By Tarot Barnes
With edits and advice by J.H. and Brantley
Four months ago
The Aurean starship soared through the sky on wings of flame.
It was not a warship with a glittering hull and proud gun batteries, nor was it a troop transport, rugged yet simplistically elegant. It was a freighter, a vessel so ugly and unrefined that observers occasionally asked if it had been in a disaster.
This time, the observers would have been right, and the vessel’s ruin harried it like a cloud of hornets.
Along the craft’s flank, dozens of tiny shapes pelted its thin hull with missiles and shells. Already most of the freighter’s limited armament had been wrecked, and what remained was woefully inadequate -- especially as a fresh wave of reinforcements appeared on the horizon, each glistening shape laden with fresh bombs to rip out the starship’s vulnerable flank.
The small triumph had not been achieved without cost, however. Even now an attacker occasionally erupted in fire as one of the freighter’s frantic turrets found its mark.
Watching from a distance, worrying the enormous craft like a terrier, Aurora Fairchild curled her lip as she watched the Airskirmisher flame into the ground and explode.
She ached to avenge the death, but her role was not destruction. For some reason this ship had been spared the fate of its escorts. Instead, her job was to harass and distract the main fire away from the Porturegans.
She’d balked at the absurdity when she’d been first given this assignment. Smashing the ship was bread and butter to a Protector so why risk lives? She could have destroyed the entire convoy in less time than it took for the pilots to suit up.
But that, it she had been carefully advised, was precisely why she should not directly involve herself in the middle point of the mission. Destruction, she had been told, was undesirable when capture was a possibility.
That had stopped her cold. Capture? Why? It was a freighter. Its armament was a joke but as long as it could carry enough to provision an army, the Aureans would never let the Porturegans steal it.
General Inácio had merely smiled and said, “Yes, a starship.”
So she’d gone along. She didn’t have to; there was no force on the planet that could make her to do anything she’d didn’t want too, Tset’lar included. But Protectors, whatever their rank, were supposed to be at their planet’s service and she could hardly deny that burning a huge fraction of the Imperial stores would be an immense victory. And even if she did, the number of men the General was pressing into this attack meant she could hardly have refused.
The war had wound down following Aurora’s near defeat at Tala’s hands. The column that had been intercepted, it seemed, had been a crucial linchpin in an ambitious scheme to regain the ground lost at Brilhante. Without it, the Aurean army had fragmented badly and been forced into embedded pockets scattered randomly across the land.
The news hadn’t exactly helped Aurean morale either. The destruction of an entire column had been bad enough, but when the news had been leaked -- helped in no small part by the Porturegan resistance -- that humans had also forced their invincible Tset’lar to retreat, Aurean self-esteem had hit bedrock.
Thoughts of Tala sent Aurora back three months in time to that climatic battle. Even now its ghost still left her feeling unsatisfied: not so much because she had been close to death – it’d hardly been the first time – but because of the unsettling conclusion. Humans had driven the Tset’lar off, not Aurora, and that was not the way things were meant to be. She was meant to be a valiant, indestructible and powerful Protector of her people. She was meant to drive threats away. Any other result was… disturbing.
But, she reasoned, The Tset’lar is a new enemy; maybe they need a new solution?
Thoughts like those were also unsettling – the Protectors hadn’t changed their methods for millennia – but not so disturbing as the possibility of something upsetting the natural equilibrium. Humans were there to be protected; it was the founding precept of the Enlightenment. If they could defend themselves, they didn’t need protecting. And if that was the case, then what use were Protectors?
Then she thought of the Aureans and the ship Inácio wanted captured. It brought a smile to her lips. At least for a little while, she was still needed… even if was just as a diversion.
Aurora worried the Aurean ship both literally and figuratively. It had been explained – in painstaking detail – that, yes, she could smash every gun battery herself, but it would take time. Alternatively, the Porturegan air force could perform the same task quicker, and with a reduced risk of Tset’lar involvement -- Tala had shown a distinct reluctance to engage Aurora when humans were around in significant numbers.
Which was not to say the Virago was idle. On the contrary fully half of the defensive fire was being directed at her, and if that percentage slipped, she would punish the ship by ripping off another section of hull.
The task was painful, but it saved lives. Or at least Aurora hoped it was as she saw another golden stream blow a fighter, and its pilot, into a million glittering fragments. She just wished she knew what the military hoped to achieve. The freighter’s captain had to have realized they intended to board his vessel and would have destroyed any important documents long ago. The whole assignment seemed an exercise in futility.
She was distracted from her thoughts by a crackle in her ear, followed by a stream of instructions.
As much as it had brought death and destruction, the war had brought astounding advances. Most had been reverse-engineered from Aurean equipment, the surrounding ’Skirmishers being a case in point -- even four months ago they could never have dreamed of successfully attacking a freighter. But some of the advances were the result of homegrown ideas. The small canister in her ear was one of the latter, and one she fully intended to inform the next Messenger about when he arrived.
It was just an ordinary radio, but small enough to fit into her ear. There was a minor disadvantage in that, so far as anyone could discover, it was impossible to remove. The device used what had felt like hooks to hold itself against her eardrum and while they didn’t hurt normally, any attempt to pull it free was agonizing.
Aurora didn’t mind, the bug didn’t interfere with her hearing and it enabled her to receive updates in the field. Unfortunately no transmitter had been successful; the device had to sit in a bodily orifice to be protected from supersonic travel but her ears were too far away and anything inserted into the nose made her sneeze. That left only her mouth. Technicians had tried everything from microscopic microphones to something that looked like a tiny sea urchin. The result had always been the same; she spoke one word and the machine imploded.
Which left her technically mute, but not exactly disadvantaged. Protectors had developed an entire language based on hand and body movement; it’d been the work of a few minutes to teach the Porturegans the motions for, “Affirmative,” “Negative.” and a few basic commands like “Attack that.” With some field spotters appropriately positioned, it was almost possible to have a conversation with people on the ground
In any case she considered the situation temporary. As soon as word of this invention got home to Velor, she was certain they’d be able to develop an alternative; Velorian technology was second only to Aurean in most areas and surpassed it in many; surely they’d be able to come up with something that would enable two-way communications?
Another update came in. “*All units be aware. Tornado, I say again, Tornado.*”
Aurora nodded to no one in particular, dipped in acknowledgement and pulled away from the freighter. Tornado was the codeword for mission successful and warned everyone to fall back while the next phase was carried out.
Even from a distance the Aurean vessel loomed. Although it shared the same arrowhead shape of all Aurean star-craft, saying that it resembled a warship -- or even a coastguard cutter -- was like saying a gherkin resembled a banana. The only aspect that it shared with its proud brethren was its size.
When the Aurean armada had arrived, it had been supplied from the holds of ten freighters. Three of those ships had been destroyed by Porturegan missiles during the initial attack, another two had been caught on the ground during a short lived nuclear exchange and the final five had been in the convoy Aurora had just ambushed.
It brought a warm feeling to Aurora’s heart to know that, whether they captured the freighter or not, she’d just starved an entire military.
* * *
The mission had been an example of espionage that even the Geheimites would have been proud of. The Aureans didn’t like leaving their freighters on the ground because of their extreme vulnerability to attack, but the sheer effectiveness of the Porturegan sensor net made trying to hide them into orbit unrealistic.
As a result, instead of quickly moving large cargoes very quickly from site to site, each ship had been reduced to scuttling roundabout between origin and destination by way of Aurean strongpoints. It was slow, inefficient and destroyed any hopes a local General might have had of receiving their divisions, rations or any form of logistical support in reasonable time.
Just why the Conquest General had decided to group their supplies together in convoy was lost at a level higher than the Porturegan agents had been able to penetrate, but that was an unimportant detail in face of what they had been able to liberate.
With that information, Aurora had been able to launch an entirely successful attack, obliterating both of the escorting corvettes and three of the four “expendable” freighters in her first pass. Personally, she debated how useful the information had been to her segment of the mission. Aside from where the ships were, what did it matter to her if one ship was suffering from poor engine maintenance, another hadn’t visited a dockyard in ten years and a third had had its FTL drive stripped to repair a damaged Destroyer? They were all Aurean ships and all equally fragile. So far as she was concerned, one freighter was as good as another
Yet even as she’d thought that, the part of her mind that had stayed awake during training reminded her that in plotting a campaign, no information was unimportant so long as you knew how to exploit it.
* * *
Aurora sighed and turned her head against the slipstream. Her sharp eyes quickly sorted through the vast array of pursuing aircraft for the two that would so decisively end this battle.
She found them just as half the air fleet surged forward. In all respects bar the important one, the stage two aircraft were identical to their siblings. That was the idea. The Aurean gunners, even exhausted from battle, were justifiably worried about anything that caused their enemies to drop back. If they had even the slightest idea what the pair was carrying, their pilots would have quickly been served their eternal award.
But they hadn’t and weren’t about to. The barrier ’Skirmishers would ensure that the Pair survived long enough to complete their mission.
The sky about the freighter was thick with metal, energy and exhaust as the Airskirmishers concentrated their gunfire and missiles in the freighter’s shields. The battle was spread a hundred miles in every direction, and in that cloud of destruction it was easy to lose sight of the Pair. For an instant Aurora herself lost them; when she reacquired them. they were already soaring away from two speeding white contrails.
Faster even than Aurora’s eyes could track, the pair of missiles soared across the intervening space, under the ship, through the gaps she’d torn in its shields, up into holes the Porturegans had blasted in the freighter’s armor, and detonated deep inside its hull.
For a split second two suns ignited on either side of the ship’s centerline, effortlessly blasting through deck plate, inner spaces, crew and equipment before blossoming out of the upper hull.
Instantly the freighter began to fall. Carried by sheer momentum, the starship seemed to drop in slow motion. At first it maintained its attitude, keeping level relative to the ground. Then as gravity began to take hold, the prow tipped leisurely towards the green savannah.
Soil and boulders fountained in every direction as the freighter struck the ground. Suddenly the vessel was a hundred meters shorter as the nose buried itself down to the bedrock and tore away like a lump of rotten flesh.
The squeal of metal under impossible stress was deafening even to the pilots above and it was almost obscene to see the massive beast gut itself on its own disintegrating fragment, spilling untold thousands of crates, debris and other materiel like glittering droplets of silver blood.
Hillocks were flattened. Savannah turned into a green wave ahead of the crashing bulk. A farm, buildings, livestock and fields were utterly crushed by the grey mountain. For miles and miles it skidded, seemingly unstoppable before it finally hit something – a mesa that looked like a model in comparison – hard enough to twist the hull and send it rolling.
Even then the behemoth appeared ready to continue, tumbling a path of destruction all the way to the sea. Then, gradually at first, yet more noticeable with every second, the juggernaut began to slow.
The freighter was a bit less than a third shorter when it finally stopped, the other thirty percent of its mass having been smeared over the landscape.
Following that trail like a column of ants descending on an elephant carcass, the Porturegan army readied itself to attack.
But it would take time for that army to marshal it before it could battle such a massive opponent, and the Virago grinned. She was useful yet again.
Only if she acted quickly, however; now that the freighter was on the ground, it was only a matter of time before its captain, assuming anyone was left to command, began having dangerous thoughts.
By now it had to be clear, even to the most dim-witted of commanders, that the situation was irrecoverable. His ship was a wreck. There was no way anything less than a Mobile Dockyard would be able to move it, and the Aurean military was so overextended it couldn’t even consider lending support.
That left immolation.
As with every Aurean ship, even one as ignoble as a freighter, the ship carried failsafe scuttling charges, which it was the commander’s duty to activate should he command be threatened with capture. If he succeeded, all the lives lost today would be wasted.
Fortunately, unlike the case with more impressive Imperial starships, no one had truly believed that anyone would put serious effort into capturing a freighter.
The scuttling system was well tested and robust. Clusters of high explosive packs had been welded into the hull between every frame and connected by shielded fiber optic wiring.
The explosives themselves were chemically inert and impossible to set off unless their detonators were bombarded with massive amounts of ultraviolet radiation. The wiring was flexible, hard to damage and laid out in a recursive pattern so that regardless of the damage, enough packs could be activated to ensure the destruction of the ship.
The crux of it though was that for all its ingenuity, the system still had a fatal flaw; every command had to run through a single computer. More important starships had at least two servers, each with its own redundancies. The military freighter, however, only had one. Admittedly it was buried half a meter inside a bulkhead behind some of the vessel’s more impressive defenses, but Protectors had a phrase for such protection; scrap metal.
* * *
Plunging into the ship through one of the many rents, it didn’t take Aurora long to realize that most of the Aureans who might have stood against her were extremely dead. Being dragged across a continent had not been kind on the crew, and the few men and women to have survived were in no condition to offer much resistance. That left only the automatic defenses and they were designed for far less impressive opponents than a Virago. She smashed them anyway for fear of what they would do to her far more delicate humans.
