Eight months have passed since the Star Shroud barrier was engaged to protect the Earth, but it won’t last, and humanity is scrambling to build a fleet.
Cut off from home, the crew of the Athena has taken refuge on the Boxan colony world, a last safe haven for the creators of the Star Shroud. When Kaylan forms a psychic link to a mysterious Boxan soldier fighting gruesome battles on a dying world she has to act even if the Boxans refuse.
Rising Force is the fifth book in the Ascension space opera series. Kaylan will risk the Alliance to uncover the secrets of the Boxan home world and mount a daring rescue mission for those left behind. She just needs to find a way past a planetary quarantine zone that has kept the Confederation at bay for over fifty years.
Release date: May 6, 2017
Publisher: Acoustical Books LLC
Print pages: 336
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Zack sat in the cockpit of a Boxan strike-fighter configured for atmospheric flight mode. The wing cannons could shoot ion bolts as well as kinetic weaponry, but they were presently disabled. A fully armed strike-fighter also carried missiles whose payloads could be changed to suit their purpose in battle. The ship Zack was flying was for training purposes only. He’d spent a lot of time in training simulators and had recently been qualified to fly an actual strike-fighter.
“Let’s take it up a notch. I want you to take us beyond the atmosphere,” Etanu said.
Etanu was a Nershal, a humanoid species with dragonfly wings. They were skilled pilots and highly capable at calculating navigational coordinates. At one time Etanu would have sooner seen Zack dead than flying in the same vehicle, but things had changed. The Nershals lived their lives by a strict code of honor, and owing to the fact that Zack wasn’t dead and that he and Etanu had survived being held prisoner by the Xiiginns, they’d developed a strong friendship.
Zack brought up the flight configuration on the internal heads-up display. “Sounds good.”
He increased the velocity and angled the trajectory ninety degrees. Zack couldn’t feel any change in pressure thanks to the inertia dampeners. Without them, he would have been unconscious from the gravitational forces of such a turn.
Zack found it hard to believe that he hadn’t seen Earth in over a year. The closest he’d gotten was eight months ago when he’d uploaded Drar command protocols to the Star Shroud, causing it to converge around the Earth’s star system and form a protective barrier that not even the Boxans could penetrate. What he hadn’t anticipated was that they wouldn’t be able to disable the barrier in order to get home themselves. As a result, he and the rest of the Athena crew were temporary residents of the Boxan colony world.
Basic flying of the strike-fighter had been easy to learn. Its computer systems used adaptive protocols to tweak the controls to the nuances of the pilot. Unlike Kaylan and some of the others, Zack wasn’t a pilot back on Earth, but the flight controls for the strike-fighter were much easier for him to comprehend than the Athena’s shuttle, although perhaps not anymore because it had been a few months since he’d been on the shuttle. The Athena was orbiting the planet, but he’d been in constant contact with the ship’s artificial intelligence, which had become their unofficial tenth crewmember.
Zack used his neural implants to access the strike-fighter’s flight systems and gave the command to change the engine configuration for space flight mode. The main heads-up display showed the updated configuration and they passed through the edge of the atmosphere. He waited a few moments while their distance from the atmospheric edge increased, then used the maneuvering thrusters to swing the nose around to give them a view of the planet. Zack grinned. He’d been practicing that maneuver in the simulator and had botched his first few attempts when Kaylan had been flying with him.
“Excellent,” Etanu said. “Perhaps I’ll tell Kaylan that she distracts you too much on these flights.”
“It’s the only way we get to be alone these days, between combat training and whatever the Mardoxian Sect does when they snatch her away for their own training regimen,” Zack said.
“And here I thought you just wanted to get away from the physical rigors of combat training,” Etanu said.
Zack snorted. “This is more fun than that stuff. I’m not a soldier and I don’t ever plan on being a soldier. Honestly, I just want to get back to Earth and be with Kaylan.”
Zack took in the view of the Boxan colony world. Olloron was decent enough, but it was a bit dry for his taste. Water covered only sixty percent of the planet’s surface and there was nowhere near the lushness when compared with Selebus moon, a secondary habitable world in the Nerva star system and home to the Nershals. Olloron was the only home the Boxan’s had left and they defended that home fiercely. Zack couldn’t imagine losing Earth, and given the state of Human technology, Humans wouldn’t survive losing Earth either.
Zack swung the nose of the ship forty-five degrees to the right and sped toward the Athena.
“Where are you taking us?” Etanu asked.
“Home . . . Well, my home, that is,” Zack said.
