Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Electric Jihad

On the deck of his flagship, Commodore Qataari paced behind the banks of consoles manned by his officers and crewers. Sitting to attention, they were only too aware of his critical presence. On this day the Commodore was in a relaxed mood following on from the latest in a line of successful military conquests of more than a dozen worlds within as many weeks.

Still it paid to be attentive to the letter of the procedure. It was not uncommon for his moods to change in the blink of an eye. There had been many, too many unfortunates who had fallen foul of a whim to be complacent before this man. So they sat attuned to their task as he continued to pace up and down.

At the far end of the bridge, a view-screen showed the monumental sphere of the world they hung in orbit over – another system and race under the thumb of the march of the New Order. Like so many others it would become little more than a staging post in the long chain that led back across the eight corners of the universe.

Resources would be taken and used, and its people all but enslaved to masters who they would be unlikely to know by less than third hand information, such was the secrecy and myth that attached itself to the High Lords and their rule.

Some said they had no physical form, that they lived and lingered only with the aid of the machines that they had tamed. Yet others claimed they were an extension of the ether itself sent forth to punish the inhabitants of countless thousands of worlds for their straying from the paths laid within the foundations of the shibboleth.

But as with all great myths, the tales grew an extra leg with every telling. No-one knew the real truths anymore.

Perhaps that was how the High Lords liked it. A rule by fear, or so yet others said.

At this hour the image on the view-screen was inconsequential. Already the fleet of man-o-war ships hanging in orbit like tiny parasites sucking their host clean would be nearing the end of their resupplying operations.

Qataari reached the end of the deck, and stopped to take in the information displayed upon a huge shimmering translucent holographic projection. Like an entity to itself, lines of data in New Order script scrolled freely without constraint alongside ever-changing schematics and tactical readouts.

A line of static buzzed across the text; an imperfection somewhere in the programming. He frowned, and several officers cowered back into the shadows, their faces lit by the projection’s ghostly glow.

“There are several ships reported still entering and leaving the system.”

A finger jabbed into the display, sending interference rippling like those from a stone thrown into a pond.

“Change the display. I wish to see it in real-time,” he ordered, never taking his eyes from the images.

An officer nodded to a crewer manning the control console. In the swift strokes of a finger the projection changed soundlessly to a three-dimensional representation of the outer reaches of the conquered system. Several slow-moving pinpricks of simulated light tracked the paths of freighters.

The officer moved closer, knowing that he could not hide. Swallowing, he felt his throat go dry.

“Perhaps they are just traders, Commodore. The Dan-y-Dúr system has always been noted for its trading base. A change of government would not deter them,” he soothed.

“Are you sure?” demanded Qataari.

The officer felt the sweat beginning to trickle down the back of his neck. A hundred eyes watched him from the gloom of the bridge; there was no way back now.

“We have tracked several from Starports on all three inhabited planets. Shipping rosters confirm them as genuine. We do not have the manpower to do more, unless you wish us to delay our departure several moons more?”

The question hung tantalising in the air. The tables turned in the officer’s favour.

Qataari eyed the shimmering lines as another bout of static buzzed across the projection.

The officer smiled – the storm weathered.

“What of this one?”

Nervously the officer looked to where the Commodore’s finger tracked one freighter on the outer rim. As they watched it was clear that its course was changing unnaturally. Following a tight arc, it was changing heading in a way that hinted at hidden motives.

“I do not know. It hasn’t appeared on our readouts until now.”

He turned to the crewers at the consoles.

“Ship in outer rim sectors – track it and put up simultaneous statistics.”

Fingers tapped rapidly in the gloom. At once a glowing ream of scrolling data appeared in the edge of the projection. Already more officers were stepping forward to gain a closer inspection.

“It is a privateer freighter,” called out the crewer at the console, confirming the data that now scrolled quickly in front of them, “They dropped from the Rösenbridge in the last forty seconds. Navigation has identified their entry point and vector and is calculating possible source systems for their jump.”

“They are running away from us.”

The officer’s words hung in the air. Indeed it seemed that way as the tiny trace gained momentum.

“Sensor report?” inquired a second officer.

“Too great a distance, Sir,” replied the crewer.

“Despatch reconnaissance ship,” ordered Qataari.

Fingers tapped on the console.

“Reconnaissance away.”

From the view-screen a tiny vessel passed by briefly, blazing a swift trail towards the outer reaches of the Dan-y-Dúr system. Another trace added itself to the projection. The first officer shook his head.

“It will never get there in time. They will drop back into the Rösenbridge and be gone.”

“Perhaps.”

“Perhaps not.”

All heads turned in the eerie glow to look to Qataari.

“The Psychics may provide an insight,” he said with a smile.

Calmly he turned to the crewers.

“Send a message to Madam Zonga’s quarters. She is to join us here immediately.”

“Understood.”

The crewer began opening a channel, but stopped as the doorway onto the bridge zinged open. There silhouetted in the bright light was the Psychic herself. Heads turned and watched as she flowed across the deck, her white dress and long blonde hair flowing in her wake.

Whilst the others could not help but watch in silent awe, Qataari waited until she stood in front of him before acknowledging her presence.

