The view screen intermittently turned static, but Nalia’s high priority call to Senator Sargire’s office came through. A pair of grey eyes on an older dark-skinned man met hers. He presented himself in a regal manner, even to his own daughter. “Nalia!” he exclaimed in surprise. “Where have you been? What’s going on? We lost contact with Silesias hours ago! It’s madness over here.”
Nalia steeled herself. “Dad,” she said. “You need to get out of there. Now.” The lack of emotion in her voice surprised her. Only moments ago, the dread and desperation fell on her like a crushing gravity.
Her father blinked. “Yes, of course. We got the evacuation order. I’m still supervising the necessary transport and proper handling of sensitive materials.”
“No, you need to get Mom, Barry, and Jordan, and get off the planet. Right now!” Her voice came out sharper than she intended.
“We heard about the bombings,” he spoke, as aides rushed behind him, packing data disks and ancient paper files. “Rest assured. Things are proceeding smoothly out here. The rest of the family is arriving. Besides, I still need to get the satoshis out of cold storage—”
“Forget the cash! Forget about anyone else! Get anyone you can on any available spacecraft and fly towards the evacuation fleet. If you stay, you will die,” Nalia said, as her foot ground into the floor carpet.
His eyes flashed. “Nalia, I… Ok Nalia, I’ll do it,” her father said. The fatigue of the past few hours finally seemed to catch up with him. She had never seen him look so defeated. She would have reached out to him in comfort, but circumstances demanded more from both of them.
“Good, good. Here’s the rendezvous coordinates to our fleet.” She inputted a priority message to the Senator’s office. “Get here as soon as possible. And avoid the core worlds!” Nalia spoke in a calmer voice.
They paused in their conversation. “I’ll get the others to the ship as soon as we finish the call.” He looked around his disheveled office. “Thank you.”
“I’ll see you soon,” said Nalia.
“Me too,” came the reply. The call ended.
Nalia sat down on her desk and sighed. She reached down to a drawer and used her biosignature to unlock it. Inside, she pulled out a bottle of whiskey and a shot glass that Alan gave her before their ill-fated mission to capture Admiral Vendrian. Her hand brushed the Gate key that also lay in her desk. She wondered how many more would perish for that little thing. She poured and took a swig of the stinging liquid. Her throat burned. The tightness in her back began to ease. She looked at a priority message on the computer and remembered that Alan had woken up recently. However, she was not quite yet ready to face him.
A few moments later, another urgent message came through her communicator. “Ma’am, you’re needed on the bridge,” came the tinny voice of Officer Drevin. “We have enemy craft pursuing us.”
“Heading right there, Mr. Drevin.” She took another swig, donned her coat, stared at the ceiling, took a deep breath, and marched to the bridge.
The bridge was a hive of activity. Status reports came in rapid-fire bursts. The tactical holo showed the composition of the pursuing task force: two medium-class and two corvette-class sphere ships. Moments before, the computers had finally completed the analysis of the Vĩnh Viễn’s encounter with their new foe and assigned designations to the enemy ships. It did little good. Giving the enemy a name only oriented the fear in a different direction. Nalia cursed under her breath. It seemed the effectiveness of their evasion tactics finally ended. She sat down in the captain’s chair. “Go to alert status,” she ordered. The cry of alarm signals came on. The bridge room flashed red and all stations went to combat footing.
“Status report?” she asked Officer Drevin.
“Thirty seconds until engagement range. All systems nominal,” he reported.
“Can we go faster?”
“Negative, we can’t push our acceleration any more without stalling the gravity generator and permanently damaging the engines.”
A blast shuddered throughout the ship. “Impact on aft shield,” reported the tactical officer. “Holding.”
“Use whatever we can to hold them off. ETA to rendezvous point?” Nalia knew this was going to be a long shot.
“Five minutes,” said Drevin. The tactical holo lighted up, telling them that a point defense laser just intercepted one of the energy blasts. Before they could celebrate, more blasts detonated near them, bringing shields low enough to activate a shrill alarm. The pursuers came closer.
Suddenly, the computer warned them of an incoming gridspace jump. The crew focused on these new arrivals, some holding their breath. They visibly relaxed when the IFF confirmed the incoming spacecraft as friendly. Six Republic ships materialized behind them: a destroyer and five Hawking ships.
“Attention, Yasothon. We have orders from the admiral. Continue heading to rendezvous point. We’ll hold them off,” came the message from the destroyer’s captain.
“Roger that.” Nalia turned her chair toward a nearby station. “Helmsman, maintain course.”
“Yes, captain,” came the man’s reply.
