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"Whispers of Destiny" - Undiscovered Frontier Season 2 (Star Trek/BattleTech/Mass Effect/Others)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Big Steve, Nov 21, 2019.

  1. Index: Season 2 Episode List
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
    Likes Received:
    On to Season 2, aka "Where the stories all started to get bigger".

    Series Pilot - "A Time for Heroes"

    Season 1 - "Seeking the Past"
    - Complete, 432,304 words

    Season 2 - "Whispers of Destiny" - Complete, 631,155 words

    2-01 "A Dark Reflection" - 26,417 words
    The Aurora crew return to the 1850s-era Earth they once interfered with and encounter a deadly new foe; Zack and his crew prepare to depart from the Refugee Fleet as the election between Roslin and Baltar comes to its final, surprising conclusion.

    2-02 "Hunter and Prey" - 28,463 words
    An alien serial killer stalks the corridors of Deep Space Nine during a vital diplomatic summit.

    2-03 "The Measure of a Life" - 33,210 words
    The peace of the Inner Sphere is in Leo's hands when he is asked to save the life of a terminally-ill prince.

    2-04 "Diplomatic Maneuvers" - 28,554 words
    Robert attends a peace summit at Stargate Command with the Goa'uld System Lords.

    2-05 "What is Past…" - 28,570 words
    Locarno is forced to consider his past mistakes after being shot down on a Nazi-controlled planet.

    2-06 "The Important Things" - 23,001 words
    The Aurora crew celebrate another anniversary of the New Liberty Colony.

    2-07 "Family Matters" - 40,672 words
    Jarod faces the Centre for the future of his family.

    2-08 "The Wages of Fear" - 38,055 words
    Political tensions threaten to tear the Alliance apart.

    2-09 "Whispers of Destiny" - 41,958 words
    Ancient secrets will be revealed when Meridina stands trial for her life before the Order of Swenya; Julia is faced with a fateful choice for her future.

    2-10 "The Path Before Us" - 35,647 words
    Robert, Lucy, and Meridina each face new challenges with the changes in their lives; the Aurora crew are sent to parley with the Clans of Kerensky to prevent a new outbreak of war.

    2-11 "Under Fire" - 35,766 words
    Leo faces tough decisions while working in a field hospital under Nazi attack.

    2-12 "Common Ground" - 38,222 words
    The Koenig comes to the assistance of alien wanderers during training exercises with the Citadel races; Robert and his crew attempt to negotiate peace with the Batarian Hegemony.

    2-13 "A Tale of Two Sisters" - 25,369 words
    Angela and Caterina help a group of alien-seeking 21st Century Londoners being stalked by an alien monster.

    2-14 "Solarian Nights" - 47,007 words
    The Aurora crew visits the city-moon of Solaris and gets caught in a game of intrigue with an enigmatic billionaire.

    2-15 "Blast from the Past" - 42,845 words
    The Aurora crew must protect an Earth seeking Alliance membership from a powerful empire.

    2-16 "All That Remains" - 43,215 words
    Robert and Meridina seek out the rebel telepath Lyta Alexander to learn more about the Darglan and their connection to the First Ones.

    2-17 "Between Two Fires" - 31,491 words
    The Aurora crew struggle to repair their crippled ship while helping the alien traveler known as the Doctor investigate a mysterious army of ghosts.

    2-18 "Choices" - 42,693 words
    Caught in the crossfire between the Daleks and Cybermen, Robert and his friends face decisions that will change their lives forever.
    Last edited: Feb 25, 2020
  2. Threadmarks: 2-01 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
    Likes Received:

    The Starship Aurora continued her slow course through space. She was designed with a sleek appearance formed around two hulls that blended together. From her narrower bow to the widest point of her beam was about a third of the ship's length; at that point the hulls met seamlessly. The forward "primary" hull had at its rear a large shuttle bay and the dock for an attack ship-sized vessel, while below the drive hull dipped below the bottom of the primary hull to reveal the ship's navigational deflector and, above it, torpedo launchers. Beyond the drive hull continued, marked by a green dash along the center that was accompanied by the seal of the Allied Systems. The top deck was the hanger for the ship's fighters, with both a landing deck and launch tubes for rapid deployment. Around the drive hull were four large warp nacelles in a flat X layout.

    The azure-sheened vessel, in the service of the interuniversal United Alliance of Systems, was the most unique and arguably most advanced vessel in the Alliance fleet. Constructed with Darglan technology, some of which had yet to be matched by the Alliance itself, the ship was a standard-bearer for the Alliance it served.

    But simply because she was such, it did not mean that the more mundane elements of life could not be found within her kilometer-long hull.

    The private corner of the gymnasium area had a small group standing and watching. Among them was the ship's Chief Medical Officer Doctor Leonard Gillam. Known as Leo to his friends, he was wearing a standard duty uniform with the blue medical trim bordering the primarily black coloring of the uniform. A white labcoat with his name embroidered over the right chest was worn over the uniform. He stood with his arms crossed and a bemused look on his face. "He can't hold it that much longer."

    "Aren't ye underestimatin' th' Cap'n a wee bit, Doctor?", asked the much older Commander Montgomery Scott. The old Starfleet legend known to many as "Scotty" was now Chief Engineer of the Aurora. It was a post that he enjoyed, allowing him to work with the Darglan technology that the Aurora crew had introduced him to and to mentor the young people that had literally saved his life. He was in his favored engineer outfit of a black vest over a white jacket with black trousers, his three gold strips of rank insignia fitted on the right of the vest.

    "I've got ten credits that says he drops it within a minute." The better was the ship's Operations Officer, Lieutenant Commander Jarod, with the beige color of Operations on his black uniform. The lack of a surname was intentional on the part of the savant, whose ability to function in any occupation on account of his incredible intelligence had previously earned him the sobriquet of "the Pretender".

    "Yeah, no offense Jarod, but I don't think anyone is willing to bet against you." That was from the Aurora's Navigation Officer, Lieutenant Nicholas Locarno. A native of Universe S5T3 like Scotty, he was standing and watching with a bemused look and crossed arms. The red of ship control and command was on his uniform.

    "I'll take that bet." The offer was from Lieutenant Lucilla "Lucy" Lucero, Jarod's immediate subordinate. Unlike the others she wasn't in a uniform or engineer's vest, but wearing a brown robe much like the subject of their discussion.

    The five gave no reaction at the steady glare they got from the second figure in their sight. Lieutenant Commander Meridina - a Gersallian, one of a number of species in various universes who resembled Humans on the outside - was not in uniform. Nor was she in the brown robe, but rather a blue robe that had been set to the side for the moment with only the dark purple bodysuit remaining as her garb. Robes did not quite go well with standing on one's hand.

    Despite the fact that the Aurora's chief of security was upside down, her slight irritation with Lucy's snarkiness was evident. Lucy returned it with a brief sticking out of her tongue, a customary act of rebellion toward her teacher. She endured the telepathic scolding that came without saying a thing of it, or even thinking much of it. Meridina, as it was, had other things on her mind. The need to focus on the fifty kilogram barbell weight she was holding up with her life force abilities, for instance.

    But she was not the center of attention. That was to her newest student. Captain Robert Dale was wearing a sleeveless vest that had been tucked into red sweat pants, a concession to the fact that he too was standing on his hand and upside down. But he was not quite as poised as Meridina. He wobbled slightly, one way and then another, as he struggled to keep himself stable. His other hand was held out as well. But where Meridina was holding up the barbell, he was doing the same with a simple digital notepad. Sweat continued to drip from his brow to the mat. His green eyes were intent upon the notepad.

    Everyone else counted down the time. Lucy gave a bemused look to Jarod when the sixty second mark was passed. He smirked and handed her a bill drawn from his uniform pocket.

    As she put it with her things, Robert swayed a little too far back. He struggled to keep his position and let go of the notepad. It nearly clattered on the floor before he grabbed it again. This, however, distracted him further from keeping his balance. It had shifted the other way. This time, there was not going to be a last minute correction. Robert toppled over with a "Woh!" and belly-flopped onto the mat with enough force to knock the air out of his lungs for a moment. "Unh!"

    "Damn. I was off by seven seconds," Jarod groused.

    Meridina set the barbell down gently. Lucy watched her make an elegant jump off her hand to land upright on her feet. Like she had just made a short hop. "I shall have to restrict our training to holodecks only," Meridina sighed to Lucy. She looked over the crowd. "You gentlemen should know better than to disturb Robert in his training," she said to Jarod and the others in a pointed tone. A sharp pointed one, that is. "Especially you." That line was specifically directed at Lucy, who pretended to ignore it for the moment.

    Robert rolled over onto his back and sat up to see everyone looking at him. "You guys really find entertainment in my misery?", he asked.

    "It's just interesting," Nick insisted. "Misery's pushing it."

    "Although there is a certain amusement to it," Jarod admitted with a playful smirk.

    Robert matched that smirk. "Meridina," he said, "please remind me later to see if Commander Andreys can find a way to assign our senior staff to punishment duty in waste extraction."

    Meridina smiled at that. "An interesting proposition." A mischievous twinkle appeared in her brilliant blue eyes. "I will have to remember that."

    "That is not playing fair," Leo complained.

    Robert reached up and let Meridina help him up. "Alright everyone, back to work," he said. "The show's over. I'll see you two on the bridge." He eyed Jarod and Locarno.

    As everyone started leaving, he looked to Meridina. "I'm at least improving, aren't I?"

    "You are," she agreed. "Which is why we will make your object heavier starting tomorrow."

    Robert made a face at that. "You are more sadistic than my wide receiver coach back in High School. Do you know that, Meridina?"

    "Truly?" That bemused twinkle returned to her eye. "I may have to seek this coach out and consult with him. Perhaps he will know ways to better train you."

    The mental image caused Robert to chuckle, even if it also seemed a bit horrifying. Lucy did so as well. "You're starting to get it," Lucy said. She didn't speak on how he seemed to be going slower than she had in the learning. Everyone learned this thing at their own speed, after all.

    "Indeed." Meridina picked her robe up. "I understand you have duties to get to. I need to begin Lucy's training for the day." She gave her other student a look. "I suspect she will not enjoy it all herself."

    "It's Meridina's excuse to make me suffer," Lucy sighed.

    "Yeah, I sort of got that." Still favoring his ribs a little, if just from the sheer surprise of his belly-flop's impact, Robert started walking away. "I'll see you later."

    An hour later Robert was in his ready room with a number of digital pads on the desk. Each had information demanding his attention. The provider of those pads remained standing on the other side of the desk with a look of tried patience in her green eyes.

    Commander Julia Andreys, the First Officer of the Aurora and his oldest friend - and by oldest he meant that they had known each other so long that they couldn't remember a time they didn't know each other closely - had put her rich blond hair into a ponytail at the back of her head. Their black uniforms had red trim at the shoulders and cuffs and elsewhere that denoted them as command officers. Each looked to be in the pinnacle of health for adults in their late 20s. "How is the training going?", she asked.

    "It is proceeding," he answered, being intentionally vague. "Angel is getting used to it. It's odd that after everything, this stuff is the thing that's causing the most problems in our relationship.

    "Angel has never been one for metaphysics," Julia noted.

    Robert nodded and continued looking over the pads. "Well, it looks like we owe a debt of thanks for the work of the Command Spacedock repair crews."

    "We do. The flight deck is operating just fine."

    Seeing a note on a second datapad with personal listings, Robert asked, "We actually have a Gy'toran crewmember now?"

    Julia nodded. "Crewman Peglemitar. He's assigned to the machine shop, Bravo Shift."

    "Well, I suppose a machine shop's a good place for a hexalimbed crewman to be." Robert continued to look over the listing. "And… seriously, a Zygonian? I didn't even think they were signing up."

    "This one is." Julia smiled thinly. "Crewman Thalaz is actually asking permission to train with Padre Mann."

    Robert blinked.

    "I thought you knew that?" Julia's smile grew. "That the Zygonians were Catholic?"

    "No. No I did not," Robert admitted.

    "And they have their own Pope."

    At that, Robert shook his head. "Universe S0T5 is weird."

    Julia chuckled. "So, C1P2 Earth," she said.

    "C1P2 Earth," he answered, nodding. "We're not making a full visit, obviously. Still…"

    "...you get to remember the guy responsible for Bleeding Sumner trying to break another cane," Julia said, smiling widely. "On your head."

    "Laying that guy out with a punch was one of the most fun things I ever did."

    Robert drew in a sigh. "It used to be so simple, didn't it Julia?"


    "We just went around rescuing people, helping them. No government business, no Nazis… just us and a bunch of small ships, and the closest thing we had to a uniform was that we all started to wear something blue half the time."

    "Those were the days."

    "There are times I wonder," Robert admitted. "That I wonder if things wouldn't be better off if we had never let ourselves get pulled into this stuff. If we had just kept doing our own thing and helping people who needed it."

    "I think this life has its own rewards." Julia looked over a datapad. They felt a slight thrum go through the ship. The Aurora had dropped out of warp. "I'd rather not look back."

    Robert opened his mouth to reply. As the sound formed in his throat a tone at his desk interrupted him. He reached his hand over from one of the digital pads and pressed an acceptance key. "Dale here."

    "Captain, we've just come out of warp", Jarod replied. "You… I think there's something you need to see.."

    Robert's initial reaction was confusion. Confusion that was clear in his expression and shared in Julia's bewildered look. He could feel disbelief coming from outside the room. They stood up at the same time and made it for the door. Jarod was at Ops. "What is it?"

    "We just made orbit of Earth C1P2," Jarod said. He looked ahead at the screen. "Look."

    Robert and Julia fixed their gaze on the viewscreen.

    The breath left their lungs in a collective gasp of disbelief.

    C1P2 Earth was burning.

    Undiscovered Frontier
    "A Dark Reflection"

    The image of the Earth on his screen was one Robert knew would remain with him for the rest of his life. The Earth of C1P2 was literally burning in front of his eyes. Smoke was filling the atmosphere from the bright orange blazes covering the urban centers.

    "What the hell?", he gasped. "What happened here?"

    Caterina Delgado, the ship's Science Officer and younger sister to Robert's girlfriend Angela, was already hard at work at her sensor station. "I'm scanning now. There is some kind of energy signature coming from some of the cities. I think they were subjected to limited energy weapon bombardment."

    "Going by comparisons to our old sensor returns, we're looking at a death toll in the millions," Jarod said. "Tens of millions. It's hard to get adequate readings. Most of the urban areas in Europe have been damaged and a few outright destroyed. So have a number of the big cities in the Indian Subcontinent and East Asia. Cape Town, Cairo, Rio de Janeiro…"

    "What could have done this?", Julia asked. Her voice was hoarse with horror. "This world didn't have anything approaching the technology to manage this. Someone else did this."

    A very horrible prospect crossed Robert's mind. His stomach clenched in anticipation as he asked, "Jarod, Cat…. could this be the Nazis?" After all they had done to keep Darglan technology out of the hands of the Third Reich of Universe S4W8, could they have failed in the end?

    "No," Cat said, to his immediate relief. "The energy signature doesn't match Nazi disruptor technology."

    "Then what does it match?", Julia asked. "Can you tell us that?"

    Caterina took a few moments before answering. "No. No, I… this can't be right."

    "What?", Julia asked. "What's wrong?"

    "The readings. The energy type. There's only one ship that could have caused them."

    Robert and Julia turned their heads to their left to face the sensor station on the port side of the bridge. "Who?", Robert asked.

    Cat had a look of pure confusion on her face when she turned back to face them. It was not a common look for her, and the fact she had it made the situation all the more dire.

    But not as dire as her answer.

    "Us," Caterina said.

    Everyone had assembled in the ship's main conference room. They heard the news. "What do you mean it was us?", Leo asked Cat.

    "Us as in the Aurora," she answered. "The weapons used to devastate the planet were our main batteries."

    "You mean the ship used the same tech…"

    "No. Not just the same tech… only the Aurora has pulse plasma cannons big enough to cause this kind of pattern," Caterina insisted. "Only our ship. No others."

    "No others that we know of," Jarod clarified.

    "What about the monitoring probe we left?", Julia asked. "Why didn't it alert us to what happened?"

    "Because whoever was here knew how to hack its programming," Jarod explained. "It was reset to transmit false sensor information to the Alliance. If we hadn't come out to check them out, we would never have known what happened here."

    "And what happened here…" Robert looked back to the readings. "...is that the Aurora apparently bombed the planet."

    "Going by the energy signatures at least," Jarod said. "Obviously we couldn't have done it."

    "Could this be an attack on us? As in literally us?", Angela Delgado asked out loud. She was frowning. "Maybe this is some attempt by Admiral Davies to frame us? Maybe he had a ship built to carry cannons like ours…"

    Julia shook her head. "I find it hard to believe he'd be able to do that and not be found out. I mean, we haven't had the opportunity to launch these kinds of attacks. We just got back out into space a few weeks ago and Admiral Maran's been keeping us busy."

    "But maybe…"

    "Whatever's going on, I want us to be careful with this investigation," Robert interceded. "I've already sent what we have to Admiral Maran and asked for instructions. Jarod, Cat, Scotty, I'd like you to over the sensor records. See if you can find out more about this. We'll hold position until we get orders."

    Leo raised a hand. "What about the people down there? Every minute we waste, we could be saving thousands."

    "We only have so many resources, Leo," Robert pointed out. "And until I hear otherwise, the planet is still legally protected by the contact limitation regulations."

    "So we're just going to leave people to die?", Leo asked. His voice was sharp.

    Robert frowned at that. "If we go down, it might be the opening Hawthorne and Davies have been looking for," he pointed out.

    "So it's not worth the lives we'll save?"

    Robert drew in a breath. He had nothing to say to that. Leo was right.

    Julia spoke up. "You know, the contact regulations make it clear that there are exceptions. We can stop a calamity caused by more advanced technology they shouldn't have, for instance. And having a bunch of cities burnt out by plasma weaponry certainly counts as a calamity caused by something not from 19th Century Earth. A limited mission should be feasible."

    Robert thought it over in his head. "Alright," he conceded. "We'll never be able to help everyone so… Leo, I'll leave it to you. Pick where we send medical teams and we'll do what we can. In the meantime, Jarod, see if those communication devices we left are still working. Maybe there's still a functioning government down there that can respond to us."

    "I'll do what I can," he said.

    "You're all dismissed," Robert said.

    As everyone filed out of the room, Meridina and Lucy nodded to each other. They rushed to join Leo in the turbolift linking the conference room to the ship's lift tubes and entered right behind him. Before he took notice of them, he said, "Deck 12." Then he turned to them. "Commander, Lucy," he said.

    "Doctor, we would be interested in going down with you," Meridina said.

    "Well, I will need security. And a pilot for the St. Johns. So it'll work."

    "Good," Lucy said. "See you in the shuttle bay in half an hour?"

    "Try twenty minutes," he pointed out.

    "I will prepare a security team."

    "Prepare four, I'm sending half of my surgeons down to various locations," Leo said. "I'm not having it said I played favorites."

    "Of course. I will make preparations and meet you in the shuttle bay."

    It didn't take long for Admiral Maran to respond. The Gersallian admiral was one of the most respected commanders in the entire Alliance. Years before the Alliance he had defeated the Tresalian Domination in its attempt to conquer the L'wi'ma, overseen the Dorei-Gersallian fleet that broke the power of the Coserian Empire, and more recently had commanded the Alliance and allied fleets that had utterly destroyed an entire Nazi battle fleet at New Austria. Robert noted that whatever stresses he now held as the head of President Morgan's Defense Staff, he hadn't added any new gray to the lines of gray through his otherwise-brown hair and beard. "We've gone over your data and reports here in Portland. It's causing a lot of concern, obviously."

    "It's causing it here too, sir," Robert replied. He was alone in his ready room. Outside the window the Earth was still turning beneath them. "I can't help but think someone's trying to frame us. But I don't see how anyone with the ability to could do so and think it'd work. The Aurora has been on the go for weeks and in the dock for weeks before that. We've never had an opportunity to make an attack like this."

    Maran could tell what he was thinking of. "It wasn't Hawthorne or Davies, Captain. I'm quite sure of that."

    "How could you be sure? They put a spy in my crew, sir…"

    "I know. But I saw their reactions to the news. They're more horrified than anything. We all are. The ramifications of this are major."

    Robert nodded. "If we didn't do it, and it didn't come from the Alliance…"

    "...then someone else did. Someone else with access to Darglan technology."

    "I've been worried that the Nazis might have gotten something from the Gamma PIratus base. But could they have put anything into action this soon?"

    "I doubt it. According to our sources, the Reich's been reeling ever since the fight at New Austria. Over a dozen major colony worlds have rebelled and come under the protection of our fleet. They're throwing everything they have into establishing a new defensive position in Dralensa… or whatever they call it in their maps." Maran shook his head. "With just a few months? I doubt they could have fitted an IU drive and Darglan plasma weapons to a ship this quickly."

    "If it's not them, then it has to be someone else." A thought came to Robert's mind. "When we went over the data from the Darglan databanks we recovered in E5B1, I remember that they included the existence of a third Facility. On another Earth."

    "That is a possibility. And that's what you're going to investigate. Your prior orders are suspended for the time being, Captain. I want all effort put into finding out what attacked C1P2 and where they got their Darglan technology."

    "I thought you'd want that, sir. I already assigned Jarod and Cat to an investigation." A thought came to him. "Admiral, I was wondering…"


    "You've yet to assign us a support ship," Robert pointed out. "Haven't the Colonies settled now? I thought the Koenig would be re-assigned by now."

    "Ah, yes." Maran nodded. "It is my understanding that the final decision on where they will settle is being decided by their election. As soon as we have confirmation of their choice and the needed steps have been taken, I'll send Commander Carrey his new orders." Maran's expression betrayed some concern. "I hope his time with the Colonials has improved upon his issues being under your command."

    "I think things will be better this time," Robert answered. He grinned slightly. "Zack just needed a chance to spread his wings and fly."

    Laughter filled the military comm channels used by the Colonial fleet. Commander Zachary Carrey, of the Starship Koenig, continued his enthusiastic laughter as he banked the Mark VII Viper from the Battlestar Pegasus around his ship. The squat, tough little Koenig was in her place beyond the Colonial Fleet and provided him plenty of room for maneuver. Her azure-sheened hull moved along quickly above him. He banked again and sent his ship within the forward wing-like sweep of its port warp nacelle, just beside the emitters for the vessel's powerful pulse phaser cannons.

    Behind him another Viper soared in pursuit. Captain Kara "Starbuck" Thrace, commanding the Pegasus' fighters, was his wingman/competition for this flight. She was pushing her Viper as hard as Zack was pushing his. The only reason she'd fallen a half second behind was his tight maneuver around the Koenig's aft section twenty seconds earlier.

    But now her Viper accelerated further. Zack went for the nose of the Koenig and the purported finish line. Just as he reached it Kara's Viper zoomed past. "Dammit!," he shouted, laughing. "I almost had it!"

    "Almost doesn't cut it, Loverboy."

    Zack blinked as he powered his engines down to a standard acceleration. The Koenig was now behind them. "Excuse me? 'Loverboy'?"

    "That's your new handle," Kara announced. "Our pilots all agreed on it."

    "Seriously? 'Loverboy'? That's..."

    "Everyone in the Fleet has to know by now how that cute nurse has you wrapped around her finger, Carrey," was the reply. "So that's your official handle. End of story."

    He had to chuckle at that. "Well, I suppose there are worse. I would have picked 'Fastball' myself."

    "Hopefully not too fast, or your nurse might move on."

    "Oh. Oh, that smarts…" Zack chuckled again. "I've got to say, I love how these things handle. They're lighter than our Mongoose fighters."

    "Yeah, but your fighters carry heavier ordnance and have all of the extra tech on them. I wouldn't mind your people building us a Mark VIII with all of your toys."

    "Maybe they are." He eyed his fuel reserves and the time. "Well, I suppose I'd better get back. Coming to the game? The eight-to-ten year old bracket teams are holding their championship, first round play. I think the kids from the Faru Sadin are going to give a real good game, I haven't seen batting that good in ages."

    "Samuel will be there, so I'll be there. Let's get back, Loverboy."

    Zack shook his head and couldn't get the smirk off his face. "I'm on your wing, Starbuck."

    "Good." There was a pause. "Pegasus Actual, this is Starbuck. Coming back now. Let Colonel Fisk know I'll have that readiness report ready for him soon."

    "The Colonel isn't here, ma'am. He left for meetings.," a voice replied. Zack recognized it as Lieutenant Hoshi from the Pegasus. "But I'll make sure he gets the report as soon as he gets back."

    Zack noticed that Kara went to their direct taclink before saying, "Well, frak it all. He rides my ass for it and now this?"

    "He does seem to go off for plenty of meetings, doesn't he?", Zack noted. "I wonder if it's over the election."

    "If he endorses anyone, the Old Man will have his head."

    That sounded right. Adama had made it pretty clear in meetings with the various officers under his command that the election was meant to be hand's off. No endorsing, just vote quietly and be done with it. Or not vote at all in Zack's case.

    There was nothing more to be said as they flew back to the Pegasus.

    Leo had sent multiple teams to various points of Earth C1P2 to do something, anything, to help the inhabitants. He couldn't ignore his own sentiments having weighed in on his choice of location, however. His family had originally come from Georgia, and it was to Georgia and the flaming wreckage not far from Atlanta that he and his team arrived.

    Meridina and Lucy had helped to set everything up. Now a long line of people, black and white, were forming to accept the food coming from the St. Johns' replicator and the medical treatments Leo and his nurses were offering.

    One bedraggled couple, poor white farmers, were waiting at the door when Leo emerged with a four year old boy. "I gave him treatments for the fever," he told them. "He'll be okay."

    "Hallelujah," the weeping mother said.

    Leo watched them go. Next up were two young ex-slaves with equally tattered clothing to the prior couple. A pair of infants were in their arms and barely moved. "Please, massa," the man said. "Help ou' poor babes."

    "Don't call me that," Leo said abruptly. He caught himself and winced. "I'm sorry. I'm Doctor Gillam, not 'Master' or 'Massa'. And let me see…" He ran his medical scanner over them and looked at the results on his multidevice screen. "They were premature. They're too weak. Djamal!" A male Dorei nurse emerged from the medical module in the runabout. Leo indicated them. "Take them in. Put nutrient IVs on the babies, stat."

    "Yes Doctor." The blue-skinned, purple-spotted Dorei looked to the awestruck people. "Please, come with me," he said.

    Whatever terror or bewilderment the sight of an alien gave the couple, their need to care for their children overrode that sentiment. They quietly followed Djamal in. Behind them, one of Meridina's security officers quietly entered the module as well. The Thai woman's hand was resting on her pistol holster. Leo didn't quite like that, but he imagined it was better to be prepared when around desperate people.

    Nearby Meridina and Lucy were handing out food rations. "Such terrible loss," Meridina observed. "You feel it?"

    Lucy nodded. She had grown more sensitive to the Flow of Life since Meridina had introduced it to her on the Citadel. She could faintly make it out here. It was cold and quiet, not at all possessing the warmth and vibrance she had first seen. "I do. Is this why you wanted to come down?"

    "Somewhat. Did you feel as I did? The pull to this place?"

    "Yeah, I did," Lucy said. "It's why I landed here when Leo picked 'Georgia'. I felt like we needed to be here. LIke this is where we could do the most good."

    "Yes." Meridina nodded. "As did I."

    "Who could have done this?"

    "I am not sure. But…" Meridina went silent for a moment. "Wait."

    There was a growing commotion in the lines. An older man, white with graying and bedraggled hair and the ruins of what had once been a nice black suit, was howling in their direction. "What are you doing?!", he screamed. "Have you no pride!? You come to these fanatics, these murdering thieves, why? There shouldn't be a white face here! Have you lost your pride?!"

    Leo and Meridina stepped up toward the trouble-maker. "His mind is unhinged," Meridina warned.

    "Sir, please calm down," Leo said in a quiet voice. "We'll get you food and medical…"

    The older man's shrieking cut him off. "I'll have nothing from you, nigger!"

    Meridina felt the revulsion and anger surge in Leo. "I am unfamiliar with that word," she said. "Is it an insult?"

    "Racial slur," was his simple reply. Leo kept his attention on the man. "Then if you're not going to accept our help, sir, I suggest you leave."

    "This is my home!," the man thundered. "Mine! It'll always be mine! They'll always be mine!" He gestured toward the line of people. It wasn't hard to guess which of those in the line he was talking about. "All of this land is mine! You can drive off the O'Haras, the Hamiltons, the Wilkeses… but not me! My land! Won by my family! I…"

    Leo made ready to tranquilize the raving man. But before he could, their verbal assailant stopped. Horror started to cross his face.

    Meridina felt the horror. She could also feel something else. A presence of some sort. She looked around at the crowds and saw nothing. Nothing with her eyes anyway. But there was someone else here. That she was certain of.

    The older man screamed an inarticulate phrase and started running toward the nearby trees. Leo looked at Meridina. "He's mad, isn't he?"

    "Mad with grief and loss and terror," she said. "But I believe he has reason to run. Please, remain here and continue the work. I will be back shortly." Meridina looked to Lucy. "Be on your guard. Feel with your swevyra."

    Lucy nodded.

    Meridina turned and pursued the man into the woods.

    The crazed man was Lionel Roger Cobb. He had been born on the family plantation, raised there, educated in the finest university in Georgia, and became one of many of his class to assume political and social authority in their state.

    And he'd owned slaves of course. When news started coming in of mysterious attacks on plantations, of entire plantations being stripped of slaves, he'd hired even more overseers and cracked down on his workers even more. For their own protection. There was no telling what crazed abolitionist force was responsible. And he had supported secession as a matter of course when the Northern states failed to ratify the amendment to protect slavery in the Union.

    And then the fires had come. The bolts from the sky, unlike any lightning, that ruined his family home and killed his wife and daughters and son. His remaining slaves had run off in the chaos that followed the judgement from the skies and he had been left alone.

    But for Cobb, the important thing was that he knew he was being pursued. He knew why. He'd seen the old home at Tara and what the abandoned home was being used for.

    His tired, famished body forced Cobb to stop. He couldn't continue on as he was. He was too weak. But he had to escape. Escape the phantom who dwelt there.

    "Did you think I'd forgotten you?", a voice called out.

    Cobb's blood froze. Through his madness he knew he was about to die.

    "Do you remember her name, Lionel Cobb?", the voice asked. "The name of the slave girl your son raped?"

    "My boy knew better than to touch them!", Cobb raged. "Liars! All liars! They said so!"

    "They said so after you stripped the flesh from their backs," the voice pointed out. Anger had seeped into it. "And now I'm going to kill you for that."

    "Abolitionist monsters! Fanatics! You've burned everything!", Cobb screamed. He knew he was about to die.

    There was movement. He turned. The man in the dark suit was there. Dark brown hair could be made out at the edge of his helmet. His skin was light in complexion and tanned by exposure to the sun.

    And a blade protruded from his wrist.

    Cobb screamed in defiance at him as the man advanced, hatred burning in his brown eyes.

    Meridina heard the screaming of the man that had accosted them. He was in conversation with… who knew? Meridina could sense the life slightly. Cold. Angry. Vengeful. She drew her lakesh and activated it as she stormed into the clearing.

    There was a rustle of leaves. But nobody was there.

    Nobody but the dying man.

    The man who had verbally accosted them at their camp was lying in a crimson pool. A stab wound bubbled blood. He'd been stabbed in the lung. Intentionally.

    Meridina rushed to his side and called upon her power. Away from the Flow of Life, though, amid the darkness and suffering of this world, she wouldn't have the power to heal him completely. But maybe if she…

    The man grabbed her arm as light formed over his wound. "Tara!," he screamed. "At Tara! He'll kill us all!"

    "Sir, you must…"

    Meridina felt that she was too late. The man was drowning in his own blood. But while she tried to stop that, his heart gave out. It had endured too much. She felt the blood go still underneath her hands. He was dead.

    But even then, she could feel something. Someone was here. Watching. Waiting. She breathed in and focused, trying to see him.

    "Meridina?" Lucy's voice crackled over the multidevice. "Meridina, are you there? The people say that old coot's name was Cobb. Lionel Cobb. Some bigtime slave owner in the area, until the bombardment blew up his family home and killed his family."

    "He is at peace now," Meridina replied.

    "What? You mean he's dead? How?"

    "Murdered. Stabbed." Meridina examined the wound. "The blade was powerful and sharp. I can sense that it cut through his ribs when he was stabbed in the lung." She drew in a breath and felt with her senses. She knew there was something out here. Not immediately here anymore, but moving away. "Lucy, Doctor Gillam, do any of the people here know about a place called Tara?"

    There was a pause before Leo replied. "It's a burnt out old plantation in the area. About three miles to the northeast."

    "I see." She kept her focus on that feeling of life in movement. A dark sensation even in this darkened world. "Lucy, I may have need of you. Please come to meet me."

    "I'll be right there."
    rifern and Shadowcub like this.
  3. Threadmarks: 2-01-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    Zack was in one of Cloud 9's restaurants to get a quick lunch before the game. The food selection had vastly improved over the past two months. Now that the Colonial Fleet was in Alliance space, moving through Dorei territory, it had access to all sorts of raw materials and foodstuffs from the Alliance races. The menu selections had changed to show that.

    But Zack didn't have menus on his mind. Just the bright blue eyes of Clara Davis, resplendent in her nursing uniform, her hand and his together across the table. She gave him her homey, sweet country girl smile and made his heart flutter. To see her happy, and to know how happy he felt… it had never seemed possible that he would feel like this. It almost made him want to leave the Stellar Navy and just move into the Fleet permanently.

    Not that he would. He couldn't. Not with the war on. Not with the people who needed him. But maybe when it was over…

    "How long?", Clara was asking. The question jolted him from his thoughts.

    "Hrm?", Zack asked.

    "How long until you're re-assigned?" A sad smile was on her face. "You said that it would probably be after the Fleet reached Alliance space."

    "Oh." He stopped for a moment. "Admiral Maran's last message said it would be after the election. This part of Dorei space is still a little thin on patrols due to the war, so keeping Koenig here to help protect the fleet from the Cylons is necessary. Once they decide whether or not to settle on that planet the Dorei offered them, or if they want to go elsewhere, we'll be on."

    "And that won't happen until the election."

    "Yeah. Roslin's proposing leaving N2S7 completely. To get a new start back in our home universe. Maybe at the New Liberty Colony, or another world nearby."

    "And Baltar wants to accept the Dorei offer?"

    "He does. He says leaving our home universe is conceding too much to the Cylons. That we…" Zack caught himself. He noticed the amused look on Clara's face. "...well. I'm going a bit native, aren't I?"

    "We all are," Clara noted. "You live and eat and work with people long enough…"

    But it wasn't just that. Zack had always felt like he was out of place. Now he didn't. He felt at home here, more than he had anywhere for a long time.

    "Maybe when the war's over, I'll stay here permanently," he mused. "Wherever 'here' ends up being for the Colonial Refugees. They'll have a nice big open world, after all."

    "You could build a nice house," she said. "Near wherever they set up the baseball fields. Spend your time coaching the teams, school teams…"

    "...and you would be nursing at their hospital."

    Clara nodded. She clearly saw where he was going with this. And he liked it.

    A part of him, admittedly, still wanted to be on the Koenig. She was his ship. His tough little gutpuncher that he could fly with his eyes closed. Would he really feel torn, picking between the two?

    That thought was uncomfortable.

    There was a commotion near the bar. Their heads turned as people began to shout and carry on and argue. Zack stood and went closer to hear what was being said.

    The monitor there was on. The Colonial Fleet had started to pick up civilian subspace broadcasts. News, entertainment, and the like (the Fleet had actually set aside bandwidth for baseball feeds due to their growing popularity). But the look of the feed showed it was local. Something about the election, presumably.

    Tom Zarek, Quorum Representative for the survivors from Sagittaron, was on the screen, talking. "...has come to light, I am no longer bound to remain quiet on the matter. In truth, I am relieved," Zarek was saying. "Relieved that the people of the Fleet should know the truth of what happened. How this wonderful opportunity for us was nearly lost by the President's blind fanaticism and short-sightedness."

    Zack had a very bad feeling. He felt Clara take his hand and look at him in confusion. He felt his face twisted into an expression of apprehension.

    "The reports you have heard are true," Zarek continued. "President Roslin did order the abduction of the Aurora crewmembers. She ordered the execution, without trial, of an Alliance officer. An act that would have destroyed our hopes if the Quorum not superseded her orders and straightened the issue out. Her entire handling of the first contact, from her religious bigotry against our new allies for their beliefs to her readiness to kill one of them to cover up the truth, should be a warning to us all about her unreliability and unsuitability…"

    "Frakking liar!", one man screamed.

    "Like you'd know!" That was from a nearby woman. "Roslin's always been arrogant! She nearly tore the fleet apart!"

    Another voice spoke up. "Spoken like a terrorist-loving Sagit..."

    As the arguing and shouting continued, Zack stepped away and shook his head. Clara looked at him with confusion. "What are they talking about? What did Roslin do?", she asked.

    "She made a mistake. Both sides did," Zack answered. "And now it's going to come back and haunt us all."

    Meridina felt the darkness of the place as she approached it. Once it had been a thriving manor of sorts. The central home of an estate. Now it was a burnt out shell.

    But that alone wasn't why she felt darkness here. There were other things here. Feelings of loss and grief. Despair. Anger. People had suffered here, physically or mentally or emotionally. It was a familiar sensation.

    The echoes of slavery.

    For all that it seemed a dead place, though, there was a life here. A life. She could feel the sensations of anger coming from within. Anticipation. A tinge of uncertainty.

    Meridina extended her lakesh as she approached the broken front door. Inside was a grand hall. A staircase led up to upper floors. Another hole was visible that showed a glimpse of an upper floor room. An old bedroom?

    Her swevyra bristled. The Flow of Life here was weak. A small trickle. The place felt and smelled like death.

    As Meridina stepped beside the stairs she found a body. A young woman, dark-haired. Perhaps she had once been handsome, if not entirely pretty. Her torso was marked by stab wounds like those that had befallen the late Mr. Cobb. Her eyes stared with terror at Meridina. Whomever she had been, she had died a violent and horrific death at the hands of this dark figure.

    A few more steps, a turn, and further steps showed other bodies. Men and women. Mostly light-skinned, although one heavy-set woman was dark-skinned. Meridina had been told that slavery here had been based on ethnicity and skin complexion. A victim? Or someone loyal to the family that lived here? Living beings could bond even with their captors and declared owners, after all. That was how Life worked.

    Meridina stepped into a wide-open room. It had evidently been a mass gathering room of sorts. A massive human musical instrument - Julia had shown her something similar once called a "piano" - was a charred husk in one corner. The broken remains of seats and couches were scattered about the place.

    So were other things. Intact things. Something that looked like a field kitchen. A cot. A metal rack on which multiple firearms and weapons were arrayed.

    Meridina's blade leapt up just in time. Her arms moved by instinct, by her swevyra, and intercepted the invisible blade that went for her ribs. A clang sounded in the air. She concentrated and sensed the being stalking her. The life there… it felt weaker than it should. Explaining how he had gotten so close, at least.

    But there was little time for that consideration. Blows struck at Meridina again and again, each time parried by her lakesh. She was on the defensive against this unseen foe and a speed that she had never seen a being make outside of having swevyra of their own to power it. She was keeping up, but not effortlessly.

    It was time to reverse this conflict. To take her foe off-guard. Her power resonated with her thoughts, waiting to point out the perfect moment. The precise moment, when it would be time to strike.

    She deflected one strike and, immediately, drew her lakesh over and down. There was a quick cry of surprise and a sound of the lakesh's blade cutting through metal.

    A figure rippled into view before her. A Human male, a little taller than she was, wearing a black combat suit. His age seemed to be about that of those of the Aurora command crew. Firearms dangled from each of his hips. He was light-skinned, brown-eyed, with dark hair like Robert's that was less well-kept. His intense eyes were focused on her.

    He was holding no blade, though. Above each wrist, a sharp metal blade was protruding from within his suit, glinting in the dying sun within the burnt out plantation home.

    "I am Meridina," she said. "A Lieutenant Commander of the United Alliance of Systems and a swevyra'se - a Knight - of the Order of Swenya. Please explain who you are and why you murdered these people."

    The man appraised her. She could tell he was ready to resume their battle. But he was not without reason either. "My name's Hawk," he replied. "And I killed these slaving bastards because they deserved to die."

    "Did they?", Meridina asked. "Death should not be so easily imposed."

    "Why the hell not?", he demanded. "You do bad things, you meet a bad end. That's justice. So what are you doing here?"

    Meridina had a few answers she could give. That she was investigating the destruction of this world, certainly.

    But she chose the most honest one.

    "I am here," she said, "to stop you from killing anyone else."

    Hawk smirked at her. Arrogant confidence oozed from his posture, his very being. "I'd like to see you try, sunshine," he replied.

    For a moment he concentrated. The blades on his wrists grew longer, larger, until each was at least half the length of her lakesh. He surged forward…

    ...and Meridina promptly slammed him back with her power, sending him into the opposite wall.

    For a moment Hawk didn't move. She had clearly surprised him. He was more cautious when he stood up and slowly walked toward her.

    "Surrender and you will not be harmed," she promised. "Perhaps there is something wrong in your mind…"

    Again he charged, inhumanly fast, and Meridina reacted by calling on her power again. She hit him with it, a blow even stronger than the last, and sent him flying back.

    It was her turn to feel surprise when he flipped in mid-air and let his feet hit the wall. He absorbed the force of the impact this way and jumped away from the wall before gravity started to pull him down. The jump was powerful and quick. She barely had time to call up her power again and throw it at him as he sailed over her.

    But Hawk was too quick. The blast missed and hit the roof above, sending rubble down into the room. As the roar of the collapse filled Meridina's ear she followed Hawk and brought the lakesh up to deflect his first attacks. HIs longer blades had only barely slowed his blistering speed of attack. Strike after strike, blow after blow, clanged against her lakesh. But yet she felt nothing to indicate he had power like her, no essence of swevyra beyond the natural one for a Human.

    It brought to mind the last foe to fight like this. A rogue Coserian stormtrooper she had faced when she was still just starting out as a swevyra'se. The Coserians had turned their stormtroopers into "cyborgs", as Lucy had called it, mechanized beings that were more machine than living. But that had dampened their swevyra considerably. This man didn't have that kind of cyberization, he simply moved like he did.

    Their duel carried them across the room. One of Hawk's missed blows cut cleanly into a cooker for his field kitchen and destroyed it. He swung the other arm and had it deflected by Meridina's blade. When he struck with the first arm again, it cut against her robe and skidded against her armor. Meridina felt no pain; her armor had held against the glancing strike. But a direct hit might yet cut into her armor, so she refused to let him hit her.

    For all his speed, though, he couldn't stop her from getting in a similar blow against him. Her lakesh cut at his face and left a deep wound across his right cheek. He stumbled back for a moment, clearly surprised that she'd managed the hit. "You're not enhanced," he said. "I'd know if you were."

    "I have my swevyra, my life force, to aid me."

    "Interesting," was all he said.

    And Meridina watched as, without effort, the wound she'd inflicted started to heal rapidly. Within ten seconds the flow of blood had mostly ended and pink skin, not even scar tissue, was showing.

    What is he?, she wondered, just before he lunged at her again.

    As the battle moved over the room, knocking over Hawk's cot in the process, it was clear they were closely matched physically. His enhanced speed, agility, and strength against her trained abilities as a Life Force Knight of Gersal.

    But there was more to battle than the physical. Meridina had trained for much of her life to be what she was. She had dueled with her father, her mentor, and countless others. She knew how to work her blades. Hawk clearly had some experience as well, but he seemed… not even basic, so much as strong.

    It occurred to her then. However strong he was… Hawk had never fought someone who could hold their own against what he had. Not someone like her anyway. He was used to brute force winning his battles. He didn't know how to use his weapons, his skills, as anything but a blunt instrument.

    Meridina tested that. She feinted and adjusted quickly. His blades moved to intercept and caught her. But his block wasn't carefully done.

    It didn't need to be. His boot shot up and hit Meridina in the stomach. The armor she was wearing kept her from feeling the full effect of the blow, but she still staggered back.

    Hawk's right blade retracted up his arm. In a split second his firearm was in his hand. Blue bolts erupted from it. Meridina knew what the weapon was immediately.

    The first bolt had been expertly aimed at her shoulder and she barely evaded a debilitating hit. Pain flashed through her flesh from the glancing hit. Another blast hit her in the hip, absorbed by the armor, and as for the third and on… that was where her lakesh came into play.

    Again Hawk was stunned, as several bolts he was firing suddenly went at him. One smacked into his left arm and made him cry out. This allowed another to hit him in the knee. He toppled over. "What the…?!"

    Before he could react, Meridina put an end to the fight. It was not something she enjoyed doing, not this way, but she saw she needed to end this struggle immediately. She reached out with her mind using the telepathic powers that she and other Gersallian farisa had. With that power, she put one powerful command into Hawk's mind.


    Hawk had no mental defenses. No mental training. Indeed his mind seemed particularly vulnerable. He collapsed like a school puppet with its wires cut.

    At that moment there was noise coming from a side door. Lucy came running in, having taken another entrance, with her lakesh drawn. "Meridina!"

    Meridina was on one knee. Pain shot through her shoulder and she had placed her free hand there, her lakesh lowered before her. "I am only mildly hurt," she insisted.

    Lucy was already activating her multidevice. The scanner in it wasn't specialized for medical needs but could, in instances like this, be used to assess basic problems. Lucy's face paled. "How is that possible?", she murmured.

    "Even the swiftest swevyra'se cannot deflect everything fired at her," Meridina reminded her student.

    "No, not that." Lucy shook her head. "The damage pattern of that shot, I recognize it. His guns are…"

    "...yes." Meridina indicated the toppled weapon rack. It too had gone over in their struggle and spilled its deadly contents over the floor. Lucy looked it over and was shocked at what she saw.

    "These weapons…"

    "...they are Darglan," Meridina finished for her.

    With everything going on, Zack had left the little leaguers to their championship and beamed directly to the Galactica. Colonel Saul Tigh, current commander of the Galactica, was waiting for him in the former storage room converted into a transporter room. Zack held himself at attention for a moment. Tigh had long learned to live with the lack of salutes - apparently the Alliance's multi-species elements meant that nobody could agree on a working salute - and returned one anyway to acknowledge Zack's gesture. "I'll ask you what the Admiral will want asked anyway," he said. "Could it have been your people?"

    Zack shook his head. "I don't see how. But just in case I have Lieutenant Apley investigating."

    "You trust him?"

    "Completely. Ap is no-nonsense follow-my-orders. He would never do something like this and if someone in my crew did he'll have him at my desk before the day is out."

    "I hope so. This is becoming a regular situation."

    Tigh led Zack to the main war room. As they approached they could hear Adama shouting. "...our place! You had no authority to ignore my orders on that subject!"

    "A standing member of the Quorum asked me as part of the official investigation into the incident, sir." Zack didn't need to turn the corner when he did to know that Colonel Fisk from Pegasus was the one speaking. "I was obligated by law to cooperate."

    "So you're telling me that somehow your private testimony ended up on the Fleet's News?", Admiral William Adama barked in retort. The older man was an inch away from Fisk's face. "Do I like that stupid, Colonel?"

    "No sir."

    "As far as I am concerned, you have lost all right to your command. As of now I am re-assigning you while we investigate how this 'private testimony' wound up spread across the Fleet."

    "I understand, sir," Fisk answered, with all the air of a man facing the expected and not giving a damn. "Permission to be dismissed."

    "Get out of my damned sight, Colonel."

    Fisk stepped away and back toward the door. He nodded briefly to Tigh before continuing on. Zack stepped in. "You found the leak?", he asked.

    Adama didn't look up from his seat. Zack could tell from his expression that he was restraining his anger at the situation. "Fisk says it was simply testimony to the Quorum's committee on the first contact," he answered. "He insists he knows nothing about the leak."

    "And you don't believe him?"

    "No." Adama shook his head. "Fisk knew that leak would happen."

    "So he's siding with Baltar?"

    "More likely Zarek. Yes."

    Zack took a seat. "What can I do for you then?"

    "I'd called to ask you about if your people were involved," Adama admitted. "A lot of people know about the stand-off, but very few the reasons why."

    "And among those few are Baltar and Zarek," Zack pointed. "I'm just surprised it took them this long."

    "Baltar is desperate. The balloting shows Roslin winning by several points. This is his one shot to beat her."

    "Assuming the Fleet doesn't come apart over the truth," Tigh added.

    "So what do you need me to do?", Zack asked.

    "I want to keep you informed while we deal with this," Adama said. "And a statement on what really happened would help."

    "Of course, I'll be happy to," Zack answered.

    Robert and Julia made a beeline for Lab 2 the moment Jarod called. They arrived to find him with Lucy looking over a rack of weapons. Familiar ones, familiar shapes.

    "Darglan pulse pistols," Julia observed. "And a new battle rifle?"

    "Not just Darglan, but better," Jarod remarked. He had one gun on a work table with a holographic image reaching through it and displaying a layout of its internal mechanics. "The power pack is at least thirty-percent higher capacity and the power and range could be dialed up to match. There also seems to be an internal mechanism that might be for changing the containment field."

    "You mean the way the gun turns energy into pulses?", asked Robert.

    "Right." Jarod nodded. "From what I can tell, this rifle can be set to alter the way the field works. Its capacity."

    "So what, more powerful shots?"

    "It's entirely possible it could turn a pulse powerful enough to create a small burst, like an explosion."

    "You mean it would fire like a grenade launcher," Robert said. "It would be the equivalent of an assault rifle with an underslung grenade launcher."

    "An apt summary," Jarod said.

    "Whatever it does, it's better than the guns we found back in the day," Lucy said.

    "Well, we know the Darglan wound up in a war before the Shadows wiped them out." Julia was looking over the weapons laid out. "They would have been trying to improve their weapons."

    "And it still leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions," Robert pointed out. "Like where this came from. Was it from that third Facility the data we recovered from IPX talked about?"

    Lucy shook her head. "There's no way to tell from this. We still don't know how many caches and Facilities the Darglan left."

    "Meridina reported that he dueled her with blades of some kind." Robert looked around. "What can you say about them?"

    Jarod and Lucy exchanged looks. "You need to go to Leo about those."

    That caused them some befuddlement. "Leo?" Julia shook her head. "Why Leo?"

    "Because that ties into what this 'Hawk' guy did to himself," Lucy replied.

    The medbay was active with numerous patients from the planet below. Leo's fellow doctors were tending to people from many areas across the globe while nurses ran about checking on the conditions of the seriously wounded or ill. "My God," Julia breathed as she took it all in.

    Robert nodded. "This is just a trickle. All of those people down there suffering from what's happening…" He gave Julia a haunted look. "Could this be our fault? Could our coming to this world have caused this?"

    "No. No, I don't think so," Julia insisted. "We didn't do this. And we never would have." She noticed the look on his face. He was pained and uncomfortable in a way she'd never seen before. "Are you…"

    "I can feel their fear," he said. "I can feel all of the despair and the confusion."

    "You're reading their minds?"

    "No." He shook his head. "I can't do that. I just… feel what they feel. Their entire world's been ravaged. Everything they knew and expected was taken away. Stripped away. Loved ones were killed. All of the old certainties removed. They're lost and adrift…"

    His voice trailed off. Julia gave him a moment to think before she intended to continue their conversation.

    Before she could, Nasri stepped up. The Darfurian Sudanese woman looked tense and worn down. The biobed she had just stepped from was covered in a sheet. An East Asian woman was on her knees beside it, wailing. "It was too late for him," she said upon seeing their faces. "Doctor Singh picked him up in China, from the ruins of Beijing. But he was already too far gone."

    "How bad is it?", asked Julia.

    "Bad." Nasri swallowed. "Untreated burns from exposure to plasma weaponry. Exposure. Starvation. Even a couple of cases of radiation sickness."

    "Something on this scale… we could send half of the hospital ships we have and still barely make a dent in it."

    "Yes. But it would still mean life for those we saved," Nasri pointed out, cutting off Robert's obvious observation.

    Julia was looking over the beds in the next part of the medbay. She spied two figures that made her blink. "No way… is that…?"

    Nasri looked that way. And she nodded. "Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, yes. Lucky ones. Particle weapon burns and complications thereof, starvation, and apparently overwork. An onset of renal failure, possibly Crohn's disease, for him. We're already treating it."

    "Why are they…"

    "If you're going to suspect favoritism, don't," Nasri insisted. "Doctor Lumenaram was leading the group sent down to England. He brought cases up based solely on severity of their condition."

    Robert nodded. "And Gersallians have never been the monarchist type. Just so long as I can mark that in the report." He wondered, briefly, how many other people he would consider "historical figures" had survived the bombardments. Abe Lincoln? General Grant? Richard Cobden? Who had survived? Investigative teams had yet to report in on the state of things in terms of surviving government.

    This entire planet will need rebuilding. From the ground up. And while we're in the middle of a war.

    He looked away from all of the injured and dying. "We're not here to talk about that. Jarod and Lucy implied Leo had something to share with us about our… guest."

    Nasri nodded. Her expression was dark. "This way."

    She led them further into medbay. They went past the intensive care ward and on toward the quarantine ward. Behind a solid trans-steel wall they could see a figure laid out on a biobed. Two armed security officers were at the doors. Meridina was inside, looking at him intently.

    Leo was just stepping out. He motioned to them to follow him. He led them back toward his office. The transparent aluminum door slid closed behind them. "Jarod said you could explain the blades he used on Meridina?", Robert asked.

    Leo nodded. He looked tired and worn down. Both knew that he didn't like the fact that there were people here and below that were beyond his help. But he said nothing to that effect, focusing on his work by bringing up a display of a human figure. "I gave our visitor a full examination while Meridina keeps him under. Caucasian male, roughly twenty-two to thirty-five years of age, and I'm leaning toward the younger estimate myself. From the look of him and his body, I would definitely say post-industrial. He might even be from a late 20th Century or early 21st Century Earth."

    "Like us, and Jarod," Julia noted.


    "And the blades?"

    Leo tapped a key. The figure lit up with a great multitude of silvery threads all along the interior of the body, as if they were roots to the silver sheen over the skeleton. "Nanites," he said. "The interior of his body is crawling with them. They're covering his bones, embedded in his musculature and his organs, they flow in his cardiovascular system. He even has them in his nervous system."

    "My God…" Julia looked it over. "What did he do to himself? Or was this done to him?"

    "You'd have to ask him," Leo replied. "You know that briefing we got on the Borg? Or the reports on the Coserian cyberization of their soldiers?"

    "Cyborgs, yeah. Cybernetic enhancement." Robert nodded. "It replaces organic body parts with machines."

    "This…" Leo gestured to the image. "This is the ultimate evolution of that. And it's not even like becoming a cyborg. The nanites don't replace the organic material, they supplement it. His nerves operate faster, his organs are more efficient and sturdy, his bones and muscles are stronger… that kind of thing."

    "And that explains why Meridina couldn't put him down without breaking a sweat," Robert muttered. "With those kinds of enhancements…"

    "How do the nanites get energy, though?", Julia asked. "They must have to use a lot of energy to keep going."

    "A higher caloric intake, I'm guessing. This guy probably eats about eight, maybe ten thousand calories a day just to keep his current health. But that isn't all." Leo hit a key and brought up a much-magnified view of the man's bloodstream. Small blood cells floated within. As did several nanite cells. He pressed a second key and called up another nanite. They looked almost identical. "They're Darglan technology."

    "I was going to expect that," Robert sighed.

    "But we don't have anything like this," Julia pointed out.

    "Because the nanites in our Facility weren't this advanced. I only used them for serious medical cases. Like rebuilding Zack's jaw when it got broken that time. I never left them in anyone's body for longer than a few days." Leo shook his head. "But not this guy."

    "So… the blades he used to fight Meridina…"

    "...were the nanites in solid form," Leo explained. "Projected out of his lower arm or wrist, I'd guess, and with strong enough consistency to not be shattered by whatever Meridina's sword is made out of."

    "That has to hurt," Robert pointed out.

    Julia shrugged. "Maybe he doesn't care. Or maybe the nanites shut down the nerves around the site so he can do it without feeling pain."

    "You will have to ask him," Leo said.

    "When was the last time you took a break?", Julia asked. Her expression betrayed her concern.

    "No," Leo mumbled. "Not now. I can't do the mothering right now, Julia. I've got sick people dying out there and I need every medical officer we have on duty to keep them alive."

    "Don't burn yourself out, Leo," Robert asked politely.

    "I know my limits." Leo gestured to the door. "I'll inform you if I find anything else. You can have Meridina take him to the brig if you want."

    It was clear he would brook no more conversation on the matter. They departed the office and went to the room for their guest. Meridina nodded at them.

    There was something about the man unconscious on the bed. Robert could feel a sense of harshness to him. Dark things, but light things too. "Leo's done with him."

    She nodded to Robert and then to her guards. The two helped her secure the man to an anti-grav stretcher.
    rifern and Shadowcub like this.
  4. Threadmarks: 2-01-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    The brig was several decks down, toward the drive sections of the ship on Deck 20. Robert and Julia watched patiently as Meridina's people found a cell to use. Once the man calling himself "Hawk" was laid out on the bed inside the main brig cell, they all stepped out of it. A press of a button created a force field over the entrance into the cell. Robert nodded to Meridina. "Let him wake up."

    After a few moments the man in the brig began to stir. He sat up and looked at them intently. "Now that you're awake, we have some questions for you," Robert stated.

    The man looked at him intently. "Oh?"

    "Who are you? What, who, are you working for?"

    The smoldering anger in the man's brown eyes was now joined by a glint of mischief. "Wouldn't you like to know?"

    "His name is Hawk," Meridina stated. "Or so he said, I should specify."

    Robert considered the other man closely. "Why did you shoot yourself up with Darglan nanites?"

    "I had my reasons." The figure slouched back in his seat. "I was wondering where all of those stories I heard came from. The people talking about how slaves kept getting whisked away. That used to be you?"

    "Something like that," Robert admitted.

    A bemused sneer came to Hawk's face. "So you're the one who was half-assing it, huh?"

    Julia crossed her arms. "Pardon me?"

    "Oh, hey, you've got a cheerleader too, I see."

    "This is Commander Julia Andreys, my Executive Officer," Robert replied. "I'm Captain Robert Dale. You're aboard the Alliance Starship Aurora."

    Hawk nodded. "Darglan Emergency Ship, I see. So when did you decide to name your prize after a Disney princess?"

    "Someone doesn't know his classic mythology," Julia noted. She didn't need to glance at Robert to know what he was thinking. The more Hawk talked, the more chances they had to get information. He sounds like he's from Oregon or Washington.

    "The Roman goddess of the dawn," Hawk retorted, not knowing or not caring what they were up to. He feigned a yawn. "Boring. But it does say a lot about you people. Half-assing this entire planet, doing little things and patting yourselves on the back for it, and deciding to get all symbolic with your ship."

    "I'm wondering just what you think we've done wrong," Robert queried.

    Hawk laughed bitterly. "Oh, where do I start, Boy Scout? Do you know how much injustice existed on that world below? Did you do anything about it? Did you do anything for the Native tribes being stripped of their homelands by settlers? Did you do anything about the Indians looking to throw off British rule? No. No, all you did was pick up a few thousand people here and there. Dealing with the symptoms, not the disease itself."

    "And you did?"

    "Sometimes…" Hawk's smile was sharp and unpleasant. He held up his right arm. "Sometimes you just have to cut to the heart of the problem." A sharp sound shot through the air in the brig. Silverish metal flowed from his wrist and coalesced into a vicious, sharp blade.

    "So you bombed the world. That was your idea of 'solving the problems'? Killing everyone, victims along with the guilty?," Julia demanded.

    Robert was still learning his way through the mental components of his new abilities. It was Meridina who could to sense what Hawk was feeling. But despite it all, he could sense the tension, the raw frustration, in Hawk's being. "Things got out of hand, I'm guessing?"

    "I was trying to demonstrate the hopelessness of their situation," Hawk said. "To make them understand they had no choice. Fitting, since it's the exact same thing they've been doing to the less-advanced societies on their own planet."

    "But it wasn't so simple, was it?"

    Hawk gave him a look. "Obviously not," he muttered. A distant look came to his eyes. "It wasn't supposed to happen that way."

    "Millions of deaths. All on your hands," Robert said quietly. "You don't seem to be a monster, a psychopath without feeling anything for what you've done. Maybe if you cooperate we can…"

    "...can what? Become a good little soldier like you? Wear a nice uniform and let bureaucrats and politicians tell me who I can or can't save?" Hawk chuckled bitterly at that. "To hell with that. I'm not some puppet on a string."

    "You can't just keep going on like this forever," Robert pointed out. "Think about what you did on that world. Entire cultures and nations wrecked. Millions dead. Are you telling me that's what you want?"

    Hawk's smile didn't go away. But it took a brittle edge to it. Robert could sense conflicting emotion with him. He got the sense the smile was frozen in place now, not in the least bit a genuine smile. "It'd be easier for you if I answered 'yes', wouldn't it?", he asked. "Then I could just be a monster."

    "You'll end up in a cell now," Julia pointed out. "You're going to stand trial for what happened here. The people of this world will have justice."

    "They wouldn't know 'justice' if it bit them on the rear," Hawk retorted. It was clear that his moment of quiet introspection was over - his combative nature had been rekindled, and he was ready for another fight.

    Meridina had remained silent so far. She gave Robert and Julia a look and shook her head. It was clear she thought this discussion was now over, in terms of its practical value.

    Robert wasn't quite done yet. He did have one more question to ask. "So, how long ago did you find the Darglan Facility?"

    Hawk's face twisted into a pleased smirk. "So that's where you're finally going to go, is it? You want to know about that."

    "We had our own." Robert kept his eyes on his captive. "We had to blow it up to keep it out of the hands of a species called the Daleks."

    "Boo hoo for you, then," Hawk remarked. He gave some mocking applause. "Want ours?"

    Robert and Julia exchanged looks. He had just confirmed he had accomplices, allies. Allies who might come back. "So who are you working with?"

    Hawk seemed to think a moment. The smirk on his face grew. "That's going to be my little surprise, I think. Although it doesn't have to be."


    "Let me go." Hawk sat back on the couch. "This world's broken, I can't do anything for it. Not like you can, I'm guessing. So you can have it. We'll leave this world to your care and look for other worlds to help."

    "And you really think you'd do better on those other worlds?" Robert shook his head. "I can't do that. Too many people have died. You're too dangerous. We can't let you go to cause more chaos. Especially if you have Darglan technology that can fall into the wrong hands."

    "Your choice," Hawk stated. "Don't say I never warned you of what was coming "

    "Your ship?", Julia asked.

    There was a glint in Hawk's eye. "You'll find out soon enough."

    Zack listened quietly while Apley relayed the results of his quiet investigation. "In summation, sir, I can find no indication that any member of this crew has been working with any party of the Colonial elections. All work has remained strictly personal or through the official channels with Admiral Adama."

    That's a relief. The idea that his crew had actually betrayed the neutrality in Colonial politics that he had insisted on… he couldn't stand the idea.

    "I'll let Admiral Adama know that's it's on his end for certain," Zack sighed.

    "This can't effect our work, can it sir?", Apley asked. It was rhetorical given he continued. "Neither of the candidates want to split with us."

    "No. But Roslin wants to do the smart thing and colonize another planet in another universe. Baltar's championing the 'do it now' approach. Just accept the world the Dorei have provided, even if it might not be optimal for Human settlement. And if they stay in this universe…"

    "...the Cylons could still attack them." Apley shook his head. "I can't see why they'd be thinking in staying, then."

    Zack shook his head and smirked. "Well, people get damn stubborn about even little things. Case in point… Had any economic arguments with Karen lately?"

    Apley chuckled at that. He hailed from the Sol System Republic of D3R1, the unified Earth government of his home universe and an Alliance founding state. The SSR had a democratic socialist government and economic system that limited large-scale private enterprise in the name of putting people over the pursuit of profit. Lt. Karen Derbley, Zack's Chief Engineer, hailed from the Colonial Confederation of the same universe. Human colonists, proud of their 'Colonial' past who had formed their own government among the further settled planets after Humanity's diaspora into the wider galaxy of D3R1. They embraced libertarian politics and a laissez-faire economic system with the cultural approach of "if you want to eat, you'll need to work". And they too had joined the Alliance.

    Zack was certain it made political debates on Alliance economics interesting, to say the least, as their incompatible economic views and cultural perspectives had a tendency to leave Sol Republic and Colonial Confederation citizens at odds with each other. The fact that they could work together within the framework of the Alliance was held as a symbol of hope for the Alliance as a whole.

    "I suppose everyone will be busy with goodbyes now," Zack mused. "Admiral Maran's made it clear we're leaving as soon as the Colonials begin their settlement."

    Apley nodded. "I need to say goodbye to a few people, certainly. Captain Adama and I have been working on our boxing."

    "So I heard."

    "And what about you, sir? You'll be leaving Clara behind."

    Zack sighed and nodded. "I know. I always knew that would happen."

    "Is she staying?"

    "Obviously. She signed a contract and everything, so many months of service. It's not up for another year at least. But I'm hoping to see her again before long. We'll still have leaves after all, and she gets so many weeks of break time. Including free transport. Maybe the next New Liberty Anniversary…"

    There was a beep on his desk. Zack hit the key. "Magda?"

    Lieutenant Magda Navaez, the Operations Officer, answered. "Sir, Admiral Adama wanted you to know that Representative Zarek has called a press conference. In two hours."

    "Running a little late in the evening, isn't he?"

    "He is. But the Admiral thought you should know."

    "Thank him for me." Zack looked back to Apley. "I suppose we'll all get to see what Baltar's up to now."

    "A guy that smart… you never know what he'll pull."

    "Yeah." Zack nodded. "You're dismissed, Ap. I've got some paperwork to catch up on."

    "Aye, sir."

    Apley left Zack to his thoughts. Baltar had no overt issues that made Zack suspicious - he was even more enthusiastic about the Alliance than Roslin in some ways - but he couldn't get over some innate suspicion he had of the man. Where did it come from? Admiral Adama?

    He shook his head. Colonial politics weren't his place. He had other work to do.

    Two images were showing on the monitors in the Aurora Conference room off of the bridge. One showed an image of the brig cell where Hawk was sitting quietly. Occasionally a sliver of silver would emerge from his wrist and then shift back within his flesh through bruised skin.

    On the other screen, Admiral Maran was looking at the feed and the data Leo had sent through. Leo was currently standing and delivering his report. "I wouldn't say he's inhuman now - not biologically speaking anyway - but he's clearly not a normal Human being anymore either."

    "What could drive a man to do something like that to his own body…" Maran's question was rhetorical. "He admitted to the attacks?"

    "We are sending the recording now," Julia said.

    "I'll have my people go over it. It will come in handy for the legal proceedings." Maran considered his next words carefully. "I'm trying to get some relief arranged for that world. But with the war going on…"

    "The Federation might consider assisting," Julia pointed out. "With everything that's happened, the Prime Directive doesn't really apply to them anymore."

    "I'll let the President know. He might be able to discuss the matter with President Jaresh-Inyo before he leaves Paris tomorrow."

    "In the meantime, is there anything else you can tell me about this individual?"

    "I'm still studying some of the scans I took from our guest," Leo answered. "It might be a few hours before I have a comprehensive report ready on my findings. Analyzing the effect of the Darglan nanites in his body has taken priority."

    "Agreed. Keep me posted, Captain. Maran out."

    Maran disappeared from the screen. "So what are we going to do now?', Caterina asked.

    "He said he has a ship." Locarno nodded. "That's what we're waiting for."

    "It is."

    "A ship that might be brimming with Darglan technology," Caterina pointed out. "I'd love it if we could get ahold of her. Without having to blow people up."

    "An unlikely outcome," Meridina noted.

    "Meridina, please get back down to our 'guest'. The rest of you, back to stations. I want to know when our friend's buddies show up."

    Everyone left the room.

    Zack was on the bridge of the Koenig watching as the press conference on Cloud 9 started. Zarek was well-dressed as always, in a gray suit and blue jacket with matching trousers. "My fellow citizens of the Fleet, I come to address you about these reports of President Roslin's handling of the contact with the Alliance. It is with a heavy heart that I must confirm the authenticity of the claims."

    "What is he up to…?", Zack muttered.

    "Roslin was dying, yes. And instead of doing the responsible thing and turning over authority to her constitutionally-mandated successor, she held onto that power. She intended to until she was dead, regardless of what effect it might cause us. And it nearly cost us everything. Because of Roslin we nearly lost the Alliance as friends. She order the seizure and arrest of four Alliance officers in an overreaction to a disagreement with them. She ordered the execution of an Alliance officer who came as a gesture of goodwill to end the crisis. Only the intervention of Doctor Baltar prevented the situation from creating a permanent rift between us."

    The crowd now shouted in opposition or support for Zarek. He continued as if nothing was being said. "It is important that the people of the Fleet know this so that they can make an informed decision on who should lead our people. We can't afford to have Roslin's flaws…"

    Zarek's words were being drowned out now. The people present were clearly divided on the subject - some supporting Roslin, others opposing her, and both sides bitter by what was occurring.

    And then Roslin appeared on the screen. She stepped up onto the platform and faced down Zarek. Billy stepped up beside her accompanied by her Marine bodyguards. "Representative Zarek," she remarked icily, "I don't recall the Quorum agreeing to unseal this incident you refer to."

    "The People have a right to know…"

    "That's not what this is about and you know it!" Roslin held a hand out to the crowd. "All you're doing is what you have always sought to do: turn us against each other. People like you thrive on division and conflict."

    "I resent the…"

    The argument between the two was spreading to the crowd. "If the voters want me to explain what happened in the first contact, then I'll do so, but I won't have you playing petty politics and…"

    "Everyone, please!"

    Zack watched, with increasing interest, as Baltar stepped up onto the platform. He got between Roslin and Zarek with a hand toward each. "This conflict is pointless," he insisted. "The errors that were made were rectified, we should not fight over them. We need to focus on the issues before the Fleet."

    The quarreling in the crowd started to cease. Baltar immediately resumed his speaking. "We're better than this," he insisted. "I know that we are. After everything we have suffered, we have come through intact. Whole. Our people are more unified now than they have been in decades. We are seeing beyond which Colony we hail from, we are seeing beyond any division of political or religious or social position we have previously endured. We cannot allow any argument to break that unity. Not when we need it."

    A sour look briefly crossed Roslin's face. And as much as he was no politician, Zack was realizing what had just happened.

    The entire scandal was a trap. And Roslin had walked right into it.

    Baltar continued, looking to Zarek. "Representative Zarek, I appreciate your passion, and your concern for the judgement of my opponent. But this isn't what I want my administration to be built upon, should the people pick me. I want an administration built upon mutual trust and respect. I want the people of the Colonies to be proud of us and our conduct. We must have unity, not division. We must respect each other. And together, we must rebuild our civilization and show the Alliance that we are worthy of the trust and protection they have granted us."

    "Clever son of a bitch," Sherlily muttered from the tactical station.

    Baltar held his hands up to the crowd. "All I ask of you, people of the Colonies, is to remember this, regardless of whom you vote for tomorrow. United we are strong. United, we can rebuild what we have lost." And then, to finish it off, Baltar declared, "So say we all!"

    The crowd echoed him. Again and again and again.

    And given the look on Roslin's face, Zack felt certain that she knew just what had happened.

    "Turn it off," he said. Magda did so. "It's their election, not our's. Time to get back to work." He pressed down on his comm link. "Derbely, Barnes, I'd like an update on the drive, we'll be leaving soon and I'd like to know what to ask for when we get to…"

    A short time later, Baltar arrived in his personal campaign suite on Cloud 9. As planned, Zarek was there. "You were a bit more energetic than I thought you intended to be."

    "I had to be. Aren't you the one always talking about firing up the crowd?"

    Zarek nodded in acceptance of that. "True. The important thing is that you have now defined yourself. You're our unifier. Roslin looks divisive. And with word of what she pulled at the first contact now out, I think we might pull this out. On another matter, what about a new world?"' Zarek looked out the window at the fields below. "Have any ideas?"

    "The Dorei directed us to a lovely and uninhabited world about five light years from here, I think it's a good place to start." Baltar took out two glasses and held up a bottle. "This is a whiskey common to the other Earths. They call it a Jack Daniels whiskey. Would you like to try a drink with me?"

    Zarek seemed to consider it before nodding. Baltar poured two glasses and handed one to Zarek. "To victory, Mister Vice President," Baltar said, holding up his glass.

    "To victory," Zarek agreed. He clinked his glass against Baltar's. "Mister President."

    Baltar considered how nice a ring to it that title had. It really was quite nice.

    After they exchanged drinks, Zarek departed for his own suite. They wanted to be up bright and early in the morning for the election. The results would take time to tally and in the meantime they had to put on a good show to keep confidence up.

    Baltar went into his bedroom. "Well done, Gaius," a sultry voice said.

    "Thank you, my dear." He turned and faced the Cylon… angel… thing that had been in his head for months. "It wouldn't have been possible without you."

    "All things are possible, Gaius, when you are on God's side," she cooed. "By this time tomorrow, you will be President of the Colonies. You'll keep your people here, in this universe, as God intends."

    Baltar had his own reasons for wanting to stay in "N2S7", as the Alliance called it. But he went along with his head-voice's remark by nodding.

    Tomorrow would tell. It would tell for all of them.

    Robert was in his bridge office - "ready room", as it was called - doing paperwork when Julia entered. He looked up from his digital reader. She faced him with quiet patience written over her features. Her look was one of contemplation. "He's making you think, isn't' he?", she asked Robert.

    "How easy could it have been for us to become like like Hawk?", Robert asked quietly. "All of that impatience, that frustration… if I had let it out like that..."

    "We would have stopped you."

    "Nobody stopped him."

    "Maybe his friends are just as messed up in the head as he is."

    "That's a frightening thought." Robert looked back out over the scarred world they were orbiting. Within him he felt his new… power, self, the well of life energy that the Gersallians called swevyra. It was odd to think that for a quarter-century of life, that power had been there. Slumbering, waiting for the day he would awaken it. It would have slept forever had things gone normally for them.

    "You've got that look on your face," Julia noted. "Thinking about other things?"

    He held out his hand. Very slowly, one of the digital pads on the table shifted and jerked. It began to move toward him slowly and not at all in a straight line.

    "You don't think you'll learn this stuff quickly, do you?"

    "Lucy's certainly learned a lot," Robert pointed out. "yanking guns away from gunmen even before she was formally trained."

    "That makes you feel… what, inadequate?" Julia shook her head. "We all learn things differently."

    "I know. I'm not…."

    Their discussion was interrupted by a tone . "Bridge to Captain Dale, Commander Andreys."

    Julia got to the comm key on her multidevice first. "Yes, Jarod?"

    "We have a ship approaching at high warp. It doesn't match any signature in our records."

    "Hawk's friends," Robert said. He tensed up. Whoever they were, if they were anything like him, they could be in for a fight.

    "We're on our way, Jarod," Julia answered into her device. They went for the door.

    Twenty decks down and half the ship's length away, Hawk remained patiently still in his cell. The security guards looking at him through the forcefield were keeping their attention between him and the sensor systems on their controls, sensors showing the status of the forcefield and his life signs.

    That fit his intentions perfectly. He smiled thinly and focused his attention on the thin threads of nanites flowing out of the back of his neck and into the adjacent wall.

    Robert and Julia got into their seats. ""How fast is the incoming ship?"

    "As fast as us," Caterina noted. "Warp 9.94 is their current velocity."

    Julia's eyes widened a little. "I'd be reluctant to go anything near that warp speed, short of an emergency."

    "They must know we have him. Or that something's happened."

    "They'll be entering visual sensor range in a few seconds," Caterina said.

    "Jarod, as soon as you can, put them onscreen," Robert said.

    "Right." he worked his board for a moment.

    The screen flashed away from the broken Earth below to show a ship coming in at warp velocity. Everyone on the bridge stared at it in wonder and disbelief.

    It was their ship. Or at least a twisted, dark reflection of it.

    There was no brilliant azure sheen to the other ship's hull like on their own. The blue material was darker in coloring, starker in its tones. The Alliance marking stripes were obviously missing. And the ship was covered at several points with obvious weapon emplacements. The weapons it bore gave it none of the visual grace of the Aurora.

    "Those weapon emplacements… can you guess what they are?", Julia asked.

    Jarod and Cat were looking over the readings. They shared a concerned look before Jarod answered the question. "A number of them appear to be… pulse plasma cannons."

    "A lot more than we have," Cat added.

    "They're not all of uniform size. But they have at least twelve more emplacements the same size as our main battery," Jarod said. "Every arc is covered."

    Robert took the news and drew in a breath. This was a nasty new foe to consider fighting. "Another Darglan Emergency Ship. Fully-completed. How many people are in this organization of Hawk's?"

    "Open a hail to them," Robert ordered.

    The holo-screen shifted to show another bridge, not entirely unlike their own. In the foreground was a woman with a light complexion and an East Asian look to her eyes. Her collar was dark blue and appeared to be from a jacket. Cold gray eyes glared at them. "Where is he?", the woman demanded. Her accent reminded Robert of the one his cousin had started to adopt after moving to Portland. Another Northwesterner, he guessed. "Where is James?"

    "If you're referring to Mister Hawk, he is in custody," Robert answered. "I'm Captain Robert Dale of the Alliance Starship Aurora, representing the United Alliance of Systems. We've taken Mr. Hawk under arrest for the attack on this Earth."

    "May we have your name?", Julia added.

    The woman on the screen snarled in anger. "I'm Helen, and our ship is the Avenger," she replied simply. "And you have thirty seconds to give James back to us before I blast you to pieces."

    "I'm afraid I must insist you be the ones to surrender," Robert answered. "It's clear your ship is responsible for the bombardment of Earth C1P2. I can promise you all fair trials…"

    Even as he spoke, Robert knew it wouldn't end like this. He could sense the sheer passions in the crew facing them. They were almost disturbing in their familiarity. He remembered feeling the same once himself - liberation from state authority, being able to act entirely on your own guts, your own conscious, what you decided, what you felt, to be right or wrong. Nobody to tell you that it was against the law or a legal treaty to help people.

    But there was something else about it. An aggression that he and his friends had never felt. A sense of the universe being a big nail that needed hammering into place with the biggest hammer at hand.

    "We're not scared of you," the woman insisted. "Give us back James. NOW."

    "We won't be bullied," Robert replied., "Someone has to answer for the deaths on this Earth."

    "Worlds like this one are lost causes,," the woman retorted. "And your time is up."

    "They're arming weapons," Jarod warned.

    "Lock weapons Helm, begin evasive maneuvers."

    Locarno moved the Aurora as he first sapphire bolts lashed out at the ship. The ship shuddered as some of the shots made impact against their shields. "Shields down to ninety-two percent,." Jarod looked over the data they were getting. "It looks like their weapons are at least five percent more energy-efficient than our own."

    "Firing!", Angela announced.

    The Aurora's phaser arrays and cannons lashed out in retort against the enemy ship;. More sapphire bolts of varying size crossed their path and struck the Aurora in the side.

    "Shields down to eighty-three percent."

    "Their shields look to be around ninety-three percent," Cat added.

    Robert frowned. That wasn't good. In a stand-up battle they were clearly at a disadvantage. "Maintain evasive maneuvers. Try to get us some distance, Nick."

    "On it."

    "Jarod, whatever is happening, get us an uplink with Admiral Maran. We might need the help in taking this ship down, and either way we will need the analysis the fleet can give us on this ship's capabilities."

    "They're coming after us." Locarno's hands were moving swiftly over his board. "It looks like they might be a little below our capability curve in acceleration and maneuverability."

    "The extra mass from their heavier combat systems," Jarod proposed. "They don't have our performance capability at sublight."

    Robert was thankful to hear that. It was an advantage they could use.

    The ship shook again as another series of bolts hit home. Angel continued to vent their own phaser fire on the Avenger.

    Save the Avenger's weapon emplacements being more visible, and the coloring of the two ships, they were similar enough in appearance that an observer could see it as siblings in a fight. Aurora kept up her rapid maneuvering - for her size anyway - while the Avenger poured sapphire fury against the Aurora in a constant barrage. Occasional similar sapphire bolts, or amber energy, would retort against the Avenger['s shields.

    The alert klaxon told Hawk that his time had come. Helen had brought the Avenger back roughly on schedule. He amused himself with the thought of how surprising it must have been for Captain Dale and his fellows to see the Avenger coming in, pulse cannons at the ready. Helen will let me have it when I get back over there, he decided. No more random thoughts. Focus.

    The nanites had done their job. The cell had never been built to face someone who could use nanites to bore unobserved into the wall and get to the vital systems within. Now Hawk could sense the flow of data that helped control the cell's automated systems. Sedative gas for unruly occupants, the forcefield controls, and monitoring systems for his lifesigns.

    Unfortunately the system was isolated. He had hoped to get into the ship's computers and start messing things up. But that wasn't happening. So he would have to do this the hard way.

    His mind formed a mental command. The nanites translated it into the appropriate code and transmitted it through the tendril of nanites now connecting him to the computers.