He looked up to meet her gaze.

“Ah. Madam Zonga, we are indeed honoured by your presence; we were about to send for you.”

She waved his smarm away indifferently and looked to the holographic projection.

“Dispense with the pleasantries, Commodore. I am not a Psychic for nothing. You wished to know of the freighter that has just recently entered this system.”

Qataari bowed in acknowledgement. On the projection the trace was still moving, heading back out of the system. A second trace, that of the reconnaissance ship, chased out towards it, but was still a very long way away.

“You are correct, as ever.”

She nodded, and touched the trace with an outstretched hand. Static buzzed and contorted as the projector struggled to keep pace with these new obstacles invading its sphere. The sharp stench of ozone rippled through the air, making all but Zonga and the Commodore subconsciously pull back.

Her eyes flickered shut as she reached out across the ether, letting her mind flow out into the depths of space.

“What do you see?” he demanded.

A smile. Her eyes remained tightly shut.

“Do not try to distract me. The ether is such that you would not understand – it takes great skill and concentration to master.”

He ignored the rebuke, though he did not reply. It would only bait for another quip. Officers dared to lean closer, to try to second guess her answers; he did not order them back.

At last she breathed a sigh, and spoke. Her eyes remained flickering behind closed eyelids, as if in a trance.

“Off-worlders. They came to unload a valuable cargo. Our presence here has alerted them to possible danger; something they wish to remain hidden. They compute new co-ordinates for the Rösenbridge, and will make the jump as soon as that is completed.”

She smiled, and her eyes opened wide.

“That is all.”

He nodded, turning to the projection. As if anticipating her prophecy the trace flickered, then winked out and was gone. Only a dark hole marked its passing point into the Rösenbridge dimension.

“So they go, and with them their secret.”

He made to wave her away, but she held up a hand in warning.

“There is one more thing.”

He looked up at her.

“At this distance it is difficult to tell. But their secret involved the Orb somehow. Further than that I could not tell.”

“So our Psychic shows her weakness,” he sneered.

She shrugged.

“I did better than your mechanical toys. Your sensors had already told you nothing of value.”

She turned and stomped off the bridge leaving only the faint sweetness of her perfume lingering in the air as a reminder.

“Make frequencies for the High Lords,” ordered Qataari moving to follow her, “I wish to inform them of developments.”

An officer snapped off a salute and turned to relay the order to the crewers. By the time Commodore Qataari reached the communications suite, they would be ready for them.

As the bridge doorway finally zinged shut a combined sigh of relief echoed through the room. At last the men could relax.

The first officer now turned back to the holographic display.

“Continue with diagnostics of the replenishment programme.”

Instantly the hologram flickered and changed back to flowing text and schematic diagrams. For a moment he studied the data, then almost as an afterthought turned to a crewer and added, “Recall the reconnaissance ship to dock.”

Fingers tapped quickly on the console. On a secondary display projection the trace that had been the small ship began to turn and retrace its course.


*****


Within her quarters aboard the racing ship, the eyes of the Psychic opened wide, the thoughts of her mind coalescing into a unified hole. For many long hours the dreams had served to haunt her mind, seeking out the fears that lay deep within. She had seen the ship that had made its escape at Dan-y-Dúr, only now the visions were far more clear and concise. Where there had been haze before, now there was clarity of light. Where there had been uncertainty, now there was only a clear truth.

She had seen them, searching for the Orb. In a surge of inner-felt emotion she had sensed in their minds deep within her dreams that they had been sent out to find the great artefact before the New Order.

Pushing back blankets she slid from between the sheets and keyed for a display on her holographic bedside pad. Immediately the shimmering figures hovered in the air giving her the time.

So it had been several hours since that ship had escaped. How the time passed by.

Images grew clearer in her wakened state. Echoes from the dream that refused to fade away but instead grew stronger as the time went by.

Closing her eyes and relaxing on the edge of her bed she let her mind reach out across the ethereal plane, looking for the minds she had sensed in her dreams. Deep down she wondered why she tried. There had been scant contact that she could inform the Commodore of at the time. What might be different now? An inner force drove her on, and she let her mind flow bridging the gap across the universe seeking them out.

Her thoughts passed stars and raced through vast sprawling star systems. Space débris and comets meant nothing here; she could feel the distant pull on the ether and strove to reach out mentally to it.

The moments went on by leading her concentration deeper and deeper, perilously far from the physical aspects of her body.

Now she could feel the beginning of the mental shift. The time when a Psychic’s mind overreaches itself and begins to detach from the atoms that form their body. They had warned her from an early age not to push too hard. Once a mind detached there was nothing that could bridge back the divide.

Without a mind, a body will die. If the bond between thoughts and reality breaks, then there would be nothing but a ghostly existence.

Just as she was about to admit defeat and turn back, she sensed through the haze what she was looking for.

A forest world grew clearer in her mind’s eye, resolving from nothing but a mass of swirling green into a full spectrum of colour.

She saw the ship. She saw the passengers, meeting in a tavern. Then the ogre came and took them away; a shaky Turbomotive pulling into the misty night. Then the image faded, and she realised she had stretched further than ever before.