Two Hawking ships broke formation and escorted them as they escaped. The remainder of their rescuers engaged the ships behind them. The Yasothon’s computer registered the discharge of weapons fire as the small engagement began. The Republic ships destroyed the two corvette-classes, but the larger ships repulsed them. The last thing she saw was the destroyer attempting to accelerate fast enough to ram one of the spheres. It was a foolhardy attempt, but better doing anything than waiting to be picked off. She didn’t see the result as they entered the electromagnetic gridspace storm.
It was a good place to hide, but a dangerous one. Numerous navigational hazards, both seen and hidden, littered the roiling spacescape of the anomaly. A freak energy surge could damage or even destroy a ship. No communications could come in or out of the storm. This was an ill place for humanity’s last stand. Nalia wondered how many ships fleeing the genocide were able to reach Third Fleet. She prayed that her family had been able to escape.
“Captain, one of the Hawking pilots has requested to come aboard,” announced the communications officer. “He specifically requested to see you.”
“I’ll see him in my ready room.” Nalia unstrapped herself from her chair.
When the young man, barely older than a teenager, it seemed to her, came in, he handed her a typewritten note and then left without saying a word. She stared at the white paper in wonder. It was a rare occasion to see communications in such an archaic fashion. On it, she read the curt orders from Admiral Atranas. “CAPTAIN SARGIRE. REQUEST PRESENCE OF YOU AND MR. VUONG ON VIRTUOUS. BRING IT. END. ADMIRAL RACHEL ATRANAS.”
She activated her communicator. “Patch me through to med bay. I’m going to see Alan.”
The Yasothon entered a relatively calm area of the EM storm. Around them, like a school of fish in the ocean, thousands of warships and thousands more civilian ships both small and large drifted against the dark blue backdrop of the anomaly. Many were damaged, some from skirmishes with the Consciousness, most from the surrounding hazards of the area. Flashes of EM activity appeared on sensor consoles. The Yasothon decelerated to a holding pattern a thousand kilometers from the Virtuous.On it, Nalia and Alan boarded a shuttle in the hangar, and headed deep into the fleet towards Atranas’ flagship.
They walked without a word through the command ship’s hallways, escorted by security guards armed with full-powered impact rifles and body armor. The admiral took no chances. Nalia rubbed Alan’s arm. He stared groggily ahead. She wished they could have talked more, but the critical nature of their situation cut short their reunion. He seemed eager to tell her something, but she told him to wait until they met with the admiral.
Nalia handed Alan a heated drink container. He sniffed it. “What’s this?” he asked.
“Coffee. In the old days, before we had things like pilot organs and alert patches, it acted as a mild stimulant. You’ll need it. You’re still recovering from your ordeal.”
He took a sip and made a face. “No wonder the ancients were angry all the time,” he quipped.
They stopped in front of what Nalia recognized as the admiral’s strategy room. The lead security officer waved his hand in front of a scanner and said a few words to open the reinforced doors. Inside, complete darkness overwhelmed them. The guards went back outside and the doors slid closed behind them. Then, three-dimensional holograms showing a map of a binary star system lighted up the room.
“Danube System,” Alan whispered.
“Correct.” From a nearby console emerged Admiral Atranas and Mohe. They appeared to have finished an extensive conversation. “I took the liberty of inviting your resident physicist ahead of our meeting. I hope you don’t mind,” the admiral said.
Nalia felt a twinge of irritation, but kept it tamped down. “Not at all. I take it with all the security and secretiveness that you are planning a critical mission?”
Atranas nodded. “That depends on the next few minutes. First things first. You told me in your message that Mr. Vuong wanted to speak to us of something?” A table and chairs rose up in the central area. They all sat.
Mohe stared at the images around them and whistled. “You military types really do get all the fun stuff.”
Alan cleared his throat. “I know this will be hard to believe, but I had a dream while in that coma…” Over the next few minutes, he explained to the rest the vision from Mihaela. He especially emphasized the activation of the Gate key and its uses beyond just opening a rip in the grid.
Atranas leaned back in her chair. “That’s quite a bit to take in, although it does explain a few things. Your plan, or whatever Irwin told you, sounds absolutely insane. But I’m willing to listen.” She looked to Nalia. “You still have the object?”
Nalia took out the crystal from her pocket. For a brief moment, she thought it resonated with her skin. She set it down on the table in front of them.
Mohe peered at it. His hands gripped the edge of the table. The intense look in his eyes frightened Nalia. “Let me try something,” he requested. “I’ll need DNA samples from you and Alan.” He took out a medical tool. “Your hands, please.” They both held out their hands and Mohe took a skin sample from each. He then took one sample from his tool and placed it near the crystal. At first, nothing happened.
“Nalia, try concentrating on it,” he said.
