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Roberts Space Industries

Serialized Fiction

Short Stories

ID:

17440

Comments:

35

Date:

January 29th 2020

Instrument of Surrender (Part One)
By: Adam Wieser
Writer’s Note: Instrument of Surrender (Part One) was published originally in Jump Point 4.5.

[June 24, 2610 — Elysium System]

At the end of the jump tunnel, space shimmered, rippled, then revealed the Kaleeth’ala System. Corath’Thal stared into the dark void from the bridge of his ship. His view of the expanse that lay before his fleet danced slightly as the shield that enrobed the full length of the massive craft readjusted and settled into place almost with a life of its own.

From the edge of his vision he could sense the shieldmaster making her practiced adjustments, but he could also tell that under her calm exterior, she thrummed with excitement. This was more than the rush that always followed a battle. This was something new. Something that none of them had dared allow themselves to feel before now.

Even though the distant drift spread before him looked similar to other systems, he knew it was so much more. After everything they had been through over the past seven years, he had finally brought his people home.

The remnants of Corath’Thal’s main fleet poured from the Centauri-Elysium jump point. He didn’t have much time to lead the survivors to their homeworld of Kaleeth. The UEE forces that ambushed them on the Centauri side of the jump would not be far behind, and Corath’Thal had made up his mind. This war would end on his terms, whether in victory or defeat.

Corath’Thal signaled Rados to carry his voice to his depleted fleet.

“When we started down this path, we had no home. Only a world once ours that was ripped away. I vowed that if you fought with me, I would bring you home. That the Rijora would provide us a path to victory . . .”

Corath’Thal paused while the words in his throat quivered.

“After the events of today, I know that either the Rijora has failed us, or we have failed the Rijora. I’m not sure if there’s a difference anymore. But what I am sure of is that I will fulfill the first promise I made myself and all of you. I am going home.”

Before he could continue, the clear resonance of the warning chime vibrated through the hull and echoed through the halls of the capital ship. Corath’Thal checked the scans. Human ships burned to their position en masse.

“Those who wish to commit themselves to the lands of our ancestors, follow me. Those who don’t, use my advance as your chance to escape. May you live to fight another day. Goth’raj doah!”

Corath’Thal scanned the faces of those who served on the bridge; none meet his gaze but instead stared towards where their home lay ahead in the far distance. Each accepted their fate in their own way. Sensors screamed as the ship’s shield absorbed the first wave of attacks from the approaching UEE forces.

“Goth’raj doah!” Rados bellowed, barely able to keep emotion from overwhelming his voice.

In unison, the crew responded, “Goth’raj doah!”

As the Tevarin fleet blazed across Elysium towards their homeworld of Kaleeth, UEE soldiers raced to battle stations in anticipation of an all-out assault on the world they had renamed Jalan. In the sky above, UEE Navy ships scrambled to form a semblance of a blockade.

But the Tevarin fleet did not fall into their traditional phalanx formation. They did not even return fire when attacked. They either fell to the barrage of shots that perforated their hulls or shrugged them off and went faster. As the Tevarin ships approached Kaleeth’s atmosphere, they lowered their powerful shields.

Corath’Thal watched the Tevarin ships before him pierce the atmosphere, then rip apart. Sadness swelled as he grasped the terrible fate that awaited his people. Would he be one of the last Tevarin to see their homeworld?

The ship shook violently as it pushed into the upper atmosphere. On the horizon he noticed something breaking through the bed of clouds. Could it be the peak of Mount Supteek? Corath’Thal staggered to the front of the bridge and laid his hand on the glass.

He last saw Mount Supteek as a child fleeing Kaleeth with his parents. Its peak was one of the only memories he still had of his home.

The glass grew hot, but Corath’Thal kept his hand in place. The beauty of Kaleeth, even from above, overwhelmed every ounce of his being. The clouds parted; now he could see the cities the Human invaders had built around their temples of old. It sickened him. He was suddenly consumed with regret for not killing them all as the ship disintegrated around him.

