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Arriving bleary-eyed with a mug of coffee dangling precariously from one hand, Zabraga slid into her work chair and awakened her system display. Taking a large swallow of the bitter brew — sweetening agent was apparently in very short supply on the Liberator — she placed the mug down and checked on the state of the linguistic algorithm. Progress had been painfully slow, the alien text seeming to possess a mere smattering of base elements with the list of known languages being drawn on for comparison.
That said, they had a veritable cornucopia of translations compared to the dismally short list she’d been given at the start of the assignment, and each success had an impact on the rate at which the next symbol was deciphered. She skimmed the list of new words:
“reduce”, “delay”, “ascend”, “phase”, “prompt”, “deploy”
These will definitely come in handy for the piloting team, she thought as she plugged in a portable datapad and transferred the information to it. The symbols associated with the piloting interface were her primary concern, and the algorithm had already provided enough useful translations for them to be able to get the ship underway and up to a great enough speed that there would be time to enact the other elements of the plan. The main hurdle remained engaging the ship’s cloaking technology, however.
She had been somewhat dismayed, but unsurprised, to learn that no method of ship-wide communication and data transfer had been installed — not even direct linkage with cables, given the fact that wireless signals appeared to be incapable of penetrating whatever material the framework of the ship was constructed from.
It made sense in a way. After all, why go to the trouble and expense of laying out hundreds of metres of cable, only for it to be made redundant as soon as they got the ship’s own innate comms systems working? That doesn’t stop the trek to and from the bridge from being a ball-ache though, she thought sourly.
She reached out to unplug the datapad and her hand stopped suddenly, hovering just short of the connector, eyes widening. Phase, the word resounded in her mind with a nagging familiarity. Fingers skittering over her keyboard, she brought up the full list of translated words until she found the one she was looking for: “shift”. Enlarging the alien pictograph, she put it side-by-side with the newly translated “phase” symbol.Phase shift, she thought,a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.That’s a method of cloaking!
She recalled seeing the two symbols together on the pilot display on the bridge. Snatching the datapad and carelessly yanking it free from its connector, she swiveled and launched herself out of her chair, heading for the bridge at a run. Some of the individuals she passed on her way stopped and turned to stare, looks of consternation or puzzlement on their faces, but she paid them no heed. Pausing briefly to nod and brandish her datapad at the two Greys flanking the bridge entry, after waving her through she headed straight for the platform that had been erected in front of the ship piloting system. On her way she glanced back at the captain’s chair but it was empty.At least I get a chance to confirm it before letting Kol know the good news!
Rellor was on the platform lying supine on a wheeled dolly, tinkering with something on the underside of the control podium that had been fitted to allow someone of “normal” size to interact properly with the ship’s piloting system. He tilted his head to peer out at her as she bounded up the steps and waved to him.
“Rellor!” she exclaimed, greeting him with a broad smile.
“Zabraga,” he replied as he pulled himself out from under the podium and sat up, knuckling the small of his back as he did so. “What’s gotten you all riled up?” He asked.
“I’m glad you’re here actually,” she replied, “I think I’ve made a significant breakthrough.”
“Oh?” his brows raised and he held out a hand to her. “Mind helping me up?”
She reached out and took the Grey’s hand, grunting and having to brace her legs as he used the extra leverage to pull himself off the dolly and to his feet. “You’re heavier than you look.” she said as they broke grips and he dusted off the back of his trousers.
Rellor chuckled. “Indeed,” he said, “We Greys may look light, but our skeletal structure is actually very dense. So,” he indicated the datapad in her hand, “What’s this breakthrough?”
“Is the control podium operational?” she asked, referencing the work he’d been doing when she arrived.
“Yes, I’ve just finished replacing a faulty board component. Let me fire it up again.” He turned and depressed a pair of small buttons in the top-left corner of the display frame for a couple of seconds. The screen flickered to life with a Federation Standard language keyboard materialising, and a large box in the centre where he placed his hand. After a moment the box border turned green, and the control interface appeared as he removed his hand. “There you go,” he stepped aside and gestured.
Zabraga came forwards and connected the datapad to the podium, accessing the stored information and quickly updating the system with the newly translated symbols. She then brought up a copy of the alien pilot interface and flicked through the still largely incomprehensible menus until she found what she was looking for: a button labeled with both symbols.
