The Seed of Dissention
Twelve hours later, Arus sat on his cot in the passenger berths. There had been no one to greet them when they broke through Vaank's atmosphere—no Alliance rescue and no enemy blockade. Del'Carjhal's attackers did not pursue the fleeing transport; either they were more interested in securing the base or they did not think they had the numbers to take down an assault ship. The former was probable, but without knowing the true motive of the enemy—this Viochiati—it was impossible to be certain.
The nearest Aeden ships were orbiting Luncia itself, the capital world of the Athena system. That was the tentative destination that Arus had ordered. However, as with most decisions he made that day, he was beginning to second-guess himself. The transport wasn't designed for long-range travel; it was mainly a defense craft for larger starships and Aeden installations. A flight to Luncia would drain every drop of fuel from the tanks and then some. But alternatives were few. There was a possibility of reach the fueling depot near one of Athena's smaller planets, but that would put them in the opposite end of the system. The majority of the
presence was centered around Luncia and Vaank, and with Vaank under siege, the
next-best rallying point was the capital world.
No, they'd have to stick to the plan.
"Are you alright, Lieutenant?"
The question came from Sergeant Garren. He sat across the way, assembling the second of two exoskeleton braces for Baird, who was seated in bed beside him. The passenger berths also served as a makeshift infirmary for wounded soldiers, giving Garren access to a variety of medical supplies. He'd already set Baird's broken bones and was preparing to attach the exoskeletons, sturdy devices that would both hold them in place and greatly accelerate healing.
"How many do you think died today?" Arus asked him.
"Over a thousand in Del'Carjhal. Perhaps two."
Garren frowned but did not respond. Subspace chatter across the comm had indicated that Del'Carjhal's tragedy had not been an isolated incident. Alliance bases throughout the Omega Region had experienced similar attacks. Death counts were still being calculated, but the expected estimate came close to fifty-thousand. It was all orchestrated to occur at the exact same time, whether that meant the middle of the night on one planet or midday on another. And from the spotty pieces of information that Nasael had picked, most attacks had begun with an explosion intended to eliminate the targeted location's senior officers. How they had managed to coordinate such an act of mass murder was anyone's guess, but one thing was clear: The Viochiati was more than just an army of disgruntled pirates. This was an organized, massive, and widespread movement that spread beyond the Athena galaxy.
Garren dropped one of the tools on the counter beside Baird's bed. "I need a three-nine driver. I'll be right back." He lumbered up the stairs.
A moment of silence passed. Arus tried to work through the many questions raised by the day's events. Try as he might, he couldn't shake the image of that little girl throwing herself beneath Chief Morsul's morphed form. "Do you think they feel any pain?" he asked absentmindedly.
Baird raised an eyebrow. "What's that?"
"The children," Arus said. "Or anyone, for that matter. When they detonate those bombs, do you think it hurts?"
"Can't imagine being blown to bits is a soothing experience."
Arus frowned. "But it happens so fast. Do you think there's time to feel pain?"
"I try not to dwell on that stuff. It does no good to tear yourself up over things that are out of your hands, ya know?"
Arus let out a long breath. "I suppose. It just kills me to know what's going on down there."
"I hear ya," Baird said with a nod. "Before we met up with you at the Command Station, we were trying to repel attackers to the south of the Proving Grounds. They were ruthless; one man used a woman's body to shield himself from laser fire."
"Ugh," Arus shuddered, hanging his head. "What kind of people would do that? When you took down that woman by the Armory today, the others didn't even seem to notice! There was no compassion, no emotion, no response at all!"
"Speaking of which, I apologize for firing without permission. My instinct was to protect my team, and I—"
Arus held up a hand. "I hadn't given the cease-fire order at that point, Linard. No need for apologies. Nasael was the one who disobeyed orders."
There was another pause. Baird appeared to consider his words for a moment before asking, "Do you think you two will ever get along? Seems like neither one of you is very fond of the other."
