Spiritum – Chapter Seventeen

17.

Llannaeia remembered little of the night before but she felt its effects all too well. Her head felt like it had been bounced off a pavement, her stomach like it had been kicked repeatedly, and her knuckles ached something awful. When she looked at the bruises on the back of her hand she recalled the taste of alcohol as it flowed down her throat, the pounding of kick drums on some electronic music track, and the uncomfortable feeling of sweaty bodies bumping up against her own. Everything else was a fuzzy, drunken mess of bright lights, blurred faces, and loud music.

She recalled the earlier events of the day far easier. The look in the eye of that pathetic waste before she pulled the trigger, seeing her sister in the forest, beating the shit out of the training automata, then opening her door to find Iona standing outside. That part would likley remain with her for the rest of her days. She was the last person she’d expected to see when she opened her door. From there, Llannaeia slowly pieced together the events that lead to her being in the state she was now. The journey back to Valarayan was spent pacing her quarters, stopping occasionally to punch walls and kick the bed. Why did she have to come and find her? Why couldn’t she have stayed away? She’d needed something to take her mind off Iona, anything. The gym wouldn’t cut it this time. But then she remembered Jace’s invitation to a night out in Auremeb. It’d be a nightmare, but maybe also just the thing she needed to get her sister out of her head. As they were coming into Tylest base, Llannaeia found him and asked if the invitation was still open, which it was. She remembered the stupid look in Jace’s eye when she asked. No doubt he thought his opportunity to get into her pants had opened up again. Their shore leave was due to begin as soon as they returned from their assignment so they were free to do as they pleased once the Rimor was docked. Llannaeia started getting ready after reporting in only to realize she had nothing suitable to wear. Luckily, Private Alman was able to lend her a black slip dress and matching high heels. She only just managed to fit into them but it was good enough. She then met up with the others and they embarked on the shuttle ride down to the spaceport in Auremeb, then the night would begin. Jace had his eyes on her practically the whole way. She remembered very little after that. Where they went, what they did, all just a blur though judging by the state of her knuckles something must have happened. She just prayed she didn’t fuck Jace.

As she stared at the planet below, Llannaeia tried to recall the words of General Stell. Her half-drunken state left everything fuzzy. She barely remembered her meeting with the General despite it being only minutes since she and Captain Oross left his office. She remembered sitting across from him with the captain of the Rimor seated beside her. One thing she was able to recall with vivid clarity was the look in the General’s eye. As soon as they arrived she knew he’d called them there to discuss something big. It was starting to coming back. The General apologized for calling them back from shore leave so early, but there was a matter of utmost urgency that needed to be attended to, and no other ship or crew he would trust with it. Llannaeia spent the meeting worrying she might throw up all over the desk. The General had certainly noticed her state.

He talked about the situation between the Imperium and the Confederacy, the recent tension that resulted from the actions of Freedom for All, the members captured and killed by the Imperium, and the less-than-successful meeting at the Assemblage Station. “The Executive Council has agreed that, after this business with Freedom for All, war with the Imperium is inevitable, and likely to happen sooner rather than later”, he’d said. Llannaeia saw the fear in him.

What he said next surprised, puzzled and slightly disappointed her. She’d expected to hear that they were being tasked with taking out the leaders of Freedom for All, but then the General started talking about forming an alliance with another power and how it was the only way the Confederacy could survive. “Chancellor Calsen is going to reach out to the Aq Quhn Ran Asten and propose a military alliance between them and us”. Llannaeia didn’t believe her ears. She had to ask the General to repeat himself, slurring her words as she did. The look she received churned her stomach. If he didn’t know she was still drunk before he certainly did then.

They discussed the mission at great length. The Rimor had been selected to take the Chancellor to the Aq Quhn Ran Asten homeworld. Llannaeia and her marines were to protect her at all costs. Also, the Assembly was being kept in the dark about it. Llannaeia had no complaints there. She’d never cared for all the political bullshit. It just seemed to get in the way. “This operation relies on the utmost secrecy. The media, the public and not even the Assembly are to be made aware of it, not until it’s done. If the Imperium learns of this, it will almost certainly lead to catastrophe. Only the Executive Council, the cabinet and we know about this and that is how it is going to stay for now. No one else can know. We can’t risk it getting back to Nero. Not even the rest of your crew can know, not until after you leave”.

