The planet hung like a sapphire off the Undaunted’s bow, brilliant and beautiful in a sea of glittering stars. Dorrik turned to the captain, an elderly male lokkel with greying scales.
“Commander Tosset, how long until we’re within scanning range of Earth?”
“Patience,” Tosset shook his head as he crossed both pairs of arms. “We’ll be there soon enough to investigate your friend’s claims. I do hope she’s right. It would be incredibly embarrassing if we came all the way out here for nothing.”
Dorrik glared at the viewscreen struggling to keep themselves from bristling at the condescending tone in Tosset’s voice. He was a competent military leader, having served with merit in Clan Ahn’s forces for over two hundred years, but the old man couldn’t bring himself to take anyone seriously unless they’d grown into their adult gender.
The holographic images of the Undaunted’s escorts flanked the long hammerhead shape of the command cruiser. Diamond Sand, Honor, and Blade of Truth were all support strikers, wedge shaped and about a third the size of the Undaunted they traded armor for maneuverability, heavy weaponry, and even heavier automation.
Support strikers weren’t designed for long voyages. The heavy automation let a skeleton crew run the ships, but they still needed to periodically dock with a command vessel to rotate personnel and refill their environmental systems.
They also weren’t designed to survive drawn out naval engagements. Speed and firepower were useful for bringing an engagement to a quick end, but without the massive array of shields mounted by most capital ships, that end could just as easily be their own destruction.
In all honesty, Dorrik suspected that their actual role was one invented by accountants. The Galactic Consensus didn’t have a huge population of pirates, but space was vast. Rather than the massive capital ships that lokkel warriors preferred, their shipyard spent all too much time churning out the much cheaper and replaceable death traps that were support strikers.
“Cheer up, Dorrik,” Tosset chuckled. “I know you wanted a larger fleet dispatched, but this task force will be plenty. The Undaunted is state of the art, but the Liberty Through Vigilance is one of the better old model carriers in the fleet. Unless the stallesp have a fully reinforced naval division in system, we’ll be able to run them off.”
“And what if they do?” Dorrik asked darkly. “They’re fairly clearly flauting Consensus law on non-interference with probationary races. You’ve seen the reports from Miss Kat. The moles are unafraid of censure. We need to restore that fear at the end of a plasma lance.”
“If what your friend says is true,” the old lizard shook his head, the faded crest running up his spine from the base of his neck to just behind his brow ridge fluttering in bemusement. “The stallesp have denied everything. In the next four to five months the Consensus will have finished picking out their exploratory committee to determine the veracity of the accusations. Then, the truth will come out.”
“Sir,” a younger lokkel, practically a whelp, called out. “Our scanners are detecting a ship behind the third planet’s moon. It looks like it’s a stallesp Deep Tunneler class battlecruiser.”
“Well what do you know,” Tosset remarked dryly. “It looks like your little pink friend was telling the truth. That won’t go over well with the Consensus.”
Dorrik just stared at the screen, teeth scraping the inside of their mouth as they gnashed them in frustration. It was only one ship, but a Deep Tunneler was at least a third bigger than the Undaunted.
If Clan Ahn or the Lokkel High Command had taken him seriously and sent an entire squadron of ships, the stallesp vessel wouldn’t have posed a threat. As things stood? The lokkel forces outclassed it, but not by enough to make Dorrik happy.
“Helm.” Tosset steepled his upper pair of claws together just in front of his snout while his lower limbs drummed on the armrests of his chair. “Start recording. The Galactic Consensus is going to want a formal copy of this. Then set an intercept course at 66% of our maximum speed. We’re not here to be aggressive, but let’s make it clear that we want to meet them.”
“What about shields?” Dorrik wheeled on the older lokkel. “Even if you refuse to order our ships into a combat formation and deploy our fighters, the least we can do is raise shields!”
“I remember when I was your age,” Tosset shook his head. “So sure of myself and the righteousness of my cause. I was going to save the galaxy from itself. Except nothing is that simple.”
“Even if the stallesp are here with nefarious intent,” the older lokkel continued grudgingly, “they will almost certainly leave when we show up to observe the planet. Except, if we come storming in with our shields up and our weapon ports open, they’ll go back to the Consensus and file a complaint.”
“Do you know where that will get us, Dorrik?” Tosset asked rhetorically, a hint of smug satisfaction on his muzzle.
“The same spot we’re in right now?” They replied, uninterested in the lecture. It was far from the first Dorrik had been subjected to in the weeks they’d been stuck on the Undaunted with Tosset.
