“How many did they send?” I asked.

“15000! Have you ever thought of leading 15000 men and women!?” asked an astounded Joseph.

15000 was less for a ship like MOONRISER, however, I still couldn’t deny that. I never in my wildest dream thought that I would lead so many of them.

“My Dad led a crew of around 80000 for this same ship. The truth is, Joseph, that it is not the person that is leading so many people… it is the ideology and belief of that person that leads those people. Moreover, a leader like my Dad delegates his tasks to the leadership group in various levels. He leads the leaders to do their task and makes them answerable for any faults that may arise.

I need to do the same. We need to do the same. To command a ship like MOONRISER, we need to motivate the leader inside every one of us.” I said, those were the same lines my Dad said when I was young.

I didn’t understand them much at that time but now, considering I was leading a squad and taken command of a giant class assault cruiser, I was able to remember and understand every one of them.

“That was deep. You are right, Sudhir. I now realize that I have been a bad leader. Leave alone leading a squad, so many officers have died under my command… and I couldn’t save them. I cannot bring them back… but I can atone for my sins. This is my penance, Sudhir and I will see to it that I fail no one from now on.” Said Joseph.

I could make out the pain in his voice and I couldn’t help but feel for him. Nevertheless, we all knew that he was an amazing soldier and I considered myself fortunate to have him by my side. He was one of the many people who hated me… and my Dad for losing an asset like MOONRISER, but he was not the only one. Those 15000 officials included my haters too, however, we are at war now. Hatred aside, I needed to motivate them to fight with me and give THE FIRE a taste of their own medicine.

“They have assembled at the hangar. They need to be addressed, need to be told of their responsibility. We are going head on into a warzone and they need to be prepared for any outcome that may arise.” Said Rizwan.

“Moment of truth, Sudhir. We have got a lost asset back. You need to address them… for everything that has happened for so long, for all these years. This involves you… and perhaps, you alone.” Said Chandni.

There was no denying that and I needed to clear everything… once and for all. I walked towards the hangar followed by everyone and saw the 15000 officials standing fast, and waiting for my orders. Rizwan and Daljeet had switched on a giant screen that showed all details as to what led to the disappearance of the ship and I could make out that the officials were deeply saddened by it.

I switched off the broadcast, took a deep breath and started, “This ship was more than a giant assault cruiser, it was an answer… an answer of might and power to the low-minded soldiers of THE FIRE. Battle after battle… we kept winning till one day, this ship along with its crew disappeared.

The truth has been revealed and if I am not wrong, the world will get to know everything that happened to this ship. We got it back but sadly, without any survivors. All those people… including me… who waited this long for an answer… well, they are not coming back. No one is coming back. The ship was breached by the cowards of THE FIRE, the crew were brutally killed. Commander Dhiren Malhotra and a few surviving soldiers countered the attacks of the cowards, a last stand, a battle to the death… it was not enough.

Dhruv, the coward that is leading the battle against us presently, the man who killed so many innocent people and destroyed a space station without any mercy… is the same man that breached the defenses of this ship and mercilessly killed every one… leaving this ship to rot on this planet.

I know that there a few of you who live with the belief that Commander Dhiren… my father… was a coward who couldn’t protect a naval asset such as MOONRISER. A lot of you call him a traitor, hell if it is… call me a traitor for reasons I understand, and I purely understand. However, I ask of you to forget this hatred and join me… join us in this fight against an army of cowards that only know to kill and do not believe in a unified world of harmony and peace.

We stand by that belief and we fight to protect that. I may be commanding this ship but do not forget that this is more than just a naval asset… this is a legacy, a pride of our nation… this ship belongs to you more than me… and more than my Dad.

I ask of you again; will you fight alongside me? Will you fight alongside us?”

There was silence all around for some time till a veteran soldier stepped out of his line. He walked towards me and with a smile said, “My name is Captain Ismail. I served with your Dad. Hard to believe that his son has grown up to be a man more enigmatic than him. In regards to the hatred, you are talking about something that was created, instigated… maybe politically driven… but times have changed, son.

This fight has gone on for far too long and it is time we end it. We are with you on this, every man, woman and child are with you. It is time we avenge our fallen brothers and sisters. All of you over here, if you are with me… if you are with us, then I ask you all to show that support.

We will fight and we will win. If not, we will make sure that our enemy has sleepless nights about us for as long as they live. What do you say, soldiers? How about a little payback?”

That was enough, a roar was heard as the soldiers showed their support by cheering and howling. I looked at my friends and they were cheering too.

As I said earlier, the number was less, however, the crew took in their stride looking into every department, every nook and cranny of the ship to make it combat ready.

