-Aboard the ESS Homebound K-196
-Thirty minutes after leaving Omega.
“Interception, interception!” Evo repeated like a broken siren, his arms flying across the controls like a swarm of angry wasps. Something caught in my throat; like magnets my eyes were drawn to the shocked faces of the ambassadors. Like a horrible, gaseous bubble, I let out a breath. “Five seconds!”
“All reserve power to shields!” I shouted, spinning around to face my own screen. “Everyone prepare for reentry!”
The swirling mass of stars in front of us spasmed, reforming all at once in the hurried craziness of a late worker, and they snapped to attention, saluting me with a sly smile. Directly in front of us, blotting out the stars like an oncoming curtain of doom, was a deep grey ship, marred by navy blue lines that enveloped it like scars. I had seen the design before, several times, but it was just on the edge of my memory; a generic bulky body with two side engines; used on older, out-of-date ships.
Off to each side were eight more just like it, surrounding our puny vessel in a grey and blue semi-circle shadow that loomed over us like a hawk over a rabbit. It wasn’t just one ship, it was a fleet. Each ship design slightly different from the next; it didn’t matter if one ship looked like a T and another like an H, though, because in the end we were outnumbered and outgunned. Worst of all, the more I stared at them, a long forgotten name came into focus in the back of my mind.
“Who pissed who off, this time?” I asked, gazing over the crew members’ faces. Aran exhaled, opening her mouth to answer in a whisper.
“I don’t know, but my father built a few ships like that. Codoro military group. Privately ow-”
“I know who Codoro is,” I interrupted, leaning back in my chair. I stared out at that blue and grey conglomerate of turrets and cannons, letting my eyes find its way to the bridge of the fleet’s largest ship. No doubt its own captain was doing the same. “Could’ve sworn they died off five or so years ago. Their communications channel open?”
“Yessir,” Aran replied, scrolling through numerous blue holograms at her panel. Like a string puppet, my mouth lifted into a victorious smile, and I turned to face the rest of the crew. “Want me to hail them?”
“Their weapons are primed, sir,” Lilian warned, frowning down at me, “and if I’m right, if they fire, we’ll be dust faster than you can give the order to retreat.”
“Uh, Captain Amber?” Twilight’s nervous voice rang out. My eyes connected with hers, and I nodded. “What’s happening?”
“Does Equestria have pirates?” I asked hurriedly, letting my eyes wander over the group. They looked about the ship and each other with nervous, tittering eyes. I didn’t blame them. Twilight opened her mouth to respond, but a brash voice beat her to it.
“Of course we do! They just don’t stick their necks near Equestria!” Rainbow exclaimed. A bit of viciousness entered my smile, my brow tilting down..
“Sir Amber, are you implying these ships are... pirates?” Rarity’s eloquent tone added. My head bobbed.
“Yes. Now you all get to see why the Wing is needed, because we’re gonna stop these guys. Trust me when I say they can kiss their pirating days goodbye. So if you can excuse me,” I said, letting my seat rotate back into place, “I’m going to show you how I do my job.” I honed in on the cruiser in front of us, playing out the battle to come in my mind. We’d commit to evasive maneuvers, their entire fleet would fire on us, and there was nowhere to go. Lilian was right, there’d be nothing left of us after ten seconds.
Like a tidal wave, a large panel slid away on the top of the largest cruiser, leaving ten holes. Each was the size of the Fate.
“Heavy missile launcher!” Lilian shouted.
“Good,” I barked.
“Sir, I think we should hail them,” Aran said from beside me.
“Wait one second, Ensign, what’s the closest fleet and how soon can they get here?” I asked, resting my arm on the sleek desk. I was looking forward, but I could feel that all eyes were on me. Pressure to avoid failure can make or break a man, and fortunately for me, it only gripped my mind in an iron fist and put it on the path to greatness. My eyes fell shut.
The Homebound, in all its miniscule glory, the best frigate I’d ever designed, faded into existence in my mind’s eye. I knew what to do.
