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By Joseph W. Joiner A tale of Firestorm Universe

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Twin suns shone brightly in the stygian darkness of space. Nestled between them and barely visible in the glare lay the ship. The double star system had proved to be an effective place to recover from their failed rescue of the colony on Calibos. The intense radiation was a constant drain on the shields, but it rendered them almost invisible to the scans of passing ships. Not that there had been any. No ships, no battles, no nothing for almost two weeks. They were revived but bored.

The young woman slumped in the Prefect's seat on the bridge of that ship looked far too young to be in command of such a warship. She appeared to be barely past her teen years, and was lithe in form and tall. Her golden hair was pulled back in a tight braid emulating human military fashion, and the jumpsuit she wore revealed little of her figure. Others had called her beautiful, a fact she tried to deny each time she looked in a mirror, but there was no hiding the almost ageless radiance of her features. A gift of her heritage, the half royal blood that flowed in her veins. Only her eyes betrayed that beauty. They seemed possessed of wisdom unknown too most her age. A poet would have called them haunted.

She raised her head and rubbed her eyes. Without looking up, she spoke to the woman manning the helm. "Report." "All systems nominal, commander. We've detected no ships entering the system, but the stellar radiation does limit our range. Shields are holding, but the extra power needed to keep them maintained is taxing the other systems. Engineering reports we can hold this position another twenty chronauts without damaging the ship, but then we'll have to move into open space."

The commander slowly swiveled the command chair until she faced the man standing behind her. "Your information appears to be wrong, Arden. How long do you intend us to wait?"

The one eyed man scowled. Adjusting the long black cloak that hung loose around his shoulders, he tried not to wither under the young woman's gaze. "My informant's data was accurate, I assure you. They will come." His voice was a coarse whisper of broken glass underfoot.

She stood and glowered at him. "They had better, for your sake. I do not like having my patience tested."

He returned her stare without blinking, an impressive feat for a male, even a human one. "Don't think your threats will intimidate me, child. You need me."

She crossed her arms and sniffed with disdain. "I can accomplish my goals without your help."

Arden actually smiled, showing gapped and crooked teeth. "That may be true, Commander, but with me you will see your mission through much faster. You wish to raise a fleet to rival that of Queen Helena herself, but it will take you years you cannot afford to waste. I know the shipping lanes and the movements of all the fleets through the Firestorm. Only with my assistance will you gain the ships you need." A dry chuckle escaped him. "Ships are power, Commander, but they are not the only thing I can provide you with. I can also teach you tactics and strategies you could never imagine. I will show you maneuvers that will take your enemies by surprise and give you the edge you need for victory."

Her eyes narrowed. "One of these days you will tell me who you really are."

He laughed again, more forcefully. "Perhaps I will at that, but not today. Keep your people at their stations, Rowena. The one universal truth that never fails is that time will always tell. You've shown admirable patience. Do not stop now." He turned away to stare at a monitor, apparently dismissing her from notice.

For a moment she bristled, her hand actually grasping the hilt of her sword. Then she relaxed. Arden was not a member of her crew. His disrespect meant nothing to her. To allow him to bring her to anger would only demean herself in front of her people. She decided to ignore him for now. Whoever he truly was would be revealed eventually, and if he in any way threatened her goals, she'd gut him without a second thought.

She'd found Arden on Thebes, along with forty-three Dysori dissidents that had joined her growing fleet. The planet was a remote merchant colony far enough from Arcadius Prime to not garner much attention from the Imperial fleet. In fact, the last time a warship had even come near enough to hail was far enough in the past that few remembered it. The sudden appearance of the Redeemer had caused an uproar among the populace. Docked among the smaller freighters and pleasure craft, the Tritan-class vessel looked like an eagle among a flock of sparrows.

It was in a seamy and dimly lit tavern when the cloaked stranger had approached her. She'd been sipping a tall glass of alqat and brooding, wondering if she would find any good new recruits among the degenerates drinking themselves into oblivion. Although the crew seemed to believe they had fought and won a great battle, she was still depressed over the beating they had taken at Calibos. They had attributed their escape to her uncanny luck and tactical brilliance, but if her luck had been working Hestia would not have died. She sought solace in drink, even the vile brew served here. Behind the shadows of the cowl a voice spoke in a tone that made her cringe. "I am called, Arden," he had said in perfect Dysori. "You are captain of the Redeemer?"

"The what?"

