A Beginning

Choosing the right place to start Molly’s story was simple. Despite all that took place before, much of it long before she was even born, there was one day that changed everything. Not just for Molly, but for the galaxy.

The full scope of this story is only beginning to be understood, even after six months of nonstop reading and research. And yet, it all hinged on a single day. So that’s where this story begins. The Tchung Affair.

I’ve apologized several times prior for my analytical, male brain. I’m an engineer, not a poet. If the following is hard to follow, please know that I appreciate the irony of my having been chosen for this task. I would reject the duty were I not so completely absorbed by its subject.

Here are the first seventeen pages of our saga:

I – The Tchung Affair

……………………

Molly was having the nightmare again. The same one she’d been having almost nightly for ten years. She was floating in the vacuum of space with no helmet on, no protection at all. The starship Parsona was receding into the void, just a pinprick among the stars. It was her parents’ ship, and in the dream, they were still alive. Her mother hadn’t passed away in childbirth; her father hadn’t left Earth, never to return. They were alive—but they were slipping away. And leaving her behind.

There wasn’t anything to push on in the vacuum. Molly twisted her body, swimming in the nothingness, but it always spun her away from the sight of the ship. She would spend the rest of the dream helplessly facing the wrong way, contorting her body for one last glimpse.

She knew she was having a nightmare—she always knew. But part of her didn’t want to wake up. It was scary here and hard to breathe, but as long as she stayed asleep, her parents would be out there. Alive.

“Molly.”

A voice came through the radio in her helmet, piercing the dream and replacing it with a similar view, but through a Navy cockpit. Molly lifted her visor and rubbed her eyes with her flight glove. She tried to push the nightmare away before snapping her helmet shut.

She was nestled in the right-hand side of a GN-42 Firehawk, flying in formation with 37 others. Hers was the “nav” chair. The “girlie” seat. A title meant to infuriate the boys who flunk out of flight school and get stuck with navigation and comm duties. The term was intended to annoy, to “motivate.” It just enraged Molly, who was never given the chance to wash out of flight school. “Gimme a sec,” she told her partner.

“Take your time, your shift’s not up for another ten.”

“Geez, then why’d you wake me?” Molly looked to her left. Flying their Firehawk was Cole Mendonça, her partner for the past two years. As much as Molly resented not being able to fly, she couldn’t take it out on her pilot. Partly because he was extremely skilled and deserved his own command, but mostly because of something else: Cole was her friend. Molly lived in a male-dominated world, constantly reminded she didn’t belong. But not by Cole. He didn’t just defend her, he made their cramped cockpit feel… comfortable. It meant a lot to her, more than he knew.

“I woke you ‘cause I want you to see something. I just sent it to your reader. Check the first tab.”

Her vision was still blurred from the nap. They were on a two-day reconnaissance mission with a high probability of meeting hostile forces. That meant two-hour sleep shifts on autopilot. Despite what people saw on the Military Channel, this was naval warfare. Hours of tedious astral navigation, endless patrols of nothingness, and paperwork. Lots of paperwork.

Molly pulled her electronic reader out of her flightsuit and tried to focus on the screen. “What am I looking at?”

“System update log. Read it.”

“You woke me up for this?” She turned to Cole and his familiar profile. With the visor down, only his lips were visible. They were pursed with worry. Molly stared at them until she heard the AC unit in her flightsuit whir to life, whisking away excess body heat.

Cole faced her. “Read it,” he insisted.

She was too lost in a familiar illusion to hear him. Her own reflection peered back from Cole’s visor, over and over again in a series of infinite regressions. She tried to follow herself as she receded into the indiscernibly diminutive.

“GN-KPX to Molly Fyde, come in.”

She broke her gaze away from the familiar illusion and down at her lap.

“Well?” he asked.

“I’m still reading it.” She skimmed the report, not sure what she was supposed to see. It was standard stuff from the IT department. A software upload to their ship four days ago by Specialist Second Class Mitchell and signed off by Commander Hearst. A few bugs fixed, some navigational data updated. None of it warranted the worry in Cole’s voice.

“I don’t see the problem.”

“That’s because I haven’t shown it to you yet. I just wanted you to see that before I presented this.” With an unnecessary flourish, Cole pulled the Firehawk’s diagnostic information up on the main screen of the dash.

It took a second for Molly to see what he was alluding to. Then she stared at him in disbelief. “You’re worked up over this?” She jabbed a finger toward the time of their computer’s most recent update. It was the 14th. Yesterday. Two days later than the maintenance report suggested. “I’m sure it’s a clerical error,” Molly groaned. She flipped the tab closed on her reader and stuffed it into the large pocket on the side of her flightsuit. “I was having such a good dream, too,” she lied.

