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The Alea Zatar Chronicles I: Crystalline Trouble

Sent unbeknownst into a suicide mission, Alea Zatar and her unorthodox crew strive to survive against insurmountable odds.

Meet Tarellek Malear, chief engineer on the Abaddon class battleship Anthea, and its pod pilot Alea Zatar. Discover a part of the life of the crews of these massive ships and their peculiar relationship with the harsh world of New Eden.

Chapter 1: "Calm before the storm"

Tarellek Malear was sitting in the lower crew lounge, looking out at the crystalline rock formation on the portside of the ship. He enjoyed coming here, as the other crew members seldom came down here. Most preferred the additional commodities the upper lounges offered. He did not mind the long walk through the access corridor either, which was constantly bathed in the loud humming of the engines. Here, there was only silence. Entirely shielded, the place was a haven of peace. If you had the opportunity to stay here in the midst of a battle, you would not be bothered by the shrieks of EM pulses clashing into the shields, nor the clatter of armour piercing slugs. Tarellek thought that this is where he would want to spend his last moments if the ship was ever to go down, but he quickly dismissed the idea. As chief engineer, he would give his life lovingly to keep the ship and its pilot alive.

Alea Zatar
Alea Zatar, captain of the Anthea. Minmatar to the core, she has nevertheless specialized in Amarr ships. She is a professional mission runner and occasional Mercenary for hire.

They were currently anchored in the outer reaches of Illinfrik, waiting for the armour repairs to complete and the capacitors to recharge. Their contacts in Balginia had discovered a large-scale Angel operation at these coordinates which was providing support for their skirmishes in the surrounding systems. Even the Brutor Tribe Bureau in Balginia had been under attack, so Agdelger Ruflaner had called Alea Zatar for help. Apparently the tribe's security commander wanted this operation to go through unofficial channels... Tarellek did not like the man, he was a harsh commander without much respect for those of lesser rank. The few times they had met Agdelger, Tarellek's presence had only been met with open contempt. For Alea to take her engineer along to such a meeting was unusual in every way, but Tarellek knew that was not the reason for Agdelger's dangerous glare. He did not care anymore, though. He was used to being frowned upon as a dispensable commodity, and saw that as a means to concentrate on what was important to him. Among those things were the Anthea, and that Alea Zatar was given the respect she deserved. The latter did not worry him too much anymore, in his years of service he had come to admire her presence. She forced respect on everyone she encountered, but nevertheless he was always prepared. Nobody saw an engineer as a threat, and he knew how to use that edge.

Tarellek's thoughts wandered back to the rock formations outside slowly rotating, trapping beams of light from Illinfrik's star in the crystal dust around them, creating a complex pattern of dancing lights on the hull. The Anthea was an Abaddon class Battleship, and the biggest joy in his life. The day Alea came to him in person and asked him to join her crew was engraved in his memories, and since then defined every day of his life. He looked up to her with the same awe a child has of its parents, he knew that - but she did not seem to mind. She was the only pilot he knew that would look him in the eyes without that detachment other pilots had conditioned themselves for. It was dangerous for pilots to get attached to their crew. The loss of a ship always meant losing the intricate connection to it as well as the crew, and no pilot can sustain the repeated pain. Stories of pilots gone mad were still told at the academies, and Tarellek knew them all, which only made him appreciate her effort even more.

He slowly got up and started making his way back to the bridge. The capacitors would be nearly full now and preparations needed to be made for the next jump. As the bulkhead to the access door swung aside, the sound from the engines was deafening. He knew this was coming of course, but it always managed to surprise him anyway. He walked through the access corridor, he noticed that the engines' whine had subsided into a low hum, which meant that the capacitors were nearing full charge. He picked up the pace, and took the deck shuttle to climb up to the bridge level, which was located mid-ship. A common misconception was that a ship's bridge is always at the front, with big view ports to survey what was outside. Tarellek smiled at the thought, as he used to think the same when his father told him stories about epic space battles. In truth the bridge was placed strategically at the centre of the ship, the farthest away from harm as possible. And there was no point to view ports, as space is essentially a very dark place. Every console on the bridge had access to outside camera views, but they were all electronically enhanced.

He entered the bridge, and lay himself down into his console. Everybody was here already, but they were not waiting for him. Alea wanted the ship to be as ready as possible before the next jump. They were heading into the unknown, and the tiniest capacitor resource may make a difference, as numerous missions had proven. A screen flipped to life, and Alea's face appeared. She asked him for an ETA, even though she could as easily call this information up directly on her own readouts. He appreciated the contact - and liked to think she did too. From his console's screen array he could call up a view of any other crew member in their console, but to be allowed to access the pilot's view was a rare privilege. Tarellek had heard of no other pilot doing this, for the same reasons that they keep themselves detached from their crews. He suspected that many also wanted to protect their dignity: the combination of cool lighting, amniotic fluid and synaptic connectors was an eerie sight indeed. Alea had played open cards with them right from the beginning, and even if it had been awkward for many of Anthea's crew, he had come to like the bond that now existed between them.

Their target, the Angel Cartel command base, was hidden at a location that only the acceleration gate at one of their advanced outposts could take them to. They had taken down one of those outposts, and had even managed to squeeze the gate access codes from one of the Angel operatives they captured, thus saving them a lot of trouble to crack the codes on their own. Also, the longer they stayed here the higher the chance that their incursion would be discovered. Their ETA to full capacitors was only a few minutes off and the thrusters sprang to life, Alea aligning the ship for the jump. Chances were good that the Angel command base was not yet aware of their presence, as no outbound signals were detected when they rushed the outpost. No ingoing communications seemed to have been made either. Tarellek would have preferred some intel on the command base's forces, but clearly the operative hat not been privy to that information. As customary in their established routine, he announced full capacitor and a go on all systems - as much for Alea as for the other crew members. She initiated the 15 AU jump, and he could feel the buildup of the warp bubble in his bones. He was confident they would handle this mission as usual, but he could not avoid the fear either. He tried to embrace it, using it to keep his senses sharp and take the right decisions when they were needed.

Chapter 2: "Jumping into the fray"

The bridge was silent. Only a faint electronic buzz could be heard as everyone was preparing themselves for the encounter. Tarellek activated the sensor booster and targeting enhancer arrays when they were about 10.000 km from the jump target to make sure they would be online by the time they exited from warp. Again this was something Alea could do herself, but she trusted him in this to be able to focus solely on assessing the strategic layout of the command base. When they exited from warp, they were ready - but Tarellek saw in a fraction of a second that this would not be easy. A strike force had assembled here near a sizeable war installation, apparently in preparation of a large-scale assault. Several larger patrol pockets were scattered in a 100 km radius, including the one they had just warped into.

He was stunned, but clearly Alea was not. Drones were already tearing through the frigates on the port side, and all eight large tech II pulse laser turrets were quickly taking out the sentries hovering at about 40 km. By the time the main body of the Angel forces realized what was going on, the patrol had already been dispatched. The shields had only been nicked - so far, so good. He took the time to go through the list of hostile contacts, and his fear reasserted itself fully. From what he could tell, the Angel forces seemed to have a good commander. Apart from a small detail protecting the base itself, a whole fleet of ships was coming their way. The frigates and cruisers were no real threat, but the force they were up against included eleven battlecruisers and seven battleships that were going to be a big problem. He silently cursed Agdelger, because you do not send a mercenary to get rid of a fleet like that if you want him or her to succeed - you send in the army with as many ships as you can spare.

Alea turned the ship away from the fleet, and headed the other way at full speed. Tarellek knew they could not outrun those ships at their top speed of 137 ms, but it would buy them a little time until the slower ships - especially the battleships - caught up with them. Alea had dispatched the most dangerous of the frigates, and let the drones handle the rest. The shields were coming down fast now, and when they reached thirty percent Tarellek activated the armour repair systems. The capacitor could sustain all guns as well as the repair systems indefinitely, but he doubted they would be able to withstand the onslaught for long. His stomach started tying itself into a big knot, but he forced himself to concentrate on his readouts. Two battlecruisers down, good. Sixteen cruisers within range of their turrets, not good. The shrieks of the shield changed into the familiar clatter of armour. He wondered what Alea must be thinking right now. The whole ship shook as the enemy battleships joined the battle, their torpedoes now also in optimal range. The battle had started in earnest.

Alea concentrated all her fire on single targets, but too many ships were in firing range now. The constant barrage of missiles and additional turret fire was starting to tear the armour apart. Tarellek turned off the public comm channels, full of offensive chatter from the Angel pilots who were already sure of their victory. Usually Alea listened to those channels to gain information about her opponents, but this was not useful anymore. A quick glance and nod from her confirmed he had made the right choice, and somehow that little victory instantly untied the knot in his stomach. The armour was down to forty percent already. Space behind them was sizzling with turret fire, and even though the Anthea was slowly losing the fight, she still left a trail of wrecks in her wake. Tarellek made a few quick calculations in his head, and he did not like the outcome. At the speed the armour was diminishing and the enemy ships taken down they would definitely not make it. If they could get rid of the battleships there was a chance, but their time was better spent on lowering the total number of ships as fast as they could.

He was starting to regret their decision to refit for damage output. The capacitor requirements for running a full rack of eight tech II pulse turrets had forced them to fit more capacitor support systems instead of the usual armour damage sinks. He put those thoughts aside again, they were not immediately useful. It had been a reasonable decision at the time in any case. Better defence would have been good, but the outcome would surely have been the same at these odds. He opened a channel to Alea, and quickly asked if she could spare a turret to divert power to boost armour repair at least a bit. Her screen came alive, and she shook her head. She was trying to bring down the damage they were taking to a level that they could sustain, and she did not want to jeopardize an already tightly played gamble. In the meantime, he started to make preparations for an emergency jump to a safe spot. When he was sure he had gotten it right, he sent the coordinates to her console. She nodded, and adjusted their course to align on those coordinates. They had dispatched all the warp scrambling capable ships, so warping out should not be a problem. However, he feared the Angel commander response to their slight course correction. He was bound to draw his own conclusions from the change, and would certainly not want to miss this opportunity to avenge his fallen troops.

He noticed movement on the screen for the ship's lee side, and saw a large rock formation rush by similar to the one he had seen earlier. In itself, there was nothing weird about that. You can encounter these rocks in almost every solar system. The weird part was that he had not seen it in his initial review of their surroundings. He brought up a navigation view, keeping an eye on the armour screen at the same time. He did not understand much of the navigational readouts, as only pilots were trained for them - but he understood enough to see Alea was bringing them into a huge field of swirling rock formations. It was a good idea, at the very least it would put some distance between them and the Angel fleet. They would have to scatter to manoeuvre. Anthea's bulkiness was a navigational nightmare, but Alea managed to force the ship through a hole that the pursuing ships could only fly through two at a time at most. Movement in one of his screens caught his attention as a full salvo of tachyon destructive power tore through one of the pursuing cruisers. The blast of the explosion catapulted the ship next to it into one of the huge rocks. Its shields lit up, absorbing the impact until they failed and the frail frame of the cruiser was shattered. These close quarters could be just what they needed to turn the battle, but Tarellek could not let his hopes go up yet.

The Angel fleet was regrouping, changing their tactics to fit the surroundings. Tarellek watched as the fleet started to split into smaller groups, one still in pursuit within the field of rock and the rest swiftly overtaking them on all sides from a distance. Dismayed, he knew they had to warp out, the sooner the better. The armour had regenerated back to thirty percent, but as soon as those ships would be in position, they would be done for. Something was nagging at the back of his thoughts. Knowing Alea knew how to handle all this much better than he did, he let himself concentrate on what nagged him. It had to do with something his father had told him in his stories - a detail, but an important one. He did not know how that could be relevant now, and he could not bring it up anyway. He snapped back out of his reverie when heard the sound of impacts on Anthea's hull. The armour was down to twenty percent, and single shots were starting to penetrate through the now flimsy barrier. A pocket of ships had taken their position ahead of them, shooting at rocks to block their way. Large chunks flew in all directions, impacting Anthea's armour. Then suddenly it came back to him, and his heart missed a few beats. He punched the comm controls, and Alea instantly appeared on one of his screens.

„The rock formations...”  he faltered. „What about them?”  she urged.

His father had told him this story about a pilot who had been sent to do a reconnaissance mission in a small Malediction-class interceptor frigate. To avoid being detected, he had hidden in the same kind of rock formations as these, engulfed in a thick cloud of crystalline dust. He had been detected by a patrol, and even though he was perfectly aligned to jump to his safe spot, he could not initiate warp. Because of the crystalline dust. Damn. The story then tells the heroic, very battle-involved "manual" escape of the pilot, but that was not helpful right now.

„The dust clouds interfere with warping!”  he managed to blurt out.

She did not flinch. She took it in, and whipped her screens back to life. She set new coordinates in void space aligned to the current heading of the ship, as their safe spot was out of range after all these course corrections. She fired up the warp engine, and everybody on the bridge help his breath. As he predicted, however, no stable warp field could be created here and warp diagnostics flashed up red. He silenced them, looking at her. She was deep in thought, and he knew she was creating new strategies, dismissing them and trying new ones. The forward armour was down, the rest was at fifteen percent and failing. They were starting to take structural damage bleeding through the remaining armour. He was surprised at how calm he was, even serene. He had known since he accepted this job that this could happen of course. But that was not where his calm came from. Looking at Alea he realized that he had achieved what he had wished for as a kid. If it had to end now, he would not regret having missed anything. He actually smiled, and on his screen he saw her open her eyes and smile back.

Chapter 3: "Beaten and trapped"

Suddenly the rattling on the armour and hull stopped, and a comm channel flashed. The Angel commander wanted to talk to Alea, probably to gloat over his victory and congratulate himself. She opened the channel, and allowed Tarellek and the other crew members on the bridge to hear in on their conversation. Their fate had always been a matter open for all.

„I am talking to Alea Zatar, I presume?”  a confident and arrogant deep male voice said. „And my crew. Who would you be?”  She replied, her voice level and just as confident. „Interesting, so the rumours are true about your mingling with your crew. How cute.”  She ignored the pun. „What do you want?”  „I will tell you in time. To avoid any foolishness, let me first explain your situation: you can't warp, two carriers are on the way, you are surrounded, and you have arrived at a dead end. I will let you consider that for five minutes.”  he said, and the comm channel closed.

As much as Tarellek wanted to believe that there was still a way out, there was none he could see. They had engaged in a sort of tunnel that lead further into a dense cluster of entwined rock formations. A rock as large as a station was sitting ahead of them, cutting short their escape further into the tunnel. If it could be called an escape at all, with two carriers on the way. There was no way they could get out of this. On one of his screens, Alea's expression told him she was back to weaving strategies. Suddenly he felt ashamed again - people depended on him, and all he was doing was feeling sorry for himself. He kicked himself back to work, dispatched internal messages to evacuate all non-essential decks and cut off power to them to gain some capacitor recharge rate. He throttled life support too, and fed it all into the armour repair systems. He slowed the repair cycle though, as he wanted the ship to look incapacitated from the outside. He intentionally fed all the available power into the system anyway, as he knew from experience that the repair nanites replicated a lot faster then. In only a few minutes, they would have replaced their lost numbers and be able to give them a few repair cycles the likes of which their opponents were not ready for. When the Angel commander called back, the armour was back to forty percent. The bastard was not going to give them time to repair it all, not even in this situation. Tarellek had to admire that the man did not want to risk any more casualties on his end by feeling overconfident.

„I hope you have considered your options carefully” , his voice boomed with a burst of static. „We have. Again, what do you want?”  „One of my operatives will board your ship, I expect you to treat him well.”  „And then?”  „You don't have the luxury to ask any more questions. Behave, or we tear that tub of yours apart”  he spat, and the comm channel closed again.

Tarellek switched to the navigation screen, and saw a Rifter class frigate slowly approach the ship. The commander had obviously chosen an expendable vessel just in case. Still, even that ship could carry a sizeable boarding party that could give them trouble. He wondered for a fraction of a second about how the operative on board that ship felt about being expendable.

„Tarellek, could you make some calculations for me?”  Alea asked from her screen. „Go ahead.” 

Good, he thought. She was still plotting, which meant that she still had not given up hope. She sent him a flight path, and at first he was sure it must be a mistake - but then he saw what she wanted to do. The route she had plotted took the ship directly towards the bottom of the giant rock formation that was blocking the way. Unlike the other rock formations around them, it was slowly rotating. She actually wanted to ram it in the direction it was turning to push through. If it succeeded, it would also set that rock spinning faster, effectively protecting them from any kind of pursuit. It was a desperate gambit, and it chilled him to the core as much as it gave him a mad kind of hope. The impact would stress the ship to its limits and probably even cripple it. He was sure he would prefer being crushed than end up in the hands of the Angel commander, so he ran the calculations, and sent them to her screen. She looked through them and nodded. She accessed the navigation subroutines and deactivated the collision management that would usually prevent such manoeuvres.

In the meantime, the frigate had already fastened its docking clamps and was requesting the release of the docking hatch. They must have flown with all the engines could give to have gotten there so fast, he thought. Alea told him to comply. It would buy them some more precious armour regeneration time, and there was no immediate danger to the crew. The docking hatch was on one of the decks that had been entirely evacuated earlier for his power saving measures. When the Angel operative was safely on board, and the other side was likely to think they were going along Alea kicked the thrusters to life. Metal screeched as the frigate's clamps were torn off the hull, and the whole deck vented its atmosphere in a bang. The remaining ships had apparently been hoping to see something desperate like that, as a barrage of turret fire started nearly instantly. Tarellek had unleashed the full force of his supercharged repair nanites a few seconds earlier though, so the initial barrage was repaired nearly instantly. On his screen, the looming rock grew to enormous proportions. His eyes on the camera view, he braced himself for the impact. Proximity alarms started sounding throughout the ship.

He had expected a shock, but this was beyond what he could have imagined. The bow shields that had partially regenerated took some of the impact before the shield generators fried, then the gained inertia crushed the ship into the unyielding rock. The nose of the ship folded like paper, and when the main frame hit, the inertial dampeners overloaded. He was slammed into his console with more G than his body could handle and lost consciousness. When he came to, he was surprised to be awake at all. He hurt all over, and the ship's diagnostic readouts were red all over the spectrum. They were also still being hit by missiles, which was not good. Fortunately, the front of the ship was facing away from the fire, and the rear armour was at fifty percent and holding. Alea had been protected from the shock in her pod, and was busy navigating the ship out of missile range. He ran diagnostics on all systems: apart from losing the forward decks and all shield capabilities, the ship was still operational. Even their eight gun turrets were still online.

After a few minutes, the last missiles hit them and they were finally out of range. Alea dropped back to fifty ms to take the time to assess their situation. The rock they had hit protected them from any pursuit as she had predicted, and when she finally announced that they were safe, everyone on the bridge cheered. He let himself sink back into his console to rest his sore muscles. The intense relief he felt suddenly made him aware that he was ravenous. Grabbing two chocolate bars from his hidden stash for emergencies, he considered their new position. Pursuit was not possible anymore, but neither could nor did they want to go back that way. Their fate lay before them, if there was anywhere to go from here. Nevertheless, everybody was happy to have lived through this. Alea was calm and composed as always, but her closed eyes betrayed her relief. After nearly twenty years of service, he was still amazed that she let him see her exposed like that, but was silently thankful of the privilege.

Chapter 4: "Into the unknown"

Now that they were safe for the time being, the crew got a short leave to rest. Tarellek would have loved to rest too, but his job was the most important now on the ship after Alea's. She stayed awake too, bringing the ship deeper into the dense entwined rocks. The tunnel they had engaged in led further in, and as there was no other way to go she carefully navigated the ship into the bowels of whatever this giant heap of rocks was called. He only allowed himself a couple hours sleep and then went back to the bridge. He tried to find out how far they had gotten, but this proved to be no small task. The interference from the crystal-laden dust was so strong that they were blind in every aspect. Under these conditions, he could not even compute a position, so he extrapolated from their last know position. If he was right, they had gone about forty kilometres deeper into the rock field. It seemed to have no end, and Alea kept on going further in. There was no point in going back. As they had not even been able to detect the presence of the field, they were heading blindfolded into the unknown. There was a positive aspect to this though: a field this size would not be easily covered by the Angel forces. They would have to spread themselves thin, giving the Anthea more leeway to escape if they managed to break out.