He sat on one of the unused stools at her table without being asked. "I've watched your ship since it arrived. Two hours ago a small shuttle left the only Dysori battle cruiser in orbit and put down in hangar 212. You and four other Dysori left that hangar and came right to this tavern. You sit alone so as to appear less threatening, and your companions are in each of the three corners of this room, while you sit in the fourth where you can see both the door and the bar. You carry a human weapon on your hip, a Simmons K-70 blaster, and you favor the use of human military titles on your ship. As you see, word has spread about you."

She tried to hide her shock. They had tried not to raise any attention, but this man had followed them easily. "What do you want?"

"A drink. After that, I have information you may find useful. For a price."

"I doubt that. Go away."

It was then that he pushed back the hood. His features were rugged, his hair streaked with gray, and his one eye blacker than the pits of Sthenos. He would have been quite handsome if not for the vivid scar that creased the left side of his face. It started just under the hairline and ended far down on his neck. Where his left eye had been the socket had healed over, leaving a withered patch of skin. He let her stare for a moment, then traced the scar with his finger. "A daily reminder of the foolishness of youth. Impressive, is it not?"

"Very handsome. It brings out your eye." She smiled thinly at her own joke; pleased to see her jibe had touched a nerve. "Tell me what you want or go away. I have better things to do than banter with you."

He feigned hurt and shrugged. "I know you want more ships. I know your plans to build a fleet that will make Queen Helena tremble with fear. I know you will do anything to make her acknowledge who you really are." He thumped the table with his fist for each of the last three words.

She leaned forward to mask the movement of her hand reaching for her blaster under the table. "Who am I?"

He leaned back and spread his arms. "Relax, Princess," he said, and chuckled as her eyes widened. "A princess of the royal house of Myrianis. Your father was Quintus, the high priest of Danae, and your mother was Persephone, sister to Queen Helena. Due to your unfortunate parentage, you and your mother were banished to the water moon of Tanthalos. Helena never did have much love for anyone but her own daughters, and she and your mother never got along, even as children."

Rowena felt dread. How had this man come to know so much? She took a large swallow of alqat to hide her anxiety. The bitter brew steadied her and she fixed him with eyes narrowed. "Too much information could prove unhealthy. I could have you killed. I doubt anyone on this dirtball would even notice your absence."

He hissed laughter. "Dear girl, I have waited months to final meet you. Somehow I knew you would end up here eventually. This is where most privateers come to hire crew, and you certainly don't have enough to man the Redeemer properly."

"Get to the point. What do you want?"

"For now, to tag along. I can help you gain the ships and crew you need. There are many dissident Dysori who are not pleased with the way Helena has kept your people in this war with the Muero. Many believe it could have ended years ago with total victory, but she allows it to go on to keep her position secure. I know where they are, and you can believe most of them have heard of you. Your escape from Tanthalos and the theft of your vessel have made you a legend. I can't imagine you have too many difficulties getting them to join you, but you won't find them without me." Despite her misgivings, Arden's words intrigued her. She had heard of other Dysori that fought the Muero in their own way, displeased with Helena's practice of putting her own political ambitions before the needs of the people. If this man could lead her to them...

"You're human, aren't you?"

"Born and raised on Terra, joined the military young. Gave my eye to the service and mustered out. Discovered the information business paid better. But we're not discussing my life. Do you want my services, or not?"

Rowena sat down her now empty mug and stared hard at him. Slowly she pulled her belt dagger and held it up. "I swear by the Goddess, if you ever give me cause, I will take your other eye and eviscerate you slowly."

His only reply was a grin. Now here they were, waiting between two stars, the shields on the edge of overload, for another chance at a Muero destroyer escorting a supply freighter. Arden had told them with absolute certainty that the ships would pass through this double star system. In his words, "Easy pickings."

Time was passing too slowly. Easing back in her seat, she closed her eyes.

Dreams.

Nights on Tanthalos were usually dark, but this night was even darker now that the moons had set. The guards at the shuttle were relaxed, never expecting any of the island's residents to even make an appearance. Most of the inmates were drugged and asleep, the rest locked safely away in their homes. The two women exchanged small talk and tried to forget how far from the war they were. Their blasters were slung across their backs and they leaned against the shuttle with apparent disregard for their surroundings. Two mistakes that would prove to be disastrous. Hestia snickered as she ducked back down behind the low wall. "Fools," whispered the young girl next to her. "They think just because we're supposed to be insane that we're also stupid."