When Aurora arrived in the freighter’s computer suite, she found a single Betan groggily holding his head and looking around in honest surprise. Since he wore the bands of a technician and carried nothing more offensive than a toolkit, she barely spared him a glance as she tossed her head and barked, “Get out.”
The man’s grip on reality wasn’t strained enough to make him mistake a miracle and he all but ran for the door. Aurora didn’t give him a second thought as she examined the room.
Although she’d never admit it to anyone, computers made Aurora nervous. Their immense importance was matched by their extreme delicacy. Given that her primary purpose in life was to smash things, she often felt out of her natural environment.
But not now. Her feelings and purpose nicely coincided in allowing her to smash one of the frustrating machines. It was just a shame she’d been forbidden – well, asked not too in the strongest possible tone – from damaging anything else.
It wasn’t hard to find her target; the concealing bulkhead was signed so engineers would know where to work. Its sole defense consisted of a large, very heavy panel bolted into the wall.
Aurora took great pleasure in ripping the thick steel out of the wall.
Delicately placing the now useless plate on the floor where it was unlikely to roll around and break something, Aurora applied the same level of force to the shinny black box it’d been protecting.
The router came away from the wall with a satisfying, if small, crack -- leaving behind the glowing ends of fiber optic cables. Bringing her hands together, Aurora smiled as the server disintegrated into sparkling bits.
Technically Aurora had merely made it more difficult for the commander to destroy his vessel, not stopped him entirely. If he was feeling especially suicidal, the captain could simply order one of his marines to fire a GAR into the engineering spaces, or order someone to decouple the negative matter magnetic bottles. Either option would very efficiently destroy not only the ship but the invaders as well.
Unfortunately the resulting explosion would not also only obliterate most of the Aurean forces, but strip away the atmosphere and vaporize a sizable fraction of the world’s mass.
That alone should have been enough to stay anyone’s hand, but in case it was not the Empire levied hefty punishments against any who released negative matter near an inhabited world. The least of the things taken would be the man’s life – assuming he survived the explosion – followed by all his worldly assets. Crippling fines would then be levied against his house and, if he was a Betan -- highly likely in this case -- his entire family would be executed.
The Empire most emphatically did not want to be the first nation to drop negative matter in case others followed their example.
Retreating the way she’d come – she had been specifically requested not to inflict any more damage than was absolutely necessary – Aurora paused only to put those Betans who were beyond hope out of their misery. The merely wounded she left to the care of her Protectorate. She wasn’t cruel; although she hated Aureans with an intensity few non-Velorians could understand, she would not kill for the sake of killing, or allow an opponent to suffer needlessly; those were Imperial traits. She doubted that had the situation been reversed, they would have done the same for her but as her parents and teachers had stressed to her, that wasn’t the point. She could not bear allowing anything to suffer, especially a fellow Supremis, when she was in a position to help.
Aurora exited the downed freighter through the same breach she had entered and soared high. Hovering a few thousand feet above the wreck, she peered through the billowing smoke to the chasm that it had cut through the landscape.
Beside the new gorge, racing so fast that her sharp eyes could see clods of soil being thrown into the air; tiny dots converged on the downed leviathan.
Aurora had a part to play in boarding the Aurean vessel as well, but she hesitated for an instant to sample the air. Moments of pleasure -- interludes with a certain vacuum craft Comandante notwithstanding -- had come so infrequently the past year that she could count them on both hands. She felt that, just this once, with victory so close, she deserved the opportunity to savor the moment.
The moment never came. High above the freighter, the sky should have been clear and cold and crisp, but it wasn’t. Heat and smoke from the damaged ship rose even to her height, polluting the atmosphere with a hideous assortment of alkenes, fluorocarbons, sulfides, heavy metals, all manner of oxides and innumerate other toxins.
Other Protectors, Aurora knew, would have taken the bitter tasting air as a symbol of victory and boasted about it for decades, but the Virago couldn’t. To her it was only another in a long line of atrocities the Aureans had inflicted upon her planet; while her body either filtered or processed the pollutants easily, she knew that the Porturegans were not so fortunate and she spared a moment to worry about the effect the crash would have on the ecosystem.
The fires that blazed within the shattered hull were fed by the exotic materials of its construction. Worst among the offenders were the enormous pits dug by the Porturegans’ micro-nuclear attack. The freighter’s dampening systems had done miracles to reduce the scale of the destruction, but even so the vast holes in the hull belched out solid black columns of smoke, which even high altitude winds couldn’t entirely disperse.
Worst of all, at least from a tactical point of view, was that it might as well have been a signpost for the ease with which it would identify their position to the Aureans. Although there was an irony in that; for all the pride the Aureans had in their technology, it would be a smoke signal that would lead them to their lost ship.
The smile faded as she realized the reality behind her ruminations; the Aurean military was doubtless already on the move and had a signpost that reached up into the stratosphere to guide them. Whatever secrets her protectorate wanted to lift from the ship would have to be moved quickly, and for that to happen, she would have to move even faster.
Allowing herself to fall backwards, Aurora powered down into the leviathan’s wreck.
One month ago: Séuchčo Estak spaceport.
From the back of the puercarta drawn wagon, Séuchčo Estak was no less impressive than it was from the air. Located in a valley that had been carved out by a glacier, the spaceport was surrounded by tall lavender hills, rolling mosslands and shivering copses that were small outposts of the vast frond forests just visible on the horizon.
Against such organic beauty, the harsh aeneucrete structures should have been an imposition as ugly as a knife in flesh. Yet the beige towers, which grew like an unearthly crystal, made an unlikely complement to the mauve valley floor.
Envisioned in far simpler times, Séuchčo Estak had since adapted itself to the needs of a civilization on the verge of interstellar travel. Originally designed to service a single vacuum ship, it had expanded enormously with vast strips of tarmac spreading out from the epicenter of spires like the petals of an alien flower.
Recalling the first time she’d seen it, Aurora remembered how even the monochrome spectrum of vc’spa vision couldn’t detract from the elegant simplicity of its design. As with all things her protectorate created, from their language to their art, it was austere, yet striking.
But then, she reflected with a secret smile, I had other reasons for liking this place on top of the design.
That reason was no less valid today than it had been then.
Admittedly the last time she’d arrived, it had been amidst the glitz and pageantry of a company celebrating the construction of its dozenth vacuum craft, not huddled beneath the rough cloth of a covered wagon so her movements would be hidden from the Aureans, but that wasn’t the point.
…Of course, back then she’d also known why she was coming. This time she had been summoned – “At best speed, for reasons that can not currently be explained.” Aurora didn’t like that; her protectorates were keeping too many secrets from her. It showed a dangerous degree of independence.
Aurora grunted and resolved to break the habit before it became a custom. Later.
The cart rolled slowly past the titanic structures that had served the port when it was still active, a flyspeck on a dinner plate. Back then the fuel tanks, hangars and office blocks had been hives of activity as technicians and businessmen bustled about their lives.
Now the place was… Aurora’s mind shied from the word “dead” and sought another; ‘inactive.’ In her mind the port went from an alien flower to a machine that the war had switched off. Now it was waiting for the busy hum of life to set it in motion once again
As the cart ambled towards the port’s center, the already immense buildings grew vastly taller as horizontal space became a premium. Séuchčo Estak was much like a city – it was as large as one – with wide flat productive areas surrounding a central business district, which oversaw its vital functions.
But now the towering skyscrapers were deserted. Layers of dust carpeted plush entrance foyers and fungal growths clouded the windows. Interspersed amongst industrial giants like Ballistic-Deliveries, Lunatour and Aloc-Acoc were decidedly non-vacuum related businesses. The insurance brokers, taxi services, cleaners and fast food companies had, if possible, been struck even harder by the downtime -- as they fed off the industries for which the port had been designed.
Still, even they were preserved. The people were gone but the buildings remained. A quick wipe down, a new infusion of workers, and it would be hard to tell there’d ever been a lull.
The wagon’s driver -- actually a gabo in disguise -- grunted something unintelligible and waved his crop vaguely towards one of the bunkers. Aurora liked to pretend that his appearance was wholly an act, but after watching him steadily drain a flagon during their trip, that pretence was becoming harder and harder to believe.
Pulling her robes tighter about her body, Aurora paid the man his fare (she was supposed to be a nomad after all) and disembarked.
No sooner had her feet touched the ground than the wagon started up again. That was a little too much in character for Aurora, who resolved to comment on the man’s “acting.” Watching the cart meander off, she was glad the puercarta dragging the wagon at least had some sense; otherwise it would have gone off the road long ago.
Before too long, even at the cart’s slow speed, Aurora was alone in the port with nothing but the drunken gabo’s assurance that she was at the correct hangar.
Well… maybe not just his assurance; the air carried the beguiling scent of humanity, and the bitter tang of motor vehicles.
The hangar itself was huge, easily twenty times as tall as she was; yet even it was still a runt by the scale of the rest of port. To all outward appearances it was as dead as everywhere else. Internally, it was no better with nothing to see but an occasional tarpaulin covered vehicle and dusty aeneucrete.
Nothing but those vehicles, and a single doorway concealed in a machine’s shadow with a crude iconograph stenciled above it.
Subtle. Aurora smirked as she walked towards the door. From one perspective the picture was just a flower with an insect buzzing off… but from another, it was the explosive cloud of a rocket departing its pad
There wasn’t so much as a lock on the door, and the hinges squeaked as it opened onto a dingy stairwell that descended into blackness. The máscara was so good that Aurora almost believed that she really had been brought to the wrong hangar.
Then there was movement to either side and Aurora forced herself not to react as two sentries leveled their rifles at her. Porturegans were experimenting with battle armor and the incomplete grey metal they wore made them look a bit like medieval knights.
“O dia é bom, meus amigos.” She said. <“I understand a flash bang is to be set off into the hereafter. Is this not true?”>
“It is.” The guard to her right relaxed at the code phrase. Standing at ease he continued. “It is an honor to receive the Fair Child.”
“Thank you.” Aurora resisted sighing and turned her attention to the other guard and the unwavering lines of his still drawn weapon. The Virago eyed the long black rifle with slight unease -- the speed at which Porturegans had advanced their knowledge of GARs was almost frightening; the latest model could hurt her -- then asked. “Is there something wrong?”
“Don’t mind him.” The first guard answered, then speaking to his friend, ordered, “Stand down, gabo.”
As smoothly as an automaton, the corporal brought his gun down, clicked his heels and stood at ease.
No emotion was visible beneath the peak of the man’s helmet, but Aurora knew the symptoms; unyielding stance, robotic responses, and a perpetually distant gaze. “BFKS?” She asked.
The guard nodded reluctantly. “He is still a good soldier.”
Aurora couldn’t deny that. Battle Fatigued Kourn Syndrome sufferers were perfect soldiers, but poor human beings.
So far as Aurora was aware -- and she had to admit her knowledge was limited to rumors she’d heard while in school on Velor -- BKFS was a condition unique to the Porturegans. Humans on other planets contracted mental disease as a result of battle-induced stress, but that usually made them less able to fight. Whatever switch it flipped, BKFS instead turned them into maniacs; if someone with BKFS was told to fight, he would do so until he was cut down, ordered to stop, or simply died from exhaustion.
So far no one knew what caused the malady, or how to cure it. At the moment the best that could be done for the victims was to take them off the frontline and put them on rearguard duty. Such a decision seemed ridiculous when the condition was first discovered; every General wanted troops who wouldn’t stop, but it soon became apparent that while those with BKFS fought tirelessly, they didn’t fight with much skill. Instead they did it with the same mechanical precision they did everything else; if told to march in a straight line they’d walk off a cliff; if told to shoot they would exhaust their ammunition into empty air. If told to guard -- Aurora looked at the corporal’s GAR again -- they would kill anything that moved. Obviously this man was only lightly touched.
“I am sure he is.” Aurora returned her attention to the first sentry. “I meant no offence and hope your friend recovers. Is it down there?” She gestured to the stairwell.
“Yes, madam.” The sentry took a light patch from a recessed alcove and presented it to her. “If you will take this it will ensure you do not fall and…” he caught himself. “So you will not fall.”
“I thank you.” Aurora took the patch, squeezed it once to flood the chamber with light, then stuck it to her left breast. She didn’t need it to see, but Protectors were used to accommodating their protectorates and she no longer thought anything of complying with their wishes
As she descended the slightly damp staircase -- sometimes the máscara could be too realistic -- Aurora was peripherally aware of the two soldiers melting back into the shadows. That they did so wasn’t surprising, their skill was. Even with her senses, Aurora found it difficult to detect them.