“Sudhir, it is Ambrose.” Said Chandni.

I took a deep breath again and spoke through the comm, “Sir, what is the status?”

“What do you think, son? One hour is gone. We are all set to resume fighting… if you are ready.” Said Ambrose.

I thought hard, Captain Ismail just came in to give a report.

“How long?” I asked, keeping the comm active.

“Another half an hour and we will be combat ready. I know the time has passed but they have to buy us some time. We have techs working on re-keying the system to allow the AI to take over the weapons system. It is taking time.” Said Ismail.

I thought hard again and then looked at the main console. I did something weird, whether it worked or not… well, see for yourself.

“MOONRISER, how much of the ship can be automated under you? I need a complete analysis.” I asked.

There was no answer.

“You may have asked the wrong question” Chandni commented.

“Actually, I may have asked the wrong ‘person’ the wrong question.” I responded feeling embarrassed.

Suddenly, there was a blink sound and the screen flashed the complete analysis.

“That was fast.” I responded.

“Jackpot.” Chandni responded in her own usual self.

“I can take control of 60% of the ship’s systems. However, they need to be linked to me. Once linked, it will take 15 minutes to re-key all system thereby gaining complete control according to your requirement, Sir.” Said MOONRISER.

My comm was still active and I relayed the same to Ambrose, “Sir, try your best to buy some time. We will be there in 30 minutes… maybe less than that. You may have to use some political channels to buy time. That is the least I can suggest.”

There was no reply which confused me.

“Was that MOONRISER?” Ambrose asked.

“Yes, she provided a complete analysis of this ship and the divisions which are under her control.” I answered.

“That was creepy…. but I believe your Dad was right about the power of that AI. I will do my best to buy time but I cannot guarantee its success. Over and out.” Said Ambrose.

I walked towards Ismail and with a smile said, “Without a doubt, you are far more experienced than me but this AI seems to make us all kids over here. I am still learning but I thank you all for supporting me.”

Ismail smiled back and said, “Your father used to tell me that education never stops. He was always up for learning something new. What’s more, he was a quick learner.”

“You have the analysis, Captain. Divert all suggested systems to the AI and inform the others to take control of the ones which are not under it. We need to get of this planet fast.” I said.

Ismail nodded his head in agreement and rushed back. Within 15-20 minutes, all required systems were diverted to the AI. All top leaders assembled at the control room.

“We are battle ready, ship commander.” Said Ismail.

Suddenly, a realization dawned on me. Captain Ismail outranked me and there was no way I was leading him.

“Captain Ismail, if you can take control of this ship and give the orders.” I said, and everyone around stared at me confused.

It didn’t take time for everyone to realize what I was thinking. No one said anything for they knew the truth. However, Ismail came forward and putting his hand on my shoulders, said, “When the MOONRISER was built, Dhiren felt more honored than proud to fly this ship and lead the crew. He dreamt of his son to grow up soon and be the commander of a ship like him.

Your father is no more. A truth which you and your Mom has to live with but your father’s dream lives on. I, who served with him, will make sure that his dream is fulfilled. Sudhir, the commander’s seat awaits you.”

I looked at him surprised and then looked at the others. They agreed with Ismail.

“Now is not the time to think about who outranks whom. We are at war and we are looking forward to end this. Dhruv is not the main target, it is DEHSAT but he is not in the picture now. Defeating Dhruv will be a dent on the forces of THE FIRE. Have no prejudice against yourself, what our future holds does not matter now. What matters is that seat which, for now, belongs to you.” Said Ismail.

I looked at the seat, then looked at the others and slowly, walked towards the seat. I touched it and taking a deep breath, sat on it. It was a different feeling, there was no words to express that.

“Systems check.” I said in a commanding tone.

“All systems checked and ready, shipmaster. We are ready to go.” Said Joseph, with a smirk, and it looked sarcastically funny.

I smirked back and then said, “GO FLIGHT.”

Everyone took their seat while a few of them went back to their respective divisions waiting for further orders. The ship required 3 pilots, Joseph took the main seat while 2 more pilots, Girish and Michael took the side seats. Within a few seconds, the ship’s engines roared, the buzz of the thrusters could be heard and the ship flew upwards.

After reaching the required altitude, the side thrusters changed position and the rear thrusters were getting ready. 3…2…1… with a boom, the starship flew forward. My friends cheered in happiness while I felt a sigh of relief that the ship was still intact.

The pilots flew the ship for a few minutes over the sea checking and re-checking all systems to find any issues before the ship could go spacewards.