Arus didn't want to speak ill of another officer. He didn't feel it was his place. But the magnitude of Nasael's ego was no secret to anyone. Still, he was as strong as he was cunning, and if he could just put his high opinion of himself aside for a moment, Arus could easily see him as a future commander. "I can appreciate his drive to be a contributing member of the Alliance, and I can respect his ability and accomplishments. The problem is that he thinks he's one step ahead of everyone else, and that taints both his actions and his judgment."
"There is so much we do not know about his species," Baird noted. "I'd heard of the Clu before meeting him, but only once or twice. He's the first I've actually interacted with."
"Perhaps this is just the nature of his species. He doesn't speak much of them or his people. Maybe if I knew more, I could understand him better."
Baird pointed to the steps. "Talk to Garren. I hear Nasael has confided in him on more than one occasion."
"Really?" Arus raised an eyebrow. "I wonder why Garren never mentioned it."
"You know Garren. He's not one to volunteer information about others without just cause."
"True. But given the situation, perhaps he'll—"
Sergeant Garren's voice boomed from the main deck. "Lieutenant! I think you'd better get up here!"
Arus exchanged an uneasy glance with the sergeant before making for the stairs. At the top, he found Garren and Nasael side by side with their pistols aimed at the storage compartments at the rear of the ship. "What's going on?"
"Someone's back there," Nasael told him.
"Possibly," Garren added. "I was searching the storage bins for a three-nine driver. When I tried to open the lower compartment, something inside pulled back. It wasn't a steady force, mind you. It was as though something—or someone—struggled to keep the door closed."
Arus activated the implant to attempt a scan, but his sensors were still inoperable. "Aly, scan the ship."
She looked back at him from her seat at the controls. "Negative, Sir. I am unable to pick up any readings. Not even our own."
That struck Arus as odd. "Are the ships sensors down?"
"It doesn't appear so. Readings are dark up to seven lengths in all directions. It appears the ship caught within the center of a giant sphere of radio distortion that blacks out all scans."
"Is it some sort of spatial anomaly?"
"No," she replied. "Whatever it is, it's moving with the ship, matching our exact speed and trajectory."
It didn't make any sense to Arus, but it would have to be investigated later. Whoever—or whatever—was lurking within the storage compartment was his first priority. "This is Lieutenant Arus Sheeth with the Aeden Alliance Air Battalion Athena Division. We are peaceful so long as you are. Please come out, or we may be forced to resort to more drastic measures."
"I'm sure that will put the fear of the Maker into them," Nasael grumbled.
This time, it was Garren who snapped back. "Mind your place, Corporal. Intimidation is not always the answer."
It took a moment, but a voice—a female voice—eventually responded. "Prove you're Alliance."
Arus and Garren exchanged an uneasy look. "How do you suggest I prove it? We are flying an Alliance ship, we carry Alliance supplies, and some of us are wearing Alliance uniforms."
"That's not proof. I want proof right now, or I'm going to blow this ship apart."
Arus' muscles tensed. Another bomber. Just what they needed. "What will you accept as proof?"
"Throw down your weapons. Put them in front of this cabinet. Then back away with your hands in the air. If you're holding weapons when I come out, I'll destroy the ship."
Nasael opened his mouth to decline, but Arus cut him short. "And what then?" Even Garren looked surprised by his consideration of the proposal.
"I'll look each of you up in the Alliance personnel database. If your identities check out, we'll talk."
How do I know you would come out with guns blazing? I don't know where your loyalties lie."
"I'm the one holding the bomb. That means I'm the one calling the shots."
Arus considered his options. The implant's laser weapon was still functional, but without his sensors, targeting would be approximate at best. This woman didn't share the foreign accent of Del'Carjhal's attackers. And the fact that she threatened to destroy the ship if they were not members of the Aeden Alliance suggested that she, herself, was an ally. If he could prove that . . .
"I'll make you a deal," he said. "We will put down our weapons if you can answer a single question for me to prove your loyalties."
Nasael glared at Arus, but finally exercised better judgment by holding his tongue. The stranger's voice was both quiet and cautious. "Go on."
"There was a dog involved in an incident at the Mess Hall last year. He got into a batch of spices and had was sneezing for weeks. What was that dog's nickname?"
" . . . Pepper."