    The forcefield shifted energy states. Visibly it was still on; in truth, it couldn't stop him if he pushed through it. This subterfuge bought him critical seconds before the security officers overseeing the brig realized what had happened. He retracted the nanites into his body again. A slight sting at the base of his spine marked the point they had come out and were going back in. He ignored it, just has he did the more painful stings of where his blades came from his arms.

    As soon as the nanites retracted he got to his feet and charged forward. Every muscle in his body reacted with the swiftness demanded from the nanite enhancements. Pain filled him as he slammed into the forcefield. But it was not a difficult pain, nothing compared to the real pains he had known, and with the sabotage having weakened it the cell's field could not hold him.

    The security officers were starting to react as Hawk emerged from his cell, a free man again. They reached for their firearms. But with his speed, the gesture was too slow, and far too late.

    Hawk's fist struck the nose of one of the guards, breaking it with a crack. Blood sprayed from the nostril. He whirled in place and caught the other guard, a bird-like alien he'd not seen before, in the beak. He - or she, Hawk couldn't tell - keened in pain and went down.

    The first guard was recovering from the broken nose. His hand was already on his pulse pistol. Hawk turned back to him and slammed the side of his hand into the man's throat. He began to choke in place and couldn't resist another follow-up blow to his stomach. One final slam of Hawk's knee to the guard's forehead put him down.

    The avian alien started to stir. Hawk took the guard's gun and looked it over. It wasn't entirely like Darglan technology, but he had seen similar types of weapons. He found the power setting and configured it for non-lethal shots. One pulse to each of his foes ensured the fight was over. He pulled the multidevice off of the human guard's wrist and projected nanites out of his fingers and into the device. He couldn't access protected files easily, but all he needed was a schematic of the ship. A direction to go.

    Within seconds he had it. Hawk rushed out of the brig and into the adjacent corridor. The ship shook under him as if to remind him of his limited remaining time. The Avenger was engaging this ship, and Helen would be mad enough that she'd wreck it completely to get him back. And he would prefer not to be on a wrecked ship, if he could help it.
    rifern and Shadowcub like this.
  5. Threadmarks: 2-01-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    The other ship's weapons landed another direct hit, pushing Robert against his safety harness. "Damage?", he asked.

    As always, Jarod provided the status of their faltering shields. "Forty-five percent and holding."

    "Looks like we've got their shields down to fifty-two percent," Caterina added.

    "Still, this battle is too close, we need to do something to end it." Robert turned his attention back to the Avenger and the holotank depicting their positions as they fought. There was something about the way the Avenger was maneuvering that felt off. Was it something he could use for their advantage?

    "Look at the way they're maneuvering," Julia said. "And their firing pattern. Their tactics are basic."

    "Probably because they're like we were," Robert realized. "They know the basics, but they don't know how to use them. They're not trained or experienced in starship combat."

    "Then maybe we should show them how it's done."

    Julia was right. They had been reacting this whole time - their training and their experience gave them the better edge if they were the ones taking the initiative.

    "Let's see how much they want their friend back," Robert said. "Nick, break orbit, full impulse. Take us on a course toward the asteroid belt."

    "Aye sir."

    The Aurora turned away from Earth and the Avenger at high acceleration. As the range opened up the fire from the Avenger became more and more inaccurate.

    "Bridge to launch deck. Commander Laurent, I want all fighters prepped for launch within five minutes," Julia commanded.

    "Immediately, Commander," Laurent replied.

    "It looks like they're biting," Jarod said. "They're now at full impulse and doing everything they can to catch up to us."

    "Are they?"

    "At the moment, they've managed to keep us from opening more distance."

    "Going by their power readings, I think they're trying to overpower their impulsor drives." Caterina turned at her station. "Okay, not trying. Definitely succeeding."

    "They're starting to gain on us."

    Robert and Julia exchanged confident looks. This was exactly what they had been hoping the Avenger crew would do.

    "Just a little more time," he murmured.

    Just a little more time… Hawk moved over to the next internal access tube, thinking ...just a little more time is what I need. These crawlways and walkways were, going by the data he picked up, primarily used as systems access in parts of the ship where normal access was not possible. Spaces between decks, between major bulkheads, that sort of thing.

    But they also provided a way to move through the ship's decks with a reduced risk of detection.

    Ordinarily internal sensors would make this nigh-impossible. But Hawk's nanites had taken care of that. The sensor systems were Darglan like they were, and with his commands they knew how to shield him from detection.

    He finished climbing down one ladder and found himself on deck thirty-six. The secondary shuttle bay was nearby - his ticket off of this ship and back to his. It was time to leave the crawlspaces and get back into the proper area of the ship.

    He spotted the security detachment just in time. "Hands up!", one of them declared, all holding their rifles up.

    Hawk had been training for his next move. It was the hardest thing for him to do with the nanites in his body. Tendrils of silver emerged from each arm. At his mental command they surged forward and gripped the firearms in each guard's arms. In other circumstances Hawk could easily use the nanites to set the weapons to overload, getting rid of the problem easy enough, but he didn't like the thought of killing people who didn't have it coming in some way.

    So he'd do it the hard way.

    Or as Helen called it, the fun way.

    With a yank he pulled the rifles out of the hands of his surprised foes. The alien leader among them - the two stripes apparently meant she was a Lieutenant, from what he'd seen - immediately went for her sidearm. Hawk rushed forward and punched the teal-skinned being in the jaw. He felt the bone break under his blow. His foe flew backward into her team.

    Without a pause he turned and kicked out. Blood and teeth flew and a cry came from the Caucasian man who took Hawk's boot to his face.

    The other security personnel were recovering. But not fast enough. Not nearly fast enough. Hawk's nanite-enhanced strength broke teeth and bones as he put them down with merciless - if non-lethal - swiftness. He smirked. It was the first time he'd taken on enemies without resorting to his blades in a long while. But he didn't want to risk killing anyone.

    He heard the approaching runner. Superhumanly-fast as well… it was Meridina. He had to move.

    Hawk started sprinting toward the shuttle bay, knowing he was almost out of time.

    Kilometer by kilometer, the Avenger caught up to the Aurora. Her weapons started lashing out at her twin with deadly fury. Sapphire bolts played over the faltering blue energies of the Aurora's deflector shields.

    On the Aurora's bridge, Robert could feel the tension in the others. He could feel the tension in his crew. The worry and rage from the other ship.

    He checked the distance. So did Julia.

    "Any moment…", she said, intent on the tactical view.

    He gave it another few seconds. And then a few more. And then…

    "Locarno, cut forward velocity, shift us to starboard! All power to port weapons! Launch all fighters!"

    The fighters of the Aurora's flight wing started to erupt out of the launch tubes along the top-most deck of the ship's drive hull. As the fighters emerged Locarno went to work. The ship jinked to the right, hard, and forward movement was quickly reduced with the drives.

    The Avenger crew were slow to react. Too intent upon the kill, not knowing the specifics of the other ship's capabilities, they made a reaction to adjust.

    As they raced alongside the Aurora, Angel let them have it. The port weapons on Aurora's side opened up with amber fury, slamming the other ship's shields with repeated fire.

    As this started to degrade Avenger's shields, Laurent and his fighters opened up with a barrage of solar torpedoes.

    At short range.

    The torpedoes started slamming into Avenger's overtaxed shields. Some hit the shields

    But after the few dozen or so, the shields on the Avenger gave way to the onslaught. Explosions erupted along the primary and drive hulls of the colossal warship. As it passed by them, it was now bleeding atmosphere and debris from the dozen plus wounds the Aurora had inflicted.

    But they were still fighting. They had also opened fire as they passed. More sapphire bolts slammed into the port shields of the Aurora, making the ship shake from the resulting damage and stress.

    "Shields are now down to thirty-two percent." Jarod looked over his screens.

    At the engineering station, a male Gersallian ensign named Mataran added another report. "Primary Shield Generator 2 is offline. Activating secondary generators to compensate."

    "I'm picking up multiple hull breaches in the other ship. Their auto-repair systems are engaged, but I think we hit a few critical points." Caterina was looking over her sensor returns. "Their power signature is declining. And I'm picking up plasma leaking from their starboard nacelles. We may have disabled their warp drive."

    Julia added, "Laurent's people are going to continue hitting them."

    "Just what we needed." Robert leaned forward.

    As he did, he noticed a new feeling for the first time. It was faint. A sense of urgency and fear and anger… and he could sense Meridina, always prominent in his new senses, and her power, readying for action.

    "Hawk is free," he muttered.

    "What?" Julia looked at him.

    "Hawk is out," he said, more loudly this time. "Meridina's chasing him."

    "Then he won't be out for long," Julia predicted.

    The ship shuddered again as Hawk entered the secondary shuttle bay. Two security guards, both from the elven-eared species he'd seen, were waiting - a blue-skinned, teal-spotted man and a teal-skinned light-blue spotted woman. Hawk dodged their first shots with the benefit of his nanite-enhanced speed and returned fire with his stolen pulse pistol. The stun blast took out the man. The alien woman kept firing at him as he followed the wall toward a shuttle.

    Hawk whipped his arm out. As he did, a stinging sensation filled his wrist. A single blade erupted from the sore spot and flew through the air until it embedded itself in the alien woman's shoulder. Blue blood surged from the wound. A cry of surprise and pain came from her and her gun fell to the ground, released by the spasms of pain going down her now-useless arm.

    Before she could do anything else, Hawk shot her with a stun blast. She fell over, the nanite blade still sticking out of her shoulder.

    He went up to her. The uniform was more protective than he'd thought; his nanite blade would have gone completely through her shoulder if it had been regular fabric. He reached down and touched the blade with nanite tendrils coming from his sore wrist. The nanites in the blade flowed up, red from the blood seeping down his hand. He grimaced. That throwing blade trick always made the wound worst. He was still unable to keep it from cutting unprepared areas of his flesh the way he could with just a normal blade.

    Blue blood oozed from the wound. "Dammit", he muttered. Every moment he delayed, his escape became less likely. And it was already going to be a close shot.

    But he didn't see a point in this alien dying. She wasn't a slaver or a criminal or some other scumbag, she was just an officer doing a job. And he didn't kill people who didn't have it coming.

    ...not usually, anyway.

    "Dammit dammit dammit," he continued, reaching to his sleeve and tearing the cuff off. Once he had a large enough piece of fabric he tied it over the shoulder as a tourniquet. The blood flow slowed to a bare oozing of blue.

    Good. He was done. Time to get….

    He heard a metallic sound behind him. And a voice called out, "Surrender."

    "Dammit," Hawk growled. He turned.

    Meridina was at the entrance to the shuttle bay. Her blade was in her hand in a ready position.

    "No good deed goes unpunished," he muttered.

    Lucy had left Mataran for the bridge watch so she could perform Tom Barnes' usual job of being Scotty's number two man in Engineering. He had sent her to look over Primary Shield Generator 5 on Deck 28, toward the rear of the ship, which was showing increased strain from the firepower of the enemy ship.

    That strain was eased by a few technical actions, energy re-alignments and the like, and Lucy was about to return to Main Engineering when she felt a terrible feeling in her… inner self, or life force aka swevyra as Meridina would put it.

    She reached for the lakesh hilt on her hip, joined to the tools she kept on her tool belt, and ran off. "Lucero to Scott, Generator 5 is fine. I've got to check up on Meridina!"

    "Lass, this isnae th' time tae be runnin' off on…"

    "Trust me on this one, Scotty," Lucy pleaded. "She's going to need me." She got to one of the ladders on the deck and jumped on to climb further down. She didn't want to risk the lifts if something happened and power were lost.

    For a moment she wondered if the old engineer would force her to choose between what she felt was needed and the orders she'd been given. Finally a reply came. "Alright, lass. Do what ye need tae do. I'll call ye if ye're needed."

    "I won't be long," Lucy promised.

    And as she climbed, she hoped she would get there in time.

    The Aurora and Avenger continued to hammer away at each other - the latter's superior firepower clashing with the superior maneuverability of the former, augmented by the skill of Nicholas Locarno and under the direction of the best maneuvers that Robert and Julia could devise.

    More sapphire bolts sprayed along the shields of the Aurora. "Shields are down to twenty-two percent," Jarod warned.

    "Primary generators are holding for the moment. Switching to secondaries, tertiaries on standby," Mataran added.

    "Shield effectiveness is creeping back up toward thirty…" Another hit. Jarod shook his head. "And we're right back to twenty-two."

    On the screen Angel's bow guns tore into their attacker as soon as Locarno maneuvered their bow toward the enemy. The Aurora's own large pulse cannons thundered their sapphire fury into the shields of the Avenger. Solar torpedoes followed the bolts in, accompanied by the flashes of amber energy from the Aurora's phaser emplacements. Explosions flowered along the Avenger hull from these latter shots.

    "They're losing starboard shield cohesion," Caterina said. "I think you hit a power conduit, I'm detecting power loss in parts of their primary hull."

    The enemy's fury retorted. "Shields down to sixteen percent, damage on Decks 10, 12, and 14 through 20, multiple sections," Jarod said.

    "We'll need to bring this fight to an end soon," Julia remarked. "Unless we get reinforcements."

    Robert nodded in agreement. "So let's bring this to an end. Have Laurent's people break off for the moment and get distance."

    "And give them a clear shot on the enemy's weakened side?", Julia inquired. She was smiling - it was the same tactic she was about to suggest.


    "Sending orders now."

    "Maneuvering us into position," Locarno added.

    Lucy got to Deck 35 and started running. She summoned all of her power to move as quickly as she could. Every part of her being knew she was almost out of time.

    The secondary shuttle bay was quiet. Blood seeped from Hawk's wounded wrist as he generated nanite-forged blades for each hand. They formed with a sharp metallic sound not unlike that from Meridina's lakesh when she activated the memory metal blade.

    "You can't win this," Meridina said calmly. "Please, no more violence."

    "Sorry, but I'm not interested in living out the rest of my life in a cell," Hawk answered.

    "I would rather not be forced to do this again…" She looked over at the wounded security personnel. "You are an interesting man. You have not permanently harmed or killed any of my subordinates in your escape. You lost valuable time stopping the bleeding in Ensign Truliri's shoulder. That seems incompatible with the viciousness I saw in your kills on the planet."

    "Your people are decent beings. They don't deserve to die. It's that simple."

    "But the house slave at Tara did?"

    Hawk frowned. "She got in the way. It wasn't… I didn't…" He frowned. "You're delaying me."

    "No. I simply wanted to understand you. It…"

    He had no more time. Hawk charged at Meridina, blades up.

    She didn't raise her lakesh. Instead Meridina put all of her will into a single mental act. SLEEP, her voice boomed in Hawk's head.

    He fell over and collapsed.

    Meridina reached into her robe and pulled out wrist cuffs. She approached Hawk's sleeping form in a series of quick steps.

    As she got close to him, she felt apprehension and uncertainty. Fear. What was this from? Where could…

    She turned to the entrance of the shuttle bay and saw Lucy enter. Lucy had her lakesh hilt in her hand. She stretched an arm out. "Meridina, watch out!"

    Meridina felt the danger a second later.

    A second too late.

    Lucy screamed "Meridina!" as Hawk's nanite blade plunged into Meridina's chest.

    The strength and sharpness of the blade, not to mention the enhanced strength of Hawk's arm, pushed the blade through even the swevyra'se body armor Meridina was wearing. It rended flesh and rib and erupted from the other side. Thick red blood poured from both ends.

    Meridina looked in stunned silence at the blade connecting Hawk's right arm to her impaled torso.

    "Bastard!" Lucy activated her lakesh and charged at them.

    "Dammit, don't…!" Seeing Lucy was coming, Hawk had no choice. He pulled the blade out of Meridina and brought it up to parry Lucy's first swing. He had to twist to bring the other arm into position to parry the next blow. He stopped several more strikes in rapid succession and then had to pull back. The tip of Lucy's lakesh drew a red line across his neck just below the chin. Had he been just an inch or two closer, his throat would have been opened.

    But as fast and powerful as Lucy was, she wasn't as good as Meridina yet. In her fear and anger she failed to sense the blow that came next. Hawk's foot snapped up and caught her in the belly. Lucy doubled over and fell to the floor of the shuttle bay.

    "You don't have time!", Hawk shouted at her. "I didn't know her anatomy, dammit… I got her lung!" He pointed to where Meridina was laid out on the shuttle bay floor. A crimson pool was flowing to either side of her. Blood bubbled in her mouth. "You need to get her medical attention."

    "So you can get away?!", Lucy shouted.

    "What's more important to you, lady?" Hawk nodded his head at Meridina. "Her life, or capturing me?"

    Lucy frowned at him. Because that question wasn't a question at all. And her answer was the obvious one.

    Lucy put her lakesh away and went to Meridina's side. Her hand was already on her multidevice and activating the comm system. "Lucero to medbay, I've got a medical emergency in the secondary shuttle bay!"

    It was Leo who answered, "What… Lucy? What's going…"

    "Meridina's been stabbed through the lung! She needs immediate medical attention!"

    "I've got a team on the way."

    Lucy put her hand on Meridina's wound. Blood pushed through the gaps in her fingers. She could feel the lung filling with blood and worried that Leo's people wouldn't make it in time. She focused on the wound and the blood. Her power sensed it, settled on it, and she pulled. Blood flowed from the wound, staining Lucy's uniform and Meridina's robe as it spread across the deck.

    She heard engines power up. She didn't bother to look up and see Hawk take off in a shuttle. However he broke through the security access… that was for another time. She had to concentrate. She had to keep Meridina's lung clear of blood without letting her bleed to death. She sensed the cut blood vessels in Meridina's torso and forced the blood to follow them only. The concentration this took was taxing, more than anything she'd tried before with her power. Desperation and will fueled her focus; she couldn't afford to relent or Meridina would drown in her own blood.

    Come on, Leo… hurry up…

    Jarod's board informed him the moment the shuttle Kane began to launch. "Unauthorized shuttle launch in the secondary bay," he told the others.

    The news broke Robert's concentration for the moment. The tactical maneuver was almost complete. The fighters were readying to swing around and hit the other side of the Avenger from where they were firing. "What?"

    "Shuttle is lifting off… now."

    Julia frowned and hit a key. "Bridge to secondary shuttle bay, what's going on down there?"

    "Meridina's hurt, I can't move or she could die!", Lucy shouted through the comm link. "He's getting away!"

    Damn. "Change of plans!", Robert shouted. "Angel, target that shuttle! Julia, if you…"

    "I'm re-directing the fighters," she said, already ahead of him.

    "Slippery son of a bitch," Angel cursed, and for good reason. Their prisoner was a capable pilot, evading all of her shots for the moment. She needed one, just one…

    The ship shook violently. "Shields down to six percent, cohesion loss imminent," Jarod said. "Mataran, the tertiary…"

    "I've got them online, but they can't maintain cohesion against the hits we're taking from those pulse cannons," Mataran protested.

    On the screen Robert watched the Avenger change orientation and accelerate. The other ship threw itself into the flight line of the stolen shuttle. "Angel, everything!"

    Angel fired whatever she could. As fast as she could. Repeated amber bolts and beams moved across flickering blue shields as they tried to strike the shuttle. But the Avenger had already extended shields. The two ships had been so close that Hawk had been able to pull into the protective range of his ship before Angel could hit him.

    Of course, that left the Avenger herself. If they could cripple her… "Focus on her drives," Robert ordered. "If we can disable their main power…."

    "Gravitational spike," Caterina called out.

    "Jump point forming," Jarod added.

    A green jump point split open space ahead of the Avenger. The other ship accelerated at best speed into the maw of the tear in universes. Angel kept her fire up into the shields of the other ship, still trying to disable her.

    But the Avenger's shields held. The torpedoes and pulse plasma fire were thwarted before they could damage her any further, or destabilize her escape.

    The Avenger accelerated into the jump point and disappeared into it. The vortex closed behind them.

    Robert growled in frustration. "Jarod, Cat, can you get their destination? Anything we can…"

    "The jump point wasn't open long enough for me to get any chance of figuring out where it goes," Caterina answered. "I'm sorry."

    Robert shook his head and smacked the arm of his chair. "Damn."

    "Stand down from Code Red," Julia said. "I'm recalling our fighters."

    "Send a message to Admiral Maran. Include all records of the battle." Robert leaned forward in his chair. A sick feeling came to him. He could feel Lucy's power clear across the ship, and Meridina…

    "God, no," he murmured. "Meridina!" He jumped from his chair. Julia looked at him with confusion as he went toward the lift. "I'm going down to see what happened to Meridina," he declared. "You have the bridge, Commander."

    "Yes, sir," Julia replied. She whispered her own silent hope and prayer that Meridina was okay. "Jarod," she began, "I'd like a damage report from all departments. Locarno, bring us back into Earth orbit, please. We still have some work ahead of us…"

    Robert got to the medbay just ahead of the stretcher carrying Meridina. Dr. Vijay Dasgupta, from New Bengal in L2M1, was the surgeon that had been closest to the secondary shuttle bay, and he was accompanying her in with his medics. Leo was waiting. "Stab wound to torso area, it entered the inner section of her right lung," he informed Leo. "Lieutenant Lucero kept the blood from filling her lung. It collapsed on the way here."

    "Alright. Let's get that fixed." Leo took control and pulled the stretcher toward the nearest medbay OR.

    Lucy stepped in next. Her worry and concern could be sensed even without Robert's recent training. It was clear in her body language, as was exhaustion. "He ran her through," Lucy said. There was an evident anger in her voice. "He almost killed her… I had to let him go or she would have... !"

    "You did the right thing," Robert assured her. He suspected others wouldn't agree. But losing Meridina was a price he was not willing to pay. Not for this.

    Lucy nodded and stepped toward him… and he barely acted in time to catch her in his arms. "Woh. Lucy?"

    "So tired… I had to concentrate to keep the blood out of her lung…" Lucy looked up at him with a weary expression. "Did we get him?"

    He shook his head. "Sorry. He and his ship escaped into an interuniversal jump point."

    Lucy grumbled under her breath.

    "You should probably get some rest," he advised her.

    "No. Have to wait to see how Meridina does…"

    "I'll…" He almost finished that sentence before catching himself. He had other duties at the moment. Maran had to be informed about the other ship, the "Avenger". Robert chose instead to bring her to a seat. "Here. Let me know when she gets out of surgery?"

    "O'course," she mumbled. It was clear that from her fatigue, Lucy was drifting off into sleep.

    Robert made sure she wouldn't slip off the chair and left her to rest. As weary as he felt, other work had to be achieved before he could rest.

    The Starship Avenger drifted quietly in the vastness of interstellar space. The wounds from her battle with the Aurora were still healing.

    In her main shuttle bay, the stolen shuttle from the Aurora sat by itself. Hawk looked at it with an uncustomary quiet.

    Behind him, Helen was standing with her arms crossed. She was a tall woman, with a muscled figure that, with her height, made Hawk think of an Amazon from lore. She had crossed her arm and was frowning faintly. "We should have sent a stronger message to them to butt out," Helen growled. "If we'd left their precious little ship in a few more pieces, they'd take the hint."

    "It's not a big deal, Helen. It's a big Multiverse." Hawk smirked. "Besides, the goody-two-shoes and their kind could be useful to us. Eventually."

    "Get anything juicy from their computers, lover?", Helen asked him.

    Hawk smiled and brought up his personal display. Data in his systems appeared on a holo-screen above his right wrist. "How about a bunch of new universes for us to kick bad guy ass in?"

    "Oooh. Sexy." Helen chuckled. "Although it's going to be hard to get around with this 'Alliance' getting in our way."

    At that, Hawk let out a laugh. "Who says they're everywhere?"

    "What I want to know is what technology they have." The new voice was coming from under the stolen shuttle. Janice, who moved out from under it, was on the pudgy side of a solid build and wearing a work suit that didn't hide the curves or pudginess in her figure. She had colored her long hair bright pink and purple, much to Hawk's bemusement, since it went with the light bronze complexion of her skin.

    Blue and teal highlighted hair, brushed high, was the sign of her brother Kenneth. Ken had her height and build and complexion, although he had a bit of muscle on his arms compared to her. Ken was the engineer, Janice the technology wizard, and they were both unapologetic geeks of the highest order.

    Sometimes Hawk was astounded that he'd ever gotten them, his cousins, involved. He'd never been the "geek" type.

    "Their ship was crap compared to ours," Helen boasted. "We were kicking their asses."

    "Not quite," Ken pointed out. "We have better firepower, sure, but did you see the starfighters they were using? We still haven't built something that nimble. And their shields are a lot more robust than ours."

    "So let's hunt down one or two of their ships and get some samples of their shield tech," Janice proposed.

    "Assuming Andy doesn't over-do it like he did that Earth…", Ken began. He stopped when he noticed Hawk's dirty look.

    Helen snorted. "The people down there were all the backward superstitious type anyway. I say we make the Alliance think twice before…"

    "We're not attacking the Alliance," Hawk declared.

    "Oh?" Helen looked at him. "They didn't mind attacking you."

    "They're goody-two-shoes. They're naive that way, but they're still good guys." Hawk frowned. "And that's our guiding rule. We don't kill good guys. Don't hurt 'em either, unless they make us. So we're not going out picking fights with the Alliance."

    "They might not give us a choice," Helen pointed out. "Or are we going to wuss out over that too?"

    Hawk turned and glared at her. "If they screw with us, we hit back. But I don't like killing people who don't have it coming to them. And these people are good ones. So we only defend ourselves and we hold back as much as plausibly can. Capische?"

    "Yeah, fine." Helen rolled her eyes. "Just so long as you don't expect us to submit to them and their rules. I signed up to make scum pay, not to be an errand boy for rich jerks."

    "Wouldn't that be 'errand girl'?", Janice pointed out. She turned away at the harsh glare that Helen shot her.

    "Won't happen that way. Don't worry."

    Helen nodded. "So, what do about Andy?"

    "Can him," Hawk declared. He was frowning. "Again, first rule. No harming good guys. He blew up millions of people in his little temper tantrum."

    "On a world like that, there are pretty damn few good guys," Helen insisted.

    "Maybe, but there are some, and Andy blew them away too. I want that asshole as far from the tactical station as we can get him." Hawk started walking away. "I'm going to take a rest. When we get back, we need to start loading tactical education into the infusers. It should give us more of an edge if we ever run into the Aurora again."

    "I was already going in for another infusion," Helen admitted.

    "So was I," Janice added. "We need to know more about subspace to improve our…"

    "Just make sure the tactical data is mixed in. We'll take turns as always. See you in the morning."

    Hawk left them behind and headed to his quarters on deck 4. He peeled off his combat suit and threw it to the side. Another headache was coming in. So many headaches these days. They only seemed to relent when he was taking out scumbags.

    He laid down on his bed and felt the pull of sleep. But he also thought of that woman. Meridina. She had shown no malice, no fear, not anything like he was used to when fighting.

    And he thought of his blade in her chest, the blood pumping into her lungs, the stunned surprise on her face.

    He hadn't intended to hit her in the lung. He'd never… she didn't deserve to die. He was certain of that. He was just trying to wound her enough to get away. She was too skilled for anything but the most unexpected attack to work. It was why he'd adjusted his nanites to artificially awaken him from any sleep state. Her attempt to compel him to sleep had only lasted a few seconds because of that. He'd wound her and then get away and…

    You almost killed her. And she didn't need killing.

    But the worst thing about it was… that sense of elation he had still felt. He'd bested this dangerous adversary and it made him feel strong, invincible. Even though he didn't want to hurt her, it felt good… Yeah, that's what happens. You mess with the bull, you get the damn horns.

    I'm overthinking it.
    He turned over in his bed and tried to relax until he could go to sleep. The headache still stung behind his eyes. His mind began to wander.

    I wonder how the goody two-shoes types are handling this…?
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  6. Threadmarks: 2-01 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
    Likes Received:
    The Aurora command crew assembled the next morning for another call from Admiral Maran. "I have examined the logs of your battle," Maran stated. Outside the window the Earth of Universe C1P2 was again visible - they had assumed an equatorial orbit to resume medical assistance operations to a planet sorely in need of far more. "Our tactical assessment of the Avenger and her combat capabilities is that she is an advanced battlecruiser. That you lasted so long against them is to be commended.."

    "I think our real edge was training," Julia stated. "They didn't have the best grasp of tactics. They're not used to fighting other starships capable of fighting back."

    "Unfortunately, that's something they'll fix with time," Robert noted. "We may not have that advantage next time."

    "The fact that they are remaining stateless might work to our advantage. Whatever the case, the fleet will be ready for them if they ever show up again. Now, what about casualties?"

    "Injuries to the crew, for the most part" Julia replied. "Hawk didn't kill anyone during his escape. Although he almost killed Meridina."

    Maran took immediate note of that. "How is the Commander?"

    "She suffered a stab through the lung," Leo answered. "It could have killed her. Lieutenant Lucero was able to keep the blood from flooding into her left lung enough to cause any damage from prolonged oxygen loss, thankfully. She should be clear for duty in a couple of weeks. Three, at the most."

    "That is good to hear."

    Leo remained standing. "I've been going over my scans of Hawk. And I've found something I'd like to share."

    Maran wasn't the only one to show interest. Robert leaned forward in his chair. "Go on."

    Leo reached for his multidevice and tapped in commands. He interfaced with the display systems for the conference room holo-table. A holographic image of a generic male figure popped up. Beside it was Hawk. "I've already gone over the nanite enhancements," he began. "But this is something I noticed this morning."

    Another button tap zoomed in on both figures. Specifically, on their heads, and then even closer, to their skull and the brain within. Multiple angles of the brain were shown around the figure. Colored areas showed.

    It was immediately clear that Hawk's were colored differently.

    "This is a normal Human brain. And this is Hawk's." He indicated the two. "The differences in electrical flow in the neurons, the activity in specific areas of the brain, it's all there."

    "Doctor, are you saying this Hawk individual is brain-damaged?"

    "I thought so at first. It would explain his shifts in personality. Why someone so brutal as to slaughter people planetside without a sign of remorse would express regret later, or stabbing Meridina in the lung instead of going for a fatal blow." Leo tapped his multidevice. "And then I had an idea of where I had last seen this brain pattern."

    Another brain popped up on the other side of the sample. It had a pattern closer to Hawk's than the normal brain. "Should we know this one?", Cat asked.

    "I'd hope so," Leo replied. "It's yours, from years ago. After your last infusion."

    "Woh." She frowned. "So… I'm brain-damaged too?"

    "No. But you might have suffered some effects from this if someone hadn't stopped you from having too many." He smirked. "Mostly me."

    Cat quickly put two and two together. "The brainwave infusers."


    "The brainwave infusion technology the Darglan made," Leo said. "Control warned us to not use it frequently. I think this is why."

    "You think Hawk overused it," Jarod said. "And that it altered the structure of his brain."

    "Exactly." Leo nodded. "I think Hawk, and anyone with him, have been abusing the infusers. They don't give their brains time to acclimate to the uploaded data. They upload again too soon. And so they're destroying their brains, one upload at a time."

    "Could this…. kill them?"

    At that Leo shrugged. "That would be conjecture without data at the moment. All I can tell you is that it's going to have an effect upon their mental condition. They may start to have issues with emotional control, or showing any emotion. Or maybe they'll end up in constant pain. The brain is a complex organ and there's no telling what symptoms overuse of the infusions may cause. I'd need access to them, or their medical records."

    "I don't think that'll be possible," Angel pointed out.

    "It is something to consider should we ever get access to the technology again," Maran pointed out. "Thank you, Doctor Gillam, for your input." The admiral's expression shifted. "The war has caused numerous humanitarian crises to arise in S4W8. The majority of our hospital ships are tied up dealing with those. I can only assign two ships, the Galen and the Clara Barton, to C1P2."

    "What about Starfleet?"

    "They have other obligations. And some recent difficulties with the Klingons have proven distracting."

    "That doesn't sound good," Julia observed. "What's going on with the Klingons?"

    "There's a Klingon fleet at DS9 that has everyone on edge. They're not elaborating on why they've got a fleet there when it could be at the front in S4W8. Naval Intelligence is working on it, obviously, but they have bigger concerns in S4W8 with the Reich's counter-offensive in the Argolis Sector."

    "Understood, Admiral. We can remain and…"

    "No. The Aurora is needed elsewhere. I'll have orders for you this afternoon."

    "But…" Robert swallowed. "This planet, this Earth… it's going to need help. Rebuilding. And two hospital ships can't do that alone."

    "Even with you, they couldn't. I'm sorry, Captain, but with the war as a priority, we don't have the resources to rebuild a planet out of charity." Maran frowned. "I'm afraid Earth C1P2 will be on its own for a while."

    The Admiral's argument was a harsh one. But completely true. The war with the Nazi Reich was of paramount importance for the moment, and all considerations would be seconded to it.

    "Understood, sir," was all Robert could give by way of reply.

    "I'll transmit new orders to you soon. Maran out."

    "So that's it," Leo mumbled after Maran disappeared. "There's nothing more we can do."

    "He's right." Jarod shook his head. "We can't heal an entire planet by ourselves. Let's worry about the things we can change."

    "Just because he's right dinnae mean it feels right, lad." Scott was shaking his head.

    "We'll do what we can before we leave." Robert looked to Leo. "Leo, ready our patients from C1P2 for transfer to the Barton when she arrives. And have your people take what they can from your medicine lockers to help planetside medical authorities with medical emergencies. Jarod, Scotty, see what help we can provide from available replicator stocks, and see that it's beamed down before we depart. Angel, I want you to coordinate with Commander Kane. See if there's any way to help planet-side security forces restore order in ruined cities. We can provide that data to the other ships to use as needed. Everyone else, you are dismissed."

    The meeting adjourned.

    Election day had come to the Colonial Fleet. On every ship in the fleet, the sixty thousand or so citizens of the colonies were casting their votes for their Quorum representatives and for the Presidency of the Colonies.

    Zack and his crew had no place in this vote, of course. With nothing else of interest going on today, they were remaining on the Koenig. Only some of the volunteer doctors and nurses from the Alliance were staying on Colonial ships for the election, continuing their jobs as normal.

    With the day open, Zack was taking the time to do paperwork and hang out with Tom Barnes. The lanky redhead was letting his Alliance uniform go a bit rumbled, as was usual for him, while he reclined in the chair in Zack's office tinkering with a digital reader. "So it's over, eh?", he remarked.


    "Our little excursion," he clarified. "Getting away from Rob and the others, spreading our wings, that sort of thing."

    "Oh. Yeah, it is," Zack said. "By this time tomorrow we'll be meeting with the Aurora. Things will go back to 'normal'... if that's what you call all this."

    "Well, it sort of is normal now, isn't it?", Barnes pointed out. "I mean, sure, four years ago normal was your beat up old car and hunting for jobs in the social wastelands of Kansas. Now we fly spaceships for a living." Barnes chuckled. "Dude, I'll take the new normal any day of the week."

    Zack smirked at that. "Yeah. It's certainly a better normal."

    Barnes leaned backward over the arm of the chair and looked at Zack with his head upside down. "Of course, that was before Clara Davis wrapped you around her finger."

    Zack took his stencil and scribbled his signature on a commendation order for one of his crew. "It's good to see Magda and Chief Pacetti agreeing on Crewwoman Darina's Commended Service Medal. She's doing well on managing Deck 2's damage control crew."

    "Darina? Oh, that cute Gersallian redhead? A little overeager sometimes if you ask me…" Barnes tapped his table. "And don't change the subject. You and Clara."

    "What about me and Clara?", Zack asked. His reader brought up another order. A promotion for Crewman Jagana.

    "You are being intolerably coy about that," Barnes grumbled.

    "It's private."

    "You used to brag about how often you and your girlfriend of the week got to…"

    "Tom, if you finish that sentence, I will seriously kick your ass," Zack warned. "That was the past. And it's not about that."

    Barnes gave him a skeptical look. "So this isn't about the fact that Clara fills out her uniform? Maybe a bit on the pudgy side of things…"

    Zack sighed loudly and put his reader down. Quite loudly. "What is it that you want, Tom? Yes, I'm enjoying my relationship with Clara. Yes, we have sex, and the sex is about the best I've had in my life. No, I'm not sharing details, because it's not any of your business. This isn't high school and bragging about sexual exploits. We're in the adult world now. We do adult things. Like fly starships between stars and risk our lives in fights with Nazis."

    Barnes' look became quite annoyed. "The way you say that, it's like you think I'm not a mature adult myself."

    "The accusation has occasionally crossed my mind."

    "I'm just looking to have some fun, man. For us to have fun, hang out and be buddies like we used to." Barnes tossed his own reader to the desk. "Because lately all it seems you care about is 'duty' this or 'Clara' that. Dude, I came out here to keep you company, and you've spent months acting like I'm just around."

    There was silence in the office. "Alright, I'm sorry for getting on your case," Zack apologized. "I know you asked for the transfer to Koenig because you were worried about me after everything that happened. I appreciate it, Tom, really, I do. I just…"

    He stopped. How could he describe this to Tom? That things had simply changed? He wasn't the same guy anymore. He still wanted to be friends, to hang out occasionally and provide advice and all the kinds of things they'd always done together. But they weren't going back to that old partying, "bros" behavior. Their world had changed too much.

    Barnes was letting the silence linger for his own reasons. "It's cool that you're with Clara, alright?", he said. "She's sweet and cool and you two are crazy for each other, and that's awesome. But I'm tired of feeling like you're slipping away. From all of us, man. You and Rob, then you and Julia, and now it's to you and me…" Barnes put a hand to his chin, resting it with his arm on the chair. "It's like… I dunno, it's just like we're all starting to pull apart. And I don't want that. We're cool together. The eight, well, more than eight of us."

    "We'll always have those memories of our times together," Zack said. "Baseball games and parties. That time Angel and Julia beat up those bikers down at the old Hound…"

    Barnes chuckled. "Yeah. And we all ended up in the sheriff's drunk tank."

    "...and Rob's dad came to bail him out and started laughing when he saw all of us together. Even Cat was there!"

    "She did smash a pitcher into the head of that big guy going at Angel's back…"

    Their mutual reminiscing stopped. "Those days aren't coming back," Zack sighed wistfully, "but we've found something out here that keeps us together. Just differently. So…"

    There was a tone from his desk that interrupted them. Zack pressed the receive key. "Carrey here."

    Magda spoke on the other end. "We just got official word, Commander. The election results are in."

    Barely an hour later, Zack was back on Cloud 9. Celebrations were still going on. He wasn't here to celebrate, of course, simply to do his duty. A bubbly, happy intern directed him to where his subject was chatting away with supporters. He was recognized approaching and made sure to show full politeness. "Congratulations on your victory," Zack said. He extended his hand.

    It was taken immediately. "Thank you, Commander," Dr. Gaius Baltar replied. He gave Zack a moment's handshake.

    "It's a pleasure to see you Commander." Tom Zarek stepped up as well. He offered his hand and Zack accepted it immediately. "You and your crew have been welcome additions to the Fleet. Had it been my way, they would have been given the vote as well."

    "Thank you for that, Mister Vice President," Zack said. "Although I think Admiral Maran would have ordered us to abstain regardless. It's important that your internal politics remain uninfluenced by the Alliance."

    Baltar nodded. "We thank you for that consideration. I hear you'll be leaving us now?"

    "My orders were to withdraw from the Fleet once we had your decision on where to settle. Other Alliance ships will work with you on colonization." Zack smiled slightly. "As much as my crew and I have enjoyed working with your people, the Aurora is in need of a support ship again, and the Koenig will be returning to that role."

    "Of course. I understand completely. You may inform Admiral Maran that we will be accepting the Dorei offer for the planet Peltago. We intend to name the world New Caprica."

    Zack pondered that. Capricans were represented pretty well in the fleet, certainly… but the other eleven Colonies had populations that might be more ambivalent. "I would have imagined you'd pick something more neutral. New Kobol, for instance?"

    "Oh, no. That would be blasphemy, my dear Commander," Baltar insisted. "And while my esteemed Vice President is awaiting the day that New Sagittaron is announced, the fact remains that Caprica was the cultural and social heart of the Colonies. Naming our first new colony after that world is something both Roslin and I had in mind."

    "And you're going to stay in N2S7?" Zack was very curious about that choice. "There are plenty of other worlds, in other universes where the Cylons can't get to you."

    "The Cylons have made it clear they can't face the Alliance," Zarek pointed out. "They'll pose no problems for us no matter where we settle."

    "And New Caprica is well within the Dorei frontier," Baltar added. "From what I've seen of them, the Dorei will not suffer a Cylon incursion very kindly."

    "No. No they won't." All the same… this is taking a risk you don't need to. What is your game here, Baltar? Zack made a show of checking the time on his multidevice. "Well, I'm afraid I must be going. I have to see Admiral Adama and make final preparations for our departure."

    "I understand, Commander." Baltar was still smiling. "Please, whenever you get a chance, I do hope you return to New Caprica. Under my leadership, it will be a beautiful settlement. I have many plans for its layout. And I'll be certain to include your baseball fields in the parks."

    Zack's response was a small smile. He nodded again to the winners of the election and departed.

    Later that day, Zack was in Adama's office with a digital reader extended. "My final report to you, Admiral," he said.

    Adama took it and gave it a quick glance. "Very well, Commander." He took his stencil and signed his name at the bottom. "I must say, your digital reader pads make the paperwork side of my job very convenient. One of the little benefits of our contact."

    "I've found paperwork is paperwork, sir."

    That caused a chuckle. "Yes." For a moment he said nothing more.

    And then Adama extended his hand. "It's been a pleasure serving with you, Commander Carrey." Zack took his hand at this point for a handshake. "You and your crew are always welcome here with the Fleet."

    "Thank you, Admiral Adama. It's been a pleasure on my end as well."

    "Please, give my best to Captain Dale and the others." The handshake ended. "I look forward to hearing from you again some time."

    Zack replied with a nod. A question on his mind now came to the forefront. "With the colony location selected and Baltar elected, what will happen to the Galactica and Pegasus now?"

    "We'll have to see," Adama admitted. "I'm going to propose we see about further refits. Just to make sure we have an edge if the Cylons attack or we have other problems. It all depends on what Baltar and Zarek choose to bring before the Quorum."

    "Hopefully everything will work out. WIth the war with the Nazis still on, the Alliance is going to be sending a lot of ships into S4W8 for a while." Zack stopped there. The next question, which he would leave unasked, was about the data from the Darglan Facility that had been uploaded to the Galactica and Pegasus. It would be a while, presumably, before the Colonies could do anything with it. But it was a useful chip for them to cash in with the Alliance at some point.

    "Are you transporting back to the Koenig?", Adama asked.

    "After I make one more stop," Zack answered.

    Adama didn't need to ask just who the stop was for. He smiled and nodded at Zack before he left.

    Zack found Clara in the Galactica galley, having lunch with some of the other nurses and crew. One of the mechanics, Cally, was enthusiastically inquiring about dental schools in the Alliance while the others teased playfully about such a career choice.

    Zack was surprised to see Kara walk by. She gave Zack a knowing look and winked at him. "Take care, Loverboy," she said with a grin, offering her hand. He accepted it. "Keep those flying skills sharp."

    "It's a shame," he replied. "We never did get to put you in the cockpit of a Mongoose."

    "Oh, I'm sure I'll get to fly one eventually," was her reply. "I'll leave you to your lady and master now, Carrey. Try not to cry too much."

    That brought a chuckle from Zack. He went on to the table, where Clara was standing up upon seeing him. She excused herself from the others and walked up to him. They embraced. "It's time, then?", she asked.

    "It is," he replied gently.

    He could hear the sadness in her voice. And he felt it within himself. These past several months had been the happiest in his life, it seemed, and Clara had been the reason why. After being alone so long…

    "I have a scheduled vacation period coming up," Clara said. "Maybe we can meet?"

    "If things hold out, we'll be there for the fourth anniversary of New Liberty. We can enjoy the festival together."

    "I'll look forward to that."

    For a moment, neither said anything. They just looked into each other's eyes, afraid to end the moment, knowing it wouldn't happen again for many weeks to come. They didn't notice the number of eyes starting to turn their way.

    "Are you…?", Clara asked, seeming confused.

    "What? Oh. Right."

    Zack leaned his head in and pressed his lips to Clara's. They began to share a deep, affectionate goodbye kiss.

    Neither seemed to be bothered by the whistles and applause that broke out. The kiss, for both, was far more important.

    Baltar had spent the prior evening and much of the day dealing with the matters of assuming the Presidency of the Colonies. Soon he would give the oath of office and move his things to Colonial One, allowing him to oversee the colonization plans.

    Now, for the first time in a day, he was alone. Briefly, but just long enough for…

    "Congratulations, Gaius."

    He turned away from his desk to face the beautiful blonde. She was in a slinky red dress, trying to provoke him with sexual attraction as she often did. Whether she was some Cylon plant in his brain or a form of extradimensional entity - Alliance records linked to other universes had confirmed the possibility of such beings, at least - Baltar did not know. He just knew she could be dangerous, and yet, that she was trying to help him.

    Help him do what and for what… that was something he was still trying to figure out.

    "I am now President of the Colonies, yes," he said. "Thank you, my dear. Now the question is… where do we go from here?"

    "Where indeed?"

    "Why did you insist on colonizing a world in this universe?", Baltar asked. "Is this another one of those 'God's Plan' things?"

    "You are correct," she replied. She was so close he could swear he could smell her body. The thought of experiencing sensual ecstasy with her again rushed blood through his body. He knew she was doing this on purpose. To excite and tease. He couldn't help but enjoy it. "The place of your people is in this universe, not another. God's plan for you has yet to be fulfilled."

    "And what plan is that? Let the Cylons finish their genocide?"

    "Obviously not, or God would have let them destroy you long ago," she chided him. "The Plan is bigger than that. Greater. You'll see that, Gaius dear. It will be a while, but you'll see it."

    And then she was gone, and Baltar was left to his thoughts.


    Lucy pulled up a chair in the medbay beside Meridina's bed. She was still asleep.

    "She needs the rest." Leo stepped up beside Lucy. He pulled a hypospray from his lab coat and pressed it to Meridina's neck. "Just giving her another medication. The Gersallians' cardiovascular system can suffer chemical imbalance when the body's trying to produce more blood."

    Lucy nodded. "Okay."

    Leo put a hand on her shoulder. "Are you alright?"

    "If I had just been there a moment sooner, maybe…"

    "She's okay, Lucy. She'll be okay. It's not your fault." Leo smiled confidently at her. "So, are you coming?"


    "Cat just called from the bridge," Leo revealed. "She has the Koenig on long-range sensors. They'll be docking in an hour. Julia's getting everyone together to welcome them back at the airlock."

    "Oh. I…" Lucy looked back to Meridina. "Maybe I should stay. So Meridina's not alone."

    Leo considered that response. "I think she'll understand if you go to welcome them back, Lucy. She'd want you to."

    It wasn't clear that was good enough of a reason for Lucy. She reached over and held Meridina's hand for a moment. It pained her to see her teacher, the one showing her all of the things this power within her could do, stricken like this.

    Finally she breathed in a sigh. "Okay." She smiled gently. "Alright, I'll be there."

    Everyone watched with grins and smiles wide as the Koenig slid gently into her docking space for the first time in over half a year. Robert looked to Julia and said, "It's about time, isn't it?"

    "Yes, it is," she replied. "And maybe now Zack will feel better about… things."

    He nodded at that. For everything that had happened since, there were still times he thought of how he had messed up back in the 33LA mission the prior May. And how that had so badly affected his friendship with Zack. "I want to regain his trust," Robert admitted to her. "He had good reason to be angry with me."

    Julia said nothing in reply. They had discussed this before, after all.

    The airlock finally opened. Zack and Tom stepped out and the assembled Aurora officers cheered. "Welcome home!", they called out together.

    Scotty was quick to add his own greeting. "Good t' see ye, lads!"

    Jarod was next. "You're finally back where you belong!"

    "Someone finally beat Jarod at poker," Locarno declared. "I've got the holovid for you!"

    At the tremendous response, Zack sighed and laughed. Barnes gave everyone a grin. "So, Scotty, you kept them from blowing the ship up after all," he said. "How'd you do it without me?"

    "Wasn't easy, lad. Was nae easy at all."

    Robert stepped ahead of the others and offered his hand. "Welcome back, Zack."

    "Aren't we supposed to do some formal ceremony?", Zack asked. He accepted Robert's hand. "Like, reading of orders and signing and countersigning or something?"

    "The paperwork can wait, Zack. I'm just glad you're home."

    For a moment, they had just the handshake. And then, by mutual decision, they turned it into an embrace. Robert patted his best friend on the back. "It's good to have you back, Zack. I've missed you."

    "I've missed you too, Rob," Zack admitted. "And forget about what happened last year. This is 2642. Time for a fresh start."


    Their hug ended and Zack moved on to embrace Julia. As they exchanged greetings, Robert shook hands and exchanged shoulder pats with Barnes to welcome him back. Apley came next, and…

    ...and just for a moment, Robert thought he heard something else. Something different. Something out of place. A faint howl in the air, one he couldn't recognize.

    Magda stepped up to him. "It's good to be back again," she said. "The Colonials were nice, but I missed having holodecks or Hargert's cooking."

    "We'd all miss Hargert's cooking," Robert replied. By the time the exchange was over, the howl in his head had vanished.

    What had that been anyway? A figment of his imagination?

    Whatever it was, it wasn't important. Not as important as this reunion. "Hargert's got a welcome home meal ready and waiting in the Lookout," he declared loudly. "For the entire Koenig crew."

    That prompted cheers.

    Robert let himself smile. After the past few months and the craziness they'd gone through… it seemed things had finally gotten back on track.

    And then there was a chirp on his multidevice. It didn't interrupt the festivities, but it did get his attention. He pressed the key. "Dale here."

    "Jupap, sir." Jarod's Alakin backup was currently in command of the bridge. "We just received a Priority One alert from Defense Command."

    A Priority One? Is this about that Nazi counter-offensive…? "What's it about, Lieutenant? Something, in S4W8?"

    "No sir. Not S4W8. S5T3."

    That made Robert blink. "What? What's going on over there?"

    "It is the Klingons, sir," was the answer.

    By this point, everyone was starting to turn and listen in.

    "What about the Klingons?"

    "The Klingon Empire has invaded Cardassian space," Jupap reported. "And they've withdrawn from the Khitomer Accords."

    Julia's jaw dropped for a moment. "But… that means…"

    "It means the Federation and the Klingon Empire are no longer allies," Robert said. "And the war with the Nazis just got a hell of a lot harder."
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  7. Threadmarks: 2-02 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
    Likes Received:

    The Starship Aurora basked in the light of a yellow star. Her azure hull gleamed and her long, sleek appearance were a sight to behold.

    The sight of his ship looking so grand might have eased the growing headache that Captain Robert Dale faced at his present difficulty. Had he been able to see it.

    But right now he was looking at two different beings. One, a Tellarite woman, was Captain Teer of the Federation Starship Oreen, a New Orleans-class Federation frigate. The other was a Klingon man, Captain Glaghk, of the Bird-of-Prey Yavekh.

    "...and their conduct has been unacceptable, Captain Dale," Teer was declaring. "This Klingon vessel has been using Alliance space to launch attacks on Federation ships conducting innocent trade to Cardassia…"

    "Worthless petaQ!", Glaghk shouted. "Do you take us for fools?! Your 'innocent trade' has been in industrial replicators and devices the Cardassians will use against us!"

    "None of the equipment being traded to the new government on Cardassia is recognized as contraband by…"

    "The machines you provide can make weapons. The Klingon Empire is within its rights..."

    At that point Jarod helpfully muted the call from his Ops station. The standard bridge crew were all in their places. It was a great relief to Robert to see that this included Barnes, sitting at the Engineering station beside Caterina at Science/Sensors along the port wall of the bridge.

    "Thank you, Jarod," Julia said, beating him to it. "They're just talking around each other now."

    "But we still have to deal with it." Robert rubbed at his forehead. "Arguing with Teer is like pulling teeth."

    "I could always shoot them," Angel suggested flippantly from her Tactical station.

    "As tempting as that is," Robert admitted, "I doubt the President or Admiral Maran will be pleased by me opening hostilities with both the Klingons and the Federation." He took in a breath and focused in the manner Meridina had been teaching him. It calmed the energy he felt within. "Okay, I'm ready," he said. "Put them back on."

    Both of the captains had apparently realized he'd muted them and gone quiet, stewing silently. Robert knew he had to get the first word in, and quickly, before the argument resumed. "Okay, now that the shouting is over… I'll remind you both that the Allied Systems has remained neutral over your governments' recent hostility. We're not taking sides. We've got treaties with you both, for God's sake, we don't want to take sides. And we want you to keep this tussle out of our space." He looked at the Tellarite first. "Captain Teer, for the time being, the Alliance will inspect all Federation ships entering Cardassian territory from our space to ensure they are carrying only humanitarian supplies."

    "This is outrageous conduct, Captain!," Teer exploded. "The Federation will protest…"

    "...and President Morgan will handle it as he deems fit. I'm relaying the orders I've been given in this situation," Robert countered.

    "And you will just allow the Klingons to continue to attack…"

    "I'm getting to them," Robert barked. He focused on the Klingon commander next. "Captain Glagkh, you have ten hours to withdraw from Alliance space. For the time being, the Alliance is going to forbid Starfleet and the KDF from entering our borders."

    "What?!", Glagkh shouted. "Insolent little… have we not fought and died alongside you in battle?! We deserve your support…"

    "...and if you had approached the Alliance Government with your suspicions about the Cardassians, you might have gotten it," Robert pointed out. "You didn't. Instead you left us high and dry when your forces dropped out of the war without warning. Some of our comrades are dead because of all of this."

    Glagkh growled and went silent.

    "Those are the orders I have direct from my President," Robert continued. "Until the diplomats can sort this out, the Alliance is asserting its neutrality. I expect you both to withdraw from Alliance territory immediately. Dale out." He motioned with his hand. Jarod cut the communication.

    For several tense seconds there was no reaction from either side. The Federation vessel turned away first. They watched Teer's ship elongate and disappear in a burst of light. The Klingon ship turned afterward and cloaked.

    "Well." Julia crossed her arms. "At least we kept them from shooting at each other. That was the last thing we needed."

    "It's hard to believe they became enemies so easily," Caterina mumbled. "They were allies for decades."

    "Not friendly, though, until the Enterprise-C was destroyed at Narendra," Locarno pointed out. "There's always been a little friction between the Federation and the Klingons. And now it's all coming out."

    "And here we are, stuck in the middle," Julia observed.

    "Return us to our prior patrol course, Nick," Robert said. "I'll be in the office writing up my report on the incident. I'll see you all at 1900 for Admiral Maran's briefing."

    At exactly 1900, Admiral Maran's image appeared on the main viewer in the conference room. The combined command staffs of the Aurora and Koenig were seated and waiting. "Good evening," he began. "I'm going to get straight to the matter at hand. The collapse of the Khitomer Accords has changed every strategic and diplomatic calculus we have made since the formation of the Alliance. The Klingons and Federation are putting tremendous pressure on us to pick a side."

    "Is it really that difficult a choice?", Leo asked. "The Klingons invaded the Cardassians without provocation. They're in the wrong."

    "They say that the Cardassian government was taken over by Changelings," Julia pointed out. "And it's pretty suspicious that the Cardassian government fell so quickly to a democratic uprising, isn't it?"

    "I'd hardly call the Detepa Council 'democrats'," Locarno countered. "They're a civilian government, sure, but they weren't elected under anything approaching a democratic system."

    "Given time…"

    "I believe this debate demonstrates the issue we are having in Portland quite well," Maran said, ending the discussion. "There are those who sympathize with either side of the dispute. The President will never get a mandate to side with one or the other at this time."

    "So what do we do?", Robert asked. "They've already cost us the entire offensive in S4W8 from all of the Federation and Klingon ships returning to S5T3. We need to get them back on track, or at least not shooting at each other."

    "That's why I've called you. You handled the last set of talks that brought them into the war. I'm hoping you might be able to persuade the two sides to find enough common ground to stick with us."

    "So there's going to be another summit?", Julia asked.

    "Yes. And you'll be present to join Senator Kiang in representing the Alliance. She'll meet you at the site."

    Robert's next question was the obvious one. "Where are the talks being held?"

    "You're due in the Bajor system, Captain. The talks are going to be held on Deep Space Nine."

    A lone transport vessel pulled up to the docking ring of Deep Space Nine. Outside of the airlock it was attached to were a group of waiting security officers with scanners, a mix of Starfleet and Bajoran personnel.

    Most of those exiting the ships were the usual type of travelers. Free traders, salesmen, interstellar tourists, and now, journalists and independent operators looking to investigate the rumors of a peace summit between the Federation and Klingons. It seemed bizarre that such a summit would be hosted on DS9, where just the prior month Klingon forces had been trying to board and seize the station.

    A Human Starfleet Ensign, Merrill, was the one who received the oddity in the transport. The figure was clad mostly in black and moved with sensual grace. Try as he might, Merrill's relative youth made it hard for him to ignore the attractiveness of the black-clad female figure, although he did not recognize her species immediately. He tried to think of which species were known for blue coloration and no hair in the moment that the woman handed her identification to him. It was a holographic passport marked from the city-moon of Solaria. Personal information displayed the name of Rila t'Gomi. Merrill's eyes went to the entry under species. "Asari?", Merrill said. He looked into her blue eyes. They fixed on him. "I've never seen one of you before. M4P2, right?"

    "Yes." Her voice was warm and inviting. "You are… Starfleet, I believe?"

    "Yes ma'am. Ensign Merrill, Starfleet Security."

    "Quite an interesting line of work, Ensign."

    "Oh." He chuckled nervously and rubbed at his neck. "Interesting isn't just it. Barely four weeks ago I was fighting for my life against Klingons boarding the station."

    She seemed to take interest in that. "That sounds interesting. Perhaps you would like to tell me about it?"

    Merrill's heart almost went into his throat. He'd heard rumors about how beautiful and sensual the Asari could be. They were played up as almost being Deltan in that regard. And it had been quite a while since that Betazoid he'd gone out with between years at the Academy…

    There were people forming up behind the Asari. Merrill forced himself to pay attention to his job. "I'm off duty in two hours," he said. "I'll be in Quark's if you're interested."

    She smiled at him and accepted her identification holo back. Merrill was smiling after she walked past.

    The Asari calling herself Rila t'Gomi was smiling too.

    But it was a different kind of smile.

    Undiscovered Frontier
    "Hunter and Prey"

    Ship's Log: 15 February 2642; ASV Aurora. Captain Robert Dale recording. We have arrived at Deep Space Nine, where the talks will be commencing shortly. Commander Andreys and I will be joining Senator Kiang's delegation. Hopefully we can discover a way to heal this rift before it further complicates matters.

    Senator Kiang Yu Ling was waiting for Robert and Julia when they beamed into the DS9 quarters she was using for her staff room. The prim, proper-looking Chinese woman was dressed in a blue suit with cyan highlights. "Captain, Commander." She nodded. "Welcome."

    "Thank you, Madame Senator." Robert accepted her offered hand. Julia did so as well. Kiang showed them to chairs around a round table before sitting in one herself. "How are the talks going?"

    "The preliminary discussions are difficult," she admitted. The older woman shifted a moment before finding she was comfortable. "I have sought their approval for Minbari or Asari mediators, but neither side is ready to proceed to mediation unless certain prerequisite terms are approved. The Klingons are insisting that the Federation recognize their annexation of several Cardassian star systems. The Federation wants them to withdraw."

    "That is not likely to happen," Julia observed wryly.

    "Agreed. I am hopeful that, perhaps, the two sides might be convinced to lower these requirements. But I do not have high hopes for these talks."

    "We'll see what we can do," Robert promised. "Who is representing who?"

    "The Federation sent Sonek Pran. I believe you have met?"

    Robert nodded in reply. "He represented the Federation in the earliest talks we hosted among the interuniversal governments. Back when we had the Facility."

    "Who did the Klingons send?"

    "Councillor K'mbok and General Martok," was the reply.

    "I don't remember K'mbok," Robert said. "Which one is he?"

    "One of the newest members of the High Council," Kiang answered. "Chancellor Gowron has shown his lack of confidence in the summit with his choices. K'mbok is an advocate for the resumption of Klingon expansionism and General Martok commanded the initial invasion of Cardassia."

    "Is he really trying to burn his bridges?" Robert shook his head. "Or does he think he doesn't need to do well at the summit?"

    "He might think we're too reliant on Klingon assistance to risk alienating him," Julia pointed out. "The Klingons still have a few of their squadrons on the front. We'll have trouble replacing them if they pull out completely."

    "Our orders are to give all reasonable concessions we can to keep the Klingons in the Coalition," Kiang revealed. "However, we must concede nothing that would sever our relations with the Federation."

    "So we're going try and stay in the middle."

    Julia nodded at that. "And just hope that they consider our future friendship too important to cut off because we want to stay out of their fight."

    "That is the current position we have, yes." Kiang gestured to the digital pads on the table, on which various negotiating items were listed. "Provided nothing else happens."

    "Who else is here?", Robert asked. "Most of the Coalition was slated to attend."

    "The Citadel Council is represented by an Asari negotiator, Representative Irissa. She is not a being I would want to cross. As for the others…"

    The clacking of wooden blades echoed in the holochamber and its recreation of a dueling room on Gersal. Lucy raised her training sword to a defensive position and deflected a swipe by Meridina. She sensed her teacher's next move and brought the sword over, parrying another blow. In a moment of instinct she focused her power, the metaphysical power manifested from her life force, and threw it in a bolt that sent Meridina flying backward and onto the mat.

    Any elation at success, and with it the indication of how much her skill was improving, was lost when Lucy saw Meridina try to stand. She winced and her hand went to her chest, right where the vicious interuniversal rogue Hawk had stabbed her through the torso and nearly killed her. With all elation replaced by fear and horror, Lucy rushed to her mentor's side and took her arms. "Meridina! Oh, Meridina, I'm sorry, I didn't…"

    "It is alright," Meridina insisted. She brought her free hand out from her robe. "I am not bleeding. All is fine."

    Lucy breathed a sigh of relief and helped Meridina up. "Are you sure about coming back to training so soon? I know Leo said you were clear a few days ago but..."

    "I am healed sufficient to spar with you, Lucy," Meridina assured her. "Although I am afraid we must end this session now. I am due to see Constable Odo and Commander Eddington shortly to go over security arrangements."

    "I wanted to get some shore leave in anyway," Lucy said, grinning. "Are you going to be working this entire time, then?"

    "I expect that the station personnel have security well in hand. I will likely sit in for the sessions if Captain Dale asks, but if not… I will have little to do myself."

    "Then maybe you should enjoy some shore leave?", Lucy pointed out. "The shuttle flights to Bajor only take a few hours. I've heard Ashalla is a beautiful city."

    "I will certainly consider it, Lucy." Meridina accepted Lucy's training sword from her. "Perhaps tomorrow?"

    "Sounds good to me."

    On the Aurora bridge, things were even more quiet than usual. With the ship in station-keeping position near DS9 there was little activity to be had. Locarno looked positively bored at the helm, Jupap was quiet at Ops, and the same could be said for Angel at tactical. Jarod, seated in the command chair, was tempted to find a pin and drop it to see if that was the level of silence they had obtained.

    "So, who's going on shore leave?", Caterina asked from science. She was busying herself with yet more sensor scans of the Bajoran Wormhole. "Because I'm heading stationside the moment al-Rashad gets here."

    "Is there anything on DS9 you can't do here?", Angel asked. "With all of the Klingons around and angry at us, I'm afraid some might try and take it out on you."

    "I'll only be on the Promenade," Catarina insisted. "With all of those security people around." A thought crossed her mind. "Although maybe you should join me? We can play Dabo and clean Quark out."

    "More like he cleans us out," Angel retorted. "You got really lucky last time."

    "So maybe we do something different? Deep Space Nine is such an awesome place, there's a ton of stuff to see!"

    Before Angel could say anything, there was a chuckle from the middle of the bridge. "What was that?", she demanded.

    "Nothing," was the reply. Jarod suppressed another chuckle. "Go on, talk about your personal things on the bridge. We're all bored anyway."

    Locarno joined in with a chuckle of his own.

    Angel sighed aloud.

    "It's okay if you don't want to come," Cat said. "You don't have to chaperone me if you've got something else planned."

    Angel thought she could hear something in her sister's voice. A tone of… another emotion, a sort of resigned acceptance. "As a matter of fact, Robert does want to take me out tonight."

    "Oh." Cat nodded. "Okay. So enjoy yourself, Angel. I'll be fine. I mean, what else can be dangerous on DS9 except angry Klingons? And Klingons probably won't bother with me. I'm too wimpy. There's no honor in beating me up."

    Jarod shook his head. "Cat, you might want to reign it in a bit…"

    From his office window Captain Benjamin Sisko could see the assembled vessels for the Coalition summit. It was a new sight to see the curved, squat shape of an Asari cruiser now docked to DS9's upper pylon. A White Star eased by the window gracefully, in proximity to a Gy'toran star-sailer that reminded him of the Bajoran exploration sailer he had built not too long ago. If that Bajoran craft had been the size of an Excelsior-class starship, at least.

    There was a tone at his office door. Sisko rolled the baseball in his hands and answered, "Come in." He turned in his chair. He allowed himself a smile and stood to his feet. "Good to see you again, Commander."

    "Congratulations, Captain," Zack answered. "Rob and Julia asked me to stop in on their behalf. Senator Kiang wanted them to report directly to the talks."

    "Of course. Welcome back to Deep Space Nine." Sisko put his baseball down. "I see you're no longer assigned to Admiral Adama's fleet."

    Zack replied with a nod. "They've settled their election and made their choice on where to found their new colony. Admiral Maran believed it was time for my ship to return to the Aurora." At Sisko's prompting he sat at the desk. "So, this summit's taken a turn for the crazy now that the Klingons are going Viking on people."

    "Whatever has gotten into them, it's made them lose sight of the real dangers threatening the Alpha Quadrant." Sisko put together his hands on the desk. "Do you know what the Alliance is going to do about this?"

    "Well, right now we're just trying to keep the Klingons from pulling out those last few squadrons. They say we would have to abandon one of the liberated sectors to the Nazis if the Klingons leave." Zack shook his head. "All of that damned work and it might be for nothing."

    "I know the feeling."

    For a moment neither said anything. Then the younger man resolved to change the subject. "You'll be happy to know, Captain, that I've been busy turning the children of the Refugee Fleet into devoted baseball fans," Zack reported.

    A wide grin was the immediate reply. "Now that is good news", Sisko declared. "How are they doing?"

    Zack chuckled. "Getting better all the time. By the time I left, the teenagers had some pitchers who were doing better than I was at that age. They're going to have some real pros coming out of New Caprica in a few years, Captain, mark my words. Clara and I watched this one Tauron kid…"

    "Wait a moment." Sisko held up a hand. "Who's Clara?"

    "Clara Davis," Zack answered. "She is… my girlfriend. Lover. Quite possibly more." The smile on his face widened, matching the one on Sisko's. "I knew her in school. She came out with our first supply convoy to the Colonial Fleet as a volunteer nurse."

    "It must have been quite the surprise to see her."

    "It was. She wanted to come out into space and make a difference. Like I, like we, did." Zack sighed wistfully. "We spent some good time together before I had to leave. I hadn't been that happy in years, to be honest."

    "I know the feeling," Sisko replied. Thoughts of Kasidy Yates entered his mind. "I'll have to introduce you to Kasidy some time. Her brother plays for the Pike City Pioneers."

    "The Pike City Pioneers? I thought the Federation didn't have baseball teams?"

    "Cestus III does." The grin on Sisko's face said it all.

    "That's over by the Gorn border, isn't it?" Zack nodded. "Well, I'll have to find an excuse to…"

    They were interrupted by a loud warbling tone. The station's internal communications system, to be precise. "Odo to Sisko."

    "I'm here, Constable, go ahead," Sisko replied.

    "I'm afraid something's come up, Captain. Commander Eddington's people just found Ensign Merrill in his quarters. He's dead, sir."

    All of the good mood in the office faded away. "What?!" Sisko stood from his chair. "What happened?"

    "There's no immediate signs of foul play but I am still investigating. Doctor Bashir is having the body brought to the infirmary for a complete autopsy."

    "Thank you for informing me, Constable, I'll be right down."

    Zack sighed and stood. "My condolences, Captain. I'll let you get to work. If there's anything we can do to help…"

    "I'll ask you or Captain Dale if it comes to it," Sisko said.

    Zack nodded and followed Sisko out of the office.

    The talks had left Robert with a bad feeling. One that did not go away even when they were over. The Klingons were being beyond stubborn, going all the way into arrogance and bluster that made him pity poor Sonek Pran. The amiable hybrid - he was one quarter-Human, one quarter-Vulcan, one quarter-Betazoid, one quarter-Bajoran - had retained his composure against both the blustering Klingons and the icy aloofness of the Citadel Council's Representative Iressa, an Asari who had none of Councillor Tevos' disarming reason and charm.

    His bad feelings dissipated upon meeting Angel on the Promenade afterward. She was in a red sleeveless blouse with a plunging neckline and dark knee-length skirt while he hadn't changed at all - the talks hadn't given him time to do that. "So, where to?", he asked her. "Anywhere but the Klingon restaurant."

    "There's a Bajoran restaurant too," she pointed out. "Or Quark's."

    "Quark's food is something I am not in the mood for," Robert answered. He rubbed at his forehead. "Bajoran food sounds good."

    "Bajoran it is," Angel said. And she cheerfully kissed him on the cheek.

    It didn't make the headache or the bad feeling go away. But it helped. He took her hand and they walked to the restaurant together.


    Caterina's squeal of triumph filled Quark's Place. She happily accepted her winnings from the Dabo girl overseeing the tables. The curvy Bajoran redhead at the head of the table, Leeta, accepted her betting into the next spin of the wheel. A Starfleet crewmember joined her in betting on the next round, handing a slip of gold-pressed latinum to Leeta.

    "Anyone else?", Leeta asked.

    After a moment another hand moved in and offered the required latinum. Leeta looked at the newcomer and smiled warmly, as was usual in her line of work.

    Caterina looked across to the newcomer. She was an Asari in a dark, figure-hugging suit that looked like it was made of leather. Pale blue eyes almost gray in their coloration looked back at her. A small smile curled over the Asari's face. "Perhaps your luck will work for me as well," she said.

    Cat swallowed and smiled back. "Uh. Sure."

    After another few turns of the wheel - and Cat getting another Dabo that made Quark frown at her - she decided to stop. She went to a table near the bar and was soon joined by the Asari. "An Alliance crewwoman, I see. No." She stopped and seemed to consider Caterina more. Inspecting her as if looking over a fine wine. "An officer."

    The inspection made Caterina intensely self-conscious of how she looked in her uniform. As she usually did, Cat substituted the trousers of her uniform with a uniform skirt instead, showing her thin bare legs from below the knee. She realized how skinny and puny she must look compared to the elegant Asari and felt even more nervous. "What's your name?", asked the Asari.

    "I'm Caterina. Caterina Delgado. I'm the… the Science Officer on the Aurora." Caterina giggled nervously. She felt a little light-headed at the moment. This Asari seemed so interesting, and save for the Consort she'd barely gotten a chance to spend time with an Asari before.

    "I see." The Asari motioned to Quark. "Bartender, drinks for myself and my young friend, please." She flashed a handful of GPL strips at him. With her attention back on Cat as soon as the strips were taken, the Asari continued speaking. "I've heard some unbelievable things about the Aurora's crew. I would love to hear how true they are from you."

    "Well… if I can. Of they're not classified I mean, then sure, I don't see why not…"

    Sisko and Odo were waiting when Doctor Bashir emerged from his operating room in the red surgical outfit Starfleet doctors employed. "Ah, Captain, Constable, I hope I haven't been keeping you long."

    "Do you have anything on what caused Ensign Merrill's death, Doctor?", Sisko asked. "Was it just an accident or natural causes?"

    Bashir shook his head. "I highly doubt that." He went over to his console and began tapping controls. The Cardassian monitor screens shifted to show a model of a Human nervous system. "Ensign Merrill died from a severe brain hemorrhage brought on by an extensive overloading of his central nervous system. I've never seen anything like this before. It's like something burnt out every synapse and nerve cluster in his body."

    "So we're looking for some form of weapon," Odo said. "Do you have any indications for what we're looking for?"

    "There are no signs of any sort of weapon discharge on the body, or on his uniform."

    "So what else did you find?", Sisko asked.

    "Well, I can tell you that from the state of his body that Ensign Merrill was quite pleased until his nervous system started to overload." Bashir pointed to a second display. "Increased hormone levels in his bloodstream and endorphins in the brain, heightened blood flow to his reproductive organs…"

    Sisko realized what Bashir was getting at. It was Odo who remarked, "You mean he was in a state of sexual arousal when he died, don't you Doctor?"

    Bashir nodded. "Yes, Constable. Exactly."

    "Was he with someone, then?", Sisko asked.

    "I'm still running scans on some unknown skin cell samples I found on his hands," Bashir stated. "It is certainly possible."

    "So do we have a witness… or a murderer?", Odo asked rhetorically.

    "I can't say, Constable. Not with what I have on hand. I have never seen anything like this," Bashir insisted. "The damage to his nervous system is so extensive that it's hard to imagine anything accomplishing that level of degradation without damaging or even affecting other systems in the body. But there's no sign of any other damage. It's like something just went in and burned out his entire nervous system until his brain hemorrhaged."

    "Constable." Sisko looked to Odo. "The timing of this is suspicious. I want increased security on the summit and on all negotiation teams. Post extra guards and Starfleet personnel as you need."

    "It's already arranged, sir. And with your permission I'll request that Commander Meridina provide me further security personnel from the Aurora."

    "Permission granted, Constable."

    Odo nodded. "I'll make the call. Then I'd like to get back to my investigation," he asked.

    Sisko's expression was grim. "Consider this case second only to the security of the summit, Constable. I want to know who or what did this. And why."

    Odo's response was immediate. "Yes, Captain."

    "The New Austria battle." The Asari's eyes remained directly focused on Cat's. She didn't even need to look at Quark when he brought the glasses back. She took one in her hand and handed it to Caterina. "The news reports were quite interesting. You were in the thick of the fighting?"

    "We were. I'd never seen that many spaceships together before." Cat took a drink. She almost choked back up the burning alcohol. The burning made her voice a little hoarse when she resumed speaking. "Or that many ships being blown up, for that matter."

    "It was quite the battle, clearly," the Asari cooed.

    "Those warp jumps were the trickiest part. We had to be just… right… on the warp activations and shut-downs."

    "And how did they make you feel, Caterina?" The light blue eyes of the Asari seemed to glisten with interest. "I can imagine the fear. Just one unfortunate strike and death would end it all."

    "Well… yeah." Cat took another drink. She was starting to feel a little weird. In a good way. Curiosity about the Asari was becoming something more than the scientific interest she'd felt before. There was something about her that was exotic, interesting. Promising of experiences Caterina had never bothered to dwell on before. Something more than her usual socialization.

    A part of her didn't feel the same way. It felt alerted, concerned, even suspicious. It demanded she do the rational thing. Ask questions. Why would someone like her be interested in me. I'm not even beautiful! I'm too skinny, too thin!

    But that part couldn't focus. Intrigue, desire, curiosity, her new friend was triggering all of that in her mind, and Caterina couldn't bring herself to end the experience.

    "How did the fear make you feel?"

    "I was terrified. And I wasn't. I mean…" Cat forced her mind to focus on what she was thinking, to find the right words. "It was like I knew I could die… but that I knew we'd live. Because we're getting good at this and.. and our ship is just a work of art. We can't lose with her. We can't."

    "Such confidence." Her Asari friend sipped at her drink. "And such vision. The way you describe these things, quasars and wormholes and such things, is like nothing I've heard before."

    Caterina blushed. "Oh… I'm just an enthusiast. I mean, I love this stuff. I love science. I love learning. I love space stuff and stuff I've never seen before and seeing the neutrinos swirl around wormholes…"

    "Your passion for the unknown is exquisite, my dear." The Asari reached forward and ran a finger along Caterina's temple.

    Cat felt a shock of pleasure at the touch. Her heartbeat picked up. "Th-thank you," she said. And she swallowed. She had to, and that did nothing to control the increasing tempo of her heart.

    They each took another drink. Cat took more of one. It served to fortify her swirling emotions. She almost couldn't believe her current situation. "So… wh-what do you do? In your life? Normally, I mean."

    "Well…" The Asari nursed her drink. "I am quite the traveler, you see…"
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    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    Not a long distance away Robert and Angel were at a table in the Bajoran restaurant on the Promenade. It was near the opening and gave them each a sight of the economic heart of the space station. Two plates with half-eaten hasperats were before them. "...pain in the neck," Robert was complaining. "The Klingons are insisting that we recognize their conquests from the Cardassians."

    "Or they'll what? Drop out of the war?"

    "That. Stop economic assistance." Robert sighed. "Command's worried they might try to grab our IU drives still on their ships. Admiral Davies suggested we should just withdraw them from the front, remove the IU drives from their ships, and let them go their own way."

    "Wow. Davies is right about something," Angel laughed. She sipped at the wine glass in her hand. "But I didn't bring you here to talk about that. These dates are supposed to get you away from the Captain business."

    Robert chuckled at that. "Yeah, I suppose. We do need the alone time. It seems we get so little of it now."

    "Yes, well…" Angel took a drink in an effort, not entirely successful, to hide her frown. "Between your Captain duties and this mumbo jumbo training you're doing with Meridina, you don't have much time left in the day."

    That drew a frown from Robert. "I'm sorry about that. But it's something I need to do. This stuff requires control."

    "I still don't see how they can't get rid of it. Can't Leo try…"

    "I don't want to fight about this," Robert said, cutting her off. "Can't we just enjoy a dinner together without fighting over my abilities."

    "That depends," Angel muttered.


    "Can you ever walk away from this stuff and actually spend time with me again?" Angel put her glass down. She was still frowning. "Because as things are going, you spend more time with Meridina and Lucy than with me."


    Angel picked up her hasperat and brought it toward her mouth. "'Ouch' is damn right. That's exactly how I feel." She took a bite and started chewing.

    There was little Robert could do but sigh at that. A look of guilt filled his green eyes. There were times he regretted having these abilities, this "life force power", that Meridina and Lucy also possessed.

    After Angel finished chewing she rolled her eyes. "Oh no. No, don't do that."


    "The sad puppy eyes," Angel said. A glint of amusement was present in her own hazel-colored eyes. "You don't play fair with the sad puppy eyes. I'm the frustrated, anger-prone girlfriend, I shouldn't have to be made to feel like I'm kicking a puppy whenever I complain about the lack of time we have together."

    That won her a chuckle. "Ah, well, I'll try not to," Robert pledged.

    "That's better."

    "And I'll see about getting Meridina to lower the schedule for these training excursions. I think I've learned all the control I'll need for now, honestly."

    "And that's even better." Angel smiled at him. "So, how about we get the check and…"

    Robert's multidevice went off.

    Angel's smile evaporated.

    Robert's expression was apologetic as he hit the commkey to open the channel. "Dale here."

    The voice that came out the other end was Jarod's. "I'm sorry to interrupt you, Captain, but Senator Kiang is insisting on speaking to you. She wants you and Commander Andreys at her quarters immediately for consultations."

    He audibly sighed in frustration. "Alright. Alright, fine. I'll be on my way."

    "Duty calls," Angel sighed.

    "Yeah." He leaned over the table and kissed her on the lips. It was not a deep kiss, but it was warm. "I'll talk to you later." He held out his credit chit. "I'm paying, of course."

    "Of course. Go ahead." Angel motioned to the door. "Go see what the high and mighty Senator needs done absolutely right now no questions asked."

    The look on Robert's face was pained. Angel immediately regretted being so sarcastic with him. She said nothing more as he left. She tried to finish her own meal but found, after two bites, that her appetite had turned sour from all of the twisted feelings welling up within her.

    I wanted this relationship, she reminded herself. And yet she remained frustrated with it.

    With nothing more to do she paid the bill with her own chit and left a generous tip. The Promenade was just starting to thin out when she stepped out of the eatery. It was starting to get late.

    What more was there to do? She wondered about just asking for a direct beaming back to the Aurora and ending her day. Or I could go into Quark's…

    She looked at Quark's big establishment and decided to check up on Cat. She went through the front door and looked to the Dabo table, but she wasn't there. "Cat?", she called out over the low din of the late evening crowd. "Are you in here?"

    "Over here."

    The reply wasn't from Cat. Quark was at the bar leaning against it. He'd been wiping down a glass. Angel frowned and went over to face him. "What is it?", she asked.

    "You're the sister, right?", Quark asked. He leaned in. And to some surprise it clearly wasn't to get a better look at Angel in her revealing dinner wear. "She left with someone."

    "Someone?" Angel gave him a look. "Someone who? One of the others?"

    "Not one of your people. Not one of Starfleet's either," Quark replied. "It was one of those Asari women… although they're all technically women, aren't they?" Quark seemed to fidget behind the bar. "Listen, you didn't hear this from me… but I think that Asari is bad news."

    Anyone else might have inquired, skeptically, into what Quark meant. Angel did not. The prospect that Cat might have stumbled into trouble was too worrying to listen to any doubts about Quark's honesty. "What do you mean bad news?", she asked.

    "Their species might be new to our galaxy or universe or whatever you want to call it, but I know the bad ones when I see them. You can't work in all the places I've been and miss them."

