Their excommunication happened overnight. They could never go home again. And Chatto didn't feel like smiling anymore. The consequences of their actions slowly dawned on her as she tossed and turned in her bunk late at night.
Chatto had been brought up to believe in the infallibility of the Peacekeeper state. They were honourable and skillfull and brought order to chaos and fought the good fight, but her illusions were shattered the moment Fgorek slit Arden's throat. And she could still hardly believe it happened. She chose to believe that Arden died in the line of duty. Maybe she would've been better off had she made the first move, but she didn't. Nor should she have.. She couldn't even say she'd given her life. No, her life was taken, just as it had been given to her in the first place.
She punched the steel door of her locker. Her shift was over. For efficiency, she should be sleeping right now (according to the duty roster), but she got tired of writhing underneath her cold bed sheets. She started doing push ups by the floor of her bunk and punched dents into the door of her locker. The pain kept her fresh.
What was she still fighting for? To shoot things? She thought it'd be fun, she thought she could play the tomboy, but this was war. And she was used to war. She was trained for war. Born for it.
In that and in all things she showed her duty. But this was not her war. She did not sign up for this. Did she? Maybe Jeska had been right all along.
She loved the action, she loved the challenge, she loved life, but even if they managed to somehow miraculously emerge victorious out of this situation and in one piece, what then? The people that were once her home now called her a traitor, a villain, and she dreaded to imagine what her friends thought of her.
In her nightly toils she remembered her parting words to Ssezzin three solar days before. She'd lost count of how many days had passed since she had seen Greshyn. They no longer guarded her flanks. She fixed her gaze on the door suddenly when footfalls passed. She caught her fear in shame. Her sweat grew cold as the space the ship traversed through. She could sense its motion and feel its soothing hum, but all else was mere unsettling, a hush of death.
One. Two. Three. She dropped to the floor to push the ship away from her. Again. Four. Five Six.
The Huntress had felt natural, a Peacekeeper craft, but the controls of Janissary were different and unique, its cold steel penetrated the night in stealth. Its interior walls were as blue as the blood of a Pilot and as hollow as factory pipes, her place was on the bridge and she cared for little else. Well, maybe the mess hall could be fun, but she preferred to control her chaos. She preferred to be at the helm, even if the ship flinched at her touch.
She'd make the Janissary fall in love with her before the end. Especially since it could be her final pleasure. She'd learned, nay trained, to make the most of what little she had. If this were to be her final stand she wasn't going to go down without a fight.
Organa didn't like Peacekeepers, she realized, and couldn't help but laugh at her own folly. She'd spent the last twenty cycles of her life among them and only now did she realize what a mess she's made of things.
She guarded the weapon in engineering like her own newborn child. She wouldn't let anyone else near it or even touch it. She'd marked her territory and encrypted all command points so that no-one else could access it but her.
Miklo was distressed the moment he heard this news. He couldn't have her break down and keep the weapon to herself when they needed it most. He marched down to engineering with a security force which he told to keep ready around the corner while he spoke with her.
He needed to know whether he could still trust her.
"I should never have designed this thing," she told him. "I curse the day I dreamt it up and wish I could just pick it up and throw it on to the ground and destroy it. But of course, it's far too intricate for that to happen. Curse my intellect. So many have already died for this thing. Maybe it is cursed. Maybe this is a doomed ship..."
"I didn't take you for a superstitious woman," Miklo noted and this brought a smile to her lips.
"You're right. I'm not. But there's one thing that I know for certain."
He could tell her hands were shaking.
"The dead dwell here. And nothing but death can come of it."
"War is death," Miklo said. "Without this ship billions will die anyway. The Nebari assault is upon us and the Hynerians will be annihilated unless we harness this superior weapon."
"To save them."
"But why? Why do you care about Hynerians?"
"I am in command of this vessel," Miklo told her. "When I order you to activate this weapon you will comply. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I understand how Peacekeepers operate," she said.
He ordered her to share her password with the chief engineer and himself so that in the event of her death the weapon would not be lost to them and she agreed.
