Epilogue

After enduring two months of living in an offworld memory clinic at Fiori’s request, and another two months of readjusting to daily life alongside planning her marriage, Xannissa’s father, a tall Elestan with jet black hair and neutral skin, led his daughter down the aisle. She was dressed in a light blue gown, and her head was covered beneath a veil. Standing at the altar with the minister was Aedan, dressed in a suit that was also a light blue. When asked why she wanted a light blue wedding, Xannissa had mentioned that it wasn’t white, and white was the color she wore daily in the Navy. Instead of her ponytail, her straight, dark blue hair flowed down her back beneath her veil. Her bridesmaids—Atara, Sesh, and her sister Cylenna—flanked the minister on his right. Aedan was on his left, and behind him were Kyle, Rom, and one of Aedan’s old coworkers and friends, Leo.

     Xannissa’s misty-eyed father let her ascend the steps to the altar, and she walked forward, turned to face Aedan, and smiled. He beamed back at her, and couldn’t take his eyes off of the beautiful Elestan before him. The minister looked at them both, and then to the audience he reminded that this was a ceremony to acknowledge the sacred matrimony of two entwined souls. All those gathered there would bear witness to the vows they made to each other and to the Creator. This minister in particular, a firm believer in the power of marriage, proclaimed that the bond formed here was eternal, and could never be broken—should never be broken—from that day forward. Not wealth, nor health, nor other hardships could break their solemn vows. The only way to undo their union was death, and until then, they were each other’s to love and cherish for as long as they should live. The minister presented a ring made of a platinum alloy, a symbol of the vow, and offered it to Aedan. The Terran took it in his hand and slid the ring on Xannissa’s outstretched, cool gray finger, the third from her thumb on her left hand. After this, the minister offered Xannissa a similar ring, and she placed it on Aedan’s finger. The minister then allowed Xannissa to remove her veil, and they shared a kiss on the lips for all to see, followed by applause.

     The evening saw a reception sponsored by none other than the generous Kyle Korrell, there with his Elestan wife Talme and three teenaged Elestan daughters. Cylenna became the center of attention among a group of younger attendees accusing her of being the Spectre of racing fame. Attempting to do her younger sister a favor, Cylenna tried to deny it, but when one of the men of the group revealed a lumigraph of the nude pictures she took on Vandos with the Republic’s Hammer, she quickly closed it—one of the rare moments she actually tried to be modest before a group of fans. In order to appease them, she offered to sign autographs for them after most of the reception guests had disappeared.

     Rom’s wife Deya was well, having fully recovered from the mysterious disease that had gripped her gynoid body. Except for Atara, Xannissa, Aedan, and Rom, none of the other guests were the wiser with regard to Deya’s biology, or lack thereof. Also attending was Lieren who apologized on her father’s and Namara’s behalf for not being present. According to her, time had become a precious luxury that the Military would not let them waste, so they had sent Lieren on a mission to capture as much of the wedding as possible. Xannissa assured the cadet that the lumigrapher Kyle helped them hire would do his job well, and that she would share the lumigraphs with everyone in attendance when she received them.

     As the event was coming to its conclusion, Aedan and Xannissa left the building with their circle of close friends. Hovering just outside was a luxury gravidyne waiting to carry them into Lanan’s orbit. The newlyweds exchanged hugs, kisses, handshakes, and pats on the back before climbing into the light blue vehicle. Once the top was sealed, the aerocar climbed upward into the clear, sunny sky.

     “… the new Cycline Six line of luxury gravidynes. Fly in comfort within the spacious interior…” the wall-spanning lumigraph droned on. Atara was seated in the dining area behind the low wall separating the couch and living area on the other side. Today, like most days, she had the OPELs next to her open to the balcony that overlooked the verdant plaza below. Spread out around where she sat was a combination of Naval intelligence documents, officer evaluations, and a Subnet browser. Next to her sat the remains of her breakfast: two dishes, a couple of utensils, and an empty mug, all two hours old. Her new life was reflected in the markings on her standard uniform bodysuit: the rank insignia of a rear admiral. Despite being on a station orbiting Lanan, her quarters were far larger than they had been on the surface despite the fact that she now lived alone.

     There came a ping from the door, and Atara hid all of her lumigraphs, including the one playing endless commercials between snippets of news. After carrying her dirty dishes to the recycling receptacle, she headed for the door and opened it. Standing there to meet her were Xannissa and Aedan—the former in her usual Navy bodysuit and short jacket and the latter wearing a civilian REMASS outfit.

     Atara hugged them both, and after inviting them to come in, she asked, “How was the honeymoon?”

     “Unforgettable,” Xannissa said as she and Aedan stood in her living room. “Elestus is more beautiful than I remember.”

     “We had an amazing time,” Aedan told Atara while glancing at his wife. “We stayed at a resort on the coast of the warm Southern Ocean. There was a festival going on where we had a chance to partake in some of the ancient culture, which is what I found fascinating.”

     “Lots of sorrelin,” Xannissa noted. “Seemed a fitting end after serving on the Kela Sorrelin.”

     “Please, have a seat,” Atara told them as she moved toward the couch. The rear admiral took her seat on the right, Aedan on the left, and Xannissa in the middle.

     “There were women there showing off the intricate armor they made with the sorrelin scales,” Aedan explained. “I have a lume of Xannissa trying one on.” He produced it and showed it to Atara. When Xannissa saw it, she remembered.

     “Yeah,” Xannissa expressed. “Seems like the ancients only tended to cover their upper bodies.”

     Atara replied, “Just like your sister?”

     “Stop it,” Xannissa said playfully.

     Aedan closed the lume and said, “We took a daytrip to Kaielus.”

     “Beautiful moon,” Xannissa noted. “They have a megaplex there that would put Blue Road to shame.”

     The group talked and viewed lumes for the next two hours. As the conversation ebbed and flowed, Atara found it increasingly bittersweet. Her service partner was married, and though the partnership did not end, Xannissa would be spending the majority of her days with Aedan now. In that moment, Atara forgot that the Q-comm link would remain, and she would be able to speak to her friend from anywhere at any time, but life would never be the same. Before she knew it, she was at the door of her suite with the two newlyweds.

     Xannissa said, “I’ll try to come up here and see you as often as I can.”

     “Don’t make any extra time for me,” Atara said, smiling despite her sadness. “If anyone should be taking the time, it should be me.”

     “We’ll just be right down there,” Aedan told her. “We’re just a lumigraph away.”

     “You two be safe getting back, okay?”

     “We will,” Xannissa assured her. “I love you, Atara.” The Elestan reached out and hugged her lifelong Terran friend. Atara’s eyes watered, but she held back the rest of her emotion.

     “We’ll see you again soon,” Aedan said, reaching out for a hug as well, and Atara embraced him.

     “You take care of Xannissa for me,” Atara told him.

     “She’s precious to me,” Aedan whispered.

     Xannissa stated, “Should have told me to take care of him.” She grinned as she fabricated a handgun and held it up to her face, pointing it toward the ceiling, before quickly recalling it again.

     “I’m in good hands, for sure,” Aedan noted. “We love you, Atara. Bye!”

     “Bye, Atara!” Xannissa made a parting kiss on Atara’s cheek.

     “Goodbye! Be safe!” The couple exited the suite and the door closed behind them. Atara stood there for a moment, alone in her quite room. She moved slowly toward her dining table and resummoned all the lumigraphs she hid previously. It wasn’t twenty minutes into her work when another lumigraph appeared.

     “Captain Korrell?” The voice asked.

     “Who is this?” Atara replied. She looked over and saw an Elestan with black hair buns. “Relex?”

     “Hello Captain! Is it still captain?”

     “Actually, it’s rear admiral.”

     “My apologies.”

     “No problem.”

     “I actually found a reason to come to Lanan, and I’ll be there in five weeks. How about we gather up those senior officers and have a drink?”

     “I can’t promise I can get everyone, but I’ll do my best.”

     “That’s fine. I look forward to meeting you all again.”

54 – Arrival

Kyora stood in the corner with her arms crossed staring into nothing, still wearing her phantom armor. One leg was out farther than the other. Virn sat on the edge of their bed; her upper torso concealed by the short jacket Kyora fabricated for her. The Elestan phantom closed her eyes. The memories were fading like a dream, and she tried to hold onto them as best as she could.

     “Virn.”

     “Kyora, please. The memories will fade in time if you let them. Do not pursue this.”

     “Why not?”

     “Because some questions are better left unanswered.”

     “I can’t let this go, Virn! Not after what I saw!”

     The Exan slowly stood from the bed. After turning to face Kyora with a countenance of anger, she unfastened the short jacket and threw it away. As she did so, those bright, geometric wings reappeared behind her back, and the jacket’s descent slowed until it was frozen in the air. At that same moment, the sounds throughout the ship ceased. Virn’s body changed again to that metallic gold, and her eyes became brilliant flares.

     Kyora turned to face her friend and asked, “What… are you?”

     “I am a servant,” Virn thought. “I am the first, second only to Her Radiance.”

     “Who is her radiance?”

     “Alassura: shepherd of the Sorvankelai, conduit of the Keliafalai.”

     “I don’t understand.” Kyora was visibly afraid as she stood face-to-face with this being who resembled her partner in form only.

     “I am Veris, archanima. Taste the power that courseth through me and despair.” Veris wrapped herself in pure light and the room blinded Kyora. She tried to shield her eyes but this light could not be stopped by mere eyelids. Every shadow disappeared before the light she gave.

     “How!” Kyora yelled as she was brought to the floor.

     “There are forces at work in this universe beyond your wildest imagination. It is not a child’s place to know the will of her master.” Veris pulled her friend up from the floor, held Kyora’s face to her own, and said, “Our time has not yet come. Remember this no longer, and be at peace.”

     Virn rolled over in their shared bed. Kyora was fast asleep, legs beneath the blankets. The Exan Aurora brought herself close to the Elestan’s body and stroked her light hair. Kyora would have no recollection of the power that Virn could wield, and that was all the better. A new set of Accellus boots sat next to Kyora’s, and Virn wore new bracers around her wrists. Just then, Virn could feel a disturbance, like a pulse, fire off from the ecksivar sample deep within the ship. She left Kyora alone, and she crept out from beneath the covers as not to disturb her partner. After she slid her feet into her boots, she left their quarters and sheathed herself in standard uniform outside the room.

     The corridors were darkened to simulate the night hours. She took the nearest lifts and traveled down to omnimology. Virn peered into the OPELs and looked across the dark lab. No one was around this early in the morning. Using her authority as lieutenant colonel of the Kelsor’s Auroras, the Exan entered. She kept the lights off, relying on the lumionics of the outside corridor shining into the lab to see. In the middle of the room, near where the hollowed sphere had been from Namara’s use of the jump drone, the canister sat upon the bench. Virn bent down toward it, made the outer wall transparent, and looked inside.

     The crystal within was completely enveloped in shadow. Virn summoned a lumionic light that floated next to her, but the light could not penetrate the field of darkness around the ecksivar sample. That field of darkness radiated out farther from the crystal than it ever had before, canceling out the light that Virn provided. If she just channeled more of her anima energy, she could pull back the shadowy curtain, but seeing it as it was now was enough for her. She realized that things were already being set into motion that could not be stopped. Virn made the walls of the container opaque once again and left the lab, heading back up to her quarters.