“Worse!” Tosset balled up a claw into a fist and slammed it onto the chair he was sitting in. “I’ll be buried in paperwork dealing with the protest, and it will stir the sands. Even if your friend is telling the truth about the stallesp interfering, the Consensus will spend all of their time debating what to do about our blunder. You’ll destroy your cause, child.”
“But there’s nothing to investigate,” Dorrik responded curtly. “We have video footage from Miss Kat showing a secret treaty between insurgent elements of the corporations that make up Earth’s government and the Stallesp. Worse, she has proof of actual stallesp technology being used on the planet despite the prohibitions.”
“Ah young Dorrik.” Tosset’s crest rustled gently. “Footage and artifacts can be faked. I understand that you have some personal disagreements with the stallesp, but the Lokkel High Command can hardly dispatch an entire fleet simply based upon your prejudices.”
Dorrik bristled, closing their eyes for a moment to regulate their breathing. Even without sight, they could feel Tosset’s mocking and condescending gaze resting on their back.
“The death of my siblings is hardly a ‘personal disagreement,’ commander,” they bit out through clenched teeth. “Plus, a stallesp literally died on the planet. They were impersonating a human leader in an explicit attempt to co-opt the local governments. The locals are researching genetic samples from the body as we speak.”
“Regardless,” Tosset settled back into his command chair. “You’ll understand more when your scales have lost a little of their luster. The stallesp are hardly heroes. They’re a race of pirates and opportunists. Scavengers on the galactic scale. They will bluster and whine, but when blades are drawn, they don’t have the stomach for a fair fight.”
“Things are different this time, commander.” Dorrik tried to ignore the infuriating officer, instead focusing their attention on the bustle of the command deck. A dozen lokkel labored around them at various consoles, monitoring their vessel’s systems as well as the status of their escorts.
“Things have been ‘different’ a dozen times in my life,” Tosset chuckled. “Always a young one like you comes to me, crest flared and eyes wild to tell me about some emergency or another. Always it turns out that a tactful and measured hand could have resolved the situation smoothly and without problem.”
Dorrik opened their mouth only to close it again. Tosset wasn’t listening. No matter what they said to the stubborn old man, he’d recite some anecdote from before their whelping to justify inaction.
They turned back to the viewscreen, watching the stallesp vessel grow in size as they approached its hiding spot on the dark side of the moon. It resembled an immense cylinder, rotating slightly with a constellation of radiators and monitoring equipment hooked via umbilicals to either end. It was almost peaceful, hanging there in the dark, but Dorrik knew from experience that the warrens inside the ship held hundreds if not thousands of densely packed stallesp warriors, all looking for a new world on which to start one of their massive hive nurseries.
“Sir,” the communications officer, a slim and almost pitch black lokkel, called out over their shoulder. “The stallesp are hailing us.”
“See?” Tosset remarked, crest fanning gently as the self-satisfied elder preened. “It looks like they’d rather talk than fight. There’s no need to be as coarse, rough and irritating as sand. No one likes that.”
“On screen,” he continued, turning back to the officer. A moment later, the furry mole-like face of a stallesp appeared on screen, its beady eyes almost completely covered by a wide brimmed cap covered in military medals. Its snout and pink nose twitched.
“I am Captain Draulos of the Meritorious Industrial Harmony,” the creature’s nasally voice assaulted Dorrik’s hearing. “Explain your presence in this system, lokkel vessels.”
“Our presence?” Tosset’s crest flared at the challenge. “This is an interdicted system, Captain Draulos. There have been reports of interference with a probationary species in this system. Specifically with stallesp being sighted on the planet itself. The Consensus dispatched our task force to observe while an investigatory team is assembled.”
“I was not aware of any such thing.” The mole’s beady eyes flickered back and forth. “Our ship’s antimatter feed system began to show signs of degradation on the jump out from Alpha Centauri. We stopped in this system to await repairs rather than risk a catastrophic meltdown that would risk the entire vessel.”
“Oh?” Tosset let the word drag itself out into an aggressive hiss. “I haven’t seen any requests for assistance on local emergency channels. One would think that a ship in distress would request help under the Consensus emergency codes.”
Dorrik resisted the urge to groan aloud. The stallesp were a deceitful and manipulative species. Their attempts to deflect blame were hardly surprising, but honestly Dorrik had expected something more inventive out of the furtive creatures.
“I will be happy to lead an engineering team to assist,” they volunteered, turning to Tosset with a feral grin on their maw. “Obviously we will be armed for our own protection, but I’m sure we can diagnose the problem with the Meritorious Industrial Harmony’s antimatter feed in short order.”