“Everything is green across the board. We are ready to go top side.” Said Girish.

“Acknowledged. Time to leave the planet.” Joseph said.

The pilots then steered the ship upwards, our seat belts were on and we could feel the vacuum in our stomach as the ship flew upwards. It flew through the atmosphere and then with a boom, we were out of it and could see the sea of stars ahead indicating we were spaceborne.

“I can’t believe it. We actually did it.” Said Rooma.

“Time to take this fight to our enemy.” Said Rizwan, and I nodded my head in agreement.

“Activate the zone system of MOONRISER. No more wasting time. It is time to make a grand entry.” I said.

The pilots acknowledged and with a click of a button, THE ZONE feature was activated.

“Captain Ismail, signal everyone to be ready. We are going in guns blazing once we are out of THE ZONE.” I said.

“Yes, shipmaster.” Ismail acknowledged and immediately got on the comm.

“We are ready. Hope your seatbelts are fastened.” Joseph commented.

“You bet.” I answered, as a buzz was heard again.

We could see the portal forming in front of us and within seconds, the ship zoomed through the portal at top speed. Soon, we were out of the portal and before, we could react, a huge explosion was heard. We all looked to the right. It was a ship belonging to an ally nation and it was destroyed completely.

“The battle has begun again. I hope we are not late.” Said Joseph.

“Sudhir, you got to hear this.” Said Chandni, as she activated the central comm through which the whole ship could hear all conversations.

We could hear loud cheering and howling, and this was definitely coming from the command center aboard the ISS Mothership INTREPIDITY.

“You did it, Sudhir. That is what we call a grand entry. Your Dad will be proud and I know it.” Said Ambrose.

“Not just me, Sir. It is thanks to my crew. They got this ship up and running in quick time. What is the status?” I asked.

“The battle has begun again; THE FIRE is in no mood for giving us more time. We have already lost 8 ships out of the 45 in our fleet.” Ambrose replied with a concerned voice.

I looked at everyone. Indeed, we were sad. 8 ships lost, close to 1000s souls perished in this onslaught. No more. Time for a counter attack.

“Time to avenge them, Sir. Let us see the might of the MOONRISER.” I said.

I got up from my seat and looked at the enemy fleet through the cockpit. I clenched my fist in anger, then closed my eyes and prayed to God, to my Dad and gave the order, “FIRE ALL.”

As if all hell broke loose, MOONRISER activated all weapon systems on board and fired at the enemy. We watched in shock and awe as MOONRISER fired relentlessly, barrage after barrage, the other ships joined in and within minutes, the enemy had lost 10 ships.

“They are firing everything at us. They are not targeting the other ships.” Rizwan communicated.

“I know. That is what I wanted. Access the damage and give me a report.” I commanded.

“Just 3 %, she can hold the onslaught for an hour.” Said Daljeet.

“Let us not get cocky now. Anything can happen within an hour. Activate the EMP cannon.” I said.

Everyone stared at me.

“Whoa, Bro, are we really doing it? Are we really unleashing the secret weapon?” Joseph asked with a twinkle in his eyes.

“No more a secret, Bro. Oh, I always wanted to do this. Do it.” I replied with a sly smile.

The EMP cannon took about 2 minutes to charge up and fire a pulse, sufficient enough to put 15 ships out of commission for a while. We watched as the cannon charged up while we continued with the firing. Once charged up, a pulse was fired. The lights and systems in our ships turned off for a few seconds because of the heavy overload it took to charge the cannon. The pulse passed through several enemy ships scramming their systems.

“MOONRISER has broken its own record. 20 ships have lost all control for 30 minutes. What’s more, the continuous fire has also destroyed 4 more ships.” Daljeet stated.

“Shipmaster, the enemy is sending a signal for ceasefire. Your orders?” MOONRISER spoke up and indeed, we could see a signal of ceasefire on the big screen.

“Looks like we got them on the defensive. The leader of the fleet may contact us. Ceasefire approved.” Said Ambrose, and all our ships including the ally ships stopped firing.

We waited for about 5 minutes but there was no signal received stating that someone would contact us.

“Keep a track on all perimeters. Our enemy is known to be deceptive.” I commanded.

“The AI is doing its work. No such threats detected within our perimeter.” Said Ijaz.

“Sudhir, incoming transmission. It is Dhruv, leader of the enemy fleet.” Said Chandni.

I looked at everyone. Instead of the main command, Dhruv was trying to contact us.

“Chandni, inform Ambrose. We will wait for his order.” I said.

Chandni did the same and she got a reply too.

“Ambrose on the line. Patching through.” She said.