“It’s the Talon Fleet, sir. The ESS Potentia could turn the tide in a fight with these guys just by itself,” Aran rattled off. “I could send a silent distress call, but it’ll take a few minutes for them to jump here.”
“I know that!” I yelled, tapping my fingers against my leg in a way that would make a spider proud. “Do it now! As soon as it’s out, hail the ship directly in front of us. I’ll stall them with a long-winded speech or something. Whatever it takes. Soon as the fleet arrive, you buck into evasive maneuvers, got it, Evo?”
“Aye, sir. Understood.”
“Hailing them!” Aran chirped.
“Girls and Spike, stay quiet. If they don’t like what they see, we’ll be forced to fight and that’s the last thing we need,” I ordered, spinning in my chair. As one, the terrified, constrained ponies nodded, and I froze. Not even a week had passed, and already I was getting them into something that I had to deal with on a monthly basis.
The only option now was to talk down whoever was commanding this treacherous attack and get him to surrender, before I had to fly innocent infant minds through an inferno from Hell itself. It was akin to one of those ancient maze games, where if you touched the walls of the maze, you lost; this time, if I lost, I died, and any hope the Wing had of claiming Earth would be gone with me. The only conclusion was that I wouldn’t lose. I never lose.
“Opening a channel. Accepted, instantly, might’ve been expecting us.... Onscreen.”
A section of the bridge window blinked out, replaced with a black frame. It flickered white, and a face appeared; a youthful boy hiding behind old burns and thick scars, wearing a tan officer’s hat and vest. His bridge was alive with activity, and the people behind him had to rub elbows just to move about.
“Hello, Admiral Amber. It has been a number of years since we’ve talked,” the face said in a voice that sounded like he was pouring gravel in my ears and mashing it about.
“I, uh, don’t recall ever meeting you, and I’m Captain Amber now. Surprised you didn’t know that,” I said, swallowing hard. Words and strategies slithered across my mind like a pit of snakes, daring me to use them to their fullest. To pick the ones with the most venomous poison. After I chose a snake, I would have to choose a mask. It was all part of the act.
“Chant Ninos’ven, we met to discuss Wing and Cordoro relations during the Psychic War, eight years ago? Nevermind, I know time flows awkwardly for you and your ilk. Your time, however, is up, but since you are an old ally, I will explain myself.”
“Right, because, you know, threatening a member of one of the most technologically advanced militaries in existence requires explanation,” I said, picking a mask and snake from the pile, “and so befo-” Chant laughed, one marred hand slapping up to his forehead. His barking, mad laughter echoed across our bridge, and I responded with a full five seconds of hard silence. “What-”
“The rest of the galaxy considers the Wing to be almost dead! Mere years from collapsing upon itself! We fare no better, surely, but at least we can admit it! Now, if you will shut your traitorous mouth and let me speak, I will tell you why I’m about to kill you,” he said, leaning in to give the camera a toothy grin. His teeth were immaculate.
“Go on, then,” I muttered, glancing to my side. Aran looked up at me with an impassive face, holding up two fingers, one finger, and then balled up her fist. “But please, at least allow me to make a couple of final questions when you’re done.”
“Haha, I will, my friend! Now, you are wondering why... I...” Chant trailed off, mouth hanging open like he’d just seen a bunch of multicolored, terrified quadrupeds behind me. “What the hell are those things you’ve got in your ship with you?”
I kept my eyes locked on his, and lifted up the palm of my hand to the ponies. “They are, in fact, ponies of the equine persuasion, and are on my ship to perform ambassadorial duties. I was in the process of getting them to Gantoris when you interrupted me.” I blinked, a thousand more words zipping through my mind. “And where did you get technology capable of intercepting a jump? Not many do.”
“Black market. Originated from a Wing ship, s’what the dealer said,” Chant chuckled, “but... ahha, almost got me there! I control this situation, my friend, and it’s only fitting I manage to kill one of the Wing’s greatest heroes with their own technology!” He waved one hand, cheeks flushing as he tried to avoid eye-contact. “I... might feel a tad sad over the fact that I have to also kill some nice looking horse thingies, but life is life, and not many get the chance to turn Jackson W. Amber into dust.”
