There was an eerie moment of stillness. Gunfire stopped. Chases slowed. Only the drones didn’t realize that the game had changed, and continued their dance toward now-distracted targets. Every ship with a human behind the helm seemed to stumble, and the comms filled with the emptiness of a battleground holding its breath.
And then, just as quickly: chaos.
Asala couldn’t make out who was saying what. Everyone was speaking at once now, and the ships leapt into action with them. The noise in her ears was a tumult of swearing, shouting, demands of how, how, how?! It shouldn’t have been possible, not with what they knew. The cubes would take each ship that held one to safety, they’d been told. They’d assumed—assumed, like idiots—that the cubes were keys, and each key had a door, and every ship that held one would slip through their own private exit. But the cubes didn’t behave that way at all. That much was plain now. They were a cluster, a network. Dozens of small parts that linked their efforts together to open not many small doors, but one big one.
Dread filled Asala’s stomach the second before the inevitable happened. A ship—one of her stalwart volunteers—peeled off from the battle and barreled in the direction of the wormhole. Gandesian and Khayyami colors followed suit, patriotism abandoned in a blink for a chance at a living future. Did they even know what awaited them on the other side? Did they have any food, any supplies? Clearly, it didn’t matter. But the desertion was not universal, and reactions to it were frantic. Formations fragmented, strategies fell apart, and those for whom decorum mattered most still tried to play the game. Gandesian ships fired on Khayyami, Khayyami on Gandesian, Ghalan on everyone, drones on the enemies of whichever hackers had grabbed the reins for now. She watched as two small craft collided in their rush for the exit. A mangled wing sheared off and crippled a third. The comms filled with the desperate noise of captains and commanders scrambling to regain order, trying to count how many pieces they were still playing with.
This wasn’t a battle any longer. This was a stampede.
Cynwrig stood amid the ruckus on the bridge. “Quiet,” she said, piercing the din. Heads turned nearly in unison. She stared at them as if they were unruly children. “Unless you have anything useful to offer, I will have quiet.”
“General, Red Squad has encountered Khayyami fighters. They—”
Cynwrig glared. “Lieutenant Sung, yes?”
“Lieutenant, what is your assessment of our current situation?”
The young man swallowed. “Kima?”
“What would you say our immediate strategic priority is?” Her words snapped like bullets. “The status of Red Squad, who have not called for assistance? Or the wormhole our enemy has opened?”
“You’re demoted.” She looked around the bridge. “I will say this again. Does anyone have anything useful—anything useful—to offer?”
The bridge fell as silent as the void outside.
“Signal to surface command,” Cynwrig directed. “I need to speak with my science advisers.”
The comms officer attempted to obey, but shook their head at the console with frustration. “General, comms to the surface are down. Orbital relays are not responding.”
“Why not?” Her infosec team on the ground had signaled their success in reclaiming the platforms not minutes before.
“Undetermined, kima. I assume another hacking attempt.”
Undetermined. Unexpected. Status unknown. Cynwrig seethed. The clannies had surprised her, fine. Surprises were the heart of war. But Cynwrig was used to surprises on the ground, where dirt and blood and sky followed rules that never changed. She hated space, hated its lack of direction, hated its mad logic, hated that she could not look out the viewscreen now and properly determine on her own what next to do. If she were to lose a battle to this insurgent trash, she would not do so out of ignorance. She turned back toward her seat with fury, and in her distraction, knocked over the cordial glass. The last sips splattered her trouser leg and began to soak stickily in. Even against the black fabric, she could see the blossoming stain. She sat, and glowered, leaving the mess on the floor for someone else. “Get me anyone on this ship with a fucking physics background.”
Every one of those bastards had lied.
Soraya stood in the control center, bitten nails pressed into her palms. Hafiz lying about what the cubes did—that was hardly a shock. But Uzochi—Uzochi with her brains and her charm and her big words. Uzochi, who had promised them all salvation. Them all. She must’ve known, Soraya...