For countless years, a terrible war has raged across the galaxy, leaving death and destruction in its wake. Attacked by a species known as the Rhengraa, the Galactic Federation was forced to fight or be destroyed. Few planets remain inhabitable, and where once the fleets of both sides were composed of countless ships, ever-dwindling numbers of soldiers and the ever-increasing difficulty of safely mining resources has seen them shrink to a fraction of the size. The war is almost over, and should it continue in this fashion, both sides will destroy one another with their last breaths. But, unknown to the Rhengraa, the Federation has long held a secret advantage… one it is at last ready to use.
Twelve hybrid soldiers, equipped with the ultimate in Federation technology, have been created on a secret research station. Now that they have reached maturity, the time has come for the war to end.
The sphere hung motionless inside a Federation research station, surrounded by a complex system of sensors and gravity field generators. In the control room to one side, technicians and researchers stared intently at the spinning displays on their monitors. Although the sphere itself was completely motionless, the gravitational field inside gyrated wildly, tilting and flipping faster than any Human could follow – but the silver figure inside effortlessly following its every move was no Human, for all that it was the right shape to be. A final flip of the field was matched instantly by a flawless jump that left it in a half-crouch on what had, until moments before, been the ceiling, poised and ready to move again.
“Run’s over, Tsien.”
The kneeling figure straightened, looking to its right, where an almost imperceptible crack in the sphere abruptly widened with a faint hiss, the door panel pulling back and sliding near-silently upwards. On the other side, a short catwalk connected the sphere and its attendant machinery to the control room, where the technicians and scientists had been monitoring Tsien’s progress. A light touch to a control panel opened the second door at the same time as its helmet slid back, seemingly retracting into the rest of the armour and revealing what at least appeared to be the face of a Human woman, black-haired and blue-eyed with a calm, focused expression. As she stepped through the door, she raised an armoured hand in greeting.
“So what’s your evaluation?”
“Your performance was as good as always, Tsien. You’re ready.”
Tsien gave a single acknowledging nod. Over the past several weeks, the already rigorous tests she regularly undertook had grown ever more thorough, pushing her to the limits of her capability. This long and complicated run in the gravity chamber had been the final test — one that she knew she had passed with flying colours.
One of the scientists present made a soft humming sound, his translator kicking in mere fractions of a second after it began, transmitting information to Tsien’s own inbuilt version. Even without it, she knew him well enough to know that he was pleased, able to read his body language as well as, if not better than, any member of his own species.
“Now that you’ve passed the tests, I’ve been given the authority to assign you a spaceship.” He paused to check something on the datapad held in his hand, then carried on. “Its serial number is TS-NDXF-031-16295.”
“And my pilot?” Tsien had only learned that she’d be assigned a pilot a few months before, and had still been trained and tested extensively on the handling of spaceships of all sizes, though particularly the class that she’d be flying in. It seemed strange to her that she wouldn’t be piloting her own ship herself, and she’d wondered why the Federation, after so much careful training, would allow the risk of someone else’s error ruining her missions, but it hadn’t been her decision. After reviewing the reasons, she had agreed that perhaps it would be for the best, but she’d been told nothing about her eventual companion other than that his or her personality would be carefully selected to work with Tsien’s own.
“His name is Siris. He’s one of the Federation’s best pilots, and was one of the test pilots for the ship you’ll be flying. We think the two of you should work well together.”
Tsien nodded, making a mental note of the name. Siris… he would almost certainly be in the database somewhere. She doubted that the entirety of his existence would be as highly classified as her own.
“Is there anything else?”
Abandoning formality for the moment, he stepped forward with his species’ equivalent of a smile, three-fingered hand held out towards her. “Congratulations, Tsien, and… good luck out there.”
Tsien smiled back, holding the hand he offered for a moment. “Thanks, Chrest. I’ll be careful.” She’d known Chrest Vashek all her life: he was one of the leading geneticists responsible for her creation, and had personally overseen a lot of her training. Although her very nature, both as the Federation’s last hope and as his carefully-monitored creation, meant that there would always be a certain distance between them, in many ways the Frinn and his fellow scientists were the closest she had to parents.
As their hands parted, Tsien turned and walked away. She would return to her quarters one last time, and on her way, she would find out about her new pilot. Connecting to the station’s computer with little more than a thought, she requested information on the pilot named Siris.