Captain Oross was putting on the usual military bluster, promising the General they wouldn’t fail him or the Chancellor. Llannaeia preferred not to speak so soon. She knew what they were getting into, even before the General explained the risks. “Just to be clear. As I am sure you are both well aware, The Aq Quhn Ran Asten are hostile and unpredictable and because of that this mission is extremely dangerous. Nothing like this has been attempted before, so we have no way of predicting how they will react to a human ship entering their territory. But you both swore an oath to lay down your lives for the Confederacy and its people, and I expect you will honour it”. Llannaeia remembered not being frightened despite knowing how much she should be. She felt honoured and excited to be part of something so great. In truth, she didn’t care what happened next. She was ready to die, preferably with a weapon in her hand.

The meeting ended with the General wishing them good fortunes on their mission which they were to begin preparation for immediately. Llannaeia lost her balance momentarily when she stood up, catching the attention of both Captain Oross and the General. She wanted to recall as much of the meeting as possible but her conversation with the Rimor’s captain afterward was one of the many things she wished she could forget entirely.

“So, I take it you had a good time last night”? If he was at all worried about what he’d just been told he did a very good job of hiding it.

“It was OK”. A complete lie. It was horrible, just as she’d expected.

“I didn’t think you were into that sort of thing”.

“I’m not. I just needed to blow off some steam”. The fuckheads that flailed around in those clubs thinking they were dancing, listening to shit music, groping each other and drinking piss made Llannaeia wish for a war with the Imperium.

“Is everything alright”?

Llannaeia remembered feeling her fists clench. “Everything’s fine”.

He stopped her in the middle of the corridor. “You know if you ever need to talk I-”

“I’m going to stop you right there. I’m fine, OK? I don’t need to talk about anything going on in my life, especially with you. We’re not friends. We’re colleagues, and that’s all we’ll ever be”. He was another one, acting like he gave a shit when all he wanted was to get her into bed. She’d had enough of that shit.

He stepped closer. “What happened to your hand”?

Llannaeia’s heart sank. Between listening to the General and hiding her drunkenness, she’d spent the meeting trying to keep her bruised knuckles concealed. Evidently not hard enough. She still couldn’t remember, not a lot at least. The Captain’s question conjured images of flashing lights and blurred faces. Slowly, they began to take shape. Everyone was staring at her. A man’s face looked up at her, a picture of terror. It was all coming back, the pain in her knuckles growing with every blow to flesh and bone. They’d been on the dancefloor. They were dancing, or doing what passed for dancing in those places. She just stood there with an overpriced drink in her hand. She was already drunk. People were staring at her, guys mostly, no doubt all thinking the same thing. Her glare was enough to discourage the majority of them, but this one guy was a little more courageous. He came striding up with a smirk and fed her some bullshit line he probably got off a trashy site on the net. She made it clear she wasn’t interested but he didn’t get the message, pressing himself against her and whispering in her ear. The last straw came when Llannaeia felt his fingers touch her thigh before making their way up beneath her dress. She remembered feeling uncomfortable, disgusted and violated, the rage within reawakened. Next she knew she was on top of him and beating his face in as her comrades looked on in horror. The last she remembered was being dragged off of him, but not before his face was a bloody mess.

“It’s not important”.

“Top brass might think it’s important. You think you’re gonna impress the General in this state? If I noticed, you can bet Stell did”.

The rage she’d felt in the club returned. One moment she was wailing on some stranger on a dancefloor and the next she was top of the Captain, doing the same to him. “What do you care”?

The Captain took her by the upper arm. “Just because you were off duty doesn’t mean they can’t discharge you”.

“I’ll keep that in mind”. Llannaeia wrenched her arm from his grip.

“I’m just trying to look out for you”.

“Why”?

He didn’t answer and Llannaeia detected something different behind his eyes, something more than physical attraction. “I know what you’ve been through, and what you’re going through now. I just want you to know you don’t have to go through it alone. I want you to know I’m here for you. I want to help you”.

