They knew something was going wrong on the planet. The limited communication she’d had with Joseph confirmed that. As for her team down in the settlement, they were unresponsive. But there was something inside Lara that knew things had gone to hell for another reason.
She’d already admitted she had some kind of connection to the Hendari crystals. That for the time she’d been their keeper it had almost been as if they’d started whispering in her mind. Not with real words, but with impressions.
One such impression rose within her as she sat in her command seat on the bridge only for the Mercury’s sensors to go wild.
A tactical officer crumpled over his station, his brow slicking with sweat as his eyes pulsed wide. The view from the primary screen was reflected in his suddenly massive pupils. “Sir, we are registering another vessel. Signature unknown. It—”
He didn’t get a chance to finish. Every single warning alarm the Mercury had suddenly blared into life. Lara unconsciously clenched her armrests tighter, driving her fingers into the metal as if she wanted to part it like water in front of a whale.
She couldn’t, though. Her fingers were too weak. And her ship was too weak to do anything against that oncoming vessel. Make no mistake, despite the fact their sensors didn’t know what it was, she did.
“The Hendari ship,” she hissed.
Nobody said anything, and no one screamed.
Her crew was the best. They fought under pressure all the time. And they knew that no matter what happened, you always tried. But sometimes inevitability stares at you down the barrel of a gun, and even the greatest soldiers must give up.
She did. For a flickering moment.
Her mind told her that ship would tear through the Mercury as easily as a meteorite squashing a house. But then, just a moment later, something else rose in her – this certainty that the true battle wouldn’t come yet. It didn’t come from Lara’s considerable intuition. It wasn’t a guess, either.
She might not technically be the custodian of the crystals anymore, but they were still in her vessel, and she swore they rose in her mind, whispering to her their time wasn’t up yet.
Her hands lost their grip, and she stood. It was just as the rest of her crew fell back, their fear gripping hold of them as if they’d fallen into a collective noose.
Lara stood tall, her hands clenched behind her back. “Lock all scanners on that ship. We must figure out where it goes.”
“But it’s going to tear through us—” the tactical officer began.
“Have faith,” Lara commanded. Two simple words. But they had an effect on everyone on the bridge.
When your commander couldn’t see the point in going on, the crew would crumble.
A good commander was more than somebody who gave orders. They were more than just a conduit for higher command. They were a touchstone. Somebody you went back to whenever fear got the better of you. They were like the glue that stuck a crew together. But they were also like a weathercock signaling an oncoming storm. If your commander broke down and fractured at the sight of an enemy, you could bet your crew would too. But if the commander stood tall, refusing to fall but instead weathering what would come, the crew would stand with them.
Her tactical officer, despite showing unrivaled fear previously, still found the strength to crunch forward, ignore that horror, and lock the Mercury’s sensors on the Hendari vessel. She heard the beep as they initiated.
“That’s a lock. Our scanners are working. But that ship is about to….”
He couldn’t describe what happened. Nor could the Mercury’s sensors, to be fair, but as Lara’s gaze darted over the viewscreen, a single word came to mind. Phase.
There were plenty of technologies in the Milky Way that allowed one to phase through matter. Joseph used such skills. He could walk right through a door as if it was just as impeding as thin air.
But make no mistake, the Hendari vessel didn’t suddenly phase through the Mercury. It… seemed to slip right out of reality.
“What the hell is going on?” The tactical officer jerked back from his station, staring wildly at what was revealed on his console.
Lara stood there, her eyes narrowed, her intuition running wild. She might not have the same capacity as the Mercury’s sensors, but she still had powerful information gathering techniques of her own. She had faced so many threats over her years as an admiral – hell, even as a cadet – she knew what to look for.
She couldn’t deny her growing connection with the crystals.
They wanted her to pay attention to this moment. For it would be the beginning of everything.
“What are our scanners showing?” she snapped.
“That ship… disappeared. But….”
“But?” She turned on her tactical officer quickly.
“But… it’s almost as if it’s still there. It has a fleeting signature. It’s disappearing, though.”
“We need to find a way to lock onto it.”
“We don’t even begin to have that kind of power,” he said, hissing through every word.
No. But they could get that kind of power.
The Hendari crystals were still on the ship. They were under Sally’s control – or at least her nominal protection. Lara had no clue what had happened on the planet, but it was clear something had compromised Sally. The crystals were still here. And if they were here, Lara had every intention of using them. She turned hard on her foot.
“What are you doing? Admiral?” her third in command snapped.
“We need power. I know where to get it. Have the chief engineer meet me in Sally Winter’s quarters. Make sure she brings the Hendari cases.”
“You’re… going to use them?”
Lara paused at the door that led to the elevator. “Yes.”
“Is that such a smart idea, Admiral? Are they even going to allow themselves to be used?” she asked haltingly. Fair enough. When it came to discussing the crystals, it wasn’t like talking about normal technology. Ordinary devices didn’t care if they were used. They had no faculty of awareness, so could know nothing. The crystals… they had something. Over the years, Forest had questioned whether it was intelligence – or whether it was something far greater. They had an awareness that went beyond ordinary calculative knowledge. They had this self-reflective presence, almost as if they’d ascended to some omnipresent realm.
Lara didn’t think that by chance. It was something she’d considered ever since the crystals had come to her attention during the Force war.
They were not Hendari in origin. They’d simply found them. By the sounds of it the Hendari hadn’t even known where they’d come from. They were… unknown. And yet they knew themselves. When she aligned with them, when they trusted her, she wondered if they whispered to her without words they were the ascendents.
She did not breathe a word of this. She took the elevator, commanding it to head directly to the accommodation block. She strode out, and it was to the sound of the Mercury’s alarms finally ratcheting down a notch. They went to yellow alert. The threat had gone.
Whatever had happened on that Hendari vessel, if Sally had been compromised, then the entire Milky Way was still on the line.
She reached Sally’s quarters.
The doors opened for Lara automatically. She walked in to the sound of somebody porting in just behind her. It was her chief engineer, F’Stal. Half human, half hagra, she was a hell of a physical specimen and an even better engineer. She carried several Hendari cases with her.
She got a hard look in her eyes. “Is this really gonna work, Admiral? I always get the feeling whenever we try to use the Hendari crystals that we are like kids trying on their parents’ clothes. These weren’t made for us. Do we really have the right to use them?”
“This has nothing to do with whether we have the right to use them. We have the chance to use them. And we will take it.”
The chief shrugged. She knew when to speak her mind and when to follow.
She placed the cases down on the bed, and Forest paused.
… Was this the right thing to do? It had become clear, just as the chief had said, that the Coalition were like children playing with adults’ toys. They couldn’t begin to understand what the Hendari crystals were. But maybe nobody did. They were a point of mystery around which civilizations gathered. A promise those seeking more power couldn’t ignore.
Lara knew one thing. Unlike the other civilizations seeking these crystals, she didn’t want them for their own sake. To her, they had a purpose. To buy the Coalition just one last chance.
She would do anything to ensure that. She’d been doing it her entire career. She wouldn’t stop yet.