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.


     “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?”


     “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.


     “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.


     “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?”


     “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.”


     “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.”



     “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.



     “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.”


     “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.

29 – Synthetic

“Hi, beautiful,” Aedan greeted Xannissa. The quality of the lumigraph had deteriorated considerably since they passed Vandos. Despite this, seeing her nearly took his breath away.

     “I hope you don’t mind if Atara stays here,” Xannissa told him. She and Atara were sitting cross-legged on the bed next to Aedan’s lumigraph which was doing the same. His image was less resolved than it had ever been, and parts of it flickered periodically.

     “Not at all,” Aedan said, smiling. “Not at all. Atara’s practically going to be my sister-in-law. How are you both?”

     “I got roped into a little side project with the omnimologists we have on board,” Xannissa explained. “They wanted my team to help them build a drone.”

     “A drone?”

     “A drone with a mini jump drive.”

     “Ahh, I see. That sounds more like you. How is that going?”

     “We finished the prototype.”

     “What? Already?” Aedan was shocked.

     “It works, but in sim. We haven’t built the real deal yet.”

     “Still, I’m impressed. I wish I had you around to help with my projects.”

     “Don’t be too impressed. In our first series of sims, the drive burned out after one use, which is fine for our purposes.”

     “What might that be?”

     “Getting a certain something out of the hands of a certain someone.”

     “So much mystery,” Aedan stated playfully. “I find that attractive.” Xannissa and Aedan shared a brief laugh.

     “How are you?” Xannissa asked Aedan.

     “I’m fine,” he told them through the distorted lumigraph. “I have a bit of a long story, so you can go next, Atara.”

     Atara was staring into space when Aedan made his suggestion. She hadn’t felt herself since she had seen the lumigraph of her mother earlier that day. Xannissa placed her hand on her friend’s leg, easing the captain out of her thoughts. She now had to decide whether to tell them about Cassandra’s recording.

     “I had a good day,” Atara told them. “Fiori gave me a lumigraph of my mother.”

     “How very kind of her,” Aedan said. “I wish Klade’s archonoid was that thoughtful.”

     “Is it all right if I see it sometime?” Xannissa asked her.

     “Oh, sure,” Atara told her.

     “I almost forgot to warn you,” Xannissa said, “but this might be the last time we can do sub-comms together for a while.”

     “I see that,” Aedan said, noting the poor lumigraphic quality.

     “We’re heading deep into Thalassia Orionis, so sub-comm relays are getting sparser.”

     “I’m going to miss seeing you two,” Aedan told them. There was a brief pause before he said, “You know my Jackknife project?”

     “I do,” Xannissa told him. “You mentioned it when we were on Earth.”

     “Well, it’s getting really close now,” he said. “We’ll be transferring the project to licensing in two weeks. After that, I’ll have two months to move out to Lanan.”

     “That’s great news!” Xannissa said. Her face lit up just like Aedan was hoping it would.

     “I’ll live in an apartment until you get here,” Aedan told her. “Then, when you get back, we can try to find a place together, after we get married of course. Klade will be putting me on a new project at their office there, and I’ll be able to work closer with the Military.”

     “I’m really looking forward to it,” Xannissa said. “Say, didn’t you have a long story to tell us?”

     “You’re right,” he said. “It all started several days ago when I came home from work….”

     The aerocar Aedan rode home—it was always a different one since he, like most workers on Earth, used a ride-sharing service—settled down within one of his apartment building’s shielded transit hubs. Once he had exited the aerocar and stepped away, the onboard integrated assistant thanked him for his continued patronage. The vehicle rose from its landing zone, drifted toward the airscreen, and flew out of sight.

     Aedan walked through an archway to enter the building proper, down a central corridor to the lifts, and rode up to his floor. At his door, all he needed to do was present his face and have his remote identification somewhere on his person which, for most people who wore civilian REMASS like him, was embedded within the REMASS device itself.

     “Hi, Aedan,” a Zelnaran woman greeted him as he walked in. She was curled-up on the couch watching lumivision on a wall-spanning lumigraph. Aedan made enough money from Klade to live alone, but with rent being as high as it was on Earth, it would have been nearly all he could afford to do. For years, he had been sharing a one-hundred-square-meter, two-bedroom apartment with a Zelnaran couple. It took the pressure off of them all, and he was less lonely than he would have been because of it.

     “Good evening, Deya,” he told her. The door closed behind him.

     “You look happy today,” she said after turning down the volume on the lumigraph. Aedan walked across the room and sat down next to her.