“Well I don’t need help! Not from you and not from anyone. I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me. Now I suggest we get on with preparing for our mission”. She left him without another word.

“Was it because of your sister”? Llannaeia’s heart skipped a beat. “I saw her leave the ship. She was crying. Did something happen between you two”?

Rage coursed through her veins like poison. They weren’t even on the same planet and her little sister was fucking her life up. “If you ever mention my sister again, Captain, I’ll fucking kill you”.

They made their way to the shuttle bay in silence. Not a word was said during the ride to Tylest Base either. Llannaeia spent it staring out the windows at Valarayan and the hundreds of space stations orbiting it. General Stell’s office was at Station Command, the centre of the Orbital Defence Network, or ODN as everyone referred to it, the array of space stations, naval bases, defence platforms, and shipyards orbiting the Human Capital. It served many purposes, not least of which was defending Valarayan from invasion. Their destination, Tylest Base, was a single link in a much longer chain.

Every once in awhile Llannaeia couldn’t help but sneak a look at the Captain sitting opposite. He was trying to hide it but she knew he was angry. She didn’t know what his game was but she hoped he wouldn’t try getting close again. She couldn’t have that. The thought of opening up was a disturbing one. She couldn’t help but doubt the intentions of anyone who tried to get close to her, no matter how much they claimed to care. In her experience, people trying to look out for you only did so when they wanted something, and for men that was usually one thing. The thought brought only discomfort and pain. The thought of someone touching her, undressing her, getting inside her. She didn’t know if she could ever allow a person to get that close to her, not after…

They caught each other’s eye for a split-second. He was bitter, that much was clear, but she wasn’t sure what else he’d expected. She’d been part of the Rimor’s crew for over a year and in all that time they’d been nothing but colleagues. She’d never shown any interest in him, nor did she feel any. She might have gone a bit far in threatening his life however.

She looked for another way to pass the time. It didn’t take long to settle back on Iona, another unpleasant subject. She might have been surprised to see her sister on Selson but finding her in her doorway knocked the wind out of her like a boot to the chest. She’d been furious after their encounter in the forest but felt something else on the ship. It was strange to talk to her after not seeing her for so long, even if the conversation was less than friendly. She’d soon started wondering about the things she said.

It is your fault. They’re dead because of you. You killed them. She’d been so filled with rage when she saw her standing there. She wanted to hurt her. But instead of the satisfaction she thought she’d feel afterward, Llannaeia felt only shame. What kind of person would say such a thing to someone who loves them? The image of her sister’s face made her shudder. Could she really be that cruel? Was she really that broken? She wished she could go back, to tell her how sorry she was for saying those things. It’d probably be pointless. She doubted there was anything she could say to make things right, not now.

The Captain snuck another look at her. Llannaiea felt like she could bash her head against the window. The shroud of tension in the shuttle’s passenger area made the journey seem much longer than it was. At least she was starting to sober up. She was almost overwhelmed with relief when she looked out the window and saw Tylest Base coming into view.

Tylest Base was one of the larger stations in the ODN, the permanent home of the U.S.N Rimor and the rest of the 31st fleet. The sprawl of white buildings was enough to be a city in its own right, shimmering in the glow of Valarayan with all the radiance of moonlight over fresh snow. It almost looked like a great white hedge maze from above. There were many ships docked there, from warships hundreds of times the size of the Rimor to scout ships practically minuscule in comparison.

The shuttle glided through the opening of one of the smaller hangars and their journey was finally at an end. The Captain let her go first. Llannaeia avoided his eye as she disembarked. It was a slog to the Rimor from there, one made even longer by the legions of staff and robots they were forced to fight through. Llannaeia recognized many of the faces they passed. They smiled and nodded and, despite the anger lingering inside, she returned the favour. The automata said her name in their upbeat tones, big plastic faces practically beaming. She always found that a little disconcerting. She’d walked the base’s halls enough to know them like the back of her hand but her wooziness meant she had to concentrate to avoid taking a wrong turn and getting lost.