Turning from the visions, she struggled back towards the end of the tunnel of light that stretched so very far away. A swim against a huge current, taking every ounce of mental strength to battle the tide.

Slowly the light grew bigger and stronger, and with a final push she found herself sprawled in the cooling darkness on the bed of her quarters. Her chest rose and fell in heavy rhythm and the sweat made her light cotton clothes stick to her skin.

Looking to the holographic clock display that still flickered in the gloom, she saw that more than an hour had gone.

A sigh of relief – how close it came to being far, far more.

Keying on the bedside pad she keyed frequencies to Commodore Qataari’s personal quarters and watched as the clock figures disappeared, replaced instead by the sound of Qataari’s voice.

“What do you want?” he asked, his voice tired and unimpressed with being roused at such an hour.

“We must talk,” she whispered breathlessly.

A pause. She thought she heard a sigh from the unseen man.

“Then talk.”

“I have seen in the visions of my dreams. The ones who ran from us this very moon – they are those the High Lords would seek.”

“Are you certain?”

“Yes,” she urged.

He seemed to consider this a moment and the link remained silent a while.

“What would you suggest?”

In her mind the still vivid afterglow of the visions shone in infinite detail.

“Send agents to Geldnine. They are there.”

She fancied that she could detect him think to question. Then his emotions changed, and he seemed in agreement.

“It shall be done if you are so certain.”

“I am certain.”

“Very well. If you learn any more I wish to be the first to know.”

She smiled, though he could never have seen her emotions change so.

“Do not worry, Commodore, as always I shall.”

She reached over and keyed the link off. Immediately the clock figures returned to the air.

The Commodore would follow her advise, that she knew. A prize for the High Lords would tempt him to pay visit to the dwarf warrior world in the future.

She rolled over and pulled the sheets back. The room still felt cold after the heat of her mental ordeal. As she lay against the softness of the pillow, she ran the memories over in her mind. They still remained clear, though there was one thing that remained uncertain.

The girl has some importance, but I know not what, she thought.

A flicker of emotions, caught in the fickle currents of the ether.


*****

From the stark utilitarian metal bunks of the tiny sleeping quarters the sounds of contented snoring drifted from where the old man Tomar lay in the bliss of the dream state. In pattern of metronome precision his chest rose and fell in time to the sounds.

Undeterred by such distractions Moll and Jomark sat patiently in the recessed seating area of time-dulled metal huddled over the mind game on the scarred and warped wood of the tabletop. Illuminated only by the feeble age and grime encrusted light that flickered in the recess above they set their wits into the battle of minds above the Sumarian jostle-board.

Occasionally one or other would move a wooden piece in predetermined pattern, oblivious to the ills of the world for now.

Another piece slid on the board, then another.

In the bunk Tomar still snored contentedly. This was a long journey under the watchful eyes of the pirate crew with whom none of the trio wished to have more than the minimum to do with.

So they found their own entertainment in the claustrophobic den of the cabin.


*****


Tomar awoke to the sound of klaxons muffled by the walls shrilling their pitiful wail into the semi-darkness. For a moment he struggled to remember where he was and the trail that had led him here. Stumbling in the recesses of his mind he found the train of thought that he required and gave chase in the opening moments of consciousness.

They were on their way to the next world across the infinite void of the vacuum. Yes – he remembered that. Reaching out with an uncertain hand, he fumbled around in the gloom. Fingers dragged free from the coarse ship’s issue blankets and rubbed on the tired flaked paint of steel wall.

Thoughts coalesced in his mind. They were still on board.

Turning in the confines of the bunk he saw across the dim glow the forms of his travelling companions huddled close-by at the edges of the main door. In the harsh bright light that filtered in the ventilation gap underneath shadows flitted and darted as crew members hurried past outside.

It was through this tiny gap he noted that the wail of the klaxons also came.

“So you finally awake,” whispered the dwarf, spying the movement in the shadows.

“What is going on?” Tomar demanded.

The dwarf raised a finger to his lips in sign to keep the noise down.

“The klaxons sounded not more than a couple of minutes ago and have not stopped since. The crew have gone into a panic, though Moll and I are still seeking to hear what we can hear as to the cause.”

Moll turned to face him, drawing her cautious ear away from the door.

“The men of the crew say we are ambushed. Ships have dropped from the Rösenbridge dimension all around us. We have strayed into a battle for power amongst the vacuum of the stars.”

Tomar noted the concern etched to her face. She did not jest.

Quickly he rolled the blankets clear and dropped soundlessly from the bunk to the floor. In the darkness however his trusty staff eluded his searching fingers.

“It is on the lower bunk,” said Moll, noting his struggles.

Tomar nodded in silent thanks as followed her direction.

Soon he joined them by their side listening at the door.

“Can you see anything across the ether?” asked Jomark urgently.

Tomar kneeled to the floor, leaning on the staff across his knees.

“I can try.”

He shut his eyes and concentrated, letting the fingers of his mind flow and meander without constraint.

Outside in the corridor frantic shouting and the omnipresent wail threatened at any moment to conspire to thwart his attention away from its mighty task, but he persevered.