     “My project manager called me today,” he said in a cheerful tone. “My project is wrapping up ahead of schedule.”

     “The Jackknife, right?” she asked.


     “Congratulations!” she told him with honest enthusiasm. “Are they giving you some time off?”

     “Two months,” he explained, “but to move to Lanan.”

     “To be close to Xannissa?”

     “Right. So, I’ll be working at the Klade office there.”

     “That’s great that they’re giving you that opportunity,” Deya said. “We’re going to miss you, you know?”

     “I’ll miss you guys, too. Living with you has been a blessing and a pleasure. How was work today?”

     “Oh… the usual,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Nothing exciting, but nothing to complain about. At least I’m earning a salary. Oh, I wanted to tell you this since you brought it up: Rom’s brother has been looking for a place to live. I think he could move in once you leave, so you won’t have to look for a replacement. Some things just work themselves out, it seems.”

     “I’m glad to hear it,” Aedan said. “Speaking of Rom, where is he?” Rom was Deya’s husband and a friend from a past job.

     “He’s working over; deadlines and such.”

     “I see,” he said, slowly nodding his head. “Pouring his brain out like the rest of us.”

     “I’ll be right back,” Deya told him while she rose from the couch. “I want some coffee.” He watched the lumivision as Deya walked into the conjoined dining room. She was only wearing a top, and her blue skin shined in the light of the setting Sol beaming between two skyrises some distance away.

     As she was sitting back down next to him, Aedan, appearing shocked, asked, “What happened to your skin?” The Zelaran’s skin and hair had turned an unnatural metallic silver.

     “What do you mean?” she asked as she looked down at herself. Frantic, she dropped her coffee, breaking the mug and splashing it all over the floor which prompted Aedan to jump to his feet. She opened a lumigraphic mirror to inspect herself. Every square inch of her body was silver except for her eyes which were pure white sclera containing black pupils and no irises. Suddenly, Deya was holding her head in extreme pain and sliding down the wall next to her. Her normal deep blue pigmentation expressed itself for several seconds, but her body returned to silver again. Both hands were on her head now as the pain grew.

     “What’s happening to you?” Aedan was frightened. He knelt down next to her, put an arm around her back, secured her legs in his other arm, and carried her to her bed. He laid her down with pillows to rest her head upon. “Are you a gynoid?” he asked her. She did not answer. Tears streamed down her face as her pain continued to worsen. Her skin flashed blue again, and quickly returned to silver. “I’m calling a doctor,” Aedan told her. He did not know what else to do.

     “No!” she shouted, lifting her torso up and grabbing his arm. “You’re right. I am a gynoid. A doctor can’t help me!” Deya’s pain vanished in an instant. Her breathing was gone. Her skin started to lose its heat. She had no discernable pulse. Despite all this, she stared at him.

     “Does Rom…?” asked Aedan.

     “Yeah,” she said in a small voice, echoing shame.

     “Are you okay?”

     “My camouflage is gone,” she said. “My pain disappeared when I stopped trying to get it back.”

     “I’m going to call Rom; tell him to come home,” said Aedan. Deya didn’t respond. She just collapsed her head back onto her pillow.

     “Hey, Aedan,” Rom said. He was a jolly character even after spending hours behind a desk. His face was on a lumigraph. “What’s wrong, man? You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he continued, half laughing.

     “You need to get back here,” Aedan told him. He could see the concern on Rom’s face developing.

     “What’s wrong?” Rom asked again.

     “It’s Deya.”

     Rom sat quietly for a moment. “Tell her I’m coming,” and Rom closed the call. Several minutes later, he barreled through the apartment door and sat beside his wife who had moved from the bed to sitting on the edge of the couch. He pried away her hands which were covering her face and embraced her in his arms until their heads were touching.

     “I love you,” Rom whispered. “You’re going to be okay.”

     To Aedan, she had seemed as human as anyone he had ever met in his life. Seeing her as a gynoid altered his perception of her as a person in a way he wished he could immediately forget. Ultimately, both Aedan and Deya were victims of her silver android skin that she had been forced to conceal in exchange for some semblance of normality in a not-indifferent Civilized Space. The Federation was progressive in its approach to synthetics relative to the other superpowers, but it was still not in a place to accept them with open arms. Despite his personal relationship with her, her silver flesh evoked negative feelings within him. How would strangers react to her?

     “She needs to stay inside,” Aedan stated, “at least until she gets better.”

     “But I have work tomorrow,” Deya told them.

