The Crucible Episode One
The edge of reality is an unforgiving place.
There is no light out here. Just darkness. A cold unrelenting darkness that has witnessed every second, every minute, every century, and every aeon.
It outlasts all.
And it waits. Waits for an opportunity that comes once in the lifetime of each galactic civilization.
In the cold it sits. In the darkness it watches.
Until we give it the opportunity it seeks.
The Mari Sector, Research Dig Alpha 78
“Are you serious? You left the levitation pads back in the jumper?” Research Manager Amy Lee crossed her arms tightly against the stiff fabric of her environmental suit. Her helmet was off – they’d already erected an environmental field around this huge cavern. So everyone was able to see her scowl. She was good at frowning, too. She’d had years of practice.
Ensign Weatherby brought both his hands up and took a step back, regulation brown boots crunching over the fine gray-white rock beneath him. “They weren’t in the manifests to be brought to the dig site,” he protested.
“Well you should have thought ahead. There’s no way we’re going to be able to shift thousands upon thousands of tons of rock with no levitation pads. Put your helmet on and go and get them,” Lee snapped through a clenched jaw. The powerful lights they’d set up all around the dig site gave off a tremendous glow, one that glinted along that thin slice of her glistening white teeth.
Ensign Weatherby swallowed, throat pushing hard against the navy blue and black of his Star Forces uniform. He turned quickly on his heel, feet scampering as he rushed away from her.
Lee stared at him, hands clamped on her hips.
When she’d petitioned Star Forces Command for military assistance on this dig site, she’d kind of hoped they’d give her a crew that wasn’t wet around the ears. These kids had probably been out in space for a week.
She turned suddenly, the boots of her EV suit pressing against the soft and crumbling rock of the cavern floor.
Behind her was a sight she’d never seen in her career. Most digs were simple. No larger than a modern day light cruiser.
This… this was different. Every time she paused to stare around the cavern, an undeniable race of nerves chased up and down her back. Sometimes it was even hard to breathe.
This place was… incredible. It was on another level.
The size of a city, they’d only been able to unearth half a square kilometer so far.
It was enormous. It put every other dig site she’d ever worked on to shame.
Behind her was a massive flat wall. It wasn’t made out of the soft white crumbly rock that littered the ground. Instead matter scans had revealed it was a never-before-seen composite of trithalium, one of the hardest substances ever identified.
The wall was completely unadorned apart from a small circle lodged right in the middle. A good hundred feet from the floor, they’d had to set up scaffolding to reach it.
Right now the most trusted members of her team were investigating that strange circle.
A circle within a circle within a circle, etched around the insides of each concave component was an unknown script. One small enough that it was almost on the atomic level. It contained so much information that it would take a week to scan through it all. Not, of course, that anyone was close to understanding it yet.
Research Manager Lee took another step towards that awesome sight. That’s when it happened. Another goddamn tremor. It shook up through the floor, chasing up the walls, rattling the scaffolding in its place. Despite the fact it was magnetically locked onto the wall, it still trembled like a palsied hand.
Lee staggered to the side, dropping to one knee and securing a hand to the ground. The rock was so soft her fingers pulverized a section to dust.
The tremor stopped.
She punched to her feet, scanning the cavern in every direction. “Any injuries?” she snapped.
Her team slowly picked themselves up from wherever they’d been standing and waved at her.
She let out a terse breath and locked her hands on her hips. Then, without even realizing it, her gaze flicked up towards that massive smooth wall.
Powerful hover lights roved around it, reacting to air currents as they shifted and bobbed, their bright yellow-white light illuminating the whole wall.
Tension built in her chest, and before she noticed it, it trapped her breath in place, driving it hard into the back of her throat. She clenched her teeth and brought her hands up, the fingers pressing into fists.
This would be the most important dig of her career. There was an unknown civilization behind that wall, she was sure of it. A dead one, of course. But she, Research Manager Lee, would be the one to drag it out into the light.
Taking one step back, her gaze still locked on that wall, she finally turned. Angling her head towards the massive hover lifts that sat along the back of the cavern and allowed people to ascend to the surface above, she wondered where Ensign Weatherby had gotten to.
If he wasn’t careful, he’d miss this historic moment. The moment when they would open a door into the past….
He brought a hand up and wiped it over his helmet. The atmosphere of this old moon was unpredictable. Though there wasn’t enough air to breathe, condensation kept covering every surface. His EV suit was slicked with it. If his superiors had opted for better equipment, the suit would be able to auto adjust to the condensation, and evaporate it clean off every surface.
But his superiors had not opted for better equipment. To them, this was just another dig. Important for archaeological purposes, but essentially a distraction.
Tensions were building within the Alliance. Before he’d left for this dig, he’d heard a few reports of skirmishes in the Calcore Sector. He hadn’t joined the Academy to be sent on babysitting missions like this. Plus, Research Manager Lee was enough of a ball breaker that she could look after herself. She didn’t need a full contingent of Star Forces personnel just to hold her scaffolding.
Bringing a hand up, Weatherby tried to clean the visor of his helmet again. Spreading his fingers, he angled his hand until the palm of his EV suit could scoop away the condensation on his visor. There were grip sensors sewn into the pads of his gloves that helped him pick up things in this otherwise cumbersome suit. They were perfect for clearing his visor, though the effect didn’t last.
“Christ,” he spat, voice twisting with bitter frustration. Christ, he didn’t want to be here.
He petulantly kicked at a rock by his feet. Though the move was angry, it wasn’t powerful, and yet he pulverized the rock, and it scattered fine particles of white-gray dust over his reinforced boot. He watched the dust scatter over the rounded surface of his shoe and fall back to the ground.
Then that goddamned condensation made it almost impossible to see again.
He was on the dark side of this moon. Though there was a star in this solar system, this damn rock turned so slowly you barely got to see it.
Technically his suit had an inbuilt light source lodged into the center of his chest that could be activated with a tap. Well, his was acting up. It kept blinking on and off, sending bursts of powerful illumination scattering out over this rocky wasteland with the erratic pulse of a guttering candle.
He swore again. He even tipped his head back, clenched his teeth, and let out a stifled scream.
When he let his head drop, he saw something. Just at the corner of his vision, maybe 20 meters away.
Then the light on his suit went out completely.
His rational mind told him he’d probably seen another member of his crew – some other poor soul who’d been ordered around by Manager ball-breaker Lee.
Still, he couldn’t deny the pulse of nerves that tore up his back. His fingers and toes tingled with a quick shot of adrenaline.
He waited for his light to turn back on.
Something scampered towards Ensign Weatherby. His suit was too old to pick up the sound of its erratic quick movements as it flung itself over the soft ground.
It was just another dark shape on a black night.
Weatherby took a step back, and his light flickered back on.
The creature was upon him. It latched its claws into his chest and ripped his suit from his body, reaching in for the flesh beneath.
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd
Christ, I was bored out of my skull.
I shouldn’t be. This was the first rest I’d had in over two months. We’d docked with the Argus Service Cluster – a group of interconnected fueling stations orbiting the Central Ruling Planet. CRP housed the galactic House of Lords and Ladies and every center of trade and scientific excellence in the Milky Way. It was also the home planet to the Star Forces Academy.
I’d graduated from that very Academy almost 7 years ago now. I’d climbed quickly through the ranks of the Star Forces. Somehow. It was still a surprise to me that I was a lieutenant commander at my age.
I stood with my elbows pressed against the railing before me, leaning out as I watched the view. I was in the Central Administration Hub. Behind me was a massive domed building that housed the House of Lords and Ladies, and below that the Primary Central Library of the Alliance. Though the building itself was a sight to behold, I chose to stare down from one of the many platforms that encircled it and watch the people below. Sky bridges connected the various buildings of the administration hub, blazing into light every time someone stepped across them. Due to the sheer amount of air traffic in this sector, the bridges were not stationary structures. Rather they were made of electrified light pads that followed a person as they picked their path through the very air.
When I’d been a kid, sky bridges had blown my mind. They seemed like such a leap of faith. You had to take a step and wait for the electrified pad to form under your foot.
If it didn’t form?
A leap of faith.
Those words echoed in my mind as I brought a hand up and ran it over my chin, short fingernails raking through my afternoon stubble.
Why did it feel as if everything I was doing these days was a leap of faith?
I wasn’t a dramatic man. I’d been trained well. I knew that one of the greatest threats you would ever face was your own mind. Space travel had come a long way since humanity had first set out to explore the stars. Still, there was something so alien and lonely about those vast wastelands of space. If you didn’t have your wits about you, it would turn against you.
Something was happening in the galaxy. It had been building for years now. Discontent. Whispers of a new enemy. As every year passed, I heard more and more stories. Maybe they were just that – stories – or maybe they were more. But one thing was for sure: there was a growing disquiet amongst the citizens of the Alliance. I saw it reflected in the faces of my crew. You had to concentrate to notice it, but it was there, in every new wrinkle, in every narrowed gaze, in every tight-lipped frown.
It was as if the Milky Way was building towards… something.
“Lieutenant Commander, I heard your ship docked this morning,” someone said from behind me.
The soft words, the lilting accent – there was only one person it could be.
I turned around to see Lady Argoza. Her family ruled over an area of space at least 100 systems wide. They were one of the most powerful forces within the House of Lords and Ladies. And they were good, kind-hearted folk, which seemed to be a rarity these days.
Though the Lady was only my age, I’d grown up with tales of her humanitarian missions. With nothing but her personal guard in tow, she would go into disaster areas to offer aid. She’d also be present at the aftermath of battles, administering to the wounded and supplying much-needed medical equipment.
She was a saint.
And she was also stunning.
Her race had the smoothest, softest skin, and the most vibrant wide eyes. Locks of ice-white hair tumbled down from her head, and her smile was the kind that could take you to the stars.
My lips kinked into an awkward grin, and I instantly brought up a hand to smooth down my short hair. “Lady?” There was the slightest kick of nerves to my tone. I could command troops into battle, but it always did me in every time I tried to talk with Argoza.
A lovely smile spread across her lips. She clasped her hands before herself, and she nodded low, hair tumbling over the dark blue collar of her tunic. “I assume you will be at the function tonight?”
“I’d better if I want to keep my command – it is being held in our honor, after all. So it would be pretty rude not to show up,” I said, instantly regretting my choice of words. They sounded flippant and arrogant.
Driving my teeth together I tried to hide a wince.
There was no point in acting like a love-struck teenager around Lady Argoza – half the goddamn galaxy was after her. A simple lieutenant commander in the Star Forces had no chance.
Still, I swear she put more effort into her smile, her soft lips pushing high into her cheekbones. “Of course. I will be there too,” she said as she kept her hands clasped in front of her, and she took a low bow, “I would relish the opportunity to thank you for your heroic efforts.”
I had to try extremely hard to stifle a snort.
Heroic efforts? I’d been doing my job. The same with my crew. When we come across that civilian transport being drawn towards a black hole, it had been our duty to intervene. Leave them to die, and we would have gone against everything we’d been taught.
We weren’t heroes. We’d just been there at the right time.
Maybe Argoza could sense what I was thinking because she shook her head lightly. “You sell yourself short, to borrow a phrase from your own people. You are a hero, Lieutenant Commander Shepherd,” she said my name slowly, and it sounded like honey pouring from her lips.
I found myself smiling again.
“Will you be in the capital for long?”
“Just a couple of days. There will be the function tonight, then my ship has to go through routine maintenance. Then we’ll be… off on a mission,” I said. I didn’t need to tell her the details of that mission – to be honest, I barely knew them myself.
Such was the nature of my job.
Approximately six months ago I’d been recruited into the Fair Strike Operation. A top-secret intelligence mission for the Joint Admirals Committee. I’d been given a top-of-the-line prototype reconnaissance vessel and a crew hand-picked from the best.
Our remit was simple: carry out the orders of the Joint Committee, whenever they were received. You could be halfway through rec leave only to be ordered to a mission halfway across the galaxy. It didn’t matter.
My crew and I were here to serve.
It was an honor – one of the greatest honors in the Star Forces. Only the cream of the crop were picked for the Fair Strike Operation. Almost everyone else only knew it as a legend.
“If you find yourself in need of company, I am at your disposal.” With her hands still pressed in front of her chest, Argoza nodded low once more.
Damn, I could have blushed at that. “No, no, Lady, you’re far too busy to hang out with the likes of me.”
She looked confused, then another one of those pleasant smile spread her lips. “We choose what is important in our lives.”
A kick of nerves raced through my gut.
But before the nerves could ignite into anything interesting, someone called the Lady’s name. She arched her long elegant neck around as one of her many aides came breathlessly to her side.
“Lady, the House of Lords and Ladies is about to begin voting on the new security policy.”
Lady Argoza’s once pleasant smile froze, and she gave a determined nod. “Very well.” She turned to walk away but then turned to face me. Those laser-like white-blue eyes reminded me of stars on a moonless night. “I will see you tonight, Lieutenant Commander.”
With that, she walked away, her robes floating around her.
Unashamedly, I stared until she was out of sight.
Then my mind caught up with me. The House of Lords and Ladies was about to vote on the new security measures.
I knew which way the vote would swing.
Though there were still a few voices of reason in the House of Lords and Ladies, a growing disquiet was spreading like wildfire. While there were no new threats to speak of, there was a definite sense of tension in the air.
And when people are afraid, they do stupid things. It hadn’t taken long for one of the Mandrican senators to suggest sweeping changes to the security laws. They would tighten up immigration, provide the Star Forces with new enforcement powers, and, most importantly, they would redirect resources for more ships and more weapons.
The Star Forces was already battle-ready. We had more cruisers than we knew what to do with. Most of them were just sitting around in dock waiting for the day they’d be needed. But if that day never came, they’d be a massive waste of time and resources.
But – but something. Something was happening. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but this galaxy was changing, almost from beneath my feet.
As I thought that, I looked down at my polished regulation boots, then let my gaze slide up until I stared past the city and to the horizon beyond. Locking my gaze on the point where the land met the heavens, I concentrated.
It was time to push away my disquiet, if only for a few hours, and prepare for the function tonight.
Then I could worry about the future. Because then I would be on the bridge of my ship, and I’d be able to do something about it.
I stood with my head pressed up against the door. I ground my sweaty flesh against the smooth metal, face contorted in pain, eyes squeezed shut.
With bared teeth, I waited for my agony to pass.
My hands jittered by my sides, my body now so sweaty it had soaked through the blue-black of my Star Forces’ uniform.
Another wave of pain hit me, and I brought my head back and slammed it against the door, letting out a soft whimper as I did.
It didn’t help. Nothing would.
Except more compound 78.
In a snap, the pain ended, and the nausea washed over me instead.
I took a staggering step back and locked a hand over my mouth. My fingers slipped over my skin, and it wasn’t until I dug my nails into my flesh that they stilled.
For several moments I stood there and forced myself to breathe. With my eyes half closed, I staggered backwards and forwards, my limbs like jelly.
Now the nausea abated. It was replaced with a high-pitched ringing echoing through my head.
It felt like horrendous static building in my brain.
With one last tortured gasp, it too ended.
I staggered over to the adjacent wall, planted a hand into it, and guided myself to my knees. My fingers left sweaty prints trailing down the smooth plain metal.
I brought my knees up and crunched them hard against my chest, locking my head against them with my arms as I rocked back and forth.
I had to get more of the compound. If I didn’t, I’d fall apart.
With a deep breath, I blinked my eyes open quickly and rested my head against the wall behind me. At first my gaze was unfocused, but slowly my eyesight cleared. I stared at the plain ceiling of my quarters.
Fortunately my roommate was on duty. Not that she was actually my roommate. I wasn’t stationed aboard this vessel – I’d been picked up with a number of other crew from the Light Cruiser Fargo. She’d faced mechanical troubles after a critical failure in our engine cores, and this ship – the Godspeed – had assisted.
That critical failure had, in part, been caused by me.
Not intentionally, but did that matter?
I brought my head forward and slammed it against the wall behind me. The move echoed around the room.
I released my hands from around my knees and pinched a trembling hand over the bridge of my nose.
Though the bulk of the pain had passed, there was always a constant headache driving through my skull. It felt like someone taking a sonic ice pick to my cranium.
As much as I wanted to stay there pressed up against the wall, I couldn’t.
I had to get off this ship.
Then I needed to find more of the compound.
I couldn’t function without it. And if I didn’t find a way to function, they’d find me.
If they found me, they’d drag me back to their facility and continue their experiments.
Though it was hard, I pushed myself to my feet. My fatigued limbs shook back and forth, but within seconds settled.
I pressed my lips together and took a deep breath through my nostrils.
I was calming.
By my reckoning I’d have another few hours before my next attack.
I brought my fingers up and neatened my collar, running a hand down my trim uniform.
Then I walked into the tiny bathroom of my quarters and dried my sweaty body with the directional heater.
Once I was done, I walked out of my door, and out of the ship.
I couldn’t afford to stay in one place for too long.
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd
This was one hell of a function.
I wouldn’t call it a party, though. Not for me. My crew, however, were having a great time.
They deserved it.
I kept eyeing the balcony outside. The air out there would be cool, and the constant drone of the party wouldn’t reach through the flex glass walls.
Though I was holding a drink – actual champagne from Earth – I hadn’t bothered to take a sip. Instead my fingers periodically tightened around the flute, the tension referring down my wrist and deep into my arm.
I caught sight of my reflection a few times in the shiny panel of the bar. The top brass had really gone all out, and there were actual bottles of real alcohol lined up on the shelves, reminiscent of that old Earth style I was so fond of.
In principle, I should have been enjoying this party. In practice, I couldn’t push the nerves from my mind. Every time I smiled and joked with a member of my crew, my disquiet was right there at the edges of my thoughts, waiting for a quiet moment until it could take over.
I saw a break in the crowd, and pushed forward to move through it, keeping my gaze locked on the quiet balcony outside.
That’s when I heard a low grumble by my left. “Fleeing already, Lieutenant Commander?”
I turned to see Commander F’val. He was from the Mancor race. Tall, he had a powerful build, sinewy muscles leading up to an angled jackal-like jaw. Despite the color of his skin, he looked unnervingly similar to those dog-headed gods from ancient Egypt.
“I wouldn’t call it fleeing, just retreating. You know me, Commander, I never lose a battle.”
The Commander drew back his lips and laughed. It was a harsh, hiss of a noise. “Not in the mood to enjoy your own party?”
I considered the Commander’s question in silence.
My silence was enough to answer his question.
“Did you hear the results of the House of Lords and Ladies vote today?”
I nodded stiffly.
“To think, they are so eager to keep giving us more and more power, and yet no direction. Don’t they know what happens to an over-resourced army?”
“It rusts and dies,” I said, incapable of keeping the bitterness from my tone.
“Or it turns against its masters,” the Commander said as he brought up his glass and made a mock salute. “Not, of course, that anyone within my ranks would be disloyal to the Alliance.”
I smiled. It was a brief move. I found my gaze slipping towards the quiet balcony once more.
F’val gave a soft snort. “Don’t let me stop you.”
“No, that’s alright,” I began, but the Commander had already turned away.
I considered him as he walked towards the bar. He had such a powerful figure, but his power didn’t stop there. It was laced through every movement and every word. Unlike me, F’val had been in the Star Forces for decades. He’d lived through countless skirmishes and commanded his crew through a multitude of victories.
He had wisdom where all I had was a niggling sense that something… wasn’t right.
As that thought stabbed through my mind once more, I let out a frustrated sigh, and I made my determined way towards the balcony.
I walked right through the flex glass, and it reformed seamlessly around me, letting out nothing but a slight popping noise like bubbles breaking.
I expected to be alone on this balcony.
There was a woman standing with her arms pressed against the railing, her shoulders hunched inwards. She had short plain strawberry-blond hair that was cut blunt to her jawline. She had a slight figure that didn't stand out from the crowd.
In fact, everything about her was unremarkable. And yet, I still recognized her. Ensign Amelia Jenks.
She wasn’t a member of my crew, we’d just given her a lift with the other members of the Light Cruiser Fargo.
Because the top brass were feeling in a particularly generous mood, all of the Fargo’s crew had also been invited to this function.
Most of the rest of them were inside, quaffing the genuine alcohol and feasting on the fine cuisine.
She, however, stood there and stared at the night sky.
As her hands clutched the railing, they gave a slight tremble.
She must be cold, I figured.
I wasn’t sure whether I should disturb her, so I walked up to the railing a few meters away and tried to focus on the view.
My gaze kept slipping back to her.
Quiet. Contained. There didn’t seem to be a hell of a lot going on with Ensign Jenks. Still, as she turned to me briefly, I gave her an encouraging smile. “I hope you’re enjoying the party, Ensign.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant Commander, I am,” she said quickly, but from the dazed look in her eye I could tell her words were automatic.
I gave her another smile.
She didn’t reciprocate. She kept looking past me, eyes locked on the night sky. Her gaze didn’t drift down to the city, they just locked on the horizon.
I found myself frowning. There was a definite… somber quality to her watchfulness. It reached deep inside me and—
“Lieutenant Commander Shepherd,” a familiar voice said from behind me.
I turned, a smile spreading over my lips long before I saw her.
Lady Argoza. She was dressed in a magnificent purple and gold gown. With a high-cut neckline and elegant sleeves, it hugged her form perfectly. With her blazing white-blue eyes and her shimmering, almost transparent frost-colored hair, she was easily one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.
“Why are you out here, Lieutenant Commander?”
“Just getting some air,” I replied. “It’s such a pleasant night, and—”
Before I knew what she was doing, Lady Argoza reached up and hooked an arm through mine. “The night can wait. You should enjoy this party… you’ve earned it.”
Even though I followed every word she said, I got the strange feeling she actually meant something else.
I shouldn’t enjoy this party because I’d earned it; I should enjoy it because it would be the last I would see for a long time to come.
As the Lady led me away, I found my head turning, my gaze drifting back to Ensign Jenks.
She hadn’t moved. There was a definite tension in her shoulders as she latched hold of the railing, and just as I walked through the flex glass, I saw her hands tremble once more.
I couldn’t take this any longer.
I left the party, quietly, avoiding everyone.
Which wasn’t hard. Amongst the crew of the Fargo, I was known as a loner. I had no friends, I interacted with no one. I kept to myself and followed orders.
I couldn’t afford companionship. I couldn’t drag anyone else into this nightmare.
By the time I made it out into the expansive corridor beyond the function room, my brow was plastered with sweat.
I had to find more of the compound, and I had to find it now.
I’d foolishly thought I’d have a few more hours until another seizure struck me. I’d been wrong.
If it had been up to me, I wouldn’t have come to this party. But it wasn’t up to me. It had been a command. The Star Forces told you went to work, went to rest, and when to play.
They also told you when it was time to die.
I walked quickly, arms huddled around my middle, fingers digging hard into my forearms.
I clenched my teeth together and kept my head angled to the side, avoiding eye contact with any passers-by.
I was currently in the administrative district. This district housed the Star Forces Academy and the House of Lords and Ladies, as well as the other crucial administrative centers that ran the Alliance. Beyond this district were the trade markets.
If I were lucky, I’d find what I was looking for there.
Nobody would be able to sell me any compound 78. Not in its isolated form. I would have to synthesize it from Omega class weapons. And Omega class weapons were very much illegal.
If you’d asked me several years ago, I would have said it would be impossible to get such weapons on the capital planet of the Alliance.
Now I knew better.
This Alliance was rotten to the core.
I pushed my way into a lift, half staggering past two surprised guests. “Close the doors and take me to the ground level,” I commanded before they had a chance to enter the lift.
As the doors swept closed with a hiss, I unlocked one shaking hand from around my middle and planted it on my brow, forcing the fingernails hard into my flesh. Pressing my palm over my eyes, I didn’t remove it until several seconds later when I arrived at the ground floor.
Dropping my hand and taking a calming breath, I walked out.
I had to keep blinking to refocus my gaze; it was starting to become fuzzy around the edges.
It was a cool night, and there was a pleasant brisk breeze sweeping along the streets.
On the ground floor of the administration district were wide white walkways interspersed with low gardens and lakes.
Before I’d been discovered and taken into the program, I’d loved nature. I’d always dreamt of traveling to some pristine planet somewhere and living out my days free from the pressures of the modern galaxy.
I’d never get the chance. Forevermore I’d be on the run. Though I could try to go to ground on some distant world, it wouldn’t last. I needed compound 78 to survive. And if I stopped taking it… things would happen.
