The crystals were okay. They were all still there. Still singing to her. Still ready to help.
Nothing had attacked the Mercury. Faxon A was eerily quiet. The 200,000 strong populace hadn’t returned. As for the Coalition team? They’d been identified. They appeared to be in some kind of psychic stupor. Her XO occasionally resurfaced, enough to beg them not to return to the planet. But she had no option.
The Hendari ship might be gone, but there was a possibility Sally’s six-year-old self was still there. And Lara assumed – rightly or wrongly – that was where the real mystery lay.
She stood in the armory, preparing for her mission.
“I still don’t think this is a good idea,” Chief F’Stal said. Leaning back, she crossed her arms against her chest and pushed her large shoulder muscles into the Coalition insignia on the wall behind her.
“Most of the things we do are rarely good ideas.”
“Not sure if that scans, Admiral. Fighting your enemy – great idea. Bolstering your defenses – awesome plan. Going down to Faxon A, even though we know there’s some form of psychic force down there – terrible idea.”
“You’d be surprised what I can withstand,” Forest commented as she checked the seals on her armor. This wasn’t holographic armor. It was solid. It was the best the Coalition could produce right now. She could have been tempted to use holographic, considering it had a number of advantages over an ordinary carapace – but she wanted something thicker between her and whatever mystery she would face down there.
F’Stal took a moment, then she snorted. It was neither derisive nor rude. “No. I wouldn’t be surprised. I know what you can do, Lara,” she said, dropping her gaze for a moment. “I also know how important you are to the rest of this ship.”
“You’re talking about me as if I won’t come back.”
“I’m assuming you will come back sometime. But if you really do find that body down there and there really is a Hendari crystal, what then?”
Lara paused. She’d checked and rechecked every seal. Her fingers slipped against the smooth metal of her wrist, sliding over it then falling down to her side. It wasn’t a weak move – just one that signaled she was ready. But was she ready for everything? Including the prying look in F’Stal’s eyes? The very same look that told her F’Stal was correct, and Lara was about to take a step into the dark?
Again. It wasn’t the first time she’d ever done that. Her entire career, in a manner of speaking, she’d been wading headfirst into disasters only to wade back out again. You had to get momentum. You had to ensure you never slowed down. And when somebody challenged you, you stood taller than you ever had before.
Which is exactly what Lara did now. She didn’t somehow grow – had no control over her joints and bones. But her helmet was off, and she could at least master her gaze. And trust her, she did.
Chief F’Stal finally pushed off the wall. She chuckled. There was no mirth there. She did salute, though, and there was a heck of a lot of strength in her wrist, forearm, and shoulder. She looked like she could momentarily hold up the entire Mercury. And maybe she would have to.
The crystals were lined up behind Lara. It would be awkward to take them one by one. Lara would look like a crazed personal shopper, not an admiral attempting to save the galaxy. But there was another way.
The crystals could be tied together and compressed in compartmentalized space. It was a trick that’d been used since the Circle Trader incident. You could, with the correct powerful devices, outfit a seemingly small single person cruiser to have a massive space within it. It required special compression technology. It hadn’t been tried out on the Hendari crystals, but Lara was perfectly aware of the fact if they didn’t wish for it to be used on them, they wouldn’t submit.
And yes, she’d just spoken about them as if they were living beings with minds, intelligence, and importantly, desires.
“The Mercury will be here if it all goes to hell. But what if you remain on Faxon A?” F’Stal suddenly demanded.
Lara didn’t frown or look confused as if that was a possibility she hadn’t thought of yet. She’d tried to think of every possibility. Which was a fool’s game to begin with. You cannot think of everything that can go wrong regarding a mission. When you are actually thrust into the heart of battle, you have to embrace uncertainty in all its forms.
But Lara was well aware she was about to dice with incomparable danger.
The crystal still in the six-year-old Sally’s form was somehow more important to the Observers than the ones lined up behind her.
It was impossible that Sally had been in control of that Hendari ship. Something must’ve happened to her, and she must’ve fallen to an Observer. Yet rather than pause and take all of the Mercury’s crystals, they’d shot right past as if they were irrelevant. So what was the significance of the crystal inside Sally’s little form?
Was it somehow more powerful? Could it somehow control the rest? Or did it have some significance she couldn’t even begin to imagine?
F’Stal sighed, pushed forward, locked her hands on the back of her neck, pushed her fingers in until her plush red flesh indented, then let them go. “We’ll do what we can from here. Try to keep in contact. I doubt it will work, though. I imagine there’ll be communication jamming fields everywhere.”
“You almost sound like an admiral handing out orders now,” Lara said, and there was only the slightest warning note in her voice.
The chief shrugged her shoulders. “We are burning through command staff pretty quickly here, Admiral. I imagine I’ll become one by the end of the day.”
“Don’t jump to conclusions yet. That said, keep a watchful eye on the Mercury. We still have no idea how the Observer attacked us to begin with. I don’t like the thought, but there is a possibility that we have spies on board.”
That was something that could get F’Stal to drop her arms, to correct her slouch, and to stare out like a bullet waiting to be shot from a loaded gun. F’Stal hadn’t always been an engineer. Once upon a time, she’d been an intelligence asset in the Kore Empire. She’d willingly gone. She had a brutal family history. Her parents had been killed on a colony world, not unlike Faxon A, but a scientific post on the opposite side of the galaxy.
The reason they’d been killed was a Coalition asset on an important ship had given the coordinates of the outpost to a barbarian raiding team. According to the reports Lara had seen, her parents’ bodies had been unrecognizable. They’d been smeared across the walls and floors of their offices, like the equivalent of turning bodies into paint.
That was the origin of the glint burning in F’Stal’s eyes right now. She hated spies. And she’d do anything to rip them out like weeds.
Lara suddenly snapped a salute. “Keep my ship running. I will be in contact – when I can.”
“Great. Don’t you worry, though, if there are spies under my feet,” F’Stal lifted her foot and pushed it right down, the move strong and highlighting her muscles all the way up into her legs and hip, “I’ll rip them out.”
“I’m sure you will.” Lara dropped her salute. She turned. She leaned down to a knee and gathered together the crystal cases. It was strange not being able to see the pulsing gems inside the locked boxes. But if you thought that meant Lara wasn’t aware of what was inside every case at every single moment, you’d be wrong. As she’d already admitted to so many times, they sang to her. As she gathered them together, that song only echoed louder. It reverberated through her temples, filling her skull and the rest of her body. It was a strange, vibrating energy – one that almost felt as if Lara had turned into an atom.
She needed to be something far more complex to even have a hope going forward.
There would be psychic enemies down on Faxon A. She very much doubted all of them had left. Even if there weren’t, Observers would likely come back. The threats would come thick and fast.
So what did you do when you faced a continuing horror that only promised to get greater?
You stood next to those you could trust.
One by one, Lara loaded the crystal cases into the compressed space box.
And it worked.
Each crystal was nestled inside.
The box itself was technically two meters by one meter when it was expanded. Now she closed it. In a few dull clicks as if nothing significant was occurring beyond a small engine spluttering into life, the box compressed.
Now it was nothing more than a single case.
One she plucked up. She turned and looked at F’Stal. Once more, her chief engineer snapped a salute. She put everything into the move until her muscles were stiff, her lips spread thin, and her gaze just as fierce as any newborn star.
Lara snapped a salute of her own. “Look after my ship.”
“Only if you look after the rest of the galaxy, Admiral.”
“That’s a promise.” She nodded once. Then Lara initiated a transport.
No time to waste.