“Trell, find a way for us to find out what’s happening back at Morcala,” said Captain Calen. “Start working out the safest route to go back. Or to get out of the system, if necessary.”
Captain Ortega watched Ensign Trell nod and return to the bridge. Calen rose to follow.
“Wait,” said Ortega. “Why won’t you follow him to this… cloud place?”
“Our priority is restoring Morcala, either by rushing to its defense or by escaping to return and fight another day. The latter option marks a defeat too great to bear, but the sooner we accept it the sooner we can return.”
“I have trouble believing that,” said Ortega. “I’d have thought that you would rush in to save your planet, no matter what the odds were.”
“If the war is still in progress, that’s exactly what we’ll do,” said Calen. “If the war is over… truly over… we’ll just be throwing resources away that would best be saved for the next war. And we’ll want to initiate that soon.”
“And this cloud? Why does it sc…”
Calen paused at the door and looked back at Ortega. He quickly rethought his question.
“Why does Trell telling us that he went to this cloud make him a lower priority? You were eager to track down Doctor Rogers for what he did to your ship, but now you’re letting him off the hook?”
“The Cypulchral Cloud is an ancient and dangerous place,” said Calen. “The space dust and gasses mark the remains of an ancient battle. It used to be a terrible weapon, a doomsday device that might have destroyed the system. Some reports say that it would have destroyed reality itself, but tales do have a nature to grow larger than their facts. A great force came together to destroy this weapon. The force was doomed to fail, but it gave a smaller group the chance they needed to covertly enter the weapon. They destroyed the beast from within, dying in the process. The explosion took out many of the surviving forces who gathered outside the weapon as well. From that day on, the cloud has… failed to disperse. The titanium mists are still charged with electromagnetic energy, making it impossible to scan or navigate safely. Remnants of the debris that weren’t vaporized can collide into a ship without warning. Worse, strange fragments of corrupted information have downloaded onto the computers of ships that have entered the region, data that rarely translates into anything meaningful, sometimes corrupting computers as the data integrates. Other stories suggest that it’s a haunted, evil place. Spacefaring superstitions aside, it’s as dangerous as any battle, but in a battle you can at least defeat your enemy. The Cypulchral Cloud is a needless death waiting to happen.”
Ortega looked back into his glass. The Spinewaster Ale still waited, daring him to drink it.
“I can see why you’re reluctant to go into this place.”
“I’m glad you see things my way. Your foe is dead, Captain Ortega. The Soul Survivor will be lost to us. He doesn’t know what he’s getting into.”
Ortega looked back at Calen.
“What if he does?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if Doctor Rogers had the same information you gave me? An ancient weapon converted into a scan-proof hideaway, that still has debris from the original weaponry within it? Stories about corrupted data automatically uploading itself to other ships? What if he learned more about what the weapon did, or where it came from? It sounds like the kind of thing that he’d want to get a closer look at.”
“No,” said Calen. “He’d never get near it. We keep a close eye on it with security satellites. Only Morcalan science vessels are allowed anywhere near it.”
“When I finally caught up with Doctor Rogers, he was using a stolen science vessel as a base of operations. One he’d outfitted with his own signature cloaking device. If any ship would be designed to get into this cloud, it’d be that one. What if he wanted to try and learn more about this ancient weapon? Or worse, what if he already knows something and wants to reactivate it?”
“Do you believe that the Soul Survivor is mad enough to try that?”
“For the right sort of power or leverage? I think Doctor Rogers is mad enough to try anything.”
Calen turned from Ortega and walked back to the bridge. Ortega considered drinking the rest of his Spinewaster Ale, but resisted the urge to try when he recalled the intense sensation of near-pain that it caused. He followed Ortega the short distance to the bridge. Trell was busy at her station, intently listening to something on her headset.
“New orders, Ensign,” said Calen. Trell looked up from her station, revealing a stunned face. “Trell? What’s wrong?”
“It’s a message from Admiral Cresh. I don’t…”
“Play it,” said Calen.
Trell removed her headset and loaded the file into the public address system. Moments later, Ortega heard the voice of Admiral Cresh again, a voice filled with regret.
“This is Admiral Cresh,” said the recording. “We have finally finished our negotiations with Emperor Dyson’s herald. There are still terms to discuss, but… our government has agreed to surrender, and to aid Emperor Dyson’s forces in their future conquests. We will fight on, under his banner. All vessels still in range are ordered to immediately return to Morcala for their new assignments.”
The stony silence that followed made Ortega more aware of the ambient ship noises than he had been before. A look at Calen revealed a face of sorrow and rage.
“Ensign Trell, set a new course for the Cypulchral Cloud to track down The Soul Survivor. We’ve been ordered to die. We need to make it official.”