“First of all, you don’t have good dreams. Second, the reason I went and tracked down the report was ‘cause I was already suspicious. I saw someone tampering with our Firehawk. You’re looking at the confirmation, not the evidence.”

“And why would someone tamper with our ship?”

“Now that’s the mystery,” he agreed. “Hopefully just someone messing with us. Jakobs, maybe. Whoever it was had his build. Man, I should’ve suspected something and taken a closer look. Still, what in the galaxy would someone be doing updating our ship’s programming? Who even knows how to do that outside of IT?”

Cole’s voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. “And what if it isn’t a practical joke? What if it’s something worse?”

Molly nearly burst out laughing. There was almost nothing you could do once Cole’s brain concocted a good conspiracy theory. She’d seen him like this before—jumping to conclusions with a handful of facts. It used to bother her; then she figured out that this habit of his—playing connect-the-dots without reading the numbers—it was better than any personality test in the field of psychology. When Cole was drawing what he wanted to see, rather than what was actually there, that was when Molly learned the most about him.

“It’s my shift,” she said, too tired to egg him on or argue. “Why don’t you try dreaming in your sleep for a change.”

Cole had a witty comeback coalescing in his brain. He opened his mouth, ready to release it on her as soon as it formed. But Cole would never get the chance. Because that’s when the long tedium of navigating from point A to point B came to an abrupt end.

And the part people see on the Military Channel finally began.

……………………

An enemy force of a dozen was expected. The fleet had planned for two dozen. What winked out of hyperspace was several times this. It was enough enemy craft that Molly didn’t have time to count them visually. And at this distance, her SADAR unit was having difficulty teasing the clusters into individual targets. Fifty fighters? Half a dozen bombers?

Cole slammed the Firehawk to full throttle and Molly felt her chest constrict as the flightsuit struggled to compensate. Millions of tiny pockets pushed anti-grav fluid wherever it was needed, offsetting the shift in acceleration. With it, and their conditioning, each of them could tolerate forces that would normally tear the human body apart. Not that it didn’t feel like this was still happening at times.

“We have three breaking off for a flanking maneuver,” Molly noted. She kept her eyes locked on the targets as her gloved hand pressed buttons by her right thigh. The representations of all three enemy ships blossomed with an orange glow. These three ships were now the only objects that mattered in their universe.

“I see ‘em.” Cole peeled off to intercept them. Riggs, their wingman in the neighboring Firehawk, locked in as well. The two ships coursed across the formation to head off the threat.

“We’re gonna to come in pretty hot,” Cole warned. His voice was calm and soothing considering what they were up against. His wingman answered back on their private channel. Meanwhile, streaks of plasma were already jolting across the gap between the two fleet bodies. Fired by the jittery, these eager tendrils lanced out with no chance of inflicting damage, not at such a vast range.

The three targets Cole and Molly angled for were trying to get around their main force. The combination of superior numbers and crossfire could end this fight before it even began. Glancing at her SADAR, Molly saw two other enemy groups pulling the same maneuver on opposite sides of the fleet. None of the other Firehawks were responding. Molly broadcast a warning on the general channel, more concerned with the threat than she was with rank and protocol. A chorus of male voices shouted her down, all of them insisting the main fleet body remain in formation, some of them insisting she shut the hell up.

Molly ignored the insults. She was more worried about the threat of encirclement. It had to be taken seriously, even if this meant thinning the formation before the first casualties were suffered.

Cole and Riggs continued to focus on their targets. They were still out of effective laser and missile range, but the gap was decreasing. Thanks to the quick response, they had a great angle on the enemies’ trajectory. Their Firehawks would be well within firing range before the enemy rounded the fleet.

Then, suddenly, the flanking ship closest to Cole and Riggs whirled around with incredible speed and precision. It darted right for them, one ship bearing down on two. It was a suicidal gambit, but the enemy was reaching the same tactical conclusions Molly had. It needed to buy his two partners a little time.

“Lock missiles.” Cole’s voice hinted at the first sign of strain.

Molly’s fingers danced across the targeting console; the orange triangles around the attacker turned red. “Firing,” she said, pulling the trigger.

But nothing happened. Looking down at her controls, confused and flushed with heat, Molly checked the safeties and overrides. Everything was green. It took a moment for her brain to go through the reasonable explanations. Then it considered Cole’s silly conspiracy theory. And how it didn’t seem quite so silly anymore.

“We’ve got a problem!” she yelled to Cole.

