” Atara said.

     “To those who don’t already know,” Illeiri started, “my human alias was Krystal Zara. In actuality, I am Illeiri Syoness, Queen of Avenath. I wholeheartedly apologize for my deception, but I hope you all understand why it was necessary.

     “All elsheem possess bioomnimic potential. This comes from our inherent bioomnimic systems that run parallel to our nervous systems. That’s why we have the avenovah, or neck circles, which form the interface between our nervous system and bioomnimic system. Of course, in order for an elsheem to be fully in-tune with their bioomnimics, they require lots of practice and training. The most gifted among us, myself included, are known as the Celornathi, or ‘Children of Power,’ and our bioomnimic potential far exceeds the norm. One of the bioomnimic system’s uses is that it allows us to perceive omnium. As a Celornath, I can feel every piece of omnium up to five kilometers away. Within two kilometers I can resolve the synthevar, such as the Federation, Republic, and Alliance aboard this ship as well as the dekacelorn—lifeblood—variety of the elsheem. For years, I was close enough to the black omnium to know what it feels like, and I can help you find it aboard their ship.”

     “I never thought I’d say this,” Kyora said. “I never, ever thought I’d trust an elsheem… but I need your help.” She paused, and then continued, “You’ll need to change your combat class to phantom so you can slip in with my group.”

     “Can I keep my discs?”

     “Absolutely.”

     Upon changing her combat class to phantom, most of Illeiri’s SIRAC armor was recalled. With most of her body now covered by featureless, dark gray bodysuit, she looked very similar to Kyora.

     “If you keep your discs close to your body,” Kyora explained, “your shrouding may be able to cover them.”

     “If Quietus were to blink over,” Atara asked the Revenants, “where would be the best place?”

     “It probably would have been the bridge,” Svalti told her, “but because its so compact, it makes it a bad jump.”

     “We’re liable to end up in a wall or inside other people,” Jade clarified, “or even outside the ship.”

     “Too wide is also a no-go,” Svalti said. “There is, though, a place in between.” Using a lumionic interface, Svalti caused the image of the Voulgenathi to turn transparent and zoom to a suite in the middle. “Look here,” said the Revenant as he pointed toward it. “This is the suite inhabited by the elsheem emperor and his harem of concubines. This is also where the ecksivar was found by the investigation team when our inspectors stopped them in Onen. There is no guarantee either of them will be there when we blink over, but at least going there will place us far enough away from your invasion team to serve as a decent distraction.”

     “We’ll make plenty of noise for you,” Dreth said, his face grinning atop his giant frame.

     “Just,” Doctor Souq started, “just don’t forget that jump drone.”

     “The Voulgenathi isn’t going anywhere now,” Kyora stated. “We shouldn’t need it.”

     “Personally,” Atara spoke, “I’m not willing to make that bet. You need to bring it over.”

     “I’ll take responsibility for it,” Illeiri told them.

     “No,” Kyora said. “You have your discs. The jump drone is my responsibility.”

     “What are you all talking about?” asked Aran Eda of Quietus.

     Xannissa told them, “We designed and built a miniature jump drone. It’s supposed to be our backup plan if we reach the ecksivar sample but can’t bring it back.”

     “Is it a VARICOR system?” asked Tykon, Quietus’ advanced propulsion expert.

     “The Federation wouldn’t go so far to rip off technology from Spatial Dynamics for this backup plan,” Jon questioned, “would they?”

     “Absolutely not!” Xannissa said, raising her voice. “I designed the VARICOR system myself based on the basic principles I already know.”

     Svalti smiled and asked, “Well? Does it work?”

     “In simulation,” Xannissa stated with more sobriety, wishing she could have given a more definitive answer.

     “Okay, you all,” Atara said, “I will direct Naret to position the starboard hangar door over the destroyed section of the Voulgenathi’s hull. Kyora, Virn, and Svalti, assemble your boarding parties in the hangar and await further instructions.” The three she mentioned gave their verbal acknowledgements, and then the captain dismissed them all.

     Rather than returning to the bridge, Ethis followed the helmeted Quietus out of the briefing room. The communications officer caught up to Svalti, and when the Revenant leader noticed her walking with him, he smiled and spoke to her.

     “Ethis, of all the Federation ships you could have been stationed on.”

     “I know,” Ethis told him. “Now that I see you all again, I….”

     “We’ve all missed you since that day,” Jade said.

     “I should have died with you,” Ethis admitted. Most of the Revenants shook their heads. A few even vocalized their disagreement.

     “We aren’t any better for being Revenants,” Itagoreth stated. “It just means we have a second life to give in the service of the Republic. It’s not your fault you didn’t die that day. That was fate.”

     “Don’t think I didn’t see you fight,” Dreth said. “You fought just as hard, if not harder than the rest of us. Maybe that’s why you lived. You battled against death itself and won.”

     “I just regret that I separated myself from you all after Kayutt,” Ethis told them. “Stupid pride. If I had the courage to overcome the emotions I felt after losing you all, I would have never left.”

     “Let the past be past,” Svalti said. “Right now, we are all here, reunited for this brief moment on this Federation vessel. Even if it is for just a moment, Venosk Five-Oh-Nine is whole again.”

     “Don’t die on me again.”

     “The dead don’t die.”

37 – Hostages

“Captain, we’re detecting a Republic jump signature two kilometers off the starboard stern. It will emerge in three minutes.”

     Atara and Sesh exchanged glances.

     Atara asked, “Is it too early to make contact?”

     “Aye, captain,” Ethis responded. “Wait until the wormhole forms.”

     At the same time, the Kelsor’s adjunct announced, “Intruder alert. Level four security breach.”

     “That’s us, Atara,” Xannissa explained through her Q-comms link. “There are a few hostiles bearing down on us, but we have more than enough firepower to hold them off.”

     “Hang in there, Xann,” Atara thought, clenching her fists.

     “You kidding? So long as they can’t blink into the middle of engineering, this is easy.”

     Xannissa, along with the other engineers and technicians, stood at their posts overseeing the ship’s vital systems. Just beyond the blast doors sealing off main engineering, several Auroras and crewmen were crouched behind freshly fabricated barricades. They lifted themselves, brought their guns over the solid duralithic blocks, and sprayed the entrances to the engineering department with plasma bolts, forcing the attackers back down the corridors.

     Minutes later, a bridge officer reported, “Republic vessel is emerging,”

    “Hail them,” Atara said. “Republic vessel, this is the Federation battlecruiser GFN Kelsor. You have entered an active combat zone. We are currently engaging….”

     Before she could finish her hail, a male voice in a Republic accent said “Damn right, we have.” Ethis identified it immediately.

     Atara asked, “Who is this?”

     “We’re Republic Revenant special unit Quietus of Hiracet aboard the Republic Navy ship Fencer,” the voice said.

     “That’s Rikter Svalti,” said Ethis. She couldn’t believe her ears. Naret shot a quick glance back toward Ethis and smiled.

     “Can we lend you our assistance?” Svalti asked.

     “If you’re willing to hunt elsheem,” Atara told him, “I can’t really refuse.”

     “We’ll be blinking aboard,” said Aran Eda of Quietus. “Just give us a safe place to jump.”

     “Fiori,” Atara said, “I leave that to you.”

     “Affirmative, Atara,” Fiori responded.

     Cylenna sat on a container near the edge of the hangar bay. She had escaped; survived her brush with death yet again, but she was neither thrilled nor ecstatic. The Elestan pilot was hunched over, supporting herself with her arms atop her thighs. Her helmet concealed her sorrow to a degree. Never in her life had she experienced such loss before, amplified by the effects of the chronol. Oh, if only she could find some modicum of pleasure right this moment. But she had enough life experience to know that would only deepen her despair. Her Goshawk had been destroyed. Ice was dead. A few other pilots had lost their lives, and the ship was currently being invaded. If she hadn’t had been so selfish. If she had taken the battle more seriously instead of as a thrill. If she had allowed Atara to confiscate all of her chronol.

     There was an explosion on the far side of the hangar. Cylenna looked beneath the nose of the Goshawk behind her and witnessed the fireball and the destruction of the blast door that had kept one of the larger thoroughfares sealed. Is this how it all ends?

     A contingent of Auroras were prepositioned to meet the elsheem attackers as they tried to assault the hangar. Cylenna heard the faint whiz of bullets brushing past her helmet.

     “Motherfuckers,” Cylenna whispered. She said it again, this time shouting, “Motherfuckers!” The Elestan jumped up from the crate and floated up to the Goshawk’s cockpit. Once sealed within, she activated the craft’s ODEC and lifted the craft up, propelling it with gravitics only. Cylenna yawed the craft starboard and pitched down slightly until the blasted door was within her line of fire. Upon direct mental control, the revolvers within the Goshawk’s twin autocannons began rotating up to their maximum revolutions per minute. Each cylinder contained within the revolvers engorged itself with white hot plasma. Three seconds later, the cylinders, fully charged, released their contents into the accelerators of the gravitational mass drivers—essentially the barrels—and within the blink of an eye, the wide corridor from which the elsheem poured was back-flooded with white plasma. Before the elsheem knew it, their compatriots were incinerated before their eyes. During their struggle to comprehend what was happening, they, too, were blasted by the large-caliber rounds from the Goshawk Cylenna piloted. The Auroras defending the door cheered for her and withdrew as the bolts from the fighter’s autocannons reduced the attacking elsheem to ash, then dissipated like perpetual rolling thunder.

     Fiori initiated a broadcast to all hangar personnel and said, “Attention. A Republic assault squad will be initiating a jump into the central hangar bay within two minutes.” Cylenna powered down the twin autocannons. The woman’s breaths were heavy, and her heart raced. Until now, she had never found so much pleasure in killing. She had only ever pursued it the one place she knew she could and the one place she knew was somewhat legal: her own brink of death. This brief event, if not only to grant her some kind of vengeance, placed a subconscious seed within her psyche that pleasure—an almost sexual pleasure—could be derived from pushing others over their own mortal cliffs and into the dark abyss.

     Oblivious to the mental damage she was always inflicting upon herself—today more than ever—she set the craft back down, put the ODEC back into standby, and jumped out of the cockpit, meeting a group of Auroras who praised her initiative and potentially saved their lives.

     There was nothing subtle about the Republic’s blink technology. Mirroring the Republic Military’s prevailing doctrines on brute force and frontal assault, the members of Quietus, housed within their modified Novekk Type-M, exploded into the hangar’s atmosphere. Pulled down by the Kelsor’s gravitics, their power armors—about a half metric ton each—crashed into the hangar’s floor.

     “Kelsor, we are aboard,” Svalti announced as Quietus drew their weapons.

     “The fighting is starting to die down,” Atara told them, “but we’re watching a situation begin to unfold around the omnimology lab. Meet up with our forces there.”

     “Understood,” Svalti responded. “Just point us in the right direction.”

     “Fiori,” Atara asked, “can you have your counterpart lead them?”

     “Already done, captain,” Fiori assured her. Rellia, Fiori’s Republic twin, had received the layout of the entire Federation battlecruiser and guided Quietus in the same manner Fiori would have. The Republic Revenants made for the aft door that the elsheem had broken through and departed from the hangar.

     Doctor Souq followed lit corridors until he was at the intersection of one of the large thoroughfares. The whole situation gave him flashbacks of the day the elsheem boarded his science station in Tribesson. The fear of letting Naret succumb to the same fate as his lab gripped him as he stared out into the darkness and heard the thunderous sound of expanding plasma echo through it. Suddenly, he felt a tapping against his helmet. Terror shot through his system.

     No doubt that tapping was a gun. Doctor Souq dropped the handgun he held and put his hands in the air. He then felt something plant itself into the armor on his back and one of his arms was grabbed. Whoever it was behind him forced him onward into the darkness in the same direction he had been planning to go. He could hear multiple sets of footsteps behind him. Maybe the elsheem would finish what they started—dispose of the last of his lab by executing him. So long as his daughter escaped with her life, his own life didn’t matter much to him anymore. But he would have liked to have seen his daughter smile one more time. If he was going to die anyway, why not take the chance and fight back?

     Souq turned around and tried to wrest the gun away from the black-clad elsheem, but he had never been trained in any sort of close quarters combat. The elsheem soldier easily overpowered him and kicked the scientist to the ground. Souq writhed about as two more soldiers dragged him to his feet. Each of them restrained one of his arms as they carried him off.