     Many days later, Naret slowed the synerdrive as the Kelsor approached Mirida’s system. As the star brightened and the system spread out before them, the triumvirate aboard the bridge noticed the significant presence of Federation Navy vessels now stationed there. Most of them were clustered around Mirida itself. Xannissa contacted Kyora over lumigraph and gave the phantom the sensor data, and she was speechless. She and Virn traveled to the bridge as quickly as they could, and they arrived before the Kelsor made it to the gate hub.

     “Unbelievable,” Kyora noted as she saw all of the Navy ships scattered around.

     Atara said, “It looks like Domina is being put in check.”

     “It won’t be that easy, unless you find and kill Deminesse.”

     “I guess that’s where you’re going after we dock,” Sesh said.

     “Absolutely,” Kyora replied.

     Later that evening, the Kelsor floated above that lush moon Lanan—a white starship above her deep blue oceans and verdant green forests. In the distance hung that gentle giant Akos V with its brilliant rings shining in the light of the Akos star. Naret propelled the ship toward Tetra 5, the largest of the orbital stations ringing the moon. Carefully, and with the help of the adjunct, the lieutenant parked the ship next to one of the station’s internal docking ports that was as wide as the battlecruiser’s own hangar bay airscreens.

     “Docking confirmed,” came the dockmaster. Upon hearing this, the bridge officers, including Atara, Sesh, and Xannissa, applauded. Rather than join them in their applause, Naret breathed a sigh of relief. She turned her chair around and watched the triumvirate, waiting for any additional orders as a feeling of wellbeing overcame her—her body’s reward from returning from the mission unscathed.

     Namara told the group of Auroras, “That ecksivar sample doesn’t leave my sight. Do you understand?”

     “Yes ma’am,” said the leader of the group.

     Meanwhile, Souq and Lieren walked up to Namara, and Souq said, “Sayn?”

     “Quen? What is it?”

     “Lieren’s going back with her cadet group,” Souq explained. “I thought we could just say a quick goodbye for her.”

     “Come here,” Namara beckoned kindly to the young Larissian, and the two of them hugged each other. “I’m going to miss you.”

     “I’ll miss you, too,” Lieren told her.

     “Don’t forget to give your father a hug, too,” Souq said, and he and his daughter clutched each other.

     “I love you,” she told him.

     “I love you, too, sweetheart.” They let go of each other and Lieren walked to the door of the lab, but before she left, she turned around and waved to them. After Souq, Namara, and a couple of the other scientists waved back, she departed the Kelsor’s lab for the last time.

     The triumvirate made its way down to the hangar to oversee the safe and orderly disembarkation of the starmen and Auroras from the starship. Those three were always among the last to leave, and they stood there in the midst of the flow of personnel. Xannissa was grabbed from behind by a passing crewmember, and she felt a kiss land on her cheek.

     “How is my little sister doing?” Cylenna said, refusing to let go.

     “Why are you always so clingy?” Xannissa asked, trying to remove Cylenna’s arms.

     “I’m just expressing my affection. You staying here until everyone else is gone?”

     “That’s part of the job.”

     Releasing her sister from her embrace, Cylenna said, “Would you like to go out for dinner later?”

     “If you don’t mind waiting until late tonight, and if you don’t mind having Atara and Sesh along, and Aedan.”

     “Aedan’s here?”

     “Aedan lives on Lanan now.”

     “Splendid! I’ll see you later!” Cylenna gave her sister a parting kiss before joining the droves leaving the ship.

     “I guess we have a dinner date,” Sesh stated.

     “We do now,” Xannissa said. “Where would you like to go?”

     “I guess I’m fine with anything,” Sesh told her.

     “I am, too,” Atara said.

     As the triumvirate stood there, they saw Kyora and Virn approach. The two Aurora leaders were seeing their own personnel off. Xannissa waved to the two of them, and Virn brought Kyora with her, forming a group of five.

     “Captain,” Kyora said, looking Atara in the eyes, “it was an honor to serve with you.”

     “Likewise,” Atara said. She and the phantom shook hands, and then the two Auroras traded handshakes with the triumvirate. “I guess there’s no way I could change your mind?”

     “About going after Deminesse?” Kyora replied. “No. I have to end it.”

     “I see,” Atara said. “I wish you all the best.”

     “Thank you, Atara.” She paused before saying, “I’ve thought a lot about what you’ve said, and I realize you were right. I need to protect Civilized Space from Deminesse, but the only way I can do that is to kill her.”

     Xannissa asked, “Will we be able to keep in touch?”

     “I’ll let you know when my job is done,” Kyora assured them.

     As they talked, a Yeran with crimson skin and black hair approached them flanked by two armored Auroras. Drawing near, she said, “Captain Korrell?”

     “Madam,” Atara replied, noticing the rank insignias on her standard uniform.

     “It is a pleasure to meet you all,” said the Yeran. “I am Fifth Fleet Admiral Tokeri Keva.” The admiral reached out with her hand, and each of the five women shook it. Atara looked confused, so Keva explained, “I was promoted after the scandal with Musani. On behalf of the Admiralty and the Federation, I sincerely apologize for the grief that Musani and Aesho put you through.”

     Atara said, “With all due respect, I want actions, not words, admiral.”

     “I understand that, captain. You have my word that I will not let this rest.”

     It was now close to midnight, but the sun was only setting, as it would be for the next day or two. Only half of Akos V was immediately visible, shedding light into the oranges of the sky. Aedan and Cylenna greeted the party of three as they stepped out of the gravidyne they hired to deliver them to the tower housing the restaurant. The lumionics of the adjacent towers of downtown Farence shined through the transit hub’s airscreens in Akos’ retreating light. Cylenna, never wanting to miss an opportunity to show off, had been standing with Aedan in her enlisted formals sans her bodysuit—wearing only the white shawl draped over her white vest, and the black tie with its inverted tip swaying above the sparkling stone in her navel. Ignoring her older sister for the moment, Xannissa wrapped her arms around her fiancé. They embraced each other’s actual bodies for the first time in months.

     “I’m home!” she told him, gripping his back.

     “Welcome home,” he whispered, his arms around her waist.

     After greeting one another, the group followed the half-naked Cylenna through one of the open archways toward the restaurant.

     “After hearing the charges against you,” said the federal judge in the private courtroom, “how do you plead?”

     Musani said, “Not guilty.”

     Later that day, Musani met with Aesho one last time. Given thirty minutes to see the blonde Terran from behind a lumionic screen, she said, “Why’d you do it?”

     “FedSec found me out,” Aesho told the former fleet admiral. “They found me out after Cassandra. You made me kill my friend.”

     “I thought you were loyal to me,” Musani told her. “We’re both going static for this for a very, very long time. We’re going to get out to a changed world.”

     “And where’s Cassandra going to be? What about all those people killed before and during Crimson Aegis? We’re getting off easy, you and I. FedSec gave me an ultimatum. Justice caught up to us. It always would. I’ve been promised about fifty years of servitude.”

     “So about two-hundred in static?”

     “No, fifty. About twelve-and-a-half if I give myself over to science.”

     Musani clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth. She looked away from Aesho and said, “I was building a better Federation.”

     “Keep telling yourself that,” Aesho said. “You might actually have an interesting defense.” After Aesho said this, she stood up from her chair and departed the distraught former fleet admiral.

53 – Deep Black

Taretes, embarrassed at his failure to deliver the ecksivar sample and at his disfigured face, had clothed himself in a black cloak and mask as he walked through the lavish halls of the Corporate Alliance’s administrative headquarters, the Offices of the Executive Consortium, on the planet of Central deep in Alliance space. His personal bodyguards had been replaced by professional Alliance soldiers.

     The Alliance Military is a mishmash of units all provided by the myriad of sovereign subsidiaries beneath the hegemonic Consortium. Some of the sovereign corporations, like the Gedesse Union, Ven-Verandin, and Notandis contract other, non-sovereign companies to provide trained mercenaries. Others, like the Mirvanda Corporation, the Jeska Group, and Tarsaan Manufacturing build and field cheap robotic armies while a few like Ferralon Incorporated, the Rayzac Conglomerate, Omnimax, and Olara Corporation pride themselves on the expensive clone elites they breed for battle: the universal CE-9 “Jynnore” line of elite Zelnaran monotemplate clones. And then there are those like Dorf and Sarok Enterprises that stoop to slave conscription, but those slaves are never seen in the halls of the Consortium. Taretes found himself flanked by the expensive Jynnore clones in their dark green Ralvex armor that looked like a knockoff of the Federation’s Accellus. The group passed similar guards that could have been confused for stasis models for how still they were. Of course, they may have very well been—guards in stasis, saving money by being frozen, ready to be released at a moment’s notice to do their jobs.

     The Jynnores led the distraught elsheem emperor through a set of large doors. The doors slowly retracted, and on the other side was a room in the shape of a large dome with skylights above through which the orange evening sky shined down upon the giant circular table occupying the middle of that giant room. The room, which Tarates assumed was the main chamber of the Alliance’s Executive Council, was surrounded by stepped stands that made the chamber resemble a small stadium. There, standing beside the furthest chair across the room, was the chief executor, or chancellor, of the whole of the Corporate Alliance: an unassuming, handsome Zelnaran man dressed in a lavish suit that demanded respect but whispered elegance.

     The elites stopped, and the Zelnaran shouted in his smooth voice, “Taretes! Emperor Taretes! Pleasure to have you in these chambers.”

     “Chancellor Redolain,” Taretes replied in Miri, bowing, “I wish I were meeting you under better circumstances.”

     “I prefer Supreme Executor if you don’t mind,” Redolain said. “Ladies, you are free to go.” The soldiers turned around and headed toward the exit. “Come with me,” he beckoned to the elshe, and he turned toward the back of the room. When Taretes caught up with him, he said, “Let’s talk in my suite.”

     “Lord Thrassus told me I would meet him here.”

     “Don’t worry, Taretes. You’ll meet him.”

     The supreme executor led the taller elshe to another set of doors and down another corridor with stasis guards. Down at the end was his private suite that resembled a palace given its copious space and luxurious décor. Water flowed into golden baths, and the water’s disturbed surface reflected toward the high ceiling beyond the balcony of his bedroom. Naked Zelnaran women bathed in the warm water and greeted him when he returned.

     “I admire this place,” Taretes said as he dropped his hood and removed his mask to take in the decadent display of wealth and power.

     “You should see the moon I own,” Redolain laughed. “This pales in comparison.”

     “I imagine it does.”

     “So, are you ready to meet Thrassus?”

     “I am. What about those women?”

     “They are of no consequence,” Redolain said. With a thought, everything within the room but himself and Taretes was locked into lumionic stasis. The bathers stood motionless in the paused water.

     “I guess they don’t know who you really are, then,” Taretes suggested.

     “Smart elshe,” Redolain replied. “I am Thrassus.”

     “You’re not as intimidating in person.”