    Angel stared at him a moment. Fury started to build within her. "Why didn't you stop her, then?", she demanded, her voice picking up in volume to go with her anger. "You saw my sister going off with… you know, forget it." She turned away and stormed out of Quark's.

    "You're welcome!", Quark called out after her.

    As she approached the Promenade exit Angel's hand went to the multidevice on her wrist. "Delgado to [i}Aurora[/i]. Jarod, are you still there?"

    After a moment he replied. "Jarod here."

    "I need you to scan for Cat's multidevice," she said. "And then tell me where she's gone."

    "Is something wrong?"

    "Maybe…" She started to jog down the crossover bridge. She was thankful her skirt wasn't the long one that might have made moving fast difficult. "And I have to make sure, one way or the other."

    "Alright, we're tracking her now. Starting to... " Jarod's voice cut off for a moment. "Well, that's a problem."

    Angel's heart quickened. "Jarod?! What's a problem?!" She couldn't keep the growing fear, the panic, out of her voice.

    "We've lost contact with Caterina's multidevice. We can't pick up the signal." There was more silence, save for the increasing thump of Angel's heart as she began to run. "We're looking over her last location."

    "Contact the station officers if you need to!", Angel demanded. "We have to find Cat!"

    The warbling tone of the Cardassian communications system pulled Odo's concentration away from the reports on Ensign Merrill's murder. He reached for the comm badge he wore over his shape-shifted suit. "Odo here."

    Kira spoke from the other side. "Constable, I'm relaying a hail from the Aurora. One moment…"

    When the next voice started speaking, Odo recognized it as the Aurora's Commander Jarod. "We've lost track of one of our officers. She was somewhere on the Habitat Ring when the signal gave out."

    Odo checked the internal security sensors. "Someone has disabled security in Section 25 of the Habitat Ring. We're completely blind there."

    "Odo, we're trying to fix the problem from up here," Kira said.

    "I'm checking records to see who has rented out rooms in that section," Odo explained. "But it appears to be empty."

    "I'm heading toward Section 25 now," Angel said over the speaker.

    "Going by the data Commander Jarod has sent, look on level four." Odo stood from his desk. "Corridor H-19. They have to be somewhere in that area. I'm on my way now."

    "I'm informing Commander Meridina. I'll transport her to the station as soon as possible," Jarod added.

    Caterina's mind was in a haze. Expectation, curiosity, fear, uncertainty, it all mingled together. She couldn't focus, couldn't concentrate, and her fear came from the realization she couldn't find the will to say no to the Asari.

    The station quarters she was led into were sparse and barely furnished. The Asari smiled at her and motioned to a couch, where she sat. "Come here," she cooed gently.

    Caterina didn't want to at this point. There was something wrong here. But she started to move to the couch anyway. Whatever she wanted, the requests of the Asari mattered more. She couldn't understand why.

    Once she was seated beside the dark-clad Asari, Caterina's eyes locked with hers. "You're not the most attractive Human I've seen," she seemed to admit. "But attraction goes beyond the physical. You are intelligent. Passionate."

    "I… I…"

    "Tell me, Caterina." The Asari grinned. "Have you ever known… affection?"

    "Aff-affection?", Caterina stammered.

    "The touch of another," the Asari clarified. "The caress of a lover."

    "Oh. Uh… n-no…" Caterina shook her head. "I ha-haven't."

    A wicked little laugh was the reply from the Asari. "Well, my poor dear. Doesn't that make you special?" Her hand touched Cat's cheek. "Haven't you ever dreamed of it, Caterina? The pleasure? The raw, pounding feeling of sex?"

    She was already blushing. "Dreamed… y-yes." She had dreamed, yes. But she'd never acted on anything like that. She had always focused on her scientific passions.

    And the fear. The fear of rejection. Rejection of her partner, or of her family, if they didn't approve...

    Cat gasped when the Asari responded with a kiss on her neck. She felt the Asari's breath on her, the feeling of her lips on her skin, and even with the haze her body felt electrified by the touch. Her breathing quickened.

    "Don't be shy," the Asari urged her.

    "Wh-what's y-your na-name?", Cat asked. "I for-forgot."

    "Well… I suppose it is fair for you to know." The Asari kissed her on the lips for a moment. Cat thought her heart would explode. The lips moved along her cheek to beside her ear.

    Her name was spoken in a whisper.


    Angel found Corridor H-19 and started to run along it. "I'm here. Do you have anything for me?"

    "Meridina just beamed over on the other end of the corridor in that section. She'll work her way to you. Start moving to the left."

    Angel brought up her multidevice and kept going. "I'm getting life signs now. How?"

    "Whatever jamming field that's been set up seems to exclude any effect from within," Jarod speculated. "Maybe whomever it is wants to be able to beam out of the field."

    "Well, I'm not too far, soon I'll…"

    And then Angel could hear it. Faint, obscured by the metal and structure of the station, but a sound she felt hardwired to respond to.

    It was Cat.


    Every fiber of her body seemed to vibrate with rage. Something, someone, was hurting her little sister. Angel looked down at her display again. She was close. Almost there…

    To her left Angel found a door. The scream was coming from inside. She hit the keypad to open it. "Major Kira is about to override…"

    Jarod's voice didn't register. All Angel could hear was her sister crying out.

    She reached into the small of her back where her blouse and skirt met. Her pulse pistol was easily pulled from its hiding place - Constable Odo's regulations be damned, she wasn't about to stroll around a bunch of angry Klingons without a weapon - and brought to bear on the door. She turned it to its full setting and shot the door straight on. The Darglan-designed weapon did its job. The door half-vaporized, half-exploded in shards that flew into the room. Angel rushed in with the gun drawn.

    Cat was in the arms of a dark-clad Asari. Her screams had become weak. It looked for a moment like electricity was crackling between them. Angel raised her gun at the Asari and reset the power level to something lower.

    Others would have shouted a challenge. They would have demanded that Cat be released, demanded a surrender.

    Angel was not other people.

    The pulse pistol barked out.

    An instant before it would have hit Morinth's head, blue energy surged between them. The shot dissipated before it hit anything.

    Nevertheless Cat's cries stopped. The electrical effect faded. Morinth scowled at her and pushed Cat over on her back against the couch. "If you're that eager for me, you just had to wait your turn," she said.

    "Step away from her you bitch!", Angel screamed. She kept the pulse pistol lifted.

    "Why don't you put that gun down and we'll talk about it?"

    For a moment the suggestion seemed to pierce Angel's anger. It sounded reasonable. No need to do anything else. Just lower the gun.

    But it didn't quite make it. Angel was too full of anger to heed it. She fired again.

    This pulse struck the field again and dissipated as the last, but with the field clearly weakening. Angel pulled the trigger again and…

    Morinth scowled fiercely. Her arm shot forward. A bolt of blue energy zipped across the room and slammed into Angel. She was thrown back into the far wall. A cry of pain came from her throat as she started to stand. Rage was still twisting her features as she struggled to stand despite the pain.

    "You've never fought a biotic before, have you?", Morinth said. "You've never had a warp field trying to tear your body's molecules apart. The pain is exquisite, is it not?"

    "Won't… let you…"

    Morinth threw another warp bolt. Angel flipped over along her side and hit the wall again. She lost her grip on her gun.

    "I can see the resemblance," Morinth said. "A sister. I've never taken sisters together before. This will be fun." She took the steps between her and Angel with deliberate, bemused speed. Angel writhed from the effects of the warp field on her body. "Come here, lovely. I'm…"

    There was a rustling of feathers on the air. Angel noticed a bird fly through what was left of the door. Morinth began to turn toward it with surprise. What's a bird doing…, Angel was thinking.

    And then it wasn't a bird. It turned amber and expanded outward, like a liquid that had been under pressure, until it assumed the shape of a creature that looked like a cross between a gorilla and a lizard. When the creature struck Morinth it knocked her over with a ferocious punch and landed on top of her. Morinth cried out in pain and surprise at the impact that knocked her to the floor so violently. The creature rolled with the same impact and grabbed at one of her arms.

    "Get off of me!", Morinth screamed. A wave of pure biotic power erupted from her body and threw the lizard-gorilla thing into the ceiling. Angel was thrown back into the wall from where she was trying to stand. The furnishings were all flipped or smashed by the wave. Cat was thrown over with the couch she was still laying on.

    The effect was the most interesting on the attacking creature. As it hit the ceiling of the quarters its shape seemed to lose cohesion. The same dull brownish-amber fluid started to form along its limbs and torso.

    Morinth rolled on the floor and threw a biotic bolt at the creature. It jumped toward the opposite wall, regaining cohesion as it did.

    Angel got to her feet and charged. Morinth was too busy tracking her other target to see Angel coming. She cried out in shock when Angel's fist slammed into her jaw, knocking out a tooth in a spray of purple blood. She reached for Morinth's arm just as it came up toward her and grabbed it, twisting it behind Morinth's body in a submission hold.

    Morinth gathered biotic energy to throw at Angel. But she never got a chance to use it. The lizard-gorilla thing jumped in and grabbed the other arm. Morinth screamed in frustration as Angel and her ally brought her to her knees.

    Another figure appeared at the door. Meridina had her lakesh drawn and ready. Seeing what was inside she held the sword back and raised a hand. "Sleep", she intoned, backing it with a powerful mental compulsion.

    Morinth howled in rage instead. "Let me go!" Her biotics flared up one more time. A pulse of biotic energy erupted from her body and threw back her attackers. Meridina focused with her own power and blocked the pulse from having any effect upon her.

    The last pulse of biotic energy had exhausted Morinth's reserves for the moment. Meridina saw her short window of opportunity and seized it. "Sleep," she repeated.

    This time, Morinth pitched forward. She groaned before falling into a slumber.

    The lizard-gorilla got up first. Or rather, it turned into the same dull brown-amber fluid and reformed into a proper, and quite familiar, humanoid shape. Odo reached down and picked up his prisoner. He looked to Meridina. "Thank you, Commander, for your assistance."

    Meridina nodded.

    Angel had scrambled to her feet at this point. "Cat!", she shouted. She went to the toppled couch where Morinth had left Caterina and pulled it off of her. Her sister was laid out on the floor, completely unconscious. "Cat, are you okay?"

    There was no answer.

    Odo's hand went to his comm badge. "Odo to Bashir. Medical emergency in the Habitat Ring, Section 25 Level 4, Corridor H19."

    Bashir's reply was immediate. "We're on our way, Constable."

    "She's barely breathing," Angel said. She picked Cat up and held her close. "Cat. Cat, please wake up. I'm here." As she spoke tears began to flow down her cheeks. All of the anger, the rage, had been replaced by terrible fear. A voice inside of her terrified at the thought that she had been too late. Too late to protect her little sister as she had promised to do so long ago.

    With no reaction coming from her little sister, Angel began to sob. It was the only outlet she had for the feelings swelling inside of her.

    Robert and Julia had excused themselves from Senator Kiang's staff room the moment they were informed of what happened. Sisko met them in the infirmary where Cat was laid out on a bed, wearing one of the DS9 medical gowns. She was still completely unconscious.

    Angel was sitting beside her, holding Cat's hand and running the other hand over her face. Her blouse was slightly torn on the right side. Tears were still flowing down her pale cheeks. Robert didn't need his new senses to know just how she was taking it - rage and hate and fear and horror were all mixed up inside of her. He stepped up and embraced her from the side wordlessly. There was nothing that could be said to diminish Angel's worry. "What happened?", he asked, the question directed to everyone.

    "She was attacked by this Asari…", Angel began. "She did something to Cat. Got her to follow her to a room in the Habitat Ring. She was making her scream by the time I got there."

    "Once I secured her condition I scanned Lieutenant Delgado to determine what happened," Bashir said. "Her nervous system has suffered extensive damage. I won't know the extent of it, and if she will recover, until we run some more tests. Doctor Gillam is already running some advanced tests with his medbay's equipment which should help us determine an appropriate treatment course."

    That brought the rapt attention of Odo. "Doctor, are you saying this is what happened to Ensign Merrill?", he asked.

    The reply was joined by a nod. "I am fairly certain, yes."

    "So this Asari has already killed someone." Robert looked over at them.

    "So it seems." Sisko nodded. "Constable, what do we know about the prisoner?"

    "She arrived on the station yesterday," Odo answered. "According to her identification her name is Rila t'Gomi. But I suspect that identification has been forged. I've sent inquiries to Citadel Security to see if they have her on file. If not I will move on to the Asari security forces."

    "There's more than one, I think," Robert said. He was still keeping a supportive arm around Angel.

    Odo looked at him. "Hrm?"

    "The Asari Republics are a loose confederation of e-democracies, Constable," Julia explained. "They have a lot of different police and security agencies between them. I'm not sure how networked or linked they are."

    "Representative Irissa might be able to help," Robert suggested. "We could ask her in the morning before the next summit meeting."

    "I'll make the arrangements myself," Sisko said. "In the meantime, I want a full watch on our prisoner. Tell me if she says anything."

    "Of course, Captain." Odo nodded to him and then to Robert and Julia. He departed the infirmary.

    "I'll see you in the morning, Captain Sisko," Robert said.

    The reply was a wordless nod, after which Sisko also departed.

    "As if this summit wasn't tense enough," Julia sighed. She looked over at the bed where Cat was laying. "Poor Cat. What was she doing with that Asari?"

    "Knowing Cat, she followed her across the station asking questions," Robert said softly. "Julia, I'll be staying with Angel. Alright?"

    Julia very nearly protested that. Robert was part of the delegation too. He needed rest to be at his best form. But the look on his face told her that he would need some time. "Alright. I'll see you tomorrow."

    One of Bashir's Bajoran nurses had already acquired another chair for him. Robert sat into it, beside Angel. He put his hand on top of Angel's, which was still holding Cat's hand. "Between Bashir and Leo, she's in good hands, Angel," Robert assured Angel. "And I'll be here with you the entire time."

    Angel nodded. "Thank you."

    Odo returned to the security office and pulled out the pail he used for resting into his natural state. There could be no chances taken with the prisoner in the cells, not when she was capable of such displays of power.

    A quick check of the comm logs showed that C-Sec had registered his request for information. He had never had an opportunity to work with the agency so he had little idea how long it would take.

    Before taking to his pail, Odo stepped back into the cells. The largest cell with the strongest forcefield held the Asari prisoner. She was still unconscious for the moment. Standing a distance away from the cells was Commander Meridina in her duty uniform. Odo noted that her memory-metal blade was in its place on one hip with an Alliance pulse pistol on the other. "Has she woken up?", he asked.

    "No," Meridina replied. "I am not keeping her in a sleeping state. I would suggest, from my knowledge of biotics, that her body exhausted much of its immediate energy reserves in her battle with you and Lieutenant Delgado. I expect she will be hungry when she wakes up." She turned her head to face Odo. "If it is permissible to you, Constable, I would like to post guards. Dorei personnel. Asari have some telepathic capability and the Dorei are resistant to mental influence."

    "Your offer is accepted, Commander," Odo replied.

    She nodded. "Will Angela face any recriminations for the damage she caused?"

    Odo allowed himself a thin smile. "I don't think there will be an issue."

    "Thank you. She cares so deeply for her sister." Meridina's expression remained calm. But Odo could see there was a great deal of concern behind the calm, hidden in the specific tremors of her voice and the look in her eyes. "What of Caterina?"

    "Lieutenant Delgado's condition is stable." Odo looked back to the Asari. "She had more luck than Ensign Merrill." A moment passed. "You have had more contact with the Asari than I, Commander. Have you ever heard of any possessing the ability to fry out a being's nervous system?"

    "I have not," Meridina replied. "Although I admit I am hardly an expert." A thought came to her. "Mastrash Satrin has been visiting Thessia to learn more about Asari culture. I will sent an inquiry to her and share the reply with you."

    "Your assistance is appreciated, Commander." Odo felt fatigue ripple through his being. Holding his humanoid shape was becoming a real burden and the urge to return to his basic state was strong. "I'll be in the security office resting if you need me."

    Meridina nodded. "Of course, Constable. May you rest well."

    Stimulants and coffee were keeping Robert awake when he and Captain Sisko entered the quarters assigned to Representative Irissa. An Asari with a purple complexion met them at the door. "The Representative will be with you shortly, sirs," she said politely. "May I get you any refreshments?"

    "No thank you," Robert answered.

    "That won't be necessary," Sisko added.

    "This way, please."

    The main living area of the quarters had been converted into a meeting room for the Asari diplomatic staff. Several of them were here and there, going over digital readouts on their omnitools or writing on the main computers with hard-light keyboards. Sisko took a seat beside the head of the table. "Long night?"

    "I was with Angel all night," Robert answered. "Watching over her sister."

    Sisko nodded in understanding. "Doctor Bashir will do everything he can to help your officer."

    "I know." Robert shook his head. "I just don't like the coincidence. This Asari serial killer shows up just as this summit starts?

    "I can see what you mean," Sisko said. "And there is the matter of dealing with the prisoner. The Bajorans don't have the facilities to deal with a being like that."

    "The Gersallians do." Robert rubbed at his eyes. His thoughts were sharp now, but once the caffeine and the stimulants started to metabolize fully his thoughts would slow to a crawl. It was something he knew from experience. "The issue becomes, will Bajor and Starfleet agree to an extradit…"

    The door to the bedroom opened and Representative Irissa stepped out. She had the cultivated grace of an Asari official about her that hid the cold, unfeeling persona Robert had already experienced in the prior day's talks. She had been utterly ruthless in the prior day's debates, cutting into his and Sonek Pran's arguments while being quick to smack down the Klingons if she wanted to. Robert waited for Sisko, as commander of the station, to begin the conversation. "Representative." He stood and offered his hand. Irissa appraised the offered hand for a moment before giving it a quick and imperceptible handshake. "Thank you for agreeing to meet with us."

    "I warn you, Captain, that I will not discuss any of the matters before the summit in this environment," Irissa announced. She looked to Robert. "With either of you."

    "That's not why we asked for this meeting." Sisko returned to his seat. Robert exchanged the same quick, professional handshake with Irissa as she sat down at the head of the table. "Have you heard of an Asari calling herself Rila t'Gomi?"

    Irissa shook her head. "I have not."

    "She arrived on the station a few days ago," Sisko revealed. "We believe her responsible for the murder of a Starfleet officer and the attempted murder of one of Captain Dale's officers."

    Irissa's lips thinned. Robert's developing senses detected a hint of displeasure that didn't seem surprising. "Whomever she is, Captain, I will look into the matter." Irissa folded her hands together. "Tell me… what was her method of killing? It will assist in determining potential suspects from our files."

    Robert's senses were starting to give off warning signals. Irissa's question sounded innocent enough, yes, but he started to feel that there was more to it.

    "According to Doctor Bashir, the victims' nervous systems had been burnt out with some sort of weapon," Sisko answered. "We have a witness to the second attack who can give further testimony."

    Irissa seemed to contemplate Sisko's reply. "I see." She went into deep thought. After several moments she activated her omnitool. "Gentlemen, may I suggest that it might be best if you turn custody of your prisoner over to my people?"

    Sisko put his hands on the table. "I don't have the authority to agree to such a transfer, Representative. While this station is under Starfleet regulations, the system is Bajoran territory."

    "And since it was our officer she nearly killed last night, the Alliance also has a right to trying her," Robert pointed out.

    Irissa surveyed them each coldly. "Gentlemen, I assure you that we will deal swiftly and justly with the killer. But under no circumstances can we accept leaving this Asari in your custody. It would be… irresponsible."

    "Irresponsible?", Sisko asked.

    "She is a biotic, obviously. Your people have no experience in the incarceration of biotics," Irissa pointed out. "I would abhor the thought of this killer getting free to inflict harm on the people of an innocent world, and wherever else she might go upon her escape. And trust me, Captains, she would escape."

    "You seem awfully sure for someone you've never heard of," Sisko remarked. "Representative, for the good relations of our people, I hope you're not hiding anything from us."

    "I am fulfilling my purpose…"

    Irissa continued to state her argument. Robert was more focused on the thoughts coming from her. He was nowhere near the level he needed to sense things like Meridina.

    That didn't mean he couldn't do anything, though. He could sense the aggravation and concern radiating from her.

    Though those feelings, a specific word was prominent in her thoughts.

    Robert brought his hand up. "Pardon me, Representative?""

    Irissa looked away from the scowling Sisko to him. "Captain?"

    With great care Robert put his hands together on the table and spoke. "This Rila t'Gomi… would she happen to be an Ardat-Yakshi?"

    For a moment Irissa's eyes widened with shock. Stifled anger and disbelief radiated from her in a way that Robert could feel even now. When she resumed speaking, it was nearly through clenched teeth. "The Ardat-Yakshi are a myth, Captain. I don't know where you heard about them, but I will not tolerate you spewing those lies about my people!"

    Robert nearly leaned back in his chair. Irissa's anger was almost inconceivable in the face of the question. "It was a simple inquiry, Rep…"

    Irissa turned her glare to Sisko. "Captain Sisko, I will arrange for an Asari team to remove your prisoner to face judgement on Thessia. Rest assured she will pay for her crime."

    Sisko met the glare calmly. "And as I have already stated, this station is Bajoran territory, and the last time I checked, the Asari Republics do not have any standing agreements with Bajor for extradition of Asari criminals." Sisko shook his head. "Until such a time as the Bajorans say otherwise, Miss t'Gomi will stay in our holding cells."

    Irissa clearly did not like that. But it was a cold smile that crossed her face. "Of course," she said. "You are doing your duty. Rest assured, Captain Sisko, you will have just such an extradition order from the Bajorans on your desk quite soon." She turned back to Robert. "As for you, Captain Dale, I advise you show more care in talking about such things. As things are now, the Asari people are deeply sympathetic toward your Alliance and supportive of your war effort against the Nazi German Empire. To learn that the Alliance's representatives were speaking of such things might change that." She stood. "If you will excuse me, Captains, I must get ready for the day's sessions."

    "Of course, Madame Representative. Thank you for your time." Sisko's response was the formal gratitude expected, regardless of the exchange. He seemed as agitated as Robert felt.

    The two departed the quarters together and walked toward the nearest lift. "It's obvious they're hiding something," Sisko stated upon entering a lift. "What have you heard about these 'Ardat-Yakshi'?"

    "Nothing." Robert shook his head. "It was just a term I've heard of, related to the Asari and killings."

    "Do you have any way of finding out more?"

    "Perhaps. Not too likely, I'd guess." Robert thought on it. "One of Meridina's old teachers is on Thessia as part of a cultural study tour, though. She might have heard something. I'll make inquiries and share what I find out."

    "Good. In the meantime, you'd better get ready for the summit meeting."

    Robert nodded in reply. He was not particularly looking forward to the summit meeting. Having Irissa mad at him would make it even less enjoyable.
    rifern and Shadowcub like this.
  9. Threadmarks: 2-02-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    In the infirmary, Leo and Bashir were looking over Caterina while Angel remained quiet beside her. "Her condition continues to be stable," Bashir noted. "Although that is not saying much. The nerve damage has severely impacted her physiology."

    Leo nodded in agreement. "It could take her a while to wake up, Angel. And, to be honest, she may not be in the best shape when she does wake up."

    Angel looked at him. "What do you mean?"

    "There could be permanent damage," Leo answered. "It might impact her motor skills or her ability to walk. It may even have an effect upon her mind."

    "We can't rule anything out at this juncture." Bashir looked back to his PADD. "Of course, she could also be capable of making a full recovery. That can't be ruled out either."

    Angel frowned. She looked up toward them. "Isn't there anything you can do for her though? With all of that fancy medical technology?"

    "Nerve cell regeneration is a slow process and can have its own complications," Bashir replied. "It's best to wait and see if it is truly necessary."


    Leo walked around the bed and put a hand on Angel's shoulder. "It'll be alright, Angel. We'll take good care of her."

    A number of Leo's medical staff entered the infirmary at that moment. They were bringing along an anti-grav stretcher. "We're ready, sir," one of the attending nurses said.

    Leo nodded to Bashir and gestured at his people to approach. Bashir stepped out of the way and observed as the medical team carefully moved Caterina onto the stretcher.

    "What are you doing?", Angel asked Leo.

    "We're transferring her to the Aurora medbay. The St. Johns will be ferrying her back to prevent any complications with the transporter." Leo offered Angel a hand to help her stand. She did so without accepting it. "Do you want to ride with her?"

    "Yes." Angel nodded. "Of course." She turned her head to Bashir. "Thank you, Doctor Bashir, for helping her."

    "It was no trouble," Bashir assured her. "Doctor Gillam, please keep me informed?"

    "Of course. I'll consult with you as necessary, Doctor Bashir."

    With Caterina secured to the stretcher, the Aurora personnel departed the infirmary.

    After a good deal of fussing and shouting and general lack of progress, the day's first summit meeting ended with a recess until the evening. Robert excused himself and beamed back to the Aurora with Julia. She was on her way to lunch and a bridge watch shift. Robert, in turn, went back to his quarters, replicated a fruit snack bar that he wolfed down in a couple of minutes, and promptly went to bed.

    The good thing was that he was too tired to dream. He fell asleep almost immediately.

    His sound sleep was interrupted by a persistent chirping tone from his multidevice. Robert let out a moan of annoyance that became a yawn. His arm flailed out and his hand fumbled over the device until his finger found the comm key on it. "Dale here," he mumbled.

    "Captain." It was Meridina. "You wanted to be informed when Mastrash Satrin returned my message?"


    "I have received a reply. It is… interesting, but quite disturbing as well. I can show it to you in my office."

    Robert yawned and checked the time. He had about ninety minutes before the summit was due to resume. "I'll be down in about half an hour, Meridina."

    There was nobody else in the security office when Robert arrived. Meridina gestured to her chair and hit a key to activate the office's own security functions, ensuring nobody could just walk in on them or use the standard systems to eavesdrop.

    "Normally I don't peg you for the paranoid type," Robert remarked while sitting.

    "Normally I do not have information this sensitive," she replied. "Mastrash Satrin has sent back an interesting report."

    "About the Ardat-Yakshi?"

    Meridina gave him a curious look. "I have not shared this term with anyone. Where did you learn of it?"

    "Irissa was mentally broadcasting for anyone to hear."

    "Understandable. From what Satrin's research gathers, the issue of the Ardat-Yakshi is of great sensitivity to the Asari."

    That wasn't surprising to Robert. Irissa had all but confirmed that with her threats. "I could tell. So what are they?"

    "It appears to be a mutation in the Asari genetic structure." Robert was amused to see her cheeks turning a little pink. "It is related to Asari reproduction."

    "As in sex."

    "Quite." Meridina folded her hands on the table. "Generally speaking, the Asari reproduce through parthenogenesis. Their nervous systems interact with those of their mates and randomizes DNA cell information in new Asari embryos."

    "I remember this," Robert said. "It's why the Asari can have children with non-Asari. They actually have a stigma now against Asari born of two Asari. 'Purebloods', I think?"

    "Yes." Meridina nodded. "And this may be the reason for that stigma. It appears that Ardat-Yakshi are only ever the result of a union between two Asari."

    "Just what are they then? Disposed to murder biotically?"

    "No. Satrin has found manuscripts during her studies, old works from before the time the Asari became space-faring and made contact with other species. The Ardat-Yakshi were more plentiful in these earlier eras. They are sterile Asari and cannot reproduce. Instead, during their act of procreation, their nervous system does not simply bond with that of their partner, but rather it overwhelms it and burns it out."

    "Like what happened to Cat and Ensign Merrill," Robert said. Oh no, if Angel finds this out… To find out her sister was not just nearly killed but had essentially been raped in the process would drive Angel ballistic.

    Meridina clearly picked up that concern. "Yes." Her expression now showed an element of distaste. "It also appears that the Ardat-Yakshi become addicted to this process. They grow to enjoy the killing."

    "What do the Asari do with them these days? Did Satrin find out?"

    "No. It is not something they share with outsiders. The very idea of the Ardat-Yakshi seems to be hidden from non-Asari."

    "Which explains the reaction Irissa had when I used the term." Robert felt a surge of anger at Irissa. He focused and suppressed it. Of course the Asari wouldn't be open about the Ardat-Yakshi. It was a deep shame to them. The Ardat-Yakshi were contrary to the very basis of their civilization.

    "Yes." Meridina tapped something on her system. "Mastrash Satrin has other duties that require her to avoid difficulties with the Asari. This will regretfully restrain her in attempts to learn more. Nevertheless she will do what she can to give me more information."

    "I think we've learned just about enough." Robert stood. "I need to let Sisko and Kira know about this. They may want to take up Irissa's offer."

    "It is advisable. The Ardat-Yakshi are reputed to have refined their telepathic abilities to permit domination of others' minds. There are few species that could safely contain them." Meridina got up from her chair and circled her desk. She would join him in heading over to the station.

    When Robert arrived on the Ops level, Sisko and Kira were looking up at the oval-shaped Cardassian viewscreen. A Bajoran woman of middle-age, with sandy brown hair and drawn eyes, was seated at a desk. "...complete agreement with the delegation, Major, Captain. And our arrangement is final."

    "They are hiding something, Minister," Kira protested. "And all this means is that the Asari and all of these other species will think they can bribe us into giving up on our rights."

    "This isn't bribery, Major," the Bajoran woman spat. "This is practical diplomacy. The Asari are a very wealthy people. We are not. The offer of aid that I have been given more than compensates for any issues you have brought up. The order is final. Prepare the Asari prisoner for transfer to an incoming Asari transport ship."

    The minister hit a key on her desk and her image was replaced by the Bajoran national insignia.

    Sisko and Kira turned toward Robert with irritated looks on both. "I take it you heard?"

    Robert nodded. "Yes. And given what Meridina's contact on Thessia found out, this might be for the best, Captain."

    Sisko gestured toward his office.

    Several minutes later, the commander of Deep Space Nine was rolling his baseball around in his hand. Beside him, Major Kira had a pensive look on her face. "So that's what this is? The Asari have these lunatics running around murdering people like that?"

    "Not many, from what we've gathered," Robert replied. "We don't know what they do with anyone who has the potential. But given the lack of murder sprees in their home universe, they clearly have the problem mostly under control."

    "Except for this 't'Gomi' person," Sisko pointed out. "And now I have to turn over the murderer of one of my officers without any idea at all on whether she'll be punished."

    "They're more concerned with keeping the Ardat-Yakshi a secret," Robert pointed out. "A criminal trial in a Federation or Bajoran court would have it come out. I suppose a defense attorney could even use the condition to argue for clemency of some sort. A variation of the insanity defense."

    "It certainly explains why the Asari are ready to pour so much money into the Bajoran economy," Kira noted. "They're buying our cooperation."

    "And our silence." Sisko thumped his hand on the table. "And the damndest thing is… I'm going to go along with it. Bajor could use the aid and we could use the good relations with the Asari."

    "You'll get no argument from me on that, Captain," Robert said. "As much as I'd like to see her pay for hurting Cat…" He pushed that thought aside. "Did they say when the ship would be coming?"

    "No. But I got the impression this was a high priority for them. So I expect to see them soon."

    "Right." Robert nodded. "Well, I suppose that's it for this matter. If anything happens, I'd like to be informed. But for now, I have to get back to the summit and put up with more of K'mbok's bellowing."

    "Ingratitude! That is what we are assailed by! Colossal ingratitude!"

    K'mbok's fist slammed on the table repeatedly. He glared down at both Sonek Pran and then, with a turn of his head, to the Alliance table and Senator Kiang. "The Klingon Empire has stood with the Federation against the Romulans. We have sent warriors to die in battle against the Nazi Empire. And now we are betrayed. Betrayed by allies without the stomach to realize the threat posed by the Cardassians!"

    "You haven't proven they were a threat requiring an invasion to eliminate, Councillor," Pran pointed out delicately. "Had you proven the Dominion infiltration, the Federation would have stood with you."

    K'mbok glared hatred in reply. "And such is the loyalty of the Federation to dismiss the honest words of their allies. We shouldn't need to prove ourselves to you! The alliance would still stand if you had honored your word and supported us.

    "That treaty was not made to require the Federation to agg…"

    "This argument misses the salient point of the issue," Kiang insisted. "The Klingon Empire invaded Cardassia on the charge that the Cardassian government had been taken over by the Dominion Founders. Those same government officials were tested and found to not be Changelings." Kiang put her hands together on the table. "Therefore the Klingon Empire has no reason to continue to hold Cardassian territory. By refusing to withdraw, you prove that your real motive was territorial aggression, not the safety of the Alpha Quadrant from the Dominion."

    At that General Martok erupted from his chair and smashed his fist to the table. "Klingon warriors died to seize those worlds!", he shouted. "We will not dishonor their sacrifices by handing them back over! That is not our way!"

    "No." Kiang looked at him coldly. "Your way is to abandon the allies you swore to fight beside in order to take gains for yourself. How many of our soldiers and crewmen have died fighting the Nazis in battles caused by the withdrawal of your forces from the front?"

    "The safety of the Alpha Quadrant is more important," Martok retorted.

    "More important than your word of…"

    "Please, gentlebeings." Sonek Pran stood and leaned on the table. "We are rehashing old conflicts. If we are to salvage anything of our relations, we must look to reconciliation, not recrimination."

    K'mbok thrust a finger at the Federation diplomat. "If you want 'reconciliation', then you must accept the needs of the Empire. The Klingon Empire regards the Cardassian government as a threat to the stability of the Alpha Quadrant. They are too weak to resist the Dominion. Let us assume control over them."

    "That would destabilize the balance of power," Robert pointed out. "The Romulans won't accept that."

    "Too bad for them," K'mbok chuckled. "If they wish to fight us, then our powers together can crush them. Your interuniversal drives will guarantee us a swift victory."

    "There has to be another solution." Now Julia joined the conversation. "If the Cardassians are really that unstable now, maybe all of our governments should work together to re-stabilize them. Put together a new Cardassian government with enough legitimacy and power to defend against Changeling infiltration."

    Sonek Pran shook his head. "All you would do is incite the Cardassians into revolution against us. And you're already in one war. You don't have the resources to hold against them, and the Federation will not approve."

    "Even if the alternative is Klingon conquest…?"

    "Yes." Sonek Pran nodded. "The Federation does not play these kinds of power politics."

    "Which is why you are weak, and you will not survive," Martok growled. "Spineless as always."

    There was silence in the room. Representative Irissa stood. "It's clear to me that this summit is becoming a waste of time," she said. "We will adjourn for the day. If no progress is made by tomorrow, I will submit to our governments that the summit is over."

    "I am done talking anyway," K'mbok stated. He glared at both the Alliance and Federation tables. "That is all you are good for. Talk." After barking orders to his guard in Klingon, K'mbok stood and went for the door. Martok followed behind.

    Sonek Pran and his team exchanged dour, sad looks as they filed out. Kiang left with her staff in no rush. Soon the only two people in the room were Robert and Julia. "This is going badly," Robert lamented.

    "I'm not sure it could go anywhere but bad," she answered. "There's no reconciling these differences, I'm afraid."

    "The Klingons are going to pull out of the Nazi War." Robert stood up and looked toward the display of the front. "We'll have to pull back. Worlds that we've liberated will fall to the Nazis again, and they'll do God-knows-what to the people who welcomed us." He swallowed. "Maybe we should accede. Let the Klingons have what they want, if they'll support us."

    Julia gave him a glare. "You don't mean that."

    "No. No I don't. They'd just demand more." He sighed and slumped into a chair. "It's all gone wrong, Julia. We were doing so well, and now it's being ruined."

    "Maybe we shouldn't have trusted on the other races getting as involved as we needed," Julia remarked. "The Citadel Council, the InterStellar Alliance, the Federation and Klingons… they all have their own problems to face. And then we eliminated the risk that the Reich would get their hands on that Darglan Facility, so we removed the main reason they were backing the war in the first place."

    "So we're victims of our own success." Robert chuckled bitterly. "Isn't that how it usually goes?"

    "Yeah." Julia gave him a pat on the shoulder. "Want to grab something to eat? I hear the Bajoran restaurant is really good."

    Robert shook his head. "No. I need to go to the medbay and check up on Angel and Cat."

    Julia nodded in understanding. "Of course. I'll see you later then. Please let them know I'll be by later?"

    "Of course."

    Odo was busy with a petty criminal complaint when Meridina entered his security office. He waved her back to the cells before returning to his work.

    In the cell area, Meridina's personnel were at their positions. Lieutenant Damys Sharal was a teal-skinned Lenari, one of the northern nations of Doreia, with light purple spots and deep blue hair. Her partner on the watch was Lieutenant Mayao, a purple-skinned blue-spotted Dorei who was fidgeting for the moment with his wedding bracelet.

    In the cell "Rila t'Gomi" was awake. She was looking out at the Dorei with clear interest, the interest a hunting cat might give to prospective prey. The same interest glistened in her eyes when she looked on to Meridina. "A Gersallian," she purred. "I've always found it odd that one species can look so much like another and yet be so different."

    "Such is life," Meridina noted. "What is your real name?"

    That won her a chuckle. "Why don't you read my mind and find out?"

    "And let you have an opening to attack me mentally? No." Meridina shook her head. "You are not Rila t'Gomi. But while I do not know your name, I know what you are."


    "You are an Ardat-Yakshi."

    A low, sensual laugh came from the Asari. "Well. How interesting. You've stumbled upon the dirty little secret of the Asari." She leaned forward. "Now you really have my interest, Gersallian."

    Meridina did not show any interest in remarking on that. "We are in contact with Asari authorities on the issue. I am told the Bajoran government is handing you over to them."

    "Of course they are. It's safer for them." The killer paced her cell "And here I was getting used to this place. It has its… charms."

    "I am aware that your condition is genetic," Meridina continued. "Have your people never found a cure?"

    "A cure?" She shook her head and laughed. "Why would I want a cure? This is what my people were meant to be. I am the genetic destiny of my species. The ultimate evolution of the Asari."

    Meridina left the air silent for a moment. "An odd argument, given that your kind are sterile."

    "Or so they want us to believe."

    "What is your name?", Meridina asked. "Truly?"

    "It is irrelevant," was the reply. The prisoner kept her eyes, of gray-blue cold, intent upon Meridina. "You and I are alike, I sense. You are powerful, capable. More than these Humans you obey. You waste your power with them."

    "Power alone is nothing," Meridina answered. "I have purpose. You do not."

    "I have all the purpose I need." The Asari's tone was full of confidence. Insistence. "To be free. To do as I please. To be what I am."

    "To murder those who gave you no offense."

    "Offense has nothing to do with it." The Asari stepped to the edge of the forcefield restraining her. "You have chased a quarry before. Tell me you did not find joy in it. The thrill of the chase. The way your blood burns with the need to prevail. The elation when you've brought your prey down and the look in their eyes when they know they are caught. When they see they have fallen to you and that mercy will not be coming, that there is no more hope for them." She closed her eyes and gasped in pleasure. "That feeling. That sweet sensation. I adore it so."

    "And that is what you felt when you attacked Caterina."

    "Sweet. So sweet," she purred.

    Meridina stopped speaking. The sensations oozing from the Ardat-Yakshi were dark and putrid. A love of murder and cruelty, a desire to dominate with such focus that Meridina had never seen before, even compared to being exposed to the likes of the SS man Fassbinder or the pirates she had infiltrated as a Knight of Swenya.

    "Oh, poor thing. I disgust you, don't I?" The Asari's laugh was one of bemusement. "Well, to make it up to you Commander, I'll give you my name after all. I am Morinth."

    "Morinth. Why did you come to Deep Space Nine?"

    "Because I've never been here before," she answered. "A new hunting ground always promises interest. Testing the people here, how effective they are in hunting me, hunting them myself… it's what I've lived for over the centuries of my life." Morinth returned to her cell's bench and lounged on it. "I'm starved. Might I have some food?" She cackled. "Normal food, of course. I'll save you for later."

    Meridina narrowed her eyes. She looked to Mayao and nodded. He went to the replicator while Sharal drew her pistol. Meridina took her lakesh in one hand without extending it.

    A whir and flash of light appeared in the replicator. Mayao took the food tray over to the cell opening. A press of a button lowered the forcefield. In one movement he put the tray down and promptly re-activated the field.

    Morinth hadn't moved. Now she did, picking up the tray. "I'm curious as to who will pick me up," she admitted. "Please tell me you'll be here for that, Commander Meridina?" She smiled thinly. "I do so love an audience."

    Meridina didn't give Morinth the satisfaction of a response. She left the cell area and went out to Odo's office. Odo was no longer looking over paperwork. The image on his desk showed the cell area with other data. "Her name is likely a fake," he pointed out.

    "It is," she replied. "But a name she prefers, not simply a false name."

    "Still, I'll run her through the database. For all the good it will do us. The Asari will be here shortly to pick her up." Odo made his typical "harrumph" sound. "I, for one, can't wait to get her off my station."

    "You will get your wish soon enough." Meridina frowned. Morinth had not seemed too concerned by the knowledge her people were coming for her. "What concerns me is that Morinth seems to have that wish too."

    "I'll keep an eye on her, Commander," Odo promised. "She's not going anywhere."

    The medbay on the Aurora was quiet. For Leo, this meant time to do inventory checks and equipment testing, not to mention the paperwork that came with the job.

    For the moment, though, he was watching over his friends. His eyes kept going to the readouts on Caterina's bed, showing her vital signs. A specialized scan he had set up monitored the neural activity of her body, allowing him to tell if her nervous system was recovering properly or not. So far, he had reason to hope at least.

    Cat was still unconscious for the moment, and thankfully so as the pain she would be in if awake would be constant due to the neurological damage. Angel had remained at her side the entire day, holding her hand and occasionally speaking to her. Leo checked the clock. Robert had promised to be back as soon as the summit was over for the day and he had written his report to Admiral Maran. Until then, it was just the two sisters.

    "If she doesn't get better…" Angel looked up at Leo. "Don't sugarcoat it, Leo. Tell me what will happen."

    "It depends," he sighed. "If it's just general neurological damage… well, she could still have a mostly normal life, I suppose. We have medications that could deaden the nerves and control the pain."


    "Yes." He nodded. "She'd be in pain most of the time, Angel. From the damage to her central nervous system. If the damage is severe enough and can't heal, it might also impact her motor functions. She might have trouble walking, or talking. It might even have an effect on her mind."

    Angel sniffled. "So my sister will either be in constant agony or she'll… she won't be able to do what she loves."

    "That's a worst case scenario, Angel, you don't have to…"

    Angel glared at him through the hot tears on her face. "Don't have to what, Leo?! Think of how my little sister's been hurt?! Think of all the times she's been hurt since we came out here, all the times I failed to be there for her?!"

    Leo shook his head. "Angel, don't blame yourself."

    "It's my fault," she insisted. "I went to dinner with Rob. I should have canceled. I should have stayed with her. I could have kept that Asari bitch away." Angel gripped Cat's hand even tighter. "But I'll make it up for her. I'll be there for you, Cat. Please, just wake up and I'll always be here…"

    Leo walked away and left them alone.

    Up in his bridge office, Robert finished typing the end of his report to Admiral Maran and, through Maran, to President Morgan. He had gone over the stalled summit and the attack on Caterina, as well as the findings about the Ardat-Yakshi and the Asari reaction. He looked at the time and cursed. It was already past 2200 ship time. He'd wanted to get this thing sent off an hour ago.

    He made one final check of the wording and hit the transmit button. Just as the screen showed the transmission's encryption being started, the door chime went off. "Come in," he called out.

    Julia walked in. Unusually for her, she was not carrying reports for him to sign off on. "Is everything okay?"

    "I don't think I'd use that word," he answered. "Cat's still asleep, Leo's not sure if she'll recover, and our job here is frankly utterly impossible."

    "Says the guy who found an ancient alien base under his family home," Julia remarked in a teasing tone.

    "That wasn't the same kind of impossible," he countered. "This is simply impossible from a realism perspective. The Klingons won't budge, the Federation can't without looking weak and indecisive, and we're caught between our principles and our necessities. We need Klingon ships at the front. But the more I look at this situation, the more the Klingons look like the bad guys."

    "The Cardassians aren't exactly nice people either," Julia reminded him.

    For a moment he remembered the terror and pain that he, through Meridina, had briefly felt the prior year when she had let him experience the sensations she was picking up from two Maquis the Cardassians had taken prisoner. "No. But that doesn't mean they haven't been attacked simply because the Klingons want to expand."

    "I won't argue that." Julia sat across from him. "Unfortunately there's not much we can do about it. We're here to support Senator Kiang's negotiation."

    "All she seems to do is repeat the same thing and hope it'll wear the others down," Robert remarked bitterly. He shook his head. "And the damned thing is, having to be there means I can't be here, helping Angel."

    "I don't think there's much you can do to help her." Julia shook her head. A sad, resigned smile came to her face. "Not unless you volunteer to stand in for that Asari so she can punch somebody."

    "I'm her lover. I should be there for her."

    "You both know that can't be true. Not with our responsibilities." Julia shook her head. "I think that's why they call it 'fraternization', and why they forbid it. As much as I like seeing you two be happy together, I'm worried that in the end it'll just cause you more pain if the job gets in the way."

    "The job. And, heh, this." Robert, by way of example, lifted his hand. His digital pad lifted into the air. He held it in place for a moment before letting it fall, upon which it clattered upon the desk.

    "That." Julia nodded. "That's got to be the one thing I never imagined possible. Superpowers. And us having them."

    "It's not as fun as it sounds." Robert stood. "Anyway, I've got to get down to the medbay and see how Angel…"

    Before he could finish there was a tone over the comm system. "Bridge to Captain Dale." The voice was Lieutenant John Pacetti, the bridge watch officer for Gamma Shift. "IU Jump Point is opening."

    Robert responded by going to the door as quickly as he reasonably could. Julia was right behind him. They stepped out onto the bridge and looked to the viewscreen. The image was that of a small Asari craft, already clear of the now-closing green vortex. "That's their idea of a prisoner transport?", Julia asked.

    "It's not our part to judge," Robert replied. He nodded to Pacetti and moved toward the lift. "I'm going down to the medbay for now. If anything happens, let me know."

    Sisko and Kira were at the airlock where the Asari ship was docking. The wheel rolled open and a single figure stepped out. The Asari woman had a lighter complexion than other Asari they'd met, with eyes so light blue that they verged on gray. Her suit was a red bodysuit zipped up to the cleavage, with similarly-red attachments on her forehead. Her appearance caused Sisko and Kira to exchange brief looks; she was a dead ringer for the prisoner.

    The Asari looked at them and nodded politely. "I am Samara," she said in a gentle, reserved voice.

    "Captain Benjamin Sisko of the United Federation of Planets," Sisko replied. "And commander of Deep Space Nine."

    "Major Kira Nerys, Bajoran Militia, and representative of the Bajoran Provisional Government," Kira added. "On behalf of my government I welcome you to Deep Space Nine. The Justice Ministry has issued the formal order to turn custody of the killer over to you."

    "I am grateful for your hospitality. Perhaps I shall return at a later time, after the business today has concluded. I would very much like to see your station more fully." Samara looked away. "Sadly, we have business to attend to."

    "This way, please," Sisko asked.

    Odo and Meridina were waiting when Samara and her escorts arrived at Station Security. "Constable, she's here to take custody of our prisoner."

    Odo looked over Samara carefully. "I doubt that's a uniform," he said. "Just what are you? What agency do you belong to?"

    "None," Samara answered. "I am a Justicar. I follow the Code, and answer to none but my own and my conscious."

    Meridina was starting to get a feel for sensing Odo's feelings. His nature made them more alien, different, than any other form of life she'd seen before. But she thought she could feel distrust and disapproval at Samara's answer. "I don't condone vigilantism," Odo stated.

    "I am not a mere vigilante. I uphold the Code, the embodiment of all Asari beliefs." Samara looked to Meridina. "You are a swevyra'se of Gersal, are you not?" To Meridina's interest and even surprise, Samara had spoken the Gersallian term perfectly.

    "Meridina of Gersal, sworn to the Code of Swenya," Meridina replied, bowing her head in recognition and respect.

    "My sister Justicars and I have heard of your Order. Your Code is not unlike our own."

    Meridina could feel some impatience coming from the others. "In other circumstances I would welcome a discussion of the Codes to which we are sworn. But other business sadly presses upon us."

    Samara nodded.

    Odo took the lead in heading to the prison area. The two Dorei guards from earlier in the day were back on duty and waiting with weapons. Morinth was seated in the cell, smirking.

    As soon as she saw Samara, the smirk faded. Meridina could sense real fear coming from Morinth, for the first time. And also… sadness. Defiance.

    Samara looked on the prisoner with resignation and sadness of her own. "Morinth."

    Meridina was therefore not surprised when Morinth's next word was "Mother".

    The others all showed interest in that.

    Morinth frowned. "So they sent you. Was it cruelty? Or did you ask to be the one?" She laughed bitterly. "Oh, you asked didn't you? After all of these centuries you still can't let go."

    "You are my child. I bear responsibility for what you have become."

    "What will you tell my sisters, then? Will you tell them about this? About what you've done to me?" Morinth saw the puzzled reactions on the others' faces and laughed. "Oh! Oh, you didn't tell them."

    "Tell us what?", Odo asked.

    "You thought you were giving me away to be tried?" Morinth's laughter continued. "Oh no, shapeshifter. My mother's not here to be my escort or my jailer. She's here to be my executioner. She's here to kill me." Morinth threw her arms wide in defiance. "Well Mother, are you ready? Are you ready to kill your own daughter?!"

    "Nobody will be killing anybody on my station!", Odo announced. He glared at Samara. "I don't care what any 'Code' says."

    "I will not harm her aboard this station," Samara pledged.

    "So what, you'll kill her on your ship?", Kira asked. "You're still in Bajoran territory. Bajoran law applies, and we don't allow summary executions!"

    "My vessel has been designated a diplomatic ship by the Asari government," Samara explained. "It is officially Asari territory."

    "Captain, I'm protesting this transfer," Odo said. "I was under the impression that Morinth was to be tried in a criminal court."

    "So was the Bajoran government," Kira added. "If we had known…"

    Samara accepted this continuing tirade without complaint. When she finally spoke to interrupt Kira, it was without anger or passion. "An Ardat-Yakshi is given two choices under Asari law."

    "We either get imprisoned in a monastery, or we get executed," Morinth said. "I decided I would rather be free."

    Samara responded with some force in her voice. "Free to kill untold innocents across our galaxy. And now another."

    "I didn't ask to be born this way, Mother!"

    Meridina sensed the emotions coming off both. She was intrigued by how the earlier predatory nature of Morinth was no longer evident. Had she constructed that nature to deal with her condition? A sort of insulation for her conscious, secretly yearning to be free of it? Or was she still that predator underneath this anger and pain that Meridina was feeling from her? Perhaps it was both.

    Meridina felt her own distaste for the idea of simply killing, but it was a duty she herself had to face the prospect of. She had warned Lucy and Robert both that if they fell to darkness she would end their lives. It was part of the Code of Swenya. A harsh necessity to deal with those who corrupted themselves with their dark feelings and thoughts. Could she judge Samara for preparing to do what she might one day have to do with another person like her?

    "I believe some of us are fatigued," Meridina stated. "If you lower the forcefield, my guards and I will escort the prisoner and the Justicar to her ship."

    Sisko nodded. "I understand."

    "Captain!" Odo's voice was full of protest. "You can't just turn her over now. The extradition…"

    "...the extradition agreement did not specify that Morinth was to be given a trial, merely that she would be punished for the crimes she committed under Asari law," Sisko answered. "While I don't like how that's going to happen, there's nothing in the agreement that would permit me to refuse to turn her over. Constable Odo…"

    He never got the chance to finish that statement.

    The lights in the room cut out completely.

    "Sisko to Ops, we've lost power, what…"

    Blue light illuminated the holding cells room. Morinth screamed, fury and ecstasy rumbling through her, and a bolt of biotic power made its way into the room. Meridina got her hand up and focused just in time, absorbing the wave with her life power. A second burst of blue light came from Samara, who absorbed the attack on her as well. Everyone else was knocked back onto the ground or against the wall by the force of the biotic wave. Odo dissolved into his natural liquid state out of shock from the blow.

    Morinth was already in motion. She charged away from her mother and toward where Sisko and Kira were sprawled by the wall and the corner of the holding cell opposite of hers. She was out the door a moment later.

    "Morinth!" Samara ran after her.

    Meridina started to move to join her. She stopped as she sensed the life ebbing in Kira's body. She went to her side as Odo reformed beside her. His legs were still taking shape as his hand moved under her to hold her up. "She's unconscious."

    For a moment Meridina focused. She could sense the injury at the back of Kira's head. "She has a severe head injury. She needs medical attention." She looked to where her guards were strewn on the floor - they had taken the brunt of the wave and were barely conscious at the moment.

    "Odo to infirmary, medical emergency in…" Odo stopped. His comm badge hadn't let off the usual electronic chirp. He tapped it again. There was nothing. "Something's wrong. Communications are down."

    Meridina reached to her wrist-held multidevice. "Meridina to Aurora, this is a security alert. I have a medical emergency and require an immediate transport to the medbay, I am relaying coordinates now." She tapped a key on the hardlight keyboard that popped up over her device. "And can anyone give me the status of the station?"

    After several moments white light filled the dark room and Kira disappeared. "This is Lieutenant Pacetti. We are reading multiple systems failures on the station. It looks like something took out main power and other systems. What's happening over there?"

    "The Asari prisoner, Morinth, has escaped," Meridina answered. "Alert Captain Dale and Commander Andreys immediately. I must pursue." The light from her multidevice allowed her to see Odo's face. He seemed… distracted. "Constable, do I have your leave to issue commands to your security forces?"

    He didn't answer immediately. "Constable?", Meridina repeated.

    "Constable!", Sisko barked.

    Their voices seemed to jolt Odo back to attention. "Yes. Yes, my people will follow your commands."

    "As mine will do with yours," Meridina pledged. "I am going to pursue the Asari."

    "I'll join you as soon as I can," Odo said. "I need to get my people organized."

    Sisko got back to his feet as they stood. "I'll be in Ops trying to find out what happened. Report to me the moment you find out anything."

    "Of course, Captain," Odo promised.

    Meridina nodded. "Yes."

    Sisko replied to Meridina with a brief nod, barely visible in the darkness of the room. "Good hunting, Commander."

    Morinth ran onto the crossover bridge heading to the habitat ring. She could hear her mother's footsteps pounding behind her. So close. She's so close.

    Terror pushed her forward, and a strange exhilaration filled Morinth. She was the prey. In this game with her mother, she was always the prey. It was an interesting turn whenever it happened. Sometimes she even enjoyed it.

    But maybe it was time to turn things the other way. If she could get to the cargo bay in time…
    rifern and Shadowcub like this.
  10. Threadmarks: 2-02-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    In the Aurora medbay Caterina was still asleep on the biobed. A pair of chairs nearby allowed Robert and Angela to sit quietly beside her, Angel laying against him and in his arms. Angel was half-asleep and Robert was nearly so.

    His multidevice went off. The tone brought them both to full wakefulness. Robert reached around Angel to press the comm key. "Dale here."

    "Pacetti here, sir. Commander Meridina called, there's something wrong on the station. Their systems have gone down and the prisoner is loose."

    "What the…" Robert and Angel sat up. They heard a transporter effect further down the medbay and increased activity as Leo's Gamma Shift personnel went into action. "Do they have comms?"

    "They're not answering hails, so I don't think so."

    Dammit. Dammit! They'd have to find out what was going on, but just as importantly, Robert had to secure Senator Kiang. "Get Commander Kane, I want a full Marine detail on the Senator immediately. Have Commander Scott notified of the situation to arrange engineering and operations teams to transport immediately to the station to help with repairs."

    "Yes sir."

    Robert stood up. "She got loose?", Angel asked.

    "That's what Meridina's said."

    Angel's lips pursed. Robert put a hand on her shoulder. "I'm sure Meridina's going after her. She won't get away." He stood up. "I need to get over there and see what help Sisko and his crew will need. I'll be back as soon as I can, okay?"

    The response was a nod from Angel. She watched him go and turned toward her sister.

    She took Caterina's hand and clasped tightly. It took time for it to build, but it did; a fury that she had rarely felt before. After all this, the killer who had hurt Cat, nearly taken her sister's life, was free. Free to possibly come back and hurt Cat again.

    No. No, she won't. Angel pursed her lips. I'll kill her first.

    A part of her was ready to go over herself. To help hunt down the Asari and to put her down permanently. Her fury demanded it. But even it could not overcome her need to be here for the most important person in the world to her.

    Whatever happened… she needed to be here for her sister. That was more important.

    Samara remained close to Morinth as the chase continued on down the crossover bridges. The corridors had been dark before. Now, with only emergency lighting, they were more shadow than substance.

    It had been decades since Samara was this close to Morinth. Her daughter's skills had only increased in this time, matched by the viciousness of her killing. Every one of those deaths weighed on Samara. They reminded her of the failures to catch her daughter before, of blood that had been shed because she hadn't done well enough.

    It had to stop. It had to end.

    They had made it to the docking ring of the Cardassian-built station. They weren't far from Samara's own ship, in fact. But Morinth clearly had another destination in mind. She was moving toward a group of cargo bays adjacent to one of the docks.

    Morinth ran around a corner. Samara followed with a biotic shield up, allowing her to absorb the biotic charge that Morinth threw behind her as Samara came around the corner. She ducked into a door in the moment Samara took to recover her balance from the deflection of Morinth's attack. Through the door were stacks and stacks of shipping containers, cargo crates that were not unlike the ones from Samara's home galaxy.

    "You could have chosen to join your sisters," Samara said.

    "You could have chosen to leave me alone," Morinth retorted from the darkness. "You could have let me live my life."

    "A live committed to hunting and murder," Samara charged. "How many victims have you claimed over the centuries, daughter?"

    "I can't stop what I am!"

    "Instead, you embraced it."

    "And so now you're going to kill me. Your own daughter." Morinth laughed bitterly. Samara turned a corner around some crates. She could make out Morinth's silhouette in the deep shadows of the dark cargo bay. The gathering biotic energy started to cast a low blue light over them. "I'm not going to just let you kill me, Mother."

    Samara nodded. "I know. You have always been the most daring."

    "You're going to make me kill you." Morinth scowled. "Is that what you think I want?!"

    "You have killed enough, my daughter. I…"

    There was a sudden burst of energy. Every nerve, every cell, of Samara's body seized up. She gasped and fell over.

    A low chuckle came from Morinth. Her footsteps echoed against Samara's head through the metal of the cargo bay floor. "This galaxy, this universe, has some very amazing technologies. Their energy weapons can be set to stun. They can even set explosives to stun." Morinth's arm whipped out and her biotics struck Samara with a warp field, breaking up her concentration before she could stand. "The hunter is now the hunted. I know what it feels like, Mother. You've made sure of that." Morinth scowled down at her. She placed her foot squarely on Samara's throat and began to apply weight.

    Samara's head was still spinning. The sudden pressure cutting off her air was making that worse.

    "The hunt is over, Mother." Morinth frowned down at her. "It's your turn to be the prey. And this is what always comes to my prey…"

    Robert beamed into Ops and was met by now-Lieutenant Commander Dax and another familiar face. "Commander Worf." He nodded to the Klingon.

    "Captain." Worf nodded back. "We are experiencing major system wide faults. Chief O'Brien is currently heading to Reactor Control to determine the cause."

    "Lieutenant Barnes beamed straight there with an engineering team to help with whatever went wrong." Robert looked around at Ops. Emergency lights were keeping it lit up for the moment. "I'm sending Marines to secure the summit delegates. Your people can concentrate on getting the station running. Do you know where Captain Sis…-"

    The door to Sisko's office opened slowly. Sisko finished forcing it open and slipped through. "Report, Mister Worf."

    Worf busied himself in repeating what he had told Robert. "Sir, I think we must consider the likelihood that this was intentional sabotage to disrupt the summit."

    "Possibly. But the timing is damn suspicious. We were just turning over Morinth to the Asari agent when the power failed in security."

    "Could Morinth have arranged this?", Robert asked. "Some sort of computer virus or the like?"

    Sisko looked to Dax, who shrugged. "I'm not sure. It's possible. The Asari have a lot of advanced technology and some sophisticated computer systems. But that doesn't mean she's an expert skilled enough to get around the computer security we've installed."

    "How long until communications is restored?", Sisko asked.

    "Give me an hour or two, I think I can get the system working again." Dax resumed working at her station again.

    "Captain." Sisko looked to Robert. "The summit."

    "Already taking care of that, Captain Sisko," Robert answered. "Commander Kane and his Marines are deploying."

    "Good." Sisko went to his place at the central table. Robert stood to his right. "In the meantime, I'd like to borrow your ship's communications system. Dax and Commander Jarod should be able to tie our comm badges in with your systems."

    "I'll make the call." Robert brought up his multi-device. As he did so, he felt a sense of unease. Just what is going on here?, he thought.

    Morinth applied more pressure with her foot against Samara's neck. Samara's head was still spinning and her body felt paralyzed from the stun weapon that Morinth had employed against her. She tried to force her body to move just to find it could not. Her muscles wouldn't respond. Her body ached as pain continued to press down on her throat. Morinth would soon be applying enough power to break the vertebrae in Samara's neck.

    The pressure stopped. Morinth was moving. Something had come to her attention.

    That was when Meridina struck.

    Her own power, born from her life force, smashed into Morinth as she changed her balance, anticipating an incoming attack. Regardless of her preparations she went flying back into the nearby crates and cried out from the impact.

    Morinth called upon every reserve of strength she had to force herself back to her feet. She threw out a biotic bolt at Meridina that the Gersallian was forced to absorb with her power, delaying her and giving Morinth time to run for the far cargo bay exit.

    Meridina did not pursue immediately. She stopped at Samara's side and sensed for injuries.

    Samara looked intently at her. "Do not stop for me," she insisted. "You must prevent Morinth from escaping."

    Seeing that Samara was not in any medical danger, Meridina nodded and left in pursuit of Morinth. She focused with her power, her swevyra, and felt it channel into her body, letting her move swiftly into the corridors of the ship. Morinth was heading to one of the crossover bridges. She was backtracking.

    Meridina found that interesting. What was she up to?

    Commander Kane walked down the darkened corridor finding it not so darkened with the aid of his helmet's display systems. Everything had a greenish hue to it from the light amplification that the display was using. He checked his location against the station schematics and found the door he was looking for. Beside him, Corporal Mendelssohn came to a stop, holding his weapon at a ready-rest position. Kane hit the door chime and started knocking an armored fist on the metal Cardassian door. "Senator Kiang?", he called out, aided by a boosted external speaker. "Senator Kiang, I need to check on you."

    Several moments passed. He hit the door again. "Madame Senator, I…"

    The door slid open on the other end, courtesy of the emergency release. Senator Kiang stood before him in a pleasant nightrobe. "What is happening?", she asked.

    "There's been a station-wide power loss, ma'am. Captain Dale ordered me to arrange guards for all the summit delegates. I'm attending to you personally," he replied.

    "Ah." Kiang nodded. "Well, Commander, please step in. I'm awake now, so I might as well brew some coffee and get to work."

    "With the station's power down, ma'am, how do you plan on doing that?", Kane asked.

    Kiang smiled at him with amusement. "I keep a portable battery for my coffeemaker, Commander. It's always best to be prepared for such things."

    "'Always prepared' is our motto, ma'am." Kane nodded in approval. "We'll stay out of your way."

    Kiang moved aside and let him and Mendelssohn in.

    In Reactor Control, O'Brien finished looking through a part of the systems and sighed with irritation. "How does that happen?", he asked nobody in particular. "How do all five plasma flow constrictors fail at once?"

    Nearby Barnes looked up from one such system. "From the look of things, they didn't fail so much as go into a locked state. Then the plasma backs up and.." He snapped his fingers. "...the safeties kick in and the reactors shut down."

    "But there was no excess plasma flow to cause them to lock down," O'Brien insisted. "The reactors were running at the standard operating rate of twelve detonations per second."

    "And what's your highest active rate? Eighty or so?"

    "Eighty-three is the safe rating." The older engineer stood from the open panel he was working at and went over to where Barnes was examining the flow constrictors. "And I'm not showing any surge in plasma that would trigger a shutdown."

    "And then we have the mystery of why the auxiliary reactors didn't kick in automatically." Barnes shook his head. He looked at O'Brien. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking, Chief?"

    O'Brien frowned. "Sabotage."

    "Computer-based, probably. Trick the plasma flow sensors, make the system think too much plasma's coming in and shut down the reactors. Then block the command to bring the auxiliary reactors to full." Barnes tapped a few keys and brought up the station's power grid at the moment of failure. "Or rather, why auxiliary power didn't work to power these critical systems."

    "Communications and the security office." O'Brien tapped his comm badge. "O'Brien to Ops."

    There was only a quarter-second of extra delay time as the comm badge, cut off from its usual lines of communication, routed through the Aurora's short-range transceivers. "Sisko here. Go ahead Chief."

    "Sir, it looks like there was a fault in the plasma flow lines. All of the constrictors locked up and the reactors shut down to prevent a plasma overload. Lieutenant Barnes and I have teams preparing the reactors for restart now."

    "Have you determined how this happened? And why auxiliary power didn't come online?"

    O'Brien swallowed. "Well, sir, I hate to say it… but I think we're looking at sabotage. Most likely in the computer controls for the power system."

    There was quiet on the other end for several minutes. "Thank you, Chief. Do what you can to get Main Power back online immediately. Sisko out."

    Once the call was cut O'Brien took in a breath. "I would not want to be in Ops right now."

    "Yeah." Barnes shook his head. "If this happened on the Aurora I wouldn't want to be on the Bridge… or in Main Engineering. Scotty would have someone's head for a computer security failure like that."

    "Yeah." After a moment, O'Brien's expression turned curious. "So, what's it like? Serving with Commander Scott?"

    "Hrm? Oh, it's cool," Barnes answered. "Really cool. Frankly I've learned more about being an engineer from him than any course or brainwave infusion has ever taught me."

    "Yeah." O'Brien had a wistful look on his face. "The man's the best engineer that Starfleet's ever had. What I wouldn't give to have a chance to serve with him."

    "Well, lad, that's nice an' kind of ye t' say," a new voice stated. "But I have t' warn ye, I'd not put up wi' yer layin' about when there's work t' be done."

    O'Brien's expression froze. A little of the color went out of Barnes' face. They turned and faced the subject of their conversation standing in the doorway of Reactor Control. Montgomery Scott was in his favored engineering outfit, black vest over white long-sleeved jersey and Alliance regulation uniform trousers, and had his arms crossed. A hint of bemusement was on his face.

    "Oh, uh, Scot… Commander. Sir." Barnes chuckled nervously. "We're just…"

    "...talkin' instead o' workin', Tom, and dinnae think ye can get out o' that." He motioned to the controls. "Now, lads, Commander Andreys had t' go tae th' trouble o' wakin' me up, an' I promised th' lass we'd have this station runnin' again within th' hour. So how about ye get started on those plasma flow constrictors, I'll get th' reactors ready for a restart."

    O'Brien and Barnes exchanged looks. "Uh, yes." The older engineer nodded. "Thank you, Commander. We'll get right on that."

    Morinth laid a trap for Meridina at the Habitat Ring side of Crossover Bridge 1.

    Meridina saw it coming as well. A stun bomb of some sort, likely the same thing she'd used on Samara. She focused and jumped over the tripping position, twirling horizontally in mid-air to fit through the pathway without setting the weapon off. With a sweep of her hand a wave of energy smashed the weapon and deactivated it.

    She looked up and saw Morinth through the darkness, glowing with biotic power. Morinth cried in anger. Meridina could feel the forces of the universe warp and twist from Morinth's power and the dark matter it was generating. She sensed the the powerful biotic pulse Morinth was hurling toward her before the Asari even threw it. Meridina focused and reached out with her power as the blast came for her. The dark matter snapped like a beast as it flowed around her, as if angry at being denied its power. "Stop!", Meridina called out. "You have done enough damage. You have caused enough harm!"

    The dark-clad Asari answered her with a bemused smirk. "You are truly a precious one, aren't you Gersallian? If I had known you were like that, I might have hunted you instead."

    Meridina advanced with her lakesh drawn. Its faint blue light, from the EM field circulating around it, was a small break in the shadows of the darkened station.

    Morinth met her attack with a whip of pure biotic power that slammed against the lakesh. She brought her other arm around and a biotic pulse erupted from it, skimming a centimeter above Meridina's head as she dodged it with efficient grace. She swiped with her lakesh and found her target. The blade slashed through the dark leather of Morinth's suit and left a string of purple blood against the blue flesh beneath. Morinth hissed in irritation and grabbed out with her biotics again. Meridina saw the blow coming easily and parried it.

    But there was a grin on Morinth's face when she did so. Meridina barely had a moment to register her irritation at her misjudgement before Morinth's biotic power shifted, the whip of dark matter solidifying and pulling the lakesh right out of her hand. Morinth's foot came up in a kick that she could only partially block, keeping it from doubling over but costing her some balance.

    Which was what Morinth wanted. Her biotics flared yet again, this time in a wave of power that moved out from her in a wide arc. Meridina could not avoid it and was thrown back. She rolled with it and tumbled backward until she was firmly on her feet. She reached her hand out and her lakesh flew from its place on the floor to her hand.

    But by that point, Morinth was running again. Meridina took a step toward her… and then forced herself to jump back just as another stun bomb went off. It didn't catch her just as the last one did not, but it cost her precious seconds in which Morinth ran ahead successfully.

    But Meridina was not done. Morinth was as bad as any swevyra'se who had fallen to darkness. She had to be stopped. Killed, even, if it proved necessary.

    The chase continued.

    In the Aurora medbay, Angel remained seated beside Caterina. She hated feeling like this. She felt like she was tearing herself apart, between the protective instinct and fury that demanded she join the hunt for Morinth to make sure the Asari serial killer didn't threaten her sister any more and the sororal impulse to remain with Cat so that her sister would see her when she woke up.

    There was movement at the door. She looked up and saw Leo was standing there. "Shouldn't you be in bed?", she asked.

    He smirked and nodded. "Julia's rousing us all. Just in case the problems on the station get out of hand. I'm preparing to go over and join Doctor Bashir if he calls for assistance."

    "Who'll be here for Cat if she needs help?"

    "Lumenaram is on duty. He's checking up on Major Kira now. She took a nasty blow to the head from whatever happened over there."

    "Morinth," Angel growled. "The Asari who nearly killed Cat. She escaped."

    Leo nodded and made an "Ah" sound. "So that is why you look like you're ready to punch someone."

    "I want to punch her," Angel said. "No, I want to kill her, Leo. I want to keep her from ever hurting Cat again." Angel reached over and put a hand on Cat's forehead. "But as much as I want to help hunt her down, I don't want Cat to wake up alone. I… I want her to have someone here. To have me here."

    "Still blaming yourself for her getting hurt?", Leo asked pointedly.

    Angel shook her head. "No, it's not that. I just… want to be here." She looked over her sleeping sister. "For her." She frowned. "And right now that's more important to me than beating that Asari bitch's face in."

    Leo nodded. "I can understand that. Frankly, it's good that you feel that way. I think Cat would prefer her big sister be here for her, not running off to maybe get killed just to get revenge."

    Angel smiled thinly at that. "Just to ask… how is she doing?"

    At that Leo went over to the display above the bed. The hues of blue and white and yellow and red meant nothing to Angel, but he seemed to be deciphering them as easily as if he were reading a book. "Unconscious nervous system activity is heading back to baseline normal. Looks like the neurotransmitters are functioning properly again." Leo nodded and let his smile grow. "Things are looking good. I…"


    On the bed, Caterina shifted position slightly. Angel jumped to her feet and held onto Cat's hand. "Is she…"

    He double-checked the scan. "Neural activity is starting to pick up. Looks like she's coming to."

    For a few moments there was no more movement. And then, slowly, Cat's eyes started to open. She looked dazed. She squinted at them as her eyes adjusted to the light in the medbay.

    And then they widened. Cat reached for Angel and put her arms around her. "Angel!", she cried out. She started to sniffle. "Oh God, Angel, it was… she… it was hurting me…"

    "I know." Angel put her arms around her sister and held her close. "I know she was. But I stopped her."

    "What was she? I… I've never seen something like that," Cat cried. She was starting to sob. "It was like I didn't have any will anymore. She said to follow her and I did and I just couldn't control myself and then she started to… and it… it hurt so much… I…"

    "She won't hurt you ever again, Cat, I promise."

    Leo was running a medical scanner over her. "Cat, I'd like…"

    "Is she gone?!", Cat asked. "Please tell me she's gone. I'm… I'm sc-scared."

    "She's on the station. She can't get to you, not here. Not on our ship." Angel motioned to Leo to wait, which he did with some patience, while she gently stroked the back of Cat's head. "It's okay now, Cat. I promise. You are safe and she'll never get near you again."

    Cat continued to sob. "I'm so so-sorry. I t-tried to st-stop.. t-to st-step away… t-to g-get away… I tri-tried to s-say n-n-no but… but I cou-couldn't! S-She did so-something t-to me."

    "Cat." Leo stepped around the bed to stand beside Angel. "I need to examine you now. You took a lot of damage to your body and I need to make sure you're healing."

    For several more moments Cat just kept crying and holding on to Angel. When she pulled back Angel looked into her face, twisted into terror and pain with tears streaming from her eyes and her sobbing not stopping. She put her left hand on Caterina's right cheek and wiped the tears away. "D-did you g-get h-her?", Cat asked.

    Angel swallowed. "Yeah. There was something… she's escaped and they're chasing…"

    Even as she tried to continue speaking she could see that her sister's terror was increasing. Cat buried her face into Angel's shoulder. "Sh-she'll come af-after me!", Cat protested. "Sh-she'll c-come for me!"

    "No, Cat. No she won't," Angel promised. "I swear to you she won't." With Cat continuing to sob Angel was coming to realize just how hurt her sister was. She looked at Leo with an expression of her own sadness and despair. Caterina… how would this change her? How would her little sister be changed by this? She was always so bright and cheery and so curious, and how would she be now that she had suffered this… this violation?

    Leo saw the look on her face and swallowed. "Give her time," he urged. "She'll feel better."

    Will Cat ever sleep again? Will she be terrified of Morinth coming after her all the time? Angel could imagine this ruining her sister's life. The possibility of Morinth coming after her at any port of call, on any leave. Angel gently stroked Cat's head for a moment, running a finger along her ear as Cat's tears flowed onto her shoulder. Tears of fear and rage started to gather in her own eyes.

    The fury she had been holding back surged again. Cat was okay. She was awake. Angel was free to go. To go and do what she needed to do.

    It was time to go deal with that Asari. For good. So that Caterina could be Caterina. So she could sleep at night.

    Angel stepped off the bed and held Cat's face in her hands. "You'll never see that Asari again, Cat. I'm going to go make sure of it, okay? I promise." She kissed her sister on the forehead.

    Leo put a hand on her arm. "Angel, maybe you…"

    "It needs to be done," she insisted. She looked at him and, seeing he was about to resist, turned that look into a glare. "You're not talking me out of this, Leo. I have to do it. For Cat."

    Leo knew nothing he said would stop her. He sighed and nodded. "Be careful," he urged. "Cat can't afford to lose you."

    "Don't worry," Angel said, walking around him. She moved toward the door. "She won't."

    The running battle between Meridina and Morinth finally made its way to Cargo Bay 4. Morinth entered first and looked about the bay. She went over to one crate and opened it, finding a device inside right where it was supposed to be. She hit a key on it.

    At that moment, the lights came on. A snarl covered her face. The power to the station had been restored before she was ready for it to be.

    Even worse, Meridina was appearing at the door. "You cannot flee any further," she warned Morinth.

    Morinth replied by unleashing another biotic blast. Meridina's hand seemed to catch it. The power crackled around her and held her in place, but it did not throw her back. The power that the Gersallian woman wielded made her just as dangerous to Morinth as her own mother.

    There was one last thing Morinth could try. "Stop!", she shouted, and as she did she summoned every erg of mental power she could find within her.

    Meridina remained in place. Her face shifted into a rictus of effort. I am not so helpless against attempts to mentally dominate me, Morinth, she thought, and thought openly.

    Morinth could hear that thought. Her snarl increased. "Then you die," she said simply, and threw another biotic bolt. As she threw it her hand reached back into the crate. Her biotic attack was caught by Meridina just as before.

    That was why it was so important that when Morinth's hand came back out of the crate, it was holding a submachine gun. It was a mass effect weapon as well, an M-9 Tempest model, and when Morinth pulled the trigger it erupted in fire. Deadly strips of mass effect-propelled material ripped through the air at such a volume that Meridina couldn't stop every shot with her lakesh. She was forced to take cover. Morinth was gratified by a thin stream of red that appeared beside the door. One of her rounds had landed a hit on the Gersallian.

    The battle was in her favor again, or rather, her escape. She began to back her way through the cargo bay toward one end.

    Because she kept her eyes on Meridina's position, Morinth didn't see the reflective material on the nearby console change color. Nor did she see as it slid off the panel, revealing the real console beneath it.

    And she definitely didn't see Odo until he had already extended tendrils of his being to grab her by the arms and legs and pull her back.

    Morinth let out a cry of surprise when that happened. Odo ripped the Tempest from her grasp. He coalesced into his humanoid form and stood over her. "You're under arrest," he said.

    Her reply was to hit him in the face with a biotic bolt. Odo lost his form for a moment, turning amber again.

    Morinth began to stand. As she did, Meridina came out from behind cover and threw her arm forward. A wave of powerful energy, summoned by her life force, slammed into Morinth and sent her flying against the panel. She slumped down beside it. Her face betrayed her fear and rage. "Surrender," Meridina urged. "Surrender and…"

    "...and what, be killed by my mother?" Morinth got back to her feet again. "I will not! I am an Ardat-Yakshi! I am what the Asari people are meant to be!"


    Morinth hissed at her mother as she entered. Samara stepped up beside Meridina. Biotic energy flowed around her. "It is over, Morinth," she said calmly. "Please. I cannot save your life or give you back the one you had before your condition manifested. But I can give you peace. You can stop running."

    "No!", Morinth shouted.

    "So you'd rather be a murderer, Morinth?", Meridina asked. "Why?"

    "I am a hunter! That is why I am and what I will always be, and I will not be caged!" Morinth glared back and forth at her three attackers. Her mother was a powerful enough opponent. The Gersallian and the Changeling made this an impossible battle if it kept going.

    The only play she had left was to throw everything she had at them. One burst of her biotic power. Dark matter began to swirl around her. Her biotic aura flared.

    Meridina sensed it coming and braced herself. Samara summoned her own biotics in her defense. Odo was already shifting his arm into an extension to grab Morinth and stop her.

    With a roar of angry defiance Morinth let loose a wave of dark matter stronger than anything she had ever done before. Stronger than even Samara and Meridina had expected. Both were thrown to the ground. The dark matter went through Odo's attempted attack and cut through his form like a hot knife through butter. He dissolved into a puddle of brown-amber fluid.

    Morinth dropped to her hands and knees. And she laughed. The laugh was full of weariness, and she felt completely exhausted. But she had still won. Given time she could possibly execute her mother and the Gersallian, but that was time she needed to escape. She started to turn toward the far exit of the cargo bay. If she could just get to the docking port she could…

    A bolt of blue energy ripped into Morinth's shoulder. She cried out and fell to her knees. There was fury on her face when she looked to the exit she had intended to take and saw Angel Delgado standing there, a pulse pistol in her hands. "Get down," Angel commanded. Her voice brimmed with cold, silent rage.

    Morinth sneered. "You're not going to shoot me," she said, and with every ounce of will she could. "And you're a fool for coming here. My mother and the others are immune to my will, but you are not. I'll control you like any other Human."

    "Get down and put your hands on your head."

    "No." Morinth took a step toward her. "Hand me your weapon and your device. Show me the way to…"

    The pistol fired again. A bolt of blue energy slammed into Morinth's right knee. She screamed and dropped to her left knee. The wound wasn't bleeding but blackened, with not a hint of blue flesh showing under the new hole in her suit.

    "SHUT. UP," Angel ordered, each word pronounced with furious intensity.

    "Pick me up," Morinth demanded. Again, every ounce of will she could muster went into her voice, her mind, all to dominate this Human woman.

    The order echoed in Angel's brain. Her body moved to obey. It had to obey. It was meant to.

    But the compulsion stopped when it met Angel's will, driven by her rage and powered by one directive: protect Caterina. Protect her little sister from the monster that tried to kill her.

    She fired the pistol again. The next shot tore through Morinth's thigh on the right leg. The Ardat-Yakshi toppled over.

    Odo's form was starting to coalesce. Meridina moaned aloud and began to move. Samara was already starting to sit up.

    Angel barely noticed. She kept the gun trained on Morinth. Her hazel eyes were locked onto Morinth's, and Morinth found it was her will that couldn't move. She was too tired, too exhausted from the long-running battle with the others.

    Terror began to build inside Morinth. She realized she had seen Angel's eyes before, the intent look behind them. It was something she had seen before, so many times.

    Every time it had been reflected in the eyes of her victims as their bodies burnt out from the inside.

    "Angel." Meridina was to her knees. "She is beaten."

    "That's not good enough," Angel said.

    "It has to be," Meridina insisted. "This isn't your place."