-Request brief personnel history Siris, pilot TS-NDXF-031-16295.-
The knowledge unfolded in her mind almost as though it were her own. Siris had been a Standard Human fighter pilot at the beginning of the war. Because of his unconventional experience and his level of expertise, his mind had been recorded to computer for use as a test pilot. Brought online to test her experimental starship, his experience with it left him uniquely qualified to fly for her.
-Request extended history.-
Tsien’s mind filled with dates, a Federation chronicle of Siris’ life. Battles fought, ships flown, awards received: everything about his career as a fighter pilot with the Federation was recorded. While it had been quite a noteworthy one, Tsien expected no less from someone who was to become her pilot. What caught her attention was not his record, but the holes in it. Siris’ origin, and that of his original spaceship, was unknown — not classified, but unknown.
Tsien broke the link with the computer, a slight frown on her face as she contemplated what she had learned. Unknowns were almost unheard of, though she knew that they had been more common when Siris had lived. Before the war, the Galactic Federation had been an immense, sprawling civilisation encompassing almost half the galaxy. It was easy enough then for entire planets to go unrecorded despite years of colonisation: not so now, with far fewer inhabitable worlds and the enforced discipline of war. The unknowns in Siris’ life were nothing special, for his time. Still, it left her curious.
It wasn’t far from the training sphere to her quarters. By the time she reached them, the matter of her pilot’s past was already set to the back of her mind as something she could, for the moment, do nothing about. With no information anywhere in the Federation’s vast database, the only way she would find out would be to ask Siris himself. It might be possible to determine his origin by analysing the design of his first ship, comparing it to records from all across the galaxy – but that would take far too long simply to satisfy a moment’s curiosity.
Standing in the centre of the room, Tsien tilted her head back and closed her eyes. The armour she seemed to be wearing was a part of her, yet a few short seconds later, she stood there without it. Crossing to a cupboard unobtrusively recessed into the wall, Tsien chose some loose, silvery clothes and quickly dressed.
She wore no uniform, no Federation emblem or insignia, and standing once more in the centre of the room, looking around one last time, she could have passed for an ordinary Human citizen. Only the calm focus of her expression even hinted that she was anything else.
With a last glance around her, Tsien left. Whether she lived or died, she would never return. She had been preparing for this moment all her life, every carefully-monitored action subtly shaping her into the ultimate warrior, the Galactic Federation’s weapon of last resort. Now that she was ready, this phase of her life was over.
A familiar voice sounded in her mind as she walked through the corridors of the station, heading unerringly for the hangar where her ship would be waiting. Even unarmoured, many of her abilities remained, including her inbuilt communications device. Wherever they were on the station, she and her siblings had always been able to speak to one another with little more than a thought.
-Sanur? I assume that you passed the tests.-
Sanur could afford to be confident. Though the differences between the young soldiers’ skills were small indeed, he was one of the best among them in many areas.
-We all did,- a third voice added. Rysal was one of the younger-seeming soldiers, more ready with a smile than Sanur or Tsien, less calm and analytic — although in simulated battle, he could match any one of his siblings for cold control.
-And now we’re leaving,- Riann stated. -I’ll miss this place, in a way.-
-Won’t you? We grew up here. This may be the last time we ever even speak to each other.-
-I won’t miss it,- Sanur said. -I’ll remember it, but I won’t miss it. We’ve outgrown this station. It’s time to move on, to be what we were meant to be.-
-I agree.- Tsien smiled slightly as her words were transmitted to the others. She had been ready to set out into the galaxy for a long time now, to take up the role she had been so carefully trained to fill. The station was a part of the childhood she was at last leaving behind. Her memories would be fond ones, but now the time had come to move on, something she was certain she would never regret, any more than she would wish to return.