Three solar days under extreme conditions had taken its toll on the crew. They were impatient and disgruntled, but the elite men and women of the Janissarybore it gracefully under pressure. The decision to head into Hynerian space had been made in the heat of action and Miklo had thrust them into battle without their consent.
But Scorpius had prepared them for this moment since the day he handpicked them from each and every one of his facilities. Pilots, engineers, techs, medics, soldiers, they would all do their duties to the best of their abilities. They valued their oaths more than their own lives and would do whatever it took to keep this ship in one piece.
Commander Stroe Daentz was their spokesman and Braca's new first officer. A solid man of good health and physique, blonde and boastful, he looked taller, younger and superior to Miklo in every way. Then Stroe proceeded to boast of his special relationship with Scorpius and how much he took pride in having been Scorpius's protégé and to have served under him for the past three cycles before he died. Miklo already started missing Arden.
Suddenly the captain's chair didn't feel comfortable anymore. The burden of command, the responsibility of the mission, left him feeling sick and nervous. He had sacrificed everything to continue Scorpius's legacy. Daentz had taken mighty good care of this ship and now he would have to trash it.
The sudden appearance of a Nebari scout ship proved to be an excellent opportunity to do so. Miklo was in a destructive sort of mood today.
"Officer Chatto, reporting for duty, sir."
Upon entering the command deck she found her mark and cleared her throat.
"Olphin, welcome back. Take the helm. Things are about to get interesting."
He felt rattles in his stomach when their target drew closer into weapon's range.
When she had been summoned to her mother's personal quarters she took it upon herself to endure it a little while longer. Greshyn told herself it wouldn't be long now before they would finally leave this wretched place behind and leave Nebari space. She'd grown an unexpected disliking to these people.
Let the universe sort itself out, she thought, and one day she would wake up and the war would be over. However, the moment when she saw Captain Keedo had returned to the station she knew something was wrong. His cumbersome physique towered over her as he guided her towards his master (and the Vice-Chancellor held a tight grip on his leash). Strangely, he seemed pleased with himself. Greshyn didn't dare to ask about Felko. She kept expecting to see her standing somewhere at attention and awaiting orders just like she would in a microt.
And so she waited. And waited.
When her mother started to serve drinks she knew she was in trouble. She figured one of those pristine china cups to be poisoned, but her mother never offered her any.
"I speak to you now not as your Vice-Chancellor," Mele-on began. "but as your mother."
It was over. This was her death sentence. Keedo had come to swing the blade.
"I regret to be the one to give you this bad news and I'm so sorry for your loss."
She was right. Someone had died. Her first instinct was to turn to Keedo and again he smiled at her through sharpened yellow teeth. He was a monster.
"Your friends, Officers Chatto and Felko have betrayed me. Have betrayed us. And they will pay the price."
Greshyn looked up at her mother and worked out her plan. She was testing her loyalty. But she would expect her to ask about their fates.
"Will you kill them?" Greshyn asked and she folded her arms around her back. Without realizing it she bowed her head.
"I already have."
Her heart interrupted her breath.
"Officer Felko is dead and her body will receive no military honours or celebrated burial. Her ashes will be discarded into space as mere waste. That is the only fate that traitors deserve."
"I am not a traitor," Greshyn stated to the air.
"They were your friends!"
"My duty transcends material bonds," Greshyn worded carefully, quoting it from their ancient training materials, as if reading it from the book in her mind she had been forced to memorize from a young age. That and how to dismantle a gun blindfolded in half a microt.
"We fought together. We bled together."
"You conspired together."
"No, I did not! I did not know of their plans."
"If you really are my mother then I ask you to believe me. I did not betray the Peacekeepers. I know nothing of what they did."
"If you were anyone else I would've had you investigated and court-martialed. The concept of irreversible contamination can still be resurrected."
"If this is all a lie..."
Greshyn was shaking. Captain Keedo moved closer. It was him, wasn't it? He killed her.
Her mother always remained a perfect calm. Her viciousness came with such ease. It was second nature to her.
"Do you have *any* idea how much I have sacrificed for you? How much I have suffered? I could have been Chancellor. I gave up everything so you could have a life and career. And what is my thanks? What do I receive in return?"