Tosset smiled at Dorrik, a mischievous twinkle in the older lokkel’s eye. He might be dismissive of Dorrik’s concerns, but that didn’t mean that he had any love for the stallesp. The commander would be more than happy to catch the duplicitous moles in an embarrassing lie.
“You are in luck, Captain Draulos.” Tosset nodded in Dorrik’s direction. “My science attaché has indicated that they are willing to offer assistance. With any luck we can get your vessel repaired and out of this system before you are censured by the Consensus for intruding.”
The viewscreen erupted into squealing as the stallesp began communicating with its shipmates in its native tongue. A second later the screen went black, a small box stating ‘connection lost.’
Dorrik took a moment to savor the stallesp’s obvious discomfort before turning to the commander.
“I believe now would be a good time to raise our shields and deploy fighters. The stallesp are cornered, and like any animal, that is when they are most dangerous.”
“Pish.” Tosset waved one of his upper claws dismissively. “This is when they make up an excuse and leave the system. The stallesp know better than to pick a fight with us. It would mean open war within the Consensus.”
Before Dorrik could reply, Draulos reappeared on the screen. Their pink whiskered snout quivering with agitation.
“I’m sorry,” the mole simpered. “We are having some technical difficulties on our end. My power techs are trying to start up the reactor so that we can move our ship. Obviously if this system is under embargo it would be best for us to wait for aid outside the Oort cloud.”
“Detecting a power spike from the Meritorious Industrial Harmony now,” an officer called out. Dorrik glanced at the commander nervously, only for the older man to wave them off once more.
“Please let me know if you have any difficulties with your jump to the-” Tosset’s smug reply was interrupted as a spear of brilliant white light burst forth from the side of the stallesp ship, skewering the Diamond Sand.
The Commander just sat there, fanged jaw agape as the triangular warship disappeared in a silent blossom of flame.
Dorrik growled in frustration leaning over to slam the ‘all hands’ communicator on the armrest of Tosset’s chair. “Shields up and return fire!” They locked eyes with the naval officer, daring him to contradict them.
Railguns on both sides began unloading their payloads, chunks of inert metal flung across the void only to slam into the rainbow soap bubbles of defensive shields. On the view screen, a swarm of green circles, the sleek teardrops of lokkel fighters, launched from the Liberty Through Vigilance’s magnetic catapults.
The remaining two support ships scattered, their heavy arrays of engines blasting them into complicated evasive maneuvers as they closed on the enemy ship, seeking to bring their deadly short-ranged particle beams into play.
The bridge of the Undaunted devolved into chaos, various officers shouting updates from their duty stations as data began to scroll down the side of the combat feed.
Dorrik’s eyes narrowed as the charge indicator for the Undaunted’s plasma lance climbed toward full. The weapon was an energy hog, but it would disable the battlecruiser’s shields in one or two blasts. Then the numerous secondary railgun batteries of their taskforce could pick the larger ship apart.
“Sir!” The ship’s marine liaison called out. “Our combat mages have detected a breach in our teleportation cordon. A team of boarders is on its way to our secondary reactor. Early estimates place their levels at between twenty and thirty-five.”
Dorrik winced. That meant opponents that had between one and two class evolutions. Ordinarily, they would be the first to join the marines, delving into the bowels of the Undaunted to root out the invaders. Unfortunately, about a year ago, they had died in The Tower of Somnus, resetting their level. They might have the experience and skill to stand toe to toe with the attacking stallesp, but without the levels, even modern technology couldn’t put Dorrik on par with a post-evolution player.
The Tower of Somnus was omnipresent. A game played by sapient beings across the galaxy that was also so much more than a game. For each level of the Tower a being climbed and every dungeon they defeated, that person would earn tangible powers and abilities that would carry over into the real world.
Although no one but the Tower’s creators had been able to decipher how magic truly worked, that didn’t mean that scientists couldn’t study its effects in order to create new technologies. Some estimates claimed that over half of the Galactic Consensus’ annual innovations in the fields of physics and biology stemmed from observing various spells and abilities learned in the tower.
“Commander!” Another officer tried to grab Tosset’s attention. “The plasma lance is charged, but our fighters are launching torpedoes, they’re too close for us to fire.”
Tosset shook himself, seeming to stir from the stupor inflicted on him by the surprise attack. His eyes narrowed as he took in the plot, crest fluttering rhythmically as he tried to regain control of the situation.