My only option was to keep moving, from planet to planet, sourcing more and more compound 78.
I needed to keep hidden from them – the people who’d done this to me. The best way to do that was under their goddamn noses.
I’d changed my identity, buying a new one from Manticar Raiders. To the Alliance, I was now Ensign Amelia Jenks. The Raiders were good, and nobody had a clue who I really was.
If I wanted to keep it that way, I had to get more 78.
I quickly made my way across the grounds to the nearest transport hub. There, it was a relatively short trip to the trade district.
Short, that was, for somebody who wasn’t breaking apart on the inside.
The Mari Sector, Research Dig Alpha 78
Manager Amy Lee stood over the body… or whatever remained of it. A few of her researchers had found it.
They’d set up a security perimeter and had already activated an environmental field.
It was safe to breathe, yet she didn’t really want to take off her helmet.
Take off her helmet, and there’d be nothing between her and the torn bloody remains in the dust.
Her muscles were tense, her fists clenched by her sides.
Ensign Weatherby had been an idiot, but he hadn’t deserved this.
… Whatever this was.
This moon was uninhabited. Apart from the crew at the dig site, there should be nobody on this rock.
Well, there had to be something. The injuries Weatherby had sustained weren’t natural. He hadn’t fallen over. The ground hadn’t given out from underneath him and crushed his body.
No. His EV suit had been torn to shreds, the flesh within ripped apart – leaving the unmistakable impression of claws.
Whatever had done this had torn right through his chest.
There was blood everywhere. It was mixing with the condensation of this planet, but it was still thick and sticky by her feet.
Lieutenant Hargrove – the leader of her Space Forces detachment – stood above the Ensign’s body, his expression both grim and concerned.
To him, this mission was simple. This wasn’t the kind of operation where people died.
Hating that her hand trembled, she brought it up and wiped it over the visor of her helmet.
“Just take the damn thing off,” Hargrove growled, voice low and rumbling.
“There’s no need for that tone,” she managed as she reluctantly disengaged the seal of her helmet and pulled it off, a cloud of condensation puffing around her face before it dissipated.
“Don’t you dare,” Hargrove snapped. “The report you submitted to Star Forces said there would be no threats on this moon. You said this place was uninhabited.”
“It is uninhabited.”
“Something did that to him.” Hargrove extended a stiff finger at what remained of the Ensign’s body.
“A ship must have landed,” she began.
“Our ship hasn’t detected any incoming vessels. There is no one on this moon but us.”
She shivered. The move snaked deep into her body, making every muscle tremble. She brought up her hand to wipe it over her face, but stopped when she felt the rough fabric of the EV suit. As her fingers shifted in front of her face, she saw a faint shimmer of red. “What the hell is this?” she hissed.
Hargrove barely looked at her. “It’s his blood. It’s evaporating and mixing with the air. It’s this moon’s goddamn atmosphere. We need to act quickly if we are to preserve the crime scene.”
“Crime scene?” she stuttered, finally tearing her gaze off that thin film of red and staring at Hargrove.
“You said yourself, this planet is uninhabited, and if my ship hasn’t sensed anyone landing, that leaves one thing.” He stared at her directly, his lined brow pressing against his eyes.
“One of your crew did this to my man,” Hargrove’s voice dropped so low she could barely register it.
“I will find who did this.”
Research Manager Lee was used to holding her ground. Supervising dig sites, especially ones as large as this, required a sense of discipline and control. She was never afraid of a fight.
Yet now she couldn’t stop the fear from tracing up and down her back. It lodged deep into the base of her spine, leaving her with the sudden urge to run.
Not from Hargrove. Despite the menace lacing his tone, she wasn’t scared of him.
She was, however, terrified because he was wrong.
Her crew hadn’t done this.
She looked down at the remains of Ensign Weatherby once more.
Her crew hadn’t done this.
So who or what had?
I’d found an empty alleyway in the lower quarters of the trade district.
I was shaking now.
Shaking so badly that everything was shaking with me.
I wasn’t crazy. It was really happening.
There were a few discarded mag crates to my side, and as my body trembled, they shifted and shook on the floor.
I pressed a sweaty hand into the wall and tried to stabilize myself. Closing my eyes hard and clenching my jaw, I tried and tried and tried to control my breath.
I’d found an Omega weapon. And I’d isolated the compound. Now I just had to calm down long enough to use it.
At my feet was an old military grade medi-pack. Inside was an isolation needle. A small device that sat in the palm of your hand, you filled the vial at the back with whatever substance you wanted and rotated it to activate it. An electro-needle would shoot from the tip. About an inch long, it could deliver its payload to any part of the body instantly. Its diameter was microscopic, leaving barely a pin prick incision in the skin.
I clenched my teeth harder and harder until it felt as if I’d grind them into dust. Rocking back and forth on my feet, my sweaty fingertips leaving streaks along the wall, I waited for the seizure to pass.
The whole hallway started to shake now. The walls trembled under my touch, matching the tremors in my limbs.
The abandoned crates to the left shook so badly they were like dice being rolled together.
My mouth fell open and a whimper came out.
“Come on,” I begged, “come on.”
I just couldn’t medicate myself while still having a seizure. I could accidentally destroy the needle or rupture the vial, scattering the precious compound 78 onto this well-trodden floor. I simply wouldn’t have the strength to go and find more.
So I had to wait.
God, I had to wait.
I fell to one knee, then the other, head dropping towards the floor, short hair cutting in front of my face and forming a fan in front of my sweaty brow.
Then finally, finally, just as the whole hallway shook as if in the throes of an earthquake, it stopped.
I fell to the side, shoulder banging into the floor, hair cascading over my shoulder.
Closing my eyes, I swallowed, then groped towards the medi-pack.
With fingers barely under my control, I opened it and grabbed the electro-needle within.
I had to stop breathing in order to steady my hand. With every desperate breath, it would wobble backwards and forwards, and I couldn’t afford to have an unsteady aim.
Closing my eyes briefly, I angled the needle towards my chest.
I plunged it in.
The electro-needle penetrated right through my flesh, delivering the payload directly to my heart.
I held the needle until it beeped.
Then dropped it and fell onto my back, one massive convulsion tearing through my body. My regulation boots skidded across the floor as my chest thrashed up and down.
Even the ringing in my mind stopped. The headache I’d endured since the last dose of 78 was swept away.
Cherished silence filled me completely.
I lay there on the floor for as long as I dared.
This building’s sensors would have picked up the tremors in this corridor.
I had to leave.
Rolling onto my stomach, I forced myself to my knees. I planted a hand over my mouth, dragging down my lips and cheeks until my bottom eyelids puckered.
With one last blink, I staggered to my feet. I swept a hand down and grabbed the medi-pack.
I’d already disposed of the Omega gun.
I stumbled until my muscles settled and my gait became even. Then I swept a hand over my brow, cleaning off the muck that had settled there. I ran her fingers through my short hair, and neatened my collar.
I walked through the lower districts until I reached a transport lift. With the medi-pack still tucked under my arm, I took the elevator up to one of the observation paths that connected the various trade district buildings.
I walked out into the open air, feeling the chill wind race across my skin.
For the first time since I’d arrived, it was invigorating. Briefly closing my eyes, I pressed my lips together, and took a deep breath through my nostrils. I let the sweet cool air settle in my lungs before I opened my eyes and strode out across the promenade.
I followed it around the sides of several tall towers. Though it was night, everything was well lit. Around the buildings I could see the lines of traveling traffic, here and there the undersides of hulls and wings glistening under the nightlights.
There was a constant low hum to the air. Now I was functioning again, I could even feel the slight tremble pickup through my boots and up into my knees.
Unlike the administrative district, there weren’t too many people walking the promenade at this hour. At any hour, in fact. People didn’t come here for the view – they came here to buy and sell. Most of the trade happened within the primary towers, not out here with a view which could distract from proceedings.
I kept walking, aiming for one of the primary transport hubs. Sensing I was now alone, I angled towards the railing to my left. It gave a view of the sheer side of the building. If you pressed your hands into it and angled your head over the side, you could see right down through the lines of traffic to the street far, far below. At night it was a glistening sea of lights interspersed by the black bodies of towers.
I had no interest in the view.
I reached the railing, and while still walking casually tossed the medi-pack over the side of the building.
It was small enough that no sensors would pick it up. It would bounce off the hover traffic until it shattered on the city streets far below.
Smoothing my hair behind my ear, I walked away.
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepard
“That’s a hell of a mission, Admiral,” I managed. I was standing in my quarters on my own ship. Though I’d been provided with a well-appointed room in the capital, I didn’t want it.
I wanted my own bed. Though it was simple, it was all I needed.
Despite the fact I was the Commander of the Godspeed, my quarters were ordinary. This wasn’t a luxury cruiser; it was a reconnaissance vessel.
Still, there was enough room for a large circular bed, a workbench, a comms station, and a small bathroom.
I also had a window. Along the side of the wall that connected my bed and workbench, it was the one luxury I’d requested. The one thing I couldn’t live without.
I always wanted to know where I was going. More than that, I needed to know where I was.
I’d been working before the Admiral had called. Trying to modify a weapon. Why?
That was a good question.
It was a simple task which helped calm my nerves.
You would think rec leave would be enough to do that, but you’d be wrong. My short visit to the capital had done nothing but further ignite that slow burning sense of dread.
Then the Admiral had called.
Admiral Duval was half Baytiq and half human. It left her with a strange mix of features – three eyes, pencil like hair, and a thin-lipped mouth.
It was sometimes hard to read her emotions, but never hard to understand her words.
She was one of the most direct superiors I’d ever dealt with.
“These are strange times,” she said, tone quiet. “It is hard to know who we can trust.”
Even for a straight talker that comment threw me. I felt my brow press hard into my eyes as my lips thinned into a frown. “What?”
She held my gaze and shook her head. “Never mind, Lieutenant Commander. All we ask you is that you follow through with your mission. You must travel to the Hari Sector and track down the leader of the rebellion.”
“A rebellion we aren’t even sure is going to happen,” I countered as I crossed my arms. I was wearing a loose fitting shirt and pants. I’d changed into them before realizing sleep would be elusive tonight. They felt distractingly light and free compared to the stiff collar of my Alliance Star Forces uniform.
“We have enough information to suggest that a rebellion is imminent. We must track down those spreading discontent. At a time like this,” her voice became unusually quiet, “we cannot afford to be split asunder.”
Her words left a chill spreading over my back.
I had to ground my feet into the soft carpet of the floor not to shiver.
My mouth was strangely dry. Clearing my throat, I took a breath. “This is going to be no easy task.”
“That is why we are sending you.” She held my gaze directly. “With your exemplary record, we know that we can trust you.”
I nodded. Not at first. The move came late. I don’t know why… it just did.
“Good night, Lieutenant Commander. I suggest you enjoy your last night of leave – you will be leaving in the morning.”
I swallowed and nodded. By the time I looked up, the Admiral’s transmission had ended.
I stood there and stared at the comms panel with its softly blinking lights. Then I took a step back, opened my palms, and pressed them against my face. I took another step back and another until I felt the curve of my bed pressing into my knees.
Crumpling, I let myself lie back on the bed, and dropped my hands from my face.
Then I stared blankly at the ceiling.
I was a good soldier. I’d grown up hearing that. From my father, from everyone. I was the kind of soldier who followed orders and never asked questions.
I never asked questions. Even when they started to burn a hole through my gut.
I hadn’t received my full orders yet. The Admiral wanted me to track down the leader of the rebellion first. When I found them, I would receive my next orders.
Orders I may not agree with.
The rebellion was just a myth, or that’s what an ordinary person would say. The Alliance had ushered in a new peace to a once tumultuous Milky Way. Why would anyone in their right mind jeopardize that?
The rebels, if they existed, must be arrogant, dangerous fools intent on destroying the safety of others.
So it was right to track them down and eradicate them.
I balled a hand into a fist and struck it onto the bed clothes beside me. The move was weak.
I was weak.
Protecting the galaxy from scavengers and pirates I could understand. Turning against the Alliance’s own citizens… that was harder to accept.
I suddenly pushed myself up, feeling nervous tension build in my body.
I glanced towards the window. It showed the inside of the Argus Service Cluster fueling station. My ship was still in dry dock, after all.
Suddenly the Admiral’s advice came back to me. Enjoy my last night of rec leave.
Though I was bone tired, I still pulled on some casual clothes and walked from my room, hands stowed firmly in the pockets of my jacket.
It didn’t take long to make it out of my ship and along one of the metal gangways that connected my vessel to the primary docking ring.
With my hands still stowed in my pockets and my shoulders hunched, I kept to myself as I passed crew from various other ships.
Without my uniform, I was just another civilian.
Staring at my boots as I walked, listening to the slight echoing bounce of the metal gangway as I took every step, I tried to lull myself into a false sense of calm.
By the time I reached the main civilian areas of the station, a glum frown had set hard around my lips.
There was no way I was going to enjoy this last night off.
Though I walked past several bars, and even saw a few of my own crew, I did not join them.
Instead I headed to the main observation deck and then right past it. There was another small observation area tucked in behind it that few people used. Rather than show an unimpeded view of the planet below, it was directed out at space. Due to the light pollution of the station, you could barely see any stars.
There wasn’t much to look at, and that was the point. Nobody would disturb me.
I entered the secondary observation deck, hands still stowed in my pockets. Head still directed at my shoes, it took me a moment to realize I wasn’t alone.
There was a woman sitting on the single small couch that was directed towards the circular window.
Her hands were rested in her lap, her head angled down to stare at them.
A prickle of recognition escaped down my spine as I realized who it was. From the short strawberry-blond hair to her morose disposition, it was Ensign Jenks.
I hesitated, wondering whether I should just leave.
She turned before I could.
Her gaze flicked towards me. You couldn’t say she had pretty eyes. They were nothing compared to the stunning white-blue of Argoza’s pupils. But there was a certain quality about Ensign Jenks’ stare. It was the type of gaze I imagined a trapped tiger would give. Wary, guarded - someone who had not given up hope of escape.
My lips twitched into a smile. “Sorry for disturbing you, Ensign,” I mumbled.
“If you were looking for a place to sit,” she rose to her feet, took a step back, and indicated the small couch, “go ahead. I was just leaving.”
She was not just leaving. It was clear she was only getting up because I had arrived.
My hands were still in my pockets, and my fingers drummed against the side of my legs as I wondered how to handle this.
There was clearly something going on with Ensign Jenks. But she’d only been a member of my crew for a few short days, and even then it was merely a technicality.
She wasn’t my responsibility, in other words.
That didn’t stop me from walking further into the room and planting myself beside the window. I shot her another encouraging close-lipped smile.
She didn’t appear to know what to do with it. She took a step back, and it was obvious she was about to leave.
“You don’t need to leave on my account, Ensign,” I said, authority pitching through my tone.
The authority had its intended purpose, and she stopped, albeit for a fraction of a second. She tilted her head towards me, that angular hair sliding across her face to frame that trapped stare.
I found myself swallowing. “You left the party early tonight.”
“I wouldn’t have thought anyone would have noticed, sir.” She didn’t look at me as she spoke, preferring to let her gaze slip towards the door.
“It wasn’t just thrown for my crew. The Fargo went through a hell of an incident. If you’re…” I trailed off. I wanted to tell her that if she’d suffered some kind of trauma from it, she could get help.
But I stopped myself. Something told me that Ensign Jenks’ troubles extended further than recent events.
She took another step back.
My training told me I should just let her leave. My training didn’t always win out. Occasionally the man underneath would raise his little head and tell me to do the right thing, not the accepted thing. “I could use a little company, to be honest,” I lied.
She looked confused. Fair enough. It wasn’t every day that a lieutenant commander imposed companionship upon an ensign he barely knew.
Hopefully she wouldn’t get the wrong idea about this.
… Or any idea, in fact – it looked as if she’d barely registered my words.
As her gaze slipped from the window then back to the door, it was clear she was… running from something.
Maybe it was just me and my odious company, or maybe Ensign Jenks needed to let something off her chest.
“Where are you going to be stationed after the Fargo?” I asked, realizing the only legitimate way to keep her in the room was to pepper her with official questions, questions she would be obliged to answer as I was her superior officer.
“I have a temporary posting on the Ra’xon. She’s coming into dock soon.” She never made eye contact when she spoke.
“The Ra’xon, ha? That’s a flagship. What’s your specialty?”
“I don’t have one. I’m on general rotation at the moment. I’m not staying on the Ra’xon – it will just take me to my next posting.”
I nodded. Then I pushed my mind into the task of finding another question – any question to keep her in the room.
“How long have you been in the Star Forces?”
This time her gaze locked on the floor between us and seemed as if it would not lift, even if the window behind us shattered and shot us out into space. “A few years now.”
Most enlisted recruits would be able to tell you how long they’d been in the Star Forces down to the day. It was drilled into them at every opportunity. How much time you sacrificed for the Alliance was your greatest honor. Or so they told us at the Academy.
“Which Academy did you graduate from?”
She took a snapped step backwards, her short hair swinging under her jaw until she finally tipped her head back and stared at me. “There’s no need to engage me in conversation, sir. If you wish for company, I suggest you head to one of the bars.” With that, she turned on her heel and walked out.
No salute, no goodbye, she just stalked away from me.
I spluttered. I could have pulled her up – could have told her to stop where she was and treat me like an officer.
I didn’t. I watched her go.
I got the sudden urge to follow her.
I didn’t follow through with it. That would be stalking, and I really doubted that when the Admiral had told me to enjoy my last night, she’d envisaged I’d spend it skulking around after some random ensign.
Instead I let out a rattling sigh, pressing a hand up and over my face until my fingers raked across my short hair.
Turning, I sat down roughly on the low couch.
I placed my hands on my knees, crumpled my shoulders, and finally I raised my head and stared at the view.
I should stop distracting myself. I should figure out what I was going to do when I reached the Hari System.
I brought a tensed hand up and pushed my fingers across my brow, letting them drop until they cupped my chin, my grip so tight it was like I was trying to choke myself.
I didn’t get the chance.
I heard soft laughter from behind me. “Really? This is how we’re going to spend your last night off in several months?” A light voice asked.
I turned with a grin. “Lieutenant Annabelle Williams, are you stalking me?”
Lieutenant Williams snorted, a move that did not match the delicate beauty of the tall brunette. She marched into the room, boots slapping hard against the polished floor. Then she stood before me, neck arched back, arms crossed in front of her chest. “Stalking implies some effort, Nathan. I knew you’d be here. I just knew you’d spend your last night of freedom tucked into some lonely corner rather than celebrating with the rest of us.”
“Rest of us?” My brow crumpled.
She reached behind her and gesticulated with her hand. Suddenly a hologram leaped up from the implant in her left wrist. “I have new orders, Nathan, and they’re to accompany you on your next mission. So you don’t screw up,” she took a lot of pleasure in saying that.
My brow crumpled, but I kept my grin on my face. “You’re transferring to my crew?”
She nodded, a single strand of her long shiny brunette hair cutting across her face. Immediately she grasped it and tried to fix it back into the tight bun she always wore.
Lieutenant Williams always maintained a professional appearance. Her uniform was immaculate, and she polished her command stripes every day. Even when you went into battle with her, she would always look perfect.
“I’ve heard wild things about your crew. That you never fail a mission, and that you’re turning into the top brass’ favorite ship. Well, I’m going to have a great time proving everyone wrong, Nathan.”
I carefully wiped the smile off my face. “Nathan? Are we on a first-term basis, Lieutenant?” I reached my hand behind me and leaned back on the couch as I faced her.
For a second – for just a second – her usual calm control cracked.
Then I laughed.
She shot me a grim look. “You call that a sense of humor?”
I continued to chuckle as I brought a hand up and scratched my head. “I’m renowned for it. I think you’ll find, Lieutenant, that I run a different ship. Your last posting will be nothing compared to this.”
“Considering my last posting ended with critical engine failure, I really hope you’re right.”
I sat up straighter. “Crap, that’s right, you were on the Fargo, weren’t you?”
She snorted. “I can’t believe you’ve forgotten already; your ship did intercept us and provide assistance. Just because the command crew were picked up by a different vessel doesn’t mean you get to casually shrug off the fact you saved my life a week ago.”
I stood. I hadn’t really heard a word she’d said. “Do you know an Ensign Jenks?”
Williams blinked, confusion clear in her hazel eyes. “Yes, why?” She looked at me pointedly.
“What’s she like? I mean, she seems so… distant.”
“Yes, but why are you asking this, Nathan?”
“Call it curiosity. I’ve seen her around a few times now, and… she just looks so lonely.”
Williams tipped her head back and laughed. “I can’t believe this. You’re still running around being a Good Samaritan, aren’t you? You were always the one at the Academy who tried to ensure everyone felt included. It might make you a nice guy, Nathan, but it doesn’t make you a good commander. What’s going on in Ensign Jenks' head is her own problem. As soon as it starts to influence her duties, then you deal with it.”
“I’m more of a risk management type of guy. I want to know that every member of my crew is okay. And I want to help them out before their problems impact their duties.”
“Well, she isn’t a member of your crew. It’s not your problem. Ensign Jenks is just quiet. She was always prompt for her shifts and did what she was told. Though her skills are unexceptional, she appears to be a hard worker. Nobody ever had any problems with her, apart from her roommates.”
“Nothing really. It appears that Ensign Jenks talks in her sleep. Most people find it quite distracting. We ended up giving her her own room.”
“What does she say?”
“Really, Nathan?” Her jaw dropped dramatically. “It doesn’t matter. Shouldn’t you be focusing on our next mission?”
There was little I could do but nod. I should be focusing on my next mission.
I brought a hand up and massaged my face, revealing a little more tension than I should have.
Williams sat down next to me. “I know infiltration missions aren’t your style, but this is important,” her voice shook.
Annabelle was composed at all times. But now she looked… fragile.
It stole my attention away as I swallowed. “What is it?”
She took a deep breath and leaned back on her hands, letting her gaze flick towards the unremarkable view of space beyond. “The resistance is real, Nathan,” her voice dipped low until it was almost a whisper. “And they’re gathering momentum. They aren’t staying in the shadows anymore. Last week alone we had over 50 terrorist attacks throughout the Alliance.”
“The House of Lords and Ladies is keeping a lid on it. They can’t let news like this spread. We can’t give in to the terrorists and let them drag us into a state of fear.”
“If there were 50 terrorist attacks last week, it would be in the news!”
“They were mostly on military facilities and personnel. The Star Forces is good at keeping things quiet. As the military arm of the Alliance, they have to be.”
I sat there and stared at her. A cold pressure pushed through my chest, locking my limbs in place. “This is impossible.”
“I wish it were,” she said bitterly as she shook her head and brought up a hand to pinch her nose. “But it’s happening. And we have credible evidence that a fair chunk of the resistance is being organized from the Hari System. That’s why this mission is so important.” She let her hand drop and stared at me directly.
“… Why wasn’t I told earlier?”
“You’re being told now because it influences your next mission. I’m not kidding – the House of Lords and Ladies has suppressed all information on this. They won’t risk telling non-essential personnel and potentially letting this news spread.”
My top lip was sweaty and I brought a hand up to swipe it away. “What if the terrorist attacks spread? I mean, so what if they’re concentrating on military targets for now. They will move on to civilian targets soon.”
She nodded slowly. “Of course they will, Nathan. That’s why we’re going on this mission. That’s why it’s so important. The whole Alliance could be on the line here. If the resistance is allowed to gather force, who knows how much damage they’d do?”
I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t think. I just couldn’t process what she was telling me.
“This will be the most important mission of your career,” she said with an obviously dry mouth as she shifted closer to me. “Everyone – the whole goddamn Alliance will be relying on you,” her voice cracked.
I leaned away and stared at her.
“You were always the one in the Academy who told us not to lose hope.” She leaned across and patted a hand over my taught sweaty knuckles. “This is what you’ve been training for, Nathan. You might doubt yourself right now, but you’ll do the right thing when the time comes.”
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd
I walked back to my ship in a daze. I contemplated the floor as I made it through the civilian passageways, my thoughts consuming me.
This was… indescribable. Not only was the resistance real, but they had already perpetrated hundreds of attacks.
The Alliance was being besieged, and only the House of Lords and Ladies and a handful of Star Forces personnel appeared to know about it.