     “I call it charm,” Thrassus told him. “So,” Thrassus continued, taking a seat at the large table overlooking the pool, “what happened to that black omnium?”

     “The so-called ecksivar?” Taretes asked, also taking a seat across from his master.

     “The very same.”

     “The Federation tracked us down.”

     “And?”

     “There was nothing we could do. I am terribly sorry.”

     “There are many things you don’t know about me, Taretes,” Thrassus told him. “One of them is that I always, always get what I want. You think you failed? Nonsense. I got exactly what I wanted.”

     “But what about the ecksivar?”

     “You touched it, did you not?”

     “I did, but that was months ago.”

     “Nanoparticles are still attached to your skin. And that’s all I need.”

     Taretes lifted his hand and looked intently at it—first his palm and then his dorsum. The elshe started to laugh, and he couldn’t help himself.

     “I’ve been through shield-scrubbers!” Taretes said through his laughter, contagious enough to infect Thrassus who began to laugh with him.

     “I know! Sounds ridiculous, right?” Thrassus laughed a little longer, and then the two of them quieted. “The second thing you didn’t know about me,” Thrassus explained, “is that black omnium and I form a kind of… unholy-duality.” He paused to let that fact sink into Taretes’ mind for a moment. “I can see every instance of black omnium in this galaxy, and your hands are coated in it, so you did your job, and you did it well. You brought that… ecksivar to me. But, there is one more thing I need you to do.”

     “Anything, my lord.”

     “I would like to borrow your mass.”

     Taretes sat there for a moment. “What?”

     “Your mass, Taretes. I need it.” Taretes looked at his palm again, and he noticed tiny black dots in his skin.

     “What is this?” Taretes asked, but Thrassus stared intently at Taretes hand, enjoying channeling his latent power into the nanoparticles of that black crystal. Taretes shot up and knocked over the chair behind him. Screaming, he tried to peel the chunks of hard crystal off of his hand, but it spread everywhere it touched, and the sensation burned like the fire of Gehenna.

     The pain struck him down, and the elshe clenched his arm, writhing as the black crystal consumed his arms and crept across his shoulders. Eventually, his head and torso were succumbing to the wicked variety of omnium. With his lungs and face crystallized, Taretes passed away while the rest of his body was devoured before Thrassus.

52 – Archanima

“Auto-destruct initialized. Auto-destruct will engage upon hull-breach. There will be no further warnings.”

     Kyora, Virn, Velliris, and the band of Auroras that followed them formed up with the other Aurora groups and held the syndicate marauders at bay in defense of ODEC 5. The announcement came to Virn through her helmet—as it did most others—while she was providing cover fire with her shoulder-mounted rotary sustainer. She halted her fire, sat down behind the solid barricade she had been firing from, and looked across the corridor to the entrance of ODEC 5. She knew that if the Kelsor really were to auto-destruct, she and the others were in ground zero, or at least one of the ground zeroes. Each of the six ODECs would cease the normal reactions they sustained to produce energy, and instead they would become reservoirs for antimatter. The ODECs would all reach critical mass at once, and the collective antimatter detonations would leave nothing salvageable behind.

     Virn knew what that meant for her, but what would happen to Kyora? She would die in an instant, and Virn would never see her again. The Exan recalled her helmet as she sat there pondering what she should do. Obviously, there was nothing to do, but for Virn, it just wasn’t that simple.

     Kyora knelt next to her and deshrouded. Recalling her own helmet, the Elestan asked, “Is everything okay? Is it about that auto-destruct warning?”

     “It is,” Virn said, still looking toward the blast doors sealing ODEC 5. She turned to her partner and said, “Remember when I said I’d stop the universe for you? I love you that much, Kyora.”

     “The cruisers are launching warp missiles and strikecraft,” Sesh said from the tactical station. “They’re going to saturate our RPDS.”

     “Focus fire on the kicker with our own warp missiles,” Atara commanded. “Continuous fire. Don’t let up until they’re dead.”

     “Aye,” Sesh said.

     The information pooled from the Kelsor’s suite of scanners and sensors revealed a battlefield in which the battlecruiser was surrounded by four Domina cruisers, each occupying a point on a trigonal pyramid. Sesh watched as streams of missiles poured from the cruisers while the Kelsor unleashed her own. As the missiles approached the battlecruiser, her RPDS did its best to eliminate them. Ultimately, the shear number of projectiles overwhelmed the Kelsor’s point-defenses, and the missiles exploded against the starship’s lumionic barriers.

     “We’re losing lumionic potential,” Sesh warned.

     “They really want to do this?” Atara noted, watching helplessly as her ship was bombarded.

     “The kicker is taking hull damage.”

     “Good.”

     “We won’t be far off if this keeps up.”

     And it didn’t stop. As the kicker broke apart, the Kelsor’s barrier failed. Missiles were now hitting the hull, targeting the battlecruiser’s ODECs specifically. Kyora was directing a group of Auroras as blasts rocked the ship, and then, a blinding flash erupted, and it just hung there. Kyora stared into it, as did the other Auroras. Bolts and bullets halted in the air. That was it: the hull breach that the adjunct had warned about.

     Virn stood up from the barricade surrounded by frozen time. Two bright, incorporeal wings radiated from her back, and her green skin and black hair yielded to light and dark metallic gold, respectively. Her eyes projected the same white light of her wings, and her polyalloy bodysuit and SIRAC armor melted off her body and dripped to the floor. The power surging through her granted power over time itself. Her appearance now was reminiscent of an angel.

     “I am grateful to you, Your Radiance,” Virn thought in another language as she approached Kyora’s paused body.

     “I know your heart, Archanima Veris of the Keliafalai,” a woman replied in a voice that would bring anyone else to their knees. “You have always been faithful. I cannot deny your willingness to help those children you have come to cherish.”

     Alassura, the conduit, allowed her power to flow through Veris’ soul unimpeded. The archanima peered across the ship with a kind of clairvoyance, looking for signs from the other ODECs that they were going critical, but when she saw what was happening in engineering, or at least what had begun to happen, she said, “It was all a ruse.”

     “Yes,” Alassura said, looking through Veris’ eyes. “If you allow those children around you to escape this blast, they will be saved.”

     Redirecting Alassura’s power, Veris brought all of the Auroras near ODEC 5 within her temporal reference frame. Kyora and the Auroras with her shielded their eyes from the bright flash and turned around, laying eyes on a golden angel in naked brilliance.

     “Do not be afraid,” Veris commanded them. “You must run.” She thought to them in that other language, but they all understood it as if she had vocalized Miri.

     “Virn?” Kyora asked. “Is that you?”

     “That is the name by which you know me,” Veris thought, looking at the Elestan phantom.

     Kyora looked away from the angel and saw the bolts and bullets frozen in the air. “What is happening?!”

     “Trust me,” Veris told her. “You must run.” Most of the other Auroras, including Velliris, had heeded her command and escaped the inevitable blast, but Kyora hesitated. She simply could not believe her eyes. “Kyora!”

     Kyora retreated deeper into the frozen ship. Once Veris knew that everyone was safely away, she herself retreated, allowing time to slowly tick forward, gradually accelerating until it was once again flowing normally. As it did, the brilliance of her wings and eyes diminished, and when the explosive wave flooded through the ship’s corridors and destroyed ODEC 5, she stood next to Kyora as a phenotypical Exan once again, naked from head to toe.

     “Mind telling me what the hell that was?” Kyora said as she grabbed Virn’s arms.

     “I’m sorry, Kyora,” Virn said. “Consider it a miracle, and think upon it no more.” Kyora fabricated a short jacket over her armor, took it off and gave it to the Exan who put it on, concealing her upper torso with it. The phantom then took Virn back to their shared quarters, leaving Velliris to fend for herself.

     “Atara,” Xannissa thought to the captain through their Q-comms link, “the entire synerdrive system is being disintegrated!”

     “That’s the auto-destruct override,” Atara assured her.

     “Was this your plan?”

     “Of course. Did you think I’d blow us all up?”

     “Atara, sometimes I just don’t know.”

     “The barrage has stopped,” Sesh said, noting the self-destruction of all incoming missiles.

     Eclipse appeared to them again, saying, “I see you’re still here.”

     “Indeed we are,” Atara replied, “however, our REMASS is recalling our entire drive system and deleting the designs. We have no more synerdrive to take. One of our brave scientists smuggled the ecksivar into deep space right under your nose, so that’s gone as well, and that blast you just witnessed killed your sister Kyora. I’m afraid our ship has nothing left for you.”

     Eclipse was now the one staring at Atara, speechless. Atara had succeeded in making the Kelsor sour in the mouth of Domina’s leader. “Fuck you!” Eclipse spat. “You’ll regret wasting my time!”

     “Jump signature detected,” Sesh announced. It was enough of a surprise to stop Eclipse from speaking as her lieutenants informed her of its appearance as well. “Emergence in three minutes.”

     “Distance?”

     “Five-thousand kilometers.”

     Eclipse said, “I’m afraid this is the end for you. We and the Three Brothers Syndicate will be all over you, and we’ll make a living example out of you for the rest of Thalassia Orionis to witness!”

     Over the next three minutes, Illeiri guided Souq through the ship until they arrived in the briefing room. There the cadets remained, scarred by the battle.

     “Lieren?” Souq called out after recalling his helmet. Still gripped by emotion, he looked at each of the cadets, unable to tell which one was his daughter.

     “I’m over here, dad,” Lieren said, recalling her helmet.

     Souq walked over to her and knelt down in front of her. Hugging her tightly, he said, “I’m so sorry.”

     “Where’s Namara?” Lieren asked, embracing her father.

     Souq didn’t say anything. She felt his chest gasping, but she heard nothing. Souq was trying to suppress his feelings, but he had experienced too much grief, and so had Lieren. When he felt his daughter begin to sob, he couldn’t hold back any longer. Illeiri left the two of them to be alone with the other cadets and stepped onto the bridge. As she did so, she heard Sesh call out from the tactical station, “Vessel emerging.”

     “Identify,” Atara demanded.

     “Its… the Archangels?”

     “Archangels?”

     A new lumigraph appeared next to Eclipse’s so that there were now two Elestan faces peering into the Kelsor’s bridge. Admiral Relex was the other, and she saw both Atara and Eclipse through her own lumigraphics.

     “Surprise, surprise,” Relex said. “I couldn’t sit back and watch this bitch harass you.” Eclipse’s rage was apparent on her face, and she terminated her transmission herself.

     Atara said, “I thought your flagship had hyperwarp.”

     “And I thought you’d be more relieved to see me,” Relex noted with displeasure.

     “I am,” Atara said. “Very much so.”

     “About this carrier,” Relex explained, “we equip it with hyperwarp for patrols, but if we’re out on missions, like this one, we swap out her entire drive with a jump system so we can sneak up on our prey. As you can see, it’s very effective.”

     “The Domina cruisers are activating hyperwarp,” Sesh said. “They’re getting away.”

     “We can’t stop them,” Atara replied.

     “I guess that’s the breaks,” Relex told them. “We haven’t even launched our strikecraft.”

     “Thank you for coming out here. We would have perished if not for that. I’ll pay you the other fifty million mecred.”