“See!” she exclaimed, pointing at the button. “Phase shift.”
Rellor peered at the screen. “Phase shift?” he repeated.
“Yes, I think it’s a reference to cloaking technology.” She looked over at Rellor, who stood staring at the screen with his mouth ajar. “What do you think?”
“I… well… there’s one way to find out.” He reached out and to Zabraga’s surprise pressed the button — which triggered an overlay including two already-translated symbols: “deploy” and “rescind”. The two of them shared a look, and before they could have second thoughts he pressed the “deploy” button.
Another brightly-flashing overlay appeared, though the only translated symbols were “deploy phase shift”, and an alarm began sounding that could be heard throughout the ship. Rellor’s face screwed up in pain and he clapped his hands over the aural orifices on each side of his head.
“Turn it off!” he screamed at Zabraga, and she stared desperately at the buttons on the overlay, but none of the symbols had been translated. Grimacing she pressed the first button, the alarm stopped and the overlay disappeared. Rellor began to withdraw his hands and the overlay reappeared with additional symbols, accompanied by the ship-wide alarm again. “Tahaluun have mercy!” the Grey yelled, hunching down as if to try to escape from the noise.
“Damn it!” Zabraga exclaimed, and pushed the second button. The alarm cut off, the overlay disappeared, and after a few tense moments it seemed that nothing else was going to happen. She looked to Rellor who still had his hands pressed against his head, a trickle of blue-tinted blood seeping out from beneath his palms. She touched his shoulder and he looked up at her. “Are you ok?” she asked.
The Grey shook his head, wincing as he did so. “The sound,” he said loudly, “We’re more sensitive than you Humans.” He slowly lowered his hands, looking down at his blood-spattered palms, “I need to visit the medical quarters.”
“Of course,” Zabraga agreed, “Do you need help getting there?”
“No,” he waved away her concern, “I’ll be fine — though the medics are going to have their hands full if every Grey on the ship got a blast from that alarm.” He smiled weakly. “Kol will be on his way — I can’t believe I did something that rash.” He shook his head then caught at the podium to steady himself.
“Go,” Zabraga said, “I’ll take care of Kol.”
Rellor nodded and began to make his way to the door, staggering as if mildly drunk. As she watched him go, Zabraga noted that the Grey door guards were nowhere to be seen, presumably already on their way to receive medical attention.Well that became very messy very quickly,she thought glumly.I should’ve stopped him. And yet….Regardless of such recklessness, they had made a significant breakthrough — they just needed to figure out what had caused the alarm.
A Reprimand of Sorts
Zabraga was at the podium perusing the system menus when Kol arrived on the bridge flanked by Kadaj. “Zabraga,” he called, causing her to turn as he hobbled over to the pilot platform, “What happened?”
He looked concerned rather than angry, which was a good sign. She looked at Kadaj behind him before speaking, and he on the other hand looked furious, his scaled skin almost black streaked with livid, pulsating veins of red. Chewing briefly at her lip, she took a moment to choose her words very carefully.
“I’m deeply sorry for the alarm,” she said with as much sincerity as she could muster, “I think we’ve made a major breakthrough though.”
“Major breakthrough?” Kadaj hissed, “You’ve sent every Grey on the ship deaf, and you almost killed me you halfw-”
“Kadaj!” the loud whip-crack of Kol’s voice cut him off mid-sentence.
Kadaj glowered at the other Reptiloid’s back, the pulsating veins of red thickening and dancing frantically over his face. Zabraga saw murder in his eyes — then he looked away, sucking in several deep breaths and forcing himself to relax, the crazed patterning beginning to fade. Kol glanced over his shoulder and nodded briefly.
“You will excuse Kadaj’s outburst, it would appear that whatever system you triggered caused machinery he was busy finishing repairs on, to switch on — or at least attempt to.”
Zabraga inclined her head deeply in Kadaj’s direction. “I’m truly sorry, I didn’t realise you were working. Neither of us did.”
“I’m always working.” the Reptiloid muttered, briefly meeting her gaze before averting his eyes again. He said something incomprehensible under his breath that made Kol’s eyes narrow, but he otherwise ignored it.