A cold pressure was still building in my chest. It felt as if every muscle had turned to ice.
I was now dog tired, but I knew my mind would not rest.
I kept walking through the corridors, gaze slicing towards everybody I passed.
I stared at them with a new question in my mind. Could they be part of the resistance?
If the resistance really were powerful enough to attack the Alliance, how long would it be until they made their way to the capital?
I rounded a corner that led to the lifts that could take me to the military docking ring. My ship would be there by now – ready to be resupplied for our upcoming mission. Though we could have been resupplied in the civilian docking ring, I imagined the Godspeed was being stuffed with as many special weapons as she could carry.
I saw someone walking in front of me, the only other person in the corridor.
I recognized her instantly.
She appeared to realize someone was behind her as she glanced my way. She frowned immediately.
I felt like putting my hands up and protesting that I really wasn’t stalking her, and that we just happened to be walking in the same direction at the same time.
Without a word she turned and continued walking forward.
She disappeared around a corner.
Momentarily, I allowed myself to be distracted by the sight of a massive heavy cruiser entering docking maneuvers. The wall to my left was just windows interspersed with the occasional structural metal plate, and it offered an unimpeded view of the military docking ring.
The Alliance Attack Cruiser Ra’xon was docking. One of the flagships of the fleet, she was a real beauty to behold.
I had time to smile at the beautiful vessel.
Then there was an explosion.
It tore towards me from further up the hall.
I was thrown backwards slamming into the wall beside me, head cracking against the metal.
I slumped to the ground just as a wall of fire tore towards me.
In a single heartbeat, my eyes opened and my breath froze... I prepared to die.
But my death did not come today.
Emergency shields blinked into place around my body, protecting me from the wall of destruction as the fire slammed down the corridor.
At the same time, more shields shot into place over the windows, protecting them before they could crack and suck everything into space. Then, with my body still protected by its own shield, a fire suppression system blinked into place, sucking all the oxygen and debris out of the room the flames were naturally extinguished.
Two seconds later, the fresh atmosphere was pumped back in.
I shook. There was a crack in my skull, and I could feel blood streaming down the back of my neck and wetting my collar. That explosion hadn’t been loud, but my ears rang so badly, I couldn’t even hear my panting breath as it slashed from my chest.
I tried to push myself up, but the pain powered down my legs and into my feet. I’d damaged my back somehow, probably broken something, if not several things.
In pure agony, I twisted my arm around and grabbed my back as best I could, searching for any bone protruding out of the flesh.
My personal shield blinked out, having done what it had to. The fire suppression unit had cooled the once red-hot metal, and once atmosphere had been pumped back into the room and the shields had stabilized around the deck, I could survive on my own.
Incapable of standing however, I crawled forward.
“There has been an accident in your area,” a toneless voice echoed over the intercom, “it is recommended you remain still and wait for medical assistance.”
I ignored the recommendation.
I crawled until I reached the force-field-reinforced glass.
Planting a shaking hand on the sill of the window, I pulled myself up, pain stabbing through my back as I moved. With blood still trickling down my neck and onto my collar, I angled my head until I could see into the military space dock.
My first thought was that the Ra’xon had botched its docking procedures, and crashed right into the side of the docking ring.
It hadn’t. In fact, it had pulled right back, its own powerful shields protecting it from the blast.
I watched as the debris that had been sucked out from the explosion tumbled around the great silver hull of the Ra’xon. As she shifted back from the station, I caught sight of a ship beyond.
It was floating in space, the main clamps that had once held it to the dock dangling from its side, singe marks scattered across the hull where metal was still intact. There was an enormous hole torn in the side, chunks of metal plating tumbling listlessly in space around it.
I didn’t need to see the name painted across the glistening black hull to know which ship it was.
It was my goddamn ship.
Ignoring the pain in my back completely, I pulled myself closer to the window, the flickering heat of the shield beyond the cracked glass playing against my face.
Fear shot through me, descending so deep into my gut it felt as if it would liquefy my very organs.
My ship. Christ, my ship.
I watched as she tumbled in space, her erratic path taking her back towards the station.
Before she could impact with it, the Ra’xon shot a beam of blue-green light towards it – a traction beam. It was powerful enough that it locked my ship in space, instantly stopping its deadly tumble towards the station.
My ship… my ship.
Just as that horrifying thought tore through my mind, I remembered something else.
Though it was murder – plain torture – I pushed myself to my feet. I could barely walk, let alone run, but I forced myself forward, ignoring the agony as it jerked through every muscle.
Staggering, teetering on lifeless legs, I rounded the corner.
I expected to see her dead.
She’d been closer to the location of the explosion. When my ship had torn from its dock, it would have pulled a massive section of the corridor with it.
Ensign Jenks should be—
The explosion had taken me off guard.
I’d still acted, though.
My mind had slowed down, seeing the explosion rip through the corridor before me.
Automatically, without thinking, I extended both hands towards it. Yellow channels of light lit up over my forearms and across my fingers, pulsing out from the two implants lodged in my elbows.
Just before the wall to my left could be torn open, I locked it in place.
With nothing more than my mind.
I held it there as fire swarmed around me. It didn’t touch my skin, though. I kept it back with my ability. I created a vortex of air around my body so no flame could touch me. Instead it rushed past me, continuing down the corridor in a deathly wall.
I couldn’t think. All I could do was concentrate.
This was the first time I’d used my powers since I’d escaped the facility. The first time I’d willingly used them, that was. Whenever my body ran out of compound 78, my ability to control myself was compromised. I could tear holes in walls around me or suck the air right out of a room.
I kept my hands extended towards the wall, those channels of bright yellow-gold light still powering up and down my forearms. The light didn’t give me the ability to move objects; it accentuated a gift that was already there and allowed me to direct it.
I held onto the wall until the emergency systems on the deck sprang into place, and shielding lit up across the wall, reinforcing the hull.
Shields even snapped in place around me. I could have held them at bay if I’d chosen to.
I didn’t. I let my hands drop, a shimmering blue emergency force field encasing my whole body from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.
Soon the fire suppression system kicked into gear and the oxygen was sucked from the room.
Then nothing but calm.
There was a slight ringing in my ears, but that wasn’t from the explosion – it was from using my abilities.
I took another step back, and my protective shields flickered off.
I stood there listening to the creaking hull and floor, gaze slipping towards the cracks in the walls, shimmering structural shields in place behind them.
I took another step back.
What the hell had just happened?
With a jerked movement, I brought my hands up and stared at them.
Had that… had that been me? Had my abilities gotten out of hand again without me even noticing?
With desperate eyes I searched my hands, finally letting my implants switch off, that gold-yellow hue disappearing instantly from under my skin.
With my breath stuck in my chest, I searched my body for any sign I could have caused that accident.
Then I took a step to the left. The section of hull I had been standing in front of had no windows. But as I walked several meters down the hall, I reached a section that did.
I gazed into the military docking ring. I watched a ship tumbling in space, a massive hole ripped out of its side.
There was no way I could have done that. Not that I couldn’t muster the power – but because it was too far away.
I kept walking along the hallway, staring as a massive imperial battle-cruiser locked the tumbling ship in a traction beam.
That’s when I heard someone moving behind me. Initially I thought it was a first response team. Then I heard ragged breath and heavy footfall.
I turned to see somebody gasp.
Lieutenant Commander Shepherd.
… I’d forgotten all about him. He’d been behind me in the corridor.
“Oh my god, you’re alive,” he said as he took a staggering step forward and then crumpled. His legs jerked out from underneath him, and he fell to one knee, a painful jolt passing through his body.
I punched a hand out towards him.
A groan tore from his lips and he fell down onto one hand, his back buckling. “You’re alive,” he repeated. “Christ, I thought for sure you’d be dead.”
I reached him and pushed down to both knees, grabbing his shoulder to stabilize him.
Instantly he winced.
That’s when I saw the blood trickling quickly from the back of his head.
He’d clearly injured his back, too, as he couldn’t hold himself steady.
Carefully I supported his shoulders and guided him down to the floor.
“I’m fine,” he protested. “I need to… I need to go and check on my ship.”
Briefly I tore my gaze from him and angled my head towards the windows. I realized that the ship now locked in the Alliance battle-cruiser Ra’xon’s traction beam was the Godspeed.
“I have to check on my crew,” he gasped as he tried to push past me.
I wouldn’t let him move.
It wasn’t hard. I didn’t have to call on my ability to lock him in place – he barely had the strength to fight against my hand as I pressed it into his shoulder. “You’re injured, and you will injure yourself further if you continue to move. A first response team will be on their way.”
As if to confirm that, the intercom crackled. “Emergency personnel to converge on deck 46 A.”
The Lieutenant Commander twitched again, grabbing a hand onto my arm as he tried to push it off. “My crew—”
I twisted my head towards the window. I could see that the Ra’xon was already sending support ships out towards the embattled Godspeed.
“The Ra’xon is attending to it.”
The Lieutenant Commander still held my arm as he attempted to push it off one last time.
He failed, but his fingers stayed in place. With a bleary languid gaze he looked up at me as I knelt beside him.
He didn’t say anything; he just held my gaze.
… It was one of the most confronting experiences of my life.
Then Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd lapsed into unconsciousness.
Not too long afterwards, a first response unit arrived. Medical personnel attended to the Lieutenant Commander, and we were then both taken away.
I don’t know why, but despite my best efforts, my gaze kept slipping towards Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd.
Corridor 46 A
The cleanup started straight away. The hull had to be reinforced before the emergency structural shielding sapped the engines.
A team of technicians were sent to reinforce the hull plating.
Junior Engineer J’lax floated outside of the station in a mech suit. He was part of a contingent of 10 engineers sent to repair the hole on the exterior of the station.
As the thrusters of his suit maneuvered him towards his destination, confusion crumpled his brow.
His three eyes slid from left to right, taking in the extent of the damage.
It was massive. Most of the hull plating along a 100-meter section had been torn clean off.
… Except for one four-meter subsection.
He blinked all three of his eyes simultaneously.
In the name of the goddess, he just didn’t understand.
His gaze flicked from left to right again, picking up the trail of destruction that stopped abruptly for four meters, then continued for another 50 meters after that.
He hunched over the controls in his mech suit, running a quick structural scan and comparing it with the blueprints of the station.
… There was no special structural support in the small section that was completely undamaged. No extra shielding, no reinforced plating.
“Hey, Frazon,” he initiated his comms, “you see what I’m seeing?”
“I’m seeing a lot of work,” Frazon said, voice shaking. “That ship did a heck of a lot of damage when it tore free from its moorings.”
“No. That four-meter section just above there.” He sent Frazon the coordinates.
“What about it? It’s probably reinforced.”
“It isn’t. There’s nothing about it on the blueprints.”
“We need to fix this damage,” Frazon snapped, the stress obvious in his tone, “and you can’t rely on the blueprints. They’re not always accurate.”
Not always accurate? On a station as complex as this one, they had to be. As an engineer, you needed to know exactly where everything was at all times, lest you cut into some innocent looking piece of plating only to find it housed part of the life-support system.
“Get to work,” Frazon said tersely.
J’lax shook his head and did what he was told.
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd
I woke screaming, demanding to know what happened to my ship.
Everyone tried to assure me it had just been an accident. None of my crew had been killed, though a few were seriously injured.
As soon as they’d stabilized me sufficiently and hooked me up to a self-moving back-brace, they discharged me.
I’d shattered four vertebrae and fractured my skull in three places.
The only reason they were discharging me was because I’d been called to an emergency meeting with senior Star Forces members who were on the station.
My injuries would heal quickly. They’d already fused together my bones, and the mechanical back-brace was just there for additional support.
It was so small, you couldn’t even tell I was wearing it.
Modern medical technology was incredible, but there was one thing they still couldn’t do – tear the shock from your body when you’d undergone what I had.
Though they’d fixed my eardrums, I swear they still rang, and there was a dense nauseous feeling settling in my gut.
I walked quickly to the designated meeting room.
I wanted to get this over with so I could inspect my ship.
Everyone had been calling it an accident. There’d been some kind of mistake during the resupply of the Godspeed, one critical enough that it had initiated an explosion that had torn a hole 20 meters wide in its hull and ripped it from its dock.
I arrived at the room to see Annabelle Williams outside. She’d been leaning with her back against the wall, staring at her hands, but as soon as she saw me approach, she lurched forward. “Nathan, oh my God, are you alright? I heard you were caught up in the explosion? I was so worried.”
“I’m fine, Annabelle,” I said quietly. “But I want to know what the hell happened to my ship.” I brushed past her into the room.
Waiting for me was the controller of the station, Captain H’agovan from the Ra’xon, and Admiral Phelps.
As I entered the room, the atmosphere was grim.
“What the hell—“
Admiral Phelps cleared his throat. “It wasn’t an accident, to answer your question, Lieutenant Commander.”
I stopped. Floored. “What?” my voice trembled.
“It was a terrorist attack,” Phelps said flatly. In his 80s, he was relatively young for an Admiral. With the long lifespans of humans these days, you could be expected to serve the Star Forces for a good century or more.
“Terrorist attack?” I repeated in a hollow tone.
“It was the resistance,” Phelps added.
“This is the first time they’ve attacked a high-value target like this,” Phelps’ calm cracked, and his voice bottomed low as he brought a hand up and ran it through his still black beard.
“Sit down, Lieutenant Commander.” Avral, the Commander of the station motion towards a chair. “You are still injured.”
I couldn’t sit. I couldn’t sit at a time like this.
I stared at the Admiral, incapable of controlling my expression. “Why did they target us?”
“It seems their goal was twofold – not only did they want to destroy the Godspeed, but they intended to use her to damage the Ra’xon as well. They would have managed to, but this station’s structural integrity held long enough that the Ra’xon had time to pull away and initiate their shields,” Phelps explained.
“In other words, we were lucky,” Captain H’agovan grumbled. She was from a massive race. She stood at least 2 feet over me, and I was 6’1. A truly powerful build, you wouldn’t want to take her on in an arm wrestle. “If deck 46 hadn’t held, we’d be looking at a completely different situation here. The Ra’xon could have spiraled out of control and taken the whole station with it. We should be extremely thankful no one was killed.”
I shook my head. “I can’t believe this. I thought this station was one of the most protected places in the Milky Way? How the hell did the resistance get aboard my ship?”
Nobody answered. The silence felt as if it swelled around me.
I swallowed hard, gaze darting between the Captain and the Admiral. “What aren’t you telling me?”
“You want to know how the resistance got aboard your ship? It’s the same way they’ve been carrying out the rest of their terrorist attacks against Star Forces’ assets.”
“How?” I felt my cheeks pale and slacken.
“They’ve spread throughout our ranks, Shepherd,” Phelps answered in a controlled tone. We were in the station controller’s own office, and Phelps was standing next to the large table that was her desk. He leaned forward, made a fist, and pressed it hard into the smooth metal. “You had spies aboard your ship,” he stated bluntly.
I took a step back. “What?”
“One of your crew did this,” Phelps said as he raised a finger and pointed it towards the massive window behind the station controller’s desk.
I shook my head again, the move jerky, a cold tension spreading down my neck. “That’s impossible. I know my crew. I can vouch for them.…”
“And how about the Fargo?” the Captain interrupted. She stood ramrod straight in the middle of the room, her arms crossed, her powerful muscles pushing hard against the fabric of her black uniform.
“… The Fargo?”
“We have credible evidence to suggest that the Fargo’s engines did not go critical on their own. Someone attacked that ship, too – someone from within. And it stands to reason that once they boarded your ship, they took the opportunity to attack it also,” Phelps’s words were harsh and quick.
I planted a sweaty hand against my forehead, locking my fingers firmly into my flesh.
My ship was attacked by the resistance….
“She’s salvageable,” Phelps suddenly added. “It’ll take a while, but we can rebuild her. It seems our terrorist didn’t want to scuttle your ship completely – just use it as a battering ram to knock the docking Ra’xon off course.”
I stood there and swallowed. Then the anger flooded in. It rammed into me like a tidal wave. I clutched my hands into fists, driving the fingers as hard as I could into my palms. With a slow smooth movement I looked up at the Admiral. “How do we catch the bastards who did this?”
“You continue your mission to the Hari System. It’s time we blow the resistance apart,” the Admiral answered.
“How do I get there without my ship?”
“We’ll take you.” Captain H’agovan nodded towards me, the massive muscles of her neck pushing against her collar.
“… And what about my crew?”
“We will do a full investigation. It’s already underway,” Admiral Phelps assured me.
“And what if we accidentally bring that spy aboard the Ra’xon?”
“We won’t.” Phelps pressed his fist into the desk once more, his whole arm locking up into his shoulder.
I held the Admiral’s gaze.
I wanted to believe what he was saying, but it was hard.
It was hard, because my own goddamn ship had just been attacked. Someone got past all our defenses, despite the fact the Godspeed was one of the most sophisticated ships in the fleet.
“I’ve already organized to have your personal effects transferred to the Ra’xon.” The Captain nodded at me. “You’ll find your quarters far more generous than your old ones. We’ve got a lot more room.”
It took me a while, then I nodded. My jaw was stiff, and I could barely move it as I parted my lips. “I need to attend to my crew first. There were no deaths, but…” I trailed off.
“Do what you need to.” The Captain nodded at me. “We don’t leave until 0800 tomorrow morning.”
I pressed my lips together and took a breath. Then I saluted. “Will that be all?”
The Admiral returned my salute. “You’re dismissed. You’re lucky to be alive, Lieutenant Commander, but we thank our lucky stars that you survived.”
I turned to walk away but stopped. “How’s the ensign who was with me? Ensign Jenks?”
The Admiral appeared to search his memory.
“She’s fine. She sustained no injuries and was discharged immediately after her report was taken,” the station commander answered.
“I guess you weren’t the only lucky one,” the Captain commented. “See you in the morning, Lieutenant Commander.” She turned and began to discuss something with the Admiral in a low tone.
That was my cue to leave.
I saluted, turned on my heel, and walked out.
I’d only held my command of the Godspeed for a few short months. And she’d been scuttled whilst in my command.
I locked a sweaty hand over my mouth as I walked out.
I startled because Annabelle was still there.
She jolted off the wall again, expressive hazel eyes widening as she saw me. “Is everything okay?”
I didn’t answer. Not for a long while. My thoughts kept being pulled from memory to memory. I saw flashes of that wall of fire rushing through the hallway towards me. Then felt the agony stab at my back as I crawled forward. Agony that had been nothing when I compared it to the sight of my damaged ship.
“Nathan.” She reached a hand out and placed it gently on my elbow.
I took a sharp breath. “It could be worse,” I forced myself to admit. “No casualties,” I said through a swallow that punched my throat against my collar, “and the damage to the station’s repairable.… It could have been a lot worse,” I repeated again.
If the deck I’d been on hadn’t held, the Ra’xon could have been shunted into the station….
I shivered suddenly.
“I’m so happy you’re alive,” Annabelle said again, actual tears shimmering in her gaze.
They caught my attention, and a small smile tugged its way across my lips. “You’re not one for emotional displays, Lieutenant,” I said gently.
“Nathan, I’m just… I’m glad you’re alive.”
I patted her hand and took a step back. “I’m bone tired,” I said. “But I’ve got to see to the rest of my crew. Some of them were injured badly.”
“Give yourself a chance to rest,” she counselled immediately. “You’re crew are fine. They are receiving the best medical attention the Star Forces can provide. You need to look after yourself, Nate.”
“I know they’re receiving the best medical attention, and no, I don’t need to look after myself. I still need to see them.” With that, I gave a short nod and walked away.
When I reached the medical bay, my body was so tired I could have fallen asleep on the floor.
I didn’t. Instead, systematically, I saw every injured member of my crew. I sat with them until the medical personnel shooed me away and gave me direct orders to get some rest of my own.
I walked out of the med bay, the doors swishing closed behind me. Then I stood there for about a minute doing nothing but feeling the heady lethargy shift through my limbs.
I knew I should get some rest, but there was one more thing I had to do.
Though Ensign Jenks wasn’t part of my crew, I still wanted to check on her, if only to thank her. And though everybody had told me she was fine, I needed to see that with my own two eyes.
I found that she had already been transferred to the Ra’xon.
I forced myself to walk to her quarters.
And then, when I reached them, I paused for a few seconds. My mouth was dry, heart beating hard in my chest. I didn’t know why. Latent shock from the explosion? Or maybe I’d pushed myself so far that I was about to collapse.
Closing my eyes briefly, I pushed the sensation away and jammed my thumb into the intercom. “This is Nathan Shepherd,” I announced myself.
“Enter,” someone said, and the doors slid open.
An unfamiliar Ensign popped her head around the door, her confusion obvious. “How can I help you?”
I glanced past her to see Ensign Jenks. She was kneeling with her hands rested on her lap, her head angled down until her short cropped hair cupped her ears.
She appeared to have her eyes closed and either wasn’t aware of my presence or didn’t care.
The Ensign at the door followed my gaze. “Are you after her? Is she late for her shift or something?”
“No, she is not late for a duty shift. I’m here to…” I trailed off.
The Ensign turned around and cleared her throat.
Jenks didn’t move.
“You have a visitor,” the Ensign tried, raising her voice high. She half turned to me and lifted an eyebrow. “She’s done nothing but sit there and stare at the wall for the past half hour. It’s just my luck to get another crazy roommate.”
I wasn’t wearing my uniform, so the Ensign would have no idea of my rank. I cleared my throat. “Ensign,” I let my voice dip low, “Jenks here was just involved in the accident. She almost lost her life. I suggest,” my voice dipped even lower, “you cut her some slack.”
The young woman stiffened, her eyes growing wide. “What, you were involved in the explosion?” She shifted her head quickly towards Jenks.
Jenks finally stood, the movements of her body graceful as she lifted onto her feet. Her shoulders dropped down, and then, with just a slight pause, she turned to face me. “Yes, I was involved in the accident. No, I am not hurt. As I am uninjured, I didn’t think it was worth mentioning. I assume you have come to check up on me, Lieutenant Commander?”
“Lieutenant Commander?” The young Ensign’s face practically went blue. She swiveled her gaze back to me. “I’m so sorry, sir. You weren’t wearing your insignia, and—“
I put up a hand. “It’s fine, Ensign. Do you think you could give us a couple of minutes?”
The Ensign scurried from the room without another word.
I took a few minutes to stare at Jenks. My gaze shifted down her body. There really was no sign of injury. She was poised on her feet, had a balanced stance, and though she didn’t have a powerful build, there was something powerful about her demeanor nonetheless.
I found myself swallowing again. “I just wanted to check how you are. And… thank you for saving me.”
“I didn’t save you, Lieutenant Commander.”
“If you hadn’t stopped me, I would’ve crawled all the way through the corridor to get to my ship,” I said honestly, voice cracking with emotion.
She dropped her gaze, and I realized that for the first time she’d actually been looking at me when she’d been speaking.
Despite everything that had just happened, my natural curiosity flared again. “Are you sure you’re alright though? That explosion came out of nowhere….”
“It was an accident. Nobody was killed. Why wouldn’t I be alright?”
There was something about the direct way she spoke that was so off-putting.
I pressed my lips together, briefly looked at my feet, then managed a nod. “You make a fair point, but it’s not always that easy. Sometimes even the smallest things can affect us. That’s why it’s always important to have… someone to talk to. Do you… need… anyone to talk to, Ensign Jenks?” I pushed my words out. I wasn’t sure if it was wise to utter them, but I couldn’t simply stand around and do nothing. There was clearly something torturing Ensign Jenks. She hadn’t been a member of my crew before, but now I’d transferred to the Ra’xon, technically she was under my command. Though I wasn’t her captain, I was still her superior, and I still had an obligation to ensure every member of the crew was okay.
She didn’t appear to understand my question. She blinked. “Why would I need anyone to talk to?”
I had to take things carefully. I wasn’t a counsellor. But that didn’t mean I could walk away. “Ensign Jenks, you’re quiet and subdued. Every time I’ve seen you, you’ve been distracted. I may not be the most empathetic man in the world, but I can tell when a member of my crew is going through difficulties.”
She took a step backwards, that trapped look returning to her gaze. “I have no… difficulties,” she managed. “Sir, you must be tired from your injuries. I assure you I am fine. Please go get some rest. And I’m not a member of your crew anyway,” she added at the end.
“You are now. I was transferred to the Ra’xon a few hours ago.”