The Second Tevarin War was finally over.

[June 25, 2610 — Caliban System]

Clarice seemed angrier than usual today. She sometimes got that way after cannibalizing smaller storms. Hickory adjusted course to give her a wider berth. Hickory named the massive storm that lived in Caliban IV’s upper atmosphere Clarice after his mother. Both were bad news for pilots who got too close, but good to Hickory, who salvaged parts and cargo from the ships the storm wrecked for resale on Crion.

Most avoided Clarice and her ship-crippling lightning strikes. Still many didn’t give her a wide enough birth. Some were too lazy to chart her precise location, while others intentionally traveled close by to hide their ship’s signature. Hickory didn’t care about their motives, only that he could salvage valuables from them to pay for his trip to the Banu Protectorate.

Suddenly Dolos’s scanners sang the sweet song of discovery. Hickory set out to see what today’s catch would be.

It was an RSI Nova, a souped-up courier ship outfitted with serious armaments. Hickory salivated. This wasn’t a civilian vessel; it was military grade and potentially filled with wartime information and supplies.

But to be fair, most civilian ships were pretty well stocked these days, too. Seven years of Tevarin hit-and-run tactics meant no Human ship was safe flying unless armed to the teeth and chock full of supplies. That wasn’t always the case. Ship weapons were once considered a luxury for the rich or dangerous. Now they were everywhere. All of this made Hickory’s job a little trickier and pay a little bit better. War always has unintended consequences, thought Hickory.

Lightning from Clarice had killed the Nova, setting it drifting slowly through space. Hickory quickly determined its speed and trajectory to calculate where it would be in a couple of hours. He flew to that point in its projected route and powered down his ship. He set an alarm to ring in two hours so he didn’t lose track of time. Then he finally exited Dolos and EVAed back towards the Nova.

As he EVAed, Hickory watched Clarice violently swirl below. Her surface seemed to bubble from the electrical activity. This one vista encapsulated Hickory’s understanding of the universe: achingly beautiful and unapologetically evil.

Hickory reached the drifting derelict and quickly cut through the hull. Inside, he found the pilot at the helm. The lightning strike that fried the Nova must have been massive. The pilot’s hands were seared to the flight stick. Hickory checked the area for personal trinkets then turned to the flight instruments.

It would be a waste of time to salvage components. Everything was charred to a crisp. So Hickory systematically checked every crevice of the craft, getting more annoyed as he went. How could there not be a single piece of cargo? The more he explored the ship the less it made sense. How had he even picked up the ship’s sig if all the components were scorched? Something around here had to be working.

Hickory’s flashlight scanned the info-terminal to find its faceplate melted. If this ship had one component with a top of the line surge suppressor, this would be it. So he pulled out his multi-tool and carefully cracked it open.

As he ogled its innards, his eyes grew wide. It was an XL-250i. This best-quality, military-grade component was in much better condition than the cockpit console. There was a chance this thing might still work. If it did, the components alone could net significant creds, plus whatever data it carried. Hickory connected his custom-made hacking tool to the power supply then steadily gave it juice.

The system sprung to life. Hickory resisted the urged to do a quick, high-level assessment of the data, and began the download. Probably better to review the information elsewhere. The sooner the system was powered down, the better. Even though its sig was small, he wasn’t the only one who scavenged Clarice for shipwrecks.

Hickory glanced at the hacking tool in his hand to see the download almost complete. That was disappointingly swift. Must not be a lot of data on here. Once the status bar hit 100%, he unplugged his hacking tool and powered down the system. Then he quickly removed the system’s most vital components. He dreamed of using them to upgrade his ship, but he really needed creds. Who knows? Maybe the data he recovered would be worth more than he expected.

Confident he’d found all the Nova had to offer, Hickory checked the time. It was a little short of the two hours he had given himself, but Dolos should be close enough. The hole he cut in the hull was above him. He took a deep breath, activated his EVA thrusters, aimed at that spot, and propelled himself into space.