     The thunder grew louder, and the separate bursts of dissipated plasma grew increasingly resolved. Souq could now hear the swooshing of bullets being fired from elsheem mag drivers. The corridors were still dark, perhaps darker. Lights from the elsheems’ suits illuminated their path and revealed the armored bodies of deceased fighters littering the corridor. Souq noted that the amount of black armor far exceeded the white, but there were still dead Accellus users. When they reached the end of the corridor, an elsheem beckoned them and shouted, probably to hurry as there was a lull in the firefight judging by the reduction in noise.

     One of the elsheem restraining them ducked Souq’s head as they moved behind barricades and obstacles and around fellow elsheem fighters. Red flashes from the Kelsor’s emergency system pulsed periodically above the desperate elsheem who had no way to escape their impending annihilation at the hands of the Kelsor’s Auroras. Their lucky encounter with Souq was the only chance they had, short of surrender, of escaping with their lives.

     The elsheem shoved Souq against a closed door. His left arm was held out to the frame, feeling for that sweet spot where the door would register his Accellus and allow them access. White plasma bolts struck nearby like lightning. The elsheem manipulating his arm became more frantic as the firefight started to re-intensify. Bullets and plasma flew through the corridors as shouting could be heard from both sides. An explosion went off from a hand grenade. Finally, the door registered his Accellus and opened up. The elsheem shoved Souq inside as they flooded in to clear it.

     He hadn’t recognized the outside, but this was the omnimology laboratory. The elsheem barked from different corners of the lab as they rounded up women clad in Accellus armor. An elsheem soldier dragged them into the lineup they formed, and forced him and the women to collapse to their knees, recall their helmets, and place their hands on their heads. Another woman was forced down on his left, and despite the dim light, he could see that she was Namara. She looked down at the floor in sorrow as the elsheem soldiers started pacing behind the lab benches. Souq looked toward where the jump drone had been but saw that the space was empty.

     “Namara,” Souq whispered. Namara’s head shot in his direction. Her eyes were wide and her expression grave. “Jump drone?”

     “Hid it,” she mouthed.

     “What?” Souq whispered again.

     “I hid it,” Namara barely vocalized. An elsheem behind them struck Namara in the back of head with the butt of his gun. Souq growled, tried to shuffle to his feet, but was given the same treatment, feeling the sharp pain of being beaten in the back of the skull.

     “Captain,” said one of the elsheem commanders. His Miri was the best among his troops. “We have your valuable omnimologists in our possession.” The soldier stepped out of the lumigraph’s field of view to show the kneeling scientists illuminated by a spotlight. “Call off your guards and surrender to the Voulgenathi. If you do not, we will execute one of them every ten minutes. If you value their minds as much as your Federation does, you will comply.”

     After the transmission was terminated, Atara stood there for a moment, perplexed. Never did she consider that the elsheem intrusion would turn into a hostage situation.

     “What are we going to do, Atara?” Sesh asked her. Atara stood there for another moment more.

     “We had eight scientists down there, plus Souq, so nine, correct?”

     “We have nine minutes until they kill one of them,” Sesh said, sounding urgent.

     “Atara,” Fiori said to the captain as she once again appeared on the bridge, “trust me.”

     “I need everyone we have to go over there and wipe them out,” Atara commanded. “Is Quietus there yet? Where are Kyora and her phantoms?”

     “These fuckers really dug in!” Itagoreth shouted.

     “Quit bitching,” Jade shouted back. “They have hostages now. We need to clear a path.”

     “Dreth!” Svalti yelled.

     “Sir!”

     “Show them what divine ovation sounds like!”

     “Yessir!” Dreth complied. He maneuvered to aim his shoulder launcher down the corridor. Careful to reveal only the missile tube jutting from his armor, Dreth fired seven rockets from the tube into the pocket of entrenched elsheem combatants. The concussive ordnance detonated with the sound of successive thunderclaps as if from God’s own applause. When Jade peered around the corner, elsheem body parts were strewn about the floor, blood and scorch marked the walls, and the barricades protecting the elsheem had been shattered.

     “How many more you got?” Svalti asked.

     “Twenty-three.”

     “We might need a few more of those. Jade?”

     “Moving,” Jade responded.

     After a bit more bloodshed, Quietus took positions near the mass of elsheem protecting the omnimology lab. There were only seconds between them securing a forward position and Kyora’s elite teams meeting them.

     “We need to be careful,” Kyora told them through the sound of weapons exchanges. “If we look like we’re advancing, they might decide to start killing hostages.”

     “I’m afraid of that,” Svalti told her, “but that places us at a severe impasse.”

     “I know,” Kyora admitted. “I have some of my phantoms trying to assess the possibility of a sneak attack.”

     “Time remaining?”

     “Two minutes.”

     The seconds marched on unimpeded while Quietus and the Auroras were left unable to act for fear of harm coming to the scientists. Atara and Sesh hung their heads while they awaited the transmission from the elsheem commander.

     “Perhaps you didn’t take me seriously,” were the armored elsheem soldier’s first words when a new lumigraph appeared on the bridge. The camera panned as the soldier walked around the first scientist, a junior researcher, and kicked her in the back, knocking her face into the hard floor and causing her to scream. It was difficult to see from a distance, but the woman was sobbing. The other hostages shuddered. The soldier pointed his gun straight at the scientist’s head and said, “Five seconds, captain.”

     “Oh God! Please! No!”

     “One… two… three…”

     “Sesh,” Atara spoke somber, “power down our weapons. Alert the Voulgenathi of our surrender.”

     The soldier stopped counting as Ethis hailed the enemy ship with news of the Kelsor’s immediate and unconditional surrender. The bridge of the Voulgenathi didn’t know what to think at first, but as they witnessed power being diverted away from the Kelsor’s weapons systems, they held their fire while keeping their guns trained squarely on the Federation battlecruiser.

     “Your brinkmanship almost got this young woman killed,” the elshe sneered. “I’m bringing a squad of my men to your bridge to commandeer your vessel. If I die, they die.” The soldier tilted his head toward the scientists as he said this, and then the transmission ended.

     The elsheem soldier’s Alliance boots clacked as they marched down the corridors to a set of lifts that would take them up to the bridge. Along their path they passed the bodies of their own deceased as well as those of the Kelsor’s Auroras and crew, but the elsheem elites were totally unfazed. They stepped over the corpses—or on them in some cases—and entered the lift which took them to the highest deck on the ship. After exiting just forward of the briefing room, the soldiers—weapons drawn—gathered outside both doors to the bridge.

     The unprotected doors slid right open and the elsheem poured into the bridge, only to find it completely empty. The leader shouted to his men to fan out. The terminals and consoles continued to read out and beep and ping. He sent men down the forward stairs that ran down either side of Naret’s conning station in order to secure ops which, as he expected, was also vacated.

     He ordered his men to fan out across the deck and find those officers, but when his men tried to leave the bridge, or out through ops, all doors had been sealed with blast protection. Fiori appeared behind them in the middle of the bridge.

     “Emergency experimental weapon deployment protocol engaged,” Fiori announced to the elsheem. Some of the men reflexively fired at the lumigraphic figure, only to have their bullets fly right through her hitting nothing but air and the SIRAC and OPEL panels further beyond. “MARAD lockout override authorization: Fiori root. Decrypting design, please stand by. Decryption complete. Mark One phasic torpedoes are now available.” Fiori knew exactly who she was speaking to, and she knew the officers that would have appreciated these announcements were not present. This excited her as much as it would a human in her position, and she had hoped it would play into the psychological component of the battle. “Hostile target confirmed. Firing solution complete. Prepping phasic torpedo. Torpedo away.”

36 – Intrusion

“The Kelsor is engaging its fusion drives, captain,” a Voulgenathi bridge officer announced. “It’s closing in fast.”

     “Are the frigates ready for launch?” asked the captain. Taretes stood just behind him with a pleased facade. His elshi concubines were no real comfort to him now. His thoughts centered around the sample of black omnium. Thrassus had mentioned just hours before that the black omnium was the key to victory over the Federation. As long as Taretes believed in the destructive power the black omnium possessed, the outcome of the battle did not matter. The elsheem emperor would escape with his life so long as he clung to his ambition.

     “Frigates are fully-crewed and standing by.”

     “Are the breachers on standby as well?”

     “Aye, captain.”

     “Launch the frigates and prepare for close combat.”

     “Two smaller vessels are detaching from the Voulgenathi,” Cylenna said. “Kelsor, are you seeing this?”

     Affirmative, Spectre,” Kodi said from strike ops.

     The two frigates were black like their parent Voulgenathi. One emerged from the dorsal stern and the other from the ventral. The two of them had stacked above and below the battleship’s main engineering section, made possible by their relative flatness. As the two ships had formed part of the Voulgenathi’s hull, it quickly became apparent that four of the Voulgenathi’s fusion engines had belonged to the battleship itself and the other six were divided between the two child frigates. As the distance between the battleship and frigates grew, the ventral frigate performed a roll to align itself along its mothership’s orientation.

     “They look like the two ships that attacked the Akkain station,” Sesh noted.

     “I say we focus our fire on one frigate at a time,” Atara said.

     “Flights,” Kodi instructed, “focus down those frigates.”

     “Wilco,” Cylenna responded. “Engaging frigates.” The bombers which had lined up for another run against the invulnerable Voulgenathi shifted their trajectory toward the dorsal frigate per Cylenna’s orders. Unfortunately for the frigates, they lost the hardened lumionic protection of their host mothership the moment they detached. The Virgas’ bombs exploded against the frigate’s shielding, prompting the hardening of its own lumionics. In response, the strikecraft engaged the other frigate until it, too, was made invulnerable. With all three large ships now actively hardening their lumionics, they were all unable to fire projectiles for the duration of their invulnerability.

     “Sir!” a Voulgenathi officer shouted. “Our pilots are no match for the Federation strikecraft. We’ve already lost half of our deployed complement and have had to deploy hardened lumionics on all three of our ships. They are tearing us apart!”

     “Steel yourself,” the captain said. “You are in the presence of your emperor.” The captain turned toward Taretes for a moment—as if respectfully or fearfully acknowledging his authority—and then rotated back toward the bridge windows. “Launch our squadron of heavy fighters.”

     Ten heavy fighters emerged from the Voulgenathi’s hangar bay which took fire from zealous Federation pilots the instant they slowly emerged from the hardened lumionics protecting their mothership. The stoic heavy strikecraft ignored the assault as they made their menacing entrance onto the battlefield. The Kelsor, still just over two minutes away, was rotating itself in order to thrust its fusion engines retrograde.

     “New contacts emerging from the Voulgenathi,” said a bridge officer. “Ten heavy fighters.”

     “No doubt launched to deal with our strikecraft,” Sesh stated.

     “Tell Spectre to hang in there,” Atara said.

     “Attention flight,” Cylenna said, “heavy strikecraft represent a critical threat. Fly defensively and avoid their fire.”

     As the heavy fighters started choosing targets, one pursued Cylenna’s Goshawk. From a stream of plasma bolts, three struck her fighter’s shields. Each shot contributed to the ignition of her adrenaline surge, and her serious expression turned into a grin that displayed her first moments of euphoric, almost orgasmic pleasure. Acting on instinct, the Elestan took a capsule from a compartment in the cockpit, placed it on her bodysuited arm, and injected some of the remaining chronol she smuggled aboard after most of her stash had been confiscated by Atara. As soon as the drug began to circulate, her perception of time increased by an order of magnitude, prolonging her pleasure and decreasing her reaction time. The Elestan readjusted her heading as quickly as her mind and body would allow her—under the drug’s influence—in order to evade the enemy’s fire. While her craft was at warp, she performed a one-hundred-eighty-degree yaw pivot. Once the enemy craft was within her sights, she unleashed a storm of plasma bolts and missiles. This caught the elsheem pilot completely off guard, allowing her to inflict moderate damage to his craft. Those six seconds lasted an entire minute for Cylenna. The heavy fighter peeled away, but the Elestan pilot adjusted her course to give chase while she continued to fire. When the enemy craft finally activated its hardened lumionics, she let it escape as she looked for another target to pursue and more excitement to be had.

