Planet Quazi - Orbit.
The flagship of the Seneca Corp third battalion, the Venerate, sat in the midst of the wreckage and debris which now surrounded the planet Quazi.
Where there had once been a ring of connected space stations, there was now only the aftermath of a disaster.
The Venerate was not concerned with the destruction of the homes of millions, or the deaths of those in those homes. The deaths of innocents was nothing new to the Seneca Corps, although it was usually because they were the primary instigator.
But a Seneca warship had been destroyed, and that could not go unanswered.
The Venerate was currently involved in a planet-wide bombardment of Quazi, the water world famed for its robots and technological products.
Quazi, and the company that ruled it, Mason & Muss, were renowned for their quality robotic appliances and comfort models.
The Seneca Corps normally wouldn’t care about such an insignificant corporate enterprise.
But this was the standard mandated response to any attack on a Corps vessel. Utter annihilation.
Other than the Venerate, there were also five other warships and several support ships all facing away from the planet as though expecting an attack from the rear.
And also one small shuttle flying towards the Venerate from the planet.
This shuttle, a ship of basic design without weapons or much shielding, was ignored by the Seneca flagship as it approached.
It made its way through the debris and seemed to know exactly where to fly to avoid the numerous volleys of missiles going the other way.
Leyla watched the Venerate on the shuttle internal screens with a sense of trepidation. It had once been the flagship of her battalion.
The Third had been her and her sister’s home from when she was just a girl. She had left with her sister — because what other choice did she have? — and never expected to return. And now here she was.
It made her battle-hardened warrior stomach feel queasy.
“We’ve been given permission to dock,” said Commander Liss Andrea. “Once we’re on board, let me do the talking.”
The Commander was the operative who had been stationed on the planet and who the two sisters had tracked down in order to get a lift up to the battlefleet. Convincing her to do so had been no easy matter.
The Commander turned around to face the two sisters. “Did you hear what I said?”
“We heard you, Commander,” said Weyla, not in the mood to be polite. “Just get us to the captain.”
Commander Andrea did not seem very impressed with Weyla’s attitude. Had they still been in the Corps, no doubt she would have put her on charges of insubordination. But she was savvy enough to recognise what the two sisters had been through to get here.
They were both badly bruised and cut up from their fight with an army of robots, and still damp from their escape from the dome. The dome that had been suddenly swallowed by the sea, leaving Mason City with a new lake at its centre.
The shuttle docked without fuss. They weren’t allowed in the hangar bay — they were coming from an enemy planet and could be harbouring enemy combatants or be rigged to explode. Such things had happened in the past, back when the Corps was considered an opponent that could still be defeated by foul means if not fair ones. It soon became apparent the Corps was far more comfortable with foul than fair.
There were two Seneca troopers waiting for them as they emerged from the airlock. They were tall, shaven-headed security veterans who were capable of taking on several opponents unarmed, and dozens if you put a gun in their hands.
“Take us to the bridge,” said Commander Andrea, using the moment to reassert her authority.
The troopers didn’t react to her aggressive tone and just nodded.
“The captain is waiting for you on the bridge,” said one of the guards, indicating that she was going to escort them to the captain whether they requested it or not.
Leyla was in a bit of daze to be back on the Venerate. It hadn’t been her assigned ship, but she had spent plenty of time on board, either preparing for missions or receiving training. The Corps believed in continuous training and upgrading, of its technology and its personnel.
She was struck by a sense of nostalgia. Not for the life that she had once lived but merely by the smell.
It was a sweet, metallic scent peculiar to the Venerate. It reminded her of so many things at once it made her dizzy.
“Hey, let’s go,” said the guard, noticing Leyla was spacing out.
“Back off, Julia,” said Weyla. “We’re here to get you out of this mess.”
The guard looked confused. “What the hell are you talking about, Weyla?” The two of them apparently knew each other. “What mess?”
“The one you have no idea you just walked into,” said Leyla, snapping out of it. “Lead the way.”
The guard checked with the Commander, who gave a weary nod. They had already been through this with her. She hadn’t been completely convinced by what they had told her, but how could she explain what she had seen otherwise? In any case, it was her duty to take them to the commanding officer on site.
They headed for the bridge via the complex elevator system that went not only up and down but also horizontally. The five of them stood to attention, backs straight, as all Corps soldiers were trained to do. They could sleep standing, if needed.
