Prologue

 

The years have aged since that first taste of the overwhelming greed of that intoxication.  More impressionable in youth, perhaps, its strength has only grown and now…. 

 

It was only mere moments nearer to now that The Accident happened, and the connecton was then unseen, but now dances in his mind like a tune that will not leave.  He dwells, now.  It should not have happened at all, he thinks in this dwelling.  But that feeling, that intoxication of potency, of the greed, and of the need to no longer fear….  It almost excuses it.  Almost.  The question that he asks himself now is whether that should have come to pass in his life; perhaps it was that which had the greatest impact, and not the death of those millions.  But then he sees that, once again, it is all about him.  He wonders if it would have been better if he had died in The Accident. 

 

 

 

 

 


 

1. The Accident

 

Patula was home.  It was an ancient city.  The Thaleans were a people that shared, and this was the place where it all happened at the great sharing centers where those that seeked out influence came to demonstrate their genius.  For millennia it was the largest, most advanced, and most influential cities that anyone knew of.  And when it became the capital of the Cooperative, the other worlds would feel its influence as well.  It was a massive city, Patula.  It was the center of commerce and politics for the Coopertaive and it was home for millions.  

 

At twelve cycles old, Brax traveled to and from his home in the subtrans without any problem.  He was on his way back home from a session with a specialist in neural interface systems, for which Brax had a natural affinity. It wasn’t exactly new technology, but most Thaleans preferred using their hands rather than just think what they wanted their devices to do.  Brax was an exception. He was attracted to not only the simplicity of a neural link, but also the ability it provided to seemingly control the world around him just by thinking gave him a feeling of control which a boy naturally lacks.  All that he had needed was the approval of his mother, and she had given it easily.  Mom was the best.

 

He browsed through his textpad for something to read on the interlink, even though the subtrans would arrive at his station shortly, but couldn’t decide what he was in the mood for. He downlinked two short articles that appealed to him and began to read the first when he heard a rather loud Kasarian to his left.  The blue forelimbs of the Kasarian were quite animated, apparently having been irritated by the Thalean next to him.  The suggestive limbs were accompanied by a analogous verbal component flung in a barely noticeable Kasarian accent. The accent was mostly what caught Brax’s ear, as it was rare to hear any accents other than Thalean, let alone another language, especially on Thalea. The intermixed languages of the Interstellar Cooperative had long replaced any planet’s particular languages, and only scholars even knew any of the original languages now. The fact that the common tongue was still called Thalean, despite the fact that it was very different from any of the ancient Thalean languages, didn’t seem to cause anyone any second thoughts. This is what made the Thalean’s response even more unexpected.

 

The Kasarian had pulled something out of his pocket that was unidentifiable to Brax, but he had no doubt, by the way the Kasarian held it, that it was something destructive. Most of the passengers stiffened, a few even moved slowly away, but the Thalean simply smiled, and looked very intently into the eyes of the Kasarian. His eyes were green. Not just green, but green, as if they almost seemed to radiate greenness. His smile was calm, amused, and confident. He looked at the Kasarian and didn’t move a millimeasure, but rather breathed slowly and stared confidently at his new adversary. The Kasarian looked confident too, but no indication of good humor could be discerned from his expression—Kasarians don’t exactly smile anyway, they just sort of bounce their heads in different rhythms and directions when pleased or displeased. In this case, the Kasarian was uncomfortably still, his apparent weapon poised in his hand, and asked the green-eyed Thalean what he thought of his friend now. The Thalean inhaled deeply, and spoke.

 

He didn’t speak in Thalean. He spoke in what could only have been ancient Kasarian, and with a very identifiable accent that one still heard from Kasarian uplinks, especially old ones, from time to time. The Kasarian became visibly uncomfortable, and made a gesture as to apologize, but it was too late. That’s when they all felt it.

 

 

Brax knew that he wasn’t the only one who was feeling it. He could see it in the eyes and expressions of the people around him—Thalean, Kasarian, Bruuk, Nisivalen, and even the one Diderondac—that this was a shared experience. Brax had certainly they never felt anything like this.  This was the feeling of swimming inside an energy field that you could feed on. It made you feel invincible, immortal, and terrified at the same time—at least for that first moment. As the feeling started to settle in Brax’s body, he slowly turned his head towards the scene of the encounter and noticed that the Thalean’s right hand had moved inside his coat and was gripping something that hung from his hip. There was a subtle glow coming from inside of that black coat which hung down to his ankles.  As he started to look towards the Thalean’s face the light grew more intense.

 

Now Brax started to feel confident himself, brazen even. The intensity of that feeling started to seep deeper into him and he looked down at his hands for a moment and could almost imagine lifting small mountains with them. Then something started to change, and the feeling started to change. At first it was a wrenching feeling in his stomach, then there was a brief flash in his mind, and…

 

And I felt as if the life withdrew from me for just a second. I looked at his face, and the Divi had done something. He had an intensity to him after he initiated the device that was horrifying. It was difficult to tell whether it was the device doing it or that intense stare he was giving the Kasarian, but I felt terrified, weak, helpless, and I wanted nothing more than to not feel that way ever again. I wanted to tear my self apart just to make it stop.

 

What’s happening to me, Brax thought. What is this feeling, and why won’t it stop? What is he doing?

 

I see it in the face of that Kasarian now; he’s feeling the same way I am, perhaps more so. His hand is still occupied by that object, but it seems empty now, useless. It is still pointed at the Divi, but something is different…. OH, he’s actually floating! The Divi is actually holding the stupefied Kasarian in some sort of stasis field that is lifting him up. I can see the Kasarian trying to struggle, I can see it in his eyes and taut muscles, but it’s like he’s being held in place by hundreds of invisible hands and lifted from the floor of the transport. The Kasarian is now backed against the side of the transport, and you can see the Divi’s green eyes looking—yes, it’s as if his look itself is making the Kasarian move—the Kasarian’s forelimbs and hindlimbs into a nice straight standing pose, weapon hand forced to his side, the Kasarian looking like he’s about to die of terror.