“Angle us 45 degrees above the stellar plane,” he snapped, glaring at the plot. “Let the fighters continue their run and have them break below the plane. We can hold off firing the lance until they’re clear. Make sure to alert the Honor and Blade of Truth of our projected firing solutions. I don’t want us to delay our shot any more than we need to.”
The shields of the stallesp ship flickered wildly as dozens of dirty antimatter torpedoes detonated nearby, washing the field of rainbow energy with waves of hard radiation. The support strikers cut to either side, dim flickers of light barely visible in the void as their proton beams slammed into the battlecruiser’s flanks at near relativistic speeds.
The enemy ship returned fire, plucking one of the fighters from space with a volley of railgun shells before it fired its own plasma lance at the Honor. Dorrik shielded their eyes, the harsh white-blue light of the energy stream visible even without the help of their vessel’s sensitive electronics.
Luckily, the support striker juked, narrowly dodging the massive beam of rampaging energy. Even the near miss popped the Honor’s shields like a soap bubble, boiling the paint from its scantily armored hull.
“We have a firing solution for-” The weaponry officer shouted only to be interrupted by Tosset.
“Then fire!” His eyes flared as he leaned forward in his chair. “You have your orders. By the founder's mercy fire.”
Every light on the Undaunted dimmed as a high-pitched whine filled the ship, capacitors dumping their charges. For a second, Dorrik felt their scales tingling as the massive banks of field projectors carved a channel through space. A moment later, the corridor was filled with a blinding ribbon of plasma.
One second. Two. The ships lights returned to normal as the plasma lance guttered out.
Then the scanners updated, no longer blinded by the wave of intense energy pouring from the Undaunted. In the distance, the Meritorious Industrial Harmony hung in space, a massive scar in its armor from their attack, but ultimately, the cylindrical ship wasn’t venting debris or oxygen.
It’s shields were down, but ultimately it had only suffered a flesh wound.
Then the two support strikers dove in. Their short-ranged particle beams tearing clumps of armor from the larger vessel while their rapid fire railguns pounded its hull. A flight of fighters stormed past, firing a volley of rockets that began to strip exposed weaponry, sensors and radiators from the stallesp battlecruiser.
A trio of missiles dove through the ship’s now blinded point defense array, detonating in blasts of nuclear rage within spitting distance of the suddenly helpless ship. Metal shattered and running lights flickered as the silent pinpricks of light broke through the Meritorious Industrial Harmony’s weakened armor.
Moments later the ship was burning in space as venting oxygen ran over the white-hot shards of its broken and twisted hull. Almost sullenly, it returned fire, a smattering of poorly aimed railgun shells and missiles that the Undaunted swatted from space with contemptuous ease.
The remaining support strikers opened fire once again, targeting the gaps in the stallesp ship’s armor. Amidship, something exploded, firing a plume of metal and burning gas into space as an internal system on the Meritorious Industrial Harmony was overloaded by the relentless assault.
Then, its warp drive activated, the ship stretching into a line and accelerating. Dorrik swore, the nails of their claws digging into the palms of their hands as it disappeared. Tosset had forgotten to activate the Undaunted’s inhibitor, letting the stallesp vessel make its escape just as they’d crippled it.
“Tracking departure,” Dorrik turned to the electronics officer. They were hunched over their panel, a look of concentration on their face. “The enemy vessel has dropped into normal space in this system’s asteroid belt and activated a stealth field. I don’t think they can handle long distance jumps, but there’s no way we’re going to be able to find them in all that debris.”
“Sir,” the marine liaison looked up. “We’ve managed to repel the boarders. No prisoners, just bodies.”
Tosset sighed, muzzle in his upper pair of hands. He looked older now. Like his faded scales had aged another decade or four in the minute or so of comat. Dorrik didn’t envy him, but at the same time, they didn’t pity him. The commander hadn’t been cautions, and lokkel had died as a result.
“So it’s war, then.” The aged lokkel looked up, staring almost blankly out the bridge’s viewscreen at the blue orb that was Earth. “When we next enter the Tower, everyone should let their contacts know what the stallesp did. Our ships and worlds will need to be prepared.”
“Millions are going to die due to stallesp greed.” He shook his head, still looking wistfully at humanity’s home. “I sure hope your friends are worth it, Dorrik Ahn.”
Dorrik’s hearts clenched. War had come to the Consensus, and somewhere on that planet, his friend, Katherine Debs, was in the middle of it. Stuck in the corporation-controlled steel-lined streets of megacities, fighting beings with technology she could barely comprehend with nothing but a knife and a hint of magic.
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Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night