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"Seeking the Past" - Undiscovered Frontier Season 1 (Star Trek/Mass Effect/B5/Others)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Big Steve, Aug 28, 2019.

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    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    The angry shouts of Kurn and Councillor Gleer were still ringing in Robert's ears when the meeting broke up unsuccessfully. Tr'Lhaer was returning to his shuttle, already promising to return the next day to "observe", and the Federation delegation was returning to the Excalibur (Tanno by his shuttle of course). So far the unobtrusive Federation diplomatic bureaucrat was the only one who had not irritated Robet in some way at the meeting. Not counting Picard anyway.

    Robert escorted Ledosh back to his stateroom. "It would appear these negotiations will be more complicated than believed," Ledosh remarked stoically as they went down the corridor.

    "Why did we leave the Romulans out?", Robert asked. "I mean, it was pretty obvious they'd get paranoid and suspicious if we did that."

    "It was believed that they would ask for too much," Ledosh said. "And that they would be unwilling to gamble upon a war on two fronts."

    "They could be bluffing," Robert agreed. "But can we risk it?"

    "I will have to inform President Morgan and seek instruction. Until then I will endeavor to get what arrangements we can."

    "I admit getting Klingons into the fight would be especially useful," Robert said. "And the Federation's technological abilities would help us locate the Facility even without the full coordinates. But I don't think we'll do well if the Romulans start a war over it."

    "Indeed not." They arrived at the door to Ledosh' stateroom. The Gersallian stepped in and looked back. "On another matter, I sense you are troubled?"

    Robert replied with a sheepish grin. "I suppose I can't hide anything from you 'swevyra' types. Yeah, I am. The war and… well, my dreams."

    "Dreams?"

    "Nightmares, really. Not like normal ones. Meridina thinks my 'life force' or however you term it might be connecting to the wider universe and telling me things that might or even will happen."

    Ledosh considered that. "That would signify quite a special connection to the universe, Captain. I suggest you consider the possibility seriously."

    "I am, Mastrash," Robert replied. He sighed. "And that's what scares me."

    "Fear can cloud one's vision of the future," Ledosh observed. "Perhaps you should focus on more positive emotions. Consider brighter paths for your future."

    Robert couldn't hide his skepticism. "So I can just make myself think of happy endings and I'll get those visions instead? If these are such visions?"

    "Not necessarily," Ledosh conceded. "The thing to keep in mind is that one's emotional state can affect how one's life energy interacts with the universe. Light with light, Dark with dark. If you listen to your fears, your life energy will reflect that, and your connection will focus on those fears and the outcomes that cause them. Doing so the opposite ways can lead to possible endings you will find more palatable. Not that either need come to pass. This is about possible futures, not what will happen."

    "I see." Robert considered that idea. It seemed fairly reasonable. As much as talking about your life force giving you peeks at the future can be reasonable, anyway.

    With that conversation evidently over, Ledosh asked, "You are hosting Captain Picard's staff in the morning, yes?"

    "For a tour of the ship."

    "Hopefully that will provide some relief from your sufferings as of late," Ledosh noted. "Sleep well, Captain. I hope you find that focusing on the positive side of life will make the futures you foresee more bearable."




    Caterina stepped out of her shower and finished wrapping the towel around herself. Her quarters' climate control immediately began warming the temperature slightly, to keep her from feeling cold as she finished drying off, while Cat brought up the sensor logs for the day since she'd spent so much of it at the diplomatic meeting. They hadn't met many Klingons, and never any Romulans, so it was a chance for some unique scanning.

    She read over the results of the scans and felt her brow furrow. Something was off. She tapped a key and called the bridge. "Lieutenant Luneri here," was the reply.

    "This is Caterina. Can you make sure I get relayed all scans of the incoming Romulan shuttle tomorrow? There may be something wrong."

    "Do you want me to inform someone?"

    "I'll talk to the others myself. But I need to see this. Please?"

    "I'll make sure the note is passed on to Science, Lieutenant. Good night."

    Caterina yawned on cue. "Good night." With her skin now mostly dry she swapped into her Geek Princess pajamas and slid into bed for a night of sleep.



    Angel had helped Robert with the "positive" outlook part of what Ledosh had said to him. They hadn't shared a night of passion as they might have preferred, but the kissing and embracing and falling asleep in one another's arms had at least helped his disposition.

    And now he was dreaming again. And it was one of those dreams. That he was sure of.

    At first it had been the same as before. Dark ships trying to slice Aurora into ribbons. Julia being dragged across a metal floor by a couple of men in SS garb with Fassbinder following behind. The girl in the red and gold clothing crying for help as the power surging from her consumed her until her eyes seemed to disappear into a glow of intense white light.

    No, he thought. Robert focused on Ledosh's words. No fear. The future has to hold more than things to be afraid of.

    "Hey Rob." He turned and faced Zack. "Good to be home." Robert looked around and saw that they were in the Lookout.

    "Three cheers for the Koenig!", Locarno cried out, and everyone started cheering.

    Before Robert could join in, things were changing again. He was in a dress uniform. President Morgan stepped up and handed him a medal.

    There was another girl a moment later. Red-haired, light-skinned, green eyes and with a scarred cheek, smiling as she waved at him from the airlock. "Please visit!", she called out.

    The dreams changed abruptly again. This time he was in the conference room. The other delegates were there. Shouts were being made, accusations, threats of war. Tr'Lhaer glared at him. "This was your fault! It will be war!", the ambassador screamed.

    Robert wondered what he meant, but before he could inquire further, there was a rumble beneath his feet. Energy erupted from the nearest wall and they were all consumed.

    At that point he woke up with more of a start. As he had been laying his head across Angel's shoulder, his abrupt movement woke her up as well. "A nightmare?", she asked sleepily.

    "Something… maybe both." Robert checked the time. 0400. Still two and a half hours for sleep. He leaned over and kissed Angel on the lips. "Go back to sleep. I intend to."

    "Mmhmm…" Angel turned around and presented her back to him. Her right arm was now dangling over her belly and off the bed.

    Robert put his right arm on her's, let their fingers interlace, and kissed her on the back of the neck before he settled back into sleep.




    Picard and the rest of his officers returned at 0715 as scheduled, at least two hours ahead of the other delegates. Robert was with Julia, Jarod, Meridina, and Caterina to meet them. Caterina, he couldn't help but note, seemed particularly distracted.

    Their first stop was the Lookout, where Hargert's staff had prepared breakfast. As they ate small talk began to pick up. "You're short a few people," Julia said to Picard and Riker.

    "Yes. Mister La Forge is attending an engineering symposium at Antares," Picard replied. "They are looking into methods to prevent warp core destabilization like the effect that cost us the Enterprise."

    "Tom would grumble about anti-matter blowing up if you looked at it the wrong way," Jarod noted with a grin. "And then encourage Starfleet to switch to naqia reactors."

    "I am curious." Data looked up from his own plate. That he was eating was a surprise, but he had made it clear it was for the social benefits only. "Where are Lieutenant Barnes and Commander Carrey? I found the Lieutenant's tendency to use colorful language to be rather intriguing, particularly his creative uses of such vocabulary."

    Cat, despite her distracted look, giggled at that. Jarod and Julia exchanged bemused looks. "The Koenig is on special assignment in N2S7." Robert looked up from his meal of pancakes and a breakfast ham steak. "They're escorting toward Alliance space a convoy of refugees from what may be the only Human population left that is indigenous to that universe."

    "I see. An important mission, then." Picard nodded. "I hope they are doing well."

    "They are from the last time I talked to Zack," Julia said. "The Colonial Fleet is still months away from our space, so it's going to be a while before we see them again."

    Caterina suppressed a shiver. Troi gave her a worried look.

    Jarod put his fork down. "And Doctor Crusher?"

    "Medical Conference on Bolarus," Riker said.

    "Right."

    "I can tell you have all gone through some traumatic experiences lately," Troi said. "The war especially."

    "We watched sixty thousand people get butchered the other day, Counselor Troi," Jarod pointed out. "It has an effect."

    There was only a momentary silence before Meridina and Troi both gave very concerned looks toward Worf. He thumped a fist on the table. "The Romulans have no right to dictate to us," he growled. "Your Alliance is fighting an honorable battle against a great evil. You deserve our assistance."

    "It's not surprising they're worried about what it'd be like if the Federation and Klingons had IU jump drive technology," Julia said. "It would guarantee their defeat in a war."

    "I do have a concern." Meridina looked up from her plate of eggs and soup. "How did Ambassador tr'Lhaer discover that these talks were taking place? The Pillar of Light is officially here on a cultural exchange mission. Its purpose to facilitate the arrival of a ship with an envoy was not determined until a few days ago."

    "Maybe he had someone who noticed our ships gathering together for the meeting?', Caterina proposed.

    "But we're not near Earth." Troi shook her head. "At this range, could even a Romulan shuttle's sensors have picked us up?"

    "Going by what we know of their capabilities, it does not seem likely, Counselor," Data agreed. "Our proximity to Saturn and to Enceladus would have acted to obscure the incoming jump point of the Aurora from all but the most attuned sensors. And detecting our ships in the mass shadow of Enceladus and the wider shadow of Saturn is highly unlikely."

    "So to find us," Julia began, "t'Lhaer had to know we were out here, he would have needed to know where to look."

    Robert looked at Meridina. "Meridina, are you suggesting the talks were leaked to tr'Lhaer?"

    "I have… concerns," she said. "There is another purpose at work here."

    Picard's expression turned grave. "It is not unexpected that the Romulans would want to prevent an alliance between our governments."

    "I do not think this is a mere gesture of diplomatic posturing," Meridina insisted.

    Caterina looked up. "That might explain it."

    Everyone looked toward her. "Explain what, Cat?", Julia asked.

    "We were getting some sort of reading from the Romulan shuttle yesterday," Cat said. "Technical Officer Kelani was at my post since I was at the meeting so I think he missed it, but I noticed it when I checked my logs last night."

    "What sort of reading was it?", Robert asked.

    "An energy signature of some sort," Cat said. "It's not consistent with the kind of power sources the Romulans use in their shuttles."

    "The Romulans use controlled quantum singularities to power their starships," Data explained.

    "I can tell you it wasn't that, even if they'd use those on shuttlecraft," Cat insisted. "It was something else. Very faint. I'll need to examine the shuttle closely to actually figure out what it was."

    "Unfortunately, Lieutenant, that shuttle is diplomatic territory protected by interstellar law and custom," Picard explained. "You cannot enter it without the ambassador's explicit permission. Which I doubt he will be forthcoming with."

    "Well…" Cat shook her head. "Maybe… maybe there's a way to get the scans I need without physically entering the shuttle?"

    "There may be a way," Data said. "If you can set up a subspace waveform detector of sufficient sensitivity and portability, it could be used to determine what sort of energy form is emanating from the Romulan shuttle by examination of the specific subspace effects that the energy form causes. This could be done without violating the ambassador's diplomatic protections."

    Cat's eyes widened. "Oh! Yes! Yes, that's it! I… we could put one together from some of the planetary surveying equipment."

    "I'll call Lucy and have her help to assemble it," Julia said. "But that doesn't tell us who told tr'Lhaer about the meeting."

    "Given the timing, it has to be someone with one of our delegations," Riker noted.

    "Could it be Kurn?", Caterina asked. "Because I've heard some Klingons still…."

    Worf was already turning his head to face her with a scowl. "No. That is not possible," he rumbled.

    "Oh?"

    "Councillor Kurn is Mister Worf's younger brother," Picard explained. "They lost their parents to the Romulan attack on Khitomer over twenty years ago."

    "Oh. Sorry… Mister Worf, sorry." Cat put her hands together and looked a little sheepish. But she managed a grin anyway. "I'm sure it's great to get to see your brother here, then. To get to spend time together, doing… Klingon-y things that brothers do… I mean, whatever you and your brother like to do..." She stopped when noticing Worf was still not smiling.

    Troi chuckled at that and grinned at Worf, who seemed taken aback for a moment. Finally the scowl on his face softened. "Yes," Worf declared. "I do enjoy seeing my brother again." He cleared his throat and looked down the table. "I find it hard to believe that a Romulan agent could have gotten close to my brother."

    "Well, could the leak be in the Federation delegation?", Julia asked. "Or maybe even a crewmember of the Pillar of Light? They have to have been told something about why they came?"

    "They only knew they might be employed to ensure the quick commencement of diplomatic talks," Meridina said. "The intent was never given to them."

    "Still, maybe we should investigate both," Julia said. "Just to make sure."

    "Between the Excalibur and the Pillar of Light, it is possible that a trace of a transmission could have been picked up," Jarod observed. "In background radiation, or hidden in standard communications activity."

    "That is a strong possibility," Data agreed. "I would need to examine the sensor logs from both ships and examine all outgoing data packets to confirm."

    "Although he and I have often clashed, I believe I can get Captain Korsmo to provide the logs from Excalibur," Picard said.

    "I will speak with Captain Darmal." Meridina nodded. "I believe it will not be difficult to win his cooperation."

    "I'll show Data to Science Lab 1, then," Jarod said.

    "There may be questions, then," Picard said. "About why all of the technical experts that were arranged for our benefit are indisposed. If there is some sort of conspiracy going on here, I don't want to alert them to their possible discovery. That might provoke them into moving before we know what's going on."

    Robert considered that problem. With Tom Barnes a universe away, Lucy needed to build Caterina's scanner device with her, and Data and Jarod on analysis duty, that left mostly junior officers…. But not just them. He smiled at Picard. "I suppose it's a good thing that we've got an engineering legend on board," Robert said. "Scotty's word should carry even more weight."

    "A splendid idea," Picard agreed. He nodded to Data. "Mister Data, Mister Jarod, please proceed to investigate the sensor logs. I'll contact Commander Shelby and arrange for you to get Excalibur's readings."

    "And that leaves the rest of us to keep Kurn and tr'Lhaer from killing each other," Julia remarked drolly.

    "Or Gleer and T'Latrek," Robert added. "I think those two might just hate each other more."

    The two groups broke up the breakfast at that point to begin the rest of the day.




    When the sessions began again, there was some reaction to the change of technical experts present for the negotiators' help. T'Latrek actually went to the extent of bowing her head in respect to Scotty. "It is agreeable to see you are well, Commander Scott."

    "Thank ye, lass." Scotty took a close look at her. "I know ye. Ye were at Khitomer, one of President Ra-ghoratreii's aides."

    "Indeed, sir." T'Latrek turned her head to Ledosh. "Mastrash Ledosh, given the clear obstacles to aid that the Romulan Empire has announced, is it not futile to indulge in any further discussions along this line? There is nothing that the Federation or the Klingon Empire are offering that would involve a trade of anything less than the same technology that the Romulan Ambassador is considering going to war over."

    "Unless, of course, you were to provide it to us as well," Tr'Lhaer said smoothly. "And the Romulan Empire would not be averse to providing some material compensation. We will not fight for you, however."

    Robert looked to Ledosh, who had a stoic diplomatic demeanor on his face little different than T'Latrek's. "An interesting proposal, Ambassador. I have yet to hear from my government on the issue of Romulan possession of the technology."

    "Perhaps they are not as desperate as the condition may seem." Tr'Lhaer shrugged. "Although there are other ways of gaining assistance than giving away such a vital means of technology. Financial compensations, materials..."

    "The Klingon Empire is not interested in any financial arrangements." Kurn leaned forward in his chair. "It is either the drive or nothing."

    "Understandable, Councillor," Ledosh answered. "I hope to have an answer to the Romulan ambassador done by midnight." Ledosh picked up the digital pad before him. "While I await my instructions from the President, there are other considerations to be made…"




    Jarod and Data had split up the tasks relating to the incoming data. Data himself was surveying the sensor returns while Jarod was applying his own intellect to the outgoing data packets to see if there were any hidden elements. They worked quietly and rapidly for some time.

    The doors to the Science Lab eventually opened. Riker entered and stood over the area between them to see what they were working on. "The Captain wanted to know your progress," Riker said.

    "I have completed approximately sixty percent of the sensor logs from the Excalibur," Data confirmed. "And then I will commence reading the results from Pillar of Light."

    "Nothing so far on my end."

    "Keep us informed." Riker departed the room.

    After he left Jarod asked, "Commander Riker seems distracted, or is that jjust me?

    "Commander Riker is still disturbed by what happened to the Enterprise," Data answered. "I believe losing the Enterprise while it was under his command has caused a loss of self-confidence."

    Jarod noticed the change in Data's voice. It had lost the calm "statement of fact" element it usually had. "Data, you sound upset about it."

    There was a sense in Data's voice. "Quite," he said. "The Enterprise was our home for several years. It's loss has caused emotional turmoil for the entire crew, myself included."

    "I could hear that in your voice," Jarod said. "Which is the surprising part. You have emotions now?"

    "Yes. I installed an emotion chip my creator made for me." Data showed a brief facial tic. Embarrassment, mostly. "I have had some issues with it, however, so I keep it in a low power state as I acclimate to my new emotions."

    "Good luck with that." Jarod remained intent on his work for a moment. "I'm not finding any signals."

    "Nor have I. But there is still a large volume of data to go through."

    "Yeah, tell me about it." Jarod took a moment to think. "What if we had help?", he asked.

    Data turned and faced him. "Help of what kind?", he asked with evident curiosity.

    "As part of our search for the Darglan facility, we have a decompiler program going over raw data from the 33LA data facility." Jarod hit some of the keys on his hard-light keyboard control to bring up the program from their main computers. "It was coded to sort through data and discover existing patterns for the purpose of recompiling fragmented data."

    "I see. You are suggesting we modify the program's parameters to discover isolated data packets that do not fit the data they are encapsulated in."

    "Exactly," Jarod said.

    "I will need to create a copy of the program to begin the modifications," Data noted.

    "Copying now and relaying to your station."

    The raw code of the program in question popped up on the screen. "This is a very well-crafted code."

    "I'll pass that compliment along to Na'ama Shaham."

    "I am now processing the logs through this program now. It will still take some time for every result to be found."

    "That gives us time to do direct examination of the rest of the logs." Jarod brought them back up. "The sooner we find this thing, the better."




    Lucy and Caterina pulled the scanner assembly into the main shuttle bay. Cat almost asked, again, if Lucy was sure it would work, but she got the sense it would just be annoying and insulting to do so. She didn't want to imply Lucy hadn't done it right, after all, she just wanted an outlet to her own nervousness about this entire situation. What should have been a relatively-quiet diplomatic affair was becoming scary.

    Even scarier were the pair of Romulans standing at the Romulan shuttle of the Ambassador. The pair, a man and a woman, were in those padded, sharp-shouldered gray uniforms with matching bowl-style haircuts that kept the hair trimmed away from their sharp Vulcanoid ears. The two eyed Lucy and Caterina suspiciously. Lucy immediately wheeled the scanner away from them and toward the lines of shuttles nearby. When they were behind one of the shuttles Lucy reached for her multidevice, popped up the hardlight keyboard, and typed something.

    A message popped up on Cat's own multidevice screen. They can still hear us. We need to pretend we're doing maintenance on the shuttles. We'll find an opening for a closer scan when we can.

    Cat made a face at that. It sounded boring and monotonous, and wouldn't do anything to settle her from the fact that they were about to do something potentially dangerous. She tapped her own reply out. Won't they be suspicious of me doing something like this?

    Lucy gave her a look and typed a quick reply back. That's what cross-training is for. "I know you don't like it, Cat," she said out loud, "but orders are orders. They want to make sure you can do this work in an emergency."

    "But all of them?", Cat complained out loud.

    Lucy grinned. "Welcome to Operations duty, Cat. Now you get to see what my life is like."




    A recess from the conference couldn't have come sooner for Robert. Hearing the go-around was taxing and it made him thankful that Ledosh was the one doing the talking for his end.

    It was with Ledosh that Robert left Conference 1 to head for the Lookout and a quick meal. They took a corner table when they arrived. Hargert himself came out of the back to provide them with the lunch he had prepared, a plate of toasted lunch sandwiches and grilled pork with a salad plate.

    "The arrival of the Romulans has been a complicating factor," Ledosh said.

    "More like a complete disruption," Robert answered. "And I don't think it's chance."

    "Yes." Ledosh nodded. "It would appear that someone here has a separate agenda. An agenda that includes thwarting these negotiations."

    Robert took a bite and chewed on it as he thought. When he was done he noticed Ledosh was looking at him with curiosity. "Yes?", he asked.

    "You are investigating?", Ledosh asked.

    He answered with a nod. "It's being looked into."

    "Of course." Ledosh took a small bite. "You seem more rested today. My advice to you did as you expected?"

    "Mostly."

    "But… this would have to do with why you are looking so tense in the meeting?"

    Robert sighed. "Last night I had the entire dream thing again. Toward the end, I saw us in the meeting. Tr'Lhaer was yelling something about war. And then… there was this big burst of white that filled the room."

    "Hrm." Ledosh considered that. "I admit I have felt my own trepidation today. I sense something is amiss. Beyond our diplomatic impasse."

    "Well, don't I feel better now," Robert muttered. He took another bite and tried to ignore the growing feeling that something was wrong. That they were all in danger.

    Ledosh looked at him closely. "I sense it now. How interesting."

    "What?"

    "Your swevyra," Ledosh said. "I knew you had potential. I had known since the day we first met on Gersal, when your organization made its official contact with the Gersallian people. But to feel it now…"

    Robert didn't know what to think about that. "So you're saying I have this… life force stuff?"

    "We all do," Ledosh noted. "But only some have a life force, a swevyra, that can connect to the energy of the wider universe."

    "Including me?"

    Ledosh considered that question for a moment. "Yes."

    "So…" Robert put his food down and pushed the plate away. "Are you telling me I could end up doing the same things Lucy is learning to do?"

    Ledosh remained completely quiet for several moments. Robert got the idea he was deep in thought, making calculations of a sort or trying to find out how the conversation could go depending on what he said? Either way, he did finally nod. "Yes. With training. I'm not sure you would have the same power that Lucy and Meridina wield, Swevyra is unique to each person. Your power may be more your connection to the flow of choice through time than to the energy fields of the here and now."

    "So I might always have future dreams, but never the ability to win gunfights with a sword?"

    That drew a bemused smile from the Gersallian elder. "An interesting way of putting that Captain. But yes, it is possible your abilities would be more for anticipating that which is to come than for using it to wield a lakesh."

    "Ah. Well. People think I'm crazy enough as it is without me running around with a sword jumping into gunfights," Robert mused.

    Ledosh showed a hint of wry amusement at that. "I understand that for your people, the idea of swevyra and its potential can be outlandish and strange. It is hard to accept when it is not something you are used to. But it does exist and it is something you have potential in. You must always be wary of the darkness, however. The dark emotions, such as fear and anger inevitably lead to corruption of the swevyra in a person. It encourages the indulgence of the darkest and most terrible parts of each of us."

    "This is why Meridina is giving that training to Lucy?"

    "In part, yes. She must learn to sense darkness and keep it out."

    Robert nodded in reply to that.

    "I am curious about you, Captain," Ledosh said. "You are one of a few people who can genuinely say you have played a major role in the events of our time. But you have often refused interviews on the matter."

    "I suppose they don't interest me that much," Robert remarked. "My place isn't as a politician."

    "Then what is your place?"

    Robert had to consider that a moment. "If anything? Helping people."

    "An admirable desire," the Gersallian replied. "But I should point out that many say such a thing, yet often cannot remain animated by it. Helping others, truly, often requires a strong underlying belief supporting that. The Code of Swenya provides myself and Meridina with that. We believe that by helping those in need, we increase the power of Light among living creatures and banish darkness. What do you believe in?"

    Robert remained quiet for a moment. What did he believe in? What made him this way? He sometimes wondered about it. It was easy to determine why the others did this. Leo was devoted to the principles of medicine and the ethics of being a physician. Julia believed in her ability to lead. Caterina loved to explore.

    Why did he want to be out here? Why did he want to put so much effort into helping others?

    Robert thought about the Shahams for a moment. And the DMZ Colonists he had rescued from the Cardassians. All of the times he had been able to improve someone's life and the joy it had given them. Was it just that simple? That he enjoyed their joy?

    After several moments, he knew it wasn't that.

    There was a tone from his multidevice. "Jarod to Dale."

    Robert took in a breath. Jarod's call had broken his concentration. "Sorry, I need to take this," he said to Ledosh before he brought up his forearm. Robert reached his hand over and accepted the incoming communication. "Dale here."

    "You might want to get to Science Lab 1 before the conference resumes. We may have something to show you."

    Robert looked at his unfinished lunch and at Ledosh. The Gersallian nodded. "I'm on my way. Dale out." He stood up. "My apologies for the short lunch, Mastrash."

    "Duty must always be attended to," Ledosh noted.

    "Thank you. I'll see you at the conference as quickly as I can get there."




    Going through the motions of scanning all of the shuttles had become an annoyance. Caterina frowned as they started working on the last line. "Anything yet?", she whispered, confident that they were far enough away now that even Romulan ears couldn't hear her.

    "Nothing," Lucy muttered back. She tapped her multidevice. The message "Stop being impatient" popped up on Caterina's.

    "We're almost out of shuttles," Cat hissed. "We've got to find a way to get close."

    "Working on it," Lucy insisted. And she had been. And still was, because she couldn't think of anything to fix the problem.

    "We're running out of time," Cat hissed. "There has to be something we can do, something to lure them away."

    "They would never listen to us," Lucy answered.

    "Well, what else can we do?" Cat folded her arms. "It's not like they'll do it for us."

    "Ha, yeah…" Lucy stopped. Her brow furrowed as she thought about it for a moment. "Actually, now that you say that…"

    Caterina looked at her with confusion. "What?"

    Lucy took the scanner and began wheeling it back to the shuttle. "That's exactly what I'm going to do."

    That caused Caterina to gawk. "What?!"

    Lucy hit a couple of keys on the scanner while they went along the shuttles and said nothing else. Once they cleared their rows of shuttles Lucy led Caterina straight toward the Romulan shuttle. The guards there tensed visibly and began to shift over to meet them. "Hey!" Lucy stopped about ten feet away. "We're making sure there are no radiation leaks in the shuttle bay, can we get permission to scan this one?"

    "The Ambassador's shuttle is off-limits, Human," the male guard said. "I would suggest you leave."

    "Well, if you insist," Lucy said. "I mean, what does neutron radiation do to you? So you can warn your physicians about the possible exposure?"

    "We're not letting you anywhere near the shuttle," the woman barked. "Leave now or there will be consequences."

    "Woh." Lucy raised her hands. "Here. If you don't want me to do it, why don't you do it?"

    The guards looked at each other. "Pardon?" the male asked.

    "The scanning interface is easy, you just hit this key" - and she showed the key - "and wait ten seconds. Boom, done, we know if your shuttle has a radiation problem. If it does, you know to be prepared and take precautions. If it doesn't, our job's done and we can walk away."

    The guards eyed each other. Finally the woman guard stepped away and up to the two of them. "I will tell you the result if it does no harm to the Ambassador."

    Lucy nodded and they waited patiently for the guard to do so. After running the scanner beside the shuttle the guard looked over the display. She hit a few buttons and the results vanished. "The ship is fine," she said, as if Lucy had insulted her with the prospect of it being otherwise. "Leave."

    "Thank you." Lucy took the scanner and, with a bewildered Caterina following her, wheeled it out of the shuttle bay.

    They made it a hall over before Caterina's stuttering, "W-wait" beam a "Hold on!" She jumped in front of Lucy and stopped her. "That's it? That guard deleted the results!"

    Lucy smirked and held up her right arm. Her multidevice display activated and showed the scan results. "Remote data connection," Lucy said, grinning. "The Romulan's attempt to isolate the scanner was good, but I'd already created the link in subroutines. It was a bit out of their competency."

    Caterina responded by giggling. "Okay, that was awesome."

    "Let's get this to Lab 1."




    Picard and Riker arrived right after Robert did. "Mister Data, you found something?", Picard asked.

    "Yes, Captain," Data answered. He nodded to Jarod, who brought up a holographic display of what looked like a carrier signal. "This is the subspace communication that Captain Korsmo used two days ago when our ships began to take up position near the Pillar. This is, by all accounts, a normal Starfleet transmission."

    "Someone hid a secondary transmission in the same carrier wave," Jarod added, noting a discolored spot in the graphic.

    "Why didn't the Excalibur notice this?", Riker asked.

    "For the same reason we didn't, sir," Data replied. "The signal was hidden in the peak points of transmission. We only discovered it after running it through a data pattern recognition program."

    "This is a sophisticated method well beyond anything someone can just throw together," Jarod noted. "This was made to allow someone to hide their subspace communications from almost any observation."

    "And whomever it was wanted Ambassador tr'Lhaer to interrupt our summit," Picard observed.

    "I don't suppose there's any way to see where this was sent from Excalibur?", Robert asked.

    "I am afraid there is not," Data responded.

    "So we know a message was sent, but not who sent it." Robert took a chair. "Suggestions?"

    "We're trying to decrypt the fragment we have now," Jarod said. "But I wouldn't hold out hope that it'll do more than confirm what we already know."

    The door slid open and Lucy and Caterina came in. "Jarod, I'm relaying the results to you now," Lucy said, tapping the keys on her multidevice.

    Jarod looked back to his screen as the scan results came up. Data looked at it as well. "Intriguing. But also quite disturbing."

    "Data?", Picard asked.

    "If these sensor readings are correct, the unexplained power signature may be from an ultritium device. There are traces of ultritium detectable on the hatch area of the Romulan shuttle, suggestive of the presence of an ultritium device of some magnitude."

    "So you're telling me the Romulans smuggled a bomb onto my ship?" Robert asked.

    "That is a possibility, yes," Data said. "However, I am not entirely convinced that the ultritium occurred merely from passive exposure."

    Jarod nodded. "The concentrations seem off."

    "Can you explain why?", Picard asked.

    "I am afraid I cannot. I would need to get a closer scan of the shuttle in question."

    "Good luck with that," Lucy said. "They would have shot at us if we had tried. I had to talk them into doing the scan themselves."

    "If you could provide a distraction, I can get a tricorder close enough to confirm the authenticity of the readings," Data said.

    "I'll keep at the message." Jarod tapped a screen to bring it back up. "Just to see if there's useful."

    "Lucy, go with Data," Robert said. "Cat, I think you need to get to the bridge." He checked the time stamp on his device. "The meeting should be resuming shortly."
     
  2. Threadmarks: 1-13 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Their return to Conference 1 was just in the nick of time. It was clear the assembled diplomats had not regained their patience from the break. Robert could feel the tension in the room as if it were ready to explode.

    "Interesting," tr'Lhaer said. His voice was harsh. "An Alliance and Federation captain returning together, late, as if they had been in deep conversation, and after your personnel insisted on the scanning of my shuttle."

    T'Latrek looked to Picard. "Captain, I require an explanation."

    Picard appraised her evenly. "We have been investigating a possible security leak, Madame Councillor."

    "A security leak?", Gleer demanded. "From whom?"

    "We're not sure," Robert said. "We're still conducting the investigation."

    "And you would accuse me."

    "No, Ambassador, I'm not. Yet." Robert went to his seat. "I want to find the offender so the task at hand can resume."

    "Pah!" Kurn threw his hands forward in frustration. "The only way we will make progress, it seems, is if one of us guts that whining petaQ." Kurn's eyes were firmly on Tr'Lhaer.

    "If you wish war with the Romulan Empire, Klingon, you need only ask. You might want to consult your allies first."

    T'Latrek raised an eyebrow. "Hostility will get us nowhere."

    "Why would I not be surprised if it was you who told the Romulans, T'Latrek?", Gleer shouted. "You know you can't prevail on this matter in the Council so this is an end-run around a vote you lost!"

    T'Latrek gave Gleer a condescending look in reply. "Councillor Gleer, unlike certain Councillors I might name, I am unwilling to stoop to such measures simply over a lost vote."

    Gleer jumped to his feet. "Are you accusing me of something, T'Lat...!"

    "That's enough!", Robert shouted. "I…"

    Before he could finish, he was interrupted by a tone at his multidevice. "Jarod to Dale. Priority One. We may have determined the origin of the message…"

    As Jarod continued speaking, with all listening, Robert suddenly got a sense of terrible danger. Imminent, sudden death was coming upon them. Robert stopped speaking and looked across the room, at the infuriated Gleer, the tense T'Latrek, the irritated tr'Lhaer, the frustrated Kurn, Ledosh and his subtle body language hiding displeasure, Picard and his usual diplomatic patience, and…

    …and Tanno. The Bolian. Who looked emotionless at the display. More emotionless than even Data had been, with or without an emotion chip.

    Tanno, who refused to be beamed, and who insisted on coming aboard on a personal shuttle.

    Tanno looked at him. And a small smile crossed the Bolian's lips.

    Robert knew he didn't have time. He jumped from his seat and ran toward the door. This brought the bewildered attention of everyone present. "What is the meaning of this?", T'Latrek asked Ledosh, pointedly.

    "I suspect," Ledosh said, "that Captain Dale has realized something, and is running to save our lives."

    "Save us? From what?!", Kurn demanded.

    "From what indeed." Ledosh closed his eyes and focused with his own sweyvra, from decades of practice and use of its abilities and its insights. He turned his head toward the Federation table. He faced down Secretary Tanno.

    A moment later, Tanno disappeared in a swirling pillar of white light.

    Gleer and T'Latrek looked especially taken aback. Scotty activated his multidevice's comm unit. "Scott t' Bridge! We just had a beamout, can ye track it?"

    "Sensors already registered it, Commander Scott," replied Lieutenant Jupap. "But we cannot determine a point of origin."

    "This is… not logical," T'Latrek said, frowning. "That Exterior Secretary Tanno would be some sort of enemy agent…"

    "An agent of whom, I wonder?", Gleer stared daggers at tr'Lhaer.

    "He is not one of mine", tr'Lhaer protested.

    Kurn barked with laughter. "As if you would tell the truth, Romulan."

    "I'll not be insulted by…"

    Ledosh struck the table to interrupt the verbal altercation. "Presumably an agent of a power that wishes your governments, as well as our own, to go to war," Ledosh pointed out. "An agent with great technological support and the ability to effortlessly infiltrate another government."

    Picard frowned. "The Dominion, in other words."

    "Yes." Ledosh nodded. "And now, I suspect we will live or die given what Captain Dale does in the next few minutes."




    Robert's heart thumped like a piston as he raced out of the turbolift and continued on to the shuttle bay. "Dale to Lucero! Pick up!"

    A moment later a bewildered Lucy asked, "Captain, is everything…?"

    "Forget the Romulan shuttle!," he shouted. "It's a decoy! Scan the Federation shuttle and get an EVA suit ready, I'm going to need it!"

    "What… why…"

    "Just do it!"

    Robert kept running as fast as his legs could carry him. Perhaps faster than he'd ever run before. He nearly ran into the shuttle bay doors from his speed, as it was he had to turn toward his side to slip between them.

    The Romulan guards were staring while Data and Lucy were scanning Tanno's shuttle. "I'm picking up a power signature," Lucy said. "It looks like it just became active." She gestured to the EVA suit.

    "Open the shuttle!" Robert grabbed the suit and began pulling it on. It was an emergency-use life support EVA suit so it was designed to be slipped on in seconds, even accounting for him temporarily removing his multidevice to fit it over the suit. By the time he was grabbing the helmet for it, Data was finishing the override on the shuttle door.

    Inside the shuttle, toward the back, was a large device. White light pulsed within it at a steady rate.

    Lucy paled as she scanned it. "There's enough ultritium inside to vaporize most of the ship. We'd probably lose Excalibur and Pillar of Light in the blast."

    Data was also examining it. "The device includes a field inhibitor for transporters. Neither Starfleet nor Alliance transporter systems will be able to remove the device."

    Robert slid around the device and went to the helm of the shuttle. "I know." He started activating keys, starting with a quick press to his multidevice. "Dale to bridge."

    "Bridge here," Julia answered.

    "Warm up the jump drive and prepare a jump point. Preferably somewhere uninhabited.."

    "Right."

    "Everyone stand clear!", Robert shouted back.

    "What are you doing?", Lucy asked.

    "Saving our lives," he answered as he hit the key to close the aft door. Even before it finished closing Robert keyed the thrusters. The shuttle lifted up under him and quickly flew toward the exit of the shuttlebay.




    Picard and Caterina stepped out onto the bridge while Julia watched the Federation shuttle fly away from them, roughly toward Enceladus. "What's going on?"

    "A Changeling infiltrator is attempting to blow up our summit," Picard explained. Behind him Caterina dismissed al-Rashad from the Science station. "It appears Captain Dale anticipated the Changeling's plan before he could trigger it properly."

    "He's gotten the bomb out, can we beam him out now?", Julia asked.

    Cat shook her head. "According to Data, that thing's got enough ultritium in it to blow us all up. And it's almost done counting down."

    Julia realized what Robert was planning at that moment. "Be ready to beam him out as soon as we can."

    "Dale to Aurora. I think this thing is about to blow. Is that jump ready yet?"

    Julia looked at Jupap, who nodded. "I have located an abandoned system with a tethering probe for future scientific expeditions."

    "Hopefully they won't miss that. Open jump point now, Mister Jupap."

    "Yes, Commander."

    Julia returned to the command chair and Picard took up the chair to her left. They watched on the screen as the shuttle drew further away. Ahead of the shuttle a point of green light expanded into the swirling green of an interuniversal jump point.

    She closed her eyes. Get out of there. Now. Please!




    Robert watched the jump point open up. A glance back told him it was just in time; the rapid pulsing of the device made it clear that it was about to explode.

    Knowing he only had seconds, Robert cut the artificial gravity in the shuttle. He remotely activated the rear hatch. Before it had even finished sliding open, he finished slaving the shuttle inertial dampener fields to his multi-device and pushed himself toward the back.

    As soon as he had clearance, he killed the inertial dampeners. Without them the inertia of the shuttle's acceleration acted immediately upon him, flinging him toward the back of the shuttle. Had he not opened the hatch, this would have been fatal.

    But he had opened the hatch. Instead, doing so proved his salvation.

    Aside from a couple of training walks during his time training with Admiral Maran, Robert had never bothered to go EVA often. He'd always been busy with the other elements of the job. It was something special, unique, to be out in the void of space. No starship, no station, nothing around him but empty void and the distant forms of the four starships gathered here. For a moment he took in the sight of Saturn's rings and realized that he'd been missing something special.

    Then he remembered why he had done this and returned his attention to the shuttle.

    The shuttle flew into the maw of the jump point. It began to recede, pulled through to another universe, where its deadly ultritium bomb would explode harmlessly. Robert began to breathe easier. "I did it," he murmured to himself. "I…"

    The bomb exploded.

    And the world turned red and then pitch black.




    Julia watched in horror as a powerful light erupted from within the jump point. "The device went off!", Caterina shouted.

    "All hands brace for impact!"

    "I'm not picking up a blast wave," Jupap said. "Puzzling."

    "The jump point!", Cat screamed.

    Julia had already seen it. The jump point, once vibrant green, was turning a distinct blood red color. "I'm detecting some form of energy shift within the point," Jupap observed.

    "The bomb went off right within the transit," Caterina said. "It's done… something to the jump point. I'm not sure…"

    Julia didn't care at that moment. "Get Rob out of there!", she shouted. "Now!"

    Jupap was busy working on his controls. "We cannot achieve a lock! The jump point is distorting space-time around itself, we can't lock on to Captain Dale's signature."

    "Then get closer!", she yelled.

    Locarno shook his head. "I can't. Any closer and we'll enter the gravitational shear, it'll tear us in half."

    This can't be happening, Julia thought. No. No no no this can't be…

    "What if we used the deflector to generate a… no… or…" Caterina pounded her hands on the control console.

    "Do something, Julia," Angel demanded, from her seat at tactical. Her eyes were fixed on the screen, showing Robert - a small figure in an EVA suit - at the edge of the destabilized jump point. He was spinning around and looked like he was literally in the eye of the storm. "Julia, God dammit, do something!"

    Julia's mind was racing. They couldn't move closer, they couldn't get a transporter lock… "Jupap, can we… can't we do something to…"

    "It's too late," the Alakin said. "He's caught in the gravity well. It's pulling him in."

    Everyone on the bridge could do nothing but watch in horror as Robert disappeared into the maw of the destabilized jump point.

    A moment afterward, a burst of powerful energy erupted from within the point. "Shields!", Julia shouted. When the wavefront struck them, the Aurora shuddered violently under their feet.

    "Shields held," Jupap reported. "Mok'ba and Excalibur report no damage… Pillar reports slight hull damage from their shields being overwhelmed."

    Julia barely paid attention to the report. Tears started to flow down her eyes. "Robby," she breathed, in a voice so low only Picard could hear it. "No… no, not now…"

    Locarno looked back at her and at the others. Caterina was starting to weep. Her older sister was just staring off into space. He felt his own face turn red with embarrassment at seeing Picard look uncomfortable in the chair, obviously willing to assume command, but not willing to insult Julia in the process. "Commander?", Locarno asked gently.

    Julia swallowed and looked at him. Red was starting to clash with the green of her eyes. "Lower shields." She reached to the intercom button. "This is Commander Andreys. All sections, report any injuries to medbay. Bridge out." She pressed the button again and drew in a breath.

    "Ledosh to Bridge. The delegates are most anxious to find out what has happened."

    Julia looked wearily ahead. "Captain Picard, would you please go inform them of what happened?", she asked. "I… I need to call Admiral Maran. And... " She closed her eyes and didn't want to say it. "And I need to talk to Beth. And Zack. And…"

    "I understand," Picard said. "If you need anything, let me know."

    "Commander, Captain, a moment," Jupap said.

    That drew everyone's attention to the Alakin officer. "I believe it may be premature to give up on Captain Dale. According to the last readings from his suit, he was still alive. Within the threshold of the jump point."

    Caterina blinked. "The gravitational sheer, though.."

    "I may suggest that the explosion had unknown effects upon the gravity profile of the jump point. Commander Jarod will probably know better than I."

    Julia suppressed a sniffle and breathed in. "Right. Cat, get with Jarod, go down to Lab 1 and go over the sensor logs. I want to know if we can find any way of discovering where Rob… where Captain Dale was sent by the point before it collapsed."

    Picard tapped his comm badge. "Picard to Data. Mister Data, report to Commander Jarod in Science Lab 1 immediately, he will require your assistance on a crucial project."

    "Yes Captain," Data answered.

    Picard looked at Julia. "Commander, you will have the full cooperation of myself and my officers in this affair."

    "Thank you, Captain Picard. But it's best if you return to the summit meeting." Her face hardened. "Remind them that they'd be dead if Rob hadn't sacri… hadn't done what he did."

    Picard nodded and left the bridge.




    The delegates took the news somberly. Ledosh nodded as Picard finished describing what had happened. "Thank you, Captain."

    "My thanks are to your people, Emissary Ledosh," Picard answered. He looked to the others. "There is still hope that we can discover a way to retrieve Captain Dale. Regardless, his actions saved the lives of every person in this room today, and may have prevented a terrible war in the process. It's clear that the Dominion infiltrator's intent was to frame the Romulan government for the explosion."

    Tr'Lhaer nodded stiffly at that. "The Romulan government is thankful that this base manipulation was not brought to fruition. We extend our best wishes to the people of the Alliance for the recovery of their brave officer,"

    "Indeed." Picard nodded slightly at him. "Of course, you must also realize, sir, that your presence here was meant to help foster this issue. The least you can do is to be more supportive of the Alliance's diplomatic efforts."

    "I have instructions from my government, Captain Picard," tr'Lhaer pointed out. "I cannot diverge from them."

    "Of course. But you can work to ensure a more pacific tone to the discussions." Picard turned to face his own table. "As can we all. Now, I believe there was a matter of proposals for material aid to consider?"

    Gleer nodded. "There is, yes." He eyed T'Latrek briefly. "And we should focus on business."

    "Agreed," T'Latrek concurred.




    Angel had easily gotten Julia's permission to leave the bridge. She returned to her quarters, as unused as they had been lately, and sat on the bed.

    How… how could he be gone? How could Robert be gone? After all of this, all of the close calls, the desperate battles, he gets lost here?

    A part of her wanted to go to the gym and beat on a punching bag until her fists and feet became numb. Another part of her wanted to curl up and just die.

    Why couldn't they just be happy?

    There was a chime at the door. "Sis?" Caterina's voice called from outside. "Angel? Please?"

    "Go away," Angel moaned.

    Of course, Caterina didn't go. Just as Angel wouldn't have gone if their roles had been reversed. She entered Angel's quarters and looked at her sister. "We'll find him," Cat promised.

    "You know that?", Angel asked. "You absolutely, positively know that?"

    Caterina nodded. "Yeah. I mean, between Jarod and Data? We've got this. We'll have this."

    "I thought… maybe this time… this would work, you know," Angel said. "Maybe…"

    Cat put her arms around her sister's shoulders and leaned her head against Angel's neck. "It'll be okay. We'll get Rob back."

    Angel couldn't find a way to answer her. All she could do was weep bitterly.


    Tag


    Cat returned to Science Lab 1 even with the hour having grown late. Jarod and Data were still looking over a sensor model of the jump point after the explosion distorted it. "I would concur with your hypothesis," Data said to Jarod. "The ultritium explosion produced enough energy to distort the horizon of the jump point, causing a dimensional shift."

    Caterina blinked at that and walked up to the holo-display. "I didn't think that could happen. Jump points are supposed to destabilize when introduced to that much energy."

    "Normally, yes," Jarod said. "But the explosion went off within the point itself instead of outside of it. That caused the shift."

    The door opened and Julia entered. Picard was following her. "Do you have something for us yet?", Julia asked.

    "Maybe so, Commander," Data answered. "We have ascertained that when the ultritium compound detonated the explosion occurred within the jump point's transition horizon."

    "In other words, it happened at the exact point when a ship transits between universes, Mister Data?", Picard asked.

    "Correct, sir. Commander Jarod and I have found evidence in the sensor logs that this timing caused the jump point to be shifted dimensionally."

    "As in to a different universe from the one we'd selected?", Julia asked.

    "No." Jarod shook his head. "As in, the point no longer bridged universes. It went somewhere else."

    Caterina looked up from the model. She was gawking in shock. "Or somewhen else."

    Julia gave Cat a look. "Caterina?"

    "The tachyon surge, the neutrino shifting… this… this really happened. I… I never imagined."

    "Mister Data…" Picard gave his operations officer a bewildered look. "Are you saying that the explosion turned the interuniversal jump point into a temporal point?"

    "We are running simulations to confirm, but that is our best hypothesis so far," Data replied. "It is our estimation that when Captain Dale was pulled through the destabilized jump point, he was deposited into a different time."

    "How different?", Julia asked.

    "We are uncertain. Further calculation will need to be made to determine a reasonable range, Commander."

    Julia shook her head. In time? Robert's been lost… in time? "Then… if he is in another time…"

    "....how do we get him back?", Jarod finished for her.




    Robert was surprised when he felt awareness returning. Light poured into his vision the moment he cracked his eyes open. His sides hurt, his arms hurt… just about everything hurt, in fact.

    Through the chaos and confusion in his head Robert tried to remember things. He remembered sending the shuttle off into the jump point. He remembered the explosion. Red the shade of blood filling his vision. And then… just a feeling of drifting. No real memory, nothing he could grasp.

    In confusion he sat up. "Leo?", he called out. His back protested to the act of sitting up. "Is this…"

    "Ah, you're awake."

    Robert heard the voice and turned. The intense light had blurred his vision for the moment and he could only make out a general humanoid figure. "Hello?"

    There were words exchanged. The figure he was looking at initially moved out of sight. Two more, however, were in sight. He tried to focus on them and eventually chose the center figure.

    Human. Male. A uniform of some kind, aesthetically familiar, but not quite the same. The primary color was blue, he thought.

    The man he was looking at looked at the figure to his right. Robert could only see a blob of gray; his vision was still coming back.

    "Where am I?" Robert swallowed. "My name is Robert Dale. I'm Captain of the Starship Aurora."

    That prompted the man to look back at him. "Captain Dale?", the man asked.

    "Yes," Robert replied.

    "Of the Starship Aurora," the man continued.

    "Yes."

    The figure in gray to the other man's side seemed to look more intently at Robert. But said nothing.

    "I've never heard of that ship, I'm afraid," the man said.

    Did I get sucked into another universe?, Robert wondered. With his eyes clearing up he was able to make out the features on the other man's face. He was middle-aged, with some lines on his eyes and brow from responsibility and stress. Robert blinked and focused to get in the other details. Caucasian skin tone. Light brown eyes. Brown hair. "Where am I?", asked Robert.

    The man looked at him intently for a moment. As if he was uncertain of Robert was. But he gave his answer only a moment later.

    "I'm Captain Jonathan Archer," the man said. "And you're on board the Earth Starship Enterprise."
     
  3. Threadmarks: 1-14 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Teaser


    Robert Dale, Captain of the Alliance Starship Aurora, rubbed at the ache in his forehead. His vision was almost entirely back now. The brown-haired, middle-aged man in the blue uniform looked at him intently.

    And the name he had spoken… Robert knew that name.

    Captain Jonathan Archer took a step forward. "We found you adrift in space," he said. "You're lucky my communications officer managed to hear your transponder going off. When we found you, you had run out of air."

    "Additionally, given the damage to your EVA suit, you suffered exposure damage to the tissues of several areas of your body." The initial voice Robert had heard came from beside him. He turned and faced a man with ridges beside his eyes and on his forehead. Colorful blue eyes looked back at him. "The sectional design of the suit seems to have saved your life. All of the damage was kept to non-essential areas."

    Robert swallowed. His mouth was parched dry, but that wasn't the only reason he felt the need.

    Archer. Captain Jonathan Archer. He could remember Picard mentioning him as the captain of the first Starship Enterprise, over two hundred years before their own time.

    I've… traveled through time? The idea was stunning. He could remember Caterina once babbling excitedly about the concept of intentional time travel after sorting through the Darglan records back in the Facility - apparently it was something that the "Time Lords" mentioned in those records did, and quite often - but he had never given it much thought.

    "I understand your curiosity, Captain, but Director Esaak is due to call shortly. I am certain he will want a progress report," the gray-suited figure beside Archer said. Now that Robert's vision was clear he could see that it was a woman, a Vulcan woman in a tight suit of gray coloring. And a very attractive one at that. Given their reputation, Robert thought it strange to see a Vulcan in anything but more loose-fitting robes.

    "If he calls, T'Pol, tell him I'll be with him as soon as I can," Archer said to her. "I'd like to get to know our visitor a little more."

    T'Pol nodded in a way that seemed to convey a bit of irritation. She turned and departed.

    "How is he, Phlox?", Archer asked the alien.

    "I've managed to heal the exposure damage sufficiently, he's stable," Phlox answered. "But I'd like to keep him for observation for the next couple of days. To be on the safe side. Watching over him shouldn't interfere with my current project."

    "Of course." Archer nodded. His head turned and he faced Robert again. "I'd like a moment alone with our guest."

    Phlox nodded. "Very well." He stepped out of the sickbay.

    Robert was taking in more of his surroundings now. While still certainly more advanced than the doctor's offices he had seen growing up, the sickbay clearly had older technology than what he had known on the Aurora. There were containers of fluids or things everywhere that made him wonder about Dr. Phlox's interests. "Is this a sickbay or a zoo?", he asked Archer.

    "Doctor Phlox believes in using nonstandard medicine," Archer explained. He found a chair and sat nearby. "We picked up a spatial distortion of some kind before we found you. Does that have anything to do with why you were adrift in space?"

    Robert thought back. The shuttle explosion, inside the interuniversal jump point. Could it have done something to it? Made it shift him through time? "I believe so," Robert answered, as truthful an answer as he could possibly give.

    Archer's intent look grew more intense. "You're another time traveler, aren't you?"

    Robert caught that. Another. He put an honest look on his face and nodded. "Not intentionally, but it appears so."

    Archer sighed. "I had the feeling it might be something like that."

    "So you've met other time travelers?", Robert asked.

    "I have. It's not something I particularly enjoyed." Archer crossed his arms. "You look awfully young to be a starship captain."

    "It's something of a thing in the time I'm from." Robert leaned forward and put his hand on his head. What am I going to do? Could I get a message to the others? Something that would pass through history and ensure them I'm okay?

    Archer seemed to digest his statement slowly before nodding. "Okay. I'm going to leave you with Doctor Phlox to recover. If you need anything, let me or Subcommander T'Pol know. But you need to understand that I don't know of any way to get you home. If you are a time traveler.... you might just need to get used to living in this century instead of when you came from."

    "I understand." Robert sighed. He had never imagined his life ending up like this. Getting killed fighting Goa'uld or Nazis or Batarians, that's one thing. Being stranded in S5T3's past? That's another. "Where are we anyway?"

    The intercom on the wall sounded a tone. "Bridge to Sickbay," T'Pol said, in a voice as flat as before. "Captain Archer, Director Esaak is requesting an update on behalf of the Valakian government."

    Archer was already on his way to the intercom. He held a button down to speak into it. "I'm on my way up."

    "Valakians?" Robert blinked as he tried to pull the memory of that term out.

    "They're a local species," Archer answered. "We found one of their pre-warp ships just after picking you up."

    Now he felt confused. Could the Federation have really changed that much? "You made contact with a pre-warp civilization?"

    "Yes." Archer nodded. "They've been launching ships out on generational voyages to find help for the epidemic that's killing them."


    Undiscovered Frontier
    "The Good That Men Do..."



    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 27 July 2641. Commander Julia Andreys recording. We remain on station in the Sol System of Universe S5T3 while Mastrash Ledosh continues attempts to secure aid from the local powers in our war with the Reich. Some progress has been made since Captain Dale prevented the Dominion from destroying the meeting with a bomb, but we're still left with the impasse regarding the Romulan refusal to accept Federation or Klingon use of the IU drive.

    As for Captain Dale, Commander Jarod and Lieutenant Caterina Delgado continue their efforts to figure out where - and more importantly,
    when - the destabilized jump point took him. Commander Data, formerly of the USS Enterprise, has been assisting them in this effort. I'm just hoping that between the three of them, we can figure out a solution and get the Captain back.


    Julia hated using the ready room office. She hated it for the feeling that she was already replacing Robert. That there was no hope to get him back. As much as it was silly, from a rational perspective, she couldn't help it.

    The tone of a communication call came from the computer system on the desk. Julia noted who was calling and swallowed. This was not a call she wanted to take.

    A press of a button accepted the transmission. The screen changed to show a darkened bedroom. The woman in the picture was dark-haired, and it was messy at the moment. Blue eyes looked at her with distinct redness in them. "Oh, Julia…"

    "Beth." Julia felt a lump in her throat.

    "I got your message last night," Beth Rankin said. Her voice sounded hollow and distant. "I'm… I'm sure you're doing everything you can…"

    Julia nodded. "Jarod and Cat are sure they'll make some progress. I'll let you know whatever I find out."

    "Right." Beth drew in a breath. It hid the obvious signs of a sniffle. "I just… I knew this job was dangerous. And I've been scared for you all ever since the war started. But I thought he'd be safer now…"

    "We all did."

    "I…. thank you for being honest with me." Beth sighed and seemed to look off the screen. "I have to go now. I have work. I just… please, Julia. Get him back. We're the only ones left, you know?"

    "I know," Julia answered. "I know."




    After finishing her call to Beth to check up on her Julia stepped out onto the bridge. Locarno was sitting in the command chair and stood from it when he saw her. "Commander. How did she take it?"

    Julia gave him a sad look. "As far as Beth knows, her cousin may be dead. Or lost forever. She's… taking it about as well as we are, I guess. Grasping on to hope."

    "Right." Locarno nodded and settled into the XO seat. Julia took the command chair. She was growing to hate it too, for much the same reason. "How long do you think we have until Admiral Maran decides to send us a new captain?"

    Julia pondered the issue. "A week, maybe. Or however long it takes us to wrap up these talks."

    "I wonder who he'll send?" Locarno looked intently at her. "Or maybe he'll offer her to you."

    Julia gave him a look. "I don't want command. Not like this."

    "I know. But… it might make it easier for everyone?"

    Julia looked back to tactical. Angel was sitting there staring at her board. As if she couldn't hear them or see anything else. "Maybe not for everyone," Julia lamented.




    Caterina felt like her brain was on fire. That's the last time I double up on energy shakes, she thought ruefully as data spun about in holographic form in her eyes.

    Jarod sat across from her in Science Lab 1. With a press of a key he activated the recording. They all watched again as Robert, alone in space in an EVA suit, was drawn into the destabilized jump point. "We know from the various neutrino and tachyon eruptions that the jump point shifted and became a temporal vortex," he said. "What we need to figure out is what time period it went to. Was it in the past or the future?"

    Riker and Data were seated nearby. "Of greater concern is if Captain Dale was thrown into the past," Riker said. "I don't think you've undergone the same training we have on how to interact with past timeframes. If he says the wrong thing, does the wrong thing, the repercussions to history could be disastrous."

    "Robert's not dumb, though," Caterina protested. "He'll know to be careful."

    "It is not necessarily an issue of intelligence, Lieutenant Delgado," Data pointed out. "Simply by being in the past, Captain Dale could inadvertently cause ripples to events that change the flow of history. Even the smallest action could produce what is known as the butterfly effect."

    "Which makes it even more important for us to find a way to get him back." Jarod tapped a key. "Commander Riker, Starfleet's got experience with time travel. Do you think there's anyway to retrieve him?"

    Riker shook his head. "Time travel's a tricky business, Commander. If anything, we should focus on finding out what time period he's in."

    "Well, I don't think we can determine it just by reading the jump point," Cat pointed out. "All we know for sure is the temporal element to it from the dimensional shift."

    "If your Captain has been sent to the future, the risk to our time is reduced, therefore I would suggest we focus our efforts on the possibility of the outcome most likely to cause harm to our timeframe," Data surmised.

    "You mean we assume he went into the past," Jarod said. "So we look through library records. And…" Jarod frowned. "Well, let's be honest here. If he was sent back before a certain time, he'd be in an EVA suit with limited air supply in an era when Humanity still lacked spaceflight. So there would be no record of him to find."

    "Because he'd be dead," Cat said, frowning.

    "Yeah. So let's go with records from the era of Human spaceflight in this universe and work our way out from there."

    "An excellent suggestion, Commander Jarod," Data said. "I will begin searching Earth-based databases immediately."

    "If you give me a listing of unexplained spatial phenomena in the area around Earth, Commander, I can see if it matches anything that a distorted jump point might do," Caterina said.

    They moved over to another workstation to begin that task. Riker watched them go and turned back to see Jarod looking at him. "Commander?", he asked.

    "You seem less confident than before, Commander Riker," Jarod said.

    "How very astute of you to notice, Mister Jarod," Riker responded. "Is this another of your specialized gifts?"

    "Well, I did act as a psychiatrist and therapist a few times," Jarod mused. "But I'm not looking to be your therapist, if that's what you're asking."

    "Your point, then?"

    "I know what it's like, Commander Riker." Jarod frowned. "I've been in your shoes before."

    "Really?"

    "Yes. The Darglan Facility we called home. I wasn't able to save it."

    Riker remained quiet for a moment. "Maybe so, Mister Jarod," Riker said. "But were you in command? If you had made the right decisions, could you have saved it?"

    "I wasn't in command," Jarod admitted. "As for what decisions I made, I honestly can't say for certain."

    "Then I respectfully suggest, Mister Jarod, that you don't actually know what it's like," Riker said. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go report to Captain Picard on our progress."

    "And I need to do the same with Commander Andreys."

    The two stood and left. Riker consciously avoided going through the same door Jarod did, which made the latter shake his head.




    The pain and discomfort Robert had felt when he woke up had gradually faded over the following hours. He spent the time patiently watching Phlox at work with, presumably, the plague on the planet below. He didn't need to read minds to realize the Denobulan doctor was under a lot of strain.

    Occasionally Robert would check his multidevice; he knew to be careful with it given the technology issue. He didn't want to impact the timeline negatively.

    But eventually his boredom got the better of him. "Doctor, I get that you want to observe me, but there has to be something I can do besides sit here."

    "Hrm. I would permit you to report for daily exercise, but I want to make sure your tissues have recovered from the trauma." Phlox looked away from his readings. "One moment please…" He watched something on the screen happen. "There. Hrm." Phlox hit a couple of keys and looked toward Robert with a tense expression. He pulled a seat up toward the bed. "Tell me, how did you wind up drifting alone in space?"

    "I must have gotten sucked into the jump point," Robert answered. "Although why it sent me here, I'm not sure."

    "Yes, I heard something about you being a time traveler of sorts? Hrm?" Phlox pulled out a light and examined Robert's eyes. Again. It annoyed.

    Given his tone of voice, it wasn't a major leap in logic for Robert to make his next conclusion. "You think I'm lying. Or deluded."

    "Well, it's not impossible that being abandoned in the middle of space could have a severe effect upon the Human mind," Phlox noted. "Delusions are possible."

    "It'd be easy to figure out if I was just some lost space traveler dropped out of his ship," Robert remarked. "Were there any vessels in the area?"

    "The inquiry was already made, the answer was no. But that doesn't mean there were no other ships, simply that we did not see any." Phlox pulled the light away. "Well, whatever may be going on in your brain, it does seem to be functioning properly. Perhaps something to listen to while I work?"

    "Does this have to do with that plagued species Captain Archer mentioned?"

    "Oh yes." Phlox seemed to think of something. "I intend to go down to the planet tomorrow. I suppose I could bring you with me. It would be a chance to stretch your legs, visit the homeworld of another species, and possibly be of assistance."

    Robert nodded. "I think I'd appreciate that."

    "Excellent." Phlox checked Robert's pulse next, smiled and nodded at the result, and put his things away. "Your vitals are stable. I would say you're healing well from the exposure damage. Tomorrow we'll know for sure."

    Robert nodded and breathed in. "Thanks, Doctor. For saving my life." Robert shifted on the bed. He was feeling tired, presumably from the need to recover from what happened. But he kept thinking of his predicament. Being stranded centuries in the past, where one wrong decision could undo… well, how much of what he and the others had accomplished? If this universe had its timeline altered, they would have likely never encountered Picard and his crew, nor recruited Scotty, Farmer, and Locarno. He never would have been forced to think about the consequences of their activities from his argument with Picard.

    "I would suggest you go to sleep if you are feeling tired, it will aid the recovery process," Phlox said. "If you need I can provide a sleeping aid."

    The thought tempted him. Robert, however, shook his head. "No. That… I don't think that will be necessary." He laid his head back on the lone pillow on the sickbay bunk and closed his eyes. "I'll make do."

    "It is your choice." Robert heard Phlox start walking away. "If you need anything, the intercom on the wall can connect to the bridge. I need to go speak with Captain Archer."

    "Right…" Robert stifled a yawn and turned on the bunk to try and get comfortable.

    It's going to be pretty embarrassing if I have any nightmares and wake up screaming again…




    The day was almost over for Julia. She'd sent a message off to Zack and hadn't received a response yet. Admiral Maran had acknowledged her report and informed her she would be in command for the moment until a decision was made.

    There was a tone at the door to her personal office. She called out, "Come in!" and watched Picard enter. "Captain. How may I help you?"

    "I wanted to see how you were doing," he said. "I'm aware that what you're going through is not easy."

    "No, it's not," Julia admitted. "What about the negotiations?"

    "They are, unfortunately, still stalled as Ambassador tr'Lhaer insists on awaiting new instructions." Picard took the offered seat and set his hands down on Julia's desk. "Commander, I think it would be best if you were to sit with Mastrash Ledosh at tomorrow's session. I am hoping that, perhaps, a new insight may help break our deadlock."

    Julia considered that request. "I'm not sure what good it will do, to be honest. The Romulans are pretty dead set against our drives going to either the Federation or the Klingons."

    "Yes. But the Romulans are rarely as straightforward as they can appear. It is possible that they have another agenda."

    Julia thought about that. "And another pair of eyes might help you find it." She nodded. "Yes, I'll attend. I suppose it's the least I can do with Robert gone."

    "I get the feeling that you two are a lot closer than just your professional relationship," Picard remarked.

    A thin smile appeared on Julia's face. "If that's your way of asking if we're together, romantically speaking, the answer is no." She shook her head. "Robert and I knew… have known each other for forever. My parents worked closely with his. We grew up together. Some of my first memories are of times when he was my playmate as a child." Julia smiled gently at old memories. "I never thought I would have to live life without him, to be honest."

    Picard nodded in understanding. "Thankfully, we have quite the collection of talent on this ship. Mister Data, Mister Scott, and your redoubtable savant Mister Jarod and brilliant Miss Delgado. I trust that if there is a way to find where and when Robert was taken and to get him back, they will be the ones to discover it."

    Julia smiled at that. "Thank you." She shifted forward in the chair. "Robert told me that you two are on a first name basis in private."

    With another nod and a small smile, Picard answered, "Yes. I offered that to him as a gesture."

    "Of?"

    "Support. I believe that when someone with potential to serve as a good starship captain comes along, it's best to foster that talent. To show encouragement. Good captains are more rare than they appear to be."

    Julia answered with a nod of her own. "I can see that, yes."

    There was a beep on Picard's communicator. "Picard here," he responded.

    The answer was from Counselor Troi. "Captain, Councillor T'Latrek wanted you to know they're ready to resume."

    Picard gave Julia a meaningful look. She nodded and stood up. "We're coming right away, Counselor."




    Caterina's squee of triumph echoed through Lab 1.

    Data looked up from the records he was going through and looked over to where Cat was fidgeting with energy in her chair. "I think I found him!", she cried out.

    That prompted Jarod to look up from his own workstation. "What did you find?", he asked, walking over.

    "It's a science log from a Vulcan ship from the 22nd Century called the Seleya. Their long range sensors picked up what they referred to as a spatial disturbance in mid-2151 Local." Caterina busied herself with hitting keys and going over the record. "Look at those subspace distortions. And the spikes in the Groenitz-Hallen lower bands."

    "And the neutrino concentrations." Jarod reached over to the console and typed in commands that brought up their own sensor logs from the distorted jump point. He put the readings up beside each other and had the computer compare them.

    By this time Data was observing, albeit from his seat. "A 95% match," he noted. "Well within a reasonable margin of error given the natural instability of the temporally-shifted jump point. The odds of this being a separate event are astronomically low."

    "This is it," Cat said. "This… this is when he was taken to!"

    "Did the Seleya pick up his suit transponder?", Jarod asked.

    Cat eagerly went into the database logs for Seleya. Her grin faded as she looked over the log. "No," she said, dejected. "No, they didn't."

    "Still, we have a point in time," Jarod said.

    "And," Data said, "I believe we may have a specific place as well."

    Cat and Jarod walked over to where Data was bringing up old records. "I examined the coordinates of the Seleya's reading," Data explained. "It is within one light year of the Valakis system."

    "Could these Valakis people have picked him up?", Caterina asked.

    Data shook his head. "No. They did not achieve warp drive until 2236."

    Caterina frowned at that. "Then…"

    Data found himself intrigued by the young science officer and the way her emotional state could fluctuate so rapidly. He had felt similar tendencies himself when his emotion chip was still newly-activated, but that had been from the software and hardware having conflicts. This was an entirely organic reaction. "I do not believe you should consider this conclusive as to Captain Dale's fate. Another vessel may have…" New information popped up on Data's screen. "One moment…" After Data went over the new information, he nodded. "I used the narrowing of the timeframe and location to do a data search in the records of that era for anyone matching Captain Dale's physical description. I have found a possible match in Valakian video records of the era." Data tapped a couple of keys and brought the image up to the Lab's central holoviewer.

    It was a rustic-looking setting. The buildings looked medieval more than they did modern, and humanoids with bone ridges along their temples. The picture focused on four individuals. Data hit a key and zoomed in on the four figures in blue uniforms. All but one had visible rank insignia and patches.

    The last was Robert.

    Caterina squeed again. Jarod smiled and nodded. "You did it."

    Data was too busy looking at Caterina. He blinked. And then he smiled and, with complete accuracy, mimicked her squee of joy.

    Caterina's hazel eyes widened. She stared at him in wonder. Data responded with a blink. "I was curious," he said. "I wanted to see if I could approximate the emotion of joy you were clearly experiencing."

    "That was so cool," Caterina said. "Do it again."

    Data blinked at that. And then he nodded, smiled again, and let out another squee.

    Caterina echoed it.

    Jarod cleared his throat and looked past them, causing Data and Caterina to look in the same direction.

    Picard and Julia were standing at the door, waiting patiently and with great quiet. Picard had a bemused expression on his face. "Mister Data, I don't think I have ever imagined you with that level of… youthful exuberance," Picard remarked.

    Behind his shoulder, Julia looked like she was trying to fight the urge to laugh.

    Caterina's cheeks turned deep red. Data's eyebrows lifted up. "It is a most… interesting feeling, Captain."

    "You found him?", Julia asked, not quite able to keep the hope out of her voice.

    "Yes," Jarod said.

    Picard and Julia drew closer and looked up at the viewer. "Those uniforms…" Picard pointed at the screen. "United Earth Starfleet from the mid-22nd Century. Before the founding of the Federation. Data, can you get identification on the figures with him?"

    "Yes, Captain. I am running them through Starfleet historical archives now… We have a match."

    On the screen, the Aurora computers took the Starfleet data and displayed it, placing the zoomed in faces of each person with Robert alongside.

    Picard's face turned into a puzzled frown as he read the names personally; Data, for the benefit of the others, read them aloud. "It appears Captain Dale is in the company of Dr. Phlox of the Interspecies Medical Exchange, Starfleet Ensign Hoshi Sato, and Starfleet Crewwoman Elizabeth Cutler. They were all assigned to the Enterprise NX-01."

    "The NX-01?", Julia asked.

    "The first Starship Enterprise," Picard breathed.

    "Wait." Caterina looked at Picard in confusion. "I thought Kirk's Enterprise, the one Scotty served on, I thought that was the first?"

    "The Enterprise NCC-1701 was the first Enterprise to serve in the Starfleet of the Federation," Data corrected. "Enterprise NX-01 served with the pre-Federation United Earth Starfleet. She was the first Human-built warp-capable starship to be capable of Warp 5."

    "Jonathan Archer," Picard said. A concerned expression came to his face. "Mister Data, do you know when in time this is?"

    "The year 2151, Captain," Data answered. "Lieutenant Delgado determined the time through sensor logs from a Vulcan ship detecting the other end of the unstable jump point that deposited Captain Dale into the past. It was to a point just outside the Valakis system."

    Julia felt worried when Picard's expression became more perturbed. "Valakis, Mister Data?"

    "Yes sir." Data indicated the video. "This image comes from contemporary Valakian archives." Data checked information on the screen. "It was from a security scanner in a village of the Menk."

    Picard shook his head. "Of all of the times to be drawn toward…"

    "Captain Picard, what's wrong?", Julia asked.

    "Captain Dale has arrived in a critical moment in history," Picard explained. "The First Contact with the Valakians and Menk."

    "What's so important about it?', Jarod asked.

    "Because, Mister Jarod…" Picard looked at Jarod with concern. "The outcome of this meeting will play a critical role in the creation of the Prime Directive."
     
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    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    The Menk village was a sharp contrast to the advanced metropolis visible over the hills. Light pollution from the Valakian city spilled over those hills and dulled the stars of the night sky.