I’d lost her gaze again. She was staring at some patch on the carpet, and no matter what I did, she wouldn’t glance my way again.
I cleared my throat. An awkward silence descended between us. Technically, this was my cue to leave, but I wouldn’t. “The Star Forces expects the best from every crewmember. If you’re distracted, you may not be able to give your best,” I defaulted to saying, relying on the line they’d rammed down my throat at the Academy.
Her demeanor changed. She sliced her gaze to the side, staring at the wall. “The Star Forces will get everything they can from me, Lieutenant Commander. You don’t need to worry about that.”
It was an odd statement.
Perhaps she realized that, as she took a stiff breath and added, “I am not distracted, and my duties are not affected. I will complete my tasks as ordered.” She took a step back. “You are tired, sir, and I insist you get some rest.”
I could have pointed out that her insistence was irrelevant – I was her superior, and she had no right to order me around. Instead I nodded and took a step back. “See you around, Ensign.”
She saluted, then turned, before I’d had a chance to return the salute, and sat back down on her knees.
I stared at her for a few moments before pushing myself from the room.
The young Ensign was loitering by the door. As soon as she saw me, she winced. “I am so sorry, sir. I didn’t realize—“
“It’s okay.” I lifted a hand quickly.
“I didn’t mean to be rude about my new roommate, either. She didn’t tell me she’d been in an accident,” the Ensign blabbered.
“What’s your name?”
She winced again, clearly thinking I was about to get her in trouble. “Ensign Larka, sir.”
“Ensign Larka, do me a favor. Keep an eye on Jenks, will you?”
Larka saluted. “Of course. Are you worried the explosion traumatized her somehow?”
I didn’t answer immediately. I let my gaze flick towards the closed door. “Something like that. Just keep an eye on her. Let me know if… she needs help.” I stopped short of telling Larka to tell me what Ensign Jenks said in her sleep. I wanted to know, though. I wanted to piece this puzzle together.
And yes, I was doing this as a distraction.
Throwing myself into the troubles of a woman I barely knew pulled my mind from my own troubles.
With a nod, I turned and walked away.
I took barely two steps before the magnitude of the situation struck me once more. My ship had been attacked, and the resistance – a group I’d once thought was a myth – was on the rise.
The Alliance was on the line.
The Alliance was on the line. That harrowing thought echoed through my mind as I finally set out for my own quarters.
Mari Sector, Star Forces Light Cruiser Barrage, in orbit around Moon Alpha 78
The crew of the Light Cruiser Barrage had been informed about Ensign Weatherby’s death.
His body was transported to the medical bay for an autopsy. What remained of his body, that was.
The doctor in charge hadn’t seen injuries like this since she’d treated a group of soldiers mauled by a Samvarax tiger.
The claw marks dug into his back were distinctive and unmistakable.
She couldn’t believe her eyes, though. That moon was meant to be uninhabited. The only life forms down there were the crew of the research dig.
… So what the hell had killed Ensign Weatherby?
Doctor Wallace stood in the middle of her medical bay, staring down at her autopsy table.
She’d already run all the scans she could, and had sent the results off to Star Forces Medical Command immediately.
This dig may be a civilian enterprise, but Ensign Weatherby had been Star Forces. And the Alliance Star Forces took any death of their personnel seriously.
Though she’d finished the autopsy, she was still no closer to finding exactly what had killed Weatherby. The claw marks she could distinguish, as well as the rupture patterns through the muscles of his chest.
But what had caused that damage… she had no freaking clue.
She stood a few meters from the table, shivering.
She’d been a doctor for over 50 years now. She’d treated some of the most horrendous injuries you could imagine. But there was something about the state of that body that undid her nerve, strand by strand until it felt as if she was standing there completely exposed.
She pressed her teeth together and took a steeling breath, but it did nothing to calm her agitation.
Standing back, she locked a hand on her cheek and tapped her thumb over her jaw. Then, with a retch, she realized she was still wearing her isolation gloves. There was blood on them, and that same blood was now streaked across her cheek.
She let out a stuttering yelp and lurched towards the decontamination cream dispenser. She slathered it over her hands and wiped it over her whole face, even getting some in her eyes.
She blinked past the pain until she was satisfied she’d scrubbed enough that every trace of blood had been removed from her body.
There was no need to be so fastidious – the computer had already confirmed that Ensign Weatherby’s body was not carrying any pathogens. If it had been, she would have worn a full EV suit.
So the only reason to scrub the blood from her face so fervently was that it disturbed her.
There was no one else in the medical bay, so she was free to admit that to herself.
There was something about this case that stole away her grit.
Suddenly there was a beep from the console behind her. She startled so badly her elbowed jolted into the decontamination cream dispenser, and a great big glob fell down and splashed over her shoe. Swearing, she leaned down, smudged it clear with her fingers, and cleared her throat. “Doctor Wallace here.”
“Doctor Wallace, this is the Star Forces Central Command. We have received your report into Ensign Weatherby’s death.”
She blinked, face crumpling in surprise. “Central Command? This is low priority,” she countered. The Central Command were the same unit that housed the Joint Admirals Committee. They dealt with the very security of the Alliance, not with autopsy reports.
“We will decide our priorities. Your ship will now stand by. We are sending the Armadale to deal with this situation.”
“This situation? The Armadale?” She couldn’t keep the surprise from her tone. The Armadale was a strike vessel. The kind of prototype ship you sent in to deal with pirate infestations, not to deal with curious autopsy reports.
Her mouth was dry, and her heart was beating so hard in her throat, it felt like it would tear the flesh in two.
“You are instructed to complete further tests. You will send those tests to us directly.”
She dearly wanted to ask what the hell was going on, but she had to be careful. Sass the Central Command, and she could lose her career. She took a breath, pressed it through her clenched teeth, and found herself saying automatically: “send through the test instructions.”
“We already have. We will be in contact again. Central Command out.”
She stood there and blinked. But before her surprise could shake through her too much, she found her gaze pulling towards the shattered remains of Ensign Weatherby once more.
That sick feeling flared in her gut again, and she took another step back, swallowing hard.
The computer beeped to indicate Central Command had sent through their instructions.
She slid her gaze over to the panel, even though she was at the wrong angle to see it correctly. For some reason – despite how crazy it sounded – she didn’t want to turn her back on that body.
But she simply had to.
I would have at least three weeks before I had another seizure. I needed to figure out where I could find more Omega class weapons before then.
Though they were illegal, that was a mere technicality.
There’d been some on my old ship, the Fargo. I had no idea who’d stashed them there as there was a House of Lords and Ladies embargo on them. They were very much illegal. Omega weapons, when used incorrectly, could jeopardize space-time, causing minute fractures in the fabric of reality. The fractures would heal, given time, but if enough accumulated, a black hole could form.
And yet they had still been on the Fargo.
There would probably be some on the Ra’xon too, I figured.
The first thing you learnt about the Galactic Star Alliance was its rules did not apply to its rulers.
All I had to do was find the weapons….
My whole life was currently devoted to surviving. To finding my next dose of compound 78. Without it, my telekinetic abilities would reveal themselves, and I would be taken back into the Farsight Program.
I hadn’t always been like this. I’d had dreams once upon a time. I’d also been naive. Five years ago, before I’d been picked up by the Farsight Unit and transformed into a telekinetic warrior, I’d been stupid enough to join the Star Forces.
At the time, I’d thought the Alliance was the greatest champion of good in the galaxy.
I’d quickly learnt we weren’t.
During a routine medical test, my natural telekinetic abilities were uncovered. Paired with the powerful implants which had been inserted into my elbows and heightened by the experiments they’d run on me, I had enough power to tear a ship in two.
But that wasn’t my point. When Professor Axis had created me, he’d envisaged something far grander.
Something he termed a Complete Battle System.
Using my telekinetic abilities, I could take over a battlefield.
I could lift into the air and take command of a whole army. Not the kind of command where you offered orders – but a far more direct, insidious one were you took control of everybody and every weapon.
You could play with the soldiers like puppets, throwing them towards the enemy, heedless of their protests and their physical limitations.
Though there were others gifted with the same base-level telekinetic abilities as me, they’d always told me I was special. Every other poor soul they’d tested before me had rejected their implants and died a horrendous death, their bodies literally ripping apart cell by cell.
With me, the implants held.
I was their success story. I was Professor Axis’ child.
A child he’d made dependent on compound 78.
Technically I didn’t need compound 78 in order to use my abilities. I needed it to live. Why? Because they had altered my body to make me dependent on it.
It was means to ensure I could never leave freely on my own.
Compound 78 was a rare compound, and if I hadn’t found a way to synthesize it from Omega weapons, I would have been exposed long ago.
Now I was forced into a desperate race across the galaxy, traveling from planet to planet as I tried to source the weapons and stay way under the radar.
Strangely, it was much easier to hide whilst under their noses.
I knew they would never suspect that I was still a member of the Star Forces.
They were too sure of themselves, and that would ultimately be their downfall.
Cracks were forming in the once great Alliance, and a growing resistance was trying to break their way through.
I wished the resistance every luck, but I had to keep my head down. If the Alliance found me, they would use me against the rebellion, and crush it in an instant. They wouldn’t care about collateral damage or loss of life. They’d never cared about such factors in the past.
Taking a deep, deep sigh, I finally opened my eyes. I was still in bed. I was on duty in approximately five minutes, leaving me no time to grab something to eat.
Reluctantly I pushed up, wiped a hand down my face, and took a steadying breath. Then I stood and dressed in the same uniform of those who had persecuted me. Once I was done, I stared at myself briefly in the mirror before turning sharply on my boot and heading out of the door.
It was time again to serve the Alliance.
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepard
I slept that night in my new quarters. The Captain was kind enough to allow me the next day off.
I needed the rest.
A heavy pressure had formed in the center of my chest. It wasn’t damage from my accident.
I couldn’t believe my own ship had been attacked. Getting past the ship’s defenses was one thing, but planting explosives in the Godspeed right under my nose was another.
I sat in my new room. My quarters had a window. It was strangely angular compared to the curved walls of my quarters aboard the Godspeed. I found myself constantly tipping my head to the side as I considered the view of space through it.
The Ra’xon was at least ten times as big as the Godspeed. She was much better equipped, too. Sure, she was no cruise liner, but there were recreation areas, multiple mess halls, and my quarters were at least three times as big as they’d been on the Godspeed.
This wasn’t a holiday, though.
In approximately three weeks, we’d arrive in the Hari Sector.
Then my infiltration of the Rebellion would commence.
I sat on the edge of my bed, pumping my fingers in and out as I angled my head towards that slice of view.
I was lost in reflection.
We were currently completing our countdown to departure. Soon this massive ship would leave its berth, and we’d begin our mission.
The ship-wide comms had alerted all personnel to get to their stations. With nowhere to go and nothing to do, I sat on the edge of my bed and stared out the window.
The view started to shift. As we decoupled from the station, there wasn’t even a shudder. On a ship as small as mine, you felt it, but on the Ra’xon there wasn’t even the faintest of vibrations.
There was a reason she was one of the flagships of the fleet.
One of them. These days the House of Lords and Ladies kept asking for more and more imperial cruisers to be built. A few short years ago the Ra’xon had been the biggest cruiser in her class. Now she was easily outclassed by at least three other heavy cruisers.
God knows how many resources it took to keep creating these monumental ships, and god knows where they came from.
“But it’s worth it,” I found myself saying out loud, a real hint of irony in my voice.
One of my hands clutched into a fist, white lines of tension streaking down my knuckles.
All of this was worth it, because the goddamn rebellion threatened everyone and everything.
A rebellion I was now determined to crush.
No matter what it took.
I stood and turned from the view.
My thoughts drifted towards my father. He never approved of a goddamn thing I did.
Even when I’d received my post as a lieutenant commander, he hadn’t batted an eyelash.
Admiral Shepherd didn’t feel pride. For his Alliance, yes, but not for his children. Everything my father said – everything he did – it was all for the Alliance.
I cleared my throat and tried to push every thought of him away.
I had bigger concerns now.
It was time to throw myself into the task of researching the Hari System.
Just as I rose to head to the generous work station in the corner of my room, there was a beep from the computer. “Incoming message.”
I frowned. “Video or audio?”
“Both. Do you accept the message?”
“Who’s it from?”
I frowned. “Who the heck is that?”
“He is currently in the Mari Sector escorting an archeological dig.”
“Ah, okay, but why does he want to speak to me?”
“Bereavement message,” the computer replied in an emotionless tone.
I stiffened, a cold sensation pushing down my chest. It was customary for the Commander of a mission to personally contact the friends and family of a fallen comrade to deliver condolences.
I’d had to do it a few times, and it was always awful.
I took a deep breath. “Go ahead and patch it through.”
“Have I reached Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd?” A grave voice intoned over the audio as a hologram appeared over my workstation.
I walked towards it and nodded. “Yes, Lieutenant, you have. Tell me who’s dead?” I demanded immediately. I wasn’t being rude – I was saving the Lieutenant the trouble of dancing around the subject.
“According to our records, you knew an Ensign Weatherby,” Hargrove said through a heavy sigh.
I stiffened, every muscle locking in place. A cold sick feeling descended through my gut.
I pressed my lips together, took a breath, and nodded. “Yeah, I knew Weatherby. We grew up together and went to the Academy together. Christ… how did he die?”
Hargrove looked away from me. It was such a jerky move that it would be impossible not to pick it up.
I shivered, a chill feeling spreading up from the base of my spine.
“Weatherby,” Hargrove began, but paused for a breath, his face crumpling with clear anguish.
I felt my heart quicken in my chest, its beat reverberating up my throat until I could feel it pounding in my ears. “What happened to him?” I couldn’t keep my voice even anymore – it felt like my throat had constricted to the point of a pin.
The hologram of Hargrove floated just above my desk, a few holographic controls arranged in a half-circle just around his image.
I pushed a trembling hand towards one, commanding the image to zoom in.
The image of Hargrove’s anguish expanded. I could see his bloodshot eyes, the sallow skin under his cheeks, even the crumpled frown that seemed permanently etched on his lips.
I found myself swallowing hard. “Lieutenant, it’s okay, just tell me.”
“We have no idea what happened to Ensign Weatherby. He was attacked by… something.”
There was a real troubled edge to Hargrove’s voice. It shook with such a frightened quality to it, I felt my heartbeat double.
I let my gaze flick to the left of Hargrove’s floating face. There, a hologram comprised of softly scrolling blue text outlined the nature of Weatherby’s assignment.
It looked as if he’d been on detachment to some kind of archeological dig. They’d discovered some old ruins on a Class G moon in the Mari Sector.
I frowned. Class G meant the moon was uninhabited.
“Do you mean someone killed him?” I corrected.
“No,” Hargrove’s voice came in bursts. I could see the sweat beading along his brow.
“… I don’t understand.”
“Neither do we,” he stated through a sharp breath. “Weatherby’s body… was torn to shreds,” his voice twisted with such anguish it made me shiver.
Then I realized what he’d just said. “Torn to shreds?” I couldn’t keep my voice steady. Nor could I stop myself from locking my now bloodless hands on the side of the workbench and leaning in. “What the hell do you mean? That moon is meant to be uninhabited, right?”
Hargrove nodded. “There’s no other biological entities on this rock apart from the research team and our detachment of military personnel.”
“So somebody from one of those teams killed him,” I began, voice growing dark.
“No, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. We’ve already done the autopsy report. Ensign Weatherby was killed by… something. But it wasn’t a member of either teams.”
“… Then someone else landed on that planet and killed him.”
“We had a scout ship in orbit the whole time. Nobody else landed on that planet, Lieutenant Commander.”
I didn’t know what to say. I stretched back, trying to recede from this mystery. “That’s… I don’t understand.”
“Neither do we. But we’re looking into it. My doctor is running a full autopsy report of the Ensign’s remains now.”
My blood chilled. I hated the word remains. It reduced a human to mere flesh and blood. Or whatever was left of it.
“My doctor has contacted the Star Forces for further assistance in identifying the Ensign’s attacker. I haven’t heard back from her, but—” he stopped abruptly.
“Lieutenant?” I leaned closer to the hologram.
He was looking away from me, probably at some comms panel by his side. Clear confusion crossed over his already stress-lined face. “What the hell?” he said in a soft tone.
“What is it?” My heart kept beating louder and louder until it felt it would drown out everything else.
Hargrove took a moment to answer. “It seems Star Forces Central Command are dealing with this.”
I felt my own brow crumple. If I didn’t feel so sick at learning of the death of my best friend, I’d have to laugh. Star Forces Central Command dealt with high-level command duties. It housed the Joint Admiral Committee. They dealt with wars and threats to the Alliance.
“I… I…” Hargrove lost his train of thought. “They’re sending a ship… Christ, they’re sending the Armadale.”
I couldn’t control myself this time – I let out a choked scoff. “That’s impossible. The Armadale is a strike ship. They’re currently dealing with pirates along the Northern Advance—”
“Unless there’s a mistake with this transmission, they’re sending the Armadale,” Hargrove’s voice shook.
Why the hell would Central Command send one of their fastest most effective strike ships to some obscure archeological dig?
Ensign Weatherby had been one of my best friends. I hadn’t seen him in a couple of months, sure, but we always kept in contact. His death was crushing. But this – this didn’t make any sense.
I passed a hand over my face, burying it into my palm momentarily.
“Shit,” Hargrove swore softly.
I dropped the hand.
Hargrove’s brown skin had paled, his bloodshot eyes more pronounced than ever.
“What is it?” I asked.
“They don’t want me to make contact with anyone regarding this situation. I didn’t get this message in time—”
“Relax, Lieutenant. I can confirm you didn’t receive that communique until after you contacted me,” I said before digesting exactly what he’d said.
… Central Command didn’t want information about this incident to spread?
There were several possible reasons for a total communications blackout, but I couldn’t think of a good one that would apply now.
Hargrove looked even more destroyed than when he’d begun the conversation. He kept glancing back at the screen to his left, as if he couldn’t believe what he was reading.
I couldn’t believe it either.
“I could lose my command for this.” He planted a hand on his brow, his fingers drawing hard against his hair.
“No you couldn’t. You did not receive your orders before you put in this call. Plus, you have my assurance that I will treat this information as secret, and will not speak of it. I will abide by the same blackout orders you have received.”
“This came directly from the Joint Committee,” Hargrove said with a trembling voice.
My mouth opened.
I wanted to point out he had to be wrong. But unless this was all some kind of elaborate joke, Hargrove was telling the truth. He wouldn’t have achieved the position of lieutenant if he’d been incapable of reading communiques.
… Which meant everything he’d just told me was true.
We stared at each other for a few more shocked seconds.
“Should I admit to Central Command that I’ve already contacted you?” Hargrove asked.
It wasn’t a question he should be asking. It only had one possible answer.
But I didn’t snap at him. I could sympathize with his pain and confusion, even if it meant I had to push mine back momentarily. “Yes, Lieutenant, let them know. I will also submit a report detailing that you are not at fault, and that I will abide by the blackout. Have you contacted anyone else?”
“No. Just you. I was going to leave his family to last. I figured it would be easier to start with a fellow Star Forces officer.” Hargrove took a stiff breath and closed his eyes for a brief moment. When he opened them again, he appeared to have regained a modicum of control. “Thank you, sir.”
I nodded my head low. “Good… luck, Lieutenant,” I managed. Though I’d intended my words to be encouraging, my voice faltered.
Hargrove snapped a salute and ended the transmission.
That left me alone in my room reeling.
Max Weatherby was dead.
… We’d grown up together, and he’d always been there – a voice of reason whenever my father’s imperial fervor drove me to the edge.
Sure, we weren’t as close as we once were, but that didn’t matter.
This still hurt like hell. This still felt as if someone had driven a knife right through my chest.
I stood there for a few minutes with my hands clasped around the edges of the bench. My fingers were painfully stiff, and I watched as they drained to the color of bleached bone.
Finally I pushed myself away.
I staggered, legs like water.
Grasping a hand over my mouth, I took a breath, letting it hiss between my fingers.
I made it to my bed and sat down.
Max was dead, and there wasn’t a damn person I could tell about it. By the sounds of Hargrove’s transmission, even Weatherby’s parents wouldn’t be finding out any time soon.
A sense of loss swelled through my stomach, feeling as if it would make the rest of me shrivel and disappear.
Then, at the edge of my grief, the questions started to build.
What the hell had killed Max? And why was Central Command getting involved? It had to be something big – something massive to draw their attention.
They were sending the Armadale too…. She was the kind of ship you sent in to make sorties behind enemy lines.
I locked a hand on my jaw and drove my fingers so hard into the skin it was a surprise I didn’t pluck it off.
Angling my head towards the window, I realized the Ra’xon had already left the station far behind. In fact, somewhere during my conversation with Hargrove, we’d jumped to beyond-light-speed. Slices of white light spun past the window, turning to every color of the spectrum as they disappeared.
… I couldn’t stare at the view forever.
Instead I closed my eyes.
I’d lost my best friend and my ship in 24 hours. What would I lose tomorrow?
Research Dig, Mari Sector
Research Manager Amy Lee had no idea what was going on. Ever since they’d found the shredded remains of Ensign Weatherby’s body, all hell had broken lose.
Not only was the camp afraid, but Central Command were swooping down on them.
Amy didn’t know a great deal about the internal structure of the Star Forces – it was a topic she’d always chosen to stay away from – but this didn’t seem right. Didn’t the Central Command deal with threats to the whole Milky Way?
According to Hargrove, Central Command were even sending another ship to ‘help,’ as he’d put it.
She didn’t understand. Though Weatherby’s death had been unfortunate and regrettable, why would they need another detachment of the Star Forces? Surely one ship was enough. She’d only asked for military assistance in the first place because they had better matter scanners than she could source, and it would be easier to monitor the dig site from their scout ship.
She was currently standing on one of the hover lifts as it descended into the cavern.
The dig had halted.
News Central Command were sending the Armadale had now spread. She had no idea what kind of ship that was, but some of her research staff seemed to think it was a big deal.
Amy hadn’t always had the best interpersonal skills – they got in the way of research. She could still pick up on emotion though, and she understood her staff were scared stiff.
She let her gaze flick towards the solid metal wall at the opposite side of the cavern. Her hover lift was agonizingly slow. She’d had to buy it with her meagre grant money. It was the same with the scaffolding that was now crisscrossed against the great wall.
It was all cheap and nasty, and her engineer had to keep repairing it – much to his irritation.
So her trip down to the bottom of the cavern was agonizingly slow. She let her gaze scan her once buzzing dig. Now all her staff were huddled in the main camp. Her ocular implants were acting up, but even from here she could see that their shoulders were all hunched in.
With a terse exclamation, she pushed her glove over her helmet. She was still in a suit. In fact, she’d taken the opportunity to change into her mech suit. With a hardened exterior built for extreme pressures, it acted more like armor. It was bloody uncomfortable and stifling, though; it felt like you were walking around in a metal coffin. But it was solid and safe.
And she wanted to feel safe right now.
Though she kept telling her staff that everything was fine and that what had happened to Weatherby was just an isolated incident… she couldn’t push away her own fear. Not entirely. It clung to her like a fine mist on an autumn morning.
Every movement she made was quicker and less smooth than usual. There was a constant niggling at the base of her spine, too.
Sighing through frustration – angry at herself more than anything – she swiped a hand over her helmet again.
The delicate work of this dig sight did not call for a mech suit, but she wouldn’t take it off.
Her gaze drew towards the wall one last time.
It was mesmerizing. She’d never seen anything like it.
I was on maintenance duty. It seemed that my skills – or lack thereof – would not be utilized on the Ra’xon.
I’d been given one of the simplest tasks my superior could think of – a proximity scan. My task was to scan certain sectors of the ship with a handheld device, so that information could be compared with the ship’s internal scanners. If there was any discrepancy, the internal scanners should be recalibrated.
It was boring work and considered menial, but that didn’t bother me.
It would give me a chance to become better acquainted with the Ra’xon. It may even help me locate areas that could be hiding Omega class weapons. Though I doubted I would detect them with a hand scanner, I may be able to find areas of interest.
I threw myself into the task, glad for the simple distraction.
I slowly made my way around the various sectors of the ship. She really was massive. It was easily the largest vessel I’d ever served on.
It was, however, not the largest vessel I had ever travelled on.