"I'm sorry, mother."
"Let no-one say that I am not merciful," Mele-on finished. "For there is something you can do to repay your debts, to serve your purpose and to fix what they have destroyed. They threaten everything I've spent cycles to build. The fate of the Peacekeepers hangs in the balance. We need the Nebari and so we cannot lose them."
"What would you ask of me?"
"To please Chancellor Kadek," her mother concluded. "Whichever way you can."
Fate conspired against her. Of course she had to go back to Nebari Prime. What else did she have left?
The bearded Admiral grinned when the doctor resealed his eyepatch and re-attached it firmly to his flesh. Fgorek had emptied the infirmary per the Admiral's request but there had been no objection. No-one wanted to see the pestering wound on the inside of Admiral Modiran's skull.
Once he had finished Modiran patted the doctor on the back, before clinging to his shoulder in order to shift his weight firmly upon the wooden leg.
"I've lived a life full of adversities," Modiran told Fgorek. "And men like him have been there to pick me up every step of the way. I wouldn't be here without him. Come doctor! Why don't you have a drink with us?"
The doctor seemed to grow pale at the thought of spending time with these gentlemen. He had business to attend to.
"I'm on duty," he said.
"You're still young!" Modiran objected. "Besides, no-one will mind when you have an Admiral's permission. And it is an Admiral that is requesting it of you."
Young? Yes. A fool? No.
Norram too had lived a life filled with violence. Every passing day he'd seen its result on his operating table and even though he liked his reputation as that of a miracle worker, he had to admit he had not saved everyone.
Norram looked to his Commandant to gauge the atmosphere, but Fgorek seemed distracted of late. The traitor's escape had set his teeth on edge. He'd returned to the station without his quarry and he was looking for someone to take out his anger on. The four bodies in his morgue were a testament to this fact.
"Grab a chair, doctor," Modiran said as he guided them both out the door. "Those bodies in your morgue can wait. They won't run. We have much to discuss."
A turn round a crooked corridor lead into a moody mess emptied the bar with their presence. No-one dared to speak up. When Fgorek wanted to get a drink they quickly moved out of his way.
The admiral was in a good mood for a change (he could be vicious when he wanted to be), so the doctor took his chances and settled his chair in between his superior commanders. When he finally did catch Fgorek's eyes it was like he'd read the reports all over again.
"Yes..." Admiral Modiran said. "There'll be more bodies in your morgue before this war is over, I can guarantee you that. Have you taken a look out there yet? It's a massacre. It won't be long before fugitives try to cross our borders and that's where we have to take a stand. Peacekeeperdom has no place for Hynerian immigrants. They wanted to cut off ties with us? Well, they got what they wanted. No traitor will change that."
The unclear liquid sloshed in the glass when he slid it aside. It left a watery round mark on the black woodgrain of the table.
Commandant Raydon Fgorek had returned to the station with the blood of his former lover still sprayed in drops across his uniform. The body was moved in silence to the morgue while the Commandant took out his anger on his underlings and the bottles of Raslak in the bar. He drank alone in his quarters, leaving the men and women under his command to keep an eye on the activity beyond the border.
That is, until an Admiral in an eyepatch barged on to the command deck with his personal guards. He took great pleasure in scaring the lower ranks and could laugh loudly.
"Admiral..." Fgorek hissed through closed teeth. He wanted him to get to the point already. Modiran started to lean into the centre of the table and whisper.
"I am on official business. Grayza business," he added. Fgorek took a deep breath. The very name set him on edge. "I've ordered a doubling of patrols along the border territories. We should expect them to come under attack almost immediately."
"Don't you think that is a bit premature?" Norram asked. He corrected himself, hoping he wasn't speaking out of line. "Sir?"
"We shouldn't trust those Nebari to know the difference between friend and foe. They'll infect anyone they can get their hands on."
Fgorek was getting impatient. Modiran took pleasure in torturing his friends.
"I know what's on your mind, Commandant," he said to him. "Miklo Braca. That might be a name you recognise. He's officially an outlaw. Excommunicated. But there's more. Peacekeeper High Command has ordered a Retrieval Squad to be sent into Hynerian space to take him out and retrieve his stolen vessel."
