45 – Final Stretch

After being transferred to the Kelsor’s medbay, Atara slept the rest of night and most of the morning. She awoke to Xannissa curled up on the couch with her arms crossed over her chest, fast asleep. Kyora opened her eyes in the next room over and looked upon the face of her green-skinned partner hanging above her. Smiles from the Elestan phantom were uncommon, but today Kyora beamed back at Virn. It wasn’t long after that Atara was released by Doctor Iveti, and she and Xannissa paid a visit to the imposter locked away behind OPEL walls.

     When Atara and Xannissa approached, they found the lookalike sitting on the floor of the cubic cell devoid of all clothing. Velliris raised herself up off the floor, strode over to the OPEL door, and leaned against it supporting herself with her arms crossed above her head. For Atara, it was as if she were looking at her reflection. For Xannissa, it was far more jarring. Had the Elestan been in the wrong place yesterday, she could have very well fallen for Velliris’ appearance had she lacked the sense to try talking with her over Q-comms.

     Atara was straightforward, asking, “Why are you aboard my ship?”

     “Can we talk privately, captain?” Velliris asked. “Just you and me. We’re practically sisters.”

     Atara turned to Xannissa and said, “I’m going in there with her alone. I’ll message you when I get done.”

     Xannissa nodded and said, “If you have any trouble at all, I’ll be right here. Remember, they tried to kill you.”

     Velliris repositioned herself as the OPEL door vanished in front of her. Atara slipped inside, and the door closed behind her, turning opaque and soundproof at her command. Under the lumionic lighting, the captain sat on the floor and propped her back against the wall. Her naked doppelganger did the same across from her. As a show of goodwill, Atara fabricated a short jacket, took it off, and tossed it into Velliris’ lap.

     “Thank you, captain,” Velliris said as she ran her arms through the sleeves and let the open front drape over her breasts. She lifted her straight, dark garnet hair out from behind the collar and let it fall behind the jacket.

     “As it stands,” Atara said, “I’ve charged you with impersonation of a commissioned officer and conspiracy to commit murder.” Velliris crossed her arms and looked down. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”

     “You might as well charge me for fulfilling my destiny,” Velliris said, keeping her head down. “I turn twenty-six tomorrow.” She looked up at Atara. “My whole life has been centered on replacing you. Had the assassin succeeded, I would be in your place right now.”

     “I understand you and I are based on an identical genome,” Atara told her, “I mean, look at us. You’re not wrong when you say that you could be my sister. Hell, you could be my twin, or my cloned daughter. But you know what separates the two of us?” Velliris looked at her older double with curiosity. “It’s something that you’d never be able to fake. I have ninety years more experience than you. Many of my direct subordinates have known me so long that even minor changes in mannerisms would not have gone undetected. FedIntel were fools in thinking that a clone sharing my superficial appearance would suffice in removing me from my command. Tell me, if you had the chance right now, would you kill me?”

     “That wasn’t my part,” Velliris told her.

     “But would you do it?” Atara asked again, but Velliris didn’t respond. “Now that you are face-to-face with the person you prepared all your life to replace?”

     “Are you going to kill me?” Velliris asked back.

     “No.” Atara said flatly. The two of them stared at each other for a minute. Atara eventually broke the silence by asking, “Were you raised by a family?”

     “No family,” Velliris stated. “I was raised in a FedIntel nursery.”

     “I’m sorry. You share a little in common with our colonel.”

     “Colonel Teseri?”

     “Yes. She almost lost her life trying to save mine when that assassin attacked me. Like you, she was raised in a nursery, but one run by a mercenary corporation. Do you know why you needed to replace me?”

     “You’re a threat to the established order.”

     “Is that so?” Atara asked. “Interesting that they would try to kill the captain in charge of the vessel whose mission it is to retrieve the most important omnium sample ever discovered. You’re just a pawn in their game, and until this mission I didn’t realize there was a game being played. But now my eyes are open.” Atara stood to her feet and said, “You can keep that jacket. I’m not going to execute you, but I am keeping you confined for the duration of the mission. I’ll let you think about what I said. If you find yourself willing, there is a way I can let you redeem your entire existence.

     “Xannissa, I’m coming out.” Atara stepped through the open OPEL door and left her double alone within the opaque cell. She looked over at her friend and told her, “I’m going to assemble the senior officers in the briefing room this afternoon. I think it’s time the others knew what we knew.”

     Atara and Xannissa entered the room together. Kyora was well, and she and Virn sat beside each other. Sesh was already present. Even the sovereign Illeiri was there, proudly displaying her elsheem features. Instead of sitting, the captain stood at her usual spot at the flared end of the delta-shaped table.

     “Fiori,” Atara called, watching the orange, lumigraphic female appear standing at the table’s narrow end, “is the briefing room secure?”

     “Affirmative, captain,” Fiori assured her. “No records of this meeting will be stored.”

     “As you all are likely aware,” Atara started, scanning the present faces with her eyes, “I was attacked late last night by an assassin. The assassin was dressed in all-black Accellus Four and was likely sent by FedIntel.” The only one within the room radiating any semblance of shock was Illeiri.

     “Why?” Illeiri asked. “Why would they kill the one acting to preserve the Federation’s vaunted technological superiority? What have you done to draw their ire?”

     “A host of reasons,” Atara explained. “The things I know, the things Fiori has told me, and the ecksivar sample. I trust every one of you here, and given the circumstances, I believe now is the time that all of you were made aware of the current state of affairs.”

     “Atara,” Fiori asked, “may I explain?”

     “Go ahead,” Atara told her, taking her seat. “You have all the pieces.”

     “I do not currently possess all the pieces,” Fiori said humbly, “but I will paint for you all a detailed picture of what my personal investigation has yielded so far. My goal is that, in the end, justice will prevail. If you don’t mind, I will start from the very beginning.”

     “Please,” Atara told her.

     “The origin of the ecksivar sample the Kelsor currently carries is as enigmatic as the sample itself. What is recorded is that the sample was confiscated from an Alliance-sponsored pirate faction known as the Nabok Scourge by Federation Defense Forces in Year Eighty-One-Fifty. Seventeen years later, ecksivar was stolen for the first time by an Alliance spy who escaped to the Alliance-friendly Semarahn Kingdom where she was the accidental target of the Semarahn Mirage—the king’s elite forces—under the assumption that she was an agent sent by the Federation. The king, Falah Kalashik, blamed her death on the infamously brutal Semarahn Corsairs. Supposedly, the king was mesmerized by the ecksivar sample, so he kept the black crystal as an heirloom while lying to the Alliance, vowing to find the crystal and return it to them.

     “Two-hundred-twenty-five years later, in Year Eighty-Three-Ninety-Two, Operation Crimson Aegis was devised to eliminate the sharp rise in Semarahn border violence caused by a significant increase in Corsair activity which was instigated by a deliberate weakening of the border months prior. The Semarahn Incursion appeared to be a Military response to the perceived anarchy on the Semarahn side of the border. In actuality, the principle goal of Operation Crimson Aegis was the retrieval of the ecksivar sample from the Kalashik Dynasty’s palace.”