     Then, after many minutes (she felt) in her heightened mental state, she heard a cry for help over EM-comms. It was Ice’s voice. Her message, taking what felt like twenty seconds to come through, said, “Spectre, I have two on my six!” In the distance and magnified on her OPEL panel by her strikecraft’s optics, there were two streams of white plasma bolts meeting at a single point in space. Cylenna throttled her Goshawk to maximum and blasted toward them. She had no doubt that she would reach her friend in time and take care of the hostiles.

     But halfway to meeting them—nearly a minute for Cylenna—Ice’s shields failed, and her strikecraft was eaten apart by white-hot bolts and missile explosions. Cylenna was close enough to the action now that she could see Ice eject from the stricken craft with her naked eyes. The Elestan watched her helpless friend’s body through the OPEL screen, wrapped in stasis, float through the deep black, and every ounce of confidence and adrenaline-fueled pleasure was sapped from her body, replaced by sorrow and regret. Ice’s body was bombarded by plasma bolts even before her stasis had expired, and when it did, her Accellus’ shielding was instantly overwhelmed. The majority of her body was vaporized. Having just witnessed her friend’s brutal murder in slow motion, Cylenna was overcome with sadness and rage. These emotions, too, were prolonged by the chronol that she had injected during the height of her pleasure. This trauma tripped a circuit in her mind, and she threw away common sense and broke down into a frenzy.

     “We’re beginning to lose strikecraft,” a bridge officer announced. “We just lost Ice.”

     “Naret,” Atara asked, “how long until we’re in range?”

     “Ninety seconds, captain,” Naret responded.

     “Damn.”

     “We could order their retreat,” Sesh suggested.

     “Do it,” Atara ordered.

     The chronol was wearing off as Cylenna’s berserker rage continued. She ignored the Kelsor’s orders. Remarkably, the heavy strikecraft did not pursue the retreating strikecraft but instead chased the last remaining Goshawk fighter that did not appear to be breaking off the attack: Spectre’s. Cylenna’s natural talent and acquired skill allowed her to overcome both the number of hostiles and her forsaking of reason, but she could not hold out forever. Just as she was coming to her senses, the Kelsor was finishing its retrograde fusion engine burn. The Kelsor sat ten kilometers away from the Voulgenathi. She throttled up her fighter as fast as its warp drive would allow her to escape the swarm of heavy fighters behind, but on her way back, her shields failed. As if by some twist of fate, she was ejected from her doomed craft one kilometer from the Kelsor’s hull. In stasis, her body slammed into the Kelsor’s armor, setting off the ship’s lumionic barrier that deflected her toward deep space while the heavy strikecraft—large targets for anti-strikecraft weapons—worried more about evading the battlecruiser’s fire than killing her. When Cylenna’s stasis ended, she oriented herself toward the Kelsor’s white hull which was illuminated only by artificial light. Rarely was she as grieved as she was now. She used her Accellus’ gravitics to fly the few hundred meters distance to the battlecruiser. She slowed as she approached the hull, planted her feet on the solid SIRAC, and ran clear across the hull.

     Meanwhile, the lumionic shielding of the enemy ships had returned to normal with regard to both hardening and potential.

     “Focus the closest frigate,” Atara ordered, “and fire at will.” The four ships exchanged weapons fire across the ten kilometers separating them. The Kelsor’s eighty-centimeter turrets emerged, loaded solid rounds into their gravitic launchers and fired them toward the closest satellite frigate. The prepared torpedoes were unleashed from their launchers, traversed the distance using conventional drives, overcame all point defense fire, and detonated against the frigate’s barrier. The explosion was unmatched by most modern anti-ship weaponry. The Kelsor’s fire was returned in kind, but it lacked the punching power that the Kelsor’s torpedoes possessed. After only two torpedo volleys totaling twenty projectiles, the first frigate was crying out to its mothership.

     Cylenna was running across the Kelsor’s hull when the ships began opening fire on each other. The Kelsor’s cannons fired their solid projectiles with muzzle velocities in excess of five-thousand meters per second in total silence. Her heightened breath and noises from her helmet interface were the only sounds she heard. The battlecruiser’s shield bubble defending against thermal energy weapons were a lightshow over the pilot’s head. Solid slugs slammed into the barriers that hugged the ship’s hull and protected against kinetic energy and explosive force. A projectile from the Voulgenathi collided with the barrier just five meters from where Cylenna dashed. When the barrier appeared, the ship’s lumionics had modified its geometry around the Elestan pilot, and its activation would have blinded her if not for the protection of the OPEL screen on her helmet. The barrier halted her motion for a moment, causing her to stagger. After yelling a profanity to herself, she continued running toward an exterior airlock as the Kelsor unleashed missiles and torpedoes.

     “Launch our boarding pods,” Taretes ordered.

     “Right away, my lord,” the captain responded. The forty dropship-sized craft, carrying two-hundred elsheem soldiers each, broke away from the battleship’s hull propelled by plasma thrusters and gravitics. The pods’ flat faces had been flush with, as well as parts of, the battleship’s thick armor.

     “Hull breachers are detaching, captain.”

     Atara commanded, “Focus fire on the breachers.” Before any of the breachers had taken fire, they had engaged their hardened lumionics. The first frigate exploded as the breachers were entering within the firing range of the Kelsor’s anti-strikecraft weapons. One of the Kelsor’s lumionically-contained plasma beam cannons locked on and fired upon one of the breachers with energy potent enough to drain lumionic shield potential and devour armor, yet that energy was not enough to overwhelm their hardened lumionics. Seeing that their advance could not be stopped, Atara said, “Prepare to repel boarders.”

     “Auroras are standing by,” Colonel Teseri said in a lumigraph. “All six-thousand of us. The majority of the crew is armed as well.”

     The first breachers approached the Kelsor, rotated one-hundred-eighty degrees, and backed into the Kelsor’s armor. Once locked into position, the breachers began cutting into the cruiser’s exterior SIRAC shell, a process taking over ten minutes. The Kelsor’s defenders used this time to establish defensive positions around and clear out personnel from where these pods had attached themselves. One breacher parked right atop the bridge but found itself cutting into a robust and persistent barrier being sustained by the bridge’s separate defense suite. Alone, it would never succeed. Meanwhile, a failure to contain engine plasma occurred within the battered engineering department of the second frigate, leading to a catastrophic explosion in the ship’s aft section.

     “Intruder alert,” the Kelsor’s adjunct announced. “Level one security breach. Ship-wide lockdown engaged.” This was followed by intrusion warning lights and sirens to accompany the alerts already being broadcast across the ship.

     Illeiri could feel the impending roar of Alliance omnium and the gentle hum of elsheem bioomnimics from the multi-use room she shared with the cadets in the middle of the ship. She knew there were eight-thousand elsheem soldiers attempting to board and precisely where they all were. She felt the movements of Auroras across the ship from the external omnium reservoirs they wore, and she could sense the omnium within every pair of Accellus boots and bracers. This information never overwhelmed her. This part of her was like a computer used to count stars in the night sky. She just knew. But the cadets with her were totally oblivious.

     A lumigraph opened before her and a woman’s voice said, “Krystal? Sorry, Illeiri? Are you in a safe place?” It was Virn.

     “I’m hunkered down with the cadets near the medbay.”

     “Good. Stay put and keep out of sight.”

     “Can you bring me some discs?”

     “How many do you need?”

     “Three.”

     “I’ll see what I can do. We’re about to have a serious fight on our hands.” The lumigraph closed.

     Illeiri turned to Lieren and asked, “Can you darken the windows?”

     “Of course,” Lieren replied. She interfaced with the room’s controls using her Accellus and corneal lumes. “I’m darkening them from the outside so we can still look out.”

     “Good,” Illeiri said. A few minutes later, her mind caught a crate moving via gravitics through the corridors of the ships. It was just one among the many containers full of Federation unimags carrying MS-91 synthevar, but the omnium within this one was shaped differently than those of the unimags. When the crate sat down outside the door, Illieri used her Accellus to move it through the door and placed it in the middle of the room. The elsheem opened the crate and within were the three disc drones she asked for.

     One of the cadets asked, “What are these?”

     “You’ll see,” Illeiri said as she grabbed the first one and looked it over, smiling.

     “Intruder alert. Level two security breach.”

     The first breacher had pierced the outer hull. The circle of SIRAC that the pod cut out of the Kelsor’s exterior slammed into the floor of an outer corridor. Without hesitation; the Auroras; armed crew; REMASS-generated, ceiling-mounted autoturrets, and hovering assault drones opened fire on the hole connecting the breacher to the Kelsor. Elsheem soldiers stumbled out of the breacher and were riddled with plasma bolts before they could fire a single shot. Their bodies accumulated on the floor as a pile of corpses. Several grenades tossed out from the breacher caused the Federation defenders to momentarily pull back, but after the grenades detonated, the elsheem had enough time to pour out of the craft and lay down fire of their own. As the seconds passed, more breachers had successfully carved their way through the hull and flooded more soldiers into the battlecruiser.

     The breacher’s lumionic hardeners were beginning to reset. As their lumonics returned to normal, they became exposed to the autocannons on the Kelsor’s surface. Designed to deter and destroy hostile strikecraft, these autocannons shredded the now vulnerable breachers, killing any elsheem soldiers still attempting to enter the ship. The empty breachers trying to return to the Voulgenathi to retrieve more troops were cut down just as easily. Around a thousand elsheem boarders died due to the pods’ rapid destruction. Without any additional boarding pods, the elsheem would be unable to mount subsequent waves of boarders.

     The battle aboard the Kelsor began in earnest. The battlecruiser’s five-thousand Auroras and the smaller army of assault drones formed the vanguard of the ship’s defense. Rather than try to overwhelm the positions the elsheem established around the periphery of the ship, the highly-trained Auroras made strategic retreats to more defensible areas, evacuating the crew as they withdrew.

     “Intruder alert. Level three security breach.”

     A level three breach signaled that fighting was spilling into crew quarters. Both the Auroras and elsheem fought room to room between the tighter corridors. Determined not to let the elsheem advance deeper into the ship’s living space, Kyora and Virn led the effort to repel them as they fought beside their Auroras. Virn lied prone upside-down on the ceiling with most of her body concealed behind a corner. Next to her floated a lumigraphic spotlight flooding the corridor with its blinding beam. The Exan unleashed bursts of plasma bolts from her sustainer to keep the encroaching elsheem at bay. Meanwhile, Kyora used her gravitics and shrouding to flank the assaulting elsheem. After positioning herself directly above them, she descended with a plasma blade in one hand and a heavy pistol in the other. Surrounded by elsheem soldiers, she stabbed them one-by-one, dodging their fire behind the punctured bodies of their brethren. Kyora also attacked at range, blowing holes in her enemies’ armor with the high caliber rounds produced and launched with her powerful sidearm. The phantom cut them down and tossed them aside, and once the fighting had quieted, she stood above the pile of their smoking corpses. After killing so many elsheem, she tried to decide if she had been fulfilled. How many did she need to kill to satisfy her anger? Kyora recalled her weapons. Whatever it was that she was trying to find in that corridor littered with elsheem remains, she couldn’t find it, and she was left emptier than she had been just moments before.

     The cadets sat on the floor in the middle of the room and away from the walls. All of them wore full sets of SIRAC. Illeiri stood guard near the door with the three naked discs floating beside her. As she resonated with the omnium across the ship, she felt the Auroras who had made advances nearby just minutes earlier were now in retreat. Out of the OPEL windows the cadets saw the medbay enter full lockdown. The main entrance was closed by a shielded blast door and no one would be coming in or out until the surrounding decks and sections were cleared. Elsheem bullets ricocheted off the walls of the wide corridor between them and the medbay. The fighting was less than twenty meters away now.

     Without a word, Illeiri slipped out of the room and entered the middle of the corridor and raised her hands in the air. The cadets that saw this alerted the others and they gathered around the OPEL windows.

     “Look at that!” one of the cadets said.

     “Cowardice.”

     “She’s betraying us.”