-It is time to leave, I know,- Riann agreed. -I’m ready, too. I just don’t feel we should sever our links to this place so completely.-
-Why not?- Velis asked. -I’ll be glad to go. As Sanur said, we’ve outgrown this station. The entire galaxy is ours now.-
-Because…- Riann paused, only for a few moments, but long enough that they all noticed. -Because it’s where we grew up. It’s where we learned everything that we know – not just how to fight, but what it means to be us, and what it means to live. It’s where we learned who we are. If we leave all of that behind forever, we risk losing our grip on it.-
-You think you know who you are, Riann?- It was Sanur again, calm voice asking a simple question. -I don’t. I don’t think any of us really know who we are, what we can be, and I don’t think we can as long as we remain here. It’s something we can only learn out there.- Through the communications link, they sensed him gesture to the galaxy beyond the confines of the space station, innumerable stars captured in a wave of his hand. -It’s something we can only learn by becoming all that we can. This place isn’t somewhere we can grow any more – it only limits us now.-
Listening, Tsien silently agreed with Sanur. They’d grown beyond the confines of the station, and she didn’t really see herself ever wanting to return.
-Everything is linked, Sanur. This station is part of the galaxy too, and I don’t think we should let it go completely, even if we never do come back. Whether or not any of us knows who we are, this is a part of it. The years we’ve spent here – leaving doesn’t make them meaningless.-
-No, it doesn’t,- Sanur agreed, -but they’re only the tiniest fraction of what there is to see out there. I never said I would forget everything we did here, just that I won’t miss it.- There was a sense of a smile to his transmitted voice. -You can’t tell me you’re really going to miss all that endless testing, can you? Not when you have the chance to finally do everything you’ve been waiting for.-
-I suppose not,- she admitted. -But all the same, I will miss the station, and the friends we had here.- She paused again. -You’re right, though. This is it… it’s time to go.-
-I’ll see you when the war is over, Riann.-
-We all will.- Rysal’s voice broke in again, confidence evident. -Until then, good luck!-
Those words seemed to signal the end of the conversation, as the channel came alive with farewells. Tsien added her own to the chorus, and listened as, one by one, the different voices fell silent. It was the last they would hear from each other for some time.
She had almost reached the hangar where her ship would be waiting, and it took barely over a minute to arrive at the door. It opened automatically, the station’s systems recognising her at once and allowing her access. Tsien stepped inside, the doors closing behind her, and looked around.
The hangar was relatively small, designed to hold a single small spaceship. That in itself was relatively unusual: fighters were usually contained within large bays, allowing greater numbers to be launched from any given point, and also allowing the hangar to be used for larger ships, should it prove necessary. This ship, however, was no ordinary fighter. As unique as Tsien herself, there had only ever been a handful of ships of its kind in existence, whereas even now, most types of fighter numbered well into the millions by the time their production was ended.
Tsien took in both the silent hangar and the sleek, silver spaceship in a single glance. Outwardly, the design appeared relatively normal: streamlined to the highest possible degree for atmospheric flight; main engines set at the rear; weapons emplacements and secondary thruster ports closed and all but invisible to the naked eye. It was what was within the ship that made it special. Like herself, the small craft was the pinnacle of Federation technology, and like herself, it utilised innovations that had never before been seen on the field of battle. They, too, would be crucial to her success as the Federation’s ultimate weapon.
The main access hatch was on top of the ship. Tsien leapt up easily in a single, smooth motion: the fighter rested low to the ground, and she could have jumped several times its height with little effort. When closed, the hatch would be all but invisible, just like the weapons and thruster ports, but at that moment it was open: a circular hole in the top of the ship, sealed by a shimmering field of energy. She stepped onto the forcefield, firm under her feet despite its immaterial appearance, and opened a communications link to the ship.
-Tsien reporting as assigned to ship TS-NDXF-031-16295.-
The ‘voice’ that responded was, as she expected, that of a Human male, faintly unusual pronunciation evidence of his origin in the distant past. If audible, it would have been pleasant enough to the ear, though undertones in it suggested that her pilot was slightly apprehensive. That, she supposed, was reasonable enough. Even some of the people she knew relatively well were wary around her, because of what she was and what she could do.
The forcefield she stood on began to descend beneath her feet. In combat situations, a secondary layer remaining in place above it would be synchronised to the precise frequency of her shielding, allowing her to pass through whilst presenting an impermeable barrier to anything else that attempted to enter – or leave – the ship. In the safety of the Federation research station, however, it was inactive, and only the primary field was present, lowering her safely down. Once her head had dropped below the level of the hatch, it sealed itself, metal plating moving smoothly and silently into place.
Tsien looked around as she descended. Although she had seen accurate holographic representations of her ship, she had never before set foot inside it. All the customisations she had requested had been made, minor and few in number though they were. In short, everything was as she had expected.