    "I can't let her go. I can't let her live. For Cat. She needs to be dead so Cat can rest."

    For a moment Meridina was seized by the thought that Caterina had died from her wounds. It was only on second reflection, aided by the thoughts pouring from Angel, that she realized Cat was alive. "Your sister will feel better in time. You do not have to become a murderer to protect her."

    "Cat won't be safe so long as this… this thing is alive," Angel insisted. She was within a foot of Morinth now. Morinth didn't dare move. Her legs refused any commands to stand from the injuries to her knee and thigh.

    Odo finished taking form. "Lieutenant, put down the weapon," he ordered.

    "I can't let her get away!", Angel shouted. She leveled the gun at Morinth's forehead.

    "She will not." Samara walked toward them. "I will perform my duty as intended."

    "Lieutenant, if you pull that trigger, it will be murder," Odo warned.

    "Think of what your sister really needs, Angela," Meridina said. Her lilting voice was soft and infused with the soothing tone she knew it needed. "Caterina doesn't need Morinth dead. She needs you. She needs her… 'big sister'."

    Angel's fury disregarded that. Put the Asari bitch down!, it demanded. PULL THE TRIGGER.

    But Meridina's words had their effect. The urge to protect her sister split from the rage. Caterina needed her. And she needed Cat.

    Morinth narrowed her eyes. "You can't do it, can you?", she cooed. "You can't pull the trigger. You can't kill me while I'm helpless." She chuckled. "I would not hesitate. I am a hunter. I kill my prey. But you clearly are not."

    Angel glowered down at her.

    And she lowered the pistol.

    Morinth made a sultry laugh. "You're just like your sister. Prey." Her eyes blazed with amusement. "And when I get lose, I will enjoy finishing what I…"

    There was a rush of air. Morinth's face exploded in pain, starting on the side of her nose where Angel's fist slammed into it at full speed. A loud crack filled the cargo bay.

    "Uuunnnrgh!' Morinth brought a hand up to her broken nose. Purple gushed from her nostrils.

    "I told you to shut up." Angel knelt next to her.

    Morinth turned her face back toward Angel. Her fist clenched and a bit of dark matter gathered. Her powers were starting to return, and she would…

    Angel punched her in the face again.

    Morinth didn't get back up.

    The other three watched in silence as Angel got back to her feet. She put her pistol back in her holster and nursed the bruised knuckles of her right hand with her left. She looked to the others. "There," she said. "She's all your's."

    Meridina smiled thinly and nodded. "Well done, Angela."
    rifern and Shadowcub like this.
  11. Threadmarks: 2-02 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
    Likes Received:
    Ship's Log: 17 February 2642; ASV Aurora. Captain Robert Dale recording. Deep Space Nine is back to full working status and everything on the station is now secure. The summit will go on as planned and the Asari Justicar Samara will soon leave with her prisoner. We are still left with some unsettling questions; who sabotaged the station? And was Morinth's arrival and attempted killing spree a part of a wider plot?

    A number of officers from both the station and the Aurora were gathered. Circling around the central table on Ops were Robert and Julia at the end, Jarod and Dax to their right, Barnes and O'Brien to their left, and Sisko and Kira at the other end. Odo and Meridina were standing away from the table and Worf was off to another side. "We've gone over every centimeter of the reactor control systems," O'Brien said. "Whatever happened, it wasn't physical sabotage."

    "That leaves the computers," Sisko turned to Dax and Jarod. "Old Man?"

    Dax nodded. "I found traces of a virus that was uploaded into our command systems. While I can't determine everything it did before it deleted itself, I can confirm it loaded commands into our reactor safety systems and into communications. It even penetrated into security."

    "We may have to consider stronger computer security measures," Worf suggested.

    "That's where Commander Jarod comes in." Dax looked to him. "He's already written new protocols to prevent another attack like this."

    "That's fast, even for you Jarod," Julia remarked.

    "That's because they're already written," Jarod replied. "I looked over the surviving code. And I've seen it before."

    "You have?", Sisko asked.

    Jarod nodded. He looked at Robert and Julia. "The code is consistent with the various spy software and computer sabotage that the Aurora was loaded with by that Changeling that impersonated Draynal."

    "So you're saying that the Dominion did this?", Julia asked.

    "That's what it appears to be." Jarod turned back to Sisko. "I provided Commander Dax the program I wrote to neutralize this type of Dominion infiltration software."

    Sisko frowned. "What I want to know is why the Dominion did this. Were they trying to free Morinth?"

    "Maybe," Worf said. "Or perhaps they had another agenda. The Dominion would support the idea of disrupting the summit."

    "If it wasn't for Morinth, then what were they up to during her escape attempt?" Odo looked away and glowered.

    "I'll leave it to you and Commander Eddington to find that out," Sisko said. "In the meantime, I'd like to thank you all for the efforts made to get this situation under control. My thanks to your crew, Captain Dale, for the assistance you provided."

    "We're happy to help, Captain Sisko," Robert answered.

    A light appeared on the table. Characters appeared on the display. "The Justicar's craft is ready to leave."

    "I still protest this extradition," Odo said. "The Asari are just going to kill her."

    "Protest noted, Constable, but it's still out of my hands." Sisko hit a key on the table. "You're clear for departure, Asari shuttle."

    The viewscreen shifted to show the Asari ship departing the dock and moving out in space. "Representative Irissa's ship is preparing to generate an IU jump point," the officer currently minding Dax's station stated. "They will open it in ten secon…" Something appeared on her screen. "Wait. I'm picking up something on the shuttle."

    Dax went up and sat at the post. "It looks like a power surge. The shuttle's systems are shutting down… I'm detecting a containment failure in the vessel's engine core."

    "Chief!", Sisko barked. O'Brien was already moving onto his station.

    "I'm trying to lock on… locking…"

    The Ops transporter activated. Swirls of orange light coalesced into the half-running figure of Samara.

    On the viewscreen, the shuttle exploded in a burst of blue energy..

    Samara was briefly stunned by the sudden transport. She stopped her forward movement just as she got to the edge of the transporter pad.

    "What just happened?", Robert asked.

    Dax was looking over her screens. "I'm not sure. Sensors showed a power surge in the ship's element-zero engine core. It looks like something overloaded the core."

    Samara looked around. "Did you get Morinth?", she asked.

    Nearly everyone looked at O'Brien. He moved his hand away from the panel. "I'm sorry." He shook his head. "Yours was the only signal I could lock onto."

    Samara looked back to the screen and drew in a breath. Robert thought he could feel real grief coming from her. Finally she nodded and lowered her head. "Be with the Goddess, my daughter."

    "Chief, I want an immediate investigation."

    "The Asari ship is hailing," Kira said.

    "Open the channel." Sisko turned back to the viewscreen. "Let's give them the best explanation we can."

    Angel was at the bar in Quark's nursing a tequila while Morn rambled on about some trip he'd recently taken to the Citadel. Quark was at the bar in front of them, cleaning out a glass. "Trust me, Morn, I've been looking for Asari dabo girls since the contact with their home galaxy. But they haven't exactly been lining up."

    Morn gave him a dejected look.

    "Although given recent events, it's probably for the best." Quark looked over to Angela. "That tequila didn't come cheap you know. It's from… what universe was it again? H1E5? That cost real money to ship out here."

    Angel replied by downing the rest of the shot in one gulp. As it burned its way into her gut she pushed her glass forward.

    "So." Quark began to pour more. "How's your sister? I hear she survived."

    "She's awake."

    "Well, that's good to hear. Truth be told, even with her winning streaks at the Dabo table, she gets so many people playing along with her that I usually make good on my losses."

    "I appreciate the concern." Angel took another small drink.

    Quark moved on. Angel was alone for another minute before a shadow moved over her. "Prune juice, extra large," Worf barked, and a smirking Quark went to get it for him. Worf sat beside her. "I am pleased to hear your sister is well."

    "Thank you," she said.

    There was silence while Quark got Worf's order. The Klingon quaffed a few drinks. "You are upset that you spared the killer's life?", Worf asked.

    "I think. Maybe." Angel picked up her glass and took another shot. "I heard she got blown up anyway."

    "Yes. We are investigating now."

    "Then it doesn't matter, I guess." Angel sighed. "I just… I don't get why Cat would go near someone like that. I mean, I heard she had these funky mental domination powers, but Cat isn't stupid. She should know when someone looks too dangerous to strike up in conversation."

    "Perhaps you should ask her," Worf suggested.

    "When she feels better." Angel finished the second glass. "So you're posted here now, huh? With everything's that happened it must be awkward."

    A reply did not immediately come. "It has been difficult," Worf finally admitted. "And I am still getting used to this station."

    "Well… if you ask me, you probably made the right decision." Angel smiled thinly at him and nodded. "When I first heard about this I thought the Federation had been wrong. The Cardassians had it coming, I thought. But seeing things as they are now, with everything the Klingons are doing… I can understand standing against that. And I am too." Angel checked the time. "I should be getting back now. Cat is still in the medbay and I want to be there for her."

    "Of course." Worf nodded. His expression was, Angel thought, about as empathetic as a Klingon's would ever get. "I hope her recovery goes well."

    "Thank you." Angel stood and left.

    In the station wardroom the delegates for the summit were quieted by the arrival of Sisko. "Thank you for seeing me," he said to Representative Irissa in her place as the Chairwoman of the talks.

    Irissa went straight to business. "Captain Sisko, I was hoping you would explain the sudden systems failures that caused us so much worry last evening."

    "We have determined it to be sabotage," Sisko answered. "Specifically, the Dominion."

    "The Dominion," Martok growled. "They would attack us even now. It is clear that the threat they pose must be met more forcefully. The Cardassians may yet be harboring their agents."

    "Any of our states could be, unintentionally," Robert pointed out. "The real point is that I think the Founders are afraid we'll make progress here. The Dominion can only prevail if the Alpha Quadrant is divided. Whatever differences we have between us, we have to settle them peacefully and continue working together."

    K'mbok threw a hand up in disgust. "The point is moot. Until the Cardassians cease fighting us for worlds we have conquered, we will not back down. Will any of your states recognize our new conquests?"

    Pran answered first. "The Federation cannot do so."

    "Nor will the Alliance," Kiang announced.

    "Then we have nothing more to say." K'mbok stood and looked to Martok. He barked something in Klingonese to Martok and stormed toward the door.

    "The Klingon Empire is officially withdrawing from the summit," Martok announced. "And we are removing all forces from the continuing conflict against the Nazi German Empire."

    Senator Kiang looked at him levelly. "Then the Alliance withdraws its permission to use our IU drives."

    "Take them," Martok barked. "We still have many worlds in this galaxy to conquer first."'

    And with that, he stood and left.

    Robert and Julia exchanged looks. The entire summit looked like a waste of time now. The war would go on without a major ally, and the fighting would only get worse.

    "We can't win them all," Julia murmured to him.

    He didn't answer. Robert couldn't shake the feeling that they were missing something, and that failing to find it was going to cause even more damage in the future.

    When Angel got back to the Aurora, she went immediately to the medbay to check up on Cat. She was stunned to find that her sister was gone. "Then where is she?", Angel demanded from Leo.

    "She wanted to go to her room for a while," Leo replied. "Since she's doing better, I agreed. At this point, I only need her in for visits to check up on her improvement, I don't need her laying here. And I don't think she wants to be either."

    Angel left the medbay and took the lift up to Deck 4. Caterina's quarters were just a small ways down from her quarters. She hit the chime on the door upon arriving. "Cat?", she called out. "Cat, I want to make sure you're okay."

    The temptation to override the door lock was strong. But it proved unnecessary. The door slid open.

    Angel stepped in and looked over the inside of Cat's quarters. All of the lights were turned on. Caterina was sitting on the side of her bed, wearing one of her geek pride shirts - light purple highlighted with red - and matching shorts. She had huddled into a tight position with her knees touching her chin. She looked back to Angel with reddened eyes and sniffled. "Angel. I'm… s-sorry."

    "It's okay, Cat." Angel knew her sister's moods enough to know what she needed. Angel went over to her bad and sat beside her. She put her arms around Cat. "She's gone Cat," Angel said. "Blown up."

    Cat nodded. She sniffled again. "Thank you."

    "Don't thank me. I didn't blow her up." Angel held her weeping sister close. She thought back to that moment and how close she'd come to pulling the trigger. Would Odo have arrested me? Would I have been taken from Cat? Maybe.

    But she hadn't. In the end, Cat was more important than anything like revenge.

    "She's not going to hurt you again, Cat. You're safe."

    For what seemed like several minutes, they simply kept hugging. "You saved me… I remember hearing you."

    "I got there just in time," Angel confirmed. "I couldn't let someone walk off with my dear little sister, could I?"

    "She just… she took over… I couldn't say no to her." Caterina sniffled. "I… I couldn't say no."

    "Don't blame yourself for that, Cat. She must have done something to make you come close. To trap you."

    Cat stopped saying anything. To Angel's confusion, another sob came from her sister. Cat was starting to cry again. "No," she said. "No, th-that wasn't it. I… I stayed at th-the table of my own fr-free will."

    "What?" Angel pulled back and looked directly into her sister's eyes. "Why… why would you do that?"

    "I… wanted to talk to her," Cat admitted. "She was beautiful and graceful and interesting. And I just had to talk to her."

    Angel blinked in confusion. "You've seen Asari before. You… you had to know she was bad news, Cat."

    "I didn't realize," Cat pleaded. "I'm so sorry, Angel… S-so so-sorry…" She started crying again. "I know I messed up. I ju-just couldn't help it. She… she was noticing me and it felt nice and I…"

    Caterina stopped the sentence. Not to sob, but simply to stop it. As if she didn't want to follow the sentence to its end.

    And Angel noticed it. "Cat?", she asked. "What's wrong?"

    Caterina shook her head. "It's… it's nothing," she insisted.

    "You're lying to me," Angel said. "I know it. Cat, what is it? Why did you want to hang out with that Asari? What interest could you have possibly had in that? I mean, the way she 'noticed' you? What does that even mean?"

    Much to Angel's surprise, Cat's face was turning white. She was afraid. She swallowed hard and buried her face in her hands. "I don't want to… I mean, it's noth… I can't…" There was an expression of warring impulses on Cat's face now. She couldn't decide what she was going to do.

    "Cat… sister…" Angel put her hands on Cat's shoulders. "Whatever it is… just tell me. I won't be angry at you. I mean, we all make mistakes, it's not going to be a big deal…"

    "Yes it is," Caterina insisted. "It is a big deal. I've just not thought about it because I didn't want to because if I did I might slip up and then you and Mama would… might…"

    "Mama? What does Mama have to do with this?", Angel asked. "What are you talking about?"

    Cat looked away. In the light of the room Angel could see the tears flowing freely down Cat's face again. She felt a few of her own. Why was Cat acting this way? Why wasn't she trusting her? She followed Cat's eyes to the photo on the dresser of the two of them with their Mama. Anita Delgado had been holding the hands of both of her girls, laughing with them for the benefit of the photograph.

    A pain shot through Angel's heart. It was the last proper photograph of the family together before their mother had died.

    There was a sharp intake of air. Cat was breathing in. "Please don't hate me," she whispered, as if to speak to both Angel and their late mother. "I'm so sorry… I just couldn't…"

    It was breaking Angel's heart to see Cat like this. It hurt to think her sister didn't trust her with something, but it hurt even more to see how much this secret was tearing up Cat.

    Angel watched as Cat took several breaths. She was forcing composure on herself. "Angel…"


    Cat turned and faced her. They each had their mother's hazel eyes, which met. Cat's eyes were red from all of her crying. She swallowed and finished gathering her courage.

    And then she spoke.

    "I'm… Angel…" For a moment she faltered. Cat's courage was failing her. Feeling Angel's hand take her's, a gesture of support they had shared since Cat could remember, helped her get through that moment. Nevertheless her voice was hoarse when she resumed speaking, making it almost a whisper with how low it was. "I… I like girls, Angel."

    Angel blinked at her.

    Cat drew in another breath and sniffled. "Angel, I've never told… I'm sorry." She shook her head and wiped at the tears on her face. "I'm a lesbian, Angel."

    The words registered. Angel didn't speak.

    "I'm a lesbian," Caterina repeated, more strongly this time.

    There. She had said it.

    Cat continued. "And that Asari lady, Morinth… they look so beautiful, Angel. I know the whole monogendered thing and they're aliens and stuff, but to me they're girls. They're beautiful girls. And I had a beautiful girl asking me things, showing interest in me. I've never had that. I never allowed myself to have it!" Cat made a bitter laugh next. "Of course, I didn't know she wanted to burn all of my nerves out until my brain drowned in my own blood."

    Angel remained quiet to let her finish.

    With that quiet, Cat finally asked something. "You… you don't hate me now? Please, I know it's against what we were taught. But… it's what I am. I feel this way. I'm attracted to other girls."

    Angel shook her head. "And… and you thought I'd hate you for that?"

    "I… I was afraid you would," Cat admitted.

    "No. You… you silly little…" Angel brushed tears from her right cheek. "Silly, crazy sister. You… you think we didn't know?"

    It was Cat's turn to blink through her tears. "What?"

    "I'm your sister, Cat. You think I didn't notice?" Angel laughed and shook her head. "Cat, I've known for years."

    At that, Caterina stared at her in disbelief. And she swallowed. "You… you have?"

    Angel nodded, a happy smile on her face.

    "You knew and... don't care?"

    Angel shook her head. "You're my crazy little sister. I don't care who you love or if it's a girl instead of a boy. I love you. And Mama would say the same thing if she were here. She didn't let something like that get in the way of loving her little baby girl."

    Cat's tear-reddened eyes widened. "Mama knew?!"

    "It took her a little while," Angel admitted. "But she figured it out. And we talked and decided not to say anything. We didn't want to push you. You'd tell us when you were ready."

    Cat sniffled. Her tears were still flowing, but were joined by the happy, bewildered expression now on her face. "But… I… I thought you'd hate me. I was terrified you'd hate me, I had nightmares..."

    Angel responded by pulling her sister close, into the tightest hug. "No, you silly, crazy little nerd."

    Cat thought about that. "So… I spent years hiding it for nothing. I was so scared and it was for nothing."

    "Yep," Angel confirmed, a wide grin defying the tears on her face.

    There were no more words after that. All of Caterina's greatest nightmares were swept away, leaving only relief. A little shame at taking so long to admit things to her understanding sister, but mostly relief.

    The two remained locked in the sisterly hug, both caught up in tears and laughter.

    The Klingon delegation was soon to leave. General Martok stood alone in the station-side quarters he had been assigned, finishing the packing of his bag. There was a chime at the door that prompted him to turn. "ghoS," he barked.

    The door opened. His bodyguards were flanking the door, as ordered, and admitting Senator Kiang into the room. The Alliance Senator was wearing a dark long-sleeved suit and similarly-colored trousers. "General," she said. "I had hoped we could discuss the summit's outcome."

    "There is nothing to discuss," he answered. "The Councillor has made his decision, and Chancellor Gowron will sustain it. We have withdrawn from the war."

    Behind Kiang the door closed. She stepped toward him. "I had hoped that we might yet find some… flexibility in the Klingon position. The Alliance is not your enemy."

    "Not for the moment." Martok approached her. "I do not fault you, Senator. You fought well at the table, and I look forward to any… arrangement that will yet see the Klingon Empire and the United Systems as allies. You are far more worthy of us than the Federation."

    Kiang nodded slightly. "Yes. Mister Pran and his people can be quite… irritating at times. The Federation is too worried about peace and principle to recognize what must be done. Given time, I believe my government may recognize that about them."

    "We look forward to the day," Martok said, non-committally.

    Kiang extended a hand. "In hopes for the future, General?"

    Martok eyed her hand. And then her. A thin smile came to his face that she matched. "Yes," he agreed. "To the future."

    Their hands clasped.

    Slowly, the skin and even the fabric up the wrist began to shift in color and texture. Both hands turned to an amber-brown color and began to meld together.


    The Klingon withdrawal had certainly not been good, but the summit went on. The withdrawal of the Klingons from the war meant the Alliance would its remaining allies and friends more than ever. And, much to Robert's distaste, Irissa had been using that to great advantage.

    Now he was sitting in Sisko's office discussing the events of the prior few days. "Do we have any indications of what the Dominion was doing when they sabotaged the station?", he asked Sisko.

    "None." Sisko rolled his baseball in his hands. "With internal sensors down there's no way to know."

    A terrible thought came to Robert. "What if they were looking to replace someone?", he asked. "What if this was their real plan?"

    "Doctor Bashir has been running blood-screenings on the delegates by mutual agreement, nobody has been discovered to be replaced." Sisko put the ball down. "Still. It is a disturbing possibility."

    "I'll file a report with Admiral Maran to advise we watch the delegates for a while. Just to make sure." Robert blanched. "God, what am I saying? Are we really going this far, breaking into the privacy of others and assigning watchdogs to them just because they might be bad?"

    "That's the threat the Changelings pose," Sisko remarked. "When anyone could be an enemy spy, it's hard to give any trust."

    Robert found he couldn't debate that. It made him feel irritated. We either give in to paranoia and tear apart our own societies, or we risk having Founders going around blowing things up and causing mayhem. Dammit, what kind of choice is that?

    The door to the office slid open. Dax entered with O'Brien following. "Benjamin, you're going to want to hear this."

    Sisko sat up. "What is it?'

    "Sir, I've gone over the debris from Samara's ship with everything I can think of," O'Brien said. "Judging by the debris field… there's no way we could even hope to have enough organic matter intact to verify who was on the ship when it blew up."

    "So you can't prove Morinth was killed on the shuttle?"

    "No sir," O'Brien said. "I've looked over the figures. If an E-zero overload did occur, there really would be nothing left. The shockwave would disassociate the organic matter too thoroughly to leave any trace."

    "So… we can't prove either way that Morinth died?", Robert asked. He was filled with a sudden worry, a worry that the monster would come back for Cat and the others.

    "That's what I thought," O'Brien answered.

    "And then I looked over the sensor logs from DS9 and the Aurora. A brief moment before the core overload, there was a faint energy signature." Dax shook her head. "It's so faint that it took the best sensors on the Aurora to pick it up. I can't tell you who or what it was or where it came from… but something definitely transported off the ship just as the core overload began."

    "So she was rescued," Sisko mumbled.

    "Presumably by whatever Dominion agent was up to the power outage." Robert swallowed. His expanded senses were giving him warning signals. A feeling that things had gotten worse. He found that a good guess given the facts. "They… they used us."

    "Morinth was their weapon. Their distraction. A killing spree to take up our attention and leave them free to do as they pleased during the summit." Sisko smacked a fist against his desk.

    Dax nodded. "And when Odo, Commander Meridina, and Lieutenant Delgado captured her early…"

    "...they decided to sabotage the station," O'Brien finished for her.

    "Two birds, one stone," Robert grumbled. "A chance for their agent to get away and the distraction so they could complete their mission after all." He shook his head. "And we never saw it coming."

    "Thank you, Old Man. That will be all."

    Dax nodded. She and O'Brien left the office.

    "They beat us," Robert sighed. His thoughts went back to 33LA. "They beat us again. They helped provoke the war and now they're making it harder to fight."

    "I know."

    Robert looked to the older captain. His expression was reserved. Controlled.

    But there was no mistaking the fire burning behind his eyes.

    "But it doesn't matter that they beat us this time." Sisko picked up his baseball and held it up. "Because we're still in this one."

    Robert could feel the determination coming from Sisko and felt it lift his own spirits. "Right. We'll win in the end."

    "Exactly," Sisko agreed.

    It was a new day on the Aurora. Everyone was gathering in the Lookout for breakfast, all by Caterina's invitation arranged with Hargert. She and Angel were now walking along the deck toward the Lookout entrance. Both were in uniform, Angel in trousers as always and Cat in the uniform skirt that went down to her knees. "You don't have to do this, Cat," Angel said. "It's just between the two of us… it's your life."

    "I know," she said. "But I… I think it's time to be honest. To make things clear, you know?" A small smile crossed her face. "Besides, if you knew, how many other people know?"

    "I don't know, some of our friends are a little dense." Angel smiled and followed that up by putting a hand on Cat's shoulder. "Whatever your choice is, I'm here for you."

    "I know," Caterina answered, smiling back at her big sister.

    They entered the Lookout and found everyone present, the command staffs of both the Aurora and Koenig. Several of the civilian science specialists, and some of Cat's subordinate science officers, were all present.

    "Although maybe I should have started smaller," Cat conceded. She swallowed and felt the familiar butterflies in her stomach, the jitters that claimed every effort she ever made to speak publicly.

    "Nonsense," Angel said. "You've got this."

    Taking a look at her sister's confident expression, Caterina smiled and nodded. Her body still stung and twinged from the damage to her nerves. Leo had promised it would clear up in a few weeks. She was hoping he was right.

    Hargert walked up to her and smiled, wearing his usual white and blue-striped cooking clothes with white kitchen apron. "Fraulein," he said amiably, handing her a small receiver.

    She accepted it and smiled at him. "Danke," she replied, revealing the bits and pieces of German she'd been picking up. Hargert replied to that with a proud smile while Cat fixed it to her collar. "Hello!", she called out. Her voice echoed over the Lookout's speakers.

    All of the small morning conversations ended.

    "Um… hi everyone," she said. Cat took one last look at Angel, who gave her a thumbs up, before she turned her attention back to the others. "I… I just wanted to say thank you, and sorry. I'm sorry you all worried about me so much. And thank you for… for wanting to help. Doing whatever you could to."

    Nods and applause answered her.

    "But that's… that's not why I-I'm here today." Cat stopped and drew in a breath. "I've been… I haven't told people something… something important. I was afraid. I was scared. I didn't know how you'd react, even after knowing so many of you for so long. And… I was wrong. Wrong to doubt you. Just as I doubted Angel despite how much we love each other. She's been there for me since I could talk and I really should have trusted her…"

    "It's okay, Cat," Angel insisted.

    "...and I don't want to make you all think I don't trust you too, so I'm just going to come out and say it." There was a final pause. A final drawing of breath. "I'm gay. I'm a lesbian."

    Cat stopped talking. She looked to the others, awaiting a response.

    Julia was the first to begin clapping. She smiled at Cat as she did so, a smile that was all the support Cat could have hoped for.

    And like that it spread. Robert was next, an equal smile on his face. Leo and Tom Barnes, Zack only a half-second behind them, and Jarod and Meridina and Lucy and Scotty and Nick and soon enough everyone in the room was applauding and smiling at her.

    Hargert stepped up, still applauding. "We are only a month from your birthday, I know," he began, "but I have baked you a cake anyway."

    Angel gave Hargert a suspicious little look. "You… knew?"

    "I suspected," the old German cook said. "But really… given what she has survived, I would have baked a cake anyway."

    "Thank you." Cat embraced him and got a pat on the back in return. Tears were flowing down her face and blurring her vision as Zack was next in line for an embrace.

    One by one, each hugged and embraced her. Even Meridina, who was equal parts bemused and warm in what seemed an unusual act for the stoic Gersallian. She looked back to Angel, smiling and teary-eyed as well, and exchanged a nod with her sister.

    If Caterina had any regrets at that moment, it was simply that it had taken her so long to trust her friends and crewmates...

    ...her family.

    Angel put a hand on Cat's shoulder. The two sisters smiled at each other. "So, you do know that I'm going to have to act all protective and angry toward any girlfriend you bring around, right?"

    Cat giggled at that. "No punching girlfriends!"

    "Not unless they break your heart," Angel pledged. Her smile was full of mischief. "Then I get to break their bones."

    Cat was giggling too hard to protest. Angel let out a laugh and put an arm on her sister's shoulder, pulling Cat close. "You're terrible!", Cat finally stated. "No breaking bones."

    "Oh, you take all of the fun out of being the violent big sister…"

    Cat and Angel began laughing again.
    rifern, Shadowcub and wellis like this.
  12. Threadmarks: 2-03 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    Ship's Log: ASV Aurora; 11 March 2642. Captain Robert Dale recording. The Aurora has been dispatched to support diplomatic contact missions in Universe F1S1. President Morgan and the Cabinet are hopeful that we can gain new allies since the Klingons have withdrawn from the war.

    A warm breakfast in the Lookout was always a welcome start to Robert's day. Hargert had set out breakfast sausages, eggs, and toast, and they all tasted delicious. He happily chowed down on them between glances at his digital reader.

    Across from him, Angel was eating just as well. They exchanged knowing grins while Angel's foot rubbed up against his shins under the table.

    "Is that supposed to mean something?", he asked her after swallowing. "This whole playing footsies thing?"

    She maneuvered some sausage and egg on her plate with her fork. "I'm just enjoying toying with you."

    "As if last night wasn't enough…" He ventured.

    The smile was the most seductive Angel would ever put on for him. "Well, to be accurate, last night you were toying with me." The smile turned into a slight smirk. "There are advantages to that stuff Meridina is teaching you after all."

    Warmth moved into Robert's cheeks. Angel's response was a pleased laugh. "It's fun. Making you blush."

    "Well, so long as we're having fun." Robert took in another bite and glanced back to his reader.

    "So. I haven't heard much about this universe. I mean, there's that colony we set up for some of the refugees and survivors from S4W8…" She finished working with her food and lifted a fork-full of egg and sausage toward her mouth. "What's the briefing say about this place?"

    Robert swallowed. "Space-faring Humanity, no known alien species yet. Or at least no known sentient alien species. Apparently we're in the next millennium with these people. The mid-31st Century."

    Angel kept chewing and nodded.

    "Still, their advancement technologically is uneven. We have some advantages according to preliminary reports from our first contact missions. Better medical technology, faster computers, more robust power transfer systems. Some other things that aren't immediately relevant to our mission. Representative Willoughby will be doing most of the talking, we're here to back him up and give him something to show."

    "So that's why we haven't even had a staff briefing about this?", Angel asked. "Because usually there is one."

    "Well, it was a last minute sort of thing, we weren't supposed to arrive until tomorrow so that today's meeting would give everyone plenty of time to digest the information. Instead we'll be arriving there in an hour or so, and with everyone's schedules set for the day…" Robert shrugged. "I figured we might as well get our briefing directly from Emissary Willoughby."

    Angel swallowed her food. "Well, it's not getting shot at by Nazis, so it works."

    Robert smirked at that and nodded. "So…" He slid his fork around what was left of the eggs. "How's Cat?"

    "Leo gave her a clean bill of health yesterday." Angel's mood was distinctly pleased over that. "The nerve damage wasn't permanent and is clearing up quickly."

    "Great news."

    "It is." Angel nodded. "So… after you get done with this first meeting…?"

    "Meridina's practice sessions," he answered.

    Angel's face fell. "Right."

    "So to save time…" Robert took a quick bite, chewed it for a moment, and swallowed. "...let's just say we had our usual discussion about my… abilities, and the training?"

    "Sure." Angel shook her head. "I'm trying, Robert. Honest to God, I am trying. It's just…"

    "We've gone over that." Robert sighed and put his fork down. He reached across the table and took her hand. "I'm committed to making this all work, Angela. You and me. This training. This job. All of it."

    "I know." She forced a smile to her face. "And that's why I'm able to put up with it."

    "It's all I can ask you to."

    Angel nodded. "So… anything else about these people?"

    "Well…" He checked the time. "...you'll find out in about an hour." He pushed the mostly-finished plate away and scooped up the reader. "I'll be on the bridge."

    "See you there," Angel pledged.

    The medbay was the usual low hubbub of activity. A couple of Dorei were being treated across the room, an engineer had a nasty bump on the head, and Leo was fidgeting with a very uncooperative engineer.

    "Dude, this really isn't necessary," Barnes protested. "Opani did a physical on me last year."

    "So I read," Leo said, checking a scan result. "But the physicals are twice a year. And the medical regs are clear, first physical of the year has to be done by the end of March."

    "That sounds dumb."

    "With everything that can happen… it's not as dumb as you think." Leo shook his head. "Is there something in the water? I get this same attitude from almost all of you when it comes to your medical checkups and physicals."

    "Maybe we just don't want to spent the time when we've got so much else to do?", Barnes proposed.

    "So you don't want to spend time with me?" Leo put a hand on his heart. "Oh, stone cold, Tom. That's a dagger in the heart right there."

    "Oh, come on, you know what I mean." Barnes crossed his arms. "It's one thing to hang out with you, it's another to be in here and it being all business and…"

    Leo quietly sighed as Barnes kept going on. He was in better shape than Leo had expected. Leo noted the various little things - a change in his diet might be necessary to get his weight up - and put them all into the final physical report.

    "...I get it man," Barnes continued. "I mean, you're a doctor, a great one, and you like doing the job. But you get so damn bossy about it sometimes. You and Julia. She's always nosing in too, acting like my mother sometimes…"

    "Julia is a mother hen by nature," Leo stated.

    "She likes to boss people around, that's what it is," Barnes insisted.

    "I won't argue with that." Leo reached for a nearby dispenser and put on some rubbed gloves. "So now we're on to the awkward part."

    "What do you…. oh. Oh." Barnes frowned. "Seriously man?"

    "It's part of the physical."

    "But scans…"

    "...can't beat physical inspections." Leo snapped the gloves on. "Okay, ready?"

    "I have to turn my head and cough, right?"

    "Yep." Leo flashed him a grin. "Do you want me to call Doctor Opani? Then it's a lady handling those bits."

    "No. Just get it over with."

    "Sure, here we go…"

    The crew were in place on the bridge when Locarno began counting down to arrival. "Another new group of Human societies," Julia leaned back in her chair. "So we're not the lead on the diplomatic angle?"

    "No. We're here to show the flag. Give the locals something to show them what we're made of, I guess." Robert tapped a key on his chair. "Mister Scott, I hate to impose, but we might have guests. How does Engineering look?"

    "Like she should, sir. Like she should. Ah'll get th' lads and lasses on t' polishin' an' cleanin' t' make sure."

    "Thank you. Bridge out."

    "We are dropping out of warp in five… four…"

    The Aurora glided out of warp right on course. The orbital space ahead of them had a few ships milling in orbit and at least one space station of sorts. The planet was a garden world, completely Earth-like, with four continents and three major metropolises.

    "Put me on, Jarod." When Jarod's console let out the warbling tone of an open communication channel being established, Robert spoke. "This is Captain Robert Dale of the Alliance Starship Aurora to orbital traffic control. We're requesting a geosynchronous orbit over the capital, if it can be provided."

    A few moments later, a voice replied in a prim English-sounding accent. "Starship Aurora, this is traffic control. We have you cleared. Proceed to orbital point of 30 kilometers over our signal."

    "Roger that." Robert nodded to Nick.

    "We have you moving into position, Captain. Thank you. The voice stopped momentarily until it gave a final remark. "On behalf of House Davion and the Federated Commonwealth, welcome to New Avalon."

    Undiscovered Frontier
    "The Measure of a Life"

    Emissary Algernon Willoughby fit the stereotype of the fussy, stiff-upper-lip British professional. His balding crown of graying brown hair, perpetually-squinted dark eyes, and a gaunt build and expression gave him a severe look.

    He stepped off of the transporter platform and accepted Robert's hand. "Captain Dale." He accepted Julia's next. "Commander Andreys. Thank you for your prompt response."

    "We accelerated as soon as we got the message," Robert replied. "Of course, I'll have to brief my officers now instead of this evening as I planned."

    "I shall handle the briefing, Captain. While I trust you have studied my reports, it might be best if I present the facts."

    "I'll be glad to have your experience leading the briefing, sir." Robert gestured toward the door. "My staff is waiting for us to begin the briefing."

    The conference room off the bridge was selected for the presentation. The command officers of the Aurora and Koenig were in mutual attendance, some conversing quietly as everyone found their places. "Everyone, this is Algernon Willoughsby. He's out first contact liaison with the government of the Federated Commonwealth and our diplomatic representative here until we formally exchange ambassadors." He nodded to Willoughsby and sat down.

    Willoughsby activated the conference room holotank. It generated a starmap with the central point listed as "Earth". "Ah, yes. The Captain informs me you have not been briefed. So let me give you the pertinent information you need to have immediately. F1S1's Human civilizations are primarily settled within a 200 light year radius of Earth in this disc-shaped region they call 'the Inner Sphere'."

    "Someone needs to teach the locals geometry," Barnes muttered.

    That won him a stern look from Julia, who cleared her throat. Willoughsby was obviously annoyed, and just as obviously determined to hide the fact he was annoyed. "Politically they are divided into a handful of states organized upon what we are calling 'neo-feudalist' lines."

    "Feudalist." Zack crossed his arms. "As in medieval Europe stuff with land grants in exchange for military service?" He looked to Jarod, who seemed bemused. "Yes, I paid attention in World History class," he added.

    Willoughsby nodded. "Exactly. The Inner Sphere's societies each have a sort of feudalistic system with grants of land or wealth and titles for service. Local government can vary, and in some cases is little different from the town and city-level governments seen in the Allied Systems. But on the larger level, planets and regions are ruled by the nobility who swear fealty to higher lords. At the top of this pyramid are the Lords of the five Great Houses, each of which ruling a great power state by local reckoning. There used to be a sixth House, whom ruled Earth and its associated Terran Hegemony, but that House was exterminated nearly three hundred years ago. The Hegemony collapsed and was divided among the five surviving Houses." Willoughby's operation of the tank showed political divisions of the Inner Sphere. "This era also saw the collapse of what was called the Star League, a unified government of all of the Inner Sphere and Near Periphery star nations under the control of the Hegemony's ruling House, the Camerons."

    The map clearly showed that one of the groupings held the most territory, occupying both the "southeast" and "northwest" sections of the disc. Seeing this, Jarod said, "Two of these Houses are merged now."

    There was a show of annoyance on WIlloughby's face. "Yes, Commander. I was just getting to that." He cleared his throat and indicated the "southeast" portion of the map. "Five Houses, five powers. House Davion of the Federated Suns, House Liao of the Capellan Confederation, House Marik of the Free Worlds League, House Steiner of the Lyran Commonwealth, and House Kurita of the Draconis Combine." One by one he went clockwise around the map. "As you may note, Davion and Steiner have undergone a dynastic merger and formed the Federated Commonwealth."

    "And those small nations…?", Caterina asked. "Like that little one between Davion and Liao, or the one up there between…"

    "There are indeed two minor nations in existence besides the Houses. The St. Ives Compact is ruled by a member of House Liao who broke from her family and sided with the Davions. The Free Rasalhague Republic broke away from the Draconis Combine in the last generation after centuries of occupation and repression." Willoughby tapped the map. "Earth itself is under the control of an organization devoted to maintaining interstellar communications. They are called ComStar. If you wish to learn more about them, I have loaded information on the Inner Sphere into the ship's computers. As it stands, I wish to end this briefing soon so as to get to the point of your hastened arrival."

    "Of course," Robert answered.

    "I have spent the last several days setting the stage for your visit to New Avalon," Willoughby explained. "And I have done so at the explicit request of the ruler of the Federated Commonwealth, Archon-Prince Victor Steiner-Davion."

    "That's a mouthful," Barnes muttered.

    Julia shot him a look.

    Willoughby again ignored him contemptuously. "It was His Highness that requested your arrival be expedited."

    Robert's interest was piqued. "Do you know why?"

    "I am afraid not." The admission clearly rankled. "This is a matter His Highness has been keeping to himself and his advisors. I did discuss the issue with Admiral Maran and he has stated confidence in your ability to provide whatever assistance is required."

    "We'll do what we can," Julia promised.

    "It will most likely involve a demonstration of our technology. The better the demonstration, the more likely we are to win Commonwealth support in the war effort." Willoughby turned off the holotank. "While their naval capabilities leave a lot to be desired, the Houses all field large armies that would be of use in holding Reich forces in check during planetary campaigns. They make use of these large armored walkers… ah, you shall see, but I'm afraid I must keep going. It is hoped we might persuade some of the Houses to side with us in exchange for technological assistance."

    "We'll do what we can," Robert assured him. "But it might help to know what he expects."

    "It may be medical," Willoughby admitted. He looked to Leo. "I've been asked to bring a medical officer back down with me."

    "I'll be happy to help," Leo answered.

    "Ah. Splendid." Willoughby checked his time piece. "Captain, if you and Doctor Gillam would accompany me?"

    "We're expected?", Robert inquired. "Now?"

    "Yes, we are."

    That made him scramble to think of the team layout. "Alright. I'll be down shortly with Doctor Gilliam and Commander Meridina." He looked to the others. "This briefing is adjourned."

    As soon as they stood up, Julia looked to Barnes with a frown. He noticed it and a sullen look came over his face. He knew he was in for another lecture.

    Rounding the head of the table, Scotty stepped up beside Julia. "Allow me, lass. I'll straighten him out for ye."

    Julia nodded. "He's your subordinate, Mister Scott. And thank you."

    "Isnae easy, is it?", the old engineer asked. "Bein' in charge of friends like this."

    "I'm okay with being in charge," Julia answered. She turned her head and faced him with a sad expression. "But I know it puts a strain on our old friendships whenever I have to put my foot down."

    "Like I said. I'll get Tom's head on straight. Lad's still got some growin' up t' do." Scotty continued on.

    "Don't we all," Julia sighed.

    Robert quickly stopped by his quarters to change into his formal dress uniform. It was not something he enjoyed, and it seemed a time-honored complaint of everyone in any service to have to put up with the uniforms.

    He could at least be proud in how quickly he put the thing on, golden tassel epaulets and all.

    Willoughby was waiting for him outside of his quarters, at his request. "You wanted to see me, Captain?"

    "Yes." Robert began walking toward the nearest transporter station. He brought up his arm and activated his multi-device, calling up the holographic map of the Inner Sphere. "So you said five houses, two of them having merged, and two minor states in the Inner Sphere."

    "I did."

    Robert pointed to the "north" part of the map. "Then what is this?"

    The northern part of the Inner Sphere included four wedge-shaped regions between the Lyrans and Draconians… Draconese? Whatever you call people from the Combine, Robert thought. "Who are they?", Robert asked. "Because four buffer states is a bit much."

    Willoughby frowned. "That's a delicate matter, Captain. It involves the Inner Sphere's security and the complicated situation between the Houses."

    "I'm listening." Robert lowered his arm, disengaging the holographic projection in the process.'

    "The Inner Sphere knows them as the Clans," Willoughby explained. "They invaded at the beginning of this decade from somewhere toward the Galactic Core."

    "Humans too?"

    "Yes." Willoughby nodded. "It has been discovered that they are the descendants of the old Star League Defense Force, the main armed forces of the Star League before its collapse. A charismatic commander in charge of this army, one Aleksandr Kerensky, persuaded most of those still in it, as well as their families, to depart the Inner Sphere with him when it became clear that the Great Houses were going to wage war over the leadership of the broken League. Apparently his successors underwent a radical social transformation and have become committed to the conquest of their ancestors' homeworlds." Willoughby's tone and feelings on the matter made Robert ponder that he was understating what the Clans were, in the true fashion of a British understatement.

    "Your information includes a write-up on them, right?"

    "What I could find out, yes. His Highness has been forthcoming about the Clan threat. He fought their invasion from the frontlines and is concerned about the threat they might pose."

    "But it's not what he wants to see us about?"

    "I am quite certain it is not."

    Willoughby finished his sentence as they stepped into the transporter station. Leo and Meridina were already waiting and uniformed. As always, Meridina carried her lakesh. "We are ready to transport, sir," a young man at the controls stated.

    "Good. Let's get down there and find out what this is about."

    The four materialized in a large hanger. Robert's immediate thought was that it housed large shuttles or aircraft. But as he took in the honor guard of men in formal uniform with rifles at parade rest, it was the sight behind them that was the most interesting.

    The hanger was not for aircraft after all. On each side of the hanger were bays fitted with electric hoist ladders and lifting platforms, and in each bay were large humanoid-shaped machines. Each had several visible weapons on their hands, arms, and torsos, ranging from large-caliber muzzles to batteries of missile launchers. They were painted in blue and white coloring with a ghost insignia painted on many. Others had earthier colors of brown and gold marking them. Robert recognized from briefing materials the sunburst-and-armored-fist insignia of the Federated Commonwealth, while some retained a sunbust-and-sword insignia instead. That would mean that the fist comes from the Lyran insignia?, Robert pondered.

    "Walking tanks," Leo murmured. "Damn." The latter word was a whisper only Robert could hear.

    The honor guard remained at attention to each side. Along with the rifles they held at parade rest, the officers were wearing ceremonial swords and, to Robert's momentary disbelief, spurs on their boots.

    On the other end of the lines of male and female soldiers was a group of individuals. One was clad in a simple suit, mostly dark in coloring, and Robert could sense the slight unease rolling off him joined by a tinge of suspicion. He eyed them over thoroughly and fixed his gaze, for an extra second or so, on Meridina's lakesh hilt on her belt.

    The second man was more curious than uneased by their arrival. He was looking at them intently all the same and Robert had the feeling he, Leo, and Meridina were being sized up to some degree. The man in question had a full beard and mustache and light brown hair, while his uniform marked him as a Colonel in the FedCom military.

    That left the third and final one, standing between these two men. He had the sharpest and most-decorated uniform, with a groomed head of blond hair that almost emulated Robert's own preferred haircut. Blue eyes met his and Robert's gift sensed a mix of curiosity, unease, uncertainty… but leavened heavily with a dose of confidence. He got the feeling a decision had been made. It had not been made easily, but now that it had been, it was going to be followed through.

    The most astonishing thing about the third figure, arguably, was his height. Robert towered over him by at least 9 inches. He looked to be about Cat's height, all things said, even if he was clearly more built out.

    Robert figured he was due to speak first. Recalling Willoughby's use of address, Robert said, "Your Highness, thank you for welcoming us to your world."

    As Robert considered how to do the introduction, the short man replied with an accent that was more German than English. "I may have you to thank, Captain…"

    At that, Robert decided not to worry about the decorum of offering a hand compared to bowing or what have you. He extended his hand toward the shorter man. "Captain Robert Dale, Alliance Starship Aurora." He could feel the disapproval of Willoughby to that gesture.

    The reply was initially a nod. And, much to Robert's surprise, the hand was accepted. "I am Prince Victor Steiner-Davion. Welcome to New Avalon, Captain."

    "Thank you, Highness." He gestured to Leo and Meridina next. "These are two of my officers. Emissary Willoughby indicated you wished to meet one of my medical officers, so this is Doctor Leonard Gillam, my Chief Medical Officer. And Commander Meridina is my Chief of Security."

    "Doctor. Commander." A handshake was offered again. Willoughby seemed to be stunned at the apparent informality. "A pleasure."

    "Highness." Leo accepted the handshake.

    "Highness, greetings." Meridina bowed her head slightly in respect during the handshake.

    With that introduction complete, Victor introduced those with him, gesturing to either side. "My personal aide, Kommandant Gerald Cranston, and Mr. Curaitis, my security advisor."

    Robert was the first to take their hands. Cranston was the bearded officer, Curaitis the dark-clad man.

    After the rounds of handshakes finished, Victor indicated a nearby VTOL craft large enough to carry all seven of them, plus a bodyguard for Victor. "I know you are curious why I asked for your arrival to be moved up. If you will please follow me, I will show you. My personal craft is waiting to airlift us to the NAIS Hospital."

    "NAIS?", Robert asked.

    "The New Avalon Institute of Science, Captain," Willoughby answered. "One of the top centers of scientific study and learning in the Inner Sphere."

    "Ah." And so we get closer to why we're down here. "After you then, Highness."

    Barnes had made it to Engineering before Scotty came to him. "Over here, lad," he said urgently, just as Barnes was about to look over the sensors on the impulse manifolds.

    Barnes nodded and followed his mentor into the main engineering office, across from the banks of naqia reactors that powered the ship's main systems.

    Scotty waited until the door closed behind Barnes. "Well, lad. Ah think ye ken what Ah brought ye in here for."

    Barnes let out a sigh. "My big mouth at the meeting."

    "Aye." Scotty nodded. He didn't seem disappointed or angry, but Barnes could tell he was still unsettled. "Lad, ye're one of th' most natural engineers I've ever trained. Ye've got th' stuff t' be th' finest of yer generation. But ye need t' think about things sometimes, lad. Ye cannae just go mouthin' off with diplomats an' others like that."

    A frustrated look came to Barnes. He ran a head through his red hair. "Yeah, I know, Scotty, I know. It's just… that guy was so pompous. This whole thing is dumb, the 'Highness' this and 'Majesty' that. Princes and stuff. So I have to laugh."

    "Lad, ye've yet t' see th' things I've dealt with in my career," Scotty replied. "And ye have t' know, Tom, that sometimes ye just have t' keep yer mouth shut. Ye widnae like it if someone made fun o' yer things, wud ye?"

    "Are you kidding? I make fun of my things. Anything can be ridiculous and stupid." Barnes noticed Scotty wasn't pleased with that and sighed. "Okay, I get it. I make fun of the wrong thing and we end up in a holy war, so I have to watch my mouth."

    "That's exactly my point, Tom." Scotty smiled thinly. "An' ye should remember, lad, that I'm a Scotsman myself, an' we had our own kings an' quins. Some of 'em were our finest heroes."

    "Eh, it's the American in me," Barnes said flippantly. "Royalty is something to laugh at."

    "Just so long as ye're daein' yer laughin' in private, then. So ye dinnae cause trouble. Alright?" Scotty gave him an expectant look. His point had been made.

    It was also completely clear. Barnes knew he couldn't just wave it off. "Yes sir," he replied. "I understand."

    "Good. Now, lad, I need someone t' take a good look at…"

    The VTOL departed the palace and flew over the airspace of Avalon City. The Davion capitol had skyscrapers and structures that looked futuristic, at least to Robert's 21st Century aesthetics, with curves along the buildings and their tendency to taper inward along the top. Below a large patch of greenery marked a central park.

    "That is the Davion Peace Park," Prince VIctor noted. "A tour may be possible at a later time."

    "I'd enjoy that," Robert replied. Not in English, but his best German. "You are a German speaker first, yes?"

    Victor replied with a nod. "Ja."

    "My grandmother was German," Robert answered. "I learned the language from the time I was four."

    "It explains your accent, your English is unlike your subordinates."

    Robert looked to Leo and smiled. "Doctor Gilliam is from Georgia, in the Southeast US of our world. I am from Kansas. My English is very much a Midwestern accent. You will hear more of that accent if you meet my command staff." He looked over to Meridina. "As for Commander Meridina, she is Gersallian. Not Human."

    Leo gave him a look of bemusement and a bit of annoyance. Meridina followed the conversation with interest, aided by her auto-translator.

    Victor and his staff - Cranston and Curaitis presumably knew enough German to realize what Robert had said - looked over Meridina with curiosity. "My people resemble Humans externally, yes," she said, her formal tone in that lilting accent that made Robert think of Irish mixed with the Oklahoma-born Cherokee he had occasionally met when he was young. "It is a wonder of the cosmos that our species are so alike."

    "There are other alien species that closely resemble Humans," Robert said, switching back to English. "It's a mystery biologists are still seeking to solve."

    Victor nodded. A diplomatic smile crossed his face. "I look forward to learning more about your Multiverse, Captain. It seems to be an incredible place."

    "It's far beyond anything I expected to see growing up on the family farm," Robert replied. "But I wouldn't miss it for anything."

    Their arrival at the NAIS was met by a phalanx of more security personnel and medical figures. For a few minutes Robert and his officers remained by the VTOL while Victor fielded what seemed to be complaints and protests and pleadings. But he remained determined. After he had won over or talked down his people, he walked back to them. "I apologize for the secrecy," he said. "This is a matter of Commonwealth security. Arguably, security for the entire Inner Sphere."

    "We understand, Highness."

    "You may address me as Prince, if you desire," Victor said. "I can hardly stand on protocol given the favor I am about to ask."

    "Very well, Prince."

    "This way."

    Victor and his staff led them to a conference room in the Institute. Inside Curaitis ran an electronics device around the room. "It's clean, Highness," he said.

    Meridina looked up from her multidevice. "Indeed. There are no emissions save our own, and encryption is in place. We are secure to speak privately."

    Victor took a seat at the table, prompting Robert and his officers to do the same. "To begin, Emissary Willoughby was kind enough to tell me some time ago about your medical breakthroughs," Victor said. "Among them was a cure for all forms of cancer."

    Robert nodded to Leo, who nodded back and answered, "Yes."

    "How well can you cure it?"

    "Completely, permanently," Leo replied. "Everything from brain cancer to leukemia. We use targeted genetic rewriting and adaptable retroviral agents to prevent the condition and heal short-term damage."

    "Genetic rewriting?" The question was from Cranston.

    "To keep cells from making new cancerous growths," Leo explained. "It can also target existing ones, restrict them, and eventually eliminate them without the damage and suffering caused by chemotherapy."

    Victor nodded. "How long does it take? To have an effect?"

    Leo replied immediately. "Several weeks, usually at least twelve. It depends on the severity of the case."

    That answer made Victor's expression change to disappointment. Whatever he was interested in, it clearly had a shorter time limit.

    Leo noticed it too. "There are options for more advanced cases," he confirmed. "Surgical options, mostly. But they're more dangerous, especially if the patient is in such an advanced state that their bodies are at risk during invasive procedures." Leo put his hands together. "What kind of cancer is it?"

    Robert couldn't help but note that Curaitis was clearly unhappy with this discussion. Cranston seemed on edge, but not opposed.

    "Leukemia," Victor replied.

    "How advanced?", Leo asked.

    Victor did not answer immediately. He picked up a digital reader of his own, or some similar device, and operated it.

    A flatscreen at the end of the room turned on. It was displaying a hospital room. Robert's heart ached at the colorful designs. It was in the childrens' ward of the NAIS hospital, he guessed.

    The bed was occupied by a bald-headed boy, likely no older than eight, maybe as old as eleven, Robert guessed. He was comatose and sickly. IVs were running medications and fluids into his body and sensors were wired through his hospital gown.

    Leo took in a breath. "I see." He swallowed and looked away for a moment. His emotions were evident to Meridina, very clearly, and Robert thought he could feel his friend's uncertainty and determination clashing.

    "His name is Joshua Marik," Victor said.

    "As in House Marik?", Meridina inquired.

    "Yes." Victor nodded at her. "And he is Thomas Marik's only legitimate heir."

    Robert glanced toward Curaitis. He could feel the security man's disapproval now.

    "Years ago, during the Clan Invasion of the Inner Sphere, my father forged an agreement with Thomas Marik," Victor continued. "The Free Worlds League would provide upgrade modification kits for our army to fight the Clans more effectively, and in exchange, House Davion would have Joshua treated at NAIS. Our hospital has the Inner Sphere's most advanced oncology unit. It was his best chance."

    "Leukemia isn't easily beaten," Leo murmured.

    "My doctors have done all they can for Joshua," Victor said. "But it's not enough. They are doubtful he will survive the month."

    "A terrible thing," Meridina remarked quietly. "But I sense that there is a higher stake for you beyond the child's life."

    "Very astute of you, Commander," Cranston remarked. "There is." With Victor's nod of approval, Cranston continued to speak with the tones of a military man. "If Joshua dies, the leadership of the Free Worlds League will go to his older half-sister, Isis Marik. Who is currently betrothed to Sun-Tzu Liao."

    "Liao." Robert recognized the name. "As in the Capellan Chancellor?"

    "Yes," Cranston replied. "This would give Sun-Tzu, as the consort of the heiress, enormous influence over Marik's industrial and economic power. Power we need to fight the Clans, but which he would just as likely use to promote Capellan efforts to reconquer the Sarna and Tikonov Marches and the St. Ives Compact."

    "So this is also politics," Robert ruminated. And as he did so, he realized what it meant for them. Whatever the Clans were - he'd have to look over more of the data later - they were already a big enough distraction for the forces of the Inner Sphere, impeding their ability to assist the Alliance if an agreement could be reached. If the Liao leader had his way, the Inner Sphere would be divided into two or three camps by his efforts at reconquest.

    Who's to say he's wrong?, Robert considered to himself. If those worlds are worlds that are a part of his nation, why wouldn't he want to recover them and undo their conquest by a foreign occupier? Just because Victor seems to be a good ruler doesn't mean his Commonwealth hasn't done bad things.

    Meridina met his eyes. She could sense his thought, and he could see she was thinking something similarly.

    But orders were orders. The Foreign Ministry considered the Federated Commonwealth to be the best potential partner for the Allied Systems, going by his briefing, and the Free Worlds League ranked second on that list. The Liao leader could undermine that. And the likely diplomatic cost of getting him to work with them would only serve to embroil the Alliance in Inner Sphere territorial disputes.

    Of course, in the end… none of that really mattered. Not to Robert, not to Meridina, and as both could easily tell, not to Leo. Leo's eyes fixed on the screen for several more seconds. "I don't care about that," he said. "What I do care about is him." He looked to Victor. "I want to help. I have facilities in the Aurora's medlab to begin short-term treatment and stabilize Joshua's condition."

    The smile Victor gave in reply was a thankful one. "Doctor, nothing will be denied to you. All I ask is that you save Joshua's life."

    "I give you my word," Leo vowed. "I'll save him."
    rifern and Shadowcub like this.
  13. Threadmarks: 2-03-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    Leo went with Cranston to meet with Joshua's doctors and get his latest test results, vital signs, and other medical data he needed to begin a treatment plan. This left the others in the room to go into other topics.

    With Willoughby directing the questions, material on the threat of the Clans was discussed. They had a technological edge over the Inner Sphere in many categories and a larger starship fleet, or "WarShip" as the materials they were shown referred to these vessels.

    Robert looked over the uploaded documents on his multidevice. WarShip, JumpShip, DropShip… not to mention 'BattleMech'. This universe has a bit of a hang-up on these compound words being separately capitalized. "This Truce of Tukkayid," Robert began. "How precisely does it work?"

    "No Clan can advance across a line parallel to Tukkayid," Victor replied. "Not for another ten years."

    "And they'll honor this? Even with this… division they have, Wardens and Crusaders?"

    "That is what our analysts insist," Curaitis said. "Unless they abrogate the truce. Our intelligence considers this a possibility due to the strength of the Crusader movement."

    "A distressing possibility, certainly," Meridina noted. "What is it they desire? Simple conquest?"

    "They want to restore the Star League," Victor replied. "With the Clans as the leaders."


    Robert nodded. "Well, that's something to deal with when we come to it. As things are we might be able to give you a technological edge."

    "That would be appreciated." Victor folded his hands on the table. "But I know this won't be charity. What is it your Alliance wants in return?"

    Robert considered his reply. It seemed best to go with the truth. "Well, first off… one thing to understand of the Multiverse is that histories do not have to follow the same flow," he began. "Histories can be different. They're clearly different in various universes. The Gersallians' home universe of N2S7, for instance, has an Earth that was destroyed by atomic warfare millennia ago. The political and cultural developments of Earth have several points where they might diverge. The Earth Confederacy of H1E1, the Federated Stars of L2M1, the Sol Republic in D3R1, they all have similarities and differences in how they developed, and that's just three of the Earths in our Alliance. A prominent example of an outlier is your Inner Sphere, Prince Victor, and your interstellar feudalism."

    "Your point is made, I think," Curaitis remarked.

    Robert nodded to him. "It is, yes." He looked back to Victor. Willoughby was remaining silent. Presumably he considered his job to be smoothing over any ruffled feathers in this exchange. "With that point made…. Highness, in your studies of history, have you ever become familiar with the 20th Century and the existence of Nazi Germany?"

    Victor nodded. "Even after eleven centuries, we remember them. The first great hate movement of Human history, responsible for the first application of industrial mass murder. Hitler's name is still known and reviled…" Victor stopped and blinked. "No."

    Robert could tell he'd put two and two together. "Yes."

    "You've found a world where they…" Victor's brow furrowed. The news had clearly perturbed him. "And they're…"

    "The Third Reich, the Nazi Empire, is the hegemon of Universe S4W8," Robert replied. "We've been at war with them for eight months."

    Curaitis looked at Victor and shifted in his chair uncomfortably. Victor remained passive for a moment. He blinked as he processed his thoughts. Robert sensed the mix of disgust, of outrage, at the very idea of such a regime controlling an interstellar empire. A moment of instinctive horror at the thought of such a state gaining entry into the Inner Sphere.

    Finally the ruler of the Federated Commonwealth looked at them again. "Tell me more," Victor asked.

    Cranston had brought Leo into the presence of the lead oncologist on Joshua's case. Dr. Joseph Harper was listing out the results of the last tests of Joshua's blood. The picture was not good.

    "How can you help, Doctor Gillam?", he asked pointedly. Several of his colleagues were just as interested in the answer to come.

    Leo was deep in thought for a moment. "He's not stable enough for a transporter," he said. "And even a shuttle flight might be too much. I want to stabilize him enough to get him up to the Aurora and my medbay facilities. We need to get him some strength back." Leo reached to his wrist and keyed the multidevice's comms. "Gillam to medbay."

    "Opani here, Doctor Gillam," was the reply. The Koenig CMO was, with her ship docked to the Aurora, serving shifts in the Aurora medbay. "What can I do for you?"

    "Doctor, I need some stock synthblood material and a blood replication kit." Leo thought for a moment. "And prep the medbay for a civilian patient, eight to eleven years of age, with advanced leukemia that has moved into the CNS."

    "Yes Doctor. I'm arranging both right now. Standby."

    "What are you doing?", Doctor Harper asked. It was clear that the request might soon become a demand.

    "We need to get healthy blood into him," Leo explained. "I can use a small blood sample to attune the synthblood to his body. His body will strengthen and his condition will stabilize." Leo put his eyes back to his scans of Joshua. "We may even be able to get his CNS operating normally by clearing out the blast cells. With any lasting damage, nerve regeneration treatments are a long-term possibility once he's stable."

    "And once he's stable enough?", Doctor Harper asked.

    Leo looked back to him. "Then I get Joshua to my medbay and expand the process with replicated blood. Genetic samples can be used to replicate new bone marrow that hasn't been impacted by his condition. In a week or so, once he's strong enough, I do a bone marrow transplant with the replicated material."

    Doctor Harper stared at Leo. "If you can do that, and it works, you've effectively reset his condition to early-stage leukemia."

    "Exactly." Leo nodded. "Then it's just a matter of beginning the gene-treatments. I can begin the process of finding the necessary resequencing during the first two phases of his treatment. Once the third phase is implemented, give it three to four months more and he should be leukemia free for the rest of his life."

    "You're talking about changing his base DNA to eliminate cancer?" It was clear Harper was incredulous at the idea.

    "I'm talking about changing his base DNA so that his cells will prevent cancerous growths from ever forming," Leo elaborated. "Just as I've done for myself and thousands of others."

    Leo couldn't help it. He smiled at seeing the hope light up on Doctor Harper's face. Cancer had always been one of the most terrible illnesses to strike at people.

    "Nasri here, Doctor," a voice said from his multidevice. "We're ready to beam down with your requested equipment."

    "Lock onto my coordinates and transport," Leo ordered them. "We have a child to save."

    After Captain Dale and his people excused themselves to return to their ship, Victor returned to the Palace. He went to his office and, after a quick glance of the state papers demanding his attention, turned instead to the window. It was midday on New Avalon and apparently "night time" for the Aurora crew, going by Robert Dale's closing remarks.

    Victor found the Aurora officers an interesting group. They were younger than he had expected, and certainly committed to their cause. Dale had spoken with some passion about the war with the Reich.

    It all seemed like a far-out science fiction holovid. Multiple universes, different histories, Nazi Germany as a space-faring empire.

    There was a knock at the door. "Come in," Victor answered.

    Curaitis and Cranston entered. "Jerry," Victor said, smiling thinly. He was used to that now, instead of the prior "Galen".

    The man once known as Galen Cox nodded. "Victor."

    "How are things going?"

    "Doctor Gillam has begun to transfuse synthetic blood into Joshua Marik to stabilize him," Jerry replied. "Dr. Harper is observing. I think he's a little skeptical and is waiting to see if we get any results."

    Victor nodded. "That's good." Victor noted the look on Curaitis' face. "You still disapprove?"

    "You are gambling a lot on the ability of the Alliance to save Joshua's life," Curaitis pointed out. "As I already said. And by giving them access to Joshua Marik, our ability to implement Gemini has been completely compromised."

    Victor nodded. "I know."

    "All of the effort we put into…"

    "...is appreciated, Curaitis. It is." Victor looked back out the window and up toward the sky. Somewhere up there was the Aurora, a ship unlike anything the Inner Sphere had seen. "But things may be changing now. Gemini is morally dubious…"

    "As you know, Highness, morality and rulership do not always go together."

    "My father said the same thing."

    "And your father would have kept these people at arm's length from Joshua Marik."

    Victor nodded slowly. "Probably. And maybe you're right. But…" He let out a sigh and looked back to them. "Joshua Marik… we haven't had a chance like this in years. He's spent so long on New Avalon that he's got people here he cares for. He's watched our holovids, seen our world. Made friends. Gemini is about delaying the effects of his death. What if we could do something with his life? As the heir to the League, and as Captain-General, he could be the most friendly neighbor we've ever had." Victor looked Curaitis squarely in the eye, which required craning his neck a little even from the distance. "And I think that's worth pursuing. If it costs us Gemini… I'm willing to take that chance."

    Curaitis nodded stiffly. "If that's what you think is best, sire. May I go see to Doctor Gillam's security? We don't need the Thuggees or Maskirovka to make him a target."

    Victor frowned. "No. We don't."

    Curaitis nodded and left.

    Victor went to his desk and sat down. Jerry remained with him. "Any news about my sister?"

    There was something of a bitter tone in his advisor's voice when the reply came. "She is performing well enough as Regent on Tharkad."

    "That is good to hear," Victor sighed. That was a long-term problem he'd have to deal with eventually.

    But how will it go now? The Allied Systems, this Multiverse… it will change everything.

    "Can I do anything else for you, Victor?", Jerry asked.

    "That depends," Victor said, reaching for his pin. "Do you think the ministries will notice if I throw this pile into the fireplace?"

    "Unfortunately, Victor, they will. And they'll be very agitated."

    At that Victor sighed. "Paperwork," he murmured. "The burden of every ruler."

    "Paperwork." Robert thumped his digital reader to his desk and ignored the smirk on Julia's face. "The burden of every starship captain."

    "So you say." Julia looked over her reader. "Well, it looks like your burden is lifted for the day."

    "Oh, there will be a fresh stack tomorrow," Robert sighed.

    "It could always be worse," Julia pointed out. Her smile faded away into a somber look. "We just got the latest updates from Harris. Relini had to abandon the New Pommerania attack."

    Robert frowned. "Damn." He shook his head. "Because of the Klingons. All because of the damn Klingons."

    "Some of the other allies are picking up their efforts," Julia continued to say. "President Sheridan just got an aid bill approved in the InterStellar Alliance Council."

    "Well, that's some good news at least." He looked back at the window to the planet spinning below. "You should probably know that Leo's in another mood."

    She frowned. "Oh no."

    "Cancer patient. Leukemia, to be exact."

    "Advanced?", Julia asked.

    "Very. Apparently the kid might not last the month."

    "And Leo is convinced he can save the kid, I'm betting," Julia said. "Is this why we got called early?"

    "It is." Robert nodded. "The kid is named Joshua Marik. Apparently he's the heir to one of the other powers. Some deal that Prince Victor's father made with the boy's father for war material to fight the Clans."

    "So there's Inner Sphere politics mixed up with this," Julia asked.

    "Apparently so. I put it in the report." A distant look came over Robert's green eyes. "I'm worried about Leo."

    "I know." Julia nodded. "When he gets like this, there's no talking to him."

    "He's sure he can save this kid. Completely convinced."

    "I'm sure he can. It's what will happen if he can't that worries me." Julia put her hands on her knee. "I can have a talk with him. Remind him how close things came last year with that Goa'uld surgery."

    "If you think it will help." A flashing light drew Robert's attention over to the screen of his bridge office computer terminal. "Well, it's getting late," he said. "And Meridina wants to get in a training session before the night's over."

    Julia frowned at him. "You know I'm trying to be supportive of this, Robert, but you're spending a lot of your off-time in this training, it seems. All you were supposed to learn was how to control this stuff. It feels like this is going beyond that."

    "Apparently control is more complicated than it seemed before," he answered. But that didn't seem quite as satisfying a reply to the issue. "And I don't seem to have the same grasp on this that Lucy does so it's taking longer."

    "Hopefully not much longer." Julia knew how much this was upsetting Angel as well. She was happy to see Robert and Angel together as they were, making each other happy as well. Having that jeopardized… Julia could remember how it had hurt them both the last time they broke up. With the stress of their current jobs, the pain of another breakup might be too much.

    "I know that look." Robert's voice had mock reproachfulness in it. "It's the 'Julia must be a mother hen to her flock' look."

    A bemused glint came to Julia's aquamarine-toned green eyes. "I consider it one of my duties." The glint became mischievous. "After all, if I didn't keep you and everyone else from driving yourselves crazy, Rob, you would be stuck with that job. And I think you have enough on your plate."

    "That's why I'd delegate it to Jarod," Robert laughed. "He's done that kind of thing before."

    "We're talking about Jarod, the 'Pretender'. He's done everything before," Julia pointed out. She was a half-second quicker in standing. "So, go on to mind energy practice or whatever you call it. I'll wrap up this watch shift and get ready for tomorrow."

    "Sounds like a plan."

    It was 2255 on Leo's device clock when he noticed his newest patient stir. With the change in medication from sedatives to his inventory of advanced painkillers, Joshua would no longer be relegated to a coma.

    Two eyes opened slowly and turned toward him. "Who are you?", the weak voice of Joshua Marik asked.

    "I'm Doctor Gillam," he answered. "You can call me Dr. Leo."

    The young prince's eyes closed. "You're another new doctor?"

    Leo nodded. "I am. And we're going to make you better."

    Joshua's eyes opened again. He looked over. A dark-skinned woman - dark-skinned like Leo, or even moreso - and looking at a machine. His eyes followed the machine and the tubes filled with dark red fluid. He'd seen his blood pumped in and out before, but this machine looked strange. It had blue tones to its surface instead of gray.

    Behind her, Dr. Harper - whom he did recognize - was watching intently.

    "What are they doing to me, Doctor Harper?", asked Joshua.

    "They're giving you new blood," he replied.

    Leo nodded. "It's called synthblood," he said to Joshua. "Synthetic blood. We used a blood sample to type it to you. It's clear of the imperfections that your leukemia causes and can carry more nutrients that your body needs to be healthy." Leo smiled warmly at Joshua. "Within a couple of days you'll be feeling a lot better."

    "Okay." Joshua squinted. "Will it make me better?"

    "Yes." The nurse across from Leo gave the answer. "It is the first step to making you all better, child."

    Joshua looked at her with curiosity. "Your voice is weird. Where are you from?"

    A small smile came to her face. "I am from Darfur. My name is Nasri."

    Joshua seemed to think on that. "I've never heard of that world," he finally said. "Is it in the Periphery?"

    Nasri seemed confused for a brief moment. "Um… no, it is not."

    That left him puzzled. There were so many planets in the Inner Sphere, but he was certain he'd never heard of one called 'Darfur'.

    But he was still very tired. He began to drift off into sleep.

    Medbay Log: 13 March 2642; ASV Aurora. Doctor Leonard Gillam reporting. This log is made in reference to special patient Joshua Marik, presented to me approximately thirty-six hours ago with an advanced state of leukemia.

    Doctor Harper has just reported to me Joshua's vitals as of 0600 shipboard time. The synthblood has had the desired effect. Patient vitals have improved sufficiently that he is now considered to be in stable condition. As soon as the doctors in the NAIS sign off on the transfer, the
    St. Johns will be employed to bring Joshua Marik up to the Aurora for the next phase of his treatment. I have already prepared a private bed space for the patient and we have the first two days of replicated blood ready for transfusion.

    Leo finished his medical log update and looked back to the data that the NAIS had sent. Joshua's vitals had shown great improvement over the last thirty-two hours. The synthblood was doing its job in restoring vitality to his body and getting his organs functioning in proper condition. Now that he was stable enough to move, the next step would bring him away from the brink long enough for the long-term healing solution to start working.

    He was so fixated on the medical data that he didn't realize he had a visitor until he heard the knock at the door. He looked up in time to see Julia standing in the doorway, leaning slightly against it. She was in duty uniform, black with the red command branch color and the three gold slanted strips below her shoulder marking her as a Commander. Long blond hair, still lightly damp, was pulled back into a ponytail at the back of her head. A bemused grin was on her face and a twinkle in her green eyes. "Maybe I should feel hurt," she said. "Usually I'm the distraction."

    Leo smirked at that. "I imagine you are," he said in an amused tone. He typed in a note. "What can I do for you, Julia?"

    "I'm down here to check up on things." Her expression got more serious as she walked in and took a seat. She leaned forward and set her arms on his desk. "Or rather, to check up on you, Leo."

    Leo looked up from his terminal. He felt bemused by the attention. "Another intervention by you as our common surrogate mother?"

    Julia laughed at that. "I'm just making sure everything's okay."

    "A kid's dying of leukemia, Julia," Leo replied. He shook his head. "That's never okay."

    "I know." She nodded and leaned back in the chair. "Just as I know you're about to fight heaven and hell to keep him alive."

    "Damned right."

    "And I'm proud of that." Julia allowed him to type for a moment. "I'm just worried about… the alternative outcome, I guess."

    "Not gonna happen," Leo insisted. Noticing the look on her face, Leo smirked. "I know, alright? As a physician I have to deal with death. I have to accept that I will have patients that will die. But… I mean, Joshua's case is severe, yes, but it's only hopeless by their science. I can stabilize him easily enough, then it's just a matter of gradually getting his body back to normal."

    "You're that sure, Leo?"

    "Completely," Leo insisted. "The Alliance… our medical technology, the stuff we got from the Darglan and the FedStars, the Federation, it lets us save people like Joshua. Kids like him." He tapped a final key. "And that's what I'm going to do."

    "Alright. I'm not here to try and be the pessimist, you know that," Julia insisted. "I just want to make sure your head is on straight."

    "It is." He nodded at her before looking back to the information on his screen. Something he was seeing took him by surprise a little. "That's weird," he murmured.

    Julia caught that. "Leo?"

    "The medical notes on Joshua," he replied. "The names are different over the last few months. Different doctors have been signing under Doctor Harper."

    "Well, it's a large facility," she pointed out.

    "Yeah." Leo nodded. He shrugged. "And with a celebrity case, I can see most of the doctors wanting a chance to get their names involved." He checked the time and stood up. "Sorry, but I have to meet the St. Johns. We're due to leave in fifteen minutes."

    "I know." Julia smiled at him and stood. She turned toward the door just as Leo got to it. "Alright, Leo. Good luck. Get that kid up here so you can heal him."

    Leo smiled back at her before heading out of the office.

    The NAIS hospital had a helipad for receiving emergency patients. After careful examination, Lucy determined that it would be just big enough for the St. Johns to land on for the transfer. The sky was only slightly overcast and the view of Avalon City was magnificent. "You know what this place reminds me of?", she said to Meridina, sitting beside her in the cockpit. They were both in duty uniforms for the trip, Lucy in Operations beige and Meridina in olive-brown. "Minnepaulis."

    Meridina looked to her. "I don't recognize that city name."

    "Well, on most Earths its Minneapolis and St. Paul," Lucy explained. "But in C502, they were hit by a nuclear strike in the late 21st Century. During the rebuilding people simply referred to the place as 'Minnepaulis' and it stuck. Which is really weird to me… but all these different universes can be, well, different, you know?"

    "Yes." Meridina smiled lightly and nodded. "Agreed."

    "I mean, look at this universe," Lucy continued. "They've got this whole neo-medieval feudalist thing going on. Lots of Princes and Dukes and Lords and Counts and whatever else you call them. It's just so weird."

    "Life is diversity in many things," Meridina remarked. "Experience being one of them." She sensed something and stood. "They're coming. I will need to meet them outside."

    "Of course," Lucy said. "Just let me know when we're lifting off."

    Meridina emerged from the airlock just as the lift from the hospital structure opened. Dr. Harper and Mr. Cranston emerged with nurses that were pushing along a hospital bed, joined by four men carrying assault firearms and wearing body armor.

    Leo, Nasri, and Nurse Li moved forward to take custody. Some final paperwork was signed. Cranston put in his own. "Prince Victor couldn't be here for the transfer, he had a prior obligation," Cranston explained. "But he asked me to accompany Joshua."

    "You're welcome to join us, Mister Cranston," Leo said. He ran his scanner over Joshua. "Feeling any better?"

    "I was," the boy replied. His voice was still weak. He squinted when looking toward Leo. "But the sun's too bright."

    "We'll get you out of it in a moment." Leo nodded to Nurse Li, who took over the bed and pushed it toward the medical runabout. "It's been awhile since you've been in space?"

    "Yes." Joshua lifted his head enough to see the St. Johns. "That's too small to be a DropShip. Is it a shuttle?"

    "It's called a runabout, and its name is the St. Johns." They got to the door. Meridina remained standing there and smiled at Joshua as the bed was brought up. "This is Commander Meridina, Joshua," Leo said. "She's in charge of security."

    "So she's my bodyguard?", Joshua asked.

    "I am charged with your protection, yes," Meridina replied.

    The boy smiled. "I like you. You're pretty."

    Meridina's smile grew slightly. "Thank you for the compliment."

    "One moment, Doctor," Nasri said. She was kneeling beside the bed. "The wheel is catching."

    "I suppose we're too used to anti-grav transfer beds." Leo knelt down. "Here, let me see…"

    "Allow me," said Meridina. She lifted a hand. The bed wheels lifted off of the ferro-crete pad and the entire bed was now without a single point of contact with the ground. Joshua's eyes widened as he felt the sensation of the bed being in mid-air. He watched her intently as her hand moved gently toward the St. Johns. The wheels soon had contact with the floor of the runabout airlock. Nurse Li rolled the bed in.

    Leo smiled weakly and noticed that Cranston, Harper, and the MIIO protection team were staring with incredulity written on their faces. "You probably shouldn't have done that," he murmured to Meridina.

    "I suppose they are quite stunned," she noted. "But they would learn of swevyra - of power from life force - eventually, Doctor. I believe no harm has been done."

    "No harm," Cranston agreed. "Just… a hell of a lot of questions, ma'am."

    "I can answer easily, but I believe we should be going." Meridina stepped up into the airlock. "This way, Mister Cranston."

    Leo followed Cranston in and the bodyguards took up the rear. Commonwealth MIIO had insisted on them, Leo hadn't cared so long as they stayed out of the way, and Meridina and Robert had both agreed.

    Leo went into the medical module, where Joshua was again staring in complete surprise. This time it was surprise at the third nurse he'd brought, Corpsman 1st Class Yamata Djamal. The blue-skinned Dorei man was looking back at the emaciated boy with dark teal eyes brimming with compassion.

    "An alien," Joshua said in wonderment.

    "As you are," Djamal answered in accented English. "We are all aliens to one another."

    The bodyguards, now gathered at the entrance, looked like they were fighting the impulse to stare by keeping even more intent looks on their charge. Cranston had no such requirement and outright gawked in shock. "I… I remember Emissary Willoughby mentioning… but aliens?"

    "Nurse Djamal is a Dorei," explained Leo. "He's from a Dorei nation called Janrala." He smiled thinly. "And he's not even the first alien you've seen. But first things first." He looked to Li and Nasri, who were removing the medical sensors on Joshua. Djamal was bringing up the module's main medical scanners to begin watching Joshua's condition. "Are we ready?"

    Nasri and Li shook their heads. A few more sensors had to come off first. Working together they lifted Joshua up and carefully set him onto the main bed. With the transfer complete Nasri wheeled the bed back out of the module. "All systems are green, Doctor," Djamal said. "Full monitoring is on." A display above him showed a holographic recreation of Joshua's figure, with varying models displaying cardiovascular activity, brainwave pattern, and other vitals.

    Nasri returned to the door. "We are secure," she said.

    Leo nodded and reached over for the intercom button on the wall beside him, right beside the folded up surgical unit. "This is Doctor Gillam. Lieutenant, we're ready back here."

    "I'm clearing a flight path with Avalon City Air Traffic Control now," Lucy answered. After another few moments she resumed speaking. "Engines online. Preparing for launch… now."

    There was only a very subtle shift underneath them. It was clear, from their looks, that the FedCom personnel and Cranston had been expecting something more vigorous. "Are we airborne?", Cranston finally asked.

    Leo smirked slightly and nodded to Nurse Li. The Chinese woman smiled back and hit a key at the wall beside her. Shutters opened and an external view opened up the module to the sight of the sky beside them. Clouds whizzed downward.

    "I don't feel a thing," Cranston remarked.

    "Inertial dampeners, Mister Cranston," Leo said. "If we didn't have them I would never have approved bringing Joshua up."

    The atmosphere outside dimmed. Blue faded into black. A couple of DropShips were visibly burning in on the horizon and Joshua was happily watching the whole thing.

    And then it appeared. Lucy brought them up several kilometers to port of the Aurora. The kilometer-long starship shined in the light of New Avalon's G-sequence star. Leo had always liked the aesthetic of the design, the sleek hull lines moving back from the bow and the way the drive hull "started" about one quarter of the way down the primary hull with the ship's navigational deflector (not as visible as the blue-and-gold deflector dish were the torpedo launchers Leo knew to be there) at the front of that hull section. The lit torch insignia of the Allied Systems was present on the upper warp nacelle facing them. Green and white stripes were distantly visible on the azure hull of the advanced ship.