 

This is when the Divi calmly puts his left hand in his pocket and walks over to the Kasarian and looks up at him.

 

“It was a mistake for you to try something like this. You should not have come with that device of yours. Now I’m sorry to have to restrain you like this, but pulling out such a dangerous device on a public transport is a violation of Cooperative law, not to mention Protectorate law. I have no choice now but to relieve you of your…your toy…”

 

I see the “toy” that the Divi referred to float away from the hand of the Kasarian and in a flash it’s gone. It just vanishes in a flash of light. We are pulling into the station—not my station, but maybe I should get off of this thing, assuming I can.

 

“…and I’ll downlink your genetic signature to the central database in order to track you in the future. You know the rules; we’ll watch you for one cycle, and if you keep out of anything that might bother me or any of the other Protectors, we’ll stop tracking you. I suggest that you keep away from such devices in the future.  It will be better for you, for me, and for everyone else.”

 

Then the Divi switches off the device and in a flash the surge is gone and the Kasarian falls to the floor, catching himself with his hindlimbs, and runs out of the transport just as the doors open. The whole transport seems to watch him run through the light crowd at the station, then watch as the doors close, which seems to snap the rest of the trance we were held in.

 

Suddenly I find that I haven’t been able to get out of the transport after all. In fact, nobody besides the Kasarian has been able to move at all, which goes largely unnoticed by the few who have entered the transport from the station. I can only sit with the feeling of the surge fading, and I cannot take my eyes off of the Divi. his long coat swirling as he turns to sit down. And for a moment, his eyes meet mine and just for a second I can feel that surge again, and I’m not sure if it’s all in my head or if his attention is focusing it on me somehow…or if it’s both…. Then, his eyes now pointed elsewhere, his face drops into deep fear—no, surprise and fear—and a moment later, we all felt the explosion.  

 

 

In a flash the Divi reached into his coat and his strange glowing device was in his hand. But this time there was no subtle light, but a blinding flash. There was a momentary wave of something that brushed through everyone’s body.  The transport had become enveloped in a field that was translucent as it rapidly grew to surround everyone inside.  Everything seemed normal for a moment, but only for a moment. For the most brief of instants as that translucent field expanded I thought I could hear, and feel, a tremendous jolt of motion. Suddenly the lights went dark then, silence, stillness, and it felt as if the transport had not only stopped, but was suspended in space and time. I had thought that the emergency lights had kicked in, but the light was coming from outside the transport, through the window.  I look out of the window of the transport, and beyond the translucent barrier there is nothing but fire—no, plasma.  Everything around the transport is nothing but superheated material and I couldn’t help but marvel at its beauty, not quite realizing the implications yet. I didn’t think to be but three to four arms lengths from something so hot would be so, well, unnoticeable, and why it wasn’t burning out my retinas to look at it. The transport didn’t as much as shift even a little, but the world outside was molten metals and rock; what was the platform of a transport station in a massive city was now pure hot chaos.

 

Then it dawned on me that anything that could do that kind of damage would not leave much of a station behind. In fact, the amount of energy to do that much damage would have to do significant damage to the city itself.

 

The Kasarian!

 

All of those people in the station!

 

Mom?

 

Patula?

 

Just how much damage was there outside?

 

The moment seemed to drag on forever, and I could see the others in the transport looking out the window as well, and then I looked at the Divi.

 

His device was still in his hand and it was being held out in front of him. His face was pure concentration, and a single bead of sweat traced the side of his furrowed brow. The device itself was black, cylindrical accept for the one end which was round, transparent, and glowing with a sort of light that was both extremely bright and somehow itself transparent. The other end was an aperture that seemed useless at the moment, but I strained to imagine what such an opening might do, under certain circumstances, given what I was seeing now.

 

The Divi closed his eyes, and there was a subtle sense of motion. I looked out the window again and noticed that the transport was moving in a direction that it should not move considering we were underground; up. We were moving through fire and melted material that only seemed to be hotter as we ascended. After a moment, we left the surface and we were in the air, fire on all sides. And that’s when I saw what was left of the city. The entire skyline was gone, what was left was a enflamed crater which must have been hundreds of kilomeasures wide, if not more.. The city was gone, and my heart sank. I could not discern the expression on the face of the concentrating Divi, but the faces around both of us showed fear, grief, or utter disbelief.

 

Disbelief at what had happened outside, but perhaps more at what was happening inside. Almost nobody ever saw a Divi (or, at least, knew that who they saw was a Divi), and certainly nobody ever saw one doing what we were witnessing now.

 

The greatest of cities, home to more than 18 million, gone. But somehow we had survived, being near the very center of that city, which didn’t make any sense. As we climbed higher into the sky, I could catch glimpses of what lay below. There was nothing but a crater where the city had been. The world surrounding had either collapsed from the shock of the blast or was on fire—or both.

 

The abilities of the Divi and their enigmatic technology was legendary, but what was happening now still inspired awe. The Divi navigated the flying subterranean transport to the next city which lay some distance away, and which was approaching fast. Gullina was a beautiful city as well, but it was no Patula. The transport set down near the middle of town, and as we touched down the device switched off and with a final flash that translucent field dropped. Brax had hardly noticed an intoxicating fear that had settled into him—and everyone else—in the moments of confusion, but suddenly it was like having your heart ripped out, and Brax felt weak. The Divi stood up, looking intense and magnanimous. He put his device away on his waist, and looked around. He breathed deeply, looked down, and cleared his throat to speak.