On his end, getting the hull and armour repairs done was difficult. Especially in the bow they had shut down complete systems entirely, but the good news was Tarellek and his engineering team were able to coat the bow of the ship in a new layer of armour. The nose was gone of course, but the ship could take a beating again. The shield was beyond repair, the generators had been completely fried by the overload when they hit the rock. Only a stay in shipyard's dry dock was going to help there. The crew's morale was good, and soon further bolstered by a short message from Alea thanking them all for their dedication. She relentlessly kept following the tunnel through the rock field, and forty-eight hours after breaking the pursuit, they were about two hundred and sixty kilometres in. Tarellek wondered how such an enormous rock field could be uncharted in a system like Illinfrik, of all places. The only plausible explanation was that the interference caused by the crystal dust must have played a role in this.

Apart from the odd tight sections of the tunnel and free floating debris, the journey was rather uneventful, giving them much time to think. The crew was used to long missions and trained to handle the obvious psychic issues. The current situation was a bit out of the ordinary however, and theories went wild as to who or what had created or shaped the tunnel. The consensus was that it was definitely not a natural formation. Alea had to carefully handle the more zealous defenders of their theories on the subject. Pilots are often seen dissociated from the crew, but in truth their studies include human psyche and how to handle any kind of issues that can arise in a crew. They are adept manipulators, which only adds to their status of demigods to the more credulous. Tarellek always thought that these skills were why many retired pilots found high-ranking political positions.

Tarellek had his own theories on the field, but he knew they were just that - theories. With Anthea's limited sensory equipment and what was left of that, his studies of the tunnel did not lead very far. He noticed that the rocks had been entwined in a way that prevented them from rotating on their own, purportedly to keep the tunnel's structure intact. There was just no way they could have ended up like that on their own. The obvious question was why? He figured that they would find out sooner or later when the tunnel ended. He just hoped it would be sooner than later, even though he realized it was a silly wish after what they had just gone through. Besides, their enemies might very well be waiting on the other side already. Alea did not seem to be affected much by the whole situation. She even seemed to enjoy this period of calm as opposed to the frenetic action from the last month's mission runs. He longed to ask her about her thoughts, but he knew that would be a breach of protocol. He studied his readouts and waited.

Chapter 5: "Further into ruin"

Tarellek was back in the lower crew lounge, but this time he was not alone. Thalea Norgg was with him, the weapon systems specialist. They had been together for a while a few years back - they did not have much in common, but they both needed the romance and the contact. Now they were good friends, and like a moment ago just occasionally shared a bunk. Outside, the scenery had not changed for the last two days: rock, rock, and more rock.

„Do you think it will end someday?”  she asked softly, her head resting on his shoulder. „Honestly, I have no clue. I have given up trying to track how far we have come, with all the twists and turns we have gone through”  he said, and closed his eyes to enjoy the moment. „I just hope it leads anywhere at all”  she whispered. „The people who built this did not come this far just to stop”  he said, but silently shared her apprehension.

They stayed a while longer, gazing out at the rock field. It was so dense now that it completely occluded the stars. Even Illinfrik's sun was nowhere to be seen anymore, and the only light came from the powerful projectors Alea used as a navigational help. The tunnel had shrunk noticeably, leaving only a few hundred meters on all sides to navigate in. With Anthea's bulk, it would be a challenge to turn the ship around now - even though the lack of nose would help a lot. Occasionally protruding rocks would grate on the armour, and when possible floating debris were dispatched by the laser turrets to avoid them bouncing against the ship. He was a bit worried about Alea, as piloting a ship like this in close quarters was very tiring and she had not rested once so far. Unfortunately, navigation was the one part no one else on board could help her with.

He was monitoring the reactor core from the engine command centre when he heard the main thrusters stop and brake thrusters being fired instead. One of his readouts was suddenly replaced with Thalea's panicked face.

„Tarellek, we need you on the bridge! Something is wrong with Alea's pod!”  she shouted.

He did not need to think - the worst thing that can happen to any crew is to lose the ship's pilot. He instantly broke into a run, thudding into a few bulkheads as he rushed to the deck shuttle. He ignored the pain and made for the shuttle bulkhead. Running as fast as his legs would take him, he opened a comm channel to Thalea from his heads-up display.

„I'm on my way - what's the problem?”  „I don't know. Her vitals started becoming erratic. She somehow managed to stop the ship, then we lost contact altogether.”  „What do pod diagnostics say?”  „Nothing, they're dead.”  „Bloody hell” , he said with feeling, then added „We have to go in. Clear the access hatch, I'll be there in a minute.” 

He notified the medics and the rest of the engineering team, and waited a few agonizing seconds for the shuttle to bring him up to the bridge level. Access to the pod was only possible in emergencies, and even then it was not easy. On stations, a secured shaft was used by automated systems to retrieve and install the pod in its armoured chamber, but here they had nothing of the sort. They would have to enter the chamber via a special access hatch, unclamp the pod from the shock-absorbing net and retrieve the pilot. That was the worst-case scenario, which he feverishly hoped he could avoid. With some luck he might be able to access diagnostics directly from the pod's command panel.

When he burst into the bridge, Thalea and two of his engineers had already opened the hatch. They sprang aside, and he thrust himself into the small corridor without even slowing down. He shouted for them to follow him and bring the medic along as soon as he got there. He grazed a pipe with his head, but he ignored the ringing in his ears. When he finally burst into the pod chamber and assessed the scene, he did not have to think long. Accessing the pod's diagnostics, if at all possible, would do no good. He was greeted by a biting acrid smell, emanating from a pool of acid slowly biting its way through the thick armour of the chamber's floor. Above, still suspended in the shock-absorbing net, was the pod. One of its sides had been corroded away by a thin trickle of acid. The ceiling of the chamber was a mess, it had probably been torn apart in the shock against the rock a few days earlier. Some strands in the net had been severed by the acid, exposing the pod's life support tubes to the acid's vapours. Their shielding had protected them for a while, but at least one was leaking amniotic fluid.

Tarellek felt a pang in his heart, seeing the state of the pod. He steeled himself, knowing this was a time for action. It was going to be a delicate and dangerous operation because of the acid, so he needed all his wits. They had to lower the pod onto a support to avoid it from bathing in the acid pool, and they had to do it wearing protective suits. Those things were heavily shielded against everything from radiation to just about every corrosive element known to man. As a result, you almost had to be a weightlifter just to move in them, much less unhinge a pod from its shock net. After twenty of the most intense and tiring minutes of his life, they had managed to bring the battered pod safely into an adjoining room of the bridge. While he was helped out of his suit, the rest of his team cut the pod open. The access hatch had been completely welded into the hull by the acid. Eventually they succeeded in getting Alea out, and she was transported to the ship's medical bay. According to Jelln, their chief medic, the pod's fail safes had worked well and she had only suffered a slight intoxication. While that was good news, his own troubles only worsened all the same. The pod chamber looked like it came back from a holocaust, the neural interfaces were useless, as were the pod's support systems, and he still had to find out which systems had leaked all that acid.

They were done for. He tried not to show his gloomy thoughts to the rest of the crew, who were relieved that Alea was alright and would be up and kicking in just a day. Part of him was relieved too, but he saw the big picture. Ships did not have spare pods - in their arrogance, the builders had assumed that if a pod got destroyed, the rest of the ship was done for anyway. He silently cursed them all, and slammed his fist into the wall. The pain helped for a few seconds, but his thoughts would not let go. Without a pod and its neural interface to the ship there was no way they would be able to get anywhere. The ship was going to outlive them all in this godforsaken place, they were going to be a marvel for future archaeologists.

Thalea must have sensed his disarray - she came over to him and took his hand in hers. He squeezed it, and looked in her eyes. He saw an unshakable trust in them, an unrelenting confidence in him. She kissed him lightly, and left the bridge. He knew complaining would not bring him the solution he needed, and that he would just have to do what he's best at - fixing things. During the wait for Alea to recover, he assembled his team to clean up the mess in the pod chamber and find an alternative way to connect her with the ship's neural interface. A second team was put to finding and restoring the systems that had leaked the acid. Tarellek saw now that the whole situation was the result of a design flaw - right above the pod chamber was the main array of conduits servicing the whole ship, including a number of potentially dangerous materials. Everything was properly shielded of course, but placing them above the pod chamber was definitely not a good idea.

They managed to salvage part of the controls from the pod, but even if they succeeded in restoring the connectivity, they would not be able to place Alea into the vital amniotic fluid. Through the pod's built-in monitoring systems, it delivered all the complex compounds she needed to sustain the connection to the ship. Among those were the vital synaptic enhancements without which she would probably have trouble getting anything to work at all. He rubbed his temples, and focused his eyes back on the pod schematics.

Chapter 6: "Calm after the storm"

The next day, Alea came down to the engineering workshop with her bodyguard. She was still pale and looked pretty much as battered as the remnants of the pod cluttered in a corner. She winced audibly at the sight, but her eyes still had the same fire he knew. Tarellek's team got up and left the room. She nodded to them, and slowly sat down on a bench in front of him. By law, a pilot was never to be in a room with more than 2 crew members at a time. It was part of a number of security measures that were put in place after several attempts on the life of pilots some years back. The same measure furthermore dictated that they had to be protected by at least one officially trained and acknowledged bodyguard. Tarellek did not know the man much, there was no need. He was a killing machine, and that was all anybody ever needed to know about him.

„What's our status, Tarellek?”  she asked softly.

The medics had briefed her on the whole incident, so now she needed to know what the consequences would be for her and her ship. He had planned to ask her how she felt, but by initiating the dialogue she did not give him the opportunity. He composed himself, and replied carefully „Not very good, I'm afraid. As you probably saw when you came in, the pod was damaged beyond repair. We are working on an alternate way for you to interface with the ship, but we did not have much luck so far.”  She looked at the pod again, and he could feel her pain. Suddenly she tensed, seeming to be fighting off her emotions. He kept quiet and waited patiently until she had mastered her internal struggle and turned to look back at him.

„Thank you, Tarellek. I know you are doing your best.”  „I am keeping you from your work.”  she added a few seconds later, and swiftly rose from the bench. „Will you be alright?”  he ventured. To his surprise, she smiled. „I think you already know I will, but I appreciate your asking.” 

Theoretically, every pilot knows that being severed from the connection with his ship is more painful than withdrawal from the hardest drugs. Under some conditions, it can even be deadly. Alea knew this and had some time to prepare mentally, but her connection to the Anthea was over twenty years old. As far as Tarellek knew, no other pilot so far had ever had a connection that long to a single ship. She was in for a very bad time, and theory can not prepare for that. On a station, a pilot usually does not leave his pod for longer than a day, and for longer stays they use portable synaptic simulators. A ship did not need these installations, so ironically she was now farther from the ship than if she were on a station. It did not suffice that he had to figure out how to build that interface, he had to do it before Alea went mad.

Three days later, Tarellek realized he needed some rest. He was exhausted from lack of sleep, and the effects of the stress from the whole week was hitting him with a vengeance. They had made progress with the interfacing, but they had been forced to dismantle the backup navigational system for spare parts. The main system was fully operational, but if that failed they would be in trouble. They were in trouble all the same, so the consensus was that they had to take the risk. His team told him they could handle the current work and sent him to get some rest. Worked up as he was, he would not be able to sleep, so he decided to go down to the lower crew lounge to relax and prepare for some serious pillow-crushing. In the lounge's silence, the throbbing in his head seemed to fill the whole room. It took him the better part of an hour to calm down, improving the throbbing imperceptibly. He was so taken in meditation that he jumped up when a shadow suddenly sat down on the couch beside him.

He had expected it to be Thalea, so seeing Alea sitting there robbed him of his wits. He put on an awkward smile for the sake of appearance. She smiled back, and looking at her, he realized that the withdrawal had started in earnest. She was more frail than ever, and a constant shiver went through her body. He wanted to ask her what she was doing down here, especially since a quick look around confirmed that her bodyguard was not present - but something told him that was not the right question to ask. He sat back down, and looked out at the rocks.

„I have not been down here in twenty years, you know” , she said after a short while. „I come here all the time”  he replied awkwardly. „I know... It is strange to be a passenger on my own ship.”  „This is strange in every way.”  You being here most of all. In my haven of peace. „She's such a fine ship, and I don't even know her”  she said, her voice melancholy. „Yet you know her in a way I never will.”  „Yes, I miss her so much already...”  she said, her voice trailing off.

He had no answer to that. In fact, he could barely believe this was happening. Here he was, a mere chief engineer, having a real conversation with his ship's pilot. He enjoyed it, of course, but it also made him very uncomfortable. He could not deny that this woman defined his life, and that what he felt for her went way beyond the casual comradeship he displayed. All kinds of warnings were popping up in his thoughts, and he was lucid enough to know he was not thinking straight. He direly needed some sleep.

„I will let you enjoy the view, I really have to get some sleep.”  he said, starting to rise. „Take me with you”  she pleaded softly, taking hold of his right hand.

Had he had all his wits, this statement would probably have killed him on the spot. Now he looked down at her hand holding his and into those incredible eyes, and knew no matter how clever his reasoning he would end up doing it anyway. He silently helped her up, and she did not let go until they were in his quarters. As usual, a clutter of miscellaneous appliances was spread all over the room, but neither of them cared. He lay down in his bunk and moved back against the wall. She joined him, and huddled up against his chest. He lay his arm over her, and in a matter of minutes they both fell asleep. A while later, the door opened and a slightly bewildered bodyguard checked in on them, then took his position outside Tarellek's quarters.

Chapter 7: "Fixing things"

When he woke up, she was gone. He was not sure what he should have expected, but he still felt betrayed in a way. It was childish, of course. Who was he to expect anything from a pilot? She had needed the comfort, and their peculiar bond had brought her to him in her disarray. He had felt better than he had in a long time when she was there next to him, but as much as he now wanted more, he also knew those feelings would only cause trouble. He had always been good at controlling his feelings, but this would be a hard test for that control. What would he do when he saw her again? In essence, nothing had changed. He had helped a friend in need and that's all it was. It was a cheesy but simple answer to the question, and he forcibly ignored the underlying complexity. He changed clothes, noticing he had not changed them in a while. On second thought, he took a much needed shower. Oh well, engineers had a reputation of being stinking, greasy bears anyway he thought, suddenly reminded of Alea huddled against him that night.

On his way to the engineering workshop, he was satisfied the throbbing in his head had almost gone. Even if he was not exactly in the best of shapes yet, the night and shower had done wonders. He avoided thinking of Alea, keeping his wits together was vital now. His team had managed to decrypt the rest of the navigational data flow, which was a big step towards building a new interface - at least for navigation. Ship engineers have very limited knowledge of the connectivity between a pilot and his pod and the ship's systems - there is simply no need. This meant that on top of recreating the physical interface, they had to rebuild the software layer too. He told his team to get some rest, and stayed on his own to think about possible implementations.

A few hours later when the first came back from their short sleep, he was not much further to finding a practical solution. He knew they would eventually be able restore the physical and software connections to the ship, but it had to be done with a minimum of comfort for the pilot, and not differ too much from the existing connections. He went through a lot of exotic and silly ideas until he realized he was going strictly nowhere. He needed someone to talk this through with, and preferably not an engineer. He went up to the bridge, and found Thalea in her command console.

„What are you doing in there?”  he asked, peeking into the console. „Not much” , she said just a little too quickly. „Are you toying around with the guns again?”  „No” , she replied with a big smirk on her face. „Whatever, I don't think I really want to know.”  „Did you need something?”  she asked, climbing out of the console. „Uh- yes, actually I need to talk to someone who is not an engineer.”  „And I qualify how?”  she asked, in a tone that was clearly a challenge. „Well, I figured that a trigger-happy weapons spec-”  „Hey! I'm not... ...yes, actually I am. So what did you want to talk about?”  „It's about building a replacement system for Alea's pod - it has to be comfortable, and be near to the existing connectivity. I only came up with stupid solutions so far.”  „Engineer's block?”  she asked, grinning. „I guess you could call it that.”  „Why don't you use one of our command consoles?”  she said. „She can lie down in there, they are comfortable enough.” 

Impulsively, he kissed her. How could he have been so bloody dumb? Of course, a command console. The bridge had eight of them, filled during flight with ranking crew members to monitor key systems - like himself for engineering or Thalea for weaponry. These consoles are made up of a comfortable seat that automatically adapts to your morphology and transforms into a horizontal cocoon during flight, its roof being fitted with an array of screens and controls. They could transform one of the less important consoles for Alea - like the now useless shield management console - and use the extensive existing connectivity to set up her interface.

His team also liked the idea, and they split up to work in parallel on adapting the shields management console into the new command chair for Alea and decrypting the rest of the data flows. The next few days, things worked out pretty well. Their simulations with the navigation and module controls were working flawlessly, so the console would soon be ready for the first tests. During a short pause, he inevitably thought back to that night with Alea. He had not seen her since then, and suddenly realized that three days had already passed. He could only imagine how she must feel right now. The medics had set her up in her honorary quarters - pilots very rarely ever spend time on board their ship out of their pod, but nevertheless some luxurious quarters are reserved for them. They are sometimes used for important conferences, but Tarellek had not heard of any pilot ever actually spending a night in one. He hoped she had not gone mad already, and cursed himself for not asking how she was doing.

He went back to his quarters for a few hours of agitated sleep, and gave up after waking up sweaty as if he had just ran a marathon. He hopped into the shower, which was always good, but it did not help much. His heart was pounding, and his head throbbing. The worst thing was, he knew why. Sleep depravation he knew how to cope with, this was different - there was more, beyond the stress of the past week. He had always been good at controlling his feelings, but he had also always had an outlet for them. He had ignored what he had felt with Alea, and now his feelings were coming back with a vengeance, topped with guilt for not keeping in touch afterwards. He was going to have to do something, but he had no clue what. Great, as if he did not have enough problems he thought, and went to the door. At that very moment, the door opened by itself and his heart missed a few beats as Alea's bodyguard appeared in it.

The man was sporting a puzzled frown. He was obviously struggling with something that he was not used to. At least he did not come to kill him Tarellek thought. He looked past him, expecting to find Alea there - but the corridor was empty.

„Alea Zatar needs to see you. Follow me.”  he said, and started walking down the corridor.

Arguing with pilot bodyguards is notoriously futile, so Tarellek docilely followed him to the deck shuttle. These pilot bodyguards are a curious bunch, he thought. They were trained to blend in anywhere the pilot could go, prepared for any trouble that might come their way. They usually never left the pilot's side, and were terribly formal in all things - they had no names either. After several years in Alea's service, she seemed to have left her mark in his granite-solid conditioning though. Tarellek saw why he would be puzzled - he was simply used to serving someone who did not acknowledge his existence. The bodyguards were the pilot's shadows, their guardian angels. Except this pilot was talking to her shadow, even asking him to fetch the engineer she seemed to have a liking in, going so far as to craftily shaking him off to visit him. Tarellek understood his distress, and smiled at him. The man cast him a glance, but it obviously only added to his bewilderment.

When they got to Alea's quarters, the bodyguard took back his place near the door. Tarellek was greeted by the chief medic, Jelln. They knew each other well, engineers had a tendency to end up pretty often in the ship's infirmary.

„Good you could come, Tarellek. She has worsened a lot over the last two days, and I fear for her sanity. How far along are you with your project?”  he asked. Tarellek had always liked his rusty voice. „Our latest tests went well. If you think she can take it, I could set up a first live test in a few hours.”  „She gets weaker by the hour, so we need to act quickly. To be honest though, I don't really know what the best course of action would be right now. She did not want to discuss it any further.”  he said, his face troubled. „Oh.”  he said, not knowing what to say. „Is that what you called me for?”  „No, I did not call for you myself. She did.”  „I see.”  Tarellek replied. He had not taken her bodyguard's request literally, so he had assumed Jelln had sent for him. „Maybe she will be willing to discuss the next steps with her directly, I'll be back in med bay. I'm no darn shrink.”  „Thank you, Jelln.”  he answered absent-mindedly. Jelln eyed him dubiously for a few seconds, then purposefully walked down the corridor and disappeared into one of the many side-corridors.

After their night together, he did not know what to expect. What had it meant, anyway? He liked relationships to be simple, like the one he had with Thalea. Alea was a pilot, and in heavy withdrawal to boot... this was anything but simple. If he was at a loss to understand his own feelings right now, how was he supposed to help her? The bodyguard watched him struggle with himself, but gave no hint as to what he was thinking. Oh well he thought, stopped trying to understand anything and opened the door.