    "'ASV-1701'?", Cranston observed.

    "The registry number for our ship," Leo answered. He could still recall over a year and a half ago, when he and the others had first seen the Aurora complete at the Earth L2M1 Fleet Base. That sense of wonder was still with him. The realization that he lived on that ship, that it had become part of his life. A life that, just a half decade ago, had been directed to the ambition of being an everyday doctor.

    An everyday doctor without medical technology that laughs at the common cold and sneers at cancer.

    "That's your ship?", Joshua asked. There was no hiding the amazement in his voice.

    "That's the Aurora," Leo confirmed.

    "It's so big… where are its sails?" Joshua looked at him from the bed. "Where do you put them?"

    "We don't use solar sails." Leo stepped up and put a hand on his new patient. "It's exciting, I know. And you'll see even more."

    The ship moved away from their sight. Another appeared in the window, an ovoid DropShip that Lucy had evidently flown around before making her approach. Joshua seemed disappointed.

    The Aurora was still in Cranston's mind, though. He had never seen anything like it either. It looked… not even like lostech. It was like out of a science fiction holovid in its appearance.

    Victor will want to see this for himself, Cranston realized. He'll insist on it no matter what Curaitis says.

    Once Joshua was in place in the medlab, Robert and Julia came by together to check up on everything. Leo was getting the first infusion of replicated healthy blood ready while his nurses finished settling their patient in. They were using an isolation unit in the critical care section at the insistence of the Commonwealth MIIO, a concession Robert made just as easily as allowing the bodyguard detachment onto the Aurora.

    Robert had handled introducing Julia to Cranston. Now the Prince's security advisor was standing with them while Leo worked.

    "Have you told my father?", Joshua asked them. "Does he know where I am?"

    "Well, since you've asked." Julia pressed the commkey on her multidevice. "Andreys to bridge. Do we have Emissary Janliran on yet?"

    Jarod answered with, "We just established the subspace signal, Commander. Putting them on down in the iso-unit."

    The screen at the end of the room, facing Joshua, activated. An office appeared on the other end and a tan-skinned male with dark eyes and hair was standing there. His robed suit was recognizably Gersallian in its tones and aesthetics. "Captain Dale?," he asked.

    "We're here," Robert answered.

    Janliran nodded off-screen. The man who stepped onto the screen was older, well into his forties if not fifties Robert thought. His face was marred by horrible scarring, but even then Robert could see some of Joshua in the man's face. He wore a plain uniform with the emblem of House Marik on the heart.

    When the scarred man's eyes fell on Joshua, his expression changed. A smile started to show, one of happiness and pain. "Joshua," he said.

    "Hello Father," Joshua said formally. "Is Mama okay?"

    "She is off on a tour and sends her best," the reply came. He looked over to Robert and Julia. "Captain Dale. I am Thomas Marik. Words cannot express my gratitude to you for agreeing to help my son."

    "It's my pleasure, sir," Robert answered. "Some credit should go to Prince Victor. He asked for our arrival to be moved up so he could get our help."

    "Indeed, Captain. I will send him my thanks." Thomas looked to Leo now, where he was standing at a control panel for the blood transfer device. "Doctor Gillam?"

    "Yes sir," Leo answered.

    "My thanks are to you as well."

    "Thank you, Captain-General." Leo nodded and patted Joshua on the shoulder. "Your son's a great kid. I'll do everything I can to get him healthy."

    Thomas nodded. His reaction was muted, stoic, and Robert got the feeling he was not letting himself react as fully as he wanted. For decorum, or out of habit for his position, Robert could not guess. "You have my gratitude and that of my entire nation, Doctor Gillam. Please keep me informed of my son's condition."

    "Of course," Leo said. "I can explain the treatments to you right now, if you'd like, and answer any questions you have."

    "Emissary Janliran has told me some of what is being done. You are producing artificial blood of some sort to ease his condition?"

    "Yes. Replicated blood, with functional white and red blood cells, will restore proper organ function and give him some of his strength back. Enough that I can move on to Phase 2..."

    Leo explained the processes planned and Thomas Marik listened, placing questions. As they spoke Robert looked to their guest and felt a surge of happy pride. This was what they had come out here to do: help people. Save lives. Make things better.

    And now they'd get to do so directly. A living Joshua would keep the Inner Sphere stable and buy time for Alliance diplomats to smooth out any lingering issues with the Capellans. A stable Inner Sphere was one that could contribute materially to the war with the Reich, should they be suitably convinced of the threat it might still pose. And afterward… there was no telling the limit of what they could do with the better technologies that the Multiverse would introduce them to.

    As soon as he was satisfied, the leader of the Free Worlds League spoke to his son again. "It's good to see you again, Joshua," he said. "I hope you may be home sooner than we ever expected."

    "I can't wait," Joshua replied. With his developing life force abilities Robert could feel the boy's warm happiness at the thought. "I've missed everything!"

    Thomas smiled at his son. "And we have missed you. I promise you, you will see it all again shortly. I'll call again later and see how you are doing."

    The channel cut.

    Joshua had some tears in his eyes. He was still weak, heart-wrenchingly so, and it took effort for him to turn to face Leo. "When do I get to go home?", he asked.

    "Give it a few weeks," Leo answered. "Maybe shorter. I need to get you stabilized first and then the main treatments can begin."

    "Okay." He accepted that. After years of living in the NAIS complex, Joshua was just happy to have the chance to go home soon.

    There was no mistaking the curiosity on his face with Joshua's next request. "Can I see the rest of the ship?"

    Julia smiled at him. "When Doctor Gillam says you can, I'll have you shown around."

    "Tomorrow morning," Leo said. "No sooner than that. I need you in here the rest of the day while I circulate the new blood completely."

    "Okay." Joshua laid his head back. "Do you have any holovids? I'd like to see the next Immortal Warrior."

    Leo smirked. "We've got plenty. Once we're done right here, I'll bring in a computer terminal that you can use to access or computers and find things to watch. Alright?"


    "If you need anything, Joshua, let me know," Julia said. "I know it can be lonely if you're stuck in bed all the time."

    "Thank you ma'am," he answered.

    "Good luck," Robert added. He and Julia stepped out of the iso-lab a moment later. "So far so good, right?", he asked Julia.
    rifern likes this.
  14. Threadmarks: 2-03-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    The Lookout was in a mixed meal state. The Gamma Shift were coming in for their pre-shift breakfast and the Alpha Shift were picking up relatively late dinners.

    After another day of the relaxed routine of a starship in standard orbit, and not at warp flight, Barnes was happy enough to join Zack at a table. "It's something to be back, isn't it?", he remarked.

    Zack, nursing a drink, nodded and smiled slightly. "It is. I think I'm just getting used to the idea of being able to leave the Koenig without having to beam over or wait for a shuttle flight."

    "Hell yeah, man." Barnes devoured a bite of dinner steak. "Mmm. They've got some good stuff planetside. Think of asking for a leave?"


    Seeing the distant look on his friend's face, Barnes sighed. "Counting the days until you can see your sweet nurse girlfriend,aren't you?"

    "How well you know me, buddy," Zack answered. "And I'm counting the hours, not days."

    "How are things going back there?", Barnes asked. "I mean, you keep in touch, right?"

    "Oh, it's the usual colony set-up. I think they're having more problems than we had setting up New Liberty." Zack shook his head. "She's working extra shifts to help out with the little injuries that keep coming in. People smashing their hands with hammers, that sort of thing."

    "Ha." Barnes shook his head. "Damn, man. It's only been what, three years since we founded New Liberty?"

    "Going on four," Zack pointed out.

    "Four damn years man. Doing this." Barnes sipped at his soda before continuing. "And I mean… back then, when the Facility was a new thing… I never thought it'd come to this. That we'd get so big."

    "That we'd start something like this," Zack added.

    "Yeah. I mean, it's all nice now, but do you remember how much of a pain it was getting New Liberty set up? Dealing with the new people who didn't want to share, or work together? Convincing everyone to help out?"

    "I remember getting my jaw broken," Zack grumbled playfully.

    "Heh. Yeah." Barnes smirked. "Angel acted like it was the funniest thing. 'Maybe now we'll get some peace and quiet'." He did a fair approximation of Angel's tone.

    "Then Leo had it fixed within a couple days."

    "And so she wanted to break it again!" Barnes broke out laughing.

    Their reminiscing stopped as a figure stepped up. "Mind if I take a seat?", Jarod asked.

    "Go right ahead, smart guy." Barnes gestured at the chair and then moved his drink over to let Jarod have more room for his plate of steak, potato, and shredded cabbage. "Zack and I are just thinking about old times."

    "Or not so old," Zack added. "I mean, we're coming up on four years now. Since Rob found the Facility."

    Jarod nodded. "It always feels longer than that." He held up his digital pad. "Don't mind me, I'm just doing some research for our fearless leaders."

    "Oh?", Barnes asked.

    "Nothing major. I'm watching over old social media, holovid entertainment, news reports. Things to help me, and us, understand the Federated Commonwealth." Jarod looked back at the reader and shook his head. "I'll tell you this, these people have way too many tabloids. By my estimate the tabloid market is at least twice as large, proportionally speaking, than our 21st Century one was. And people believe them far more often."

    "You've gotta be kidding me," Barnes groaned.

    "Hey, maybe there's a good reason?", Zack speculated. "Anything else interesting?"

    "Nothing major at the moment." Jarod kept viewing a muted video. "Just watching some footage. It looks like our new guest had a following of his own. Lots of Joshua Marik watchers…"

    "People love celebrities. Little prince with leukemia, hell, even our media would've ate that stuff up," Barnes pointed out.

    "Good point," Jarod said before returning to work.

    Robert was due to transport down for another discussion with Willoughby and Prince Victor. Before going, though, he wanted to complete a report to Admiral Maran for the progress of their discussions and the issue of Joshua Marik.

    He was nearly done with the report when the office door chimed. He looked up and said, "Come in."

    He'd expected it to be Julia. But Jarod was the one who entered. He held out a digital reader. "I thought you might want to read this," he said.

    Robert accepted the reader and started reading the text. "What is this? The Federated Commonwealth equivalent of the National Enquirer?"

    "They tend to call them scandalvids in the Inner Sphere," Jarod noted. "I've been compiling them since yesterday. It's almost frightening how popular the tabloids are in this society."

    Robert did his best to speed read through the material. "Is there anything Victor hasn't been accused of? And, frankly, is there anything here of importance?"

    "Not directly," Jarod conceded. "I'd point out, though, that psychologically speaking, how Victor deals with this will tell you a lot about his character. The emotions he feels, the thoughts he has."

    Robert came across one item and frowned. "My God… his mother…?"

    "Assassinated about nineteen months ago. A bombing."

    "And then a relative, this Ryan Steiner. Looks like their media thinks he did both. Or that he killed one or the other… and all of this stuff about him and this… Omi Kurita? As in the other ruling house, the Draconic one?"

    "Draconis Combine," Jarod corrected.

    Robert kept reading and rested his face halfway in his palm. "Oh for… they actually think he'd…" For a moment Robert considered it. "...then again, I suppose that's how nobles usually do things. Dowries and territorial exchanges and everything else. And I thought marriage planning was tough when the only thing you had to worry about giving was the rent for a tuxedo and a gift for the couple."

    "Different society," Jarod noted. "Land is always central to feudal cultures."

    "Or something equivalent, yes." Robert finally shut the pad down. "It makes me wonder what they'll say about us."

    "It's possible this is deliberate propaganda," Jarod noted. "That whoever owns these media outlets determines the targets of their story. Then they just need to get enough circulation on worlds where news isn't as common to be taken seriously."

    "Well, go ahead and write up a report on how this reflects the pressures and structure of FedCom society and what it can mean for any further diplomatic representation." Robert checked the time and stood up. "I have to get to the transporter now. If you find anything else interesting, let me know."

    "I'm on it."

    The day's discussions had gone well. Technology, at least in abstract, was the main discussion, and Robert let Willoughby take the lead on it. Victor had brought his own science advisors and a slender young redheaded woman that was introduced as his teenage sister Yvonne. Her earnestness and demeanor was that of a student more than a princess, or so Robert thought.

    Then again… how many princesses had he actually met to judge her by?

    Although that wasn't what was…

    I sense your concern, he felt Meridina say, through her natural telepathy.

    I just want to know who I'm dealing with," was the thought in reply.

    Then ask.

    Somehow I doubt Emissary WIlloughby will be so understanding.

    "....ten weeks, give or take," Willoughby was saying. He was looking over a chart of materials. "Engineering firms might be contracted to hasten the arrangements."

    "But your people won't be in a position to provide us with the WarShips yourselves?", Victor asked. He was wearing the same kind of uniform as before. A military man more than a politician, or even the kind of image someone might have of being a "prince".

    "I am sorry, but no," Willoughby maintained. "Purchase of civilian vessels will be quite easy, even for you, but for the time being the Alliance shipyards are busy replacing our own losses."

    "That will make it harder to justify an intervention, however, if we lack the means to protect our troops."

    "What if we assigned the escorts?", Robert asked. "I understand wanting your own ships, but it takes time to train crews in ship operations. A lot of time." Robert set a finger on the table in thought. "What if you sent officers and crew to train on those escorts as well, in fact?"

    "A workable proposition, I believe. As for my existing fleet…"

    When the talks suspended for a late lunch, Willoughby excused himself, and Yvonne afterward. Meridina remained by the door, standing with Curaitis.

    Victor was looking at something on his reader device - a 'noteputer', they'd called it - when Robert decided to begin speaking. "I'm sorry about your parents."

    Victor looked up at him.

    "I know what it's like," Robert continued. "It's…" He swallowed. "It's been four years since I lost my parents and sister to a crash. A truck driver had a heart attack and slammed his vehicle into my family's car."

    Try as he might, Robert knew he couldn't keep that old pain off his face. Victor could see it. Meridina would feel it, and did.

    "Do you have any other siblings, Captain?", Victor asked.


    "No cousins?"

    "One. Beth. She runs the New Liberty Colony." Robert smiled thinly. "We keep in contact as best we can. She's got a growing colony of refugees and exiles to deal with and I have my missions, though. We only see each other once a year for the Colony Anniversary celebrations."

    Victor nodded. "It's always good to stay in touch with family."

    "Given everything you've gone through…" Robert let that statement hang for the moment. "My operations officer has been conducting social analysis for reports back home. He's been watching your media, reading news reports and editorials, and the like."

    A sad, wry grin crossed the Prince's face. "I hope he judges us kindly for our entertainment media."

    "Oh, we're imperfect in that regard too," Robert assured him with a knowing grin. "Your scandalvids are what we call tabloids. But from what I've seen, we don't take them so seriously."

    A harsh laugh came from the Prince. The look that briefly crossed his face showed that he hadn't quite meant to slip control like that. "You have probably noticed I am a favorite target for them."

    "Commander Jarod shared that, yes," Robert said carefully. "But the arguments being made… they're no different than the people from my world who ranted about the United Nations and black helicopters. They're taking advantage of your mother's death, your cousin's, and everything else to hit you with."

    He sensed emotion. Frustration, fear, and grief… and, much to his surprise, a little guilt.

    His cousin, Meridina said telepathically.

    "Thank you for your understanding," Victor finally said. "But I'd rather not discuss it."

    "Of course," Robert answered.

    "How is Joshua, by the way?"

    "Oh." Robert grinned a little. "He's doing well. I think he's getting the show of his life right now."

    Julia had personally taken charge of Joshua's tour of the ship, with Leo and Cranston joining them with Nasri and Djamal to help. They had journeyed to the back of the Aurora, giving Joshua a view of the fighter hanger, the main shuttlebay, and the Koenig's berth. They swung by engineering and the biolabs, where Joshua was delighted to meet the Gl'mulli scientist Doctor Ke'mani'pala. "She was made of jello!", he proclaimed after they left Science Lab 3. "Jello!"

    "'She' is a relative term," Julia remarked. "Gl'mulli don't have genders."

    Cranston looked at her with some surprise. "You mean they… how do they have kids then?"

    "Spawning," Leo said. "Gl'mulli can merge their forms together, and in this state genetic information is passed into surface membranes to mingle with their own. They form embryos and shift them internally until gestation is advanced, them the developed spawnlings move to the surface of their forms and drop off."

    Cranston shook his head at that. This was all so much to deal with.

    "So where are we going next?", Joshua asked.

    Julia looked toward Leo, who smiled and nodded. "Well, I think your doctor has a surprise for you," she said. "Let's head off to Deck 15."

    They traveled up and down the ship until they were back in the primary hull. Several meters away from one lift exit were slide doors and a control panel beside them. "Computer, access code Andreys Alpha Bravo Charlie. Access Joshua program."

    The doors slid open and they stepped in.

    Jerry looked on in stunned surprise to what was inside. They stepped through the door and into a lush park, with flora from dozens of worlds in the Inner Sphere gathered around. In the distance was a towering palace. The Marik family insignia, doubling as the insignia of the Free Worlds League, was prominent on the face of the structure.

    "The Interstellar Botanical Gardens!" Joshua said with gleeful surprise. "How did we get here?"

    "We didn't," Julia answered. "This is one of our main holodecks. We can use hard-light, forcefields, and replicators to mimic any environment."

    Joshua continued to stare past them to the simulated environment. At his prompting his anti-grav chair was moved closer in. "It's just like I remember," the boy remarked. Tears started to flow down his face.

    "This is simply amazing," Jerry insisted. "This technology is beyond anything the NAIS is dreaming up."

    "I'm sure we'll help you reach for that dream," Julia said. "Did your parents ever take you for picnics here, Joshua?"

    Joshua, silenced by his continuing surprise at the holodeck's capabilities, nodded.

    "Well, time to get everything together then." Julia looked to Leo with a grin. "Doctor, you're the health expert. Would you like to do the honors and make sure we're eating right?"

    Leo smiled back at her. "Well, Commander, if you insist. I was going to have Hargert make his lunch."

    "Hargert?", Jerry asked.

    "He's a civilian working in our ship lounge," Julia clarified. "With replicators we don't have the galleys that other space-faring ships might use, but we do have the lounge for people who want to eat non-replicated food or personal recipes. I hope you are fans of sausage stew."

    "I'll let him know where we are now," Leo said.

    The day's discussions were generally over. With some freedom to explore the Davion palace, Robert had made his way to a balcony overlooking Avalon City. The view was a decent one, showing the skyline of the Commonwealth capital (or co-capital, given the data showing Tharkad City on Tharkad also had capital status). The city below bustled with activity.

    "Are you enjoying the view?"

    Robert turned. Victor had stepped out onto the balcony as well. "I'd say so," Robert admitted. "This is quite a city you've got."

    "It is." Victor had a bemused expression on his face. "It is an irony of my life that my subjects associate me with my father's family so much. I was raised on my mother's homeworld."

    "Which explains the German," Robert mused.

    "Ja." Victor drew in a breath. "But these are still my people. I have to protect them. Defend them."

    Robert nodded. "Every time I meet President Morgan, I think about how stressful his life is compared to mine. I'm responsible for over a thousand lives. He has that toward trillions."

    "Emissary Willoughby has spoken of your President to some length," Victor revealed. "I look forward to meeting him one day. He sounds like a fine man."

    "One of the best I've ever met," Robert admitted. "Sometimes he reminds me of my grandfather."

    Victor nodded. "I never knew my grandfathers."

    "My condolences." Robert turned and faced Victor. "I suppose you have it even worse than President Morgan."

    "By all accounts, your Alliance has a larger population and all of the difficulties of republican government, so how do you think that?"

    Robert grinned slightly at that. "For that reason, actually. Or rather, because of something we have called 'term limits'."

    Victor chuckled. "Ah. I believe I understand. Your leader will one day be ineligible for re-election. And so he will move on and be free of the burdens of statesmanship. I, on the other hand, don't have that luxury. Short of abdication, anyway."

    There was something in the way he said that which made it sound like a completely unthinkable act. "Well, with no kids, one of your siblings would take over, right?"

    "My sister Katherine. Or 'Katrina', as she likes to be called now."

    There was a hint of something in Victor's voice. Robert could feel it too. As if that outcome was something he could never allow to happen. Feelings about his sister that were steeped in distrust and uncertainty. "Your grandmother's name?"

    "She wants to emulate her. And my mother. And my Lyran subjects love her, so I left her as my regent on Tharkad while I rule here for a time."

    Victor was clearly trying not to think of other things. And Robert was hardly sensitive enough to get the full range of his emotions, just that continued distrust… and bitter anger.

    When he spoke again, Victor asked, "What do you think of us, Captain?"

    A change of subject. One Robert was happy to indulge in. He thought on his answer. "Well, we seem close in temperament, at least by what I'm used to," he stated. "I can't help but notice the love of Arthurian imagery here."

    "It's part of our culture," Victor explained. "The ideals of chivalry and justice. We are supposed to protect our people and rule with wisdom, justice, and mercy. All in a framework that is supposed to be the most democratic in the Inner Sphere."

    "But I can't help but notice that it leans toward the militant," Robert continued. "Was it like this before your Succession Wars?"

    That drew a bemused snort from Prince Victor. "That would depend, Captain, on which historian or sociologist you ask."

    "Ah." Robert nodded. "Well, I can sympathize with those ideals."

    "And what of your own, Captain?", Victor asked. "What ideals govern you?"

    "I believe in helping people," Robert answered. "I'm out here to help people who are facing things they can't face alone and to protect the weak from those who would abuse them with their strength. I know it sounds naive, but that's how I feel. Because might cannot make right. It never has and never will. Instead I believe in using might for right." He gauged Victor's interested reaction for a moment before finishing with, "And I believe in keeping other people from suffering whenever I can. Because I know what it's like to hurt. To be hurt. I don't want other people to feel the same pain I have. That's why I do this job. I've dedicated myself to this, ever since I got the Darglan technology to make it possible."

    Victor went silent for several moments. He looked back out at the city. Robert did as well. "Well put," the ruler of the Federated Commonwealth said, breaking the silence between them.

    "And what about you?", Robert asked him.

    Victor seemed to consider the question. Robert could feel a subtle tension within him. "I've learned the ideals don't always fit with the demands of my position," he finally said. "As for what I believe in… My father had ambitions to leading the Inner Sphere directly, and he acted to fulfill those ambitions. Sometimes he did the right thing. Sometimes he didn't. Either way, I loved and respected him, and I still look to his example as a ruler."

    Robert turned and looked at the distant expression on Victor's face as the other man seemed to go back into deep thought. "Sometimes it feels like I should be just like him. That is the way to be successful. But if I were to be honest, I don't feel the same way he does. I am the son of Hanse Davion, but I didn't get his ambition. My ambition doesn't go so far. I want to be an honest ruler and to protect my subjects, to protect the whole Inner Sphere, from the forces that want to harm them. Father wanted to be First Lord of a reborn Star League. I want an Inner Sphere free from the Clan threat so that we can rebuild from the Succession Wars. I would be content to lead the Federated Commonwealth and Inner Sphere into an age of peace and quiet. No wars of honor, no glorious expansion by our BattleMech regiments, just peace between all the Houses." His expression grew distant. "But I've found rulers don't have the luxury of ruling by their ideals. We have to deal with the reality of our situation. Justice and compassion have to be put aside. We must do things… we would rather not do, or not do things we would rather do. And that's when I have to look to my father's example."

    Robert nodded at that. "It's not always so cut-and-dried out there," he admitted. "Sometimes there's nothing we can do, not without making the problem worse." An old voice came back into Robert's memory, full of dignity and time-earned experience. "Captain Picard - a Starfleet captain I know, the Starfleet of the United Federation of Planets that is - once told me that everything we do has consequences. Even the most heroic or noble act might cause something horrible to happen," he said. "So I understand what you mean by not being able to act on what you believe, even if I'm sure the scale is different."

    "Yes." Victor looked to his wrist. "I have a Privy Council meeting in twenty minutes I must prepare for. Thank you for your time, Captain."

    Robert nodded and smiled. "Thank you for the time, Prince."

    Victor turned away to leave the balcony. As he got to the door Robert turned. "Prince Victor…", he began. This prompted Victor to look back. "I'm not sure how your security people will react to this, but I'd like to offer you and your sister a tour of the Aurora."

    Victor's thoughtful grin turned into a bit of a smirk. "I can already imagine their reaction," he confessed. The grin grew. "I'll find the time in my schedule and let you know."

    "Sounds good to me."

    The two exchanged nods. Victor entered the door and left Robert outside.

    He turned back to the cityscape of Avalon City and drew in a breath. Some time later he reached for his multidevice. "Dale to Aurora. One to beam up."

    The Aurora's transporter brought him home.

    With the day almost over, Robert decided it was time to check in on their guest.

    He found the medbay to be quiet. It was late in Beta shift and the medical staff were finishing the day's inventory and reports for their shift. Leo was in his office when Robert got there. "So, how is our little leukemia patient?", he asked.

    Leo looked up from his monitor. "His body is accepting the replicated blood well enough. A few days will tell on how soon we can move to the marrow replacement. I already have the new marrow growing in the lab."

    "And non-medically?"

    Leo smirked. "Go see for yourself."

    "Well, if that isn't cryptic," Robert muttered to himself while stepping out of the office. He went down the medbay interior hall until he came to the isolab. The MIIO bodyguards were watching the entrance with one of Meridina's officers, a Human woman with a Mediterranean skin tone. They waved him in.

    Once through the interior airlock Robert was greeted by peals of laughter. Joshua was clearly in the throes of a laughing fit, with Nasri grinning knowingly and Jerry Cranston looking like he was desperately trying to not join in.

    Barnes was pacing near the other wall, beyond the foot of the bed. "...and of course, we couldn't go back! Because that'd be silly! So I spent the entire trip holding it so bad that you could see the pee filling my eyelids! I was going to start dancing in the car! And Julia said…"

    "...'this is why you shouldn't drink the whole two-liter in a single sitting'," Robert finished for him, smirking. "You're still milking that story, Tom?"

    Barnes turned and mockingly glared at him. "Hey, not cool Rob. You're ruining my routine."

    Robert looked to the others. "He's being hyper-active again isn't he? I'm going to have to talk to Hargert about reducing his sugar intake."

    Joshua giggled at that. "How many more stories do you have, Mister Barnes?"

    "A lot, but most are things I can't tell you yet, Josh. You're not old enough. Your dad would probably want me flogged or whatever it is Inner Sphere nobles do to commoners who tick them off."

    "This isn't exactly the Middle Ages, Tom," Robert reminded him. "Odds are he'd just sue you."

    "Yeah, and I ain't made of money."

    "Why do people say I'm too young to know things?", Joshua asked.

    "Because that's what good parents tell their kids," Barnes answered. "Otherwise their kids end up as foul-mouthed buttholes who decide to become engineers and can't stop making fun of everything."

    Robert chuckled at that. "Well, there are tradeoffs."

    Barnes gave him an appreciative look before turning his attention back to Joshua. "Anyway, kid, it's been fun, but I've got to vamoose. I've got a lot of work to do so that the lights stay on and we don't all float out of our beds." He walked up to the bed and extended his hand. "Put 'er there." After the smiling young man accepted the handshake, Barnes extended his finger. "Now give it a pull."

    Robert did a half-facepalm at that. Tom, your sense of humor needs work, he thought.

    Joshua was a prince of the highest Inner Sphere royalty… but he was also of that adolescent age when flatulence was still a tremendous source of humor. He gladly grabbed Barnes' finger and yanked at it.

    Instead of the expected, however, Barnes let out a loud, long, soda-fueled belch. Joshua erupted in a giggling fit at the subversion of the normal "pull my finger" route. "Oh man, I've been holding that one," Barnes declared. "Thanks for helping me get it out."

    "You're welcome, Mister Barnes," Joshua replied.

    "See you later, kid." Barnes stepped away. He winked at Robert before exiting the room.

    "I hope he hasn't offended anyone," Robert sighed. "Tom's sense of humor is pretty immature."

    "No offense was taken," Jerry assured him. He was allowing himself a wider grin now. "I'm not one for crude humor, but there's something in the delivery that makes it pretty funny."

    "Tom has his ways with being humorous," Robert responded. "Do you need quarters, Mister Cranston?"

    "I'll be fine." Jerry waved off his remark. He indicated a bedding roll nearby. "I'll be fine in here."

    "If that's your wish." Robert looked to Joshua. "How'd you like our ship, Joshua?"

    "It's amazing!", Joshua insisted. "It's so big and there's so much stuff in it! And you've got aliens! Aliens made of jello!"

    "Ah." Robert looked to Jerry Cranston. "I see you met Doctor Ke'mani'pala."

    "We did. I'm not sure Victor will believe me when I tell him about her… it is 'her', right?"

    "Well, the Gl'mulli are genderless gelatinous beings," Robert pointed out. "But I think it was agreed that 'she' can work since they can all have children." He looked back to Joshua. "So you had a pretty active day then?"

    "And you can make places out of thin air," Joshua continued. "Miss Andreys remade the Interstellar Botanical Gardens for me!"

    "So you've seen the holodeck as well." Robert grinned at that. "I'm glad to see you're enjoying your time aboard so much, Joshua. The important thing is to get you better, of course."

    "I'm already feeling better," Joshua insisted. And then he yawned. "Although I'm still tired."

    The door out of the isolab opened. Leo stepped in and looked at everyone. "Alright, it's time for Joshua to get some rest," he said. "Everyone out."

    Robert nodded and walked through the door first, joined by Nasri. Jerry started to set up his cot.

    On the outside, Robert waited until Leo emerged, carrying a tube of blood with him. "I have to make sure that the blood cell count is staying up," he explained pre-emptively.

    "Hey, this is your field," Robert answered. He looked back to the door. "So he's really doing better?"

    "For the moment, he's got more energy at least." There was something in Leo's look that made Robert think there was more to it. "But time will still tell, Rob. Joshua's leukemia was terminal when I got to him. The blast cells, that is, the malformed white blood cells caused by his condition, had already made it into his central nervous system and were damaging it. And that's not going into the damage in his cardiovascular system and the potential for internal hemorrhaging. Recovering from that damage will take more than replicated blood, but at the same time, I have to make sure his body is strong enough for the surgery."

    "You're not cutting him open though, right?", Robert asked.

    "Not unless absolutely necessary," Leo confirmed. "But the body is still traumatized when you go in with matter-transporters to scoop out diseased tissue. That's why I need the replicated blood transfusions to go on for a few more days, at least. I need to get his organs and CNS back to functional levels and build up some resilience in his body before I put it through that strain."

    "I understand." Robert clapped Leo on the shoulder. "I know you can get this done, alright?"

    Leo's expression was sardonic. "Oh? Because I figured you and Julia were both preparing an intervention so I don't lose sight of how it might go wrong."

    "Right now that doesn't seem necessary. You know it can. But I know you're dedicated to it working."

    Leo looked back into the iso-unit. Through the window he could see Joshua settling into sleep. "Damn right I am," he answered. "Damn right."

    Victor had never seen his little sister so excited.

    Yvonne had pulled her red hair into a simplified ponytail and donned a brilliant orange and ice-blue blouse and dress. Victor was in uniform, befitting the official visit he was about to make. A representative from the New Avalon News Service would be joining them to report on the visit to the press, hopefully giving the populace some satisfaction in their hunger for more details about the United Alliance of Systems.

    "Yvonne, if you continue to vibrate, I'm worried you'll drill through the ferrocrete," Victor teased.

    Yvonne gave him a look. "Victor, why aren't you excited about this?! Have you seen the holo-images of that ship? There's been nothing like it before! Not even during the Star League! And we're going to get a tour of her!"

    Victor nodded and said nothing more. The truth was he didn't want his sister's enthusiasm to become that dampened anyway. After everything they'd lost - their parents' deaths and Peter secluding himself in a monastery - the chance to see her happy like this was heartwarming.

    Less heartwarming was the brooding presence to Victor's left. Curaitis rarely showed his emotions. But right now he had a definite scowl. As anticipated, he had not been happy with Victor's acceptance of Captain Dale's generous offer.

    "This is an unacceptable security risk," Curaitis said. "You and Yvonne together, sir? You should leave her behind, or send her only."

    "Now what kind of message would that send, Curaitis?", Victor replied. "We've been invited and accepted. Something like that would be a smack across the face."

    "We still don't know everything about the Alliance, sir." Curaitis wasn't giving up. "You're putting yourself and your sister in harm's way by doing this. If they held you hostage they could paralyze the entire Commonwealth." It was clear from Curaitis' expression that the unspoken addition to that sentence was "And give Katherine a clear opening to seize power for herself".

    "A good point," Victor conceded. He looked to Curaitis. They were keeping their voices low so that the journalist, busy as he was conversing with his bosses, didn't hear them. "By the way, have our scientists at NAIS found any way to block their matter-transporters?"

    Curaitis' scowl becoming a frown was the answer he saw coming.

    "So this really doesn't matter, does it?", Victor said. "If they wanted to abduct me and Yvonne and cripple the Commonwealth, there's not a damn thing we can do to stop them."

    "No, sir, there is not."

    "Good to know we're on the same page." Victor nodded to him. "I appreciate your efforts, Curaitis. You're a good and loyal man and I rely upon your advice, even when I don't follow it. But there are times when you have to let the paranoia go and try a higher road."

    "So Your Highness has said."

    The pilot for Victor's personal shuttle stepped out of it and gave them a thumbs up. It was time to go.

    In the Aurora's fighter landing deck, Robert's command crew had turned out in dress uniform for the arrival of Victor and Yvonne. A Marine honor guard bore the Federated Commonwealth flag at ready position and held it in place as the shuttle came in for the landing. The Commonwealth pilot added to the occasion with as perfect a landing as could be had. Tractor beam emitters helped bring it to a stop right on target. Curaitis stepped out first with two of Victor's bodyguards, after which Victor and his sister disembarked. The ship's speakers played the Commonwealth anthem and the honor guard stood to attention.

    Robert was two steps forward of most of the others, with Julia at his side. "Your Highness," he said formally. "Welcome aboard the Aurora. It's our privilege and honor to have you."

    "The privilege is mine, Captain."

    "This ship is beyond anything I might have dreamed," Yvonne added. "I am eager to see more of it."

    "That will be my pleasure, Your Highness."

    Aside from Leo and Meridina the Commonwealth visitors had not met the others. Robert turned to Julia. "This is Commander Julia Andreys, my First Officer. Commander Jarod, Second Officer and Ship's Operations Officer. Commander Montgomery Scott, Chief Engineer, and his lead Assistant Chief Engineer Lieutenant Thomas Barnes. Lieutenant Commander Patrice Laurent, Wing Command Officer. I believe you already know Commander Meridina." Meridina tilted her head slightly and nodded at Victor as they passed. "Marine Commander Carter Kane. Lieutenant Angela Delgado, Tactical Officer and Lieutenant Caterina Delgado, Science Officer. Lieutenant Nicholas Locarno, Navigation Officer."

    One by one Victor and Yvonne greeted each of them. Caterina stood out from the others as she, as usual, had opted for the dress uniform skirt and not the trousers like her sister and Julia had.

    "It is a pleasure to meet you all," Victor stated. He looked to Robert. "They're not all coming, are they?"

    "They're just here for your arrival," Robert replied. "Although we'll be seeing them as we continue the tour, running their departments."

    "Of course." Victor now clearly noted the one absent officer. "Where is Doctor Gillam?"

    It was Julia who answered. Her demeanor struck Victor as being the closest to his view of an officer in dress uniform - clearly uncomfortable in the uniform and even better at hiding it, compared to the visible dislike most of the other officers showed for their own. "He is currently in the medbay tending to Joshua Marik," she explained. "He has to go over lab results and see if the replicated blood in Joshua's body is working right."

    "Of course," Victor said. "I understand. I hope to visit Joshua myself, actually. At the end of the tour."

    "I'm sure we can arrange that," Robert promised. "As for the tour, after some discussion we decided to move from stern to bow given our location. If you'll follow me, Highnesses, we'll start with an inspection of Commander Laurent's craft."

    In the medbay's lab space, Leo looked over the latest test results from Joshua. "Medical log update on patient Joshua Marik. Tests drawn at 1200 15 March 2642. Blast cell count has dropped to manageable levels. Red blood cell count is at sufficient levels. White blood cells are still on the low side. Raise cell ratio in next replication batch by…" He considered the figure and thought about the necessary adjustment in his head. He swirled about the small container of Joshua's blood as he thought. "...ten percent. Organ damage from low oxygen count still present but is not growing. Damage to central nervous system is still present and is primary concern. Propose that when patient finishes bone marrow replacement procedure, nerve regrowth therapy and procedures be scheduled."

    He turned and put the blood sample back up. Around him displays showed various other results from the various tests that the Aurora crew underwent for whatever reason. On some occasions there could be two or even three doctors or nurse-specialists in the room running their own tests on the multitude of equipment. The soft confirmation beeping from the hard-light control displays was incessant when this was true. But right now he was alone with his test results and nothing else.

    There was a knocking sound at the lab entrance. He turned and faced Nasri. She looked at him with concern. "Is everything alright?", she asked.

    "We're doing about as good as we can," Leo answered. "We'll need to adjust the white blood cell count in his next batch of replicated blood. Ten percent higher."

    "I'll order that adjustment." Nasri stepped up to him. "But I am more concerned about you."

    "Oh." Leo returned her look and finally sighed. "I know, everyone's worried about me. All I can say is that I know what I'm doing."

    "That I do not doubt. I simply worry about what might happen if things do not go according to your desires."

    "I'm prepared for that," Leo answered. "A couple of months, Nasri. That's the difference here. If I'd gotten to Joshua two months ago nothing would be in doubt."

    "Unfortunately, we're not always in time." Nasri set a hand on his shoulder, a gesture of familiarity he was okay with. "I have known you, Leonard, since the day you treated my injuries after your friends lifted me from the hell of my homeland. I have always valued and admired your deep compassion and devotion to saving life. I do not wish to see you hurt."

    "Don't worry about me," he insisted. "I know this could still go wrong." He checked the time and grumbled. "Dammit. Prince Victor and his sister are aboard, they'll be by soon on their tour. How do I look?"

    Nasri smiled thinly. "Like a committed physician tending to a dangerously-ill patient."

    Leo winced. "That bad?"

    That caused an amused giggle to come from Nasri. "I have set aside a change of uniform and shaving equipment in the medbay shower facilities, Doctor." She made a show of checking the time on her multidevice. "I think you might have time to change."

    Leo replied to her with a smile. "Thank you, Nasri. I owe you one."

    "You owe me several, Doctor," Nasri reminded him. "But I don't count them."

    "That's why you're my favorite nurse," he declared before heading off.

    Robert didn't let himself laugh.

    It was harder than he thought it'd be.

    The look on the faces of Victor and Yvonne defined stunned surprise. Whatever mental training they had in controlling their reactions to be proper nobles, it had been overcome by the sight before them.

    The cyan gumdrop-shaped form walked slightly toward them. "Walked", at least, since it was more like twin stubby bits on the bottom of Ke'mani'pala to make traction easier for the Gl'mulli scientist. Her audio translator moved about, directed toward them like a pale blue electronic eye.

    "This allows Gl'mulli to communicate with us and see us," Caterina was explaining. Her usual shyness was restrained by her enthusiasm for the science she was explaining. "They don't see light or speak like we do. They sense electromagnetic fields and heat sources and can feel minute compounds. They're the most natural microbiologists in known space."

    "So it, she, can talk to us?", Yvonne asked.

    A blush appeared on Cat's face. "Oh, yes! I'm so sorry, I should…" She looked to Ke'mani'pala. "I'm sorry, Ke. I should have let you explain."

    "Oh, it is of no concern! You are always so excited to speak of us, Caterina," the Gl'mulli remarked. Her voice was a warbling, mechanical tone through the translator. "It is quite endearing." The translator directed itself back to Robert. "Thank you Captain. I do so appreciate meeting new Humans. I'm still getting used to the way you signal others."

    "You're welcome, Doctor." Robert nodded to her.

    "'Signal' others?" Again, the question was from Yvonne.

    "She means body language and verbal communication," Caterina explained. "Gl'mulli communicate with electromagnetic signals between each other, or by melding themselves together to share thoughts and experiences or to, um…"

    Electronic trilling came from the translator. Robert recognized it as the Gl'mulli equivalent of giggling or chuckling. "It is how we exchange genetic information to spawn," Ke'mani'pala announced. "Not every time we meld, mind you."

    "So that's how you have… babies."

    "Yes, Princess Yvonne. That is how we produce spawnlings. It is so amusing to us that other species get so… awkward about it." There was more trilling. "I think it has to do with how you experience sensation? It creates some sort of social… 'baggage' is a term I believe you use? Social expectation, perhaps. Our people spawn when we believe it is time to bring new life into the world. We attach no physical pleasure to the act."

    "Unlike Humans and Dorei and a number of other species," Caterina noted. Her cheeks were pink. "Moving on…" She ignored the renewed trilling from Ke'mani'pala. "...I did want to show you something interesting concerning your method of interstellar travel."

    "I have embarrassed the poor Lieutenant," the Gl'mulli remarked. "But I agree, it is time to move on. I have a delicate experiment back in my own lab that must be attended!" The Gl'mulli departed for the far door.

    Robert was fighting to keep a smile off his face while Cat led them over to a main display. This was Science Lab 2, so physics experiments and simulations were among the things practiced by its staff.

    "I'm afraid I'm not an expert on Kearny-Fuchida Drives," Victor confessed.

    Caterina shrugged. "I was sure of that. This is some pretty advanced quantum mechanics, actually, involving hyperspatial subspace…. A lot of big words, it involves a lot of big words." Caterina pointed to a series of oscillating waves. "These are the Groenitz-Hallen bands of subspace. This display," she pointed to one of the waves, "shows the ripples caused when your drives make a jump. These…" She pointed to another. "...come from using jump drives built by a Human civilization called the Colonies of Kobol, and the machine race they built called the Cylons." She looked back to the two Commonwealth royals. "Now, do you see this?"

    Yvonne nodded. "They look similar."

    "Exactly!" Caterina was grinning widely as she turned back. "The ripple effect in subspace is proportionally the same. The only difference seems to be a reflection of the hyperspatial bands that are accessed." She pointed to a third, showing a much more active wave. "These ripples are from Goa'uld hyperdrives when they open a hyperspace window. Now, these ships access very deep bands of hyperspace, and it looks like one cost of this access is that they don't make jumps but travel through hyperspace. Much like ships from E5B1 do. Hyperspatial jump drives, like those used by you and by the Kobolians and Cylons, access more shallow bands… higher bands, I guess, though that's not very accurate… anyway, this correlation does mean that your drives could potentially be modified to access the deeper hyperspace bands. It remains to be seen if…"

    Robert's multidevice let off a tone. A message popped up on the holographic screen.

    Jarod here. I need to see you ASAP.

    With everyone looking at him, Robert smiled sadly. "Being a starship captain can be a pain," he said. "But if Jarod needs to see me then it's fairly urgent. Cat, mind taking over the tour?"

    "Well… sure, I mean, what's left for them to see?"

    "The Science Labs, and the Lookout if they're hungry," Robert replied. "And if they want to go to the bridge, I'm fine with it. My apologies, Prince Victor, Princess Yvonne, I'll meet back up with you as soon as I can."

    "Of course, Captain," Victor said. "We all have our duties."

    "Okay." Cat nodded and looked back to Victor and Yvonne while Robert went for the door. "Anyway, the key issue is the method of accessing the right hyperspace band without generating excessive…"

    Leo and Jarod had been waiting for Robert in the main conference room off the bridge. Jarod had his findings. And Leo had confirmed them.

    Robert looked at Jarod with a cold expression. "Are you sure?", was what he finally said.

    Jarod nodded. "The records check out. And the holo is authentic."

    The holo in question was displayed over the main table, as if to be used for a briefing. It showed an emaciated child in a wheelchair at what looked to be a public fundraiser event, with the date on the video showing that it had only been a couple months before. And to Robert's eye, the child looked very much like Joshua Marik.

    And Leo had just told him it couldn't be Joshua.

    "So you're telling me that Victor has had a double of Joshua running around for months?", Robert asked.

    "The evidence fits the theory," Jarod answered. "Leo and I are in agreement that there's no way Joshua could have been there."

    "His condition was too severe," Leo added. He seemed more perturbed than Robert. "He was in a coma before my initial treatment at NAIS woke him up."

    "Additionally, it would explain why NAIS' oncology division was so completely reshuffled," Jarod continued. "As Leo noted in the paperwork. Virtually every doctor or nurse who dealt with Joshua over the years was transferred out over the course of several months last year. Doctor Harper is the only physician whose name appears repeatedly in the paperwork over the last fourteen months."

    Robert leaned against the table. He kept looking at the holo and wondering about it. He tried to focus, to see if his life force connection to the universe, that sense of the future that gave him dreams so often, would give him insight into the situation.

    But it wasn't that which convinced him. It was Jarod's insistence. It made too much sense. The evidence was all in place. "Wasn't that sloppy of them?", he finally said. "Did they really think we wouldn't find this out?"

    "Maybe they imagined we'd never feel the need to look." Jarod hit a key and turned the holo off. "Given that there was no more public news about Joshua as of a few weeks ago, maybe someone changed their mind. I don't have enough information to tell me either way."

    "Right." Robert clenched his fists while using them to still lean on the table. His knuckles briefly protested the extra strain. "Mister Jarod, I don't want a report on this filed yet."

    "It's still incomplete, I have a few finishing touches to put on it."

    Leo stepped up and stared Robert in the face. "What are you going to do, Robert? Something like this… how can we trust these people if they'll stoop to something like this?"

    "Let me worry about that in my report, Leo," Robert replied softly. "For now, focus on caring for Joshua. Nothing's changed about that."

    "Of course." Leo nodded. "Let me know if you need anything."

    Robert nodded wordlessly. His thoughts were still trying to deal with what had just been revealed. He looked to Jarod again and nodded his head toward the bridge. "Go ahead. Assume your command watch."

    "Alright. If you need anything else…" Jarod waited for him to answer. After five seconds of no answer, he departed the conference room.

    For about a minute Robert simply stood there. Was his judgement about these people wrong? Was Victor something nastier than he'd felt him to be?

    He could report this to Maran and Morgan and let it go. Allow his superiors to make those judgements. Perhaps analysts would figure out what was going on. It would certainly color Morgan's approach to the Federated Commonwealth. And if there was a leak in his administration, if word got out and a press investigation corroborated this…

    It could cause a war. It would definitely break any of Prince Victor's hopes of unifying the Inner Sphere against the Clan invaders. Do I really want that to happen? Does the Alliance want something like to happen? When there's so much we and the Inner Sphere can do for each other if they remain at peace?

    But was it his place to simply cover up something like this? To not report it to his superiors? He had obligations to them as well, and if the Commonwealth couldn't be trusted to deal fairly…

    Robert realized what time it was. He knew what he had to do.

    His hand went to his multidevice.

    "Dale to Caterina Delgado," he said.

    After a few moments, a response came. "Delgado here."

    "Inform Prince Victor that once the tour's over, I would like a word with him in my ready office."

    "I'll let him know. We were getting ready to come up to the bridge for the tour now."

    "Good. Tell him I'll be waiting for him when he's done on the bridge. Dale out."

    The wait before Victor arrived in Robert's office had given Robert time to think over things. Jarod's report was thorough, and the evidence convincing. With a touch of a button, he could send the entire report off to Portland and to the eyes of Maran and Morgan.

    It felt incomplete, though. This was something… it had to be explained. Victor's people had put a double into place, and then allowed him and his crew access to the original, making the entire thing a waste. Why? Jarod had theories, he had theories… but he wanted to know.

    The long-awaited chime at the door went off. "Come in," Robert called out. The door promptly opened to permit Victor entry. "Captain?", he asked. "I appreciate the chance to see your marvelous vessel. It's a work of art."

    "I've often felt so," Robert admitted. He looked to Victor and knew his neutral expression wasn't hiding his discomfort. "I… have something to discuss with you, Prince Victor. If you'll step fully in and allow the door to close? This requires privacy. You can select a chair if you'd like."

    Victor nodded and fully entered the office. He moved without undue rush, finding a comfortable seat in one of the chairs opposite Robert's desk chair. "What is wrong, Captain?"

    Robert reached over and hit a key on his controls. A small holo-projector on his desk displayed, for Victor's benefit, the video of Joshua Marik at the fundraiser. Victor recognized it as the Marik Refugee Relief Fund public event from before the New Year, put on by the Marik diplomatic representatives on New Avalon to raise funds for House Marik's humanitarian support of refugees displaced by the Clans. The timestamp, and its AST counterpart, were prominent in the corner. Victor watched the video for the ten seconds Robert played it. He was confused initially. But Robert thought he could sense a gradual realization come over him.

    "That was taken just nine weeks ago," Robert said. "Commander Jarod double-checked the scheduling for the MRRF. And according to Jarod and Doctor Gillam, it is impossible for Joshua to have been there."

    Victor paled slightly.

    "Someone gutted NAIS' oncology department over the course of the prior calendar year," Robert continued. "Many of its leading physicians and researchers were re-assigned to other facilities and other worlds. Going by the medical records for Joshua, the transfers of everyone who had been involved in his treatment started around the point the leukemia cells started affecting his central nervous system. In short… once his condition was, by your science, irrevocably terminal."

    Robert put his hands together on the desk. As much as he tried to keep his expression neutral, he couldn't keep his disappointment off his face. He thought he'd met something of a kindred spirit in Victor, a man who shared his ideals. It hurt to think that his sense had been wrong. That he'd nearly placed such trust and respect into a man capable of something so terrible.

    "You were planting a double."

    Victor nodded. "Yes."

    "You were going to let Joshua Marik die of his illness while a double pretended to be him, still living. You were going to trick Thomas Marik into thinking his son was still alive."


    There was silence between the two of them. The admissions had been frank and painful. Robert could feel the guilt and shame all wrapped up with a defiant sense of necessity. It wasn't often that he wished his "gifts", his life force connection to the universe, was stronger, but this was one such time. He needed to know more.

    Before he could ask anything else, Victor continued on his own. "There's no point in hiding it. Once I decided to seek your help in saving Joshua, I knew Gemini, this plan, was hopelessly compromised and might be revealed. I was simply hoping it might not come up. That the plan would simply be allowed to fade away on its own."

    Robert could sense the truth in that statement. Or, at least, that for the moment Victor was believing it was true.

    "You know the political background, Captain. But perhaps you don't know Sun-Tzu as well as we do," Victor continued. "He is ruthless and determined. The moment Joshua was dead he would have pressed his suit with Isis Marik. And he would have used that influence to begin a plan to attack us."

    "So you were going to keep Joshua 'alive'... forever?"

    "No. That wouldn't work. Only long enough for the Commonwealth to finish its own retooling of industry. Once we were ready for the threat, Joshua's death would have been announced. His remains would have been taken out of cryogenic preservation and delivered to his father." Victor drew in a pained breath. "I'm not proud. I never wanted to implement Gemini. I did what I thought I had to."

    "And then your people contacted us."

    Victor made eye contact with Robert. His bright blue eyes locked onto Robert's without wavering. "When I realized what your people could do… when Emissary Willoughby talked about how easily you could cure Joshua's condition, I knew what I had to do. I couldn't let Joshua Marik die. Not if his life could actually be saved."

    "Because his survival benefits the Commonwealth?", Robert asked.

    "I would be lying, Captain, if I claimed that thought didn't enter my mind. Jerry has often told me that Joshua surviving would be of great benefit to us. That his childhood spent here would help make him a sympathetic Captain-General when he succeeded his father." Victor shook his head. "But even if it didn't benefit us… I still want him to live. Maybe some rulers, maybe even my father, could have condemned a ten year old boy to die, but I can't."

    Again Robert could sense the emotional sincerity of those words. Not with the clarity Meridina or Lucy would have, he was still working on that, but Victor would have to be one hell of an actor to fool him. And nothing he'd seen of the Commonwealth Archon-Prince seemed to indicate he was capable of that kind of acting.

    But I didn't think he could trick a worried father and family either, did I?

    "What do you intend to do, Captain?", Victor asked.

    That was the bitter question Robert faced. As much as he wanted to be guided by his ideals, he faced his own practical problems. Revealing the double plot had deep ramifications for the Inner Sphere, which in turn meant ramifications for the Alliance.

    But he was just a starship captain. The one on the scene, perhaps, but it would be President Morgan who made the ultimate decisions on Alliance policies.

    Decisions that, in some way, are influenced by my findings. As that thought came to Robert, he realized that his responsibility for the Alliance was greater than he had contemplated before. What he reported would in turn influence President Morgan. That was a powerful and dangerous thing.

    So what do I do? he asked himself. What do I tell them?

    "I'm still deciding, Prince," Robert answered him. "Thank you for being honest. Whatever happens, I'll remember that."

    There was only a slight lifting of the somber expression on the Archon-Prince's face. Robert could not blame him. This arrival of the Alliance into the Inner Sphere would change everything. And he had just given the leadership of the Alliance a strong reason not to trust him, which could have terrible ramifications for his entire Commonwealth.

    Victor checked the military watch. "I have to return home now. I'm due for a meeting tonight."

    "Of course," Robert answered.

    "Please, if you need anything, or if Joshua's condition changes…"

    "I'll let you know," Robert assured him.

    There were no more words. Robert watched quietly as the dejected man walked out of his office. He suspected he looked little better than Victor did now.

    He turned in his chair and looked out at the stars. He was deep in thought. So deep that he lost track of time.

    He was jolted back to attention by the door chime. He looked back and called out, "Come in".

    He'd expected it to be Julia, wanting to know why he hadn't escorted Victor and Yvonne back to their shuttle. But instead it was Meridina. "I sense you are troubled," the Gersallian woman said. She was in standard duty uniform, the olive brown trim color of ship security joined by the primary black color of the uniform.

    "I am," he admitted. "The Commonwealth did something that could jeopardize our future relationship. And now I have to decide what to do with my information."

    "Oh?" Meridina slipped into a seat. "What is your dilemma, Robert?"

    Robert hesitated. Leo and Jarod already knew. Telling more people would theoretically make it harder to keep the secret.

    But at the same time, he trusted Meridina. And her insights would be valuable.

    So he told her.

    At Victor's request, Jerry Cranston had rejoined him for the flight back down to New Avalon. The MIIO bodyguards had remained behind to continue watching Joshua.

    Once they were back in the palace and safely in Victor's office with Curaitis, Victor turned to him and said, "Dale knows."

    Jerry's face fell. "Gemini?"

    "Yes. His operations officer found the Marik Refugee Relief fundraiser holo while looking through the planetary database for social videos."

    "Or he was hunting for something in the first place." Curaitis shook his head.

    Victor held his tongue. Curaitis' advice was valuable, even if it was his paranoia and distrust that had led to this in the first place. Insulting him wouldn't fix any of this.

    "Did Captain Dale say what the Alliance response would be?"

    "He isn't sure himself. I don't think he is. I think he was testing my response to their knowledge." Victor collapsed into his office chair and pulled open the collar of his uniform.

    "I have a backup plan in place, sir, for this eventuality," Curaitis said. "Evidence and indications of Capellan Maskirovka plans to murder Joshua. It would be simple to claim Gemini was implemented to protect Joshua from these assassins."

    "So on top of misleading Thomas Marik about his son's condition, I'll also look like a heartless man who put an innocent child up as bait," Victor pointed out.

    "You created uncertainty to make it harder for assassins to strike either," Curaitis proposed.

    "Somehow I doubt the scandalvids will see the distinction."

    Jerry's comment made Victor's mood darker. As if he hadn't taken enough of a beating from them. Now Gemini, if it got out, would make all of their other charges look authentic.

    I knew this might happen, he thought to himself. I knew and I made my choice anyway. Joshua Marik deserves the extra chance to live.

    Now all he could do was wait and see what consequences his choice had.
    rifern likes this.
  15. Threadmarks: 2-03-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    Meridina did not speak when Robert finished explaining everything. She kept her eyes on him. He got the feeling she was waiting for him to say something else. "I'm not sure what else I should say, or need to say," he admitted.

    "You seem greatly troubled by this," Meridina observed. "More than one might expect. You have a decision to make, then?"

    "I do, yes. I have to decide whether or not telling specific details to my superiors is something I should do. Even if it means ruining our chances at getting the Commonwealth onto our side."

    "And you are concerned over this choice."

    "I want to trust Victor. I want to. But I'm not sure I can. Not now, not after this."

    Meridina nodded in understanding. "I understand your confidence in him has been undermined. What worries me, however, is your confidence in yourself. In your judgement."

    "Well, there's a lot riding on what we do. I have to make a decision and make it soon."

    "Have you contemplated on it?', Meridina asked. "That is the only advice I can give. Contemplate upon the question. Calm yourself and listen to what your swevyra senses. I can give no other advice."

    Robert considered that suggestion for a moment. "So… I just let my instincts or life force or what have you decide?"

    "No. Let your swevyra guide you, Robert. That is what it is there for."

    Given the insistence in her voice, Robert came to the conclusion to give it a try. He focused on his mind and tried to push the stress away. After a minute of frustration, noting Meridina's look, he thought to some of their earlier training sessions and changed the approach he was taking. Instead of focusing he simply let go. He didn't think about it. About Joshua Marik, the double plot, his disappointment with Prince Victor and his concern about the Alliance's future and the stresses of possibly shaping the President's response to this….

    The concerns melted away. Robert felt his mind in a state of calm and, with it, came the warmth he had learned to appreciate, the golden warmth of his life force pulsing with power. He could feel Meridina, her own life force blazing as brightly as his own, and on the bridge he could feel Jarod and Locarno and some of the others. With just a gentle thought he felt the ember of life that was Joshua Marik, still so weak from his condition, and the determination beside him that was Leo.

    For a moment he continued that. Beyond the Aurora to the teeming life below them. He felt pulled toward the brightness emanating from the planet New Avalon. It wasn't the lights of Avalon City but the life of its denizens, all of their emotions good and ill. It was bright. So bright...


    Meridina's voice came to him. It pulled him back. He was doing this for a reason, he remembered. He had to know. The double. What to do about this?

    The answer came to him slowly, but with certainty. A feeling deep in the warmth. He hadn't been wrong about Victor. He had felt it within him. Victor had made a mistake, a decision made under pressure and with fear. It didn't define who he was. It simply spoke to the situation he had been in.

    Just as Robert had once done. He too had known pressure, had known fear. The nightmares that plagued him, the pressure of a secret mission with great consequences for them all. A mistake made, a secret kept thoughtlessly, trust betrayed. A friendship nearly lost, a war, all from that mistake.

    33LA had been his error. This had been Victor's. The scope, the facts, had been different, but the underlying causes hadn't.

    Robert fixed on that connection. The shared motivations. His own impressions of the man who, at the same age, had the same relative inexperience compared to others. The true feelings about the plot that he had sensed when confronting him.

    For a moment of crystal clarity, he could feel what needed to be done. Deep in his bones, in his heart, in his soul, his very essence of being.

    Robert knew what to do now.

    And then, at the periphery of his thoughts, he heard something. A howl sounded in the distance. He turned and briefly saw a four-legged shadow…

    ...and then he opened his eyes. Meridina looked at him expectantly.

    "Is that what it's like all the time?", Robert asked. "That flow of life, it was like it was pulling me in. And it just felt natural to me to…"

    "For some of us, it is indeed strong" she answered. "Your ability to find connections with others and to understand them, your… 'empathy' I believe is your language's word, makes your swevyra draw upon those connections and bonds. Another swevyra'se might not be so capable."

    He nodded in reply. "I know what I need to do now, Meridina. Thank you. I'm sorry, but I have some work to do… I'll make up my training later."

    She smiled gently at him. "As far as I'm concerned, Robert, this was your training for the day."

    "It's certainly more enjoyable than standing on my hands for twenty minutes," Robert answered with a thin smile.

    "We all have our own strengths and weaknesses." Meridina stood. "I shall let you apply your insights, Robert. Let me know if you need anything else."

    "Of course, Meridina. And…" His smile became warm. "...thank you."

    "You are most welcome, Robert."

    Victor had been about to retire when the call came in.

    Seconds later, as soon as he confirmed he was ready, a pillar of white light appeared in his office and took the form of Captain Dale.

    The two men, so close in age to each other, exchanged looks. Victor had a civilian-style evening robe on, showing he had been getting comfortable for the night. Robert was in the same duty uniform, but it was a basic duty uniform and not at all like the formal ones he had worn down to New Avalon before. Their relatively-casual garb gave this meeting a casual, personal air that they hadn't quite had before.

    "Captain," Victor said.

    "Prince." Robert nodded. "I wanted to let you know that I've had a chance to think about our… predicament." After a moment he switched to German. "I have made a mistake like that before. A mistake from pressure and fear."

    "I see." Victor got back into his seat. "And?"

    "I believe you are in the same place I was. Trying to do the right thing while doing the wrong thing." Robert took the seat opposite from him. "I'm prepared to tell President Morgan that the double was a Commonwealth security measure meant to protect Joshua from potentially hostile parties."

    Victor smirked slightly at that. "That's Curaitis' backup story if Gemini becomes public. I'm sure the scandalvids will enjoy making me out to be the monster who dangles cancer-ridden children as assassin bait."

    Robert chuckled softly at that. "I was actually intending to state in my report that I believed your security people had implemented Gemini without your approval. You don't seem the type to put children in harm's way."

    "I'm not," Victor insisted. "There are some lines I will not cross."

    "That's what I thought."

    Robert looked around at Victor's office. It was stately and elaborate, much like President Morgan's. Photos and paintings of great Davions from the past were on walls and shelves. Hundreds of years of history had presumably been made by the decisions made here. And now he would be contributing to that, in at least some way.

    "I didn't come just to share my decision with you, Prince Victor," Robert said, now speaking in English again. "I came because of the consequences of it."


    "If Joshua's life is actually threatened on New Avalon by assassins enough that you would implement something like Gemini, then we have to look like we're doing what we must to secure his safety. And when you consider that NAIS is no longer directly responsible for his care…" Robert stopped speaking for a moment to let Victor process what he was saying. And what he was leading to.

    The look in Victor's blue eyes shifted, and in doing so told him that Victor understood completely. "I see," he said. "It does make sense, yes. It would also be a decent gesture to Thomas Marik…" Victor put his hands together on the desk. "Very well. I formally request, Captain Dale, that you take Joshua home, where his father can oversee the continuing treatment with your doctors. The Aurora can get him there more quickly than we could, short of a command circuit that we currently do not have available."

    Robert nodded and grinned in reply. "I'd be honored, Prince Victor, to take charge of Joshua until he gets home."

    "Then I'll recall our MIIO personnel and inform Thomas. I doubt he'll have any objections."

    "He seems to appreciate what Leo is doing for Joshua," Robert agreed. He stood up. "Our diplomatic mission has already reached its natural conclusion as it is. I will have to alter our itinerary slightly, mind you."


    "Well, First Prince, Sian is closer to us than Atreus."

    Victor chuckled. "Ah. Well, I'm quite sure that Chancellor Sun-Tzu will be more than willing to let your change of plans pass. You are safeguarding his future brother-in-law, after all."

    "Hopefully he will. The Foreign Office will make our apologies clear enough, I'm sure."

    Robert stood from the chair and went to leave. But only just. A thought came to his mind, a gesture he could make to extend a trust he was certain would be held. He stopped and turned back to Victor. "You've shown quite a lot of trust in me, Prince Victor, regardless of your situation."

    "I have," Victor admitted. "But years at court have taught me how to judge men. I'm confident enough in that to believe I've judged you properly."

    "Thank you. But I want to reciprocate." Robert put his hands on the back of the chair. "How much have you read about the Multiverse, Prince Victor? About certain… abilities that various species, even other incarnations of Humanity, possess?"

    The look told Robert Victor had likely not read much on that issue. "Jerry said something about Commander Meridina lifting an NAIS stretcher without touching it. That goes with the rumors I've been hearing," Victor said. "Stories about the Gersallians having knights with special powers, or mind-readers called Betazoids from one of the other universes. An old species called the Asari is apparently made up entirely of women that can alter gravity with their minds."

    "It's biotics," Robert revealed. "From long-term persistent exposure to element zero, which allows them to generate and manipulate dark matter. Their entire species evolved with that exposure to have natural biotics. Other species of M4P2, including Humans, can be biotic, although they generally need specialized implants in their brains to properly conduct the dark matter. But I'm off-subject." Robert cleared his throat. "The Gersallian stories are true, and Jerry saw just a little of what they can do. They have an organization called the Order of Swenya. It's lasted for three thousand years and exists to train Gersallians with using a specific kind of… there's no good word in English or German to convey this meaning, so I'll go with 'life force' as a simplification. They call this special kind of life force swevyra and believe some beings have a special form of it, a special form that binds them to the universe and lets them do… some special things."

    Victor gave him a look that seemed partly intrigued and partly bewildered.

    "To go on," Robert continued, "Commander Meridina is a part of the Order. She's a Knight of Swenya. The object you saw on her belt was a lakesh, a memory-metal blade she carries to defend herself with."

    "Even from firearms?", Victor asked pointedly.

    "It's more effective than you think. Although…" Robert put his hands together on top of the chair for a moment before extending a hand. "I suppose seeing is believing."

    For a moment Victor didn't react. Not until his eyes registered the truth that, yes, the penholder on his desk was starting to float in mid-air. His eyes widened and his mouth hung slightly open in mute shock. He forced a hand to pass over and under the penholder and, against his expectations, there was nothing there. No invisible wire. No tingling energy field or anything immediately indicating exotic technology.

    Robert closed his eyes and focused. Victor took a sudden step back as his entire desk now started to levitate. The top of the desk rose up to eye level for several seconds.

    And then it floated downward, gently reaching the ground again.

    "Mein Gott," Victor whispered. "Mein Gott, was…"

    Robert opened his eyes again and settled his hands by his sides. It had taken quite a lot of effort to lift the desk in such a controlled fashion. But it had been the most convincing thing he could do without scaring Victor. "I discovered I had this… swevyra about six months ago," Robert admitted. "Although I suspected it even earlier. My point is… it exists. I have it. Meridina is training me to control it." Robert put his hands together in front of him. "Aside from Admiral Maran and my command crew, you are the only person who I've shown this power to. Well… among those who didn't witness me fighting SS Panzergrenadiers and stormtroopers with it. It's the greatest secret in my life."

    Victor nodded. "I… I see." A small smile came to his face, replacing his earlier confused, stunned look. "Mutual trust and respect, then, Captain?"

    "Yes, Prince," Robert replied.

    "I admit I feel a little honored that you deem me worthy to have this secret." Victor started to step around his desk and approach Robert. "I will keep it, of course. I won't tell another soul. Not even my closest advisors. Not unless you permit it."

    "Thank you," Robert answered. "For now I'd like to keep anyone else from knowing. If word got out, well, I don't think some of my superiors are quite ready to accept that I can do these things. There are… politics involved."

    "I can imagine."

    "Well." Robert put his hands together in front of him. "I'd better beam back up. We'll depart first thing in the morning."

    "Of course. I will have the formal request sent to your ship immediately. For appearance's sake."

    "And I'll send the reply right back."

    "Then…" Victor looked at him intently for a moment.

    And then he brought his hand up.

    "Good voyage to you, Captain."

    Robert looked at the hand for a moment and then accepted it. "Good luck and health to you, Prince. Danke Schon."

    "Danke Schon."

    Joshua awoke early that morning to find that his bodyguards had been replaced entirely by Commander Meridina's people. He was particularly delighted that one of them was one of the "birdmen".

    Leo looked over the blue-feathered Alakin, Ensign Murkap, and asked, "He's not being too eager with the questions, is he Ensign?"

    "No, Doctor," Murkap chirped. "He is being flattering."

    "Ah. Well, that's good." Leo turned back to Joshua. "I have something special to share with you." He walked up and applied a hypospray to Joshua to draw blood for more testing.

    Joshua looked up at him. "What's going on?"

    "Prince Victor and your father have asked us to bring you home," Leo explained. "We're leaving New Avalon in a couple of hours to head to Atreus."

    "Can I say goodbye to Doctor Harper?", Joshua asked.

    "Of course. I'll arrange the call immediately." Leo pulled the hypospray away and looked at the dark red fluid in it. He pulled the tubule loose and pocketed it in his white lab coat. "How are you feeling today, Joshua?"

    "It hurts a little," Joshua admitted. "I have a headache."

    "Hrm." Leo used his multidevice to call up the charts. "I see Doctor Singh gave you a mild painkiller about five hours ago." He looked at the biobed active scan results as they were then and now. Singh had undoubtedly noticed the heightened pain response in Joshua's battered CNS. The mild painkiller was the most reasonable thing she could have done. "You let us know if that headache gets worse, okay? Or if it changes in any way."

    "Yes, Doctor," Joshua promised. "Can I have some breakfast?"

    "Of course. We need to get you fed so your body heals." Leo smiled at him. "What would you like?"

    "Whatever Mister Hargert is making," Joshua asked. "I really liked what he gave me last night."

    "Well, I'll give the Lookout a call and see about getting some breakfast sent over to you," he promised.

    "Okay. And can I ask for something else?"

    "Well, sure. Ask away."

    "When we leave, can I be on the bridge?" Joshua put his hands together in his lap. "I didn't get to see New Avalon when I came here. I'd like to see it. And see us leave it."

    Leo considered the request. Joshua had done well in his tour of the ship, a trip to the bridge and back wouldn't hurt. "I'll talk to Captain Dale and Commander Andreys, okay? That's their decision."

    "Okay." Joshua reached over to the control beside his bed and used it to turn the main monitor on. The ship's computer picked up a broadcast coming from Avalon City. Cartoon characters appeared on the holo-screen. "I'll miss these shows," he confided to Leo. "I don't think they get them on Atreus."

    "Maybe not yet," Leo said. "But I think you'll find that things are going to change in the Inner Sphere, Joshua. And soon you'll be able to watch anything from anywhere in the Multiverse."

    The brightened expression on the boy's face should have illuminated the entire room for how sunny it was.

    Robert was at the desk in his personal quarters, eating a quiet breakfast, when Admiral Maran's call came in. The Gersallian admiral's expression was as reserved as ever, but yet didn't hide his quiet aura of confidence and command. "Captain Dale, I received your report on the Joshua Marik situation. I'll be showing it to the President later."

    "Of course, sir. Are there any issues?"

    "None for the moment." Maran nodded slightly. "I am curious about this 'Gemini' operation you mentioned. They really replaced the boy with a double to fool assassins?"

    "I believe the intent was to sow confusion. You make things uncertain as to where the boy is, potential assassins can't be sure where to strike, so they never will. A more complicated version of the method used to secure President Morgan when traveling."

    "Yes, I can see the logic. Well, it's irrelevant now. The President has approved your altered itinerary, you're due on Atreus in three days."

    "We'll be there," Robert pledged. "And Sian…?"

    "The Foreign Office has already drafted the explanation. Emissary Ruiz will present it to Chancellor Liao within a day."

    "Understood. We'll make our way there after Atreus, then. Dale out."

    The call ended. A check of the time told Robert he was due out on the bridge.

    The officers on the bridge were at their stations, but all eyes were on Joshua. Nasri had guided his anti-grav chair up to a position beside Julia and behind Locarno. New Avalon, or at least the nearest curve of it, was displayed below. With a button press Jarod switched the main screen to showing what was directly below. The great sprawl of Avalon City was a splotch of gray on the planet's side.

    "You'll have a view of the whole planet as we pull away," Jarod explained to Joshua.

    "Speaking of pulling away," Robert began, "I think we're scheduled to depart now?" Julia had left his chair unoccupied while he reported to Maran, so he resumed it easily. Leo was to his other side in his usual observation chair.

    Locarno looked to his side. "You want to do the honors?", he asked Joshua.

    The boy's eyes lit up like tiny stars.

    Nasri helped Joshua get into Locarno's lap. Robert watched without saying anything, curious to see what the helmsman was up to. Locarno took Joshua's hands with his own and guided them to the necessary controls. "Okay, here we have impulse control. We're going to leave orbit by turning the ship away from the planet and increasing impulse power. Got it?"

    "Okay." There was excitement in the boy's voice while he let Locarno guide him to the necessary keys. On the screen the planet began to shift away from them. "What do I do next?"

    "You tell Captain Dale and Commander Andreys that we broke orbit," Locarno instructed. He looked to Jarod with a wide grin on his face and found Jarod had his own grin of amusement.

    "Captain Dale, Commander Andreys, we're breaking orbit," Joshua repeated obediently.

    Robert and Julia exchanged smiles. He motioned to her and Julia put a little formality into her voice when she said, "Well then, Ensign Marik, lay in a course for Atreus."

    "Ensign?" Joshua looked over at Locarno. "That's a rank, right?"

    "It is. She's just made you an acting officer," Locarno told him. "So…" Again Locarno guided Joshua's hands over the necessary controls, this time further over on the warp navigation portion of his board. Locarno and the navigation systems did all of the necessary calculations and Joshua got to press the keys. "Say 'Course laid in, ma'am'."

    "Course laid in, ma'am," Joshua repeated. He looked over at Jarod. "Are we far enough away from the planet to see it?"

    Jarod nodded. He glanced back enough to get a nod of approval from Robert before changing the viewer again. New Avalon was now completely visible on the viewscreen. "There you go," said Jarod.

    Joshua stared for several moments. "I made friends there," he finally said. "I'm going to miss them."

    "You can call, I'm sure."

    "Would it be appropriate? Do you think my father will think so?"

    Robert smiled at that. "I'm quite sure he will, Joshua."

    "I hope so," Joshua said. "And I hope we'll continue to be friends with them. I like the people in the Commonwealth. They're nice."

    "They certainly seemed that way to me," Julia remarked. "But right now, it's time to get you home. Engage warp drive, Mister Marik, Warp 9.2."

    Again Locarno guided the boy's hands over his board. As he brought Joshua's hand over the final activation key, he said to him, "Engaging now."

    "Engaging now, ma'am," Joshua dutifully repeated, still smiling. His hand pressed against the control surface.

    With a flash of light, the Starship Aurora departed the New Avalon system. Joshua watched as energy flickered on the viewscreen until it was completely replaced by streaks of light.

    "Congratulations on your first jump to warp speed, Joshua," Locarno said. With Nasri's help he set Joshua back in his chair.

    "How long until we get home?", Joshua asked.

    "It'll be a few days," Julia noted. "So, I believe Hargert has your lunch ready, Ensign. Let's get you down to the Lookout."

    "Okay. But…"

    "But?", Julia asked, inviting him to continue.

    "If I'm an Ensign now… doesn't that mean I get a uniform?" Joshua smiled widely.

    Julia crossed her arms. "Why, you clever little… Ensign."

    Caterina giggled over at Science.

    "Alright. Let's take you by and get you measured," Julia said. "Come on."

    A short time later the entire command crew were in the Lookout, relieved from the bridge by Lieutenant Jupap and their immediate backup officers. Sandwiches, stew, and lunch meats were laid out for everyone to partake in. Joshua remained the center of attention and, at the moment, he was barraging Barnes and Scotty with questions about the warp systems. As was promised, he was now in an Alliance uniform, with an ensign stripe on his collar and the burgundy red command track color serving as trim to the black main body of the uniform.

    Robert was content to let the others focus on the guest. He sat at a side table, watching the festivities and quietly enjoying his own lunch.

    Across from him, Angel took a seat. "So, looks like the kid's stealing the show."

    "Let him have it." Robert looked over and grinned, watching Cat get Joshua's attention with a simulation of an interuniversal jump point coming from her multidevice. "The poor kid more than earned it."

    "So what happened? We're suddenly ferrying the kid home?" Angel started scooping stew with her spoon. "I mean, it seems sort of sudden."

    "It's something that came up," Robert said.

    Angel gave him a "you can't fool me" look. "If you can't talk about it, that's fine. I'm just… making conversation."

    Robert brought a hand up. "No, it's fine. It's… Prince Victor and I discussed the matter. It makes sense for Joshua to go home now."

    "If you say so," Angel remarked. "But I know there's more to it than that."

    Robert chuckled. "Well, I've always had a hard time hiding things from you. Let's just say… I've come to realize that Prince Victor and I are kindred spirits. And we had a candid conversation about the situation."

    "Ah." Angel nodded. She gave him the face she usually did when she knew he was being coy, that sort of restrained indulgence that expected repayment for her courtesy in not punching him for being annoying.

    "It's a shame, actually," Robert said. "I had been considering taking you for dinner in Avalon City."

    "Ah, well. There's still four more Inner Sphere capital worlds to visit, right?"

    "Four more Great House capitals," Robert corrected. "Depending on what's going on, Maran might have us go to St. Ives and Orestes."

    "You know…" Angel gave him a thoughtful look. "Has anyone mentioned Earth yet? Who rules Earth in this universe?"

    "Some organization called ComStar, going by Willoughby's reports." Robert picked up a slice of cold lunch turkey. "They decided to send the Atlantis to Earth to open contact. We can't do everything, after all."

    "Sometimes it feels like they want us to," Angel mumbled. "Atlantis... that's another of the Discovery ships, right?"

    "It is."

    "I wonder when we'll get more ships like that in the fleet," she pondered. "I mean, we're at war, we need ships with even some of the Darglan technology built in. And the Discovery is more like a Starfleet ship than an Alliance ship. I mean, I know we have that whole Starfleet 'multi-mission' stuff too, but we're at least a good combat ship."

    "They'll get around to it," Robert assured her. "The whole point of the Discovery-class ships was to get our builders some know-how on building the Darglan-tech ships." The thought that occurred to him was that they were wasting time talking about this stuff. "You know, this isn't our usual conversation material."

    "Well, I can only make so many references to other things." Angel smiled thinly at him. "And we know that any discussion about our lives will inevitably result in bringing up your swervy-whatever stuff."

    "My swev… sweev...." Robert sighed. "Don't, I'll get it," he added, noticing Angel's look. "Swevyra, there." He shook his head. "How did Zack get such a handle on it? I'm the one training for this stuff."

    "It beats me."

    The first day out from New Avalon was over. Leo was due to get some sleep soon but wanted to check up on his patient. Joshua was in the iso-unit and sitting up in his bed, clad in his blue medbay gown. A nearby hanger rack now held his newly-issued honorary Alliance Stellar Navy uniform.

    Joshua was smiling and speaking to a figure on the room's monitor. Leo turned and saw that it was Thomas, his father. The scar-faced man had a gentle expression, undoubtedly having listened to his son's joyful descriptions of the day's events.

    "Hello Doctor Leo," Joshua said, looking to Leo. "Do you need more blood?"

    "No," Leo answered. "I've got enough for today." Leo looked to the monitor. "Sir."

    "Doctor." Thomas nodded. "Do you have any updates on Joshua's condition?"

    "Nothing of particular note for the moment," Leo explained. "Joshua's headaches are consistent with the neurological damage from the blast cells, that is, the leukemia cells, that filtered into his central nervous system. My staff and I are keeping a constant watch on his vitals to make sure nothing severe happens. The big issue, as always, is that Joshua's body needs to recover enough so we can begin the bone marrow transplant."

    "Do you know when that will be ready?"

    "Within a day or two of our arrival over your world, sir," Leo answered. "Give or take a day in either direction."

    "I see. Thank you, Doctor, for your efforts on the behalf of my son." Thomas looked to Joshua. "I will see you soon, Joshua. Your mother is awaiting this as eagerly as I am."

    "I love you, Father," Joshua said. He sounded happier than he had in a long time.

    "I love you too, son. Good night and sleep well." Thomas reached for something off-screen and disappeared from the screen.

    Joshua laid back into his bed. He looked at Leo and frowned a little. "My headache's really bad, Doctor Leo."

    Leo looked at the biobed readings and, to make sure of things, ran his scanner over Joshua's temple and around his head. "Hrm. You're showing no change from earlier."

    "Then why does it hurt so bad?", Joshua protested.

    "Your nerves are still damaged from your sickness. It's going to take time to heal them, Joshua." Leo gave him a pat on the shoulder. "There are some medications I simply can't give you for the pain. Not in your condition. And the ones I can give you're already dosed up on. I'm sorry." Leo put his hands on his head. "Nothing abnormal."

    Joshua nodded. "I understand."

    "Do the headaches go away or stay?"

    "They stop. Then they start again."

    "Alright." Leo began consulting his multidevice and a list of possible treatments. Painkillers were out of the question. So were other medications that might further alter his chemical state. Still… "I can give you a slight sleep aid," he said. "Hopefully that will let you sleep. I'll be right back."

    "Okay." Joshua seemed to force a grin to his face. "Thank you, Doctor Leo. I still feel a lot better because of you."

    "You're welcome, Joshua. I'll be right back."

    By the time he returned, Joshua had fallen asleep. Leo smiled thinly at the boy, checked his vitals again, and left him to his much-needed rest.

    Robert was about to retire for the evening when there was a chime at his door. He went to it and opened it manually, knowing it couldn't be Angel (he'd programmed his door to let her in automatically).

    Jarod was standing in the doorway. "Robert, can we talk?"

    "Sure." He let Jarod into his room and closed it behind him. "What's on your mind?"

    Jarod turned and faced him directly. "I've read the report you gave on the Commonwealth's use of a double for Joshua. And I think you've gotten it wrong."

    Robert remained quiet for a moment. "Oh?"