She shrugged and continued her descent. Anything that improved her protectorate’s chances of survival was a good thing… but it was one more secret they were keeping from her.
* * *
Leaning against the high gantry’s rail, Aurora surveyed the vast launch bay.
Without exaggeration, Séuchčo Estak’s catacombs were a natural and engineered marvel almost on par with the massive facilities above them.
When the spaceport had first been planned, the site was almost abandoned when enormous networks of granite and quartz caves were discovered – how they’d formed was a mystery. The plans to pull out were halted at the last moment when a group of engineers successfully demonstrated that the caves, if excavated, could be worked into storage areas, which otherwise would have to be built on valuable surface space.
The engineer’s arguments were debated, but ultimately accepted and the caves were changed into the vast bays Aurora now looked over. They so enormous that they could generate their own weather. The Aurean freighter she’d fought three months before could have fit into the bay before her, and it wasn’t the largest.
Aurora couldn’t even see the far wall with normal vision, although that might have been true even if the room was reasonably sized. Lighting was cut back to the operative area to minimize the project’s electronic profile.
Shaking her head, Aurora stood and paced the gantry towards the office complex that had been built into the wall. Like most of the structures below ground it had been built forty years previously, and hadn’t been upgraded since. The door handle squeaked as the Virago let herself in.
No one was inside, which didn’t surprise her; there was nothing to guard. In spite of being the seat of Séuchčo Estak’s mission planning, the offices were little more than a series of small rooms cut a hundred and fifty meters above the floor with great views of the storage bay.
The view, however, wasn’t good enough to explain what she was seeing.
Walking up to the glass, Aurora tried again, breaking the vista down into its constituent parts.
The bay floor was a hive of activity, so much so that she could barely see the aeneucrete. If it wasn’t people, it was equipment, most of it large and bulky, being dragged either towards or away from the shape that rose like a quicksilver mountain in an ocean of turbulence.
Aurora couldn’t help but notice that the bulkiest equipment wasn’t coming back.
The shape was familiar. It couldn’t help but be; it’d been the first non-celestial object she’d seen after exiting the Betah Stronberg wormhole.
The ship was called The Lance and it was the most advanced deep vacuum vessel the Porturegans had. At least as far as the Porturegans could measure; just flying from the wormhole to Betah Stronberg, Aurora had traveled almost as far as far as The Lance had in all its years of service.
The memory brought a smile to Aurora’s lips, although she hadn’t known it at the time, it had been her first encounter with Beni.
Speaking of which….
“What am I looking at?” She turned as the door opened, revealing her paramour’s tall form.
Benigno Allvariz grinned, revealing a lot of teeth and gestured towards The Lance. “What do you think you are seeing?”
Aurora cocked her head.
“I can see your vessel being prepared for launch -- apparently by cannibalizing more modern components from other vacuum craft. I can see approximately fifteen hundred engineers at work, with maybe another six hundred support staff and one hundred and twelve crewmen in pre-launch preparations. For some reason I can see Aurean equipment being…” she peered closer, “built into The Lance, including what looks very much like the navigational deflector from that freighter.”
She looked Beni straight in the eyes. “If I didn’t know better, I would believe that you were preparing for a mission?”
The vacuum pilot’s grin widened. “But that would be suicidal.” Crossing his arms and lecturing as if dressing down a cadet, he announced, “Even if we could build Vacuum Warcraft, The Lance was designed for exploration; the Aureans would blot it from the sky without a thought.”
“And with considerably less effort.” Aurora shook her head. “But then, intelligent thinking has never been your strength. Reckless bravado and a head for numbers however…” Taking another long look at the hive of activity, she took in the engineers, the science vessel, and the Aurean components being installed into it. Finally she allowed a small smile to crack her lips, “You have finally mastered faster than light travel.”
The sound of clapping drew their attention to an elderly gentleman in a black uniform so heavily starched its corners were in danger of scratching anyone who came close. “They said you were brilliant; until now I never quite believed it.”
At the sound of his superior’s voice, Benigno instantly brought his heels together snapped his head back and executed a salute neater than Aurora would have believed him capable of. “General Secretária. Sir.”
Aurora, who was not in the military and obeyed terms of address purely as a courtesy, took in the cut of the General’s uniform, the quality of the polish on his boots and the general cleanliness of his person. She nodded. “Casimiro.” As far as she was concerned, anyone -- even a General Secretária -- who could afford such luxuries in time of privation was a criminal. Even Benigno, who had been denied military service because of his value to the vacuum program, had a uniform that was creased and dirty from working on The Lance.
If the General noticed her snub, he gave no sign. Instead he nodded towards the ship and the work crews. “You are at least partially correct Ms Fair Child. As a matter of fact we were on the cusp of creating a faster-than-light engine ten years ago.”
This revelation drew a surprised glance from Benigno.
“The information was not leaked to the public, however, because we knew the Aureans were taking an interest in our world and felt any overt signs of advance might give them more cause to invade. There were also some… technical issues we had yet to surpass.”
“Technical issues?” Aurora’s ears pricked. How could they think about shooting her lover more than three hundred thousand kilometers per second with something that had “technical issues?”
“Among other things, we didn’t yet have an ultra-massive particle deflector,” Benigno volunteered.
Aurora raised an eyebrow in his direction and wondered how long he had known about the FTL engine. Not the ten years obviously, but certainly longer than she had. Bringing her attention back to the discussion she mused.
“You may not have had the equipment, but the Aureans did.” She remembered the FTL-UMPD and other equipment she’d airlifted out of the freighter. “That is why you wanted that ship, and that ship only.”
“Yes, the others were, for one reason or another, unsuitable donors” Casimiro simpered, holding his hands behind his back and gazing at The Lance. “Although given time we would have worked out the issues on our own, why should we miss such an opportunity?”
Because of the lives lost in obtaining it, Aurora thought bitterly, but the General Secretária went on regardless, actually clapping dry hands together as he announced.
“Now we can propel a craft to super-luminal velocities without fear of losing it to some speck of dust.”
“I should have been informed.” Aurora said.
“You were a security risk.” The General answered simply.
“A security risk!” Aurora exploded. “I am the most secure person on this planet. Without me you would not have survived a month!”
Coolly, the General answered, “Of course, and we appreciate your efforts. Unfortunately, that is precisely why you were not informed. Your activities bring you into constant, even intimate, contact with the enemy. If you were captured--”
“I would never betray my Protectorate.” Aurora interrupted, furious at his implication.
Perhaps sensing that he’d pushed her too far, or even out of a genuine sense of regret, the General dipped his chin, “…Yes. But we still could not take the risk. This mission is quite literally our only chance of success in this war.”
Aurora jabbed her finger at The Lance. “That vessel could not succeed against an Aurean Airskirmisher. If you think you could it attack the Aurean fleet, you are insane.”
“Of course it could not.” The General dismissed the suggestion. “We intend to deployed it as far away from them as possible.”
“I fail to understand, what use can a FTL ship have if not to fight?”
“By not fighting.” Benigno took her arm.
Aurora looked at his hand coldly. Although he was tall, even for a Porturegan, she had several centimeters on him and she used every millimeter as she said, “You seem to know a lot about this.”
Quickly removing his hand, Beni answered, “Believe me I would have told you if I could but I have been in quarantine for the last month; they only told me why last week.”
Aurora looked into his heartfelt expression and her heart melted. Her protectorate still practiced the custom of segregating their vacuum personnel before a launch, both to focus them on the mission, and to reduce the chance of injury.
“I apologize,” she flushed. “I should not have used that tone with you. But I still fail to see how The Lance, even equipped with an FTL engine, can make any impact on this war?”
“We are going to ask for help.” Beni answered slowly.
“Help?” Aurora cocked her head again. “From whom?” The only race other than her own who could even contemplate taking on the Empire were the Scalantrans and, given their history with Aurea, there was no chance of them lending her Protectorate a pen, let alone weapons.
“From the Velorians of course.” Beni spoke softly. “We are going to ask them for more Protectors.”
“Not to belittle your own efforts.” Casimiro said, a little too quickly. “But the situation on the ground is becoming desperate. So far we have been able to keep the Aurean army from regrouping, but they still control vast areas of territory, much of it important. Even if we manage to keep their fleet at bay -- a prospect that grows progressively less likely -- they are slowly starving us to death. And now that their Tset’lar has started to attack military targets…” He shook his head. “The Primes were bad enough but, with respect, even you can not even push Tala back without massed armor support.”
Aurora bristled at the suggestion that she needed human help in anything, but since it was true, she said nothing. Instead she shook her head, “Velor is thousands of light years away, sixteen wormhole transitions. Even an Aurean ship would take months to reach it.”
“Of course we do not intend to visit your homeworld,” Casimiro answered, slightly testily, “Its environment is lethal. But there is more to your society than just Velor?”
Aurora was taken back by the question, “I am not sure what you mean?”
“I mean the Enlightenment of course,” behind his back, Casimiro’s hands clenched.
“Yes?” Aurora frowned, golden eyebrows meeting, “what about it?”
“We have only to reach that. The nearest planet is only one transition from here, is it not?”
“Yes,” Aurora repeated, the threat to that system had been part of the reason she’d been assigned to Betah Stronberg.
Casimiro’s skin wrinkled as he smiled thinly, “And once we reach that planet, we will ask for help.”
Shocked indignation hit Aurora, “Christa Jah’ala will not abandon her protectorate to come help me!” She was offended at the very suggestion of running to another Protector for help; the last woman to do that had received the help she wanted, but also been laughed at and never protected anything more important than a desk for the rest of her life.
But Casimiro waved his hands, “You misunderstand, Fair Child; we know how valuable Protectors are to their worlds and would never hope to deprive another of theirs.” It went unsaid that “never hope” wasn’t the same as “would not ask.” “We merely want access to the Enlightenment communications, she will grant that, surely?”
“She will…” Aurora nodded uncertainly; there was no dishonor in that. “But to what end. If you want to send a message we could simply wait for a messenger.”
But the General Secretária shook his head, “Your Messengers are quite impressive, Fair Child--” somehow when he used the honorific, it was with anything but flattery-- “but they are arrive at monthly, if not yearly, intervals.” Casimiro retorted. “We can not afford to wait any longer and we understand that you have a faster than light system instead?” There was just the faintest glint of hope in his dark eyes.
“There… is,” again Aurora nodded, “but it is far from instantaneous.” It was in fact just a relay of drone craft, which darted from system to system. They could move faster than normal ships because they carried no crews but even they were barely twice as fast as ordinary vessels.
“It is better than nothing,” Casimiro shrugged.
But Aurora wasn’t finished. “Even assuming you could reach it -- you have not explained how The Lance will survive the wormhole -- I can not remember the last planet that successfully requested additional Protectors. There are worlds, such as Terra, that have more than one, but they are almost always the result of unique circumstances” -- that being a Protector’s euphemism for bureaucratic bumbling. “A world is assigned the number it requires, no more.” She shook her head to emphasize her point.
“And we would not think of draining the Enlightenment’s valuable resources unjustly.” Casimiro answered with diplomatic smoothness. “Your bureaucratic system is notorious for its… rigidity, but we understand that the Protectors occasionally form “Strike Teams” of Protectors and one or more Viragos to deal with Tset’lar. We will request one of those because of our precarious nature, and strategic position.”
And once the team had killed Tala… well they were Protectors and humans were in danger. Aurora bit back the pleasant image of her sisters crushing the Aureans and looked at him accusingly. “How do you know about the Strike Teams, they are supposed to be Secret?”
Casimiro merely shrugged. “We just listen. As I said, this area of space is important. Although we do not understand why, it seems to be the only place where ships can pass safely, and not all of them secure their communications.”
“I’ll have to speak to someone about that.” Aurora murmured. If a primitive planet like Betah Stronberg could learn the Enlightenment’s secrets, Skietra only knew who else was listening. “You are correct about the Teams.” She sighed. “And, I must confess that if I could risk the weeks it would take to reach Christa, I would have asked for one. “But you must understand that they are temporary only; once their mission is complete they will depart.”
Casimiro visibly stiffened and fluffed his lapels in contempt. “And well they should. We have not fought the Aureans only to become trapped under the Enlightenment’s thumb.”
Aurora twitched at the implied insult. “And what about me?”
Casimiro looked at her in surprise. “You are our Protector and we embrace you as such. More than one of you would be… more difficult to tolerate.”
Aurora breathed slowly. “The Enlightenment is not a charity, General Secretária. We do not send out Protectors merely for the sake of your humanity.” This was a half-truth at best, but she wasn’t about to admit anything, especially when the truth was so obvious. “Your attitude will change, I can assure you of that.”
“Oh?” It was Casimiro’s turn to look accusing. “Is that so?”