The first volley of enemy laser was meant for Riggs on their starboard side. At this distance, it was easy to avoid. Cole rolled away to give his wingman more room, his foul language suggesting a similar problem with the lasers that Molly was having with the missiles.

Without weapons, they would be completely useless out here. Defanged. Flying nothing more than a scout ship in the biggest naval engagement they’d ever partaken in. Molly was trying to comprehend the nightmare. And then it got worse.

The fighter bearing down on them spun away from Riggs and launched a volley at Cole. He was too distracted with the malfunctioning weapons systems to respond. Molly nearly got a warning out before the glancing blow struck the nose of their ship.

The cockpit flashed for a moment, and then it went dark. The Firehawk went into a flat, lifeless spin—its nose slowly pointing back to the fleet. All three thrusters were knocked out and off-line. And as the entire dash descended into darkness, the other lights around them became vivid and bright. The stars and pink nebulae beyond the fighting became intensely beautiful. Meanwhile, the laser blasts directed at their wingman became far more sinister.

A volley caught Riggs’s Firehawk head-on. His ship blossomed silently into the glowing cloud of debris Molly had come to associate with a Navy death.

So quick. The enemy craft flew past the carnage it had created, whipping the fine particles in its thruster’s wake.

It seemed impossible, but Molly swore she could hear the ship screaming across the vacuum of space as it circled around—preparing for another run on her lifeless ship.

……………………

“Cole!” Molly shook him, but there was no response. She leaned forward and initiated a cold boot of every system, hoping some of their defenses would come back on-line. Anything.

To Molly’s astonishment, the entire dash lit up. The laser blasts had locked up the computers and knocked out Cole, but the ship was coming back to life. She couldn’t believe it. Even the thruster control indicators winked from red to amber. In ten minutes she would have propulsion again—if she could just hold out that long.

Molly took a deep breath and wrapped her left hand around the flight controls. Situated between her and Cole, they catered to the 82 percent of pilots who favored their right hand. Incredibly and unfortunately, this was one area in which Molly could be considered “normal.” Despite hours of practice from the nav seat, she would never fly as well from this side of the cockpit.

The large propulsion thrusters at the rear of the Firehawk were still warming back up, but Molly had control of the maneuvering jets. She used them to swing the Firehawk around, squeezing the trigger as she did so. Maybe the reboot had fixed the weapons glitch.

Nothing. Now Molly knew this was no accident. Cole’s conspiracy theory had grown legs—and they were kicking her for not listening.

The enemy craft completed its victory lap around the nebula left by Riggs’s Firehawk. The first bolts of red laser winked out. Molly used the maneuvering jets to shift sideways—her right hand flinching as her left hand worked. The dominant side of her was squirming to help, trying to take over for its feeble partner. Molly screamed Cole’s name once more, hoping to rouse him.

But her pilot wasn’t responding.

The approaching ship released another burst from its cannon. It was racing toward her on a vector straight as a taut string. Molly tried to think of anything she could do as she pushed the Firehawk to the side, dodging the attacks. The bolts of plasma slid by her canopy, missing her by several feet. She glanced at them, envious.

She was being toyed with. Chewed on and released like a wounded animal.

The enemy ship was almost upon her, releasing one last round of laser fire so close she barely had time to react. Molly spiraled the Firehawk in place, the violence of the maneuver yanking her by the flight harness, her head snapping around with the weight of her helmet. When she came to a rest, her attacker was flying by so close, she could see the glint of the pilot’s visor through his windshield. She wanted to throw something, anything, at him.

The ship circled wide for another run; Molly rotated the Firehawk to follow. If she could survive one more pass, she’d have the main thrusters back. But Molly couldn’t rely on her enemy’s ineptitude—she needed to act.

The next round of enemy fire approached. Molly resumed the dangerous dance, stepping side to side as beams of potential death raced by. It made her feel like one of Cole’s Portuguese cavaleiros, trying to survive multiple passes by an enraged bull. The only difference was, Molly was all cape and no sword. But the metaphor gave her an idea.

She pulled up the service modules and flight deck routines—they all seemed to be working. She might not be able to arm her missiles, but at the speed the other ship was moving, she wouldn’t need to. Another round of deadly red ribbons reached out to her; Molly slipped expertly to one side. With her other hand, she brought up the docking interface and lowered her landing gear.

There was no way to run the calculations on her enemy’s trajectory while she was piloting, so Molly did some rough estimates in her head. It helped that the craft bearing down on her was flying with precision—sticking to a fixed vector. She determined where the ship would be when it passed her as she spiraled around yet more laser fire.