He needed to see the Athena. So much had happened to them aboard that ship that he sometimes felt lost without it.
“You’ll get back to Earth someday,” Etanu said.
“I know, but combat training isn’t going to get me there any quicker. I need to spend more time trying to decipher what the Drar did to our ship. There are still vast parts of the Athena’s computing systems that I can’t access, nor can the AI,” Zack said.
Etanu blew out a harsh breath at the mention of the AI.
“Come on,” Zack said, “you need to learn to work with AIs. When done properly, they can be a tremendous help.”
“Our experience has been less fortuitous when dealing with an AI than yours has been,” Etanu said.
“That’s because the AI you were working with was based on Xiiginn design and I think we can agree that anything they touch only benefits them,” Zack said.
“So you think the Xiiginns wanted our artificial intelligence experiments to fail?”
“Maybe . . . Another way to keep you dependent on them, I suppose. Look, I don’t expect you to change your mind, but I would encourage you to consider developing your own when you eventually return to Nerva,” Zack said.
Etanu was silent, but Zack could tell the Nershal was considering what he’d said.
Finally, Etanu answered. “I’d do it with your help.”
“Really! That’s great. We could probably adapt a version of the Athena’s AI for you to use. I mean, it was based on the Boxan AI that was used to manage the monitoring station in our star system,” Zack said.
“Yeah, but you modified it and it’s something different than what the Boxans created. Even Gaarokk agrees with that,” Etanu said.
“You are correct,” the AI said, its voice coming from their helmet speakers. “My origin is somewhat unique, but I would be happy to create a base AI that stems from my programming to suit your needs.”
Zack glanced at Etanu in surprise. “Wait a minute, Athena. Did you just say you can create more of you as in—like a child?”
“The context would fit in this instance. Does this surprise you?” the AI asked.
“Damn right it does,” Zack said.
“I’m not sure I understand,” the AI replied. “Besides you, no other crewmember knows my programming as well as I do. Why shouldn’t I be able to create alternate versions of myself for the Nershals to use?”
“I think it might be a bit more complicated than you think it would be,” Zack said.
“I shall devote some processing time to the problem and provide you with a report,” the AI said.
Zack looked up at the HUD and saw that Etanu was watching him from the rear seat.
“What?” Zack asked.
“You mentioned before how you’d like to return to Earth and be with Kaylan. I’m trying to understand what this means. You’re with her here, but I don’t think that’s what you mean,” Etanu said.
“Oh, I was thinking just the two of us taking it easy on a beach somewhere,” Zack said.
“And you’d find such an existence fulfilling?”
“Well, yeah,” Zack said, and his mouth hung open while he tried to formulate his thoughts. “Just her and me on a beautiful beach. Bathing suits, drinks, the warm Caribbean waters, and no one trying to kill us. Yeah, I would like that very much.”
“I don’t think I understand you Humans at all. Here, in this moment, you are a designated mating pair, but you feel you can’t be alone because the Xiiginns are hunting you. The Xiiginn aren’t here. What’s stopping you from doing as you wish right now?” Etanu asked.
Zack frowned. “Ma’jasalax and the other Mardoxian Sect members have her so busy that we barely have any time for each other at all.”
“Have you communicated your desires to Kaylan?” Etanu asked.
Zack rolled his eyes. “What are you? The relationship police or something?”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
Zack shook his head and sighed. “No, I haven’t talked to her about it.”
He just wanted to get aboard the Athena and forget about Olloron, the Boxans, and the fact that they’d been kept so busy that they could hardly focus on any one thing for very long.
“You pride yourself on being able to solve problems and yet this one causes you to stumble,” Etanu said, and a series of high-pitched grunts sounded from the rear of the cockpit.
“Are you laughing at me?”
The sounds from the Nershal came in longer bursts and Zack ground his teeth in frustration.
“Fine, laugh it up. Next time I see Kaylan, I’ll just steal her away for a while,” Zack said.
The Nershal’s laughter ceased. “Now you’re making sense.”
As they got closer to the Athena, the white outer hull gleamed with a bit of silver and Zack drew in a deep breath, feeling his shoulders relax. He felt more at ease on the Athena than he did on the planet below them.