He kept his trajectory straight until clear of the ship. He got lost in thought wondering what information he had pulled from the ship and what price it could fetch. Then he realized he had drifted further than expected. He accessed his ship locater when, suddenly, space behind him glowed like a furnace.

Hickory killed his suit’s thrusters, and rotated to see the scene. The Nova he had exited minutes before had now become a debris field, the flames from the explosion quickly dying in vacuum. His heart caught in his throat as he saw the Jackal move in to inspect the wreckage it had just created.

Hickory’s pulse raced. He had to get to his ship and fast. Best to be gone before the Tevarin scout ship started looking for its next target.

“Drahk . . . you shouldn’t have attacked without warning me.” The exhaustion in Tajhbind’s voice was obvious. Drahk could feel Tajhbind’s glare through his helmet.

“Deepest apologies, but my scans picked up a sentient signature exiting the craft.”

“Then why didn’t you attack that?”

It was a cutting question but one Drahk knew he wasn’t expected to answer. Drahk and Tajhbind had been copilots for most of the war. Drahk’s itchy trigger finger and other offensive deficiencies were tolerated because he was a master of the phalanx shield. Drahk’s strengths happened to complement Tajhbind’s weaknesses and vice versa, so they made a lethal duo. Drahk absorbed and deflected fire from all angles, which allowed Tajhbind to focus on fighting.

“It’s ok, but I need you in line with me. Who knows if there was anything on that ship that could —“

“What’s that?”

An unidentified ship appeared on Drahk’s radar. It was close, and its sig growing stronger by the second. Drahk knew what that meant.

“It’s a Human ship!”

The ship’s quantum drive finished spooling as Tajhbind fired from both barrels. His shots pierced the hull as the quantum drive engaged. The ship stuttered and spun in a new direction then suddenly accelerated into the dark expanse.

How had Drahk not noticed another ship hiding nearby? His failure could jeopardize Ekoraapt’s crew and mission. According to the Rijora, the only course of action was to confess immediately.

“I have failed in my duty to you, Tajhbind. My irresponsible and overeager attack kept me from properly executing my scanning duties. I pledge to the holy Rijora, Goth’raj doah, that I will do everything to right this wrong, or suffer whatever fate is deemed appropriate by —.”

“If Humans find out we’re in system, our lives, not our honor, will be on the line. We must focus on preserving the first before repairing the second.”

Tajhbind contacted Ekoraapt and explained the situation. They were ordered to return. Thanks to this disappointing encounter, battle plans had to be accelerated.

Before signing off, Tajhbind asked if there was news about Corath’Thal’s attack in Centauri. The entire crew had been on edge waiting for an update, but there was still no news. Drahk wasn’t disheartened by the lack of information. The distance between Caliban on the front meant information delay was inevitable.

Drahk remained supremely confident Corath’Thal’s plan would work. Ekoraapt’s attack on Crion would divert UEE resources to Caliban and keep reinforcements from joining the main battle. Eventually, the Rijora would guide the Tevarin to victory over the Humans, and they would reclaim Kaleeth for their own.

Hickory was lucky to be alive and knew it. That Tevarin was a hell of a shot. The rounds hit his ship just as the quantum drive engaged, changing his trajectory. Luckily, Dolos course corrected before the G-forces became fatal. Even though he survived, his head hurt like hell.

Moments later, Dolos sputtered and fell out of quantum drive. While checking the damage to his systems, he realized how far off course he was. Hickory fired the thrusters and swung back toward Crion.

Hickory had put some distance between himself and the Tevarin, but he feared not enough. Caliban IV still glowed faintly in the distance. That was only one of his problems. Not only was he out of quantum fuel, the drive was damaged. Those weren’t the worst parts though. Hickory calculated the distance to Crion, and confirmed that even with his conventional thrusters on full burn, he would run out of oxygen well before reaching anywhere with an atmosphere.