Alea was sitting on a luxurious red couch at the far end of the room, and looked up from the screen she was watching. She had worsened a lot, judging from her bony face she had lost a lot of weight. He had to disregard her physical condition however, it would not help if he looked shocked.

„Ah, Tarellek. I am glad you could come - care to join me for a drink?”  she asked, her voice as strong as ever. He was relieved - she seemed to be strong still. „I would love to”  he said, and went over to the couch. It was time for a little diplomacy.

Behind him, the bodyguard closed the door. She had prepared a platter with two glasses and a bottle of very expensive spiced wine. These were usually reserved for important meetings, adding to his discomfort. He should not be here - but he sat down anyway, her eyes locking with his.

„I am sorry”  she said. „What for?”  he asked, genuinely puzzled by the opening. „I should not have involved you. It seemed right at the moment...”  she answered, evidently meaning the night they spent together. „You should not be sorry for needing a friend.”  That much he truly believed in. „Thank you. I was hoping you'd say that.”  She handed him a glass of wine. „So what do I have to do to make you relax?”  she added after a few moments of silence.

He pondered his answer sipping a glass of wine, and decided he would be honest. Anything less could only lead to further trouble. Honesty potentially could too, but then he could live with it at least.

„Why did you come to see me that night?”  he asked. „I needed the company.”  she said, looking into her glass of wine. She had not taken a single sip of it so far.

This was going to be difficult, he thought. She did not want to commit to anything - yet -, if he wanted this conversation to go anywhere, he would have to start doing some committing himself first.

„When I held you that night, I thought about these past years working together - your giving me more responsibilities on the ship, taking me along to social events. I never really understood why, but now I think I do”  he said, and looked at her. She continued to stare into her glass, then took a deep sip and said „I did not know why myself until then. Hell, I still don't” , then emptied her glass. She was shaking badly, so impulsively he moved up right next to her and put his arms around her. She rested her head on his chest. „I think we both know, but are still too scared to do anything about it.”  „I am scared”  she said, „Scared to go back in a pod, of shutting the world off again.”  „Then we will have to make sure that does not happen.”  he simply said. Now that was something he could do, something he was good at. Fixing things.

Chapter 8: "Out-of-pod experiences"

One could say that pilots are the most fearless beings to roam the void without hitting too far off the mark. Space is an intrinsically hostile place, but as if that was not enough it is frequented by dangerous individuals ranging from pirates to slavers. A capsuleer's training and conditioning has no equal, and is designed from the ground up to make them as infallible as a human being can be. No amount of training can remove fear entirely however, and short of surgically disabling one's rostral anterior cingulate cortex there is nothing even pilots can do about it.

Alea Zatar knew there was nothing rational about her fear to go back into a pod. She knew she was in withdrawal, that her fear was most likely a result of having been stuck in her own pod. Her training had given her ways to diagnose and heal her own psyche, but she was at a loss to explain her fear. She needed to confront the source of the fear, and as long as she would not be able to find it she would not function properly. Tarellek was waiting for her on the bridge with his team for the first tests of the new neuronal interface they had set up for her, and she was frozen solid right behind the door of her quarters. She sensed a vague of irritation coming up, risking to break her already fragile composure. She slammed the door open, and went straight for the combat simulation room with a startled bodyguard following at a safe distance.

Tarellek had double-checked all connections, and was satisfied to see that all of their tests went through without a single glitch. He was proud of his team, what they had done so far was no small feat. There would naturally be issues at first, but he was confident that they would resolve anything that came up. They were all eager to start with the live test, and the wait was beginning to stretch. He opened a comm channel to Alea.

„Yes?”  he heard a male voice say tentatively. Tarellek recognized it as Alea's bodyguard's. „Is everything alright?”  he asked, alarmed. „I'm not sure... Alea Zatar is in the combat simulator, and I think -”  he said. „- yes, she just pulverized two level four gistior operatives”  he added after a short pause in an awed voice. „You don't say”  Tarellek replied, trying to find a logical explanation to this turn of events. „I have never seen anything like this.”  the bodyguard said, and seemed to be having a really good time now. „Uh, take your time. We'll be here when you are ready”  Tarellek said, convinced that the man had not even heard him, and terminated the call.

He felt that a number of eyes were on him, so he told his team that something had come up that Alea had to deal with, but that it should not be long - at least he hoped it would not. What was she doing? And at level four simulation? Tarellek had trained in the simulator too of course during his engineering studies - every crew member had to be proficient at hand-to-hand combat, mostly for hostile takeover scenarios. Even so, he had never gone beyond level three - from that level onwards, physical pain is added to the simulation to make it more realistic. It is all absolutely safe of course, but you can still collect some nice bruises if you do not know what you are doing. On level five, the simulator will only stop at "bone integrity" and life-threatening wounds.

She came to the bridge a little less than half an hour later, followed by a bodyguard with something close to adulation in his eyes. She was back to her ever-calm self, and he wondered how she had managed to keep that control before when she was in her pod.

Alea lay in the console her eyes closed, a finger resting on the activation switch. It seemed like everyone was holding their breaths. Tarellek's whole team and three medics including Jelln were there, the rule of a maximum of two persons forgotten for the occasion. Alea's bodyguard stood right beside the console, alert as ever but without the usual sneer. Alea flipped the switch, and at first nothing seemed to happen - but her face contorted in concentration. The engines eventually hummed to life, and the ship began to pick up a bit of speed. Tarellek's team cheered at the success, but he could not rejoice yet. He could see that she was straining to keep control, and could certainly not sustain the connection for very long. As if to confirm his fears, the port laser turrets bank suddenly activated and blasted a hole into the tunnel right beside them, sending a clatter of small debris to impact the armour. The ship stopped, and Alea flipped the switch. She was sweating, but to the surprise of everybody she started laughing.

„That was fun”  she said, sounding elated. „You mean you shot those rocks on purpose?”  Tarellek asked. „Yes and no - I was aiming further aft”  she answered with a smile, and added „This will take some getting used to.” 

He knew that was an understatement. Alea's bodyguard cleared the room until only Tarellek and Jelln were left, and relaxed noticeably afterwards. Tarellek was relieved, and shared Alea's joy. He would have loved to linger on these positive thoughts, but he could not go against his ever-worrying self. There was always something wrong, always. He knew this was not enough to get them out of trouble, and he automatically assumed it was up to him to fix the situation. He realized Alea was looking at him, and managed to give her an authentic smile. She smiled back, but he saw in her eyes that she was thinking the same. He turned to Jelln, whom he had asked to give some thought to the drug delivery system of the pod, and how they could replicate it. Jelln nodded, and turned to Alea for his explanation.

„As far as our documentation on the pod's drug delivery system goes, it seems that there is a dedicated subsystem that dynamically adapts the composition of the amniotic fluid to match the needs of the pilot. If we can access that subsystem, we will have enough information to make an alternate delivery system by direct injection.”  „We should be able to isolate those controls”  Tarellek said, remembering having seen that part of the circuitry when they disassembled the pod. „It could be dangerous, as the delivery system via the amniotic fluid is a lot slower than direct injection”  Jelln explained clinically like something he said every day. „Surely we can compensate for that” , Tarellek said. „I hope so”  Jelln replied, nodding to Alea and retiring from the room.

Alea reactivated the connection before Tarellek could say anything else. She was obviously really happy to be reunited with the ship, even if the connection was strenuous at best. Her face displayed a myriad of emotions, ranging from joy to pain from straining to keep the connection up. He watched her for a while, then left her with her bodyguard and went back to the workshop. Jelln's idea was good, and he got his team working on isolating the relevant subsystems right away. The tiredness was gone with the successful tests, hope had been restored and now fuelled them to go on. Tarellek wanted to feel that simple hope as they did, but he was cursed with seeing the big picture. He had to fight his negative side nevertheless to avoid becoming bitter, so he concentrated on the task at hand - that always helped.

Deciphering the drug delivery system proved a bigger task than they hand anticipated - they ended up taking a full week before they were ready to run the first simulations. The system was incredibly complex, forcing them to review some of the existing connectivity to improve the vitals monitoring capabilities. There was a total of just over thirty drugs that could be present in the amniotic fluid at a given time, and balancing these out would prove vital. In the meantime Alea had continued training relentlessly, and had improved considerably. She was now able to sustain a connection for an hour at a time with three-hour pauses in between. Jelln was not happy with her going on like that, but there was nothing he could do to stop her. Tarellek thought it was good for her, it kept her focused - and they had already made some progress in the tunnel during the week.

That night, Tarellek awoke when he heard the door of his quarters open - it was Thalea. She quietly approached his bunk, and slipped in next to him. It had been a while since they had met in this fashion, and he was genuinely happy to see her.

„Where have you been?”  he asked. „Here and there”  she said, and deftly removed her shirt. „Fine, don't tell me.”  he replied, watching her appraisingly. „So how is she?”  she asked, kissing him in the neck. „Better, if you mean Alea”  „And you guys are serious?”  she asked, kissing him soundly. „I have no idea.”  he replied in between kisses. „Honestly?”  she asked, taken aback by his frank answer. „There is something, but neither of us is ready to commit to anything.”  „Bah, you are both too clever for your own good.”  „I guess there is truth in that.”  „You bet there is. Don't you wish it could be as simple with her as this?”  she said, throwing her pants into the room in a high arc. „Oh, shut up already.”  he said, and rolled on top of her.

Tarellek awoke later in the night, Thalea's warm frame huddled against him. How she always managed to show up when he needed her eluded him totally. Even when he did not think about her, she would simply pop up and be there. Could there be more to it than what he saw? Could it be more complex underneath yet again? Of course it was, it always is - but sometimes you really do not need to know. He could not handle it anyway, so he relegated their relationship to what it seemed on the surface. No ripples now please he thought, and slipped back into a dreamless sleep. The next morning when he opened his eyes, Thalea was already awake, and looking at him.

„Morning”  she said, smiling. He just smiled back, and rubbed his eyes. „This was the last time we did this, wasn't it?”  she asked, matter-off-handedly. Except it was everything but.

Tarellek's brain kick started - for her, a lot hinged on what he would say. He considered stalling by asking her why, but they knew each other too well. He looked at her, dismayed. He realized then the question did not require an answer, as she had probably already made up her mind about it. He definitely did not want to lose her however, so he chose his words carefully.

„It was if you choose it to be.”  he said, and held her gaze. She averted her yes. „You know a part of me will always be yours, it's that simple - no ambiguity.”  he added. „I know. It's silly - I suppose I always wished there could be more after all.”  she said after a short pause. He had nothing useful to add to that. „Crap, don't listen to me. Just promise you'll keep a little spot for me.”  „Consider this spot yours”  he said, drawing a little square on his blanket with a finger. „You little...”  she said, but stopped for a kiss.

About two hours later, Tarellek was hiding out in the engine room. It was so loud and hot in there that nobody ventured in unless they absolutely had to. Interference from the powerful EM fields the engines generate also had the nice side effect of disabling all communications - hence he was entirely cut off to think, but he was not sure whether it was a good idea to think right now - he felt lost, and hated himself for it. He was used to handling "simple" relationships like the one he had with Thalea, not such a crossfire. It would be much better if he knew what he wanted, but his emotions were a tangled mess that even his engineering skills could not resolve. He was going nowhere with his thoughts as expected, so he let the numbing noise from the engines clear his synapses while he waited for the morning's appointment.

The live tests of the new drug administration system he designed with Jelln were up, and ironically after all they had been through so far, this would be the most decisive event of all. A large portion of the crew saw these tests as what would decide their fate, but he did not share that view. He had his own fatalistic surges, but he saw them more as a tool to release pressure than a real plan of events laid out in advance. As long as the ship and its pilot lived, he would be able to figure something out - he believed that as strongly as ever. He held on to that thought, and slowly made his way back to the bridge, taking the time he needed to switch back into his engineering only mode. When he entered the bridge, he was greeted by Jelln who was reviewing the new controls. They required that a medic be present at all times to monitor the system - awkward, but safe in case something went wrong.

„I have a bad feeling about this”  Jelln said, turning to look at him. His voice was rustier than usual, betraying his fatigue. „What's bothering you?”  „Everything works fine, but there is next to no room for errors”  „We can postpone, and add more tests to the simulations”  „No”  Jelln answered after a moment of consideration, then added „We are as ready as we can be given the circumstances. Delaying will not do us any good.”  „What exactly are you afraid of?”  Tarellek asked, tired of riddles. „We are meddling with something that we do not fully comprehend - I am way out of my league here.”  Jelln replied, rubbing his temples. „We all are out of our league, including Alea. And yet, we have come further than we dared believe at first - we have to go on.”  he said. „You are right, of course.”  „Do you have a plan for the test?”  „Yes, the first run I will do with only a small selection of drugs. I have selected a panel of compounds that pose no real threat, but should already help Alea substantially. Then we can add the resting drugs incrementally.”  „Did you brief Alea on this?”  „She was the one to propose doing it incrementally”  Jelln said, and turned back to the new med screen. Tarellek was a bit surprised Jelln would admit to this, but then he had always been a model of honesty. „Alright.” 

Jelln made some final adjustments, and by the time he was through Alea had joined them with her bodyguard. She was radiant, and gave him a smile that would have undone his fragile emotional balance had he not prepared himself. He smiled back, hoping his distress would not be too obvious - if it was, she did not show it. She was eager to start, and slid into the console. Tarellek fastened the regular controls to the connectors in her skull, then let Jelln affix the drug injection unit to the base of her neck. After a few tests of the regular controls, Alea stopped the ship. They had all agreed that testing the drugs while the ship was in motion was not a good idea - the strain to keep control would be too much if something did go wrong. Alea told them she was ready, and after a short moment of hesitation Jelln put the system online.

The effect was immediate - Alea gasped, went rigid and fainted. Jelln did not even have to cut off the injections himself, the fail safes rigged to the vitals monitoring cut the power automatically. This was familiar terrain for Jelln, who immediately got out his medical gear and made a quick checkup under the steely gaze of her bodyguard. Tarellek had seen how the man had tensed when the test went wrong, and was convinced he would gladly have torn apart whatever had caused this. In a way, the bodyguard's connection to his pilot was even stronger than the one he had, except his was one way only by design. Tarellek felt humbled in that moment, and nearly missed out on Jelln calling him to the console.

„She will come to in a few minutes, it is nothing serious”  Jelln said with evident relief. „What happened?”  Tarellek asked. „I cannot say for sure - I have yet to check out the details.” 

While Jelln was reviewing logs and diagnostics, Tarellek looked at Alea in her console, her bodyguard towering over her. Her connection to the ship partly restored, she had won back her former strength, and even now that she lay there unconscious she radiated power. As an engineer, Tarellek was pragmatism impersonated. He did not believe pilots were godly in any way; they were only gifted individuals bred and trained for a specific purpose. Alea shook this confidence somehow though, adding to the ever growing scrap heap that had taken residence in his thoughts and feelings. He started feeling a little dizzy, and his vision blurred for a second. Alea seemed to be beckoning to him, making him take a few steps towards the console. Suddenly, he knew what he had to do. He went to her right side, facing her bodyguard, and gently took her hand in his. Jelln was too taken by his readouts to notice, but her bodyguard deftly made an impossible jump over the console. The man lifted him off the ground with a firm grip on his neck as if Tarellek was a mere leaf of paper and slammed him against the wall. Touching a pilot without invitation was considered a capital offense, but Tarellek could not let go.

„Put him down”  Alea said in a whispered yet commanding tone.

Dismayed, the bodyguard instantly put Tarellek down; even if he did not agree he would never second-guess a command. Jelln turned around at the commotion, and was stunned by the scene. He looked back and forth between the bodyguard, Alea, Tarellek and the two hands locked together. It took him a while to gather his senses, then he quickly went over to the console.

„How do you feel?”  Jelln asked Alea. „Dizzy”  she answered in an already much steadier voice. „The dizziness should clear in a short while”  he said. „Do you have a workaround?”  she asked, her mind evidently not affected much by the blackout. „Errrm...”  Jelln muttered. He had probably expected a respite, but recovered quickly. „I went through the pod's old logs; it seems some of the drugs we left out of the current selection have to be combined at all times to counter some of the side effects”  he explained. „Do it”  she said in a tone that did not allow any discussion. She knew Jelln would object, as all the drugs they had omitted so far were dangerous.

The stress in the room was thick enough to cut slices in, only Tarellek was oblivious to it. The whole chain of events that led to his current position holding Alea's hand had not registered at all. He wondered why his throat was sore, but enjoyed the moment as much as he could. Alea's hand was warm and held his in a firm grip, as if she was afraid he would let it slip. With a soft tug, she pulled him down to her height and looked him in the eyes.

„You are right - I am not a god”  she whispered so no one else could hear, then softly added „I need you.” 

The immensity of what she just said struck him fully awake. She had clearly been in his thoughts. He had heard about this, it could only mean that she was one of the select few pilots with telepathic abilities. He tried to dismiss the idea, but she had been explicit. He had never mentioned her being a god in words... In trusting him with this information, she had put her life in his hands. Telepathy was an alleged possible side product of capsuleer training, and strictly controlled by all empires. Telepathic pilots were not allowed independent careers for obvious security reasons. If he were to report this, her privateering career would be over. So this was how she had chosen to commit to him - and now it was his turn. He felt no hesitation - there would never be any. He simply nodded in recognition and squeezed her hand a little harder.

Chapter 9: "A goddess rises"

Jelln had apparently given up trying to understand anything of what was going on, and concentrated on the mix of drugs for the next test. Alea's bodyguard had resumed his place on the console's left side, his expression close to sulking. Seconds crawled by as Jelln worked, giving Tarellek time to think. He was fed up of thinking, preferring the times he could concentrate on the tasks he knew how to do well. The only thinking he needed then was putting together a virtual story board of the steps required to finish his work. Even so, he would not trade his current position for anything. He was living his childhood dreams: Here he was, a mere engineer, in the midst of adventure spiced with combat, exploration and romance... Putting things further into perspective, he marvelled at how human nature, through feelings and interaction could create complex situations that are virtually impossible to solve.

His reverie was interrupted by Jelln, who was ready for the test. Alea was ready too, and this time Jelln put the system online without hesitation. Tarellek sensed Alea's hand tense and relax again, then the ship's thrusters came to life. She activated and deactivated a few of the modules, and ventured some navigational manoeuvres.

„Her vitals are stable so far” , Jelln said without a smile, not ready to rejoice yet.

After another fifteen minutes, the mood on the bridge had improved considerably. Even Jelln had lightened up, and was reviewing the med console with a satisfied half-smile. Tarellek followed Alea's progress through the faint movements of her body and the slight squeezes of her hand. He wondered if she was reading his mind right now, but chances were that she was too concentrated on handling the ship. After another twenty minutes, she stopped the ship and they disconnected her from the console. Tarellek was dismayed at letting her hand go, he had gotten used to the touch - but she smiled at him, and he helped her climb out.

„How do you feel?”  Jelln asked her, checking her visual reflexes. „A little strange. Some of the controls were much easier to handle, some harder” , she explained. „I still did not use the full panel of compounds, hopefully the next tests will help alleviate that” , Jelln added, genuinely happy now. „Let's do that later, I need some rest” , she said, and waited for Jelln to finish his checkup. „Coming?”  she asked, looking at Tarellek on her way out.

He was a little taken aback by the sudden familiarity, but would not let that stand in his way. As she took him down to the lower crew lounge, he suddenly knew she was not done surprising him. He had expected her to go back to her quarters, not a "public" place like this. Unsurprisingly the lounge was deserted, and she let herself fall down into one of the comfortable couches facing one of the large view ports. Tarellek joined her, and took a peek outside. The scenery had not changed much - the rock formations were still there, bathed in the thick crystalline dust. The powerful projectors could not pierce beyond the first rocks, and even though the tunnel itself was several hundred feet wide one had better not be claustrophobic.