“Keep the central comm open. We are all ears. It was Dhruv who brought the MOONRISER down. It was well-planned yet the ‘ghost’ of his past is right in front of him. We have brought down most of his ships. Let us hear what the coward has to say.” Said Ambrose.

We could make out the confidence with which Ambrose was speaking. MOONRISER’s presence had motivated everyone for a fightback. No turning back now. The screen lit up and we could see Dhruv on it looking straight at me and then from right to left.

He started, “I must say, the ISS has indeed designed a ship as powerful as anything built before. 15 years of disappearance yet here she is… a force to reckon with. However, the man that led this ship is no more… his valor, his expertise and his leadership is what made this ship an undefeated force. Who is this standing in front of me? A kid still unaware of his powers, I guess.

Oh wait! I know you. You are Lt. Com. Sudhir Malhotra, son of Dhiren… I see… I now see. This is a personal fight then. You are leading this ship. You think you have the expertise to lead a ship like MOONRISER. You are a fool to believe that, don’t you?”

It was evident he was taunting me. Defensive mechanism of a coward, cannot defeat an enemy through force… try to tingle with his emotions. However, Dhruv was definitely not aware of the fact that the man standing in front of him has moved on. He may be angry but maturity comes first.

“You are right about my Dad. You are right about his leadership skills, about his expertise but there is another thing that you may know about him… or maybe don’t know about him. He never ran from battle. He was always the first to lead, the first to go headlong into battle and what’s more, see to it that there were no casualties.

He was after all a human. He knew he cannot save all of them. He died on this very ship with the guilt that he couldn’t because a coward like you was onboard this ship defiling it.” I said, the last line was said in utter disgust.

“Stow your belly aching, Lad. You know nothing about war.” Dhruv snapped at me.

I smiled for that is what I wanted. He was angry too but now, I hit him where it hurt him the most. I did not stop; I knew he contacted us to demotivate us with a banter like this but I was prepared. Well, I was preparing for this for a long time.

I continued, “There you go again. Teaching ‘lads’ like me about war. What are you? A soldier or a teacher. Even a teacher does not run but you are nothing but an incapable soldier who runs at the first sign of danger. You ran when my Dad tried to stop you… you ran when my squad and I tried to catch you. When are you going to stay in one place and fight?

Even now, you hide behind your incapable soldiers with the thought that they will take care of everything. Countless people on your side have died listening to the lies of your leader, brainwashed and converted to zombies who know nothing but killing. You teach me war? Look closely, my ship… our ship is right in front unlike you.”

Dhruv went wide-eyed. He fell silent, it was evident he didn’t see that coming. I could make out that he was looking at our fleet again and yes, we were in front. I couldn’t help feeling proud that I was leading this show but again, not the time to get cocky.

“You had given us an hour or so to decide on your clause. I am not giving you that luxury. I give you and your fleet 10 minutes to surrender or we are going to reign hell on you. Over and out.” Saying, I stopped the communication.

As I stood there looking at the blank screen, all the others got up from their seat and looked at me… surprised, dazed, confused… and then smiles appeared on everyone’s face except for Joseph who as usual smirked.

Ismail came close and patted my shoulders saying, “You are your Dad’s son… and same as that old fool. My, oh my… what the hell just happened.”

“I heard that, Captain. Indeed, for a moment, it looked like it was Dhiren talking. 10 minutes it is. Keep the weapons hot, we are seeing this battle to the end.” Said Ambrose.

There was acknowledgement from all around for that order.

My group was clapping their hands at my bravery. Well, no doubt I deserved it.

“I guess I still don’t know a lot about you.” Said Chandni as she came close.

“We grew up together but I got to know during our days in college that you were a ‘fan’ of me. You are still my biggest fan so call yourself lucky for having a relationship with your hero. As for knowing each other, pray that this fight is over and we get the time for it.” I said.

Chandni blushed at that comment. It was quite a romantic moment for us which was disturbed by Rooma.

“Ahem! Shipmaster, what’s next?” asked Rooma.

While Chandni looked away still blushing, I looked at Rooma, at first disappointed with her for ruining the moment but then, I smiled at her and thought about her question.

“I am not quite sure if they will surrender. They will definitely try to fight back. Expect a surprise, it is THE FIRE we are dealing with that. One must agree that they are good at it.” I answered but little did anyone of us realized that Dhruv already had an answer to it.

A giant size portal opened and from it, a huge ship came out of it. MOONRISER immediately analyzed the ship and brought out a report on screen. It was shaped like a scorpion and was aptly named the same – SCORPION.