     “Sh-h-h. Aedan’s right,” Rom told her softly.

     “What am I supposed to do?” If she were able to shed tears—another aspect of her camouflage lost and products of real emotion—she would have.

     “I know a scientist from a local university,” said Aedan. “He’s one of the consultants with my work. He’s a walking encyclopedia, but he specializes in nanoids. He might be able to help you. I can take you to see him tomorrow.” Deya nodded her head.

     “Deya, please,” Rom pleaded, kneeling next to the bed where Deya was resting. He was holding her hand and head. Aedan was pacing slowly between the wall of the room and the foot of the bed. “It’s been four days.”

     “I can’t go out like this,” said Deya. Aedan had enough.

     “I’m going to call Doctor Mikarr,” Aedan told them. He left the room and quickly returned. The doorbell rang nearly an hour later.

     “Hello,” said the professor when Aedan opened the door.

     “I’m glad you could make it, Doctor Mikarr,” said Aedan, shaking the Exan man’s hand. He was over four centuries old, and by this time in his life his body had just begun to betray those abundant, accumulated years.

     “Oh, yes,” said the doctor.

     “Please come in.”

     “So, Klade getting you working on nanoids now?” the doctor said as he entered the apartment. “How can I be of help?”

     “Not quite,” Aedan replied. “Follow me. I have something I need to show you.” The doctor followed Aedan through the living room and through the door to Rom’s and Deya’s bedroom. Rom was still at Deya’s bedside, and he moved away upon hearing the professor step in.

     “Hold on,” Mikarr said. “I’m no physician…” Aedan rolled back the bedsheets, uncovering Deya’s featureless silver body reminiscent of a female mannequin stripped of its display merchandise. “…but I know a gynoid when I see one.” He knelt next to her and asked “How are you feeling?”

     “I’ve been better,” Deya admitted. Her voice sounded more distorted as the days passed.

     “Four days ago, she lost her human camouflage,” Rom explained. “She’s been getting worse every day.”

     “Has she tried getting her camouflage back?” the professor asked.

     “She has,” Rom explained. “It stays for one or two seconds before reverting back to her base state, and attempting to keep it up gives her massive head and body aches.”

     “How peculiar,” said the professor. “How rude of me. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Doctor Mikarr, professor of nanoid cybernetics.”

     “I’m Rom.”


     “I’m sorry to say this, but there’s little I can do for you here,” Mikarr told them. “I need my lab equipment.”

     “Take me” Deya said.


     “To your lab.”

     “I certainly can,” said the professor. “Can you walk?” Deya raised her back off of the mattress, turned her body to the side of the bed, and placed her feet on the ground. Grabbing Mikarr’s hand, she hoisted herself up, only to be caught by Aedan before she stumbled.

     “Easy,” Aedan said, letting her collapse back on the bed.

     “Help her put these on,” Rom said, handing Aedan a pair of civilian REMASS boots. Aedan sat the boots at Deya’s feet, opened them up, and guided her feet into each boot. The gynoid selected and fabricated an outfit with a hood to conceal her face. Rom called for an aerocar which they caught at their building’s transit hub. Taking off through the airscreen and at least half-a-kilometer high, the car’s OPEL screen was bombarded by torrents of rain from the thunderstorms lumbering above. Every few seconds, lumionic fields parted the water on the OPEL’s exterior photoreceptor plates. The OPEL screen quickly dimmed with every flash of lightning to protect the eyesight of the passengers. The autonomous aerocar held steady against the storm’s turbulence. Wind from a storm like this was no threat to a gravidyne.

     The Central Federation Institute of Technology’s campus was composed of twenty levels each in three adjacent towers. Shuttles flew back and forth between them ferrying students and faculty. Without virtual signs appearing on the aerocar’s OPEL screen, it would have been impossible to know which levels of the buildings belonged to CFIT. The car guided itself through a rectangular airscreen in the side of the massive towers which led to a bustling, spherical transit hub. Vehicle traffic was restricted to the middle two layers of this concourse. People looked down from the balconies above and moved fluidly in the areas below. The car stopped over a designated landing zone and descended four meters until it was mere centimeters from the floor. The professor paid the fee and jumped out first. Aedan and Rom eased Deya out of the car’s back seat and stabilized her as the three of them made for the main entrance several meters away. Seeing them lagging behind, Mikarr slowed his pace and walked in front of Deya, obscuring her from the eyes of the curious students who were turning their heads to stare.

