The hum of the Hawking ship reverberated throughout the hull. Nalia heard the beeps of various status updates as Alan activated the ship. Visuals were off. Inside, the glow of the screens and holos bathed them. They had not talked since they had returned from the graveyard. Nalia looked at Alan as he concentrated on the pre-flight checks. He paid no heed to her. Focus on the mission, she thought. She looked at the schematic of the ship on her screen. Their escape from Carnarvon Station caused some minor structural damage, and perhaps some damage to the internals. The screen indicated a small leak in one of the engine lines. She sent the ship repair drones to see to it. She heard the whirring of their tools in the rear of the ship. The repair indicator on the screen flashed green, telling her that the drones had finished.
“Pre-flight check complete,” Alan announced. “Beginning take-off procedures. Engines at 67%.”
The rumble of the engine shook the ship as it ascended. They held steady. “Visuals,” Alan commanded. The front screens turned on, showing the rocky crags of the Great Rift and the bare sands of the surrounding desert. Nalia stared at the cloudless azure sky as their ascent continued. It grew thin as they penetrated the upper atmosphere and soon, the inky void of space replaced it. She looked at the star-dotted expanse, wondering how far it extended. A warm rush of amphetamine fluid entered from a device on her chair through her carotid arteries. A shudder ran through her. She had forgotten that the smaller ships did not have the same anti-g capabilities as the Yasothon.
“Want to ask you something, Nalia,” Alan called out. “We’re about to meet the Third Fleet again. It would be quite rude to announce ourselves as ‘Unidentified Hawking-class Vessel.’”
Nalia smiled. “So, you want a name for this ship?”
Alan flicked a switch. “I’ve taken a liking to this one. I’d like to give it something good. Something with gravitas.”
“How about Hide Under the Furniture When We Come Knocking?”
Alan laughed. “That’s a little too on the nose. And way too long. I don’t want the space traffic controllers to get an aneurysm. How about something more easy and flighty? Like Space Pirate Hunter?”
“Too simple,” Nalia brought up the list of known Republic and Kenzenken ships in the Navy database. “We would sound like adolescent fighter jocks. What about this one, the Nemesis? We could both be the worst enemies of our foes and the goddess of justice and retribution.”
“That would be confusing. Every second military ship out there is named some variant of that word. Besides, I wouldn’t want to come off as cold-blooded.” He paused. “Let’s try something cultural. What about Vĩnh Viễn? It’s an ancient word that my mom said once. About us as a family. It means forever.”
“I really like that. It’s beautiful. Vĩnh Viễn.” She let the last syllable tickle the tip of her tongue.
“So it is,” Alan replied. He pressed some buttons. Then, he sighed. “Shoot, the computer doesn’t allow diacritical marks, they never bothered to put the language in the databanks.” He sighed. “You’d think we’d be advanced to include more than just the Latin alphabet on our keyboards. Oh well, at least it makes it easy for people to identify us.” He looked toward Nalia. “Want to do the honors?”
“Sure thing.” Nalia cleared her throat. “As captain of the Republic Navy starship Yasothon and with the full legal authority bestowed upon me, I am honored to name this Hawking-class ship… the Vĩnh Viễn.” Something stirred in her chest. She strangely felt proud, as if something momentous had occurred.
“All IFF transponders will recognize us as the Vĩnh Viễn,” Alan said as he typed the information into the computer. “Well, now that’s done with…”
“We should head to the rendezvous coordinates that Atranas sent us,” Nalia finished. She hated to interrupt him, but they were running out of time.
“Of course. Engines to full burn.” Alan strapped himself to his chair. Nalia did the same.
The force of acceleration pushed her back against it. She felt as if a wall was slowly crushing her. They rushed deeper into the Ramanujan Expanse, the stars fading past them.
Finally, they arrived at the fleet, which orbited around a white moon. The computer still indicated a sizable and battle-ready group, although a little diminished since Admiral Vendrian’s coup. She could try looking for the various ships through the external cameras, but they were too far apart to be easily visible. A group of Hawkings came into formation range andescorted them to the admiral’s flagship, the Virtuous.
Nalia stretched her arms. For the previous few hours, she thought her body would become mush. Alan appeared unaffected. They approached the flagship, a vessel slightly larger than a cruiser. Sensors covered large swathes of its hull, like barnacles on a whale. It was not the largest or the most combat-capable ship the Republic fielded. No, its role surpassed everything else. It was the heart, brain, and pulse of the fleet.
The escorts flew off, their task completed. Alan eased down and decelerated the engines as they came in for landing. The Vĩnh Viễn crossed into the main hangar of the flagship. Its cavernous hall dwarfed the Hawking ships within. Internal magnetic fields grabbed the small ship and set it down in an empty space reserved for it.
A full complement of marines met them in the hangar. A sergeant called them to attention and they formed a parade line. As Alan and Nalia passed through the parade, each marine saluted her and him. She saluted back, albeit with a little discomfort. She was not used to this honor.
“Admiral on deck!” the sergeant shouted. Admiral Atranas approached them at the end of the parade. She stood with her back stiff as they approached her. She saluted them. “Captain Sargire, Mr. Vuong. It’s good to see you again.”
Nalia saluted back. “Good to see you too, admiral.”
“Would you please accompany me to the admiral’s conference room next to the bridge? We have much to talk about.” Nalia nodded. “Good,” she said. She gestured with her hands to the sergeant. The sergeant yelled out an order and the marines stood down at rest. Four marines accompanied them to the elevator and took guard outside the doors.