Hickory considered broadcasting a distress signal, but knew who responded to those in this part of space: people like himself, with no sympathy for anyone’s plight but their own. Plus, the signal might only attract the attention of the Tevarin he had fled. Most likely, no one would come until it was too late. That would be a best-case scenario.

Hickory stared into space. It was just his luck. The XL-250i components and whatever data was on that drive probably were more than enough to execute his plan. Now, instead of setting out for Kins, he was marooned in Caliban.

Hickory set the autopilot and climbed out of the pilot’s seat to one of the ship’s storage compartments. Inside, a threadbare flatcat stuffed animal sat atop a case of Angeli aged whiskey. Hickory delicately moved the flatcat, cracked the whiskey case and grabbed a bottle. He poured himself a healthy glass of whiskey then sat on his bunk in silent contemplation.

The whiskey burned going down, then pulsed right to his aching head. He stared at the terminal across from him. Then crossed to it and plugged in his hacking tool. What else was there to do but drink and see what information was worth all this?

It wasn’t long before Hickory’s head spun from something other than the drink. The data file contained one thing — a signed Tevarin Instrument of Surrender.

Mouth suddenly dry, Hickory downed the remaining contents of his glass. He read the message again for the millionth time. The war was over. He almost couldn’t believe it.

The Second Tevarin War was over.

Next he checked the Nova’s communications logs to see one failed transmission to the UEES Crescent. The courier ship must have had been rushing the news of the war’s end to Crescent when it got zapped. There was the chance Crescent knew none of this. That meant he was probably the first person in the whole of Caliban to know. Second if you counted the unlucky pilot.

Hickory suddenly had a thought. It was a precarious proposition considering his past, but, as far as he could see, there was no better option. If he played this right, maybe he could spin this information into leniency on his past transgressions?

Hickory grabbed the bottle and took another pull, allowing the warmth to wash over him. Then climbed into the cockpit and adjusted course once again. Moments later, he activated a distress signal.

For the first time in his life, Hickory hoped the UEE military would find him.

Commander Wallace studied the bruised and scuffed starmen before her. If their injuries were any indication, it was a fair fight.

“The mess turned into a real ruckus ’cause of these two,” said XO Coburn as he glared at the battered pair with his trademark scowl. His face, hardened and scarred from years of active duty, left no doubt that he knew only one life — the military.

The two starmen hung their heads and took in the rug laid before her desk. As far as she knew, it was the only one aboard Crescent; a bit of warmth amidst the ship’s metal.

“It appears you two need another way to keep your hands busy. XO Coburn, assign these two starmen brooms and make sure they sweep the floor before them everywhere they go.”

“With pleasure.” A mischievous smile stretched across Coburn’s face.

“For the next week, those brooms will not leave your hands unless ordered so by a superior. Understood?”

The starmen replied affirmatively, saluted, then were dismissed. Once the door closed behind them, Commander Wallace turned back to her computer to see if the simulation she was running of Crescent’s intended route past Caliban IV had finished. She wanted to ensure the ship gave its raging storm ample room.

“That Mitchell’s a real piece of work. How does a guy with known anger issues get assigned to a cruiser? He never would have made it this far if the Navy wasn’t so desperate to staff their ships.”

“The same could be said for me,” returned Commander Wallace.

The XO’s anger abated in a wave of embarrassment. Wallace didn’t know the grizzled soldier had it in him.

“Any update on that dropped transmission from earlier?”

XO Coburn visibly relaxed, thankful for the conversation returning to safer territory.

“No, sir. The signal was lost almost immediately. Since there’s been no attempted retransmission, Comms Officer Fitzpatrick believes it might have been electrical interference from the storm, but the scouts are still looking, sir.”

“That’s all for now, Coburn. You’re dismissed.”

Coburn turned to leave, then thought better of it. He doubled back to the desk, stopping just before his feet reached the rug.