 

“I am saddened to have to tell you all the following, but some explanation is in order. The experimental facility run by the Protectorate near the center of Patula has just exploded. The resulting blast has destroyed all of the city and much of its surrounding area. I do not expect that anyone—or anything—has survived within the city itself. As far as I can tell, all of you, as well as another Protector and several around him in another part of the city, are the only to have survived.

 

“My name is Menson. If you have any further assistance from me, go to any interlink terminal and ask for my name, and I will respond if possible. I have uplinked your genetic signature into the database and will respond to any of you personally as soon as possible. Given the nature and scope of this event, it may be some time before this is possible.”

 

Then he stopped, seeming to contemplate for a moment.

 

“I have to leave now to investigate the ramifications of this tragedy. I assure you that this was an accident.”

 

Then in a flash he was gone.

 

 

 


2. Exploration

 

Thalea was an advanced technological civilization well before they ventured into space. They had put satellites into orbit for purposes of astronomical research, communication, etc and thus had vast knowledge of what was within and beyond their planetary system—a system of seven planets of various sizes and compositions—but didn’t leave the confines of their home planet for a long time after they had the technology to do so. The Thaleans were not natural explorers.

 

They were, however extremely curious about how things work, and were usually found either putting something together or taking it apart. They investigate the world in front of them, and will persist in understanding how nature works, often to the point of obsession. This attribute was perhaps what allowed them to advance so quickly in their understanding of how to use energy and matter in ways that many other races had not begun to imagine upon encountering the Thaleans. Thus their technology surpassed that of any of the other races within the Cooperative until the Thaleans shared their technology with them. To the other races, the Thaleans had seemed, for centuries before the Cooperative’s formation, intimidating. But mostly they seemed supercilious.

 

The Thaleans were superior, in some ways. But it would be another attribute of the Thaleans that would be more prominent than any achievement or potency; it would be pride that would be their defining characteristic, but it was a pride that was built specifically to mask a deep fear that seemed to be shared, an essential part of their shared culture.

 

That fear had not always been there, at least not overtly, until long before the Cooperative was to be formed.  More than 2200 cycles before that explosion which destroyed their Capital City, a city that had never in its nearly 4000 cycles of existence seen any significant warfare or destruction, events transpired that would transform a groups of cities at conflict into a planet united by the seeming necessity of conflict with an enemy that didn’t yet have a face. 

 

The Thaleans were not warriors so much as they were natural oppressors.  They did not tolerate weakness or incompetence, but would rarely resort to physical violence as a means to this end.  In the year 785 Pre-Cooperative (PC)—2205 cycles before that explosion destroyed Patula—they were forced to be violent in a way that would change Thalea for the next seven centuries, at least.

 

Thalea has two continents, the Northern and the Southern. The rest of the planet is ocean, except for a few largely uninhabited islands of various sizes on the other side of the planet. Thaleans were naturally social, but not the sort to procreate at high levels—family was not a significant part of Thalean culture, and what family does exist usually remains informal and loosely defined. But around the year 820 PC, the Thalean governments started discussions concerning space-exploration, which had started to become more interesting to Thaleans in recent generations. A few unoccupied and automated ships had been sent around to the other planets and meticulous research was done on what was found there, but few desired to get on one of these ships themselves and hop around one of these cold rocks or swim their gassy seas. They were more interested in building the ships that could do it for them, and preferred to stay home.

 

That changed when some signals, seemingly intelligent in origin, were picked up five years previous in the year 825 PC. It was a signal with a pattern that was too complex to be natural, and too interesting to ignore. The Thalean researchers simply could not make any sense of the signal, despite their best attempts, and so discussions arose impelling them to seek out the source of these signals to determine what they were for, who sent them, and why. In 820 PC curiosity overpowered the impulse to stay home, and three ships were designed and built during the next fifteen cycles.

 

These were the first attempts to build Thalean ships designed to carry people, and they succeeded in developing masterpieces of design and technology. The one immensely fast scout ship and two also impressively fast, very large, and well armed ships were ready for launch in late 805PC. Early the next year, after meticulous testing in orbit, the scout ship was sent towards the source of the received signal, and the other two ships were sent to nearby star-systems that showed signs of possibly life-supporting planets.

The scout ship, The Fez, arrived in what the Thaleans thought was the source of the signal in less than three cycles. Despite the beauty of a nearby nebula, the local yellow star, and six planets, nothing was found that could have been the source of the signal. Perplexed, the Thaleans set up a research station on a small rocky and uninhabitable planet nearby and scoured the planetary system for any clue at all. They looked for other systems beyond this one, along the same trajectory the signal would have traveled, but found nothing but space, and eventually the edge of the galaxy itself. The Thaleans built a small unmanned listening post and put it in orbit of one of the planets, then returned to Thalea in 797. By the time they would arrive, Thalea would be on the brink of a new era.

 

The first of the other two ships, named after the largest city on Thalea, Patula, arrived at the first planet in a bit more than two years (803 PC), and would find a habitable planet—if not a bit cold for Thalean taste. They remained nonetheless and searched the other eleven planets in the system, setting up a small colony on the planet for the more than 500 Thaleans who made the trip. After some deliberation, most of the colonists remained on the planet while the ship and its crew continued analysis of the rest of the system. 

 

In command of the Patula was Zuzek Damula.  Before this command, Damula had been a politician, successful stretegist, and an intense man.  Being away from home was, at first, an honor and an excitement.  But it is not in the nature of Thaleans to be explorers, and so after some time had gone by many of the passengers—especially the civilians who had joined the expedition—started to become anxious and some even tried to convince Damula that the mission should be cancelled, and the Patula should turn around.  After a few months, these voices subsided and they remained en route. 