“Where did you hear that...?” I started to growl, letting my instincts take over and clench my jaw in frustration. My furrowed brow dug even deeper into my skull; Rainbow Dash was shouting.
“And secondly, we’re ponies, NOT horse thingies!”
“Rainbow,” Twilight hissed, “now is not the time!”
“Why is the poorly colored one yelling at me? Yelling won't stall her death,” Chant said, leaning back in his chair with a tight-lipped, smug face. My right eye twitched so hard, if it weren’t connected to my face, it’d probably jump off and run away.
Aran flashed me her index finger.
“Listen, Chant, before you send me to the next plane of existence, tell me why you’re doing this. The Wing, under my orders, has let you pass through our systems despite your background as pirate scumbags. I know you’re honorable somewhere in your decrepit heart,” I said, letting my mouth eject the words as they came. Rushing waves of heat flew up into my face, shrinking it into a grimace. “And who sold you that tech?” I added.
“Well,” the scarred pirate slurred, eyes lifting over me and back to the ponies, “you see, recently, my entire empire, what was left of it anyways, was crushed by an unknown force. We’re just outside of LRA territory, as you know, and we’ve been on good terms with them for... quite a while! Anyhow, as my good friends and family were being destroyed in plasma fire, they managed to give me one last, very clear message. Sorlor. The Wing. They sent Sorlor. End quote! And you know what? With my entire life in shambles, and nothing for any of my kin to lose, why not go get some revenge?”
Aran held up two fingers, then five. Then four. Then three. The message was clear.
“And as for the tech, why does it matter? Shadowy figure, nigh unpronouncable name Gave the model to me months ago, said it came from some old ship called the Archangel - one of your ships, no? Anyway-”
“I’ll give you one minute to surrender,” I announced, placing a grin on my face that I’m sure Pinkie Pie would envy. The second the word surrender let my mouth, it was like someone had pulled the plug in Chant’s brain. His jaw worked up and down, his sneer replaced by a look of surprise. Somepony behind me snickered.
“Did you just... sorry, what?”
Ten seconds, mouthed Aran.
“I said I’ll give you one minute to surrender,” I repeated in the exact same, overly-content tone. “About--”
He sputtered, one hand jumping to his throat. “Wh-what? Sorry, just what. Why.... Very well, I’ll give you exactly forty seconds from here until I give my men the command to fire. Actually, you know what? Commander Leeroy, please program that command into the targeting routines. No firing until forty seconds have passed.”
“Chant?” I asked, my grin sinking back into a sneer.
“Yes? Some last words? Go ahead!”
Aran clicked her tongue.
“Checkmate,” I whispered. Familiar air wafted into my lungs, and the ship, ever so slightly, shuddered. Where there was previously empty space between the Homebound and the Codoro ships, there was now a great, deep grey wall. Lines of blue and gold dotted its hull, and across its flat top sat a number of heavy, bulky, dangerous looking cannons. From where our bridge window was pointed, we got a good view of the words plastered on the monstrosity’s side, lit up in the brilliant blue glow of the running lights.
“Enter the ESS Potentia, one of the most powerful ships in the Wing,” I muttered, making my way back to the navigation seat. All at once, every muscle in the room tensed up, and I said, “Alright! Aran, please open a communications with the Potentia’s bridge. I’m sure York is there, and if I’m not mistaken, Premier Castlor. Keep the line open with our Codoro pal, too.” Chant’s face slackened, and his eyes looked like they were about ready to pop out of his skull. His minimized, translucent face moved to the side of the bridge, and another one fizzled into being.
“This is Captain R. O. York, commander of the Talon Fleet, responding to the distress signal given by the ESS Homebound. What’s up, Jackson?” said a slim, dusty-haired, youthful man in a heavy English accent. He smiled out from underneath a captain’s hat not unlike Chant’s.