“Of course. You are a short-lived race, Mister Secretária, if not this generation than the next. Sooner or later your people will see the light. It is only a matter of time and we can afford to be patient.”
Beside her, Beni gently hissed, “Aurora,” and gave her an imperceptible kick. The Virago instantly throttled back, realizing the fool she’d made of herself in allowing the general to bait her.
Casimiro’s jaw twitched at the reprimand but he didn’t rise to it, instead he placed his gaze firmly on The Lance. To Aurora’s surprise he visibly relaxed, just like a Nav’ere would draw strength from the sight of the Tome.
“Maybe not even that long,” he said with a drawn out sigh, “I do not like it but the percentage of Believers is increasing daily. Clearly not everyone fears what your world will do to ours”
The old man’s tone was so sad it managed to touch Aurora, and she felt obliged to admit the truth, “As I said, we are not a charity. The Enlightenment may ask a price for their Strike Team.”
Casimiro turned back to her, surprise on his face. “They would? What do we have that would be any value to the Enlightenment?”
“Oh,” Casimiro’s face went blank.
“It is not a heavy price,” Aurora consoled.
“It is everything we have,” Casimiro shot back, “what you are saying is that in order to save ourselves from one Supremis race, we must submit to another?”
The Virago could only shrug; to her it wasn’t an issue. “It is the way of things, General Secretária. No world can stand alone.”
“If we are not with you, we are against you?” Casimiro asked darkly.
“No,” Aurora shook her head, “if you are not with us, the Aureans will take you; it is only a matter of time” Again taking pity on him, she continued, “It is not fair, but the Aureans want you, your planet and most of all they want your people. The Enlightenment is the only power that can stand against them.”
Casimiro raised an eyebrow, “Membership guarantees protection?”
“Almost,” Aurora admitted, surprising him. “Aureans will not attack an Enlightenment world.”
“Because Supremis do not wage war on one another; Skietra forbade it.”
“You kill each other though?” Casimiro asked, but it was Beni who answered.
“We kill each other as well, sir, but I would not call it war.”
“Why have you never mentioned membership before?”
Aurora shrugged, “You were not ready. Membership is usually only given to translight worlds.”
“But it guarantees Protection!”
Aurora flinched, realizing what she’d said; “Once a world has been accepted into the Enlightenment the Aureans will not return, but if they have already committed troops…” she left the rest unsaid.
“Will the Enlightenment not send reinforcements?”
“That would be war,” Aurora said simply.
“Then what use is membership?”
Aurora considered explaining the economic benefits to the General Secretária, but they would mean less than nothing to a man whose world was being conquered. “It is not the same as being alone; the Enlightenment will not send more Protectors, but there are other forms of aid.” Which would be sold at deferred and extremely reasonable prices, but again the General Secretária didn’t need to know that yet. She allowed herself to smile, “The Aureans find it very difficult to prosecute a war when the system is filled with Enlightenment freighters.”
If the thought of exchanging one fleet of ships for another brought the General Secretária any comfort, Casimiro gave no sign, “If that is what we must pay, it is too high.” He looked ready to spit, but Aurora doubted he could spare the water.
“Casimiro,” she began but he held up his hand.
“It is too high, but we will pay it.”
“I am just General Secretária of the vacuum program,” Casimiro announced, gripping his lapels again, “but if membership in your ‘Enlightenment’ will protect us from this horror, what choice do we have but to take it?”
The air almost hummed with tension until Beni asked, “Has anyone actually said why you were asked to come here?”
Aurora tossed her head in the direction of The Lance, “That answered a lot of my questions. I assume I am here to offer my protection.” She beamed inwardly; Beni would undoubtedly be the ship’s captain and the idea of protecting him appealed.
“More or less.” Casimiro shrugged, apparently recovered. “We were in fact thinking that your services would be better spent in a distraction.”
“Distraction?” Aurora turned the word over a couple of times. “How, against their fleet?”
“You will no doubt recall the counter attack we recently made against the Aurean position in the Green Hills and Flat Meadows province.”
“Yes, you took back several of your missile silos.” Aurora remembered thinking what a wasted effort it’d been; the first thing the Aureans had done when they’d taken the silos was steal their arsenals. But given how good her protectorate had grown at deceiving her, maybe she needed to rethink a lot of what she’d considered wasteful. “I had not heard, however, that your munitions industry had regenerated to the point where it could restock them.”
Casimiro looked uncomfortable. “In fact… it has not,” he might have been extracting one of his own organs. “However at this point numbers are not as important as location.”
Although Aurora’s education had been diverse with regard to the many, many ways people had created to kill one another; it hadn’t explained why location might be important in a missile fight. As far as her instructors had been concerned, simply possessing an armed silo was enough; its location had been a secondary consideration, generally though of in terms along the lines of ‘the further away, the better.’ Being a Protector, naturally her education had surrounded attacking silos more than defending them.
Which was why she had to resist scratching her head as she said, “Perhaps if you explained more of your plan, the importance of that detail will become apparent.”
As hard as she’d tried to disguise her ignorance, Casimiro saw right through it and his tone became condescending as he lectured, “Vectors, as any vacuum strategist will testify, are the key to a successful missile attack.”
Fortunately for Aurora, Beni was able to translate: “We’ve got enough missiles for what we want to do, but what we need are locations. The more we have, the more vectors we can attack from and the more dispersed the Aurean counter-fire will have to be and the greater the chance of a successful hit”
It was entirely possible that there wasn’t a word to cover the relief Aurora felt towards him, which was just as well for her face was impassive when she said, “Thank you.” Turning to Casimiro again, she asked, “I am glad to see you are finally taking my suggestion to make a proactive attack on their fleet seriously.”
Irked that she’d guessed the mission’s secondary purpose, Casimiro tried to make it appear a minor point. “As I said, the chance of their defeating our detection grid grows daily. Our mission projections estimate that a successful strike will extend that eventual penetration by a minimum of two months.”
Aurora shook her head. “No.”
“No?” Casimiro looked surprised. “Why do you say that?”
Aurora allowed herself to smile as she turned her back on him to look on The Lance. “After all our time together, you still do not understand the nature of a Protector; we do not do things by halves; we do not attack with the intention of merely hurting an enemy. Protectors are the finest warriors in the galaxy and when we attack, our enemy is defeated. Any enemy, General Secretária. We either know victory, or we know death. There is no other alternative.”
Casimiro actually paled beneath the weight of her words and she heard him swallow before asking, “Y-you intend to destroy their fleet?”
“With your help of course.” It was Aurora’s turn to sound condescending. Smashing starships was, after all, literally what she had been born to do and as far as they’d advanced in other areas, they were children when it came to destroying warships
Still, their missiles were powerful enough to have done damage in the past. She could use the distraction they would afford.
There was only one last thing to say.
“When do we start?”
* * *
The next week passed with almost supernatural quickness. Distanced from the cycles of sun and moon by meters of aeneucrete, the base personnel found days beginning to blur together, eventually even Aurora’s biological clock began to get confused.
The outside world dwindled also. Reports of advances and retreats, losses and victories dribbled in inexorably, but few people listened. Reduced to their bare numbers, they just didn’t seem important any more.
Despite having no technical skills, Aurora was far from idle. There was always some large piece of equipment that she could move easier, faster and with more precision than her protectorates. Whenever she could grab a few moments to herself, she spent them trying to train The Lance’s crew in the rudiments of vacuum combat. Or at least those parts of it that involved running away.
Someone had taken the time to attach some Comitatus rocket pods, but Aurora had spent a good half hour lecturing Beni about The Lance’s probability of survival if he actually thought about using them; they would be little more than an irritant to any Aurean ship, and that assumed the Aureans could be somehow convinced to enter The Lance’s range instead of simply incinerating them at three times the distance.
That last piece of information she had revealed with reluctance. It was almost an admission that if The Lance's crew actually came across an Aurean ship, they had about as much chance of getting away as they did of beating through its hull with their fists.
Eventually the last night launch descended upon a crew that was close to dead on their feet, Aurora spent those last few hours in the best way she could envision.
She went to bed.
…Almost entirely of her own volition. The truth was Beni had had to all but threaten Aurora before she would get some rest. As he’d been quick to remind her, she’d been operating at peak capacity for six days, and since they were so close to the deadline there was hardly any more equipment that needed shifting. He also reminded her that there was such a thing as being over-prepared
Aurora’s only condition was that Beni -- who had pushed himself almost as hard as she had -- would join her, and only if all they did was sleep. The idea was to regain stamina, not exert it. There would be plenty of time for more later, for the moment… it had been too long since she’d held a willing body in her arms and she needed some human contact before she lost him, maybe for the last time, to depths of space.
Hugging her love tight, and with heavy blankets bundled about her, Aurora went to sleep.
She awoke five hours and three minutes later. As was the nature of her species, Aurora experienced no moment of lethargy between sleep and wakefulness; she simply blinked into full alertness.
Beni, his construction less robust than her own, was still in her arms, gently snoring. Briefly, Aurora wondered what it was like for him, to be contained in a body that required at least five hours of sleep every single night, then dismissed the thought as dangerous. Human vulnerability in sleep was part of what made them so endearing to her, but it wasn’t for Protectors.
While she could adopt human sleeping patterns, the idea of spending a fifth of her life unconscious was odd.
Speaking of which….
Gently ruffling Beni’s soft blond hair -- such a bizarre rarity amongst his people -- she extracted her arms from around him and floated out from beneath the sheets.
Landing beside the bed, she took one last look at Beni -- even unconscious he’d reacted to her movement by reaching out for her -- arranged the sheets more comfortably around him, and left.
To her complete lack of surprise, General Secretária Casimiro wasn’t available when she strolled into the launch center, but his aide assured her that he could be awakened if it was an emergency.
Aurora shook her head and dismissed him. Walking through to the cafeteria, she picked up one of the concoctions of distilled leaves in hot water that her protectorates seemed to love, and failed to notice it was cold as she raised it to her lips.
She failed to notice because she was, for the first time in a week, watching the news.
Like all public areas in mission control, technicians had installed a television in the cafeteria so the base personnel wouldn’t feel entirely cut off. Sadly, the effort had largely been in vain since everyone had been too busy to concern themselves with mundane things.
The picture was dominated by a flickering video, taken from extreme distance by a helicopter while a narrator spoke in a secondary window.
The video was of the capital, or at least what was left of it.
The mug dropped from Aurora’s hand. The sound of it smashing brought her far enough back to hear the narrator speak, “…megaton yield weapon I say again, the Aurean device, which was detonated at zero three, seven six this morning is estimated to have had been in the range of one and a half megatons. Although the military units that entered the city initially had high hopes, we can now confirm that the majority of city’s nine million civilians have been killed. So far the Aureans have not made any comment about this, their latest atrocity but we expect….”
Aurora heard footsteps behind her and identified them as belonging to Júnior General Secretária, Josué Joaquim, Séuchčo Estak’s second in command.
“How long have you known?” She asked. Her mind was still too numb to ask the real question, Why wasn’t I called? In some distant part of herself, she knew the answer; because there was nothing she could have done.
That sent up a flag. The Aureans hadn’t been able to launch anything with a significant yield for months, not since they’d captured the missile silos and exhausted all of their air-portable devices. That left only one other launch platform in the system….
Josué beat her to the inevitable conclusion.
“At approximately two forty five this morning an Aurean heavy frigate armed with at least one CNR-102 managed to force our network and enter orbit. One hour and twenty nine minutos later it decloaked and released its payload… three minutos after that…” He shook his head and gestured at the screen and its five-mile wide crater. “I have never seen anything like it… I mean I have, at Jardim bonito and Reino de heaven of course. But that bomb… it destroyed a whole city. Just one bomb. All those people.” He shook his head disbelievingly.
“You did not think to inform the base?”
“Why bother?” Josué answered morosely, not bothering to look up. “The command staff were told of course, but as for everyone else…” -- he let his shoulders drop helplessly -- “we cannot move the launch window and everyone… they need their rest, especially now. They can find out about it in the morning; if nothing else this demonstrates the importance of our mission.”
“The Aureans have found a way of penetrating your network.” Aurora stated blankly, her eyes never wavering from the screen.
“Only to a limited degree, obviously, or the whole fleet would be here, not just one frigate.”
“And that frigate, I assume it was destroyed?”
“Almost immediately. It tried to cloak but… we have experience with tracking stealthed ships.”
The Porturegan expertise in that area was one of the reasons Velor was so interested in their planet. “How does this affect the mission?”
“We expended six missiles killing the frigate. That should not significantly affect the outcome of our attack.”
“What about the hole in the net?” Aurora asked, her eyes still on the smoking crater on the television.
“Already patched. But it is only a matter of time before they force another one.”