    Robert shifted the weight of the scanner equipment in his arms. He had accepted a Starfleet uniform for this mission to fit in with the others although they had taken off the patch and the rank insignia. The color trim was beige like Captain Archer's. Robert wondered if that was an indication Archer at least accepted his claimed rank.

    "So."

    Robert turned his head. One of the women who came down with Phlox, a Crewwoman named Cutler, was looking at him curiously. "Yes?"

    "You're the one they found floating in space near here," Cutler said. "How did that happen?"

    Robert thought of an answer for a moment. "Well, you probably wouldn't believe me if I told you."

    "I'd like to know too." The other woman was Asian and looked closer to Robert's age, but not much older. Robert had heard her name was Hoshi Sato, the ship's communications officer. "Your EVA suit was transmitting a transponder signal into subspace. That took a lot of energy."

    "I suppose it does."

    "So, let me guess…" Cutler smirked. "Visitor from another time? Or some strange alternate timeline where Humanity has discovered more advanced technology?"

    Robert grinned slightly and shook his head. "You wouldn't believe me, so you might as well say that."

    They walked into the center of the Menk village. The locals all looked toward them with the kind of interest Robert would have suspected from small children. Phlox spoke with one about the need to get samples from the population. Or, rather, he conveyed that message through Sato who spoke with the Menk in their own language. His own auto-translator working through his multi-device informed him of the conversation along all lines of the translation work, making it seem redundant from his point of view.

    Phlox quickly chose a structure to set up in. Robert felt very much the unnecessary pair of hands afterward; Cutler was doing the handling of the samples taken and Sato was there to translate. This left him standing nearby, taking up the unofficial position of guard, or so Robert assumed. It was, at least, a chance to get away from the Enterprise sickbay for a while and take counsel of his thoughts. And his fears. Are they going to come for me? he wondered. Can they come for me? And if they don't, what do I do? The fact Archer had dealt with time travelers before gave him some hope he might find a way home, but how many months, or years, might that take him? And all the while he would be risking altering history by anything he did.

    "You okay?"

    Robert turned and saw a Menk male, the one who had led them into the village, standing beside him. "Yeah," he answered.

    The Menk looked at him in confusion. "You speak Menk?"

    "In a way," Robert said cautiously.

    The Menk nodded. "You sad."

    "Worried, mostly. But yeah, I guess that fits."

    The Menk - Robert tried to think of his name but couldn't remember hearing it - lowered his head. "So sad. Valakians sick. Don't get better."

    Robert nodded at that. "My condolences."

    "Valakians good to Menk. Feed us. Give work."

    "But didn't you say earlier the Valakkians didn't let you have the best land?", Robert asked. "You don't get to farm your own food."

    "Farming. Farming hard. Not very good at it."

    Robert considered that and he knew from personal experience that farming could be difficult. "So you just prefer to live here."

    "Menk's home here. Yes."

    Robert smiled and nodded. "Can't argue with that sentiment. I just wish I could return home."

    The Menk smiled. "Yes. You return home. Good."

    If only I knew how…




    The Command Staff assembled in the conference room with Julia in Robert's chair and Picard assuming the chair she normally took. The present staff from the lost Enterprise filed in at Picard's left.

    On the main holoscreen set into the middle of the table, the image of Robert floated for everyone to look at. "He's in the past." Angel drew in a breath. "And he's alive… you're sure that's him?"

    Jarod nodded. Caterina put a hand on her sister's shoulder for comfort. "It's him, Sis."

    "How do we get him back?"

    "That is the tricky part," Julia said. "We're looking at time travel."

    "The easiest method might be re-creating the accident," Jarod explained. "I can modify a spread of solar torpedoes with larger naqia devices. We open a jump point to the same destination as before and use a torpedo on it, detonating at the exact same moment the shuttle did."

    "That is a decent starting point," Data agreed. "But I must point out that it would be impossible to recreate every single factor that was present. The odds of this method working are extremely low. Additionally, given the shockwave put off by the last destabilized jump point, we cannot ascertain whether another one might produce one of even greater magnitude."

    Jarod nodded. "That's true. But it's still our most direct approach."

    "It also begs the question of how a ship would get back to our time," Picard said. "Whomever went back could end up stranded in the past with him."

    "Also a good point," Leo said. "We have enough responsibilities in this era. I don't like the thought of going back in time and staying there."

    "Well, we have to get Rob back somehow," Angel insisted.

    At that point, there was a chuckle from beside Jarod. All eyes turned to the oldest man in the room. "So, we need tae go back in time by two centuries an' get back." Scotty folded his hands together. "Aye, I think I know just th' thing." He leaned in on the table. "We slingshot around a star."

    Caterina's eyes widened. "Oh! Oh! That might work!"

    Julia looked at him intently. "Explain, Scotty?"

    "Just what I said, Commander. We approach a star at high warp an' break away just as we reach th' right point."

    "And the high speed breakaway at warp, influenced by the intense gravity of a star so close to its surface… that can actually do it! We could achieve temporal transition!", Caterina proclaimed.

    "I am familiar with the effect you describe," Data said. "However, a slingshot has not been attempted in many decades."

    "Not since Mister Scott himself, and Captain Spock, used it to move a Klingon Bird-of-Prey back to the 20th Century," Picard noted. "The technique is considered too dangerous by Starfleet for repeat use. And I imagine the Department of Temporal Investigations would not be happy."

    Jarod crossed his arms. "You're saying that time travel is such an issue in the Federation that you have time protection police?"

    "They can be… most unpleasant," Worf rumbled.

    "Scotty, can we actually do this?", Julia asked. "Slingshot around a star?"

    "Aye. I have th' base calculations." Scotty tapped a finger on the table. "Th' main problem I have is that th' Aurora's pure mass may be tae much. I'm nae sure we can manage t' break away from a star at th' proper point."

    "Do you know for sure?", Angel asked.

    "A slingshot has never been attempted by a ship of the Aurora's mass." Data looked to Angel with curiosity. Her emotional state seemed the most agitated of those present. "This ship's ability to achieve stellar breakaway is unknown, and likely to be very difficult."

    "I should also point out that we're currently hosting a diplomatic conference," Julia said. "I'm not sure we can just haul three foreign delegations into the 22nd Century with us."

    "Then what are we supposed to do?", Angel demanded. "Take their ship?" She looked to the Starfleeters.

    "I'm not certain Captain Korsmo will agree to risking his ship and crew," Picard pointed out.

    Julia tapped her finger to her chin in thought. "Let me talk to Admiral Maran," she said. "Maybe I can get him to send us some help."




    When the meeting ended Angel, who was off-duty now, went to the turbolift that would take her back to the other decks. Despite her expectations, she was not alone. Troi followed her into the lift. Angel gave her a discontented look before saying, "Deck 13."

    "Lieutenant."

    "Let me guess. You sense my emotions are all twisted up and you want to help me."

    "That's my job," Troi pointed out.

    "So let's skip the therapy session. Someone I love is lost. And we're not sure we can get him back."

    "Fair enough."

    "And I don't want to talk about it," Angel finished. "Sorry, I'm not into the psychoanalysis therapy thing."

    That caused Troi to nod again. "I understand that. But there's more to therapy than just psychoanalysis. Sometimes it's just about talking to someone else. And getting your feelings out."

    "The punching bags in the gym will work for that."

    "It may feel that way, but that's not always…"

    "It's how it works for me, Counselor," Angel shot back. "And if you want to talk about getting someone's feelings out, how well is that going for Commander Riker?"

    The lift stopped and the door opened. Angel stepped out. "What about him?", Troi asked her.

    "I noticed he's not as cocky as he was, most of us have," Angel said. "So why don't you worry about his feelings before poking around with mine." She stomped away after that.




    Phlox was finishing up his work on the Menk samples. With their time on the planet almost over Robert stepped away from the others and looked up into the night sky of Valakis. For a time he remained alone.

    Hoshi stepped up beside him. "You look thoughtful," she said. "Robert is your name?"

    "It is," he replied.

    For a moment they said nothing. Hoshi ended the silence. "It's incredible. Being under an alien sky."

    "I've never gotten used to it," Robert admitted. "It always seems so unreal to me, no matter how many times I see it."

    "You're an explorer?", she asked.

    "Sometimes." Robert shrugged. "Much of my time with starships has involved helping people, though."

    "How?"

    Robert smiled thinly. "Rescuing them, usually. Going into slave labor camps or dissident prisons or something like that, guns blazing, saving people from torture and suffering and murder." He swallowed. "I mean, I haven't done that in a while now. But it was something I used to do."

    It was clear Hoshi wasn't sure whether to accept what he was saying. "And this has to do with your mysterious origin. Okay."

    "So, what do you think of all this?", Robert asked. "The Menk and the Valakians."

    "I'm… I'm not sure," Hoshi admitted. "It seems like the Valakians are exploiting them, almost. They've kicked them off the best land. They're see them as servants more than people."

    "Fair enough." Robert smiled thinly as the subject brought up old memories. "My grandfather told me that his grandmother was half-Kansa."

    "Kansa?"

    "The Kaw people," Robert clarified. "A Native American tribe, their name is the one that was derived to name the state of Kansas. My grandpa always liked the idea that he was descended from the Kansa. He felt it gave him a real tie to our family land."

    Hoshi nodded. "Well, your accent gives that away a little. You're actually from Kansas though?"

    Robert sighed and nodded. "I am. Grew up on the family farm."

    "A farmboy." Hoshi nodded. "I might have to look you up then. I'm sure there's public files on Kansas farm families."

    Robert thought briefly about that. It made some sense, he had to admit, that he and the others might exist or had existed in the histories of the other Earths. I mean, why wouldn't they? But he had never gotten around to actually looking into that. It seemed… off-putting, if anything. But it was an intriguing idea to wonder how his counterpart in this universe had spent the 21st Century. Did Mom, Dad, and Susanna live longer in this world? What was I, he, like?

    "So, what about the Kansa?", Hoshi asked.

    "I'm just reminded a little about the stories my grandfather told," Robert said. "About how white settlers moved in and forced all of the tribes off the best lands. Grandpa always said he thought it was one of the worst parts of our history. Maybe even as bad as African slavery. And our family emigrated to Kansas as free-staters, so that's saying something." He looked out at the Menk. "And I guess it does feel a bit like that. The Valakians keeping the Menk off the best soil. But there's a difference here."

    "That is?", Hoshi asked.

    "They actually care for the Menk," Robert said. "They're in the middle of a species-wide pandemic that's killing them off, millions every year, and they still make sure the Menk are being fed and cared for. There aren't any lynch mobs. No soldiers. No hatred. They're not being cheated and abused by desperate Valakians looking to get ahead. There aren't any swindlers cheating the Menk out of their food or what land they have. Nobody pushing alcohol on them to try and make them addicts or trick them while they're inebriated. We never treated the Kaw and the other native peoples this well. God knows how we'd treat another species."

    Hoshi seemed to think about that. "So you think the Valakians are in the right?"

    Robert shook his head slightly. "I don't know. Maybe they should let the Menk have better farmland. And teach them to farm for themselves. All I know is that, even if this isn't a perfect situation, it's far better than it would be with other races. Even us."

    "You may have a point," Hoshi conceded.

    "Ah, there you are."

    They turned. Phlox stepped up to them. "I have everything I need," he said. He looked over Robert. "And you look quite well. You've seem to have recovered well, Mister Dale."

    "Thanks to you, Doctor," Robert answered, nodding and grinning. "Back to Enterprise?"

    "Yes, we need to get back." Phlox held up the case in his hand. "I have samples to process."




    Troi was indulging in a late dinner in the Lookout. She found that while she missed Guinan's company, the elderly German gentleman running the Aurora crew lounge had his own charms.

    Hargert was sitting across from her, holding up a holographic image of a smiling young pair of twins. "My grand niece and nephew," he said. "From the Bavarian Alps."

    "You have quite the large family, sir," Troi observed. "But I can't help but notice you don't speak of any children of your own."

    Hargert nodded. "I was a different man in my youth," he admitted. "Always running around. Never stopping to think about the future. Until the day the future came… and I was an old man too tired to run anymore." He smiled sadly. "I will not know the joy of a child of my own, that is true. But I take solace in being able to guide the young."

    "That's why you're here?", Troi asked. "On the Aurora."

    "Oh yes," Hargert said. "Yes indeed, Counselor. This is where my calling is. This is where I belong."

    "It can be hard to find somewhere you belong. I'm happy for you."

    Hargert nodded. And he reached forward and took her hand. "I understand you grieve for your lost ship. I am sorry for you."

    Troi smiled gently and shook her head. "It's not the Enterprise that bothers me. It's Will. Commander Riker. I've tried…"

    "Excuse me? Counselor Troi?"

    Both of them looked up. Hargert's face curled into a slight smile. "Mister Jarod," he said. "Have you come to have dinner? The stew turned out quite well."

    Jarod nodded and grinned at the lounge host. "I'll have to try that," he pledged. "But I'm here to see Counselor Troi."

    "Very well." Hargert stood from his seat. "Let me go get you a bowl."

    Jarod took a seat beside the chair Hargert vacated. "Hargert's cooking is amazing," he said to her. "Don't you think?"

    Troi dipped her fork into the chocolate fudge cake slice in front of her. "Very," she agreed. She took a bite and chewed on it a moment before swallowing. "So, Mister Jarod, what can I do for you?"

    "Nothing for me. Not exactly," Jarod answered. "But maybe for Commander Riker."

    "What about Will?"

    Jarod nodded at her. "Let's be honest, Counselor. I've been a psychiatrist myself at times. We both know Riker is going through a major crisis of confidence over losing the Enterprise."

    Troi couldn't argue with that assessment. "It's something that will have to heal itself, I think," she lamented.

    "Maybe, but we can try to give him a boost in the right direction," he pointed out. "I just need a way to get through to him."

    "Will can be a complicated person sometimes," Troi replied. "I've tried many techniques to get through to him, but nothing I know of works either."

    Jarod gave a nod to show he understood that. "Alright. Maybe the offer of help isn't what he needs." Jarod put his hands together. "I recently… well, I've had something gnawing at me for years lately, and I was recently able to get over it by a similar experience." Jarod thought briefly of the Dalek attack on the Facility and the Battle over Caprica. "Maybe if we did something to make face his fears?"

    "I don't know if that is the approach that will work." Troi thought for a moment. Jarod looked into her dark eyes and thought he could feel those thoughts working through to a conclusion; she certainly knew Riker very closely. "Will can be very competitive sometimes. Especially when he was younger. I think that might be the best way to help him."

    "Competition?" Jarod noticed Hargert coming with the stew and leaned forward. "Do you have any ideas for that?"




    Upon their return to Enterprise, Robert met with a novel experience. The decontamination room was understandable, at least. There were no bio-scanners here, none of the technology that could help prevent harmful contaminants from alien worlds from getting onto the ship.

    The whole "strip down and rub gel over your skin" part, that was a bit weird though. The thought struck him that it wasn't too different from showering in the locker rooms back when he was in school, even less exposed than that.

    Of course, there were no girls in those locker room environments either.

    After getting the samples back to the sickbay Hoshi and Cutler went off to other duties. Phlox gestured to the sickbay bed and Robet sat on it for an examination. There were still parts where his body had a dull ache to it. He wasn't surprised to hear Phlox say it was continued trauma from exposure. "Still, you are improving quite nicely. Tomorrow I'll ask the Captain to find you spare quarters."

    "That would be nice," Robert noted.

    Phlox nodded slightly and went to his work station to begin examining the samples. "I'm not sure when we can get you back to Earth. There are no Human ships this far from your homeworld."

    "Honestly, Doctor, I'm hoping it won't be necessary."

    "Ah." Phlox smiled widely at him. "You think your associates can find you then?"

    "I'm… pretty sure of it, yeah," Robert replied. "If anyone can, they can."

    "Well, I hope that you turn out to be correct on that. Of course, if that doesn't come about, perhaps there are other careers you might consider pursuing? You seemed to have mentioned farming to Ensign Sato."

    "I grew up on a farm."

    "Well, there are plenty of farms on some of the Human colonies being established," Phlox pointed out. "Although you seem the kind of man who would prefer a more active lifestyle. Perhaps one where you can do some good in the galaxy. I'm sure Captain Archer would agree with me that you might want to consider wearing that uniform full time."

    "Join Starfleet you mean?"

    "Yes. Obviously your claimed rank is unlikely to be accepted, but with the talent you would necessarily have in order to hold it, I'm sure you would regain it in Starfleet service. Perhaps you would end up in command of another ship like this one, in due time. Exploring the galaxy for your species."

    Robert tried not to chuckle. The thought of him joining Starfleet. That was… well, amusing. Especially given his continued philosophical opposition to their Prime Directive.

    That thought brought him to another. Do they even have that rule yet? There has to be a reason they started it. He smiled at the amusing thought that if he were stuck in this time period and did take up Phlox's suggestion, then ended up in command of a ship, he might very well be the reason the Prime Directive was written. That would be major irony.

    Phlox regarded him with curiosity. "Did I say something amusing?"

    Robert shook his head. "Not directly, Doctor, no. I just had some personal thoughts about the situation, that's all."

    "Ah. Right. Well, if you'll excuse me, the Menk samples must be examined."

    "Of course." Robert laid back on the bed and closed his eyes. He drew in a weary breath that was mostly, but not all, a sigh. The idea of being stranded here… of being away from the people he loved, the people he worked with… of leaving them with the war that had to be fought when he did so much to help instigate it. It seemed so… wrong.

    Having to start again. To, maybe, start normally, too. Working my way up ranks until I was a Captain in this time period. When I might do some good.

    A pang of guilt filled his heart. I'll never see Angel or Julie again. Or Zack, Tom, Leo, Cat, Lucy… He shook his head. No. I'm going to find a way back to the future, someway and somehow.

    Around that time he dozed off.




    Angel had tried to sleep again. It hadn't worked. And so she did the next best thing.

    Her fists were growing numb. Her arms were burning with fatigue from the strain. But she continued to punch the bag hanging in front of her like it was the sole embodiment of everything making her feel screwed up.

    She wanted to trust in Cat and Jarod to find a solution. Especially with that super-smart android helping them with the tech and science stuff. But everything reminded her that Rob was gone. That he might not be coming back. Which reminded her, in turn, of why she'd been the one to restart their relationship in the first place.

    There was a part of her mad at Rob. Like it was his fault and not the fault of that damned Changeling or whatever was happening in the past. You always have to be the damn hero, Rob, she thought. Always the damn white knight riding off to save the day. Normally she liked that about him. But now… now it seemed to be a warning of how quickly he could be taken away from her. Permanently.

    Angel yelled in frustration and stepped back to deliver a powerful roundhouse kick to the bag. This actually knocked it off of the hook above from the clasp not being fastened right. The punching bag hit the floor with a dull thump. Angel frowned and looked on to see a young Dorei male standing with his own punching bag, now swinging slightly from the remaining momentum from the last hit. Angel scoffed at it and bent over to pick it up.

    "I do not think you are training very effectively at this point."

    The deep voice caused Angel to look over her shoulder. She smirked and said, "Who said anything about training?"

    The Klingon Worf was standing nearby. He was clad in what looked like a cross between a proper martial arts gi and a bathrobe. It was quite a different style from Angel's preferred sports bra and gym shorts combination, the current ones midnight black in color and marked with Nike symbols. She had a standard issue set in her branch colors, but the black had seemed a better fit for her mood. "I had assumed you had a reason for working so intently. But your form was clearly lacking."

    Angel hooked the bag back up and looked at Worf with a bit less of a smirk this time. "It's almost midnight ship time. Shouldn't you be in bed like a good little Starfleet boy scout?"

    "Klingons do not require as much sleep as Humans," Worf retorted.

    "Right." Angel walked over to another bag. "Well, they do the t'ai chi on the other end of the gym. Chief Ghayati teaches yoga and t'ai chi every day. Or maybe you Klingons have something like it?"

    "Mok'bara," Worf answered.

    "Ah. Well, it's all the same 'wave your arms around' stuff to me."

    "It allows a warrior to focus mind and body," Worf continued. "The movements help prepare us for battle."

    "Good for you. But that's not my thing." Angel gave the bag a playful whack with her fist. "I'm more physical with combat."

    "And yet you are distracted," Worf pointed out. "In battle, that would be a failing. A warrior's mind must be unclouded."

    "Someone very close to me is stuck two hundred years in the past. Being clouded is something I'll have to deal with."

    "That would be a mistake," Worf pointed out.

    Something about his attitude rankled. Angel frowned. "Care to prove it?"

    Worf smiled a toothy smile. "Gladly."

    Angel felt her blood rush. She was going to wipe that smile off his smug face. It was something constructive to do, at least, while she waited for the brainiacs to find a way to rescue Robert. "Come on, then." She motioned for him to follow. They walked to the vacant boxing ring. Angel pulled out a plastic tooth guard and handed it to Worf. He eyed it, smirked, and handed it back. "Your dentist visit," she sighed, pulling out one for herself. She climbed into the ring and worked through the ropes.

    Worf followed her up and walked to the opposite corner. "Are you prepared?", he asked.

    Angel put the guard in her mouth and nodded. She assumed an offensive martial arts stance and observed Worf's defensive arm placement for a moment while advancing. He wasn't attacking yet; fine by her. He had mass on her, she needed to be the one moving going for weak spots. His stance was solid enough, no advantage there. I guess I'll make my own, she thought.

    First she threw a few punches and kicks to test Worf's speed. Not too bad for his size. But not too good either. She evaded his counter-attacks and gave ground around the ring.

    When Angel thought everything was in place, she went on the attack again. A number of punches and kicks, deflected, but all to set up the counter-attack she knew had to come. When it came, she grabbed for his arm.

    She was quite surprised when it was her right arm that ended up grabbed instead. Angel let out a short cry of surprise at that. Worf used his leverage on her to kick her in the side of the ribs - nowhere vital, just enough force to not break anything, but painful as hell - and then throw her into the opposite corner. The impact knocked the breath out of Angel. She looked up at Worf as she recovered it. "You are distracted," he pointed out.

    Angel snarled back and got back to her feet. She went on the attack again. This time Worf didn't just block blows, he weaved and ducked as necessary to avoid Angel's angry punches and kicks. One kick grazed him along the cheek. But that wasn't enough to keep his hands from coming up and gripping her by the lower leg. He pulled her off-balance and tossed her bodily into the corner again. This time he said nothing while Angel picked herself up from the ground. She put a hand to where she'd taken the blow to the ribs and gave Worf an angry look.

    That angry look became another attack. Worf had to work for it this time; Angel wasn't just fast, but quite strong for her size, and the punch she managed to land on Worf's jaw drew blood from his lip. A solid kick to his shoulder was enough to dislodge his left arm from an attempt to grapple with her again. He had provoked her into a frenzy of attacks that still showed some calculation to them.

    For a minute it looked like Angel's burst of angry effort might put Worf down in turn. But her attack slowed slightly, slightly enough that Worf was able to land a flat-palm blow to Angel's bruised right rib. It took all of Worf's focus and control to restrain the blow from doing more than hitting a weak spot; just a little more force and he would have broken the rib completely.

    The strike broke Angel's attack down. She let out a cry of pain and fell back. Worf followed her as she went to the mat and pinned her upper torso in place with his forearm. "You are fast and strong, but you are also not judging the battle correctly. You are letting your anger dictate the course of battle. That is why I have defeated you. Do you yield?"

    Angel punched him in the face. Worf felt an urge to return the blow and held it. He wasn't here to punch her into submission. Instead he continued the pressure and acted as if the punch hadn't done anything. "Do you yield?!"

    There were a few more moments of struggling and then a harsh released breath of exasperation. She nodded and Worf got off of her.

    The fight wasn't over quite yet though, it had merely shifted away from violence. Angel glared at him and demanded, "What do you want from me?!" She sat up. "You want me to admit that I'm Goddamned terrified? Because I am! Because… there is nothing I can do for Robert, nothing I can do to help save him, and…" She stopped and swallowed. Tears were forming in her eyes. "...I'm not a scientist. I can't sit there and whip up fancy solutions to problems. I'm good at getting dirty and physical. I know how to get hurt and hurt right back, and I know how to shoot things with a ship's weapons. That's what I am, that's what I do, and I'm damned proud of how well I can do it so long as I can protect the people I care about! But I can't shoot or punch an out-of-control jump point! I can't crack my knuckles and smirk to intimidate the Goddamn space-time continuum! There is nothing I can do for him and…" Angel's tirade was broken up as she sniffled. "...and I hate it. I'm helpless and I can't do anything about it."

    Nothing was said for a moment. Worf looked at her intently and thought of his own predicament. The Enterprise, his Enterprise, gone. His efforts to fight off the Duras Sisters had been insufficient. The crew would eventually be broken up, a crew he had been honored to serve beside for eight years. "I know what it is like," he said. "I have faced the same problem before. And I have no answers for you." Aware of how uncomfortable the admission had been, he nodded. "Thank you."

    "For?", Angel asked.

    "You have shown trust in me by admitting to the truth. It took great courage. I am honored by your gesture."

    Angel considered him for a moment. "Thank you," she replied. "You gave me an excuse to get it out. I'm not going to feel any better, but maybe I'll focus more."

    "You are most welcome."

    "And…" Angel checked her discarded multidevice. "...I am really late to get some sleep. So are you, right?"

    "Indeed. I will see you again later."

    "1800?", she asked.

    He gave her a curious look.

    "1800. I'll be here training." She smiled thinly. "Perhaps you can show me how you do that 'wave your arms' stuff with Klingons."

    A low rumble of a chuckle came from Worf. "Of course."




    Much to his relief, Robert's dreams were more pleasant this time. He didn't dream of anything that might be the future. He didn't even dream of his life on the Aurora.

    Instead it was the farm. His grandmother's cooking. His grandfather laughing jovially at a story from the war while his family looked on. Beth with a young woman her age, happier than she'd ever been on the farm. His parents, sitting beside each other and stealing small kisses when no one looked, while Susanna ran around in the nearby field with friends.

    And Julia was there, and Zack, and Tom, and all of his other friends, laughing and joking. Angel's hand was holding his. The scent of her hair made him feel warm and alive.

    Despite everything, despite the wonders of space and the thrill of being at the center of a new era… this vista was something Robert realized he would have picked over everything else.

    The dream was still vivid in his mind when he woke up. But it came with a sharp edge now. That isn't how things had happened. His grandmother had died when he was ten years old. HIs grandfather lasted a few years after that and died after having such a fierce argument with Beth over her personal life that she left for Portland and never came back.

    And his parents… his sister… they were gone now.

    All this time. All of the brilliant things in his new life. And yet that loss still ached. A piece of his heart that was ripped out and never filled, just made numb by the passage of time.

    Robert turned and tried to go back to sleep. But he couldn't. Whether he'd rested too much or was just too upset by those thoughts, he simply wouldn't fall asleep.

    There was noise from across the sickbay. Robert looked up and cracked an eye open. Phlox was slipping out. And he looked… agitated?

    After he was gone Robert got curious. He couldn't sleep anymore anyway and his curiosity became insatiable. He got off the bed and walked into the other part of the sickbay. Test results were visible on some screens. Helixes of DNA twiirling about on others, highlighting chromosomes or what have you. Robert didn't really understand it.

    But he also noticed something new. A small tube with a liquid inside. Robert looked intently at it. Why would Phlox leave it behind? Robert held up his arm toward it and activated the scanner on his multidevice. The holographic screen popped up over his forearm and showed results. The first results were in technical language, so he wasn't sure what it meant. He activated the feature to have the device programming simplify its results, or as Tom Barnes had always called it, "Scan-Results-For-Dummies Mode".

    The result popped up: Genetic resequencing formula.

    Robert read that. Resequencing? Why would Phlox make…

    The Valakian plague. It's genetic. Then this must be…

    Robert took the scan and saved it in his device, just to ensure there was a backup of what went into what could be a cure.. But other than that, he wasn't sure what else he should do. Obviously Phlox was off talking to Archer, informing him of the good news. This was Archer's business, not his.

    As he returned to the bed, Robert knew that wasn't it for him. He was too awake. Too… wound up, perhaps. He needed to work things off. Walking around the ship seemed the best way to do that.

    The Enterprise - this Enterprise anyway - was in its own way more familiar than the one from two hundred years in the future. This one felt like a World War II vessel instead of a starship, at least the starships Robert was used to. He only saw a couple of crew on his way forward through the ship. A little rumble in his belly reminded him he hadn't eaten in awhile.

    He ultimately came upon one of the junior officers, with a red-trim blue uniform. An engineer, given the belt. "Excuse me," Robert said. "Can you direct me to the mess?"

    "Sure." He indicated a direction and Robert gave a thank you before continuing on.

    It didn't take long for him to arrive at his destination. "...is a fundamental scientific principle," he heard a voice say from within the door to the mess. It slid open for him and Robert stepped in to find he wasn't alone. Phlox was standing nearby and looking toward Archer, by one of the tables. They both looked toward him. "Oh. I'm sorry, I was getting something to eat." Robert nodded. "I'm guessing you're sharing the good news?"

    He was struck by the uncomfortable look that came to the alien's face. "Good news?", Archer asked. He looked rather tense as well.

    Robert had the bad feeling nothing was as he had anticipated. Nevertheless he saw no reason not to be honest. "I… well, I assumed Dr. Phlox was telling you about what I assumed was the cure."

    Archer evinced surprise. Phlox frowned at him. "I wasn't aware you were an expert in genetic matters, Captain."

    "I'm not.." Robert tapped his multidevice. "But the scanner in my multidevice identified whatever you made as a genetic re-sequencing formula."

    "Is this true?", Archer asked. "Did you make a cure already?"

    Phlox shifted uncomfortably, which left Robert even more confused. Why would he be so upset about this? "Yes," he finally admitted. "I did."

    "Were you going to tell me?"

    "I admit I had some doubts. Clearly you are having difficulty understanding my position on the matter."

    Robert held a hand up. He could feel the tension in the room and he wanted answers. "I'm afraid I'm lost here. This is good. This is the cure you're looking for. So what's wrong here? Why would you hide it?"

    Archer looked to Phlox but said nothing. It was clear that his sentiment was that Phlox should explain himself.

    Phlox sighed. "Human compassion is a remarkable thing. It's one of your species' positive traits. But it can be short-sighted at times, and I believe it's being short-sighted here."

    "I don't follow, Doctor," Robert said. "What's wrong? I mean, you made the cure, simple."

    "No, Mister Dale. Not so simple. I did make a cure. But I am of the opinion that it shouldn't be given to the Valakians."
     
  5. Threadmarks: 1-14-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    The lights were dim in the XO quarters on Aurora when Julia woke up. She rubbed at her right eye and sighed. A temptation to roll over manifested. It intensified when she saw it was just past 0500. She had at least another hour of sleep available before the day would begin.

    Instead, though, she rose from her bed. Her silver nightgown had a dull shine in the faint light of the room. Her shower beckoned and would come later; first, however, she wanted to check up on things.

    The diplomatic negotiations were a nightmare. The Romulans were clinging to their claimed position; War if the Alliance provided IU drives to the other participants but not them, and they would not join in the anti-Nazi fight anyway. The Klingons demanded the IU drives and were wiling to fight. The Federation was the trickiest because they were clearly not of a uniform position. T'Latrek was arguing that the Federation couldn't easily involve itself, but the gist of it was that she did not want them in. Gleer, on the other hand, was very willing to support Federation support for the Alliance in exchange for IU drives, but he couldn't commit to actual Starfleet ships in battle as well.

    Mastrash Ledosh was being cooly confident about the whole thing. Julia couldn't help but feel that the entire summit was about to unravel. Something had to be determined to break the deadlock.

    The deadlock is simple enough. The Romulans see the IU drive as a threat. With it, someone could conceivably penetrate the deepest areas of their empire without tripping their border networks. The key, then, was to find some way to address this grievance without handing them the IU drives for nothing.

    After a thought Julia brought up the hardlight keyboard for her computer and started typing commands. She needed to look up more on the Romulans, and Ambassador tr'Lhaer. There had to be something she could use.

    Just as the Alliance Embassy's reports on him and the Romulans popped up, a tone sounded in the room. One of the night shift officers, Lieutenant Prymi, spoke. "Commander, someone just locked onto our drive. We have a ship jumping in."

    Julia looked up in time to see the jump point form through her window. The green vortex swirled in space, but this time she held none of the appreciation for it she had before. To think that the wrong thing could turn it into a blood-red nightmare was now a bit disconcerting.

    A ship came through the point. Julia tapped a key to direct link her screen to ship external cameras. The ship that had come through almost made her think it was Koenig and Zack was defying orders to come help Robert, but she immediately noticed this ship was a little different. The warp nacelles weren't swept either way like on Koenig.

    Her eyes focused on the name. "The Sladen," she said to herself. It was one of the new Trigger-class ships, essentially sister vessels of the Koenig but with structural differences.

    The Dorei man's voice came over the comm again. "They're hailing, Commander."

    Conscious that her nightgown was fairly revealing, Julia went over to the stand by her bed and put her blue-colored bathrobe on. "Patch them to my quarters, Lieutenant," she said. She got back into her computer chair and pressed a key to send the signal to her monitor.

    The image changed to the bridge of the Sladen. Julia was facing a woman of dark brown hair. Sharp brown eyes looked back at Julia; the impression she got was that she was dealing with a stern officer. "Command Andreys, this is Commander Elizabeth King, Commanding Officer of ASV Sladen." Her accent was firmly English. "Admiral Maran directed me to jump to Aurora as soon as we were ready and to place my ship at your disposal."

    "Commander King, thank you," Julia replied. "I'm afraid it's still our night shift, otherwise I'd be in uniform."

    "It is our night shift as well, Commander. Apologies are unnecessary."

    Julia didn't react to that, but she could easily sense the underlying tone of the comment. This was an officer who prided herself on propriety and, presumably, sleeping in her uniform. Although maybe I'm just feeling catty from not sleeping all night. "I'm going to inform Commander Scott and the others that you're here. In the meantime, take up formation alongside Aurora, we don't want to spook our potential allies."

    "I will await further orders. Sladen out."

    This will be interesting, Julia decided. She reached for the comm control at her work station. "Lieutenant Prymi, please inform Commander Scott that our ship has arrived. I'd like him to double-check and triple-check everything for safety's sake."

    "Aye, sir."

    Julia eyed her bed wearily and sighed. "Oh, and please send a message to Captain Picard and Commander Data along with Jarod and Lieutenant Caterina Delgado. I want to meet in the Conference Room off the bridge, two hours from now."

    "Sending. Anything else?"

    "Nothing at the moment. Andreys out." Julia closed the channel and returned her attention to her computer. The files on tr'Lhaer were open in front of her. Time to find out if I can get any angle with the good Ambassador…




    In the crew mess of the NX-01, Robert Dale stared at Doctor Phlox in utter disbelief. "What? But… you're saying you won't cure the Valakians? Why?"

    "Apparently the Valakians' own genetic structure evolved to contain the defect that's causing the plague," Archer said. "While the Menk are showing signs of developing into a more intelligent species."

    "Captain Archer puts it simply, but correctly," Phlox stated. "The Valakians are an evolutionary dead-end. The Menk are on the verge of an evolutionary breakthrough. Clearly nature has selected only one of these species to survive. It would be inappropriate for us to interfere with this process."

    Robert stared at Phlox in utter surprise. He tried to wrap his head around the idea. "You're talking about condemning millions to die over the next, what, two centuries? Until their species dies out?"

    There was a look on Phlox's face that made Robert think of his high school biology teacher explaining something complicated, that is, something he assumed nobody else understood. "I understand that it is difficult to accept that these things happen. But they have been occurring for billions of years. Sometimes species die. It's the way of things."

    "That might be true," Robert said. "But you're not talking about coming upon something we can't change. You already have the ability to change it. You can save these people. Doctor."

    "I'm afraid you're letting your compassion blind you to the larger issue, Mister Dale," Phlox insisted. "It is not our place to interfere in a natural process. Especially not when we would be doing so at the expense of the Menk."

    "How would it be at their expense?", Robert asked. "You saw how they live. The Valakians treat them extraordinarily well."

    "And by doing so, they keep the Menk from finishing their evolution," Phlox insisted. "There is no telling what the consequences would be if we interfered in the development of these two species."

    "The consequences of not doing anything seem rather obvious, Doctor," Robert retorted. "One of them gradually dies out, and God knows what happens to the other."

    "It's rather obvious the Menk will become the dominant species on Valakis."

    "Assuming that the Valakians don't become angry and desperate and turn on them," Robert pointed out. "Your decision to damn the Valakians to extinction could result in them turning to extremist viewpoints. It's not hard to imagine one such extremist turning them on the Menk. You could be dooming the Menk just as much."

    Phlox remained calm outwardly, but he was clearly going exasperated with Robert's defiance. "You are speculating wildly at this point. You don't know that would happen."

    "But apparently you do know how it will turn out?"

    "I know the Menk would complete their evolution," Phlox insisted. "You are engaging in wild sociopolitical guesswork with no firm data. Evolution is a fundamental scientific principle. It is proven. I know not everyone understands such science…"

    Robert laughed at him. "I might be from Kansas, Doctor, and I know I'm no biologist, but I do know what evolution is. It's adaptation to the environment. There's nothing firm about it. You can guess how it will go, but all it takes is one unexpected factor and your prediction can go wildly off."

    "What proof can you offer, Mister Dale, that there is a potential factor that would impede Menk evolution in the absence of Valakian dominance?"

    "What proof can you offer, Doctor Phlox, that the Valakian genetic disorder is an actual result of 'natural' evolution and not an unexpected result from a man-made factor?", Robert shot back.

    Phlox stepped away from him for a moment and turned to Archer. "Captain, this man is being unreasonable. He's letting his compassionate emotions overrule any rationality."

    Archer folded his arms. "I don't know, Doctor. He's making a lot of sense to me."

    Phlox looked at the two Humans for a moment. As if to judge which one he considered to be the most crazy. "I'm well aware of how horrible it is to see the Valakians die off," he said. "As a medical doctor, I want to save as many of them as I can. But this is a natural biological process you're talking about. It is not something you interfere with just to fulfill a whim of compassion. You are talking about playing God, Captain Archer. About deciding which species gets to thrive instead of allowing nature to take its course."

    "Maybe," Archer conceded. "And I didn't come out here to play God. But it occurs to me that we interfere with nature all of the time. Every time we make ourselves immune to a different virus or disease, we're resisting the forces of nature."

    Phlox and Archer continued to look toward each other. Robert felt for the moment like more of a bystander than a participant in the conversation

    "Are you prepared, Captain Archer, to commit yourself, or all of Earth, to looking over this world?", Phlox asked. "Because if you provide a cure, you're taking responsibility for the result."

    "That may be true. But would I want Earth associated with leaving an innocent species to die out?"

    "Doctor Phlox." Robert moved around the table and stood to Phlox's left side. "I get that you're afraid that giving away the cure might be harmful in the long run. But this isn't just about what species gets to be dominant on Valakis. It's about the people who are dying down there. People you can save." Robert, having gotten Phlox's attention, shook his head as he continued. "I don't see how you can… separate the result to them of your choice. You're not just talking about some nebulous scientific principle at stake. Your cure can save millions of parents and children. Millions of spouses, siblings, family. You would be averting grief to those who love the dying."

    Phlox breathed in. A gesture that seemed born of impatience and other feelings. "Are you prepared to play God then?"

    "Never," Robert answered. "But are you prepared to go down to Valakis and tell the families of the dying that their loved ones can't be cured because of your stance on evolution? Are you going to look them in the eye when you tell them that? When you tell a mother that her sons will both die within the month? Or when it's someone's husband or wife? Are you ready to cause them that pain? Because that's exactly what you're talking about doing. You want to let them die when you can save them because…" For a moment words failed Robert while he considered how to translate his feeling, his idea on what Phlox was proposing, into words. "...because to you, they're nothing but sacrifices on the altar of your beliefs. You're treating them like things, not people. And that's not just short-sighted, it's not just callous, it's… it's evil, Doctor Phlox. It's the purest form of evil I can think of."

    Phlox's blue eyes met Robert's green eyes and they stared at one another intensely. "An interesting viewpoint," Phlox stated. "And perhaps illuminating into the way your mind works." He looked to Archer and nodded. "I'll see you in the morning Captain?"

    Archer nodded. "Yes. We'll finish this conversation then."

    Phlox nodded and left the mess. Robert now faced Archer. "Well." The older man sighed and took a seat. "I'm afraid you're not seeing us at our best. Phlox rarely disagrees with me like this."

    "I'm used to the idea of my medical officers arguing with me," Robert said. "Although Leo would honestly be even more appalled than I am."

    "Right." Archer gestured to the food dispensers. "Why don't you get something and sit down. We can talk."

    "About?"

    "About anything but plagues or evolution or interference in nature," Archer remarked.

    Robert nodded at that. His stomach grumbled a little in agreement. "Alright. Let me find something good from your menu."

    "I'd recommend the mashed potatoes. They almost taste like the real thing…"




    Commander King stood at proper attention when Julia led Picard and Data into the conference room. Everyone else was already in place. "Captain," King said respectfully to Picard.

    "Commander. Welcome," he answered.

    "Has everyone been introduced to Commander King?", Julia asked the others. When she was answered with nods Julia went on to the head of the table. Robert's usual seat, now her's as Acting CO. "Commander King, thank you for coming."

    "I was told you were in need of a ship for a special mission," King answered. "Something about recovering Captain Dale? I admit I am curious about what might happened to him."

    "He was sucked two hundred years into the past by a destabilized jump point," Jarod replied.

    King looked with bewilderment at Jarod. "Are you saying our IU drives can be used for time travel?"

    "Apparently so," Caterina said. "Although it requires a large explosion with a lot of energy behind it to go off right at the moment of transit through a point. I doubt it will ever be useful as a time travel means, especially since we still don't understand how far back it can go or how to control it."

    King nodded. "I see. So Captain Dale is stranded in the past. Presumably he could cause a great deal of damage to the timeline of S5T3 in the process."

    "Precisely our concern," Picard said. "And why Starfleet and the Federation Science Council have agreed to the proposed recovery attempt."

    The newcomer was quick to realize what that meant for her. "Using my ship, I imagine?"

    "Yes." Data nodded. "My analysis of the Sladen indicates that your ship is capable of safely performing what is commonly called a slingshot maneuver."

    "Slingshot?"

    "A high-warp approach toward a star of sufficient mass," Jarod explained for the Englishwoman. "At high warp speed, a breakaway around the star can warp time as well as space and achieve a temporal dislocation. It's been done before."

    King seemed utterly shocked at the idea. "That's… rather incredible, I must say."

    "Aye. But I've done it before," Scotty assured her. "Several times."

    King seemed to mentally process this information for several moments. "Well, my orders are to give all necessary assistance. Very well. But I insist that the safety of my crew be taken into account. I request permission to offload non-mission-essential personnel. I'm not stranding anyone in the past if I can avoid it."

    "A reasonable term, Commander, and happily accepted," Picard said, after getting a nod from Julia. "Commander Data will be joining you to ensure your ship achieves the warp breakaway necessary."

    "I have faith in my first officer's piloting skill," King answered. Her tone was very defensive. "We have trained extensively during our shakedown run."

    "I don't doubt that, Commander," Julia said. "None of us do. It's not about skill. Data's faster than most species and can make quick calculations. He's the best-suited for the slingshot, but outside of that your first officer and your other piloting officers will do their jobs."

    King seemed to consider that. She gave a look at Julia that showed continued irritation as before, but now mingled with a bit of understanding. "Very well. When will we commence this operation?"

    "I have determined a number of stars in the vicinity of Valakis of sufficient mass and size to ensure a proper slingshot effect," Data answered. "I will leave it to your discretion which star to use. We will need to make two different slingshot maneuvers so it is advisable to ensure the Sladen is completely prepared for the stresses of both."

    "We will have time for an inspection on our way to any of these targets, Mister Data," King said. "Is there anything else I should know?"

    "Commander Scott, Lieutenant Commander Jarod, and Lieutenant Delgado will also be accompanying you, solely for the reason of assisting Commander Data," Julia said.

    Picard had his request as well. "Starfleet wishes me to remind you of the utmost importance in not just the success of your mission, but minimizing your exposure to the people of that time period. The 2150s were critical to the formation of the Federation."

    "Understood, Captain Picard. We will observe complete radio silence and remain under cloak at all times."

    Julia looked at everyone else to invite comment. But no more came. "Other than that, I believe we're done here. Data and Jarod can give you any necessary specifics that might come up."

    "Very well." King looked to the officers that would be joining her. "I will await you in Transporter Station 3 to transport back to Sladen. I wish to depart within the hour."

    "We'll be there," Jarod promised.

    "Everyone else, back to your regular assignments," Julia said. "We're done here."

    After everyone else had filed out, Picard looked to her. "As for our other problem, Councillor T'Latrek is already proposing that the talks be suspended. She fears that continuing them in the current environment will only escalate unnecessary tensions."

    "Given her stance on the issue, I'm sure she finds that view very logical," Julia remarked. "But I disagree. In fact…" Julia smiled thinly and put her hands together on the table. "I may have found something that will make our next round with Ambassador tr'Lhaer more productive than anything else we've had."




    Angel followed Cat to the Transporter Station where she would be beaming over to Sladen. "You're sure about this?", she asked her sister.

    "Yes. I mean, Jarod will spend as much time helping Scotty with the Sladen's engines, so I can help Data with his calculations," Cat insisted. "Especially since we don't know which star King will pick yet. Each star has its own set of calculations that have to be made to account for differing density, size, and mass."

    Angel nodded. "It's just, I…" She swallowed and took her sister's arms. "I've already lost Rob. I don't want to lose you too, little sister. Please?"

    Cat put her arms around her sister. "Don't worry, Angel. We'll bring him back. I promise you. We'll all come back."

    Angel didn't let go right away. She didn't want to at all. But she knew she had to and gradually did so. "Just be careful, please. Be careful."



    Caterina and Jarod took a look around the bridge of the Sladen upon their arrival. It was rather close to Koenig's own bridge with the exception of the ship status display table being larger, along with the space to accommodate it. Caterina found a seat at the table and Jarod took another. The control panels gave them access to the ship's computer systems; though they lacked the raw processing power of Aurora's computer, they would still suffice for what was needed.

    But for the moment, they took the time to look over King's command crew. At the helm was a man, an African Human. A blue-skinned, purple-spotted Dorei man with light blue hair was at weapons; operations was manned by a light-skinned Human woman with blond hair pulled into a bun at the back of her head. "Commanders, Lieutenant…. these are Lieutenant Caldwell, Lieutenant Trynis, and Ensign Skarsgard." King gestured to each in turn. "Mister Caldwell, set course for the following coordinate." King picked a system from the target list and relayed it to the helm.

    "Plotting course," Caldwell replied, his voice also thick with a London accent. "Course laid in."

    "Engage warp engines when ready."

    Sladen pulled away from the other ships and pointed to open space. She went to warp as soon as she was clear.




    The discussion with Archer had been quiet and unassuming. They hadn't talked about the issue of the Valakians, about whether curing them would condemn the Menk to remaining stagnant instead, or the issue of intervening in anything at all. For the most part they compared their lives and upbringing, although Robert had been careful not to mention too much that might alter history. Instead it was discussions of family life and growing up. The kind of talk that made Robert think about all of those memories and how painful they could sometimes be. Especially the memories of those blank hallways, the glass window and the blinds going up so he could identify the… bodies.

    He had expected to be alone when he returned to the ship sickbay. Instead he found Phlox there, sitting at his work station and staring at the capsule containing the cure for the Valakians. He barely seemed to register Robert's arrival. It was only when Robert turned and came within ten feet of him that Phlox spoke up. "You're back. I hope you ate well, it will help your body finish recuperating."

    "Well enough, I guess." Robert didn't move from where he was standing. "I figured you'd be asleep by now, Doctor."

    "Yes, well... I have a lot to think about." Phlox put the capsule tube back in place. "You and I seem to have different viewpoints on the issue."

    "Of the Valakians?"

    "More than that." Phlox shook his head. "Far more than just the Valakians." Phlox turned in his chair and they looked toward one another again. "I get the feeling, Mister Dale, that given the choice, you would openly interfere with any situation you felt needed your interference. Regardless of the consequences."

    Robert shook his head. "Not regardless of the consequences. But not afraid of them either."

    "I fail to see a difference."

    "I respect there will be consequences to my actions, Doctor Phlox, and that I am impacting the lives of other beings. But I won't let the fear of what might go wrong keep me from doing the right thing."

    "Doing the right thing." Phlox nodded. "I'm sure you envision yourself as always doing the right thing."

    Robert was wondering where this was going. He nodded in reply. "I always try to do the right thing."

    "Yes. I thought so." Phlox seemed to consider his next words. "I, on the other hand, know that I can't change everything for the better. And that my definition of better may not agree with what other peoples consider better."

    "Well, obviously you can't change everything. No one can." Robert took a step in one direction and began a gentle pacing of the room. "But just because you can't help every time doesn't mean you can never help. Down there, on that planet, is a species that you can save. Millions, billions, of individuals who you can save. And I just can't imagine saying no because you think they should remain doomed to go extinct."

    "You misunderstand me. I have no desire to see the extinction of the Valakians," Phlox insisted. "If they found a cure of their own I wouldn't keep them from using it. It would be natural for them to apply it to their own preservation. But to just hand them the answer… we're doing more than possibly locking the Menk out of their evolutionary progression. We're making the Valakians dependent upon outside help. And that is help they might not always have available."

    "But they won't be dying. They'll have time to learn on their own. That cure will buy them that time."

    "And what about the Menk? The Valakians will keep them stagnant. They can't help but do so. The Menk will never have the impetus necessary to continue encouraging their evolution."

    "Won't they? Surrounded by Valakians, by technology, why wouldn't the Valakians teach them to help as they grow more intelligent? That's evolution too; adaption to the environment."

    Phlox was quiet for a moment. "A well-made point. I shall consider it in my report." Phlox folded his hands together. "And indeed, I shall file a report on this entire subject. But I have a different line of query regarding you."

    "That would be?"

    Phlox was choosing his next words carefully. "You clearly care a lot about saving the Valakians. And you feel justified in entering situations regardless of possible consequences. You seem the type of man who is ready to dive into danger at the stroke of a moment if you feel someone needs your help. I find that a fascinating character trait. I've observed it in Captain Archer before, in fact. I believe Lieutenant Reed once referred to it as being a 'White Knight'. A peculiar reference as from what I have read, the knights of medieval European culture were more elite soldiers in a rigid hierarchical society, hardly the same thing from what I have found."

    Robert held back a chuckle. He had heard the term 'White Knight' quite a bit in other more sarcastic moments with the others. "It's… it's not about the history of knights so much as the fairy tales and legends about them. Brave knights who went into battles that seemed hopeless to save the day or protect people who couldn't fight."

    "I see. And how many battles have you plunged into in order to save those you felt needed saving?"

    "Quite a few," Robert found himself answering.

    "As I said. Fascinating. Human compassion and Human aggressive impulses combining into a particular mindset, I suppose. Although there must obviously be a reason beyond this basic comparison." Phlox folded his arms. "What is your reason, Mister Dale? Why are you a 'White Knight'?"

    For several moments Robert had to carefully consider that question. He felt a wave of memories go through his mind. People smiling as he helped get them out of horrible places of suffering. Moments of tension and fear as gunfire erupted around him.

    "I like helping people," Robert answered. "I… I feel like I've accomplished something worth my time, worth my effort, by ending suffering. There is too much power wielded in a way to cause suffering and death simply to satisfy greed or ideology. Someone needs to use power to do the opposite. To help others and not themselves. To… instead of might making right, to say that might needs to be used for right."

    "And that's it?", Phlox inquired. "That is your only reason?"

    Robert almost answered yes. But he stopped. The questions were making him think about things. Memories. The idea of suffering and pain and loss reminded him of his own loss. As a result, he ultimately answered "No". Phlox responded with a patient look while he struggled for words. "I… I want to end suffering where I can because I know what it's like," he answered. "I…" Robert had to swallow. "...I remember hearing my grandfather plead with my grandmother to stay awake just a moment longer. He didn't want to lose her. He wanted to hear her speak one last time. I did too. And then, a few years later, it was his turn. I watched him struggle to breathe as he tried to reassure me that he was proud of me. And then he was gone." Robert felt warm tears begin to flow down his cheeks as he thought of those old pains. As he watched his grandfather succumb to the illness choking the life out of him. And more. "I saw how people treated my cousin because she loved the wrong people, and I couldn't do anything to help her. And…"

    It was the worst pain of them all. The memory of that phone call, late at night. The journey to the county coroner's office. The trip down those bland halls and the sight through the window. Warm tears continued to flow as the old wound in his heart ached once more. "My parents. My sister. They… they had gone out. There was a driver in a truck who had a heart attack. They didn't have a chance. The family car was crushed. I…"

    Phlox looked at him with concern. "I apologize if this line of inquiry has dredged up unkind memories."

    Robert heard him. But all he could think about was seeing their faces. What was left of his parents'. The dead eyes of his little sister; even the covering hadn't been able to hide the extent to which her body had been crushed and mutilated by the impact. He tried to blink back the tears. Robert directed his gaze to Phlox. "I don't really talk about it. I don't like to talk about it. It just reminds me of how much I hurt. Seeing my parents and sister dead like that… it was like something was ripped out of me. It hurts like nothing else I can imagine. I'd never wish this kind of pain on anyone. Not even on my worst enemy. Certainly not on other people." He swallowed. "But a lot of people suffer this kind of hurt all the time. And if I can prevent that for just a handful of people…"

    Phlox lowered his eyes in thought. "Compassion amplified by personal experience and empathy. That does sound like a powerful driving force for such an activist mentality."

    "You're not the first person to tell me I should accept things that happen," Robert said. "I've had someone else already point out to me that just jumping in and acting can cause more suffering than doing nothing. So I've been trying to consider the consequences of what I'm doing. But when I know the consequences of not doing anything are leaving people to suffer like that? I figure that it's worth doing something to stop it. Even if it changes things down the road."

    "I suppose there are worse motivations," Phlox agreed.

    "What are you going to do?", Robert asked him.

    "I think," he began , "I am going to take the rest of the night to think about this subject. Captain Archer will have the decision in the morning." He gestured toward the beds. "And you should probably consider getting some rest. You still have some recovery to finish."

    "No argument from me," Robert said. He felt rather tired now. "No argument at all."
     
  6. Threadmarks: 1-14-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    The diplomatic teams met yet again. And it was evident to Julia that their patience was razor thin. The impasse they were faced with ran the risk of exploding the entire effort to get aid for the Alliance in its current war even if you didn't count the Romulan threats to go to war.

    She took a moment to consult the notes on her digital pad. The information displayed here was at the heart of what she was going to argue to the others.

    "This meeting is becoming a waste of time," Gleer declared. The short Tellarite politician frowned at the assembled. "Romulan intransigence alone is bad enough, but to have every issue clouded by indecisiveness is unacceptable! I move that if we do not come to an agreement by the end of this session, the talks be broken off."

    "I would consider such a thing premature, Councillor," Ledosh answered. "Diplomacy is often slow."

    "The position of my government has not changed," tr'Lhaer insisted. "We cannot allow the Federation or the Klingon Empire to gain the interuniversal drive technology if the Romulan Star Empire is not granted it as well. And we are not mercenaries to be bought by the Alliance; we will not send Romulan soldiers to die in a war started by your errors."

    "If you will not fight for your spoils, tr'Lhaer, you do not deserve them," Kurn shot back.

    "Again, I remind you Klingon, if you get the technology and we do not, the Romulan Empire will declare war. We will have no choice."

    "Then perhaps we should go to war and settle this matter once and for all!"

    Picard stood and held up his hands. "Gentlemen, please. We are not here to fight a war among each other. Especially with the Dominion threat revealed to us. There is a diplomatic solution to this impasse."

    "I must respectfully disagree with that presumption, Captain Picard," Councillor T'Latrek said. "The positions of the participants are clearly irreconcilable."

    "Actually…" Julia raised a hand. "May I speak?"

    Picard nodded to her. "Commander Andreys, we would welcome any suggestions you might have."

    "Thank you, Captain Picard. Mastrash Ledosh." She nodded to Ledosh, ostensibly the lead negotiator anyway. She turned her head to Ambassador tr'Lhaer. "Ambassador, pardon me if I'm wrong, but under the Treaty of Algernon renewal sixty years ago, the Federation agreed not to use cloaking devices. Correct?"

    "That is correct," tr'Lhaer said.

    "And yet, there is one Federation ship with a cloaking device," Julia pointed out. "The Starship Defiant under Commander Sisko."

    Tr'Lhaer's expression shifted to concern. "Well, yes. That was the result of careful negotiating and the initial assignment of a Romulan officer to oversee the device's use. And that was just one vessel."

    "Yes. But it does establish a precedent." Julia looked over the display showing the term signed between the two states. "What if we did something similar?"

    "What do you mean, Commander?", Ledosh asked.

    "Well." Julia kept looking to tr'Lhaer. "The Romulans are obviously concerned that the drives could be used to launch attacks in their space. Away from their border stations and defenses. The way to prevent this is by having an Alliance officer responsible for the use of all drives equipped to Federation or Klingon ships. That officer would make sure the drives could never be targeted at a location within Romulan space."

    The others seemed to mull it over. "An interesting idea, Commander," T'Latrek agreed. "It would address the Romulan concern."

    Tr'Lhaer wasn't going to give it up that easily, though; he clearly had his heart set on something more. "Not sufficiently," he insisted.

    "It does seem sufficient for your needs, sir," Ledosh pointed out. "With further hardware and software guarantees, abuse of the drives would not be possible. The safety of the Romulan Empire would be guaranteed."

    Tr'Lhaer scowled and shook his head. "No. This is not enough. If the technology is disseminated in this galaxy, we demand we be among the recipients."

    "Then join us and fight the Reich," Julia said. "We'll welcome Romulan aid." She gestured to Picard. "As Captain Picard just pointed out, the Dominion is becoming a threat to everyone. Working together to fight the Reich may help create the ties the Alpha Quadrant needs to resist the Dominion."

    Tr'Lhaer inclined his head slightly. "Well played, Commander. But no. The Romulan Empire will not fight for you. And we will fight you if you give this technology to others without providing it to the Empire. This proposed failsafe is simply not enough."

    "The Romulan agenda of obstruction is unacceptable…"

    Julia raised her voice to cut through Gleer's protest. "Mister Ambassador, sir, I think you need to reconsider. The observers will grant the Romulan Empire all of the security it needs on the issue."

    "Perhaps Romulan observers could work with our own?", Ledosh proposed.

    Tr'Lhaer smacked a hand on his table. "No! Your choice is simple. No drives to anyone, drives to everyone, or war. The Romulan Empire will not stand by…"

    "...like it has for every other cause for war it's had over the past few years?", Julia demanded. She held up the pad. "I've got a list of here of every skirmish with the Klingons, every time the Federation or Romulan fleets have violated the Neutral Zone. The Romulan Empire has had plenty of reason to go to war so far. Bigger reasons than this one. But you haven't. You've maintained the peace whenever it was threatened. And that was without the Dominion as a threat on our common horizon."

    "Just what are you saying, Commander Andreys?"

    "I'm saying, Ambassador, that this is a bluff," Julia responded. "The Romulan Empire won't fight a war it can't win. You've already shown you're not willing to attack the Federation and Klingons. Not even when they were weakened by the Borg or civil war. And you'd add the Alliance to your list of enemies? You have to see how much damage that would cause. Even if we're already in one war, you're putting three powers against one. That's not a war you could win. And you won't get anything out of it. Not even the monitors for the IU drives we're offering to provide. "

    The room was dominated by silence for several moments. Julia and tr'Lhaer continued to gaze at each other intently, a contest of silence and will that would continue until one or the other blinked.

    Julia didn't bear to breathe when tr'Lhaer spoke again. "I see. Well, we certainly harbor no desires for a war. Allow me to communicate this offer to my government.'

    "That leaves the matter of Federation involvement." Ledosh looked to the Federation table.

    "Starfleet has other missions, taking losses in your war would jeopardize its ability to keep the peace," T'Latrek insisted.

    "Then what if they don't take losses?" Julia tapped her digital pad on the table. "What if, instead of joining the fighting directly, the Federation pledges aid to our refugee populations and provides Starfleet vessels to guard Alliance frontiers in other universes? That would free more of our ships for the fight."

    Picard replied to that with a small grin. "I believe such an arrangement would meet the favor of Starfleet Command," he said. "And, perhaps, given time… more direct assistance could occur as well."

    Gleer nodded with approval. T'Latrek seemed less than thrilled with it. But then again, as a Vulcan Julia imagined the older woman was never thrilled with anything.

    "And that leaves you, Councillor Kurn," Ledosh said. "If this arrangement with the Romulans is successful, would that satisfy the High Council?"

    Kurn nodded and smiled. "It would," he confirmed. "With sufficient drives, we could have five squadrons ready for combat immediately and fourteen more squadrons by the end of your year."

    "They'll be welcome at the front, Councillor," Julia assured him. "Is there anything else?" When no one answered, she looked to Ledosh. "Then with your approval, I say we recess and wait for Ambassador tr"Lhaer to get his government's response to the current proposal."

    With the following murmurs of agreement, the meeting ended. Tr'Lhaer departed immediately for his shuttle. Kurn flashed her a satisfied, toothy grin before going over to join his brother while the Federation delegation filed out quietly. All save for Picard. He looked at her with bemusement and said, "Well, that was quite satisfying."

    "Thankfully Commander Sisko saw my message immediately and got a reply back," Julia said. "I needed to confirm the arrangement about the Defiant."

    "It's not a commonly-known arrangement, certainly," Picard noted. "The observer proposal is likely the best deal we can get with the Romulans. Calling their bluff, however…"

    "...that's what I get for too many poker nights with Jarod," Julia said. "Not that we play as often as your crew does. Jarod wins too much."

    "So I recall," Picard said wryly. His expression turned to show concern. "Have you heard anything?"

    "The Sladen should be arriving at their target star at any time," Julia noted. "There's nothing we can do for them but hope and pray."

    "Indeed. Lunch, Commander?"

    Julia nodded. "Anything to get the nervousness out of my stomach."




    The solar system Epsilon Laris was empty when Sladen dropped out of warp beyond the outer edge of the system. Ahead of them was an uninterrupted course to the system's star.

    "Scans complete," Caterina said. "We're ready."

    "Lieutenant Caldwell, you are relieved for the moment," King said from her chair. The younger man nodded and vacated the helm, which was taken up by Data. She keyed the intercom. "Engineering. Commander Scott, are you prepared?"

    "Aye sir. All system checks complete. She's ready t' make history."

    Data moved his hands over the helm controls for the Sladen. From their place Jarod and Caterina finalized their portion of the calculations and relayed it to Data's board. "Calculations complete," Data stated.

    King now switched her intercom to ship-wide. "All hands, prepare for slingshot maneuver. Emergency power to structural integrity."

    "I've shored up the SIF fields as much as I can," Jarod said. "The rest is up to Data."

    "Whenever you are ready, Mister Data," King said. "Engage drives."

    "Aye sir."

    At Data's command Sladen went to warp again. The ship accelerated to high warp rapidly. "Warp 9.2," Data reported. "9.3…. 9.4…."

    "Thirty seconds from slingshot point," Jarod added.

    The ship began to shudder around them as they hit Warp 9.7. "Status on structural field?", King asked.

    "Holding, but strained," answered Ensign Skarsgard.

    ".... 9.8… 9.9… 9.91… 9.92…"

    Jarod added to the countdown while the ship continued to rock around them. "Slingshot in five… four… three…"

    "...9.94…"

    "...two … one!"

    At the precise moment, Data shifted the course of the Sladen to shift away from the sun. There was a surge of energy.

    And the Sladen was gone.




    "You have the gift as well."

    Robert blinked. He was in his quarters on the Aurora. But everything felt a little hazy. He looked beyond the bed to where Meridina was now standing. "Meridina?", he asked.

    "It is a heavy burden," she was saying. "Darkness and corruption will tempt you. But I know you are meant to have it." She extended a hand. Robert reached out for it, and found that he was now gripping her lakesh.

    Everything went dark. Suddenly he was in a massive windowed chamber looking out at a garden world. A single figure resplendent in white armor appraised him. His eyes were an unnatural gold-yellow color. "You have no idea of the power you stand against," he intoned to Robert. HIs voice was deep. His words were spoken with deliberation. "This is my domain. My Empire. And you will not survive."

    There was fire and heat around him. A courtyard of some sort, or waiting area, and metal shapes that had flames and sparks licking from them. One shadowy metal figure looked above him. Robert reached for his weapon and felt a hilt. He thought it was a lakesh Before he could fight back, a blur of blue energy slammed into the robotic thing. There was a terrible thunder as a large round ripped into it….

    And then it went quiet. He looked out to a field of gold wheat swaying gently in the summer wind. A familiar barn and combine harvester stood nearby.

    It was the family porch, on the rear side of the family house. The house was painted light brown, an earthy tone his grandfather had loved.

    "Well, Rob, how have you been?"

    The voice had the gravelly character of a man late in life. The very sound of it made Robert's heart flutter. He turned his head and realized he was sitting on the family's swinging bench. Chains above suspended it from the ceiling of the porch. And beside him was his grandfather.

    Allen Dale resembled him in a number of ways. Same chin, jawline, facial structure, and similar build. His eyes were a dark brown - Robert had gotten his green eyes from his mother - and his brown hair had long turned gray. He was wearing a traditional farmer's outfit; blue suspender pants with plentiful pockets over a green shirt. A straw hat was at his side. "How have you been, my boy?", he asked.

    "Grandpa…?" Robert blinked. "What…"

    "I know I'm supposed to be dead and all," Allen said. "But I'm a part of your life, Rob. Always will be. And you sound like you could use a good talk with your elders."

    Robert stopped. He felt sadness at the knowledge that no, that wouldn't be happening. Not outside of a dream.

    "It's what dreams are for," the elderly man insisted. "Reminds us of what we've lost and what we've got ahead. And boy do you have a lot of things ahead of you, Rob. Fightin' the same monsters I did."

    "Is that why you enlisted, Grandpa?"

    "I told you how I ended up in the Army when you were eight, Rob," Allen reminded him. "It's in the family blood. A Dale boy grows up on the farm, goes off to serve, then comes home to farm. It's how things are done. I'd have gone into the Army even if Hitler hadn't shown up." He clapped Robert on the shoulder. "Not that I'm against having fought the SOB."

    "Why am I dreaming of this?", Robert asked. "Why this instead of…"

    "I figure you wanted to talk, young man," Allen said, interrupting him. "Or you just needed someone to assure you that you're still on the straight and narrow of life. And you are."

    "I like to think so," Robert admitted. "But… what if Phlox is right? What if I'm only doing this out of some psychological compulsion to follow my compassion? What if I cause more harm than not? What if… sometimes it's better to just nature take its course?"

    "Well, maybe you will sometimes, Rob," Allen said. "Only the Lord knows what's really meant to be, though. He doesn't expect us to just blindly walk through life, though. We're supposed to act and do what we think is right. Let the worryin' about what's natural be with God Almighty. That's His place. Our's is to do right in the world, to do what we can, and have faith it'll work out in the end."

    Robert swallowed and nodded. "I just… what if I make the wrong choice? I've already made bad ones."

    "Not bad ones. Just wrong ones. All you can do then is try and make up for it, learn from it." Allen reached over and gave Robert a pat on the shoulder. "Now go back out there, boy, and have faith that you're doin' the right thing. And give those swastika-wearin' jackasses an extra kick in the ass from your Grandpa Allen, you hear?"

    Robert went to react. But before he could speak again a strange sound came to mind. It was the howl of.. a wolf? But a wolf, in Kansas? Was that…?

    Robert's eyes opened. The lights of the Enterprise sickbay were shining again. Phlox was standing nearby with a scanner. "Ah, you're awake. I hope you had sufficient rest."

    "I… suppose," Robert replied.

    "Good." Phlox tapped the monitor. "It looks like you have healed quite well from the remaining damage. Your recovery is quite nearly finished.

    "I guess it will be time to…"

    Before Robert could finish that statement, the sickbay doors opened. Archer entered. He looked as tired as Robert felt. He had, indeed, been thinking heavily of the decision being made.

    Neither of them spoke while Archer approached. He nodded at Robert and looked to Phlox. "You've made your decision, Captain?", Phlox asked.

    Archer nodded. "I have." He seemed to think on what he was going to say. "Some day, my people will come up with a directive on what we can or can't do out here. Until that day comes, I'm going to have to remind myself that we didn't come out here to play God." Archer shook his head. "But this isn't just about what's natural, or what constitutes playing God. This is about millions of innocent civilians who are going to die if we don't act to save them. Doctor Phlox, while I understand your position, I can't agree with it. Please prepare the cure for distribution to the Valakians immediately."

    Phlox answered with a nod. "I do understand your position, Captain. I am still concerned that you are not taking into account the effect this will have on the Menk. But I can't deny that the issue is a complex one, and that provision of the cure is an ethical choice. I will start to follow your order immediately."

    "Thank you, Doctor." Archer remained silent while Phlox went off to do just that. After Phlox was over in the lab area, he looked back to Robert. "He has a point," Archer said. "Maybe it doesn't apply in this case, but I know it will."

    "You mean about getting involved, about interfering?", Robert asked.

    "Exactly." Archer nodded. "For centuries, explorers and statesmen have gotten themselves involved with other peoples, other nations. Sometimes it's been out of greed and sometimes they met well. Either way, the results were usually bad. Entire civilizations and nations were destroyed or forcefully changed into something else. Explorers became conquerors. Statesmen built empires. I don't want history to repeat itself for us. Not out here. This is a chance for Humanity to make a new start."

    "It's easy to say that now," Robert said. "But what happens when the choice is interfering and saving lives, or not interfering and allowing horrible things to happen? Can you really say it's worse to change a society if that society's become something like, say, Nazi Germany?"

    "That's something of an extreme example, you have to admit," Archer pointed out.

    "I know, but let's just say that I have my reasons for why the Nazis came to mind."

    "Ah." Archer nodded his head briefly in acceptance of the point. "It's always going to be a tough decision. I'm not going to lie about that. We have to balance our better instincts, our compassion and generosity, with our understanding that we might not know what's best for another people. Either way, I think we're going to need a rule, a directive, on what we can or can't do out here. I don't want it to be a strait jacket, maybe more of a signpost to guide starship captains in these situations, but it is necessary. We need that reminder that our actions have consequences."

    "I've had to accept that even good actions can have negative consequences." Robert stepped up to him. "I just don't believe in letting fear of those consequences keep us from doing good. Because men like us can do a lot of good out here. A lot of it."

    "Well said." Archer checked a watch on his wrist. "Would you like some breakfast?"

    "Breakfast would be good," Robert admitted, feeling a low growl in his stomach despite the late dinner. "But I have a question first."

    "Oh?"

    Robert looked around. "I was wearing a uniform under my EVA suit. Can you tell me where it is?"

    "I had it put away," he replied. "Follow me."




    After the time spent on Enterprise in the jumpsuits or contemporary uniform, Robert felt good in being back in his proper uniform. It had a little damage to it from where the EVA suit had failed; the cuffs were the main sufferers, being dinged up as they were.

    After taking the time to make sure it looked right, Robert stepped out of Archer's bathroom and faced the Captain of the Enterprise as he was sitting in a chair, rubbing his beagle's ears. The sight made Robert smile. "You brought your dog out here?"