When the landing gear extended fully, the deck routines changed from grayed-out to a selectable yellow. With the twist of a dial, Molly highlighted the missile unload commands. As far as the ship knew, the Firehawk was in a hangar bay and preparing to unload munitions—not moments away from being mauled by a raging bull.

Her enemy was just a few thousand feet away now—closing at a high, but steady velocity. The laser fire became more intense, reaching out in a rapid volley. Molly twisted the Firehawk in space, trying to fit it inside the pattern of deadly plasma. One of the wings took a hit. The burn was minor, but it was a reminder that her time was running out. The bull was about to pass her by for another run.

Just before it did, Molly darted across its path and thumbed a switch. A single missile detached from the Firehawk’s belly. Molly moved back the other way, a harmless cape swishing in space. Behind that cape was her sword—an unarmed and inert hunk of metal hanging in space.

The enemy never saw what hit him. The missile impacted the cockpit right where the glint of visor had been.

Molly had hoped the impact would be enough to disable the craft, but it did much more. The kinetic energy of the oncoming ship forced the missile down its center, rupturing the rear of the vessel and sending out large chunks of debris. The destruction occured so close to her Firehawk that its tail end was forced to one side. Slammed into her harness, Molly fought with the flight controls, struggling to keep out of a spin.

After a tense moment, she regained full control of her ship.

Her ship.

Molly elbowed Cole again, but the life support readouts showed her the awful truth—she was alone.

The thruster indicators went from amber to green.

She gave them a test, feeling the acceleration add more weight to an already-heavy chest.

Out of immediate danger, Molly surveyed the flow of battle on SADAR. The blue and green dots were no longer approaching one another in separate spheres. They were intermingling, individuals swirling around each other until one of them disappeared.

Her side was fighting nobly, but the three sets of flankers were closing in for what would soon be a massacre. And there wasn’t much Molly could do to help.

Then she thought of how many times this sort of scenario had played out in her bunk at night. Here she was. At the helm. Hopelessly outgunned. With nothing in the Naval manuals to suggest her next course of action.

Molly should run. She would undoubtedly score some points with the higher-ups for surviving—for saving Navy hardware, at least. But something was gnawing on her. She couldn’t help but wonder if there was something she could do for the fleet. Something that would win her the accolades she deserved. Would an act of creative heroism prove what she already knew? That she more than belonged out here with the “boys?”

The choice was to fight or flee. Molly’s hand came off the throttle. She wouldn’t be thrusting in either direction. Instead, she started spinning up the Firehawk’s hyperdrive.

She wondered what “the boys” would think about this next idea.

……………………

They’d probably think she’d lost her mind. By every standard of commonsense, jumping through hyperspace during a battle was the height of folly. Hyperspace was useful for crossing vast distances instantaneously, but only if you were careful. There were two dangers, and Molly was about to flirt with them both.

The first danger was the sensitive mathematics involved. In order to travel through hyperspace safely, you had to account for every object on both sides of the jump. Even a small gravitational disturbance could deflect you off course, or worse, suck you in. It was likened to tossing one magnet at another; if the same poles were facing, you’d end up repulsed and thrown someplace random. If the opposite poles were lined up—you’d be forced together violently. Violently, that is, for one of the objects.

And that was the second danger Molly was about to face: objects in “real” space have primacy—they can’t be dislodged by something coming out of hyperspace. And size didn’t seem to matter. Try and occupy the same coordinates as even a tiny object, like the millions of chunks of debris surrounding a space battle, and no one would even notice your attempt. You’d just vanish—to where, nobody knew.

Were this not the case, warfare would have descended into the hopelessly brutal. An arms race with no deterrent effect. Attackers could wipe out any target with known coordinates. All they’d have to do is hyperspace a bomb and enjoy the fireworks. The results would be instantaneous and anonymous.

This was widely considered to be a viable terror tactic until 2138. That’s when a video recording from “The Luddites” was discovered in an abandoned apartment. It seems the anti-technology organization had launched a massive suicide-bombing campaign across the planet Earth. All for naught. The entire group had vanished in a puff of unexplained physics, leaving behind a taped rationalization no one knew to look for.

These were the dangers; Navy instructors only had to go over them once. After that, everyone just knew.

But Molly’s fleet was facing certain destruction. She’d lost her wingman and her pilot. She was convinced her Firehawk had been sabotaged. Plus, after her last maneuver, she was on borrowed time. All of which made suicidal risks worth calculating.