The hexagonal door opened when they got near. Passed it stretched yet another corridor, this one with a row of windows along one side. Outside, the U.S.N Rimor waited in its docking bay, silver hull almost white in heavenly glow of the Human Capital. Stars of red, blue and white twinkled across its surface. Dark silhouettes strafed across the orange of the windows. The bridge staff were already hard at work preparing for their mission, despite not even knowing what that mission was.

The Captain went to the head of bridge where the pilots sat in their big comfy seats. “What’s our status”?

“All systems normal, Captain. Ready to leave when you are” said Attaca Yo-To, the Rimor’s chief pilot. Attaca held the distinction of being the only Psrann serving aboard the Rimor, and one of few in the navy overall, owing to the fact the small, elf-like humans from the hot and humid continent known as the Ganushins weren’t very well trusted, by both their fellow humans and the galaxy at large. They were certainly one of the strangest looking varieties of human. Attaca was no exception with his greenish-yellow skin, pointy features and blood-red eyes. Despite all that, he was a trusted and valued member of the crew, having worked hard to prove his loyalty.

“We just need our coordinates and we’re good to go, Captain”. Keron Riachi was Attaca’s co-pilot and a member of another race not commonly seen in the military. Keron was Oldunni, one of the peaceful people from Aulicisani. Unlike the Psrann, the Oldunni’s absence from the military wasn’t due to mistrust but his own kind’s distaste for conflict. They too were bizarre-looking though not to the extent of the chief pilot’s people: tall, lanky, and angelic-looking with skin white as snow and big heads, eyes, and hands, and not a single hair on them. Keron was no exception, towering over most of his crewmates but thin as a twig.

The Captain reached into his pocket and produced the note the General passed to him towards the end of the meeting. He handed it to Keron who was in charge of entering destination coordinates into the system. “There must be some mistake, Captain”, he said after reading the note and then re-reading it. “I’ve never entered coordinates like these before. These look like…” The co-pilot’s dinner plate eyes grew even wider.

“That’s right, Keron”.

“You mean we’re going to-”

“Just put them in, Keron. All will be explained soon”.

Llannaeia began heading for crew deck, hoping to get as far away from the Captain as possible until it was time to leave, then changed her mind. She was in no mood for showing her face to the others, not after last night. It was possible they’d all forgotten about it. They were just as drunk as her, probably more so though she didn’t want to risk it. She decided to wait by the nav-point. There she met the Rimor’s second-in-command, Lieutenant Commander Meridia.

“Captain Aventius”, he said, a holo-pad in one hand.

“Lieutenant Commander”. He was the kind of guy she’d have gone for were she interested in such a thing: Haelqen with a heavy olive tan, short black buzzcut and goatee

“I heard you and the Captain just got back from meeting with General Stell”.

“That’s correct”.

“So why exactly are we being brought back from shore leave before it really began”?

“Can’t say. I’m sure the Captain will let you know when the time is right”. He didn’t seem pleased with that answer but said no more.

“Heard you guys had a good time last night, Captain”. Terema Acell, the Rimor’s Chief Navigator barely looked up from her display as she addressed her. “I wish I could have joined you”.

“You didn’t miss much”. Llannaeia covered her right hand. She had no desire to discuss the previous night. Now that she remembered it pretty well, she wanted nothing more than to forget it ever happened.

The Captain arrived at the nav-point. “Everything good here”?

“Everything’s fine, Captain”, Meridia replied. “So what’s this mission? Aventius won’t tell us”.

That’s Captain Aventius.

“I’ll be making an announcement soon”. He lowered his voice. “I just got word from General Stell. The Chancellor and her people will be arriving shortly”.

“The Chancellor”? Meridia quietly exclaimed.

“That’s correct. I’m going to meet them now. Care to join me, Captain Aventius”?

Llannaeia would have rather died than spend any more time with him but agreed, if only to avoid creating an awkward scene in front of the bridge staff. Anger started bubbling again. It seemed like he was now trying to piss her off. The walk up the bridge and back along the docking tunnel was tense to say the least. They arrived just in time to see some people approaching who Llannaeia had never seen aboard Tylest base before. There were two large men in dark suits, a smaller man in a grey suit and an even smaller woman. She didn’t recognize the men but she knew the woman in an instant. It was the Chancellor of the Human Sovereignty herself. Llannaeia’s heart seemed to sprout wings. She felt like she was about to meet a goddess.