     Illeiri unsheathed her helmet and shouted at them. The cadets heard nothing of what was happening, but many assumed that she was trying to prove to them that she was elsheem, too. What the cadets failed to see, though, were the three discs spinning idle behind a corridor, out of sight of the hostile elsheem. The moment the Avenathi queen had convinced the group of a dozen or more elsheem to drop their weapons, she unleashed the drones, now clothed in white plasma, and made them dance through the hallway. The plasma-coated discs delivered death to every victim they touched—slicing torsos and severing heads. For the cadets, the carnage happened so fast that Illeiri might as well have snapped her fingers.

     Illeiri left their corpses strewn across the corridor, powered down her discs, and reentered the multi-use room. When she returned, the cadets that had been cursing her sang her praises the loudest.

      “Amazing!”

     “Were they going to kill us?”

     “I’ve never seen someone use two discs, let alone three!”

     “You butchered those guys!”

     “Are we safe here?”

     Meanwhile, Doctor Souq prepared himself in the relative safety of his quarters. He managed to fabricate a set of armor and a helmet, but because he was still self-conscious in how he perceived Accellus to look on a man (especially aboard a ship full of women), he tried to fabricate a white lab coat to wear over it. The Accellus’ REMASS system would not comply, so he unsheathed himself of armor, fabricated the coat, took it off, sheathed himself in armor again, and drew his arms through the coat sleeves. The shoulder armor made the coat fit awkwardly around his upper body—his shoulders looked several sizes larger—, but it worked well enough for him. Souq fastened the jacket down the middle and was about to set out for the place the cadets had been gathered when he finally received a textual reply from his daughter telling him that she was safe. His thoughts then shifted to Namara and the jump drone sitting in the omnimology lab.

     Souq drew the sleeve back to access the lumionic interface on his arm in order to summon a lumigraph. “Namara? You there?”

     “Quen?”

     “Where are you?”

     “In the lab.”

     “I’m on my way.”

     “Don’t you dare come here! You know it’s not safe. Do you hear me, Quen?!” Souq shut off the lumigraph and exited his quarters.

35 – Children of Darkness

“Incoming transmission,” Ethis announced.

     “Let’s hear it,” Atara ordered. The captain stood with her triumvirate in the middle of the bridge.

     “Ahh. Hello, Federation,” said an elshe from an appearing lume. Atara could see his trimmed, blond hair, gray eyes, elongated auricles, and masculine facial features despite the smoothness of his chin and jawline which had been forever hairless. His menacing voice was sprinkled with decadence, and his Miri was excellent. The elshe presented himself in shiny, black armor partially concealed by a matte, black overcoat. “You are in the presence of Valin Taretes, Emperor and Executor of the Elsheem State, a sovereign member of the Persean Corporate Alliance. I didn’t know the captain after me would be so attractive. Atara, right?”

     “Cut your engines and return our stolen property,” Atara demanded, “and you may spare yourself unnecessary bloodshed.”

     “Ha!” Taretes scoffed. “Do all of you Federation sound so self-righteous?”

     “I’m just offering you mercy,” Atara explained. “Is that a concept the elsheem can comprehend?”

     “You’ll need a lot more than a few words and a pretty face to stop this ship, captain,” Taretes said.

     “You have no idea what our battlecruiser is capable of.”

     “We’ll see then, won’t we?” The transmission terminated and the lumigraph disappeared.

     “Time to intercept?” Atara asked.

     Naret turned her chair around and said, “Eight hours, thirty-two minutes.”

     Atara faced Xannissa and asked, “Xann, are you ready to kick them when we’re in range?”

     “Of course,” said the Elestan engineer. “I’ll verify that the mediator is ready. It should already be recalibrated to an acceptable precision.”

     “What do you need the mediator for?” Sesh asked.

     “The thing is, Xannissa explained, “the drive cores were designed to operate entirely in sync, and this also applies to spatial wave generation. If we want to make anything bigger than subspace noise and actually kick a ship out of hyperwarp, we need both drives to fire at exactly the same moment. The mediator makes that possible.”

     Eager to get started, Xannissa traveled to main engineering and met with her direct subordinates. After coordinating with them, she moved to the mediator’s main terminal and began her final check on its calibration.

     “Is today the big day?” Lieren asked Xannissa from behind, startling the engineer who was reluctant to show it.

     “You nervous?” Xannissa responded as she kept her eyes on the terminal.

     “Honestly, I am.”

     “I think everyone is,” Xannissa assured her, “and if they say they aren’t, they’re lying. Now I feel like Atara did on the day we left Lanan. They should have never put cadets on this ship.” The Elestan broke away from the terminal, turned around to face Lieren, and said, “When we face the Voulgenathi, we’ll be fighting on our own terms. The Republic was able to stop that ship for forty hours in Onen, and they gathered loads of valuable intel for us. Bad news is that it’s sturdier and has sharper teeth than we thought, but the good news is that the Kelsor was designed for these kinds of confrontations.”

     “That makes me feel a little better,” Lieren told her. “I did want to know something, though. How does a kick actually work? Why can’t a ship just escape afterward?”

     “Sure!” Xannissa said happily. “The coils within the hyperwarp cores generate the fields we use to manipulate space and propel us through hyperspace. Those coils are supposed to hold a mostly-constant potential energy which we maintain by making gradual adjustments to our velocity. Spatial waves can only be made by ships in hyperwarp, even if it’s only for a brief moment, but the engine must be completely spooled up. Then, you tell the engines that you want to vector one-hundred-eighty degrees from your current trajectory. When the cores try to do this, it will always fail, and you will end up with this kind of hyperspatial shockwave that ripples out at the realspace-hyperspace interface. The crests and troughs that makes will force other ships’ hyperwarp cores to crash back into realspace and emergency stop, completely purging their coils of potential. Ours will have done the same, and every time you perform an emergency stop like that to these engines, they go into recovery mode which is exactly like turning them on for the first time. The potential has to rebuild within the engines before they can be restarted, and for us, takes about seven minutes. I’m not sure how long it will take the Voulgenathi, but judging by the information we have, I estimate about thirteen. Twelve or thirteen.

     “I apologize for bombarding you with that. You can stay here in engineering if you want,” Xannissa said before turning back to face her terminal. “Or, if you’d rather be with your fellow cadets, a good place for you would be within the vicinity of the medbay. It’s near the center of the ship and away from important systems. Actually, I think one of your classrooms is near there.”

     “It is,” Lieren said. “I’m going to see if I can pull the other cadets together.” Xannissa glanced back at the Larissian one more time and noticed the subtle glow of lumionics in her eyes: a sign that Lieren had grown comfortable with her Accellus. “Thank you, Xann.”

     “Don’t worry,” Xannissa told her. “Everything will be okay.”

     Virn had forgiven Krystal for her deception, but Kyora had not. Virn understood the reason for the necessary evil, but Krystal knew that it was different for Kyora. It saddened her to think that someone like Kyora would forever view her with disdain. In her Terran guise, Krystal walked the corridors alone that morning with those thoughts on her mind. The Kelsor was filled with a kind of focused silence. Despite the tenseness from the imminent confrontation with their target, the crew maintained composure. While moving toward the aft sections of the ship, she watched Lieren appear from around a corner and stride toward her. Before they passed each other, Krystal calmly called to her.

     “What are you up to?”

     “I’m gathering up the cadets near the medbay.”

     “What for?”

     “Xan—I mean Commander Cetalo said that would be one of the safest places aboard the ship.”

     “I understand,” Krystal told her. “Mind if I follow you?”

     “Not at all,” Lieren responded, and the two took the lifts to the medbay and walked to the multi-use room across from the medbay’s entrance. Three of the four walls within the empty room were transparent. It took a few moments, but eventually Lieren remembered that this was the room she had some of her instruction in. Her difficultly in remembering was due to the lack of furniture as the room had been filled with desks. Next to the door was a lumigraph, and the cadet interacted with it to fabricate furniture appropriate for a lounge. Couches and tables now occupied much of the floorspace within the small room. After Lieren placed a call to the other cadets, they began appearing at the door and streaming in solo or in pairs until they were all united. As Krystal was the most senior among them, the young cadets naturally looked to her as their chaperone.

     One concerned Elestan girl asked, “It won’t be that bad, right?”

     “We’ve seen combat twice already,” said another cadet. “Don’t worry so much.”

     “I understand why she’s worried,” Lieren said to them. “We’re up against an Elsheem State battleship.”

     “So what?” asked another. “They’re so small compared to the Federation.”

     “But they’re backed by the Alliance,” Lieren explained, “and the Voulgenathi is an Alliance-built ship.”

     “But they’re just elsheem,” came a voice from across the room.

     Krystal asked, “Why does it matter if they are elsheem?”

     “Aren’t they weaker than humans?”

     “Yeah. They have, like, zero drug tolerance for starters.”

     “I heard they have a low threshold for pain.”

     “Don’t they die if you poke those weird neck circles?”

     Krystal asked, “Do you all hate the elsheem?”

     “Aren’t they our enemies?”

     “Personally,” Lieren chimed in, “I don’t understand the hatred.”

     “Why is that?” Krystal asked her.

     “I’ve never met one nor seen one,” Lieren explained, “so I have no opinion. I don’t know much about them anyway.”

     “You don’t hate them after what they did to your father’s lab?”

     Krystal sighed. She placed her fingers behind her ears and disabled her camouflage devices. The cadets witnessed her change from blonde Terran to fiery elsheem firsthand. Most of the cadets, especially those who were the most vocal, did not know what to say or how to feel.”

     “This is my true identity,” Illeiri said. “I am an elshi, and my name is Illeiri.

     “I-if we knew you were an elsheem… we wouldn’t have…” the Elestan stammered.

     “Don’t try to take anything back,” Illeiri said. “I know how you feel, and on behalf of the entire elsheem race, I sincerely apologize.”

     Still, whispers of disbelief echoed through the cadets. Lieren, who had been seated next to Illeiri, gave the elshi her hand. Illeiri grasped it and said, “I’m sorry for the deception, but it is because of the very stigma you highlighted that I must protect my identity.”

     Lieren looked the elshi in the eyes and said, “Thank you for saving my father.”

     “She saved your father?”

     “What is an elsheem doing aboard anyway?”

     Illeiri told them, “My race and my legacy have a stake in what is about to transpire today. Have any of you heard of the Commonweatlh of Avenath?” Most of them shook their heads, so Illeiri told them the story of her people’s recent history and her role in it.

     Several hours later, Atara and Sesh stood close together on the bridge. The captain’s right arm crossed her torso and supported her left arm upon which her head tilted. Naret watched the remaining seconds dwindle on a timer being displayed by one of her lumigraphs. When that timer reached zero, the adjunct spoke to the bridge officers.

     “Target vessel Voulgenathi within interdiction range.”

     “Adjunct,” Atara ordered, “red alert. All hands, general quarters.”

     “Affirmative,” the adjunct said. All starmen across the ship were witness to the warnings. They quickly suited themselves in SIRAC and readied themselves for the encounter ahead.

     “Thirty seconds, Xann,”

     “You’ve got it. Preparing the kick.”

     Thirty seconds later, the noise of the synchronized drives that filled the engineering department around the clock had ceased. That was the only phenomenon a human could have registered to determine that they had generated a spatial wave. The wave propagated instantly in all directions—the effects of which fell off about four-hundred-thousand kilometers away.

     “Kick confirmed,” Naret announced, focusing on her console. “We’re out of warp.”

     “Positive confirmation of target,” said another bridge officer. “Distance: two-hundred-thousand kilometers directly ahead.”

     “Prepare long-range weapons,” Atara ordered, “and hail them.”

     “Affirmative,” Ethis said. “Broadcasting now.”

     “This is Captain Atara of the Kelsor. This is your last chance to surrender. We are prepared to open fire.” After this, Atara waited fifteen seconds for a response. Upon hearing nothing, she turned to Sesh and said, “Engage them at will.”

     “Understood,” Sesh said as she moved to stand just behind Naret. Atara followed her. “Fire control, focus their engines and launch four salvos of warp missiles.”

     “Affirmative,” a tactical officer acknowledged, and new sirens sounded as the REMASS systems responsible for producing ammunition came online. The Kelsor’s eighty-eight missile tubes opened their hatches and exposed freshly-fabricated missiles to the vacuum of interstellar space. Half of the launchers were situated on the dorsal surface while the other half were on the ventral. All of the missiles used gravitics and plasma engines to launch in rapid sequence starting from the forward launchers and sweeping aft. After quickly escaping up to a kilometer, the missiles engaged their warp systems and blasted off toward the Voulgenathi, leaving streams of white plasma exhaust behind them.