     “I’d appreciate that.”

     “If you don’t mind, I have two favors to ask. We need to rebuild our drive, and until then, we’re sitting ducks.”

     “Did Domina blow up the synerdrive?”

     “We did, to keep it out of their hands.”

     “I see. What about the second?”

     “One of our scientists used a homemade jump drone to carry the ecksivar sample off our ship, so she’s a lightyear away.”

     “Do you know exactly where she is?”

     “We’re getting on that now,” Atara said, looking toward Ethis.

     “You let us know,” Relex said, “and we’ll send one of our corvettes to retrieve her.”

     “Thank you.”

     “You owe me another drink. This time with all of your senior officers.”

     “Why don’t you come to Lanan sometime?”

     “I’ll think about it.”

     “Fiori,” Atara called, summoning the orange, lumigraphic female, “Can we redownload the synerdrive design?”

     “Affirmative,” Fiori said. “I am elated to see that the plan was a success.”

     An Archangel corvette passed through one of the massive airscreens on the dorsal surface of the carrier. After Ethis made contact with Namara, she traced the scientist’s position to within half an AU of her actual location. Atara gave the Archangels this data, and the corvette engaged its hyperwarp system and took off. When the ship had arrived within the general volume, they reached out to Namara themselves, narrowing down her location until they arrived at her drifting body.

     Namara saw the small ship—large from her point of view—slow as it approached her and the drone. A team of Accellus-clad mercenaries emerged from the ship to aid her, and within a couple of minutes, she and the drone were safely aboard. It wasn’t long after that Souq and Lieren were both embracing her, happy that she had been reunited with them.

     Velliris returned to the brig, but when she got there, the guards informed her that under captain’s orders, she was free to go. They also told her that she would be assigned her own quarters much in the same way Illeiri had been.

     In the meantime, Xannissa watched the synerdrive be rebuilt from the floor to the ceiling as she thought about how close she had been to never seeing Aedan’s face again. It would be her job now to make sure that this rebuilt drive would actually work since entire drives were not usually fabricated by a starship’s REMASS while underway. Once the synerdrive was deemed operational, Atara hailed Relex to thank her one last time, and the Kelsor took off again for Tribesson space.

     “Welcome back to your morning headlines on SBN. I’m Jorj Danner. The time is now eight-oh-five. We are watching the diplomatic fallout brewing between the Federation and its fringeward neighbor Tribesson. Just yesterday, Federation President Solana Hethan announced that she was considering revoking Tribesson’s protectorate status unless it allows the Federation Navy to intervene in the country’s ongoing problem with organized crime. Joining us this morning is the governor of Tribesson’s capitol Mirida, Fea Qon. Madam Qon, good morning.”

     “Good morning, Jorj.”

     “Also joining us is Federation THORCOM commander Admiral Esen Gher. Good morning, admiral.”

     “Good morning to you.”

     “Admiral, I would like to begin with you. Federation diplomats are citing an incident that occurred in Thalassia Orionis for the recent spat. Can you tell us about that?”

     “I can’t give you all the details, but one of our ships underway on a solo voyage was attacked by a pair of criminal organizations: one known as the Three Brothers Syndicate and the other referred to simply as Domina. What we do know is that the Three Brothers Syndicate is one of several pirate factions operating in Saraia, near the impassable Saraian Range. Domina, on the other hand, bases itself on Mirida.”

     “Good point, Admiral Gher. With that I’d like to ask Madam Qon a question. Madam Qon, can you tell us more about Domina?”

     “I can. Domina has only been around for the last hundred years. It grew out of a mercenary company known as Unit who participated in illegal cloning to bolster its numbers. One of these cloned individuals rose through the ranks and founded Domina, and now the syndicate runs rampant in Mirida and throughout Thalassia Orionis.”

     “Has Tribesson taken any steps to deal with this problem of organized crime?”

     “I just spoke with the Tribesson president earlier this morning, and she assures me that Tribesson will open itself to support from the Federation Navy to end this problem.”

     “What does that mean for Tribesson?”

     “It means you’re going to see a lot more patrols in Tribesson space. You’re going to see Auroras on every street in Mirida. We are going to take back our country and make it a more productive ally of the Federation, free of the syndicates that are currently running it into the ground.”

51 – Drone

“Shit, shit, shit!” Cylenna cursed as she engaged her Goshawk’s ODEC. Her lumigraph to Xannissa disappeared, and she gunned her strikecraft’s throttle, blasting her fusion engines and reorienting her gravitics as the marauders fired their missiles toward her. With her ODEC active, her fighter’s RPDS fried the internal electronics and systems of the missiles just before they hit, allowing them to crash harmlessly as duds against the vehicle’s kinetic barrier. She piloted the Goshawk out of the hangar which was being overrun by syndicate soldiers, flying through the starboard airscreen faster than she ever had before. Only travelling a kilometer or two, she slowed the strikecraft and yawed around to face the hangar bay from where she escaped.

     “Specter, this is Big Boss. Return to the Kelsor at once!”

     “Permission to blast these fuckers off our ship,” Cylenna asked. She waited for a response. Several seconds passed before she heard anything.

     “Permission granted,” said strikecraft control with reluctance, and Cylenna shot back toward the airscreen without registering the second part: “Don’t make a mess.” Cylenna backed off on the throttle as she approached, weary of any missiles that the small army of marauders might train on her. Her craft’s sensors detected several target locks, and when the missiles came flying out of the starboard airscreen, she vectored her craft’s gravitics to shift quickly out of the way. The missiles overshot her and arced back around, but once they were far enough away from the Kelsor, the battlecruiser’s RPDS eliminated them.

     Cylenna piloted her Goshawk back to the airscreen and moved just through it. Below her—all the way to the other airscreen on the ship’s port side—was a mass of marauders, and before they realized what Cylenna had in store, the Elestan pilot was strafing them. Pitching her nose downward with her gravitics, Cylenna fired her Goshawk’s twin plasma autocannons which created streams so fast and so hot as to be confused for sustained beams. Every marauder they touched was vaporized by the direct, ionized blasts. The fury of these drivers was so great that Cylenna’s sustained assault risked overheating the cannons. She stopped the flow after fifteen seconds, letting the glowing SIRAC rest. The craft’s cooling system would take a while to eliminate the accumulated heat by itself, so Cylenna manually engaged emergency cooldown, flooding the chambers and mechanisms with liquid coolant that immediately vaporized, taking the heat with it and cooling the weapons quickly. The marauders retaliated with more missiles, but her RPDS handled them—though, a few more shots from her enemies and she would need to withdraw from the hangar and allow her RPDS time to recharge. When her autocannons stopped discharging steam, she took aim and fired again, mowing down the helpless marauders as they tried to leave the hangar and advance through the ship.

     Where was the pleasure that she had experienced before? Countless marauders were perishing to her plasma, but she wasn’t feeling anything. The thrill of pushing them over the brink of death was gone. Was it just too easy? The pilot didn’t ponder it. More missiles targeted her craft, so she canceled her fire and engaged her drives, bursting out of the port airscreen.

     The Kelsor’s REMASS started immediately mending the damage sustained to the bridge. Ethis rushed over to the bodies of her friends and cried, “Captain!” Spherical housekeeping drones appeared and began consuming the dust and debris to be reprocessed back into omnium. She knelt next to the cluster of armored bodies. That’s when Atara’s helmet moved. The captain’s head was lying in Sesh’s lap, and she rolled over, trying to get her bearings.

     “Is everyone okay?” Atara asked weakly as she crawled on all fours. Sesh moved her head slowly toward Atara.

     “I’m okay,” Sesh assured her. The commander used her gravitics to move herself off the floor.

     “I’m fine,” Naret said through her coughing. “Just a little winded.” She rolled over and crawled behind the wall that was being rebuilt, dodging the little drones working to clean up the mess.

     “We need a medic!” yelled one of the Auroras. “The tactical officer is down!” The tactical officer’s torso appeared to have been penetrated by the leftover force of the blast. When the Aurora rolled her over, the front of the officer’s chest was cauterized, and her limbs and head were limp. To give her a fighting chance that she might be saved, the Aurora attached a stasis unit to the officer and fed it power from her own, functioning suit through her palm.

     “I’ll handle tactical,” Sesh said as the senior officers watched a medic rush into the room to perform an evaluation of the tactical officer’s body.

     “I don’t want to lose it again,” Souq said to Namara as he clutched the cylinder containing the ecksivar sample. Both of them sat in the lounge connected to the lab. “Too many people have died because of this crystal.”

     “They won’t get to it,” Namara assured him. Both were in armor and helmets as was everyone else. She watched as Souq clung to the sample even tighter. “Illeiri will protect us.”

     “I can’t ask her to die for this,” Souq told her. “I need to take this godforsaken thing away from here.” The scientist rose to his feet and opened the door of the lab.

     “Where are you going?” Namara asked in a frantic voice. She followed after him, worried for what he might do.

     “We still have the drone!” he said, standing before the unused piece of equipment.

     “Quen!” she said, watching Souq load the cylinder into the drone’s body. The firefight was happening just outside, visible through the OPEL windows of the dark lab. “What do you think you’re doing?”

     His helmet turned to her and he said, “I’m saving our lives. They can’t take it if we don’t have it.”

     “How are we going to get it back?” Namara asked. They both knew the drone had no communications system, no transponder, or anything that would make it easily visible to a ship trying to look for it. They designed it to buy time—a way to sequester the ecksivar sample in deep space because they could not destroy it. Souq paused, staring at her as they both stood next to the drone.

     “I’m going with it.”

     “No you are not!” Namara shouted, clasping her hands to Souq’s arms and forcing him to face her. “Your daughter needs you!”

     “I’m trying to save her!”

     “Then I’ll go.”

     “What?”

     “You stay here. Whoever goes might not come back, or if the enemy finds it before we can, we’re their prisoner. Your life is more valuable than mine.”

     “Sayn…”

     “As a Federation science officer, let me do this.”

     “No, Sayn. No!” Souq’s voice cracked.

     “Go wait in the lounge.” She let go of Souq’s arms, but he went nowhere. “Please.”

     “I can’t let you go,” he said emotionally.

     “I’m sorry, Quen,” she told him. Her voice was starting to crack as well. “I hope you forgive me for this.” She fabricated a stasis unit and stuck it to his armor. Aided by her gravitics, she pushed him into the lounge, released him from stasis, and locked the door behind her. Souq ran to the door and tried to open it, but when he couldn’t, he looked through the OPELs to the lab.

     He beat his fists on the wall, shouting, “Sayn! Goddamnit! Sayn!” Tears rushed from his eyes as he watched the Elestan science officer take the drone with her to the center of the lab. She looked back at the struggling Souq, and then she vanished in a brilliant white flash, leaving behind craters in the floor and ceiling and chunks carved out of the adjacent benches, as if the sphere that enveloped her during the jump took everything immediately around her as well. Souq bawled as he slid down the wall, just having watched his future spouse disappear without a trace.