“Captain Oross, I presume”. The Chancellor offered her hand. “Very nice to meet you”.

“It’s nice to meet you too, Madam Chancellor. Might I introduce Captain Llannaeia Aventius”?

The Chancellor looked to Llannaeia, smiled. “It’s an honour, Chancellor Calsen”. She tried not to sound too enthusiastic. The last thing she wanted was to come across like some giddy airhead in the face of one of the most formidable women in the galaxy.

“The honour is mine, Captain”. Llannaeia couldn’t help but pull a slightly goofy-looking grin as they shook hands. This was by far one of the greatest moments of her life, perhaps the greatest. Certainly more than enough to make her forget about Iona and the night before. “Might I introduce my personal assistant, Toma Avenum”?

“A pleasure”. Oross shook his hand.

“And these are my bodyguards, Ravim Seva and Dexus Lokin. They will be accompanying me on this trip”. Neither man said a word, gave only a quiet nod each. They looked like they didn’t have a brain cell between them.

“General Stell has told me very good things about you and your crew”. For someone about to embark on a potential suicide mission, the Chancellor seemed surprisingly cheery.

The Captain smiled at the praise. “The Rimor and her crew are some of the finest in the entire navy, Madam Chancellor”.

“I’m sure. I assume he has explained what we’re going to be doing”?

“Yes, Madam Chancellor. I promise, we’ll get you where you need to go and back safely”. Don’t make promises you don’t know if you can keep, thought Llannaeia.

“And you’re aware of the risks involved”?

“Yes, Madam Chancellor. General Stell explained fully”.

The Chancellor regarded him with a look that seemed slightly skeptical. “And you and your crew are prepared to face those risks”? It surprised Llannaeia that the Chancellor would show so much concern for a bunch of people she didn’t know. She couldn’t help but wonder if it was just a façade, or perhaps she’d become so cold she expected all displays of kindness to be only illusions.

“We swore an oath, Madam Chancellor”, Llannaeia said. “And we will honour it”.

“Very well then. As I am sure you are both aware, the situation with the Imperium is desperate. I wish to leave as soon as possible”.

“Of course, Madam Chancellor”, Oross replied. “We’re ready to leave when you are”.

“Then lead the way, Captain”.

They walked up the docking tunnel one more time, now with the Chancellor and her people in tow. A wave of intrigue shot through the bridge when they passed the airlock. Most of the crew barely glanced up from their displays when it was just Llannaeia and the Captain but this time just about everyone looked, whispering among themselves upon seeing and recognizing the Chancellor.

“Please excuse me for a moment, Madam Chancellor”.

“Of course, Captain”.

Llannaeia couldn’t help but stare despite trying not to. The Chancellor didn’t seem to notice, too busy looking at all the bright lights and instruments. They met eyes and she smiled. “It’s my first time aboard a navy ship”. Llannaeia smiled back, not sure how to answer. “How long have you been aboard the Rimor, Captain”?

Llannaeia hesitated, surprised by the question. “Just over a year, Madam Chancellor”.

“I see. General Stell told me quite a bit about you. He says you’re one of the youngest captains in the history of the military. That’s impressive. How long have you served for”?

“Five years, Madam Chancellor”.

“More impressive still, for someone as young as yourself to have come so far so quickly”.

Llannaeia was embarrassed. “I’m just doing my job”. She hoped the Chancellor wouldn’t ask any more questions, particularly on why she joined the military or what led to her joining the Rimor. Fortunately, the Captain’s voice would ring through the bridge before she could ask anything else.