 

Upon reaching the planet, the decision to create a colony was easy.  The Thaleans were home sick, but another two years in transport to get back was absurd, as the relativistic effects of their travel meant that the world they would return to would have moved on in the mean-time.  Those that had left on the Patula had apparently decided to leave Thalea behind, and so most would think of this newer, colder, planet as home. 

 

Damula had grown more and more concerned in dealing with the frustrated co-explorers, and was glad to have the majority of them off the ship.  He had grown more impatient with them as time grew on, and he wondered how his friend, Commander Rilko, was handling her crew.  Theirs was a longer journey to their destination so they were still on their way, but Rilko was certainly more patient than he.  He had not heard from her directly since they both left Thalea, and he missed their talks and their long evenings together.  He had wished that they could have served on the same ship, but she had warned him that she was nominated for the same position as he.  When they were both chosen to command the two ships, he knew they would most likely never see one-another again.  He wore this with a heavy, yet hidden, heart for the years of the Patula’s journey. 

 

 

Damula sat at his desk of his office aboard his ship around five years into their mission, the colony below having been some two cycles old and apparently thriving.  Over time, those who preferred the planet had weeded themselves naturally from those that preferred being on the ship.  Most preferred the ground, but enough remained on the ship to maintain it, so Damula was not concerned about not having sufficient crew for the exploration of the system they were in.  Damula was looking over some geological reports from the small, rocky, and poisonous planet they were in orbit of when his Officer of Communications walked in through the open office door.   She greeted him curtly and handed a piece of paper to him that looked like it was from Thalean Command with a short message on it.  Her face revealed bad news, and Damula thanked her and asked her to leave and please close the door. 

 

She did so, and as the door closed he put aside the reports and turned the paper towards him.

           

Priority One message for Thalean Exploration ship Patula Commander Zuzek Damula:

 

Exploration ship THALE en route to destination A, has not replied to three most recent communication attempts in the last two months.  Sufficient time has passed in order for any message sent to be received in orderly manner.  In addition, no automatic beacon reply has been received for more than referred to amount of time.  Last communication and last known coordinates for THALE location is included in full periodic report.

 

I’m sorry my old friend. I hope she’s OK,as  she is my friend too.  You have standing orders, so you know what you need to do. 

 

Officer Carron Wulliter.

 

Damula’s face melted into pure shock and anger as he read the lines.  His mind searched for a dozen explanations for why Rilko could not, or would not, respond.  But for the automatic beacon to not respond would imply that it was destroyed or turned off.  Why it would ever be turned off escaped Damula, and he knew that something was wrong.  He knew that the ship was likely destroyed, malfunctioned, or otherwise nonfunctional which meant that the crew and all it passengers would likely all be dead or stranded.  Damula dropped the paper and stood up, holding onto the top of his chair to prevent himself from falling over as he felt his knees giving out.  The Thale held about as many people as the Patula, but one was coming to mind more than any other.  Commander Rilko.

 

Damula had missed her; that was for sure.  But he was suddenly aware of feelings that he had not felt—had not allowed himself to feel—for some time.  The long repressed loss of his friend and lover no longer fit inside its armor, and in a flash of newly found anger he threw his office chair against the wall, causing a loud impact that compelled a few exclamations of surprise and fear from the crew on the other side of the wall.  This action surprised him as well, and Damula tried to search his mind for the origin of his outburst, but only found confusion and fear.  As an officer burst into the room, Damula looked at him in confusion and Damula found himself shaking.

 

“Commander Damula, what has happened here, are you alright?”

 

Damula searched for something to tell the young security officer, and as the superior security officer nudged his subordinate out of the way to inspect the scene, Damula could only look at the paper on the floor, and he found his answer.

 

“The Thale had been lost.  Commander Rilko and her crew are almost certainly adrift and most likely dead.  We must assemble the senior officers immediately and discuss what our next move is.”

For a long moment the two security officers merely looked at Damula in disbelief, and Damula was finally able to get a hold of his emotions and straightened himself up. 

 

“That was an order, officer!”

 

“Yes sir” the Officer of security said in a low voice with an edge of emotion in it. The two security officers left the room and Damula forced himself to sit, but found that his chair was not where it was supposed to be.  Finding it still intact but below a point of impact on the wall, he merely leaned against his desk, the bridge crew turning to look at the distraught yet increasingly composed Commander.  Damula noticed their surprised gawking, and forcefully commanded them to get back to their stations and return the ship to the colony immediately.  As they began to do so he walked intently across his office and picked up his chair, carried it back to the area behind his desk, and sat down.  He stared at the wall for a moment as he felt the subtle vibrations of the ship starting to move. 

 

My standing orders are to remain here until I receive orders to do otherwise. Damula thought to himself.  But I know Wulliter, and he knows that the right thing to do is to investigate the disappearance.  I will have to convince the others that we need to break with standing orders and leave, whether we have been given those new orders or not. Damula didn’t think it would take much convincing.  The question would be who would stay at the colony, and whether the colony would ever see this ship again if they left.  Damula doubted it.

 

Before he got up to meet with the other officers, Damula promised himself he would never allow this anger to surface again in such a violent manner.  Thus it was that he found a new tenant for his repressive armor.  A more perilous guest is anger than loss, especially when said anger is the child of loss.  It is this demon that began to grow inside Damula, and it would mature and strengthen within him.

 

 

Within a few days, those who decided to remain on the colony had made their final arrangements, and those that were going with Damula had settled as well.  Damula, with his less than one hundred person crew, input their navigation trajectory and fired up the engines.  They had a long trip ahead of them, and once again the Patula was an exploratory vessel. 