Zack harrumphed. Seeing the Athena was both a relief and a reminder of how far they had yet to go. The ship was tiny by Boxan standards, but thanks to the Drar it now contained more advanced technology than even the Boxans had. The Boxans had been able to help decipher some of what the million-year-old Drar AI had done to their ship, but though it had been eight months since that had happened, they were still in the dark as to the extent of the changes. One thing that had soon become apparent to all the crewmembers was the usefulness of the upgrades to their neural implants. The implants had been linked to their PDAs, and they still were to a certain extent, but they had the ability to function equally as well without them. As a result, the Athena crewmembers were able to multitask much better than they had before. Executing a task had required a fair amount of concentration before the upgrade, but now they could be performed almost as fast as it took to formulate the thought.
The security protocols had also been updated so only the Athena crew could access the computer systems of the ship. They’d been able to give the Boxans provisional access, but no matter what Zack did, the Boxans were severely limited in what they could do without one of the original Athena crewmembers present. Zack was aware of how the Boxans had tried to bypass the security protocols and access the ship’s systems directly, so those security protocols had kept the Boxans honest.
“So this is what Hicks refers to as ‘hearing you think.’ You know, when you’re so focused you start to forget things like slowing the ship down so we don’t crash,” Etanu said.
Zack’s thoughts snapped back to the strike-fighter’s controls and he slowed their approach.
“I was thinking of some things,” Zack said.
“When we first got here I thought we’d focus more on what the Drar did to the Athena, and for the first month or so things were like that, but not now,” Zack said.
“The Boxans are sharing their knowledge and training all of you on their systems. It is a great gift,” Etanu said.
“I realize that, but part of me keeps thinking that we’re being kept busy on purpose.”
“I don’t know. To keep us here longer? We should have gone back to our star system by now to try and open the barrier,” Zack said.
“It’s not safe. Not with the Xiiginn fleet in the area,” Etanu said.
“They can’t be everywhere at once.”
“The barrier is a blessing. It’s the only thing that saved your home world from being invaded by the Xiiginns. What if you were to bring down the barrier and then not be able to re-engage it?” Etanu asked.
“Earth would be vulnerable to attack, I know. But still, I wanted to test some Shroud devices and there aren’t any here,” Zack said.
“They destroyed what they could when they lost Sethion and the rest are in comms blackout until the Xiiginn threat passes,” Etanu said.
“A sixty-year blackout? That seems extreme to me.”
“What did Gaarokk say about this?”
“He told me he would look into finding some Shroud devices we could experiment with, but to be fair, I only asked him about it last week. I got the impression that he thought it was a good idea,” Zack said.
“Well then, you just need to be patient,” Etanu said.
This time Zack laughed. “Perhaps I should send Udonzari a message that you’ve finally learned about being patient.”
“I wouldn’t,” Etanu said.
Zack stopped laughing. “Why not?”
“Because he’ll request that I come back to Nerva and join the fleet,” Etanu said.
“I thought that would be a good thing. Since the Xiiginns have been ousted from Nerva, it should be safe to return now,” Zack said.
“We didn’t oust them. We appealed to the Confederation, and the member species voted for the Xiiginns to leave on our behalf,” Etanu said.
“I thought the Xiiginns controlled the Confederation.”
“They do, which is why the Nershal military has been on high alert. Our last clash with the Xiiginns revealed to them that we had allied ourselves with the Boxans,” Etanu said.
“Plus, the Xiiginns needed their fleet to invade Earth, so you guys got a break. It’s a good thing,” Zack said.
“No, it’s not.”
Zack matched the strike-fighter’s speed with the Athena’s orbital velocity so it appeared they had stopped.
“What do you mean it’s not?” Zack asked.
“Peace in our star system at the expense of yours is not a good thing. No species should have to live with the threat of a Xiiginn invasion,” Etanu said.
Zack nodded. He hated the Xiiginns as much as Etanu did, and the fact that he’d brought up the barrier and killed thousands of Xiiginns hadn’t bothered him. Kandra Rene’s face still haunted his dreams sometimes. The female Xiiginn had tortured him to get information about Earth and how he and his fellow Humans had arrived in the Nerva star system. At least Zack had been able to resist the Xiiginn compulsion capability. Brenda and Emma strongly believed it was because he loved Kaylan and that shielded him from the Xiiginn’s pheromones. Jonah Redford hadn’t been as lucky, but Zack was pretty sure Jonah loved himself and science above all else, and that hadn’t shielded him. Jonah had fought it as best he could, but it wasn’t until they were on the ancient Drar space station that he experienced any relief from his symptoms. Zack glanced at the top observatory on the Athena. Jonah’s lab was there, and though the astrophysicist was no longer with them, there were still reminders of him in his lab.