“Nothing much,” I said, shrugging my shoulders, “but I- well, I was asking our mutual friend here if he wanted to surrender, but he denied. Is Aaro with you?”
“This is pathetic! Codoro will never surrender to pathetic excuses like the people you are! We’ll never surrender! All ships, destroy the Homebound! Kill them al-” Chant screamed, mercifully leaving the screen with a wave of my hand. York chuckled, and he leaned back in his sleek, cushy seat.
“Sorry. Aaro had to jump ship, straight to Gantoris, ‘e said. Eh?” He turned to face one of his crewmembers, taking a moment to listen to hushed words. “Oh, right, I know they’re firing on us. Yeah, yeah, I know we can’t just sit around doing bugger-all,” he hissed, turning back to face me, “we’ll return fire on your command, Jackson. It’ll give ‘ya plenty of time to skip off on ‘yer way.”
“Very well,” I said, a grin overtaking my face. I took in a deep breath, my eyelids falling shut, and I prepared to utter the command that would end in this area of space becoming a graveyard. The word caught in my throat, and for the briefest of seconds, my eyes flickered back to the terrified line of faces behind me. Like a horrible bubble, it popped.
“Fire,” I muttered. York grinned, reached out, and his image feed disappeared. A second passed, and I turned to Evo. “Ensign Andres, TACT, I need you to plot out an arced jump to Parinin. How long will that take you?”
“I, ahh-” Evo started.
“Exactly Twelve Point Nine Nine Nine Seconds,” TACT added.
“Repeating, of course,” Evo sputtered, hands flashing across the controls. The longer I looked, the more his hands seemed to blur through the air in one motion.
“Do it, now.” I grimaced, gripping the armrests of my seat. Even with the Potentia obscuring our view, I could still catch glimpses of explosions and debris flying in every direction. When I glanced back to check on the ambassadors, I realized I wasn’t the only one. “I’m sorry,” I tried to whisper, and I immediately regretted it. It was a hollow word, one of those public words that you passed around. I’m sorry, you’d say if you stumbled into someone. I’m sorry, you’d say if you were just barely in their way in a busy restaurant. It was a flippant word, like trust or love or hate or need. I looked away from them, just in time to feel my cheeks flush from the realization. When I opened my eyes, the world was blurred and swimming with impossible colors. I paid them no heed.
I wasn’t sorry. If I was, it was because I wasn’t going to be able to kill Chant myself.
“Jumping now, sir,” came a voice from beyond.
Then the blackness came up to meet me, and we were gone.
My eyes flew open. The world had turned into a swirling mass of abstract colors and feelings. A bird flew by me, singing mountains, and I felt like I was drowning down the river of smiles. Then someone punched me in the chest. The only reason I didn’t reprimand them was because my tongue seemed to have turned to liquid.
“Lilian, he’s coming around, get that mask off of him and go tell the others he’s fine. I’ll handle it from here,” a voice said from a thousand walls away. I blinked, and noticed that someone had the gall to wrap some sort of warped plastic around my head. Who was that huge grey blur beyond it, I thought, and why was it looming over me?
“Ow,” I tried to say, only coming up with something that sounded like a dying housecat. The grey blob descended, and laid something moist over my eyes.
“Captain, can you understand me?” the voice screamed at me, echoing off the walls of my consciousness like a bar of wet soap. I grimaced, and somehow, my tongue took a quick look around and decided staying a liquid wasn’t a smart idea.
“Are you licking my face?” I managed to grunt out, my tongue falling back into my throat like the lead anvil it had become.
“Just a wet towel so you don’t burn your eyes.”
“Oh,” I muttered, silently reaching out to my body. Each limb felt far away, and when I tried to move one hand, it felt like I wasn’t. It felt like I was holding the controller and watching it move, not feeling it. Hollow. Numb. “Teryn saliva has immunization properties against some common ailments,” someone said in my voice.
“That is correct, but only slightly. I know you just woke up, Captain, and you’re still disorientated, but what was the last thing you remember?” Aran asked, one moment looking down at me directly above my head, and the next shuffling around near my feet. Something pricked my arm, and it felt like a puppet master from above jerked my marionette arm. A groan slid out of my mouth.