Hestia nodded in agreement. "They're still armed. Governor Riannus doesn't take risks, especially when it concerns her new pleasure yacht."

"Imagine using a decommissioned battlecruiser as a personal transport. How did she manage that?"

"Knowing Riannus, probably through political manipulation or extortion. I've been her guest here for six years, and she was never one to play by the rules. The Empire doesn't just give away expensive ships like the Proteus, no matter how old they are."

The girl nodded. "Old isn't necessarily bad. You're familiar with the Tritans, aren't you?"

The older woman hesitated just long enough for Rowena to know something had struck a nerve. "I know them well enough."

"Good, then we can fly it. If Riannus stays true to her character, the weapons systems were not removed. I doubt they are even disabled." She slowly drew the old and battered sword she carried and stared at it with eyes full of the bitterness from a life spent in exile. "Tonight we leave Tanthalos forever, one way or another."

Hestia touched her arm. "I've trained you as best as I could, but I didn't teach you to murder. The path set before you by the Goddess should not be stained with innocent blood. You could lose her blessing if you start by killing your own people."

Rowena lowered her head. "I will not kill Dysori without cause." She turned a cold gaze upon her aged teacher. "But I have sworn a vow to destroy the Muero and drive them from the stars. Nothing will deter me, Hestia. Nothing." "Do you still think we can take the ship?" "Old friend, nothing can change what the Goddess has already decreed. She allowed me to learn of Riannus' new toy, and she brought the first of us together. We'll have that ship, do not doubt it. Go get the others, I'll handle the guards."

Hestia slunk off into the shadows.

Rowena took a deep breath to calm herself. Her heart thudded dully in her chest. Despite her confidence, the two guards were not the stuffed dummies she had learned on, they were trained and hardened warriors of the Empire. They could very well kill her and not break a sweat. They carried the ceremonial sword all Dysori soldiers wore, and she knew they were more than just show. But she also knew that Dysori warriors were proud, and she intended to use that against them. Straightening the dented armor she wore, she stepped onto the landing platform.

The guards responded instantly. They didn't draw their swords, instead grabbing their blasters and leveling the bores at the young woman walking toward them carrying an ancient broadsword. They were impressed that she showed no fear, but neither was concerned that she posed any danger. This was a compound that housed the insane after all. The taller of the two lowered her weapon and spoke. "Begone, girl, there's nothing for you here."

Rowena raised her sword. "Step aside," she said firmly. "I only want the shuttle. I don't want to harm either of you." To their credit, neither of the guards laughed, though the very thought of this slip of a girl harming them was ridiculous. The guns were put away. "Go, child. We don't want to teach you a hard lesson."

Rowena raised her sword and took the tiru rae stance. "The only lesson taught today will be yours. Yield now." The guards glanced at each other and then both shrugged. If this girl wanted a beating they would provide it happily. It would break the tedium of the long night. They dropped their blast rifles and drew their own swords. "One at a time, or both at once?" asked the tall one.

"I do not care. Begin!"

They paused, then surged forward. Anger was evident on their faces, neither liked the insult of this girls challenge. The tall one came at her high, the other low. She dove between them and rolled. She sprang nimbly to her feet and clouted the tall one on the head before she could turn around. The guard dropped like a stone. The other whirled and their two blades clanged together, throwing sparks. Rowena grinned. "One down," she gasped. The other guard was shorter and stockier than the tall blonde. She came at the girl with every trick she knew, striking high several times and then switching to low lunges, followed by quick stabbing thrusts. Rowena backed away from the powerful assault and managed to parry most of the hits. She missed one thrust and suffered a cut to her upper arm, but her return stab took her opponent in the thigh, opening a deep gash. The guard staggered back with a yelp.

"You're good, girl," she panted. "Who taught you to fight?"

"Hestia Demeter, Captain of the Silver Valkyries."

The guard's eyes widened. "Impossible, she's dead."

"Not dead, banished to this hell and left to die." Rowena leapt, pirouetting gracefully and slashing down with her sword while kicking her left leg out. Her heel caught the guard in the chin while her blade knocked the others woman's weapon away. The guard slumped to the hard pavement as Rowena landed gracefully. She gave the unconscious guards a disdainful glance, then ran to open the shuttle. Hestia and the flight crew emerged from the darkness a few moments later. Two dozen pairs of eyes watched as Rowena exited the shuttle. She nodded to each as the ragtag group ran softly to the shuttle and boarded. Hestia barely glanced at the guards as she took their weapons. Buckling a sword to her hip she smiled. "Nice work," she said.