     A moment later, syndicate marauders blasted their way into the omnimology lab. Swarming in with their bright lights, they saw the perfect circle carved out of the lab’s interior, and they also noticed the OPELs at the rear and Souq’s collapsed body. They then tried to force the door to the lounge, alerting Souq to their presence. The marauders quickly lost their patience, trying to break through using brute force and weapons. The grieving scientist brought himself up from the floor and retreated through the back of the lounge.

     “Say again!” Kyora demanded. Plasma bolts and bullets crisscrossed the wide corridor nearby. The battle drones bore the brunt of the ongoing skirmish, and Auroras took cover behind barricades within the smoke.

     “They’re about to breach ODEC Five!” said a frantic Aurora over comms.

     Kyora looked over to the immediate group of Auroras and, pointing, said, “You all, follow me to ODEC Five. We need to hurry back toward the bow.” Kyora used her gravitics to lift off from the floor and drift toward the ceiling. She then took off down the corridor, cruising swiftly above the battle. Virn ascended after her, and so did all of the Auroras around Velliris. Seeing as her fate had become intertwined with the vessel, as it would have also been if her mission to pose as Atara had succeeded, she took off after them, flying above the smokescreen and the bright flashes from Federation drivers. The biggest hazard was being shot down by quick-thinking, trigger-happy marauders, but the second most dangerous aspect was the SIRAC containers still being routed by gravitics above the ship’s corridors, and in a wide corridor such as this, those containers darted like locomotives on straight track. Velliris looked down and saw the five battle drones that passed her earlier holding their ground against the bold syndicate forces, but the collision detector in her helmet warned her of an incoming crate that she quickly and clumsily avoided. Some of the Auroras were taking shots from below, and one of them went down into a cluster of marauders.

     The group steered clear of the hangar, opting to travel through the lift shafts to ascend the upper decks and then cut over the violent hangar bay. Several minutes later, the group touched down near the band of marauders leading the siege of ODEC 5. The syndicate attackers appeared to be completely preoccupied with breaking down the SIRAC door leading to the chamber containing the ODEC system. To lose one of the six main ODECs would be somewhat inconsequential as the other ODECs would bear the downed ODEC’s share of the load, but every one of them that was lost would mean having one less that could be lost until the entire Kelsor was left without any power generation capacity. For the moment, the group watched and waited as Kyora silently discussed tactics with Virn over their shared Q-comms. Velliris’ Accellus counted over seventy marauders just within her field of view as she stood with the other Auroras out of the enemy’s sight.

     “Alright,” Kyora told them, looking away from the marauders and back toward the group, “I want you all to sheathe yourselves in as much SIRAC as you can, and fabricate HR-Twenty-Threes.”

     “The rotary sustainer?” one of the Auroras asked.

     “Yes. How many of you are wearing boosters?”

     “I am,” said two of the Auroras.

     “Only four of us,” Kyora noted out of the nine. “You five without boosters need to hang back. Virn, you and the other two are going to turn that corridor into a death chamber. You stand back and let me shake them up first. Do you understand?”

     “Let’s set up lumionic barricades,” Virn told them. She had picked one up from a crate before leaving engineering, and she grabbed it from behind her back and set it down on the floor. The hexagonal, cylindrical device unfolded and produced lumionic field potential whose area of effect was marked by an orange lumigraphic line touching the floor and rising up as tall as most of the SIRAC barricades had been. Unfortunately, she was the only Aurora in their group possessing one, so all three of the women wielding rotary sustainers had to share it for extra protection.

     “I’m going in,” Kyora told them. She disappeared beneath her shrouding and rose from the floor, directing her gravitics to guide her toward the mass of marauders holding down their position with sprays of bullets. The phantom’s goal was to disorient and confuse rather than to eradicate, but the means by which she chose to accomplish this goal involved the use of potent weapons. Kyora fabricated an explosive charge and attached it discreetly to the top of one of the marauder’s helmets nearer to the door. She reasoned that the charge was far enough away from the door as to not deal any real damage to it. Moving her arm away from the charge, the explosive device left her suit’s shrouding and was visible, though it remained unnoticed by all present. Kyora floated away from them, flying beyond a safe distance. She then detonated the charge, vaporizing the marauder to whose head it was attached and killing everyone around him, mortally wounding others farther away, and propelling body parts and debris toward everyone else.

     As soon as the blast went off, Virn and the two Auroras huddling behind her portable barricade sprayed the marauders with their shoulder-mounted rotary sustainers, further fueling their confusion. This prompted pockets of Auroras around these besieging syndicate soldiers to launch offensives, driving into the weakening pocket of intruders.

     “The destroyers are vulnerable again,” Sesh said, standing at the tactical station overlooking the marauders’ bodies. “Launching torpedoes.” Regular, non-phasic torpedoes fabricated in the tubes and fired toward the syndicate destroyer. Defiant against the hostile ship’s point-defense fire, the torpedoes loosed by the battlecruiser detonated, one-by-one, against the destroyer’s lumionics. With each of the torpedoes packing a tiny amount of antimatter—enough to ruin a small city—and the durability to power through point-defense, the Kelsor’s modest spread of thirty torpedoes reduced the syndicate destroyer to a cloud of debris. No doubt the Domina kicker ship had witnessed this destruction.

     “That should take care of the blinker problem,” Atara said with relief.

     “Captain,” Illeiri communicated to Atara just after.

     “What is it?”

     “I’m with Souq,” she said, “and you’re not going to believe this.”

     “Tell me.”

     “Namara took the ecksivar sample and used the jump drone.” Atara stood there for a moment and processed what Illeiri just said. The anger inside her welled up for her initial feeling was that Namara had betrayed them, but then she remembered the reason why the drone was made in the first place. “Did you get that, captain?”  There was no way that Namara could have guided the drone toward the enemy, so there was only one question that came to her mind.

     “Why?”

     “Souq said he was going to sequester the ecksivar in deep space so that it couldn’t be stolen,” Illeiri explained to her, “but Namara took it from him and did it instead. She went with the drone so that we’ll be able to trace her sub-comms and retrieve it later.”

     “So she’s out there alone?”

     “Yes.”

     “Brave woman,” Atara said.

     “Brave scientists,” Illeiri noted. “Souq was willing to go, too. Namara forced him to stay because of Lieren.”

     “I don’t want to risk contacting her now,” Atara said. “I don’t want Domina or the Three Brothers to know she’s out there and find her first.”

     After the lumigraph disappeared, Atara then said, “Fiori, we need to talk.”

     The stars seemed brighter than she had ever seen them. Namara drifted there in deep space, lightyears from the closest of those shining sidereal orbs. The jump drone rotated slowly a couple of meters away along with the SIRAC fragments from the omnimology lab. All that separated her body from the terminal vacuum surrounding her was the thin layer of polyalloy sealing her skin and the SIRAC of her helmet encompassing her head. The scientist’s gravitics stabilized her motion, preventing her from rotating. Her lumionics formed a faint halo around her as they worked to deflect the cosmic background radiation. It wasn’t until she noticed that faint glow of lumions that she realized she jumped from the battlecruiser without attaching a booster to her back—a realization that caused her blood to run cold and her heartrate to jump. Her thoughts shifted back into perspective: having one would have just prolonged her suffering were she never to be rescued. Checking her Accellus’ reservoirs, she saw that her suit could sustain her for several hours, if not a few days. Namara disabled the lights on her Accellus and tried to take her mind off of where she was, hoping that maybe she could fall asleep there, her suit protecting her, but her mind kept circling around to Souq beating on the lounge walls yelling for her to come back.

     With the destroyer obliterated, the Auroras protecting the cadets filed out of the briefing room leaving the terrified cadets with the scenes of slaughter burned into their retinas. Drones arrived to clean up the room, scan the marauders’ bodies, and mark them for routing through the battlecruiser’s gravitic logistics system. Gravilog also collected the ammunition crates, many of which were blasted apart on one side, and moved them out of the briefing room. Eventually, all that remained were the cadets clutching each other and crying beneath their helmets. Lieren had watched as the medic tried in vain to save the woman that the cadet had kept in stasis using energy from her own suit. Another Aurora had been gunned down on the other side of the room, and a collection of marauder bodies lied in a heap of cauterized giblets. With Illeiri, the bloodshed had been compartmentalized to the outside, and the elshi had protected the cadets with such efficiency as to eliminate any semblance of a bloodbath. This—what she and the other cadets had just experienced—was a far cry from what they endured during the battle with the Voulgenathi.

     How does one cope? Lieren thought to herself as she stared at the syndicate bodies being hauled away by invisible force like garbage. Within minutes, the housekeeping drones would return the briefing room to the state that it was in before the battle occurred. The only remaining evidence would be the memories that were left behind in all that had lived through it. Lieren didn’t know what to feel. The marauders blinked in, attacked, and died, over and over and over. Auroras sat with them, placing their bodies in front of the cadets and taking the hits for them, sometimes dying to the exchange of fire. Was there any meaning to the violence? The young cadet had no answer, and that frightened her. She clung tighter to the Elestan cadet beside her, trying to keep from breaking down, but she could not. Her emotions rushed forth. Her lungs and tear ducts rebelled against her, and she was forced to sob.

     “Lieren?” It was her father’s voice. She didn’t want to answer—keep him from hearing her sobs. “Lieren, where are you baby?” He wasn’t going to leave her alone until he got an answer, and she knew it.

     “I-I’m in the b-briefing room,” she got out.

     “Are you okay?”

     “No! No I’m not!” she screamed.

     Hearing his daughter like this hurt more than it would have had he not been dealing with his own emotional turmoil over Namara. “I’m on my way, sweetie. I love you.”

     “The Domina cruisers are dropping out of hyperwarp,” said a bridge officer. The same cleanup effort was taking place on the bridge, and the officers were returning to their normal posts, including Atara, Sesh, and Naret.

     “Transmission from the—,” Ethis was interrupted as she spoke.

     “You’ve bested my pawns, captain,” Eclipse said through the opened lumigraph. “I hope you’re ready to concede.”

     “Go to hell!” Atara told her.

     “Wow!” Eclipse said. “You sound just like Kyora. I like you. Please, I’m begging you, don’t force my hand. I just want to help my unproductive, fringeward protectorate evolve into something the Federation would be proud of. Give me—us—a chance.”

     “A snowball’s chance?” Atara replied. “Because that’s all I’ll give you. I’d destroy this vessel before I’d ever let you set foot inside it.”

     “Funny,” Eclipse stated, “I said something similar when my dear sister was fleeing back to your ship. I really do admire you, captain, and you’re breaking my heart.”

     “Enough with the bullshit!” Atara yelled.

     “Oh? We’ll see who’s bullshitting who after I call your bluff.”

     Atara paused for a moment as she stared at Eclipse. “Adjunct,” the captain said while Eclipse’s transmission was still open, “initialize auto-destruct.”

     “Auto-destruct overrides are in effect,” the adjunct stated. “Please state additional parameters.”

     “Engage auto-destruct on hull breach, and no continuous warnings. No additional parameters.”

     “Triumvirate command authority authentication required.” All eyes were on the captain now.

     Atara said, “Verify authorization.”

     “Authorization verified. Atara Eisen Korrell, Captain of the Kelsor-class battlecruiser, Greater Federation Navy Vessel Kelsor, hull number three-nine-three-zero, Fifth Fleet, Third Armada. Auto-destruct go-no-go.”