“I saw Rellor on the way here,” Kol said, “He took responsibility for what happened, but urged me to come to you for the details. So,” he gestured at the screen, “Show me what’s important enough to warrant overwhelming the medical staff with Greys.” There was a subtly amused tone to his voice.
Zabraga turned her attention back to the screen, gesturing to Kol to come closer. “I checked on the algorithm for new translations,” she navigated to the menu with the button Rellor had pressed, “and one of the symbols in the list was familiar to me.” She pointed at the symbol for ‘phase’, “I remembered seeing it alongside another symbol that had already been translated,” her finger hovered over ‘shift’, “so I came here to confirm.”
“I see,” Kol said noncommittally, “Forgive my lack of familiarity with this term; what doesphase shiftactually mean to you? Obviously it’s important.”
“Phase shifting is, in a general sense, another method of cloaking,” she glanced at Kol, who was now staring at the screen with greater intensity, “My understanding is it involves altering the physical reality of a target, such that it becomes invisible to all normal methods of detection.”
Kol nodded, tilting his head to look at her, “And the two of you thought you would justgive it a pushand see what happened?” His voice was calm, but there was a hardness to his eyes.
“I… well…” Zabraga stammered, and Kol stopped her, placing a hand on her shoulder and drawing her around to face him directly.
“I understand,”he said with a slight smile, “You were excited, and you let it cloud your judgement.” He let his hand drop from her shoulder, “Rellor may have pushed the button, but you should’ve had the presence of mind to stop him,” he chided her, “Luckily such rash behaviour has only resulted in a few ruptured eardrums — but youmustbemindfulin future. Killing us all isn’t the goal I have in mind.” The subtle tone of amusement was back.
“I’ll try to keep that in mind,” Zabraga replied wryly.
“Kadaj,” Kol said, looking over his shoulder, “It appears they’ve found the way to cloak the ship — so what caused the alarm?”
“I had decoupled a part of the machinery to perform an isolated diagnostic check.” the Reptiloid replied.
“How long will it take to re-couple it?” Kol asked.
“Minutes at most.”
“Please go and get it done so we can test again. If it works, we’re ready to get underway.”
Kadaj nodded perfunctorily and stalked off without another word.
“Quickly!” Kol called after him, and Zabraga watched in amazement as the Reptiloid dropped to all fours, his body morphing to resemble a sleek, long-limbed creature she’d never seen before. It sped off far faster than anything on two legs could have.
“That was… impressive to watch,” Zabraga said, feeling somewhat awestruck. “How is it that he’s so angry all the time, when he has such freedom as that?”
“Shapeshifting is both a blessing and a curse to him, as you already know.” Kol replied, “But on top of that he was a clan chief, and lost everything because of his condition.” Kol shook his head sadly, “After his fourth child was sacrificed the question of his ongoing leadership was raised before the Circle of Solons — the clan elders — and he was removed.”
“I see. He must find it hard working under another Reptiloid, especially…” she trailed off, still uncomfortable referencing Kol’s condition.
“A wizened abomination like me?” Kol supplied, hacking out a laugh. “Yes, but the completion of the research would give him a chance at a triumphant return to his clan — so he does what is necessary to achieve that aim.”
“Don’t you worry that he’ll turn on you once he has what he wants?”
“Improbable,” Kol shrugged, “He is singularly focused on recovering his clan status, so he’ll get what he wants and then leave.”
They stood in amiable silence for a short time, Kol watching as Zabraga finished perusing the menus and cataloguing on her datapad where the new translations had made an impact. She was just going through the last of them when Kadaj returned, bounding up the steps to the platform and morphing back into his humanoid form a mere pace away from Kol. There was a viciousness to his smile, Zabraga thought, as if he was rubbing his shapeshifting ability in the other’s face.
“It is done,” he said between heavy breaths.
“Zabraga.” Kol said, gesturing at the screen. She quickly went back to the relevant menu, pressed the ‘phase shift’ button to bring up the deployment overlay, then looked up at him.
“Go ahead, do the honours,” he nodded at her, smiling.
“Here goes…” she said, taking a deep breath then pressing the ‘deploy’ button.