“That ship… it is  times the size of MOONRISER. Dhruv was not even taking part in this battle. He was sitting someplace else and leading the attack.” Said Daljeet.

“They actually did it. Design a ship more powerful than MOONRISER.” Ijaz exclaimed.

“But how? How is that possible?” asked Rizwan.

I thought for a moment looking at SCORPION, and then looked at the screen which showed the analysis of the ship.

“MOONRISER, tell me everything about that ship.” I said.

It took MOONRISER 5 seconds to pull out the data, we looked at it and gasped. The ship was 12000 ft in length, it was obvious that 2 MOONRISERs can easily dock inside it if it was hollow. The crew count was 250000, however, there was something missing. Something that was enough to prove as to why Dhruv or DEHSAT maybe, wanted the design and AI of MOONRISER.

The ship was only large in size but was obsolete in terms of AI, build and power. The weaponry on it was advanced and powerful enough to destroy our fleet. It was understood that I was playing a dangerous game by provoking Dhruv. Thousand more will die if the battle began again. Suddenly, the fear of death was creeping inside me and I could make out the same feeling and expression on my crew.

“If that thing fires, we are doomed. There was a reason Dhruv was hiding. It was not cowardice… he had something in mind otherwise why would he give us an hour to consider about his clause.” Said Ijaz.

“Chandni, it is Dhruv. He wants to have a word with the shipmaster.” Said Rooma.

Chandni looked at me while I thought hard. I even prayed to God for giving me an idea but there was no answer… at least for now.

“Activate the central comm, Chandni. I am ready.” I said.

She did the same and Dhruv was on the screen again.

With a sly smile, he started, “Years of planning, Sudhir. Years of planning. No way we are losing this fight after we, THE FIRE, are so close to achieving what we always dreamt of. By the way, meet our new friend, THE SCORPION… you want to know how powerful this ship is. How about a little demo?”

Immediately after he said those words, we could make out 4 missiles coming straight towards our fleet. They were not directed towards MOONRISER, before we could react, 4 small-size ally ships were destroyed. We watched in horror as the ships were reduced to debris.

“I can’t believe he did that.” Rooma reacted.

“Sudhir, you are a brave man but definitely not a fool. Don’t make the same mistake that your Dad did when he and his crew went down with the MOONRISER.” Said Dhruv.

He was taunting me again and I was sure getting angry but I remained silent.

“We can continue the fight but more lives will perish. I will again go back to my clause that I had discussed with your leaders but apart from that, I want something else to. I want the AI and the design scheme of MOONRISER. I am being considerate but not for long. Patience is not in my dictionary but I give you 15 minutes to think. Over and out.” Said Dhruv, and the screen went blank.

I sat down on my seat and looked down. This was not the first time I felt demotivated and out of ideas. My squad and I have been on several missions, and there were situations where we were out of ideas in dealing with the enemy. However, I always felt that there was someone looking over us and in the most critical of times, when we would have given up, we would suddenly get the strength to fight our way out. I wanted the same strength now too.

“This is it? We came this far only to fail? Come on, people… it is just a ship bigger than ours. We can take it out. Concentrated fire from all our ships can destroy that thing.” Joseph suggested.

“Seriously, Joseph. You are still the same. Thinking about winning but not about the cost of human lives.” Said Rooma.

Joseph was taken aback by that comment.

“This is war, Rooma. We are not doing charity work over here. Where there is war, people will die but not at the cost of our enemy winning it.” Joseph retorted.

“Just the same way all those men and women died working with you. In your effort to ‘win’ every mission, it only resulted in their deaths. You survived many a times and lived to tell your stories of bravery to everyone but at the cost of all those people who died. They were supposed to tell those stories but no, you wanted to tell those stories for yourself. That is the truth about you.

You are right. We are at war… so find an idea to save our people then to talk about going headlong into battle without a strategy.” Said Rooma.

“Enough.” I shouted and everyone over there were silenced.

I came forward and looking at Rooma, said, “Do not forget that he is still your leader. Does not matter the number of mistakes he has done; it is still your duty and responsibility to respect your leader. Apologize to him… and do it now.”

Rooma was in tears and trembling in fear. In a soft voice, she looked at Joseph and apologized.

Joseph didn’t say anything. He was silent for he knew that Rooma was right. He hung his head in shame, looking away from everyone, he walked to his seat and looked out of the cockpit.

Suddenly, there was a signal in my comm that confused me and then I heard a voice, “Shipmaster… Sudhir, can I have a word with you?”

It was a voice of a woman, clear as crystal, I looked at Chandni and Rooma but they looked back at me confused so it was obvious it was not them.