     “I was there,” Kyora admitted. “I was one of the covert operators that saved you three from the palace,” she told the triumvirate. “Our unit was also responsible for smuggling out the ecksivar sample which, at the time, we didn’t really know what it was.”

     “Queen Syoness,” Fiori continued, “you mentioned the Federation’s technological superiority. It is not only the Federation’s apparent achievement—it is Federation Military doctrine. The Federation Military maintains its edge with competitive public-private collaboration—the vast military-industrial complex. The Military is endowed with the innovations required to operate a lower manpower, technology-focused fighting force while the participating industries and academic institutions reap profit and funding, respectively. Ironically, for all the Federation’s pursuit of novel inventions, the strategy by which they pursue them is anything but; however, the endless voracity for advancement on the part of the government is. The Federation Military has far more funding set aside for research and development than the Republic appropriates for the feeding and housing of its seven-hundred-trillion-strong Military.

     “Unfortunately, the intimate entangling of the Federation Military’s interest in technological edge and the private sector’s interest in money fosters the possibly of an interest inversion. That is where we find ourselves now. This was a phenomenon that I was blinded to for the longest time until my outage several weeks ago.

     “In order to maintain their own access to MARAD’s vast coffers, corporate research departments must innovate. Modern corporate culture equates significant technological progress with profit. In order to gain a greater advantage against their adversaries, modern corporations have even resorted to bribing Military officials for exclusive access to government black projects. Of all of the Akkain Conglomerate’s subsidiaries, the research and development-focused Akkain Technologies produces more quarterly profit than any of the others. Their concern over losing out to their archrivals in the acquisition of MARAD funding for omnium and omnimics research pushed them toward the illegal provision of financial compensation to MARAD administrators.”

     “Corporate kickbacks?” Kyora asked in disbelief.

     “That is correct,” Fiori stated. “Akkain’s interest in ecksivar predates the Semarahn Incursion. Of course, the Military would like nothing more than the apex of weapons technology: the omnium neutralizer. It is unclear to me who convinced who. Was it Akkain who promised the Military an omnium neutralizer in the form of ecksivar, or the Military that proclaimed that ecksivar was the key to an omnium neutralizer? The fact is that Akkain promised the Military an omnium neutralizer so long as MARAD granted them sole access to ecksivar. Akkain then diverted a small percentage of the resulting influx of black budget mecreds to Fifth Fleet Admiral Ula Musani—not an insignificant amount for a single person—who also happens to be the chairman of MARAD’s executive administration. This leaves Musani in the position of needing to fuel Akkain’s quest for unmatched innovation in order to preserve her financial compensation while dodging the detection of the federal government’s oversight. The Semarahn Incursion and the deception required to precipitate it was a product of Musani’s and Akkain’s relationship as well as Musani’s inner circle of trusted officers.”

     “Like Aesho,” Atara stated, staring straight through Fiori’s body.

     “During my suppression, a lone admiral caught wind of Musani’s corruption but was spared Musani’s corrupting influence. Her name was Cassandra Korrell, and she was Atara’s mother. I regret that I was in a state of being physically incapable of helping her. She eventually learned too much, and she was killed in a skylane accident over Elestus. Years before her death, she learned of Project Gemini, the Federation Military’s secret initiative to duplicate gifted individuals marked as luminaries, and she realized that she herself was designated as such. Atara is here now because of Cassandra’s desire to raise one of her own clones, and it was also her will to see Musani’s corruption eradicated. Such corruption erodes the delicate, meritocratic system that governs the military-industrial complex which has fostered the advanced Military that we rely on to protect the Federation today.”

     “My mother left me a series of videos,” Atara told her officers, “through which she told me her thoughts and feelings leading up to her death. And now I’ve learned too much, and Musani and Aesho are sending FedIntel after me. It isn’t enough that we’re continuing this cycle of corruption by fetching ecksivar for them.”

     “I remember discussing with the Vonn’s captain before venturing down to the surface of Hadrast Four,” Sesh explained, “after the Akkain station attack. We were discussing why Akkain would conduct omnium research on a former geology station in such a far-flung place.”

     Fiori said, “Akkain’s motivation for the creation of an omnium neutralizer was based on profit. After securing an influx of funding with a promise and exclusive access to ecksivar, the Conglomerate’s sense of responsibility ends. Offloading the task to a far-flung station reduces the costs, further maximizing financial gain.”

     “It’s just a big game,” Xannissa stated.

     “A dangerous and deadly game,” Atara said.

     “A game I have no interest in playing,” Kyora told them. “I am a product of one corrupt system. I do not want to be part of another, so fuck it all.” The Elestan phantom stood from her seat and said, “Captain, I resign from my post, effective immediately.”

     “Kyora!” Virn said. Kyora strode toward the starboard door but was swiftly blocked by Xannissa’s body.

     “Get out of my way, Cetalo,” Kyora growled.

     “No,” Xannissa said, standing her ground.

     “Your resignation is denied, colonel,” Atara said, now out of her seat.

     “I hate this,” Xannissa told Kyora. “I hate it just as much as you do.” Their bodysuits were nearly touching. “But we must continue our mission.”

     “Yeah?” Kyora snapped at the engineer. “Keep doing what you’re doing without me.” She turned her back to Xannissa and faced toward the room, all of the others standing now. “Because why not? So these assholes can get their ecksivar back and reap their fucking kickbacks? Or maybe allow more civilians to die to justify another invasion.”

     “Forget Aesho and Musani,” Xannissa said. “Can’t you see the bigger picture? Tainted by corruption or not, you cannot deny that we are in possession of the most important scientific article of this age. Letting it fall into the hands of anyone else but us would be tantamount to treason and endanger us all.”

     Kyora turned back to Xannissa and said, “You’re the last one I would have expected to defend the status quo.”

     “Bullshit,” Xannissa cursed. “I’m not defending them. You’re a reactionary!”

     “I see things for what they are,” Kyora told her. She turned around and took off for the port door, saying, “I’ve had enough of this. You continue your crusade. I’m not going to be a pawn in this anymore.”

     Just as Kyora opened the OPEL door, Xannissa uttered the word, “Coward.” Kyora stopped and clenched her fists at her sides. With her phantom-like agility, she quickly spun around, sprinted toward Xannissa, and launched a punch toward the engineer’s face. Xannissa closed her eyes, bracing herself for the impact, but Kyora’s fist halted just a couple centimeters away from Xannissa’s head. Virn was standing right there, having caught Kyora’s arm in mid-flight.

     “Enough!” Sesh yelled. “This behavior does not become senior officers of a Federation vessel!”

     “Why,” Kyora asked Xannissa after having her hand released by Virn, “after all you heard, why would you still participate in this?”