    "This was more than just a security measure," Jarod insisted. "The personnel transfers of oncologists, the effort it would have taken to make such a convincing double of Joshua, this all screams of a long-term intelligence operation. The costs of doing it just to confuse potential assassins doesn't fit. There had to be something more going on."

    "I see." Robert got into his seat. "I understand your concern. I'm just not sure why…"

    "...because you didn't even consult me before filing this," Jarod pointed out. There was some heat in his voice. "You didn't consult any of us. You didn't ask questions."

    For a moment he remained silent. This was slightly out of the ordinary for Jarod. But then again… what was ordinary for a man who could slip in and out of identities almost at will? For someone who could seamlessly fit into any occupation he observed? "And you're upset with me for this?"

    "I wasn't at first. Not until I saw the transporter logs." Jarod looked at him intently. "After you had your talk with Victor up here, you beamed down to New Avalon later that night. And you came back and filed this report without giving me or Julia one indication of it. I want to know why."

    For a moment Robert considered how to react. But after that moment, he knew there was only one appropriate way to do so if he wanted to keep Jarod's respect and trust. And he did. Robert valued the man, older in age but in many ways younger in mindset, and he had the example of 33LA to remind him of what could happen if he didn't give his people, his friends, the trust they deserved.

    "Victor admitted to me the real reason," Robert said. "And after consideration using my… gifts… I realized that we'll all be better off if I trusted him."

    "Just like that?"

    "He made a mistake. Out of fear. Pressure." Robert set his hand on his forehead and rested his head on the desk. "I know what that's like. And I believe he's learned his lesson from it. I think we'll all be better off if we don't get alienated from the Commonwealth."

    "So you're just willing to trust Prince Victor?"

    "I am."

    "And what if you're wrong? What if you're trusting a terrible person?

    "Then…" Robert gazed back into his eyes. "You and the others get to say 'I told you so' a lot and remind me I'm an idiot."

    Jarod considered his answer for several moments. Robert was relieved to see a grin slowly cross his face. "I'll remember that," he said.

    "Of course you will." Robert leaned over the table and looked Jarod in the eye. "I trust you and your judgement, Jarod. I always have. I want you to know that."

    Jarod nodded in reply. "Thank you. And, present appearances to the contrary, I do trust your decisions in the end. You've proven that more often than not, you make good ones."

    "Thank you." Robert stood. "Is there anything else?"

    "No. See you tomorrow?"

    "Of course."

    Jarod left Robert's quarters and, presumably, headed off toward his own. Robert let out a sigh at the situation, and how much he regretted having ignored Jarod's input as he had.

    A glimmer of doubt came to him. What if he was actually wrong? What if he was being so empathetic toward Victor that he was ignoring signs that Victor was just another feudalist warlord, the kind produced by the social systems the Inner Sphere had chosen to put into place?

    No. No, he wasn't wrong. Robert was sure of it, as sure as he could be of anything. He had to remember what Meridina had told him. Doubt, in terms of these abilities, was the enemy more often that not. He couldn't let his doubt cloud his judgement. Not like he had before.

    With no sign of Angel yet, indicating she had likely decided to stay in her own quarters for the evening, Robert changed into bedclothes and slipped into his bed.

    Everyone had their own preferred level of light for sleep. Some wanted no light at all. They rested best in pitch blackness. Others wanted a bit of light, yet others were perfectly capable of normal light conditions being present when they slept.

    Leo himself preferred a dimmed light, and his quarters were suitably dimmed so that, from his bed, he could only just make out the far shelving where he kept pictures of his family and friends. In his living area were more pictures, as well as his framed doctorate - issued by the University of New Columbia in L2M1 in the year before the Alliance's founding - and other little mementos. The furnishings were standard replicated furnishings, nothing fancy, and his work desk for checking medical logs in the morning while still waking up.

    It was this dimmed light environment that Leo woke up to when he heard the persistent tone from his multidevice. His stomach started to twist. This was not a normal call. He reached over and pressed it.

    "Singh here." Through his groggy, sleep-filled mind, Leo remembered that Doctor Singh was taking the overnight. Her voice sounded strained. "Doctor, we need you in the medbay, stat."

    With increasing horror threatening to choke him, Leo asked the obvious question. "Is it Joshua?"


    "I'm on my way."
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  16. Threadmarks: 2-03 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    Leo had only thrown on his lab coat while rushing out the door of his quarters. He arrived in the medbay at a run and went straight by the immediate treatment biobeds, on his way to the iso-unit. Meridina's security people waved him in without a word.

    Doctor Singh and several nurses were already present. Singh was busy applying a dose of something. "30ccs of oxylin," she explained in her accented English. Her complexion was a dark bronze, the kind expected for someone from the Punjab, or from the colony world New Punjab in her case.

    Leo immediately went to the bed scanners. "Brain hemorrhage," he said. "Looks like the parietal lobe."

    "Indications of one in the anterior as well," Singh added.

    "Dammit." A burst blood vessel and internal bleeding was always a danger with more advanced leukemia patients. Treating the blood vessels had been part of his regimen, but it took time for those treatments to repair damaged blood vessels without invasive procedures.

    "Doctor, I have ordered the OR prepped. Lumenaram is already scrubbing down to go in and plant shunts."

    Leo frowned. Brain surgery, any surgery, was risky with Joshua. Unfortunately, so was letting his blood vessels continue to pour blood into his brain. "I'll go scrub down immediately and join him."

    Robert was roused from his sleep by the call. After getting ready he rushed to the medbay with Julia meeting him at the lift. As they stepped off of it she ceased speaking to the Gamma Shift crew on the bridge. "We're tied into Atreus," she said once the call was over.

    Robert nodded stiffly. "So Captain-General Marik and his doctors can watch and second-guess Leo?"

    "Maybe, maybe not, Rob. But let's be honest, this looks bad if we're not transparent about it."

    "Yeah." Robert shook his head. "I just can't believe it. Things seemed to be going so well."

    "Leo's doing his best. But when you think about how sick Joshua actually is…" Julia shook her head. "I'm not sure any doctor could bring him back. Even our medical technology has its limits."

    They made it to the medbay and, upon a quick search, found Leo finishing his surgery preparation. He gave them a look and shook his head. "It's bad," he said. "Joshua's got two blood vessels that are hemorrhaging into his brain, and we've found a third ready to start bleeding into his chest."

    "What can you do about it?", Robert asked.

    "We're going to use the surgical transporters to implant shunts and to take out the blood already present. But if more vessels give way…" Leo shook his head. Robert and Julia could see the dark look in his eyes. "I can't lie to myself. I don't know if I can save him. I was so sure I could, that I could bring him back from the brink, but if this continues…"

    "Is there any way to strengthen his blood vessels?", Julia asked.

    "Not in the short term. We've already been giving him treatments to do just that, but they take time. Weeks. If his cardiovascular system is that close to failure, we may not have that much time." Leo gave them one last intent look before stepping away. "Singh and Lumenaram should be ready. I've got to get in there."

    "Of course." A frown creased Julia's lips. Her expression was full of concern. "Good luck, Leo."

    He nodded back to them. There was no mistaking the grimness of his expression. "Thank you." He went through the opposite door to the airlock of the OR.

    With nothing left to do, Robert and Julia found their way to the viewing gallery, to sit, watch… and hope.

    Lumenaram, as the most experienced physician in terms of operations inside the brain, was taking the lead on that part of the operation. He was operating the transporter-based systems that allowed surgery without cutting open the body, the only thing that made this surgery feasible without killing Joshua. Singh was operating the secondary systems, meant for dealing with issues of bloodflow through both transporters and forcefields projected into the body, allowing the shunt to be placed safely.

    Leo was taking up the third role of the surgery, doing what he could to shore up Joshua's system and ensuring his blood levels stayed within safe limits. If another vessel ruptured anywhere in Joshua's body, Leo would take over another system to begin dealing with that problem.

    He tried not to think of the situation. He had to focus solely on the patient, on the immediate needs of his patience's survival.

    Joshua's vitals remained solid, for the moment. His blood count was still on the low side. That couldn't be fixed until Joshua had a bone marrow transplant. And the bone marrow wasn't ready for implant yet. It needed more time to function.

    "First shunt in place," Lumenaram stated. "I am moving to insert the second. Doctor…"

    Singh was already manipulating her own controls. "The blood in the area has been cleared. I have sealed the damaged vessel."

    "I will not be long," Lumenaram promised.

    Leo watched his own monitors carefully. Lumenaram was certainly doing as well as could be expected. "Vitals are remaining stable," Leo said.

    "Second shunt prepared. Inserting."

    Tense seconds passed. Lumenaram had his head dabbed by a sponge in the hands of one of the nurses, an Alakin male. Singh was focused on her secondary work.

    Leo felt sweat trickling into his eyes. Frustration and tension made his muscles stiffen, as if to begin fight-or-flight reactions. They were close now. If things held… well, they'd be beyond this crisis. And then he would consult with the other physicians about ways to hasten the recovery of the blood vessel network in Joshua's body to prevent another recurrence of this problem.

    A sponge ran over his forehead. He looked over. Nasri was in operating garb. Her dark eyes met his and she nodded.

    He felt incredibly thankful for that. Nasri was his best, and one of his first medical trainees back in the Facility days. It always seemed right to have her at his side, doing this work.

    The second shunt was almost complete. They were about done. Relief was starting to seep in past Leo's mental defenses. The crisis was over, it had to be over, it…

    Red light flooded his monitor. Oh no. "Hemorrhage in left lung," he declared. "I'm getting it."

    "Adjusting over." Singh shifted her equipment to be across from Leo, on the other side of the OR table. "I'm…"

    Another red light appeared. "Another vessel, left lung. Dammit." Leo was still working on the first break.

    "His entire cardiovascular system is starting to fail," Lumenaram stated.

    Singh's hands were moving over her controls. "I'm working on it..."

    The viewing gallery built into the medbay OR was now at capacity. Robert and Julia had said nothing as the other command staff officers came and joined them. Now they noticed Hargert walking in from the side. He looked down into the gallery with his eyes lowered. "Poor boy," he muttered in his native German.

    Robert nodded in immediate agreement. Was it all for nothing?, he wondered. All of the issues with the Commonwealth's double plan, or the security for Joshua, was it all just to lead up to this?

    "C'mon lad," he heard Scotty urge. "Ye can dae it."

    Looking over the others, he saw Jarod's expression was the most grim. "Jarod?", he asked.

    "I was afraid of this," he said. "We were too late. His condition was too far advanced."

    "It is not over yet," Meridina murmured in reply. "Have hope."

    "Can't you do something about this?', Robert asked. "Given what you've shown me…''

    "My healing powers are limited, Robert," Meridina answered. "I can mend bones. With effort I can try and restrain some of the bleeding. But I did not train enough to mend a body like this. Even the best healers in my Order wouldn't be as capable as your technology."

    "I was hoping there was a way you could help him strengthen him."

    "I wish there was," Meridina admitted. "But it is not within my power. I can do no more than the rest of you."

    Robert nodded. He looked back out into the OR and thought You can do this. You can save him.

    You can save him, Leo was thinking. And he wanted to.

    The lungs were no longer flooding with blood. Joshua's breathing had returned to normal.

    Unfortunately, it looked like the stress on his system had finally become too much. "Nerve signals are down across the board," Singh said. "The degradation of the CNS is limiting his body's ability to maintain itself."

    "Just make sure his brain is still functioning." Leo looked toward the backup nurse assistant, a Gamma Shift nurse who was a Dorei, a blue-skinned teal-spotted woman named Genira. "Prep the cryostasis unit."

    Singh looked at Leo with a disbelieving expression. "Doctor, cryostasis?"

    "As our last option," Leo said. "In case we can't save him now."

    "But he can't go into cryostasis in his current condition!", Singh protested. "Not with his body so weak! He would never survive restoration!"

    "Then we need to make sure he survives now, but I am giving him every chance I can…" Leo's attention to the display saw the next item to draw him back. The aorta in Joshua's heart was now seeping blood. "Aortic valve failure, he's hemorrhaging again!"

    They continued to work. To fight. Leo and his doctors knew that the gallery was full of people who were giving their hopes and prayers for them to succeed. And they wanted to. Leo was intent on it.

    Each stopped hemorrhage led to a new one, however. One after the other. Transfusions were called in to replenish the lost blood in Joshua's body, but that only served to cause more. His body was simply too weak and damaged from the leukemia and the methods used to try and destroy it. As the minutes turned into hours, as the next day's shift began to come on duty, it was increasingly clear that every method they tried, every treatment Leo came up with, was not working.

    Finally the warning tones came. Leo looked up from where he was trying to heal the latest breach in Joshua's cardiovascular system to see that his body was simply shutting down. His brain activity was starting to cease. The oxylin alone couldn't keep it going, not without the necessary blood flow that all of the internal breaks were siphoning away. "Ready cortical stimulators!", Leo called out.

    Lumenaram was already on the job. The Gersallian physician busied himself with attaching the necessary pieces to Joshua's forehead. "Setting voltages… ready," he said in the lilting accent most Gersallians had when speaking English.


    There was a jolt of energy into Joshua's dying brain.

    The EEGs showed a brief surge of activity. Hope swelled into Leo. For all of two seconds, as the surge quickly gave way to a flat line. He snarled and barked, "Again!"

    Another jolt.

    Nothing this time.

    "The heart is stopping," Singh reported cooly. Her reserve was not being shaken by their clear failure.



    "It's not working," Lumenaram said. "I'm sorry, Doctor."

    "His body's too weak and too damaged. Call it."

    "No. Again."

    Lumenaram went to protest, but for the moment did not. At the press of his finger another jolt of energy went into Joshua's brain, trying to kickstart it back into operation.

    Again, there was no response.

    "The neurological damage he suffered from the blast cells is interfering with the cortical stimulator," Lumenaram reported. "It's not going to work."

    "Again!", Leo insisted.

    "Doctor, it's not going to work," the Gersallian repeated. "I'm sorry, but he's…"

    Leo went around to the head of the table and smashed his finger into the stimulator control. Again it activated, and again it sent a jolt of specially-tuned electricity into Joshua's brain, trying to kickstart the neurotransmitters that had stopped functioning.

    And again, there was no response.

    "No," Leo insisted. "No. No, I am not…"

    It was Singh who declared, "He is gone, Doctor Gillam!"

    Leo looked at her with a face twisted in anguish and anger. "Where's the cryostasis chamber?! We still…"

    "It's too late for stasis!", she retorted. "He is too weak to survive the revival process, and his brain has been shut down for too long. The oxylin won't work anymore, and you know this!" Singh leaned over the table and glared at him. Her dark eyes were locked onto his. "You know this, Doctor. Call it."

    Leo's mouth quivered. He wiped at his face with his left hand. It looked for a moment like he would simply explode in a frenzy of movement.

    "Computer, this is Doctor Gillam, senior attending physician," Leo began. His voice was heavy with frustration and disappointment. "Log time of death for patient Joshua Marik."

    "Time logged: 0954 hours, 18th of March," the Aurora's computer replied.

    Leo looked at Joshua. He looked peaceful and content. The initial strokes had taken him in his sleep so he had never felt his brain begin to go haywire from the pressure of the blood it was drowning in. He hadn't suffered.

    Warm tears were pouring down Leo's cheeks, leaving streaks mingled with the sweat drawn from his failed efforts.

    "I'm sorry," he managed to say. "I'm so sorry, Joshua."

    The state visit protocols had been repeated. But there was little of the zing and breathless anticipation that had been anticipated. Captain-General Marik stepped down from his shuttle to the strains of the League anthem and a Marine honor guard and approached Robert and his officers. "Your Highness, welcome aboard the Aurora," Robert said, standing at attention. "It's an honor to have you."

    The much older statesman nodded. His scarred face made Robert think of how much this poor man had already suffered in his life. "Thank you for your kind greetings, Captain."

    Robert opted to skip introductions for the moment. "You're welcome, sir." He indicated a casket laid upon a table wheeled in. "Your son is ready to go home. Although I had hoped he would do so under happier circumstances."

    "Yes." Thomas Marik looked to the others. "These are your command officers?"

    "Yes." Robert went through the introductions quickly. Thomas was most interested in Leo, whom he shook hands with.

    Leo returned the handshake with a pained look in his eyes.

    With Robert's introductions done, Thomas introduced his wife Sophina and the rest of his entourage.

    After they were done with the formalities, Thomas went over to the casket and opened it. Joshua lay in restful repose, hands on his chest. Thomas reached down and touched the cold skin of his child. There were tears in his eyes.

    "On behalf of myself, my officers and crew, and the Allied Systems, we offer you our deepest condolences, sir," Robert continued. "Joshua was well liked by our crew."

    "And he liked you," Thomas answered. His voice was calm. Aside from the tears his expression was quiet and neutral, unlike the clear grief on his wife's face. "My son's final messages to me overflowed with his enthusiasm for your people. He spoke of the kindnesses you had shown him and his wonder at your Alliance. As Captain-General of the Free Worlds League, I thank you for your efforts on behalf of the League's heir. As a father, I cannot thank you enough for making him happy in his final days."

    "We're thankful for the chance to have known your son," was all Robert could say.

    With Joshua's remains officially turned over to the League, Thomas and Sophina were given a tour of the Aurora much like Victor's and Yvonne's, or more to the point, their son's. Their grief made the occasion more somber and subdued the enthusiasm of all. Wherever they went, the department officers extended their own condolences to them for Joshua.

    Hargert was not to be outdone on that. He offered them holo-images of Joshua during his time on the ship and his meals in the Lookout, laughing and grinning in the Alliance uniform he'd been given. Julia showed them the memorial wall where the Aurora crew listed their lost comrades. It was already a long list, fifteen names in a column and several columns and taking up half of the wall space beside the port-side Lookout entrance.

    There was a new listing in the seventh and newest column: Marik, Joshua. Ens. (Hon. Act.)

    Thomas looked to Julia and nodded with appreciation.

    With their tour mostly over, it was only then that he asked something of the crew.

    "Where is Doctor Gillam?"

    Leo didn't answer the door chime right away. He remained seated in his chair, looking into nothing with the darkness of his quarters untouched by the sunlight reflecting off Atreus and touching the other side of the Aurora. Alone in his thoughts and his pain.

    He'd known that saving Joshua was not going to be a certain thing. Not with his condition so painfully advanced. He'd known. It shouldn't be this painful.

    But it was. It was more painful than he imagined it would be.

    He looked down at the item in his hand. He'd absent-mindedly scooped it up while going through his room. There was no light for the medallion to glint in, but he knew its inscription already. He could still remember Daniel Jackson explaining what the hieroglyphics meant.

    He tossed the medallion toward the door. It clunked against it and hit the ground.

    The worst thing was Thomas Marik's reaction. His quiet, resolved acceptance of his son's death. It only made Leo more aware of how much it hurt him, and it shamed him by how well a grieving father was taking it over him.

    There was a knock at the door. When Leo didn't answer it came again, followed by the door chime.

    He wanted to scream at his caller to go away. Julia or Nasri, he thought. Coming to be mother hens. They can't just leave me alone… He stood up and called out, "Alright, come in! Computer, raise light level to standard."

    The lights in the room reached standard illumination as the door slid open. "I know what…"

    Leo stopped in mid-sentence as Captain-General Marik entered.

    Thomas Marik looked about quietly. His eyes spied the medallion on the floor. He bent over and picked it up. "I wished to speak with you," he said. "Privately."

    Leo swallowed and met the older man's eyes. "Computer, secure door," he said. The door slid close behind Thomas.

    Thomas was busy looking over his medallion. "Egyptian hieroglyphics. Interesting. Where did you get this?"

    "The villagers of Abydos," he answered. "I saved their chief's daughter from an alien parasite. He gave that to me as a reward."

    "Do you know what it says?"

    "According to someone who knows, one side refers to me as a great healer, and the other declares I can drive out demons." Leo put his hands behind his back. "I'm sorry about your son. I… I'm sorry."

    "I know." Thomas set the medallion down upon the nearby table. "I was watching your attempt to save him. My physicians may not be familiar with your technology, but they could recognize what you were trying to do."

    "And any mistakes I made that I can't think of, I imagine."

    Thomas shook his head gently. "On the contrary. They were all deeply impressed with your efforts to save my son. They would have given up on him before you did."

    Leo didn't answer that.

    "We will all mourn Joshua in our own way," Thomas continued. "I am grateful for what you've done for him, and for us. My son died happy because of your efforts."

    There was silence. They continued to face each other.

    "I've never lost a child before," Leo finally said, breaking the silence. "My mind knew it was still weighted against him living, but my heart refused to accept it. I couldn't lose a child. Not to anything."

    "I understand." Thomas set his hand on the stand beside him. "Failure, a new and raw failure like that, can burn like few others."

    "A month. Two, maybe. If we had just come sooner, I could have saved him."

    Thomas said nothing, not immediately. He walked further into the room. When he directed his eyes at Leo again, it was with compassionate understanding. "My physicians did express one concern to me," he revealed.


    "That a promising young doctor like you might be broken by losing Joshua." Thomas shook his head. "I've lost my son. Please, don't let more loss affect us all."

    Warm tears were pouring down Leo's face. "I think I would find it easier if you were angry with me," he confessed.

    "I imagine so." A small smile stretched over the man's scarred face. "I can see that, yes. But I cannot. You brought my son a chance to experience joy and wonder in his final days, and when the time came you fought for his life with everything you had. I could not expect more."

    "I can't imagine what he would have accomplished…"

    "He would have done much, that I'm sure. He would have built bridges between our people and the Federated Commonwealth, and between the League and the Alliance," said Thomas. "His promise is gone. Please don't let his loss destroy the promise in your future as well. Remember that lives aren't measured solely by successes, but by failures as well, and how we let each change us."

    Leo nodded. "Yeah."

    There was more silence. Thomas, seeing Leo had nothing to say, found he had nothing to say either. He went back to the door.

    "Captain-General… sir."

    Thomas turned back as Leo looked over to him.

    "Thank you," Leo said. "I just need time to process this, but I'll bounce back from it. My friends will help, just as you have. I'm honored you came to visit me."

    The reply was a nod, for words were not needed.

    After the Marik leader left, Leo went over to the medallion that Kasuf and the Abydonians had given him. He gently picked it up and put it back in its place on his shelf.

    Time. He needed time to come to accept this. But he expected he would, in the end.

    It would always hurt, though.


    Ship's Log: 21 March 2642; ASV Aurora. Captain Robert Dale recording. Our negotiations with the Free Worlds League are already showing promise. Emissary Janliran and I have already laid the framework for providing new technology to the League in exchange for support.

    Captain-General Marik, impressed by the threat of the Nazi Empire and clearly disgusted by its existence, has already pledged the service of one of his elite units, the Knights of the Inner Sphere, to the Alliance cause. Emissary Willoughby has signaled from New Avalon that Prince Victor has already persuaded some of his commanders that they can safely adopt a similar course of action. I can safely say our mission to the Inner Sphere is, for the moment, successful.

    I must also log that the crew is still mourning Joshua Marik's death. During his time with us, his courage in the face of his affliction and his curious and friendly demeanor impressed everyone. His memory will be fondly remembered.

    After a day with Emissary Janliran discussing matters with Thomas Marik and his Cabinet, Robert was happy to return home to his quarters. Angel was waiting for him, wearing a green sleeveless blouse that showed off her muscled arms and a lime green pair of sweatpants. She was laid out on the couch of his living area and smiling at him. "How was the diplomacy?"

    "Terrific," Robert answered. "But tiring."

    "This is why I prefer my job," Angel replied. She waved her feet in the air and wiggled her bare toes. "I get to kick asses and blow stuff up. No diplomacy."

    "You always have been the violent one," Robert teased her.

    "I can negotiate, if I have to," Angel continued. She smirked. "Aggressively."

    He smirked back. "Well, now that…"

    A tone sounded from his multidevice. Jupap chirped, "Bridge to Captain Dale."

    He sighed and pressed the comm key on it. "Dale here."

    "We have an incoming subspace communication from New Avalon. They wish to speak with you."

    "Alright. Put it through here." Robert went to his desk and keyed the system to accept the call. His screen activated and displayed an image of Prince Victor. "Guten Abend, Prinz Victor," he stated. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

    A wan smile crossed the other man's face. "I heard about Joshua. Doctor Harper and a number of his old caretakers are already sending letters of condolence."

    "Leo came close," Robert sighed.

    "So I heard. I've already extended my own condolences to Thomas Marik. He's thanked me for everything NAIS did for Joshua over the years." Victor shook his head. "Maybe if I had acted more quickly, if I had been more forward with Emissary Willoughby on the situation, Joshua might still be alive."

    "Maybe or maybe not. You did the right thing by bringing us in, at least. Joshua got to live a little before he passed on."

    "Right." Victor put his hands together on the desk and allowed himself a brief smile. "The Captain-General hasn't wasted any time in announcing his reaction to your S4W8 universe."

    "No he hasn't."

    "The Knights of the Inner Sphere. They're good people." Victor nodded. "Of course, I can't allow Thomas to get too far ahead of me in helping the Allied Systems, not when they stand to change the Inner Sphere forever. Thomas' announcement has quieted some of the resistance I've had. I've already let Admiral Maran know that your people can expect the 3rd Davion Guards and the Davion Assault Guards to be ready for service with your forces by the end of the month. Any further contributions will, of course, depend on any developments with the Clans."

    "That's good news." Robert considered the contribution. The Inner Sphere didn't have ships to provide - not yet anyway - but ground troops could be useful. Especially ground troops backed by massive war machines. With theater shields and other Alliance support forces, any Inner Sphere troops could help hold worlds that their depleted fleets had to temporarily withdraw from. "And it's just the beginning."

    "That it is. Good luck out there, Captain."

    "Thank you, Victor."

    The call ended. Robert leaned back in his chair for a moment. He could sense Angel had left the couch and gone toward the bedroom. It wasn't hard to guess what she was thinking. He stood up and turned that way. At the door to the bedroom Angel intercepted him and put her arms around him. "Sorry for the wait."

    "Hrm." She kissed his neck. "No apologies. Come in."

    Robert looked into her hazel eyes, burning with affection and passion, and felt the same coming from him. He put a hand on her head and brought her close, until their lips locked together into a strong kiss.

    Julia finished her late meal in the Lookout and let out a small, contented sigh. The ship was running as smoothly as ever. The best performing members of the crew were getting to partake of some of the sights down on Atreus and morale had never been higher. Diplomatic missions are stressful for us, but the crew usually benefits from them.

    Her eyes went to the memorial list on the wall. Barnes was looking at it intently. Curious, she stepped up to him. "Everything okay?", she asked.

    "Huh?" He turned and faced her. "Oh. Yeah. Yeah, I guess." He shook his head. "I mean… as okay as they can be?" He tilted his head toward the list. "Everyone's okay with the kid being on the list, then?"

    "I haven't gotten any complaints," Julia confirmed.

    "Good." Barnes looked back to it. "Poor kid."


    They remained quiet for several moments. "I'm not the best officer, am I Julie?", Barnes asked, ending their silence.

    Julia looked at him intently. She didn't often see such doubt in his light brown eyes, but it was there now. "There are times, yeah," she admitted. "When you get in your manic moods or you get bored and feel like you need to mouth off."

    "Yep." He shook his head. "I'm trying, actually. I… I mean, I know what we're trying to do out here, and it's cool, I wanna do it… I just wonder sometimes if I can fit what you and Rob and Zack and the others have put together. I'm not serious enough for these things and..."

    "Tom." Julia put a hand on his arm and smiled gently, drawing his attention. "Just because you're not the best officer material doesn't mean you don't fit in with us. You're talented in your field. You know this ship as good as Scotty does. We need you and we always will."

    "Even when I'm being a smartass?"

    Julia nodded. And then allowed her gentle smile to become an amused grin. "Sometimes especially when you're being a smartass. God knows I sometimes need someone to get me to lighten up. It just has to be in the right time and place, and official briefings aren't either of those things..."

    Barnes cracked a grin at that. "You're always the serious one. And I'm never the serious one."

    "I think Rob is the serious one," Julia corrected.

    "No. Rob is the brooding one. He broods. He angsts at things." Barnes crossed his arms and assumed a slightly-depressed, withdrawn look that made Julia start chuckling at the resemblance. "'I made a horrible mistake and I started the war, oh woe is all of us'."

    "Don't you dare do that in front of him," Julia insisted. "And I see Rob as more of the superhero thing, you know, heroic pose and going off to save the day?"

    Barnes considered it. "That's the other side of his personality," he finally admitted. "And it's the cooler side if you ask me."

    "You're not the one tearing your hair out dealing with him when he's like that," Julia protested.

    "Yeah, yeah…"

    "So if I'm the serious, you're the unserious, and Rob's the brooder…"

    "Angel's the violent one." Barnes faked a very Angel-like snarl. "'I'm gonna kick your ass and break your bones, I know kung fu!' And as for Jarod..."

    He listed them all, chuckling and laughing as he did the impersonations.

    And Julia laughed through each and every one of them.
    rifern likes this.
  17. Threadmarks: 2-04 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    The Starship Aurora quietly orbited the world dubbed Russell's Planet, Universe Designate R4A1, in the company of a handful of other local ships and defensive stations.

    In the bowels of the kilometer-long starship, the green-eyed, dark-haired figure of the ship's captain was concerning himself with a matter outside of his duties toward his ship. Robert Dale was busy concentrating, wearing the training robes his security chief had procured for him and holding a wooden practice blade in his hands. Sweat covered his forehead and face, dripping into his eyes and messing with his vision.

    Commander Meridina, said security chief, remained still. Her plain features were Human-looking, a source of many a confused blink from people who heard she was an alien, and she too was in a training robe. Her deep blue eyes looked to her other student in the Gersallian arts of swevyra, Lieutenant Lucy Lucero, and stated, "You are not hesitating, but you have prolonged this duel. Why?"

    Lucy had her own wooden blade at a ready position as she faced down Robert. Her curly dark hair had been gathered in a ponytail at the back of her head. Blue eyes remained focused on Robert, set in an oval-shaped face. Sweat glistened on her light bronze complexion. "I want to give him a chance," she said.

    Robert kept his focus up. He could sense her plans, holding back to see what he would do, how he would attack. He forced his frustration down. Ever since this training with their "swevyra" - with the strange powers that their "life force" had granted them, according to Meridina's own cultural tradition - he had felt second-best to Lucy. Granted, she had been training for at least five months longer, but he was approaching his fourth month of the training and his progress seemed to be slower than her own had been. Ever since Meridina had said he needed to train in these duels to learn finer control and focus, he had been repeatedly beaten by both of them. He simply couldn't read them well enough, or keep up with their enhanced speed and skill.

    "It's frustrating, I know," Lucy said to him. "But you can't just stand there all day, Robert. Do you know how many weeks it took me before I put Meridina on her back?"

    Robert replied with a frown. He forced a breath into his lungs. "You see everything I do before I do it," he said. "I don't see the point in attacking."

    Meridina shook her head. "The point is not to attack or to defend. It is to learn to listen."

    "Listen?" Robert looked at her. "Listen to…"

    He felt it coming too late. After turning his head, his focus, to Meridina, he'd opened himself up, and Lucy took swift and complete advantage of his lapse. In a single strike she twisted his wooden blade impossibly, forcing it from his hand. Her leg curled under his feet at the shins. His feet lost contact with the training mat and he fell onto his back. The tip of Lucy's training blade went to his throat.

    As she pulled it away, Robert made a growling noise of frustration. Before he could complain Lucy spoke first. "Listen to what's going on around you, for starters," she said. "Listen to what's inside of you. Just like you did back in that Facility."

    "You make it sound easy."

    Lucy smiled thinly. She held her hand down toward him and helped Robert to his feet. "It's not," she admitted. "There are too many ways to distract yourself mentally."

    "Indeed." Meridina stepped up to them. "This is why I train you with the blades. These matches teach and reinforce focus of mind, focus upon the swevyra."

    "You mean the life force."

    "That term in your language lacks meaning for what our word conveys," Meridina remarked. "As you must have felt by now."

    She had something of a point, Robert decided. "Life force" was a clunky term to say. It implied a force that sustained life or embodied it, yes. But the connection to the wider universe he'd felt when using this power was more than that.

    But at the same time, the Gersallian term just felt off. It didn't fit right in his speech. He had once had the computer's linguistics programs transliterate the term into English and the computer spat up about four different pronunciations of it with six different spellings. He'd settled on "swe-veee-ra" as sounding the closest to how Meridina pronounced it. Even that seemed somehow inadequate to him.

    As for learning how to focus on it, Robert's comeback was, "Getting smacked with a wooden stick is not the easiest way I've heard of to learn focus."

    "Pain can be a motivator," Meridina pointed out. "The important thing, Robert, is not winning. It is learning to listen."

    "Which hopefully leads to winning."

    Lucy shook her head. "I'm afraid not. I'm still at like a ten percent win ratio with Meridina." She gave Meridina a bemused look. "And sometimes I think half of those wins are her letting me win."

    Meridina did not deign to respond to that allegation.

    "So, again?", Robert asked. "I've got another hour before we meet with the Russell's Planet colonial government to find out just why they called us here."

    Meridina held her hand out and reached for her own training blade. It flew gently through the air to her hand. "Yes. I think..."

    She stopped speaking. A bewildered look crossed her face, a look that was not often seen on her usually-stoic features.

    There was a feeling. Robert started to sense it too, as did Lucy. Not of danger. But that something was about to…

    There was a buzzing sound in the air. And out of nowhere a white light appeared in the middle of their training area, A single figure appeared within it as the light peaked and flashed away. The figure was small, with a bulbous head and a gray tinge to its inhuman exterior. It was completely uncovered and almost looked like a toy that way, given the absolute lack of any attributes, sexual or otherwise. Solid black eyes looked to him and a thin arm and hand came up in a peaceful gesture.

    Lucy's hand was starting to go toward her mutlidevice. Robert tensed up and felt his mind race. Where could this being have come from? Why had it transported directly and so suddenly into the gym, of all places.

    Before anything else could be said or done, the being began to speak with a sort of monotone voice. And in perfect English.

    "Greetings. You are Captain Robert Dale of the Allied Systems."

    Robert got the feeling it wasn't a question. He nodded. "I am."

    The being nodded. "Then it is important that we speak. I am Supreme Commander Thor of the Asgard."

    "The… Asgard?" Robert thought about that. That sounded familiar.

    "Yes. I am the source of the transmissions requesting your vessel come to this world. I have come to speak with you and your Alliance on a matter of extreme urgency."

    "Pretty extreme if you just beamed straight to our gym," Lucy remarked with a slight, sarcastic grin.

    Meridina gave Lucy one of her looks of studied and direct patience.

    Thor seemed unperturbed by the interruption. He went on. "This mission is of vital importance to your future. The fate of this galaxy's Earth, and possibly of your entire Alliance, may hang in the balance."

    At that, Robert had only response he felt he could give.

    "I'm listening."

    Undiscovered Frontier
    "Diplomatic Maneuvers"

    Ship's Log; 8 April 2642; ASV Aurora. Captain Robert Dale recording. We're still at Russell's Planet awaiting the arrival of a high ranking official of the Alliance Government, called here in light of what I was told by Supreme Commander Thor yesterday.

    The space over Russell's Planet opened up with the generation of an interuniversal jump point. A single Dorei starbird emerged. The Layama-class craft was not the same size as the Aurora but possessed a power of its own in its pleasant grace and look, like an aloft great bird soaring through space.

    Robert and Julia were waiting at Transporter Station 3 when the ship arrived. A transport beam appeared, a pillar of white light that formed into a Dorei man of about Julia's height. His skin was dark ocean blue, which highlighted the teal spots running down his hairline and jaw down to his neck. Pale teal hair flowed over the back of his neck into an elaborate braid. His suit was of yellow and bronze, with purple trimming and a deep purple vest. Dark purple eyes looked at them in sequence, rimmed by the weary lines of the aged. "Captain Dale. Commander Andreys."

    "Minister Onaran." Robert nodded to him. Lentiro Onaran was a respected Dorei statesman, a former First Minister of the Dorei Federation and former High Minister of the Leturan Republics, one of the internal Dorei states. Onaran had been a major player in the formation of the Alliance and had joined the Cabinet as Foreign Secretary to President Morgan. "Welcome aboard."

    "Yes. I would like to dispense with the usual pleasantries and formalities, Captain," Onaran announced. "Your report to Admiral Maran indicates the situation requires immediate attention."

    Robert nodded. "If you'll follow us, I've called my command crew for a meeting to discuss Thor's information."

    "And will this Asgard being show himself?"

    "He told me he would be ready to meet," Robert confirmed. "But we still haven't identified where his ship is yet."

    "Concerning. What do we know of this species? Are they potentially hostile?"

    "Our Science Officer, Lieutenant Delgado, has consulted what remains of our Darglan databases," Julia began to say as they emerged into the corridors of the ship. "From what we've seen, the Darglan considered the Asgard to be friendly. They traded technology with them during their time of multiversal exploration."

    "But not interuniversal technology," Onaran pointed out.

    "The Darglan apparently didn't give that to anyone," Robert remarked. "Even the Gersallians, and the Gersallians saw them as mentors."

    "Yes." Onaran nodded. It needn't be said that the Dorei had for a long while, after their Unification Wars, seen the Gersallians as their mentor species. "Well, let us see what the Asgard have to say."

    The briefing room on the Aurora was chosen, giving wider sitting space and room for the arrival of Thor. The command crew of the Aurora and that of the Koenig were seated at a series of tables looking at a central holotank. Generally the holotank was used for presentations and briefings. For the moment it was blank, projecting nothing.

    Onaran was shown to a central seat at the central table, where Robert and Julia joined him and Zack. Jarod was at the nearest table with Lucy, Cat, and Scotty. Leo sat with Angel, Nick Locarno, and the Aurora's Wing Command Officer Commander Patrice Laurent. Zack's officers - Lieutenant Creighton Apley, Lieutenants Magda Navaez, Karen Derbely, and April Sherlily, and the Dorei Doctor Opani - were gathered at the last table.

    They had barely a moment to settle in before there was a short buzzing sound, followed by a sudden pillar of white light shifting into place to a deep electronic "vweee". The central place in the room was now occupied by the Asgard named Thor. "Robert Dale and crew. I am Supreme Commander Thor of the Asgard. I have come to assist you in a matter of grave importance."

    Caterina was almost vibrating with excitement in her chair. "An Asgard," she said, holding back barely-constrained enthusiasm. "An actual… I've got so many questions!"

    Robert smiled gently at her before looking to their visitor. "Supreme Commander Thor, this is Foreign Secretary Lentiro Onaran of the Alliance, sent on behalf of our government."

    "Greetings, Supreme Commander," Onaran said, inclining his head.

    "It is good that you are here. We are faced with a matter requiring delicate diplomatic handling. You are aware of the Goa'uld System Lords?"

    Leo gave the most visceral reaction, frowning deeply. Losing Joshua Marik to his illness was still a fresh wound, and the Goa'uld had come so close to imposing another defeat on him in their prior adventure in this cosmos. Robert nodded and answered, "Yes, we are. We faced a couple at Abydos. Heru'ur and Apophis."

    "Yes." Thor inclined his head. He then turned to the holotank and held up a device in his hand. Light bridged the two devices and the holotank displayed a bald man wearing golden finery that looked like it belonged to the Bronze Age. Above it was another figure, a woman with a tanned bronze explosion and long dark hair.

    "Sha're," Julia remarked.

    "You refer to the former host of the Goa'uld Amaunet," Thor stated. "Whom you extracted from her host without consent."

    "Fitting, since she took Sha're as host without consent," Leo pointed out.

    "That said, your ability to do so and to save the host is a matter of concern to the System Lords," Thor stated. "Your technology has also drawn their attention. Specifically, this vessel, and its main armament."

    Julia nodded. "Heru'ur ran when we hit him with our pulse plasma cannons. His ship had been taking hits from everything else."

    "Indeed. Your nuclear-disruption energy weapons, while potent, are not a concern to the Goa'uld. The weapons you employ on this ship are, however, as they prove you have the capability to threaten the Goa'uld in space. The System Lords cannot abide this state of affairs." Thor waved his hand again. Another woman, also wearing the kind of Bronze Age-looking garb that seemed the staple of the Goa'uld, appeared. "And there is the matter of Earth. We too have encountered their Stargate Command. I believe you are familiar with Colonel Jack O'Neill and the SG-1 team?"

    There were nods in reply. "We are," Robert replied verbally.

    "They recently had a conflict with the former System Lord Hathor," Thor explained. "She was killed as a result. With this victory and their earlier defeat of the System Lord Apophis, they too have come to the attention of the System Lords. Now the System Lords fear that your Alliance will work with the Humans of Earth to threaten their empire. They will not let this come to pass, and have begun mobilizing their fleets to attack both your worlds and Earth itself."

    A deep oppressive silence filled the room. "How big of an attack?", Julia asked.

    "Hundreds of their strongest motherships. Each of greater power than the small vessel Heru'ur took with him to Abydos," Thor explained. With a wave of his hand on the holotank a massive vessel appeared, a pyramid-shaped primary hull with a gray secondary hull above the base of the pyramid.

    Robert swallowed. Heru'ur's ship had seemed, if not their equal, then at least close to it. "Basically, hundreds of dreadnoughts," he said.

    Thor considered that remark. "I believe you would rate these vessels at the same scale as the strongest of your 'dreadnoughts', yes. And while your own technology is formidable, the Goa'uld have acquired advanced technology over their millennia of scavenging the galaxy. You do not currently have the capability to stand against them on even terms."

    "And that's not counting the fact that we are already in one big war," Julia added, sighing.

    "Supreme Commander, I thank you for this warning," Onaran said. "Given your prior remarks I believe you consider diplomacy as a way to prevent this attack?"

    Thor directed his dark eyes to Onaran. "We do, Secretary. The Asgard High Council has contacted the System Lords on this matter. We are preparing to provide them concessions in exchange for placing Earth under the Protected Planets Treaty, and to secure a non-interference pact and peace treaty between the Goa'uld System Lords and your Alliance of Systems."

    "A non-interference pact?", Jarod asked.

    "The terms will have to be discussed, but in general, it would forbid either side from interfering with the other's internal matters. The peace treaty would in turn protect either side from the other launching an attack directly."

    "So we wouldn't be allowed to pull any Goa'ulds out of their hosts," Nick remarked.

    "Or help people who are trying to fight them," Angel added.

    "Yes," Thor stated. "Anything less will be insufficient to prevent a Goa'uld attack upon both your Alliance and Earth."

    "It's bad enough that we have to worry about the Nazis inevitably finding how to work IU drives." Julia shook her head. "I don't want to even begin to think about the Goa'uld getting them."

    "We would be interested in such an outcome, yes," Onaran said. "Are the Goa'uld ready to commence talks?"

    "They have accepted my invitation to meet on Earth, in Stargate Command," Thor explained. "In four standard days. You will also be invited to participate in these discussions. Specifically you."

    Thor looked directly at Robert.

    Robert blinked. "Me?"

    "You were in command of the mission to Abydos. Your vessel attacked Heru'ur."

    "Julia's the one who punched him though," Zack pointed out.

    "Perhaps. But the Goa'uld will be conscious of rank. Captain Dale led the mission in question. And he is of equivalent rank to the Earth member of the talks."

    "And that would be?", Onaran asked.

    Robert sensed the answer before Thor gave it. It made the most sense. "Jack O'Neill," he said.

    "Correct." Thor nodded to him. "You and Colonel O'Neill will represent your people in this negotiation. You will be expected to be present in the SGC facility on Earth by that time."

    Robert drew in a breath. He wasn't new to diplomacy now, but the stakes weren't usually quite this high. "Okay. Nick." He looked to Locarno. "We're what, about eighteen hours from Earth at standard warp?"

    "Nineteen and a half," Locarno corrected.

    "I am afraid you cannot have your vessel present at Earth," Thor said. "The Goa'uld will regard it as a threat."

    "Would they know?", Angel asked. "If they're going to be in the SGC the entire time?"

    "They would have ways of determining your presence," Thor informed them.

    "Then I'll take the Koenig," Robert said. "It can make it to Earth in four days too, and it's not a big ship."

    "I am afraid any Alliance vessel present may be regarded as unacceptable. Only my ship will be allowed to be present. I am prepared to transport you myself. Although for the purpose of diplomacy, it may be advisable to travel by Stargate."

    Robert's brow lifted at that. Use the Stargate itself? They'd never done that before. "The SGC has defenses, are they expecting us?"

    "I have informed them you would be requested to join the talks," Thor stated. "And I suspect you have your own means of identifying your presence to them."

    "We gave SG-1 a code for communications," Julia reminded Robert. "All you have to do is transmit it through the gate and wait for a coded reply, they should let you through."

    "Alright." Robert put his hands together. He was really starting to feel uncertain about this. "Anything else?"

    "No weapons will be permitted within the SGC during the negotiations. You must go unarmed."

    "Oh come on," Angel protested. "Will the Goa'uld be unarmed?"

    "Likely. They will honor the same terms, because they know that you would not risk harm to them," Thor explained.

    "Am I limited in who can go?", Robert asked.

    "I would suggest that your entourage be small," Thor advised. "Only three Goa'uld will be attending. You should not have more than four or five of your people."

    "So myself, Secretary Onaram…" Robert looked around at the others. "Meridina to help with security, Lucy to assist her. And Doctor Opani if we need medical backup."

    Leo gave Robert a slight look. Robert sighed and added, "Leo, you yanked one of them out, remember? I can't have you there, that would be as much an unspoken threat as anything else."

    "Alright," Leo said, conceding the point.

    "Your selections are well-considered, Captain." Thor turned off the holotank. "I will inform Earth and the Goa'uld that you are attending." He set upon the nearby table an item. "This will download into your systems a list of those Goa'uld System Lords attending the talks. Again, we meet in four standard days. Farewell."

    There was another electronic buzzing sound, another flash of light, and Thor was gone.

    "It looks like the Darglan developed their transporters off of Asgard tech too," Caterina said. "I wonder how much technology the Darglan got from them?"

    Derbely chimed in. "If you ask me, Lieutenant, the real question is what the Darglan had to offer to them, if they didn't give them IU drives."

    "Yeah, that's a good one."

    Robert looked over the stone-like device Thor left. He picked it up. "Jarod, Cat, load this into a secured system so Secretary Onaram and I can see what we're up against. Nick, please get up to the bridge and set a course for Abydos, standard warp."

    "We should be there with about a day to spare," Nick said. He stood from his chair. "If we go faster I can shave time off."

    "It's probably best if you don't," Onaram said. "We will need time to examine this data and speak with the President on it."

    "We'll also want time to speak with the SGC and Earth authorities about our plan," Robert pointed out.

    Onaram tilted his head for a moment. "I see what you are thinking. But we must consider Alliance interests as well. We are in a delicate situation, Captain. If our interests demand an agreement that the Earth authorities want to refuse, we will be forced to stand apart from them."

    "Wait." Zack stared. "You're saying that we might abandon these people to the Goa'uld?!"

    "I would prefer not to," Onaram insisted, turning his gaze to Zack. "But if they are intransigent, we may be forced to. We are already in one war Commander. We cannot fight a second one, especially not against a foe with this much power."

    Julia let out a sigh. "I hate it, but he's right. Hopefully whomever Colonel O'Neill answers to will have the same view and we can make an agreement work."

    "At what cost, though?", asked Jarod.

    "Any cost that is bearable in this situation," Onaram replied. "That is our duty Commander, though it might pain our hearts."

    Robert frowned. As much as he hated the thought of giving in to the slaving evil of the Goa'uld System Lords, he knew Onaram was right too. There were all sorts of concessions he might have to give to them for peace.

    He just hoped he could stomach it.

    A day out from Abydos, Zack was sitting in the Lookout staring out at the streaking lights of the warp field effect around them. A plate of cold cut meat sandwiches and potato chips was sitting half-eaten before him.

    "Ye dinnae seem very hungry, lad."

    The accent was a dead give away. Zack smiled slightly and looked over to where Scott was standing beside the table, a tray with his own lunch in his hands. He was wearing his usual non-standard uniform, a white jersey under a black engineering vest with Commander rank insignia on the vest. Zack motioned to him to sit and looked out the window again for a moment. "She's running like a dream, isn't she?"

    "Aye." The old man nodded. "Still a beauty, she is. So, what's troublin' ye?"

    Zack's smile remained on his face, but it had a thoughtful, even sad quality to it. "A little restless, I guess," he admitted. "On the one hand, it's great to have access to facilities without having to beam anywhere. And to have full-size quarters again. But since we've been back, the Koenig's spent almost the entire time in dock."

    "That it has. Tom an' that lass Derbely did a right fine job o' keepin' her up while ye were with those Colonials, but th' gal needed that wee bit o' downtime."

    "Yeah. But it's been a couple of months now. I was starting to hope we'd get out there for a while. Run a few missions."

    "What has ye so restless, Zachary?", Scott asked. "Not thinkin' of wantin' t' leave again, are ye?"

    Zack almost denied it right off, but stopped himself. He couldn't honestly say no, could he? "The thought's crossed my mind a bit, yeah," he admitted. "But I know how much that hurt Rob and the others. We've been a group for ages. Running off on them again…" Zack shook his head. "I think it'd hurt them too much."

    That prompted a nod from the older man. Scott finished the bite he was chewing with a quick swallow before he asked, "An' this widnae happen t' be about that sweet lass Tom says ye were seein' all th' time, wid it?" There was a knowing grin on the old engineer's face.

    Zack matched the grin. "Clara," he said.

    "The lass at yer father's funeral?"

    "The same. She's working with the Fleet as a nurse." Zack looked out the window again for a moment. "Being with her made me think of my life so far. I mean, I've chased girls since I had the urge to, been with quite a few of them… but I don't think I ever really considered the idea of settling down with one. Not usually."


    "Well…" Zack felt an old ache in his heart. "There is one. A girl who, if she'd ever asked me, I would have given up everything for. Someone I've truly loved for a long time. But she's never been interested in me. Not that way. And she made it pretty clear she would never be. But Clara… Clara is."

    "Ah." Scott nodded. "An' that has ye thinkin'."

    "It does."

    "Well, lad, it's nae very easy t' balance out this sort o' life with havin' a lass an' a family of yer own," Scott pointed out. "So ye'll be workin' hard tae make that work, if that's yer choice."

    Zack nodded at him. "So I guess the question is… is it worth it?"

    "I cannae answer that one, lad. Dinnae think anyone can except for yeself."

    "Yeah." Zack looked back out at the streaks zipping by. "You're right about that."

    The meetings with Onaram were taking place in the same chamber, Briefing Room 1, that Thor had spoken to them in before the departure for Abydos. Robert, Meridina, Lucy, and Opani all sat around the table while Onaram took the main seat, looking directly at the holotank.

    President Henry Morgan's face filled the holo-image above the tank. His dark skin was creased with thought and age, giving him the visage of a man long-used to the stresses of statesmanship. Robert thought he looked a bit older than he'd been on their first meeting about two and a half years before, when Morgan had been a leading foreign secretary for the Earth Confederacy of his home universe sent to negotiate over what became the United Alliance of Systems.

    "Thor's information has given us an idea on what to expect from the System Lords negotiating this arrangement," Onaram said. "The one known as Yu will be the most agreeable to an arrangement, as he has few interests in this region of the galaxy. Nirrti is the most aggressive and the most likely to be hostile. Cronus will thus be the one to determine the outcome, we expect."

    "Do you have any idea what they will require of us?"

    Onaram looked to Robert, who sighed. "We believe it highly likely they will require us to forswear removing any more Goa'uld from their hosts, as Doctor Gillam did to Amaunet last year. Restrictions on expansion and on relations with other species are also likely."

    "They'll probably want us to drop any links to the SGC," Robert continued. "Thor seems to think that they're afraid we'll turn Earth into a force to use against them."

    "An interesting fear given our relative lack of involvement with Earth in that universe," Morgan noted. "Perhaps it is for the best that we have kept our relations with them on a small scale. As for this business, if that is the limit of their terms, we will adhere to them."

    "I think we'll be lucky if that's it." Robert shook his head. "Given how full of themselves the Goa'uld can be, they're not going to let us off easy." A bit of guilt flashed through him. When they'd faced Apophis, he hadn't been very diplomatic at all. They'd presented Apophis with his mutilated queen in a cylinder and he had threatened to do the same if Apophis made any further attacks. That was not my finest moment.

    "How far out are you?," Morgan asked.

    "We arrive at Abydos tonight," Robert replied. "We're due to go through the Stargate tomorrow morning, just before the Goa'uld are due to arrive. Thor made it clear that they might get suspicious if we arrive too much earlier than they."

    "And you have the communications equipment you'll need to keep contact?"

    "We'll have a subspace radio capable of patching in to our IU transceiver on Russell's Planet," Robert assured him.

    "Good. Let me know of any final terms being mandated. Secretary Onaram will provide immediate consultations on all other matters. He knows the Cabinet's decisions on this matter."

    Robert nodded. "Understood, Mister President."

    "Good luck, Mister Secretary, Captain. I don't need to tell you what it will mean if we can't get an agreement. Morgan out."

    The President's image disappeared.

    "What is the plan if the Goa'uld demand too much?", Lucy asked. "If they demand we give them a new host for Amaunet or even new hosts in general? Or if they want the IU jump drive?"

    Onaram frowned slightly. "As humiliating as it may seem, our backup plan is immediate evacuation."

    "As in, we evacuate R4A1," Opani clarified.

    "Exactly, Doctor. All colonies will be abandoned. Any sensitive technology we can't remove will be destroyed."

    "And the Earth in this galaxy will be left to its own devices," Meridina noted.

    Onaram nodded. "Sadly, yes. This is, of course, only a final resort. If the Goa'uld prove reasonable, and their terms are those we can reasonably accept, we'll be able to maintain our presence in this universe. And the resources we have to gain from the worlds and systems we have claimed are of use in the war effort. Abandoning these systems will complicate our war construction."

    "But not vitally?"

    Onaram shook his head. "No."

    "Then we have at least some leeway. If their price gets too high, the Alliance can always leave." Robert's frown made it clear he didn't necessarily like that.

    "And leave Earth to the mercy of the System Lords?", Lucy asked.

    Robert shook his head. "It might be better than giving the Goa'uld a shot at getting our technology."

    "That is our assessment," Onaram said. "May I suggest we go over the material one more time before we adjourn?"

    "Right." Robert picked up his digital reader. "So Yu is supposedly one of the most senior of the Goa'uld. The Asgard information indicates he is something of a conservative on expansion and is generally content with what he controls…"

    The next morning Robert woke up and felt stirring beside him. He turned and gently laid a hand on Angel's bare shoulder. "Hey."

    She turned her head. Her hazel eyes were dulled with sleepyness, but she was awake. "Hey."

    He could sense the stirring of emotion inside of her, just as he had before they'd fallen asleep. When they had been making love. His ability to sense emotions, to sense what was coming, through the life force powers he was learning, it had changed everything for him in their relationship. An irony since it was the single greatest strain on that relationship now.

    "I know you wish you could come to," he said. "But our group can't be that large."

    "And you need Meridina for her mind-reading stuff," Angel sighed.

    "Yeah. Just in case. And Lucy's got a handle on some of that too." Robert frowned. "And just in case this is a setup, having two people who can fight without weapons could be useful."

    Angel's eyes now glistened. "I can fight without weapons." The reminder was laced with anger and frustration.

    "You can't throw someone across a room with a gesture." Sensing her emotions growing negative, Robert attempted levity. "A glare, yeah. You can make anyone gulp with that 'I'm going to kick your ass' glare you have. But that might not work on the Goa'uld."

    Angel let out a growl and snarled slightly. She turned in the bed. "Yeah. Fine. You're right. I don't have weird mojo like you and Meridina and Lucy do. I'm not as good as they are, yeah."

    Robert bit into his lip. "I didn't mean to…"

    "Just go, Rob. Do your job." Angel didn't turn. "I'll be fine."

    But not happy. Robert could feel that, and he didn't even need that knowledge to know it anyway. But there was nothing more to say. He got out of the bed and went for the shower.

    Angel remained where she lay. She felt angry. Angry and ashamed. This… power… had changed everything for Rob, and for her. They'd gotten back together because, out here, any day something could happen to one or both of them. But now, between this and their duties… it was sometimes like they shouldn't have even bothered trying again. There weren't enough hours in the day for the two of them now.

    Try as she might to fight the thought, it still haunted her. That this time wouldn't be unlike the others. That, yet again, she and Robert weren't going to last together. It would end again. Just like it had before.

    By the time Robert came back out of the shower to get ready, Angel had gotten her things and left for her quarters. He sighed and went over to the bed for a moment. He didn't need to pick up the pillow she'd left behind to know it was now damp.

    The wet spots left by Angel's tears were proof enough of that.
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  18. Threadmarks: 2-04-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    Julia and Zack beamed down with them to see everyone off. Leo joined, if only to say goodbye before visiting the clinic left in the Abydonians' village after their last visit. "Take care of my CMO, Rob," Zack insisted, smiling at Opani. The young Dorei woman blushed a faint blue against her dark teal skin.

    "Of course we will," Robert promised.

    "We'll be waiting for word from you, whatever happens," Julia promised.

    Robert nodded in thanks.

    "Good luck." Julia embraced him in a hug. Lucy got one as well. Julia looked to Meridina. "Please, take care of them."

    Meridina nodded with understanding. "I will, of course. You may be certain of that."

    Satisfied, Julia nodded and stepped back to the DHD. She checked her multi-device to confirm again the address for Earth. One by one she found the symbols on the ancient console and keyed them in, causing them to light up. When seven had been punched in, she pressed a hand to the red orb in the middle of the console.

    Robert could feel energy shift in the air. A lot of it. The great ring of naqia that dominated the chamber flared up with energy. Blue energy coalesced within the ring, followed by a massive, water-like geyser that rushed out toward them before being sucked back in. A portal that rippled like fluid had formed, just like it had before.

    Lucy operated her multi-device. "I'm sending our coded recognition signal now." For several seconds there was no response. But just before Robert could decide to ask about it, Lucy grinned and nodded. "Reply sent. They're ready for us."

    Robert stepped up toward the Stargate. "I'll go first," he said.

    "No." Meridina moved ahead of him. She looked back. "I will. Once you confirm my multidevice is still transmitting and functioning, you may follow." Seeing Robert's look, she gave a smirk, which was admittedly not something they often saw on her face. "I am the security chief, remember? It is my duty to secure your lives."

    "Right." Robert nodded. "My apologies."

    "None needed," she assured him sweetly. Meridina promptly turned and went into the Stargate. It rippled around her point of entry.

    Lucy nodded. "She's through. I'm still picking up her multidevice." After a moment she shrugged. "And I can still feel her with my life force as well."

    Robert nodded. He thought he could sense it too, even though Meridina had just been transported by stable wormhole across vast light years. "Mister Secretary?"

    "I am behind you, Captain," Onaram confirmed.

    Robert drew in a breath and stepped up to the Stargate. It felt almost like stepping into water, if just for a brief moment. As if the surface was slightly resisting him like the surface of water might.

    And then there was a strange coldness within him. Light streaked through his vision for a long series of seconds.

    Suddenly it was over. His uniform shoes caused a metallic echo to ring in the air. He was standing on a metal walkway now. The shimmering light of the Stargate was illuminating the far walls and windows. With a sweep of his eyes Robert could see he had arrived in a gray-walled chamber facing a control room. It looked like what you would expect for an underground bunker.

    Meridina was waiting for him halfway down the walkway leading up to the Stargate. Beyond her was a line of figures. Robert recognized the four members of SG-1 immediately. They were joined by a balding older man with general's stars on his uniform - General Hammond, presumably - and a middle-aged man in a civilian business suit wearing glasses. Men and women in BDUs were at various positions in the room.

    Behind Robert there were sounds along the lines of glorp, three in succession. He looked back briefly to confirm that Secretary Onaram had come through with Lucy and Opani. A number of those present stared intently at the two Dorei.

    Oh well, Robert thought. Time to get to business. "Colonel O'Neill, it's good to see you again," he said.

    "Likewise, Captain," Jack answered. "This is my commanding officer, General Hammond."

    Robert and the others straightened their postures, the agreed upon Alliance equivalent of a salute. "General. I'm Captain Robert Dale of the Starship Aurora."

    "General George Hammond, Stargate Command," Hammond answered. His drawl was Southern, or rather Texan Robert thought. The blue color of his uniform jacket and trousers were US Air Force. "A pleasure to finally meet you, Captain."

    "Same here, General."

    "This is Secretary of Defense Arthur Simms," Hammond explained, gesturing to the man in the civilian suit.

    Simms was clearly struggling to stop staring at the Dorei in their group. "I've read SG-1s report on your people, Captain. The entire idea of this 'Multiverse', as you call it, and all of the civilizations and nations… it's really quite extraordinary."

    "And it never loses that luster, Mister Secretary," Robert answered, smiling. "General, Mister Secretary, this is Foreign Secretary Lentiro Onaram, here to represent President Morgan and direct our side of the negotiations."

    "But he won't be at the table, will he?" Jack asked.

    "Indeed not," Onaram said. He nodded to the others before offering his hand to Simms, who accepted it. Hammond did so afterward. Both had bewildered, surprised looks on their faces afterward.

    Robert looked at Onaram with renewed respect. Dorei… didn't do handshakes, really, not as casually as Humans did anyway. Their psionic abilities included enhanced empathic sensing with skin-to-skin contact, so natural that to initiate even a handshake was a gesture of respect and openness for a Dorei. They were literally allowing you to get a glimpse at their feelings.

    "Quite the gesture, Mister Secretary," Meridina noted. Seeing the looks on the Earth side's faces, she elaborated. "Dorei can share emotions, even thoughts, with skin contact. By offering you a handshake in the Human fashion, Secretary Onaram was showing immense trust in you."

    "That's… quite the gesture indeed."

    "It seemed appropriate for our circumstances."

    Robert looked to Meridina. "General, Mister Secretary, this is Commander Meridina, my chief of security. Lieutenant Lucy Lucero is an operations officer with some expertise of value to the security role. And Doctor Roliri Opani is along to assist if there are any medical emergencies. She's the Medical Officer for the Koenig."

    "What, you didn't bring Doctor Gillam?", Jack asked.

    Daniel Jackson, standing between Samantha Carter and Teal'c, joined in, remarking, "Somehow I suspect the Goa'uld wouldn't be pleased having him around given what he did to Amaunet."

    "That was how we thought about it, yeah," Robert admitted. "Thor also advised us to keep our ships away. The Goa'uld would take it badly or something to that extent."

    "Yeah, he made some suggestions our way as well," Jack said. "Anyway, Mister Secretary." Jack was looking to Onaram now. "I'm Colonel Jack O'Neill and this is my team. Major Samantha Carter, Doctor Daniel Jackson, and Teal'c."

    Onaram nodded to them. He offered a handshake to each. All but Teal'c accepted, with Teal'c instead nodding his head in respect. Robert nevertheless got the feeling he was Not Happy.

    "Congratulations, Major Carter," Robert said once Onaram was done.

    "Thank you," she answered back.

    "How long do we have until the Goa'uld arrive?", Lucy asked.

    "Enough time to get you settled in," Hammond replied. "Doctor Jackson, if you could do the honors?"

    "We have quarters set aside for you inside the SGC," he explained, leading them toward the right hand door leading out of the Stargate chamber. "As will the Goa'uld."

    "I can't imagine they'll enjoy barracks-style accommodations," Robert said.

    "No, they probably won't," Daniel sighed. "We've done a lot of work trying to pretty everything up to something close to what a Goa'uld might expect. But I'm pretty sure there will be complaints."

    "I appreciate all efforts made on our behalf," Onaram noted. Robert got the feeling Onaram probably wouldn't be enthused with his living area either, but would be more of a diplomat with his reaction to it.

    "How is your child?", asked Meridina.

    "Little Leo?" Daniel smiled thinly. "He's doing well. Sha're is with him all the time. They're back at my apartment while this is going on."

    "Of course." Meridina nodded. "It pleases me to know they are well. And Leonard will find the news comforting."

    Robert sighed. "Hrm?" The inquiry was from Jack, so Robert answered. "Leo lost a patient a few weeks ago. A kid with leukemia. He's still broken up about it."

    "Ah." Jack nodded. "I can understand that." The look on Jack's face explained his decision to swiftly change the subject. "So, how's everyone else doing? I hope your buddy Zack has learned some new insults, I'd hate to see him break out 'Baldy' again…"

    Upon returning to the Aurora, Zack followed Julia into her Deck 3 office. "Are we really just going to sit here?", he asked.

    "Those are the orders," she replied. "If anything's wrong, they'll communicate it to us."

    "But how will we help?", Zack asked. "Even if we go through the Stargate, that assumes they control it on the other end. If this is some sort of trick, or trap, we could end up walking into a Goa'uld trap on the other end."

    Julia had been picking up her digital pad to begin looking over paperwork for the day. She looked up from it. "I won't disagree with that. On the other hand, we can't jeopardize these talks."

    "There won't be any Goa'uld ships nearby," Zack reminded her. "And I'll keep the Koenig outside of the heliopause. We'll still be close enough to warp right to Earth orbit if we need to."

    Julia seemed to think on it. "No," she finally said.


    "Not that close," she said. "Promise me you'll stay at least one light-day out."

    Zack rolled his eyes. "It'll take us longer to go in if we're needed."

    "Not that much longer. You could be there within half an hour at Warp 3. A high warp jump could still get you there in minutes." Julia met him eye to eye. "One light-day. Take it or leave it."

    Zack frowned in frustration. And then he sighed. "Fine."

    "And bring Leo," Julia said. "Just in case. I'll have his subordinates load a surgical module onto the Koenig before you leave."

    "Right." Zack nodded. "I'll get my crew ready." He turned toward the door.


    He looked back to her. Julia's green eyes focused on him. "Be safe," she said. "And good luck."

    Zack nodded. "Thanks."

    He left, and Julia returned to the paperwork.

    Meridina and Daniel accompanied Robert and Jack back to the Stargate chamber for the scheduled arrival of the Goa'uld. "So, Thor insisted you be the one at the table?", Jack asked.

    "He did." Robert shook his head. "It confuses the hell out of me, honestly. Julia was the one leading the team that faced Heru'ur. I never even saw the guy."

    "Yeah, well, you didn't miss much. These Goa'uld all tend to be the same. They all do that 'Bow and worship me for I am a god' thing."

    "Well, they're used to bullying pre-industrial societies, I guess they would be seen as gods." Robert frowned. "And now we have to make nice with them."

    "I was actually going to bring that up," Daniel said. "Why, exactly, is the Alliance so ready to make a deal with the Goa'uld?"

    "We're already in one war," Robert sighed. "It's taking enough of our efforts to fight off the Nazis, we can't…"

    "Wait. Woh, back it up there." Jack turned his head and faced him directly. "Did you just say 'Nazis'?"

    Robert nodded. "I did."

    "As in the whole 'Heil Hitler' goose-stepping black-wearing German guys?"

    "Well, it's apparently 'Heil Sauckel' now," Robert replied. "But yes. They're a space-faring Nazi Germany in a universe where Hitler won World War II, and Nazi Germany gradually came to dominate the world."

    Jack looked at him intently. "You've got to be joking."

    "I'm not."

    "And they have the SS and all that?"

    Robert frowned. "Yeah. And they're the nastiest of the whole rotten bunch."

    "Indeed," Meridina concurred. "They are quite unpleasant."

    For several moments Jack was silent. "Okay, the Multiverse is really weird," he finally said.

    Robert chuckled. "And I didn't even tell you about S0T5 yet."

    "And what about them?"

    "Oh… Zigonians. A reptilian humanoid race." Robert smirked. "And they're devout Catholics. In their own way, at least."

    Jack blinked. "You're not joking, are you?"

    "I'm not."

    Jack looked over to Daniel. "Weeeeird," he intoned.

    "Well." Daniel shrugged. "I suppose there's no reason why a reptilian species can't be…"

    Daniel stopped as they entered the gate room. Sam and Hammond were waiting already, in their USAF dress blues just as Jack was. Guards in camo, but unarmed, were to either side of the room, standing still with hands behind their backs.

    Ahead of them the Stargate was already lit up.

    One by one the lights on the Stargate finished coming on. By the time it activated the room had filled with a subtle tension. Expectation, disgust, irritation, worry, everything you would expect for this occasion.

    "Chevron 7 is locked. Off-world activation," said a woman. Presumably sitting in the control room behind and above them.

    Once the portal stabilized, there was nothing for several seconds, increasing the nervousness and uncertainty in the room.

    And then the Goa'uld started to emerge.

    The first was in a suit of silver with a fur cloak slung over his left shoulder. His light eyes were full of self-assurance far beyond arrogance. Long hair of light brownish color went down to his shoulders.

    The second was a woman, of light brown complexion, with deep, dark eyes and a proud forbearance. Her dark hair was pulled back into a bun that was obscured under a silver headscarf that flowed loosely down to her shoulders. She had a red jewel set into her forehead and further glittering stones on her silver garments - a sari and billowing pants - and at the edge of her hairline where the headscarf was in place. A prominent jewel was just under her neck, at the center of the gems that made her sari glitter.

    The last figure was in robes of Oriental finery, primarily crimson in color with a light gold collar trimmed with white. Brown eyes took in the environment of the gate room. His dark hair was obscured by the black hat that covered his head, a round cap that made Robert think of old Chinese dress styles. He had facial hair, a mustache that joined the hair of a thin goatee down to his chin, where a long tail of a beard hung down several inches.

    Moreover, he recognized them from the information the Asgard granted the Alliance. Cronus, Nirrti, and Yu.

    They went down the walkway slowly until they were facing Robert, Jack, and the others. He could sense nothing of their hosts, simply the Goa'uld within. Disgust on their own part, a sense of grinding irritation from Nirrti at the least, and certainly haughty distaste from the others.

    Meridina seemed to tense up as the Goa'uld looked over her. It occurred to Robert that her talent made her even more susceptible to sensing their feelings and emotions. It was clear that she didn't enjoy what they were thinking.

    Daniel, appointed to deal with their needs, spoke first. "The United States and the people of Earth welcome you to the SGC," he said. Daniel's calm diplomatic tones made Robert wonder why he hadn't been picked to represent Earth. "We are honored by your attendance. This is Colonel Jonathan…"

    "We are aware of whom you are," Yu announced. The Goa'uld glanced at Daniel in irritation, while his peers kept their attentions on Jack and Robert. "Introductions are not necessary, nor are they desired."

    "We require to see our dwellings before the meeting with the Asgard," said Cronus.

    Daniel rolled with the discourtesy with surprising grace. "Of course. Please follow me."

    As it turned out the Goa'uld did not appreciate their lodgings. Or the security cameras in their VIP rooms. And Cronus in particular did not appreciate the presence of Teal'c, with whom he shared harsh words. It was, Robert thought, not an auspicious start.

    Meridina's expression betrayed some concern. Which was worrying enough, as she rarely showed such an emotion. "Perhaps General Hammond might permit me to oversee the security here?", she asked Robert quietly. "To prevent incidents."

    "I'll share that thought with him soon," Robert answered in a low voice. Sensing that the Goa'uld were still directing some attention his way, especially now, he stepped toward where they were giving Daniel a host of complaints. "While formal introductions are clearly not necessary," he began, "I would like to extend my thanks that you are willing to nego…"

    He never got the chance to finish. "You are not welcome in this galaxy, outsiders," Yu announced. "It is only by our patience that you have not been driven from your worlds."

    Robert and Jack exchanged looks. "Well, doesn't that sound friendly?", Jack asked. "Because that doesn't sound like negotiating as I understand…"

    Daniel got a concerned look in his eyes and interrupted Jack. "What Colonel O'Neill means to say is that he believes all issues of contention should be held until the official negotiations commence," Daniel said, giving Jack a look that nearly oozed the sentiment "Don't say anything else, let me handle this before you ruin everything". Jack recognized the look and held back. Not happily, it seemed, but he did.

    Cronus grunted noncommittally, before returning to complaints about the lodgings.

    Robert went over to Meridina, who was watching quietly. "Think they're just acting?", he whispered to her.

    "No," she answered quietly. "They are truly unhappy with their accommodations. They are used to... more luxurious surroundings."

    "So are most diplomats, I imagine," Robert answered. "I don't think Secretary Onaram is too pleased with his either."

    "That is not all, though," Meridina said. "I sense a greater sentiment within them."

    "Well, they're arrogant as hell, that's pretty obvious."

    "No, not that." Meridina looked on them with some fascination and concern. "They are actually afraid as well." Meridina looked to him. "Be wary of appearances. I am sensing something like deception."

    "As in they're tricking us?"

    "Not necessarily. It is not a general feeling. I believe one or more Goa'uld are hiding things from the others, primarily."

    Hearing that made Robert feel a little better about their options. If the Goa'uld were squabble amongst themselves, that might give him and the others room to maneuver between their dissensions.

    "Keep an eye on them," he murmured. "Nothing indiscreet. I just want to know if one gets up to anything hostile."

    "I will endeavor to learn as much as I can," she promised. "I additionally feel that there is something to the situation between Cronus and Teal'c."

    As Teal'c had already walked away, Robert said nothing. "I'm sure the SG-1 team can handle themselves," he answered quietly. "I'd better see to Secretary Onaram and see if he has any final instructions for me."

    Lucy and Doctor Opani had been assigned quarters together, a spare room with two twin-sized beds that they barely fit on. "Well, this looks like fun," Lucy mumbled. "And we're going to be trapped in here for days."

    Opani was busy going through her satchel. "I would have preferred a mobile biobed," she said. "Should we have any medical emergencies."

    "They've got an infirmary on base, right?"

    "They do. But their medical technology is still behind our own. And the materials I could bring can only do so much."

    Lucy couldn't dispute that. But she could sense that there was more to Opani's mood. "Are you okay?", she asked.

    Opani gave her a look. There was a sense of nervousness in her light teal eyes. "You've heard of the Jeaxians?", she asked.

    Lucy nodded. "They're a species from N2S7. Your closest stellar neighbors aside from the Gersallians. Didn't they get involved in your Second Unification War?"

    "They did," Opani confirmed. "They provided technology and weapons to the Kings of the Sindai continent to launch a surprise attack on the Dorei Federation."

    "To keep your people divided."

    "Yes." Opani's expression darkened. "So it would be easier for them to raid us for slaves."

    Lucy had nothing to say to that. "I know your universe has had issues with slavers too. From personal experience."

    "The Jeaxians were the worst. Some still are," Opani explained. "They don't simply whip or beat slaves to keep them in line, Lieutenant. They created devices. I would describe them as neural override implants. They are placed to allow a remote controller to override inputs from the brain. Anyone implanted with a neural override device has control over their body stripped away from them. They can be controlled like automatons, and the person inside… they are aware of every moment of it. They still feel every moment of pain inflicted on them, every physical agony from being overworked and underfed."

    The realization of what Opani was saying came to Lucy then. She couldn't stop the gasp from coming out. "You're saying…"

    Opani quietly reached to the back of her head. She lifted her dark purple hair up to reveal the back of her neck. At the hairline, and a little beyond, was a thin line of lightened teal flesh set against her dark teal skin. Lucy could tell it was a surgical incision scar almost right away.

    "I was twenty years old. Equivalent to eighteen of yours," she explained quietly. "I was pursuing pre-medical school training with an organization that provided assistance to struggling worlds. The Mi'qote Homeworld of Ys'talla."

    Lucy thought she'd heard of them. The Mi'qote were roughly felinoid, but with Human-esque features and skin instead of the furred bodies of Caitians from S5T3. "They're not a very advanced species," Lucy proposed. "I mean, I've never seen one, and only barely heard of them from Meridina listing the sentient species of your universe."

    Opani nodded. "We were working in a village along one of the borders between their internal nations. Some Mi'qote nations are more… tribalistic than the others. Their chiefs allow for raiders to plunder over borders."

    "They attacked the village," Lucy said. "And took you."

    Opani nodded. "Nobody thought an attack would happen. But the chief across the border had invited a deposed Jeaxian warlord to join his tribe. The Jeaxians provided them with weapons and technology. And I was implanted with one that night."

    Lucy felt compelled to put a hand on Opani's shoulder. Her power made it easier for her to sense the emotions going through the other woman. The memories she was reliving in that moment were horrifying.

    "I was held for nineteen days. A slave to the Jeaxian warlord. It might have been longer had not the Order of Swenya's knights arrived, along with those of the Sisters of the Silver Moon. And those nineteen days were a hell that I will never forget." Opani's eyes now shined with tears. "And now, there are three of your species in this base who suffer something like that hell, and have for years. And I can do nothing for them." Opani clenched her hands into fists. "I have always wanted to heal. My suffering made that desire even stronger. But for them, I can do nothing." Opani's lips thinned into a deep, frustrated frown. "I wish Captain Dale had chosen another."

    "I understand." Lucy sat down beside her on one of the beds. "I know what it's like to be hurt. Enough that I'd love to help those three hosts too. Just as I know we can't without causing another war."

    Neither spoke again for a time. Opani silently got back to work when she was ready, and Lucy did nothing but quietly observe.

    Daniel came to Robert when it was time. He had been busy going over the list Onaram gave him of the concessions President Morgan was willing to make to the Goa'uld, and what terms were unacceptable. But he still had little idea over how these talks would go.

    They picked up the Goa'uld next, with Meridina joining them as escort, and together made their way to a room that had been converted to host the negotiations. Jack's voice was coming from the other side. "...don't want them anywhere," he was saying. Once inside the door Robert could see his back had been to them. Jack had been facing Sam instead. Both were still in USAF dress blues.

    Flags and banners representing the present factions were along the walls. A hexagonal table had been set into the room, with a folder before each table.

    "Welcome, hello everyone," Jack was saying, rebounding from being walked in on. Sam gave him a quiet look before leaving. Robert could feel that she was aggravated about being around the Goa'uld too, and not just like the rest of them. "Let's all get to our seats."

    Wordlessly the three Goa'uld took seats. Yu, Nirrti, and Cronus, in order from right to left (at least from their perspective). That left three chairs. Robert, mindful of the diplomatic issues at stake, sat opposite from Jack, putting the last open seat between them.

    Jack hadn't sat yet. "Well. That's almost everyone." He was consulting his watch. "Any moment…"

    The sound of an Asgard transporter filled the room. Thor appeared in a chair after a prolonged burst of white light.

    "There." Jack kept his voice quiet and neutral in tone. "We're all here." He sat down as well.

    Thor nodded to them all. His small mouth began to move. "The Asgard High Council wishes you all greetings and thanks for this opportunity to negotiate for peace."

    Yu spoke next. "The Goa'uld System Lords are prepared to hear the Asgard proposal."

    Robert could feel the anger and frustration coming from Nirrti. She grumbled something in Goa'uld.

    Cronus' expression soured. He glared at Nirrti and growled something back at her. She responded with a hissed retort.

    Yu slammed a fist on the table and barked at both of them. Again he was speaking in Goa'uld, but Robert clearly made out the word "Asgard". He cursed the fact that they didn't have the Goa'uld language loaded into his translation program yet.

    Jack had a confused expression at the ongoing exchange. "I thought we were all gonna speak the same language here?"

    Immediately the Goa'uld all glared his way. Cronus spat out something in their language and stood to his feet abruptly. Nirrti and Yu followed suit. They stomped out of the room.

    "What did I say?", Jack asked, utterly confused.

    "You insulted them," Thor replied.

    Jack seemed even more confused by that reply. "What? I insulted them? They were already insulting each other by the way things looked!"

    "You spoke out of turn," Thor explained patiently.

    Robert sighed. "Maybe the protocols of these talks should have been made clearer. I've heard of this sort of custom before, but I've never seen it applied so quickly over a question like that."

    "The Goa'uld operate under very specific rules on these matters," Thor explained. "And the balance between System Lords is fragile, as is their relationship with us."

    The door slid open and Daniel came in. "What just happened?", he asked, gesturing toward the door.

    "Apparently we met, insulted each other, and broke for recess," Jack answered.

    Robert turned to Thor. "What is the balance of power between the Asgard and Goa'uld, anyway?"

    "The Asgard are the more advanced and powerful species," Daniel answered.

    "Which makes me wonder how you could let the Goa'uld get that powerful," Jack asked Thor.

    "It is a state of affairs we are not proud of," Thor admitted. "But you must understand that we do what we can with the resources left to us, which are limited. All we can manage is used to sustain the treaties with the Goa'uld. We can spare nothing more for this galaxy."

    "Why?", Daniel asked.

    Thor looked to him and Jack. "We are fighting an enemy in our home galaxy that is even worse than the Goa'uld."

    Robert stared in horror at the idea. "Worse than them?!"

    "Yes, Captain Dale."

    Jack stared at Thor for a moment. "So… you're bluffing these guys, aren't you? This is all one big bluff."

    Thor nodded at that.

    Worry was visible on both their faces. "So, say that a rogue Goa'uld like Sokar were to come after us," Daniel asked. "What would happen then?"

    "The System Lords would attempt to prevent it to preserve the treaty," Thor answered. "The feudal nature of their society and their divisions have always been useful. Our greatest fear is that one System Lord would rise above the others and seize complete control of their empire."

    "Someone like this Sokar?", Robert ventured.

    "Precisely." Thor got out of his chair. "I will return to my vessel now. When the negotiations are ready to proceed, you may inform me with this." He held out his hand to Jack. There was a bright glow and an item materialized in Thor's hand, a small teardrop-shaped stone with runes carved around its base.