    "He's my buddy, why wouldn't I?" Archer smiled back. "Porthos, say hello."

    The beagle gave Robert a slightly confused look, followed up by a light bark. He licked at Robert's hand as the younger captain reached down and gave him a pet on the head.

    "We had a German shepherd while I was growing up," Robert said. "And later a collie."

    "Big dogs."

    "Well, good for the farm." Robert sighed. "We lost the collie just a year before… well…."

    "I understand," Archer assured him. He set Porthos down and stood up. "So, breakfast should be ready."

    Robert followed Archer through the halls of the ship and to the officers' dining room. The entire Enterprise crew, even Phlox, were present, sitting over plates with breakfast foods like cereal, sausages, eggs, and bacon. Robert had only met a couple of the others - T'Pol and Hoshi Sato - and was now introduced as "our guest in the spacesuit" to the others. Archer had given him a seat to his left, putting Robert opposite from T'Pol. A "guest of honor" sort of seat.

    Tucker, the engineer, smirked at him. "You're lucky we heard ya," he said with a Southern twang to his voice. "Gotta say, I'd love to find out how to make an EVA suit like your's."

    "From what I'm told, you might as well keep it," Robert noted.

    "What ship did you come from?" That question was from Ensign Mayweather. "I didn't think there were any ships running this way?"

    "That's… well… you wouldn't believe me if I told you."

    "Well, with no debris being present, I think we can rule out an attack." That was from the English-accented Lieutenant Reed.

    "I would suggest that it had something to do with the subspace disturbance I read on sensors shortly before Ensign Sato picked up your suit transponder." T'Pol looked up from her plate. Unlike the others, she had only toast and non-meat products on her plate. Robert was surprised to see she was still in a uniform that looked more like a catsuit than something he'd expect from Vulcans.

    "You're probably right about that."

    "Well, don't keep us in suspense forever," Tucker said. "Give us the lowdown."

    Robert thought about it while helping himself to some pancakes and bacon. "Pass the syrup please?", he asked. Tucker immediately complied and he began pouring the thick brown liquid down on the pancake stack on his plate. He took a wad of butter and put it on the stack.

    "So, subspace disturbance."

    "Uh. Hrm. Well, the simplified version? There was a shuttlecraft. It had a bomb on board. I saved my ship and crew and best friends by flying the shuttle into what you might call a wormhole of sorts. I jumped out of the shuttle just before it went in, it went boom, and… there was a flash of red and next thing I knew, I was waking up in your sickbay."

    "The most obvious explanation is that the explosion caused a destabilization in the… 'wormhole'..." T'Pol's voice made it clear she wasn't entirely believing of his explanation. "...and caused a gravitational shift that pulled you into it. You are quite lucky to be alive."

    "That's me sometimes. Lucky." Robert finally got to take a bite of the pancakes. He allowed himself an audible sound of pleasure at it and, upon swallowing, said, "Just like Grandma's."

    That seemed to amuse Archer. "I'll let the galley know you approve."

    "Jumping out of a shuttlepod." Reed shook his head. "You would have been better off blowing it from a distance."

    "The bomb was too big," Robert said. "It would have wrecked my ship."

    "Sounds like you did the sort of heroic thing that can appeal to certain Humans," Phlox observed.

    "Or maybe you just have a death wish," Sato suggested with some mirth.

    "Everyone back… home… will probably call me crazy."

    "Well, Hoshi tells me you're a Kansas boy," Tucker said.

    "I am."

    "How long's your family been there?"

    "Since before Kansas was a state. The Dales emigrated to support the free-state constitution in Lawrence. And then my ancestors fought for the Union. Well, most of them anyway..."

    "Well…" Tucker smiled slightly. "Can't all be perfect, can we?"

    "Three hundred years," Robert sighed. "And you Southerners still haven't gotten over it?" It was a teasing remark, and the smile on Tucker's face showed he was taking it in that spirit.

    The breakfast continued with small talk. Phlox's presence was due to the wait for his machinery to craft more of the genetic resequencing formula that would save the Valakians. Robert remained quiet for much of it, getting the chance to enjoy getting to know these people. It was interesting how alike they could be to what he knew despite a century and a half of separation from his own time. And one day their descendants will be Picard and his Starfleet. The march of history can be amazing.

    "So, what are your plans now?", Archer asked him.

    "Um. Plans." Robert shrugged. "Hope my friends can find me, I guess."

    "Well, in case they can't, you might want to think about Starfleet…"

    Just as Archer finished that thought, a beep sounded in the officers' mess. Robert brought up his arm and tapped the screen of his multi-device on. "Huh."

    "I'd love to have something like that," Mayweather said.

    "What is it?", Archer asked.

    "It's… a signal. Something is remotely accessing my multidevice."

    "Someone's hacking you?", Reed asked with obvious concern.

    "No. Not hacking, just making a connection…." The screen changed to show an incoming message. Rob, is that you? He tapped out a quick reply to inquire as to who it was and confirm it was him.

    A reply came through. Thank God. My sister's probably going to slap you when we get back. Standby for beamout.

    "Your friends?", Archer asked.

    "Yeah." Robert nodded and looked at everyone. He felt a relieved smile cross his face. "They found me, I'm going home."

    "Happy to hear it," Archer said.

    "Thank you, Captain Archer, everyone, for being good hosts," Robert answered. "Safe travels to you all. And thank you, Doctor Phlox." Robert looked down the table at him. "Thank you for saving my life and for making the right choice with the Valakians. You're doing the right...."

    White light grew in intensity at Robert's place until he disappeared within it.

    "That's not a normal transporter effect," Reed observed.

    There was a beep on the ship's intercom. Archer stood and went over to the speaker, where he pressed the receive key. "Archer here."

    "Captain, we just picked up a surge of energy in the officers' mess, is everything alright?"

    "Everything is fine." Archer thought on it. "Did we just pick up a ship entering the system?"

    "No, sir. No ships are on sensors."

    "Alright. Stand down. Everything's alright." Archer looked back to the others. "It was just our guest getting his ride home."




    "....thing."

    Robert finished speaking as the transporter took hold of him. The Enterprise crew disappeared and he found himself on the transporter platform of another ship. For a moment he thought it was the Koenig.

    Scotty looked up from the controls. "Ah, there you are lad."

    Robert blinked at him. "Scotty? It's you… where are we?"

    "Aye. We're on th' Sladen."

    "The Sladen." Robert tried to think of where he'd heard the name before. "Right. One of the ships based off Koenig."

    "That'll be her."

    Robert stepped down and shook the engineer's hand. "Good to see you. Should I ask how you got back to this time?"

    "Ye'll be seein' how soon, sir, we should be back at th' target star within th' hour."

    Before Robert could ask what he meant, the door to the Sladen Transporter Station opened. Caterina rushed in, squeed in joy, and rushed up to embrace him. "You had us so worried!", she declared. "We thought you… you died!"

    Robert swallowed at that. "Yeah, that was close," he admitted. "I'm sorry for making you worry. But… how did you get…?"

    "Scotty, Jarod and Data want you to double-check the slingshot calculations," Cat said, looking to the older man. "I think they're right, but getting the slingshot to send us forward instead of backward is tricky in the math."

    "That it is. I'll head straight t' th' bridge an' give it a look-over."

    Scotty returned the controls to the young crew rating who had been manning the station. He looked barely over twenty and had only one enlisted rank stripe; Robert imagined he was fresh out of enlistment training. "So, what was it like?", Cat asked. "I mean, the being thrown back in time bit?"

    "I was unconscious for that part," he answered truthfully. "I blacked out right after that jump point went red and woke up on the Enterprise."

    "The NX-01. Oh, that must have been cool. Did you get along with them…?" Caterina showed sudden concern. "Oh, did you say anything to them about the future? That's really important, I don't want to go back and find the timeline heavily changed or anything."

    "I didn't say word one about the future," Robert answered. "Although Archer has apparently met time travelers before."

    Caterina blinked. "Really? That's strange, there was nothing in the history datafiles Starfleet showed us…"

    "I'm guessing it got classified," Robert said. "Anyway, do you mind if we head to the mess?"

    "Hrm?" Cat looked at him like he'd just said something weird. "The mess? Why?"

    "Because…" Robert chuckled. "You guys snatched me up before I could finish breakfast. And I have the strangest need to devour pancakes right now."

    Cat laughed at that, and Robert joined in the laugh. Just an hour ago he'd been afraid that he would never see them again. Now…. well, here they were.

    He was going home.




    Sladen dropped out of warp near Enceladus and signaled the Aurora, prompting everyone to get to the attack ship dock built into the back of the ship's primary hull.

    Julia, Angel, Leo, and Lucy were waiting at the dock - as was Picard - when Robert stepped out with the others. The welcoming committee smiled and went up to him. Julia got the first hug. "You gave us all a scare, Robby," she murmured into his ear.

    "I know," he answered. He gave her a pat on the back. "I'm sorry.

    "I'd like to give you an examination in the medbay as soon as you can get there," Leo insisted, being the next to give a hug. A shorter one, granted. "I'm surprised you survived."

    "I had help." Robert moved on to Lucy, who hugged him. He accepted Picard's hand. "Captain."

    "Captain," the older man said. "I'm sure you've got quite the story to tell."

    "It's going to be a long report, I'm sure," he replied. "I kept quiet about anything I thought might cause knowledge of the future to get out."

    "Good. As it is, I suspect the Department of Temporal Investigations is still going to insist on a debriefing."

    "I'm sure we can do that in the spirit of mutual cooperation." Robert sighed. "Although it sounds like I won't enjoy it."

    "You probably won't," Picard admitted.

    Robert nodded and move on to Angel, who had stayed back. He spread his arms for a hug and stopped. There was something in her face that told him that she was about to practically boil over with emotion. "Angel?"

    Angel's fists clenched. Her body tensed. She looked ready to scream in frustration. But instead of a scream, her words were "Ah, to hell with it". She went up to Robert and grabbed him by the arms.

    And she kissed him.

    And it wasn't a short kiss either. The kiss lingered, like she was afraid of ending it, and Robert embraced her as he returned the kiss. Everyone watched with a varying amount of bemusement or quiet appreciation. When they stopped for air Robert smiled and said, "Well, I missed you too."

    He saw her hand coming even before it rushed up and caught him in the side of the face. "Bastard," Angel swore. "Don't you ever do something like that again! Isn't it enough that we've already lost so much?"

    "I'm sorry, Angel," he answered. "But it was something that had to be done."

    Angel sighed with frustration and kissed him again.

    Everyone moved around them. Julia did not, and so she saw the dark look that crossed King's face. She felt a sudden concern surge through her and walked to the two. "How about public displays of affection be held off for later?" she asked.

    They complied and everyone left.

    All except King, who returned to her ship.
     
  7. Threadmarks: 1-14 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 29 July 2641. Captain Robert Dale recording. The diplomatic impasse has been resolved. Ambassador tr'Lhaer informed us this morning that the Romulan Empire has accepted Commander Andreys' suggestion that Alliance observer officers, under Romulan oversight, will be assigned to any Federation or Klingon ship equipped with IU drives. While it is merely a short-term solution to the question of the Alpha Quadrant's balance of power, it will allow for the aid we are seeking to be provided in a timely fashion. While there will be further terms to iron out, Mastrash Ledosh's preliminary arrangements will allow for our current diplomatic representation in the Federation to finish the fine details. As such, we will be departing soon for another diplomatic mission.

    As for my unexpected trip to the past… I found it an educating experience. The questions posed are those we will be dealing with whenever we go into the unknown and meet other cultures. I find that it gives me a little more understanding of what the Federation's Prime Directive was meant to accomplish. While I do not agree with how it is applied sometimes, I can see now that they had a reason for writing it. Captain Archer was right; we all need such a signpost to be sure we're not causing more harm than good.



    There was to be one last conference on Aurora, a formality with the various delegations signing protocols to government the expanded diplomatic negotiations soon to begin back on Earth. Robert attended in dress uniform this time, as did Julia, with Picard in the Starfleet version of a dress uniform as well.

    All four delegations had assembled with digital copies of the negotiating protocols laid out. The protocols were exactly what they had come to establish; they lined out that details aside, the Alliance would be giving IU drives away to powers that provided a material contribution to the war effort, be it Klingon participation or the Federation sending expeditionary squadrons to protect other Alliance frontiers, freeing up more Alliance ships for war service. The safeguards insisted upon for the Romulans were also laid out in language that Ambassador tr'Lhaer had put in and which, with some argument, had been accepted.

    "So I hear that they should be calling these the 'Andreys Protocols'," Robert murmured to Julia while they waited for the final member of the Federation delegation: the replacement for "Tanno" the Changeling.

    Julia blushed slightly. "I'll stick with 'Gleer', honestly. The last thing I need is everyone wanting me to be the diplomat."

    "Heaven forbid," Robert agreed. He sighed. "I hear that Relini's ad hoc fleet forced the Reich to withdraw from Hakmari."

    "She did," Julia confirmed. "We got the final report last night. She lost half of her fleet in the fight, but the Reich pulled back."

    "So it's not a smashing victory," Robert said. "But maybe a start."

    "Maybe." Julia's face darkened. "Or maybe they decided to pull back and build up for a bigger hit."

    "Yeah."

    "So." Julia grinned at him, looking to change the subject. "Angel must have let you have it last night."

    Now it was Robert's turn to blush. "She couldn't decide whether to scream at me for my 'idiotic courage' or throw me into the bed." He chuckled. "So she did both."

    "Sounds like her. You really gave us all a big fright."

    "I'm sorry," he said. "I just… felt like I knew what was going on. And I knew I didn't have much time to spare."

    "You did what had to be done," Julia insisted. "And nobody got hurt. That's the important thing."

    Before they could continue their conversation the door swished open and Meridina entered. She was leading the Federation Exterior Secretary, Darvan. Robert had never seen Darvan before so he turned and looked toward him.

    And he found himself gasping slightly in surprise.

    Darvan was a Valakian.

    Nor was he alone. At his side was another male, with alien features Robert had seen before.

    "A Menk?", he asked under his breath.

    "Greetings to you all," the Menk said. "I am Paro, senior aide to Exterior Secretary Darvan. We're sorry for being late. Our shuttle was delayed."

    Robert had questions buzzing in his mind while Ledosh thanked the man and directed him to his seat. Darvan consulted with the other Federation Council members in hushed tones before looking over the protocols. Without any further word he ran his stencil over them, giving them an electronic signature. This signaled everyone else to do the same.

    When the signing portion was over the delegations began to excuse themselves. This was no conference to be ended with a dinner; negotiations would begin in earnest within a few days on Earth, with Ledosh handing control over to Ambassador Karpari. And they would be on their way elsewhere.

    "Well, we did it," Julia murmured to him. "Whatever details get worked out, we'll be getting Klingon ships on the front soon."

    "Given everything that's happened, I'm surprised we managed," Robert murmured back. He watched with curiosity as Paro approached him. "May I help you?", he asked.

    The Menk smiled at him. "I was curious. I had heard of you. Wanted to meet you." His words were spoken with careful deliberation.

    Robert offered his hand. "Well, it's a pleasure meeting you, sir."

    Paro accepted it and they shook hands. "You are… familiar," he said.

    "Oh?"

    "I am a historian of my people. I have studied the First Contact with the Humans. The Human crew and alien doctor who healed our friends the Valakians." A knowing smile crossed Paro's face. "You must have had an ancestor. I saw a face like yours in the records."

    Julia gave Robert a concerned look. Robert nodded and smiled at Paro. "Small galaxy, sir. That's all."

    The Menk chuckled at that. He looked to where his boss was chatting with Kurn. "Take care, Captain. Be well." He stepped away.

    When he was apparently out of earshot Julia looked to Robert. "Looks like you have an admirer."

    "I just look like a historical figure, that's all," Robert insisted.

    "Sure." Julia shook her head. "This is why I don't want anything to do with time travel." She checked the time on her multi-device. "And speaking of that, you should be getting to your office. Those DTI agents should be arriving at any time."

    Robert sighed. "I'm not Starfleet. Can't I duck them?"

    "You saw Maran's orders," Julia answered. "Cooperation is the word."

    "A small price to pay to win the war, I suppose." Robert nodded. "All right. Make sure Kurn and tr'Lhaer don't kill each other before tr'Lhaer's back to his shuttle. I'm off to get grilled by time cops."




    Several hours of grilling later, Robert was nursing a headache and sipping a coffee when Picard entered his office. "Well." The older captain smiled thinly at him. "I see you have learned why Starfleet officers avoid time travel whenever possible."

    "I thought Lucsly was going to drag me to your penal colonies himself," Robert answered. "I seriously thought Hawthorne and Davies were the harshest critics I'd faced until now."

    "We take the Temporal Prime Directive very seriously." Picard took a seat. "The consequences of interfering with history could be truly disastrous."

    "Well, I had no idea how the Valakian issue was supposed to go," Robert replied. "So I did what I thought was right."

    "I've often wondered what convinced Doctor Phlox to change his mind," Picard said. "Captain Archer was a great figure but he was still so inexperienced at that point in his voyages, I had trouble believing he alone stood up to Phlox."

    "It makes me wonder how the Valakians took it when they found out he wanted to withhold the cure," Robert said.

    "By the time that became widespread knowledge, his understanding was more accepted," Picard explained. "Because of the provision of the cure, the Valakians' technological advancement languished for half a generation, and it took them a quarter-century longer to discover warp travel than was estimated. They gained a reputation in the 22nd Century for seeking out other alien species to buy technology from instead of developing it themselves, further impacting their ability to develop. As such, because of the clear issue of what Archer's decision led to, the Valakian case was seen as an important lesson in the need for a non-interference directive."

    "Even though that intervention saved lives," Robert pointed out.

    "Well, as the saying goes Robert… 'No good deed goes unpunished'."

    Robert let out a small laugh at that. "You know…" He sipped at his coffee and cradled the mug in his hands. "I thought about what would happen if nobody could come back for me."

    "Oh?", Picard asked.

    "Yeah. I received some suggestions from Archer and Phlox on joining their crew, or joining Starfleet. Maybe becoming a Captain in Starfleet after some time."

    Picard considered that. "Well, that would have been truly disruptive to the timeline. But I can understand the appeal. It was an amazing time, the mid-22nd Century. The founding of the Coalition, the Romulan War, the creation of the Federation, first contact with so many species that we take for granted today. I suppose that, if I had to choose another era of history to live in… I might choose that time period."

    "I can see why. But what amused me was the idea that if I did stay, and I became a Captain…" Robert shook his head. "...that maybe I'd end up being the reason the Federation wrote the Prime Directive in the first place. And now, from what you've said… I am."

    Picard chuckled in response. "You contributed, certainly. Rather ironic, I admit."

    "Yeah." Robert sipped the coffee again. "So, from what I've read, the Menk have actually gotten better over the last two centuries."

    "Yes. Several communities showed increased intelligence into the late 23rd Century and exposure to the increasing Valakian technology spurred them to progress further. Today we consider them to have undergone speciation, with Menk and 'Developed Menk' populations. It may still take them several centuries to finish developing into a more advanced species but they are on their way to becoming equal to the Valakians."

    "So Phlox's fears about the Valakians making them stagnate weren't right after all." Robert nodded. "Would be nice to tell him. Well, if I could without having to time travel again. Or warp the timeline beyond all repair."

    "Indeed."

    Robert set his coffee down and put his hands together on his desk. "Honestly, in a way, I think it was a good thing this happened."

    "Oh?"

    "Yes. Even with time cops yelling at me." Robert smirked for a moment before his expression evened out. "Talking with Archer and Phlox, arguing about the Valakian cure, it all reminded me of why I'm out here. Of why I am the way I am."

    "It's always best to be reminded of such," Picard stated. "To keep in touch with who we are and understand what makes us like that."

    "Phlox made a comparison I'd heard before. That I behaved like a 'White Knight'. I'm willing to intervene, even if I don't know the consequences, because my sense of compassion compels me to help people suffering. But he also made me accept that… that a part of it is that it's how I cope." Robert closed his eyes as his mind briefly dwelled on the things that made his heart ache. "I know what it's like to lose the people you love. To lose everything. So I guess it makes me even more determined to keep other people from suffering the same. Because that's something you and me, that any person in any position, can do. The good we can do while we're out here… Being able to make that sort of a difference, to stop suffering, it's something I want to do. Something I'm willing to sacrifice for."

    Picard nodded. Robert noticed, to some surprise, that he seemed very affected. "Quite well put," Picard admitted. A pained look was coming to his face.

    "Jean-Luc?"

    "I know how you lost your closest family," Picard said, "and I can sympathize with you. More now than before." He swallowed. "I didn't just lose the Enterprise, Robert. My brother and nephew, they… died in a fire not long ago."

    Robert swallowed at that. "Oh my God… I'm sorry. I'm sorry for your loss, Jean-Luc."

    "I can see what you mean. This kind of pain, I don't think anyone should have to feel it. I wouldn't wish to see this happen to anyone. At the same time, I know I can't always do that. I swore an oath. And ultimately… sometimes there really is nothing we can do."

    That prompted a nod. "I understand your position more now than I did when we first met," Robert said.

    "And I understand your's."

    They went quiet for several moments. "Well, I suppose there's nothing more to say on that," Robert finally admitted. "Jarod wanted me to make an offer to you and your officers."

    "Yes?"

    "We're not due to leave for a couple more days at least. And I know our calendars don't exactly match up, but tomorrow is a Friday on the UAS calendar," Robert noted. "And Jarod wants to have a poker night again. You and your officers are invited. We'll have it in the Lookout."

    Picard considered that. A small smile crossed his face. "We would be delighted."

    "I'll let Jarod know so he can schedule things with Hargert. Now…" Robert noticed a light come on his personal system. "...I am getting a call. It's my cousin." He smiled. "Yeah, I imagine she wants to talk."

    "I'll leave you to that." Picard stood up.

    Robert smiled back and pressed the key to open the channel. "Beth, how are…"

    "Robert Allen Dale, how dare you?!," Beth Rankin declared from a universe away. "How dare you put me through that and then leave me hanging with just a simple text message! You should have called me!"

    "Beth, I…"

    "I thought you were dead, Robert. We're the last of the family and I thought you were dead! And then Julia said things about time travel and it… it just seemed… and you...."

    Picard stopped at the door and allowed himself a small grin of bemusement at Robert's failed attempts to calm his cousin. He moved on as Beth continued her tirade, until the closing door cut off her voice.




    The next day Robert and Julia were going over personnel reports in Robert's ready office. "....and the Gamma Shift shop staff is still two fabrication specialists short," Julia was saying. "They never made good on our casualties after that fight at Puril."

    "Anything from Personnel about transfers?", Robert asked.

    "We were in the pipeline, but given the message this morning… they're not eager to send us replacement personnel at the moment." Julia sighed. "I guess we're not a priority given we're off the lines."

    "The problem is we'll be short on making replacement parts if that holds up," Robert mumbled. "I hate to do it, but maybe see about getting some of the engineers from Beta and Alpha shifts?"

    Julia winced. "Oh, they're not going to like that. Honestly, it would be better to promote a couple of the ordinary crew ratings. I've got about a dozen, minimum, up for meritorious promotion."

    "And send them to Gamma Shift for fabrication training?" Robert thought on that. "Well, I suppose. It does sound better. But won't that cut into our reserve to cover other losses?"

    "I'll make it work," Julia promised. "Personnel might be more willing to throw a couple of newer enlistees our way instead of trained personnel."

    "Which dilutes our effectiveness," Robert noted. He drew in a sigh. "But we're at war, so I can't be surprised. Although Personnel seems really stingy given our priority assignment status. They never even got around to replacing the crew we left with Zack to fill out Koenig's complement..."

    "Yeah, well, you never know how many of them might be in line with Davies and Hawthorne." Julia couldn't hide the distaste in her voice. "Anyway, that…"

    There was a chime at the door. "Come in," Robert called out.

    The door slid open and Commander King walked in. She was holding a digital pad, which she handed to Robert upon walking up to the desk. "Captain Dale, I've been ordered to report to your command."

    Robert and Julia exchanged looks before he checked the pad. It was a transfer order for the ASV Sladen, re-assigning the ship to be Aurora's new backup vessel in the place of Koenig. Maran's signature was on the bottom. "Ah. Good." Robert looked over the order. "I see you're still officially on shakedown cruise."

    King nodded. "We are. I request permission to commence further deployments immediately. I wish to get my crew acclimated to their duties."

    "Yes, of course," Robert answered. He used a stencil to sign his receipt of the order and handed it back to King. "Welcome to our crew, Commander. We're honored to have you."

    That prompted another stiff nod. "Thank you, Captain. Permission to be dismissed?"

    "Certainly. And you're invited to tonight's poker game, Commander."

    "That's alright, Captain, I am not a gambler," King replied promptly. She left through the door.

    Julia watched King go. "Well, this will take some getting used to," she said.

    "Yeah. Just reminds me that Zack's no longer around." Robert sighed and checked the time. "We'd better go file our final reports. We don't want to be late for the poker game."

    Julia smirked. "How many hands do you think it'll take for Jarod to wipe us all out?"

    "Oh, I think we're getting better." Robert responded to the smirk with a wide smile. "I'll give us at least ten hands before someone goes down."

    "Five," Julia said.

    "It'll be interesting, at least. And come on, at least ten."

    "Five," Julia repeated. "It's Jarod."

    All Robert could do was chuckle.




    Commander King stepped into her spartan office facility on the Sladen and took her seat. Lieutenant Caldwell had the new duty rosters drawn up for Sladen's crew to cross-train on Aurora for emergencies, at least while they were docked to the larger ship, and she took the time to check the rosters and sign off on them. Once that duty was over, she was clear to move on to other duties.

    Her hands moved quickly over her computer controls, configuring the signal she was sending. When she received the appropriate response, she opened the private channel. "The assignment's been made, sir," she said. "I'm here."

    On her screen, Admiral Davies was at his desk in his main office in Defense Command. The Portland skyline was visible in the windows behind him. "I heard about this time travel mission they had you do," Davies said. "I hope everything went well?"

    "It went as planned," King answered. "Admiral, I can already confirm your suspicions about the fraternization issue."

    "That doesn't surprise me, Commander," Davies replied. "But as unprofessional as that is, it's not enough for me to go on. The forces at play are too powerful to let that work."

    "I understand," King said. "As soon as they do anything objectionable I'll make sure you are informed immediately."

    "I know you will. But be careful around them, Commander. Dale and his people might trust you enough not to question your assignment, but that Gersallian's a mind-reader. And she's the most dangerous of them by far. If you have even the slightest inkling that she's onto you, report it immediately and take what measures you deem necessary for your own protection."

    King put her hands together on the table. "My own protection? Do you really believe Commander Meridina poses a threat?"

    "There's no telling what she and her kind are capable of, Commander," Davies said. He saw something on his end. "The carrier wave will dissipate shortly. Keep on your primary mission and keep me apprised of further developments."

    "I understand, sir."

    "Good. Davies out."




    There was silence in the Lookout. All eyes, of players and observers alike, were on the two figures looking at each other across the middle of the oval table. The middle was full of small silver and gold discs - betting chips.

    At the head of the table, Commander Data dealt out only two cards, face-up. "Queen of Hearts to Commander Jarod, Four of Hearts to Commander Riker." Data's own cards were all face up; he had folded at the second round with cards, two of which were spades, but no visible pairs or other combinations.

    There was a sigh from one corner. "Here we go again," Angel groaned, seated close to Robert.

    Riker and Jarod made no obvious response to that. The two had possessed the largest piles of chips when this round began and now many of those chips were in the pot, as were several others from various players who had all bowed out in the earlier rounds to avoid being bankrupted by the two. Each looked over their cards, not bothering to check their hole cards. Jarod now had a rich hand; the new Queen had given him a pair of queens and an ace. Riker had a pair of Kings, Clubs and Diamonds, and his new 4 showing. He had the best hand showing and opened up the betting. "Two hundred," he said.

    Locarno whistled from his seat. Beside him, Caterina was slipping to the edge of her seat and brimming with excitement.

    Jarod smiled slightly and reached into his own pile. "Two hundred and one hundred more." He tossed in his raise.

    Riker's face remained impassive. It showed no more emotion than Data's. After several seconds of looking at Jarod's cards, he reached into his own pile. "One hundred," he said. Now the pile on the table was truly large, enough that the winner would easily win the rest of the night by attrition. After several moments of thought he tossed in the hundred.

    Data dealt out two more cards. "Jack of Clubs to Commander Jarod. Ace of Spades to Commander Riker."

    Riker's hand was still the best visible one. He opened the round with a hefty bet. "Two hundred." It was hefty, if not extremely aggressive.

    Jarod looked at his own pile. And at Riker's cards, and his own. Calculation showed on his features, and for good reason; if he folded, he would at least manage to hold onto enough chips to stay in the game for several more hands. Of course, Riker would have the advantage for the rest of the night.

    The smile on his face grew. "Two hundred." Jarod reached for more chips. "And another two hundred." This left Jarod with perilously few chips.

    Riker looked over Jarod's cards and his own. Everyone watched and waited to see if he'd match or fold.

    Surprise and disbelief was the response when Riker threw in the requisite two hundred, exhausting his pile to the point that the next hand would wipe him out. "Two hundred. Call. Let's see that hand, Mister Jarod."

    Jarod's smile shifted slightly. He reached for his hole card and flipped it; the Ace of Hearts.

    "Commander Jarod has two pairs, Aces and Queens," Data reported for the benefit of the gathering audience. "Commander Riker."

    Everyone was waiting with held breath as Riker's fingers gripped the hole card before him and flipped it.

    The King of Spades.

    "Three Kings." Data blinked. "Congratulations, Commander. You win the pot."

    Eyes widened. Jaws dropped.

    Jarod inclined his head to Riker and handed his defeated hand to Data.

    Finally a wide smile split Riker's face as he reached forward for his winnings.

    "He beat Jarod," Angel gasped.

    "That was so cool," Caterina declared.

    "Congratulations, Will," Troi said, patting Riker on the shoulder.

    "Excellent hand, Mister Jarod," Riker said.

    "Not good enough," Jarod sighed. "I was hoping for that third Ace. And I thought you were bluffing."

    "I've found that it's always a good thing to fake bluffing once and awhile," Riker remarked. "It keeps the other players honest."

    "He beat Jarod," Angel repeated. She stared at the table in shock.

    Robert, on her right, reached over and put an arm around her shoulders. "Someone had to eventually," he pointed out.

    "He beat JAROD."

    "Angel?"

    Angel turned and looked at Robert in amazement. "He beat Jarod, Rob! He beat Jarod!"

    "About bloody time, if ye ask me," Scotty said.

    "Zack and Tom will never believe this," Locarno said. "Hargert! Somebody, please tell me we're recording this!"

    Leo looked over at Angel and Robert. "Are you going to be okay, Angel?", he asked.

    "He beat Jarod!", Angel repeated. "That's… that's…"

    Robert gave her a kiss on the cheek. "She's had a rough week."

    Riker chuckled. "Well, anyone up for another hand?"

    "I doubt we'll get that pile down tonight," Leo sighed, looking at his own modest winnings. "But sure."

    Jarod tossed in one of his few remaining chips. "I'm still in." As he said that, he looked to Troi.

    Troi returned the smile and mouthed the words "Thank you" while Riker, still grinning, tossed in his own contribution to the starting pot.




    Tag


    Robert and the others were finishing their Saturday morning staff meeting when a chime sounded at the Conference Room door leading to the bridge. Julia pressed a key to release the lock on the door, allowing entry. Picard came in with Data and Worf accompanying him.

    Robert blinked and stood. "Captain Picard?"

    Picard offered him a Starfleet standard PADD. "Starfleet Command has examined the information you provided about the Darglan Facility in S4W8. They agree that the threat of the Reich discovering the Darglan technology and making use of it is too high to be ignored."

    "Well, you're already going to be sending ships to our frontiers to free up our ships for the war," Julia said. "What else is your Federation Council willing to do?"

    "The Council will deliberate further actions as usual, but Starfleet Command does have some discretion in this matter," Picard explained. "Admiral Nechayev has consulted with your Admiral Maran. Given that the Aurora will likely be involved in whatever operation is finally launched to deal with the Facility, Starfleet has offered the services of two experienced officers to assist you in that operation."

    It wasn't hard to see what Picard was getting to. "So you're assigning Worf and Data to us," Robert said, seeing the relevant order on the PADD.

    "Admiral Maran's already sent a confirmation to us," Julia confirmed, looking over the day's incoming transmissions.

    "I… well, that's excellent," Robert said. He smiled at them. "We're honored to have you aboard. I'm sure you have a lot to teach us."

    "The honor is ours," Worf answered. "The chance to fight such a foe… it will be a great battle."

    "I may also be of assistance in deciphering more of the Darglan data you recovered from 33LA," Data said. "It may provide us with further information that could be of use."

    "Not to mention finding the rest of the coordinates for the Facility," Cat pointed out.

    Julia stood from her chair. "Gentlemen, if you'll follow me, I'll find you spare officer quarters on Deck 4."

    After Julia left with the two ex-Enterprise crew, Robert looked to the others. "I think everyone has what they need. The meeting is dismissed. Make sure we're on standby to jump to our next destination as soon as Mastrash Ledosh gets notification from President Morgan."

    The others filed out. Picard did not leave for the moment. After they were gone he revealed another item; an isolinear data storage chip container, which he handed to Robert. "This is for you," he said.

    Robert looked it over. "What is it?"

    "A message in the Starfleet Historical Archives," Picard revealed. "A very specific set of instructions were left for its delivery to you personally."

    "Me?"

    "So I'm told."

    "Huh." Robert put it away. "I'll look at it soon. What about you?"

    "Commander Riker and I will be helping to coordinate the assignment of Starfleet ships for duty with the Alliance," Picard revealed. "And Counselor Troi has other duties that Starfleet Medical has asked her to take up for the time being."

    "I see." Robert nodded. "Well, I guess you're going then?"

    "For now." Picard offered his hand. "Good luck out there."

    "Thanks. And I'll make sure Worf and Data get back." Robert grinned in reply. He took Picard's hand. "You're going to want them on the next Enterprise, I'm sure."

    "Yes." They shook hands. "Bon voyage, Captain Dale."

    "Bon voyage, Captain Picard. See you out there."

    Robert, with nothing more to do, went to the far door for the direct turbolift to the conference room. Picard went toward the bridge door. Julia was waiting there. "Captain," she said. "I'm just waiting to escort you to the transporter station."

    "Of course." Picard followed her out onto the bridge, where Jarod had assumed the watch for the moment, and to the turbolift beside the conference room entrance. Once they were inside, he turned to her. "Your first name is Julia, isn't it?"

    "It is." She gave him a look. "Why?"

    "I was just curious." Picard smiled slightly.

    "Because?"

    "Let's just say…" Picard directed the smile at her. "...that I have a feeling that you and I will be on first name basis someday too."




    Robert stepped inside the holographic chamber and took the isolinear chip out. Thanks to Carlton Farmer, the systems of the chamber were set up to accept the data in it. Robert hit a key, confirmed his identity, and said, "Computer, activate communication link to Starfleet Museum's holographic recreation programs. Load the bridge to the Enterprise, registry NX-01."

    "Processing. Datalink established. Loading program."

    The blue-surfaced chamber changed. Robert found himself standing in a recreation of Archer's bridge. "Computer, using the datalink to Starfleet, load a simulation of Captain Jonathan Archer," he said. "And use the simulation to playback the video message in the chip."

    A shimmer of energy in the air coalesced into Captain Archer's form, a little older than he'd been when Robert had seen him last. After a moment he moved slightly. And he began to speak. "Captain Dale, if you're hearing this, it means my plan worked. I arranged for this recording to be held by Starfleet until the appropriate time for you to get it."

    "Well, it worked," Robert said, although he knew he'd get no answer to that. The system hadn't made an interactive Archer, just one to play back the recording.

    "I'm not sure what time you came from, how many years separate the two of us, but it's a relief to see that in the future Humanity will still be out here, exploring the frontier like we are in my time." Archer smiled. "I thought you should know that Dr. Phlox's cure is working quite well. He's still not certain this won't cause problems don't the line, but you won him over by pointing out how much suffering was going to happen without the cure. He's thankful you kept him from leaving those Valakians to die. I'm not sure I could have convinced him as well as you did. You made a real difference here, Captain."

    Although Archer's recording was likely a video one and stationary, the simulation program had him walk over to beside his chair. "Meeting you, getting to know you, reminds me of the responsibilities I have in my time period. I'm the first captain out here and my choices are going to influence generations of starship captains to come. The decisions I make are going to set the rules for everyone to follow. And I'm sure I'll make some wrong choices along the way. But I hope you can look back on my time and see that I did my best to pass on a better galaxy to your generation. I will do everything in my power to make sure of that. All I can ask is that you learn from my mistakes and make sure your own lessons will be passed on as well. That way future generations can continue to learn from our experiences. It'll be your place, your responsibility, to leave your galaxy a better place as well. To do all of the good that men and women in our position can do in order to make that better galaxy." Archer nodded. His expression showed pure confidence and respect. "And I know you will. Good luck and Godspeed, Captain Dale. This is Jonathan Archer, signing off."

    The message ended and the system left the holographic Archer standing motionless before Robert. He considered Archer's message while looking over the archaic bridge around him. Here was the place Archer led from, a lonely starship for an Earth that had barely left its own solar system at that point, charting the path that led to Earth becoming the center of an entire federation of species making their way in the galaxy. Whatever he may have felt about the Federation's Prime Directive or some of its attitudes, there was no denying it had done a lot of good as well. Good that had started with Archer's voyages.

    Robert smiled as he reflected on that. He looked to Archer's chair and, for just a moment, took a seat in it. It was fitting, really. This was the thing he shared with Archer; being the one to take those first steps into a new frontier. For Archer, it had been starting Earth of S5T3 onto the path of interstellar exploration. For Robert, the wonders of a Multiverse and all of the myriad things within it had started with him and his friends. "Glad to have met you too, Captain Archer," Robert said to nothing. "I won't forget it."

    There was a beep on his multidevice. Robert reached to it and hit the communication key. "Dale here."

    Julia spoke on the other end. "We have official notice from Portland. We're due at Layom in Universe L2M1. Mastrash Ledosh has a meeting scheduled with the Gl'mulli."

    "Well, we don't want to keep the Gl'mulli waiting, do we?", Robert said. "Tell Jarod to jump out when we're ready."

    "Yes, Captain."

    Robert took in a breath and imagined, for a moment, how different it would be to command a ship like Archer's. Just eighty or so people exploring the frontier of space, no Facility, no New Liberty Colony, just a distant Earth that was often out of touch. It sounded terrifying and exciting all at the same time. "I'm not much of an explorer," he admitted out loud. "But it would be fun."

    He stood from the chair and walked toward the door. "Computer, end program." He reached down and picked up the isolinear chip from the reading slot as soon as it wavered into view, the rest of the bridge hologram disappearing behind him. It was time to get back to work.

    They did have a war to win, after all.
     
  8. Threadmarks: 1-15 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Teaser


    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 20 August 2641. Captain Robert Dale recording. We are still in our station-keeping position beside Arcturus Station while Mastrash Ledosh and Ambassador Weekes finish negotiations with the Systems Alliance for aid in the war with the Reich. Ledosh has expressed his confidence that the Systems Alliance Parliament will pass an aid bill shortly.


    Lucy Lucero kept her breathing still and her eyes on Meridina. The Gersallian woman stood motionless before her. The wooden practice blade in Meridina's hands was held upward in a ready position, much like the one in Lucy's hands. They were wearing brown padded robes over sleeveless magenta vests and matching pants; an exercise outfit befitting their current activity.

    Lucy felt Meridina's movement a moment before it came. Her arms moved almost by their own accord, not Lucy's conscious decision, and there was a sharp thwack as wood met wood. She had successfully parried Meridina's first attack. She sensed more attacks coming and met them in turn, each second passing by with a thwack. Lucy backpedaled on her feet and waited for any opening to show itself. A sharp pain went through her forearm when the tip of Meridina's practice weapon smacked against it during a missed swipe.

    Then she saw it. Meridina shifted her weight to change her attack pattern. Lucy swung the blade for Meridina's weak side. Meridina had to move to avoid the strike and that involved pulling her weapon back from an attack. Lucy sliced at her another time and smacked the side of Meridina's hand. Another slash and Meridina took a step backward. Lucy, feeling she had the advantage, moved in for a cut at Meridina's hip.

    Meridina's free hand popped up as if to catch Lucy's sword. That was not normally a maneuver one would find in a sword fight since, in a real one, you would likely lose some or all of the hand. But Meridina's purpose was evidently not to grab the sword.

    Lucy felt like she was struck by a battering ram. She flew back six feet to the edge of the mat and landed with a huff and a dull pain in her ribs. For a moment she felt out of air and needed to suck in breath.

    In that moment, Meridina rushed in for the final blow. One strong strike knocked Lucy's practice sword away. She pressed the tip of the wooden practice blade to Lucy's throat. "You are bested, my student," Meridina remarked plainly. Her blue eyes shined with restrained mirth. "Although I believe your swordswomanship is improving."

    "I give up," Lucy sighed. She held her hands outward in surrender. Meridina pulled her blade away and used a free hand to help Lucy up. Lucy held a hand outward and reached for the weapon with her power. It went to her hand, hilt-first. "I'm a little confused, Meridina."

    "By what?"

    "I'm not planning to join your Order," Lucy said. "So wasn't my training only supposed to be in basic swevyra stuff so I don't become a raging murdering psycho? How does sword-fighting fit into this?"

    "It teaches patience and fine control of the swevyra," Meridina explained. "Though you will not be issued a lakesh, there is no provision against teaching you basic use of that blade or any other."

    "Ah." Lucy considered that. "It sounds like you've given it a lot of thought."

    "Indeed." Meridina lifted her blade to a ready position. "Again."

    Lucy sighed and mirrored Meridina's stance. A thought crossed her mind and she fought against the urge to smile.

    As soon as Meridina moved to attack, Lucy moved as well. Instead of parrying the attack she ducked it and sent her blade toward Meridina's left side.

    Her senses told her things had gone wrong a brief moment before Meridina's body shifted to the right, avoiding Lucy's blow. Lucy felt Meridina's foot make contact with her ankle and lower leg. In one quick sweep Meridina used that position to knock Lucy off her feet. Lucy hit the mat with a resounding thud and an "oof". Meridina's wooden blade again pressed against her neck. "A clever tactic," Meridina noted. "But you must remember that those with swevyra like ours can sense the imminent future and read our opponents' movements."

    "I'll keep that in mind," Lucy sighed. She accepted Meridina's help in standing up again. "And shouldn't you just call it 'Life Force powers'?"

    Meridina blinked. Her brow furrowed. "Such a term is longer. Why would I use that when our word swevyra suffices?"

    "But it doesn't, though," Lucy pointed out. "Everyone has swevyra. But not everyone can use this… this 'force' you're training me in."

    "So you believe to call the use of our talents something different?"

    "Well, it might make things easier to say more quickly."

    "Referring to our 'abilities' should suffice, then." Meridina brought up the blade. "Now, let us try this again."




    With the Alliance Ambassador to the Systems Alliance working with Ledosh this time, Robert found he had time for a bridge watch. Julia was beside him at the first officer's station, looking over the results of their battle drill. "Commander King and her crew are working well in our practices," she said to Robert. "They're really good at covering for Commander Laurent's fighters."

    "She's a consummate professional," Robert agreed. "Which is why I'm surprised she's able to work with us so well. Most of the pros seem to dislike us."

    "Well, despite what others have said, she doesn't actually have her head up… somewhere sensitive," Julia said with a grin. "As for the other training measures, Commander Worf's suggestions about our targeting algorithms have increased accuracy across the board. And Jarod's work with Commander Data means we're getting about five percent better performance out of our computer systems.

    "Good to hear that. We need every edge we can get." Robert tapped his fingers on his chair.

    "You should relax," Julia said in a low voice.

    "You heard about Grenaris?"

    "The Reich retreated," she said. "The first Klingon ships helped to drive them off."

    "But the colony itself was mostly gone," Robert said. "Only a few hundred people were left. Our troops mostly found empty homes and a few mass graves. Not enough for the population. Intel thinks that before the fleet showed up, they dragged most of the population back into their space to be slave labor."

    Julia frowned. "Yeah. It's depressing to think about it. But things are looking up. Our talks have all been successful so far. The Dorei Federation's mobilizing their full fleet now and several of the wavering countries in the Alliance are coming over to supporting the war."

    "Yeah. Now if we can just confirm they have no clue where to look for that Facility, I'll feel a lot better."

    The door to the bridge slid open. Robert and Julia looked back to observe Ledosh coming in. They stood. "Mastrash, is there anything we can do for you?"

    "The talks proceed well," Ledosh assured them. "But the Systems Alliance has a… term that must be dealt with."

    Robert and Julia exchanged looks. "Which would be?", Julia asked.

    "To ensure the security of Earth's territories in this galaxy, the Systems Alliance is reluctant to dispatch the fleets to justify their participation. Additionally, they have the obvious required term."

    "Our IU drives." Julia sighed. "And we thought getting the Romulans to accept that deal was tough. There's no way this universe's leading races let the local branch of Humanity have our IU drives first."

    "Exactly. Provision of the technology in the current environment will be politically destabilizing to a degree the Systems Alliance, nor our own Alliance, can easily afford. As such, President Morgan has given me direct instructions to commence further negotiations immediately to win the approval of the other races."

    "Which means the Citadel Council."

    "Indeed. I trust you are ready to plot a course."

    "So… we're going to the Citadel," Julia said.

    Ledosh nodded in affirmation. "Yes."


    Undiscovered Frontier
    "The Flow of Life"



    The bridge crew had all assembled on the bridge by the time the Aurora was ready for the transit. Caterina was sitting at the science station and buzzing with excitement. "I've been waiting months to do this. Months!"

    "It will be a most interesting experience." Data had taken up Tom Barnes' old post at the engineering station beside Caterina. "The Mass Relay system's existence may have a considerable impact on how we understand subspace physics."

    "And I'll be scanning the entire time," Cat assured him.

    Robert nodded. "Alright, Nick. Let's earn your paycheck."

    "I hear that." Locarno activated the impulse drives. "I'm receiving telemetry from Arcturus for the Relay that connects to the Citadel. Setting impulse drives to three quarters and following the approach course."

    Aurora accelerated through space toward the appropriate mass relay. It was several kilometers long - the size of a space station by itself - and shaped almost like a tuning fork of sorts with rings spinning in the inside hollow section. Hollow, that was, save for the surging sphere of material at the heart of the relay, glowing bright blue. "Element zero, right?", Robert asked Cat.

    "Yup. Definitely. It's really widespread in this particular universe." She remained focus on her sensor screens.

    "A thousand kilometers and closing," Locarno reported.

    Everyone seemed ready to hold their breath as the bright glow of the Mass Relay grew in the holo-viewscreen. Locarno ticked down the distance. "Ten kilometers…. we will make transit in five… four… three… two… one!"

    Energy surged from the core of the Mass Relay and gripped Aurora, crackling almost like lightning connecting the ship to the Relay's core. The viewscreen showed what looked to be a corridor of space appear ahead of them and the ship surged into it, like a boat swept along in a current.

    The corridor abruptly disappeared. They were back in normal space. "Transit is complete." Locarno checked his board. "All drives are good. It looks like our drift was at about two thousand kilometers."

    "Nice run, Nick," Julia said in congratulations.

    "Fascinating," Data added, Cat having relayed some of the sensor readings to the engineering station.

    "You said it." Caterina tapped away at her board. "The Relay creates a massless corridor through space and uses the responding gravitational warping to…. this is so incredible."

    Data nodded in agreement. "I would theorize that the technology essentially creates a subspace tunnel between two points in space utilizing mass effect fields."

    "Given they call the technology by that name, it's probably a good guess," Angel pointed out.

    "We're coming up on the Citadel, Captain," Locarno reported.

    All eyes went back to the holo-viewscreen. Now it showed the opaque clouds of a nebula, dull blue and gray in color, parting slowly as Aurora flew through them. Lights appeared through the cloud that became more prominent until they emerged fully into the pocket of space within the Widow Nebula, revealing the Citadel.

    The station was rotating around a ring; in the middle of that ring was a connecting pathway leading to a platform and tower pointing "up", in the same direction as the massive arms that came up from the center ring. In the space between the arms, several starships and spacecraft were coming and going, some of them very large. "Going by the recognition profiles in our computers, the majority of the defense fleet is made up of Turian warships." Jarod tapped a key. "Although there's one definite exception."

    That exception loomed ahead of them. The ship in question was wider than the Aurora was long, a central hull with a large hollow section and large arms extending from each cardinal point. "That's not a Turian design," Julia noted.

    "It's Asari," Jarod confirmed. "According to the Systems Alliance recognition profiles it's the Destiny Ascension, flagship of the Asari Republics. The construction of the ship is more advanced than anything we've seen in M4P2. The materials… I think the only ship that could match it would be the Kentan."

    Everyone recognized that name; the flagship of the Gersallian Interdependency, one of the largest dreadnought-starships of the Multiverse.

    "According to our information packet, those five arms are called the Wards, they're over 43 kilometers long and about three hundred and thirty meters thick," Jarod explained. "They have near-Earth gravity and provide the majority of the housing and most of the commercial districts. The ring is only point three Gs and is known as the Presidium. It contains the most expensive living areas and major offices for most of the galactic businesses, not to mention embassies and consulates for every major race in the galaxy."

    "And the tower is where the Citadel Council is based," Julia finished for him.

    "This place is so awesome," Caterina said in awe. "Tell me we're getting shore leave."

    "We don't have any orders forbidding it," Robert remarked. "Just remember we're here on a diplomatic mission. I want all hands reminded that they have to be on their best behavior when on liberty."

    "Tom is going to hate missing this sight," Cat sighed.

    Mentioning Barnes caused Robert and Julia to look at each other with a bit of sadness. It was only a further reminder that their group had become reduced by Zack's decision to leave for now. "Yes," Robert sighed. "I think they'd both love it."

    "Citadel Security Traffic Control is transmitting a station-keeping zone for us," Locarno said.

    "Let's not seem too hasty. Reduce impulse to point one five and switch to thrusters when we're within the station arms."

    "Yes ma'am." Locarno acted to implement Julia's approach orders.

    Julia looked over to Robert. "Time to get the Mastrash, then. You'll be going over?"

    "Yes." Robert looked at his multidevice. "He and I are due at the Earth Embassy in an hour to meet with the Systems Alliance's representation. Ambassador Udina is supposed to have arranged a spot for us in the Citadel Council's itinerary for later today."

    "Good luck." She grinned at him. "I think you're starting to get the hang of this diplomacy."

    "So says the woman who actually called the Romulans' bluff," he responded with a knowing smile. The smile dulled a moment later. "I wish Zack was here. This would be a fun place to just take some leave and explore a little."

    "I know." Julia nodded. "I just hope he's doing okay."

    "Well, you never know what he's getting up to these days…"




    It looked like the start of a blessedly-quiet day for Admiral Adama when he arrived in Galactica CIC. Tigh looked up from the central table. "Good morning, sir. How are you?"

    "Sleeping better," Adama admitted. He held up a mug. "Still getting used to this 'replicated' coffee."

    "Godsdamned stuff tastes like it came from a dog's ass, if you ask me," Tigh grumbled. "I don't know how the Alliance's people put up with this replicated stuff. I'd rather go back to service rations than have another plate of that so-called 'pasta' from last night."

    "Somehow I think Commander Carrey would agree," Adama said. He went over to the table and accepted the night's reports from Tigh. "The drive checks are going well?"

    "We're having to fabricate some new parts for a couple of ships showing wear and tear," Tigh said. "And Zarek's making a lot of fuss over some issue with the Astral Queen's power grid." Tigh frowned. "Apparently the new shield systems installed over there are overloading their capacitors whenever they're tested. Zarek wants Koenig's engineers back over."

    "Did you tell him that Lieutenant Derbely insisted on a full armed escort if she ever had to go back?", Adama inquired.

    "He offered to escort her himself."

    "Of course he did." Adama set the reports down. "Now…"

    "Sir." Gaeta looked up from his station. "I'm picking up something on the subspace sensors. I… well, I'm not quite sure I know what it is."

    Adama looked at him with some intensity. "Is it a Cylon ship jumping in?"

    "No, I think it's a warp signature… wait. DRADIS contacts appearing, approximately fifty thousand kilometers from the Fleet. I'm not reading Cylon ships…"

    Duala held her earpiece close. "Sir, Lieutenant Navaez from the Koenig just opened a channel. She says not to worry, it's the relief convoy."

    Some scattered applause sounded in the CIC. Adama felt a pleased little grin come to his face at the news. "Well, that's good news. I'd better alert the President."

    "We're getting a signal, sir. It's from a vessel, a Dorei… 'starbird'?... called the Xinal. Captain Tiniri Pakalos commanding."

    "Put him on."

    Duala operated controls for the new system installed nearby; a holo-emitter and recorder that not only provided an image to send back to the caller, but created a holographic flatscreen that displayed video coming in from another ship. Adama found himself facing a blue-skinned alien, one of the Dorei, with light purple spots on her spotline and dark blue hair cut short to her neck. Bright teal eyes looked back at him. "Admiral Adama of Galactica? I am Captain Pakalos of the starbird Xinal, escorting the Alliance relief convoy."

    Adama nodded. "Captain Pakalos, we've been looking forward to this meeting. You're a day earlier than we expected."

    "Yes. Our engineers were able to sustain a higher warp speed than we had anticipated. We have some need to finish this duty quickly so we might jump out."

    "You mean you're due for the war," Adama said.

    "Indeed. Xinal is needed at the front to fight the Nazi Reich. We will only stay long enough for the fleet to finish unloading your supplies, and then we and the fleet will jump to another universe before going to S4W8."

    "I understand." Adama nodded. "Commander Carrey keeps us informed about the progress of the war. The Colonies stand with our new friends and pray for a swift Alliance victory."

    "We thank you. We shall see how swift the battle is." Pakalos nodded her thanks as well. "Speaking of Commander Carrey, I will need to meet with him before long. Do you know where I can find him? His Operations officer stated he transported over to one of your ships."

    Tigh smirked for a moment. Adama nodded and allowed himself a little grin. "Yes, um, Commander Carrey selected today to begin a special project of his. I believe he called it a..." Adama looked to Tigh briefly, who was allowing the smirk to become a grin. "... 'civilian morale-building exercise'."




    Cloud 9 had met Zack's expectations. The specialized dome and its ability to simulate actual sunlight, the environmental systems creating just the right amount of warmth without being a summer broiler, and the fresh and soft grass that really added to the environment.

    He took his place and looked out at the crowd of children. With only so many thousands of children in the Fleet, and only so many parents willing to okay this, it was surprising to see how many had turned out anyway. There were a couple hundred kids easy. And those were just the ones visible in the bleachers; others were spread out wherever they could find room.

    He tapped his multidevice under his uniform, knowing the commkey by heart, and that activated the speakers that would boom his voice across the entire park. "Alright everyone, I'm Commander Zachary Carrey of the Koenig. And today I'm going to teach you something special. It's a past-time from Earth…" He held up the object in his right hand. "...called baseball." He tossed the white ball with red stitching in the air a few times. "This is a baseball. And the object Lieutenant Apley is holding…" Zack indicated his XO, standing beside Tom Barnes. "...is called a baseball bat."

    Apley nodded and swung the bat a few times in his hands. Like Zack and Barnes, he was wearing a specialized uniform just for this occasion; a white baseball player uniform with the Koenig emblazoned on it and the name Koenig written in fancy cursive lettering above the insignia. Like any proper uniform the back had their names and bigger versions of their jersey numbers compared to the small ones over their hearts on the front. Zack had his old high school number of 22 on his jersey. Apley had opted merely for 1 and Barnes, with much snickering, took 69.

    "The goal of this game is for the pitcher to throw the ball at the batter and to try and make him miss it in the process. The batter, of course, tries to hit it. If he misses, it's a strike, and with three strikes you're out." He made a little motion, the umpire hand signal for being called out. "If he succeeds, he gets to start running for the bases." Zack pointed to each base in turn. "1st, 2nd, and 3rd." Three more Koenig crew were on each base; Chief Alberto Gonzales, Petty Officer Constance Felder, and Crewwoman 1st Rate Dreyna Sapana, who stood out as the only Dorei among them. Three more Koenig crew were in the outfield and April Sherlily was at short stop beside Zack. "If you hit the ball and it goes beyond these white lines…" He held his hands out and pointed to the foul lines from Home to the 1st and 3rd bases. "... it's a foul ball. If any of the team on the field catches your ball in mid-air…"

    In short concise sentences Zack laid out the entire issue with how outs and runs worked, and ultimately how bases were scored and how three outs meant the teams switched places. Some children asked questions, including the expected ones inquiring about throwing the ball to make it impossible for someone to hit - Zack was quick to point out that these were called "balls" and too many led to a walk, a free base, so long as the player didn't swing for them - and soon enough the basics of the game were understood. "Your chaperones will hand out little rulebooks later," Zack assured them, holding up a copy.

    As he did he looked out at the adults, most of whom seemed at least modestly interested in the game he was described as well. The real surprise, though, was the presence of President Roslin. She was finally out of her wheelchair and sitting in the bleachers, out of immediate sight of everyone. Billy was with her.

    Zack forced himself to turn his head so he didn't linger too long and give Roslin's presence away. "Time for a demonstration!", he shouted. He nodded to Barnes, who got down on his haunches and brought up his catcher's mitt. Apley flexed his knuckles and brought the bat up.

    "Hey, batter batter batter! Hey batter!"

    Apley smirked at Barnes' attempt to distract and was ready when Zack threw the ball at him. It was a fastball. Too fast for Apley, who swung a moment too late to hit. The ball instead sailed into Barnes' mitt.

    From a spot behind home plate, Samuel Anders called out "Strike one!" The pyramid player took his role as home plate umpire with relish. Zack had explained everything in the sport to him and made the rulebooks available; it didn't have the physical contact of Anders' own favored sport, but Anders had proven supportive regardless, and he and Kara Thrace had made sure to attend Registration Day.

    Barnes threw the ball back to Zack, who caught it effortlessly with his mitt-clad left hand. He started playing with the baseball for a moment before nodding, seeing Barnes' signal, and throwing a curveball. There was another swing from Apley.

    And this time, he was rewarded with a resounding CRACK.

    Wood met baseball and the white orb went flying into the air. Zack watched it sail over his head and toward the backfield, where the middle outfielder raced toward the fence to grab it. But it was useless; the ball sailed over the chainlink fence that had been put up by Cloud 9 work crews over the course of the past couple of days.

    Apley tossed the bat to his side and began a leisurely jog toward first base.

    "And that, everyone, is what we call a home run!", Zack declared, extending an arm to the fence. "If the ball leaves the field between the foul lines, everyone on base gets to score a run. That's the equivalent, more than the equivalent, of a deep corner shot for you pyramid fans. And now, while Lieutenant Apley gets to strut his way to Home plate and live a little dangerously from one-upping his captain…!" That prompted some laughs. "...we're going to start with some registrations! We'll form teams of…"




    Registration was well underway when Zack had an opening to walk over to Roslin and Billy. "Madame President." He nodded to her. "You came to see the start of training camp?"

    "It sounded interesting," Roslin answered. She nodded to the lines of children forming to sign up for teams. "And I think parents will be more tolerant of your baseball over pyramid."

    "Yeah, a lot of Moms never want to see their kid tackled." Zack crossed his arms and grinned. "Thanks for your support. I don't think Cloud 9's staff would have been willing to put up the baseball fields without you."

    "No thanks are necessary." Roslin shook her head. "It's for a worthy cause. With everything that's happened, it will be nice to see children getting to be children. And their parents will feel better."

    There was a tone under the sleeve of Zack's uniform. He rolled it back to reveal his multidevice. "Carrey here," he said.

    Magda spoke through the comm link. "The relief convoy is here, Commander."

    "Woh, really? They're a day early?"

    "Yes sir. And Captain Pakalos wants to see you at your earliest convenience."

    Zack sighed and looked back to where the registrations were ongoing. "I'd better take this." He nodded to Roslin. "I hope you enjoy your day, ma'am."

    "Thank you, Commander."

    Zack walked away to go find Apley. He'd need his XO to take over for him before beaming over to Xinal.
     
  9. Threadmarks: 1-15-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Julia reminded herself, for the umpteenth time, that she wasn't allowed to arbitrarily ban anyone from liberty on the Citadel.

    It would make the job so much easier. Here she was, in her office, scrambling through the staff listings to assign leave periods to personnel, by order of those with the least amount of recent shore leave and the most time on the ship. But the way things were going, half of the crew would be over on the Citadel. Which meant more chance for trouble if anything.

    The door swished open and Meridina stepped into Julia's office. "Commander, I have a request to make of you. I desire to spend some time on the Citadel."

    "Shore leave?" Julia blinked. "You… actually want shore leave?"

    "I suppose that is accurate," Meridina said. "I wish to take Lucy for the purpose of her training."

    Julia blinked again, finding this conversation a surprise. "How… how does that work? I mean, training her in whatever it is, why do you need the Citadel for that?"

    Meridina seemed to consider her words very carefully for a moment. "It has to do with how swevyra flows. How it works. I believe the term in your language would be 'the flow of life'."

    "Okay?"

    "To fully grasp her potential, Lucy must be exposed to the currents of teeming life. And not simply that to be found on a station like Arcturus or in the Defense Command building. The Citadel is the first place we have visited since beginning the training that has the necessary abundance of life to qualify for this task."

    "So you basically need to visit somewhere that's packed full of beings." Julia considered that. "Alright. Okay, I'll grant the leave for both of you. You can leave when Lucy's shift ends at 1600 and you'll be scheduled to return tomorrow morning by 1000."

    "More than sufficient, Commander."

    Julia nodded. "Alright, I'll put you and Lucy down for that." Julia brought up the list. "Shouldn't be too hard on things. Although you may face a line at the Transporter Stations with all of the crew who want to check things out."

    "I apologize if this has caused any undue disruption."

    "Two people I can handle. But when two thousand people all want liberty, I have to do a little juggling. Don't worry about it, I'll be fine." Julia grinned at her. "Go and enjoy… whatever it is you're going to do."

    "My thanks."




    Robert and Ledosh spent two hours getting briefed by Ambassador Udina on the Citadel Council's protocols and membership. As the white-clad Human ambassador spoke Robert got the feeling that half of the things he was saying about the Council were born from his own frustrations with them.

    "Ever since your contact with Captain Anderson, the Council has been nervous," Udina was saying as they piled into the lift that would carry them to the top floors of the Citadel Tower. "The aliens of the galaxy are already jealous and suspicious of Humanity's advancement since the First Contact War. Now your Alliance has come along and they're even more frightened of us. They fear that the United Systems will give Humanity an edge over the rest of the galaxy and oppose the Citadel Council's authority."

    "Captain Anderson expressed similar concerns at our first contact," Robert noted. "But is it really that bad?"

    Udina snorted. "I spend half of my time reassuring panicking alien delegates that the Systems Alliance is still acknowledging the interstellar law overseen by the Council." He sighed. "I can't imagine the United Systems sending two Humans to negotiate will do any favors to your position."

    "Ledosh isn't Human, he's Gersallian," Robert pointed out. "And they've been space-faring as long as the Asari have."

    "My apologies, Captain, but he looks Human."

    "We are not unfamiliar with the surprise that merits," Ledosh said with his customary refined patience. "It is apparent that President Morgan did not anticipate the full extent of distrust that the Allied Systems labors under. I know he would have not hesitated to dispatch a Dorei or Alakin emissary had he known better."

    "It might not have done any good, Emissary Ledosh. This is about more than latent anti-Human prejudice in the Citadel. It's about the apparent threat that your Alliance poses to the Citadel's political authority in this universe."

    "We have experience with other concerns such as this, I am hopeful that diplomacy will triumph over base, speciest fears."

    The lift door opened. "You're about to find out," Udina muttered. He led them out of the lift and into a courtyard.

    The courtyard area began with a circular opening area and went on to a larger courtyard with wings spreading in both directions. Beings of multiple species of M4P2 milled about, giving some looks to the newcomers; Robert in his black-and-burgundy formal uniform and Ledosh in his fine robes. Udina's words weren't entirely an exaggeration; Robert could swear he was feeling the fear and distrust in the air. He had seen images to know that some of the figures around him were of the Council-seated races - Turians, Asari, and Salarians - but the short and bulbous species in the environmental suits were a new experience, as were the massive aliens with arms that hunched down to touch the ground as well, making him think of a gorilla.

    They passed by a skycab taxi panel and climbed stairs toward an extended platform. Three figures were standing beyond it, control panels beside them.

    Robert stared.

    He… had seen this place before, hadn't he? He could remember the heat and flame. The feeling of the end of a hard fight. The blue-eyed Turian with cybernetics all over his body, urging surrender. The voice vowing never to stop.

    No. There was business at hand. Robert forced those thoughts out as Ledosh commenced speaking. "...and honored Councillors, it is my honor to greet you on behalf of the Allied Systems."

    "Emissary Ledosh." The Asari Councillor, Tevos, nodded gently. "It is our pleasure to welcome a diplomatic mission from the United Systems. We have had much curiosity about your intentions."

    "I am afraid other matters have repeatedly delayed the official assignation of an ambassador to the Citadel." Ledosh extended a hand toward Robert. "This is Captain Robert Dale, commander of the Aurora."

    "We are familiar with Captain Dale." This was from the Salarian Councillor, Valern. He activated a light-based device over his forearm - Robert recognized it as an "omnitool", not unlike the multidevice on his own arm in function but definitely more sophisticated in appearance - and called up an image. "He was the Alliance officer who commenced direct first contact with Captain Anderson of the Systems Alliance several months ago."

    "Yes, Councillor." Robert stepped up beside Ledosh. "It's my honor to meet you and to visit the Citadel. We've heard so much about it since the contact."

    "But you're not here just for mere diplomacy, are you Captain?" Valern was looking over something. "You're here to seek the assistance of the Council."

    Robert didn't bother to deny it and Ledosh did not motion for him to stop. "Yes, for the same reason our Alliance was so late in getting diplomatic representation established."

    "But yet you managed to send an ambassador to your fellow Humans," the Turian - Councilor Sparatus - remarked bluntly. "That might suggest something of your priorities… and intentions."

    "The dispatching of Ambassador Weekes had already been finalized before the war broke out," Ledosh observed. "Our Council had yet to vote on the appointment to the Citadel due to the need to deliberate the preconditions the Council requires." By this Ledosh was specifically, if not directly, referring to the arms limitations in the Treaty of Farixen that restricted naval development by various races. "An error, certainly, and one they are currently rectifying. For the time being, the President has empowered me to negotiate with the Citadel Council."

    "We have already reviewed your credentials." Tevos glanced to either side, taking in her fellow Councillors' expressions, before she looked to them and continued. "We presume this has to do with your current war?"

    "It does," Ledosh said. "The Alliance believes that the Reich may pose a serious threat to the rest of the Multiverse. There is a possibility they will locate a Facility of the Darglan, a now-extinct species that my people encountered when we became space-faring. Their Facilities contain the capability of providing any who discover them with the interuniversal jump drive technology the Allied Systems employ."

    "The Systems Alliance is already prepared to give aid to the United Systems," Udina noted. "But since it would require our ships to be outfitted with the interuniversal technology, the Cabinet would prefer that an agreement be reached with the Citadel Council before we act."

    The Turian Councillor clearly didn't like the sound of that. "I fail to see the threat." Sparatus gave a dismissive wave with his three-fingered hand. "They are your enemy, not ours. And this idea of disseminating your technology to just one species is blatantly unacceptable."

    "I have authority from the President and Council to offer it to your species if you agree to assist us in the war."

    "I fail to see why we need to shed our blood in a war between Humans."

    Tevos frowned and looked over at her colleague. "I have examined Human history, Councillor. The Nazi Regime of Earth would prove a hostile foreign power if it ever achieved the interuniversal technology. Inevitably conflict would start."

    "Then we'll worry about that then," Sparatus insisted. "But I fail to see how we benefit from any arrangement with the United Systems. They only serve to foster Human aggression and lawlessness."

    "That is an outrageous accusation!" Udina slammed his fist down. "The Systems Alliance has been a willing supporter of this Council and the structure of interstellar law! We're not some Terminus scum for you to pass judgement on!"

    "Should this proposed situation come to pass, we would be at a disadvantage." Valern also spoke now. "I would suggest we further deliberate the matter in private session."

    "Of course," Ledosh said. "We will make available to you all information on the matter. I hope to speak with you again soon."

    Councillor Tevos nodded. "Emissary Ledosh, Captain Dale, please enjoy your stay on the Citadel."




    With the Council meeting ended they returned to Udina's office. "Now you see what I have to deal with," Udina remarked dismissively from his desk. "They're all a bunch of self-important jackasses."

    "The age of their institutions may have indeed bred unkind arrogance into their mentality," Ledosh conceded. "But I would counsel patience."

    Robert took the seat beside Ledosh. "I've only read enough to know their names. What are the Councillors like?"

    "Sparatus is a typical Turian. He considers himself a soldier, votes as Palaven demands, and when he doesn't have their instructions to fall back upon, he goes with whatever policy seems the most ordered to his sensibilities. He's a stubborn ass when it comes to anything new. Which often means he opposes anything Humanity might request from the Council that doesn't involve using us as a barrier to frustrate Batarian expansion." Udina poured himself a small drink from a nearby bottle. "Valern is more independent-minded. He'll vote however he feels necessary for Salarian interests. I suspect he's the most concerned about the Nazi threat. Salarians prefer to win their wars before the first shot is fired through intelligence operations. They have little hope of that if the Reich does gain the drive technology."

    "And the Asari?"

    "She likes to think herself as the mediator of the Council and the most reasonable being in the room. But she won't move ahead of whatever popular opinion is on Thessia, and for all of her talk about putting the needs of the galaxy first, she's like a mother panther when it comes to Asari interests." Udina considered things for a moment. "If you want to get her sympathy, you would need to appeal to the Asari as a whole and hope your advocates prevail in the debates. Getting a matriarch or two on your side wouldn't hurt."

    "Thank you for your advice, Ambassador Udina," Ledosh said.

    "You're welcome. As for the next round of discussions, I think it best, Captain Dale, if you allowed myself and Emissary Ledosh to do the talking. We'll have you there as an eyewitness if we need you."

    Robert gave a curious look to Ledosh. Ledosh merely nodded. "It is a reasonable request."

    "I'm not much of a diplomat, so I can't argue with that." Robert stood up. "Well, I'll leave you gentlemen to handle the fine terms of whatever we're proposing. Ambassador Udina, if I may ask…"

    "Yes?"

    "It's been a few months since I had any chance for a proper leave. I'd like to see about taking a colleague out for a good dinner while we're on the Citadel. Would you have any suggestions?"

    "Hrm." Udina smiled a little. His omnitool came to life and he tapped at the controls for a moment. Robert looked down at his multidevice and accepted the incoming signal. "I would recommend the calamari," Udina said.

    "Thank you." Robert tapped his device's commkey. "Dale to Aurora. One to beam up."




    Meridina had selected the Zakera Ward to take Lucy through. They were wearing the robes of the swevyra'se as opposed to uniforms and had gone down unarmed, save for Meridina's lakesh, to avoid any problems with the Citadel's security service. Now they were weaving through the crowds of foot-traffic moving through one of Zakera's commercial areas.