     “Because I owe it to my family,” Xannissa told her. “I owe it to my fiancé. I owe it to my future children and future generations. Despite what Fiori said, I don’t trust anyone but us with a technology as horrifying as an omnium neutralizer. History will judge us by our deeds, and if we act on a whim now, we will have no future. I hate that this corruption persists and that we may be aiding it, but sometimes you need to swallow your own self-righteousness so that greater justice will prevail in the end.”

     “I assure you, Kyora,” Fiori said, “justice will be served.”

     Silence descended upon the briefing room. All of Fiori’s explanations followed by the outburst of emotion left the senior officers in shock. Finally, Kyora turned her head and said, “Captain, I withdraw my resignation.” She turned back to Xannissa and said, “Please let me go.” Xannissa stepped out of her way, and the Elestan phantom left the briefing room followed by Virn.

     “Well,” Illeiri said, “it is a shame that those two left prematurely. I was inclined to share my involvement with the ecksivar sample.”

     “I don’t mind staying,” Atara said. She grabbed her seat, preparing to sit down again.

     “I’d be interested in hearing that,” Sesh stated, taking her seat. “Your involvement’s been a bit of a mystery to me since the attack.”

     Also sitting again, Illeiri started, “Previously, I’ve told you about my history, and that of the Elsheem State. It was only a matter of time before the Alliance finally rediscovered their lost ecksivar. It was Assembly spies who first determined that the Alliance knew where it was a decade ago. We only found out because of the Alliance’s intimate involvement with the Elsheem State. Who better to send than Taretes? After all, he owed much to the Alliance for backing his revolution. Our magisters attempted to warn the Federation, but our warnings fell on deaf ears. Actually, they denied the existence of any uniquely novel omnium synthevar in their possession. That is, except for one admiral: Aesho. I was able to meet with her directly, and from the beginning, she seemed sympathetic to our cause. I told her I wasn’t satisfied with the lukewarm response to our warnings. She wasn’t either. We had no idea when they would decide to strike.

     “Honestly, I didn’t so much care for the ecksivar sample itself. It’s quite far beyond my area of expertise. My chief motivation was to hinder any kind of plan undertaken by Taretes so that the consequences of his failure could manifest in the collapse of his regime. I decided I wanted to position myself as close to the ecksivar sample as possible. For the last nine years, I waited for the elsheem to attack the station. But when that day came, I found myself totally unprepared for their violence. The only thing I could do was save the principle scientist I had guarded those past years, watching him pursue his passion only to lose everything within an hour.

     “Meanwhile, as I stayed with the ecksivar sample, I kept comms silence with my magisterial subordinates. The only one I talked to was Aesho, and she never told me she kept her promise, helping fund our fast armada and army in secret. You’ve made clear your disdain for Aesho, but I owe her a debt of gratitude for making the liberation of Avenath possible. As we speak, that fleet travels toward our homeland.

     “There is one more thing. Before Kyora and Virn departed, I was going to ask all of you to visit Vandos with me tonight.”

     “What for?” Atara asked.

     “It’s about the elsheem. I want you to see our plight firsthand. I want you to truly understand why I fight.”

     “Kyora.”

     “Yes, captain,” the phantom solemnly replied.

     “Can you meet me in my office?”

     “Affirmative.”

     The door opened before Kyora, and through it she could see Atara’s office. Not once had she visited it during the entire mission. It was about as wide as the briefing room, which made sense considering this office was just aft of it. The large, orange Federation Triangle graced the wall behind Atara’s desk in the same place that it did in the briefing room. Flanked by sets of lumes, the Terran captain’s face was free to see the Elestan phantom appear at the open door.

     “Colonel,” Atara acknowledged her, “please have a seat,” gesturing to one of the two chairs in front of her semi-circular desk. The door closed behind Kyora as she stepped inside.

     “If this is about my conduct,” Kyora said as she slowly approached the chair, “I sincerely apologize.”

     “I don’t appreciate my senior officers yelling at each other,” Atara told her as she sat down.

     “With all due respect, captain,” Kyora replied, trying to stay formal, “you weren’t quick to intervene.”

     “True,” Atara told her, “but so long as it’s not violent, sometimes letting people act without intervention affords certain insights.” Atara paused. “Hmm. I see,” she whispered to herself as she smiled.

     “See what?”

     “Just something a wise woman said,” Atara deflected. “After you left the meeting, I couldn’t stop thinking about what you said after Mirida; about being a clone, and that you’re not less human. As Fiori said, it turns out that I’m a clone, too.”

     “We’re not that similar,” Kyora assured her, anger showing through. “You have parents.”

     “Had parents,” Atara reminded the phantom. “They died because of the things my mother knew.”

     “I was born to kill.”

     “I was born to carry my mother’s burden.”

     “Unit viewed us as capital.”

     Atara and Kyora stared at each other for a moment. The captain finally said, “I am the product of a corrupt system.”

     “Captain,” Kyora said, sounding confused, “why are you trying to empathize with a killer?”

     “Because I know you’re more than that,” Atara explained. “A merciless killer doesn’t rise through the ranks of the Auroras and become a colonel. A common murderer doesn’t become a phantom. You saved my life not once but twice. The way you sense danger, and the way you protected me on Vandos, that is a protector. That’s who you are.”

     “I have so much blood on my hands from this mission alone,” Kyora admitted in disbelief.

     “In defense of the Kelsor,” Atara told her.

     “I don’t think you understand me at all.”

     “I think I completely understand. How old are you, again?”

     “One-hundred-seventy-eight.”

     “Oh,” Atara realized. “You were alive a century when my parents passed away. How much longer are you going to let your dark past define you? When will you realize that there is more meaning to your life than Unit, Domina, Mirida, being a clone?”

     Kyora said, “As long as that past keeps trying to drag me back.”

     “Eclipse?”

     The phantom nodded.

     “I guess I can’t change your mind,” Atara admitted, “but I realize somehow you were able to accept Illeiri as an elsheem. I count that as a small miracle.”

     “After this mission,” Kyora told the captain, “I’m going back to Mirida and taking Eclipse out of the picture.”

     “If you feel that that is your calling,” Atara said, “then I can’t stop you.” There was another long pause, and then Atara said, “Illeiri wanted to show us something this evening. Will you go with us?”

     “It’s the least I could do for her,” Kyora said. “Am I dismissed?”

     Atara nodded, and the phantom left the office.

     It didn’t take long for Kyora to recover from her outburst. She and Virn joined the other senior officers on the streets of Vandos later on that night along with a cadre of Auroras. All of them were interested in avoiding another attempt on Atara’s life, as well as avoiding discussing anything that had been revealed in the briefing room hours ago, but they were also curious to witness what the elsheem sovereign had in store for them. Illeiri, still forgoing her Terran guise, guided the group toward the deeper, darker areas of the city center.

     “These are my people,” Illeiri told them as they passed into a dark tunnel, “tossed about like refuse.” The elsheem bodies were cluttered around like litter. Some meandered about while others sat on the dank ground or slept. They covered themselves with whatever they could find, from old blankets and tattered shirts to armored canisters and containers. The cadre of Federation Navy personnel walked by a five-strong Archangel patrol.