Arus looked at Garren and Nasael. "Do as she says." When Garren raised an eyebrow, Arus simply tapped a finger against the implant. The two did as they were told and dropped their weapons.
Ever so slowly, the compartment door slid to the side. At first, Arus could only see a single emerald eye. It shifted from Garren to Nasael before resting upon himself. Then the door flew open, and a small human girl in a mechanic's jumpsuit leapt out. "It's you!" she exclaimed, dropping a small silver box on the floor. "It's really you!"
Her excitement caught Arus by surprise. He stepped back out of hesitation. "I'm sorry, I'm not sure I follow. Have we met?"
Her eyes sparkled. "No, but I've heard of you! You're the one everyone on the base has been talking about—the guy with the implant! I've been waiting forever to get a look at it!"
Arus looked at Nasael, who only smirked at him. Garren approached the silver case on the floor. It had the appearance of a personal storage box, but many explosives were designed to look like everyday items. "Do you think it can be dismantled, Sergeant?" Arus asked him.
"Oh, you can open it," the girl said. Her eyes were fixed on the implant as she inched closer and closer to Arus. "It's just a tool case. I was bluffing."
Though he was clearly still wary, Garren flipped the box's lid open. Inside, a row of various drivers was neatly arranged. "A three-nine driver," the sergeant said through twisted lips. "There it is." He closed the case and snatched his pistol from the floor. "I'm going back to finish work on Baird's braces. Holler if you need anything."
Nasael retrieved his own weapon before returning to the navigations terminal. Aly remained in her seat beside him, completely indifferent to the events unfolding behind her.
Turning his attention back to the girl, Arus scratched his head. "Can we start from the top? I'm Arus. We missed the evacuation shuttles and had to escape Del'Carjhal in this ship. We were unaware that anyone else was onboard. How long have you been crammed in that storage unit?"
"Since shortly before takeoff," she admitted. "I'm Sergeant Juli LaGowen. I'm a techie with the Alliance G.A.T. squad."
"G.A.T. squad? I'm not familiar with them."
"Ground Assault Troopers. We're a team of soldiers handpicked by Colonel Shaves for special assignments. We specialize in ground-based operations, but my expertise is in just about anything technical. I love machines; they can accomplish far more than people can and are often more reliable."
That explained her interest in the implant. "Why were you hiding in the storage unit?"
"I missed the last shuttle," she explained. "I didn't know what to do. I wasn't even sure if there was any
personnel left on the base! So I stuffed
myself in there and hoped for rescue to come before anyone found me." Her eyes again strayed toward the implant. "Does it hurt?"
That was the most common question asked. "No, it doesn't."
"May I study it?"
Many people had asked Arus for that privilege, but he almost always declined. "There is only one doctor who has my permission to study it. I'm sorry."
She wasn't going to accept that answer. "Please?"
"I'm sorry," Arus said again, shaking his head.
"Why not? I promise I won't disassemble anything. It's a technical marvel! The workings of the neural link could be used to help millions! Even billions!"
Terrible images flashed through Arus' mind, scenes of himself mindlessly slaughtering his own people on the Lamonde Plains. The face of Eaisan Lurei rose amidst them, his former master and the implant's final victim. "I agree that there are some aspects that hold great potential with regards to universal medicine and physical rehabilitation. I have allowed Doctor Antigones Nori to study those functions for his own research, but I will let him decide what information is suitable for release to the intergalactic military community."
Again, her eyes lit up. "Wow! You know Dr. Nori from the Refuge? How'd you meet him?"
The circumstances surrounding that day were far more complex than Arus was prepared to explain. The short version would have to suffice. "The men who originally fitted me with this thing used it to enslave me. Dr. Nori released me from its control."
She clasped her hands under her chin. "Do you think you could introduce me? He's one of the brightest minds in the universe! I'd give anything just to be able to pick his brain for ten minutes!"
"I'm sure I could arrange it," he told her. "If we can make it back to the fleet in one piece, that is."
A pair of beeps came from the main terminal. Aly rotated her chair and slid a finger across the comm. "Speaking of which," she said, "we are receiving a general transmission, Lieutenant. It's Councilman Reikt."
"Let's hear it."