Tsien turned to face the screen, which displayed her pilot’s image, one she recognised from her earlier queries to the Federation’s database. A detailed simulation of a dark-haired Human looked back, brown eyes edged at the outsides by outward-pointing arrowhead shapes of dull metal. The equally detailed background behind him suggested he was sitting in the cockpit, in the pilot’s chair, but she knew he wasn’t. Siris existed only in the computer. His original self had died long ago.
“Thank you,” she replied evenly, momentary pause too short for the evaluating glance that had scanned Siris’ face in an instant to even have registered with most species. “Are we ready to launch?”
The image nodded. “I have been since they finished setting the ship up for you.” He smiled slightly. “We leave on your command.”
Siris hadn’t known what to think when he’d been told, on completion of the experimental ship’s long and rigorous test routine, that he’d be flying for one of the ten “super-soldiers”. He knew almost nothing about them, but their purpose alone was intimidating enough. If the Federation’s best minds believed that those few soldiers could turn the tide of the galactic war…
On learning he’d be assigned to one of the ten soldiers, he’d requested their profiles, just as Tsien had looked at his. At the time, most information had been classified, but since she had been specified as his partner, he’d been granted full, unrestricted access to the majority of the Federation’s files on her. He hadn’t looked too deeply, feeling it would be rude to pry into her private life, and as a result had seen little more than an impressive list of statistics and achievements. No natural species in the galaxy could come close to matching her performance, and even the Federation’s most advanced front-line soldiers lagged well behind. She was a force to be reckoned with, and it was expected that her capabilities would increase even further once she had experienced direct combat with the Rhengraa. Her own abilities would see to that.
Tsien’s few customisations had surprised him slightly. She’d been satisfied with the utilitarian functionality of the spaceship’s design, the same as that she’d grown up with, and had requested only small personal touches. The most notable, to Siris, had been the small, grass-like plant set on one recessed, folding shelf. He’d expected either plain functionality or the accoutrements of war. Instead, it was a delicate symbol of life, further removed from the nature her purpose suggested than he would have imagined.
Her calm voice cut into his thoughts, though they moved quickly. As a combat spaceship, in this age, he needed far faster reaction times than the Human he had once been could ever have had. Compared to the speed he could now think and react at, his older self had been hopelessly slow and clumsy. It wasn’t something he thought about, having grown accustomed to the lightning speeds his ship demanded and the computer housing his intellect granted him, but it was true.
Even as she spoke, she was heading for the cockpit. Siris opened the door as Tsien approached, displaying his image on one of the cockpit’s secondary projectors. The little fighter had no windows, but an array of projectors along the inward-curving cockpit walls provided a perfect view of the world outside, and also allowed almost limitless amounts of information to be superimposed over it. At present, apart from Siris’ head and shoulders on what appeared to be a flat panel, it was indistinguishable from the real thing.
“Requesting take-off clearance.”
Tsien nodded and spun the pilot’s chair towards herself, sitting down and turning it back to its normal place. Locked in position, it would allow her to reach all of the numerous controls without moving anything more than her arms. A restraint harness offered protection against any turbulence the ship’s compensators couldn’t cope with, but she left it off for the moment, sitting back in the chair as Siris’ image looked down at his own non-existent displays.
“All right, clearance granted.” He smiled faintly. “They wish us luck.”
Tsien smiled slightly in response. She could visualise all the people she knew on the station doing the same. Many of them already had. Their hopes would go with her into the galaxy.
Siris activated the secondary thrusters, lifting the ship lightly into the air. Just a few centimetres from the ground, its altitude didn’t deviate by so much as a millimetre as he smoothly guided it through the opening hangar bay doors. Once clear of the station, they were abruptly freed from its artificial gravity, and the little fighter seemed to rise as a result, curving upwards like a bird taking off. Moments later, he shut the thrusters beneath it off once more, leaving only those in the rear to accelerate the ship forward. Even the secondary thrusters were enough to provide a surprisingly rapid acceleration, and he was far enough from the station to initiate the powerful main drive in a matter of seconds. It alone would not take the fighter to lightspeed — no conventional drive was capable of such a feat, though they reached an appreciable fraction of it. However, it was more than enough to make an unaided observer looking out from the station’s windows believe they had simply vanished in a sudden flash.