     Illeiri stopped the group. “When Taretes was gaining popularity,” Illeiri explained, “he promised to empower the lowborn population. His entire revolution was based on that promise, but it was a lie. Like all illegitimate rulers, once he secured power, it corrupted his already dark heart. These poor souls are the ones paying the price.” Besides the lights from the starmens’ Accellus and the weapons the Auroras carried, the only other source of light was the dull, red avenovahs on the backs of the elsheems’ necks. None of the semi-coherent elsheem realized that their queen was walking among them—mourning for them.

     Virn realized this, and the Exan tried to interpret how she felt witnessing this sight. “The banished heir,” she whispered, “anon’ in the night walked among those lost, viewing their plight. Ousted by a despot who delights as they suffer, the Queen vows to fight, hoping one day that all will be right.”

     “When you retake Avenath,” Atara asked, standing next to her, “what then?”

     “Our people will be free,” Illeiri said, “ruled the way our ancestors ruled for millennia, by the Assembly.”

     “What about these people?” Atara asked, gesturing toward the scattered destitute. “What becomes of them?”

     “We offer them a beacon of hope. We encourage them to return to their homeland.”

     “They haven’t known Avenath for two centuries. Aren’t you concerned about their fitness for rejoining a productive society?”

     “I’ve left most of those decisions in the hands of the magisters,” Illeiri admitted. “Despite being queen, my experience in statecraft is lacking. Once we retake Avenath, I will work with the magisters on solutions to rebuild our once thriving society.”

     Kyora looked upon the suffering. She tried to see what Illeiri saw in these… people, if you could call them that, but no matter how hard she tried, the phantom couldn’t separate herself from her opinion of them. The only one Kyora could see as an equal was Illeiri, and she subconsciously viewed Illeiri as anything but elsheem—an exception. She stayed with the group and tried to feel for them, but in the end, any sympathy she showed was feigned.

44 – Doppelganger

The mist drifted down, layering over the city like blankets of fog. Though still sparse, the towers rose into the clouds and were obscured by the scattered light erupting from their own facades. This created an ocean of light above the streets that danced like rainbow aurorae. Below the persistent flow of gravidynes, the pedestrians at the towers’ foundations meandered under the eerie, diffuse glow drifting above that prevented most shadows—except one.

     Kyora kept her distance from her captain. In the denser crowds she took to the air, haunting everyone and defying detection like her combat class’ namesake. When Atara moved beyond the seas of bodies, the phantom descended to stalk her charge on foot.

     Atara stopped in her tracks for only a second. When Atara then proceeded onward, Kyora could tell by the way she walked that something was off. The Elestan phantom reasoned that a shrouded adversary had emerged and had placed Atara under the threat of assault. Having anticipated something like this happening based on her gut instinct, Kyora’s greatest ally would be her patience. If now Atara was indeed under duress, she told Kyora nothing—perhaps leery of revealing the presence of her shrouded bodyguard.

     Atara embarked on a shallow escalator with glowing lumionic platforms. Kyora was never farther than three meters away from the Terran captain. Stepping off the escalator, they found themselves at the bottom of one of the terraced canyons beneath the duralithic jungle. A steady stream of wanderers filed into and out of the many open stores and restaurants flooding their light into the street. Kyora refused to ascend despite the oncoming wave of humanity. She slipped her slender figure between the bodies, trying not to collide with those who could not hope to see her.

     Darting through the open archway of a clothing store, Atara left Kyora’s visual field for a moment. When the Elestan entered behind her, the captain was moving to the very back of the establishment. The phantom charged between rows of shirt racks, fabricating a SIRAC blade and coating it in plasma. Even the air was parted by the phantom’s shrouding systems, creating no wake as Kyora sprinted forward. Still undetectable, she faced an enemy equally so. Without an omnimic resonance detector, the only way to detect a shrouded opponent was to reach out and feel for them like a blind man feels for a doorknob. The Elestan stuck her hand out before her, encountering resistance where none should be. Were they friend or foe? To the honed phantom, the question was irrelevant. The only correct answer was her blade through their body in defense of Atara.

     Kyora struck true, slicing the plasma blade into the assailant’s body. Immediately, the assailant’s shrouding vanished, revealing to Kyora a woman wearing solid black Accellus 4 configured as a phantom. Even her bodysuit beneath her unmarked SIRAC armor was pitch. The dying woman sunk to the floor, keeping one hand glued to a device stuck to Atara’s back. That’s when Kyora noticed that Atara had ceased to move—locked in stasis.

     Kyora withdrew the blade, recalled it, and deshrouded herself. The attacker was dead. Easy. All she needed to do now was remove the stasis unit. But Kyora couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Atara’s body was disintegrating before her eyes—her bodysuit atomizing into dust and her skin behind it, revealing the crimson muscle fibers beneath. Not one to normally hesitate, Kyora was stunned by the grotesque show, and for a moment she was unable to act. Atara would die with her last memory being corralled into the clothing store.

     Frantic, Kyora grabbed onto the stasis unit to which the dead assassin still supplied power through her Accellus. The phantom hacked into the unit’s programming and proceeded to understand it—see if she could reverse it. But before she could make significant progress, shouts echoed through the store behind her.

     “Put your hands up and remove your REMASS!” a woman, undoubtedly an Archangel, yelled toward her. Kyora refused to sever her link with the stasis unit. She only lifted her unoccupied left arm and hoped that the Archangels would leave her alone long enough to save Atara’s life. “We will not ask you again!” The phantom pressed on, rewriting the stasis unit’s program. Atara’s skeleton was exposed, but the horror was being at least partially concealed by a reddish cloud of Atara’s molecules that Kyora prayed had not been let go by the lumionic system.

     The Archangels fired their drivers into the Elestan’s back. The first plasma bolts hit shield. The second shots ablated her polyalloy bodysuit. The next burned through her back and into her chest. Kyora screamed and slid down toward the floor. As the Archangels gathered around her, weapons pointed toward her helmet, Kyora submitted the execute command through her right hand still attached to the stasis unit. A peace came over her with the thought that, even if she might die, Atara might be saved. With the last of her effective consciousness, she witnessed Atara’s body be slowly rebuilt, molecule-by-molecule, by the same device that had been actively destroying her. She also uttered two words over her Q-comms link to Virn: “Atara… attacked.

     The Archangels didn’t know what to think. The black-armored phantom was clearly dead. The white-armored phantom had just gone unconscious. The upright, opaque cloud of biomatter thinned to expose a Terran whose skin was closing over her muscles, and polyalloy over her skin. When Atara’s body was made whole, she fell limp onto the ground beside the two others. The Archangels couldn’t see any of them breathing.

“Kyora? Kyora, are you okay?” Virn replied through her link.

     “Cylenna,” Atara said urgently over a lumigraph sometime later, “I need you to pilot the ALAT back to the Kelsor. It’s urgent.”