    Lucy shifted through the crowds to keep up with Meridina. She was about to speak when a monotone-sounding voice called out to them. "Strangers," it said, "this one would like to know if you are aware of the Enkindlers and their gifts to the galaxy."

    Meridina turned and, like Lucy, faced the pinkish-skinned alien. Its central body was fairly small, the tip having lit up while it spoke, and it seemed to sway a bit while standing on some of its tentacles. Meridina bowed her head to the alien respectfully. "Some other time, perhaps, but I am quite interested in hearing about your beliefs."

    "This one urges others to not delay in discovering the truth. Have a pleasant day."

    They continued on through the Ward. "Is it just me, or was that a talking jellyfish?", Lucy asked. She had to shift slightly to avoid colliding with a short, stout alien in an environmental suit. "Oops, sorry!"

    "It was, yes. But I would appreciate it if you focused on the whole."

    "The whole?", Lucy asked her.

    Meridina stepped off to the side, near an entrance to what looked like an electronics shop. Lucy followed her. "Breathe in, Lucy. Let your swevyra feel the life around it."

    "Oh, that sort of thing." Lucy nodded and grinned. "Okay." She closed her eyes and breathed in. Meridina had taught her how to calm her mind and sense things through her life force. With her eyes closed and that sense shut off, it was easier to concentrate on that sense that had been growing within her since 33LA. She felt like she was in a sea of light. Streams of the same coalesced and split around her. "I…" She swallowed. "I can feel it."

    Meridina smiled softly. "Good."

    "It's…" Lucy swallowed again as she tried to seek for the words to describe what she was feeling. "It's beautiful. It's so warm and bright."

    "That is the Flow of Life," Meridina explained. "It is not easy to feel aboard a starship, or even a normal space station. Not until you have become sensitive to it from long practice with your own swevyra. But here, among these multitudes? You need only open your swevyra to feel it."

    "It's so…" Lucy drew in a breath. "This is what it's like for you? All of the time?"

    "It can be. As I said, you don't feel it as much when you only have a thousand or so beings around. But in the heart of this great habitat? Any could feel it. I suspect many of them do, even if they do not understand it."

    Lucy nodded. Her heart soared at the rich feeling of life around her, making her feel invigorated. She could even sense some of the emotions coming through. Not necessarily positive ones, in some cases. Joy, happiness, but also sorrow, despair, anger, frustration…

    pain.

    Lucy's eyes opened wide. She could feel the being's pain. She could feel the fear.

    "I feel it too." Meridina nodded. "This way."

    They worked their way back through the crowd. After moving down several more storefronts there was an obvious gap between them. A cry was coming from within the alley. But nobody in the crowd heard it, or if they did, they didn't seem to care.

    They stepped into the alley and moved down to halfway between the stores before it became evident what they were facing. Lucy recognized the light blue-suited alien as a Turian, with a brown-tinged complexion and reddish-brown eyes, kicking away at something at his feet.

    That something, Lucy realized, was another figure writhing in pain. Lucy didn't recognize this alien; he was in an environmental suit, but unlike the short alien she'd seen before this one's suit had a clear face-plate and two eyes faintly shining within, and the build looked more Human regardless of the three-fingered hand. "P-please stop," the alien begged. His accent was thick, and whenever he spoke a light on his helmet, near the mouth, lit up.

    "What were you looking at?!", the Turian demanded. "What were you looking to steal, suit rat?!"

    "I… didn't…"

    The protest earned the alien another kick to the gut. He wheezed a complaint.

    "He is telling the truth."

    Meridina's statement caused the Turian to look their way. Lucy sighed and crossed her arms in a nonchalant way.

    "Like you know anything," the attacker retorted. "It's a Quarian, they'll steal anything that's not nailed down behind a kinetic barrier. And sometimes even that stuff with how the little suit rats are with technology."

    Meridina shook her head slightly. "Whatever your… preconceptions of this being's species, I can tell you that he was only indulging mild curiosity. I have felt no falsehood from him."

    "Whatever. Go mind your own business."

    Lucy shook her head, figuring what was coming next.

    Meridina started walking toward the two beings. "I am sworn to protect the innocent," she informed the Turian. "Please." She held a hand up to him. "You are satisfied at this being's innocence. You will leave him alone."

    "I…" The Turian blinked. Meridina noted that with interest; she could feel the being's mind, used to order and firmness, resist her impression. She repeated herself with a little more power. "I guess he wasn't up to anything after all," the Turian finally declared. "And that'll show the suit rat what people here in Zakera Ward think of his kind."

    His kind. Lucy felt a stab of hot anger at that term. It was easily changed in her mind to her kind. "You know how it is with her kind. Do what you want, Patrick." And then had come the beatings and the other cruelties and…

    ...Meridina's free hand settled on Lucy's arm as the Turian stalked out of the alley. "It is alright," she insisted.

    "Bigot," Lucy grumbled. "I ought to go back and…"

    "That is not the Light speaking, Lucy. That is darkness. You are seeking revenge, not justice, with that thought. Be calm."

    Lucy wasn't sure she was wrong or right. But at the first inkling of slight cold in her very core, she quickly snuffed the thought out. He's not worth it, she insisted to herself, even as the image of batting the Turian across several walls briefly eased her frustration.

    Meridina stepped up to the remaining alien. She knelt down and put a hand on him. "You are safe now."

    "I've… I've got a broken rib," the being whimpered. "I thought he would kill me."

    Meridina settled a hand on the being's chest. She closed her eyes. "Lucy, pay attention to this, please." Since Lucy could be counted on to do so immediately, Meridina didn't bother wasting time. She focused her life force, drew upon the Flow around them, and felt that warm power surge through her very self. With the warm power she felt into this poor creature's body, felt the bruises and the broken bone, and felt the light begin to mend the injuries.

    "How… how are you doing that?", the alien asked.

    "I am a swevyra'se of Gersal," Meridina answered. "I can heal with my own swevyra."

    "Life force," Lucy translated.

    "You are beings from the other universes, then?" The alien looked at them with what Lucy sensed to be awe and surprise. "I… I never imagined I'd see one of you so soon. I am Lan'Durah nar Qwib-Qwib."

    "I am Meridina. This is my student, Lucy Lucero." Meridina looked up at Lucy. "Please, assist me in helping him stand."

    Lucy stepped up and pulled Lan'Durah's left arm over her shoulders. She and Meridina easily lifted the Quarian to his feet. "I've read up on some of the species of this universe, but I don't remember seeing yours," Lucy said. "You're a… what was it?"

    "I'm a Quarian," Lan answered. "I'm here on Pilgrimage."

    "Pilgrimage?"

    "Yes. When we reach adulthood, Quarians are sent away from the Fleet to travel the galaxy."

    "How are you feeling?", Meridina asked him.

    "Better. My ribs still hurt." The Quarian looked at her. "Thank you. I did not think Humans cared for my people any more than the other species do, even Humans from another universe."

    "I am not Human, I am Gersallian," Meridina said simply.

    "They just look like us," Lucy added. "It's confusing to us too."

    "I… I see… unh."

    "You still have some bruising," Meridina warned him. "I am not so good a healer as to completely heal your injuries. Do you have somewhere safe to stay?"

    "There's a shelter about two hours' walk from here. It would only be ten minutes if we could rent a skycar, but…"

    "Thankfully we worked out conversion of our money into galactic standard here," Lucy said. She held up her left arm and the multidevice showing slightly under her robe cuff. "I'm guessing that as the student, I pay?"

    "I donate my salary from the Alliance to charity and the Temple," Meridina explained with a small smile. "Save a small portion I maintain for socialization purposes."

    "'Socialization purposes'?", Lucy asked.

    "Gifts," she clarified. "Lan'Durah, can you walk?"

    "I think so." When they let go he managed to maintain his balance. "Yes."

    "Then let us go. And you can tell us more about your people, and we can speak about ours. And thus knowledge is spread and the multiverse made a better place."




    It wasn't far from Transporter Station 3 to the Aurora gym. Robert entered from the bow door and faced a number of his personnel doing weightlifting exercises on the machines to his right. On the left, others were doing aerobic workouts. The distinct smell of sweat from multiple sources created a sort of pungency in the atmosphere that brought back memories of high school sports training, made even more complicated by non-Human perspiration.

    He walked past the aerobic area to another series of mats meant for martial arts exercises. He was quite surprised to see something different from what he had expected.

    Instead of Angel and Julia going through their forms clad in sports bra and shorts, they were wearing martial arts robes - 'Gis', right? - and moving slowly and in sync. At first he thought it was t'ai chi since Julia occasionally did that and had failed to get Angel or himself to join, but the movements didn't seem quite…

    That was when his brain called attention to the figure in front of them, making the same movements and clad in the same kind of martial arts robe. Commander Worf was clearly in the lead, making a movement and the two miming it almost exactly. That, more than anything, was interesting as hell for Robert, and he said nothing until the big Klingon led them through what looked like a final movement with arms circling outward and then inward, hands coming together and stopping. After a final breath his posture relaxed. "Well done. That will be all for today."

    Angel and Julia nodded at him. "Are you interested in visiting the Citadel, Commander?", Julia asked him. "You'll be one of the easiest liberties I've arranged all day."

    Worf nodded respectfully. "Thank you, but I have other duties to attend to. Commander Kane and I will be discussing your Marine contingent's tactical employments this evening for our training exercises."

    "Alright, I understand. Just remember that the offer's open." Julia turned away.

    By this time Angel had stepped up to Robert. They briefly kissed. "You're late for the lesson," she said to him.

    "I'm not here for that," he answered. He held her hands. "I was actually coming to suggest dinner."

    "Sure," she replied. "The Lookout? Hargert's breaking out leftovers since so many crew want to visit the Citadel, but…"

    "Actually, that's what I was going to suggest," Robert replied. "Ambassador Udina directed me to a nice restaurant in one of the Wards, somewhere called the Silversun Strip. I thought you might like to make it a date."

    "A date." Angel smiled at him. "Really?"

    "Well, we haven't had one since we got back together," Robert pointed out. "It's been all Nazis and diplomats and Darglan Facilities and Cylons since. This is our first chance to celebrate getting back together with a proper date."

    "Huh." Angel seemed to think about it. In a way showing she had already made up her mind. "Good. Let me go change and I'll meet you at Transporter Station 2?"

    "I'll meet you there."




    Zack spent longer than he'd wanted conversing with Pakalos on the situation with the Fleet. It was annoying to have to repeat everything he'd already reported to Admiral Maran in his weekly updates and daily logs. Pakalos hadn't seen some of those reports, unfortunately, and wanted to be assured that there was no known risk of Cylon attack.

    Once that meeting was over with, Zack had then been waylaid by Pekanas, the Gersallian in charge of the convoy itself and distributing its materials, and been pulled into a conference call with Roslin, Adama, and Zarek on distribution of food packs, replicator stocks, and the other essentials being carried in the convoy.

    Altogether, this meant that it was well into the afternoon when he finally got to beam back to Cloud 9 and check up on Registration Day. Apley had outdone himself as usual in getting the teams organized and prepared. The younger children would be learning with T-ball or the Junior Little League rules - stuff like automated machine pitching or coach-pitching - and those of sufficient age would play straight-up regular baseball. Enough kids had signed from each age group that they would have small leagues to compete in.

    Kara and Anders met him as he walked up to the playing fields. "I think half of the kids in the Fleet will be playing," Anders said. "I should be jealous," he added with humor.

    "I'm sure plenty of them will go right to pyramid soon enough," Zack laughed. He shook hands with the athlete. "Seriously, thanks for this. Having the captain of one of the most popular sports teams from the Colonies endorsing this has been a big help."

    "Hey, it gives the kids something to do," Anders said.

    "And you," Kara pointed out.

    "Yeah, and me," he agreed.

    "Interesting sport," Kara said. "I would've read you for a more active one, though, Carrey."

    Zack smiled at that. "I've always loved baseball. Now, if you want a sport more like pyramid, next time you see her you should talk to Julia, I mean, Commander Andreys. She was team captain for the girls' basketball team back in High School. Won trophies and everything."

    "I might have to do that." Anders looked back. "Oh, there's someone here looking for you."

    "Oh?' Zack blinked. "Who?"

    "Someone pretty." There was a mischievous smirk on Kara's face. "Already looking to break hearts out here, Zack Carrey?"

    "I haven't had time," he retorted playfully, but he was wondering what they meant. "Who was it?"

    "I think she… wait, she's over there."

    Anders pointed toward the end of the fields and Zack looked over. A figure in white was waiting in the distance, one arm crossed over and gripping the other armor's elbow as if in anxious impatience. "I'd better go see what's up," Zack said. "See you in a couple of days for the start of training camp?"

    "Wouldn't miss it!"

    Zack gave Anders a thumbs up and started jogging over to the figure in white. Whomever she was, she was looking away, so Zack couldn't be sure of who she was. Caucasian, at least, dark hair… wait...

    She turned as he got within twenty feet. He looked at her face and stopped moving. That's… how…?

    "Clara?", Zack asked, incredulous.

    Clara Davis, resplendent in a white nurse's uniform, smiled widely at him and ran up to him. She grabbed him in a hug. "Zack! Zack, I don't believe it, I never thought…"

    Zack took her by the shoulders and stared at her. "Clara, what are you doing out here? I thought you were back on Earth?"

    "I was." She smiled widely. "But I... I wanted to come out here, Zack. Like you did. So I resigned from the at-home service and volunteered for the New Liberty Aid Corps."

    Zack's jaw was hanging open. He realized how silly he must look and forced it closed. "Well, I… wow, Clara. That was bold."

    Clara smiled sweetly at him. "I didn't think I'd see you again so soon. Right after I got out of training I was asked to join the medical staff for the convoy. With the war going on they were really short of nurses so… here I am!" She gestured to the park. "So, this is yours, right?"

    "Yeah. Something for the kids."

    Clara nodded. "Given everything these poor people have lost… that's really sweet of you, Zack."

    "Thanks."

    They looked toward each other for several seconds of quiet. Clara took a moment to check the multidevice on her right forearm. "Oh. Sorry, Zack, I need to… they'll want me back soon. They're sending us to Galactica tonight to get orientated with Doctor Cottle and his nurses."

    "Ah." Zack nodded. "Well, they're good people. Doc Cottle, Admiral Adama… they'll treat you well." Well, now that we've got that Cylon business out of the way anyway…

    "Maybe you and I… I mean, I know you're doing the command thing and… well, maybe we can have dinner?" Clara swallowed. "I mean, no… no obligations, just a quiet dinner."

    "I… well…" It was Zack's turn to swallow and let his mind race. And his heart beat a little faster. He was still reeling from the surprise of seeing Clara here, and now that she was here, well… who knew? "I… Clara, I'm going to be pretty busy myself."

    He immediately felt like kicking himself when he saw Clara's expression reflect a feeling of rejection.

    "I'll let you know tomorrow," Zack promised, urgently. "Okay? I should know how my schedule's going to look over the next few days, maybe I can slip a few hours out for a dinner."

    The look on her face brightened a little. "I understand," she said. "I mean, the life of a nurse can be tough too, maybe I won't have time for dinner either…"

    "Yeah. Well, we'll see tomorrow, right?"

    "Right." She smiled a little. "Right." Clara took a step back. "So I'll just… I'll go now. Work."

    "Right." Zack nodded. "Work."

    He watched her leave and felt like every part of him was twisting into a knot. Clara, out here?! It just… she was… why did she leave home? A thought struck him.

    Could it be because of me? Did she come out here hoping she'd see me one day?

    Mock applause caused Zack to look to his right. Barnes was standing there, out of catcher gear but still in the Koenig baseball uniform, continuing the slow CLAP CLAP CLAP of his mock applause. "Zack, Zack, Zack…"

    "You saw it was Clara?", Zack asked.

    "She was asking around for you," he answered. "She didn't see me, I was up to my ears in seven year olds signing up for the Junior League stuff." Barnes stepped up and poked Zack in the ribs. "Dude, you have to be the dumbest jackass in this entire universe. Maybe even the Multiverse, but I think Rob might have you beat. Clara just asked you out on a date and you… dude, where is the Zack Carrey ladykiller extraordinaire I remember? Where's the guy who was the terror of every father in half of Kansas?"

    Zack snickered at that. "He grew up, I guess."
     
  10. Threadmarks: 1-15-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    It felt strange to be in public wearing civilian clothing. Robert felt a little out of place regardless; his formal dinner suit was similar to what he'd once worn to the prom - black dinner jacket, light blue dress shirt with blue tie, dress shoes - and it seemed that dress ties had gone out of fashion in M4P2. The eyes drifting his way were often full of curiosity. Sometimes disbelief. I suppose I look like I'm dressed up for Halloween.

    Or it could have been Angel, he supposed.

    Angel was not the dress type. But she could still pull it off, and this was something he'd ordered to commemorate their getting back together, just in case they had a chance for a dinner like tonight's. It hadn't even caught up to them until they were in the Gl'mulli negotiations. The color was dark blue with light blue trim. It was a shoulderless dress that fit around her like a tube top, revealing her muscled shoulders and arms completely. It flowed down to her knees, with splits on each side that revealed her muscled, shapely legs with every step. He'd taken the time to re-comb; Angel had her hair pulled back into a ponytail. She'd applied some cosmetics, not normally her thing; blue eyeshadow and reddened cheeks.

    "This looks pretty expensive," Angel said as they went down the stairs to the restaurant Udina had recommended. Ahead of them another Human was standing arm-in-arm with an Asari, both dressed up. "Are you sure you can afford it?"

    "I looked over the menu prices and checked the going exchange rate for Alliance credits to M4P2 Galactic." He smirked. "I might have to sell a kidney after we're done, but I'll manage."

    Angel laughed at him. "You know, we could have settled for something cheaper."

    "Maybe." He took her hand. "But I think you deserve better. I… gave you a good scare, and a lot of it was from my bone-headed need to play the hero all the time."

    "Mmm. Let's see how dinner goes, and I might forgive you."

    They were next. The maitre d' actually had something like a French accent. "Captain Dale of the Aurora, plus one," Robert said. "Ambassador Udina recommended you."

    "The Ambassador is most gracious. Please, this way."

    They walked into the restaurant proper. Angel glanced down and noticed that they weren't just walking on a glass floor, but on what looked to be a fish tank set into the floor.

    They made it to the table. A well-dressed waitress came up and offered them menus before moving on. "Are you up for calamari?", Robert asked.

    Angel made a face. "Ew. No. I don't eat squid."

    "Well, thankfully they have a good selection, from the look of things. I guess we could start with an appetizer."

    "I never got the point of those. It just makes you less hungry for your meal."

    "I'll let Hargert know that the next time he serves up some of those treats before dinner."

    Angel made a face at him before smirking. "You've outdone yourself tonight. But I don't date you for your taste in fine dining."

    "What do you date me for? I mean, why did you decide you wanted to try again? Besides the 'we might die tomorrow' thing?"

    A mischievous, seductive little smirk crossed her face. "You mean beyond the obvious?"

    Robert blushed and smiled. "If by 'obvious' you mean things having to do with our bedroom, then yes."

    "Well…" She reached across the table and took his hands. "You're nice. I mean, you make friends, and you're kind to people, and you treat Cat like she's your little sister too. The only other times I've tried to date, guys resented how close Cat and I were. You never have."

    A small pang of guilt over some thoughts he'd had at times, jealous thoughts about where he ranked compared to Cat, didn't stop him from nodding. "What can I say? She reminds me of Susannah. A lot." Robert sighed. "I mean, they're not exactly alike, but…"

    "It's okay." Angel smiled at him. "I know what you meant."

    "I just hope she's enjoying her shore leave too."

    Angel gave him a look. The muscles in her arms tensed. "You and Julie let her come down here?"

    "She's staying in the Presidium. It's the safest place in the Citadel. And she knows not to stray and to contact us if there are any problems."

    Angel relaxed visibly. "Alright. Yeah, I suppose that is the safest area."

    "With all of the statues and aliens and such, I'm sure she's having the time of her life," Robert assured Angel.




    Caterina could hardly contain her glee while running along the lakeside walkways in the Presidium. That alone got her some attention from the locals; her purple "GEEK PRINCESS" shirt and pink skirt gave her a further exotic appearance compared to the 22nd Century fashions worn by the other Humans.

    "This place is amazing!", she proclaimed to herself. The lower gravity of .3Gs meant that skipping along quickly was hardly a problem. She could cover distance quite quickly when she moved to a new location. Whenever she saw a new alien species she quickly consulted her multi-device. So far she'd seen her first Turian, her first Salarian, a Volus, an Elcor, and a couple of Hanar. The Hanar were especially interesting, even if all they wanted to was to talk religion or whatever it was.

    Caterina came up toward the first of the lifts that went to the Citadel Tower. She didn't go that way though; she spotted something even more interesting. She went up to what looked like a model of a Mass Relay. The plaque claimed it was a Prothean trophy of sorts to celebrate their creation of the Mass Relays. She took a quick scan of it before moving on.

    She crossed to the other side of the Presidium and continued along the walkway. On her left Caterina noticed a large statue towering up over the side of the Presidium lake. She got closer and looked over the dark material of the statue. "Krogan Memorial," she read. "Krogan? I wonder if they're really that big." She consulted her multidevice, which showed her archival footage of big lizard men in armor charging through things and shooting guns. "Yikes!" MP42 has some great aliens, but scary ones too.

    After getting a really good look at the statue Caterina continued with her exploration. Ahead of her was an entrance to what looked like another shop or office. But the markings were different than any others she had seen. With her curiosity piqued, Caterina walked into the entrance. An Asari woman was behind a panel, conversing with a Salarian who departed a moment later. He seemed happy and content - at least Cat thought he did - to the point he virtually failed to notice her.

    "Hello." The Asari woman looked at Caterina. Her skin was more purple than blue, and she had violet face markings. Her suit looked like it was made to tease, with no material covering the belly or shoulders and other various gaps to show skin, but with more risque bits still completely covered. The Asari looked over Caterina for a moment. "That's an interesting set of clothing."

    "Um, yeah," Cat said. She blushed a little. "I sort of stand out, more than I thought I would. Uh… what is this place?"

    "You've come to the Consort Sha'ira," the Asari answered. "I am Lantaea, the receptionist today."

    "The Consort?" Caterina's blush deepened. She suddenly had a very good idea of what this place was. "Oh… uh… I see… I…"

    Lantaea laughed softly. "You're not the first Human to think that of the Consort. This is not a brothel. The Consort and her followers provide all sorts of companionship to those who come here. A shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen. Many come here to lay down their burdens and make their lives better."

    "So… you're like psychiatrists?", Cat asked.

    "We do not give therapy in that fashion. Our purpose is not to help with mental illness but to give comfort."

    "Oh. I… I see." Cat's blush didn't go away, but it did fade. "I'm terribly sorry for interrupting. How much is it to see the Consort then?"

    "Payments can vary. Comfort should not be out of price for any being," Lantaea answered. "The real limitation is time. I'm afraid the Consort's schedule is filled for the next several months."

    "Oh. Well, that's fine, I… won't be here. My ship leaves as soon as the talks are done, so..."

    "Oh. You must be from the universe-traveling ship that just arrived." Lantaea smiled at her. "Oh, that sounds so exciting. If I weren't entering my matron stage, well, I'd love to get to travel to other universes and see all of the other species that exist out there."

    "I know," Cat agreed ecstatically. "I feel the same way about exploring. I just love seeing new things. And all of the different species, there are so many in some of the other universes!"

    A voice called out from down the hall to Lantaea's right. "Lantaea?"

    Lantaea looked in that direction. "Yes, Consort?"

    "Ask our young visitor if she would like to speak to me. If so, send her back right away."

    "Oh. Of course." Lantaea looked at Caterina. "You don't know how lucky you are. I really encourage you to try."

    Caterina smiled and nodded. "Of course I will."

    "Go beyond the waiting seats and to your right, Sha'ira is back there."

    Caterina was bursting with curiosity as she began to walk through the greeting area. Other Asari were seated with members of various species, talking gently and holding hands or rubbing shoulders gently. Caterina only gave them a cursory glance while walking ahead and making the turn into the Consort's room. The Consort was waiting for her on one of the couches. She patted the seat beside her. "Come, sit down young lady."

    Caterina did so. The Consort looked at her and smiled. "Such an interesting choice of clothing. You stand out in the crowd of people. And your curiosity rivals any Asari maiden's."

    "I just… I've always loved science," Cat said. "And finding new things. That's what science is about… at least to me, I mean."

    "Yes. I can see that." Sha'ira offered her hand and Cat took it gingerly. "You seem reluctant."

    "Me? Oh, I just…" Cat blushed.

    "It's quite fine." Sha'ira shook her head. "I am not offended. And I understand."

    "Why did you want to see me?", Caterina asked. "I mean, you're so busy and all of that."

    "You are not the only one with curiosity." Sha'ira's blue eyes glinted in the light of the room. "To start, what is your name?"

    "Me? I'm Caterina. Caterina Delgado." Almost as an afterthought, she added, "Lieutenant Caterina Delgado, I mean. I'm the Science Officer on the Alliance Starship Aurora. United Alliance of Systems, I mean, not Systems Alliance. I'm sure that's confusing."

    "How fitting," Sha'ira said. "Please, tell me more…"




    It had taken the better part of an hour to secure a skycar taxi due to demand, but eventually they had one. Lucy found the controls simple enough after a few moments' examination. With the skycar they were able to go toward the furthest end of the Zakera Ward in a flight of several minutes. The area looked like it was on the edge of an industrial and warehouse district with more housing toward the center of the station. The non-descript blue building had markings tagged on it with alien languages. Lucy's multi-device scanned the graffiti and translated it; it consisted of a host of bigoted slurs and such filth. The actual proper markings identified it as the Pilgrims' Shelter.

    Lan stepped ahead of them and pressed a key on the door. "Viya, it's Lan. They're friendly. You can open the door."

    There was no response.

    Lan sighed. "Keelah. Viya, I'm not being coerced. If I were being coerced, I wouldn't mention that time you nearly caused a…"

    The door opened. Another Quarian moved into the doorway. This one had a violet-tinted face plate and what looked like a red headscarf that matched the primary color of her suit. "Lan, you bosh'tet. You went into that tech shop again, didn't you?"

    Lan coughed. "Well…"

    "I told you, that Turian is bad news." The Quarian girl, presumably Viya, looked at Meridina and Lucy. "And you brought Humans here? It's not like we can host them for dinner, Lan!"

    "They saved me," Lan said. "They're from the Alliance of the other universes, Viya!"

    "And I'm next in line for the Admiralty Board," Viya retorted.

    "We mean you no harm," Meridina said. "We wished to see Lan back safely due to his injuries. If you wish, we will depart."

    "That won't be necessary," another voice called out from within the building. A female Turian in what looked like red-hued combat armor stepped into view. Her complexion was light gray, with sky blue eyes, and Lucy noticed a pistol on her hip. "If they wanted to cause trouble, Viya, they would have started already."

    Viya sighed. "Fine. Come on, Lan. We need to get you patched up and make sure your suit wasn't damaged."

    Lan followed Viya around the corner. "Please step in," the female Turian said. "I don't want to leave this door open longer than I have to."

    Lucy and Meridina sensed the tension and obeyed immediately. The door sealed behind them. "I am Meridina, a Knight of Swenya's Order on Gersal," Meridina said as an introduction.

    "Lucy Lucero."

    "I am Oresta Deneri."

    "You seem to be concerned with potential trouble?", Meridina asked.

    Oresta sighed and looked toward a set of large doors nearby, the same that Viya had led Lan into. "There are a lot of people who consider Quarians to be easy marks for whatever vendettas stew in their tiny minds." Her expression softened toward the two. "I am happy to see that I am not the only one who considers Quarians worthy of protection."

    "Yeah, we've gotten the feeling it's not common," Lucy said.

    "Too many people close their minds and listen only to their prejudice." Oresta sighed. "Including the idea that Quarians are all thieves. It doesn't help when some of them act in ways that reinforce that prejudice. Some Quarians steal when they become desperate enough; a few because they're just bad and were exiled from the Migrant Fleet because of it. Mostly it's because they're starving, or because they don't quite realize what private property is. When you live in spaceships your whole life, the concept of privacy and individual belongings can be alien." Oresta shook her head. "And the ones who want honest work usually get turned away. Most of these people are just kids looking to bring home a useful piece of equipment so they can get accepted onto a ship in their Fleet. From what I've seen, they're lucky to make it back at all."

    "Lan explained his people's history to us," Meridina said. "What confuses me is why your Citadel Council did not help them find a world to resettle."

    "Garden worlds don't come cheaply, as you should know," Oresta pointed out. "And the Quarians unleashed a sentient AI race on the galaxy, so a lot of people believe they had it coming. Nobody wants to see a garden world written off as a Quarian world. They argue the resources of a garden world are put to better use by other species."

    "Gee, that sounds familiar," Lucy sighed.

    "I'm surprised that you don't know this already. Humans have already dealt with Quarians, I'm sure."

    "We are not from your galaxy, well, universe," Lucy explained. "We're from the United Alliance of Systems."

    Oresta stared at them. "Really? Because I figured those claims were just made up to cover for the Systems Alliance experimenting with new technology."

    "They are not. We can show you our vessel if you want."

    Lucy nodded. "I'm sure it's on all the local news channels. It usually is when we go somewhere new..."

    "That won't be necessary," Oresta said. "Whether you're just crazies going along with a Human trick or actually from another universe or whatever, what matters to me is that you're willing to help these people."

    "I am always willing to help the innocent," Meridina pledged. "Might we be of further assistance?"

    Lucy had been hoping she wouldn't say something like that, but since the offer was given she wouldn't contradict her instructor. So much for training.

    Oresta seemed to think on it. "Alright. I could use some help. Some of our equipment is down, and I've got a few sick Quarian kids running high fevers after taking suit damage."

    "Lucy, I believe your technical expertise may come in handy here," Meridina stated. "I will tend to the sick."

    So I go from learning more about my power to… being a technician. Hooray. When that won Lucy a sideways look from Meridina, she answered by sticking her tongue out.

    Nevertheless, she joined Meridina in following Oresta.




    Angel decided she enjoyed what she felt to be an overpriced cut of lamb and sparse portions of stir-fried vegetables and beef. The wine had been an expensive, if enjoyable, touch, and she felt just a bit tipsy after she and Robert left the restaurant arm-in-arm.

    It felt strange. But good. This was what two people were supposed to do when in a romantic relationship; actually have romance. No ranks, no briefings, no paperwork. A nice dinner and just talking about things.

    "We have to do this more often," Angel said to Robert.

    "Well… I do have one more kidney I could sell…" He smiled at her. "I'm glad you liked it. We haven't had an honest-to-God date since… what? The prom?"

    "That depends," Angel answered. "Do you count that night we had to eat out at the Burger King on HIghway 15?"

    "Didn't we have Susie and Cat with us?"

    "Yes, but they spent the entire time playing and studying."

    "Hrm. Maybe?"

    They shared a laugh at that. After following the stairs leading up and out of the restaurant they worked their way via walkways to the main level of the Silversun Strip. "Well, there are a few ways to finish the evening," Robert pointed out. "There's an arcade over there, a casino…"

    "...'Armax Arena'?" Angel smirked. "That sounds interesting." She looked at him and smiled. "But not something for a romantic date." She used her left arm to wrap around his shoulders and pull Robert close. Their lips touched into a kiss that grew in intensity. When she was done kissing him, she suggested, "Maybe we should just rent one of those skycars and explore the Citadel."

    "That sounds good to me," Robert answered. "Let's…"

    His multidevice beeped.

    "If that's Julia, you're going to need a new XO soon," Angel growled.

    Robert sighed and pressed the comm key on the unit. "Dale here."

    Much to Robert's relief, it wasn't Julia. "Jarod here. Captain, I need to see you in Science Lab 1. It's urgent."

    Angel shook her head and sighed from frustration. Dammit. One night. That's all I ask. I know we've got responsibilities but all I want is one freaking night.

    Robert noticed how sour Angel was getting and replied, "I'll… be there shortly, Jarod. Dale out."

    Angel was biting into her lip. "I know," she said, already prepared for his likely protest. "I know, okay? I know you have to do this. I know you're the Captain and that things get hectic. I just..." Angel shook her head and sighed with exasperation. "Dammit, Robert, sometimes I wonder why I'm trying this, trying us, again. If I didn't care so much for you, I'd have already given up."

    Robert swallowed. "I know. I'm… I can't tell you how grateful I am that we got to try again. Maybe when things get better we can… well, if it's Jarod calling me…"

    "...then it's obviously really important. 'Safety of the ship' important." Angel nodded. "Right. I understand. It's… it's okay." She forced a smile. "We got to have dinner. At least we got to finish the dinner, right?"

    "Yeah. That's the best part." Robert pressed his multidevice again. "Dale to Transporter Station Two. Two to beam up."

    Angel reached for and took his free hand before the transporter activated.




    Jarod watched Robert and Angel enter and winced. He hadn't realized it was that kind of evening for Robert. He quickly looked back and started bringing up the findings. "What's going on, Jarod?"

    Jarod nodded to Data, who was sitting nearby at another console. "We were checking up on that data compiling program Caterina's been running on the 33LA data when we found something."

    "As in from the Darglan data?"

    "No. I wouldn't have called you back for that." Jarod hit a few keys and brought up a screen of communications data. "Someone's tried hacking into our systems with a VI smart virus."

    That caused Robert to frown. "What? How are they getting past our new firewalls?"

    "They didn't," Jarod assured them. "We have the virus trapped in a specialized drive tied into the computers. It was something I put together after the Cylons got to us, a little false command module to trick automated hacking systems from penetrating the actual systems."

    "I have been analyzing the virus in question," Data explained. "As Commander Jarod already specified, it is a virtual intelligence construct with enhanced data-mining and access siphoning capabilities. It was programmed to implant itself into the ship's library database and glean information through the communications system. This includes all regular updates you receive from Alliance Defense Command."

    Angel held up a hand. "I thought we had a monitoring program or whatever to keep someone from remotely trying something like this?"

    "We do," Jarod answered. "I've been going over it to see how it let this through our systems. But right now this virus is a priority. The last thing we need is for another to be sent that isn't tricked by my data trap."

    "This virus is tapping into our comms, right?", Robert asked. "It's trying to access critical data?"

    "It is," Data confirmed. "I have been analyzing the machine code, the format of the virus VI is unique and not on any records available to myself or to you."

    Angel crossed her arms. "So we show up at the Citadel and by the end of the night, someone is hacking us. Isn't that a coincidence?" The last sentence was said with particularly thick sarcasm. She looked at Jarod. "But you said something was urgent. It's not just this, is it?"

    "No." Jarod shook his head. "The VI is set to send regular updates into the Citadel's extranet transceivers every several hours. If we don't have it send an update soon, whoever sent it will know it's been caught."

    "And their next try may not be so easily discovered. Right." Robert nodded. "Feed it data that's not essential to Alliance security. Maybe that will tell us what they're looking for."

    "How about the day's declassified war updates?", Jarod recommended. "Battle reports, casualty lists, and basic strategic analysis findings. Nothing anyone won't find on our public sites anyway."

    "I like it." Robert leaned a little against the work station beside Jarod, looking intently at the screen. "Put it up."

    "Sending data now. I'll also include our paperwork for the last shift for good measure and a few other bits of minor data."

    "Go ahead and throw in the basic version of our report on the day's discussions," Robert added.

    "Right. Doing so now. I'm transferring the day to the command module."

    "And I will create a command path for the VI to access the Aurora's short-range communications array," Data added.

    "Keep me updated." Robert looked apologetically to Angel. "Walk you to your quarters?"

    Angel nodded. "Sure. The way things sound, you could end up having a busy night anyway. You'll just have to make it up to me sometime."




    Zack spent that evening's conference with Pakalos and Adama in a state of partial distraction. He made himself follow along enough that he knew what was being said, but beyond that all of his thoughts were about Clara. He was trying to wrap his head around the fact that she'd actually come out here. Homely, sweet Clara had left home and come into space. For him?

    "...offloading will still take another day, even with the transporters," Adama was saying. He gave Zack a look. "Commander, how many of your crew could you spare for helping to offload the convoy?"

    Zack almost missed the question. He thought for several moments longer than it should have taken him - if he'd been concentrating anyway - before answering, "Maybe a dozen or so crew, if we're not active with anything else. I can give you half of my crew if the Koenig can go into operational standby. Powered down systems, that kind of thing."

    "An extra dozen or so personnel would help," Pakalos observed. "With the Xinal present you can afford to go into standby."

    Zack nodded at that, although he couldn't quite hide his irritation at it. This would put more workload on his crew while they were still at least two to three months away from returning to Alliance space at the Refugee Fleet's current pace. While the Fleet had accepted his people well enough, materials rationing and the sheer lack of space limited the recreation that liberty could grant, even on trips to Cloud 9. "I'll inform my XO when we're out of the meeting. I can give you twenty-six officers and crew."

    "Have them report to Commander Druma, my Executive Officer," the Dorei woman instructed. They can join the work crews in fourteen standard hours?"

    "Sounds right."

    "Then I believe that is all the business we had to discuss?" Pakalos nodded to Admiral Adama. "By your leave, Admiral?"

    "This meeting is dismissed," Adama agreed.

    Fisk grumbled something under his breath and was the first one out. Pakalos didn't bother departing that way. She pressed the comm-bracelet on her left wrist and the Xinal's transporters whisked her away in a swirl of purple light.

    Zack stood from the table and started walking to the door. Before he could get to it Adama called out to him. He turned. "Yes, Admiral?"

    "Please, take a seat." Adama gestured to one of the empty chairs. By the time Zack took it Adama was sitting beside him. "So, what's your distraction?"

    "Hrm?"

    "I've been around long enough to recognize that look on a man's face," Adama stated.

    Zack thought about not saying anything. About just excusing it as deep thoughts and continuing on. But he stopped himself. He knew Adama meant well. "One of the volunteer nurses the convoy brought out to us is a girl, I mean, a woman I know, Clara Davis. She's from my world. I went to school with her."

    Adama replied with a nod of understanding. "And you didn't expect to see her out here?"

    "No. Never. She was always attached to our hometown." Zack shook his head. "It's me. She came out here because of me. She didn't know I was on station here, but it's why she came into space."

    There was no immediate response from the older man. "I see." Adama sat back in his chair. "You and this girl were close?"

    "Closer than I used to think," Zack admitted. "When we were young I pushed her away. I didn't think it would work out and I didn't want her heart to be broken. I… well, when I was that age, I was a heartbreaker. Always looking for girls."

    Adama nodded. "Some of us are at that age."

    "But now she's here." Zack sighed. "And a part of me is telling me that we could try to be something. And another part of me is reminding me why I walked away in the first place. I don't want to hurt her. I don't want her to be yet another broken heart I've left behind." Zack took in a breath. "Frankly, Admiral Adama, I don't deserve her."

    Adama had been listening silently while quaffing at his mug. When Zack was finished talking he nodded. "It's a tough decision." He crossed his arms. "Do you want my advice, Commander?"

    "Sure."

    "You're young. And when you're young, you think you've got time." Adama put his hands together in his lap. "You think you have all of the time in the world. But slowly, day by day, that time runs out. Suddenly you're older. And you realize that not only have you run low on time, but you never had that much to begin with." Adama leaned forward. "Especially in our line of work, Commander."

    Adama's words had Zack thinking. Thinking, among other things, about his father. About how time had run out there, just as it seemed things were working out.

    "And if I may be blunt, Commander… it's not your place to decide who Miss Davis deserves. That's her choice, not yours."

    There was no immediate response from Zack. He brought himself to nod after a few moments. "Yes. I guess you're right."

    Adama nodded. "Good. I'll talk to you later, Commander." He stood from the chair and walked out, leaving Zack alone with his thoughts.

    Zack came to a decision. He stood from the chair and left as well, heading toward the interior spaces of the Galactica.




    Lucy decided there was something worse than trying to fix a broken down food paste processor that looked like it had been built out of spare parts, spit, and a bit of hope.

    Namely, doing that on behalf of what seemed to be a species of mechanics.

    Viya, the female Quarian who had been at the door, was hovering over her left shoulder. "No, look, the capacitor is…"

    "...completely fried," Lucy sighed.

    "But that was a high capacity unit!", another Quarian male protested. "Are you sure that it's not a fault in the wiring?"

    "Reasonably sure." Lucy sighed and glanced at her multidevice's holo-display. "Yes, you have quite a few faulty wires in here too. But the capacitor was overloaded by whomever used it last."

    "I was only getting a meal!", a third Quarian, a girl with an even younger-sounding voice than Viya, protested.

    "Keelah, Dira, it's not like we're blaming you," came yet another voice.

    Lucy growled in frustration and closed her eyes. Find your center. Find your center. No, you do not want to smack one of them across the head. Ugh, why did I end up playing mechanic for a group of mechanics? "There's a saying among Humans," she finally uttered. "'Too many cooks in the kitchen spoils the meal'."

    "Really?" That was the first male who promoted the idea of bad wiring. "I thought Humans always cooked in groups? I remember working for a restaurant in the Tayseri Ward…"

    Lucy shook her head. "It's a figure of speech. An analogy. What I'm saying is... having everyone standing around me throwing out suggestions isn't going to get this thing fixed any faster."

    "Please hurry, I'm hungry," yet another of the Quarians protested.

    Most of the others backed off. Viya knelt down beside her. "The capacitor shouldn't have fried like that. It was rated to twice the power draw that this processor uses."

    "Isn't that a bit inefficient?", Lucy asked her while opening another part of the device's frame.

    "We make do with what we can. Oresta isn't made of money."

    "Where does she get her funds?"

    "Well, we pitch in whenever one of us manages work," Viya answered. "And there are a few other shopkeepers or merchants who sympathize and give small donations. I hear C-Sec provides old material sometimes, she was in C-Sec once and they like having somewhere for Quarians to go. It reduces… trouble."

    Lucy frowned. "Your people shouldn't be treated like this. It's wrong."

    "It can't be helped. Many species still blame us for the Geth. It doesn't help that we exile our criminals, so many of the Quarians other aliens meet are our worst. Or people like me. In the Fleet, equipment is not owned by people. Anyone can use a tool as long as they put it back when they're done."

    "Oresta said something like that," Lucy noted. She used a screwdriver to pry open the last part of the frame. The distinct smell of smoke from an electrical fire wafted into her nostrils. She looked at the blackened interior and sighed. "There's your problem. That capacitor was faulty, it looks like it drew in too much energy and overloaded the device."

    "Bosh'tet scavengers," Viya swore. "They must have known." The Quarian looked it over and sighed. "I was afraid of this. This unit is completely destroyed."

    "Where can you get another one?"

    "I can see if Oresta can afford it. But she just spent most of her budget on parts for our suits. And not all of the top suppliers will sell to us anyway." Viya activated her omnitool. It flickered as the hard-light projections finished powering up.

    "I'll love it if we ever upgrade to those," Lucy said. She held up her arm and tapped her multidevice. "These things are ultralight materials, but they still have a bit of bulk to them."

    "Stay away from these models then. My original omnitool was fried out by a virus some bosh'tet loaded into our extranet site. This replacement barely functions." Viya tapped at the keys on it. "Maybe we can repair the unit? I might be able to get replacement parts…"

    "You'll be replacing so many that it'll be just as costly, and you'll probably get plenty of bad parts in there." Lucy thought it over and sighed. "To hell with it." She tapped the commkey on her multidevice. "Lucero to Aurora. Patch me through to Lieutenant Jupap."

    After a moment the Alakin operation officer's voice chirped over the line. "Jupap here, Lieutenant Lucero. What can I do for you?"

    "Tell Chief Lostri that I'm calling in that favor. I need one of the backup replicator units at my position as soon as possible. I'll sign the requisition, don't worry."

    "I see. I'll speak to the chief immediately and arrange the transport. Jupap out."

    Viya looked at Lucy. Despite the faceplate obscuring all but the two points of light that were her eyes, Lucy could imagine the quizzical expression that had to be on the Quarian girl's face. "What are you doing?"

    "I'm giving you a replicator," Lucy answered. "It'll use your raw biomass feed for the dispenser, and with better efficiency. And it's a design that won't fail for a long time."

    "You… you're just giving us a piece of your technology?" Viya was stunned. "You're allowed to do that? You won't run into any problems with license holders?"

    "I am the license holder," Lucy declared. "Well, me and Jarod and Tom Barnes. Point is, if I want to let you use one so you can all actually eat, that's my choice, and I'm sure Jarod and Robert - Captain Dale, I mean - will back me."

    "As am I." Meridina walked up to them. "Lucy. I see you are doing well?"

    Viya backed away from them respectfully; Meridina in turn led Lucy into the far corner. "I didn't expect to be playing mechanic when we came down," Lucy admitted. "How did it go for you?"

    "Their sick will recover." Meridina smiled thinly. "I am happy to help where I can. And these people do need it. Do you not feel how the Flow is here?"

    Lucy hadn't been thinking of that. She thought on it and felt for that swell of living energy she'd felt earlier. It was there, but here it seemed… weaker. The warmth wasn't as great, the light not as intense. "What's wrong?"

    "You didn't feel the Flow when we were alongside the Refugee Fleet," Meridina pointed out. "I had not trained you to feel it yet, true, but even if you had known, it would still have lacked the brilliance of what I showed you earlier. This is why. The Flow of Life comes from Life itself, but Life has Light and it has Dark. As you know."

    Lucy thought back to her anger at the Turian beating Lan. And even further back, when her panic and fear drove that cold within her that zapped lightning into the Changeling at 33LA. "Yeah. I know."

    "In this area of the Citadel, there is despair and frustration and fear. And, yes, hate." Meridina shook her head. "These are the source of the darkness that can enter a heart. The Flow of Life reflects this; the Flow is colder, less vibrant."

    "Yeah." Lucy looked out at the Quarians in the shelter. Some were lying down, others were in corners talking. She could sense those kinds of emotions in them. The desire to go home, to return to what they knew, the fear they'd never go back and the despair that caused. Lingering animosity, even hatred, for the other species that treated them like this. "And then it reinforces itself. A self-reinforcing loop that creates misery and suffering. It makes people do evil things."

    Meridina nodded. "This is why Swenya created her Code. She recognized this pernicious cycle and knew that the only way to break it was to strengthen the Light. This is why we are called swevyra'se. The suffix is based on Old Gersallian, an addition to words to signify fortification and improvement. By following the Code, we strengthen not only our swevyra, but the swevyra of all, by using our Light to break the cycle of Darkness and to make the Flow of Life vibrant."

    "Why was it so vibrant back in the commercial district, though? I mean, some of those people had to be feeling dark things."

    "Yes. But not all. Many beings may not be always feeling things that are Light, but nor are they in Darkness. And Life inherently gravitates toward Light in that case. Darkness in the Flow comes when many in the same area are caught in it."

    "Wow. This is pretty heavy stuff, isn't it?"

    "I believe so, yes."

    Before the discussion could continue there was a tone from Lucy's multidevice. She tapped the commkey. "Lucero here."

    "Lieutenant, we have your replicator unit ready. But I'm afraid we can't beam it to you. There's some form of mass energy field over your location."

    "Really?" Lucy looked at Meridina. "Where is Oresta?"

    "I believe she was taking a late dinner."

    "Standby, Aurora. I'll signal you when it's time."

    Meridina led Lucy out of the main room of the shelter and into the side halls. They went up a flight of stairs, passed by spare rooms occupied by more Quarians, and entered another mess hall. Oresta was alone eating. She looked up at them. "I would invite you to eat, but I don't have levo-compatible food here," she explained.

    "I understand." Meridina nodded. "Lucy has something to speak to you about."

    "Your food processor is fried beyond repair," Lucy explained. "I can get you a replicator unit to replace it, but you've got some kind of shield over the building."

    "Yes." Oresta set her utensil down. "I maintain a kinetic barrier over the building when I'm preparing to rest for the evening. It's not very powerful, but it keeps intruders out and prevents people from putting rounds through our walls." Oresta sighed. "Honestly, it's the only reason I get any sleep at all."

    "Can't you lower it?", Lucy asked. "If just for a few moments?"

    "I can't risk it," Oresta said. "The barrier's old and temperamental. Once it's been shut down, it takes an hour or longer for it to be ready to go back up. And that's on a good day."

    "So we're stuck in here?"

    "No. The barrier is one-way. You can walk out whenever you're ready," Oresta said. She put her hands together. "You just can't come back in."

    "But your food processor is down," Lucy pointed out. "The Quarians won't have anything to eat until I can get that replicator going."

    Oresta shook her head. "They'll survive the night. If you're that concerned, though, I'll be lowering the barrier in about eight to ten hours."

    Lucy frowned in frustration. Meridina set a hand on her shoulder. "It is an understandable limitation."

    "What if I can get your kinetic barrier back up and running immediately?", Lucy proposed. "Or find some other way to get around it? Would that work?"

    The Turian woman looked intently at Lucy. "You are not going to let this go, are you Lucero?"

    "I don't think they should have to go hungry," Lucy insisted. "Not if I can do anything to get this done."

    The two remained locked in a mutual gaze. Meridina was quite impressed with Lucy's will on the matter; certainly she was confident she could make this work.

    Finally Oresta sighed. "I'll tell you what. Go look over the barrier. Bring Viya with you, she helps me maintain it. Let me know what you find. If you can find a way to turn it off and back on without frying my system, I'll let you do it."

    Lucy answered with a smile. "Thank you."

    "Don't thank me until it works," Oresta insisted.

    The answer was a nod. Lucy turned away, intent to go get Viya and find a way to make this work.
     
  11. Threadmarks: 1-15-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    As he had expected, Robert got the call from Jarod right as he was ready to settle into bed. And so he had wearily put his uniform back on and trudged back to Science Lab 1 where Jarod and Data were looking over a display. Julia arrived a moment after he did. "Alright, what do we have?", Robert asked.

    "The virus went through all of the data we fed it," Jarod said. "It gleaned most of it and then transmitted into the extranet."

    "We attempted to track the data flow." Data shook his head. "However, the network architecture of the local galactic datanet presented too many issues with accurate tracking. We lost our trace of the data after several node changes, including networking into the Turian Hierarchy's military network."

    "So this is the Turians' doing?", Julia asked.

    "Perhaps. But it is just as likely that whoever planted the virus was tracking through their systems as a decoy," the android pointed out.

    "So we're back to square one." Robert sighed.

    "Not quite," Jarod said. "We analyzed the virus VI's approach to the data. It was trying to look like it was grabbing everything, but there were clear traces of a pre-programmed emphasis on certain data."

    "That being..?"

    "Reports from Universe S4W8," Data replied. "And all available material on the Alliance's war efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and current strategic position."

    "Someone wants to know how good or bad the war is going for us," Robert observed wryly. "And I'm betting I know who it is."

    "You think the Citadel Council is spying on us?", Julia asked.

    "The more they know about our needs, the more they can squeeze out of us," Robert pointed out. "From what I've heard and Udina said, the most likely suspects are the Salarians."

    "That is possible," Data agreed. "I would need a long period of study to compare Salarian coding language and practices to the VI virus."

    Julia shook her head. "They wouldn't make it that easy, If they're being sneaky, I mean, I think they'd try to implicate someone else's coding style."

    "Possibly the System Alliance's," Robert agreed. "They seemed awfully concerned about our relations with them."

    "In the meantime, we should probably shore up the computer defenses and prepare to let that drone go."

    Robert almost concurred with Julia's suggestion. But he began to think about the consequences to the mission. The Salarians, or whomever, would undoubtedly try again, and might not be so easily found the next time. Additionally, it was clear that the data they took was intended to play hardball.

    He smiled a little at his thought. "Actually, Julia, I have a better idea. Don't destroy it. Not yet."

    Julia looked at him. "Oh?"

    "Yes." He looked to Jarod and Data. "This thing wants to find out how the war's going. Let's give them a good idea of it. Let's bring their worst nightmare to life."

    Jarod eyed him for a moment before smiling widely. "Oh. I see."

    "You want us to plant information that would lead the Council to a favorable decision," Data said.

    "Not plant so much as… forecast." Robert leaned over them. "Let's start with a report from Defense Command on the counter-attacks near Grodni III…"




    Cloud 9 was late in its night cycle. Late enough that the only remaining eatery open was the ship's bar, where the bartender was closing up for the night while the other workers swept up. Only a few people remained for late dinners.

    And only one table near the bar had two occupants.

    Clara had taken a few minutes to swap into a sleeveless green blouse with blue highlights and a matching knee-length skirt. She'd applied some eye shadow and lipstick on the way in. Zack, for his part, had quickly transported back to Koenig and used precious replicator rations to get a button down shirt, red primarily, and matching pants.

    Now, slightly-unfinished meals sat between them, along with a glasses of port wine. Zack looked self-consciously at the wine and felt thankful Opani had stocked some detoxicants from Aurora before they left. Wine wasn't as bad as harder stuff, but the last thing he wanted was to dip back toward the bottle.

    Clara had never taken the smile off her face from the start of the meal. "Thank you," she said.

    "Hrm?"

    "For tonight. For this." Clara gestured to the table. "I had the feeling earlier that you weren't happy to see me. I thought that maybe you had talked to Julia and she'd, well, reciprocated I guess."

    Zack shook his head. "No. No, she did not reciprocate when I told her." He sighed. "After all of these years, I got my answer."

    "i'm… sorry," she managed in reply. "I suppose… it's best that you got your answer, at least?"

    "I guess."

    "So if you and her aren't…" Clara stopped. "You didn't seem happy to see me today, that's all I'm wondering."

    "I was more stunned than anything," Zack admitted. "And… well, I honestly felt this strange mix of flattered and, I don't know, sadness I guess. That you uprooted your life because you wanted to follow me into space."

    "I don't regret it, Zack," Clara insisted. "It's so wonderful out here."

    "It is," Zack admitted. "That's not... " He sighed and tried to find the right words. "I've always felt, Clara, that you deserved better than me."

    Clara giggled at that. "Really? I deserve better? What do you think is better than you? Look at yourself, Zack. You're not the sports star heartbreaker of the county anymore. You're commanding a starship, you're doing responsible things… you're a hero now, you know that right?"

    "So I've been told by a few people."

    "Back on New Liberty, you and Julie Andreys and Rob Dale and the others… they respect you more than anything. And all of the people in this Fleet can't say anything bad about you. They talk about you saving one of their ships from being blown up and helping to rescue the last survivors from their homeworld."

    Zack nodded. They don't talk about things like 33LA, do they? "I see your point."

    "So, I want you to understand one thing perfectly, Zachary Carrey." Clara reached forward and took his hands with her's. "You deserve to be happy. And…" She swallowed nervously. "...if you want to…"

    Zack felt himself swallow. It was almost surprising how fast things were now moving, and they made it even harder for him to even consider saying no. "That's… wow. I…" He searched for the right words to say. "I know it hurt you back in school when I…"

    She shook her head. "That was back in school. And we were different."

    "I'll say." Zack looked into her blue eyes; twin pools of brilliance that seemed to reflect the assertive and gentle woman Clara had grown into being. They had a confidence to them she had lacked all of those years ago. He realized how much he enjoyed that. How much he enjoyed having her around. Someone who he could be himself with and not have the baggage of everything that had happened over the past few years.

    The night wouldn't end with the late dinner after all.




    Lucy felt there was only one possible explanation for what she had before her.

    Universe M4P2 technology actively hated her.

    The kinetic barrier generator that Oresta maintained was as bad as the dead food processor. Cobbled together, barely functioning, and looking ready to shut down for good if it was glared at the wrong way… and Lucy was very much glaring at it.

    "Ancestors, it is a miracle that this piece of junk still works," Viya said.

    "I'll say. And getting you a forcefield generator is an entirely different beast than a replicator. That's defense technology."

    "So what do we do?", Viya asked. "Nobody's going to starve to death. But there's at least ten of our people who didn't have anything to eat."

    Lucy grunted with frustration and sat back from the side of the barrier generator. "Well, I can't tell Oresta we can make this work. She's right; if this thing gets turned off and turned right back on, it'll blow a fuse at the very least."

    "Is there an alternative?", the young Quarian asked.

    Lucy thought about it. The problem was that there were too many failure points. The kind of work to get around them wouldn't be done for hours. Almost to the point when it would be time to turn it off anyway. It'd be for nothing.

    "I would need equipment from the Aurora," Lucy said. "And that would mean needing to get back within the field."

    "Well, maybe you can get your tools transported down as well?", Viya asked. "And then we could fix the barrier. How long would it take?"

    Lucy looked over the parts. She'd need to replace the main power supply, the capacitors, or install shunts to help absorb the power draw. "Fifteen minutes if I'm fast."

    "Then we can do it in ten," Viya said.

    "Oresta will probably tell us to wait until the morning anyway. She seems pretty worried that people will attack your shelter."

    "She's probably right. The local Eclipse band tried to make her pay protection once. She called C-Sec and they arrested one of the Eclipse leaders on the Citadel." Viya shuddered.

    "Eclipse being a gang of some sort?", Lucy asked.

    "Mercenaries, gangs, it's the same thing," Viya replied with anger. "They pick on everyone. And they were angry with us for getting their boss arrested. One night they came and tried to kill us all. Oresta and a few of the others managed to hold them off until C-Sec arrived, but it was too close. One of my friends nearly died from getting a wound and suit puncture. That's why Oresta bought this piece of garbage in the first place."

    "We probably don't want them on to show up while we're doing this then." Lucy sighed and stood up. "Well, I think that's all we can do. I'll be back in the morning with some parts and that replicator and we'll get everything set up." She stifled a yawn. "And then I'll be off to duty."

    "Thank you for this," Viya said. "You've put a lot of effort into this work for us."

    "It's nothing." Lucy shook her head. "I just hate seeing people treated like this. I saw it back home too. I saw Human beings treating other Human beings like animals."

    "What did you do about it?"

    "I reported it to the authorities." Terrible memories shifted through Lucy's head. "And because of that, the man in charge had me kidnapped and gave me as a plaything to his son to torture for fun." Lucy quivered at the memories of what Patrick Duffy had done to her in that dark room.

    Viya's hand touched her shoulder. "Keelah. That sounds horrible. Thank the ancestors that you got away."

    "My friends rescued me." Lucy sucked in a breath and forced those old memories out. That would never happen to her again. Never. "Working together. And then we all worked together to…"

    She stopped. Could it be that simple?

    "To what?", Viya asked.

    "Of course," Lucy said. "It should… it… the kinetic barrier…!" She sprang to her feet and took Viya's hand. "Let's get your friends. I know how to get that replicator here!"




    Meridina watched with quiet joy as Lucy finished her work with the others. "Does everyone have their omnitools ready?" A chorus of affirmatives answered her. Lucy tapped her commkey. "Lucero to Transporter Station 4. Do you still have my order ready?"

    "We do, sir. But that field's still keeping us from beaming it."

    "Increase the subspace tunnel's power to twenty percent above normal. That should handle the distortion from the kinetic barrier."

    "Doing so now… but I still can't get a proper lock."

    "Let me handle that." She looked to the others. "Listen, in order to complete the transport, our ship's system needs a solid signal or target lock, and the kinetic barrier makes that very hard. By linking all of your omnitools together and connecting them to my multidevice, we can create a solid signal for them to lock onto. Is everyone ready?"

    The Quarians began operating their tools en masse. Lucy's multidevice confirmed the growing networked connection. Once they were all linked she called back. "What about now?"

    "Trying now… it's working. I've got a lock."

    "Send it down."

    White light appeared at a corner of the room. Lucy noticed it wasn't as smooth as usual - the kinetic barrier's mass effect field was clearly distorting the subspace tunnel - but with the power behind it the tunnel could be sustained long enough for the matter to shift through.

    One perfectly functional replicator unit now sat on the ground.

    "We got it. Thank you, Transporter Station," Lucy said energetically. "Lucero out."

    The Quarians milled around the device, but all were ready to accept Lucy's direction on installation. She took charge and made sure everything was installed as it should be. It was marvelous to see how well the Quarians learned the new technology and what it showed about their technical prowess. Lucy hoped that knowledge would do them well; some might even be able to gift what they learned to their Fleet in order to go home.

    Soon enough, the first plates of dextro-amino food product were appearing. The residents of the shelter cheered the sight; the hungry among them were quick to take advantage of the new source of food. "Mmm. This is better than the nutrient paste," Lan'Durah insisted. "It almost tastes like real food!"

    Lucy giggled at that. "I never thought I'd hear someone say that about…" She stopped to yawn. "...replicated food."

    "Thank you so much!", a Quarian girl cried out. "I was ready to start eating the inside of my suit, I was so hungry!"

    Lucy accepted the handshakes and nods and applause on her way to Meridina's side. She yawned again when she got there. "I need some sleep," Lucy admitted.

    "Yes." Meridina's face beamed with pride. "You did well, Lucy. Do you feel it?"

    Lucy stopped for a moment and felt for the energy around her. "It's… brighter. Warmer." She smiled.

    Meridina matched that smile. "Yes. Thanks to your actions, these people are feeling joy. The Light is brighter within them now."

    "Just by giving them food."

    "No. Not just that." Meridina set a hand on Lucy's shoulder. "By giving them hope. You have reminded them that there are people in the world who follow the Light and will not show hatred to them. You have strengthened the Flow of Life." Meridina's eyes sparkled with happiness. "This is what it means to be swevyra'se, student."

    Lucy nodded. The smile was still on her face.

    "We should return to the Aurora. Preferably before you fall asleep where you stand." Meridina's eyes betrayed the hint of mirth within. "Let us say our goodbyes and depart."




    There was a great deal of satisfaction for Robert when he returned to bed. All's fair in espionage, I guess, he thought to himself as he laid down. He was tired enough to go to sleep rather quickly.

    He soon wished he hadn't.

    The dream started. He was back in the Citadel Council's chamber. Flames licked everywhere. The Turian with blue eyes and cybernetic enhancements was standing there. "Those who serve will survive," he said. "If you continue to resist, we'll all die."

    "Serve what?", Robert called out.

    Everything went dark. A reddish tint filled the air. And then there was a thunderous sound, like a horn blown through a sound synthesizer, mechanical and utterly alien.

    He looked up to see a four-legged thing - a creature, a machine, he wasn't sure - stomping over him. They were in the Wards of the Citadel. Flames flickered everywhere, consuming bodies. Creatures, species, he'd never recognized abounded around him. Every few moments they seemed to change, becoming different, as if new sets of beings were replacing the other ones. On and on, even as that horrible sound echoed again, an unending cycle of death.

    There was a loud tone.

    Robert woke up.

    His mind was slow and bleary. He glanced at his chronometer; 0320. Another nightmare. He rubbed at his head and drew in a breath.

    The tone went off again.

    His sleepy mind quickly realized what it was. He reached over to his dresser and hit the key to activate the intercom. "Dale here," he said, groggy.

    "Captain." The voice was that of Lieutenant Prymi. "'We're getting an encoded message relayed through the Systems Alliance communications network. It's from Admiral Maran and is marked 'Extremely Urgent'."

    Robert breathed in a sigh and rubbed his eyes. "Alright." He slipped out of bed. "Relay it to my quarters."

    "Right away, sir."

    Robert walked over to his desk and activated his systems. "Computer, authorize opening of message, personal code Dale Tango Echo Kilo Lima Nine Three."

    The computer beeped compliance. Text and relevant astrographical data popped up on the screen.

    Robert felt his stomach twist as he read what was written within.




    Artificial daylight shined in Zack's eyes when he woke up. That confused him for a moment. The Koenig had no windows, how did…

    Oh.

    He remembered, groggily, that he wasn't in his bunk on Koenig. He was in an actual bed. With sheets and everything. His multidevice was sitting on the nearby dresser, displaying a time that was not too late and promised of at least some time before his crew would wonder where he went off to.

    Zack turned his head the other way and saw the naked shoulders and back of Clara. His right hand reached up and touched her back gently. His finger ran up and down her spine and over her shoulder blades.

    After a couple moments of this there was a giggle. Clara rolled over and on top of him. A happy little noise came from her throat before she gave him a deep kiss that brought every sleepy nerve to full wakefulness. His heart pounded in his chest. "Good morning," he said after the kiss ended.

    "Good morning," she answered. She pressed herself against him and settled her head beside his. Her blue eyes seemed to sparkle in the light coming through the window. "Last night was…"

    "Indescribable," Zack murmured happily.

    "I was going to go for incredible," Clara corrected softly. "But they both work." She kissed him on the cheek. "How do you feel, lover?"

    "I feel…" Zack closed his eyes and thought on it for a moment. And he realized what had happened. What he felt like now, what had been missing. "I feel… like I'm not alone anymore."

    "That's good." Clara's breath was warm on his cheek. "I don't want to scare you, Zack, but I have to say…"

    "Hrm?" He used his right arm, which felt like its blood flow was being slowly interrupted, to pull her closer. As if she could get any closer...

    "...that I think I might be in love."

    Once upon a time, Zack might have been scared of those words. "With me?"

    "Why not?"

    Zack sighed. "I used to be a jerk back in school."

    "Not always," she pointed out. "You still cared for Tom, no matter what anyone else thought of him. You weren't mean to people, maybe a little selfish, but you weren't mean and you even tried to protect me with…" She giggled. "...what happened under the bleachers, and after last night I know you made a claim that was a complete lie."

    Zack blushed at that. "Yeah, I guess. But it worked. Nobody poked fun of you."

    "True." Clara kissed his chin. "You're not that skirt-chasing horndog anymore, Zack," she insisted. "You're grown up. You're responsible. You deserve to be happy."

    Zack felt a tear in his eye at that. "Yeah." He turned his head and put his left hand on Clara's cheek. "And so do you." He swallowed. "And I feel like I'm in love with you too. You've always been someone I could think about as… I mean, someone I had feelings for. And that's why I'm not sure about…" He stopped and thought of what he was about to say. "I have duties now and all, so I'm not sure how often we can be together. I mean… once we arrive in Alliance space, I might be ordered elsewhere."

    "I know," Clara said. She took his left hand with her's. "And I'm okay with that. But right now, we're here, we're together, and we're in love. That's enough for me. Is it enough for you?"

    Zack didn't have to think twice on his answer. Not after so much time being alone, pining for someone he couldn't have, and knowing what that was doing to him on the inside. "It is," he assured Clara. "It's more than enough."

    And with that said, he kissed her as deeply as she had kissed him.




    Robert was getting ready to beam down to the Citadel Embassies when there was a knock on the door. "Come in," he said, pulling his uniform jacket on. He had expected to see Angel or maybe Julia.

    Instead, it was Caterina who stood in the doorway. "Um… hi," she said. She was in her uniform already, with the uniform skirt in place of pants.

    "Cat?" He blinked. "Don't take this the wrong way but… what are you doing here? I thought you were going to Science Lab 1 to help Data and Jarod on that Darglan data?"

    "Oh, I am. But I needed to make sure I got this message to you," she said. "Um, yesterday, when I was down in the Presidium and everything… I met this lady. Asari lady. Her name is Sha'ira and she's called the Consort and I know how that sounds but it wasn't like that and…"

    "Cat, a breath?"

    Cat stopped, as if his command was the only reason to take that necessary breath. "She wants to see you, Rob," Cat said. "It was sort of odd, she knew things about us… and she wants to see you."

    Now that sounds totally suspicious, doesn't it?, Robert mulled to himself. He nodded. "Alright. I'll… well, I'm due at Ambassador Udina's office in ten minutes, Cat, so I don't have time right now. But I'll try to get to her, okay?"

    "Yeah. I understand." Cat nodded. She turned to leave before stopping and looking back. "And I think Angel is, like, twenty percent happier now. She must have really enjoyed last night."

    "Not as much as she might have," Robert sighed. Seeing Cat's bewildered look he blushed. "Not what I meant!", he added hastily. "We only got to have dinner, I mean. Then Jarod called me back."

    "Oh." Cat nodded. "Okay, I get it. I'd better get going now, Jarod was going to make us waffles for breakfast, and he's good at that!" A look came over her face. "Of course, he's good at everything…" She sighed and on that note walked out of the door.




    Robert arrived while Udina and Ledosh were going over something. "They are squeezing you," Udina declared. "These terms are outrageous."

    "Ambassador, Mastrash."

    They looked up and over at him. "Ah, Captain, good morning," Ledosh said.

    "Captain Dale." Udina nodded, but he didn't look entirely pleased. "I wasn't aware you'd been called for. You may not be needed in the Council today, Captain. Especially if the talks fail, as they might given the Council's unacceptable behavior."

    "Last night the Council gave us preliminary items, requirements for their support and what support they would give." Ledosh seemed serene next to Udina's irritation. "They are rather… extortionate."

    "Extortion is a good term for this, Emissary Ledosh," Udina grumbled.

    "What terms?", Robert asked. "Obviously they'd get IU drives."

    "Yes," Udina said. "But the Systems Alliance would be forbidden from using drives on any ships not sent to the front, and Council-appointed officers would be placed on each ship to enforce compliance. And that's not all!"

    Ledosh handed Robert the list. He read it over and sighed. The Council was essentially demanding the Alliance all but submit to Council authority on several matters. Some didn't sound off. One was for limitations on the amount of Alliance ships - especially dreadnoughts - that would be assigned to M4P2. But the other terms were excessive; trade barrier rules favorable to the Council races; the Alliance would be forced to submit any and all diplomatic disputes in M4P2 to Citadel Council arbitration and would be forbidden from pursuing treaties without Council approval; the Citadel would have the power to veto new Alliance colonial settlements and defensive installations; on top of the IU drive technology, the Alliance would be required to immediately provide technology, free of any compensation, in virtually every area that they had an edge over the Citadel Council's members, and were not allowed to share any technology or materials directly with Earth and the Systems Alliance. "They're even demanding territorial concessions in S4W8, I see," Robert said. "And resource concessions in our M4P2 colonies. The right to patrol Alliance space to enforce Citadel interstellar law." He smirked as he finished the list. "I was almost expecting a term requiring that the Alliance Senate seat a Citadel delegate with veto rights."

    "These terms are rather harsh, which is why I believe they may be a feint of some sorts."

    "It sounds like that old trick in compromising, asking too much so that you can 'compromise' it down to what you actually want," Robert said. "Because I figure that what they want is future security against our Alliance and the Systems Alliance opposing them directly. The drives alone might not be enough."

    "We will see when our talks resume, as they will shortly," Ledosh said.




    The Council was already in place when Robert followed Ledosh and Udina into place. "We have examined the terms provided last night," Ledosh said. "I fear I must dispute some of them."

    "That is reasonable, Emissary Ledosh," Councillor Tevos said. "And unnecessary. After further discussion last night and this morning, we have decided to withdraw or revise many of them ourselves."

    Udina looked surprised at that. Robert sighed in relief, although not the relief they would assume he felt.

    Ledosh nodded. "I see. Then let us discuss matters."

    "It has become clear to us that the risk of this Third Reich salvaging the interuniversal drive is greater than we had presumed," Valern said. "The Citadel Council must act to protect this galaxy."

    "Of course. And the Allied Systems are more than willing to make necessary concessions to your security, so long as they do not damage our own security needs in this universe. The request for the Alliance to sign your Treaty of Farixen and limit itself to only four dreadnoughts in this universe during peacetime, for instance, is one that we can eminently agree upon." Ledosh held up a noteputer and tapped several keys. "I believe the other terms can be negotiated upon, as stated. Do you have your revised starting terms?"