 

This time the trip was easier.  Years of journey had weeded out who was truly an explorer and who had joined an exhibition only to run away from something.  Damula found that he was beginning to enjoy command after all, despite his tribulations.  He had a fine crew; they were the smartest and most innovative Thaleans available for such a journey, and many found that they actually enjoyed the prospect of seeing new places.  But Damula slowly eased himself into the realization that despite his incident involving a thrown chair, he was happier out here than he ever was on Thalea with Rilko and others he left behind.  He slowly began to realize, along their long journey in search of Rilko and her ship, his anger had been, in part, at the realization that he had started to care more about this ship than he did for his friend.  He was afraid that he was losing what it meant to be a Thalean.  He was afraid that exploration had taken away his identity.  He was afraid to become something alien. 

 

As each day passed he felt less normal, and the resentment of this tucked itself into that armor of his for the next few years, feeding the demon within.  He simply didn’t know what he would do if he did see Commander Rilko again.  He began to fear that he’d prefer she be dead than to see her alive and possibly find that she had changed as well.  This, of course, was not what he said to himself so much as what he spent so much energy trying to pretend wasn’t true.  It just so happens that the new tenant of his armor fed on just this repression, and as Damula got closer to the Thale’s last-known position, this anger peeked its head out now and again and before long the crew began to notice that the Commander had changed. The intense but composed man had occasionally become erratic and forceful.  The crew, in short, became scared of what they saw that day he found out about the Thale and its Commander’s likely fate.

 

Since the Patula was further from the Thale’s last-known coordinates than Thalea, it would take the Patula nearly five-and-a-half cycles to get there.  It was a long time for such thoughts to stew.  On Thalea, a similar set of emotions was stewing, and the government feared the worst and prepared for a potential dangerous neighbor and built planetary defense weapons, including a small fleet of well armed and shielded ships. Not being naturally violent or interested in large-scale conflict, these weapons first had to be conceived then invented, but within five years the planet was ready for whatever the galaxy could throw at them.

 

Or so they, perhaps arrogantly, thought.

 


 

3. Aftermath

 

Brax hated Gullina, but Brax hated everything right about now.  The survivors of The Accident—that is what the media had picked up from the Protectorate and thus regurgitated in reference to the loss of the Cooperative’s capital city—had been perpetually swarmed with attention, interviews, and even a little mistrust. 

 

Gullina was a smaller city west of the crater that was once Patula. Its 6.5 million residents were primarily descendents of those that had been the builders of the warships of the ancient Nimri times.  They now were the primary designers, technicians, and repair experts for ships of all kinds.  Thus, the city was surrounded by spaceports and repair bays, making Gullina a hub for interstellar trade and greater cultural mix as well. Gullina was the only city on Thalea were Thaleans were the minority.  It was the only city that was dominated by a central Diderondac influence of architecture with large irregularly shaped buildings not held to the ground by physical structure but rather held in place by invisible force-fields.  This choice of form over simple function was distasteful to most Thaleans who preferred simple square or circular buildings.  The residents of Gullina had always been more accepting of foreign ideas, and had gladly accepted the offer from the Diderondac to rebuild Gullina after the Nimri destroyed most of it in the last ancient war. 

 

 As for Patula, Menson had been right; nobody survived except those that happened to be near the Protectors—the derogatory term ‘Divi’ had suddenly lost its prevalence out of what was called respect (but was really fear).  That’s not exactly right; there were another few Protectors in the city, but they had been inside the Protectorate experimental facility when it exploded and had not enough time to react to the explosion.  As far as anyone knew, these were the first Protectors to die in more than 1400 cycles.

 

Of course, nobody seemed to know what caused the explosion.  The Protectors said they were investigating but did not know the cause either.  Many were suspicious of this proclamation, but fear of the Protectorate’s ubiquitous presence and power made verbal reservations of this kind rare, and very quiet.  No implied reprisal was given for such remarks, but there had always been an uneasy feeling about the Protectors from the others despite the lack of any conflict between them.  In fact, had it not been for the return of the Protectors, the Nimri may never have been prevented from destroying every city on the planet (and then perhaps every other planet), but there was something about them that scared people—especially Thaleans.  The fact that they were Thalean, very old Thaleans, made this relationship even stranger. 

 

The survivors were mostly Thalean, as would be expected in a city that was predominantly demographically Thalean.  Those that were not were all reunited with family in other cities or planets, but the Thaleans had generally lost all of their family in the explosion, as families of Thaleans rarely move from their home city as they prefer to remain home.  There were exceptions, of course, and as it turned out Brax was one of them. 

 

Haddick, the governor of Gullina’s local government had taken Brax in to stay with him the night of the explosion, and as Brax sat in front of an untouched dinner, the governor came in for a few minutes to talk with the boy, chasing away his staff for a little while.  Brax was reticent, and Haddik tried to make pleasant conversation with him, but getting nowhere. 

 

“Brax, I know that this time is not easy for you, and I want very much to help.  I was just reading that your father had died some years back, and that you lived with your mother.  I’m terribly sorry for your loss, for all of your losses.”

 

The boy looked at the roast in front of him, feeling hungry but somehow unable to get himself to eat.  He thought of his mother who he had just seen for the last time earlier that morning, and felt hollow.  Governor Haddik looked at the boy with saddened eyes at what the boy must be feeling, but forced himself to pull out a small pad from his lap and placed it on the table in front of Brax.  Brax refused to look at it.  After a few moments, Haddik shifted in his seat and gained Brax’s attention with a cleared throat and a forced smile.

 

“Would you be interested in possibly staying with your fathers sister—your aunt—for at least a little while?”