    Jack took it gingerly. He looked it over. "So… how does it work?"

    "Simply speak into it, and I will hear you," Thor said. A moment later he transported out.

    That left the three of them alone. Robert was flipping through the binder in front of him, seeing the terms the Asgard were setting for Earth's protection and the proposal for the Alliance-Goa'uld non-interference and peace treaties. They were giving up their own concessions to sweeten the pot for the Goa'uld.

    It occurred to him that Thor and his people were playing the long-game. They were giving up great short-term gains to the System Lords while, in the long-term, Earth and the Allied Systems would have time to establish themselves more strongly.

    Assuming the Goa'uld don't see that risk too, he pondered. I'm sure they'll ask for something to counter-act it.

    "Well," Daniel began, "I'd better go draw up an apology to the Goa'uld. You'll need to sign it, Jack."

    "Of course," Jack muttered.

    "I'd better inform Secretary Onaram," Robert said. He stood from his chair. "Let me know when the Goa'uld are ready to resume."

    Meridina was waiting patiently in the proximity of the Goa'uld-occupied VIP quarters when Daniel and Teal'c walked in her direction. Daniel was carrying a piece of paper and looked resigned to his task of kowtowing appropriately to the Goa'uld. "Commander," he said simply before walking on.

    Teal'c remained with Meridina, refusing to go any closer. Meridina sensed his resentment and anger. "You have great animosity toward them. Personal animosity."

    Teal'c was frowning intently toward the Goa'ulds' rooms. "My father was First Prime of Cronus," he said. "Cronus murdered him for defeat in a hopeless battle."

    "A great injustice," Meridina murmured.

    "I serve the Tau'ri to fight the Goa'uld and free my people," Teal'c continued. "Now the Tau'ri face annihilation if the Goa'uld strike. Are your people not strong enough to help?"

    "My people are, regrettably, already in one war with a dark and terrible evil," she answered. "The Goa'uld would be too much for us."

    "That is to our misfortune, then," Teal'c lamented.

    Meridina shook her head. A quiet, serene smile came to her face. "Misfortune is never permanent. The Light will prevail. One day, the System Lords will be called to account by those with the Light."

    "You believe this to be true?"

    "Yes. I do."

    Teal'c appraised her quietly. "Then I look forward to the day that it comes true."

    Daniel emerged from the last of the VIP rooms and walked toward them. "Well, I've presented Jack's groveling apology for him," he said to them. "Now we just have to wait and see how long it will take them to reconvene."

    "And what it might cost you at the negotiations," Meridina said.

    "Yeah, I really didn't want to think about that." Daniel sighed.

    With how negative Daniel's thoughts and feelings were getting, Meridina changed the subject. "How are your wife, and the child?"

    Daniel's expression softened. "Sha're is happy. There are still a few things she's learning about Earth, but she's adapted to living here now. And Leo, our Leo, is getting bigger every day, it seems."

    "I see." Meridina's smile remained soft. "It is pleasing to know that things have improved for your family, Doctor Jackson."

    "Thank you. Well, I'd better…"

    There were footsteps down the hall. Yu approached them, head high. He nodded stiffly. "The Goa'uld System Lords find the apology of the Earth representative sufficient. We will be ready to return to the summit shortly."

    "Thank you, Lord Yu," Daniel answered. "I will go inform the other representatives."

    Yu barely acknowledged him before walking the other way.

    Daniel and Teal'c departed while Meridina resumed her vigil. She felt something, a sense of deception that made her feel wary. But for the moment, she would act as before, and quietly observe.

    Robert was called away from a quick update with President Morgan with the news the Goa'uld were returning to the table. Thor beamed down as before and Yu took the lead again, stating they had accepted Jack's apology and were ready to resume the talks.

    It went to business first. Thor laid out various Asgard concessions, mostly in the way of authorizing Goa'uld trade through various parts of space, confirmation of some Goa'uld gains, and similar matters.

    "And in exchange for these considerations, you intend that Earth be included in the Protected Planets Treaty," Cronus stated.

    "We do," Thor said. "The Asgard will also guarantee a treaty of non-interference and peace between the Goa'uld System Lords and the United Alliance of Systems."

    "The Goa'uld are prepared to agree to these terms," Yu said. "Should our terms be met."

    For a moment Jack almost spoke out again, but he caught himself. He raised a hand toward Thor, who nodded like the Chairman of a Committee. "What would those terms be?", Jack asked.

    "Your planet cannot be allowed to advance to a point where you are a threat to the System Lords, as is laid out in the Protected Planets Treaty," Yu said. "We require guarantees to this effect."

    Again Jack forced himself to wait until Thor recognized him. "Woh, I don't remember anything about that being said before. You're going to restrict our development?"

    "The Protected Planets Treaty recognizes that the purpose of the Human species is to provide the Goa'uld with hosts and slaves," Cronus said. "No Human civilization can be allowed to threaten our superior position."

    Robert felt a hot anger rise from within him. "Like hell," he muttered. "We're not here to be your cattle." After he spoke, he felt a wave of self-recrimination. Now he had spoken out of turn.

    The Goa'uld didn't seem to consider this the same way they had Jack's earlier outburst on the agreed language. In fact, it looked like they were amused by what he said, in that smug superior sense they possessed. "The Asgard have already recognized our position over your kind," Nirrti purred through that unnatural timbre. "Your opinions on the matter are irrelevant."

    "What is relevant is the potential threat you pose," Cronus said. "Any treaty you sign with the System Lords will include a similar recognition of our superior place in this galaxy. You will accept the same term as the Asgard have. Your Alliance will guarantee that it will never allow a Goa'uld to be stripped from their host. You will not provide assistance or support for any slave populations of the Goa'uld. And your Alliance will be forbidden from sharing any further technology with Earth."

    Robert glowered at that. "And what's to protect any of our citizens from being taken to be made into slaves or hosts?"

    "The Goa'uld System Lords will not encroach upon any existing colony of the Allied Systems and will recognize future colonies settled within a short range of those worlds," Yu stated. "And we will recognize that Ra's former holding of Abydos is now under the jurisdiction of the Allied Systems. None of your people will be subject to seizure as slaves or hosts so long as they are in the recognized zone of Alliance space."

    "But if they exit your territory, they are forfeit to our desires," Cronus added.

    Robert's glower nearly became a snarl. This was what the Alliance had expected, of course, but to hear it in those terms, to know that any exploration teams or free colonies outside of the recognized sphere of Alliance space would be fair game for Goa'uld attack, that was almost too much.

    As for the ban on giving technology away… that was also expected. Although it said nothing about Earth itself…

    "And that's it?", Jack asked. "Those are your extra terms?"

    "There are two more," Cronus revealed.

    "And they are?", Robert asked.

    "The Tau'ri will give up their Stargate to the Goa'uld System Lords," Yu said. Jack had only a brief moment to consider the loophole in that before Yu clarified, "Both of them."

    Jack frowned deeply at that.

    "And the Alliance will make a further guarantee," Yu continued, looking to Robert. "The vessel known as the Aurora will be banned from our home universe."

    Robert stared. "What?"

    "The Alliance will be forbidden from bringing into this universe any vessel bearing Asgard technology," Yu clarified. "Including your ship."

    Robert blinked. He brought up a hand. "Asgard technology? We don't have any Asgard technology…"

    "You are either a liar or an incompetent," Cronus answered. "We are already aware that your vessel is armed with Asgard weaponry."

    "What do you mean, Asgard weaponry? All we have are..." Robert stopped and glanced to Thor, who remained patiently still. He was putting two and two together.

    "We have all seen Heru'ur's information about your ship," said Yu. "Your ship's main weapons are based on Asgard technology. And we will not permit such technology to be used in our galaxy by any but the Asgard themselves."

    Robert blinked again. He could see Jack's bewildered expression. "The pulse plasma cannons," Robert murmured. He looked to Thor. "They're what the Darglan got from you?"

    Thor nodded. "We provided them with the necessary information to construct their own variants of our defensive systems. Your transporter systems also operate under principles derived from our own."

    Robert thought on that a moment. "But… the Darglan were peaceful explorers, and they had… why would they need such an increase in firepower?"

    "You may discuss this at another time," Cronus insisted. "Those are our terms. We will await your consultation with your leaders."

    "If your leaders are wise, they will accept them," Yu added.

    The Goa'uld all stood and went for the door.

    Robert barely noticed them go. He was still looking at Thor, his head full of questions.

    Thor noticed it as well. "I must consult with the High Council," Thor said. "Please inform me when your governments have made a decision." He vanished in a flash of light.

    Robert rubbed at his forehead. Jack was already standing. His expression was a dark and sour one, and for an understandable reason. The Goa'uld had just effectively asked Earth to throw away any means of finding a way to defend itself from them. Their only shield would be a treaty that, given what Jack and Robert now knew, was working purely on a bluff by the Asgard. If they gave their Stargate up and things went bad, Earth was doomed.

    The Alliance was, at least, in a better position. But the Goa'uld terms meant that any of the new ship designs employing Darglan - or rather, Asgard - plasma weaponry would be barred from service in R4A1. The Goa'uld, if they discovered how distracted the Asgard were, could be assured of facing older Alliance vessels in their initial assault, not the newer and more powerful ones being designed and built.

    "Well, I guess that's that," he murmured, looking at Jack. "We might as well report this to our bosses."

    "Oh, I can't wait," Jack replied in a dull tone.
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  19. Threadmarks: 2-04-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    Secretary Onaram considered the Goa'uld terms carefully. "We would undermine our defenses over time," he noted. "If this plasma weaponry is Asgard-based and not permitted in this galaxy."

    "That's just what I thought," Robert said in reply. "And we're barred from helping Earth out, so they'll be on their own if the Goa'uld abrogate the treaty."

    "What are the chances of that? That is the consideration we face."

    "Well, the treaty's held for centuries. Millennia, it seems." Robert shrugged. "It's a big galaxy and the Goa'uld already own much of it. Maybe they'll be content to continue fighting each other and respect our borders." Robert lowered himself into the seat across the table from Onaram. The SGC had kindly converted a back-up storeroom into a conference room for the Alliance team, with the technology the Alliance had brought through allowing for communication with Portland. Currently that channel was closed, but Onaram would be using it soon to report to President Morgan the Goa'uld terms.

    "That would certainly be a preferable outcome." Onaram put his hands together on the table. "Just for sake of argument, Captain, would you accept this agreement?"

    Robert wanted to say no. That they were giving too much to the Goa'uld. But he knew the alternative was worse. They didn't have the means to fight off the Goa'uld right now. Not with the war with the Nazi Reich still on. "Well. I can't see anything they've said that goes against the President's basic requirements," Robert admitted. "They've agreed to recognize our colonies and the zone of space we've claimed, and so long as our citizens remain in our territory they're considered hands-off."

    "But any Alliance citizen who leaves our space becomes a target?"

    Robert nodded. "Potentially. I guess it would come down to whether the Goa'uld in question wanted to be hostile or not. They're more feudal than the Inner Sphere. But if they take any of our people found outside our space, we can't do anything about it. Short of ransoming them back, I guess. And if they're taken to be hosts, there's nothing we can do."

    Onaram silently pondered this. "The Goa'uld are disgusting, are they not?", he finally asked.

    "Completely," Robert agreed.

    "But that does not matter. Our mission is not to like them, it is to forestall chance of an invasion with a peace treaty. And the Goa'uld terms, while onerous, are not in contradiction to President Morgan's instructions." Onaram his hands together on the table, aligned so that the fingers on each hand were gripping the side of the other. "Deity forgive us for treating with such monsters. But we have accomplished what we came to do. I will seek final approval from President Morgan, but for the moment, we are accepting the Goa'uld offer."

    As much as Robert wanted to hate the very idea of the deal, he couldn't help but nod in agreement. "I think that's our best choice for now."

    "As for Earth." The elder Dorei's expression was somber. "Do you think they will accept the Goa'uld terms?"

    Robert sighed and nodded. "I think they'd be crazy not to. We can't protect them or help, the Asgard won't if they refuse the Goa'uld terms, and if they say no the Goa'uld will throw ships at them until Earth is crushed."

    "Agreed. Hopefully they will see the wisdom in this."

    "I would ask permission to seek one exception from the Goa'uld, Mister Secretary," Robert said. "Civilian technology. I want to see if the Goa'uld will let us continue to provide Earth, quietly, with superior technology to improve life on Earth. Medical technology and means, ecological repair methods, agricultural bonuses, that sort of thing."

    "If you can get the Goa'uld to agree without a major concession, I will defend such a term with the President," Onaram pledged. "Please, inform Secretary Simms and General Hammond of our decision, and give them my recommendation that they accept. And tell them this: should they accept and give up their Stargates, and should the Goa'uld betray the treaty, the Alliance will do whatever is in our power to assist the people of Earth in the resulting struggle."

    "I'll pass it on." Robert stood and left the room, pondering that promise. It was not hollow, but it would not be comforting to an Earth bombarded into submission and invaded by the Goa'uld, with the survivors enslaved. It would be years, probably, before the Goa'uld could be confronted by the Alliance.

    But it was all they could do.

    Meridina was surprised to see Teal'c enter the hall where the Goa'uld were being kept. She looked to him with some bewilderment. "Teal'c," she said.

    "Commander Meridina," he replied, nodding his head respectfully.'

    "Why have you come?", she asked.

    "I was called by Cronus," Teal'c said. He handed a scrap of paper with Goa'uld writing on it. Meridina looked it over and handed it back. She couldn't read the writing save to recognize the characters for Cronus' name, but she could sense no deception from the Jaffa.

    "Allow me to stand by the room, then," Meridina said. "For security purposes."

    "That is most wise," Teal'c agreed.

    Meridina walked with Teal'c to the room in question. She knocked upon the door and opened it.

    Cronus looked up. He saw her, and then he saw Teal'c and snarled. "Shol'va," he spat. "Why have you returned to my presence? Is this the extent of the Alliance's supposed security?"

    "It was you who summoned me," Teal'c stated. He showed his invitation to Cronus.

    Cronus snatched the paper and looked it over. Confusion now crossed his haughty face. He growled in Goa'uld.

    Meridina sensed something was wrong, dreadfully wrong. Her hand went to her lakesh and she stood ready to act to protect both.

    The chaos began a moment later.

    Robert found Jack in the SGC wardroom above the control room, complete with a glass window into the Gate Room. "Colonel," he said politely.

    Jack turned only after a moment. His expression was torn and bitter. "Captain," he said. "So, how's your side doing? You going to sell out to the Goa'uld too?"

    Robert couldn't keep the frown off his face from distaste. "Secretary Onaram thinks we're getting about as good as we can hope for. He has allowed me to ask the Goa'uld to make an exception for some civilian technology. Help your planet along with medical technology, the means to repair ecological damage, that sort of thing."

    Jack nodded slowly. "I guess that's all you can really hope to do in your situation, is it?"

    "Pretty much," Robert admitted. "Onaram did want me to extend a promise, that we'll do whatever we can for Earth's people if the Goa'uld end up betraying the treaty. That we'll help whoever we can."

    "Mighty nice of you." Jack's tone was bitter and sarcastic. After a moment he winced. "I'm sorry, you don't deserve that. I just hate this entire situation." He crossed his arms. "We're up against the corner and the Goa'uld know that, so they're taking everything they can get out of us. And I can't think of a single way to stop them."

    "I can't either." Robert put his hands on the back of the nearest chair and leaned against it slightly. "The timing for us is terrible."

    "Well, at least you're fighting actual Nazis," Jack pointed out. He looked out again at the Stargate. "Hell, maybe I should just join your side of things. The SGC's going to be disbanded if this goes through."

    "We'd be glad to have all of you," Robert said. "If you really want that."

    "I suppose we'll see what happens," Jack replied. "I just think we're going to regret this. Trusting the Goa'uld to not be Goa'uld with us when…"

    Jack was interrupted by an alarm and a number of red lights starting to go off. "What…" He started.

    Robert's multidevice chimed. He reached to it and pressed the commkey. "Dale here."

    "You need to get to the Goa'uld VIP rooms, now," Lucy said on the other end.

    "Why?" Robert could see Jack's attention focus on him with laser-like intensity. "What's going on?"

    "It's all…. it looks like Teal'c attacked Cronus, Captain."

    Both men went right for the door.

    By the time the two men arrived, soldiers and medics had come as well. Yu was shouting in enraged Goa'uld. He glared at them as they came. "Is this your idea of security, Captain?!", he raged. "And you. Your people will suffer for this!"

    "Before you go off threatening us, can we find out what happened first?", Jack asked.

    Yu's eyes glowed white, and his face remained locked in restrained fury.

    Robert could already feel Lucy inside with Meridina. He moved by Yu and entered the room. Opani and Doctor Fraiser were busy getting an unconscious Cronus into aa stretcher. Another pair of medics were tending to a wounded Teal'c, covered in blows and cuts. Meridina was seated against a wall, a cut and bruise on her forehead. Lucy was kneeling beside her. She looked up at Robert. "I found them like this," Lucy said.

    "Did you see anything? Feel anything?"

    "Just…" Lucy shook her head. "Deception, I think. Anger. Surprise. I can't tell if Meridina walked in on them or what."

    "So Teal'c might have attacked Cronus?"

    "I don't know. Maybe?" Lucy shook her head. "Meridina probably knows."

    The Gersallian woman stirred. Her eyes looked distant when she opened them. "What… what has…"

    "I was hoping you could tell us," Robert said.

    Daniel was in the room now and standing with them. "Did you see anything?", he asked. "Any indication of who attacked Cronus and Teal'c."

    "I am afraid my memory is not clear," Meridina answered. She rubbed at her forehead. "The blow to my head was quite unexpected. I am afraid I was distracted too greatly by the fighting."

    Robert's stomach twisted. "Who was fighting?"

    "Cronus and Teal'c," she said. "Maddened with anger and rage. I could not tell who started the fight."

    "Why was Teal'c even down here?", Jack asked. "He knew to stay away."

    "A message was invoked on his part. I trusted his judgement to be appropriate and allowed him to pass."

    "Well, that's not going to look good," Daniel sighed.

    "Here, let me give you a medical scan," Lucy offered. "And then we can get you to the infirmary."

    Meridina shook her head. "That is not necessary."

    "I don't know, this head wound looks…"

    "I said that it is not necessary," Meridina insisted. Her voice became heated in a way Robert had never heard before, and she almost glared daggers at Lucy.

    Lucy was taken aback. "Okay, okay," she said. "I'm just… I wanted to make sure you're okay."

    Meridina's face relaxed. "I… I apologize," she said. "I am merely aggravated at myself for not escorting Teal'c as I should have. Everything may be ruined now from his surrender to his darkness."

    "We'll find out what happened," Robert assured Meridina. Her outburst worried him. She had clearly felt ashamed of what looked to be broken trust… but Meridina was usually far calmer than that.

    Then again, she'd spent all day near the Goa'uld, feeling their nastiest and most vile thoughts being "transmitted", for lack of a better word, for everyone with her level of telepathy to feel. Robert suspected he'd be tetchy as well. "Why don't you go rest?", he advised. "I'll let you know if anything else happens."

    "Of course." She stood and began to walk away.

    "Well, so much for the peace summit," Daniel sighed.

    Robert nodded. He swallowed. "I'd better go report this to Secretary Onaram. See if he has any idea how we can deal with this."

    "We're going to see what's happening in the infirmary," Jack said. "Maybe if we're lucky we can talk our way out of this."

    There was something in his tone, and in Daniel's look, that told Robert how both were actually feeling about their chances, and it was certainly how he felt about it.

    When are we ever that lucky?

    Onaram heard Robert's quick report with quiet contemplation. Robert could still sense something of the feelings within the older Dorei, though - frustration, concern, a sense of everything having fallen out of control. "What is the Goa'uld response?", he finally asked.

    "Bad," Robert replied. "Yu vowed the people of Earth would suffer."

    The Dorei statesman's right ear twitched slightly. "He specified Earth only? He is not blaming us?"

    "Not of the attack. He accused us of incompetence, that was it." Robert could sense the calculation going on and didn't need to be a mind-reader to see where this was going. "Sir, you're not about to suggest…?"

    "We must consider the needs and interests of the Alliance as a whole, Captain," Onaram said. His voice was plainly weary. "All we can do is encourage the Goa'uld to show mercy. Perhaps if this Teal'c were to stand trial for the attack…"

    "I doubt the Goa'uld care for a trial," Robert answered. "With a system like theirs, all they'll want to do is execute Teal'c on the spot. And they might still want more."

    "All we can do is see if further concessions we can accept, and Teal'c's extradition, can mollify them. If it can't…" Onaram shook his head. "Then we must leave Earth to its fate."

    Robert couldn't keep the angry look off his face. "You're talking about leaving five to six billion people to be slaughtered or enslaved, Mister Secretary. How can we let something like that happen?"

    Even as he asked that, in the heat of the moment, he could guess the basic point of the weary reaction Onaram had to that. "Because there are billions more in Universe S4W8 who suffer the same at the hands of the Nazi Reich."

    Robert's jaw clenched.

    "I must inform President Morgan, Captain," Onaram sighed. "Please let me know of any further updates to the situation."

    Robert nodded and left.

    The critical care room in the SG-1 infirmary was rather dark from all the dimmed lights. Doctor Fraiser was in charge, with Opani providing what help she could. Lucy could feel Opani's disturbed feelings. She was helping to save the parasite and the helpless host that it kept imprisoned in his own mind.

    And helping to save the peace, she thought.

    Yu and Nirrti were present, and both were even nastier in disposition than before. "Your primitive technology can do nothing for him," Nirrti asserted. "We must get him to a sarcophagus."

    Which, of course, meant never getting Cronus' testimony on what happened. It meant not finding out what was going on, and Earth being at the mercy of the Goa'uld.

    "If I could get a medical module from the Aurora, I could treat him," Opani said.

    "You mean you could have a chance to tear Cronus from his host," Nirrti spat. "Just as you did to Amaunet."

    Opani bit into her lip. "I would save him. That would be my duty."

    "There might be something," Sam suggested, stepping into the room. She carried with her a box. Opened, it revealed a hand-held device of some sort, a golden hand brace and frame around a red emitter of some sort. She held it out. "See if this works."

    Nirrti considered the item. After a moment she picked it up and held it down to Cronus. Energy flowed from the emitter and into his body. Nothing came of it, however, and after several seconds Nirrti took off the device and put it down. "His wounds are too severe."

    Lucy felt an itch inside of herself at that. A sense of deceit. But she knew that accusing Nirrti of lying here might only cause a greater fight later. Maybe I can get Yu to use it later?

    "There is nothing more we can do here," Yu stated. "We will prepare to depart now."

    "Wait," Lucy said. "There might be one more thing we can try." When they all looked at her, she triggered her multidevice. "Lucero to Meridina." When she saw the call was received, she asked, "Can you come to the infirmary? I think we need your help."

    Several minutes passed before Meridina entered. She looked around the room quietly before nodding to Lucy. "You needed something?"

    Lucy gestured to Cronus. "Nothing we've done to heal him has worked so far," she said. "I was hoping maybe your force healing abilities would help."

    Meridina shook her head. "Likely not. I am not a fully-trained healer, Lucy. There is only so much I can do. His condition is grave."

    "It's still something," she insisted. "Maybe if you manage just a little the Goa'uld healing device can work?"

    Meridina thought on it for a moment before nodding. "I will endeavor to save him." She walked up beside the bed and set her hands on Cronus' stomach and chest. Lucy felt Meridina's power begin to brighten, to pick up in intensity as she applied her will to Cronus' body. It felt weaker than prior times she had used it, although Lucy knew that proximity to life sources could enhance her ability to heal as it had on the Citadel.

    After a minute nothing had changed. Meridina slumped over slightly and put her hands to the bed, using it to hold herself up as she regained her bearings. "I am sorry," she said. "I can do nothing."

    In their corner of the room, Jack and Daniel frowned. Sam was upset as well - it was clear they felt this was their last hope of saving Cronus and finding out what happened to him.

    "You tried," Lucy said, distraught. Sam looked even more disturbed, but given her world was the one under threat that was understandable.

    "I must go rest," Meridina said.

    "And we must prepare to depart," Yu announced. He nodded to Nirrti, who joined him in leaving. Meridina was not far behind.

    Lucy watched her go. She felt off about something. The attack, primarily, and what she thought she could feel within Meridina. A trace of… fear? Despair? It was a distraught feeling she never felt in Meridina usually. Then again, we're usually not facing the killing and enslaving of an entire planet like this.

    "There has to be some way to save him," Opani insisted. "Give me, give us, time, please," she said to Jack.

    Jack shrugged. "I'll go see what General Hammond and Secretary Simms want to do. Let me know if anything else happens, alright? And I mean let me know immediately."

    "Of course," Fraiser said.

    One of the SGC personnel, Corporal Burleigh, was surprised to see Meridina enter his workspace. The young man did personnel work, mostly, helping officers and higher-ranking NCOs go over personnel files for promotion reviews or disciplinary proceedings. It was fairly unglamorous as things went considering the work of the SGC, but Burleigh was hopeful he would get a higher responsibility eventually.

    For the moment, however, he was simply confused at why the Alliance officer - who looked human despite everyone saying she was alien - had come to him. "Can I help you, ma'am?", he ventured nervously.

    Meridina looked at him with little emotion. "I need to investigate something. I require access to your personnel files."

    "I'll need a written order from General Hammond for that, ma'am," he said.

    A soft, friendly smile crossed her expression. "Of course." She held out a piece of paper. Burleigh took it and it looked like everything was in order. "Okay, this computer will get you the information you need, ma'am."

    "My thanks," she said.

    The unease and desperation in the SGC were getting to Robert. There seemed to be nowhere he could go to escape it and the constant reminder of what was at stake. Even here, in the quarters they assigned, he could feel it.

    He hung up his uniform jacket in the small metal wardrobe of the room and laid on the stiff bed. There were cheap motels with softer mattresses, he decided. It certainly didn't make resting any easier.

    He wished he had someone to talk to. Beth, Julie, Zack… the people he trusted. But only Meridina was here, and she was resting from the attack.

    There was a knock on the door. Robert called out, "It's open" and sat up.

    Lucy entered. "Hey."

    "Hey." He gestured toward one of the two chairs in the room, which Lucy went for. She had shed her uniform jacket and left it in her room, leaving the light gray undershirt on. "No change?"

    "They hope Teal'c will awaken soon, but nothing else has happened," Lucy said. "The Goa'uld couldn't heal Cronus. Neither could Meridina." He nodded and sighed. "Is there anything we can do?"

    "Nothing," Robert said. "I've already followed Secretary Onaram's instructions on this. Told Yu that the Allied Systems was 'appalled at what transpired' and we 'were still ready to sign the treaty'."

    "You mean we're going to abandon Earth to the Goa'uld."

    Robert's frown deepened. "That's what's been decided in Portland. That right now we have no hope of saving Earth, and won't for the near or mid-future."

    Lucy shook her head in frustration. "This entire thing feels wrong. Doesn't it to you?"

    "Abandoning these people? Yes, yes it does."

    "Not just that," Lucy said. "Just the situation in general. The idea that Teal'c would put Earth in danger for petty revenge."

    "I know. But the guy killed his father and exiled Teal'c and his mother. I can't blame him for being bitter. And maybe it got the better of him." Robert put a hand to his forehead. "It's times like this that I wish I didn't have this power. What's happening right now is bad enough, feeling the desperation and worry here is making it worse."

    "I know what you mean. I even think it's getting to Meridina a little. She seems to be a little off now, disturbed I mean."

    "The fact even she can be disturbed is frightening," Robert muttered. "Even the fight in the Facility didn't make her lose confidence."

    Lucy shook her head. "I just… for a moment, I felt something like despair from her. Like she was completely helpless. It just doesn't make sense."

    "It does to me. We are helpless. Helpless to help these people, our fellow…"

    There was a knock at the door. "Come in," Robert called out.

    Daniel stepped in. "Hey," he said.

    "Doctor Jackson." Robert nodded. "What can I do for you?"

    Given the look on his face, there were a lot of things Daniel was thinking of. "Take Sha're and her baby to safety, for starters," he said. "Not that you'll be able to. General Hammond just locked down the Stargate. Nobody's being allowed to leave while we investigate this."

    Lucy frowned. "The Goa'uld won't stand for it."

    "Well, we're going to get invaded and enslaved anyway, so I suppose there's nothing to lose now," Daniel answered. The flippancy in the remark could not hide his fear. "Anyway, General Hammond reopened the base and brought armed soldiers in. They're supposed to keep an eye on the Goa'uld, but there's always the chance you might get challenged if you're in the wrong area. I just thought you should know."

    "Secretary Onaram will probably insist I protest this," Robert said. "I understand why, of course."


    "Where's Colonel O'Neill?", Lucy asked.

    "Oh, he's trying to get some help from Thor. I told him it's not likely, of course." Daniel nodded. "Come find me if you need anything." He left the room.

    Nirrti returned to the VIP room she was assigned to. As always, it was pitiful and small, with almost no proper luxuries. This was no way for a Goa'uld of her stature to be treated. The entire situation made her burn with fury that her prior plan to destroy the Earthers and their Stargate had failed.

    But there was always more plans. She pondered if she should try to take out Yu as well. It was tempting. But given the chaos it would lead to in the hierarchy, it seemed to be an unwise risk to her plans. She would stay her blade for the moment.

    There was a knock on the door. Nirrti turned as it opened. "What is the meaning of this?", she asked as Meridina stepped in.

    Meridina stepped away from the door for a moment. She focused and then, with a gentle movement of her hand, shut the door. She looked to Nirrti. A small smile crossed her face, as it did Nirrti's.

    And then her eyes flashed white.

    "Everything is proceeding according to plan," said Meridina, in the deep timbre of a Goa'uld. "As I pledged it would."

    "So it seems." Nirrti's eyes narrowed. "Are you in full control of your new host?"

    "Her mind and power is great, but once I was inside, it has been meaningless against me," the Goa'uld replied. "For all of her power, this woman is as vulnerable to us as any other being."

    "As it should be." Nirrti stepped toward her. "The Tau'ri will not let us leave. We are prisoners until they finish their investigation. You must act before they give up."

    "I already know where I am going," replied the Goa'uld. "The powers this body can wield are more than sufficient to the task of accomplishing our goal."

    "And you will take the child?"

    The Goa'uld nodded. "The harcesis will be ours."

    Nirrti answered with an anticipatory smile. "Excellent. And the mother…?"

    Meridina's face curled into its own sinister smirk. "I will deal with my former host as I please," declared Amaunet.
    rifern likes this.
  20. Threadmarks: 2-04-4
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    In the infirmary, Opani was looking over the unconscious Teal'c and running another medical scan to make sure his brain wasn't damaged.

    "I'm not sure that will do any good," Doctor Fraiser said to her. "His condition hasn't changed that much in the last ten minutes."

    "I know." Opani put her medical scanner back into its place on her wrist-mounted multidevice. "But it is something. Your people are facing a terrible threat and Teal'c may hold the key to helping you. And I would rather be active than passively sit aside while other beings are enslaved." Opani's fists clenched. "My people knew slavery once before. We stand against it now."

    "We just have to hope the others find a way," Fraiser said. "Sometimes it's all you can do around here. Hope."

    Opani answered her with a nod. Hope, indeed, was something she was familiar with, and it had fulfilled its promise to her.

    She went back to work checking on Teal'c's vitals.

    Amaunet walked silently through the once-sealed blast doors without immediate resistance. A primitive transport lift brought her up to ground level, where she faced a checkpoint for the first time. Armed Tau'ri did not challenge her with raised weapons but did call out to her on why she had come up. "I am on an urgent assignment," she said to them, mimicking her host's tone accurately. She felt her host resist. It was troublesome, but ultimately futile. In time the host, this Meridina, would submit as all hosts did. As all hosts should.

    "Do you have a pass from General Hammond, ma'am? Otherwise I have to ask you to go back down and see him," one insisted.

    A surge of impatience made Amaunet think of the ways she could kill this little meek Tau'ri. But she was not going to risk her purpose on a fight. Instead she would put her host's raw powers to use. She raised a blank piece of their paper. As the guard took it she gathered her will and impose her mind, or rather Meridina's under her control, to give the illusion of a signed order from General Hammond. She did not think of the order itself, but rather used the powers given to her now to make the soldiers think they saw what they expected. "Good day, ma'am," the lead guard said, opening the checkpoint for her and handing her back the empty sheet.

    With great satisfaction, Amaunet walked on, making her way toward the exit.

    Lucy stepped into one of the labs in the SGC, where she found Samantha Carter looking over the Goa'uld healing device. Sam turned her head towarad Lucy. "Lieutenant?", she asked.

    "Sorry, ma'am, I'm just looking for Meridina," Lucy answered. She took another step in and looked around. "So this is where you work when you're not off-world?"

    "Usually," Sam said. "Sometimes we pick up technology that needs to be examined and catalogued."

    Lucy looked over one item in the lab, a squat box-like thing. "You're trying to build a working naqia reactor?"

    "Naqia? You mean naquadah?"

    "That's what you call it." Lucy nodded. She looked over the prototype unit. "You might want to add another capacitor, with the amount of material you might blow out the ones you've put in."

    Sam looked to her again. A smile faintly crossed her face. "Thanks. But isn't that a violation of the treaty?"

    "What the Goa'uld don't know can't hurt them," Lucy remarked. "Much. Besides, I didn't build you a reactor, I made a suggestion."

    "Still…" Samantha walked up beside her and looked over the prototype unit. "So your people use naquadah power generation?"

    "We do," Lucy confirmed. "The Aurora is powered by several banks of reactors. It allows for more stable and less volatile power generation than matter/anti-matter reactors."

    "Anti-matter? Wouldn't that be extremely dangerous?", Samantha asked. "I mean, just one containment failure and…"

    "...and your ship goes out in a big boom, yeah." Lucy nodded. "It's why the races and nations we've met who do use that power source are starting to change over to naqia reactors."

    Sam nodded. After a moment she asked, "You didn't come to talk about this, did you?"

    "I was hoping Meridina was here," Lucy said. "She's not in her quarters, so I imagined she might be moving around, trying to help out. But I can't find her."

    "Hrm. Well, I could ask base security to see if she's been on camera anywhere," Sam said.

    "I'd appreciate that, Major. A lot," answered Lucy.

    Sam picked up her phone and connected to base security. Lucy couldn't make out the voice on the other end, but she could tell they were speaking with some intensity. And all she could think was that something else had gone wrong.

    "Thank you," Sam said. "Has General Hammond been informed?... He has?... No... No, I don't think telling one of the staff officers is good enough, I know you're busy trying to fix everything, but he needs to know now. Make the call."

    "Trouble?", Lucy asked.

    "Our camera systems have gone down," Samantha said.

    Lucy frowned. Another occurrence that made her consider there was something else going on here. "I think we need to talk to the people in charge. Together. Because there is something seriously bugging me about this entire situation and…."

    The door swung open. Jack stepped in and looked at them. "Hey," he said. "The infirmary just called. Teal'c's awake."

    There was relief plain on Samantha's face. Lucy let her take the lead in following Jack back out.

    Teal'c looked weak and tired when they got to his bed. Opani was monitoring his vitals for Doctor Fraiser, making full use of her medical-role multidevice. The other members of SG-1 joined Secretary Simms and General Hammond at the other side and foot of the bed; Robert and Lucy were with Opani on her side. "Your injuries have healed and there is no sign of brain damage, Mister Teal'c," the Dorei doctor said. "You are going to have a full life yet."

    "About as long as we will, anyway," Jack muttered. He frowned at Teal'c. "What happened?"

    "I was summoned to Cronus' room," Teal'c said. "When I arrived, he denied sending for me. Before I could inquire further, we were attacked."

    "Who?", Jack asked.

    "I could not see the attacker."

    Daniel asked, "You couldn't see the attacker because you were knocked out or because…?"

    "I did not see one at all," Teal'c stated. "And I was not made unconscious on the first blow."

    "A personal cloaking device," Lucy murmured. She looked to Robert. "That's what it sounds like."

    "Do the Goa'uld have any technology like that?", Robert asked.

    "Not that we've seen," Sam replied. She furrowed her brow. "I mean, I suppose it's possible a Goa'uld could have developed one. If it's meant for phase-shifting, they might have made something to fight against the Reetou."

    "I suspect accusing an invisible attacker won't work very well." Hammond looked to Simms. "Not unless we find proof. And we can't do that if we let the Goa'uld go."

    Clearly the two men had been in discussion on the point. Simms finally nodded slightly, as if in acquiescence. Hammond stepped away to make the necessary calls.

    "Is there anything else you can remember, Teal'c?", Jack asked.


    "So we don't have anything to show the Goa'uld," Lucy sighed. "Maybe if I scan the room again.. but no, I'd need stronger sensors than I've got. I'd need the Aurora."

    "I doubt the Goa'uld would let me call her in," Robert muttered.

    Simms walked away by now, leaving the others alone. Opani finished injecting Teal'c with a hypospray. "That should help with the bruising," she said to him.

    "The pain is nothing."

    As this discussion continued, Robert felt bothered by something. Teal'c's explanation didn't sound wrong, but he seemed to have left out a thought, or at least something Robert felt he really should have considered. So he leaned in. "Teal'c, why didn't you ask Meridina to accompany you?"

    Teal'c looked at him in bewilderment. "I did."

    Robert and Lucy stared at him.

    "I do not see Commander Meridina," Teal'c continued, looking around the infirmary ward. "Was she seriously harmed?"

    "She's okay," Robert said, although now he was wondering about that. "Took a blow to the head."

    "Wait." Daniel shook his head. "Meridina said she walked in on you and Cronus fighting."

    Teal'c frowned at that. "She has said such?"

    "Yeah," Jack said. "So now you're giving us a different story. I bet the Goa'uld will just love that."

    "Are you sure Teal'c?", Lucy asked. "Completely sure you were with her?"

    "I was with her," Teal'c stated. "Do you not have her gifts? Do you sense deception from me?"

    Lucy swallowed. She looked to Robert in intense worry and confusion on her face. "No," she finally said. "And that's what worries me."

    "So she lied?", Sam said. "Meridina lied to you?"

    "She wouldn't do that," Robert said. "Not intentionally. It doesn't make sense…"

    "Maybe the blow to her head muddled her memories of the attack?", Lucy suggested.

    "A possibility," said Opani. "I would have to examine her again."

    "Well, she's not in her quarters," Lucy said. "And the cameras across the base are down."

    The looks on everyone made it clear how suspicious that was.

    "Let's go find her." Robert looked to Jack and the others. "You know this place better than we do."

    Jack answered with a nod. "Let's find out what's going on here."

    "Not just Meridina," Lucy said. Seeing everyone looking her way, she continued. "I wasn't sure, but now I'm starting to think that Nirrti wasn't really trying to save Cronus. She just put in an appearance of trying."

    "At this point, I'm up for trying out anything," Jack said. He looked to Sam.

    She nodded. "I'll see if it will work for me."

    Robert's brow crinkled. He looked at Sam with some confusion. "I thought Goa'uld technology could only be used by Goa'uld?"

    "Normally, yes," Samantha said. "But when someone's been a host to one, it leaves markers for the technology to identify. The former host can use the Goa'uld technology."

    "Oh." Lucy's look toward Samantha was now one of disbelief and compassion. "You… you were taken as a host for one?"

    "I was a host to a Tok'ra for a short while," she explained. "Jolinar."

    "The Tok'ra being the good Goa'uld off-shoot, right?'

    "Something like that, yes," said Daniel.

    "If you're going to do this, Sam, you'd better hurry," Dr. Fraiser said. "Cronus is fading fast."

    "I'm going to let Secretary Onaram know about what's going on," Robert said. "And then I'll join the rest of you in looking for Meridina."

    Jack nodded. "Sounds like a plan."

    The primitive motor vehicles of the Tau'ri annoyed Amaunet. She accessed her host's memories for such conveyances and found them lacking, at least for how Humans used them. She had lost time in getting a firm grasp of driving while working her way off the base.

    But now, after some time driving, she had arrived at her destination.

    Finding it had been easier. Her host's mental abilities allowed her to view into the minds of the other drivers and query where to go. It led her to a series of "apartment homes". The numbering system was easily followed. She stopped the vehicle in place, shut the machine down, and stepped out of it. She approached the door, colored lightly and with the right number on it. Her host sensed the two minds within and Amaunet grinned.

    No, you mustn't!

    Amaunet scowled. This host was strong-willed, enough that she still resisted. The symbiote sent a surge of pain into her host's brain to quiet her.

    Her host's memories of how Tau'ri interacted prompted Amaunet to knock on the door. There was the faint sound of footsteps inside of the domicile. Each one drove Amaunet's anticipation to new, unexpected heights.

    She had planned to enter the home before revealing herself, but her impatience got the better of her. The moment the door opened and her host appeared, she took her host's power and lashed out with it.

    Sha're only had time to barely recognize Meridina before invisible force sent her flying back into the home. She crashed into the table behind her, sending items flying to cause more crashing sounds to fill the air.

    Amaunet advanced into the house and reached out again with the power, this time to grip Sha're by the throat and hold her up. Sha're's hands went to her neck, trying to find the invisible hand that was starting to choke the life out of her. Her eyes widened with shock and terror.

    "Where is the child?!", demanded Amaunet. "Where?! Answer me, slave, or I will rip the life from you as I was ripped from you!"

    A cold sensation began to fill Amaunet and her host. It was frightening, and then exhilarating, a voice that told her to avenge herself upon her treacherous former host. To kill Sha're here and now, the first of many she would kill in revenge for the indignity she had suffered.

    Let her go!

    Her host interfered again. This time with far more power than Amaunet had thought possible for a host to resist with. The power she was using to choke the life from Sha're cut off, causing the woman to drop to her hands and knees on the floor. Amaunet scowled and sent another jolt of pain into her host to make her behave.

    "Demon," Sha're gasped. "I won't let you…"

    "You have no choice in the matter," Amaunet retorted.

    She had intended to resume the killing of her former host. But she held back when she heard the crying coming from deeper within the home. She walked through the domicile, not recognizing half of what she saw, and entered a room with a large comfortable bed - fit for Goa'uld, not slaves - and a smaller bed beside it. The crying led her to the smaller bed. The harcesis was there, screaming, frightened by the sounds of conflict that had awoken him from a sleep.

    Amaunet picked up the wailing child. A sharp mental command put the child back into a sleeping state. Amaunet looked to one side and saw what appeared to be a bag, large enough to carry the child with suffocating him. She secured the sleeping baby into the pack and walked back toward the door.

    A scream of rage filled the air. Sha're had gotten back to her feet. In her hand she held a sharp steak knife, with which she lunged at Amaunet.

    The cold power she'd felt before was still there. Amaunet gave it form, gave it function, and called upon it through her protesting host. She was delighted to see the unnatural lightning rip from her free hand and envelop her former host. Sha're screamed in agony and fell to her knees. Her cries fueled Amaunet's hatred, her need for revenge, and she wanted to run the lightning through her prior host until she was a blackened char.

    But she couldn't. They had already caused a commotion, and would be running out of time. She needed to get back to Nirrti with the child so they could escape the SGC.

    With more will than it should have taken, Amaunet cut off the attack. Sha're twisted on the ground, groaning in agony, and unable to resist as Amaunet walked on toward the door. The child was still peacefully asleep in the bag slung over her shoulder.

    With no sign of Meridina yet, everyone returned to the infirmary in time to see Samantha using the healing device on Cronus. Again golden light reached out from the device and bathed his wounded body with its power.

    "It's working," Opani said, watching Cronus' state with her medical scanner. "His vitals are stabilizing."

    Several tense seconds passed before Cronus' eyes opened. The Goa'uld appraised his surroundings before focusing on Samantha. "You have saved me," he rumbled.

    "Yeah," Samantha replied.

    A smirk curled on his face. "I suspect you only did so in order to spare your world."

    "Did you see who attacked you?", Jack asked. "It's sort of a big question around here right now."

    Cronus snarled at that. "I did not," he announced.

    "Well, that's swell," Jack sighed.

    "But it wasn't Teal'c, was it?", Robert asked.

    "The shol'va may have been in league with the attacker even if he was not responsible," Cronus said. "You must prove who was behind the attack if you wish these negotiations to be completed."

    "That leaves one person," Robert said. "We need to find out what's going on with Meridina." He directed his attention to Cronus. "When Teal'c came in, did you see Commander Meridina? Was she with him?"

    Cronus considered the question. "I do not recall. She may have been just outside the door when the first blow was struck. I did not see afterward."

    The phone in the infirmary rang. Doctor Fraiser was the first to answer it. She turned and looked to them. "Doctor Jackson." She held up the phone. "It's for you."

    Daniel was the center of attention as he walked over and took the phone. "Hello?"

    Everyone watched his face pale.

    When Daniel resumed speaking it was not in English. Abydonian, Robert thought. He could feel Daniel's worry and fear and sheer anger.

    When the conversation ended Daniel turned to face them. "Meridina just attacked my home," he said in a grim tone. "She hurt Sha're and took our son."

    The idea caught Robert and Lucy entirely by surprise. "...but why would she do that?", Lucy finally asked. "She…"

    "I'm sorry." Daniel shook his head. "Your friend isn't herself now. She's been taken by a Goa'uld. Amaunet, actually."

    There was a moment of stunned, quiet silence in the infirmary. "Name of the Supreme One, no," Opani swore.

    "Amaunet took over Meridina?" Robert shook his head. He remembered that name, the name of the Goa'uld who had been removed from Sha're. "That… how? How could the Goa'uld sneak up on her like that?"

    "If she was distracted, maybe," Lucy pointed out.

    As she spoke, Robert thought he knew what she was meaning. "The attack on Teal'c and Cronus," he said. "If the attacker was invisible, and got in the first blow on Meridina, she wouldn't have had time to recover."

    "Well, finding out the 'how' is nice and all," Jack said. "But right now we've gotten nothing to help finish this case."

    "We should probably go," Opani said. She noted where Cronus was starting to sleep. "He'll need his rest."

    General Hammond and the two government secretaries present reacted to the news with understandable concern. "Is this not a violation of the protocols by which these negotiations are held?', Onaram asked. Robert could feel the fury radiating from him.

    "I'd have to ask Thor," Jack answered. "I'm sure it's got to violate something. I don't know if there's anything the Asgard can do about it, though."

    "We can be reasonably certain that it's a Goa'uld behind this," said Hammond. "We need to figure out which one."

    "And we need to get my son back," Daniel added.

    "Any idea where she would be taking him?", Hammond asked. "She can't think that she can get back in here."

    "Maybe she is," Lucy remarked. "She has an invisible conspirator, and on top of that, given what Daniel said about her attack on Sha're, Amaunet is using Meridina's powers as well as her body."

    "Yeah, about the powers thing." Jack gestured with his hand. "What is up with that?"

    Robert and Lucy looked at each other as they considered what kind of explanation to give. "Well, in the short version without any of the underlying philosophy the Gersallians have built up…", Lucy began.

    "...it's basically a method of mind over matter, of a connection to the wider universe," Robert continued. "And it lets you do interesting things. Lift things with your mind."

    "Throw bolts of invisible force."

    "Win gunfights with swords."

    That won them a bunch of quizzical looks from the native Earthers.

    "The point is that Amaunet might use Meridina's power to fight her way through your security, if she wants to use the Stargate." Lucy looked at Robert. "I'll go up and face her."

    "I'm coming too," Daniel said.

    "We have to assume the invisible attacker will strike again as well," Samantha said. "I can bring out the gear we used for finding the Reetou. It might help."

    "There's still the matter of finding out which Goa'uld is our guy. Or girl. The only way we save these negotiations is if we have a better suspect for the deed. And fighting invisible saboteurs doesn't lend itself to that.""

    Secretary Simms nodded. "Which we're running out of time for, Captain."

    Robert didn't need reminding of that. He looked at Jack. "Maybe if you got the Asgard involved again? I mean, one of them took Meridina as a host, that's got to count for something. Direct Asgard intervention…"

    Jack shook his head. "Not happening."

    "Yeah, the Asgard have that little problem of a threat bigger than the Goa'uld," Daniel noted. "They won't be able to really push their weight."

    "Hence the whole bluff…"

    The way Jack cut that line off made Robert curious. He turned his head and faced the SG-1 commander. He sensed the shift in Jack's emotions, from bewilderment and frustration to at least a measure of accomplishment.

    "Colonel O'Neill?" Hammond gave Jack a slight look.

    "Well, if it works for the Asgard," Jack began, "why not let it work for us."

    "You mean a bluff," Samantha said.

    "Yeah." Jack motioned to the door. "Carter, mind coming with me? I need you to get that gear out of the box and issued to everyone on the level."

    "And me?", Robert asked.

    "We're going back to the table," said Jack. "Time to bluff with the bad hand."

    Amaunet returned to find the base locked down. Armed men at the main gate held up rifles as she brought the motor vehicle to a stop. Amaunet stood from the car with the duffel bag carrying the harcesis to one side.

    "Hands on your head, now!", shouted one of the soldiers. Behind them the gate slid to a close.

    Amaunet smirked. "I am your god," she declared to them. "Let me pass or suffer my wrath."

    "On the ground now! We will open fire!"

    Amaunet lashed out with the power of her new host. Energy crackled in the air as lightning erupted from her right hand. Her foes were caught by it before they could attack.her. They screamed, they writhed, and most importantly, they went down.

    Amaunet reached deeper into that ever-enveloping dark power and with it she gripped the car she had been driving. A mighty heave with every bit of power she could muster flew through the car and sent it flying into - and through - the gatehouse, which came apart from the force. So did the gate.

    Amaunet picked the bag with her sleeping child up and started walking briskly toward the entrance to Cheyenne Mountain.

    The two Goa'uld were not happy when escorted back into the conference room. Robert sat near Jack, who welcomed them back in.

    "We demand to be released immediately," Nirrti said.

    "Of course you do. After all, one of you is responsible for the attack on Cronus." Jack gestured to Robert. "And for putting Amaunet into Captain Dale's security chief."

    And that was what did it. For Robert, at least, the sensations he picked up from the two Goa'uld made it clear whom the enemy was. From Yu he felt bewilderment, disbelief, and frustration. From Nirrti it was all of those as well… but with a smidgen of worry as well. A worry she was trying to suppress.

    He made sure to add, "The Alliance is issuing a protest with the Asgard, I can assure you. And since this is not Goa'uld territory, and this was done while we were negotiating in good faith, I want to make it clear that I will have her removed from Meridina as soon as it can be arranged."

    "These are severe accusations," Nirrti said. "I will have you punished for these lies and threats."

    "Oh, they're not lies. But you would be the one to say that, wouldn't you Nirrti?" Jack put his hands on the table. "After all, you're the only one here who has the technology to make someone invisible."

    Yu looked at her with surprise. Nirrti snarled. "That is a lie," she declared.

    "We talked with the Tok'ra," Jack said. "We know about your program to find ways to fight the Reetou."

    "You know nothing!", Nirrti hissed.

    Yu slammed his hands on the table. "You dare?!"

    Yu saying such might have been worrisome… if he had not been directing that at Nirrti. "You would develop such technology and not share it with the rest of the System Lords?"

    "You cannot believe them!", Nirrti shouted.

    "You opposed the treaty," Yu said. "You have long coveted Cronus' territories."

    "They are…"

    "You dare defile our summit with the Asgard!", Yu continued. Clearly he believed her guilty on the weight of the accusation alone. "And to take a host from those we are in negotiation with?"

    Before Jack or Robert couldd intercede, the enraged Goa'uld grabbed Nirrti by the throat and began to choke her. She struggled against him for several seconds, trying to force his hands off.

    Then her hands went toward her waist. There was a shimmer in the air and Nirrti disappeared in a ripple of air. Yu was thrown away from her, not able to see where the blow was coming from.

    The SGC guard in the room readied his weapon, but he had nowhere to fire. An invisible force slammed into him and wrenched the gun from him, strap and all.

    Robert focused on that area and raised his hand. Pure power flowed from within, coming from an inner part of him that was always warm and gentle. It came out through his hand in a broad wave of invisible power. There was an audible pair of thumps, one from the guard who had, by necessity, been caught in the wave, the other by the invisible Nirrti.

    Within moments it was clear she had rolled with it, however. Robert felt the danger of what was coming surge through him. The gun Nirrti had taken briefly appeared from outside of whatever cloaking device she was using.

    "Crap!", Jack called out, jumping on Yu just as she opened fire. Robert dropped to the floor. "You okay?", Jack asked him.

    "Fine. You?"

    "I am unharmed," the Goa'uld answered.

    Jack flashed a small grin Robert's way. He knew that had been intended for him.

    They scrambled back to their feet. "Carter's already waiting for her," Jack said. "She'll have our gear for stopping Reetous, Nirrti isn't going anywhere."

    Robert nodded. He reached out with his power at the moment to sense for Nirrti. He could feel frustration, fear, and a deep tingle of anger winding through it.

    "She won't get far," Jack promised.

    Robert was about to answer when he felt something cold and dark brush against his being. It was not a familiar sensation personally, but he had listened to Lucy describe her experiences and could guess what it was; darkness. Pure darkness.

    "She's not our biggest problem now," Robert told Jack. "Amaunet is."


    "I can feel her," Robert continued. "The way she's using Meridina's power, it's… it's wrong. It's dark. She's killing your people with it."

    Jack frowned at that. "Anything we can do about it?"

    "I don't know. Meridina's… well… she's powerful."

    "You mean that whole 'win gunfights with a sword' thing?"

    "Yeah." Robert nodded. "I think Lucy and I are the only ones who can take her down. If you guys can get Nirrti, we'll get Amaunet."

    "Sounds like a plan," Jack agreed.

    WIth the arrival of another guard team for Yu, they went their separate ways.

    The lift doors opened and Amaunet stepped out from amidst the bodies and unconscious forms of the SGC personnel who had been in the lift. The harcesis, still in a state of sedation, remained thankfully quiet.

    She had intended to begin sabotaging everything she could find before linking up with Nirrti and leaving. Now she wanted to destroy everything here, to send a signal of defiance and rage to her enemies by slaughtering as many as she could before leaving.

    Two figures stepped out forward out of the nearby corridor. Amaunet snarled at the sight of them.

    Daniel was glaring harshly at Amaunet. He glanced over to see where Lucy was looking at her teacher and friend with a neutral, yet determined, expression. "You shouldn't be here," she said to Daniel. "This isn't a fight you can help with."

    "She's got my son. She hurt Sha're."

    Amaunet snickered, a sinister sound that was so unnatural to Meridina that it further clarified the horror of what was being done to her. "The child is mine. Meant for a purpose far beyond anything you could imagine." Amaunet raised Meridina's arm and looked at it. Lucy noted with horror the power crackling around her hand. When she looked at them, Meridina's blue eyes had become yellow.

    Just like mine did…

    It wasn't electricity that shot from her hand, though, but force. Force that grabbed them both by the throat and lifted them in the air. Daniel began to choke at the pressure crushing his windpipe.

    Lucy, meanwhile, was focusing on countering with her own power. Meridina had taught her how to focus like that, how to save herself from such a grip. Through the pain and the labored breathing of her own gasping lungs, Lucy forced her focus onto the power gripping her and challenged it with her own.

    The gripping force faded. Lucy and Daniel dropped back to the floor, gasping for air. Daniel was barely moving; Lucy forced herself back to her feet while breathing hard. Her hand went to her waist and pulled her lakesh from its clipped place on her belt. Her finger slipped over the activation key.

    No sooner did the memory metal blade finish forming than Amaunet's hand stretched out. Lightning erupted from it, crackling at them. Lucy put her lakesh in the way, intercepting the lightning. She could feel the unnatural energies snapping at her, wanting to drain the very life from her, but she held on against them to keep Daniel safe as he recovered.

    "You are strong, I see," Amaunet said, giving Meridina's voice an unnatural bass distortion. "But this host is stronger. She knows all of your failures and mistakes. Even now I feel all of the times you have frustrated and disappointed her. You are no match for her power, for my power."

    Lucy kept her weapon ready. "Whatever," she said. "You might be controlling Meridina's body, but you're not her. You don't know how to use the power right. You don't know what it can do."

    Amaunet snarled at her and reached for her belt. She had recovered Meridina's lakesh after the base lockdown had ended. The blade flowed into existence with the snap of a switch.

    For several seconds neither did anything.

    And then, in a single moment, their blades clashed. The duel was on.

    Robert was running toward the sense of darkness he was feeling from Amaunet when he felt the attack start to come. He rolled to one side in time to avoid the bullets, which instead sent sparks flying from hitting the wall behind him. He scrambled up to all fours and crawled along, focusing to see if he could feel where the attack was coming from.

    Once he was generally sure of it, he turned slightly and sent a wave of energy toward that direction. He heard a distant thump. That caused him to scramble to his feet. His power molded at his will to form a shield of invisible energy in front of him.

    Fire came down on him again and he nearly lost his protection from the power he was being hit with. If not for Meridina's strenuous training, he likely would have had his field pop like a bubble. And then he would have been shot. Repeatedly.

    Just as it was becoming too much Robert slammed into something. There was a distorted cry and a thump. He gripped into nothingness until, as he expected, he felt the hot metal of an assault rifle recently fired. He wrapped his fingers around it and pulled to yank it free.

    An unseen fist slammed into his shoulder with enough force that Robert thought it might have been broken. He lost his grip on the weapon. A second blow hit him in the side of the head. Stars and colors exploded in his vision. There were more gunshots and, with his head spinning, he couldn't tell if it was aimed at him or not.

    By the time he recovered he looked up to see a large hand lower toward him. He reached for it and found he was looking into Teal'c's face as he was brought to his feet. His head still spun a little from the blow. "Thanks," he said, only now noticing Jack was with Teal'c.

    "You are welcome," Teal'c stated stoically. He motioned toward the next hall. "I believe the Goa'uld went this way."

    "Before we go further." Jack took Robert's hand. Robert felt the weight of something settle into his palm. He realized it was a pulse pistol. "From the goodies you left us last year," Jack explained. "Figured you'd like a weapon."

    "You figured right," Robert said. He concentrated for a moment, not just to clear his head but to get a feel for what was going on. He could feel Lucy now, carefully confident and determined, and the dark power he'd sensed before. "I believe Lucy got to Amaunet first. We need to take out Nirrti before those two link up."


    The Jaffa nodded to Jack. And with him in the lead, they went after Nirrti.
    rifern likes this.
  21. Threadmarks: 2-04 Ending
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    Lucy's arms strained as she locked blades again with the Goa'uld controlling Meridina's body. "I know you're in there," she said hoarsely. "Fight that thing."

    "If you are talking to my host, you waste your time. The host of a Goa'uld no longer exists."

    "Your last host seemed to be existing pretty well," Lucy snarled in retort. She finished gathering her power and threw it forward in a wave of energy that knocked the Goa'uld back. She attempted to use the opening to go for the blade-bearing hand out of her hope to knock it loose.

    But the Goa'uld recovered more quickly than she expected. Her strike was parried. Worse, because of where it had been parried, it left her open to taking a wicked kick to her ribs. Lucy gasped and doubled over a little, taking a second kick that hurt even more before she backed off. Her arms moved without thinking, deflecting a cut aimed at her head.

    It was disconcerting and terrifying and enraging to see Meridina's face locked into a vicious snarl that didn't normally fit. To see the malevolent gold in her eyes and the darkness coming from her. That it was from Meridina's body, her very swevyra, being enslaved by the Goa'uld parasite in her skull… that made it worse.

    But Lucy couldn't let those dark feelings drive her. Not without becoming the same. She parried and evaded several more strikes wordlessly. As powerful as Meridina was, Amaunet could not take full use of her power, and that kept the battle more even. Although decidedly not entirely to Lucy's advantage, unfortunately.

    Her real disadvantage was in the fact that she was holding back. Lucy didn't want to kill Meridina, but Amaunet was certainly out to kill her. This meant she didn't take the occasional openings she saw because the strikes in question would certainly be mortal if they hit.

    Amaunet seemed to realize that. "You fear killing my host," she said. "You cannot hope to defeat me by holding back."

    "I'm not letting you kill anyone else with Meridina," Lucy vowed.

    An unnatural flash of white temporarily obscured the gold burning in Meridina's eyes. "I am a god," declared the Goa'uld. "You have no say in what I can or cannot do!"

    Amaunet brought Meridina's lakesh into a series of attacks against Lucy. Lucy struggled against them but kept deflecting them. The faint blue energy fields that surrounded their memory metal blades let out loud hissing noises with each strike, joining the metallic clang of metal to metal and the occasional spark.

    Seeing that Amaunet was driving her back toward a junction in the base corridors, Lucy forced herself into a series of swings and thrusts, trying to force her opponent back toward the lift. Amaunet gave ground, bit by bit…

    She struck suddenly. Lucy barely saw it coming, which saved her life. She drew back and watched the lakesh swoop in right above her right eye. A sting of pain came from her forehead where the tip of Meridina's lakesh had cut through skin and flesh. Blood started to seep down around her eye, warm and sticky.

    Lucy used the opening to cut at Amaunet. But again, she refrained from striking somewhere that would be fatal. Her mind flashed back, briefly, to seeing Meridina after Hawk had impaled her through the lung. She couldn't bring herself to do the same thing to her.

    Instead her blade went for the arm. But Amaunet, with Meridina's power, saw it coming. Or rather, Meridina's power saw it coming and acted without the Goa'uld symbiote's direct will. Their blades met again and Lucy's blow was deflected, gaining her nothing.

    Amaunet's blade came for her again, and she blocked it. And the next, and the next. Amaunet was starting to become more aggressive. Her hate, her rage, her sheer malice were warping Meridina's power further, calling upon darkness in a way that was innately corruptive.

    Half-blind from the blood streaming into her vision, Lucy knew she was losing the fight.

    Teal'c's senses and Robert's own extrasensory perceptions, as untrained as they were, enabled them to follow Nirrti through the SGC. As they went they found the knocked over, or even knocked out, guards and personnel that were left from her passage.

    "I thought Carter was supposed to head her off if she got out of the conference room?", Robert asked.

    "Yeah. But it turns out that someone, probably the snakehead in your security chief, sabotaged the TERs. The weapons we use to see things out of phase, I mean. The Major will be joining us as soon as she gets a couple fixed."

    Robert didn't bother nodding, as they were both following Teal'c. "This is going toward the Stargate, isn't it?", he asked.

    "Nirrti is trying to flee," Teal'c said. "She clearly intends to declare treachery and cause an immediate attack."

    "Which we have to stop. Tell me you've got security on the Stargate?"

    "Some, but she's invisible and a Goa'uld, they might not be enough."

    They made it to the Gate Control Room in time to hear the Stargate start to activate. "That's not good," Jack muttered.

    Robert closed his eyes and focused. He could feel the injured SGC personnel in the control room, knocked out by Nirrti, and a sense of satisfaction, of success.

    And then concern. A flare-up of worry. She'd seen them arrive. She knew he could…

    Robert didn't consciously think about what to do. As Meridina had trained him, he simply acted. His arm reached out and he felt out with his power. There was a clatter of chairs, forced out of the way by the invisible Goa'uld. Nirrti landed somewhere on the floor. "Get her now!", he cried out. "I can't hold her!"

    Jack and Teal'c acted. But they had spent a half-second too long in confusion at Robert's use of his abilities and Nirrti had time to break free. They had to hit the floor as bullets fired where their heads and shoulders had been a mere second before.

    They started to scramble back to their feet as the bullets fired again, this time shattering the glass of the control room. The palm scanner to close and open the iris was violently ripped from its place, preventing the iris from being closed. Outside the Stargate was locking its fifth chevron. It began to rotate again. "She's getting away!", Jack shouted as he finished standing.

    "Find her, I'll stop the Stargate!", Robert shouted. Outside the Stargate was already locking its sixth chevron.

    "How?!", Jack demanded.

    Robert had no time to explain. The Stargate had already wheeled over to the final coordinate icon, the pyramid-style triangle with a circle above it. He focused and reached out with his hand. His power took hold of the Gate's locking mechanism to hold it in place. He cried out as he did so. The pain from the strain of his action was shooting through his head. "I don't know how long I can hold it!", he shouted.

    Jack and Teal'c asked nothing further. They both jumped through the control room windows and rolled into the Gate Room. Bullets created sparks above them as they ran for cover. "Any ideas now, Teal'c?!" Jack pulled his gun. "Because I still don't see her!"

    Teal'c lifted a zat from his side. "Nor I, O'Neill."

    "Just great," Jack muttered. "Dammit, Sam," he mumbled under his breath. "We could really use those TREs right now."

    Daniel woke up to the sound of clashing blades. His throat still ached from the force that seemed to nearly crush his windpipe. His mind even reeled a little at the idea. It was one thing to hear about Meridina and others having such abilities, these "life force' powers, but another to experience their use first hand.

    A cry of pain jolted his attentions. He looked over to see Lucy favoring one leg. A deep bleeding gash had been cut into her upper left leg. She hobbled backward, meeting more strikes with her own. Daniel could see that she was losing the fight.

    But she was giving him an opportunity. If he sneaked up behind…

    Don't!, a voice called out to him, faint and tired. You will die.

    Daniel blinked. The voice was in his head.

    Please… I am so weak. You must not join the battle… save your son, Doctor Jackson. Save your son. You must save… A short cry ended the sentence.

    "Meridina," he muttered. He hadn't spoken much to the Gersallian woman, but he could feel that it was her. She was still fighting Amaunet, even if Amaunet had total control of her body.

    And she was right. If he jumped in, he would likely die. Amaunet was using her powers to the fullest. But if he could get little Leo to safety…

    Daniel quietly got up to his hands and knees and then to his feet. He spied the duffel bag she had been carrying, still where he had dropped it by the lift entrance.

    And he ran for it.

    Lucy deflected a blow toward one of her shoulders and rolled away from a second follow-up attack. She got her lakesh back up in time to stop the one Amaunet was holding before it cleaved into her neck. Amaunet glared at her through Meridina's eyes, now glowing yellow with dark corruption. "You cannot defeat me," she growled, Meridina's voice warped into the unnatural bass tone of a Goa'uld host. "I am too powerful."

    Lucy's face locked into a rictus of effort. She put everything into resisting the Goa'uld's blade and pushing it away from her throat. "I'm not giving up," she rasped.

    "I will enjoy your death, and then the deaths of your pitiful crew," said Amaunet. "There is nothing I cannot accomplish in this host."

    Lucy's muscled burned with effort. She was putting everything she could into stopping the blade. But it was still inching toward her neck.


    The voice almost took her focus off Amaunet. She blinked. Meridina?

    I cannot stop her. You must stop hesitating. Strike us down!

    A snarl was crossing Amaunet's face. "This host cannot resist me for much longer."

    I can't kill you, Lucy thought. Please.

    You must, Lucy. Amaunet has corrupted my power and uses it for darkness. We must be stopped. This is your duty. Strike us down.

    "No," Lucy whimpered. Her eyes were filling with tears, the tears in her right eye now mingling with the blood from her wound. And now she felt the sharp edge of Meridina's lakesh begin to draw blood from her neck. Amaunet was going to kill her if nothing changed.

    Please. Do not let me be used to kill again. You must…

    The contact cut off with a sensation of pain. Amaunet's snarl became a gloating smirk. "She is too weak to resist me again," Amaunet informed Lucy. She cut deeper into Lucy's neck, turning the wound into a deeper one. Nothing fatal or serious yet, but it would be soon. "This host now belongs to me."

    "No. No."

    Righteous fury filled Lucy. Determination followed. Determination to save Meridina, to stop this monster that had enslaved her body, enslaved her power, and used it for such evil. Lucy's arms protested as she demanded more from them. She felt within herself for the power of her life energy, the swevyra the Gersallians believed in, and the power beyond it. The metaphysical power, the power of the universe, the power that let her accomplish such fantastic things.

    Slowly, the blade moved away from Lucy's neck. Amaunet seemed surprised. Worried, then, as the blade continued to move back toward her.

    It didn't get far. Amaunet pushed away from her. She was breathing heavily while bringing the sword back to a ready position. "You cannot…." She stopped, suddenly, and twirled around. "No."

    Lucy looked behind her foe. Daniel Jackson had pulled the unconscious baby out of the bag.

    "YOU WILL RELEASE THE CHILD!", Amaunet raged. She turned away completely from Lucy and raised her hand. Raw power began to gather, power Amaunet would direct at Daniel.

    Now Lucy! You must act now!, the weak voice said in her head.

    Lucy's tears were still streaming from her eyes. In that moment, she could sense the truth. That if she did not act, Daniel Jackson would die.

    She could not hold back. Not without the cost of an innocent life.

    With a sob, Lucy plunged her lakesh into Meridina's back.

    Amaunet might not have seen it coming. Or if she did, she was too focused on gathering the power within Meridina's body to do anything about it. The uniform fabric yielded easily to the memory metal blade A sickening sound accompanied the wound while it drove through Meridina's torso and out the front of her body.

    Amaunet cried out in pain and disbelief. "You… actually…." Rage flared from the Goa'uld. "You will… pay…"

    Lucy pulled the blade out with a sickening sucking sound. Blood flowed through both sides of the wound.

    She sensed what the Goa'uld would do next. Poison Meridina, intentionally, as spite for what she had done.

    She couldn't let that happen.

    Lucy knew her cut had to be just right. Too shallow and Amaunet would kill Meridina with her toxin. Too deep and Meridina would be hurt, or even die, as well.

    Lucy trusted in her instincts and let them guide the blade as it cut at the back of Meridina's head and neck. Bone sundered and blood flew from the resulting wound. A scream came from Meridina's throat.

    And she fell, silently, blood oozing from the wounds she had taken at Lucy's hands.

    Lucy herself dropped to a knee. The wound on her forehead was still bleeding and her pants leg was soaked in the blood from her leg wound. The cut in her neck added to the crimson now staining her uniform.

    Daniel was nearly running when he approached her, his son in his arm. "Are you okay?"

    "Get Doctor Opani," Lucy urged, looking up at him. "Now."

    He nodded and began to run.

    Lucy dropped the other knee. Now kneeling beside Meridina, she summoned her strength and used her power on the wounds. She could not heal, not like Meridina had once shown her was possible, but she could provide pressure to ease or stop the bleeding that threatened her life. She could sense no other life inside of her. Her cut had found its mark, cleaving Amaunet in two and killing her instantly.

    Now all she could do was keep Meridina alive and hope that help came.

    Deeper in the SGC, Robert felt like he was about to collapse. All of his power was going into the Stargate's mechanism, preventing it from locking the final chevron.

    But his need to concentrate on this kept him from aiding Teal'c and Jack. They remained in cover, trying to find where Nirrti's fire was coming from so they could return the favor. "Any ideas?", Jack asked him.

    "We are in a difficult situation, Colonel O'Neill. I am afraid I can think of nothing."

    "Well, that's swell," Jack muttered. He moved to peer around the corner of the dismantled machine gun mount he'd taken cover behind, but was forced back to the protective cover of the shield by the bullets. "She's got to run out of ammunition some time."

    The doors to the Gate Room opened. Sam ran in with three other soldiers as her escorts, all holding TREs. The Goa'uld-made weapons all focused toward the Stargate. Nirrti appeared out of nothing, or rather her torso did anyway. The range field of the devices' effects did not display her entire body. "Lower your weapon!", Sam ordered.

    Nirrti's face was grim and defiant. As she looked to each of them, and undoubtedly recognized the TREs, she knew she'd been caught. Her only hope was that the Stargate would activate and she would get a shot at jumping through.

    Which was about to happen. Robert simply couldn't hold it anymore. It was taxing his abilities utterly to do as much as he had done. He needed help.

    He got it a moment later when Sergeant Siler pulled himself back up from where Nirrti had left him unconscious. His keyboard clacked rapidly. The Stargate stopped.

    Robert had to put both of his palms against the table to stabilize himself. His head was spinning. "Thank you, Sergeant," he said to Siler.

    "Thanks sir," came the reply. "How did you keep the final chevron from locking?"

    "Long story," Robert breathed.

    Whatever rest he might have wanted, he knew he wasn't going to get it when his multi-device went off. His fingers found the key. "Dale here."

    "Doctor Opani, sir. I thought you should know…. Commander Meridina is gravely wounded, and Lieutenant Lucero's been cut up. I need to get them immediate medical attention."

    "Has Doctor Fraiser gotten to you yet?", he asked.

    "She is here. But, the medical technology here is insufficient to save Meridina. We need to take her back to the Aurora for her to survive."

    Robert thought about that. And he smiled. "Let me get back to you on that, Opani." He used his multidevice to tap into the subspace transmitter that they had brought for Onaram to use in keeping contact with the Alliance authorities in their colonies. "This is Captain Dale. Anyone out there?", he asked in a general transmission on the main fleet channels. "I know someone had to have decided to stay close in case we needed it."

    After several seconds, another signal joined his in a connection. "You know us so well, Rob," said Zack. "Koenig is here, we're ready to warp in if you say so."

    "Good. Come in ASAP. We have injured. I want your best medical staff ready to help Doctor Opani."

    "We're warping in now," Zack said. "Doctor Gillam is standing ready with a medical module."

    "Good thinking, Dale out." Robert sighed and looked out at the control center, where Jack was happily securing cuffs to Nirrti. "Well, looks like we might survive this after all," he sighed.

    Yu was waiting when Robert and Jack returned. Sam followed with guards and the restrained Nirrti. Yu saw this and nodded. "I am pleased you caught the traitor."

    "Thank you for that, Lord Yu," Robert said.

    "And what of the other? The officer taken by a Goa'uld?"

    "Amaunet is dead," said Jack. "We're still not sure her host will survive."

    Yu tilted his head slightly in a half-nod. "Very well," he intoned. "And what is it that you want?"

    "Cronus said that if we proved who attacked him, we could keep our Stargate," Jack informed him. "I was hoping we could get your support."

    Yu contemplated things for a moment. Finally he nodded slightly. "And you, Captain?", he asked. "Your people have been wronged in this affair. You are owed consideration."

    Robert smiled thinly. "And I do have one issue, yes. About Earth."

    "Yes?" Yu narrowed his eyes.

    "For one thing, I would like to amend the limitations of sharing technology. Nothing of military value may be shared, but I want the Goa'uld to accept any decision for us to share purely civilian technologies. Our medical scanners and systems, means to counter ecological difficulties, technologies to improve the standard of life on Earth without improving its military capability. Categories that pose no threat to the System Lords."

    Yu nodded. "Acceptable."

    "Secondly…" Robert cursed his headache. This was the hard sale, and one he had barely had time to propose to Onaram. "Right now the Earthers here are keeping this all a secret. If they disclose the Stargate to their population, I ask that the treaty leave open the possibility that this Earth and its nations may join the Alliance."

    Yu frowned. So Robert continued. "This would mean Earth becomes subject to the Alliance-Goa'uld Peace Treaty. Nothing changes for you and Earth becomes more secure, giving it a reason to sustain the peace treaty. You would lose nothing. Earth would gain security and a stronger incentive to support the treaty."

    Robert waited almost breathlessly while Yu pondered his proposal. "I will encourage the System Lords to accept," he finally stated. "Now I will leave."

    Yu left. Jack looked to Robert. "That's a pretty big chance you just took. He might have gotten offended."

    "Given the day we've had," Robert replied, "I thought I'd test our luck. I'm glad it was still with us."

    "So am I," Jack said. "And now that we've settled that…"

    "I need to check on my people," Robert said. He frowned. "Including Meridina."

    "Right." Jack nodded. "I'll go debrief Hammond and the Secretaries."

    "Thank you."

    Jack was already going through the door. "Don't worry about it," he called back over his shoulder.

    In the infirmary Robert saw only Lucy, being treated for her cuts by Opani and Fraiser. The latter was looking with some resigned jealousy at the tissue regenerator Opani was using on Lucy's wounds. "Don't feel bad about it, Doctor," he said to her. She turned to face him. "If the Goa'uld accept our changes, we'll be sharing more medical technology too."

    "That would be wonderful," Fraiser replied. "And it would make my job a lot easier."

    Robert looked over to Opani and Lucy. The latter looked distraught and exhausted. "How is she?"

    "Multiple lacerations, two cracked ribs, and bruising to her leg," replied Opani.

    "And Meridina?"

    Lucy's expression worsened. Opani saw it and sighed quietly. "Doctor Gillam still has her in surgery on the Koenig. He's removing what's left of the Goa'uld who took her over and working on her wounds."

    "How bad were they?"

    Lucy shook her head. "I had to run her through to stop her," Lucy admitted, her voice quiet and full of regret. "And to save her, I had to…" She swallowed. "I had to cut into her head."

    "You mean to kill the Goa'uld."

    "Yeah." Lucy shook her head. "I still don't know if I got it right. I may have cut too deep. There was so much blood…"

    "You did what you could," Robert assured her. "The important thing was to free Meridina from that thing."

    "Yeah." Lucy nodded. There were still dried tears in her eyes.

    "Hey." Robert pulled up a seat and sat beside her. He took her hand. "You saved her, Lucy."

    "Or I killed her," Lucy pointed out.

    "Given what happens with Goa'uld hosts…" Robert shook his head. "Those two might be considered the same thing."

    "I'm not sure they are. We can take Goa'ulds out of people. We can't bring life back to them."


    Lucy gave him a hard look. "Robert, you're not Julia. Don't go pulling the mother hen thing on me." there was some heat in her voice. "Yes, you're right, and I know you're right, but that doesn't change my feelings about this. It's about what's in my heart, not my head. I nearly killed Meridina. Maybe I had to. I'm pretty sure she wanted me to. But she's come to mean a lot to me, so I'm still going to be upset with myself until I know whether she made it or not. Do you understand?"

    Robert said nothing for a moment before finally nodding. "Yes," he finally said. "I understand."

    And he said nothing more, simply remaining by his friend's side as she worked through her feelings.

    This turned out for the better, as both were present to hear Leo call down to say Meridina would be fine. Off-duty, and certainly not returning to the SGC now, but okay.

    The remaining negotiations were an afterthought. Cronus and Yu had concurred on the revisions Robert and Jack had asked for and the final agreement was signed.

    Now the three Goa'uld were due to leave. Nirrti was bound and held securely by Yu and Cronus, with SG-1 and Robert present to watch them go. After the Stargate activated Cronus looked to them. "We will not attack your world," Cronus said to Jack, "but if you continue to use the Stargate, know this. If any of your people are caught by the System Lords, they will suffer greatly."

    Jack responded in his usual non-chalant way. "Well, that will make things interesting."

    "The same is true for your people, Captain," Cronus said to Robert, looking at him. "We will be watching you."

    "We'll abide by the treaty as well as you will," Robert answered directly. "And I'll make sure to pass the message on."

    Cronus huffed and turned away. He and Yu dragged Nirrti with them into the Stargate, which closed a moment later.

    "Well, weren't they charmers?", Jack asked rhetorically.

    Robert looked to Daniel. "How is Sha're?", he asked.

    "Bruised and hurt, but she'll live." Daniel nodded in thanks. "Leo, our Leo, is with her now."

    "That's good to know." Robert looked to Jack. There was a thought now in his head. "Colonel, do you still have that calling device Thor gave you?"

    Jack looked thoughtful for a moment. Then his hands started patting his pockets, both on his uniform jacket and trousers, before one finally reached in and fished out the device. "Here. You need to talk to Thor?"

    "I have a couple of questions, yeah."

    "Fair enough." Jack handed the pinkish stone to Robert. For a moment Robert considered the device, with its carved runes around the bottom rim of the stone.

    Finally Robert brought the stone up to his mouth. "Thor? This is Captain Dale. If you have some time, I have a few questions."


    "It's about the Darglan," Robert continued. "And what they got from you. Since that's part of the treaty and everything I was hoping you'd share some information with me."

    Again, nothing responded.

    "The Asgard aren't always cooperative about things like that," Daniel said. "Usually it's things about how 'it is not your time to know' and…"

    Robert never heard Daniel finish the sentence. Light filled his vision and, in an instant even faster than the transporters he was used to, he found himself standing elsewhere. The room, while not outright dark, was not too bright either. A window was looking out at the Earth.

    He turned. Thor was in his chair. "Captain."

    "Supreme Commander." Robert nodded. He offered the stone.

    Thor waved his hand. The stone disappeared from Robert's hand in a flash of light. "You have questions," Thor said.

    "I do." Robert nodded. "The Darglan got technology from you. But you're thousands of years more advanced than they ever were. What did they have to trade for things like transporters and weapons technology?"

    "They had their labor and creativity," Thor replied.

    Robert blinked at that. "That's it?"

    "They provided a great service to the Asgard, to the longevity and progress of our species."

    "Okay." Robert nodded at that. "So you gave them weapons. Which you refuse to give to anyone facing the Goa'uld now. Why then? Why would the Darglan even need your weapons? Was it because of whatever it was they were fighting?"

    Thor was silent for a moment. His large head finally nodded slightly. "You are aware of the war they fought?"

    "I found the evidence of it. A Darglan facility, attacked and damaged by an unknown foe that forced the Darglan to destroy themselves to stop them." Robert took a slight step forward. "Do you know anything about this threat?"

    "I know little more than you," Thor stated. "The Darglan cut all contact shortly after the war began. They were trying to keep their enemy from discovering our universe. The prospect of an invasion alone drove us into alliance with the Goa'uld to stop it."