She pressed a few buttons and adjusted the volume as the message began to play. “This is a subspace message to all Aeden Alliance personnel in the Omega Region.” The man had a voice that suggested he’d smoked one too many pipes in his day. “It is with deep regret that I must deliver sad news. Earlier today, a coordinated series of attacks across multiple planets killed thousands of Aeden soldiers and civilians. These attacks were clearly designed to target our senior officers and other high-ranking officials as they account for a large portion of the missing. We have no official total of missing or deceased just yet, but I’m sure you’ve heard some of the numbers floating around out there. A dark day, indeed.”
“So far, this message has been little more than the depressed ramblings of a man who’s never seen a shred of combat,” Nasael grumbled before Aly hushed him.
“But let me assure you; we will rise from the ashes to meet this enemy head on, to defend the people we are sworn to defend, and to bring justice to the agents of fear that have invaded these lands. Even as we speak, members of the Omega Defense Agency are compiling data about this new threat, and we are closing in on their base of operations. The masterminds of these massacres will answer for their crimes. That is my promise.”
Arus smiled at that, but there was something about the councilman’s guarantee that didn’t sit well with him. Justice? We're keepers of the peace. It isn’t our place to determine what may or may not be justice. That’s for the people to decide. Still, it was likely that Reikt was implying that our efforts to corral the people responsible would assist the world leaders of Omega in bringing them to justice. Arus shrugged it off.
“. . . go to any length to ensure the safety of these people,” the councilman was saying. “In the meantime, I request that anyone with any information about these attacks please contact the O.D.A. immediately. It is vital that we gather every shred of data that we can to prevent further incidents."
If they were lucky, the Del’Carjhal data core would shed some light on the attack at the Command Station. Arus wasn’t entirely clear on how much information the thing stored, but Aly described it as the center of the base's network. Something like that must hold something useful.
“Stand strong, my friends, for we will soon take the fight to the enemy’s doorstep!”
The transmission ended there. Another tone came from the terminal, this one a singular beep that drew out for an extra instant before silencing. "Reqloc, Sir," Aly said. "Someone is looking for you, it seems."
Arus raised an eyebrow. A Reqloc was a general transmission broadcast throughout a selected area of space. They were most often used to deliver urgent messages to deployed soldiers such as birth or death notices. Did something happen to Mother? "Acknowledge and respond."
Aly tapped a few keys. Another moment, another beep. "It is marked private," Nasael noted, shooting Arus a look. "Origin unknown."
A rock formed in the pit of Arus' stomach. "Is there somewhere on this crate that I can take this?"
Juli, making her efforts not to stare at the implant blatantly obvious, pointed to the narrow stairwell. "Tactical station. It's in the forward section of the lower level. There's a comm there you can use. Come, I'll show you."
Nasael held his tongue as Juli led Arus to the ship's lower level. However, upon hearing the door to the tactical station close, he turned to Aly. "A bit unusual, don't you think?"
Aly continued looking at the stars. "What's that, Corporal?"
"A private transmission from an unknown source," he said, leaning back in his chair. "It strikes me as odd that a junior grade lieutenant is receiving encrypted messages."
The thanai didn't respond at first. Her eyes seemed distant, unfocused. When she spoke, she merely recited regulations. "It's not our business. He is our commanding officer for the moment. Our only concern is to follow his lead."
Her words were loyal, but she offered little in the way of her own feelings. Nasael wanted to know—no, he needed to know if there was anyone on that ship he could trust with his discovery about their esteemed leader. He couldn't lead a mutiny without some support. "I thought he was going to get us killed back there. First, the auditorium almost crushes us all, then he takes us across the airfield without any cover to protect ourselves!"
Now she did look at him. "You were more of a threat to our safety than he."
Not that again. "Me? How I was I a danger out there today?"
She pointed to his forearm, now wrapped in white bandages to treat the burns he'd sustained earlier in the day. "You are reckless. You act without thinking, and you refuse to take responsibility for your mistakes."
That prompted an involuntary snort from Nasael. "I'm sure that's what Sheeth wants you to believe."
"What do you mean?"