Professor Axis’ facility was aboard the Alliance’s greatest starship. One barely anyone knew about. Its existence was a top secret amongst the Star Forces Central Command.
It was called the Miracle. And it was anything but.
It was where Professor Axis and the other stooges of the Alliance conducted their most secret, illegal, and inhumane experiments. Far from prying eyes.
I barely had to concentrate on my task as I walked, keeping a slow step as I methodically scanned a wall to my side. With a distracted gaze, I looked at my reflection in the shiny panel before me.
I looked at least 10 years older than I was. But I felt at least 50 years older than that. To think, only five short years ago I had been filled with the passion and hope of a new recruit.
Now there was nothing left but bitter anger at what had happened to me.
I turned a corner and entered the next room I had to scan. It had a small viewing portal and a single small red couch. I’d already overheard a few crew referring to it as the lovers’ seat.
It was currently occupied. Not by a couple, but by none other than Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd.
He barely looked up as I entered, then, as if realizing who I was, he snapped his gaze my way.
There was a definite haunted edge to his expression. Though I tried to reason it was stress over losing his ship, he looked far worse than when I had seen him last.
His cheeks were pale, lips softly turned into a weak frown, his gaze as dead as the wastelands of space.
Maybe I gazed at him too long, because he cleared his throat, mistakenly believing I wished to converse with him.
“What are you doing here?” he asked quietly.
I brought my scanner up and gestured with it. “We are recalibrating the internal scanners.”
“Fun,” he managed. Then, rather than asking me questions relentlessly, he hunched his shoulders in, clasped his hands roughly in his lap, and stared at the floor. Not the view of the stars streaking past as we travelled beyond light speed, but his hands. He paid especial attention to his thumbs as he rolled them over one another. You would think that the secrets of the universe were written there in every whorl and mark.
If it were up to me, I would’ve turned around and walked out. But it was critical that I scan each section of the ship in order.
So I had no option but to return to my work.
Though this room was small, my scans had to be meticulous. I would take a slow step every five seconds or so, sometimes having to double back on myself.
Soon I walked in front of the window, compromising the Lieutenant Commander’s view. It didn’t matter; he was still staring at his hands.
My gaze kept flicking towards him, even though I should have been paying attention to what I was doing.
“… How have you been going?” he asked suddenly.
I wasn’t expecting his question. He seemed so pulled in by his own troubles, it was a surprise he remembered I was in the room with him.
“I’m fine, sir.” I didn’t turn back to my scanner. For the briefest of seconds, I got the urge to enquire how he was.
The answer was obvious. He wasn’t okay. You didn’t need to be a counsellor to see how much pressure he was under from his posture as he sat there, and how much obvious stress crumpled his brow and haunted his gaze.
“How are you adjusting to the ship?” he asked, finally tearing his gaze off his hands.
I’d been staring at his hands too, and quickly looked away. “It has only been a day and a half.”
“Yeah,” he admitted in a soft tone, “it feels like longer.”
“… How is the Godspeed?” I asked. I shouldn’t have engaged him in conversation. I kept telling myself that I wanted nothing more than to get away from this man and his incessant questions. And yet I still asked.
He let his gaze drift over the view until it slowly returned to me. “She’s salvageable. The crew are fine, or at least they’ll heal. No deaths,” his voice appeared to crumple on the word deaths.
“… That’s good,” I managed. I’d stopped scanning without even realizing it, and my device suddenly gave a beep encouraging me to take another step forward.
I complied. I paid attention to the scanner for almost five seconds before letting my gaze slide towards him once more.
He was staring at his thumbs again.
I tried to think of a question to ask. Again, I had no idea why I was willingly engaging this man in conversation.
Or maybe I did know.
It was because of how sad he looked. Yes, he was a lieutenant commander and I was nothing but an ensign, and yes, he was a member of the Star Forces and a champion of the Alliance.
But I couldn’t ignore his sorrow, no matter how hard I tried.
“Lieutenant Commander,” I began.
He looked up. “Yeah?”
I opened my mouth.
I didn’t get the chance to ask my question.
A lieutenant walked in. Annabelle Williams. She’d served aboard the Fargo with me.
I’d barely had any interaction with her, and she didn’t even glance my way as she walked in. Instead she locked all of her attention on the Lieutenant Commander. “Nathan, I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” she said, concern crumpling her brow.
Though I’d never had much to do with Lieutenant Williams, I knew from experience she was a woman who rarely showed emotion. She was known as a very strict officer.
She always strictly followed regulations too, and regulations would have her refer to the Lieutenant Commander by his title, not his first name.
“Why did you need to see me?” the Lieutenant Commander asked, not pulling her up on the use of his first name.
Clearly they knew each other.
I watched their interaction out of the corner of my eye.
Annabelle suddenly swiveled her gaze towards me. “Do you mind?”
“She’s doing a sensor calibration scan. She’s doing her job,” he added, as if that wasn’t clear.
Lieutenant Williams didn’t react. Instead she sat down next to the Lieutenant Commander.
At first I automatically assumed that they were a couple. Though it was frowned upon for the crew of the same vessel to become romantically attached, you couldn’t stamp it out completely. As long as it didn’t affect your work, most officers wouldn’t pull the crew up on it.
The Lieutenant Commander didn’t react well to Williams sitting so closely, though. He shifted back, shooting me an uncomfortable look.
“We need to talk about the mission,” Williams said.
“Not in a public place, we don’t,” he chided quickly.
Williams slid her gaze towards me again, and was clearly dismissive. “How long until you’re finished?”
“Approximately five minutes and 46 seconds. In this room, at least,” I answered.
“Great,” Williams nodded. “Is there somewhere else we can talk?” She returned her attention to the Lieutenant Commander.
“I was kind of busy actually,” he said.
The Lieutenant’s delicate brow crumpled. “Doing what? Staring at the view? I’d hazard a guess there’s a better one in your quarters.”
The Lieutenant Commander cleared his throat immediately.
“Not like that,” Williams blushed. “Can we just go somewhere and talk?”
“Like I said, I’m busy.”
“Chatting to the Ensign here,” he answered.
I drove my teeth into my bottom lip. Why would he say something like that? Was he trying to blow Williams off? But why would he use me as an excuse?
Lieutenant Williams slowly looked from me to the Lieutenant Commander, her confusion obvious. She quickly returned her attention to the Lieutenant Commander. “Fine. I get it, you don’t want to talk now. But please,” her voice dipped low, shaking for some reason, “come and see me when you get the chance.” With that she rose, shot me one last confused look, and walked out.
The Lieutenant Commander waited for her to leave before he leaned back, closed his eyes, and let out a relieved breath. “Thanks for that,” he managed.
“For buying me some time,” he answered as he pressed forward and pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Lieutenant Williams can be kind of intense sometimes. I don’t need intense right now,” his voice dropped low, that sad quality returning to his gaze. Then he blinked hard. “Which I should not have told you. That was unprofessional. Please don’t share that with anyone else on the ship.”
I shrugged. It was an oddly easy move considering my usually tense body. “I don’t know anyone aboard this ship, sir, so there is no one for me to tell.”
He managed a small smile. He looked away, then back as he said, “you know me, don’t you?”
“We have met,” I conceded as I pretended to return my attention to the scanner.
He snorted. It was a brief moment of levity considering his current somber mood. “What’s your story, Ensign Jenks?”
I stiffened. Somehow his conversation had lulled me, but the man who asked too many questions was back.
His gaze flicked over my body, and his brow compressed. “You get edgy when anyone asks you that, don’t you?” He sat forward, dropping his hands between his knees. “It’s okay. You’ve got a history, don’t you?”
I didn’t answer.
“I may not be the best commander,” his voice dropped, “but I do care for my crew. I understand that not everybody who joins the Star Forces comes from a place of privilege like me.” He shot the window a bitter look before softening his expression as he glanced at me once more. “Not everybody grows up in the lap of luxury. Some people have to fight to live. I understand that, Ensign. But know this – the Star Forces protect its own. We’re here for you.”
He spoke with a genuine soft smile, as if he truly believed his words.
The Star Forces were not here for their own. They were here for themselves.
He was right. I did have to fight to live. But the one force he assumed could protect me was the one that hunted me.
“You don’t have to tell me what’s going on with your life. But you can, if you want to. Or I can arrange for a counsellor—“ he began.
“I don’t need to speak to a counsellor,” I said so quickly my words ran together, “I don’t have a problem.”
“We all need to speak to somebody once in a while. Unload your burdens. It’s only human.” He brought his hands up and his gaze locked on his thumbs once more. “If those around us don’t know of our burdens, they can’t share them. And some burdens are too large to carry on our own.”
“Then what are your burdens, sir?” I asked before I could think of what I was doing. The question just pushed itself from my mouth. It was a reaction to the palpable sense of sadness radiating off him. A sadness that was enough to push away my own fear, if only for a moment.
He slowly lifted his head. “A few hours ago I found out my best friend died,” he answered as he stared distractedly past me.
I felt the hair along the back of my neck stand on end. “… I’m so sorry.”
“Yeah, so am I.”
Silence spread between us. I hadn’t glanced at my scanner for at least a minute.
For the briefest, craziest moment I got the urge to tell him I was on the run from the Star Forces itself. In a few short breaths I could dump my whole sorry story.
But if I did that, I’d see another side to the Lieutenant Commander.
He might have appeared pitiable now. His interactions today may have made it seem as if he was a good man with a good heart.
But he was still Star Forces through and through. If I admitted what I was and who I had run from, he would drag me back to Professor Axis.
So I turned away.
I could feel his eyes on the back of my neck. “Do us a favor. Don’t tell anyone what I just told you. My friend… his family don’t know yet.”
“I won’t tell anyone. Like I said, I have no one to tell.”
“Yeah. Well, see you around, Ensign Jenks. If you change your mind, and you decide you do need someone to tell, you can make it me.” With that I heard him stand and walk out.
I glanced around and saw a flash of his face before he retreated into the corridor beyond.
Though his features were marked with sorrow, his brow was dented with determination.
My scanner suddenly beeped, commanding me to continue my sensor sweeps.
I did so, but my mind drifted back immediately to the man and his offer.
It seemed impossible that in a galaxy as cruel as this there could be someone to confide in.
Dig site, Mari Sector
The first indication of a problem was a slight shudder that ran through the cavern floor and up into the scaffolding around Amy Lee.
At first she thought it was nothing more than a tremor. Moons like this were usually geologically unstable.
She ignored it and got back to work. Considering the rest of her crew were too agitated to do their jobs, she had taken it upon herself to study the circle of language, as she’d named it. Those three strange concentric circles – the only decoration on this massive wall.
She was currently standing on the top of her scaffolding. It really was a mess. Due to her low-budget, she hadn’t been able to afford smart scaffolding, and had to make do with what she’d been able to afford. The result was a higgledy-piggledy mess that scrawled across the wall, different kinds of scaffolding Jerry-rigged together.
Still, it was stable.
As soon as the tremor passed, she pressed herself closer towards the wall. With one hand of her black and gray mech suit pressed up against the smooth metal, she brought her eyes as close to those three concentric circles as she could.
The light reacted strangely around them. Though her mech suit came with its own light source, one she shone directly into the center of the circles, the light was diverted by something, shooting off in shafts and illuminating different sections of the wall around her.
Pressing her teeth into her lip, she got a flurry of excitement.
This really would be the biggest discovery of her career, wouldn’t it?
She’d done a brief literature search, and there wasn’t anything like this anywhere else.
She simply couldn’t wait to find out what was on the other side of this wall.
People had accused her of being too driven by her job before. To her naysayers, she lacked the empathy to deal with people, and rather preferred the dead civilizations of the past.
They were wrong.
And to prove they were wrong, she broke away from the wall and twisted around to check on the main camp again.
She’d tried to give her staff a pep talk, but it hadn’t worked. So she’d let them rest.
With two fingers pressing into the wall she turned around, and she scanned across the room until she locked onto the camp.
That’s when she saw something odd.
Her mech suit had once belonged to a mining operation. It was one of the most expensive pieces of equipment she owned. Still, like everything else she’d managed to source, it was always breaking down.
The once perfect targeting sensors were now shot to pieces.
Still, there was just enough computational power to pick up something strange.
She stared out across that massive cavern to the opposite wall. All on their own, the hover lifts were ascending to the surface.
Nobody was on them.
They were simply being called back to their various stations.
“Shit, it’s a glitch,” she realized, getting ready to call her engineer.
The last thing you wanted was for all of your hover lifts to be stuck on the surface. She would have to call Hargrove and get his men to fix them, otherwise her entire crew would be stuck down here in this cavern. And Hargrove would hate being called out for a simple engineering task.
She fumbled inside her suit, thumbing on the controls that would contact her chief engineer.
Then she stopped.
She saw black shapes rapidly descending the walls of the cavern.
No larger than people, they were unsupported by any hover lifts, and simply sailed down to the bottom of the cavern.
Her heart leaped into her throat and she threw herself forward until the hands of her mech suit locked on the railing of the scaffolding. “What the hell?”
The shapes landed. They weren’t crushed against the bottom of the cavern – instead she saw them slowly pull up and land gently.
That’s when she realized they weren’t objects, but people. Dressed in jet black armor.
Her heart beat louder and louder, harder and harder, her hands wrapping so tightly around the railings she dented the cheap reinforced metal.
She watched as a few of her staff popped their heads around from the main camp to see what was going on.
And that’s when the firing began.
The black shapes brought out guns, and began to kill her crew.
Amy Lee screamed. She pushed herself backwards, her mech suit slamming against the smooth wall, the sound echoing all around the cavern.
The black shapes kept shooting. She could hear her crew screaming, hear they’re terrified shouts cut out as one by one they were mowed down.
Nobody had a chance.
Nobody had a goddamn chance.
She fell to her knees, shivering and shaking inside her suit. Sweat poured off her brow, blanketing her face until it was hard to blink.
But with a shaking hand she acted.
She punched in the coordinates to put out a distress call. “This is research manager Amy Lee, we are under attack—“ she began.
Then she stared in horror at the inside of her visor as it told her her message could not be sent.
There was a dampening field in place.
Whoever those black shapes were, they had made short work of her team.
At first her crazed mind thought it must be Hargrove. Maybe he’d snapped and sought revenge.
But she saw those black figures mow down several Star Forces personnel who’d been at the camp. Though they tried to fight back, the black figures were simply too powerful.
Hargrove wouldn’t sacrifice his own people.
She shook so badly that her fingers kept inadvertently pressing against the controls of her suit.
Once the black figures had murdered everybody in the camp, she saw them turn towards her. Or maybe they didn’t lock on her – maybe they all stared as one at the massive alien wall.
She stared at them.
Soon, she would die. She realized this.
But she was determined not to die in vain.
During her years as a student of the Alliance Archaeology Society, she’d forayed into signal studies.
She’d once come across an old civilization who’d found a unique way to propagate messages through space.
She’d written a paper on it, or at least she’d tried to. It had never been published. It had been suppressed by the Star Forces. Apparently they were worried that such a method could be used by the rebellion to hide messages and avoid signal jammers.
She tore her eyes off those black figures, even though she saw one break off from the group and head towards the scaffolding.
She extended her fingers and started to type on the controls housed within her gloves. She moved feverishly, not caring that her knuckles burnt from her efforts. She didn’t have to worry about injuries – she would die soon.
This mech suit wouldn’t be able to protect her from those black figures, but it did have enough on-board equipment to propagate her signal. All she had to do was access certain sub-space frequencies. Then she could send her message, and though it would be dampened by the jamming field, the jamming field wouldn’t be on forever.
The old civilization she’d written her paper on had found a way to propagate messages using naturally amplifying spatial phenomenon. Your message bounced back and forth between these phenomena until it could spread further and further.
It was her only hope.
She worked as quickly as she could.
She did not put any personal information in that message. She had a husband and a nine-year-old child, but none of that mattered.
She took rudimentary scans of the area with her suit, and waited.
She could feel somebody climbing the scaffolding.
She ground her teeth together, locking them so hard the tension referred right down her neck and deep into her chest.
Their heavy steps shuddered over the metal until finally she saw somebody pull themselves up onto her section.
They were human, or humanoid.
Amy didn’t know much about the Star Forces. She was an academic, not a soldier.
There were a few things, however, she did know. As her gaze flicked jerkily over the figure before her, she recognized the design of the armor.
It belonged to a specialized unit of the Star Forces.
In other words, the soldier before her – the one who was raising his gun – was from the Star Forces.
“Wait,” she commanded, buying time as she packed this last snippet of information into her message and finally sent it. She brought up two trembling hands. “Wait.”
The soldier extended his weapon. It was an Omega class gun.
They were illegal in the Alliance.
Yet this soldier still held one.
“You can’t beg for your life. You have to die,” the soldier said. And then he shot. One bullet from his Omega gun was all it took to tear through the toughened exterior of her mech suit and plough right out the other side.
It tore a hole in her chest and her limbs snapped right off her body.
Research Manager Amy Lee was dead before her mech suit struck the metal floor.
The soldier stood above her for a few seconds. His sophisticated armor scanned her mech suit and picked up the message she’d tried to send. He thought nothing of it though, as the jamming technology they’d deployed using satellites around the moon would stop her last ditch communiqué from ever being heard by anyone.
He considered her prone body for a few more seconds before reaching forward, locking a foot on what remained of her back, and pushing. Though her mech suit was heavy, his armor adjusted, and with the lightest of kicks, he pushed her body over the edge of the scaffolding. It sailed down to the cavern floor far below, landing with such force it crushed a hole into the soft rock.
He reached a hand out towards the wall.
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd
I woke an hour before my first duty shift.
I let the minutes tick past as I stared at the ceiling, one bare arm tucked behind my head, my fingers driving hard into my skull.
For a few brief sweet seconds after I’d woken, I forgot about Max’s death, I forgot about my ship, I forgot about everything.
My mind slipped from thought to thought with blessed ease.
Then reality slammed into me.
I brought up a hand and dug my fingers into my brow, pressing it down until the skin crunched over my eyes and I saw stars.
And I remembered. I remembered how we’d talked. We’d talked about how we’d go, me and Weatherby. Over a few beers after a long night at the Academy, we’d turned to the topic of how we’d die.
Me, I wanted to go out in a blazing battle for the Alliance. I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to prove my father was wrong about me.
Weatherby, he’d wanted to go in his sleep. Though he’d joined the Star Forces, it was only a means to an ends. He wanted to gather enough savings so he could afford a farm on one of the colony planets.
He was less concerned with glory, and more concerned with just living a good life.
Or at least, he had been.
I winced as I shifted back, the sheet falling from my chest as I sat upright and stretched my shoulders.
I was still in the back-brace, though it would probably come off sometime today. I’d only been injured three days ago, but I’d be perfectly healed by now.
I was still stiff, though. Not from the accident, but from the tension I just couldn’t shake off. My muscles seemed locked no matter what I did.
Finally I pushed myself out of bed. I glanced around my room, and my gaze drifted over my workstation.
Instantly I remembered Hargrove’s disembodied face floating over it, his bloodshot eyes widening with fear.
“Christ,” I said as I suddenly remembered something. I’d forgotten to send in my corroborating report to Star Forces Command.
I leaped over to the bench.
It shouldn’t be too late. Still, I should call Hargrove himself and let him know of my delay.
I punched up the coordinates of the original message, and commanded the computer to send a communication.
“There is no ship at those coordinates,” the computer soon informed me.
“Then contact the,” I searched my memory, “the Pluto instead.” That was the name of the scout ship.
“There is no Pluto on available comms.”
I frowned and shook my head. “What do you mean there’s no Pluto on available comms? You mean they’re in a communications blackout, right?”
“No, I mean the Pluto has been destroyed.”
“What?” My voice rocked from my throat.
“There has been an accident. The Pluto was destroyed.”
“The exact time is unknown. Somewhere in the past 24 hours.”
“And what about the dig in the Mari Sector?”
“There is no record of a dig in the Mari Sector.”
“Yes there is,” I countered.
“There is no recorded dig in the Mari Sector,” the computer repeated.
I shook my head over and over again. “Fine. Do we have any information on what happened to the Pluto?”
“There was an accident. Details have been suppressed. Investigation is ongoing.”
I locked a hand over my mouth and pushed hard into my lips until they folded against my teeth. “Do I have security clearance to find out what’s going on?”
“Who has security clearance to find out what’s going on?”
“Security clearance has been restricted to the Joint Committee.”
“What?” My voice rattled out, echoing around the room.
“Security clearance has been restricted to the Joint Committee,” the computer repeated, as if I was simply hard of hearing.
I took a shuddering step backwards.
This didn’t make any sense.
There’d been a so-called accident that had destroyed the Pluto?
And there was no recorded information of the dig in the Mari Sector?
What the hell was going on?
“You are receiving a transmission from the Enforcement Unit,” the computer suddenly announced.
The Enforcement Unit was a section of the Central Command that dealt with the protection of secrets. You didn’t get a call from them unless they suspected you of treason.
I took a shuddering breath.
The computer did not ask whether I wished to receive the transmission – it simply transmitted it.
There was no hiding from the Enforcement Unit.
“Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd, you have just accessed restricted information. What is your interest in the Pluto and its destruction?” a toneless male voice asked.
I thought, and I thought quickly.
If I’d been given some time, if I hadn’t been so stressed, I wouldn’t have done what I was going to do next: “I have a friend who is serving on that ship. We communicate regularly. He’s a close friend. I was involved in an accident several days ago, and I wanted to tell him about it.”
There was a pause from the other end of the line.
My heartbeat tripled and quadrupled.
I’d just told an outright lie to the Enforcement Unit.
I lived for the Alliance, and I’d just turned my back on it.
I pressed a hand harder and harder into my forehead. Fortunately the message was only audio, and the Enforcement Unit couldn’t see how terrified I looked.
“We see. Who was your friend aboard the Pluto?”
“Ensign Max Weatherby. We served at the Academy together. We’ve been in contact on and off ever since he graduated,” I added. Maybe the details were extraneous, but I hoped they’d help prove my story. There would be a log of my regular communications with Max.
“When were you last in contact?”
“… About five weeks ago, I think.”
“Why are you looking up information on the archaeological dig in the Mari Sector?”
I winced. Presumably Max hadn’t been on that dig for more than five weeks. The Enforcement Unit wanted to know why I knew anything whatsoever about the dig site. “I heard it from a mutual friend. Max always hated babysitting missions. Whenever he was ordered to go on one, he complained to anyone who would listen.” That, at least, wasn’t a lie. I felt confident that Max would have spread news about his mission to everyone who would’ve listened.
“We see. Standby.” The message paused.
I swore under my breath, letting my lips pull back over my teeth.
What the hell was I doing?
I had to stop lying and start telling the truth.
But it was already too late.
This was the Enforcement Unit. I might be a lieutenant commander, but I was nothing to them. They wouldn’t bat an eyelid at my status. They wouldn’t care that I’d been selected for a critical mission to the Hari system. They wouldn’t consider my exemplary record.
They would simply cut me down. If they suspected I’d been keeping information from them for any reason, they would court martial me.
I couldn’t believe this. I had just blown away my career.
There was a beep. “We have corroborated your story. But, Lieutenant Commander, you are under strict orders to share this information with no one. You will not mention the name of the Pluto; you will not seek information on it. You will not discuss the archaeological dig in the Mari Sector. Do you understand?”
“You are under blackout. Do you understand?”
“If you are found to share any information about this situation, you will be court martialed. There will be no trial. Do you understand?”
My mouth was dry. “Yes.”
“We will end the transmission now.” There was a beep and then silence.
I stood there, cold as deep space, frozen like ice.
What the hell had I just done?
Somewhere in my swell of self-hate, the questions started to pierce through.
I could have just jeopardized my career, but what the hell was going on here?
The Pluto had been destroyed? By what?
And why were the Enforcement Unit all over this?
Why were they actively preventing information from spreading?
… Could it be the resistance? But surely if it was the resistance I would have been told. I was already party to that secret.
My best friend had died, killed by something nobody could identify, and now his ship and all his crewmembers had been killed, too. And if my brief search on the Mari Sector dig was anything to go by, I imagined that had been destroyed as well.
All evidence had been wiped away.
What the hell was going on?
The computer beeped once more. I stiffened. “This is a reminder that you are on duty in approximately 32 minutes. It is suggested that you partake of sustenance. Your command shift will last for eight hours exactly.”