    "We do," Sparatus said. He started operating his omnitool, bringing up a list on the holographic screen in front of the address platform. Robert noted that they had watered down several of the terms; evidently they'd decided that the threat from the Reich was great enough to not try and drag excessive concessions from the Alliance. Although they still want a veto over the UAS signing alliances with species or governments in M4P2. They are really paranoid about us joining with the Systems Alliance.

    Ledosh examined the terms carefully. "I believe these terms, as a starting point, will work. I see no blatant contradictions with President Morgan's instructions."

    Now's the time to drop the bomb. Robert stepped forward politely. "Gentlemen and lady of the Council, I feel there's something I need to share with you. New intelligence that came to me directly from Defense Command last night."

    Udina had a look of irritation. Ledosh's gaze was less hostile, but still firm; he understood something crucial was about to be revealed.

    "You may speak, Captain," Tevos said.

    "Thank you." Robert held up his multidevice and used it to transmit the report he'd received, including map data. "As you know, there is a Darglan Facility in S4W8 that could provide the Reich the means to manufacture its own IU drives. Once we learned of its coordinates, Alliance Defense Command arranged for stealth probes to be dispatched to the region. These probes lack the sufficient sensor capability to actually find the Facility, but they might have helped narrow down the location. What they have found instead, however, is this…" Robert brought up the second bit of map data; the area of space, including the fringe of Reich-held territory, now showed several icons: Nazi swastika emblems. "The Reich has deployed multiple scouting vessels to the region. They are currently maintaining active, wide-band scans."

    Udina frowned. "You're saying they know where it is."

    "Or they at least have an idea."

    "How could they have learned the coordinates?", Ledosh asked. "They can't have penetrated our security…"

    "Indications are that this is new," Robert explained. "Defense Command believes that they arrived at this by process of elimination; they knew we destroyed something on 33LA, so they examined sensor logs of the region. Eventually they may have found logs from a ship refined enough to detect the same telltale evidence of a dimensionally-transcendental field that led us to 33LA."

    "Then they would have needed to go through all existing records to find similar readings." Valern put a hand to his chin. "Perhaps we have time then. They clearly do not have the technology to easily pinpoint the coordinates in question."

    Robert nodded. "That's our estimation too. Defense Command analysts suspect they could spend anywhere from six weeks to four months scanning for the Facility before they get an idea where it is. We have that long to find the coordinates we need. Which means we have that long to deal a big enough defeat to the Reich's war fleet that we can get ships over there with a good chance of sweeping them out."

    Tevos looked to her fellow Councillors. Sparatus had his arms crossed and was clearly mulling something. Valern nodded to her. Tevos looked to them and said, "I think it best that we recess for the moment, the Council needs time to deliberate this new report and confirm its authenticity."

    Robert nodded. "Of course."

    The three men stepped away from the Council, who moved away as well to deliberate in private chambers. They traveled to the lift heading down to the Presidium. Only as they neared the bottom did the silence end. "It would seem that we are now running out of time," Ledosh said.

    "It should light a fire under them, though," Udina said. "They know our history. They know what a regime like Nazi Germany's can do, will do, to them if it ever gains the advantage. Their terms should soften even more now."

    "And I may indeed accept some of those," Ledosh said. "But it is preferable to give them some concessions that they may yet yield out of fear. In the short-term they are concerned, but if I take advantage of that, then in the long-term they will feel cheated."

    "That is your choice, Emissary. Just remember, the Systems Alliance has been willing to stand with you from the start. Don't let them drive a wedge between us."

    "Of course not, Ambassador."

    They arrived at the bottom. Udina went on ahead to the Embassy; Ledosh reminded behind with Robert. "Even before your report, they folded their opening terms rather quickly. They seem to have had a loss in confidence," Ledosh noted. He smiled at Robert, who didn't react to that but with a single thought: He knows.

    "Perhaps they realized that they were playing games when a threat like the Nazi Reich was looming over them," Robert said. "And that the smart thing was to set aside the politics and prepare for a fight before their survival is at stake."

    "Perhaps," Ledosh agreed. "You are returning to your ship?"

    "Shortly," Robert said. "I have somewhere to go first. Someone who's asked to see me, apparently."

    "Ah." Ledosh nodded. "Very well. I shall see you when the Council calls us back, Captain."
     
  12. Threadmarks: 1-15 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Data had found, to much consternation, that the Citadel had rules about "synthetic life forms" that were… harsh, to say the least. It had flustered his efforts to get to visit the Citadel so that he might write on it in his journal and relay interesting finds to the others from the Enterprise.

    Then he got to go anyway.

    "I am most thankful for this opportunity, Commander," he said to Julia Andreys, who walked beside him in the Presidium. "Given the laws in effect on artificial life, I did not think it wise to seek a shore leave without a superior officer present. Otherwise I might have prevailed upon Commander Jarod or Lieutenant Delgado for the opportunity."

    "It's alright, Data," Julia said. "I wanted to get a look at it too."

    "Of course." Data looked out at the waterway running along the middle of the Presidium. "Have you noticed the small insectoid creatures moving about?"

    "The visitor's guide called them 'Keepers'. Apparently they're some sort of bio-drones that maintain the station."

    "Curious. I have noted a constant signal connecting them. A control system would explain much." His eyes swept over the station. "It is a fascinating structure."

    "That it is."

    Data contemplated the sight before turning his head to face Julia again. "Commander, if I may ask, what has motivated your decision to pursue this career? Is it the same humanitarian goals that Captain Dale spoke of at our first contact two years six months ago?"

    Julia took a moment. "Well, I see eye to eye with him on that, Commander Data," she said. "But it's not just that." There was a thin smile on her face. She leaned against the nearby railing and put her hands together. "I've always felt like I could do more. That I could be more. Honestly, Data, I think I would have left our hometown eventually regardless of Robert finding that facility. I want to do something with my life and earn a chance to gain more responsibilities."

    "In other words, you wish to experience command," Data observed.

    Julia tilted her head slightly as she considered that wording. "Yeah, I suppose that works."

    "And yet you chose to be the First Officer and not the Captain?"

    "Well…" Julia nodded. "I wanted to make sure Rob was alright too. He's… very much a do-er, and doesn't have the same tolerance I do for working in a system. I thought he would do better if he was Captain and I could back him up than if it were the other way around. Besides… he started all of this. Taking charge over him? That wouldn't feel right."

    "I see." Data calculated his next question carefully. "Do you wish to become Captain eventually?"

    "Well…" Julia thought on that question for a moment. "Actually… yes, I believe so. I do want to become a Captain. Especially of the Aurora. I just don't want it to be at Rob's expense."

    "I believe Commander Riker has likely entertained similar considerations over the past years." Data began to visually scan the environment again. "I admit, I am perplexed by the dearth of sentient life forms in this galaxy."

    "Oh?"

    "Yes. By all calculations, there should be many more species in existence than we can observe."

    "Well, not necessarily. I mean, we have yet to find other species in my home universe," Julia pointed out. As she said that, she thought of what she'd heard about this galaxy's history. The Protheans had vanished fifty thousand years ago, and after what happened to Zack at Adrana they'd learned that it'd been a quarter of a million years since the violent extermination of the Adranian species. She wondered if there was a connection. Something to find out later, I guess. When we're not at war with Nazis. "And we've even seen what would be the homeworlds of several other species from other universes."

    "Do you not think it odd that Humans are apparently the only common species to all known universes?"

    "All the time. But I'll leave that mystery to people like you, Jarod, and Cat to solve."

    "Of course, Commander." Data observed that Worf was now a short distance away. "I see Commander Worf accepted the offer of a visit. I am curious to discover how he is enjoying the Citadel."

    "Let's see what he thinks," Julia remarked.

    They walked over to where Worf was inspecting a tall statue of a humanoid. The species made Julia think of a horned toad with the shape of the head. "This is the Krogan Memorial," Data observed.

    "Yes." Worf looked it over. He held up a hand noteputer from the Aurora with a historical article displayed. "Do you not see?"

    "What?", Julia asked.

    "These beings, these 'Krogan', they are a strong species. A warrior people." Worf looked back to them and frowned. "And the species of this galaxy used them like war targs. They uplifted them to fight an enemy they could not face and then sterilized them when they grew to fear the Krogan. It is a disgrace."

    "Well, that's one way to look at it."

    The alien voice prompted them to turn. A Turian stood nearby in C-Sec blue with matching blue face-markings on his gray skin. "Of course, there's also the fact that the Krogan bred out of control once they were off their homeworld with all of its wonderful monsters that eat people. So once their population expanded too far they started seizing worlds from the other species. They nearly captured my species' homeworld before we turned them back. The genophage was considered a better alternative to wiping them out."

    Worf appraised the man with narrowed eyes. "So you defend what was done to warriors who saved your kind."

    "It was a hard choice, but something had to be done. In our place, would your people have made any better choices?"

    It was clear his answer wasn't cutting it with Worf, but the Klingon merely snarled and looked away.

    "Excuse me, Officer…"

    "Vakarian."

    "Yes, thank you. Officer Vakarian, I noted you were not far from the Commander and myself earlier," Data stated. "Are we under police surveillance?"

    Officer Vakarian had something of a sense of humor, or so it seemed to Julia and Data. He feigned deep, philosophical thought for a moment. "Well, let's see. We have an officer from a diplomatic mission out of another universe walking the Presidium with an unshackled AI escorting her. Are you really surprised we were going to keep an eye out? It's as much for your safety as ours. The last thing we need is someone mistaking you for a Geth and causing a riot."

    "The Geth haven't been outside of their section of the galaxy in centuries. How would people know what one looks like?", Julia asked.

    "Exactly my point, Commander." The Turian nodded. "Anyway, I'm only here for your protection. Go ahead and enjoy the sights. Just, for my sake and your own… stay out of Chora's Den."

    Data blinked. "I recognize that name from a list of drinking establishments in the visitor information packet. Why should we avoid it?"

    "Because it's run by a criminal and has some of the worst cutthroats and scumbags in the Citadel coming and going," Vakarian answered. "Odds are they'd take a look at you and decide to take you apart to see how many credits they could earn from your parts."

    Worf smirked. Julia thought it was a rather dangerous one too. "They," Worf said, "would try."

    "Yeah, but then there'd be a fight and I'd have to break it up. It'll include shooting people and you won't believe the amount of paperwork they'd put me through. And after it was all over I'd have Executor Pallin riding my ass on how I let officers from a diplomatic mission end up in that situation in the first place. So I'd really prefer it if you don't try my luck."

    "Well, Officer, we'd better not take any more of your time." Julia checked her clock on her multidevice. "We're due back to our ship in a few minutes anyway."

    "Oh, no trouble. I just got yanked off a case tracking a bunch of illegal organs, nothing too important," he replied. "But seriously, thank you. I think your synthetic friend is starting to attract attention."

    Julia nodded and looked to Data. "Ready to return, Commander Data? Commander Worf?"

    "I have seen a sufficient amount of the Presidium," Data answered.

    Worf nodded. "I will accompany you back as well."

    "Right." Julia touched the commkey on her multidevice. "Andreys to Aurora. Three to beam up."

    Several seconds later white light formed around all three of them and they seemed to be whisked away by it. Garrus Vakarian watched that happen and sighed.

    A C-Sec rookie stepped up beside him. "Sir? Are you alright?", the young Turian asked.

    "I'm fine, kid," Garrus said. "I'm just imagining what a pain in the ass it will be for us when the gangs get a hold of those teleporter devices they use. Now, if you'll excuse me..." Garrus walked past the younger officer. "I have an investigation to get back to."







    After leaving Ledosh, Robert followed the Presidium path to one of the Avina interfaces. It greeted him with that feigned VI cheer. "I need directions to the Consort," he said simply.

    "The Consort's office can be found…"

    Robert followed the directions provided until he got to the Consort's chambers. An Asari at the entrance nodded. "I am Nelyna," she said. "You are the Captain of the Aurora, yes?"

    "I suppose the uniform gives it away," Robert answered.

    "The Consort is with a client at the moment. She will be just a minute, I believe…"

    Three minutes later a Turian, older-looking, came out. Nelyna nodded to the Turian and addressed him amiably as "General Oraka", who scheduled his next meeting with the Consort. "You may go in now, Captain."

    Robert entered and walked past a number of other people being tended to by Asari. He passed them and entered the rear chamber. A single Asari was waiting for him, wearing the same semi-revealing suits as the other Asari outside. "Captain Dale," she said simply.

    "You would be the Consort, Sha'ira," he answered.

    Sha'ira walked up to him. "Yes." She nodded and smiled gently. "Your officer Caterina Delgado is quite the interesting young lady. Passionate, energetic, and youthful. But with hidden depths that will come out in time."

    Robert nodded. "I know. Cat's got a lot of potential."

    "Many of your crew do." Sha'ira took his hand. "You and your friends are more than what they seem. The fates of many, perhaps of us all, are on your shoulders. I think you know what I mean." Sha'ira drew closer, almost uncomfortably so. Close enough that Robert almost expected Angel to show up and punch her and then him over it.

    And that thought seemed to make her back off a little. "Ah yes, I apologize. You are with another, yes?"

    "I am."

    "Of course. I did not intend to give you discomfort, Captain. But I must share this with you." She looked at him intently. "Some of us are dreamers. We dream of what might come. And we don't always like what we see."

    Robert stared at her.

    "Yes." She nodded. "I have dreamed as well. Fire and death and darkness." She kept his hand in hers. "And I have dreamed of life and happiness and joy. Do not let your fear of the former consume you, dear Captain. You mustn't, if you and the others are to bring us the better future."

    Sha'ira stepped away from him momentarily. When she turned back she was holding something. It was some form a trinket, a small orange disc around a gold frame. She pressed it into his hands and cupped them around the frame. "Take this," she said. "It will be of use to you in the future both near and far."

    "What is it?"

    "I do not know," she answered. "It was something found long ago on an alien world with no name I know of. Perhaps the secret to that world can be found in it. Or others. All I know is that you must have it."

    Robert looked over the object again It seemed innocuous. But… there was something about it. Something important that he could sense.

    So he gently slid it into the internal pocket of his uniform jacket. "Thank you," he said. "Is there anything I can do for you?"

    "Yes," Sha'ira said. "You can remember that you have a role to play. It must be played right, it must be played well. And above all else, above all distractions, you must remember this." She looked at him intently. "However, whenever, the Darkness might fall… it is always banished by the coming of the Dawn. Remember that, Captain Dale. You must all remember that."

    Robert remained quiet.

    Sha'ira nodded. "Now, please, I believe I have another client coming. If you wish to see me again, you need only ask Nelyna."

    "Uh, yes." He nodded, not sure of what else to say. There was, indeed, nothing else to do but leave.







    In a star system far from the Citadel, a single well-suited figure looked over reports flashing in front of him. Nearby a woman was reciting reports.

    "We have reason to believe that the spying VI was caught," she said. "The Salarians may not suspect it. But our analysis of the data compared to other sources we have indicates it has been doctored."

    "I see." The man turned. There was a flicker of light by one of his hands, the object there hidden in the shadow of the dimmed room. "They are not to be underestimated."

    "They should be our allies," the woman insisted. "They hold the key to everything we…"

    "In due time," the man counseled. He drew the object up to his mouth. There was an intake of breath and the light dimmed slightly. After a moment he continued. "How are our own efforts going?"

    "We haven't achieved any significant infiltration yet, and we might not for some time. These Alliance people can be… different. We may require more time to study."

    "The means will present themselves in time, Miss Lawson. For now, I don't want anything too rash to be executed. The United Alliance of Systems is a wild card in this galaxy. I want to make sure that when they come into play, it's in our hand." The man used a swipe of his hand over the nearby hardlight display to change the images to show several pictures. "I have a feeling about these people," he said. His blue eyes, shining with inhuman mechanical precision, looked over the images of Captain Dale, Commander Andreys, and their shipmates. "Make sure we have full write-ups on the command staff of the Aurora. I want to make sure we have every angle covered. I want weaknesses and strengths listed and analyzed."

    The woman nodded. "Of course, Illusive Man."

    "As for our other operations to other universes, I'd like to see Operative Grenville's latest dispatches from Solaris…"







    At another location in the galaxy, a lone figure sat in a quiet room. A low din of noise filled his head. In front of him was an image.

    It made his blood boil.

    The recording from the Council continued at the stroke of a key. "...likely within the week. As such, the Council expects you to prepare a report on Batarian activity in the Verge and Traverse. The Turian fleet will be…"

    He turned it off. The Council was coddling the Humans again. Again. When the threat they posed was greater than ever…

    "This conflict will be irrelevant," another voice said. It was deep and distorted, not the heard speech of an organic being.

    "Irrelevant? These Humans from other universes threaten everything!"

    "Calm yourself, Saren. It is vital that you continue to give no indications to the Council of your new loyalty. Perform all duties with the diligence they would expect of you. It will not be a delay."

    "And what about our army? Some of the Geth still oppose us. We haven't gotten them all."

    "We will have enough. Now go, Saren. And remember…"

    "Yes, Sovereign?"

    "I must know more about these Humans from the other universe. That vessel, the Aurora... the design is… familiar to me. They are a potential complication to our return."

    Saren stood from his place. "I'll keep you updated when I can."

    "Good. Now go."







    Tag



    Robert met Julia on their mutual way to Science Lab 1. "So, how did the diplomacy go?", Julia asked.

    "After what happened yesterday? The Council has softened a couple more terms. Although Emissary Ledosh is giving concessions anyway. He's concerned about buyer's remorse setting in once the fighting kicks up."

    "Making the Citadel Council upset with us does seem pretty stupid," Julia agreed. They stepped together into the turbolift. "It looks like everyone's been enjoying leaves to the Citadel. And I haven't heard of any problems yet. Maybe I should go back and pay the Wards a visit."

    "I know a great restaurant to recommend," Robert said.

    "Yeah." Julia remained silent until the turbolift opened. "But we're running out of time, aren't we?"

    "Yeah," Robert said. "We are."

    They stepped into Science Lab 1, where Caterina, Jarod, and Data were looking over data. "You wanted to see us?", Robert asked.

    "Jarod and Data found something!", Cat exclaimed. "Something I've been dying to find for years!"

    Robert and Julia exchanged looks. "Okay. Jarod?"

    "We've been compiling more data from the 33LA database. The raw data, even when compiled, isn't always useful," Jarod explained. "It's fragments from larger data files we didn't recover. But we did find this."

    Robert looked up at the screen. A series of four characters appeared. "E5B1", Robert read out. "Why does that sound familiar?"

    "That's the designation for the Darglan home universe," Caterina said, brimming with excitement."

    "You mean the one we've never gone to because we don't want to run into whatever wiped the Darglan out?", Julia pointed out.

    "Exactly." Jarod looked to Data. "But that's not the real part of the discovery. Data found an encoded element to the data we've recovered that, when you use the actual characters as a decoding key, creates this." Jarod hit a key.

    More numbers appeared.

    "It would appear to be a set of coordinates," Data said. "To a star system toward the Galactic Rim. Additionally, I determined a designation attached to the coordinates. Once I compared the designation to what remains of your Darglan databases, I was able to determine what the designation translated into."

    "What?", Robert asked.

    "Home," was the answer.

    Robert and Julia looked at them in stunned silence. "You mean…", Julia finally managed.

    She was cut off by Cat, who yelled enthusiastically, "It means we have the coordinates to the Darglan Homeworld! We'll be able to find out more of what happened to them! Maybe find some of their ships and other salvageable technology. Or even a guide to other Facilities!"

    "I'll have to get permission from…"

    There was a tone on Robert's multidevice. He pressed it. "Dale here."

    "We're getting a channel from Admiral Maran for you, sir," was the reply from one of the junior bridge officers.

    "What timing," Robert said to the others. He brought up his device and spoke into it. "Relay the call to Science Lab 1."

    On a nearby screen Admiral Maran appeared, respectable-looking as always. "Congratulations on the success you and Mastrash Ledosh enjoyed Captain. I look forward to reading your report."

    "Sir, Commander Jarod and Commander Data have urgent information I need to share with you."

    "Oh?"

    "We have the coordinates to the Darglan homeworld, Admiral."

    Maran sat back in his chair. "You've found them?"

    "They did."

    "Well." Maran seemed lost in thought. "We've been avoiding that universe, haven't we? Do you think we should risk running into whatever wiped them out?"

    "It might be a necessary risk," Julia said. "There's no telling what we can unearth. It might help us find the Facility in S4W8 first."

    "True." Maran thought about it. "I'll confer with Defense Command and the President. For now you'll be back on your main mission of providing diplomatic transport. As soon as Ledosh is done finalizing the treaty, you're clear to return to Alliance space in M4P2. We should have a destination for you within the day. And on that matter..." He folded his hands together. "Given what we now know about Nazi activities, there is a strong chance you may have to engage them in a fight for control of that Facility. I want you to have the best chance to succeed, and I'm not the only one…"







    At Maran's request, Robert returned to the Citadel. He beamed straight to the Embassy for Earth and returned to Udina's office. Udina nodded when he entered. Robert noted that he wasn't alone. "Captain Anderson."

    The commander of the SSV Tokyo nodded. "Captain Dale," Anderson replied in his customary deep tone. "Good to see you again. I hear you've been in the thick of the fighting."

    "We did our share of it in the early weeks," Robert confirmed. He nodded slightly. "Then they pulled us out of the front to do diplomatic duty."

    "So I've heard. You made quite the impression at Arcturus." Anderson noted Udina's look. "It would be interesting to talk, but I'm afraid I'm here on business."

    "Admiral Maran said something about that."

    "Yes." Anderson nodded. "He informed Command that your ship would be the one to go after the Facility when its location can be verified. Given that we know the enemy's looking for the Darglan base as well, we can't be sure that our side finds it first. You may have to fight for it."

    "The thought crossed my mind," Robert said. "Commander Meridina and Commander Kane have been running tactical drills. We already have a tactical expert from Starfleet along who's providing further expertise."

    "All well and good. But I hope you'll accept our assistance as well. We're ready to send you someone with intensive training and experience in the kind of operation you might have to perform to prevent Darglan technology from falling into the hands of people like the Nazi Reich." Anderson looked toward the railing, where Udina's office could look out on the Presidium.

    Robert turned his head and saw there was someone standing in the corner, wearing the same Systems Alliance uniform as Anderson but with fewer rank bars. She had been looking their way and toward the Presidium and now approached. She was between Angel and Julia in height and carried herself in the same nonchalant, confident way Robert had seen other well-trained officers walk. Her hair was red, almost blazing with the richness of that color, and kept short in a bob cut hairstyle, with the hair covering her ears and a bang and some threads just over the right eye. Brilliant green eyes gave further color to a bronze complexion lightened by time living in space; Robert would guess that she was about his age, maybe a year or two older.

    "Captain Dale?" The woman had a North American accent, spoken with a tough, husky sort of voice. "I'm Commander Shepard."

    Robert gave her a look. "No first name?", he asked.

    Shepard smiled at that. "I don't bother with it. Usually nobody ever uses it but my mother," she replied. "Jen Shepard, then." She extended her hand.

    Robert nodded and brought his hand up. "Rob Dale." They shook hands. "It'll be a pleasure having you aboard the Aurora, Commander Shepard."
     
  13. Threadmarks: 1-16 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Teaser


    Lucy's heart raced as she rushed through the blue corridors. The pack on her back was a burden she was starting to get used to after all of this time. Not that it made running any easier given the light combat armor she was in.

    The Marine ahead of her, a male Dorei with light blue skin and purple hair and spotting, checked a corridor junction carefully. He made a hand signal to certify that the way was clear and moved into the junction.

    A deep voice rumbled over the commline in Lucy's helmet. Commander Worf, of course. "Team 2, this is Team 1. Have you reached the objective?"

    "Team 1, negative," Commander Kane answered. "We had to blast our way through an ambush. We're coming up on it, though."

    "You must move more quickly. We are running out of time." There was the sound of a disruptor going off in the background. "We will not be able to hold this position for much longer."

    "I read you, Team 1." Kane looked to Lucy and the other Marines escorting her. "Okay people, let's double-time it!"

    Lucy restrained a groan that started to form in her throat. She needed the air anyway, given the speed with which Kane's people were now running.

    They found the portal they were looking for at the end of the next corridor. Inside was equipment Lucy had not seen in almost two years. "This is it," she said. "The central field emitter for the DT field."

    "Do your thing, Lieutenant, we'll watch your…"

    "Panzergrenadiers!", shouted one of the Marines.

    Everyone turned to look down the corridor they'd come in from. A file of human figures in heavy black armor were stomping their way. The distinctive stahl helm design of the helmet, with two red eyepieces, was enough of a giveaway even without the hooked cross swastika insignia in white over the heart.

    Lucy got out of the way as a series of disruptor pulses erupted from the arm cannons mounted in the Reich's elite armored infantry suits. The Marines scattered and took cover around the doorway. "Close the door!", Kane shouted. "Lucero, get that thing going!"

    Lucy swallowed and nodded. She unslung the pack on her back and located what she had been looking for: the main field array machinery. She set the pack up against it and opened up the controls for what lay within: a naqia bomb big enough to vaporize them all when it went off, not to mention the machinery in the room. She started arming it. "I need a few minutes!"

    "You've got two!", Kane shouted. He pulled a grenade off his belt and armed it. He threw it in a blind toss into the hall. There was a thunderous blast that sent heat flooding into the room. "Teams 1 and 3, this is Team 2, we've got PGs!"

    "How many?", was the question from Team 3's commander, Meridina.

    "At least a squad, from the looks of it." Kane fished another grenade from his belt. He armed it. "We're setting the bomb now. If you can't get to us, get out."

    "Die well, Commander Kane," Worf replied.

    Lucy swallowed at that. So that was it? After all this, after all the planning, she and the others were going to be left behind? Obviously. We're outgunned and this bomb has to go off. We can't afford anything else happening. She activated the bomb. "Weapon armed. What time do you want me to set it for?"

    Kane looked at her. "Set it…"

    Before he could finish an object flew through the door. "Grenade!", one of the Marines shouted. Kane jumped to cover it.

    Before he could, it went off. Lucy was blinded by a flash and thrown back against her bomb. All cries from the others were cut off. When Lucy's vision came back there was nothing left but charred corpses. She felt like she could barely move; the blast wave hadn't been entirely dispelled by her armor. A small display in the corner of her helmet told her she was suffering from multiple internal injuries that were causing hemorrhaging.

    And at the door, the shadows of the first enemy armored troopers were looming. "Surrender and you vill be spared!", an accented voice called out through a speaker.

    Lucy knew better. Even if she was spared, and even if she survived her injuries, it wouldn't do any good. She'd wish she'd died here.

    Her quivering hand fought her, but she forced it to reach over and hit the initiation key on the bomb.

    Everything went white.




    The video stopped playing. "Congratulations are in order." Commander Jen Shepard of the Systems Alliance Navy clapped. "You completed the mission. Of course, you also ended up turning it into a suicide mission." A wry look appeared on her face. "But those can happen."

    The briefing room of the Aurora was filled with several of the command crew, Meridina's lieutenants in security, and Kane and his officers and senior NCOs.

    Shepard, wearing the blue casual uniform of the Systems Alliance Navy, nodded to Lucy. In turn, Lucy frowned and crossed her arms. "We wouldn't have gotten trapped if the DT field machinery chamber was in the right place."

    "Oh?" Shepard looked to her side. "Commander Worf?"

    The Klingon, wearing the gold of Starfleet security, nodded. "Commander Shepard and I agreed that it was best to defy your assumptions. You presume the Darglan built their Facilities to a universal model; they may not have."

    "That assumption cost you," Shepard added. "And it got you trapped."

    Lucy didn't have a reply to that. But she didn't stop frowning.

    "Are we sure the Nazis will have armored infantry present?", Angel asked from the other table, where she was seated with Robert, Julia, and Jarod. "They're pretty rare."

    "But they still fit into the Facility," Shepard pointed out. "Given the stakes involved we can't assume they'll hold back anything."

    "Our advisors are correct." Meridina nodded. "We must account for any possible tactic by the foe."

    "Right." Robert nodded. "We'll schedule another exercise soon. I'll be joining this one."

    "I do not see the point in that," Worf said. "You are the ship's captain, it is not your place to join the operation."

    "I understand that, Commander Worf, but as you and Commander Shepard were quick to point out, we've got to be ready for anything." Robert gestured to Lucy. "So far Lucy and I are the only ones who have been proven able to access secured features of the Darglan technology."

    "I, too, have had said technology recognize me," Meridina pointed out.

    "Still, if something happens and neither of you are available, I may need to go down and assist," Robert pointed out. "So I should be ready to operate with the others."

    Shepard answered that with a nod. "A good point. Alright, we'll put you through your paces with the others."

    Jarod winced from where he was sitting. "And hopefully you won't get the same hit to the shoulder I did."

    "Babies." Angel smirked and crossed her arms. "I got two ribs broken by Worf in the last training round. You didn't see me crying, did you?"

    Robert suppressed a chuckle. Angel hadn't cried, no, but she hadn't been very happy the next couple of nights. Even with Leo's ministrations, it took time to fully recover from injuries like that.

    Before he or anyone else could speak again, a tone sounded over the speakers in the room. "Data to Briefing Room 1." Worf's comrade had taken the bridge watch for the duration of the meeting.

    "We're here, Commander."

    "Mastrash Ledosh wishes to speak with you, Captain."

    "Patch him through."

    Robert turned away and toward a wall monitor that the signal got relayed to. Ledosh appeared on the screen. He was in an office in one of the government buildings of the planet below. The skyline of Galkingrad was visible through a window behind him. "Captain Dale. I am pleased to report that the negotiations are over."

    Robert blinked. "That fast?"

    "Indeed. It would appear that the Slavic Union was already quite willing to commit to the war. While they will not commit to resuming the talks on Alliance membership, they are already in the process of finalizing a treaty of military alliance against the Nazi Reich. I am assured that their fleets and troops will be deployed as soon as IU drives are made available. It would appear that they have rather unkind memories of this universe's Nazi Germany."

    I bet. "Will Ambassador Winthrop be needing your assistance for any longer?"

    "No. I will be returning shortly, Captain."

    After Ledosh disappeared Robert looked to the others. "Another ally." Julia smiled. "Hopefully our factories for the IU drives can keep up with the new demand."

    "Given the roll we're on diplomatically… yeah." Robert nodded. "Anyway, I'll be returning to my office to see what Admiral Maran and the President have for us next. Commanders, is there anything else?"

    "There is not," Worf replied.

    "Thank you for your time and effort then. I look forward to getting my ass kicked like the rest of us." Robert nodded to everyone. "I'll see you all on the bridge."




    Robert had barely gotten to his ready room when Data made the call. "Captain, I have Admiral Maran on the IU comm line."

    "I'm ready, Data," he answered aloud, settling into his seat. He shifted a little and was comfortable when Admiral Maran appeared. The Gersallian admiral didn't seem to have any more gray hair on his dark-haired head than Robert had noticed last time. Maybe Gersallians have different ways of showing prolonged stress. "Admiral. Ledosh has the treaty."

    "I know, I just got the notification myself."

    "So, where to next, sir? Lemara? New Granada? Wittelsbachwelt?"

    "None of the above." Maran put his hands in front of him. "Four days ago, the Challenger jumped at the galactic coordinates you sent to us. They have since reported their arrival at what appears to have been the Darglan Homeworld."

    Robert's mouth hung open silently for a moment. His eyes were widening. "The mission was approved, then?"

    "Yes. Because of your diplomatic mission still being ongoing we held off on sending you. But you and Mastrash Ledosh have accomplished all that we could ask in C5O2. We're pulling you from the diplomatic tour for the time being."

    Robert's heart was starting to beat faster from excitement. "So we've got the green light?"

    "Yes." Maran nodded and smiled thinly. "You and your friends were the start of this, Robert. You've been around Darglan technology the longest. And you'll be the ones putting any discoveries to use. You deserve the chance to be there for this. Your new orders are to lock onto Challenger's drive and to jump to her location immediately for the excavation of the Darglan Homeworld."





    Undiscovered Frontier
    "Looming Shadows"


    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 14 September 2641. Captain Robert Dale recording. After concluding negotiations for support with the Slavic League in Universe C5O2, President Morgan and Admiral Maran have given us clearance to join the excavation of the Darglan Homeworld in Universe E5B1. I'm hopeful that we might find something there that will help us find the Darglan Facility in S4W8 before the Nazi Reich does.

    And I'm thankful to say that
    Mastrash Ledosh will be joining us for this mission should we have need of his talents. There is no telling what other species may exist in this universe and we may have need of his diplomatic skills or his other capabilities before we are done here.


    Robert felt the familiar sensation of an interuniversal jump as he stepped out onto the bridge. Julia waited until the ship was safely through the jump point before getting out of the command chair and moving over to her own. On the viewscreen in front of them was a somber sight, but not unexpected; a ruined garden planet.

    "The Darglan Homeworld," Caterina said with tears in her eyes. "It's… I…" She stopped herself and returned to her work. "Sensors are showing no life on a macroscopic scale. The planet's biosphere has been completely destroyed. I am detecting ruins across the planet."

    "What happened here?", Julia asked.

    "The planet's surface is showing signs of massive amounts of past tectonic activity. Like the planet nearly blew itself apart from the core upward."

    Data looked over her readings from his own station, even if he was using Tom Barnes' engineering station for the moment. "Given the damage pattern, I would surmise that the Darglan Homeworld was subjected to orbital bombardment from all sides. The tectonic activity and the damage to the surface would indicate that whatever force destroyed this world used thousands of projectiles capable of penetrating to the planet's core, where they detonated with a force in the multiple gigaton range. The resulting devastation destroyed all life within hours." The android seemed perturbed by the destruction. "I must express my concern that we may not find anything of value on the planet due to the scale of the devastation."

    "Give us a standard orbit near the Challenger, Mister Locarno," ordered Julia.

    At Locarno's control, Aurora moved into orbit of the broken world. A pinpoint of light on the screen grew until it became a ship. "Well, would you look at that," Locarno said. "Beautiful, isn't she?"

    The other ship looked surprisingly like the Aurora. Blue-sheened hull, a visible distinction between a primary hull and drive hull with the navigational deflector dish at the front of the drive hull, but with the two hulls flowing together enough that there was no "neck" like was standard in many large Starfleet designs. She was only half the size, though, and with only two warp nacelles (moving upward) to the Aurora's four.

    "I am not familiar with that design," Data said. "But it appears to be based on the Aurora."

    "You're right," Robert said with a small grin. "This is one of the new Discovery-class starships in the Alliance fleet. One of the first ship types to be built specifically for the Alliance and not from one of our members' navies. She must have just finished her shakedown cruise."

    "They're hailing," Jarod said.

    The face on the screen was familiar, and drew a smile from Robert. "Madeleine. Captain Laurent. Good to see you," he said.

    The African woman on the screen smiled at him. "Robert. Julia. You are all doing well?"

    "Yeah. Nice new ship. I'm glad you got the command."

    "So am I. She's not the Weaver or Kirby, certainly." Captain Laurent nodded. "How is my little brother?"

    "He's doing well. Our fighters are kept in top shape," Julia answered, referring to Lt. Commander Patrice Laurent, the Aurora's fighter group commander.

    "Good for him. I'm proud."

    "How's Nasira?", Julia asked. "I heard she became your XO?"

    "Commander Fanous is on the planet now with our excavation team." Laurent's expression shifted to a more business-like look. "We've already done preliminary surveys. I was about to send my report when your jump drive system locked on to us. We found something."

    "Already?", Robert asked. That sounds very good…

    "It's not what you think, Robert," Madeleine warned. "We found the wreckage of a ship on the northern continent. Fresh wreckage. And signs of prior excavations."

    Julia and Robert exchanged worried looks. "So we're not the first ones here," he said. And if there's any trace of the technology down there…

    "From what we can tell, the vessel in question was badly damaged when it crashed. We've recovered bodies. Some are Human, others are of a species we have no record of."

    "Any indications as to what technology they use?", Jarod asked.

    "We know they do not have naqia reactors. And no warp drives. The ship isn't intact enough to let us know what kind of alternative FTL system they have. Our orbital scans show no signs of any other vessel having come through here for weeks."

    "I understand." Robert nodded. "Who's your science officer?"

    "Philippe, of course."

    Cat smiled at that. "I'll have to call him then. Maybe we can find out more together."

    "Why don't you beam over? Our science labs are based on your own."

    "That's an excellent idea," Julia said. "Cat and Data can go over and look over what's been found."

    "We will be waiting for them."

    "Then there's just the matter of joining the ground teams in surveying any promising spots," Julia said. "I can lead a group down with Jarod to check any other sites."

    "We have a few that still need to be checked out," Madeleine said. "I'll relay coordinates. The radiation isn't heavy enough to prevent transporter operation."

    Robert nodded. "Do that. We'll keep in touch."

    "Yes sir. Signing off." Madeleine Laurent disappeared from the screen.

    "It's always good to see a familiar face doing well," Julia said. She stood up. "I'll go assemble the ground team."

    "And I'll go with Data and beam over to the Challenger," Caterina said. "I can't wait to see her. Farmer based so much of her off of our ship, but she's got one extra science lab over us and dedicated naqia reactors for each one. The labs are completely independent from the ship."

    "Keep me updated," Robert requested. He pressed the intercom key on his chair. "Dale to King."

    "Yes, Captain?," replied Commander Elizabeth King, commanding the attack ship Sladen that was docked to Aurora as a temporary replacement for the Koenig.

    "Assemble your crew. Now that we're in E5B1, I'd like the Sladen to launch. Just as a precaution."

    "Yes, Captain, my crew will be ready to launch in half an hour."




    Caterina and Data appeared in the transporter station on the Challenger. A young Human woman in the beige of Operations crew looked up - she looked Central Asian to Cat. "Welcome," she said. "Lieutenant Duwala is waiting for you in Science Lab 2. It is about fifty meters down the passageway toward the ship's aft."

    "Thanks," Cat said to her. "Oh, and at ease."

    They stepped out into the main corridor and started following it. Caterina smiled in appreciation at how closely it matched Aurora's own blue-walled halls. The partitions for emergency bulkheads to slide into place were a little rounder, that seemed the only difference.

    "This vessel was also a design by Captain Carlton Farmer, was it not?", Data asked.

    "Well, partly," Cat answered. "Captain Farmer was still busy getting the Aurora finished. But he did oversee the work and make the final plans."

    "I see. The Starfleet influence in the ship's layout and design is unmistakable."

    "Just how he wanted it," Cat said. "So, how are your emotions? I mean, you've got that chip stuck in you, right?"

    "Yes," Data confirmed. "I have been experimenting with turning it to higher settings to judge my readiness for constant use of emotions."

    "And what have you learned so far?"

    "I believe I can set the chip to 40% potential power without risking a loss of control."

    "You're getting there, then! That's great!"

    Data looked at her with curiosity. "You seem personally invested in my development of emotions. Why?"

    Caterina shrugged, though she was still smiling. "Why not? I enjoy them. Being happy, being curious, that little bit of warmth inside you and everything."

    "I am not sure I would describe my emotions as a 'warmth' as of yet."

    "I'm sure you will once you can have stronger emotions safely."

    Data considered that. "Ah. I understand. This 'warmth' comes from the intensity of an emotion."

    "That's one way of putting it."

    "I shall endeavor to see if I can feel the warmth you speak of."

    They found the entrance to the Science Lab and entered. Two Alakins, an officer and a technician, were in one corner going over what looked like a piece of debris.

    "Caterina! Oh, it is good to see you." Philippe Duwala was looking up from a scanning device he was seated beside. Like Cat his uniform contained the blue of a science officer. The lights in the room reflected off the dark skin of his shaved head. "How are you?" He stood and walked up to them. "It's been too long."

    "I'm doing okay," she answered, accepting a hug. She gave him a quizzical look. "What happened to your hair?"

    "Oh." He seemed to blush a little. He lowered his voice. "Rodrigo thought I looked better bald. Personally I think that it's just him."

    "How is he? You're still together?"

    "He's the tactical officer, and yes, we are." Philippe smiled. "Two years now. All because of you and the others."

    "You're the one who actually had to ask him out," Cat pointed out, smiling. "And, oh. Sorry." She looked to Data. "I'm sorry, Data. This is Philippe Duwala. Philippe, Commander Data, formerly from the Federation Starship Enterprise."

    "He was one of your colleagues during your time operating the Darglan Facility?", Data asked. He briefly accessed his memory banks for the discussion where Robert Dale had explained what they did to Captain Picard, himself, and Counselor Troi during their first contact.

    "Yes," Philippe said. "They freed me and many others from certain death in that horrible jail."

    Data blinked. "Would it offend you if I asked why you were held? For the purpose of curiosity only, I assure you."

    "No, it's quite alright," Philippe said. "Some of us were political prisoners. I was being held because I am gay."

    Data seemed perplexed. "I do not understand. Homosexuality was considered a crime?"

    "There were a lot of countries on our Earth who made it one, yes," Cat answered. She frowned. "I think some still do. Even with spaceships flying over their heads now."

    "It is old sufferings, it compares nothing to what I have now." Philippe gestured to the room. "All of this is better than dwelling on the past." He stepped back over to the scanner and they followed. "Anyway, it is best if I show you what we have so far."

    "Still nothing from the actual Darglan ruins?", Cat asked.

    "Not yet, I am afraid. Nasira was hoping that a site on the secondary southern continent would yield results." Philippe tapped several keys. "For now I am analyzing the ship that we found. It crashed on the northern hemisphere." Philippe brought up an image of the vessel's wreckage. The dust from the upended dirt of the planet obscured some of the coloring of the ship, but Cat noticed there were some purple to be found. "I've spent two days studying it. I believe it was broken into three distinct pieces from the impact. There were no survivors of the crash."

    "Have you determined whether it was an accident?", Data asked.

    "Unlikely." Philippe frowned. With a touch of a key he brought up a blackened piece from the crash. "I took this sample from the site, and there is more where it came from. My analysis shows thermal damage consistent with energy weapons. Apparently a form of particle beam."

    "So someone shot them down." Caterina shook her head. She had a frown now as well. "And the ship doesn't have a warp drive?"

    "No. There is no sign of warp field generation technology. But some of the technology on board was quite advanced. The data systems seem to be based on crystal media. And the hull…"

    With a touch of a button he brought up a microscopic analysis of the damaged part of the hull. Caterina and Data took a long look. "Is that what I think it is?", she asked.

    "Fascinating." Data was closely examining the piece. "It appears to be some form of scar tissue. As if it was healing itself in an organic fashion."

    "It's not like our self-repair systems," Philippe confirmed. "No sign of replicated use. The material was literally re-growing itself. Like a body healing a flesh wound."

    "This is so cool," Caterina said. "This… this is bio-armor." Noticing Data's curious look she added, "I saw it in the Darglan archives a couple of years ago. The theory, I mean, the Darglan never made it work. Their self-repair systems are based on the same principle idea, but they had to use replicators. No, this… this is actually having an alloy compound that behaves like living tissue. It heals itself and can even adapt to the things that hurt it. Over time it grows more resistant to whatever has caused damage before."

    "Some scientists in the Federation have speculated on such material being possible as the final evolution of memory metal technology," Data said. "However, to find an actual example is quite the discovery."

    "And someone still managed to defeat it," Philippe sighed.

    "Well, it might have been relatively 'young' material," Cat pointed out. "Subjected to an overwhelming attack that it had no hope to adapt itself against. The important thing is that we've found something like this."

    "Now we just need to figure out who they are."

    "Doctor Grieber finished examining the bodies this morning. She says that a few were Human, but most seemed to be another species we have never seen before." Philippe tapped a key and brought up an image. It was a humanoid form, blackened and burnt by fire, wearing what had been cream-colored clothing, almost robes. A crest seemed to be coming from the top of the being's skull that wrapped around the back of the head.

    "Wow." Cat sighed. "It's horrible to meet a new species from their remains. Well, let's start with the ship. We'll go over what we have…"




    I'm on the Darglan Homeworld.

    Julia looked out at the toppled ruins that had once been skyscraping structures. The environmental systems in her suit kept her warm against what her instruments were calling a biting chill. They also provided her the oxygen to breathe, a must-have given the planet's atmosphere had literally been blown away by the bombardment it had been subjected to. How could someone even accomplish that? What could?

    "This is where it all began," she murmured to herself. "Everything."

    "Commander."

    She turned slightly. One of the operations officers, Lieutenant Thanh, was looking up at her from within the fallen building. Back to business, Julie, she thought to herself. "Yes, Lieutenant?", she asked.

    His response came over the speaker in her helmet. "We may have found something."

    "I'm coming." She made her way down carefully, avoiding anything that might cause a rip in her suit. There wasn't much that could - the material was resistant to the kinds of tears you might otherwise get - but with a toxic atmosphere outside of her suit it seemed ridiculous to take that chance.

    "This way."

    Thanh led her into the partially-toppled building they had been standing on. Julia had to climb down a ladder placed by her excavation team to get through a hole in what was once a wall. The lights on their helmets were the only source of illumination in the dead, lightless ruins beneath what had become the surface.

    There was more light ahead, though. The team had set up their lights in this chamber. Julia stepped into it and watched the five other members of the excavation crew scanning. Immediately she realized that this was something of interest; she could tell that several of the now-dead consoles had once been computer control systems, much like the ones the Facility had used. "This was a data center of some kind," she said.

    "As near as we can tell. But there's no sign of the actual computers." Thanh indicated one side of the room. Julia went over and inspected it. "What do you think, Commander?"

    "What I think, Lieutenant, is that someone took the hardware," she answered. Julia pressed the comm-key for her multidevice. "Andreys to Aurora."

    "Aurora here," Robert answered.

    "It looks like we're not the only ones who have been here, Captain," Julia said. "We've found what looks to be a data center of some sort, but all of the actual computer hardware has been taken."

    "...Damn. See what else you can find out, Commander, and head back up. Data and Cat should be done soon."

    "I read you." Julia nodded to Thanh. "Lieutenant, I need this entire chamber scanned. Not a single cell or atom gets missed, okay? We need any sign we can get of the people who were here."

    "Yes Commander."
     
  14. Threadmarks: 1-16-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Julia was the last one to get back, heading straight to the conference room on her arrival. Robert had assembled the rest of the command staff to attend; Madeleine and Philippe were observing from the Challenger and King from the Sladen. Jarod and Scotty both showed surprise when Cat and Data shared their findings. "Bio-armor?", Jarod asked. "You're kidding."

    "Not at all," Cat said, smiling. "Philippe found it. It shows all of the signs. It fits the Darglan entry."

    "Bio-armor is good, right?" Angel asked.

    "Imagine hull armor that reacts like organic tissue." Caterina looked at her sister. "When it's injured, it heals, and it heals in a way to further resist injury."

    "Scar tissue." Leo nodded. "Of course, it takes days or weeks, even months, for most species to heal physical wounds."

    "Yes, but isn't that because of energy requirements? The body has to 'grow' new cells, new tissue, to replace the damaged tissue." Caterina's voice was faster than normal; she was Excited. "But if you hook it up to a starship's power source, it heals itself more rapidly."

    "Doesn't it need food, then?", Julia asked.

    "I… dunno. The Darglan never said what nourishment would be necessary. They never got that far."

    "It must be remembered that bio-armor, as stated, is not simply organic tissue," Data added. "It is more accurately a material with starship-grade resistant capability that behaves like organic tissue in this matter. Much like memory metal can alter itself upon receiving programmed stimuli, this material is capable of behaving like organic tissue, but at much faster rates than would be feasible for most known species."

    "Aye. So it's more like livin', thinkin' hull," Scotty said. "That kind of thing wud put our self-replicatin' armor repair systems t' shame."

    Philippe nodded. "That was what the sample we recovered indicated."

    "I wonder." Robert put his hands together. "Could this have anything to do with what happened to the Darglan homeworld? A species advanced enough to make this bio-armor stuff could also make nuclear warheads capable of penetrating to a planet's core."

    "The two technologies are not necessarily reliant upon one another," Data pointed out. "But both point to the existence of at least one, perhaps two, advanced civilizations in Universe E5B1."

    "Great, I'm liking this place more already," Angel sighed.

    "That just leaves us at our current impasse." Robert looked at Julia. "Did Thanh and the team find anything?"

    "We know there was a databank down there, and someone removed it," she answered. "Recently, given the state of the storage compartments."

    "Do you think whoever did it is responsible for destroying that bio-armored ship?" Madeleine asked.

    "We have no facts to prove or disprove that assertion, Captain Laurent." Data looked from her to Robert. "Captain Dale, I would suggest a further study of the planet might find other sites worth attempting to access. While I calculate that further discoveries are low, we have no information on which to determine where the databanks were taken to; our odds of success, though low, are still better than the alternative."

    Robert nodded at that. "I agree, Commander Data. Captain." Robert looked to Laurent on the screen. "Let's set up a…"

    "Bridge to Captain Dale," a voice stated; it was Jupap. "Sir, we're packing up a gravitational distortion forming in nearby space."

    "What?"

    "Look!", Angel called out.

    Everyone followed her finger to the window port of the conference room. In the distance, beyond the curve of the dead Darglan homeworld, a point of light was forming. It shined blue for a moment. "Doesn't that look…?", Julia began. She was not the only one to notice the apparent similarity with an interuniversal jump point.

    The point suddenly expanded into a swirling vortex of blue color. A single point of light appeared in the middle, becoming a starship that was emerging from the vortex. It was fairly small, no more than 200 meters long, about the size of an attack ship like the Koenig or Sladen.

    Nobody had to be asked. Everyone rushed from the conference room to the bridge. As they stepped out onto the bridge Jupap stood up from the command chair. "They are hailing," he said.

    "On screen," Robert replied. He and Julia got to their chairs just as Ensign Mataran, the Gersallian junior officer acting in relief of Jarod and Jupap, triggered the comm line to open. The viewer activated to show the bridge of the other ship.

    The other bridge had a single central command chair with personnel toward the rear manning two stations. The figure sitting in it was in a dark uniform with a vest, or rather something like vestments, over his uniform jacket. A green gem with a gold frame depicting two humanoid figures was attached to the right side of the vest. The wearer was a humanoid species with light skin and a crest of bone on the top of and around the skull. Caterina looked to the screen and said, "The same as on the ship" in a low voice.

    "Unknown vessels, I am Suvall of the Anla'shok, commanding White Star 54. Please identify yourselves."

    Robert kept his hands on his chair. First contact situations were things he was starting to get used to, but it was always important to remember the basics of them. "Greetings. I'm Captain Robert Dale, commander of the Alliance Starship Aurora. You have my greetings on behalf of my people, the nations and species of the United Alliance of Systems."

    The alien appraised him quietly. "I have never heard of your Alliance of Systems. The Human Earth Alliance I have. But they have no ships like yours."

    Huh. Another Alliance. Maybe we should have gone for 'Federation' after all. Robert nodded. "I understand that, sir. We are not from your universe. Our Alliance possesses interuniversal jump drive technology. We're here on a scientific mission."

    "I see. Do you know anything about the ruins of our sister vessel on the planet?"

    "Only that it crashed some time before we got here. My condolences for your people on the loss of the crew. We have already removed some of the remains and prepared them for burial. We can turn them over to you if that is your desire."

    There was a clear sign of anger, but Suvall clearly had the discipline to restrain it. "I see. We will take delivery of the remains for identification. May I ask why you are conducting a 'scientific investigation' on a dead planet? The species that lived here was annihilated a thousand years ago."

    Robert kept his expression neutral. He could understand the point of view of Suvall. They appeared to be grave robbers. He contemplated how much to tell the alien. "The species that used to dwell here, we have found indications of them in our universes, we recently covered the coordinates to this system from what they left behind," Robert said. Not a lie. But he wasn't ready to reveal what the Darglan were just yet. Not when it might cause even more excavation teams to show up. "We know them as Darglan."

    "Yes. They were victims of the previous war with the Shadows." Suvall seemed to consider what to say. "I will recover our dead and see to the disposition of our ship. I request that you not interfere."

    "Of course not," Robert said. "If I might ask, Suvall, whom do you represent? Your 'Anla'shok'. May I know your species?"

    "I am a Minbari. The Anla'shok - 'Rangers' in your Human language - are an order of my people devoted to the memory of Valen. We serve as the defenders of the InterStellar Alliance." Suvall seemed to consider something. "If you wish to make contact with our Alliance, I suggest you journey to Babylon-5 and speak with our representatives there."

    "Babylon-5." Robert nodded. "Thank you for this information. If you require any more help, please, ask. My people value the chance to meet new species and cultures."

    "I will consider your offer if it is necessary. Farewell." The image on the screen disappeared; they now had a closer look at the White Star vessel, with its prominent weapon emplacements in the nose and on the front of what looked like engine nacelles.

    "He was a little standoffish, don't you think?", Julia asked.

    "Different culture, maybe." Robert nodded to everyone. "Just keep a gentle eye on him. Set alert status to Code Blue as a precaution, I don't want to make any obvious movements of distrust or hostility, but better that we're on partial alert if anything should happen." Robert stood up. "Commander Andreys, please inform Captain Laurent and Commander King of our situation. I'll be in the ready room preparing a report to Admiral Maran."

    "And then?" Julia asked.

    "If he and the President agree, I ask Suvall to direct me to Babylon-5," was his answer.




    Meridina arrived in Ledosh's quarters as instructed. Even as she stepped in quietly, she saw he was in an active Council meeting via the IU communications system. "...our people to war!," a familiar voice was saying. She restrained the sigh she felt forming; it was her father.

    "I concur with Mastrash Karesl," another voice announced. Mastrash Goras, Meridina thought. "And yet this Council continues to support our people's subordination to the Alliance. What has it brought us to make up for this pain and misery? Nothing, I say!"

    "You speak as if this conflict were a simple political affair!" a third voice called out. Meridina figured it to be Mastrash Ginram, a younger Mastrash who just made the Council after a lifetime of improving the healing techniques of the swevyra'se. "The Reich is born of incredible darkness. They have slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent colonists these past two months. I refuse to believe that we could still adhere to Swenya's Code if we were to ignore this evil."

    "The Code is not so dogmatic as to require us to put our species' future and livelihood at jeopardy!" thundered a retort from Goras. "The Alliance was a mistake…!"

    Before he could finish an old voice chimed in. "You have made this argument before, Mastrash Goras. And it was rejected. We have pledged to support the war as a conflict against darkness."

    "Mastrash Maklir, it is clear that that Mastrash Ledosh and his pupil are going beyond the bounds of this Council's instructions," Goras said. "Let us not forget that Meridina is the one who was present for the provocation that started the war. And now she is training one of the Humans in our ways in defiance of the rules of our Order."

    "Meridina is training Lucy Lucero in the basic use of her swevyra, nothing more," Ledosh said, joining the conversation. "I have witnessed the training personally and vouch for it.""

    "You stand up for your pupil, Mastrash Ledosh, but your objectivity is questionable," Karesl answered. Meridina kept a neutral expression, though her heart ached at this continued reminder of her father's opposition. "You are pushing this interpretation of the Prophecy of the Dawn. Would it not fit your assertion of the Dawn Bearers having arisen to have some of their number wield strong swevyra?"

    "Not to mention the use of this Council's influence in regards to…"

    "Mastrash Goras, I have heard enough on that matter," Maklir growled. "The time has come for a vote on your proposal. May all vote as their swevyra guides them."

    Meridina watched quietly as the vote was held. Ledosh voted against, and he was in the majority again. She could imagine the sour look of disappointment on her father's face.

    "The motion is defeated," declared Maklir, who had not voted. "This Council meeting is adjourned. Mi rake sa swevyra iso."

    "Mi rake sa swevyra iso," the Council intoned over the speaker. Ledosh joined them as well before cutting the line. He turned and faced her. A weary look on his face could not be hidden. "I'm sorry you had to hear that."

    "They give you further trouble?"

    "Karesl and Goras are proving a most effective pair," Ledosh sighed. "They have yet to break the solid majority I have built in support of the our interpretation of events. But I fear that failure may yet lie on our horizon. If Goras and Ledosh find you are training Lucy Lucero in our ways, the Council will turn on you. You might face ejection or worse." He looked to her. "If you wish to be more cautious, that would be understandable. Even preferable." There was concern in his eyes and in his heart. "You have been my best student, Meridina. I do not wish to lose you."

    "You will not, Mastrash. I promise you that." Meridina smiled warmly at him. "And in time, even my father will see that this is the time Swenya spoke of."

    Ledosh drew in a sigh at that. She was so eager, not knowing what her desires truly entailed. But he could say nothing about it. "It would be gratifying, yes," he admitted. "But for now, we have other work. I take it Captain Dale wishes to commence further talks with this Minbari?"

    "He wanted you to be ready for the morning," Meridina said. "He will beam over to Challenger with you and others to examine their findings and options."

    "Of course. Let him know I will be ready by 0600."




    For over a year, Robert had been looking forward to visiting one of the Discovery-class ships, if just to see how they adapted the ships' design from his Aurora.

    Now he was materializing at one of the Transporter Stations on Challenger. Captain Laurent was waiting for him and for those coming with him; Data, Cat, Jarod, Ledosh, and her brother.

    "Madeleine." Laurent greeted his sister warmly.

    "Patrice. Thank God you are okay." She stepped up and embraced her younger brother. "I was worried about you while Aurora was in the war."

    "It was close," Laurent said. "Sometimes too close. But my pilots and I have come through every time."

    Madeleine wiped a tear from her eye. She looked to Robert. "Captain. Welcome to the Challenger."

    He accepted her offered hand. "I've always wanted to see one of these ships," he admitted. "A shame there's no time for a tour."

    "I know. All business, then?"

    The station operator looked up. "Captain, Sladen is ready for transport."

    "Of course." Madeleine Laurent led them off of the station's transport pad.

    A moment later white light appeared and Commander King's austere form coalesced from within it. She stood at attention. "Captain Laurent. Permission to come aboard?"

    "Permission granted, Commander King," she answered. "If you will all follow me? Lieutenant Duwala is waiting for us in the conference room."

    Captain Laurent led them through the Challenger's halls and to the nearest lift. The bridge was clearly based on Aurora's, although it turned secondary tactical into a multi-function operations station and the coloring was more blue and green than Aurora's bridge. Robert was surprised to see a Drekara, a purple-skinned silver-horned race from L2M1 that had remained outside of the Alliance for the time being, sitting at operations. There were two on Aurora, true, but they were among the hundred or so civilian personnel that had volunteered to work on his ship as crew support or science specialists. This one was in Stellar Navy uniform and was at Operations.

    There was little time to comment further, though. They went on into the ship's conference room. Robert shook hands with Philippe before taking his seat beside Laurent, opposite of her first officer Commander Nasira Fanous, another old face from the Facility days. "Hello again," she said to them in an Arabic accent.

    "Good to see you," Cat replied, smiling at her. "Congratulations."

    Nasira nodded by way of thanks.

    "We're expecting a call from Admiral Maran," Robert said. "But before that, we need to cover what we've learned so far. Commander Data, have you and our science officers discovered any more suitable sites for excavation?"

    Data operated the control in front of him to bring up a holographic likeness of the Darglan homeworld. Several points on most of the continents appeared. "Scans indicate there may be surviving structures in these areas buried underground. However, only two of them can be excavated by the means we have at hand. Specialized machinery will be required to safely access the other sites."

    "We can handle those two sites easily," Madeleine said. "What about the Aurora?"

    "I don't know yet," Robert answered. "I'm not sure we'll be staying, honestly. There's no telling what's in those Darglan databanks that were taken. If making contact with this 'InterStellar Alliance' can get us information on who took them and where, we might be able to do something about it."

    "Hopefully nothing diplomatically troublesome, Captain?" King asked primly. "We have one war already."

    "Hopefully not," Robert agreed. "Although that brings up the presence of Suvall's ship." He looked to Madeleine. "Since we don't know everything about their capabilities, would you feel comfortable remaining here alone? Or should I detach Commander King's ship to keep watch?"

    Madeleine smiled at that. "We can take care of ourselves, Captain, but thank you for the offer."

    Robert answered that with a nod of understanding. "Of course." He turned to Ledosh, who was looking out the window at the broken world below. "Mastrash?"

    For a moment the Mastrash didn't respond. When he did, he looked back to them. "My apologies," he said. "I was simply contemplating the significance of this. My people have writings of the Darglan, histories and memories of their kindness and curiosity. To see their homeworld reduced to this, to know those brilliant people will never again be seen… I can only consider it a terrible blow to the Light. The day these people were destroyed was a day of victory for the forces of Darkness."

    "It is horrible to know that a people with such accomplishments were wiped out so brutally," King noted.

    "As for the Minbari, I am willing to go over to their ship and discuss the matter with them," Ledosh said. "If they are the ones in possession of this bio-armor technology, it would seem prudent to ensure good relations."

    "We can make the offer," Robert began, "but…"

    They were interrupted by a tone over the ship comm system. "Captain, the Aurora is relaying an IU transmission over to us."

    "Transfer it to us, Mister Packhurst," Captain Laurent said.

    Everyone looked to the screen in the wall. Admiral Maran appeared. "Captains. Mastrash. Commander. Good to see you all. I've read your reports. A commendable job done so far, Captain Laurent, Lieutenant Duwala."

    "We have found two more sites that could be excavated by the Challenger, sir," Madeleine Laurent said. "But we cannot access others."

    "Understood. I'll see about getting an excavation team out. Have your officers send my office a list of possible requirements." Maran checked something on his desk. "As for this White Star ship, their suggestion is one that the President has agreed should be followed up on. Mastrash Ledosh, we leave the diplomatic first contact up to you. Obviously we would enjoy learning what happened to the databanks taken from this world. We are prepared to make compensation for access to the data."

    "I understand. I will do what I can, Admiral."

    "Captain Dale, I entrust this mission to you as well. Time is of the essence, as you are no doubt aware." Maran put his hands together on the desk. "You must depart immediately for Babylon-5."




    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 16 September 2641. We are currently en route to the space station Babylon-5 to commence diplomatic first contact with the species of this universe. While our primary goal is to establish the basis for peaceful relations, it will also provide us an opportunity to find out about the unknown excavators who took the Darglan technology.


    Robert and Julia were ready when King arrived in the conference room with Lieutenant Caldwell. After these past several weeks they found they were starting to get a little used to not having these weekly meetings with Zack and Lieutenant Apley; nevertheless this was a reminder of a friend no longer present with them.

    "Cross-training has been a success," Caldwell noted to them. The young officer was not dissimilar from his austere commander, if a little warmer in demeanor. He was looking over notes and reports. "And your engineering crews managed to deal with that issue we were having with the warp field generators."

    "We have people who served on Koenig so they're familiar with those systems," Julia said. "What about your launch readiness results?"

    "Readiness in an emergency is now at fifteen seconds from the alert," Caldwell said proudly.

    "That's good." Robert nodded slightly. He grinned at the young officer and couldn't help but notice that Caldwell was probably just a couple of years younger than they were, and they were certainly closer to him in age than they were to King. "Koenig's record was twelve seconds. Give another few weeks and you'll be beating that one."

    That seemed to get a reaction out of King. "I look forward to the challenge. as does my crew." She eyed Robert steadily, as if daring him to make another similar statement. He got the feeling he'd touched a nerve.

    Julia noticed the same thing. "Yes. Now, about your torpedo locker…"




    When their meeting was over, King stepped up to Julia. "Commander, a word?"

    "Of course." Julia led her over to the side of the room, beside the empty wall across from the windows, while Robert and Caldwell left. "What may I do for you, Commander?"

    "I'm curious, Commander Andreys. Yesterday Captain Dale brought Commander Laurent to the meeting on the Challenger."

    "Yes?"

    "And yet there was no need for the commander of Aurora's fighters to be present," King pointed out. "The discussions were all scientific and diplomatic. The only apparent reason to bring him was because his sister is the Captain of the Challenger. Doesn't that strike you as inappropriate?"

    Julia crossed her arms. "To a degree, I can definitely see that. The Captain, well… it's family. A brother wanting to see his sister? That's a wish he lives with every day. One he knows will never come true."

    "Still, it was a clear breach of protocol, Commander."

    Julia smiled. It was a thin smile from thought and slight amusement. "You'll find, Commander King, that things can be a bit less… by the book around here. I'm sure it'll take some getting used to."

    "I see. Well, thank you for discussing the matter with me, Commander," King said. "I will be off now."

    "I'll see you around, Commander," Julia replied pleasantly.




    Jarod entered the Lookout alongside Lucy. "And what do you want to do about…?" she began.

    "We can discuss that later," he assured her. "Do you smell that?"

    Lucy sniffed the air. Her stomach rumbled involuntarily. "Oh. Sausage stew. Hargert has to have life force powers of his own, it's the only way to explain how he could know."

    "I'm surprised he doesn't just make tubs of the stuff," Jarod remarked. He looked around for a table. Many were filled with junior officers and senior crew, but there was one with a couple of empty seats. He walked up. "Do you mind if we have a seat?" he asked the occupants.

    "I've got no problems with that." Shepard looked to the other seat. "Worf?"

    The Klingon seemed to consider his response. "I have no objection," he finally stated.

    "Don't mind him." Shepard smiled. "He's just having a bad day."

    Lucy and Jarod were sitting by this time. "Are we going to regret it with the next exercise?" Lucy asked cautiously.

    "No, I don't think so."

    "What is wrong, Commander?" Jarod asked Worf. "You seem upset."

    Worf eyed Jarod and Lucy with consternation. "I received a report from my brother," he admitted. "Forces from our House were involved in the retaking of one of your colonies. Altaplano."

    "So… we won. Then why…"

    "Our warriors found graves. There were no living colonists left. Just bodies piled into graves."

    Lucy frowned. "Well, there goes my appetite."

    "I respect the reason I was sent to train you," Worf said, "But I am tired of diplomatic missions when there is a great foe to fight."

    "Some of us feel the same way." Lucy looked at Shepard. "What about you, Commander?"

    "I'm still getting used to the idea that I'm in another universe preparing to fight honest to God living Nazis," she answered. "My mother told me stories sometimes, back when I was growing up."

    "Well, I suppose it'd be like if we were preparing to fight the French and Indians from the French and Indian War," Lucy noted.

    "There are historians who argue that events from the time of video technology being available remain in the cultural conscious longer than those that preceded that capability," Jarod said. "People from any century will remember the Nazis more easily than they'll remember the Mongols or the Crusades. At least for some cultures."

    "That is a Human point of view," Worf said. "Klingons do not need video to remember the deeds of our great heroes."

    "It's cultural even among Humans." Lucy indicated a nearby table with junior officers. "Ensign al-Rashad told me that her parents still celebrate the anniversary of Saladin taking Jerusalem from the Christians."

    "It's where you come from that can matter. When it comes to Nazis, I'm half-Jewish myself," Shepard noted. "Or maybe it was a quarter. I'll have to ask my mother."

    "Your mother's where you got that from?"

    Shepard nodded at Lucy. "We're from the old Canadian provinces of North America. At least my parents were. I spent my childhood on space stations and starships. My parents had signed up for the Systems Alliance Navy before I was born."

    "So your Mom and Dad are…"

    "My mom's posted on a dreadnought." Shepard frowned. "My Dad… we were setting up a family home on Mindoir. It was something for when Mom finally retired. And then the Batarians attacked the colony in a slave raid. Dad pushed me into a hidden panic room in our prefab home unit before getting his rifle out." A pained look filled her green eyes. "We found his body after the attack."

    "My condolences," Lucy said. "I… never knew my father. And I lost my mother a few years ago."

    "Your father died with honor," Worf noted.

    Shepard gave Worf an intent look. "He still died. And I was just sixteen."

    "I was six in Human terms when I lost my parents," Worf admitted candidly. "The Romulans killed my parents on Khitomer. I was adopted by a Human from the Starfleet vessel that responded to the attack."

    By now it was clear to everyone that Jarod's face had become a mask of thought. "I still haven't found my parents."

    "So." Lucy sighed. "Between the four of us, we have… three biological parents still alive?"

    "I hope," Jarod muttered. A pained look came to his eye.

    Lucy could sense that they had touched a sore point. Even with their victory over the Centre earlier in the year, it hadn't brought Jarod any closer to finding his family. She put a hand on his shoulder. "Jarod. You'll find them. You've got all that data, there's got to be something in it, right?"

    "I haven't had time to go through it in a while," he revealed. "Not with everything going on."

    "But you will," Lucy urged. "Don't worry about it."

    There was silence at the table for several seconds. "Greetings, everyone," a cheerful voice said. It was Albert, carrying with him plates of lunch-meat sandwiches, potato crisps, and bowls of steaming sausage stew. "Please, enjoy your lunch."

    After taking a bite of the stew and swallowing it, Shepard grinned again. "You people are going to spoil me. We would kill for galley cooks this good back in our Alliance."

    "Hargert spoils us all, Commander," Lucy pointed out with a wide grin.




    Everyone was on the bridge for their imminent arrival. Ledosh and Meridina arrived last and took up a position behind the command seats. "We're coming up on the coordinates provided by Suvall," Locarno said.

    "Here goes another first contact," Julia said. "Nervous for this one?"

    "A little," Robert admitted. "I always am."

    "Look on the good side," Angel said from tactical. "You don't have to worry about them having a big swastika painted on the hull."

    "That was definitely one of our most memorable first contacts," Jarod agreed.

    "Dropping out of warp in five… four… three..."

    At the end of Locarno's countdown the Aurora's warp field disengaged. The ship slowed back to sublight speeds. In front of them was a brown, lifeless planet. "Magnifying," Jarod said.

    In orbit there was a structure, basking in the light of Epsilon Eridani. The hull was mostly blue with silver; it was a long object with two long extensions on one end and an extended, non-rotating section on the other. The rest of the station was built around a rotating cylinder. "A five mile long O'Neill cylinder!" Caterina exclaimed with giddiness. "Isn't it awesome!?"

    "It would appear the station does not have an artificial gravity field," Data remarked. He was sitting at one of the auxiliary stations in the back of the bridge beside the deck plan MSD. "I am detecting fusion-based power sources."

    "We're being hailed, audio only," Jarod said.

    "Put them on."

    "This is Babylon Control, Aurora, please proceed to the following location for station-keeping. President Sheridan is waiting to receive you."

    "I have our coordinates," Locarno stated. "Maneuvering to take up position within beaming range of the station."

    Robert looked to Ledosh. "It looks like Suvall called ahead to warn them we were coming."

    "Indeed." Ledosh tilted his head slightly. "It behooves us, then, to not keep him waiting. How do you wish to proceed?"

    Robert thought on that. "As usual, it's probably better not to spook them. We'll take a shuttle over. Lucy, Meridina?"

    Lucy stood from Engineering and Meridina nodded. "Of course."
     
  15. Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Lucy took the piloting duties for bringing their shuttle in. The docking area was a buzz of activity as they came in. Dockworkers in special EVA machines were busy shifting around freight crates in zero-G. A passenger shuttle from a starliner near the station came in in front of them and veered off to what was likely a general docking terminal for such craft. The station's traffic controllers had, however, directed them elsewhere.

    When they arrived there was a small honor guard waiting for them. The Aurora crew recognized the "Ranger" uniform they had seen on Suvall while others had a blue-gray uniform with the number 5 on the arms with a target symbol. Leading them was a man with curly dark hair. Standing near him was a woman with dark brown hair wearing a deep blue uniform with brown shoulder epaulets and a colored bar under a stylized E-A symbol.