Zack had searched for some clue as to how the Drar had been able to alleviate Jonah’s symptoms. It’d been a far cry from a cure, but it might bring those who were afflicted with Xiiginn compulsion some peace. So far, he’d been unsuccessful. It wasn’t as if the Drar had any specific data about the Xiiginns specifically, but their AI had been able to diagnose and treat the symptoms until Jonah died. The Drar had given them a tremendous gift that would take them years to even go through and catalog properly, and it would take much more than the crew of the Athena. The more Zack thought about it, the more he kept coming back to their need to get the Athena back home to Earth.
“Do you think the Boxans are lying about having no access to a Star Shroud device?” Etanu asked.
“Not Gaarokk. I trust him, but the others I’m not so sure of. I mean I don’t think they’d lie to harm us, but some Boxans have a superiority complex that the others would say made a conflict with a species like the Xiiginns inevitable,” Zack said.
“They’re learning how to deal with that, I think,” Etanu said.
“Yeah, but that perception is still there,” Zack said.
He sent a command over to the Athena to open the airlock doors and had the strike-fighter’s autopilot maintain the ship's position relative to the Athena.
“Are you ready?” Zack asked.
“I’m always ready. You’re the one who forgets crucial pieces of equipment,” Etanu said.
“Are you ever going to let me forget about that?” Zack said, remembering the terrifying experience of being exposed to outer space without a helmet.
He was about to open the canopy when a comms channel opened from the planet.
“Congratulations on making it all the way to the Athena, but now I’m afraid you’ll need to come back to Olloron,” Hicks’s voice said over comms.
“Why? What’s going on?” Zack asked.
“Kladomaor has returned and he’ll be reporting on what they found back home,” Hicks said.
Zack’s eyes widened. “Alright, we’re on our way.”
Kladomaor had left them a few weeks earlier to do some reconnaissance near the barrier protecting Earth’s star system. It had been a comms-silent mission—no communications allowed back to the colony—so they hadn’t gotten a status update. Zack regained control of the strike-fighter and sped back toward the planet.
“Remember to angle your approach unless you prefer to kill us during re-entry,” Etanu said.
“I know,” Zack said, noticing that he was coming in a bit too steep and adjusting accordingly.
Kaylan was in a simulated environment meant for training Mardoxian Sect members, whom their translator referred to as priests and priestesses. She was floating in a virtual world, surrounded by different types of metallic blocks. The blocks converged in front of her, forming an artificial landscape. She touched down on the smooth surface and felt gravity return to the simulation.
Kaylan ran forward, maintaining her awareness of the surrounding area. She had done enough of these exercises to know that the Boxans loved to change the playing field, forcing her to adapt or fail to reach her objective. As she ran, she extended her senses out from her. The artificial landscape changed, becoming uneven, and several tall shafts extended from the floor. Kaylan leaped, grabbing onto one of the nearest ones, and it propelled her to the top. She gazed down at the floor and watched as it disintegrated, revealing a dark nothingness beyond. Kaylan pulled herself up and stood with her head held high. The Mardoxian Sect’s training methodology forced their initiates to trust their instincts, allowing their reliance on the sixth sense to become instinctual.
Officially, Kaylan wasn’t an initiate into the sect because she was Human but was allowed to train with them. Ma’jasalax had told Kaylan that their training would allow her to further develop her gifts, and the Boxan priestess had been right. Kaylan’s concentration hardly ever wavered, and she’d participated in practice sessions where she’d had to navigate through the obstacles in front of her as well as monitoring a half a dozen other environments. At first she’d failed miserably, but after these many months on Olloron, she was mastering what she would have thought were impossible feats before.
Kaylan sat down and closed her eyes to begin meditating, breathing in smooth, even breaths and quieting her mind. Ma’jasalax had told her the brain was a machine that was always working and was her single most powerful asset. When she meditated, she sometimes imagined she was standing in the midst of a thick fog. She wasn’t afraid, and she didn’t try to control the fog but accepted her place in it.
In this case, the swirling fog thickened and Kaylan cocked her head to the side, listening to a faint sound in the distance. She focused on the source of the sound and felt as if she were drifting forward through the fog toward the origin of the noise. A harsh clang echoed around her, along with heavy footfalls crunching on gravelly ground. A Boxan blaster fired and she cringed. There was a deep rumbling of Boxans speaking in muted tones as if she were listening to them from the other side of a thick wall. Kaylan relaxed and didn’t try to force what she was experiencing. Ma’jasalax had taught her that sometimes it was best to allow the things she saw to unfold.