Checking her SADAR, Molly saw a pocket of space between the two remaining flankers and the rest of the Navy fleet. Treating the combined mass of every ship on one side of this point as a single object, she simplified the math and made a rough estimate. Crossing one set of fingers, Molly punched in the hyperspace commands with the other. It was her second game of chicken in less than a minute.

Once again, she didn’t hesitate.

……………………

Another fact about hyperspace: coming out of it wasn’t pleasant. Pilots frequently likened it to being bombarded with loud bass sounds. Many of them never gained an immunity to the dull nausea and panic attacks this could induce. Molly was one of those pilots, often fighting to hide her reaction. This time, she reveled in it.

She was alive.

But a glance at her surroundings didn’t inspire much hope for remaining this way. SADAR showed the two flankers closing in fast from behind. Their lasers were already lancing out greetings at her unexpected arrival. Molly flinched, twisting the ship sideways and away from the attack. She powered up the glorious thrusters and raced parallel to her fleet, giving the flankers a target that was moving side to side.

The missile gambit would never work with these guys. There would be no way to avoid two sets of laser fire crossing each other as she made her run. And surely they were aware of their fallen comrade by now, which meant she couldn’t rely on them underestimating her.

This last assessment was confirmed when each enemy craft spat out a missile keyed to her ship’s signature.

Molly took it as a compliment.

She keyed up her defense menus and scrolled to the missile chaff. Four pods were stowed in the rear of her Firehawk, each capable of emulating her ship’s signature. Dropping one at a time should negate this new threat, but the delay was going to prevent her from protecting the fleet. Precisely what the flankers intended.

When the chaff menu came up, Molly appreciated the sophistication of the sabotage for the first time. This was a high-level hack. The “drop” command was selectable from the menu, but not the “arm” command. Her chaff was as useless as her missiles. Dead weight. And trying to place one of the dud canisters in the path of a homing missile would be about as easy as tossing a coin in front of a passing laser bolt.

Molly cursed and pulled on the flight stick, sending her Firehawk back on an arc toward the flankers. The incoming missiles altered course slightly to hone in on her. There was no way she could out-maneuver them—they could pull as many Gs as it took to track her down. She was limited by biology and her flightsuit.

Dwelling on her own constraints gave Molly another crazy idea. She recognized the ship designs they were up against. If the missiles came from the same manufacturer, they had a design flaw she could exploit: their homing software was slightly more advanced than their thrusters. They could think faster than they could turn. Normally this wasn’t a problem, as it required extreme velocities before the limitation became a factor. Besides, most targets are wise enough to move away from missiles, so the flaw rarely reveals itself. But it’s there.

Molly came about as sharply as she could and pushed forward on the accelerator. Once again, she was preparing to stand in doom’s path in an attempt to escape it. Cole’s fate just made it easier for her. She was only gambling with her own life. And his silent presence was a constant reminder of the stakes.

Molly shook her head to work these thoughts out of her helmet. She focused outside the cockpit’s Carboglass. Beyond the incoming missiles, she noted the two flankers weren’t wasting time with laser fire—they were still rounding her fleet. She was a minor annoyance compared to their objective of reaching the Navy’s unguarded rear.

If she had more time, Molly would pause to appreciate the tactics on display here. Unfortunately, the missiles and her Firehawk were closing on each other too fast for her to get distracted. Molly just hoped it was fast enough.

She did some dirty math. Her suit could take around 40 Gs; her body could probably withstand a dozen more. She looked at her current rate of acceleration and came up with twenty degrees—that was as much as she could alter direction at these speeds without crushing her brain on the inside of her skull. It wasn’t a large vector change, so she would have to wait until the very last second. Fraction of a second, even. Her left hand continued to press on the accelerator, as if the metal would bend and increase her speed a little more.

The timing involved would require as much luck as skill. Molly would have such a small window in which to perform this stunt, the delay between thinking and doing could get her killed. She would have to take this into account, somehow. Her left hand twitched slightly in awkward anticipation. Molly wished Cole was the one trying this.

The missiles were almost on her, or she was almost on them. Her danger-sense warned her prematurely—screaming at Molly to alter course now. She fought the urge, waiting until it felt too late. Only then did she issue the command to her left hand, feeling it move a millisecond later.

The nose of the Firehawk deflected up the programmed twenty degrees. The missiles vanished from view past the Carboglass of her cockpit. Her body was pummeled by the radical shift in gravities.

Molly tensed up, partly to protect herself from the violent force of dozens of Gs, and partly in anticipation of a violent death.

The corners of her vision turned black. The blood in her brain was forced down into her chest. The ring of darkness tightened until she was looking through a straw.

Molly Fyde passed out.

……………………

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