     “Professor?” one of the students said. “I got your call.” He was walking alongside Mikarr now. The Exan professor grabbed him by the arm and said “Follow me, son. We need to get to the lab. See if you can grab Nariel, Thea, and Doctor Koru.”

     “Yes, sir,” the student said. Lumionics were visible on the student’s corneas. He sent brief textual messages to the three people Mikarr mentioned.

     Halfway to the doors of the university, two police officers who had watched them since they left the aerocar turned to follow them. They were dressed as on-duty police usually were: helmetless Accellus 3 with light armor and eyes hidden behind lumionic visors. Shoulders, chest, arms, and feet were covered in black SIRAC that obscured the dark gray polyalloy bodysuit beneath. Three diagonal white stripes across the left side of the chest piece and across the upper arm pieces, and the white and black checker pattern across the bottom of the shoulder pieces, bracelets, and boots differentiated them from the solid black armor of the Defense Force.

     The group passed the sliding double doors and entered into a wide hallway which was vacant compared to the crowded concourse. After taking a lift up eight levels, Mikarr led them through the doors to his lab: a room of decent size located at one of the far corners of the building.

     “Welcome to my lab-office!” he told them. OPEL panels served as the outer wall of the room. The storm raged on beyond. It was impossible to see the ground or the closest building; the latter being less than a hundred meters away. The opacity of the windows remained unadjusted due to the darkness outside. Doctor Mikarr cleared away the instruments, equipment, and junk covering part of a lab bench. “Place her up here,” the professor ordered, slapping his hands on the bench. Mikarr walked across the lab to the fabricator in the adjacent office space and returned with a pillow which he placed under her head. He then snatched his lab coat from a chair’s backrest, slid his arms through its long sleeves, and dragged his fingers down its front to fasten it closed. Turning around, he nearly ran into two police officers who had sneaked into the lab just after them.

     “Whoa!” Mikarr gasped. “Hi there.”

     “We followed you from the concourse,” one of the officers explained. “Do you need any help?”

     “I appreciate the offer,” said Mikarr, grabbing a tool from a locker, “but we’re fine. She’s fine,” he said dismissively while looking back at Deya.

     “What’s going on here?” said an Exan female in a white coat who appeared from beyond the lab. She was referring to the police officers standing in their Accellus armor, one with her arms crossed.

     “Doctor Koru, I am so glad you could make it,” said Mikarr.

     “We’re sorry for disturbing you,” said one of the cops, and they promptly disappeared.

     Mikarr grabbed one of Deya’s REMASS boots and said “Mind if I take these off for you? You can keep your clothes on for now.” The gynoid shook her head. After that, Mikarr removed the boots to make her slightly more comfortable—she was on a lab bench after all—, Doctor Koru drew several samples of cytoids—nanoids resembling cells—from her. The professors and their students worked nonstop for the rest of the morning and afternoon analyzing their specimens. They worked through lunch which was provided by the fabricator in the adjacent office.

     “Oh, the wonders of technology,” said Mikarr when he synthesized his evening meal, and something that he said often according to his students. The office was large enough for him and his assembled team to sit close but comfortably.

     “It’s clearly a disease,” Koru said as they ate dinner, “but based on what we’ve seen today, it’s infectious.”

     “She had to have caught it from somewhere,” said Mikarr. “She’s not, for lack of better words, breaking down.”

     “But there is something strange,” Koru stated. “We tested program transmission between infected and uninfected cytoids, and it only spreads to cytoids identifying themselves as belonging to an android.”

     “These nanoid viruses are not unheard of,” Mikarr explained, “but the android’s analog to the human immune system is quite robust. The amount of intimate knowledge required to create something like what we’re seeing here…. Well, let’s just say that whoever programmed this virus would have had to design her. A plague from the machine god of sorts.”

     “Deya was born from another gynoid,” said Rom. He and Aedan had been invited to have dinner with the scientists. “No one created her.”

     “I meant her kind,” Mikarr said, placing emphasis on certain words. “Engineer her race, if any one person could have done that. Then again, it could be the unforeseen consequences of biomimetic synthetics, much like the viruses that infect biologics.”

     After working late into the night, Mikarr and Koru returned the following day to run more tests and challenge the hypotheses that had stolen some of their sleep. The students and professors came and went as classes were held, but there was at least one person working with Deya’s cytoids at any one time. Deya herself remained motionless atop the lab bench.