The skin on her forehead chilled painfully as a sharp breeze blew against her face. Plasma bolts blazed through the air, and she felt as if she were standing on a frigid battlefield. Boxans in full power armor stomped loudly nearby. Kaylan peered through the fog but only caught brief glimpses of what she knew must have been there.
There was a loud clearing of the throat and Kaylan spun around. A Boxan stood there in strange red power armor that was unlike anything she’d seen before. The Boxan crouched down and placed its hand on the ground as if trying to sense something Kaylan couldn’t see. Then the Boxan turned around and the helmeted head looked directly at her. Kaylan gasped. The towering form of the Boxan lurched backward as if surprised by Kaylan’s presence. She heard a tone that was soft at first but steadily gained in intensity. Then the fog disappeared as if there were a giant vacuum that had sucked it all away, and the battle sounds faded.
The latch to the door moved and the simulator door opened. Noises from the chamber beyond barreled their way in, and Kaylan squinted. Light poured through the rounded edges of the doorway. The simulation chamber was soundproof, and it took Kaylan a few moments to get her bearings.
Ma’jasalax peered inside. “I didn’t want to pull you out when you were so deep in meditation, but Kladomaor has returned. Our presence is requested in the High Council chambers to hear his report.”
Kaylan grabbed the handle and climbed to her feet. The simulator was designed for Boxans, who averaged eight-to-ten feet in height. Her own five-foot-ten inches were a pittance in comparison. Her mouth was dry, and she took a sip of water from the canister she’d set outside before going into the simulator. She rolled her shoulders, stretching stiff muscles, and glanced at her PDA, then looked at Ma’jasalax in surprise.
“Six hours?” Kaylan asked.
“We decided to let you go on longer than before to see how it affected your performance,” Ma’jasalax said.
Kaylan frowned. It certainly hadn’t felt like she’d been in there that long, but it did explain why she was a bit stiff from sitting for so long.
“I saw it again—Boxans on a battlefield somewhere. They were fighting,” Kaylan said.
Ma’jasalax led her away from the simulation chamber. “Do you remember any details?” she asked.
“Someone was wearing red power armor, but it looked different than what I’ve seen here in the colony. I think the Boxan saw me or sensed me somehow. They reacted to my presence,” Kaylan said.
Ma’jasalax gave her a sidelong glance. The Mardoxian priestess came to a stop and approached a wall terminal where a holoscreen flickered on. Kaylan watched as a cycle of Boxan power-armor images flicked past the screen.
Kaylan pointed to one. “That’s pretty close to what I saw.”
She leaned in to get a better look and then nodded up to Ma’jasalax.
“It’s traditional combat armor from before the war with the Xiiginns. More decorative than practical,” Ma’jasalax said. She closed down the terminal and waved for Kaylan to follow.
“I don’t know why I keep seeing a battle. I don’t even know where it is,” Kaylan said.
“It may not be taking place anywhere. You’re quite gifted and it could be that you’re seeing another Boxan’s experiences. Most of the Boxans here have seen combat and every Boxan is required to learn basic combat skills,” Ma’jasalax said.
Kaylan’s brows squished together. “I don’t understand. How could I see another Boxan’s experiences?”
“You’re participating with the other Athena crewmembers in combat training as well as what we’re doing here, plus working on understanding what the Drar AI has done to your ship. Your vital signs were showing a sleep pattern,” Ma’jasalax said.
“Sleep . . . You mean I’m dreaming instead of seeing an actual event taking place?” Kaylan asked.
“Yes,” Ma’jasalax said.
Kaylan chewed on the inside of her cheek in thought. They were all working hard, but it had seemed so real. She’d heard the battle as if she were standing there on the battlefield. She’d felt the moisture on her skin and knew the Boxan in the red armor had seen her. She glanced at Ma’jasalax but didn’t say anything. It was a strange thing to suggest and Kaylan wondered if Ma’jasalax was testing her in some way. They were all working hard. Other than the two of them sleeping in the same bed, she had hardly any time to spend with Zack.
They went through the doors into the warm, arid outdoor air and blazing sunlight. This was a marked difference from the high humidity the Boxans preferred, like their home planet of Sethion. Olloron was a world with hotter temperatures due to its orbit being closer to the star in this system. The planet had large landmasses and oceans that covered about sixty percent of the planet’s surface, but when compared with the Earth that had over seventy percent of its surface covered in water, it made for a much dryer atmosphere.