I locked my teeth together and breathed through them.
Then I turned, and as hard as it was, I dressed in the black-and-white of my Alliance Star Forces uniform.
My fingers shook as I attached my command stripes.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the window. I’d never looked worse in my life.
I was like a dead man walking.
… Maybe I really was a dead man walking. The Enforcement Unit had told me they’d corroborated my story, but for all I knew, they’d keep digging.
And they wouldn’t have to push far to tear a hole in my tale.
All they need to do was find evidence that Lieutenant Hargrove had contacted me, and they’d realized I was holding something back.
… But if they had evidence of that at their fingertips, they would have acted already. There was every possibility that the Pluto had been destroyed before anyone had bothered to check its communication logs, and maybe Hargrove had never got the chance to inform command that he had contacted me. The only evidence of our communication would be in the Ra’xon’s logs.
If they found it, I’d be dead.
I tried to breathe, but my chest couldn’t punch out far enough.
I felt trapped.
I was trapped.
In the space of about 10 minutes I’d thrown away everything I’d worked for my entire life.
As soon as I thought that, I thought of Max. Easy-going, laid-back Max. The Max who’d pulled me through the Academy, not because I hadn’t been able to keep up with him, but because he’d always showed me the lighter side of life. He kept me going when all my father had ever wanted to do was knock me down.
That Max was dead.
And he had been killed by something. Something the Joint Committee wanted to cover up.
… His parents would never find out how he’d really died.
I stood there and blinked.
I wanted to tell myself that the Star Forces couldn’t be involved in this – that they weren’t actually covering up his death, but simply protecting some secret. One that was for the good of the Alliance.
So why did I feel so hollow inside?
Because… this didn’t add up. The Armadale – a strike ship – had been sent to that dig site.
Then, suddenly, the Pluto had been destroyed and the dig site simply no longer existed?
That couldn’t be a coincidence.
If something had attacked the Pluto, the Armadale would have been there to protect it.
… Or it could have been there just as easily to destroy it.
I tried to push that thought away. It was tantamount to treason. But the thought was stuck – lodged deep in my hind brain. I took another step back.
“It is suggested that you go and take sustenance. Your duty shift begins shortly.”
I opened my mouth to tell the computer to shut up.
Then I stopped.
“What is my duty shift today, again?”
“The Captain has requested that you take over the duties of Lieutenant Ma’biv while he recovers from septican flu. The Lieutenant is the requisitions officer.”
I smiled. I’d already known that answer.
Requisitions officers had access to the complete ship movements of the Star Forces throughout the Milky Way. You needed to in order to coordinate with other vessels so you could resupply on the run.
Your job was to update your own supply list and coordinate with nearby ships to keep a never-ending supply circling around the fleet.
You had access to the complete Alliance Fleet manifest. Including the locations and supplies of each vessel.
The Armadale would be on that list.
If I turned around right now and asked the computer to tell me where the Armadale was, that information would no doubt be picked up by the Enforcement Unit. Yet if I happened to casually glance at their location on the Alliance Fleet manifest, it would simply be considered part of my job.
I took a breath.
Then it hit me. What I was thinking. Christ, this really was treason. Going behind the Enforcement Unit’s back….
That thought couldn’t hold.
The memory of Max came flooding back into my mind.
I straightened my command stripes and walked out the door.
I couldn’t stop thinking of him. Which was unusual. Most of the time I couldn’t stop thinking about my own troubles.
It was something about the way he’d looked at me. The undiluted sadness in his gaze. And more than that, the fact he’d shared it with me.
His friend had died only that morning, and it was clear that Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd wasn’t taking it well.
I was on another duty shift, and once more I was scanning the ship, centimeter by centimeter, in my endless task of recalibrating internal sensors.
As wild as it sounded, I kept looking over my shoulder, kind of hoping that I would run into him again. If only to see that he was okay.
Which was incredible. Usually I didn’t have the time or energy to worry about other people’s problems.
It was also dangerous. I couldn’t allow myself to get close to a man like the Lieutenant Commander. You didn’t rise through the ranks of the Star Forces unless you were good at taking orders.
There was no question about what he would do with me if he found out who I was.
So I pressed my lips together and focused on the scanner.
As I did, I tuned into the conversations of the crew members walking around me.
Most were inane. Some were not.
“Did you hear? We’re stopping off at Fa’xon One. We’re picking up Commander F’val.”
“Don’t we have enough command staff already with the leftovers from the Godspeed and the Fargo?”
“You want to keep your voice down? I don’t want to get another reprimand for insubordination.”
“It isn’t insubordination. I feel like we can’t move for commissioned officers.”
“You wouldn’t have to fear them so much if you’d just do your job once in a while.”
“Shut up. Why the heck are we picking up Commander F’val anyway? I thought he was the golden boy of the Star Forces ever since his victory over the pirate factions in the Northern Wastelands. Surely he’s too important to hang out with the likes of us.”
“I don’t know, but I can’t wait to meet him.”
“Really? Rumor has it he has the personality of a pulse rifle. There was a story circulating in the Academy back when I was a recruit that he was actually a member of the Enforcement Unit.”
“What? They’re meant to be all around us, aren’t they? The eyes and ears of the Joint Committee, spying on our every move, searching under every bed for even a whiff of the resistance.”
“You’re an idiot.”
“Thanks. I am touched you noticed. We should really get a hustle on though – Chief Engineer Malax is going to crucify us again.”
I slowly turned and watched the two ensigns hurry on down the corridor.
I’d only been faintly interested in what they’d said, until they’d mentioned the Enforcement Unit, that was.
A feeling of nausea spread through my stomach.
… They couldn’t be here for me, could they? Maybe I hadn’t been careful enough on the station, and maybe they’d figured out I was an escaped telekinetic warrior.
My whole back stiffened as fear raced through my system, my hand clutching around the scanner so tightly I had to concentrate hard not to pulverize it. My grip wasn’t that strong, but my mind was far, far stronger.
“You okay?” someone asked from behind me.
I turned quickly to see the Lieutenant Commander.
He looked… shattered. Absolutely shattered.
It was so obvious and so compelling that I forgot my own troubles for just a moment. “Are you alright?”
“I look that bad, huh? Rough night. You know… that thing we talked about yesterday?” He looked up at me from underneath his brow. “How I mentioned that my friend died,” his voice dipped so low it couldn’t carry.
“Sorry to do this, but I really need your word that you won’t spread that information. To anyone. It is extremely sensitive. I know it’s asking a lot, but can you do that for me? Can you keep a secret?”
I’d heard stories about Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd before I’d met him. Brave, bold, the kind of soldier the Star Forces loved. One who was happy to sacrifice himself for any cause.
The man who stood before me looked like someone else completely.
He looked real, for one thing, not just a legend.
I suddenly realized he needed an answer. I nodded. “I mean it, I have no one to tell. And even if I did, I wouldn’t.”
It took a moment, but a stiff smile spread across his face. It showed no mirth whatsoever. “That’s good to hear. One thing’s going right today.”
He turned on his foot to leave.
He turned over his shoulder. “Yes?”
“I… hope… you’re okay,” I pushed the words out. I fumbled over them, but finally I pushed them out.
One side of his mouth ticked into the smallest smile. “Thanks for your concern, Ensign. And thanks for the sentiment. I hope you’re okay too.” With that, he turned.
I watched him go.
I shook my head and returned to my task.
It had been a long, long time since I’d been drawn into somebody else’s troubles.
Back when I’d joined the Star Forces that had been my impetus – to help. I’d been foolish, naïve, and gullible. But at the heart of all of that had been a sincere desire to assist others. If I’d known then what I knew now, I would have realized that was impossible. At least under the banner of the Alliance Star Forces.
But maybe that was the challenge. Though my mind told me there was no one to help in this ship or in this tortured fleet, perhaps there was.
My thoughts drifted back to Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd. He had lost his friend, and clearly it was causing him troubles.
For a fleeting moment, I wondered if I could help.
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd
Subbing in for the requisitions officer should have been an easy job. But that eight-hour shift was one of the longest of my life. In between supervising the other crew in the various cargo bays of the Ra’xon, I took fleeting glimpses at the complete fleet manifest.
It didn’t take too long to find the Armadale. Though her current position didn’t put her in the Mari Sector, it put her close. Close enough for a quick sortie to the dig site.
As for the Pluto, it had been removed from the manifest. There was no information on it – no news that it had been destroyed – it had just disappeared. Perhaps the Joint Committee hoped that no one would notice.
My gut kept churning, a distinct disquiet gathering through my body until a fine patina of sweat soaked my brow.
What should have been an easy shift was turning into a nightmare. As every second passed, I grew more and more nervous.
I expected the Enforcement Unit to jump out of the shadows and take me away.
Still, I did my job. Better than I should, considering my circumstances.
I was nothing if not thorough. The man I'd replaced, however, didn't seem to be nearly as thorough as me. There were whole sections of the cargo that hadn't been catalogued yet. Indeed, certain components of the cargo bay appeared to have been taken off the blueprints.
I threw myself into the task of properly itemizing the ship’s stores. It was the only thing that could take my mind from my downward spiraling thoughts.
I grabbed a series of blueprints from deep in the ship’s databases. They would have been uploaded when the ship had first set sail.
They'd be the most accurate, as the ones the Lieutenant had seemed to have been changed so often, they were now a jumbled mess.
I took a handheld scanner, latched it onto the magnetic holster around my hip, and accessed a service panel. Due to the size of this ship, there were several maintenance sections you couldn't access through the lifts or the hallways. You had to get down on your hands and knees and crawl through access tunnels.
It was the perfect task for a man who was being haunted by his own thoughts. I wouldn’t have to maintain polite conversation with anyone, and I could swear and grimace all I liked.
I gave the respective crew under my command tasks to do, and set about crawling through the interconnected shafts of the Ra’xon.
Every time my thoughts twisted back to Max or the Enforcement Unit, I sunk my teeth deep into my bottom lip and let myself experience the pain instead.
The access shafts of this ship were far more generous than on the Godspeed. This vessel really was megalithic. It had to be. It wasn't just one of the flagships of the fleet, it also housed experimental weaponry too.
It seemed that every year the Alliance developed far more astounding weaponry. According to rumors, the Ra’xon would soon be outfitted with experimental triphasic rays that could theoretically allow it to destroy a ship even whilst it was in beyond light mode.
There would have been a time when such a thought would have filled me with pride. It would have been further evidence that the Alliance was the greatest civilization that had ever lived. Now it left nothing more than a hollow feeling sinking deep through my gut.
My fingers were tight around my scanner as I crawled uncomfortably through the access shafts.
There was minimal lighting down here, and I had to squint to see ahead.
"These blueprints are a mess," I mumbled to myself as I checked the scanner once more. Something had to be interfering with my small handheld scanner, because it kept giving jumbled readings. As I came to a T-junction in the tunnel, the scanner failed to recognize the shaft continuing down to my left.
"What the hell?" My brow dug deep down against my eyes as I positioned myself right in the center of the T-junction and swept the scanner back and forth, jamming my fingers against the buttons in a fruitless effort to make the scanner work.
"This damn thing must be broken," I muttered to myself as I snapped the lid closed in frustration.
A tide of guilt and anger threatened to sweep over me.
I clenched my jaw so tightly, it was a surprise I didn't shatter my teeth and spit shards onto the grated metal below me.
I shook my head from side to side, a few beads of sweat trickling down my brow and streaking across my cheek.
Finally I pushed that bitter torrent of emotion back.
I would just have to wait and see what would happen next. If the Enforcement Unit came after me I would know that they knew of my treachery.
Even if they never tracked me down, would I be able to live with myself?
My entire identity was predicated on my service to the Alliance Star Forces Fleet. I thought about myself as a lieutenant commander, and every memory I cherished was one that had taken me along the path of serving my people.
Now my entire identity was threatening to crumble from beneath me.
A heavy sinking feeling kept pushing through my stomach, and if I concentrated on it for too long, I swore it would see me sink right through the toughened metal grating of the tunnel floor and right out of the bottom of the ship itself.
If my father could see me now – if he ever found out what I'd done – he wouldn't just disown me, he'd probably push for my execution.
He simply could not abide fools, but more than that, he hated traitors. He despised them.
One of his own commanders had once betrayed him, and my father had made it a personal vendetta to make her pay. He’d pushed for the death sentence, and she’d been executed.
The more I thought about him, the more sweat played across my brow until I groaned with frustration and took a swipe at it with the back of my hand.
Even though I should have continued further up the tunnel, I decided to stray off to the left. I opened the scanner once more, punching new commands into the screen, my fingers stiff, my movements angry. Fortunately the little handheld scanner was built for endurance, and I wouldn’t be able to shatter it, no matter how violent I became.
Some part of my mind was aware of the fact I should be concentrating on my next mission. But what was the point? The rest of me doubted I would ever make it that far.
The Star Forces did not react well to traitors. Once upon a time I had understood that as necessary. We had the majority of the Milky Way to protect. Every citizen of the Alliance deserved our best and bravest efforts, and they would only get those if we stopped the free flow of secrets.
If someone was stupid and arrogant enough to betray the Star Forces, they deserved everything they got.
… I hadn’t been stupid, and I hadn’t been arrogant; I’d just been stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If Lieutenant Hargrove had never called me, I wouldn’t be in this predicament.
… And I wouldn’t know about the mystery, either.
Max had been killed. Regardless of everything else that was going on, I couldn’t forget that fact.
I owed it to him to find out what had happened. Even if it meant my career.
I shook my head and continued forward, knees and hands starting to fatigue from all my crawling.
But maybe pain was what I needed to feel right now.
I crawled along faster and faster, muttering at my scanner as it still refused to believe there was a tunnel in front of me.
I had to keep manually accessing the original blueprints of this ship to chart my path.
When the requisitions officer was back, I was going to have to have a good chat to him about maintaining accurate scans.
Though I was new to this ship, I was good at navigating, and I was fairly sure I was currently somewhere under one of the main engine cores. The business of pushing a ship as large as this beyond the speed of light was a complex one. The Ra’xon didn’t have only one engineering core, but 20. They were spread around the ship at even intervals. There was a central drive system right in the absolute center of the ship that coordinated the power from each drive.
I kept crawling along the tunnel until I reached another T-section.
I thumbed the scanner, flicking back to the original blueprints.
And I frowned.
I twitched my head to the right.
The tunnel before me wasn’t even on the blueprints, let alone my scanners.
“… What the hell?”
Of all the mysteries I was currently facing, this appeared to be the most innocent, but still captured my attention as I pushed myself down the tunnel.
By now the base of my palms were red and raw, but I ignored them as I shifted further down the access shaft.
Slowly but surely the curiosity of what lay before me started to push away my spiraling negativity.
No matter how far I travelled along this tunnel, both my scanner and the blueprints were sure it didn’t exist. Just as I opened my mouth to exclaim what the hell, my command PIP chimed.
I jolted backwards, shoulder slamming into the wall beside me. Muttering to myself as I palpated my arm, I extended a hand to support myself. These tunnels were too cramped to sit or kneel comfortably.
Eventually I cleared my throat. “Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd here.”
“Sir, this is Ensign Saxus. I’ve been instructed to contact you. The Captain’s requesting your presence in a meeting with Commander F’val.”
“Sorry, what did you just say?” I locked a hand on the shaft beside me, brow compressing so hard over my eyes it was hard to see in the bare illumination around me.
“We’ve just rendezvoused with the Warden, and Commander F’val has boarded.”
“Commander F’val?” I repeated, tone twisting high in surprise. “Why wasn’t I told he was coming on board earlier?”
“It was on the ship-wide update report this morning, sir. You must have missed it.”
I pressed my hand harder into the shaft wall beside me, curling my fingers until they grated over the metal plating.
Suddenly I couldn’t breathe.
It had nothing to do with the fact Commander F’val was supposedly an acquaintance.
It had everything to do with the fact he’d been linked on multiple occasions with the Enforcement Unit.
“Do you know when it was decided that the Commander would come on board?” I asked in a stuttering tone.
It was an odd question, I just hoped the Ensign would know the answer.
“Ah, I guess I’m not sure, sir. I’ll just have a look… the first mention of it on an update report was at 2100 last night.”
2100… possibly an hour or so after Hargrove contacted me.
The Commander was here for me, wasn’t he?
I’d underestimated the Enforcement Unit. They must have known about Hargrove’s original communication with me. The fact I hadn’t mentioned that to them this morning meant I’d only solidified my guilt in their eyes.
They were here to arrest me.
“… Ah, sir, are you okay?”
“… Of course. I’ll make my way out of the tunnels as quickly as I can. Tell the Captain I’ll be there in 20 minutes and relate to her the reason for my delay.”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
“Lieutenant Commander out.” My elbowed jerked, no longer capable of holding my weight, and my back slammed up against the shaft wall. An echoing boom reached out through the access tunnel in both directions.
“Shit,” I swore, “shit!”
I brought a hand up and pressed it over my eyes, grinding the palm against them until I saw stars.
This was it.
My entire career was now over. Everything I’d worked for….
I swore again.
Then, just as sickness and guilt threatened to take over me, my hand formed a fist all of its own accord.
The anger flooded in.
The anger at Max’s death. The anger that it could be this easy to sink my career. Technically, I hadn’t done much wrong. I’d lied about Hargrove’s communication, but I hadn’t sought out restricted information in the first place. I had no intention of sharing that information, either.
So why should it cost me everything I’d ever worked for?
I knew I couldn’t stay here slumped in this tunnel forever. I had to face my future.
As hard as that was.
So I continued forward. I brought my scanner up, trying to chart a path to the closest access panel back into the main hallways of the ship.
The damn thing was still insisting that I wasn’t in an access tunnel at all. I referred back to the old blueprints, and they were still just as useless.
According to all the information I could access, I was currently smack bang in the middle of a solid wall. The problem was, I clearly wasn’t.
Feeling my rigid muscles lock with tension, I forced myself forward. If I continued straight, I should technically intersect with an access panel at some point.
And what would it matter if I were late to my own execution?
Commander F’val was already on board.
We’d docked with the Warden – his strike vessel – in one of the smoothest, quickest procedures I’d ever seen.
It was clear that the Commander was here for somebody.
My thoughts were a spiraling mess.
Clearly I’d been incapable of keeping my true identity hidden.
The Enforcement Unit were here to take me back to Professor Axis.
I was currently walking along one of the wide corridors that ran between engineering and one of the many med bays. I had my handheld scanner and was completing yet another shift doing sensor scans.
I paid no attention whatsoever to what I was doing.
I had to decide what to do.
I would not come quietly.
I would fight the Commander and whoever else tried to capture me.
One good thing about having completed so many proximity scans was that I had a fairly good knowledge of this ship’s structure.
If it came to a fight, I’d know how to compromise it.
Not just one room, but the whole goddamn vessel.
… Would I kill everybody on board? Was I that desperate to ensure my own freedom?
No. But there’d be a middle ground. And I couldn’t… I just couldn’t go back to Professor Axis. The future he had laid out for me was torture itself. Not just for me, but for everybody else too.
He would use me to ensure the Alliance’s continued strength. I would be forced to wipe out the resistance, and then he would turn to his next goal.
Total loyalty, he’d called it. The House of Lords and Ladies, though under the ultimate rule of the Alliance Council, were unruly. They caused much division within the Alliance.
Professor Axis had a plan to gain their unconditional loyalty. His plan would require the deaths of millions, if not billions.
I couldn’t feel as I stood there, the scanner still tucked in my sweaty white palm.
I couldn’t feel anything but a diffuse sense of despair.
At times I realized that no matter what I did – no matter how hard I fought to stay free – I would ultimately lose.
Though I was unimaginably powerful, I was still only one woman.
The Alliance was greater than me.
The Alliance was greater than all of us.
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd
It was when I was making my torturous scramble back through the maintenance shafts that I found it.
It was out of place. The only reason I noticed it was my scanner picked up a faint trace of energy that just shouldn’t be on the ship.
There was a class of illegal weaponry referred to as Omega guns. They were powerful and were hellishly dangerous.
They gave off a distinct energy signature, and though it seemed impossible, my scanner appeared to be picking it up.
There was no way – absolutely no way – that there would be weapons like that on this ship. She was a flagship of the fleet, and it would be impossible to imagine her carrying some of the most illegal weaponry in the galaxy.
I paused, checking the reading on my scanner.
I wouldn’t have picked up on the energy if I hadn’t spent so much time trying to recalibrate this small handheld scanner. In my efforts to force it to recognize the shaft before me, I’d increased its output by a factor of 10.
And that had been enough to pick up the faint trace of Omega weaponry.
I shook my head, incapable of believing what I was seeing.
It was enough to force back the wall of shock that had descended upon me.
I was sure, 100% sure that as soon as I made it out of this tunnel, F’val would arrest me. He’d drag me back to the capital, and there the Joint Committee would condemn me. My father would watch over the proceedings, and he wouldn’t shed a single tear.
Men like that never did.
I told myself to keep moving, but I couldn’t. Instead I brought up a hand and tentatively ran a finger around the edge of the panel before me.
It was smooth, but here and there were rough sections, indicating it had been pulled back a few too many times.
“What are you doing?” I asked myself through clenched teeth.
I gave myself my own answer – I put my scanner down and reached around to the magnetic holster that was locked around my hips. There were a few versatile tools you could use to pull plating off and access various shafts.
I quickly set about opening the panel before me.
It was tough going, and occasionally I ran into trouble – my rotating screwdriver turning itself off several times.
It must be defective, I thought to myself before defaulting to the brute force approach.
Shifting until my back was pressed up against the opposite side of the tunnel, I brought my leg up, and I kicked swiftly at the panel. It was strong enough that my boot dented the metal.
I kicked again and again, until I warped the plating far enough that I could push my fingers around the edges and pry it back.
With a grunt that echoed down the shaft, I finally managed to tug it free.
It clattered to the floor.
… There was a room in front of me.
It was large, big enough that as I ducked my head in, I couldn’t see from one end to another.
Frowning, I brought my scanner around and tried to detect what was inside.
The scanner cut out.
“What the hell?” I stabbed my fingers into its electronic display, but it refused to come back to life.
“Computer, increase the lighting in this section of tunnel.”
The computer did not reply.
“Computer,” I said in a terse breath, “increase the lighting in this section of tunnel.”
“Christ, what’s going on here?” I spat.
Feeling a knot of nerves form in my stomach, I cautiously shifted forward until I was further into that mysterious room.
Then, taking a stiff breath, I finally shuffled inside.
I stood, heart thundering in my chest.
Though it was dark, I could see several crates stacked up neatly along the walls.
Was this a cargo room? One that had been removed from the blueprints?
… Or had I stumbled across something I shouldn’t have?
That thought should have been enough to see me turn around and walk away.
Maybe I hadn’t become a lieutenant commander in the Star Forces out of duty to the Alliance. Maybe a large part of my motivation had always been curiosity. I’d wanted to be an explorer, not a mindless drone.
And an explorer never turned away from his curiosity.
I took several more echoing steps into the dark room, angling my head from left to right, feeling how tense my neck muscles were as they referred tension deep into my chest and the pit of my stomach.
My mouth was dry, but my top lip was covered in sweat. I brought a hand up to wipe it off, noting the slight tremble in my fingertips.
I was running out of time. I was due to meet the Commander and the Captain in probably a little under 12 minutes.
It didn’t matter.
I kept walking towards the shadow-encased crates in the far corner.
When I reached them, I pushed out a hand, fingers touching the cool metal.
Though it was dark, I recognized what the crates were from touch alone.
They were weapons boxes.
I took a step back, squinting into the room, trying to use what bare illumination made it in from the half-lit tunnel beyond.
I shuffled around the crates, shoes banging into them in the dark, hands tracing across their cold metal as I tried to discern exactly what type of weaponry was inside.
Finally, with pure dumb luck, I reached a crate that was open.
Like a cat cramming its paw down a darkened hole, breathlessly I shoved my hand into the open crate.
My fingers bumped against the smooth cold metal.
I grabbed something up, hauling it out of the crate.
It was deceptively light despite its bulk.
As soon as my hand clutched around its smooth angular side, it began to glow. Brighter and brighter.
That’s when I recognized what it was.
An Omega gun.
I almost jolted back and dropped it, but my hands reflexively clutched around the weapon, pressing it against my chest as my eyes drew wide.