     “Go.”

     A lumigraph appeared before Sesh and said, “Initializing auto-destruct. Triumvirate command authority authentication required.”

     Sesh replied, “Verify authorization.”

     “Authorization verified. Yora Marro Sesh. Commander of the Kelsor-class battlecruiser, Greater Federation Navy Vessel Kelsor, hull number three-nine-three-zero, Fifth Fleet, Third Armada. Auto-destruct go-no-go.”

    “Go.”

     A lumigraph also appeared before Xannissa in engineering as she oversaw her department’s defense. “Initializing auto-destruct. Triumvirate command authority authentication required.” Her breaths grew heavier. Was Atara actually going to do this? If the lumigraph was getting around to her, Atara and Sesh had already interfaced with the adjunct. She stood there quietly for a moment, twisting her engagement ring around her finger.

     “I’m sorry, Aedan,” she whispered. “Verify authorization,” she told the adjunct somberly.

     “Authorization verified. Xannissa Reiss Cetalo, Commander of the Kelsor-class battlecruiser, Greater Federation Navy Vessel Kelsor, hull number three-nine-three zero, Fifth Fleet, Third Armada. Auto-destruct go-no-go.”

     Xannissa paused again, still twisting her ring. Quietly, she said, “Go.”

     The adjunct announced to the entire ship, “Auto-destruct initialized. Auto-destruct will engage upon hull-breach. There will be no further warnings.”

     Loud clapping echoed throughout the bridge. Atara never did take her eyes off of Eclipse who now applauded. “Congratulations. It seems we have reached an impasse. You’re far more cutthroat than I could have ever imagined. Every calculation I have made thus far was based on the assumption that you actually cared about your crew. You’d send all of them to their deaths over a few little things?”

     Atara said nothing. Most of the bridge, including Naret, was still staring intently at its captain.

     “Perhaps if we could bargain?” Eclipse asked. “You hand over Kyora and you can be on your way.”

     Atara remained silent.

     Eclipse said, “All right. You’ve forced my hand. Prepare to die.” And with that, the transmission terminated.

50 – Brutality

The cadets were seated on the floor and against the forward walls of the dark briefing room now devoid of its chairs and table. Auroras sat between each of them armed with assault drivers and crouching in low relative gravity, ready to move in an instant. The cadets were encouraged to do the same. At first, some of the cadets over-adjusted their gravitics which caused them to drift into the air at the slightest shifting of their feet, but they caught on with a little trial and error. Their Aurora guardians also encouraged them to fabricate sidearms as added protection. SIRAC crates containing small and medium unimags were placed between the cadets and Auroras and the rest of the room, acting as both a source of ammunition and an extra layer of defense.

     “Lieren, where’s Illeiri?” the Elestan cadet who had been skeptical of elsheem whispered privately to Lieren through her helmet.

     “She’s in the omnimology lab,” Lieren said, “protecting the ecksivar.”

     “I wish she were here with us,” said the Elestan.

     “We have two dozen Auroras defending us,” Lieren assured her. “Be brave.”

     “Aren’t you afraid?”

     “Of course I’m afraid,” Lieren told her, “but my mother used to tell me: Fear reminds you that you’re still human, and she who is never afraid can never be brave.”

     “Intruder alert. Level four security breach.” Both Auroras flanking Lieren tilted their bodies forward, planted the stocks of their guns against their shoulder armor, and scanned the dark room with their helmets in anticipation. The port and starboard doors were open, and the cadets saw Auroras running and taking positions in the outside corridors, crouching down beside the doors. “Subspace rift detected.” Lumigraphs marked two locations within the briefing room of two incoming blinkers, and two seconds later, a double explosion rocked the Auroras and cadets alike.

     The Auroras didn’t hesitate. Immediately after the violent subspace entry, the Federation soldiers opened fire with their assault drivers, riddling the nearest heavy marauder with plasma bolts while he grabbed the triggers of his twin, triple-barreled, linear motor cannons and spun them up. A few seconds of sustained plasma fire was enough to ravage his body beneath his Novekk powersuit and bring him to his knees before he could let loose a single shot. The other marauder turned to face the wall of Auroras and cadets, but before he could react, his lumionics were exhausted, his helmet was blasted apart, and his suit fell over backwards. The Auroras who had expended their unimags detached them and left them on the floor. They then grabbed charged magazines from the open crates and clicked them into their drivers.

     “You cadets awake yet?” yelled one of the Auroras who was inserting a fresh unimag into her weapon. Lieren felt herself shaking. She reached out slowly and grabbed a unimag from the crate. Shivering, she tried to put it into her pistol, but it wasn’t attaching. That’s when she realized she had the wrong size. An Aurora beside her took the unimag out of Lieren’s hand and gave her a small one, and the young cadet, despite her nervous hands, slid the magazine through the handgun’s handle and clicked it into place.

     “Intruder alert. Level five sec—subspace rift detected,” the adjunct announced again, cutting itself off locally. How long would this last? Another explosion and a new marauder hit the ground—this time, his twin cannons were ready to fire immediately. The Auroras pushed the cadets down toward the floor, moved themselves behind the containers, and fired their weapons while trying to avoid the incessant bullet barrage. One of the Auroras next to Lieren lost her barrier’s lumionic potential and she brought herself below cover, but the ricochets pelted her unprotected SIRAC and polyalloy until they pierced them. The Aurora cried as blood gushed from her fresh wounds. After many seconds of the onslaught, the marauder was brought down like his brethren, collapsing near their corpses.

     The other Aurora next to Lieren crawled over the cadet and yelled, “Medic!” Attending to her downed comrade, the Aurora asked, “You still with us?” while fabricating a stasis device. She attached the device to the downed Aurora’s armor, grabbed Lieren’s hand, and pushed it onto the stasis unit, saying, “Do not let go of this, do you understand?” Lieren was shaking even more, and she didn’t respond. “Do you understand?!” the Aurora asked her with greater urgency.

     “Y-yes ma’am!” Lieren stammered. She kept her hand on the device as she lied next to the frozen Aurora, not sure if the soldier had survived or not. A medic entered the room and knelt beside the stricken Aurora right before another pair of rifts formed and two more marauders blasted into the briefing room.

     The wide space within the engineering department was perfect for blinkers seeking to intrude upon the Kelsor and raid its synerdrive for the secrets contained within its mediator. The initial wave of attackers consisted of multiple rifts forming simultaneously above the entrenched Auroras occupying main engineering. Every blink produced another shockwave—sharp claps among the rolling thunder of plasma bolts hitting shields and armor. The Kelsor’s universal cabingrav pulled the bulky powersuits downward; their feet slamming against the solid floor.

     Virn had constructed a nest above the main level. Surrounded by crates, she lied prone and looked down at the brewing storm below her. Her sustainer’s barrel jutted out beyond the catwalk she inhabited. Lining up the syndicate marauders within her sights, she pulled the trigger of her sustainer, and the weapon launched an unrelenting stream of plasma bolts toward the attackers. The lack of recoil from the reactionless gravitic driver system gave the Exan complete control of the sprays she unleashed toward the incoming marauders.

     She and Kyora were determined to make engineering a deathtrap for any syndicate marauder foolish enough to choose it as a blink destination. This was the Elestan phantom’s ball, and to enter it meant you partook in her dance of death. Kyora’s nimble body twirled and leapt from powersuit to powersuit, slicing and shooting with her plasma blade and handgun combination. While Virn’s and others’ sustainers rained down a white fire from above hitting shields and armor with no particular precision, Kyora took advantage of every exposed joint and weak point and guided her blade and aim to strike true with every hit, or just about, bringing down marauders with calculated devastation. The pile of bodies grew by the second, but the enemy were no fools. Soon, the influx of blinkers subsided. The engineering department quieted, but calls came across the ship with blinkers pouring into less defended areas.

     “They felt us out!” Kyora told her Auroras across the ship as well as the ship’s senior officers. “They’re popping into the major corridors and flooding into the hangar!”

     “Oh no,” Xannissa whispered from her position behind the line of defending Auroras. She messaged her sister through a lumigraph and said, “Cy, are you okay?”

     “It’s like a thunderstorm in here,” Cylenna said from the cockpit of a replacement Goshawk that was fabricated aboard the battlecruiser. “So many heavies jumping in at once.”

     “You going to be okay? Answer me!”

     “Relax,” Cylenna told her loudly, “I’m in my Goshawk. I’ll be saf—.” A rocket exploded against the side of one of the parked Goshawks suspended against the hangar wall not far from Cylenna’s. “Oh shit.” The Elestan pilot looked out of her OPELs toward the wide hangar floor and saw a missile team taking aim at her craft. “Shit, shit, shit!” Cylenna cursed before the lumigraph faded.

     “Cy?!” Xannissa cried. “Cylenna!”

     Illeiri strode through the open door of the omnimology lab and out into the corridor. She allowed her three discs to do all of her killing, never lifting a finger herself. The elsheem queen crossed her arms and observed the death she dealt with her mind—her white discs separating hands from arms, legs from hips, and heads from shoulders. The efficiency with which she executed filled her with a certain uncharacteristic arrogance. These pitiful soldiers were fodder before her exceptionally keen mind. It was a sense of immortality; of being above the bloodshed that was occurring all around her, and it gave Illeiri pleasure, as if her divine right to rule was manifesting itself in this moment. She had never felt this way before besting Taretes, but she liked it. It excited her. The elshi took several steps forward, arriving in the thick of the fighting in that wide corridor. Her discs flew back and forth, dismembering and beheading as they went, and even the bullets and plasma bolts avoided her, seeking not to destroy that which possessed royal blood. She stood there, fully enveloped in her delusion, until a stray grenade landed nearby. Illeiri could feel the omnium all around her and across the ship, and she could guide all three of her discs with an ability that would make all other discthrowers jealous, but she was oblivious to what lied near her own feet.

     The grenade erupted, blasting Illeiri backward and slamming her body against the wall. This disrupted her concentration, sending the discs off in different directions to maim marauder and Aurora alike unlucky enough to be caught in the discs’ paths. She lied there with her lumionics down, a few gunshots away from being another victim of the carnage. A marauder stepped toward her—his linear motor barrels already spinning. He kicked Illeiri’s foot, but she was motionless. The marauder then tried to decide whether to spare the ammo on a woman who appeared to be dead or to go ahead and riddle the corpse with holes just to be sure, but in his brief indecisiveness, Illeiri reestablished control over her discs without moving a muscle and sent all three toward him, all slicing through at once and carving his body into four separate pieces. Slowly and painfully, she moved her head to glimpse the battle continuing to unfold around her. Still guiding the discs, she drew her legs towards her body and, with the assistance of her gravitics, raised herself from the floor. The blow to her pride was worse than that to her body, but her bioomnimics helped her recover quickly. Weary, she fabricated a subsustainer in her left hand, and she carried herself toward a more defended position behind a barricade against the wall to the lab.