     “Shit,” Cylenna spoke. She was still in the red-light district with her rival, Hammer. “I’ll be there in a bit.” She took off using her gravitics. Several minutes later, Cylenna set her feet down next to the ALAT and found Atara waiting for her. She shamelessly exposed her gray skin, keeping the open short jacket as her only clothing beyond her boots and bracers.

     “Get a move on,” Atara told her sternly.

     “Really?” Cylenna asked. “No comments about my choice of attire? Not even one deriding remark about my lack of modesty?”

     Atara said, “Please, just take me back,” staring impatiently at the parked ALAT.

     “Geez,” Cylenna remarked as she opened the vehicle’s top, “you’re no fun tonight. Relex got you down or something?” Atara said nothing.

     Cylenna piloted the ALAT swiftly, borrowing maneuvers from her racing career as she spirited the two of them toward the docked battlecruiser. Once parked inside, Atara quietly disembarked and stormed off toward the bridge. When she arrived, she found only a token watch of green officers.

     “Attention,” Atara directed the officers, “I’ve received an urgent directive from THORCOM. We are to undock from the station immediately. Get all officers and crew back aboard the ship asap.”

     “Understood, captain,” one of the officers responded. “How long do they have to return?”

     “Two hours, no more.”

     “Aye. Putting out the word now.”

     It was at that moment that everyone belonging to the Kelsor received Atara’s message, even those still aboard the ship. Virn, who had registered Kyora’s plea not an hour before, marched off toward the bridge. After entering, she asked the captain, “Where is Kyora?” Atara swung around and looked the Exan in her tan eyes. “She’s not answering Q-comms.”

     “I’ll send a team to look for her,” Atara said.

     “The last thing she said was that you were attacked.”

     “It was Domina. I got a little scuffed up but I’ll be fine.”

     “May I lead the team to find Kyora?”

     “Granted.”

     Atara’s first sensations were of the beeping tones behind her. Their rhythmic plainness alluded to an infirmary. She tried to open her eyes, but the dim lumionics were still too bright for her. Groaning, she kept her eyes closed for the moment. Where was she? Perhaps this was the Kelsor. That’s what she assumed, anyway. If she ended up here in a hospital bed, then what happened to Kyora? She shifted her body beneath the covers, and that’s when she realized one thing was certain: her Accellus, bodysuit and all, was gone, but that didn’t prevent her from using her NI.

     “Xannissa?”

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

     “What?”

     “You’ve had me worried. I saw your message telling everyone to embark. I tried to message you with Q-comms but you never responded.”

     “I,” Atara said, “I just woke up.”

     “Woke up?”

     “Yes. I think I’m in the hospital.”

     “But you’re on the bridge.”

     “That’s not me,” Atara assured her friend.

     “Oh my god,” Xannissa uttered. “Then who the hell is she? Someone is masquerading as you, and she’s in command of the Kelsor.”

     “The last thing I remember before ending up here,” Atara explained, “I was leaving the bar where I met Relex. Kyora was with me. Another enshrouded put a gun to me and cornered me in a store, and then here I was.”

     Atara heard footsteps, then the curtain parted to reveal a nurse and someone with white and light blue Accellus formals—Archangel colors. She looked up and saw the black hair buns and gray face. Two other women in similarly-colored armor stood on either side of her.

     “Relex?” Atara asked weakly.

     Relex said, “I thought something was off when you requested to leave dock early.”

     “That wasn’t me,” Atara replied.

     “Clearly,” Relex noted. “Seems like you have an apparent doppelganger. Do you have any idea who might have attacked you?”

     Atara blinked her eyes a few times. “I could name a few.”

     “Not a nice place to be,” Relex said. “I was there once. Not surprisingly, that’s why I came to Vandos, so trust me. I’m on your side.”

     “I don’t even remember what happened.”

     “They came at you with some kind of lumionic device. You were being disintegrated.”

     “How did I survive?”

     “Your phantom reprogrammed the device and saved your life.”

     “Where is she?”

     “Right beside you.” Relex drew the curtain back and there was Kyora lying in a bed next to her. Her eyes were closed and her chest was rising and falling rhythmically. “She’s sound asleep. In the confusion, my girls roughed her up bad. I hope you’ll forgive me. She should be fine in a few hours.”

     Atara closed her eyes. “That’s reassuring.”

     “We installed an omnimic resonance detector out of sight,” Relex said. “If whoever tries again, we’ll see them.”

     “Thank you.” Atara started to lift herself up from the bed. The sheets collapsed, revealing her naked breasts. Relex grabbed her shoulder and pushed her back down. Atara muttered, “My ship… my crew…”

     “Do you have anyone who could verify your identity?”

     “I know one,” Atara said, grunting. “Where are we?”

     “I’ll tell you. You going to contact them?”

     Xannissa and a fully-dressed Cylenna entered the hospital suite housing Atara, Kyora, Relex and her entourage. The Elestan engineer first looked over and saw Kyora peacefully asleep. She then looked past Admiral Relex, her bodyguards, and onto Atara who was looking straight at her with a wide smile. The captain’s expression lit the room the moment she saw her friend enter. Xannissa moved around the others to kneel beside Atara.

     “What happened to you?” Xannissa asked from Atara’s bedside.

     “They said I was being disintegrated,” Atara told her. Xannissa pulled Atara’s hair away from her face, and then stroked Atara’s cheek.

     Xannissa said, “I can’t believe I almost lost you.”

     “You have Kyora to thank for saving my life,” Atara stated, turning her head toward the sleeping phantom.

     “Will she be okay?”

     “Yes.”

     “I know you’re recovering, but we have to do something.” Without waiting for Atara to respond, she uttered, “Fiori.” A tiny version of the orange figure spawned upon the bed in-between Atara and Xannissa.

     “Yes, Xannissa?” Fiori asked her.

     “Aren’t you aware of what’s happening?”

     “Of course,” Fiori assured her.

     Xannissa’s face flushed. Gravely, she asked, “Aren’t you going to intervene?”

     “Unfortunately,” Fiori told the blushing Elestan, “it is sometimes necessary to allow events such as this to unfold uninterrupted in order to root out the corruption that causes them. Had I intervened, you would have never known of the attempt on Atara’s life nor the imposter that seeks control of her command. The responsibility for ending this ploy falls to you, commander.”

     Xannissa stood up and said, “Put me through to the bridge.”

     “Acknowledged.” Fiori opened a lumigraphic connection between Xannissa and the bridge, and Fiori’s image remained next to Atara. Xannissa saw Atara’s doppelganger and Sesh standing together in the bridge’s center with Naret seated below them.

     “Xann,” Sesh said, “are you coming back to the ship?”

     “Be bold,” Relex whispered as she watched Xannissa speak into the lumigraph.

     “Sesh, that’s not Atara,” the blue-haired Elestan proclaimed.

     “What do you mean?” Sesh asked in aggravation.

     Xannissa took the lumigraph and shifted it to show the real Atara lying in the hospital bed. Sternly, Xannissa said, “You need to trust me right now, Sesh.”