“I hear that guy you left for dumped you,” said the guard next to Weyla, slipping the words out from behind barely moving lips.
“So what?” said Weyla, showing no emotion, staring straight ahead. “It was worth it. Best sex I ever had. You should try it instead of that old broom handle you keep under your pillow, Julia.”
Julia’s large head turned crimson, suggesting Weyla knew her even better than Leyla had first assumed.
The rest of the elevator ride continued in silence.
When the lift doors opened, they were assaulted by a barrage of noise.
Anyone who wasn’t used to being on the bridge of a large battle cruiser in the middle of a full-scale attack might be forgiven for thinking the cacophony and furious level of activity was out-of-control panic, but it was nothing of the sort.
It was just maximum effort in an enclosed space.
In the centre of the presumed mayhem was a raised chair on which sat a woman with white hair pulled back into a small bun. She wore the same uniform as everyone else, except hers had three gold stars on each collar and a mosaic of faded ribbons on her chest.
Everyone in the Corps knew who she was. Brigadier General Freya, Captain of the Venerate and Commander of the Third Fleet.
She was known for her martial prowess, her unflinching bravery, and her terrible temper. She was currently deeply embedded in the third of those. Her face was drawn with her mouth set in a thin line and her eyes daring anyone to displease her.
The seat lowered as Leyla and her sister were led onto the bridge, but it wasn’t to greet them. There was already a group of five ahead of them, standing to attention around the chair as it descended.
The five also wore the same uniform as the rest of the Venerate’s crew, except theirs were notable by being plus-sized.
The five women were all massive in girth but not in a manner that suggested they were unhealthy. Quite the opposite. They looked like they could each use their extra weight to add force to each punch and kick.
Not that these women would ever be employed in the front lines. They were far too precious for that. They were the Ghost Squad, or that was how they were referred to when they were out of earshot. Officially, they were from the ESP Division, Remote Observation Unit.
“You know what you need to do,” said General Freya. “We need those six robots found and taken off-world.”
“Yes, General,” said the five women as one.
“Okay, good. I want reports as soon as you find anything. Get to work.”
The five women walked to five different stands around the captain’s chair and locked themselves into braces holding their legs and arms in place. Then their heads fell back, their mouths hung wide open and their eyes turned into black holes.
It was an unnerving sight that Leyla had seen before but still wasn’t used to. The five women of the Ghost Squad had temporarily left their bodies and were able to send their consciousness vast distances at incredible speeds, making them ideal scouts.
Unlike other organics, the type used by ESPers didn’t make your eyes glow. They did the opposite and turned the process inside out. The increase in energy consumption was the only drawback, and was why they had to maintain high levels of fat.
Leyla felt a cold wind go right through her and shivered. The Ghost Squad didn’t care to go around anything they could just go through.
General Freya turned to face Commander Andrea. “What the hell happened down there, Liss? Where are those damned robots?”
“I don’t know, General. The site rep I received was incomplete. There were factors in play we were not aware of.”
“We lost the Affectionate. All hands lost. No survivors.” The General spoke with bitter disappointment. “I’ve seen the report. It was ripped apart like it made of wet paper.”
“I know, General. She was my ship. I knew everyone on board.” Andrea sounded equally dismayed.
“How did it happen, Liss? How did they manage to get the planet core fully activated? We’ve been trying to do that for years and got nowhere. We don’t have any reports of the Quazi scientists being anywhere near a solution. Hell, last we heard they didn’t even know what was sitting under all that water. Was it those robots? Are they really as advanced as the damned company claims?”
“I don’t think it was them,” said Andrea. “They don’t have the capability. My guess is it’s something to do with this man.”
She pressed something on her sleeve and a screen appeared next to her. On it was a picture of an old man holding up a small box.
“Who the hell is that?” said the General.
“He’s wearing a mask,” said Andrea. “His true appearance is this.”
The picture changed to reveal Ubik’s true face.
General Freya looked no less confounded. “You’re saying everything that happened, the Affectionate, the core activation, it was done by this… boy?”
“I’ve included everything in this briefing.” Andrea pressed her sleeve again and the General’s left eye flickered with light as a barrage of information was sent to her ocular implant.
“What the… Is this all true about the planet core?”