„I thought you might be able to relax a bit better down here” , she said. „My adrenaline levels will take a while to return to normal”  he replied, doing his best not to think. „About that”  she said, then continued „We have gone through crazy days, and I do not expect you or anyone else to recover that easily.”  „As I said, I need you”  she said, and put one hand on his left cheek, gently turning his head to look at him. „You have to keep your wits together”  she went on, „So I would like to forego a number of issues that may crop up”  she finished firmly. „Uh -”  he managed to say, and braced himself for some more surprises. „I like what we have, and do not want it to stop. I do not have a problem with the crew knowing about us, nor anyone else for that matter. I will not read your thoughts unless you want me to. Thalea needs you as much as you need her - please do not change anything to your relationship, I fully understand and support it”  she said, then concluded „Oh, and my bodyguard's name is Tiarell” , causing a resigned sigh from the big muscular shape near the bulkhead.

The full implications of what she had said sank in, and he asked himself how this woman could be anything else than a deity. With a few words, she had effectively robbed him of all the issues that made him so miserable. He looked deep into her eyes, and his whole life suddenly took on a different meaning. Now he understood why she had insisted on meeting him in person when she recruited him: she needed people she could trust, and with her telepathic abilities she had felt him out to the core. Since then, she had seen the feelings he had for her before he even knew they existed. At the same time, she had fallen for him herself - but only the current circumstances allowed them both to realize how much they needed each other. He remembered her touch that night when she spent the night in his bunk, how much it had confused him. He knew why now, and felt strangely fulfilled. She nodded, showing she had read his thoughts. He had wanted her to, and had opened his thoughts - he needed her to see their relationship through his eyes. A detail still nagged him, however.

„Tiarell?”  he asked, „I thought bodyguards do not have names?”  „Oh, they don't. I just always called him that”  she said with a smirk. „I think you confuse that poor man”  he said with a big smile. „So are you going to kiss me?”  she asked. „Are you for real?”  he countered, completely bluffed. „Why don't you come find out?”  she asked back, and kissed him before he could muster any response. His mind reeled at what her touch represented - in many aspects she was a god, kissing a mere mortal. He pointedly brushed the thought aside and concentrated on her lips instead.

They spent the rest of the evening in the lounge, reviewing their time together, singling out those moments where both or one of them had felt that there was something special. They even played some pool, but she was just way too good - her navigational training made her next to unbeatable in calculating trajectories. Tiarell was watching the proceedings with a constant frown, and Tarellek could only imagine what he must be thinking. On an impulse, he went over to the bulkhead, and looked up to Tiarell. The man was at least a head taller than him, and seemed twice as large. He looked down at him, and cocked one eyebrow. Tarellek simply extended his hand. Tiarell looked at it, and after a short pause shook it with an iron grip.

„How's your throat?”  Tiarell asked. „Oh, that was you?”  Tarellek wondered aloud, then added, „Fine, actually.”  „This changes nothing. I will still kill you if need be”  he said, his voice level as always. „I wouldn't want it any other way”  he replied. Tiarell nodded in agreement.

Tarellek went back to Alea, but did not sit down. He went over to the view port and leaned his forehead against the cool glassy surface. Freed of his troubles, his mind could once more wander into the future; back to the tunnel. He turned to ask Alea what she made of it, but she had fallen asleep. He fetched a blanket from the lounge storage room, and covered her with it. The room was not particularly cold, but not warm enough either if you did not move at all. The upper crew lounge was warmer; power distribution throughout the ship was always optimised according to the general use of an area. He sat down beside her, and confident that she was well he went back to his contemplation of their future.

He was confident that Alea would be able to master the new controls of the ship - after all, she had already been able to control it pretty well without the help of the drugs. Now that this system was operational too, they would be able to resume their journey. Strangely enough he was not afraid of what awaited them - after what he had been through and with the help of his new-found inner peace he felt that nothing could shake him. Before, he would have given his life willingly to save the ship and its pilot - but now more than ever he had something to fight for that transcended all else. If he had to call upon his rage now, it would be fuelled by more than duty or beliefs. And right there was the main flaw of the current pilot-crew relationship: there simply was none. By design, crew members were fuelled by pay, training and carefully instigated adulation. Tarellek knew he was more than a regular crew member now, willing to do more if it came to it. He had begun to see this in the Anthea's crew too - having the focus of their adulation actually walking amongst them was an incredible boost to morale.

Alea stirred beside him, and when he saw how pale she was, he automatically placed an emergency call to Jelln. The colour had completely drained from her face, and now that he held her face in his hands he could see the thin trickle of blood that had come out of her right ear. Sitting to her left, he had not seen it until then, and started to panic. Jelln burst through the door only a couple minutes later - fortunately, he had not been far when Tarellek had called. He moved aside, and let Jelln look at her. Jelln's grave expression did not bode well, and after some additional checks, he had her moved to the med bay. Tarellek did not interfere, he knew there was nothing he could do - and bothering Jelln with stupid questions would not help anyone. He controlled his fear and simply stood by her, holding her hand as long as Jelln let him. In the end, Tarellek had to wait outside and after an agonizing hour, Jelln finally emerged from the med bay.

„She is stable”  he said, and Tarellek could tell he was puzzled. „What happened?”  „We have no clue. Something made her body functions shut down, then all of a sudden they all normalized again.”  „Did the drugs cause that?”  „No, when this happened she was clean as a baby. The drugs we use are cleared out very quickly of the body.”  „She is in a deep sleep state now, but her synaptic activity is through the roof. If I did not know better, judging from her brainwave patters I would say she is telepathic.” 

Tarellek needed all his control not to show any surprise. He trusted Jelln, but this information was way too sensible to hinge on professional trust alone. He chose not to comment, and waited for Jelln to go on.

„There is nothing more we can do - we have to give her some time to fight it out.”  „Can I see her?”  „Go ahead, I am sure she would want you to”  Jelln answered with a furtive glance to Tiarell, who stood by the med bay entrance.

The bodyguard shifted aside slightly to let Tarellek through. He went over to her, and took her hand; it was still quite cold, and completely limp. Whatever was happening was clearly not under her control, so he gave her the only support he had: he opened his mind, and tried to send her his strength. He knew it was naive, even bordering on the stupid, but he figured that the effort in itself could be a comfort to her as much as to himself.

A whole week later, morale was as low as it could get. Alea had regained some colours, but her state was otherwise unchanged. Her synaptic activity had gone up a notch again, worrying Jelln. That morning, Tarellek was back at her side when he came to see him. He studied the readouts of the med console for a while, then came to the other side of Alea's bed.

„If she goes on like that, she will start burning her synapses. I have never seen neuronal activity of this magnitude, and fear she may already have gone too far.”  „If only I knew what she is doing”  „She is almost using her brain's maximum theoretical capacity now, and once again I am out of my league.” 

They both watched her silently for a long time, and after checking her vitals again Jelln left him alone with her again. He was convinced that Jelln was right, her telepathic abilities had to be playing a role in this. He could not fathom what was going on however, and was too worn out to go on theorizing. He dozed off lightly, and awoke sometime later not knowing what had wakened him. Something was different - he checked on Alea, but her condition seemed unchanged. Then he noticed Tiarell standing wide-eyed in the doorway, and it dawned on him. The ship was moving! It was the humming of the engines, the faint shiver from the initial acceleration must have wakened him. What the hell was going on? Jelln burst into the room, brushing past Tiarell.

„What the blazes is going on?”  he shouted, and slid over to the med console. „You are asking ME?”  Tarellek replied, wildly trying to understand who was piloting the ship.

Jelln shrugged his protest off, and studied the readouts. They were picking up speed, and Tarellek's duties cam rushing back to him - he had to get to his console, and stop the ship before they rammed full speed into the unyielding rocks out there. He rose, but the limp hand he still held suddenly gripped him and held him back. He looked at Alea, stunned. She was trying to say something, but gave up at the obvious strain. She just looked at him with a rare intensity.

„Keep your strength”  he said, then added „I will stay here.” 

Jelln turned around, not understanding the meaning of the phrase. Then he saw that Alea had her eyes open, and collapsed on the floor, bursting into tears. This had all been too much for him. To Tarellek's surprise, Tiarell went over to Jelln and laid his arm around him. His eyes locked with Tarellek, and he nodded - his only concern right now should be Alea. He turned back to her, squeezing her hand. She closed her eyes again, and her whole body started to tense. He thought she would crush his hand as she tensed even more, then finally collapsed with a big sigh.

About five minutes later, her eyes opened and she smiled at him. Their hands were still locked, and she gave his a faint squeeze. The ship slowed down again, and the humming of the engines died again.

„Remind me not to do that every day”  she croaked, and was surprised by her own voice. „Do what exactly?”  he asked, but she was gone again.

Jelln recovered, and was relieved but completely worn out. He checked Alea's vitals again, and Tarellek sent him to get some rest after giving him a report. Her synaptic activity was still very high, but not dangerous anymore - she was asleep, and would need at least a week's rest before her body recovered from the strain. Incapable of getting even a semblance of order into his mind, he made himself comfortable in the chair beside her bed and tried to get some sleep himself. Surprisingly, Thalea came to see him during the night. No words were spoken, she simply came to check on them and disappeared back into the empty corridors after a refreshing smile. As always, she had come exactly when he needed her. These were the people he loved; the people he lived for. He dozed off into a light sleep, and was wakened the next morning by Tiarell. Alea was awake, and sitting upright in her bed. Tiarell must have helped her into that position, as she certainly did not look like the was up to the task on her own. Her shoulders were saggy, and she had trouble keeping straight. Considering the effort, he wisely decided not to tell her that she should lie back down.

„When we were in the lounge”  she started in a wavering voice, then seemed to summon strength from who knows where and continued in a much steadier voice, „I dreamed. It was about when I was in the pod, just before I lost consciousness that day you saved me.” 

Tarellek remembered all too well, and relived the moment in a flash with new feelings added to it.

„Can you remember that I stopped the ship?”  she asked. „Thalea told me about it, yes.”  he replied, not sure where she was going. „The connections to the ship were already severed”  she said.

While he struggled with the idea, it made perfect sense. She was telepathic after all, so what was there to keep her from using her telepathy to connect with the ship? He was an engineer - he was used to electronic devices that transmitted wireless data, even via subspace - but this? Seeing he understood what she meant, she went on.

„When I realized what that meant, it hit me full strength. It was like doors opened everywhere in my mind, and data from the ship's systems began to overwhelm me. It took me the whole week to make sense of it all”  she explained. „Are you still connected right now?”  he asked. „It's a mind link, Tarellek. You cannot undo something like that”  she answered. „I have been controlling parts of the ship via telepathy for years without noticing. That's why I had trouble with some of the controls of your new system - I used the controls instead of telepathy.”  she explained. „So telepathic control is easier for you?”  he asked, dumbfounded.

The lights in the med bay dimmed, and several screens came to life. The robotic surgery arm in the next room moved, then the lights came back to normal and the screen died again.

„It's not only easier - I have access to every system on the ship” , she said.

Chapter 10: "Tunnel dwellers"

Tarellek was awestruck. Only five days after her impressive revelation, Alea was back up on her feet, exploring the ship with him and piloting at the same time. While he understood how it worked, it still felt unnatural. She would stop ever so often to bring her full attention to the ship, and he did not like how vulnerable she was then. Tiarell did not like it either, the man was constantly on edge since she had decided to go on a ship visiting tour. Even so, Alea had already improved her control considerably already. He was convinced she would soon be able to pilot the ship in her sleep. The news spread like wildfire amongst the crew of course, and encounters with people kneeling on her passage were common. Some brought gifts to her quarters, and some even came to him to bless them. As much as everyone is capable of enjoying and even thriving in such power, Tarellek did not want any of it. Alea was used to this to some extent, as offerings were common - but they were never delivered in person. Just as on their ships, pilots avoid public contact and stick to themselves. As Tarellek recalled, Alea conducting crew reviews in person had been widely criticised at the time, but then nobody knew she is telepathic. She seemed to enjoy the newfound contact with her crew, but he could tell it made her a bit uncomfortable as well. He was glad Tiarell was there to keep everyone at a safe distance.

As wonderful as the situation may have seemed, he knew that Alea's newfound ability was as much a blessing as a curse. For instance, they would not be able to contain the information. Once they would be in communication range again or docked at a station, word of this would spread faster than the most expensive interceptor can warp. How would the Minmatar government react? And counterintelligence? He could already imagine numbers of officials, hired mercenaries and undercover agents chasing them. Alea's abilities could revolutionize the capsuleer world, so whoever had an interest in that world would be forced to take action, good or bad. Going back had the potential of precipitating large conflicts, with them right in the centre of it.

„What is on your mind?” , Alea asked him, and he realized he had stopped walking. „The future” , he replied honestly. „That is not set in stone” , she answered gently.

She knew the issues better than him, obviously. Once more she was leagues ahead of his thinking, and had probably even considered all the repercussions even before initiating the mind link. God only knows what she can do in her dreams, he thought. Realizing he was daydreaming, he cleared his mind. It was much easier now, and he concentrated on giving her an expert tour of the ship. Right after its christening in Balginia, she had visited the main areas from the engine room to the crew lounges and her honorary quarters, but she had been too eager to fly it to really appreciate it. Tarellek loved the ship: it was a marvel of technology, and he had a detailed map of its entire layout engraved in his mind. The Anthea was the first of its kind ever built, it was the very prototype that had come out of the Imperial Armaments shipyards. He knew about this because his brother Linel had been on the engineering team that restored it to its former glory when Alea had bought it, and because it had been a major news event.

As the story goes, Alea had done someone in the Imperial Armaments corporation a big service, and was rewarded with the prototype. At the time, it was not even flight capable anymore, as it had been partly salvaged for parts. She nevertheless took a liking in it, and he remembered the fuss the media made of her having the half-wreck towed the twenty-five jumps from Penirgman IV to Balginia for the repairs. She had engaged Amarr ship construction specialists, but wanted a Minmatar engineering team. The costs of the whole operation had been estimated at over half a billion ISK, but then the media was known for extrapolating. Tarellek would have loved to be part of the team, but he was still in engineering school then. It was in his graduation year that Alea had come to enlist him, just in time for the ship's "maiden" voyage. He wondered if his brother had anything to do with Alea's choice to hire him, he knew his brother would have given anything to join the crew himself. She stopped, and looked at him. Unwillingly, he had directed the question at her mentally.

„Without your brother, the Anthea would not have been the same” , she said. „I just remember that his work on the ship made him happy” , he answered, reliving fond memories. „He was a humble man with a great gift. You are a lot like him.”  „Did you choose me because of him?”  he asked, realizing he had never thought about that. She seemed to ponder his question for an instant, which was a little unusual. „In a way. I think he would have loved to tell me about you, but did not dare to. One evening, I overheard a conversation that made me curious. He was showing your annual ratings to one of his workers, who seemed impressed. When the project was nearing completion, I went to see him, and told him I was looking for a chief engineer to serve on the Ship.”  This came as a total surprise to him. „What did he say?”  She resumed walking, and he matched her pace. „He said he would consider his choice carefully. That very night he brought me an envelope, saying it contained his 'best and only choice'.”  Judging from the emotion he heard in her voice, it must have been an important moment for her. Something struck him as odd, though. „How did you know it was my annual rates he had shown to his co-worker?”  She turned her head to look him in the eyes. „They were in the envelope.” 

He was stunned. He had always been very close to his brother, sharing his eternal passion for engineering. Serving on a ship like the Anthea had been Linel's life's dream, so why had he sacrificed that for him? He had never really given it much thought until now. At the time, being hired on the Anthea was the paramount event in his life, it had overshadowed everything else. He silently cursed himself for being so blind, and his brother for not mentioning it. It was just like not telling him that he was sick. The moment he had gotten the message that Linel had passed away was another one of those memories forever engraved in his brain. He had been light years away on mission, and had not been able to attend the funeral. Only three years later had he been able to mourn in front of a dull, cheap and dusty memorial plate in Balginia's graveyard.

Maybe sensing his sudden melancholy, she softly added: „Linel's choice was easier than you may think - he recommended you without a hint of regret.”  „I don't understand” , he muttered, ashamed to have to learn these things from her. „He hid his failing health very well. He did not want anyone to share his pain, and giving you this opportunity freed him as much as it did you.”  As soon as she said it he was sure that she was right. He let his gaze drop to the floor. „He should have told me all the same. That's what family is there for” , he added sullenly, stopping and leaning his back against the corridor wall to order his thoughts. She stopped too, and leaned against the wall beside him. „I think he knew you had other things on your mind then. Do not judge him too harshly for that, I know he did it lovingly.”  For a while, he stared at the floor and he felt emptied. A few moments later, they silently resumed walking.

He had mourned his loss, but learning about how those paramount events in his life were connected to Linel reopened old wounds. They resumed their tour silently, and soon reached the engine room. She had insisted on visiting it, and he was glad for the change of scenery. Thinking was absolutely impossible in this noise, at least for him. Alea did not seem to mind much. He had chosen to take the scenic route through, a metal frame bridge suspended over the three engines and which crossed the whole room to connect with the aft walkway. The third engine was one of the Anthea's many enhancements over the regular Abaddon design: it could be started on demand for higher power needs. The engine room had been painfully transformed by Linel's engineering team to be able to fit that third behemoth: Alea had provided the design, thus creating more power slots for utility modules. It had taken the whole five years that were left in Tarellek's engineering studies to complete the ship's restoration and enhancements. Alea had chained freelance contracts in her Harbinger-class battlecruiser Aramea to pay for the ongoing work as well as her training in battleship warfare.

His studies had been some of his happiest years, diving head first into his passion and at the same time already living it through his brother's tales of Alea and the Anthea. The day he went on board to take up his duties as chief engineer, he already knew the ship in and out. In a very real way, he had not had a real home until he set foot on the Anthea. Linel had spent his last years working on it, maybe knowingly preparing him for what he had hoped would happen. The Anthea was his life, and now more than ever it was also his family on board. Yes, his brother had certainly had a hand in this. He had probably known from day one of his contract to restore the Anthea that it would be his last. From there, Linel had done all he could to make sure Tarellek would have a good life. What if Alea had chosen him because she had read Linel's mind? Did it matter? The noise from the engines finally broke through his thoughts, and he let it wash them away. They made him sad, and he took comfort in living on the Anthea, Linel's life's work. That was all that really mattered.

They emerged on the other side, but the sound of the engines stayed in their ears for a while even after Tarellek had closed the bulkhead. It always took a while to readjust, going in there without protection meant losing your hearing permanently. He took Alea to the aft scenic room, a small cubicle crammed between two of the ship's fourteen thruster tubes. The room had a view port and thick heat-shielding armour that allowed up to four persons to have a peek at the massive thrust exhausts. Tarellek had always sneered at the effort required for something so vain, but now he appreciated the romantic feeling, standing there hand in hand with Alea like in one of those cheap romantic movies.

„This is nice, actually” , she said, peeking out the view port. He peeked out himself, marvelling at the light show created by the thrust beams illuminating the crystalline dust. „Yes, it's a bit silly but I am enjoying this” , he said. „Wait - what is that?”  she burst out, suddenly spun around and let go of his hand. „Where?”  he asked, alarmed, but she already had that vacant look again.

The thrusters died, and he could tell from the vibrations in the hull that they were stopping hard. Obviously something was up, and he hated to be out of the loop. Tiarell on the other hand was stoic, as long as there was no visible threat to Alea there was not much that really bothered him. There was no time to go up to the bridge - he would have to find a console to find out what was going on. He looked around, and found an access panel to a console right there in the scenic room. After opening it, he saw that no one had bothered to really install one: the necessary wiring was there, with protective caps still on the end of the connectors. He knew there was a medical bay a few corridors down with a console he could use, so he broke into a run.

„Two small craft approaching” , Alea called to him just as he reached the door. „Hostiles?”  he urged, fearing some Angel scouts may have found them. „Let's go to the bridge” , she replied, but she still had that vacant look.

He guided her to the next deck shuttle while she was concentrating on the ship. Technically, she did not need to be anywhere near the bridge anymore, but he did. Even though she could control virtually every system on board, she could not do everything at the same time. She still needed help from the bridge, and part of him was glad to still have a purpose other than just the ongoing maintenance of the ship's systems. She was fully back with him in time to walk the rest of the way to the bridge. Thalea was in her console already, as was everybody else. He hopped into his, and they prepared for full battle stations. He flipped one of his screens to the navigation view, and saw the two small blips Alea had seen. From what he could tell, they had stopped some twenty kilometres further ahead in the tunnel.