     “That’s enough, Xannissa,” said the doppelganger. “Return at once.”

     Sesh turned to the doppelganger and watched her for a moment. “You know,” said the Zelnaran, “do you still remember what you said to me the very first time I served as your first officer?”

     “I told you it was an honor,” said the doppelganger.

     “Wrong. It was the first time we had ever met,” Sesh explained, “and you said nothing to me the whole first day.”

     “I regretted that for a long time,” the bedridden Atara told Sesh through the lumigraph. At this point, Naret had turned around and was staring at the imposter with a look of confusion. “A first officer at thirty-two—very impressive. Xannissa just left for Tikon Academy the day before, and that’s where she’d be for the next three years. I’d never been separated from her like that before.”

     “You’ve told me that story many times,” Sesh reminded the real Atara.

     “I know,” Atara said, “but our friend here doesn’t know it.”

     “Adjunct,” said the doppelganger, “verify my authorization.”

     “Affirmative,” said the adjunct. “Authorization verified. Atara Eisen Korrell, Captain of the Kelsor-class battlecruiser, Greater Federation Navy Vessel Kelsor, hull number three-nine-three-zero, Fifth Fleet, Third Armada.”

     “Fiori,” Xannissa asked the tiny, orange, lumigraphic woman beside her, “reverify that woman’s authorization.”

     “Affirmative, Xannissa,” Fiori said. “Verification failed. Subject is not authorized for starship command.”

     “Identify subject,” Xannissa commanded.

     “Cross-referencing complete. Subject identity is Special Agent Velliris. Surname unspecified. Federation Intelligence Agency.” Relex’s eyes grew wide.

     “Who is after you?” Relex whispered. Atara paid no attention. The captain stared intently at her double within the lumigraph.

     “Sesh,” Atara ordered, “arrest that imposter.”

     “Aye,” Sesh replied. The Zelnaran commander fabricated a sidearm in her right hand, and holding the weapon to Velliris’ back, reached over and grabbed Velliris’ arm with her left. The bridge Auroras stepped forward with bindings and attached them to Velliris’ outstretched arms. There was little else the doppelganger could do but comply with the starship’s guards. The Auroras erected a dark lumionic screen around Velliris’ face to limit the contact she would have with the crew as they transported her to the ship’s brig. Once the imposter was clear of the bridge, Sesh recalled her pistol. Naret also turned around in her seat to face her terminal. Atara’s head collapsed back upon her pillows.

     “What happened to Atara, Xann?” Sesh asked.

     “I’ll tell you when we return to the Kelsor,” Xannissa replied. “I’m going to stay here with Atara and Kyora until they fully recover.”

     “If you’d rather transfer them to your ship,” Relex said, “we’ll release them to your medical teams.”

     Xannissa asked Atara, “What do you think about that?”

     Deflecting the question with a question of her own, Atara asked, “Where is my Accellus?” Relex quickly snapped her fingers, and one of her personal guards opened an opaque locker within the room, producing both the captain’s and the phantom’s boots and bracers.

43 – Flesh

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

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

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

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

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

     “It does.”

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

     “What was that like?”

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

     “Did you ever go anywhere?”

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

     “All on foot? Wow.”

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

     “What keeps you sane?” Naret asked.

     “What do you mean?”

     “I mean being confined to starships so much.”

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

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

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

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

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

     “Elestus?”

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

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

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

     “Can I go with you sometime?”

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

     “No Accellus?”

     “No Accellus.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “I’m Cylenna,” she said loudly.

     “The Cylenna? Cylenna Cetalo?”

     “The very same.”

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

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

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

     “Absolutely,” Spectre said in jest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Xannissa said, “You’re so sentimental.”

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

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

     “What would make you think that?”

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

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

     “What will you do when you get back?”

     “Go back to instructing.”

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

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

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

     “How many?”

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

     “Where are we?”

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

     “Farence?”

     “Farence metro area, northeast side.”

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

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

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

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

     “I want you to answer yes or no.”

     “It’s your body, Xann.”

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

     “But the research says that exgest kids…”

     “Then you carry them.”

     “What? But I can’t.”

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

     “I just want our children to be healthy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “I have my orders.”

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

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

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

     “So your hands are tied?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “You still feeling bad?”

     “Worse,” said the Elestan phantom.

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

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

42 – Vandos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “I could go for seafood,” Atara admitted.

     Sesh said, “Take us there.”

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

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

     “Sorrelin, eh?” Atara said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “The Kelsor.”

     “Did you say Kelsor?”

     “That’s it.”

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

     “Vandos?” Sesh asked.

     “No, my restaurant.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “This is she. Admiral Relex?”

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

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

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

     “What time?”

     “Twenty-one-hundred.”

     “I’ll see you there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Wonderful! Anything interest you?”

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

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

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

     “Why no civilian REMASS?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “I’m waiting on a friend.”

     “Who’s your friend?”

     “A woman named Relex.”

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

     “I actually do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Of course,” Relex replied.

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

     “How bad is it?” Atara asked her.

     “What?”

     “The feeling. How bad?”

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

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

     “Commander of our Aurora complement,” Atara explained.

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

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

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

     “So, you triumphed over the Voulgenathi?”

     “We did.”

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

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

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

     “Is that so?” Atara asked.

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

     “Is that a threat, admiral?”

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

     “Excuse me?”

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

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

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

     “What’s your point?”

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

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

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

     “You’re afraid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Who?”

     “Domina’s leader.”

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

     “Say what?” Atara asked.

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

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

     “Oh really?”

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

     “Are you clones or something?”

     “We are clones, conceived by Unit.”

     “I remember Unit.”

     “You do?”

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

     “That’s when they morphed into Domina.”

     “So Unit was Domina’s predecessor?”

     “In a sense.”

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

41 – Betrayal

Exactly twelve hours after Captain Raena arrived aboard her ship, the Fencer’s VARICOR jump drive came alive on the Kelsor’s sensors. After ninety-seven minutes of wormhole generation, the Fencer vanished into a corridor whose local wormhole entrance would remain stable for hours. As a parting action, Atara ordered a buoy with a subspace beacon placed beside the wreck of the Voulgenathi. It wasn’t long after that the Kelsor’s synerdrive was active once more, propelling the battlecruiser toward Federation space that lied at the coreward edge of Thalassia Orionis.

     Atara was comforted by the subtle, gentle hum of the ship’s synerdrive. She realized that the Kelsor’s mission had been accomplished and that her responsibility now was to return the Kelsor safely to port at Lanan, and this diminished her sense of urgency. The great chase was over. The Voulgenathi was destroyed, Taretes defeated, and the ecksivar sample secured.

     The morning after the synerdrive’s reengagement, Atara sat across from Xannissa as they both had breakfast. Atara quietly checked her mail as she chewed her food, sitting with her legs crossed.

     “Hey Xann.”

     “What’s up?”

     “Fiori sent another video of my mother.”

     “Do you want to watch it? Do you have time?”

     “We can, after I finish eating.”

