Admiral Lara Forest
She strode out of the cave system and onto the planet. Instantly, a cold, icy wind grabbed her hair and whipped what strands weren’t clasped in her bun over her face. Tilting her determined, steely stare upward, her gaze pierced through the clouds. She could see the dim outline of the Mercury above. It was alone – for now. The war would come. At any moment the imperial fleet could blink into view, like explosions rupturing through the very fabric of space.
Sweat still slicked her spine, collecting between her shoulder blades, feeling like somebody had crumbled up fine fragments of glass and smeared them all over her until every single movement could cut her to the bone.
That was unlikely to occur. The future, however, would be far more dangerous.
Knowing she had precious seconds to react, she crammed her hand over her wrist device, her fingers sliding over the smooth screen. This wasn’t the first time she’d attempted to contact her team, nor would it be the last. If this planet really would be the final location of the battle for the Milky Way, she wanted absolutely everybody she had to be fighting beside her.
It took a while, then there was a dull crackle. “Admiral?” her XO asked breathlessly.
“How’s the team?”
“Every time we think we’ve overcome those psychic sprites, more attack. We have no idea where those piles are coming from. They seem to appear whenever we turn our backs. And the sprites are relentless,” he said, pain gripping his every word, making it sound as if somebody had carved it right into his throat.
There was a long pause. “For what?”
“The war is coming here, and coming soon, Mohammed.”
There was an even longer pause. “We are not prepared,” he admitted through a throaty rasp. He was a good soldier – one of her best. He knew how to fight, even when the odds were against him. She’d never once heard him say something like this, which only served to underline how compromised her team currently was.
“I’m coming.” With that, she ticked her head down, wrenching her stare off the clouds, and ran forward, rocks scrambling out from under her frenetic footfall.
The whole while, she thought of her team, of Sally, of Joseph. Of every single asset she had.
Cramming a hand on her wrist device again, she made a quick call to central command. As predicted, they already knew the imperial fleet had arrived. Apparently their long-range scanning assets in the Pentiee Sector had already picked up the incoming fleet. A strange place for it to arrive. Yes, ostensibly it was in the heart of the Milky Way. But there were no key assets around – no infrastructure worth destroying in a sudden attack. There was nothing but a few dead, barren worlds and some even more barren asteroid fields.
It still piqued her interest.
She discussed the situation with central command. There was little to speak of. They had known – each and every single one of them – that this day would come. It had simply arrived. No more planning, no more scrounging in the dirt for lost scraps of abandoned hope.
They had what they had – every resource at their fingertips and every hope in their already embattled hearts. It would have to be enough, or….
Lara had been in enough wars to know that no matter how tempting it was to fill in an equation like that, you never did. Because you didn’t fill it in with plans or words or facts. You filled it in with your hope and practically had to wrench it out of your heart to do so. From now on in this escalating, unknown situation, with its every impending twist and turn, she had to hold on to her faith, no matter who or what tried to yank it from her bloodless grip.
Without faith, you couldn’t win a war – you couldn’t even pick up your gun to fight the first battle.
She coordinated with her other assets throughout the Coalition, with every piece she’d been preparing over the past two years, ensuring all of them traveled to where she needed them.
Then she finally reached the settlement. It was to the sight of her team, all down on their knees, some of them clutching their brows, some of them sporting injuries that looked as if they’d been self-inflicted. Mohammed at least was on his feet. He swayed badly, blood oozing out from the deep gash in his brow as he propped his strong shoulders against the mud-splattered wall of a blue demountable.
“Admiral, it’s not a good idea to come here. The psychic sprites are still everywhere—”
Lara saw her first psychic sprite. It was a pile of what looked like innocuous metal shavings to her left, half-hidden by a churned up patch of grass and dirt. It shifted, and something rose out of it – this ghostly apparition that seemed to have all of the frightful qualities of fog lifting off a freshly dug grave.
Lara had seen frightening before. She’d seen and fought off the Force. She’d encountered creatures with no hope, no love, no emotions there to stop them from killing indiscriminately. Whatever arose before her now with all of the effortless quality of steam from a broken pipe wouldn’t be able to come close to the real horror she’d faced.
The sprite shivered up in front of her, its glimmering form momentarily catching the patchy sunlight from above, making the fact it was unreal all the more obvious. It started to take on the form of different regrets from her checkered past. First there were cadets who’d died under Lara’s command. Then, once or twice, they took on the shape of actual planets – worlds that’d been lost, no matter how hard she’d tried to save them.