The overlay was replaced by a split interface with lines of alien code on one side, and a wireframe image of the Liberator on the other, with various sections of the ship being highlighted yellow as the code scrolled. Once complete the entire wireframe was highlighted and a low-octave shipwide alert sounded, followed by an audio message in the alien language. The entire ship began to subtly vibrate, slowly at first but with the oscillations rapidly increasing in frequency until there was a sudden tearing jolt that made everyone on the bridge stagger, and the vibration stopped. Another audio message sounded, and the wireframe image on the pilot screen turned blue.
Zabraga felt queasy and had to grab hold of the podium to steady herself. Taking a few deep, calming breaths she looked across at Kol, who was staring at the screen with an intensity she hadn’t seen since the day she first met him, the corners of his mouth pulled back in the rictus of a smile. Out of the three of them he was the only one who appeared unaffected by the phase shift.
“The ship’s phase shift drive is-” Zabraga swallowed, forcing away the urge to vomit, “operational.” she finished.
“So it would seem,” Kol replied. “We must run some tests to make sure.” He turned, drawing himself to his full, imposing height, “Kadaj, go and monitor the drive machinery,” as the other Reptiloid nodded and left the bridge on somewhat unsteady feet, he turned back to the screen, “Zabraga, find Jorund and ask him to bring our two pilots to the bridge,” as she inclined her head and made to leave he stopped her, “And spread the word that, all being well, we’ll be leaving for Federation space today.”
She bowed more formally, inwardly pleased by the leader’s reinvigorated air of authority, “Yes, Lord Kol.” she said, with a smile which turned into a grin at his discomfited grimace, before turning and heading quickly off the bridge.
Once she was out of sight Kol relaxed his posture, stifling a groan at the pain he felt. “This is it,” he said to himself, placing a hand on the podium to keep himself steady. “And not before time….” he whispered.
* * *
Victory in Sight
Kol sat on the bridge staring intently at an array of holo-screens that had been set up to allow him to monitor how things were going on each of the planets. The Liberator’s entry to Federation space and manoeuvre into an ultra-high retrograde orbit around Neri remained unmarked, and the phase shifting system had remained active for several days since with no breakdowns or signs of it putting any undue stress on the ship’s power source. The only things left to do were watch, wait, and correspond as necessary with the planet- and station-side agents.
It was certainly an interesting show unfolding, as the real Candidates of each planet found themselves scrambling to try to keep up with those he had inserted. Heated debates, extensive canvassing and myriad other activities had been sparked by the ascent of a group of apparent outsiders into the pole positions of every planet, and Kol found himself greatly enjoying the added liveliness. Some of his planted Candidates had also proven to be capable debaters and orators — though they kept themselves from the spotlight as much as possible, as they had been briefed to do.
He had originally intended to pose as a Candidate himself, but his ever-advancing decrepitude had forced him to think twice about the idea. Not to mention he had come to accept that as the leader of their enterprise, he must always have eyes on the bigger picture — as much as it galled him to be safely hidden in the shadows, whilst others bore the brunt of the risk. His sigh was equal parts melancholic and contented; everything was going as expected, though there remained a tiny yet insistent sense of guilt for what he would be taking from the planetary Citizens.
Desperate times…he thought,And in any case, what I will achieve — an end to barbaric practices, and shapeshifting for ALL… it’s worth it.He hoped others would come to see that, given time.
“Still ensconced up there? You’ll end up blind staring at those holo-screens all the time,” Jorund waved casually as Kol looked down to see who the speaker was.
“Blindness is the least of my worries,” he replied with a chuckle that deteriorated into a cough. “I can feel the Serpent of the Abyss breathing down my neck.”
“I take it that’s not a pleasant sensation,” Jorund said, grinning.
“Indeed not!” Kol returned the grin, “Yet I must endure it a while longer. What brings you here, my friend?”
“A bit of bad news, I’m afraid.” Jorund conceded.
Kol snorted. “At this point I welcome it. ‘The plan that goes too well is destined for a fall from a greater height’ as the saying goes,” he gestured at the Nordic, “Go on, out with it.”
“It would appear that the code we use for interstellar correspondence has been cracked.” Kol looked down sharply at him, and he raised a hand and went on quickly, “But I don’t think we need to worry too much. I’ve already switched to one of the backup encryption types and broadcast a message to all agents to ‘switch cargo’, which our agents can check against the list of pre-approved phrases to determine the channel and encryption type to use going forward.”
Kol relaxed a little at that. “Who cracked it?”