Aurora sighed and dropped her shoulders. “And the next one will be bigger.”
Josué brightened slightly, “But we have nothing to fear. This mission will be a success and not only will the Velorians be on their way, but the Aurean fleet will be smashed as well.”
“Yes.” Aurora couldn’t lie to herself like he could. Even assuming The Lance managed to get away and she was able to destroy the Aureans, it would take weeks just to reach the next system and months for Velor to send reinforcements, assuming they did (though it was likely). Destroying the fleet would be satisfying, but since the ships were cut off from the ground they were effectively non-contributors to the war and their destruction, while painful, would be less effective than it might appear.
The mission would buy them time, but not much else.
Almost on cue, things got worse.
* * *
“How many?” Bursting into the control room, Josué had to roar at the top of his voice to be heard over the mass of people, shouts and claxons.
The last of which was the most annoying since, although it was in the hands of the military, Séuchčo Estak was a civilian port and had no way of signaling invasion. Instead, when the horizon suddenly turned black with Aurean land warriors, someone had panicked and hit the fire alarm.
Fortunately they’d then regained enough of their senses to use the PA.
By the time Aurora and Josué reached mission control, the entire facility was a hive as people were woken and dragged to their duty stations.
Mission control was the center of that hive. Men and women, some of them still in their night clothes, ran from console to console trailing pieces of paper, PDA’s and books, trying not to lose their heads as hells shock troops came down on their shoulders.
Josué had to shout twice more before someone screamed back a response.
“About a hundred Aurean ’Warriors, some trucks and APC’s.”
Aurora stiffened at the panic in the woman’s voice. She’d become too used to dealing with the military and men who knew what to do in a crisis. With the exception of four grey-suited guards at the room’s perimeter, everyone around her was a civilian. The majority of them had joined fifty years ago when space flight was fashionable and enjoying the golden era between discovery and corruption by big business. The reek of fear permeating the room was so thick she was surprised they couldn’t see it.
At the moment everyone was caught in the pause that comes after fear, but before panic. Everyone was nervous, yet still competent. But they were resting on a knife-edge and anything would topple them over.
She needed a stabilizing force and fortunately, Velorians were very good at calming frightened humans. “More information would be preferable,” she suggested, loud enough for all to hear even as she began to douse the fear with her pheromones. “I assume there are not one hundred vehicles all together?”
“Sorry ma’am.” The woman flushed in sudden embarrassment, nearly screaming to be heard over the fire alarm. “That is all we have; some pilot saw them heading our way.”
“How long until they arrive?”
The woman hesitated, prompting Aurora to ask again, “How long?”
Mission launch was in ten hours. “That’s… not enough.” Aurora blinked in shock.
But beside her, Josué was shaking his head. “No,” he whispered, but not in despair. Suddenly visibly drawing himself up, disgust literally dropping away, he raised his head and in a loud clear voice said, “Okay, first things first. Shut that damn alarm off; things are tense enough without it.”
The room was frozen into sudden silence by the voice of command, but when the siren continued to sound, Josué raised dark eyebrows and asked, “Well?”
“…We do not know how” A technician, pencil behind his ear, answered from the back of the room. “I mean, we know the procedure that should work but…” -- he shrugged -- “it is not working. Some people are trying to….” He trailed off as Aurora picked up a chair, snapped off one of its legs and threw it like a javelin into the ceiling mounted speaker.
The alarm squealed and died away.
“Problem solved,” she said into the ensuing silence. “What now?”
“Now we get ready,” Josué answered calmly. “We will put our heads together and work out a solution.” Looking out into the sea of faces, he called out, “Sabina, Pio, Henrique… where’s Julio and Netuno?”
Someone called back that they hadn’t been seen yet.
“Send a runner, I need to see all the department heads right now in the situation room. We cannot afford to waste a second. The rest of you…” He hesitated.
“Do your jobs,” Aurora advised succinctly. “Whatever we decide, we will need an operational port.” She allowed her tone to drop, “The Aureans are still five hours away so you are safe for now. Do your jobs and we can still save this planet.”
Her calm, assured words seemed to galvanize everyone into action. Department heads emerged from the crowd and filed into the situation room while those with something else to do, found somewhere to do it.
Unlike the control room, which was a large, aging chamber designed to let as many people as possible work in the smallest possible space, the situation room was petite and modern. The idea had been that if a mission was planned correctly, the people monitoring it wouldn’t need fancy, up to date (and expensive) equipment to do their jobs.
At least that was the theory; in the meantime the people in charge got comfy seats to sit in while they thought up new reasons to justify their salaries
Right now those seats had been pushed aside. No one wanted to sit while a hundred Aurean Landwarriors bore down on them. Aurora preferred it like that, she always thought best on her feet.
The meeting began almost as soon as Josué stepped in, pausing only as other department heads appeared, most still rubbing their eyes.
“That is the situation,” he said as the duty officer finished summarizing what little they knew. “Now, does anyone want to suggest what we do next?”
“Now, we evacuate.” The slightly dry voice came from the door. It could only belong to General Secretária Casimiro.
“Evacuate?” Aurora and Josué asked together. “But the launch is only ten hours away?”
Casimiro just shrugged and removed his jacket as he stepped up to the table. Like most things associated with the vacuum core, the table was black and angular. His desiccated features reflected in its polished surface, they didn’t look any better in reverse. “I hope you are not proposing we try and fight them. As you have just explained, the Aureans will be here in…” -- he glanced at a clock placed high on a wall -- “Four hours and fifty three minutes. Even with your presence, Aurora, we do not have anything close to the forces we need to withstand an invasion of that size.”
He spoke the truth, but… “What if I took them out first?” Aurora volunteered. “Five hours should be ample–”
“But will it be sufficient?” Casimiro interrupted. “I have no doubt that you could strike them hard, perhaps even destroy all of their armored units. However we know from experience how fast their infantry can run when it has a need to. Can you guarantee that you will be able to destroy all of their ’Warriors and kill every single soldier? I hardly think the Aureans will stand still while you devastate their ranks, and once they have dispersed your effectiveness, regrettably, decreases significantly. We have only two hundred infantrymen on site, and they must have at least ten times that number. I highly doubt you will be able to reduce the odds enough to guarantee our victory.”
Every word grated on Aurora’s nerves, more so because she knew they were true. In any other circumstances wiping out nine tenths of an army would be an unbelievable success, but here, with the spaceport so vulnerable, the Aureans only had to set foot on it to succeed. It was an impossible situation.
Aurora shook her head; if the situation was impossible she was using the wrong tactics. Ok, I can’t fight them, what else can I do?
“What if I lifted The Lance into orbit?” She volunteered. “Dump the booster rockets and it should…” she ran into Josué’s slowly shaking head.
“I am sorry, if that was possible we would have asked you at the beginning. The Lance is just too heavy, even for you. Besides, it has no hard points… it was never designed to be carried.”
Ok, new plan… Aurora flailed around but came up with nothing. Finally she just had to ask, “Well I am open to suggestions. Somehow I’ve got to either smash that army, or you’ve got to knock five hours off your launch time.”
Casimiro looked put out. “It is impossible. Their force is just too great and we can not reduce our window.”
Josué however, simply twitched at her words and started to pace. Slowly, his expression broke into a smile. “I think I know a way.”
“To what?” Aurora asked. “You can launch faster?”
“We can if abbreviate the engineering check and cut a hundred and twenty four pages from the book,” Josué gestured to an administradobaix at the back of the room. “Paula, pass me the launch procedures please?” When the four inch thick file was hefted into his hands, he dropped it on the side and began to methodically flick through the pages. When he held approximately a third of them, he took a firm grip on the spine and tore them out. He gutted the rest of the file in the same way, flicking past some pages, ripping out a handful, leaving some, flicking forwards, doubling back and then tearing out some more.
When he was finished the book was a little under half its previous size. He handed it back to Paula, “I think that should be enough, but get some of your team together and go through a copy… Pio, go with her, your experience will be useful. Remove anything that isn’t absolutely essential. Cut every corner, slice every margin. We have to launch before they get here, do you understand?”
Paula grinned and saluted. “Yes sir.”
“‘Every margin?’” Aurora queried as the administradobaix disappeared. “Launching is dangerous enough…”
Josué shrugged noncommittally. “It’s dangerous, but not as much as trying to launch with Imperial armor on the rail.”
Casimiro looked from the retreating woman to his second in command as if they’d both lost their minds. He simply said, “This is insane.”
“What is?” A new voice intruded on the conversation. All three turned to face SADT Colonel Luiz Leandro, Estak’s ranking military officer.
Normally a punctual man, his delay was could be explained in one glace; he’d spent the extra minutes in the armory. There was not one square centimeter of his imposing two meter ten form that was not currently obscured by weapons, armor or both.
Luiz was wearing the latest battle suit, around which he’d strapped a couple of Kevlar vests, and attached some flack pants to protect his upper thighs. On top of that, he’d stuck two pistols in his belt and one in a breast pocket. A couple of sub-machine guns were tethered to his chest, a fully automatic rifle was under his left arm and a Porturegan GAR under his right. There was a shotgun slung over his shoulder and two bandoleers pulled taught across his torso carried fourteen grenades. His right hip was host to another pistol while his left thigh held a wicked eighteen inch blade; two more knives were slid into his boots and, although she couldn’t be sure, Aurora thought she’d seen his teeth flash with metal as he spoke.
On anyone else, the massed metal would have been ridiculous, but the massive Colonel seemed to ignore the weight and moved as easily as a dancer. Popular rumor had it that he’d once wrestled a Betan to the ground and broken its neck with his bare hands. Seeing him, Aurora didn’t doubt it; he looked as strong as she felt.
“I think you missed a spot,” she said dryly. The Colonel’s lips drew tight at the jibe, but otherwise he ignored it. Instead he focused on Casimiro and saluted smartly.
“Sir, what is happening?”
“We are under attack.” The General Secretária answered smoothly. “They” -- he nodded towards Aurora and Josué -- “think we should stay.”
Luiz looked at the pair; focusing on Josué as if seeing him for the first time, then he saw Aurora unflinchingly returning his gaze, Aurora looked into the dark pools of his eyes and saw heavy shapes moving between shadows in a jungle night, felt claws rake bark, heard the cries of blooded warriors and suddenly knew what kind of animal Leandro was. He was a beast, a tightly coiled monster.
This was hardly the first time she’d met the Colonel, but it was the first she’d seen him about to go into battle. She wondered how he’d hidden that side of himself. Then she heard the clink of metal and saw the self-imposed chains holding the monster at bay, directing it at the true enemy.
Suddenly she knew she was wrong, he wasn’t a monster. Luiz was a highly trained animal. An attack dog that would go from placid to murderous at the snap of a finger.
He nodded, “Understood, sir. Just tell us where you want us.”
Aurora markedly upped their chances.
“I am sorry?” Casimiro’s eyebrows arched. “You want to stay?”
“This is where we are needed,” Luiz answered matter-of-factly. “Sir.”
“It is insane” Casimiro repeated, looking from one face to the next. “We can not defend this installation, nor can not stop the Aureans. We might be able to launch early, but not before those ’Warriors are within artillery range of The Lance. Our only option is to retreat. We have five hours, that is ample time.”
“True.” Aurora answered. “But we would need to abandon The Lance, and all of the irreplaceable equipment it carries. Not to mention the only place on the entire planet where we can launch this mission.”
“That is regrettable, but unavoidable at this stage.” Casimiro replied. “As I have said –”
“As you have said,” Aurora parroted. “But you are not the only person here. Two of the ranking individuals on this facility believe you are wrong.”
“They are my subordinates. I am in command here, it is my decision what we do next”
“Yes…” Aurora drew out the word, carefully judging the expressions on the faces around her. Not much of her training had dealt with psychology, the theory being that she would rarely be in direct contact with the Aureans long enough to need it. Nonetheless, what she knew was useful on occasion.
“‘Command,’” she let the word hang heavily. “The interesting thing about being in ‘command,’ is that it only works if your subordinates are willing to follow you.”
For the first time since she’d known him, Casimiro showed open shock. His expression got worse as his eyes traveled over the command staff and he realized that the Virago was absolutely correct.
Not everyone was so willing to abandon him of course. There were more than a few uncertain faces at the table, and even a couple of openly defiant ones, but the majority of the command staff were clearly willing to follow the Virago all the way into hell, which was where she was leading them.
“This is not a total insurrection, General Secretária,” Josué noted quickly. “You are still greatly experienced and we value your input… but it would seem we are not quite yet ready to abandon our mission.”
“You may as well ask Colonel Leandro to shoot you,” Casimiro spat. “It will almost certainly be kinder than what the Aureans will do to you.”