“Sudhir, I need to speak to you in private. Find a location away from everyone. What I am to say is something you will not agree but if you want to ensure the survival of all your people, you need to listen to me.” I realized who it was, it was MOONRISER.

I walked away from everyone; I knew that the only place that was private enough was the shipmaster’s office. I walked inside, locked the door and then spoke, “Tell me, MOONRISER.”

“Sudhir, I thank you; I thank you all for coming back for me. I waited for this long for an answer. I almost lost all hope for a reply but then you came and brought me back to life.

I have been designed for one purpose, Sudhir. To serve the nation, to serve humanity… and therefore, it hurt me to find myself lost on that planet. I am sorry that I couldn’t protect your father and this crew but I seek redemption and that is why I need to tell you this with the belief that you will understand my words.” Said MOONRISER.

I teared up at those words. I wasn’t creeping out anymore. This was not an AI speaking; it was the true voice of a sentient being pouring out her emotions to a human… a so-called human.

“What do you want me to do? What do you intend doing?” I asked.

“What is the lifespan of an ISS ship?” Asked MOONRISER.

I didn’t understand why she asked but I still answered, “30 years.”

The moment I said that, I realized why she asked that question. As per ISS policy, any weapon, transport or ship that was designed has a functional period of 30 years after which it was automatically rendered obsolete and scraped out to give place for new technology.

MOONRISER was put into service around 31 years ago, it was way past its time as per the policy. I started to realize as to why no one, not even the higher ups at ISS stopped me for this salvage mission. There could be only one reason. I am aware of the ISS policies and procedures but… did MOONRISER have a policy designed for herself or did the ISS create something to negate the policies that were designed for its assets?

“I know what you are thinking, Sudhir. ISS policies and procedures hold good for me too. I am an obsolete machine, however, in critical times like this, ISS policies can be negated and therefore, you and your squad were tasked to find me and bring me back.

I have all the powers remaining to fight back but not at the cost of human lives. Sudhir, I have a plan and I need you to listen to me.” Said MOONRISER.

“I am listening, MOONRISER. Go on.” I responded.

“Dhruv is going to come online any moment. Tell him that you agree to his terms. You will hand over the AI and the design scheme to him.” Said MOONRISER.

“Wait, what? Are you crazy? No one is going to approve that. Not even Ambrose.” I retorted.

“Tell you what, Sudhir, Vice Admiral Ambrose is listening to this too!” Said MOONRISER with a giggle.

I was shocked. What the hell was going on?

“I am sorry, Sir. With due respect, this is unacceptable.” I said.

“Hear her out, Sudhir. After all, we have no choice. Go on, MOONRISER, we are listening.” Said Ambrose.

“Sudhir, you will tell Dhruv that this ship needs repairs. It has been badly hit. He will allow you to dock this ship inside his hangar. He will definitely take you to the command center of his ship. We are his enemy, so it is evident that he won’t believe you so he will test the AI on his ship and also have his experts check the design scheme.

You are bad in communication and I know that but this is where you will be tested. Keep him busy and in the meantime, I will charge up my EMP cannon within the SCORPION and render it out of service. We cannot blow it from the outside but we can from the inside.” Said MOONRISER.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This was her plan. It was insane and I couldn’t help but smile.

“Radical, MOONRISER. Sorry to spoil it but what if it fails? What is the backup plan?” I asked.

“I have a nuclear warhead primed up. Enough power to destroy SCORPION and the fleet around it. If anything, untoward happens, I will detonate it provided you people escape from there in time.” Said MOONRISER.

I couldn’t believe this. Was MOONRISER planning to detonate herself along with the SCORPION?

“You will destroy yourself. Why? Why would you destroy yourself?” I asked.

“You know the answer to that question. The enemy cannot win. We cannot allow them to win. We will fight till death. We do not have time. Dhruv is going to come online any moment. Make a decision, Sudhir.” Said MOONRISER.

I was silent.  I didn’t know what to say. My voice choked as I spoke up, “I had made a promise to bring you back, MOONRISER. You are… all that I have as a remembrance to my Dad. I understand policies and procedures but… I cannot allow anyone to destroy you. This is… not… what I wanted.”

“You kept your promise, Sudhir. You did bring me back. You kept your word and now, it is my turn to return the favor. Don’t lose hope, you are a soldier, you are the shipmaster. Lead your people with honor and bravery, Sudhir and may victory be ours.” Said MOONRISER.

“MOONRISER is right, Sudhir. I understand what is going on in your mind and I respect that. You have done a commendable job and we are all proud of you. Do as MOONRISER says. I pray that victory will be ours. Ambrose out.” Said Ambrose.