“We... York had just shown up,” I grumbled, pausing to let my tongue search for liquid in my desert of a mouth, “and we were making the jump to Parinin.... What happened?”
“Good. No signs of amnesia. All signs are green, but you might feel a bit dizzy for a while,” Aran quipped from across the room, but to my suddenly ringing ears, it might as well have been from across the ship.
“That sucks,” I muttered, dragging my hand across my barren chest. No hair, tingling, and all of the scars where were they were supposed to be -- I knew that without looking. Ever so slowly, the indentations and lights on the ceiling swam through the fog and into focus. “Did it happen during the jump?”
“Yes, but I think it was just poor timing -- good timing, if you think of it in a different light,” Aran answered curtly, appearing next to me, a holo-screen extending from her wrist-bound datapad. Her chest rose and fell in a deep breath, and alien eyes connected with mine, and some part of my convinced the other parts to lift my head up to look her in the face on my own levels. “How long have you been addicted to NEROMend, Jackson? I did a few scans, and all of your symptoms are pointing to it.”
My head flopped down onto the medical pillow with a melodramatic thup.
“I’m not addicted,” I automatically whispered.
“Well you’ve got no mechanical parts, as far as I and the scanners can see. I know you used to have all sorts of them, darling, because they’re in all of the old war photos. Both arms, a leg, even an eye if I do remember right. You don’t have them now, which means you did the usual thing and ditched them as soon as biomending gels got mainstreamed. Your body must’ve been rejecting the metal, so you had to take NERO. After they were removed, you kept at it, and you worked up a dependency. Millions of people did. Now you’re trying to quit and are suffering withdrawal symptoms, some of which can be fatal, so if you’ll excuse me...” she said, turning away. I tilted my head just far enough to get a better look at where she was headed. As I had expected, I was in the medical bay, and several other beds sat opposite of mine. Every place where there wasn’t a bed or medical related computer, there were crates of medical supplies. As I scanned over them, I realized how lucky we were that none of them had been opened yet. Aran stopped at a terminal, her long nails hovering over the hologram. “I’m going to have TACT call up the College of Admirals. You’ll be suspended, probably, but it’ll be for your own good, hun. You need serious medical help to get over this kind of withdrawal sickness, and I’m not going to sit by and watch while you get yourself killed over a drug.”
“Wait,” I said through my parched mouth, letting my head fall back down, “come here, please.”
She did so, her steps echoing across the empty room.
I did a brief visual scan; we were alone.
The teryn was just a foot away when my arm jerked out with lightning speed, the hand that I wasn’t born with latching itself just perfectly around her thin, tall neck. Her reaction was only just short, but short enough. I forced the pain of her nails digging into my bare, pale arm out of my head. It was easy, and I had done it a thousand times before. I forced it out of my head and straight into my muscles and mind; the mind was the greatest muscle anyone can have, after all.
“Don’t struggle. I’m not going to kill you or knock you out. I just want you to listen,” I hissed, pushing her down to my level. I rolled onto my right side, with my choking arm pinned under me. The fear in her wide eyes, the strain of her face as she tried to comprehend what was happening, I drunk it all in, and instinctively reached out to stroke one cheek with my free hand.
“I’m dependant on it, yes, but for good reason. Reasons beyond your pitiful understanding. I’ve destroyed whole planets, races, and hell, I’ve even destroyed a star system before. I’ve swam in rivers clogged with the bodies of my enemies and my friends, and I’ve killed plenty of teryn with the same hold I’m using on you now. The Wing has already shown how competent it is at catching me when I decide I don’t want to be caught, and I’ll be able to navigate security doubly so now that I’ve had a good part in recreating it. So, if you tell anyone about this, anyone at all, I will personally see that your entire extended family is exterminated. You’ll be left alive for some time. Maybe I’ll kidnap you and sell you to Empirium slavers,” I hissed into her face, watching her squirm less and less with every word.