“This is the captain speaking”. Llannaeia looked to the nav-point to see the Captain at his console, speaking into the comm-channel. “I ask that you all stop what you are doing for a few moments and pay close attention to what I am about to say. I’m sure you have all been wondering why we have been called back from shore leave so early and at such short notice, just as I am sure you have also been wondering why you have been told so little about what’s going on”. He paused. “The truth is the Rimor and her crew have been selected for a very important mission by General Stell himself, a mission upon which the survival of our society rests, and the success of which depends on great secrecy which is why you have been kept in the dark, until now. I’m sure you are all aware of the rising tensions between the Confederacy and the Imperium. In light of recent events, our leaders have come to agree that the threat of war from the Imperium looms larger than ever before and the Confederacy needs an alliance if it is to have any chance of survival. For that reason, the Rimor will be transporting our Chancellor to the Aq Quhn Ran Asten homeworld so that she can speak with their leaders and broker an alliance”. The reaction from the bridge staff was a mixture of surprise and apprehension. The whispering only intensified as the Captain continued his announcement. “This is something that has never been attempted in the history of our society. Today we embark on a journey never before embarked upon to a place no human has ever set foot”. Another pause. “I’m sure you all understand just how perilous this mission is. The Aq Quhn Ran Asten are dangerous and unpredictable. As such, there is a chance that we will not be returning. But each and every one of us swore an oath to protect the Confederacy and its people at all costs and that is what we’re going to do. We should all be honoured to be selected for something so great and to have so much trust placed in us. We’ll get the Chancellor and her people to the Aq Quhn Ran Asten homeworld and we’ll get them back safely. I give you all my word as your captain and your friend I will do everything in my power to get you all back home alive and well. Carry on”.

With his address finished, the Captain returned to Llannaeia and the Chancellor. “Well said, Captain. Shall we go now”?

“Absolutely, Madam Chancellor”. He looked to the pilots. “Get us out of here, Attaca”!

“Yes, Captain”.

A soft rumble shot through the bridge as the Rimor’s engines sprung to life. Llannaeia felt a jolt of anticipation. They were about to embark on the most important and perilous mission of their careers. She stood near the nav-point, bathed in the cool light of the holo-computers. The Chancellor was still looking about, fascinated. Llannaeia couldn’t help but look at her. Despite having just met, she felt a connection to the Chancellor unlike anything she’d felt before. The Chancellor looked to her and smiled and the wings of her heart gave another flutter.

“U.S.N Rimor to Tylest Base Command”, Attaca said into his comm-interface. “Requesting base departure procedure”. The bridge seemed to explode with activity, like a sleeping giant waking from its slumber.

“Understood, U.S.N Rimor”, a male voice replied through the communicator. “Initiating departure protocol”.

“Palera”! Oross called. A female officer appeared at his side. “Show the Chancellor and her people to their quarters”.

“Yes Captain. Please follow me, Madam Chancellor”.

The Chancellor gave Llannaeia a parting smile before following Petty Officer Pelera from the bridge.

“Retracting docking arms”, the voice from the communicator said.

The Captain returned to his console and hit the button for the loudspeaker. “All hands prepare for departure”.

“Engine cores online”, said Keron typing away on his holo-screen. “Initialising thrusters”.

“Disengaging gravity field”, Llannaeia heard the base technician say.

Llannaeia didn’t feel a thing. From the window nearest she watched them back out of the docking bay into open space. As they joined the other vessels in their lane she felt the familiar rush that came at the beginning of every mission, the excitement and anticipation to be going somewhere new and unlike anywhere she’d been before. Even as they gained speed they felt nothing. The Rimor’s gravity systems made the experience seamless. Again, the only thing to indicate they were moving was the view from the window. They soon cleared Tylest Base, then the ODN itself.

“Prepare to enter Warp Space”, Oross called to the pilots.

“U.S.N Rimor to Station Command”, Attaca said into his communicator. “Requesting permission to enter Warp Space”.

“Understood. U.S.N Rimor”, a female voice replied. “Permission granted”.

“Initialising Warp Drive”, Keron said.

The blue light flooded through the front windshield and blasted away the dimness of the bridge. Out in front, a gleaming portal opened, the gateway to their destination. Llannaeia stepped between the two pilots too busy steering the ship to properly appreciate the sight before them, transfixed by its hypnotic beauty. A tear in space-time, a hole in space, a sight whose grandeur never faded no matter how many times you behold it. Her excitement only grew as they accelerated.

“Entering Warp Space in three… two… one.

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