Then it came. His mind folded across the ethereal plane, and all distractions were lost to the wayside dropping away as if mists under the heat of a newly risen sun.

He saw the ship as its whole, all parts together in one colossal unity.

He saw the fears of the crew. The fears borne out of the bigger horizon beyond the hull. In his mind he felt the emotions that pointed his concentrations along their way, and he looked ever further outwards into the infinite void of space and saw in the theatre of his mind what they too had seen.

A hundred ships, of many sizes and shapes. Two forces met in battle ready to joust for supremacy of the eight corners of the universe. They had come to fight.

In the quirk of fate and luck as they collide the tiny pirate freighter had found itself caught in the middle out of a chance that could never be dealt twice over in a hundred thousand dealings of the deck.

On the shoulders of the Gods fate himself might cast a laugh to the neatness and beauty of his work.

Tomar’s mind browsed row after row of Man-o-wars waiting for the moment to pounce. All the time they got closer, their weapons bristling, aching for the order to fire.

And all the time the pirate freighter swilled haplessly along its path to act as an insignificant shield in the bitter and deadly depths of no-man’s land.

In his mind Tomar felt the crew’s fear and knew now the justification for it.

Deep inside he felt their fear growing until it too was a part of him. Then he returned from his floating meditations and directed his thoughts back on themselves, to return to their rightful source.

Klaxons and frantic whisperings returned, and the darkened fetid gloom enveloped once more.

“What did you see?” whispered Moll as his eyes flickered open.

Looking round he saw the dwarf too was awaiting his words with urgency.

“The fleets mass in space,” he gasped, feeling the fear well up within him forcing him to fight for air.

“Are you all right?” asked Moll, sensing the pain and anguish.

Tomar tried to nod. The words he wished to say would not come so easily.

“What fleet?” demanded Jomark.

“Let him be,” scolded Moll, “Can you not see something is wrong.”

“Aye it is,” retorted the dwarf, “We are in trouble. He said so himself.”

He began to assemble his weapons, making sure the blade of his axe was ready.

“If they come for us, I shall be ready. I made a promise to protect, and I am not about to renege. What fleet do you speak of?” he repeated.

“Two fleets. Hung out in space to the realms of infinity and beyond. Fate has dealt us a hand that we cannot escape from,” muttered Tomar forlornly.

The dwarf paused for a moment to consider his words. In a hand a blade slid absently in and out of a scabbard.

“Then what are our options?” he said at last, “There must exist a way out.

From under the door shadows flickered again as panicked crewers rushed past, their conversations garbled and indecipherable. None of the three paid them any attention as they turned to each other searching for the one who might forward the answers to their predicament.

“Perhaps the captain might already know,” suggested Moll in a quiet whisper.

In the subdued light her eyes twinkled, opened wide as if she had seen the way though did not yet know it.

An explosion rocked the ship, sending loose blankets and bedding flying from the unsecured bunks.

Jomark looked up from the floor where he had been thrown, untangling limbs from the others.

“What was that?”

“It is too late. The fleets have begun firing on each other. Each might assume that we hail with the others. Either way we are in for a rough ride.”

Another explosion rocked the ship, forcing the three to huddle closer into the wreckage of the cabin seeking out alcoves and recesses that might protect them from the shockwaves. The flickering lighting could take no more punishment and exploded in a shower of glass shards. Now the only light came from the slit beneath the door, though that shimmered between many hues of brilliant blue as tortured cabling sought to make good its threat to blow under the strain.

Moll found herself cowering in the dim hole beneath the lower bunk next to the dwarf.

“My Moll, I shall strive to protect you,” he said in the darkness.

She smiled and kissed him on his hairy cheek. In his embarrassment he pulled away, but she pulled him back.

“Do not fear,” she said softly, “We will go on.”

In the gloom she subconsciously felt the probing look from the little man.

“How do you know?”

Suspicion edged his voice. Her words had been so certain after all.

“I feel it like a sixth sense,” she shrugged.

Tomar’s voice interrupted them floating from his concealment somewhere within the enforced dark.

“I sense your optimism also. There is a way.”

“How?” demanded the dwarf.

There was a shuffling of robes and Tomar was at their side in the tiny cramped hole.

“Come closer together,” he commanded, “In unity I may be able to direct the ethereal plane about us. It will form a protective blanket that will guide us to our destiny.

No destiny is fixed in time and space – maybe I can strive to give it a little helpful influence to our mutual benefit.”

Another explosion interrupted him, sending the structure around them into frenzied and torturous shock. Metal creaked and groaned as stanchions buckled and started to give.

“There isn’t much time. Hurry!”

Moll and Jomark felt the cool smooth surface of Tomar’s staff in the space between the three.

“Take hold,” the old man ordered, “And I will attempt to steer our destiny.”

Vibrations shuddered through the metalwork. Without a moment to lose they crabbed hold and hoped. In what little light there was they saw Tomar grunt in approval then close his eyes and concentrate.

“Will it work?!” asked Jomark in panic.

Moll tried to shush him, but Tomar waved her concerns away.

“Trust me and I shall find us passage from this hell when the right moment comes.”