“You’re a demure young woman. Not used to combat, but expecting it nonetheless. You’ve lived with your family, clan, whatever for your whole life, and suddenly you’re out in the big bad world on the suicide mission. You spent... two years in the academy, from what your files said, and I know that’s long enough to know something about leadership. You might think you’ve got the best in store for your commander, and that you just want to help him by getting him jail time for something completely innocent and reasonable, but you don’t. I know what’s best for me, and I’m not going to suffer from insubordination on the subject. You will not tell anyone about this. Got that?”
With the little slack I had given her, she nodded, and I finally looked down to see the long gashes she had bored in my arm during my entire glorious speech. Blood escaped from it and fell unceremoniously onto the tile floor. Drip. Drip. Drip. I let go.
In a voice like a breeze, and without moving her mouth, she said, “I’m sorry, Captain Amber. I will not... alert them.”
My head smacked back down onto the pillow, and the dripping continued from my outstretched, torn arm. “Get me some sodding bandages, Ensign,” I snapped. She nodded and headed towards one of the crates, bounding along with the poise of a scared bunny rabbit.
“TACT?” I called up to the ceiling.
“Did you record all of that?”
“Good. Cut and paste a copy into my personal folder. You know the one. And don’t screw it up, I don’t want my recordings getting jumbled up in with my mission logs.”
“Yes, Sir. Also, I Should Mention That The Admiral’s Shuttle Is On Its Way. It Should Be Landing In Approximately Ten Minutes.”
“Brilliant,” I said, closing my eyes. “How are the ponies?”
“I Believe They Were, As You Would Say, ‘Shaken Up’ By The Ordeal. It Was Not An Actual Combat Experience, But I Suggest You Take Time Out Of Your Schedule To Talk To Each Ambassador Face-To-Face. It Would Do Well For Their Collective Morale.”
“Alright... I.... Tell Evo that instead of jumping, I want him to conserve fuel and take the long route. Maybe give us a day to get to Gantoris. That’ll give me time to talk to them... and I could really use a break from this.”
Something wet touched my arm, and for some reason, I felt it far more than the pain.
“Aran?” I asked through clenched teeth.
“Yeah, Captain, sir?”
-1-14-4 19-20-18-9-14-7-19 UNKNOWN ENTRY DATE.
-3-15-14-20-18-15-12 20-8-5 PLAYBACK ERROR.
-16-21-16-16-5-20-19 FILE CORRUPTION.
“Excuse me, sir, but last I checked, you were a Kill-On-Sight in our Wing databases-”
“God, I don’t have time for this! I don’t care what you do with me, just help her already!”
“For all we know, she’s a criminal and a traitor just like you ar-”
“Get your doctors fixing, right now, or I’m going to smear your brain on the wall.”
“At this hospital, we don’t take threats lightly. Please put that pistol away.”
“SyRE, please use the Archangel targeting systems, and look up this doctor’s address. If he doesn’t do anything for her - for all of them - in twenty seconds, burn it all. If he has family, track them down and burn them as well.”
“N-now let’s not be hasty. T-there... please don’t, Wolf, I’ve got a wife, and kids, and...”
“You won’t have anything if you don’t hurry up. I’m a certified medic, but she needs more than just biomending gel. Doc, hurry up and do something before I have to do something that’ll end up with your family dead. SyRE, call off the targeting search. Please.”
“I... um, very well. Nurse! You, you, and you, take this girl to the ER and... save her, if you can. And will someone please mop up all this blood? Uhg... there you go, but don’t expect any more favors. The Wing MP are already on their way, Wolf. I’m surprised you managed to slip past them this far, but hopefully they’ll catch you this time.”
“Sure they will, just promise me you’ll keep her safe. She’s innocent. Didn’t get wrapped up in the same stuff I did... and it’s not Wolf. That’s just a title to scare pirates and bounty hunters. I’m still Mr. Amber.”
“Yes, yes. Just please, leave before my waiting room is engulfed in a firefight!”