 

Brax stiffened a little at this.  He knew that he had an aunt, an older sister of his father that he did not remember.  He thought of his mother, who apparently hated the woman.  She had rarely mentioned her, and when she did a pained expression overcame her face which she seemed to repress when Brax caught it.  His mother was a strong woman who rarely reacted to anything emotionally, so this expression always surprised him.  He always wondered who this woman was that caused such pain and anger to come to the surface of his mother’s tough exterior, but something had always prevented himself from finding out who she was.  Brax felt a sudden rise of sadness overcome him as he imagined his mothers face, and he lowered his head and forced the sadness down low.  He didn’t want the governor of Gullina to see him sad and weak.  He wanted to remain strong, like his mother was strong the day that she heard that Brax’s father was dead.  This thought raised the memory of lulu birds and his mother’s face as she woke him up that morning with the sun streaking in through the window.  Brax forced this memory from his mind and shook his head to clear it before he looked back up.

 

“I understand that you have not seen her in many years and probably do not remember her at all, but according to the interlink she still lives in Cesternatton.  You are welcome to stay here if you like, as long as you like, but if you would prefer to be with family it looks like she is the closest family that you have that is still ali—”  Haddik caught himself at this, as he saw the word he was about to utter cause pain in the boy.  He could not imagine how hard this was for him, and yet he felt a little proud that the boy was able to take it so well.  He cleared his throat again and moved to stand up, then stopped as he saw Brax looking at him, obviously fighting the pain inside him.

 

“Brax, I’m sorry I said anything, we can talk about this tomorrow, if you like.”

 

Brax watched him for a moment as the governor got up and walked across the room.  Brax also noticed that the pad was still on the table in front of him, but the image was obscured by a glare from the light across the room.  As Haddik opened the door to the hallway, he looked back and caught Brax looking at the pad he had left on the table with some anticipation, and then passed through the door, shutting it quietly behind him.  Brax waited a moment, but his curiosity overpowered him.  He looked again at the door, and heard that the governor’s footsteps lead him towards the office down the hall.  Brax heard a chair move across the floor in that office, and what sounded like the governor sitting down to his desk to do some work.  Brax reached across the table and pulled the pad towards him and turned it around to catch a glimpse of an image of a woman.  She was beautiful. He could even see a resemblance to his father, who he barely remembered.  Brax read the short bio with interest, and quickly learned that he has a family member that is quite accomplished, yet somehow unknown to him.  She had become an expert in ancient history, studied on Kasaria for many years, taught at the University of Cesternatton for many years later, and did indeed still live in Cesternatton where Brax had lived before his father died. 

 

In looking at this profile, Brax wondered what it was about her that had made his mother react so strongly to her.  What could an accomplished historian have done to make his mother so irritated?  Brax wondered once again why it was that his mother had decided to leave Cesternatton, the city of her entire family as well as Brax’s.  It was a rare thing for anyone to do, especially someone from Cesternatton, and she decided to do so the very day after Brax’s father died. 

 

Brax considered possibly inquiring about his mothers friend—was he a cousin of his mother? He just didn’t know—who had visited last year.  What was his name…Brax just couldn’t remember right now, and perhaps this was reason enough to toss this idea.  Brax knew that there were other family members of his still in Cesternatton, but he had not seen them in many years and was not close to any of them.  The mystery of this woman, this Shontesta, whom his mother apparently disliked greatly, began to draw complex swirls of curiosity in Brax’s mind, and he decided that he would at least want to meet her, talk to her, and find out what made his mother react in such a way.

 

At that, Brax decided he was exhausted, and retired to the room he was given to sleep in.  His sole surviving possession, a textpad he had just modified this morning, lay on the bed.  The clothes he had been given to wear was laid out on the top of a dresser, and Brax looked at them as if they were clothes befit for a Kasarian—they were alien and looking at them made his insides feel ill.  He sat on the bed, and found himself falling backwards onto the bed.  Catching himself, he squirmed backwards to pull himself towards the pillows and lay on his back and closed his eyes, the last thing he heard as he fell towards sleep was the muffled conversation of Gullinan officials still talking a few rooms away.  

 

He dreamed of death that night.  He dreamt of fire, of his mother, and he dreamt of that feeling that he felt in that transport before the explosion.  He had almost forgot about that feeling. Almost.


4. The Nimri

 

Late in the year 794 PC, the Patula arrived at the last known location of the Thale. Finding nothing but empty space, they progressed along the trajectory to the ship until it detected fragments of what they concluded was the remains of the massive ship. They were the remains of a massive explosion apparently, and forensic investigation seemed to rule out the possibilities of engine malfunction or power surge in the reactor. The investigation made it clear that the ship was, as the Thalean government feared, attacked and destroyed. Further investigation concluded that the system that the Thale was en route to was filled with faint energy signatures and so Damula commanded that they head straight towards it. 

 

As the Patula approached the system, detection of massive power sources and various artificial structures, objects in space, and signals of the same sort as the one the Fez had been sent to study were picked up and recorded. Confident in their ship and its armaments, the Patula headed straight for the planet where most of the signals were coming from, and began signaling them to announce their approach and to demand an explanation as to why the Thale was destroyed.

 

And here is where the Thalean pride becomes significant. They were certain that the Thale must have been destroyed without warning. They couldn’t believe that such a ship of mastery could have been destroyed in an honest fight so easily, and without any sign of debris from any other ships. So sure were they that the Thale was destroyed through deception or before it’s shielding could be powered up, that they were not prepared for what was about to happen.

 

Just as the Thale had been equally unprepared.