    Two figures stood side-by-side among the guard. A Human man near middle age, with a well-trimmed beard the same wheat color as his hair, was in a dark blue business jacket with a white dress shirt underneath and matching dark blue pants. At his side was a woman who looked to be from Suvall's species, having the same bone crest on her head, but with flowing black hair around it. Her choice of clothes seemed a cross between the modest dresses Robert could remember from Sunday church and robes.

    Ledosh took the lead. He bowed his head. "I am Ledosh, Mastrash of the Order of Swenya of Gersal, named Diplomatic Emissary of President Henry Morgan of the United Alliance of Systems. This is Captain Robert Dale, commander of the Alliance Starship Aurora; Lieutenant Commander Meridina of Gersal, Captain Dale's Chief of Security and a Knight of the Order of Swenya; and Lieutenant Lucilla Lucero, also of Aurora."

    The answer was a nod. "I'm President John Sheridan of the InterStellar Alliance. This is Vice-President Delenn, my wife." He gestured to the uniformed woman. "Captain Elizabeth Lochley, station commander, and Station Security Chief Zack Allen. It's my pleasure to welcome you to Babylon-5." Sheridan's voice was warm and welcoming, and he spoke with the air Robert attributed with commanders like Maran, Sisko, Picard, and Anderson, or the late Admiral Lithgon. "I must admit that we've been curious ever since Ranger Suvall reported your presence. Other universes and interuniversal travel sounds, well…" Sheridan chuckled. "...rather farfetched."

    "I used to believe the same," Robert answered.

    It was Delenn who spoke next. "Suvall mentioned that you found traces of the Darglan species in other universes. I would be interested to know anything you can tell us about them. They were among the first victims of the previous war with the Shadows."

    "We have some understanding of what they were like," Ledosh said. "Millennia ago they made contact with my species, the Gersallians. Though some of our records of that era were lost to internal upheaval, we still remember something of them."

    Zack Allen raised a hand. "So, wait… you're not Human?"

    "No, we are not," Meridina answered politely. "It seems to be the will of life to have made our species resemble your own so closely."

    "The universe has its own will," Delenn observed. "Shall we go? We have a conference room ready."

    "Of course."




    The initial conference lasted some time. It served as an exchange of basic information; the status of E5B1 on the side and the wider Multiverse on the other. And, of course, the Darglan… and why the Aurora had gone to their homeworld.

    Chief Allen had not joined them for the meeting, leaving Sheridan, Delenn, and Lochley to react. "So, you found a universe with a history where Nazi Germany conquered the world." Lochley's voice betrayed disbelief, although they had already shown some of the relevant records. "I think I might have just left."

    "That option was considered, but we had already put much effort into the colonies there," Ledosh explained. "And there were… concerns about appearing weak."

    "I understand that." Sheridan gave them a nod. "What concerns me is that these people might be on the verge of finding this Darglan technology you use. The kind of threat that would pose to our universe would be unacceptable."

    "That gets us to one of the reasons we came," Robert said. "We've discovered that there have been prior excavations of the Darglan Homeworld."

    "Yes." Delenn nodded. "Although we have tried to prevent other species from doing so, there have been times when we were otherwise occupied. Especially as of late, with the Shadow War and other conflicts taking our attention."

    "Unfortunately, an excavation some time ago took what appeared to be Darglan computer databanks," Robert explained. "They could have data on them that we could use. And there's no telling what's on them."

    Lochley was examining a starchart. "So this is the planet you're talking about?", she asked.

    Robert nodded. "Yes."

    "And it doesn't have a jumpgate?"

    "If you're referring to those four structures you've got arrayed together near the station, then no, it doesn't have one."

    Delenn and Sheridan were looking over the map too. "That area of space is fairly remote," Sheridan observed. "It's too far from most of the Alliance races to explore."

    "A ship going out there would have to possess its own jump drive. Now, for a civilian expedition ship with its own jump drive, well, those things are expensive. I can't imagine such a ship having a lot of range or room for the excavation supplies they'd need. They would need a safe port of call nearby. And since this is mostly Minbari-held space around this radius, you can be sure they stayed away. And that means the only viable port of call for them…" Lochley tapped the map. "...is here."

    "So you believe this group came through here?", Meridina asked.

    "This place is a magnet for trouble," Lochley insisted. "I'll have Allen assist you."

    "Thank you for your understanding and kindness." Ledosh nodded his head. "I will leave Captain Dale and his crew to that investigation while we continue the arrangement of permanent diplomatic relations."

    "Of course, sir," Robert said.

    "We may need you to relocate, then," Sheridan admitted. "We're scheduled to leave for the new Alliance capital on Minbar in a few days."

    "Ah. I understand." Ledosh nodded and looked to Robert. "Captain, depending upon the course of your investigation, I may need to leave your vessel. I believe I can do the greatest good by remaining with President Sheridan."

    "If you need anything from your quarters on the ship, I'll have them brought to you," Robert said.

    "Thank you. Now, to move on to other elements of this discussion…"




    Robert decided to linger a little after he left the meeting. Babylon-5 was an interesting place to be, and the sight could be just as stunning as some of those on the Citadel. He rode one of the trams that went along the inside of the cylinder, allowing him to look out at the awesome sight of the station's spinning interior.

    Now he was standing on a walkway above the station's bustling market, the Zocalo. Aliens of various species jostled and fussed and haggled with each other at their kiosks and stands and full shop spaces. One humanoid species had tentacles over what looked to be their mouth; another had fish fins on their heads, and yet another were bipeds with insectoid helmets.

    "Quite a sight, isn't it?"

    Robert turned his head. President Sheridan had walked up beside him. "Mister President? They're done already?"

    "Oh, no. Delenn and your Master Ledosh are still handling the diplomatic details." Sheridan looked out at the market and smiled. "It's quite the view. I've always liked it up here."

    "It is," Robert agreed. "I've been to other stations before. But there's something about this one…"

    "I've lived here for nearly four years. This station is special." Sheridan seemed to consider what he was going to ask next. There was a look of thought on his face and a glimmer of curiosity in his eye. "Do you know which race is which, yet?"

    "Aside from the Minbari, I don't know any of them," he admitted.

    "Well, to start off, that one is a Pak'ma'ra." Sheridan indicated the one with the tentacles hanging over its mouth. "It's always best to stay a foot away when talking to one."

    "Why?"

    "Because, Captain, they're carrion eaters."

    Robert blinked. "You mean they eat dead…"

    "...everything," Sheridan said. "And I do mean everything." Sheridan pointed out the fish fin species. "Those are Abbai. And those…" He pointed to the ones with the insectoid helmets. "...are Gaim."

    "A lot of species," Robert said. "We only have three in our Alliance."

    "I suppose they don't all resemble Humans like your Gersallian friends?"

    Robert chuckled at that. "Not at all."

    "Good. It can be a pain in the neck sometimes, dealing with all of the different cultures and points of view, but in the end... you get used to the pains and enjoy the diversity."

    "Do you do this for any new visitor who shows up?", Robert asked.

    "Oh, hell no," Sheridan laughed. "I was coming up here anyway."

    Robert realized why. "One last look?", he asked.

    Sheridan nodded. "One last look." He leaned against the railing. "Enjoy it while you're here, Captain. Otherwise you'll never know what you're missing."




    Meridina and Lucy accompanied Captain Lochley to the station's security offices. Chief Allen was present, as was a blond-haired woman in a brown and gray suit. "Tessa Holloran," she introduced herself. "I'm the new Minister of Covert Intelligence for the Alliance."

    "Minister." Meridina nodded respectfully. "I thank you for your assistance."

    "Don't thank me yet," the woman replied. "I just got into this job. I'm not sure how much I can help you."

    "So far we've tracked dozens of ships capable of forming their own jump points." Allen pointed to a list on his nearby screen. "Any one of them could have gotten to that part of the Minbari frontier."

    Lucy looked at the list. A thought occurred to her. "How many of them could destroy one of your White Star ships?"

    For a moment there was no reply. "Wait, what?", Allen asked.

    Holloran seemed to get what she was referring to. "You mean, could they have destroyed White Star 58."

    "It crashed on the planet for a reason," Lucy pointed out. "What if they caught the excavators? I got the feeling the Minbari don't care for people who go hunting for stuff from the Darglan homeworld."

    "Well, those ships aren't invincible," Allen said. "Although with civilian expedition ships I find it hard to believe."

    "Not if they're carrying hidden weapons." Holloran was now looking over the list and the specific ship types. "I can think of several ways to do it. A hidden plasma cannon compartment in the hull, for instance. Then they just needed to lure them in. You said White Star 54 is investigating the crashed ship?"

    "Yes."

    "Then I'll have to give them a call. They might have recovered data."

    Holloran left. "So." Allen looked to them. "This 'other universes' thing, how does that work?"

    "Um. Well, it punches a hole through the fabric of reality and allows us to go through it." Lucy shrugged. "Anything more technical and I'll have to call Caterina to explain it. And she'll probably spend more time pestering you with questions about all of the alien species on the station or how the station's systems work."

    "Ah. Alright." Allen nodded, apparently satisfied with that answer. "And how did that thing work… where you didn't use the jump gate or a jump point?"

    "Warp drive. You use subspace to create a field of warped real-space around your ship so you can propel yourself to faster than light."

    "Sounds more convenient than hyperspace jumpgates, then. You should be happy your excavators didn't have it." Allen looked back to his screens. "You know, depending on how much time they've had to sell this stuff, you probably won't see it. There are all sorts of groups and species and people out there that would pay big credits for goods like that."

    "Maybe so, Chief Allen. But the attempt must be made."

    "Just giving you a fair head's up."




    After his return to the Aurora Robert went to the ready room office off the bridge and prepared his report of the day to Admiral Maran, primarily concerning the first contact. He included his feelings and observations on the ISA and the species it contained. As for his impressions on Sheridan…

    ...well, he had to admit he was impressed. Sheridan had that air of command about him. He was confident without being arrogant. The people on the station, regardless of their species, were supporters. Delenn seemed to compliment him well; she reminded Robert of Meridina and Ledosh with her quiet, willful demeanor and contemplative outlook.

    After a chime at the door Robert looked up. "Come in."

    Julia, of course, stepped in. "I have our new personnel report. We managed to get personnel shuffled to cover that shortage in the support staff."

    "That's good. I know we've been putting some stress on them even without the combat situations."

    "Until we can finally get trained replacements, we'll have to hope that arrangement holds out." Julia took a seat opposite from him. Through the window Babylon-5 was spinning quietly. Epsilon 3 was now between the station and the system's star so the station was now lit up against the night-side of the planet below. "Will we be here long enough to send people over for shore leave?"

    "Maybe. They know about our transporter technology now, but we'll need to make sure we send anyone over into their customs area. Just to prevent problems."

    "Leo wants to go over and check out their medical facilities," she continued. "With so many species to care for he's curious about them. And he thinks anything he sees over there can come in handy if we start getting even more species in the Alliance and on the crew."

    "I'm all for it." Robert checked over the report Julia had handed him. "I see we're still about fifty crew short."

    "Those new transfers we got before we went off to Slavia were offset by having half that amount transferred off to other posts," Julia explained. "We're still manned sufficiently, though. There's no need to worry about having things stop working."

    "Good. I have a feeling we'll need to be in top shape soon."

    An electronic tone, sounding like a warbling with a beep at the end, came from Robert's multidevice. "Dale here," he said into it.

    "Captain." It was Meridina on the other end. "We may have found the excavating vessel."

    "Excellent." He exchanged a confident grin with Julia. "I'll get a staff meeting ready in an hour. I'll see you there."

    "We will be there.," she confirmed.




    The command staffs of the Aurora and Sladen were seated together in the conference room. The main screen had Halloran and Captain Lochley displayed. A secondary screen showed the image of a fairly-sized starship with a central rotating area. "This is the Balboa," explained Lochley. "She's a survey vessel for Interplanetary Expeditions."

    "IPX has been quiet about the Balboa's recent activities," Halloran continued at that point. "Several weeks ago they put in to Babylon-5 to replenish their stores and offload findings. Whatever they took out they marked as miscellaneous findings and stored on the station. A week ago another ship with clearance loaded the crates Balboa left and departed immediately."

    "Huh." Julia raised a finger to indicate she wanted to speak. "Wouldn't that put it right around the time that your ship got shot down over the Darglan Homeworld?"

    "It is," Lochley confirmed.

    "It would appear that this organization is involved in many, how do you say, 'shady' dealings," Meridina revealed to her shipmates.

    "They're effectively working for Earthforce," Holloran revealed. "They've been providing samples of lost alien technology for Earth Dome to study for years. Especially after the Minbari War."

    "I don't suppose there's any hope of buying it back from them, is there?", Robert asked.

    Lochley shook her head. "Highly unlikely."

    "Then… what do we do?"

    Lochley cleared her throat. "I… think I should step out." She turned and left the range of the video recorder.

    Holloran kept watching in one direction until there was the faint sound of an electronic door sliding shut. "Captain Lochley is an Earthforce officer. It's best if she doesn't get mixed up in this."

    "I have a feeling, Minister, that you're about to ask us to do something shady as well," Robert said.

    "In a manner of speaking, I suppose." Holloran tapped a key on her console. "I'm sending you all of the information I have on the ship that picked up the things Balboa dropped off. It's called the Pedicarus. It's been chartered from Akdor. They're a neutral species but they have strong ties to Earth."

    "You think this Akdorian ship is being used to smuggle the Darglan technology?"

    "I think the Akdorian ship is actually an Earth vessel used for covert operations," Holloran said. "Thankfully, Mister Garibaldi left me with an intact network of informants and agents to go with my own. My contacts confirm the Pedicarusis currently in the Venir system, not far from the Darglan Homeworld. My guess is they've got something to pick up from another excavation team before heading back to a drop point with what they've got."

    "And you think we can intercept them and take it back," Robert mused.

    "I never said that," she said. "What you do is your business. I provide intel, nothing more. Good luck."

    "Is it just me," Angel said aloud, "Or were we just advised to go steal this stuff back?"

    "I think we were." Jarod nodded.

    "It's a shaky line," Julia said. "On the one hand, it's essentially piracy."

    Angel nodded. "And on the other hand, these people killed an entire crew of Rangers to try and keep their activities a secret. It makes you wonder what else they could be up to."

    "Right." Robert nodded. "Is this something… can I even bring this to Maran's attention?"

    "I think it ill-advised to speak a word of this to our superiors," King answered.

    Before Robert could ask her to elaborate, Jarod spoke up. "If you do…" Jarod put his hands on the table. "...then you make him complicit. In fact, it could be seen as something the Alliance government sanctioned. This universe's Earth could declare war on us."

    "And it might not endear us to their allies either," Julia noted.

    "And if we don't…" Robert sighed. "...then we lose any hope of finding out what was in those databanks." He looked to King. "Commander King, I'm open to suggestions on this matter."

    "I suggest that you remember that in time of war, the law falls silent."

    "In other words…", Julia began.

    "In other words, Commander Andreys, sometimes you have to make a hard choice if you want to win the war," King noted. "You can't rely on principle or your own sense of ethics." She gave them a hard look. "Sometimes you even have to make a sacrifice of them."

    Robert frowned at that. "I think I get what you mean. Better to do this than risk us not finding that Facility before the Reich does."

    "Exactly."

    "But." Robert shook his head. "We don't even know those databanks have what we need. If we do this… we'll be committing an act of piracy on a possibility it might help. I'm not sure I want to go that far."

    "Then maybe you should reconsider your career choice, Captain." King noticed that the others were giving her hard looks and sighed. "I don't like it any more than you do. The honor of the Alliance Stellar Navy must be maintained. But that honor will not shield our worlds from Reich warships attacking us with interuniversal drives. I'd rather be guilty than terrified. My crew feels the same way."

    Robert swallowed and looked to his friends and colleagues. "Well?"

    "Sometimes, we don't get to be the good guys, I guess," Locarno sighed.

    "It's not my call," Leo mumbled. "But I don't like it.."

    "I'm with Commander King," Jarod said.

    "Same here," Angel added.

    "I... " Cat swallowed. "I don't know."

    "A bloody terrible choice if ye ask me," Scotty mumbled. "But if it has t' be done… better t' do it."

    "The intent of an act is the important part. Darkness comes from that intent as much as the act itself," was Meridina's contribution.

    That left Julia. She looked to Robert and nodded slowly. "We can at least investigate," she suggested. "We can send Commander King and the Sladen."

    "And Jarod and Caterina can go along to help identify any signs of Darglan tech?"

    Julia nodded. "Send Lucy too."

    Robert drew in a breath. "Alright. I… suppose we can do that, at least." He looked to King. "Commander, I'm leaving this mission in your hands. It'll ask too many questions if Aurora herself departs. Head to this Venir system and investigate. If you feel you have a shot, and you can confirm the Darglan technology is aboard… then retrieve it."

    "Of course, Captain." King nodded. She stood. "We're ready to depart immediately."

    "What will we tell people about the Sladen's launch?", Angel asked.

    Julia's reply was immediate. "We're supposed to get a check-in from Challenger within the hour. We delay the launch until then and say they requested reinforcement."

    "Right." Robert nodded to King. "Good luck, Commander."

    "Thank you, Captain. I shall endeavor to complete this mission satisfactorily," was her reply.




    Cat arrived at the walkway to the Sladen's dock entrance a moment before Jarod. She had her bag of essential day-to-day things slung over a shoulder, the same as him. "So." She breathed. "Maybe this goes better than the last time we did something sneaky?"

    "Let's hope," Jarod said.

    Lucy rounded the corner with her own bag and Meridina behind her.

    And behind her was Commander Shepard, in full combat gear, duffel bag slung over one arm and equipment and equipment bag over the other.

    Jarod and Cat looked at the three. "Um… she's going too?", Cat asked. Her voice was almost a squeak from disbelief.

    "Commander Andreys and Meridina suggested you might need the help," Shepard said.

    "If something happens, though, your people could get some of the blame…"

    She cut Jarod off. "My orders were to do whatever I needed to help you secure that Facility against the Reich. If that means getting that databank back from a bunch of state-sanctioned pirates? That comes with the N7 on the suit."

    "Fair enough, I suppose," Jarod admitted. He checked the time. "Commander King is set to launch in the next five minutes. We should get going."

    "This is going to be interesting," Lucy mused as the four boarded the Sladen.




    Robert and Julia were on the bridge observing as Sladen launched. The profile of the Trigger-class attack ship fit the Koenig so well they could almost confuse the two. "Do you think we're making the right call?", Robert asked her.

    When Julia looked at him her eyes, normally so vibrant and clear in their light green color, he could see the same doubts he had. "I don't know," she admitted. "Whoever these people are, we know they're willing to kill. That might work for us, if they don't want things made public.."

    "...but it could also work against us." Robert nodded. "Yeah."

    On the screen the Sladen jumped to warp.




    Leo decided he liked Babylon-5.

    He had been beamed in at the dock and gone through customs, as standard, and from there it was off to the commercial areas. The number of species to be found, the vibrant thrum of life, gave the station a feel that was lacking in places like Harris Station, or even Arcturus.

    One of the Narn in station security directed him to the Medlabs. They weren't very busy at the moment, it seemed, although there were a few patients around.

    "You're from the Aurora, I'm assuming?", someone asked, a female voice with an English accent.

    A woman in a light blue suit emerged from an office area by the door. Her dark hair was brushed into a professional-looking hairstyle and complemented the cocoa-brown color of her complexion. Leo noted the Staff of Hermes insignia on the suit; some things truly did not change. He grinned and nodded. "Doctor Leonard Gillam."

    "Doctor Lillian Hobbs." She offered her hand. "Chief of Medlab. Well, soon to be, I should say. Doctor Franklin doesn't officially hand his position over until tomorrow. What can I do for you, Doctor Gillam?"

    Leo pulled a digital pad from his uniform pocket and handed it to her. "I was hoping you might have the means to synthesize some of these components?"

    She looked it over, reading the chemical formulas that would look like numbers and chemical names to the uninitiated. "What is this for? I don't think I've seen a combination quite like this."

    "It's for the Dorei on our crew," Leo explained. "There's a case of Andrili influenza going through our Dorei crew. This is a treatment to suppress the virus until their immune systems can defeat it. Unfortunately, I ran out of the medicine weeks ago and with the war the fleet quartermaster hasn't replenished my stock yet. And I'm short on these three compounds to make my own."

    "Hrm… let me see." Hobbs went to her computer and punched in the necessary information. "I believe we have enough of each in the quantities you need. My facilities can make the treatment for you if you'd like."

    "I don't want to impose, our biologist contingent is more than capable…" Seeing Hobbs' bemused look, Leo sighed. "Alright. Sure. And keep the formula, who knows when you'll start having Dorei around here as well."

    "That will be a sight," Hobbs agreed. She typed in the order. "I'm sending the order to our pharmacists now. It will take them some time to make the treatment. A few hours, certainly. Would you like to wait?"

    Leo smiled at that. "I cleared my schedule just in case. I've still got more of the station to see."

    "Just stay out of Brown Sector and you'll be fine."

    The door swished open behind Leo. He turned and saw another man enter. His skin tone was closer to Hobbs' than Leo's, and he was wearing the same uniform. He looked at Leo and for a moment showed confusion. But that quickly cleared. "You're from that other Alliance that arrived?", he asked.

    Leo nodded and offered a hand. "Doctor Leonard Gillam."

    That hand was accepted. "Doctor Stephen Franklin. A pleasure to meet you." Franklin looked to Hobbs. "Doctor, I was just coming by to make sure everything was going smoothly."

    "Well, aside from all the bruised egos that you picked me to take over…" Hobbs grinned with amusement. "Things are getting along well, I'd say."

    "Well, I'm sure they'll get used to it." Franklin turned to Leo again. "Doctor, did you need anything?"

    "Oh, Doctor Hobbs has that handled," Leo said. "I was just about to tour the station a little while I wait for everything to be done."

    "Good. What do you think of it so far?"

    "Lively and interesting," Leo answered. "I'm guessing after a while you get used to it, though."

    "Oh, you might be surprised." Franklin chuckled. "This place can still surprise me sometimes, and I've been here for almost five years." He looked over the computer panel by Hobbs and, just as Leo turned to go, looked back up. "Say, are you hungry? Either of you?"

    Leo shrugged. "Well, I haven't had lunch yet."

    "Neither have I."

    "Well, I've found out that being Head of Xenobiological Research gives a pretty good salary. So how about a meal? Because I have to admit that this whole idea of other universes out there, other species we haven't seen and Humanities with different timelines and histories, it's interesting."

    Leo considered that easily. "As I told Doctor Hobbs, I cleared my schedule."

    "Well, that sounds wonderful." Hobbs stood up from her chair. "I'm all for it."

    "Great. Let me finish this and… we're good to go."

    Leo followed the two doctors out. He hadn't planned on eating on the station, but given the chance to talk to two physicians of this universe, how could he pass that up?




    It had been years since Caterina had last needed to sleep on a ship like the Koenig, or Sladen in this case. She hadn't missed it. And if anything, Sladen was worse than Koenig's sleeping quarters had ever been.

    "Hey." Jarod's voice jolted Cat awake. They had joined Lucy for breakfast the morning after departing Aurora. "Are you okay?"

    Caterina tried to answer. She had to yawn first, after which it came out. "I didn't sleep well at all."

    "Its the bunks," Lucy said. "They're harder than the ones we had on Koenig."

    "It's not that so much as…" Cat rubbed her arms. "It feels like I'm in a coffin."

    "Well, look at it like this." Jarod smirked. "None of us likely got any good rest since we're so used to beds back on Aurora."

    "Except for Shepard. She was fast asleep." Cat moved her spoon around the bowl of replicated cereal. "And I mean completely asleep."

    "That's because I'm used to it." Shepard moved up to their table with a breakfast straight from the replicators. She was wearing a basic duty uniform of the Systems Alliance. "I served on a frigate when I was fresh out of boot, the Monte Cassino. We slept in bunks that were basically coffins with a transparent lid."

    "Really?" Cat made a face at that thought. "That's harsh."

    "Space is at a premium on ships, and frigates have to cram everything into small frames to work. You have to make trade-offs." Shepard looked around. "Honestly, this ship feels more like a warship than your Aurora does."

    "The Aurora wasn't built to just be a warship." Jarod took a moment to sip at a cup of orange juice. Also replicated, which was why he had to stop himself from making a face with every drink. "When we filled in her decks and loaded her systems, the idea was a ship that could do multiple missions for our organization, and later for the Alliance."

    "From what I read you built that ship in another Facility like the one we're looking for." Shepard emptied a carton of milk into a bowl of cereal at the side of a plate of eggs and bacon. "So if you had one of those yourself, wasn't there a database you could look through to find this other one?"

    "We looked for other Facilities back then." Caterina shook her head. "But the computer systems had been wiped of any."

    "It was likely a security measure," Jarod pondered.

    Lucy finished swallowing and watched Shepard finish a length of bacon. "I thought you were Jewish?"

    Shepard smiled thinly at that. "Oh, this? It's replicated, remember? Didn't come from an actual pig. Of course, I've never been very observant anyway. A quarter, after all."

    "She has you there." Jarod met Shepard's smile with his own. "Anyway, we'd better finish up breakfast. We should be at Venir soon."




    Meridina was ready in the morning when Ledosh was done putting his things together. He insisted on carrying his bag despite her offer to take up the burden. She kept pace with him as they walked to the transporter station nearest his guest quarters. "I am surprised you did not insist on going with this mission on the Sladen," Ledosh remarked to her.

    "I had the feeling that Commander King might feel… uncomfortable," Meridina admitted.

    "You believe Lucilla Lucero is ready to work on her own?"

    "I believe she can be trusted with her power. Although she is not ready for fighting with her swevyra. But that is why I suggested Commander Shepard go as well."

    "I see." Ledosh stopped and turned toward her. He sensed no one were about to witness their conversation. "Have you told Captain Dale yet?"

    Meridina shook her head. "It does not seem the proper time. He is busy enough running this vessel. I do not wish to complicate his duties further."

    "His swevyra is already giving him insights into our potential futures," Ledosh observed. "You may not have a choice, Meridina. He may awaken the full extent of his life's power on his own."

    "If that comes about, I will do what I must," Meridina said. "I doubt he will be any more receptive to moving into the temple than Lucy is."

    "Yes. I doubt that as well." Ledosh sighed. It would make things easier, and certainly less troublesome for Meridina, if Lucero or potentially Captain Dale would indeed commit to the Order in an open way. A way that would make it possible to ensure their full training in the confines of their traditions and laws. But it was not something that could be forced, and so he said nothing on it.

    They resumed their walk to the transporter station. Once through the door Ledosh walked up to the pad. Meridina remained nearby, beside the door. "My best wishes for your trip to Minbar, Mastrash. I will keep you informed of further developments."

    "Thank you, Commander. Mi rake sa swevyra iso."

    "Mi rake sa swevyra iso."

    Meridina remained to watch the transporter send Ledosh away to the station, where he would meet up with Sheridan and Delenn to join them on the White Star ship transporting them to the new capital. It made her happy to see her teacher getting to make himself useful to this new Alliance he had helped construct. Sheridan's Alliance had even more species in it than their own and provided a further example of how the Allied Systems might develop.

    With this task done, Meridina departed for her office and a new day of work to come.




    Commander King's summons brought everyone to the Sladen's bridge. "We're arriving at the Venir system," Lieutenant Caldwell informed everyone. "Dropping us out of warp."

    The screen shifted to show the change from warp space to normal. A distant garden planet was spinning in the distance. A pinprick of black was set against it. "I'm detecting one ship," said Ensign Skarsgard. Her accent was Norwegian and fairly thick. "It is in geostationary orbit over a ruin."

    "Have they detected us?", King asked.

    "No sign of any reaction to our arrival," was the reply.

    "Lieutenant, prepare a manual weapons lock. Just in case." King turned to the others. "Well, we are here. Commander Jarod, Lieutenant Delgado, Lieutenant Lucero, I am awaiting suggestions on how to sneak you aboard? If we transport you, it will require decloaking and we will be spotted."

    Lucy got a nod from Jarod. "We take a portable transporter set down to the other side of the planet," Lucy answered. "And beam onto their ship from there."

    "You mean by shuttle, I presume?"

    "Yes. They might still detect us from the other side of the planet if we use transporters."

    "How will you manage a transporter lock?"

    "A narrow-beam channel with the ship," Cat answered. "We use your sensors to provide the proper coordinates."

    King nodded. "All very good, save one problem. How do you propose to get our shuttle to the planet's surface undetected?"

    "That's the hard part," Lucy admitted. "And the most dangerous."

    When the explanation was over, King would agree with that assessment.

    She would also agree it was their best shot.
     
  16. Threadmarks: 1-16-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Sladen moved into place in low orbit, just above where the atmosphere would start interacting with her, and signaled the all-ready to the shuttle Marsh.

    Said shuttle dropped from the opened hanger door of the Sladen. The shuttle wasn't running any lights, indeed, had barely any power going. It was quickly gripped by the planet's gravity and plummeted downward.

    In the shuttle Caterina was holding both her hands together and going white with fear during the rapid descent. The turbulence jostled her around in her harness and added to the discomfort. "I can't believe we're doing this," she said. "This is insane!"

    "That's what Commander Kane said," Lucy answered. She kept her hands on the controls and ignored the screaming warnings about their descent. The systems demanded she power up their systems and fire the engines. But she couldn't do that, not yet. Not until they were low enough that the planet completely masked their energy signature.

    "Are you sure about this?", Jarod asked nervously from the co-pilot seat.

    "Completely," Lucy insisted. She breathed in and felt the same feeling as before on Abydos. Her instincts again sung to her, telling her she still wasn't too late, that she could remain inactive a bit longer.

    Cat started breathing more and more quickly. This is crazy this is crazy I can't believe we're…

    "Take a breath."

    Cat looked across the back of the shuttlebay, where Shepard was strapped in. She looked completely confident and cool. "It's scary, yeah. But have faith in your friend. She knows what she's doing."

    Cat swallowed and nodded. And closed her eyes to try and keep her stomach from heaving.

    Lucy felt it when it was time. She triggered the shuttle's power systems with one hand while the other activated the thrusters. The shuttle lurched underneath them as its engines generated thrust to counter the gravity of the planet below. "I'm landing us in a clearing, a semi-arid part of the planet. Hold on."

    They all held on. But they still felt the impact. It was bone-jarring in its violence. Cat cried out in surprise at the feeling.

    After a moment, Lucy let out a breath and exchanged a smirk with Jarod. "See?," she said. "And that was easier than Abydos. I did that in a runabout."

    "I remember…" He stood up. "Alright everyone, let's get set up. The longer we're here, the more likely they might detect us."

    "Can I throw up first?" Cat asked wearily. "Because I think I might throw up."

    "Nothing like a high speed insertion, it can get the blood flowing." Shepard released her harness. She immediately reached over and pulled out a brown plastic bag. "And for our science specialist here…"

    "Thank you," Cat murmured.




    When they transported, it was into a darkly-lit cargo bay. Everyone activated the personal cloaks they were wearing. They could still see each other with the help of optical gear - in Shepard's case, the visor on her helmet, in which similar gear had been installed by the quartermaster department on the Aurora. As soon as they were in place Shepard pulled the shotgun magnetically attached to the base of her back. The weapon machinery slid out into ready positions. "I'm on the door," she whispered to them. "Let me know when you find anything."

    "Let's get to work." The three pulled out scanners tied to their multidevices and began scanning.




    Commander King was waiting with quiet, tried patience for a report from Jarod and his team. Their plan had been riskier than she preferred and she had almost decided on the direct attack instead. What had held her back was, at least she thought, her own dislike of the idea of attacking a civilian ship like this. Like a pirate. As much as it might be necessary for them, it was a contradiction to her own principles and those of the fleet she represented.

    King was not so lost in her own thoughts that she was startled by the young Ensign Skarsgard's sudden report. "Sir, we're picking up a gravitational disturbance. Consistent with the locals' jump drives."

    "On screen," the Englishwoman ordered. The screen shifted to show the blue vortex forming in space. A dark vessel emerged, a circular hull on what looked like ion engines, without markings to show any allegiance. There were visible weapon ports on the hull. The profile didn't make King think of a combat starship, though, and she considered it more likely that they were self-defense weapons.

    "It looks like they're taking up station-keeping beside the Pedicarus."

    "So it would appear. Mister Trymi, set torpedoes to wide yield and target their sensors."

    "Yes Commander," the Dorei weapons officer replied.

    "Do you want me to change position, Commander?", Caldwell asked.

    "Give Mister Trymi an attack angle against their sensors, Mister Caldwell." King put her hands on her command chair's arms. Alarm klaxons went off and lights flashed red. "All hands, Code Red, man battle stations. I repeat. We are now at Code Red running status, man your battle stations."

    "They are launching a shuttle," Skarsgard said.

    King watched the winged vessel emerge from the port near the middle of the circular ship. It moved in toward the Pedicarus.

    And given the scans of that ship, it seemed to be heading toward the cargo bay.




    The warning sounds gave the team just enough time to activate breathers before the atmosphere in the cargo bay was drawn out by the Pedicarus' life support systems. "Sladen to Commander Jarod." King's voice came over the headset Jarod was wearing. "Another vessel has sent a shuttle over."

    "I see. Standby." Jarod frowned. With their cloaks on they couldn't be seen, but if they jostled something outside of the cloaking field… "We need to hurry this up."

    "I'm picking up traces," Cat answered. "We've got something over this way."

    "Confirm it so we can get out of here." With that said he went back to work.

    The external doors of the bay opened. Without atmosphere there was no worry of getting sucked into space, thankfully, meaning there was no need to secure themselves and they could keep working. The winged aerospace shuttle flew in on retrothrusters and settled in the bay's open receiving spot. By the time the shuttle shut down the doors were already closing. The faint hiss of the air circulators told him they were pumping an atmosphere back into the cargo bay.

    The shuttle door opened and several black-garbed Humans stepped out; three men and two women. One of the women was African, one man Semitic, the second male Asian, and the two remaining ones were Caucasian. They looked around pensively but said nothing.

    Jarod felt his heart start beating faster. Something was wrong. It was as if they knew something was wrong, that they knew he and the others were here…

    They drew weapons from holsters. Small silver pistols. Three started spreading out. One, the Caucasian male, turned to face Jarod. His face betrayed some bewilderment. But his eyes seemed to…

    There you are.

    It took Jarod a moment to realize that the voice in his head was not his own.

    That was all the time the other man needed to raise his pistol and open fire.




    King felt apprehensive at the entire situation. The arrival of this other ship jeopardized their entire plan.

    The plan. What is the plan? What are we doing here?

    King blinked at that. That thought… that thought couldn't be hers. It didn't feel….

    "Commander. Commander, they've got mindwalkers," Trymi said.

    "What?", she asked, confused.

    "Mindwalkers," Trymi repeated. "Can't you feel?"

    "Feel…" King shook her head. She swallowed and focused. Something, someone, was in her mind? Her mind?

    "I'm… picking up a weapons charge." Skarsgard's voice sounded strain. Like she was fighting just to be able to speak.

    "Evasive maneuvers," King demanded. Even as she demanded this, a part of her seemed to be fighting back. No. Don't. Just stay still. It will be fine...

    "Now!" Trymi shouted to Caldwell, his voice desperate. "Focus! Force your mind into action! You must throw the mindwalkers out!"

    Caldwell's hand was trembling as he reached or the controls of the Sladen. He triggered the thrusters and engines, throwing the ship into an evasive maneuver.

    A moment later, particle fire ripped through space they had been occupying.




    Lucy felt the minds probing for them before any of the others realized what they were facing. Meridina had trained her on facing mental incursions; mathematics, nursery rhymes. She started playing music in her head while calculating the warp mechanic profile of a starship, sludging through the numbers.

    Unfortunately, this seemed to only confirm her presence to the mind-reading attackers, who were circling around her through the boxes. One was clearly heading toward Cat.

    Well, if you want to read minds...

    Lucy reached her hand to the nearest of them, the Asian man. She reached out with her life force and grabbed him. He led out an audible shout of surprise as he flew upward in the air and slammed into the ceiling of the cargo bay. She brought her other arm up and tore the gun from his hand.

    The other, the Caucasian woman, turned away from where she was hunting Cat and brought her weapon up. Lucy's arm swept her way. The first man cried out again as he went flying helplessly in that direction and slammed into his ally. Lucy took out her pulse pistol and fired a wide-arc stun bolt at both.

    Her hair stood up on her neck. Every instinct in her body demanded she moved, and she did… just as red energy flared up right where her head had been. Their weapons, particle guns of some sort? High speed, too… She started to scramble away. She heard a cry of pain.

    Jarod!

    Lucy turned back to his aid. In the distance she heard the roar of a mass effect shotgun. Shepard, of course.

    She found Jarod nursing a shoulder and visible. Another male, Caucasian, was standing over him with a silver gun pointed at him. Jarod's face was twisted into a rictus of effort and agony. Lucy felt the sense of violation and anger from him; the man was tearing into his mind.

    The mind-reader had sensed her coming and moved just as she shot. She fired again and again but couldn't land a hit. He was quick, but only humanly-so. He was using her own mind to determine where the shots were going to go.

    He lunged toward her, an ungloved hand reaching out to grab her by the head. Lucy saw the strike coming and ducked under it. She summoned her power and threw it all at him. The man cried out in pain as the raw force from her will slammed into him and sent him flying back into the cargo bay's dock door. She shot him with the stun bolt as he tried to stand up again.

    "What's… what's going on?!", Cat cried over the radio.

    "Cat, have you found the Darglan computers?!" Lucy shouted back. She knelt beside Jarod to check his injury.

    "Um… I think…. it's somewhere here, definitely most of these crates."

    "Tag them for transport!"

    Jarod nodded. "It's fine," he muttered. "Just a shoulder hit." He grimaced and cradled his left arm with his right. Lucy helped him to his feet.

    And then she felt it. A powerful force tore into her mind, brushing away her distracted efforts to block them. Lucy cried out and dropped to her knees.

    What are you?, the voice demanded. It was a woman, African, wearing the same dark suit and a silver pistol in her hand. Your mind is too stable to be a teek…

    "Get out of my head!", Lucy cried out.

    I think I'll take you back. You might just be the breakthrough that we're looking…

    There was a surge of energy in the air. It was… different, at least to Lucy, and with a component of unrealness to it. As if the fabric of everything was warped by its presence.

    A figure wreathed in blue light shot out from the crates and slammed into the mind-reader so hard that she was sent flying into the shuttle she and her allies had flown in on.

    Commander Shepard brought her shotgun up. A loud thundering filled the cargo bay. Blood erupted from the torso of Lucy's attacker from the slivers of metal accelerated to lethal velocity by the mass effect field generated by Shepard's weapon. Lucy dwelled for a moment on how nasty it was to see death that way. I'm getting too used to energy weapons.

    Jarod cradled his head with his right hand, his left arm still limp at his side. "Telepaths," he groaned.

    "I've heard Asari can do something like that," Shepard said. "But only if they have physical contact."

    "How did you get away from the one that came after you?", Lucy asked, rubbing her own head from the headache she felt.

    "With a big damned headache and the poor bastard not knowing I'm a biotic," she answered. Shepard's omnitool flashed into existence as she ran her hand over Jarod's wound. "Looks like some damage to the joint. We should probably get you to the medbay."

    "I'll second that." Jarod nodded and reached for his multidevice. "But first things first. Jarod to Sladen." He waited for a response; given their situation the system would have automatically activated the channel with his voice command.

    There was no immediate reply.

    "Jarod to Sladen, please respond," Jarod said, urgency creeping into his voice. "We need pickup."

    After a couple of moments King's voice came over the line. "Commander… we are under mental attack… and the ship is being fired on. It's taking everything… to fight off the mind control. I'm not sure we can beam… you back."

    Jarod pursed his lips. "Damn. You can't even lower shields?"

    "... perhaps… but our operators… most of the crew is debilitated."

    "I need to get back there," Lucy said. "Meridina taught me how to fight these kinds of attacks, I should be able to use the transporters."

    Jarod thought on it. "Commander King, I'm going to get Lucero back over there. Lower the shield in ten seconds. We just need five seconds from then and everything will be ready."

    "...I believe I understand. Counting now."

    Jarod nodded and smiled. "Right." He started counting while his hand moved over his multidevice control. "Three… four… five…"

    Lucy was suddenly whisked away by the transporter. The Sladen transporter room materialized around her. Nearby the operator was leaning against the controls, moaning from an apparent pain in his head. Lucy could feel that there was nothing wrong; the pain was in his mind.

    She started reciting a poem her uncle had taught her as a little girl, and just in time. A mental power began to descend on her, trying to force her into inactivity.

    Oh no you don't. 'I love you, you love me…' Mentally she recalled that godawful theme song to "Barney the Dinosaur" from her childhood and played it in her mind. Lucy kept that song up while she used the controls to beam Cat straight to the cargo bay, where she could use the cargo transporters to retrieve the crates they'd identified.

    As she went to beam the others back the ship rumbled; a strike on the unshielded armored hull. But not a severe one; their foe wasn't a heavily armed ship at least. She had no trouble beaming Jarod and Shepard back. Both reached for their heads upon return. "Think nursery rhymes, annoying earworm songs, math problems," she urged them. "Things like that can cloud mind-readers. I'll get to the bridge."

    On her way there, running down the hall, she called up Caterina. "Cat?! How is it coming?!"

    "I've gotten most of it."

    "And the mental attack?"

    "My head hurts. But I keep thinking up the math problems I use when I'm bored. Do you think they're good at space-time field variations in a warp field under gravitational influence from a nearby star?"

    Good one, Cat. "Just get that stuff off."

    When Lucy got to the bridge, they shook again. "Damage on Deck 3," Trymi reported.

    Lucy could tell he was the only one functioning. "Don't we have any more Dorei for the bridge?"

    "No. There are only four Dorei aboard. Two engineers and Doctor Liushan's nurse." King was starting to look better. "It feels like they're weakening."

    "They're probably focusing on our people using actual stations." Lucy could see that Skarsgard was completely nonfunctioning at ops. Caldwell was working at the helm, but only with massive effort. "Lieutenant, give me the helm."

    "...no...I can…"

    "That's them talking," Lucy insisted, even as she felt the pressure on her mind increase. She thought up a new musical theme, from some 80s show her mother had liked and which she thought was an annoying earworm. "Please, move."

    Caldwell clearly had to force himself up and away. Lucy slid into his chair and ran her hands over the controls. "Evasive maneuvers."

    "Take us out of here, now," King demanded.

    Lucy operated the controls with care and precision, all forced on her by the sustained mental attack. Sladen broke free of her tormentor and moved toward open space. The first moment she could, Lucy hit the warp drives. Sladen shot away from the Venir system. Everyone present could breathe a sigh of relief as the mental pressure abruptly vanished.

    While Lucy left Caldwell's seat and allowed him to resume the helm, she turned to King. "I gave Cat enough time to finish her transports. We have what we came for."

    "Excellent. Lieutenant Caldwell, set our course back for Babylon-5, best speed."




    After getting King's leave to depart from the bridge, Lucy went down to Deck 2 and the ship's small medbay. Doctor Liushan was looking over Jarod, who had removed his uniform jacket and shirt so she could get to the blackened, reddened wound on his shoulder. Shepard was standing nearby. "Are you going to be okay?", Lucy asked. The wound looked nasty.

    "I'll live." Jarod winced as Liushan applied a medical solution. "So, this universe has Human telepaths. Or is this another situation like the Gersallians? Aliens who look Human?"

    "They scanned as Human." Lucy raised her arm to show the display on her multidevice.

    "We'd better tell Robert so he can report this." Jarod nodded at Lucy. "You look like you went through it pretty well."

    "Meridina's taught me some mental defense tricks. Things like repeating nursery rhymes and doing math. I go for bad music earworms myself. The idea is to distract people looking into your mind." Lucy smiled at him. "You should be even better at it than me with that powerful mind you've got."

    "I'll keep that in mind for next time. And I hope it's never." Jarod looked over at the wound. "Those particle guns are nasty."

    "Most weapons are," Doctor Liushan remarked. "Please hold still."

    "I'll talk to you both later. I'm sure Commander King wants a report on everything that happened."

    "Right."

    Lucy left the medbay and found Shepard was following her. "Hey." The other woman stepped up, moving in the combat gear like it was no heavier than a casual set of clothes. "How were you throwing people around like that? Is that the 'life force' stuff Commander Meridina uses?"

    "It is. I… have the same potential she does, so she's been teaching me to use it," Lucy explained. "Your biotics are different. They feel different."

    "It's probably the dark matter." Shepard nodded. "Anyway, I'd better go stow my gear and get to work on the report. I'm sure Anderson and Admiral Hackett will just love to hear about people who can read thoughts and take over minds."

    "Yeah. It's… pretty nasty, when you think about it." Lucy sighed. "I just wish we knew more about what they wanted."

    "I doubt it had anything to do with us."

    "Probably not. At least, not until now." Lucy checked her multidevice. "I'd better get that report ready for Commander King. See you for dinner?"

    "Well, it's not like there's a lot of options on this ship," Shepard pointed out. "Sure. We can see if all of this trouble was worth it, I hope."

    "I hope so too."

    They turned away from each other. At the last moment Shepard looked back. "Wait, what was done about that shuttle we took down?", she asked. "It's got some of your technology aboard, doesn't it?"

    "I set the remote auto-pilot before leaving the bridge," Lucy answered. "They should be bringing it aboard soon."

    "Right. Clever." Shepard nodded. "See you at dinner."

    Lucy answered with a nod and resumed her walk to the bridge of the ship. As she did so she felt a sense of unease. What, indeed, were those telepaths looking for? What was their interest in these excavations?

    The unease turned to dread at the prospect of what the answer might be.




    Captain Padilla of the Pedicarus tried to fight back the terror he felt as the second shuttle landed in his cargo bay. Nearby his crew members were taking an inventory while the ship surgeon, Ruslov, was draping the second dead telepath with a sheet.

    The reason for his terror stepped out of the shuttle. The man was in a black uniform, black gloves, and the only thing breaking that up was the bronze pin on his chest; a pin with a Psi letter insignia.

    Padilla swallowed as his guest surveyed the dead and checked on the injured. Finally the man looked at him with a curious look on his face. "Captain, you're rather frightened. Why?"

    Convinced he was about to die, or suffer something worse, Padilla explained, "Your people died on my ship. Under my watch. I know you hold me responsible."

    The shrugged. "Well, that depends. Did you take all reasonable security measures?"

    "Yes."

    "Did you abet this attack?"

    That question stung. Suicidal pride and anger surged from underneath the terror. "No! Never! Never on my ship!"

    The telepath clearly noted that surge of emotion. A thin smile crossed his face. "Spoken like a true captain. Captain Padilla, I must say… you're doing me a great disservice. If you've done everything you reasonably could, taken all reasonable precautions, and been completely honest with me… why do you think I'd take this out on you?"

    The thought came unbidden. Because you value your kind more than mine.

    "Ah. Honesty. How refreshing. I find that it always helps to get to the core of these things, Captain Padilla. It prevents misunderstandings." The telepath came uncomfortably close. "I'm not a monster, Captain. You are under no threat from me as long as you do your job and do it right. You may go."

    Padilla didn't need to be told twice. He took off.

    The telepath, meanwhile, looked back at his fallen colleagues. Given the others were only injured and stunned, it was clear that the team that raided Pedicarus were a varied group. Isley, al-Susi, double check the inventory. I want to know what these raiders took.

    Right away, Agent Bester.


    Alfred Bester's smile was not of mirth. Someone had killed his people. He wanted to know why.

    And then, he would teach them a very important lesson about killing his telepaths. A very painful lesson, too. An important education, to themselves and others, about the results of striking at the Psi Corps.




    The tram running the length of Babylon-5's cylinder moved steadily along the multi-mile span over the station's internal area, creating a vista of gardens and structures and food-growing areas. Nick Locarno let out a low whistle at the sight. "Great view," he said aloud.

    "Aye." Scott stood beside him, wearing his favored engineer outfit - a black vest and trousers with a long-sleeved white shirt. "A work of art, she is."

    "It makes you think about why we do this." Locarno went over and settled into his chair on the tram. "Half the point of joining Starfleet is getting to see new sights."

    "For some, aye. I dinnae join t' go sightseein' myself." Scott looked over at Locarno. "How are ye daein', lad?"

    Locarno considered his answer for a moment. "Well enough, I suppose."

    "Good. Good. Ye've gone far since we met."

    "It doesn't erase the past." Locarno turned and looked out at the open cylinder again.

    "Well, of course not. But ye're doin' worthy things on th' Aurora. Ye've made up for it."

    "Joshua Albert isn't someone I can just 'make up for'." Locarno swallowed. "It's not something I can just... "

    A hand pressed on his shoulder. "It's alright, lad. Ye dinnae have t' go intae it. I understand." Scott nodded. "Now, there's got t' be a place where a man can get a good Scotch. Want t' help me find it?"

    Locarno considered that for a moment. He smiled thinly and nodded after that consideration ended. "I'm up for a drink myself."

    "That's the spirit, lad. That's what shore leave is all about, after all."




    The morning routine began as usual for Julia. Replicated coffee, Turkish blend, to wake up, accompanied by a replicated croissant. Both were consumed while she went over the reports from the Gamma Shift Watch Officer. There was nothing of key importance in those reports, just indications of the ship running smoothly. The only concern was the backlog in minor parts needed to restore a couple of machine shop replicators to working order; the Quartermaster Division hadn't yet sent those needed parts, just as they were still short a couple dozen crew.

    She allowed herself a small sigh over that. It irked her that they were having these little niggling problems.

    But there was little time for more. A morning shower came, just a quick one, since after that she went to the nearest holodeck for martial arts practice - Angel's early morning availability had evaporated once she got back together with Robert, denying Julia her typical sparring partner - and after half an hour beating up holographic adversaries and another half an hour jogging through a holographic park it was back to the shower for real and a proper breakfast in the Lookout to follow.

    Her mind was full of considering what delectable breakfast Hargert had prepared this time when the morning routine came crashing down from the loud beep from her multidevice. She looked at the door to the Lookout and sighed. So close. Her finger found the comm key on the device and opened the line. "Andreys here."

    "Commander." It was Data. "I need to see you and Captain Dale immediately. I am currently in Science Lab 1."

    "On my way."




    Data's call had interrupted Robert's shower. It shouldn't have; he was running late for breakfast with Julia in the Outlook, actually, but Angel had provided a usual diversion upon their waking up and he was running behind.

    Now his stomach was growling in frustration from the lack of breakfast. And given the look on Julia's face, hers was doing almost the same.

    Data seemed oblivious to their plight, though. He remained seated at one of the work stations. Raw data was displayed on the screen; it looked like communications wavelengths. "You wanted to see us, Data?"

    "Good morning, Captain, Commander." Data was wearing the newer Starfleet uniform with the gold of operations on the shoulders and the main body black. Robert thought of it as the "DS9" uniform, as that was his first encounter with that particular Starfleet look. It looked closer to their own uniforms with the branch colors as trim around the shoulder blades.

    "What is it, Data?"

    Before he could say more, the door slid open and Meridina walked in, also in standard duty uniform and with her lakesh weapon on her hip. "Commander Data. You wished to see me?"

    Robert and Julia exchanged looks. For Data to want Meridina, their security chief, made this summons more ominous than out of the ordinary.

    "Yes." Data looked back to his panel. "While I have been running enhancements to the data compiler software that Lieutenant Delgado was applying to the Darglan data from 33LA, I have also been continuing communication with Starfleet for the purpose of keeping Captain Picard and Admiral Nechayev appraised of our progress."

    "Understandable" was Robert's reaction.

    "In addition to the standard communications, I have also been continuing contact with Commander La Forge on our own ongoing research into improving warp core safety systems, including a proposal to follow the Alliance's example and switch warp core use over to naqia material. This process includes sending significant amounts of scientific and design data through the Aurora's interuniversal communications array. To prevent communications difficulties, I do this during the ship's night periods when activity is reduced. However, on several occasions over the past several weeks, I have noted an unexpected reduction in available bandwidth during these transfers."

    "Reduced bandwidth." Julia crossed her arms. "You mean there's data flowing through our IU transceiver. Even in low use periods?"

    "Exactly." Data tapped several keys to bring up relevant data. "According to my analysis of your standard communications activity, this activity is tied into standard fleet communications. But the amount of data in the records does not match the activity recorded."

    The implications were clear. "Someone's sending that data. Off the record." Julia looked to Meridina. "We may have a spy aboard."

    "Or someone using the transceiver for unauthorized purposes," Meridina pointed out gently. "Either way, it is a security breach. I will commence an investigation immediately."

    "You have my full cooperation, Commander," Data promised. "I will…"

    Data was interrupted by Robert's multidevice. "Bridge to Captain Dale." The voice was that of Lieutenant Luneri.

    He pressed the key to open his end of the channel. "Dale here."

    "The Sladen just dropped out of warp. Commander King has signaled that the mission was a success but that she needs to see you urgently."

    "Excellent news." Robert nodded to Julia. "Commander Andreys and I will be waiting for Commander King in the Main Conference Room. Get all requested personnel to report to the dock for transferring material to Science Lab 1."

    "Acknowledged."

    "I wonder what happened," Julia said.

    Meridina looked at them. She felt Lucy now and, more importantly, felt her perturbed feelings. It gave her some concern. "I believe something may be wrong."




    "Human mindwalkers?" Meridina was the first to react to what Lucy and Jarod described. "My people were not aware that Humans could even become such."

    "Another mystery of this universe to explore sometime." Jarod was still favoring his left shoulder. "But at least we managed to find and recover the Darglan databanks. Data and Cat are going over them now to see if we can find the data we're looking for."

    "Of course, it won't take long for these people to realize the Alliance is responsible for this." Julia was frowning. The possibilities she was considering were not good. "We could have made an enemy."

    "I thought it unwise to attempt to destroy the two vessels," King said. "Given the scale of mental control they were exerting, staying any longer risked my entire crew."

    "No, you made the right call," Robert agreed. "This is just another complication we'll have to deal with over time."

    "I will send your testimonies to the Farisa Genut on Gersal," Meridina stated. "They may be able to determine the best defense measures to take against the threat these mindwalkers may pose."

    "If it's not shapeshifters who can pretend to be anyone, it's mind-readers who can make people into puppets." Angel rubbed her temples with her fingers. "This whole thing is just horrifying."

    "We'll leave it to the experts to figure this out." Robert tapped the table impatiently. After all this time… they were so close now. So close to getting to the Facility. A part of him felt horrified at the thought of destroying it. If we can take it, hold it… maybe there's another ship like ours that can be finished out. Or examined so we can produce more like the Aurora. The manufacturing technology alone…

    "So we've almost done it." Leo was looking pensive. "This means we'll be going back to the war."

    "We will," Julia said. "We'll need to be there to break through to wherever the Facility is in that area."

    "I'll make sure the medbay is fully stocked then. It's a good thing I've been working with Doctor Hobbs over on B5. They have the means to provide some of the things the Quartermaster's been holding up."

    "I don't know how long we'll be here, so stock up while you can." Robert stood from the table. "Alright everyone, we've got reports to make and work to do. This meeting's over."

    "Don't forget that you're due for tomorrow's training exercise," Angel reminded him, smirking.

    "Oh, I remember that." He hid the wince he felt. Somehow he was certain Worf and Shepard were preparing quite the day for him.
     
  17. Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    "So you're leaving shortly?"

    Leo nodded in reply to Doctor Hobbs' inquiry. The two were sitting in the Fresh Air restaurant, enjoying another meal that Hobbs had insisted Leo try out. "With Emissary Ledosh off to Minbar with your President Sheridan, we really don't have a purpose here," Leo explained. It wouldn't do to remark on the real reason they hadn't left immediately, so he added, "It's just a matter of our superiors deciding where they need us."

    "Well, hopefully it won't be too dangerous." Hobbs settled her silverware down and took a drink of the wine offered by the waiter who just left. "I suppose it's a good thing, then, that all of your orders are completed."

    "I can't thank you enough," Leo said. "With the ship going back in action, I want to make sure the crew is fit and well."

    "Obviously." Hobbs frowned. "Doctor Gillam, can you explain something to me?"

    "Hrm?"

    "Your ship is the most advanced starship in the Allied System fleet, right? And you do missions personally decided upon by your President?"

    "That's right," Leo said, having put down his own wineglass after a sip.

    Hobbs gained a pensive look to her. "Then explain how your vessel can be denied replenishment of even basic medical stocks?"

    "Well, the war, I imagine."

    "Doctor, you shouldn't underestimate the power of a good quartermaster to find ways to get things where they need to go. You may need to consider other reasons for these materials not getting to you."

    Leo leaned forward. He couldn't get the frown off his face as he thought about that and some of his own lingering suspicions. "You're saying you think our bosses are sabotaging us?"

    "Probably not your highest superior. But if someone has it out for you in the other high ranks? You may be surprised what bureaucrats can cause."

    "Food for thought," Leo agreed. "And while we share those thoughts, our actual food is getting cold…"



    Julia decided the others were right. As space stations went, Babylon-5 was a unique place to visit.

    The Zen garden was carefully maintained by the look of things, and from the top of its central structure she could look out at the entire cylinder. Buildings, farmland, gardens, everything needed to help sustain a quarter of a million sentient beings in the vacuum of space.

    "Quite the view, huh?"

    She turned her head and faced Shepard. Both were in their respective duty uniforms, which highlighted their other physical differences. Shepard was a bit shorter, her blazing red hair a shorter cut to Julia's long golden-blond hair, her skin a bronze contrast to Julia's own fair complexion, and where Julia's eyes were a lighter green that tended toward aquamarine, Shepard's were a strong emerald green.

    "It is," Julia said. "Not as much as one for you, though?"

    "After a while, space stations all start to look and feel alike," Shepard admitted. She took up a place beside Julia and looked out at it all. "It's still a good view, though. And I'll admit that there's no station quite like this one back home."

    "There's nothing like this back home," Julia said. "The International Space Station's barely a collection of life support pods compared to this."

    "Well, everything starts somewhere." After making that observation Shepard leaned against the edge of the building. "Of course, I grew up in space. You're a Kansas farmgirl."

    "True."

    "Since you're the XO, do you mind if I ask why you haven't volunteered for mission training yet?"

    At that Julia smiled. "Oh, I was tempted. I got to go down to Abydos earlier this year and it reminded me of how much I missed being in the thick of things. But someone has to keep the ship running while everyone else is busy."

    "Right." Shepard nodded. "I don't blame you for that. We'll need someone staying on the Aurora and keeping their ships occupied while we do our jobs. I was just wondering what your motive was."

    "Sometimes I wonder about it too. But when it comes down to it… the Aurora is my responsibility. It's more important to me than getting to run around punching people."

    "Even Nazis?"

    Julia smirked at that. "Even Nazis."

    "Because… you know, Nazis. Who doesn't want to punch Nazis?", Shepard asked. "They're just special that way."

    "That's what holodecks are for." Julia leaned against the edge as well now. "And the rest of the time, I get to be the responsible one."

    "Hello."

    The new voice caused them to turn. Captaiin Lochley stepped out of the stairwell leading to the bottom of the building. "Commanders." she nodded at them. "I see you're enjoying the view?"

    "It's a good view," Julia said. "One of many I've enjoyed since coming out into space."

    "I'm glad to hear it." Lochley continued walking until she was on the other side of Shepard from Julia. Now the older woman - Julia guessed she had to be in her mid-40s - was leaning against the edge right alongside them. "I haven't been here a year yet and it's already grown on me."

    "A place like this can do that," Shepard said.

    "I hear you might be leaving us soon?"

    "We're just waiting on new orders," Julia replied.

    Lochley nodded. "Well, while you're here, would you ladies like the full tour?"

    Julia and Shepard exchanged curious glances. Technically they had places to be. Shepard had to finalize the next training exercise with Worf. Julia had a ship to run.

    "I've got no objection," Shepard replied.

    "I don't either." Julia stood to her full height. "Lead the way, Captain."



    It was late again when the encrypted call came through to Commander King. She sat at her desk and accepted it. Admiral Davies appeared on her screen. "Commander." He nodded. "I see you had quite the adventure."

    "Mental attack, Admiral, is not something I would recommend enduring. It put my training to the test."

    "And it held. That's good. We'll find that useful information when we begin training officers for resisting mental attacks." Davies leaned forward in her chair. "Now this mission to Venir. This may be what we've been waiting for. An unauthorized rogue operation that risks putting the Alliance into another conflict? I'm ready to go to the Committee with this."

    At that, King shook her head. "Admiral, it won't work. I'm afraid my testimony would undermine that purpose."

    "Pardon me, Commander?"

    "I advised them to launch the mission, Admiral."

    An interested look crossed Davies' face. He was irritated, certainly, but more curious than mad. "Well. Alright. Why?"

    "Because, sir, it is vitally important that we find that Darglan Facility. The black ops mission to Venir recovered the Darglan databases that can give us the answer we need." King kept her voice tone solid. No emotion, just fact. "I recommended the mission be launched. And I persuaded Captain Dale to authorize it without informing Command."

    King waited for Davies' reaction. It came with a nod. "I can see the reasoning. Very well. We'll wait for another chance. Hopefully we'll get one before the Koenig can finish escorting the Kobolian refugees to the frontier."

    "Why do we have such a deadline? Certainly Koenig can be re-assigned to another command."

    At that Davies made a displeased look. "President Morgan and Admiral Maran are directly involving themselves in that affair. The moment that President Roslin signals that they're settling a world, Koenig will be sent back to the Aurora and you'll be re-assigned. And since the aid to the Refugee Fleet is being routed through the Gersallian and Dorei government, we can't cause any delays to buy you time. It's all up to you, Commander. Find me something useful."

    King considered that. "Admiral, what if there is nothing? I admit that, to my surprise, Captain Dale and his people have proven capable with the missions they've been given. If, perhaps, a tad informal…"

    Davies' tone turned harsh. "That is unacceptable. You know as well as I what's going on behind the scenes. They're a part of something, something that we need to expose for the safety of the Alliance. Find it, Commander. Soon. Davies out."

    The transmission ended. Silence reigned in King's office. She knew what Davies meant. She knew what was going on.

    But she had become more and more convinced that the Aurora crew did not.

    And if that was true, Admiral Davies' mission would be literally impossible.



    It had been a long time since Robert had been pushed as much as he was being pushed today. He was with a team that included Commander Meridina, Lucy, and several of Kane's Marines. The simulated halls and rooms of a Darglan Facility were near perfect, if not entirely in order. Again, Worf and Shepard were messing with their expectations.

    Which meant more Panzergrenadiers.

    They had caught their team in a trap in the control room for the Facility. There was no way to go out but one door. Lucy's attempt to use the transporters had failed; the simulated Nazi forces had already taken over and locked them out. Simulated weapons fire filled the doorway and several grenades had flown in, just for Lucy and Meridina to bat them back.

    "Fire in the hole!", one of the Marines shouted. Private Hakimzade, an tall and powerfully-built Uzbek woman, raised her arm. She was in heavy power armor, a Marine Assault Suit, and as her arm came up a compartment shifted open. A missile erupted from it and flew out the door, where it exploded with tremendous force.

    This caused a slight cessation in the shooting. "Follow me!", Meridina cried, and the Marines followed her out as her lakesh swung in the air. Between Meridina's powers and the Marines' fire, they cleared the way forward. Robert moved with them, firing his pulse rifle and spraying sapphire pulses wherever a dark Panzergrenadier suit appeared in his vision.

    It was strange and exhilarating and, despite it being a simulation, still utterly terrifying. Robert unloaded his weapon's full fire mode at one of the armored troopers approaching them from the side corridor. At that power and fire mode even a powered armor suit wasn't enough. The attacker collapsed.

    Robert checked his weapon as they rushed on. He'd exhausted the power pack. He ejected the spent pack and reached for his belt for a replacement. It was like an old walkie-talkie, save no antenna, and he started pushing the hefty battery into place.

    That was when Lucy went flying into him.

    They both fell over and became a sprawled out tangle on the floor. Lucy shifted under Robert's legs and he started to sit up.

    Just in time for a large Panzergrenadier suit to loom over him. A big armored fist moved across his eyesight, joined by the large anti-personnel auto-cannon above it. His personal shield could only hold out for a couple of seconds, then it would turn him and Lucy into something more like hamburger than people.

    It was a simulation. They were on the holodeck. There was no real danger.

    But while his rational thoughts knew this, something inside him reacted to the visceral nature of what was unfolding. It didn't care that they were in a training simulation. All it cared about was that he was about to die and messily and he needed to do something and just make this thing go away...

    And something inside him resonated with that thought.

    Robert threw his arms out and cried out, "Get away!"

    The enemy did.

    Or rather, the enemy went flying.

    It went flying into the nearest enemy, knocking him over and stopping that foe from firing, and both of them got blown apart by Private Hakimzade's own heavy armaments.

    For another five seconds the firing continued, then ceased. They had defeated the enemy team. Robert started to lift himself off of Lucy. He looked down at her and offered her a hand. "Here."

    She continued to stare at him. Her blue eyes were wide with shock.

    "Lucy?", he asked.

    "You… you…" She swallowed. "Robert, do you know what you just did?"

    In the heat of the moment he hadn't thought of it. He just knew that something had knocked the enemy back. He looked on at the other Marines, who were all staring at him.

    And Meridina too. But she wasn't staring. Instead there was a bright intensity in her blue eyes as she stood there, lakesh glinting with its protective EM field around the memory metal blade, looking every bit the knight in her dark purple armor and blue robe.

    And then it came to him. He'd… he hadn't even touched the armored soldier. He'd just…

    "Robert." Meridina's voice was calm and still. "We need to finish the mission. And then, we need to talk."



    The simulation was a success. They took a couple of losses, including a very irritated Lucy, and afterward had their debriefing with Shepard and Worf. Neither of the experts made any comment about what Robert had done. Apparently they were leaving that for Meridina to handle.

    When it was all said and done, Robert returned to his quarters. Babylon-5 was still spinning outside of the window, and it gave him something to look at.

    His mind kept flashing back to that encounter. The sudden thing that had happened, that feeling within him.

    There was a beep at the door. He ignored it at first. But it didn't stop. Finally he said, "Enter." The system unlocked his door.

    Meridina and Lucy entered. "Robert…" Lucy spoke first. "Robert, there's something you need to know."

    "I already know," he said, in a small voice. "The dreams… I guess they were the first sign, weren't they?"

    "Yes." Meridina's voice was calm and gentle, as usual. "You have the gift."

    And indeed, he had dreamed that too. "I think I've known for a while," he admitted. "But… I didn't want…" He turned toward them. He faced both; Lucy and her concerned look, Meridina's calm expression. "I don't know if this is something I want," he said. "This is…"

    "You still have that choice," Meridina assured him. "Lucy had intentionally called upon it, which is why it awoke for her. Your use of the power was instinctive and unprepared. It has not awoken yet. It might never, if you refuse to use it. Over time, it might even quiet. Particularly if you are not exposed to its use in others."

    "What do you mean by that?", Robert asked.

    "She means that being around it makes you more receptive to it," Lucy answered. "It's… it's the Flow of Life, it's around everything, and use of the power can make you feel it within yourself. It's how it started for me. Being around Meridina and knowing it was there."

    "Yes." There was something soothing in the way Meridina's voice remained level and calm.

    Robert considered that. "Which means that the more you two are around me, the more likely I'll start to use this… ability. This 'life force' stuff."

    "Exactly." Meridina nodded. "The true question, Robert, is this. Do you wish to learn?"

    The question was direct and to the point. He thought about it. Did he want to learn how this stuff worked? To wield whatever this was?

    Do I want to have nightmares every night? was one thought that went through him. He'd been following Ledosh's advice, trying to remain positive as he fell asleep and to dream of good things. But the nightmares still came. Not as often as before, granted, but they hadn't gone away.

    "What do you two think?", Robert asked them. "Do you think I should?"

    Lucy's response was first. "I think… I think it has to be your decision, Robert. I can't tell you whether you should or not. It's different for each of us."

    "I will not be untrue to you. I do believe there is great good you can accomplish if you did learn, Robert," Meridina admitted. "It can never be anyone's choice but your own, and I cannot advise you either way. Listen to your heart and decide if you can trust yourself with the power. It is a heavy burden. Darkness and corruption will tempt you. But I know you are meant to have it. I believe it is your destiny. But you must be willing to do so. It is your choice, not mine."

    Robert had heard those words before, in the depth of his dreams. He swallowed. "I…" His mind went through all of the possibilities. If this was something he wanted. Something he…

    There was another chime at the door. Robert called out "Come in" and the door slid open.

    Angel stepped in. She gave a look to Meridina and Lucy before looking at Robert and rushing up to him. "Rob, what happened in that training simulation?!", she asked, her voice insistent. "I mean, I just saw the recording, you… you…"

    "I've got their power," he said. "And… I have to decide whether I'm going to use it or not."

    Angel looked back to the two. "Can you give him some space?", she asked them. "This isn't something he can decide on the spur of a moment."

    "Of course." Meridina looked to Lucy. "Let us depart."

    After they went out the door Angel embraced him closely. "My God. This is… those nightmares, right? Those nightmares are from this?"

    "Apparently so."

    "Then we need to find a way to make it stop," she said. "So you can sleep again."

    He thought on that. Was that the way to go? Make the power go away? Could he make it go away? "Maybe, I… Angel, I don't know what I'm going to do about this." He sat on his bed. Angel sat beside him. Her hazel eyes burned with protective concern. "Maybe this is something I'm meant to do."

    "Robert." Her voice was firm and disapproval was evident. "This stuff is torturing you every night. You've woken up screaming how often in the past few months? And then there's all the pressure you have as the Captain. You really think you'll be able to do all of the weird training and stuff Meridina will require? There aren't enough hours in the day for it, Rob. This thing… you've done enough, okay? You're doing enough, you're doing your part, you don't need to take that on too."

    Robert considered that argument. The truth was that he did feel fairly exhausted often. The sleep interrupted by nightmares, the stress of captaincy, the monotonous boredom of the need to sign requisition orders and personnel directives and action reports and everything else… How could he find the time to learn this life force stuff on top of that? He'd stretch himself so thin…

    Angel was right. It wasn't something he could do.

    "You're right," he said to her. "So don't worry about it. I'll tell them no."

    Angel nodded at that. "Good." She nuzzled his neck. "You do so much already, Rob. You're always doing so much to make this work, to make things better for people. But you've got to look out for yourself too, enough to keep yourself sane. Don't let all of this crush you, okay?"

    He nodded at that. His full answer came a moment later when he kissed Angel on the lips.



    Tag



    Robert had decided he wanted one last look at Babylon-5.

    He hadn't come alone either. Angel walked beside him as they went through the Zocalo, just two people among a crowd of various species and Humans as they went about their day. "It's not as big or populated as the Citadel," he observed to her. "But it's got a charm of its own, doesn't it?"

    "It does," she agreed. And then she gave him a kiss on the cheek.

    They wound up in the station's central corridor. Traffic moved around them, mostly foot traffic, as the station's crew and denizens went about their day. "Captain Dale!", a voice called out.

    Robert looked up to a catwalk above them. Captain Lochley was already moving to the side, heading to the stairway down.