For a few seconds it seemed as if a blue tinged glow appeared around the old man as he kneeled in silent meditation gripping the old trusted staff. Like an aura it spread until Moll and Jomark could sense it enveloping them also.

Deep within the cavern of Tomar’s mind a lifetime’s experience and self-motivated training collided in an urgency that had never before been so acute. With senses honed by life and death he reached out into the ethereal plane, letting his mind float once more beyond the confines of the cabin and the stricken ship.

Legions of opposing ships floated in the star-flecked darkness facing off each other. Here and there, growing in number all the time, flashes of light and silent vapour trails in the vacuum showed the passage of ordnance on their devastating deadly way.

A ship in the distance was confronted by a huge spreading spherical blue-orange glow as a torpedo burst off its hull. Light streaked out in every direction in a vast glitter-ball of destruction, then in an imploding frenzy and a sharp flash half the ship was gone, wrenched away by the destructive power of the Rösenbridge torpedo.

In the blink of an eye the Rösenbridge field had sucked a sphere neatly away into its own dimension and transported it across the eight corners of the universe. Here what was left that hadn’t made it into the field floated trailing wakes of fragmented metals and wispy trails of venting gases.

Those aboard would not have stood a chance.

A scene repeated a hundred times over across the blackened skies.

Ignoring the multitude of sufferings Tomar let his mind fold away and be directed purely on the physical environment. The frantic minds of the crew still hurrying to battle stations did not concern him, though the results of their actions did. As the tiny vessel slowly turned to make a break back into the stars he felt the approaching paths of the Rösenbridge torpedoes homing in steady and true.

Letting his mind feel for the distances and read the future that had yet to unfold, his senses predicted the likely outcome.

In a haze of confusion it became clear that one was on a direct collision course that could never be avoided.

In desperation the motley pirate crew were already piling for the escape pods and what they thought to be their only chance.


*****


Commodore Qataari eyed the ongoing battle from the vantage of his command bridge with the reserved smugness of a person who knows they are going to win. The stakes might have been high for both sides. Huge numbers of ships had gathered here for the final conflict as those opposing the High Lord’s fleet made a hearty stand. The numbers were almost even but the technology to hand was not.

Armed with newer and a more ingeniously armoured flotilla he knew it would now only be a simply matter of time to the inevitable end.

He waved a hand in the air, never taking his eyes from the silent flashes of light across the blackness beyond the view-screen. In no more than the blink of an eye, a crewman was by his side.

Qataari never bothered to look up. He always commanded the full attention of those around him.

“I wish the fleet moved closer,” he said keeping his eye on a particular cruiser in the distance that trailed an oozing slick of fire and débris, “This attack will be pressed home. Let no enemy ship escape from our work. Bring the sector captains to me and I will inform them.”

The crewman bowed low – a mere formality as Qataari never looked at him, though it paid to follow protocol to the letter. If even the slightest detail was amiss, the Commodore would be bound to notice. Some said he possessed an extremely honed sixth sense on the ether; unusual for a military man. Or perhaps he used clues of reflections on the walls and glass.

“As you wish.”

Several other crewers at the vast command bridge consoles speedily performed their task without noise and word following the implied orders.

At once projector units hummed into life, ionising the air in front of Qataari’s seat. Ozone crackled and light distorted until a host of wavering translucent figures flickered gently to attention.

He did not wait for any to speak, choosing to initiate his plans at a stroke.

“Gentlemen. It is time. Take each sector of the fleet that you control and press home your attack. Let no ship escape the overwhelming power of our forces.”

The assortment of wavering figures bowed low in acknowledgement.

Qataari held up his hand to stop his minions as a thought occurred to him. Expectantly the figures paused and waited for the words to be spoken.

“No. Destroy all bar one vessel. When all others are gone I wish the final ship to be ejected from here intact, to bear the message to others that we shall not be easily bettered. They will spread the word that shall be the fear.

Our greatest ally in the war of minds and psychology.”

For the second time in as many minutes the figures bowed low in acknowledgement.

“Now go, and make it happen,” he commanded.

The projection flickered and folded in on itself and died away. As the last of the ozone dissipated Qataari settled back into his chair to watch the new orders play out in the view fit for a King.

In the vast battle flecked starscape his keen eyes picked out the stricken cruiser he had spied before to watch its ultimate fate. Gases and wrenched steelwork spewed from its battered hull as it cartwheeled out of control.

Already the ships of his own fleet were moving in waves amongst the enemy. Bright flashes and implosions marked the passage of wave after wave of Rösenbridge torpedoes.

Then in a flash of light, the wreckage was hit one last time and in a blinding glow half disappeared into parallel dimensions leaving a hole in space that sucked for a moment on expanding gases before collapsing into nothing. Most of the ship had gone, sucked into a funnel of physics that led far away across the eight corners of the universe.

A noise behind him arrested his attention, making him settle further into the comfort of his chair and raise his hands together in a mock pyramid as he let his mind probe the aura of what had changed in the room.

“Madam Zonga, I presume,” he said with the true belief of one who has sensed.