Attention in the room’s suddenly shifted as the Kevlar stretched across Luiz’s chest creaked. Unlike everyone else, he had not gathered around the table but stood in a shadowy recess halfway down the room. Now he was looking directly at the General Secretária as if his eyes could bore through the older man’s skull.
“If I shoot anyone,” he said, his voice artificially enhanced by his suit’s speakers, “It will not be the Júnior General Secretária. Sir.”
“It would seem, that we are willing to take the risk.” Sabina, engineering consultant and third in control after Josué, spoke slightly nervously; like everyone else she was unnerved by the armor clad giant,
“If you are not. If anyone is not.” Josué raised his voice. “You should go now. Truth be told, I would rather be going with you. But I will not, because this mission is more important than that. It is the life of our world as we would wish to live it at stake, and I would die to protect that.”
He waited. There was a tense moment as power shifted around the room. For half a moment it seemed as if Casimiro would actually leave. And if he left, so would a great many other people, perhaps enough to truly end the mission.
Then the moment was over and the General Secretária, with as much dignity as he could, took his seat at the other end of the table.
Luiz raised his head, “Now that that’s over, may I make a suggestion?” Even through his suit, his tone was flat and inflectionless. If he cared one iota about the alien death bearing down on him, it wasn’t apparent.
“Yes, of course, Colonel.” Josué smiled conciliatory. “We are entertaining all suggestions here; a military one would be especially useful right now I think.”
“Thank you.” Luiz stepped out of the shadow and moved easily through the crowd. He did so not by forcing people aside, but because an armored giant carrying more firepower than a Landwarrior finds few people willing to obstruct his passage.
When he reached the table, he placed both fists on the top and said. “I do not know what it takes to put a rocket in orbit, but before we decide what we might be able to do, it would be best to find out what the enemy actually wants. I mean, aside from this one report, are we sure the Aureans are even coming here?”
There was a shifting in the room’s attention; Aurora tried not to flinch. She’d been in contact with the military way of doing things for too long. A few months ago she’d have flown off to confront the Aureans without a second’s thought, certainly she wouldn’t have consulted with the Porturegans before she moved. And this was where such actions left her; embarrassed before her protectorate.
She regained face as quickly as she could by slowly nodding, as if she’d been thinking the same thing all along. “Of course… I just wanted to explore all the options before I left.”
It sounded weak, even to her ears, but people nodded as if she were speaking gospel. Sometimes being seen as a religious icon had its advantages.
“As of this moment,” Luiz looked around the worried faces, “I think we have explored them all. Right now we need accurate information.”
“I will be back in two minutes.”
* * *
A column of one hundred Aurean Landwarriors didn’t look like much, seen from a distance. In fact it didn’t look all that different from the legion of trucks and armored personnel carriers.
To Aurora, they all looked like bugs crawling through moss.
But then they didn’t need to look dangerous, they were dangerous.
It wasn’t hard to see how they’d got so close before being detected. They were simply very difficult to see. None of the vehicles made contact with the ground, so they didn’t kick up dust like their Porturegan counterparts, nor, thanks to their ultra-efficient Aurean designs, did they make much sound. Moreover their hulls were covered with a kind of reactive paint that blended with the background.
Despite this, Porturegan satellites were usually pretty good at spotting any large troop movements. Or at least they had been until the Aurean frigate had knocked a fifth of them out of orbit in the seconds before its own death.
Observing the vehicles from ten thousand meters, Aurora couldn’t help but notice how wrong Casimiro had been. Estak’s soldiers weren’t outnumbered a hundred to one; it was more like two hundred to one, and that was just in the trucks. If she factored in the APC’s….
Aurora frowned and looked back at the trucks. They didn’t fit into the picture. The Aurean military was built around its infantry; she should be looking at a field of armored carriers, not floating wagons. The trucks could carry more soldiers, but they were incredibly vulnerable. APC’s could take one, even two hits from a Porturegan Landwarriors’ main armament. A truck would be hard pressed to withstand a machinegun.
Something else bothered the Virago; few of the soldiers inside the trucks were actually wearing armor. Even if the Aureans were so hard up for equipment that they were forced to adapt their materiel wagons for active service, Betans were never separated from their battle armor -- not even while in suspended animation. There was no way they would leave that behind, especially on a mission where they were expecting to meet a Virago.
The thought sent off its own chain reaction; maybe they weren’t expecting to meet her… only, if so, why were they bringing so many troops? It didn’t make sense.
Further thought was curtailed by the sight of yet more vehicles on the horizon. These were a lot closer to the port and hurtling flat out. They had no troop transports, but they didn’t need them; their two huge cannons would do all the talking.
Two cannons! Aurora darted closer. Sure enough, every single fighting vehicle had at least two turreted cannons protruding like quills from their carapace-like bodies. The largest ones had as many as four; two main guns and a couple of half-sized ones, not to mention three man-operated heavy GAR emplacements.
Aurean ’Warriors were more conventional in their design, centering all of their resources on a single efficient main gun and a couple of small counter-infantry energy weapons. Only the Porturegans had found a way of effectively operating more than one turret on a single vehicle.
Which meant the situation was not quite as hopeless as she’d assumed.
Forgetting about her promise to return quickly, Aurora dove on the advancing column, crossing the intervening kilometers in seconds and coming to a dead stop only inches above the lead ’Warrior.
Then she ran into a problem; how exactly does one speak to someone who’s wrapped in metal and racing across a field at full speed?
The solution presented itself when one of the hatches behind the forward cannon was flung back to reveal the ’Warrior’s Comandante. He was taller even than Beni, easily able to meet Aurora’s eye line, which was an oddity as most ’Warrior operators tended to be short so they wouldn’t bang their heads in their compartments.
Banging his head was clearly something this Comandante was familiar with, for he moved with practiced caution as he stood in his cupola and shouted a request for her to join him inside.
Aurora accepted and squeezed herself within his compartment. There wasn’t enough room for even one person to stand so she ended up almost sitting on his lap, but the slight indignity was preferable to shouting over the slipstream.
The Comandante spoke first, extending his hand as he did so. “Comandante Bento Otávio, First Sight, First Melee division. We were wondering when you would get here.” He spoke with a short, clipped inflection that said he came from the Eastern continent. Westerners said the shortened intonation had evolved to match the moss that grew across their land but she’d never seen the connection herself.
Taking his hand, Aurora shook it firmly. “I would have been here earlier, but we only learned about the attack ten minutes ago… how did you learn so quickly?”
Bento shrugged. “Probably the same way you did; a pilot in a Flying Jacob spotted them crossing the horizon.”
“Yes… but all these ’Warriors.” Aurora bashed her hands against the narrow compartment walls, trying to indicate the mobilized force. “They had to come from somewhere.”
Bento smirked in a way that Aurora was becoming all too familiar with; it was the expression her protectorate used when admitting they’d hidden something from her. “Cinquo valleys.”
“But there is no ’Warrior deployment in Cinquo Valleys?” Aurora said with suspicion. “Or… at least not one I was informed of.”
Bento coughed. “Yes… well there was a reason for that.”
Aurora’s glare spoke her question more firmly than her mouth ever could.
“We did not think you would approve.” He wouldn’t meet her gaze. “Sorry.”
“Sorry!” Aurora exploded. “Why in Skietra’s name would you think I–”
She cut herself off when she heard her own words. What the Comandante was saying was true; Cinquo valleys was only a few kilometers from Séuchčo Estak. If she’d known so many fighting vehicles were next to the port she’d have raised hell to get them away in case they attracted the Aureans' attention.
As it turned out the Aureans had come anyway, and these ’Warriors might be the only chance The Lance had of getting into orbit. The fact that the Porturegans still valued her opinion enough to hide the ’Warriors from her would have been more comforting if her opinion wouldn’t have led them to disaster.
“Very well.” She nodded curtly. “You’re here now. What do you plan to do?”
Bento pulled out a rolled map from a side compartment. There was a moment of repositioning as they allowed space for the unraveled paper, then he pointed to a point between Cinquo valleys, Séuchčo Estak and the advancing Aurean forces.
“We’re here,” he announced, somewhat superfluously, as Aurora had a better idea of their position than he did. Then, resting his finger on another area a good deal further south, he said, “And this is where we expect to meet up with the Aureans”
“The Aureans are going at less than half speed,” Aurora cautioned. “If they increase…”
“Then we will still catch them before they arrive at the vacuum port,” Bento replied self-confidently, indicating yet another spot. “Albeit a good deal later than we would hope.”
“What do you plan to do when you get there?” Aurora asked, peering at the map. It was a good quality satellite image, obviously taken within the last few hours, and showed everything down to the trees in meticulous detail.
In answer, Bento took another map from the same compartment, this one was much smaller and showed a much magnified shallow valley. Someone, presumably the Comandante, had drawn an arrow emerging from the south and then a series of vertical lines on either side, parallel with the valley’s rim
“It is quite simple really,” he said with mournful resolution. “We will get into position on either side of their axis of advance. Find our ranges. Bunker down… and wait. There are many inclines in this area so we will have plenty of places to retreat to once the initial volley is completed” There was a not entirely concealed somberness in his expression as he looked up at her. “What will you be doing?”
“I was planning to attack them as soon as possible.” Aurora looked back to the first map. “But that would only scatter their forces and make your task more difficult. Now that I know you are here, I will wait until they are just about to fall into your ambush, then attack.”
Bento’s face brightened slightly. “How much sooner?”
“Only a few minutes.” Aurora replied. “If I time it correctly I can still inflict massive casualties.”
“And panic them so they drive at full speed into our ambush.” Otávio nodded, his mind obviously racing ahead. “You could give us an extra few volleys at least before we were forced to withdraw.”
“I will have to confirm this with the personnel at Séuchčo Estak of course.” Aurora answered quickly. “They are still deciding what they can do to expedite launch and I need to ensure our plan will work with theirs.”
“Can they do it -- launch in time I mean? Last I heard they were looking to set off in ten hours. The Aureans will be there in five.” He sighed, “We will not be able to stop them, Fair Child, only slow them down.”
“They will find a way. Somehow.” Aurora answered confidently. “I have some experience with their way of doing things and if anyone can reach this deadline, they can.”
Bento nodded, then after an almost subconscious check that his radio was off, he said. “Good. It would be… unfortunate if our sacrifice was in vain.”
The Comandante’s tone betrayed his true feelings. Unfortunately they were very accurate feelings as the Comandante had only thirty-two ’Warriors under his command, a mere handful of which were the new supremo main battle tank. Despite the recent advances in Porturegan technology, their warriors were still substantially behind the Aureans’ in armament. For the column to even hope for victory the numbers would need to be reversed.
“All is not lost.” Bento made a small shake of his head. “We have had some modifications that the Aureans will not expect. No doubt they will give us a little advantage.”
“Modifications?” Aurora pricked up her ears. “I have not heard of any modifications.”
“Sadly, they are still experimental. But the urgency of this mission facilitated some… creative thinking on the part of our quartermasters and engineers. You noticed the four projections above out our glacis plate?”
Aurora thought the fighting vehicles had seemed a little spikier than normal. “Yes?”
“Field of force projectors. Not quite the caliber of an Aurean shield, but they do give one hundred percent coverage over our front quarter and will take any single hit the Aureans care to throw at us.”
“But only one?” Aurora asked. She’d picked up on the term “front quarter,” which meant the other three quarters had only ordinary protection.
The Comandante nodded. “It is more than we would normally get, and with our new ammunition, we can hit them harder than ever.”
“How hard is that?” Aurora was persistent. Not only would it be valuable intelligence, but it would improve her peace of mind if she knew how well her protectorate could defend themselves.
“Once their shields are down, any hit that is not on their glacis plate is guaranteed to penetrate. Or,” he chuckled, “that is what they tell me at any rate. Never trust a quartermaster. That is what my Colonel told me when I was a private, they sell their stories with the same skill they use to sell their wares.” His somberness returned, banishing the gallows humor. “Truth be told I do not really care. We know what kind of mission this is. So long as these shells work at least as good as the old ones… we’ll do what we can.”
Aurora looked down through the steel to the gunners below, then beyond him, past the autoloader and to ammunition storage. There were several types of shell, most of which she was familiar with, but one she was not. It looked a lot like an ordinary discarding sabot with an ultra-hard anti-materiel tungsten/iridium tip, but inside it was something else.
The warhead, so far as she could tell, was filled with dozens of sub munitions backed up by a plate of high explosive. She couldn’t be certain from just a glance, but it seemed clear that the bomblets were intended to act like armor piecing grenades and puncture the hardened compartments within an Aurean ’Warrior. As with Porturegan units, compartmentalization was designed to limit damage, but the sub-munitions would laugh at the metal and fillet any ’Warrior. Aurora smiled, when one of those hit, nothing short of a Prime would get out.