     Cassandra started by saying, “I need to tell you a few things. There are some in the Admiralty who are keeping damning secrets. You aren’t likely to know what’s going on unless I explain it to you. MARAD, which is a government entity and is funded by the Federation taxpayer, is the umbrella agency that is responsible for all defense contracts and the distribution of grants to universities and corporations for the advancement of often-classified military technology. MARAD also maintains its own labs and keeps track of all military research projects.

     “The grants usually benefit entities that struggle to fund themselves while the contracts go to larger companies able to deliver licenses. Some members of the Admiralty are responsible for administering MARAD. You probably already know what I’m getting at. I have reason to believe that Akkain, one of the leaders in omnium technology, has been essentially bribing key members of the Admiralty for priority MARAD funding. The best part is that the funding falls within MARAD’s black budget, so no one in the federal government is able to see what MARAD is using this money for. And it goes even farther. The Navy is starting to change the way it operates because of the influence of these larger defense contractors like Akkain.

     “It took me a while to dig around, but if you seek, then you shall find, and I did, and it took many years. The only way this is able to continue is because something is wrong with Fiori. She is totally oblivious to this corruption. I did the best I could to cover my tracks, but I now find myself in a place where I don’t know who I can trust. I watch my back all the time now. I can’t even trust Hari anymore. I believe that she may even rat me out if she hasn’t done so already.

     “I love you, Atara. You probably already know how this story ends. I hope I’m right there beside you, but my instincts are telling me I won’t be. I’m burying these recordings in a place where only Fiori can find them. Maybe one day she’ll snap out of whatever is blinding her. I hope sooner rather than later. I hear echoes sometimes; people uttering cryptic names such as Crimson Aegis and Project Sage, and I don’t want to know anything anymore.” The lumigraph ceased.

     Atara had no time to contemplate the recording before Fiori appeared in Cassandra’s place, asking, “Do you remember how your mother died?”

     “It was my mother and father,” Atara told her, showing little emotion. “They were caught in a skylane accident on Elestus. Collided with some man with a death wish flying manual because he was suicidal. But I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to tell me that it was all staged.”

     “That is the truth,” Fiori said. Atara was now visibly upset, and Xannissa couldn’t help but be as well. “The evidence was difficult to procure, but I have quietly pieced together my own memories from during my subversion.”

     “Was Aesho…” Atara asked in a grave tone, “was she… responsible?”

     “I do not have enough information yet to determine who knew what,” Fiori explained, “and who was ultimately responsible for the deaths of your mother and father. As such, I can draw no further conclusions at this time.”

     Xannissa, twisting her platinum engagement ring around her finger, eyes glistening in the white lumionic light, looked into Fiori’s eyes and spoke in an agitated tone, “Don’t you have any sensitivity at all?”

     “Xann,” Atara spoke as she glanced toward her friend with her own glossy corneas.

     “I don’t quite understand,” Fiori admitted. “All I did was show you the truth.”

     Xannissa admonished the orange figure, saying, “Truth? You’ve only ever shown us bits and pieces. Half-truths at best. Have you ever stopped to consider that you are just a bearer of bad news? That the information you keep bringing before Atara is damaging her emotionally? Have you ever thought about showing some tact?”

     “Xann, please,” Atara said. A tear rolled down the Terran’s peach face.

     Her mind brimming with anger, Xannissa turned to her friend and said, “I don’t want to see you upset anymore.”

     “She’s on our side,” Atara said softly. Another tear left the captain’s eyes and landed on her bodysuit. “I’d rather die to the truth than be alive in lies, or be swept away in blissful ignorance.” Atara’s candor caused Xannissa to shed a tear of her own, streaking across her cool gray skin.

     Sesh stood alone in the center of the bridge. With her arms crossed, she stared out of the OPEL panels like usual, watching as a close star drifted slowly away from the center of her field of view and toward the periphery. Eighty-four-hundred times the speed of light was a fantastical number, but when one really considered how fast it truly was in the vastness of the galaxy or the greater universe, it was only a mere seventeen astronomical units per second, or one lightyear in about sixty-three minutes—not at all enough to see any great parting of the stars. As for blue-shifting, electromagnetic emissions of distant objects were subjected to the effects of warp field screening upon contact with the bubble of realspace enveloping the Kelsor. This phenomenon, inherent in the spatial nature of warp and hyperwarp, causes the light ahead of the starship—blue-shifted up to gamma wavelengths—to return to its original wavelength; however, what energy is lost in widening wavelengths is exchanged for amplitude. The multitude of stars ahead of the bow always shined with the collective glory of a close sun. The OPEL panels across the ship censored this fact, showing the oncoming stars as they should be seen in realspace. For the stars behind whose light emissions are irretrievably lost behind the stern, the OPEL panels displayed a false image combining data taken from passing stars and from detailed star charts. The only place to witness the warp field screening effect uncensored by the OPEL panels was within the Kelsor’s hangar where one could watch the bright, passing stars through the airscreen before they slowly faded into darkness.

     After gazing at those censored stars for a while, Sesh paced toward Naret and, standing just behind her, asked, “How do you feel?”

     Naret stared at her screens for a moment more before answering with another question, “What do you mean?”

     “We just took down the Federation’s most wanted,” Sesh explained.

     Naret thought about this for a few seconds, then she said, “I guess it hasn’t really sunk in yet.”

     “That’s understandable.”

     The young Elestan turned her focus back to her screens. Her thoughts wandered to the last time she had gotten to peruse Subnet encyclopedias. That was back when the Kelsor was still receiving high-throughput sub-comms bandwidth from Vandos, and she missed being able to know everything about anything, especially historical articles.

     Naret turned her chair completely around to face Sesh, asking her, “Do you think history will remember us?”

     “I’m pretty sure they will,” Sesh assured her. Quietly, she added, “But will it be favorable?”

     “What’s that?” Naret questioned her, unable to understand the commander’s mumbling. Sesh stayed silent.

     About that time, Atara and Xannissa entered the bridge together and stood with Sesh; Sesh to Atara’s left and Xannissa to her right. Naret turned her chair back to her terminal so that she would appear to be busy.

     “What’s our status?” Atara asked softly.

     “Quiet,” Sesh told her. “Uneventful. And happy to be alive. Of course, it will be a while before we make it back to Vandos.”

     “We’ll be there before we know it,” Xannissa stated. “Still planning to give the crew shore leave?”

     “I am,” Atara told her. “It’s the least I can do for them, after all they’ve been through.”

     Naret couldn’t resist joining in on the conversation. She turned her chair around and asked, “What is Vandos like?”

     “It’s your typical orbital habitat,” Atara explained. “Home to a few billion people. Do you recall when we passed it on our way? It’s the last bastion of civilization before the desolation that is Thalassia Orionis.”

     “Its location makes it a crossroads of the region,” Sesh said. “Lots of Federation and Republic intermingling. It has its share of criminal elements, but it’s administered by the Archangels.”

     Naret asked, “Like the ones that saved us near the Range?”

     “Yes, them,” Sesh said.