     “New contacts detected. Target is launching strikecraft.” More sounds and pings filled parts of the bridge.

     “Launch our strikecraft,” Atara told her officers.

     A few seconds later, the tactical officer said, “Positive hits on target. Sixty-seven confirmed detonations. Shields only.”

     Sesh asked, “Are they using point-defenses?”

     “Aye, but they’re saturated. Enemy lumionic potential estimated at eighty-eight percent. Target is shunting power to main artillery.”

     “Those are warp artillery batteries,” Atara reminded Sesh.

     “I know,” said the first officer.

     The Kelsor’s OPEL panels highlighted all of these invisible projectiles and the Voulgenathi. The first warp artillery shots, moving at fifty-thousand kilometers per second, missed the Kelsor by several hundred meters, but the next saw them land three consecutive hits to shields. The actual speeds of these rounds were only about a tenth of their effective. Of course, the damage they dealt was only a product of their actual speeds. All projectile-based warp systems were ever intended for was to land hits at all.

     “Conn, evasive maneuvers,” Atara commanded. “Nothing fancy. Just make us a moving target.”

     The Kelsor’s Goshawk fighters, Virga bombers, and Predator interceptors had been positioned for launch within the hanger for the last four hours. Once the order was given, the interceptors rocketed forth from the hanger bay followed by the fighters and then the bombers. Cylenna once again piloted her Goshawk through the airscreen and into the darkness of interstellar space.

     “Flights, you are cleared to engage,” Strike Officer Kodi said over EM-comms. Her voice cut through the ever-present electromagnetic interference of the cosmic background.

     “Roger,” Cylenna responded, assuming the role of strike leader. “This is Spectre. Strike wing, form on me. Prepare for warp.” On Cylenna’s next order, the pilots activated their crafts’ warp drives and accelerated toward the hostile battleship just as the elsheem were sending their own strikecraft to the Kelsor. As the elsheem bombers passed the flights of Federation strikecraft, the interceptor flights broke off and pursued them. The Voulgenathi’s interceptors trailed the Virgas, and the Goshawks maneuvered to protect their slower, more powerful sisters. As the Virgas closed in on the Voulgenathi, they were met with anti-strikecraft autocannon fire from the front and interceptor weapons from the back. Cylenna’s and Ice’s Goshawk flights acted quickly to disrupt the enemy interceptors and cancel their pursuit.

     It was Cylenna who took first blood. Her accurate stream of plasma bolts spooked an elsheem pilot that had flown too close to his mothership. His craft collided with the Voulgenathi’s lumionic barriers, causing his own barriers to fail immediately. The interceptor burst into two large pieces and a cloud of debris.

     “Good job, Spectre,” Kodi said in an unenthusiastic tone. “You scared him into the ground.”

     “That’s where they should be if they can’t handle this,” Cylenna said unapologetically.

     After making an initial pass, the bombers turned around some distance behind the Voulgenathi’s stern and unleashed a swarm of guided bombs toward the ship’s engines. The resulting massive shield potential loss prompted the battleship to harden its lumionics.

     “Target battleship has activated invulnerability shielding,” announced a Kelsor bridge officer. “Estimated duration is six minutes.” The bridge was alive with officer call-outs, alert sounds, pings and beeps, and announcements from the adjunct.

     Atara said, “Good work to our pilots. Prioritize the strikecraft attacking the Kelsor for the time being.” Atara approached Sesh who was still standing immediately behind Naret and beckoned her return to the middle of the bridge floor. In a low voice, Atara said, “We can use this time to close in for torpedoes. Though, it might be better to wait for them to launch their frigates.”

     Sesh said, “They may be holding onto them for that very time when we do approach them.”

     “That’s a good tactic for dividing our focus,” Atara noted, “however, our primary anti-battleship punching power comes from our torpedoes. The sooner we’re within deployment range, the sooner we are to ending this battle—hardened lumionics or not.”

     “We’re too close for warp,” Sesh stated.

     “We’ll use fusion drives and gravitics,” Atara replied.

     “I say we go for it.”

     “Lieutenant,” Atara told Naret, “take us to within ten kilometers of the Voulgenathi’s stern. Engage conventional drives.”

     “Aye. Falling forward.”

34 – The Dead Don’t Die

Three days out from intercept, Naret was sitting at her station on the bridge watching the seconds on her terminal’s clock tick away. Her four-hour watch was moments from being over.

     “The time is now twenty-hundred hours,” the adjunct announced across the ship. “Team One is relieved. Team Two has sixth watch.” Within ten seconds, most of the stations had changed hands. Atara and Sesh lingered in the middle of the bridge’s upper area while a lieutenant commander took the captain’s chair. When Naret stood up, her station was immediately occupied by another lieutenant from Team Two.

     “You coming, Cothlis?” the communications officer asked in a cheery tone from the other end of the bridge. Ethis waited on the conn officer at the lifts. Once together, they traveled to the nearest mess hall: a livelier option than eating in their quarters as most officers tended to do, and they both enjoyed the mild hubbub. After ordering food from the fabricators, the two sat at a table across from each other as they had started doing at least three times per week. Most of the people there were crewmembers from Team One sitting down for dinner. The crew from Team Two had already departed. Starmen from Team Three were relaxing, and a few were also having meals.

     “I’ve always wondered,” Naret said between bites, “because of my older siblings: what is it like in the Republic Military?” Ethis smiled at the question.

     “You never asked them yourself?”

     “They were always away.”

     Ethis nodded, took another bite, chewed, swallowed, and said, “Big.”

     “Big?” Naret asked.

     “And small,” Ethis continued. She was amused by her young friend’s resulting confused expression and took another bite.

     “I don’t quite understand,” Naret said. Ethis giggled.

     “The Republic fleet is massive,” Ethis said with some Republic pride swelling within her. “Novekk’s suits are large, but not as effective as ADI’s,” then she lowered her voice, saying, “but don’t let them know I told you that.” In her normal voice, she continued, “Republic ships are smaller; cramped; efficient. Also, women share everything with men; barracks, rec rooms, bathrooms.”

     Naret’s gray Elestan face blushed, becoming warmer in color. “What happens if…?”

     “If what?” Ethis grinned. “Those who can’t cope are given drugs or psychotherapy. Offenders get neutered, imprisoned, and sometimes executed. Republic prison is the worst by far, but that’s a topic for another time.”

     “I guess that prevents most from doing anything they’d regret?”

     “It does. Many actually grow accustomed to such close contact. You’d understand if you were raised in the Republic.”

     “I see,” Naret said. “What about privacy?”
     “Ha! The Republic doesn’t believe in privacy.” Naret nodded, but Ethis knew she was puzzled. Naret couldn’t imagine living somewhere without some modicum of privacy. “Those who can do nothing in secret have nothing to hide.

     “Anyway,” Ethis continued, “you must know that in the Republic, every man and woman, upon reaching the age of twenty, must serve in the Military for four years?” Naret nodded again. “Because of this, people in the Republic enter the workforce or begin post-secondary education four years behind those in the Federation. Considering peoples’ lifespans, it’s inconsequential, but everyone in the Republic is given a taste of military discipline.”

     “What made you decide to stay?” Naret asked.

     “Of course,” Ethis explained, “service doesn’t end until your sixteen years of reserve duty are over, but I stayed because of the bonds I formed. During my initial four years, I met a man who I eventually went to the academy with. I actually fell in love with him; don’t really know if he loved me back. Romance is discouraged, of course, so we hid it from everyone and each other. Some time after the academy, we were given a special unit called Venosk Five-Oh-Nine; covert ops. I was the team’s information specialist.”

     “What kind of information?”

     “Communications information. Languages, transmission, Q-comms, sub-comms, EM-comms.”

     “How did you end up in the Federation?” Naret asked. She had just finished her meal.

     “Growing up so close to the Republic, you’ve probably heard of the Invisible Wars that happen in the Persean Rift.” Naret nodded. “Have you heard of the Alliance incursion at Kayutt?” The younger Elestan shook her head. “I assumed so. It resulted in the largest single fleet engagement in that conflict so far. Kayutt is a heavy-populated system toward the Republic side of the Rift. Venosk Five-Oh-Nine, as well as other special units, used it as a launching point for our own missions deeper into the Rift. It was for that reason that the Alliance wanted to capture it or wipe it out. As we returned from one of our missions, an Alliance attack force pursued us back to Kayutt Three. They destroyed the dockyards and defenses in orbit and landed armies to infiltrate and shut down our OBS network.”

     “OBS?”

     “Orbital bombardment shields. We held our ground around one of the OBS stations for days before the Republic fleet arrived.”

     “So you succeeded?”

     “Yes,” Ethis said, “but everyone in Venosk Five-Oh-Nine perished, except for me.” Naret’s expression suddenly changed from engagement to sobriety.

     “I’m sorry,” Naret said.

     “You shouldn’t be. They’re all alive now,” Naret was opening her mouth to make an inquiry as Ethis continued, “as Revenants: resurrected heroes. The People gave them a second chance—a second life to live and sacrifice. After that, Venosk Five-Oh-Nine became the Revenant special unit Quietus of Hiracet.

     “On that day, my dear friend from the academy, Rikter, was the last of them to die. After that, Republic Marines flew over in dropships, and the waves of Alliance stopped coming. Oh, how I wished I had died that day. Such dishonor was too great for me to bear, so I left Venosk, the Military, and the Republic behind. I haven’t seen Rikter or the others since.”

     “Wow,” Naret said, blinking her eyes, “that’s sad.” She paused, then said, “In a way, you started a second life, too, by coming to the Federation.”

     “I did,” Ethis said, “but enough of that. You wanted to know more about the Republic?”

     “Sure, if you’re willing.”

     “So, you’re a fan of ADI’s Accellus, right? Have you ever seen Novekk’s Type-M that the Republic uses?” Naret shook her head. “First of all, you can’t summon it at all like ours. There is a machine that you stand on that builds the suit around you when you need it….”

33 – Assembly

“Is that what you wanted to show me?” Kyora asked as she entered the omnimology laboratory-turned workshop alone—one of the few instances you would ever see her without Virn outside of a mission. The device she pointed to rested on a bench in the center of the room and was flanked by Namara and Xannissa. Souq was seated a little further away.

     “Indeed it is, colonel,” Namara said. “It’s a little something that Doctor Souq imagined when confronted with a little problem of ours.”

     Kyora asked, “And what might that be?”

     “MARAD wants us to destroy the ecksivar sample if we can’t retrieve it,” Namara explained.

     “But it can’t be destroyed,” Souq added, “so we had to double-down on retrieval as our only option.”

     “What you’re actually looking at,” Xannissa told her, “is a homecooked VARICOR jump drive system scaled down to fit into the size of a drone. Its sole purpose is to house the ecksivar sample and fling it off into deep space.”

     “You’re going to make me carry this on my back and infiltrate the Voulgenathi with it?” Kyora said to them, sounding unsurprised.

     “I’m glad you understand,” Namara said.

     Souq said, “When the syndicate attacked us and I saw how you handled yourself, I knew we had an infiltrator. Xannissa and her team have gone above and beyond to put this thing together.”

     “Does it work?” Kyora asked.

     “Of course,” Xannissa assured her. “In simulation.”

     “In simulation?”

     “Simulations will be good enough for this.”

     “Guess I’ll have to trust you on that.”

     Namara said, “If you would, switch into your combat variant for a moment. We’re going to fit the drone on your back.” The phantom complied. She stood before them in her sparse SIRAC and combat bodysuit. Xannissa used her gravitics to assist her in lifting the heavy drone from the bench and attaching it to Kyora’s back. Kyora’s gravitics automatically compensated for the added weight, making her feel lighter.

     “The drone will have its own built-in omnium supply,” Xannissa explained. “We designed it so that you’ll be able to tap into that reservoir, but there’s a caveat. The drone will keep a certain amount in reserve for the jump system, so try to use the reservoir sparingly so you don’t run out of your allocation.”

     “Don’t worry. I can’t do much killing with this big-ass thing attached to me.”