    Robert and Angel went over and met her at the base of the stairs. "Captain Elizabeth Lochley, station commander," he said for Angel's benefit. "This is Lieutenant Angela Delgado, the Aurora's Tactical and Gunnery Officer."

    "Captain, ma'am," Angel said, nodding.

    "Lieutenant." Lochley returned the nod. "Are you on duty?"

    Robert shook his head. "We just didn't change out of our uniform. I… wanted to show Angel the station before we left."

    Lochley had already noted they were holding hands. "Of course." She smiled in understanding. "It's a wonderful place. Delenn used to call it a dream given form."

    "I was doing some reading on its origins. It was certainly the result of a lot of stubbornness. The good kind." Robert grinned at Angel when saying that; she was quite stubborn herself.

    "After the Earth-Minbari War, we knew that a place like this was needed," Lochley answered. "And in the end, it's worked out."

    "Glad to hear it." Robert felt a thought come to mind. "Maybe… well, the InterStellar Alliance has moved to Minbar, but maybe this station could serve one day to do the same for all of the species and governments of all of the known universes?"

    Lochley laughed at that. "It would certainly make my job more complicated. But it would be worth it. I've had enough conflict in my life."

    "I know that feeling," Angel said. "But sometimes you have to fight."

    Lochley gave no answer to that. Before anyone could say more, Robert's multidevice let off a tone. He reached down and accepted the incoming transmission. "Dale here."

    "Captain, Jarod and Cat need us all in Science Lab 1, immediately." It was Julia on the other end. "I think they've found something."

    Robert nodded at that. "We're on our way back now. Dale out." He looked to Lochley. "Well, Captain, I'm guessing this is goodbye for now."

    "Hopefully just 'for now'," Lochley said. "I wouldn't mind getting to see your ship again. It's a lovely vessel."

    "Thank you. And I'd love to get to see this place again." Robert looked around. He could almost feel the history here, the gravitas of the station and the role it had played. "Hopefully we'll be back sooner rather than later."

    Lochley responded by offering her hand. Robert took it and they had a handshake. When that was over he pressed the commkey again. "Dale to Transporter Station 1. Two to beam out."

    Lochley watched as the two were taken away by bursts of white light. "I'm going to have to get used to that," she murmured.



    Everyone had gathered in Science Lab 1. In one corner of the room, solid shapes of blue and green had been placed in transparent storage containers. Wires ran around and into them. "It took several attempts to make the databanks work," Data explained, "but after connecting them to your tertiary auxiliary computer core, I was able to use the raw processing power to bypass the security measures and begin decrypting the data kept within."

    "So have you found anything?", Locarno asked.

    Jarod nodded. "A lot of things, actually. Technical schematics for smaller, more efficient versions of our pulse plasma cannons. Transwarp drive studies. New universal coordinates."

    "But what about the Facility we're looking for?", Robert asked. "That's what we need."

    Jarod looked to Cat, who nodded. "We found fragments of a transmission stored in the databanks. Here." She hit a key.

    An alien voice began talking in a language they didn't understand. "I'm applying our datafiles on the Darglan language… now."

    The alien voice became overlaid with a simulated one. "...are going to come for us, you know it, Lamin. We have no choice/decision, we must go back/up to the other places-of-being/cosmos/universe."

    "Then they will come for us, Gramul! And the Vorlons will not protect/safeguard our survival in that case. We promised them never to touch/utilize/manipulate this technology again!"

    "The Dark Ones will ignore the Vorlons, they want us gone/exterminated, they always have! This is our only hope! Here, I have the coordinates and lists/inventories, all I need is access to the drive design plan/schematic/layout and..."

    "Gramul, no! What have you done?! That information is…" There was a low rumble in the background. "...what is that? Why is the sun/star/source-of-light going out, there isn't an eclipse…"

    "Ancestors/Revered Ones, no. No. I… I was too late…"

    The transmission cut.

    Everyone remained silent for a moment. It was Shepard who asked, "Is that when their world was destroyed?"

    "We don't know for sure," Jarod admitted. "But given what we were told by Suvall and Delenn about the Shadows killing the Darglan, and the information from the recent Shadow War… it fits."

    "The Shadow Planet-Killer is an amorphous cloud formed by what is apparently nanotechnology of some form," Data said. "It surrounds a planet and fires gigaton-scale atomic missiles into a planet's core. Given the description stated by the one called 'Lamin', it would seem to indicate this discussion happened just as the Shadows deployed this weapon on the Darglan homeworld."

    Cat shook her head. Her eyes were bright with tears. "It's so horrible. The Darglan were such a nice people, why would these Shadows want them dead?"

    "Maybe the Shadows were just evil bastards?" Angel suggested to her sister. "I mean… 'shadow' is kind of a nasty thing to call yourself, I think?"

    "At least from our cultural perspective," Data pointed out. "That said, it appears the name 'Shadow' is not their species' name, but rather a designation given to them by the Minbari."

    "They were talking about Facility coordinates," Meridina noted. "Were they contained in the data?"

    "They were," Jarod said. He hit a key. Three sets of coordinates popped up. Two were of Earth, one for their home universe. "It looks like there was a second Earth to get one," Jarod said. "But the data for that is missing the universe designation. The third set, though…"

    It was, indeed, a set of coordinates. Exact coordinates, and a set that they'd seen part of before.

    And beside those coordinates were four symbols.

    S4W8.

    "We did it," Julia breathed. "We have the coordinates." She looked to Robert and grinned. "We did it."

    He nodded and returned the grin. "Now we tell Admiral Maran. And we get ready." Robert looked to everyone. "Now…" He thought on what to say.

    "Now we have to get around the Nazi fleet and beat them there," Leo finished for him.

    Robert nodded. "That's right. This was the easy part. Now the real work begins."
     
  18. Threadmarks: 1-17 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Teaser


    4 October 2641

    D -10 Days

    Robert and Angel woke up to the sound of the alarm chime they had set with the computer. Just as on any other morning. Mornings that would have seen them make pleasant morning talk before going off to shower and a breakfast to start their day.

    But this wasn't any other morning.

    They got ready with urgency. Shower, a quick breakfast without a word, and then into their uniforms before departing Robert's quarters.

    As they moved down the deck, Julia joined them. Her hair was brushed and pulled back into a proper ponytail and her uniform was without a single crease. Her green eyes burned with the same intensity their own eyes had.

    Jarod joined them next. Cat arrived alongside Leo, and then Meridina came up with Lucy. Scotty nodded in greeting as he moved into place with them.

    They met Data, Worf, and Shepard coming up to the Transporter Station. Worf, as well as Data, were in their standard Starfleet uniforms; Shepard was in the blue uniform of the Systems Alliance Navy, complete with the striped shoulder boards.

    The door slid open. Locarno was there and nodded. Commander King, not to be outdone, was already present with her crew. "So." Robert looked at them all. "This is it?"

    "This is it," Julia agreed.

    "Let's go, then." Robert nodded to the Egyptian man at the transporter station. "Are they ready?"

    "We just received the clear signal from Command, sir. You are cleared for transport straight to Defense Command."

    Robert didn't bother thinking about what had happened the last time they were in Defense Command. That was the past. This was about the future, their future, and stopping a terrible threat looming over everything they cared for. "Then let's go."




    In the central structure of Defense Command, about ten stories down from the Defense Committee special room where they had been grilled just four months ago, Robert and his crew stepped into a large chamber illuminated by a giant holographic starmap. Lines were drawn through the space depicted and insignias were displayed in each partition; the torch of the United Systems, the emblem of the Phosako State, and the swastika of the Nazi Reich.

    There were already several tables laid out, as well as lines of chairs. Robert, Julia, Jarod, and Caterina went to one table marked with the seal of the Alliance President. Cat was visibly nervous, prompting Robert to put a hand on her shoulder. "It'll be fine," he promised her in a low voice.

    The reason for her nervousness was clear; there were more tables and even more chairs. And some were already taken up. Robert recognized various uniforms of Alliance member states, the Systems Alliance, Starfleet, several other allied states… and to his surprise there were even a number of Rangers from E5B1.

    The others took up chairs in the seating area. That is, except for Worf, Data, and Shepard, who went to the tables for Starfleet and the Systems Alliance respectively. Robert watched her salute Captain Anderson and an older man with lighter skin and a scar on one cheek that went down to his mouth. She took a seat beside Anderson.

    Worf and Data, meanwhile, joined a Starfleet table where Captain Picard was present, as was Admiral Nechayev. An older man wearing what Robert saw to be one star admiral rank was sitting beside Nechayev. The holographic name marker in front of him identified him as Rear Admiral E. Jellicoe, Starfleet.

    The Alliance table was only occupied by one flag officer for the moment, Marshal Gulinev. The gruff Russian nodded in acknowledgement to Robert and the others standing at attention before him. They took seats marked for them.

    Over the next several minutes, the seats filled in with more officers. The Citadel Council table was soon filled with Turians, primarily, save a small party of Asari led by a Matriarch named Aethyta. A couple of Salarians in the uniform of the Salarian Special Tasks Group sat at one end of the table.

    The main doors opened and heads turned. Everyone watched as a large group of Klingons stomped in. Robert and the others recognized Councillor Kurn among them, but he seemed to defer to another Klingon with a large, medal-adorned overcoat. Said Klingon's wild eyes darted around the room. He looked to the Alliance table and Robert realized he was looking right at them. A smile came to the Klingon's face. They watched as he led the Klingon contingent up to the central platform and the Alliance table. "So, you are the captain they say caused the war," the Klingon in the overcoat said. He smiled a toothy grin. "I thought you would be older."

    Robert smiled thinly. "I enjoy surprising people."

    That prompted a chuckle from the Klingon leader. "Your ship looks impressive, Captain. I will enjoy seeing how it fares in the battle to come."

    "And my crew and I will enjoy showing you how good we are in a fight."

    That caused another chuckle. "I look forward to judging that for myself."

    The Klingon led his contingent to their table. Robert swallowed at seeing the chair he took; adjacent to Klingon lettering was the English translation: Chancellor Gowron, Klingon High Council.

    "You just faced down the leader of the Klingon Empire," Cat squeaked.

    "He was testing us," Jarod observed. "That's all. Don't let it get to you, Cat."

    "But… but look at all of these leaders…"

    Cat stopped when the door opened again. This time it was President Morgan leading a group of figures. Admiral Maran, Admiral Davies, General Hatcher of Military Intelligence, and Defense Minister Hawthorne all walked in behind him and made their way to the Alliance table. Indeed, save for Davies' chief of staff, they took up all of the remaining seats.

    The Aurora officers were thus the only other people sitting with them. It was intimidating as hell.

    But there was one last surprise. The door swung open one last time and admitted a final contingent. They were mostly Minbari in white and yellow robes, a couple of Humans and Minbari in Ranger uniforms, and finally...

    Vice President Delenn walked regally through the seating and to the steps leading to the middle platform and its giant holodisplay. She and her group took the last table.

    "Ledosh has had a busy week, I guess," Julia murmured.

    Robert nodded back. He looked back to the crowd of people attending. Officers and officials from all of the allied powers that were working with the Alliance. Phosako, Klingons, Gl'mulli, Dre'kari...

    Admiral Maran stood. "Greetings, gentlebeings, and welcome to Alliance Defense Command. I am Admiral Maran of Drelin. And it is my honor to present to you the President of the Allied Systems, Henry Morgan."

    There was polite applause from some as President Morgan stood and walked to a podium. "Thank you all for coming. This strategy summit has been called to address the main issue over which our states have allied against the Nazi Reich of Universe S4W8. We have been able to confirm that there is a Darglan Facility in said universe, and in range of the Reich's fleet. Indeed, we know that even now they are looking for it, although they may not know the extent of what they are looking for." Morgan's expression was stern. "If they discover this Facility, it is a certainty that they will discover the means to develop the interuniversal jump drive developed by the Darglan. And that is what we are gathered here to prevent."

    That prompted nods.

    And, much to Robert's consternation, Morgan looked directly at him. "I now call Captain Robert Dale of the Starship Aurora to the floor. Captain Dale and his crew will present the planned operation to secure the Facility."



    Undiscovered Frontier
    "Tides of Fire"

    D -11 Days



    The fabric of space tore open with crackling green energy. The resulting vortex in space formed just long enough for a single vessel to fly through, surprisingly swift for her kilometer-long hull.

    Such was Starship Aurora's arrival at Earth L2M1.

    On the bridge of the ship, Robert and the others took in the sight of the plentiful starships arrayed in orbit. A Federation Excelsior-class ship, the Crazy Horse, was nearest to them, along with a couple of smaller Federation vessels of the Miranda-class. A massive Klingon battlecruiser that Robert had never seen before loomed ahead, joined by an even larger pair of warships; dreadnoughts from M4P2, the Systems Alliance Kilimanjaro and a Turian dreadnought.

    And among them was a massive blue starship, taller than it was wide or long. "That's a new one," Locarno mused.

    "I have it in the newest recognition charts," Jarod said. "It's a Minbari Warcruiser."

    "The Minbari are attending the strategy conference?"

    "According to her ID signal, she's called the Branmer. On special assignment to the Rangers."

    "Quite a lot of people are here," Julia mused. "Isn't that the Negh'Var? Chancellor Gowron's flagship?"

    "This is going to be one hell of a strategy summit." Robert stood up. "Already everyone. Let's get to Briefing Room 1. We need to go over our presentation."




    In the Aurora's large Briefing Room, Data and Jarod had taken charge. A star system was now displayed over the central holoprojector. "This is System BB29938," Data stated. "Known on Federation starcharts in our home universe as Gamma Piratus. The system includes one Y-class planet, one O-class, three gas giants, and one M-class planet where the Darglan Facility is located. According to the data recovered from the Darglan computer banks, the Facility is located on the tertiary continent in the northern Hemisphere."

    "Under a mound, I'd guess," Julia remarked. "Given our Facility was and the data center on 33LA."

    "Likely so." Data tapped a key and zoomed in on the planet and the location. "The area is a river valley with several strategic peaks that could be utilized for ground-based defensive emplacements."

    "Do we know what's inside of it?", asked Commander Shepard. The System Alliance Marine was seated in Alliance blues between Worf and Meridina.

    "That data was not forthcoming in what we recovered," Data replied.

    "If it's anything like our Facility, it'll have a utility ship and maybe an Emergency Ship," Julia pointed out. "I mean, one of our Kelley-class ships and a hullform for another ship like the Aurora."

    "The tricky question's going to be if we can keep the place," Angel pointed out. "I mean, once the Nazis know it's there, how do we keep them out?"

    "If we get there in time, we could shut down the surface transporter," Cat pointed out. "Our jump drives let us jump into the Facility itself, I mean. We don't need the surface access."

    "It would buy us time at least," Shepard observed. "We could use it if we have to set demolition charges."

    "Granted, we need to make sure the actual portal to get in and out works." Jarod drew attention to himself with that comment. "There's no data on how intact the place is, whether the local systems are functioning. I think we need to bring signal enhancers so we can beam right into the Facility if we need to. But that's not the real problem we're facing." Jarod pressed a key. The image of the system zoomed out until it was but a speck on a larger map of their section of the galaxy. Additional markers popped up. "The real problem is getting there." Jarod pointed to various red specks. "There are at least ten enemy warships in the area around Gamma Piratus. And the enemy fleet base at New Austria is within two days' travel at standard warp. The moment they see us coming, they'll react."

    "What if we send a Discovery-class ship?", Cat suggested. "I mean, they're fast, and they can cloak. Maybe the Challenger, or I hear the Gagarin is ready to fly."

    "The Reich has tachyon detection grids and other technology that can detect a cloaked vessel given time," Data noted. "The Klingon raids on their supply lines have determined this capability as in place. Even if such a vessel evaded initial detection, it would be incapable of resisting an enemy arrival at the site."

    "And we may not have time either." Jarod pointed to the spots. With a keystroke the red dots began moving in a pattern. One easily recognizable. "They're getting closer than before. Whatever method they're using, they're fine-tuning it. It could be a couple weeks, if not sooner, before they actually find the Facility."

    "So we can't sneak around without setting off an enemy fleet to come after us," Julia said. "And we don't have time to try something more subtle. That leaves us with the direct approach."

    Robert nodded. "A direct assault."



    D -10 Days


    "I have shared our findings with Admiral Maran and Defense Command," Robert explained to the gathered. "The fact remains that given the location of enemy forces, the best way to secure the Facility at Gamma Piratus involves defeating the Reich fleet and eliminating their fleet base at New Austria."

    "A difficult target." The uniformed military officer of the Phosako contingent wiggled his chin. "We have planned for such a strike for months, but currently our forces are insufficient for such a bold strike."

    "Given the strategic situation on your front, I'm not sure you can afford such an attack." This was the Turian military commander beside Primarch Fedorian. The holographic display before him identified him as General Adrien Victus. "Although it would certainly be a bold move."

    "The Klingon Empire is ready to dispatch ten more squadrons to the war," Gowron stated. "We would have the forces, together, to eliminate this base. But getting to it will be difficult."

    "If I may?"

    Robert looked to the new voice speaking up. Delenn stood from the ISA table. "I am still unfamiliar with some of the aspects of your interuniversal jump drive technology," she admitted. "Would it not be possible to simply jump to this New Austria system from one of the other universes?"

    "Ships do not jump from one exact point to another, Madame Vice President," Robert explained. "There is a spatial aspect margin to each jump. And it can be random. Unless you lock one jump drive onto another, or to a receiving device designed to provide such an anchoring effect, any jump point you open would be to another point determined by various complicated circumstances. And if you did it with multiple ships, then each jump point opened would have a different arrival point over many light years of space. My ship could arrive two light years outside of this solar system while yours might arrive in orbit over Jupiter, or somewhere outside of Alpha Centauri. If a fleet attempted a large-scale jump without something to anchor their jump drives to the spatial location of New Austria, they'd be scattered across the better part of a sector. The Nazi fleet could engage and destroy them in detail."

    "So they would see these points open from so far away?"

    "Yes." Robert nodded. "Given the large reaches of space, it's very unlikely that a jump point would open close enough to a sufficient gravity source to hide the point from long-range sensors. They'd see enough of our fleet coming to know."

    "I see." Delenn nodded. "Thank you, Captain Dale, for that explanation."

    "You say the enemy is growing closer to the Facility?", Davies asked. "Are you sure we don't have another few months? Admiral Relini has rebuilt the 9th Fleet and should be able to win a decisive engagement by the end of November. By New Year's, we'll have two more fleets to send at New Austria."

    "The pattern of their movements suggests that we have only three weeks before their search pattern moves into Gamma Piratus," Data stated from the Starfleet table. "Commander Jarod and I have run multiple strategic simulations. Four weeks was the absolute longest before discovery was unavoidable."

    "And we probably only have two or so," Jarod added. "I'm sorry, sir, but we've run out of time."

    Davies didn't respond with any hostility to that. He nodded with understanding. "So we need to launch the attack," he said. "But we don't have forces fast enough to blast their way to New Austria before the enemy fleet could intercept us. We would get overwhelmed and destroyed."

    "You have said your jump drives can lock onto one another for jumps?", Delenn asked. "If you cannot get a fleet to the location, could you not send just enough ships that a fleet could lock onto them?"

    "There is a hardware limitation to how many locks a jump drive can sustain," Jarod answered. "At best, maybe three different jump drives could lock onto one. To take out a fleet and the base? We'd need to get the better part of a fleet there, and the enemy would likely intercept…"

    Robert noticed Jarod go quiet with thought. And he wasn't the only one. "Commander?", Admiral Maran asked.

    Jarod blinked. And then he smiled, and it made Robert's heart lift to see that. Jarod had something in mind. "Commander Jarod?", he asked.

    Jarod stood. "We can outfit probes to act as drive anchors," he said. "A lot of them. Enough that entire fleets could jump to a single location fast enough to engage the Reich forces at New Austria."

    Picard was quick to act on the idea. "Commander, is what you are proposing technically feasible in such a short time?"

    "A week, at most," Jarod proposed. "We just need to manufacture the same systems our jump drives use for anchoring other drives. It has been proposed before." Jarod looked to Cat, who blushed and smiled. "So I've been giving it some thought."

    "What do you propose for our battle strategy?" The speaker was Admiral Hackett, the scar-faced man at the System Alliance table beside Prime Minister Shasti. "Once we come through a jump point we'll need time to form the fleet up for a general action."

    "We can seed the anchor probes with probes configured to jam enemy targeting sensors," Cat proposed. She swallowed. The fact that she wasn't stuttering out of reaction to all the eyes on her was purely from her mind focusing enough on the technical issue at hand. "I mean, I've seen Nazi sensor systems in action before, I know their limitations."

    "That would let us buy time to maneuver any intercepting enemy ships into an advantageous position," Robert added. "Then we send a launch signal on our IU bands and the fleet can jump in and engage."

    Maran stood. "If this can be done, I would move that the Coalition commit to this operation. A committal of such force to destroying the Reich fleet base at New Austria would send ripples through their communications and logistics networks. It could cause a collapse across the entire front."

    The Phosako leader - Turrellso - seemed to ponder the idea. The colors of his eyes seemed to shift, as they always did in the somewhat feline eyes of the Phosako, as if to go with the thoughts in the blue-furred being's head. "Such an accomplishment would have a severe effect upon the Reich's hold on star systems across several sectors. Many worlds in the region were settled by subordinated nations with little love of the Reich. Such a blow to the Reich's aura of military invincibility would have interesting socio-political ramifications. Ramifications to our immediate and long-term strategic advantage."

    "In other words, Premier Turrellso, you believe that a victory by our fleets at New Austria could very well win the war," President Morgan stated.

    "Indeed, Mister President. I will not say so with certainty, of course, the variables are simply too complicated to make a guaranteed calculation. But it would certainly do extreme damage to the Reich both materially and psychologically."

    "We would shatter the Reich's aura of military invincibility." Robert nodded. The more he thought of this plan, the more he liked it.

    Hackett nodded with approval. "The Fifth Fleet will be finished outfitting with IU drives and enhanced energy shielding by the end of the week," he said. "We can be in position to launch an attack in nine days."

    "The Citadel Fleet will be prepared by that time," Victus added.

    "If this works, I will commit eight squadrons to the battle." Gowron smiled his toothy smile again. "I will lead them myself from the Negh'Var."

    "The InterStellar Alliance has not agreed to any military action on behalf of your coalition," Delenn stated. "But I am Entil'zha and I will commit the Rangers to fight against this evil. A week should be sufficient time to outfit enough of our ships to assist in this battle."

    "I'll have an Alliance fleet ready as well." Maran nodded. "That leaves one matter. We need a ship that can penetrate their defense perimeter and deploy the anchor probes. The ship has to be fast enough to avoid interception and big enough to carry the anchor probes we'll need, not to mention tough enough to endure enemy fire to set up their fleet for the ambush."

    Robert swallowed. He knew just which ship fit that criteria.

    And indeed, Maran looked to him. "Captain Dale, the Aurora is the only ship that can accomplish this mission effectively. We can deploy some of our fast ships to follow you in and distract their defenses but I'm not sure they can follow you all of the way in. Is the Aurora ready for an operation like this?"

    It was a good question. Were they ready? This was everything they had been building up to, after all. All of the diplomatic work, all of the searching for answers… everything, really, since the strike on 33LA.

    It all came down to this.

    Robert looked to his crew. Julia's green eyes were on him. She nodded, almost imperceptibly. Angel, Jarod and Cat, Lucy and Meridina, Leo, Nick Locarno and Scotty, Laurent, they were all looking at him with the same thing on their faces.

    "Admiral, sir," he said, turning to Maran. "We've been training for this for weeks now. Commander Shepard and Commander Worf have put us through our paces. So, yes, we are ready. As ready as we can ever be."

    "Good to hear it, Captain," Maran said. "Now, General Victus, Admiral Hackett, let's start with you. Can you give us a complete rundown on…"

    Robert went back to the table and set beside Julia. She smiled at him. "Here we go," she said. "Good reply."

    "Thanks," he answered. "Hopefully the Nazis won't be as ready for this as we are."

    "Don't think of it like that," Julia chided gently. She kept her voice low so as to not disturb General Victus as he listed the Turian warships being prepared for the war. "Think of it this way; it won't matter if they're ready or not, because we're going to kick their asses."

    "I can get behind that." And as he said that, Robert found himself wondering. I wonder what they're up to on their end. What are they planning? Do they have anything in mind for the Facility as well?

    And, of course, a question that had nagged him for months.

    Are we ever going to run into Lamper again?




    Over a world marked with towering spires and marble monuments to the glory of the founding regime, a spiraling set of structures dominated the orbital spaces. Various ships filled the spaces around it. Some were plain-looking private vessels, merchant transports and spaceliners and the like. But most were gunmetal gray with the blue ramscoops and red field emitters of the Reich's feared warships. All had the swastika of the Party and State emblazoned on them and a number had the twin lightning bolt-shaped “S” letters marking a ship in operation by the Schutzstaffel.

    One ship completed its approach to a docking port. On the bridge of the cruiser Reich's Glory, Kapitän-des-Raumes Joachim Lamper noted their arrival in his log. "Frigattenkapitän, make sure all wounded are offloaded," he ordered his Executive Officer, Frigattenkapitän Hermann Falk.

    The dark-haired Neusachsenische replied with a nod. "Jawohl, Kapitän."

    "And do not let that little creature Geisser avoid giving us the replenishment we need," Lamper continued, moving toward the lift. "We need every torpedo and missile we can get from the fleet locker."

    "You can rely on me, Kapitän Lamper," Falk swore.

    A mere nod was Falk's reply from Lamper. The older man stepped into the lift and barked the proper command to head to Deck 7. From there he moved through the spartan halls of his ship, ducking compartment beams and accepting salutes from his loyal crew. He noted their devotion with pride, pride that he had brought them through so many battles. After the Nebula, as costly as it had been, it had seemed like victories would never end… but of course the Alliance had recovered. And more than recovered....

    He moved beside one blackened area. Specks of blood were still visible. One of his crew had his skull smashed at this spot during the last battle near Grodni 3. Those Klingon beasts had torpedoed the Reich's Glory quite extensively in the action. That their "Birds-of-Prey" had succumbed to his tactics and disruptor fire did not erase the fact that his ship had taken damage and casualties. Fifty dead, Lamper contemplated bitterly. We are reaping a bitter harvest in death for this war. And it will not get any better.

    A chief petty officer saluted him on his way off the ship and obediently logged his departure from the ship. Once through the airlock Lamper started walking down the wide terminal bay for the line of docks his ship had connected to. A passing anti-grav transported stopped. A young woman, a brunette with freckles, saluted him. He recognized her dark uniform; the womens' auxiliary for the Raumkriegsmarine. Women could not serve in combat capacities, obviously, but German women dedicated to serving their Fatherland were found places in the auxiliaries as clerks, secretaries, drivers, galley cooks in central bases… anywhere that combat was not a persistent possibility. "Kapitän", she called out. "Do you need a ride?"

    "Ja." He nodded politely and accepted the seat beside her. This made the journey to the central areas of the New Austria Naval Base far faster than he had anticipated. So much the better; he wanted to report to Admiral von der Goltz as soon as he could.

    The trip was still on the slow side. Other anti-grav vehicles were carrying stores and supplies to be transferred to ships, allowing power from transporter use to be conserved only for high priority cargo transport. And yet more vehicles carried personnel, bright-eyed young men being taken to ships as replacement crew. Lamper wondered how many were bound for his vessel to replace the men who had died in the past weeks.

    Once they were out of the docking areas their journey became swifter. The Base had a commercial area full of civilians, young Germans and those of trusted nationalities who were permitted residence on German military outposts, all seeking better opportunities providing services to the fighting men of the Raumkriegsmarine. Their uniforms gave Lamper and his driver the right of way on their trip. Within minutes they had crossed this section of the commercial areas to arrive at the administrative sections. Here Lamper took leave of his young driver, who blushed with thanks at his praise of her ability. She drove off and he entered the nearest lift, taking him all the way to the peak of this section of the station. A tower jutting out of the toroid-shaped main body of the Base.

    Every door on the level belonged to an admiral. Logistics staff admirals, planners, chiefs of staff to fleet commanders, it went on. And, alone among the most important, was the office marked as belonging to Admiral Georg von der Goltz, commander of 5. Raumkampfflotte. An older blonde greeted him, also in the uniform of the auxiliary, and waved Lamper in.

    Admiral von der Goltz was looking over reports at his desk. The commander of the battle fleet to which Reich's Glory was assigned looked up as Lamper came to attention and raised his arm in salute. "Sieg Heil," he declared.

    "Heil Sauckel," von der Goltz answered, hand raised at his desk. "Be seated, Kapitän."

    Lamper did so. He knew better than to inquire; the Admiral would speak when he deigned to, not a moment earlier.

    "Your performance at Grodni 3 has won the approval of Vizeadmiral Haus," von der Goltz stated finally. He looked up from his digital reader. "He has submitted your name for consideration for a Ritterkreuz."

    "It was a simple action, sir. I do not consider my victory of sufficient weight or skill to warrant high praise."

    "Well-spoken, Kapitän." The older man appraised Lamper with light blue eyes. Brown hair had long darkened to wolfish gray, now growing white at his brow. "Whether or not the commendation goes through, the promotion will."

    "Promotion, sir?"

    "As of the first of the month, yes." Von der Goltz cracked a slight smile. "Congratulations, Flottenkapitän. You will take command of 12. Kreuzergeschwader, to be led by Reich's Glory. Effective at the end of the month."

    Lamper remained quiet for a moment. He had not sought such a promotion, at least not yet, and had assumed that his past conflicts with the SS would poison the ability of the RKM to promote him. "I am honored, Herr Admiral. I will redouble my efforts to protect the Reich."

    "I know you will." Von der Goltz put his hands together. "But before your promotion and new assignment come into effect, you and your vessel have another assignment to fulfill."

    "Admiral?"

    "You have been requested for special duty, Kapitän," the admiral explained. "I do not expect it will be pleasurable, however."

    Lamper knew what that meant. "The Schutzstaffel."

    "Indeed."

    The new voice came from the corner of the room. Lamper had not paid attention to the office, having seen it before, and so he had not noticed the extra occupant. The black-suited man turned.

    "Sturmbannführer Fassbinder," Lamper said evenly. He noted the change in the rank insignia on his former SS detachment commander. "Or rather Obersturmbannführer. Congratulations, Fassbinder, I am sure the SS has been quite pleased with your performance."

    "Of course," the SS man replied. His piercing blue eyes focused on Lamper, as if to emphasize his genetically-engineered Aryan appearance. "As the RKM has with your own. Your victory over the barbarian beasts the Alliance has drawn into the war will do much to pave our way to conquest."

    Lamper felt bemusement at that. Conquest? Against a foe whose homeland was safely protected by the unbreachable barrier between universes? The Alliance's security measures to protect their IU drives from being salvaged from destroyed ships were quite effective, so the idea that the Reich could strike back for the moment was farfetched…

    Or was it? There was something in Fassbinder's eyes, a glint of triumph that had to be more than typical SS arrogance.

    Could he be wrong? Could the SS have found a way to unlock the enemy's technology? If so… Lamper reeled at the prospects before him. We may actually win the war.

    "The SS will be commencing an operation soon," Fassbinder continued. "It will be led by Oberführer Eicke from the Eichmann. We will require your ship to provide additional escort for the Eichmann."

    Lamper took that with surprise. "Truly? The SS, with all of its own ships, lacks sufficient cruisers to protect one of their dreadnoughts? You must come to the RKM for aid?"

    "We have our own operations to consider, Kapitän. Our forces are spread thin in relation to these operations, many of them critical to our victory in this war." Fassbinder's smile was sharp with enjoyment. Lamper knew he was enjoying being able to drag Lamper and his crew around.

    "The orders come straight from Oberst-Gruppenführer Lammers," von der Goltz informed Lamper.

    Lamper nodded. Lammers was one of the highest ranking officers of the SS. Moreso, he was chief of staff for the Führer himself. If Lammers was directing this operation, it meant that this had the Führer's personal attention.

    Which did nothing, admittedly, to make Lamper feel better about this.

    "My ship is at your disposal, Obersturmbannführer," Lamper said. "We will require repairs and crew replacements, but it should not take us long to be ready for action."

    "Take your time, Kapitän, we still have some time before departure." Fassbinder nodded. "In the meantime, I will be pleased to reacquaint myself with your ship and to check on Sturmbannführer Stammel's progress."

    "Of course." Lamper looked to von der Goltz. "May I depart, Herr Admiral? My ship requires attention to ensure we are fully prepared for the coming mission."

    "You are dismissed, Kapitän."

    Lamper left immediately. He felt the need to, reeling as he was with everything being set into motion. I am promoted, I may get a Ritterkreuz... but first I must endure the SS and their schemes. Damn it all.
     
  19. Threadmarks: 1-17-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    D -9 Days


    Robert and Julia were quiet observers to the discussion going on in Science Lab 2. Jarod, Data, Scotty, Caterina, and Lucy were arrayed around a central table. And now they were joined by Commander La Forge. "You're going to need a stronger material to handle the power draw," La Forge observed, looking over the holographic design over the central table. "Otherwise the entire thing will melt down within a minute."

    "We don't need it to be active for longer than a minute," Jarod reminded him. "Anything heavier and we'll have to bulk out the anchor probe. The jammers will have a harder time protecting them."

    "What if you…"

    As the engineers and science people continued to fuss over Jarod's concept of a deployable probe that could act as an IU drive anchor, Robert gave a side glance to Julia. "Are you following a word of this?"

    "As much as I can," she answered. Louder, she asked, "Is this possible or not?"

    The talking ceased. And everyone nodded. "It'll take some work," La Forge said, "but give us a few days and we can have dozens of these things replicated before you're scheduled to leave. We just have to work the kinks out."

    "That's good enough for me."




    D -8 Days


    The skyline of the Minbari planet Tuzanor was a sight to see, full of fine crystalline spires. It made Meridina almost wish she was there.

    "The negotiations continue to go well," Ledosh said. "A number of the Alliance species of this universe are ready to begin trade with us. President Sheridan has been most magnanimous…"

    "I am pleased your mission continues so well, Mastrash."

    "Was there anything else you wished to report?" He asked. In a very delicate tone of voice.

    Meridina swallowed. "Captain Dale… has shown indications of further awakening of his swevyra."

    Ledosh digested that news. "I see. What have you told him?"

    "It is not fully awake yet. I informed him that it could, or that he could keep it asleep. He seemed inclined to the latter." Meridina found she could not keep the disappointment out of her voice. Her eyes went over to the open tome on her desk.

    "I am not surprised. It is his choice, of course. Do not lose heart. The future has yet to be written. There is no telling what it might bring." Ledosh smiled thinly. "I have some happier news for you, though. I have taken a new student, one who has volunteered to join our Order." Ledosh looked offscreen and nodded.

    A woman appeared in the image. Meridina recognized her immediately and smiled gently. "Gina Invieve," she said softly. "I am delighted, if surprised, to see you in those robes."

    The Humaniform Cylon woman nodded. "I didn't want to tell you until it was certain," she said. "But it is. I have your gifts. And I wish to use them as you have, Meridina. I can protect life, as I believe God would truly intend for me."

    Meridina nodded. "I understand. Mastrash Ledosh will help you achieve your full potential. Just as he did with me."

    "You flatter your old teacher, Meridina, and do not reflect enough on the fact that you were a superb and talented student," Ledosh countered. "I wish you and the Aurora crew the best. Do not worry of the future, it will tend to itself. Mi rake sa swevyra iso, Meridina. May the Light illuminate your path."

    "Mi rake sa swevyra iso, Mastrash, Gina." Meridina nodded. "I look forward to the day when you take your place as a swevyra'se, Gina. It will pave the way for your people to come to the Light."

    The Cylon nodded, her smile still on her face. The two disappeared from the image.

    Meridina went back to the security reports she was going through. She barely had time to finish the first page before the door chime sounded. At her call of "You may enter", the door slid open and Lucy entered. She was still in uniform instead of the training garb that she might have otherwise worn given the time. "You are finished with the others?", Meridina asked.

    "We have a final design. Commander La Forge, Data, Scotty, and Jarod are overseeing the manufacturing so I can get on to other things." Lucy looked around Meridina's quarters. She spotted the book on the desk and went over to it. "This is beautiful writing," Lucy said. "What's the language?"

    "An older dialect from Swenya's time." Meridina gently took the book and closed it. "It contains ancient wisdom of the Grand Foundress."

    "I'd enjoy getting to read it some day." Lucy stood beside Meridina while she put the book away. "But that's not why I came here."

    "And not for training either?"

    "Actually, I was going to say I wanted to work on that issue Data found. The transmissions going out."

    "We have yet to find an origin point on the ship," Meridina stated. "It would appear that whomever is sending the transmissions knows how our protocols work."

    "I figured that. But there's more than one way to find out what's going on."

    Meridina considered it. And her instincts, her swevyra, told her that Lucy joining the investigation would be of value. She nodded. "Very well. Let us return to my office, I will bring up the relevant logs for you."

    Lucy nodded. "Great. I'll get right to work. I'd like to get this all sorted out before the week's up." That was, before they went off to rejoin the war.




    D -7 Days


    Leo sighed with contented relief at the inventory list before him. He had gone straight to the Stellar Navy Medical Command offices in Tacoma to ensure complete replenishment of his stocks, and this time he'd gotten it. Combined with what Dr. Hobbs had fabricated for him during the visit to B5, the medbay was now fully stocked and ready for prolonged operations.

    About damn time, Leo pondered. He looked out at the medbay and its empty biobeds. Save for a couple cases from bruised bodies from a rugby match between their crew and one from the British Stellar Union cruiser Spartiate, the crew had not required his services since their return to L2M1 Earth. His medical staff was using the time for some much-needed rest and preparation for the trouble to come.

    With nothing better to do Leo typed in commands in the ship medical system, preparing to give a call to New Liberty to see how his colleagues from the Facility days were doing. Before the call could go through he had one from the bridge. Jupap's voice chirped primly over the comm line. "Doctor Gillam, I have an active call from Commander Carrey, and you're the only one I can reach right now."

    Leo smiled thinly. "Pipe him down here, Jupap. And remember, you're due for that blood test later."

    "Of course, Doctor. I will be there by 1800 hours. Jupap out."

    Leo sighed contentedly at that. Jupap, and most of his people, actually seemed to prefer getting medical checkups out of the way, a far cry from the Human (and Dorei) tendency to avoid them.

    A moment later Zack popped up on the computer screen on his desk. "Hey, Leo, its been a while", Zack said cheerfully. "I guess you're the only one who can talk to me right now?"

    "Just about." Leo smiled and nodded. "Rob's in planning sessions with the allied commanders. Julia's running around getting crew replacements trained and ready and doing all the other stuff people need done. Angel's running tactical simulations, Cat and Commander Data are going over the Darglan databanks are helping Jarod and the engineers… it’s pretty hectic here, honestly, unless you're in the medbay."

    "Well, here we are then. I guess you're going back to the war?"

    Leo nodded.

    Zack visibly sighed. "Damn. There goes my sleep."

    "I'm sure you've got your own things to worry about, Zack, don't worry about us," Leo urged him.

    "Leo, everything out here is fine. The Cylons are still staying away and we're just a couple of jumps away from the Dorei frontier. You guys are heading off to fight the damn Nazis again. And I should…" Zack caught himself.

    Leo nodded in understanding. He knew how that sentence would have ended. "We'll handle things on this end, Zack, alright?" Leo thought for a moment. Time to change the subject, I guess. "How have you been doing? Julia mentioned that Clara ended up out there?"




    After the conversation was over, Zack looked away from his desktop computer screen and stared off into space for a moment. I got what I wanted, alright, he pondered to himself. He'd wanted to leave, to spread his wings, and he had. He'd worked closely with Adama, he and his crew had conducted multiple scouting missions on their own and trained with the Colonial forces, and now, on top of all that, he'd turned most of the children in the Fleet into baseball fans....

    ...and he was with Clara. As many times as their schedules could manage, for dinner and a night of making love in one of the suites on Cloud 9. For the past several weeks, he'd been happier than he'd been in years.

    But now it gnawed at him. His friends were going off into what would be the most harrowing battle of their lives. And he wouldn't be there to watch their back, to make sure they came out of this safely, to give them the backup they might need…

    He let that thought linger for a moment. And then his thoughts turned into ideas. Ideas that grew more concrete as the minutes passed.

    There was a tone over the intercom. "Commander, sir, they're ready to beam you over to Galactica for this week's meeting." Apley's voice barely seemed to reach him. "Commander?"

    Finally Zack moved. "Tell them I'm going to be a couple minutes late. I need to discuss something with Tom and Karen." He hit a key on his desk to cut the line and hit a second to open another one. "Commander Carrey here. Lieutenant Derbely, Lieutenant Barnes, please report to my office immediately. I have something to discuss with you."




    D -5 Days


    Caterina had the last of her breakfast strudel in her mouth when she arrived at Science Lab 1 for the morning. Data was already present. Captain Picard and Commander La Forge were standing near him. All turned to face her. She stopped chewing and forced the mouthful down with a hard gulp. "Uh… good morning…?", she said, sheepish.

    Picard smiled gently. "Good morning, Lieutenant."

    "Um… did you need me to get Capt…"

    "We're just here discussing this find with Mister Data," Picard assured her. He looked back to the data on the screen. It was from the Darglan databanks, showing imagery of the Darglan capitol world. The orange-complexioned, tall-skulled aliens were walking around in multitudes, clad in clothing of various colors amid buildings of brilliant azure sheen.

    "Oh. Yes, we recently got that video file out. It's an old presentation of Darglan urban planning concepts," Cat answered.

    "So it is." Picard let out a sigh. "Such a brilliant culture. I only wish there was more of them to examine."

    "Yeah." Cat's voice betrayed her sadness. "What the Shadows did to their Homeworld, it wasn't…" She swallowed.

    La Forge was looking over the same screen Data was. "Data, this is amazing. I'm surprised these databanks are working so well. The amount of raw computer information you're processing is a lot for using a tertiary computer system."

    "Well, it might be the Darglan computer technology being designed to interface with itself at maximum efficiency," Cat proposed. "Not that Data hasn't been brilliant!" She took a seat beside Data and looked up at the Starfleet captain. "Captain Picard?"

    Picard seemed to come out of his reverie for a moment. "One of my regrets was never getting to visit that remarkable Facility you and your friends operated out of, Lieutenant. I never had the chance to consult with the information it must have had on such a remarkable species, the potential it had for furthering exploration…" He looked at her with sad eyes. "...and to think we will likely end up destroying this Facility as well."

    "Maybe we won't have to," Cat suggested. "Maybe we can secure it from invasion and use it."

    "It would be nice."

    "Yeah." Cat felt an old pain flare up inside of her and couldn't keep it out of her voice.

    "Lieutenant?"

    "Sorry." She shook her head. A tear was in her eye. "I was just thinking about Control. The Darglan AI that ran the Facility. He helped me go through their records and learn a lot about what they had found in the Multiverse. He was destroyed when we lost the Facility to the Daleks. He and Captain Farmer and al-Qiba and Simon and..." She stopped as the tears built in her eyes. She remembered seeing the Daleks kill her science team. The terror they had kept her in when they tried to make her free them from the Facility quarantine.

    "You have my condolences, Lieutenant," Picard said gently. "I see these are painful memories for you."

    It took Caterina a few more moments to regain her composure. "Thank you," she said. "Is there anything else I can help you with?"

    "A team of scientists from the Coalition are coming tomorrow to remove the databanks to be studied elsewhere," Picard explained. "I'll be leading the examination team with Commander La Forge. I just wanted to see what progress you and Data have made so far."

    Cat nodded at that. As much as she wished she could continue deciphering what was in the databanks, taking them into battle with the Nazis was too much risk. She understood that they had to be removed. "Well, we've managed to defragment or decrypt about fifteen percent of the data in the drive so far..."




    A crowd had gathered in the gymnasium. And given what she was feeling, Lucy could figure out why.

    It wasn't just the sensation she got whenever Meridina used her own extensive life force abilities. It was also that strange, distorted sense that rippled through her whenever Shepard's biotic powers were in use. Lucy was thus not too surprised to see that the two of them were in the boxing ring, Shepard in exercise wear - sports bra and gym shorts colored with System Alliance blue - and Meridina in a tight-fitting purple bodysuit.

    Blue energy flared around Shepard and released itself in a wave of bolts that knocked Meridina back into the ropes. Shepard ran up into punching range and threw several expert punches, her form reminding Lucy of both Julia and Angel in their fighting styles, that were carefully blocked or avoided by Meridina. Shepard seemed to realize her opponent could see the blows coming before they were thrown, so she adjusted, going faster and throwing quicker strikes. Meridina's ability to sense where blows were coming still helped, but she had less time to react, and a couple of the jabs landed on her torso.

    But Meridina wasn't just staying on defense. She had been biding her time, waiting for the right moment. It came when Shepard threw a punch toward her face. Meridina ducked the blow and extended her arm outward. An invisible blow from her energy threw Shepard all the way back to the opposite ropes. Meridina gathered her strength and reached out with her power again, lifting Shepard into the air and tossing her into the corner. And then the next corner. And then...

    …and then Shepard's arm flailed out. Space twisted and a bolt of biotic dark matter flew out and slammed into Meridina. It didn't just knock her back, though, but instead propelled her into the air toward where Meridina was holding her up. Shepard orientated herself in mid-air toward Meridina and, in the moment as Meridina let go of her, shot forward like a thunderbolt on a wake of biotic energy. She crashed into Meridina and both went flying over the ropes and onto the mat outside the ropes.

    Lucy rushed ahead of everyone, concerned for their well-being, and came up on the two exhausted combatants. Meridina and Shepard were sprawled out beside each other. Their chests heaved with the heavy, panting breaths they were taking. They looked at each other.

    "Draw?", Shepard finally proposed between pants.

    "A draw… yes," Meridina agreed.

    Lucy sighed and knelt beside them. "Should I call Leo or…?"

    "Nothing's broken," Shepard said. "We're fine."

    "Well, once you're ready to pick yourselves back up from the ground…"




    Julia was escorting the uniformed System Alliance officer from the Kilimanjaro when they arrived at the Lookout. "This is our crew lounge area," she explained. "And there…"

    There was a table where Meridina, Lucy, and Commander Shepard were taking a lunch. Shepard looked their way first. A pleased smile came to her face and she stood from the chair. "Mom?"

    Commander Hannah Shepard was returning the smile, waiting for her daughter to finish approaching and accept a hug. "Jen." The older woman was of a lighter complexion than Shepard's tanned bronze. Red hair as rich as her daughter's was kept in a regulation military bun. The resemblance between the two was easily noticeable, although Hannah's nose had a different shape, and her cheekbones were more visible.

    "I'm glad you got to visit."

    "Just for a while. I'm due back on the Kilimanjaro in three hours. We're jumping back home to meet up with the Fifth Fleet." The elder Shepard held her daughter's arms. "But I couldn't leave without checking up on my little girl."

    "It's great to see you again." Shepard directed her mother over to the table. Albert was already stepping up with lunch - he had added a plate, Julia noticed, undoubtedly at Hargert's order - and waited patiently while introductions to Lucy and Meridina were offered.

    With that task done, Julia went over to the bar and took a seat. She looked back and felt bittersweet feelings at the reunion of the Shepards.

    It wasn't often she thought about her parents. It hurt so much when she did, that wasn't surprising.

    "Ah, Commander." Hargert was standing opposite from her at the bar. "Guten Tag."

    "Guten Tag," she answered amiably. "What's for lunch? I think I could use your sausage stew."

    "Not today," he said. "I'm saving that for before we depart. A pre-battle meal to lift everyone's spirits. No, today we have pickled ham, some curry and rice…"

    Julia let him finish listing out the prepared meal for the day before she asked, "So, you'll cook our final meal before you disembark?"

    "Oh, no, not at all," he said. "I have no intention of leaving."

    Julia shook her head. "You probably should, Hargert. The fighting in July was bad enough. We're going into what might be the biggest battle of the war so far."

    "I know," the old German said. "And that is why I must remain. Albert and the others will be disembarking, yes, but I can run this place by myself for a short time. Long enough for us to win."

    "You're sure?"

    "Very sure, Commander." Hargert smiled thinly. "I have done much of what I wanted to do with life. I would rather spend what little time I have following my heart, not being a miser with what time I have left."

    "I… understand, I think," Julia said. She gave him a smile. "At least we can look forward to good meals then."

    "Always," Hargert promised.



    D -4 Days



    Locarno's morning took him to the Lookout for breakfast. He sat one table over from Scotty, Jarod, and Cat, who were still talking about the anchor probes they would be using at New Austria.

    He was only part of the way through his breakfast when someone walked up. "Is this chair open?", Captain Picard asked.

    Locarno looked at him intently for a moment. And then he nodded. Picard sat down with a breakfast plate of his own. "Mister Hargert is a fine cook," the older man noted before taking a bite and chewing on it.

    "The best." Locarno waited for Picard to swallow before setting his fork down and looking at the man who had done so much to destroy his Starfleet prospects. "I'm surprised you're still aboard, Captain. We're departing for our jump out location this afternoon."

    "I will be leaving in a couple of hours," Picard revealed. "I am simply awaiting your Miss Delgado's reports on the 33LA data." He nodded over to where Cat was laughing at something Jarod said. Scotty was shaking his head with a bemused smile. "You seem to have done well for yourself, Mister Locarno."

    "I've survived." Locarno tried, and failed, to keep some of the anger from his voice.

    Picard noticed that. "I find it hard to believe you are angry with me over the exposure of your own mistakes."

    "No." Locarno shook his head. "No. I made those mistakes. And I've spent three years trying to atone for them. To try to… make right what happened to Joshua." He turned his head slightly to direct his eyes at Picard. "But that's not why I'm mad as hell at you, Captain."

    Picard seemed to consider it for a moment. A pained look came over his face when he figured it out. "Ensign Sito," he sighed.

    "You sent Jaxa to her death," Locarno charged.

    "You know as well as I do what it means to be in Starfleet. The risks that we might take. She knew those risks. She volunteered."

    "Did she volunteer because it had to be done? Or because she felt she had something to prove?" Locarno felt a deep sense of loss welling up within him.

    "You have my condolences for what happened to her. She was a fine officer, she did Starfleet proud," Picard insisted. "If you think for a moment that I caused that to happen to her, that I wanted to see her harmed, you don't know me very well at all, Mister Locarno."

    There was silence for several moments. The anger in Locarno's mind, his heart, was joined by a deep sense of grief and pain. "I sent her messages," he admitted. "I sent them to everyone. Inviting them to join me and the others. A new life for them. No judgements for what happened to Josh. Maybe if I'd been more persuasive…"

    "Lieutenant." Picard kept his voice calm and level. "It's never easy to lose comrades. It's even harder to lose those you feel responsible for. I know how much you cared for the cadets in Nova Squadron. Regardless of the mistakes made, once the truth was brought out, your willingness to sacrifice your own future for their sake was admirable. And I think you have a fine future ahead of you here, in the Alliance. So, I would ask you to consider my words carefully. Sito Jaxa died doing something noble. She went into a difficult situation knowing what might happen and did so because, as a Starfleet officer, she felt it was her duty. Whatever happened, it was not because she was pushed into believing it was necessary for some form of atonement over Joshua Albert's death. Sito Jaxa died as a hero, Lieutenant. You don't do her any service by thinking her a mere victim of your old mistakes."

    Locarno listened to those words. Picard had hit it right on mark; he had to fight that feeling of guilt, that Jaxa had gotten herself killed trying to make up for what Locarno had persuaded them all to do. "Alright," he said. His voice was hoarse with emotion. "I understand." He pushed his plate away; with the way he felt right now, his appetite was gone.

    As he stood up, he looked to Picard. "And Wes?"

    "Wesley is…" Picard sighed and smiled gently. "...he is pursuing another destiny."

    "Right." Locarno nodded. "Good for him, then."

    With nothing left to say, Locarno left the Lookout.




    The completed probes were laid out in the shuttle bay "Ready for testing," La Forge said, looking over his console. "Firing thrusters."

    The two probes shifted and lifted into the air on twin jets of blue energy. Under Commander La Forge's guidance the two black objects flew out the back of the secondary shuttle bay, built into the bottom of the drive hull.

    "All thrusters check out normal," Jarod observed.

    "Jump anchor is givin' an all clear," Scotty added. "Jammin' probes at full power… now."

    For a moment there was nothing. A voice came over the intercom after the silence. "Delgado here," Caterina said from the bridge. "The jamming field is up. I can't get an accurate sensor fix on either probe."

    "Scotty, I'm detecting a slight variance in the jamming field emissions," La Forge said.

    "Aye. We'll have t' adjust th' model with more bandwidth."

    "You should have enough spare power for that." La Forge looked to Jarod and Scotty with a grin. "It looks like we did it. Your probes are working."

    "We need just one last test." Jarod hit a few keys. "Sending out the request. We're getting an answer…"

    Behind the Aurora space split open. The ship that emerged was recognizable to Jarod and Scotty, eminently so. "Bridge to Secondary Shuttle Bay." Julia's voice came over the radio. "The Kirby gives its regards. The test worked."

    "Thanks, Commander," Jarod answered. "We're wrapping things up here." He looked to the others. "We did it." Upon standing he offered his hand to La Forge. "Commander La Forge, we couldn't have done it without you."

    Knowing full well they could have, La Forge nevertheless accepted the compliment. "Thanks. It was a pleasure to work with you both on the project." He smiled at them. "Take care of yourselves out there."

    "Th' same t' ye, Geordi. After all…" Scotty's eye twinkled. "...there'll be another Enterprise soon enough, an' she'll be needin' a chief engineer."

    La Forge's smile became an enthusiastic grin. "Here's hoping."




    "Captain Picard!"

    Picard had been about to enter the Transporter Station to depart when he heard Robert's voice. Robert was almost running when he approached. Given his youth and fitness, he didn't sound winded when he said, "Captain, I need to ask you something."

    "Yes?"

    Robert nodded his head toward one side. They stepped into an adjoining corridor in the ship to be alone. "I wanted to ask for your input on something," Robert said. "It concerns our plans for what might happen at New Austria."

    "You have my full attention."

    Robert led him down the corridor fully until they arrived in a set of open state quarters. One of the handful of VIP quarters available on the ship, much as the Enterprise had contained. Once the door was locked behind them, Robert laid out some of the plans they'd been making. Picard nodded in quiet affirmation. "Given your likely tactical situation when you arrive in the system, you have accounted for everything that is possible."

    "I think we can give the fleet an even better tactical situation, and a chance to eliminate any enemy force sent out to catch us. But that's why I've come to you."

    "Oh?" Picard thought on that. "You…"

    Robert asked him his intended questions. Picard's brow furrowed. "It will be risky. What you propose has not been attempted before."

    "But will it work? I imagine that you, of all people…"

    Picard nodded. "I would recommend having Mister Data take over your navigation. That would enhance your chances to an acceptable level."

    "I thought so." Robert nodded and extended a hand. "Thank you, Captain Picard. Good luck with that Darglan database."

    Picard accepted his offered hand. "Bon voyage, Captain. I'll see you again after the battle."




    The familiar gunmetal gray halls of the Eichmann filled Obersturmbannführer Fassbinder with pride. He walked through the decks of the ship, surrounded by the finest Aryans in the Reich, and was reminded of his place in the vanguard of the Race. He could feel the power around him, an invigorating coolness that sharpened the senses and reminded him of purpose. His heart swelled with pleasing hatred for that which stood opposed to the glorious destiny of the Race, the Party, and the Reich. The alien, the untermensch, the foreigner, the traitor… the Schutzstaffel stood ready to deal with them all.

    And the Alliance… provided an enjoyable merger of all those enemies into one body.

    He entered the wardroom as directed. "Heil Sauckel!", he declared, arm raised ramrod straight.

    "Heil Sauckel!", other voices declared. Like he, they were all model Aryans. Blond-haired, blue-eyed, well-muscled and fit, epitomies of the perfection of the Race.

    Fassbinder walked into the room and took his place at the table. All eyes were on the Eichmann's commander, Oberführer Eicke. His countenance burned with ferocity. Even among the SS, his hatred for the enemies of the Reich was legendary for its fierceness. He had once provoked war with the Kameli species in his efforts to slaughter Remnants. His devotion to finally fulfilling the centuries-long pursuit of the Final Solution was the stuff that the Party made legends out of, even if his great count of annihilated Jews had been marred by his recent defeat and the escape of the last Jews to another universe.

    At the hands of Dale and his crew, added Fassbinder mentally. If only Lamper had destroyed them in the Nebula…

    "Obersturmbannführer." Eicke kept his hands together on the table. "Report."

    "Stammel and his people have been informed of our plan," Fassbinder said.

    "And…" Eicke scowled. "...Lamper?"

    "He knows little. But he is not entirely foolish. I suspect the purpose of our mission will come to him before long."

    "Of course." Eicke nodded. "All we await now is the necessary conditions."

    "Will the enemy do as expected? Do they even suspect?"

    "We have indications of their interest in this region of space," Eicke answered simply. "They know what is here. They will move soon, that I am sure of. Every day our ships get closer to the discovery. They cannot allow this. So they will act." Eicke's lips curled into a snarl. "But that is not why I arranged your promotion, Fassbinder, nor why I assigned you to my command for this operation."

    Fassbinder was already quite certain of that fact. "You believe the enemy will send the Aurora."

    "It is clearly used for special missions. Its disappearance from the frontlines corresponded with the arrival of the Klingons and a surge in Alliance reinforcements. Now we have word of even more alien vessels appearing in Alliance space. A spying vessel was recently destroyed near Leuwewelt by patrols. The recovered bodies were of some sort of amphibian-like species. And our interception of Alliance civilian channels indicates that a species called the Turians are said to be deploying ships."

    "They were sent to gain allies, then."

    "And the Alliance will undoubtedly employ them to beat us to the prize." Eicke's blue eyes burned with hatred. "And I do so hope they do. I wish to see that ship burn for what they have done. Of the victory they robbed us of."

    Fassbinder had his own thoughts. That feeling he had, that since meeting the Aurora his destiny had been laid out, and that the ship was the key to it. "Recovering the vessel intact may also be a boon."

    "Perhaps. But their crew will burn." Eicke put his hands on the table. "Now, Obersturmbannführer, tell me everything you know, everything you may have overlooked in your report to the Reichsführer."




    After the briefing Fassbinder retired to his quarters. They were spartan enough, barely furnished, with a hard cot to sleep on. Creature comforts would only soften the edges of an SS man, after all; power came from struggle, be it a fight or the struggle to endure in cramped living conditions.

    His one luxury was the line of books. The Great Hitler's books, of course, written before his rise to power and later after he won the Second Great War with England and France and broke the Bolsheviks of Russia. Works from all of the greats, the founders of the Party, and those from great leaders since then.

    Destiny. That is what they made him think of. The Destiny of the Race, of the Reich. Only now had it become so clear. They were special, after all. Alone, out of the infinite reaches of the Multiverse, they had conquered all before them. Their Germany alone had proven fit to fulfill the First Führer's vision and build the Thousand Year Reich.

    Fassbinder's mind dwelled on that. He remembered that old gelding, that German man from the Aurora. "Hargert", they had called him. The smoldering disgust in his eyes, the way he had rejected Fassbinder, rejected everything he believed in, everything that was supposed to be. And that was how the Germans of the other universes felt. Wherever a German was taken in the Alliance service, it seemed there was nothing but cowards or traitors.

    They are not Germans, Fassbinder insisted to himself. They are not! They are fakes! Unworthy of the name of our people, our Race!

    That fury felt good. The thoughts of what he would do to people like Hargert. He retired to his bed with those thoughts.

    Good thoughts to go into the dreams with. The dreams of power, of glory, of burning worlds and the hakenkreuz flying in glorious victory, of Robert Dale and his crew broken at Fassbinder's feet…

    ...the dreams of his destiny.




    The nightmare was a new one.

    It came to Robert in bits and flashes. The Aurora bridge filled with smoke, battle-damaged. Visions of the others in what looked like Facility Control, under fire from Reich troopers. He watched them rush around, trying to hold on, trying to buy time for… something...

    He saw Meridina dead. Shepard unconscious. Data laid out against a console, a smoking, charred hole in his torso.

    And the Aurora. The bridge roof and wall disappeared. He was holding onto a hand, a grip that was failing…

    ...and he saw Julia, pulled into space, screaming wordlessly as she was expelled to the horrible cold death in the vacuum.

    Robert woke up screaming, "Julie!"

    A hand pressed to his side. Angel sat up beside him. "Another one?"

    For a moment he processed his thoughts, sleep-dulled as they were. Finally he nodded. "New one," he croaked.

    Angel nodded wordlessly and leaned against him. "Settle down. Go back to sleep. It'll be fine. Don't worry, it'll all be okay."

    He nodded stiffly. The images had been so real. And that realness to them was filling him with a sense of dread. Was something going to go wrong on the mission?

    Was he going to make a bad call again?
     
  20. Threadmarks: 1-17-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    D -3 Days


    Lucy woke up extraordinarily early. This was not entirely by her desire; she'd had nightmares about Nazi armored troopers and Patrick Duffy's torture dungeon and a general sense of unease.

    Realizing she wasn't getting back to sleep, Lucy got ready for the day and went to Science Lab 1. Why she went there and not to the gym for morning training or the Outlook for an early breakfast… well, that was something she was still contemplating.

    The Lab would have been empty under other occasions. The civilian scientist contingent had been disembarked over the course of the week and all projects were currently on hold. And with the Darglan database removed to the Archer for Captain Picard's team to continue analyzing, there was nothing special left to do in here. Even more analysis of the 33LA data hadn't granted anything more than more known universal coordinates.

    Yet there was someone present. Lucy recognized the Starfleet uniform immediately. "Commander Data?"

    Data looked back at her. "Ah. Good morning, Lieutenant Lucero."

    "Don't you ever sleep?"

    Data's response was immediate. "Only if I desire to. How may I help you?"

    "I just…" Lucy sighed. "I just… a thought, I guess. About the computer systems."

    "Does this pertain to the secret messages that have been discovered?"

    "No. I'm looking into that myself, actually, and making some progress on the how, if not the who." Lucy shook her head and took a nearby seat. "No, I just have this feeling of… missing something."

    "What do you believe you are missing?", Data inquired.

    "There's just something about this. About the computers." Lucy tapped keys and brought coding up. "I mean, is this Darglan technology doing things we didn't anticipate? First the Cylon virus that we defeated gets the digital equivalent of a gutting inside the auxiliary core. Then the core decodes the database and finds just what we need?"

    Data considered that. "Do you suspect there is an issue with the auxiliary core? I can initiate a diagnostic or a complete core restore."

    "No. No, that's too much work with just a couple of days left for us. I just want to look things over." And try to get this sensation out of my head...




    The captain's stateroom on the Reich's Glory was barely any larger than the one Lamper had enjoyed as a Frigattenkapitän commanding the light cruiser Essen. Indeed, he knew it was barely smaller than the stateroom to be found on anything short of a dreadnought, and for good reason; every cubic meter devoted to personnel living quarters was a cubic meter not devoted to shield generators, armor support, weaponry, combat electronics… the things that made Reich warships so feared. This is why ships usually disgorged their crews into better living quarters on space stations or planetside bases when they were due in port for prolonged periods.

    But Lamper had nixed that. This was wartime, after all, and he needed every hand on board and ready should an action be required. Including himself.

    It was getting late in the local day when the call came, as he was finalizing commendation reports and new personnel reviews. He tapped a key on his personal computer and the screen flashed to show a cozy urban home. His family's home, back in Bremen on Earth.

    The family home. How long had it been since he had actually been there...?

    The woman on the screen was his age, with her brown hair pulled back into a ponytail on her head. "Guten Tag, brother," Gerda Lamper said.

    "Guten Tag, sister," he answered. "How is everyone?"

    "Little Joachim is doing well in school. Siegfried has just been promoted to officer of his troop in the Hitlerjugend."

    "And Maria?"

    That brought his sister a soft smile. "She had met a young man at the University, he has swept her right off of her feet."

    After hearing about how his niece and nephews were doing, Lamper moved on. "Is little Hilda still trouble?"

    Gerda sighed. "Our little sister may as well ask the Gestapo to pick her up. She has sent another series of letters. She is adamant that she should be permitted to serve."

    "The auxiliaries are always looking for new recruits."

    "But as you well know, Joachim, Hilda doesn't want to be an auxiliary, she wants to be an officer." Gerda shook her head. "And she refuses to take no for an answer. 'The enemy lets their women serve'."

    Gerda's switch to a higher pitch voice to mock their baby sister caused Lamper to chuckle. "My poor, sad sister," he said. Even as he did, he thought back to the meeting with the Aurora. Commander Andreys, the Lieutenants Delgado, and Commander Meridina… they all served, and all served well.

    But they are not us. Their service is not as brutal and strict as the Raumkriegsmarine. This work is not for women.

    Another member of the family popped into his mind. It was an inquiry that he had to make and dreaded. "How is Mama?"

    Gerda took in a breath. She looked distressed, confirming Lamper's worst fears. "There are still good days," she said, her voice full of false hope. "The doctors think that some time on the Riviera may do some good. Or perhaps America, if they clear the transporter use."

    He nodded. "I can send more pay to cover for it."

    "It may be our only hope left for Mama," Gerda said. "The way she is going, any day I expect to hear from the hospital that she had been listed for release."

    The thought was like a dagger in Lamper's heart. His dear mother wasting away like she was, that was pain enough. But to have her listed? To lose her while he was out here during this war? He wondered if he could get the Admiral to pull strings back in Germany to arrange that she stay off the list. She was the mother of a war veteran, after all. That always conferred special rewards and benefits.

    But what also hurt was the thought that it was probably for the best. His mother had lived a full and happy life. Instead of continuing to waste away, the State could show mercy by listing her. Ending her suffering before it grew. Before she could not even recognize her own grandchildren. Wasn't that how it had been done for Aunt Louisa?

    Lamper forced the tears back before they could start. "Whatever happens, Gerda, I support your decision. You will do what is best for Mama."

    "Thank you, Joachim."

    He checked the time. "I must go now. I have run out of my time. I'll send you more news with my weekly packet."

    "Of course. Auf Wiedersehen."

    "Auf Wiedersehen."


    D -1 Day


    Angel's hands flew furiously over her tactical console, finalizing targeting solutions and triggering the Aurora's weapons in rapid sequence. On her own displays she saw the indicators flash to indicate the damage she was inflicting on the Nazi battlecruiser. The Lutzow-class warship went red on the indicators under the barrage of the bow cannons.

    Further markers showed the approaching Z-2500 type destroyers. Angel kept up targeting solutions on them, rapidly firing off the phaser strips along the bow and port side They fired torpedoes and the Aurora evaded, forcing Angel to shift her targeting on the fly. Her pace quickened; her head ached a little as she thought through her firing plan, shifting capacitor draws and changing the rate of fire. The phasers intercepted a couple of enemy torpedoes that would have hit. She triggered the phaser cannons next; bursts of amber fury that would rip the Reich destroyers to pieces.

    Which they promptly did.

    Her entire board soon went clear. All enemy contacts were gone.

    And the female voice of the ship computer spoke. "Simulation complete. Resetting."

    The bridge's running lights shifted to standby alert, the default beginning. All of the others moved slightly to what they had been at the start of the battle.

    All save one.

    "Your accuracy has improved by six percent," Worf rumbled, looking over a digital reader. "And this time, no torpedo strikes were landed. Your performance has improved satisfactorily."

    "Well, so long as it's satisfactory, I guess that's good enough," Angel replied, grinning at her counterpart from the Enterprise crew. She stood up from her simulated tactical station.

    "I do question one thing," Worf continued. "You intentionally lowered the power output of your lateral phaser arrays. By doing so, you reduced the likelihood of shield penetrations. Please explain."

    "The Nazis use their Z-2500s like disposable cannon fodder in battles," Angel answered. "They race in to fire torpedoes and then race out, hoping that they don't get killed from the lack of strong shields or hull armor. I've found that their captains tend to be pretty aware of how easy it is for their ships to get killed. Throw enough fire at them and they'll focus more on evasive maneuvering than on targeting, and are more likely to fire their torpedoes early instead of getting in closer. So the important thing isn't power per shot but rate of fire."

    Worf nodded with approval. "A fine tactical assessment. It is in line with my own."

    Angel kept her grin up. "So, I guess this is it, then? We'll find out how well this training has done us tomorrow."

    "Indeed." The Klingon nodded. A distant look came over his eyes. "It will be a glorious battle."

    Angel's grin turned into a bit of a smirk. "It'll be a damn big one, at least."




    Commander Kane had a routine he liked to keep. Regardless of the scheduled inspections, he paid a visit to the armory whenever the ship he was assigned to was preparing for a combat operation. It did good to jostle up the routine of the armorers in his unit and make sure they were on the ball.

    The armory was on Deck 20, where the drive hull and primary hull sections of the ship met, in the interior sections behind reinforced bulkheads. Two decks high in height, it contained enough firearms to outfit the entire crew of the Aurora and several industrial replicators and fine machine tools used to maintain the weapons, fabricate more, and to create ammunition or charge clips.

    He showed up at 1900 on the dot and was greeted at the door by Corporal Lanyin. The Gersallian woman ran the armory. She stood at attention. "Commander Kane. Sir."

    "Corporal, at ease." He nodded. "Give me the tour."

    Lanyin knew what he meant. She led him through the rows, all the racks of pulse rifles, and the containers for the heavy weapons. The rows of combat armor were checked next. Internal life support tanks were all topped off, systems readied, combat loads properly stored, everything was in order. The same was true for the heavy power armor.

    They were finishing their inspection in the machine tools area when Kane noticed a newcomer seated on one of the stools. Commander Shepard was going over one rack set to the side. Unlike the others, this was loaded with firearms from her native galaxy. The curved body of an Avenger assault rifle was in her hands, the top removed and laid on the nearby table beside some of the internals of the weapon. "Commander." Kane looked over the guts of the rifle.

    "Commander." Shepard didn't look up. She was working with something on the inside. A solid metal block was laid on her hip.

    "Corporal Lanyin's work doesn't meet your approval?"

    Shepard shook her head. She fit something into place and looked up. "Corporal Lanyin does fine work. It's just a habit of mine to go over my kit before an op."

    "Unless things go sour, we won't be doing much at New Austria," Kane pointed out.

    "Which is why you're here giving everything a check as well, huh?"

    At that, Kane chuckled. He went over to the rack set aside for Shepard's kit. The mass effect weaponry had its own distinct aesthetic. He picked up one pistol with curved grips. "Have you tried out our weapons?"

    "It's good stuff. But not mine."

    Kane replaced the pistol and moved to a different weapon. Its gray exterior was marked with a white "N7" and a bar of red beside the 7. "Shotgun?"

    "It's a new model they're testing out called the Crusader. It's a solid slug-firing shotgun." Shepard looked up and smirked. "It should put a hole through most armored targets when fired at short range. Even those Panzergrenadiers."

    "Sounds like our S-14." Kane put it down. He looked at her dark gray combat hardsuit next. "So, you do the gear check. I'm guessing some crusty old sergeant pounded that kind of thing into you during an early assignment."

    "My field deployment with the 2-1 before I went to officer school." Shepard took the metal block from her hip and pushed it into place. "Sergeant O'Brady."