"Who commands this mission?" Fgorek needed to know.
"I do," the Admiral said. He finished his drink and ordered another. It didn't look like he was going to move from his seat any time soon. Fgorek was outraged by this neglect of duty, until Modiran explained his reasoning behind this move.
"Keep in mind, that if against all odds this one ship manages to defeat the Nebari, they'll no longer be a threat! And if he loses, they'll destroy him! Either way, we win. So I'm in no hurry to find him. Let him have his blaze of glory. Every Peacekeeper deserves one."
"What is a Peacekeeper without war? It's like a doctor without death! He'd be out of a job!"
The doctor almost spilled his drink as the Admiral patted him on the back again and he smiled blankly. He didn't think to correct him. It wasn't the dead that troubled him. It was the living.
He put the glass to his lips without ever saying a word.
Their stern commander rose from his seat as off the forward bow three Hynerian vessels approached. He ordered the Janissary bank towards a position so that their new guests could dock. The centre vessel gladly accepted their invitation.
Upon finding the Hynerian fleet the Janissary had made a formal request to join the Royal Hynerian Armada and Rygel had gone over to the Imperial Flagship to explain their strategy. It wasn't long before an official investigation was ordered and Rygel stood face to face with his Hynerian nemesis in politics. Senator Hegomy had been put in charge of assessing the Janissary and its crew.
Rygel did not enjoy this, playing host to his mortal enemy, however it pleased him to shed light on the senator's failures.
"Come and reap what you have sowed," Rygel said as he introduced senator Hegomy to the Janissary. "This is what the Peacekeeper have been building right under our very noses. This is what they have been testing on our citizens! A weapon of unimaginable power...!"
"Enough!" Hegomy spoke. "I will be the judge of this weapon of yours."
Wormholes. He scoffed at the notion. There were still many races that didn't believe they existed and refused to believe the Scarran and Peacekeeper intelligence reports of the Battle of Qujaga that ended their short war.
Hegomy didn't even pay the proper respects to Command Miklo as he inspected this craft. He demanded access to all mayor systems and areas but was promptly denied.
"Peacekeepers..." Hegomy said. "We should never have trusted you."
Rygel scoffed, he'd been telling them not to trust them from the beginning!
Hegomy looked down upon the senior staff that had assembled at the docking hatch to welcome him.
"The Empire is attacked on all fronts and faces its most toughest challenge for survival in centuries," he told Rygel. "And you bring a single ship. Your mercenaries are unimpressive."
"We carry a weapon that will change the tide of this war," Miklo said and Hegomy's eyes sharpened.
"The Peacekeepers abandon us in our moment of need while our enemies land on our doorstep, thousands are dying in suicide assaults while the frontlines are receding all the way to Hyneria itself... Defenses practically non-existent against the might of the Nebari Emissaries. It takes a hundred of our ships to take on just one of theirs! And we lack the numbers. We lack the technology. And now you show up with a single ship and you think you can drive them back? You promise us a superweapon! But you're the one that destroyed Dorak Dom to begin with! Why should we trust a traitor?"
Chatto smiled. "Because you need us."
Hegomy's lip curled into a snarl. The ugly truth reared its head. They were desperate.
"Let us try," Miklo told him. "What have you got to lose?"
Hegomy didn't believe them. The proper codes were ultimately provided for their ship, plus Hynerian escort, but it seemed clear to them that the senator would prefer it if their ship were the first to fall in the coming Nebari onslaught.
Hynerian Intelligence reported the movements of a Nebari fleet not too far from their position. It was heading straight for the second Capital. The Royal Hynerian Armada moved to intercept.
"This is it," Miklo told those under his command as he settled back into command. "Stations everyone. Secure the weapon. Prepare secondary power source."
One by one each station reported their readiness. Chatto strapped herself into her chair. Her hands were sweating.
"Navigation, standing by," she reported.
Only one station had still failed to report in.
"Engineering?" Miklo called, but still no answer. "Dr Organa, this is not the time to start this again. I need your support. Can I count on you?"