     “Engage your shrouding system for a moment,” Xannissa said. Kyora did so, and her entire body, including the jump drone, disappeared from the others’ view. “Thanks. The drone incorporates with your shroud. That was my biggest worry.” The phantom then disengaged the shroud and reappeared before them. Xannissa detached the drone and placed it back upon the lab bench.

     “We’ll keep it safe here in the lab,” Namara said. “Just remember to come pick it up and take it with you when you board the Voulgenathi.”

     “About yesterday,” Kyora started.

     “What’s that?” Xannissa asked.

     “It was fun. We should do it again.”

     As the Kelsor’s confrontation with the Voulgenathi drew nearer, Krystal, with Fiori’s help, arranged a transmission with the Avenathi Magisterial Assembly. Krystal sat at the table in her private quarters before a lumigraph. Four elsheem were gathered on the screen with barely enough room to fit all of their heads.

     “You know, that Archon of yours… Fiori, was it?” asked the magister from before who occupied the right most side of the screen. He spoke in Avenathi. “She is quite impressive; much more so than the Alliance’s Patriarch, that is.”

     “Please, Magister Leyondin. Let the queen speak!” said the elshi on the far left. Also known as Voice Leyondin, he was the Voice of the Assembly: a title on par with prime minister. Ironically, he also loved to talk. The elshi, on the other hand, was also a member of the Assembly and the grand admiral of the Avenathi Liberation Fleet which until recently was quite weak. Smashed between them were two more Assembly members: the grand general and the current representative of House Syoness.

     “My sincerest apologies, magistress,” Leyondin said. The magistress glared at him.

     Krystal said, “I’m sorry you couldn’t meet in a more comfortable setting.”

     “I apologize, my lady, but I simply cannot take you seriously as you appear now,” said the general. “May I ask that you please remove that unpleasant human disguise?” Without a word, Krystal pressed her fingers to the two modules that rested behind her ears. At once, her eyes turned green, her hair a vibrant red, and her auricles grew several centimeters longer. “My queen!” the general gasped, and he bowed his head.

     “I’m short on time,” Queen Illeiri told them. “This ship, the Greater Federation Vessel Kelsor, will intercept the Voulgenathi within the week. Is the Assembly ready to retake the country?”

     “Yes, your majesty,” the admiral said. “Twenty billion soldiers and five-hundred-thousand warships are standing by, and you won’t believe the battle gear they’re using.”

     “Remember that deal you brokered with the Federation two decades ago?” Leyondin asked. “Well, it’s finally paid off. It’s all on loan, but those soldiers are equipped with top-of-the-line Magus armor from Avond Designs: power armor built for elsheem physiology. Those ships were built in secret at the docks on the Federation Frontier by Miokogen and GreDrive. Our brightest have been advising the Federation on Avenathi design considerations since you finished your negotiations. Here are some pictures.”

     The four faces were replaced by a slideshow of military hardware. One of the pictures showed the male and female variants of a battle suit that looked almost like Accellus. The armor was a deep red, and the helmet, armor, and weapon shapes were more organic in form, matching a more Avenathian aesthetic. The spiraling Star of Avenath emblem was placed on the right breast, replacing the Federation Triangle. The starships shown in the other images possessed similar appearances to the Kelsor, but shared the Magus armor’s color scheme.

     “As soon as Taretes dies,” said the general behind the pictures, “we will take back Avenath.”

     “As much as I have longed to slice his throat,” Illeiri admitted, “I’ve decided it’s best if I leave him alive.”

     “Your majesty, are you out of your mind?” asked the House Syoness representative. The slideshow disappeared and Illeiri saw the elsheem faces again.

     Illeiri explained, “He doesn’t deserve the honorable death I would give him. He’s on a mission for the Alliance. If he flees after the Kelsor catches him as he likely will—the pig’s a coward—then he will be an utter disgrace to his executor masters. His blood will be on their hands, and he will die with dishonor.”

     “What if he goes into hiding?” the admiral asked.

     “I know Taretes,” Illeiri said. “I’ve studied him for two centuries. I know how he thinks and who he serves. He’s too much of a coward to run and hide. His master is the current supreme executor of the Alliance. He would hunt Taretes across the galaxy. His master is the only one he trusts, and he truly fears him. He’ll try to make amends for his failure as quickly as possible. Admiral, general, hold off your assault until that day comes.”

     “As you wish,” the admiral said. “We place our utmost faith in you, your majesty.”

     “Farewell,” Illeiri said before terminating the transmission. She leaned back, rested her booted legs upon the table, and placed her hands behind her head. Visions of final victory danced behind her closed eyelids.

     Just outside the room, Kyora and Virn were about to page Krystal when they noticed that her door was unlocked. Keeping with their desire to surprise Krystal with an invitation to dinner, they opened the door without alerting her and made their way inside.

     When they saw Krystal’s figure, Virn asked, “Krystal, would you to join us for dinner this evening?”

     “Sure,” she said. “I’d like that.” When her eyes met theirs, Krystal noticed that they were frozen in their stares.”

     “Krystal?” Virn asked in shock. Krystal looked down at herself and noticed the locks of red hair over her bodysuit. She had forgotten to reengage her camouflage. In a panic, Krystal reached behind her ears to revert her appearance, but it was too late. Kyora said nothing. She recognized an elsheem when she saw one. Just like that, Krystal’s secret was out. The three of them remained speechless. Krystal’s heart was pounding out of her chest.

     Shit! Krystal thought. What have I done?

     “It’s no use hiding from you anymore,” she told them. “My true identity is Illeiri Syoness, an elshi, and I’m on a mission to restore the old Avenathi Commonwealth.” After Krystal said this, Kyora slowly turned around and left the room.

     “Kyora!” Virn called out before chasing after her.

     Kyora kept her silence until she and Virn had stopped in an observatory and were staring out at the starscape. She looked at Virn and said, “I’m sorry, Virn, but when I saw that… woman… just now, I saw those elsheem bottom-feeders on Mirida: my first memories. The hate, the torture, the pain. I feel betrayed.”

     “I understand why you feel that way,” Virn said, “but surely she’s on our side. Surely she’s not a spy.”

     “You are correct,” Fiori said as she appeared behind them. The archon explained to the pair of Auroras Illeiri’s purpose aboard the ship and in her grand strategy just as she explained it to Atara.

     “I can’t believe we’re helping those monsters,” Kyora said.

     “Until you found out she was elsheem,” Virn noted, “you respected her.”

     Fiori said, “Unfortunately, hatred against the elsheem by the general Federation population has never been greater than it is now. The Elsheem State’s current political stance is primarily to blame. Humans and elsheem have been at odds with one another since the Persean Expansion during the period following the Miridan Civil War. Around that time, the Commonwealth of Avenath was a large and powerful state, but it was no match for the Miridan Rangers that protected the burgeoning colonies of Mirida. Mainly through attrition, the Commonwealth shrank to what the Elsheem State is today, surrounded on all sides by humanity.”

     “Thanks, Fiori,” Kyora said. “You just gave me more reasons to hate her.” The Elestan shook her head.

     “That was not my intention,” Fiori said. “I was merely highlighting the struggles in human-elsheem relations over the past four-thousand years.”

     “Virn, where are you going?” Kyora asked after seeing her friend depart from the corner of her eye.

     “To apologize to Krystal—for the both of us.”

     Kyora stood her ground as the Exan departed the observatory.

32 – Simulator

“Have you been to the simulators at all this whole trip?” Xannissa asked Atara as they stepped onto the simulator that was always running for general relaxation and amusement.

     “Of course,” Atara responded, “for the suiting ceremony.”

     Xannissa laughed and said, “You know you need to take more breaks.”

     “The simulator has never interested me.”

     “I know, but it’s for your personal wellbeing. You need to step away every now and then.”

     “What if this wasn’t the Kelsor and we didn’t have these simulators?”

     “Taking a day off every week wouldn’t be a bad thing, regardless.”

     The pair moved through the bright, sky-lit, spacious lobby of the main building past underdressed and undressed officers and starmen, onto the outdoor concourse, and down a set of stairs leading to a duralithic pathway that snaked into the coastal forest. The verdant foliage near the path was well-manicured, but further beyond it grew wild. The trees and leaves above shielded them from the warm, virtual sun. The path ended at the forest’s edge two-hundred-fifty meters from the concourse, and the semi-reflective duralithic walkway yielded to the fine, tan sand of the wide shoreline and the crystal blue waters beyond. The two officers strode across the untouched, secluded beach leaving the only trails of footprints behind them. They stopped at the wet sand on the ocean’s edge, and the seawater soaked the bottoms of their boots as it rushed ashore.

     “I also feel guilty when I come here,” Atara told her as she took in the afternoon.

     “How so?”

     “I feel like I’m shirking my duties when I do. I feel like I need to always be available.”

     “But you are always available,” Xannissa assured her, “even if you come here. You can call for an exit and be gone in an instant.”

     “Our intercept is next week.”

     “Atara.”

     “What?”

     “Just… enjoy it.”

     The pair walked back atop the dry sand. Xannissa recalled her bodysuit save for the upper torso section which served as a brassiere under her short jacket. Her naked, cool gray skin offered a stark contrast against the golden shore. After stepping out of her boots, the Elestan closed her eyes, raised her arms over her head, and stretched her body. She felt the virtual sunlight warm her face and slender abdomen as she inhaled deeply. After exhaling and relaxing herself, she dug her feet into the hot sand and let it seep between her toes. The relatively cool sea breeze was at odds with the warming sunlight. A brief shiver shot down Xannissa’s back as the wind whipped between her bare legs. Xannissa could have easily forgotten that all of this was just an elaborate fabrication.

     The Elestan turned to the Terran and said, “Well? What are you waiting for?”

     “Fine,” Atara sighed, “if it’s for my wellbeing.” The captain did the same as Xannissa—even going so far as to fabricate a short jacket of her own so that her upper torso was covered. Unlike Xannissa, Atara’s Terran skin blended well with the beach. “Now what?”

     “I was hoping we could go for a walk,” Xannissa told her as she stared at the pristine water. When she turned back to face Atara, she added, “Or not.”

     “Why not?” Just as Atara finished asking, she felt her bare buttocks be slapped by someone appearing behind her. The captain let out an uncharacteristic small scream as she retreated toward Xannissa and turned around to see that it was a fully-naked Cylenna.

     “Nice ass,” Cylenna commented.

     “Who invited you?” barked a red-faced, flustered Atara.

     “My little sister behind you,” Cylenna told her. Emerging from the forest several meters away were Sesh, Naret, Lieren, Kyora, Virn, and Krystal.

     “I kinda put the word out,” Xannissa explained. “Wasn’t counting on them being here so soon. I hope you haven’t forgotten what today is.”

     “Wait,” Atara thought for a moment as the others were undressing themselves, “you can’t be serious. How can I be so stupid?”

     “I’m never going to let you forget your birthday,” Xannissa assured her.

     Sesh—her skin blue as the distant ocean—yelled, “Atara!”

     “What?” Atara asked, turning toward the bottomless commander.

     “Think fast,” she yelled, launching a ball toward the captain. Atara quickly caught it before it hit her in the face. “How about a game?”

     “I’d sure be down for one,” Cylenna said.

     Xannissa was next to her sister and responded, “You should probably put a top on.”

     “Nonsense. I’ll be fine.”

     “Suit yourself. Just don’t complain to me if your breasts are sore afterward.”

     “Good point. Wait for me,” Cylenna told Xannissa before storming off toward her Accellus boots.

     “Hey, Qu-… Souq,” Namara greeted as she ran into the Larissian scientist in one of the corridors near the omnimology lab.

     “Oh, Sayn,” he said. Only a few weeks ago, he had hated her guts. Now, he delighted in seeing her wherever they met around the ship. “You… you can call me Quen… if you want.”

     “Are you sure you’re okay with that?”

     Souq closed his eyes and said, “I’m sure.”

     “I don’t mean to stop you if you’re busy.”

     “I was actually on my way to the simulator to surprise my daughter. I wanted to see if I could pop in and spend some time with her.”

     “Funny,” Namara said, “now that you mention it, Xannissa invited me there. I was going to blow it off, but since you’re going, I might as well, too.”

     “Alright, let’s go.”