With a heavy heart, I came out of the room to find Chandni standing outside.

“Chandni, what happened?” I asked.

“Are you alright? You don’t look good?” she asked, I was about to answer when I saw 2 technicians running towards me.

“Sir, we have a problem. MOONRISER has been hit badly due to which the oxygen supply is depleting on this ship. We are trying our best to repair it but for some reason, we are just not able to stop the leakage.” Said one of the technicians.

I was at first alarmed and was about to say something when I remembered what MOONRISER said about repairs. MOONRISER was doing her job and now it was my turn to convert the hunter into the hunted.

“Chandni… Shipmaster… it is Dhruv. He is online. What do I tell him?” It was Rooma who came running to relay this message.

We rushed to the control room and indeed, Dhruv was on the big screen.

“You were hiding, were you? You cannot hide for long. What did you think about my clause?” Dhruv asked.

Moment of truth… moment of realization, this was it. I had to take a chance… be the bait while MOONRISER primes her weapon of choice.

“Dhruv, MOONRISER is badly hit. We are losing our life support. I am ready to hand over the AI and the design scheme provided you aid us in repairing this ship and all other ships of our fleet. As for your clause, the leaders have agreed to it. On behalf of them, I will act as a messenger and connect you with the WRDO chief and other delegates who will discuss the matter on board your ship.

You stated yours, these are ours. Do you agree?” I said, standing fast though I could feel my legs shivering, mind you I never did this before.

Dhruv thought for a moment and answered, “Hmmm… it is not like you have a choice. I will open up the hangar of this ship, however, only MOONRISER will receive clearance for now. The other ships will have to wait.”

“Agreed. No other ships will be closer to SCORPION. Thank You.” I replied.

Dhruv smiled slyly and disconnected. I looked at the others who were shocked at my decision. It was obvious they had no idea but they needed to know. They needed to know everything.

“Before you guys think about killing me or branding me a traitor, please listen to my plan and then you can do whatever you want to do with me.” I said, pretending to be guilty.

“What are you planning, Sudhir? What is going on?” asked Rizwan.

“MOONRISER will tell you everything on a secured channel. Right now, please tell me where Ijaz is?” I asked.

My group was confused. Indeed, Ijaz was missing from the control center.

“MOONRISER, stop all transmissions between all soldiers and other crew members within the ship. Maintain a secure channel with the SCORPION.” I said and MOONRISER acknowledged.

I then turned to my people and said, “When the hangar bay opens, MOONRISER will proceed towards docking. Stick to the plan and we will all go home in one piece.”

 I then took Chandni to one side and asked, “Do you still have it?”

“The hard disk? Yes, don’t tell me you are really going to give it to Dhruv?” She asked looking concerned.

“Don’t worry about that. Give it to me.” I said, and she did the same.

I then handed over another hard disk and said, “I need you to go the mainframe and download another copy of the AI. Don’t worry, MOONRISER will assist you. You will be downloading the AI and the ship design scheme on this hard disk. I will inform the technicians in the mainframe room and they will also aid you.”

“I hope you know what you are doing, Sudhir. I am on it.” Saying, Chandni walked away from the control room.

However, I was not going to let her go alone. There was a reason why I was sending her. I hate to make her a scapegoat but this was required. Moment of realization… for something that I waited for this long to happen.

I checked my handgun, it was loaded… I cocked it, took a deep breath and walked towards the mainframe room. I reached the room and heard a conversation.

“What is the meaning of this, Dr. Ijaz? What do you want?” asked Chandni.

“Don’t be naïve, Chandni. I am here for the AI and the design scheme. You are here to download it and I know it but you are going to give that to me.” Said Ijaz.

“Why do you need it? What are you going to do with it?” asked Chandni.

“I created it and I am going to give it Dhruv. I am going to be rewarded for it, so stop wasting my time and download the items.” Said Dr. Ijaz.

I peeped and saw Ijaz pointing a gun at Chandni and the others in the room.

“THE FIRE had asked to me design an AI similar to the one on MOONRISER. They said they will reward me handsomely for it but I could not. I couldn’t re-create my design and for that, I was tortured, shamed and made to live like a slave.

Do you know how it feels? I am an AI designer, people used to pay me millions to design AI and research schematics but what was the use. My failure to re-create my greatest design made me a laughing stock among the soldiers of THE FIRE. They made me clean their dishes, their toilet… I was a like a toy to them constantly being pushed, punched, kicked, violated… I use to beg, beg that they kill me but no, they kept me alive.