     “Aedan, how do you know the professor?” Rom asked. He was sitting in a raised chair next to the now-unclothed Deya, and Aedan was sitting on the end of a couch positioned perpendicularly to the floor-to-ceiling OPEL panels. The storms retreated overnight giving them a beautiful, cloudless day. From the couch, Aedan could see Deya and the team working to save her life.

     “I first met him when I took his class for an elective right here during my undergrad,” Aedan told him. “I’ve seen him at several conferences and attended several of his lectures. He got me fascinated with nanoids, though I’ve never gotten a chance to work with them at Klade. The professor is actually a technology consultant at our Klade office. He knows a lot more than just nanoids.”

     “Sounds like you two are good friends,” said Rom, smiling.

     “Yeah,” said Aedan. “I’ve always seen him as a mentor.”

     “Have anything?” Mikarr asked Nariel, his graduate student. They were on the other side of the room.

     “Look at this,” Nariel said. “I’ve been working on this all morning.” The student repositioned a lumigraph toward Mikarr showing the data from her tests. “I took infected cytoids from Deya and placed them next to constructoids. The hardware for both is the same, but the software is slightly different. The infection did not spread. I repeated it: this time copying Deya’s aspect to the constructoids, and they received the infection. Just now, I changed one of Deya’s infected cytoids to a constructoid, and it cured the infection.”

     “This malware has a high specificity for our friend there?” Mikarr asked. “How fascinating. Have you tried subjecting other cytoids to Deya’s?”

     “Not yet, but I will,” Nariel told him. Several tests later, the team of scientists learned, with a high degree of certainty, that the infection was transmissible from android to android. The problem was how to treat Deya. Every cytoid in her body was infected.

     “Doctor Koru and I have decided to try something radical,” Mikarr announced to the lab the following day. Rom was holding his wife’s arm. “We found that changing a nanoid’s job kills the infection in that nanoid. Changing that nanoid back again leaves it cured. What we are proposing is changing all of Deya’s cytoids to constructoids at once, and then back. As their name implies, constructoids are nanoids programed to interlock to create solid structures.”

     “Do you know if this will work?” Rom asked him.

     “To tell you the truth,” said Mikarr, “we have absolutely no idea. It will kill the infection, I guarantee it, but when we bring her back, she could return to life, or….”

     “I can’t let you do it until you guarantee she’ll survive,” Rom interrupted him. His voice was shaking.

     “The android body,” Koru explained, “is a complex network of cytoids reacting and responding to….”

     “Do it,” Deya said in a voice that was barely audible.

     “This could kill you,” Rom said, gripping her arm tightly.

     “I’m dead anyway,” said Deya. “Can’t you see that?” She did not open her eyes, and she had been still for fifty hours. Rom stared at her. Deya’s body was consumed. “I won’t survive the night.”

     “All right, you heard her,” Rom relented. “Do it.” All five team members were present in the lab, and those who had not already donned white coats were doing so now. Mikarr mentioned that the operation would move swiftly, but Rom was not listening. His senses were focused on Deya, the one person that gave his life any meaning.

     “Perform the overwrite,” Mikarr ordered, and Deya’s metallic flesh hardened like duralithics. Rom was gripping a solid statue possessing her form, clinging to his belief that somewhere in that mass of constructoids she was alive. “And roll it back.” Deya’s arm was soft again, but she remained motionless. Everyone in the room stared at her. Whether she was alive or deceased, she looked at peace. Her chest rose and fell, followed by a long pause. It rose and fell again. Her skin was returning to its former Zelnaran blue along with its accurate mimesis of biological anatomy and physiology. The gynoid opened her eyes, tilted her head toward Rom, and smiled.

28 – Inspection

Unbeknownst to the Kelsor, Federation THORCOM sent a formal request for assistance in hindering or halting the Voulgenathi that arrived at Republic Persean Rift Operations Command, or PROCOM. Acting on that request from their ally, Captain Vonel of the Republic battleship Retributor stood on the bridge dressed in his gray uniform. Somewhere aboard his ship was the contingent of Revenants of the squad Quietus of Hiracet. His battleship was about to attempt another jump to move them further away from the Persean Rift and its never-ceasing Invisible War, toward the direction of the Saraian Range far coreward.

     “You can’t expect me to make jumps greater than eighty lightyears,” said Vonel.

     “You’re right,” the admiral told him. “We can’t risk it for the Retributor or Quietus. That’s why we’re sending a patrol ship to intercept the Voulgenathi in Onen. It will perform a routine ‘inspection’ of the ship which may buy you a day at most.”

     “Thank you, admiral,” said Vonel.