Once the ship had reached what Siris considered to be a decent speed, which it did rapidly, he shut off the main drive again. With no noteworthy gravitational fields in the immediate area, it would remain on that course and at that speed until he chose to change it.
“What’s our destination?” Tsien asked. She’d known that their individual missions wouldn’t be assigned until the last minute, and had expected her mission briefing to wait until she was already in her ship, as indeed it had.
“An outpost.” Siris ran off a string of letters and numbers, the planet’s unique galactic reference code. Many planets had several names, or identical names to others, but the Federation catalogued them by code, leaving no doubt as to which was meant. “It’s really not much more than an observations post and resupply point, from what I’ve been told, but we’re supposed to destroy it.”
Tsien nodded. “They want to test me in combat before sending me on any major missions. It makes sense.” She’d expected that, as well. For all the tests she’d undergone, all the training she’d been through, she’d never been in a real fight — not against the Rhengraa, anyway. She’d only ever used her weapons on a living target once before…
“I guess so.”
Both Tsien and Siris were quiet for a time, each contemplating the mission ahead. But while Tsien could afford to devote all her mind to it, some of Siris’ had to be constantly aware of his position, tracking their location so he would know when to change course.
The secondary thrusters fired again, twice, each burst precisely timed so that the first one spun the ship to the right without changing its direction of travel in the slightest, and the second halted its spin. With the spaceship pointed in a new direction, Siris activated the main drive again, sending them veering off onto a new course. He would do that several times more before switching to faster-than-light travel and leaving normal space behind. It would make his ship almost impossible to track back to its original starting point even if anything were to come across one of the faint, scattered signatures that told the tale of the main drive’s brief activation, highly unlikely though that was.
A while — and several course changes — later, he spoke again. Until he’d confirmed what they were doing with Tsien, he wasn’t ready to use either one of the two methods of interstellar travel at his disposal. Ultimately, the mission was hers. He was just her pilot… and her failsafe.
“We’re ready to jump. How do you want to get there?”
Looking up at his image again, Tsien barely paused before replying. “Use the Nexus Drive to bring us within a few light-years, then jump the rest of the way through interspace so they don’t detect our Nexus signature. I’m told there’s no loss of accuracy over distance with the Nexus Drive?”
Siris nodded. “It’s incredible. I’ve jumped from one side of Federation space to the other, and never been even slightly off-target. There’s no external time lag either, not even by microseconds.” The more usual method of faster-than-light travel was to enter a realm known as interspace. Distances there related to those in normal space following what was usually approximated as a square law, so that it actually proved faster to make several shorter jumps than one extremely long one. Over long distances, it was also harder to maintain accuracy, meaning that in better times, there had been navigation points scattered in convenient places all over the galaxy. The experimental Nexus Drive solved both those problems at a stroke, but the price was that no-one, not even the scientists who had developed it, knew exactly how it worked. It had been discovered experimentally, not theoretically, and as yet no theories came close to solving its mysteries.
“What about the time delay on the inside?”
Siris’ image shrugged. “It doesn’t seem to change much, either, but it’s never even the same between jumps. All I can tell you is that I average about two hours in the Nexus, regardless of the distance.”
That, he thought, was perhaps the most strange and disconcerting thing about it. Whether or not he understood all the complex subtleties of the physics underpinning interspace travel, it obeyed laws that made sense on an intuitive level. The Nexus Drive flew in the face of logic, skipping instantaneously from point to point to an observer on the outside, but taking hours or days to make the same journey for one within the ship — and even that time varied only by pilot and passengers, not by distance at all!
Tsien nodded. She hadn’t expected a more exact answer, and probably knew almost as much about it as Siris himself did, but she preferred to obtain information directly, rather than second- or third-hand. Siris’ experience would be invaluable to her.
“Let’s go, then,” she said quietly. Even she, potentially one of the Federation’s brightest minds, had no more ideas than he about the strange nature of the means of transport they were about to use. As well as saving time, this trip would also allow her to experience the Nexus for herself — something she’d wanted to do for some time.
Her pilot’s image looked down at his non-existent controls. “Activating the Nexus Drive…”
There was a pause, and then, with a momentary flicker, the ‘window’ projected on the inside of the cockpit went dark, projectors showing only blackness. Only Siris’ image remained, looking up from his console.
“That’s it. We’re in the Nexus.”
Tsien by V. L. Bending is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.