Kaylan followed Ma’jasalax over to the transit pad they'd use to quickly travel to the High Council chambers. The Boxans had been residents of this planet for fifty years. It had begun as a small outpost, secreted away, and it was that secret that had saved them from the Xiiginns. Kaylan had asked Ma’jasalax whether they would have considered going to a star system like Earth if they hadn’t had Olloron. The Mardoxian priestess had given her a vague answer, but it still left Kaylan wondering what the Boxan’s future plans were. They couldn’t fight a war with the Xiiginns forever.
Kaylan used her PDA to check the location of the rest of the Athena’s crew and all of them were heading for the general assembly, but Kaylan frowned when she saw Zack’s location. He’d gone back to the ship again. He’d been withdrawing from the others and making regular trips back to the Athena. She sometimes found that the others would do something similar, herself included. The Athena was their link to home and sometimes being on their ship made them feel closer to home than being on the surface of the Boxan colony world did.
The transit pad hovered above the ground and then slowly rose into the air over the Mardoxian building complex. The wind blew Kaylan’s dark hair back, giving her a momentary reprieve from the heat. They headed toward a large dome-shaped building that other transit pads were approaching. The pads had no railings, but they didn’t need any; the sensors wouldn’t let anyone fall off during their short flight.
Kaylan glanced up and saw a strike-fighter flying over them, and her lips lifted a bit, knowing Zack was inside. He’d flown with Etanu today since she’d been training with Ma’jasalax.
She turned back toward the dome, eager to learn what Kladomaor had found during his reconnaissance mission back to Earth’s star system. The decision for them not to go with Kladomaor had been difficult to make, but ultimately they needed to focus on their work here and learn all they could about what the Drar had done to the Athena. And Kaylan marveled at what they’d been able to figure out. The Drar space station had remade the Athena by merging their technology with what had been built on Earth. There were some systems that not even the Boxans understood. Prior to entering the Drar space station, the Athena’s hull hadn’t been in the best of shape, which Hicks kept bringing up as a risk to all on board. All of those issues were gone. The hull material was in pristine shape, made of a radically advanced ceramic composite. They’d found references to the new composite formulas, but it would take them time to reproduce it.
While the artificial intelligence on the Drar station had enhanced their ship, it hadn’t included any weapon that would give them an edge in combat—at least not directly. There was no big gun they could use to take out hordes of Xiiginns, and to Kaylan that was quite a telling statement on the part of the Drar AI.
The transit pad slowed its approach and landed just outside the domed building where the Boxan High Council met. As Kaylan stepped off, alarms blared near them, along with the sound of strike-fighter engines as Zack brought it down for an impromptu landing in a clearing a short distance away. Boxan soldiers raced over to the craft while Zack and Etanu exited the ship. Kaylan watched as Zack gestured over to where Kaylan and Ma’jasalax waited, and the soldiers let them pass.
“Nice landing, although I don’t think they appreciated it,” Kaylan said to Zack.
Zack grinned. “Etanu mentioned something about surprise landings and that there wouldn’t always be a designated area for them.”
“Don’t you blame this on me. I was referring to what you’d do if your ship was damaged and you needed an emergency landing,” Etanu said.
Zack rolled his eyes. “I set it down right over there and everything turned out fine.”
Kaylan had been around Zack long enough to learn some of his behavior patterns. He was getting restless and these little moments of rebellion were indications that he needed a change.
“Zack,” Kaylan said, “landing a strike-fighter in the middle of a populated area isn’t the best way to treat our hosts.”
Zack blew out a breath. “Fine, I’ll move it after we’re done here.”
They headed inside and Kaylan fell into step next to him. She leaned over so only he could hear. “It was a good landing.”
“Thanks,” Zack said with a half smile. “Maybe when this is over we can take a ride?”
Kaylan nodded but wondered whether the Boxans would allow Zack to keep flying after his little stunt. If anything, the Boxans were rigid in their rules of expected behavior from their guests.
They met up with the rest of the Athena’s crew and Hicks worked his way over to Zack.
“Why didn’t you join us this morning?” Hicks asked.
“I’m not doing combat training anymore,” Zack said.
“I know the basics and that’s enough for now. I’m going to spend more time working with the Athena’s systems,” Zack said.
Hicks nodded. “That’s fine. We just didn’t know where you were.”
Zack glanced at Hicks for a moment. “Etanu was giving me a flying lesson.”
“Excellent, but I did want to tell you that you might have liked what we were doing today,” Hicks said.