Swivelling the chair away from the view-screen he turned to face his command crew for the first time. Stood by the door a woman regarded him with dismissive eyes. She was dressed in long white ceremonial robes of rarest velvets and her hair cascaded blonde and free over her shoulders in direct contrast to the dull and precocious uniforms of the military men.

Qataari’s uniform might have been adorned with many ribbons of success and valour, but it was still nothing on the radiant beauty of the newcomer.

He smiled the smile of the knowledgeable.

“What brings you to my command bridge unannounced?”

The question hung in the air with the power and imposition that if faced by any minion would act like a vacuum to suck out from the mind anything that Qataari asked for.

On Madam Zonga it merely provoked a shrug. The secrets of her mind were not shared quite so easily.

Ignoring his question for the moment, she glided her way across the polished floor with mesmerising grace and silence until she stood before him. Only then did she concede to the words he had spoken and provide answer.

“I have felt much moving on the ether. There is something not right out there.”

Her gaze moved from the Commodore to the vast view beyond the view-screen.

Qataari smiled.

“What, may I ask has my lead Psychic detected?”

Every ear in the room tuned into the conversation, hungry to hear more without appearing to be doing anything other than their allotted tasks. Madam Zonga sensed their prying with infuriation.

“Perhaps we should go somewhere private where we can talk more freely.”

“Do you not trust my crew?”

His words infuriated her, though she knew now she had no choice. The tempers simmered inside her, making her wish to pay him out for his futile displays of power and importance.

A secret smile spread on her mind, hidden from view to all but herself.

He would regret his own self-importance.

“I sense great disturbance on the ether. There is one newly arrived out there who might be destined to steer the entire fate of the Orb, yet you do not fully realise the significance.”

She paused to gauge his reaction, secretly hoping to gain the little moment of tiny revenge. To her surprise his emotions barely flickered, and did not show on the outside. Whatever was on his mind she could not tell, as his mastery of the ether always prevented her from probing his mind.

“Tell me more,” he said at last.

Her eyes wandered to the view-screen as she spoke, struggling to pick out the small almost insignificant ship that she knew was out there.

“One ship carries significance to the quest by the High Lords for the mythical Orb. I have seen it through the ethereal plane.”

He dismissed her concerns with a wave of his hand and a tiny laugh.

“Whatever you have seen, it is about to be destroyed by the flotilla. It will no longer have any concern for us.”

“I know that you cannot destroy it, no matter how hard you try. Fate will step in and do something you cannot ever predict with all your toys,” she warned darkly.

Now she felt that she had stirred up some feeling of discomfort within the loathsome man. From these bare flickers on the ether she drew some small comfort.

Qataari seemed to consider her warnings for a moment.

“What do my other Psychics have to say for themselves?”

“They are of agreement, though none can see as clearly as I.”

He glanced to an attentive crewman and exchanged secret signals in just one nod. Immediately the crewman disappeared from the command bridge.

Madam Zonga felt the command from the mind of the disappeared man – gone to check the story was true with the others. As if the Commodore did not believe her.

Part of her felt anger, though the more influential levels of her thoughts felt the satisfaction that she knew they would confirm her story. It was true, though Qataari always chose to seek confirmation, no matter what she had to say.

She was always proven correct.

Perhaps sensing such a fact before the crewman would return, Qataari swivelled in the chair and gazed out at the view of the well developed battle. A great many ships now lay stricken and ablaze. In zero gravity fire had a curious beauty, even if so short-lived.

Most of the flotsam was from the other side, though a few lucky hits had disabled and destroyed a few from his own ranks. No matter, there were many others to continue and minor losses were an inevitable fact of war.

“What can we do to avert such a fate?” he asked after a few seconds, conceding the inevitable truth of what she had told him.

“Fate cannot be averted; not here.”

“Then what would you suggest?”

It was her turn to consider this.

“The High Lords must be consulted. They will know how to treat this news,” she replied at last.

He nodded. Outside another bright spherical flash of light marked the end of another enemy ship.

“We could let their ship be the one which escapes to take our message.”

She shook her head. Her contact across the ether, amongst the nuances and inflections of the power had told her there was something different about this ship.

“They are not part of the fleet which you engage. The message would not reach your intended audience, and an opportunity might be lost.”

Qataari waved over a crewman. In an instant the lowly deck officer was by his side smartly at attention.

“Open a channel to the High Lords. Madam Zonga has decreed they must be informed.”

“Very good, Commodore Qataari. It shall be done.”

The officer saluted and marched quickly to the console. Already the frequencies would be dialled and called up. Time was all that separated them now from fate.

“One more thing, Commodore.”

Qataari raised an eyebrow at the words from Zonga.

“Go on.”

“Omega section is about to be hit by a counterattack. They will not be expecting such action. It might be wise for you to warn them so they can be ready.”

He nodded without comment to another deck officer. In seconds the message was being sent. Across the starscape of space, a series of explosions rippled in the infinite void.

Zonga closed her eyes and reached out to feel across the ether.

“Success?” inquired Qataari, anticipating her thoughts.

“Yes. The attack has been rendered a futile gesture.”

He drummed his fingers together in thought as the explosions faded away. The number of ships had grown visibly less.