My simple touch had been all that was required to activate it. Now the gun glowed powerfully, letting out a soft pulsing vibration that travelled deep into my chest and up into my throat.
This was… impossible.
This was impossible.
Omega class weaponry could not be aboard the flagship of the fleet. Especially in a room that wasn’t on blueprints and couldn’t be scanned.
My mind went blank.
Every mystery I’d come across in the past 24 hours mounted on my shoulders and threatened to push me right through the hull and send me tumbling into the void beyond.
There was no reason – none whatsoever – why this ship would be carrying Omega class weaponry.
There was an embargo on them for a very good reason – this type of weaponry could destabilize space. So what if it was powerful? If you used it too often, you could tear holes in the very fabric of reality. Nobody was desperate and stupid enough to use them.
Or at least I wanted to believe that.
I stood there with that gun pressed against my chest for a minute or maybe more.
I felt as if my world was tumbling around me.
Then finally I forced myself to take a step back. I turned towards the door, only then realizing the gun was still in my hands.
I glanced down at it once more, eyes traveling over the smooth angular surface, the glow from the two antimatter chambers at the base of the gun lighting up the underside of my chin.
I turned around, walked over to the open crate, and placed it back inside.
Then I shivered, the move so violent it was practically a convulsion.
I took a step back, boot squeaking against the polished metal floor.
Revulsion swelled in my heart.
I planted a sweaty hand over my mouth. Though it was impossible, I convinced myself I could smell the faint trace of the Omega weapon on my hand.
Then finally I turned. I ran right out of the room and threw myself into the service shaft.
Suddenly the memory of what had happened to my ship came flooding back in.
Could this be the resistance? Could the spy from the Fargo now be aboard the Ra’xon? And could they be planning an attack? With that many Omega weapons, they could overpower the crew of this ship easily.
I had to tell the Captain. Even if it would be the last courageous act I would ever perform in my career, I was determined to do it. For, despite my suspicions about the Alliance, I was still loyal to her people and always would be.
I’d been standing in the same section of hallway for the past 30 minutes now.
I wasn’t moving, even though my scanner kept beeping at me, insisting I continue my task.
I just couldn’t… force myself to continue any more.
Icy fear laced up and down my back, sinking deep into the base of my spine, leaving a terrifying tingle pushing down through my limbs.
To flee, I would have to attack. Something my body had been built for, but something my mind had never adjusted to.
The terror of taking over another’s body or flinging them across the room and seeing their back shatter against a wall – it was one I could never accept.
I gave a full-bodied shudder, the move so disruptive, I almost dropped the scanner.
I sucked in a terrified breath, and it wheezed through my constricted throat.
Fortunately the section of hallway I was in was relatively unused. Nobody had passed me.
I was alone.
Or at least I thought I was alone.
Suddenly the access panel to my side shunted open without warning.
Somebody barreled out.
I gasped, jerking quickly to the side.
Before I could suspect an attack, I realized it was none other than Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd.
He looked… terrified. His eyes were wide, his cheeks slack, a truly haunted edge to his searching gaze.
At first it appeared as if he hadn’t seen me. He pulled himself out of the access shaft, and turned hard on his boot without even bothering to close the panel.
Then, just as he took a step away, he paused and jerked his head towards me.
Neither of us said anything.
… We just stared into each other’s eyes. It was a disarming experience. I’d never seen someone show as much unguarded emotion as he was now.
I watched him swallow, the move pronounced as his throat pushed hard against his tight collar.
“… Are you alright?” I asked, barely thinking of my words as I uttered them in a quick worried tone.
“No,” he answered. I could tell from the shifting look in his gaze that he hadn’t wanted to be that honest. He took a stiff breath, took another lurching step backwards, and shook his head. He planted a hand over his face, the fingers spread in a stiff move. “Do me a favor, Ensign.”
I tilted my head as I looked at him. “What?”
“Guard that service panel.”
“There are Omega weapons on this ship,” he said in a shaking voice.
I didn’t react. At least not externally. Internally I felt a swell of relief.
Though I still had a few weeks of grace before I would have another fit, the mere knowledge that Omega weapons were within reach was enough to fill me with much needed relief.
“You know what an Omega weapon is, right? They are illegal,” his voice cracked.
“Yes, sir,” I forced myself to say.
“I… have no idea how they got to be on board this ship,” he said. Again his emotions appeared to be unguarded. His reaction – with all its raw surprise – appeared to be genuine.
Nathan Shepherd appeared to be a smart man. Yet he must also be a fool. He must be under the impression the Alliance were governed by the same rules they set down for others.
He locked a hand on his mouth and took a staggering step backwards. “Ensign… look after yourself.” With that, he turned and walked away.
I ticked my head to the side, watching him until he was out of sight.
He didn’t just appear to be rattled at the prospect of finding illegal weaponry on board this ship. Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd looked shattered. He looked as if he was barely hanging onto his sanity.
Could this shock him that much, or was there something else going on?
For the briefest moment I allowed my thoughts to be taken over by his troubles.
Then I reminded myself of my own.
Commander F’val was here for me. And I would not allow myself to fall.
I looked left and right, ensuring nobody was coming down the tunnel. Then I took a step towards the open access panel. I locked a hand on the metal lip, leaned down, grabbed the door to the service panel, then shifted inside it with a smooth move.
I closed the service panel, using my ability to jam it shut. Then I turned, a faint trace of yellow-gold light picking up over my elbows and trailing down to my hands. It was sufficient that I could now see my own reflection in the shiny panels to my left and right. With a determined, grim expression pressing across my face, I pushed forward.
If I was going to fight my way out of this ship, taking a cache of Omega weapons with me would give me a very special advantage.
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd
I stood before the Captain’s office.
I had to use every ounce of my training not to shake in my boots.
My heart wasn’t so much beating anymore, as shuddering forward then stopping, shuddering forward then stopping.
I’d never felt so much tension rush through my body. It was murder just to breathe.
But finally, finally I brought up a white knuckled, shaking hand and extended a finger towards the intercom button. “Lieutenant Commander Shepherd here.”
“Come in,” the Captain said.
The door opened.
I didn’t even have any time to compose myself.
The Captain was sitting behind her massive desk, and Commander F’val stood in front of it, his hands clasped behind his back.
Both of them turned to face me.
Their expressions were unreadable.
I waited. Waited like a man facing a firing squad.
The Captain cleared her throat. “I’m glad you could finally make it. What kept you?”
What kept me? A cache of goddamn Omega weapons and the fact I was a dead man walking.
I swallowed. “Sorry, Captain. I was in the service ducts when I received your command. The blueprints for that area are quite tricky. I kept taking wrong turns.”
“Understandable. This ship can be a warren at times. Now you are here, please take a seat.” She gestured to the only other chair in her room.
I swallowed again and slowly moved towards it.
I sat, even though the only thing I wanted to do was run.
The Commander didn’t appear to be paying attention to me.
Appear, being the operative word.
For all intents and purposes he was staring past the Captain at the shiny reflective panel between the two windows behind her desk.
The panel would presumably show him my reflection.
Why was the Captain stringing this out?
Or perhaps the Commander hadn’t told her of my treachery yet.
“You’re probably wondering what this is about and why I called you from your duties.” The Captain steepled her massive fingers as she shifted back in her chair, the thing groaning under her weight.
I didn’t answer.
“We believe the Ra’xon has taken on a traitor. The same traitor who was responsible for the accident on your ship.”
… Good god no. They couldn’t think that I scuttled my own ship. Could they?
“We took on 10 members from the Fargo. It’s one of them,” the Captain said.
I sat there. I could feel the weight of my back pushing into the chair. I could feel my breath as it whistled past my partly closed lips.
It took a while for my brain to work, though. To understand what she’d just said.
“That’s why I’m here,” said the Commander. “We have credible evidence that there is a spy aboard this vessel, and we want your help to root them out.”
“My help? Why?” It was an insubordinate thing to say, but I couldn’t control my mouth right now. “I mean, how can I help you?”
“First things first, tell us everything you know about Ensign Jenks,” the Commander said without pause.
My heart skipped a beat. “Sorry, Jenks?”
“She transferred aboard your ship, and then aboard this ship. She was close to the site of the accident, but mysteriously received no injuries,” Commander F’val said in a monotone as he stood there with his arms crossed.
My brow crumpled. “I thought… she was just… lucky,” I managed in a stuttering tone.
Then I stopped and thought about it for the first time.
I’d been almost killed in the corridor. Though Jenks had been closer to the source of the explosion, she was fine.
The Captain suddenly waved her hand to the left, and a hologram appeared over the desk. It showed a view of the station from the outside.
It must’ve been taken just after the explosion, because you could see the whole deck had been virtually obliterated, structural shields the only thing keeping it in place.
The Captain ticked her finger to the side, and the picture suddenly zoomed in.
Right in the middle of that path of destruction, there was a section about four meters squared that was… fine. The hull was completely untouched.
“What am I looking at?” I looked up at the Captain.
“This section of hull was approximately 50 meters away from your position when the explosion struck.”
“… And?” I swallowed.
“And,” the Commander leaned in, pointing a scaly finger towards the hologram, “Ensign Jenks was there.”
I swiveled my gaze from the hologram, to the Captain, then finally to the Commander. “… And? Was that section reinforced? Surely this isn’t really evidence, she was just lucky.”
“That section of hull was not reinforced. There was no shielding, there was nothing in place that could have saved it,” the Captain explained as she sat back. It was the first time I noted the tension in her shoulders.
“But hold on,” my thoughts struggled to catch up to the situation, “isn’t that,” I leaned forward and stabbed a finger right through the hologram, the light shifting around my hand like smoke, “the only reason the station survived? If… what you’re suggesting is correct, and Ensign Jenks is behind this, and she somehow shielded that section of hull to protect herself, why would she do that? If her plan had always been to knock the Godspeed into the Ra’xon and send it colliding into the station, then she hampered her own mission.”
“We don’t know. All we know is that small section of hull,” the Commander gestured to the hologram again, “should have been destroyed. Every simulation we ran proved that, but it wasn’t. And because it wasn’t, Ensign Jenks lives.”
There was now a ringing in my ears. With every passing second it was getting louder and louder.
Unless the Commander was playing an elaborate game, he wasn’t here to drag me away, was he?
Nobody knew about my treachery.
“You look as if you’re having trouble believing this,” the Commander noted.
I shifted higher in my chair, trying to hide my true feelings better. “To be honest, I kind of am. I’ll admit to you, I barely know Ensign Jenks, but she doesn’t seem the type to…” I trailed off.
“According to reports, she has always had a troubling personality. Quiet, disengaged, and clearly distracted. She fits the bill,” the Captain noted.
In my mind, spies were smoother than that. They hid their true feelings. They did exactly what I was doing – they maintained a friendly helpful disposition even in the face of defeat.
Ensign Jenks – she was just a woman who was running from something.
There wasn’t the faintest hint of righteous fervor anywhere in her.
Something didn’t fit.
I swallowed uncomfortably. “Do you have an issue with this, Lieutenant Commander?” The Captain leaned even further back in her seat, locking her gaze on me. “You have permission to speak freely.”
I nodded stiffly. “Okay then. This still doesn’t make any sense. If you’re right, and Ensign Jenks really was the spy who scuttled my ship, then why would she protect that little four meter section of hull? Why would she be there in the first place? Surely she would have been as far away from the explosion as she could get? And surely she wouldn’t have bothered to protect that small section of hull, considering it was the only thing that saved the station and this ship.” I pointed a stiff finger at the floor. “Sorry to be so frank, Captain, but something simply doesn’t add up here.”
“We cannot guess what her motivations are. And you are correct – we still do not know if she’s culpable. But she seems to be the best place to start. The Commander has requested your help in interrogating her and the other members of the Fargo. I am redeploying you to his command.”
I blinked. Then I swiveled my head slowly to stare at the Commander.
He was looking at me… intently. With his arms crossed in front of his chest, his head tilted to the side, and his vibrant eyes locked on mine, it was impossible not to note the quality of his attention.
I found myself swallowing again.
“It is imperative that we find the spy before they can do anything to this ship,” the Captain added.
Suddenly I sat up straight, a memory punching into my mind.
“What is it?” Concern flashed through the Captain’s gaze.
“Christ, I…” I had to think fast.
The Omega weapons. I hadn’t told anyone about the Omega weapons yet. No… worse than that, the only person I told was Ensign goddamn Jenks.
I planted a sweaty hand over my brow, my fingers jolting over my nose before I let them fall to my lap.
I had to make a decision. A short sharp decision. And it had better be the right one.
Should I trust the Captain and the Commander? Should I continue to trust the Alliance?
Or should I keep my discovery of the Omega weapons to myself?
There was so much in this situation that didn’t add up.
Somebody was keeping secrets.
I just wasn’t sure who.
The Captain’s brow furrowed. “Lieutenant Commander, what’s the problem?”
I had to make a decision.
So I did.
I looked up into her eyes directly. “I was going to wait till your meeting with the Commander was over – considering he’s not a member of this ship – but you need to know this now,” I said, coming up with a pretty good lie on the run. It wasn’t customary to share intimate security details of your vessel with an officer not attached to it.
I watched the Captain press two hands into her desk and lean forward. “What is it?”
“Do I have permission to share critical security information with the Commander?”
“I found… when I was checking through the service ducts, I found a store room that wasn’t on the original blueprints and that my scanner couldn’t detect.”
A deep frown pushed its way across the Captain’s face. “My requisitions officer has complained to me before that our internal scans are not always accurate. Due to the great number of engine cores on this ship, certain service ducts cannot be scanned accurately. As for the original blueprints, we have made modifications to this ship before.”
I shook my head. Maybe there was something about the move, because the Captain stopped and stared at me.
“I found weapons inside, Captain. Omega weapons,” I finally pushed the words out.
The Captain receded back, pulling up to her full considerable height. “What?”
“It was dark. Whatever was protecting that room turned off my scanner and stopped the computer from responding to my voice. There were crates in the room though, and one of them was open. They were Omega weapons,” my voice dropped down.
The Captain shook her head.
“Who else knows about this?” F’val asked. There wasn’t a single note of surprise in his voice. Just a cold efficiency.
I turned my gaze towards him. Should I tell him the truth?
Did I have any option?
I’d made my decision. I was going to continue to trust the Star Forces.
So I couldn’t give up on them now.
I swallowed, mouth dry. I didn’t want to do this, but I had to. “Ensign Jenks. When I managed to make my way out of the duct via a service panel, she was standing right there. She’s been doing proximity scans for the last few days. I think she was doing another one. When I saw her there, I told her to guard the panel.”
The Commander took a step back, turned, and headed for the door. He didn’t say anything to either of us; he just marched off.
The Captain rose. “Get me a security team.” She tapped a finger to her command PIP.
I snapped to my feet too. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner, Captain. I wasn’t sure if I should share security information in front of Commander F’val.”
The Commander had already left the room.
The Captain shook her head. “You did the right thing. And you couldn’t have helped that Ensign Jenks was the only crewmember around when you made it out of the service ducts. But right now you need to show me where these weapons are.” She stepped forward and out through the open door. It was a surprise the floor didn’t shake.
I turned and followed.
I might have just met Ensign Jenks, but my heart went out to her.
I hoped she wasn’t guilty. And if she wasn’t guilty, I was determined to find evidence to prove her innocence.
There was a niggling thought, way back at the edges of my mind that told me that wouldn’t be enough. It reminded me that Max Weatherby, my best friend, had died at the hands of the same people I now trusted. The Alliance Star Forces.
I moved quickly through the tunnels.
I could feel it. The closer I got.
I could goddamn feel it.
Lieutenant Commander Shepherd had been right – there were Omega weapons down here.
I reached a section of tunnel with a panel that had been torn off and was lying discarded on the floor. It had buckled in several places, and it was clear that the Lieutenant Commander had kicked it open.
I barely glanced at it.
I locked a hand on the floor and pushed myself forward and into the room.
It was dark.
That didn’t matter. I activated the implant in my left elbow, and let the light pick up along my arm. It was strong enough that it illuminated the whole room.
I saw at least 100 massive metal crates lined up against the walls.
I shifted towards one in the far corner which was open, its lid propped up against its side.
When I reached it, I stared down.
My heart stopped beating, and my breath caught in my throat.
There they were. Omega weapons.
Thousands of them.
I took a step back, gaze sliding across the wall of boxes.
There had to be thousands of them.
I’d never seen so many in my life.
It was enough to outfit a small army.
Or a resistance, I realized as I frowned.
Could I have inadvertently stumbled upon a resistance cache?
I shook my head as I returned my attention to the crate, locking my fingers over the edge as I leaned into it.
I picked up a few Omega weapons, examining them in turn, expertly removing one of the antimatter chambers from the back and checking its integrity.
I turned the gun over to check the secondary chamber.
That’s when I noted it was empty.
The gun hadn’t been used. If it had been used, both chambers would have been used at the same time and one would not be empty while the other was full.
I leaned further into the crate, searching through it as my illuminated arm lit up its contents.
That’s when I noted an isolation kit.
I recognized it immediately. It was all the equipment one would need to isolate compound 78 from an Omega gun antimatter chamber.
There was even a med pack with a used electro-needle.
I dropped the gun, letting it clatter at my feet as I took a step back.
What in God’s name was going on here?
… Could there be another like me?
Another telekinetic warrior who’d been made dependent on 78? One who’d escaped to forge their own life?
Suddenly I heard footsteps.
Reverberating down the small tunnel that led to this room.
I reacted, and I reacted quickly.
I activated both implants, a burst of light surging over my arms as I spread my hands towards the massive crates stacked along the walls.
I spread my fingers and swept my hands to the side. As I did, that wall of crates shifted. Gracefully. With no sound. Though they were heavy, and should have grated along the floor, they didn’t.
I picked them up and conducted them through the air with nothing but my mind.
In a silent dance they rearranged themselves.
I ran forward, slamming my back up against the wall just as I let my hands descend.
The boxes drifted down gracefully, forming a wall in front of me.
It was enough to block me off entirely from the rest of the room.
I let my hands close, and the light erupting over them stopped.
Then I brought my palm up and pressed it over my mouth as I stifled my breath.
The footsteps stopped just before the room. Then there was a gasp, and I heard somebody move inside.
“What the hell is this place?” a voice asked. I searched my memory, and soon realized it was the Captain.
“I don’t know. But those are Omega weapons,” another voice said, quicker than the first.
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd. He’d clearly alerted the Captain.
I hadn’t been quick enough.
Still, all I had to do was wait until they left, and I could sneak out of this room. Or, if the situation called for it, I could punch my way right through the walls.
I stood there with my back pressed up against the cold metal wall, my hand clamped so hard around my mouth I could have ground my lips to shreds against my teeth.
I heard the Captain and the Lieutenant Commander walk through the echoing room until they reached something.
I heard the Captain gasp again. “Good god, you’re right. They are Omega weapons. What the hell is happening here? Why didn’t I know about this room? How could somebody slip Omega weapons in under my nose?” Her voice shook.
I pressed my hand further and further over my mouth.
Then I heard another set of footsteps.
More people were approaching.
Perhaps it was the Captain’s security team. She was an efficient woman, after all. I expected she wanted these weapons catalogued and locked away in a safe place.
Which meant it was unlikely I’d find a chance to sneak away. The Captain would have this room under guard until she cleared the weapons.
… I would have to make a distraction.
A big one.
Just as I flicked my fingers forward, readying my power, I heard the footsteps reach the room.
“Commander F’val,” the Captain said, “Lieutenant Williams, glad you could make it.”
“Anna— I mean, Lieutenant, what are you doing here?” Nathan asked, tone brimming with surprise.
Lieutenant Williams wasn’t on a security detachment. He had every right to be surprised. She wasn’t even a proper member of the Ra’xon’s crew.
No one answered Nathan.
“Are the weapons untouched?” F’val asked.
“They appear to be,” the Captain answered.
“Ah, what’s going on here?” Nathan’s tone had become more and more stressed. “Captain?”
“Captain, what’s going on here?” Nathan demanded.
“You want to know what’s going on?” F’val’s voice rose. “You should have talked to Williams when you had the chance.”
“What?” Nathan snapped.
“It’s alright, Nathan,” Williams took a stuttering breath, “just trust us.”
I positioned myself closer to the wall of boxes, finally dropping the hand from around my mouth as my curiosity got the better of me.
“Just tell me what the hell is going on,” Nathan demanded.
“Why don’t you tell us, Lieutenant Commander,” F’val suggested. His tone was guarded, and it was hard to guess what he was thinking, especially considering I couldn’t see his face.
“… What the hell are you talking about?” There was the soft sound of a boot grating over the metal floor as Nathan either took a step towards or away from F’val.
What I wouldn’t give to see what was going on.
“Do you know why I’m on this ship?” F’val suddenly asked.
Silence. A dead cold silence permeated the room.
Then I heard someone take a stuttering breath. “What’s going on?”
“What’s going on is you caught the attention of the Enforcement Unit. You lied, Lieutenant Commander,” F’val’s voice maintained a strange neutral calm, “you lied to the great Alliance Star Forces.”
“C-Christ,” Nathan stuttered. I could hear him struggling for breath. “I-I can explain. I accidentally found out about the Pluto—”
“None of that matters,” the Captain cut in. “The only thing that matters is what you decide to do next.” Her powerful resonant tone echoed through the room.
“A decision? What are you talking about? It was all a mistake. I didn’t mean to lie. I just….”
I pressed closer and closer to the box until my cheek was flush against the cool metal.
“Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd, do you trust the Alliance Star Forces?” F’val asked.
“Think carefully before you answer that question,” the Captain warned.
“I… I’ve devoted my life to the Star Forces.”
“That’s not what I asked, Lieutenant Commander. I asked if you trust the Alliance. Do you trust they will lead us on a just and worthy path? Do you trust they will do what is best for this galaxy and all its people? Do you trust them?” F’val’s voice boomed out through the room.
“I….” Nathan trailed off.
Was that doubt echoing in his voice? The great Nathan Shepherd just couldn’t question the Star Forces, could he? Not a man like him. His kind were the rank and file of the Alliance – men for whom loyalty was the only thing that mattered.
So why wasn’t he confidently and boldly proclaiming that he trusted the Alliance?
“It’s okay, Nathan, just tell us what you really believe,” Williams encouraged in a soft voice.
“I trust… I trust… Christ, I don’t know who I trust anymore,” he answered.
That floored me. His words might as well have formed a punch and knocked me clean out.
I simply couldn’t believe that a man like Nathan Shepherd could ever doubt his masters.
There was an edgy silence in the room. I waited for the Captain to reprimand him or to kick him out of the Star Forces on the spot.
That’s not what happened.
Slowly someone began clapping. The sound echoed through the room.
“What are you doing?” Nathan’s voice shook.
“You have every right to distrust the Alliance; they were going to throw you away,” F’val responded.
“This Alliance has always awarded loyalty with pain. No matter how much you sacrifice, you will never be rewarded with dignity and respect – they will simply use you,” F’val continued.
“What are you talking about?” Nathan’s words came out as a stutter.
“The resistance,” F’val finally revealed. “We are part of the resistance.”
“It’s okay, Nathan. You are amongst friends.”
The Captain of this ship was part of the resistance?
I’d always known that their influence spread far – much further than the Star Forces liked to admit. But this was incredible. The Captain of a flagship was part of the resistance….
I was no longer aware of my breathing and made no effort to control it.
All I wanted to do was find out more.
“You’re all part of the resistance? But you’re in the Enforcement Unit!”
“Which is the perfect cover. I get to give traitors a choice. Join us and be part of the group to tear down the Alliance, or submit to the Alliance’s crooked justice. I’m giving you that choice now. I don’t know what you found out – I’m not privy to that information. I just know that whatever it is, it’s valuable enough to the Star Forces that they will bury you. Forever.”
“The resistance are the only way to bring back peace to this galaxy,” Williams insisted.
“You must trust us, Lieutenant Commander,” the Captain added.
I was reeling at what I’d just found out, yet I appreciated my feelings would be nothing compared to Nathan’s.
“So these… these weapons are yours?” I heard Nathan turn around.
“Correct,” the Captain answered.
“What the hell are you doing with Omega class weapons? They could tear a hole in the fabric of space-time.”
“We do not use them,” the Captain said eloquently, “not as weapons, anyway. They can be used to isolate a specific compound.”