“Actually, Commander, there is something I believe you should be made aware of. I don’t think these fights are going to stop. People are putting other allegiances above the one to this ship. That fight in the mess — no one was talking about it. In my experience, gossip is a good thing to hear in the halls. At least it means people are communicating. This place is quieter than a damn ghost ship.”

Commander Wallace rubbed her temple. She didn’t need Coburn’s constant updates to inform her of the crew’s discontent. She could sense it while walking the halls.

“Any recommendations on how to resolve the situation?”

Coburn hesitated for a moment, before:

“No, sir.”

“You can speak freely.”

Coburn thought for a moment, then looked her square in the eye.

“They’re fighting because they lack a leader. That’s supposed to be you.”

Silence hung in the room for a few tense moments. His communicator pinged. Coburn checked it.

“Sir, scouts patrolling Sector 4 just responded to a distress signal. They stopped the ship and are bringing its pilot in for questioning. They say there’s something odd about him.”

“Odd how . . . ?” Wallace replied, collecting herself.

The photo of a man with a gaunt face, high cheek bones and wild blue eyes appeared on a nearby wallscreen. “They ran his name. He should be dead.”

Commander Wallace entered the interrogation room and did a double take. Hickory sat across the table, but his face bore little resemblance to the picture. The high, angular cheek bones were gone. Clearly, he had facial reconstruction surgery, maybe even multiple times. There were more differences than similarities, but something in the eyes rang true. Commander Wallace averted her eyes and took a seat.

“It’s OK, Captain . . .”

“Commander Wallace.”

“Ah . . . Commander, sorry. Don’t feel bad. I’m used to the stares by now. What’s the expression, again? ‘A face made for a space helmet.’ Only took a few surgeries from a series of disreputable doctors to get it.”

An uneven smile stretched from ear to ear.

Commander Wallace remained expressionless. “What should I call you?”

“Well, for the looks you’re giving me, I’d guess you already have my name.”

“I have a name. One Andrew Lime, born 2542 on Cestulus. Died in Jata, during the commission of a crime in 2567. From the looks of you, I’d say you’re not quite dead yet, so I’m still left wondering who exactly you are.”

“Andrew Lime and I are one and the same, Commander. It’s an interesting story, but it’s not the information you need to hear right now.”

“How do you know what I need to hear?”

“Let’s say I came across some data that you would find vital to your ship and crew.”

Silence sat between them. Commander Wallace could smell whiskey on his breath. She debated ending the interview right then, but despite herself she eventually said, “Whenever you’re ready . . .”

“See it’s not that easy. Like you were kind enough to point out, I’m supposed to be dead. And, let’s just say, the UEE won’t be the only ones surprised to know I’m alive.”

“If your information is solid, I’ll put in a good word with the Advocacy. There are plenty of prisons in out-of-the-way systems where you’ll be safe.”

“That won’t work for me.”

“No syndicate has ties to every prison. The Advocacy can keep you alive if you’re honest about who’s after you.”

“It’s not the syndicate I’m concerned about . . .” Hickory’s face softened for the first time.

Commander Wallace exhaled and sat back in her chair, weary of his cryptic and evasive answers. “Well, then . . . what do you want?”

“Safe passage to the Banu Protectorate.”

Commander Wallace chuckled and rolled her eyes. She was secretly hoping he would ask for something more interesting. “So anything else besides immunity for your crimes?”

“That’s not why I need to go there.”

“No, merely a helpful byproduct.” Commander Wallace stood. A worried look washed over Hickory’s face. “No information is valuable enough to expunge a criminal record this extensive.”

“This is.”

Commander Wallace turned towards the door.

“The war’s over,” Hickory called after her. She stopped and turned back. “I recovered some kind of Instrument of Surrender from the Tevarin off a destroyed military courier ship.”

“Uh huh. And where exactly was this ship?”

“Coordinates won’t help. Some Tevarin destroyed it.”

“Tevarin? In Caliban?”

“Who do you think tagged my ship? And if there’s one Jackal out there, you can bet they’ve got friends close by.”