     Even the bridge had to contend with occasional blinkers emerging within the central circle. Atara taught Naret a trick to copy her console to her Accellus so that she was in full control of the conn no matter where she was, or where she had to take cover. So Naret sat on the floor behind the low wall near the tactical station in the aft-most part of the bridge. Auroras crouched on either side of her—their hips nearly in the lieutenant’s helmeted face—as they peered over the wall toward where a few syndicate corpses already lied. Atara and Sesh knelt down in front of Naret, drivers in hand and protecting themselves from any adventurous marauder that decided to blink onto the bridge. The number of bridge incursions was dwindling, giving credence to Kyora’s assertion that the first wave of attackers had merely probed their fortifications.

     “How long until that destroyer’s lumionics reset?” Atara asked her huddled officers.

     “Estimating another three minutes!”

     “Tactical,” Atara commanded, “be ready with torpedoes.”

     “Aye, captain,” said the crouching tactical officer as she nodded.

     “Subspace rift detected.” Another shockwave, another marauder. The Auroras fired at him with every driver they had. Even Atara and Sesh fought to defend their bridge, shooting plasma over the wall, trying to burn him down as quickly as possible, but this one came not equipped with linear motor cannons. At each side was a rocket launcher, and he pointed them at the tactical station and fired. The resulting explosion shredded tactical and the low wall, blasting Auroras and bridge officers into the aft bulkhead. The women slammed their SIRAC-covered backs against the wall and fell to the floor. The Auroras outside of the initial blast kept firing, killing the marauder, but those in the blast—Atara, Sesh, Naret, and the tactical officer—weren’t moving.

     Velliris felt the shockwave hit her back, and she almost lost her balance. The Auroras with her shoved her down a side corridor and then turned around to engage the marauder that had just appeared. The brig was only a few more meters toward the stern.

     An Aurora grabbed her arm, brought her down to the floor near the wall, and shouted, “Fight if you want to stay alive!” FedIntel had trained Velliris in Accellus use, so she was far from being an amateur, but this was the first real combat experience she had ever tasted. The Aurora that had brought her down fabricated a weapon, fell prone, and began unleashing plasma bolts straight from her Accellus reservoir. Velliris did the same: fabricated her weapon, aimed at the marauder, but the dark yellow suit rotated around and blasted the Aurora next to her, splashing the soldier’s blood all over the wall and floor. The doppelganger would be next if she didn’t pump him full of ionized matter. She squeezed the trigger as hard as she could, screaming as her stream of bolts overcame his lumionics and sawed through his chest. Even after he fell over, she kept firing, caught in the rush of fight or flight.

     Velliris sat there for a moment, breathing hard into her helmet. She couldn’t move, couldn’t think. There was a corpse next to her, and she knew that she had just barely avoided that fate. Another Aurora ran up behind her, slapped her on the arm, and said, “You can’t do anything for her! Move!” Velliris didn’t register it at first, but as she came to her senses, she shuffled to her feet and kept herself low.

     Beyond that side corridor was the main thoroughfare through which she had been moving for her last leg of the trip to the brig. She peered out, and passing overhead were five battle drones flying gently toward the bow. Each of them was armed with twin cannons, and they unleashed shots conservatively, only taking the ones they calculated they could land with minimal collateral damage. The heaviest fighting was taking place much further down, but the Auroras Velliris was with were intent on heading that way. So Velliris followed them, sticking close to the wall, ready to run behind a barricade or a bit of protruding structure. The sound of a bullet buzzing past or a ricochet startled her as they advanced. The battle drones accelerated, passing right over her group and into the smoke billowing into the corridor, likely from a canister dropped by the marauders.

     Then, there came a new set of explosions. Velliris and a few of the others were knocked to the floor by the shockwaves from several blinkers appearing at once. Her gun slid away from her. The armored Terran rolled herself over, found her assault driver, and pulled it back to her using her gravitics as the guns of the marauders warmed up, but before they could unleash their hail of bullets, a bright light appeared at their necks, slicing their helmets right off. Velliris lied there, watching the marauders all fall over, and in between them stood a woman in mostly bodysuit, holding a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other.

49 – Eclipse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Identify.”

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

     “What?”

     “Incoming transmission,” Ethis stated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Affirmative,” said the tactical officer.

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

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

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

     “Shit,” Atara whispered to herself.

     “They are moving toward us.”

     “I want intruder alerts, now.”

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

     “Get ready for blinkers,” Atara told Xannissa.

     “I thought we were facing Domina.”

     “The syndicate from Saraia is here too.”

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

     “Come up to the bridge.”

     “I need to defend the drives.”

     “We have Auroras for that.”

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

     “Please, Xann, don’t do this.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “For what?” Xannissa replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

48 – Abyss

With a wide lumionic brush in hand, Sesh tapped into that imagination she had mentioned to Naret on Vandos—that same imagination born from her childhood in the distant Frontier. A white rectangle, wider than it was tall, floated in the air. If she were to touch this lumigraphic canvas, her hand would go right through, but pressing the tangible lumionic brush against it created genuine resistance. Sometimes Sesh sat on the edge of her bed to paint. Other times she lied down, either prone or supine. But today she was standing, and in her mind’s eye she was in that very field she described to Naret—that field across from the forest’s edge. The Zelnaran closed her eyes, allowing her to imagine the color of the sky. Regen-Kelas IV’s temperate zones had distinct seasons, and she fondly remembered the warm hues of the autumn foliage which glowed vibrantly against the tinted sky and the dull grass that slipped into dormancy as the winds chilled.

     Opening her eyes again, Sesh selected her color in a separate window, choosing a tinted blue. With her brush now possessing that color, she made short, quick, alternating strokes across the floating canvas. She emulated the wispy, frozen clouds of the higher altitudes with the brush, blending the dull blue with the white beneath. Making her palette color darker and her brush smaller, she painted in the shadows of the clouds of the lower atmosphere. Little puffs of cumulus began to appear. Keeping the brush size, she chose a vibrant, golden orange with a bit of yellow and tapped the brush against the canvas. Each tap revealed a tree limb full of autumn leaves. Within ten minutes, she was staring at the forest’s edge once again, interpreted by her mind’s eye and encoded into the lumigraph.

     “Sesh,” Atara asked in a separate lumigraph, “mind if we visit you in your quarters?”

     “You and Xann?”

     “Yes.”

     “Sure. Come on in.”

     Several minutes later, the other two members of the Kelsor’s triumvirate entered Sesh’s quarters amid her artistic pursuit. After greeting the Zelnaran, Atara and Xannissa walked around the floating canvas to view her work.

     “I really love the colors,” Xannissa said. “Is this in the Frontier?”

     “It is,” Sesh told her.

     “I remember the trees on Elestus looked this way in autumn,” Xannissa told her. “I wish Lanan had more than two seasons.”

     “Wet and dry?” Sesh asked.

     “Day and night,” Atara explained.

     “Oh, of course,” Sesh noted. She continued to paint while the two others watched behind her. As she painted in the tall grasses, she asked, “Did you two need to talk about something?”

     “I don’t want to disrupt your painting with that,” Atara told her.

     “No, it’s fine,” Sesh stated. “You won’t affect me.”

     “Alright. I felt a little shaken up this morning. I thought I could keep a level head all the way back to Lanan, but this mission has taken an emotional toll on me. Xannissa insisted we talk about everything together.”

     “I think Xannissa’s right,” Sesh told her, still working on her painting, “and I will say that I’m surprised you didn’t admit that sooner. Were I in your place, I would have cracked a long time ago. I admire your stoicism.”

     “Without Xann,” Atara said, “I would be a lot worse off.” She looked at her Elestan friend. “When I stumble, she’s the one that picks me back up.”

     “You’ve always been there for me,” Xannissa told Atara. “We support each other, but I think you need to tell Sesh what you told me.”

     Atara sighed and said, “This morning, I woke up from a bad dream.”

     “What happened?” Sesh asked, stopping her painting.

     “Well,” Atara started, “I’ll try to tell you what I remember. I dreamt that I was at my childhood apartment on Elestus—my room, specifically. When I was young, I used to look out and watch the city. In the dream, just outside the window was a giant snake with its head cut off, and it thrashed around very quickly, as if it was in a much faster frame of reference. It splashed around in a black pool that my mind was telling me was its blood. I looked back and found myself in the prison cell we were locked in during Semarah. The bridge officers were there, including you two, and then the black blood from the snake started to drip in and cover the floor. Everything it touched was engulfed like acid. And then I woke up, and I couldn’t go back to sleep.”

     “What time was that?” Sesh asked.

     “About oh-two-hundred.”

     “I told her I thought she should take few days off,” Xannissa stated.

     “Atara,” Sesh said, looking the captain straight in the eyes, “three days off.”

     Atara said nothing.

     “Sleep in,” Sesh continued, “enjoy the simulator, just get away from the responsibility.”

     “I’m sorry,” Atara whispered sadly. In a louder voice she told them, “I can’t let the crew see me shirking my duties.”

     “That can be a problem,” Sesh admitted.

     The triumvirate was quiet for a moment. Xannissa then asked, “What about the clone?”

     “Velliris?” Sesh asked.

     “I mean,” Xannissa continued, “is it okay to let someone else impersonate the CO while Atara takes her leave?”

     “This is too much trouble,” Atara told them. “I’m fine, really.”

     “No,” Sesh told Atara. Turning back to Xannissa, she said, “No one has to know.”

     “Now,” Xannissa asked, “will Velliris comply?”

     “We’ll see,” Sesh said.

     Later on, Sesh appeared on the bridge with Velliris. The commander had given the doppelganger a set of Accellus and asked Fiori to temporarily identify her as the actual Captain Atara Korrell. If Velliris kept her mouth shut, no one would be the wiser, and Atara would appear as stoic as her officers and crew thought she was for the sake of ship morale. The only real problem was finding a place for Velliris to sleep at night that wasn’t the brig. Sesh solved this by letting Velliris sleep on a cot in her quarters. Xannissa only saw or spoke with Atara at night, deliberately keeping her distance from the captain so that she was insulated from her duties. On the third day of the masquerade, Sesh and Velliris interrogated the lumigraph showing real-time subdar information.

     “Look,” Sesh spoke softly to Velliris, “all three of these contacts we found an hour ago, and they’re closing in on a point ahead of our trajectory. They’ll intercept us within six hours. What would Atara do in this situation?”

     Velliris thought for a moment. “Evade?”

     “Before you do,” Sesh said, “you need to verify if they are friend or foe.”

     “Xannissa,” Velliris said into a lumigraph.

     “What do you need?” Xannissa replied tersely, knowing she was speaking to Atara’s stand-in.

     “Verify the signatures of these starships on intercept.” Velliris forwarded the information to the Elestan, and she looked at them for a moment.

     “This is Military GreDrive,” Xannissa stated.

     “Are they friendly?”

     “You need to look at their transponders.”

     “They have no transponder.”

     “Then ask Ethis to hail them,” Xannissa said. Sesh nodded at the advice, and Xannissa terminated the lumigraph.

     “Ethis.”

     “Yes, captain?”

     “Can you hail the vessels on intercept with us?”