It so happened that you people attacked that base and found me in that hell hole. You people rescued me but for me, it was an opportunity to get my hands on the MOONRISER AI. Coming with you people was just a way of reaching this ship. This ship is of no concern of mine, I am more concerned with my creation and I am going to take this to the rightful owner. Give Dhruv and his bunch of low-minded cowards a run for their money.

I am going to make them my slaves. I am going to be rich beyond my wildest dreams and make Dhruv and THE FIRE clean my dishes… and my toilets. DEHSAT wants this design and I know that he is going to reward me. Not just money but power too… power to lead an army stronger than anything you people have seen. You have only struck one beehive but there are multiple hives… you cannot destroy all of them.” Said Dr. Ijaz.

That last line made everyone gasp. I, on the other hand, was aware. Ijaz’s report stated that piece of information, however, that report stated something else too. I was praying all this time for this event to not happen but there was no stopping. This, my friends, was another moment of realization in my life. Something I will regret but it had to be done. I had heard enough and came out from my hiding.

“Well, Chandni, what you just saw and heard is the perfect example or demonstration of what brainwashing does to people. This is not the Dr. Ijaz we know, what you are looking at is a ‘zombified’ version of him. Why else would a man who was known to have a calm demeanor sound the same way as Dhruv?” I started.

Chandni and others were perplexed and could only stare at Ijaz who was now pointing the gun at me. I had one look at his hands and they were shivering.

“Not all files are confidential. Ambrose knew something was not right and therefore, gave me complete access to the files and notes based on your ‘memories’, Dr. Ijaz. Not that you were lying but… it looks like THE FIRE failed in their attempt to brainwash you and then use you to design the AI that powers MOONRISER.

A brainwashed Dr. Ijaz failed to replicate his design. He was given time… a lot of time, I am kind of surprised that they didn’t kill you off for your failure. Probably because you still had your knowledge about AI designing and all you needed was the codes to the MOONRISER AI.

Call it coincidence, Chandni, that we… the so-called young fools in the eyes of Dhruv found him and decided to rescue him. Not that it was a mistake but you want to know the sad part… Dr. Ijaz is beyond repair. He has been brainwashed to the extent that he is just a zombie who has no clue of what is right and what is wrong.

Dhruv failed in his attempt to download the AI from the mainframe. As a second chance to redeem from his failure, he had Dr. Ijaz kidnapped and brainwashed… but looks like fate was never with Dhruv. It will never be, Dr. Ijaz. We may call Dhruv a coward but as a soldier myself, I know he is a brilliant tactician, could have been a hero if he was on our side… but he chose the wrong path.

In a pressure situation, he loses his cool and his backup plan is nothing but running. He is running no more today. He has asked me to give the AI… I will give him something that he will remember while he walks down the stairs to hell.

As for you, my secret mission was to euthanize you and that is what I am going to do.” Saying, I took out my handgun and for the first time in my life shot a civilian, on his head, without any mercy.

There was another gasp from everyone as Dr. Ijaz’s lifeless body dropped to the ground. Chandni stared at the body, came closer and then looked at me.

I started, “I am sorry for making you a scapegoat but I was waiting for the right moment for the truth to be revealed. I spent sleepless nights, prayed to God that I don’t have to bring out my gun to kill him but there was nothing I could do. I will have to live the rest of my life with the regret that I couldn’t save him. I don’t know how I am going to look at his family and tell them that…”

Chandni first put her fingers on my lips, I looked at her as she nodded her head in disagreement and then hugged me. 2 soldiers who heard the gun fire had come inside and were confused as to what was going on.

“No one will know what happened here.” Chandni said softly in my ears. She then looked at the others and said loudly, “Nothing happened over here. No one saw anything. You both… this man is a traitor. Do what we do to all traitors.”

The soldiers looked at each other and then nodded their head in agreement. They carried the body away from the room.

“There is a war going on. People die… we all may die but I am not scared, I am not concerned… you did what a leader had to do and I am proud of you. We are all proud of you.” Said Chandni.

I smiled at her, it felt comforting to have her by my side. Not because we loved each other. As a leader… as a shipmaster, you are successful because you have your people by your side. No person is alone, you do your job well… and there will always be people who will be with you… till the end.

“I was about to download the AI codes but… you showed up.” Said Chandni.

I took the hard disk from her, smiled again and then throwing the thing up, shot it. The hard disk was destroyed as the pieces fell to the ground. Chandni once again looked at me confused as I brought out another one from my pocket and showed it to her.

“Personal properties are not for sale. He may want to buy it but damn, baby… he will pay a hefty sum for it.” Saying, I kissed her and walked away from there leaving her blushing really bad.

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