She focused on it, its textures and features. She began to see interlocking wheels inside it and imagined turning them until they locked in place. While she thought, the crystal started pulsing a low-intensity red light. Alan and Atranas gazed at it in wonder. The crystal slowly began to levitate. She soon saw a Gate, similar to the one Vendrian activated. Behind it, a star emanated grid energies into the structure, allowing it to move. The vision shifted and she saw multiple Gates and stars powering them in different positions and configurations. Without any conscious effort, her mind went through one of their apertures. She found before her a vast map of the galaxy. Glowing white lines connected the stars. She concentrated on Danube’s location and she saw something that took her breath away. The map zoomed out, far enough for her to count dozens of galaxies. Lines from the Milky Way connected to them. Her vision spread farther and farther out, until millions of galaxies came into view. She eased her concentration, and the image receded from her mind.
“I understand now,” she gasped. She told the rest what she saw.
Mohe took the sample away and her vision finally ended. The crystal stopped pulsing and went back to its original yellowish color. He briefly tried the other sample with Alan and he reported the same thing. He put the tool down, tapping his chin as he contemplated the phenomenon before them.
After waiting a bit, Atranas asked Mohe, “Well, what’s your assessment?” Nalia could tell she was impatient.
Mohe snapped back to attention. “This is truly fascinating. It confirms my hypothesis. Both Nalia and Alan have some sort of mental connection to the object. If only we had more time to study this.” He paused as Atranas glared at him. “Right, well, I think Alan’s right on this one. From what little we know of the grid and of this device, using this Gate can theoretically take us to any location in the universe. Even out of reach of our enemy. I suspected that this would be the solution to our dilemma. We already know that stars provide the fuel that powers the tesseracts and the connections between systems. This is the same thing on a much higher level. That’s why I asked you to bring up the Danube System, the energy from the twin stars should hopefully be enough to get us far away from here. Luckily, it appears we won’t have to directly use the stars, like Vendrian did. We just need the Gate to draw their grid energies.” He paused in thought and looked off into the distance, “Although, bringing the grid into the real at this amount of power could quite possibly lead to an unstoppable chain reaction.”
Atranas’ eyes grew narrow. “What do you mean, exactly? That we could destroy the universe?”
Mohe’s expression grew grave. “It is a possibility. However, like most things at the edge of physics, we really won’t know what will happen until we do it.”
“Mihaela wouldn’t have shown me this if she didn’t think we could put this information to good use. Think. We escape, and give them a bloody nose they won’t forget,” Alan interjected.
Atranas regarded him for a while. He stared right back at her, his expression unchanging. Finally, the admiral asked, “Even after your recent experience with her, even after knowing the power that this entity that enslaved her has, you still have faith that she was telling the truth?”
Alan felt the spot near his eyebrow where Mihaela’s finger had penetrated. He put his hand down. “I absolutely do.”
“If Alan believes in her, then I do too,” Nalia said, without hesitation. There was no room for doubt, she thought. She also had every bit of faith in her friends. It filled her with a mellow nostalgia. Stay focused, she told herself. Believing in the plan was one thing. Pulling it off successfully was another matter that not even the most advanced AIs could predict.
The admiral clasped her hands together. “I have many doubts about this idea of yours, but we have few alternatives. We can’t stay in this space any longer. Soon, we will be totally compromised. God knows how long we’ll last when they’ll finally come.” She sighed. “We either do nothing and die or take the one chance we have to ensure the survival of the human race. There’s no choice. We proceed.”
“What about the other evacuees, the ones still out there?” Nalia asked.
Atranas gave her a grim look. “They will have to reach us in time.” She left the alternative hanging in the room. After an uncomfortable silence, she tapped a button, bringing the map of the Danube System to the middle of their table. “Anything else you want to add, Doctor?” she asked Mohe.
The tattooed physicist shook his head. He looked wistfully at the map. “I’ll miss that wasteland,” he said. Nalia sat back. Of course, there had been no time to think about it, but they were leaving behind everything they knew, possibly forever, she thought.
“A small price to pay for survival. You may go now.” Atranas dismissed him with a gesture. He left without a word. When the door closed behind him, she looked to Alan. “Mr. Vuong,” she asked. “Did Irwin give you any names of the other agents, of people like her?”
He shook his head. “No, she didn’t. I don’t think she knew, either.”
“What about those Observers?”
“From how she described them, I don’t think they can help us with our current situation.” He did not elaborate.