“Yes, General. It’s all been verified. By these two.” Andrea turned to indicate Weyla and Leyla, who had been waiting impatiently, but who knew better than to interrupt. “This is—”
“I know who they are,” said the General. “You think I don’t remember every face that’s served under me? Alive, dead or…” She looked at the two sisters as though there was something far worse than being a dead member of the Corps.
Leyla fought off the feeling of intimidation washing over her. There was immense pressure coming off the woman who decided the fates of entire star systems, but Leyla had faced worse. Travelling around the galaxy with Ubik and his two friends had opened her eyes to just how easily power could be turned against the powerful.
“I suggest you cease all attacks on Quazi immediately,” said Leyla, deciding to not waste time on formalities. “And spend all your resources on finding him.” She pointed at the picture on the screen.
There was a small twitch in the General’s otherwise impassive face. “Do you think abandoning the Corps gives you the right to issue orders on my bridge?”
“No, General. I think seeing that boy raise the Antecessors from the dead makes it my duty to warn you of the consequences of your actions. But that isn’t the only reason you should call a ceasefire. We were on that planet for a reason. We were trying to keep another boy safe. I’m talking about Figaro Ollo.”
The chaotic bridge suddenly went dead quiet.
“Figaro Ollo?” said the General, noticeably paling. “He’s on the planet?” She turned to Commander Andrea. “You have verification?”
Andrea shook her head.
“Trust me, he’s there,” said Leyla. “And if she finds out you bombed a planet with her son on it, none of us will survive her wrath.”
The General looked down, thinking hard. “But we didn’t know…”
“Ignorance doesn’t abdicate accountability, General, you know that, and so does she. The Corps was built on that principle. She won’t rest until every one of us is held accountable, whether we knew or not.”
The General stared at Leyla, not enjoying being lectured about the Corps principles by a junior.
“Stop the bombardment and find this boy.” Leyla pointed at the picture of Ubik again. “If you find him, you’ll find Figaro. We don’t have much time. The Antecessor fleet is headed here.”
General Freya looked up sharply. “You know about the armada?”
“We’ve seen it. It’s coming for Figaro. He’s key to their plans for the galaxy.”
“But he’s just a boy.”
“No, general, he’s the second most dangerous person in the quadrant,” said Leyla. “The first is him.” She pointed once more at Ubik’s grinning face. “That cube he’s holding contains an Antecessor. Not a droid or an AI, an actual Antecessor. And it’s under his control.”
“And what is he planning to do with it?” asked the General.
“I have no idea,” said Leyla. “And I hope I never find out. But you can debrief us later. First, you have to stop the bombing.”
The General nodded, her eyes still a little glazed over. Then she turned and said, “Cease—”
Before she was able to complete the order, sirens went off, bathing the bridge in red light.
“We have an incursion, two million klicks,” called out someone. “Multiple vessels. No call signs.”
“Who the hell is it?” said the General.
“We can’t identify them. No matches—wait, we’ve got a hit. They’re… Antecessor ships.”
The large screen that was showing the planet below them switched to a big empty starfield. It didn’t remain empty for long as a streak of light entered frame, rapidly growing larger.
Magnification showed them a large convoy of ships.
“That… isn’t possible.” The words stuttered out of the General’s mouth.
Even without anything to provide scale, it was obvious the Antecessor ships were massive. Far larger than the Venerate. Larger even than the planet Quazi.
“Contact the fleet. Battle stations.” The General was out of her seat, barking orders left and right. “Find out where the First and Second fleet are and tell them to stay the hell away. And turn this boat around.”
There were dozens of them, an unending line of large block-shaped spaceships.
Leyla found herself wishing Ubik was here. Even if he was an unbearable pain and a constant source of danger to everyone around him, in situations like this, he was about the only hope there was. Who else was going to be able to stop an alien armada?
Something flickered on the screen. Something very small.
It was a ship. Small and silver and unconventionally shaped with a long neck and wide flanks, giving it the appearance of a swan.
It was in the direct path of the oncoming armada, and showed no signs of wanting to get out of the way.
Everyone on the bridge was staring at the screen.
There was a distortion in the stars as a gaping hole suddenly tore the fabric of space open, swallowing the entire alien fleet in one go, appearing so close to them they had no option but to fly into the vast open mouth.
The mouth snapped shut and there was nothing left, save for the solitary silver ship.
“It’s her,” said Leyla. “She’s come for her boy.”