     As Namara led him through the ship, the two conversed about current topics in omnimology. This brief taste of meaningful, scholarly discussion reminded him of his past lab meetings with his researchers, filling him with a mixture of sadness and fondness. Those minds he used to pick were no more, and there was nothing he could do, nor could have done, to change that fact, but he was grateful to have found a friend in Namara.

     “Here we are,” Namara said, interrupting the discussion. “Have you been here before?”

     “Never,” he told her. “What do I need to do?” Souq asked as starmen moved into and out of the simulator room.

     “Just follow these girls here,” she said, looking toward a pair of starmen about to step into the simulation. The scientists left the corridor and moved into the lobby of the resort. There, they were immediately confronted with nude female flesh. The virtual sun shining through the skylights warmed Souq’s face as he looked down at the fastened white lab coat he wore over his bodysuit.

     “I’m starting to feel a little overdressed,” Souq told Namara. “Are you sure it’s okay if I’m here?”

     “You’re perfectly fine. This is a beach resort.”

     Before the two was a set of large, transparent doors that opened for them as they approached. Beyond the doors was the wide outdoor concourse that overlooked the shoreline and light blue shallows. The two scientists descended the steps that led to the pathway into the forest. When he left the stairs, Souq shielded his eyes and looked toward the sky.

     “Can you get a sunburn here?”

     “It’s possible,” Namara explained, “but not likely. These lumionics do emit ultraviolet, but it’s at low levels. A little UV is healthy for you.” After checking a simulator lumigraph she opened, she said, “Lieren is this way,” pointing toward the forest.

     The two started down the path when Souq mentioned, “What if I told you that spontaneous omnionic field attenuation was possible?”

     “Does this have to do with ecksivar?”

     “Of course.”

     They strode down the path as they discussed omnimology in general, and ecksivar specifically. Their strides slowed as the conversation deepened. Three times they came to a dead stop to get out an idea. This turned a ten-minute walk into a half-hour. Finally, the forest opened before them and the scientists stepped onto the golden sand. Birds called through the trees and over the sea. Waves rolled upon the shore. Women shouted as they played in the distance.

     “I have to say,” Souq said, “I’d almost forgotten I was on a ship way out in deep space.”

     “Pretty effective, isn’t it?” Namara asked. Both of them moved down toward the water.

     “I hope you’re not bothered that I recorded our conversation.”

     “No, it’s fine.”

     “You have a very interesting mind, you know?” Namara blushed at the compliment.

     “I wish I felt that way,” Namara told him as they stared at the horizon. “I joined the Military as a scientist because I knew I couldn’t make it in academia.”

     “Academia isn’t that fun sometimes,” Souq admitted. “That used to be my career before I went into industry; joined Akkain. It’s a full of a bunch of tenured, over-opinionated, ego-centric, hot-headed bastards, and I was one of them. I would have wanted to the join the Military, but being the only male on a base or ship made me anxious to join.”

     “You’re not the only male I’ve seen on a Military starship wearing Accellus.”

     “I know,” he said, “but at the time, I was already swamped in other responsibilities and—” a plastic ball collided with the side of Souq’s head. “Ouch! Son-of-a-bitch!” he exclaimed. The ball bounced away and rolled toward the water. Souq and Namara heard feet running through the sand.

     “I’m sorry!” said a young voice. “It was my fault!” The woman paused before saying, “Dad?” Lieren ignored the ball as it was caught by the waves. “Are you here to join us?”

     “I came here to see you,” Souq explained, still recovering from the hit. “Just wanted to see if you wanted to spend some time together.”

     “You could have called me,” Lieren told him.

     “It was a spur-of-the-moment thing. By the time I wanted to, you were on the simulator. I didn’t know I’d embarrass you. I’m sorry.”

     “It’s a little awkward,” she admitted as she briefly concealed her exposed crotch with her clasped hands, “especially when you’re clothed and I’m not, but I’m not embarrassed.”

     Sesh shed her short jacket and waded into the water. The ocean was up to her waist when she grabbed the ball. Her lower body was soaked when she made it back to the shore, but she left her jacket in the sand.

     “Souq! Namara!” Sesh called to the scientists. “Care to join us?”

     “That’s tempting,” Souq shouted back, “but considering the current sexual imbalance, I’m a little intimidated.”

     “I think I’m going to sit out,” Namara said. “Quen and I were in the middle of an interesting conversation.”

     “You two suit yourselves,” Sesh said. She dropped the ball to the ground and kicked it hard enough for it to take flight off the sand. It traveled several meters before being blocked in midair by Kyora’s bare body. The phantom’s breasts were small enough that she didn’t worry about securing them, so she wore nothing but her Accellus bracelets.

     Souq and Namara walked away from the group to a quieter section of the beach. There, Namara opened a lumigraph and spawned an umbrella and a couple of lounge chairs. Before Souq could turn around, Namara had already stripped bottomless and was removing her boots.

     “How do you do that so fast?” he asked.

     “What?”

     “Undressing.”

     “Neural interface,” she explained, “and practice.” She watched him fumble a bit with his lumionic interface without actually changing his clothing. “Still getting used to the Accellus?” she teased.

     “I’m just trying to find some suitable attire,” he told her.

     “Mind if I help?”

     “Absolutely.” Souq held his forearm plate toward her, and she grabbed it as she walked around him. She moved in close. Her bare hip pressed against his as she scrolled through the menu.

     “Here,” she said, pressing an option, and his lab coat and bodysuit were replaced with a pair of white shorts. “How’s this?”

     “That’s great,” he said, chuckling. They took their seats in the shade and looked out at the coast. Souq reached down, picked up a handful of sand, and let it pour from his fist like an hourglass. He expected the conversation to have continued, but it never resumed. After a few minutes of listening to the other officers playing many meters away, Souq spoke up. “Have you ever shared a link with someone?”

     “A Q-comms link? No. Why?”

     “Just curious.” Souq paused, and then he asked, “Are you in a partnership?”

     “Not currently,” Namara responded. Her tone betrayed her embarrassment. “What’s with all these personal questions? I thought we were talking about omnium.”

     “You’ve been pretty quiet since we sat down,” Souq noted.

     “I’m just enjoying the breeze.”

     “What if we did want to benefit from some kind of long-term collaboration?” Souq asked her. “If you’d been willing, even a partnership.”

     The suggestion of a partnership made Namara even more uncomfortable. “You do know what you’re asking, right? I mean, a partnership is very serious. You do know what happens if the partnership fails before the first two years are over?”

     “We’re dishonorably discharged.”

     “Exactly.”

     “But what makes you think it would fail?”

     “Well, I never said or thought it would. I just wanted you to know the gravity of your proposal. It’s the closest legal binding there is to a marriage.”

     “I do know,” Souq told her. “My late wife was in a Military partnership with another woman before they both died; while she was married to me. She wanted to eventually share a Q-comms link with her.”

     “Is that what you want with me?” Namara’s face flushed at the thought.

     “Well, I, uhh,” Souq stuttered. “I, umm… I guess I thought we were compatible.”

     “I’m going to need some time,” Namara said. “I’m going to need to think about it.” She stood up from the chair, turned to him, and said, “I think I’m going to join the others for a little while.” Before he could acknowledge her, the Elestan scientist was running across the sand. Not once before he spoke did he realize that his asking her for a partnership was akin to proposing marriage. The more he pondered it, the more he felt like a fool. He leaned back in the chair and let the fake sun warm his feet which rested on the hot sand beyond the umbrella’s shade.

     “Dad, I’m ready to go.” Souq awoke from his nap to see his half-naked, lilac-skinned daughter shaking his arm. “There you are,” she said. Souq blinked his eyes quickly as they readjusted to the bright sky and descending sun. “Do you need help with your Accellus?”

     After they were both back in their uniforms, Souq left the simulator with Lieren and they returned to the former’s quarters. He allowed Lieren to use his bathroom to shower, and when she finished, he fabricated a meal that they shared for dinner.

     “How would you feel if I joined the Military?” Souq asked as they dined.

     “I suppose that’s your choice,” Lieren said. “I always thought you’d stay in the private sector.”

     “I don’t know where I want to go yet,” he admitted before taking a bite.

     “What is it about the Military that makes you want to join?”

     “I’m done with Akkain,” Souq said. “Emotionally, I’m done. I can’t go back; not after what happened. I find the Military to be intellectually stimulating. At least, more so than I previously imagined.”

     “Uh-huh,” Lieren nodded. “Is Doctor Namara intellectually stimulating?”

     “This has nothing to do with her,” he said in denial.

     “I noticed the way Doctor Namara behaved after she talked with you. Omnium wasn’t the only thing the two of you talked about.”

     “That’s none of your business.”

     “Dad, if you want to remarry, I’m okay with that.” At this, Souq’s face blushed as Namara’s had earlier that afternoon.

     “That’s enough. Let’s talk about something else. How’s that cadet training coming along?”

31 – Luminary

“I saw Hari as a little sister,” Cassandra’s image said. “Me with my Military experience and her with, well, nothing. You could tell by the way she carried herself that she had lived a life of privilege. Hell, she once told me she cheated on one section of her HEATs so she could get into the Academy. Back then, I was very naïve, but knowing what I know now, I can see that her motivations were political.”

     Atara sat on her bed with her legs crossed. It was as if she were a little girl again watching her mother in the flesh. Xannissa was there, too, lounging against the bed’s headboard. Cassandra’s last words from the first recording struck home, and Atara wanted to watch the subsequent recordings with her partner.

     “It turns out that being an admiral in the Greater Federation Navy is more political than I would have liked. If you’re anything like I am, then you would quickly grow to hate this job. I hope you never let them force you out of ship command.” Cassandra’s expression turned to sadness, but she shed no tears. Xannissa saw that same emotional blockade working in Cassandra that Atara had always possessed.

     “You see me starting to get emotional and fighting it,” Cassandra continued, “and you’re probably thinking that we are just alike. Of course we are. We’re family. But trust me when I tell you it’s a lot more than that. You and I share the exact same genetics.”

     “Playback, pause,” Xannissa said, and Cassandra’s image froze. She turned to Atara and asked, “Did you know about this?”

     “You know,” Atara started, “now that you mention it, I remember way back after my mother died that our family physician left me a message suggesting it. I think he even wanted to know how it was possible, but I was too distraught at the time to return his call. I eventually forgot about it until now.” They reflected on Cassandra’s words for a moment before Atara said, “Playback, continue.”

     “It’s strange for a mother to raise her own clone,” Cassandra stated, “but you’ve always been so much more to me than that. Hari had a knack for finding things out, and one day she sat down with me and told me about a secret reproduction program the Military had been conducting for decades. If you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘we need more people like you,’ that is what this program is meant to solve. They call it… Gemini. Project Gemini. Whoever runs it identifies luminaries: their word for people whose genome and epigenome are worth replicating. The ethics of such a thing; I mean, can you imagine what the general public would think? It harkens back to Miridan experiments into genetic predestination.

     “When Hari explained it to me, she also told me that I had been marked as a luminary, and I didn’t believe her. She was upset that she hadn’t been chosen. She worked her way into grabbing some of the luminary files in order to convince me, and that’s when I told her that I wanted to raise one as my own. I don’t know how she did it. She never told me. But my first was you: a luminary offspring to a luminary.”

     The recording abruptly terminated at the conclusion of that sentence, but Atara wanted more. “Fiori, do you have any other recordings?”

    Fiori’s orange figure materialized before their bed and said, “Unfortunately, I do not. You must allow me more time to discover them as I continue my investigation.”

     “Alright,” Atara said. “Thank you for everything, Fiori.”

     “Any time, Atara,” Fiori said before vanishing.

     Later that day, the senior officers assembled in the briefing room. Atara was the last to enter. The captain greeted them, took her seat, and to them all said, “Naval Intelligence was recently handed a treasure trove by the Republic’s Intelligence Ministry. Until now, we’ve been operating under the assumption that the Voulgenathi was a known design. On the contrary, it’s an Alliance design we’ve never seen before.” Atara evoked a lumigraph of the Voulgenathi, like a scale model, that stretched across the entire length of the table. The ship was completely black with no noticeable markings—not even a designation or a state emblem. Some of the officers stood from their seats to take a better look.