Jorund grimaced, “A retiree with a penchant for checking disused comms channels for coded messages, apparently.”
“What?” Kol stared down at him, wondering for a moment if this was some kind of prank. “Are you… how do you say, ‘pulling my tail’?”
Jorund waved both hands defensively, “Not at all! Not with something important like this.” He nodded his head towards the holo-screens, “Look up Constance Bodin, that’s the name of the person who cracked it.”
Kol snatched up his datapad and input the name, flicking the search results onto the central holo-screen and accessing the top media entry:
“CONSTANCE CRACKS THE CODE!”
He skimmed through the article, noting that it had been updated several times since initial publication, the last being a mere hour ago. He let out a hiss and pointed at a specific paragraph.
“This refers to my name!” he snarled.
“What?!” Jorund looked up at the screen, dumbfounded. “Those paragraphs weren’t there earlier.”
“No, it seems things have progressed swiftly.” Kol grated. He began to read the article out loud:
“Constance Bodin, a retired analyst and two-times winner of the interplanetary multilingual crossword competition, brought her suspicions to her local Federation Ombudsman after discovering a string of coded messages on one of Neri’s disused shipping channels, used by her and several acquaintances to coordinate monthly get-togethers. One of these messages referenced Neri’s Custodial election, prompting her to contact the authorities.”
He sucked in a hoarse breath and went on:
“As a precaution, the Federation began a full spectrum scan of all communications channels, searching for messages utilising the specific code type that Constance had deciphered. They discovered a disturbing web of correspondence, with a small number of messages including the name ‘KOL’. It is unclear at this time whether this is the name of an organisation or an individual, but what is clear is that at least three of Neri’s top five Candidates are involved.”
Kol closed his eyes briefly, a look of pain on his face, then continued:
“One of these Candidates has been remanded for questioning; the whereabouts of the other two are currently unknown. The Federation has since extended its scan to include communications channels on all six planets. This article will be updated as more information is made available to us.”
“Sindera-tilekvema does not smile on us today,” Jorund whispered, invoking the Nordic deity. “What are we going to do?”
“Do? About what?” Zabraga sauntered up, a datapad full of fresh translations in her hand. She looked at Jorund’s ashen face then up at Kol, frowning at the way his mouth was gaping open and the wideness of his eyes as he stared at the holo-screen as if shell-shocked. She looked at the holo-screen herself, did a sudden double-take and then started to read the contents of the article. “Oh no…” she whispered.
“This Constance,” Kol spat out the name in disgust, “will need to be dealt with to prevent her from aiding the Federation further. Jorund, I want you to contact our intermediary on Neri, and have them source someone suitable to silence her — and quickly.”
“Silence her?” Zabraga looked up at Kol incredulously, “Are you seriously talking about killing a ninety year old woman?”
Jorund nodded, looking distinctly unhappy. “She may be old, but she’s established herself — inadvertent as it may be — as a threat. If she’s allowed to continue working with the authorities, there’s a good chance they’ll compromise our plans further — including our avenue of escape.”
Zabraga couldn’t quite believe what she was hearing. Rationally it made sense, but emotionally… she let out a breath. “I have a confession to make.”
Both Kol and Jorund turned to stare at her. “A…. confession?” Jorund queried.
“Yes.” Zabraga pursed her lips, suddenly pensive, “Constance Bodin… is my grandmother.” she said at last.
“Your…what?” Kol asked, his gaze so intense she had to stop herself shrinking away from it.
“My grandmother,” Zabraga repeated.
Kol suddenly began to laugh, a wheezing, hacking sound that had a maniacal undertone to it. “Yourgrandmother!”he gasped, then broke into another bout of laughter that ended in a coughing fit.
Jorund let out a partially amused snort. “To think, the granddaughter has been instrumental in getting us successfully to this point, and the grandmother now proves to be instrumental in our exposure.” he shook his head, looking bewildered.
“How though?” Zabraga asked, “She’s nearly ninety years old; she retired from communications analysis decades ago.”
“It would seem,” Jorund said wearily, “That we inadvertently picked a comms channel on Neri that wasn’t as ‘disused’ as we believed. Your grandmother had apparently been using it to organise gatherings with friends.”
“That’s… unfortunate,” Zabraga said, then frowned, “But the content of the messages is structured to appear like merchant correspondence. Grandm- Constance shouldn’t have thought anything untoward was going on.”