"You saw?"

"I did. Your kick was clumsy. A more experienced foe would have seen it coming."

"I'll remember that next time." She discarded the old blade for a new one, hefting it in her hand and enjoying the solidity of the steel. She barely looked at the gun. The guards were quickly gagged, trussed and hidden behind some bushes. The last of the group quietly boarded. The hatch closed silently as the engines started up and the shuttle lifted off. It streaked to the stars.

"Ships emerging from the Firestorm, commander."

Rowena opened her eyes and shook off the memories. She stood slowly, not wanting to show her excitement. "On viewer," she said. "Let's see them."

The main screen flickered as the scene shifted from the conflagration of the twin stars to an image of two shadows emerging into normal space from the depths of the Firestorm. One of the ships was significantly larger than the other, and Rowena knew hers wasn't the only heart racing as she stared at the screen.

"Dysorius' sword," she said breathily, "that's a Dreaad class battleship!" She turned to Arden. "You said the destroyer would be escorting a freighter."

He shrugged. "Two ships, my girl. I said two ships, one escorting the other. I suspected a freighter from what my informant told me, but it appears they were mistaken. Call it a bonus." Leftant Galene turned to the commander from her position at ops. "The other vessel flying escort is a Claaw class destroyer. Both ships show heavy damage, and most systems are offline. Scans show engine efficiency at less than fifty percent. Shields are down on the battleship, and the destroyer is showing less than twenty, and they've extended them around the Dreaad, so they'll be thin. One missile should finish either of them off. Both ships are operating on minimal life support and no weapons. Residual traces of plasma damage. These ships must have engaged a contingent of Dysori."

"Fighters?"

"Unsure, Commander. I can find one launch bay on the Claaw with active energy signatures, but not what's in it. The destroyer has rerouted power from its bays to the engines."

Rowena crossed her arms under her breasts and frowned. "Give me the specs on the Dreaad."

Galene's fingers flew on the keypad. Images, words and numbers appeared on her screen. "Dreaad class battleship," she read, "full crew of more than five hundred. Ten laser cannons, three missile launchers both fore and aft, two ion blasters. Two launch bays, and they usually carry a complement of twenty fighters. There's no way to tell how many they have left, if any."

"That's what I wanted to hear," Rowena grinned. "Prepare the fighters. Have them launch but stay near the Redeemer. Let's not give ourselves away too soon. We'll hit them hard and fast, but I want that battleship. Take out the destroyer if we have too, but I want the brute damaged as little as possible."

Orders were passed down the chain of command. In the belly of the Redeemer pilots scrambled to their ships. There were only ten Chimera snub fighters, a pitiful five Shrike fighters, and only one Hydra gunship. Still they were optimistic. All of them knew how badly damaged the Muero were. They also knew how badly the fledgling Phoenix fleet needed another ship.

On the bridge Rowena watched the two Muero ships move closer, and the thrill of the coming battle filled her with excitement. Something inside of her knew they would see victory this day. Every passing moment cemented that certainty. She could wait no longer. "Launch all fighters. Keep them back until I give the word."

"Aye, Commander." Galene keyed the con and spoke quickly, her own excitement showing in her voice. "Launch all fighters. Stay within the Redeemer's shield radius until the commander gives the order to strike."

Within moments the forward screen showed several of the fighters floating gracefully around the bulk of the Redeemer. "Any change on the Muero ships?"

"None, Commander. They seem to be unaware of our presence."

The Muero vessels were now almost broadside to the Redeemer's bow. "Tell the fighters that when we fire the first volley, that will be their signal to strike. Remember that I want those ships intact. Disabling shots only. Take out the defenses, but leave the engines intact."

"Aye, Commander." Galene passed the instructions, then sat back and waited with anticipation as the moments passed agonizingly slow. Judging by the rate of movement, both Muero ships were nearly crippled.

Arden spoke softly from the back of the bridge. "The undamaged hangar bay is facing us. I recommend, Commander, that you make that and the controls systems your primary targets. You don't want them self-destructing."