Nasael looked to the steps, half-expecting to see the lieutenant staring back at him. When he didn't, he continued in a soft voice. "I have reason to believe that Arus Sheeth is not what he appears to be, but I do not know who I can trust."
She responded with neither shock nor anger. That was encouraging. If anything, there was a certain wariness to her voice that suggested she may have harbored similar suspicions. "What makes you say that?" she asked.
Commanding her interest was important, but it was no guarantee of cooperation. Best to stay vague until her feelings were clear. "A number of things. The fire at the Command Station, for example. He was the only one present when it was extinguished, but when asked about it, he completely dodged the question. A blaze that big should've taken an entire fire brigade to squelch. Don't you wonder how he did it? And so quickly, I might add?"
Aly shrugged, turning her attention back to the controls. "I do not know. I first laid eyes on the damage when Sergeant Garren pulled Arus and myself from the underground tunnel."
Curses! Nasael swore silently. The others had seen the fire, of course, because they had not followed the lieutenant underground. "That's a shame. I wish you could've seen it for yourself. It was quite . . . suspicious."
For an instant—a very brief instant—her dark eyes flashed as though a sudden and striking realization had hit her. "There may yet be a way."
Arus thanked Juli as he closed the door. The tactical station was larger than he'd expected. Walls of glass surrounded three chairs in the center of the floor, each facing its own interactive crescent display. During combat, gunners manned the transport's seven laser turrets through an intuitive interface which allowed for targeting and firing upon enemy ships simply by touching their images on the display. The very concept was difficult for Arus to wrap his mind around in spite of the technological wonders he'd beheld since leaving Terranias. The universe never ceased to amaze.
Dropping into the closest chair, he activated the comm and entered his Aeden Alliance the Reqloc response code. "This is Arus Sheeth. Does anyone copy this message?"
There was a brief silence. Then a female voice spoke, and his worries were put at ease. " . . . Arus?! Thank the Maker! You're alive!"
"I'm fine, Kit," he assured her. "Things got pretty hectic, but I made it out alive."
"Where are you?" she asked. "Damien got in touch with Admiral Dwynn at Luncia, but he said that your name didn't show up in any of the shuttle passenger manifests. The Refuge can't run scans from this far out, but Dwynn did sensor sweeps of the entire Athena system and was unable to find any ships outside of assigned craft."
"We're in an assault transport. I'm here with five others. We missed the shuttles, and this crate was the only thing left at the Spaceport. For some reason, neither the ship nor anything else within close range of it show up on sensors. I'm not sure what to make of that. We're heading for Luncia now, but I don't know if the fuel reserves on this thing will take us that far."
"Don't worry. Even if you only manage to make most of trip, you can signal the Luncian patrols with your coordinates, and they'll come get you. I'd offer to come with the Refuge, but we're escorting a very important figurehead from the thanai homeworld to a meeting with the Aeden Council. We're nowhere near your position, and this mission is not something we can just abandon."
"Don't concern yourself with us," Arus told her. "I'll get us back to the fleet one way or another."
"Who is your commanding officer at the moment?"
"I am, for now."
"There are no senior officers with you?"
Arus released a long breath. "I don't think any senior officers made it out of Del'Carjhal."
The comm fell silent for a moment. Arus thought he heard Kitreena whisper a prayer, but her voice returned a second later. "That's horrible, but not surprising. We've been hearing similar reports from bases across the Omega Region all day. Colonel Shalia had a grandson on Alurc. The last I heard, no one had been able to locate him."
Arus leaned back and gazed at the stars. "Whatever is going on, it's big. Much bigger than a simple band of pirates. That reminds me—have you ever heard of the Viochiati?"
"Viochiati? No, I can't say that I have. Why?"
"I had a bit of an encounter with some foreign fighters during our escape, and one of them told me that they were called Viochiati."
There was a pause while Kitreena thought. "Could that be the name of their race?"
"I don't think so. It sounded more like a tribe or gang name or something along those lines. He said they represented the people and intended to push the Alliance out of Omega."
"I'll see what I can find out. It's not as though I have much else to do; escort missions are pretty boring."