 

Before the Patula could approach the planet, a smaller ship contacted the Patula on their own Thalean frequencies, in the Thalean primary language, using Thalean identification codes embedded in the stream;

 

“Discontinue your approach towards the planet, hold your position, and don’t bother powering up your defenses”

 

The message was in perfect Thalean with a Patulan accent. No detectable translation program was apparent in the feed, so the Commander smiled and seemed heavily relieved. It was an audio message only, so the commander of the Patula responded in kind, a bit confused but pleasantly so.

 

“This is Commander Damula of the Thalean defense ship Patula. Please identify your rank, name, and please explain how you survived that explosion on the Thale. And please tell me you were not the only one to survive.”

 

There was a moment of silence that seemed to last too long for comfort. The smaller ship, in the mean time, placed itself in an aggressive position directly beside the Patula and powered up its defenses. The Commander’s smile melted away, and he motioned to his officer of defense to power up shield-plating while he replied;

 

“Commander Damula to unidentified ship, please explain why you have powered up weapons. Please identify yourself. Again, this is the Thalean defense ship Patula. We came in search of a ship, the Thale, that we lost contact with some time back, and found the remains of it on the course for this system, having been apparently attacked. Do you know about this attack, whom was responsible, and what was the cause of the aggression?”

 

Another moment, and then a response, in the same voice and language, although with more rasp than before, and much more than one would expect from a Thalean.

 

“There is no need of a cause for aggression. Aggression is.”

 

Damula turned to his officers and looked perplexed. This is not something any Thalean he had ever known would say. He responded;

 

“May I ask with whom I am speaking?”

 

“I am Hull, from the Tuyin clan, dominant clan of the Nimri. We destroyed your ship. None survived. They were aggressive, and they were defeated. Are you from the same clan as the ship…the Thale…or from a different clan?

 

Damula looked pale. The officers in the control room looked angry, confused, and a few began to power up the rest of the defensive systems at the non-verbal request of the Commander.

 

“Am I to understand that you are not Thalean?”

 

“None of the 554 Thaleans survived”

 

A few of the officers winced, and the Commander now stood very erect, his voice gaining some rasp of its own.

 

“My curiosity has peaked, as your mastery of our language is impressive, considering you probably never even spoke to our sister ship before you destroyed it. Be warned that we will not be caught off guard in the same way.’

 

He turned to his officer of armaments and said, flatly and with a wry smile, while the channel was still open, his voice loud enough to make sure that the Nimri on the other side would hear it.

 

“Give that little piece of scrap metal out there a 10% energy burst with the main gun on my order.”

 

He waited a few seconds to see if the ship would flee, and when it didn’t he gave the order;

 

“Now!”

 

The main gun powered up and gave a short burst of fire onto the smaller ship, which hadn’t bothered to move, increase power to defenses, or fire back in any way. But the blast didn’t even touch the ship. The blast of energy made contact with an invisible force-field surrounding the ship—a very large shield that surrounded much more than it seemed to need to—and the ship didn’t as much as nudge.

 

“OK,” said Damula a little surprised, “make it 50%. Now!”

 

This time a more significant burst leapt from the gun, but again the ship next to them was not nudged a single measure. The field held and did not appear to waver at all.  When the noise of the guns died down, he could hear laughter through the speakers.  Damula gripped his hand into a fist, his eyes firing ire through the view screen, followed by a shot from his mouth;

 

“That’s it! Full attack. All guns open fire, now!"

 

A flurry of guns opened up, some missiles fired, and for a number of seconds the ship was hidden on the main screen in front of them by a ball of fire that seemed to caress and protect that field and the ship within, rather than attack it.

 

“Sir, I detect a 57% drop in power from that shield, but the ship is still intact and holding its position. It has not fired yet.”

 

Damula’s expression showed disbelief. This ship was armed with the most powerful weapons that the recently formed Thalean military had when they left Thalea 10 years before. The ship was operating at better than 98% capacity, according to the display in front of him.  He felt the demon living inside that arnor begin to thrash about, and the armor begin to buckle.  He turned to his crew and began barking orders at various officers who snapped to attention and hurried to follow orders given;

 

“Double check the current power levels of the reactor. Is there a malfunction in the weapons system? Are the weapons receiving full power from the reactor? Check the power relays to make sure that they are functioning at full capacity. Or maybe….”

 

The ship rocked suddenly, and alarms were blaring from multiple stations around the control room.  Officers were thrown to the floor of the control room and for a moment the lights flickers and the artificial gravity dipped in strength, but then reasserted.

 

“What the fuck was that?”

 

“I don’t know, Damula,” said a female voice from the controls next to him, getting to her feet to check her panel. “It seems to have been some sort of shock wave from the ship. It knocked us back some distance. I’ll compensate and stabilize the ship. Minor damage only, power levels returning to 94…no 95 percent.

 

“I want that ship back on communications!”

 

“It never left sir” said another voice. “We are still transmitting and receiving”

 

Damula walked purposefully, with unhidden rage on his face, to the visual display that showed a irritating little dark reddish-brown ship that was farther away now (hell of a shock wave, apparently, he thought but quickly dismissed) but moving slowly closer. Just a few moments ago, before that shock wave hit, that view had been a sea of explosions and energy bursts. The armor that had held back the anger in him had not only burst open, but simply ceased to exist.  His mind reeled with pure livid intensity as he stared at the little ship on the view screen, and he turned back to the officers behind him and began to seethe, visibly and audibly;

 

“I want that little piece of shit out of my sight. Open up all weapons and release the safeties from the reactor. I want to burn that thing with every quanta of energy that reactor can output. I don’t care if you melt the guns to do it, but destroy that fucking ship, NOW!”

 

A feverish crew, perhaps afraid to even question the Commander in this state, began to make the necessary adjustments as the Commander turned back to the display to notice the smaller ship just sat there, as if it were taunting him. It still seemed to be moving closer.