Atranas tapped the table. “Fine. We’ll just have to continue our security measures.” She pressed a button on the table, zooming the map on the Danube system. “I took the liberty of scouting the nearby star systems for our escape route before you all came in. The last report for Danube came five hours ago.” Red indicators for enemy ships appeared on the map hologram. “Here’s the current composition of enemy assets. There’s a small defensive force in orbit around the planet and Carnarvon Station. But that’s not what worries me.” She focused the display on the twin stars. “What worries me are these titan-class ships orbiting the binary suns. The scouts did not get any energy readings from them, so they don’t appear to be active. They’re just sitting there, like they’re waiting for something.” The number of large red icons around the binary stars appeared ominous. The admiral grew quiet.
Nalia broke the silence. “Well, we heard what Mohe said. We need the energy from both stars, and there’s no alternative nearby. We’ll just have to be cautious. Besides, we don’t need to be right next to them.”
“The scout ship was there for around an hour,” noted Atranas. “It detected periodic materializations from fleets coming in from outside this system.” She wrinkled her brow. “I don’t like this. We’re leaving too much to chance.”
“Staying in this storm also leaves too much to chance,” said Nalia.
“You’re right,” the admiral said. She thrummed her fingers on the table. “For now, we’ll have to ignore them for the time being.” Atranas looked at the both of Nalia and Alan. “I’m going to have to ask a difficult question. If we’re going to proceed with the plan, we will need one person to activate the Gate and one other person to stay behind and execute the final phase. The second job will mean that whoever volunteers for it will have a very low chance of escaping with us.”
“I will stay behind,” Alan immediately answered.
Nalia started. “Alan, wait—”
“It’s simple math.” His eyes grew intense. “You have far more to lose than I do. You have command of a ship. You have the trust of the admiral. Every other captain knows you. They’re going to need you. It has to be me.”
Biting her tongue, Nalia calmed herself down. “Can’t we use a dummy ship to do it? We need not throw away any more lives than we need to.”
Atranas shook her head. “It will take too long. The learning AI would require an untold number of simulations to be effective. We don’t have that kind of time.”
Nalia frantically looked at both of them. “Surely there must be another volunteer. Someone else can do this.”
“Only I can do this,” said Alan. “I know what is required. I can activate the key. And I know our enemy.”
She tried to protest, but could not think of any other alternatives. She looked down at her hands.
“I know this will be hard for all of us,” Atranas said in a low voice. “Are you sure about this?” she asked Alan.
“Positive,” came the reply.
“Then it’s decided.” Atranas paused. She brought her hands to her head, as if in pain. Rubbing her temple, she said, “This is it, isn’t it? If we make it out of this alive, we’ll be resetting civilization. No more Republic. No more Kenzenken Coalition. I still find it hard to believe. We’re just going to drop everything and leave all we know behind. And this presence… Consciousness… will always be out there, the monster in our nightmares. How will this all end?” They sat, staring at the slowly rotating map of Danube. Atranas took a deep breath through her nose. “Alright, let’s get this started.”
She sent out communications to every captain of every ship and every commander of every task force. Key leaders personally boarded the flagship, crowding the strategy room. Over the next few hours, they planned and coordinated the upcoming assault. One FTL message was sent off to Colonel Miyashiro’s last known position, telling him of their plans. There was no confirmation of receipt. Nalia could not remember much about the trip back to the Yasothon.
Hours later, in the Yasothon’s hangar bay, Nalia approached Alan. He watched the missiles loading onto the Vĩnh Viễn. She saw the dark circles under his eyes. He must have practiced on the simulations as soon as they got back. She understood. The endless briefings with Atranas didn’t help much with her own sleep. She stopped right behind him.
Summoning her most commanding voice, she asked him, “Why are you doing this?”
He furrowed his brow, as if deep in thought. He turned to her. “It’s the only way humanity will survive. It’s my duty.” His deep brown eyes sharpened. “You have to let me go.”
Shaking with fear and anger, she almost shouted, “Fuck your duty! You have no responsibility to anyone but yourself!” Her breathing grew ragged. She steadied herself on a nearby railing. “Please, I don’t want to lose any more friends.” She gave him a plaintive look.
Alan looked down at the hangar floor. He looked back toward the Vĩnh Viễn. “All my life, I’ve been ruled by fear. Fear of failing. Fear of others. Fear of hurting them.” His voice wavered and then grew firm. “I need to do this. All these other things, the betrayal, the destruction, Mihaela, they just happened to me. Now, here’s an opportunity to make things right. To pay back for my mistake. I must take it.”
Nalia stared at him at his back. “You’re really going to do it then. Throw away your life.” Her voice grew quavered. “What about how I feel? What will I do when I’m alone?”
Alan didn’t answer.
It took all of her effort to prevent the tears. She stepped towards him and took his arms in hers. Then, she drew closer and hugged him in a tight embrace, not daring to let him go. He did not let go of her either.