Jorund shrugged, “We can only assume someone, somewhere got lax with their communication. One message referred to the elections directly, and the Federation’s wider search uncovered messages referring to Kol specifically.” He sighed. “There’s little point dwelling on it now — but Constance may prove a threat even to our escape plans.”
“You cannot kill my grandmother.” Zabraga said flatly, “It’sourfault for not being diligent enough in our choice of comms channel.”
Jorund looked as if he was about to argue, then thought better of it. “You’re right, I suppose. Kol,” he said, and then more forcefully when the other didn’t acknowledge him, “KOL. We need to move to our back-up plan — and I need your final word on what to do about Constance.”
Kol stared unblinking at the screen a moment longer, then visibly shook himself to regain some semblance of composure, and nodded. “Yes Jorund, we do. See to it, will you?” He made a dismissive gesture. “Oh,” he added, “and as far as Zabraga’s kin is concerned, leave her be — and pray to your Sindera-tilekvema that sparing her life doesn’t cost us all of ours.”.
Jorund inclined his head and left at a trot, his visage grim.
Falling from Great Height
“Thank you,” Zabraga said, inclining her head respectfully to Kol.
“Zabraga,” he replied, “Tell me truthfully: did you have anything to do with this?”
“Me? No!” she replied emphatically, “I- I haven’t had any contact with her in years. I didn’t even realise she was still alive until I saw that article.”
The Reptiloid sighed, rubbing one hand slowly over his face. “I believe you,” he said solemnly, “I had to ask, of course.” Looking down at the forgotten datapad in his hand, he started tapping away and bringing up live feeds for each of the planets on the holo-screens:
BREAKING NEWS: Attempted electoral fraud on Eyeke!
THIS JUST IN: Naron’s lead Candidate arrested!
MV4L LIVE: Insidious plot to steal Magor’s elections uncovered!
NEWSFLASH: Attempt to subvert Velesian democracy foiled!
KAV-NEWS: Today’s top query — the Cult of KOL?
NERI TODAY: Constance: 1 — KOL: 0
“And so we fall,” Kol whispered. He stared down at his hands, allowing the datapad to slip from his fingers. Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself ponderously to his feet, descending the steps to the bridge floor as if in a daze. He stumbled on the last step, and Zabraga moved quickly to offer a steadying shoulder.
“Compose yourself,” she said quietly, “We need your strength now, Kol — or at least the impression of it.”
He nodded, leaning on her for support a moment longer, then pushing himself away and straightening. “Pilot, set course for the rendezvous point, it’s time to salva-” He was cut off by the sound of the ship-wide alarm and an urgent-sounding alien message. “What’s going on?”
“We have incoming!” the pilot yelled.
“What??” Zabraga exclaimed.
“Four small, fast-moving objects,” the pilot replied, “originating from a fixed position in low orbit above Neri.”
“Get us underway.” Kol said tersely.
“Too late sir, brace for impact!” the pilot grabbed the sides of the control podium, hunching over it.
An explosive impact reverberated through the ship causing Zabraga and Kol to stagger, but further impacts weren’t forthcoming. “Report!” Kol said.
“Three of the four missiles missed, sir,” the pilot replied, proceeding to check the ship’s hull integrity. “There’s minor damage to the ablative shielding on our starboard side, sector three.” The incoming attack alert sounded again. “Four more missiles incoming!”
“Get the ship moving, NOW!”
“Engaging engines, sir. Brace for impact again!”
Both Kol and Zabraga grabbed hold of the enormous captain’s chair and braced themselves just as two more impacts rocked the ship, one deeper and more powerful than the other.
“One of the missiles hit an unprotected section of the hull,” said the pilot, “Two containment breaches — the system has automatically sealed off the area. Power to the engines has been disrupted; diverting energy via a backup pathway now.”
“How did they know our location?” Kol demanded.
“I don’t know sir, but that’s no longer relevant; they’ll be locking onto the coordinates of successful impacts now, and adjusting their spread accordingly.”
The alert sounded again, and everyone immediately prepared themselves for further impacts. This time all four missiles hit home, and they felt the Liberator list to the left under the brunt of the explosions. There was a sudden tearing jolt, and a more urgent-sounding alarm was triggered. Kol groaned in recognition; it was the one Zabraga and Rellor had encountered previously when attempting to engage the phase shift system for the first time.