Alea restarted the thrusters, and slowly approached the two small ships. As their sensor banks were blinded by the crystalline dust, they had to get within twenty kilometres at least to be able to get a reading. Hopefully the other ships were affected in the same way - their size was no danger to the ship, but if they were scouts they had to be able to intercept them. Eight kilometres out of sensor range, Alea brought them to full speed. Without shields to protect them from the odd protruding rocks, it was a dangerous gamble: the armour was not designed to protect from such impacts, so they risked crippling the ship for good. They needed the element of surprise though, and Tarellek saw that she was at her best. The ship tore through the tunnel, Alea expertly avoiding obstacles. When they were finally in sensor range, they were ready. Tarellek watched the navigational readouts waiting for ship identifications, but the ship type was not recognized. He peeked out of his console at Alea as the ship slowed down, and Thalea cast him a questioning glance, but he shrugged it off as he had no idea what was going on.

She had her eyes closed now, but finally opened them after a while. „Drones - and they seem not to mind our presence.”  „What are they doing?”  Thalea asked. „Let's find out” , Alea replied and kept the ship on course.

She took them slowly within a kilometre of the drones, close enough to have their camera drones look at the small craft. Everyone on the bridge was intently watching the camera feeds, except Alea who was probably watching the raw feeds directly. As one of the cameras rotated around the first drone, Tarellek saw why the drone had not been recognized - it was an assembly of salvaged parts, and looked like it had been patched up so often that nothing was left of the initial machine. The shape reminded him of a crab, two oversized arms and eight flexible legs with a flat, round body. It had wrapped its legs around a branch of one of the rock formations, and as they watched, it activated tractor beams on a neighbouring rock. Each arm apparently housed a powerful tractor beam, and as Tarellek wondered about their purpose, the drone loosened its legs somewhat, then gave a mighty heave. The neighbouring rock shifted a bit, and the drone deactivated its tractor beams. In a smooth movement, it jumped off the rock formation it had attached to and flew past them further back into the tunnel the way they had come.

„What was that about?”  he heard Thalea ask. „They are service drones, guaranteeing the tunnel's structural integrity” , Alea answered before Tarellek had come to any conclusion. It made perfect sense, and he could not help wondering at how quickly she had analysed the situation. In sudden insight, he added „Heaving rocks like that uses a lot of power - their base of operations can't be that far off.”  Alea nodded, but from her console Thalea sported a puzzled frown. „Uh - how do they manage to service the whole length of the tunnel then?”  She was right, they had limited range. „We are about to find out” , Alea said as all turrets suddenly came to life.

Tarellek looked at the navigation screen, and saw a vessel approaching that practically filled the whole tunnel. Alea was right, they were about to meet the tunnel's makers.

Chapter 11: "Storm"

As expected, the approaching ship was not recognized either by their ship database. How could it? That behemoth had apparently been custom built for the tunnel. It had nearly the same diameter as the tunnel itself, and Tarellek was sure that it served as mobile base of operations for the service drones. It was big enough to house a lot more though, including weaponry that could be trouble. Alea refrained from targeting it right away, as it did not target them either so far. A passive targeter would have been a plus in this case, but they did not do enough covert operations to justify sacrificing the power slot. The ship still showed no signs of slowing down, and was coming straight for them. Alea started the brake thrusters to double back, as the Anthea was too long to turn in such close quarters. Unfortunately, the brake thrusters do not allow for much manoeuvring and were not powerful enough to give them the thrust they needed to escape the advancing monster. Tarellek thought as fast as he could. Was it possible that the ship was unmanned? If it was not automated, they would have gotten some kind of response so far - unless they planned on just running them over. If it was automated, it should have some fail safes for a situation like this, but then again, judging from the state of disrepair it was in, chances were the fail safes were long un operational. He had a camera drone look at the thing, but apart from rusty armour plating and a worn-out identification plate reading "Worm I" there was not much to be found. He could not detect any shields either, which was intriguing. There was no way to say for sure if that ship had been built by any of the four empires.

Alea turned to face him. „Can you get more out of the brake thrusters, even for a short time?”  she asked. „Yes, but they will overheat quite fast” , he answered, knowing she would not want any technical details. She nodded. „I will try to soften the impact” , she concluded.

He rerouted spare power into the brake thruster systems, and quickly wrote a small boosting routine that she could call up when needed. She nodded to show him she had seen it, and concentrated on navigation. "Worm I" was only five hundred metres away now, and suddenly they were being targeted. He checked the camera view, and saw what looked like large turrets emerge from previously covered portholes. Alea started targeting back, but the other ship's turrets had already locked on to them. A commotion went through the ship as eight large industrial tractor beams locked on and aligned them right in front and centre of the behemoth. Alea cancelled the targeting and cut the brake thrusters, who would do no good now. Another commotion went through the ship, and they were slowly guided towards a large opening that had just slid open like an iris in the centre of the ship's hull. They were not moving; the tractor beams merely held them in place, the big ship slowly swallowing them. Inside it was completely featureless apart from odd patches here and there. It looked like a tunnel within a tunnel. It was a few minutes later when they were reaching the end of Worm I's bowels that Tarellek realized the ship was exactly that. Another iris opened to let them through, and as Worm I continued on its course they were freed from the tractor beams. The thing had obviously been built to allow ships to use the tunnel even while it was being serviced. Impervious to the stress it had caused on the Anthea, it proceeded relentlessly with its task.

„Original” , Alea said into the silent room, obviously just mildly surprised by the functionality of the ship. Tarellek relaxed, letting his arms dangle down the side of the console. „You'd think they would send out a usage manual” , he said, his adrenaline still at peak levels. „Well, whoever is out there, now they must know we're here” , Thalea said. „I'm not so sure, communication is nigh impossible with all this radiation”  Tarellek replied, as much for Thaleas benefit as that of the rest of the bridge. There was no way to be sure, but it was reasonable to assume nobody knew of their presence. „Let's move on” , Alea concluded.

She seemed tired from the events, but recovered quickly as they were rushing further down into the tunnel. They were able to hold a cruise speed of 90 metres per second now that they were flying through the newly serviced part of the tunnel. There were no protruding pieces of rock anymore, the rock formations were all perfectly entwined. The small service drones had done their work to perfection, and Tarellek could only wonder who would go to this much trouble. Having nothing to do right then, he took the time to redo some estimates of how far they had come. They had spent a lot of time being stationary, but in the last few days and the days before Alea got sick they had made quite some progress. With a "safe" average of fifty metres per second, nine hours of flight per day, and about eighteen days spent, he came out at over three thousand kilometres. It was probably much more than that, as they had flown way over nine hours the first few days. He was at a loss to explain how such an enormous amount of free-floating pieces of rock could have agglomerated like that. He was even more at a loss to explain why it was uncharted. But then he was no astrophysicist, maybe Alea would be able to shed some light on that.

He peeked out of his console. „From what I just calculated, we are about three thousand kilometres into the field” , he said into the room. Thalea whistled, and Alea focused back to them. „It should be much more” , she said. „It probably is, yes. What I don't understand is how a field as large as this can be uncharted” , he replied. Thalea leant out of her console. „I thought the dust interference something did that” , she said. „A field this large cannot be overlooked, at the very least it would occlude other expected readings and trigger exploration probes” , Asigdur interjected from the shield monitoring console. Even though his console was not needed anymore, he insisted on being there anyway. „Right, so where does that leave us?”  Tarellek asked. „We have to find out where the tunnel leads” , Alea answered, and silence fell on the bridge. She did not seem to be in a mood for idle discussion.

That night she was restless, stirring beside him and every time he woke up, she was staring wide-eyed into the night. He was not sure what was going on, and a bit wary of asking her. After a while, he moved closer and put one arm around her waist. He felt her relax a bit, and she turned to look at him. The only light in the room came from the single large view port, she preferred to leave it open so the room did not feel too much like a cave. He was used to his small, cramped and windowless room, so the spacious room with the view port had made him uneasy at first. The light was eerie, but she was as beautiful as ever. They smiled foolishly at each other, and kissed for a long time. Neither of them dared go any further yet, and even though he longed for more he knew it had to come from her. All he could do was make it easier for her.

„What's on your mind?”  he asked her gently. „Way too much... having you near gives me peace though” , she replied half absent-mindedly. He smiled. „That's a nice way of eluding my question” , he said, but she seemed lost in thought. „Your little discussion earlier made me think. Something is off beyond just the existence of the field and the obvious questions surrounding it” , she said. „What do you mean?”  he asked, not being awake enough to correctly interpret that statement. She never spoke lightly, and everything she said was always incredibly well thought through. She seemed to realize that he was a bit lost. „It is just a gut feeling, nothing to worry about” , she replied, but her tone and eyes belied it. He was genuinely scared now, as she was not someone to be bothered by gut feelings. „I'll just worry a bit anyway if you don't mind” , he added.

She looked at him, and was going to say something but decided to kiss him instead. He did not mind, it was a wonderful way to get his mind off disturbing thoughts. He realized that was probably exactly why she did it, but chose not to pursue the matter. He slowly slipped away into one of those dreamless sleeps that he was getting used to. In normal times it would have bothered him not to dream, but he had more important things to ponder now. He did not bring up her state of mind in conversation the next few days, but she was increasingly on edge. Tiarell was able to enjoy another epic fight in the combat simulator, and Tarellek failed to see the fun in it. It had been five days since their encounter with Wolf I, and still no sign of anything new. Who knew from how far that ship had come when they met it... He was getting restless, but fortunately the crew's morale was as high as ever. Apart from the odd head bashing that could not be avoided, it was almost serene on the ship. That night brought with it the warm touch of her skin again, and somehow it felt better every time. It pushed his worries back into a corner, and he stayed awake as long as he could to enjoy it to the last second.

Slowly dozing off, something did not feel right. An odd tingling sensation went through him, very faint but enough to wake him again. Alea was sleeping soundly, and nothing seemed to have changed at all, except his engineer's touch told him otherwise. He felt imperceptible vibrations in the ship's hull. He went to the view port, and pressed his hand against the cool glass. There was no mistaking it, waves of vibrations went through the hull from bow to stern in regular intervals. He was wondering about the possible causes when he noticed the ship was moving, and that the scenery outside had changed drastically. His brain struggled to comprehend what his eyes were seeing, until Alea was there and put a hand over them.

„Some things are too dangerous to even look at” , she whispered into his ear. „What the hell was I looking at anyway?”  he asked, still seeing swirling patterns with his eyes closed. „I do not know yet. Come, it is not safe here” , she said, took his hand and guided him outside.

He listened as she told the crew to lower all view port blinds, and when they reached the bridge his vision was nearly back to normal. He still had some dancing flame like artifacts rushing through the air when he opened his eyes, but hopefully they would disappear over time. Thalea seemed concerned, but he told her not to worry with a wave of his hand. He hopped into his console, brought up the scanning interface on one of his screens and followed Alea's analysis of their surroundings. In the impact that had destroyed the ship's nose, part of the sensor banks that jutted out up front had been crushed, including the radiation detection equipment. Alea had to launch a multi frequency probe to get some accurate readings on the environment, which turned out to emit colossal amounts of EM radiation. The concentration of crystalline dust had increased million fold over the last few kilometres, such that they were practically flying through a constant EM pulse. The Anthea's armour was very resistant to EM damage, and the core of the ship was shielded against such types of radiation so they were pretty safe for now. What he had seen were the effects of such radiation on the human brain: the view ports were shielded, but not as well as the rest of the hull. Alea activated the dedicated EM armour damage sink to be on the safe side, and lay down in her console to rest.

The EM radiation explained why Wolf I did not have any shields: as they are vulnerable to EM damage, they would not be of much use in such an environment. While it was exciting to finally see some changes after all this time, it also opened some new questions, one of the biggest being what was waiting for them in such a hostile environment. Alea seemed excited too, if he read her expression right. The ship was continuing its flight, albeit much slower as they were completely blind now. The farthest navigational readings they could get were of about eight hundred metres, not enough for high-speed manoeuvring. She used camera drones as an additional help. A side effect of the EM charge was to flood the tunnel in bright light coming from billions of small energy discharges. The Anthea was a real beacon of light itself as it received a fair share of the discharges, and Tarellek regretted not being able to see that light show through one of the view ports in the crew lounges.

He saw movement to his right out of the corner of his eyes, turned around and saw Thalea motioning to him. He followed her outside, apprehending what this would be about. She leaned back against the corridor wall, and waited for the bulkhead to close before she grabbed his left hand and drew him to her.

„If I did not know otherwise, I would say you're avoiding me” , she said, her lips close to his. He considered his answer while she chewed lightly on his lower lip. „What if I am?” , he finally said. She did not seem surprised. „I will have to improve my persuasion skills then” , she said, artfully bending one leg around his waist. He smiled. „They are as potent as ever” , he said and kissed her.

They disappeared into a nearby service corridor, and Tarellek thought they could create an EM pulse of their own with their mutual pent-up energy. Largely frowned upon by common folk, crew members "wildly" having intercourse among each other was part of their training in human psyche. The human well-being depends on a lot of factors in which sex drive plays a major role. Everyone needs to have an outlet for his desires, and to keep a ship functional over long periods of time requires this aspect to be taken into account. The psychological evaluation of crew members includes a very detailed personal profile with sexual preferences that is used for match-making. The crew was trained to see this as another indispensable duty. Tarellek did not like the duty part, as in practice it worked out pretty well all on its own. Thalea had not been assigned to him, they had met naturally. When Alea had recruited him personally, he had not gone through the usual channels and thus had not been assigned any partner. As far as he knew, Thalea had at least two other partners. He did not mind though, it was a very enjoyable arrangement.

He was glad that she did not mention Alea, that they could be together and just live the moment. His pragmatic mind knew it was a good way to release the pressure he felt from not yet having this kind of intimacy with Alea, which could potentially cause trouble. They went back to the bridge after a shower, Alea was seemingly asleep in her console. Thalea went back to hers, but a soft, warm hand held him back as he started walking over to his own.

He knelt down beside Alea's console. „It will not always have to be like this” , she whispered. Yet again she knew and understood everything that was going on. Was that a hint to their future together? It must have been, and his mind raced as he imagined what a long term relation ship with her would have in store. She always managed to surprise him. All he could do was grin foolishly at her like a small child that knew it had done something bad. She smiled a bright, warm smile. „I would like to put an additional EM damage sink online along with one of the armour repair systems” , she said, then added „The EM radiation has increased substantially again.” 

That additional module required starting the third engine, so he initiated the warm up. Alea was right, the armour was starting to decay with the sustained EM corrosion and seeing that it only got worse they would soon need more than just an additional damage sink. It would take about an hour before the engine could be started, so he took the time for a short nap. He was sure it would be interrupted as were about ninety percent of all his small naps, but he had long since learned to be content with even a few minutes of sleep.

He was proven right once more as the emergency lock down chimed, and Alea shouted „EM Pulse!”  from her console. The emergency lock down told every crew member to reach the next available safe position they could get to, and brace for whatever was about to happen. Tarellek did not even have the time to check his screens before the EM blast passed over the ship, tearing the fore armour apart and rending big chunks of it off on all sides. The ejected pieces of armour were ignited by sudden EM discharges, lighting the tunnel up like a light bulb. He felt dizzy like when he had been first exposed to the radiation, and hoped no one had been too close to the ship's bow where the pulse had hit the hardest.

He heard moans from the nearby consoles, and peeked out. Alea was back on her feet, standing in the middle of the room, and several of his colleagues were incapacitated, rubbing their temples and eyes. This was engineering time, so he shut everything else off and got to work. Where the was one pulse, there could be more. They had to prepare for the eventuality immediately. He checked the diagnostics, and to his dismay the armour plating's structure seemed to have been damaged. They had systems to repair that kind of damage, but it was connected to the third engine's power grid. It was still warming up and would be online in half an hour. Why did it always have to be that bloody close, he asked no one in particular and ordered his team to check on the damaged plating.

The armour was in very bad shape as a sweep with a camera drone confirmed. The bow was neatly stripped, and the sides were missing big chunks. The armour repairer was patching what was left, but would not be able to replace the lost patches on its own. Even the dedicated systems would not be able to repair it all on their own - that would have to be done manually. They had done it before after they had rammed the big rock, but that was impossible now - they had to go on EVA, and their suits were not designed to withstand such an environment. The next pulse would hit structure directly and leak into the ship, wreaking havoc everywhere. Alea was aware of this, and turned the ship as far as she could without hitting the tunnel's sides to expose less of the bow and more of the ship's right side, which was the least damaged. He had to find a way to repair the lost armour, or at least reduce the amount of radiation that got through. His engineering studies had taught him how to look at problems from different angles, and his brother had shown him how to apply that knowledge to the real world. Now he cherished that training more than ever as he put together a team that was going to rebuild the armour from the inside. They would have to tear down a number of bulkheads, but whenever the remaining outer structure would be gone, a fresh, fully functional coat of armour would be ready beneath. He only hoped they would not have to cut off chunks of the ship with each EM pulse - if there was ever going to be another one.

By the time the third engine was online, he was in the bow of the ship, supervising the work of his team on the new armour coating. The other team had managed to repair and bring the damaged plating online again, and joined them to speed up the work. They had brought four of the six mobile armour spraying units they had on the ship, and were making it about as thick as he dared to go within the recommended specifications. The nano plating would be a little less effective at this thickness, but it would make a good buffer. To offer the least resistance, they would use the bow to keep as much away from the sides as possible, where they were not able to do the same repairs.

Twenty hours later the work was done, and the forward decks were sealed and vented. No new EM pulse had hit them so far, and Alea had resumed flight. Now that the third engine was running, they had the two damage sinks running as well as the two armour repairers. Tarellek channeled the spare power into the new plating, further bolstering its EM resistance. Everyone was all back in their console bunks now, tensely waiting to see what was going to happen. On his readouts, he could see the levels of EM radiation transmitted by the probe steadily rising. He made a projection of the radiation to be expected over the next hundred kilometres, and came to the conclusion that they would not be able to go more than sixty before the entire armour would fail. Incidentally, that meant another EM pulse like the one earlier could kill them somewhat before then. He directed a questioning thought at Alea, who was still standing in the middle of the room, fully concentrated on the ship. He wondered how she managed to stand that long.

She did not react, but one of his screens changed to internal messaging, and read „Wherever we are going, we have to hope we get there before then.”  Were it not for his unyielding trust in her, he would have revolted at the prospect of stupidly flying to their doom without being able to do anything about it. She trusted him in the exact same way however, and as chief engineer, if there was anyone who could act it was him. He closed his eyes, activated the sound barrier of his console, and started methodically dissecting their situation.

Chapter 12: "Eitasena Annidhar"

Eitasena Annidhar
Eitasena Annidhar, the Archangels commander

The "Planetrazer" Bhaalgorn-class battleship was still coasting about two kilometres off the spinning rock formation that cursed Zatar woman had set in its path. The ship's commander, Eitasena Annidhar, was silently inventing new colourful adjectives to call that Minmatar w****. He was the Archangel's leading security commander, and he had not risen to that position by kindness of heart. And a mere woman had just bested his flawless line of advancement, putting his commanding skills to shame. He could almost hear the raucous laughter of his crew, telling his tale of humiliation to everyone as soon as they would get back to base. As much as he wanted to tear that b**** apart with his bare hands, he cursed himself too. He had finally fallen for the symptom he had tried to guard himself against his whole life - he had been over-confident in his victory, and had underestimated his opponent. Was he getting senile already, like all those aging commanders he despised so much?

Everything was not lost. His armada of scouts had conducted a thorough survey of the rock field, and even though it was bigger than anything he had ever seen so far, there did not seem to be any ways out. He could not trust that information entirely of course, but a steady stream of probes and strategically placed interceptors guaranteed that any ship emerging anywhere from the field would not stand any chance of escaping. He was driven by the need to survive now, he could not afford to let that woman escape his grasp. They had already thoroughly cleaned out the advanced outpost she had come through, and additional security details had been dispatched to the other outposts. For the time being, they would lay low and keep the people who had sent her in doubt and buy them some more time to catch her.

She had intrigued him in more ways than he realized at first. He was used to his prey being scared out of their wits, and that was where he had blundered. He should have recognized the belligerence immediately. Two synchronized salvos from this fleet would have torn that tub of hers to shreds. Dwelling on the past was a waste of time, however. He had learned his lesson, and it was time to move on. One of the pilots in his fleet was currently assessing the possibilities of overcoming or bypassing the spinning rock, and his heart ached to be able to go after her himself. Then he would come out of this unscathed, and possibly even gain more of the fame his soul craved so much. Alea was renowned as an Angels-hunter, bringing her down would make him a hero of his people.