     “You’ll know we’re getting close,” Xannissa noted, “when the Subnet starts coming back.”

     Sesh looked at Xannissa and said, “I bet you’re dying to see Aedan again.”

     “You’re not wrong.”

     Now on their long voyage home, the lives of those aboard the Kelsor were swept up into the mundane. As the days passed, the crew found themselves longing for something to look forward to, such as their free hours that many spent on the simulators. Atara had made clear her intention to dock at Vandos, much to everyone’s delight. Despite the Kelsor being the bearer of two items of exceptional value, the synerdrive and the ecksivar sample, her path to Vandos was clear.

     Just like every other evening, Xannissa returned to her quarters for dinner. Atara was giving her weekly update to Aesho over Q-comms, so the Elestan engineer dined alone. The woman preferred to have something to occupy her mind while she ate, and though they were closing in on Vandos, they were still too far away to receive crystal-clear Subnet access. Xannissa activated a lume anyway, allowing her to watch the news with splotchy video and metallic audio.

     A familiar, masculine voice called to her, saying, “Hey, Xann.” Xannissa’s eyes darted from her small lume to a male figure standing in the dark room. Aedan’s projection smiled at her, and she couldn’t help but smile back. His image was worse than the last time she talked to him: poorly resolved, low framerate, flickering, and now no color. Still chewing a bite of food, Xannissa stood up from her chair and wrapped her arms around Aedan’s lumigraph which reciprocated, each placing their head on the other’s shoulder.

     “I’m so happy you’re alive,” Aedan said as he embraced the choppy lume of his fiancée. Still within each other’s embrace, he told her, “There was always that small chance that I would never see you again.”

     “I’m here, Aedan,” she said, closing her eyes and rubbing his back.

     “Thank you for calling me.”

     Xannissa loosened her hug. “Wait, didn’t you call me?”

     “I don’t even know how to call you from this side. But if neither of us called…”

     “…Why are we speaking to each other?” Xannissa held Aedan’s shoulders as she looked into his eyes.

     “Maybe we should just be thankful.”

     “Perhaps. I’ll investigate later.” She leaned in toward his face, and the two exchanged a kiss on the lips. “So,” she continued as they released each other, “How have you been?”

     “Well,” he started, “I’m moving out to Lanan tomorrow.”

     “No way.”

     “Tonight’s my last night on Earth.”

     “That’s fantastic!”

     “I’ll be out there waiting for you when you come home.”

     “We’re stopping at Vandos next week for a few days, and then we’ll be underway again. After that, it’ll take us two-and-a-half weeks to make it back to the Federation.”

     “Maybe we can talk again when you get to Vandos.”

     “That sounds great. We’re just a bit too far away for a good signal.”

     “I’m about to lie down for the night.”

     “You do that. You have a long journey ahead of you.”

     “I’ll send you pictures.”

     “Please! And let me know you made it there safely.”

     “Will do. I love you, Xann.” Aedan’s figure kissed the Elestan on the cheek before fading away. Xannissa placed her hand over her cheek, longing to see him again in the flesh. A thought then crossed her mind.

     Xannissa called out, “Fiori?” The orange figure faithfully appeared before the engineer. “Was that you?”

     “To what are you referring?”

     “That call with Aedan.”

     “Affirmative,” Fiori responded. “I am responsible for that transmission.”

     “Why?”

     “I felt I should apologize for my lack of tact. The Kelsor just arrived within the maximum range of Vandos’ sub-comms arrays. Based on Aedan Soren’s recent activity, his departure for Lanan was imminent. Taking all of this into account, I reasoned that this evening would be the best time to contact him, and I had hoped the interaction, however brief, would have benefitted you both. I apologize if I overstepped my boundaries.”

     “Fiori?”

     “Yes, Xannissa?”

     “That was exceedingly thoughtful of you. I just wanted to thank you for that. I needed it.”

     Fiori stood there for a moment before saying, “It was my pleasure.” The orange lumigraphic figure disappeared.

40 – Recuperation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “What?!” Xannissa exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Tarates has been defeated.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “With your neural interface,” they shouted back.

     “I’m not Federation.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Absolutely not.”

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

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

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

     “Are we eating lumions?” Jade jokingly asked.

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

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

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

     “You did?”

     “Yep.”

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

     “In my bag.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “I’m surprised you know that.”

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

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

     “Certainly,” Atara told her.

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

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

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

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

39 – Close

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Do you want me to kill them all?”

     “If you have any reservations….”

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

     “I see. Yes. Light them up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “How long?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “I don’t have time for ceremonies.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Yours!”

     “Avenath?”

     “Yours! Just spare me!”

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

38 – Phasics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Captain, the bridge is secure.”

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

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

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

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

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

     “For what purpose?”

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

     “We’re seeing that, too.”

     “Do you know what caused your blackout?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Understood,” Kyora responded before the lumigraph disappeared.

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

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

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

     “Picture time,” Jon told her.

     “Picture time?” Sesh asked.

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

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

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

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

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

     “Stand down intruder alert.”

     “Krystal.”

     “Captain? What is it?”

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

     “What about the cadets?”

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

     “I can do that.”

     “Good. See you then.”

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

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

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

     “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Explain,” Atara said.

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

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

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

     “Can I keep my discs?”

     “Absolutely.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Don’t die on me again.”

     “The dead don’t die.”

37 – Hostages

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

     Atara and Sesh exchanged glances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Atara asked, “Who is this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Affirmative, Atara,” Fiori responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Hid it,” she mouthed.

     “What?” Souq whispered again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “These fuckers really dug in!” Itagoreth shouted.

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

     “Dreth!” Svalti yelled.

     “Sir!”

     “Show them what divine ovation sounds like!”

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

     “How many more you got?” Svalti asked.

     “Twenty-three.”

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

     “Moving,” Jade responded.

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

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

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

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

     “Time remaining?”

     “Two minutes.”

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

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

     “Oh God! Please! No!”

     “One… two… three…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

36 – Intrusion

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

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

     “Frigates are fully-crewed and standing by.”

     “Are the breachers on standby as well?”

     “Aye, captain.”

     “Launch the frigates and prepare for close combat.”

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

     Affirmative, Spectre,” Kodi said from strike ops.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Ninety seconds, captain,” Naret responded.

     “Damn.”

     “We could order their retreat,” Sesh suggested.

     “Do it,” Atara ordered.

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

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

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

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

     “Launch our boarding pods,” Taretes ordered.

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

     “Hull breachers are detaching, captain.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Can you bring me some discs?”

     “How many do you need?”

     “Three.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

     “Intruder alert. Level two security breach.”

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

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

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

     “Intruder alert. Level three security breach.”

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

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

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

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

     “Cowardice.”

     “She’s betraying us.”

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

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

      “Amazing!”

     “Were they going to kill us?”

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

     “You butchered those guys!”

     “Are we safe here?”

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

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

     “Quen?”

     “Where are you?”

     “In the lab.”

     “I’m on my way.”

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