“They’re for me,” Williams suddenly admitted in a small voice, “and the others like me, who were made dependent on compound 78.”
I jerked backwards, shoulder slamming against the wall behind me.
There was a slight pause.
I crumpled a hand over my mouth.
I just couldn’t… I couldn’t believe this.
I couldn’t believe this.
“What do you mean you’re dependent on some compound?”
“Nathan, this Alliance you love so much, they’re monsters. Absolute monsters,” Williams’ voice shook. “Monsters,” she added, tone breaking like glass. “They’ve ruined so many people’s lives. They’ve killed so many people, all to assure their continued dominance.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The Farsight Program. The Alliance’s attempt to develop telekinetic warriors,” the Captain answered simply. “Most believe it is a myth. It isn’t,” her tone dropped ominously.
“We will tell you everything. Just join us,” Williams begged. “Please, join us. We need someone like you to help make a difference.”
“A difference?” his voice shook. “You call this making a difference? Were you responsible for attacking my ship? You’re the spy, aren’t you? All that bullshit about Jenks was just to put me off the scent.”
I reeled at the mention of my name.
“We have little interest in Jenks. Though some have suggested she may be a candidate for the resistance – it seems she doesn’t share most people’s fervor for the Alliance.”
“So what about all that bullshit about that explosion on the station? Why would you jeopardize this ship? Why would you attack my ship?”
“We took your ship out of the equation, Lieutenant Commander,” the Captain said. “You may not be aware of this, but your mission to the Hari Sector would have resulted in the destruction of your ship sooner rather than later. The Star Forces had every intention of using you, your crew, and your vessel as sacrificial lambs to see how powerful the resistance has become.”
“… You’re lying,” Nathan tried.
“We are not. I can show you the communiqués myself,” the Captain assured him.
Another uneasy silence spread through the room.
“The accident aboard your vessel was also a warning to the Alliance. It is time we, the resistance, lift our heads,” as the Captain spoke, she did so with so much authority it was a surprise I didn’t salute.
“You… I…” Nathan trailed off.
“To destroy the Alliance, we must make sacrifices. Williams almost lost her life to the Farsight Program. I have seen countless, countless decorated officers thrown away at the suspicion of disloyalty. This treachery cannot stand. We must undo the Alliance one battle at a time.”
“One… battle at a time? Are you mad? I don’t care how big the resistance is, there’s no way we can undermine the entire Alliance Star Forces. They’re too big. And they’re growing too fast,” Nathan said.
It was the first time he hadn’t reacted with anger or suspicion.
Was he softening to the resistance so quickly?
“One battle at a time,” the Captain repeated. “One battle at a time. But the time when we attack them head on is rapidly approaching. We need people like you to help us.”
“People like me,” Nathan repeated, tone hollow.
“You’re a great soldier,” Williams encouraged him.
“I’m a great….”
“You must make a decision now,” the Captain informed him, “soon the Ra’xon will be delivered to the resistance. Decide whether you will still be on it.”
“You’re giving the resistance this ship?”
“It is time to fight back,” the Captain replied.
Once more, a cold uneasy silence spread through the room.
It was so penetrating I swore it even sunk deep into my chest.
“Decide,” F’val demanded.
“Help us,” Williams encouraged.
The Captain remained silent.
“You want me to join you. Christ… the resistance.”
“It will be the only way you’ll ever make a difference,” F’val added.
That same goddamn silence spread through the room.
I was suddenly keenly aware of my heart beating hard in my chest.
… What would he decide?
“I’ll… I’ll join you,” he said.
“A wise decision, Lieutenant Commander,” the Captain commended him. “Now we must begin preparations to evacuate this ship.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I may be a member of the resistance, but I am still the captain of this ship. I have a duty to my crew. I won’t lay a finger on them. We will simulate engine troubles and I will command the crew to evacuate.”
“… Simulate engine troubles. Was that what happened aboard the Fargo?” Nathan suddenly asked.
“Yeah,” Williams replied. “The resistance desperately needs ships.”
“We can discuss the requirements of the resistance later. We must evacuate this ship.”
“Hold on, how the hell are we going to fly this thing? There’s only four of us,” Nathan pointed out.
“At least ten percent of my crew are sympathetic to the resistance. It will be enough to pilot the Ra’xon to our main base.”
“Which is where?” Nathan asked.
“You’ll find out when we get there,” F’val said. “But the Captain’s right – we have only a small window to evacuate this ship and appropriate it. We need to take it now.”
“… Alright then, what do I do?” Nathan asked.
I would have given anything to see his expression right now. Was it muddled? Was confusion crumpling his brow? Or had he made a decision – the most important decision of his life – and had he committed himself to it, heart and soul?
“The Chief Engineer is a part of the resistance. As soon as I give her the word, she will begin to destabilize the engines,” the Captain cleared her throat and appeared to take a powerful step backwards. “All you must do is help the evacuation. Once the rest of the crew have escaped in the allotted escape pods, we will appear to be attacked and boarded by resistance ships, who will take the vessel.”
“So… I just stand around and help people get on escape pods. I guess I can do that,” Nathan managed, tone lighter for the first time since this fateful conversation had begun.
“We need to be careful,” F’val warned. “There is every chance there are enforcement officers amongst the crew. Real ones.”
“What?” Nathan asked.
“The Alliance know the resistance are stealing their ships, and they’ve been putting safeguards in place, especially on ships as important as this,” F’val explained. “There may be enforcement officers on board. If they’re worth their money, they might realize what’s happening. They’ll wait till most of the crew evacuate, then they’ll try to take back this ship. They tend to operate in groups of two.”
“… Just two? If ten percent of this ship’s crew are resistance, that’s roughly 25 people. Surely we can take them on?” Nathan asked.
“Do not underestimate enforcement officers. Not only do they possess the Star Forces’ strongest prototype armor, but some of them are telekinetic warriors. They will pose a serious threat. That is, in part, why we wanted to ascertain your loyalty to the resistance first. You have a history of pushing back impossible threats.”
“Ah, thanks. What the hell is a telekinetic warrior, though?”
“You’ll find out soon enough,” Williams promised him.
That promise echoed in my ears as the group finally ended their conversation and left.
I stood there with my hand pressed against a metal crate for at least five minutes.
I couldn’t move. There was a dense, heavy feeling sinking through my knees and into my feet. It felt as if they were turning to lead.
I’d just learnt so much.
… The resistance were far more powerful than I’d ever imagined.
More than that though – they had telekinetic warriors.
There were more like me.
Oh god, there were more like me.
As the seconds ticked by, I finally found the strength to close my eyes. I screwed them shut so tightly it would have taken a pair of light cruisers to pry them apart.
A few errant tears streaked down my cheeks.
I let them track their jagged paths across my skin until they trickled along my jaw and finally onto the collar of my uniform.
My goddamn Star Forces uniform.
I latched a hand on it, grip so tight it was as if I was getting ready to tear it in two.
For several agonizing seconds I couldn’t move. Then finally, finally I let my hand drop.
I shifted backwards and faced the wall of boxes.
Then I shifted them out of my path. With nothing but a few small movements of my hands, the boxes lifted right into the air, flowing gently to the side as I walked out from behind them.
Without glancing behind me as I continued to walk forward, I brought my hand down, and the boxes dropped silently into place.
I didn’t pause.
I left the room.
Lieutenant Commander Nathan Shepherd
I couldn’t think.
I could barely feel.
Everything I’d known had been turned on its head.
The resistance were real. And now I was a part of them.
I kept staring at my hands as I walked through the corridors at Williams’ side.
Occasionally I let my gaze slip towards her.
… The Alliance had turned her into some kind of telekinetic warrior.
I wanted to know exactly what they’d done to her. But I couldn’t ask. Not here, not now.
We had a job to do.
Occasionally I wondered what the hell I was doing.
But it was too late now.
It was too goddamn late.
By the time we reached engineering, the game had already begun.
Just as we walked along the wide hallway that lead to the triple reinforced trilarium doors, an alert sounded.
“All Crew to emergency stations. There is a critical cascade in two of the engine cores. Repeat, all crew to emergency stations.”
“This is it,” Williams said under her breath as she half turned to me.
The blaring whoops of the red alert echoed down the corridor, drumming into my skull.
My heart beat ratcheted up to match it.
All I had to do was follow Williams and help her.
We raced into engineering, just as a bunch of shocked ensigns raced out.
The Chief Engineer, a squat Raconian with six arms, was standing in the middle of the room shouting orders. For a woman who was just faking an engine failure, she was doing a hell of a good job.
Clouds of steam swept across the floor, a few consoles on the far side of the room crackling as charges of electricity arced over them.
“Try to get those buffers back on line,” the CE bellowed.
A few of her engineers worked frantically at the main panels.
“It’s no good. We can’t take the excess energy away from the cores. They’re starting to send the others into meltdown!” one engineer cried.
“Keep trying,” the CE bellowed back.
Suddenly a massive arc of energy discharged from the main shields that separated the engineering deck from the primary drive shaft. The bolt of electricity slammed into the center of the floor, and the CE had to knock an unsuspecting ensign out of the way.
“That’s it, we’ve lost it,” the CE announced. “All noncommissioned officers out. The rest of you, we have to buy this ship enough time to evacuate.”
Even though I knew it was all a ruse, I couldn’t convince my body of that. My heart slammed in my rib cage, my mouth as dry as a desert planet.
“Get the Captain on the line,” the CE grabbed a slow ensign and shoved them towards the door with one of her many arms. “Captain, we’ve lost her. There’s nothing I can do. This ship will go down. It’s only a matter of time.”
There was a pause. I heard the Captain take a ragged breath. “Buy us as much time as you can.”
“Aye, aye, sir.” With that, the CE took a jolting step backwards. She appeared to see us for the first time. “You two, help the crew escape.”
Immediately she turned back to her task, throwing her squat body towards the main control panels.
All her commissioned officers stayed with her, and I quickly reasoned they must all be in the resistance too.
… The resistance must be massive. And to think, I’d never known. Until about a week ago, they’d been nothing more than a legend to me.
“Come on,” Williams grabbed me by the arm.
She pulled me out of the doors and into the chaos that was the hallways.
Surprised ensigns ran in every direction, officers shouting orders as they strode between them.
A few panels here and there crackled as the excess energy being produced by the cores overloaded their circuits.
I had to duck to the side as an access panel to my side exploded, sparks spewing out and catching onto the arm of my uniform.
I patted them off with a swipe of my hand and started to run.
It wasn’t hard to evacuate a ship, even one like this. Evacuation drills were drummed into your head at the Academy. You knew exactly what to do. Every new crew member was drilled on evacuation procedures when they were inducted into the crew of a new vessel.
We all followed those procedures.
Red lights flashed through every corridor, the alert klaxons still blaring overhead.
Williams helped ensigns into the waiting evac pods, as I stood back and barked commands.
Between the pounding beat of footfall and the ceaseless blare of the red alert, it felt like reality had fractured into fragments of a nightmare.
I saw snippets of surprised, shocked faces. I saw eyes as wide as planets. I heard screams.
And all of it was for naught.
This ship was fine.
When we scooped the last ensign in our section onto an evac pod and disengaged it from the ship, I stood back and faced Williams.
Her usually perfect hair was a mess, a few beads of sweat trickling down her worry-marked brow.
I used to think she looked immaculate no matter what she did. Now I realized I didn’t know her.
She’d likely faced horrors I couldn’t even imagine. Horrors that had been dealt out at the hand of the Alliance.
She smiled. It was a small brief move, but it was enough to capture my attention.
“Come on, Nate. We need to check in with the Captain to see if all the crew have been evacuated.”
I nodded and turned hard on my foot to follow her.
We ran down the corridors, the flashing red lights playing across our shiny command insignia.
A few strands of her lose hair trailed out behind her as she started to roll up her sleeves.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Getting ready. Captain,” she tapped her communication PIP, “we’re clear in this section. Have the rest of the crew been evacuated?”
“Unclear. We’ve lost contact with crew on deck 16,” the Captain answered. For a woman who hardly ever showed stress, I could hear it shaking through her tone like an earthquake. “Get down there and see what’s happening. Be careful, though. It could be enforcement operatives.”
I watched Williams close her eyes.
“… What do we do?” I asked, heart in my throat.
She opened one eye to look at me. “We buy them some time,” she croaked. “Come on.”
I followed her.
The ship was still a virtual nightmare, with the red alert blaring like a continuous explosion.
The sound of our desperate footfall could not make it over that constant drone.
“Hurry,” the Captain’s voice coming over Williams’ communication PIP, “someone is interfering with the engines. They’re trying to initiate a self-destruct. It must be the enforcement officers. You must stop them.”
“God,” Williams’ voice shook. In fact, her whole body shook, her now loose bun splaying over her shoulders. “Come on!” she begged.
I matched her pace as the two of us threw ourselves towards the deck.
When we reached it Williams did something unusual.
She spread both her arms wide and something… something happened.
Light – glorious yellow-gold light spilled over her arms, forming a definite angular pattern as it plunged deep into her hands.
“What the hell?” I jerked away from her, heart slamming so hard in my chest it felt as if it would shatter my ribs.
“It’s my ability, Nate. Just keep going. We can’t lose this ship. It’s everything to the resistance.”
Though the shock threatened to pull me apart, cell by cell, I followed.
The light was so goddamn bright as it burnt over her arms, it was almost enough to counter the constant red flash of the alert system.
What the hell had the Alliance done to her?
That thought stabbed through my mind and removed every last trace of doubt.
The Alliance really were monsters.
Deck 16 was a mess.
Sections of the floors and walls had been ripped open, and circuits hung in broken chunks, their wires exposed and crackling in the air.
“What the hell happened here?” I stammered.
“The enforcement officers. They’re trying to tear this ship apart and make it self-destruct. We have to stop them. Nate, we have to stop them.”
I stared at her.
We turned and ran forward.
I followed from a distance.
I had not evacuated this ship.
… I don’t know why, but I was still here.
I had never planned on joining the resistance. Though they fought for a cause I believed in, I didn’t trust them.
They’d use me, just like Axis had.
When they found out what I could do, they’d use me.
So why was I still on board?
I could have fled this ship with the rest of the crew. The Star Forces would have been none the wiser.
Yet, I’d passed up my chance.
Now I was following him. Shepherd.
And her. Lieutenant Williams.
She was just like me.
That thought kept echoing in my mind.
I followed at a distance.
I felt it as soon as Williams activated her implants. I could even see the faint glow spread down the corridor.
God, she really did have the same abilities as I did.
Could she be more powerful than me? Had professor Axis lied when he’d said I was his child, his perfection, the one experiment that mattered more than any other?
I shook my head and tried to push that thought from my mind.
The deck around us was badly damaged. Someone had pulled chunks of the ceiling and walls away.
There were no blast marks. The metal was simply bent and warped.
I kept following, more cautiously now, always staying out of sight.
I heard the two of them stop.
They reached a room.
From my constant shifts spent scanning, I knew it was one of the primary cargo bays.
It seemed like an irrelevant target until you realized that underneath the floor was one of the primary buffering manifolds for the engine core.
The enforcement officers F’val had warned of were clearly trying to destroy this ship.
As if to confirm that fact, the Ra’xon suddenly lurched to the side.
I pressed a hand into the wall to steady myself, then I continued forward.
I watched Williams and Shepherd barrel into the cargo bay, the massive doors closing behind them.
I stepped out of hiding and spread my hand, stopping the doors from closing completely. I left them open with the tiniest gap.
I reached them and pressed my eyes close.
I saw the cargo bay.
It was a mess. In the far corner a hole had been ripped in the floor, jagged metal jutting out in every direction.
The ship lurched again.
Two men in jet-back armor shifted up. They’d been kneeling near the hole punched in the floor.
They moved with deadly ease.
Williams came to a stop in the middle of the room, her arms spread wide, her implants on full. So much light spewed out of them, it was a surprise they didn’t burn a hole in the hull.
“You’re not taking this ship,” she screamed.
Neither of the black-clad enforcement officers said a thing; they simply walked forward, both splitting off in opposite directions to circle around her.
Shepherd had grabbed a gun from somewhere, and lifted it up.
One enforcement officer spread his hand, yellow light bleeding down through channels in his armor.
The gun suddenly lurched from Shepherd’s grip. He managed to hold onto it for a few seconds – which was incredible, considering the force the man used.
In another instant he swore as the gun spiraled from his grip.
Both enforcement officers kept circling Williams.
“You won’t win,” she warned.
Neither man said a thing.
They simply attacked.
They lurched towards her.
She doubled back, slamming her hand forward and locking one man in place.
She was powerful, and kept him frozen in mid-air, but she wasn’t strong enough to stop the other man from circling around behind her.
She gasped, shifting to the side, dodging the other officer as he sliced towards her.
She tried to grab a box from the far side of the room. There were large metal crates lined up neatly along one wall.
Williams grabbed one.
Or at least she tried to.
Suddenly both enforcement officers spun and spread their hands towards the crate, locking it in place.
Williams was strong, but it was clear she couldn’t take both men on at once.
I heard her give out a scream of frustration.
She dropped the crate and backed off.
She couldn’t win, and I fancied she was starting to realize that as she shook on the spot.
I, however, could win. Easily.
So this was it.
It was time to decide. Run or fight.
Run or fight.
I watched Williams continue to battle. She had no chance, however.
She simply wasn’t brutal enough.
As for Shepherd, he had no clue how to fight these men. Maybe he’d learn in time. If someone bought it for him.
Run or fight.
“Run or fight,” I repeated to myself, teeth pressing hard into my lips as I watched the scene through the crack in the door.
Williams suddenly screamed in anguish as one of the enforcement officers slammed into her shoulder, latching a hand onto her head and smashing it into the floor. She tried to push him off, but as golden-yellow light erupted over his armor, it was clear he was a stronger telekinetic warrior than she was.
Shepherd let out a brutal cry, rounded his shoulder, and slammed it into the enforcement officer who held her down.
His attack did nothing.
In fact, without even turning around, the guy spread a hand towards Shepherd and locked him in place.
Shepherd’s body spread, his limbs pulling in every direction as if he were being drawn and quartered.
He screamed, the sound ripping from his throat.
… They were going to kill him.
And everyone else on this ship.
“Run or fight.”
Fight. I had to fight.
I pressed a hand against the door.
I activated my implants.
I let them glow, glow until they practically burnt through the ship.
Then I flicked my fingers at the door.
It slammed away from my move, spiraling into the room.
I directed it at the officer holding Shepherd in place.
I watched the man turn.
But he didn’t have time.
The door spiraled into him, knocking him off his feet and sending him skidding across the floor.
The other enforcement officer pounced on me.
Shepherd dropped, his limbs buckling as soon as they hit the floor.
His head lolled towards me, his eyes half open.
They fluttered. Once. Twice. Then finally closed.
He was out cold.
Williams was beside him, her body crumpled. She’d lost consciousness too.
It was up to me.
I turned my head to the side slowly to see one of the black-armored enforcement officers power towards me, one arm twisting behind his back as he grabbed his gun.
He turned it on me.
I took a casual step towards him, boots echoing against the floor, hair cutting around the side of my face as I half-turned to him.
I swept my hand to the side just as he brought up the gun.
I pulled it right out of his hands.
All it took was the slight articulation of my thumb.
The enforcement officer stumbled.
Though he wore a blackened helmet, I could feel his surprise.
I held the gun just out of his reach.
He watched me for a single second longer, then he slammed both his arms to the side, collapsing his fingers into tight fists.
Suddenly yellow-gold channels opened in his armor.
He activated his implants in full.
He reached for the gun, spreading his fingers wide, obviously using his ability to try to wrench it from me.
I pulverized the gun. Crushed it into millions of particles of dust. I let them rain down on him as he jerked his head back to stare at me.
“Sorry about that,” I said.
He doubled backward, moves jerky now, all the cold efficiency gone from his actions.
He skidded on his boot, shunting a hand towards the far wall and the boxes lined up along it.
He brought a single box into the air, then, as he pivoted on his foot, sent it crashing towards me.
At the last moment, I brought my hand up and stopped it in place.
He strained, spreading his hand wide, even letting out a groan as he tried to crush me with the box.
As I held it in place, I brought my free hand up slowly. As I did, all the other boxes in the room raised into the air.
All of them.
I saw the man jerk his head to the side, his shock clear as every box floated past him, as light as feathers on the wind.
I pressed my fingers together then spread them quickly, right at the man.
It was time to take his armor off.
I kept the boxes spinning softly in the air as a distraction.
The enforcement officer tried to take a step back, but he couldn’t.
He strained. I even saw his armor start to buckle.
So I gave it a hand.
With the flick of a finger, I lifted him into the air.
It was time to do to him what he’d done to Shepherd.
I suddenly made a fist. I connected to the man’s armor, and I pulled it right off.
It may have been the most sophisticated armor in the Milky Way. But I had more power, because the Alliance had been dumb enough to give it to me.
His armor shattered, shedding off him in a wave of shrapnel.
Now I could see his face. I could register his shock as he stared at me, eyes two pools of hatred and gut-wrenching fear.
I stared at him for a single second before I let him fall. His body jolted into the floor.
He tried to scramble towards me, his bare feet slipping against the floor.
I swept my hand to the side, collecting his body and pinning it to the ground. Then I moved a mound of boxes and slammed them down all around him, creating an impenetrable cage.
The other enforcement officer had already picked himself up.
He was shifting away from me, one hand on the ground as he kept his body low, his head angled towards me.
I took a step forward and took away his armor with a sweep of my hand.
It was marginally harder.
This guy was stronger than the other one.
It wouldn’t matter, though.
Not in the end.
Professor Axis had created me never to lose.
As soon as his armor shattered, scattering through the room in a cloud of debris that floated along with the crates, he fell.
He got up quickly, though.
He clearly knew how to fight.
He ran towards me.
So I ran towards him.
He activated his implants, a sea of yellow-gold light spilling off them and lighting up the underside of every crate as they slipped quietly by.
He sent a cloud of shrapnel stabbing towards me.
I cleared it away with barely any effort.
We reached each other.
With a scream, he lurched towards me, a ball of light erupting off his implants.
I flipped right over him, using my ability to sail right towards one of the floating crates. I landed on it as it tumbled in the air, then I pushed off, flipping forward until I reached him.
As I flew right over him, I watched his eyes widen.
Then I landed. Right behind him.
Before he could lurch around and attack me, I snatched at his exposed elbow.
I slammed my hand around it, digging my fingers in.
He twisted and brought up a hand, forming a fist.
I stopped it in midair.
I watched his muscles tighten, his neck straining as he tried but failed to send his fist sailing towards me.
His teeth were bared, his lips actually shaking at the effort to move his hand.
I was far, far stronger than he was.
I kept my fingers locked around his elbow. Then I did it. I located his implant, and pulled it right out of his arm.
I tugged my hand back, and a pulse of blood erupted around it, the implant shooting from his elbow and slamming into my palm.
He screamed, his arm jerking to his side as his eyes grew so wide they could have swallowed the universe.
“What the hell… are you?” he managed as blood trailed down his arm, off his fingers, and splashed over the floor.
I still held his fist in place, even though he wasn’t fighting me anymore.
I took a step back.
I stared right at him.
I let it swell – the anger, the unbridled hatred at what had been done to me.
But most of all, the bitterness at what we, the Alliance, had become.
“What are you?” he stuttered once more.
“I’m the resistance,” I said.
And I meant it.
I spread my fingers wide, and the man sailed across the room. Slamming into the far wall.
He wouldn’t be dead, but he’d be out cold for hours.
I stood there and stared at him for several seconds before turning and glancing at both Williams and Shepherd.
They were still unconscious.
I stared at them for a few more seconds before turning my gaze around the rest of the room.
One by one, I let the crates drop into place.
Then I took a step back.
I’d just fought the Alliance.
My first battle.
I brought my hands up and stared at them.
I’d told that man I was the resistance. And it had felt good to hear those words echo around the room.
It had made me feel powerful.
… But I wasn’t, not really.
I alone could not tear down the Alliance.
But maybe I wasn’t alone anymore.
I turned back and stared at Nathan Shepherd. He was alive. I could see his chest moving up and down as he took soft breaths.
I flicked my gaze over to Williams. She had clearly made the choice to join the resistance.
… Was it a choice I could make too?
I stared at Shepherd for one more second.
Then I turned and walked out the door.
It was time to make a difference.
It was time to join the resistance.
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