For now, however, he had to be patient.

Chapter 13: "The storm"

The strain on mind and matter was getting worse with every kilometre they advanced. Several crew members had reported to sickbay with more or less severe migraines caused by the EM storm, which meant that they would probably have an epidemic on their hands before long. As much as Tarellek analysed their situation, he could find no engineer's way of solving it. He was tired of looking at his screens, and decided he needed a change of scenery. Knowing what he would expose himself to, he took the deck shuttle to the lower crew lounge. It had been declared off-limits because of the EM leaks caused by the view ports, but maybe he would be able to concentrate better down there. Besides, he knew the risks better than anyone else and the lounge was as safe as he could be that close to the hull.

When he entered the room and closed the bulkhead, he let out a big sigh as silence settled in. The sound in the corridor jumbled your brain, and everything was put back into place with the heavy thud of the bulkhead and the ensuing peace. He grabbed a plate with a chocolate bar, a can of Quafe Ultra, some fruit and a portable screen to work with. He let himself fall into one of the big, comfortable couches, and made an effort of will to forget about the urgency. He devoured the chocolate bar with an intense pleasure. The fruit and Quafe followed, and he felt a lot better already as the sugar kicked his brain to life. He was convinced that a solution had to be right around the corner. After all the ship they had encountered had to have some means to protect itself from the storm, which meant he just had to figure out what that was.

His preparations so far were useful, namely compiling a comprehensive list of the assets and problems they had to work with. He had also grouped the list by topic, which helped in finding complementary and opposing elements. All he needed to do now was what his brother had taught him: matching items that did not fit by using one or more intermediaries. Everyone else would call this process thinking outside the box, except this technique was a more scientific approach. He flipped through the pages of his report on the screen, and wrote a few routines that would do most of the job on their own. He fed some additional information into the script, from power fluctuations in the EM field to the frequency modulation used by the Anthea's EM armour sinks. He paced the room waiting for the preliminary study to complete, trying not to hope too hard. After about twenty minutes, the screen chimed.

The automated study gave him a list of over sixty scenarios that ranged from the utterly stupid to the minboggingly obscure. He dismissed most of them immediately. He knew he was not likely to be given the miracle solution just like that, the idea was to give him some new inspiration. One of the scenarios suggested using the laser turrets to fire Xray-modulated beams on the plating: it would lessen the corrosive effect of the EM storm on them, but without taking into account that they could not target themselves. Besides, shooting at themselves did not sound like a good solution either. However, something in this scenario stirred his synapses. He could not pinpoint exactly what it was just yet, so he went through the rest of the list. Only a few scenarios later he got the hint he needed. Power, of course! They were literally flying through the core of a giant capacitor, bathed in current and acting like a big grounding rod. What they needed was to find a way to divert all the power they were soaking up like a sponge, or at the very least lessen it.

Seeing the very void around them was charged, he saw no realistic chance in diverting the current - there was nowhere to divert it to. He did know what would help lessen it though: they were simply going to use all that current as a free power source. It would be like docking at a station, where power is provided by the station's power plant as long as the engines are offline. Grabbing another chocolate bar, he set himself into motion, and returned to the bridge. He briefed Alea on the way, and when she greeted him on the bridge her eyes shone. For everyone else, he quickly explained what his team was doing and what they hoped to achieve.

„The only unknown is how much power we will have to deal with. Ideally we will be able to power several ship systems with it, and be rid of the problem altogether.”  „Somehow I get the feeling 'ideally' is not going to be part of the equation” , Thalea said from her console. Tarellek was surprised, as she was usually optimism impersonated. He blamed it on stress, but Alea turned in her direction. „And what else do your feelings tell you?” , she asked. Her tone was soft, but conveyed a rare firmness. It was no reprimand, giving Thalea an opportunity to correct her misplaced criticism. Thalea blanched. „Sorry, that did not come out right. I think I'll just shut up” , she floundered. Alea gave her a quick smile. „We are all stressed out, but we know how to handle that” , she told them all. „I have a feeling that whatever we will find at the end of this tunnel will be important, regardless of the danger we are exposing ourselves to. I want everyone to be at their best.” 

While his team finished installing the necessary equipment, Tarellek created and reviewed the code that would manage the power flow to the capacitors. The implementation was a lot of code grinding, setting up ship systems to draw more or less power, and activating modules as required to fit the supply and demand of their internal systems. Three full days later, everything was finally in place. The tension throughout the ship was clearly palpable as they prepared to put the new systems online. It was about time too, as the armour repairers were straining to keep up with the EM erosion. When they all met on the bridge, he knew that Alea would not want to stretch things out, so he told her how to activate the systems and took place in his console to be able to monitor the tests.

She looked at him, and he nodded. Without further ado, he saw the systems come online and a colossal energy burst surged into the ship's power grid. A few non-critical systems fried instantly, but then the fail safes his team put in place kicked in and channeled the power flow through the ship's capacitors and power levelled out. Alea glanced at him enquiringly.

„We're good. It's a bit more than we expected, but we will be able to handle the upcoming storms. At this rate, we can power a bit more than both armour repair systems without needing the engines.” 

Relieved and exhausted, he let his muscles relax and he sank a bit deeper into his console. Everybody on the ship was cheering, and he was sure there would be heavy-duty partying going on before long. His screens showed him that the ship was moving again already though, and he knew that their voyage was still far from over. Within the next twenty minutes, the bridge was empty. Only Alea was still there, and he realized she was looking at him. He smiled, and she stretched out her hand.

„Why don't we get some well-deserved rest?”  she asked. He could not agree more.

Chapter 14: "Impending Doom"

Eitasena Annidhar was not by any standards a patient man. The current circumstances called for careful planning and patience however, so he put his restlessness aside. He knew it put his sub commanders on edge, and everybody in his fleet was probably thinking he had come undone by the earlier humiliation, but he knew how to quench that if needs be. He always had a few highly skilled assassins at his disposal, and it was common knowledge that people who dared to criticize him openly always seemed to have a very short life span, He was waiting for Aeddin, former physics engineer turned pirate to complete his study of the field. He was about to send someone after him when his ship finally reappeared on screen and a comm-channel opened.

„I have found something”  Aeddin's calm voice told him. Aeddin's calmness had always irritated Eitasena for some reason. Was he not so useful he would have brained the puffed up engineer a while ago. „What is it?”  he half-barked. Aeddin was unruffled. „This rock field is not a natural occurrence”  he said, and added a pause for dramatic effect. Eitasena considered torture to get the information out of him. „It seems it was entirely built for some unknown purpose, and I detected a few flaws in the structure that we can use”  „Use how?”  „A precisely placed detonation would send ripples through the nearby structure that would entirely dislodge a big section of the field, and clear a path to access that tunnel.”  Eitasena's heart leaped as the pursuit suddenly came within his grasp again. „Do it.”  Eitasena sensed Aeddin's hesitation. „Okay, let's hear it. What's the problem?”  „We cannot predict where the rocks dislodged by the explosion will go, and we have a lot of installations nearby.”  „You are way too clever for your own health, Aeddin. You have the solution up your sleeve and just want me to revel in your towering intelligence.”  „I am merely ensuring that my role in this campaign will not be swept under a rug somewhere. I am sure you can relate to that.”  Eitasena was fuming. He needed this arrogant b******, and somehow it seemed that his control over the whole situation was slipping away bit by bit. He silently cursed Alea Zatar again, and silently vowed to squeeze the life out of her with his bare hands. „I will make sure your role in the campaign reaches our superiors, Aeddin. Good or bad, so make sure you don't miss your shot”  he said in his most deadly tone. Aeddin swallowed hard. „I'll prepare the charges.” 

He was deeply troubled. Ever since his encounter with Alea, his control over his life seemed to have been taken from him. He felt helpless, and that sent him into a blind rage. He had no choice left at all, even if it was to take his last breath, he had to hunt her down. He was lucid enough to realize he was not thinking rationally though, and that he was bound to make even more mistakes in the next few days if he could not regain some semblance of control. He opened a comm channel to the Planetrazer's prison deck.

„Prepare one of the republic fleet operatives for interrogation, I will be there shortly”  he said, realizing with horror that his voice was shaky. „He will be ready when you get here”  the prison guard replied sounding somewhat surprised.

If he was to suffer, maybe making them suffer at his hands would help him clear his head. On his way down to the prison deck, he figured that a few burns in soft places would be appropriate. Oh, what he would do with Alea when he got his hands on her...

Chapter 15: "The Crystal Core"

Alea was a lot more relaxed the next few days, and Tarellek enjoyed them very much. They were making very good progress, and Alea seemed almost to blossom in her mental connection with the ship. He knew she was testing and exploring while he was asleep, as he would feign sleep to watch her occasionally. They spoke a bit about this connection and how it worked, but he had a feeling he would never be able to understand it. From what she told him, she did not yet know all systems and only controlled a few select ones at a given time even though her control steadily grew.

With her help, he had been able to improve substantially on the new power systems that managed the flow from the EM storm outside. He was confident even one of those powerful EM surges they encountered before would not be any problem. That's where his mood turned somewhat sour again though. He could not help but to think that it was too easy, too good to last for much longer. It was still early, and for once Alea seemed to be in a genuine slumber. He marvelled at how beautiful she was, and at the string of events that had lead to them being together. His omnipresent pessimistic self told him it would not last, but he chose to ignore it and enjoy the moment.

He was preparing a frugal breakfast when she suddenly came up right behind him, and he nearly dropped his platter.

„We need to go. Something's up ahead”  she said softly. „Grab a bite, at least, you can gulp it down on the way.”  „Gulp?”  she said, smiling. „Still better than not eating anything”  he said, and handed her a bowl with a selection of fruit he had cut for himself. „I enjoy eating, but I still have to get used to doing it more regularly.” 

He wanted to ask her what she had seen up ahead, but at the moment he was happy to see her eat something. So far the pod had provided her body with whatever she needed, and over the years her reflexes to eat had been severely disrupted. He fervently observed her eating habits, knowing that she would simply forget about it. Besides, she seemed to enjoy his care, and that was all that really counted. Back on the bridge, he lay down in his console and they waited for the rest of the crew to arrive.

Alea made sure she had everyone's attention. „The structure of the tunnel has started to change the last few kilometres, and I slowed the ship down so we have time to react if anything comes up. Tarellek, maybe you can explain the changes in the tunnel?”  „I'll send a camera drone out so we can have a visual”  he said, and everyone could follow the live feed of the drone on their screens. There were very few gaps now between the rocks, and their surface was glossy, almost as if they had been polished. „It looks like the rocks are molten,”  Thalea said. „Yes, I think that's exactly what happened here. Whatever caused them to stick together in this fashion must have been a hell of a blast. It's the molten crystal that makes the glossy aspect. The blast came from further ahead in the tunnel, so this effect should get more pronounced as we advance.”  „I think you're right, these rocks are starting to be one smooth wall,”  Thalea commented on the camera view. One of his other screens flashed to life, and he saw a projection of the tunnel's dimensions that Alea had prepared for him. The tunnel was getting wider... and stopped abruptly in a few kilometres. „Whatever we have been looking for, I think we are about to find out just what it is”  he said, and sent the screen to the rest of the bridge.

Chapter 16: "A fleet on the move"

Aeddin's plan had worked. Eitasena was both elated and disappointed - elated because the hunt was back on for good, and disappointed because Aeddin got to keep his head a while longer. His torture sessions had restored part of his self-confidence, and he was as ready as he would ever be for the pursuit. The four republic fleet officers he had used up had not known anything. He had seen that right at the start, but he did not need them for information. They deserved what they got, and there were many more where those came from. He glanced at his red knuckles, and concentrated on the pain. It felt good, it kept him alert. That one officer had actually managed to break free (with a little carefully planned help), and Eitasena had always enjoyed a good fist fight when the odds were in his favour.

The carrier "Vehemence" had joined them, and its powerful shields had been used to protect the main base against the rock formations that had been hurtled in all directions by Aeddin's blast. Eitasena had to admit that it had been quite an impressive display of pyrotechnics, from the initial blast to the impacts on the carrier's shields. The pilot had been reluctant to agree to their plan at first, but a few veiled threats had put him back in his place. Now the area was starting to clear, and the tunnel seemed to look back at him from his camera drone screen. He barked commands to the fleet to get moving to avoid his voice from shaking, then turned his ship to face his fate.

He had spent quite some time to think his strategy through, and even though he still did not like it, he knew it could not get any better. He had committed to it now anyway, and would stick to it. The unknown of the tunnel and unpredictability of his prey drove him nuts. He would have preferred to nuke the whole thing and be done with it. What was he doing now? Sticking his head in a viper's nest, not knowing from where she would strike. For all he knew, she could be hiding right here at the entrance, waiting to bury him under tons of unyielding rock.

Was he actually afraid? Damn that woman to hell, what had she done to him? The tunnel was looming ahead, and the advance strike force comprised of interceptors and cruisers was already entering. The Planetrazer was coming up next, along with some logistics cruisers and a field command ship in tow. Once inside, there would be no way for his ship to turn back. Just like Alea's Abaddon, the ship was too long for that. The rest of the fleet was on its way to take positions around the field so that they could respond within a few hours regardless of where they would come out.

„If we get out at all,”  he muttered to himself.

Chapter 17: "The tide turns"

Tarellek watched his power monitoring readouts apprehensively. The EM flow was at its highest now, its power very close to the first EM burst they had experienced a while back. The EM erosion had resumed on the armour, but well within limits of the repair systems. He moved the camera screen next to the readouts, and watched the ship slowly glide out of the tunnel into a massive spherical chamber bathed in bright light coming from the raging EM storm. Lightning arched back and forth constantly. There was no doubt about it, this was the core of the field. Everybody was silent on the bridge, watching their screens. Alea had her eyes closed, and was probably watching by means of her unfathomable connection to the ship.

For a split second he wondered about how her brain was decoding the video stream, but the camera view captivated him too much to keep pursuing that line of thought. To everyone's surprise, a worn out station tower floated in the centre of the chamber. It had several large platforms jutting out in every direction, and it seemed to be oblivious to the raging storm. The lightning strikes at times seemed to coil around it. He wondered if it was still usable, and whether they could use the on-board equipment to find a better protection against the storm for the Anthea. A quick check told him the tower had no shields, which made sense - no shield could withstand this. He could not get any other useful readouts though with their main sensors gone. Alea suddenly sent the ship into battle stations, and a quick glance at the strategic map indicated why. Two battlecruiser-sized ships were undocking from a hangar on the far right side of the tower, and a whole array of sentry guns was powering up and aiming at them.

One advantage of bathing in current and being able to use it was that their laser turrets were always ready. Alea had apparently been expecting something along those lines, and two of the sentry guns exploded almost simultaneously as the full charge from the Anthea's turrets hit them. The resting turrets immediately powered down again, and the two ships slowed to a halt. Apparently their enemy had not expected them to be able to take action like they did. A comm channel lit up, audio only. Alea waited a few seconds, then opened the channel.

„You made your point, what do you want?”  a raucous voice boomed. „I am Alea Zatar, pilot of the Anthea. We are stranded here, and would like to ask for your hospitality and to help us get on our way again. We mean you no harm, but as you have seen we will defend ourselves if attacked”  Alea appealed to the man in a firm voice. The channel stayed silent for a while. „How did you get stranded here?”  the voice asked suspiciously. „We were chasing a war target down near the entrance of the tunnel, and a... shall we say 'navigational mishap' caused us to be trapped by a rotating rock formation. You may have noticed the nose of our ship, this damage was caused by the encounter.” 

It was a plausible lie. The man would probably not believe it anyhow, but they were better off if he believed them to be on the run from a single ship than from a whole army. The Anthea was a pure combat vessel, so any non battle-related story would not be credible enough.

„My grandmother could tell better lies, sister”  the man sneered. „Power down your weapon turrets and wait for a shuttle to take you on station. We need to have a little chat face to face to discuss this any further.”  „I'm not powering anything down as long as those ships of yours don't power theirs down. I may be on the run, but I still know my trade.” , she replied harshly. „Those are my terms, and frankly your are starting to annoy me. Maybe this will make your position a tad easier to grasp.” 

An energy surge showed on one of Tarelleks screens, and he immediately sent it to Alea. Hatches were opening in the main platform around the station tower, and what looked like capital weapon turrets slowly emerged, powering up at the same time. His readouts were strange, he had never seen turrets with that particular configuration. One thing was clear though: they were using a lot more power than turrets that size should.

„Oh, hell”  Thalea suddenly gasped. Alea had her eyes closed, with a steely expression on her face. She had obviously determined the nature of those turrets as well. Tarelleks heart sank. Whatever those weapons were, they had just turned the odds against them. The channel came back to life. Alea stayed silent. „I trust you know what those are?”  the voice asked smugly. „I do” , Alea said simply. „Good, at least that earns you some points. I'm sending you some coordinates, move your ship over there and wait for the shuttle. I expect you to get on board. Alone.”  „Alone?”  Tarellek thought and stared at the audio channel equalizer in horror. The channel came to life again. „Oh, and to ward off any foreseeable bickering: I have nothing to lose here. You do. Sneeze the wrong way and I'll blast you to bits”  the voice spat contemptuously and the channel died with a dreadful note of finality.

He could hear himself breathe in the silence that ensued. Alea still had the same expression on her face, and she seemed lost in thought. They had all more or less expected to hit upon trouble, but it had happened way too fast. In a few minutes worth of time their lives were on the line once more. In all these years they had gotten used to fighting against overwhelming odds, but somehow the current succession of events had dissolved their hardened shells. On the other side of the bridge, Thalea climbed out of her console, her face pale. She quickly went out, and as Alea was unresponsive he sprang up to join her. He did not have to go far; he found her in the mess hall adjoining the bridge. She was getting a drink at the dispenser, and she looked very shaken.

„Do you need anything?”  he asked her gently, enfolding her in his arms. „He's even worse than that angel commander” , she said in a shaky voice. „I think you're right. He does not take time to gloat, he just acts. But why does it trouble us that much this time? We have encountered the likes of him before.”  „We can't let her go, not alone.” , she pleaded. Apparently she had not heard what he had just said, or did not want to comment on it. „I know” , he said dubiously. He intimately suspected they would not be able to sway her in any decision she might take though.

The door slid open behind them, and Alea stepped in. She joined them where they stood, and Tarellek was once again stricken by how beautiful she was. All this time out of her pod had clearly done wonders in removing the pallid look that pilots often went to extreme ends to hide in social events. Her expression was one of controlled rage, of implacable determination and that made her even more beautiful. He kept the thought to himself however, this was not the time nor the place to share it with her.

„The shuttle is on its way. Whoever controls that station is very clever. He does not want to give us enough time to think this through.”  „You can't go alone!”  Thalea burst out. „I know you're worried, Thalea. For the time being, it's safe to say we are in no immediate danger. I think our friend in the station is curious, otherwise he would not have gone to the trouble of dispatching a shuttle.”  Tarellek knew reasoning with her would be futile, so he did not even try to convince her to change her mind. In a rare insight, he realised she was here because she needed comforting almost as much as they did. He smiled gently. „What can we do to help?”  „We have to regain the upper hand. He has no reason to expect me to be telepathic, so I will try to infiltrate the station's systems as soon as I get on board. Keep the turrets warmed up without charging them, when I give the signal I want you to take out those capital turrets.” 

Tarellek simply nodded and on an impulse, kissed her. Her composure slipped for a second as she looked at him with eyes wide, but then she returned his kiss with fervour. In his peripheral vision, he saw Thalea look at them curiously.

There was very little time to get prepared. The docking procedure of the shuttle did not take more than a minute, but luckily it was customary for pilots to take a while to get out of their pods so Alea was able to brief them further on what she wanted them to do and how she wanted to signal them. She had resumed her expression of cold determination, and everyone on the bridge was trying harder than usual not to offend her. Tarellek knew that was not necessary, but she did inspire that kind of respect when she was like this.

About twenty minutes after the station owner's ultimatum, Alea was in the shuttle, en route to one of the hangars. Carrying their fate along with her.