But the innovative warhead was only half the story. Circuits and wiring stretched the entire length of the weapon, reaching from stabilizing fins to warhead; they terminated in some kind of microprocessor. Aurora couldn’t tell what its purpose was, but it was clear that the shell redefined the term “smart bomb.”
“A very impressive weapon,” she announced, looking up with glowing eyes. “I am sure they will help you in the battle”
“I am sure they will.” Bento maintained a level tone, regardless of what his eyes were telling her.
Aurora looked back to the port. “I must get back, hopefully the Estak personnel will have come up with something, and they must be wondering where I am.”
“Good luck,” Otávio said, extracting his legs from beneath her so he could squat and open the hatch.
Aurora disappeared into the clear blue sky.
A few cloud masses were beginning to obscure the deep blue of the afternoon sky as Aurora returned to the enormous aeneucrete structure that was Séuchčo Estak
To the untrained eye, nothing had changed since she’d left, but Aurora’s experience told her to look in unexpected places and see what was hidden there.
In the fifteen minutes since she’d left, Estak’s military forces had been busy. Colonel Leandro was obviously planning for a long battle.
Séuchčo Estak was too big to cover with the few people available to him, so the colonel had compromised with a staggered defense surrounding the main launch rail. It gave away The Lance’s location, but even if all had gone well, by that point there would be nothing that could hide the ship’s existence.
The Hundred and Tenth strong force had taken refuge anywhere that would provide cover. Most had taken advantage of the huge skyscraping warehouses that dominated that section of the port and were looking down from the lower floors, although some brave souls had -- either to maintain formation, or because of simple pragmatism -- opted to defend the ground from behind lower buildings.
Aurora would have preferred to see the men more dispersed, but Luiz knew his forces better than she and had decided to concentrate them rather than lose them piecemeal.
What surprised her most was that there was no reserve. Porturegans usually held a fifth of their men back to keep their options open, but Luiz obviously feared the size of his small force. Combined with the single line of battle (nothing protected his sides), it meant that Luiz would attack the Aureans with his full force, but it also made him hideously inflexible. Aureans preferred formulaic battles, but if their commander was clever and did something unexpected, he’d have trouble preventing disaster.
Luiz’s sole concession to mobility was a company of twenty men who maintained a couple of loose formations around some maintenance sheds between the rails and the valley’s edge. Aurora couldn’t imagine what they hoped to do, but trusted the Colonel to know his business.
The final line of defense, at the launch rails themselves, consisted of thirty men who held Séuchčo Estak’s only heavy weapons; two dozen captured Aurean HGAR’s.
Traditional military doctrine dictated placing heavy weapons at the front of a defensive line, but Luiz was smart enough to realize the captured Aurean weapons would be too heavy to move in a running, defensive battle. The HGAR’s might do damage in a forward position, but then they’d have to be abandoned when the Aureans overran the line. From the rear, even over so great a distance, they would prove useful right up to the final moments.
Aurora bit her lip and looked away from the defenses. Séuchčo Estak had been built in a valley with soft sloping sides, and instead of heading towards its mouth where they might be bottlenecked, the Aureans were approaching from the rear.
Crossing the hill would mean rougher terrain and somewhat slower progress for the Aureans, but it would also mean they’d be able to fire down from elevated positions. However, Aurora could see no way to convince the Aureans to try and take the valley’s entrance and the one ray of hope was that the valley walls would keep The Lance was out of sight until the Aureans were practically on top them.
Aurora shook her head, wishing some other phrase had come to mind, and descended. She deeply wished her protectorate hadn’t had to learn to war again, but the undeniable truth was that, except in very rare occasions, Porturegan battles were always retreats in one form or another.
A pike-gabo greeted her at the entrance with a quick salute, and then looked around her as if expecting to see the Aureans on her heels. Only when he was certain they weren’t did he rap on the door and admit her into the main complex.
“They are in the situation room, ma’am--” he touched his brow respectfully -- “thanks to you for being with us.” She barely had a chance to smile back at him before the door was slammed shut. In the shadows of the darkened foyer, another pike-gabo slid an impromptu bolt through an improvised catch. Neither plank of wood, nor door would hold a Betan for more than a few seconds, but Aurora understood the need for such a device. Beyond her, tables, chairs and anything of any substance was being arranged into a futile barricade by a handful of sweating technicians.
They looked up and made the same sign of respect, as if she were a prophetess of hope, rather than merely a Velorian Virago. Their pleading expressions spoke to her, and she took a moment to align some of the heavier pieces, using her might to fashion the very last line of defense, although if they ever had to use it, they would be as good as dead.
Flying up the stairs to the control room, Aurora found it strangely empty. Although most of the rows of computers were still active, only a handful of technicians remained, giving out orders in strangely forced voices to engineers half a kilometer away.
The gantry that ran around the top of the room, and onto which Aurora and Josué had initially sped after hearing the siren, was also empty. That was something Aurora had never seen even on the quietest of peacetime nights.
“We gave them the day off.” Sabina’s voice answered Aurora’s questioning gaze and the Virago turned to see her in the situation room’s doorway, beckoning her in. “No point in risking lives. Come on in, we were worried for you.”
“I am sorry. But what I have found will more than make up for it.” Aurora nodded, following her in. “Before I tell you, how goes the launch?”
The few faces remaining around the table tried not to meet her gaze. “We have managed to reduce it to six hours and three minutos” Josué, bent over a book, looked up briefly.
“Six hours!” Aurora gasped. “You said five earlier?”
“I did.” He nodded, then shrugged. “I was wrong.”
“Is there no other way of reducing that?” Aurora implored, stepping up to the table.
“I wish there were, but this is an exact science. Once you subtract all the precautions and add up all the seconds, it comes to six hours and three minutos, precisely. We are presently rushing the crew through med-op. But you said you had good news… you can hold them off for an hour?” His voice held more than a flash of hope.
“I will have to,” Aurora’s cape, draped over shoulders, drooped. “And I do have good news. It would seem that we are not alone; there are no less than thirty two of your modern Landwarriors racing to intercept the Aurean force.”
The news did not bring the sense of relief she expected. “But thirty two is not enough,” Sabina stated blankly.
“With my help, I believe it will be ample,” she lied. “I have spoken with their Comandante and he is confident that, with their new weapons and equipment, we will see a victory today. Even if we do not hold the port, The Lance will launch.” That reminded her. “How do you plan to evacuate?”
“In stages,” Josué answered, still flicking through his manual. “As Sabina said, we have already dispatched everyone we don’t need. Those who remain will evacuate to Quatroecks as and when their tasks are completed. By the time of launch, there should be only thirty six personnel on site, not including Sergeant Major Leandro’s troops, and we shall evacuate by the most expedient means possible.”
“Where will you resume flight operations?” Aurora asked. “The Lance will need ground support until it leaves the system.”
“The facility in Quatroecks will take over from us.” That was Nicolau, the senior flight operations manager. “They have already been informed and are co-ordinating with our personnel.”
“They are actually taking much of the burden.” Sabina followed. “By linking our systems with theirs we can pool computer cycles and exploit their resources. It is not as efficient--” she spat the word; inefficiency was anathema to her -- “but it is certainly faster. Especially with our personnel reduced as they are.”
“How long will it take you to reach Quatroecks?” Aurora asked, concealing her surprise; Porturegans hadn’t shared control of a launch in 60 years.
“Quatroecks might be the closest friendly vacuum port, but it is still a long way to go,” Josué grumbled. “Especially since we will likely have to avoid the remnants of the Aurean forces. Once we leave we will not be in contact again for at least six hours, most likely longer.”
“Understood…” She looked around the room. “Where is General Secretária Casimiro?”
The room was suddenly quiet, disturbed only by a stifled cough from someone in the back. Sabina, with as much dignity as she could muster while trying not to smile, said, “The General Secretária decided to take a… ‘stroll.’”
“A ‘stroll?’” Aurora queried.
“For his health.” Sabina clarified.
“His stroll was last seen taking him in the direction of the motor pool,” someone said quietly. “No one has seen him since.”
“Has anyone looked?” Aurora asked.
“We are all very busy, Fair Child,” Josué answered, dead pan.
Aurora had to concede that. If Casimiro didn’t want to stay then there was no practical way they could keep him, and at least he’d spared them a public departure.
“Good point.” She spread her hands wide. “So… what happens now?”
“Now? We get on with our jobs.” Josué gestured towards the table, whose top couldn’t be seen for paper and documents. “I suggest you coordinate with Colonel Leandro, he is in the front lines, somewhere in the Aloc-Acoc sector I think Now that we have some support, I suppose we had better dispose ourselves to make the best use of it.”
“Thank you.” Aurora tipped her head in acknowledgement, and departed.
* * *
Colonel Luiz Leandro, or at least his lower half, was eventually found sticking out from beneath a light reconnaissance vehicle. Despite his massive size, Aurora wouldn’t have noticed him at all if one of his gabos hadn’t pointed the man’s huge feet out to her.
“Hiding?” She asked as tactfully as she could. It was insane but the enormous man put even her on edge.
“Checking the suspension,” He answered. “None of the Corps engineers are available and, as I have some experience with motor vehicles, I wanted to ensure it was in good condition before I put it into action with the others.” A hand emerged to indicate a half dozen other vehicles parked in the shadow of one of the skyscrapers. Each had at least one man climbing over it.
“You plan to engage Aurean Landwarriors with LRV’s?” she asked, incredulous.
“Yes,” he answered with typical matter-of-factness. Sliding out from beneath the reconnaissance vehicle, his armor, missing its earlier Kevlar padding, scraped along the rough tarmac. Standing to his full height, a full six inches above Aurora’s head, he continued. “The Aurean vehicles are impressive, but for all their advantages they are not as maneuverable, or as fast, as a light reconnaissance vehicle. With some luck we will drive out between them and spread disarray.”
Aurora had the sudden image of a line of Aurean ’Warriors advancing over a half dozen crushed and oozing wrecks. “And… what sort of arms will you be using against them?” She sincerely hoped he wasn’t just trying to create a distraction.
Skietra had clearly blessed his ancestors for he immediately answered, “One hundred and five milémetro rocket propelled grenades.”
Which might as well be rocks for all the good they’d do against Aurean shields… although, Aurora’s mind worked on the problem, if their shields could be lowered somehow, then they might be able to do their damage… assuming the Aurean infantry didn’t simply rip them apart.
Avoiding comment, she abruptly changed track. “In that case my news is better than I suspected.”
“You have reinforcements.” She then proceeded to tell him about Comandante Otávio and his company. Unlike the Vacuum Corps, the Colonel took the news correctly and even allowed a smile to crease his face.
“That is good news.” He said, craning his head back and stretching his spine. “Thirty two you say… how many do you think will actually make it back to us?”
Aurora confessed she didn’t know, causing Luiz to pause.
“We will need accurate figures to coordinate an accurate defense. He shouted to the man who’d initially pointed him out to Aurora. “Gabo Helder. Get me a radio…”
Aurora cut him off. “There’s no need for that, Colonel. I can relay anything you want to the Comandante It will not be quite so fast, but it will be secure and unlikely to give away their existence.”
“Good point. Now tell him this…”
And so it was that Aurora acted as an intermediary for the two Comandantes, occasionally offering some of her own advice. Between the three of them they quickly sketched out a plan for when the Aureans reached the port.
“Something we have not accounted for--” Otávio chewed on the end of his pencil while studying a map of Séuchčo Estak-- “is debris. The Aureans are going to be in range of the buildings a long time before even those captured HGAR’s can return fire, and I can not think of a strategy that will stop them from turning this nice flat aeneucrete into a field of rubble.”
“All we can do is keep them occupied,” Aurora shrugged, also studying the map. She’d also been worrying about the range of the Aurean cannons, but rather in terms of what it could do to Beni’s oh so fragile starship “We should have destroyed most, if not all of their ’Warriors by then anyway. Their infantry is the worse threat and their weapons can’t hurt the buildings like a ’Warrior.”
“True,” Otávio dipped his head, never shifting his attention from the map. “Hmm.”
The Comandante shook his head, “This attack does not make sense; The Imperials have limited hard vehicles and even fewer ’Warriors. Why are they wasting so many on one vacuum port when they could simply have used their Tset’lar if they wanted to keep us out of space? They are going to wreck a hundred ’Warriors to accomplish something she could do in seconds. It just doesn’t make sense.”
“Perhaps keeping you out of space is not their only objective,” Aurora, who had also been curious, suggested. “Aurean ships can maintain position almost anywhere on a planet’s surface, but if they intend to offload cargo and troops, it is easier if facilities already exist.”
“You think they intend to capture the port for their own use once they have breached our network?”
“It makes sense,” Aurora frowned, knowing she was missing something.