Mohammed and the rest of the officers became deadly quiet and still. Maybe they thought Lara would be pulled down as easily as a rotten beam under a lightning strike. Were these her regrets? Absolutely. Did she let them stop her? No. Which is why, letting her arms draw slack and realizing there was no point in lifting her gun against her own past, she took a determined step forward. Her polished regulation boots crushed the dirt beneath her feet as she tilted her head all the way up. She faced the apparition just as it changed shape again. And who did it change in to? Joseph Lance.
He looked like the last time she’d seen him – when he’d been infected by the Regent during that phase memory still locked in the cavern.
Her heart kicked, a slightly cold sensation traveling into her stomach then spreading around her back. She let it happen, didn’t get in its way, just let it do what it had to. She knew the first lesson of emotional control was to never actually try to control your emotions. Let them rage like a river, but do not follow it down to the sea.
She still tilted her head up, and she defiantly stared at the sprite with sharp, bright eyes designed to part back any darkness, no matter how thick. “I don’t know where you come from and what you ultimately want, but you will get out of my team’s way. You have played with their minds enough.” Every word was a forceful order, yet she didn’t scream them. When you knew how to give orders, you didn’t have to shout. If nobody fruitlessly competed with the volume of your voice, all you had to do was show them you meant business. You did that by never flinching. Sure enough her head was still angled up high, her chin jutting out, and her gaze just as level as a line through linear space.
The psychic sprite hissed, Joseph’s lips pulling hard over his teeth. Then it wobbled again, quickly changing shape, forming yet another one of the regrets from Lara’s long past. She stared on, never flinching, never moving back. Did she reach for her gun? No. Did she try to harm herself – did her fingers sink into her skull and attempt to remove these painful memories like a gardener digging up weeds? Absolutely not. She let them flow like that aforementioned water down that raging river.
The psychic sprite kept on going, almost as if it was sorting through Lara’s past in a desperate attempt to find something – just one thing that would undermine her. It could find nothing.
Did Lara care that her XO and other important members of her crew were seeing this? No. The public revelation of her regrets didn’t matter. Everybody had them. It was a natural part of life. You hadn’t really started living until they piled upon your shoulders, until they rose at night occasionally to remind you your existence was not and never would be perfect. But you had to tether them to your future and remind yourself they were lessons learned, broken paths that had taught you how to walk better next time.
The psychic sprite finally gave up. And just as it did, there was this strange moment of weakness. It wobbled. Lara wanted to say she’d never seen anything like it, but that wasn’t true. Some of the energy which had picked up around Sally’s six-year-old form looked similar.
“What is that?” she hissed quickly. She yanked up her wrist device, using its sophisticated scanners to assist her in discovering what was happening.
Mohammed locked a hand on his brow, trying uselessly to seal his deep wound. “It seems to be some kind of… phase space,” he said, his voice dropping with a note of crippling confusion.
It was one that spread over the faces of every other crewmember.
Was this what Alice had talked about?
That other realm?
She took another step forward, but the psychic sprite morphed into another one of her regrets again. She knew that unless she found a way to protect her team from the sprites, they would lose before the war began. Removing the sprites might be the more sensible option, but at the same time, if they were uncontrolled and simply reacted to anyone’s regrets, they could be a great buffer between her team and the oncoming Scarax forces.
She stood her ground, not moving back, even as the psychic sprite rocketed toward her. She got the impression it could interact with matter, but you got to dictate whether that would occur. Let your regrets take you over, and the psychic sprite would use that as a way to directly harm your body. But if you kept them all at arm’s length, ensuring every single painful moment in your life was always within perspective, you could shield yourself against their greatest power.
Her fingers quickly manipulated the controls of her wrist device once more, producing a hologram that sat above it, a source of bright, concentrated color in this otherwise dull settlement.
She worked methodically and quickly, utilizing some of the knowledge Alice had given her.
“What are you doing, Admiral?” Mohammed asked, a bead of blood sliding down his brow and splashing onto his torn collar from his still gaping wound.
Lara concentrated until finally she had her answer. “I think there might be a way to use this to our advantage.”
“Use them?” Mohammed asked, practically every other officer behind him suddenly becoming so pale, they could’ve all dropped dead.
“Yes,” she muttered. She tilted her head up. She swore she felt it a second before it happened.
Maybe it was the crystals back in the mountain calling to her. Maybe it was just her intuition. Or maybe it was nothing more than glorified luck. But as Lara Forest tilted her head up, her neck muscles pushing hard against her tight collar until the fabric sounded like cracking leaves, she saw the first flash, then the next.
She got a quick neural comms from the Mercury.
She didn’t need it. And neither did the rest of her team.
In horror, as one, they all stared at the imperial fleet as it flashed into existence around the planet. It was here.
The battle for Faxon A and the Milky Way was about to begin.