Chapter 18: "Eitasena Annidhar"

If his pod's systems were not so darn effective, his amniotic fluid would be boiling by now. He wondered for a second if anyone could be more bored that he was right now. He was so bored it made him mad, to the point that his pod's diagnostics had cautioned him to calm down. He nearly had an apoplexy at that. Fortunately, he had been in a situation like that before, so he had made an effort to calm down. He did not want to be put in an induced coma until his heart rate stabilized again... Pod engineers did not have an inkling of humour.

He tried to pass the time thinking of what exquisite torture he would put Alea through when he finally got his hands on her, but that got him so worked up again that his pod repeated its warning. He silently cried out in frustration and forced himself to regain a semblance of composure. His family's line had a well known reputation of being hotheads, and as his father had told him numerous times the line ran true in him. He cursed them all for the millionth time. The line would end with him, that was a promise he had given his father when he had slid his knife between his shoulder blades. Intimately he knew he was a monster of course, but he also knew he could not do anything about it. Since that day, he was waiting for the one that would best him: the one that would finally end the line.

A sudden chill went through him as he unwillingly wondered if Alea Zatar would be the one. NO! Not her? A comm channel from his weapons officer chimed, wrenching him out of that gloomy thought.

„Sir?”  the man's voice said hesitantly. Galesh was a competent weapons officer, but he had a total lack of backbone. „What is it?”  Eitasena barked. „Uh, ...”  the man faltered, obviously taken aback by Eitasena's harsh response. Eitasena felt the heat well up in his cheeks again, but stifled an impulse to have the man shot on the spot. One of these days he would have to vent all this pent-up frustration, but preferably not on someone as useful as Galesh. In time he had learned to keep his hotheadedness in check somewhat. „Galesh, I just contemplated giving you a messy public execution. I have not made up my mind yet however, so for your sake can you PLEASE get to the point?”  he said a bit milder this time. „Yes, sir! There is a ship approaching, but it does not seem hostile as far as I could determine. Do you want me to do something about it?”  Galesh recited like a man who had just gotten a second shot at life. Eitasena was stunned. He had been too deep in thought to notice the huge ship that was slowly coming their way. He really needed to get his stuff together. „No, Galesh. I will handle it”  he said, keeping his doubts under tight control.

The matter proved to be very simple for a change. The approaching ship, ironically called "Worm II", was an automated vessel of some kind, and they managed to board it without any trouble at all. After a tedious session of shuffling ships around in these tight quarters, the Planetrazer was now firmly anchored within the ship, and a tech was at the worm's controls. Eitasena chuckled evilly to himself. It would be a perfect disguise to fall on anyone who would try to stand in their path. The small fleet advanced stealthily deeper into the tunnel.

Chapter 19: "Hope"

Tarellek was following Alea's progress via a live feed from a hidden camera no one had known about but herself and her bodyguard. It was implanted in one of her eyes, and was virtually undetectable unless one knew exactly what to look for. The picture quality was sub par, but at least he could see and even hear what was happening. It was a strange view: the camera was implanted in her left eye, so he saw more or less exactly what her left eye saw. She looked around her as she entered the pressure corridor leading into the station from the hangar. Tiarell was there, deadly calm and obviously prepared for anything. Pilot bodyguards were so much part of the picture that a Pilot was considered to be alone even with them present.

They waited for the outer pressure door to unlock, and were greeted by six burly guards armed to the teeth. Whatever their operation was here, they were obviously prepared to handle trouble. Alea was roughly shuffled along several more dimly lit corridors and led into a cell somewhere in the lower decks of the tower. So much for the welcome, he thought. The station owner apparently wanted to make absolutely sure that there could not be any doubts about who was in charge. They could do nothing but wait...

...except Tarellek, who instantly got to work trying to match the floor plan he could glean from reviewing the video feed to the official database of control towers. It took him a short while, then he found a match for an older Amarr Control Tower design. He verified this by matching sizes and exterior designs and structures. There had been some changes to parts of the tower, like the big circular platform with the gun turrets welded to it somewhere near the centre, but apart from that it was the original design. He was even able to determine the exact position of their holding cell. He did not know if it would help at all, but it was definitely better than twiddling thumbs.

The station's owner seemed to think that twenty minutes was enough time for them to fully grasp their situation, as the same group of guards came back to once more shuffle Alea and Tiarell halfway through the station. In a way, that was a tactical blunder: Alea knew a lot about station designs. Giving her a full tour of the place gave her that much more information she could work with. It was either that, or the man was just too sure of himself. Tarellek followed their progress matching turns and deck shuttle trips with his tower floor plans. They ended up in the auxiliary bridge somewhere in the upper half of the tower. The bridge was unadorned. In fact, it was exactly the original bridge as it came out of the manufacturing lines according to his plans. It was not uncommon, but an operation like this would have called for at least some modifications. Tarellek had to revise his opinion. Maybe this was all intentional after all - they did not know one inkling more about what this was all about.

A man entered with a bodyguard of his own. He was tall and muscular, and bore himself like someone used to violence. He wore a typical mercenary outfit, the only thing betraying his rank being the universal pilot's emblem on his right shoulder. His face wore an expression made both of arrogant confidence and a hint of curiosity.

He nodded shortly to her. „Alea. I'm sorry, we have not been properly introduced. I am Geoff Cirol, keeper of this station. I fear we have not treated you very well, but then we do not have a habit of treating anyone that gets here very well, either. Especially if they start shooting at us.”  „In my world, not shooting first when being targeted usually means you don't get very old,”  Alea replied simply. „Fair enough, I suppose. So will you tell me what you are really here for?”  „If you are not prepared to believe that our presence here is entirely unrelated to your operations, we have already exhausted our conversation topics.”  „So it would seem.”  He paused, looking her up and down appraisingly. Tarellek felt heat well up in him at the sight of the man's shameless stare. „You know, you're a pretty girl for a pilot,”  he said conversationally. „Why, thank you. But isn't that a rather obvious way to change the subject?”  „Seeing as we've exhausted all other topics...”  He left it hanging.

Tarellek had trouble following where this was leading. Geoff seemed a lot friendlier in person than earlier, but all this idle banter had to be going somewhere. He did not like these games. Pilots had a tendency to disguise their conversations in ways that someone like him could not fathom. He watched hís screen intently, waiting for any sign from Alea that she was working on disabling those guns.

„So what's a mercenary like yourself doing holed up in a place like this? You look like a man of action, and they usually bore easily.”  „You know I won't tell you.”  „And I won't tell you why we are here. We are wasting time.”  A flicker of annoyance crossed Geoffs face, but he seemed to make an effort to dismiss it. „I like you, Alea. I won't hide that. But don't try my patience too hard. You don't exactly have any chips to bargain with here.”  „That may seem so, Geoff. In truth however, you need to know why we are here, if only to protect your secret little operation here. I did not lie about our mission not being related to you, but our presence here might be putting you in danger.”  Geoffs expression hardened, „You had better clarify this, sister.”  he said from between clenched teeth. „My crew and I are still hostages, Geoff,”  Alea said pointedly. To Tarellek's surprise, Geoff stared at her and then actually started laughing. „You know, I'm glad I restrained myself from shooting your ship to bits. This conversation is more fun than I have had in a long time. Tell me, what do you think your bargaining chip is worth?”  „Let me dock my ship in one of your hangars and help us make some repairs. You might need our assistance.”  „So you are expecting trouble.”  „I will give you a full rundown if you agree to take us in. Let's just say for the sake of trust that we ran into the tunnel from a little more than just one ship. Whether they followed is unclear.”  Geoff instantly turned to one of his goons. „Put the station on alert, and start charging the main coils. If anyone followed our visitors here, we have to be prepared.”  The man nodded, and quickly left the room. „Go back to your ship Alea, we will help how we can. We will meet again later when you're all set up to discuss this in more detail.”  Alea merely nodded thankfully.

She was escorted out by two of the guards, and she looked down at her hands, gesturing a message for Tarelleks benefit. She had managed to break into the guns systems, but for the time being they were not going to do anything. He sighed a big sigh of relief. Knowing that she could disable the guns whenever she chose was the best news they had in what seemed like ages. He still did not trust Geoff, he had his own agenda and their initial encounter showed that he would go to any lengths to further it. Their seeming alliance hinged on a very slim thread, namely the fact that he seemed genuinely fond of Alea. The hint she left of a fleet possibly being on the way did not even make him raise an eyebrow. Apparently he was very confident in his defences, and whatever he had meant by "charging the main coils" seemed to be a part of it.

Thalea and the others had followed the whole conversation as well of course, and when Alea came back onto the bridge the general mood was cheerful. Tarellek stifled an impulse to hug and kiss her. She might not have objected, but she was a pilot after all and he felt that his class prejudices would prevail on his urges for a long time. Chances were that he would never be able to alleviate them completely.

She smiled to all of them, and they felt the ship slowly moving towards the hanger bay they had been assigned, somewhere in the lower half of the tower. Geoff had promised them a team of engineers to help with their repairs. Tarellek let himself hope - maybe this was going to be their way out of this mess after all?

Chapter 20: "Geoff Cirol"

It was always the women. They invariably turned him into a sentimentalist sludge if they happened to be his type. Alea was exactly his type, and as far as he could recall, he had never seen a girl that beautiful. His hands actually trembled at the thought of her perfect skin and face. And damn, she was spirited... it seemed to him that she was exactly what he had been searching for all his life. She was meant for him, and she had found her way to him even in this most desolate of places, what were the odds? They were impossible. But what was he going to do about it?

He absently checked the state of the main capacitor coils. The EM storm had abated somewhat, so charging them took slightly longer than usual, but they were nearing 80% already. The proximity sensors did not register anything out of the ordinary, so they still had time. If there was any danger at all - he trusted Alea to come up with an honest lie to protect her ship and crew, so he did not really put that much belief in the presence of a hypothetical fleet pursuing her here.

He watched as the Anthea slowly turned and headed for the hangar. The station turrets were still tracking the ship of course. He may have been smitten with her, but he still had at least part of his wits about him. More out of instinct than any conscious thought, however. His mind was already back on his conquest, his imagination running wild with what he could do with a girl like that. A very graphic scene seemed to dissolve in a puff of smoke as he was torn out of his reverie by a comm channel blinking.

„Geoff, Wolf II is approaching. Do you want me to dock it, or send it directly out into corridor 4? It would be next in line for servicing.”  Geoff checked Wolf II's planning roster. „It is a bit ahead of schedule, take it in first and see if it needs any servicing. We have neglected it a bit lately with all the operations we had to make. Run a full diagnostic just to be sure, we can't afford to have it break down on us now.”  „Ok, I'm on it.” 

It was not unusual for Wolf II to be ahead of schedule; sometimes the corridors needed less servicing if the field had been stable and fewer of the rock formations had to be wrenched back into place. As a result, he did not give it any second thought, going straight back to his plans with Alea. A comm channel chimed again, and he eyed the screen irritably. It was the Anthea calling.

He smiled faintly. „Alea.”  „Something is not right, Geoff. Thalea, my weapons specialist, noticed that your Ship Wolf II has visible damage to its tractor turrets. We did not cause that damage.” 

He abruptly closed the channel, and opened a new station-wide emergency channel. This was time for action, and that he knew better than anything else.

„Code red! Everyone prepare for battle stations, perimeter breach!”  He barked, and brought all turrets to bear on Wolf II, just as the ship's iris opened to reveal an ugly brute of a ship, battleship-sized.

The targeting speed of the enemy ship must have been on steroids, because it started firing almost immediately. Geoff counted seven pulse laser turrets firing, taking out two of his regular sentry turrets. The Harbinger piloted by one of his subordinates had been webbed and disabled by an energy neutralizer. The capital turrets were finally fully aligned, but one of the three exploded as the enemy turrets blazed again.

"Not good enough, b******" he thought to himself, as the two remaining turrets hit the ship. As the beams hit, they shredded its shields completely and pierced through nearly a third of its armour. To his dismay, the armour went back up to 100% almost immediately. "What the hell?" he said with feeling, just as another one of his capital turrets was blown to bits. The remaining one managed to dent the ship's armour again, but it would obviously require more than that.

Then the Anthea was there, all eight guns blazing. This time the enemy's armour did not get right back up to 100%, but it was still obvious that their combined firepower would not be enough. Especially since he saw that his sensors picked up a number of additional ships waiting in the corridor just behind Wolf II. As soon as Wolf II got clear of the corridor, they would join the fight, and then the station would effectively be done for.

A small green light came on in his readouts, and his face came alight with a broad, evil grin.

He reopened the comm channel to the Anthea. „Alea, I suggest you take some evasive manoeuvres. What I am about to do will likely send a lot of debris your way”  he said, and disengaged all necessary fail safes of the station's hidden weapon. One of the station's massive hangar doors slid open to reveal what looked like an oversized lens of some kind, infused with a bluish glow.

Geoff hit the switch, and the energy burst made his ears ring. The whole station shook and vibrated for ten long seconds before the pent-up energy pulse was released entirely. The aftermath was the sound of debris of all sizes hitting the station in a rain of metal. He chuckled evilly. Wielding that kind of power invariably does strange things to people, and he knew he enjoyed it way too much. His sensor banks slowly started to make sense of the static and he was able to confirm that nothing of note was left of either that ugly ship nor any of its followers.

He apprehensively scanned for Alea's ship, and was relieved to see it seemed to have escaped the blast unscathed. At least he would be able to salvage something out of this. After showing such prowess, he should have one more hold on her. Girls like that craved power, and this was a good demonstration of his power. He did not even check the damage reports. He split the team of engineers he had prepared for Alea's repairs into two so they could start on assembling spare capital turrets. He had enough people to do it, but he needed to keep Alea pent up here so he could work his magic.

And if she did not yield to his charm, he would just take her by force.

Chapter 21: "The Blast"

When Wolf II emerged from the tunnel, Thalea got curious. It seemed strange to her that it would have gotten there this fast as it had kept on going the other way when they had shuttled through it. She trusted her instincts, so she scanned the ship. It was not unusual for her to take this kind of action, she believed that curiosity and suspicion were a healthy mix in a harsh world like New Eden. Her instincts had been good once again: the ship showed signs of damage that had not been there when they left it behind in the tunnel. The tractor turrets had been completely destroyed, leaving only dark holes with scorched metal around them. She sent the screen to Alea, who would know immediately what to do with the information.

Alea decided to pass the information along to Geoff. Thalea was of two minds about that - on one hand, it was a good way to consolidate what little trust had grown between them, on the other she was not sure if they should really care. What ensued was a pretty ugly fight. It was Eitasena alright, in his "Planetrazer" Bhaalgorn class battleship. And it packed a bigger punch than any of them had expected, tearing through the station's defences like butter. A shocked gasp escaped her when Eitasena's armour repair systems just shrugged the damage from the turrets off as if it was of no moment. He clearly had some very high end systems fitted to that ship.

Alea took evasive action after a short communication with Geoff that Thalea missed, and she turned the ship around to expose their thickest armour to the fight. Then Alea warned them to brace themselves, but did not explain what for. Suddenly all her screens went white with static, and an inhuman screech tore through the air. A ghastly commotion seemed to go through the very fabric of space and a rain of debris struck the ship. It seemed to last forever, then slowly subsided. The Anthea's limited sensor banks were trying to make sense of the information they were getting without much success.

„What the blazes was that?”  Tarellek asked, his face pale. „I don't know yet, I can't get a clear picture of what's going on.”  „I have never seen an energy spike like that. It looked almost like a small supernova,”  Tarellek said, awestruck.

As the sensors eventually sifted through the interference, they all stared in wonder as the camera drones flew through the field of debris. Thalea had never seen anything like it. The Planetrazer was gone, but that ship alone could not account for the amount of rubble. She thought she recognized a familiar shape, possibly a hull fragment of an Absolution class Field Command Ship. Eitasena's ship had apparently only been the forefront of additional ships hidden behind him. No matter how many there had been, there was nothing left of them but bits and pieces no puzzle master could ever make any sense of. Astonishingly enough, Wolf II was still coasting right where it had been, the only apparent damage being assorted hull fragments that had been projected outward from the blast and lodged themselves into its hull. That could only mean the weapon they used was some kind of beam, and the design of that ship obviously encompassed more than just letting ships through.

„There is a lot more here than meets the eye,”  she said thoughtfully into the room. „That's an understatement,”  Tarellek answered in an awed voice. Ever the engineer, she mused. He surely pictured the technique behind it all, and was mesmerized by how such a thing could be built. All she ever wanted to know was how to use stuff, not how it worked. But this? No one should wield that much destructive power. Alea addressed them urgently. „We need to tread very carefully here. A weapon with such power is likely to be highly coveted. Its makers will certainly not let anyone with knowledge of it loose in the world, especially not a civilian ship like ours.”  „We cannot trust Geoff. Whatever he says, as the keeper of the thing he cannot let us go, no matter what. His sudden helpfulness is but a farce I'm sure,”  Thalea said. She was intimately convinced that his intentions towards Alea were far from kindly. She had seen it in his eyes, the sheer lust. Tightly controlled, but she knew the signs all too well. „Yes. I know what he wants.”  „You,”  Thalea said meaningfully, and Alea looked at her, nodding once.

Damn, that woman really was something. She seemed to see through everything... but it was easy to forget that she was telepathic. She had probably read Geoff like an open book and played right into his ploy. Somehow that managed to reassure her enormously. Alea was still in control, and she would surely find a way out of this.

Tarellek was looking at her with undisguised love. Apparently he had closely followed her short exchange with Alea and understood the implications just as well as she did. She gave him a radiant smile. Once more she marvelled at how their peculiar chemistry had established itself over time - from the connection they shared before Alea walked amongst them and Tarellek became her lover to their current unorthodox love triangle. She shuddered at the cheesy expression, but was it not in truth? As much as she always tried to convince herself otherwise, she did love them both beyond the safe limits she used to impose on herself. Limits that her childhood had established, but it was only natural they would evolve over time. Indeed, if this was not what she had unconsciously been waiting for to let the barriers go what else could there be?

Now that the fight was over beyond any shadow of a doubt, Alea resumed the Anthea's docking procedure. Thalea looked upon this with confidence, knowing they could not be in any better hands right now.

Chapter 22: "Eitasena Annidhar"

He was actually cackling manically as he pounded the station's defences to bits. After all this time being bored out of his skull, this was pure ecstasy. The shots from those weird turrets surprised him for an instant, but the billions he had spent into the Planetrazer's fitting were paying off. The armour repair systems shrugged the shots off, and by the time the station could hit him again they had already lost too much firepower to be any more danger to the ship. As soon as he would be done with the station, he would be able to go after Alea - and she would FINALLY not be able to escape him anymore. She had joined the fight with that puny ship of hers, but even with its offensive capabilities they were no match for him. He laughed again. He was elated as he waited for the next burst of his turrets to take out the last of the station turrets, but suddenly something was very, very wrong.

The energy buildup in the station was cosmic. Whatever was about to happen was imminent, and in a millisecond he knew he was done for. His instincts once again saved him, as against all common sense he activated his pod's emergency eject sequence. He felt the short burst of acceleration as the pod was hurtled out the ejection tube, then the shock and screeching of tearing metal as it crashed into the hull of Worm II below and came to rest there. Then it seemed like the whole universe burst into incandescent light, and he lost consciousness as his implants overloaded from the proximity to the station's super weapon blast.

When he slowly came to, he had a headache as if someone had taken out his brain, smashed it to a pulp and put it back in again. His pod's systems were struggling to stabilize him. His biometric scan showed that at least one of his implants had fried and his brain pressure was climbing rapidly as a result from internal bleeding. Before he could do anything, the pod induced a coma and he drifted off imagining it drilling into his skull to relieve the pressure and suture the damaged area.

When he woke again, he was drugged to oblivion. Everything he did was through a dense fog. It was like moving through thick gravy, all his thoughts taking tremendous effort to form. After a few unsuccessful tries to recover, he gave up and set the pod to induce a sleep for two more hours so that most of the drugs would be out of his system. There was nothing he could do anyway. If his enemies had detected his unlikely escape, he was done for one way or the other.

When he woke, he was feeling a lot better. A tight knot had settled in his stomach, and he quickly ran out of curses. He felt a burst of uncontrollable rage well up in him, but his survival instincts managed to suppress it with an inhuman effort. Alea's face came to haunt and tease him like his own, private nemesis. To hell with that b****! He started assessing the situation. It was even worse than he had thought - literally nothing but dust was left of his strike force and his ship. The knot in his stomach tightened. His ship... in a single f****** shot?? What the bloody f*** was this?