Commander Wallace sat back down. “So this Instrument of Surrender is where?”

“I need assurances, Commander, before handing over something like that.”

“So it’s not here.”

“It’s on my ship, which, I might add, your scouts insisted on leaving somewhere in space instead of it being brought here.”

“Landing an unauthorized ship aboard a carrier is forbidden during wartime.”

“Well, technically you’re not at war anymore.”

Commander Wallace rubbed her temples and thought things through. Finally, she stood and headed for the door. Hickory watched her leave.

“Do we have a deal?” The door clicked shut.

Drahk rushed through the halls of the ship. He expertly wove through traffic as Tajhbind tried to keep up. Orphaned on Olympus, Drahk had grown up in the husk of the destroyed UEE capital ship. He survived by hiding and hurrying through its corridors, until one day a Tevarin vendor caught him stealing from his stall. Instead of punishing Drahk, the vendor showed mercy. Drahk could get food from his stall if he took the time to memorize the Rijora and learn the history of his great race.

The Rijora became Drahk’s lifeline, and he dedicated himself to it. When the Second Tevarin War began, Drahk left Olympus to enlist in the fight to retake Kaleeth. His commitment to the cause was unquestionable, and even though he had significantly less flight time than most, Drahk’s ascended through the ranks to become a pilot.

Exasperated, Tajhbind finally called out, “Where are you going that requires such haste?”

Drahk rounded a corner and went up a flight of stairs two steps at a time. Tajhbind suddenly realized where he was headed and quickly broke into a run, hoping to catch Drahk before he got there.

Ekoraapt’s highest ranking pilots streamed into the operations room for the assignment ceremony. A Rijorian chant convened the meeting. Tajhbind grabbed Drahk’s arm steps before the doorway.

“Volunteering for the initial attack force won’t restore your honor. Recognize your limitations, Drahk. Remember, it is a strength for one to know one’s weaknesses.”

Drahk smiled. He was rubbing off on Tajhbind. This was the first time he had ever lectured Drahk on the Rijora. A chant reverberated through the operations room, requesting volunteers for the first wave of attacks on Crion’s largest hive of Humanity, the city called Boro.

Drahk repeated the words to Tajhbind, “Go forth with head held high, but honor the ground and respect the sky. One must keep those goals in mind if we are to survive. Were you ever taught what that chant means?

“A warrior must be true to oneself to stay alive.”

“That is a modern misinterpretation. It originated in the 16th epoch. A time when only the bravest left the caves of Kaleeth, and never alone. They walked, side-by-side, chanting those words to stay in formation. That chant was never about the survival of the individual. It’s a reminder that we fight for the survival of our species.”

“We don’t live in caves anymore, Drahk. Let alone on Kaleeth. If we don’t adapt, if our ways don’t change with the time, we have no hope.”

Suddenly, Flightmaster Suldrath’s voice carried through the ship’s halls. “Defenders of Rijora, Human military ships have appeared nearby. Report to your positions and await further instructions.”

Tajhbind started toward the hangar. Drahk stayed in place and eyed the operations room. He knew he could still receive an assignment if he volunteered. No one would question his desire to do what was needed.

“Drahk, come on, let’s go.”

Drahk turned to Tajhbind, whose eyes beckoned him to follow. Drahk couldn’t remember the last time he flew without him. The thought of entering the fray without Tajhbind by his side finally set in.

The Rijora had brought him to Ekoraapt and had him befriend Tajhbind for a reason. Now was not the time to deny that. Moments later, Drahk was hustling down the hall and past Tajhbind. As always, Drahk led the way to the flight deck.

Hickory noted the time. Why was this taking so long? They should have been able to tow Dolos back to Crescent by now.

Hickory was having difficulty figuring out how his last interaction with Wallace had panned out. She definitely seemed interested in the news about the surrender, but hadn’t quite committed to his demands.

Of course, it all hinged on him showing Wallace that he was telling the truth. The interrogation door opened and two Marines entered.