     “A Republic patrol fleet in Onen stopped the ship for forty-five hours,” Atara continued. “What you are seeing now is the sum of their internal and external scans of the ship. This gives us a more complete picture of what we’re up against.” The lumigraph presented the battleship in such detail that the navigation lights were strobing and tiny strikecraft could be seen behind the hangars’ airscreens.

     “What about ecksivar?” Xannissa asked.

     “They found it,” Atara told her, “and they tried to recover it, but the Republic team was killed in a shootout with the elsheem before the ship went into hyperwarp. It’s stored in what they’ve identified as the Emperor’s Suite: Emperor Tarete’s living quarters in the core of the ship. The ship itself is three-and-a-half kilometers long, but it also serves as a mothership for these two small frigates,” as Atara explained, the frigates attached to the core ship highlighted and were located at the Voulgenathi’s stern, “and a complement of strikecraft more than triple the Kelsor’s. The armament and defenses are what you would expect of your typical battleship: thick armor, potent shields, and lots of weapons. Aboard, they have something like twenty-two-thousand crew, seven-thousand officers, and twelve-thousand soldiers: a little more than double our own.”

     Xannissa stood, walked around to the side of the table behind Kyora and Virn and, pointing to the ships starboard side, said, “I’m interested in these circles here. These smaller ones look like escape pods, but these look like missile tubes.” Atara followed the engineer as the latter placed her finger directly on the image. Xannissa used her index finger and thumb to draw a virtual ruler across one of the circles and found its diameter to be about ten meters.

     Standing with Xannissa, Atara said, “They’re actually large troop-transport systems.”

     “Drop pods?” Kyora asked, sitting beneath them.

     “The people at NavIntel seem to think that they may be hull-breachers,” Sesh stated loudly from the split head of the table. “There are forty of them spread across the ship’s exterior. If we get too close to the Voulgenathi when we engage them, we may have boarders drilling straight into our hull.”

     “At least they’re not using jump systems, right?” Xannissa told them. “I mean, this way, all we need to do is shoot them all before they land on us.”

     “Easier said than done,” Atara admitted. “They still have about a hundred strikecraft backing them up. I would like to keep them at range as long as possible. Other than strikecraft, their battleship can’t fight as effectively from a hundred-thousand kilometers.”

     Sesh asked, “Are you thinking about having our warp missiles ready to fire when we kick them out of warp?”

    “That’s the first part of the plan,” Atara told them.

30 – Plasmastrike

“By now,” Virn began, “you should all be comfortable with using your NI’s. I propose we conduct a demonstration of your adequacy. Sheathe yourselves in full suits of armor such as the one I’m wearing now.”

     All together, the cadets used their neural interfaces to swap between their standard uniforms and full suits of SIRAC, minus helmets. None of the twelve cadets had any trouble responding to Virn’s request for a demonstration.

     “Very good,” Virn stated. “Wouldn’t you agree, Kyora?”

     “They’ve come a long way from standing naked in a field,” Kyora said dryly. Virn had to suppress her laughter.

     Their Accellus training group was finally meeting outside of the simulators. Their training so far placed them on a barren field in an abandoned town, tropical beach adjacent to crystal blue water, forest clearing in the middle of the wilderness, snowfield amongst a coniferous taiga, and rooftop garden atop a tower on one of the Sister Worlds. Today, the cadets assembled within one of the Kelsor’s weapons ranges. Live weapons were forbidden aboard the simulators due to the way the simulators place participants within the simulator space. Weapons fire is not blocked in the simulator, and if one fired a weapon into a seemingly deserted virtual field, she would be killing her fellow starmen without even realizing it as each round passed through her lumionic bubble and into the bubbles of the adjacent starmen. At one of the AOTP mentor meetings, Xannissa had proposed the cadets use virtual weapons aboard the simulators for their training, but Kyora insisted that they conduct their training in an environment where live weapons could be wielded.

     “Depending on your reasons for joining the Military,” Virn said, “this may be the session you’ve been waiting for. Today, we’ll be covering the basics of Accellus weapon use.”

     Kyora, in her usual lack of SIRAC, fabricated a pistol. She kept her finger off the trigger and pointed the barrel away from the group. “This is the most basic handgun in our arsenal,” Kyora explained to the cadets while she showed them the weapon. “The Avond Designs S-Eleven.” The sidearm had a sleek appearance just like the prevailing Federation aesthetic. “It’s not my personal choice in weaponry. I prefer my handguns have a little more stopping power. That being said, you should never underestimate this weapon. It will save your life.

     “Just like most other handheld weapons in the Federation arsenal, and every weapon we’ll look at today, it’s a gravitic mass driver. It has two ammunition modes: kinetic and plasmic. Kinetic rounds are, of course, solid. They’re your go-to for longer-range encounters. Plasma is better against closer range targets. Why? You can blame thermodynamics for that, but that’s a discussion better had with a scientist. These drivers possess some of the strongest gravitics systems we can make. They propel rounds up to five-hundred meters per second in a barrel one-hundred-twenty millimeters long. That’s over one-hundred-thousand g’s of gravitational acceleration in a tiny burst lasting less than a thousandth of a second, and since it is a gravitic propeller, there is absolutely no recoil.”

     Kyora picked up a device bearing the universal symbol for omnium from a table nearby. “This is a handgun- and subsustainer-compatible magazine. All it does is store Military omnium synthevar that we can use for our weapons so that we don’t always need to drain our Accellus’ supply.” She slid the magazine into the bottom of the pistol’s grip and made sure it was secure. “There are two other classes of universal magazines: medium for drivers and assault drivers, and large for sustainers, launchers, and cannons. You’ll want to use unimags whenever you can, but it’s not the end of the world if you can’t. A tiny gun like this isn’t going to leave you high and dry, but don’t forget that every round you fire is a bit of personal reservoir you lose. Truthfully, most Auroras and Assault Force equip boosters to their backs before battle that function as extended reservoirs, but unimags are always an option especially when you have no access to a booster pack.”

     Kyora stepped over to the range and said, “I want you all to gather around here.” After the cadets moved in closer, the phantom continued. “If I try to pull the trigger now, what’s going to happen?” She held the S-11 up to eye-level with both hands and aimed it at the rectangular target twenty meters downrange.

     “Is your safety on?” one of the cadets asked her.

     “If it is, what would happen?”

     “The gun won’t fire.”

     “Exactly,” Kyora explained. She pulled the trigger, but the handgun refused to fire. “Every time you fabricate a weapon, the safety is on by default. This keeps you from accidentally shooting your friends—or yourself. You disengage it by using your NI. So now that the safety is off, this is a live weapon. Your finger doesn’t go on that trigger until you are absolutely ready to fire, understand? It’s in plasma mode, so I’m going to take aim and fire.”

     Kyora fired the S-11 several times at the target. All of her shots landed within the bullseye of the concentric circles on the lumigraph. The cadets listened to the initial silence that accompanied the split-second ejection of each plasma bolt from the barrel. Each bolt, like lightning, hit the target and burst into a single micro-thunder that, combined with the other bolts, gave rise to a miniature thunderstorm. Everyone’s Accellus placed lumionic barriers within their ear canals to soften the potentially-deafening noise of the exploding bolts.

     “How was that?” Kyora asked them.

     “Like a natural,” Virn told her, judging her friend’s accuracy and precision.

     “If the gun does not detect an Accellus suit, it also will not fire.” To demonstrate, Kyora recalled the bodysuit from her hands and pulled the trigger, but the weapon, despite having a unimag inserted, did not fire. She pulled it a few times to drive her point home.

     “Okay,” Kyora said as she recalled the pistol, catching the magazine as it was left behind. “I want all of you to pick a lane and face downrange.” The cadets followed her order and stood at one of the firing stations. The range became populated by lumionic targets all ten meters down. “Fabricate an S-Eleven and point it downrange. Do not disengage the safety until I tell you!” The two Auroras walked behind the cadets as they fabricated their pistols and pointed them at the targets. Lieren tried to keep her hands from shaking. She’d never fired a real weapon before, let alone hold one. She found the experience exhilarating.

     “Safeties off!” Kyora ordered. “On my mark…” she was interrupted by a weapon discharge. “Excuse me?” she shouted. “Did I tell you to fire?”

     “I’m sorry, colonel!” Lieren cried. “I didn’t mean to.” The girl was shaking even more now. The last thing she wanted to do was piss off her instructor.

     “Everyone stop and recall your weapons,” she told them. “Trigger discipline! I said, when that safety goes off, you never touch that trigger until you are ready to fire. Is that absolutely clear?” Kyora hated when she sounded like a drill sergeant, but it always occurred when she trained others in weapons use. She appeared to place the blame of her trainee’s faults on them, but in reality, she felt responsible for every mistake made by her trainees when live weapons were being used. The last thing she wanted was for any of them to get hurt regardless of whether their Accellus’ would protect them from a slipup.

     Kyora allowed them to refabricate their weapons. This time, Lieren held her finger far away from her trigger after disengaging her safety. When the order was given to fire twelve rounds into the targets, she hesitated for a moment. After collecting her wits, she squeezed the trigger, noticing that no matter how long she held it down, it would only fire once until she released her finger. After everyone had finished, Kyora commanded them to once again recall their S-11’s. She wasn’t interested in their marksmanship for this lesson, so she ignored how awful it was. She gathered the cadets together and fabricated a new, larger weapon.

     “The rest of the weapons I’ll show you today I did not intend for you to try. The S-Eleven is a self-defense weapon in most respects. These other ones are weapons of war. This,” she explained, showing off the weapon in her arms that she pointed away from the group, “is the AD-Ninety-Nine assault driver. It is the workhorse of the entire Federation Military, so listen close…”

     Xannissa stepped off of the lift when it arrived at main engineering. Officers, engineers, technicians, and others of the crew, including a moderate number of personnel from their compliment of Auroras (especially after the syndicate attack) filled the central atrium. After the first week working with GreDrive’s and Archetype’s synerdrive, she could describe every minute detail of its operation. After a month-and-a-half, she could tell you its personality, its hopes, and its dreams. The same could not be said with regard to Fiori. She woke up that morning thinking about what Fiori told her weeks before: being an outside expert to work side-by-side Fiori’s operators—memories she no longer possessed. But she figured her mind was trying to refer back to those memories because of the jump drone project that was nearing completion. Regardless, Fiori was the one machine that she could never understand. There were plenty of others in the Federation that made it their careers to design drive systems. Xannissa only maintained them; maybe optimize them here and there, but she was no designer. One thing was certain, though, and it was that Fiori seemed to always have a plan.

     “Lieren,” Xannissa said as she approached the young Larissian bending over one of the lumionic tables. The cadet had adopted Xannissa’s open short jacket look, but she tended to take it a step further by leaving her arms out of the sleeves such that the jacket draped over her shoulders.

     “Good afternoon, Xann,” Lieren said. The cadet pulled herself away from the diagrams she was staring at.

     “Making any sense of it?”

     “A little bit. I still have a lot to learn,” she told her mentor, giggling.

     “How was the weapons training? Not too harsh, I hope.”

     “I thought it was really fun,” Lieren told her. “I did accidently discharge the gun, though.”

     “You what? I told Kyora to have that training in the simulator with lumes. If she had listened, this kind of thing….”

     “It’s okay,” the cadet said, interrupting Xannissa. “No one was hurt.”

     “Thank goodness,” Xannissa said. “It’s bad enough they assigned you to a mission like this. You’re too young.”

     “I knew the risk when I signed up for the Academy,” Lieren softly assured her. “In a way, I’m following in my mother’s footsteps.”

     “Was your mother Navy?”

     “Defense Force. She passed away during a mission several years ago.”

     “I’m sorry to hear that.”

     “It’s okay,” Lieren told her. “I came to terms with her death a long time ago. My father still struggles with it, and now with the rest he’s dealing with….”

     “It’s a lot for a person,” Xannissa said.

     There was a long pause. Xannissa started looking at diagrams projected from the table before Lieren asked, “So, what are you doing today?”

     “Well,” Xannissa explained, “I’d like to do some routine maintenance on the mediator. After that, the adjunct reported a slight fluctuation in ODEC Two. Nothing too unusual, but I always like to go back and check the run logs just to be safe. Usual stuff. Also going to test the fabrication program of the little side project I’m working on.”

     “Oh? What’s that?”

     “I’ll show you when we get to it,” Xannissa told her, teasing her student.