His pod was in surprisingly good shape, in part because the hull of Worm II was as wormy as its name, and had freely given way to let him crash into it and offer him some semblance of protection. Luckily none of the debris had hit the pod, but it had been very close. One ugly looking piece of hull from the Planetrazer jutted out ominously to the port side, not more than a metre away from his pod. He marvelled at how he had managed to escape that mayhem relatively unscathed. He did not have the luxury to think about it too much of course, he had to get his battered brain into gear somehow.

His sensors picked up the Anthea, the ship was slowly approaching one of the hangars of the station. So they were in league with each other? It dawned on him that it had possibly all just been an elaborate trap to lure him here and assassinate him. He laughed. Well, they were not going to get rid of him that easily. Grimly, he considered his options.

Chapter 23: "The Aftermath"

Regardless of Geoff's intentions, his team of engineers was competent and very helpful. The team had been reduced as they needed personnel to repair the damage to the station, so things were progressing slowly. Even so, they had already managed to replace a big part of the missing sensory equipment they had lost when the Anthea's nose had been crushed, restoring their sight to normal levels. Rebuilding the nose itself was of course not an option, not here. But they completed some structural changes to give the bow a seamless coat of armour and to reinforce the bulkheads that had been damaged.

All in all he was satisfied with the work, but half of his mind was weaving plots, answering and asking questions about Aleas decision to meet again with Geoff. Whichever way he turned the whole situation, he could not find a single good reason for her to subject herself to the man's revealed dishonesty. What had him baffled was Thalea's lack of concern. She and Alea had spoken before she left the ship, and her confidence in Alea's security was more than a little suspicious. But then women often do have more power over men than the men realize, and in this case Geoff was probably in for a rather nasty surprise. With her telepathic abilities, she would wiggle him around her fingers. The man was a trained mercenary however, and Tarellek was concerned about the ends he would go to get what he wanted. In a fight, Aleas prowess in the simulator may not be enough, even with Tiarell at her side.

He pointedly pushed all that aside. There was nothing he could do from where he was, and speculation for the sake of speculation never accomplished anything. He took out his plans of the modifications they had made to the hull to absorb the energy of the EM storm, and made adjustments to his initial concept to make the setup permanent. Now that everything was in place, there was no practical reason to strip it all out again. They still had to get out of here somehow anyway, and who could know what uses they would find for the system in the future?

Thalea came by later that day to give him an update on Alea's progress. Apparently she had gleaned quite a bit on the operation there right from under Geoffs nose, mostly by diving into the station's systems and exploring the circuitry connected to the mysterious weapon.

„She did not have enough time to go into much detail, but apparently the station is part of an Amarr experiment that started over sixty years ago.”  „Sixty years? This installation is not sixty years old. Twenty at the most, judging from the station design.”  „Yes, apparently the first three experiments failed. This is the fourth iteration, and the first to successfully harness the energy generated by the field and convert it into a super weapon.”  „What is it then, did she find out any details?”  „Yes, it's basically a super sized modulated laser turret. The frequency crystal is about as large as the Anthea, and the damage output is... evil. The technical issues were apparently to store and release the energy, which they seem to have under control now.”  Tarellek shuddered. „I would have to run some calculations based on the energy spike, but I think a direct hit with that thing would give even larger stations trouble.”  „Alea also told me that there is a total of 4 tunnels. They are laid out in star formation around the station, presumably so that they can use the gun to shoot in any of the 4 directions - whatever they need to do that for.”  All this did not really put his mind at ease. „I'm worried about her.”  „I know.”  She smiled. „Don't be, as far as I could see she's pretty much got everything under control. Geoff is clearly out to own her body and soul, but he's not ready to take any direct action so far. As long as she can keep him firmly believing that his seduction campaign is working, she can further jeopardize his operations.”  „It's a very dangerous game. You've seen the man, he's nothing more than a civilized brute. If you tip him over the edge, only the brute will remain.”  „I trust Aleas judgment enough to avoid tipping him over,”  she said, and kissed him lightly on the cheek. „I have to go back, I'll let you play with your toys for a while.”  He laughed. „You're impossible. Go, just promise me you'll keep a gun warm to blow that bastard's brains out if he makes a false move.”  She solemnly put a hand on her left breast in a mute salute, and left with a wicked grin on her face.

He was back on board the ship idly running diagnostics from a tablet in the upper crew lounge adjoining the bridge when a commotion in the station made the whole ship tremble. It was closely followed by another, and what sounded like a muffled explosion. "Now what?" he muttered, as he broke into a run and called up a screen on his heads-up display.

The station was being attacked by the station-owned Harbinger that had been hovering somewhat to the side. The last one of the intact capital turrets was gone, which accounted for the explosion he had heard, leaving the station entirely defenseless. The ship did not have that much firepower, but unchallenged it was enough to methodically take the station apart since it had no shields. The pilot, whoever he was, was concentrating on the hangar doors behind which the secret weapon was hidden, and soon he would tear through them and destroy it. Chances were that there was not enough time left to charge it to respond.

He quickly checked Alea's feed. She was with Geoff on the main bridge, and he was completely frantic. Alea told him she needed to get back to the Anthea as she was their only hope of destroying that ship, but he would not listen. And how could he? If he let her go, she was surely lost to him. He had nothing else to bargain with, especially not if that last defence was destroyed. He had to protect whatever was left, even if it was likely the unknown attacker out there would not stop before everything was reduced to rubble. Tarellek swore.

A comm channel chimed on all public channels, coming from the Harbinger. Tarellek listened in, and his blood chilled. He knew that voice all too well. It was Eitasena. How the bloody hell could he still be alive??

„Aleaaaaaaaa! Come out of there you filthy w****, let's finish this once and for all! Did you really think your little trap here would rid you of me?”  He laughed a raucous laugh tinted by madness. „It will take you more than that to stop me! Come out of your hidey-hole, you blasted b*****” 

Eitasena went on raving continuously, shredding the station to bits, apparently intent on burrowing through it until he could get to the Anthea and its pilot. Tarellek had to admire the stamina and resourcefulness of the man, he must have had some truly unreal instincts to escape that blast, whichever way he had managed that. Tarellek was not immediately worried, it would take him quite a while until he could chew himself through to the Anthea. For the moment, he was bent on getting the secret weapon out of the picture first, and he made good progress - the hangar door was starting to loosen..

On that end, Tarellek realized Eitasena was doing them a great favour. If he could manage to destroy the weapon, it would be one big worry less for them to handle. He continued to watch the live camera drone footage, just like everyone else on the bridge. Suddenly he noticed the familiar energy surge in the station - the weapon was powering up again. A lot less powerful, but it would still be enough to destroy a relatively small target like the Harbinger. The hangar bays did not open this time, the blast just shot through them. Eitasena must have noticed the energy buildup too, as he had already started some evasive manoeuvres, but the blast still hit the rear end of the ship, crippling it completely. Until the last moment, the ship's turrets continued shooting and then went dead as the power flow from the generators that had been located aft was cut.

Eitasena's babbling stopped as well, but only seconds later Tarellek saw his pod flying toward the station, deftly avoiding all the flowing debris just to disappear somewhere on the far side. Now what was he up to? He was jerked out of his concentration by Alea's voice in his mind.

„Tarellek?”  she said tentatively. Her voice seemed far off somehow, but it sure was good hear her. „I hear you.”  He formed the words in his mind, directing them to her awareness that hovered in a part of his consciousness. „Ah, good. I was not sure if I could reach out this far. I trust you followed the latest events?”  „Yes. The man seems to be unstoppable.”  „He's completely mad now. Whatever happened to him, his mind is gone. That makes him all the more unpredictable and dangerous however. I have to get back to the ship. I will divert Geoffs attention, please put together a strike team to defend the hangar when I get there.”  „I'm on it.”  „Tarellek...”  She started. „I know,”  He answered softly, putting his whole being in those two words. In these moments she seemed like a small child to him. Pilots were only human, after all, and he needed to think of that more often. Their peculiar relationship made her strangely vulnerable, and she had come to rely on his support.

He moved Alea's video feed over to his heads-up display, and quickly briefed Thalea on Aleas plans. They met on the hangar deck with the strike team, a collection of humourless professionals dedicated to the close-up defence of ships. Fortunately they did not have to call on them too often, but it was good to know you could count on them. These teams were routinely swapped out on each visit to a station so they could maintain their training, thus ensuring they were always as efficient as possible. As a result, he did not know a single one of them personally.

„Do you have an idea of what we can expect?”  The commander of the team asked him. He was in his forties, and had a rock-hewn, scarred brutish face. His eyes betrayed a a keen intelligence however, immediately asserting his capacity to lead. „The men guarding the station are well trained and armed to the teeth as far as I could see. I do not know how many to expect, that depends on what Alea has planned to keep them occupied while she makes her escape. They are far from stupid, so I would expect them to be able to mount an organized assault in pretty short time.”  „We'll just assume the worst scenario then and go from there,”  he said, obviously not satisfied with Tarelleks summary.

Tarellek looked helplessly at Thalea, and she joined the commander with his men. She spoke in earnest with them for a while, and the conversation ended with rough laughter and some oh so obvious glances in his direction. She came back over to where he was standing, grinning openly.

„I don't want to know,”  he said feeling somewhat hurt. „You're just not cut out for that particular job. You don't know what's important and what's not. If you asked the commander about armour repair nanite configurations, you would get a completely unsatisfactory answer too,”  she said. Then she gently stroked his cheek. „Don't you worry about it, I gave them the details they craved.”  „You have a way too clever mouth, you know. It could get you in trouble someday,”  he said with a smirk. „Oh, I love trouble!”  she said suggestively, just as Alea came effortlessly running out of one of the access corridors. „10 guards about six seconds behind me, assault rifles, personal shields”  she shouted as she deftly jumped over a couple of crates in her way. The commander and his team were already in position, and signaled their readiness. Alea joined Tarellek and Thalea near the Anthea's access hatch. „Let's not linger here,”  she said, and started towards the hatch.

Just before they reached the hatch however, it closed right before them with a crashing metallic clang. Tarellek and Alea exchanged glances, and Alea closed her eyes in concentration, in all likelihood trying to access the door's systems to open it again. Then the guards were there, closely followed by Geoff himself They took positions inside the corridor, out of the line of fire from the Anthea's strike force.

„You won't be able to open that door, sister. We have some special overrides in our ship interfaces that are impervious to electronic tampering. Surrender now, or this will turn ugly quick,”  Geoff spat at them. „I can crack it,”  Alea whispered to them. „But we have to stall him.”  „Come on Alea, you did not think I would just let you leave? I have big plans for you and me. We're made for each other!”  He cried out from inside the corridor.

Great, Tarellek thought. They were surrounded by madmen. For the time being, it was a standoff, neither party daring to start the hostilities. Alea silently worked on the door controls, all three of them crouched behind some heavy containers that offered at least some protection. Thalea coordinated command with the strike team. Tarellek had a bad feeling about this, an overpowering sense of dread running through his body from head to toe.

Seemingly to confirm his fears, a loud commotion and shouts of pain and anguish suddenly came from the corridor beyond where Geoff's team was located. Several explosions sent the guards and pieces of guards flying and raining into the hangar bay. One of the bodies hurled their way was Geoff. He collapsed in a heap a few metres from them, and promptly died in a liquid, gurgling kind of sigh.A dark red pool of blood quickly spread under him.

The look on Aleas face was one of revulsion, and Thalea looked at the body in pure terror. The noise in the corridor subsided, and a loud rhythmic stomping slowly came closer, followed by a loud bellow.

„Aleaaaa! Forgot about me, didn't you? Hold on to your panties, I'm coming to get you!”  Eitasena's voice boomed, in an impossibly loud voice.

Tarellek's heart sank. The man was indeed unstoppable. He chanced a glance towards the corridor, and what emerged from the lingering dust cloud made them all stare in disbelief. Tarellek had heard of exoskeletons, but only in theory. How could he have laid his hands on a functional one? With incredible agility and strength, the thing jumped right into the middle of their strike team, picking the men up as if they weighed nothing. What ensued was pure butchery. Consumed by his rage, Eitasena not so much tossed the bodies around as he dismembered them, throwing body parts their way, all the while shrieking unintelligibly. They shrank back from his fury, numbed by this inhuman display of torture.

He did not seem to even feel the few bullets that hit him. They merely bounced off the hardened metal that was additionally protected by a slim shield of some kind. There was absolutely nothing they could do against that monster. Tarellek could not help to stare in horror as Eitasena dispatched the last body, which he pointedly hurled into the crate they were hiding behind, toppling it.

Tarellek stood transfixed as he saw Alea, calmly advancing towards the big brute. Eitasena stopped in mid stride, his face apprehensive behind his polarized faceplate. Alea obviously still baffled him, but what on earth was she doing?? He sent an urgent thought her way, but she only responded with a short "I have to do this."

„So this is how you have finally decided to meet your nemesis, Eitasena?”  She asked, seeming to tower over him although he was about two metres taller than her in the exoskeleton. Her words obviously struck a nerve, as pure fear passed on his face for a second, only to be replaced by implacable hatred. „I'm not afraid anymore, witch. This is where it ends, either for me or for you. I don't even care which it will be anymore. I just want it to end.”  „Then come, Eitasena. Come and face your doom,”  she said in a carefully orchestrated voice. He suddenly seemed unsure of himself, groping with the suit's controls. But it would not budge. He howled in frustration, then popped the back plate which bounced off to one side in a resounding clash. Then he jumped to the floor. Alea must have been close enough to disable the suit, Tarellek mused. His hands were visibly shaking as he approached her, his rifle's aim unsure, levelled roughly at her chest. „How can you be so calm, woman? What are you?”  He said in a hoarse whisper, barely audible where Tarellek stood. „This place will be your grave, Eitasena. Deep down you already know its”  she said implacably. Eitasena's remaining colour drained from his face, and he nodded as he slowly lowered his gun until it tangled limply at his side. Tarellek thought he could see tears streaming down his face. „Thank you,”  he said earnestly. „For ending the line,”  he added finally, and let himself sink to his knees, inclining his head. Alea stood still, and Tarellek noticed that Thalea had stealthily moved over to one side of the pair. She had her gun at the ready, and a single expert shot made Eitasena collapse. The sudden silence was deafening, and they stood there for an indeterminate amount of time until Alea turned away from Eitasena's body to embrace first Thalea, then Tarellek.

The fight was over. All the fights, even. But no one was able to rejoice. Not after this grisly ending. None of them was hardened enough to simply shrug that magnitude of destruction and death off. Such violence could simply not be forgotten. Tarellek knew the fight in the hangar would haunt him for the rest of his life, he only hoped it would lessen over time. Grimly, they gathered their own dead and left the rest lying as they were. Then they all went back into the ship and closed the door on those horrors, never to lay eyes on them again.

Alea spent some more time to try and learn more about the initial project and its creators, but could glean only very little. Still, they had a few names to work with, even if they were unsure what to do with the knowledge. Maybe some stories were better left untold.

The good news was that they managed to find out which tunnel would let them escape from the field in just a few days time. Before they set out, the three of them met in the mess hall adjoining the bridge to decide what to do with the battered station tower. Their consensus was that they could not just leave it sitting there.

„I charged the weapon's coils to 100%, and initiated a feedback loop in the station's main capacitor core. It will give us just enough time to get out of here before it all goes up in flames,”  Alea told them. „That should do the trick alright,”  he said, knowing that was an understatement. Chances were that the explosion would trigger a nuclear meltdown fuelled by the pent-up energy in the rock formations. It was impossible to predict the outcome. „I think we need to be very, very far away when it happens.”  „Let's go,”  Thalea concluded. She was right, there was nothing holding them back anymore.

It took them three days to reach the outer edge of the field. The tunnel was starting to get wider, and they were preparing to warp as soon as they got as clear as was relatively safe. Time was running out on the stations' core capacitor overload timer, and he preferred taking the risk of enclosing some debris in their warp field than to wait for them to be entirely clear and be engulfed in the blast, which he was sure was going to be nothing short of cataclysmic.

As they slowly emerged from the field, Tarelleks heart unwillingly missed a few beats again. There was whole fleet out there. He counted two carriers, a cloud of fighters waiting to engage as well as an unhealthy amount of support ships. Even after his demise, Eitasena was still haunting them.

As the first ships started to target them, the timer hit zero and he felt the familiar, salvatory tug of the warp field. He watched serenely now as the ships receded into tiny specks, then disappeared entirely. Illinfrik's star slowly rushed by, and a few seconds later they came to a halt at the designated safe spot. Alea turned the ship around, and sent a screen of Illinfrik's starry sky to their consoles.

The light from the explosion reached them a short while later. They had jumped ahead of the light, ironically giving them a safe way to watch the explosion after all this time spent literally bathing in danger. The explosion was spectacular; it cycled through what seemed like millions of colours, and ended in one bright, blinding flash that slowly receded to blackness.

Illinfrik's local channel went wild as local pilots and authorities saw and investigated the phenomenon. The crew of the Anthea listened in a calm detachment, knowing it was definitely over. They stayed in their safe spot for about an hour longer, long enough to get the first excited reports of intrepid pilots that had warped to the location to find a huge debris field that contained clues about several large fleets and war installations belonging to the angel cartel that had been effectively obliterated by an unknown explosion source. Soon salvage ships would start competing for a share of the loot.

Chapter 24: "The Phoenix Rises"

The event stayed in the news for about a full month before the scores of scientists gave up on finding the cause of the blast. One highlight was a call from Agdelger Ruflaner, the agent that had given them the initial mission. He was obviously stunned to find them still alive. He had knowingly sent them into a trap - Tarellek had suspected that right from the outset, but now the dismay in his voice confirmed it for them.

„You can keep your money, Agdelger. You will need it to try and bribe your way out of this mess. We r**** that angel fleet, you may have seen it in the news. I made sure the cartel got my memo and your involvement in it.”  Agdelger made a gurgling, choked sound. „I suggest you start running now, you might get to live a few hours longer,”  Alea said, and closed the channel. „I love the way you think,”  Thalea said without a hint of a smile.

They drifted somewhat aimlessly around for the next week, raising eyebrows wherever they docked or crossed other pod pilots. It is hard to be inconspicuous when one pilots an Abaddon with a flattened nose, and so much battle scarring. Slowly the Anthea came to be somewhat of an urban legend, rumours running wild as to what happened to the ship. Inevitably, through some obscure leaks wild stories of their involvement in the Illinfrik explosion also came to light, effectively elevating the ship and its pilot to deity status. It was all very silly of course, but pod pilots loved a good story, and Alea and the Anthea were definitely the stuff great stories are made of.

Business proposals started raining in, even the navies of all major races suddenly eager to hire their services. Alea turned them down politely for a while, but then after a few short discussions they decided to work for the Minmatar Republic Navy and do what they were good at, namely slicing through Angel Cartel operations of all sizes.

One evening, Tarellek and Alea were sitting in the lower crew lounge, huddled together watching stars and planets fly by on their way to well deserved rest after a successful mission.

„I was waiting for the right moment to give you this,”  Alea said softly, reaching inside her tunic. Tarelleks heart missed a few beats as he watched her retrieving a... bit of paper? „What is it?”  he asked curiously. „Open it, you'll see.” 

He unfolded the piece of paper. Inside, he found a carefully bound blueprint. Now his curiosity was piqued in earnest, and he delicately unbound the precious document and unfolded it on the table in front of them. He looked at the blueprint in wonder. An original, from Duvolle Labs no less.

„I had it made especially for you, my love. It is the only one in existence, I made sure of that,”  she said. He did not doubt her one second, the engineer that made this probably had no recollection of ever taking on the job.

He studied the design, it looked familiar somehow. He went over it in more detail, and then it dawned on him. It was a slightly modified version of the strange semi-capital guns Geoff had fitted on his station. Alea had modified it to be compatible with the Anthea's power systems, and even provided a plan of all the necessary hull modifications to fit it. He stared at her in wonder. This would make them nearly invincible.

Thus the ship and its intrepid crew made history. Bruised, but risen from their ordeals like a phoenix from the flames, to soar once more and rend through the ships of anyone daring to cross their path.

The end!: This concludes "Crystalline Trouble", the first instalment in the upcoming series featuring Alea Zatar and her crew. Watch this space for more to come!

Glossary of terms: Characters overview (warning: spoilers):