“Finally . . . so is Commander Wallace joining us at my ship?”

As one Marine stood guard, the other pulled Hickory’s arms behind his back and cuffed his wrists.

“Come on, guys. You’ll just need to undo them so I can access my terminal.”

The Marine behind Hickory nudged him forward. “There aren’t any terminals in the brig.”

Hickory stopped in his tracks, “Commander Wallace and I have a deal.”

The Marine before him shrugged. “That’s right, she says you get the best cell.”

The door slid back and Hickory instantly noted the change in the ship from when he was first brought aboard. Starmen rushed past in quick purposeful steps, no one bothering to even cast him a second glance. Crap. He had been in enough skirmishes to recognize that he was suddenly in one.

The barrel of a gun shoved Hickory forward. He had half a mind to make this hard on them, but thought better of it. If Wallace was really about to go head to head with the Tevarin, it probably would be smart to leave as many angry Marines between him and them as possible.

Commander Wallace sat at the terminal in her quarters. She uploaded the coordinates of Crescent and then the last known location of the Tevarin ships into the simulations program. As it began to process, XO Coburn entered.

“I just sent you the scout’s estimates on the size of the Tevarin forces, sir. If they’re true, we’re outmatched. We won’t have enough firepower or resources to overcome their phalanx.”

Commander Wallace entered the new data and ran the simulation. Coburn’s eyes drifted to the wallscreen to watch it play. Based on the Tevarin forces’ current trajectory, their destination became clear: the civilian population of Crion. A position Crescent was moving away from. Unless she acted immediately, they would have no chance to defend it.

A sinking feeling hit the pit of her stomach, overwhelming her senses and clouding her mind. Her head spun from a responsibility that hadn’t felt real until right now — this was all on her.

“Sir, another update from the scouts. They’ve been spotted.”

“So it’d be safe to assume their plans have accelerated.”

“Yes, sir.”

Commander Wallace’s hands shook as she adjusted the simulation to account for the new timeline. She drew a deep breath to calm her nerves then stopped typing. This was a time for action, not projections.

“We need to get to the bridge.”

Commander Wallace rushed out of quarters with Coburn on her heels.

“Any word from the scouts sent to retrieve Lime’s ship?”

“They were last to launch, sir. My estimates won’t have them arriving there for another 10 minutes. But I might suggest calling them back. We’re going to need every last ship if we stand a chance of stopping the Tevarin before they reach Crion.”

Commander Wallace chewed on the suggestion, “But if the Instrument of Surrender is valid, this could all be over before it even starts.”

“If he’s telling the truth. That’s before even considering whether the Tevarin forces would believe that the war was over. In my experience, good commanders leave as little to chance as possible.”

The two rounded a corner and approached the bridge.

“Commander . . .” Coburn slowed his pace and fell a step behind, “if I may have a moment with you before we enter the bridge?”

Commander Wallace stopped and faced Coburn. His eyes scanned the hall to find it empty, then his stern face softened. “There’s going to be no good way to handle this situation. We’ll be chasing down an enemy hell bent on bringing death and destruction to innocent civilians who have no business being involved in this war. As a force, we’re overmatched and already out of position. We know this, but that’s our burden to carry, not the crew’s. They only need two things; to do their jobs and to have faith in their commander. Understand?”

Commander Wallace nodded.

“Are you ready, sir?”

“Always in service of the Empire.”

“Always in service of the Empire, sir.”

Commander Wallace clenched her fists, hoping to squeeze out every ounce of nervous energy. Then she stepped away from XO Coburn and onto the bridge.

The crew snapped to attention, anxious to hear what orders awaited them. Commander Wallace reached for the comms but paused. A moment of doubt and indecision gripped her, then passed. She drew a deep breath and then hit the button.

“This is Commander Wallace. All crew to battle stations. This is not a drill. I repeat, this is not a drill. Prepare for battle.”

TO BE CONTINUED

End Transmission

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