"Agreed. Galene, take us out into the open on my mark. Target the hangar bay and fire all forward cannons." She stared at the screen. In her mind the dice were tumbling, rolling down Fate's table of chance. Her mother had always said that her daughter was blessed with the unnatural luck of the Goddess. That luck would be them this day, of that she was sure. "Now, Leftant Galene. Begin the assault. Let's skin some lizards."

The Redeemer lurched as the engines fired and propelled them from between the twin stars. The forward cannons unleashed a deadly barrage of energy bolts that exploded against the protective shields around the hull of the battered destroyer. It took only a few impacts for the shields to collapse. With the shields gone the next shots blasted into the ship. The hangar bay collapsed in a gout of flame and debris as the powerful beams tore into it. To their credit, the Muero reacted much quicker than Rowena had expected. Laser blasts pounded the shields of the Redeemer. Two Muero fighters managed to clear the bay before the destruction, but were torn apart as the Dysori fighters swooped in and hammered them into rubble. They flew past the flaming wreckage of the bay and began taking out the few undamaged defensive weapons. The battleship managed to fire a few pitiful blasts that scorched the Hydra without damaging it.

"Reading a large energy surge, Commander. They're rerouting power and charging their particle cannon. If they hit us with that we'll lose our shields!" On the bridge of the Redeemer, Rowena clasped her hands behind her back and tried not to smile too broadly. "Give the fighters time, Leftant." The attack was going well. The dice were still rolling, but now she was certain the symbols that would show would be thunderbolts, the toss of total victory. She watched a pair of Griffins cruised low over the battleship and fire in tandem. Small explosions followed behind them across the skin of the massive ship, then a fireball bloomed as the powerful cannon went up.

"Particle cannon and control systems on the battleship are down, Commander."

Rowena nodded. "When the destroyers are down send a signal to both ships. Let's see who answers."

Moments later the Hydra charged into view, laying down a stream of laser fire that sloughed off chunks of metal plating from the hull of the destroyer. The Claaw seemed to shudder in pain as explosions rippled through it. It began to lose stability and started to drift as the stabilizing thrusters went down.

"Control systems disabled, Commander. They won't be calling for help."

"Did they get a distress call off when we attacked?"

"I don't believe so, Commander."

"Open a frequency to the Muero, Leftant."

"Aye, Commander. Channel open."

The screen changed from the ongoing battle to the scarred and bloody visage of the Muero Rarrkar. Behind him the command center of the destroyer was filled with smoke. Apparently the fighters were doing their job well. Red eyes glowed with rage in the reptilian face. He snarled, showing broken fangs. "Speak," he hissed slowly in Dysori.

"I am Commander Rowena Penthisilia Quintus of Phoenix Fleet. Surrender your vessels immediately."

"Never."

Rowena's eyes narrowed. She strode across the bridge and stood directly before the screen. "Surrender now and your crew may use the escape pods without fear of being killed. We just want the ships. If you don't surrender…" she grasped the hilt of her sword and smiled.

The Rarrkar shook his head and snapped his teeth together viciously. "The Muero do not surrender. You'll not have these ships. Board us and fight like warriors."

"Last warning, Rarrkar. Start evacuating or I'll signal our fighters to take out your life-support. I can be patient when I need to be."

The Muero considered her words. At last he turned away and issued a series of growls and hisses. "We will comply, Commander. Pray to whatever gods you worship that we do not meet again. I vow that one day you will kneel before me and beg for death."

"The humans have a saying, Rarrkar. 'Don't hold your breath until that happens.' If we meet again I won't hesitate to kill you." She nodded at Galene and the screen went blank.

Arden clapped his hands. "Well done, dear girl. Well done. You've won a crucial victory for your fleet. You can now add two mighty ships to your inventory. Just remember who helped you gain them."

Rowena dismissed him with a wave. "Galene, inform the fighters that when the last escape pod has jettisoned that they are to target and destroy every one of them."

The helm officer's eyes went wide. "Commander, you told the Muero that we wouldn't harm them."

Rowena turned her chair and stared hard at her. "Have you ever known the Muero to keep their word?" Galene shook her head, totally mesmerized by the intensity of the eyes that seemed to bore through her skull. "They capture our people for use as slaves, to fight them in their sporting arenas, and as the main course in their victory celebrations. They consume us, Leftant. That creature has probably feasted on the flesh of someone you knew, and you want me to spare his life?" The bridge had gone deathly still as the other officers listened as if hypnotized to the words of their leader. "Every one of them we kill is a sister avenged. Do you still want him and his crew to live?"