When they reached the conference room and had some privacy, Atranas relaxed. She hugged Nalia tightly. “I’m really glad you’re alive,” she said.
“I am too,” Nalia replied.
“As am I.” A familiar voice came from the back of the room. Colonel Miyashiro stepped forward to meet them. He bowed for a small moment, and then straightened up. Nalia could not help but notice how well his uniform accentuated the muscularity of his body. Alan gave him an odd look. “Before we get started, you should know that my fleet is at your disposal. Unfortunately, I had to split off part of it to escort the colony ship and civilians that came with Warlord Batu. They will await us at Danube.”
Admiral Atranas walked forward to the conference table. “I’ve communicated with Central Command. They’ve given me full authorization to do anything I feel is necessary.” All four of them sat at the conference table. “Here’s the situation.” She tapped some buttons on a console, revealing a holo of their current section of space. “Admiral Vendrian’s fleet has ventured deep into the Expanse, to this section of space.” She pointed to a part of the map with an icon of a dim star. “I can’t imagine them going any further. We’re detecting massive anomalies, some measuring light years across. Such things would be too hazardous to navigate for the First Fleet. I have a feeling this chase is about to end.” The admiral turned the map off. She looked up at Nalia. “Let’s move on to the next piece of business. We got your message, but perhaps it would be better to hear it in person.”
Nalia explained Mohe’s theories about the Gate activation. As she talked further, Miyashiro leaned forward.
“I think I can add to Captain Sargire’s points.” His face grew grim. “Two years ago, right before the end of the war, an incident occurred at our borders. Here.” He turned on the display and manipulated the holo to show a region of space on the far side of the Kenzenken Coalition. “One of our research test centers built on a planet near a particularly unstable tesseract. They experimented with ways to faster stabilize this tesseract and connect the system directly to Coalition space. We only found out when the resupply ships reported no transmission from the center. From what our ministry astronomers pieced together, the scientists at the weapon center caused a realspace collapse during one of their tests. It was an anomaly that kept expanding even beyond its initial point of origin. We thought the tear in space-time would keep growing, but something stopped it. Unfortunately, we lost the planet and thousands of personnel. I believe it was an attempt to do something similar to what you described, captain.”
“What do you mean by ‘lost a planet’?” Atranas asked with a raised voice.
Miyashiro looked her straight in the eyes. “As in, the planet was gone. Nothing there. No dust. No debris. Just nothing.”
They sat there in shocked silence. After a few moments, Nalia shook her head. “Wait a minute. Something of that magnitude would be detected from light years around. How did the Republic not notice?”
The Kenzenken colonel took a breath. “When I mean nothing was there, nothing was there. No planet, no light, no signals. Just a black void. We’re talking about something far beyond the understanding of even our most advanced physics.”
Alan cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. “And you all decided to keep a possible threat to the universe a secret from the rest of us? Why should we trust anything you say?”
“You don’t understand, publicly revealing this information would have caused a mass panic. With that and the war, there would have been disaster. We did what we had to do to keep the Coalition safe.” His voice took on a rough edge. “And we do care about our civilians, unlike some people.” Nalia watched Alan stiffen. A dark shade of purple crawled up his cheek. His hands clenched until the knuckles turned white. She placed her hand on his arm.
Before she could go protest, Atranas slammed her hand on the table. “Enough! We’re not here to bicker. We’re here to stop this madman!” She stood back up and straightened her hair back. “Leave the petty arguments for later. We need to draw up a plan.”
Nalia released her hold. She had wondered whether it would have come to blows. An idea came to her. She tapped her fingers on the edge of the conference table. “We have to assume that any approach by this fleet will cause him to take action. Our only choice is to infiltrate his flagship and take him out.”
“Kill him, then?” Miyashiro raised his eyebrow.
“I’d prefer to detain him for a military tribunal. But if it comes to it, we must do everything we can.”
“Just what is it that you are proposing, captain?” Atranas asked. Nalia noticed her steepling her fingers together.
She felt a surge of adrenaline shoot up her spine. She turned the stress response away and looked at each of the people in the room. “We’re going to install the stealth device on the Vĩnh Viễn, and use it to board the admiral’s flagship.” She raised her hand before Atranas could interrupt her. “Alan and I will go. Vendrian will listen to us. There’s no telling what he’ll do when confronted with a hostile force. He might have a dead man’s switch or some sort of contingency plan. Give me two marine fire teams. When we get on the ship, we’ll capture him.”
“Out of the question!” Atranas almost shouted. “The risks are too high. I’m not going to put valuable assets at risk.”
“We need to use what we have available, and we don’t have much time.”
Atranas gritted her teeth and stared off, as if deep in thought. Her voice took a softer tone. “I admit, your idea does have some redeeming features. That stealth device has been remarkably effective. We’ll follow your plan, but instead send a full strike force rather than put you and Alan in danger.”
Nalia stood firm. “He cares about us, Alan and myself.” She heard him quietly snort. “You know I’m right.”
“This is a damn foolish plan. There are too many variables.”
“We must take the risk.”
The stocky admiral put her hands to her temple. “Fine. You win. On one condition. The marines take lead. Not you. Understand?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Nalia rubbed her arm. She hoped she was right about Vendrian.
“All right, we’ll have the Zenk techs install the device.” The admiral looked at Alan. “You must proceed with the utmost caution.”
“We will not fail this mission,” he said, his voice resolute. Miyashiro said nothing.
“See that you don’t. Now I’m afraid you won’t have any time to relax. You all must prepare immediately. Dismissed.” Atranas waved her hand, turning the holo off.