    Robert blinked. It was that bad? "Who were these people?"

    "That is unknown to us."

    Robert frowned at that.

    Thor looked up to speak again. "Be careful with how you use the interuniversal drive. Not all universes are alike. There are parts of reality we should never come into contact with."

    Before Robert could speak anything else, the transporter whisked him away.


    Only a day after the Goa'uld left, it was the turn of the Alliance team. They would be going home on the Koenig instead of by Stargate.

    Nevertheless, they were departing from the Gate Room. Robert, Opani, Lucy, and Onaram were lined up opposite from the SG-1 team members, Hammond, Fraiser, and Secretary Simms. The two government secretaries were conversing quietly at the end of the line. Hammond offered his hand to Robert and the others, which was accepted. "It was good to finally meet you, Captain Dale," he said.

    "Thank you, General Hammond," Robert answered.

    "And I've been meaning to ask…" A small smile crossed General Hammond's face. He pointed a finger at Robert. "Kansas, right?"

    Robert didn't bother to fight the grin that split his face. "Yes sir. Texas?"

    "Of course." Hammond nodded. "Take care of yourself, Captain. It may be a while, but I'd like to see you and your fine crew come back here in one piece."

    "I'll do my best, sir."

    While Robert went to exchange goodbyes with Jack, Lucy was met by Daniel. "Listen," he began, "I want to say thank you. You saved my life, and my son."

    Lucy nodded quietly. "Yeah."

    "I'm sorry you had to hurt your mentor to do it," Daniel said. "I know that hurt you deeply."

    "It did." Lucy sighed and eyed him directly. "But you don't need to apologize for it, Doctor Jackson. It's what Meridina wanted. She would never allow herself to be more important than an innocent life."

    "I hope she feels better soon. Between the Goa'uld and actual breathing Nazis and all the other bad things out there, we need more people like Meridina." Daniel's expression turned thoughtful. "She's going to need someone there for her, for a while I mean. Being taken as a host… I've seen what that does to survivors."

    Lucy nodded. "I'll be there for her, Doctor Jackson, don't worry."

    "I didn't think otherwise. Just be sure someone is there for you too." Daniel glanced toward his comrades, making clear what he meant.

    Gradually the goodbyes ended. Robert looked at his people and gave a final nod to Jack and the others. "Good luck out there, Colonel. And whatever the treaty says… I hope you give the Goa'uld a black eye whenever they need it."

    "Oh, I'm sure we'll be running into them quite often," Jack answered. "The jerks are everywhere." He motioned to Robert. "Now you guys take care too. Shoot up a Nazi for me, will you?"

    "Too bad you can't come and shoot some yourself," Lucy said, finally grinning a little.

    "That would be a break from the usual," Sam remarked, matching the grin.

    "Well, who knows, maybe we'll get to eventually." Jack gave a look to General Hammond, who smirked and shook his head. "Until then, though, we'll leave the Nazis and other nasties out there in that big, weird Multiverse to you guys, and you can leave the Goa'uld to us. Deal?"

    "It's a deal," Robert agreed. He gave Jack one last handshake before reaching for his multi-device. He hit the commkey. "Dale to Koenig."

    "Koenig here," replied Zack.

    "Zack, you were supposed to come over for beer, remember?", Jack protested.

    A short chuckle came from the other end. "Yeah. Some other time, Jack, some other time. Rob?"

    "Four to beam up," Robert said. "We're going home."

    "Farewell," Teal'c said, finally joining in.

    "May the Deity stand between you and harm wherever your journeys take you," Opani replied to SG-1 in total.

    A moment later, all four of them were whisked away by the Koenig transporters.

    The Aurora met them on the way between Earth and Abydos. Once the ship was docked Robert went to his quarters to finish his report and file it with Admiral Maran's office.

    He was near the end when the door chime sounded. He looked up and called out, "Come in." Julia entered the door and, of course, presented him with a digital pad. "Let me guess," Robert sighed. "Personnel paperwork?"

    "I've done most of the hard work," Julia said, smiling sweetly. "They just need your signature."

    "Anything I should know?"

    "We've had a few promotions finish going through, and so we have some transfers." Julia took a seat on the other side of his desk. She pulled her right leg up to set the right foot on her left knee.

    "Still not as bad as things were last year, though," Robert noted. "Anything else I should know?"

    "Well, Admiral Relini just won a battle at Pi Sagaron. Intelligence thinks the Nazis may be abandoning that sector by the end of the month." Julia seemed to think on things. "The new Alliance ambassador accredited to the Citadel finished that trade deal with the Turians and Volus everyone's been talking about…"

    "I'm sure it's imperative that I know how quickly I can invest in the Volus-run markets on the Citadel," Robert snorted.

    Julia smirked. "Apparently you impressed on Luthien, Coordinator Kurita just dispatched a permanent ambassador to Portland."

    "Ah." Robert nodded. "It's a very good thing I didn't say anything about the smog, then."

    "Very." Julia's smirk turned into a wide smile. "I think that's about it. Although I think Angel's gotten pretty worked up since you were gone, you might have some trouble tonight."

    At that Robert leveled a playful glare at Julia. "You have entirely too much fun finding humor in my love life."

    "I'm the one who gets the bruises when Angel's worked up and I'm the only one giving her an outlet for it, remember?", Julia pointed out, the smile still on her face. The smile shifted slightly. "And don't you dare re-interpret that."

    The grin that appeared on Robert's face spoke to the thought that had already been coming up. "Wouldn't dream of it."

    "She's your girlfriend, not mine. I mean, outside of the platonic sense."

    Robert made an exaggerated sigh of resignation. "Well, drat. There goes that fantasy."

    Julia's green eyes narrowed slightly. "I can kick your ass, you know. Mind powers or no mind powers."

    "Life force powers, and yes, I know. I have nightmares about you and Angel kicking my ass in the ring. Though there was that one time…"

    That earned him a playful kick to his shin under the desk. Robert winced briefly, but the grin didn't disappear.

    Julia's grin turned somber, although it didn't disappear. "Meridina?", she asked.

    Robert's grin faded. "Leo said she was healed enough to go into her quarters. The surgery was easier this time, less complicated on account of the fact that Lucy cut the Goa'uld in her head into two very dead pieces."

    Julia winced and shuddered. "You know, when Sha're talked about what was done to her… I couldn't let myself imagine what it must be like. I still can't. And from what I've heard, Amaunet used Meridina to kill several of General Hammond's people."

    "Five fatalities to the SGC," Robert confirmed. "Would have been more if Amaunet hadn't been in a hurry, and if Lucy hadn't been there..."

    Julia nodded at that. A sad look came to her eyes where the mirth of their prior exchange had once glistened. "You've talked to her?"

    "Tried. She needs time to process it," Robert said. "But she's strong. She'll bounce back."

    "Yeah." Julia sounded like she was trying to be confident of that assessment, as opposed to completely believing it. "Yeah, she will."

    Lucy finished her own report, put her things up, caught up on some missed work - the Rio Grande, her baby, had needed a re-calibration of the warp field array - and finally made her way to the quarters on Deck 4. Meridina's name was on the space by the door. Lucy hit the chime key.

    No answer.

    Lucy sighed and took a moment to concentrate. Meridina's sorrow and horror, intense guilt rippling through it, rolled through her mind. She hit the chime again. "Meridina, it's me," Lucy said.

    This time the door opened. The quarters inside were dim. Soft sobs were coming from the bedroom.

    Lucy walked through Meridina's well-kept living area to her bedroom. Meridina was seated upon the simple bed wearing a sleeveless sleeping vest and shorts of faded white coloring. Her arms were crossed over her chest and she was hunched over, head almost parallel with the floor, sobbing.

    "Meridina," Lucy said gently. She walked over and sat beside her mentor. With a careful movement she set a hand on Meridina's nearly-bare shoulder.

    I am corrupted, was the telepathic reply. The darkness is in me it's in me I am corrupted…

    "No." Lucy shook her head. She bent over and put her right arm around Meridina's shoulders. "That wasn't you."

    Meridina continued to weep. Thoughts of how the darkness had touched her being, how it was still in her, seeped into Lucy's mind. She held Meridina and pulled her into a full sitting position on the bed. Her other arm came up and she took her teacher, her friend, into an embrace.

    Meridina accepted the embrace, her arms coming up to take hold of Lucy. She buried her face into Lucy's shoulder and continued to weep.

    Lucy did the only thing she could do in that situation.

    She did nothing. Nothing but hold on and allow her friend to deal with her suffering.
    rifern likes this.
  22. Threadmarks: 2-05 Opening
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    Ship's Log: 20 April 2642; ASV Aurora. Captain Robert Dale recording. We have completed a short overhaul of the Aurora at the Gersal Ring Yards and are preparing to depart for Universe S4W8 for training purposes..

    On another note, Commander Meridina is leaving the ship for personal time. Her request for an extended leave has been granted due to the ordeal that the Goa'uld Amaunet put her through. I hope that time back home will help her recover mentally from the experience of being made into Amaunet's host.

    Robert met Lucy at the airlock on the Ring Yards station. The Ring Yards were just one portion of the massive orbital ring built around Gersal's moon, with which the Gersallians refined the mineral wealth of their moon, built and maintained their starships, and supported the workers who made this possible. By mass it was one of the largest structures in the entire Alliance and the product of over twenty centuries of continuous construction and amalgamation of older Gersallian lunar stations.

    Gersallians and Humans looked virtually alike, so it was hard to tell which of those walking around them were of either species, at least from seeing their faces. Clothing style proved the most effective way of telling the differences - Gersallians tended to prefer an overcoat or even a robe, some wearing long flowing dresses over trousers. It was a style that was employed regardless of gender, with yellows, oranges, and light reds favored, and specific design patterns or forms of overcoat and robe referenced regional differences back on their homeworld. Humans were more varied in their choice of clothing, going from jacket or shirt with trousers to jumpsuits.

    Aside from Humans and Gersallians, Dorei were somewhat common. Alakin appeared here and there as well, and Robert noticed the pointed ears of two Vulcans - acolytes by their robes - who were boarding the next airlock over. A Minbari in worker caste garb followed them, chatting amiably with a Bajoran cleric.

    A voice spoke over the loudspeaker. Initially it was in Common Gersallian Dialect, which Robert recognized a few words from. The voice repeated itself in English. "Orbital transport Luteran is departing in ten minutes from Airlock 42. All passengers please report to Airlock 42 immediately."

    As the voice repeated a third time, this time in Lushan Dorei, Robert felt Meridina approach. Even in this teeming flow of life - a literal one too, as Meridina had shown him - he could feel her presence standing out amongst the others.

    He could also feel how different it was now. He could sense the anguish inside of her, the pain of what she had been forced to do.

    Meridina had been taken as a host by the Goa'uld Amaunet. Amaunet had used her body, her swevyra - "life force" - and the powers it granted, to wreak havoc during the peace talks with the Goa'uld. Several of Stargate Command's people had died at Amaunet's hand. Lucy herself had nearly died stopping Amaunet, and in turn Meridina had almost died when Lucy killed Amaunet.

    And now she has to live with what Amaunet did to her, with her, Lucy was thinking. Robert could sense the thought with surprising ease. While some aspect of these "swevyra" powers were still difficult for him to use, mental linking with Meridina and Lucy was becoming easier with each passing week.

    While they were in uniform, Meridina was wearing the traveling robes of a Gersallian Knight of Swenya, or swevyra'se as the Gersallians called it. A blue robe with the hood lowered was over a beige-tinted vest. A tied strap around her waist held up the loose, baggy trousers of the same color. Her dark hair was brushed downward, sweeping out slightly around the ears before curling back so that the ends pressed against her neck. She had only a small bag being carried on her shoulder. As a Knight of Swenya, Meridina owned little.

    A small, sad smile came to her face when she saw them waiting. "My friends," she said simply. "I am glad to see you."

    "We wanted to see you off," said Robert.

    "I appreciate the sentiment," Meridina stated. She looked to Lucy. "I know you wished to come with me, Lucy, but I will be fine."

    Lucy forced a smile to her face. She knew how much Meridina was hurting on the inside. She'd seen her with her defenses completely lowered. "I just don't want you to be alone."

    "I will not be," Meridina assured them. "Now, I believe you have duties to attend to, yes?"

    Robert nodded. "Julia and Nick are handling the new crew, but we're due for the supply run to Beta Durani 4." He looked at the time with his multidevice. "So we're due to jump out in about four hours."

    Meridina nodded. "Indeed. Do not worry. I shall see you again in a couple of your weeks."

    The station PA system repeated the prior boarding call. Meridina looked to the airlock. "I need to go now. I trust you two will continue the exercises I showed you?"

    They nodded, giving each other aside glances.

    "Then there is nothing more to say." She bowed her head to them. "Mi rake sa sweyvra iso, Robert and Lucy."

    "Mee rockey sa sweevyra icho," was Robert's rather inaccurate reply.

    Lucy allowed herself a giggle at his expense. Robert's continued inability to deal with Gersallian phonetics was a source of amusement to everyone else. "Mi rake sa swevyra iso, Meridina," she said, proud that as troublesome as it was she could at least make the sound right. She gave Meridina a hug.

    Meridina was used to such displays of friendship and affection and accepted the hug, returning it with a slight embrace. When Lucy pulled back she gave Lucy the small smile she knew Lucy wanted, needed, to see, and turned to board her ship.

    Lucy and Robert watched Meridina disappear into the corridors of the transport craft. Once she was well out of sight, they departed as well.

    Julia Andreys stepped off the lift on Deck 6 and found Nick Locarno waiting for her. "Well, I thought we'd meet in the Briefing Room," she said.

    "I figured you'd be arriving any moment," he answered. "So I waited."

    "Ah." They began walking down the corridor. Their uniforms were almost a matching set, black pants, primarily black shoes, and a black uniform jacket, with the secondary color on the trim of each being the red of ship control and command. Julia had three gold stripes affixed to her collar, showing she was a Commander, while Locarno had two gold stripes to show he was a full Lieutenant. "So why am I assigned to this detail, again?", he asked.

    "Because you're the senior Navigation Officer," Julia reminded him. "And we have an entire group of navigation and piloting officers coming aboard to join the crew."

    "How many, again?"


    Locarno chuckled. "Wow. That many? All at once?"

    "Well, Ensign Rutira transferred to the Shenzhou," Julia said. "Ensign Karlan was promoted and is being re-assigned to oversee shuttle piloting at Nasin Station. Ensign Yaratov finished her flight qualifications and is assigned to the fighter wing now. Ensign Kurikt is expecting and has to go back to Alakis to lay her eggs…"

    "...okay, okay, I get it," Locarno interrupted, shaking his head. "But it's still a little excessive."

    She shrugged. "We have twelve runabouts, a few dozen shuttles, and the Koenig. We need that full complement of piloting officers if we're going to maintain all of our usual operations."

    Locarno shook his head. "You love doing this kind of thing, don't you? Rattling off all of these justifications and facts."

    A smile crossed Julia's face. "I like to remind you all of just how good at this job I am."

    "Well, you don't need to convince me," Locarno assured her.

    "Oh, you're looking to take my fun away, huh?" Julia chuckled.

    "No ma'am, I am not," he assured her with a chuckle of his own.

    After rounding the corner of a corridor the two went up to a sliding door marked Briefing Room 2. Typically used for department-level meetings, it was currently occupied by the dozen new officers that had joined the Aurora crew. Over half looked Human or Gersallian. There were three Dorei, an Alakin, and even an eager-looking Mi'qote girl.

    Locarno looked over the new arrivals. His eyes briefly focused on the Mi'qote girl, with her bronze complexion a strange contrast to the snow-colored fur over her cat-like ears on the top of her head. Her tail, made of the same snow-colored fur, swished as she turned to face him with bright green eyes, more feline than Human. She smiled at him and stepped to the side.

    The Human woman who had been behind her turned toward the door. Her dark eyes focused on Locarno and Julia. Locarno's eyes met her's.

    Recognition shot through his mind. Locarno's expression froze in disbelief.

    The young woman was his age, as she would be. Her brown hair was pulled back in a severe bun at the back of her head. Her face had a pronounced round shape to it.

    And given the stare, she recognized him too.

    Julia saw the look on Locarno's face. Concern flickered over her features. "Nick?", she asked. "Are you alright?" She followed his eyes and looked at the young woman in question, who turned away hurriedly upon seeing Julia's attention and, presumably, her rank insignia. "Someone you know?", Julia asked.

    "Yeah," Nick said, his voice hoarse. He swallowed. "Her name is Jean Hajar." He looked at Julia and let her see how rattled he was. "She was in Nova Squad."

    Undiscovered Frontier
    "What is Past..."

    Julia looked from Locarno to the woman he spoke of. She'd turned away and found a seat beside another of the new arrivals. She looked to them again with dark eyes that were hiding any emotional reaction to their presence. As if they were just new arrivals. "Nova Squad," Julia murmured, low enough that none of the new arrivals could hear. "You mean your group of cadets when you were in Starfleet Academy."

    Locarno nodded. "Yeah," he said. "She and I are the only ones left now."

    It was clear to Julia that Locarno was in the middle of some very strong emotions. "Nick, it's okay, I understand," she said. "Just let me do all the talking. I'll arrange to have her trained by Lieutenant…"

    "No." Locarno shook his head. "No, I'm fine. I'm alright. It was just a shock to see her, that's all." He nodded toward the table in front of the assembled chairs. "Let's get this started. The ship's due to leave in a few hours, right?"

    Julia nodded slightly. "Right." She gave him another worried look before turning away and going to the central chair. Locarno sat to her left. The right seat was vacant. Julia cleared her throat loudly, cutting through the background noise of quiet conversations among the new arrivals. "Attention, everyone."

    All of the assembled turned toward them. Spines straightened.

    "I am Commander Julia Andreys, First Officer of the Aurora." Julia motioned to her left. "And this is Lieutenant Nicholas Locarno, our Navigation Officer. He and I will be responsible for your acclimation training now that you're assigned to the crew. I know some of you are eager to get into your postings, so let's try to make this quick. You will all cover shifts on the bridge at the conn, at regularly-scheduled intervals, rotating between that duty and duty as shuttle and runabout pilots. In consultation with Commander Carrey, one or two of you will be assigned to the Koenig. Shift assignments will be as follows. Rozowski, Kutap, Rogers, Meritami, you will be on Alpha Shift. Hajar, U'saya, Korimi…"

    Upon returning to the ship Robert went to his ready office. Jarod followed him in with a digital pad. "Oh, not you too," Robert mumbled. "And I thought Julia welcoming those new officers would give me a reprieve."

    "Julia is all-wise when it comes to these things," Jarod remarked with faux-sagacity. He handed him the pad. "We just need you to sign on the final receipts. All of our requisition orders were filled and we've loaded all of the supplies we can ever need."

    "That's good to hear." Robert took the pad and skimmed it. "Anything from Maran about our discovery?"

    "You mean about how Darglan technology uses Asgard technology?" Jarod shook his head. "Not yet. He's got a panel of experts looking over everything."

    "That's good to hear." Once Robert finished signing he handed the device back to Jarod. "Everything's ready for departure?"

    "Pretty much," Jarod confirmed.

    "Good. We're due to drop supplies off for the garrison at Beta Durani 4 before we rendezvous with the Phosako at the Durani Nebula," Robert said. "We finally got our orders in."

    "Durani Nebula?" Jarod considered that. "That's in a quiet sector."

    "The Nazis retreated from there four months ago, but they left a few surprises," Robert said. "We'll be sending them a couple of shuttles loaded with decontamination supplies and dextro-acid consumables."

    "Turians, then?", Jarod asked.

    "The Fifth Regiment. Or Platoon." Robert shook his head. "I'm still getting used to the way Turian unit organizations work. But their Fifth unit has set up a base on the northern continent to support Phosako and Alliance engineers building planetary-scale defensive systems for Beta Durani 4. They'll need extra food supplies, though, or we'll have to pull them out. Admiral Maran says it's already caused a bit of a scandal on the Citadel that our quartermasters screwed up on dispatching sufficient stores for them."

    "I bet." Jarod put the reader in his pocket. "Well, we'll be underway shortly. I'll have the shuttles loaded with the supplies listed on the request."

    "Good. We're due to launch them when we arrive in the Durani Cluster in two days." Robert nodded to him. "I'll see you for the staff meeting tomorrow, Jarod."

    Jarod nodded back. "See you there."

    Locarno was alone in the Lookout eating a late lunch when he looked up in time to see Zack approaching. "Any seats taken?", he asked.

    "Not at all." Locarno gestured to one. Zack slipped into it and immediately took a bite from his chicken sandwich. Locarno looked at his own barely-eaten meal and forced himself to take a bite as well.

    "So, any ETA on when you and Julie will have Ensign Hong's replacement?", Zack asked. "I'd like to know for setting up my rotation in the training exercises."

    "None yet." Locarno eyed Zack suspiciously. He set his sandwich down with a forceful plop. "She sent you, didn't she?"

    Zack gave him a look while finishing chewing a bite down. "What do you mean?", he finally asked.

    "Julia told you about Jean," Locarno accused. "And she sent you here to get me to open up and talk about it."

    Zack shook his head. "You think I need Julia's input on this stuff? The moment I heard a Nova Squad survivor was with the recruits, I knew you'd be like this."

    "And how did you hear that?"

    Zack lifted an eyebrow. "You know how things go around here. The rumor mill on the Aurora reminds me of the one back in our hometown."

    Locarno sighed at that. "What do you want me to say, Zack? That she's reminding me of the worst mistake in my life? That I'm worried about whether I can work with her, if she blames me for her Starfleet career going nowhere?"

    "I suppose that's a start." Zack saw Locarno's dark expression and sighed. He set his sandwich down. "Okay, dude. This is me. I'm not Julia, I'm not Mama Hen coming to check on the chicks. I'm just a guy looking out for his buddy, okay? If you don't want to talk about it, we won't."

    Locarno was silent for a moment. Seeing the laid back expression on Zack's face made it hard for him to remain irritated at him and inevitably Locarno sighed. "Alright. I just… I never expected to see her again. To see any of them again."

    "You invited them to join us didn't you?"

    "Quietly, yes," Locarno confessed. "None of them answered. I can't be surprised. I got Joshua killed and nearly destroyed their careers covering it up. So after that, I figured... " He stopped.

    Zack saw the expression covering his face and turned. Both watched as Jean Hajar stepped into the Lookout. She was still in uniform, just as they were, an ensign's single gold stripe on her collar. Her eyes clearly swept over them before moving on to take in the rest of the Lookout. She wordlessly moved on to the bar.

    "Well, talk about your timing," Zack murmured.

    Locarno let out a breath. "To hell with it," he said. "Let's get this over with." He stood up.

    "Ah crap," muttered Zack. But he knew well enough to sit and observe as Locarno approached Hajar.

    Albert, the assistant lounge host, got to her first, taking an order for a drink. Locarno patiently waited until Albert stepped away before walking up beside Hajar.

    She'd seen him coming and turned before he could speak. "Lieutenant," she said respectfully, in a measured tone.

    "Ensign." Locarno refrained from sitting down for the moment. "There's actually something of a standing rule in the Lookout that we don't go by ranks here. Not between crew."

    "Really?" Hajar nodded briefly. "Well, then, I suppose it's 'Locarno' then."

    Her tone was not the best sign that this would go well. But he formally accepted her proposal by nodded and saying, "Yes. Hajar. Welcome to the Aurora. I admit I'm a little surprised to see you. You never answered my offer."

    Hajar's face curled into a thin, almost sarcastic smile. "I was still trying to salvage my Starfleet career at the time." The look in her eye became distant. "Not that it did me any good. Or Jaxa."

    Locarno swallowed and nodded. "I heard about her."

    "She was determined to make it work," Hajar said. "More determined than me, in the end. So, like Wes, I walked out. Made my way as a civilian shuttle pilot." By this point Albert returned with a glass of what looked to be brandy. Hajar accepted it with a nod and "Thanks". She immediately took a drink and considered it for a moment. "Then I heard about the marvelous opportunities of the Alliance Stellar Navy, and that my Starfleet Academy experience would be factored in if I signed up. So six months of expedited officer training and here I am, an Ensign after all." She looked to Locarno. "No thanks to you, Locarno."

    There was some real venom in that voice. "I'm sorry for what happened," he managed.

    "Yeah. Me too," she said. She took another drink and put the glass back on the table with some strength. "Let's get this out of the way, shall we? I'm sorry I ever signed up for Nova Squad. I'm sorry I ever listened to you, and I'm damned sorry I let you talk me into that damned Kolvoord Starburst plot. And if you've come to me looking for forgiveness, then you might as well keep walking, Locarno, because I'm never giving you that. You ruined our lives. You caused Joshua to die. And there's not a damn thing in this world you can do to ever make up for that." She glared at him, their eyes meeting and hers full of passionate ferocity. "You're my superior officer now and I'll respect that. We're here to do a job, after all. But we're not friends anymore and we'll never be friends again, do you understand?"

    Locarno nodded briefly.


    With that Hajar finished her glass and slammed it on the bar with some heat. She turned and, wordlessly, left the Lookout.

    Zack stepped up behind Locarno. "So, how well did that go?", he asked.

    Locarno drew in a breath. "About as well as I had any right to expect," he said in reply.

    The Luteran finished making its leisurely course to the capital city Jantarihal, situated in the valley below the Great Temple of Swenya and the headquarters of the Order. Stepping out onto the open concourse of the Jantarihal Spaceport, Meridina looked up at the mountains that the Temple was built within and drew in a breath. Ordinarily she would have flown there directly from the Great Ring on a shuttle provided by the Order.

    But not this time. She wasn't here as a swevyra'se reporting in at the Temple for assignment or debriefing. She was here for the purpose of simply coming home.

    A brown-tinted carrier bus was waiting for her and others. There was no fare for it, the service being a communal one supported by the municipal and planetary governments instead of the private services favored in other societies. Even if there had been one, Meridina's robes and visible lakesh would have seen it waived. Swevyra'se paid for little in Gersallian space, and what little they paid for was at their insistence.

    The bus was soon taking Meridina through the heart of the capital. The high, gleaming spires were a lovely sight, built to inspire as much as to function, with smaller buildings of round construction and slanted shapes abounding. Far below the bus, the streets flowed with rich life, a populace going about their way in the bustling roadways and walkways of the Gersallian capital. Meridina could, in the distance, make out Swenya's Column, marking the spot where the Grand Foundress refused the diadem that the peoples of Gersal were ready to place upon her brow, and where she had instead handed down the Precepts that, over a hundred years later, formed the basis of the Gersallian Interdependency.

    Many other species found that title strange for a country. There were Kingdoms, Republics, Associations, Federations, Empires… but 'Interdependency'? It was likely from the translation of Gersallian into other languages, for Meridina thought the Human concept of republic and communal organization best fit the Gersallian idea of the Interdependency. Of a people bound together by laws and rules commonly accepted and developed by the populace.

    It was not always easy. The history of first contact with the Dorei saw misunderstanding of the nature, and the Oligarchical, merchant-dominated republics of the Dorei had proven especially hostile to their concept of a society where public interest and private interest were not considered distinct from each other.

    Humans also seemed to not understand it very much. Lucy had, upon having Gersallian society and law explained, used the term "socialism". Meridina had been intrigued and looked that term up. She thought it a poor fit, since Human socialism seemed to be built on the idea of the government dictating the economy for the benefit of workers, and of class conflict between those with much and those with little. The idea was bizarre. Why would someone not pay another proper compensation for their work? Or allow neighbors' homes to degrade or be shut down? Certainly one might feel envy at another's superior accomplishments or compensation for skilled work of greater demand, but to outright hate them? And surely everyone, especially those responsible for the economy, understood that everyone affects one another and that letting neighborhoods go into decline or workers to starve without food or suffer without medical help would undermine social cohesion and cause conflict? Why, indeed, would anyone want that sort of imbalance between different sections of society? Imbalance undermined society, after all. And it seemed this entire concept of "public" versus "private" was a sign of that.

    Perhaps it was simply how other species approached the idea.

    Meridina stopped her pondering. She was just avoiding the issue again. The thoughts constantly entering her head. The memory of Amaunet's darkness, of all of the slain in the SGC… it was just so much. So much.

    The bus flew out of the city center and into the arcologies section, where tall buildings contained a multitude of homes. The bus flew in to street level and came to a stop at one arcology. Meridina quietly disembarked.

    The entrance lobby was beautiful, covered in flower stands and small statuary. Meridina noted with surprise that there was a marking on one of the statues currently being removed by a young woman in the light red maintenance jersey.

    With curiosity Meridina approached the statue, a fairly-good rendition of a majtan, a giant quadripedal herbivore of the northern forests of Tensha. The marking was blurred out so that she couldn't make out what it once was. "What has happened?", she asked the worker.

    The yellow-haired girl grumbled, "A marking by the Dissenters. They've been up to it a lot lately." She turned and made eye contact with Meridina's waist. Her eyes widened at seeing the lakesh and her tone became more reverential. "Swevyra'se, what may I…" Her teal-toned eyes looked up and met Meridina's. The stunned reverential expression turned to stunned disbelief. "Meridina? By my family…"

    "Penrine?" Meridina looked at her with some surprise. "My you have grown. It has been so long."

    An embrace was exchanged. "It is good to see you, Meri," said Penrine. "Gami will be ecstatic."

    "You and Leni still work to drive her to distraction, I imagine?", Meridina asked. A genuine smiled crossed her face.

    "We do keep in practice," Penrine boasted. "After all, you are not here any longer."

    "Swenya preserve me, there were times you two were so irritating…" Meridina stopped herself and allowed a laugh to come.

    "You laugh?" Penrine narrowed her eyes playfully. "What is this? A laughing swevyra'se? A laughing swevyra'se who is the daughter of Karesl? Such a scandal for the Order!"

    The look on Meridina's face turned somber. "Is my father home?"

    Penrine's face shifted. Undoubtedly she had heard something of the fracture between Meridina and her father. She nodded in understanding. "At times. I have been told he is meeting with the Director and others. The Dissenters have been a distraction ever since the war started."

    "The Dissenters?" Meridina frowned. "Are you referring to those who opposed the Alliance?"

    Penrine nodded. "They grow angrier with every passing week, it seems." An uncomfortable look came to her face. "There was even a violent disturbance in Hatan several days ago, when recruiters came for the Alliance Army. I'm told one of them, a Human, nearly died."

    Meridina was stunned by that admission. Gersallians could be independent-minded, certainly, and there were plenty of disputes and disagreements about this or that, but the idea of violence being used in them? That wasn't their way, it wasn't what was supposed to be done. Violent dissent unbalanced society, drove wedges into communities. It threatened to unravel the very concept of the Interdependency.

    There has not been political violence on Gersal since the Brotherhood of Kohbal…

    How could things have become so bad?

    "I thought you were serving with the Alliance?", Penrine asked. "Why have you come home?"

    The question was painful to consider. Meridina lowered her eyes. "I needed to regain my balance, to… deal with something that was done to me."

    "Oh." Penrine nodded. "Well, Leni and Gami are home with your mother. Although Leni is probably still cleaning the gardens on the 12th level. I'm sure they're eager to see you."

    Meridina nodded and forced a smile. "As I am eager to see them. It was good to see you, Penrine. Mi rake sa sweyvra iso."

    "Mi rake sa sweyvra iso," Penrine answered cheerfully.

    Meridina's family lived in a sizable home on the 12th level, on the north side of the arcology garden. She walked through said garden after leaving the lift to enjoy the scent of the flowers and other flora of her homeworld, and others. With interest she recognized tulips, obviously transplants from Earth, and other new alien flowers.

    Standing in the middle of the garden, Meridina felt a gnawing anxiety build up. She had not been home in years. Her time away as a swevyra'se, and now serving in the Alliance, had kept her away. She hadn't even visited last year when the Aurora was repaired at Gersal. She had been so busy with Lucy's training, and hadn't wanted to face her father…

    A painful ache came to her heart from that. She'd punished her sisters, her brother, and her mother for the difference of opinion she had with her father.

    For several moments Meridina wasn't sure what she wanted to do. She felt hesitation, so unlike the decisiveness a Knight of Swenya had to show, and it gnawed at her that she was letting her experience with Amaunet affect her in such a strong way. Amaunet was dead, after all, and she was freed. The darkness had never been hers, only Amaunet.

    But she could still remember. She could remember the thing burrowing into her neck and seizing her body. The agony whenever she resisted Amaunet's control. The horror and pain on Sha're's face, the cries of her infant…

    ...the dead bodies, slain by her physical hand.

    Meridina had to take several deep breaths in an effort to deal with that pain.

    She heard the rustling of leaves and turned. A young woman several years younger than her emerged. She was in a maintenance jerkin over a sleeveless blue tunic and a plain skirt of the same blue. Her eyes had the same blue as Meridina's own while her brown hair was cut short. Her eyes widened at seeing Meridina and a look of surprise came to her face. "Meri?"

    "Leni," said Meridina. She forced a gentle smile to her face at the sight of her youngest sister Leniraya. "It is so good to see you."

    "Meri!" She rushed forward and clasped Meridina's forearms with her hands. The embrace they shared was little different than the type Humans in such a situation might share. "It is such a relief to see you."

    "I should have come sooner," Meridina admitted.

    "What brings you home?", Leniraya asked.

    Meridina's smile couldn't hide her feelings. Especially not from Leniraya, who had inherited some of their mother's mental talents. She tried to hold back the memories regardless, knowing that it would hurt Leni to see what she had suffered.

    But she couldn't keep it entirely out. Leniraya's face twisted into a look of concern. "I understand," she said. "Let's go and see Mother. And Gami will be thrilled to see you."

    "Are you not working in the garden?" Meridina frowned. "The arcology managers will be displeased you left your work unfinished."

    "It is finished. Mostly." Leniraya put an arm on Meridina's shoulders, "You have returned home, they will understand."

    Meridina nodded and let Leniraya lead her out of the garden and to the main entrance of the family home. The markings read out the family name of Lumantala. Family names were generally not used by Gersallians as much as they were among Dorei, Humans, and a few of the other species Meridina had encountered in her journeys. And for herself, it was almost never used, as generally she only referred to herself as coming from the Order. "Draswenya" was a common way to do that for some, although she never used it herself.

    The door slid open as soon as the sensors reigstered their presence. Leniraya was the first through. "Our home welcomes a long and accomplished traveler!", she called out, undoubtedly amusing herself at her flowery turn of phrase.

    The inside of the door was the family greeting area. Chairs and small tables abounded - a distant opening showed the dining table and the kitchen beyond, and to the side would be the family's inner living area and the halls to the sleeping rooms. Or "bedrooms", as Humans would call them.

    A head of light blond hair graying at the temples looked up from the distant kitchen. Meridina felt her mother Drentiya's mind gently touch her own. She didn't resist her mother's mental inquiry. She was keeping the worst memories as quiet as she could manage. But she could sense her mother had an idea of what was wrong.

    Please come, her mother said mentally, already leaving the kitchen. She was in her cooking robe, so dinner was due soon. "Meridina," she said aloud when they were close.

    Meridina said nothing as her mother embraced her warmly.

    "Gami! Gami, come!", cried Drentiya.

    Gamays came bounding out of the living area and into sight. Meridina's sister, between her and Leniraya in age, wore a white vest and dark pantaloons. "Meri!", she called out, rushing past her mother and taking Meridina into an embrace. "Meri, it is so good to see you! Welcome home."

    "Thank you, Gami," said Meridina. "Where is Qalk?"

    "With Utiriluma," said her mother. "They are surveying a farmstead in the Lapana Valley."

    "So he has made that choice? I must wish him well."

    "He will be back in a few days." Drentiya put a hand on Meridina's bag. "Come, dear, your room awaits you. And then we will talk about this terrible pain I sense in you."

    Meridina surrendered her bag and followed her mother into the living area and toward the hall leading to their bedrooms. As they approached her old room she finally worked up the nerve to ask, "Where is Father?"

    The response in her mother's mind was easily read. Discomfort. Sadness. A little irritation, quickly suppressed. It was not easy for her to stand between her feuding daughter and spouse. "He is away," she said. "A meeting with some of the Dorei orders or some such thing, he will return in a day or so."

    In other words, she had no worry about her father arriving soon and seeing, feeling, Meridina like this.

    "I look forward to seeing him return home regardless," Meridina assured her suffering mother.

    "It will be fine, my dear. What is important is to get you settled in, and for you to share with me what hurts you so."

    Meridina answered her mother with a nod and followed her into her old bedroom. It was much as she left it. A single bed, a desk and chair, old clothes in the garment compartment beside the bed, a mirror. It held little more than her quarters on the Aurora.

    What it did hold was one of her few material possessions, an old trophy from her sword lessons as a child. The sight of the trophy, a brass likeness of a talkesh blade, reminded her of that day she'd won it in a competition with other young initiates. Of her father's reaction and insistence she would be a great swevyra'se. That brought a dull ache to her heart. Her father had been the light of her life growing up, even moreso than the mother who taught her how to use her telepathic abilities,

    Meridina went to the bed and sat upon it. It was softer than she remembered. Drentiya sat beside her and put a hand on her shoulder. "Open up to me, child," she asked. "Let me see what ails you."

    So Meridina did.
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  23. Threadmarks: 2-05-2
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    The Aurora was on its way through the Durani Cluster, Rimward Liberation Zone, when they completed the jump to S4W8. Robert was in his ready office instead of his quarters for the last reports of the evening, with the ship at operating code Blue due to their relative proximity to Reich-held territories.

    Still, this was a quiet sector, all things considered. Only one region of Reich space was still in easy warping range of Durani and all intelligence reports indicated the Reich only had a token defensive force there. Enough to resist a minor incursion or to possibly delay a major one until reinforcement, but not enough for an offensive.

    The strategic situation was brightening at least. A year of build-up in the fleet meant that more new starships were entering Alliance service, including those using Darglan technology. It was making up well for the loss of the Klingon and Federation assistance.

    And yet… whenever Robert looked at the reports, especially the casualty list, he remembered his role in starting this conflict. And it always stung.

    His door chime sounded. "Come in," Robert called out.

    Locarno stepped in from the bridge. It would be the end of his shift for the day. "You wanted to see me before I went off-duty?", he asked.

    "I did." Robert gestured toward a chair and Locarno took it. "I understand that one of our new trainees was a classmate of yours in Starfleet Academy?"

    Locarno drew in a breath and sighed. Robert could sense his aggravation at the subject coming up. "Right, of course you know." He nodded quickly. "Jean Hajar was in Nova Squad."

    "I see." Robert frowned. "Well, I doubt Fleet Personnel knew about the relationship. Although it wouldn't surprise me if they did and this was another niggling little annoyance that Minister Hawthorne and Admiral Davies has thrown our way. Anyway, I'll arrange her transfer off the ship as soon as I can."

    "That won't be necessary," Locarno insisted. He shook his head. "I'll adjust."

    Robert gave him a close look. He could feel the conflicted feelings coming from Locarno. "You won't be doing her any favors, Nick, if she's still upset about what happened. She won't function at her best and neither will you."

    "I can do this," Locarno insisted. "I'm not going to be responsible for Jean getting dropped from her training group."

    "So you have a suggestion?", Robert asked.

    "Let me show I can work with her, and she can work with me. No matter what we feel about Josh. Someone's got to fly the Sandar to Beta Durani 4. I'll let her pilot and ride as the co-pilot for training. It's a simple run. If we have any trouble, I'll remove myself from training duty."

    Robert put his digital reader down. "I'm not sure that's how this sort of thing is supposed to go, Nick." Seeing Locarno was about to argue he raised a hand. "Don't worry about it. Just… see if you can make the professional side of things work. Alright?"

    Locarno nodded. The relief radiated from him. "That works, Captain. Thank you."

    "Just make sure everything goes smoothly," Robert asked. "You're dismissed."

    It had been years since Meridina had cried on her mother's shoulder. Many years. She had been just a child the last time, reacting to harsh words of disappointment from her father over a childish misuse of her swevyra.

    But as biting as his disapproval of her had been, it was nothing compared to the pain she felt now.

    Drentiya had tears in her eyes. At her daughter's pain, and the sympathetic reaction she had on feeling it. "Meri." Her hand gently moved to wipe the tears flowing from Meridina's eyes. "My poor dear girl. To have had such a thing happen to you…"

    "I can still feel it, Mama," Meridina sniffled. "The darkness. Its so cold, and its angry and hateful and it wants to come back out. It wasn't even from me, but it's in me now."

    "The lingering influence of this 'Amaunet'." Drentiya gently held Meridina's hand. "Meridina, dear, you have always impressed me with how like your father you have become as a swevyra'se. We could not be more proud of you. But you must not be afraid to release your feelings. Stop struggling to contain them."

    "I have to keep control," Meridina insisted tearfully. "I must not let the taint grow."

    "Meri. Do you not see what…"

    They were interrupted by the opening of the door. Leniraya was on the other side. "Father is home," she said. "He has returned early."

    Drentiya nodded briskly. A small frown came to her face, not at the news that her husband was home, but rather as she felt all of Meridina's mental defenses snap into place. Meridina wiped away the tears swiftly and drew in several breaths, forcing control on herself. Control that Drentiya thought would prove more harmful than anything else in the long run.

    "He will understand," she said gently to Meridina.

    "I am a swevyra'se," Meridina answered. "I control my emotions. They do not control me." Her eyes closed while the last tears dried on her face.

    "Meri…" Child. You must be open about your pain. You must not be afraid of it. Or of showing it to your father.

    But the stoic look that returned to Meridina's face had told Drentiya she had failed in that argument. For the moment. Meridina was too committed to proving herself to her father to ever show that weakness in front of him.

    Mother and daughter returned to the living area of the family home. Gamaya was still working at her study desk, where the wiry figure of Mastrash Karesl now stood behind her to observe with interest. He looked over to Meridina upon their return to the room. He was still in his robe of purple with blue trim - signifying his place on the Council of the Order of Swenya - with a light blue vest and tunic underneath joined with dark blue trousers. He gave Meridina an intent look. "You have come home, I see," he said. "How are you, ch-…"

    He stopped. For a moment his eyes focused completely on her, scrutinizing every detail of Meridina's expression, her posture, her face. But that was just the openly-visible component for what he was doing, as his own powerful life force examined his daughter's. "Meridina, what has happened?", he finally asked. "I can feel…"

    "A Goa'uld called Amaunet took control of my body," Meridina said simply. "She used my swevyra for her own ends while she was in control."

    Nothing was said for a moment. Karesl was clearly feeling out for a sign of deception on the matter. But seconds before Drentiya could scold him for that, his expression softened. "I sense the truth of what you have suffered, daughter. Words cannot describe how much it pains me."

    "Thank you," she answered plainly. "I have taken a leave from the Aurora to come home and meditate upon my experience. To be sure I have control of this taint."

    "A wise choice, daughter," Karesl answered. "I can arrange healers to see you."

    "Mother has already been a great help, I would not wish to impose…"

    "It is never imposition," he chided her gently. "You know that, child."

    Drentiya narrowed her eyes at her spouse. "Meridina does not need the Order pushing her into suppressing what happened. She must face it if she is to move on."

    "Ordinarily, love, I would agree with you," Karesl answered. "But this is no mere pain. This is the taint of Darkness, brought on by the Goa'uld. Meridina must be careful in how she treats it lest the darkness within come out through negative feelings. That could cause the Darkness within to grow out of control.

    "I would like to have Mother attempt to aid me for a few days, Mastrash," Meridina said formally. "I will report to the Great Temple for time with the healers afterward."

    Karesl nodded at that. "An understandable choice, child." His expression warmed slightly as he looked to the rest of the family. "Hopefully Qalk will return soon. It has been too long since our family was together."

    "I look forward to seeing him as well," Meridina agreed.

    "Until then," said Drentiya, "I will get the evening meal finished."

    "I shall prepare the table then," pledged Meridina. She turned and walked into the dining room

    Drentiya looked at Karesl intently. I love you dearly, but please, for our daughter's sake, do not make politics of this. She deserves better.

    Our daughter has already made herself a point of politics, my love
    , Karesl replied. It may be out of my hands. But I will do nothing to directly cause such a thing to happen. This I promise you.

    There was a dissatisfied look on Drentiya's face. But she said nothing more while returning to the kitchen.

    The usual morning routine saw Robert out of bed, into the shower, and then off to the Lookout for breakfast. Julia joined him there and they took to a table after exchanging "Good morning"s. "We'll be to our training point in six hours," Robert noted. "We should probably get those shuttles off to Beta Durani soon."

    "The first launched this morning," Julia revealed. "Dahler and Uwambe are piloting."

    "Making good use of the trainees then," Robert noted.

    "The tricky thing is the Sandar," Julia remarked. "I noticed the flight crew listed on the plan. Are you sure about that?"

    "Nick asked," Robert replied. "He wants to prove he and Hajar can work together. A shuttle run together on a training flight and cargo mission sounded right."

    "He's been tearing himself up on the inside ever since he saw she came aboard." The look on Julia's face was a concerned one. "I wonder what that's like. He's done so much to move on since he joined us, but having that old mistake thrust in his face all the time."

    "I think he'll work through it."

    Locarno arrived at the shuttle bay first and quickly found the sleek shape of the Sanjar. The Alliance's transport shuttles resembled the newer Federation craft more than the old box-shaped shuttles Locarno had flown in Starfleet Academy and afterward. The nacelles were swept slightly back from the main body of the shuttle and positioned for more efficient warp field generation. The interior was twenty percent larger than the Federation models and, in this case, was packed full of crates containing dextro-compatible medications for the Turian garrison on Beta Durani 4. The rear hatch was already sealed and a side hatch at the cockpit, not found on Federation craft, was his point of entry.

    Hajar was waiting for him in the piloting seat. Her duffel bag was tucked away beside her. Locarno did the same with his own, carrying hygienic supplies and a few snacks for the trip as well as a change of uniform. The replicator was accessible despite the full load, but there would be no sleeping on the fold-out beds until they were unloaded.

    "Lieutenant," Hajar said. There was no coldness or bitterness in her words, just calm and cool professionalism. Locarno found that a bad sign. "I've completed the pre-flight checks. All systems are ready."

    Locarno settled into the co-pilot chair. He double-checked her results as a perfunctory gesture and nodded. "Looks like we're ready to go."

    Hajar pressed her fingers to the shuttle's communications panel, set between them for mutual access. "This is shuttle Sandar to flight control, we're ready for launch."

    The voice that replied was Slavic-accented, although not Russian. "Sandar, you are cleared for launch."

    Hajar quickly activated the thrusters on the shuttle. Locarno remained the quiet observer to the process while Hajar piloted the Sandar into open space. They cleared the shuttle bay at the back of the primary hull. "Preparing for warp."

    Locarno checked his screens. "Your course is clear. Naqia reactor is powered up for warp flight."

    "Setting course for Beta Durani 4, Warp 4.7." Hajar finished flying the shuttle away from the graceful lines of the Aurora. "Engaging."

    The shuttle thrummed with energy. Locarno watched as space distorted around them until the streaks of warped space appeared outside of the shuttle. He leaned back and sighed. "ETA, Ensign?"

    "Ten hours, fifteen minutes, roughly," she replied.

    He glanced back to the rear compartment, still full of crates, and sighed. "Ten hours stuck in here."

    "This is why Navigation Officers usually don't go on supply runs." Hajar gave him a look. "I'm not dumb, Lieutenant. This is some attempt to get me to talk."

    "It's not," Locarno replied. "It's an attempt to see if we can work together despite what happened."

    "Do your friends not trust me?", Hajar asked. "Should I just go ahead and ask for a transfer? Then I can see if it blows up this career too?"

    There was some heat in her voice from that inquiry. "No." Locarno shook his head. "I don't want that to happen. That's why I wanted to make this run with you. I want to prove that we can serve together without having the past get in the way."

    Hajar barely glanced his way. She seemed far more interested in her flight controls. After several seconds she finally spoke. "Like I said. We can work together professionally. But that's it."

    Locarno nodded. He held back the sigh he felt wanting to form. It was going to be a long flight.

    The brilliant sunlight was shining through the opening in the arcology structure, bathing the 12th level gardens in warm light. Meridina felt the warmth of her homeworld's sun on her face. It was a sensation she had not felt in a long while.

    She was wearing a sleeveless tunic and knee-length skirt, both of dull brown coloring. The ground of the garden was not unpleasant to sit upon, legs crossed in meditative position.

    Meridina was focusing upon her mind and spirit. She sought her center and thought of letting it soothe in the warm flow of the Flow of Life. She would let it calm her. Like it always did. Like it…

    The flashes returned. She could feel the cold power, the burning fury, of Amaunet. She remembered how the Goa'uld had twisted her power and exposed her life energies to darkness. The faces of the people Amaunet had killed…

    The people you killed.

    Noise caused Merridina's eyes to snap open. She looked to her side and saw Gamaya walking up toward her, wearing a blue sleeveless pull-over blouse and matching blue baggy pantaloons. Gamaya looked at Meridina and asked, "Are you okay?"

    Meridina forced herself to be honest. "I am not."

    Gamaya reacted by sitting down beside her older sister. "I'm so sorry you were hurt like that, Meri. You have done so many good things, to know you are hurt…."

    "Gami." Meridina wiped at her cheek to remove the tear still there. Afterward she set that hand on her sister's shoulder. "You have always been so sweet. But I know you have examinations coming and need to study."

    "I can study later," Gamaya insisted. "But I want to be here for you. I mean, I'm not a farisa like Mother or Leni, I'm certainly not swevyra'se... but I can still help you."

    Meridina put a soft smile on her face, for Gamaya's benefit. "I know. Ever since you were little, you have always wanted to be helpful." Meridina did not put into words the frustration she knew her sister felt. Out of all of them, Gamaya was the only child born without mindwalking or a connected swevyra. That outcome showed in the quiet frustration now appearing on Gamaya's face. "Your place to help will be in the sciences, where you have a brilliant future." Meridina pulled Gamaya into an embrace. "You should be working toward that."

    "But what about you?", she asked. "This has happened. And there are the stories…"

    Meridina blinked. "Stories?"

    Gamaya swallowed. "I just… sometimes things come up. I know you and Father are opposed now. And the Dissenters said something about you, that you're teaching our ways to outsiders who don't accept the Order."

    Meridina blinked at that. "Really? They have said that?"

    Gamaya nodded. "It has upset Mother and the others greatly. Father as well, although he never shows it."

    "I am not surprised." Meridina drew in a quick sigh and forced a smile back on her face for Gamaya. She stood to her feet. "Come, it is almost time for midday meal. Leniraya is making those stuffed hitashan you adore."

    "Oh, I do. She's gotten better at making them than mother."

    "I'll believe that when I taste them." Meridina led Gamay back to the family home, all the while worrying about what she said.

    The Dissenters weren't new, although the name was fairly new. There had always been a part of the population opposed to membership in the Alliance. But how did this group amass so much power so quickly? And how could they know anything about her, much less have any ground to accuse her of teaching outside of the Order?

    What was going on with her homeworld?

    It was the equivalent of evening hours on the Aurora when the Sandar finally approached Beta Durani. "Securing from warp," Hajar said as a shudder filled the shuttle from dropping out of warp. Her tone, Locarno noted, was as emotionless as before.

    Locarno put down his digital reader and checked his boards. "Hrm. That's odd." He watched the display with interest.

    "What is?"

    "I'm not picking up any signals from the surface," Locarno confirmed. "And the satellites aren't responding."

    Hajar considered this. "Could there be a major communication fault in their systems?"

    "This widespread? I doubt it." Locarno frowned. "I don't like the looks of this. The Paxson and Moore should have signaled us by now. I'm attempting to…"

    There was a flash of energy and Locarno's hands shot to another control "Raising shields!", he called out. And not a moment too soon, as the shuttle shuddered violently. "I'm picking up Reich fighter craft coming up from around the planet!"

    "Evading!" Hajar's hands went back to her controls.

    The Sandar began a series of sharp maneuvers as emerald energy beams lashed out at them from the direction of the planet's north pole. "I'm sending a signal to the Aurora." Locarno hit several keys. "But I don't know if I'm getting through the jamming."

    "Re-route power from the warp systems," Hajar suggested. "These things are faster than we are at warp anyway, we'll never get away."

    "Good suggestion." Locarno began doing so, putting as much energy as he dared into the ship's transceiver systems to transmit the mayday. "This is the shuttlecraft Sandar to all Alliance and friendly vessels, we are being attacked by Nazi fighters. I repeat, Reich craft are in orbit of Beta Durani 4, we are under attack. Mayday, mayday…"

    Beta Durani 4 began to loom large on their screen. "What are you doing?", he asked Hajar.

    "I'm going to take us into atmosphere," Hajar said. "We've got no cover out here, but I might be able to lose them planet-side."

    As if to reinforce her point, the shuttle shook again. "Shields down to seventy percent," Locarno noted. Another hit rattled them. "Make that fifty-five percent."

    "Hold on!"

    The Sandar plunged into the atmosphere of Beta Durani 4. The dagger-shaped Nazi craft pursued them, disruptors firing as they went. Hajar jinked and slid the shuttle back and forth trying to avoid the fire as, outside, the void of space became blue sky.

    A burst of sparks came from the rear of the ship. "I'm losing power!", Hajar shouted.

    "We just lost our primary power conduit. The secondaries are damaged and can't handle enough load…" The shuttle violently shuddered beneath them. "Shields down to twenty percent."

    By now the shuttle was soaring over an alpine vista. Hajar banked them around a rocky outcropping on the side of a mountain and twisted the ship to follow the contours of a canyon formed by the river flowing at the bottom. It was, by the standards of an aerospace craft, a very narrow canyon for maneuvering. Locarno could see Hajar was absorbed with piloting them through the canyon and avoiding the sides.

    The enemy craft didn't quite follow, preferring to remain above the canyon. Locarno's sensors showed the two pursuers flying above them. "Looks like they're trying to head us off at the end of the canyon." He looked at her. "Remember that tactical scenario we did back in the Academy? Stardate 45144?"

    Hajar nodded. "The one where we caught Josh and Wes by surprise?"

    "Yeah." Seeing she knew what he meant, Locarno went to work at his console. "Putting all available power into the phaser banks," Locarno confirmed.

    Hajar nodded. "On my mark…" She looked at her instruments and where the Nazi fighters were relative to them. They were starting to pull ahead of them to cut the Sandar off. "Mark!"

    Hajar jerked the Sandar into a climb, at an angle that presented the phaser banks to the enemy fighters. Locarno triggered the phasers as soon as he had a shot.

    Twin beams of amber energy lashed out from the corners of the bow and converged on one of the Nazi fighters. They sliced through the shields of the ship and into its engine plant. The Nazi fighter disappeared in a fireball that spread flaming debris into the forest below.

    The other fighter was already maneuvering clear when Locarno shot at it. His first shot was a glancing hit at the side. The second shot was wide. Hajar banked the shuttle to give him a better shot for his third blast.

    The phaser beams hit home again. They sliced into the enemy ship, creating a smaller explosion that did not completely envelop the enemy ship. Instead it started to spin and fall downward, robbed of the power it needed to stay in the air.

    Hajar and Locarno looked at each other with grins of relief. Survival and victory briefly trumped their difficulties over the past.

    "So where did those fighters come from?", Hajar asked. "Those are short-range craft, right?"

    "They had to have come from another ship." Locarno looked to his sensors.

    What he saw wiped the smile from his face.

    "Land," he said. "We need to land, now."

    "What's wrong?", Hajar asked. She was moving to execute the order. "What are you seeing?"

    Locarno swallowed. "Multiple warp contacts." He looked to her with fear in his eyes. "It's an invasion fleet."

    Hajar swallowed and directed her attention back to her console. "Alright, I'm…"

    The was a sudden violent surge through the shuttle that wanted to tear them from their seats. More sparks erupted from machinery spaces in the back. "They're firing at us from orbit," he said.

    "I'll try to land us in some cover."

    Hajar flew the shuttle toward the forested foothills near the canyon. Another emerald beam lashed out from the sky at them, barely missing from her desperate maneuvering. A second missed. A third.

    The next connected. The rear of the shuttle exploded in a roar that deafened the two occupants. "Engines are out! Firing retro-thrusters… I have no helm control!"

    Locarno watched the ground racing toward them on the screen. "Brace yourself!", he cried.

    There was nothing more they could do before the Sandar began smashing through trees on its way to a violent landing.

    It was near the end of the evening shift and Robert and Julia were putting in their final hours for the day on bridge watch. Lieutenant Jupap, Jarod's Alakin subordinate, was at Operations, and the helm was currently manned by Ensign Violeta Arterria, a young woman from the Sirian League who was, like some other Sirians on the crew, gene-tailored to have exotic hair and eye coloring, in this case possessing richly-colored purple hair and matching purple eyes, while her dark bronze complexion was a more natural and common coloration. Lieutenant James Jarke, a young African-American from the Earth Confederacy, was at tactical, and Caterina was finishing up her own shift at Sensors.

    "Lieutenant Jupap, any word from Beta Durani?", Robert asked. "The Sandar should have arrived by now."

    "I have received no regular transmission," the Alakin answered.

    Julia gave Robert a look of concern. "Is everything okay?"

    Robert looked back and shook his head. "I just have a… bad feeling, is all."

    "The general kind or the metaphysical kind?", she asked.

    "Sometimes I can't be sure," he admitted. He drew in a breath and tried to relax in his chair. "Ensign, what's our ETA to our destination?"

    "Six hours, thirty-eight minutes, Captain," she answered.

    "The Carmichael and her convoy isn't scheduled to arrive until the morning anyway," Julia reminded him. "And the Phosako are expecting us to be there."

    "Yeah. But…"

    A tone came from Ops. Jupap checked it. "I have detected a garbled transmission from Beta Durani. It appears to be a distress signal."

    Robert turned his head quickly toward Ops. "Put it on, Jupap."

    Crackling came over the speakers. "This is… shuttle... to all Alliance....", came a voice both realized was Locarno, through bursts of sharp static. "...are being… -cked by Nazi figh-... I rep-... Reich craft... orbit of Beta Du-.... under attack. Mayday, mayday…"

    Robert frowned and clenched his hands in frustration. "Could we make it there and then back for the rendezvous? At high warp?"

    "If we turn right around and leave again, sir," Violeta answered.

    "Even then, if there's a strong enemy presence at Beta Durani 4, we could warp right into a Nazi attack group." Julia shook her head. "And if the Nazis are moving into Durani, that convoy's going to need us sooner, not later. We can't risk it."

    The look in Robert's eyes told her that he knew she was right, and that he hated it. "Okay, we can't go…"

    Julia nodded. "But the Koenig can."

    Just twenty minutes later, Lucy was settling into an auxiliary engineering station on the Koenig's small bridge. Beside her Lieutenant Magda Navaez, Koenig's operations officer, was finishing her part of the launch. "All umbilicals released. All ship systems normal."

    "All naqia reactors are functioning," Lucy added, looking at her own board. "Warp power at your command."

    Zack leaned to one side of his chair. "Take us out as soon as the doors open, Ap. Then set a course for Beta Durani 4, maximum warp."

    Lieutenant Creighton Apley, Zack's first officer and the usual pilot of the ship, nodded. "Main doors opening now. Releasing docking clamps."

    The dock built into the rear section of the Aurora's primary hull finished opening up. The Koenig slipped out of it and turned away before picking up forward velocity. The Aurora's engine nacelles flashed with light as she jumped back to warp. Koenig prepared to go to warp as well, but instead of a flash of light from her nacelles there was a ripple through her form until she, to the eye of any who might have been watching, disappeared.

    "We're at Warp 9," Apley confirmed several seconds later. "ETA to Beta Durani system is approximately four hours."

    "Good. And the cloak?"

    It was Magda's turn to make a report. "Operating normally."

    Zack nodded. "Good to hear it." He drew in a breath and relaxed in his chair. "Well, it's been awhile since the parents let us out, hasn't it?"

    "Looking forward to it, sir," Apley affirmed with a small smile.

    "But not the part about getting shot at?", Zack asked with amusement.

    "Oh, never that, sir," was Apley's reply.

    Zack's only reply was a thin smile.

    Pain woke Locarno up. He looked up at the intact cockpit window of the Sandar, now half-buried under soil and roots. He blinked as awareness began to return to him.

    He glanced over to his side. Hajar was starting to stir. It was clear she was unharmed as well. Their harnesses had kept them from pitching forward at impact, substituting that experience with a more survivable, if still painful, bruising of the shoulders.

    Locarno snapped his harness off and turned back toward the rear of the shuttle. The crates of supplies were still secured despite the force of the landing. Panels in the back were flickering from inconsistent power supply. Locarno checked his panel and confirmed that the shuttle's power systems were offline from damage. Backup battery power was the only thing they had left. Enough to run a protective shield for the next ten or so hours. He quickly activated those systems.

    Hajar sat up in her chair, holding her head. "Everything okay?"

    "We're on battery power only. I've got the shields up so they can't just beam us up."

    Hajar examined her board. "I can't even get a response to the engine diagnostics."

    "This shuttle's completely trashed. She's not flying again." Locarno got out of the chair and went to a compartment. He pulled out the survival pack, pulled a pulse pistol out of it, and fixed the pistol and its holster to his belt at the right hip. He double-checked his multidevice to confirm it had no damage.

    Hajar was going for her survival pack too. "Do we stay here or try to run for it?"

    "I don't think going anywhere will help," Locarno said. "We'd show up on sensors the moment they scanned for life signs."

    "Maybe if we put together a jammer?", she suggested. "A passive jamming device to obscure our life readings?" She looked back to the shuttle panel. "Give me an hour and I can rig something up."

    Locarno gave her a look. "Really?"

    "After Nova Squad was broken up, I considered engineering," she said. "I took a course during the following semester, Field Engineering."

    That made Locarno remember something. "Field Engineering… wasn't that under Commander Terox? That nutty Denobulan?"

    "You have no idea," was Hajar's murmured reply. She pulled open the panel. "Just give me a minute, I need to get some parts from the shuttle's sensor suite."

    Locarno returned to his chair and brought up communications. "Subspace communications are out, but I've got localized comms. It looks like the Nazis are focusing on the generator sites. The Turians and the engineering detachments are putting up a hell of a fight, though."

    "Anything from the other shuttles?", Hajar asked.

    "Nothing. They might be helping the defenders." Locarno shook his head. "We're about seventy kilometers from the nearest friendly base. If we stretch things out, we'll have just enough rations to survive the trip."

    "If only we hadn't been carrying the Turians' rations, right?", Hajar sighed, her voice muffled from inside the shuttle panel.


    Hajar stuck her head out briefly. "Do you think anyone got the distress signal?"

    Locarno could have confidently asserted that it had to have been heard. But they weren't stupid cadets anymore, and Hajar wouldn't be tricked. He shook his head. "Can't be sure. I didn't get any responses."

    A grim look came to her face. "Well, let's hope someone called for the cavalry, then."

    All he could think to answer with was a nod of agreement.

    Robert was preparing to get into bed for as much sleep as he could manage when the return call came from Admiral Relini. The Dorei woman, her blue eyes the same shade as her skin and long purple hair pulled into a braided ponytail, was the commander of the 9th Fleet and responsible for this entire region of space. "Captain, we are facing a Reich offensive in the Argolis Sector, so I will make this brief. We've confirmed the full extent of the enemy's attack in Durani. Our analysts believe this is a secondary operation meant to distract us."

    "So what do we do about Beta Durani?"

    "The forces you are linking up with will be committed to the counter-attack. They are already accelerating to meet you ahead of schedule. Your new orders are to make the rendezvous as soon as possible and escort the force through to Beta Durani 4."

    "Yes, Admiral. If I may ask, I've got crew I sent to Durani, do we have any information on them?"

    "Our last transmissions said nothing definite. We know one shuttle was shot down."

    Robert nodded. "I understand. I'll inform you of when we make the rendezvous with the Carmichael. Dale out."

    He looked up from his desk after Relini's image disappeared. Angel was sitting at the edge of his bed. She looked at him intently. "No word, then."

    "No word," he said.

    Her expression was pensive. While Locarno hadn't been an original member of their group, or even their outfit in the Facility, he was now a friend and colleague. The idea they were going to lose one of their own was a hard one.

    "Zack will be there in an hour or so," Robert said to her. He pulled off the uniform jacket and hung it upon his uniform rack "And hopefully Lucy and Kane can do something to get them to safety."


    Once Robert had shed the rest of his uniform he sat down beside Angel. She put an arm around him as he put one on her shoulder, and they drew close enough for a good night kiss.

    The forest was not quiet. Chirping and whooping sounded in the distance and made Locarno regret that he hadn't looked up on the native fauna of Beta Durani 4. He patted his pulse pistol, as if to assure himself it was present.

    A cry of frustration came from within the shuttle. Locarno went to the hatch and looked inside. Hajar was seated on the floor, a set of tools laid out with several pieces of electronics and technology around her. She had her fingers within what looked like the remains of a tricorder. "I'd like to punch whoever designed these things."

    "Have you tried…"

    Hajar glared up at him. "I know far more about this than you, so don't go trying to second-guess what I'm doing."

    Locarno stopped abruptly. "Sure. I wasn't intending to step on your toes. But if we're going to get moving, it should be soon. Night's going to fall soon, and I don't want to be out in that forest at night. There's no telling what the local animals will be like."

    "Actually, they're mostly herbivores in this part of the world," Hajar pointed out. "It's the alpines of the southern hemisphere where we'd be in real danger."

    Locarno looked at her with surprise. "And you know this because…"

    "...because I read the profile on the planet," she said. "Just in case. Shouldn't you have done the same?"

    Locarno tried to hide his embarrassment that he had, in fact, not done so. He'd been far too distracted.

    Hajar chuckled lowly at that. "Well, big surprise there." Her look turned bitter. "You were never one for doing all the prep work. You always left that to us. You had more schemes to cook up, more wild ideas for stunts, for flight formations. Maybe if you were more of a planner you would have seen how nasty the Starburst move would have been, and Josh would still be alive."

    Locarno glowered at her. "You're not going to stop on that point, are you?"

    "Given that it ruined our lives?" Hajar returned the glower. "You think you can ask me to just forget about that? About how you screwed everything up for us?"

    "You could have said no," Locarno retorted. "You could have stopped me."

    "No, we couldn't have," Hajar shot back. Her round face twisted into an expression of raw anger and hurt. "There's nothing we wouldn't have done for you, Nick. Nothing! We were ready to follow you anywhere, and you led us right off the damned cliff! Because all you cared about was looking good to the rest of the Academy!"

    "I was trying to make us the best!"

    Hajar laughed bitterly. "I know." She shook her head. "And now look where we are. Your stunt killed Josh. Jaxa was so determined to prove herself she signed up for a mission that got her killed. Wes is gone. And you and I are out of Starfleet. Although it's not so bad for you I see." Her eyes flashed with frustration. "You, the one who deserved the least, got the most out of all of us." Hajar motioned angrily to the gear she was working on. "So, Lieutenant, would you please allow me to resume my work? Or do you want us to be caught?"

    Locarno had nothing to say to the diatribe. He nodded softly in the direction of the hatch. "I'll be on lookout outside. Let me know when you're done?"

    "Certainly," she answered, promptly resuming her work.
    rifern likes this.
  24. Threadmarks: 2-05-3
    Big Steve

    Big Steve Know what you're doing yet?

    Aug 19, 2019
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    Lucy and Kane were on the Koenig bridge when the ship came out of warp near Beta Durani 4. Both looked at the viewscreen with some trepidation. "Well." Lucy swallowed. "That's not good."

    Zack was in his command chair, looking at the same thing. At least a dozen Reich warships were orbiting the planet. He spotted Z-2500s mixed in with the short-ranged A-1700 gunship variants. Three Dresden-class light cruisers and a Sedan-class heavy cruiser were the largest units visible…

    ...save for the final one.

    "Is that a Lutzow?", Zack asked. "Because the profile looks off."

    Magda examined the readings from the Koenig's sensors. "The silhouette and characteristics are close. I think we're looking at a new battlecruiser class."

    "This isn't just a raid then. They want to take the planet and hold it." Zack frowned as he thought on their situation. "And we don't have any sensor shadows we can hide in long enough to transport the Marines down?"

    "They're too widely-spread around the planet," Magda confirmed.

    "Well, it looks like Plan B." Zack turned in his chair to face Lucy and Kane. "Up for this, Lucy?"

    "I'm not sure we'll be able to evade detection even if I do a powered down drop," Lucy remarked. "Not unless we get sneaky."

    "Didn't you outfit the Rio with a cloaking device?", asked Zack.

    "A cloak can't stop them from seeing our atmospheric wake," Lucy replied. Her brow furrowed. "We'd have to go slow enough, and be low enough, to make the wake so weak they wouldn't spot it."

    "Sounds like it could work, though," Zack said. "And you could fly as close to Nick and his friend as possible."

    "The only question is, can you survive long enough to get us into the atmosphere," Lucy asked him.

    Zack looked back to the ships present. He reached for his intercom and keyed it. "Bridge to Engineering."

    "Derbely here."

    "We're about to present our Nazi friends with a target for a few minutes, Karen. Can you shore up the shield systems?"

    "I'll give it everything I can."

    "Thank you. I'll let you know when we need it." Zack returned his attention to the screen. "Bring up tactical view." The straight video image was replaced by a model of the planet and the enemy ships around it. "Do we have any idea on where their shuttle crashed?"

    "I'm not… wait." Magda looked at her board intently. "I've picked up an engine trail consistent with a shuttle's drives. At this range I can't give you an accurate reading, but I can give you a rough location." She looked over at Lucy. "You'll need to scan for yourself once you're in the atmosphere."

    "Thank you." Lucy looked at the tactical screen. "So we have a plan."

    "We have a plan."

    "Good." Kane nodded. "I'll get my Marines loaded. See you down in the bay, "

    "I'll be right there," Lucy promised. She continued to examine the enemy force until after Kane left. "The trouble may be getting off-planet once we have them," Lucy noted.

    "I'll stay as close as I can under cloak," Zack promised. "But I can't do much else until we have backup. And I get the feeling we'll be waiting for that."

    "So do I."

    They looked at each other. "Good luck, Lucy," Zack said to her. "Bring Nick home, please. And everyone else."

    "I'll do what I can," she promised. "Make sure you get home too?"

    "I plan on it."

    After an exchange of understanding nods, Lucy departed the bridge. Zack looked back to the tactical screen. "Okay, it looks like one of those gunboats is right in the middle of our preferred approach vector for atmospheric entry," he noted. "April, as soon as we decloak I want that thing out of the way. Ap, you up for the atmospheric flight?"

    "I'm ready for it," Apley promised. "Let me know when we go."

    "We're ready to shift power to shields," Magda confirmed. "And I've started the necessary calculations for an in-atmo warp jump."

    "Good. Relay those to Apley when you're done." Zack gripped the arms of his command chair tightly. It had been months since the Koenig had been in a battle. What a way to return to the war, he pondered.

    The runabout Bastilone was not the standard runabout, as her decidedly-non-riverine name made clear. Lucy settled into the helm and looked over at Kane, who was manning the station beside her. "You've been flight training?", she asked him.

    "I'll remind you, Lieutenant, that this is a Marine craft," he answered. "Of course I trained on her." Lucy gave Kane a skeptical look, so he soon added,"Holo-simulation training, I mean."

    Lucy smirked. "Of course." She completed the flight checks. The Bastilone was a Wingate-class assault runabout developed exclusively for the war, built for inserting strike teams into behind-the-lines targets. One had been assigned to the Aurora as a just-in-case measure. "A good thing I was one of the test pilots."

    Behind them, a gruff female voice asked, "Aren't they all about the same?"

    "Lieutenant Lucero, meet Lieutenant Pauline Barker. Lieutenant Barker, this is Lieutenant Lucilla Lucero." Seeing Lucy's inquisitive look, Kane added, "The Lieutenant joined us at the Rings, she's one of my platoon officers."

    "Right." Lucy turned her attention back to the board. "I hope everyone is strapped in, because our pre-flight checks are complete and I'm signalling the bridge that we're ready."

    Barker nodded and stomped to the back of the runabout, where the Marines' seats were present. Her voice began barking orders.

    Lucy gave Kane a look. "I thought Sergeants did things like that?"

    "Wartime commission, Lieutenant," Kane answered.

    Lucy nodded. A blue light flashed on the console. "They're moving in. We drop in approximately three minutes."

    The Koenig was almost up to the nearest A-1700 when she decloaked. Amber fury erupted from her forward emitters and slammed the dagger-shaped Nazi gunship repeatedly until the vessel, its defenses overcome, exploded in a white fireball.

    The enemy fleet recognized their arrival. Other ships began to converge on them as the Koenig dove toward the atmosphere. Red light gathered at her bow from the re-entry friction acting on her shields.

    Disruptor fire came in as she breached the mid-point of the upper atmosphere. The emerald beams were fired from the emitter points on two more of the dagger-shaped Nazi ships - their Z-2500s and A-1700s - and stabbed repeatedly at Koenig's shields. From the angle she couldn't fire back directly and so took the enemy fire in silence.

    "We're approaching the optimal drop point, sir," Apley stated.

    "Magda, open links to our planet-side forces," Zack ordered. "Let's make sure the Nazis think they know what we're up to."

    "Communication links established. We're receiving updates on their situations, casualties, remaining supplies."

    "Drop point reached."

    Zack nodded. "Open the shuttle bay door."

    Koenig's shuttle bay opened up on the bottom of her hull. The Bastilone dropped out and shimmered out of view, joined by sensor probes to fully exploit the deception. The enemy would likely destroy the probes in the coming minutes, but that was part of the plan and thus fully expected.

    "Bastilone is away. Under cloak. I'm reading minimal wind current disruption."

    "Let's give them a minute." The ship shuddered slightly from another direct hit. "Prepare for warp jump."

    "Preparing for in-atmo warp jump," Apley confirmed. "Coordinates and course laid in."

    The ship rocked again. "Shields down to eighty percent. Enemy cruisers are moving into engagement range."

    Zack nodded. "Steady…"

    Apley keyed in more information. "Course is clear. At your command, sir."

    "Steady…" Zack checked the timer. Every moment they spent here was another bit of distance the Bastilone could go without being noticed. He'd never feel right again if he felt he hadn't given them as big a chance as he could.

    They took another series of hits. "Shields down to sixty percent," Magda warned. "We're starting to take bleedthrough damage to the hull."

    Zack nodded. He checked the timer again and decided it was the best they could hope for. "Warp jump on my mark, Ap."

    "Yes sir."

    "Three… two…" Another hit rocked the ship. "....mark!"

    Apley keyed in the command to generate a warp field. The Koenig shot out of orbit as if thrown by a catapult.

    And the Bastilone continued on, creeping her way to the surface to avoid detection.

    The whistling noises and hoots and other such sounds were keeping Locarno alert while he and Hajar tromped through the forested foothills of Beta Durani 4. They were following one of the streams that emptied into the central river. "This stream doesn't come from the mountains," he noted aloud, looking down the side of the tall hill they were on at the running water.

    "It must start in an underground spring." Hajar took a moment to look around. "Or more than one. There could be all sorts of small caverns and waterways carved into the rock these hills are built on.

    Hearing that prompted Locaro's attention to the time. It was getting dark. "We might have to stop and set up a camp," he said. "If there are caverns we can slip into they'd be great places to hide."

    Hajar looked back at him while consulting her multidevice, specifically the directional scanning. "We've still got about two hours of daylight left. Let's keep pushing."

    "We'll want to save some daylight for preparations," Locarno pointed out.

    "I remember Professor Sirok's field survival course as much as you do," Hajar insisted. "I know what we need to do."

    "You really like bringing up our Nova Squad days," Locarno pointed out.

    Hajar looked back at him with a sardonic look. "It was the last time in my life that I was happy."

    Locarno stopped. "You're never going to give me an inch, are you?"

    For a moment Hajar ignored him and kept going. It was only when he'd called to her again that she finally turned. "I can't give you an inch, Locarno," she answered. "Last time I gave you any leeway was when you talked me into supporting that damned starburst training."

    "Dammit, Jean!", Locarno shouted. "I made…"

    He stopped upon hearing the distant sound of a cracking twig. Assuming the worst he jumped and tackled Hajar to the ground.

    A loud "whmpf" sound filled the air, and the tree just past them exploded, showering Locarno and Hajar with splinters. Locarno felt the stinging pain of one of the splinters cutting into the back of his head, drawing a little blood.

    The two scrambled forward as another disruptor bolt landed, this time within inches of Hajar's arm. They got back to their feet and ducked behind a thick tree. Hajar looked over her multidevice's sensor scans. "There's at least four of them," she said. "They're trying to flank us."

    "Please tell me they're not in powered armor," Locarno said. He'd seen the others train in simulations against the Panzergrenadiers and knew they'd be dead if one of those was around.

    "I'm not picking up any armor suits."

    "That's a relief." Another disruptor bolt slammed into the tree, gouging out a chunk of it. "Not a big one, but I'll take it."

    "We have to get to better cover," Hajar insisted. She looked over her multidevice. "There's a spring cavern entrance about a hundred meters to our southeast. If we can get in there maybe we can catch them in an ambush."

    "Or they'll just throw a grenade in and finish us off," Locarno pointed out. He pulled out his pulse pistol and fired off a couple of shots toward the shooter.

    "Do you have any better ideas?", Hajar countered as a challenge.

    Locarno had to admit that he didn't. They had to change their position to avoid being encircled. And they didn't seem to have any good choices. "Right. Okay, ready?"

    Hajar nodded.

    "After their next shot…" When said shot blasted away more of the tree, leaving very little cover for them, Locarno leaned out again and fired his pistol in automatic mode. Blue pulses flew out toward the shooter, a figure in feldgrau crouched behind a long-fallen tree nearly sixty meters away. Said figure ducked back into cover to avoid the spray of fire.

    Hajar leapt from cover and began running in the direction she had indicated. Locarno put his pistol to the brink of overheating before stopping and running to pursue. She stopped and turned, pistol up, and fired at their pursuer as Locarno ducked low under a shot that went wild. He turned and fired off another series of shots while Hajar continued onward.

    The pursuit took them over the uneven ground. It had been hard enough walking through it - at a run they were at constant risk of tripping over thick silver-sheened roots and old rotten remnants of the fallen trees. Every time cover was offered they would turn and fire, forcing their pursuer's head down.

    The other pursuers were moving up alongside them, appearing only on the sensors of their multidevices. Hajar started firing to their left and front to suppress the attacker from that angle.

    The forest gave way only partially to the banks of a stream. Crisp, dark water flowed by at a fair current. "We're almost there," Hajar urged, just starting to pant. The adrenaline rush and fear were becoming overwhelming.

    The opening in the ground was partly below the ground level. The gentle rushing of water was pouring inward. "This doesn't look… like a spring," Locarno said, panting now from the exertion of running for his life.

    "We'll never make it to the next!", Hajar retorted. "Come on!"

    As they entered Locarno couldn't help but feel they were entering a trap. They plunged into darkness until Hajar's multi-device activated a light for their benefit. She found an outcropping of rock along the wall and slid behind it. Her pulse pistol came up.

    Locarno looked around. A stalagmite formation growing out of the ground looked like the best cover and he got over to it. He crouched low and checked his gun. He'd used up a lot of charges and only had two fresh power batteries for the weapon. He readied a fresh one and sat there, waiting, for the first enemy to come through.

    One did. He didn't get a good look at the man, firing right at the entrance in time with Hajar. Blue pulses repeatedly hit the Nazi soldier's torso and he fell over, dead. A figure behind him retreated from the barrage of shots. A grunt of pain came from the retreating figure after a blue pulse from Locarno's weapon nicked him along the shoulder.

    For several moments there was oppressive silence. Hajar and Locarno exchanged looks. Was the enemy going to rush through? Or would they do something else?

    "Attention Alliance officers," an accented voice called out. "Surrender and you will not be harmed."

    "We've seen the holos of your prisoner camps, pal, so the answer is no," Locarno retorted.

    "If you do not surrender you will die."

    Locarno looked to Hajar. They both figured what was coming next.

    And they both looked toward the darkness deeper in the cavern.

    Both ran from their cover and went deeper, following the flow of the water.

    About ten seconds after they took off running, a thunderous roar sounded behind them, so loud it hurt their ears. The explosion was joined by the terrifying sound of falling rocks and the vibrations that could only come from a cave-in.

    They ran. They ran as fast as they could, as the rumbling caught up behind them. The explosion had destabilized the delicate structural elements that kept the underground opening intact. If the entire thing collapsed on them…

    Locarno pushed that thought out of his head, unwilling to follow that sentence through. Their only hope was to keep running, to keep running until they got to safety, and all while the rumbling continued to get closer and closer.

    They arrived at what looked to be an opening up of the cavern to a wider, and hopefully safer, space. Hajar went through first and Locarno got to the opening…

    And then there was pain, pressure, and the blackness of unconsciousness.

    The Bastilone flew over the blue fields of a tree canopy, marking the temperate forest that the remnant engine trail from the shuttle had led Lucy to. The runabout had crept its way through the atmosphere, managing to go just slowly enough to avoid detection of its atmospheric wake, at the cost of precious time. Now they were in position to a point where the impulse drive signs faded.

    "I'm not getting anything on comms," Kane revealed from his station.

    "Given the jamming in the area, I'm not