    Kane chuckled. "Sergeant McBride. My rifle stopped working during a fire exercise. He called me every horrible name in the book and made me field-strip the entire thing right there. While shooting above my head every ten seconds. Gunny Roland thought it was funny as hell."

    Shepard reached for another piece to fit back into place. "It always helps to have a hardass sergeant kick your ass a little."

    "You should see Sergeant Thanh sometimes. She switches between English and Vietnamese at will and I'm damn sure every word is so filthy that ten bars of soap couldn't wash it out."

    At that Shepard laughed. "We'll have to get a drink some time. As Marines."

    "A toast to hardass Irish sergeants? Count me in."


    D -6 Hours


    The nightmare came again. Robert watched the Facility fall to the Reich. The Aurora was battered and crippled in a battle.

    He watched Julia get sucked out into space again.

    Upon waking up, he was relieved to see that the chronometer was flashing 0550. He'd actually managed to sleep properly.

    He slipped out of bed without waking Angel. She had rolled toward the other side, taking the sheets with her, and remained sound asleep. Good. She needs her sleep.

    His mind went to things he had to do. But he realized he'd done it all already. The pre-action reports were filed and logged. The ship was ready for action. He'd done everything short of delivering a speech. And that he wasn't sure of; the crew knew the stakes, they knew the mission. He didn't want to dilute that with a bad speech.

    Robert put on some morning clothes and sat at his desk. The letter he had sent to Beth was still visible, marking itself as sent already. He knew it would still hurt. She was worried about him. And for good reason.

    Almost without orders, Robert's eye settled on the plastic case beside his computer. He opened it and reached inside.

    The Consort Sha'ira had given the strange object to him. A gold frame enclosed an orange disc of some sort. Robert had thought it might be some form of data disc, but Caterina had scanned it thoroughly. The make was exotic and singular, but there wasn't a single bit of data.

    As he laid his hand over it, a buzz came to his fingertips. There was something about this object. Something important, terribly important. He needed to find out.

    First things first. I need to get ready for the day. We launch in six hours.




    The morning was busy for Julia. She made a round of the ship to make sure everything was ready, meeting with department heads like Scotty and Meridina and Laurent. Once that was done it was off to the bridge for the watch and to be ready for their launch time.

    It helped to give her something to do. It was like every part of her body buzzed with anticipation, a tension that she just wanted released by this point. This would be it. They were going off to a major battle, and it would only be part one of a larger operation to secure the Darglan Facility. The weight of the occasion was almost suffocating; this could literally decide the outcome of the war, their fates, the fate of the Alliance they'd helped to build…

    They were still waiting for Robert when the turbolift opened. Worf and Data stepped out on the bridge. "Commander, we are reporting for duty."

    Julia nodded and allowed herself a small smile despite the tension. "We're honored and pleased to have you both. Commander Worf, Secondary Tactical could use an experienced hand, it'll let Lieutenant Delgado focus on primary targets. Commander Data, if you can take Communications, we could use your quick thinking to direct our fighter wing and escorting ships. And you can use the backup features to access navigation control if we have to perform the discussed maneuvers."

    "Agreed," Worf rumbled. He nodded to Angel as he went to Secondary Tactical, getting a nod in reply. Data took up the seat beside him.

    "We don't have a bridge station for Shepard," Locarno said quietly. "Or did she even train for one?"

    "Commander Shepard is with Kane's Marines to prepare for any boarding actions," Julia answered. "Everyone is in their proper place now."

    And so they were. Leo was in the medbay preparing for casualties. Jarod, Locarno, Cat and Angel, they were all at their stations. Lucy was at the Engineering station beside Cat. Scotty would be in Main Engineering and Meridina and Commander Kane were getting their security personnel and Marines, respectively, geared up and split into reaction squads.

    That left just one person.

    Julia glanced at the time. They were just a few minutes from launch. Any time…

    The lift doors opened again. Robert stepped out. She could tell he was just as tense as her, if not more so. He looked over everything and nodded. "No speeches," he said. "We know what's at stake. Let's get this done."

    Julia nodded. She moved over to her first officer chair and brought up the status displays she might have to use.

    Robert settled into the center chair. "What about our escorts? Who did Maran send?"

    "We've got a group of Klingon Birds-of-Prey," Julia answered. "Two more Trigger-class ships like the Sladen."

    "Oh, which ones?"

    "Wahoo and Troughton."

    Robert nodded at that. "Good. We can use them. Isn't Wahoo the ship they assigned that redhead from…"

    "Commander Jerricks, yes," Julia finished for him.

    "Anything else?"

    "Two of the new Predator-class destroyers are in formation with a division of Sol Republic destroyers. The Gersallian attack carrier Mentam and two light Dorei starbirds, Kamara-class. And finally, two Systems Alliance frigates refitted with warp drive, the Bastogne and the Agincourt."

    Robert cracked a grin at that. "That works for me. Not much, but enough that we should get the opening we need. Is Commander King ready for her part in the plan?"

    Julia nodded in response to that. "We'll combat launch the Sladen once we jump. They signal they're ready."

    "Alright." Robert drew in a breath. We can't put this off any longer. Time to go. "Signal to all ships, we're ready to jump. Wahoo and Troughton and the Systems Alliance frigates will form up on us and use our point. All other ships will jump in their own combat groups. If we can form back up on the other side before we arrive, that's fine. If not… we'll see everyone at New Austria."

    "Orders sent," Data stated. "Orders are confirmed."

    "Jarod?"

    "Setting jump to S4W8. No anchoring points." Jarod held his hand over the console. "Ready."

    And that was it. There was nothing left to it. Robert tried to force his nervousness down.

    And he gave the order.

    "Jump."

    Jarod's hand went back to his console.

    Space ahead of them split open with a swirling vortex of green energy. Locarno fired the impulse drives; beside them, the two Trigger-class ships and the dart-like Systems Alliance frigates powered their own sublight drives to full acceleration.

    Around them, more jump points opened. Their attack force began to move.

    On the viewscreen the vortex grew larger until the moment they passed through. As always the screen went blank for a moment, the moment they were between universes, and came back to show open space.

    "We're clear of the jump point," Jarod reported. "Opening dock door."

    "The Sladen is detaching from the airlock." Julia looked at her own screens. "Launch in five, four, three…"

    Right on Julia's count, the Sladen slipped out of the dock set into the back of the Aurora's primary drive. King's vessel shimmered out of view seconds later.

    "We're roughly three light years off our mark," Locarno informed everyone. "Setting course for New Austria system."

    "Maximum warp for our escorts," Robert said. He looked to Data while Locarno put in the speed and activated the warp drive. "Commander Data, do we have anything from the others?"

    "The Klingons have jumped to a point nearly two light years away. They are moving toward New Austria under cloak. Alliance destroyer group jumped into positions near the enemy system. Mentam and her escorts are approximately six light years off-target."

    "They'll be coming in late," Robert observed. "Damn. I was hoping to have that carrier with us."

    "We'll just have to make do," Julia said. "Lieutenant, ETA?"

    "We'll be inside the New Austria system in thirty minutes at present speed."

    "Code Red. All hands to battlestations."

    Thirty minutes, Robert thought as the klaxons went off around them. Let's see what they're going to do.




    Lamper stepped onto his bridge and bellowed, "Report, Frigattenkapitän!"

    Falk looked away from where he was standing over Leutnant Rabe's sensors station. He started to lift his arm in salute. "Sieg…"

    Lamper scowled and broke off the traditional greeting by barking, "I said report!"

    "Long range sensors have detected multiple gravitational anomalies, Herr Kapitän," Falk replied immediately. "They match the profiles of the enemy's interuniversal jump point systems."

    "An enemy force has jumped into nearby space?" Lamper took to his chair and checked his harness.

    "Ja," Rabe replied. "I have multiple warp signatures. Klingon, Alliance…" Rabe blinked in surprise. "Herr Kapitän, one of the warp signatures, I recognize this one. It is the Aurora."

    Lamper nodded. He had yet to fulfill his prediction to Captain Dale in their last meeting. The damage his vessel had taken at Krellan Nebula had kept him out of the further early battles where Aurora had shown up, and by the time they returned to the front the Aurora had stopped appearing. If they are back on the front, it is clear that the enemy is launching a major operation. And to jump here means they will be coming to New Austria.

    A part of him pondered the timing. Just as the SS is preparing some "war-winning" operation, the Alliance launches a bold attack on New Austria? With the Aurora returning to the front?

    That was no coincidence.

    He thought of the young Alliance captain. He was a good man, with an intelligent and innovative crew that he cared for as much as Lamper cared for his own. And so, at last, we meet on the field of battle, Captain Dale.

    And just as he had told Captain Dale before, the thought gave him no pleasure.

    "Action Stations!", Lamper bellowed. "All hands to Action Stations!"
     
  21. Threadmarks: 1-17-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    "We're almost to the heliopause of the New Austria system," Locarno reported.

    It hadn't been necessary. Robert and Julia were intent upon the holographic starmap hovering over the station beside Julia.

    "Klingon Birds-of-Prey are now in formation," Data reported.

    "Distance for the Mentam?"

    "They're still about an hour behind us," Caterina answered.

    "We've got weapons fire ahead of us," Angel added. "It looks like those forward destroyers are engaged. I've got several Z-2500s on tactical sensors now."

    "On screen,"

    The screen flashed to show the battle. One of the dagger-like Z-2500s was pouring disruptor bursts into a Sol Republic destroyer, recognizable from its own large torpedo launcher emplacements built along the centerline of the ship and the warp systems integral to the ship's rear section. Blue particle fire retorted from the small emplacements on the destroyer, scoring several hits. The Sol ship deftly evaded the torpedo fired at it by a second Z-2500. Several bursts of disruptor fire hit their shields and started to send flames gouting from the hull.

    A rapid series of amber beams intercepted the second Z-2500. Robert watched one of the new Predator-class ships move into range. Much like Aurora her drive and primary hulls had no neck between them. However, unlike his ship, their ventral decks were nearly the same, with only an additional deck coming out below the drive hull. The navigational deflector of the Predator was built into the front of the primary hull like on a Federation Akira or Norway. Her warp nacelles were arrayed at the upper corners of the drive hull, nearly built directly into the drive hull in fact.

    Powered and equipped by Darglan tech gleaned from the Facility, the Predator-class ships were more resilient than the Sol ships. The enemy's shots that were damaging them were failing to penetrate the two Predator-class ships' shields. The nimble destroyers with their rapid fire phaser cannon turrets and strips poured amber fury into the dagger-shapes milling about them, fighting hard to protect their less-advanced comrades.

    "They're going to be in trouble soon," Angel noted. "I'm picking up two Reich cruisers approaching them. Looks like Nazi light cruisers, Dresden-class."

    "They'll make short work of our destroyers," Julia said. "Can we get there in time?"

    "Only if we accelerate."

    "That means leaving the other ships behind. Damn." Julia looked over at Robert. "Rob… if we…"

    "I know," he answered. If they raced ahead, they would be exposing themselves further for several seconds.

    The Alliance destroyers knew it too. They continued evasive maneuvers as the cruisers came in, disruptors blazing. Blast after emerald blast missed the twisting, turning destroyers.

    And then one of the enemy cruisers managed a direct hit. One of the Sol Republic ships was blown in half.

    Robert swallowed. Did I do the right thing?, he thought. He feared he hadn't. But they had to maintain their current formation for the plan to work and to prevent…

    "Subspace ripples!", Cat shouted. "We've got stealth ships coming up!"

    "Relaying data. Our escorts are engaging," Data added.

    Julia gave Robert a meaningful look as the System Alliance frigates flanking them shifted away. Solar torpedoes erupted from the two frigates, bright bursts of blue-white light that flew ahead at high warp velocity. One kept going until it went out.

    The other disappeared in a large explosion. A Reich attack ship rippled into view. The Bastogne had crippled her. Phaser fire erupted from the two strips on the frigate's starboard, raking the crippled vessel until it exploded in a white fireball.

    A heavy shield-busting torpedo erupted out of nowhere, bound for Aurora. The other attack ship had survived. But it had not fired at optimum range. A phaser beam lashed out and destroyed the torpedo while Aurora's own solar torpedoes were firing. Another Reich attack ship was blown to pieces.

    "Enemy torpedo destroyed," Worf reported.

    "Enemy ship destroyed too," Angel added.

    Julia grinned slightly and nodded at him. Robert sighed. If he had ordered acceleration, their escorts would have fallen behind them, and those enemy attack ships would have had open shots on his sides. "Data, relay my gratitude to the captains of those frigates, please."

    "Doing so, Captain."

    "We're entering range of the fight in three… two… one…"

    Locarno brought the Aurora out of warp almost on top of the continuing fight. A crippled Sol Republic destroyer immediately sought cover behind Aurora. The two Predator-class ships were showing signs of damage, no surprise given the enemy Dresden-class cruisers were raking them with disruptor fire. The Nazi light cruisers were slant-hulled like their bigger counterparts, providing more surface area for the disruptor emplacements that made them murder to light warships.

    Of course, Robert and the others knew - from experience - that the enemy light cruisers lacked the heavy weapons to be a threat to the Aurora. The same could not be said of the threat the Aurora posed to them.

    Angel fired the bow cannons. Bursts of sapphire energy crashed into one of the enemy cruisers. Its shields resisted initially, but the enemy ship was not supposed to fight a vessel of Aurora's power. The barrage inevitably broke through the shields and sent debris and flame spewing from the deep wounds the pulse particle cannons caused in the cruiser. Disruptor fire stabbed at Aurora. "Shields holding at ninety-eight percent," Jarod reported.

    Angel was already moving onto the other target, leaving the first for Worf to finish off with the lighter phaser emplacements along the port side. Multiple streams of pulse fire joined the beams from the Aurora's phaser banks and strips. The damaged Reich ship was trying to maneuver away. A futile gesture under Worf's aim; multiple shots continued to strike the enemy ship until it was left dead in space.

    The surviving enemy destroyers might have posed an irritation. But between Wahoo and Troughton, they were quickly dealt with. This left the last surviving cruiser and its desperate attempts to get away from Aurora's guns. Its desperate maneuvering made Angel's job hard. Her hits were all glancing blows, degrading shield efficiency and hull armor, but she had yet to land a direct hit.

    That was when Agincourt and Bastogne swept in. The two System Alliance frigates were blazing away with their mass effect cannons initially, causing some slight shield strain on the enemy cruiser, but it was their disruptor torpedoes that were the threat. The bursts of white energy that marked the mass effect fields supporting the torpedoes appeared as the frigates went into the final kilometers of their attack run. The weapons struck the cruiser's shields directly. "The disruptor torpedoes are destabilizing the enemy shields," Caterina said.

    "Good for us," Angel said, continuing her own fire. As the Aurora overtook them, she and Worf combined their skills to devastate the enemy cruiser. It erupted into a ball of white fire when one of the capital pulse phaser cannon turrets found the anti-matter storage bunker.

    "All enemy forces accounted for," Jarod said.

    "Status on our side?", Robert asked.

    "The Sol Republic destroyer Hosch has been destroyed. The destroyer Nguyen is operating on emergency power and cannot continue combat." Data looked over from the console he'd taken. "All other vessels report readiness to continue."

    Robert nodded and looked to the tactical display Julia had brought up beside her chair. "Let's move further in system and start dropping anchor probes."




    Lamper was waiting nervously for the order to move into combat. His crew were alert and at their combat stations, every man ready for this unexpected fight without a hint of fear over it. Just as it should be.

    The picket forces for the system were gone; the Aurora and her ships had destroyed them. "Two of their destroyers are out of action. Probably destroyed." Rabe's voice was even. "They are moving in-system now. They will be in combat range shortly."

    "What is he up to…", Lamper wondered aloud. Seeing Falk's expression, he clarified, "For the enemy to have sent Aurora, Frigattenkapitän, it means there is more to this attack than a simple raid. The enemy has launched a major operation. But what could…" Lamper's mind went back to their meeting. To everything Dale and his crew had done.

    "The Alliance ships are slowing, sir." Rabe looked up. "And I'm having some issues with long-range sensors. Some sort of jamming."

    Jamming? What could…

    And then Lamper thought to the fight in the nebula. The Aurora's attached vessel, Koenig had literally jumped right on top of them. From inside a nebula. Could they have the ability to bring ships to their location through their interuniversal drives?

    The more Lamper thought about it, the more he was certain this was true. "Signal to Admiral von der Goltz, now! The enemy may be bringing a fleet in!"




    Robert looked at the relative distance to the enemy base and their fleet. "Several enemy ships are coming our way now," Caterina said. "I'm picking up several cruisers and a couple of battlecruisers, plus at least a dozen Z-2500s. And a whole bunch of fighters."

    "Laurent's people can deal with them." Robert noticed the odds. They couldn't beat that force. But they could delay them. "What about our jamming probes?"

    "They've finished deploying," Jarod confirmed. "Ready for the anchor probes on your signal."

    "Begin launching the anchor probes."

    From the rear of the Aurora, the probe dispenser went into operation. It was effectively a smaller, less protected torpedo launcher, and it was now firing like a rapid fire weapon. The probes they fired were joining the prior probes sent out, providing them a blanket of electronic jamming to protect them.

    "Uh." Cat's voice betrayed some nervousness. "Remember how I said several before? Try 'several dozen' now. I've got at least eighty enemy ships now moving toward us, fast." She swallowed. "Including an entire division of dreadnoughts."

    "Do you think they realize what we're up to?", Julia asked, rhetorically at least.

    "Have they seen us do any combat jumps bef…" Robert cut himself off. "Dammit. Krellan Nebula. Our first meeting, we had Zack jump in." He looked to Jarod. "Jarod, are those anchor probes ready?"

    "They are." Jarod looked back at him. "But we can't bring any fleets in like this. They won't have time to get into formation before those ships are in firing range. We should have Commander King start…"

    "Not while there are still so many enemy ships by the base," Robert said, interrupting. He swallowed. "Send the signal. Call in the fleet. And Nick… I'm sorry." He nodded his head. "But for this, I need you to relay navigation control to Data."

    Locarno nodded. He didn't like it. But he could understand that, with everything at stake, having Data do the delicate piloting to come was necessary. He released helm control for Data to relay to his station at Communications.

    "Standing by, Captain," Data reported.

    "Jump points forming!", Jarod declared.

    Around and behind the Aurora, interuniversal jump points began to form in space. The vortexes numbered in the dozens.

    No. Hundreds.

    From each ships emerged. Sometimes just one. Sometimes more, especially with smaller ships. Robert recognized designs from across the Alliance emerging from the points.

    Including, much to his surprise and delight, the Kentan.

    "Admiral Maran is hailing," Data said.

    "Data, full impulse, bring us toward the approaching Reich fleet," Robert ordered. "Put him on."

    "Captain." Maran's voice betrayed a hint of bewilderment. "You've called us in awfully close to the enemy fleet. I don't know if the fleet can move into battle position in time."

    "Don't worry, Admiral. I'm about to buy you a few extra minutes." Robert keyed the intercom. "Scotty, are you ready?"

    "We are, Cap'n. I just hope th' lass can take th' strain of this plan of yer's."

    "She can. After all, you helped build her."

    "That I did, sir. That I did. Standing by."

    "God I hope this works," Julia said to him.

    "We'll find out really quickly if it doesn't," he answered. I was hoping we wouldn't have to do this, that we'd have time to deploy the probes after we drew some of their fleet out. Was this a mistake?

    If it was, it was too damn late to change anything.

    "Enemy ships are starting to lock on," Jarod warned them. "They'll start firing any moment."

    "Standby, everyone. Standby…" He eyed the Aurora on the tactical display, moving ever closer to the spheres representing the enemy's likely engagement range. "As soon as they fire…"

    The Aurora continued onward, in seeming suicidal defiance of the odds arrayed against her.




    On the bridge of the Reich's Glory, Lamper wondered just what Dale was doing. He seemed suicidally mad… but that couldn't be the end of it. No.

    What are you doing, Herr Captain?

    He got his answer a moment later.




    Jarod called out that the enemy was firing.

    Data was already acting.

    Power surged into the warp drive of the Aurora. With a flash of light from her powerful warp engines, she jumped forward… and stopped.

    Right in the middle of the enemy formation.

    Enemy sensors were already registering this fact. But for just that moment, their human operators, unable to think at the same speeds, had not realized their quarry had moved so suddenly and so far, making their first shots futile.

    "Fire!", Robert shouted.

    Angel and Worf responded immediately. The space around Aurora lit up with sapphire and amber fury as every joule of power that could be coaxed from the ship's power systems was expelled through the ship's weapon batteries. Several Z-2500s died in formation, unable to even evade in time. The Aurora's main battery in the bow savaged an enemy Sedan-class cruiser with a full barrage. Torpedoes erupted from every launcher and found targets. The cruisers adjacent to them took their share of the barrage, if doing so more capably than their comrade trapped in Angel's bow gunsights.

    After a couple of seconds, the enemy responded. They opened fire, in such volume that the Aurora's shields would be overwhelmed shortly.

    But as fast as the Reich gunnery officers were… Data was faster.

    Again the engines of the Aurora pulsed with light. Again she was no longer where she had been when the enemy had opened fire.

    Instead, the emerald beams and the missiles and the torpedoes kept going. In many cases, they kept going into each other.

    Two cruisers, another Sedan and a Dresden, exploded in white fireballs from overpowering hits to their anti-matter fuel bunkers. The warp nacelle of one of the enemy battlecruisers exploded from an errant torpedo.

    The second jump brought the Aurora clear of the enemy formation, but still within weapons range. Data fired the impulsors and the Aurora began to turn. The Reich ships were in sudden disarray. Rapid warp maneuvers like that were impossible, after all; anyone desperate enough to try would plow into another ship or burn out their warp systems from the repeated jumps.

    "Systems are showing strain on the upper starboard and lower port warp nacelle plasma feeds," Lucy warned. "Damage control teams are standing by."

    "Some of their ships are breaking away from formation to pursue us."

    "I see, that, Cat." Robert looked to Data. "Data…"

    "Preparing to recommence Picard Maneuver," Data replied.

    Just as the pursuing enemies opened fire, Data triggered the warp drive again. Space warped slightly and Aurora was suddenly in the middle of the enemy fleet again. Again Angel and Worf opened fire with everything they could. Four more destroyers disappeared. The enemy return fire commenced. The ship shuddered for a moment before the screen flashed with a warp effect yet again. Once more they were clear.

    And there were further explosions from within the Nazi formation. Once more, the enemy did themselves more damage than Aurora had.

    "Shields holding at eighty-four percent," Jarod reported.

    "All warp nacelle plasma feeds are giving strain warnings." Lucy looked back. "We can't keep this up."

    "We just need another couple of jumps…" The ship shook once more. They were in enemy firing range. "Two more, Data. Make the second one long enough to clear us from the enemy fleet."

    "Acknowledged." Data entered the necessary commands.

    "Shields down to seventy-eight percent."

    Jarod's warning coincided with Angel and Worf returning fire with the ship's weapons. The enemy cruisers moving up to engage them took repeated hits from the larger phaser weapons while Worf's aim filled the approach vectors of enemy destroyers with amber energy. A Reich destroyer exploded from a direct hit to its drive assembly. The others fired their torpedoes at Aurora; one of these ships died a moment later from a direct hit from one of the larger phaser strips on Aurora's port side.

    The torpedoes came in. And they found nothing. The Aurora had warped back into the enemy formation.

    "Plasma feed emergency shutdown in upper starboard nacelle!", Lucy cried. "Nacelle is offline!"

    By the time she was finishing the second sentence, enemy fire was already incoming. But this time, it wasn't coming from all angles. The Reich tactical officers were adjusting. They had realized that they couldn't get reliable targeting until it was clear Aurora couldn't warp jump again. And given the state of the drive, that was a dicey proposition for them. A short stab of self-doubt went through Robert's heart. Had he gone one jump too far? Had he overtaxed the Aurora's warp drive? Sometimes it was easy to forget just how complicated a system it was, how easily it could be overwhelmed if used improperly.

    The ship shook hard beneath them. "One of the battlecruisers is firing on us," Jarod said.

    "Lucky damned guess," Robert mumbled as the ship rocked hard from missile impacts.

    "Shields down to sixty-nine percent!"

    He hadn't planned to take so long for this warp jump. But undoubtedly Data had to adjust for the loss of a warp nacelle. The other Nazi ships would open fire any moment, convinced their warp drive had finally gone down…

    Just as several more ships opened up with their disruptors, there was another burst of warp speed. Data brought them clear.

    As soon as it was done, Lucy was quick to give them the news. "Plasma rupture in lower starboard nacelle! Our warp drive is offline!"

    "That was cutting it close," Julia said, sighing and, despite everything, grinning. Data's last warp jump had carried them free of the enemy's accurate firing range. Some shots would still come their way, but at this range they could easily evade at sublight.

    "They're really unhappy with us," Cat said. "Several more ships are breaking from their formation to pursue us."

    "They don't know if we can do this again, but they're not taking chances." Julia swallowed. "Rob, they're sending a dreadnought after us. And two battlecruisers. And a number of cruisers… we can't fight this. We have to break off."

    "We can't fight this, no," Robert agreed. "Data, get us clear, full impulse, and then please return helm control to Nick."

    His orders were implemented with no difficulty. The Nazis now had other problems, as it proved.

    The Alliance fleet entered optimum firing range.




    Lamper had to admit he was impressed. Tactical warp jumps. Madness. Could his savant officer, that man Jarod, have managed such precision? As far as Lamper was concerned, no human could. And using computers would be unreliable… Not to mention that warp drives would fail with such rapid use.

    But Aurora had done it regardless.

    "It is a wonder they did not cripple themselves," Falk observed. "Their drive must be very robust."

    "Indeed." Lamper looked to communications. Leutnant Jensen was seated there. "Do we have engagement orders?"

    "Nein."

    That made Lamper frown. The SS squadron that he had been assigned to… why was it not being sent into the battle? What is Eicke up to?

    Even as he pondered this, he watched as Admiral von der Goltz reacted to what was happening.

    The rest of the Reich war fleet at New Austria began to move.




    With Locarno back at the helm, the Aurora was maneuvering clear of the enemy for the moment. The ship shook lightly as enemy fire struck their shields. "Shields still holding at about seventy percent."

    "At my mark, bring us around." Robert checked the display. Most of the enemy pursuit had turned back once their comrades were engaged. Maran's ships had used their chance to get organized and were exploiting the disorder of the enemy's forward units for everything it was worth. Markers representing enemy ships were disappearing rapidly.

    Now the rest of the enemy fleet was moving up to engage Maran. The odds were close. An entire enemy fleet unit was present. A thought crossed Robert's mind. "Cat, Jarod, would any of these ships happen to be from the attack at Krellan Nebula?"

    Cat was the one who checked. "Going by the survivors' sensor records… yeah. A lot."

    "Uh huh." Robert felt a grin tug at his mouth. It made what was about to happen even more fitting.

    Maran had arranged the Alliance fleet and its disparate members by their strengths. The ships from C5O2 and D3R1 were arrayed in a "battle wall" formation: ranks of dreadnought starships and accompanying cruisers ready to turn and present broadside firepower against the foe. Their light escorts were in a looser formation to assist in screening away enemy light ships or conducting their own dashes at the enemy capital warships to engage weakened enemy shields with heavy torpedoes.

    These walls, busy plowing through the forward enemy force, were joined by the other fleets operating by their own tactical paradigms, working hand-in-hand under Maran's direction. Dorei starbirds and Gersallian cruisers and frigates flew in with weapons blazing, clearing the way for hundreds of starfighters from the Gersallian and Dorei carriers to engage with their torpedoes. The Kentan remained in the center of their heavy formations, directing firepower toward the enemy. Their firepower combined with an Earth Confederacy dreadnought - the Cicero - to utterly wreck one of the enemy Aryans.

    The heavy warships from the Federated Stars and the Sirian League of L2M1 made their own swift attacks, flanked by cruisers, gravitic drives burning bright blue as they poured phaser and particle fire into the Reich. A wing of Alakin heavy warbirds and Dorei starbirds came burning in after them, pouring plasma and particle fire into the outnumbered ships.

    One engagement near the end of the enemy's forward units was particularly poignant; a Colonial Confederation cruiser came to the aid of Sol Republic destroyers under attack from a Sedan. The two erstwhile rivals cooperated with precision against their common enemy. The reward was the flowering explosions from the Reich cruiser. A nacelle blew up from a torpedo hit by one of the Sol destroyers as its companions helped a stricken comrade fly free of the fight.

    Seeing this brief part of the battle unfold gave Robert a warm feeling. This was everything the Alliance was meant to be; disparate peoples from all nations and species working together for a common goal, in this case that goal being the defeat of a terrible enemy that had murdered thousands of helpless beings.

    Another jolt brought Robert out of his reverie. "Shields now at sixty-six percent."

    He nodded to acknowledge Jarod's report. "Locarno… now!"

    The Aurora swung around and met her pursuer directly. A Sedan class ship; an appreciable foe, but lacking the raw power to overcome the Aurora alone. Which explained the division of Z-2500s following.

    Angel opened fire the moment she had target lock. Thick sapphire pulses lashed out and slammed into the enemy ship, accompanied by two spreads of solar torpedoes. The blue-white sparks of light flowered into brilliant explosions when they slammed into the enemy's shields, accompanied by another barrage of the forward pulse plasma cannons. The enemy cruiser began to maneuver to present strong side shields instead of the weakened bow shields. Angel redoubled her fire on the enemy ship in response to this maneuver. Green, blue, and amber fire filled the space between Aurora and her foes. Worf's expert aim finished off two of the enemy destroyers. His shooting was brilliant and the only reason they hadn't taken a full torpedo barrage from said enemy ships yet.

    The barrage on the enemy's shields continued. Angel was targeting every point she could that was supposed to be vulnerable. Their ship shook repeatedly as the cruiser's missiles, taking attrition from the point-defense weapons, crashed into Aurora's bow shields.

    "Forward shield generators are taking a lot of strain," Lucy warned.

    Jarod was quick to react. "Re-distributing shields to compensate."

    "I'm picking up fluctuations in their power systems, I think we're overloading them."

    Cat's finding spurred her sister on. Locarno maneuvered the ship to prevent the enemy from escaping Aurora's bow cannons. Angel made full use of his work to continue battering the enemy cruiser. Torpedoes followed the plasma and phaser fire to give the enemy cruiser a battering.

    Finally an amber beam from one of the bow-directed phaser strips played across hull. This was followed by a burst from a pulse phaser cannon, then another. Flame and debris erupted from the new wounds in the enemy ship.

    And like a shark smelling blood, Angel went for the kill. The next barrage savaged the Nazi cruiser's drive hull. A torpedo blew the blood-red port nacelle to pieces. The lights on the enemy ship's hull began to die out.

    "They've lost main power!", was Cat's enthusiastic report.

    The last enemy shots before their weapons lost potency finished playing over their shields. "Shields holding at sixty percent." Jarod drew in a breath. "Primary Shield Generator 1 is showing increased strain, we may have to take it offline."

    "We'll let Scotty's people deal with it first. But shut it down if you feel the need." Robert looked back to the battle.

    Maran's forces had overrun the initial eighty-something enemy warships and left behind a thin cloud of burning hulks and debris fields. Now they were approaching the main enemy fleet. The odds were fairly equal.

    It was time to tip them toward their side.

    "Is the Sladen in position?", Robert asked.

    "They are," was the reply.

    "Then prepare to send the second all-clear signal on my mark. Tell King to begin."




    On the bridge of the Sladen Commander King and her crew had been watching with a mix of admiration and disbelief. At the helm, the ship's XO Lieutenant Caldwell had given voice to their surprise. "Six rapid warp jumps? Dale must be mad, he's lucky he didn't blow out his entire warp system."

    King nodded slowly. Borderline reckless indeed…! But tactically necessary at that point in time. Aurora had few other options once the anchor probes were being deployed. I would have deployed them further out. It would have cost more casualties, undoubtedly, without the enemy fleet intentionally weakening themselves with that first wave. But to take such a risk…

    Skarsgard was ready when a tone came from her board. The Norwegian officer turned and faced King. "Commander, we're receiving the signal from the Aurora."

    "Confirm that. And start launching the probes," King ordered.

    Sladen wavered into view.

    Behind the enemy.

    They were roughly sixty degrees "above" the enemy as well as being to their rear, a necessary position for what came next. Lieutenant Trymi began firing the torpedo launchers. But there were no torpedoes loaded; rather, combinations of the jamming probes and anchor probes.

    "Field is twenty percent complete," the Dorei man reported.

    "Enemy vessels on combat approach," Skarsgard added.

    King looked at the approaching foes. Similar dagger-shapes to the Z-2500s, but bigger. Reich gunships, A-1700-class, loaded with large disruptor armaments for their size. The vessels sacrificed range to maximize combat power for their size and such were not unlike the Sladen herself. As such they were something of a threat, especially with Sladen having to focus on deploying its probes.

    "Limited evasive maneuvers, Lieutenant. We cannot jeopardize the deployment of the probes."

    "Yes sir."

    Caldwell was doing what he could. But his range of maneuver was limited. The ship shook as several disruptor shots struck their shields.

    "Shields down to ninety percent."

    King nodded. "Maintain current bearing. Continue the deployment."

    No one questioned her openly. They kept doing their jobs, just as she expected, even as another hit came down on them. King eyed the range on her own display. Any moment. Any moment…

    There was a ripple in space. Several more ships appeared above Sladen.

    Klingon Birds-of-Prey.

    The Reich warships started to break off as the Klingons soared in for the attack. The lead gunship took the brunt of the Klingon ambush. Multiple green bolts slammed into its shields followed by a swarm of photon torpedoes. The last two went through the gunship's armor and caused it to burst in a white fireball.

    "The Pagh and her squadron are engaging."

    "Inform Captain Klag of my thanks," was King's laconic response to that. "Status of probe deployment?"

    "Firing final probes… now. All anchor probes deployed, Commander!"

    "Send the go signal, Ensign Skarsgard. Lieutenant Caldwell, bring us into formation with the Klingons. We have targets to neutralize."

    "Sending go signal, sir!"

    "Taking up formation!"

    Sladen slipped into place with the Klingon Birds-of-Prey. Her bow phasers opened up, battering an enemy gunship. The Reich vessel turned toward them and opened up with its own disruptor cannons. King's ship shuddered beneath her; she ignored that and kept her eye on the tactical situation. Trymi's gunnery skills were letting him batter the enemy ship and, as things went, won its attention to the extent that it didn't notice the Klingon ship coming up on its stern until it was too late. Disruptor and phaser bolts struck the vessel on both ends and overloaded its shields. Torpedoes turned the ship into a burning wreck.

    Their ship shook again. "Enemy vessel to aft. Wait… the Klingons are engaging them."

    "Then let us return the favor," King declared. "Focus your targeting on any enemy ship flanking one of the Klingons."

    And as she said that, the first jump points opened.




    Robert felt like cheering as, for the second time today, space lit up with the opening of a mass of interuniversal jump points.

    This time the vessels exiting were primarily not Alliance. The sleek shapes of Turian warships and the blockier Systems Alliance ships emerged from many of the jump points. Smaller, more stealthy ships came out with them - Salarians, presumably. And a smattering of Asari ships rounded out the Citadel contribution.

    Other jump points disgorged many dozens of Klingon ships. Birds-of-Prey, cruisers, attack cruisers, and among them all, one big warship - the Negh'Var.

    Toward the center of the fleet a large number of smaller ships came racing out of the jump points, accompanied by even smaller blue shapes - space fighters. The White Stars were here in force. More than Robert had expected from what Delenn had said before. And central among them were several of the tall, finned Minbari Warcruisers.

    And that wasn't all. Several Slavian dreadnoughts and accompanying warships came from one point; Gl'mulli orb ships emerged from another. A number of Alliance ships joined them. Robert recognized the Discovery among them. We need ships enough that even the Discovery and her sisters have been called in. He recognized the Gagarin and the Atlantis, but not the Challenger. Presumably Madeleine was still in charge of the excavation of the Darglan Homeworld.

    And there were other ships. Itagaki Union, Archenar Federation, Gy'toran star-sailers and Kerbal spacecraft carriers. Every nation and species that the Aurora had visited in the past few months was represented in the arriving fleet.

    And they had all come to end the threat of the Nazi Reich.

    "Admiral Hackett to all ships. Move forward and engage."

    At that command, the allied forces formed up. Some took longer than others; it was, not surprisingly, the Rangers who were ready for action first. They were used to launching fleet actions coming through jump points and had come through in combat formation already. Emerald beams came from the massive Warcruisers and the smaller, nimble White Stars. The Minbari weapons cut away at the shields of the nearest Reich warships. A couple of direct hits on the smaller cruisers led to localized shield failures and, after that, the powerful beams from the Minbari cruisers started to carve them into pieces.

    Now the rest of the ships were swooping in. The Citadel Council-aligned forces engaged with their hypervelocity mass driver cannons, battering away at the Reich warfleet. Robert was amazed at, and admittedly enjoyed, the sight of a Turian dreadnought and the SSV Kilimanjaro unleashing withering firepower upon a Reich dreadnought. The colossal ship was turning about to engage while its shields flickered and faltered under withering firepower. A squadron of F-61 Trident fighters from the SSV Hawking raced in under the cover of their fire on an attack run. The lighter disruptors on the Aryan-class dreadnought opened up on them. One fighter took a glancing hit and spun off, damaged. Another two took direct hits and disappeared in plumes of flame.

    The other fighters made it to optimum range and fired their disruptor torpedoes. One after another the torpedoes lit up and flew forward. Again the enemy light disruptors engaged, and a number of the torpedoes were shot down. The rest slammed into the faltering local shields of the Reich dreadnought. The handful that managed to get through said shields hit armored hull, where intense and unstable mass-effect fields from their warheads began tearing the hull apart.

    The dreadnought's starboard super-disruptors were lashing out in reply. Green beams stabbed repeatedly at the two attacking dreadnoughts. Kinetic barriers would not have done much to withstand disruptors, but now both ships were employing UAS shield technology and their shields held against the onslaught.

    And this was not the only battle going on. The Gl'mulli orb ships zipped around the battlefield, lashing out with the plasma beam cannons affixed to multiple points of their sphere-shaped hulls. As they tore their way through a Nazi cruiser squadron, attack bombers from the Kerbal fleet raced in at breakneck accelerations. Showing an almost suicidal disdain for enemy counter-fire, the Kerbals deployed their gravitic bombs against the cruisers. With the Gl'mulli orbs having drained away their shields, their armored hulls were left to endure the powerful Kerbal weapons and their hull-shattering gravitic warheads.

    Enemy Z-2500s raced in to engage the allied carriers. Kerbal and Systems Alliance fighters moved to engage, and they were not alone. The Starship Atlantis moved into position and engaged with her own light batteries. While the Atlantis covered the carriers, the Discovery and the Gagarin joined the sleek FedStar cruisers in battering a burning Lutzow-class ship into ruin.

    On the bridge of the Aurora, Robert noted the distances. "Status on that generator?", he asked.

    Jarod checked his board. "It looks like the damage control teams finished their work. The generator's ready to resume its share of our shield coverage."

    "Great news. Bring us about, Nick," Robert said. His heart was pounding with excitement. "Bring us in toward the allied fleet and the Sladen."

    "Aye sir!", Locarno agreed.

    The Aurora turned in space. The bow raised to face the allied forces. Her engines fired to full and she flew toward her allies.

    They'd accomplished their mission. Now it was time to use that to win the battle.
     
  22. Threadmarks: 1-17 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Getting sticky.

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    Explosions continued to flower in the distance while Patrice Laurent maneuvered his Mongoose starfighter behind the Nazi fighters launched by the base. The craft were wider than his Mongoose, with tapering ends that made them look like arrowheads with engines on the back.

    The Reich fighters were currently pursuing the Kerbal bombers that were reducing one of the dreadnought divisions for the benefit of Allied dreadnoughts and couldn't break off safely. Laurent shifted his fighter left and right and then corkscrewed it to avoid incoming fire. He waited the key second before his targeting system flashed a lock and fired. Thick pulses of amber energy lashed out from the Mongoose's chin and the base of the small payload and engine wings. The first shots were still slightly off. Laurent carefully maneuvered his fighter until the stream of pulses started tearing into the rear of the Nazi fighter. The enemy fighter's shields held for the first half second. The pilot was already maneuvering to get out of Laurent's firing line.

    But he couldn't. Just as he nearly cleared the stream of bolts, they ripped into his engine assembly. The Reich warship exploded into a few hundred pieces.

    A warning tone forced Laurent to maneuver hard to his right and "upward". This let him evade, barely, the stream of emerald disruptor bolts coming from the Nazi fighter moving to engage him. Soon the enemy was on his back and staying on. "Bogey on my six low," Laurent stated.

    "I'm on it!" The voice had enough of a strange pitch to it to confirm the speaker was not human or full-sized humanoid. Another Mongoose twisted around Laurent at an acceleration that did more to say it was his wingman than the voice itself.

    Lt. Jebediah Kerman's Mongoose slipped by Laurent's own and went directly at the Nazi fighter attacking him. Phasers blazed and the enemy pilot broke off, but not before taking damage.

    "Able 2, thank you for that."

    "You're welcome, Able Leader!" And with that the Kerbal pilot's Mongoose twisted back into the same angle of attack and roared into position. Ahead of them some of the heavier Reich fighters were starting to fire on the Kerbal bombers approaching the dreadnoughts. Kerman opened fire at the same time Laurent and others did. Missiles streaked through space and hit the enemy fighters before they could evade. Several exploded entirely. Some only took damage and continued their attacks on the Kerbal bombers. A couple of the Kerbal craft exploded from the fire coming in behind them. But instead of breaking off or ruining their attack runs with evasion, the Kerbals seemed to be more interested in accelerating even more, pushing their overpowered spacecraft to and seemingly beyond their limits to ensure their attack run succeeded.

    Laurent spit his crosshairs on another Nazi fighter and let loose with his phasers. The enemy fighter, damaged from a missile impact, disintegrated under the attack. "We've got to cover those bombers!" Seeing he didn't have the numbers to keep the enemy fighters from successfully savaging the Kerbal bomber run, Laurent started giving his orders. "Bravo, Charlie, form up on Able! Delta Squadron…"

    "Sir!" Ensign Xui, his sensor operator, called out. "More friendly contacts!"

    "Above" Laurent, more fighters raced in on mass effect drives pushing to maximum acceleration. The curved, sharp frame looked almost like a fang with wings; Turian fighters. "This is Dedalic Wing to Alliance fighters. Joining your attack vector."

    Another Human voice heralded the arrival of F-61s. "Hammer Squadron here, we're on course!" Laurent thought he recognized the voice, a pilot from the Hawking. Lieutenant… Cortez, yes.

    With the Turian and Systems Alliance fighters backing his squadron from the Aurora, the Nazi fighters ahead of them began exploding with greater frequency. The explosions from the Kerbal bombers going down ceased.

    The lead dreadnought's super-disruptors fired again and there was an explosion at the periphery of Laurent's vision. But he could do nothing about that; he was focused on finishing off the enemy fighters ahead of them.




    The Turian dreadnought took three super-disruptor beams into its now-unshielded prow and exploded violently. Behind it a second dreadnought and an adjacent Asari cruiser were pelted by debris.

    The Aurora moved up and intercepted another super-disruptor blast on its fresh shield face, saving the Asari ship at the cost of a major shield blow. As the bridge stopped rocking Robert called out, "Damage report!"

    "Shields down to forty-six percent," Jarod answered.

    "We've got a primary shield generator failing, switching back to secondaries!"

    Robert breathed harshly. He was tired of getting smacked around by enemy dreadnoughts. And there were four Nazi dreadnoughts bearing down on him and the Citadel dreadnoughts.

    But a moment later, those enemy ships had other problems. Their shields were also starting to go down from sheer attrition. Now there were Kerbal bombers racing across the hull, deploying their gravitic bombs at trajectories the Reich dreadnoughts couldn't hope to intercept at. So close that the pilots were lucky to escape themselves.

    Suddenly the lead dreadnought, killer of that Turian ship, suffered several massive detonations across its dorsal hull and bow. The super-disruptor assembly exploded and spewed debris and atmosphere across the bow of the enemy Aryan-class ship.

    Angel didn't have to be told. Aurora's bow weapons opened up and vented their fury on the enemy ship. Mass driver slugs accelerated to cee-fractional velocities joined them; the fire from the other Turian dreadnought and the Kilimanjaro. Hit after hit ripped away hull armor from the enemy dreadnought until its entire front third was ablaze, spreading a cloud of lost atmospheric gas and debris as it passed. Solar torpedoes from the Aurora went deep into the opened bow of the ship.

    One found the ship's missile magazine. Exposed, now, by the prior damage.

    There was a great white flash that their viewscreen barely adjusted in time to keep from blinding them. When it was over, the enemy dreadnought was gone.

    The ones behind it were still fighting. Another wing of Kerbal bombers had already severely damaged the third in line. Now it had a new problem as the great, blocky shape of one of the Slavic Union dreadnoughts moved across its bow. The ship - giving off the ID of being the Stanislav Bush - opened up with a barrage of ruby energy. Heavy x-ray laser assembles ripped into the Aryan-class dreadnoughts to either side, causing their shields to flare bright red. The one to its starboard, damaged by the Kerbals, couldn't resist the firepower of a dreadnought on its bow. Said bow disappeared in a series of explosions.

    The last dreadnought in the force faced the approach of Gy'toran star-sailers. The sleek and elegant shapes of the ships, propelled by a complicated sublight drive assembly that included both solar sails and subspace carrier-wave sails that gave them a look of being an old sailing ship with sails both above and below, turned and directed orange bursts of energy fire into the dreadnought. It retorted with disruptor fire. The Gy'torans were not getting the better of the exchange - Robert was sad to see one of the elegant ships blasted apart by a super-disruptor hit - but it gave an opening for the White Stars of Delenn's Rangers to get in and start hammering the Reich dreadnought. Both groups of ships pulled away as a wing of heavy Klingon Birds-of-Prey, K'Vort-class, moved in with disruptors blazing. Three attack cruisers of the newer Vor'cha-class came in behind them and let loose a series of disruptor barrages backed by photon torpedoes.

    The Aryan-class ship simply couldn't endure the punishment. Its shields failed and stayed down. Its hull took repeated hits. And soon it was a lifeless husk of a ship, all lights extinguished, drifting helplessly in the vacuum of space.

    Four enemy dreadnoughts, dead. Robert had never imagined to see such a sight.

    And still the battle raged on.




    Lamper was clenching his fists in frustration. The fleet was caught between two fires. The Alliance and the allies it had gained had used their drive technology to devastating effect. Before, the Reich had numerical parity. Indeed, if you counted the SS squadron Lamper was now attached to and the damaged ships and close patrols guarding the Base, they had superior numbers to the initial Alliance fleet even after the annihilation of the fleet vanguard. But with this new alien reinforcement, they were now outnumbered and in a tactically inferior position.

    Indeed, the sight of so many different ship types filled Lamper with deep foreboding. This is what we face. Not one foe, but many. How can the Reich survive against such force?

    "Admiral von der Goltz is ordering all ships to try and break out of the enemy trap," Leutnant Jensen said. "And he is ordering Oberführer Eicke to commit us to the engagement. All ships will be employed to attempt a breakout."

    "Get me targeting solutions, then."

    "Jawohl, Herr Kapitän."

    "Herr Kapitän, we are receiving orders from Eichmann." Jensen's voice seemed to falter. "Oberführer Eicke is ordering us to prepare to withdraw from the system."

    Lamper exploded with an angry "Was?!" After a moment to regain his cool, he barked, "I want to speak to Eicke, now."

    A moment later the bridge of the SS dreadnought appeared on the screen. Oberführer Eicke was in his command chair. Fassbinder was standing nearby. "You heard my orders, Kapitän Lamper. We are withdrawing."

    "You are fleeing?" Lamper looked at him and called upon every iota of control he could. Decades of experience with discipline came to bear in keeping his anger in check. "The enemy has the fleet hard-pressed! If we lose both the base and the fleet, our victories will have been for nothing. We will lose this entire ubersektor, Oberführer. God help us, it could cost us the war!"

    "This battle is lost, and we have more important duties, Lamper, than saving a handful of ships. Not with the prize that is within our grasp."

    Lamper felt his hairs stand up on his neck. "What prize could be worth the worst defeat the Reich has ever endured?"

    "A man of your purported intelligence should know. Now, I expect you to warp out with the rest of us. Any further refusal or argument on your part and I will personally see to it that you are denounced as a traitor to our Fatherland."

    "What about our orders to engage?"

    Eicke smirked. "Admiral von der Goltz is simply a man. I obey the dictates of the Führer himself. Now, we must withdraw, while the enemy is occupied."

    Lamper couldn't get the scowl off of his face. His brave comrades, so many thousands of his peers in the officer corps, of brave German crews, were fighting and dying for their Fatherland… and he was being ordered to leave them behind. With not even a shot fired for the sake of honor.

    But he knew full well that Eicke would follow through on that threat. He would be disgraced and executed. His sisters, his nephews and niece, his mother… all would suffer for that.

    Everything about it filled Lamper with disgust. But he knew the costs of defiance. And they were too high.

    So he choked out a, "Jawohl, Herr Oberführer. For the Führer. For the Reich."

    "Heil Sauckel." Eicke saluted and the line cut.

    Lamper settled back into his chair. He could see the dissatisfaction on the faces of his subordinates. But they knew full well that there was no choice here. "Warp drive standing by, Herr Kapitän," his helmsman said.

    "Follow the course laid out by the Eichmann," he answered, dejected. "Match their warp speed."

    The Reich's Glory turned away from the raging battle along with the dark-hulled SS ships. Lamper watched the battle continue up until the shudder of the warp drive initiating came up through the decks.

    Damn the SS.




    The allied forces were arranged to be behind and "above" the enemy, creating a crossfire where the risk of friendly fire was minimized and, more importantly, the enemy could not easily break away from the battle by going above or below either fleet.

    It was a beautiful, deadly sight. The two fleets had the enemy trapped, and the Nazi forces were starting to disintegrate. They were still dangerous, as the burning hulks of friendly ships could attest to, but the battle was against them. Outnumbered, caught between two fires…

    Robert thought on it. This was essentially what the Nazis had done to Lithgon at the Krellan Nebula, wasn't it? Now the Alliance and its allies were returning the favor, with interest.

    Aurora shook underneath him. A burning Nazi battlecruiser was firing its last defiant shots as Angel finished gutting it with the bow cannons. Several Reich gunships and destroyers moving up on their flank were facing fire not just from Aurora's smaller batteries, aimed brilliantly by Worf, but from their accompanying ships. The Wahoo and Troughton had linked up with them again, as had the Agincourt and Bastogne from the Systems Alliance fleet, and those four ships were battering down the enemy gunships approaching their flank. The Sladen and her Klingon escorts were moving their way as well.

    "We've got several more ships coming in," Cat warned. "It looks like they're launching everything they have left from the base… wait, that's odd."

    "What?", Julia asked. "What's odd?"

    "Several enemy ships just jumped to warp. They're leaving the system." Cat blinked. "If I'm reading… one of those ships was the Eichmann. And the Reich's Glory too."

    Robert and Julia exchanged looks. What could they be up to?

    It didn't matter for the moment. They had a battle to finish.

    "The enemy reinforcements are going after the Negh'Var. The Klingons are already fighting off a battlecruiser."

    "Does Gowron have any escorting support?"

    Jarod shook his head. "Not anymore."

    "Then let's get over there. It won't look good if we let an allied head-of-state get killed, will it?"

    Aurora moved away from her current position. At full impulse she rushed across the allied fleet. Robert felt immense satisfaction at the sight of one of the feared Aryan-class dreadnoughts reduced to a burning wreck. Another such dreadnought was trailing debris and atmosphere from colossal wounds in her hull, courtesy of the SSV Kilimanjaro. Angel gave the dying Aryan-class ship a few shots en passant.

    A check on the rest of the battle gave Robert a satisfying and reassuring sight. The Kentan was beside the expanding debris cloud of what had to have been an Aryan-class dreadnought… while a second Nazi dreadnought was on her other side, clearly getting the worst of Kentan's particle cannon broadsides. Admiral Maran's flagship was also facing a Lutzow-class battlecruiser on their bow. But that vessel died a moment later, under fire from two accompanying dreadnoughts from the Earth Confederacy, the Cicero and the Epaminondas.

    Another hit struck the Aurora. "Shields still at fifty-four percent," Jarod reported. "Just stray enemy fire. Some of the enemy ships are just shooting everything that's not Nazi."

    "It looks like they've lost all cohesion," Julia observed. "We're really doing it. We're winning."

    "Coming up on the Negh'Var."

    At Locarno's remark Robert and the others directed their attention back to the battle. The Klingon flagship was under fire from several enemy cruisers, including another of the Lutzow-class battlecruisers. Their disruptor bolts were starting to strike the Klingon ship's bare hull. "Take out that battlecruiser," Robert ordered. It posed the most thread to the damaged Klingon ship, while the one beside it was still engaging what was left of a Klingon attack cruiser.

    Under Angel's direction the bow cannons blazed yet again. Torpedoes raced forward from their launchers and followed the sapphire and amber fire of the Aurora's bow weapons into the decaying shields of the lead Nazi battlecruiser. Their escorting ships raced forward to engage the lighter enemy ships bedeviling Chancellor Gowron's big, ponderous flagship

    The enemy ship seemed to notice them finally. Super-disruptors lashed out at them. "Bow shields are taking a beating," Jarod warned. "Overall shield coherency down to thirty-seven percent." Another hit struck them. "Make that thirty-three."

    "Take whatever evasive action you can, Nick, but make sure Angel has clear shots."

    "I'll do what I can," Locarno said, his voice thick with bemusement at the contradictory order. Nevertheless, Robert and Julia knew that Locarno was more than up to the task. Under his control Aurora corkscrewed relative to the enemy battlecruiser while Angel continued to punish the ship. More disruptor shots came their way.

    Of course, the Nazis weren't the only ones with disruptors. The Negh'Var completed a turn and the big Klingon ship fired with her own disruptor cannons. Thick bolts of green energy slammed repeatedly into the failing shields of the Nazi battlecruiser. Photon torpedoes, red sparks against the black of space, came in next. One got through the shields and impacted on one of the enemy cruiser's super-disruptors, turning it into blazing wreckage.

    The Sladen and Wahoo raced in next. The two ships jinked and spun in space to avoid incoming fire with the kind of skill Zack would nod in appreciation at. Their powerful pulse phaser cannons erupted in amber fury and drew yet more power from the failing enemy shields. Solar torpedoes slammed into the enemy's dorsal hull. Another super-disruptor exploded, as did a missile launcher.

    The remaining weapons now fully focused on Aurora. The ship rocked violently as another super-disruptor barrage hit their shields. "The forward shield generators are going offline again, swapping to secondaries!", Lucy shouted.

    "We've got bleedthrough damage to all forward sections, Decks 6 through 14," Jarod added.

    "They're targeting us again!", Cat shouted. "The second ship is locking on!"

    Angel was pouring fire into the enemy battlecruisers as they poured fire into Aurora. Against one Lutzow-class ship, they had the technology to fight on almost even terms; facing the firepower from two, even if one had lost weapons, was not going to go well for them. Not with the shields already reduced from the earlier fighting.

    "I've got more ships coming out of warp," Caterina said as the ship shook again. "It's the Mentam and her escorts!"

    The Gersallian attack carrier appeared within firing range of the far battlecruiser. It began to launch fighters while the two light Dorei starbirds flanking it accelerated to begin their strafing runs. Powerful particle cannons built into the carrier's bow lashed out. The Gersallians had made the Mentam and ships like her to fight directly as well as bring fighters into combat, even if they could only do the former at reduced capability for their size.

    But that didn't mean their weapons wouldn't hurt.

    The new arrivals exploited the damaged battle cruiser's shifting of shields toward Aurora and Negh'Var to pour fire into her rear. Her starboard warp nacelle exploded from a direct hit. The ship began to turn, to cycle shields, but that left them vulnerable to fire from the Aurora.

    "Finish them!", Julia urged Angel.

    She didn't need to ask twice. Angel let loose with the pulse plasma cannons, making the fire as powerful and as rapid as she dared. Repeated bursts of sapphire energy struck the battlecruiser's failing shields. They utterly collapsed. Flame and debris and atmosphere trailed from the side of the enemy ship as the Aurora's bow weapons carved their way through the thinner hull armor of the battlecruiser. Solar torpedoes with nothing to stop them went right through the resulting breach of the enemy hull. They detonated within the ship.

    Suddenly the entire enemy ship disappeared in a white fireball.

    "I got their magazine!", Angel crowed.

    Robert nodded. For a moment, just a moment, he thought of that. One shot, and thousands dead. It was a reminder that for all the cost and time and effort it took to construct these massive starships, just one (un)lucky shot could wipe all of that away in a second.

    Including them.

    The remaining battlecruiser was already turning away. They were seeking to disengage, as were their surviving escort. One Z-2500, flames streaking from its hull, nevertheless successfully jumped to warp. A burning Dresden-class cruiser attempted the same but succumbed to the disruptors of an arriving heavy Bird-of-Prey.

    The Negh'Var was not about to let its quarry escape. The Klingon flagship fired all of its bow weapons in conjunction with another barrage of the Aurora's forward battery.

    After a series of explosions, what was left of the Nazi ship was dead in space.

    Data looked over at Robert. "Captain, Chancellor Gowron is hailing. Audio only."

    "Put him on," Robert said.

    The Klingon leader's voice crackled over the speaker. "I thank you for coming to my aid, Captain. Come, let us rejoin the battle! Qapla'!"

    "That will be an interesting marker to call in one day," Jarod mused. "Saving the Chancellor of the Klingon High Council."

    "Do not expect Gowron's gratitude to be as forthcoming as you might expect," Worf rumbled. "I speak from experience."

    "That's for later," Robert said. "Let's get back into the fight."

    And as it turned out, there wasn't much of a fight left.




    The battle was over.

    It had, arguably, not been in doubt after the allied forces had made the second jump on a second attack vector. But that made little difference to the beings who had still died winning it.

    Robert had felt post-battle exhaustion before. From when it was all over and you could relax, just to find your body had been running off of the adrenaline and had nothing like that now. He urgently wanted a bowl of sausage stew from Hargert, maybe a chocolate bar, and then to go to bed.

    But there was more work. Always more work. Every department had to report battle casualties, damage, specifics on what had happened. Those reports had to be read and signed off on. Orders made for repairs and the like.

    And, in this case, admirals to answer to.

    Robert had beamed over to the Kentan for the post-battle meeting. It was surprising to see that while the ship had come out of the battle intact, it hadn't avoided major damage to some systems. Nazi super-disruptors had taken out half of the ship's retrofitted phaser arrays and nearly a quarter of the particle cannons. The ship's primary shield generators were out of action. And there were still dozens, hundreds, of combat casualties. Injuries as minor as contusions from falling over while moving in the battle to near-fatal injuries from torpedo or weapon impacts on nearby hull. Robert passed a damage control party, wearing Gersallian blue work suits, on his way to the Fleet Command Chamber.

    Admiral Maran was at the central table. Admiral Hackett, General Victus, and a Klingon commander - a General Martok, Robert recalled - were present as well, as were the commanders of the allied contingents sent into the battle.

    But they weren't alone. On the viewscreen was a middle-aged man in a dark suit with a thin goatee and beard. "On behalf of the citizens of New Austria, I, Planetary Gauleiter Hans Lippold, wish to declare that our planet has been declared open by Admiral von der Goltz. The people of New Austria will offer no resistance to your forces."

    "I am pleased to hear that," Maran said. "Occupation troops are being prepared as we speak. We will signal you with the identity of the occupation authority shortly. Until then, we require that your planetary militia forces and other units on your planet disarm themselves."

    "We understand, Admiral Maran. I await further instructions."

    Once the man disappeared Robert stepped up to the table. He stood at attention until Maran nodded. "Captain." He put his hands on the table. "That was quite the scare you gave us."

    "I know, sir." Robert nodded. "I thought it best to deploy the fleet closer. Had I set up outside the system we might not have gotten the same tactical opportunity."

    "Captain Dale's plan was bold and innovative. And it gave us the edge we needed to win." Victus nodded to Robert. "Well done."

    "Thank you, General." Robert looked to Maran. "Admiral, my engineering crews are finishing repairs to our warp drive as we speak. We should be ready to depart within three hours for the Facility location. Can you give me an idea of how many allied ships can join me?"

    Maran gave Robert an intent look. He didn't like that. After looking over a list Maran shook his head. "None, Captain."

    Robert blinked. "Sir?"

    "We will deploy forces to engage their patrols in the area. That should give you a clear shot. But aside from the Sladen I cannot deploy any ships to join you on this mission."

    "Were our losses that bad?"

    "They were heavier than I would have preferred given our tactical position," Maran admitted. "The Reich fleet fought with the courage of the desperate, and they inflicted losses on us. We'll need everything we can spare just to tie up the enemy patrols near the Facility and to hold on to New Austria. We might have managed something for you, if not for…" Maran looked to Hackett.

    "The Citadel has informed the Systems Alliance that one of their Spectre agents has detected a buildup in Batarian forces near the Traverse," Hackett explained. "Considering the losses the Fifth Fleet took, I can't keep us here. I'll leave some cruisers and frigates to support base defense, but most of our fleet will be jumping back home for repairs and re-deployment to face the Batarians."

    "And with our M4P2 colonies endangered, the Allied Systems need the Systems Alliance and the Turians to ensure the Batarians don't raid our worlds again."

    With that explanation Robert could only nod. "I understand. Then we'll do it alone. Hopefully we won't need any backup."

    "You're dismissed, Captain. Good luck."

    "Thank you, sir." Robert nodded. He turned and began to walk away. As he took the first step down he looked back. "Sir, have we learned anything about those SS ships that fled instead of joining the fight?"

    "They were on a course toward the Reich's interior space," Maran replied. "Beyond that, we have no indication of what they were doing. Admiral von der Goltz wiped his computers before he surrendered."

    "Right." Robert felt uncomfortable about that. "Thank you, sir."

    He departed.




    Julia and Angel had opted for a post-battle dinner. Hargert had worked overtime to prepare a heartening meal for everyone, warm vegetable soup and beef cuts and potatoes. Now they sat at the window table and ate in exhausted silence. Occasionally they glimpsed out the window.

    The Nazi base over New Austria was mostly intact. The Turians, Klingons, and Alliance Marines - both Alliances - had each boarded at specific points and taken over after a couple of hours of resistance. The resistance had given the enemy sufficient time to wreck most of the space docks, to destroy their supply stores, and wipe their computers. The station was intact as a habitat, but as a fleet base it would have limited use until it was sufficiently repaired.

    This was the better view, at least. Further away was the graveyard of the Reich fleet. Allied ships that had been crippled and destroyed had been cleared first, towed out of the way and either finished off or jumped back to the repair yards. A reinforcement fleet from the Colonial Confederation and the Alakin had arrived to bolster the defending fleet.

    "I wonder how this will change the war," Angel finally said. She finished slurping at a spoonful of soup. "I mean, this was about twice as worse as Krellan Nebula was for us, right? There must have been five hundred Nazi warships here."

    "Supposedly five hundred and six," Julia replied. "We know at least twenty managed to break away. It might have been more, but not much more."

    "That's… damn." She smirked. "We paid those bastards back for the Nebula, didn't we?"

    "That we did." Julia took another bite. After she was done she took a moment before talking. "I never thought we'd see anything like that. Back when we started out."

    "It was insane. Ships everywhere. More targets than I knew what to do with." There was a flicker of enjoyment in Angel's eyes. "That was a big damned rush."

    "Yeah…" Julia put her spoon down. "Of course, that's just the first part."

    "Next stop, the Facility."

    At that, Julia nodded. "We have to succeed there. Otherwise…" She looked back out the window. "...all of this may have been for nothing."




    Everyone was exhausted and ready for an off-shift, but they nevertheless returned to the bridge when Robert called. He informed them candidly of what Maran had said. "We're in this alone" is how he summed it up.

    "Damn," Julia muttered. "We could have used some extra help."

    "I know. But there's nothing I could do."

    Everyone took the time to digest that. It was Jarod who clapped a hand on his console. "Well, it's just us then. Whatever happens, we'll deal with it, right?"

    "Right," Locarno agreed.

    "Right!", Cat shouted.

    Angel nodded from the tactical station. "For the Light, we will prevail," Meridina remarked from beside her. That got a nod of support from Lucy.

    "My Marines are ready for whatever the Nazis throw at us," Kane promised from where he and Shepard were observing from the port side of the bridge.

    "We have won a glorious battle." Worf grinned. "Another awaits."

    "Time may be of the essence," Data reminded them. "I would recommend we do not delay."

    "I'm with Data. It's time to go," Julia said.

    Robert keyed the intercom. "Bridge to Engineering. Scotty, how are the drives? Are your repairs complete?"

    "My bairns are ready an' waitin' for yer command, Cap'n. Ye'll have full warp power."

    "You heard the man." Robert grinned at Locarno. "Set a course for Gamma Piratus, best speed."

    "Aye, Captain," Locarno cheerfully answered. His hands moved over his board. "Breaking from orbit."

    The Aurora moved away from the planet and the fleet over it. It took a couple of minutes for the ship to start to clear the area and be ready for warp.

    "We are receiving several signals from the allied fleet," Data informed them. "While all have their own wording, I believe I can sum up their meanings as 'good luck'."

    "Signal our thanks for their well-wishes, Data," Robert replied. "Nick, are we ready?"

    "We're clear. Warp power at your command."

    Robert swallowed and nodded. "Engage."

    There was a flash of light from the Aurora's warp nacelles. A moment later they were gone, leaving behind their greatest battle yet for the even more important battle to come.


    Tag


    That night, Robert had the nightmare again.

    He could see in the Facility. Shepard unconscious. Data laid out with smoke rising from his damaged torso. Worf and Kane shot dead, Meridina sprawled out with the back of her head missing. Cat in one corner, weeping in terror as a shadowy figure lifted a gun to her head.

    "No!", Robert cried out.

    It did nothing. There was a gunshot. Cat fell over with a hole in her forehead.

    And suddenly he was back on the Aurora bridge. Smoke filled the air. The ship was rocking violently below him. And then there was an explosion, the roof was gone…

    ...and he tried, and failed, to save Julia, who screamed his name as she was sucked out into space.

    And through it all, he could hear their voices. Worf's deep timbre, Meridina's almost melodic, soothing voice, Cat's high shriek of terror…

    And he just about made it out, too.

    We needed you! You weren't there and we needed you!

    For a brief moment, an object appeared in his mind. Just the object, like a picture being shown to him...

    He was jolted awake a moment later. He sat up and looked around. Angel was laid beside him, tired enough that he hadn't woken her up. He swallowed and looked to a chronometer. 0200.

    Just a little over a day. We're arriving at 0900 tomorrow. I've got until then to figure this out.

    He got out of his bed and went to his desk. For a moment he just spent time signing the final after-action reports from the departments. Then he checked the update on enemy ship positions. Multiple ships were already heading out to engage the enemy ships in the region. They would have their opening.

    As he thought on the dream, his eyes fell again on the orange disk in the gold frame. He reached over toward it. His fingers trembled; it was like he could feel energy within it.

    It had been in his dream. Why? What was this mysterious object, this thing that the Consort thought he should have? She said it would provide him help in the near and far futures. How?

    He went to grasp it.

    But the ship's intercom interrupted him. "Lucero to Dale."

    For a moment he didn't react. It was only when Lucy's voice came over again - "Lucero to Dale, please respond. This is important." - that he reacted. "Dale here," he said after pressing a receive key on his desk.

    "Commander Data and I need to see you and the Command Staff. Now."

    "In the middle of the… alright. Okay. Call everyone, we'll meet in the Main Conference Room."




    There were many displeased looks in the Conference Room. The Aurora and Sladen command crews were present, taking up every chair. "Commander, Lieutenant," Robert said to them. "You may begin."

    Lucy looked to Data. "You should start, sir."

    Data gave a slight nod in reply. "Some time ago, I discovered that there was a discrepancy in the logged communications activities through the ship's interuniversal communications system. The bandwidth through the system was being used in ways not being logged in the computers."

    "Someone's spying on us, then?", Leo asked.

    "Just what we need," Angel moaned. "Another Changeling problem."

    "It does not appear to be a Founder," Data remarked. "Lieutenant?"

    Lucy noticed her cue and spoke up. "I looked over the data with Commander Meridina's blessing. It took a few days of checking our active communications and attempting data recovery on the systems. I was able to find traces of the unauthorized communications in the system. Whoever was sending them was bypassing our command protocols. I couldn't figure out how they could do so without setting off any alarms in the system. The only way I could determine was that they could turn them off and keep it from getting logged."

    "Woh." Cat blinked. "But… that would mean…"

    "According to the security regulations in use by the Alliance, this authority is limited solely to command officers," Data explained. "Or officers one post removed from command authority."

    "Which basically means everyone in this room."

    "So… one of us is the spy?", Angel asked. She was clearly incredulous.

    Lucy nodded. "I couldn't believe it. I triple-checked everything. But… it was the only explanation. So I did some checking into the access times, to see if I could find a clue."

    "And did you?", King asked.

    "Yes, Commander." Lucy nodded at her. She reached over and hit a key. An empty log appeared. "I tried to see if I could match command authority uses to the proper times. But I was coming up with nothing. And then I remembered that I had another ship to look over. I finished that this evening while I was winding down from the battle."

    The realization dawned on everyone over the next few seconds. Uncomfortable glances started to move toward King and her officers.

    "I found indications of a command override code being used on…"

    "Enough of this." King stood. "Lieutenant, you needn't go on."

    Lucy looked at her with arms crossed. "I don't?"

    "No. There's no point in letting you draw this out." King put her hands on the table. "The transmissions were sent by me."

    Even her own officers glanced at her. "Commander/", Caldwell asked. "What do you mean?"

    "I have been working for a superior officer," King stated. "A covert evaluation of your behavior and activities."

    Robert frowned. So did Julia, and she was the one who immediately seized upon that. "You mean Davies," Julia said, her tone harsh. "You've been spying on us for Admiral Davies."

    King nodded. "That is correct."

    There was stunned silence in the room. It lasted several seconds. It only ended when Robert managed to force the question out. "Why? Why are you spying on us?"

    "It is necessary for the safety and security of the Alliance." King eyed Meridina intently. "There are forces at work that would undermine our new Alliance and subjugate us. Admiral Davies is trying to root them out."

    "You refer to my people, do you not?", Meridina asked.

    "That's bullcrap," Leo declared. "This is just another damned witch hunt!"

    "No, Doctor Gillam, it is not," King declared. "It is an attempt to protect the minds and wills of our people." She looked over them. "You… have no idea of what has been going on, have you?"

    "Not of whatever it is you're alluding to, no," Robert growled.

    "I see." King nodded. "Then, before you judge me further, perhaps I should tell you. And let you judge for yourselves."

    The Aurora officers looked at each other again. It was clear Angel had no interest in what King had to say. Leo didn't look entirely caring either. But Cat's curiosity had clearly taken hold of her, and there was an intent look on Scotty's face.

    "Well, this is going to be interesting," Jarod sighed.

    After making sure everyone had a chance to respond, Robert exchanged a final curious look with Julia before returning his eyes to his perfidious escort commander. "Alright, Commander King. You have our attention." He leaned forward. "Tell us what's going on."
     
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