Zack’s brows pushed forward. “What were you guys doing?”
“We got to use their exoskeletal suits,” Hicks said.
Zack’s eyes widened. “The ones that make you super strong and jump really high?”
Kaylan grinned as she watched the warring emotions on Zack’s face. It must have been every little boy’s dream to put on a suit of armor that could make them super strong and impervious to danger.
Since this briefing pertained to them directly, Kaylan and the others were ushered to a designated area set aside for them near the front. The Boxans were a large race of beings and made every effort to be sure their guests were comfortable, which included appropriately sized chairs for them to sit on.
Ma’jasalax went over to where the Mardoxian Sect representatives gathered in the High Assembly. There was a deep, quiet murmuring throughout the vast hall, but there were only about fifty Boxans in attendance. The Boxan High Council was made up of seven members that included their leader, who was a Boxan named Awan.
Awan glanced over at Kaylan and the others. “Thank you for coming on such short notice. When we received Kladomaor’s communications, we anticipated that you’d be as eager to hear the news as we are.”
“Thank you, High Councilor,” Kaylan replied. The crew of the Athena had decided that she was to speak for them.
A door on the far side of the chamber opened and Kladomaor entered, followed by Gaarokk and some other members of his crew. Kaylan had noted that Kladomaor preferred to work with the same crew when he embarked on missions, but she’d later learned that the Battle Commander was a bit of an outsider even among his own species. He was the only living Boxan to be brought back from the brink of madness at the hands of the Xiiginns and their compulsion ability. It was fair to say that Kladomaor was once a war hero who was no longer entirely trusted by his own race. Ma’jasalax had vouched for him, and it was through the High Council’s respect for the Mardoxian Sect that Kladomaor was still able to serve.
Kladomaor walked over to the designated speaker’s area and glanced at the Athena’s crew. His facial features could have been chiseled from stone for all they gave away.
High Councilor Awan brought the assembly to a start. “Battle Commander, please report your findings to us.”
“We returned to the Sol System to study the Shroud barrier and have learned that it possesses the same energy signature as the barrier we encountered at the Drar space station. There were no offensive capabilities, but that was expected. The sequence of code used to realign the Shroud device and change its composition wouldn’t give it offensive capabilities,” Kladomaor said.
“So the Earth is protected for the time being,” High Councilor Awan said.
“That’s true, but I have more to report,” Kladomaor said.
“We ran a multitude of tests on the barrier and it’s capable of withstanding an assault from our most powerful weapons; however, the barrier is shrinking,” Kladomaor said.
Kaylan stood up. “How fast is it shrinking?”
Kladomaor turned toward her. “We’re not sure. We’ve left sensor equipment to monitor and measure, but it will require another mission to retrieve the data.”
“Are the Xiiginns still there?” Kaylan asked.
“There was no Xiiginn presence detected, just a vast field of wreckage from the ships they weren’t able to salvage,” Kladomaor said.
“Were there any survivors from the Dreadnaughts?” Kaylan asked.
“No, unfortunately not. The Dreadnaughts were completely destroyed, but we did find a data recorder jettisoned prior to the battle,” Kladomaor said and turned back to the High Council. “Prax’pedax sent non-essential personnel, tech platforms, and orbital defensive platforms back to Earth before engaging the Xiiginns. There’s an excellent chance that there are surviving Boxans and Humans alive in the Sol System.”
High Councilor Awan shifted his gaze to Kaylan. “What do you think your race will do?”
Kaylan glanced at the others, unsure what to say. Anything she said would be pure speculation. “I’d like to think they would be working together.”
Hicks stood up and the high councilor nodded for him to speak. “The data we collected prior to leaving showed that the Xiiginns were sending asteroids to the interior of the star system. They were likely targeting Earth. A clear and present danger like that would have caused the cooperation of Earth’s militaries. They would have joined together to mitigate the attack. Assuming they all survived, and with the help of the Boxans, my guess would be that they're building a fleet to protect themselves.”
Kaylan looked at the Boxans on the High Council and got the impression that none of them were pleased.
Kladomaor cleared his throat. “The data recorder also contained Prax’pedax’s personal logs. He was aware that he’d broken protocol for dealing with a less advanced species. He recognized, as I have, that in order to survive we must work with species like the Humans.”
“Prax’pedax operated outside of his mandate to protect the Earth. Those protocols are in place to ensure a safe path for all those involved. We intend to work with the Humans, but Prax’pedax’s actions may have put them in even more danger,” High Councilor Awan said.