“Sir!” called the pilot, a note of desperation in his voice.
“No need to tell me,” Kol cut him off, “We’re no longer phase-shifted.” He closed his eyes, a look of immense pain passing across his face, then opened them again. “Pilot, broadcast the message to abandon ship.”
“Sir?” the pilot looked back at him questioningly.
“Now.” Kol said, resolutely. “Without our cloak we’re finished.”
“Aye sir.” The pilot brought up a short list of Federation Standard language messages that Rellor had been able to implement thanks to Zabraga’s continuing translation efforts, and selected the ‘abandon ship’ one:
“All hands to the docking bays and prepare for immediate departure. REPEAT: All hands to the docking bays and prepare for immediate departure. DO NOT DELAY.”
There was a short delay and the message repeated itself.
“Everybody get to your transports,” Kol called to the bridge crew, “Zabraga, get yourself to the Shorekaa.”
The incoming alert sounded again, and everyone stopped to grab whatever they could to weather the blow. All four missiles hit, and the Liberator appeared to groan as the damaged hull began to tear itself apart in places under the increasing strain. One of the bridge security guards was thrown over the railing of the raised walkway he was on, hitting the floor of the bridge hard and lying there, unmoving.
Zabraga grabbed at Kol’s arm. “Let me help you to the docking bay.” she said, but the Reptiloid shook her hand off.
“No time for that,” he said roughly, “Save yourself!”
“No.” she wouldn’t be deterred, and grabbed his arm again. “You’re not sacrificing yourself because we’ve fallen at the last hurdle. Pilot! Help me ge-”
Something large barreled into the two of them sending them both sprawling. Zabraga was knocked out of the way by a burly arm, sent skidding across the floor to slam against the base of the captain’s chair. She rolled over clutching at a pain in her side, and stared across in horror as a squat, thick-set entity loomed over Kol’s prone form.
“You’ve failed, Wedrhewun,” Kadaj snarled, “and it’s time I choked the life from you — like I should have when I first arrived!” he slapped the helpless Reptiloid, blood flying as his claws raked deep furrows across Kol’s left cheek. He swung again, landing a solid backhander that snapped Kol’s head to the left, then reached out and grabbed him by the neck and started to squeeze.
Zabraga dragged herself to her knees, noting that Kadaj’s other arm was hanging by his side, the sleeve of his robe torn and soaked in blood. She launched herself at him, grasping at the wounded arm with both hands and digging her fingers in. He bellowed in pain and twisted his torso trying to throw her off, but she clung on desperately. He lashed out with his meaty tail and knocked her sideways, but she maintained her grip and threw herself into her direction of motion, using the added momentum to pull Kadaj with her.
The startled Reptiloid let go of Kol and tumbled over Zabraga, hitting the floor on his back. He rolled over, quickly clambering to his feet — and a thick piece of metal railing arced towards his head, making a sickening crunching sound on impact. He dropped to the floor, presumably dead, and the guard who had fallen over the rail earlier limped over to help Zabraga up.
“Thank you for the timely intervention,” she said, and he smiled. “Can you help me with Kol?” The two of them went and helped Kol to his feet — clinging to one another as more missiles slammed into the side of the ship — and together they stumbled off the bridge, heading down the central corridor for docking bay six. Luckily the docking bays in use were all port-side, and so had yet to suffer any direct damage from the bombardment.
The Shorekaa was the last ship left, and after securing Kol into one of the little Skimmer’s four passenger seats, Zabraga quickly fired up the systems and prepared to launch. She was going through the final checks and manoeuvring the ship to the open bay door when a deeper explosion sounded in the Liberator, followed by several more in rapid succession. The final one tore open the aft side of the docking bay, the shockwave colliding with the Shorekaa and sending it careening out of control.
Zabraga was thrown out of her chair — in her haste she had forgotten to strap herself in — and her head hit the cabin wall. She flopped down, concussed, her vision fuzzy and feeling increasingly nauseous as the Skimmer spun out of control. The security guard was out of his seat and at the ship’s controls, looking her way and apparently yelling at her, though the sound was oddly muffled. She tried to push herself to her feet, but instead felt herself fall into blackness.
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