     “I am Captain Gorgin of the Republic frigate Basilisk,” the bridge crew heard aboard the Voulgenathi. “You have entered Zone Seven, a district of Onen under the protection of the Republic. You are ordered to disengage your warp system, drop your shields, and yield to a full internal and external inspection of your vessel. Any actions you take contrary to these orders will be considered an act of war against the People of the Republic and we will use interdiction. You have thirty seconds to comply.”

     “Where is the emperor?” asked the captain of the Voulgenathi.

     One of his lieutenants said, “He is asleep, sir. Should I awaken him?” The captain shuddered at the thought.

     “No!” the captain shouted. “Let him sleep. I can handle this myself. Disengage our hyperwarp.”

     The Voulgenathi stopped somewhere deep in interstellar space. Within twenty minutes, a wormhole opened near the ship and out came a Republic frigate which situated itself on the Voulgenathi’s starboard side. Two more ships—corvettes—exited the wormhole behind the frigate and took to orbiting the pair of larger ships. All of them had their weapons trained on the large, Alliance-built vessel. When the Republic dropship landed in one of the Voulgenathi’s hangar bays, the Voulgenathi’s captain was there to meet the inspection team.

     “I am Captain Fala,” the elsheem captain said as the slate gray-uniformed inspector stepped off of the dropship accompanied by his guards clad in slate Type-M. “Welcome aboard the Voulgenathi.” The captain was projecting all the confidence he could muster.

     “I am Commander Mallin of the People’s Navy,” said the stern Republic officer. “I will be leading today’s inspection.” He swiveled his head, seeing all of the pairs of pointed auricles. So much elsheem filth. He could barely tolerate it. But he had his orders: delay them as much as possible, and it would be his pleasure to. “How… many of your compliment can speak Miri?”

     “Uhh…,” thought Captain Fala. “Not many. Most know a few phrases, but less than a fifth are fluent.”

     “In that case, my lieutenants and I will be using translators.” Commander Mallin gestured toward a group of four Republic officers dressed in slate Navy uniform emerging from the dropship—three male and one female. They walked over and stood behind the commander, chests out and hands behind their backs, as he continued talking to the Voulgenathi’s captain. Commander Mallin turned to his lieutenants and said “Activate your translators and follow us.” The officers pulled back the sleeves of their uniforms, revealing arm-mounted, lumionic interfaces. Each of the officers had an earpiece for communication that would also be feeding them Miri from the translator. The job of translation was performed by the Basilisk’s computer: Rellia’s adjunct.

     The Republic officers and Marines moved slowly through the ship’s innards, using drones, specialized Type-M modules, and hand-held devices to carry out their scans. A large party of weary elsheem trailed behind them wherever they went.

     “How long are they going to be here?” the first officer whispered to Captain Fala in Avenathi. Both were on the bridge now. The Republic had been aboard for four hours. “The emperor could awaken any moment. He’ll be furious!” Fala’s hairless skin began to sweat.

     “Tell the ship’s medical officer,” Fala said with his hand near his mouth, “tell him to keep His Majesty sleeping soundly.”

     “You’re going to drug the emperor?” the officer asked, whispering loudly. Fala grabbed the officer’s mouth, muffling him.

     “Do you want to die?”

     The medical officer reported to the emperor’s quarters where Taretes was sound asleep on his bed surrounded by his five naked elshi concubines. After he injected Taretes with the sedative—being careful to use minute amounts that wouldn’t harm an elsheem—he gave some to each of the elshi. As he leaned over the last female, the medical officer scanned her body with his eyes; her brown hair, pretty face, attractive bosom, flat abdomen, sleek legs. He doubted he had seen a fairer female in the entire Empire. The elsheem doctor gave her an injection, and then departed from the emperor’s quarters.

     “Another Republic frigate just jumped in, captain,” said an elsheem lieutenant a few hours later.

     “Damn it all,” Fala whispered in Avenathi. “This is taking too long. Hail the Basilisk,” he demanded. Captain Gorgin appeared as a lumigraph near where Fala and his first officer were standing. “Captain Gorgin,” Fala said calmly, “how is the inspection coming?”

     “My officers are halfway through with their scans,” Gorgin told him.

     “My crew and I would like to get underway soon,” Fala stated.

     “You will be underway once we have completed our inspection and not a minute sooner. Now, is there anything else I can help you with, Captain Fala?” Gorgin finished with a smile. Fala could tell the Republic captain was enjoying himself, and it made Fala sick.