“What I would do without you, I do not know.”

“You would have less medals to polish.”

The words hung threateningly in the air. Crew members looked on, holding their breath. None of their number would ever expect to escape if they tried such flippant comments.

Qataari just sat there and shrugged. He was used to her resentment of him.

“Perhaps. Perhaps not. There may certainly be more as a result of this action.”

Tension eased in the air of the command bridge. The danger was passed without incident. Fingers began typing again in earnest on consoles.

“Tell me,” he continued, “where is this stray ship now?”

She concentrated, feeling for that force she had felt.

“It is close, and by no means safe. It might be wise to inform your ships to avoid it.”

He chuckled.

“And just how do you expect them to do that. Had you not noticed we are in the height of battle.”

Something twinged on the ether, and a great power welled up hitting Zonga’s mind like a wall of white light. She felt herself reeling at the shock. Before she realised it her words were formed and out of her mouth into the air.

“Then it is too late. Your trigger happy fools have dispatched it with a Rösenbridge torpedo.”

“I thought you told us their destruction was not possible,” he said with more than a hint of satisfaction. One-upmanship was still at play.

She smiled with the special smile she reserved for fools.

“The ship was small, and at least one aboard had sufficient primordial power over the ether to have influence on fate. The Rösenbridge has swallowed it whole.”

She detected the sudden raw-edged emotion; the rising panic still for now under control.

Qataari knew the significance. Revenge could come very quickly, she mused.

“Are you certain?” he demanded, leaning forward in his chair. There were many subsiding Rösenbridge flashes. Any one could have been to blame.

Zonga turned to leave, knowing her job was done. Gleefully she called out to him from the open doorway.

“The Psychics will confirm. The ship has been taken intact and whole into the Rösenbridge dimension.”

Then the door slid shut and she was gone leaving only the lingering sweetness of her perfume in the command bridge.

“Sensor sweep!” he demanded.

Fingers typed hastily on consoles. Within seconds the information was there.

“One ship confirmed taken whole. No débris, Sir.”

There was an edge of fear in the officer’s voice. This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

“Show me,” Qataari ordered.

The holographic projectors hummed into life and ozone tinged the air. In front of the Commodore the view from the view-screen shimmered in a haze as a new image was projected in front of it. In regenerated translucent detail an image of space magnified many times over showed the tarnished freighter disappear whole to the field of the Rösenbridge torpedo. Technically it was possible of course to be able to happen, but in practice the torpedoes were normally deadly.

Within their slender cigar shaped metal tube a hyperdrive transported a sphere of space on a random vector. Part of a ship would cease to exist in the same place as the rest with resultant catastrophic effects.

Here it had merely swallowed a ship in one.

For a moment he watched the image play itself over and over again – there was no mistaking the effect. Then a crewmember plucked up the courage to speak.

“Sir, we have the High Lords on frequency.”

For the first time in a long time Qataari felt real fear.

“I will take it in my private quarters,” he stormed leaving his chair and storming to the doorway.

“As you wish, Sir.”

Before the doors finished sliding soundlessly shut behind him, the crewman was already tapping the details into the console.

Outside in the Cyclops stare of the view-screen the battle was coming to an end, but it was too late for the hand that fate had dealt to all.


*****


The door to the Psychic’s quarters revealed the departing crewman as Zonga arrived. He bowed low in greatest respect before hurrying on. As he passed she let the powers of her mind reach into his across the ether and gain with satisfaction the knowledge that he would take back to Qataari.

She would be proven right in the face of the Commodore’s scepticism once more. He would never learn.

Secretly she wished she could be there watching as he faced the High Lords to explain defeat from the jaws of victory. If she had wanted to she could have attempted to snoop on the ether, but it was a dangerous task when in frequency of the High Lords themselves.

They would notice, and be obliged to demand answers to searching questions. The risks would be too great.

Reservedly she knew she would have to wait.

In the quarters she confronted the other Psychics in their ceremonial robes.

“You have told him what he asked?”

A sea of careful nods.

“Yes,” said the closest, “We told him the truth. Qataari sent him to confirm what we saw together.”

“Good. He meets the High Lords now.”

“What of the ship?” asked one.

“We felt it be taken by the Rösenbridge field,” finished another.

Memories of the spike across the ether in the final few moments before the craft had been subsumed in the field.

“You felt it also?” Zonga asked cautiously.

There were no flickers of emotion. Psychics rarely disclosed their inner feelings lest it be viewed by others as a sign of ultimate weakness.

“We did. Our suspicions were correct. The shibboleth has spoken of the reincarnation of the prophet. They have come.”

Zonga waved a finger bidding for caution.

“That is not all the story. The power is largely undirected – the one who has it is still raw and untrained.”

The others nodded.

“We have felt it. If we can act fast, there may be a chance of getting to the Orb before this power is nurtured to its full potential.”

Zonga thought a moment. Ideas flashed from her mind, of plans that could be woven and directed.

“What if we got to the one first?” she speculated, “We might be able to turn them to one of us.”

“The High Lords would not risk it. They have no need.”