“Then, once The Lance is away we must put our efforts into ensuring this facility is beyond use.”
“Agreed,” Aurora nodded vehemently. “I can do that myself; the port was built over caves after all. But I will put it to the Vacuum Corps and see what they suggest; perhaps they’ll have a better idea than crushing walls.”
And they did.
“It is a simple equation,” Josué pointed to a screen showing a couple of enormous tanks deep underground, from which dozens of pipes led to places in the deeper darkness. Half a dozen engineers scurried over them like ants on a giant’s carcass. “Oxygen, hydrogen and a spark; put them together and you get the most powerful non-nuclear explosion in nature.”
“What will be the yield?” Aurora asked as the video switched to another camera and lines of even more canisters leading out of sight.
“It will be the equivalent of a reasonably sized nuclear bomb. The fact that they are located in caves should only improve things.”
“Are there not precautions against this happening?” Aurora asked, wondering at the sheer power of chemicals stored only a few meters beneath her feet.
“Of course. But we know how to disable them.”
Still thinking about the elemental power beneath her, Aurora asked incredulously, “But if they are so dangerous, why were they not drained when the port was abandoned?”
“Because hydrogen and oxygen are harmless by themselves,” Josué shrugged. “It would take a spectacularly unlikely series of events to cause them to combine. Ironically…” he paused as the screen changed again-- “exactly what we are trying to cause….”
His head dropped to his feet.
“What is it?”
“What we are doing here is not exactly a precise science. There are some risks.”
Instantly Aurora’s mind flew to Beni and The Lance “What kind of risk?”
“Not to the crew.” Josué read her mind. “But to the person who lights the match.”
“I don’t understand. Just arrange a timer and…” she saw him flinch. “There will be no timer?” ”There will… of a sort.” Josué looked uncomfortable. “But, as I said, this is an inexact science. Because the system was designed to do the exact opposite of what we are asking… there can be no way to tell how long it will take to ignite. And because this is an elemental reaction, once it is started, nothing will stop it.”
“There really is no way of knowing?”
Josué made a noncommittal gesture.
“Oh there are ways; the rate at which hydrogen and oxygen burns is well documented, so we can guess. But that will be nothing more than an estimate. The system will impose its own restrictions, accelerating or decelerating the reaction so we could be off by a minuto, or an hour.”
“And how long do you estimate it will take to finish?”
Josué picked up a sheet of scrawled notes. “From ignition it should take about one hour and eleven minutos to reach the primary fuel tanks”
“Then what is the risk?”
“As I said, this explosion will at least be equal to a medium yield nuclear weapon. Given that we expect to be overrun by that point there is no guarantee that whoever touches it off will be able to reach a vehicle and escape in time.”
“I should do it then.” Aurora said resolutely. “Such power does not concern me and I can move fast regardless of whether I have transport or not.”
But Josué shook his head. “No.”
“You underestimate the power of this explosion. If we are wrong and the tanks ignite quickly, Séuchčo Estak will become the hottest place in the solar system. Even you would be incinerated. We can not take that risk, especially now.”
“Then who did you choose to go in my place?”
“We drew lots.” He looked down at a piece of paper, still held in his tightly closed fist.
“You?” Aurora asked.
Josué released the paper, letting it flap lazily onto the tabletop, the writing was clear. “I wish,” he said. “Sabina received that ‘honor.’”
“Surely she is too important,” Aurora hesitated. “She is the mission specialist, is she not?”
“Once The Lance leaves the ground, we all become superfluous,” Josué replied. “And I doubt that even if this mission is a success we will be making many launches in the near future.”
“And this vote… it was made by all of you?”
“By the whole command staff, yes. The soldiers will be too busy and there was no time to ask everyone.” He sighed and clicked his fingers. “Which, strangely enough, reminds me. Doctor Heitor is waiting to see you in the infirmary.”
“The infirmary?” Despite the situation, Aurora felt like laughing. “I am not sick, Júnior Secretária.”
“No, although you may be after seeing him; he has a device you will need. There was going to a ceremony before launch, just a small one, but now that everyone is busy the doctor will have to bestow it by himself.”
“What is it?”
“You will see.” Which was all he would say on the matter.
* * *
Walking into the infirmary, Aurora was struck with how clean and white the room was. Every surface gleamed, and what was not white was glistening platinum chrome.
It was a shock to say the least. There were only fifteen hospitals on Velor and between them they saw, perhaps a few thousand patients a year, mostly from the lower Bravaux and Matraux classes.
Aside from the urban legends she’d grown up with, the only thing close to a hospital Aurora had ever seen were the medical tents and first aid stations on the Porturegan front lines and they bore about as much resemblance to the medicinal shrine as mud bore to glass. The antiseptic smell was certainly different to the foul blend of excrement and fear found in the hideous places she was used to and there was none of the horrific screams that so usually wrought the air.
That would change shortly she knew, but she was kept from dwelling on it by Doctor Heitor who, also dressed in white, was bent over something on a table. Not a spry youth any more, Heitor almost creaked when straightening.
“Ah, the Fair Child.” He beamed, clapping his hands, “I am glad you have come.”
Aurora ignored the corruption of her name and said, “The Júnior General Secretária said you wanted to see me?”
“Yes, yes,” The doctor’s beaming smile was beginning to unnerve her. “Not that I would wish to imply that anything I was doing is more important than Your good work of course. But this may well aid You in Your battle on our behalf.”
Aurora didn’t like the clarity with which the capital letters came across. “Yes… like you say, my time is precious. What is it you want to show me?”
“This!” He plucked something from its box and extended his hand.
Aurora looked. She was remarkably unimpressed.
“I have no need for a pill, doctor,” She said testily.
He grinned broadly.
“I think You will like this one, because this one will allow You to speak to us.”
Aurora had to think about that for a second. “I already can speak to you. As you can tell by listening to me now.”
The doctor held up a placating hand, “Ah, yes. But with this You would be able to speak to me over almost any distance.”
Aurora looked again at the small grey round object in his palm. It looked like some tiny lead sheets that’d been wrapped around a bean. “If you say so… what is it exactly?”
“A micro-transmitter,” he exclaimed proudly. “I am told we have been working on it for months. Almost as long as we were working on your earpiece as a matter of fact. The breakthrough was made only a few weeks ago when we finally cracked–”
“Doctor,” Aurora hissed, “I really don’t have time for this.”
Rather than being chastised by her tone, Heitor merely changed tract, “Of course. Basically, once implanted–”
“Yes,” he made soothing gestures and switched to the tone he always used when addressing a patient “Do not concern yourself Fair Child, the procedure is simple and quite painless. Now, as I was saying, once implanted it will attach itself to your vocal cords and translate their movements into radio waves that can be received by any ground based transmitter.”
“Any transmitter?” Aurora queried. She didn’t like the idea that the Aureans might catch on to this new device and start listening in on what she was saying.
“Yes,” Heitor said proudly. “Any radio with someone to decrypt the message.”
That was a mercy anyway, although Aurora didn’t like the sound of anything that would attach itself to her vocal cords. Narrowing her eyes slightly, she asked, “Are you sure about this?”
“Of course. Do you think we would risk the Fair Child on something we had not tested ourselves? It is perfectly safe. In fact, I am reliably told that the technology will soon go into mass production. Then… no more bulky radios.”
His beam became, if possible, even brighter.
Aurora took the pill and looked at it once more. On the other hand, what was the risk? She was a Virago and something so small couldn’t possibly damage her, “How do I…?” She hesitated.
“It is quite simple; you merely inhale it.”
“In…hale it?” Aurora rethought her earlier sentence. “Doctor…”
“It is quite safe I assure you. There have been multiple human tests, all bar one were completely successful.”
“What happened to the one that was not a success?”
“He…” Heitor coughed. “Swallowed it by accident. Please do not do that, we have only transmitter and we won’t be able to retrieve it if you do.”
Aurora looked uncertainly at the device one last time, then gave a mental shrug and put it on her tongue. It couldn’t be any worse than her first experience in a vacuum, when she’d ignored the instruction not to hold her breath.
The ball felt and tasted like lead as it sat on her tongue. It remained there for the longest time before she gathered her courage, parted her lips and inhaled
Her first reaction was an immediate and serious need to cough, but she couldn’t, her throat was paralyzed. Still trying to cough she grasped at her neck, trying to feel where the pill had got stuck, but couldn’t. The sensation of paralysis was getting more painful as her body demanded oxygen that it knew was outside yet, somehow, wasn’t arriving.
“Can’t… breathe.” She gasped.
“A perfectly normal reflex.” Heitor assured her. “Just wait a few moments and it will pass.”
But it wasn’t over. Even after what seemed like an eternity of panic Aurora still couldn’t draw breath. Then she realized, it had to be a trap. The pill had to be made of gold, shielded with lead so she wouldn’t feel it. The doctor had only pretended to be a Believer to get her to lower her defenses; she had been such a fool!
She was just about to reach out and rip the doctor’s head from his shoulders when, as suddenly as the attack had started, she could breathe again. Taking a deep breath, Aurora luxuriated in the sensation of cool, clean air once again entering her lungs.
As her hormones began to reassemble themselves in wake of the adrenaline flush, she straightened and looked at the doctor once more. “I thought you said it would not hurt.”
He shrugged. “I thought it would be easier if you believed it would not. Besides, the attack only lasts a few seconds.”
A few seconds? It seemed incredible that such an experience could have been reduced to such a small period of time. “Try it some time,” she answered bitterly. “And see how long it takes.”
“I am sorry.” He sounded genuinely apologetic. “But I thought it was necessary.”
“It is over now,” she dismissed his concern. “What now, how does it work?”
“You just speak, the device will do the rest.”
“Just speak?” Aurora furrowed her brow. “How will you hear anything? If radar can not penetrate my body I doubt radio waves can escape it.”
“True, which is why it has an antenna.”
Aurora had another disturbing image.
The doctor did a credible mind reading act and did his best to assure her. “It is not like that. The antenna is a microfilament, small enough to escape even your senses.”
Aurora had her doubts however. “If it’s that small it can’t have much range.”
Heitor seemed genuinely impressed. “Yes… exactly right, which is why we also developed this.” He picked up a second box from the bench and presented it to her.
Inside was an earplug.
“I already have one of those, and was assured that it would be next to impossible to remove.”
“And it is. This one however, is not a receiver, it is a transceiver. It collects and augments the signals from your vocal transmitter, using your ear as an amplification disk.”
Aurora liked that even less than the idea of something wrapped around her vocal cords, but the doctor had been right before. “If you say so. Will it hurt?” She took the device.
“No.” He shook his head. “And this time I really do mean it. The transceiving antennae are no wider than the ones in your throat.”
Aurora placed the bug in her ear and felt it pull itself deeper into the canal, just like the last one had. Despite his protestations, however, she would have sworn that she could feel the monofilaments creeping across her sensitive flesh. “Then how do they transmit so far?”
The doctor shrugged, “They do together what none of them can themselves.”
“And the range?”
“Oh.” His face resumed its smirk. “Only about five hundred million quilômetros.”
Aurora was impressed, that was the distance from the sun and to the fifth planet. “That is quite a range for something so small.”
“Not really. I am told that when we first sent probes to other planets their transmitters were twice as powerful as your transceiver and we received them perfectly. It is the size of the receiving dish which is the biggest factor, not the power of the transmitter.”
Aurora allowed herself to smirk, “So, size does matter. Thank you, doctor, I am sure this will prove useful.”
“Just a second, Fair Child.” He picked up a device. “For all our talk we have yet to actually confirm this equipment works… one second, they told me how to do this…” He hesitated, manipulating the device. “Here, try speaking now.”
“What do you want me to say?”
Instantly the machine squawked and its dials lit up. Heitor seemed satisfied. “That would be sufficient. I am told that it is currently set to MF2, whatever that means, so you had better make sure that whoever you are speaking to is using that frequency.”
“Can it be adjusted… or even turned off?” She disliked the idea of being stuck on the same frequency or spamming her surroundings when the battle was finished.
“Oh yes, of course. It is, apparently, fully adjustable… with a device they did not see reason to give me.”
Aurora nodded, accepting the information as an unavoidable inconvenience. A remote would be burdensome in a battle so she would be stuck on the same frequency for as long as a fight lasted. Unless of course the Aureans were considerate enough to give her time to get a tune up.
“Thank you, doctor.” She smiled. “Are you leaving soon?”
The elderly man shook his head, “No. Right up until the end there will always be need of a doctor. My staff and I are staying.”
“You are brave,” she acknowledged. “I am sure your services will be needed. Just remember to keep your head down if things get rough, and remember that bravery is not an excuse for heroism.” There were far too many dead heroes.
“Each to our task. I know my place.”