There was another momentary silence between them. Arus tried to direct his thoughts to anything other than her, but the universe never seemed as large as it did when they parted. And though he took his duty to the Alliance seriously, there were times when he wanted to run away from it all just for the chance to enjoy the pleasure of her company.
After a time, Kitreena spoke. "So, tell me about it. What was it like? How did it start? How did you escape?"
There were many details about the morning that Arus didn't want to remember. Things he knew he'd never forget. But as much as he wanted to spare Kitreena the unfortunate truth, it was the bitter reality she needed to hear.
When he finished recounting the day's events, Kitreena's reply was somber. "These are the actions of desperate people."
"I don't know," Arus said. "Even when Sergeant Baird took down that woman, they behaved as though it meant nothing. They didn't even seem to care!"
"They are committed to their cause. Truly devoted soldiers will fight for that cause—whatever it is—with every last drop of blood."
"I need to find out just what they're after," Arus said. "They think the Alliance is the enemy. I want to know why."
The conversation turned to Arus' escape and the incident at the Spaceport. His description of Chief Morsul's morphed form reminded Kitreena of beings she called "archics" that served as the guardians of the sky on her homeworld of Lavinia. It was odd, she said, to find an archic Morpher so far from the planet. To her understanding, those who come to maturity with the ability to morph into archics were automatically conscripted to the Royal Guard when they were of age.
"It was possible she was born away from Lavinia," Kitreena theorized. "But I haven't run into any other Morphers since leaving home. They are pretty dedicated to the homeworld."
Arus shrugged. "Regardless, she saved our lives. I regret that we weren't able to return the favor."
"She knew what she was doing. She helped you survive so that you might go on and help others. And someday, somewhere, when you come to the aid of someone in need, you'll be repaying Chief Morsul."
Her words provided a small dose of comfort, something he hadn't realized he needed until then. "Thank you," he said. "I won't let her down."
Kitreena must have sensed the crack in his usually brave facade, because she immediately attempted to lighten the mood. "So, captain of your own ship already, huh?" Her smile came through in her tone. "I knew you'd shoot through the ranks."
"Not by assignment," he said, waving a dismissive hand at the console. "Just circumstance."
"Don't take that lightly. This is your chance to show them you can handle it. Keep your crew in line and get back to the fleet safely, and they'll see you can lead independently in high-pressure situations."
Arus thought about it—the chance to captain his own ship. The possibility certainly offered more freedom than an assigned post under someone else's command. The honest truth was that the idea excited him. But one step at a time. With some patience and perseverance, he'd get there, but he had to focus on the work in front of him.
"Take control," Kitreena was telling him. "You don't have to be harsh, but you will need to be firm. Let them know that you are in command not only in rank but in composure. They will trust you with their lives if you show them they can rely—" Her voice cut out for a moment, then returned. "Sorry, I need to go. Apparently we have a staff meeting that I'm missing."
"Duty calls," Arus chuckled. "Send my regards to Damien and the crew."
"I will. And Arus? Be safe out there."
The communication ended. Arus leaned his head back for a moment, contemplating her words. She'd held the position of First Officer onboard the Refuge for years; she knew how to command a crew. If she believed he could do it, then maybe—just maybe—he could find a way to earn not only the obedience but the respect of Nasael.
When he returned to the upper level, he found Garren, Aly, Nasael, and Juli crowded beneath a wall terminal. The screen displayed what appeared to be video from the Command Station's security recordings. A small figure with outstretched hands stood in the center. Fire streamed from the station and gathered into a sphere over the figure's head. At that point, Nasael tapped a key on the terminal to freeze the video. Another tap magnified the image.
"How can that be?" Garren murmured.
The figure, of course, was Arus himself. And he'd been caught using the power of the Lifestone amulet on the Command Station's surveillance video.
Nasael, aware of Arus' presence, turned his head. He said nothing at first, but there was satisfaction in his smirk. Garren, Aly, and Juli then turned.
"What are we looking at, Arus?" Garren asked him. "How did you . . ." he trailed off, looking once more at the screen. "How?"
Nasael gave him no opportunity to respond. He drew his pistol and set its sights on Arus. "Lieutenant, I'm placing you under arrest."