Zack let out a bitter laugh while coming to his feet.
“What are you doing?” Kaylan asked.
“No, I finally get it. I see what’s going on here,” Zack said to Kaylan. “They’re angry that Prax’pedax deviated from protocol and took an action that was outside the confines of the council.” Zack turned toward the council. “He was there and he decided that the best course of action was to share your precious technology with us so we could all have a fighting chance against the Xiiginns. Does that about sum it up?”
“Zack,” Hicks warned.
“No,” Zack said. “I want them to answer. We’re here right now today because they tried to control the galaxy with an iron fist. Tell me, what were Prax’pedax’s orders if the Xiiginns defeated your ships?”
Kaylan’s face flushed until she realized the implications of what Zack was saying. She stood by his side and faced the High Council. “It’s a fair question and one that needs to be answered,” she said in a steely tone.
High Councilor Awan shifted his feet and faced them fully. “Yours is a species that we cannot allow to fall to the Xiiginns. Your species is the only other race we’ve encountered with the Mardoxian potential. Battle Leader Prax’pedax was tasked with protecting your planet at all costs, but if he was unable to complete this task then he was to prevent the Earth from becoming an asset to the Xiiginns.”
Zack growled in disgust. “Unbelievable . . .”
Kaylan’s mouth hung open in disbelief. She looked at Ma’jasalax, who was watching her intently. Kaylan was prepared to work with the Boxans and make this alliance work, but this was too much.
“I realize that our stance appears to be harsh and I understand your initial response,” High Councilor Awan said.
“I don’t think you do. Not really,” Kaylan said. “How can you expect us to be in alliance with you with these kinds of contingency plans?”
“We expect you to respect our judgment,” High Councilor Awan said.
“This is bullshit,” Zack said.
“Hold on a minute,” Hicks said. “If our survival was at stake, do you think our own governments would react differently?”
“Yes, we would because we’re not all military. Not everything is a damn objective. We don’t quantify life as a numbers game,” Kaylan snapped.
“You are exactly right,” Ma’jasalax said, drawing their attention. “And not only that, Prax’pedax agreed as well,” she said and then faced the High Council. “Prax’pedax’s record shows a strong alignment with our original ideals. He represented the best among us and yet, upon meeting with the Humans directly, he changed his mind. He saw something in them, much as Kladomaor and I have, that has influenced us to question some of our stricter protocols.”
“These are the protocols that have allowed us to survive,” High Councilor Awan said.
“No doubt Prax’pedax thought the same thing, but do you see their reactions?” Ma’jasalax said, and the Boxans in the chamber swung their gazes toward the crew of the Athena. “They are but a few, but I would place a strong probability that their reactions are aligned with the rest of their species. If we persist along this path, no species will enter an alliance with us.”
There were a few moments of heavy silence. High Councilor Awan glanced at the other members of the High Council and then turned back toward Kaylan and the others.
“We respect the counsel of the Mardoxian Sect and each of us will spend time in quiet meditation considering the implications of our actions.”
The Boxan high councilor waited.
“Thank you,” Kaylan said in a neutral tone.
She glanced at Zack, who was seething, and the rest of the crew had guarded expressions.
“When will another team return to the Sol System? We need to understand how long the barrier can last before the system itself is in jeopardy,” Kaylan said.
“We will send a regular team to investigate shortly and then compile and analyze the data here. Is that acceptable?” High Councilor Awan asked.
“Good. I have a request here from our scientific division. They’re asking that the Athena be docked and its components studied directly,” Awan said.
“Unacceptable,” Kaylan said. “In fact, some members of my crew have expressed interest in spending more time on the Athena to study the Drar improvements. Those efforts were previously put on hold to allow you to perform your remote analysis while you educated us on some of your technology. Now that we have that foundation, we’re in a position to better understand what was done to our ship.”
The high councilor paused before answering. Clearly, he hadn’t expected Kaylan’s response. “Of course. We understand and shall assist however we can.”
Kaylan nodded and found that she wanted to put some distance between herself and the Boxans. She caught Kladomaor watching her and she had the impression that there was more he wanted to say to them. She turned toward the rest of the crew.
“I think we need to talk about a few things.”
The rest of them agreed. Kaylan looked back at the Boxans, thinking that for all their advanced technology and their dry, logical approach to anything in their path, they seemed to be forgetting a very important thing. All life wanted to live and would struggle to do so regardless of everything else. The Boxans had spent too much time surviving and not enough time living, and their race was suffering because of it.
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