 

“Why won’t you run? Are you not afraid of us?” he said under his breath. “Are the Thaleans impotent to you, hmm? I will destroy you, do not even fucking think that we can’t!” he said, his voice rising to more audible levels, face quivering. It was a deadly anger that was not unseen by his crew, but never at such intensity.

 

Again, that voice from the other ship, once again calm and but still amused, responded.

 

"Yes, yes, I’ve heard this all before. Another of our ships of the Tuyin clan, commanded by a close acquaintance of mine, played back the audio from the transmission from the other ship…your Thale…. Its Commander made much the same threats, though I must say that your performance was much more convincing and amusing. I must say that I have been very pleased to have heard it. Your race is a weak race, not a worthy adversary really, which is why I ultimately don’t agree with my friend in his decision to destroy your Thale despite his reasons. It would have been much better to just kick you around for a bit then send you home crying, like the losers that you are.”

 

He paused for a moment and the ostensive taunting was replaced by the sounds of subtle motions by officers making the necessary adjustments to the power systems and weapons. Then Hull seemed to get audibly restless and impatient, as there was a bit of an edge of annoyance in his voice now;

 

“Well, since you are still making those oh so deadly adjustments to your power system, I might as well play it for you…let me see, I’ll load it into the communication system and play it on your own speakers, and you can take it home and play it to your government and they can all get quite angry and bemused by how the great Thalean civilization is not so great after all.”

 

The next moment a voice began to transmit. It was unmistakably Commander Rilko, of the Thale. Damula would recognize her voice anywhere, even after all these years.  He heard a familiar pitch, intonations, but that anger… that was new.  He suddenly became aware of the state that he was in, and was now hearing what he had become himself.  His fears, that he had changed, had apparently not been his own.  The same threats, the same disbelief, anger, and….was that fear? It was fear. Rilko sounded terrified in that transmission. Did Damula sound terrified too? No, impossible, he thought forcefully.

 

Then, after no more than a minute of listening to that Commander yell threats and commands to his officers to do just the same thing as Damula had just commanded, which gave pause to the officers and their commander—frozen in disbelief at what they were hearing—the transmission cut out, and Hull continued, this time almost laughing again;

 

“Yes, that was when my clansman gave your big strong ship a warning shot, as you see your Commander Rilko decided to be more aggressive and started with that nice, orderly number of 25%, rather than your weak 10% effort. That little push we gave you was a mere jolt to get your attention. As you say ‘fuck’, it wasn’t even a weapon but a tool we use to move asteroids when we need to. The remains you seem to have found should be sufficient for you to notice that our ships are much more powerful than yours.  Such a small percentage of the power output from that ship of my clansman, which was a ship about the same size as mine, completely obliterated the great Thale, and the Thaleans within.”

 

Damula’s eyes froze in shock under furrowed brows. His whole body became rigid, his chest heaved with anger, his jaw and hands clenched, and the back of his shirt was soaked in sweat. He turned to his officer of armament and managed to get out two words between his quivering lips and clenched teeth.

 

“Kill that!”

 

The officer kept his eyes on Damula while he unhappily manipulated the controls, and the Commander turned to the view screen to watch the bombardment. The ship lurched and groaned as the reactor was at its peak of output, causing the lights in the control room to dim to almost blackness. As the reactor gave as much as it could give, and as the slow initiating hum of the backup minor reactors kicked in more power to compensate, the view screen flickered back on and the ship was still there, with not a visible scratch on it as the explosions dissipated.

 

“I detect approximately 25 percent power on their shield, and superficial and minor damage to the ship itself. Our main gun, secondary guns, and missile batteries are all burned out or depleted, and main power is offline. I estimate at least a day before we can get the reactor back online with sufficient power to get the engine functioning at any more than 25 percent. Our shielding is still near maximum. Your suggestion, Commander?”

 

Damula looked weakened and defeated. His legs shook and he was near to collapsing. He held himself from falling by catching himself on the communications station to his right, and merely stared at the ship through the view screen.

 

Then Hull spoke again, laughing as he spoke.

 

“Well, well. I see you have gone and burnt our most of your critical systems there. I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you a little help, and make sure to keep your detection system at maximum sensitivity for what’s about to happen, as it will give your researchers back home something to ponder for a few years…or centuries…. I’ll wait a minute because I know how slowly it takes you to adjust the settings on your new toy.”

 

The Officer of detection did, in fact, adjust the settings to maximum sensitivity and even turned on some on the non-standard detection devices (the ones that were still functioning, anyway), and waited. They all waited. For a moment or two nobody moved, breathed, and a heavy wave of anxiety settled in the room. Nobody had any idea what to expect.

 

The Commander was about to speak when all of the sudden he felt a slight tingling throughout his body. The feeling intensified and by the looks of the officers around him, he wasn’t the only one to feel it. Then the energy changed its….flavor? texture? It changed in a very noticeable way and there was a sort of flash of light, and a moment of disorientation.

 

 

When the flash was gone, and the Commander could see again clearly after a second or two, he turned to the view screen again. And his jaw dropped. He was looking at Thalea, around which the ship appeared to be orbiting.

 

“Officer, please verify our position.  Is that Thalea or is the view screen malfunctioning?”

A moment of officers checking data, and one responded with utter disbelief in his voice.  “Yes Commander, it appears as if we are home.”

 

Damula’s fear had transformed into awe.  They had traveled, in a flash, a distance that should have taken years at maximum speed. He wanted to know how that was possible.

 

And that’s when Damula noticed one of the new planetary defense satellites approaching, with guns fully charged and ready to fire.

 

 

 

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