     “That is all, sir,” Fala said, and terminated the link. The Republic had cycled through two inspection teams and was now on its third. Fala couldn’t sleep, eat, or even sit down. He stared through the slanted windows of the ventrally-located bridge of the Alliance-designed ship at the starscape before him. Twenty-nine hours had passed.

     Eventually, the Republic inspection team arrived at the last place they had not scanned. As they approached the large set of decadent doors, the group of elsheem soldiers who were following them—eight in all—ran in front of the Republic officers and Marines to stand in front of the doors.

     “What do you think you’re doing?” said Commander Mallin, his Miri being muffled and Avenathi being broadcast to the elsheem.

     “Captain Fala,” said Gorgin, stepping toward the elsheem as his image was resolved. “I have good news. There is one last compartment of your ship that we must scan; however, my men tell me that your people are preventing them from doing so. Please tell your crew to stand down.” Fala nodded to his first officer who, grunting, turned to a lieutenant and passed the order along. Seeing the action, Gorgin said “Thank you, captain,” and then disappeared. Fala said nothing.

     With the elsheem out of the way, Commander Mallin opened the double doors. Amid the luxurious decorations of all sorts was the large velvet bed upon which the mound of elsheem flesh rested, partially obscured by a thin golden veil.

     “Disgusting,” Mallin stated. “Search everything, including them.” He pointed to the naked elsheem. The inspectors tried rousing them but quickly gave up. The other elsheem of the crew stood within the large room and watched as the Marines in their slate Type-M gently hauled the elshi to the ground, then stepped away to allow the officers to take their scans. Many of the crew gasped when it was the emperor’s turn to be carried down from the bed.

     “You’ve scanned them,” said Fala in Miri, walking into the room, “now put them back.”

     “Very well,” said Mallin, and he helped the Marines lift the elshe and his mistresses back upon the silk sheets. One of the Republic officers had wandered into a side room and returned with an odd container from which he was getting strange scanner data. The officer explained the find and gave the container to Mallin. The Akkain Corporation logo was printed on its side.

     “What is this?” the commander asked Fala.

     “I don’t know. One of the emperor’s belongings.” Beads of sweat had been forming on Fala’s face since the inspectors arrived at the emperor’s suite. The inside of his uniform was saturated with moisture.

     “You wouldn’t mind if we looked inside, then?” Mallin asked. Fala kept silent. Using a tiny screen on the cylinder, Mallin changed the walls of the container from opaque to transparent, revealing the black crystal within. “Amazing,” he whispered, at once drawn into its beauty. “This matches something we’ve been on the lookout for for some time. Under the authority of the People’s Interstellar Republic, I hereby confiscate this item as contraband in the sovereign State of Onen.” Fala blinked once and led them out of the emperor’s quarters.

     Somewhere between there and the hangar, Fala, voice trembling, said, “I’m sorry, but I cannot let you part with that crystal.” The elshe raised a sidearm. Republic and Elsheem weapons pointed toward each other in an instant. Guns and shields hummed softly yet menacingly throughout that corridor. More elsheem soldiers in black armor were pouring into the corridor from both sides, weapons ready to fire. Mallin smirked.

     “You have no idea,” Mallin said. “For each of us that falls, there are twenty more of us willing to stand. Thus is the nature of the Republic. Kill us, and you face the endless wrath of the People.”

     “Your People can die in hell,” Fala spat. The dark corridor erupted, and it became a thunderstorm of plasma charges and bullets. The Republic inspection team was reduced to several smoking corpses, as were many more of the elsheem. An injured Fala was assisted to the bridge, and he gave the order to engage the hyperwarp drive and escape from Onen. The Republic witnessed the signature change within the Voulgenathi’s drive core and opened fire on the battleship, inflicting some damage on the unshielded ship before it disappeared toward Alliance space.

     The door to the Voulgenathi’s bridge opened.

     “Captain Fala!” growled the elshe who entered. The captain knew who he was when he spoke. Taretes grabbed the captain’s hair when he turned around, and with a quick slice, separated Fala’s head from his shoulders with a plasma blade. Fala’s body stood for a few seconds before becoming limp and crashing to the ground. Taretes threw the head away—Fala’s consciousness quickly fading—and to the commander said, “Congratulations on your promotion.”

27 – Cassandra

The captain shook herself awake. It was enough to rattle Xannissa next to her who asked, “Atara?” in a groggy voice. “You okay?”