"No, Commander. I beg your forgiveness." She quickly turned to her console and sent the order to the pilots.

Rowena stood. "I'll be in my quarters. Send over boarding crews, but make sure they are armed. The Muero will no doubt leave a few suicide troopers behind to inflict whatever damage they can on us. I don't want to hear of a single casualty. Make sure they understand that. When we have the ships under control, let me know." She turned and saw Arden smiling at her. His grin widened and he gave her a slight bow, the glint in his one eye suggesting his approval of her plan.

In her cabin, she dimmed the lights and keyed the viewports shut. The room was plunged into almost total darkness, but her eyes quickly adjusted as she locked the door and made her way to the small altar against the far wall. Her jumpsuit dropped to the floor. She lit two candles and knelt before the altar. Her head ached and she rubbed her brow absently. She stared at the small idol between the tapers. Picking up a small dagger she used it to slice a thin cut across her palm. Blood welled and she used her finger to draw two sanguine lines on each cheek below her eyes. She blinked back tears, bowed her head and crossed her arms across her chest.

"Dyania guide me. Naked I come before you. Bless me with your wisdom. Make my steel true and my blade keen. Dyania guide me. Dear Goddess, I see the path you have placed before me, but my steps are unsteady. Give me the resolve to see this through to the end you seek. I am your messenger to your people and death to the Muero. Dyania guide me." She trembled as the light from the candles appeared to grow brighter. She stared into the flames as the golden light spread across the altar. When it touched her she gasped in wonder and slumped to the floor.

"Commander? Commander? Are you there? Is everything all right?" Leftant Galene's voice.

Rowena slowly lifted herself from the cold floor and shivered. She stumbled to the desk and thumbed the pad. "I'm fine. What is it?"

"The Muero ships are secured. Damage crews are assessing total damage."

"How bad?"

There was a pause. "The Dreaad should be operable in a few hours. We may have to abandon the Claaw. Our initial estimates of its damage were off. The fighters were careful not to hit it too hard, but it's heavily damaged. The engines are on the verge of overload now. The engineers have them stabilized, but they say it'll blow if we're not careful, so they're stepping softly."

"Tell the engineers on the Claaw to see if they can get the self-destruct working. They are then to transfer to the Dreaad and get it moving. I want to leave this system in case the Muero managed a call for help. I'll be on the bridge in a few chronauts." She turned from the desk, but stopped. "Leftant? What about the Muero survivors?"

She could almost feel the acid in Galene's words. "There were no survivors, Commander. As per your orders."

"Any losses?"

"The boarding crews suffered some minor wounds in skirmishes on both ships. No casualties reported." She nodded as she pulled on the jumpsuit and looked around for her boots. "Very well. I'm on my way."

The entire crew was gathered on the observation deck of the Redeemer. The viewports were all open to the stars. The massive bulk of the Dreaad dominated the view as it followed the Tritan under it's own power. Rowena stepped in front of the group and faced them.

"Victory was ours this day," she said, and all eyes in the room moved to the Dreaad. "The Goddess has smiled upon us. We engaged two powerful Muero ships in battle and emerged victorious, and although we were unable to take the Claaw, we now have one of the most powerful Muero ships under our control. We have new faces among us, and some will be transferring to our new ship. Soon, we will add new ships and new crew to our growing fleet. Soon we will become a force to be reckoned with, a force that the Muero will learn to fear, and Queen Helena will come to respect.

"Legends on Earth and Arcadius Prime speak of a mighty bird that would rise from the ashes of its own death to take wing and rule the skies. The Dysori call this creature the xanthus, the Terrans name it a phoenix. We adopted this name for ourselves, and it seems only fitting that our newest prize have that name as well.

"Crew of the Redeemer, behold the Phoenix!" The crew erupted in cheers and applause. Rowena basked in the glory of victory, knowing it would not always be this way. Some of these people would die at her command. She pushed those thoughts aside for now.

Far behind them, a brilliant flash made the stars pale briefly as the Claaw exploded. The crew dispersed back to their stations. Rowena turned to study the stars. Leftant Galene stepped up beside her. "What are your orders, Commander?"

Rowena took a deep breath. The next part of her plan was the riskiest. If it failed they could lose everything. "Dyania has come to me in a vision. When the Phoenix is fully repaired take us into the Firestorm. Set course for the Sol system. We're going to Earth."

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