Dr Organa's hand hovered over the console. Her password had entrenched itself firmly into her mind. The giant machines all around her were booming. One turn of the key and this entire place would be flooded with radiation.
Organa entered the code and turned the key. The lads of engineering swiftly escorted her out of the room as the blast doors shut. She closed her eyes dreading what she would find upon opening them. The weapon was primed and ready. A button on Miklo's command chair started glowing red in response. And another at Chatto's console.
Out the viewscreen space was dark and daunting. Soon it would be filled with the sight of starbound ships exploding. Fighter against fighter. Civilians were already reported to be evacuating the planets the Nebari attacked. They passed many a freighter and transport on their way to the frontline in the wake of the royal fleet.
Chatto thought her Commandant was coping well under the circumstances. For a while she suspected him of having no emotions, but she found she was wrong. He was sensitive and honourable. And he had the sweetest mole in the hollow of his back. When she looked back at him he had only eyes for the viewscreen. For the mission. Just as it should be.
He hadn't let them down yet. Since he had got them this far, she thought it only poignant to stay with him all the way. She would follow him anywhere.
The Nebari fleet entered their sensor range.
"Orders, Commandant?" she asked.
He pondered for a moment in silence as he stared out into the dark. The two fleets bore down on each other in silence, one bigger than the other. The Hynerian fleet was the only thing standing in the way of the Nebari reaching the helpless planet below.
"Put us inbetween both fleets," Miklo said, knowing he would receive the scorn of the Hynerian admirals by breaking rank.
Chatto engaged engines in a short burst and slowly the Janissary drifted to the centre of the battlefield. They finally stood face to face with the Nebari Emissaries in the distance. They counted seventeen battle ships accompanied by more than a hundred fighters. The white metal hides of these one-eyed monstrocities were easily spotted in the black void of space, shining in the light of the nearest star.
"Let them scan us," Miklo said.
Rygel hovered closer to the viewscreen to see better. He took a deep breath knowing it could be his last. The red button on Miklo's chair started blinking.
Organa had rushed to the command deck, her hair as red as fire, and she too started staring out the forward portal. Death was impending.
"Tell the Hynerian fleet to stand back," Miklo said. Organa closed her eyes. She never felt more alone in her life.
The Nebari Emissary directly in front of them fired a warning shot across their bow. The missile exploded not too far away. They shortly felt the shockwave shake the ship. Then silence.
"Do we know what will happen when we activate the weapon?" Chatto asked.
It was Miklo's time to draw breath. It surprised him that his answer did not scare him whatsoever. He smiled in the face of doom even though it terrified him to the bone.
"No," he said. "But let's find out."
He removed the glass encasing with his key until the red button was bare beneath his hand. He could feel the red light pulsing in his palm. Chatto did the same.
"On my mark," Miklo told her and she nodded. The Emissary approached.
The button cut into their skins. An alarm resounded across the ship. White mist poured from their engines. Suddenly the ship was shot forward and Chatto had to bank the ship as to not crash into the Nebari fleet. Their sudden advance was perceived as an imminent threat and the Nebari did not hesitate to fire when the Janissary shot across their sensors, cutting open the universe with every length, like scissors cutting paper. It would leave a permanent scar.
The mist spread until it dulled their sensors. The Nebari fleet put on the brakes to stay clear of this strange phenomenon that seemed to spread like an infection or a spider's web in which their fighters got caught. They slowly faded out of being as the mist hardened around them like honey. It grew brighter than the brightest star blinding the universe.
The Janissary cut through the Nebari fleet and Chatto spun around them as fighters were in pursuit. Emissaries five times its size aimed their turrets at them as they sped by and the Janissary's soldiers did the same.
"Engines are overheating!" Chatto shouted. She could barely control it anymore. The thrust had her almost spin out of control and get lost in their own trail of destruction. She knew she had to stay clear of it. Her exploits had left a permanent scar in the world, one which history would always remember.