     “I think it was a bad dream,” Atara told her. She looked over at a lumigaphic showing her the time. “Mind if I shower first?”

     “Go ahead,” Xannissa said. The Elestan rolled over as the Terran slid out of bed and toward the bathroom. Before she left the bedroom, Xannissa was once again fast asleep.

     Later that morning, while Xannissa was cleansing herself, Atara sat at the desk in their quarters and performed her daily ritual of checking her mail. The last mail she opened had no sender, subject, or body, and it contained an attachment with an unusual decryption. When she tried to delete the mail, it remained in her inbox. She completely forgot about it until she returned to have lunch in her quarters alone. It was one of those days where Xannissa was on AOTP duty, so she wouldn’t be getting lunch for another hour.

     “Atara,” Fiori said as she appeared across the table from her with her legs and arms crossed.

     “What is it, Fiori?”

     “I sent you mail last night.”

     “You mean the blank one? That was from you?”

     “It’s something I found that I thought you should see. I’ll be sending you more later, but for now, here’s the encryption key.” Fiori spawned a lumigraph containing a file. Before Atara could open it, Fiori had disappeared again.

     The captain was close to finishing her meal, so she ate, recycled the dishes, and opened the file. The file contained a long string of machine-readable symbols. She opened her inbox on a lumigraph at the dining table and entered the string at the mail attachment’s decryption prompt. When the attachment became readable, Atara executed it.

     Standing before the captain was a full-body lumigraph of a woman who looked exactly like her, from her red hair, green eyes, skin tone, and even hairstyle. The only true difference was the Accellus 3 bodysuit that the woman in the lumigraph wore, and she immediately began speaking.

     “Atara,” said the recording. The woman paused to collect her thoughts. “I hate talking to myself,” she continued. “I am your mother,” she stated awkwardly, “but all others know me as Cassandra.” She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Fifth Fleet Rear Admiral Cassandra Korrell.”

     Cassandra sighed and said, “If you’re seeing these recordings, it is safe to assume that I’ve already passed away. I just hope that they find you at a point in time where you can act. By now you’re probably wondering why I’m reaching out to you in death rather than in life. I hope you understand that it was for your own protection. I love you so, so much.” Her speech was less stoic than Atara remembered from her childhood, though Atara’s memory of her mother was fuzzier than she ever wanted to admit.

     “The reason I’m recording these is two-fold. First, I want to open up myself to you, now that I have the opportunity to do so. Second, I want to tell you why I lived such a closed-off life. And I’m so very sorry. You don’t deserve an absent mother like me.” She paused again before saying, “I guess with that, I should start at the beginning.

     “I joined the Navy almost a century-and-a-half ago. I was a bright-eyed schoolgirl much as you were when you were younger. I dreamed of being an astronomer; an explorer. I didn’t care as much about starships themselves than I did about going places, and I hated the thought of plummeting to my death,” a fear they both shared but kept secret, “but my parents didn’t have the funds to support my education. I ended up enlisting in the Navy Reserve to support myself through university. It wasn’t until I graduated and did the five years of service that I realized I could make a career out of it that I could enjoy. After my time was up, I applied to the Academy to earn my commission, and that’s where I met a girl named Aesho for the first time, coming in straight after high school. You could say we were friends back then, but when we graduated the Academy, we didn’t see each other until years later. By then, I had married your father.

     “I’m trying to keep these brief to limit their file size. I just want to close this first recording by saying be careful who you trust. I am so grateful that you have a friend like Xannissa in your life. I never had a person like that I could turn to, and that’s why I’m in the place I am right now. I love you, Atara.”

     The recording ended with Cassandra’s image vanishing from the room. Atara sat quietly in astonishment. After a few minutes of staring blankly into space, she decided to watch the recording again. As far as she could tell, the recording appeared to be genuine. Atara wanted to trust that Fiori was on her side in whatever dark happenings were occurring, and she knew there were plenty of them. Judging by what her mother said, Atara reasoned that Cassandra must have known something of grave importance. Did it have anything to do with Aesho? The captain was inclined to believe it had everything to do with the admiral. She would need to wait for more recordings to know for sure, but one thing was indeed certain: the multitude of emotions she felt after seeing her mother again was real. Atara was unsure whether to be happy or sad; to laugh or cry. She tried to hold her emotions at bay behind her unrelenting blockade, but this time, the dam was breaking. Her eyes moistened as laughter crept from her lungs. Or were they sobs? The mother she had felt so distant to was inching closer to her. She had never longed so much for her mother to be alive again than this day.