“I’m not talking of them,” she snapped, “I mean for the power it would bring our group. Then perhaps we would have no further need to serve the High Lords.”

There was a gasping intake of breath from the others. Together they saw at once the implications of such actions, and the risks it might bring if not done correctly.

“We must keep this only to ourselves,” whispered the first at last, “We risk everything if anyone else finds out.”


*****


Qataari had only the fewest of few moments in his private quarters to savour the last seconds of freedom before the hum of projectors signalled the arrival of those he feared. Lines of static rose and fell, gaining form in the subdued hues of the room. Ozone crackled and spluttered in the darkness and the faces he feared most rolled into translucent vision hovering huge and imposing in mid-air before him.

“You call upon us with important news,” said the first, its voice booming loud from the hidden speakers.

The other two disembodied heads looked on with piercing eyes as they awaited an answer together.

He found himself bowing down low marking respect within their presence.

“My Psychics have foretold me of information that is pertinent to your quest for the Orb, my Lords,” he said, “They have felt the presence of the one the shibboleth has spoken aboard an enemy vessel.”

Three sets of eyes seemed almost to sparkle with pleasure to the words.

“Where is this ship you speak of now? Bring it to us and you will be rewarded greatly. We wish its living cargo intact.”

The echoes died away. Qataari shifted uncomfortably.

The second head seemed to read his mind.

“What is the problem, Commodore?”

“I cannot deliver,” he spluttered.

Seconds dribbled past like the last of the sands from the bulb of a timer. Then the booming voice spoke again.

“Why not?”

“The ship was despatched by Rösenbridge torpedo. My personal Psychic detected the channelling of great power on the ether that left the ship taken whole. They are no longer within this sector of known space.”

Under the watchful gaze he suddenly felt very small and insignificant.

The High Lords ignored his discomfort, instead looking to one another as if to consult. Qataari however heard no words spoken, though at last they turned to him as if reaching decision.

“An unfortunate outcome,” said the first, seeming to enjoy the way the Commodore squirmed, “However we trust your crew has information required to track where the vessel has gone?”

Qataari thought of the deck officers back on the bridge, and the sensory arrays that would have monitored. There would be records.

He nodded hurriedly.

“Yes. We have the data, my Lords. They can be tracked in time.”

“We will return,” boomed the voice of the third head making him jump, “You have four hours to compile the data that we will need.”

The others nodded in agreement, then their images faded and folded in on themselves leaving only the smell of ionised air to show they had been.

For the first time Qataari found himself breathing a sigh of relief. He had escaped the hand that fate had dealt him. Reaching out to the wall console he cleared a frequency back to the command bridge. The line was answered immediately.

“Pull the logs immediately,” he demanded of the officer, “We require full data on the vessel the Psychics foretold of. There is little time – I will be on the bridge immediately.”

He did not wait for a reply. He trusted his men to work with the utmost efficiency. If he failed to deliver, he knew the High Lords would make them all suffer.


*****


In the flicker of instability of the moment their minds found solace in the comfort of the few precious nanoseconds remaining. It was the eye of the storm; the calm before it all breaks. Heaven and stars collide and all becomes true in the theatre of the mind for that one stark moment that all makes sense.

Then the moment hits, and the Rösenbridge field envelops them all in a love embrace that threatens the end.

Minds collapsed in on themselves under the onslaught of unprotected power. Every molecule jockeying with position with every other molecule as forces of physics took their pound of flesh.

Reality folded and unfolded flexing like elastic drawing ever closer to its inevitable limits. Then the elastic snaps and the Rösenbridge sphere collapses into another dimension dragging all within it too. Escape pods jettisoning from the freighter are cut in half and ripped like no more than discarded paper in the breeze, and life is snubbed out for all those caught in the cross between worlds as the sphere vanishes in the silent implosion in the vacuum of space.

In that one final moment the edges of minds touch and waver on the ether, then contact is lost and the ship is gone to the next dimension on a vector that could take it anywhere.

In the last tendrils of dying ether, the hand of fate controlled by the powers of the believing mind weave their magic, and forced unknown manipulate a chain of events like only fate can dictate.

Where the ship will drop out of the Rösenbridge dimension only one mind may really know.


*****


Slumped in his stately chair shrouded in the efficiency of silence of his command bridge, Commodore Qataari viewed the world beyond his view-screen with an air of silent disdain. In his mind the thoughts and images of the day played out in slow agony as he sought the answer to the way forward.

Finally after many minute’s contemplation he shuffled upright and turned to the patiently waiting deck officer.

“You wish me to fix frequency?” the smartly uniformed officer asked.

Qataari nodded slowly.

Without further words the officer saluted smartly and turned with a squeal of heals to the vast console. Already an ensign was keying the required details.

The logs had been pulled, and the details were in place.

It was the need to confront the High Lords again that made the Commodore fear the most.

It was the only task he did not have the luxury to delegate. Slowly he eased himself out of the chair and turned his back on the now peaceful starscape.

“I shall be waiting in my quarters. Inform me when you have frequency.”

He waited for no reply; none was necessary. Soundlessly the doors slid shut behind him, and the deck crew could breath a relieved sigh.

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