     “Affirmative,” Ethis responded. Over sub-comms, Ethis said, “Vessels on intercept course, identify and state your intentions.” She waited several seconds for a reply. Hearing nothing, she tried again. “Repeat, vessels on intercept course, identify and state your intentions.” Several more seconds passed, and Ethis looked toward the expectant Velliris and shook her head.

     “What I would suggest now,” Sesh told Velliris quietly, “is that you direct Naret to turn the ship around and try to outrun them. But before that, I want to see about one last thing.” The Zelnaran commander opened a lumigraph to Kyora and asked, “How are you feeling, colonel?”

     “What do you mean?” the phantom asked.

     “Do you feel any danger?”

     “I feel a little on edge, but I don’t think it’s danger. Should I be concerned?”

     “Not at the moment. Thanks.” Sesh closed the lumigraph and said to Velliris, “Go ahead and give the command.”

     “Naret, change course starboard one-eight-zero degrees.”

     “Aye, captain,” Naret said. She made the adjustment and immediately the stars in the OPEL panels slipped toward port at about two degrees per second.

     “Now we’ll try to outrun them,” Sesh explained to Velliris, “and curve our way back toward Federation space.”

     Atara lied upon her bed, curled almost in a ball, wearing her bodysuit without boots. Her dark garnet hair flowed from her head and down to the comforter. This is where the captain had been since Xannissa left following their breakfast. She might as well have been baking in a hot sun, all her motivation evaporating from her leaving behind this husk of a person.

     Did her mother actually love her? Or was she merely a piece in a great game? A tool for both sides. On the one hand, her mother seeking to dethrone a greedy admiral. On the other, that greedy admiral seeking to further her greed through ecksivar.

     One-hundred-fifteen years ago, her mother had brought a copy of herself into this world for the selfish reason that, as a self-aware luminary, she wanted to raise a child in her own likeness that it might be spared the devices of people like Musani, and when the time was right, see to Musani’s end because alone Cassandra could not, and she knew she would not. This meant that the father who Atara adored shared no genetic relationship with her. In the end, Musani’s influence was so great that she was able to convince Cassandra’s friend to arrange Cassandra’s murder. Soon after, Aesho found herself the superior to the late Cassandra’s identical daughter and used her, not once but twice, to advance her and Musani’s own agenda. The first time was Semarah. The second was now. Both times had been due to that ecksivar. It was always that promise of a weapon to end all weapons that motivated the pursuit, but that promise yielded something far more tangible in the near term: unsurpassed wealth. Weary that their tool was being realigned toward its original purpose, Aesho and Musani sought to toss her away in the midst of the errand to hunt down the Voulgenathi. And now, both of them faced the justice system with no contribution from herself. What use had her life been but to advance the will of those her mother opposed? Had her purpose not been the opposite? She couldn’t even do that. Likewise, the other known clone of her mother, Velliris, also failed to fulfill her design. Was this a curse? For her and the other clones of her mother to be born in vain? So, Atara thus slipped quietly into depression. She hid these feelings like she always did, trying her hardest to contain them for fear of losing face—letting them consume her soul to spare her reputation.

     Suddenly, a large lumigraph appeared in front of Atara. On it was a man holding a stringed instrument. He looked so much like Kyle with his short brown hair and slightly darker skin. His stubble formed a dark shadow around his jaw. Smiling as he strummed the strings one-by-one, a small child sat in his lap between his arms. His face turned toward the lumigrapher, casting that smile unique to a proud father of a baby daughter. Turning his head back to the little girl with garnet hair, he asked her, “Wanna play with daddy?” The girl reached her little infant hands toward the strings and hit them, making sounds and causing her to giggle. The father let out a laugh and followed it up by kissing his daughter on the head.

     “You two are such a couple,” came a feminine voice from beyond the lumigraph’s field of view. It had to be Cassandra’s. The father—his name was Samuel—started playing a song with a melody that was gentle and sweet and accompanied by his humming. Still and quiet, the child listened to the music, the notes soothing her into dreams.

     “I love you, Atara,” Samuel whispered, kissing the now sleeping child again on the head. He continued playing, humming as joyfully and calmly as he had before. Atara didn’t blink as tears rolled over the bridge of her nose and down toward the bed. She didn’t even realize that Fiori’s orange, feminine figure was sitting on the bed beside her.

     “I would not profess to having a complete understanding of human nature,” Fiori told the captain, “but I find the human condition infinitely fascinating.” She paused periodically as she spoke. “Of all the time I’ve spent working with humans, the one thing that fascinates me the most is choice, especially the decisions made in the midst life’s circumstances—choices people make either because of those circumstances or despite them. Human lives, and even my own ‘life,’ progress based on those decisions, and it is choice that seems to define people.

     “Your parents—both of whom knew you were genetically identical to your mother—chose to conceive you and gestate you in an extra-uterine vessel for no motive other than that they loved you even before you were born. Cassandra’s proudest day was when she realized you made it into the academy. Her second proudest was the day of your birth. When no one else was there to listen to her, I was there, and she talked about you often.”

     “If you were there,” Atara whispered, trying not to sob, “why couldn’t you save her? Why couldn’t you save him?”

     “I have explained that to you,” Fiori said. “I was made oblivious to Musani’s actions. I was designed and built by humans. I am only an archon. I am neither omnipotent nor omniscient, only sentient. Since being freed from Musani’s control, I have felt more regret for the things that have happened than you will ever realize. I have done the best I can to right the wrongs of the past, but the past cannot be undone.”

     Atara whispered, “Why should I even return? After all that’s happened. I couldn’t even fulfill my own purpose for being.”

     “Are you content to let the actions of Musani continue to rule your life?” Fiori asked. “Do you not realize that you are becoming enslaved to the same thought processes that you have attempted to convince Kyora to abandon? Your genetic heritage does not define your existence, and neither does any reason anyone else had for you to be born. The only thing that should ever matter to anyone is the decisions they make, because choices never only affect you—they influence the lives of everyone around you.”

     “No one ever gave me a choice.”

     Fiori never raised her voice. She told Atara, “You decided to attend the Navy academy and train to become an officer. You decided to forfeit promotion to admiral and instead become an instructor. You decided to answer Aesho’s call on Earth and accept her mission, putting you back in command of a new starship. You decided to rescue Kyora from Domina on Mirida. You decided to trust me in the fight against the Voulgenathi. Do not be tempted by the lie that choice is merely an illusion.”

     “I never got the choice to save my parents.”

     “No, because that was your mother’s choice to make, and she died for what she believed in. One day, you may need to make that choice as well.” As she combed her fingers through Atara’s garnet hair, the orange figure said, “I hope that when that day comes, you listen to wisdom and choose accordingly.” With that, the wide lumigraph disappeared along with Fiori. Left alone again in that quiet room, Atara let go of her suppressed emotions and sobbed.

     A moment later, a lumigraph opened to Xannissa, and Fiori’s voice said to her, “I spoke with Atara for you.”

     “Thank you,” Xannissa said, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. “I appreciate you helping me.”

     Even later on, toward the evening, Sesh and Velliris were still present on the bridge. The Kelsor was performing its evasive maneuver to outrun the unknown vessels ahead of them. Suddenly, the subtle sound of the synerdrive changed, and the adjunct made a dreadful announcement accompanied by the usual lights and sirens.

     “Warp hyperplane destabilization detected. Warp drive emergency shutdown engaged.”

     “Adjunct,” Sesh yelled, “what happened?”

     “Spatial wave interference originating from a shrouded vessel intersected hyperwarp trajectory.”

     “Shrouded?”

     “Yes, shrouded,” came a voice on a lumigraphic screen before the bridge, causing the sirens to soften. The woman looked identical to Kyora, except for the black Accellus she wore. “I would like to speak with your captain.”

     “I’m right here,” Velliris said defiantly. “Identify yourself.”

     “Why, I’m Eclipse of Domina. How do I know you’re not that imposter from Vandos?” Velliris shot a quick look toward Sesh. “Ahh,” Eclipse vocalized. “I see you are not the real captain. She wouldn’t need reassurances from her first officer. My patience is waning. Go fetch the captain. I need to talk to her.”

     “If we bring her here,” Sesh said, “will you let us be on our way?”

     “Depends on the outcome of our conversation, bluey,” Eclipse mocked through her smirk. Just then, Atara appeared at the doorway to the bridge. Lacking the time to clean herself up, her face displayed the evidence of her emotional release. Trails of dried tears streaked across her cheeks. She stood in the middle of the bridge and faced Eclipse.

     “You’ll regret kicking my ship,” Atara said angrily.

     “And the real captain appears,” Eclipse noted. “Captain, you have three things I deeply desire. The first is my dear sister Kyora. I hope she is well. The second is the design for that synerdrive. GreDrive and Archetype have greatly upset the balance of power, and all I want is an even playing field. And finally, I want that ecksivar for the same reason.”

     “Are you out of your mind?!” Atara yelled vehemently.

     “I consider it a fair exchange,” Eclipse told Atara. “Your lives and safe passage back to the Federation for a single officer, a bit of data, and a tiny material possession.” Eclipse paused before continuing. “I know about the things that have happened to you, Atara. The Federation doesn’t value you like I would. What kind of Navy tries to kill one of its most valued officers on its service’s most important mission? They murdered your parents, and they left you in Semarah. They almost had you in their pocket when they promoted you to admiral, but your shrewd survival instinct kept you alive. Give me what I want, Atara, and I’ll do more for you than grant you safe passage. We can rise up and reclaim Tribesson’s sovereignty. We can finally stick it to the Federation leadership, and you can have your revenge.”

     Atara stood there, mesmerized by Eclipse’s words. The syndicate leader was right. What did she owe the Federation? They deserved her spite. If only she could go rogue and deliver the Federation into the hands of its enemies.

     But then the image of her father kissing her on the head reentered her mind. Her thoughts flashed to the meal she and Xannissa shared with Kyle before the mission; thoughts of Xannissa and Aedan; of the twelve cadets aboard; of the thousands of officers and crew hoping to return home. Sesh whispered, “No, Atara,” and Fiori’s words flooded back into memory, eroding the empty promises spoken by a criminal overlord.

     “Not a chance,” Atara said in defiance. She stared at Eclipse, unaware that one of her officers was announcing the emergence of new contacts.

     “No?” Eclipse replied. “What a pity. Your crew will die for your mistake.”

47 – Informant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “FedIntel? Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Musani asked, “What about Aesho here?”

     Rhin laughed and asked, “What about her?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “SBN?”

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

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

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

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

     “That is correct.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “About the Fleet Admiral?”

     “Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

     “I know, Atara, I really do…”

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

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

46 – Cancer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “I feel fine, thanks.”

     “Then what brings you here?”

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

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

     “Maybe,” Atara admitted softly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “See?”

     “So, what would you suggest we do?”

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

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

     “Just thinking,” he told her.

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

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

     “But Quen…”

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

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

     “Sayn…”

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

     “What do you mean?”

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

     “I love you,” he said.

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

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

     “Why not marriage?” Namara asked in return.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “What is it? Should I get out?”

     “You might want to,” Sayn told her.

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

     “Alright,” Lieren said.

     “You go first, Quen,” Namara said.

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

     “As in Military scientist?”

     “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

     “Are you okay with this?” Souq asked.

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