The heat in the engine room grew to critical levels. Engineers started to pass out and succumbed to the effects of the radiation that slipped through the cracks in the wall. The prototype worked but not for long, except it didn't have to. The mist started spreading and spreading with no end in sight and no amount of backpeddling could save the Nebari Emissaries. The Hynerian fleet barely escaped intact. They were lucky to have been further away from the event as it happened.
The Janissary had to get away from the mist at all costs, except for the fact that they were the cause of it. The mist was hot on their trail.
"Turn it off! Disengage the weapon!" Miklo barked as the walls of the Janissary started to heat up.
The last burst of it fled their warped exhausts as their escape velocity reached zero. With all power gone they slowly drifted out of range while the mist spread and hardened, until it started engulfing the nearest planet. The Second Capital was gone, lost in the mists of time, along with the entire Nebari fleet.
Miklo gasped for breath. This was nothing like Crichton's wormhole weapon.
They had torn a hole in the skin of the universe and the fog had frozen everything in place. Time itself stopped and an entire fleet was defeated with a whimper. Organa proceeded to tell them them what would happen to their atoms once the effects of the center halo would take hold. Everything would desintegrate. Doom in complete silence, while the white fog filled the universe. It just wouldn't stop. Even when Organa said the fog would eventually dissipate, he still didn't believe her.
What had they done? The temporal infection covered an entire planet. How many were still there when the attack happened?
Miklo could no longer bear his responsibility with dignity. This was worse than death, because at least death provides an ending, closure, an end to all suffering. But there is no death inside the center halo. They will suffer forever.
It was a poor consolation to know that the war could be won, but at what cost? Scorpius had been right to destroy every copy of this ship's schematics.
Miklo started laughing again at the cosmic irony of things. John Crichton had been right all along.
They took away her shoelaces. The bastards. Now she got boots without laces. What the frell is she going to do with that? It's not like she could tie them, with her hands chained to the wall (although the lock was easily picked).
Chiana had heard of this place all her life but had never actually been inside. The Mental Corrections Department. This is where the resurrections took place. Zombification. This is where the people entered wearing white and left dressed in black. And they were always smiling.
Frell this. She was going to break out. Somehow. She was never going to let them turn her into one of those things, those mindless freaks without feeling, without anger, without sex...
But her padded cell seemed to like it when she kicked it and the door was made of reinforced steel. She was never getting out of here. There was only one way out.
An explosion shook the compound. Chiana wondered who it had been. This death only made it official. There was no hope for escape. This was it. A future of mental cleansing. She remembered the smiles on her parents' faces. She didn't want to turn into that. Into them.
Over time her entire personality would be wiped clean until all that would be left is the empty receptacle waiting to be filled with whatever they wanted her to be. Their perfect citizen.
Frell all that, she said again. She wasn't going to let that happen. Another explosion in the compound somewhere. Another friend that died.
Chiana dug underneath her skin for the secret pouch that had been implanted there. A tiny flap which held the tiniest but deadliest explosive device.
"We're not terrorists," she remembered saying to Gamma as she prepared to take her own life.
Orderlies were already rushing in when they figured out what was going on. They fought and restrained her to keep her from activating it, but there was no need. She'd already let it slip through her fingers.
The explosions burned holes into the facility, the fire consumed from the inside. Through the sedation she could sense the destruction, as she was strapped to a gurney and wheeled into a secure part of building. She could smell the ashes of her friends, dying.
The lights in the ceiling hurt her eyes, so she looked away. Moths to a flame, they all died one by one, but the fire was never a part of her. She feared the flames.
"Sleep, child..." the surgeon told her as they pressed the needle into her flawless skin.
"No, I don't want to sleep. I don't want to sleep! Get away!"
She didn't want to think of the unspeakable things they could do to her before she would wake.
"Sleep and you will dream."
The face with the surgical mask loomed over her until her eyesight blurred. When blindness set in she did dream.
She laughed, because she was a coward. She cried, because she was a coward. Afraid of death. The most common thing in the universe.
Just before her lights went out she turned her neck and saw an eye staring back at her. She recognised it instantly. Gamma tried to shush her and keep her quiet, but she couldn't even feel her lips anymore to form coherent sentences.
"You betrayed us...you sold us out..."
Then he was gone.
TO BE CONTINUED